Zoe never killed anybody who didn't have it coming. And she'd killed more than her fair share, with steady hands and few regrets. She was a soldier, after all. A damn good one.
Time was she might have regretted a lot of things. Fifth-generation Alleyne to answer the call, she could still feel echoes of the blinding burst of pride that swelled her when the General pinned her service ribbons on. First to be called traitor she was, too. It wasn't a legacy she would've asked for but there was no sense in crying about it now. She knew what she was doing when she followed Mal out of the barracks that day, adrenaline coursing through her like a current. Just like she knew what she was doing when she followed him into a life of crime and beyond.
It was only now that she was starting to feel a little lost. For years she'd been Mal's right hand, the weapon he didn't need to point, always at the ready. That was where she started and where she ended. She was the voice of reason that kept him out of the worst of his troubles and the gun at his command when nothing else would do. Even falling in love and settling down hadn't changed that much. She was the same as she always was. Just, now her allegiances were stronger than ever.
Only now there was the girl. Slender like a sword and edged just as sharp. Zoe feels the threat of her down to her bones. It's in the way River moves through the ship, dancing softly on bare feet to music only she can hear. In the look on Kaylee's face when the girl laughs too long or too loud at nothing. The way Simon's hand darts like a bee, hovering over his sister's skin until he finds a safe place to land.
It prickles the skin on the back of Zoe's neck. Is this how she looked to those who faced her down? She's never been good at pretending to be soft or delicate, even when it might have smoothed her path. There's that cold steel in her, hard and supple and fierce. It's the same thing she sees in this little lost girl, under the fragile shell of pale skin and wide eyes.
Mal doesn't see it, or won't. He talks a big game—always has—but when it comes down to the girl, his heart is too tender. He won't listen to her counsel, Zoe knows. He'll humor her, pretend to listen, but he sees cracks where Zoe sees a welder's mark, the places where the Alliance broke her down and put her back together. He hears lullabies and nursery rhymes where he should hear the beating of drums.
It's coming, Zoe knows. She knows it like she knows her own name.
But, tonight, there's going to be music and dancing and a slinky, slinky dress. For one night, Zoe is going to let her guard down. She isn't going to worry about the girl, or anything else for that matter. She's going to put her hair up the way she likes, so the long line of her neck is exposed to the air and her husband's lips. She is going to let the soldier sleep, drown her if she has to, with tall fruity drinks that burn their way down her throat and let a song carry her through the night.
There's a storm brewing out there in the black. She can feel it as sure as anything. Who'll come out on the other side is anybody's guess. But she'll fly straight and true, and let the 'verse dance around her, as it always does.
That's all anybody can do, in the end.