The scent of him clung to the pillow and she choked back a sob. She couldn't do it. She would never be able to sleep with so many reminders. Reminders of memories. She sighed, trying to clear her head. Then she slipped out from under the covers and paced to the corner of the room, her bare feet making no sound. There she knelt on the corrugated flooring, head in her arms. His coverall pant legs brushed against her head. They and his Hawaiian shirts hung on their rungs (not, as normal, rumpled on the floor.) She dared not look at them.
She had assured Mal that she'd be fine. She had always been fine. She had always before made it through everything. But she wasn't sure she could recover. She hadn't slept much at all in the weeks it had taken to rebuild Serenity. She had laundered the bedclothes more than once trying to rid them of his smell, but it somehow remained. Haunting her. Everything haunted her. Everywhere she went, everywhere she looked, something was there to remind her. She stayed clear of the bridge because his empty chair stood like a headstone. She could barely choke down food in the kitchen because his chair was so blatantly empty.
She rose after some time and the pant legs brushed her again. Whirling, she tore the clothes from their rack and threw them in a pile upon the floor. Then she strode purposefully toward the bed and ripped the sheets from it to add to the pile. She turned and began to climb the ladder. It was the middle of the night, but she didn't hesitate at Mal's door. She kicked it open with her bare toes and clambered down. Mal woke with a start and looked understandably surprised to see her.
"Uh, hi." He pasted a smile on his face and held his sheets around him as he stood.
"We need to switch rooms. Now." She said. She fiddled with the edging of her nightgown.
"Why?" He scratched his head. "Why now, I mean." He amended when he caught the look in her eye.
She did not answer; just fell in a heap right there in front of him. Surprise registered in his face, and he just stood there for a few seconds. Then he knelt beside her and placed a hand on her bare shoulder. She collapsed into his arms, sobbing in earnest now. He held her until she could control herself once more.
"I'm a terrible liar, sir." She finally said, her voice surprisingly strong.
"I don't quite follow." Mal looked at her questioningly.
"I can't do it."
"Now, look here!" Mal stood and stared down at her. "You surely can. I've seen you. You are the strongest person I know."
"You can really say that after what just happened?" Her voice was tinged with embarrassment.
"Zoe, a little grief never made a person weak! I surely wasn't expectin' such a thing, but nothin's changed. You're you. You just need to remember and be it." He looked a bit exasperated.
She rose slowly from the floor and stood facing him. "That an order, sir." She allowed her voice to take on an ever-so-slight wry note.
"You can take it as such." He smiled kindly. "Now, you still wanna switch rooms?"
"You've an awful lotta stuff here." She glanced about his sparse room.
"Wouldn't wanna wake the others." With that she turned and began to climb the rungs. But by the time she made it back to the hallway, her sense of foreboding resurfaced. She was very reluctant to return to her bunk. However, she slowly began the decent. Her feet found the floor the same time her eyes found River kneeling amid the pile of clothes. She didn't say anything. River's head swiveled in her direction.
"It shouldn't be like this." River said.
No, dammit. Zoe thought. It's all wrong.
"Memories should be good things." River stood, lifting his favorite shirt with her. It was a garish mixture of bright colors and images. Zoe flicked her eyes away as a pang reached her heart at the sight of it. "You should think of him when you see this." River continued. "You should be happy."
Happy. "Little one, I don't think you understand as much as you think." Zoe fought to keep her voice steady.
"No. I understand. It pains you. You hate me. But you need the truth." She smiled a small, knowing smile. "He was joyful. He made you joyful. You are failing him by not being joyful. Failing yourself, too."
"How can I be joyful?" Zoe was incredulous.
"Think of this," River held the shirt higher, "And remember the fun he had when he wore it."
Zoe forced her eyes back to the eyesore. She fought to do as River suggested. Her mind wandered to the backwater town shop where three years ago he had bought the shirt.
"Now, here's a most hideous thing, husband." Zoe had said, pointing to it as it hung on the wall.
His eyes had widened mischievously. "You like it?"
"Good heavens no!" Was her reply.
He had shown up on Serenity later that night wearing the thing. She had smiled then, because she had known he would buy it. He walked around modeling it to each crew member. Mal feigned blindness, and Jayne had said something about warding off Reavers…
"You're doing it." River's voice brought Zoe back to the present. "You're smiling."
Zoe was aghast to find that it was true.
"Follow me." River swept past Zoe, touching her arm on the way to the ladder. Zoe turned and did as she was told, not quite knowing why. She was led to the bridge and hesitantly followed River through the door. She tried to look straight ahead, out into the black, so as not to see the empty chair.
"No, you're doing it wrong again." River was sounding impatient, like a mother to a small child who won't listen. "Sit here." She took Zoe's hand and led her to the chair. Zoe sat, though it pained her to do so.
"I can't." She began to stand. River pressed her back down.
"But you must." The look in her eyes made Zoe obey. "Remember now."
Zoe closed her eyes and pictured him in the chair she now occupied.
He swiveled the chair around "Yep, can't beat me. I'm the best." His grin was smug.
Mal rolled his eyes. "Course, that's why I hired you."
"Naw, it was more than that," Here he winked, "You hired me on account of my good looks and riveting conversation."
"Well, there was that." Mal admitted.
"Same reasons he hired Jayne." Zoe put in. The two turned to her.
He wrinkled his nose. "Yes, the finest-looking man this side of the galaxy and can surely talk your leg off with his use of eloquent and magnificent diction." He gestured grandly.
"I can hurt you, little man." Jayne had come in behind Zoe.
"Yeah? Well, my
wife can hurt you!" He got up and hid behind Zoe.
Zoe could feel it, another of those smiles tugging at the corner of her mouth.
"See. You can do it." River said.
Zoe nodded slowly. Yes. She could do this.
"You see, instead of letting everything remind you of his death, let it remind you instead of his life."
"Where should we go now?" Asked Zoe, eager for more memories.