"Nothing here is what it appears to be." – The Operative, Serenity

River could hear the crying in her mind as she lay silently in bed.

What had she done to make him say that-

"Nothing" River whispered to herself. "Both anomalous. Different deviations from a norm. Doesn't understand your choices. Never has and it pains him."

She turned her mind to the other members of the crew. Her brother and Kaylee, laughing quietly in his room. Happy. Sweet and comfortable. She smiled and continued.

Jayne, dreaming of...Ugh. River shuddered. She really didn't want to know that.

Zoë, staring at the stars, missed Wash. Her pain was just as present as ever. A year and a half later and it was still burning at her soul. Constant. Sometimes River thought it would burn her alive, and yet Zoë functioned, somehow. Still practical, still efficient. Until she was alone where no one could see, though she knew they all saw anyway. She felt like a different person, without the man who had brought out all of the soft pieces in her she hadn't known were there. Sometimes she felt like he'd taken the best of her with him, and wasn't sure she wanted to continue without it.

Mal...River sighed. Mal's thought processes were thundering more than usual, which she supposed was to be expected, under the circumstances. But really, the man just couldn't think quietly. It didn't seem to be in his nature. No indoor voice.

She drifted back to Inara's uncharacteristically frazzled mind. She was still crying. Yet another fight Mal had fought unfairly, cuttingly, spreading his own pain around. It had been a long time now, since Inara had been with him. After Wash's death, they had finally acted on the attraction that had sat between them for so long, consenting in their grief that in lives like theirs, the present might be all you have.

As, River supposed, not knowing firsthand, many relationships that have been thought on rather than acted upon for so long might be, the relationship between Inara and Mal had burned with quick, hot passion that flamed out quickly once they realised that there was so much about them could not be reconciled. He'd been jealous of her clients, maddened by her comfort with what he saw as a life of slavery. She wouldn't give it up. As he'd said in days past, she belonged to nobody, and that included him. She didn't need or want to be rescued. She'd closed him out for so long because she truly liked who and what she was, and knew he could never, in his heart, accept it.

So she'd left him but not his ship, not wanting to leave those she thought of as her family. And he still loved her too much to make her go. So, after a period ugliness that no one on board particularly liked to remember, they'd returned to their former banter , though Mal's comments often still held venom behind them, and Inara had long since given up trying to be polite in return. And while things rarely escalated anymore, on occasion, River knew, Mal could be quite hurtful when he was in a temper, though he always regretted it later.

She climbed out of bed and floated barefoot through the halls of Serenity and knocked lightly before opening the door of Inara's shuttle, knowing the Companion would be glad for her company.

Inara looked up at her from the bed, tear-trails making red stains down her face. She tried to smile. River frowned. "Why does he make you cry?" she questioned, coming to sit beside Inara on the bed.

"Because he can't forgive me" Inara replied, sounding oddly vulnerable. She looked away. "Sometimes I think he never will."

"It was a rhetorical question." River informed her as she reached up and gently wiped the tears away.

Inara chuckled wetly."But it's true. He can't forgive me for getting over him. The man can hold a grudge like no-one I've ever met!"

River nodded solemnly. "He surely can."

Inara took a deep breath and climbed off the bed to go and splash water on her face. "Can't sleep?" she questioned her younger friend as she washed the visible evidence of her hurt away.

River shook her head. "I was lying awake when I heard you. And you don't want to be alone after what he said. Company is better. Reminds you that it's not true."

Inara's expressioned darkened and she patted her face dry in silence. River knew it still bothered her sometimes how much River knew about the things that happened between her and Mal. "Sorry." She murmured, upset to have screwed things up. She'd said too much, knew too much. Inara liked her privacy. She'd let River see her vulnerable, but maybe she had taken a step too far.

"Don't be." River was pleased when Inara came back to the bed with a smile and squeezed her hand. "I don't mind, really. It just surprises me still how blunt you are about the things you know. You didn't used to be."

River shrugged. "I like to be honest with you."

Inara yawned. "I'm glad." She examined River silently. River looked back at her in kind, smiling a little. "Are you going to stay?" Inara enquired at last, her voice level as she removed her robe and hung it beside the bed.

"Yes, please." River stood up and pulled back the sheets, slipping comfortably into the satin bed as she so frequently did these days. She liked Inara's shuttle; it was so much cosier than her own room. Inara had filled it with her personality in a way that River had never managed to do in her own little space, though she'd tried. She supposed she was still too confused as to exactly what it would entail to fill a room with her personality - It was perplexing, to say the least – but she'd at least bought some things of her own and put up some of her drawings. She watched as Inara dimmed the lights and slipped in beside her.

"Good night." Inara murmured, her breath whispering warm across River's cheek, making her shiver.

"'Night" River said, suddenly sleepy. It was as though Inara's bed had soporific effect, the way she always felt drowsy when she climbed into it. She curled up comfortably, warm, cozy, safe.

Inara woke to the sound of frantic knocking at her door.

Sleepily, she climbed out of bed and pulled on her robe. Yanking the door open, she was fully prepared to be grumpy with whoever the perpetrator happened to be. Simon stood on the other side, looking, as he so often did, concerned and upset.

"She's here" Inara informed him shortly, before he could start talking, and stepped aside to reveal River fast asleep in her bed. She sometimes wondered why Simon continued to panic if he checked River's bed and found it empty, especially as most nights he evidently didn't check. She had always slept irregularly, and had rarely been inclined to stay in her quarters once awake, even if it happened to be the middle of the night. Given the increase in River's mental stability since Miranda, this level of concern a year and a half later seemed unwarranted. River still didn't speak of the Academy, but Inara felt it was her right to do that in her own time, when and if she felt ready. She still had nightmares, and sometimes things happened that caused her to break down, but she always came back to herself afterward, if you gave her time, and she always had good reason, or at least Inara thought so.

"A nightmare?" Simon questioned worriedly, breaking off her train of thought.

Inara yawned. "She came in late last night." She offered ambiguously.

Simon ran a hand nervously through his hair. "I'll...um...let you get back to sleep. I'm sorry for waking you. Thanks, Inara."

"No problem." Inara closed the door and slid back into the bed beside River with a sigh. "Your brother worries too much." She informed the sleeping girl fondly. River's only response was to snuggle up to her without waking. The Companion closed her eyes, enjoying the feeling of the girl's body heavy against her own, knowing she liked it more than she should, but unsure whether or not she should spend her time feeling guilty given River's extra abilities and regular night-time visits. She wrapped an arm around River's warm person, and proceeded to drift back to sleep in comfort.

When she woke again, it was to find River propped up on an elbow, watching her drowse. "Good morning!" The younger Tam offered cheerfully.

"Morning" Inara agreed with somewhat less enthusiasm.

"You're feeling better" River chided her lack of zeal gently and with a smile.

Inara nodded, realising it was true, offered her a sleepy smile in return, and pulled the blankets up to her chin.

River didn't want to move, but she knew she should be getting to the bridge. She'd slept in more than usual. She sighed heavily and sat up. "I need to go."

"Mal can fly the ship on his own for now" Inara informed her. "You and I are going to enjoy lying here for a few more minutes and then you're going to actually have something to eat before you start prepping for whatever heist you guys have going on."

River grinned, enjoying the impishness of Inara's thoughts, which were at pleasant contrast with the hurt of the night before. Knowing the Captain wouldn't get too mad at her, as long as she was on the bridge in time to fly Serenity during the job, and knowing it would make Inara happy, she agreed.

Mal wandered into the galley as River was starting on a plate of pancakes. "You were meant to be flying this boat over an hour ago" he groused.

River looked up at him guiltily; her mouth full of pancakes, and Mal had to swallow the laugh that threatened his grouchy demeanour.

"Let her be" Inara joined her partner in crime at the big wooden table. "She needed to have breakfast."

Mal glowered at her, all possibilities of his mood improving vanishing. "Should've known this would be your doing, always distracting her 'n Kaylee."

River could feel the fight that was brewing and blurted out the first comment that came into her mind. "It was a bad night." Mal turned to look at her.

"Dreams again?" he questioned. "Simon came up to the bridge earlier."

River shrugged noncommittally, happy to have diverted his attention, and dove back into her pancakes. Mal looked at Inara for an explanation.

"I didn't want to wake her" the Companion protested. "She was fast asleep when Simon came looking for her." She glanced briefly at River, whose eyes were dancing at her from where Mal couldn't see.

"Fine" Mal concluded, turning to River, "but I want you in the pilot's seat as soon as you're done eating, understood?"

"Mm hm" River agreed, her mouth again filled with pancake. She enjoyed meals a lot more when Serenity had the credits to stock ingredients beyond molded protein. Since the rumours of their involvement in exposing what had happened on Miranda had gotten out, it had been the case much more often than previously, as they'd had more regular, albeit always illegal, jobs. These even tasted a little like the pancakes she remembered from her childhood. Inara was quite good at cooking, she'd noticed. River wondered vaguely if food preparation had been part of her Companion training.

"Good." River's focus was jerked back to the conversation as Mal turned and headed back to the bridge.

"You sure are one for lying, River Tam" Inara's eyes twinkled at her as she sipped her cup of tea, unbothered by Mal's mood.

River smiled back at her. "Only when it's important" she informed her friend, enjoying the happiness in Inara's thoughts.

A little while later, pancakes demolished and plates removed from the table, River headed for the cockpit. At the last minute she turned to Inara, who was still seated. "So...I'll come back again tonight?" she questioned, nervous. While she knew Inara's feelings towards her were more than friendly, she usually just gravitated towards her naturally, not asking for verbal confirmation that her presence was welcome.

Inara looked up at her, a blush just visible on her cheeks. "Well, we wouldn't want you to have another bad night, would we?" she asked quietly, her eyes studying River as they so often did.

River shook her head lightly, her anxiety leaving in place of a kind of nice fluttering feeling that she'd made Inara, a Companion, blush. "We wouldn't, no." She agreed.

She was still smiling when she got to the bridge.

"What're you so happy about, Little Albatross?"

She curled up in her seat. "Pleasing situations." She said vaguely, enjoying the continued fluttering in her stomach at the thought of Inara's blush.

Mal frowned. "What are you up to?" he questioned suspiciously.

River glanced at the panel in front of her. "The job" she informed him, with a crooked grin. He grumbled, knowing she was distracting him. "What's our ETA?"

"About an hour."

"And Badger came through?"

"Course he did. Stop worrying – it's an easy job."

River rolled her eyes. "I always worry when you're in charge."

"Hey, now! That's not nice!" He couldn't help but smile.

"You're overconfident." River told him lightly. "You should let me come."

Mal chuckled. "Your brother would love that" he replied sarcastically, but he was considering it.

She smiled. "Since when do you care?" She arched an eyebrow."Jayne could stay" she continued. "I'm a better shot than he is, not to mention a better judge of which situations actually require the use of a gun."

Mal shook his head. "I need his strength on this one to deal with the haul. Nah, I think it's better if you stay here, mèi mei. We might need a quick getaway, and none of us can fly Serenity better 'n you."

River sighed. She knew it was true, but could you blame a girl for wanting some excitement once in a while? She almost never got to go on jobs. "Fine" she agreed grumpily, slouching down in the chair.

It was an easy job, lifting newly delivered cargo from a storage facility outside of a small town. And it went down easy, no problems. The place wasn't even guarded properly. They just used the information Badger had sent them on what to lift and the schedule of guard changes and everything went down without a hitch for once.

"See, River? Easy as pie" Mal declared, grinning, as River came down the stairs into the cargo bay.

River sighed. "Great, now he's even cockier" she grumbled under her breath.

"At least you're getting paid" Inara pointed out, joining her.

"So I am" River agreed, with a quick smile. She'd actually saved a decent number of credits since officially becoming part of Serenity's crew, as she didn't have a huge number of expenses. "How does it feel, Inara - your friends being common criminals while you're a glamorous Companion?"

"I got used to that aspect of my life a long while ago." Inara chuckled, eyes warm. River felt herself blush at being the focus of that gaze after their exchange that morning. The fluttering started up in her stomach again.

"You should join in the fun" Kaylee saved her as she came up and threw an arm around each of their shoulders. "Take up a life of crime."

"Yeah, you could give up your day job" Mal stuck in from across the room. There was a collective groan as the old rhetoric reared its head yet again. Jayne, on the other hand, grinned. He viewed Mal and Inara's fights as one of the sole sources of entertainment on board, especially when Inara managed to take Mal down a notch. River rolled her eyes at him and he winked at her, making her grumpy.

"I like my job, if you recall." Inara retorted lightly. "And I could mention the number of times the status it confers has saved you."

"I knew there was a reason we kept you around."

"You agreed I could stay because I pay rent and get you into places you couldn't otherwise go. I stay for other reasons entirely" Inara informed him, her tone bitter, and stalked from the room. River got far more irritated as Mal's mood improved as a result of getting such a reaction out of Inara. It confirmed for him that his comments the night before had gotten under her skin.

"Way to ruin a happy moment, Cap'n" Kaylee sighed, starting to relocate cargo boxes in the direction of various hiding places. She was getting more than a bit tired of Mal picking fights with Inara at every possible opportunity. It created an unpleasant atmosphere on her ship.

River agreed wholeheartedly as she moved to help Kaylee with one of the larger containers.

It wasn't until after dinner that she finally managed to make her way to Inara's shuttle, taking with her a selection of leftovers she thought the Companion would like as Inara hadn't shown up to the meal, much to Mal's satisfaction.

Inara was meditating, so River set the food down and curled up on the bed, enjoying the peacefulness of Inara's mind. Thoughts picked up, examined, and let go, over and over and over. It always amazed River that Inara could sit for so long, let go of time and place, let the emotion drain out of her until she found this place of calm. Serenity. River smiled to herself.

Inara turned, stretching, to find River asleep on her bed. Smiling, she reached for the bowl of water she had prepared and exposed her upper half, untroubled by River's presence. As a Companion, she hadn't been raised to be modest with her body, and while she generally kept herself covered around the girl, she didn't think her naked back would cause River any distress if she woke up. She might even enjoy it. Her mind whispered to her, unbidden. Inara paused, remembering the blush that had crossed River's face in the cargo bay. She'd asked to come and stay tonight, which was more than she'd ever done before. While River spent a lot of time in her shuttle without an invitation, she never climbed into the bed without one, even when she appeared in the middle of the night after a nightmare. Inara smiled, happy, and began to sponge herself.

River woke to hear the dripping of water, surprised to find Inara washing right in front of her. Should she mention that she wasn't, in fact, asleep? Curiosity got the better of her, and silently she observed, fascinated, as Inara finished bathing. When the other woman was safely clothed again, and turned to face her, with a smile, River gestured to the tray she had brought with her. "You didn't come to dinner." She explained.

Inara removed the cloth from on top of her meal. All of her favourites were there. She smiled up at River from the floor. "You take such good care of me."

River smiled and examined the ends of her hair. Inara watched her fiddling with the long strands. She adored River's hair. The girl invariably wore it down, as she always had, but these days it flowed in a glossy chestnut river down her back, kempt and soft. Inara brushed it sometimes, but she didn't think that River would like it all styled up, somehow, and for some reason, had never asked if that was indeed the case. "Would you like me to put your hair up when I'm finished eating?" she questioned tentatively.

River smiled again. "You wouldn't mind?"

"Mind?" Inara exclaimed, pleased. "I keep hoping you'll ask! You have such beautiful hair, and so much of it to work with. You just seem to like wearing it down."

River chuckled. "Overall, I do like to wear it down. I always have. My mother used to braid it sometimes, when I was young, to 'tidy me up', she said..."River chuckled. "I frustrated them."

Inara frowned. "Frustrated them?"

"We were different, Simon and I. But he fit in well enough. I never did. It frustrated them." She smiled. "But having you do my hair would be different. Fun." She thought for a moment. "What will you do with it?"

Inara smiled. "Wait and see."

River shivered as she settled at Inara's feet and Inara pulled her hair back. The Companion smelled of spiced soap and incense. She relaxed comfortably as her friend began pulling a brush through her hair and closed her eyes. "No falling asleep, now." Inara warned her, teasingly.

"Mmm hmm" River agreed dreamily, and let her mind drift as Inara's nimble fingers pulled her hair apart into sections and then braided them back.

"There" Inara pushed the last pin into place and leaned back. "Now you can touch." River's hands quested upward to her scalp, gently feeling the braids that criss-crossed intricately about her head. She'd seen the Companion's hair up in many fashions, but never something as complicated as this! She beamed.

Inara chuckled. "Come here" she pulled River up from beside the couch and stood her in front of a mirror. River examined herself in wonder. She looked older, different. She'd never worn make-up, but wondered vaguely what it would look like on her. And then, if Inara would like it. The Companion turned and went to a rack of outfits she had out, skimming through them to find a blue and silver threaded silk dress. She returned and held it out to River. "Would you like it?"

"Really?" River hadn't thought her smile could get wider but discovered it would. She stroked the fabric delicately with her fingertips.

"I don't know why I didn't think of it before. It's far too small for me." Inara told her, and River took the dress carefully.

"Thank you" she said in awe. "It's beautiful. Are you sure?"

Inara replied by pushing her gently towards the cockpit with a smile. River slipped out of her own loose things, stepping into the lovely outfit Inara had offered her. The skirt made sense but the top didn't stay or feel right in any of the ways she tried wrapping it around herself. River emerged a few minutes later, holding the fabric over her chest. "I don't understand how to..." she gestured with one arm, the other keeping the dress up.

Inara chuckled. "A reader, a genius, but she can't put on a fancy dress. Turn around." River obeyed, and Inara wrapped the pieces of silk delicately around her body before securing them at the nape of her neck. "There you are."

River turned back to the mirror, excited to see herself. "It's not me" she said in surprise, touching her image. Suddenly, she couldn't recognise the person in the glass with intricately done hair and a clinging silk dress, looking ready for a fancy party in the Core. What her parents had wanted for her. It made her feel strange, disconnected from herself. She took a deep breath, trying not to panic.

Inara smiled to watch her, glad to have thought of the dress, to give River this little gift. "Maybe not your usual style, but you do look gorgeous in it. You're so beautiful, mèi mei." Feeling nervous, she traced her fingers delicately down River's arm and felt her insides turn to ice when River pulled away from her touch. Suddenly she felt light-headed, like she might faint, and the world around her darkened.

Then River spoke, and her voice sounded panicked, her breathing, fast. "I'm too broken to be beautiful."

"Oh" Inara breathed, as she realised what was going on. She reached for River's wrist, hoping she could still calm her down. "Wait. River -"

"They broke River!" River insisted loudly, her voice rising hysterically. She pulled her arm out of Inara's grip with surprising strength, and Inara felt her throat tighten as though she were going to cry.

"They broke her and she can't be fixed. She's too damaged. Don't you understand?" River stared into Inara's eyes. Inara was silent. She didn't know what to say. How could she explain to River what she saw in that mirror? A soul that was beautiful in spite of all that had happened to her. Someone who deserved everything positive the world had to offer. Someone who was whole as she was, and didn't need fixing.

River clapped her hands over her ears, a subconscious response to Inara's thoughts. "That isn't River!" She cried, desperate. "And that" she pointed to the mirror "is what she was expected to be!" Her hands flew to the back of her neck and she untied the dress, pulling it off of herself until she stood naked, trembling. "They took River away and they left a shell. They cooked the meat, ate it whole; I'm what they left behind." She went to the bed and curled up on it miserably, not even trying to get under the covers even though she was cold. She felt empty where a few minutes before she'd been jubilant. She'd felt beautiful and whole until she looked in the mirror and seen a facsimile of herself...How did things change so fast? She wasn't even sure why she was so upset – whether it was seeing the image her parents always wished she would conform to but didn't, what the Alliance had done to her, both...

Inara sat down on the end of the bed, leaving the dress where it lay in the middle of the floor. "I wasn't trying to make you into something you're not." She murmured. "I love you as you are."

"I know." River paused. "I know. But I'm not right, Inara. I never will be. I know you love me anyway, but you can never, ever forget that what they've done to me makes me dangerous, whether you feel I'm whole and beautiful or not." She looked up with fierce eyes. Inara moved up the bed and curled around her, wrapping her up in warm, safe arms. "I don't even know all that they've done to me, or what else there is left to find." River whispered, clinging to her. Inara had no words to comfort her; none of them would have been true. But her mind whispered plenty, and for that River was grateful.

After a while Inara fell asleep, and River crept from her arms and hung up the dress before grabbing her sweater from the cockpit and pulling it on, shivering. When she returned, Inara's eyes were open and she was under the covers. "I'm sorry" River whispered "You were giving me a gift. A lovely one. I didn't mean to...I didn't mean for that to happen." She turned down the lights and slipped into the bed.

"But you're right. Maybe I don't think about things the right way." Inara admitted. "It's just...I guess I wanted you to know that it's all part of who you are, now. And it has been since I've known you. And even if I don't know it all, and even if you're dangerous, it doesn't change how I feel about you."

"Thank you" River murmured, cuddling into the other woman for warmth and comfort. "For taking me as I am, with my crazy moments and all, and for saying that as well as thinking it."

Inara didn't say anything for a moment, nervous, and River felt her trepidation and silenced her with a light finger on her lips. "We can talk more tomorrow." She whispered through the darkness. "Enough has happened for one day."

Inara rested her head on River's shoulder. "I just wanted to be honest" she said quietly "about how terrified I was when I touched you and you pulled away. Before I realised. I thought -"

River remembered. The fear and pain so strong that it had almost made Inara pass out with its gravity. She found the Companion's hand and wove their fingers together. "I love you" she whispered. "Always. I'm so sorry I scared you like that."