Title: straight on 'til morning

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Rating: T

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the world is not.

Summary: Five times Zoe thought it was time to quit Malcolm Reynolds. 2100 words.

Spoilers: All of Firefly; references to "Those Left Behind" and "Better Days"; Serenity (2005)

Notes: 24 Days of Ficmas, Day 1: for jinxed_wood. Prompt is the summary. Translations at the bottom.

"Why do you stay?"

Simon's voice carried to Zoe as she came down the stairs from the fore passage, all quiet and thoughtful. She looked over at him, at the distracted posture and the slight frown he graced her with: he meant it serious, then. She'd thought that conversation over and done with.

"I'm not sure I take your meaning, doctor," she said carefully, crossing her arms over her vest.

He sighed, leaning against the jamb of the open infirmary door, and cast his eyes toward the cargo bay. "I don't- this isn't about us leaving. River and I- well, it's obvious our time here is good for her. And I'm... well." He smiled to himself, all quiet wonder: and well he might, if he had Kaylee to mind.

"I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be. But if we're going to call Serenity our home long-term... forgive me if this is an awkward question, but I was just wondering why you stay. After everything that's happened, just since we came aboard... I understand that you and the Captain have a bond from serving in the war together. But was there never a time that you wanted to leave?"

Zoe frowned at him. She didn't think he was questioning her loyalty, just testing the ground for fitness; insult aside, it was a good sign that he finally meant to hang up his coat and stay a spell rather than see the ship as a temporary harbor. And she didn't think it was just from guilt or gratitude about Miranda; it had been a fair few months since they'd lifted from Persephone with shiny new parts and cleared records. So why was he asking now?

"More'n once," she said. "But like I told you..."

"Once you've been in Serenity, you never leave," Simon replied softly, mouth dragging down at the corner in a disappointed line. "I remember."

She sighed and took pity on him, advancing a few steps to drop into one of the soft chairs and gather her thoughts. "Don't know if I ever told you how I met him...?" she began, cautiously.

He shook his head, gaze sharpening with curiosity.

"I'd joined the Army before the war, after my family were killed." She spoke slowly; those were memories she raked over none too often these days, save when it was needful. "Most of them had been crew on the Loring, a legit cargo ship the Alliance burned down for taking what they called a questionable delivery. Politics, was all; the client had enemies in Parliament, and none of us knew it."

"I'm sorry to hear that," he replied, wincing in sympathy.

"So was I," she quipped, grimly. "Anyone as knew me back then would tell you I didn't let anyone close after that. Didn't trust any man not as serious as I was about paying the purplebellies back in their own coin. So then there comes into camp one day this brand new Browncoat still smelling of fresh leather, always smiling like he was about to crack a joke, wearing his stripes like a mantle of privilege." She shook her head, glancing absently in the direction of the bridge; it really was no wonder he and Simon hadn't got along. "I don't suppose he's mentioned it, but his background ain't all that dissimilar to yours: raised to the local gentry, had himself a heap of schooling."

"Gentry? Mal?" Simon's eyebrows climbed for his hairline.

Zoe smirked. "Shadow was a fair bit rougher than the world you were born to, I'm sure... but his Ma was heir to one of its founding families. Forty ranch hands, a fair-sized parcel running over with cows, and enough clout to hold on to it all with nary a husband about her. Don't know what else you'd call the son of such a woman. Soldiering wasn't the first job he'd tried, neither; I could see that in him from the day he arrived. Educator of some kind, like as not, with that pocketful of ideals; I never asked. All I cared about was he was a fresh-faced volunteer already a step up in rank; he was a man expecting to lead, with less training than I had, and sure as I was standing there I expected him to get the platoon killed.

"If I could've quit him then, without quitting the Army with him, I'd have done it."

"What changed?" Simon asked, leaving his stance at the door to settle on another chair.

"Saved my life in our first action together," she shrugged. "Saved his, not long after. He never sat back, expecting others to do what he wouldn't; threw himself into every battle with all that he had, and acted like he never had a thought I wouldn't back him. Maddening, sometimes, but he had a way about him that made a body want to live up to that confidence. And after the Alliance burned his homeworld down to bedrock..."

"You became each other's family," Simon finished the sentence for her, rapt.

Exactly. Not that she hadn't been tempted to leave again, on a few occasions...

"Spoke to Burr this morning, Sarge. There'll be a boat visiting here in two days with a couple of seats still free." She frowned down at Mal, seated listlessly on the floor with his back to the narrow bed and his forearms on his knees. He'd been unaccountable subdued since they'd been released from the camp, more so than she'd have expected after his first taste of freedom since Serenity Valley.

"Sounds good," he mumbled back, not bothering to look up. "Boat to where?"

He hadn't put much effort into the question; might be he didn't much care where he went. Hopefully, the news she had would be enough to sharpen him up.

"Not so much a where, as a what," she replied, lowly. "Bunch of others like us lookin' to reform a few platoons. Imagine we'll set up shop somewhere a few weeks, work on retraining. Then out, wherever we can find us a target."

He looked up a that, a spark of hopefulness in the widening of his eyes. "Brass authorized this? I knew it; I knew them peace talks was just a diversion."

Zoe winced. She never had really understood the Sarge's faith, either in God or in the inherent rightness of their cause. "Not so much. Don't really figure we need their approval."

"Oh," he blinked at her, spark dying as he glanced away again. Then he heaved a sigh. "Might've known. Tell him I appreciate him thinking of us, but we ain't interested."

"We?" Her eyebrows shot up in disbelief. Disappointment was one thing. Survivor's guilt, after all they been through. But this? Shock froze her; then remembrance crept through her veins, agitating her as it widened the space between them. She'd been a soldier before the war. He hadn't. He had the luxury to take things as goddamned personal as it pleased him. Nevermind the dead demanding justice. Nevermind what the Alliance had done to his own Ma.

She cleared her throat. "Tell him yourself, Mal. I still aim to go."

He stilled at that, then hunched forward a little more. "Well. 'Preciate the notice, then."

She waited a moment for more, for him to look up, for the man she'd followed into hell to stare out of his eyes again- but he didn't. He just... sat, not even trying to say goodbye. Six years, for that?

Well, qù tamade. Serve him right if she never came back.

"Something about him just bothers me," Mal said, standing foresquare in front of her with his arms crossed and his shoulders back as though he'd just up and decided to impersonate a wall. Normally she'd have stormed around him when he was in this sort of mood- neither of them had the most docile of tempers, and they'd known each other a fair few years by now- but on this occasion, he'd planted himself at the foot of the ladder in her bunk, and the only way past him was over him.

He kept it up much longer, she would plant a boot in his face, but she didn't think things were quite to that point. "Seem to remember someone in this room sayin' he was great, not so very long ago. Something about a list of recommendations? Can't imagine who that might have been. Sir."

"Yeah, as a pilot," he spluttered, pointing at her. "Not as- as-"

"As a lover?" Zoe raised her eyebrows at him. "Or is it just that Wash aims to be my husband that has you all turned about? 'Cause I don't seem to remember you saying anything against him before."

Not that he hadn't said plenty with his expressions. But he'd borne it, with ill enough grace. She'd thought she'd given the Sarge enough time to ease into the idea of them, let go a little. Apparently, she'd thought wrong.

"Before, I thought you'd burn him out of your system! Hell, it's been a long time, we all got itches to scratch. But marriage? To him? Because what, he's shuài? He flatters you?"

Her patience on this topic was just about spent. "Because I love him. And that, you ain't got no say in. We're visitin' the first preacher we can find. And if you aim to keep us out where there ain't no preachers- we'll just register on the Cortex ourselves. Was kinda looking forward to the ceremony, though. In fact, was kinda hoping you'd be my best man."

"Guess not," he replied, tilting his chin up. "'Cause this here's my boat, so I do got a say. I won't have married folk on Serenity, Zoe."

"Then you can wĕn wŏ de pìgu," she hissed, narrowing her eyes. "Sir." He was looking mighty fine as a climbing post right about now; matter of fact, she was mightily tempted to go right on climbing right off his boat. Which was probably his point; he was feared she was going to leave him behind.

Damn fool. Choosing Wash wasn't a matter of not choosing Mal; was reaching for joy again in addition to rather than instead of. But Mal couldn't see that; or wouldn't let himself have it, so couldn't see she needed it, either.

Muscle bunched along his jawline; then he turned his head away, empty-eyed and hurt. "Fine," he gritted through clenched teeth. "But I ain't goin' to be there." Then he spun and started climbing the ladder.

"Fine," she spat back, then locked the door and collapsed into a chair, pressing a shaking hand against the hollow of her throat where her new marriage necklace would lie.

The more jobs fell through and the more safe berths became suddenly not-so-safe, the tighter wound Mal got. Zoe'd never seen him like this, not even when she'd finally shucked the desperate fury of the Dust Devils and come back to see if he still had space on his crew.

He hadn't been doing well, then. Man never had done well, alone. But now, the more Inara hinted on leaving, the more frustrated the Shepherd got, the more Mal wrapped his isolation around him like a bubble. Or a festering sore.

"You gave your word," Book said at the end of the table, frowning over Mal's decision to take yet another job rather than take her to her world.

"Yes I did. And you think you're in a position to tell me what that's worth?" Mal spat back. "It's air, Shepherd. Nothing more when it comes right down to it, when the going reaches the right level of rough."

Zoe swallowed hard on the words that wanted to boil up then. Aīyā, if the Sergeant Reynolds who'd held the line in the Valley could hear him now...

Might be time to think on the fact that he just weren't that man anymore.

She glanced over at her husband and smiled wanly as Wash laced his fingers through hers under the table.

"Wait, Wash - where's Wash?" Kaylee asked, eyes darting past her up the hall.

Zoe swallowed. "He ain't comin'."

Nor would she, first place she found to make a stand. Mal could just finish off his qīngwā cào de crusade without her. After all, someone would have to hold the line.

...but she never had been able to break away from him entirely, and doubted she ever would.

"What you've done for River. What she'd do for you." Zoe quirked a half-smile at the doctor.

"Can't be earned. Can't be bought. Can't be left. Just is."


qù tamade - fuck that
shuài - handsome/cute
wĕn wŏ de pìgu - Kiss my ass
Aīyā - Damn
qīngwā cào de - frog-humping