DISCLAIMER: Joss thunk them all up, I just play with them when I'm bored.
He felt rather than saw it as the Reavers' harpoon went sailing through the windscreen. Death is loud, he
thought, and sounds like Zoe screaming. The ground came up on him fast, and he realized he was alive. Bleeding, battered, thrown to the floor of the cockpit, but alive. Zoe, however…
"We gotta get going," Mal insisted. "Now."
"But, Mal -" He picked himself up off the floor, staring at his wife's body in shock. "She…"
There was no time for tears, his or Mal's. And there wouldn't be, for a good long time. Wash went on autopilot; held the front lines with Jayne, in Zoe's place, until they couldn't hold any longer. Tended to Kaylee and Simon while River slew every Reaver she laid her hands or weapons on. Kept a brave face, like he knew Zoe would've done. Give me strength, baby, he prayed, give me strength to keep them alive, and then I'll come home to you.
When it was all said and done, he couldn't really remember how he'd managed to come out alive. Even Inara took a bullet - just a graze - but he was untouched, and the whole event was a blur of violence and terror in his grief-fogged mind.
After the memorial service they held for Zoe, Book and Mr. Universe, Mal turned to Wash and said, "She loved you. I always told her that was a damn fool thing to do."
"That weren't nice," Kaylee hissed at Mal. "Don't you know he's hurtin' 'least as bad as you?"
Mal looked at her, but didn't say a word before continuing on his way back to Serenity.
"Mal don't mean nothin' by it," Kaylee soothed, patting Wash on the back. "He's just -"
"He meant it," Wash interrupted, trying his best not to let the others see him cry; Zoe would've been strong. "And he's right."
"He's not doing well," Simon frowned. "He's still a danger to himself, and I have him heavily sedated; there's no way he can fly right now."
Mal sighed. "Me an' the little albatross can handle things awhile. Don't got much use for a pilot can't fly, but I guess he's… family," he added grudgingly.
"He needs you to forgive him before he can forgive himself," River said softly. "He thinks it's his fault Zoe died."
"It is his gorram fault," Mal snapped. "Weren't for her goin' an' fallin' in love with 'im, I'd still have my best friend and my gorram
"No," River whispered, tears streaking her cheeks. "My fault."
"No, mei-mei, none of this is your fault," Simon soothed. It wasn't altogether truthful, he admitted to himself.
"She knew. She knew and she told Zoe what would happen! Told her she couldn't change it," River sobbed. "She told her so she would be prepared, but she changed it!"
Mal stared blankly at the girl for a moment, digesting this new bit of information. After a moment he turned to Simon. "Doc, is he - is he conscious? Can I see him?" Simon nodded and Mal brushed past him into the infirmary. "Doc tells me you tried to off yourself, that right?" he asked casually. Wash refused to meet his eyes. "Reckon I might try that my own self, were I hurtin' like you are, if 'Nara…" he trailed off. "Zoe knew that harpoon was meant for you. Ain't a thing you or I coulda said or done to make that woman change her mind once it was set, you know that." Wash narrowed his eyes, finally looking at Mal. "Don't make her death meaningless," Mal choked. "She gave her life for yours, even an' square, an' you owe it to her to make the most of it, dong ma?"
"It hurts," Wash whispered. "I can't breathe without her."
"You can," Mal said simply. "An' you did. You will again."
"It hurts so much…"
Mal nodded. "It'll hurt for a long while. You take all the time you need to rest up. The girl an' I can handle the flyin' for a while. She's a good pilot - she ain't you, but she'll keep us in the sky for now." Wash nodded, and Mal half-smiled. "Kaylee an' Simon are hopin' you'll be outta here in time for their weddin'. Kaylee'd want you there no matter what, but I'm performin' the service since the preacher… well, since I'm a bona fide captain an' all. I bet Simon'd sure like someone other'n Jayne to stand up for 'im."
Wash laughed. It was only a small one, more like a sharp release of breath, but it was enough to make a tidal wave of relief wash over Mal. "Wouldn't miss it," Wash said with a half-smile of his own.
"See that you don't," Mal said as he left.
It was a short, quiet ceremony. Mal wasn't much for words, or for God, so he cut right to the chase and made it up as he went. To Simon, he asked, "You're gonna keep her happy, fed, clothed when appropriate, and alive, dong ma?" Kaylee had been asked, "You promise to keep this ho-tze de pigu outta trouble so much as you can?"
Kaylee looked beautiful, barefoot, in an ankle-length red satin cheongsam that Inara ordered as a wedding gift from a designer on Osiris she had contracted with several times; her hair was twisted up onto her head and Wash realized that the little girl he relied on to keep Serenity in the sky wasn't a little girl after all - she was a beautiful, graceful woman, and she was about to make Simon the happiest man in the 'verse. Simon was, for once in his life, surprisingly under-dressed, at least in comparison with his beautiful bride. He wore black slacks and a plain black dress shirt, open at the collar, with no tie, and he cried when Kaylee said "I do."
River was insulted for Jayne that he hadn't been chosen as best man; made the captain all kinds of suspicious, but Jayne laughed it off. "Gorram crazy girl," he'd said, with what Wash was certain was affection. Simon, of course, was too captivated with his bubbly young bride to notice the meaningful looks his sister and the self-proclaimed badass mercenary were sharing.
Wash pasted on a smile, and after a while it became mostly genuine. He danced with the bride, danced with River, with Inara… with Mal and then Jayne after a few too many toasts to the happy couple. Forgot for a few precious hours the gaping hole in his heart. It almost felt good.
The next morning, his heartache matched his headache. He should have learned by now that you shouldn't drink quite so much of Kaylee's special home brew - you didn't really notice its effects until you were puking it up in the wee hours of the morning. He could remember times he and Zoe had nursed one another back to health after a particularly tough but successful job, or rather, the consequent celebration. But Zoe was gone now, he reminded himself, and there was no one there to dispense aspirin and sympathy for him. He even had to make his own coffee, which was odd, because even after a long night spent drinking, Mal usually managed to be up before everyone else.
When his hangover-fogged mind pieced together where the captain had likely spent the night, he smiled. Two birds with one stone, he thought. Simon made an honest woman out of Kaylee, and Inara made Mal face the truth about his feelings for her. Or, things had gone horribly awry, and Mal had landed himself hog-tied in the hold. He made a note to go check when he could blink without the sound
jarring his head.
"Drink juice," River advised, startling him. "And water. The caffeine in coffee eases the pain, but will also further dehydrate you." She poured him a tall glass of orange juice, which he accepted gratefully,
but stared at instead of drinking it.
"I don't want to… you know, waste it," he explained. "My stomach's still pretty pissed off at me."
River nodded, pouring another glass. "For Jayne," she said, smiling shyly. "Our secret, promise?"
Wash grinned, a real genuine Wash-grin, and River looked like he'd just handed her a thousand platinum. "I won't say a word," he swore, and with a brilliant smile, she planted a kiss on his forehead and danced away towards Jayne's bunk, never spilling a drop of precious orange juice.
"He's like me," River commented to Simon, who, after several days sequestered in shuttle two with his beautiful new wife, was now looking with evident frustration at Wash's chart.
"What's that, mei-mei?" Simon looked up; he didn't really know what he was looking for in the first place. "Did you say something?"
"Stronger than he looks," River smiled. "She taught him strength. And some day he'll realize it."
Simon looked at his sister with new eyes. "You're really getting better, aren't you?"
She stuck out her tongue. "Told you."
dong ma? - understand?
mei-mei - sister
ho-tze de pigu - monkey's ass
Cheongsam is actually Cantonese, which literally translated means "long dress," but has come to indicate a certain style of traditional Chinese dress, and the Mandarin word for the same dress is very close.