Around the Clouds
a Firefly story
by dirty diana
written for the angst prompt in the nsp_ficathon.
Time came, after it was all over, that Zoe opened her eyes, looked around, and found she was still breathing. Didn't much understand it. It reminded her of a time before. The captain had been beside her then, too. Told her there was no one else coming.
The sky was alight and on fire, and Zoe though for sure that she was dead. But she wasn't, not that time.
Not this time, either. Didn't make sense at all.
Zoe wears her wedding ring still. On a chain around her neck, close to her skin. She doesn't wear it all the time, too scared that she might lose it. When the crew is planetside, Zoe leaves the ring in her bunk, underneath her pillow.
Wash gave her the ring. Couldn't hardly afford it. Mal gave her the chain that it hangs from. He bought it in a general store on Whitefall, along with the ship's supply of tea and rice.
"I'm not much for romance," he began, and Zoe rolled her eyes.
"Ain't that the understatement, sir."
Truth was that there wasn't much romance to what she and Mal had going, anyway.
Inara was the first to leave. She left quiet and quick, much the same as the first time. Zoe thinks sometimes that the captain misses her, but Zoe's not sure.
She doesn't ask.
Zoe doesn't sleep much. Some nights not at all, and Mal catches her wandering the decks in her nightclothes, the way that the Tam girl still did.
There is always a moment, a split second in the fall of Mal's shadow behind her, that Zoe thinks that she hears her husband, and almost turns to answer him.
There is another breath after that when the grief is so strong that she can barely stand, and it always catches her by surprise.
She started it. Didn't stop to give much thought to whether it was right or wrong. Just knew that she couldn't stand to be alone with her heartbeat for one second longer, and in the middle of the night her fingers laced between Mal's and held tight.
When Zoe kissed him, Mal kissed her back. Maybe it was meant as comfort.
Maybe it was just as bad for him.
Kaylee was the next to go. She and Simon had a fight, Zoe never quite understood about what. But Kaylee said she couldn't stay a second longer, and packed her bags amidst a whole lot of yelling and blubbering.
Jayne went with her. Zoe hadn't quite seen that coming.
They need a mechanic real bad. Need a merc too, and Mal tells her that he's working on it. Might even mean it, at that.
Some nights they go dirtside to the saloons, and get drunk on as much as they can afford. That's a lot like years gone too, when they'd tumble down into their bedding after sharing the same bottle of bad whiskey, and the captain's hand would cover her mouth, a reminder to keep quiet.
Wasn't any doubt that the whole platoon could hear their muffled moans, just the same. On Serenity there's more privacy, at least. Afterwards, Zoe shakes and can't stop.
"I ain't," she says simply. Couldn't explain it more than that.
Mal falls asleep soon after. Zoe never does.
River and Simon stay. They're the only ones. They have nowhere else to go, and River even seems to know a thing or too about engines and flying. Comes in handy, once or twice.
The doctor offers her sleeping pills once. She takes one, but it leaves her drowsy and foggy the rest of the day.
The sleep is nice, though. No dreams.
Simon tries to press more pills more on her, but she refuses. He looks at her, across the cool white of the infirmary, and she manages a smile.
"See, I'm fine, Doc."
"Of course you are." He writes something down anyway, in the small leather-bound book he keeps in a drawer. His writing is tiny and awkward, impossible to read from where she sits. "I don't suppose..." He hesitates.
"You got something to ask," Zoe says, "ask it."
Simon shifts, uncomfortably. "I don't suppose you've considered finding employment somewhere else?"
This is it, then. Zoe shrugs her shoulders, thinking that after the Tams have gone it will be just the two of them, rattling around this boat like a ghost ship. "You leaving?"
"Me?" Simon looks up from his notes in genuine surprise. "No, not me. You. I was thinking...I was thinking it might be less stressful for you." Simon pauses. "Not me."
Simon hesitates, again. "You're certain. The captain's kind of..."
"A hùndàn." Zoe grins. "I know that. I've been serving with him a long time."
"That's my point." If the floor could swallow him, Zoe thinks, the doctor would be glad for the escape. "The war's over. You can do what you want." He smiles gently, and eases out a breath. "Might help you sleep."
Zoe shakes her head.
She doubts that.
Zoe expects the doctor and his sister to get off at each port that the ship makes, but they haven't, so far. Zoe goes to the bridge sometimes, and stares out into the black, at every approaching star. The ghosts walk across her skin. She can't stand it for too long.
"You know, you're the only thing that I ever lied to my husband about."
She still wakes in the middle of the night and lies, wide-eyed, listening to the sounds the ship makes, to every cranking gear. At any stray movement of her body, the captain moves with her. He stretches out, and puts one hand in the center of her back, drawing her closer, guarding her from any threat before he's quite awake.
It reminds her of the war. Fighting over some desert moon, sleeping on dirt that was harder and colder than ice, when they had no other way to keep each other warm. Every gorram thing reminds her of the war these days.
"I never asked you to," he says quietly.
"I know," Zoe whispers, but that doesn't make it better.
Couldn't take it back now. Couldn't take anything back.
"Best to be going forward, then," the captain tells her. The captain says things that don't mean anything, sometimes.
Zoe wants each one of them to be true.
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