River sees everything, of course.
She sees how strained things have been aboard the ship since pretty Inara went away, packed her fine silks into trunks and took all of the gold out of their lives. Captain snaps, and Jayne snaps back; Wash tries to prevent it but his jokes go unnoticed or worse, derided, and Zoe must soothe his male ego. (She learns to walk the other way quickly, far as she can, not wanting to steal that warm feeling from them and hide it away in her own belly.)
Kaylee sulks. It's upsetting to see her all frowns and pouts, hardly herself. A shell, ghost-girl perhaps. With all the gold gone, her light's dim. River knows that Inara had always been Kaylee's confidante, her closest friend, and it wasn't uncommon to find her sitting in the shuttle, perched on one of Inara's soft, pretty cushions, letting Inara play with her hair as they talked for hours. It is hard to break your routines and habits, River supposes, and Kaylee is habitually accustomed to making the trip to and from the shuttle. River sees her still making that trip, walking back and forth, hovering near the door before quickly turning away, acting like nothing's wrong.
She should know she'll be found out.
One day Kaylee's just walking by – routine – when the shuttle door slides open and River pokes her head out. "Hello," she says, and Kaylee jumps.
Miscalculation; she should have known it would startle Kaylee. Kaylee is easily frightened.
"River! How the heck'd you get in there?"
The young reader pouts slightly. "Door's open," she says, as if it were obvious. "Nothing to stop her, no one said it was wrong."
Kaylee softens. "Ain't wrong," she says. "Just gave me a start."
River nods absently, stepping back into the empty shuttle. She tips her head to the side, glancing around; she knows Kaylee will follow.
"How are you doing, mèimei?" River asks, her voice low, calm, altogether unlike usual. It's smooth and warm, collected. She turns her head back, with a graceful curve of her neck, and smiles languidly.
Kaylee finds this unnervingly familiar. She is not River's mèimei but she was Inara's.
River takes a seat on a nearby trunk, the one they use to keep the things Inara forgot. She raises an eyebrow at Kaylee, who looks perhaps more perplexed than she'd anticipated. "Isn't that what you want?"
"I don't follow," Kaylee says carefully.
"Why you come here every day? Stand around the door without going in, think in whispers? Missing what's gone."
There's no mistaking River's intentions, now, and that recognition light goes on in Kaylee's eyes for a moment before she draws into herself, bashful in the face of the truth. "Just, old habits're hard to break," she murmurs.
"Don't have to," River tells her.
"There – there ain't nothin' here, sweetie."
"Could be." River pats the space next to her gently. "Close your eyes, pretend. It's still here, all around. She left herself behind."
Kaylee shakes her head. "Just… don't, River, I – I oughta go."
"Just try," the younger girl insists, patting the trunk again. "I could listen like her, could brush your hair, talk to you."
Kaylee hesitates, still standing at the door. Her thoughts – they've been lethargic lately – they're going a mile a minute now, like a heartbeat speeds up under duress, and River wants to return them to the appropriate rate, an easy seventy-two beats per minute, thoughts per minute, reactions perhaps. She wants Kaylee's smile back, not her downcast frown.
"I could be there for you," River says calmly. "Like she was."
The two girls – women, sometimes – they do have a sisterly sort of relationship, but it's very different from the one Kaylee and Inara share. Between the two of them, Inara was always the protector, the worldly one, jiějie; and Kaylee let herself be protected, taken care of. River knows this, and knows that Kaylee is used to looking after her; in turn, she knows that Kaylee is meant to be jiějie to her, and never expects that to change.
Little sisters can look after big, though. Isn't unprecedented.
"Just for now?" River adds.
Kaylee concedes, and sits next to River on the trunk. Pleased, River attempts a reassuring smile; it's a bit emptyish, but happy, her eyes wide, hints of light and gold flashing in them. Vulnerable, innocent – but almost, nearly right.
And Kaylee returns that smile softly. "Sweet'a ya," she says.
"I can brush your hair," River offers matter-of-factly. "Could braid it if you like." She taps her bare foot against the floor, nodding for Kaylee to sit there in front of her, and Kaylee complies.
"That'd be real nice," Kaylee says, and as River begins to run a brush through her hair (well, she'd gone through the trunk before, got it ready; wasn't stealing from Inara, it was just using Inara's props, she was the understudy today, filling in for her role) Kaylee leans back, resting gently against River's legs, relaxed, smiling. Her hair shines almost golden.