Brushing Kaylee’s hair has become something of a ritual for Inara. Sometimes she does it to soothe the mechanic, as Kaylee hisses curses in Mandarin directed at Mal or at Jayne (but never, never at Serenity); sometimes she does it to soothe her own jangling nerves after a long day with a particularly demanding client. Kaylee’s hair is soft and silky and it’s a pleasure to clean the grease from it and to gently tease her laughing friend about how grubby she gets.
Brushing Zoë’s hair is different. Zoë washes hers with rough cheap soap and sometimes it dries in her thick curls. Inara has to work the comb carefully through the long strands and delicately disentangle each knot. Zoë sits very straight-backed, rather than relaxing into the pampering treatment. She only seeks Inara out once in a while, when neither loving Wash nor antagonizing Jayne can exorcize whatever demon is plaguing her.
Inara wonders whether it annoys Mal that Zoë comes to her instead of him, speaks secrets at her knee instead of his. Not that Mal would brush Zoë’s hair. Inara’s not even sure that he brushes his own. But if it annoys him, he says nothing. Chances are that he realizes that Inara’s way of keeping her ears open and her mouth shut appeals to people who need to get something off their chest. It serves her well in many ways.
Sometimes she feels as though she’ll explode from the weight of all the things that she knows. The intimate details of a hundred Companion encounters jostle in her mind with the memory of Kaylee crying in her arms, doubled over by menstrual cramps but afraid to mention them in front of anyone else, with the memory of Zoë giving her a half-relieved, half-rueful look over a negative pregnancy test.
She doesn’t go looking for them at these times to seek reciprocal comfort. Instead she locks the shuttle and turns out all the lights, regressing to her most primitive, untrained self, fingers working the slick heat between her legs until the fireburst in her mind quietens the clashing memories for a while longer.
She can care for herself, and for Kaylee, and for Zoë. She cares about the boys as well, of course, but Inara has always exercised her right as a woman to care about other women (her sisters and mothers and daughters and, in an odd way, Serenity and her shuttle) first and foremost.
Then River and Simon come on board, and everything changes. Inara thinks, looking at the sparkle in Kaylee’s eyes, that it’s mostly for the better. Even when things turn dangerous.
Then there’s Miranda, not a woman but a planet with a woman’s name, and none of the changes are for the better.
Maybe two weeks after the funerals, Inara opens the shuttle door to Zoë’s shut-down face. She’s been walking around looking like that for some time. Inara’s not sure whether it’s an improvement over her previous stricken look.
Zoë’s hair is matted and twisted; if she were so inclined she’d be well on her way to a fine set of dreadlocks, but that’s not Zoë. Inara wordlessly gets out her hairdressing kit; she’s not certain that brush and comb alone will suffice. Zoë sits on the floor between her feet so that Inara can start from the roots and work on down to the split ends of each strand.
She begins her work. Zoë stays silent and stone-faced, and Inara knows better than to force her to speak. Besides, Zoë’s hair is an intriguing puzzle; it’s knotted but clean, except for a scattering of dust.
“I was in the cockpit,” Zoë says presently. “Something came loose under the main console, and I was checking to see if it was anything vital.” Her words come out slow and measured, the tonal equivalent of her facial expression. She lifts her right hand to shoulder height and uncurls her fist. “I found one of his dinosaurs.”
Inara looks at the small, garish piece of plastic, a triceratops separated from the herd. Zoe’s been living and sleeping and breathing in memories in their quarters, but it’s the unexpected key that opens the emotional lock. From little things big things grow. “Are you all right?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know.”
Zoë falls silent again. If it were Kaylee there’d be tears by now, and an easy embrace. Inara resumes brushing her hair for want of anything else to do, trying to loosen it with the soft brush before she attacks the wilder knots with the comb. Despite all her care she can feel Zoë flinching, and Zoë is not a woman who flinches easily.
Finally Zoë sighs and pulls away. “This ain’t gonna work,” she says, and before Inara can stop her or even realize what she intends, Zoë’s grabbed the scissors in one hand and a hank of her hair in the other and has hacked it off about two inches from her scalp, dropping the dinosaur on the floor in the process. She turns her head to glare defiantly at Inara, who just looks back at her and then takes the scissors from Zoë’s limp hand.
“Sit still.” Inara makes quick work of Zoë’s hair after that, cutting most of it away in swathes, and then trimming it down so it’s as neat as she can get it. Zoë follows her directions obediently, tilting her head forward when she’s told.
Once she’s done she’s not quite sure where to take it, other than wiping Zoë’s neck down with a damp cloth to catch any errant snips of hair. Zoe answers her unspoken question by turning to lean against Inara, nestling between her open legs, and from there everything flows naturally. She kisses Zoë, and turns out all the lights, and lets a return to raw physicality wash over them both. She can’t help but be a little apprehensive – usually she can read her partners like a book, but this situation is unexpected and even a little worrying – but Zoë makes it clear with her insistent touches that she is in favor of this.
It’s rougher and quicker than she’s used to and, somehow, freeing. It’s almost like a battle to see which of them will make the other come first and Inara, for all her training, can’t hold back as Zoë sets her off as quickly and easily as pulling the trigger on her gun. She returns the favor, of course, and can hear Zoë laughing quietly in the dark, laughing out of physical pleasure and the joy of winning whatever internal war it is she’s fighting.
After, they lie curled around each other, and Zoë’s breathing evens out to sleep without her saying anything. Inara holds her, rests her forehead against the other woman’s, and prays to whatever god might be listening that they’ll have a while to rest before Mal comes barging in. His mind might be more open than it used to be, but she knows he won’t understand this.
The little dinosaur, retrieved from the floor, sits on the nightstand and watches over them both as they sleep.