and love is not a victory march
it's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah.

She doesn't like the new pilot. He wears ugly shirts and has an ugly mustache and plays with plastic dinosaurs and treats the world like a little kid treats the world: a place full of adventure and fun and interesting things to play with. He sees her as one of those interesting things, and Zoe doesn't like it, not a bit.

For the first few weeks that they fly with him, she doesn't say more than two words to him and avoids the bridge whenever she can. He's always talking, though, to her and to the Captain and to Bester, jovial and jaunty and full of smiles and cheer that makes her head ache. The Captain likes him and Bester's opinion don't matter, but Zoe would like little more than to kick him out of her world for good. She tells the Captain as much, but he claps her on the back and tells her to just give him a chance, that the pilot's a funny guy and worth keeping around for more than just his skills.

She's beyond giving chances, though, and it's been almost a year since she's laughed at anything.

The first major job they take out to the border planets is almost sure to go south. Zoe knows this, because Zoe knows Mal, and she's got all sorts of weapons that she can pick from to take with her - it's just, none of them look right anymore. She hasn't held a gun proper-like since Serenity Valley, and they all feel wrong in her hands, too big and too clunky and too bloody, so she throws them all out and buys a new gun, a lever-action that's still awkward but better than the old ones.

They get out to Santo to sell their cargo to a crew of lowlife sorts that don't want to pay the price they already agreed on, and Zoe takes out her shiny new rifle to do some convincing, but it shudders in her hand and her shot goes wide. Mal and everyone else think it's a warning shot, and the Captain even commends her for getting the money from the thugs without any actual bloodshed. She doesn't know how to tell him that she meant to shed some blood, but her body didn't listen. It's never happened to her before - Zoe is a rock, that's all she's ever been, and Zoe is control under pressure, so Zoe doesn't understand why she couldn't shoot right this time.

That night, she breaks open the basic first-aid kit they picked up around the same time they hired Bester, on the hunt for something that will make her sleep sound, since maybe it was lack of proper sleep that messed up her shooting - she hasn't gone a night without nasty dreams since long before Hera, and she knows it's taking a toll.

Unfortunately, there isn't much in the first-aid kit for sleep, so she goes rooting around the infirmary for anything that might have been left by the previous owners of the ship, and then into the kitchen for, if nothing else, some alcohol. Her quest is so single-minded that she doesn't even see the pilot sitting at the table with a bowl of protein-enriched soup in front of him.

"What are you looking for?" he asks, and she jumps violently, her gun leaping into her hand and pointing at him without a thought. His eyes go wide and he holds up his hands in supplication. "Didn't mean to scare you!"

"Sorry," she replies sharply, putting her rifle up and turning back to her search.

"You never answered me," he says in between slurping at his soup. "What're you looking for? Maybe I can help."

"I don't want help," she snaps. There's nothing here but protein bars and cardboard boxes filled with supplements and chewy granola bars and spare water in jugs, and agitation is thrumming through her veins. She needs something to calm her down, or at least, something to kill. But her shots went wrong when she tried and then she almost blew the head off their pilot for spooking her. Maybe, she thinks, some people just ain't made for peace-time.

"Did things not go well on the job?" the pilot asks, confused. "The Captain seemed to be in a good mood. What happened?"

"Nothing," she replies, voice so tense that it snaps across the air between them like lightning, and he sits back in his seat for a moment, before getting up and walking off in the direction of the bridge. She runs a hand over her face, feeling a tiny bit of guilt, but not so much. It's obvious that she isn't in any mood to talk, and pilot-man needs to figure out when it's prudent to keep his mouth shut.

But then he comes back with a bottle of pills in one hand a bottle of vodka in the other. "Which one?" he says, offering either to her. "These," he indicates to the pills, "are epic strong sleeping meds, so one will knock ya flat for a good day and a half, but this," he continues, indicating to the vodka, "is 140-proof."

She wants to ask why the hell their pilot is keeping these things with him on the bridge because that cannot be safe, but she's too grateful to care. Zoe's never been much for drinking, so she points to the medication and he shakes out a single small, white pill and hands it to her, then reaches over to his place at the table and offers her his cup of water to take it with. She ignores him and swallows it dry.

"Thanks," she tells him shortly, and then makes for her bunk.

"You're welcome," he calls out after her, sounding vaguely disappointed.

She won't admit it, but she's a bit disappointed, too.

Zoe sleeps soundly for the first time in years.

When she finally stumbles, groggy, from her bunk, she finds that something has been stuck to the door. Half-expecting it to be a note from Mal asking her if she is, in fact, alive, she pulls it off the door and looks at it. It's not from the Captain.

It's a little video sheet of some small baby animals playing with each other in a stream, making constant little squeaking noises and occasionally snapping at each other and splashing around and frolicking in joy. They look almost like weasels, and she's got a feeling that she knows what these animals are, but it doesn't really matter - they're cute and small and they have little brown faces with long, twitchy whiskers and fuzzy bodies that look like they would be lots of fun to snuggle with.

The vid starts back over, and she stands still in the hallway for the longest time, watching them play with each other over and over, a foreign smile on her face.

Halfway through the night cycle, she goes up to the bridge without prompting for the first time ever. The pilot is lounging at the helm, playing with his dinosaurs absently, and doesn't notice her at first, so she quietly watches him.

He'd never have made it through a battle like Serenity Valley, no way. He's too soft, and smiles too much, and tells too many jokes. If he'd been at Hera for that battle, he'd have died, probably in a bloody, gruesome way, all of his laughter fading out of his eyes like all the others she took with her to that god-forsaken place. But he wasn't there.

Instead, he is here.

Finally, he seems to sense that someone is in the room with him, and he starts, turning around. They stay still for a moment, her standing silent in the doorway and him sitting at the helm with large, wide eyes. Finally, she makes the first move, and walks over to the other seat across from him, feeling his eyes on her the whole time.

"What kind of animals are they?" she asks quietly.

"Oh, well, this is a stegosaurus," he tells her, indicating to the dinosaur he's holding. "And this is his arch-nemesis, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, but Steve the Stegosaurus doesn't know yet that Rex is plotting to kill him and take all of his things. Although he really should, because Rex is a carnivore and Steve's a herbivore and they don't really co-exist so - "

"I meant the vid," she says, cutting him off, and suppressing a smile.

"Oh," he replies, and for a moment she wonders if she was wrong, if for some reason Bester suddenly decided to grow a heart or Mal suddenly became observant, but then he puts his dinosaurs down and shifts in his seat a bit uncomfortably. "Otters. They're my favorites," he adds, smiling. "Have you ever seen any?"

She shakes her head, and won't look at him. "I've spent most of my life on ships. Or battlefields," she adds, a little darkly, memories rising unbidden, and the image of the pilot as one of the many who died at that valley - like Wen, torso riddled with bullet holes, or Parker, near to decapitated by shrapnel, or Quince, consumed by gangrene from the leg up over the long wait for help to arrive. She wrenches herself back to the present, her hands shaking, but the pilot doesn't see them.

"Really?" he says, like this is the saddest thing ever. "Tell you what," he muses, a smile on his face, "next time we're on a planet that's got one, I'll take you by an aquarium and you can see real-life otters. They're ten times cooler in person than on a vid."

"I ain't goin' anywhere with that mustache," she says coolly, realizing painfully that she's joking with a pilot while all of her comrades are rotting under the dust of Hera.

"You don't like my mustache?" he asks, startled and dismayed. "I always thought women liked mustaches."

"It looks like a caterpillar."

"I like caterpillars."

Without thinking about it, she laughs. It's not much of one, but it's the first time she's laughed since landing on Hera with Mal and thousands of damned men. But the pilot doesn't know this, so he doesn't know how important it is.

"I don't know if we've ever actually been introduced," he says suddenly, reaching across the bridge, hand out to shake. "I'm Wash. Actually, I'm Hoban Washburne, but since Hoban is just about the worst name in the whole 'Verse, please just call me Wash."

She hesitates, looking uncertainly at his hand, but shakes it anyway. "I'm Zoe," she replies. He shakes her hand firmly, and she's struck by how calloused his hands actually are - she would have expected someone as soft as he is on the inside to be soft on the outside, too. She is not soft, either inside or out, but he doesn't seem to care or even notice.

"Hello, Zoe," he says cheerfully. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

By the time they get around to Persephone, she suspects that he's forgotten his idle promise, but wants to go to an aquarium and see the otters anyway. And maybe some penguins, too, she's heard they're cute, or just some happy little fish swimming around without any concept of war or death or blood or pain or Serenity Valley.

Mal doesn't want to stay long, but she convinces him to stick around for a while, because they've all been stuck on the ship for weeks, now, and if she has to hear Bester's thoughts on women one more time, she'll tear his throat out through his intestines.

"All right, all right," Mal says, while Wash is landing the ship, "we'll stay here for a day or so, stretch our legs out. Maybe I can find us a better mechanic," he adds under his breath.

"That would be good," Wash mutters, wincing and struggling against turbulence. "This really shouldn't be such a hard landing. I'm just saying."

"Just get us down in one piece," Mal replies.

"He always does," Zoe adds idly, and the ship lurches as Wash turns to her in blushing horror at the fact that she just complimented him. She doesn't look at him, just watches the city grow larger and larger, but she does raise an eyebrow and he turns back to the controls without saying anything. He gets them down safe, like always, and stretches luxuriously in his chair once they're stable.

"What's on the agenda?" he asks to no one in particular.

"Get our pay from Badger," Mal replies, "maybe pick up another job if he's got one. Stock up, since we're runnin' kinda low on fuel cells and food. Zoe, I'll leave you to do that."

"Yes, sir," she says automatically, already planning how to shop around her trip to the aquarium.

"Got anything for me?" Wash asks. "I don't really trust Bester to do... anything, really, so..."

Mal shrugs. "There anything you need?"

"Well, yeah," he replies, "a vacation to a nice beach somewhere with a balmy summer, maybe some tropical wildlife... ooh, one of those little drinks that comes in coconut halves? That would be nice."

"For the ship," Mal says, rolling his eyes.

"Eeh," Wash says, "nothing I can't do without. Except a competent mechanic, but I think we already agreed about that."

"Yeah, yeah, I hear you," Mal grumbles. "You're free, then. Zoe, c'mon, let's get this mess with Badger over with."

She nods shortly and goes with Mal, leaving Wash to his dinosaurs, and wonders if he remembers after all. He doesn't say anything, other than a vague "bye, take care, don't get shot please I don't want to have to find a new job" and she's a little disappointed - she'd kind of hoped that he would be looking forward to aquarium-hunting as much as she is.

Things with Badger run relatively smooth - it's only the second time they've contacted him, but he and Mal didn't get along when they agreed to the job and they don't get along any better now. She doesn't say anything, just stares down the man's hired thugs and threatens them silently. Somehow, by some magic or luck or the grace of a God she gave up on somewhere back near Hera, they get out of Badger's "office" with the exact amount they agreed on, no more or less. She'd expected him to demand more, just because she's got Badger pegged as an ornery bastard, but then, maybe he figured it just wasn't a good time to be pushing her and Mal.

After all, U-Day is coming up in just a few weeks, and tensions everywhere are still high.

But she refuses to think about U-Day or where she was a year ago or who was alive a year ago or where their bodies are now, because she has a plan, and that plan involves otters. And a cheerful pilot who she's starting to like altogether too much.

Zoe's spent her whole life starved for laughter, so she can't help but drink it in.

When they get back to the ship, Bester is lounging - sans shirt - in the cargo bay and salutes them as they pass. He's been trying to catch Zoe's eye for a while now, probably out of sheer sexual frustration, and it's starting to grate on her nerves. "Sir," she hisses, feeling Bester's eyes on her legs, "we really need a new mechanic."

"Ain't tellin' me nothing I don't already know, Zoe," Mal replies tightly, making a face. "But we ain't got the money to get anyone better."

"Sir? I didn't say anything about better," she says shortly. "I don't care about better."

"Don't wanna fall outta the sky," he grumbles, and hands her the pouch of coin they got at Badger's. "We need the usual, you know what that is."

"Of course, sir," she replies, and glances into the dining area where Wash is sitting, poking at a granola bar with a deeply mistrustful look on his face. "Wash, you're with me," she says, and he looks up, pointing to himself.

"I am? I thought I was free."

"Well, not anymore," she replies, and marches out, a little down at the knowledge that he had forgotten. "We'll take the mule," she says behind her, not bothering to see if he got up and followed her. She thinks she knows him well enough to know that he did.

"Oh, boy," he says, coming up next to her, proving her right, and rubs his hands together. "Can I drive?"

She just looks at him. He grins.

"Okay, okay, okay, fine. So," he adds, leaning against the stairwell as she brings the crane holding the mule to the ground, "shopping. This should be fun."

"You're going shopping?" Bester asks, barging unwanted into the conversation. Wash blinks at him.

"No," he replies coolly, "we're going to load the mule up with presents for the good girls and boys of Persephone, and then travel around when it gets dark, sneaking into people's houses through their chimneys, and leave the presents underneath their trees."

Bester sneers at him, and then glances at Zoe. "Can I come?" he says, smiling a little slimy-like.

"Sure," she answers, and notices Wash's face fall slightly, "just get me the secondary grav boot from the engine. It needs replacin'."

"Awesome," Bester says, leering, then smirks at Wash. She ignores both of them and preps the mule. As soon as Bester is gone, she climbs in and then looks at Wash expectantly.

"You comin'?"

He grins. "We're leaving him?"

She raises an eyebrow. "You honestly thought I'd drag him along?"

"You know," he replies, climbing in next to her, "I sincerely hoped not, but you had me going for a minute there."

She snorts, and drives the clunky mule out of the cargo bay and into the bright sunlight. It's about 1030 local time, which means they'll have enough time to go to the aquarium, get lunch, and get all the shopping done in the afternoon - as perfect a day as they come, in Zoe's opinion. Wash doesn't start to get confused until he realizes that they're not in the shopping district.

"Uh, Zoe? Where are we going?"

"Don't tell me you forgot," she says, and doesn't elaborate.

"Forgot what? What did I forget?" he asks, and then they pass a sign with a picture of a giant shark on it, and he remembers. "The aquarium! Wow, I didn't think you actually wanted to go."

"What can I say?" she replies, "You sold me on otters."

His grin is so luminous she can feel it. "Aw, this'll be great. You can also see the penguins and the alligators and the freaky eels and - ooh, I wonder if they've got seals at this aquarium?" He continues to babble excitedly all the way there, and she can't help but smile at him. He's just so happy about this aquarium, and, well, it's hard to be down around a guy like Wash.

She thinks that might be what she likes about him.

They pull in to a parking garage that's blessedly toll-free, although that means that they have to park on the seventh level and hike through crowds to get to the aquarium, but Zoe doesn't mind. Wash laments the long, slightly warm walk, but she thinks he's just blowing hot air.

"You like animals?" he asks her, as they make their way up a wide staircase to the aquarium entrance. She shrugs.

"Don't know much about 'em," she replies evenly. "Never had a cause to learn."

"Well, then," he says, gallantly sweeping the door open (almost hitting someone in the face as he does), "I will be your tour guide on this lovely afterno- ooh, check out the shark!"

Zoe laughs.

Wash, it turns out, has a thing for animals. Of all sorts, extinct, exotic, dangerous, cuddly, scaly, mean, friendly - if it's a living thing, Wash is interested in it. Zoe's never had much contact with animals, except the sort you find on battlefields after all your comrades are dead and you stop bothering to swat away the vultures, but she likes listening to him talk. He's got a wealth of totally useless knowledge about wildlife, and admits once, a bit sheepishly, that he'd kind of wanted to be a zookeeper, but piloting was more fun.

Most nights, instead of tossing and turning in her bunk and trying to force her nasty memories away, she sits up at the bridge with him and learns about all of his favorite animals. She doesn't remember all the fancy Latin names, or even most of the things he says about them, but he's so excited about it all that she has no choice but to be interested in it.

If he notices her mood steadily worsening as they close in on U-Day, he doesn't mention it.

She's lost count of how many times she's watched that little vid sheet of the otters playing.

Mal's got a nasty way of coping with things, and this time around, it's by stopping on Greenleaf, ostensibly to pick up a job. Wash asks Mal several times if he's really sure that he wants to go to Greenleaf, but doesn't dare mention why it would be a bad idea, even though it lingers in the air around them.

In spite of her screaming better judgment, she goes with Mal to find this job he's supposedly looking for. She'd rather stay on the ship and watch her otters, but Mal needs her to back him up, since he's sure to get into some mess deep over his head and she's gotta be there to fish him out.

Wash, for reasons he won't say, also goes with them. She thinks he just wants to make sure they don't kill themselves or any civilians.

The bar is rowdy with Alliance sorts, and her blood pressure skyrockets the moment they set foot in the door. Mal is, of course, wearing his coat, but no one even stops to spare them a glance (the Captain looks a bit disappointed about that, no doubt itching for a fight). There's confetti in the air and someone's singing a vaguely familiar war song about how horrible the Independents are and she wants to scream at all of them, to look at themselves and their home and think for one gorram minute about the fact that they've sold their lives over to a government that doesn't even know the name of the planet they live on -

But she doesn't, because she never does, because she is Zoe and Zoe is a Rock. She does, however, hand her rifle to Wash, who takes it without asking why.

She stalks up to the bar and orders a bottle of strong liquor for herself and Mal, even though she doesn't really go for alcoholic things. There are times, she has learned, when sobriety is a detriment - this is one of those times.

Mal is sitting at a table, lounging with his legs spread and his arms slung over the seat, looking for all the world like the most relaxed man in the 'Verse, while Wash is ram-rod straight in his chair next to him, face white, clearly uncomfortable. She sets the bottle and the two shot glasses down on the table, and Mal gives her his best shit-eating grin. "Aww, Zoe, you shouldn't have!"

"Do I get a glass?" Wash asks, and she blinks at him.

"Do you want one?"

"Actually, no," he replies, wincing, and glances sideways at Mal, "not really." It's unspoken - I think someone needs to stay sober - and she's grateful for it. She doesn't want to talk about why they're here or why Mal is in such a nasty mood or why they're not talking about it or why Mal's faking it or what she still remembers about that valley, the smell of dirt and rot and blood and gunpowder and the ozone stink of laser fire and Bendis crying that they're all gonna die and -

"All right, then," she says, and downs the first shot cold. It's the strongest alcohol this bar sells, and it packs a wallop that could down a rampaging moose. It doesn't feel good; in fact, all she feels is nauseous.

"To U-Day," Mal cries, toasting her empty glass, and shoots her a grin that looks more like a snarl. "And to the Alliance."

She looks at him, and remembers. "To the 57th," she says quietly. Mal's expression flickers, and he knocks back his shot without another word, then pours a second and downs it in one gulp too.

"So," Mal starts, and Zoe suppresses a wince, "where were you this time last year, Wash?"

"Don't matter," Zoe replies, oddly defensive, but Wash answers anyway.

"Supply," he says, "officially unaffiliated with either side. I mostly ran medic runs, so it didn't matter either way."

A sharp pain lances through her heart at the unwanted memories of where she was this time last year, and how much she would have paid, how many people she would have killed, how many things she would have done, just to have a single medic come in from the sky.

"On what planet?" Mal asks, but Zoe doesn't want to know.

"Verbena," he replies, and watches Mal warily as he downs another shot. "Had to pass out medical supplies to dying soldiers while the higher-ups sat in their fancy tents and talked."

"At least you had medical supplies," Mal says under his breath, and Wash looks away. There's no sense in trying to shame him - and Mal knows this, but Mal's just desperate to make something hurt.

"Good of you," Zoe says shortly. "You volunteer, or get drafted into it?"

He shrugs, obviously uncomfortable. "A little bit of both. I was heavily encouraged to volunteer."

"By the Alliance," Mal infers, and pours himself a fourth shot. Wash starts to say something, but Mal waves him off. "No, no, I get it. You had to do a job, and better supply than killin' folks."

Wash looks relieved, but Zoe knows that Mal's calling him a coward underneath his sensible words. She bristles, because she remembers otters and aquariums and Steve the Stegosaurus, and Wash doesn't deserve to be called a coward for being soft and friendly and not liking to kill people. But she didn't get through the war by speaking her mind.

She got through the war by knowing when to keep her mouth shut, and when to shoot, and when to hide.

Now, she knows when to get something new to drink. Maybe a cocktail, something that won't taste so awful and might not make her want to throw up everywhere. She stands abruptly and makes for the bar again, and asks for a menu when she gets there. The bartender eyes her warily, as though sensing that she doesn't fit in, but doesn't comment.

Someone else, though, does. A man, reeking of whiskey, slings an arm over her shoulder, and she almost attacks him out of sheer tension (she hasn't been this twitchy since before she started getting friendly with Wash) but manages to restrain herself. "Happy U-Day," the man slurs, and looks her over. "Where were you when the good news came in?" he asks, weaving a little and leaning against her, leering like Bester on a bad day. "I," he declares, holding up his ale, "was on the thirty-second floor of the Russe-Sine Building, helping a struggling couple come to terms with their imminent divorce. You?" he asks, to no one in particular.

Zoe's vision is blurry at the edges, tinged with red.

"I was in bed with a lovely woman from Pashin," another man says, sighing in memory.

"I was at the hospital with my sister, she was havin' her second kid," someone else says.

"I was - " it all molds into one around her, swirling in her head and all she can think of is what I would have given to be any of these people. What she would have done, a year ago today, for just a single glass of water, a single bandage, a blanket that wasn't maggot-infested and a meal of any kind.

"What about you, my beautiful lady?" the drunk man asks, spilling his drink a little onto the menu in front of her that she still hasn't looked at.

Part of her wants to tell him, part of her wants to lie, but most of her wants to hit him, over and over and over again, until he understands where she really was a year ago, what she really went through, what it's like to drink your own blood and urine to survive, what it's like to watch everyone around you die slow, painful, horrible deaths, to hear your friends cry and beg you to please just kill them already, and then what it's like to get so desperate that you actually do.

"We were on Pelorum," a voice says, and removes the arm from around her shoulders. It's Wash. He slides an arm around her waist. "It was our honeymoon," he adds, in a voice of pure saccharin. "And now, we were just celebrating our anniversary, so if you would please..." he grins brightly and guides her out of the bar and into the cold night air. "You all right?" he asks her, and she realizes, belatedly, that she's still clutching the untouched, ale-splattered menu in her hands so tight that her knuckles are white.

She means to say yes. She really does. But she opens her mouth and nothing comes out at all.

Gently, Wash pulls her into a hug.

Behind them, in the bar, she hears Mal starting up the inevitable fight, but she no longer wants to join him. Instead, she buries her face in Wash's shoulder and cries, for the first time in a year.

The next morning, on her door is taped a vid sheet of a pair of otters floating around in a pool, paw in paw.

She smiles.

A/N: Merry Christmas, Mary!