Disclaimer: This 'verse belongs to Joss Whedon. I'm simply fascinated by it.
Spoilers: through Serenity – set soon after the events of the film, with additional references made to "Out of Gas" and "Heart of Gold"
Author's Notes: I first published this on my LJ the day after viewing Serenity. Just a little aftermath story that wouldn't leave me alone until I wrote it. I hope it's enjoyed.
Updated 8/22/08: Same story, with a few cosmetic edits and typos fixed. (Plus it's never bad to be reminded of how much I love this 'verse.)
A Firefly Fanfiction
They say it's like riding a bike. You never forget how.
And, no, I'm not talking about one of them fancified newer models with the jet propulsion on the back that all the core planet dandies buy for their spoiled rugrats nowadays – the ones that float and guarantee a smooth, accident-free ride. I mean the old rough-edged kind – the ones with two actual wheels of recycled rubber that require real balance and can pitch you headlong into the dirt if you don't keep your wits about you. The ones that can tackle rocky terrain and jounce a man's insides until his head feels dizzy and throbbing. The ones that can only move if prompted by the sheer kinetic power of the rider himself. And the ones that can swerve out from under you if'n you don't treat them with the respect they deserve. Those bikes. The good ones.
I reckon if I hopped on one now, years since I've even seen one, I'd still remember how to ride . . . even if I did look like a wobbly gorram fool while doing it. No, a body doesn't forget. It gets rusty, but it doesn't forget.
It was sort of like that these days, flying this beautiful heap of rough-edged metal for the first time – full-time – in a long while. It was shaky and unfamiliar and awkward, but there was enough muscle memory to guide me through. You never really forget. Even if it had been years since I'd had to pilot my own ship.
There is a noticeable difference, of course, from the way it was before: not as smooth, not as responsive, not as much maneuverability resulting from my touch. Not that anyone mentions it directly to me. We're all trying our best here. Though sometimes it's as if Serenity herself is just putting up with me, but only temporarily. As though she's biding her time and keeping her patience until her real master comes back.
You're not doing too bad, Captain Reynolds, but let me know when Wash's behind the wheel again.
I wonder sometimes how she'd take it if she knew. Besides Zoë, Serenity had been the other lady in Wash's life. I wonder sometimes if maybe she did know; if she knew before the rest of us did; if she'd felt him go. She'd been the one to stay with him, after all, when none of us could. Maybe, in her awkward handling, Serenity was still working out her own grief.
Things were pretty shiny up here in the cockpit now. I honestly never thought I'd see her in a shape this good again. Not after what had happened, anyway. Probably wouldn't have gotten ship-shape again at all without the help we received – not that I'm not still on the fence about all that. I still didn't trust the bastard – that Operative. It's 'cause of him that my crew . . . my family . . . is down by two. Don't think I didn't have my suspicions.
But when we needed labor, we got it. When we needed parts, they showed up no questions asked. Not the least of which was a new seat for the main console. Brand new, in fact. We'd tried to salvage the other, but the harpoon had just damaged it beyond repair. Seemed it had done that to a lot of things.
The control panel itself is back to normal as well. And I don't just mean all the flashy buttons, view screens and functional knobs. Those damn plastic dinosaurs are back, strategically placed around the instrument panel like it was a gorram child's display table. They'd been scattered about in the crash – the dinosaurs. And the ones that weren't . . . definitely blown away when the harpoon hit.
Kind of like innocence gone – all those broken and strewn toys.
But now they were back. I often wondered who had done it, though I could never really bring myself to ask. My first instincts told me it might have been River. A child seemed the most obvious candidate to try and hold on to the simplicity that seemed to be slipping away from all of us, even if she was plenty broken herself. Deep down, though, something tells me it may have been Zoë, picking up the only pieces of her old life that she could. We could all stand to grab onto the silly memories with both hands these days.
So I sit at an unfamiliar post day after day, hoping that I don't ever have to do anything fancy. Fact is, I've leaned toward the safer jobs lately. Not just because the Alliance will probably be none too forgiving in regards to our little broadcast, but because, in a pinch, I know I can't handle this ship the way she's accustomed to being handled. I can whisper sweet nothings with the best of them, call her my baby, but the sad fact is, I just don't have the touch – not where this lady is concerned. And I can't risk my crew while Serenity's taking her time warming back up to me.
Most days she seems to handle all right for River – must be a woman thing. Or maybe the poor touched girl has a creepifying way of seeing into the ship's brain like she does the rest of us. I don't really want to know. What I do know is that in her own way, River is shaping up to be a decent pilot. Her brother did say she has a way about everything she tries. Guess I'm starting to see that. She has a delicate hand that Serenity seems to respond to. If I'd ever had a notion of River as a part of my crew, this certainly hadn't been the way. Strange how things turn out.
I'd be lying, though, if I said I didn't have my concerns. River may have an uncanny way with the ship, but since she's the poster-child for "all-I-ever-needed-to-know-about-flyin'-I-learned-from-Mal's-brain," I'm not sure I want to hand over the reins just yet. She's fine out here in the black – getting plenty of practice through plenty of open space and more than a few thousand miles under her belt. I'm always careful to take over when it comes to going in and out of atmo.
More and more recently, I've been leaving her to it alone on the bridge; letting her get her sea legs, so to speak, with the occasional solo outing. Usually when we aren't pressed – which is fairly often now – and never for very long stretches at a time. It gives me the opportunity to rejoin what passes for society here on board. I get to see my family.
On one particular occasion, we were heading back to the Georgia System to stock up on a few essentials. Seemed as good a place as any. While there was still a threat of getting pinched somewhere, traveling too far out to the border planets could mean scarce pickings. There were some supplies that we needed; we'd be hurtin' without them eventually.
I knew Zoë was in the hold the minute I stepped inside.
She was sitting on one of the upper walkways, legs swinging free over the side, just kinda looking out over everything like the mistress of all she surveyed. She still had that calm look about her, like always – sort of still and unruffled – but it was different somehow. At least, in my own mind, I imagined it must be different. Gotta admit, most days I was afraid of finding out just how much.
I'd seen how she'd been each time we'd lost one of ours in the war. And we'd both lost plenty. She would be sad, of course. She'd grieve; we both would. But there was always an impenetrability to her outer shell that enabled her to go back in; it allowed her to do what needed to be done without a backward glance. Because that was Zoë – she did what was needed. She was a survivor.
Sometimes, now, I wonder if I'd been unfair to expect her to keep that up once she became a married woman. I wonder if she felt at all cheated out of sharing a fair portion of her husband's life while he was around. I wonder if it's unfair of me to expect her to survive Wash . . . or if it's unrealistic of me to get the notion that she won't.
Truth? I'm not quite sure how to talk to her these days. We'd both lost plenty, like I said, but none of them had ever left that kind of a big gaping hole behind – in either one of us. I'd never lost something I loved enough to brand as "mine" for life. I didn't know how to begin to ask her how she was fairing with filling that Wash-shaped hole where her husband used to be.
So we hadn't talked much since Miranda, not like we used to, which, for Zoë and me, was unheard of. It was uncomfortable and it was foreign. I didn't like it. Especially since I used to know what she was thinking without her having to say a word. Now, I felt like I had to be a gorram reader to get what was going on in her head – even if there was a big part of me that wasn't sure it wanted to know. I didn't think I wanted to learn of the possibility that I'd led her to be damaged in some irreparable way. So I mostly stayed apart from Zoë, under the pretense of giving her time to sort herself out. It was really so I didn't have to see my partner altered beyond someone I'd recognize.
Yeah, I'm a miserable, selfish hun dan. Didn't say I was proud of it.
But we were alone in the cargo hold, and still a good ways out of the world. Figured it was about time we had an honest chat.
I took the stairway a few steps at a time to reach her. If she knew I was there, she made no move to acknowledge it. That wasn't like her either – Zoë notices everything – so I felt safe in my assumption that she was aware of my every move.
She sat there looking out, her head all high and statuesque-like, as proud as I'd ever seen her. My steps slowed as I reached her and I waited for her to face me before I spoke. If'n she was somewhere far off, I didn't want to startle her.
What? I wasn't treating her like some china doll, or nothing. A startled Zoë can be pretty gorram dangerous!
So I waited.
After a good few seconds, she still stayed put. She had to have known I was there, and I was starting to feel a might silly just standing over her like I was. She just kept looking out over the hold, one arm wrapped around her middle and holding on. I opened my mouth to finally speak when Zoë beat me to it.
"We docking, Sir?"
"Not as yet," I replied. "I'll be making my way back to the bridge when we're approaching atmo. River's not quite ready to handle entry."
Zoë grinned. It seemed very natural; I hadn't expected to see that. "So what you're saying, Sir, is that you still don't quite trust her to guide us in."
"Not true," I countered as I dropped down beside her. Zoë gave me an incredulous look. "All right, I admit," I reiterated, "I know the good doctor says River's coming along, but you never know. The wrong wave comes over the transmitter and something triggers in her brain that makes flying us into the nearest sun sound like a plum idea. With her, there's the definite possibility of instability behind the wheel. Beyond the Cortex beacons, fine but—"
"You just don't want her breaking your ship."
"Everything's finally working again!" I answered, purposefully whingey, complete with pitiful eyes.
Zoë gave a small sniffle of laughter through her nose and turned away again. I noticed that her arm was still wrapped loosely around her middle.
"Feeling sick?" I asked, indicating her arm with a tilt of my head. I hated small talk. Zoë and me'd never had to use it to breach something between us. Things were all so different now.
"Feelin' something," she replied.
"Seen the doc?"
"No," she said. "Not yet. Not sure if I want to hear what he'll say."
Now that concerned me. Zoë was never one to ignore pain. She'd fight through it, sure, but never avoid taking care of herself. It was too important that she stay in fighting shape, for the sake of her own neck as well as mine. Never ignore a body's warnings – she'd always been the one to tell me that.
"Zoë," I said. The concern must have come through clear in my voice because she turned. Her face changed a little when she looked at me so I must have been wearing a fretful expression besides.
"Sir," she said, a solemn smile curling one corner of her mouth, "I ain't broken. I'm sad, is all. But I ain't broken. There's a difference."
"I know," I quickly retaliated. But I hadn't really been as sure as all that. Fact was I thought she'd been broke, and that I had caused it. "I know. You're the strongest woman I know, Zoë. Would take a right gale to blow you over."
"Like a leaf on the wind." She smiled as she said it, so why did I feel like a ruttin' idiot?
"We'll be entering the Georgia System in little less than an hour," I said, quickly changing the subject. Though I didn't know why. I wanted her to be able to talk about Wash, didn't I? "Might want to have Simon take a look before we land. We'll be needing to do business soon after."
Zoë nodded but made no move to get up. And her arm still stayed where it was. "I'm not sure if I'm ready for that yet, Sir," she said. "But I will. I'll see him before too long."
I narrowed my eyes at her. Now I knew there was something wrong. "There something you ain't telling me, Zoë?" I tried to keep myself from sounding angry, but I think I just ended up making it worse.
She looked at me then, full-on and serious. "Nothing to tell, Sir," she said, emphasizing my title in a way that made me feel like a scolded child. "Not yet, anyway. And like I said, I'm not sure I want to know just yet. I'll see the doctor, but when I'm ready. It's nothin' that can't wait anyway."
"You hurt?" I asked, pressing the issue.
"Probably not in the way you think."
"Still from the Reavers?" They'd cleaved her pretty good from behind. I can only imagine what other hurts she may have gotten – even without knowing.
"From before that, most like," she answered. And again with that small smile, that suddenly foreign and quiet way. Did I even know this woman?
"You gonna make me pull rank on you?" I asked. I was frustrated with these non-answers. She'd never done that before. "Tell me what happened."
She looked at me then, cocking her head, and her eyes were solemn and sad. "Wash," she said.
For a moment I looked back, my face screwed up with impatience as I awaited a real answer, and then . . . oh. Oh!
My eyes must have gone rather buggy, because she cracked a knowing smile. "Zoë!" I said. And I'm sorry to say that my voice had a rather unmanly-like squeak in it. "Pì huà! You sayin' you're in a family way?"
Her smile faded a bit and she cocked her head further over as her eyes slid from mine. "I don't know," she said. "Not for sure. I'd been missing my monthly, but I'd thought . . . maybe the stress. Wasn't like it'd never happened before . . . ."
"Not really something I needed to hear . . . ."
". . . But I'm not going to see the doc until I'm ready to know. Whatever the answer, there's going to be a fuss."
"You're gorram right, there'll be a fuss!" Yeah, I shouted at her. But just a little. Couldn't help it, really. Not with what she was hinting at. Besides, I'd had more than my share of arguments with Zoë, so this actually put us back on familiar ground. Truth be told, I was a might relieved for the release. "You mind telling me what's going through your head?"
Her eyes narrowed at me – calm, just like she'd always been. She never would rise to my baiting, even when I went all fanatical. She'd wait me out, and then make her point . . . which was usually a good one. This time, however, for as calm as she looked, I could also tell she was angry. "It's not exactly something I planned, Sir," she said, her voice stern.
"But it's something you had discussed." I could tell by the look in her eyes that this much was true, even before she answered. I almost didn't realize that I was reading her again.
"Yes," she answered. "We did."
"And this was something that Wash – rest his soul – actually thought was a good idea?"
"Truth?" Zoë asked. "Not as such. 'Fact is, it was Wash thought bringing a child into this life would be wrong – irresponsible somehow."
"Well, at least one of you had some gorram sense."
"At first," Zoë quickly added.
"Come again?" I could feel the heat building in my face.
"Wash and I talked it out," she said. How she could be so calm, I had no idea. "We talked about it a lot. And, yes, he did have some noble notion about raising a helpless infant around the life we lead. I told him in no uncertain terms that I refused to be so afraid of losing something to our rough and tumble lives that I wouldn't even try to have it. If I'd been that afraid, I wouldn't have married the man in the first place."
For a moment, all I could do was blink at her. I'd had no idea she'd been fixin' to breed right under my nose. Well, not right exactly under—
"I loved him, Sir," Zoë continued, interrupting my own thoughts. "I've never loved anyone or anything so much in my life. And I lost him to the lives we lead. An instant, a blink, and he was gone without even a goodbye. Even in the war, I'd never had a bigger hole inside myself as the one I feel right now, but I never, never would have given that up. Even if I had known how it was going to end."
I wanted to bellow doggedly at her about how the possibility of this . . . occurrence . . . would affect more than just her. It was all well and good that she had talked it out with her husband, but it wasn't like Zoë to forget that she had other allegiances besides. Love, honor, husband, wife and all that . . . but Zoë had other loyalties. To me. To my crew – her fellow crew. And, yes, while I acknowledge that I was being a selfish bastard again, it didn't mean that I was wrong. It was one little decision that would inexorably affect us all.
Whether or not I was being an ass about it wasn't the point; the point was we all deserved some say in what happens on this boat. The point was that I deserved some say.
But as Zoë sat there with her arm still wrapped lightly around her middle, her thumb occasionally brushing up and down the side of her abdomen, I realized that the chances of what she was saying were slim at best. If it had happened between her and Wash, it would have had to have been before Miranda. And since then, she hadn't exactly been holding her body as a temple of motherly care. Hell, she'd nearly been cleaved in two by the Reavers – nearly lost her spine. After all that, if there still was a baby, if would be a gorram miracle.
After all that, if there still was a baby, it was obviously meant to be born. Captain be damned.
I almost didn't realize that Zoë was still talking to me.
"I was raised on shipboard," she said. "Didn't hurt me none. In fact, I can think of a certain captain who relies quite a bit on the trainin' I had."
"That I do," I replied softly.
She settled some after that – didn't seem as angry. She nodded her head and accepted my words as they were intended: as a kind of apology. Maybe she was reading me better now too. She gave me a grim smile. "I don't want you to believe that I hadn't thought this through, Sir," she said. Her eyes were directly on me and she was serious. "I know full well what it means. For the crew." She held my gaze even longer. "For you."
Then she turned away again and looked back out over the hold. "But I also know what this means for me," she added. "And that's why I don't want to see the doctor just yet. Right now, I feel like there's a piece . . . of him still here. And if it turns out that I'm not . . . and he's not . . . I just want to hold onto him a few more days if I can. Maybe give me enough time to say a proper goodbye."
I frowned. I knew how she felt, strange enough. Not very long ago, I had awoken from a drowsy sea of blood loss to find Wash allowing his life to be pumped into my arm. As I sat beside his widow on that walkway, I glanced down at my own hands. I wondered if there was any of him still in there somewhere. I flexed my arm. Most likely not. With all the brawling since then, odds were it had all been bled out by now. Had I known, I might have done better to keep some of it.
Let her, then, I figured. Zoë should be able to keep what she could of her husband for as long as she was able to hold onto it.
I placed my hand on the side of her neck and drew her to me, placing a kiss on her temple. She was strong and she was fierce, but she was still dearer to me than most things in this 'verse. I would have thrown an endearment in there besides, but she was still Zoë. If one "mei mei" left my lips, captain or not, I probably wouldn't escape a sound throttling.
"You and Wash," I mused. "I wouldn't mind meeting that child."
Zoë smiled. "Do you think it would look like him?" she asked. "Never can tell . . . with me being darker, and Wash being so bái jìng . . . but I really would like it if it looked like him."
"Only if it's very unlucky," I replied, but Zoë smiled in response. Her husband had always been one for lightheartedness. He would certainly want any discussion centering around him to be the same.
After a while, I got up to head back to the bridge. We were likely to be coming up on the Georgia System soon and I wanted to take over the controls before River took it upon herself to get too fancy. As I took my leave, I turned back to Zoë, saying her name carefully and quietly.
Zoë looked back at me. Her smile was sad, but not completely despairing. "Not broken, Sir," she reminded me.
"Sad," I said.
She nodded and shrugged slightly. "And lonesome," she added. "A bit."
"Well," I said as I backed down the walkway in the direction of the bridge, "maybe not for long."
I turned and made my way to the cockpit, to bring us back into the world.