Zoe was eleven the first time she asked her older sister why daddy was building a shed out back. He'd done it every year, around the time of the grape harvest, and for three days after all the work was done, the family would eat their meals and spend their nights in the shed.
Her sister couldn't say.
"So where you from?" Mal asked her a few weeks after they met, sitting in the shade of a large rock, enjoying their first break of the day.
"A little moon called Xibolai." Zoe said, chewing on her ration of bread and something that tried to pass itself off as beef.
"One of Lakefall's moons?" Mal leaned back against the stone, sighing against the hot afternoon. "Can't ever remember all the moons that planet's got."
" No," Zoe couldn't help but smile at the comparison. "Much smaller. Circles a dead planet. Kind of on the outskirts of everything; you've probably never heard of it."
Zoe's grandma died when Zoe was twelve, but before she did she taught Zoe the basics of reading and writing. Before Zoe learned how to write her own name, her grandmother put a tablet in front of her, a fancier one than Zoe had ever seen, and told her to follow the instructions on
"This is how you write Xi," her grandmother said. "Now you try."
Zoe spent the next four hours practicing her calligraphy under her grandmother's disapproving glare. The lines never came out straight enough, refused to connect the way they should have, and the blinking diagram on the panel was beginning to drive Zoe crazy.
"What does it mean?" Zoe asked in hopes of getting a small break. "The words. Xi-bo-lai. They have to mean something, don't they?"
"Can mean a lot of things." Her grandmother sighed, thankfully content to answer Zoe's question instead of insisting on the next set of characters. "Meant different things in different times."
"That's not an answer!" Zoe threw up her hands in exasperation. Best to make it clear she was interested in the full story – the longer it takes to tell the better.
"All right, all right. Xi means hope. Always has and always will, that's all you need to know." Her grandmother gave her a knowing look. "Now back to work, it's nearly supper time."
Every year, after the grain harvest was finished, Zoe's family spent two days dressing only in white clothing. Well, they dressed in white only after the day's work was done, of course.
"It's not a holiday," Zoe's mom told her when Zoe asked why they didn't ever eat meat during those two days of white clothing. "It's just a... custom. A tradition."
"Did grandma know why?" Zoe asked setting the plates on the table.
"I don't think so," her mom said. "No one knows why anymore, I'd wager."
"Not even the old man who lives over on the Blackburn farm?"
"No, Zoe, not even him." Her mom shrugged. "Just something folks round here have always been doing."
Zoe nodded. It made sense to her, that some things you did without asking why or wondering where they came from; some things you did just because they felt right.
"Come on honey, let's not fight over this," Wash pleaded.
Zoe continued cleaning her gun calmly and dispassionately.
"I'm sorry! You know I'd never really do anything like that!" Wash said.
"Wash." Zoe's eyes met his with a clear message that she'd better be left alone in the next five minutes.
"Honey, honey!" Wash raised his hands defensively, as though he was afraid Zoe would point the gun at him next. "What about that one day, forgiveness day? Remember, you told me about it? What you used to have back where you came from?"
Zoe raised an eyebrow in annoyance.
"That one day a year when anyone could ask anyone else for forgiveness – about anything! – and forgiveness had to be granted? Remember?" Wash's face turned into a pathetic arrangement of regret that Zoe couldn't help but find… cute. "Can we have that? Can we have that just this once?" He came closer to where she sat, palms clasped together in a gesture of earnestness. "I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry. Please don't be mad."
"Today's not that day," Zoe informed him, and returned to cleaning her gun.
"Where did you say you were from again?" Book asked her after an evening meal on a particularly idle day, shortly before he left.
"Little moon, quadrant… not too far from here, actually," she said, helping him clear the dishes. "Xibolai."
"Xibolai..." He repeated to himself, then said, louder: "I'm no scholar, but…" He gave Zoe an odd look. "Was there a preacher in your community?"
Memories of her childhood always made Zoe smile, for some reason, even if they weren't particularly happy ones. "No, Sheppard. No preacher, no church, nothing like that. Folks weren't very religious where I come from."
Zoe went home after the war was over. Not right away, but eventually.
There were things she had been expecting. She knew her sister had married the Nolen boy who'd hung around their house more or less since Zoe could read and that they'd both moved away to live at a farm too far from their parents', by her mother's reckoning.
She knew her father had passed while she had been on the frontlines. Some disease had claimed him before Zoe even got word of it.
She knew her aunt and uncle had opened a hardware store in the small town Zoe remembered vividly from childhood and that the store and the town had both flourished. Xibolai was turning into quite the central planet, her mother had written.
What she wasn't expecting was burned fields, a half demolished house and no trace of her sister anywhere.
The Alliance had come passing through Xibolai – on their way to Brooksville, a few planets away. They'd stayed for only a few weeks, but wreaked havoc to last decades. The little moon was known for its ties to the Browncoats.
Most of the population survived, but damages to property were severe. Zoe's sister, along with other young couples, had fled when it became obvious trouble couldn't be avoided. The young were the first to be herded and executed by the Alliance – the likeliest to be helping the enemy.
She was only home for a brief spell – nothing she could offer Xibolai, nothing it could offer her – but her grandmother's voice echoed in her ears before she left. We got drifter's blood in us. You and me and this whole planet. Drifter's blood and land to call our own.
It hadn't made sense to Zoe, all the talk of drifter's blood, not as a child and not when she left to go to war. She reckoned she was beginning to make sense of it, looking out the window of her shuttle at her home growing smaller in the distance.
"Xibolai?" Simon frowned.
"Xi-Bo-Lai." River drew the characters on the floor of their quarters.
"River!" Simon admonished. It had been a tiring evening: River had spent most of it throwing up what little she'd been able to keep down and Jayne, of all people, had come down with the flu and had spent the day redefining Simon's notions of Worst Patient Ever. So, if River decided to deface Serenity's floors, Simon was content to register only a token protest.
River smiled up at him. "You know what it means, don't you?"
"I don't, actually." Simon considered. "It's a very old word."
River stuck out her tongue at him gleefully. She could be absolutely insufferable when she managed to figure out some riddle ahead of Simon. It gave her unholy amounts of joy to watch him stumble his way through.
"You're not even going to give me a hint?"
"Hmm." River rolled around to lie on her back, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "It's Xi as in Hope," She said.
"Figuring out the characters is not the problem, mei mei." Simon sighed. "It's right on the tip of my tongue."
Zoe had heard it said many times during her lifetime. She was from a tiny place where the odds were against you more often than not; she'd fought a losing war, start to finish. People looked at her and sometimes she could practically hear the word forming behind their eyes: hopeless.
Those were the people she knew to keep out of her life.
Hope was a liquid thing, wrapped around peoples' bones tighter than muscle. It took a hell of a lot to make bones break so they never healed again; Zoe had seen it happen, and it didn't look nothing like what most folks probably imaged.
Zoe always knew where she'd come from, and what that made her, and what it didn't. That's where her hope had been born and nurtured and given instruction to hold Zoe up when her own friends and weapons and limbs weren't enough anymore.
But that hope... it was always enough.