Author: Livia (liviapenn)
Characters: Zoe Washburn
Prompt/Summary: They say the sun is sometimes eclipsed by a moon.
Spoilers: For "Firefly" and "Serenity."
Notes: Thanks to the mods for deleting my story from the queue and letting me re-post after the deadline. :) I appreciate it.
She came to somewhere gray and dim with Simon bending over her. Man looked like cold *go-se*. Well, fair enough, he'd been shot.
"Zoe," he was saying. "Wake up. Zoe."
She breathed in and listened. Disinfectant. The hiss of air purifiers. Alliance medical bay... She could see Kaylee lying next to her on one of them fancy beds. First she looked dead but then her chest lifted, dropped, rose again. Sleeping. Zoe didn't relax. Simon pushed her shoulders back down on the bed again with one hand, the other arm leaning heavy on a crutch. "It's all right. You're going to be fine. They're-- He's letting us use their facilities."
Zoe tried to talk, say what she thought of *that*, but only croaked. Her tongue felt thick, her mouth dry.
"You're dehydrated. That's the Kelpexin," Simon said. "I'll get you some water in a minute. Or you could go back to sleep-- I'll start an IV. But just now, you need to-- I have to ask you something. They have facilities here, Zoe, and it's only been an hour. There's a procedure..." He stopped, ducking his head down. Looked half-sideways over at a white shape in the corner. Zoe managed to get an elbow under her.
A white shape resting on a bed against the wall with a blanket over it. A clean white blanket like the one resting at Zoe's waist. White blanket pulled neat and clean over the chest, hands, face.
Zoe couldn't swallow. It hurt. Her throat made her do it anyway.
"I know that you and Wash had... that you had discussed... There is a technique. The procedure is really quite simple. I have the facilities and tools I here, I checked." Simon stopped, brushed a hand over his face. Stopped his gorram stammering and looked her in the eyes. "There is a way to preserve Wash's genetic material."
Zoe stared at him.
"You could still have a child." Simon said. Like she didn't understand.
It was soft but it kicked him back into stutter mode again, eyes bright and quick. "Obviously you're in no frame of mind-- no, no, I'm not saying-- That is, no one could expect--" Doc was probably higher than two kites. Zoe understood. No time to lay back when his people needed him. Not when the crew needed a doctor they could trust. Probably shot himself up with some quickstep drug. Zoe probably would have done the same. "If you wanted to have the option later, when you have time to think about it-- if you think you *might* want to think about it later--"
"It's already taken care of." Zoe lay still. Her wound barely hurt, just a cool stroke down the middle of her back, but she still didn't exactly feel like getting up and kicking down any doors.
"But..." Simon blinked. "What?" Zoe just looked at him. "But you use the contra patch."
Zoe closed her eyes. Eyes shut helped. "Quit usin' the patch six weeks ago," she said. It took a while to swallow, again, but she managed it. "After Inara cut herself loose and Book parked himself on Haven, and the captain started makin' talk about takin' River on jobs. Long before he laid it out for you as law, he was floatin' the idea with me." She stopped. She could barely hear herself, her voice only half a whisper. Grit on sand. Made things a little easier. "I knew it'd drive you and her off the ship sure as shootin'." She stopped to clear her throat. Heard Simon turn away, his crutch thumping awkwardly. A dispenser hissed. Water gurgled into a cup. "I knew. I knew it was gonna be--" Wash-- "us next. And I thought, maybe it'd make it easier to leave if I had a reason. I wanted-- I wanted something to go on towards instead of just things to leave behind."
Simon's voice was soft as Zoe's white blanket. "Can you sit up a little? I brought you some water."
She opened her eyes. Sat up and took the cup. Simon steadied it with his free hand, and Zoe drank. The water tasted like nothing. Brought into her mind the story of that princess, the one Persephone was named for. Don't drink the water, don't taste the food in that land. You can't go back...
Well, it was past time to turn back now anyway.
"So you're... how long have you known?"
"I don't," Zoe said handing the cup back to Simon. "Not yet, anyway. Six weeks ain't much time, and it could be four, or two, or one. Might be. Might not."
"But then--" Simon looked confused. So gorram earnest it almost hurt to look him in the face. Doctors were all the same. Never wanted to admit there was something they couldn't heal, couldn't fix up right.
"If I am... then I am, and it'll be plain to all and sundry soon enough. If I'm not then I ain't, but not because I didn't give it a chance," she said. "I had my chance. That's enough."
Simon nodded, slow. "If you'd like," he said, still so gentle, soft as anything, "I could-- would you like to know for sure? Even this early, there might be signs--"
"I thank you, but not yet." Zoe handed him back the cup. She laid back, arms at her sides, resisting the urge to curl her hands over her belly. "Not just yet."
She closed her eyes again. Felt Simon's hand on her shoulder. "I'm going to..." he said, and then she heard him rummaging around again, shifting things, sifting till he found what he was looking for. "This, well, this is a general booster," he said, sliding the patch onto her neck. "It can't hurt and it might help. If you are, that is. Ah, you might feel some drowsiness."
"I might," Zoe agreed. The darkness under her eyes was like a warm down quilt, carrying her down. A hand was stroking her shoulder. "Goodnight, baby," she slurred, because she always said goodnight, always, and Wash always said it back. Goodnight, lamby-kins. Goodnight, love.
* * *
They buried their dead at sunset the next day.
On the way out to their mourning ground, Kaylee showed her all the prayers she'd written. School-taught script and characters shimmered, neat and careful and tiny on those shining red and gold tags. These were prayers to catch someone's eye, someone's ear. Psalms for the Shepherd and an Av Harahamim for Mr. Universe. For martyrs, Kaylee explained. "And I remembered Wash said once that he was raised Foursquare Foundational," she said. Still speaking soft and slow. Everyone was. Treating Zoe like a nervous horse. "So I found some of them prayers and hymns and I wrote 'em all in. Real careful."
"That's a lot of prayin'," Zoe said. The tags glittered in the low sunset light.
"Well, I-- I put in some extra, too. For Miranda."
Zoe nodded. The tags shimmered and blurred and she raised her head, tilted it back, let her eyes drink her tears back up before they spilled. It was a trick hard in the learning but one you never forgot.
"You did good, Kaylee."
Zoe hadn't taken much part in the preparations. Simon had insisted that she rest. But when they finally got out to the spot where the markers were, when she saw everything they'd all done, she had no quarrel with any of it. Mal must have picked this spot, out away from everything. Under an open sky. And Jayne had made the markers, Zoe supposed. He still smelled of laser-cutter smoke and burnt stone.
River read a verse out of the Bible. Funny looking Bible, with pages that looked like they'd been cut out, glued in, whole sections shuffled together and re-arranged. River looked apologetic, had to flip back and forth to get the words out all in a row and right. Quick as a cat about it, though. Found her place every time.
"And I saw a new heaven and a new earth," River read. The pages shuffled like wings under her hands. "For the first heaven and the first earth were passed away..."
When the speaking was over Zoe stepped forward. She lit the rocket and they watched it fly. It went up, up, almost to the limit of sight, and then a white plume of fire reached even higher, splitting into three, nine, fifty separate points of light. All lifting, lifting, like a white tree would reach its branches up. The fire consumed everything, taking the prayers that the rocket carried right out of the world. They vanished, drifting as smoke. Free as the air.
Zoe watched until the afterimage faded and there was nothing but sky. Overhead, the brightest stars were beginning to come out. She reached for Kaylee's hand and squeezed it.
"Good," she said.
* * *
Sometimes Zoe felt like it was more than Reavers that had followed them to this moon. Sometimes when she looked up she could see all the peaceful shades of Miranda swirling around up there in those ion clouds.
She wanted to lie down. Talking, eating, working, it was all so gorram tiring. She felt infected, drugged, like she was breathing sorrow instead of air. There weren't no way to slip from sorrow's grasp, not as long as you had breath. A long rest had started to sound real good. Then Zoe recalled Miranda. And she kept moving.
There was still work to be done.
She walked the ship's corridors and she walked its perimeter. Kept her eye on those Alliance ships, their crewmen moving in the distance like roaches on a wall. They weren't never there when you turned your head, but Zoe knew. That man, the Operative, he'd offered tools and repair kits, spare parts and supplies. Even offered the use of his crew to help make repairs, to patch and weld and sew things up. Mal had accepted the tools and fixings but said no thank you to the help. Serenity had its crew. They were banged up but they'd mend.
* * *
It was raining. Zoe had been working in the engine room with Kaylee, but there wasn't much more to be done there. Serenity's heart was in better shape than the rest of her. They'd fastened tarps over the broken windows in the cockpit but the rain would have to stop before Zoe could get in there with her welding torch. The rain didn't much look like it was going to oblige, though. Zoe had been pacing round the ship for an hour. She had a thin plastic parka on, one that didn't restrict her movements much, but didn't do much to block the cold either. On one turn just as she passed the open main hatch Jayne came pounding out, bundled in a thick gray slicker.
"You comin' in any time soon?" he yelled over the rain.
"You want to walk this watch for me?" Zoe shot back.
"Yeah, let's think hard on that one," Jayne said. "Come in here, I got somethin' for you." And didn't *that* sound all kinds of appealing. "Come on!" he shouted when Zoe didn't move. "It'll just take a minute and then you can go on back to your crazy woman walking."
Zoe sighed and walked halfway up the ramp, then all the way when Jayne gestured impatiently. It took longer than a minute for Jayne to wrestle himself out of his thick-lined slicker and shake himself off. Zoe crossed her arms and waited. Finally Jayne reached off behind a crate, scooping up a big square-necked bottle full of some unidentified liquid.
"I was thinkin'," he said, holding it proudly in front of him, "and I think you ain't gonna do yourself no good just walkin' and walkin' out there in the rain. So you want to come in and have a drink. It'll warm ya for damn sure. But maybe you don't have the right stuff. So there's this."
He looked at her, expectant. There weren't much Zoe felt like doing less right now than downing a gutful of whatever snake piss Jayne had been storing under his bunk for a dog's age. She hadn't eaten breakfast when she'd gotten up, anyway. Hadn't been hungry. One swallow of that moonshine would probably give her the spins for an hour. It was a nice gesture on Jayne's part though. Hell, for Jayne it was downright special. Zoe reached out to take the bottle, intending on stowing it somewhere safe before she went back out again. "Well. Thank--"
"Hey!" Jayne jerked the bottle back out of her reach. "I ain't *givin'* it to you." Zoe raised her eyebrows, and Jayne grunted, frustrated. "Well, I am, but I'm givin' it to you and I'm keeping it for you, see? You want t'get blotted out right, you come find me and we'll knock back some. But now ain't the time for you to be drinkin' alone."
Zoe nods. "Yeah, Jayne, when I feel like drinking myself unconscious, alone with you, in your bunk, I'll let you know." It wasn't up to her normal standard as far as being sarcastic-like.
Jayne just grinned. "Well, all right then. Here, you go on back to your walkin' then." He handed her his slicker. "Use this."
She put it on. It smelled like Jayne. But at least it was warm.
* * *
When she came in that night her feet and legs were aching and her back was complaining. Maybe she'd overdone it. Well, tomorrow maybe it wouldn't rain. She hung Jayne's slicker from the railing to let it drip dry, and turned to see Inara approach.
"Zoe?" Inara looked ready to sleep, wrapped up in a black silver-trimmed robe that looked softer than night, her hair pinned back with simple silver clips. "I do hate to bother you, but the port intake valve on my shuttle is hissing. Controls are showing no drop in pressure, but I thought it would probably be wise to get a second opinion."
Well, it might be nothing, but it would still be something to do. Zoe followed Inara, considering as she went. They'd be near the the Training House in a day or so. Even if Inara weren't staying there, she could catch any transport or liner she liked, back to the Core and civilized folk. But when Zoe and Inara entered the shuttle, Zoe saw that she'd moved some of the things she'd left behind back to their proper places. There was a shawl draped across a lamp to soften the light, a rug thrown casually at the foot of the bed. It wasn't as fine and fancy as it had been, but it somehow felt like a place a body planned to stay.
Maybe Inara would be staying on, Zoe thought. It would be good to have her back. She shook her head at herself, hoisting her toolbox and gripping it a little more firmly. She wasn't going to think much on it. Wait till they get back to the Training House, see if Inara gets off the boat or stays on. Don't build up hope.
She had to stand on a chair to get to the valve over the door. One of the bolts holding it flush with the wall was loose. Inara probably could have fixed it herself, if she'd had a mind to. Zoe gave it a few turns with her wrench anyway. The hissing from the valve stopped, to be replaced by the hissing of Inara's third-best teapot.
"Tea?" Inara said. She didn't have any fluffy little fringed seats and cushions, but she was sitting cross-legged on the edge of her trunk, teacups arranged by the side of her leg. The edge of her bed was clearly the seat meant for Zoe. "Please," she said, when Zoe hesitated. "I just-- I suppose I'd like to make this shuttle feel a little more like mine, again."
Sitting down, Zoe raised an eyebrow, meaning to convey that maybe Inara wasn't playing her as well as she was pretending to. The bolt over the door hadn't been shaken loose in any crash; there had been wrench marks on it before Zoe ever got to it. Inara looked back, a little wry, a little sneaky. She was smiling apologetically as she handed Zoe her little cup and poured one for herself.
"Do forgive me," said Inara after a sip or two. "I'm afraid these tea leaves are a little dried out."
"Tastes fine to me," Zoe said politely. Didn't particularly need to mention that she'd never been one for tea anyway.
"Thank you," Inara said graciously. "Please, have a cookie." The plate she held out was just one of the regular chipped and scratched plates from the kitchen, but the fancy tea-cookies were arranged in a little spiral fan that made Zoe almost hesitant to take one and spoil the effect.
Her stomach growled. She took a cookie. They ate and drank in silence. Inara kept Zoe's cup full, moving in with the kettle so careful and unobtrusive-like that Zoe didn't think she'd ever manage to finish the cup, make her excuses and go.
"Mal says we may be spaceworthy in two or three days," Inara observed, offering Zoe the cookie plate.
"It's likely," Zoe allowed, taking one. Just to be polite.
Inara nodded. "I hope so. Please don't repeat this," she said, setting the plate down beside her on the trunk again, "but after my time on Serenity, I've been finding it hard to sleep, planetside. The sound of a Firefly engine..." She smiled brightly. "If you had told me, when I first boarded this ship, that one day I'd find it *soothing*--? Well!"
"I sleep fine," Zoe said.
"Of course," Inara said. "And how is your back?"
"That's fine too."
"Wonderful," Inara said. "Would you mind doing me one more favor, Zoe?"
Zoe turned her cup in her hand, and waited.
"Sleep here tonight," Inara said. Zoe raised her eyebrows. "I just-- It's embarrassing, really. But I keep waking up and not hearing the engine, and I think something's gone wrong and we're drifting with no life support again, and then when I do sleep I have bad dreams-- Please stay. I have a night-shift you can borrow."
A laugh burst out of Zoe without her knowledge or permission, and she stopped, surprised at herself.
"It laces up the sides-- I think it'll fit you, truly." Inara said earnestly. Zoe imagined she would have an answer like that for any objection Zoe cared to raise. There was steel under Inara's lace, always had been.
"Sure," she said. After all, how many base brats from little moons orbiting the back of beyond ever got to say they'd spent a night in a real live Companion's bed?
Inara clapped her hands in glee. "Wonderful. Let me just get these tea things put away. Oh, it'll be just like the sleepovers we used to have when I was a girl at my first Training House."
Zoe had been unbuckling her gunbelt. She paused.
"--Which are nothing like popular rumor would have you believe, I assure you," Inara said, with a slight eye-roll.
"Ah," Zoe said. She finished with the buckle and draped her gunbelt over the edge of the nightstand. "Yeah. I didn't think so."
* * *
She woke, must have been hours later. No way to tell. She could barely remember lying down. Must have slept as soon as her head hit the pillow. Wouldn't be a very eventful story to tell about this night, but she felt rested, and stronger, and she imagined that's what Inara had been after all along. Zoe glanced over.
Sleep made Inara look young. She was snuggled up to Zoe's side, hands tucked up under her chin, head resting against Zoe's shoulder. She was sleeping the sleep of the innocent, breathing long and slow. Didn't look like she'd ever been troubled with bad dreams in her life. Zoe smiled, half-turning to brush her lips against Inara's forehead. Wasn't much of a repayment but it would have to do. Now, though, she had to hit the head. The rest had done her good, no doubt about it, but all that tea--!
* * *
After she'd taken care of business, Zoe thought about slipping back under the covers with Inara, but the cookies earlier had woken up her stomach, reminding it what it was for, and now she was half starving. She dressed quietly, leaving Inara's night-shift folded neatly on top of her trunk, and slipped out of her shuttle.
Truth told she'd been half starving for a while now. Lately nothing tasted good. Even before Miranda... well, protein slabs filled you up, kept you running, but it wasn't really *food*. You could fry up a cube of protein and spices would make it half tasty, but it still would never fill you up quite as right and true as a tomato or a steak or ice cream made with real cream. Even folk born and bred on ships, like Zoe, knew it for truth.
They'd been scrounging for a while, this past time. Since Inara left, since Book went on walking. Now, though. Mr. Universe wouldn't be needing his supplies no more. He'd been one for luxury, and they had stocked their kitchen full. Protein, of course, but also flash-frozen fruits, vegetables, thin-sliced filets and cuts of real meat... and suddenly Zoe hungered for an apple, a thick green cool crunch in her mouth.
River was sitting at the table in the kitchen, her hands framed around something on a plate. She was still for a moment, not even looking up, then snapped her hands back and away to make the object between them spin like a little world.
It was an apple. It wobbled on its axis, dancing over to the edge of the plate and then back again, finally tumbling stem over base and off the plate entirely. River caught it one-handed before it bounced off the table and held it out to Zoe.
It was still cool from the freezer. Zoe pulled out a chair across from River and sat down. Unfolded her knife to cut a slice. She handed the first one to River.
"Schroedinger is a good name," River said.
Zoe's hand froze in the middle of the table. Then she passed the apple slice on.
"Not for a boy or a girl," River clarified, "but for a possibility, an either/or. Something that might not have happened, but then again might have. Something you don't know yet. Schroedinger."
Zoe supposed it wasn't much worse than "Hoban," come down to to it.
"Thanks," she said. "I'll keep that in mind."
* * *
The ship thrummed with energy even Zoe could feel. River had checked every comm line and pulse cord in every hidden place that even Kaylee had never found, and Kaylee was bright and happy in the engine room, all green across the board. A pair of flower-patterned skivvies was tossed carelessly over a stabilizer coil. Kaylee sidled over, talking a mile a minute about compressors and navsat links, and tucked them into her pocket. Zoe pretended not to see. Sweet thing, young love. They were ready.
All ready. Zoe headed into the main bay. The hatch was open and she could see Mal outside, talking to that man. Her hand went to her gun, but the low voices exchanging words sounded calm enough.
These past days-- Mal had got some fool idea in his head that the Alliance man had offered what help he could as some kind of penance. To make up for his sins against them all. As if any of that could make up for what was done to this ship and its crew. To Book and his people on Haven. The Sanchez brothers. Li Shen. What they'd done to Mr. Universe. To Miranda. Made Zoe feel as rageful as a Reaver. Felt like cussing, biting, howling. The Operative's offer wasn't penance. It was a payoff, a coin tossed at their feet. What they got for keeping their mouths shut, once they were off this clouded moon.
Fools all. The Alliance didn't know the first thing about this ship or its crew. Mal would rather walk straight out an airlock than try to parlay Miranda into fame or fortune. None of them had gone into this to gain a story to tell, or to have leverage to cadge scraps from Alliance men.
Some things you did because they needed doing.
Seemed like the talk outside was over. Leastways it ended with no violence on either side. Mal turned and came back up into Serenity.
"Sir, we have a green light." Zoe said, coming towards him. "Inspection's pos and we're clear for up-thrust." Behind Mal, the bay doors closed, cutting out the sound of the rain.
"Think she'll hold together?" Mal asked.
Zoe held herself tall. "She's tore up plenty. But she'll fly true."
"Make sure everything's secure," Mal ordered. "Could be bumpy." He headed past her, into the cockpit.
"Always is," Zoe said. She turned away. She'd checked and double-checked everything already.
She'd head down to the infirmary now, she thought. Ask Simon to go on with those tests he'd talked of. It would change this possibility's name to Yes or No, but at least she'd know. And she'd know how best to go on.