Summary: It's just another job, until it's not.
Disclaimer: I am not profiting from this. Firefly belongs to Whedon.
Title, Author and URL of original story: Afterthought, by kisahawklin.
They'd been two days on the driest colony planet she'd ever seen with nothing to show for it. Zoe was almost used to the bone-dry dust that filled the air until the crew was perilously close to choking on it, but the air was so dry she felt like she was breathing knives instead of oxygen.
"This is the longest, slowest cattle drive I have ever had the misfortune of riding in," Captain said, wrinkling his nose at the second sun, which was just starting to rise in the east.
They weren't cattle, they were heiresses, but Zoe didn't bother to correct him; the captain had more respect for cows. "We're getting paid by the day, so who cares?"
"My dignity cares." He acknowledged her point with a grin and pulled his hat down over his face, shielding his eyes. He could have gone to sleep, and for all anyone else knew he had, but she knew different. She also knew how thin that hat actually was; it was practically see-through, in fact, and the captain saw everything.
Zoe took her place among the outriders; it was her turn to ride lead today, and thank god for it. The carriages containing the heiresses - they were all silly little girls, but their fathers had enough money to send them to the capital for schooling - sent up even more dust than was already leached into the atmosphere by the bone-dry air. She'd be coughing for a week. She retied her neckerchief and kneed her horse, heading for the dome that was Alverton City in the distance. They'd make it today, or she'd know the reason why.
The terrain was so water-starved that the ground had cracked into little fissures all over the plain. It was too dry to hold together a hill or any other landmark, but there were man-high rocks and some sprawling, tough desert plants - perfect to hide a few men, if they knew the territory. She kept her hand on the butt of her gun as she rode, though she had to squint to see where she was going - the second sun was the brighter of the three.
They rode for two hours at a snail's pace, changing posts about every half hour so that nobody would be in the dust cloud they raised for too long. Her biggest concern was the coaches the girls were riding in, and their obvious age, and whether they would last the remaining distance - for it wasn't that far now. The great dome of Alverton City rose in the distance before them, perhaps three hours at their current pace. She could almost taste the reward money, and even better, the fresh, cool water that their employers had promised would be waiting for them. She swallowed against the dust in her mouth and reached for her canteen, hanging on her tack. A flash in the distance, a reflection where nothing should be reflecting, made her yank her horse to face the east. Zoe pulled her neckerchief down and put her fingers in her mouth, whistling a signal to the rest of the convoy. Then she cocked her gun and put her heels to the horse.
The convoy scattered, the carriages changing course and bolting; not towards Alverton City, as anyone might have expected and planned for, but arcing out to the west and back the way they'd come, which was the most likely route to be clear. It was possible that they were surrounded, but the terrain didn't have enough cover to stop ten carriages and forty draft horses if they ran over anyone who got in their way. Mal had made sure that all the drivers understood that.
Six of the outriders spurred their horses and caught up with Zoe, falling into position around her as she raced to the spot where she'd seen whatever she had seen. Mal was beside her, and Jayne on the other side; unlikely heroes that they were, they were shipmates. That was good enough.
There was someone else she could have wished to be there.
Wishing never changed anything, she told herself, and pulled her neckerchief back up to cover her nose and mouth. If her hand came away wet, well, who cared?
Zoe never knew what made her horse rear at that exact moment. It was a decent enough horse, without the spark and fire that the captain preferred, but that meant better manners and a good pace. There were no vermin holes, no animals, nothing that could startle the horse as it had so clearly been startled. He came down on his front hooves with a thunderous bang, knocking Zoe to one side before she could grab the horn, and bunched up his rear muscles to kick out behind him before she elbowed him in the side. Startled, the horse turned around and looked at her, and before she could laugh and scramble back up into her seat, a gun sounded, harsh and echoing in the flat terrain. Zoe's horse buckled, screaming in pain, and fell. She snatched for the gun that had fallen out of her hand, thanking every great and small god she could think of that her horse hadn't rolled on her.
The captain and the rest of the outriders were returning fire, and Zoe joined them, going down on one knee to keep her profile smaller. They were sniping back and forth across something that could have been a riverbed before the dry came, but they'd lucked out - there was more cover on this side, and soon the gang was down to one man hiding behind a rock.
Zoe paused for a moment to reload, and when she looked back up, he was in the process of standing up, his gun aimed straight at her. She raised her gun, hands steady, and aimed back.
He started to shout something, but she wasn't listening. They pulled their triggers at the same time; she saw the movement of his hand, heard the report of both guns. Her shot struck true, and he went down clutching his stomach; bright, red blood poured through his hands. His shot should have struck true, she could see that, but the bullet was past and gone before she could even wonder what death would feel like, and if he would be waiting.
Zoe felt something then, something she never thought she'd feel again; the warmth, concern, and caring of a man who didn't care if she protected him, as long as he could protect her back. She turned, looking for something she could see with her eyes. She knew then what had happened to that bullet.