Big Damn Heroes

With huge thanks to LJC and Archer for their insight and proof reading.

Customary disclaimers.

Spoilers for Serenity, War Stories, Shindig and Objects in Space

A conversation after War Stories and Objects in Space on the nature of courage.

He was staring at the stars outside through the bridge port, his hands folded together on top of his head, his collection of plastic dinosaurs ignored as he listened to Mal ranging through the ship calling for Kaylee in an increasingly frustrated voice. Wash sighed as he accepted the fact that he was going to have to do something. He had hoped to put it off for awhile. Mal's puzzlement and unease at Kaylee's unusual withdrawal made him like a bear with a sore paw. He just couldn't help picking at the scab. Swiveling about in the command chair, he saw Mal lean in to the bridge to see if Kaylee was hiding under one of the consoles.

"I'm looking for Kaylee, Wash, d'ya know where she's got to?"

"Everyone on the boat knows you're looking for Kaylee, Mal. Serenity's not that big a boat. If she'd wanted to be found, you'd have found her by now. Why don't you give it a rest? She'll come out when she's ready."

The captain's eyes narrowed as he came the few steps up from the passageway to the bridge to loom over Wash, "Is there something you know, that I don't?"

"Hell, dan nang, Cap. I can fly the boat for instance, which having seen you try, I 'm pretty sure I know something there that you don't. . . . And I know this nice little cabaret where you can see geese juggled and get warm plum wine with no cover . . . . Also, I know where the sweet spot on Zoe's . . . well, let's just say there's some things I know that you don't."

"Je shr shuh muh lan dong shi? As you can see, I am not finding this as amusing as you are. In fact, I'm armed and I'm getting seriously annoyed. So–o-o, let's circle back to where we were before you tried to distract me with your low cunning and amazing lack of self preservation in talking about Zoe's sweet anything--Is there something about Kaylee you know, that I don't?"

The pilot closed his eyes and sighed. "Ee-chi shung-hoo-shi. It may have escaped your attention, but not everyone on this boat is a big damn hero. So, by virtue of not being the aforesaid 'big damn hero', I have a sort of kinship with Kaylee that gives me an intuitive grasp of her current emotional state, also her likely whereabouts, and possibly her future plans."

"What kind of craziness you spoutin' here, Wash? No one is holding a thing against Kaylee. She didn't do something she wasn't trained, hired, nor expected to do. "

"Well, that's not quite right, Mal," Wash said gently, like he was explaining something very complicated and very important to a child, or possibly to Jayne. "The big damn heroes on board may not have expected better, but our little Kaylee expected better of herself against Niska and with Early. In her mind, she's failed us all, twice. And the fact that none of the heroes is blaming her is making it worse, not better."

Mal looked askance at the smaller man, but dropped into the co-pilot's seat to hear him out. Wash didn't really find it any easier to look at Mal eye to eye, but he knew when he started that it was going to harrow him some. He had only done it because he figured it was due Kaylee.

"It's telling her she can't ever hope to be a hero herself. She'll always be a drag on the crew, they'll always be at risk protecting her and she can't ever expect to hold her own or return the favor."

"Stop talking about heroes Wash. Ain't any heroes here, only working stiffs trying to get by." He was angrier now, and getting heated about it.

"You and Zoeare heroes. You don't count the costs and you don't show fear, just do the next thing to be done. We got a preacher, he leads a charge into that station like he led commandoes his whole life, guay, maybe he has! Simon lets himself be trounced in a bar and kidnapped, but still had the gumption to pull his sister out of an Alliance hell hole and volunteer to get burned at the stake. Even River took out three desperadoes with her eyes closed--literally. Now that may be creepifyin', but ya gotta admit, it's also damn heroic. I guess Jayne even qualifies, though personally, I think that's just a lack of imagination." That got the ghost of a smile from the captain but it was wiped away instantly.

"Those are hard acts to follow without anyone threatening to rape you in your own engine room."

"Is that what the xiong meng de kuang rensaid to her? Ni ta ma de!. Tian xia shuo yu de ren dou gaisi!

Gently again, "Didn't you know?"

"She wouldn't tell me. How did you get it out of her?"

"Simon told Inara--guess he figured she would be best to talk to Kaylee. Then 'Nara told Zoe because she wanted Zoe to try to teach Kaylee some simple self defense moves and at least show her how to field strip a gun. You know, dry fire it --take some of the mystery out of it. Zoe told me 'cause she was so pissed that I could tell something was up. River, well, River is what she is."

Mal was seriously pissed himself, now, "You mean to tell me, I'm the onliest soul on this boat didn't know what that yaoguài threatened Kaylee with?"

Wash eyed his captain speculatively, "I don't think Jayne knew but if he put what passes for his mind to the question, I suspect he had a fair notion of the kind of threat a man like Early would use on a sweet girl like our Kaylee. Book, now he's looked into the darkness of men's souls; I'd say he knew."

Mal swiveled away from Wash's steady gaze and stared out into the black, muttering to himself. Wash had to work some to hear. "Meimei, why did you shut me out?"

Sighing again, Wash repeated "Sometimes it's hard to live with a bunch of damn heroes."

Mal looked back at the pilot; this time seriously studyin' on him, trying to figure out why Wash was sayin' this to him of all people. Wash never acted serious, always with the smart-ass crack or silly comment, even playing with toys at the com console. But Mal had known him awhile now, and he knew that the man had a deepness to him. The thing was the one person Wash was never, under almost any circumstances, serious with, was Mal.

Mal had his own theory on the reasons for that having to do with Zoe; but he never asked her. And if he'd got up the gumption to ask, she wouldn't have said; would have thought it a betrayal. He knew that, so he never had asked. Partly, not wanting to hurt her but mostly not wanting to test her loyalties. The most serious thing Wash had ever said to him, not under torture, was "I ain't looking to talk on that topic." And that had been the end of that. So now Mal really looked at the pilot because he knew this must be a big hairy thing if the class clown wasn't cracking wise.

"Come back to Kaylee in a bit, Wash. Why you saying you ain't a hero? I am here to tell you, you looked pretty damn heroic coming through the door of Niska's office all armed and rescue-like. Didn't see you cowering in the rear, and you had more reason than the rest to know what was all too likely to happen, did you fail. Come to that, you had more reason to believe you would fail, seeing you saw how that hell-hole was fortified."

Now Wash seemed to have trouble meeting Mal's eyes, he laced his fingers together and put his hands behind his head to stare off into the black. Mal recognized the pose. Wash spent hours alone on the bridge in just that position.

"I never went to war, Mal. I learned to handle a weapon 'cause on some worlds a ship is the biggest prize in the Cracker Jack Box. Did you ever wonder 'What is a Cracker Jack Box and why does it have a prize in it?'"

Mal knew that if he let him go down that road any serious discussion was done, so he brought him back to the point, saying softly, "You were sayin'?"

"I learned to defend myself in a barroom brawl 'cause being a manly man and hot pilot, it seemed the thing to do. Also, in my misspent youth, I had trouble holding my liquor and was a loquacious drunk. 'Course that's all behind me now, loquaciousness, I mean. I never expected to make the kind of enemies that torture you over a broken contract. Until that thing with Niska I never really worried about, myself. I worried over Zoe when she was on a run. But what I worried about was losing her and still living, not losing her by dying myself. I never thought I was a hero, but I didn't think I was a nuòfu either. Until Niska. It's a hard thing, to know you are a coward. It's not made easier when your wife is the bravest person you know."

Wash stopped talking and just stared out at the stars, Mal thought he might be done saying all that he would, but after a long moment of silence he started again, Mal strained even in the silence to hear him, his voice was so low, it almost seemed he was talking to himself

"Zoe came into that nightmare and took me out. But I knew then that she chose me 'cause she knew I wouldn't make it if I was the one left alone there. The smart play would have been to take you out. You're the better gun, better man in a fight, trained soldier. Better chance for the one left behind to be rescued. She didn't 'cause she saw I was a coward and I wouldn't survive alone."

Mal tuned back to face the pilot directly. "I've known Zoe half a lifetime and she wouldn't love no coward. Though it is unaccountable to me, she does love you. I reckon there's just no accounting for taste."

He reached out to grasp the pilot's chair and turned Wash in it so he could meet the pilot's eyes directly. "Everybody is scared, Wash, everybody. Don't make you a coward. 'Nara'd tell you I run all the time, from any fight I can; just ask her. You heard me screaming like a stuck pig when that chùsheng xai-jiao de xiang huo cut my ear. I seen you stand this boat on her tail and scream out of atmo at 3 gees and out fly Reavers without breaking a sweat -- when it had Jayne fit to piss hisself. No coward does that. No coward comes back in to get me after having got out of that shee-niou guay! Iff'n you do what scares you, even if you crap your pants on the way in and again on the way out, you ain't a coward."

Wash's lips twisted in a mocking half smile "Why Captain, I never knew you were a philosopher. That's gotta rank right up there with Lao Tzu."

The captain grinned tightly in return, "Have I ever told you I don't like you?"

"Many a time."

"Have I ever said that sometimes I really don't like you?"

"On the odd occasion."

"How 'bout that sometimes I just hate you?"

"Actually, Cap, you told me that on my wedding day. Just after you gave Zoe away, you leaned in for a manly buffet on the shoulder and a whispered word of encouragement in my shell-like ear and told me 'I hate you and if you hurt her I'll kill you.'"

"Well, to be completely accurate what I said was 'If you hurt her I'll kill you s-l-o-w-l-y.'"

Wash gave him a full-on grin "Ahh-h-h. My mistake."

The smile faded as Mal's attention returned to Kaylee's unaccountable evaporation from her usual haunts. Recalling Wash's original comment he asked, "This kinship with Kaylee, that gives you some inkling of her 'likely whereabouts and future plans.'? You ready to talk on that now?"

Wash took a breath before diving into some very deep waters "I'd say right about now she is trying to decide which planet would be her best choice to jump ship-- "

"Juedui bu! " Mal exploded.

Wash ignored the interruption. "She's thinking she needs one big enough and with advanced enough technology to have a star mechanic's hiring hall. Like Persephone or Beaumonde. She won't want to leave Serenity without a first rate mechanic and she'll need a way off planet herself. Won't want to hang around while Serenity is in port any longer than she has to. She's wondering how to get off the boat. Whether she should let you know before we touch down so you can send a wave, maybe try to get someone lined up,-- but, she's thinking, someone might try to talk her out of it. And then, there's that little voice in the back of her mind which is saying 'Just walk down the ramp like you're going for a drink and leave a note for them to find when you don't come back.'"

For a moment Mal's felt his world rock under his feet, his whole vision seemed to contract to a pinprick of starlight very far away--far away, but clear as on the day he heard Zoe say "They say we're to lay down arms." He thought then that was the worst it would ever get. Now he was very afraid he'd been wrong. "Gou zao de! This your way of telling me I'm losing my mechanic, pilot, and first mate?" he managed to choke past the bile filling his throat.

"Wu de ma!. Sweet Kuan Yin! No, Mal! No! I'm older and I've seen more than Kaylee. I met my Gethsemane sooner, that's all. I came out on the other side already and I'm still here. I expect I always will be. But I been where she is now, and I know what she's feeling. You need to leave her be right now, to see if she can come out the other end of this thing on her own. Because that's the only way our Kaylee will stay with a whole heart and you wouldn't want her here if she wasn't heart-whole. Wouldn't want it for her, I mean. No matter how much we selfishly wanted to keep her, it wouldn't be the right thing."

Mal felt himself start to breathe again. His mind began to unfreeze and take in the ship around him. Serenity settled with a bump into reality. He closed his eyes and let the relief of it wash over him like a benediction.

After awhile he asked curiously, "Mind if I ask you something, Wash?"

"Jeez, Mal, we've pretty much taken a stroll through my soul here. What else you want to know?"

"Why'd you decide to stay?"

"The God's honest truth, I'd like to say I courageously decided to stand with my comrades and shipmates against the encroaching might of the Evil Alliance. Yeah, in fact that's my story. Yeah--yeah, that's the ticket! The Evil Alliance!"

"How's about we don't play, just this once. Why stay?"

Mal saw the pilot close his eyes as his face twisted in remembered pain. Then Wash went very still, as if the slightest movement might reawaken some unbearable torment. "I couldn't bear to make Zoe choose. That liou mahngdid that to her. I couldn't be the one to do it to her again. And I couldn't leave her. --I'll be rich sharing her with you and with Serenity for the rest of my days, but I'll never ask her to choose."

Mal looked at Wash, a new comfortableness about the pilot and Zoe settling over him; a feeling that it wasn't only Zoe's loyalty kept Wash aboard. Wash was telling him in the only way that mattered that he knew, maybe had always known that Mal loved Zoe too, not the same way maybe, but love, deep and true. And he was saying that was okay. 'Cause Zoe had shown Wash, push-come-to-shove, what her choice would be and just knowing that would be enough for him. And just knowin' they'd always stay, that'd be enough for Mal.

"You know, just for the record, not sure I'd have it in me--was I in your position and Zoe my wife--to share her with a sumbitch like me, even a little bit. Takes courage, that does."

Wash smiled an acknowledgment of the thought, but didn't say anything.

"So, what can I do about little Kaylee?"

"For now you just have to have the courage to wait, Mal."

The End

Note: Gethsemane is the biblical location in which Christ experienced his crisis of faith on the eve of his crucifixion. I was looking for a reference that was more military, Gettysburg occurred to me, given Joss Whedon's interviews regarding the inspiration for the show. Ultimately I decided Wash is not soldier and what he experienced was a crisis of faith. Given Mal's religious background, [e.g. Serenity] it's a reference Wash would expect Mal to understand in all its nuances. Many thanks to all the kind contributors to the excellent Chinese translation thread at

Chinese Glossary

dan nang [I'm almost certain of it]

Je shr shuh muh lan dong shi [What kind of rotten thing is this?]

Ee-chi shung-hoo-shi [Let's all take a deep breath.]

Guay [hell]

Xiong meng de kuang ren [violent madman]

Ni ta ma de!. Tian xia shuo yu de ren dou gaisi! [Motherhumper! Everyone in the universe should die!]

yaoguài [monster]

nuòfu [coward]

chùsheng xai-jiao de xiang huo [animal fucking bastard]

shee-niou guay [shit–urine hell]

Juedui bu ! [No way!]

Gou zao de![This can't get any worse!]

Wu de ma! [Mother of God]

Kwan Yin! [Goddess of mercy!]

Liou mahng [Bastard]

If you enjoyed this story, or even if you didn't and have suggestions to make it better, please feel free to send feedback to