"You might say as how I've always been a rebel, Sir," Zoë said quietly, staring out the bridge windows into the starry night.
Mal started a little, feet dropping from the console he'd propped them on to clank against the deckplates. He and his first mate had been sharing the late watch together-- an old habit, formed years before when they'd been sergeant and corporal in the War, took up again since they'd lost Wash to the Reavers. They hadn't actually rubbed two words together since they'd walked up after supper, no more than was needful for the setting of the course; the words had caught him a bit by surprise. The content, however, was no more than he would have expected.
"Really? I hadn't noticed," he murmured, tone as wry as his expression.
She shot a sharp, no nonsense look in his direction, having none of it. "Always," she repeated, slowly. "Long before I ever went by the name of Zoë Alleyne."
A frown knit Mal's brow; he'd known her more'n a decade, since he'd joined the Independents, and she'd been with the army several years before that. Since she was just a slip of a girl; and he'd never heard tell of her wearing another moniker, not until she'd wed their late lamented pilot.
Then again-- their newest passenger had called her Jasmine, first time he'd laid eyes on her. And he was a man as hadn't drawn breath outside a cryocoffin in five hundred years, give or take a decade, according to the doctor.
"This about that name what River's new friend called you by this afternoon?" he asked.
Man had called Jayne by the name of Hamilton, too-- untrue, but not surprising, as the latter'd tried to kill Mal once and he'd likewise been discombobulated by the resemblance. But Mr. Charles Gunn had referred to Mal as Caleb as well, a name that he'd never so much as used as an alias, nor heard tell of, and Zoë'd told the man straight out as weren't true. Solely on the strength of that, Mal would have assumed Gunn was imagining things, giving her that flowery name as didn't fit her, neither.
Apart from the fact that she hadn't denied it. And she'd known an awful lot about the folk of the Wolf, Ram and Hart as hadn't even featured in Mal's Ma's fairy tales. He trusted Zoë Washburne. But he didn't know a damn thing about the woman whose likeness had sparked such terror in Gunn's eyes.
Zoë turned back to the windows, expression shuttered close by his question. "That wasn't my original name, either," she said, words dropping like anvils from her mouth.
Mal sucked in a breath, worrying that over, and reminded himself as how she'd stuck with him through some fair unpleasant revelations of his own. Only seemed right to extend her the same benefit he'd been so doubtful of deserving. "Ready to tell that story, then? Thought it would take a mite longer."
Her smile widened a little, though it was still sharp enough to cut. "No time like the present."
"Ain't that the truth," he snorted. Only way to live, ghosts like they all carried.
She stood up out of the co-pilot's seat then, stepping out into the aisle between consoles, and turned her face back to the Black. "You grew up hearing the stories, you said," she began, elliptically.
Mal frowned, watching her profile as she searched the stars for something he didn't yet comprehend. "Yeah. Bunch of fairy tale nonsense, or so I always thought: same stories mothers been tellin' their children for generations on the border planets, aimin' to keep 'em from doing things as they shouldn't."
"And how do you feel about them now?" she asked carefully, still avoiding his eyes.
He blew out a breath, measuring his words with care. "I wish I could say I still believed it was all a bunch of fèihuà," he admitted. "Scares me more than a bit to think there might be some truth in all them stories of scary monsters. But as you said-- Reavers were stories once, too. And some of the things I saw during the war...." He trailed off, shuddering as memory overtook him. "More'n once it was I wrapped my hand around that cross in my bedroll, tellin' myself it was only imagination."
She reached up, crossing her arms and rubbing her hands over her biceps as if she'd taken a sudden chill. "Weren't," she said, curtly.
Mal closed his eyes, resting a hand over his breastbone where that necklace had lain all during his fighting years, for a moment cast back to the trenches. Waiting for relief that never showed, or catching glimpses of strange shapes moving on the fringes of battle. Scavengers, he'd told himself more'n once, given dreadful likeness by his edgy nerves; still and all, he supposed he hadn't been far wrong. A lot of blood had been spilled in that civil war as it raged over half of civilized space; not a surprise that predators had been drawn to its leavings. He just hadn't recognized which sort.
"Well now, that's going to do wonders for my nightmares," he commented dryly. "S'pose I'll take your word for it, though. 'Specially after what happened with that húndàn Hamilton. And what we seen on that transpo we found Gunn on. Only ever heard tell of the like in those self-same stories: men what gave their souls away for power, and turned themselves into something inhuman. Always thought that was a metaphor, before."
Zoë nodded slowly, dark eyes troubled. "Funny thing is, it works the other way, too," she said.
Well now. Mal sat back a bit at that, tilting his head at her. "I'm thinkin' I might maybe need a few more details, there," he replied.
"You sure about that, sir?" She arched her brows at him, tone low and serious and undercut by a hollowness that seemed near as vast as the void outside.
No; he wasn't. But that wasn't what she needed to hear. "Asked if you were still my Zoë, earlier. You said you was. I believe you. But it seems you've a need to talk to someone about this. And I may be no Wash, nor Shepherd Book-- but I've always been your'n, too. I can't say as I don't feel a little left out you hadn't already told me."
She shook her head at that, expression grim. "Never told Wash. Never wanted to see the look on his face. He made me feel joy, and that was something I hadn't had in-- I can't say how long. Didn't want to risk spoiling it. And as for the Shepherd...." She drew in a deep breath and let it out. "I'd be more like to tell Inara, if I had any use for confession. Leastwise I can be certain where her loyalties lie."
Mal rubbed a hand over his mouth, stomach churning uneasily. "And me?"
Zoë smiled back, chill as midwinter on St. Albans. "Didn't think you'd understand either, before the Valley. Nor would want to." She lifted a hand in echo of his motion earlier, resting her fingers over the expanse of skin between the open collar of her shirt and her marriage necklace. "No one ever does, not until they've seen for themselves. Then I went off to the Dust Devils-- and the week I found you again, there was Wash. I figured we both deserved the chance to leave our pasts behind us."
"But now?" He coaxed her to continue.
She shrugged. "Now? No point keeping it silent. You already know enough, might as well fill in the rest. And I think...." She eyed him, eyes tracing over his features, lingering on the cut of his hair, the hinge of his jaw, the shadowed hollows of his eyes in the dim light. "Call it hope."
Mal had not the least, tiniest idea what she meant by that, but he wasn't about to admit it and risk her clamming up again. "Details, then," he decided.
She nodded. "There's a story. You've heard the one about the Girl Who Shut the Mouth of Hell?"
He narrowed his eyes, thinking back to those childhood tales again. He'd heard that one most often from sources other than his mother; but yeah, he knew it. "That's the one where the warrior priestess finds herself fighting an enemy too strong to destroy on her own? So she prays for help, and two folk come to her, offering her an answer. Those Who Watch, who promise to make her stronger at the expense of her identity-- and Those Who Wait, who present her a magic weapon any of her sisters could also pick up, should she fall."
The corner of Zoë's mouth curled up bleak amusement, and he took that as a sign that he was on the right track. "Will always said as how it was an allegory, meant to teach us to rely on one another, not take all the world on our own shoulders no matter the price. Though I'm guessin', from your bringing it up now, that's not so much the actual message."
The smile widened a little, nearly reaching her eyes. "No; not so much. Though even if it were-- you should apologize to Will. Didn't exactly take the lesson to heart, did you?"
Mal winced, not meaning to bring the conversation to a halt-- but he couldn't help but remember what had happened to Shadow, his mother, the forty hands who'd helped to raise him, and all their neighbors, when the Alliance troops set off the grass fires that razed their community to the ground. "Had reason," he managed, words clipped by old pain.
She sighed, expression going grim again as she turned back to the forward windows. "It's a rare being that can. I most certainly didn't."
"And?" He wondered at the phrasing.
"And, if you know the story, you remember the differences between Those Who Watch and Those Who Wait?" she prompted back.
Mal shrugged. "The one's a bunch of old men as served some kind of all-powerful scale-balancers, and t'other's a bunch of old women who wanted the best for the girls of their order. I was always taught that part was, y'know, illustratin' the tension between the good of the community and the good of the individual." His mouth turned down at that: most of the folk as had taken up arms against the Alliance had paid the last full measure of their devotion expressing their opinion on that subject.
Zoë gave him a wry look. "Careful, Cap'n, your education is showing," she drawled, breaking the tension. Then she shook her head, before he could come up with a suitably deflecting reply, and continued. "I suppose there was some of that to it. But mostly, it was a pissing match between some of those scale-balancers... not that they were all committed to balance, and not that they were all-powerful, you understand... and those as thought human beings should plow their own furrows, come what may."
He stared at her a long minute, opening his mouth to reply, then closing it again as he worked through the implications. "You talk like you was there," he finally settled on, watching her warily. "Those women, all the stories agree they was old, but...."
She snorted. "No, I wasn't one of Those Who Wait. Close, though. I was one of the Higher Beings they tried to defy. And they were right to do so."
Mal's jaw dropped. Whatever he'd been half-expecting to hear, it wasn't that. "Cái bù shì. When you say 'Higher Being'...."
Zoë's amusement ebbed again, and she let out a sigh, crossing her arms over her vest. "I know another story. One that starts like this...."
Her voice fell into the rising and falling, measured cadence of a storyteller as she continued. "In the beginning, before the time of man, great beings walked the earth. Untold power emanated from all quarters-- the seeds of what would come to be known as good and evil. But the shadows stretched and became darkness, and the malevolent among us grew stronger. The earth became a demon realm. Those of us who had the will to resist left, but we remained ever-watchful."
He twitched at the half-reference to Those Who Watch, remembering what became of them in the Girl's story, and held his breath as she went on. Not wanting to believe. But not quite daring not to. It was Zoë telling him the story-- and he knew her better than he knew his own self. She was more remote than he'd ever seen her-- even after Wash's death, or in the midst of the war-- but nothing about her posture said she was telling him a lie.
"But then something new emerged from deep inside the earth-- neither demon, nor God. Man. And it seemed, for a time, that through this new race a balance might be restored. But we failed them. We became little more than observers. And so many atrocities were done in our names-- I could no longer bear to just watch all the suffering. I had to find a way back. But, first I needed a miracle. And so I arranged one. Took a lot of doing, though-- and even with all my planning, I failed to account for some of the variables."
When the silence lengthened, Mal swallowed and cleared his throat. He'd spent most of his younger years a believing man, but he'd long since decided there was nobody up there watching the sparrows fall. It strained his credulity to hear Zoë suggest otherwise. The idea she'd gone crazier than River somehow was looking more and more likely, little as he wanted to consider it.
"Variables?" he asked, warily.
"One in particular," she said, coming back to herself a little as she gave him another faint smile. "It was the soul tripped me up, in the end. At first, it didn't much matter to me if I were killing thousands to save billions; I was there to make the best of all possible worlds, without borders, hunger, or misery. And the only definition of love I believed in was sacrifice-- the good of the many, as you said, at the expense of the one. I brought everyone to me, made them part of me; and for a time, it was glorious."
He couldn't repress his shudder at that. Sounded like she'd tried to be all of the Alliance in her own person. He just couldn't reconcile that with the woman he knew. "If you was really all that... then why ain't we all livin' in that utopia right now?" he had to ask.
"Because of folk like you," she said, simply. "Those as believed it was every human's right to choose. Who believed there were such things as absolute right and wrong. I arranged my birth into that world because none of the other Powers gave a solitary damn about it, and I wanted to save it. But I didn't understand the people I was trying to save; what they valued. What it really meant to be one of them. And when I was stopped...."
She trailed off, then shook her head and stared down at her booted feet, shoulders bowed as if by a heavy weight. "I discovered I'd outsmarted myself in more ways than one. Born of human parents-- I had a human soul, too. And I faced the same justice meted out to many another human soul who'd been tainted by arcane power."
"And what might that be?" he asked softly. Starting to understand. He still remembered the look on the Operative's face when he'd discovered the cost of his 'better worlds'; he heard all too much of that in what Zoë was telling him.
"Why, to be reborn again and again until I did understand," she said, bleakly. "Until the last of the taint is gone. Only having been what I was, I've never been able to forget my past, no matter how many lives I live. I was starting to think I might never reach an end-- that I'd be doomed to watch humanity fail to find peace, over and over, while I fought to defend those I'd have devoured in the days of my divinity."
She let the silence hang for a moment, then tilted her head toward him. "I'd given up on ever being aught but alone in it before I saw you again."
"Shén me?" he blurted, his brain still stuttering over that casual mention of divinity.
Then the early part of the conversation caught back up with him, and he damn near choked on his own tongue. "Caleb," he hissed. "But you said...."
She quirked a knowing smile. "And so you aren't. Now. Won't say I wasn't reminded a time or two, though. The dark lieutenant in that story of the Girl? Man started out a powerful believer in the One and True, and when life played him false, he took up the service of another Power as didn't toe the party line. Decided all women were whores, to blame for all the evils of the world, and went on a crusade that took him to the Mouth of Hell as the mouthpiece of its patron."
Mal thought back to that old story, and made a few more sudden, alarming connections as he hadn't recognized at the time. Crusade was an ugly word for his determined pursuit of the truth behind the Reavers, but he supposed it applied. And that weren't all. "You watched me like a hawk, that day I took off my cross. Thought were you afraid I'd do myself a harm, not...." He shook his head abruptly. "And you went over so cold when Saffron first came aboard, suspectin' the worst of me without cause." Not to mention some of the things he'd said to Inara, when they'd been fighting.
To believe, or not to believe? It seemed preposterous. But why should she tell such a farrago of lies?
"Not without cause-- if you were Caleb," she said, firmly. "But you're not. You're a good man, Malcolm Reynolds."
He spluttered with embarrassment, then got up from the pilot's seat, shaking his head. He still didn't pretend to fully believe what-all she'd said-- them, figures out of legend-- but he couldn't deny her, and he could read the defensive bracing of her posture as if it were written on her skin.
Well. He was the man who'd dared face down River in that very room to tell her she was a person, actual and whole-- and aī yā, if he didn't understand now what Hamilton had meant about saving girls instead of killing 'em-- and he'd do no less for the sister of his heart. Or should he say soul-- and didn't that concept set his gut all a-quiver?
Believe in something, Book had told him, laying bloody hands alongside his face. Well. Seemed that he'd found that belief, between River and Zoë. And he surely knew which one needed him more.
"And you think 'cause I don't remember it same as you do, that makes us any different?" he said quietly, reaching out and taking one of Zoë's hands in his. It was warm, slightly smaller than his paws but worn with all the same calluses; darker to the eye, mayhap, but only in superficials, not deep down where it mattered. He'd swear to it.
"Even if, let's say I believe you-- and I'm not saying as I don't," he added as her expression tightened, "though you have to admit it's some mighty fantastical storytellin'-- seems to me you've made your choice. You're no more Jasmine than I am the Harbinger of the story. And you've always believed in me. So I'll have no more of this lookin' at me like I'm about to put you off our boat."
He swallowed, taking her other hand, and looked back up into her face. "Was a thing I said two years ago: and I'll say it again now. We may've arrived in this life for different reasons, but we've come to the same place. And that's all that matters. No time like the present, remember?"
"I remember," she said, giving him a look still jagged round the edges with echoes of pain.
He cleared his throat and floundered for reassurance. "Don't make me repeat the first rule of flying."
She squeezed his hands back, as wordless as he.
Reincarnation. Higher beings. He still didn't quite know what to make of it-- but he'd meant what he said, too. "You still with me, Zoë?" he pressed, needing to hear it.
She let go his hands, briefly pressing her fingers against the spot where the Operative's sword had pierced him through, and gave him a crooked smile. "Dāng rán."
Even if it were all made up, that was all that truly mattered in the end.