The sun was shining more brightly than Mal had ever seen. At least, that's how it felt. But then he couldn't exactly trust his memory nowadays. The price of growing old, he remarked.
He watched the people with a smile on his aged face; even after all these years, Persephone looked no different.
But everything was different, he knew that. All the old familiar feelings had left him, as had his crew. It had started slow. Jayne had finally kicked it, the old mule, after all the bullets and knives and lasers he'd faced down and won, it had been something as calm as old age to take him out. The bastard even had the balls to die with a smile on his face, muttering something about 'a damn good ride'.
Then it was Zoe. Renal disease. Simon had tried to convince her that it wasn't too late, they could find her a kidney or one of them could donate, but she'd refused. 'Don't need to be a shepherd to know when God wants you back,' she'd said. And so she went, slowly, the pain held at bay with steady doses of morphine. They'd found Simon weeping in the sick bay over her body; her eyes staring off into nothing, her features peaceful.
Got harder after that. Crew of five, cut down to four after Inara left them. Jobs got next to impossible to find, and they just couldn't do it anymore. They were getting too old, too worn.
Even Kaylee, for God's sake. That girl who'd been so full of life and love, annoyingly sweet, the heart of the crew…she was next. It was quiet, instantaneous. An aneurysm in her sleep. Simon woke up and she was gone. Looked like she was still sleeping. Mal found him holding her tightly, refusing to let her go.
Losing her had broken his heart the most.
After that, it was just the three of them. Mal, Simon, and River. It had made Mal almost laugh to realize his only crewmembers left were the ones he hadn't wanted.
That had changed, definitely. Simon and Mal had finally come to some sort of unspoken agreement, they'd began to tolerate each other a bit more. That evolved into a strange sort of friendship over the years, and they'd actually came to like—and understand—each other.
So when Simon finally went, Mal found himself truly missing the man. And pitying him, of course, for the way he had gone was not one he deserved.
It had been Simon, oddly enough, that insisted on one last daring heist. The details were fuzzy in Mal's mind now, but he did remember the moment Simon was lost.
A shot had echoed through the valley as Simon had driven the Mule back to Serenity, chased by a group of men on horseback.
Mal'd put her on autopilot as soon as they were clear of the atmosphere, and then he'd ran to the loading dock, and there he was, blood everywhere, on River too, as she sat on the floor with her older brother dying in her arms.
They took him to the sick bay, begging him to help them save him. But he just looked up at them both, tears leaking out of his eyes, and shook his head.
'You listen to me,' Mal had practically screamed. 'It's a cheat! Don't nobody deserve to die like this, least of all you. Come on, doc, tell us what to do.'
And River had cried, sobbed, tugged at Simon's bloodstained shirt as he'd slipped away. Then she'd fallen to her knees and wrapped her arms around herself, looking for all the worlds like the 17-year-old girl she'd been when she'd first arrived on Serenity.
They'd buried Simon next to Kaylee, where he belonged.
So it was just Mal and River in the end. The captain and his albatross, flying from port to port, settling for just taking on passengers as their means.
This was a day like any other. Waiting for a few wayward souls to toss them some credits for a lift.
The one thing that set it apart from the others was the woman they happened to pick up.
She was mysterious, hiding her face from them with a wine-colored cloth, and speaking in soft Chinese. She gave them more credits than were due, and carried only one small bag with her.
River showed her to her room, which used to belong to Wash and Zoe, and told her the usual: when the meals were, where she wasn't allowed, estimated arrival time, and then left her to herself.
It was much later, when Mal was flying his baby at an easy pace through the Black, that the stranger decided to properly introduce herself.
She knew she wasn't allowed in the cockpit. And, had she been a first-time passenger aboard Serenity, she wouldn't even have been able to find it, terrible as she was with directions.
But she knew the way like she knew herself. She moved slowly, not as young and spry as she once was, her footfalls silent.
She stared at him from behind for a few minutes, until he spoke, startling her.
"Not one to follow rules, I take it? Woman after my own heart."
She let her eyes slip away from him and wander around the cockpit, noticing that nothing had changed. Even Wash's toy dinosaurs still decorated the pilot's control panel.
"I love your ship," she replied, still in her lilting Chinese.
"Well thank you kindly. She's a ratty sort, but she don't give me much fuss. Handles like a dream, if you've got the right touch."
"She is beautiful…I've always had a soft spot for Fireflies."
"You know your ships, not bad. Don't make 'em like this anymore."
"No," she responded, this time in English. "They certainly don't."
Now she was standing right beside Mal, gazing out at the stars.
Mal felt tears prick his eyes, and blinked them away. "Been a while."
"Yes, it has. I'm sorry."
Mal nodded curtly. "I tried to find you. They're all gone. I thought you'd want to know."
"I know." They fell silent for a moment. "River's still here. You two were always good for each other."
"Yeah. She's the only family I got left. But she ain't you."
The woman's eyes closed, and she placed a hand on his shoulder.
"And they weren't you."
Mal's throat constricted, a rush of emotions flooding him, things he hadn't felt in years.
"So what is this, Inara? One last ride, another damn goodbye? Woman, you really haven't changed."
All she could do was smile. "Neither have you."
He caught the smile in her voice, and felt one of his own slip onto his face.
"And anyway, I'm not leaving this time," she continued casually, sitting in the copilot seat. "That is, if I'm welcome to stay."
Mal turned to look at her, taking in the lines that had appeared since they'd last seen each other.
"You know I can't resist picking up strays."