Mal might have been Zoe's first love, but Wash-- somehow when she wasn't looking, he'd wired himself right into her crucial decision-making trees. She still belonged to Mal in a fundamental way that had nothing to do with the price he'd paid for her current hull, but it was Wash she shared everything with now, Wash she spoke to at ship's dawn and dusk, Wash whose dreams she soothed with half-remembered lullabies over her speakers, and Wash who made her wish she was flesh and blood.
She'd never know the comfort of being physically held, never be more than a voyeur of his sexual experiences, and the lack burned her as it never had before. A man like him deserved as many laughing, blue-eyed babies as he could count, and she couldn't never give them to him. Miraculously, though, Wash didn't seem to care. He treated her as more than just another human being, he treated her as though she were the other half of himself without hardly stopping to think about it, and within the year even Mal was treating them-- grudgingly-- as though they was a matched pair.
There were times in the years that followed when the crew barely scraped through one mess or another; Wash was pressed into service as a gun-hand over his own objections more'n once until they finally hired a mercenary, a man named Jayne a good deal more capable than his name might suggest. They exchanged their genius mechanic early on for a prairie girl called Kaylee with a genuine gift; the young woman weren't too proud to take direction from the ship she was working on, and knew several tricks that soon had Zoe's aging engine running better'n it probably had all the rest of its long life. A Companion named Inara Serra rounded out the crew; she viewed Zoe's presence with carefully shielded distaste, but had enough secrets of her own that she weren't about to tattle, and Mal soon focused on her all the extra attention that had once gone Zoe's way. Before Wash, she would have been fiercely jealous, but all that her captain's romantic hijinks inspired in her now were a maternal sort of amusement.
It was a ramshackle kind of family, but it was one that worked.
It didn't last, of course. One day they lifted a cargo Badger hadn't warned them was marked and attracted Alliance attention in the doing. Mal had to take on passengers to pay for the fuel back off Persephone when Badger wouldn't buy the goods, and from that day forward they were on a downward spiral. The doc was efficient enough, but his sister surely did draw all the wrong sort of attention, and their other two passengers were both undercover Alliance: one fleeing his past, the other hot on the Tams' trail.
They got rid of the spy on Patience's moon without him ever realizing Zoe was there, but the ex-Operative was a sharp man and soon had enough facts at his fingertips to guarantee safe retirement in Allied territory no matter what he'd done to get himself exiled in the first place. All they could do was trust his conscience would keep him quiet, and Zoe hated to trust her life to someone on so little evidence. The doc and his meimei were another story; Mal'd took to them like they was a pair of lost lambs, and Zoe felt a certain kinship for the girl herself as another of the Alliance's toys who'd managed to slip her leash. Still, they was no less dangerous to the crew for all their innocence and ignorance, and it were a constant struggle to keep them safe hid.
It was several months before she let go of her last wariness of the lot of them-- and all on the same day, too. She and Wash had been having a stupid argument about the fact she still let Mal carry a link and talked with him of things she wouldn't with Wash-- not to mention that she wouldn't even consider the idea of putting the crew down on some backwater moon and leaving the smuggling life for a safer one with just him. She knew it was only jealousy-- the same ugly feeling as had nearly poisoned her friendship with Mal in the first place-- and was like to blow over once Wash managed to score some masculinity points in his unspoken competition with the Captain, but while she waited for that to happen it had grown increasingly hard to keep a neutral stance between them. In a fit of pique, Wash had demanded that he be the one to accompany Mal to his next meeting, and thus drove himself right into the less-than-tender clutches of Adelai Niska.
Niska held a grudge against *Serenity* and her crew, and was determined to take it out on them in the most painful way possible. He had the resources to get it done, too, unlike most of the enemies Mal seemed to collect like flies on manure. Zoe managed to organize a rescue, funded by all the cash the crew possessed, but all Niska would send back to them was Wash-- and the Captain's ear.
"He's crazy," Wash whispered, half-collapsing on the deck of her shuttle after Book brought him back aboard. "He wouldn't break, Zoe. He kept me from..."
"It's okay," Zoe whispered back to him. She didn't have the heart to tell him she'd heard the whole thing over the links they both carried; Niska had recognized them for communication devices and keyed them for added effect as he tortured both men.
"I wouldn't have made it," Wash continued, still shaking in reaction.
"Shhhh," she said, comfortingly. Stupid, posturing boys-- especially Mal, all the *feng le* things he'd said to make Wash hold onto his anger instead of panicking-- but she loved them both so much.
Wash refused to be soothed. "Niska's gonna kill him!" he objected, voice anguished.
He was right, and she wouldn't sugarcoat it, no matter how little she liked the idea. "He's gonna make it last as long as possible," she said, unhappily. "Days, if he can."
Wash stilled at that, and steel snapped into his voice that she'd never heard there before. "Bastard's not gonna get days," he spat, and climbed to his feet with great effort.
Never had she wished more for a pair of arms to wrap around him-- and never had she been prouder of this man who'd chosen to be her partner when he could have piloted any ship in the 'verse for the asking.
The preacher and little River more than proved their loyalty to ship and crew in the action that followed, and the Companion and the doc pooled their efforts to patch the Captain back together after their desperate charge on Niska's space station inexplicably succeeded. Wash said not another word to challenge her loyalties, no matter what ridiculous orders Mal gave in the months that followed, and Zoe dared believe, despite their increasingly difficult financial and legal situation, that their fortunes were finally on the mend.
She should have known better than to hope.
*Serenity* plunged through the clouds above Mr. Universe's complex, the Reaver fleet behind her and the rapidly scattering Alliance fleet ahead. Just days before, Zoe'd been maneuvering for a barn-swallow to catch her daredevil partner and Captain in their hovermule on Lilac; if she'd been asked beforehand, she would have said that was the most excitement they were ever like to encounter on a job. How they'd managed to go from there to this, with the best intentions--
A lance of energy speared out toward her from a following Reaver ship, and Zoe cried out in pain as it connected. Whole sections of her circuitry went down all at once, and her automatic protective software snapped her focus down still further; she lost control of flight systems, and everything temporarily went over to manual pilot's control. She trusted Wash at her helm-- he'd pulled some pretty fancy maneuvers before, when there'd been occasion-- but she absolutely hated being helpless.
"Where's the backup?" she heard Mal demanding, hoarse panic in his voice. "Where's the backup?"
Zoe tried to reset the systems on her own, then realized in horror that something had gone worse than wrong when they were hit by that Reaver beam. Only a few systems came back up, and she couldn't regain any degree of control. "Back up reads at 20%," she announced over the speakers, her computer-generated voice even more terse than usual as Wash struggled to straighten them out. "Wash, can you get us down?"
"I'm gonna have to glide her in," he replied, gripping her controls for all he was worth.
"Will that even work?" she asked, rhetorically. She was all too aware of how much she weighed, and how little lift was available to her thrusters at that power level.
The next few moments were painful; Zoe was aware, dimly, of decentralized pain probably related to her organics jostling about in their cramped container, but far more of her focus was on her landing gear as they snapped off against the runway, the thruster sheared off by a standing beam as *Serenity* skidded through a turn, the moans of her passengers thrown against their restraints, and the sounds of things breaking in every room, closet, and hold. It would take more effort and platinum than her crew could muster to fix her up again, that was for sure. And if any of the Reavers followed them down--
The ship groaned to a halt, edging off the landing strip entirely into the pedestrian area, slewed around so that the nose faced the open bit of sky beyond. Zoe's external sensors were all damaged, most of them registering little more than static; she ignored them to focus on her passengers instead, frantically checking every feed still active to listen for the sound of their breathing and glimpse their terrified, beautiful faces.
"I am a leaf on the wind," her Wash said, half-laughing in his relief. "Watch--"
Then a horrible, shattering noise sounded on the bridge, and a guttural choking noise cut his sentence short.
"WASH!" Zoe screamed, seeing too late the threat hovering just beyond *Serenity*'s nose. "Wash baby, baby no, come on, you gotta move you gotta move baby please--"
There was another crash as a second harpoon jutted in through the window, fired from the Reaver ship that had followed them in. Mal was half-out of his own seat by then, reaching for Wash; Zoe saw, in slow motion, the path of the weapon as it followed the first one, and found herself literally unable to watch what happened next.
Her sensors all shut down at the same time, whether from hysterical denial or damage she was in no condition to judge.
It would be several hours-- and forever, and no time at all-- before she saw light again.
Time passed. The Operative came and went; the rain fell, and *Serenity* flew.
"We have a green light," Zoe said, speaking to her Captain for the first time in days. "Inspection's pos and we're clear for upthrust."
In the copilot's chair, a young Reader stroked her hand over the controls, smiling sadly to herself.
In the cargo bay, a man hampered by wounds and bandages of his own turned his face up toward the nearest speaker, an echoing expression on his face. "Think she'll hold together?" he asked obliquely, a world of hidden meanings in his voice.
Physically? The Alliance had patched up all her hurts; Zoe had no complaints as far as that went. Emotionally? Well.
She'd survived the last time she'd lost the one dearest to her, though he still walked her decks. River had tried to assure her that Wash still did, too; he might not register on her sensors, but he still loved her, and he didn't want her to cripple herself with grief. Zoe wasn't sure she believed her. And she knew River knew that. But, despite everything, it seemed to help all the same.
"She's tore up plenty," Zoe finally answered Mal. "But she'll fly true."
She followed him as he made his way up to the bridge, then watched warily as he handed something over to the waiting girl.
His link. Not Wash's; that one was still in his pocket. No, she recognized it as the link he'd carried first, all those years ago when she'd been the heart of the *Loring*.
"You know what the first rule of flying is?" Mal said quietly. "Well, I suppose you do, since you already know what I'm about to say."
River smiled at him, turning the link over in her hands. "I do," she said "But I like to hear you say it."
"Love," he said hoarsely-- and in that word, Zoe heard all the apologies he'd never said before.
River reached up and took his hand before he could say anything else. "I understand," she said. "She does, too. Storm's not over yet, but we'll pass through it soon enough."
Listening to the girl's calm voice, Zoe could almost believe her.
They were still flying, after all. It would have to be enough.