Warning - this contains major spoilers for the movie Serenity. Do not read if you don't want to be spoiled.
Old Soldiers Never Die by Djinn
You can't bear to visit the cockpit anymore. Everything's wrong because Wash is gone. Even though his dinosaurs still sit on the pilot's station. Even though the smell of him is still there if you bury your face hard enough into the fabric of his chair. Even though there's still an image of you, tucked into a far recess where he could see it when he was underneath the panel working on the controls. He was crazy that way. Said he wanted you near him no matter where he was.
Now, you're nowhere near him. How could you have left him on Haven? You feel like you left more than just your heart there. You feel like most of your soul stayed back, too.
A lot of people didn't get you and Wash. They thought he was too silly, too weak, for you. But he was the strong part of you. He was the part that never gave up on people, that never gave up on life. He was the thing that kept you wishing you'd never been to war. That made you want to have a baby so that, between the two of you, you could teach that child everything he or she would ever need to know--both about the good and the bad of folks.
Now, there won't be a baby. Not ever. Not with Wash. The future's another thing you left on Haven.
You wander down to the galley. Only Jayne's there. He's sitting at the table, hunched over as if guarding his bowl of soup. He looks like some kind of mutant hawk, if hawks bristled with guns and bandoliers instead of feathers.
"There's more soup. I'll get you some." Jayne's up before you can tell him you don't want any soup. He's been unusually kind to you. It's unnerving, and you wish he'd just flip back to normal. As long as he treats you like you might break, you know you might just be on the verge of that.
Everything that was normal and strong about you seems to have stayed down on Haven, too.
You definitely left your appetite there. You stare at the soup Jayne puts on the placemat across from his, feeling no inclination to taste it.
"Sit down, Zoe." His voice is calm. Almost soothing. The thought of Jayne being soothing is just plain wrong.
"Not hungry," you mutter.
"Don't much care." He takes you by the shoulders, pushes you down into the chair.
The thing that tells you that you're not right is that you let him do this. You pick up the spoon, just like you would have when you were a kid, and start to ladle the soup into your mouth. You can't taste it, don't want it, but you eat it because you have a feeling Jayne brought all those guns to deal with you, not with some big bad to come.
"There you go," he says, "don't that taste good?"
You think this is how Jayne might sound with a baby, and the thought makes you want to laugh and cry and also to throw your soup across the room. You decide just to keep on eating. It's been a long time since you ate, and you know your clothes are starting to hang on you. Mal's been worried. Hell, all of them are worried about you.
They think you're family. They think they have a right and a responsibility to care for you. But they don't. The part of you that they needed to care for is buried on a dusty world that holds too many dead friends and not enough live ones.
"Mal says we'll have work soon," Jayne says, his voice so perky he sounds like he's on happy pills.
"Mal says we'll be real busy."
You nod again.
"--Does Mal say to shut up and let a body eat in peace?" You know your tone is mean. Sharp and brittle like your insides are now. You think if you move wrong you might cut yourself from all the broken glass it feels like you ate.
"No, he didn't say that." Jayne looks miserable, but, since you're miserable, you don't mind sharing the emotion. Besides, you know he'll get over his feeling bad soon as he sees a new gun or a pretty piece of tail.
You left sex down on Haven, too. You've tried to touch yourself the way Wash did. During sleeptime, when the ship is silent. You've tried to pretend he was back. But you never get very far because he's not back, and he never will be, and your body doesn't respond to you the way it did to him. You wonder if you'll ever want sex again. Sex that isn't with him.
You see Kaylee and Simon together, and it hurts you as it brings back memories of the time you and Wash finally buried the hatchet--and he buried something else inside you. It wasn't just his body; he filled you with his love. And his hope. With his silly manner of being and with the way he couldn't get enough of loving you. As if you were a thing that God had made just for him.
You think that he was the only thing God made just for you...and you let him die.
In your nightmares, you see the Reaver harpoon coming through the cockpit, jamming through your husband's body. In your nightmares, he doesn't die instantly. He looks over at you, hand outstretched. "Why? Why did you let this happen?"
In your nightmares, you never know what to tell him.
Pushing the bowl away, you get up. Jayne starts to say something, but then he catches sight of the expression on your face and his mouth closes back up as he looks down at his soup.
You aren't sure where you want to go, so you pace through the ship. You head toward the engine room but can hear Simon and Kaylee in there, so you turn and make double time back to the aft stairwell that will take you down to the infirmary. With Simon gone, the room seems doubly empty. He has a calming way about him--or used to, before making love to Kaylee became his whole reason for being.
"He's not here." River's voice has changed since the fight with the Reavers. She doesn't seem like a little girl anymore. She's grown up and calmed down all at once.
"I know." Zoe doesn't want to look at River. River--who could have killed the Reavers, every last one of them, and made it so that Wash never had to die. If Wash had just gotten out of the ship.
"Timing's all wrong. No Reavers for me to kill before they killed him," River murmurs. "I wish..."
In the past, River would have just blurted out what you don't want to hear. But now, she knows better. Although whether that's a factor of growing up or of just being able to read your mind, you're not sure.
"Not your fault," you mumble, knowing your thoughts won't be unclear the way your words are.
River follows you as you leave the infirmary. You haven't seen Mal, but you imagine he might be in the cargo bay, fighting with Inara.
"He's with her. Fighting...?"
You look over at River. She shrugs and looks meaningfully up at the shuttle that was Inara's and is again. Girl's back in business. Or maybe not if the captain has anything to say about that.
"Come sit with me." River takes you by the hand, and the shock of contact makes you realize that nobody has touched you lately.
Most probably because you are scary and prickly and as likely to shoot them for the gesture as smile.
"You're not scary."
"Coming from you, girl, I'm not sure that's a comfort." But you follow River, knowing where she is taking you. Knowing it will be hard and your heart--what's left of it, anyway--will break a little bit more if you have to see where your man sat. Where River sits now.
River doesn't say anything, just pushes you into the copilot seat and takes Wash's chair. How much longer are you going to think of it that way? It's not your husband's chair, anymore. Just like your bed isn't his, and the toilet isn't something you have to argue over whose turn it is to clean.
Hitting dials in an eerie echo of the way Wash would have done it, River looks over at you. "Did you like him when you met him?"
You think she knows this, but she doesn't want to just steal it out of your mind. And you like that about her. It's a choice to live like a normal person. To give people a chance to put into words what she can see so easily at a glance.
"Nope." You say it, and you can see that silly mustache he wore. The cocky manner he carried himself. How exasperated he'd get when your no-nonsense ways interfered with you laughing at the funny things he'd say.
River touches one of the dinosaurs. "Where did he get these?"
She can't get that from your mind; you never knew for sure. "Prison, I think. He sat out most of the war."
River nods--she'd probably picked that up from him even without the special mind-reading talent. Didn't need to be a killing machine to see that Wash didn't have a whole lot of fight in him. Not that he was weak. You'd made that mistake when you first met him. Decided easy meant weak and optimistic meant stupid. They didn't.
You'd give up a limb to have just a moment of him spouting something full of his easy optimism.
"He died because of me." River sounds strange, and you look over and realize she is crying. Not just a few tears, either, but big, streaming tracks of them. "I'm sorry, Zoe. He died and Book died and I didn't mean for this to happen. I didn't know it would happen, and what good is being a psychic if you don't know what's going to happen?"
She looks at you, and you feel something melting, and suddenly you are crying because it's all right to cry for her even if you won't cry for yourself. You're not sure how it happens, but she is crawling into your lap, and you're cradling her in your arms, and you remember that this poor woman-child was someone's little girl. And that she never asked for this, and if they'd just left her alone, she might have ended up like Wash--happy and optimistic and ready for a future.
A future that would get ripped away because good people fall and you never know why.
River sobs, and you can feel the sounds tear through her. She trembles in your arms, and you realize you've never held her, never really offered her comfort. That was for Inara, or Book, or Simon to do. Hell, even Mal was kinder to her than you were.
"You weren't unkind to me. I just wasn't really here for you." River doesn't sound like she's holding any grudges over that. It's just the way things were.
"You're here now." You look at Wash's chair. River's chair now. Mal's chair, too, some of the time. Every time you look for your husband, you'll see this child you ignored. Or the captain you've proven too many times and at too much cost that you'd follow into hell. "If only we'd said no." You've replayed it in your mind. If you'd only told Mal no. If you'd only let him misbehave on his own.
"You wouldn't do that. No isn't something you'd say to the captain. Or something Wash would have said, either." River pushes out of your arms and walks back to the dinosaurs. She lifts one of them, making it talk, her voice nothing like Wash's, yet you think you hear something of him in her.
She turns to meet your eyes. Her smile is a brilliant thing to behold. "That's the nicest thing you've ever said to me."
"Didn't say it, River." You are trying to tell her to get out of your head.
She smiles, and, for a moment, you wonder if that is what your child might have looked like. Innocent and goofy, with your pain underneath.
You see River stop, but she doesn't comment this time. She took the warning to heart, even if she probably can't stay out of your head. But she can keep herself from commenting, and that's all you're really asking for, anyway.
Taking a deep breath, you curl yourself up in the copilot seat. River walks to the storage cabinet, pulls out the blanket and lays it about you.
It smells faintly of your husband's cologne and you close your eyes, breathing it in, surprised that it smells of him when he'd hated it because it was so scratchy. If you'd known it had his scent on it, you'd have taken it down to your quarters and curled up with it.
"There's a lot of things recorded in here," River says, tapping the console. "His voice. I could put something together for you...if you want?"
You want very much. But you can see yourself listening to it over and over until memory becomes obsession. Until the past takes over a future that promises only emptiness.
It breaks your heart to say no, but you know you have to. "Soldiers fall, River. You bury them. And then you leave them behind."
"He wasn't a soldier, Zoe. And someday you may want to share his voice." River looks at your belly, a sadly beautiful smile lighting her face. "Someday, I know you will."
You look down, too; the blanket covers whatever River thinks she sees inside you. "I had Simon check." It was the first thing you did after burying Wash. You had Simon check to see if there was life inside you--some bit of Wash that would go on. Some small part of him that you hadn't killed by being reckless during the fight with the Reavers.
"Simon's been a little distracted." River's smile is a serene one. Woman to woman. Understanding. Old. "Better have him check again."
"I will." You push yourself out of the chair.
"Better give him some time before you do," River says, laughing, as she makes the universal finger signs for two folks becoming one flesh.
"Oh. Right." You feel a hope fill you. A hope you've not felt since Wash died. A feeling that used to need your husband's touch and laugh and his soft, gentle smile. Maybe you'll see that smile again. Maybe you'll hold some part of him again.
For the first time, the cockpit seems a welcoming place. A fitting place. Wash's child will want to be here. Your baby will want to play with those dinosaurs and crawl all around under the console. Will he or she laugh when your image comes into view?
You suddenly know you need to add a picture of Wash, so that when your child looks up and catches sight of those images for the first time, both of you will be smiling down.
You look over at River. "How long have you known?"
"Just felt it now. Feels like you and him and something new, too." She smiles again. It is such a new expression for her, this easy, open smile. As if she is coming to terms with herself, finally. Or just channeling your husband from the chair she has claimed as her own.
And you're all right with her in that chair. You're just fine with that--or you're getting there, anyway.
"You two taking good care of my boat?" Mal's voice is a little tentative, as if he is unsure that River should be steering or that you should be up here, at all.
"We are, sir." River smiles, a different smile than the one she's been giving you. One that is just Mal's.
"Well, carry on." And he leaves you, heading rather quickly back the way he'd come.
"Are they...?" It's suddenly important to you that he be happy, that he get to find out that love can be sweet when it's not ripping your heart out.
"Soon, I think." River gives you what must be the "happy for Mal and Inara" smile because, again, it is slightly different than the ones you've seen before. You imagine you'll catalog your child's smiles the same way.
River turns away, piloting the ship well. Not as well as your man, but then, no one every will. For a moment, he is sitting in the chair, again. In your mind, he has a bright, silly shirt on, and is wearing a big goofy smile as he makes one of the dinosaurs proposition you.
"I don't know what he called them," you say, looking at the dinosaurs, realizing their names might be important.
River gives you the smile that is just for you. "That's all right. I do."