Little by little, the crew started to speak of it.
They didn't dare at first, because of Zoe. The Warrior Woman did not weep; not even at the funeral. But those that knew her best could see she had retreated inward. Mal saw and kept forcing her to come out, forcing her to leave the room she shared with Wash, just for a few minutes each day.
Everyone wanted to show her love and sympathy, but it was Zoe, and nobody knew if that was going to make it better or worse. The only person she would talk to was Mal. He would go into the room she shared with Wash, and come out a few hours later. Nobody asked him what happened each time, and he volunteered nothing to anyone.
And after the events of Miranda, everyone was busy enough with their own hearts, sorting themselves out. Kaylee and Simon were lost in the rush of first love. Jayne worked out, and to everyone's open surprise, spent a lot of time reading Shepard Book's bible. River was at peace for the first time. Nobody could understand a word she was saying, as usual; but she was at least coherent about all the confusing things she said. Simon could keep up; and was happier than anyone had ever seen him. He had his sister back, after sacrificing so much to save her, and he had Kaylee; a point that everyone supported, but nobody commented on, due to others who weren't so lucky.
Five weeks passed, and little by little, they started to speak of it. Of Wash, of the Reapers, of Miranda.
Inara had not gone back to her academy. She and Mal had been slowly circling each other; with all the reasons they had given themselves to stay apart now gone; but habit and pride still keeping them at arms length. As the riots raged across the Outer Planets, and soldiers marched the streets on the Core Worlds; another war seemed inevitable, and Inara was glad they hadn't gotten closer. She would lose him to the War, she was certain.
What frightened her was the nagging thought that she should volunteer with him.
The riots continued, and the Parliament was recalled. The elections went on day and night. It was unprecedented; all of them being impeached at once; thousands of representatives across a dozen moons and planets. A few managed to get back into power during the recall, most were voted out. A few were never heard from again. More than a dozen committed suicide before being arrested.
Nobody said it, but the Miranda Massacre, as it had come to be known, was before many of them were in power. The fire had been lit, and the torch was burning. Revelations came out as the fire spread across the Verse; about the evil that had been done; buried, kept secret.
The crew spoke of the WAVE's from the Core at dinner, thankful that Zoe wasn't there.
Simon and Kaylee fit together so nicely in his bunk. Her hammock was too small for proper sleep, and they listened to the WAVE's come in off the Cortex.
"...have denied rumors that they intend to declare Martial Law, due to the ongoing crisis. Reports are coming through of massive defections..."
"Turn it off." She said; and he reached past her to twist a few wires apart. A bed shared with a loved one was not the place for talk of violence. "We did it." Kaylee said softly. "We got the word out, and look what happened. Look what we did."
"We may have started another war." Simon pointed out.
"If we have... If there is another War, what do we do?" Kaylee asked. "I never much liked the Alliance, but if there's fighting..."
"Shh." Simon whispered and kissed her softly. "We've done our part. We set the fire. But if there's more than that... Whatever we do, we do it together."
Kaylee nodded. "I like the sound of that."
There was the sound of footsteps outside. "Tell River to stop peeking in on us." Kaylee said, not really upset.
"That wasn't River." Simon kissed the top of her head. "If it was, we wouldn't hear a sound. I think it was Mal."
Kaylee checked the clock. "The Captain's been spending an awful lot of time with Zoe lately." Kaylee yawned and snuggled into him. "You think that's just what its like for War Buddies?"
"I hope we never have to find out."
Kaylee tensed. "I asked the Captain about that, actually. He said that during the last War, the Independents were allowed to date."
"Not surprised. Most of them were families and communities when the war came and drove them out..." Simon hesitated. "Wait. When was River peeking on us?"
Kaylee winced. "Well, I think she..."
"Wait." Simon thought of another one. "Why were you asking the Captain about Independents and dating?"
Kaylee leaned up and gave him a kiss on the lips.
They broke for air and Simon just looked at her. "I like the way you try to change the subject, Kaylee, bu-Mphmph!"
Kaylee put herself against him tightly and gave him a long and thorough kissing, until the subject was well and truly changed.
For the first time since the funeral, Zoe came down to dinner. Everyone had actually fallen silent a moment as she came to the head of the table, her emotions tightly controlled, and her face a mask.
"Zoe!" Inara said brightly, as though Zoe had been gone for ten minutes instead of locked down in her quarters for the better part of a month. "Would you care for some d-"
"I'm pregnant." Zoe interrupted tightly.
Stunned silence. Kaylee beamed, one hand going to her mouth in delighted shock. Simon and Jayne looked at Mal for a microsecond before their brains caught up and they buried the first thought that came to their minds.
"Wash and I were discussing children, before... it happened." Zoe said coldly. "Doctor, I'll be needing you to check on me later, to see if the baby's still okay after... it happened."
Simon nodded instantly. "Of course."
Zoe turned on her heel and walked out of the room. Aside from Simon and Mal, that was the last anyone saw of her for weeks.
The elections continued, the riots died down, and the revelations kept coming. The Alliance Council suspended investigations and recall elections before the chaos reached them personally, hoping that dropping the entire Parliament would be enough to keep them in power themselves.
The Core worlds howled for justice, the outer world howled for blood, and the riots began again.
The question of what to do once the war started was the elephant in the room. The Mess Hall was buzzing with news every night. Serenity had no cargo, and no destination. The Tams were still wanted, but those on the Alliance Most Wanted List were being held up as System-Wide Heroes by a lot of circles now.
Every time the topic came up, Mal started vibrating with a dangerous energy. Inara was silent on the subject. River came to breakfast and promptly declared that she was going to war against the Alliance, and that if nobody else started one soon, she would do it herself. Jayne had declared that he'd fight too, a few minutes later.
The most conflicting unknown was Zoe, who hadn't spoken of it; even more than a month later.
"How bad is she?" Inara asked Mal at the dinner table one night.
"She's tore up all kinds of ways." Mal said quietly. "She's as bad as I was after the war."
"How bad was that?" Kaylee asked in a very small voice.
"Bad enough that you had to be there."
"She was there." Zoe said from the door.
Everyone jumped as Zoe came in. She was waking like a zombie, her pregnancy just barely starting to show as she went to the kitchenette and collected as many packs of protein as she could carry.
"What was that Zo'?" Mal asked casually. "I didn't catch that."
"She's been there too." Zoe said gently, almost as though she didn't know she was speaking. "They all have. Miranda was Serenity Valley. Miranda was That Day." She looked fiercely at Kaylee, looking deep into the girl's eyes, with a gaze so fearsome Kaylee went pale. Zoe growled at her, like a judge passing sentence. "You've walked Serenity Valley, mei-mei. But it lied to you, so that you thought it was Mr Universe's complex."
Kaylee carefully pried her hands free of Zoe's grip, but the Warrior Woman barely noticed, lost in her own story.
"When there were more of them than us, and they were bigger and stronger and meaner, and they just kill and kill until there was nothing left to kill." Zoe whispered, weaving a spell that had everyone frozen in the mess hall. "When we were boxed into a coffin big enough for all of us and trying to plug the way in with dead bodies to keep them out... When that happens..."
"You hold." Their Captain joined in the terrible daydream. Mal had gone silent, far away too; in whatever place Zoe was seeing.
Zoe didn't even look at him. "So, you hold." She confirmed.
Both of them facing the same direction, from opposite sides of the Mess Hall, as if looking at the same thing, down an unseen valley full of blood and cold death.
"You hold." Both old soldiers both whispered again, in perfect unison.
Long, deathly silence reigned for an eternal moment, as everyone relived it; Zoe and Mal in Serenity Valley, everyone else the Reaper attack in the Tunnels.
Zoe rested her free hand on her stomach. "I can't, sir. You've got a universe to save, but I only got one I gotta protect."
Mal nodded. "I understand. You got no higher call, Zoe; than to protect the little one."
"It's Wash." Zoe whispered. "Half of Wash is more than I ever thought..."
"I'm not mad." He promised. "Your war is done, Zoe. Mine's been sleeping for ten years, but it's awake now. Only thing you lost in Serenity Valley was a war. You have to look after you."
They traded a tiny nod, and Mal left the room, Zoe looking miserably after him.
"One thing I don't get." Simon said finally. "If that battle was so bad... If Serenity Valley was such a horror, why would the Captain name his ship after it?"
"I asked him that once." Zoe said coolly, the only way she knew how to speak. "He said it sounded like a good name; that was all. But after seeing him here for a while, I knew why."
She didn't say anything further.
"Well?" Inara pushed her gently.
"Two reasons." Zoe said, carrying her foodstuffs back toward her room. "One: Because The Firefly Serenity healed what Serenity Valley broke... and Two: Because that place and this ship had something in common. Once you're there a spell, you never really leave."
The universal authority that had kept the Alliance as the top of the food chain was slowly starting to shift the other way, as reporters, local leaders, WAVE-Riders, Pirates and Spacers that had always kept quiet before... began to speak. The avalanche had started, though nobody had declared it so yet.
Inara was touching Mal more often. Just holding his wrist, or resting her hands on his shoulders, or leaning into him without actually hugging. It was as though she was trying to convince herself he was real, and still there. Zoe came out of her room and went to her post on the bridge, staring at the stars non-stop.
Kaylee and Simon hadn't left each others side; to a degree that it would have been funny if it was happening at any other time.
Jayne was working out constantly, pouring the frustration of silence into the weight bench. It was not unusual, for the Captain and his first mate to be standing sentinel on the bridge, staring out across the stars, as the constant clang of Jayne's barbells rang through the ship, ringing out rhythmically, like a discordant bell tolling in the Black.
There was the incredible feeling of lightning about to strike, and those that didn't have a history were speaking in whispers, as if afraid to break the uneasy silence. Everyone knew that it was going to start any second.
"You still want to fight?"
"Can I just say... you've been through hell already, twice." Mal told her kindly. "You've fought the wars and done your time."
"When the Reapers were wiped out, I was the one that took them hand to hand. They were all rage and death and evil; and I went through them like the wind. And then the wall came down, and there were guns and uniforms and I was about to do it all again." River paused. "I wasn't the only one in the Academy. Two by Two. Hands of Blue. Hearts of stone. Feet of Clay. The clay collapsed, and they are falling. But I was the only one who escaped to give them a push."
She started humming the Fruity Oaty bar commercial theme, and went back to her console. Mal understood. There were other snatched prodigy children in the Academy, and odds were good that they were all dead by now; in the Alliance's mad dash to cover the secret his little Albatross had dug up. She wanted to avenge them, and Mal knew from experience a motive like that was mighty powerful.
And truth be told, the sight of her dripping in Reaver Blood, with a blade in each hand, looking like the Angel of Death; was an image stamped across his nightmares; and part of him liked the idea of the Alliance's Secret Weapon of Last Resort pointed back at the purple-bellies.
River trilled a little growl as she picked up the thought, and he forced his eyes back to the stars, when every 'scope on the bridge suddenly went to static.
Mal reacted. "We lose the feed, Little Albatross?"
River just looked at him. "Can't Stop The Signal."
The Captain was about to speak to that, as the screens came back to life. Mal jumped to his feet, cursing in four different dialects of two different languages when she recognized the face on the screen. It was the Operative. The Browncoat recognized the place where he was standing too. The Operative was speaking from the middle of Serenity Valley.
"Ten years ago, a War was lost in this Valley." The Operative said, his smooth gentle voice was perfectly calm, as it came from every speaker. "A war was lost, but the wrong side won. We know this, because the victors created a place lacking in justice. Their sins were those ancient forces of Pride, and Greed, and Vanity beyond measure. These things are powers unto themselves, and where there was an opportunity to make better worlds, far better worlds for us all; the end result was one of dictatorial control and murder of people that wanted only to make their way in an unassuming life."
The message was coming from every speaker, every view-screen. Mal would have laid odds that it was a System-Wide Broadcast, going to everyone in the Alliance, and far beyond. His heart was racing. This was it. This had to be it.
"Thirty Million died by silence, and nobody noticed. It is an abomination, from the Parliament of Conquerors. I was there when The Truth was shown, and we learned the true nature of a world without sin."
Simon noticed movement out of the corner of his eye, and saw Zoe was standing in the door, where she could see one of the screens.
"Therefore, I call on all people now to act. The fire has already started, let us burn it hotter and brighter! Let this stand as an official Declaration of Rebellion!" The Operative declared, and everyone for a hundred spinning worlds felt the hairs on their neck stand at attention. "We will not achieve perfection. This is not a war to remake the worlds in our image, but to put wrong things right; and to remove a stain of blood that has been waiting ten years for us to understand that peace, is sometimes another word for defeat, and that winners are not always in the right."
The screen went to static instantly.
Mal turned on his heel and faced Zoe, who was starting to show, one hand resting over her stomach.
"River." Mal said, not taking his eyes off her. "Take us to anywhere. Anywhere there are people. It's time."
It had been several weeks since Mal had been in Zoe's room. She still hadn't moved any of Wash's things.
"Doc says its a girl." Zoe said as he came down the ladder; not bothering to turn and face him.
"We're having a daughter?"
"I'm having a daughter." Zoe corrected.
"Don't worry: You'll be involved." Mal promised.
Zoe didn't smile, but her eyes softened, just the tiniest bit. "He was in the Valley." She said finally.
"Cortex says it's the new Rebel Base." Mal agreed. "He does have a talent for historical irony. A rare talent to have."
"They'll end him in ten minutes."
"Ten minutes is a long time in that particular scrap of nowhere as I recall." Mal shook his head. "The Alliance said they'd waltz through Serenity Valley once; and..." Mal broke off immediately, shivering violently.
Zone didn't look at him, reclining on her bed, tracing her hand over the opposite pillow, as though across her husband's face. "And we choked 'em on those words." She whispered. "We done the impossible."
"And that makes us mighty." Mal whispered, the familiar words transporting them across time and space to the worst day of his life... and the second-worst of hers.
Long deathly silence.
"I can't." She said finally. "I can't hold that imaginary line any more."
"I know." Mal conceded.
Zoe's shoulder were shaking. He could see the glimmer of tears on her cheeks, though he had the sense not to mention it.
"I'm giving you the ship." He said gently. "Keep her away from it. It's your home too... and I lost one home to war already."
"So have I." Zoe said softly. "It'll be the first battle in twenty years that I didn't have your back."
"River has volunteered."
Zoe blinked. "Well. If anyone who ain't me has to fight alongside you..."
"The baby started kicking." She said, and reached behind her for his hand. She pulled him to sit on the edge of her bed, resting his hand over her stomach; and they sat there a while. They didn't say anything more, because they were the special two. The first two. The original pair that had brought the crew together. They didn't need to speak. In all the battles they'd fought they practically had telepathy by now, knowing how the other would react to every situation, what the other thought on every subject.
"The ship is yours now, Zoe." Mal said, bringing their conversation to a close. "Take care of my girl till I get back."
Zoe looked at him hard.
"I refer to the ship." Mal clarified.
He came out of the room, back up to the main corridor that ran along the neck of the ship, from Common areas to Bridge. Simon and Kaylee were waiting for him, holding hands.
"She okay?" Kaylee asked.
"As okay as she will be." Mal shut the hatch. "Promise you'll look after her while I'm gone?"
"You're going then?" Kaylee asked fearfully. "You're going to fight?"
"That surprises you?"
"No, cap'n." Kaylee moped a little. "But I gotta go with you."
Mal paled. "What? NO!"
Kaylee fixed him with a forbidding glare. "You think I'm gonna let you take Serenity into a war-zone again, you're outta your ruttin' head. You think I'm gonna let you fly in any Mule, Hovercraft, Ship, Fighter or winged horsie that I didn't put together for you, you're an idiot." She set her jaw. "We ain't mercenaries anymore. We all got skin in the game now."
Mal wanted to grab her by the arms and shake her till this craziness fell out of her genius mind, but the truth was, the overriding thought that went through him was pride. He sent a glance to Simon. "Doc, talk sense to your woman."
Simon held up his hands in surrender. "Last time I tried to talk to my sister when she had her mind made up? She kicked me in the throat before I could say a word, and then she stormed off and did what she planned to do. I'm not arguing with her, and Kaylee." He sighed. "So I suppose I'll have to go with you too. Odds are good you'll need a doctor."
Mal smiled. "Okay then."
"But before we leave, there's one more thing we need to ask you about." Kaylee said.
"It's not really a surprise." Inara told him as she handed him a teacup. The two had spent several nights talking in her shuttle. Truth was, her lease had expired a week ago, and they both knew it, but neither of them had mentioned it. "It's more than simple revenge. This is how you build an army. Somebody does something terrible, and those that feel hurt, or lose out take up with each other to fight back. Oppression breeds resistance."
"Alliance has been pushing for longer than either of us have been alive." Mal admitted. "They thought the Verse was done pushing back ten years ago."
"You think they'll be okay?" Inara asked. "Except for one rather significant moment, Kaylee, Simon and firearms haven't had the most co-operative history."
"During the last war, me and Zoe fought in a bunch of places where the wrench turners were the most valuable soldiers out there. The only reason we could even get to most battlefields, given what we were up against. Our fleets were slapped together refitted junkers; our medical staff were veterinarians that had lost their homes... Having Kaylee and Simon will be a huge boost." He sipped her excellent tea. "And then there's River..."
"Like turning a lion loose in a hen house." Inara agreed.
Mal sipped his tea and spoke casually. "Did you know that outside the jurisdiction of any particular worlds' reach, the Captain of a ship has final legal authority?"
"I did." Inara told him. "I didn't tell you because I feared the power would go to your head."
"Oh, I gave up on having any say on what went on in this crate since you and Kaylee started ganging up on me." He sipped again. "But Simon and Kaylee have got it into their heads that since I've got that power, I might use it to declare the two of them joined in holy matrimony 'fore we land."
"Hm." Inara agreed easily and poured him a refill.
Mal's face fell. "You already knew, didn't you?"
"Kaylee may have mentioned something." Inara smiled. "They've been talking about it a while, but with Zoe and the baby, they wanted to put it off. Now that they've decided to join a revolution; I suppose minutes count."
"Amen to that." Mal tossed back his tea. "I should probably tell Zoe. We don't got much, but Kaylee's family to us. I owe it to her to pretend we can make it special."
"And Simon's family?"
"River probably knew before they did, but if you mean his folks... They were the ones that sent Simon on the run. They didn't dare defy the Alliance, not even for River. I read it on the warrant; his father was the one who rumbled the Doc's escape plan. That's why there was a Fed on board when he joined us."
Inara sighed hard, somehow managing to load that one sound with a great deal of hatred.
Mal stood to go. "Doc's got all the family he needs on this boat. Tomorrow night, I aim to make it official. That is if I can't talk him out of it by mornin'."
"The part of Kaylee's father to be played by Malcom Reynolds." Inara chuckled, and reached a hand out. "But before you get into that, there's something else you should know." She licked her lips. "Jayne came to see me earlier."
Mal set the cup down with a thunk. "What?"
Inara rolled her eyes at him. "In his dreams. No, he wanted advice."
"It chills me down to my bone marrow too." Inara agreed, flawlessly composed. "When the war comes, he plans to fight, but I think... he doesn't really want to."
"What?" Mal barked out a laugh. "Don't tell me he was actually reading the Preacher's book all that time?"
"Yes, but not because of that." Inara said gently. "I think you should talk to him, Mal. And make it very soon."
Clang! Grunt. Clang! Grunt. Clang!
The rhythm hadn't changed in weeks. Every day, in the empty cargo hold, Jayne worked the barbells. If Book had been alive, he would have had a spotter; but... Mal came over and gripped the bar lightly. "Jayne?"
"Cap'n." The mercenary responded, without breaking his rhythm.
"Dangerous to do this without a spotter. Your hand slips and you'll cut your head off."
"I live on the edge." Jayne hissed.
"Kaylee and Simon want to elope before we land." Mal said lightly.
"Fine." Jayne grunted, not seeming to care.
Mal dropped the small talk. "I get the notion there's something you want to talk 'bout."
Jayne sighed, and set the bar down. He sat up, but wouldn't look at Mal directly. "I told you I didn't fight in the war. That was true. I didn't much care who won. This time... I kinda do. But..." He sent a glance over to the Bible, on the end of the bench. "The Shepard ever tell you where he came from?"
"No." Mal said, suddenly intensely curious.
"Then I won't either. But if the war is starting again..." He scrubbed his face, still not looking at Mal. "I don't know why it eats at me so. I said to Book that my kind of life don't last. He said I'd outlive him." He reached out and picked up the holy book. "And he was right. He would have said there was a reason. And I don't think it was to kill people in uniforms."
Mal just looked at him. "Jayne?"
"You know me, Cap. I ain't no coward. And if there was ever someone I wanted to kill... But I went head to head with a whole pack of Reavers. The only thing in my life that ever scared me, and I even outlived them, to the last bogey man screaming... And they weren't even monsters. I don't... Mal, for the first time, I don't want to fight any more." He gripped the bible till it flexed in his hands. "Who would have thought that me and a gorram preacher-man would be friends?"
"Not I." Mal admitted.
"I think... I'm tired of fighting. I think Book was tired of it, and that's why he became a... I'm tired, Mal." Jayne sniffed, and Mal suddenly realized that the huge man's eyes were red. He was crying. "The biggest gorram fight there's ever been, against the wildest monsters and the most heartless gose that ever walked the worlds, and I lived, when Wash and Book didn't. When I became a merc, I knew there'd come a fight I wouldn't win. There gets to be a point when you just don't want to find out what that fight is. Because if it's worse than Miranda, I don't ever want... Well. Yeah."
"Jayne... You don't want to fight the Alliance, there ain't no power in the Verse can force you." Mal pointed out.
Boom. There it was. He'd finally gotten it out. Mal felt gooseflesh break out on his arms. Jayne had perhaps been changed more than any of them. The Captain rose to his feet. "Jayne, Zoe won't be coming with me. She's gotta look out for the baby; because it's hers and Wash's. I can't be here now, so I need someone to look after her."
Jayne had a look of quiet relief as he stood up too. "I'll take care of her."
"And the ship?"
"The ship too."
Inara was waiting for him, pouring a second cup when he came back into the shuttle. "Everything alright?"
"The Verse is a funny place, and no mistake." Mal almost laughed as he collapsed into one of her overstuffed floor chairs. "Who would have thunk it? The war comes again, and River, Simon and Kaylee sign on, when Jayne and Zoe bow out."
Inara smiled warmly. "Zoe okay with staying out of it?"
"No." Mal admitted. "But I think she's more worried about me than anything else."
"She'd slit her own throat before letting you down, Mal. And Jayne? It's the first time since he left home that he's been worried about disappointing someone." Inara told him, tracing her fingers over his as she handed him the cup. "I suppose I'll be coming too. The Guild stands with the Alliance, but I'm not part of the Guild any longer."
"I got no problem with the notion of you not going to war, 'Nara." Mal pointed out. "And actually... I'd like you to stay here."
"You ain't weak, and you ain't new to violence. Nobody on this boat is any more. But Zoe is going to be needing more help than she'll admit to... and without wanting to get my face slapped, I think she could use another woman about the place. Jayne'll be more protective than he'll let on, but..."
"But it's still Jayne and a pregnant Zoe alone on this ship." Inara said with understanding.
"Would you really leave?" Mal asked. "Again?"
"Why didn't you just ask me to stay, last time?" She returned.
"And here we are again." Mal snorted. "That's a cop out."
"No it's not, I want to know." Inara let the breath out between her teeth violently. "Kaylee begged me to stay. Simon asked me to stay. Zoe asked me to stay. Book asked me to stay. River mumbled something about electrodes that I didn't really follow, and then she burst into tears. Jayne even asked me to stay. From you? Silence. I want to know why?!" The explosion of words had been building since the first time she'd left the ship. "WHY THE HELL COULDN'T YOU HAVE JUST SAID SOMETHING?!"
"YOU KNOW WHY!" Mal roared back, with an eruption that had been building every bit as long. "If you didn't know why, you'd never have wanted to leave in the first place! Because Captain's don't fall in love with whores!"
"And respectable Companions don't fall in love with Petty Pirate Thieves!" Inara snarled back with equal venom.They were both up, in each other's faces; going at it in a way they hadn't been in months. "And just so you know? Your job and your politics wouldn't have kept me away if you'd just said something!"
"Oh really? And if I'd said that this job of yours was a problem for me?" Mal challenged. "If I had said that the Alliance-Run Academy that practically raised you from the cradle and schooled you in how to sleep with strangers for money, was a problem for me? I suppose you would have chucked it all in on just my say so?"
"Of course not, I would have hated you for that." Inara agreed. "And I suppose if I stopped taking clients and asked you to come to the Academy with me, and settle in one spot, you'd have been all for that?"
"Hell no, I would have killed myself in a week!" Mal returned fire. "And it wouldn't have changed the fact that you were a Companion first, and anything else second!"
"Except I'm not a Companion any more, gorramit!" She snapped; the first time he'd ever heard her cuss.
"And I'm no Pirate any more... And I was never ruttin petty!" Mal snarled back.
"Good!" Inara yelled. "I'm glad!"
"Me too! I am full of rainbows!" Mal bellowed.
Inara squared her shoulders. "Well I guess that's everything settled then."
"I guess it is!" Mal snapped.
"Well, good!" Inara yelled.
"GREAT!" Mall bellowed, seizing on the last word as he stormed out of her shuttle.
Inara was breathing hard, feeling like electricity was going to come shooting out of her eyes any second. Her entire life she'd been a Companion, and never felt this charged.
Mal knocked. The first time he had ever knocked.
"Come in!" She almost shrilled, her voice going sky high.
Mal came in, looking decidedly confused. "Did we just agree that it was okay for us to be together now?"
Inara froze, and quickly reviewed the conversation in her head. "I... I think... yes?"
Mal took two long strides forward and caught her up in an explosive kiss, which she eagerly returned.
The Wedding was by necessity small and intimate. They held it in the Cargo Bay, and River had gone nuts with toilet paper and Kaylee's many spare light-bulbs; stringing them all over the place to make the place look better. Truthfully, it was nice, all warm lights and white trim. Zoe had worn the one elegant dress she owned, now her wedding dress, and her funeral dress.
Inara had dragged Kaylee into her shuttle, and emerged six hours later with a ravishing beauty; done up in a gorgeous gown; and flawless hair and make-up. Jayne made the comment that it would have been the first time the doc had seen his bride without engine grease, but Simon hadn't even heard him.
For the entire night, everyone was joyful. Even Zoe.
The war raged on for the better part of six months before the lines settled. All the governments had declared their allegiance to one side or the other, with few surprises. Three worlds were divided, and in utter turmoil as riots changed to actual combat; and Military Police were replaced with elite soldiers.
Mal was known by more than a few of those commanding the new Rebellion. He'd been offered a higher rank, but he'd traded up, willing to take a lower rank in exchange for command of his old crew. Simon had gone to work, bringing his expertise together with the talent for improvisation he'd picked up on Serenity. Having a group of fresh faced eager young surgeons to teach made him feel old, but useful. Having his honeymoon on a cargo ship, midway between a war-zone and another war-zone was not what he'd planned, but Kaylee was on cloud nine. Five hundred broken down, ten year old combat vehicles for her to make work was the perfect wedding present.
The Alliance had been kicked out of two of the central worlds, and was paying for their callous disregard for the outer worlds, as they suddenly felt their support network collapse under them. The military was divided, with thousands of troops deserting their posts because of the revelations about Miranda.
On some worlds, it was still undecided, and the War began in earnest.
Mal and his group, including his crew were able to be posted on Shadow. Mal had been born there, and had lost his home to the last war. The former Sargent turned Captain was now a Lieutenant, and his team was rapidly becoming legendary, as news of the part he and River played in the start of the Second Rebellion started to leak out.
Those that heard the story didn't believe a word of it. Those that saw River Tam cutting loose on the battlefield had no doubts at all.
Simon came into the Mobile OR quickly, and found a soldier sitting on the cot, with burns across his shoulder blade. Simon went straight to his tray of instruments and made a quick examination. "Moderate damage to the flesh, no muscle damage." He checked the man's dog-tags. "Lazo."
The soldier nodded. "Ran into an Alliance Probe. The attack will come soon."
"We're ready for it." Simon told him, absently cutting away the burned clothing.
"I know it." Lazo told him. "The damn probe caught me completely by surprise. They were gonna drill me clean."
"How'd you escape?" Simon asked, more to keep his patient distracted from the sutures than anything else.
"I didn't." Lazo admitted. "But that River Woman came outta nowhere. She took on the entire Purple-Belly squad... hand to hand. And made them all eat dirt. Never seen anything like it before." Lazo looked up at him. "It's all true, isn't it? All the things they say about that one."
Simon didn't even blink, used to his sister being the focus of so many War Stories by now. "Yeah."
"Have you seen her?" The soldier moaned appreciatively. "Man that girl can move. I mean, I always heard she was deadly, but nobody ever said how hot she is."
"Mm." Simon made no comment.
"Listen, most places I've been posted, the Mechanics and the Doctors know everyone way better than most. I talked to one of the Mechs at the Motor Pool, and she said I should talk to you if I wanted to... get to know Tam better."
"Did she?" Simon commented.
"'Course, I s'pose there'd be some risk involved." The soldier fished. "You ever see what she can do to an Alliance Platoon with a gorram axe? I can only guess what she'd do if you pissed her off."
"Mm." Simon made no comment.
"Still... I'm betting she's worth it." The solider said with a lecherous grin.
"Yes." Simon said, eerily polite.
The solder looked over at her. "You do know the girl I mean, right? The one with legs that go all the way down to the floor, and that-"
"She's my sister." Simon commented, with surrealist calm. "My baby sister."
The soldier paled. "Oh. Look, Doc; I didn't mean nothing by..."
"Of course you didn't." Simon said with open forgiveness. "Now, if I can get your mind away from this topic for a moment, I just need to give you a booster, make sure there's no risk of infection." He turned to his surgical table and picked up a syringe big enough that he needed both hands to steady it. "Turn around and drop your pants, please."
The soldier whimpered at the sight of the enormous needle.
"Lieutenant Reynolds, you have a message in the Comm Tent." The PA announced.
Mal sat down with the screen. "Nara." He couldn't help the smile that came from seeing her. "This is a nice surprise."
"Zoe had the baby." Inara smiled warmly, her emotions under perfect control. "It's a healthy girl."
"Yeah?" Mal's face split into a huge smile, bigger than he'd smiled since long before the Second Rebellion.
"She named the child 'Miranda'."
Mal's smile dropped instantly. "What? Why?"
"But of course, you know why, bao-bei." Inara's voice spoke softly from across the stars.
And Mal did. Because after what Zoe had lost to Miranda and her secrets, it was the only thing she had left. Miranda the planet had broken her, the way Serenity the Valley had broken him. Miranda the baby had to heal her, as Serenity the ship had healed him.
"The baby has your eyes." Inara said softly.
Mal reacted. "What?"
Inara chuckled. "I'm kidding."
"22nd Infantry, time to move out!" The PA shouted through the camp.
Mal winced. "Inara, I have to get moving."
"I'm afraid so, and I really can't say why over a WAVE."
Comprehension flooded over her, and she had the grace enough not to let her sudden worry show. "I understand. I'll pass your best to Zoe, and you tell the others. I love you."
"I love you too."
Lazo glanced at River for the fourth time as they made their way to the Motor Pool. She glanced over at him and smiled, as if giving him a pitying laugh.
"Ready for war, little Albatross?" Mal asked as he came up behind them.
"I am the Albatross, the good luck charm that brings death upon those who seek to cut my wings. I am the chicken, bred by the Alliance, and come home to roost." River said with solemn wrath. "No Power in the 'Verse can stop me." She spun her Reaper blades around her wrists again, holstering them all gracefully. "And I am so very pretty."
"If yer brother didn't have such big needles, I'd be agreeing with you right now." Lazo called back, climbing into the driver's seat.
Mal tuned them out, checking his sidearm one last time.
"Cap'n." Kaylee called, her hair tied back in a ponytail, and engine grease thick on her face. "I tweaked the feeder on the guns. They'll run a lot faster now without getting that much hotter, and replaced the sights, so it won't pull to the left any more."
"Don't think I'll know what to do with myself, having a mounted gun that aims straight." Mal said lightly, and jumped up into the back of the hovercraft. "See you when we're done with our thrillin' heroics, Kaylee." He tossed a rifle to River, who promptly tossed it to someone else, happy with her battle axe and scimitar sword.
"Bring my sister in law back safe, Cap'n."
"When are you gonna call me 'Lieutenant'?" Mal shouted over to her as a hundred engines roared to life.
"Come back safe and I'll call you 'Lieutenant Tightpants'!" Kaylee screamed, loud enough that half a dozen Browncoats heard her, even over all the engines.
"When is that nickname gonna die?!" Mal shouted. "By the way! Tell Simon that Zoe had the baby!"
Kaylee's jaw dropped to the floor as the entire Platoon of Combat Vehicles took off as a Unit, kicking up enough dirt and dust for her to get a mouthful of Planet Shadow.
"Feels good to be hunting them for a change." Lazo shouted, from the drivers seat, as the Alliance forces came into view.
River looked at him with a flat grin. "We're always hunting them; even if they don't know it."
Mal gripped the controls of his mounted gun tightly. A hundred combat troops on either side, driving their hovercraft onward; with their Air Support sweeping past overhead.
"They'll go for the Air support first." Lazo called over the noise.
"They'll fail." River said with spooky prescience. "They can't take the sky."
"Damn straight." Mal grinned. "Let's give them hell."
And the Second Rebellion moved in, fighting to liberate the Verse.