What a Tangled Web
River’s hair was a mess. Well, okay, her hair was always a mess, but over the past weeks it had been getting worse and worse until now it was matted and tangled and hideous. Enough was enough, Jayne thought, as he grabbed some bottles from the shower and went to stake out the common room.
He didn’t have long to wait before River came wandering in. Ai yah, he hadn’t thought that hair could get any worse, but now it looked like she’d tried to rub soup or somesuch thing into it. Seemed his decision hadn’t come a moment too soon.
As she passed his chair, Jayne’s hand shot out and caught River’s elbow. “That’s it, girl. Your hair is a bird’s nest. Either you wash it right now or I do it for you.”
“She has no intention of washing her hair.”
“Right, then.” And without further delay, Jayne hauled River over to the galley sink.
Jayne had already set up a stool in front of the sink and he had Kaylee’s shampoo and conditioner all ready to go. River knelt on the stool, rested her forearms on the counter, and bent her head over the sink, all without being told, as Jayne turned on the water. He couldn’t understand why she wasn’t protesting more if she didn’t want to wash her hair. Oh, well, mei guan xi. Didn’t make no difference to him.
Jayne poured hot water from a cup over River’s head and began to work shampoo into the grimy mess. “Normally, I’d want to brush this stuff first,” he explained. “To make it easier to work with after. But you’ve got so gorram much gunk in here that I didn’t wanna mess up the brush ‘fore we need it.”
“Proper care and maintenance of one’s equipment is always desirable,” River said approvingly.
Ignoring this, Jayne started rinsing the shampoo out of River’s hair, taking the worst of the gunk with it. Then he got more shampoo and began the process over again. This time, he was more thorough, being careful not to get his fingers caught in the tangles and making sure to work the shampoo all the way down to her scalp.
Jayne poured more hot water over River’s head and realized with surprise how nice it felt to be doing this again. He hadn’t washed anyone’s hair but his own in a long while, and it was kinda . . . soothing. ‘Cause her hair had been so dirty to start with, he decided she needed another round of shampoo, so he poured a little more into his hand and started over again.
* * *
As Jayne’s fingers massaged their way over her head, River slitted her eyes in pleasure. Even though her arms were beginning to ache from supporting her unaccustomed weight, she was able to ignore that by concentrating on the way Jayne’s rough hands were moving so delicately through her hair to avoid catching on any tangles. She sighed softly as Jayne finally stopped rubbing in shampoo and pushed her head down for a final rinse.
While he was doing that, Simon stepped into the mess and stopped in his tracks. “What are you doing to my sister?” he demanded.
“Not to worry, Simon,” was River’s reply, muffled by her position and the water Jayne was currently pouring over her head. “Jayne is merely bathing my follicles.”
“Yeah. What she said,” Jayne added.
“Um. Why?” Simon said plaintively.
“‘Cause they was dirty!”
“Oh. Right.” Simon continued to stare as Jayne began to smooth conditioner into River’s tangles.
“Well?” Jayne eventually growled. “You gonna stick me with a needle like on Regina when Mal ‘n’ Zoe got pinched, or what?”
“No, I . . . wait. What makes you think I did that on purpose?”
Jayne snorted. “Come on, Doc. A top three-percenter like you getting the wrong dose at a strategically important moment like that? It was ruttin’ obvious.”
A little abashed, Simon started to speak, but River interrupted. “Less talking. More washing,” she stated imperiously.
“Oh, uh, right. Well. I’ll just . . . go then. Shall I?” Simon hesitated some more, and River could feel his discomfort at leaving her in the hands of “that sha gua”, but he finally retreated in confusion.
Jayne quickly finished working conditioner into the tangled mess and began a final thorough rinsing. River was less happy now, with water running into her face and her arms ready to give way, but she consoled herself with the thought that this part was almost over.
Shortly afterwards, Jayne shut off the tap and squeezed some of the excess water into the sink, then grabbed a dish towel to wrap around River’s head. He led her over to the alcove and sat her down as he picked up the comb he must have put there earlier. Nobody could say that Jayne didn’t know how to plan a campaign.
“Now this is why you gotta take care of your hair,” Jayne warned River. “‘Cause now it’s all over knots, an’ there’s no way this ain’t gonna hurt.”
“A necessary evil. It has been taken into account and discarded as immaterial against the greater good.”
Jayne either understood this as an okay to go ahead or he chose to ignore it, because he began to work. As far as was possible, he separated out a section of hair from the back of River’s head and, starting at the bottom, slowly began combing the tangles out. Despite his warning, it seemed that Jayne was actually trying very hard to be gentle. He was careful to hold her hair above where he was combing and not to just yank through the knots
River realized with bemusement that “gentle” was a term she had never been able to apply to Jayne before, and she mentally settled in to enjoy the novelty. Of course, she realized that it was more a matter of habit than out of any newfound consideration for herself, but then again, the fact that Jayne was a creature of habit was one of the things she liked best about him. There had been very few constants in River’s life.
With an effort, River reminded herself that she was meant to be enjoying the experience rather than contemplating her past, but just then, Jayne hit a particularly nasty snag and the tugging on her skull became somewhat less gentle. Almost at the same moment, Kaylee peeked in the doorway leading back to the engine room, pulled back quickly, and then “casually” walked into the room. River sighed.
“Sent by the fraternal unit, were you?”
“Yep,” Kaylee grinned. “I don’t rightly see why. Looks like good clean fun to me.”
“Ha, ha,” Jayne said.
Kaylee leaned in and said in a stage whisper, “O’ course, I wouldn’t’ve missed this for anything.”
Jayne rolled his eyes. River giggled and then made a face, having managed to move her head just a little bit too much.
“Well, there ain’t really anything for me to do here, an’ Simon really needs to relax more when it comes to you two, so I’ll just be on my way.” River noticed, however, that Kaylee didn’t go back the way she had come, and resigned herself to more interruptions.
Not too much later, one of these came from Jayne himself, as he suddenly stopped combing and picked up something which had hitherto been hidden behind him. River attempted to twist around and see what it was, but he had grasped her hair right at the nape so her effort was foiled. Then he switched it on and she felt the warm air from the hair dryer hit her scalp
After a little more thought, River realized why Jayne seemed not to want her (or anyone) to see what he held. As far as River knew, there were only two hair dryers on Serenity. One belonged to Inara, and she rather doubted Jayne would have managed to get his hands on it. The other was Kaylee’s. It was pink, and had daisies painted all over it.
River just barely managed to stifle a giggle. Her task was made easier by the strands of hair that kept being blown into her eyes and mouth, and she couldn’t help thinking that at this moment, her hair probably looked almost as messy as it had before Jayne had grabbed her. That being said, the heat was rather pleasant when she wasn’t being distracted by hair that suddenly reminded her of Shepherd Book’s. Fortunately, Jayne was there, and she trusted him to be able to control it
Inara was the next member of the crew to discover an urgent errand which would take her through the kitchen. She was better at faking nonchalance than any of the others, but River could feel the curiosity radiating from her. As she went to get some tea from the cupboard, she glanced over at the two of them and then looked quickly away, but not before River saw her lips twitch. Having gotten out the tea (which River knew she didn’t actually need), Inara had no excuse for remaining, so she reluctantly turned to go back to her shuttle. In the doorway, she hesitated and looked back as if to say something, but the hair dryer was too loud, and Inara never shouted at anyone but Mal, so she shrugged minutely and left.
A few minutes later, River’s hair was nearly dry, so Jayne switched off Kaylee’s hair dryer and hid it behind him with relief. River felt the relief get stronger not more than a second later when Wash stuck his head around the doorjamb and grinned at them. He was yanked back almost immediately, and River and Jayne could both make out furious whispering from the passage beyond. Unperturbed, Jayne grabbed a brush – also Kaylee’s, but more discreet – and began the final part of the process.
Wash pulled Zoe into the dining area, already craning his head to see them in the alcove. “Well isn’t this the sweetest sight I ever did see,” he said. “Don’t you think it’s sweet, wife of my heart?”
“It certainly is unexpected,” Zoe said, grinning. “What brought on this sudden bout of domesticity, Jayne?”
Jayne looked up and growled at them, but his rhythm didn’t falter. “Take that back. This here’s a health an’ safety issue I’m attendin’ to. Think I woulda gone near the girl otherwise?”
“Jayne, she can hear you,” Zoe scolded.
River was unperturbed. “There is more than one kind of hearing. Jayne is a man of action, and his words do not tell the whole story.”
Wash snickered. “Uh, oh, Jayne. It sounds like our little genius has got you all figured out. Inside, you’re just a big softy.”
Jayne’s look promised retribution, and Zoe hurriedly asked, “Wash, dear, isn’t it about time to make that course correction?”
“No, that’s not for another—”
“I think it’s time now,” she said, and pulled him firmly out of the room.
During the latter part of Wash and Zoe’s visit, River had begun to experience a strange sensation which she was now free to concentrate on. The steady stroking motion of the brush through her hair seemed to be spreading a tingly sensation from her scalp throughout her body. Somehow it felt as though all of her nerve endings had come alive, and yet the impressions she was receiving were muffled. Most remarkable of all, although she was distinctly aware of everyone on the ship (Simon, for example, was hovering just outside the doorway, ready to dash in “just in case”) the knowledge was just that—distinct. She was suddenly experiencing everyone’s thoughts and sensations at one remove from her own. It was wonderful. She wanted it to last forever. What was more, she almost felt like it could – provided, of course, that nobody made any sudden movements.
Fully immersed in experiencing the steady rhythm of the brush now moving easily through her hair, River still had a little room for trepidation as Mal approached the dining area on his way to the bridge. Throwing a puzzled glance at Simon, Mal entered the room and stopped in his tracks.
“What—” he exclaimed, but River cut him off.
“Shh. Don’t want to break the bubble.”
This time it was Jayne who responded. “Yeah, Mal. Ain’t you ever had your hair brushed before? You get kinda in a trance where everythin’s all fuzzy an’ nice.”
There was a pause. “Okay,” Mal said in a fake-casual voice. “Leaving aside the question of how, exactly, you know that—” his voice was becoming gradually louder “—I still want to know why you’re brushing River’s hair in the first—”
“Shh,” River said calmly.
“Aw, come on, Mal. It was dirty. You gonna tell me that don’t bother you?”
Mal blinked. “Well. Now that you mention it. . . .”
“Right. An’ it weren’t like anyone else was gonna do something about it.”
“Hang on. What about Simon? Or Inara?”
Jayne snorted. “Mal. If either the doc or ‘Nara coulda done anything, they wouldn’t’ve ever let it go this far.”
“Couldn’t let them. Not their place,” River said.
“Yes, and I still don’t understand that,” Simon called from the hallway.
Ignoring him, River said to Mal, “You can leave now.”
Mal bristled. “It’s my boat—”
River looked up at him with pleading eyes and took the wind right out of the captain’s sails.
“All right, fine. But only because Simon’s right outside. Got that, Jayne?”
“I’m just brushin’ her hair, Mal.”
“Well—you just remember that.” Mal backed out of the room, still glaring at Jayne.
River sighed. The feeling of floating was gone. Stupid Captain. Plus, the brush was now moving quite easily through her hair, so she knew Jayne would stop soon. Sure enough, after only about a minute the gentle stroking slowed and stopped. “There. Done,” Jayne said gruffly. River could tell that Mal’s interpretation of Jayne’s actions had made him uncomfortable. Accepting the inevitable, River rose gracefully and twirled around, feeling her hair swinging freely about her head and shoulders. “Thank you, Jayne,” she smiled charmingly. “Yeah, well . . . next time keep your own hair clean, ‘cause if you don’t, I’ll just have to do it for you.” River moved so fast that Jayne didn’t have any time to react. She was suddenly right next to him, stooping to kiss his cheek. “It’s a deal,” she whispered. And then she was gone.
* * *
Jayne stared at the spot where River had just skipped from the room. As he sat frozen with alarm blossoming in his mind, he could think of only one thing to say. “Wuo de tian ah.”