A/N: Hi everyone! I'm so sorry that I always make you guys wait so long, but here is the next, and I think final, chapter. I've been going back and forth on how I feel the story should end for so long, and I think I've come to a point that's good enough to stop. If you think I've left a huge plothole or left out some important info, tell me in the reviews, and I may add in an epilogue. (I know there are definitely some things I've chosen to ignore, like Alexis' mom Meredith, etc.) Please enjoy!
It had been about three months since Mal returned to Serenity, enough time for the news to spread. They even had some new business: old friends, out on the rim, small jobs to help ease the captain back into the position of leadership. They were now on route to Persephone; he knew Badger was waiting, but would never dignify to scout out the motley crew himself. Badger felt he was owed something, and experience told Mal that the longer they waited, the more offended Badger would become. And although an angry Badger wasn't exactly dangerous, he could still makes things pretty annoying.
Mal currently sat above the cargo bay, his legs dangling over the catwalk, with a bottle of some of Kaylee's home brew perched next to him. He watched as said mechanic and Alexis sat on the ground below, books and miscellaneous brik-a-brak spread out around them, as Kaylee gave his daughter her daily history-of-the-future lesson. Each member of the crew, having taken so warmly to the young redhead, secretly felt it was their personal duty to aid in these lessons as well, which was why Jayne and Kai were working out nearby and occasionally pausing to add in their two cents worth.
"Jayne," said Kaylee. "Nobody cares if that go se moon is known for having the most bar fights per day. I'm tryin' to teach Alexis about its significance in the Second Battle of Xingling."
Jayne just growled, and turned away to do another bench press.
"That's okay," said Alexis. "I'm sure it'll turn out to be very important some day."
But Mal only half-listened to all this as he recalled all the changes that had occurred throughout the last few months. He was also busy remembering a couple other things too, and a couple other people, namely the ones he left behind...
There was a knock at Kate's door. "Castle?" she asked, as she beckoned in her friend. "What are you doing here? I thought you would've left by now."
"I could never leave without saying goodbye first," said Mal.
"So you've really made your decision then?" she asked.
"Yeah, I, uh," he stammered. "They're my crew... my family. I can't explain the kind of pull that ship has on me, what it used to mean to me." His voice suddenly found more strength and passion. "Kate, I had lost so much; that ship, those people, they saved me."
"I'm glad for you, Castle," she said, her brow furrowing on the last word. "Or should I say 'Mal'?"
"Castle's fine," Mal told her.
"Castle," she said, a bittersweet smile on her lips. "Just don't forget the friends you've made here, okay?"
"Never," he promised.
He was taken from his memories as he heard a pair of heels walking closer. "Mind if I join you?" Inara asked.
"Please," Mal said, indicating for her to sit beside him, and offering her a mug and some of Kaylee's brew, which she accepted, sipping slowly.
"So do you miss it?" Inara asked him.
"A little," Mal confessed. "It'll take some time to really feel at home here again."
"Well," said Inara. "You've already made a lot of headway. And Alexis really seems to be enjoying herself." They both peered down to watch as Alexis and Kai held a conversation that consisted of a lot of smiling and giggling.
"A little too much," Mal said, narrowing his eyes toward the two teenagers.
"Never pictured you as an over-protective father," said Inara, smiling to herself.
"You never pictured me as a best-selling novelist, either," he said. "But I'm capable of a lot of things."
"I'm beginning to see that," she said, taking another sip of her drink. "So where do we go from here?"
"Stay the course," said Mal. "See where that takes us, and never look back."
"It's going to be strange without you," Kate said.
"You're strong enough to take care of yourself," said Mal. "Just... do me a favor, will ya? Look out for Martha for me."
"Of course," said Kate.
"I'm gonna miss you," said Mal. "You're my best friend on this entire Earth."
"Seeing how large the universe actually is according to you," said Kate. "I don't know how I feel about that."
"Feel happy," said Mal.
"Only if you do the same," said Kate.
"I will," said Mal. "I'm going back home."
Kate leaned in for a hug, and they grabbed each other. When they finally pulled away, Mal rubbed away a few stray tears falling down Kate's cheek.
"Don't cry, Kate," he told her. "Remember, I have a time-travel device. I can always pop in for a visit."
Suddenly Kate froze and her tears stopped. "What?" she asked.
"It's really easy, actually. And safe."
"And you knew this the entire time?" Kate said, pushing away from him as anger flared in her voice.
"Yeah," said Mal, cautiously.
"I've been wearing my heart on my sleeve ever since you began to consider leaving, and you didn't think to tell me you'd also return for the occasional visit?"
"I'm telling you now," said Mal. "Does that count for something?"
Kate stared at him silently for a moment before speaking. "Yes, it does."
"What?" said Mal, even more flabbergasted by her sudden pardon than by her anger.
"I want to hear all about everything the next time I see you," said Kate in her demanding tone.
"I promise to give you exclusive access and full details to any and all adventures and mundane activities from now until I see you next."
"Good," said Kate.
"Good," said Mal.
"So how do you feel then?" Inara asked.
Mal breathed in deeply, and said, "Free."
"Free to be whoever I want," he explained.
"And what is that?" she asked.
"Myself," said Mal. "Whoever that turns out to be."
A/N: What a long strange trip it's been. Thanks for all your support! I really hope you enjoyed reading!