Xú Landing, 1
John/Zoe, probably no more than PG
Thanks to musesfool for hand-holding and the_grynne for help with Chinese place and family names.
Earlier parts: Eurydice Settlement and Caieta Port.
Xú Landing, 1
The little mechanic catches him on the way and doesn't stop talking long enough for him to explain that showing up on Serenity's front hatch that evening isn't the approach he's planning on, that he isn't sure what kind of welcome he'll receive if he does. Not that Caieta wasn't good -- good for both of them, he guessed -- but he isn't wholly sure how to proceed, and a few hours observing the quarry, so to speak, wouldn't go amiss. And not while the quarry is observing him right back over the table at supper, which seems to be what Kaylee Frye has in mind, at least when she's not talking about engines. But explaining why this isn't his plan would involve explaining why he has a plan in the first place, and John's not fool enough to do that.
So here he is following her up the ramp, his hands full of things she bought on the way, while she hollers into the empty hold, "Look what I found at the market!"
He hears feet on the gangway above them. "Strawberries or engine parts?" It's Zoe's voice all right, and a minute later she sticks her head over the edge to look down at them. She's got a wrench in one hand and a smudge of dust on one cheek, and without doubt she's the best looking thing he's seen in the six weeks since he left Caieta Port. He's smiling, he can tell, and can't quite help it.
She gives him a doubtful look while Kaylee explains meeting him and her supper-related plans. "If it's no hardship," he adds, because they sure seem flush from the way Kaylee was buying fresh food, but small transport like this is a chancy business.
"No hardship," Zoe says. "Welcome to Serenity." But not, he thinks, anything friendly like come on up or good to see you. Yeah, he knew that turning up like this wasn't going to work. He lets Kaylee drag him off to show him the engine; give Zoe a little time to get used to the idea, maybe. She ought to know how hard it is to argue with Kaylee, seeing that they're crewmates.
Some young man comes by while Kaylee's got him stretched out on his back, staring up at Serenity's innards. John's not inclined to pay him much mind, but he recognizes the look on Kaylee's face: he sees it on a lot of girls when they're near Dean. "Maybe I'll go find Zoe," he offers.
Kaylee and the young man -- Simon, some kind of doctor -- take him up through the main hold to the shuttles; he finds Zoe in one of them, taking apart the console. She checks that it's him and turns back to the job; he watches her a while, then says, "Kaylee met me in town. She ain't easy to argue with."
Zoe hums an acknowledgement. "Your ribs heal up?"
"Good as new," he says.
"Fine," she says. "Pass me the wire-cutters."
They're on the deck, not far from his feet. She snips three wires and starts unscrewing a piece of the console. "Place not far from here, Yáng Township, has a problem with geong si."
"That so?" she says. She tugs hard on the console facing, stops to loosen the screws, tugs at it again.
"You got a problem with me being here, Zoe Washburne?"
The console facing comes off. "Don't much like surprises."
He's about to tell her that if she wants him gone he'll go, but he thinks she'd take him up on it. So he watches her picking the wires apart; she ain't looking at him but she can still hear him, so he starts talking. "Thing about geong si, you know, they don't have any volition, they just do what the priest who raised them says. And people mostly don't mind if it's just a matter of getting folks home to be buried, but every now and then you get a priest who goes bad and starts using them for slaves, maybe even leaving bodies unburied to make it easier on himself. And then the key thing is to take out the priest, but that can be tricky if he's using the zombies to defend himself, too -- you know, getting to him before he has a chance to raise a new batch. My boys and I had some trouble with that, few years back on Whitefall..." As he tells the story he watches her hands stripping and cutting the wires, twisting the ends together, stopping now and then so she can test something.
Finally, she turns around. "You asking me to walk out with you, John Winchester?"
"Well," he says, "I'm asking if you want to go kill some zombies with me." That gets a smile, at least so he adds, "After that's up to you." She's leaning back against the console, hands on her hips, and he wonders if she knows just how good that makes her look, long legs and small waist and that vest of hers hugging her breasts. He's thinking about making a move when he hears steps on the gangway outside, maybe loud enough to be deliberate. And here comes the man who made them, sandy-haired and sure of himself.
When the man speaks, it's to Zoe. "Simon told me you had a visitor up here."
"Yes sir," she says. "This is John Winchester."
The man steps forward, offers his hand. "Malcolm Reynolds. Saw you back on Eurydice, I recall." They shake; Reynolds has a firm grip, so John puts on a little extra pressure. The man don't wince, that's worth something.
"That's right." John watches him try to decide what to do about it.
"You about done here, Zoe?" Reynolds finally asks.
"Just about," she says. "Need to close up the console."
Reynolds stands there a long moment, looking from Zoe to John and back again. Zoe's giving him a look John reads as you may be my CO, but that don't mean you know shit; he's got one of those as well. "Well," Reynolds finally says, "Doc's cooking tonight."
"Kaylee helping him?" Zoe asks.
"Won't be too bad, then." Reynolds backs out of the shuttle, and Zoe turns back to John. "Give me a hand here; I want to get this done."
Dinner isn't bad, not the food anyway; fresh food's a luxury for all of them, John reckons. Don't start well, though, when he follows Zoe into the galley and the other man he remembers from Eurydice settlement looks up at him. "Hey," he says. "Ain't you the lâotou Zoe was sucking face with, couple planets back?"
"Zoe!" Kaylee squeals. "You didn't say anything about that!"
John's wondering if Zoe will mind him killing one of her crewmates when Reynolds says, "You can hit him if you want. We don't mind."
"Some of us will actually cheer you on," the doctor adds.
"What?" the first guy says. "It's the truth, ain't it?"
"This waste of space is Jayne Cobb," Reynolds says. "Case you want to know his name before you hit him."
"Hey," Cobb says, "I don't got a problem with it. 'Bout time too, you ask me."
"Shut up, Jayne." Zoe and Mal say it together, and John can see a tightening in Zoe's shoulders. He rests a hand on Zoe's back and is glad she doesn't move away; he stands there, staring at Cobb, until the other man looks down and mutters something about not looking for a fight and how he don't know what everyone's so pissed off about.
"Look," Kaylee says, "here's River. Why don't we all just sit down, now?"
River's a skinny girl; Simon's sister, he gathers from the introduction, something not right there. There's one missing passenger -- Inara something -- and that's the crew, and if there're gaps in the table and empty spots in the conversation it ain't his problem. Kaylee carries most of the talk, with some help from Simon, and that goes smooth enough, mostly, John guesses, because Reynolds's kicking Jayne under the table whenever he looks likely to open his mouth. They don't ask a lot of questions, which is fine by him and he's happy to return the favor. He doesn't have much conversation fit for non-hunting company, but he manages a story about a customs agent on New Canaan and a cache of ammo, even though halfway through he had to stop and rethink things so he wouldn't have to explain about why the bullets were silver. River watches him and smiles like she knows what he's thinking, but she doesn't say anything until they're all getting up from the table and he's thinking that it wasn't so bad and making his "thank yous" and "best be getting back nows." That's when she stares him straight in the eyes and says, "You're still in the fire, aren't you?"
He freezes. He knows there's talk going on around him, excuses or explanations or some damn thing, but he can't afford to listen. "You carry it with you," she says, "even when it's passed."
"What do you mean?" His voice doesn't sound right in his ears.
"River don't mean nothing." It's Reynolds, a hand on his arm. "We all got places we don't leave behind, River usually knows better'n to talk about 'em."
John shrugs Reynolds' hand away. "Tell me what you mean, girl." Harsh, but he can't help it.
"I thought they were stories too," she says, "all the things that hide in the dark. But they're not. All of them and more."
John takes a step forward and finds Simon standing between them. "Leave her alone," he says. "Don't threaten her." He's staring up like he doesn't care that John could break him apart one-handed, and that gets through to him. He takes a step back, realizes that they're all tensed, even Zoe, ready for a fight if he makes one.
"I'm not threatening anybody," he says. "But I want to know what she means."
"I saw fire," she tells him. "But Sammy and Dean are safe, and the fire is gone, isn't it?" John nods; the demon's gone, and the three of them have the scars to prove it. "It's gone," she continues, "and you're still here. That's a victory, isn't it?"
"Still tastes like ashes," he says. He lifts his head, looks around at the fear and incomprehension around him; only River looks like she might understand, and that's not something he can think about right now. Not here. "I..." he starts to say, and it's Mal, strange enough, who meets his eyes and nods, and that's all John needs. He can find his own way off the ship.
There are feet behind him on the road outside. Zoe catches up with him before he's gone far; she walks next to him, hands on her belt, not speaking, all the way back to his ship. He turns around when he opens the hatch, not sure what he means to say. "That it?" she says. "I come back tomorrow, you gonna be here?"
"I don't know," he says.
"Do you even know what you're running from?"
He stares at the ground, wishing this was a pack of hell-hounds or a nest of ghouls or some other thing he knew what to do with. But if he doesn't get this all out at once he'll lose his nerve forever. "I spent twenty-four years hunting the thing that killed my wife. Been at war as long as I been alive. I don't know what peace looks like."
She's quiet a little while, speaks when he looks up. "My man died last year after Miranda. He could make me laugh like nothing else in the 'verse. Are you planning on inviting me in, Winchester? Because if you want me to go, I'll go."
"No," he says, but that's no answer. "Come on in. But I don't know what you think you're getting out of this."
"Let me worry about that," she says. What he wants to tell her is that he's not much of a specimen, and he's a little surprised she hasn't noticed that already. Maybe she has, but she goes ahead and follows him in; maybe he should have told her to go, spent the night with Mary and his memories. But there's something in him kept him fighting all those years, and that thing isn't ready to give up yet.
"We're a close crew," Zoe says. "Been through a lot together." John grunts. "You threaten River, well, you deal with all of us."
He crosses his arms over his chest. "That the kind of man you think I am? That I'd hurt a girl like that?"
"Just telling you how things are."
"I get it," he says. "You got anything else to say to me?"
"Fool of a man," she says. "Why do you think I'm here? You'll head off to Yáng Township on your own to hunt those geong si."
"I don't need protecting."
"Didn't say you did. You're the one brought up the zombies."
Her face is set and he reckons it wouldn't take much to get her mad enough to walk out on him; he can feel the words forming, how he's been doing this a long time and maybe she should go back to her crew if that's what she cares about. He grits his teeth to hold them back until he figures out something else to say. From the look on her face he'd better hurry it up. "Could use a hand, maybe," he admits, even though he don't think it's true, could handle those damn geong si on his own if he had to.
Her mouth curves. "You're a piece of work, John Winchester."
"I've heard that said," he admits. There's often a firearm involved in that part of the conversation, but he doesn't want to give Zoe any ideas. As it is the few steps between him and her and from there to his bunk are looking longer than they ever have. He sighs: what the hell. She's seen him wreck a meal by threatening a teenaged girl; she won't mind seeing him drink. "Got a bottle of whiskey around here somewhere," he says. "You want some?" He heads for the cupboard; gets him moving anyway, not just standing there staring at her.
"I think we had some whiskey back on Serenity," she says.
He turns his head to look at her. "That so?" She's smiling now, and he feels something in him giving, just a little. Feels almost like relief. Fact is, it feels right just to turn around and put a hand on her waist, because there she is, barely a step away after all, looking him straight in the face, tilting her chin up. Next thing they're pressed together and he's amazed again at the strength of her hands, the way muscle gives way to the curve of her hips and breasts, the direct way she has of kissing him, like she knows exactly what she wants and isn't afraid of reaching for it. He holds her tight, trying to use that to say the things he can't quite speak; when they break apart, he whispers "Better than whiskey," and smiles to hear her laugh.
end/fade to black
Next: Xú Landing, 2