All You Can't Leave Behind
He's never seen her so beautiful. Dress flowin' in the wind, like some kind of exotic goddess come down to grace the earth, her hands held together around a torch, carried like a gift to all who worshipped her. The only gift she has left, now all her innocence has been taken.
They stand there a long time in the dusky light, holographs playing over and over again as the sky darkens down into night, and it's an even longer time before she looks at him again.
Her dark eyes betray almost nothing, but Mal knows. He always does.
Her face is smooth and expressionless as ever as she tells him they'll be entering atmo soon. She's the picture of calm and grace, still a goddess, though dressed now like a mortal. Still in pink, and that bothers him more than it should ought to.
She's about to move on down the corridor when he finally speaks, stopping her from turning away.
"Fine, sir," she cuts him off, starting to turn away again.
She sighs and turns back again, mild irritation sweeping over her face. "Must we, sir?"
"'Fraid so," he answers with a solemn nod.
"I made it through the war, sir," she says, the slightest touch of bitterness accentuating the last word. "I can get through this."
"How?" he asks, pitching the question soft. "How do you get through this, Zoe?"
"Same as anything else," she says. "Pick up the pieces, move on best you can."
He doesn't respond for a long moment, simply looks at her. Beautiful, deadly goddess, so strong and proud on the outside, no matter how broken underneath.
"I know there were pieces of you got left behind in the war. I watched 'em get ripped out o' you, one by one. And I know an even bigger piece got left behind on Haven."
She says nothing, huge, almond-shaped eyes not quite meeting his, but he thinks he can see the wound there, a softened glittering in deep pools of brown.
He moves a step closer, fingers itching at his side to reach out and touch her shoulder, to offer her the comfort he'd give freely to any other one of his crew. But this is Zoë, and Mal only ever touches Zoë with his eyes.
"Can't afford to lose many more," he says, and his voice cracks, catching in his throat, and now she raises her eyes to look at him after all. She is cold, impassive, an impenetrable shell forged in war and burnished in blood. Looking at her, no one else would know, would never see the fractured lines in her armor, never feel the slightest bit of heat from the volcanic core of her heart. Even Mal can't touch its depths, only has the barest impression of something volatile lurking beneath the surface, seeking escape.
He imagines the landscape of her soul as a barren wasteland cut with raging molten rivers.
"Zoë," he says, almost whispering, and he nearly touches her, instinct moving his hand. Fingertips hesitate, hovering over the smooth plane of her cheek, and then wilt, drawing away. He swallows hard against the words, closing his eyes for a moment before he speaks.
"Do you hate me?"
Her eyes flicker with surprise and an innocence he'd hardly suspected existed in her soldier's heart. For a split second, she looks like a little girl, offended and shocked that her Daddy was accusin' her of stickin' her hand in the cookie jar.
"Sir..." she shakes her head fractionally, as if admonishing him for even asking such a thing.
He shakes his head right back, cutting her off, eyes skirting the edges of her face as he speaks. "Be well within your rights. Was my plan put us in harm's way. My gorram idea to take on the Alliance and the Reavers, as if one of 'em wasn't enough to tangle with."
"Recall havin' a choice," she says, her voice tight with mild reproach.
Mal takes a deep breath, clenches his jaw and nods once. "Knew you'd say that." He hangs his head a fraction and sighs, staring down at his feet. "Don't make it right."
"Don't make it wrong," she counters.
"Gorrammit, Zoë!" he finally snaps as he meets her eyes full on. "Wash is dead and it's my fault."
She goes still for an instant--so still that Mal almost fears he's gone too far--and then she folds her arms over her chest, one brow arching in cool appraisal of him. "That so? Thought it was Reavers killed my man."
He looks at her for a long moment, eyes troubled and searching hers.
"You want me to blame you, sir?"
"Maybe you should."
She takes that in, eyes brightening with the false glitter of mock curiosity. "Tell me, sir, did you plan on killing my husband while you were savin' the world from a fate worse than death?"
He sighs and turns his head away, rubbing a hand along his jaw. "No," he says, shaking his head. He turns and reaches up, laying his hands along one of Serenity's pipes. Brows knit together in a frown, his jaw taut as he sways forward against the pipe, shoulders shifting with the weight of emotion as he struggles to find the words.
"Just..." He stops, pushes back from the pipe hard. "I wish--"
"I know," she says.
And she does. Of course she does. Zoë always knows. He stands there for a moment, raging currents inside him not eased at all by her understanding. Slowly draws a breath and lets it go.
"I've known you a long time, Zoë. Maybe better than most. Of all the people I've ever known, ever fought beside, I never worried about you one bit. Never seen nothin' could break your spirit." He gives a hard smile, eyes glinting with admiration in the ship's dim light. "But a body can only take so much damage before things get broken can't be put back together. We both saw it in the war; people of whole flesh, destroyed right down the bone. Ready to jump in enemy foxholes with a grenade because they were already dead inside, or the ones gone so crazy they had to be shot by their own." He takes a step closer to her, heart laid wide open across his face. "I don't want that for you."
Finally, it's her turn to look away, dark eyes shifting fractionally with discomfort. "I'm fine, sir."
"I doubt that," he says, voice quiet, filled with sadness.
It seems like a long time before she finally answers.
"I will be."
"Will you? I mean it, Zoe," his voice takes on a harder edge, thick with emotion as it is. "You don't want this life anymore, I won't blame you a bit. You turn and walk out of here right now if you want, no hard feelin's at all. I give you leave."
She rolls her eyes up toward him with slow humor. "Thankin' you for your permission, sir, but I'll be stayin' on board." A pause, and then she gives a wry smile. "Someone's gotta look after you."
"Ain't nobody does that quite like you," he agrees with a rueful smile. And then he slowly shakes the smile from his face, eyes touching hers with reverence and resignation. "But much as it means to me, that ain't a good enough reason, Zoë."
She doesn't speak, doesn't move, and Mal almost forgets to breathe. Pain blossoms through his chest in rapid fire explosions, aching like a gunshot in his gut to think she might actually listen to him; to think of her gone. A long, still moment passes, the faint hum of Serenity's engines the only sound between them, her dark eyes traveling the walls of the corridor thoughtfully, as if seeking an answer there.
"We still flyin'?" she asks.
All the breath goes out of him, and he bows his head and closes his eyes, heart aching with understanding both bitter and sweet.
She nods as if he'd answered, the ghost of a smile curving over full lips.