The characters and situations in this story are the property of Joss Whedon, FOX, Universal, and probably other entities I don't know about, and I do not have any permission to borrow them. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.

Spoilers: all episodes and the film

This was a much-belated birthday fic for a friend of mine, who has graciously given me permission to post it. Thank you, Penn, and happy birthday!

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She'd known pain before. There was the screaming pain of a knife slash, the pounding throb of a headache, the pseudo-electric slam of a bullet embedding itself in flesh. And all the lesser ones, from a stubbed toe to a nose raw with cold.

But this one was new. It would have doubled her over if she could still move; it snatched her breath and her concentration and dragooned them into its muscle-tearing purpose. It took her over and dragged her towards the edge of an unknown cliff, and she dug in her determination and tried to fight, but it was hard.

"Zoe! Zoe, zhen qisi ren, hang in there--"

The voice was close by her ear, but she could barely hear it. Instead she was remembering someone else's voice, someone else's breath puffing against her cheek--

Laughing and panting, they rolled over, separating long enough to let some of the heat rise off them, and then he was pulling her close again--what a man, loved to snuggle. She didn't, not at first, but she'd learned to like it.

She'd learned to like a lot of things.

It had been the oddest thing, really, falling and falling hard for a goofy yellow-haired twit of a pilot. She hadn't thought to love anybody, not that way--war changes people and she figured her heart was too hard now to let somebody in, too dry and withered. Room for loyalty and a little fun, that was all.

But he changed all that. Barging into her life with his dinosaurs and his silly stories, making Mal like him because he treated Serenity like a living thing, watching herself with puppy eyes and all but laying his heart out on the deckplates for her to walk on. And to her shame, later, she did a little; but he forgave her.

Man had a incredible capacity for forgiveness.

She asked him about it once, how could he do it, and he just shook his head a little the way he had, looking at her with eyes blue as a star. I love, he said, how can I not forgive? Quoting some dumb poem at her, and making her roll her eyes, but never mind, she loved him anyway.

Maybe because of it.

The pain really was a bitch. Normally, she got hurt, and it peaked and then faded a little, got manageable. Or it didn't and she passed out. This wasn't. It was going on and on, every time she got her breath it hit her again, and she was really starting to think that maybe she wasn't going to live this time. River's voice spoke somewhere over her head, saying something crazy as usual about time to wake up. She ignored it. Had more important things to focus on.

Swapping vows on some backwater moon, standing in front of a shrunken little Shepherd, because he'd wanted "proper" even though Mal could have said the words for them on Serenity's deck. The tiny ancient woman looking like she'd bit into a lemon with all those wrinkles, then finally cracking a little smile when Wash took his bride's face between his palms and kissed her good. And kissing him back, feeling an unfamiliar joy brimming up--Mal with that half-grin of his, arms folded, Kaylee all but bouncing with delight, Jayne looking bored. The smell of the blossoms in her hair--goodness knows where Kaylee had found them--and Wash insisting that he needed one too, pulling it out and sticking it behind his ear. Damn, how she loved him, this goof of a man, now her husband--her husband!--

She knew those hands too. Cool and strong and smart--she'd been tended by them often enough. The Doc was on the job, and it was kind of a relief, because he really was a genius. She'd seen him fail, but she'd also seen him pull off miracles with just what he carried in his bag. If this could be mended, he'd see to it that she was. As the pain slacked off a little, her thoughts ran off along a strange line, wondering what Simon would have been like if the Alliance hadn't stolen his sister, if he'd been left to stay the course and become a brilliant surgeon instead of the patch-up man for a shipful of misfits and rebels.

Then the next wave was on her, and Doc's calm words were lost under the agony. Other hands, she remembered other hands--the touch of his that first time, warm and big but still softer than hers, wrapping around her fingers in a polite handshake--then pressing an ice pack to her face--touching her hair with reverent fingers--linking through hers in a shy grip--trailing down her body as he made her moan--flat on her back as he held her close after a nightmare. Hands, hands, all gone now. Stone-cold, withered, like the hands of those poor damned folk on Miranda--

A blow across her face, and Mal yelling at her. She tried to focus, her Sergeant was giving orders, but she really couldn't.

She lost them both once, to a murderous old man who saw Wash only as peripheral, and she won him back, and her captain too. It had never been a choice between him and Mal--it was simply a given, and Mal had understood that even if Wash hadn't. She watched him prove something to himself as they went to get Mal back, silly even in his heart-seriousness, and in the end wasn't that what she loved best about him? That he made her laugh? Even Mal couldn't make her laugh.

He made her laugh. He made her soft, and made for her a place to be soft in, without fear of giving in. He held her after the nightmares of blood and stinking death, made her smile when she woke up, made her learn to like the snug of arms around her and the tickle of breath against the back of her neck. He never tried to make her feel smaller, or less, or weak because she was a woman; he just loved her the way she was.

"Wash," the name spilled from her, and her voice was so hoarse that she scarcely knew it was hers. Somebody swiped her forehead with a wet cloth, and though she couldn't see clearly it seemed to be River, which was funny, because when was the crazy girl a nurse?

Doc was there, and Mal; the preacher should be there too, to pray for her no matter how it made Mal glower, but he wasn't, and it was an effort to remember that he was dead. Gone to the heaven he was always talking about, she hoped; maybe Wash was there too, and the two of them could play cards and bet stars instead of chores. Maybe she would join them soon, and wrap her arms around her husband's shoulders, and never be away from him again.

Another slap on the cheek, and Mal roaring in her ear. "You stay with me, Zoe, dong ma? You stay with me!" And swearing, which was funny too. For someone so uptight, Mal sure could cuss up a storm when he wanted to.

She couldn't remember when this had all started anymore. Or why. All she could remember was pain. And there was a door opening somewhere, she could feel it. If she could go through that door, there wouldn't be any more pain.

She was tired of hurting.

x

River was fastening down one more slip, bent over graceful as ever, and try as she might Zoe couldn't bring herself to hate the girl. It was her secret, her gifts, her trouble that had dragged them halfway across the 'verse and gotten Book killed; River was the reason Serenity was more pieces than hull, and why the taper was burning in Zoe's fingers.

Was the reason why no one stood at her side, this breezy solemn evening, even though she was wearing a slinky dress he wouldn't have been able to keep from touching.

No. River was just the fruit of the secret, in a way, poor child burdened with something never meant to be spoken, and it was Mal's madness that had brought them to this, the wounded and the scarred and the dead. And maybe if Wash was there, he'd sling an arm over her shoulders and tell her it was all worth it, because the man had been truth walking, if for no other reason than he couldn't lie worth a damn. No hiding, no facades, just honesty and piloting. And her.

She missed him so damn bad.

Maybe he was there. Maybe it was him talking to her all reasonable-like, telling her now wasn't her time, that she had things to do and people to look after. Maybe it was him holding onto her hand so hard it hurt. Maybe it was him reaching into her heart to unlock the gears that had frozen when Mal had pulled her away from him, made her leave him behind for the Reavers.

Wash.

x

"Wash."

"No, it's just me," Simon said, and Zoe pried her sticky eyes open to see him smiling sadly down at her with the gentle look he kept for his patients and his sister. "Welcome back."

He laid a hand on her shoulder as she raised her head, but there was no way she was going to try to sit up, because her insides still hurt like a son of a whore. "Take it easy. Here."

Simon did something, and the infirmary bed tilted a little so Zoe was sitting up slightly without the effort. She took a quick inventory; patient's gown, blanket over her legs, needle in her arm, dry mouth that tasted of blood.

"Would you like something to drink? You can have a little," Simon said, and Zoe nodded, not feeling quite up to words just yet. He disappeared behind her, then came back with a cup that he held to her lips, and she let him, because the hand she raised to it was shaking pretty badly. It was just water, cool and sweet, and she sipped at it, cautious about swallowing. It went down okay, though, and Simon took the cup away again.

She cleared her throat. "How bad is it?" she asked, nodding down at herself. The pain might have been new, but she knew enough about hurting to know that something was really wrong.

Simon cocked his head and considered her. He didn't lie, that was one of the things she liked about him, but you had to be healthy enough to stand the news before he'd tell you.

Apparently she was. "I had to perform surgery," he informed her quietly. "We nearly lost you a couple of times, but Mal's right; you are a fighter." He gestured at the line running into her arm, which went up to a bag of something lemony-looking. "You've got two pints of Grade-A Jayne running around in you now…sorry."

If she'd had more energy, she would have smiled at his puckish look. "I hope you screened it for bugs first," she deadpanned, and Simon smiled a little wider.

"Standard procedure." He moved away to one of the counters for a moment, and Zoe lay still, looking at bleakness.

All that pain. It changed a person. She'd been through pain before, but the last time, Wash had been there to soothe and tease her. Wash…

Simon was back again, leaning over to bother her eyes with a light, then taking her pulse with two cool fingers. "I think you're strong enough for this." He leaned over to depress the intercom key. "Kaylee?"

The infirmary door slid open, and Kaylee came slowly in, her face transfigured with delight. River trailed along behind her, peering over the mechanic's shoulder with abstracted interest, but all of a sudden Zoe couldn't look away from the bundle in Kaylee's arms, couldn't keep her own hands from reaching for it despite the pain it caused. "I thought--"

"Easy, xialia." Simon's hands held her arms back, gently, and then let them go as Kaylee laid the bundle in Zoe's lap. Star-blue eyes in a mocha face blinked up at her, still unfocused, and all of a sudden the bleakness shriveled up. Oh, her heart still ached and always would, but this proved that he wasn't gone completely, not forever.

Her fingers curled around the small warm body--well, not so small after all. A tiny fist worked its way free of the blanket and waved a little, and the full lips moved, a meditative smack. Zoe couldn't take her eyes off the perfection.

"It's a girl," Zoe pronounced, and next to her Kaylee shook her head.

"How'd you know?"

"Zehoba." He smiled as he spoke, and on his lips it sounded graceful, exotic, right. "We can call her Zehoba."

"What if it's a boy? Want to call him after his daddy?" she teased, but he shook his head and put his arm around her waist, stroking the spot where their child would swell. She'd finally talked him into the idea--

"We'll have a daughter. A little girl, as beautiful and strong as her mother and as funny as me." As she laughed, he smiled and kissed her. "You wait and see."

"I didn't. Wash did." With an effort, she lifted the small fragrant being up to her face and placed a kiss on Zehoba's forehead. "He knew." Her laughing, funny, honest pilot of a husband, who guided her home to him.

He knew.

End.