Major spoilers for most Firefly episodes and especially the Serenity film. This is Wash and Zoe's story, from the beginning of the tale and through the end of the film, in my own way. Don't know if Joss would agree with this, but at least there's an effort here to make the characters jibe with his. Even though he had nothing to do with this story, and neither did anyone else at Mutant Enemy, aside from creating and owning the characters and all that other stuff I didn't do.
Some say that love is a chemical, something that gets into the blood and peaks and blooms and dies.
They say that, biologically speaking, we're not set up to be madly in love for all time. Happily ever after is only a thing for fairy tales. That it won't ever last for eternity, that sooner or later it has to return to some normalcy as the chemicals die off and reality sets in. And that can be an okay thing, or it can be an awful one.
Zoe heard that bit of science mixed in with her folklore, learned it somewhere and couldn't really remember where. She never worried about it all that much, since she never planned on having to fall in love anyway. It didn't make much sense to spend time worrying about something that didn't affect her directly. So she never gave it all that much thought. For the longest time.
It was three months of sailing before she finally noticed him. Really noticed him.
She had other things to worry about, after all. There were other folks to be hired. There was a ship needing to be outfit. There were scraps. Lots and lots of scraps. Plus a few scrapes here and there, to boot, and there wasn't much time for noticing folk.
There was the week they ran out of food supplies entire, and the crew as was nearly staged a revolt. She didn't pay much attention to him then, mostly cause of the fact that Mal seemed to nearly be leading the revolt himself, til they finally figured out Melendez was so happy cause of the stash in his room. They ate what Melendez stole until they could get to the nearest planet, kick off Melendez, and knock off a supply shuttle. She didn't take notice of him then, for there was no reason to.
There was a near-miss with Reavers, and there was a couple double-crossings in there. Mal hired and fired a few more folks, they got the kitchen to working better, and the food supplies to go farther. Things was coming together, but they still had a ways to go.
There was politics to deal with, well, the off-core kind of politics, scheming and dealing and wheeling and all. There was Mal's arrest and some palm-crossing with the payoff from a ceramics smuggling gig to get him out. That one got tense, they nearly had to actually try their hand with the judicial system, but due to some well-placed connections and a great deal of money, they were on their way within a week.
And then, there was Wash.
Came out of nowhere, really. She wasn't sure what hit her. One day there was just the crew, Mal and the crew, Mal and Zoe and the crew.
And then one day, there was Wash.
When she looked back on it later, she figured it was the night they emergency landed on Hermes en route to Pacquin. She'd gone to bed expecting to wake up to overcast with a slight bit of rain (according to the weather report they'd pulled off the cortex) but instead it was thunder; loud, crashing thunder, accompanied by some slight turbulence. Since thunder didn't generally happen in space, and turbulence generally didn't happen on the ground, logic led her to assume something was amiss.
Now, normally the captain took no patience of her sleeping through emergencies, and she never argued with that, him being right, so it caught her by some surprise that he hadn't roused her from her bunk straight away.
It took her a few moments to realize this wasn't a battle and they weren't under attack, and then to remember where her robe was lying. She pulled it around herself fast as she could, leapt into her shoes, and climbed up the ladder skipping every other rung.
"What's happening?" she demanded as she stormed onto the bridge. "How far up are we?"
"I would tell you," the pilot said, struggling with what seemed like every button on his panel, "if I could. But seeing how we have no engineer-"
"No engineer, what's that mean? Where's Bester, ain't he on the ship?"
"I would tell you if I could."
"Where's the captain?"
"Asleep, best I can guess-"
"You didn't page him?"
"My hands are a bit full right now!" he snapped.
She stopped suddenly, catching herself. Here they were in a crisis and she was wasting time shouting at the man flying the ship and doing all he could. He was right. She dashed to the loudspeaker system and flipped the switch for Mal's room.
"Captain, wake up! Get to the bridge, now."
She switched it off and strode back to him, bracing herself along the way. "Why ain't we steady?"
"Well, we're not near enough to any planets to be feeling their effects, so… Far as I can tell something in the grav unit must be wonky, but I'm just guessing from the feel here."
"And where's your good friend Bester?" She was maybe being a bit rude, but in the circumstances, all things considered, she wasn't too put out by how she was coming off. She staggered back over to the loudspeaker. "We need a mechanic! Bester, where are you?" It didn't matter if the whole ship heard, at this point. Truth be told, Bester was starting to work her last nerve, and a small, bitter part of Zoe wanted the captain to know that right now, as they plummeted through outer space with gravity pulling them every which way, the engineer was probably playing solo poker in his bunk. That was, if he could figure out how to work the machine it ran on, and even that she wasn't all too sure of.
She flipped the switch back to Mal's room. "Cap'n!" Not a response. She paged again. "Captain?"
"Hey Zoe!" Bester's voice echoed over the speaker. Too damn cheerful for her taste, given how he should have been giving her answers ten minutes before she awoke.
"What's wrong with this ship?"
"Uh, well, can't tell just yet, honey, but hey, I'm workin' on it."
"Well, work faster. And talk shorter."
"Uhhh, yeah. I am on my way."
She flipped the switch off in annoyance. "I see he's got nothin'. Washburne, what are we workin' with?"
"I've got steering…" His voice was unusually steady. "We've got thrusters, we've got everything but stability at this point."
"What's the nearest place we can get to safe?" Assuming they could get there safe…
"Hermes," he said. "We're just a couple hours out. I can point us there, but I can't guarantee we can land. Might have to work from orbit."
"You just point us," she said. "Let me deal with Bester and the runnings."
"Sounds like a plan to me," he said, then stopped. "And, uh… Wash."
She blinked, not quite sure what he was going for. "What?"
"I have been on this boat for – two? No, three months now. Told the captain from day one nobody calls me Washburne, but he kept on. Starting to get to the point I'm close to answering to it, and that means it's gone too far. It's Wash."
"I just thought – captain said-" Actually. It all was starting to make perfect sense to her, knowing Mal as she did. "Huh."
"I mean, he's the captain, sure! It's his ship! He can call me what he wants. Only, it's really making my head spin. So maybe it's best everybody else figures out what I'm called."
Zoe blinked. She had been staring a little too hard at the back of Wash's head, as he bent over the helm, and the voice from behind startled her. She turned to face the newcomer. "What's that, Bester?"
"And we lost the grav boot… I think. Uh, the second one. Look, we need a garage. Get this boat on the ground." He scratched behind his ear and he looked more than a bit confused.
"They got garages on Hermes?" she asked, more in Wash's direction than Bester's. Right now she wanted answers, not excuses, and she knew which man was more likely to have each.
"I know a real good one if we can make it," Wash said.
"Mmm hmm. They do orbital work?"
"Good. Take us there."
"Will do," he replied cheerfully. She saw his tongue flick out of his mouth briefly as he turned sideways to enter the course. "Think I can cover if it's the stabilizers, we'll just compensate. We'll hafta lose all grav for a couple minutes to sort things out, but we should be okay after that."
"Hello?" Bester asked. "Anyone wanna know what I think?"
"Do it, Wash," she said. Anything would be better than the jerking, and she'd just bumped her shin on the wall anyway. She reached back for the intercom. "Attention crew, we are about to lose gravity, so close your drinks and please, please hold off on using the bathroom for a minute."
She heard a small noise from behind her, as though Wash had sneezed or sniffed, or maybe laughed. She wasn't quite sure.
"Okay," Bester said from out of nowhere, still seeming rather out of place.
"You done this before, right?" she asked dubiously as she reached for a handle to steady herself.
For a moment, Wash's hands stopped, and he turned around to face her. "Watch me," he said, and his lip twitched as he smiled.
Her jaw dropped.
"When did you shave-?"
She didn't have time to finish the sentence because he'd turned back to his console panel and the ship jerked two last times before suddenly, they entered the freefall feeling of zero gravity. She felt her hair floating up with it, and she wished desperately, oddly, that she'd thought to tie it back before racing to the bridge, because she couldn't be in the best of appearances now, not with her hair every which way, and her robe – her robe. Even though it was still in place, just drifting around her calves, she released one hand and moved it down to straighten the cloth. The last thing she needed to be doing right now was offering a peep show to the mechanic. Or the pilot, for that matter.
She held one hand down over her robe and strengthened her grip with the other one as she watched him work. There was a certain calm to Wash, for all that his hair was drifting up as well, and he seemed to have attached himself to his seat by curling his feet underneath the panel for stability. He wasn't wearing any kind of a harness. He wasn't panicking, he wasn't even breathing faster from what she could tell. He was steady, and even. Mal was right. They'd found themselves a damn good pilot.
As opposed to the mechanic, who seemed to have started moving the second they lost gravity, about the worst idea possible, and was now fighting his way along the ceiling. How he'd managed to move himself up there, she had no idea. He looked to be in considerable distress, but she simply secured herself near the floor, anticipating the return of gravity.
With a couple of definitive beeps, Wash leaned back in his chair and gravity settled back over them. He turned around, a shit-eating grin on his face, as Bester fell to the ground with a sharp yell. "There," he said. "We're stable and our course should be flawless. Autopilot until we approach atmo."
Zoe, in contrast, wasn't calm. Her breathing was coming faster, her heart was pounding. And her robe was still just a little offset.
"Help?" Bester asked in a small voice.
"That was amazing," she said, and for once, she meant it in all genuinehood.
"That's why you folks pay me, right?" Wash asked.
Pay. Damn. He worked for her. Was no point getting worked up over an employee, shipboard romances were always a bad idea, no matter how sexy a flier they were, no matter how much they looked different without a moustache. Same as sex in the trenches. Was just a cog in the machinery, when things went south as they usually would, things were bound to get awkward and bent out of shape. She could shove it aside. No big deal. Out of sight, out of-
"Gorram it, Zoe!" Bester shouted as he finally managed to lug himself to his feet. "What'd you have to go and turn off the grav for?"
"We told you it was coming," Zoe said. As much as she usually found the man irksome, he was reaching a critical level now. "I don't recall telling you to start hauling ass once it went."
"We coulda made it, if we-" He was searching for answers. She wasn't really expecting any, nice as they would have been. "Like you know anything about how this ship works!"
"Oh, so you do now?" Wash asked. "That should be a considerable improvement then." Zoe turned back to the pilot in surprise. Wash and Bester were buddies, they went drinking together, she'd once caught them creating a situation so they could spend a week on a layover at a vacation moon. Wash turning on Bester – this was something new to her experience.
"I'm the engineer." Bester approached the pilot's chair in anger. "How's about you fly this boat and I'll worry about fixin' her."
"I would like very much to fly this boat," Wash said, "if she would stop complaining to me about what a piss-poor job you're doing of fixing her."
"You better watch what comes outta that fish's mouth you got there," Bester challenged him.
"Bester!" Zoe snapped. "I will only tell you this once. You will stop arguing with the pilot and you will go start fixing this boat."
"Aw, he started it, Zoe-"
"That was once. Was I not clear?"
"Since when are you the captain?"
She stepped closer to him. "Any time the captain is not here," she said, "you are dealing with me. Best you remember that."
Bester turned around, muttering something as he did. She didn't recognize the language, it wasn't English or Chinese and sounded something more like Spanish, which she wasn't all that familiar with. Wash, however, seemed to have a different experience. Whatever it was set a horrified look to his face, and the pilot rose from his chair, fist in hand, looking as if he was going to try to hit the man, but in a clumsy fashion.
Bester saw it coming from about a mile off and blocked him pretty easy, but that was about as far as they both got before Zoe was between them in a flash and had the mechanic pinned to the floor. "Back off, Wash," she said. She could only hold one of the men and she'd rather have the pilot on her side right now, especially seeing as how he wasn't going to bother with getting Bester as long as she was in the way. With a tough smirk, probably undeserved, Wash settled back into his chair.
Zoe glanced down at Bester, who was struggling under her on the floor. "I don't know what you just said," she said, "but looks to me like he can tell me. How about you just go do your job and keep the opinion to yourself?"
She waited until he seemed content to not struggle, then released him. She didn't like having to touch the man. He glared over his shoulder at Wash as he stumbled off the bridge.
"What was that about?" Zoe asked as soon as he had gone.
"Oh," Wash said, "I'm about as sick of him as you are. Really was from the beginning, don't get me wrong, I just-"
"No," she said patiently, "What'd he just say?"
"Oh," and he looked fairly uncomfortable now. "I'd really rather not-"
"Well, you don't have to translate it word for word. What was the gist?"
"He was, ah," Wash coughed a bit, "insulting your honor as a woman."
"Was he now."
"More or less."
She figured a literal translation wasn't necessary. "And you were… what? Defending it?"
Wash shrugged, not looking at her but at his panel, even though there didn't seem to be much for him to do.
"Rest assured I can defend my own honor. But still rather noble of you, Washburne." She stopped and closed her eyes, catching herself. "Wash."
"Yeah, well, Bester's not exactly the most shining example of humanity this 'verse has ever seen." He turned around and grinned. He looked an awful spell younger without the facial hair. "Small doses, he's tolerable. But long-term…" He trailed off, also catching himself.
"What happened to the captain?" she asked. She looked around. "I should go check on him."
Wash was nodding his head. "Right," he said. "He must have woken up, all that turbulence."
"So." She reached her hand up to smooth her hair. It had landed every which way. Couldn't be all that flattering on her. Why was he still staring, then? Even from across the bridge he was staring fair close, like as if he was inches away from her.
"The captain-" he said suddenly.
"Right," she said, taking a step back and propelling herself onto the stairs. "I'll just go – find out."
She hurried down the corridor over the crew quarters, trying to compose herself. It wasn't as if she'd never bumped into Mal in various states of dress, but come to think of it, she never had really bumped into him while hot and bothered, and that alone was cause for concern now. Cause there was definitely a feeling rushing through her now, a feeling she wasn't used to having round Mal, and it was not a source of extreme comfort.
The door over his quarters was closed tight. She waited a moment, trying to think of unsexy things like mud, and broccoli, and fire – no, that last one didn't quite work - before knocking at it with her fist. "Cap'n?"
Nothing. She kicked the ladder into place and descended down into darkness.
"Arrrmphhh?" The lights flicked on and Mal sat up straight in his bed, blinking wildly. Apparently he must have slept through the gravity loss, since his blanket was down atop his legs and the pillow had fallen to the floor some feet away. He found his composure fast, as was his way. "Zoe. Yes? Hi."
"Ship's not crashing, sir. Bester is completely short of a clue, no surprise there, but Wash got us stable, we should be hitting atmo on Hermes soon. We'll fix her up there."
"We're not crashing?" he asked. "That's good. That's good, right?"
"Very good, sir."
"Well, good!" he declared. "Mind if I, just, perhaps, sleep through this non-emergency, then?"
Zoe closed her eyes and smiled. "You seemed to be doing a fair decent job at that." She turned to leave.
She turned around. "Yes, sir?"
"Who's Wash?" He seemed to be genuinely confused. She was rather sure he was. Mal didn't have a long memory for things that weren't how he wanted them to be, like folks having names he didn't favor calling them.
"Our pilot, sir."
"It's his name, so he tells me."
"Huh," Mal said, contemplating this. "All right." He stared at her sideways. "…You sure I'm not sleepin' through somethin' excitin'?"
"Boring as a library up there. Enjoy your sleep and you'll wake up on Hermes." Or over it. But she could deal with that bridge when they got to it.
She climbed back up the ladder, mindful of her robe as she went. At the top she pulled the staircase behind her, sealing the captain's quarters shut. She leaned against the wall, feeling the metal through her robe, her hair falling around her shoulders. She needed to tie it back. Needed to go back to her quarters, lie down, get some rest so she could be alert when they hit Hermes.
And yet she found herself wandering in the direction of the kitchen. Not to the bridge. No, that was too direct. But she didn't want to be exactly alone right now, she more fancied being someplace she might run into somebody.
Somebody. She found herself wondering who exactly this Wash person was who'd been flying their ship going on four months now. Wash. Not Washburne. That signified a big change. Wash. Who was Wash, that Hoban Washburne wasn't? Her mind flashed to a man in a Hawaiian shirt leaning back, almost cocky, though it was justified with how he'd just flown the ship. A man in control, yet comfortable, relaxed. A man knew who he was, knew what he was doing, and probably knew just what he wanted. And from the look of things earlier, if she knew how to read men right and she was fair sure she did, he might just want her.
She took her time preparing her meal, mixing the ingredients of the MRE and heating it in the oven. And she took her time eating it, eying the door that led to his location, hoping maybe he would sidle through. But there was no sign of him, surely he was doing his job up at the helm like he was paid to do. And doing it wellDoing it so damn well she'd barely taken notice of it the whole time he was there. Which signified he was qualified, as opposed to the goddamn useless engineer. Worth noting, even if she hadn't noted it all this time.
Of course he wanted her. Men wanted her, least most of the ones who favored womenfolk did. Period. She knew it, she'd used it to further her cause since she was nine years old, with mixed results over the years. A good shot and a clear head got her further than a good tube of lipstick, but she still preferred to carry all three.
But it was worth remembering, the men she got on best with weren't the ones wanting in her pants, they were the ones like Mal, ones who had no intentions and were perfectly happy to keep it that way. This was why shipboard romances were such a bad idea. What happened after? That was the burning question.
The thing her mind kept burning on, was not how he looked at her that night, on the bridge, but how he hadn't looked at her all this time til. As if he was waiting for her permission. Or as if for some reason, some reason she couldn't fathom, he had seen something in her he'd never seen before.
Like her gorram robe.
Zoe cursed softly aloud and deposited her empty dish into the washer with a clank. Here she was first mate of the crew, running around just after an emergency like a Companion in her robe. Of course, that explained it. And now that he'd seen it, was likely he'd remember. That was no good. If Bester was hot and bothered over her that'd be fine, she didn't mind using it to control a man, but Wash – somehow was different.
She'd been lonely too long out here. Too long without a man. Maybe it wasn't this one. Maybe she was just burning. But she tried to address her needs and it did no good. She still found herself thinking about him when she shouldn't be, and that was starting to be a source of some concern.
She was careful for the next couple of days to keep her hair tied back, avoid the lipstick, and wear nothing but her regular work clothes around the ship. She was careful to neither avoid him nor directly encounter him, meaning she spent a good lot of time trying very hard to act like she did every other day.
Cause he didn't seem to be anything other than normal. He was himself, though she hadn't noticed before just how appealing that self could be. All relaxed and joking. How he wore clothes to make it look like he was on vacation half the time. That was what everything was to him. A joke. A vacation. And to Zoe, somebody who saw life more or less as a constant struggle, it wasn't a half-bad outlook to consider.
This life was fun for him. Wasn't work. It was an adventure. It was something exciting to wake up to each and every day. And she was starting to find that kind of mindset to be something she wanted more of in her experience. It was strange and puzzling to her, but at the same time, it was also appealing.
Watching him affectionately stroke the control panel one day, all absent-minded yet caring, made her jealous of the ship for once. It was her ship, it was an extension of her, but it was something that man truly loved. He was with them cause he loved her. Zoe loved her too, and she couldn't deny the fact that they shared good common ground starting with that.
But there was a lot more she could deny. Like how he was nothing like the men who frightened her, the ones she saw fit to try and frighten back. Or the ones who'd tried to hurt her before. Or the ones she'd had to hurt.
How he was gentle with the cat that got loose on the ship one morning, and how his truly awful voice singing drunken songs with the mechanics out on the dock one night was almost half charming.
And how she found herself wondering if he sang better when he wasn't intoxicated, though she denied that, too.
She denied how he stepped aside when they tried to enter the kitchen at the same time one morning, mumbling about ladies first.
She denied all of it best she could. And then, there was the night she couldn't take it no more.
There was no flying to be done. Ship wasn't moving. She'd managed to get out of Bester that it was going to be four more days at the least, no question about it. Which meant another two weeks or more. There would be work to be done, except Mal was so bent out of shape about the state of the ship he took to sulking around the cargo bay and refusing to go looking for alternate work, fixating on the one they were en route for instead. "Who's gonna hire a crew don't have no working ship?" he muttered when Zoe pressed him about it, and she decided that it would be wise to just drop the point until they got the ship to working again.
Which meant there was nothing to be done as far as Zoe's job was concerned. Which left her free to make up her own mind what to do for a spell. And that mind had a pretty fair idea what it was wanting.
And so Zoe found herself, not in her robe and not in her work clothes, but in something a little more comfortable and a little less bulky, at the top of Wash's berth. Wanting.
She made her way into his quarters and studied his reaction carefully. He looked pleased, but like as if he was trying to cover it, which somehow made her even more confused.
"Zoe! What brings you – er…"
"Ship's dead as a doornail," she said, almost reluctantly.
"I know, that's why I'm sitting here, and not flying it."
"All this time," she said. "And nothin' to do with it."
He gulped, just a little. Maybe she was coming on too strong. Maybe he didn't want it after all. Maybe he liked men. Maybe-
"So did you have any, er, intentions? For what to do with all… this time?" he asked, nervous and talking just a bit too quick.
Of the three maybes she'd been running through her head, she settled on one, just a hunch, and decided to go with it. "Hermes ain't a bad layover. Was thinking of maybe exploring a bit. Take in some of the countryside."
He visibly relaxed at this. "Countryside! Sure! I love countryside. Always had a thing about countryside, since I grew up so far from it. The building I grew up in? Had ninety-eight floors. You try finding countryside from the seventy-second floor."
"Really?" She didn't even have to feign interest. Man kept getting more and more curious to her. "Central planet?"
"The most. I like it out here, though. You grew up on the outer planets, I guess?"
"Born and raised. Could count my trips to the core on one hand." She paused, wondering if this was exactly true. "And a finger or two, I figure."
He laughed at that, and suddenly all the tension seemed to leave the room. This pleased Zoe, who didn't often feel so off her guard with a man. And somehow, the fact that she was now didn't really bother her, either.
"I don't blame you. Couldn't wait to get out of there myself. You know I actually tried to sell my brother for passage on a ship when I was nine?"
"Swear on my life."
"How old was he?"
"Seventeen. I made it halfway out of orbit before my pop realized what was going on. Woulda got a good whooping for that, if he hadn't been laughing too hard to lay a hand on me." Wash shrugged. "Yeah, nobody really liked my brother." At her laugh, he added, "Or my pop, really, come to think."
"I joined up when I was eighteen," Zoe said. "Browncoats snapped me right up. Ain't been home since. Ain't much cared to."
Wash nodded, somber now. "It's not so bad out here. Decent living-"
"When the food don't run out," she pointed out. He shrugged. Melendez was a thing of the past.
"Nearly gettin' ourselves shot every other week, right."
"And a place to rest my head at night. I can't complain."
"I know." She glanced down. "I love it, too, truth be told. More of a home than I've had for some time… D'ya ever think about decoratin' this place?" she asked, looking around at his walls. Aside from some plastic dinosaurs on a shelf and a couple of ship models, there really wasn't… much… to look at.
"Dunno. I'm not good at stuff like that. I have no eye, you see. My art teacher in high school used to ask me weekly if I was sure I wasn't blind. He was so sure I had to be faking it." She nodded silently. That, perhaps, went a good ways toward explaining his general attire.
"Ain't much of a home with nothing on the walls. I hear there's shops out here on Hermes," Zoe said. "I could help you look. If you wanted."
"Right," he said, brightening suddenly. "Planetside. We said. Didn't we? I'm game. Only, you know, if you are."
She nodded, her lips pressing together in what, for her, was definitely a smile. "I am game."
But as it turned out, they got very little shopping done that particular day. They bought a lantern and a painting before they got bored and decided there were more exciting things they could be doing together planetside. Things that couldn't wait much longer. It was down behind the docks, in the overgrown maze of vines and bushes, that they stole their first kiss. And their second, and then some. And very nearly consummated right then and there, but for the fact that she spotted a tick on his pale hair, landing them in the med ward with tweezers and matches going over their bodies entire. Which was a funny way to see each other naked for the first time, but somehow, she didn't mind, and she didn't think he did neither. And it did a right fine job getting them riled up.
So it was after that, not in his quarters (though they did at least drop off the lantern and the painting) but in her own, that they actually got to touching each other in the more appropriate kind of way, tangled up in her small bed.
And after that they decided mutually that some more of that wouldn't be adverse in the least.
Zoe never met anyone to make her feel how Wash did, this sudden change of atmosphere and perspective. She never minded working before, it was just something she always did; now when she wasn't on the bridge standing behind him watching him fly, or making love to him in her bunk, or exploring planetside with him, she didn't have much use for the time. She was captivated by the way he moved. The way he laughed, the way he flew. The way he approached things. The way he cared, the way he didn't care. The way he made her feel inside. Three months on a ship and she never noticed him. Now, suddenly, out of nowhere, she couldn't not… notice him. If this was infatuation, if it was chemically induced, it was a downright fun way to spend the time.
It made sense to hide it from Mal at first. He didn't much care for shipboard romances himself, and it was hard enough getting him just to call Wash by his name proper, so breaking the news of their, well, what was getting to be some sort of relationship? Seemed out of the question to her.
And the longer they waited, the more exciting it got. Kisses just barely broken off before Mal came on the scene. Looks behind his back. Sneaking to and from each other's bunks. Inside jokes in front of the others.
The new mechanic they'd picked up on Hermes was first to catch on. Zoe didn't care much for her in the beginning but Wash did, and he spent a good bit of time with her getting the ship up to speed and getting her up to speed on the ship. It should have made Zoe jealous, but somehow, it didn't concern her in the least, even after the captain told her in private what Kaylee was really doing first time he laid eyes on her. The fact that Wash was spending an awful lot of time with her somehow failed to faze Zoe. She knew he wasn't doing anything inappropriate with the girl, without even asking him. Same as he never had done anything inappropriate with Bester (and good riddance). Same as she never would do anything inappropriate with the captain. She understood that much already.
He told Zoe one night how Kaylee kept asking questions about her to the point where he couldn't go on not admitting it.
"You didn't have to tell her," Zoe said, still stroking his elbow affectionately where it lay atop her breast. He'd propped his hands behind his head, raising himself on his pillow to tell the story. His pillow wasn't even in his quarters any more. He only went in there when he knew folks were looking. Most nights his pillow was smushed up in the small bunk next to hers.
"That's what I'm saying! I didn't! Have to. The girl just - knew somehow."
"How could she tell?" Zoe asked, astonished.
"Oh, come on," he scoffed. "You'd have to either be blind as a bat, or be the captain not to know."
This caught Zoe off guard. "You think the captain doesn't know?"
"Of course he doesn't!"
"How do you know that?"
"Well, I'm still here, aren't I?"
Zoe didn't much care for this response. "Captain wouldn't mind."
"Then why don't we tell him?" A sudden look crossed Wash's face. Almost a realization, or a fear.
"Zoe, why don't we tell him?"
She shook her head, smiling, as she pushed his elbow away from her, forcing him to sit up. "Captain don't have much interest in what's not affecting his livelihood."
"And his pilot and his first mate having a torrid affair isn't affecting his livelihood?"
Now she sat up to face him. "You think our affair is torrid? Really?" She couldn't hide her playful excitement.
"Well, yeah, I mean, it's all secret, and we're pirates, and gee, there's a very hot woman in bed with me naked as the day she was born, so yes, I find it extremely torrid."
Zoe tumbled towards him, pinning him back on the bed. She wasn't sure if she'd ever been as happy as she felt right about then. Times like this it wasn't even sex she was feeling so much, as she tussled with him, kissing his mouth, his cheeks, his nose. She didn't care much about any kind of climax right now. She just wanted to be with him, stay like this, forever and ever in this close contact with this man.
It looked like it was taking all his will to turn her over and sit up on his own, which pleased her even though it meant they weren't touching so close anymore. "Why don't we just tell him, Zoe? What are you afraid of?"
"I got nothin' to be afraid of," she insisted. "I may work for the captain, but I do what I want with my own time."
"So then it's agreed?"
"I…" She tilted her head back with a sigh. "I just don't see no reason to."
"Or not to!"
"It'd be a waste of his time. Why should he care?"
"Because," Wash said, and she recognized the plaintive tone in his voice. "Because this is a thing, and it is happening, and it is happening on his ship. Did you see when he gave that speech last week about bringing the Companion on board? He was lookin' straight at me. Plain as day." She stared at him with some alarm. "I don't want a companion," Wash whined. "I mean, I do want a companion. But I don't want a Companion, not for me, you do hear the difference there, right? Cause there is a difference." He leaned back over her. "I just want you, and I want him to know that. No more hiding. No more lectures about leaving the Companions alone."
"What if he does get mad?" she asked, scooting herself down the bed bringing herself face to face with him. "What if he orders you off the ship?"
"Orders me off the ship?" Wash asked. "What if he orders you off the ship?"
"Won't happen," Zoe said dismissively.
"Well… okay, then. But. You tell me. What do you do if he orders me off the ship?"
Zoe paused and bit her lip. She squirmed a bit beneath him, seductively, trying to buy herself time. It worked for a moment, and he lowered his full weight on top of her, seemed like he was about ready for another go, and she very nearly thought she'd escaped the conversation. Then he fell to the side, rolling over onto his back.
Which meant he was waiting for a response. Which meant she had to give one. "Captain orders you off the ship," she said, "I talk him out of it."
"You can do that?" Wash asked, surprised. "You can talk him out of things?"
"If he's making a mistake. And you're the best pilot we could find, and he knows it, cause he found you." It was that simple. It had to be that simple. She hoped it was that simple.
"Okay. Right. But. What if you can't talk him out of it?"
"If I can't… Why are we even talking about this? Are we telling him?"
"Are we?" Wash asked, echoing her again.
"I – don't…"
"Zoe." He reached out for her hand, pulling her upright to face him. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders, and she embraced him in turn. She just felt so comfortable here, ways she'd never felt with any other man. Which made it a lot harder to disagree with him in the moment. "I don't want to hide. I don't want to lie. He is our employer, and we live on a teeny-tiny little spaceship with him. He is going to find out one way or another, and will probably take it better if it comes from us than if he reads the mechanic's diary by accident."
It was Zoe's turn to laugh. "Wouldn't be no accident," she said.
"Note to self," Wash said. "'Don't leave your diary lying about, self.'"
"Definitely not," she said. "Though… I guess we wouldn't have to worry so much were we to just tell him, huh?"
"See?" he asked, taking her face in his hands. "Now you're talking."
"I just…" She shook her head, shaking him off. "Cap'n and I don't talk about things like relationships. Sex. We never have."
"Which, don't get me wrong," Wash said hastily, "is fine by me on principle. But this isn't about him, it's about us. As, well, as relates to him. Unless." He stopped.
"You mean to finish that sentence."
"Unless… I dunno. Are we planning on continuing this? Cause, far as I'm concerned, I see no reason not to."
"Of course!" She straightened up, fixing her glance on him as direct as she could. "Of course we are! Right?"
At that he seemed to relax a bit. "So it's settled, then. We tell him."
"Yes," she said, without thinking. Funny how she did that sometimes now. Said things without thinking because Wash had her so addled. She thought about this one a second time. "Tomorrow."
"What are we doing tonight?" he asked.
"I have an idea," she said. He was definitely ready for another go. There was no question about that. She pounced, pinning him to the bed. It was her turn to run things now. Just because she wanted more than a climax didn't mean she didn't want that, too. Having Wash like this was turning out to be good for more than one thing, many more to be fair, and she planned on making use of all of them.
She tried to convince him the next morning to let her do this on her own, but he was insistent, and she was starting to learn that while he might not appear to be the strongest of men on the outside, once he dug his heels in, there didn't seem to be no budging him. He probably had a point anyhow, if he left her up to it on her own devices she'd be likely to find an excuse not to finish things. So they went together, looking for Mal, and they found him sitting in the kitchen wolfing down a bowl of processed gruel.
"Sir," Zoe said, standing formally in the doorway. "Wash and I need to have a word."
Mal looked up, glancing back and forth between the two of them. "There a problem?"
"No, sir," she said, entering the kitchen. Wash still stood behind her, following closely. "We just wanted to inform you that we are carrying on an affair." She held her breath.
Mal's head tilted ever so slightly. "That so."
"Ever since Hermes." She wasn't sure why she felt the need to add that.
"Huh." He seemed to process this well enough. He glanced at Wash. "Well. Washburne – Wash – are you askin' me for my permission here?"
"No! I mean – not permission, I guess – maybe just…"
"Well. Then. Best of luck to the both of you," he said, standing to carry his dish to the washer. "I mean it." A small smile and nod crossed his face. Zoe relaxed. It looked genuine enough.
"All right then," Wash said, his shoulders falling down, as he glanced back and forth from Mal to Zoe.
"Zoe, a word?" Mal asked.
She glanced at Wash, whose eyes seemed to bug out in panic. She tried to calm him with a look, but there was too much panic in him to be stopped with one look.
"Of course," she said, following him. She tried to ignore the faintest hint of a whimper from Wash as they crossed up towards the bridge. Once there, Mal pulled the door closed, isolating the two of them.
"Why'd I think you hated him?"
"Well-" she couldn't exactly deny it. "I never said I hated him, sir, I just wasn't overly fond. At first."
"Uh. Huh." He seemed to be accepting now that they weren't joking with him. "Now, I don't want no problems coming from this," he said.
"Neither do I, sir."
"I don't want to have gunships runnin' us down and my first mate not speakin' to my pilot cause he looked at a girl the wrong way. It don't work like that, I need us all unified."
"I also want you to understand, if he was askin' for my permission, he wouldn't of gotten it."
She sighed. "Cap-"
He shook his head. "And more than that, I don't want to see what happens, you get spurned."
She wrinkled her brow at him. "Excuse me?"
"You are a mite powerful force, Zoe. I've seen it time and time again, I am thankful for having it on my side, and I do not want that force exerted on anyone currently on this ship, dong ma?"
"Why are we actin' like he and I are broken up already?" Zoe demanded.
Mal straightened up. "Now that most certainly ain't what I'm-"
"So you think he's naturally gonna get tired of me, is that it?" she snapped. "Toss me off for the next pretty thing comes his way in a skirt?"
"No! I most certainly do not!"
"Then stop acting like it!" She caught her bearings. "…Sir."
They stared at each other for a moment before he smiled, shaking his head. "I don't wanna see you hurt, Zoe."
"I understand, sir. I respect that. I'm grateful. But – don't you wanna see me happy?" She waited for a response, but it didn't seem like one was coming. "Maybe you ain't noticed of late. But all the years I been livin', all the years we fought, I never felt this before. And if it don't last, that's fine with me. I just – wanna keep feelin' it, long as I can." She could barely stand to look at him. He didn't say anything for a long time, but she didn't much feel like saying anything more, either. Finally, at last, he spoke.
"Now I ain't sayin' I'm givin' you folks my blessing," he said. "But then, in my experience, my blessing never done much good for folk anyways."
"Thank you," she said, trying not to glow too much.
"I wanna be clear about that. I ain't givin' you folk my blessing. Sooner or later this is gonna cause problems for me and mine, and I don't much look forward to that. You hear me?"
"I hear you," she said slowly. "I just don't agree."
He turned away from her and fell into the pilot's chair. She waited to see if he had anything else to say, but he didn't. They were done for the time being.
She found Wash waiting for her back in the kitchen, where Kaylee had appeared with the new Companion. With an acknowledgment to them both, they ducked out for Zoe's bunk. She caught the barest hint of an exchange between Kaylee and the Companion, and knew at once that their secret wasn't going to be a secret much longer, so she felt no shame in taking his hand casually as they went. Give the womenfolk something to chatter about.
"What'd he say?" Wash demanded, almost giddy with nervousness as they made their way along the corridor.
She briefly debated telling him. But there was no reason to make this any more awkward than it already was. "He wanted to be sure there won't be a problem. I told him there won't be."
Wash looked like he was very nearly ready to ask why he hadn't been a part of that conversation, but then his look changed, much like he'd finally understood the answer to that without asking.
"This isn't a problem," he said. "This is a blessing."
She hoped that he was right.
They ducked into his quarters, which might have been bare but happened to be closer, and she found herself inclined even more strongly to disagree with Mal and to agree with Wash. In this case, the likelihood of things going right seemed immediate and pressing, and the chances of things going wrong were remote and insignificant. In fact, she'd maybe never been more sure of anything in all her years.
Wash was right.
He was the right thing for her.
Whether or not there were blessings involved remained to be seen, but she couldn't deny the truth of the matter.
It wasn't too long before the crew seemed to take it for granted that Wash was with Zoe, and Zoe was with Wash. Zoe entered the cargo hold one afternoon to find Kaylee expressing her surprise to Wash that he hadn't heard something she'd told Zoe the day before. Zoe found herself just as surprised, since she was starting to tell him more or less everything, and she made a mental note to make things up to him later on.
There were still boundaries to be established and lines to be drawn, but they weren't as hard as she had expected they might be. She didn't feel like Wash's boss so much anymore, there was no need. There really never had been, she was starting to figure that out. He didn't need somebody telling him how to do his job; he knew what to do and he knew to immediately do whatever she and Mal asked him to do. And as long as things stayed that way, it wasn't much of a problem keeping things operational.
And he knew what lines not to cross. She overheard him turn down an invitation to join the Companion for tea one day, even though Inara seemed perfectly happy to agree with Mal's insistence that the crew not take advantage of her services. Zoe wasn't actually sure if it was Mal's idea or Inara's idea, but she did know that no one taking tea with the woman was going to be getting any kind of servicing. At the same time, she also knew that she wouldn't have been quite so agreeable had she heard him accepting the invitation, and so she never mentioned it to him but filed it away as yet another reason to trust the man.
Things might have been okay to just continue like that if not for the Ferlinghetti affair.
It didn't start out as much of an affair at all, things were going fair smooth with the whole deal until the day they noticed a ship approaching in the distance.
"Do we know who it is?" Mal demanded.
"Can't be certain from here, but the trace would indicate some kind of Gator vehicle," Wash said.
"Marco's transport," Zoe hissed to the captain. "He flies a Gator."
"Marco?" Mal echoed. "How, pray tell, did Marco find us way out here?"
"Don't know, sir, but figuring he did? We have two crates of gold he reckons are his."
Mal bent over to look at the reading and muttered a Chinese curse Zoe wasn't familiar with and didn't even dare try to comprehend. "We gotta get this off our hands. He's hot on us."
"How are we gonna do that, sir?"
"Wash. What are our odds of getting the shuttle deployed without them noticin' that far out?"
"Slim to none, unless we use that signal interference Kaylee was messing around with."
Mal snapped his fingers. "Right. That. Will it work?"
"It'll work," the captain said decisively. "Has to. Send a wave to Inara, tell her we're gonna miss the rendezvous. She can keep doin'… whatever it is she's doin'. Zoe, prep the shuttle and I'm gonna go have a talk with our little engineer, and, uh, make sure it'll work."
"And I'm taking the shuttle, sir?"
"No," he said. "No, I need you with me. Wash, don't muck up the controls too much, I'm gonna be flyin' her in. You're gonna go with the shuttle and the loot."
"You sure about that, captain?" Zoe asked.
"Only way to do it," Mal said, his voice lower. "We need two to the shuttle with the goods. And since it's gonna be hidden, that's where we put the two of them. We're gonna be out in the open which is where Marco is comin', so I need you here with me."
"Yes, sir," Zoe said. The captain started out of the bridge for the engine room and Zoe started to follow.
"Wait." There was a hand on her shoulder. Wash was up from the helm. She turned to face him. "Be careful-"
She brushed him away. "We have work to do first. Goodbyes later."
He understood. With a moment's locked eyes, she turned to jog down after the captain. Wash had work to do here, and she had work to do on the shuttle.
Wasn't too difficult, stowing the loot on the shuttle and getting her prepped for a jaunt. Almost busy work, to keep her from interfering with what Wash was doing. But within a few minutes everything was ready to go and Kaylee was at the shuttle's controls, disguising the signal.
"Next best thing to cloakin' her off the charts," the girl said with a somewhat giddy tone. At Zoe's expressionless face she added, somewhat nervously, "Don't worry, Zoe, I'll take care of him for you."
The girl was starting to not bug quite so much. Zoe wondered if he would take offense at being taken care of by a near-child, but as well as she was getting to know him, she figured he wouldn't. "Just keep him from worryin'," she said. "That's what he's gonna need the most."
"What'm I gonna need the most?" Wash asked, ducking into the shuttle.
Kaylee glanced back and forth between them, hopefully. Zoe remained silent.
"Can you excuse us for a sec?" Wash said to Kaylee, who hopped up and scampered out of the shuttle something quick. All appearances aside, the girl was bright. And not just about machines. Zoe had to hand it to her. "So," he said, moving towards her. "Time for goodbyes now?"
"Be careful," Zoe whispered as she took him into her arms. "We're gonna stay silent until we're in the clear. So lay low and don't make nobody look twice. And whatever you do, if you see a Gator coming, hide."
"I'm not the one I'm worried about," Wash said. His face was awfully close to hers. His nose brushed her cheek. "I don't want to leave you."
"I know, I know. There's no other way to do this?"
"Maybe. But this is the best way."
"Why can't we just give Marco the gold?"
"Don't let the captain hear you say that! Do you want that new mule we've had our eye on or not?"
"Hmmm. Mule, pretty woman. Mule, pretty woman. I don't know… it'd be nice to not have to walk everywhere, but it's awful nice to have a pretty woman in my bed at night, too."
"Hush," she said, smiling almost in spite of herself. She placed a finger on his lips. "Be patient, and soon, you'll have both." His mouth parted slightly, sucking her finger in, and she let loose with a small giggle.
"Am I interrupting something?" Almost instinctively, the two of them leapt apart as Mal entered the shuttle.
"Not a bit," Wash said, his hand behind his back as if to conceal the evidence. Zoe merely stared at her shoes. Then at Wash's shoes.
"Things ready for action over here?"
"Yes, sir," Zoe said, looking up. "Let me just get my pistol-"
"No guns," Mal said.
"Sir?" Zoe echoed, perplexed.
"No guns. This is Marco we're dealing with."
"…And Marco only understands guns."
"I know!" the captain said, looking almost delighted.
"So… what is the plan?" Zoe asked. She was starting to not like this much.
"Talk our way out of it," Mal said brightly. "Wash, get the shuttle and Kaylee ready to go on my word."
"We – talk – what?" Zoe stammered.
"Zoe," Mal said with an arrogant shrug, "how long have you known me?" With that, he turned and exited the shuttle.
"Long enough to know there ain't no plan," Zoe muttered.
"What do you do if Marco kills you?" Wash asked, watching the door the captain had just exited.
"That ain't part of the plan," she said automatically.
"You just said there wasn't a plan!"
She tried not to wince, but instead to work her wiles on him, pulling him close to her and kissing him hard and deep. Luckily for her he was more concerned with enjoying her one last time than he was with worrying too much about what was going to happen, and she was perfectly set to leave it that way.
She pulled away at last – this was pleasant to be sure but it was a waste of valuable time – only to find him looking at her with longing, with those eyes that resembled a sad hound her papa used to keep around the house when she was a tyke. She'd always saw fit to take care of that hound, pet him when no one was looking, and after a while he took to following her around relentlessly. This felt familiar to her. She had definitely spent enough time petting Wash, and now he was developing some sort of fool's attachment.
Of course, he'd been petting her a good spell, too. And these things worked both ways. It was getting harder and harder to leave him. Harder and harder to do what she had to.
"Be careful," she whispered, finally backing up and out of the shuttle.
"You too," he called after her, and his voice even sounded like that sad hound, the way it used to cry when its dinner was late.
The captain was walking along the lower deck of the cargo hold. "Zoe," he shouted up to her, "secure the ship just in case Marco manages to get past. Seal the crew quarters up – and stash all the guns in there. And the valuables."
"What valuables?" she asked in spite of herself.
"You gonna go taking attitude with me now?" he asked, folding his arms.
"'Talk' our way out of it? Mal." She didn't call him directly by his name that much, so when she did it seemed to turn him a spell.
"Marco don't understand talkin'," the captain pointed out, speaking slowly as though to a child. "We're gonna hit him somehow he don't understand."
"And when that don't work?" she asked skeptically.
"Then we'll figure something else out. Leave Wash one of the guns, just tell him not to let Kaylee touch it, or see it for that matter. And get them out of here. I'll be at the helm." He jogged up the stairs for the bridge. She could tell he thought giving Wash a gun was some sort of concession intended for making her feel better. It didn't help much.
She couldn't bear to go back on the shuttle now, though. She'd said goodbye to him once; a second time seemed painful and just plain cruel to the both of them. So she did something she wasn't accustomed to and disobeyed Mal, bending his orders just a wing, and gave Kaylee a sealed case telling her to give it to Wash and not ask questions. The shuttle was deployed within minutes, and after that, she followed Mal's orders to the letter.
Within five minutes, even she and Mal studying every control on the helm couldn't see where the shuttle was. Kaylee had done right. Too right. Leaning over the nav, scanning the area where the shuttle had to be, Zoe felt her heart start to lurching. She couldn't see where he was. For the first time since the first night they'd spent together in her bunk, she had no idea where Wash had gone. And she was going into danger, and for all she knew, so was he. And her with no weapons, and him with one pistol.
She had a job to do, one she was fixing to be heavily rewarded for, and she tried to settle her mind right. She watched the engine while Mal landed, and things were rough, but they landed safe. But even as the ship shuddered its way through atmo and into a rougher-than-usual landing, her mind was far away, on the shuttle and on the passengers inside, one passenger in particular.
She obeyed Mal just like she'd promised herself she would, and she went along with his plan. And just like he'd promised, he talked – talked his way past Marco, around the guns, and somehow by the end of it, they found themselves loading up one new crew member and two rather large trunks.
"So. I guess I'll call the shuttle back," she said to Mal as they stood at the entry to the cargo hold watching the new crew member struggle with the larger of the trunks.
"Ow! Gorram it!"
She glanced over at the captain. "You sure about this?"
"We got through Marco, didn't we?"
"Sir…. where are we going to put him? The crew bunks are full."
Mal glanced at her, raising an eyebrow. A sudden feeling of dread crossed over her.
"No," she said right away.
"Why not? Wash don't spend no time in his bunk no how."
"That might be right but it don't mean…"
"You told me it wasn't gonna be a problem."
"And you didn't even ask him. Or me, long as we're gettin' technical 'bout things."
"He wasn't around. You mean he's gonna mind?"
She sighed, staring below. A stream of Chinese profanity erupted from large man as he kicked at his trunk. This did avoid the inevitable awkwardness of asking the captain to allow them to share berths, and it had gotten them past Marco, and she couldn't deny the fact that it had a certain appeal to her.
"Suppose I should clear out Wash's bunk, then?"
"Suppose that's the thing to do," Mal agreed. "And… give the shuttle a buzz once you're done with that. I'll keep an eye on our new friend until then."
Cleaning out the bunk didn't take long. Most of his sundries were in her quarters now, it was the truth. Aside from that the lantern and painting went well with her belongings, seeing as how she'd picked them out in the first place. For now she set them to the side, but her mind briefly calculated where they'd go once she had time to set things up proper. Only thing that didn't was the dinosaurs, which she'd tossed into a crate for safekeeping. She made a face at them as she kicked the box underneath the bed, cursing the captain as she did. She hoped fervently that the news of their new bunk situation would go over well with Wash, because the second thing she planned to discuss was those damn plastic monsters, which weren't going to be sharing any living quarters she had to sleep in.
Once she was on the bridge, Zoe entered the signal for the shuttle with some relief. They were out there somewhere, Wash and Kaylee and the money and the shuttle, and once they saw her signal, everything would be fine.
Except for the part where they didn't answer the signal.
She tried not to panic too hard for the first several minutes. Could be they weren't watching their panel too close, or could be they were distracted. Could be they'd taken to tinkering with the controls, she knew full well how hard it was to tear either of them away once they set their minds to improving something.
But she had seen those sad hound eyes when they parted, and she knew how unlikely it was that Wash would be taking his eyes off the com system.
"We got a problem." She found the captain standing at the top of what used to be Wash's quarters, watching the new crew member unload a crate of guns onto what used to be Wash's bed. She did a double take at the amount of weaponry sitting on the bunk, then turned her attention back to the situation at hand.
"It's perfectly legal ammo, as long as he stores it when we cross the feds," Mal assured her.
"Ain't that, the shuttle's not responding." She lowered her voice.
"Shuttle?" Jayne echoed, looking up. "Is that what you done with the coin?"
"No," Mal said, waving him off. "Zoe, you sure you were operatin' on the right channel?"
"Positive. Somethin's wrong. We can't track 'em and they ain't speakin' up."
Mal whirled around to Jayne. "Was just you three on Marco's ship, right?"
"Why you askin'? You sure that ain't what you done with the coin?"
"You are workin' for me now, dong ma? So stop worryin' around what happened to the coin and answer my question. Who else could have been trackin' our shuttle?"
"Nobody," Jayne said, looking uncomfortable. "Was just us three."
Mal stared at him for a long while, trying to determine whether to trust him or not. Zoe knew that look. And she didn't like being at the mercy of it, neither.
"Try again," he said firmly to Zoe. "And wave Inara. If we can't find them, we should at least get her back."
"If we can't find them?" Zoe repeated, aghast.
"Don't be doin' this now," the captain said in a low tone. "We'll keep lookin'."
Her heart was pounding as she raced back up to the helm. Lots of 'ifs' running through her mind. She found herself thinking about that sad hound again, how her papa finally got sick of its whining and put a bullet through its head. He tried to tell her it ran off, but she knew. She heard the shot and the whimper that followed. She learned not to trust her papa that day, and she didn't much like where this analogy was going.
She sent the signal out again. And again. And one more time before she finally waved Inara's shuttle, which was right where it was supposed to be waiting for them at the dock. She gingerly entered the coordinates to take the ship over to Inara's sector. She wasn't a pilot. She didn't know how to work this boat. What Wash did, it was almost magical to her.
"And this here's our helm. You ain't to be touchin' nothin' up here, in fact, I'd strongly suggest you be stayin' off less we need your help. And you remember Zoe, and Zoe, what's the word on our shuttles?"
"We should be back with Inara within the hour."
"Right," the captain said, waving a finger in the air. "The ambassador. Now, one of our shuttles is rented by a licensed Companion, so let me make it clear to you right now, Mr. Cobb, on this boat we have policies…"
"Sir," Zoe said impatiently. "The other shuttle. Still ain't respondin'."
"It is the coin," Jayne said, with too much glee for her taste. Zoe rose to her feet and crossed to him in a second, kneeing him right in the abdomen where she knew she'd take him out. She was about to go for his head when the captain grabbed her arm.
"Not. Now!" he snapped, and she shook him off, backing down even as she did.
"Her boyfriend's on that missing shuttle," the captain explained to Jayne, who had a look of murder in his eyes, "as well as one other vital member of our crew, so if you're gonna be sailin' with us, best you learn to watch what you say. Especially around Zoe there."
Satisfied at least that she'd put the bruiser in his place, Zoe turned bent back over the com panel. "We're never gonna find 'em less they respond to our signal.
"Do we got any other means of trackin' the shuttle?" Mal asked.
"We made sure there wasn't," Zoe said, her voice taking on a rare edge of frustration.
"Think, Zoe," he said, his voice firm. "And Jayne, back off. You lay one hand on her, you'll be seein' the other side of our lovely hull." She turned and saw that Jayne had come up behind her; at the captain's threat, he backed down. "Whether it'd be me or her puttin' you there is the only thing up for debate."
"You're the boss," the man muttered, and he sounded reluctant, but he got it.
"Respond," she said quietly, toggling at the signal with increasing desperation. "Respond, dammit!"
She exchanged a look with Mal, who quietly escorted Jayne from the bridge, leaving her alone with her silent control panel and the vastness of space.
It wasn't the most reassuring of positions to be in, so she was glad for the solitude of it all. It allowed her to do things she never did in front of others, like letting her eyes fill up a bit, and pacing nervously, and biting at her fingernails, which were in quite good condition to start with but weren't once half the night was over.
Mal and Jayne were both fast asleep, or so she figured, by the time they finally docked with Inara's shuttle.
"Is everything okay?" Inara asked politely on seeing Zoe's face on the monitor.
Zoe paused for a moment, considering. "We got some new developments worth a mention," she said. "Why don't you pop by for a briefing? Keep it off the channels."
She wasn't sure why she wanted Inara on the bridge now, but maybe she'd had enough solitude for now. She definitely felt some relief when the Companion slithered onto the bridge.
"I miss all the fun, don't I?" Inara asked. The comment was light, but her tone wasn't, and for that, Zoe was grateful.
"Indeed," Zoe agreed. "So it seems we had a bit of tension over, well…" It was usually better to keep Inara out of the more sultry details. "…Our latest business transaction. We sent Wash and Kaylee off in the shuttle."
"They're not back," Inara stated. Zoe nodded. "I noticed that when I was docking."
"And we turned off all their traces, so right now we don't have no idea where they are."
"Zoe," Inara said, settling onto the rail across from her. She perched on the edge and leaned forward to take Zoe's arm in her hand. "You are a brave woman. I'm not referring to the things that you do every day. You're strong. That much is evident. But being with someone. Out here. Like this. That's bravery."
Zoe stared at her. "Is it."
"Zoe," Inara said in her usual even tone, "I may trade in sexual activities, but that doesn't mean I'm completely ignorant of the ways of humanity."
"Oh?" Zoe asked, feeling unusually weak.
Inara smiled, her expression sweet and silky. "I've overstepped my bounds. I apologize."
"No," Zoe said instinctively. "You ain't oversteppin' your bounds." She turned to look at Inara. "Might could be you're right."
"This isn't an easy life for people to spend with each other. Many people wouldn't dream of it. But you. You're different. It's not that you're not afraid. You are afraid, or else you wouldn't be half as strong as you are. That's the bravery, you see. That's your strength."
"Hard to feel strong when I can't sleep worryin' over things." Zoe heard the bitter edge to her own voice.
"But you are, you see. You've survived so much already, and you will survive this as well. And you will have all the happiness in the world when – when that shuttle comes back intact."
She was right. Zoe had to smile at her. "Thank you."
Inara stood up to leave with a nod.
"Oh," Zoe said, and Inara turned back to her. "New guy on board. He's workin' for us now." She paused. "I'd advise steerin' clear much as you can."
Now it was Inara's turn to smile. "Thank you," she said before gliding out of the bridge, set for her own shuttle.
She folded her elbows on the helm, resting her chin on her hands. Staring at the screen, still transmitting her beacon on repeat. Then at the blackness of space. Then at the screen again. It was a big universe out there. Dangerous and hostile. She didn't feel safe off this boat too much these days. Even as she knew things were dangerous here on the ship, this was home. Anything that wasn't home was dangerous. And for now-
She'd never heard that word before, not addressed in her direction at least, and hearing it now made her heart about skip a beat. The screen flickered and Wash appeared on it, looking a little tired but none the worse for wear.
Sensation rushed through her, her face lit up ear to ear. She cut the beacon off. "Where you been?" she demanded.
He looked almost bashful. "Com system shorted out. Just took us a little while to fix – are we safe to come home?"
"Of course," she said, beaming at the screen. "Send us your coordinates, we'll be there soon as I can steer this thing to ya."
The coordinates popped up on the screen, and carefully she entered them into Serenity's control panel. "Don't go for full burn now," Wash advised. "You don't have a pilot or a mechanic on board, it'd be risky, not to mention we're fine out here. Got enough rations to last us a month if we had to. Take care of the ship first."
"Ain't gonna be a month. Where's Kaylee?" Zoe demanded, scanning the area behind him on the screen.
"She passed out near an hour ago," Wash said. "Once she'd fixed most of the com system. I pieced together what she couldn't fix herself before she ran out of gas. Poor girl."
"Then it's just you and me." Zoe leaned forward into the camera. "You scared me somethin' fierce."
"I know," he said, looking apologetic. "We tried-"
She waved him off. She didn't need groveling now. "Made some things clear to me."
"Oh?" He looked somewhat anxious.
Zoe hesitated. "Could be the com system ain't the place to be sayin' this."
"Sayin' what?" He looked awful afraid now. Best to be putting a stop to that.
"I-" She never said anything like this out loud, let alone on the bridge of the ship. She took a deep breath. "Wash. I never been so frightened as I was just now, thinkin' you weren't comin' back. This-" She gestured between herself and the screen. "This ain't infatuation, this ain't some fling. I've had those. This is somethin' more."
She waited. Normally, might be a time for her to be afraid, but after what Inara had said, she didn't feel any fear at all. All her fear had been used up on thinking about what could have happened to the shuttle.
"I…" She sat back, watching him stammer for a response. "I never wanna be away from you ever again." He seemed just as surprised as her at the words. She felt a pang in her chest. "I just – I can't believe somebody like you would feel the same way."
She grinned, pressing her fingers to the monitor. The cold glass was discomforting but she kept them there. "Believe it," she said. He pressed his fingers to the shuttle camera, almost meeting her own on the screen. "I'm goin' as close to full burn as I can. I need you back here with me."
"No," he said immediately. "I don't want you running out of gas before you get to me. Because that, I'm afraid, would be the story of my life. Just - be safe. I'll see you in a few hours."
"Okay." She smiled wistfully at the monitor as she cranked up Serenity's speed. Not quite to full burn, but as close as she thought he might approve of her going.
"So how'd it go? Did I miss anything good?"
Oh. Right. She paused. "You weren't too overly attached to that bunk of yours, were you?"
And within a few hours the shuttle was docking safely with the ship, and she was in the cargo hold to greet it. Kaylee and Jayne and the captain might as well have been on another ship entire for the way she and Wash greeted each other. But she was too happy to have him back here for touching and kissing and the like, she wasn't about to wait for privacy to start engaging in it. If the captain wanted to be here to greet the shuttle, he could deal.
"Mr. Cobb, I'd like you to meet our mechanic, Miss Kaylee Frye, and would you two mind taking it to your quarters?" Mal asked impatiently. Kaylee and Jayne were still gawking at Wash and Zoe and barely minding the captain, which Zoe knew was a pet peeve of his going back to wartime.
"Glad to, sir," Zoe said, taking Wash by the hand. He saluted the captain as she dragged him off in the direction of the crew quarters upstairs.
"Is that one her boyfriend?" she heard Jayne asking as they rounded the corner.
She pulled him around the corner. "Did you see his face when I saluted?" Wash crowed.
"Wasn't lookin'," Zoe said. She still couldn't wait for their bunks. She pressed him up against the bulkhead, and pressed her mouth against his.
"I wanna see our new quarters," he whined, pushing her away. "…Roomie."
"They look same as they always did," Zoe said, irritated. "'Cept for your stuff all crowded in. Bed's still too small."
"But I wanna see," he said. Again she was reminded of her old hound dog, not favorably this time.
She let him lead the way to the entrance and followed him as he descended into what was now their shared bunk. His eyes scanned around, taking in the differences or lack thereof.
"Yes, dear?" She just wanted to throw him on the bed but it was clear he was rather preoccupied with something. And she was getting impatient.
"Where's my dinos?"
She inclined her head in the direction of the bed and his eyes scanned around, finally landing on the box poking out from underneath. He dove eagerly for the box.
"No," she said.
"What?" he exclaimed, pulling the box out and turning around to face her.
"No, I'm not sleepin' nowhere those horrid ugly creatures can watch me."
He pulled out one particularly frightening one and held it up. "Not even Ted?"
She made a face. "Definitely not Ted – what is that?"
Wash waved the dinosaur in the air. "He's a vegetarian! Stegosaurus! Herbivore. Wouldn't harm a flea."
"Right. Less he scared it to death."
Ted the stegosaurus danced over to her. She recoiled just a bit. "This is my oldest friend," Wash argued, fingers handling the monster with ever so much grace. "He's been with me since I was twelve years old. He can't live in a box under a bed."
Zoe regarded Ted the stegosaurus with a glare. "You had a very sad childhood, didn't you?"
Wash's face fell.
"You're serious about this?" she asked him.
"No! I mean… I don't know," he said. He fell onto the bed, staring dejectedly at Ted the stegosaurus in his hands. "They don't really go with the décor, do they?"
"Not really, no," she said. She settled onto the bed beside him and rested her head on his shoulder. She regarded Ted the stegosaurus. Wash's fingers were clenched around him now, not willing to let him go. "He is a handsome fellow from a certain angle, I suppose."
"He's happy to meet you," Wash said, "if maybe a little perturbed that you greeted him by shoving him in a box."
Zoe stared at him.
"He's heard a lot about you," Wash explained.
"Oh, you have got to be-" She was starting to laugh now.
"He doesn't mind," Wash went on, with half a grin, "he's a forgiving sort, although Bernard, now, he might have some complaining to do about the box thing. He's claustrophobic."
"Bernard?" she asked, eyebrows raised.
"Yeah. Wanna meet him?"
"Not if he's mad at me!" She smacked the dinosaur away and they both doubled over laughing, Wash holding Ted away from them. "I don't want to see what none of those things do, they get mad at me!"
"Yeah, Bernard's a real devil when it comes to being kept in the dark," Wash said, regaining his composure. "And Bernard is definitely not a vegetarian."
"Well, maybe Bernard and Ted should get their own lady friends," Zoe said. "Then they wouldn't have to be so jealous all the damn time."
Wash snapped his fingers. "That is a fine idea," he said. "Might be a bit difficult out in the blackness of space-"
"Their species being extinct and all," Zoe chimed in.
"I think," he said, reaching with his free hand to pull her face around to his, "we can maybe get around that little obstacle somehow."
Now he seemed to be getting the advantage of being together like this. And it wasn't with the secrecy of sneaking around, or with him being a guest here. They were home, together, in their very own space, enjoying each other all private. Somehow it was different now. And she liked it.
Wash pulled back suddenly, much to Zoe's annoyance. "So… this was your idea, us bunking together?"
She sighed. "Would it make it better if it was?"
He stared at her, horrified. "No. Oh, no. No, he didn't."
"I'm afraid he did."
"Gorram-" Wash muttered under his breath. "He has got some nerve."
"Do you want this?" she asked, reaching for his shirt to start working her way down the buttons. "Is this a fling or is it somethin' more?"
"Oh," he said, almost losing his breath as she carefully undid the last buttons on his shirt, "I definitely – no doubt about it…" She heard a clunk on the floor that sounded an awful lot like Ted the stegosaurus being discarded on the ground behind the bed.
"It's for the best. We both know it."
"Oh. Oh yeah." He let her continue her progress, and she almost thought it was her imagination when she heard him moan out much later, "Marry me!" There were a lot of other noises being made, and a lot of them weren't to be taken seriously, so she didn't let herself worry about it all that much.
That was also the last she heard of Ted and Bernard for that night. They were forgotten on the floor for the time being, and when she woke up the next morning, they were nowhere to be seen and the box had somehow vanished as well, along with the pilot. She was grateful, and didn't ask. And somehow, it didn't surprise her when she ventured onto the bridge two days later with the captain and and noticed that Ted, Bernard, and their cohort of plastic extinct reptiles had taken up residence on the helm amidst an array of plastic vegetation.
"Zoe," Mal said upon seeing her reaction to the dinosaurs, "do you have some shining insight as to why there's suddenly children's playthings on my bridge?"
Wash was in the cargo hold with Jayne converting a new smuggling hold, so he was nowhere to hear Zoe when she shrugged her shoulders and said to Mal, "Because I didn't like 'em watchin' me sleep."
She almost wished he was there to clock Mal's double-take as she nodded a hello to Ted and then checked the radar screen for anomalies. Wasn't as if he could complain all that much, it was his fault they'd been ejected from Wash's sleeping quarters to start with.
"You have found yourself one hell of a man," he said to Zoe. He was giving Bernard a funny look.
"That I have, sir," she agreed, trying to hide her smile.
Mal leaned casually up against the bulkhead, folding his arms. "Do you know that gorram son of a bitch tried to lecture me about sending him off in the shuttle on that mission the other day?"
"Did he?" she asked
"He is one cocky hwoon dahn."
"Sir," she said, feeling somewhat uncomfortable.
"Sorry," he said immediately. "I shouldn't be – I'm sorry."
Wasn't every day she got a genuine apology from Malcolm Reynolds. "Well, you're entitled to your opinion," she said, taking a deep breath, "just as surely as I'm entitled to disagree."
They locked eyes for a moment.
"He's… irreverent, Zoe," Mal said, speaking slowly. "He doesn't take anything seriously. I just can't see how someone like that can be the person for you."
"Are you just giving your thoughts, or are you askin' for mine?"
"I guess I'm trying to comprehend. If I'm to be allowin' all this fraternizing on my boat, I just wanna know where things stand."
"Maybe I need some irreverence," Zoe suggested, straightening her shoulders. Was it her imagination, or was Ted giving her an encouraging look? Had to be her imagination. "Spent a long time taking things seriously and it gets downright upsetting after a time. A person can't take things too seriously for too long or they'll snap. And he makes sure I don't."
"You know, I always pictured you shacking up with somebody stronger. Somebody more your equal."
"Being together out here is strong," Zoe said without thinking. "Work he does every day is strong. He ain't a weak man or he wouldn't be out here with us to start."
"I ain't disagreein' with you. I just don't see things that way is all."
"You don't have to," Zoe said, "Seein' as how you ain't the one bunkin' with him at night without any say in the matter."
"Zoe," Mal said with a sigh. "You know that ain't-"
"We ain't even married, sir!" she burst out. "It just ain't proper."
He kept talking. "Proper is a thing for central planets and Alliance and folk who like their rules. Out here all we got is our instincts and our good sense…" But she wasn't listening to him, cause she had an idea forming in the back of her head. It had taken hold and was turning about, racking her upside down. "…might as well not waste ship space, anyhow. We ain't got much to work with, and it's just the thing that makes sense so it's what we do. Anyhow, I'm glad you two ain't married, we got enough problems to deal with."
Her head shot up. "Now how is it less of a problem, us not bein' married?"
"Marriage is-" He shook his head. "A whole passel of problem I ain't havin' on my ship. Courtship, that's one thing. Courtship goes south, folks get all riled up for a few days and get over it, not that I'm sayin' yours is goin' south, so stop givin' me that look. Marriage, that's a whole other field, and it is plowed with trouble. Next thing after marriage is him tellin' her what to do, and I don't see you standing for that. Not to mention married folk want all sorts of things we don't got on this ship. So don't get me started."
She glanced toward Ted, but another one caught her eye, one she figured had to be Bernard, glaring at the captain. She finally located Ted again on the console, and he was practically encouraging her, bowing his tiny head with his eyes wide open.
She blinked. They weren't moving. She'd been spending too much time around Wash.
No. No, she hadn't.
"Excuse me, captain."
"Where you off to in such a hurry?" he asked.
"Probably a field of trouble," she muttered, her voice too low for him to make any sense of. She exchanged a brief look with Ted, who seemed to almost look smug with satisfaction, and made her way back to the cargo hold. Ted had an awful lot of expression for something that didn't move.
She found Wash crouching down over an opening in the floor of the cargo hold, watching Jayne struggle with what looked like one very unhappy screw.
"We need to talk," she said breathlessly.
"Hey, baby… kinda busy right now," Wash said, squinting in Jayne's general direction.
"Because we're in such a rush to finish things for..?"
"Hmmm." Wash glanced at the larger man. "You gonna wait right here for me?"
"Make it fast," Jayne growled, not too pleasant-sounding. "Shouldn't be too hard now, should it?"
"You got work to do there, Cobb," Zoe said. "Mind you don't screw it up on your own waiting for him to get back." She suspected half the reason Mal had put Wash on the job was to watch Jayne, and the other half was to keep Wash out from under Mal's feet. She was about to get in the way of both purposes, but for once she didn't care all that much that she was interfering with his plans.
She made her way to the passenger quarters. Was dark and private enough down there to avoid prying eyes. She opened up one of the berths and gestured inside. Wash followed her.
"What's the big hurry?" he asked, doing a double-take as he stepped through the door., his eyes settling on the unmade bed and the dust bunnies in the corner. "Wow. These rooms are a piece of work, aren't they?"
She pulled the door shut behind her and leaned up against it, folding her arms. She didn't care about how much disrepair the rooms were in. She had more on her mind. "The other night. You said 'marry me'. I'm saying 'yes'."
Wash blinked. "Whoa." He cocked his head to the side, considering this. "That's not what you said then. I said 'marry me', I do recall that pretty clearly…" A sneaking, knowing smile drifted across his face. "But then you said 'oh, do that again'. And I figured it was all, you know, moot?"
"Well, I'm changing things up now."
He braced himself against the wall, leaning back, staring at her. His face was unreadable. "I – I don't know what to say…"
"Wash. Why're we wasting time? We're living together, working together, doing pretty much everything else under the sun together. And without commitment, it still means nothing."
"Whoa, whoa now, hold on," he said. "Nothing? I don't know that I'd agree with – Zoe – where is this coming from?"
"It's coming from years of living and having nothing to show for it. This ain't just a job out here, this is our home, and I mean to make something of it. Do something right for a change." She moved in closer to him. "That's unless you don't want-"
"Oh no," he said hastily. "I want, I do, I just didn't expect-" He realized right about then that it was time to stop talking and start on something else. "Of course I want to. I just – this isn't about… about him, is it?"
"It most certainly ain't. This is about me. Up until now, for me, it's always been about living in the moment. What do I hafta do to keep alive? What do I hafta do to win this one? Comes a time you get tired of that. I want more than just the moment. I want the future, too. I want us."
"I-" He was at a loss for words.
"All you have to say is yes, Wash."
"Yes, Wash," he repeated immediately, looking hopeful as he could, and she laughed. This was what she meant. She always wanted to have this man, making her laugh, making her hot, making her happy. That was the kind of future she could look forward to, the kind she wouldn't have to be afraid of.
"We're gonna be on Persephone in a day's time. Bettin' we can find a shepherd there to take care of it. Unless…" She hesitated. "You don't have another tradition you'd… prefer, do you?"
"Shepherd's fine," he said softly. "Long as we do it right."
"We're gonna do it right," she said with confidence. "Ain't no doubt in my mind."
"Then a shepherd it is." He made the move now, sliding next to her and taking her elbows in his hands. They leaned together instinctively, their foreheads touching. "Just-"
"What?" she asked.
"Well, Bernard – he's been kinda rough on Melvin."
"Melvin can't stay on the bridge. I think Bernard's going to eat him. So…" He looked at her hopefully.
"Do I get to meet him first?"
"Honey, I promise. Melvin's a real peach. You'll love him." At her unconvinced look, he added, "He can stay in a box. He's nocturnal."
She smiled and reached around to hold the back of his head. "Just Melvin. In a box."
"The rest of them will be fine."
"Melvin can stay with us."
"You're wonderful," he said again breathlessly. And she tried not to laugh as he kissed her. "So… when do we tell the captain?"
She took a step back, holding a finger thoughtfully in the air. "I think," she said, "I think that part comes later. After things are sealed."
"Whoa," he said. "Whoa, whoa, whoa. You're-"
"Shhh." She moved the finger to his lips to silence him. "Right now, this is about you. And me."
He stopped arguing then.
And a small dwelling on main street on Persephone, just off the merchant strip, she found herself sitting in a run-down, dusty office with a shepherd, one who seemed less interested in testing their devotion to each other than in counting their money. Wash shifted nervously in his chair as they faced the man, his eyes darting from the dust particles silhouetted in the air, to the small altar set up just beyond the doorway.
"Flowers?" the man asked.
"Not necessary," Zoe said, shaking her head with authority.
"Good, cause there ain't enough cash here for it," the shepherd muttered. "And vows? You have something you want to write?"
"Hmmm…" She found herself at a loss for words and glanced over at Wash, who was now tapping his foot against the chair.
"Is there something we should say?" he asked.
"There's standard vows," the shepherd said, sounding almost bored. "I got a book if you want to choose some."
"The regular is fine," Zoe said, nodding a bit too fast. She glanced at Wash again, and he didn't seem to be objecting.
"Good, cause choosing takes time," the shepherd said. "And time costs money, and you got about one more hour before we have to see you wed." He tossed the coins into his changepurse with an unceremonious clank. "Let's get on with this. Standard everything, right?"
She glanced at Wash, who shrugged this time, having sensed that he was expected to have an opinion of some sort. "Standard," he offered.
The shepherd stood up. "Mr. and soon-to-be-Mrs. Washburne?" he asked. "Follow me."
"Mrs. Washburne," Wash repeated. He took her by the hand to help her up. "Um…" The smile on his face was almost giddy. "You're not… are you going to take my name?"
"Should I?" she asked.
"I mean… if you want to, I don't…" he stammered.
"Zoe Washburne," she repeated, then stopped. "That sounds… strange."
"Yeah," he agreed. They followed the shepherd towards the thinly dressed altar. "Maybe I could take your name. Hoban Alleyne…" He stopped. "So, maybe you could just… call me Al?"
"No!" She pushed him away, laughing. Wash crashed into a display of plastic flowers with an audible noise, and the shepherd turned around, raising an eyebrow in distaste. Wash grabbed onto Zoe's arm for steadiness and the two of them quickly sobered.
"I gotta learn to keep better balance around you," he whispered, shaking his head, as they approached the altar.
Zoe's breath caught in her throat. It was a cheap altar, nothing like the one in the church back where she'd seen her father married to his third wife, or her aunt married to her uncle, or her cousin marrying the woman who bore him his children. And yet… she knew what it meant. Anywhere in the 'verse you went, the traditions were close enough.
Wash was muttering something, and she couldn't make much of the sentences save for the occasional words of "Always" and "Never thought" and then, she almost thought she heard the word "Love", or maybe it was "Of", but it still stopped her dead in her tracks.
"I'm not dressed for this," she said suddenly.
He pulled her around, rubbing her arms up and down. "Hey. I like you just fine like this."
"I should be dressed-"
"Dresses are in the back," the shepherd said. "Cost extra, though. Another twenty-five credits."
"We don't have another…" She looked at Wash and sighed. "You sure you like this okay?"
"It's perfect," he assured her.
So that was how they joined the shepherd at the altar, and with a wave of his hand, some sort of ceremonial music started playing. It was the same music, same recording from an ancient artist on Earth-that-Was, same tune she'd heard a thousand times at a thousand marriages, each one somehow tainted and damaged in her memory now. And standing before the greedy shepherd in the cheap dwelling, Zoe suddenly found herself wondering how exactly her life had gotten her to this point.
"…and that is what makes a man and woman into husband and wife," the shepherd was droning on. He was less than enthusiastic, and it was somehow hard to find the spirit, the magic she'd always hoped for. She looked desperately at Wash but he seemed to be perfectly content to listen closely to the shepherd.
"And do you, Hoban Washburne, swear to take this woman for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, to love, honor and obey, until death do you part?"
"I do," he said, turning to her with a smile. "I take her for better, or for worse. In sickness, and in health. To love, to honor. And to obey. Until death do us part."
"And do you, Zoe Alleyne, swear to take this man for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, to love, honor and obey, until death do you part?"
"I take him," she said, swallowing. "For better, or for worse." Worse. She pictured her stepmother, screaming at her father, remembered cowering in her room trying not to hear. "In sickness, and in health." Images of broken bodies flooded her mind. Of learning not to care. Of forgetting that she ever had. Of things dying. "To love…" Mal's stern face. "Honor…" Her voice trailed off.
"Zoe?" Wash asked, although he sounded far away. "You okay, baby?"
"I…" She turned on her heel. "I… no."
Without looking at him, because she couldn't, she turned and ran, as quickly as she could. She knew he couldn't run near as fast as she could, which was a good thing, and she fled out onto the street, her heels pounding into the dirt even as her heart pounded in her chest.
She couldn't believe what she'd done, but even more so, she couldn't believe what she'd almost done. Here was this man she rather liked, and she was foolish enough to think that this infatuation, this short thing could be about forever. It wasn't. She didn't love him. She wanted his sex, she wanted his companionship, but love? Eternity? A lifetime? That was something else, and whatever else this might be… might have been… forever wasn't it.
The chemicals, the chemicals would die, and she'd wake up one day and everything would be different, she wouldn't feel this way, but she'd be stuck.
She tried to listen behind her, even as she fled down the street, to see if he was following. But there was nothing around her save for the remarks of the puzzled townspeople, wondering who this strange woman was flying down the street, her hair askew, her demeanor crumbling around her. Who was this woman who would do such a thing? She didn't even know herself. Who-?
"Zoe?" She stopped at the familiar voice and looked up.
"You okay? What happened?" Kaylee asked, concerned, moving through the crowd towards her, carrying a bag full of paints. "Where's the cap'n?"
"On the ship, I guess," Zoe said, blinking in confusion.
"What's wrong?" Kaylee asked in horror as she got a full take on Zoe. "Oh my god!"
"Nothing," Zoe said, trying to regain her composure. Not in front of Kaylee. Not-
"Did you and Wash – have a fight…?" Kaylee asked.
"No," Zoe said, then stopped. "We were…" She didn't know why she was even bothering to tell the girl this, but it seemed like the right thing to say. "I don't even know anymore. I think we thought we were maybe gonna be… wed."
Kaylee shrieked out loud and clapped a hand to her mouth. "No!"
"It was a bad idea," Zoe said ruefully.
"Where is he?" she asked, tensing with excitement.
Zoe shrugged. "Still in the chapel, I'm thinkin'."
"And you…" Kaylee straightened up and a hard look crossed her face as she put the pieces together. "Zoe. Oh no. No."
"It wasn't a good idea," Zoe said, shaking her head. "We usually think first, but we were going too fast, insanity, I don't know…"
"Back," Kaylee ordered.
"What?" Zoe asked, shocked. "No."
"You know what, Zoe? Usually it's you givin' orders and us takin' em. And usually that's a good thing and all. But we ain't on the ship and the captain ain't here. So I'm sayin', back you go."
"Back to what?" Zoe asked. "I made up my mind and he's gotta be long gone by now."
"Why?" Kaylee demanded.
"Cause I just ran out on him is why."
"No," Kaylee said firmly. "No. That man is back there waitin' on you and I am gonna see to it he don't have to wait much longer. Turn around. Back now."
"What do you know about it?" Zoe asked, starting to finally lose her patience with the girl.
"I know I been livin' with you on that ship for a good enough time now to see what's been goin' on. And you two are ready for this, and you love each other, and that's enough, so back now. Turn around. Let's go."
"Love?" Zoe asked, startled.
"You heard me. Ep. Don't slow down." For now, Kaylee was prodding Zoe along the road, making her way through the crowd. "Which way's that chapel?"
"It's this way, but-" But love dies off, love doesn't last forever, I don't want to love…
"No buts. Wash?" Kaylee called out, craning her neck to make sure they weren't missing him. "Hey, Wash?"
"Kaylee? Zoe?" Wasn't Wash that answered back.
Now Zoe threw her head back in annoyance as Inara wove her way out of the crowd, wrapped elegantly in what looked to be a new silk. "Inara!" Kaylee cried out. Her face darkened. "Help me."
"What exactly are we doing?" Inara looked more amused than anything else.
"Seein' to a marriage," Kaylee said. She spotted the wedding chapel and pointed triumphantly. "That there chapel. There's one very anxious pilot waiting for a woman just run out on him."
"No!" Inara cried in delight, nearly colliding with a line of little girls in petticoats.
"No," Zoe said, feeling inclined to agree with her at least as far as the word was concerned. "You two. There's such a thing as instincts and I learned to follow 'em a long time ago. And my instincts-"
"Oh, screw your instincts," Kaylee said dismissively. "You wouldn't of ended up here if they was keepin' you from it. That ain't instincts, it's cold feet."
"And I'm inclined to agree with Kaylee," Inara said. "Isn't that your pilot right there on the steps?"
And she was right, for there was Wash, looking ever so forlorn arguing with the shepherd on the steps of the chapel. The sad puppy, left behind, trying to keep some sense of dignity about the whole thing, or at least retrieve some of his deposit.
The sad puppy who could fly a ship like it was flying him. A sad puppy who could make her body shake with pleasure like nothing ever had. A sad puppy who said things that were funnier than anything she'd ever heard, and who wanted to spend each and every night for the rest of his life making her happy, snuggling with her, enjoying her… A sad puppy who'd never been happier than to have her there with him.
Love, infatuation, devotion – whatever it was. The name wasn't important. All she knew was that she wanted to be with him. And for a moment, she couldn't imagine that ever changing.
That was to be the last time that Zoe ever had doubts on the matter.
She shook Kaylee loose and strode towards the chapel, well aware of the two women struggling to keep up behind her.
"I had to find guests," she said, trying to smile the tears from her eyes as she walked up to the two men. Wash turned to greet her and she would have thought he'd seen heaven alive, the way he reacted when he saw her face. If she could say one thing for him, it was that he was so easy to read, the shape of his face told her everything about what he was thinking, what he was feeling.
"We got ten more minutes on the bill," Wash said, turning around to the shepherd but extending an arm in Zoe's direction. "Let's do this thing."
And back at the chapel they resumed the vows, and had themselves declared husband and wife, and the shepherd pulled them aside to notarize the papers with Kaylee and Inara watching.
"You're keepin' your name, then?" he asked, glancing up as he bent over his seal.
She opened her mouth to talk, but Wash's eyes distracted her. More than sad puppy eyes. So much more. They were loyal, they were promising, they were comforting, and they were enveloping. "No," she said without thinking. "I'm gonna take his."
Inara and Kaylee had managed to find the only affordable box of confetti in the small chapel gift shop, which they tossed to surprise the wedded couple as they exited the building.
Zoe ducked out of habit – white things flying in her direction tended to make her cringe automatically – then giggled, taking a deep breath and letting the stuff hit her face on.
"That's never coming out of your hair," Wash laughed, turning to pull her towards him and try to pick the pieces out of her curls.
"I don't want it to," she said.
"Zoe," he whispered as Inara and Kaylee backed off, giving them space. "Why…?"
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I didn't mean…"
"Don't be," he interrupted. "I know. Zoe, I know."
"This was fast," she said. "But I mean it. With every ounce of me."
"I know," he said again. "And so do I."
"Well, I know," she said, bending her forehead to his.
"I took this job," he said. "Because I thought 'gee, it'd be nice to have a sexy woman telling me what to do all day.' I never thought I would actually be-" and he started to laugh, "married to her."
"Really?" she asked. "You took the job for me?"
"Well, no. I took the job for me. For me to be able to have a fantasy, just…" Their eyes locked, and she caught her breath. "I just want you do know. Dreams do come true."
"I love you," she whispered.
"So," he said.
"Do we tell the captain now?"
Of course. Of course it would come back to that. She straightened up and licked her lips. "Now," she said, "I guess we have to."
She got most of the confetti out of her hair before they returned to Serenity, and what was left she figured wasn't coming out for some time. They let Kaylee and Inara scamper ahead, past Jayne who was standing guard at the fore of the ship, and into the cargo hold where he pressed her up against the bulkhead, out of sight of Jayne on the other side.
"My wife," Wash murmured, his voice low and deep. Oh god, but it made her want to melt. It was almost enough to defeat the butterflies in her stomach.
"Alone," she said.
"You and me?" he asked.
"Soon," she said. "Let me talk to Mal – alone – and then we'll be alone. You and I." She pulled him close to her. "My husband."
She could tell he was starting to grow excited now, so she dispatched him in the direction of their bunk. "You have important work, too. You go talk to Ted and Bernard. Make sure they're okay with everything."
"If they're not, they're going to have to deal," he said, and it definitely sounded like a threat.
"Well, just make sure they're not planning to kill me in my sleep."
"And you make sure Mal's not planning to kill me in mine," Wash said. She jogged off through the ship alone, hoping to hell that it was a joke and nothing more. But at this point… she wasn't taking anything for granted.
She found him in the infirmary, searching through the medicine stash. She stood in the doorway and cleared her throat.
"Zoe! There you are. We got any antibiotics? Jayne's got some infection, he ain't sayin' much but I think we gotta get him treated…"
"We got trouble, sir."
"Oh?" he asked, standing up in alarm. "What kind exactly?"
"Me," she said. "And Wash."
"What's wrong?" Now he just looked concerned. For her. She shook her head.
"That field of trouble you were talkin' about, we… well. We plowed it. Sir."
He muttered something under his breath. "Ai. Zoe." His eyes settled on her hair, noticing the confetti for the first time. His eyes widened only slightly.
"The thing is done."
"Tzao gao, what you go and do that for?" he asked, and now he was truly starting to look annoyed. "You do that just to spite me?"
"I did that cause I got a man, and I love him, and cause I wanted to."
"Have you lost your mind?"
"I have found it, sir."
"No. No, this is not happening."
"I beg to differ, it most certainly-"
"Well, fix it!" he declared. "I'm the captain, and I say so."
"I'm a free woman," Zoe said, straightening up.
"On my ship?"
"On your pirate ship?"
He scoffed at that. "Smugglers ain't pirates," he said. "Don't be so dramatic…"
She didn't expect any less. She took a deep breath. "The war is over now. I work for you. I work for you because I respect you. I trust you and I ain't got much beyond being loyal to you. But it is my choice, and it is a choice I'd take back in a second, you give me enough reason to. I am going to be with this man, and you can either live with it, or live without us."
He glared at her. With a look that had stonewalled a thousand soldiers in the war, and two thousand potential business partners since. "During the war you never woulda done somethin' as stone cold stupid as that."
"Which is why we ain't in the war no more, sir." She let the comment hang in the air for a moment until it was time to move on. "And I got a life to be livin' and I plan on doin' so. Now, you tell me if it's gonna be on your boat, or off it."
She held her breath.
Mal turned away, holding onto the examination chair. She wished, as she often had over the years, that she could hear what was happening inside his near-impenetrable mind. She'd come close a time or two, but only Mal ever really knew what he was thinking.
"Your quarters," he said at last. "They're too small."
"As I recall it, you were the one wanted us moved in to begin with," Zoe said immediately.
"I got more space in mine than I know what to do with," he said. "Captain's bunk is awful spacious. It ain't comfortable for one man like me."
"That's a crying shame, sir."
"My gift," he said. "To you."
"Are you offering me a trade?"
"Captain's quarters don't make you captain. Your old bunk is just gonna be the captain's bunk from now on. You hear?"
"I hear perfectly."
"And I don't want to see no more mutiny on your part. You get one card, Zoe." He turned around to stare at her, and she had no doubt now about what he was thinking. "That was it. You just played it."
"I won't have to again," she promised.
"Plus my quarters are soundproofed," he said, almost as an aside.
She cocked her head trying to feign ignorance. "Oh?"
"Meaning I never had no worries, but the rest of the crew seem to have taken notice of some of your nocturnal activities."
Her jaw dropped. "Jayne and Kaylee..?"
"I ain't namin' names. Just make sure you close the door when you two enjoy your… blissfully wedded state."
"I'll always be here for you, sir," Zoe said firmly. "You let me, I will have your back. I want you to know that."
He smiled wryly. "I never doubted it."
And so they moved everything into Mal's bunk. It took the better part of a day, carrying armloads back and forth, climbing up and down ladders, but their possessions changed, and their bed was bigger, and they didn't get quite so many funny looks from Jayne at the breakfast table.
Zoe happened on Kaylee in the dining room a couple of days later, painting flowers on the wall with a delicate paintbrush.
"It's for you," Kaylee said brightly, and Zoe wasn't sure at first what to tell the girl, or how to respond. She found it after a moment.
"Thank you," she said, trying to sound sincere.
"It's just – it makes me happy," Kaylee said. "You two bein' married. It makes it more like a home, less like a job. I like it." She twirled the paintbrush in her hand. "Things is happier for everybody."
Zoe didn't know if she was right or not, but she wasn't going to disagree.
And they picked up passengers who stayed for awhile, a doctor and a girl in a box and a shepherd. Their family grew, so to speak, and then it shrank again. And they fought, and they argued, and they made up again.
She fell in love with him again every few days. Not daily. Their days were sometimes too busy for that. But over the smaller things. How he would try and hide the fact that he'd been talking to Bernard when she surprised him on the bridge. How the nighttime lighting in their bunk lit his pale hairiness from behind. She fell in love with him again when she watched him throw subtle gags at Jayne that no one but her understood, and yet again when he turned his lack of athleticism into a clown show as they played games with the crew in the cargo bay.
And she hated him. Hated how he could never manage to get along with Mal the way she wanted him to. How he could so blatantly irritate her, knowing what he was doing even as he did it. How he would be such a man about things, his eyes turning to watch an appealing bosom on the street or not catching the subtle changes in the crew that she saw. How he wanted to settle down somewhere and didn't understand how they could make a life for themselves on the ship, how this was the life she wanted to lead.
But then, she would fall in love with him again.
And through all of it, she was happy.
She had something worth living for. She had something to hold her together when things looked like they might have fallen apart otherwise. And he had something to ground him, to keep him from being entirely the child he wanted to stay. They met somewhere in between, and it was a good place to be. Together wasn't always easy, but it was better than being alone.
The last night she spent with him wasn't of much significance at the time. She would spend a lot of time later replaying it, regretting that there wasn't much of anything important in it. They didn't make love that night. They were too exhausted from everything, the running, the fighting. They didn't say much, neither. Wasn't much they had to say now. Aside from telling each other what they really thought about everyone and everything, sharing their fears, their hopes, and saying all the things they wanted to say during the day but couldn't around the others. Inappropriate things. Jokes that no one else would have laughed at, that was how wrong they were. Things that might have insulted folks who had heard them, but they had to be said by somebody, and they said them to each other. Nothing they had to say was particularly deep, or significant. Just the fact that it was said at all, that was what mattered.
On the last night, the coolers in the ship were on high for some reason, that or maybe the heat was busted and it was the cold of space, Zoe wasn't sure. And in the circumstances she didn't much feel like finding out. So they slept close that night, tangled in each other's arms, buried beneath a layer of blankets for warmth. It took her half an hour to lose consciousness that night, even though he was out near as soon as his mouth stopped moving. She didn't dare move, though, for fear of waking him back up. Her man needed his sleep. So she lay there, still as could be, listening to his slow breathing, holding on to his sleepy body.
Things weren't so frightening from here, in Wash's arms. She'd take care of him, he'd love her in return, and they'd be all right. Come Reavers, come feds, come Jayne in a foul mood, the two of them together would be just fine. Looking back, she realized that maybe she'd known what was to come, somewhere deep down, because it struck her that night just how eternal it all was. Zoe didn't much think about the future or eternity or wasteful things like that, she was focused on the here and now. The future scared her sometimes. But somehow that night, she had the strangest feeling things were never going to go wrong between them, that the chemicals would never die off as she had feared, and he was never going to hurt her the way Mal had feared.
He would never have the chance.
"…I don't like it."
Mal glanced at her, his hands shoved in his pockets, silhouetted against the morning sunrise of Haven. "Where else you gonna do it?"
"Not on a moon. Not on somethin' tied to the ground." She licked her lips. "He won't be happy here, I know him. He'd rather be in the stars." Something in her words gave Mal a start. He looked downright uncomfortable.
"Leavin' a man out there is craziness, Zoe. You just gonna have him floatin' out there, no ground to take his comfort?"
"You're gonna put Wash on a planet? You ever see him in one place longer than a week?"
"Well, given how can't just keep him on the ship. Besides being awful morbid, it ain't fair to him. You ever read that Bible of Shepherd Book's? Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, Zoe. Man belongs in the ground. What do you want, anyway?"
"I want him to be happy."
Mal was quiet for a moment. And then he did something he was never one to do, and reached out to touch her shoulder ever so gently. He didn't touch her often, but somehow it was a comfort now. "I know for a fact he was." He paused. "And I think Shepherd Book would say perhaps he still is."
She didn't like to cry in front of her captain, and now was no exception. She bit her lip, fighting back the heat behind her eyes. "He'd want to be flying. "
"No. No, he's done with that. He's not gonna fly no more, Zoe. He had his time to fly. It's time to put him to rest."
She closed her eyes, which was a mistake, for a tear did slide down her face. She preferred to pretend it hadn't.
Mal's grip tightened on her shoulder.
It had taken her long enough to notice him. So much time wasted. If only they'd met five years earlier. If only she'd met him before the war. If only they'd gotten off the ship, if only he'd ducked, if only…
But then again, they'd at least had their time together. Things could have been worse. Could have been they'd never met. And some time with him was better than no time… though it still didn't hold a candle to forever.
"You can at least see the stars from here," she said finally. "He would have liked that."
Mal nodded slowly. "I'll have Kaylee start working on the markers, then."
He released her shoulder and started back for the ship. The markers. As if more than one of them mattered to her. Shepherd Book had been her friend, Mr. Universe had been Wash's… but nothing could even begin to touch the well of hurt inside her now.
She'd seen plenty of dead bodies in her time, bodies of folks she'd cared for, but never bodies that had been practically a part of her own, so she'd left the handling to the others. And she'd kept herself composed in front of them. She was the first mate. She was their strength. Her strength wasn't about breaking down. It wasn't about being emotional, wasn't about mourning her loss. It was about being the person who could lose everything and still go on.
She knew that.
And it wasn't like she'd lost everything anyhow. She knew folks who'd lost everything. She worked for one of them. And it took his heart, and it changed it. Cut him off. Hardened him.
Wash didn't harden her. He did the opposite. Wasn't the losing that mattered, so much as it was the having.
She remembered telling him as much once upon a time. That she wasn't so afraid to lose something that she wouldn't want to try have it in the first place. But talking wasn't doing, that was something else she'd told him shortly before his death.
Still, even after Wash, Zoe knew she was better off than if she'd never had him in the first place.
She'd had time enough with him. She'd learned what it was like to have something to live for. She'd learned what it was made people so crazy for abstracts like love and family. She'd learned there was more to life than defeat.
She knew death already. Learned it long ago. But Wash, he taught her how to live. And nobody was gonna take that away from her.
The sun had set. The others had gone, leaving her alone. She'd been stoic and strong in front of them, and somehow they knew that she needed one more moment alone with her husband, with her lover, with her best friend and companion.
Zoe knelt down to touch the headstone. "Keep your eye on the stars," she whispered. And the gently laughing face on the headstone almost seemed to wink at her as she backed away. "And I'll be looking for you. I'll be back. I promise. I love you. Always."
She took a deep breath, then turned and headed back for the ship. She had work to do. It was time to get busy.