"No mistletoe, Kaylee."
"Aw, but Captain-"
"I mean it. No mistletoe. You can put up your holly and ribbons if you've really got to- as long as it's not anywhere they're
gonna catch on fire or gum up the engines- but I'm drawin' the line at mistletoe. Ain't nobody on this crew I want to see
"Or have to kiss yourself?" She raised a teasing eyebrow.
"Exactly that." He scowled at her when she opened her mouth again, and she quickly turned back to her ribbons.
"All right, Captain Killjoy, no mistletoe."
"Thank you much." He rolled his eyes and turned to leave the dining area, stopping short as Wash came through the door.
"We've got a distress call, Captain. Shuttle adrift up ahead."
Kaylee glanced down from her stepladder. "Got empty quarters, room in the cargo bay. It's Christmas, Captain, haul 'em in."
"I remember back when I was the captain and got to decide these things. Happy times." Mal glanced over at Wash, but the
pilot wasn't smiling. "Wash?"
"Zoe wants you to see this wave, Mal." Wash shoved his hands in his pockets and shrugged, staring down at the floor. "Says
you ought to take a look before you make your decision."
"Zoe thinks I know these people in distress?"
"Person. Just one. And yeah..." Wash hesitated, nodding slowly. "Judging by her reaction when she saw the wave, we're
due for a war story."
"My engines have failed and I'm running on auxiliary life support...I request assistance from any ship that receives this
"Turn it off." Mal shoved his chair back and headed for the door, hands shaking as he ran them through his hair. "Turn the
damn thing off, Wash, I don't want to hear another word of it."
"Captain, you can't just leave him drifting-" Kaylee stopped short as Mal whirled around to face her, stepping so close that
she took a step back.
"Do you know who that is, Kaylee? Recognize that face on the screen?" She shook her head. "I do. Zoe does. Zoe, why don't
you tell our incurably kind-hearted mechanic about the gentleman in distress? I'd do it myself, but I have to go break something."
"His name is Alexander Rivas. In the war, he was Lieutenant Commander Rivas. Of the 53rd Alliance Armored Cavalry." Zoe
stared down at the blank screen where the wave had been. "He ordered the roller charge on Amaias Seven, the destruction of
Philippa City on Auros, a few others. He's a monster."
"He's gonna die," Kaylee said softly, not meeting Zoe's eyes. Mal turned to look out the viewscreen, where the shuttle was
hanging still and silent between the stars.
"Good," he said, his voice low and vicious. "Wish I could watch every minute as it happens."
"He's a person, Captain," Kaylee said, a note of pleading in her voice. "Whatever he did in the war, he's a human being and
he don't deserve to die like that. Nobody does."
"You tell that to the people in Philippa City. You tell that to the boys ground into the dirt under the rollers on Amaias.
Tell them how they deserved to die." Mal hadn't moved, but Kaylee flinched like he'd hit her.
"It's Christmas," Kaylee whispered, so soft the words barely existed at all. Mal's jaw clenched. He turned and stalked off
the bridge, Zoe a step behind him. Wash touched Kaylee's arm lightly, apologetically, then hurried off after his wife. Kaylee
stood in the center of the bridge for a minute, watching the shuttle drift helplessly along. She reached up and tucked her
hair behind her ears, steeling her nerves till her hands quit shaking.
"There's right and there's wrong," she told the control panel as her fingers danced over its surface. "Captain will remember
that, when he's cooled down a little. He'll thank me then." Didn't sound very convincing, even to her own ears. But as
she overrode Serenity's integrity and sent the docking clamps reaching out to the sad little shuttle, she held the idea precious
in her heart.
"I'm gonna hurt that girl," Mal growled, staring at the signal lights going green as the pressure evened out in the airlock.
"Going behind my back, disobeying a direct order-"
"Wounding your precious feelings." Inara folded her hands together in front of her and matched the captain glare for glare.
"That's what you're really upset about and don't pretend otherwise, Mal Reynolds. And don't you dare yell at Kaylee. She's
probably crying herself sick right now for choosing her conscience over you."
"Sheltering a mass murderer is the conscientious thing to do?" Zoe asked, glaring across the bay. Wash gripped her arm lightly,
but she didn't look at him.
"Why don't you two go to your quarters?" Book said slowly, glancing from Mal to Zoe and back again. "We can greet Mr. Rivas
and show him to one of the passenger quarters. First stopping-point we come to, you can put him off again."
"You're damn right we'll put him off again," Mal snapped, still staring into the airlock. "First rock we come to that has
atmo." He turned around and pointed at Inara. "You greet him, you put him in a passenger bunk, and you seal up the door.
I don't want him walking around my ship. You can take him a meal later, but he doesn't leave that room. And if I see his
face, I'll shoot him. Got it?"
"You're perfectly clear," she said stiffly. "Now why don't you and Zoe go find somewhere to sit and settle down." He pushed
by her and walked across the bay, Zoe falling into step behind him. "And leave Kaylee alone!" Inara added. Mal's shoulders
stiffened, but he turned to Jayne instead.
"Keep a gun on him until he's locked up in quarters. He steps wrong, fire at will." Jayne nodded silently. The tension
in the bay was high enough that even he knew it was no time to try for a witty remark.
"You probably should tell Simon and River to keep their heads down until we have him squared away," Book murmured.
"I'll take care of it," Wash said, watching his wife walk away with the captain. "I think I should probably avoid direct
contact with our new guest, or she might never speak to me again."
Inara swallowed and lifted her chin as the airlock doors began to cycle open. "Not exactly going to be the merriest Christmas
on record, is it?"
They all assumed no one else would be hungry, and so ended up gathering in the mess hall at precisely the same time, standing
in awkward silence and trying not to look directly at each other.
Jayne broke the silence by opening the protein rations and setting them on the table with a determined thud. "No reason to
starve," he muttered. "Be as tense and crazy as y'all want, but no reason to starve while you do it."
"I wouldn't expect you to understand," Zoe said with a snarl, grabbing a ration and pulling a chair away from the table.
"Wasn't any war of yours, isn't that what you always say?"
"That's the very thing," he muttered, retreating to the far corner. Kaylee glanced up from her intent study of her own hands.
"What did you do during the war, Jayne?"
"Yeah," Wash said, glancing warily from his wife to the mercenary. "Man of your age and fondness for guns, I'm kind of surprised
you didn't take up with one side or another."
Jayne hesitated, staring down at the foil-wrapped ration in his hands. Mal waited for the same stock remark they heard every
Unification Day- "I didn't fight no war." But that wasn't what he heard.
Zoe's jaw dropped a little. Mal had to swallow hard before he could respond. "Alliance was the only side with conscription,"
he said as evenly as he could manage. "You've been lyin' to me all these years about fighting on that side of the war, Jayne?"
"Said I was conscripted. Didn't say I fought." He glanced at the wide-eyed faces in the room and finally settled on addressing
Kaylee, who asked in the first place, after all. "Got drafted, got shipped off to basic. Got in a fight with some snot-nosed
rich boy from Xenon who flunked out of university and lost his exemption." He shrugged and looked back down at the protein
bar. "Got court-martialled. Never even held a gun."
There was a long silence in the room as they all absorbed this story, which was so absurd, so ridiculous, so perfectly Jayne
that it had to be nothing less than the truth. Of course he'd get bounced before he ever saw the war. If the tension in
the air hadn't been so thick and vibrating with a life of its own, they probably would've laughed.
"Wait a minute," said Zoe. "They hand out the guns on basic day one. You must've gotten in that fight as soon as you stepped
off the transport."
Wash started laughing, a high-pitched nervous giggle accompanied by a frantic, apologetic glance around the room. It was
a shame to destroy all that perfectly good strained silence, after all. "You never even made it off the transport, did you?"
"Not so much, no." Jayne started laughing too, an equally awkward sound that quickly evened out into normality as the others
joined in. All nine of them, laughing helplessly from their defensive positions as far away from each other as they could
"I was in flight school," Wash sighed, wiping a few tears from his eyes. "Got offered a job right after graduation flying
a freighter. We hauled stuff for both sides, so we didn't show any colors."
"I was too young till the war was almost over," Kaylee said, staring down at the table top. "And I never much liked guns
anyway. Might've tried out for the support corps, but Daddy said no and I didn't really want to anyway."
"Spent the first half of the war in a detention center," Jayne said slowly, "and that ain't an experience I care to repeat."
Mal reluctantly revised his belief that only soldiers who'd seen a battlefield could have war-shadows in their eyes. "When
I got out, I headed as far out as I could go, to where they weren't fightin' no war."
River and Simon sat silently, wide-eyed. Mal studied their faces, so innocent and young relative to the rest of them- even
Kaylee. They'd both been in school when the war was going on. Inara and Book...well, no need to ask what a Companion or
a Shepherd had done during the war. They wouldn't have any stories to tell.
Someone else on the ship just might.
He took a deep breath and took a plate from the shelf, stacking a few protein rations on it and running a glass of water.
"What are you doing?" Inara asked cautiously.
"Taking a meal down to our guest." He stared at the plate for a long moment, trying to ignore the feeling of Zoe's eyes burning
into his back. "It's the season of charity and whatnot. Plus, nobody should step on a ship without meeting the captain.
Just bad manners." He squared his shoulders and walked over to the door. "Don't worry, I ain't gonna shoot him."
He waited till he was halfway down the corridor before adding under his breath, "Probably."
Somewhere between Serenity Valley and Serenity's passenger bunks, Alexander Rivas had become an old man.
He was sitting on the bed when Mal stepped into the room, hands folded in his lap, staring off at nothing in particular.
Mal hadn't noticed while watching the wave- the resolution on the screen was shit, and he'd been too angry- but the hair that
had been glossy black in the Alliance propaganda posters was iron gray, and the still-handsome face was lined and weathered.
Guess I've lost a few of my boyish good looks as well,, he thought as he silently held out the plate.
Rivas looked up, blinking slowly. His eyes were clouded, like Mal recalled his grandfather's. The man who'd crushed Philippa
City was half-blind. "Captain Reynolds, I presume."
"That's what they call me." Mal clasped his hands together behind his back, unconsciously falling into the parade-rest stance
he'd learned the first day he put on that brown coat he was still wearing. "And you're Lieutenant Commander Alexander Rivas."
Even fogged by age, the gaze was piercing and steady. "I actually received a promotion, before the war's end."
"Commander Rivas, then." Mal nodded. "Welcome to Serenity."
Rivas still didn't look away. "Is the story behind that name the one I think it is?"
"Not a mind-reader, Commander, so I couldn't say." He looked down and pointedly adjusted the fall of his coat. "Apologies
for the poor rations, but we're just humble traders."
"I've lived on worse." He set the plate aside, clasping his hands in his lap again. He was still studying Mal with the same
unwavering gaze. "And there's no need to be snippy, Captain Reynolds. I could have deduced your story even if your Shepherd
and the Companion hadn't dropped some rather broad hints."
"I'm an open book, then?" Mal tried to remember the feeling that had come over him in the dining hall, the inexplicable urge
to be civil to this man. Right now he just wanted to put his fist down his throat.
"A book available for purchase on every planet in every system." Rivas looked away, finally, but only because he was reaching
for the worn knapsack next to the bed. He pulled out a small box and held it out for Mal to see. A series of medals were
arranged on dark purple velvet. Eight or nine of them, without a trace of tarnish or a frayed thread on the ribbons.
"Pretty," Mal said. "Each come with a couple hundred matching tombstones, don't they?"
"You made it through the war without taking a life?" Rivas's voice was very quiet, and Mal found himself not quite able to
meet the man's eyes again. He pushed the box away.
"The men I killed, it was because I was fightin' for freedom. And nobody gave me no shiny medals for doin' it."
"You believed in your cause." His voice was as neutral as his words. Mal steeled himself, lifted his chin, and looked right
into those clouded eyes.
Rivas looked away, covering up the little box and putting it back in his bag. When he spoke, it was in a voice so soft Mal
had to lean forward to hear it. "I believed in my cause as well."
Mal took a step back, staring at the figure on the bed. Rivas sat ramrod-straight, in military posture that had been held
so long it had settled into the bones. He returned Mal's gaze impassively, without anger or shame.
"You thought you were fightin' for the right reasons."
"I did." Rivas picked up the plate and settled it on his lap. "Thank you for the meal, Captain. I do appreciate your generosity,
and your kindness in giving me a lift."
"Ain't me you need to thank. It's my mechanic. She's...she's the kind one around here."
"The heart of the crew, as it were?" Rivas smiled faintly. "Every merry band has to have one. Express my sincere appreciation
"You can do it yourself, if you'd like." Mal swallowed, scuffing the heel of his boot against the floor. "She's putting
together a little bit of a Christmas celebration up in the dining hall, if you'd care to join. Couple things to eat that
ain't protein, maybe pass a drink around if the Shepherd don't look too disapproving."
Rivas looked up and studied Mal's face for a moment, then smiled again and turned back to his plate. "That's a kind and generous
offer, Captain Reynolds, and I can see that it cost you some to make it. But I believe I'll decline. I'm an old man and
require my rest. Give my regards to your crew."
Mal nodded slowly and turned to the door. "If you change your mind," he said, stepping out into the corridor, "the door's
Rivas didn't respond, and after a moment Mal walked away.
He paused on the steps above the dining room, looking in on his crew.
Simon and River had come up from their rooms, and at Kaylee's urging were beginning a duet version of "Silent Night." Mal
found himself smiling at the ancient familiar words.
Jayne made some remark under his breath about virgins giving birth, and from the sharp-edged smile on Book's face, the Shepherd
had heard it. Jayne was going to get a sermon or two out of that one, if the captain didn't miss his guess.
Wash and Zoe were sitting down at the far end of the table, holding hands and talking softly. Zoe's face was softened with
a smile. Mal might not have approved from the beginning, but if for no other reason he blessed Wash now for being able to
cheer her up no matter what.
"Captain?" Kaylee was smiling at him, holding out her hand. "You all right?"
"I'm fine," he said, smiling back.
"Come join us," she said, waving her hands to indicate the whole room. "Get in the Christmas spirit, you know?"
"Yeah," he said, shaking his head and coming down the steps. "Think I do know, Kaylee."