Centripetal Motion
by Rachel

After her father's first heart attack, after his brave smile amid white sheets, halls and coated men, Kaylee had changed into clothes that didn't smell sharply of disinfectant and asked her brother if she could borrow the screwdriver from his eyeglass repair kit. With small, cautious movements, she had removed the casing from her alarm clock and probed its circuitry. When her father had returned home, the clock had sat whole, apparently unmolested, and she had begun to understand that while the world spun beyond her control, mechanics followed immutable but masterable rules.

She knew that the anniversary of her father's death was approaching when her experimentation expanded from new ways to spit-and-twine Serenity into functionality. After the funeral, she had cannibalized every small appliance in the house and emerged with a coffee maker that could peel oranges and tell knock-knock jokes. This time it was a music box, the ballerina constructed from screws and dressed in a tutu of split tubing. With rhythmic, meditative strokes she sanded and lacquered until her dancer became elegant against the synthesized sequence of "My Funny Valentine." Each morning, from its position of honor on her dresser, the creation leaked tinny music into the hall as she prepared for another day of harrowing engine reconstruction.

When Inara murmured, "Thou noble, upright, truthful, sincere, and slightly dopey gent," as the captain left the dining room, Kaylee laughed into her hand but managed to finish her coffee before returning to her room. She closed the music box, the metal dancer folding obediently, and rifled through her things for paper. Finding a frayed strand of wire and a scrap of butcher paper that had shielded a "gently used" part, she wrapped her gift.

As Kaylee watched expectantly, Inara slid off the ribbon and shredded the paper. With a smile dimpling her cheeks, Inara lifted the box's lid and the ballerina sprung into place. Kaylee hesitantly guided Inara's fingers to a switch. Music filtered through the speakers as the ballerina revolved. The gray metal became silver and, although different, it belonged among the red silk, which made its place in Inara's shuttle worth the deep blush and strangled explanation.

Kaylee returned to her room and retrieved a small screwdriver from her toolkit. She removed the casing from her alarm clock and probed its circuitry until the world slowed.


Tepid recycled water rinsed the last of the suds from the mug and into the reclamation tank. A thin mechanical cat entered the dining room, weaved through the mismatched chairs, and padded to Inara. She returned the mug to the cabinet and then knelt to oblige the cat with a pat on the head. Its motor purred happily at the attention before it turned to go, beckoning her with its tail to follow.

Inara, a step behind the cat, entered the engine room and crossed the floor to where Kaylee's feet kicked listlessly and her torso disappeared into Serenity's exposed heart. A certain captain's thriftiness had necessitated another grav thrust rewiring, Kaylee explained, her voice echoing down the crawlspace and emerging from the vents lining the room. With a grunt, Kaylee emerged from the engine depths and rolled onto her back, sighing deeply and exposing a face smudged black.

The cat walked into a wall, meowed in protest, and corrected itself as Kaylee laughed. She called the cat over and apologetically deactivated it. Murmuring about motion and logic circuits, she opened a panel on its belly and began delicate adjustments. Inara watched Kaylee's swift movements, listened to her mumbled monologue of curses and supplications, and quietly slipped from the room.

Inara retrieved the just-washed mug and began to brew tea. Book looked up from his own mug and presented his most inviting face. Inara adverted her eyes, poured scalding water from the kettle, added a teabag to her cup, and reminded herself that she had nothing to confess.


The door slid open before Kaylee had even raised her hand to knock. As the "jobs" became more frequent, those left behind had developed a system: Book and Wash traded counsel and jokes in the cockpit; Simon and River retired to their room; Kaylee came to Inara's shuttle. The jobs had this and one other saving grace: Kaylee's anxiety supplanted her increasing daymares that Jayne would notice that her glances at Inara had gone from admiring to confused to attracted, pull her aside and explain in tortured metaphor that not only was Inara out of her league, but they weren't even playing the same gorram sport!

As Inara ushered her inside, Kaylee smiled at the music box, still displayed prominently on the dresser, and frowned at the silver- handled brush, remembering its bristles taming her hair as Inara explained that most of her clients were too bald for that simple pleasure. Kaylee took her place in the vanity's matching chair and Inara sat on the bed. They gossiped in quiet voices until the proximity became too much, Kaylee protested that there was a ship in need of fixing and Inara entreated her to stay.

It was a system and as per the system Kaylee acquiesced. She couldn't manage further small talk, though, so Inara crossed to the vanity and took up the brush. Kaylee turned to the mirror and watched the reflection of Inara's hands undo the clip holding her hair. Murmuring softly, Inara diligently smoothed the light brown strands until Kaylee renewed her protest.

As per the system it was Inara's turn to acquiesce but she, showing the same contempt for rules that had landed her on Serenity, set aside the brush and slid her delicate hands down the grease-stained sleeves of Kaylee's coveralls in an embrace. Kaylee did not look at Inara, afraid to find friendly--or, far worse, maternal--comfort written on her face. Instead, she focused on the music box. Only her father had caused more creativity and that, she knew, should have worried her.

Mal's agitated voice in the hall separated them, sending Kaylee scrambling free and leaving Inara staring at the door. Shaking her thoughts loose, the companion opened the music box. She found the switch and watched as the dancer twirled, never exhausting but never advancing.


Inara sat on the catwalk overlooking the cargo bay, a journal on her knees. As the crew engaged in rowdy sport below, she distractedly wrote in her journal, never quite lifting her pen, the characters flowing together. Simon stood a few feet away, more of his weight than necessary on the railing. Inara watched his gaze, focused on the angry skin from the latest scrape, follow Mal. Simon sighed and looked away, giving Inara an embarrassed smile.

Kaylee watched as Inara fluidly rose and walked to Simon. She murmured to him, her hand on his arm and her lips near his ear, and he laughed appreciatively. Mal followed Kaylee's gaze to the catwalk and frowned at the display. Barking an order to pay attention, he tossed her the ball. She dribbled once, shot, and missed completely.


Kaylee whistled as she walked down the hallway, the cat alternately following and leading her. The endorphins from the game were still thick in her blood and a shower had left her muscles loose and relaxed. The jaunty spring in her step was interrupted as she paused outside Inara's shuttle, shrinking from the angry voices that slipped past the door. Mal, strident and stringent, insisted that he would not have his ship disrupted by Inara's business. She scoffed at the notion but he pressed on, asking if it was not business was it--he choked at "cao" and the harsh sound of flesh against flesh echoed. Kaylee stiffened, preparing to loose her ire the moment Mal stepped from the shuttle, but the blood against his upper lip shocked her indignation into dissipation.

She entered to find Inara massaging her knuckles and was shocked again as she realized that the companion had somehow overcome a lifetime of good manners to not slap but punch the captain. Immediately, Kaylee took the hand in her own and winced at the broken capillaries bleeding beneath the skin. Inara opened and closed the hand slowly, a blush at the violence coloring her face.

When Kaylee admitted to overhearing, Inara blanched and Kaylee realized that she had been the source of the argument, that not Jayne but Mal had noticed her abiding infatuation. Inara blushed darker and hurriedly filled Kaylee's cotton-mouthed silence with the explanation that Mal was mistaken, that she did not, that she would not, that she had no intention, that she never dreamed--

Gingerly, Kaylee laced her fingers with Inara's, guided the companion to the vanity, and flicked on the music box with her free hand. Inara curtsied and Kaylee giggled with relief as she returned the gesture and twined an arm around Inara's waist. The ballerina revolved, they twirled, and Kaylee found the world masterable.


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