Warning: this story contains major spoilers for the movie Serenity. Do not read if you have not seen the movie yet.
The contrast between the mug of hot coffee in one hand and the glass of ice cold water in the other snapped Mal out of his daydream and sent him back along the short corridor from the kitchen room to the cockpit.
It had been a month since they had gotten Serenity back in the air, and it appeared that the Alliance had decided that they were not worth the trouble of going after again, at lest, for the time being. Work was a little thin on the ground after the Operative had taken their dirty little war to most of their contacts, leaving only the natural survivors like Badger alive.
They may not have a lot of hard cash, but they had enough to keep in the air for a while yet.
Mal did his best to suppress a grin as he passed hatch leading down to Kaylee's cabin: judging by the sounds that had been emanating from the other side of the not-quite-soundproof wall and keeping him awake most nights, his engineer wouldn't be needing any batteries for a while. He just hoped that Simon was smart enough to let his medical training play a small part in the relationship: the last thing he needed was a screaming kid keeping everyone up all night.
He paused in the space between Jayne and Zoë's cabins: they'd both been hit hard by what had happened. Mal knew that Zoë would probably never recover from Wash's death, while Jayne had lost the closet thing he'd ever had to a friend. In all the years Mal had known the merc, he'd only ever seen him cry once, and that was when Shepard Book died.
Strange as the 'verse might be, the two of them had been close; the preacher finding something in Jayne that no one else other than his mother ever got close enough to see. Jayne had even gone as far as to write a letter to his family on Olympus, something that no one on the crew had ever seen him do.
Sure, he normally sent half his cut from any job home to help support the apparently still growing Cobb clan, but no one had ever seen him sit at the dinner table with a pen held in his had as he straggled to put into word what he was feeling.
Mal was more concerned with Zoë: his old comrade refused to talk with him about what had happened, choosing instead to bottle it all up inside. Ever time he tried to talk to her about Wash she just shut down: blanking him completely. He made a mental note to ask Inara to talk to Zoë: if a fully trained Companion couldn't get her to open up a little, no one could.
Shaking his head, Mal made his way up the steps leading to the cockpit.
River sat huddled in the pilots seat, looking intently at the toy dinosaurs that had been left out as a permanent memorial to Serenity's former pilot. They sat as Wash had left them, in the middle of one of the endless melodramas he'd played out with them whenever he'd had nothing else t occupy his fertile imagination.
"How we set, mei-mei?" Mal asked as he handed the young girl the glass of water, "Still flying strait."
"Serenity misses Wash." River responded, not even looking round, "She can not understand why he is gone."
"Is that going to be a problem for us?"
"No: she knows he loved her, and will keep flying in his memory."
Mal wasn't sure how seriously to take River's comments: all ships as old as Serenity had their own little quirks that some referred to as personality, and the battered old Firefly seemed to responded to River in ways that only a pilot with a god-given talent like Wash had ever been able to command.
He'd named the ship after a battle that he'd never been able to put behind him. Several people had told him that he still lived in Serenity Valley, Zoë among them. There were times he'd have to agree with them.
That said, Serenity was as good a name as any.
"You'll see her right, little albatross." Mal asked, smiling at his little pet name for the youngest member of his crew.
River gave him a look that showed a little of her true personality: with the secret of Miranda finally out in the open, River Tam was starting to emerge from the damage done by the Alliance doctors. She'd never be right, but she hadn't acted up since her battle with the Reaver's.
Simon, in one of his less Kaylee fixated moments, had said something about the secret being the key to undoing the programming, but he'd then started using words that Mal couldn't follow, so he'd stopped listening. All that mattered was that the Alliance wasn't going to win this one: River was never going to be the living weapon they'd wanted.
River was still capable of clearing out an entire bar of thugs if needed, but she wouldn't react automatically to any post-hypnotic suggestions. Mal found that idea all kinds of appealing, until Jayne had pointed out that she may not respond to the codeword to send her to sleep again: the big, brash merc could be disturbingly insightful at times.
River adjusted the ship's heading slightly, bringing Ma back to the here-and-now.
Mal sipped his coffee, letting the hot, bitter liquid wash away the bittier taste in his mouth left by the knowledge that the Alliance seemed to be weathering the storm generated by his little broadcast. Its power base had been somewhat eroded, and a lot of people were starting to take a little more interest into the government, but nothing much had changed.
Thousands of people had died trying to keep Miranda's secret, yet it looked like the people responsible were going to get away with it.
For a moment, Mal considered what the Operative had told him before they'd parted ways: the Alliance was not forgiving. Telling the entire 'verse that the Alliance had indivertibly created the Reaver's was not going to win him any friends in the Parliament.
There were many more operatives out there, and who knew what the next one might me like? Certainly, they wouldn't be as honourable as the last.
"How are things going with Inara?" River asked between sips of her water.
"Gwon nee tze-jee duh shr." Mal did his best to sound offended, but he knew full well that River probably knew what the Companion was thinking better than he did. They had not exactly admitted how they felt for each other, but there was a defiant change in the air.
The endless dance around each other was over, but they were far from turning into another Kaylee and Simon.
"You just concentrate on getting us to Zeus on time." Mal sat back, resting his feet on the edge of the control panel, "Let the 'verse take care of itself for once."
River smiled warmly, something Mal had only seen once or twice before. Ever since Kaylee had told them all about what had happened on Niska's station, he'd felt ill at ease around River, but the new, more open side she had started to show was all kinds of appealing to someone who'd long ago given up on the human race.
The 'verse still had its little secrets, like what was one Shepard Book's ID card that Jayne had kept as a memento of his friend, that got a supposable simple preacher preferential treatment at an Alliance medical centre.
But that was one secret Mal was willing to let the 'verse keep: Shepard Book had been a good man and a better friend, and that was untimely all that mattered.
Leaning back in his chair, Mal closed his eyes, knowing that, for once, his dreams wouldn't be filled with the names and faces of those who'd died under his command. Maybe, after all that had happened, he cold finally leave Serenity Valley.