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This Is War

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Kaylee has a new haircut. It's cute.

Inara doesn't really mean anything by it, just very casually notices it as Kaylee moves through through the hardware store at her usual frantic pace, pausing only to bat her eyelashes at the high school clerk and wave at Inara before leaving with her backpack bulging with wires and duct tape and tubing, as usual.

Inara started hanging out at the hardware store back in freshman year, when she'd figured out it was the last place anyone would look for her. She'd curl up in the back corner with a textbook and Joy Division blasting on her iPod and rock her way through every stupid seminar her adviser made her take so she'd be "well-rounded." No one ever bothered her at the hardware store.

She'd aced every class since then, stopped struggling and started floating, but she still likes the hardware store. She has accustomed herself to the sawdust smell and the endless dad-types who stare at her until she stares right back. Halfway through her sophomore year, the clerk stopped moving the stool she’d use back to its usual position.

Kaylee's been showing up a couple times a week since the beginning of Inara's sophomore year, buying copious amounts of duct tape and tools that still hold no meaning for Inara. She's always a little bit grease-stained and supremely cheerful. They've become sort of friendly acquaintances over the years. Inara's bumped into her a couple times at Starbucks or in Ida Noyes and Kaylee has always happily offered her a coffee or a seat with her and her friends, told her she looks beautiful today. It's nice.

And now it's been three and a half years since Inara walked into this store because it was raining and crying in the rain because she didn't know what to do with her life was just too cliche, and her thesis is kicking her ass. Inara looks back down at her textbook and rolls her eyes. She's not getting anything done. She pulls out her iPod and switches to Patti Smith, turning up the volume until she can't hear her own thoughts. She needs coffee. She needs to get out of here. She's two blocks away, following long-honed habit to the shitty diner with crazy cheap coffee, before she can even think about it. She gulps down a full mug of coffee before slowing down and ordering a grilled cheese sandwich to go with her next one.

Inara's fucking tired. She needs to have some fun, she really does. She doesn't want to go out, though; parties are boring and boys are kind of gross, when she gets right down to it. She wants the kind of fun she had when she was ten, when the world felt new, or when she was six and didn't need the real world at all. She drops her head onto the cool linoleum counter, closing her eyes and breathing deeply.

"Miss?" the waiter asks, and Inara lifts her head so he can set down her plate without opening her eyes. He does so, saying, "Are you alright, miss? Anything else I can get you?

She blinks and looks at him a little hazily. "Uh, no, I’m fine, thank you so much."

“You’re sure?” he’s sort of smiling at her, and she can’t tell if he’s being nasty or honestly nice.

“Nope. Just tired! Thanks again,” she smiles and salutes him with her grilled cheese, which does end up getting him moving.

+

A couple days later, she's doing a Starbucks run to soothe her stretched-thin nerves, when Kaylee spots her, waves, and calls, "Hi, Inara! How're you?"

She bounds up, all cheerful and frustrating, and Inara has no choice but to half-smile and say, "'M fine, Kaylee. What's up?"

"Mal is going a little insane--he's stressed out, but. Still! Wanna come sit with us? I'll protect you from his crazy, I swear!"

"I dunno, actually, I'm kind of really busy," Inara hedges.

Kaylee looks disappointed for a moment, then shoots her a dimpled half-smile. "'Course, I understand. See you around, Inara."

Inara makes a face at her brain and follows Kaylee. "Hey, hey, didn't say I wasn't coming."

"You kinda did?" Kaylee looks unsure, but she slides an arm through Inara's easily and leads her to a booth in the back Inara didn't know existed. There are more people sitting there than can possibly fit, but they still manage to scoot over for Kaylee and Inara to squeeze in crammed tight side by side. Kaylee rattles off the introductions in a practiced way. "Inara, this is Mal, Zoe, Jayne, Book, Simon," Simon gets a special kind of smile from Kaylee; Inara suddenly understands that they're together, "Wash, and River. Everyone, this is Inara."

There is a chorus of hey's from everyone except Jayne, who just stares at her, and Wash, who apparently prefers a Vulcan hand signal.

Simon leans over and says, "So, how do you know Kaylee?"

Inara smiles, "Oh, we go way back."

Kaylee giggles. "Back to the beginning." She squirms a little, shakes her head. Inara can feel it throughout her body. "I'd been here, what, a week, when I met her."

"Sounds about right." Inara nudges her back. "So, about three years."

"Every second was magical for me." Kaylee's smiling wide and bright.

Inara feels herself grinning like an idiot right along with her. "You're my forever girl."

Simon nods. His eyebrows are at his hairline. "Oh. Okay then."

Kaylee starts to laugh, snorting somewhere in the middle and swearing through her laughter. Inara stares a little bit.

"That's adorable, it really is," Mal says, rolling his eyes. "I am overjoyed for you both, but can we get back to the point?" Kaylee was right, Inara thinks, Mal does look a couple teacups short of a set.

Inara raises an eyebrow. "Which is?"

The little skinny girl Inara thinks is called River intones, "The. Scavenger. Hunt."

The words are out before Inara can stop herself. "Wait, you're the crazy people who do the stupid scavenger hunt thing?"

The table erupts, both in defense of their sanity and the Scavenger Hunt's honor, but Inara only listens to Kaylee, who quietly says, "We're not the only crazy people." She half-smiles, but it's forced.

Inara bites her lip. She's hit a soft spot. "Oh, sorry, I didn't mean to--"

"No, it's fine. Most folks think we're a bit crazy for carin' so much about it."

"It is our lifeblood," River deadpans.

"It's important," Mal begins.

"Mal, shut up for a second," the girl who's been scrawling in an over-sized notebook until this minute says easily. Zoe, Inara thinks. "Actually, come help me with this for a minute. We don't have enough people for this part, we're gonna have to figure out how to divide and conquer further--" Mal leans over to see what she's been working out, and both of them are lost in quiet, technical muttering.

An awkward silence descends over the table for a few moments. River pokes Simon and starts whispering in his ear. Maybe Inara was wrong about Kaylee and Simon; Simon and River look pretty close.

Kaylee makes a face at Inara, then smiles. She really is an unbelievably good-natured human being. Inara isn't sure when she started finding that so hot. "Anyway, I didn't mean to--most people don't find it so very interesting."

"No, no, it's great!" Inara tries, but it sounds fake to her own ears. Because she's a chicken, she continues with, "Actually, I really have to go now. Senior year is kicking my ass! It was great seeing you."

"Yeah, you too," Kaylee says, standing up and hugging Inara. The hug feels real and solid, unlike just about everything else. "See you around, okay?"

"Of course," Inara says, and flees.

+

The Scav Hunt started sometime in the eighties. Inara think she remembers being told that one year, a team successfully built a functioning breeder reactor in a shed, which is actually pretty hardcore. She spends the afternoon googling around, reading a couple of the previous years' lists. They're kind of hilarious and kind of freaky. It's fun to procrastinate on her reading with, but Inara can't imagine doing it even remotely seriously. She looks up the last couple winners. What Inara thinks is Kaylee's team, Serenity, has come in third place for the last three years. No wonder Mal looks so crazy. She figures he's a senior—this is his last shot at winning the damn thing, unless he's planning on playing without studenthood, which is apparently allowed but not advised.

Around seven, she realizes she's wasted the afternoon and has to read frantically until two in the morning to catch up for her Monday morning class.

It was a weird fluke, she tells herself. It was a weird chemistry thing. Pheromones or something. Does that work in people? I feel like it might just be lions?

It’s really easy to procrastinate this way.

Months pass, and Inara still sees Kaylee around sometimes, but they haven't said more than hi to each other since the awkward coffee thing. Inara stops going to that Starbucks, and she almost doesn't realize that she's stopped going until a friend asks to meet her there and she has to take a minute to remember the way there. She gets her shit together. Her thesis is still a mess, but everything else is working out, and she’s okay.

She goes out with a boy and it's terrible. She eyes up half a dozen girls and chickens out before she talks to any of them, even the ones who eye her up right back. She has sex with the boy, and it's pleasant.

She kicks him out of her apartment with some (considerable) force the next morning and cleans all day, then spends the next couple nights at a girl bar, having sex in bathrooms. Inara is good at sex. She's hot; she knows it. She's bad at flirting and forming long term relationships. Or any relationships lasting longer than a night, really. It's a personal flaw.

Kaylee has really fucked up her nice long celibate streak, though, and Inara didn't even get to fuck her.

It's a goddamn shame.

+

It's two minutes to closing at the hardware store and Inara is working through it, turning up her iPod whenever the guy cleaning up coughs pointedly at her. She knows from long experience that he won't actually kick her out, though, so she's not troubled. She finishes highlighting the last few pages, grabs some light bulbs she suddenly remembers she needs, and stops at the counter still pulling her wallet out of her backpack.

A sharp pounding at the door distracts her, and she fumbles with it, looking up.

It's Kaylee, looking panicked. Inara jerks her head at the assistant manager, who is locking up the cash register, smiling a little bit in the right way. "Hey, sorry about this, it'll just be these light bulbs."

"That's fine, sugar."

Inara doesn't say anything about the pet name. "Thanks so much. Hey, could you let my friend in? You know Kaylee, she comes here like twice a week, I bet she pays your overheads all by herself."

He shoots a sideways look at Kaylee, then refocuses on Inara. "Come on, babe."

"Please?" Inara raises her eyebrows. "As a favor? For me?"

The guy shakes his head, but he pulls his keys out anyway and starts for the door. Kaylee has stopped pounding and is just standing there, making her best puppy eyes. She smiles a little when she sees him coming. He lets her in, and the smile doesn't turn to gold like it usually does. She immediately begins running all over the store, looking simultaneously determined and pissed off.

Kaylee looks a mess, actually: exhausted and filthy, covered head to toe in engine grease. She's wearing a tank top in April, at night, in Chicago. A part of Inara is itching to give Kaylee her jacket, to bundle her up and take her home.

She stands firmly planted at the counter, though, as the assistant manager rings her up.

He's just counting out her change when Kaylee arrives at the counter, arms full and out of breath.

Inara puts away her light bulbs and lingers. Kaylee sees her just standing there, and she snaps out, "Don't. Ask."

Inara is a little taken aback, but mostly concerned. She doesn't say that, though. Instead, she just raises her eyebrows and mutters, "Wasn't planning on it."

She does wait until Kaylee is done to start walking out the door. When it becomes clear that Kaylee cannot carry the mountain of items she purchased because she didn't bring her backpack, Inara divvies up the stuff evenly between them.

They're halfway back to Kaylee's house when her shoulders slump, she yawns so wide she almost cracks her jaw, and she starts talking, "Mal did a surprise practice run for the Scav Hunt tonight."

"Why would he do that?"

"I don't know. Or I do, it's because he really wants to win this year, it's his last shot--he's a senior like you, Inara--but still. It's stupid because when the Scav starts for real, I'll know when it is. I'll be able to prepare for weeks beforehand, sweet-talk all the boys into givin' me supplies for half-price, and in the middle of the night, too." Kaylee half-smiles.

"I bet you will," Inara replies quietly.

"I'm a charmer, me. Oh yes I am."

Apparently, Kaylee's accent gets stronger when she's tired. She's from Tennessee, Nashville or somewhere, Inara thinks.

"So Mal is bein' stupid, but I'm going along with it. And I'm going along with it 'cause I love him, so. I'm being pretty stupid too."

"Oh." Inara says. Yet another point for the "Kaylee is relentless heterosexual" argument. "Are you two going out? Because I thought I saw something between you and Simon," she adds hastily.

"What? No, not love like that, silly goose. He helped me out a lot when I first got here. He gave me a place to be. So I care about him a lot."

"Right, sorry--" Inara begins.

Kaylee interrupts her, "And me and Simon ain't nothin', although I wanted us to be for a long time. That, well. That particular point is a bit," she laughs a little. "A bit of a sore spot for me, I guess."

"Sorry again, I guess. I'm prying, and I shouldn't have--"

"Like I mind when you ask me anything, Inara," Kaylee snorts.

Inara doesn’t really know what to say to that. “Cool, great. Here’s another question: where do you live?” They’ve been walking for fifteen minutes with no sign of stopping.

Kaylee laughed. “Really inconveniently far away from the hardware store, sorry. You don’t have to keep walkin’ with me.”

“I want to.” Inara means that, at least. “ But why do you go to that one, then?”

“Best in the state, and I mean that.”

“Best hardware store?”

“Yeah. I could build a breeder reactor with the stuff they sell, any day of the week.”

"You're kidding me," Inara's eyebrows might be permanently stuck at her hairline, "right?"

"Nope. Breeder reactors in sheds: surprisingly un-difficult to pull off when you’ve got a good supplier. I'm pretty sure there's a documentary about the store. I think Adam Savage is in it." Kaylee is smiling and quirking her eyebrows. "Impressive, huh?"

"The guy from Mythbusters? That's...yeah, that's really impressive. I never knew anything about that."

Kaylee frowned. "Why do you hang out at the hardware store, then?"

"Because who, among my friends, would ever look for me at a hardware store?" Inara chuckled ruefully. "It's a good place to hide out and do work."

"Yeah, I guess I wouldn't have pegged you as the hardware store type right off the bat. What do you even major in?"

"Business, babe," Inara says, tipping an imaginary hat at Kaylee for no apparent reason.

Kaylee giggles. "That makes sense. I'm an engineering major, myself. Aerospace engineering, particularly, but all of it is interestin'."

"So, what, do you build things in your backyard? Is that why you need all the wire and duct tape and,"Inara shrugs her shoulders toward Kaylee’s various items,"gadgets?"

"Well, when not practicing for the Scav Hunt, I mostly just fix things around the house."

"Oh. I didn't know you'd need so much stuff for that."

"You don't, if you're just patching things and making boilers work again, but you do if you're trying to make your house 80% more energy efficient."

"You're trying to make your house 80% more energy efficient." This girl is going to kill Inara. Energy efficiency sounds really hot right around now.

"Yeah, and succeedin', too. I tried to make our AC self-sustaining, but that didn't work out so well, so now I've set the bar slightly lower."

"I'm not even going to ask." Inara shakes her head.

"Good, because telling you the story of my Ultimate Defeat"--Inara swears she can hear the capital letters--"would be a real downer on the evening. I'd probably have to get real drunk, so as to drown my sorrows and all that."

"I will never mention it again," Inara promises.

"Right, okay. So, what do you do as a, um, business major? Like, what do you even study?"

"You know, this and that, taking over the world, using the blood of my enemies as an exfoliant..."

"Right. But really, what do you do?"

"It's really boring, man. I can tell you about my marketing classes, or some of the math stuff I spend time on. Do you want to hear about my several dozen spreadsheets?"

Kaylee laughs. "Fair enough. Why'd you pick it, then?"

"I wanted to rule the world. So a business major with a minor in math seemed pretty reasonable. To be honest, the math is more fun than the business, but the business will give me a good canvas to do fun math stuff, and a higher shot at a good job,so. I did it. I don’t regret it, although thinking back I don’t know if I’d have made the same decisions.”

“What would you have done differently?” Kaylee has stopped and is looking directly at Inara, absolutely serious.

Inara bumps Kaylee with her shoulder. “Keep moving, or we’re never gonna get home.” She’s not quite sure why she said it like that. “I mean, to your house. And I don’t know what I’d do differently. My decisions were solid, but I might have gone for a full-out math major if I’d known exactly what being a business major is like.”

“Is it really hard?”

“No, but a lot of it is really, really boring.”

Kaylee smiled a little at that. “How boring?”

“I fell asleep in more than one class. On many, many occasions.”

Kaylee grimaces, and her eyebrows flick up. “Then why’d you keep goin’?” She sounds almost alarmed.

“Sheer determination, and the deep internal zen that comes with basically living at a hardware store.”

Kaylee laughs bright and delighted. She doesn’t say anything back, though, so they walk the last few blocks in a not entirely uncomfortable silence.

They come up to a building Inara has seen a couple times before, this enormous rotting mansion on the very edge of campus. It must have been very fine at some point, but is now shabby and a little unsafe looking. Inara raises her eyebrows. “You live here.”

“Yep. This is the Firefly mansion, property of an asshole named Jayne, home to the somewhat inappropriately named Serenity fraternity.” Kaylee sounds like this is the official party introduction.

“Why is it inappropriately named?”

“Because it has zero Greek connection and is also coed, what with me and Zoe livin’ here an’ all.”

“Right. That makes sense.” Inara nods. “Um, so, I guess I can just leave you here, right? Where do you want me to put your stuff?”

“Right! Yes! Uh, just dump it on the porch.”

Inara totes her stuff up to the porch and sets it down on the convenient little table next to the door. As she’s slinking down the porch steps, a tall man sticks his head out the door. It’s Mal, Inara realizes, her heart sinking a little. Sure enough, he says, “What took you so long, little Kaylee? We got work to do and Scav Hunts to win.” Kaylee starts to explain about the hardware store being closed, but he spots Inara. “Oh, hi, Inara, right? Guess that’s what took you so long, right, Kaylee?”

So that’s kind of gross. Inara calls out a quick goodbye to Kaylee, which is answered in kind before she’s whisked off to build weird things for Mal’s obsession, and moves fast back toward her apartment, which is frustratingly on the other end of campus. She’s halfway home before realizing she’s tucked a little pointy thing Kaylee must’ve bought into her pocket and forgotten about it.

Which gives her an excuse to see Kaylee again, which is, Inara whispers to herself, totally a good thing.

Despite that, it takes her almost a week to go back to the weird house on the edge of campus. In that time, she manages to be really fucking productive, and also to do all of her work without ever setting foot in the hardware store. It's almost miraculous.

When she does, finally, on a beautiful sunny Saturday morning, manage to get her ass back to Serenity, it's fucking chaos. Inara thinks there's someone on the roof, with another person calling directions out of the fourth story window.

She shakes her head and knocks. Simon answers, and immediately screams for Kaylee, who answers from what sounds like very far away, her distant voice shouting something about TWO MINUTES and UNSTABLE CHEMICALS SIMON.

Inara pointedly does not ask. She and Simon just wait at the door, eventually relocating to the stairs in the front hall when it becomes clear that Kaylee will be tied up for quite some time and, according to Simon, all other rooms are filled with crazy people.

"So--" Inara begins, when she is interrupted by a booming monotone that seems to be emanating from the house itself.

"You're wrong; it's working, working just fine. I am Team Serenity, of Firefly House. You're welcome." The voice suddenly stops.

Inara recognizes it as that little girl from the coffee shop, River. "Is that--?" she begins, but she is once more interrupted, this time by Mal, who comes dashing by, panting.

He asks Simon, "Where in the hell is River?"

Simon laughs and shakes his head. "Don't look at me--I can't keep track of her when she's not incorporeally possessing a house."

"Fat lot of help you are," Mal rushes off.

Simon retorts, "Hey, at least she's got the coms working!"

Inara can't help the words that tumble out of her mouth: "You folks are all insane."

Simon smiles mildly. "Well, my sister's a house. We had a complicated childhood."

"Oh, River's your sister?" Inara asks. "I thought you two were dating, from what I saw at Starbucks the other day."

Simon laughs. "No, no no. She's my little sister, though, and she's only eighteen, so I do keep a kinda close eye on her."

"She's a freshman then?" Inara guesses that makes sense. "Funny that you'd go to the same college, though, isn't it?"

"No, she's a senior, like me, only she’s also starting graduate work." Simon smiles a little ruefully. "She started here when she was fourteen, and our parents only let her go because I was going too. Can you imagine freshman year as an awkward, arrogant eighteen year old boy with a fourteen year old genius for a sister?"

"Oh my god. How did you survive?"

"We were mostly--we were pretty isolated. But in junior year, she wandered off and ended up in an argument with Mal--about politics and morality and Kant, I think, of all things. He was screaming at her, and I rushed in, panicked, and they were both immediately totally fine. Anyway, Mal introduced us to Kaylee and the rest of Serenity and we--we don't exactly live here, technically, but it's close enough."

"Cool," Inara begins, and finds she doesn't really have anything to say.

Miraculously, Kaylee appears at this moment. "Hey, Inara. What can I do for you on this fine day?"

"Oh, actually this seems kind of stupid now, but I just wanted to give you this thing? I don't even know what it is, so you must've bought it. I guess I stuck it into my pocket and forgot about it, sorry." Inara holds out the little metal doohickey.

Kaylee laughs delightedly and takes it. "Oh, I thought I was missing something, but I didn't have the right ratchet, so I just fixed with...actually, with duct tape and chewing gum. Not one of my most artistic works."

"Sorry! Anyway, I'll just get going then," Inara stands up and grabs her backpack, but Kaylee stops her with a hand on her arm.

"Aw, you're going already? Sure you don't wanna stick around? It'd be lovely if you did, Inara."

And she probably shouldn't, but she says, "Yeah. That'd be really nice. Thanks."

Kaylee smiles and takes her hand. "C'mon." She leads her down a hall and past a closed door behind which two people are shouting in a furious-but-simultaneously-filled with-sexual-tension sort of way. "I'm working in the kitchen." She pushes open the door.

It's smaller than Inara expected, but it faces south and has wide windows to let in every last scrap of sunlight. The afternoon sky casts gold light across the rows of empty test tubes on the window sills and over the little glass beakers still bubbling with unknown liquids on the stove. A huge cork board is hung on the wall over the kitchen table, empty and waiting. The table itself is strewn with little bits and pieces of machinery, with a huge tool box tucked neatly underneath. "So this is your work room?" Inara asks.

"For the Scav Hunt, yeah, 'cause we all live off dry cereal and takeout then anyway. Mostly I keep all this in my room or in the backyard. But this is direct access to the backyard for bigger projects, and I'll need to be as efficient as possible during the Hunt."

"Right, when is that?" Inara pulls up a chair at the kitchen table; Kaylee goes to check her beakers.

"Oh, it starts in two days and goes for four days total."

"Is it always like this in the days leading up to it?"

"No, normally everyone sort of goes into a sort of zen state to psychologically prepare, but there's been kind of a disaster in the last couple days that's left everybody kinda...rattled." Kaylee's leaning against the range, talking with her hands.

"What?"

"Right, so most teams come from big houses and stuff like that, and that's fine; that's always how it's been--we can beat their asses anyway-- but in the last couple years, a couple of the houses got together and formed "the Alliance"." Kaylee rolls her eyes. "They are sad, pretentious little people, and Serenity's better than 'em any day. Their leader calls himself "The Operative," can you believe that?"

"You're kidding me." Inara giggles. Ah, college douchebaggery at its finest.

But," Kaylee gets serious, her voice rising, "they do outnumber us a fair way, and that's always been our downfall. This year, though, Mal managed to get a fair few outsiders--that is, folks not livin' in Serenity, and it was real exciting 'cause for a hot minute we were sure we were gonna beat the Alliance. But then, yesterday, what, three days before the Scav fuckin' starts, most of 'em back out, sayin' something about schoolwork conflicts, which is bullshit and we all knew it. And today, River--who knows everything; it's kinda great and kinda scary--heard that all of 'em who left us have joined up with the fuckin' Alliance. So now we're all thinking it was a deliberate play to undermine us before the game even starts, and, well. Morale is low." Kaylee slumps in the chair next to Inara's, dropping her head to the table with a resounding thump.

"Ugh, that sounds awful. I'm sorry, Kaylee." Inara reaches out and starts stroking Kaylee's hair, scooting her chair closer. Kaylee makes a happy noise in the back of her throat. Inara doesn't know how to react to that. "Is there--is there anything I can do?"

She stumbles embarrassingly over her words.

Kaylee groans and shakes her head. "God, Inara. We're so, so outnumbered--I'm pretty sure the Alliance team has fifty members and we're down to eight. Eight! They'll be able to get more items than us just by merit of bein' able to spread out more! And we've gotta put four members into the Road Trip, so meanwhile we're down half our team. And Mal wants to win like crazy, but we're, just. I don't even think we'll be top ten. All the decent teams have at least twenty. Before Early and his fuckin' cohort backed out, we had about thirty solid members, and now...this."

"What if I joined your team?" And it's insane, what is Inara even doing? This isn't worth a stupid crush. She's about to have finals, about to graduate, and then she's got to get her shit together for graduate school...

But she's already said it.

Kaylee slowly lifts her head from her arms. She shakes her head. "'Nara, you don't have to do this, you really don't, we'll be fine if we don't win, but if you want to..."

"I do." I have officially gone off the deep end, Inara thinks distantly. But why the hell not?

Because the worst part is, she does actually want to do it.

+

Inara is immediately pounced upon by six very enthusiastic Team Serenity members and inundated with tips, paperwork, and Scav Lists of years past. Kaylee whispers to her, "Sorry about all this. We're doing a brunch on Saturday morning, come, okay?"

"Yeah, alright," Inara says, out of the corner of her mouth. "Will they be a little more toned down then?"

"Probably not. Sorry."

"Eh, it's okay. I'll still come. I don't want to break their little hearts." Inara looks away from Kaylee and sees that all of the others are staring at her with a fierce, majestic intensity.

Kaylee glances anxiously at Inara. "You sure on that?"

Inara nods. "Yeah," she mutters. "Regretting the decision already, but yeah."

Kaylee smiles beatifically. "Cool, cool cool cool."

+

On Saturday, she meets the team at a little diner a couple blocks from Firefly House. They're all crammed in a back booth when she gets there, like that day in Starbucks. A sudden wave of nerves rushes through her. Kaylee makes everyone move so Inara can sit next to her, though, which helps.

"Hi," she says brightly, "what's up, guys?"

River smiles gently at her. "Hey, Inara. We made a list of instructions for you. We're putting you on the home team, so you won't be Road Tripping--we have to confirm our Road Trippers too far in advance for you to be one, plus you're a noob. The instructions start tonight and continue until the end of the Hunt, but obviously they'll be fleshed out a lot on the fly. Do you understand all of this?" She holds out a numbered, typed packet, at least five or six pages. She is very serious.

There is a pause, and then Inara nods and takes the instructions. "Thanks, River. I understand."

"Perfect," she says, tilting her head and grinning.

"I think we should do introductions again for Inara," Kaylee says. "It's important that we're all familiar as teammates and what not, right?"

"Good idea, little Kaylee." Mal says. He looks about two seconds away from patting her on the head.

Without thinking, Inara raises her eyebrows and says, "Well, that's not creepy and paternalistic at all."

Mal looks indignant; Kaylee, a little bit hurt. "Honestly, 'Nara, it's not like that," she begins, and then pauses. "Well, it probably would be, if I minded, but I don't, so it's fine."

Mal says stiffly. "I'm Malcom Reynolds, captain of Team Serenity, and seeing as you're not part of my team as of yet, I fail to see what you've got to say in any of it." He seems poised to continue in this vein, but Zoe interrupts him.

"I'm Zoe, and I'm second in command 'round here. Don't mind Mal, he's bad with people." She tosses a snarky smile at Mal, then wraps an arm around the tall blond man to her right. "And this is my dear, ridiculous fiance, one Hoban Washburne."

He, once again, flashes her a live-long-and-prosper sign. "I prefer Wash. I'll be running the Road Trip this year, so we aren't gonna see too much of each other, I'm afraid."

"It's lovely to meet you both," Inara says, smiling smoothly. Mal looks indignant for a second when he realizes he's been left out of that.

A tall, bearded grad student named, apparently, Book (future Franciscan Friar) is last on the side across from Inara. He seems gentle and kind and surprisingly sane.

Simon and River are next, perched on the furthest inward seats on Inara's side, and they both nod at Inara. Simon smiles. "We've met."

"And it's a pleasure to see both of you. It's good to know you can manifest in a form other than as the house, River." River just tilts her head at the joke. Inara figures it is kind of weak.

"And you know me," Kaylee says, dropping her head onto Inara's shoulder.

"Absolutely." Inara smiles brightly at Kaylee. "So, uh, is this everyone?"

Kaylee bites her lip. "Um, actually, we're waitin' on one, he'll be here in a minute."

"Oh, who's he?"

"Jayne," Zoe says, suddenly looking alarmed.

"What? What's wrong?" Inara asks.

"Jayne is incoming," Wash clarifies, gesturing towards the door. "Gird your loins, everyone."

Inara turns, and sees a huge tattooed guy striding toward them. He's wearing camo and combat boots and
--that has got to be the most ridiculous hat Inara has ever seen. What the hell is that doing on his head? He stops in front of their table, pulling up a chair out from under someone at a nearby table. Their protests seem to have no effect on him. He smiles down at Inara. "Hi, I'm Jayne Cobb. I'll be runnin' point for Team Serenity--"

"Not accurate!" Zoe calls.

He shoots her a dirty look. "And you must be Inara. We've met before, haven't we? It'd be hard to forget you. You're really--"

"Jayne!" Kaylee snaps. "I don't want you to finish that sentence! Ever! Be decent!"

“I was gonna be!” He protests.

The entire rest of the team stares at him incredulously.

He has the good grace to look a little embarrassed, mumbling, “Well, depends on your perception of what decency is, really, it’s a very philosophical question--”

The table choruses, “Shut up!”

“He switched his major to philosophy,” Kaylee whispers to Inara, “and now he’s convinced he’s the voice of our generation.”

“I would not have guessed.” Inara says, glancing back at Jayne. Jayne leers at her entirely shamelessly.

“No, most people don’t.”

“River told him to do it. He was dead set on religious studies, was even maybe gonna take some kinda holy orders, after Book talked to him, but River managed to convince him that him and priesthood shouldn’t mix. He’s loving philosophy, so River was right, I guess. She’s good at that kind of thing. Good intuition.”

“Wow.” Inara looks away from Kaylee for a second, takes in the table. Zoe and Mal are fighting casually about some detail or another, Wash draped over Zoe’s shoulders like a scarf. Simon is drawing up a massive flow chart on a thick pad of graph paper with River looking over his shoulder and making corrections. Jayne is being distracted from Inara's boobs by Book, who is tactfully making conversation about the Trinity.

She looks back at Kaylee.

This is her team.

+

As per orders, Inara spends the rest of the day Saturday fast asleep. When her alarm rings at 10:45, she gets up, showers, and walks over to Firefly. Kaylee and River are on the roof, tinkering with what turns out to be the intercom system. They wave happily at Inara.

Simon meets her at the door again, leads her to the dining room while making polite, quiet conversation, and that's where any semblance of normalcy ends.

The dining room is enormous and has been converted into some kind of war room, maps and charts plastered all over the walls. Mal is standing at the head of the enormous table yelling about something to Zoe, who's rolling his eyes and snarking right back. At one point, Mal actually pounds a fist on the table, which. Wow. Inara had thought that move extinct since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hmm, perhaps it has survived in North Korea, but she'd never seen anyone actually do it.

"Wow. This is..." Inara looks around and settles on, "impressive."

Kaylee pops her head in and smiles, bounding over to Inara and kissing her on both cheeks. "Hi, Inara! I thought I heard you. Welcome to the Scav. Book will be over in an hour or so with the List. He knows a guy at Kinko's who owes him a favor, so we get everything real fast and for free."

"Hey, Inara." Zoe smiles at her, and Mal nods, before they go back to bickering over something's layout.

"Cool." Inara says, and whispers breathe, breathe, just breathe and pretend to not be freaked out to herself until it feels solid.

+

Book arrives at 12:05 with the List and immediately hands a copy to River, who wanders off to make charts. She calls them capability assessments and makes Simon write things down for her because "he's the only somewhat competent one here."

Kaylee laughs at Inara's disgruntled face when she says that, and leans in, murmuring, "She don't mean a word of what she's saying. She just really likes processing data, and Simon knows her well enough that his hands move almost as fast as her brain."

"Yeah, of course." Inara shrugs. "We should do food. Pancakes, anyone?"

No one has a problem with pancakes. Kaylee sits on the counter and hands her things because Inara has no idea where anything is, and, furthermore, she's pretty sure that Kaylee normally handles all the cooking. Most of the others don't seem tethered solidly enough to the realities of necessary food intake to handle it, except maybe Zoe.

Inara asks, and Kaylee laughs. "Yeah, how'd you guess? Zoe knows you need to eat and stuff, but she calls food "fuel" and eats, like, beef jerky and granola bars most of the time, and the others...they get real busy with course work and only remember to eat when they've got the munchies."

"So you handle the cooking." Inara states, stirring in chocolate chips.

"Yeah," Kaylee says, rooting around in the fridge for pineapple. "My dad taught me how to cook, my mom taught me how to shoot, and my big brother taught me how to hotwire cars. Also, would raspberries work?"

Inara would be lying if she said she wasn't a little turned on by that. "Raspberries would be great."

"Cool beans." Kaylee says, straightening up and handing over the container. "These are elaborate fuckin' pancakes."

"Best in the state, though." Inara nods, staring Kaylee dead in the eyes. "I don't fuck around when it comes to pancakes."

"You never should. Pancakes are serious business."

They are caught in a staring match when Jayne wanders in, "Yo. When will the pancakes be ready?"

Inara blushes and starts pouring batter onto the griddle. "Coming right up. Take some to River, okay? She can't be processing data on an empty stomach."

"And Simon!" Kaylee says immediately.

"Yeah, whatever," Jayne mumbles, and calls the others for food.

They all troop downstairs to the kitchen and Inara dishes out pancakes and there's nothing but chewing and soft appreciative noises in Inara's direction for a while.

Jayne mutters mutinously when she asks him to take a plate to River and Simon again, but Mal, surprisingly, volunteers immediately and wanders off with a tray stacked high with pancakes and whipped cream and maple syrup (Inara wasn't kidding about taking her pancakes seriously).

Wash and Zoe start feeding each other pancakes, but then stop when Jayne stares at them with avid interest, and instead look down at their own plates, eating quickly. Inara thinks it's a shame. She nudges Kaylee, and they look at each other, and then at Jayne, and shake their heads.

+

Mal wanders back in a half hour later with River and Simon in tow. He is beaming triumphantly. Simon is at the back, carrying a now empty tray; Inara feels a sudden rush of pride. Pancake pride.

"Team, I am pleased to announce that we have set up our objectives for the year." Mal says grandly. "All of you should read over your individual copies of the list, of course, in case River missed something--"

"I didn't." River frowns at Mal like he's betrayed her. "I don't miss things."

"Be that as it may, y'all should look over your individual copies anyway. River's tacked up your assignments in the war room, so look at those too."

Inara gives Kaylee a horrified glance. They'd actually called it that. Kaylee just smiles at her like there was nothing wrong with Mal's previous sentence. “C’mon,” she says to Inara, holding out a hand, “Let’s go look at our lists.”

They wander over to the dining room, where Zoe, Wash, and Jayne are already carefully reading through their assignments, which are concise: none of them are more than a page, and Kaylee’s is barely half a page of neat Times New Roman. Inara’s is a lot longer. She unhooks it from the wall: there are nearly two full pages of items.

“Wow,” she mutters, leafing through it. “Nothing on this list looks like it’s worth a lot of points, does it?”

River is walking in and hears her. She shrugs. “Yeah, I kinda put you down as a pinch-hitter, ‘cause I don’t know your special skills as well as I’d like. So mostly you’ll be helping out with everything at homebase.”``

“Okay, cool, cool. So I should probably look at everyone else’s lists.”

“Yeah, and give them your number. You’ll be speed dial number 2. Actually, let me write that down,” she continued absentmindedly. River wandered over to the whiteboard, uncapped a fat red marker, and wrote across the top, IF YOU’RE HOMEBASE, ASK INARA FOR HER NUMBER AND PUT IT AS SPEED DIAL # 2. SHE’LL BE HELPING YOU OUT WHEN YOU NEED IT. She smiled at Inara, said, “Rock it,” and wandered over to check in with Jayne.

Jayne took one look at River and started yelling at her. “What’s this about amuriga--amori--gar--look, I can’t say it, but it’s a mistake! I don’t knit!”

River raised her eyebrows. “It is absolutely not a mistake. I don’t make mistakes. You do knit. Your mom taught you. It’s why you were so excited about that...” her eyes flicked up to the thing on Jayne’s head, “hat. It reminded you of knitting lessons on rainy days with her.”

Jayne’s eyes softened, and his shoulders sagged. “How did you know that?”

“I have a supercomputer for a brain. I know lots of things. Bye.”

She bounced over to Kaylee and they muttered to each other for a minute or two, before River smiled and bounded off. “Gonna go yell at Mal!”

“G’luck!” Kaylee called after her, heading toward the kitchen. Inara follows her because she doesn’t really have anything to do.

It’s around 1:30, but Inara is, unsurprisingly, wide awake. The kitchen table is still covered in sticky plates, and Inara starts clearing the table as Kaylee curls up in a chair with a sketch book. “So,” Inara says conversationally, “what do you think of your list?”

“S’gonna be a challenge, but I think I can get all of it done. I have so much planning to do, though.”

Inara answers, “Mmm,” and flicks on the radio to accompany her dish-washing. The silence between them is surprisingly comfortable.

After maybe a half hour, Kaylee glances up from her sketchbook. “Hey, ‘Nara, could you maybe grab my laptop from my room? Third floor, second door on the right.” She blew out a long breath. “I have a lot of favors to call in, and a lot of research to do.”

“Yeah, no problem. Third floor, second door on the right.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Kaylee is back to her sketchbook, sounding distant again. “Thanks,” she adds, as Inara walks out the kitchen door.

She's in Kaylee's cheerful little room when she hears something behind her. Inara looks up, and there's Mal, leaning against the door frame, smirking at her. "Hi," she says warily.

"Hi, Inara. How are you?" He smiles again, this time perfunctorily, like it's all business to him and he doesn't really care one way or another.

"I'm okay, I guess. Just grabbing Kaylee's computer for her. She's up to her eyeballs in Scav stuff already." She glances around for the laptop, feeling Mal's eyes on her back.

"I'd believe it," Mal says mildly.

Inara grabs the laptop from its place on Kaylee's otherwise bare desk and heads for the door, sliding neatly past Mal into the hallway. He touches her shoulder, just lightly, but she backs away quickly even as she turns toward him. "Yeah?" She raises her eyebrows. "Do you want anything?"

"Look," Mal grimaces. "I realize I'm not--never mind. Point is that this is my team. I--I care about these folks, and I know them better than near anyone else. I don't know you that well, but I'd like to. Because you're on my team now."

"Thanks," Inara says softly. She is treading in dangerous waters here, best to tread lightly. "That'd be lovely. But Kaylee'll be wondering where I wandered off to, so can we take a rain check on this conversation?" That's probably insensitive, but it is honest.

Mal's face tightens for a moment, then he nods. "Be good to her." He says, and it's hoarse, almost raw.

"Okay?" She turns around again and walks down the stairs slowly, carefully. She knows he's still watching her. She can't decide how she feels about it. Men have watched her almost constantly since she turned thirteen and sprouted breasts, but this feels--not exactly like that.

She full-body shivers right outside the kitchen door. Then she walks in, hands the laptop to Kaylee, and smiles at her stern concentration

+

Inara spends the morning folding kites. Kaylee spends the morning alternately bribing, cajoling, and threatening junkyard and garage owners for parts. It seems like she has every single junkyard owner under her thumb.

She'd call them up and spend maybe two minutes making small talk, sounding sweet and young. And then she'd say, gently, "Yeah, of course I'll be at Annie's birthday party. And yeah, I do have a magician I could bring in. No, no, it would be a pleasure--only, Joe, I'll be really busy this weekend. I don't know if I'll have a chance to get in contact with him. Oh? It's the Scav Hunt this weekend." She'd pause for a moment, then say, "Well, it would be a lot easier if I could get my hands on a DeLorean. Yeah, I know it'd be tricky, but I genuinely don't care what condition it's in. No, no, just keep your eyes peeled, 'kay? And do tell Annie hi." She'd say bye, hang up, and then say to Inara, "I saved his daughter's life."

She does this for hours as a pile of kites begins to build up next to Inara. Not all of them are pretty, but all of them fly, she checks.

+

One of the Joes calls back around four that afternoon, and hauls a rusted-out, barely-recognizable shell of a DeLorean into the back yard a couple hours after that. Kaylee starts work on it immediately, crawling in and around it, rebuilding and blowtorching and shining.

Inara is finishing off her sixteenth kite when Mal calls her. “Hey, do you wanna help with a potato sculpture or a blanket fort first?”

Inara thinks for a second. “Blanket fort.”

“Okay, meet me at the Goodwill on West Washington and North Racine in twenty minutes. Borrow Kaylee’s car.”

“Sure.” Inara hangs up the phone. “Hey, Kaylee?”

+

Mal is standing in front of the Goodwill when Inara pulls up in Kaylee’s station wagon. He salutes her but doesn’t say a word, just opens the door for her.

Inside, they grab two shopping carts and wheel them over the the housewares section and start piling blankets and cushions in. Inara does not try to start a conversation. Mal doesn’t either, but they make a good team.

Their blanket fort ends up being about 500 feet long, breaking the current Guinness world record. It wraps itself around the house multiple times, so they have to build a walkway over it to get in and out.

In the next couple days, Inara makes fifteen more kites in between helping Kaylee reach her tools while she crawls around in the depths of the De Lorean, building a potato replica of Central Park with Mal, bringing everyone more food than she was aware it was possible to consume in two days, and playing a velociraptor in Simon’s nature documentary.

It is sometime Tuesday morning, just before dawn by the looks of it. Inara walks numbly back to Kaylee’s room to crash for a couple hours.

She doesn't flick the light on, but pauses in the doorway to note that Kaylee is already in the bed. Inara checks the alarm--Kaylee will be out for another two hours, and Inara, well. Inara yawns. She can’t hold out for another two hours, she thinks.

Instead, she pulls of her bra and unbelts her jeans and lies down gently next to Kaylee, keeping herself on top of the coverlet so as not to disturb her. She’s out like a light.

They both wake at the alarm. Inara disgruntledly pokes the alarm clock, but only succeeds in knocking it off the nightstand. It continues shrieking until she shoves it against the wall. It becomes quiet then, but only, Inara notes with some distress, because it is now in two pieces. Kaylee sits up then. She notices the alarm clock for seemingly the first time. Inara is expecting her to be upset, but Kaylee just kisses her on the cheek and says groggily, “I can fix that.”

Inara smiles at the brush of Kaylee’s lips against her cheek, but she remains sitting there, fixated on the broken alarm clock. “I didn’t know I was that strong.”

“You are Wonder Woman,” Kaylee agrees, sliding off her pajama pants. Inara tries not to stare.

“I am too sleepy to deal with broken alarm clocks and way, way too tired to deal with the Scav today. Just, like, carry on without me,” Inara says, flopping back down on the pillows and shutting her eyes.

“Get up, sleepyhead.” Kaylee says, the lightness of a laugh tinting her voice. She pulls a clean t-shirt from her drawers and tosses at Inara. “We have a contest to win. There is no time for delay, no time for anything but deliberate, ruthless action. We can and will win this thing.” She is quoting directly from Mal’s favorite pep talk.

“Asshole.” Inara says, but her eyes are open and she’s giggling.

“Come on, babe. Judgment Day is tomorrow.”

“The apocalypse rises, Kaylee. Despair. Or something.”

“Sh-shhh. We’ll put a stop to it. Put some pants on. I have a monowheel to build. And you have to help.”

+

Wednesday morning dawns bright and early. Inara is awake at six-thirty, standing directly in front of the coffee pot so she can inhale a near-continuous stream of coffee.

“Moooove,” Jayne mumbled, still in fluffy pajamas and lopsided hat. “I own guns.”

“Ssshhhh, ssshhhh,” Inara mumbles right back, “You wouldn’t shoot me. You’d get arrested or some’m.”

“I have significant influence in the Miles, Mississippi police force. They’d get me out. ‘Sides, I’d do great in the Big House.”

Inara does not dignify that with a response. It’s almost too easy. Instead, she pours herself another cup of coffee, not a little bit smugly. She carefully leaves only the barest trace of coffee in the pot before letting Jayne through.

Kaylee is out back, still setting up the last parts of the xyloexplosive and tinkering with the DeLorean. Inara glances at her through the kitchen window and decides it is time for her to take a break. She brings out a tall glass of orange juice and a bag of trail mix. “Hey,” she says, standing on the stoop. “Catch.” She tosses the bag of trail mix into the seat of the car successfully, and Kelsi is still in the backseat, squirreling away M&Ms when Inara manages to maneuver herself across the crowded yard and into the backseat beside her.

“Hey, ‘Nara. Thanks for the GORP.” Kaylee blinks happily at Inara. She is a spectacular mess, all dirt-covered exhaustion, slumped against the shiny vinyl backseat.

“Kaylee, the judging starts in a couple hours. Go take a shower, okay?”

Kaylee digs her head into Inara’s shoulder for a long second before bouncing up and banging the kitchen door shut. “Goodbye, darlin’. See you around.” She manages to sound almost jubilant. Inara thinks she hears Kaylee singing softly to herself as she goes.

+

River wanders out of the little room she’s been programming in up in the attic just before 7:30 and immediately falls down on the kitchen floor, a location she does not move from until Inara gives her several granola bars and a shot of 5 Hour Energy. She stands up and looks directly, clearly into Inara’s eyes for the first time. Then she turns away, and her usual hazy dreamy persona drops back into place like a screen.

The Road Trip Team arrives back at headquarters at eight. By 8:45, they have got all of their Scav Hunt items (or required proof) to the quad (with the exception of the blanket fort, the entrance to which remains at home. The rest of it is painstakingly set up spanning the distance between Firefly House and the Judging Station, looping and doubling back at points to accommodate its length. Mal calls it his glorious red carpet. He’s been up since four in the morning, looking way too chipper for someone who has bags under his eyes like he does.

Zoe sees it and starts crying a little bit. When she notices Wash and Jayne staring at her, she immediately launches into a tirade against their filthy, lazy behinds, what she’s had to put up with on the Road Trip is plain unbelievable, it’s like they’re not even human.

Wash look hurt enough that Zoe kisses him hard and affectionate. When Jayne asks for his, she hits him equally hard and loving.

At 8:52, Mal calls the team in for a final check in. Inara shivers blearily next to Kaylee, who has been--not avoiding her, exactly, but in a tight huddle with Zoe ever since she got back. Zoe keeps making weird faces at Inara, but she’s been otherwise totally polite and Inara feels a little crazy with lack of sleep, so it’s possible she’s imagining it.

Mal starts out inspirational and quickly travels to crazy-eyed, so Inara tucks her chin over Kaylee’s shoulder and closes her eyes, trying to sleep standing up like a horse. Kaylee’s cheek is cold against Inara’s, but her neck is warm and soft . Inara rolls her head around to kiss Kaylee’s neck absentmindedly. It makes Kaylee start for a second before settling into it, but she doesn’t say anything and she’s smiling, so Inara doesn’t move, letting her mouth linger against Kaylee’s neck. Kaylee’s hand comes up to pet Inara’s hair.

It is nine AM and they are all stretched thin, anxiety tautening them within themselves.

The Judges, wearing appropriately odd ceremonial headgear, are parading toward the Judging Grounds, clipboards out.

+

Team Serenity is stationed right next to the Alliance’s showing grounds, and right off the bat Inara knows they can’t win this. There are maybe fifty people running around, setting stuff up. They all look more rested, more well-equipped, less out-and-out haggard than anyone on Team Serenity. Their stuff looks….shinier. And there might just be more of it, for all that Serenity’s showing ground is full to bursting.

A tall guy in a UChicago sweatshirt strolls over from the Alliance’s station to Serenity’s. Inara hurries up to him because everyone else is staringg at him like they are ready to commit loud, public murder. She sticks her hand out firmly. “Hi, I’m Inara Serra. What brings you to Serenity’s station?”

“Hey, Inara. I’m Mark Oni. I go by the Operative for the Scav, though--god, that sounds stupid, but whatever.” He looks down and chuckles, glancing up at Inara through long thick eyelashes. He’s hot, but he smiles like he knows it, which makes him decidedly less charming. “I’m heading up Anyway, I just wanted to say hi, and good luck to...what are you calling yourselves now? Serenity?”

Inara smiles and flutters her eyelashes. “Yeah, we’re Team Serenity, from Firefly House, though I expect you know that, as you have several of our former teammates on your team this year, don’t you?” She keeps her voice light and sweet. He is still clutching at her hand, and she extricates it smoothly from his grasp. “Anyway, good luck to you guys too. It’s very sportsmanlike of you to come over here, Mark. “

“Right.” His smile is harder now.

“Have a really great day, Mark. I gotta go make sure the kites are all set up, okay? See you around.”

“That’s awesome. I have a...ceremonial sword display to get ready for, so I should be going anyway.”

“It was good to see you.” Inara turns around before he can say another word. She is halfway across their station before he moves.

Zoe is staring at her with raised eyebrows as she walks back over to their huddle. “That was damn good, Inara. Damn good work.”

“Thanks, Zoe. Is there anything left for us to do? I want to look busy, so he doesn’t have an excuse to come back over here.”

Zoe shakes her head, smiling like she wants to look stern but can’t. She clears her throat. “Yeah, go pry Kaylee away from the xyloexplosive, or she might well set it off before the judges arrive.”

Inara nods. “Got it. After this, I am making her sleep for like twenty hours. She is not in any condition to operate heavy machinery.”

Zoe is smiling properly now. “No, but the rest of us have no idea what to do with heavy machinery even well-rested, so.”

“Yeah. On my way.” Inara half-jogs her way over to Kaylee’s corner of Heavy Machinery and Explosive Things. “Hey, Kaylee girl. How’s it hanging?”

“I hate explosives, I hate explosives, isn’t this illegal, I know how to make so many bombs, that part is probably ilegal.” Kaylee sing-songs back at her.

“Are you all good to go, though?”

“What? Yeah, I’m just. Making sure everything is perfect.” Kaylee yawns. “Thanks for making me shower this morning, by the way. Did me a world o’ good.”

“Come away from your work. And I guess you do look marginally less terrible than you did this morning,” Inara allows.

“Thanks, Inara. I’ll have you know, I am always totally gorgeous,” Kaylee says petulantly, sliding herself off the ladder she’s been perched on to peer into the bowels of the xyloexplosive.

Inara can’t help herself. “You are always totally gorgeous, you just look gorgeous and exhausted right now.”

“We can sleep later,” Kaylee says, bouncing right up into Inara’s personal space and taking her hand. “If I can’t work, Iet’s go look at Jayne’s knitting now.”

+

They lose. They lose by a lot. By the end of Judgement (which, to Inara’s surprise, takes only about an hour and a half), Mal looks like he’s about to cry. Zoe is just curled up among the knitted animals with Wash, frowning and muttering under her breath while Wash rolls and smokes half a dozen cigarettes down to the filter. River is sitting very still on the grass in full lotus, mouth a thin line, eyes laser-focused on Mark Oni. Jayne decided he couldn’t handle the pressure twenty minutes in and is at home, sleeping or getting high or something. Inara almost wishes she had joined him.

The final tally is as follows: the Alliance in first place by a lot, the group from Phi Iota Alpha in second, and close behind (but in a sad, sad third place) is Serenity.

Zoe is at Mal’s elbow, walking home with him. They are whispering to each other.

Inara doesn’t know what to do with herself. She glances over at Kaylee, who is helping Simon tug River along home. Everything feels oddly quiet. Inara thinks that probably they should be cleaning up their stuff, but instead she just follows the rest of them back to Firefly House.

+

They file into the dining room. River looks less homicidal, but she is humming what sounds like a funeral dirge under her breath. Simon has not left her side, but Kaylee sees Inara and comes over to her. Mal has already begun launching into another quote-unquote rousing speech. Inara feels like she should probably listen, but instead she smiles apologetically at him and lets Kaylee drag her outside.

It was cold this morning, but now it’s nearing noon and the sun is shining down bright and lovely. Inara luxuriates in it, stripping off her hoodie and tying it around her waist, brushing her hair to the side to enjoy the warmth on her neck.

Kaylee is looking unusually serious, but Inara figures it’s just that they lost so bad. “You alright?” Inara asks, sitting down on the front porch and patting the place behind her to get her to sit.

Kaylee sprawls gracelessly beside her and blows out air through her noise. “Yeah,” she sounds oddly serene. “Yeah, I think I’m doing just fine. How’re you?”

“I am exhausted and kinda disappointed about losing, but yeah. I feel good.” And it’s true, Inara realizes. She arches her back, stretching out her spine, and groans. “I feel good.”

Inara glances over at Kaylee, smiling gently, only to find that Kaylee’s watching her with a sweet, intent look. Inara would say something, then, but it seems like a waste of words. She blushes, opens her mouth, and closes it again.

Then Kaylee giggles and kisses her. It’s gentle and warm and then Kaylee opens her mouth and swipes her tongue over Inara’s lower lip and into her mouth and Christ oh fuck, that’s hot. Inara scoots herself over until she’s practically on Kaylee’s lap. They kiss messy and sweet for a couple minutes just like that, there on the front porch of Firefly House.

Inara used to imagine that she’d always feel just a little bit empty when she kissed, that she’d never stop being able to get the impending sex out of her brain, that’d it always feel like the useless anxiety-provoking prelude and never a remotely pleasurable act in itself. It doesn’t feel that way with Kaylee. The sun is shining and Kaylee’s hair is blowing against Inara’s face, and Inara would like to bottle this moment like perfume, turn into something she could pull out and dab on her neck and wrists on bad days.

“Um, guys? Congrats and all, but Book got takeout and you might wanna come—oh, well, not like—but I suppose, if you could make it fast?” It’s Wash, standing awkwardly just inside the door. Zoe is just behind him. She smiles cursorily at them before hitting Wash in the back of the head and dragging him back inside.

Kaylee breaks away from Inara with a giggle. “We should probably go back inside,” she says, already standing up and turning to the door. It shouldn’t hurt Inara’s heart like that, but it does, just a little.

She offers Inara a hand up and Inara prepares herself for the brush-off, for something in the twinkle of Kaylee’s eyes to fade. But it doesn’t. Instead, she twines her fingers through Inara’s and pulls her inside, whispering, “Hey, I was thinking, you wanna go out sometime?”

Inara presses a kiss to the corner of Kaylee’s mouth, and says, “How about tomorrow?”

“I think tomorrow would be great.” Kaylee yawns.

“Sleep first, though.”

“Sleep first. Dating later. Studying never. Obviously.”

Inara chuckles, and drops a kiss onto Kaylee’s cheek. Then they walk back into the dining room to join their team.