"Captain Reynolds." Picard stood, extending his hand. Mal took it and shook it firmly. "It appears Q is done with us, at least for now. Hopefully we can both return to our normal lives."
"It's been one hell of a ride, Captain Picard. Meeting the Enterprise has restored some small flicker of hope in my cynical black heart." Mal said.
Picard smiled. "Meeting Serenity was a stroke of good fortune. I'll not soon forget her or her crew. We'll return you to your ship and then my crew and I are going home."
"Good luck with your bigwigs. Hope they understand what you did was needful." Mal said somberly.
"Only time will tell." Picard said philosophically. "At any rate, Mr. Data plot a course for Serenity."
"Aye aye, sir. Course laid in."
"Engage." Picard turned to Mal. "I hope you find a good use for all that platinum in your hold, Captain." His eyes were twinkling. Mal gaped at him.
"You knew it was a fortune to us, didn't you?" He accused the older man.
"Of course." Picard actually winked at him. "But it wasn't all that useful to us, and it did smooth the early relations between our ships. Smugglers don't have a monopoly on guile, you know."
"Huh." Mal said, impressed.
"Serenity off our port bow, Captain."
"Hail them, Mr. Data."
"Enterprise, calling Serenity. Come in please." The screen lit up, showing Zoe's face in gigantic splendor.
"Serenity here. Welcome back Enterprise."
"Zoe." Mal said, stepping forward. "Good news. The Reavers ain't gonna be bothering anybody ever again."
"That's-good to know, sir." Zoe's eyes were wide. "Those last minute details you were referring to?"
"Taken care of." Mal said shortly. "I'd be obliged if you'd have the ambassador come pick up River 'n me. Enterprise is goin' home. And as splendid a ship as she is, I'd rather be back home on Serenity." He turned to Captain Picard. "No offense."
"None taken, Captain." Picard said with a smile. "A ship gets into her captain's blood, does she not?"
"Absolutely. Zoe, I'll see you in a few."
"Be good to have you back on board, Captain. Serenity out."
Picard accompanied Mal and River back to the hanger deck. Mal found he was eager to go home, though he was going to miss this enormous t'ien lung and her crew. As Inara's shuttle slipped into the bay he turned to Picard.
"Goodbye Captain Picard." He said extending a hand. "Good luck to you."
"And you, Captain. What are your plans?" Picard asked.
"Same as always. Do the job, get paid, and keep flyin'." Mal said. "Be a mite easier, I'm thinkin', thanks to your generosity. Speaking o' which, Q may be a royal pain in the pigu but that sly old coyote did what was needful, in the end. Don't be too hard on him, Captain, should you cross paths again."
"I'll bear that in mind, Captain Reynolds." Picard said, nodding. He stiffened back as River unexpectedly flung her arms around him and gave him a huge hug.
"Zai jian, t'ien lung yu shen de." She said, letting him go and bowing. He bowed back.
"Zai jian, xiao mei-mei." He said with a smile. River clapped her hands in delight, beaming.
"Thought you didn't speak Chinese, Captain." Mal said with a grin.
"I studied a few phrases." Picard said modestly. "Mostly to say thank you to the crew of Serenity. Please extend my compliments to your crew Captain, and my thanks."
"I'll do that." Mal nodded. There seemed nothing left to say so he and River turned and walked to the shuttle. River waved goodbye just before she boarded.
Picard watched the shuttle launch, then turned and walked thoughtfully from the shuttle bay, contemplating the extraordinary adventure the Enterprise had just been through.
Mal settled comfortably in the copilot's chair.
"So what happened?" Inara demanded as she headed for Serenity.
"Zoe tell everybody Enterprise punched the Reaver's tickets?" Mal asked. Inara nodded. "Can't say too much more. Promised Captain Picard I wouldn't. Ain't that right, little bird?" He turned to address River.
"T'ien lung found his way." River said. "They're going home."
"I'm glad." Inara said. "As wonderful as Enterprise is she doesn't belong here. It's like seeing elves from a fairy tale. I'm afraid I'm going to wake up and find this was all a dream."
"That would rile Jayne somethin' fierce, findin' out that platinum was naught but moon mist." Mal said, grinning. He sobered. "Uh, I'm sorry about setting Serenity toward Constance, Inara. Seemed like New Melbourne was gonna be unhealthful."
"I know." Inara said softly. "As ever your heart was in the right place. Protecting your ship, your crew."
"Not to mention a certain ambassador." Mal said, then coughed and changed the subject. "Speaking o' that platinum, you know five percent is yours. You maybe could relax, take some time off. I was thinkin' after Constance maybe we could head to Pelorum. Crew ain't had proper shore leave in well nigh to a year now."
Inara paused, thinking. "You're right, Mal. I've never been to Pelorum before; it's supposed to be lovely. You can take me to dinner." Her grin grew mischievous. "You owe me for Paradiso."
"Say yes." River hissed in his ear. He blinked.
"Well, as long as you promise me no sword duels in the mornin'." He grinned. "Your social circle's kinda rough for the unsuspecting."
"No sword duels." Inara promised, setting the shuttle onto the landing platform. "Mal, look!"
Enterprise was turning slowly in the distance, pointing her nose outward. As they watched the magnificent ship seemed to stretch for an instant, and then vanished.
"Always onboard when she did that." Mal said. "That what it look like?"
"Yes." Inara said. "Farewell, Enterprise. May Buddha smile upon you."
As they left the shuttle Mal asked. "So, Inara, will this dinner involve spinach in any way?"
Inara's laughter echoed down the corridor and into the shuttle. Sitting in the pilot's seat Q smiled indulgently and vanished.