PG-13; Kaylee/River; post-series
Spoilers: watch everything on the DVD set first
Summary: It's important to see the dawn from the wrong side, even just once.
A/N: (jitters) my first fic, eh? (points at Dira and Splash and Iuliamentis) Without them, I'd have a lot more fear. The best betas I could ask for.

Zodiacal Light

Kaylee sat on the dock, swinging her feet in lazy circles over the starlit water, allowing her toes to occasionally skim the surface. She'd left the bright lights and brighter laughter to come outside and brood.

brood is not your word

Brood was Wash's word for it. Kaylee just called it being alone and sad. Either way, she'd been brooding a lot lately, though it was against her nature. The crew didn't like it. Mal had taken to treating her like a small yappy dog in need of discipline, and sometimes that made her mad enough she thought about cheering up to spite him.

But then, the usual run of bad luck had left Mal in a situation where he needed Simon, and wouldn't risk anyone else. Except Wash, because no one else knew how to fly Serenity, and when Kaylee had tried to argue that no one else knew how to fix Serenity they all shouted her down. Mal had said they'd be a floating hulk in space before they risked her, too. So, the rest of them had come to the lake, where River had been recuperating with Simon to care for her and Jayne to guard them for the past month.

we missed you

The reunion hadn't stopped the brooding. Not seeing Simon, briefly, nor seeing River whole. Not even the question in Jayne's eyes, answered when Book took him aside and held a whispered conference at the other end of the dining room. Kaylee tried not to mind them using shipboard etiquette here, on the shores of a lake on a very solid planet. Ship etiquette only required that private conversations be held out of earshot, not out of visual range; so she had watched Book whispering to Jayne, and watched Jayne's eyes go wide and his lips mouth the question: "Inara?"


And Jayne, surprisingly, had not said anything to her about the situation. Yet. She was steeling herself for the moment, when he was bound to say something thoughtless and cruel. Thoughtless and cruel was Jayne's way.

And brooding was not her way. Yet, she brooded, even though she'd long known that the object of her affection was never going to return it. And that was okay. She wasn't altogether certain that she wanted it returned. Sometimes, to feel things that intensely... well, her daddy used to say, some wishes were too powerful to have filled.

some so powerful that your heart explodes

She lost an hour to the dark and the water and the starlight. The edge of the dock cut into the back of her thighs, and she shifted uncomfortably, thinking about going inside. She looked back at the house, saw the lights burning still and a few heads nodding in the window, engaged in lively conversation. They were all but having a party. No, she wasn't ready to face the crowd; that was an altogether different kind of lonely, especially when everyone couldn't be together.

a breath, a footstep

The loose wrought iron railing of the stairs rattled slightly. The padding sound of bare feet followed. Only one person at the house dared walk outside in darkness in bare feet. Kaylee didn't look around to confirm it was River, just sat still and watched the always-moving water and felt the dock sway slightly with River's passage.

"Hello," Kaylee said with forced brightness.

"Hey," River said, and her voice wasn't bright. Kaylee tried to adjust her mind to dealing with River--the new River, who was less full of fear and darkness and more something that Kaylee didn't know how to be friends with anymore.

she's afraid again

Kaylee was startled--almost electrified--when River put a hand on her shoulder and said, "You miss her, don't you?"

Tears threatened to close her throat, and Kaylee panicked briefly at the notion that she might cry in front of anyone, especially River, who was her hostess here, and just recently through her own troubles, and would probably think it was her own fault that Kaylee wasn't having a good time.

And also... "her?" What did River think she knew? What was River seeing in her?

I see...

The dock creaked as River sat down. She had taken her hand back, and Kaylee missed it. She was suddenly too aware of everything--the pain of the sharp edges of the dock on her legs, the pain of her tightly bound hair, the pain of her heart. But she wasn't going to give in to pain. She pushed it away, like she always did, and tried to answer River's question as neutrally as possible.

"Do I miss 'Nara? Of course I do." And she was pleased at her tone, all casual and unconcerned-like. "She was my friend."

River didn't say anything, and Kaylee was glad.

They watched the water and the stars.

"It's so dark." River sighed. "I always think I'm going to fall in the lake when I first come down here. But, eventually, you get used to what light there is, and you can see almost everything."

"I'm seeing okay now," Kaylee said, grateful for the subject change. The intensity of all the pains subsided, though she was aware that they were all still at the threshold, ready to crowd back in. If she moved her legs, she knew the places where the dock had dug into them were going to hurt much more than they did now.

They sat in silence for a while.

River fidgeted. She hadn't been still since the operation. Whenever Kaylee wondered if she knew how to sit still anymore, she reminded herself of all the days on Serenity when River had been so drugged she'd had no choice at all about her movements. And there were other days, too, days that she knew River didn't remember...

oh I remember

She was surprised that the new River knew how to be quiet, too, so maybe "quiet and still" was too much to ask of her. If she would just sit still, then... Kaylee startled herself with a sudden desire to put her head on River's shoulder and rest there for a moment. Like she would have with Inara.

I remember

And when she thought that, she felt two identical pains--the throb of a temple, where a tendril of hair was caught too tightly by her barrette, and the throb in her heart, where the object of her affection had, until recently, been caught too tightly. She thought of all the times when she'd sat like this with Inara, and had never once, not one single time, done more than rest her head on Inara's shoulder.


She sighed, and it almost became a sob. To cover that, she reached up and unclipped the barrette, and allowed the full weight of her hair to swing down, past her shoulders. Better. She had been growing it out since Inara had washed it one day, and had said she wondered what it would look like if it rained all the way down her back to her waist. Inara left before it passed her shoulders.

The badly pulled lock of hair hurt in a new way now, but it would subside. She rubbed at it, and almost she didn't hear the sudden intake of breath from River.

But she did hear it.

"River? You ok?" she asked, wondering if there was a spider or something, not that she knew River to be afraid of spiders, but Kaylee wasn't real partial.

"Fine," River said, and her voice was normal, calm. Kaylee looked over at her, and found River watching her. She self-consciously took her hand away from her head.


"Nothing," River said, but her voice was not normal, now. That tone of voice made Kaylee feel tangled up. There were layers to that tone of voice, complex layers, layers that were like all the ways you were supposed to be able to taste wine. Kaylee was no better at tasting wine than she was at reading people like the Tams.

"No, really, what?" she asked.

There was a pause. Kaylee didn't imagine it. River said, "I just really like your hair."

it's grown; it's past your shoulders; it's so long, you bind it, afraid it will get caught in machinery

"Yeah, well." She put a hand unconsciously up to it again. "I never do anything to it. No time..."

River made a noise in the back of her throat. It might have been a laugh.

"What?" Kaylee asked again, feeling self-conscious.

"It's ok. You're allowed to be beautiful."

"I'm... allowed?"

"You don't have to try to explain or justify it. You just are."

"My hair, maybe..."

"No, really. You."

She's being nice, Kaylee decided, because she feels sorry for me, out here all alone without Serenity, and with Inara gone off... and she's being nice.

yiqi shen huxi

"Sorry," River said now, so low that Kaylee thought she imagined it.


"'Cause. I'm bothering you, I suspect." Kaylee felt River shift her weight, ready to stand up and leave. "I bother everyone."

even all better is still too strange

"No!" And Kaylee surprised herself by catching River's hand and pinning it to the dock. She jerked her hand away as soon as River stilled, and returned it to her hair, massaging the aching spot.

And River stayed still. For a long moment. Until she reached up and pulled Kaylee's hand away from her hair, and began rubbing the sore temple for her. Her fingers were slow, gentle and utterly, utterly alien, and Kaylee felt the touch all the way inside, deep, pulling at something between her legs.

"Thanks," Kaylee said after a moment. "It feels..." she trailed off, torn between wanting River to go away and leave her alone, and wanting to ask her to stay forever. She swallowed convulsively, her mouth dry. "...real nice."

And then River leaned forward, and too late to react, Kaylee realized why. River's lips against hers were cool and gentle at first, and the pressure slight, but then, River used the hand in Kaylee's hair to tilt her face, pressing harder. She pulled back quickly. Kaylee whimpered slightly, without meaning to, and stared helplessly at the shadowed face before her.

"Is this ok?" River asked, her hand cradling Kaylee's head. She merely nodded, and closed her eyes as River took her lips again.

She opened her mouth for River, and her arms crept around River's slight frame. River's tongue touched Kaylee's upper lip, then slid inside her waiting mouth.

Unbidden, Kaylee's toes dipped down into the starlit water.

Kaylee's hand stole up River's ribcage, skipped her breast and came to rest flat on the side of her neck. She could feel the pulse throbbing there, and it frightened her. She pulled back a little, and River released her immediately.

fear... not my own

Kaylee's heels hit the surface of the lake with a splash, and they stared at each other, eyes shadowed in the pale starlight.

"Why'd you stop?" she asked.

"Why did you pull back?" River countered.

Kaylee had a thousand reasons, she figured, but none of them could be kindly given. "Why are you kissing me?"

"Because you're beautiful. And I've wanted to, for a long time. Since I was a girl in a box, and dreamed your dreams." River turned away and slid off the dock, plunging into the water.

"How?" was on the tip of her tongue, but River was underwater, and really, it wasn't a complete question.

I dreamed all your dreams, but yours were the ones that gave me comfort

From the house, there was a hoot. Kaylee to look: at the window, some of the others were waving and cheering. "Is it skinny-dipping time?" Jayne shouted. "We'll be right down!"

"You bring your trunks, Jayne Cobb," Kaylee hollered, stumbling to her feet.

River surfaced in the lake, and Kaylee stared at the seal-sleek head bobbing in the water. The narrow ridges where the dock had cut into her legs sprang to life and shouted with pain. She turned and hurried to the house.

"Kaylee," River called, but her words were lost in Jayne's jungle-yell as he came running past to leap into the lake.


It was hot upstairs, and Kaylee turned on the ceiling fan and crawled into bed naked. Sleeping was impossible, not with her thoughts and the stuffiness of the room. At least the place was dark, overhung with mature trees that blocked out most of daylight, let alone the incidental night lights here.

it's the middle of nowhere; that's why it's safe

She lay drowsing on her back, hands folded neatly across her tummy. Every muscle jerked to rigid attention when she heard the rattle of the doorknob.

Kaylee reached for the sheet and flung it over herself, just as the door opened. "Who's there?" she demanded.

"Shhh..." River said, and closed the door carefully behind her.

"What do you want?" she asked, lower this time.

I want...

"To say I'm sorry."

Kaylee sat up, pulling the sheet with her. "What for?"

I want...

"For..." It sounded like a shrug, but there was also a shiver.

"You're cold? But it's so hot," Kaylee said, striving for a normal tone.

I want...

"Lake," River said. "The temperature difference is brutal."

"It's hot in here."

"Not hot enough." She laughed. "That wasn't a come-on."

Kaylee didn't say anything. River cracking sex-jokes was a strange bird, one she didn't know how to handle.

false step

She must have sensed Kaylee's dismay. "I'll leave," River said. "And I am sorry."

"For what, though? Kissing me?"


"So, why'd you do it?"

River laughed, a little too loudly, then clapped a hand over her mouth. She mumbled, "Nah. That's privileged information."

am I drunk? or just crazy again?

Kaylee felt both fear and rising ire. Fear that River still had a little crazy left in her. Ire that another Tam was using her again. "You don't get to put your tongue in my mouth and call the reasons for it 'privileged information,' River Tam."

"I'm not Simon," River said mildly.

Kaylee blinked into the darkness. "I know you ain't Simon."

"I can see how you'd be confused, though. I think... I think he did things I wanted to do. Back on Serenity. And it confused you, because it wasn't him."

Kaylee didn't feel quite as gut-punched as she had when Inara left them, but she was having a hard time breathing. Her voice quavered on the one word she could manage: "What--?" But she clamped down on the words that followed, and tightened her grip on her knees.

She was surprised to hear the regret in River's voice. "I've ruined our friendship, haven't I?"

how can you doubt I'd regret it?

Kaylee gulped air, fighting tears.

The floorboards creaked as River shuffled her weight from foot to foot.

"Shh," Kaylee said finally. "Sit down. You'll wake everyone."

"They're all down at the dock, still." But she sat. The bed was old, and seemed inclined to tumble them together, until River stretched out and lay down with her head at the foot of the bed, redistributing her weight.

Kaylee mastered herself, and searched for the right thing to say, to get River to explain. "You... feeling ok, River?"

I can't explain

"Why wouldn't I be?"

"Well, we're here, practically back to your home."

come to the cottage with us, mu qin

"Mother hated the summer cottage. Said it was uncivilized. We never came here."


"Never with her. Our father brought us. Sometimes Mother needed a break." River's voice was calm, but Kaylee could hear a wistful note. "But only twice. Which is why Simon thought it would be safe here, for the recuperation."

"It reminds you of your childhood," Kaylee suggested.

"Doesn't it remind you of us?" River said. "Antique furniture warping under the wet of bathing suits and collecting sand. How can we not think of the wonderful Tams here?"

Kaylee was silent.

River sighed. "I'm still a little fey at times. I understand. Off-putting. Not a very girl-like girl. It gets lonely in my head." There was an odd drumming sound from River's midsection. Kaylee realized River was tapping a beat on her tummy. Her bare tummy?

"So, you're lonely, and you kissed me." Kaylee said it flatly, accusatorily. She had played this game with Simon, once. Or maybe she'd been playing it with River all along. Who knew?

kiss me again

River didn't say anything for a long moment. Through the open windows, the faintest echoes of splashing and laughter could be heard, over the lapping of the lake.

Kaylee pondered her next move. She wasn't going to accept anything less than honesty from River, not at this point, and silence wouldn't cut it either. She considered and discarded a host of things to say, until River said, "I had this picture in my head."

"What of?"

"The way growing up was supposed to be."

"How does that picture look?" Kaylee asked.

"It's like that Audrey Hepburn film."

I've lost her; she's never called them films a day in her life

River paused, then started again. "You go out partying all night, one night, in your best black dress, and you bring your sunglasses, because you know that you'll be awake at dawn, window-shopping and eating croissants on the street of a big city. And that's how you know you're a grown-up. Alone, sophisticated and jaded. It's important to see the dawn from the wrong side, even just once."

"And that's not how growing up was for you?"

"No, of course not. I missed growing up, by being crazy."

"You went to that place. Where they changed you..."

I brought it on myself

"And you think it was my choice. Well, you're right. It was my choice. I didn't want to grow up like Mother wanted me to grow up. White gloves and contra dances. I wanted to grow up like Simon, doing important things in a big building somewhere."

"And it didn't work out like that," Kaylee said softly.

"No, it didn't." She was quiet for a moment. "If I grew up, I missed it completely. I've never seen the dawn in a big city, wearing my best black dress and eating croissants. And I never will."

I don't even have a black dress

"You got some decided notions of how things are supposed to go," Kaylee said.

"I do," River agreed. "But sometimes they're just metaphors." The drumming noise on her midsection increased. Kaylee reached over and put her fingers down on top of River's. The coolness of her skin was startling; the temperature difference between lake and air apparently was brutal.

River's fingers flipped over and curled around Kaylee's.

Neither of them said anything.

"What is it?" River asked, finally. "It's plain you're brooding on some dark thoughts."

Kaylee hadn't been thinking of anything but the textures of River's skin for the past few moments, and didn't know how to answer. "You mean, earlier."

"You were alone on the dock for hours."

almost alone

Kaylee shrugged.

I'm always here

River took her hand away from Kaylee's, and raised it above her head. Her whole body stretched beneath Kaylee's hand; muscles shifted beneath flesh and shook slightly. Kaylee laid her hand flat against the cool, bare midriff, but otherwise stayed still, not moving her hand any higher or--

River flipped over, onto her stomach.

Kaylee pulled her hand back.

no, I'm sorry, don't stop; touch me

"You don't have to tell me anything, of course. Which you know," River added. Her words were slightly distorted, and Kaylee realized she was lying with her cheek pressed against her arms. "Even though you probably told Inara everything."

"I..." Kaylee trailed off. "I still do. We write letters."

"Right." The tone was dismissive. Derisive. Jealous?

"What, exactly, do you want from me?" Kaylee asked, feeling defensive.

The bed shook as River sat up. "What do I want--?" She grabbed for Kaylee in the dark, awkwardly grabbing hold of a long lock of hair and Kaylee's upper arm at the same time. "I want this. I want this, with you."

"Friendship? Talking in the dark?" She asked the questions defiantly, daring River to say more.

"Those things, too." The shift in River's weight came quickly, and suddenly, Kaylee was falling back, taking River back with her in her arms, their mouths joining.

too real

Too real, Kaylee thought, her heart hammering in her chest. Suddenly, this just became way too real.

too real


Hours later, Kaylee woke to utter silence. The room was dark, and the lake outside the window was still. Not a peep in the house.

No breathing beside her.

She woke, lying on her stomach. She remembered reverting to her usual position before falling asleep--lying on her stomach, clutching her pillow. River had laughed a little, and stretched out beside her, on her side, and stroked her back, shoulder to buttocks, over and over until they both slept. Right before she had slipped into sleep, River had laughed again, and said something. Kaylee couldn't remember it though; hadn't even been sure what language it was.

Where was River?

She threw on shorts and a shirt and crept down the stairs, listening for anything, any clue that there was anyone awake and alert in the house. River's room was on the ground floor. Maybe she'd gone back there...

Kaylee tried not to think of how that would make her feel.

River's bedroom door was cracked. Kaylee tapped lightly on the frame. "River?" she whispered. No answer. She went in, listening, and heard no breathing.

I'm here

Some compulsion drew Kaylee to the window overlooking the lake. A greenish moon was on the eastern horizon, filtered through the trees and showing a female figure, faintly silhouetted on the dock.

Kaylee wasted no time, and padded quickly down to the dock.

River didn't turn to look at her. Kaylee sat down beside her.

"River? Why'd you leave?" she asked softly.

River didn't answer for a moment, intent on drawing figure-8's in the surface of the water with her toes. "I saw light from your window. I thought it was dawn."

Kaylee squinted at the sky of stars above her, dimming with the rising of the moon. "Maybe that moon?"

"No. It was before that."

"False dawn, maybe?"

"False dawn. Zodiacal light. Reflected sunlight from the debris field leftover from the formation of a planet."

Kaylee smiled. "I should've known you'd know."

River said nothing, and Kaylee grew afraid.

"So, what about dawn scared you away from me, River? Afraid someone would see?" She pulled her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs. Self-protecting, she decided. Because two layers of limbs was enough to protect anyone.

there's never enough to protect anyone

River sighed. "Yes."

"I see," Kaylee said, striving to keep the pain from her voice.

"Mal and Simon and Wash and Serenity. They'll be back with the dawn," River said.

Kaylee struggled to understand. "Did we get a wave last night?"

"No. I just know," River said, looking skyward. "And... We can't get their hopes up."

"Their hopes?"

"Mal loves you. Loves me. Loves us. He can see us together, now I'm not broken."

"He what?" Kaylee felt her jaw slacken with surprise, and she lost her grip on her knees. Her legs slid forward, and her feet came off the dock into the water with a plop.

blind girl, foolish girl

"But not for all the tea in Yueh Goei will there be anything else between us if you don't love me." River's voice was flat, angry almost. Kaylee felt a shiver run through her body, bigger than the shivers caused by River's touch.

Kaylee stayed still. Still and quiet, not sure of her next move. Saying the wrong thing now would be disastrous.

"I know you don't love me," River said, and now her voice was soft and regretful.

And that was true. For now. Kaylee slid her hand into River's and squeezed.

"You have to give me a chance," Kaylee said. "You sort of..."

"Attacked. I know. I'm sorry."

I'm a weapon. I don't know the rules.

"A few months ago, you weren't exactly sane, River."

River did an admirable job keeping the hurt away from her voice, but Kaylee could hear it there anyway. "It wasn't exactly my choice."

"I know. It ain't even fair for me to bring it up."

"Oh, yes it is. You're afraid I'll go crazy again." River tried to extricate her hand from Kaylee's. But Kaylee's fingers were far stronger, and she used them, holding River firmly but gently.

"No! I know Simon fixed you, right and proper."

"And I know you had a crush on my brother," River said, and this time Kaylee let her fingers go.

yu ben de

Kaylee wondered if it was an ability built into the Tam genetic code, to be able to crush her soul so quickly and in such a few words. Thankfully, as both Mal and her daddy had pointed out to her, she didn't know how to stay damaged. But she did stay quiet, thinking about River's words.

River didn't like silence, which Kaylee had known for some time.

she sees into me...

River's hand was suddenly in her hair, fingers electric once more. "I'm sorry. I've got..."

"No call to pick a fight with me," Kaylee said mildly, and leaned towards River and kissed her fiercely, moving closer to her so their bodies touched at hip and knee and shoulder. "It's not always going to be like that, you know. You attacking me."

She could feel the surprise through River's whole body, and wanted nothing more than to take her to bed for a week and learn all the ways River communicated without speaking.

wo ai ni

But there were issues to work out before that could happen.

"Two questions," Kaylee murmured, before releasing River. "First, what did you say to me right before I went to sleep?"

"I quoted... poetry."

"What, Sappho?" Kaylee asked, with humor.

you learned that from Inara

"No. Sophocles. Not really poetry. A line from the Greek chorus."

"Tell me."

"'The maid proves herself the passionate child of a passionate sire, and knows not how to bend before trouble.'" Kaylee felt River's shrug, an apology for the Greek.

"Oh. I like your Greek-quoting ways, you know."

River laughed. "Good. They're the ways I've got, after all. What's the second question?"

"Why'd you run away from my bed, xin gan?"

She felt River's laughter drain away, felt her squirm a little at the question. Kaylee straightened her shoulders, feeling older, wiser, more sure of herself: all the ways she had always imagined that Inara to feel.

"I didn't want you to be uncomfortable," River began, and it was like Kaylee could feel the lie in her body.

"No," Kaylee said. "No, that wasn't even it. No lies, River."

River's squirming got worse, until suddenly she went completely still. Kaylee knew she would get the truth now.

"I... hoped I could get away, and find out I was over it."

"Over it?"

"Over you," River said slowly, each word reluctant.

"Being requited, it'd just fade away?" Kaylee forced herself to not tense up, to not communicate unhappiness through her body. Bad enough if River could read her mind.

River didn't answer.

"I'll do you the kindness of not assuming that it's because I'm not good enough for the Tams."

River was clearly startled by the notion; her whole body jumped. Kaylee thought she finally understood what it was like to be able to read someone's mind.

close, mei-mei, but not close

"No!" River said. "No! Don't you see? It was the only thing that was left from before, from the crazy time. The only thing I couldn't explain. Wanting you."

The pain in River's voice was too much; Kaylee wrapped one arm around River's waist, and held her tightly.

"No, I don't really see," Kaylee said. "Not completely. But I... you came outside to face the dawn, to see if you were over it. If you had grown up. With your black dress and your window-shopping and such. Metaphor-like."

"Yeah. Metaphorically."

Kaylee carefully didn't pull back, didn't stiffen her posture or communicate with her body the pang of fear that went through her. "And how did that work out for you?" she asked, polite as ever.

River laughed, and put her head in her hands. "I've been awake all night, practically." I've been awake forever "How do you expect a rational answer?"

"I expect you to be more honest, actually, not so worried about rational. Who wants rational, anyway?" And she didn't try to control the bitterness on that word. Rational had been Inara's argument for moving on.

"Who indeed?" River asked. "You don't love me. And that's the crux of it. I need to get over you."

"Who says?" Kaylee asked. "Who says love is like that, a switch that just goes on and off? That if I don't now, that I never will? That if I don't, I also don't want to? And that if I don't, you can't love me?"

"I say," River said. "I can't leave myself open to that kind of hurt."

like the kind Inara gave you

"Well, you have to," Kaylee said, and her voice trembled suddenly with unshed tears. "You've come this far, and I say you got to give me that chance."

Her voice rang across the quiet water of the lake, and she realized that she'd lost control. She shook with emotions she didn't know how to name, didn't even recognize. River's arms came around her, and they sat together until they both became still and silent again.

silent and still again

"Let's go inside," River said, kissing her forehead gently. "Back to bed."

"Not yet," Kaylee said, sitting up a little.


"No." Kaylee twined her fingers with her lover's and smiled. "Let's wait together for the dawn."

gracious host - ::: updated July 14, 2004
disclaimer (nothing here is mine, and I'm not here anyway)

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