Spoilers and Warnings: none for any specific episode
A/N: Thanks to luridmuse for the first read. I think I've edited this as much as I can without overediting...and I figured I'd try to post one challenge answer before a new one was issued. All mistakes that remain are my own responsibility.
The first detail Inara notices about a person is their hands. Many cortex appeals from potential clients fail simply because she can't see their hands. Unlike words or fashion, hands never cover up the truth with a veneer of lies.
Take Serenity's crew for example. One look at their hands and you see straight through to their core. Kaylee's are soft from hand lotion, but the nails are never clean and the skin is frequently cut. She longs to be a soft, prim woman, but she loves her work and would never let Serenity or the crew suffer out of a desire to be someone she's not.
Wash's hands are often burned from hurried repairs to the electronics, but they have fewer calluses than the rest of the crew. His work is flying and it is his life. He's never put it aside, so his hands fit the yoke of the ship perfectly and his sense of touch is sensitive to every maneuver.
Zoe and Mal – their hands tell a very similar story. Old calluses that have faded from the lives they left behind. Gun oil under the nails, the smell of graphite from frequent gunfire. And lots of scars, scars from split knuckles, knife wounds, and others whose causes are unidentifiable. Their hands show their life of danger and dirt for all to see. And if you don't like, well they'll accompany you outside to "talk" about it.
Yet their hands also point to the differences between the superior officer and his loyal follower. Mal is a worrier whose tension can be seen most visibly through his torn cuticles. Whenever the man is uncomfortable or worried, he's chewing his nails or picking at the skin. Zoe, on the other hand, rarely appears flustered. She doesn't worry less, she just hardens as the tension mounts until she cracks.
Jayne's are much the same as his superiors'. Whereas Mal and Zoe's hands retain the softness of a gunfighter, Jayne's are tough and unyielding like a boxer. It would take many hits against a bony cheek for his knuckles to bleed, but that hardness doesn't detract from his deft touch with a knife and gun. Most of the time, she's surprised at how clean his hands are; it's a rather odd trait in one so unconcerned with hygiene. She'd ask him about it, but Inara is truly afraid to learn the answer, undoubtedly delivered with an appropriate leer.
The passengers, though, their hands are a little bit more secretive. Simon will always have a surgeon's perfect hands, but their story has been muddied during his time on Serenity. Cuts from the rare punches thrown, calluses from the occasional workout. He's often bemoaned to her the lack of proper recreation facilities onboard. Running is his preferred method of exercise, but Serenity is not large enough to accommodate multiple kilometer long runs. Instead, he's begun a regimen of push-up and pull-ups, always performed far away from the watchful eyes of Jayne.
Shepherd Book's hands tell little of his life before the monastery, a worldly reflection of his many spiritual metamorphoses. Calluses from gardening have softened even while new ones have developed from his workouts with Jayne. Several cuts from cooking mishaps when the ship has shuddered a little too much on occasion, but above all, clean. Cleanliness is next to godliness.
Inara pauses in her calligraphy as she looks toward the bed. Hands always tell a person's story, but to every rule there is an exception. With this one, it is River. She often looks at River's hands when the girl sleeps. Indeed, it is one of the rare times that her hands aren't in motion, or rather, the only time when one doesn't watch her hands for an indication of her next improbable action.
When she sleeps, River's hands are usually relaxed and their secrets revealed. Like any girl her age, the skin is flawless – soft, pink, unlined. She's developed calluses on the tips of her fingers from gripping the stylus too hard when she draws or writes, but those are the only imperfections that mar the even surfaces of her skin. White lines in the shape of ten small half-moons decorate the bottom of her palms like a new tattoo fashion. Inara dislikes contemplating the story behind their creation. When the dreams, waking and sleeping, get too bad, River's cuticles become angry and red. Inara has learned to tell whether one of Simon's treatments is losing its efficacy solely by the number of hangnails and how far down into the quick River has chewed her nails. Inara longs for the time when the teen is lucid enough to have a manicure. She has an exquisite beauty that begs Inara to nourish and polish it. River would have made an exceptional companion had her life gone differently.
Inara reorders her thoughts appropriately and glances back at the piece of paper under her own French-manicured hands. Hands always tell our stories unless one knows how to hide it correctly.