Title: Today Is
Author: Lokaia
A/N: Twelfth in a series of thirty for the LJ community, 30Kisses.
Disclaimer: Firefly is not mine, nor do I want it. Then I wouldn't be oh-so-pleasantly surprised with every lovely little twist and turn of it.


Today is a bad day. She can tell by the way her head feels crowded when she wakes up in the morning. Crowded and tight, the sensation moving down from her head to her throat to her chest. But by the time it's reached her stomach, Kaylee is pulling her into Inara's shuttle.

They wrap her up in fabric. They smooth out her hair and pile it into a knot on her head. They paint over her face and place a mask over it that leaves only her eyes uncovered. They put stockings on her legs and heels on her feet. They put jewelry around her neck, her wrists. They take white flowers that match the pattern on her dress and put them in her hair.

"Gardenias," Inara explains with a smile as soft as her voice.

It quiets her head. She isn't quite sure what to make of it, remembering her instructions but not remembering this sensation. They aren't dressing her up - they're putting a new person on top of her. She's still crowded, but what they create on top? The woman in the mirror with the curved figure, dark-lined eyes, striking features even though they're covered by a mask... she isn't crowded. So the girl underneath isn't either, for the most part. Oh, it's still there. Her eyes flash now and again, taking Kaylee or Inara by surprise, but she quiets easily.

It's a bad day. And by supressing it, putting a woman on top of the girl, it will only make it worse later.

"Y'er a real beauty, River," Kaylee says, and dark crowded eyes turn to her, surprised by the awe in her voice. Kaylee smiles, reaches forward to press back a stray hair. "Y'are. Every guy at that party will be lookin' at you."

Inara's smile is more kind, motherly. Crowded eyes turn to her as her mask is adjusted, dark eyes on dark, one fond, one crowded. "She's right. You're very beautiful, meimei."

It's a bad day. She can't answer them in words. But they don't seem put out by it. Or even surprised.

They lead her out of the shuttle, down the catwalk where the rest of the crew waits. Wash whistles when he sees her, earning himself a smack from Zoe and a glare from Simon. But they all look at her and see the woman. Not the girl, scared and alone and crowded inside. The woman, composed and beautiful.

Mal's there, too, nodding with that quirked smile on his face. He looks at her and nods again before grinning at Inara. "Nice to see you can put your talents to good use with our crew."

Inara smiles back, but it's strained, annoyed. "Yes, a pity you don't have the good standing to take advantage of my other talents, isn't it?" It's a cutting remark, she's hurt and angry. And when she says it, Mal smiles, teasing and amused. But he's hurt, too.

Everyone wears masks. But only the crowded girl's mask is visible.

And to the side, behind Mal, is the bear. He's dressed up like a circus animal, collar and tie and jacket. He looks uncomfortable, like claws and teeth will come into play soon, growling as he rips apart the stage. But when he looks at her, the rage is gone, broken through the air. Like she'sentered the circlewith a chair and a whip, cracking it to calm him.

They just look at each other for a moment, the circus animal and the beautiful woman. The bear and the girl are lost.

"Well!" A sudden hand on her back, propelling her forward as Mal grins at them. "Best get on y'er way. Don't wanna miss the big shindig."

"Gala," Inara corrects, miffed but not really. It's just the mask.

"That, too."

The circus animal sighs and reaches out to her. Without even having to crack the whip, he's trained to take her hand, crook his arm and set her palm on it, his fingers over hers. Trained. It's sad, how easily the mask works.

They don't speak again until the banquet hall is in sight, shining brightly like a sun captured beneath stained glass. Little pieces of wrapping paper blowing in the wind - that's what Kaylee had said the dancers were like, and she was right. Blowing in the wind past flowers that match the ones in her hair, moving without resistance any which way they're told. Kaylee loved it.

It makes her head more crowded.

She tries to take a step forward, to enter the wind and paper, to begin the job Mal had asked of them both. She's stopped when his arm doesn't move with her. His eyes are dark on hers and flicker away when she meets his gaze. This isn't the bear. It's the circus animal.

"Y'er real pretty," he says and his voice is mumbled and soft, handing her yet another gardenia in full bloom.

The beautiful woman blinks at him, and nods to the compliment, taking the flower as she makes to head into the wind again.

Dark eyes meet hers, a flash of fire in them as his lips quirk, baring his teeth. "Fer a crazy girl," he adds in a growl.

The crowded girl blinks at him. And when the bear urges her forward, into the wind, she uses him as an anchor so she doesn't blow away.

Today is a good day.