“Stand down. It’s finished. We’re finished.”
Zoë leaned back against the crates and closed her eyes with a sigh of relief as the Alliance troops lowered their weapons. Somehow, they’d survived. Her back was tearing pain, Jayne was still groaning at his bullet wound, Mal looked like a ship had landed on him and Kaylee was helplessly sprawled out on the crates, but they’d survived.
A clatter and a rush of footsteps caught her attention, and she looked up to see River kneeling by Simon, almost in tears. “You - you’re going to be -”
“River…” The young man smiled weakly and reached up to her, and Zoë couldn’t help but see the love and utter joy on his face. “I’ll be fine. Just fine.”
She felt a surge of bitter, raw pain overtake the sympathy, and closed her eyes and swallowed hard to choke it back. It wasn’t fair, they still had each other, they had who they loved best -
Zoë set her jaw and dragged herself to her feet to face the Alliance men. “All right. What now?”
“Sir?” One of the soldiers was speaking into a comm. “Orders?”
“If anyone’s injured, get them to an infirmary. We’re not fighting these people any longer.”
She gave Mal an uncertain look, but he just nodded and began helping the others up. “Seems he’s seein’ our way of it after our little talk,” he said, almost cheerfully.
“Little talk?” Zoë replied dryly, almost automatically, as the soldiers came hurrying to help those who couldn’t stand on their own. “Sir, what exactly were you talkin’ with?”
“Eh, whatever came in handy. Fists mainly.” He shrugged and began to limp along after the others. She noted almost absently that he refused any assistance from the soldiers, instead choosing to lean on Inara. Not that she could fault him.
As they came out into the landing strip, Zoë froze. There were personnel swarming all over Serenity. “What in the da xiang bao zha shi de la du zi do you think you’re doin’?” She didn’t even realise she’d reached for her hogleg until Mal grabbed her arm and actually shouted to get her attention.
“Zoë. Zoë! It’s fine! They’re just checkin’ for survivors.”
“Ain’t no survivors in there,” she said coldly to the nearest soldier. “Reavers saw to that.”
She looked round sharply as a team came backing out of the ship, carrying Wash’s chair - with him still pinned to it by that gorram harpoon.
Zoë Washburne saw red.
She came to a few moments later, pinned down by the soldiers and with the crew hovering round her. “Zoë, it’s all right -” Inara began.
“Ain’t nothin’ right about that,” the dark-skinned woman snarled, struggling. “That’s my husband’s body they just dragged outta there like it was nothin’ but niu shi! Mal, I swear to you, get them to let me up or there’s gonna be killin’!”
“Ma’am, you don’t understand -” one of the solders tried to explain.
“I understand just fine, now let me the hell go!”
“Ma’am, he’s not dead!”
There was a ringing silence. Zoë fell still. The rest of the crew were gaping at the soldier in absolute shock.
“…Whaddaya mean he ain’t dead?” Mal managed after a few moments. “I was there, I saw it, that thing went straight through him.”
“I don’t understand it myself, but the medics say he’s not dead. It’s gonna be touch and go to keep him that way, though, none of them are trained for -”
“I am.” Simon sat up on the makeshift stretcher, leaning heavily on River. Despite the clear agony it was for him to even move, he spoke with the authority only a medical crisis could give him. “Keep him as stable as you can, get me to your medics and patch me up, and I’ll do it.”
“Doc, do you know what kinda world o’ hurt you’re settin’ yourself up for?” Mal glanced between him and Zoë. “He dies while you’re workin’ on him…”
“Believe me, I understand.” Simon looked to Zoë, who was slowly climbing to her feet. “But I owe it to him - to all of us - to do what I can.”
She held his gaze for a long moment, and for the first time she understood how much he cared. Despite the fighting with Mal, the apparent detachment from almost everyone, and his overwhelming focus on River’s well-being, Simon Tam was as much part of the crew as any of them, and he cared for each and every one. He was letting her know he couldn’t promise success, and asking her permission to try anyway.
“Do it,” she said finally, turning away to stagger towards the waiting Alliance ship and some treatment for her own wounds.
The wait was straining everyone’s patience. They sat in the infirmary, sprawled out on the beds and seats, mostly half-asleep under the effects of the painkillers. Only Inara seemed to have got through it completely unscathed, and she sat by Zoë’s bed holding hands in a bid to offer some comfort. There wasn’t much else they could do; all attempts at talking had been dropped once Simon had declared himself fit to work and been whisked off.
River was curled up on one of the chairs, watching them all quietly. She’d been silent since the order to get them treated, and had submitted to getting her few scrapes cleaned up without a murmur. Zoë absently wondered how the fragile-looking girl could be so calm after having slaughtered a full pack of Reavers single-handed.
“It’s open,” she said suddenly, and Zoë frowned at her. River was staring off into space.
“River…” Inara began, “it might be best if you just let everyone rest -”
“The uncertainty is resolved,” the waifish girl said firmly. “The box is open. The cat’s alive.”
“What cat? What the ruttin’ hell’s she on about now?” Jayne hissed. “I thought she weren’t crazy no more!”
Zoë shot him a glare before returning her gaze to River, who met it with a calm look. “You seein’ somethin’, honey? Somethin’ about Wash?”
The sudden smile on River’s face almost lit up the room, and she turned to the door as it hissed open. Simon stood there, looking utterly exhausted and leaning heavily on a medic.
Zoë sat bolt upright. “Doc?”
Mal shook himself hurriedly out of his semi-stupor. “You got some news for us?”
“I do.” Simon limped in and leaned against a wall. “It was close - closer than I could ever have imagined - but somehow that harpoon missed his heart and his spine. He was close enough to dead the Reavers didn’t even notice him, but he wasn’t actually gone.”
“Just tell us ‘fore Zoë explodes,” Mal insisted.
The young surgeon looked to each of the crew, finally settling on Zoë, and smiled. “He’ll need some time for everything to mend, but… as far as I can tell, he’s going to be all right.”
She stared at him for a few moments, struggling to take the news in, and then turned and hid her face in Inara’s shoulder, sobbing quietly. Distantly, she heard Mal strike up some conversation, and felt Inara hugging her gently, but it didn’t matter. None of it mattered.
She had lost her husband, and now she’d been given him back.
“He’s likely to be very groggy,” Simon warned her. “And he may not remember much at first. The pain meds tend to dull the mind somewhat.”
Zoë nodded. “Does he know much about what happened afterwards?”
“As far as I know, nobody’s said anything to him about it. He’s been asleep most of the time in any case. I’ve kept him heavily sedated to ensure as little energy as possible’s been used for anything but recovery.”
“I appreciate it.” She folded her arms and gave him a long look. “What you’ve done’s worth more’n I care to say.”
“I was just doing my job,” he muttered, shifting a bit uncomfortably and trying to shrug it off.
“That’s as may be. But your job saved my husband’s life after I already watched him die.” She held his gaze, and finally gave him a little smile. “I reckon you’ve earned your place on the crew as long as you care to keep it. Cap’n might not say it, but I know he’s grateful too.”
“He sort of implied as much,” Simon admitted. “In that… that way he has of praising you without actually saying anything nice at all.”
She gave him a grin. “Let’s go see how my man’s doin’.”
Once he’d checked his patient was comfortable and waking up properly, the doctor had excused himself with the reassurance he’d be in the next room if anything happened, and left Zoë alone, sitting holding her husband’s hand.
A quiet groan indicated that Wash was finally back in the ‘Verse. She straightened up and bent over him a little, wanting to be the first thing he saw. “Honey?”
The sight of those familiar baby-blue eyes opening made her throat constrict and her eyes burn with unshed tears. “Welcome back,” she whispered.
He blinked, and frowned. “Back? Did I go someplace?”
“Very nearly.” Her stomach felt like it was soaring. He was awake, he was talking…
He tried to sit up, but abandoned the attempt immediately, going rather pale. “…Okay. Um. Ow?”
She gave him the gentle smile she generally reserved for their most private moments. “Don’t move. You still got a lot o’ mendin’ to do. Took the doc long enough to get you patched up as it is.”
“All right, what the fei fei de pi yan happened, Zoë?” He was clearly getting a little frustrated, and more than a little worried. “I can’t move, it feels like my ribcage got busted, an’ you’re lookin’ like I just came back from the dead.” He looked around, and a look of real worry settled on his face. “…And this isn’t Serenity.”
“No, it ain’t.” She squeezed his hand gently, wishing he wasn’t so good at grasping the painfully obvious. “She’s bein’ fixed right now.”
“Where are we, then?”
“Shh-hh,” she murmured, stroking his cheek. “Do you remember anythin’?”
His brow wrinkled a little. “There were Reaver ships chasing us. And the Alliance fleet. And explosions, lots of explosions, those were fun to avoid.”
“Yeah…” She braced herself for the moment of realisation.
“We crashed?” he offered. “I remember there was crashing. And the power went out. And then -” Her heart almost broke again at the expression of confusion, panic and outright terror on his face. “Zoë, I think I died.”
“Baby…” She bitterly wished she could hug him, but she had to settle for squeezing his hand.
“Did I -?” He tried to reach up to his chest, but she caught his free hand in hers.
“Almost,” she admitted. “Close enough the Reavers thought you did. Almost a blessin’, really. Left you alone an’ chased after us instead.”
“Is everyone okay?”
“Everyone’s just fine. We got the word out. Everyone’s fine. The Operative saw the message, decided we were in the right, an’ offered all the help he could. We’re all patched up an’ Serenity’s on the mend herself.” She felt his fingers tighten around hers, and the smile she knew and loved spread over his face, coaxing one from her in return. “We’ve just been waitin’ for you. Doc knows his stuff.”
“Well, I didn’t figure it was Mal put me back together,” he said lightly. “Or Jayne. …You didn’t let him try, did you?”
“You think we’d be havin’ this conversation if I had?” she replied, willing to joke with him as long as it kept him from thinking about what he’d gone through. “Or that I’d have let him live long enough? Those meds’re makin’ you talk crazy, baby.”
“Crazy’s fine,” he grinned sleepily. “Means I'm not gone yet.”
“Get some rest,” she advised, tugging the blanket up a little.
“Did my dinosaurs make it?” he mumbled.
“I’ll get Kaylee to check. Now sleep,” she said firmly.
He gave her a little smile and closed his eyes. She glanced up at the monitors around him as her stomach gave a lurch, but there was no change - he was just sleeping. A quiet noise at the door caught her attention.
“I, ah… just thought I’d check up…” Simon began.
“No changes, no alarms. He fell asleep,” she replied, giving him a warm smile. “I owe you.”
“It was nothing. Well, nothing I shouldn’t have done anyway.”
“But you did it for us. That’s the difference.” She looked down at Wash again, and her smile broadened. “Thank you, doctor.”
He looked rather startled, but smiled slightly. “You’re welcome.”
“Go get some rest yourself,” she advised. “You got your own healin’ to do after fixin’ up the rest of us.”
“I’m doing better… but I’ll leave you two in peace,” he added hastily, exiting before she could turn a Death Glare on him.
Zoë Washburne settled down beside her husband, fully intending to be there for him when he woke up again.
Next time Simon checked, she was asleep.