There is an ebb and flow. A call and response. She wakes up one morning to breath against the back of her neck; she falls asleep next to an untouched pillow.
There are ghosts.
Two appear more than others, waving as they pass her in the hallways. Always smiling, always bright. They shimmer in the dark, muted glow of Serenity's hallways, drinking up the shadows.
Ghosts of soldiers and ghosts of friends and family. Graydon, Bendes, Tracey. Even Inara leaves a whisper, a trace of perfume and incense unique to her skin, her clothes. Kaylee haunts the upper deck, her eyes flickering back and forth between the shuttles.
'Don't seem right,' she murmurs to the doctor. 'Havin' so much empty space.'
When the apparitions are still, their names float by.
Mal finds a new pilot. A thin woman with long, jet-black hair. She lasts two weeks before there's another pilot, and then another, and then another. The cycle is like a pleasant hum beneath the grating - rotating, searching, keeping her balanced, always moving, always changing. The last one stays four days.
'What was wrong with that one, Sir?'
Mal slides her half a glance; a pause lingers.
'Pushy,' he says finally. 'Too pushy on the gears. Was rufflin' up my mechanic.'
Kaylee starts to protest, but Simon grabs her arm.
Zoe takes a breath. 'We need a replacement, Sir,' she says stoically. But Mal just shakes his head. 'Ain't no such thing,' he says, too softly, and she walks away.
While she lies awake at night, she has visions of children - blonde girls with freckles and dark haired boys with bright blue eyes. Born with a teasing smile, with deft fingers and a love of the open air. A love of laughter and cartoons dinosaurs. She keeps them unnamed, a vain attempt at distance between the midnight hours and whatmighthavebeens.
Her hand goes to her gun and her finger pulls the trigger and the bullet leaves the barrel and it's over.
Next mission, Sir, she says. The Captain stares at her retreating form, and waits for recognition.
Ebb and flow.
Call and response.
A neat and pithy fall from grace.
River flies the boat.
One job. Two. Three. Four.
She doesn't slip. Doesn't break. They all wait for it. Hold the air in their lungs and wait. Inara brings tea and Kaylee tries to smile and Mal just stares at her a few seconds too long.
Days meld. Time extends. They wait. And wait. And wait.
It's supposed to be simple:
Get in, get out, get paid.
Trapped in a room with a dozen people and twice as many flames, she begins to wonder if maybe there might be something other than this life.
'Zoe. Can you hear us? Can she hear us? Why ain't she movin'?'
'Give her a minute, Cap'm. She's tryin'.'
'She better try harder; we ain't got time to laze around like kings. There's work to be done. You hear that, Zoe? Got us some work.'
There's a desperate edge to his voice, and a hand gripping hers.
Ten of twelve sleep on cots in the cargo-hold, clutching to their chests the barest remains of before - old coats, frayed dresses, a jewelry box, coins, a ragged, ash-smeared doll.
When she's back on her feet and making rounds, they thank her for their lives.
Ten out of twelve.
Seven out of nine.
Two by two, hands of blue, she thinks. It doesn't seem so distant anymore.
The mother dies.
A young woman with dirty skin and dark brown hair and a wound in her side Simon declared 'only a matter of time.' She leaves quietly, gently - an exhale on a smile.
(Zoe closes her eyes and sees red and black and white and over. No time for goodbyes.)
When she opens them, blue eyes stare back. Blink.
Kaylee blinks away a tear before it falls. 'What're we gonna do with her, Cap'm?' She reaches out and brushes her hand across the baby's forehead. 'She's so small.'
'Maybe one of these fine folks can take her.'
'Take her where? They ain't got nothing more than she does.'
Mal shifts, and she knows he's resisting the urge to touch, to comfort. He doesn't do that - can't. Push and pull. Ebb and flow. 'We'll figure somethin' out when we get to Persephone. Gotta be some good folk there who-'
'We're keepin' her.'
Simon drops a tray. Kaylee's eyes grow wide. Jayne trips over nothing and Mal just stares.
'Say what now?'
She doesn't know where it comes from, doesn't know why. 'We'll keep her, Sir. On Serenity.'
'No ruttin' way,' Jayne starts.
‘Zoe-’ Mal starts, almost soft-like. He shakes his head; changes his mind. 'I won't have babies on my boat.'
Jayne slides a look at Simon. 'Think we already do.'
Simon glares and Kaylee slaps Jayne's arm and Zoe stands thoughtful and silent: 'Then I guess you won't have me, either, Sir.'
'Give me one good reason why this isn't a fay-fay duh pee-yen of an idea.'
She waits. Watches from above while eight of twelve gather their belongings and slowly depart. One by one. Two by two.
Seven out of nine.
When she closes her eyes, she sees his smile. When she opens them, there's an empty pillow.
'Ten years from now, she'll be able to lie, cheat and steal better than you can, Sir. And she'll have a prettier face.'
Mal quirks his lips and leans forward over the railing. 'Ten years, huh? That's a mighty long investment.'
She looks down at the bundle - burden, gift, penance, albatross, future, hope - lying in her arms. 'Worth it, Sir.'
Eight out of nine.