Title: Not One to Settle
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: All your Firefly and Serenity are belong to Joss Whedon.
Secret Santa Prompt: For allcanadiangirl, Zoe/Mal; no fluff, no non-canon character death, please try to include some backstory.
Summary: Fourteen months after Miranda, things still aren't running smooth for the crew of *Serenity*. 2300 words.
Notes: SPOILERS for the Serenity movie. Unapologetic use of dialect. Oblique references to Chinese numerology. Chinese translations at the end.
The crew of the Firefly-class transport ship *Serenity* had changed its size several times during Malcolm Reynolds' tenure as Captain. From a crew of two, the man himself and his strong right arm Zoë, the ship's complement had quickly grown to four, then five as they acquired pilot, mechanic, and mercenary, and finally six, when he found a tenant for one of the ship's shuttles. Appropriately enough, the most profitable year they'd yet seen had come *after* Inara'd joined 'em, with rent comin' in steady and a smidgen more respect adherin' to their reputation.
'Course, it hadn't lasted. A little adventure with stamped cargo, unexpected detours, and passengers taken on to keep 'em in fuel had landed 'em with a crew of nine-- enough, and more than enough-- skirtin' uneasily 'round the edges of the 'verse. The comfortable, scrapin'-by living Mal'd been making for him and his quickly dwindled to barely enough to survive on as they lost one contact after another to double-crossin', avaricious eyes recognizing their fugitive lambs, or conflicts arisin' with what little moral fiber he'd salvaged from the War. "You run when you ought to fight," Fanty and Mingo had accused him; "you fight when you ought to deal." Easy enough for them to say so, they'd never walked in his shoes.
From nine they'd gone to seven, Book and 'Nara departin' as they found more auspicious paths to walk. But though they'd taken up residence elsewhere, they didn't neither of them leave *Serenity* behind 'em; didn't nobody leave *Serenity* in the end, willin' or not.
Mal grimaced at that thought, then smoothed his expression out, hopin' his burst of pessimism hadn't bled through to the still form stretched out over his lap. River'd sought him out after the autopilot had been set for the evening, curlin' up next to him on the couch off the dinin' area with her head on his thigh, cryin' herself to sleep again while he scanned and re-scanned what maps and charts they had of Osiris' Capital City. Hadn't been a day the last week she hadn't tracked him down for the like; she didn't talk much no more when she weren't at the helm, and what little she did say didn't hardly make no sense, so the others tended to leave her to him.
Good thing he was fluent in River, nevermind it'd been a year and more since he'd last had need to really use those translatin' skills. Only made sense the girl'd backslide a bit, what with the foundations of her world tore out from under her; he suspected there'd been a time immediately after the Valley when Zoë'd been the only one *he'd* made sense to. With Simon as River's rock, *Serenity* to occupy her, and Mal as her (reluctant) role model and champion, she'd been a lively, happy girl the last year; but just as a three-legged stool with only two whole legs'll tip over soon's you let go of it, the loss of Simon had cast his little albatross to the ground.
Captain, first mate, pilot, mechanic, mercenary: the ship'd held these five before, but the circumstances of that symmetry weren't anything Mal would have wished for. The chaos of Miranda had brought them back to Book only to lose him, and re-ensnared Inara only to sacrifice Wash; they'd gone on with seven crew again for nigh on fourteen months 'fore the Tams on Osiris had waved the Tams aboard *Serenity*, begging for a reunion. Then from seven, it had gone to five... and nothing in Mal's world had been right since.
Mal had privately thought the meeting a very bad idea, but as a man with no blood family left to speak of who wished every day he'd taken that last leave on Shadow 'stead of staying with his men, he didn't feel it his right to stare Simon down and tell him no. 'Sides, River hadn't seen the trouble coming; she weren't infallible, but she had a habit of bein' right, often enough to make a man forget to question it. Simon had been so excited about taking Kaylee with 'em to introduce to his folks; Mal had glanced to their resident Reader, then shrugged and plotted *Serenity* a course core-ward, takin' a legit transport job under a falsified name to pay for the diversion.
"Zhen daomei," he muttered under his breath, droppin' a hand to card absently through River's long, tangled hair. He'd wondered more'n once at the convenience of that, a job as jing cai as that one fallin' into their laps, payin' more'n they'd seen in the last three months put together with hardly a glance at their ident papers at just the right time for 'em to make the trip to Osiris worthwhile.
Kaylee had been the one closest to the door when *two by two, hands of blue* a pair of bland-faced, well-dressed men had stepped out of Gabriel Tam's study and taken aim with dart-loaded capture guns. River'd snatched the mechanic and run under the theory the hundans would kill Kaylee as useless if they caught her but save Simon for bait; her logic was sound, and Mal had told her so, but that hadn't made no difference to her feelings on the matter. River'd left her brother when he needed her, and as far as she was concerned, that was unforgiveable.
Kaylee weren't doin' much better, neither. The engines were runnin' near as much on tears as oil these days; she'd sit there in the engine room tinkerin' to keep herself busy, swipin' at her face with the back of her hand as she worked and takin' no notice of the rest of 'em 'cept to call Mal a baojun for askin' her how things was runnin' and snap at River for every little flight-shimmy that put the ship's working's the least bit out of joint. Inara's departure immediately after Simon's kidnapping, intent on usin' her contact list to suss out the doc's location, had been the last straw for Kaylee; what with her hormones out of whack and her grief surgin' up unpredictable-like, she was in need a sympathetic ear and weren't none of 'em left on board would do.
Footsteps sounded in the kitchen, and Mal looked up sharply to catch sight of his first mate, former corporal, and best friend frownin' her way to the pot of coffee. She'd been as calm as ever the last week, perhaps a mite melancholy but otherwise steady; he'd been grateful for it. The rest of the world might have gone mad, but her, he could always count on.
"Evenin', Zoë," he said, keepin' his voice low as not to disturb River.
"Evenin', sir," she answered, not bothering to glance his way 'til after she'd finished pourin' herself a mug. "Goin' over those maps again? We ain't even sure the men who took him kept him on Osiris."
"River's sure," Mal countered her, watching with appreciation as she turned away from the counter and walked gracefully toward him. Even dressed in her leathers with that mare's leg on her hip, she was a figure of a woman. Not one he could touch, but then, he'd never had so much luck with that anyhow; Zoë's continued presence in his life had always been worth more to him than a quick roll in the hay. Still. Didn't mean he couldn't admire.
"River's sure because she wants to believe her parents are victims, same as Simon," Zoë said quellingly. She came to a stop a few paces away, standin' over the round table with her warm mug clasped between her palms. "She weren't Reading when she said that, and you know it. She still wants to think the best of the people what raised her. And it's true, those men had the whole family to hostage, they'd probably keep 'em here to draw her back. Why transport all of 'em and risk more notice than what's needful? But if the Tams was actin' of their own free will..."
Mal shook his head, stubbornly. "Even if they moved him, they'd know she'd keep us close 'til we picked up something to go on," he said, absently stroking River's hair again. "Either way, we're in the right place to be. And I have a feeling the knowledge'll come in some useful 'fore this is all over."
Zoë's eyebrows went up at that, and she shook her head. "Na me guan xi."
He couldn't tell how much of that was sarcasm and how much was serious-- his 'feelings' had a way of bein' as useful as his plans, some days. Still. "It never hurts to be prepared," he offered with a conciliatory smile.
Then he took in the way she was standing, the hour of night, the slight smudge of darkness under her eyes, and came to a different conclusion, one he didn't like. "You doin' alright, Zoë?" he asked, suddenly worried all this, with Simon and Kaylee, had reminded her of losin' her own man, of not having the chance to bear his children. There'd been a spectacular breakdown in the privacy of her bunk early on the last year, when he'd tired of her increasingly plastic facade and demanded honesty from the still-bleedin' Zoë underneath. Couldn't never stand to see her hurting for long. And mostly she'd got past it, gradually slippin' into the new rhythms of the ship, hardly seemin' as if it had ever been any other way at all.
She looked down into her mug, the corners of her mouth curving up in a faint smile. "Always could see through me, sir," she replied, an old refrain.
"No more'n you do for me," was Mal's automatic response.
"Wash asked me once," she said softly, still lookin' down into her mug, "why it was you and me never got together. It was after that thing with Niska-- he'd got over bein' so jealous of you, but he still wondered. I told him--"
Zoë paused there, and Mal held his breath, unwilling to interrupt. She hardly never bared her soul like this, or talked about Wash, not since his death.
"I told him," she finally continued, "it was a lot of things-- you'd been my Sergeant, we went through the war together, you'd lost a sweetheart on Shadow, we was neither of us in any shape to be thinkin' on romance 'til after he came on board-- but mostly because we knew each other so well, there'd be no mystery to it. Would be like ridin' my own hand for all it would add to our relationship, and I'm not one to settle."
It was Mal's turn to raise his eyebrows, and he tried very hard not to dwell on the mental image she'd just given him. "And Wash gave that to you. Mystery and romance and excitement."
"He made me laugh," she said in agreement, then looked up from her mug at last. Her dark eyes were wet with unshed tears, but she was still smiling. "Thing is, sir-- Mal. I've been thinkin' these last few days. It's been near on fourteen years since we met, now; nine years since the War's been over. I'm not the same woman anymore, and you're not the same man."
Mal stared at her, holdin' his breath as his heartrate picked up a little. It didn't seem possible she was saying what he thought she was saying. "Not seein' through you now," was all he could think to answer.
Her smile flashed wide, wider'n he'd seen it in months. "Kaylee asked me yesterday what Wash would've said, if he'd seen me goin' on about my business without so much as cryin' after he was gone. I told her-- I told her he would've said I still had one husband left, and he wouldn't have wanted me to grieve over him forever."
The wrongness of Kaylee bein' upset enough to say such a cruel thing to Zoë barely made an impact, he was so caught up by the rest of what Zoë was tellin' him. "Zoë..." He tried to get up, palms itching to touch her, to make sure this weren't a dream. The warm weight of River in his lap, murmuring in her sleep as he jostled her about, came as a shock; he'd forgotten she was there.
"Zoë..." he said again, words escaping him as he tried to find a way to express his feelings on the matter.
"Best let you get back to your maps," she murmured, shakin' her head, a sparkle in her eye that hadn't been there since Wash's death. He gloried to see it, as disbelievin' as he was that it was there because of him. "There'll be time to talk after Simon's back on board."
"We'll do that," Mal assured her, emotions churning as he watched her walk away from him. Could they really make something between them, with the ghosts of Serenity Valley and Wash always there with 'em? He didn't know, but the thought of Zoë with him, no longer one and one alone but two together, made his blood race like it hadn't done since he and 'Nara had buried the hatchet and agreed they were happier apart.
He murmured calm nonsense to River, soothing her back to settled sleep, and turned back to his maps with a will. 'Nara would do her job, then he'd do his; Simon would be back before his little 'un made her own acquaintance with the world, and pretty soon the crew of *Serenity* would be back to eight. If they got the Academy off their tails for good, they might even have a chance to prosper; and among all the other goin's on, him and Zoë per-maybe-haps... talking.
Mal quirked a smile at the thought.
Zhen daomei = just our luck
jing cai = splendid
hundan = bastard
baojun = tyrant
Na me guan xi = In that case, never mind.