Title: Twenty
Rating: NC-17
Summary: It's the price she pays for serving on his ship.

It's not about sex. It never has been. Zoe wouldn't do that to Wash, for one thing, and for another, that's not what he wants. To Mal, sex is something that happens with a pretty woman on an all-too-infrequent basis. She served with him in the war, and she's married; she doubts Mal even thinks of her as a woman in that sense.

She doesn't mind. Much.

But any problems she might have had are banished by the knowledge that this is something he can't get from anyone else. No one else even knows about this, although she thinks Wash has his suspicions. It's hard not to wonder when the captain and the first mate disappear at the same time.

Zoe would tell Wash if he asked. It might just ruin her marriage, and it would almost definitely ruin the tangle of relationships existing between the three of them. But she'd tell him--if he asked.

She thanks every God she believes in (and some she doesn't) that Wash won't ask.

She's been expecting this since their last job. Like so many others, it went wrong, ending with them running just ahead of the Alliance. They're safe now; no one's pursuing them and they've got enough to keep flying. Still doesn't change the fact that they need a break and if things keep going the way they are, the crew isn't going to get one.

Most of them will take it out on each other. Sniping, bickering--the usual crankiness of a crew too long cooped up in a small space with nowhere to let off steam. She and Wash will argue some, probably fall into bed and try to work off some of the tension with sex. Simon will throw himself into trying to fix his sister. Book will read, Kaylee will bury herself in the engine room, and Inara will do whatever Inara does. Zoe doesn't know what Jayne does to bleed off tension and she doesn't much care to, either.

But Mal--Mal won't do any of that. He might join them in a game of ball, or he might talk with Simon or Book about abstract philisophical concepts if he gets truly bored, but he doesn't really have a way to relax the way the rest of them do. (Not that their methods work all that well, but it's something.)

He's the captain. He can't show weakness.

Only Zoe knows better. She knows that Mal isn't as strong as everyone thinks. He's got his weak spots, like any man; ironically, in his case, his vulnerability is not being able to admit that he's stumbling. Mal takes everything into himself and then doesn't have a way to let it out. All the anger, the pain, the hurting--he needs someone to lean on, someone to tell him it's okay to let down his guard, or he'll explode.

And she's the only one he'll let do it for him.

When she goes to her bunk to grab something this afternoon, there's a slip of paper on the bed. It had a time written on it; nothing more. For a moment, she closes her eyes before stuffing the paper in her pocket and heading back to the common area. She's not surprised by it; that doesn't mean it's going to be easy. It never is, for either of them.

Mal doesn't give any indication that he'd left the note on her bed, just as she doesn't give him any sign that she'd received it. But at the specified time, she finds him in one of the unoccupied passenger bunks, sitting on the bed, hands dangling between his knees. She locks the door behind her, leaning against it, and waits silently.

He nods, once, and stands, unbuttoning his shirt. There are scars on his chest and his back--some from the war, some from jobs gone wrong (Niska springs to mind), but Zoe ignores them. She's seen them before, too many times.

When he's done taking off his shirt, he kneels, facing away from her. Zoe takes a deep, silent breath, and moves around him, cuffing his wrists to hooks set in the walls. His head's bowed, and with his arms outstretched, he looks like a sacrifice to some old pagan gods. It can't be a very comfortable position, but that hardly matters.

She stands up, brushing her palms off on her thighs, and picks up the coiled black whip from the bed. Sometimes she uses this; sometimes he'll bring something else. But she's comfortable with the whip--or as comfortable as she can be, given what she's about to do with it. Zoe flicks her wrist once, twice, and nods. She's ready.

Mal jerks at the first, light touch of the whip across his back. He's startled, more than anything; she didn't crack it hard enough to hurt. The next blow is a little harder, but still not enough to make him feel it as anything other than a light sting. It'll take her longer to get him where she wants him this way, but she doesn't mind. The light strokes have the advantage of keeping him off-balance; he's continually tensing, expecting a harder blow, and relaxing when it doesn't fall.

When she sees him move into it, instead of away, she knows it's time. Ten might be enough, but she's needed to go to twenty before and wouldn't be surprised if she had to tonight. She adjusts her grip on the handle, stepping back just a little.


His head flies up at that, his whole body tensing. She sees his hands clench, but he doesn't make a sound. She didn't really expect him to; it's too early.


She hears the hiss of breath as he sucks it in through gritted teeth; sees him visibly trying not to fight the bonds, and gives him a moment before cracking the whip again.


His hands fly open, looking to grab something. But there's nothing to hold on to, and nowhere he can escape.



He's panting for breath, his skin sheened with sweat and reddened from the whip. Zoe tightens her grip on the handle and raises her arm again.


She feels tears starting at the back of her eyes and blinks them away. She can cry later. Not now.




It's a muffled sound, forced past clenched jaws, and it's so soft Zoe wouldn't have heard it if she hadn't been listening for it.



Mal's trembling; she can see the sweat on his face. He's starting to crack.





He cries out, low and harsh. It's almost, but not quite, a sob.


The first tear falls.



Zoe hears a name, thick with tears. She doesn't know who it is--someone who fought for him in the war, maybe? It doesn't matter.


The tears are rolling down his face freely now; his shoulders are shaking with sobs. He's whispering names--soldiers who died, some who lived, even some he's killed. All those he feels responsible for.


Zoe doesn't even know if he feels the blow land. He's broken, kneeling on the floor, weeping for all those he couldn't save and everything he can't fix. She presses the base of her hand under her eye, fighting back her own tears, and puts the whip down.

When she uncuffs him, she snags the blanket from the bed and drapes it over his shoulders, knowing he'll need the warmth. He uses a corner of it to wipe his face; while he's still shivering, the tears are beginning to slow down.

She sits back on her heels next to him, waiting for him to speak. There's a dull ache in the muscles of her arm, but she ignores it--it's not worth thinking about. When he finally does, his voice is hoarse. "Thank you," he says quietly. He looks drained, and his eyes are red, but there's a sense of relief about him Zoe was hoping to see.

She nods--not trusting her voice, she tugs at the blanket. Mal knows what she wants and lets it drop, turning so she can look at his back. She didn't break the skin, thankfully, but there are a few welts that need tending. The cream's cool on her fingers and his back; she rubs it in carefully, her touch as impersonal as Simon's might be.

Mal catches her hand, squeezing it gently. He knows what this does to her; knows that she'll probably leave him and take Wash to bed, needing his sweetness and his love. And he's right; she will. After she's taken a long, long shower and cried her eyes out. She hates doing this; hates that he needs it from her even more.

She knows that he wouldn't ask her to do this if he had any way around it. But he doesn't.

This is the price he pays for being the captain.

It's the price she pays for loving him.
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