Grumbling and adjusting his suspenders on a fresh pair of trousers, Mal strode into the mess. Simon, Kalyee, and Inara were gathered at the table now, sharing breakfast. They were all trying their best and failing miserably to suppress grins as he entered. He glowered at the bunch, daring them to make any sort of comment, and then headed into the galley.
"You ladies mind if I have a word with the doctor in private?" he asked as he poured water from the kettle into his cup. It was not really a question but an order.
"Of course not, Mal," Inara rose politely, though the grin was still on her face. She took her breakfast and headed towards the door. Kaylee followed, giving Simon a quick peck on the forehead as she passed.
"Gonna be hittin' atmo in afew hours," Mal stopped her at the doorway. "Make sure she's all ready."
"Aye, aye Cap'n Pansy-pants." Giggling mischeviously, Kaylee bolted for the engine room before Mal could shout anything in retort. Simon stifled a laugh and received a hard glare. The doctor quickly tried to reorient himself into a semblance of seriousness but could not quite completely dismiss the amusement from his face. Mal gave him a moment more to recover, scooping some tea into his cup and stirring it before he settled down at the opposite end of the table.
"Wanted to have a quick talk about River," he started.
"She's a teenage girl," Simon began to defend his sister immediately.
"Not about the paint," Mal cut him off. "I wanted to tell you that she's comin' with me to the meet tonight." Simon's mouth opened, but Mal silenced him with a gesture. "Now before you get all riled, hear me out. I know things didn't go quite so well the last time she came 'long on a job. Some unpleasantries were exchanged afterward," he flexed his jaw, remembering one in particular. "But all that's long past."
"You nearly got her savaged by Reavers that time," protested Simon.
"That ain't likely to happen again," Mal parleyed. "Your sister and the Alliance saw to that."
"And if I remember correctly, you threatened to throw us off if I didn't let her go," Simon accused, refusing to drop the issue.
"Well, things is a might different now, if you hadn't noticed. For one, y'all are part of my crew, and you weren't before. But that also means you gotta take my orders, whether you like 'em or not. She's got her own responsibilities on this ship now as I decide are suitable for her, and this is one of 'em." Simon opened his mouth to retort, but stopped short, and Mal knew he had him there. His and River's promotion to full crew members came at the cost of any standing Simon had to challenge Mal's authority over the two of them. That was taking the doctor some time to adjust to. He disliked the notion, to be sure, but his respect for the rules left him no real recourse. He simmered futilely, but that was all he could do. "Second, she's eighteen now," Mal carried on. "That's legal adult. You ain't in charge of what she can and can't do no more."
"But she still needs someone to look after her," Simon objected. "She doesn't know enough about crime and the circles you run in, even after being on this boat as long as she has."
"Oh, and you do? So if I asked you to come along, you'd do better 'n her?" With a sigh, Simon conceded that point as well. Mal sipped his tea before making his final argument. "Lastly, she asked me if she could come."
"She asked you?"
"Yes, she asked me. I was debatin' the idea beforehand, but when she brought it up this morning, I said yes." Mal was pretty sure that would seal the deal for his side. Simon would no doubt view River's initiative as a sign of her improvement, so no matter how uncomfortable he was about her desire to go, he would be even more unwilling to take that choice away from her. The doctor looked like he was about to give in, but then his gaze shifted over Mal's shoulder. Mal turned around and found River watching them from just outside the doorway. He sent her a look to urge her on her way. She remained a second longer before disappearing down the forward stairs. He gave it a space to make sure she was gone before turning back to Simon.
"I don't know, Mal," Simon's acceptance wavered now. "After last night…"
"I know. I admit it aroused my concerns, too," Mal said, checking over his shoulder one more time. He did not know precisely the range of River's reading ability, but he reckoned it was no more than earshot. Either way, he did not want her to be privy to the next part of the conversation, so he leaned a little closer over the table and lowered his voice. "That's why I'm takin' precautions. I want you to teach me the safe word. If somethin' like last night happens again, I think I can handle her. But if she fa feng completely, well, it'll be just like the Maidenhead, and that's precisely the kind of attention I'd like to avoid. "
"I don't like it," Simon shook his head, reluctant. "We don't know how many of those subliminal triggers are still out there. Anything could set her off."
"Well, that's a chance I gotta take. Ving's never given me no reason to distrust him, but a lot can change a person in three years. She might be of use. I'd rather have her along than not."
"Even if it means putting her at risk?"
"Hang on, did you just get déjà vu?" asked Mal as he sat back. Simon continued to balk. "You're not gonna win me over on this, Doc. And you're certainly not gonna dissuade your sister. She seemed determined," he grinned a bit. "You try and stop her and she'd put you on your back quicker 'n you could spit, as I recall."
"Okay, fine," Simon relented.
"Think of it this way, you said this ship was her home, and we're her family now. I'm just lettin' her be a contributin' member."
"Most families aren't involved in smuggling and running from the law."
"So we're a mite dysfunctional." Mal drained his cup. "Now, how does this safe word work?"
River hovered at the top of the stairs, apprehensive. She was curious as to how the conversation with her brother was going back in the dining area, but Mal had obviously not wanted her to intrude. She dutifully moved on, but this was as far as she had gotten. Simon's concern over her going on the job was just a distraction anyway. The real reason for her nervousness was something else entirely. Even though she had been mulling it over for a while now, well before the captain had considered taking her with him, it still surprised her how much effort it took to get herself up to this task. But now that she was going along on the job, it was all the more reason to do it. Standing there, she chided herself for her lack of discipline, yet she still did not more. Why was such a simple, reasonable thing so intimidating? People did it all the time, regularly in fact, and for far less sensible motives that she had. It was not like it was going to change who she was, turn her into someone else. That was a silly notion, of course, but a small corner of her mind clung to that irrational fear. It held more clout that she would have thought. She paced a little, her resolve wavering.
No, I have to go through with it. Don't have a choice. With a determined breath, she descended the stairs before her doubts had a chance to arrest her again. Entering the common area she found Inara there, curled on the couch stirring a cup of tea. The Companion wore a simple black dress with a blue silk stole draped over her shoulders like a shawl. Her dark curls were piled haphazardly on her head. The way the captain likes, River thought. Even though she had probably just gotten out of bed, she still managed to look elegant.
"Good morning, River," Inara flashed a smile in greeting.
"Good morning." River hesitated, unsure once again. "I… I'm sorry. I don't want to bother you…but I… I wanted to ask you something," she stammered.
"Of course," Inara invited her question warmly. River bit her lip and looked at her feet, her hands fidgeting, before she finally forced the words out.
"Can you cut my hair?" Inara gave her a blank look of surprise. "I didn't know if it was part of… of what you do," River added quickly.
"Oh, um… well, actually, it is, in a way," said Inara, recovering. She unfurled her legs, sitting up and setting her tea on the table. "Companions are trained in all the arts of beauty so we can make ourselves most appealing for a client. But, why do you want your hair cut?" she asked the obvious question.
"I'm going with the captain on the job. I don't want to be recognized."
"Oh. Mal is dragging you along, is he?"
"No. I want to go. This is my idea," River raised her eyes and tried to sound resolute.
"Okay. Well, sit down and let's talk," Inara patted the couch next to her. "Did you have something in mind?"
"I think it should be shorter," River murmured as she sat. "Yes, that sounds right. Doesn't it?" She searched Inara's face for guidance.
"Well, that depends on what you want."
"I don't know. I haven't cut it in so long. It's always been…" she held up a loose strand. "Ever since I… I just want it different."
"Shorter is a start." Inara reached out and stroked her hair with a reassuring smile. "How about we go from there?"
"Okay," River nodded.
"Why don't you have a seat in a chair and…" Inara started to rise, but River grabbed her arm.
"Can you do it in your room?" she asked. Then she looked away, color flushing her neck. "I… I don't want anyone to see."
"It's okay to be a little nervous," Inara said, easing back down next to her. "It's been a long time." River felt the Companion's gentle assurance radiating with her smile, and it was as much a comfort as her words. She nodded, returning the smile awkwardly. "Come," Inara took her hand. River rose and followed her towards the passenger dorm. They picked up a chair from the commons along the way and carried it into the Companion's small room. Inara beckoned River to sit and then turned to rustle through her lone storage trunk of belongings. She shook out one of her robes and draped it backwards over River's shoulders. "Now, I need to find some scissors and something we can wash your hair with first," she said. "I'll be right back. In the meantime, you can think a little bit more about what you would like me to do with it." She slipped out, closing the door and leaving River to her thoughts.
River glanced around at the familiar corners of the room. This same cabin had once been hers. Now it served as Inara's temporarily residence. In the aftermath of Miranda, they had not had the chance to return the Companion to her training house yet. However, she knew Inara was ambivalent about leaving again. River could not quite comprehend why, though she knew it had much to do with Mal. However, trying to follow the complex interplay between the two of them was confusing even for a reader. She could understand Simon and Kaylee's relationship, as awkward as it had been at first, but Mal and Inara she could not fathom. They spent most of their time either oblivious to their feelings or fighting them outright, yet they obviously cared for each other. That did not seem like love to her. But what did she know? For all her knowledge and awareness, love, at least the romantic kind, was something she was still fairly ignorant about. Sensuality, lust, and desire, these were not difficult to comprehend. They were physical needs of the body expressed as emotions. But the happiness and joy, the contentment, that sense of belonging to another in such an intimate way, it was something she had only experienced second-hand. No one was happier than her for Simon and Kaylee, but mixed in with that gladness was a tiny sliver of jealousy as well. She could not help but wonder if she would ever experience what they had. Or maybe the Academy had taken that from her, too.
Inara hurried upstairs to find some supplies for her sudden makeshift salon. Although the request was unexpected, she thought it was a rather good sign that River had the desire to alter her appearance. Maybe it was a symbolic way of taking control of her life again after so long under the influence of what the Academy had done to her. In that case, Inara did not want to disappoint the girl. She was going to have to improvise, though, and she hoped she could do a decent enough job with what was available. In the empty dining area, she rifled through the cubbies until she found the small pot she often used to boil water for tea. It would serve well enough as a pitcher. Unfortunately, there was nothing any larger than that to act as a catch basin. She pondered on what else she could use for a moment, and decided there might be something in the infirmary. She needed to see about some scissors as well, and that was also the most likely place to score a pair. With cookware in hand, she headed back downstairs. Along the way she could not help but think how much more convenient this would be if she was still renting her old shuttle. Everything she needed would have been right there. That thought quickly led to the uncomfortable reminder that she had not waved the training house yet. Serenity had been repaired and flying for almost two months now, so it was not like she had not had the opportunity. But she had been honest when Mal asked her if she was ready to return, and two months later she was still not sure. Despite the trauma of Miranda, or perhaps because of it, she had grown even more attached to Serenity. Even though her best sense told her she should, she did not know if she wanted to leave again. Often enough she found herself in moments like this, wishing she was back in her old role aboard the ship. It did not sound so hard, but her sudden disappearance from the House, coinciding with the arrival of an Alliance Operative, were certainly going to raise some questions from both a personal and professional standpoint. If she wanted to remain in good standing with the Guild, those would have to be dealt with sooner or later. At the very least, though, she owed Sheydra the courtesy of a wave. Her friend had to be worried about her and would be relieved to know that she was safe. She would just have to explain that she needed some more time before returning. The only problem was she was not sure she could even explain it to herself.
Reaching the infirmary, she put aside her musings for another time. Per usual, Simon was there attending to one thing or another, and she put on a pleasant face as she glided in.
"Good morning, Simon," she greeted.
"Oh, good morning."
"I was wondering if I could borrow a few things from you."
"I guess that depends on what it is. We're running short on some things, but I'll do my best. What do you need?" Inara browsed the infirmary as if she was shopping. She spied a basin and grabbed it.
"This will do."
"Okay…" Simon watched her askance.
"Do you have some scissors? Sharp ones, preferably."
"Yes. They're surgical shears," Simon produced the scissors from a drawer.
"Perfect," Inara reached for them, but Simon did not hand them over.
"What do you need them for?"
"Feminine things," she flashed a coy smile in response.
"Uh, like what, exactly?"
"Simon, women are a mystery. Do you think I'll tell you our secrets just because you asked?" She plucked the shears from his grasp while he stood by looking perplexed. Then she strode out of the infirmary in a swirl of silk.
"Wait… have you seen River?" Simon called after her a moment later. "I saw her come downstairs a while ago."
"Yes, she's in my room."
"Oh. I wanted to talk to her."
"We're occupied at the moment," Inara turned with a smile that was pleasant and as much a barrier against intrusion as a solid steel wall.
"Oh," confusion clouded the doctor's face again. "Um… what are you doing?"
"Like I said, feminine things. You wouldn't be interested." Simon's brow wrinkled up tight and she could guess what was going through his mind. Despite the curiosity which must have been eating him up, she knew he was too embarrassed to ask for more details, and too proper to snoop on his own. It was quite a dilemma for him, and she only just managed to keep from laughing. "I'll send her to you when we're done," she smiled graciously and slipped into her room, shuttering the door behind her.
"I think I managed to convince Simon to leave us in peace for a while," Inara said when she returned. River caught the gist of what happened from her thoughts and laughed. Simon was a prude most of the time.
"Thank you," she replied.
"Let's get started." Inara dimmed the lights. "Just to help you relax," she explained. "Now, lay your head back a little." River felt the gentle pressure of the Companion's hands on her temples, guiding her head. They were warm, soft, and smelled lovely. Protecting her face, Inara poured some of the pot of water over her hair. Her head grew heavy as the water soaked in. While her hair dripped into the basin, Inara fussed with something behind her back. River heard her hands rubbing together and a fragrance she identified as jasmine touched her nose. Then the Companion began gently kneading her scalp. "I have done this for clients on occasion," Inara mentioned as she rubbed. "Some find it highly relaxing and sensual." River completely understood why. Her eyes closed as she melted into Inara's gentle scrubbing. After a few moments, another pot-full of water streamed over her head. She felt the gentle tug as Inara wrung her hair out and then draped the wet strands over her shoulders.
"Now," Inara considered, coming around her, "I think we should keep a little length. Maybe just about here." She slipped two fingers around a strand to show what she had in mind. "That way if you decide you don't like it, you still have options." River nodded, going along with the Companion's assessment. "Are you sure you want to do this?" Inara asked one last time.
"Yes," River affirmed. The Companion disappeared behind her again, and with the soft snip of the scissors, began carving away the strands. River envisioned each lock falling away. Every little bit was a part of her. It's dead. Just a chain of protein molecules, she rationalized. However, she could not help but feel like a snake shedding its skin, or a cygnet molting into a swan. She wondered what she would find underneath, and found the prospect both thrilling and scary.
"Kaylee has been spending a lot of time with your brother lately, hasn't she?" Inara started making conversation.
"Yes." River did her best not to intrude on Simon and Kaylee, but it was hard not to catch flashes of things she was not supposed to see or hear. She never said anything. It did not embarrass her, and Kaylee did not seem too concerned, but Simon would be mortified if he found out. "Kaylee likes him very much. I don't think he understands."
"It looks like he likes her very much, too."
"Yes, but he still worries about me. He can't be with her like he should because he has to watch out for me."
"It's not your fault, sweetie. You shouldn't blame yourself."
"He does," her response turned distant and cool, her shoulders drooping just a bit. River knew Simon would never intentionally fault her for keeping him from Kaylee. But on some subconscious level that he was not aware of, he did. "I kept him from her for so long. He wasn't able to see it. When you care for someone, you should be able to tell them, right?"
"Yes, I suppose you should. But life doesn't always work out that way," Inara's response carried the weight of experience.
"Like for you and the captain?" River uttered and Inara abruptly stopped clipping. A mild storm of emotions from the Companion battered her and she winced a little. She had spoken without considering that she was violating Inara's privacy by doing so, and Inara was more than a little upset. "I'm sorry. I… I didn't mean to," River apologized awkwardly.
"It's all right," Inara answered after a long second of uncomfortable silence. "My profession makes it complicated to have a… more than a limited relationship with anyone," the Companion explained, soothing her anger down while she resumed clipping. The conversation dwindled into silence again and River berated herself for her lack of discretion. Why did she have to feel everything? Why was she able to tear apart what should have been the mind's armor, shattering it into scything blades that cut and slashed? And yet she had no armor of her own. She was always vulnerable, always open. It was not fair. She never wanted to be like this. But they didn't leave me a choice.
Closing her eyes, she swallowed her pain down and called into her mind the image of her recently painted room. She carefully reconstructed each blossom and vine from memory, but instead of lifeless drawings on the walls, she brought them to life in a sunlit garden. She let her imagination flesh out the vision fully, adding the play of shadows and delicate fragrances carried on a light breeze. Forgetting outside reality for a while, she let her imaginary self stroll through the garden, feeling the damp grass between her toes, while cataloging each of the flowers she had planted there. Here was a place of peace where she did not have to worry about stumbling through others' thoughts or being confronted by apparitions from her past. It was a technique she had taught herself at the Academy, and it was one of the only things that managed to keep her from going completely insane during her tortuous stay.
"Well, I think it's about done," Inara's words broke her trance after an indefinite space. The interruption was mildly jarring, so deeply had she ensconced herself in the vision. She blinked her eyes several times, disoriented as the vibrant colors and scents faded into ghostly afterimages. "Are you all right?" Inara asked, noticing her disorientation. River nodded in silence. "I don't have a mirror, but you can use the one in the latrine," Inara suggested. As she whipped off the robe and shook it out, River rose from the chair and hurried out of the room. She went to the latrine and closed the door. Standing before the mirror in the closet-sized room, she kept her head down for a few moments, still trying to settle herself back into reality. Even after she felt solid again, she did not look up right away. She realized she was stalling. She was actually a little afraid to see how she looked.
Don't be foolish. Look, she ordered herself. Taking a deep breath, she forced her eyes to the mirror… and gasped. The transformation was radical. About ten centimeters of her hair was missing. It reached to just above her shoulders now. Without the extra length to weigh it down, more of its natural wave came out, framing her face with dark ripples. But the real shock was what it did to her overall appearance. She looked older and more mature, much more like a young woman than the girl she was used to seeing.
"Is it all right?" Inara called from outside a moment later.
"Yes, I think so," she replied with uncertainty through the door, still staring at her reflection. She could not get over how much different it made her look. She chanced a small smile, and was even more shocked at how it transformed her. She was looking at someone else, someone new. But that was what she had wanted, right? She smiled more broadly, then laughed at the absurdity of it all, the tension of a few moments ago dissipating.
"River? Do you like it?"
"What does she like?" she heard Simon ask.
"I think your brother would like to see." River could almost hear the suppressed smile that had to be on Inara's face, and butterflies danced in her stomach.
What will he think? There was only one way to find out. She turned to the latrine door and cracked it open just slightly, then a little more, and a little more. Finally she emerged, standing very awkwardly in the doorway.
"River… wow." Simon's comment was sparse, but the reaction on his face set her beaming.
"It looks beautiful," Inara concurred. "It complements your face perfectly."
"Yes, it looks… great," was all her brother could muster, but she knew he meant it.
"Thank you. Do you think it's enough?" she asked Inara.
"Yes. I think it makes you look like a different person." River beamed even wider.
"It really does," Simon agreed. "Uh, why did do it?" Although it was couched carefully, River sensed the undercurrent of ambivalence his question carried about her decision.
"I thought if I was going on the job with the captain, I should try not to be recognized," she explained.
"Oh. Good idea," said her brother with a genuine smile, obviously relieved of whatever his concern had been.
"River, you wanna come on up to the bridge?" the captain's voice interrupted them, crackling over the intercom. With another smile for each of them, River took off up the stairs.
She passed Jayne coming out of his bunk as she practically skipped across the foredeck. He stopped and swiveled his head to follow her darting form.
"What the… whoa, girl! What've you done to yourself?" River spun around, walking backwards for a few steps so Jayne could get a good look at her.
"Can't you tell?" she lilted. Jayne screwed up his face, rubbing the stubble on his chin.
"I don't know. Can't put my finger on it, but you done somethin' alright. Look different. Don't hardly look like you no more." She rolled her eyes at him and leaped up the bridge stairs.
"Captain," she greeted and slid into the copilot's seat.
"There you are. We're… whoa!" he jerked back when he saw her. She grinned. "You cut your hair."
"Yep." She started activating her displays.
"Huh. Who did it for you?"
"Inara cuts hair?" Mal asked. She shrugged. "Well, what inspired the… ah, change?"
"I thought it might make it harder for anyone to recognize me, since I'm going with you."
"Well, I'd say it worked. Hardly look like the same person."
"Thank you," she glowed at his remark.
"Now, pay attention," Mal shifted to all business. "We're comin' up on Paquin. I ain't gonna let you land us, but you're gonna watch and learn. First, you got your port procedures, then your entry, and finally the touchdown. Each one of them's important and you don't wanna forget…" Although she knew very well how to land the ship, she let Mal have his fun at playing teacher. He droned on the entire way to the surface.
"Here you are. Thank you," Inara handed the shears and basin she had borrowed back to Simon. He was still standing around the commons, looking like he was trying to puzzle something out.
"That was what you meant by 'feminine things?' Cutting her hair?" he asked her as he took the items.
"What else did you think I meant to do with scissors?"
"I… well, uh…" Simon stammered, blushing. She shook her head with a knowing smile and started for her room. "Inara," his call stopped her and she turned politely. "I wanted to ask… I mean, I know it's not really my business, but… well it sort of is…" He shifted uncomfortably and she waited for him to sort out his words from his embarrassment. "Has she… River, I mean… ever come to you, you know... with… about… anything?" Inara held a level gaze at him for a few seconds, causing him to redden again. Then she smiled confidently.
"A Companion does not discuss her clients, Simon." She turned and continued on to her room, leaving the doctor with a mindful of unanswered questions.