"Dammit Jayne, I'm gonna…"
"I'm trying Mal, but there's more gorram doors."
"You saying a door is stopping you?" Even panting over a comm headset, Mal's voice had a steel edge.
"No, but they are slowing me down. " With a wrench he cleared enough space to squeeze his shoulders through and wouldn't you know it, another damn wooden door. It was like a maze. He didn't have time to take an easy route and besides, bulling straight through them was kind of fun. Be more fun with Zoe and the kid behind him and not stuck somewhere ahead, but a guy learns to take his fun where he can, he thought..
He put his shoulder to the next one and it was the last one. He threw himself into the breech to see not a fight, but River staring wide-eyed at Zoe who knelt, wiping her blades and the shirt of some lubber who'd landed face down at her feet. "Aww, you finished without me."
Zoe didn't even look at him, just stepped out the hole he'd made and turned right to follow the passageway. He shook splinters out of his hair and held a swinging plank to the side for River. He glanced around before pressing the headset and saying, "Mal, we might have a problem finding a buyer. Zhang ain't gonna want to deal with us after this."
"After this, I don't want to deal with Zhang. Come back home, all of you."
Jayne looked around. Thirteen bodies cooled on the floor; one was still twitching. Baker's dozen, his mom used to call thirteen. He'd seen a baker's sign on the way to the warehouse district. He jogged after River, "Hey, do you think we could pick up some yuek beng on the way home?"
"Has Zoe talked to you? "
Mal jabbed the stylus at the screen. "''Bout what?"
"Captain, she has to talk to someone."
"About what? About this afternoon? She and River both walked away, what's there to talk about?"
"She's…" Kaylee waved fruitlessly. "She's just…"
"Zoe knows her business. Weren't nothing happened today she can't deal with."
"It's not today I'm worried about. Well, it is, but it's not."
"Kaylee, you come talk to me when you've figured out what you want to say, dong ma?"
She spun on her heel and stormed away with a frustrated grunt and indistinct mutinous mutterings.
"I'm back," Jayne announced.
"I know; I heard you crashing through the underbrush."
"Aw, Mal, there ain't nothing but rocks out there and you know it."
"And yet, you managed to make one hell of a lot of noise. Scoot over some Kaylee, there's room on that log for me." Mal settled in beside her. "Jayne, what'd you find?"
"A whole lotta nothing. Good light though. That second moon makes a difference."
"Laws of physics agree with you."
"I think it's downright romantic," Kaylee said.
Jayne laughed. "You're getting laid regular-like, girl. Everything's romantic."
"No seriously, hey!"
"You get bit?" Mal stood hastily and looked around on the ground.
"The last three planets we've been at, we've had night meets." She grinned.
Jayne and Mal looked at each other, then turned back to her. Mal gestured, "You meandering to a point any time soon, Kaylee?"
"There's been a full moon each time."
"Like I said, she's getting laid. Everything's…."
"No, Jayne, seriously. It's like time has stood still. We've slid off the calendar or something. Standing still in time."
"And yet our accounts keep moving downward," Mal said.
"It is romantic," Kaylee insisted.
"Only for those of us with someone to be romantic with," Jayne said.
"You've got Vera."
"Oh come on, Mal, you know I don't think of Vera that way."
"Could have fooled me. Time's passing; we'd best be heaving boxes."
Kaylee watched them disappear into Serenity's hold and turned her face to the moons above, letting them dazzle her eyes. A ringing peal of metal hitting metal followed by a stream of syllables that didn't really make words floated out of the ship, and Kaylee smiled and looked around the clearing, more than a little surprised to see Zoe at the very edge of her vision, a tall silhouette against the gravel, shadow on shadow, like somehow the moonlight faded before it got all the way to her.
Kaylee grabbed at his sleeve and he danced out of range of the grease on her hands. "Captain, we need to talk about Zoe."
"Ain't nothing wrong with Zoe."
"Don't make me repeat myself."
Kaylee pursed her lips but held her tongue.
Simon slid his toe into the door frame, keeping it from closing. "Zoe, I…"
"I said I didn't need your aid, Simon."
"More precisely, you said you wouldn't come to the infirmary. So I've brought my equipment to you."
Undaunted by her glare, he laid the pads and weave kit out on her precisely made bed. She shrugged and started stripping out of her clothing.
He spun to face away from her. "I am a trained doctor, you know. You can't shock me with simple nudity."
"Which is why you are blushing."
Resolutely, he fixed his smile into the genial mask that his mentor had used and rotated to face her, only to find that she'd turned away from him, nude from her waistband up, rummaging through an overfull wardrobe. Wash's shirts seemed to shine, picking out soft highlights in Zoe's hair. More than half the space was taken with florals and garish patterns and Zoe riffled through them with practiced ease before pulling a robe free and slipping it on. She faced his distracted gaze and closed the hatch firmly, before sitting next to his spill of supplies and baring her shoulder and neck to him.
"This may sting." The first antiseptic pad came away grey and brown and he peeled another. "You know," he started gently, "there are phases of grief, like seasons or …"
"I'm not really that upset about a scratch over my arm. Or a torn shirt."
"Zoe, I'm trying to… " He glanced at the closet again, then spoke to her wound. "When will you …"
"I doubt his shirts will fit you, but I'll keep you in mind when I do." She snatched the weave from his hand and slapped it awkwardly over her shoulder, leaving him with nothing to do but gather his tools and leave in silence.
River entered and Zoe stood to give her the second chair. Mal, as always, was in primary and River, as always, crossed over to give the T. Rex a pat before settling in. Neither watched Zoe leave; both were very conscious of it.
"How long before she comes back?" River asked.
"Dunno, little sister. She's never been gone before."
Mal found her in the mess, sitting alone at the table, her hands wrapped around a cup of tea gone cold and stale. "Mind if I join you?" he asked, but she didn't answer. Near as he could tell, and he'd double-checked with every person on the gorram ship when he'd realized it, so he was pretty damn sure, she'd not said a word to anyone in five days.
He waited, watched her sit and stare into the cup and considered trying to outwait her for all of two seconds before admitting the impossibility of that.
"Dammit Zoe," Mal slapped the table with an open palm. "You are stronger than this. You are…" He bit his tongue and gentled his voice. "Look, I don't pretend to know what you are thinking, but I know this. You survive. The sun rises and the moon sets and you get past this, you…what?" She'd looked up and was giving him the look she usually reserved for his more adventurous escapades. He'd come to associate that look with dodging and apologies. "What?"
In a rusty whisper, she said, "You named her after the valley, sir. You've been living in Serenity for years."
Mal's hands clenched empty air, near the butt of a gun he wasn't wearing. Zoe turned back to her cold tea and he walked away without looking back.
It was clearly some unwritten law of the universe that Jayne wasn't where you wanted him to be and was where you didn't. He was leaning against the hatch to the bridge and from the set of his shoulders was willing to wait for a while longer. Mal sighed, "You looking for me?"
"Yep, I saw you with … um … Mal, what are we gonna do about Zoe?"
"Nothing," Mal said and he brushed past Jayne none too gently to fall into the pilot's seat. There was, admittedly, a fine line between Jayne looking stupid and Jayne looking confused, but there it was on his face. Mal thought about saying something witty and cutting and decided that the way this day had gone, he'd just screw it up and managing to miss a target big as Jayne could do irreparable harm to a man's sense of humor. So he was serious instead. "Jayne, ain't a one of us dove through this and come out the other side," and that was as close as he was ever going to come to thinking about the right hook Zoe had landed, "I don't know that there's anything any of us can do."
Jayne nodded slowly, working his way through that piece of education and moseyed, leaving Mal facing the window, his hands floating uselessly over the autopilot steering his ship. He glared at the toy balanced on the deck. The dinosaur serenely ignored him.
Jayne leaned toward Zoe with unhurried caution. He'd learned long ago to be careful around her, and she was none too cheerful about an accidental jostle these days. He leaned on the crate, keeping her from pulling the next set of packs, and said, "I hear tell that crying helps."
She kept her hands very still on the brown plastic. "If I find out, I'll let you know."
He leaned back to let her pull the set and nodded, "All right then," to her back.
They got half the cargo shifted before he tried again. "You wanna eat?"
"No, thank you."
"You wanna spot me?"
"You wanna lift? I could…" He looked up and she was staring at him and suddenly he remembered that he wasn't the best shot on this ship. He blinked and got the next two boxes moved and settled before he realized that she'd left the hold. Should have kept his damn mouth shut, he thought. Now he'd have to do the rest by his lonesome.
"Simon, you need to fix her." River clapped her hands twice for emphasis.
There was no hesitation in who River was referring to, but Simon shook his head. "I couldn't fix you. Neither could Mal. You fixed you. She has to fix herself."
"What if she can't?"
"Mal won't abandon her." That statement led to dangerous territory, things they didn't discuss with anyone, not even one another.
River kicked herself up onto the counter and drummed her heels noisily. "We're here 'til morning, right?"
"Yes, but ... I really don't think you should wander off alone."
"Silly, I won't be alone. If she won't come with me, I won't go." She reached over and flicked his forehead, right between his eyebrows where the crease usually formed.
"I'm sorry, I'm not used to your being …"
"It hasn't been that long, not really."
"It's been long enough."
"We'll be safe as houses. There's a full moon tonight. Well, one is and the other two are close enough to make no never mind. We'll have plenty of light."
"Mei mei, I … Just … be careful."
"It's okay. I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing. That usually works." She waved cheerily and clattered down the hall.
Zoe stood at the big table and said, "I think I've forgotten how to be a soldier, sir. Or I've forgotten how not to. I can't …I can't separate them any more, and the red badges on the dock workers started oozing, started leaking blood and I looked up at River and she was watching me with Kaylee's eyes, and… ."
She traced a scratch in the wood seeing instead a hundred plates that had lain there, dozens of stolen security schematics, weapons laid out for cleaning, even the fire on Simon's birthday. "I don't know how to do this, Sergeant. I don't remember how."
She leaned on the table, pressing into the solidity of it, then rolled her shoulders and left the empty room.
River sat cross-legged on the grating, blocking Zoe's quarters.
She thought about the things she knew, that Zoe wasn't eating much, wasn't sleeping much, wasn't talking much. She knew that there was no medicine in the world, no exercise that would help and if the quarts of blood that Zoe'd left on the floor of Zhang's warehouse hadn't done it, no amount would. She came to a conclusion just as Zoe stepped up to shadow her. River looked up from knee height and said, "I have no idea of how to help you."
River continued. "Let's go for a walk." She stood with unnatural grace and held her hand out until Zoe took it and they walked into the night.
Neither spoke. They breathed; they walked. At one point, the gravel underfoot shifted and Zoe stumbled but recovered her footing before River could reach out to catch her. River silently counted out the paces of the perimeter as they circled it, hand in hand, always within sight of the ship. The full moon shone on them, making River's hair seem black and Zoe's shine red. They didn't talk about Wash or the Academy, the war years ago or Miranda last month. Minutes faded into hours as they circled the perimeter, orbited the ship. They walked. When Zoe spoke, River wasn't sure if she heard the whisper or imagined it. "River, I think I'm ready to go home."
River escorted Zoe to her door, an incongruous beau in red skirt and boots. Zoe entered, silent once more, and slept.
Mal was standing at the counter, eating with his fingers from a can, when Zoe slid a databoard over the surface to him.
"I set a route that'll give us a day at Eretas and give us room to get to Phaeton in time."
He blinked at the board, seeing numbers and a graph and her hand, tapping the stylus, waiting for something. Probably something he had to do. He wondered what it was. "Pardon me for being slow, but in time for what?"
"Of course, yes, thank you." Mal leaned over the counter to watch her walk away before setting down his can and leaning into the comm, "River?"
"I've decided to be Serenity again for the day."
Mal whispered to his shirtfront, "Because one half-sane woman on this ship ain't enough," then spoke into the comm again, "Fine, Serenity, please pull up the meteorological file for Phaeton for twelve days from today."
"I note Serenity's a hell of a lot better with titles than River is. I'm looking for the phase of the moon."
"Just starting to wane, captain."