After Miranda, Zoe Washburne changed.
She became harder, colder. Like a mere shell of the woman that she had been before. She still fulfilled her duties as first mate - Zoe was never one to let her captain down - but other than that, she did nothing more, never going beyond what was expected of her.
None of the crew had ever seen her like this before, and it scared them. Other than Mal - he remembered the last time the curly-haired woman was like this. It was right after the War, and Wash had fixed that.
She was like a Reaver - no, not a Reaver. That would require her to have enough emotion left for her to feel anger. She was more like... like the smuggling hole, River decided, as the younger of the Tam siblings sat up on the catwalk of the cargo hold. She was watching the soldier as she sat down there on one of the cargo boxes.
"He's still here, you know." River's voice broke through the silence, making the older woman jump slightly.
"What're you talkin' about, Little One?" Zoe asked, and River smiled at the slight hint of fondness still left in her tone - as well as the relief in her eyes when the soldier realized that the young woman was at least slightly lucid.
"He soars." The young reader said as she jumped down, landing in front of Zoe with barely a sound. "Keeps us flying still. Asks me to say hi to his Autumn Flower."
"Stop it, River." Zoe said sharply, her face becoming a stony mask once more.
"Left you a present." River said after a moment of silence, before walking away dreamily, humming softly under her breath. Zoe just watched her go in confusion.
It was a little over a month later when she finally understood what the Albatross had meant. River wasn't the one who had left her a present - Wash had.
She was pregnant.
Slowly, Zoe's good humor came back. Her pregnancy made a hell of a difference in her mentality - like she was carrying a tiny piece of her bao-bei with her. Which, if you were bein' all realistic-like about it, Mal thought, she was.
There were still some things that set her off, though.
She still wouldn't step foot in the cockpit - River was pilotin' them. But she still wouldn't let anyone touch those gorram dinosaurs - not that anyone would.
The black was home to her - more than ever. And Mal would never admit it, but the one time when he went to check on her 'fore he went to his bunk for the night, he had caught her in tears, clutchin' one of those gorram ugly shirts of Wash's. He never let her know 'bout that, but he reckoned that she knew.
But the worst one was the first time that they stumbled onto Reavers after that day.
Zoe was mighty pregnant by then, but soon as she heard the Albatross on the comms, she was down in her bunk, strappin' on her guns.
Mal came stormin' down after her.
"Zoe," he began, in his most captainly voice.
"You can't stop me." she was deadly calm.
"Jien tah-duh guay I can't!" Mal answered. "Zoe, you're gonna burst any time now, and I ain't riskin' losin' you or the lil' one."
"Gorram it, Mal!" Zoe yelled back, and Mal nearly backed up in surprise. He had never heard her sound so broke before. "Those chiang-bao hoe-tze duh sons o' bitches are what made us lose him in the first place!"
“I know.” Mal answered, his voice all quiet-like now. “But do you really think that this is what he would want? Riskin’ your own ruttin’ life, and your baby’s, just for revenge?”
It only took Zoe a second to know what the answer was - but it took her a hell of a lot longer to admit it. “No.” she said quietly. “He’d be beggin’ me to hide.”
Mal closed his eyes in relief. “Xie xie.” he said, turning to leave the room. “Now stay put, or else!”
Zoe couldn’t help but smirk at the weak threat. “Or else what, sir?” she asked.
“Or else…” Mal fumbled for a threat. “...somethin’ mighty bad.”
“Well in that case…”
She was six years old when her Mama let her even go into the cockpit for the first time.
She sat on Uncle Mal’s lap and watched with awe as her jieh-jieh River piloted the ship.
“Hey lil’ Wash.” Uncle Mal said, grabbing the young girl’s attention. “D’you wanna know what your Daddy told me way back when he first started flyin’ this here ship?”
Emma Washburne looked up at the captain, nodding. The black had always been just as much her home as it had been for Wash, and the lil’ one always loved to hear about the things that connected her to her Daddy.
“Well, first, he asked me if I wanted to meet my maker, seein’ as that was the only reason saw for me buyin’ this old rust bucket.” Mal said, rememberin’ the conversation. “Then he told me what would keep this here ship flyin’. Love, he said. You can learn all the math in the ‘Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turnin’ of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home.”
Then Mal laughed. “Mighta been one of the most intelligent words I ever heard your Daddy say.”
The rest of the crew spent the next couple hours wonderin’ just why the captain was running scared from a little girl.
17 years later....
"Let's hoof it, Em!" Mal yelled through the comms. He was the last of the crew who had gone on this job to get back on the ship - and he had barely made it. He, Jayne, and Zoe had been chased out of town by attack poodles, and both of the men had the bite marks to prove it. "Ma shong!"
Emma Washburne jumped into the cockpit. "Mei yong ma duh tse gu yong!" she swore.
The young pilot pushed a lock of curly brown hair back behind her ear as she looked around the cockpit. As she got ready to send the ship into hard burn, she hoped against hope that her dinosaur collection - which had gotten a peck bigger since she was a little one - wouldn't go flying for once.
As she felt the familiar hum that meant Serenity was leavin’ atmo, she couldn’t help but smile as she said that familiar phrase - one that she had learned on her Mama’s knee, watchin’ old captures of her Daddy.
“I am a leaf on the wind…. watch how I soar.”