It became something of a ritual for Zoe to cook for the crew after Miranda. Everyone had changed in some way: old ties were severed and new ones were forged, and people had begun to drift. Zoe cooked to bring them all back together, so they’d remain a family unit that still took its suppers together. She incorporated seasoning skills she’d learned from Book, and social skills she’d learned from Wash.
Mal kept the pantry stocked in ways he never had bothered to, before. The protein packs gave way to canned vegetables and fruits, which Zoe could tweak to taste in heretofore unimaginably delicious ways. It had become her hobby, something she lived for, and he fought hard to see that their occasional dips into poverty didn’t deplete her stores too far.
But dry spells were unavoidable and he found Zoe staring into the empty food lockers late one night. “Ain’t nothing gonna materalize in there, no matter how hard y’look.”
Zoe closed the locker, but didn’t turn to face him. “Weren’t lookin’ for food.”
Mal glanced around the kitchen, letting his eyes wander over everything in the room but her. “Ain’t nothin’ t’be found in there.” He hesitated a moment, then shifted his weight. “Gotta say I’m sorry for that.”
“Don’t gotta be somethin’ to find somethin’.” She turned around, cocking her head to study him. “We gettin’ near dirt?”
“Not yet. Couldn’t sleep.” Mal stretched his arms out behind him. “Somethin’ told me you were in here.” Nodding toward the lounge, he added, “Fancy a game of Tall Card?”
Zoe raised an eyebrow. “Ain’t gonna be much fun just th’two of us.”
Mal looked affronted. “Why, Zoe. There was a time when we needed no one else around t’make our fun.”
Zoe eyed him critically. “Was a long time ago, sir.”
Mal moved in front of the table, toward the lounge. “You ever gonna start callin’ me Mal again?” he asked as he settled into one of the sofas.
Slowly, Zoe followed him. “Soon as you stop bein’ my captain.”
Mal leaned back in his seat, crossing one of his ankles over his knee as he appraised her. “I’m off duty.”
Zoe crossed her arms, staring down at him. “I ain’t.”
Sighing, Mal patted the seat beside him. “Gonna get you some more supplies real soon, Zoe. We got all kind o’junk on this boat we can sell for food. Jayne can give up some o’his guns; maybe one of them ugly hats his ma keeps sendin’.”
Reluctantly, Zoe moved to sit beside him. “That ain’t practical. We got protein packs, then we eat ‘em. Didn’t ask for no special treatment.”
“That’s ‘cause y’ain’t never asked for anythin’.”
“Learned that from you,” she noted.
“I just asked you t’call me Mal.”
She fixed him with a pointed look.
Mal met her gaze, grinning. “All right, didn’t ask quite that.” He shrugged. “But, would you?”
Zoe appraised him with cautious eyes. “You changin’ the rules ‘round on me?”
For a few moments, Mal said nothing. His eyes just explored her face, telling her more with a look than he would ever be able to with words. She drew solemn at his observation, studying him as he studied her. At last he met her gaze, giving her another smile, and said two words that could change everything. “Could be.”