It was an unspoken rule aboard Serenity that the crew never intruded upon each other's private spaces without invitation. No one ever addressed this rule directly but all respected it. If someone was needed the door was rapped upon or the intercom was used, but the door was never opened and the ladder descended. Each cabin was its occupant's sanctum, and only grave circumstances would permit an unrequested intrusion by an outsider. But in the course of the crew's adventures there arose the rare need for such intrusions, and this happened to be one of those times.

Mal descended the ladder to Zoe's cabin and was met with the look Kaylee had dubbed the dragon stare. Zoe perched upon the end of her bed, her fingers running through her daughter's hair. It occurred to Mal that his loyal right hand looked at that moment much like a fairytale sorceress stroking her cat, with a gun instead of a wand and a head of thick curls in lieu of a pointed hat. She eyed him in stubborn silence, daring him to speak first as little Emma stared up at the captain with her huge brown eyes so much like her mother's. Mal avoided both gazes and cleared his throat.

"We need to talk."

The woman didn't miss a beat. "About our next job, I assume. We haven't had one in a while."

"Zoe, this isn't a joke."

"I know, sir, keepin' a crew fed an' a ship flyin' ain't no easy task."

"It's the flyin' part I'm worried about." Mal jerked his head toward Emma. "She can't go doin' that again."

"It was an accident, sir. I take full responsibility."

"I'm sorry, Zoe, but if she can't stay outta the cockpit she gotta be kept down here or in the common area. I can't risk somethin' like that happenin' again."

"It won't." The dark-haired woman pulled her daughter to her. "I've talked to her. She won't do it again."

"Zoe, I can't put the safety of my ship an' my crew on the word of a kid who ain't even two."

"Sir, she was just explorin' the cockpit. You did give permission for her to be there."

"Yeah, but I thought you'd a' been keepin' an eye on her."

"I got distracted is all – was talkin' to River."

"You can't get distracted in a cockpit, Zoe. Too much can go wrong."

"I know sir, I know. She knows. She got flyin' in her blood is all, she were just tryin'."

"She ain't barely walkin', she got no business touchin' those controls. She near killed us, Zoe!"

"I know, an' that were punishment enough for her, all the tippin' and yellin'. She were bawlin' somethin' fierce time I got to her. God knows she'll even try when she's ready, now she been so scared."

"Oh, she'll try again. She got Wash in her."

"Are you blamin' my husband for this?"

"No I ain't, I just sayin' she got one hell of a pilot for a dad. Stands to reason she'd try it out too soon."

"And she's learned her lesson, she don't need to stay down here. She won't do it again."

"How do you know that?"

"I'm her mother. Mothers know." A ghost of a smile flitted over Zoe's face. "Some people juggle geese. Stranger things've happened."

Mal glanced down at Emma, who had followed the adults' conversation in much the same way spectators follow a tennis match. For the first time he noticed the bruises on her arm and the swollen lower lip. "War wounds, bao bei?"

The girl nodded with a solemn air. "Hurted mine mowf, Unka-Maow." She opened her mouth to show him the blood on the inside. Mal crouched in front of her and peered in.

"Simon looked at her yet?"

Zoe shook her head. "I brought her straight here like you ordered, sir."

"Better take her to the med bay – that's a nasty bit lip she got there."

"I will." The tall woman scooped Emma onto her hip and headed toward the ladder. Then she hesitated with her hand on a rung. "Sir…"


"Is this right – keepin' a child on a ship like this, I mean? It ain't safe, even aside the fightin' and thievin'. Earlier, it was an accident, but still…"

Mal watched this courageous woman, so strong and confident, his loyal right hand, waver before him, uncertain and afraid. He put a hand on her shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "Mebbe it is an' mebbe it ain't, but we's her family an' Serenity's the closest thing to home we got. Stands t' reason a kid'd be raised with family. Sure, we ain't got the easiest life, but kinda comes with the territory. Least she ain't some hwen dan rich kid gettin' shipped off to get cut up by duoluo white-coat goons. Sides, she gonna be a pilot like her daddy so she might as well get used to ships."

Zoe played with her daughter's wild curls. "I never said she was sure gonna be a pilot."

"But she's her daddy's daughter, she sure done went an' tried to fly today. Give a few years an' she'll be pullin' Crazy Ivans an' the whole lot."

"I hope so, just… I hope I'm not lettin' him down, bringin' her up like this. He always wanted kids but he never said if he wanted our life for 'em."

"Guess all's we can do is what's best by her."

"Are we, though?"

"I don't know. It's dangerous here, sure, but everyone adores the kid. Guess it's which one you think is better for her, the safety or Kaylee's perpetual ideas for baby pretty."

A breathy suggestion of a laugh escaped Zoe. "Thanks, Mal."

"For what?"

"Lettin' her off. An' about the crew an' all – good to hear it."

"I ain't about to kick either of you off this ship."

"Not what I meant."

"Go on, take her down to the med bay. Simon can check her up."

Zoe swung herself and Emma up the ladder with a nod of thanks and disappeared down the passage. Mal was about to follow when his eye strayed to a collection of photos on the wall. Amid the clippings of exotic vacation spots and clumsy pencil sketches was a framed photo of Wash and Zoe at their wedding. It was strange seeing the couple so young – well, younger than the last time he'd seen them together, and without the years added by the life they led in the black. Wash had a cut on his upper lip that he'd done his best to disguise. Mal smirked. While the pair had never said for certain, he was almost sure Zoe had worked something about killing the moustache into the wedding vows. Wash, the spark of life that no one took quite seriously yet trusted completely, the steady hand at the helm in times of deathly terror, the friend ready with a quip or story to brighten a dark day, smiling up from the paper and ink unaware of the fate he would suffer in a few short years.

Mal lifted the picture from its place to look at it more closely and his fingertips caught the tiny dimples of pen strokes across its back. He turned it over, puzzled as to why Zoe would let someone write on such a precious picture, and was greeted by Wash's handwriting.

To my darling wife,

I wanted to give you some sort of gift four our first anniversary and this was the best one I could come up with. No guns, sorry, didn't have enough time to pick out a good one before trouble turned up. Trouble – it always follows us, doesn't it? And we never know how it's going to end. So I wanted to give you this, because just in case. I don't plan for that "in case" to be needed any time soon, but you know, in case.

This day was the happiest of my life, Zoe. Even now when I think of it I get a little dizzy. I grew up a wild boy, you know, bit feral. Not like a cat, just crazy. Picking up scraps. And then I joined Serenity and there you were, and you weren't scraps, you were gold. Royal. Fire. And I felt like something from the gutter, because that's what I was, a feral thing feeding on scraps. And then this royal being graced me with friendship and even love, and I knew I was the happiest, luckiest man alive.

What I'm trying to say is – Zoe, no matter what happens in our future, you are the love of my life. I know you don't go for sappy stuff and all, but I remembered this poem I found in school and I wanted to give it to you because Cummings is a better talker than me.

I love you forever and for always.


i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)

i fear no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want
no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

Mal ran a finger across the final line. It was in Zoe's handwriting.

I love you forever and for always.

bao bei = "sweetheart," "darling"

hwen dan = "jerk," "bastard"

duoluo = "depraved"

The poem is "i carry your heart" by E.E. Cummings

A/N- What can I say, I love Wash and I apparently have a thing for pulling heartstrings. No pun intended.

Okay, that was cruel. Sorry

Anyhow, this oneshot's creation was interesting. I wrote the first 600-ish words in a day and then let it sit for a better part of a year unfinished. I knew exactly where it was going, it just wasn't the right time. While he's not exactly an academic, Wash strikes me as the type who might take a shine to a poem like that and save it for a special occasion, so I thought it suitable.

Please review!