Disclaimer: I don't own Firefly, its concepts, or its characters. No money is being made out of this.
They end up never hiring a new pilot.
In a way, that suits them just fine. They fly on, making do with what they've got and patching things up as they go. Like they've always done.
River flies Serenity more often than not, and when she can't Mal will take the wheel, or even Zoe herself. Zoe does what needs to get done. Even when her hands fit perfectly where his hands used to fit, and her chest feels like it's going to collapse. Even then.
She likes to think Mal can't tell – that he doesn't notice the tremble of her limbs and the ragged breathing she tries to keep quiet. But even he must imagine what sitting at her husband's grave feels like. Either way, he never utters a single word of concern, never places his hand on her shoulder, like he might for smaller things. Zoe is grateful.
There is comfort in the game of pretend that he helps her keep up, and he knows it – knows her. She thinks it helps her cope.
But the trembling hasn't gotten any better.
[chiffon and leather]
River's flying is different, softer (but not smoother), like herself. Just as they love Serenity like a home, the ship also becomes them, molds herself to the personality of her crew. Of the lot of them, none gets quite so well represented as her pilot, and Zoe hadn't realized it until the pilot changed.
Where Wash was all certainty and stability, River makes it feel almost… whimsical, intangible in a way, even though there's no shortage of talent for either pilot. His easy smile made his cockiness hard to peg as such, but it was cockiness, even if it was based on the truth. River, on the other hand, is a natural at flying like she seems to be at everything else, but it is hard to trust her hands (and brain). Half the time it feels like they haven't left whatever moon they've landed on yet, like they are still planning and the flying hasn't begun yet. But then Zoe looks outside and there's new ground coming up to meet them.
The other half, River doesn't feel up to piloting. That's when Mal does it or Zoe does it, but those times don't feel real either; they feel like stalling.
It takes Zoe a few months to realize she feels like her life hasn't resumed yet, like she's still waiting for something. But no one else is.
Their lives don't really get any easier. No one but Kaylee has voiced any expectation that it would, but Zoe knows most (if not all) of them feel the same way.
They've exposed some impressive dirt on the Alliance; they've broken its flawless image. Nobody knows for sure it was them who did it (or they'd all be dead by now), but it should have opened people's eyes, it should have made them see.
But things keep on going as they used to and they still depend on illegal jobs to survive. Zoe supposes you can't ram the desire for freedom into people's heads; they have to come up with it on their own. Plus these things take time. The only thing that's improved is that the Alliance is no longer troubling itself to look for River, but as she and Simon remain wanted fugitives, they can't ever leave the boat when it lands anywhere near the feds.
Zoe is glad to see River evolve from a troublesome appendix to an important part of the crew. She is specially pleased (though she couldn't say why) about the way Mal treats the girl – easily, carefully, almost paternally.
Mal is prickly. He hides his heart behind tons of steel and Zoe knows why; she knows it because she is the same way. What brought them together in the war, what made her stick with him until he realized she wouldn't ever leave, is that they're both soft, and always willing to fight for what's right and good, no matter what.
Zoe felt safe with him. She wonders if maybe she wanted to hide her heart behind his wall as well, because that's what she ended up doing. She lets him be prickly with people while she stands back, supporting the prickly from where it's safe. Whatever manages to get through the prickly is fine enough for her.
It makes her feel weak, and ashamed. There's an odd guilt at the thought that he has to make the effort to keep up their wall; that he has to spend all his energy being wary and pushing people away until they prove themselves worthy. He must be so tired, so sad.
So when she sees him let River in completely, sees that she's inside the wall for good, Zoe can't help but feel a large amount of relief. She doesn't know if it's completely selfish or only partly so.
She's mostly glad that someone else wears their vulnerability openly enough to get through to Mal on such a level, because Zoe doesn't think she's capable of that herself.
Some days, Zoe prays.
She's no devout believer; there's not even a Bible in the ship. But losing the war never made her lose her faith, because she never had much to begin with. Zoe grew up having faith in metal, in the big black that stretches on as far as the eye can see. She had faith in the million dots of light that surrounded her ship, and in the comfort of seeing solid ground every once in a while but not always. Zoe has always believed in the things she can see and in her freedom to see them.
Yet sometimes, when everything's quiet and she has no place to go to escape her bunk, Zoe curls up on her side in the sheets they shared and despairs.
Because it is the lack of him that kills her, sometimes. Her entire life, Zoe always knew what to expect and how to get through it. She hurt when she lost friends in the war, of course, but it was the war. Deaths were sad and painful, but they were expected. Even when there was hope, a voice in the back of her mind whispered 'I told you so' whenever they lost. Every job they go to, she knows what she needs to do and she never panics – not as a matter of principle, but simply because there isn't anything to panic about. She knows what to do, she does it – it's always been that way.
Wash made her panicky once, when she first started falling for him, and she never forgot. But once she got a hold of the situation, once she decided to go with it, she knew what to do. Love him, marry him, protect him at all costs. Simple enough.
For the first time in her life, Zoe is lost. So, when she is alone, there's nothing left for her to do but pray – for Wash, of course, but mostly for herself.
She catches herself missing the Shepherd, the way his soothing voice seemed to find solace in anything. She doesn't care that maybe he wasn't a real priest.
Maybe she isn't a real warrior.
Zoe finds it strange that on the planets and moons they land on, sun and rain are seen as opposites. She realizes they are rarely seen together, but even so: they both need an atmosphere to exist. Space is dry and dark all the time, as if on a different spectrum entirely. Perhaps that's why it feels so unsettling to not be flying.
She thinks she might never learn to like rain. Weird, wet, inconvenient – and only ever good for getting everyone's spirits down. Plus it gets the goods all soggy-looking and she doesn't like how that might reflect on their reputation with the buyers. From Mal's sour mood, she gathers he shares her opinion on rain.
"We gotta move fast – it's in and out, no time for lingerin' about," he announces to no one in particular. Zoe doubts anyone intended to linger about this place; it's no core planet. But it is comforting to hear him say it all the same. He turns to her. "Gorram rain soggin' up my goods."
Kaylee wanders closer as Jayne hauls up the last of the nondescript boxes. "Aw, Cap'n, don't the rain feel even a little bit refreshin'? The smell's the same anywhere. It's so pretty and sad at the same time…"
"If I wanted a poet, I would've hired myself a poet. Right now, what I need is my mechanic, doin' some mechanin' so we can get out of here as soon as possible." Kaylee's face falls. Zoe doesn't say anything as the girl walks away, even though her heart clenches whenever Mal is cruel to Kaylee. The hint of regret in his eyes is punishment enough, she figures.
"River's feelin' up to flying, so we'll be going soon as we get paid and the crew's all on board," Mal says as he walks over to stand by her side.
"Why the rush, sir?"
"Just wanna get to the places we need to be, that's all."
"Where're off to, sir?"
"On," he says. "We're moving on."