Disclaimer: Joss invented them. I just make them entertain me from time to time.

Author's Note: This missing moment probably didn't happen. But maybe it did. (The rating, so you're warned, is for non-explicit sex. So if sexual content squicks you at all, you'd best be hitting the Back button.)


The Embers of Another


Set your site up in the headlights
The moon won't be enough
Light the embers of another
And the night won't seem so rough

--Amy Ray, "Sister"

The sex was good that night, especially for him. Which was, of course, the general idea. When they reached their bunk, she told him just to lay back, he'd had a long day, she'd take care of him.

He couldn't argue with that. "Maybe I should get myself tortured more often," he laughed, "if it earns me this kind of treatment."

"Maybe so," she agreed with a smile, and undid his pants.

She went to work on him with the same skill and efficiency she used in everything she did, albeit with far more tenderness. She caressed each of his wounds, replacing the shadows of electrical shocks with lingering touches and kisses, and she teased him slowly until he came, whispering her name. "Zoe."

"Right here, baby," she answered softly, stroking his hair until his breath evened out again. "I'm right here." And she tucked herself under his arm, resting her head against his chest and listening to the rhythm of his heart.

After a while she began to get drowsy, and she wondered if he'd be able to sleep tonight. At least, she figured, she'd given him something else to dream about besides electrodes and gunfire and ears being chopped off -- although that last part certainly wouldn't do her own dreams any good, either.

Pushing the thought to the back of her mind, she sat up with a sigh and scooted over to her own pillow. But he didn't move. He just looked at her, a little sadly. "I'm sorry, you know."

Zoe's eyebrows shot up, and she gave him an inquisitive smile. "About what?"

He responded with one of his little self-deprecating shrugs. "About before. You know. With all the being jealous, and the stupid shuttle tricks, and the saying you should sleep with Mal. Especially that last part," he added with a bit of a smirk. "I'm really sorry about that."

She sat up again, hugging the blanket around her chest. "You really want to talk about this now?" she said.

He shrugged, then paused a moment, then reached over and took one of her hands firmly in his. "Not really," he said. "I just wanted to apologize, is all. I was being dumb. Guys are supposed to be dumb, you know. I have to live up to society's expectations once in a while, right?"

"Society, huh?" she repeated, although she couldn't help cracking a smile. "Well, I guess if society demands it, it was bound to happen sooner or later."

"Exactly. And this time it happened sooner, so there doesn't have to be a later. The dumbness is over and done with, as far as I'm concerned." He paused, then added, "Also, please don't sleep with Mal."

Then he said, "Ow!"

But that was only after she hit him with her pillow.

-o-

As it turned out, Wash didn't have any trouble at all when it came to falling asleep. It only took five minutes, plus the constant rhythm of her hand stroking his arm, and he was out cold.

She supposed she should have figured he'd be exhausted, what with the aftershocks of the torture and the adrenaline rush of the ensuing fight. Not to mention the sex. (She smiled to herself; she was proud of that part.)

Zoe took a moment to look at her husband. Pale, almost translucent skin, marred with red spots that would hopefully fade sooner rather than later. She touched one lightly with her finger, willing it to fade and sighing to herself when it didn't. Wash wasn't born to be a warrior, and he shouldn't have to carry any of the battle scars that she did.

She should have put her foot down when he said he would take her place for the run. Obviously it was too late for that now, but she still couldn't help feeling that if she'd only kept her cool and told him in no uncertain terms to stay aboard Serenity...

She turned off the light. Maybe it would be easier to sleep if she couldn't see what they'd done to him.

But even in the dark, with her arm resting comfortably against his, she still knew.

She knew that no matter how much those red spots faded, they'd still changed him forever.

She knew that even though his jealousy was entirely his own, she'd been wrong to lie to him in the first place.

She knew that despite his assurances that he was only being dumb, there would always be a little, nagging part of him that would wonder about her relationship with Malcolm Reynolds.

And even though she believed that there shouldn't be secrets between them, she knew that there were some things she would never tell him.

-o-

They'd been in Serenity Valley for nearly nine weeks -- that is to say, it'd been a day or two short of two weeks since High Command sent the order to surrender, and then left them there to fight, to starve, and to die.

Zoe Alleyne often wondered whether they'd've insisted on continuing the fight, had the ships come to retrieve them. Probably not. But nobody had come for them, so they fought on. "We were put on this rock to hold Serenity Valley," said Sergeant Reynolds, over and over, "and as long as we're still here, we still hold."

It wasn't about fulfilling their duty to the Independents anymore, and Zoe knew that. He was only saying that to give the men a purpose, a reason to survive. Because she saw what was happening to the others around them. Some ate their own bullets. Some stopped fighting for rations and let themselves starve, and some wandered into enemy camps looking to pick fights that they'd be sure to lose. But Sergeant Reynolds kept the troops of the 57th alert and wary, and they followed him. Maybe some of them knew what his game was, and were just playing along. Maybe some really believed that a miracle would happen, and they'd win after all. Maybe some just wanted to leave knowing that they'd done all they could. Whatever their reasons, they all followed.

But even that didn't last long. One by one, Zoe watched them give up, until she and the sergeant were the only ones left. Oh, there were still others -- thousands of others -- but of the original 57th Overlanders, they were the only ones.

The day their last soldier fell, a victim of a starving stomach and eventually her own gun, Zoe almost let herself weep. Almost.

That night, after the valley had gone dark, after the two of them had ceased their daily charade of trying to win the war, Zoe split her last protein cube with Sergeant Reynolds, who had none left of his own. They ate in silence, nestled in the quiet bit of valley that used to belong to the entire 57th.

Long after they finished, he finally spoke: "None of it made a lick of difference."

"Sir?" she said softly. It was the first time she'd ever heard him so morose. Ever since she'd first met him, he was either giving orders, following orders, or making the troops laugh with some stupid story or another. This was something new entirely, and it worried her.

"All this," he said, making a sweeping gesture with his arm at nothing in particular -- or at everything. "We hold the valley for seven weeks -- seven weeks -- and in the end they kill us by not shootin' at us."

"If only we'd thought of it first," she said drily.

It was meant as a joke, but he only snorted and lay down on the rocky ground. As both their sleeping bags had long since been ripped to shreds, Zoe busied herself with brushing rocks aside; semi-soft dirt, after all, made a far better pillow than pointy rocks.

She had no real intention of going to sleep. Ever since the "real" battle had ended, and the battle to survive their defeat had begun, she'd rarely slept more than an hour at a time. She wasn't sure why.

A few feet away from her, Sergeant Reynolds quietly turned this way and that, attempting to find comfort on the unfriendly ground, and the sound of it grated on her tired but obstinately awake mind.

"Just lie on your back," she said after a little while. "Any other way, and you'll just get cramped up."

"Don't I know it," he replied irritably. But after that, he stopped shifting around so much.

A few minutes later, he said, "It got colder, didn't it."

She didn't feel any difference, so she settled for a tired, "Maybe, sir."

"I think it did," he replied, then muttered something about blankets and fell silent again.

It took her a moment, but she realized what he was doing. He couldn't sleep, she couldn't sleep, and sleeping against another person might prove easier than sleeping against nothing but stone and dirt. Surprisingly, she found herself comforted by the thought -- and the old "body heat" adage was as good an excuse as any.

"Actually, sir, I think you're right," said Zoe. "It's gettin' a bit chilly."

"Thought so," he replied. "Don't suppose you might have an extra blanket handy, corporal?"

"That I don't, sarge. Don't even have one for my own self."

"Ah," he said, and she heard hesitation in his voice.

Rolling her eyes in the darkness, she offered, "But I hear it's easier to stay warm if you've got extra body heat. Sir."

"Is that so?" he said. She had to admit, he did a fairly good job of sounding surprised, almost as if the idea hadn't even occurred to him.

"That's what I hear," she said.

"Well," he said, "I sure could use some of that extra body heat, if you could."

"Believe I could at that, sir."

A few gravelly-sounding moments later, he lay beside her, his arm touching hers in a manner that wouldn't have saved either of them had they really been stranded in the cold.

"Much better," she said wryly, and he chuckled.

"Here," he said, "move your head." She did so, and he scooted up a little, arranging his arm as a pillow for her. She lay back down, accepting the offer with a smile. Human skin, even clothed in sleeves that had long ago ceased smelling fresh, was far more comforting than the dirt of the valley.

"Thank you, sir," she said softly, and this time she meant it.

But even then, she couldn't sleep. In fact, it was even harder than before. As comforting as it was to have someone beside her, she was unused to the feeling, and every time he moved even the slightest bit, she started a little. The last time she'd had a man beside her… well, that was a long time ago, before she'd joined up. It hadn't been love, or anything nearly so profound -- just a mutual attraction that had turned into a couple of long, lazy summer nights. It had been good while it lasted, but he didn't care enough to keep in touch with her after she went into the service. Neither did she. And that was that.

At the memory of him, Zoe closed her eyes. If it wasn't for the rocks beneath them and the smell of death around them, she could almost pretend that she was just lying under the stars back home.

Sergeant Reynolds shifted beside her again, and she opened her eyes. She wasn't sure which one of them had done it, but either she or the sergeant had moved closer, pressing their bodies together instead of just leaning. Inappropriate, she thought immediately, but didn't move away. Instead she closed her eyes again, and pressed even harder against his side, feeling the warmth of him through his clothes and hers -- and loving it.

She waited for a response from him, but he didn't move. Not even an inch. In fact, he'd suddenly become stiff as a board.

So it was her move. That was fine. She reached a hand over and placed it lightly upon his chest -- and as he breathed beneath her, she made up her mind. She could easily stop herself if she wanted to, and so could he, but life was short. Hell, they could both die tomorrow, or even tonight. The more she thought about that, well...

As he lay still beside her, she fumbled for the buttons on the front of his shirt. Some of them had already been torn off, and she undid the rest so that she could slip her hand inside and feel the skin of his chest. With her fingertips, she traced unseen patterns upon him, and she whispered, "This okay with you, sir?"

He inhaled deeply, then let it out. "Think so," he said a bit shakily.

"Good," she said, and her fingertip-patterns began to move downward.

When his pants got in the way, she took a moment to undo them, pulling them down just past his hips. He made an "unh" sound as she slid her hand beneath the waistband of his underpants and, ever so gently, took hold of him. She stroked him for a moment or three, getting used to the way he felt in her hand and the way he moved when she touched him like this, or like that. She thought lazily about what he might feel like inside of her, and felt herself growing wet at the idea.

"Your turn," she said, and let go of him. It took a moment for his distracted mind to comprehend what she'd said, but as soon as he did, he attacked her shirt with a quiet concentration that matched hers. Hungry hands fumbled with her nipples, sending little jolts of pleasure through her, and before long he began to unbutton her pants. She helped him push both pants and underwear down to her thighs, and sighed with pleasure as he placed a couple of fingers between her legs and began to rub.

She hadn't pegged him for an expert in pleasuring women -- in fact, she'd never even given it a thought before this moment -- but he wasn't half bad. He didn't succeed right away in finding what he sought, but he certainly knew where to look.

But while she certainly appreciated his valiant attempt to get her off, after a while she had to admit to herself that it just wasn't going to work. Some things were better done alone. Certain other things, meanwhile, required another person -- so as long as she had another person….

"On top," she said brusquely, and grabbed at his hip. He wasted no time in complying, but then paused and looked at her in one last silent question. "Go on," she said, shivering in anticipation. Then, for good measure, she added, "Sir."

"No need for that," he laughed softly, and began to push himself slowly into her. "Makes things more -- lao tyen! -- more'n a bit awkward. Wouldn't you say?"

"I would, sir," she said slyly, as her hands reached around to grab his ass and pull him further into her. "Malcolm."

He smiled at the sound of his name on her lips; she smiled because he did.

As he moved within her, she rubbed herself with an expert finger, reaching her climax not long after his thrusting brought him to his.

In the quiet that followed, he made as though to roll off of her, but she stayed him with an insistent hand. He seemed to understand. What they'd shared was a small, silly thing, but it made them feel alive amidst a world of death. And to Zoe, in that moment, there was no comfort greater than that.

-o-

Zoe curled up tightly against Wash as the memory of that night in Serenity Valley danced across the backs of her eyelids. "You okay, sweetheart?" came Wash's sleepy voice, not far from her ear.

"Mmhmm," she sighed. "I'm fine."

He leaned over to give her a quick kiss. "Love you," he said, and went right back to sleep.

"I love you too," she replied softly, and the valley slowly faded to the back of her mind. A few minutes later, Zoe Washburn fell asleep listening to the beat of her husband's heart.

-o-

Mal Reynolds lay in his bunk, alone and awake, one hand absently fiddling with his newly reattached ear. His chest still hurt a little -- a lot, truth be told -- but that wasn't why sleep was eluding him. He'd slept with injuries before, ones that hadn't been treated nearly so efficiently. In the war, for instance.

Mal shifted in his bed, muttering a curse under his breath. The war, always the war. Tonight, everything seemed to lead back to the gorram war. To the valley. To that one night in particular.

Hell, it wasn't like he outright lied to Wash. Wash had said his piece, something about how Mal was the guy Zoe'd never slept with, and Mal just hadn't bothered to correct him.

Besides, that whole thing wasn't about having some sort of heart-to-heart. It was about keeping Wash pissed off enough to stay alive.

And if anyone should tell Wash about what happened, it ought to be Zoe.

And it had happened so long ago...

Mal had an entire list of excuses like this, as long as his arm and then some, and they all held water, more or less. But the memory still made him feel a little uncomfortable now and again.

He wondered if it ever made Zoe uncomfortable. Probably not. She had, after all, been the first to speak on the morning after it happened: a calm, cool "Good morning, sir," that wouldn't have sounded out of place on the lips of any of his troops, had any of them still been around to say it. Because of that, he'd been able to look her in the eye, give her a sergeant's smile, and push it safely to the back of his mind.

It had never happened again, nor did either of them ever speak of it. He supposed that was for the best.

As his fingers slowly got used to the stitches that held his ear together, Mal wondered if Zoe had paused at all today to think of that night, even in passing.

After a while, he decided that she probably hadn't.

And after a while longer, he decided that it didn't really matter anyway.