After the 'verse knows about Reavers, it kinda behooves the Alliance to clear them out; get rid of them, exterminate them, and generally make the skies safer for them workin' folk that were just trying to survive out on the Rim, and could have told you all along that something just wasn't quite right.
"And that's it?" Simon says. "We're not outlaws anymore?"
Mal says nothing. Simon blinks, and there's yet another disappointment to put on the pile of disappointments, another rock on the cairn. When they were little, he and River used to build tiny cairns near the river on their property, little towers of pebbles because their parents would get angry if they tried anything larger.
"I'm going to check on her," Simon finally tells Mal, in absense of anything else.
No one expects Zoe to recover. No one expects it, but Jayne sees her come out of Mal's bunk two mornings in a row. "Leave it," Mal says before Jayne even opens his mouth; "leave it," he says, and everyone but River does.
"you can't bang your forehead against a brick wall and expect not to bleed a little bit," she offers up, when it's just her and Zoe in the cockpit. River never sits where Wash did; the co-pilot's chair is smaller and she somehow prefers it, thinks perhaps she can mold it to her little body, instead of just hurting Zoe more.
Zoe looks at the console, makes an adjustment. "I know that," she says quietly. "It's nothing, It's just, something."
River knows Mal is only doing what he thinks is right, but in the long run he's going to regret it. Zoe does know what she's doing, finding something to hold onto until the storm passes, a pole to grip and anchor herself with for the now, because the future is even rockier and she can't make it there until she makes it here - but River is still worried. Now she can think more clearly, River is worried a lot.
"We're coming up on entry," River comments after a moment. She glances over, sees Zoe carelessly fiddle with her undone safety harness. River puts hers on without a word.
No one ever thought the Alliance would be quite this persistent. River, more coherent but no less afraid, can't tell them who the men with the blue gloves are, except to frantically push and shove until everyone is on Serenity and holding onto their stomachs with both hands as she burns out of atmo as fast as possible. When they come back to Badger's, the sight of everyone laying on the floor and blood leaking out their eyes doesn't bode well.
"We seen this," Jayne says. "On Ariel."
When he says it, Jayne looks down, away from River, away from Mal. Simon clears his throat. "What do we do?"
The two Alliance special agents that came into the restaurant are talking to Zoe and Mal at the bar. One puts his hand on Mal's elbow; Zoe stands, relaxes, and then follows them out after looking at Jayne. "Git up," Jayne says. "We're gonna have to go."
In the alley, both the agents have a bullet between the eyes. Obviously, Mal's learned a thing or two about body armor. This brings their count of dead agents to twelve, or thirteen. Simon feels a stab of panic that he can't remember, that this can become routine. River, eyes wide and arms tucked around herself tightly, follows him back to Serenity.
The Alliance might have taken out all their safe harbours from the smuggling days, but Mal and Zoe still have a few contacts left. Monty leaves them a cache of guns, including a cannon mount better than the one Mal couldn't stomach keeping. Jayne and Zoe attach it to Serenity without question.
When he tells River to set a course for Whitefall, she bites her lip. "I know, little albatross. But Patience ain't the only person on that dusty heap of nothin' we knew."
"Are you sure that this is the right thing to do?" she says.
Mal sets their nav beacon to read another course, sends off another false signal to have the Alliance on their way to Persephone. "No," he finally tells her. "Ain't never right to ask for trouble."
"Fighting a war on two fronts is never a good idea," River says softly. "You can try and fight in the air and on the ground, but they'll take you out."
"Not aiming for the ground just yet," Mal says, "but if it comes to that, I'll win there, too."