A/N: This is sometime in the recent future after the series. All quotes are in italics because they are bits of dialogue directly from various episodes.
"This here's a recipe for unpleasantness."
At the moment nothing was unpleasant as Mal was walking away from the piloting controls to the ship's galley. The various crew members were separately busy as it was near time to sleep. Their daily rhythms had coincided with those of the moon they were orbiting where Inara had gotten a client.
Inara herself was away conducting business. Mal guessed that Zoe and Wash were having their own meeting of the flesh, and if his hunch was right, so were Simon and Kaylee. Jayne was sleeping with Vera, though that thought didn't have the same sensual image as the activities of the other crew members. The Shepherd, on the other hand, was likely to be meditating over his Bible, and River was hopefully asleep in her room.
Serenity's Captain made his way to the table in the kitchen where he spread out his guns. They were his treasures in a way, and his regular cleaning of them had taken on a ritual quality. It was something better done alone as others did not know or understand what that was for him. Inara had questioned him about it, and then joked when he explained the very practical reasons for cleaning his weapons in the kitchen.
"In that case... Every well-bred petty crook knows - the small concealable weapons always go to the far left of the place setting."
After her words, Mal avoided his cleaning ritual when others were likely to interrupt him. He did not stop it completely because he would never have wanted to give Inara the impression that she could manipulate his behavior. He wasn't one of her wet-behind-the-ears clients with too much money to spend. He didn't have much money to spend at all-hence, the regular weapons maintenance.
With detail he spread his soft cloths under the guns and small instruments of cleaning and precision. As he began a small stirring in the air told him that he was not alone. Mal looked up into the unreadable eyes of River Tam.
Her eyes flickered as he remembered an exchange from not that long ago.
"No touching guns. Okay?" he'd told her cautiously before quickly taking one of Jayne's pistols away from her.
"No touching," she had repeated in that child-like way she had that was part of her whether lucid or in some world of her own making.
He couldn't tell the state of her mind at the moment, even if he was the first on the crew, even before her brother, to deduce that she was a reader. All the signs had been there, a puzzle ready to be put together.
"I don't think she's intuitive, Doctor. I think she's a reader."
As the leader he had spoken it, and somehow it had been made true.
River stood before him patiently as he studied her. She had moved into the room almost without detection. Maybe it had been the grace of a dancer or the stealth of an assassin. She only had her quiet around her and not the airs of a courtesan as Inara had.
With his eyes, Mal looked at her face and slowly to the chair opposite him, indicating a place where she could sit. River did so and kept her hands well controlled and clearly on the table in front of her. Mal felt some unspoken desire radiating from her to touch his guns, but she had been unusually compliant to his wishes, even during her bouts of dementia.
River continued to watch Mal's hands as he returned to his task. The only overt sound in the kitchen was that of the pieces being lifted and cleaned. Occasionally there was the sound of breath, but no conversation was spoken. The silence was peaceful and lulling. The hypnotic precision with which Mal moved helped ease the girl into a sleep at the table.
She was surprised awake when a steaming cup of tea was presented before her. She looked at the tiny, delicate cup so incongruous in Mal's large, dirty hand. Her captain had prepared the tea just how she liked it. River nodded in thanks once, taking the cup.
Mal returned to his seat opposite of River and placed his own cup of tea near him. When he returned to his subtle work, she observed him more intently as she sipped the warm liquid. He had the hands of a man who had worked hard all his life.
"You think you're better than other people," the easily-readable thief Badger had accused.
"Just the ones I'm better than,"
Mal had answered him.
River could read that memory in Mal. Sometimes he would let his guard down about the recent past. She never dared venture farther into the past into the Serenity Valley with him, though. Her own demons were too dark, and she did not know if she would ever return from a journey like that.
Instead, she chose to focus again on his movements, which were familiar in their own way to those of Simon touching his medical instruments. It was all purposeful and offered comfort. Comfort was sometimes in short supply.
"I get confused. I remember everything. I remember too much, and... some of it's made up, and... some of it can't be quantified, and... there's secrets."
Too many secrets often rushed to her and overwhelmed her. It was here in the black where she found her peace, though. Mal had understood that in his own way. They had finally shared an agreement about that.
"Permission to come aboard?" she had asked him formally after ridding Serenity of Jubal Early.
"You know, you ain't quite right," Mal had said in his round-about way of acceptance.
"It's the popular theory," River had answered him with complete clarity of thought.
No, she wasn't quite right and may never be right.
"You gave up everything you had to find me, and you found me broken," River had told Simon.
The young Tam wasn't quite so broken any more. Serenity had that feeling of home where it was okay to be whatever she actually was, and sometimes she had moments in which she achieved greatness.
"No power in the 'verse can stop me," she had once said to Kaylee.
There yet remained one power in the 'verse that actually could stop River Tam, and it was the call to enter the land of sleep and dreams. She slumped over as Mal put away his guns.
He watched the sleeping figure quietly and then chose to take her to her room. He had shown himself to be a "big, damn hero" once. He could play the hero card again if needed. Mal smiled to himself at the thought, and words he'd said floated back to him.
"It's a real burden being right so often."
Captain Reynolds chuckled to himself at the thought, but not too loudly as to wake the sleeping girl. She was light in his arms like a rag doll or a kitten, and he'd made easy passage to the rooms she shared with her brother.
Hearing no noise from inside, Mal let himself in and placed her on her bed. When he pulled the coverlet over her, River's eyes opened momentarily.
"Mal, bad. In the Latin," she'd mumbled at him before closing her eyes again.
Mal grimaced in acknowledgement. River had only begun to scratch the surface of that truth. Without waiting longer, he left the Tams' chambers, careful to keep his eyes averted from the partially opened door which revealed the entwined forms of Simon and Kaylee.