lacking spoilers, racy material, and anything resembling a point.
"Don't bother him; he's brooding." That low murmur in his ear, when he hadn't even heard Zoe approach. She stood beside him, alert, shoulders straight, in that way that she had. Simon always felt allowed, around her.
"How can you tell he's brooding?" he asked. He leaned on the hatch door, looking into the kitchen; he realized after a moment that either he couldn't be seen, or he was being ignored.
"He cleans guns when he broods," she said. "It's an infallible tell."
"I see. Any indications of why?"
"I reckon because it keeps him on a regular schedule of brooding. Got to clean your weapons faithfully."
A tiny breath bounced in his chest like a laugh. Simon realized he was muttering, as if they were exchanging secrets. "I mean why he's brooding."
"He don't tell nobody that." A twitch of the corners of her mouth was probably as close as she ever got to making a face.
Mal sat at the head of the table, as was his wont, and had spread all the pieces of his pistol on a white cloth, orderly, like a surgical tray ready for use. The smell of grease was strong, flinty. He was using a file to grind down some edge on a tiny piece of steel, hunched forward in his chair, intent. The frown on his face was not different from his default expression. Simon took Zoe at her word, and turned to find another place to read.
River was in the opposite doorway, a-flit on her agile -- bare -- feet. She had shed her dress someplace and wore nothing but her bodysuit, and was feeling the divot in her upper lip with one finger, then another, as she walked. It seemed to be an encyclopedia, that divot, engrossing. She did not notice Mal hulking in the kitchen, or his frown. Simon stiffened, to warn her off, but she did not look his way.
She floated down the steps, both hands now to her lips, and in one movement scudded up to Mal and folded toward him. She rested her cheek against the back of his neck, above the collar of his shirt like an ice pack or a yoke. Her dark hair cascaded over his right shoulder.
Mal turned to stone, file between his fingertips like a whisk stilled in midair. Simon caught his breath, and felt Zoe tense, ready. Mal did nothing and his expression changed not a whit. A white girlish hand came over his left shoulder, fingers prancing, tapping on the collarbone under his shirt. After a moment they slowed, came to rest, and the palm wafted down behind them.
"That'll do, child," said Mal at last, and put down the file to pluck River's hand off his shoulder. He grasped her around the wrist, unyielding, but slow and calm the way he was around cattle and spooked horses. She straightened up behind him, pushed her hair out of her eyes, and came around him to the table.
"Better now?" she asked, and pulled out a chair to sit.
Mal picked up the file again, returned his concentration to the bit of steel. "Tolerable," he said, and whisked again at the burred edge.
River returned her fingers to mapping out her upper lip. She sat in the kitchen chair and banged her heels against its legs. Simon stood in the doorway, silent, and turned his mystified gaze on Zoe. She shrugged back at him, and headed off back toward the cockpit.