Author: Joran (Rysler)
For: thenewhope, for femslash05.
Summary: River latches onto Zoe. There are some llamas.
Warnings: Violence, implications of torture, body odor
"They weren't cows inside. They were waiting to be, but they forgot.
Now they see sky and they remember what they are."
Zoe sat in the dining room with her feet on the table, holding a dirty rag in her right hand and a gun cylinder in her left. Whenever a gun wasn't being fired, it was being cleaned. Unless it was an Alliance gun, of course. Lasers and the like were so much more efficient to maintain. Zoe studied the cylinder, thinking the losers had been effectively disarmed with dust build-up in the border worlds.
Really, they'd been disarmed since the beginning.
Aware that she was being watched, Zoe cleared her throat as she reached for the gun stock. She wasn't apt to speak unless forced and one little lurking presence on the Serenity just wasn't much of a force.
"A gun." River made her appearance, stepping through the main door.
River said, "A 44-caliber Winchester 1982."
Zoe looked over. "You know guns."
"I know books." River smiled.
"And you're a good shot," Zoe said, referring the time River'd killed three men with her eyes fast shut.
River settled at the table across from Zoe. She reached for one of the gun parts laid out on a cloth. Zoe rolled her eyes, but said not a word as River examined the piece, and then peeked at her. "How many men have you killed?"
"43," River said.
Zoe exhaled and set the stock on the table. "Shouldn't you be with Simon?"
Zoe nodded. She stretched and looked at River.
River stared back.
Zoe shrugged, and began reassembling the gun.
River sat back and folded her hands over her stomach, looking satisfied. "Here's good." She was probably aiming to look like Mal, with a lazy expression, eyes-half-closed to conceal amusement, but she ended up looking more like Kaylee, more like a sweet little girl about to burst into laughter. Except River tended more toward screaming, and Kaylee never had much reason for screaming.
Zoe assumed that River meant the dining room. "Peaceful-like."
They sat for several minutes in companionable silence. Zoe finished with her gun and tucked it into her belt. She stood and began making preparations for dinner. "We got mushrooms and sprouts to mix with the protein tonight."
River stood and followed Zoe to the counter. She picked up a knife.
Zoe looked warily at her.
River frowned. "Not a child."
Zoe nodded, and passed her a plate of mushrooms. "Where they took you--" Zoe paused. She started mashing protein squares before she continued, "It wasn't quiet?"
River shook her head, rapidly, so that her hair flicked across her face. "Screaming, all the time. Outside. Don't you hear that horrible screaming all around you? That screaming men call silence?"
Zoe didn't try to figure that out, just let go of the bowl and put her hands on the counter, palms down. "What they did to you...The blue..." She closed her eyes. "It ain't right."
Zoe glanced over to River.
River reached out and stroked Zoe's sleeve with the blade of the knife. "Browncoats. Blue hands. Apples? Oranges?"
"We never did anything... Like what they did to you. There's a difference between killin' and destroyin'."
Zoe rolled her eyes and went back to the food.
"You used a lot of words just now. Unusual." River said.
Zoe snorted. "Guess things ain't worth saying."
River went back to maiming the mushrooms, smiling her secret smile. "Yes, they are."
* * *
Pounding at the hatch roused Zoe. She opened one eye to the darkness, and reached above her head to open the door. River slithered in.
The bunk was nothing more than a bed in a tube. Wash was up above piloting for the night shift, probably playing that gorram music Zoe refused to allow in their quarters. At least he didn't pipe it through Serenity's speakers anymore.
Zoe shut the hatch and closed her eyes. Hopefully she could get back to sleep before River started blath--
"--Dreams. Blue dreams." River grabbed Zoe's hand, studying its color. "Keep quiet. Keep quiet and people will think you a philosopher. You won't--" She put Zoe's hand down, and stretched out on the cot next to her. "--Think."
Zoe could smell River's sweat, and the scent of sickness--it was vomit or the medicine Simon gave her at night, or maybe just the olfactory terrain of pain--Zoe had gotten used to it after the first night River had climbed into bed with her.
This was the third night.
The second night, Wash had been there with them, and River had squirmed in between them. He'd winked at Zoe. "Want to try for little ones, babe?" Zoe had put a pillow over her head. Wash had hummed the tunes of his favorite songs, hoping to lull River, but she'd left after an hour, complaining of the bad music. Zoe had been smug on the knowledge that someone shared her opinion of her husband's taste. Wash had been wounded, and had withheld sexual favors in revenge for his pride. He'd regretted that, later.
River began whispering numbers. Zoe listened, half asleep, and eventually realized River was calculating bullet trajectories at different firing angles in different atmospheres. Zoe fell asleep to the equation of a ricochet off the catwalk.
* * *
River disappeared behind a bulkhead, afraid of the llamas that contentedly chewed feed in the center of the cargo hold. Zoe watched from the catwalk. A woman buyer was coming this time; Never good. Mal had made motions about a zoo for the animals, and high class financing. Zoe had a feeling he just wanted to impress Inara with tall talk. She scanned the area again for River, but there was only Kaylee, standing in the middle of a herd of llamas, going on about how soft their noses were.
Just another typical day aboard Serenity.
Jayne sauntered up behind her. "She likes you. The witchgirl. She's built a fondness for ya."
"Says you're calm. Zen and shit. Fong luh."
"Jayne..." Zoe said.
* * *
Fifth night. River clung to Zoe, mumbling nonsense in English, Chinese, and languages even Zoe didn't recognize. Zoe patted River's back, soothing her as best she could, surprised at River's strong grip on her shirt. The girl didn't much like to be touched. Occasionally Zoe could make out Simon's name in the gibberish-speak, and had a mind to call him, when the hatch opened.
Zoe squinted into the light above her head and made out the doctor, who leaned down in order to stroke River's shoulder without having to enter the quarters. "I brought another dose," he said.
River shrank at his words, and Zoe winced at the way River's hands tightened on her.
Simon uncapped the syringe. "Could you--hold her?"
"Don't think I can," Zoe said. Don't think I can participate in you hurting a girl, even if you think you're helping.
River though, allowed the needle to sink into her shoulder. She quivered against Zoe, a body of sick, misdirected energy, like an engine with its compressors crossed. Simon was just trying to get her all straightened out.
Zoe felt River quieting against her, and realized, finally, that Simon was still there, watching. She stared at him.
Simon cleared his throat. "Zoe..."
Zoe continued to stare.
"What are you doing here? On Serenity, I mean. You're not like the others. Not crazy or zany or on the wrong side of the law, far as I know, or scary--I mean, you are scary, but you're not Jayne. You have--." There he paused, for once censoring the next slur that was going to come out of his mouth, probably because she was settled into a position to kill his little sister.
She made the suggestion. "Sense?"
He looked sheepish. "So, why?"
"Where Mal goes, I go."
"You?" Zoe didn't much care, but he seemed to want to talk, so maybe he'd talk and get out quicker if she prodded him along.
He nodded to the girl in her arms. "Where River goes, I go."
"Not the other way 'round?"
Simon peered into the bunk. "Not anymore. And she led me to you." He flashed a goofy grin, which confused Zoe until she realized River was awake and squinting up at him. He closed the hatch.
River pressed her nose against Zoe's collar. "Sweet. People don't think so, but it's true."
Zoe tightened her arms around River, but River flinched, so she held herself back, somewhat uncomfortably, knowing she'd be able to relax when River was asleep. River sighed. Her breath exited her nostrils and warmed Zoe's neck. When Wash came to bed, Zoe'd point out to him that this is what family could be. And how it wasn't scary, once you got used to it.
* * *
The buyer woman, called herself Leve, hadn't wanted to pay for the llamas. She'd offered Mal a night with herself instead. Payment enough, she'd said. Mal wasn't much interested. So the woman'd flashed an Alliance ID, informed them they'd been witnessed in the act of a crime.
Mal had nearly cried with the injustice of it. Surrounded, outgunned, outmanned, he'd conceded to sleep with her. Leve said he'd enjoy meeting the sheriff. Said the sheriff liked pretty-boy thieves. Mal had then appealed to the better angel of her nature.
That hadn't gone over well.
Disarmed and cuffed, Zoe was led down Serenity's back ramp toward the sulfer-and-ozone-scented moon. Llamas bleated. Kaylee was allowed to watch the animals, but Wash, Jayne, and Mal, each bound at wrist and ankle, were trudging slowly after her.
Simon and River had vanished--had gotten used to vanishing. Inara and Book, for once, hadn't witnessed the grand smuggling ceremony--maybe the novelty of crime was wearing off. Leve didn't seem to have the presence of mind to inquire if other folks were on the ship. Maybe they'd plan a rescue.
Just as likely, maybe them llamas would.
Zoe's boot touched the dirt.
The group turned in unison to see River standing at the top of the ramp, pointing a rifle at Leve.
"Shoot me," River said, her grip on the gun unwavering, "Shoot her."
Zoe knew the Alliance guards could get a shot off and corpsify River before she could fire. With a glance at Mal, she elbowed the nearest guard in the gut, and swung around with her cuffed fists, aiming right for his face. He grunted with pain, echoed by a shriek from Leve as Mal attacked. The other guards turned to close in on the group.
From either side of the ship, and from above, Inara and Simon began firing, picking off the distracted guards.
When everyone was down but Leve, Mal folded his arms and glanced at Zoe. "Why didn't I think of that?"
"I'm sure you would have, sir."
Jayne picked up the sack of money that had been a diversion--most likely less than half of the buying price--and tied it to his belt before gleefully disarming moaning guards.
Mal pointed at the woman, "All right. Now, you are going to forget this ever happened. We are going to take these here llamas, because they're cute and fuzzy and don't deserve whatever gos se you planned for them."
He turned and walked up the ramp, Zoe following behind him. "You seem remarkably peaceful about us causing death to those Alliance-type guards."
"They're not really Alliance." Mal folded his arms. "Uniforms with the wrong badges on the sleeves. Stolen weapons. Didn't know how to make head nor tail of our papers. And they're decent forged papers."
Zoe nodded. "So we were about to get taken by crooks even pettier than we are?"
"I was biding my time," Mal said. "I knew the civilians would save us."
"Brilliant plan, sir."
"Always are when they work."
They reached River, who had lowered the gun and was watching everything happening with intense concentration. Mal reached out to pat her shoulder, but she flinched away.
River said, "The guns and bombs, the rockets and the warships, all are symbols of human failure."
"Quite so," Mal said. With a glance at Serenity, he added. "Well, rockets are kind of okay." He sighed and went to survey the llamas.
River turned to Zoe. Zoe smiled in return. She made her way to a crate and sat, so that she was the same height as River. "I owe you thanks, saving my life like that."
"Worth saving," River said. She touched Zoe's face, caressing her cheek.
Zoe held still, studying River's expression. If the Academy hadn't tortured River, hadn't mutilated her brain, they'd never have met, and River would never have been standing in the right place to save her. Zoe tried to imagine it all happening differently, and couldn't. She reached up and covered River's hand on her jaw with her own. "'Course."
River giggled and leaned in to press her forehead against Zoe's. Zoe could feel River's breath tickling her nose, and tilted her head, just slightly, so their lips brushed. Whatever feeling prompted Zoe into a kiss, she couldn't pinpoint. River tasted sweet enough she didn't regret the impulse. River pressed her mouth, wide with laughter, firmly against Zoe's.
They broke apart hesitantly. Zoe inhaled, air tingling her damp lips as it passed into her lungs. River danced away, skirting the edge of the llama pen, ducking under Simon's grasp and climbing the ladder. Zoe leaned back and folded her arms. She glanced around to see if anyone, especially Jayne, had noticed. No one was looking in her direction. Even if they'd seen it, she thought, they wouldn't believe it.
But Zoe'd felt it, and it felt nice. She was looking forward to Serenity in the sky again. Those blue demons were still after River, and there was still going to be trouble out there. Best to keep going, all as they were.