Mal was plotting their next course when he noticed a plastic dinosaur poking its head over his console. He glanced over to the now empty co-pilot's chair, and raised his eyebrow. "River?"
The dinosaur shook its head 'no.'
"Huh." Mal leaned forward, folding his arms on the console and squared off with the little green T-rex. "Well then, who am I having the pleasure of speaking to?"
"I am your conscience, Malcolm Reynolds." River didn't even bother to disguise her voice so much as caused it to waver spooky-like.
Mal bit his lip to keep from laughing. At least it wasn't a smaller version of him sporting wings, he supposed. "Right, well," he cleared his throat to hide a chuckle. "What might I do for you this evening?"
"There's no night in the black." The dinosaur paced back and forth a length and then stopped. It gave Mal a blank, and yet somehow plastically dramatic, stare. "I am here to help you."
The captain sucked at his teeth, before dropping his chin on the ball of his fist. "Is that right now?"
"You are at a crossroads, Malcolm."
He'd never heard her use his full name that way. It was… different. Spooky voice aside.
"I thought we were in the black? Ain't no roads out here," he said matter-of-factly.
"It's a metaphor. A figure of speech in which a word--"
"I know what a metaphor is, lil' one."
The dinosaur planted its hind legs on the console, River's fingertips visibly holding its rear. "My name is Anael."
"That's a mighty fancy name. Being my conscience and all, don't I get a say in what I call you?"
T-rex stomped unhappily. "No."
Mal scrubbed a hand over his face, "Riv--"
"… Anael. What have you gone and done with River now?"
"That's what I'm here to talk to you about."
Mal ran his tongue over the front of his teeth, lowering his hand and weaving his fingers together. "I see." So that's it. "You have something to tell me about River, I take it?"
T-rex nodded sagely, before his legs disappeared behind the console and he paced back and forth again. If Mal squinted from his spot, he could see the reflection of River curled up in front of his console, one arm stretched up with T-rex in hand. "You won't listen to her. So I'm here, as your conscience, to speak with you."
He was tempted to just walk around and pluck her up and end this nonsense, but instead he leaned back in his chair and considered the mite dino. "Is this in regards to a little conversation that took place in the passenger dorms some time ago?"
T-rex nodded once more.
He leaned closer, talking real slow-like. "The one where I told River that people shouldn't be hiding in other people's bunks?"
"Yes, about that--"
Mal was bordering on baby-talk, "The one where I distinctly told her that iff'n I found her snooping around again that I'd be forced to toss her out an airlock?"
"She wasn't snooping--"
Then he shot his hand forward and held T-rex by the neck between his thumb and forefinger, eyeballing it in an awful serious manner, in all regular tones, "And that there was a rule that clothes should be warn at all times in the presence of the captain?"
"Dinosaurs don't wear clothes."
Mal looked around. Then fished around in his pockets. He found what was, perhaps, not the cleanest handkerchief in the world, but it was available. He tied it around T-rex's neck like a cape. "Can't have my conscience walking around breaking rules, now, can I?"
River finally made an appearance, poking her up over the console. She didn't look the least bit amused.
The captain sighed, gently unravelling the T-rex from her hands and staging his own little puppet show. "Well little uh, Are--Anu--Whatever-your-name is, I appreciate you coming out an' checkin'in."
He raised his voice higher than it should ever go, "Oh you're welcome!"
He cleared his throat. "Yes, well, what I think you should know about that whole conversation the other day is that I'm the captain. If I don't keep my head on straight, there ain't no telling where we'll end up. A captain doesn't fly alone, and he's gotta think and act for more than just himself. There ain't no space to be selfish. Don't you agree, Mr. T?"
"I think that's just shiny, Capt'n."
River watched on, and Mal put the dinosaur down. As they sat there, looking at each other in the quiet of the black, he understood why she'd taken to the dino-puppetry. Mal didn't know what to tell her, or say, but he felt he should. He started, his mouth was open, but River shook her head and sniffled. He was waving his hands to ward off the tears that might come, the dinosaur's cape flapping in the breeze of it.
She sucked in her breath, her eyes wide and glistening, looking at him, and he had to shut his eyes and turn his head away.
"Can I mess around with Jayne then?"
Mal fell out of his chair sputtering.