Disclaimer: Firefly, Serenity, and all related characters are copyright 2002-2005 Mutant Enemy, Inc., Universal Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. This is a work of fanfiction. No copyright infringement is intended.

Summary: Mal and Zoe discuss hiring a new pilot.

Keeping On: Part 1 - Everything Starts

***

Late one night while Serenity was making her way towards the crew's next job, Mal and Zoe sat in the mess, each with a mug of Kaylee's engine brew.

It was one of those nights…the kind of night where loneliness set in and made a body want another body, if only for companionship and a little chat. It'd been nigh on a year since the broadcast of the Miranda wave…a year since Zoe had lost her husband and Mal had lost both a great friend and confidant.

The ship was on auto-pilot, River having checked in with Mal before finally heading to her room. Mal had sighed afterward. River was an adept pilot. She was certainly no Wash, but she was alright. But her heart, bless her, wasn't in it the way Wash's had been when he flew or the way Kaylee's was when she was tinkering in the engine room...hell, even the way Simon's was when he was pulling the inevitable bullet out of Mal's shoulder. (Or leg. Or side.) River gave her all when she flew – she was nothing if not dedicated, but she wasn't a leaf on the wind, as Wash had liked to say.

Mal knew that he had to find another pilot. Then, maybe he and River could suss out where she belonged. He could tell that she was worried, worried that if she wasn't meant to be a pilot, then she wouldn't have a place on Serenity. He would just have to make her see that she did have a place on Serenity, and always would. Mal could see that River was adrift – something that could get awful lonely and depressing out in the Black.

Mal looked over at Zoe. She was nursing her mug, deep in thought. She'd let her hair down and looked more relaxed than he could remember her being in a long time…not since before Serenity had crashed and her husband had been stolen from her. Zoe had been Mal's best friend ever since they'd met up during the war. He'd worried that she'd abandon him after the war was over, but she'd followed him.

He remembered clearly when he first met her. She was the toughest, strongest looking woman he'd ever seen. He'd thought he'd done something wrong and the higher-ups had sent another to straighten him out and that he was in for a serious kick in the pi gu. As it turned out, her commanding officer had been shot down and their platoon had been reassigned to Mal's.

Mal had never seen a soldier so focused, so intent on what he or she was doing. Mal had thought her to be bit of a robot, until one particularly nasty encounter with an alliance soldier who was terrorizing a small group of children. Mal had gotten the children to a safe camp and when he came back, the soldier lay on the ground, bleeding from his neck, and Zoe was re-sheathing her knife. The look that had been in her eyes as she stood up and looked defiantly at him, the anger and the grief…Mal never thought of her as a robot again.

"Zo? You doin' alright over there?" Mal asked.

"Just thinking, Sir." Zoe said, taking another sip of the strong brew.

"Mind sharin'? A person on this crew gets deep in thought, makes a man all manner of nervous."

"We need to find another pilot, Sir. River does great, but it ain't where she belongs." Zoe said.

Mal looked at her stupidly for long minutes, mouth open but no sound coming out. Zoe caught his eye and smiled.

"I notice things, Sir. More than others realize I do. I can tell that River's been unhappy for a while, but I think she's worried that she'll let you and I down, that we'll think she's ungrateful."

"I've been noticing the same thing, Zoe. Girl's all manner of talented, but her heart ain't in it, not like a pilot's should be. It ain't right, a person should have a chance to find out who they are; who they're meant to be and what they're meant do. The only reason I ain't gone and said anything is…" He trailed off, unsure if was the right time to be having that particular discussion.

"What, Mal?"

That was a rare occurrence. Zoe almost never called him Mal. She hadn't since Mr. Universe, Wash, and Book's funeral back on Haven. Zoe calling him 'Mal' instead of 'Sir' meant that she was unguarded, not thinking like a soldier. It meant …well, Mal wasn't exactly sure what it meant, but he knew it meant something significant.

"I wasn't certain how you'd feel, us taking on another pilot…another crew member so soon. Didn't want you feeling like we was being disrespectful to Wash's memory, or trying to replace him."

He took a drink, swallowing deeply then looked at Zoe, wanting to gauge her reaction. Zoe was quiet for long minutes, just drinking.

"You're a good man, Mal." She smiled slightly.

"Hey, now. Don't go thinkin' that. I'm a mean, bad man. Got a certain following what thinks the same way. And I can't rightly go an' disappoint them, can I?" But he smiled kindly at her to let her know he appreciated the words. He really did.

"A following, Sir? You have a following?"

"Of a sort." He took another drink, relaxing as the alcohol slid down this throat.

She raised an eyebrow at him.

"Well, there are the people from the bank on Lilac, for one. And that fine young lady named Patience on Whitefall, for another."

She simply kept staring.

"Saffron is another-"

Then Zoe surprised him by laughing. Zoe laughed for a good minute and took another drink.

"Mal, that woman loves nothing more than to see you humiliated."

"She's a rare sort, I'll give her that. Probably won't ever kill me, though." He smiled.

"And why is that?"

"I'm just too damn pretty."

Zoe laughed again and refilled both of their mugs.

"Mal, you sure are something, you know that?"

"Yeah, I do."

They shared another hour of companionable drinking, with a joke or two. Then as they both got up, rinsed their mugs out, stored the wine back in its hidey hole, and started walking towards the bunks, Mal spoke up.

"So, Zoe, new pilot?"

"New pilot, Sir."

"Where should we start?"

***

I hope you enjoy! Questions, comments, and constructive criticism are greatly appreciated!