Author: victoria p. [victoria @ unfitforsociety.net]
Summary: As long as he's still breathing, she'll always have a home.
Disclaimer: All your base are belong to Joss.
Notes: Thanks to laurificus and kassrachel for betaing, and for mousapelli for handholding. Post-movie, so spoilers.
Word count: 1,270 words
Date: March 13, 2006
The Place Where
She doesn't want to face it--the wide bed she and Wash shared the past few years, the sheets that don't smell like him anymore, cool without his body to warm them. She's not used to so much room anymore, can't bear the sprawl of her own limbs in the space where he should be.
Mal doesn't make a fuss the first time she climbs down into his bunk, just scoots over and says, "Don't be stealing the covers, or I'll have to shoot you," in a sleepy mumble. She folds herself into him, surprised, though she shouldn't be, at how easy it is, how well they fit together.
The bed is too small for the two of them, but it's comforting, familiar, to feel another body pressed against hers, heart beating and lungs breathing in time. At least now there's no rain, no mud, no bullets whizzing over their heads. And it's better than the cool emptiness in her own bunk. Mal's arm is heavy over her hip, his hand warm on her belly, even through the material of her shirt. He ain't Wash, but then, she ain't here for sex, though she feels him sometimes, pressed up against her, and as they pass the nights together, she wonders what it'd be like with him.
She understands why it took Wash a while to believe that she and Mal had never grappled--ain't many people as close as they are who haven't--but there just wasn't any place for it in their lives, and by the time there was, the moment had passed.
When they were in the internment camp, they'd come close, once or twice, out of sheer need for any sort of human touch or kindness, something to scrub away the long days and nights of humiliation and uselessness. The Alliance treated them like animals, and that's how a lot of them behaved--like wild dogs fighting over the scraps thrown by their so-called betters.
But not Mal. Never Mal.
"This here is our little patch of nothing," he'd said. "Ain't nobody gonna take it from us." She'd stood with him then, already knowing that if they got out of there alive, she'd stay at his side as long as he'd have her there.
If Zoe believed in regret, she might regret that decision, but she doesn't, even now.
She's surprised at the flash of jealousy in Inara's eyes the morning Inara sees her climb out of Mal's bunk. Thought they'd trained that out of her at Companion school. Then she realizes it's different when you're the one doing the sharing, instead of the one being shared, and no mistake, Inara will always have to share Mal--with Zoe, with Kaylee, even with River now. And with Serenity.
With Serenity, most of all.
Maybe that's why she left the first time, and maybe now she's realizing it's the one thing about Mal that'll never change. The one thing about him she shouldn't want to change.
Zoe's tempted to say something, but she don't have to explain herself, or Mal, neither, so she inclines her head in greeting and keeps walking. Inara will figure it out, or she won't. Ain't Zoe's place to say, though she'd keep them both from the heartache they're heading towards, if she could. Knows they'd not listen, though, and, even as she stops to speak, wonders why she's wasting her breath. She realizes Wash would have, and that's reason enough.
"We're all adults," Inara says, "there's no need to--"
"There really isn't," Zoe says, holding Inara's gaze, willing her to understand. Inara looks away first, and Zoe sighs. "You've got to learn to pick your battles," she says, "and this ain't one that needs fighting." She shakes her head. This is what Wash finally learned to understand, what Mal hasn't quite, yet. What she'd thought Inara'd known already. "It don't need fighting," she repeats, "'cause it can't be won."
Inara looks down at her well-manicured hands, clasped neatly at her waist, and says nothing. Zoe walks away.
That night, when it's time to turn in, she goes to her own bunk. Mal stops and stares at her. His face goes blank almost immediately, but he can't hide the hurt in his eyes.
"Do I snore?" he says, turning away, opening the hatch. "No one's ever told me I do, but--"
"No, sir," she says. "Just seems like we might be misleading folks as to the nature of our relationship."
"Qù tāmāde. Since when do you care what Jayne--"
"Ain't Jayne I'm talking about, Cap'n." That should be an end to it, and not before time, either. She's not looking forward to going back to a cold and lonesome bed, but she's put it off long enough. She's never been one to shy away from a difficult situation, but this has been harder than anything she's faced in years. She don't know that she's ready to face it yet, but she'll muddle through. She always does.
He turns back, takes a few steps towards her. "If I--" he starts, and she shakes him off. "Huh." She can see the muscle in his jaw working, see the wheels turning in his head. "Well," he says finally, and "well," again. "I ain't never gave a damn what people thought, Zoe, and I ain't about to start now."
He shakes his head now, takes another step, his mouth close to her ear, his voice low, urgent. "You tell me it's time, then you go, and we don't speak of it again. But don't give me this gǒu pì because you think--" He shakes his head again. "I don't even know what you're thinking right now," he says, looking down, away.
She follows his gaze, down to their boots, the solidity of Serenity's deck beneath. "Have to face it sometime."
"That's the plain truth," he says. "But you don't ever have to face it alone."
If she were the kind of woman who wept, she'd be weeping now, would grab his shirt in her hands and sob against his chest. But she isn't, and she doesn't.
"I know I ain't--I can't--" He nods his head towards the bunk she shared with Wash. He looks as lost and desperate as she feels sometimes, and for a second she wishes they'd never seen each other look like that, never had to see it again. But wishing never made anything so.
He's still talking, and she shakes herself from her thoughts to heed his words. "Ain't nobody on this ship got the right to question our sleeping arrangements, dong ma?" He holds her gaze now, eyes clear and blue in the dim light of the corridor, and she knows she made the right choice then, keeps making it now, even when it hurts the most.
He reaches out, touches her shoulder gently, and turns to walk back to his bunk. She follows without looking back.
Mal's way of showing comfort is different from Wash's, but he gives her what she needs most--the knowledge that as long as he's still breathing, she'll always have a home, a place at his side, someone to carry her when she falls.
She wouldn't trade the love she had with Wash for anything, and she wouldn't trade what she and Mal have, either. It's more than most people get. She knows how lucky she is, even if no one else does. Sometimes, early in the morning, when Mal's hand tightens on her hip, and the first word out of his mouth is, "Zoe?" she thinks he understands.
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