Inara was there when Kaylee's head hit the steel of the catwalk. "Mei mei!" she cried out, as if the words would bring her back, but the blood was already draining from Kaylee's face.
"Are you askin' me to dance?" she whispered, and then closed her eyes.
"Thank you," Inara said to the doctor after, knowing that there was coldness in her voice, for this liu-mang who'd brought bullets marked for Kaylee on board the ship.
But he didn't seem to hear it, just said, "she'll be fine, I think."
Inara hadn't even realised that she'd been holding her breath.
They bought mangoes when they landed on Boros. Kaylee grabs one right away out of the crate, eagerness showing in the light that bounces off green eyes. She doesn't bother to slice it, just peels off the skin with her teeth and bites in, smiling when the sweetness touches her tongue.
Inara watches her and says, "you're beautiful."
Kaylee looks up from her fruit, and shakes her head, lips wet and shimmering from the juice. "I ain't any such thing. Not like you. You're beautiful."
Inara just smiles, and doesn't answer, because they've had this conversation a million times before.
Kaylee likes to have her hair brushed. She comes to Inara's shuttle sometimes, before bedtime, and sits perfectly still on the bed while Inara runs her brush through chestnut locks. She tells Inara stories about how her momma used to brush her hair, "when I was younger", and Inara smiles, thinking how that couldn't be that long ago. The sweetness of Kaylee's childhood still shows on her face.
"I wish I had curly hair," Kaylee says with a sigh. "Like you."
"Your hair is perfect the way it is," Inara answers, as her fingers stroke the back of Kaylee's neck.
Kaylee sighs and puts her head on Inara's shoulder, the weight comfortable and soft. "I don't understand, 'Nara."
Inara answers softly, "sometimes they're like that."
"Yes, but," Kaylee brushes the hair off her face sadly, "I thought that he liked me."
Inara thinks that Simon does like her. But she doesn't want to say so, because saying so will make it true to Kaylee, and she knows she could be wrong. And she doesn't know how many times she can comfort Kaylee, how many times she can brush the tears off of cheeks that aren't used to so much longing.
The first time that Kaylee kissed her, they were in Inara's bed. They had fallen asleep there, in between empty teacups, in the middle of a story about the dances on Sihnon. Kaylee loved hearing stories, stories that Inara wouldn't have thought to tell to anyone else.
When Inara woke up, early in the morning, Kaylee's lips were pressed against hers, soft and tasting of raspberry tea.
Inara's mouth curved into a slow smile. "What was that for, meimei?"
"I wanted to know what it would be like," Kaylee answers simply.
Kaylee's smile matched her own. "You taste sweet."
Inara doesn't remember ever loving anything, the way that Kaylee loves everything. She has never stood on a new planet with a silly grin, or been glad to see a box of fruit.
She doesn't remember ever being this happy simply to be touched. When her fingers touch soft skin, the circle of Kaylee's belly button, the creamy inside of her thighs, Kaylee closes her eyes and sighs gently, as if Inara had brought her the sun.
Inara watches as an infinite number of smiles cross Kaylee's lips. She wonders, if she stands close enough, if love might be contagious.