If you believe the Alliance's broadcasts, family is two law-abiding parents and as many children as they can safely raise, all out to settle the wild fringe worlds. It's hard work and procreation; a model Alliance in miniature. Pay your taxes and life'll be its own reward.
Not one soul in all the settled 'verse who actually believes that luh-suh, though. Zoe figures the only reason folks live that way at all is because they get themselves knocked up young and the only way out is through. That's how it was for Wash's folks, anyway--first baby at the tender age of seventeen and say goodbye to whatever those dreams might have been. By the time Wash himself came around (lucky number seven) there wasn't much left of his folks but grit and grindstone determination. They worked and slept and worked again; Wash said once that he grew up believing his actual name was Shush, Now. No malice there, from what he said, but no particular kindness, either. When he left home, it was for good.
Zoe herself had a different kind of upbringing, running wild in the belly of a de-commed cruiser called The Admiral. Was a big old ship with a big crew, the members of which came and went every time they docked at a new world to take on freight. Zoe's mother was the crew chief there, so they outlasted most everybody else. Meant Zoe got to be the boss of everyone, being as she was the kid who knew all the best places to hide aboard the ship (and being as how her mom could hire and fire folks as she pleased).
Left something to be desired as far as actual human bonding went, though. Made her grow up wishing--for a brother or a sister first, then for a family of her own, once she got a little older. Of course, it wasn't exactly helpful that the only thing she ever showed a natural aptitude for was piracy and hand-to-hand combat. Zoe figures she was lucky as hell to ever find a man fool enough to think her dubious legal status was sexy. Ill-advised mustache aside, that kind of luck is once in a lifetime, and she knows it. Knew it when he kissed her first, all sweaty and determined; knew it when she finally convinced him she wasn't going to take his hand off if he laid it on her breast.
Knows it now, too, even though it hurts like a gut wound. Figures she'll keep on knowing it for the rest of her life.
She's standing inside the door of the engine room with her arms folded over her chest. The ship hums under her feet, above her head, in the little bones inside her ears; long before Kaylee opens her mouth, Serenity tells Zoe what the verdict will be. She's ready, even if they're not. She's all set to take them away from here.
But ceremony is important, so Zoe keeps her mouth shut, waits with the others to hear the word. Watches their faces while they all watch Kaylee's, taking comfort in what's familiar: Jayne's dumb stare and River's brilliant one; the Captain's rueful hope. Simon's bowed head and the upward tilt to Inara's chin. Kaylee between them, trying hard to please the whole contrary world at once.
There's a still moment, then, while Kaylee steels herself to say what needs saying, and Zoe lowers her eyes to the tops of her boots, takes a slow breath of that rain-scented air. After the burials, she waited for bitterness to creep up and bite her in the ass. She expected it to, because it used to be her particular thing, back in those lay-low days after the war. Used to be she'd hold a grudge long past reason--right there, in the pit of her stomach, or there, beneath her tongue.
But it never did come. Hurt, sure, and anger, but not that sullen lump of ill-feeling she used to spend so much time wrestling with. She waited up nights, even, tried to work herself up to it, but it seemed that part of her'd been sliced out like a festering bullet. She figured Wash must have done it somehow--distracted her with sex, most likely, or some fool scheme, and just stole that part of her away.
Zoe can't exactly say she's sorry to see it go.
"She's ready, Captain," Kaylee says. "She'll fly true." And Zoe lifts her gaze, blinks over everybody else's heads to catch the Captain's eye. He grins at her and she smiles back, surprising herself.
In the corridor afterward, she's already thinking of a list of things that need doing, wishing for something to write with. Listens with half an ear to the sounds of Inara in the kitchen, the stomp of Jayne's boots up above. Almost misses River completely until the girl folds herself upright, all of a sudden, and takes Zoe's arm.
"You'll need to bring him," she says. "Once he's alive, I mean. She'll be too shy, but he'll need us. Even if it's only for the education."
Zoe blinks at her. "Well," she says. "All right, then." Thinks, you creepy, creepy little girl.
River smiles and pulls herself soundless to the catwalk above. A moment later, Zoe snorts at Jayne's startled bellow.
Four months after that, she understands.