Title: Strength in Broken Places

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Rating: PG-15 for dark themes

Summary: She hadn't seen Mal in months; not since he'd refused to follow her lead as she'd followed his for the better part of six years. 2500 words.

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the world is Whedon's.

Spoilers: Firefly, set pre-series

Notes: For the girlsavesboyfic 'thon; and sort of a prequel to "Damage Done". References "Better Days" and the RPG entry regarding Shadow.

"Mal was a volunteer. Brass gave up the cause, he took it personal. Shut down some. Some of us was still just soldiers..."
-Zoe Washburne, "Better Days"

Even years later, what the Alliance had left of Shadow weren't much to look at. Zoë gazed down at the planet from the cockpit windows while the Liè Rén's pilot made a wide orbit to take bearings, and grimaced at the black scars coloring every landmass. What patches of greenery had survived the bombing were thin and far between; it would be several generations before the once-lush plains could support anything so large a field-mouse.

'Less, of course, the Alliance chose to bring in high-powered terraformers. Zoë rather doubted it, though. Home of as many Independents as it had been, Shadow had been singled out as an example. No lights burned on its dark side; no life moved under the yellow rays of Huang Long.

None ever would again, save those as went there to remember.

The faint chirp of a pulse beacon set to a very narrow, familiar frequency caught Zoë's attention on the second orbit, and she breathed a quiet sigh of relief. The cargo ship's captain triangulated it to a point near a set of coordinates she'd long since memorized: a string of numbers she'd once watched a man scratch, with painstaking care, into the leather of his gun holster.

Third orbit round, she punched the location into the navcomp of the ship's second shuttle and took the quickest route down. She shook off any offer of support crew; weren't a single thing to guard the shuttle from on the surface, and nowhere else for her to take it to if she'd had larceny in mind. And she surely didn't want any witnesses to the impending reunion.

She hadn't been able to let go when the brass had surrendered the War; the days they'd stewed in Serenity Valley, broiling in the blood of their dead, had burned a hatred for the Parliament's idea of "peace" down to her bones. The Dust Devils had given her a chance to satisfy that anger; had fed that part of her that had seethed at turning over her guns and kept her on her feet all through her spell in the internment camp. She hadn't seen Mal in months; not since he'd refused to follow her lead as she'd followed his for the better part of six years. Hadn't occurred to her, then, to wonder what other purpose he might find; she'd been too furious with him to care.

Not that it had been her responsibility to care. Mal was a man grown, and had resigned any official claim he might've had on her priorities along with his commission. But now that the bitterness of her own loss had ebbed some, she had remembered the look on his face when they'd been told to stand down; the sight of the cross he'd carried without fail through so many battles falling from his hand. His every word had seemed to come at a distance after that, as though shouted through a pair of helmets pressed together in the Black.

Something had gone out of him that day. Zoë hadn't been in a place to help him, then, driven by her own coping methods. But now... well. It had been a long time since she'd taken any leave- and she knew a few shipfolk as still owed her favors. Beyond everything else, Mal was the closest kin she had left in the 'verse; kin by choice and blood-bought loyalty if not by birth.

Enough waiting. What was, was; time to look to what would be. She fitted a breathing mask to her face, checked its filters, and then cracked open a door into the aftermath of Hell.

Clumpy particulate crunched under her boot heels as she took her first steps outside the shuttle. The red shirt she wore under her coat was the only color as far as her eyes could see; the rest of the world was painted in shades of gray, black, and brown. Even the chilly sky was streaked with a thin marbling of gray-on-white cloud. It made for a monochrome, lifeless landscape, ridged with the low, jagged teeth that were all that remained of ruined walls and machinery. Only someone who knew what the place had been might guess where he stood; to Zoë's unfamiliar eye, years of wind and wet had rendered indistinguishable what little had been left by shell and flame.

Mal would have known where he was going, though; so the long-range cutter parked a short walk to the west would undoubtedly be the best place to start. She lifted the air sampler and took a quick reading as a light breeze tugged at her curls; O levels and pressure were barely within norms, though she wouldn't want to see the inside of her lungs after a few hours of unfiltered breathing. The cutter was Monty's, still transmitting the signal she'd noted earlier; no other electronics had registered anywhere within her shuttle's sensor radius. Not even a radio.

She tucked the sampler in a pocket, then picked her way carefully over the uneven ground, as conscious of the lives that had been lost there as she had been back on Hera. Of all the men they'd led away from the Valley, not one had survived from Mal and Zoë's own platoon; of the few folk who'd escaped the devastation of Shadow, not one had belonged to the ranch owned by Ma Reynolds. Near fifty folk had met their end on these few hectares of dirt, their names recorded nowhere now but in the memory of the heir who'd left for the stars with a pocketful of fragile ideals.

"Mal?" she called carefully, examining the surface for any trace of other footprints as she approached Monty's loaned ship. "Sarge? It's Zoë. Zoë Alleyne."

The faint scrape of something organic rubbing against a rough edge disturbed the silence; the hair on the back of her neck prickled at the sound. Then a voice spoke up, faint and rough with abrasion.

"Ain't a sergeant no more."

Zoë narrowed her eyes, turning toward the direction the voice had come from, and placed her feet carefully as she approached the corner of a once-building where the base of two thick walls had met. Darker smudges against mud-caked stone suggested finger marks just where a man's wide hand might've rested had he used the wall to steady himself, but there were no other signs of the person who'd spoken. Zoë placed her hand where his had been, then leaned over to see what might be seen.

"Once a soldier, always a soldier, sir," she said mildly, pitching her own voice low so as not to startle.

He frowned, but didn't look up. Mal had seated himself with his back against a fragment of wall; he was dressed in sturdy trousers and a brown homespun shirt, caked with patches of drying, ashy mud, and there was another streak at his left temple where he must have pushed agitated fingers through his hair. He wasn't wearing a mask. Beyond his feet, a section of soil about grave-depth had been overturned, spade and long leather coat both discarded atop the pile of leavings. The stubs of a few shattered, blackened floorboards protruded from the mess; she figured they probably accounted for the sluggishly bleeding scratches on his hands.

A gaily painted metal box lay to the left of him: about half a meter each side, all over the green of spring grass, with the Reynolds brand-mark on its upper surface in sunset bronze. Someone had daubed an impression of a summer garden around the sides, iris-purple and daisy-yellow and primrose-pink petals all blurred together; they still showed brightly through the clinging shroud of dirt. It had been opened; she could see the marks where he'd forced the lock, but he'd closed it again after.

In his right hand, he held his favorite revolver-style gun.

"So the Alliance informed me," he replied. "Every time I applied for a loan. Or a job. Or a xī niú public housing allowance."

Zoë's lips thinned at the bitterness in his tone, but she held her first retort back: I told you so. She'd done an end run around the issue, going where she knew she'd be provided for; despite the promises Parliament had made on Unification Day, she'd known better than to hope they'd treat former Browncoat heroes with any decency. But her choice had amounted to as much an attempt at self-destruction as Mal's presence on Shadow; if the Independents had been doomed from the beginning by fewer numbers and older technology, the Dust Devils had surely been damned before their first battle. And these days, they didn't even have the satisfaction of ridding the 'verse of a few more purplebellies at a time; Alliance had started sending mercs against them.

"Surely not in so many words," she said mildly, instead.

Mal did tilt his head back at that, a spark of reaction in his gaze, though his fingers also tightened on the grip of the gun. "Hardly needed to," he said, lip curled in disgust. "They made it clear the likes of me don't belong in their society. Don't belong in any society, not anymore."

"That why you're here?" she asked. She carefully shifted one leg over the broken wall as she spoke, then the other, making a bench of its uncomfortable, crumbly edge: the better to put herself within swift reach, if that were necessary.

He grimaced at the question, glancing over at the vivid box. "Ma was in the habit of keeping a payroll's worth in platinum under the kitchen floor," he said. "Just in case the Cortex connection ever went down before payday. Kept other keepsakes in there, too. I thought... if it were buried deep enough..." He laid his left hand on the lid, as reverently as she'd ever seen him touch a Bible.

Zoë didn't need to ask why he'd picked that day in particular to look for it; the anniversary of Shadow's destruction- and so his mother's death- was a milestone every Browncoat had marked during the latter part of the War. If he'd truly hoped to find it, though, she doubted she'd have been there; he'd have given Monty some explanation when he begged the cutter for a trip Rim-ward, and Monty would never have waved her with his worries.

"It's all there?" she asked instead, working crabwise around the words she didn't want to say unless she had to.

"Every bit," he nodded, Adam's apple bobbing visibly as he swallowed. His voice still sounded rough, but clearing a little; not damaged enough to have been on-planet long. Skin wasn't burnt yet, neither; he couldn't have landed more than a few hours before she had.

"Still aim to start over someplace like Kerry or Regina?" she asked. There were a dozen former Independent worlds, more rural than not, he could pick from if that were his choice; Boros had a sizeable garrison, but most others were too poor and thinly settled to require much official oversight.

He stroked his thumb over the bright brand-mark, then lifted his hand back to his lap, fingering the barrel of the gun instead. "No," Mal said, after a long moment. "No; I don't think I have the stomach for farming or ranching no more."

"What then? Aim to market your woodworking skills?" Zoë prodded lightly.

He drew a deep breath, then let it out, slow and heavy. "Thought about cargo hauling."

Thought about; not decided, not planned. Zoë frowned. "Shipboard, I'm assuming?" Out where the Alliance couldn't take the ground from under his boots ever again.

He nodded. "Thought I might ask your advice," he added. "Since you were shipborn, and all."

"Sounds like a mighty fine plan," she replied, cautiously encouraging. "Enough cash for that, you think?"

"If'n I didn't hold out for anything outrageous or new," he shrugged.

Still past tense, Zoë noted, disquieted. She eased off the wall, fair sure he wasn't on a hair trigger by that point, and crouched next to his right hand. "Don't," she said, firmly. "Don't, not didn't."

Blue eyes widened at the movement; tense fingers tightened on the grip of the gun again, but relaxed when she laid one of her own hands over his right wrist. "Zoë..." he began hesitantly, searching her face with a haunted gaze.

"What did we say," she replied, face and voice like stone: the last thing he needed from her was pity or sympathy. "What did we say? If you can't walk..."

He flinched. "That's not..."

"You crawl," she insisted, tightening her grip on him. "And if you can't crawl..."

He took a shaky breath, then looked away. "You find someone to carry you," he finished it, quietly.

"I only aim to say this once," she continued, "so you'd better listen." She paused for effect, then narrowed her eyes into a fierce glare. "If you die proving those hē chùsheng zájiāo de zānghuò right, I'll spend every credit in that box making sure you're buried in a purplebellied uniform, and dedicate a yuèfǔ in your name to be sung in praise of Parliament next U-Day."

He gaped, recoiling from her as though he'd been shot."You... you..." he huffed, then broke into a sudden spate of gut-shaking laughter.

"Oh, and to think I feared you'd come to tell me everything would be 'okay'," he said when he'd recaught his breath, the corners of his mouth lifted for the first time since her arrival.

"You know me better than that," she said, sitting back and releasing her grip at last.

"I do," he said, then finally lifted the hand from the butt of his gun- to catch her retreating fingers and interlace them with his. "What would I do without you?"

"I'm sure I don't know," she said, lifting her eyebrows loftily. Then she tipped her chin at the box. "Now. You thinking the dockyards on Persephone? Lot of mid-range ships pass through there, lot of itinerant crew looking for work."

He paused a long moment, face settling into serious lines again; then nodded, expression clearing. "You'll be my second, then?"

She didn't fool herself that he'd fully thrown off the black mood; but leaving this planet behind ought to ease him past the worst of it. A home and crew should help him, too; and, she grudgingly admitted, might do for her as well. She'd begun to forget what life was like outside of violence and death, and had no wish to end her days put down like a dog by some paid bounty-hunter.

"Wouldn't trust anyone else with the job," she assured him.

"Good," Mal breathed, then nodded to himself and let go her hand to climb to his feet. The gun went back in its holster; the coat, on his back; and then he stooped to pick up his mother's last gift.

Zoë glanced down at the bloody mark he'd left on her palm, then brushed it off on her sleeve and stood.