Shoulder to Shoulder
Disclaimer: I own none of these characters.
Summary: There are many reasons Mal and Zoe are so very close. Here are a few of them.
Warning: Mention of rape and brutality.
Malcolm Reynolds sat in a foxhole in Dhu Khang, celebrating his promotion to Sargeant and his survival of the latest firefight with a cheap bottle of rotgut procured from God knew where. Zoe Alleyne, as always now, sat at his side, steadily knocking back shots of her own. A small bullet wound in her right shoulder made her drink left-handed, and occasionally their elbows would bump together as they both took a shot at the same time.
Looking up at the sky, occasionally lit with the glare of one transport ship or another, Zoe said softly, "Think we'll live long enough to get to Hera?" The transfer papers for both of them had come through earlier in the day.
Mal looked at her sideways, his eyes holding that hellbent expression she found so fascinating. "You even have to ask?" he said, grinning. "I'm figurin' we get there and end this go se once and for all. Hera's as good a place to do it as any."
Zoe nodded, though she was not as firmly convinced of their invincibility as he seemed to be. Might be on accounta the bullet wound in her shoulder, she reasoned wryly. She stretched her arm out, feeling the pull of the scar forming there.
Mal turned to her, concern in his bright blue eyes. "Want I should look at it again? Seems to be botherin' you some."
Zoe nodded, looking around surreptitiously to see where everyone else was. But she and Mal were blessedly alone, and she quickly unbuttoned her uniform. Easing it off her shoulder, Mal looked intently at the wound, checking for signs of infection. Jackson had lost his arm two days back because of their lack of antiseptic, and Mal could scarcely bear the thought of Zoe's beautiful body being marred thus. If she weren't such a gorram good soldier to have at his back, he's have wished her somewhere safe, where womenfolk could expect to keep all their limbs and swing in porch swings drinking lemonade and such. He smiled at the thought of how Zoe would snort at such an idea.
Probing gently around the wound, he winced himself when she flinched at a particular spot. "Looks like there might be a bit of gunk in there," he said grimly. "Needs cleaning out again."
Zoe sighed, and allowed him to push her gently down onto the hard packed dirt. He poured some of the whiskey into the wound, and Zoe clenched her jaw shut tight to avoid crying out at the burn of it. He fumbled around for a moment, looking for anything approximating a clean cloth and dabbed gingerly at the wound. Quickly rewrapping the bandage, he wiped the fine sheen of sweat off her brow. "You okay?" he said softly.
She unclenched her jaw long enough to answer in the affirmative, but she continued to lie there, waiting for the last tendrils of pain to go away. As often happened, something in the depths of her dark eyes drew Mal in, and he leaned down to kiss her lush lips. She responded, lifting her uninjured arm to pull him closer, drawing comfort from the heat of his body against hers. This was not the first time they'd come together thus, but each time was both new and familiar, like a much-loved song played over and over again in their heads. These moments punctuated their everyday lives together, and seemed a natural extension of their loyalty one to another. After a time, he drew away from her kiss reluctantly. "Don't 'spect you're feelin' up to much else," he murmured, mindful of her shoulder.
Zoe smiled slowly, and unbuttoned her uniform all the way down. "You'd be amazed at what I'm feelin' up to," she said, her voice sending an electric current down his spine.
Mal shivered despite himself. "That a fact?" he said, sliding his hands up her body to fondle her firm, round breasts.
"It is," she said, her breath catching as his mouth replaced his hands.
Zoe and Mal sat huddled together in a trench in Serenity Valley, the stench of death and decay filling their nostrils and leaching the last hope out of their souls. They were the last two of their platoon, the only 57th Overlanders left in the god-forsaken landscape. Zoe saw the dullness in Mal's eyes, the weight of all the men he's lost pressing down on his shoulders until they were beginning to bow under the strain.
She'd seen him rip the cross from his neck and hurl it onto the blood-soaked mud three days ago, and now she wondered if she should have retrieved it for safekeeping. Something in his eyes told her that was not a good idea, however, and so she sat quietly, her spine as straight as she could force it to be, offering him what little strength she could muster. Breaking the last of her protein bars in half, she wordlessly handed it to him, but he waved it away. "You eat it," he said. "Better one of us has enough than both of us have too little."
She started to protest, but saw little point in it. They'd both be hungry enough by nightfall that it wouldn't matter anyway. She ate the crumbly bar slowly, willing her mind to forget that it was the last thing she was apt to eat in this 'verse. Sighing tiredly, she drank from her canteen, and offered it to Mal. The water he accepted, sipping slowly so as to enjoy it while it lasted. He handed it back to her with a pained smile. "Could maybehaps be that we missed a canteen or two when we were seeing to the bodies," he said bleakly. "Best I go check again. No need for good water to go to waste." He rose slowly, bone-tired and at the brink of losing the last of his considerable will.
Zoe stood up beside him. "Four eyes are better than two," she said flatly, when he started to protest.
He nodded, and they walked among their fallen comrades, scavenging through the encampment for any scrap of something to keep them alive just a little longer.
Mal and Zoe lay under a moldy blanket, moving in a steady rhythm designed to drive the demons away with the feel of heated flesh on flesh. Closing their eyes against the sights and smells of the carnage around them, they lost themselves to the sensations they created in each other's bodies, crying out as they reached their mutual release.
They lay for one fragile moment, consumed only by their need for each other, until slowly the 'verse came back into focus, and they pulled away, slipping back into their hell of waiting for the end to arrive.
But it didn't. An Alliance transport arrived instead, shining its hateful bright light into their sore eyes. Hastily donning what was left of their tattered uniforms, they looked at each other, needing no words to communicate in the harsh glare of the spotlight. Mal's fingertips brushed lightly along the back of Zoe's hand before he was roughly jerked away. Herded onto the ship, she did not see him for the eternity of an entire week.
When next she did see him, he was being dragged down the long gray corridor of the transport ship to be unceremoniously dumped into the small cell she occupied. A murderous rage swept through her as she saw what the hundans had done, and had she had one ounce of strength in her limbs, at least one of them would have paid the price for their actions. The door clanged shut with a dreadful sound of finality, and she moved as quickly as she could manage to his side.
He had landed facedown on the cold floor, and she turned him over gingerly, aware that he was badly hurt. His low moan made her heart contract painfully as she unbuttoned his shirt with suddenly trembling fingers. Her sharp gasp at the sight of his battered torso made him open his eyes. Seeing her expression, he croaked, "Ain't exactly in the mood for undressin' and such just now, Zoe." His smile was hampered considerably by his cracked lips.
Finding more strength than she had known she had, Zoe rolled her eyes. "Then what good are you to me, sir?" she deadpanned.
Mal's chuckle was cut short by a bout of coughing which left him pale and clammy. "None, best as I can tell," he managed to grate out.
"What did they want, sir?" Zoe asked, when she had helped him get into a less painful position.
"Nothin'," Mal answered bitterly. "Knew I didn't know anything of use. Just felt the need to beat on me awhile, in case I should forget who won the war, I reckon."
Zoe nodded, feeling the anger build up inside of her to stoke the fire of her will.
Mal looked at her intently. "They do anything to you?"
"No," she said. "Just stuck me in here and left me be."
Mal nodded, profoundly grateful for the small favor the 'verse had bestowed upon the last person standing by his side.
Chained to a ring embedded in the wall of the internment camp interrogation room, Mal screamed until his voice was gone as he was forced to watch Zoe's violation at the hands of the brutal Alliance guards. Yanking against the restraints until blood ran down his wrists and arms, he shook with murderous fury at his helplessness to prevent what was happening.
Zoe made no sound, lying bruised and battered beneath her attackers. She knew, through the miasma of pain swirling about in her body, that making any pitiful sound drove her tormentors to new heights of sadistic pleasure, and she would deny them at least that.
She heard, as if from a great distance, Mal's screams and curses as he tried to draw them away from her with his voice alone, and then she heard his ragged breathing when he could no longer scream. She had lost count of the men who were using her body so cruelly, but she held on to the sound of Mal's labored breath, narrowing her focus to that tiny pinpoint in order to endure the vile abuse.
Finally, bored with their prey, the guards pulled away from her, releasing their bruising hold on her arms and legs. She opened her eyes and looked at Mal, hanging on the other side of the room, his blue eyes filled with the tears she could not shed. Drawing strength from his unwavering gaze, she stared at him until the guards dragged her back to her cell, leaving her alone and shivering in the cold room.
Mal returned to their cell, limping after a well-placed kick to the back of his knee during his latest round of beatings. He saw Zoe huddled under the thin blanket, shivering in the cold. Approaching her cautiously, he reached out a gentle hand to touch her. "Zoe," he said quietly, as she jerked away in an instinctively protective way, "It's me, Mal."
Zoe turned to face him, the fear in her eyes morphing into relief when she focused on his face. "I'm cold," she said blankly.
Mal slipped carefully into the narrow cot beside her, pulling her gently into the warmth of his body. He felt the resistance in her muscles, the slight tightening of panic. He whispered soothing sounds against her hair as he rubbed circulation back into her frigid arms. When at last she relaxed against him, he held her closer still, sharing what body heat he could, though the position was painful because of his own injuries.
"We're going to die here," she said listlessly.
"No," he said firmly. "We're not. Won't give them the satisfaction of it. You hear me?"
he asked in his best Sargeant's tone.
"Yes, sir," she said automatically.
"Good," Mal said gruffly. "I'm walkin' outta here one day, and I ain't aimin' to be walkin' without you. Dong ma?"
Zoe sighed tiredly, shifting in his arms. "I understand, sir."
On the day that they were released from the prison camp with stern warnings about all the things they were not to do, Mal and Zoe walked down the dusty road in silence for a long while. Pooling the meager credits they had been allowed by the Alliance, they had enough for a decent meal and one night's stay in a small hotel room.
Zoe sank gratefully into the first hot bath she's had since before Dhu Khang, while Mal revisited the almost sensual pleasure of a close shave with the razor provided at the front desk. Examining his gaunt face in the mirror, he sighed and turned to Zoe for inspection. "Whaddya think?" he said, rubbing his newly smooth cheeks.
"Think if your ribs weren't stickin' out so painful-like, you'd be a fine figure of a man," Zoe said calmly, her eyes beginning to show a glimmer of life in them.
Mal grimaced as he looked down at his emaciated form. Taking the sponge away from Zoe's hand, he slowly ran it down her back, deliberate in his tender ministrations. "'Spect I'll have to figure a way to fatten up then," he said lightly.
Zoe leaned into his touch, relaxed now in this moment as she had been unable to do in the prison. "Reckon so," she murmured, as his fingers trailed along her backbone.
"We're alive, Zoe," he whispered, resting his hands on her submerged hips.
"We are at that," she answered, turning her face to capture his lips in a slow, soft kiss that reminded them both of how very alive they were.
Years passed, while Mal worked toward his goal of purchasing a ship, and Zoe worked by his side. There was no discussion about why it should be so. It was a simple fact of their lives that they were bound to each other in a bond forged in blood and sweat and tears both shared and held back, and was a matter not open to debate.
Over time, they required less and less physical comfort from each other, and each took others into their respective beds. It changed nothing between them, and was not even a topic for contemplation to any great degree. They knew, without even the vaguest of doubts, that regardless of current or future lovers, what they had shared and would share was made of stronger stuff than sexual satisfaction. In the general uncertainty of their lives, such bedrock surety was a kindness to them both.
Mal leaned up against the bulkhead in the Captain's quarters, sweat-soaked and sated. "That's a helluva a way to christen a ship," he observed, the wicked glint in his eye causing Zoe to smile lazily in return.
"Figured this boat needs all the good stuff she can get," Zoe said, pulling the thin sheet over her luscious form.
"Hey now," Mal protested. "Don't be talkin' disparagingly about my boat, woman. She'll fly true enough, with enough good hard work and a decent pilot." He reached to retrieve his pants. "Speakin' of which, I best be gettin' some sleep. Interviewin' a new pilot tomorrow, and this one looks to be pretty good, if the word on the street is true."
Zoe curled into her pillow. "That's what you said about the last one," she said dryly.
Mal scowled. "Well, maybehaps I was a little wrong on that one, but I got high hopes for this one." Looking down at her lying there so peacefully, he said, "You want to keep this bunk? It's a mite bigger than the others, and you more apt than me to be in need of the extra space."
Zoe smiled. "That mean I get to be the Captain?"
"Don't push it," Mal replied easily. "I can always revoke the privilege."
"Yes sir," Zoe replied, not the least bit concerned.
Mal kissed her softly. "In case I ain't said it lately, I'm glad you're on my boat."
"Me too," she said, already drifting off to sleep.
Mal climbed out of the bunk, and down into the room he planned to make his own. Thinking about his interview with the new pilot, he smiled. If things went smooth for a change, he and Zoe would be out in the Black in no time at all, flying free shoulder to shoulder, just as it should be.