Epilogue

...Was slipping out of an uncomfortable doze when the voices started to float through, muffled by the crate and the fog in his brain both. Started to be recognisably familiar, as opposed to those folks who'd for an indeterminable length of time paid no heed at all to having one uncommonly uppity and very noisy crate in their cargo complement.

"Might be it's something the captain's ordered," the sweetest voice in the whole damn 'verse said dubiously. "He ain't exactly been forthcoming with the rest of us of late."

"Honeybuns, all I'm saying is, why would someone mail us a box right now? Considering the timing, maybe we should prepare ourselves. Either against very large explosions or, you know... prepare mentally." His voice dropped so quiet it was almost impossible to catch that last.

"Oh!" The wail was speedily quenched, replaced by a more positive denial. "Cap'n's not dead, Zoe. Can't be. We all heard what happened to Niska, so that can't be it."

"We all know the cap'n should've been in touch 'fore now," was her only gruff response. "Ain't shaped like a coffin. You reckon they chopped him up small?"

"Jayne! Can't you see she's upset enough already? Kaylee, here - " Too much anxious in that voice, and not all over Kaylee.

"I'd suggest," that deep familiar voice of reason put in, "that we open the box."

"I'd have to concur. Especially if all this emotion is being wasted on an order of engine parts." Spoken with a certain acerbic and uncompromising edge, if mixed with a little too much naivete for true effectiveness.

"Not very comfortable." A solemn and dead-on assessment. "Not very comfortable at all."

Mal pounded on the side of the crate and raised his voice and yelled for all he was gorram worth. Last thing he wanted was for Jayne to be concluding the crate most like to be a bomb.

A flurry of disturbance travelled faintly to him from outside, most distinct among it Kaylee's gasp and Book's startled, "Oh, my." There was a crunch as someone set a wrench to the seal, and another as they hauled on it and popped the lid .

Mal launched himself for the opening, fell back, caught the lip, unbalanced the crate and dumped himself out onto Serenity's cargo deck in a painful, undignified heap.

Inara gasped behind him. Would've thought the damn woman should be used to menfolk falling at her feet by now, he thought uncharitably.

"It's all right," River said, crouching down on her haunches to peer at him in an intent sort of a way as he tried not to howl from the ache of movement and the pain of circulation returned to limbs too long twisted up the most part immobile. "I was in a box, too. Bad dreams."

"I didn't - that ain't - never you mind peeping in my head." Mal struggled 'round and managed to get to sitting, by which time Zoe was at his side to lend a hand with Kaylee, showing a mite more concerned relief and less smirk, hovering at her shoulder.

"Jesus, Mal," Jayne said, tugging at and peering into the upturned crate. "Gorram near spaced you."

"I know, I heard - " He took a lurching step and snatched the wrapped money away before Jayne could get too much into investigating it further. Kaylee clung onto his arm to keep his legs from giving way.

"What you got there?" Jayne asked, petulant. Mal ignored him and swung back 'round on Zoe, who had her arms folded, her back straight and her eyebrows raised, pinning him smack in the sights of a look lost in terrain between the counties of smug, annoyed and incredulous.

"While I hate to say I told you so..." she began.

"You love to say 'I told you so'," Mal shot back, cutting her off. "I'd consider it a kindness if in this case you'd not bother."

"Mal - " Wash began, seeming to be recovering power of speech and coming 'round quick from the camp of pessimistic grief to that of entertainment, but he checked himself. "I don't need to ask why you're in a box, do I?"

"No, I don't believe you do, and I'd consider it a kindness - "

"Check." A snort of laughter all but obliterated the word.

"Cap'n - " Gorram it, even Kaylee's expression was starting to crack. Mal's temper snapped.

"I can see we're all very amused. But if I could just have your attention in amongst all this crazy fun - " He dipped his hand in the packet of cash and drew out the topmost bills, waving them about in front of a few speedily-perked-up noses. "This little venture, ill-advised or no, seems to have turned us a tidy bit of profit."

Jayne's face straightened out on the instant.

Inara's brows were concertinaed together, but she managed to dredge up a degree of sobriety. "We've been trying to find... Are you hurt, Mal? Was there torture?"

"No, there was no torture. No, I was not hurt. Thank you, Inara. I have, however, spent the best part of the last twenty-four hours in a gorram box, which sad-to-say has singularly failed in improving my very bad mood." He dumped the packet into Zoe's hands. "Here, you split that. Now, if you don't mind, I'll be getting myself a shave and a change, and leave you all to indulge in the inevitable incessant sniggering upon the irony of this here situation which we ain't mentioning again in my hearing."

"Sir. Yes, sir." Grin not even bothering to lurk beneath Wash's voice.

"Wash... need to plot a course to pick up my shuttle. Bridge in ten," he returned.

"Wait, Mal, what did Saffron - ?" Inara began.

"Not talking about Saffron." Mal didn't bother glancing back over his shoulder as he took the steps quick as his stiff legs might.

Jayne grunted; there was the grating sound of something heavy being moved and he shouted, still with undue seriousness, "Hey, Mal! What do you want we should do with the box?"

"Not talking about the box." He reached the top of the steps and turned up along the walkway.

"We were worried!" Kaylee's voice rose up with an earnest sort of effort.

He headed through to the kitchen without response. His internal count on the seconds anticipated - dead on target - the moment when the muffled laughter broke free behind him.

END