A Zoe/Mal friendship and hurt/comfort fic, post-Serenity.

Many thanks to KelianaLeFey for her beta work on this piece, both as a thoughtful critic and as a great proofreader!

Close enough to the fire

I was watching "the children" walk away as I sat on the edge of the cargo bay deck. They were making their way off to the center of town and the information kiosk, to decide where they would go and return to confer as to plans for the rest of the day. Jayne had Vera and his mother's cap on, along with other weapons whose names I've forgotten, but I was certain he'd keep watch over Kaylee and Simon and River until it was time as either the Captain or I could take over making sure they were watched over.

"Jayne sure settled down, ain't he? Looks like he ain't even plannin' on drinkin' or whorin'." Mal's voice said from behind me.

"Seems so, sir," I said, then watched as he lowered himself to sit beside me, both our legs dangling over the edge of the slightly-raised deck.

"So why ain't you with them?" he said, looking at me. He had a clear reason for staying behind, it was his watch with the ship-- he often took first shift when we made landfall. "Don' want ta ruin th' others fun when they're as itchin' to get on dry land," he would say.

I didn't answer, and he didn't bother to press me. The Captain has a way of asking questions he knows you won't necessarily answer, and if it were anyone else I'd find it intrusive, the way the question assumed the answer in its own asking.

"They make me feel old," I offered, answering regardless as I watched Jayne let River dance around him while showing no signs of annoyance or forbearance. Rather, he seemed to be laughing and encouraging her, letting her be free in the moment.

"Even Jayne?"

"Even so, sir."

He mulled it over, that stubborn jaw of his literally chewing the thought over as we both looked out at the docks and our crew disappearing.

"Figure you're right. We're both gettin' old, Zo', and ain't no way to get younger, even if the brother and sister Tam find some surgical or miracle way of reversin' the ways o' the 'Verse."

He looked at me a long moment-- that look he always had before he gave a rallying cry. I wondered if it would a short one or a long one this time.

"My Grams said lots o' wise things, Zo', an' one o'them was that you ain't old 'til you're dead. Now, figure she meant old's a state o' mind, mostaways. Ain't possible to be nothin' but old some days, we both know that, but Grams were right on that score. A body can try to at least feel middle aged rather'n old, if'n one sets his or her mind to it."

I felt my eyebrow raise in automatic skepticism to yet another of Mal's aphorisms, despite the fact that I've long since learned that my skepticism is almost always banished when he further explains what he's saying. There's a reason he's the Captain, and there's a reason why I'm his Second.

"Lots o' things to feel old 'bout, Zo', that's for sure."

He falls quiet, then takes out a coin and starts turning it over his knuckles as the late afternoon sun glints and makes the metal cast light and shadows over the walls of the cargo bay yawning around us. It's an old trick, but one he doesn't do much around the crew-- it's one he does when he's feeling badly about something that's past, or when he needs to physically do something as he mentally mulls over some hard decision, like how the advance to the next ridgeline would go, what support requests he would make from behind the lines, whether and what to do about Miranda and all that came with it-- all of them things that would lead or had already led to pain and regret. He did it once in the mess, unconsciously, right after his and Wash's encounter with Niksa, that one that left him limping and hissing for days after Wash was all healed up. Kaylee, innocent mei-mei as she is, got after Mal to show him "that right shiny trick you got there, Cap'n."

I know I haven't seen him do it in the crew's presence since. Just as he has his way of asking questions he doesn't require you to answer, I have my way of letting him mull over things that others wouldn't hesitate to ask into-- such as my not calling to his attention that he's rolling that coin over the back of his hand almost as quickly as River dances with Reavers. Though she doesn't want to talk about that either. Perhaps I should stop thinking about her as one of the children.

"Miss 'im," he says. It's his own declaration, his paean to Wash-- not a question for me.

"Surely do," I reply anyway. Two words for what's going to be a lifetime of missing.

"Felt young t' other day, though," he says, looking sideways at me. "'Tween Kaylee an' River singin' those horrible children's songs Book done taught 'em and Jayne teachin' them words to th' gorram ruttin' versions, thought I was like on to burst my seams, I was laughin' so hard. Weren't no more than n'hour I felt young, but it's better'n feelin' old 'round the clock."

I remembered. The three of them were truly enjoying themselves, and while Mal hadn't joined in to supply some of the truly obscene and hilarious songs we Independents had before everything in the 'Verse turned to grey, he did smile and laugh alongside Simon, who was both horrified and amused to hear River and Kaylee joining Jayne in some of the foulest language I've heard in a dog's age. All I could think of, however, was how Wash would have made up new lyrics to top Jayne's, something inevitably ridiculous and involving his dinosaur voices-- it soured the sound of Kaylee and River's usually sweet singing voices.

"Grams had sommat else t' say on top o' tellin' me I ain't old 'till I'm dead. After Gramps died, she done pined a bit, but she picked up and joined back in t' fun, tho' she were allus a bit more serious-like than afore. She had a friend, Vern. He were th' foreman when th' place was Gramps', not yet my folks'. Vern'd lost his Alice, not long on after Gramps went off t' th' Black, an' the two o' them, Grams and Vern, well, they was allus good friends to start, but after was like on they hardly needed to talk. At nights when it weren't yet too cold that we young un's'd have to take it inside, she an' Vern'd sit on th' porch and laugh at the jokes we'd be tellin' 'round th' fire we'd have in front of th' house."

He paused a moment, chewing more words over as he looked out to the thoroughfare and the sun starting to set behind the buildings in front of us, the orange and pink rays casting the buildings into fiery shadow.

"I asked her once why she an' Vern stayed up on th' porch, and weren't she and Vern like to be cold 'lest they sit a mite closer, an' didn' they want to sit right at t' fire wi' th' rest o' us. Asked a lot of questions, back then."

He shook his head and looked at me, then pushed at my knee gently, to make sure I was paying attention, with that keen and calm look on his face he always gets before he unleashes a truth clearer than anything in one of Shepherd's books.

"Grams said this, an' tho' I sometimes forget it my own self, s' not usually too long afore I'm 'minded again. She said she and Vern done had fires o' they own, and knew what it felt like to warm themselves with their closest beloveds-- she said, too, that sometimes sittin' so close t' the fire without Gramps was too hot, burned even, but settin' back a bit from the fires lit by others still let her keep warm. Her exact words were this. 'Just because you don't have your own fire anymore doesn't mean you always have to be cold. You just have to let yourself sit close enough to the fires your friends build, and know that while you might not feel the perfect heat of your own fire again, there are friends who want you to draw near their own.' She also said that just 'cause your own fires go out don't mean you ain't got the right to try an' start up another, or that just 'cause you had one o' th' biggest an' best fires anyone ever seen don't mean that smaller ones won't do the trick when it's needed."

My throat felt too thick for the moment to answer, but Mal didn't seem to require any yet. As of now, I didn't see how I could go looking to start a new fire-- but I could see what he was saying about friends.

"Me an' you, Zo', we done had fires of our own. Twice, even. Once, you an' me an' four thousan' others shared a glorious fierce fire. An' that one went out so fast an' dark that there's goin' to be parts of us as'll allus be cold. But you an' Wash? Zoe, you had one o' th' biggest an' best fires leastaways I ever seen since I seen Grams and Gramps into th' ground to be t'gether again. I keep fizzlin' my own attempts to start fire's o' my own. Not enough tinder, or bear down too hard on th' sticks an' suchlike, tho's true that there's sometimes as some come along an' piss on my tinder that weren't my own fault. But Grams-- she din't laugh like she was old when she an' Vern sat a mite back from th' fire us younger 'uns set. They was enjoyin' themselves in their way. An' if maybe they weren't feelin' precisely young as they did it, they weren't neither feelin' too old nor tired not to draw up close enough to warm themselves, nor'd they ever think they weren't welcome. Sometimes they even tol' us as how to make our fire a bit brighter an' warmer. And damned if they weren't right."

The children emerged then from the direction where they'd been headed, returning to us. The setting sun was casting long shadows, the orange and pink streaks like a trick of the eye seeming to flicker like flames out around them.

"See?" Mal said, leaning into me with his shoulder, and shooting me that irrepressible grin of his.

"Know I'm right, 'cause the 'verse is cooperatin' by illustratin' my point. You an' me allus' close, Zo', an' I don' need you allus talkin' nor you needin' me to do the same neither. But them young'uns there has a bright warm fire o' they own, an' if we ain't sittin' right on top of it like they are, well, ain't nothin' wrong with sittin' just close enough to let ourselves get warm after we get feelin' cold again. Zoe, we're welcome at that fire, an' we can show 'em because of knowin' from our own how they can tend it or bank it or feed it a mite better to keep it goin' as warm an' as long as is needed. There ain't no way to know if either f'us is goin' to have a chance to try again at fires o' our'n, but I figure Grams were right on a larger bit, too. She din't say it quite this way, but you're only dead when you stop wantin' to try lightin' fires o' your own, or leastaways wants to sit at the outskirts o' those lit by the young'uns as wants your company. An' Zo', I sure's hell ain't dead yet."

Though there were hundreds of people bustling by on the docks, mules on the ground and skimmers and private craft whizzing around overhead, it felt right then as though Mal said that last bit into silence, it struck me so hard. That was a long rallying cry-- and one of his best ones, at least that I'd ever heard.

Kaylee capered up then in the silence Mal's words left between us, just in advance of the rest. "Zoe! Cap'n! Simon an' me done found this travelin' curiosity show, an' they's got a woman as dances w' swords an' evr'thin. She were doin' an exhibition for tonight's show, an' River done said she could do better, an' that sword-dancer says no, an' then her knife flingin' husband, well he got in on it too-- so Jayne, he looked over the knife flingin' guy an' said he's as sure he could do better'n him too. Anyways, they's all goin' t' square off'n see who's better'n who in two hours, so's you got to come 'long with us if'n we're goin' t'get supper aforehand."

Jayne listened to the tail end of this explanation and grunted. "Cain't go throwin my best knives on an empty stomach. The vibrations might done make my throw a mite wobbly." The corner of his mouth quirked in what I suspected would be a laugh if it were just him and me and the Captain.

While Simon looked a bit tentative, he also seemed caught up in Kaylee's enthusiasm and River's amused determination, seeming as though he looked forward to the rest of the evening.

"Well, it sounds like a gorram good show, whether or not it ends in a brawl. Though I'm hopin' it don't," Mal said, smiling widely as he climbed back up to his feet. "Let me go get my coin and a few other things an' I'll be right along."

He tromped back to his bunk and returned quickly, his weapons on and coat over his arm. "Reckon I won't need the coat," he says, looking down at me where I still sat. "I'll bring it anyways, but I think it's goin' to be plenty warm out tonight." He paused, then said, "You comin', Zo'?" as he held out a hand to haul me up from the deck.

I pushed myself up, batting his hand off with one of the first smiles I'd felt in a while. "I'm not that old, Mal, I can get up myself. Though I thank you for the offer."

He gave me one of those grins he gets when he knows that he's right and that I've got no choice but to admit it, even if I don't say so aloud. "You want a jacket nor nothin' else afore we close up?" he asks.

I hop down from the deck as he does the same, answering him after the bay is powered shut and locked down. "I don't think so, sir. If I get cold, I'll just borrow yours. And Jayne's got guns enough for all of us and half a melee."

"Well, I'll be glad t' be 'f assistance if needed," Mal said, as we set off to follow the rest toward the impending adventure.

"I us'lly aim t' arm an entire melee," Jayne said cheerfully. "But seemed like as weren't no risk o' more than a fistfight, so I only brought half. Glad I still brought my full contingent o' knives, though."

Mal quirked an eyebrow at me before asking the question begged by Jayne's proclamation. "An' how many knives might that be, precisely?"

Jayne scrunched his forehead in thought. "I don' rightly know. I jus' bought three more an' stowed 'em away somewheres, but countin' higher'n twenty ain't never been my strong suit."

"So ... higher than twenty, plus three," Mal says, his mouth twitching.

Jayne scratched his head, thinking further. "Yeah, sounds 'bout right. T'other guy, he on significant lighter an' shorter 'n me. Ain't no way he got more than say, fifteen or so tucked away. This's goin' to be fun." He cracked us both a grin before another thoughtful look passed over his face. He promptly jogged over to River. "Hey, mei-mei. Where you keepin' those swords o' your'n you s'posed to dance with?" he asked.

I was too busy answering the Captain's unasked question to quite hear her answer. "Yes, sir, I think you're right. It is going to be plenty warm out tonight."

He bumped his shoulder into mine and gave me that lopsided smile of his. "Thought so." He was quiet a moment longer, then slowed up a bit to put some speaking distance between us and the children. "Zoe? Where do you think River's keepin' those swords she's s'posed to dance with?"

I felt a laugh that was ten years younger than I felt this morning come bursting out. "I don't know, sir. We'll just have to sit close enough to the fire so we can see."

He laughed in response and picked up the pace. "That we will, Zo', that we will."