Proper Words
Pre-series, Zoe. Zoe's plenty emotional. As she reckons it, at least.

Zoe has a big heart. Has to, in order to put up with the captain. Has to, in order to put up with her fool husband sometimes, with his talking and his goofiness and his way of making her forget things for a little while, forget and look forward to places where it's ok not to know which way a gun gives blowback. Some days Zoe can't stand the way either one of them breathes, but her heart's not surrendering them up, not yet.

She gives it a name sometimes when she needs to sit it down and give it a stern talking-to. Zoe's Big Heart. Like a dog that's all fur and flop. Zoe's Big Heart used to like making friends; like a dog, it enjoyed rolling over everything and learning all kinds of new smells, even if she refused to show it much. Doesn't mean her heart didn't know how to bounce up and down like a spring. Doesn't mean it couldn't get silly now and then, having a laugh with friends and finding a peace among them.

The kitchen's getting hot now as the steaming pan warms up. The lid's shut tight to keep from leaking steam; the stove's recycling vents are on, reclaiming any wasted water. Zoe resists the urge to crack the top and check on the bao.

Wash is up in the cockpit, sulking after his last spat with the captain over their flight path. Jayne's down for the night. Kaylee's in bed too, having given up after trying to make peace between them all and the way no one's agreeing on which shortcut to use to get to their next cargo drop on time.

Down the hall, Zoe can hear the creak and sigh of Serenity's innards as Mal climbs down a ladder and begins another round of the ship.

Zoe's Big Heart was naive and stupid during the War. It was a puppy back then, falling all over everyone in her platoon, learning names and faces and loving them up until they died. Then it became just stupid. If she'd had the time back then, she might've sat down and howled like a real animal while the Valley filled up with rot - but instead she bit down with teeth that tasted bitter from chewing scraps of bush bark, and listened to her heart get quieter and quieter, tucked up alongside her captain as if he was the last warm spot in the 'verse.

The lid of the steamer hiccups. Zoe reaches down, adjusts the heat.

Mal used to be prettier with his own heart, back when he'd worn sergeant like an inspiration, and captain had been a rank instead of a life. Now he's sharp. Now he pulls the trigger first if he has to, and sometimes even when he doesn't. They both left their willingness to open up on the floor of that Valley; Zoe knows it. If Zoe wasn't as controlled as she is, it might even bother her.

But her Big Heart's a good dog these days, and so is she. Even her reputation behaves itself, making her known as tough enough to look the wrong way down the sights of a gun and not flinch, calm as can be. She and Mal didn't kill off their emotions to get out of Serenity. They didn't lock away their souls. They just make sure no one's looking for kindness - that no one's expecting generosity, so that way no one realizes it when it comes. It's not like they closed themselves up. She and Mal just moved the doors over, made it harder for other people to find the way inside, not without being invited first.

Zoe's emotions don't make her weaker, that's the thing. There's none of this le se about having to suppress her womanly feelings in order to keep afloat, because a heart has got nothing to do with what's in someone's crotch and on their chest. Anyone who thinks different never saw a grown man go to jelly while holding the picture of his baby girl; they never had the McCormac sisters backing them up with only a single rifle between them. Zoe's Big Dumb Heart makes her One Tough Bitch, because listening to enough whimpering makes even the saintliest of people want to get out their shotgun eventually and put the damned dog out of its misery - so if you don't give into that, you get real good at enduring the noise.

The thing about love, Zoe knows, is that a person needs to be taken care of so that they can take care of other people in turn. You don't, you end up like half the poor souls who came back from Serenity all wrong, who found themselves so alone so quickly that they forgot they had a friend in the 'verse. Or the ones who went wrong before the battle was even over: last survivors of their units, forgetting who was an enemy, who was an ally. You try to stand on your own too much, you end up eating your own self for sustenance, hollowing yourself out from the inside.

Or worse: you have nothing to stand between you and your heart while you both try to kill the other.

So she makes soup and cleans guns and stares down her captain whenever Mal slips up and overloads on callousness to try and get people to back off. And she lets Mal tell her what to do sometimes, because even though she's tough she's also tired, and sometimes Zoe needs to believe in people who are willing to try and take control of this crazy world and wrestle it until it makes sense. And she lets Wash remind her about things she wanted to look forward to one day, because otherwise it's just going to be living while thinking everything's like the past, like there's nothing better in the world than dirt and loss, and Zoe can't do that - not for herself, not for her captain.

Mal is what she is. Wash is the world she's hoping to live in someday, even if it takes a while to get there. The two aren't exclusive. Zoe's bigger than that. She's big enough that she has two people in her life who sum her up instead of just one. She and Mal have the same ghosts to feed, which is why Zoe's not going to get jealous when Mal gets stupid around Inara, picking at the edges of a life so full of graceful acceptance that he wants it as bad as bleeding. This isn't a romance vid where Zoe has to pick one person over the other, because she'll be damned if she went through all these years to let go of either of them now.

And hell if that's love, or greed or indecision or just her big damned heart talking again, but she'll carry both of them along if she has to.

There weren't proper words for the things she and Mal saw during the War: the way that the gunfire started to sound like glass beads rattling inside a can if it went on too long, or the way that they caught Brown and Guffs touching each other with one hand while clutching their girlfriends' pictures in the other, or the way Zoe stood up once in plain sight, right in the middle of a bombing, because the way the light came up through the clouds hypnotized her straight out of the battlefield and made her think it was snowing. There aren't always words in any language. She still doesn't know why she did that.

So if Zoe doesn't have an answer for why it's okay, then too bad. She's not changing.

She finishes steaming up the last of the bao, one of the few left after their last rest stop. They're big as her fist, with the meat dripping sweet inside. Her favorite. Cost enough to make her want to hoard them, but she's an adult. She can make sacrifices.

She tucks the bao on the plate, arranging them so that they slope inwards. Their white bodies shine like bloated pearls in the dim cabin lights. The skin of one indents gently underneath the pressure of her fingertip.

Mal's steps have been going away from the kitchen the last few times she's heard them, circling around and around but moving a little further out with each rotation. Knowing him the way she does, she'd bet good money that he's not wearing his coat, going bare armed so he can pretend he's going back to bed any second now.

That and the late hour means that he's fooling himself with that walk, restless enough to get up out of his bunk and go on patrol around the ship - thinking with each rise and fall of his foot that he'd go just one more before heading back to sleep. Just one more, and then the clock's wound around to morning again, and he's still pretending.

He stops when he sees her. She stops too.

"Thought I'd bring up dinner to the front," she explains, even though the cockpit's in the opposite direction.

Mal glances down at the plate in her hands. There are three bao in total: a meal and a half, if the spare was cut down the middle. "Looks like you made extra."

"Seems so." She shifts the plate, like it's getting so heavy she just can't tolerate the burden. "In case Wash gets so hungry that he drops one."

They stand there for a minute, the hum of the ship enveloping them. They don't need to finish saying things out loud, but Zoe does so anyway, just to keep in the habit. "You might as well take it, sir. Better than wasting it on the floor."

Mal starts to say something, and then doesn't bother. His mouth turns up right before he hides it by stuffing his face with the bun. His expression changes instantly into a grimace as soon as he takes the first bite; the flood of steam that erupts from the bao is proof that it's still hot in the middle. He puffs and stretches his lips. Zoe's laughing on the inside, grinning on the outside, and Mal silently rolls his eyes at her as she heads off to find her husband, and put the rest of the night to bed.