River had settled a lot since Miranda, which was a fine thing in Zoe's mind when she finally settled herself, enough to think beyond the next job. Though River's words were still, likely as not, cryptic, they'd lost a lot of that broken feel. Zoe knew what that was like. Seeing River in the pilot's chair didn't punch her in the chest like the kick of a shotgun anymore. While River would never be Wash, she had a certain grace in the air, and there wasn't any point in fretting about what couldn't be mended. The job went on. At least the Cap'n and the others had quit treating both of them like landmine country, which might have been due to time passing as much as anything. Her crew could only stay quiet for so long; given Jayne's natural sensitivity, it had only been a few months before she'd kindly offered him five-knuckled dentistry in repayment for the inevitable lonely widow jokes.
On jobs, Zoe'd lost that twitchy feeling that having an unpredictable weapon-honed reader at her back had first given her. She got used to River stepping silently behind her as she took point—the background awareness of her and their silent code almost as good eventually as Zoe had with Mal. River's reading was a help and got a sight more reliable. It was only half the time now they had to haul hell for leather since River could mostly pinpoint the nature of the trouble they all knew was always heading for them. Zoe tried not to be bitter that that particular talent hadn't matured in time for her man. Wishes and horses were useless in the black.
Only once had River acknowledged what she had to see running through Zoe's mind and never on her face. It was a late one ship's night and Zoe had come up to the cockpit in her nocturnal wanderings, ostensibly to check on things and only a little bit to poke at that ache inside her when she saw Wash's dinosaurs. River had barely acknowledged her, only to say as Zoe was leaving, "Leaf on the wind. I'd have borne him up for you if my own wits weren't scattered. I'm not trying to take his place."
Zoe turned, caught and held her gaze.
"Well, I guess we all did what we could even if the 'verse ain't fair. He was a fine pilot. So are you. And you'd best stay out of other people's heads."
"But the heart's so loud, the black and the storm keeps howling. Hard to stay on course. Quieter now though."
Zoe stilled for a minute, not sure if she was glad someone else could feel her grief, always there, lower like the murmur of a stream you got used to. Unfair that it was something she could get used to.
"I guess so." She left, and if her bed was still emptier than she was used to, she didn't dream that night.
The little gifts started showing up randomly—a new gunbelt, a bottle of rice wine, a pretty bottle of oil on her pillow that she sniffed at, nearly tossed and then rubbed on her heels and her boots. Ship's air and stealin' were hard on a woman and her gear.
No one confessed. At first she thought it was Kaylee, seeing as how that'd be something she might take a fancy to doing but dropped that idea when Kaylee asked her where she'd gotten that shiny new belt with no hint of guile on her face. She immediately discounted Jayne and then Simon after a moment of thought. Proper as he was he would have made a whole formal ceremony out of it. Plus his mind (and other bits) were too wrapped up in Kaylee. Those two fluttered around each other like drink-addled butterflies. Mal was not the likeliest of options but the most reasonable given their history.
"You wouldn't be leaving oils on my pillow, now would you sir?"
Mal looked at her like she'd donned a bonnet and declared herself queen of all the Core. He scratched his head and peered at her squint-eyed. She'd told him many times that look put her in mind of a confused hen but that hadn't stopped the habit.
"Well, I had planned on taking leave of all my senses this week, but I couldn't fit it into my busy schedule of captainin.'"
"Pity, sir. Truly a trial."
"Well, that's the way of things. Is that why you smell like a cutrate Companion? Not that I was sniffing you. Or that you smell bad or anything. But it's nice to see you, uh, takin' an interest in things and all. . . " He stumbled to a stop.
"Why thank you sir. You sure know how to make a lady feel special."
"It is part of my charm."
And they went back to doing inventory of the take from the last job in companionable silence.
When the vibrator showed up she thought Inara might have taken it into her head to tend to Zoe's needs which was. . .Zoe didn't know if that was hot or disturbing or both. Inara was pretty to look at, true enough, but she and Mal still looked at each other in a way that packed frustration and all kinds of unspoken things in the air between them. She wanted to tell them that life was too short but she'd spent too long in battlefields beside Mal to get near that war zone.
That left only River and why the girl would spend the little coin she got on her share of jobs on trinkets for Zoe and not herself, she didn't know. There should be no guilt between them.
Zoe put it down to another random River thing and went about her business.
Zoe had taken to teaching River about guns (unloaded, of course) and sparring with her in odd hours in the hold (over Simon, Jayne "What do you wanna go making her more dangerous for? That's just ruttin' overkill." and, oddly, Mal's objections). Not as repayment or anything, of course. Steady a gun hand as she had and even with backup in Mal and a loose cannon in Jayne, there was no point in not fully training or using an asset like River when you had her. Worse not to school her, when she was less likely to kill them all in their sleep now. The girl had been not completely broken but bent and pounded into a new shape, a sharper edge like a folded steel blade. Zoe knew that strength intimately. If something hurt, well then you just endured and learned from it until that hurt was a part of yourself and you knew how much you could survive.
River sparring was all deadly balletic grace, making the hand-to-hand Zoe knew feel lumbering and stolid. But it had seen her through the War and beyond and as quick and distracting as River could be, Zoe was never going to be too distracted to go for the kill. A quick drop and leg sweep and she had River on the floor underneath her.
Panting hard enough to shift an errant curl away from her mouth, she said,"You give?"
A sudden flip, a tilt of artificial gravity, and Zoe was looking up at Serenity's hull and River, hanging moon-faced over her, hands pinning Zoe's arms above her head. She was a slip of a thing in a dress but suddenly Zoe was aware of how close she was, the wiry strength in her arms, the weight of her planted solidly on Zoe's hips, the heat pouring off of them, and how long it was since, as Kaylee said, she'd had something 'twixt her nethers not run on batteries. Zoe sucked in a breath and stilled her rebellious body, the one thing she could generally count on suddenly betraying her. She hadn't felt that sudden rush since. . .
"There are a lot of things I could give." River bent her head and murmured, lips and hot breath barely brushing Zoe's ear.
The girl—no, young woman—gave a slight steady rock of her hips, minute but enough to rock Zoe to her core. She schooled her face.
"Mei mei, you had best get off me."
River's hair dragged along the side of her face, a slow faint caress and she pulled back just a bit.
"I'm not so little anymore. All the parts are in place now. And you're not slow. You're like a tree, the earth and I'm lightning."
Just as Zoe was gathering to flip her off, River bounced up, light as a feather and danced away with a swirl of hem, humming a little tune.
Kaylee, in the doorway, whistled (and how she hadn't heard her come into the hold was a sure sign of dangerous distraction). "Well if sparring is like that, then sign me up!"
Zoe thumped her head back down on the grating and wondered what she had ever done in life to deserve this, then got up, dusted herself off, and pushed yet another thing to the back of her mind.
So it should not have been a surprise when she noticed River shadowing her. The weight of her attention was different from when Wash had courted her. He'd been like a puppy—bouncy, irrepressible, amusing, persistent. He just kept coming back—no matter how she turned him down—loud, bright, making her laugh despite herself.
River was none of those things. She didn't even give Zoe a chance to ask her what in merry hell she was playing at. She was just always there, a shadow around the corner, at her back, a silent specter of deadly grace and cryptic whimsy. Zoe couldn't pin her down to put her off. Until the night River showed up in her quarters.
Like any trained soldier, Zoe couldn't have said what alerted her to River's presence before she turned on the light: that constant edge of awareness, not just battle training that had saved her and Mal's life many a time, but also of River and of a disturbance of the emptiness in the room she'd lived with for what felt like ages now. River sat on the bed in only a slight shift, blinking in the light, looking impossibly young. Zoe sighed.
"River, what are you doing here? Go back to bed before Simon misses you and gets worried."
"He's got Kaylee. Mal's got Inara even though he won't let himself. Jayne has Jayne. Why can't I be here?"
And there it was: the moment to end this and Zoe had never hesitated on a kill. All the reasons crowded to Zoe's lips: too young, too unstable (but not now, a traitorous whisper, and deadlier than any of us), too damaged (and the hell of it was, she didn't know if she meant River or her).
River rose suddenly with that uncanny grace and stepped into Zoe's space, pressing a finger to her lips.
"Planets orbit suns. Yours has gone out but no one should be alone in the black. He would say so too. We both lose bits but we fly true. Everyone else says I'm missing parts; I'm broken. But not you. You know what I can do and you're not afraid. You teach and take care of me. And I can take care of you."
River gently traced the outline of Zoe's lips and then slipped slim fingers gently between her parted lips, as if she could stop her objections that way. Zoe shivered slightly and couldn't deny that was a powerful effective gag. This was probably worse than any idea Mal had ever had and that was saying something, but some part of her didn't care. Something in her rustled and woke up after a long winter, hungry for touch. But she'd lived for longer on less and she didn't know if she could afford the price.
"Girl, I don't think you know what you're asking and even if you did, I don't think I'm the one to give it you."
"I know. I've seen all kinds of things and this doesn't scare me. I can hear the storm. I've got mine too. But we can curl up together, quiet, like little mice. I swear I won't take much space." River looked at her solemnly for a moment and then threw a her a bright grin and drew her back towards the bed. Zoe suddenly remembered Wash, coaxing her to take off her gunbelt and come to bed. This wasn't the same but lying down with another warm person next to her had a similar appeal. She didn't resist when River drew her down and into the bed with a gentle brush of lips. It had been so long since anyone had touched her this way and this girl always flipped her expectations and sent her off in new directions. Despite the hardships, as she said, they had always flown true and maybe it was time to take a chance again, on burning up in atmo or trusting that they'd hold. She flipped out the light, alone in the black no longer.