A month after Miranda – four weeks, three days, two hours and a half – River steals Simon’s scissors from the infirmary and cuts her hair.
Simon catches her halfway through, finds her sitting in a nest of blue-black, shiny curls, and panics, as if she was cutting off her fingers instead.
“River, what are you doing?” he shouts, in dismay. “Tíngzhî!”
He approaches, as if to take the scissors from her, but he stops when she points them at him. He doesn’t think she’ll hurt him, but he isn’t sure – and the realization hurts her more than stabbing herself with those scissors ever could.
He’s right to be scared of her, she hurt him in the past, with words, with fists, with bored and childish cruelties. But not anymore. That person she became in the hands of the Alliance is gone, just like the child she was before: they have faded away and died, making room for a new River that is ready to raise like Phoenix from the ashes.
“No,” she says, shaking her head, and notices how it feels less heavy already, lighter without its burden.
“No,” she repeats, and wishes her voice didn't sound so angry.
“But River,” he pleads, wringing his hands. “Your hair!”
There are tears in his eyes, and she remembers now that he always loved her hair, loved combing and braiding it when they were little, even while her own mother shied away from the intimacy of the gesture.
She feels sorry for his loss.
“That’s not me anymore,” she says, raising the scissors to cut off the last remaining strand. She doesn’t have to look into a mirror to know that it looks good, but she goes to find one anyway.
Kaylee cries when she sees her. Jayne laughs.
“I like your new look,” Mal says when she meets him in the galley later, raised eyebrows the only indication of mild surprise.
“Simon doesn’t,” she says sadly. She knows that he knelt to collect the lost curls after she left, cradled them in his hands before putting them in a small box, to keep them safe.
Mal sighs. “Give your brother time,” he says. “He’ll get used to it.”
River nods. “He always does,” she says conspiratorially. “He’s met a new me before.”
"And he'll meet others," Mal says. It pleases her that he knows without asking that she isn't talking about the hair.
“This new me," he asks conversationally, like he doesn't really care either way.
"Does it come with a new name?”
“No,” she smiles at him. “Same name.”
She lifts the scissors to her head and points them against her own temple, carefully.
“Just a new head.”