Author's Notes: Written for the 100 Situations LiveJournal Challenge. Based on 100 prompts, this series will capture 100 scenes from Mal and Zoë's life, showing what only time can know; the ties that bind and why they will never sever, from pre-Firefly series to post-Serenity, the past and the possible future. These stories are posted in the order they were written—for now. Eventually (presuming I finish) they will be ordered chronologically.

What Only Time Can Know
Prompt #002 – Back Alley

Freefall

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For a split second, he had no idea how he ended up face-down kissing concrete with the texture of grit and the taste of copper in his mouth—-and then he heard the tight click of a pistol cocking, the labored breathing of a man whose nose had just seen the last of its symmetrical days, and his mouth curled in a tight smile, remembering.

Tiny rocks cut into the palms of his hands as he pushed himself up, struggling to his knees before cold steel met the back of his neck. The smell of oil and gunpowder filled him, were as life itself, the length of his history written with them upon pages of blood and the bodies of the dead. Oil, gunpowder, blood, death; he'd gladly surrendered to their burden, had become as their skin, an object moved through their will. An object in motion that could only be stilled by the same.

The space of a breath drawn, a moment suspended in time where he understood perfectly the series of events that led him here. The faces of the dead filed by in quick procession, marching in formation to the tune of a band who'd long since abandoned their instruments. Starvation, dehydration, shrapnel, bullet wounds; none of them had seen fit to do more than mess him about. None of them had seen fit to take him from this cold, harsh, universe. Why not like this? On this day of all days? After all, this was the day his life had actually ended, all be that it was one year after the fact.

Let it be this, then.

There was no sound save the crinkle of brown leather as he lifted his hands, lacing them atop his head. Without ceremony, without pretense, he tilted his head back into the muzzle, let slip his will, and breathed deep his last.

And then the weight of metal was suddenly lifted from his skin in perfect synchronicity with the muffled crunch of shattered bone. A thump as the gun-holder hit the ground, and then another distinct thunk of wood hitting bone with incredible force, followed by another bodily thump.

"Sir?"

"I was fine," he answered, the words sounding too fast, too false, even to his own ears.

"Weren't looking too fine."

He swayed on his knees, the world tilting into a sideways spin that sent his head and stomach reeling, and decided that introducing his beer glass to Curly's nose might just've been piece of wisdom for more reasons than one. And that Curly putting a bullet in his brainpan would've been a right piece of mercy.

Cool, dark hands slid against his, pulled him to his feet despite his protests. Once on his feet, he discovered they weren't exactly playing by any kind of rules he understood anymore, and he stumbled a bit before Zoe caught him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. Muscles like steel beneath silk as they pulled him close, bearing his weight as she helped him move down the alley.

"Where'd you go?" he slurred.

"To the bathroom." Zoe turned her head, looking at him with a perfect mixture of disgust, disbelief and amusement that only Zoe could have conjured. "Sir," she added with an emphasis that left him feeling properly chagrined.

"Don't do that again," he ordered, weaving so hard she nearly lost her grip on him.

"Yes sir." Dutiful and completely perfunctory.

"I mean it," he said, using his serious voice. "I... I almost let 'im..." He staggered over the words as badly as he did over his feet, but Zoe held him steady—-just like she always did.

"I know." The reply was quiet, filled with deadly calm. Then she turned her head toward him again with a predatory gleam in her eyes that made him think she might like to kill him herself.

"Don't you ever. Ever. You understand me?"

"You givin' me orders now?" His words were slow, too slurred, an all together pitiful attempt at command.

"Yes sir." Nothing perfunctory about her reply that time, all bright tones and false acquiescence that made clear she was lethally serious.

There was a long pause, the heat of her skin warming him through his coat as they walked.

"Don't know that I can do this without you," she finally said, voice low.

"Hell. Didn't even make it two minutes without you." He tried to nod back toward the bar to emphasize his meaning, but his neck went slack and his head lolled against hers, instead.

"We'll get through." His own words shot back at him. And that wasn't how it was supposed to be. He was the one who was supposed to give strength, say the happy words and make it all right. The one that others listened to, rallied around.

"Not today," she answered.

Had he said all that out loud? Must have.

He tried to nod in response, but everything was moving too slow, his limbs sluggish and forgetful. Then the world upended in one last violent spin that left him rushing down a black hole inside his mind, and he finally succumbed as darkness rose up to swallow him.

Zoe grimaced as he went limp, catching him, bearing him up gently beneath her arm. She looked down at his face, which should have, by all rights, been serene and peaceful what with his eyes closed.

It never was.

"Happy U-Day, sir."