Zoe has a ring she never wears, at least not on her finger. For a little while, a sliver of time between her mother’s death and the start of the war, she wore it on a thin rawhide cord around her neck, for all to see. She liked the way it looked against her dark skin. It was her one adornment, apart from the long black curls she’d always been a little vain about.
People tried to steal it. One light-fingered young woman even managed to slice the cord from Zoe’s neck and ride off with it. Zoe followed her on horseback for a good forty minutes before finally catching up with her in a bar and demanding the return of her ring. It cost her some skin, but she got it back. Really, the hardest part was getting into the bar; she was only thirteen then, and looked it.
Now she keeps the ring against her lower ribs, painstakingly sewn into the lining of her vest. It’s a secret pocket that not even Mal knows about.
(Wash knows, but it took her a long time to tell him. And an even longer time to show him.)
The ring is gold - real gold, according to her mother, not some synthetic. It’s ancient too. Zoe’s mother got it from her mother, who got it from her mother, who got it from her mother, and so on back. Past history, into legend.
(When she was younger, Zoe thought the ring might have come from Earth-that-was. Now she doesn’t know. How can a thing be that old?)
There’s an inscription on the ring. Zoe doesn’t know the language, or even what the language is called. According to her mother, it says I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. That’s certainly pretty, and she wants to believe that’s really what it says, but she has no way of knowing for sure. For all she knows, the inscription might actually say Souvenir of Bellerophon or something.
(It’s Wash’s opinion that Zoe’s mother was telling the truth. Wash is a romantic. Zoe isn’t, but she’s found she doesn’t mind being romanced. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.)
Mal has seen Zoe’s ring, though he only remarked on it once. They were huddled by a cook fire, not long before the Battle of Serenity Valley. Zoe shook out her hair and the ring caught the light. Around a mouthful of undercooked rice, Mal said, “Shiny.”
“Yes, sir,” Zoe replied.
“It got a story?”
He grinned at her. In the firelight, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes seemed deep, like claw marks.
Zoe didn’t smile back.
She stopped wearing the ring at her throat around about the time Mal tossed away his crucifix. It wasn’t solidarity exactly, though if he wants to believe that, if it helps for him to believe that, it’s fine, he can. But Mal’s cross represented something big, maybe too big to be sustainable. A bargain with the ‘verse. A promise of justice and fairness.
Zoe’s ring represents something more personal. It’s the only thing she has from her mother, apart from her cheekbones and her skill with a rifle. If it’s a promise, then it’s a promise to something inside her, very old and buried deep.
So she keeps it close against her, not quite over her heart (the heart’s an easy target) but near enough.