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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Mal & Zoe's past smashes into the present. Everyone on the crew gets an earful, especially Wash.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 6512 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
Blue Sun Job, Part 38: Shadow
"Well?" Mal asked out of the long silence. They sat side-by-side on a bench in the shade of an expansive apple tree, its limbs hanging heavy with ripened fruit. Mal's arm stretched across the back of the seat, not quite touching Zoe. The feeling of being comfortably at ease with her, though, was back in force. It was so dang peaceful sitting here with Zoe. He didn't feel no need for chatter nor fretting. At least not just this very minute. Wash was off doing whateverthehell Wash did with Serenity. Piloty stuff. Then he heard a rushing sound. The shadow of a shuttle passed overhead. Oh… docking Inara. Back from her whoring already? So the religious nuts on this world stuck with violence, thieving, and espionage and didn’t monkey with gals. ‘Cause, you know, that’d be a sin.
Shepherd Book was off either being preachery or nefarious. Or both. That whole line had blurred way the hell beyond recognition, Truth to tell, Mal preferred it that way. He liked Book well enough with the whole mysterious thing going on, but he did have to admit, having the whole dark secret thing turning out to be so very dark and so very secret and so very... purely gorram wicked, just made Mal want to up and kiss the preacher right on the mouth. And kissin' on the mouth weren't nothing Mal took lightly. Not no more.
A faint chuckle escaped Mal.
"What's funny?" Zoe asked.
"Uh... just watchin’ the kids play," Mal lied, gesturing to the game nearing them on the sloping glassy lawn. River and Kaylee played a rules-known-only-to-them game of tag around a bemused and laughing Jayne (who probably just liked watching pretty girls bounce about) and a grinning Simon who liked seeing River happy, Jayne bemused, and very likely enjoyed watching Kaylee bouncing, too. Mostly Simon like seeing a happy River, though.
Having drawn attention to the romping crew, Mal had to pay them more mind. A fine sight, it was. Good enough to have some measure of joy come that little girl's way. A little peace, however brief. They'd be into the fire again soon enough, whether they took on the preacher's secret war or not.
"Ain't you gonna ask again?" Zoe said.
"I figure you'll answer when you're good and ready," Mal answered. The 'discussion' had been going on for an hour or better between them, yet scarcely two dozen word had passed. Didn't need to talk to follow the track of Zoe's cogitations. She was chewing it over but good. Mal weren't so much. He was just waiting to see which way the wind would blow. Pondering an’ calculating wouldn't do nothing useful. He reckoned he'd make his call right exactly when he had to and it would be the call he'd make whether he fretted and fussed over it or just outright decided in an instant. And at this very minute he didn't know quite which way that answer would come out.
"Yeah," Zoe said blandly. "You're in, so I'm in."
"I ain't said I'm in," Mal said.
Zoe just shrugged. "But you are anyhow. So I am too."
"Well... fine," Mal said and so it was settled. At least for this very minute. Always a fly in the ointment. "You talkin' for your husband there, too."
This silence was less easy and smooth.
"Can't do that.," Zoe eventually said.
“And if he ain’t in?” Mal persisted. “If he says ‘no’?”
“He won’t say ‘no’ ‘cause I ain’t figuring to ask him,” Zoe said.
Mal gave her a long look which she studiously refused to meet. “Uh, huh,” he said slowly. “Sounds like a great gorram plan. Just reckon you’ll spring it on him as a surprise? Or you ‘spect me to do the asking? ‘Cause, you know, that would go just swell.”
“Not figuring neither,” Zoe said. Then she turned and looked sharply and probingly at Mal. “This has to stay between us. You can’t bring in Wash, Kaylee, nor Jayne into this. Especially not Jayne.”
“Mmm…” was all Mal said, turning away. He let out a long sigh. “Especially not Jayne,” he echoed. “Don’t gotta ask how you weigh in on that subject.”
“He’s been doin’ right fine,” Zoe said stoutly, almost defensively, almost like she had a soft spot for the big galoot. But Zoe didn’t have a whole lot of soft spots and Mal reckoned she wasn’t like to waste one of her few on Jayne. Still, she sounded to be roaming the neighborhood of fond when she said, “Gotta give him credit for the way he pitched in on the rescuing of us in this last little adventure. Almost like to trust him.”
“But,” Mal punctuated for her.
Zoe’s eyes melted into his. Nah, more like ‘burned’ into his. “But he can’t be allowed to leave Serenity.”
“Alive,” Mal finished the sentence. Mal turned back to watch the crew play on the lawn, Jayne laughing with them.
“Not since River came onboard,” Zoe said. “Then Ariel. Throw this in on top…” She trailed off with a shrug. “Can’t take the risk. He came onboard by way of treachery. If he looks to leave, well, it’s like to be by the same means. Like or not, it is the way it is.”
“So why not bring the others in on this?” Mal asked. “Most notably, your husband?”
Zoe was quiet a long time. Finally, she said, “Time will come when you’ll ask them to make a stand. Just like it was at…”
“Serenity,” Mal filled in softly. Doc’s crazy drugs out of his system or no, an army of ghosts still shimmered at the edge of his vision. They were never all that far off at the very best of times. Another thing that just was the way it was.
“…and it will be their lives you’re telling them they have to put on the line. And they will or they won’t.” She glanced at him again. “I’m betting they will. Jayne included. ‘Cause when you do that kind of askin’ it’s on account of it being the real moment—the all or nothing moment. But until then, no. Ain’t right to put the burden on ‘em. Especially when a ‘no’ answer is not an option.”
“Yeah,” was all Mal said by way of response, lapsing again into silence with Zoe. She was right. Question like this… Couldn’t risk a one of them saying ‘no’. When you lead in such a situation you just don’t ask that sort of question, don’t demand that sort of commitment, until you know with dead-on certainty what the answer will be, what the answer has to be. Zoe was right, as ever. The moment would come and he’d make ‘em choose. And when that moment came, they’d all come through. ‘Sides, it might get Kaylee all upset again if’n Jayne said ‘no’ and Mal had to kill him, cause sure enough, the one certainty was Jayne couldn’t be allowed to leave Serenity, not knowing as much as he knew, not already having betrayed them.
“Big damned secret to keep,” Mal commented, watching the girls run squealing after each other on the sloping lawn. Jayne’s laugh carried to them on the breeze. Simon threw himself down on the grass, appearing almost relaxed.
“Not like it’s the first,” Zoe answered in a way that said to Mal she meant a whole helluva lot more than the subject at hand.
“We’ll have you knowin’ and me knowin’.” Mal itemized the list, also meaning a whole helluva lot more than the subject at hand. “Lots of practice keeping secrets there,” he added dryly. Zoe tossed him an irritated sideways glance. “Book, of course, who already knows everything, and then some” Mal said. This time Zoe’s glance contained a probe of questioning. She was onto the notion Mal weren’t just talkin’ on the subject at hand. “But he’ll keep his own council. Part of the job description. And Simon. Doc, there, is pretty tight when he wants to be. Got his own gorram set of nefariouses he’s clamped down on.”
Mal shifted a bit on the bench. His arm slipped down on the back just a touch so it barely brushed Zoe’s shoulders. He didn’t move to break this mite of contact. An apple thudded to the ground. Mal watched it roll a ways down the slope. His eyes lifted. River danced in a twirl around the others, her skirt—it was blue, he noticed—billowing out. Her hair in flowing curls. It put him in mind of something… Someone…
“Can that many keep a secret?” Mal asked, still staring an River. He added very softly, “Especially from your husband?”
Zoe was staring at the kids, at River, too. From the corner of his eye, Mal could see her brow furrow in concentration. Beneath his arm he felt her shoulders tense.
“You don’t ask such a question until you’re sure of the answer,” Zoe whispered distractedly.
Mal didn’t push for more. Zoe was plumb scared that at this juncture Wash would say ‘no’ to the whole gorram silly notion, maybe push Zoe to the point where she’d have to choose Wash over Mal. He scowled. She was even more afeared of what her answer would be; how and which she’d choose. Mal let the notion thunk down inside his gut. She so very, very much weren’t the only one.
River started singing as she danced. Hints of the song drifted to them. A familiar tune. Mal squinted and listened hard, trying to catch bits of it off the breeze.
“I’ll be damned,” he muttered. Zoe cast a question-mark glance his way. “Gorram mind-time-reader-girl yonder… I was pondering on what was so familiar in that little dance of hers.” He flicked a faint grin at Zoe. “She’s dancing just exactly like you was, ‘round that bonfire on Shadow, the very first time I ever laid eyes on you.”
Zoe didn’t respond, but Mal felt her studying River more closely. Abruptly she asked, “Why’d you decide to keep River on the ship? In the very first place?”
Mal shrugged. “Said before, we needed a medic. Her and Simon were a package deal.”
“That ain’t it,” Zoe countered, still fixed on River. “Weren’t the doc made you decide. It was River. And it weren’t just to annoy the Alliance. It was River herownself.”
With a small sigh, Mal admitted, “Yeah. That first day, when she was laying there in the infirmary… So… Broken. Fragile, like a puff of wind could carry her off. Little girl, so helpless, lookin’ like…” He trailed off, unable to put into proper words what he’d felt, what he’d thought, that day looking down on lil’ River. Clearing his throat, Mal said more firmly, “Couldn’t stand the notion of another little girl lost. Not if I had any say in the matter.”
He didn’t look at Zoe. He didn’t need to. She was staring at River. Hard. Her breathing came loud and measured like she was fighting some gorram battle right while sitting here still under a tree in a peaceful, pretty spot. Mal could almost hear Zoe putting the pieces together, like taking bitty chunks of a blown-up apple and putting ‘em back together. All the scattered and smattered little bits…
“You…” Zoe started and stopped. “You see River…” Mal couldn’t recollect ever hearing her voice sound more hesitant. Zoe turned and fixed a solid look on Mal. “You see River as her.” Mal clenched his teeth and didn’t meet Zoe’s eyes but he could feel them cutting into him. “You look on River like a daughter,” Zoe said, sharp and clear. “Like our…” Her voice failed her.
Mal had to glance down and away. The grenade goes off and that there pretty little apple blows right up in your face. Gorramit. After all these years, after all this time and lives and loves come and gone—torn away, ripped away, burned, blown up, destroyed, killed—how could such a small, distant thing, a tiny spark didn’t last but a day before she was lost and gone, still hit so hard and hurt so much?
“No,” Mal said dully. “Not no more.”
“But you did,” Zoe insisted.
“Yeah,” Mal said, low. “Then. For a moment. Looking down on River, I could see her. She looked just like her…” Clearing his throat, Mal amended, “Like how I see that she’d look if…” Throwing Zoe the briefest of glances, he asked, “Surely you seen it?”
Zoe still stared at River, shaking her head slowly. “No,” she said, her voice strangely small. “I didn’t. Not a bit. I can now. See how you saw.” Her voice turned harsh. “Gorramit, Mal, why didn’t you say something?”
He snorted. “Why? Ain’t like we got enough ghosts hauntin’ us that I aim to be digging up more, especially when you’re good to keep ‘em well buried? Ain’t my place.”
“You… you think about her?” Zoe’s voice sounded more’n passingly peculiar.
“Not always. Not often,” Mal answered frankly. “Just now and again.” He wasn’t sure what made him add, “Don’t take but a moment’s thought to count it down to the day.”
He felt Zoe do the math and knew it didn’t take her but a moment either. How many times had she done that over the years? Had she ever done that before?
“She’d be right about River’s age,” Zoe said softly, a trace of something rare in her tone.
Mal finally gathered the gumption to glance again at her. “Just about,” he said. Holy他妈的 hell! Was that a tear running down Zoe’s cheek?! Every alarm in Mal went off at once. Claxons blared in his head. Zoe didn’t cry. Zoe never cried. The ‘verse abruptly turned completely cockeyed on edge and Mal suddenly couldn’t find gravity; couldn’t turn it to right.
“Zoe, you ain’t cryin’?” he asked. More urgently, Mal said, “You don’t cry. I ain’t never seen you cry.” Even more sternly, “Zoe, you never cry.” It was an order. Stop it, Private, the sergeant demanded. His resolution crumbled as another tear ran down Zoe’s otherwise rock-still cheek. “You didn’t even cry the day we buried our little girl,” he said, surprised hisownself how flat and even his voice came out.
A sob—a sob!—broke from Zoe. River froze her dance in mid-twirl and stared at them. That made the others turn their way. They didn’t, couldn’t, have heard the sob. They were too far away. But mind-reader gal sure enough did. Mal panicked. Grabbing Zoe hard around the wrist, he dragged her up, ‘round the bench and away toward the Sanctuary buildings.
Around the back of a low stone building, into a small courtyard that looked onto a dark, wooded ravine, Mal towed Zoe. She didn’t resist. She didn’t help. He was wholly in charge of steering her. He wanted to knock her flat to smack some sense back into her, make her get a grip and be the cool, controlled person she was supposed to be. The one he needed her to be. The one he leaned on, Mal abruptly realized. 他妈的. How much load did he really put on Zoe without ever knowing he was doing it? The long, shared looks without words? The quiet, steady presence? Even the sharp pricks of sarcasm? Zoe was his gorram rock in the ‘verse when all others failed him and now she was sinking and he didn’t know what to do about it.
Parking Zoe, sobbing in earnest now, on the long stone bench, Mal perched awkwardly beside her. “Stop it,” was the most comforting thing he could think to say. Good God, Mal thought, then sharply cut the fragment of genuine prayer off short before it could go anywhere.
“Zoe,” Mal said urgently, trying to figure out how to hold and comfort her without actually touching her. She got him through a bad night—hell, more’n one—on this last job and in the mess after, and now he didn’t know how to return the kindness. “Stop it. That youngun’s long gone and all the tears in the ‘verse won’t bring her back.” 他妈的! Fuck! 他妈的! That was just exactly and precisely the wrong thing to say. Then he remembered… she’d just lost another little one just days ago. Claimed it weren’t nothing but a couple of cells gone before it was ever real, but all the same… it was real.
“Zoe.” Mal’s voice took on some of Zoe’s sorrow and his own grief started to surface in sync with hers. Stop it, he told himself. He reached an arm awkwardly around her, trying to hug her without actually hugging her. Carefully, he patted her hand, struggling to find right words to speak.
“Our child is long gone. Even if she’d lived beyond that day, she wouldn’t have lived beyond…” Mal started, then realized this track was no better. She’d have burned when Shadow burned. Just as he’d come up with something better, something not too horrible, a new voice cut into the situation.
“What the hell is going on here?” Wash demanded.
Mal glanced up and groaned. Every gorram one of them stood across the courtyard, staring at Mal and Zoe with their mouths gaping open. Heard every damned word. 他妈的! Fuck! 他妈ing great. It was hard to say which one looked the more shocked. Well, not Book. He just looked grim and sad. Simon? No, there was a solemn knowing on his face. River? Crazy mind-reader girl was crying along in unison with Zoe. Kaylee? Stunned, but also sorrowful. She leapt from shocked to sharing their grief in an instant. Jayne? Yeah, all right, he was just picturing Mal and Zoe gettin’ naked together and it was interrupting his attempt at more honorable thoughts.
Inara… yup. There was the pure shock. Oh, yes indeedy.
And Wash. Leapt right beyond the shock into red-faced fury.
“Get your hands off my wife,” Wash ordered.
Mal carefully disengaged from Zoe and stood. “Wash, you gotta know…”
Hadn’t known Wash could move that fast, nor hit that hard, Mal thought a moment later as he spat blood onto the paving stones beneath his cheek.
Mal stayed down. Easing carefully into a sitting position, he rubbed his jaw while he fought the urge to flatten his pilot. Somehow it didn’t seem like to help the situation. Not much, anyhow. He threw a glance at Book, who gave him the slightest shakes of his head. All right, not at all.
Climbing to his feet, Mal stayed back out of Wash’s range. Wash was trying to be wholly fixed on Mal, but the sobs coming outta his wife kept pulling distracted glances from him toward her. Yeah, Mal thought, he’s mad as hell at me, and maybe her, but at the heart and soul, that’s a man what loves his wife. Was it total and unconditional? It damned well better be, ‘cause that’s what his Zoe deserved and not one iota less.
“You get one,” Mal snapped, holding out a hand to keep Wash at bay as he staggered to get his balance. “Try another and you’ll be the one on the pavement bleeding.”
A shuddering breath came out of Wash. “You!” he sputtered. “You and my wife! This baby she just lost. Harken said it was yours and I didn’t believe him. That you two had been… In that hotel… On the job… You told me you two never… But that baby was…”
“Don’t you even finish that sentence,” Mal said, ice cold. “Else you won’t live to regret it. It’s the pure truth. Me and your wife… Never.” He let out a small sigh. “You know gorram well this lost little one was yours and yours alone so don’t you ever dare even think otherwise or I will see you sent to hell.” He dropped into silence as he glanced at the sobbing Zoe. “Me and your wife, no. Never. Me and a gal named ‘Zoe’… Well, that’s a whole ‘nother story.”
“A story you kept from me,” Wash said with a snarl. Then he appeared to crumple a bit in the overwhelmingness and confusion of the situation. “And there was a… another… you two did have a…”
Mal grimaced. It was a lot to have dumped on the fella in one big dose. “A child,” Mal finished for him, low. “A little baby girl. Long ago and far away. Didn’t live but a day.” God! Just saying the words was like taking a shot to the gut. After all this time. He glanced at Zoe. For her to have held that in all this time. She’d pushed him to talk out troublesome things yet she kept in more and deeper.
Wash’s own eyes looked all melty wet as he raked his hand through his hair, making it stand up every which way. He turned from Zoe to Mal and back again, like he was deciding which one to deal with. “I’m gonna kill you,” he told Mal, but Mal didn’t hear the cold sincerity in the words that said he meant it. Well… maybe he did, Mal allowed, making sure to keep a measured distance between them.
“Wash, you jackass,” Mal hissed at him. “Don’t you get it?” Obviously not, Wash’s puzzled yet renewedly angry glare told him. It was a gift he had, Mal considered, to be able to take a situation that was winding down and re-up the killing urge. A dubious gift. His sergeant/captain tone came out as Mal jabbed a pointing finger toward Zoe and he said, “Your wife is sitting there grieving over the loss of her child. Children. Crying. That’s something I ain’t never seen her do. So you put your own sorry-ass hurt feelings away and do as a husband for your wife.”
It tweaked him right enough. Wash darted deciding looks between Mal and Zoe. Holding his breath, Mal kept his defensive stance as he waited for Wash to make up his mind. Then Wash was on the bench, wrapping his arms around Zoe with no awkwardness at all. They meshed. Blended. Fit together. Wash murmured soothing things to Zoe—the right kind of words, the kind of words Mal hadn’t been able to come up with—and she buried her face in his chest.
Mal let out a slow breath and turned away. His entire gorram crew stood like statues, watching the entire damned drama-play. Without meeting their eyes, Mal pushed on through and strode rapidly out. No one followed him, for which he’d thank Book later.
Out of the shadows of the Sanctuary’s buildings and canopy of trees, down onto the sunlit, grassy slope, Mal marched rapidly. He had no direction, no destination. Anywhere would do as long as it was away. For a half-assed moment he considered taking Serenity and leaving everything and every-damned-one behind. Wouldn’t help, he realized, and also realized it was Shepherd Book’s quiet counsel talking in his head. What he was, what he’d been, the life he’d led… it always came along for the ride. There was no leaving. Nowhere to run away.
Stopping stock still, Mal stood listening to the quiet. Absorbing the heat of the sun. Tasting the clean, fresh air. Feeling the… the serenity of this place. Serenity… and yet there’d been a killing. There’d been a fight. There’d been… Nowhere to run away. Every 他妈的 thing that was in him, came with him. He’d been slipping lately. Going soft. Had to put an end to that.
Slowly Mal sank down on the grass and buried his face in his hands. Had to. The fight was still there and always would be. Never would be the warm fuzzies come to stay. Not with Malcolm Reynolds. Not never. Like as not he’d be losing Zoe over this. Wash. Hell… Inara sure as 狗屎, like she weren’t lost to him already. All lost… like that little one so long ago…
Years before. On Shadow…
Young Mal Reynolds dropped off his horse even before it slid to a dusty stop. He froze mid-stride on the steps of the ranch house as a long, high scream issued from the inside.
“Good God Almighty,” he muttered, staring at the house wide-eyed.
“This ain’t no time for blaspheming,” their preacher’s voice came sternly from the shadows of the covered porch.
Mal shook his head slowly, still staring at the house. “Weren’t blaspheming, Preacher,” he said. “That was just the very best I could aim at the Good Lord at that very minute.” He glanced at the preacher. “That was Zoe a’hollerin’ in there,” he half-asked, half-said.
The preacher nodded, his face looking less stern. “The child’s coming.”
“It’s too early,” Mal said. He glanced from the door to the preacher and back. “Doctor?” He eased step by step up onto the porch.
“He’s with her, doing the best he can,” the preacher said. “Not much, I’m afraid. We don’t have the resources…”
“A ship?” Mal cut in rapidly. “Her daddy’s ship could take her straight to one of them fancy Core hospitals. We get on the Cortex and hail them…”
The preacher shook his head. “We’re too far out. You know it. That ship has no medic, and couldn’t get anywhere in time. That why her daddy left her off here. Even Shadow has more and better.” He sighed. “No, son. All that’s left is for us to pray.”
“She’s so tiny,” Mal whispered. Zoe heard the awe in his tone as he looked down into the cradle. “So perfect,” he added reaching a finger down to trace the child’s cheek.
Zoe frowned at him. It didn’t do for him to go getting too attached, not when ‘tiny’ and ‘perfect’ were purely at odds with each other.
Mal looked up at Zoe, studying her long and carefully. No, Zoe thought, he truly wasn’t deluding himself in thinking this infant could survive. It was something else… Hope. Faith. Belief. She felt her own wall crumble a mite at the warm feeling of his assurance.
“Could call the preacher back in,” Mal said quietly, “and get us properly hitched. This little one deserves no less.”
Just shaking her head, Zoe said, “No. Piling one mistake onto another ain’t gonna put anything to rights. Your preacher baptized her in your faith. I reckon that’s sufficient ticket of admission to heaven for her.”
Mal gave her the look what spoke clear as bells he wanted to argue the point with her, but he had the good sense not to. It was the other part of what she said, that this child was bound for heaven in a short span, she saw eatin’ at him.
“Ain’t over,” he murmured, gazing back down into the cradle and looking all solemn and melty. “With the Almighty the impossible is possible.” Whispered words of prayer came from him as he gently stroked the child’s cheek.
He truly believed it and for a moment Zoe wished she had a measure of his faith too. She hated like hell that this little pup and her daddy were tugging at her heart-strings so. She just didn’t want it so. Unbidden, and silently, she echoed Mal’s words.
The long nights of Shadow had never seemed longer to Mal. The golden-red glow of the gas giant waned into true darkness before the dawn touched the world. In the darkest hour, Mal looked across at Zoe. Elbows propped on the rough table, she rested her forehead on her folded hands. Lamplight lit her face as she stared down at the Bible. He weren’t sure if she even saw the words he’d laid open for her, but he knew. In her hand she held a plain silver cross on a fine chain. It had been her momma’s, she said.
Elsewhere in the ranch house, Mal could hear the murmur of voices, and people moving quietly about. But no one approached this little room. This was a night this mite of a family had to do for themselves. Just him, Zoe, the Good Lord, and this tiny spark of life. Maybe it all started as a sin, but at this very moment, he couldn’t see nothing but a goodness alayin’ there.
“She looks like you,” he said.
“More like you, I’m thinkin’,” Zoe commented. Mal glanced back up at her. He didn’t realize she’d even looked close at the baby. She’d been so avoidy, like she was afeared to see it or touch it lest it vanish before her eyes. He glanced back down. As well it might.
Not ‘it’. She. “Should oughta give her a name,” Mal said. Zoe only shook her head. She was struggling, Zoe was, with believing, hoping, praying… faith. Two lives were struggling here this night, Mal thought. No, he amended, three. Looking at her, bent over the Bible, not crying, not even really seeing, Mal realized there was a connection between them that would never die; could never be buried. He looked back down into the cradle. The angels had come. The child wasn’t breathing anymore.
Mal knelt at the little gravesite, the pure light of the slowly rising sun casting a long shadow from the tree over the far-too-tiny mound of earth. The words he prayed choked him in his throat. God would understand. He knew what was in the heart.
Something sparkled at the corner of his eye. He glanced up to see Zoe’s silver cross dangling from its chain before him. It spun, catching the sunlight as it turned.
“You can have this,” Zoe said, her voice cool and harsh.
Reaching out, she let it drop into his waiting palm. “This means something, you know,” Mal said. “Faith. Hope. Trust. Promises made and fulfilled... Love.” Mal opened his mouth to say more, stronger things, then closed it again. Now weren’t the time. He nodded, his vision blurring as he closed his hand around the cross. Zoe wore white. Pure white of mourning, the only outward sign she gave. She hadn’t cried when they’d stood together as the final words were spoken, the last shovelful of dirt dropped, the last of the others drifted away.
“No, it doesn’t,” she said, looking away from him.
Zoe turned away. Mal wanted to stop her. He could hear her daddy’s ship engines winding up, ready to take her away into the Black. “I’d have been true to you,” he said. She turned back to regard him. He stood, glancing once more at the tiny grave. Moving to her, Mal took her by the shoulder and turned her toward him. His hand left a smear of dirt on the white, he noticed, oddly disturbed by that. “Still would. Still will. I’ll never betray you,” he added. “If you just have faith.”
“I’ve got nothing to have faith in,” she said. “None of it means a damn thing.” Her words were cold, but the pain in her eyes was a thing Mal could see clearly. He pulled her in close, to comfort her, to hold her. Instead she wrenched herself away, out of his arms.
“Zoe…” Mal said, hearing for himself the hurt in his voice. “I will be true to you.”
“I don’t believe you,” she said. Weren’t just him, he realized. Everything was behind those words.
“Some day you will,” he said. “Time comes you need me. I’ll come. You can count on me. Forever”
“You won’t see me again.”
Zoe stared at him a long moment, the gave a small shake of her head. Pulling away, she strode rapidly off down the slope. When she reached the flats, she broke into a run. Mal squeezed tight the cross she’d given him.
As he watched the ship’s ramp swallow her up, Mal whispered. “Yes, you will.”
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