The rough metal walls were gone, obscured by myriad scarves, the serviceable shuttle transformed somehow into an elegant boudoir. Zoe turned in a circle, taking in the details – incense smoking in a corner, gold tassels on the edges of the scarves, innumerable bottles and tiny pots set out in front of the mirror.
This was hardly what she’d had in mind when Mal had asked, using only statements, what she thought about renting out the shuttle.
She ducked back into the hall quickly and leaned on the comforting metal, feeling the bolts and rough patches imprinting her shoulders through the flimsy protection of her shirt.
Later, as she sat at the table with Wash, Jayne, and Kaylee and prodded the latest protein concoction, Mal entered the eating area with softer footsteps echoing his. All four crew members turned to stare, and only Zoe managed not to gape.
“This here’s Inara,” Mal jerked his thumb at the dark-haired woman behind him. “She’ll be usin’ the shuttle for her business, and she’s the only one as can say who’s allowed in there now. I hear ‘bout anyone causin’ any trouble, Jayne, and there’ll be words. Probably ones involving fists.” He glared a moment longer, for good measure, then turned to Inara and introduced the crew.
“Zoe’s my first mate – been with me since the war.” Her face still blank, Zoe inclined her head in acknowledgement. “Wash here’s the pilot and Zoe’s husband. Don’t pay his toy dinosaurs no mind.” Wash grinned, with a small wave. “And then we got Jayne. He’s new, and I still ain’t quite sure what he does besides use a lot of weapons.” Jayne leered. “Last one’s little Kaylee, best mechanic in the ‘verse.” Kaylee’s eyes were wide, but she managed a shy grin.
“It’s very nice to meet you all.” Zoe hadn’t heard an accent so cultured since the life she’d left behind years ago.
Wash cleared his throat. “So, uh, what is your business, anyway? What’s our little shuttle’s new life going to be?”
“Oh, I’m a Companion,” Inara explained with perfect nonchalance. “I’ll use the shuttle to rendezvous with clients.”
For a minute, the whirring of Serenity’s engine was the only noise.
A chair scraped abrasively on the metal floor. “I’ll be in my bunk,” Jayne muttered as he fled, prompting eye-rolls from everyone but Kaylee, who couldn’t seem to stop staring at Inara long enough to react.
After a few more moments of awkwardness, the intercom crackled and Jayne’s voice broke the silence again. “Kaylee? Somethin’ weird’s goin’ on back here. I don’t think the photon reaction drive is supposed to be making this noise…”
Serenity shuddered, quaked, and with a loud clunk, jerked to a halt, tossing people into walls and onto the floor. Before the ship had even fully stabilized, Wash had bolted for the cockpit, Kaylee to the engine room, and Mal to look over Wash’s shoulder – the ingrained patterns of their roles. Zoe followed Mal, pausing long enough to look back at Inara, sitting stunned and still on the hard floor with her elaborate dress pooled around her.
Hours later, Serenity’s engine was humming again, carrying its crew easily across the infinite emptiness of space. Zoe stood on a catwalk, listening to the comforting, consistent rhythms of the ship. She was nowhere near as attuned to them as Kaylee was, but years of trusting the contraption to keep her alive and aloft had forged a kinship of sorts between the ship and its first mate. Zoe was learning Serenity’s language, and the muffled clunks and metallic purrs made more sense to her now than the careful inflections of proper human speech.
“Quite the welcome for our newest resident, wasn’t it.” Mal had come to stand behind her, his footsteps just another part of the everyday symphony of the ship.
“A welcome indeed.” Zoe responded without turning to face him. “Have to say, sir – not too sure why you chose this particular tenant. I know, she’ll be a diplomatic advantage and all, since Companions are far more respectable than the likes of us.” She finally turned. “But she don’t belong out here, sir. This ain’t her world, and we ain’t her people.”
“We all get some kinda choice in our worlds, Zoe. We chose Serenity, and we chose our people. I ain’t gonna stop her from doin’ the same.” Captain and first mate regarded each other quietly. “Reckon we’re all a bit more than we give ourselves credit for.”
Mal and Zoe stood in companionable silence for a few moments more, until Mal continued down the corridor, both of them recognizing that words couldn’t do much more to still Zoe’s sense of unease.
Zoe meant to go back to her bunk, to sleep in her bed with her husband, a place as familiar as any could be. Instead, she found herself in a hall on the upper level, not far from the photon reaction drive that had caused all the trouble a few hours before. She paced the passageways in silence, but she was shaken from her thoughts by giddy laughter. Taking a few more steps, she arrived at the doorway to the shuttle – Inara’s shuttle – and paused.
Inside, Kaylee’s face was alight with glee as Inara draped a rich silk scarf around her shoulders. She twirled, hardly able to take her eyes off her reflection in the mirror. The glowing candlelight bounced off the jewel tones of the scarf, softening the young mechanic’s edges and erasing the traces of grease that usually showed on her skin. Inara beamed from behind her, clearly delighting in Kaylee’s joy.
Zoe couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen anything quite as beautiful. She wasn’t used to beauty for its own sake anymore, not in this world.
Inara caught her gaze in the mirror and smiled shyly, invitingly. Zoe only hesitated for a moment before crossing the threshold. Kaylee spun, surprise flitting briefly across her features before she scooped another scarf from the bed and wrapped it around Zoe. All three women broke into laughter as Zoe mimicked Kaylee’s twirling, holding the scarf out behind herself like a cape.
A few dizzy moments later, Zoe rocked to a halt, still grinning, and considered her reflection. Not too bad, she decided. Maybe there was room for some elegance in this beat-up old bucket of a ship.