In Vino Veritas

Part Two: ...Truth

He sagged, shoulder blades bumping against the wall behind him. Then, on automatic, he straightened and headed for the bridge. He'd been sitting in his chair for a few minutes before he really noticed where he was. Scooting forward a bit, he ran through the checklist tattooed on his brain, confirming they were where they were supposed to be, sucking fuel down at the most efficient rate, and that they weren't all about to croak 'cause life support had crashed.

Then he slumped back, hand coming up to rest on the center of his chest. He wondered if he were hemorrhaging internally. Kinda felt like that. Not that it was Zoe's fault. She'd simply been agreeing with him. The dinosaurs had nothing to say to him or each other, standing around on the helm like so many lumps of plastic. He did turn the T-Rex to look away from him. He'd never noticed before, how his face seemed frozen in an expression of gape-jawed, incredulous disbelief.

Well, he couldn't believe it either.

Article of Disbelief, the First: That Zoe, even inebriated, had invited him into her bed.

Article of Disbelief, the Second: That he had declined the invitation.

The first was utterly incomprehensible to him. How a person could go from an icy, hostile stare to a hot, demanding tongue in a couple short hours escaped him. Especially as those stares had formed the bulk of the communication between them for the past few months.

Maybe... Maybe it was that Sex/Death thing. Some people – lots of people, actually - found facing grief, death, danger kicked their libido into action. Their psyche fought against destruction, against annihilation. Made a hell of a lot of sense to him. Now, while Zoe and Mal hadn't (as far as he knew) faced actual death and/or combat earlier that day, Zoe had just come face to face with the physical destruction of a friend, a comrade. A woman, according to the stories, filled with vibrant life, now enduring a fate perhaps worse than death. Plus, she'd just spent quite a bit of time pulling up memories rife with narrow escapes and explosive decapitations. Wacky fun.

Maybe that, along with the loosening effect of alcohol, sparked her into committing an otherwise unthinkable act. And, blah, blah, blah, blahdy, blah, because there was the very distinct possibility that he wallowed in complete ignorance of anything to do with what went on behind those lovely, dark, hooded eyes. That he would never understand what motivated her. So. A mystery. But not, in the end, unusual, because Zoe equaled mystery to him from day one anyhow.

The second article... He sighed, dropping his gaze to his lap. Speaking of sex and death. He wondered if his own libido had just suffered permanent annihilation, or if it was just stunned, and might come out of shock in, oh, the next decade or so. Might be better, easier, if he'd just become some kind of psychological eunuch. Wouldn't bet that Zoe wouldn't get around to making him one in fact. Didn't imagine she had much experience in being turned down. He really hoped violence did not prove to be her coping mechanism.

Kinda a weird feeling – torn, fragmented – to have one part of himself (that unrepentant horn-dog now whimpering in anguish in his hind-brain) reeling with astonishment, while at the same time he knew exactly why he'd passed on Zoe's pass. Wasn't exactly because she'd had a few drinks. While he preferred sex while sober, it wasn't as if he'd never crawled into bed with a tipsy partner before, although he usually tended to be equally squiffed. Happened many a time, actually, given he usually struck up his acquaintances in dockside bars. But many of those who took him to bed (or wherever) gave him their Cortex address, and said he should wave next time he lit down in their neck of the 'verse. So, lots of repeats, yeah, and those tended to be sober, and better for it. But even with those frequently alcoholically lubricated first (or only) times, so far as he knew, no one had ever regretted spending a few hours of play-time with him. No one ever thought the worst of themselves for having exchanged a little pleasure with him.

Zoe would have.

Oh, yeah. Would she ever. She'd've been disgusted with herself. Chances were she'd be... upset, simply for tendering her invitation. But to wake up tomorrow, not only no longer under the influence, but hungover, with him, of all people, sprawled in her bed? Mm, no, an unpleasant scenario to visualize, for all concerned. (Fact was, visualizing this scene agitated him so greatly, he had to stand up, grab three random dinosaurs off the helm, and juggle them like goslings, until he regained a certain measure of calm.)

Upon re-seating himself, something snapped into place, something he hadn't thought about much, if ever, before. It was important to him, that the folks who allowed him to connect with them in an intimate way, if only on a physical level, obtain joy from that connection. He also realized that the non-horn-dog part of himself had understood, that while he would have given Zoe physical release (and he knew he would have, just as he knew he would guide Serenity safely to her next port of call), that he would not have been able to give her joy. That would take someone she respected. Someone she could wake up next to without feeling like she had made a terrible mistake. Someone, in other words, not him.

The bridge lights dimmed, just as the lights throughout the public spaces all over the ship did. Ship's night. In six hours, they'd brighten again, signaling the dawn of a new day. A low chime sounded, one he'd programed himself, playing both here and in his bunk, letting him know it was officially time for him to do a course check. Not that, tonight, he needed the reminder, as he'd been absently watching the co-ordinate readings shift, where they were now becoming closer to those of where they were going. But, he recalled his promise to Zoe, to look in on the captain the next time he did a course check. And that was now, so he got up and headed aft, toward the galley. Maybe this time he would get a roll. And an unadulterated cup of tea.

He entered the galley, and found Kaylee awake, standing in the kitchen, fingers of one hand on her lips as she gazed with wide, concerned eyes at the man snoring gently on the couch in the lounge. She looked over at Wash as he came in, and lowered her hand to whisper loudly, "Is the capt'n okay?"

With a little stab of guilt, Wash moved swiftly to her side. It had slipped his mind, that, according to Jayne, Mal had made her cry earlier that day. "He's fine, Kaylee, just sleeping off a bender. Zoe and I didn't think we could get him safely down into his bunk." He peered into her face, noting the tear stains on her grubby cheeks. "Whatcha doin' up? Isn't it time for all good little mechanics to be in bed?"

She ignored his query, and, brow furrowing, said, "A bender? Cap don't usually drink all that much." She turned her fearful gaze onto Wash. "Did- did somethin' bad happen dirtside? He was- was all crotchety an' snappish when he come back on." Her eyes suddenly glittered with tears, as she recalled the captain's harsh words to her. Wash felt an abrupt flare of anger. Didn't matter how out of sorts Mal was, he had no right to lash out at Kaylee, of all people. He put an arm around her shoulders, squeezing her against his side. She sighed, leaning her head on his shoulder, grateful for the comforting gesture.

"Nothing bad happened, really, but he ran into someone he knew in the War. She'd been badly injured. I think he feels responsible for some reason, maybe he talked her into joining." He shook her gently. "But he shouldn't have snapped at you. That just makes him a low-down, no-account huen dahn."

"Never yelled at me b'fore. Was 'fraid he was gonna put me off the ship," she confessed in a small voice.

"Aw, no, he'd never do that, Kaylee," he assured her earnestly. "Knows darn well you're the only reason Serenity soars the way she does. In fact," and he raised one finger, wagging it for emphasis, "if he had to make the choice between putting you or his left nut off the ship, that nut would be out the airlock so fast, it'd make your head spin."

"You." Grinning, she bumped him with her hip, then yawned enormously, covering her mouth with her hand.

"Bed. Go," Wash ordered, finger now pointing commandingly toward their bunks.

"Yessir, bossy pilot, sir. See ya in the mornin'."

He watched her leave, her exhaustion evident in her meandering path to and up the steps to their bunks. Hopefully he'd dispelled her concerns about being chucked off the ship. He glared at the man sleeping it off on the couch, then grinned wickedly. Figured Kaylee'd be getting a sort of sideways revenge in a few hours, when the guy woke up with the skull-cracking hangover her engine brew generated.

Wash took the kettle from the stove to fill it at the tap, then cranked the heat up under it. Collecting his tea things, he let his mind wander around the cheering subject of their mechanic, keeping at bay the other, less uplifting topic clamoring for his attention. Mal would have to be the type of fool Wash knew he wasn't to get rid of Kaylee. Her kind of talent was one in a million. Ai ya, one in a billion. The girl had been on board about three months now, and he thought they were shaping up into a pretty good tech team.

Bester had been a disaster. It's hard to be a hot-shot pilot when your mechanic fecklessly allows your engines to suddenly conk out. Actually, that's when you desperately need to be a hot-shot pilot, to land a boat that has 60 power from one pod and maybe 10 from the other. He'd thought Mal, in the co-pilot's chair, was gonna spew his lunch all over the helm, what with all that spinning. Which would have been annoying, as flying vomit plays merry havoc when it gets into the controls, not to mention the pilot's eyes. Didn't seem to bother Zoe much, though that could have been 'cause she'd been pretty busy hanging onto the back of Mal's chair. However, the dust cloud from their less-than-smooth, yet highly successful landing, was still billowing up around them, when she announced coolly, "I'll be in my bunk," and strode from the bridge. Whatever she needed to do in her bunk – deal with an outraged stomach, change certain items of clothing, floss her teeth, whatever – he didn't know. But she was out and on top of checking Serenity's undercarriage for damage within 10 minutes. Meanwhile, he was tracking down whatever was spilling the tangy scent of ozone onto the bridge, while Mal was in the engine room, pinning Bester's ears back. The guy insisted everything would be shiny, that it wasn't his fault, and that he would have them fit to fly in just a few days.

That landing proved to be more successful than in having a more or less intact ship at the end of it. Turned out this particular ball of dust was the felicitous birthplace of Kaywinnit Lee Frye. Two weeks later, she was on, Bester was off, and Serenity began to truly spread her wings.

And, special bonus for him. It had been Kaylee that'd clued him into the whole mustache situation. She'd been a month on the boat, and they lay side by side on their backs, on the bridge, under the nav panel, elbow deep in its guts. They'd engaged mostly in shop talk up to that point, companionable enough, but not very personal, when Kaylee volunteered, "Reckon m' daddy was wrong 'bout you."

"Your daddy?" Wash murmured absently, trying to work a stubborn screw loose. Had barely met him, just shook hands and joshed a bit, when the guy came round to check out the ship his little girl wanted to fly away in. Seemed a good man, though, the honest, cheerful sort that would produce a kid like Kaylee.

"Yup. Tol' me t' keep an eye on ya. That y' was a slick flyboy, an' like t' talk me into all kindsa trouble."

"He said I was 'slick?'" Ow. Not the kind of first impression he hoped to make. Ever. Dashing, maybe, or, or a man of the 'verse. But not slick.

"Mm-hm. But he di'n't get a chance t' know ya better, like me, so now I know it ain't so. Tol' him so too, in m' last wave home. Tol' 'im you was a real nice guy what tol' real funny stories an' collected Earth-That-Was dinosaur toys."

"Maybe you should have left out the bit about the dinosaurs."

"Nah, they're sweet! Reckon he'd see any fellah what collected 'em were nice, not, y' know, slick."


"Think it's the mustache." She said this in a sort of off-hand way, as if it were an idle comment, as she checked the leads in her hand for corrosion.

"The mu- What? Why?" He resisted the anxious impulse to twiddle with the luxuriant growth on his upper lip.

"Dunno, really. But. Kinda reminds me o' this fellah back home, what sold used vehicles; mules an' groundcars an' trucks an' th' like. Hold that there, will ya? Could talk the back leg offa dog. Chances were, anythin' he sold would show up in m' daddy's shop b'fore too long. Hadda mustache lot like yours. But black, 'cuz his hair was, y' know, black. 'Ventually got run outta town, fer cheatin' one too many times." Tongue poking out the side of her mouth, she threaded the wire back into place, then speculated, "Mebbe y' reminded Daddy o' him too."

"Huh." Slick. Like a used mule salesman.

Casually, Kaylee added, "Know Zoe don't like it."

"She don't, uh, doesn't?" The screw-driver slipped and sparks flew. "Ow!"

"Nope," she replied, calmly getting the damper over the spitting contact point. "She gets this little... flinchin' look in her eyes when she looks at it."

"I thought she was looking at my whole face, and getting that flinching look."

"Nuh-uh. Ya do this thing." She brought her hand to her face, and languorously stroked her upper lip, leaving behind, incidentally, a grimy mustache of her own. Wash recognized it as one of his habitual gestures, and winced. "An' that's when she looks kinda, kinda..."

"Disgusted." He knew the expression well.

Kaylee made a non-committal humming sound, but didn't disagree. "Some gals just don't like 'em, y' know," she commiserated. "Mustaches an' beards. Me?" She giggled. "I kinda like th' way they tickle. C'n y' pass me the oscilloscope?"

He did, and they worked for some time in silence as he ruminated on this new information. He'd been getting exactly nowhere with Zoe. If the mustache, despite the months it had taken him to sprout it, was actually a detriment, rather than the manly advantage he'd presumed it to be...

"Tell ya what," he chirped cheerfully. "If you get rid of your mustache, I'll get rid of mine."

"My what?" The young woman nearly dropped the oscilloscope.

Grinning, Wash reached out, running his thumb over her upper lip, then holding it up to display the smudge. Laughing, Kaylee had sung out, "It's a deal!"

The whistle of the kettle brought him back to the present, and he left off wool-gathering and made himself a mug of tea. Warm cup in one hand and a fresh roll in the other, he went through the lounge on his way forward, checking on Mal. His breath was deep, regular, and he showed no signs of gastric distress. Looked like there was rest for the wicked after all. Or at least for the very naughty.

Wash paused by the hatch to his own bunk, thinking maybe he should really lie down and try to get some sleep. He snorted, a little burst of self-mocking laughter. Yeah, right. Like his brain would actually allow him the peace he needed to drop off. More likely, it would spin out, complete with all the tormenting sensory details, what he could be doing right now, this very moment, in Zoe's bed, if only he could keep his gorram mouth shut. He slouched the rest of the way back up to the bridge, and snuggled into the cradle of his chair. Sipping his tea and nibbling his roll, he stared out at the stars, letting their light and the empty Black between them wipe the too busy thoughts from his mind.

He must have dozed, because the lights had shifted to ship's day the next time he lifted his head to scan his control boards. He checked the time, and saw that it must have been the change in the light that roused him. Just dawn. Behind him, down the corridor, he heard the hiss of a bunk hatch opening. The fact that he could hear the tread on the deck, heading toward the galley, let him know that it was Jayne, not Zoe.

Wash stood, stretched, rolling his head, joints in his shoulders and neck popping. Shaking out his arms and legs, he collected his tea mug, and headed for his bunk. There, he stripped, then shaved at his sink, sluicing his face in the bitterly cold tap water. He ran a cloth with cleansing gel over the rest of his body, shivering as the icy substance evaporated. He wished he were scheduled for a shower today, rather than tomorrow. He could really use the comforting, refreshing spray of hot water after last night. The sharp, fresh odors of his shaving cream and the gel helped though, making him feel more alert. He dressed in clean briefs, tank, and flight suit. He grabbed his mug, then, half way up the ladder out, one hand and both feet on the rungs, hung there and dithered.

He had no idea how to face this day. How to face Zoe. Obviously, given they were stuck together on a mid-sized transport, they'd run into each other at some point. Chances were she'd just be her usual cool, controlled, collected self. Chances were that she wouldn't simply slap him silly the next time they, inevitably, met. No. She had too much grace under fire to do anything that disruptive to ship discipline. Chances were, she'd treat him exactly as she had for the past six months. So, if he could keep his calm, no one would ever know anything awkward had passed between them last night...

Tzao gao.

He was toast. His best bet was to hide out on the bridge as much as possible. To keep his head down at those family-style dinners the captain insisted on having, and to get back to the bridge or into his bunk as quick as he could. Because he knew he couldn't bluff worth beans. That he couldn't keep anything he felt strongly off his face. Even if he manged to keep his expressions neutral, his fair skin worked like a barometer, revealing to any that cared to read it how strongly any particular situation affected him. They might not know how it affected him, but they would surely know that it did. That had been, actually, one of the main reasons he'd grown that mustache in the first place. It distracted. It concealed.

Well, he'd set that shield down. And he had to keep Serenity flying true no matter the yow-yow he and Zoe had tangled themselves in. And, when he got down to it, he knew that Zoe worked under the same paradigm, and that she would leave him free to do his job, as long as he left her to do the same. Sucking in a deep breath, he bravely clambered the rest of his way out of his bunk. The earthy aroma of Jayne's potent coffee/chicory brew wafted past his face as he stepped into the corridor, and he trotted forward quickly to claim his fair share.

Jayne stood at the kitchen counter, much as he'd done the night before, now noisily slurping down piping hot coffee rather than whiskey. Wash joined him, gazing with him into the lounge, at what appeared to be a heap of tattered afghans piled on the couch. The bundle shifted, snorted, then uttered a long, agonized groan. Wash reached for the coffee pot, hastily pouring himself a mug with one hand, while opening a cupboard to grab a handful of wrapped protein bars with the other. Jayne was right there with him.

"Seen Zoe yet?" Wash asked. A stream of filthy, guttural Chinese polluted the galley's air.

"Nuh-uh," Jayne replied, shaking his head, shoving protein bars into his pockets.

"Might be a good day to, I don't know, um, hide?" Wash suggested, his alarm growing as the bundle on the couch began to thrash around. Did alcohol poisoning bring on seizures?

"Uh-huh," the gunman agreed, then bolted for the steps to the cargo bay. Wash turned the heat under the coffee pot to 'warm,' figuring both Mal and Zoe would be more appeased by hot caffeine, rather than cold or scorched. Then he too displayed the better part of valor and scampered for the bridge.

Turned out to be real easy to avoid Zoe that day. Turned out he wasn't the only one feeling a need to hide as the captain nursed a hangover of epic proportions. Entire crew took cover in their native habitats, Wash on the bridge, Kaylee in the engine room, Jayne in the cargo bay, lifting weights, Zoe just somewhere not near Mal, sweating the toxins out of her own system. All of them being as quiet as quiet could be. Was impossible to avoid the man entirely, as he snarled his way around his ship. But it gave him less cause to chew a guy's leg off if he found him at his post, at least looking like he was busy. But it was a long day. Even as late as dinner-time, Mal continued to indulge the captainy privilege of spreading his pain around.

In a way, the strained atmosphere around the table was a good thing. Only Jayne demonstrated any kind of appetite, though even his chewing seemed a bit subdued. No doubt the rest of the crew would attribute Wash's silence and his inability to lift his eyes from his plate to Mal's foul mood. And not to the woman sitting, serene, unreadable, across the table from him.

The woman sitting next to him shifted uneasily, leaning slightly away from the captain as he rolled a crimson tinted eye in her direction. "Kaylee, y' got that thing with the fuel line worked out yet?"

"Mostly, Capt'n," she answered timidly. "Need to be on the ground, engines off, fer me to clear-"

"It's slowin' us way down, Kaylee. Got folks to meet, don't 'preciate tardiness."

Wash cleared his throat, gaining Mal's attention. "Shouldn't be a problem, Captain," he offered, hoping to take the heat off Kaylee. "Might be an hour or so behind schedule, but only that. See, I managed to grab a boost when we passed by-"

"Don't reckon 'm interested nor impressed, Washburne," Mal growled, bloodshot eye now glaring balefully at his pilot. "Doin' your job ain't no cause to be tootin' your own horn."

"I wasn't- I didn't mean-"

"Or you thinkin' as y' ain't gettin' anywheres with my first mate, y' ll have a go at my mechanic? Figure tryin' t' turn her head with tales of piloty goodness? Noticed you been hangin' 'round her maybe more 'n need be."

Kaylee set her glass down with a loud rap, earning a wince from Mal, and sat up straight in her seat. Eyes bright, cheeks flushed, she pointed a finger him, and snapped out, "The reason he's been 'hangin' 'round' me, Capt'n, is 'cuz we're workin' our pigus off gettin' this here boat of yours inta some kinda shape."

The captain reared back in his chair, his face wearing the shock of a hound dog suddenly confronted by a tiny kitten, all puffed up, spitting and hissing a challenge.

Kaylee went on, now waving the accusatory finger. "He ain't never said nor done a single thing that were disrespectful 'r mean. Wash is just a plain downright nice fellah. Which is more 'n I c'n say fer a certain cranky ol' captain I could mention."

"Cranky old-"

"Cranky, sir," Zoe broke in.

Mal turned, blinking his astonishment at this surprise attack on his left flank.

"Cranky, crotchety, cross," she went on, expression completely deadpan. "Ornery, obnoxious, obstreperous."

"Ob- ob-" Mal sputtered.

"I gotta go," Wash choked out, standing, grabbing his plate and glass. "Gotta go do, do piloty things. Steer." He beat a hasty retreat, managing to keep his hysterical laughter down to strangled snorts until he got to the bridge, and closed the hatch securely behind him. Then he giggled, guffawed, gargled with glee, until his sides ached. Lao tyen yeh, that woman was hilarious.

An hour or so later, after checking to see if the coast was clear, he sneaked back out, dirty dishes in hand, down to the kitchen to wash, dry, and put them away. Kinda creepy, how quiet the ship was. Usually, late evenings, the crew gravitated to the lounge, to chat, snipe, play cards, whatever. Seemed though, just like him, folks had decided to keep their heads down a while longer. He went back up to the bridge, and spent some time arranging the dinosaurs into artful dioramas.


"Nnyah!" Wash started, dinosaurs scattering over the controls. Gorramit, the woman made no more noise than a ghost. He did a quick scan, making sure none of the dinos had bumped up against a switch or toggle they shouldn't have. All was well. Then he stood, turning to face where Zoe's voice had come from, maybe even taking a tiny step back, so that more of the chair was between him and her. Then he looked at her, the dark, supple, dangerous elegance of her, and his heart skipped a beat. God, even with the thrashing it had taken the night before, it still leapt with joy at the sight of her. Yep, he was a goner.

"Need to talk to you."

This did not bode well. He'd hoped they could just let the night before... vanish. That they could go back to the status quo, as frustrating as that was, him with the never-hopeless yearning, her with the cool standoffishness. But, if she wanted to talk to him, by golly, they were gonna talk. Wasn't like he had much choice. And talking was, in the end, probably less painful than punching. He shrugged, arms flapping limply at his sides, and said, "Okay. Let's talk."

She collected his eyes with hers, then shot a sideways glance at the co-pilot's chair, tilting one hand toward it. Almost like she was asking permission to sit in it. He stood there a couple seconds, not sure he was reading her right, but she waited patiently, allowing the penny to drop. She wanted a real, sit-down conversation.

"Oh, sure," he blurted. "Please, sit down."

She did, her face calm, inscrutable. He took his own seat, feeling spastic and awkward next to her easy grace.

She studied him a moment, then asked softly, "You thinkin' 'bout leavin' the ship?"

"No!" Alarm popped the word explosively from his mouth. His right hand reached out, possessively grasping the yoke in front of him. "No," he repeated, a little more quietly, his thumb moving in a caressing circle on the grip. "I mean, not on my own initiative. It's Mal's boat, though, and he can put me off whenever he pleases." He shot her a quick, wary glance, quirking his mouth into a one-sided half-smile. "Though I hope it'd be on a planet, and not in between."

"Good to hear," Zoe replied, dipping her head in a single nod. "And, far as I know, he doesn't have any plans to put you off, on or in between."

"Oh. Good. That's good." She thought it was good he wasn't thinking about leaving..?

"'Bout last night."

Okay, here it came, her clearly and firmly putting him in his place. He really didn't want to hear it. Maybe it would hurt a little less if he said it himself. He made himself look her in the eyes, and said softly, "It's all right, Zoe. I know it was just the drink talkin'. Last night didn't mean anything, doesn't change anything."

At least, he hoped it didn't change anything, that she hadn't decided she wasn't going to be able to endure looking at his face anymore. Although, she had just indicated that she thought it was a good thing that he didn't intend to jump ship...

Her brow furrowed slightly as she took in what he'd just said. With a little shake of her head, she replied, "Actually, it meant a lot."

Wash felt his mouth open, but he really didn't know how to respond to that. He managed a frightfully intelligent, "Oh."

"Yeah. Both what you did for the captain, getting him to talk, to laugh. And then... later." She actually dropped her eyes for an instant before meeting his gaze again, and continuing, "Wanna apologize for that. I was way outta line."

Wash gaped, and he stared at her, blinking rapidly. Okay, he had a powerful imagination, but it would never have come up those words coming out of Zoe's mouth. "Um, no, I mean, yes," he stammered. "I mean, it's okay."

"No, it wasn't. I was takin' advantage, and I knew full well I was." Her lips curled in a smile, a delighted one. And it was aimed straight at him. "Y' surprised me, Wash. Never woulda believed you could turn me down, as hard as you've been hankerin', ever since you first stepped on board."

Wash! She had called him Wash! And she was... smiling. At him. Because of him.

"I, uh. Ai ya." He could feel his cheeks burning, knew they were bright red. A little spurt of nervous chuckles escaped him, and grinning sheepishly, he asked, "I didn't drool, did I? I hate it when I drool."

His astonishment grew even further, as she chuckled herself, and shook her head. "No. Didn't notice that you sprang any leaks."

"Good, good," he replied, nodding his satisfaction. "It's a sad day when a grown man loses control of his bodily fluids."

She chuckled again, then, still smiling, brought the conversation back on track. "And, what you said, about it bein' the drink talkin'. Thing 'bout bein' drunk. Sometimes you do and say things that you wanna do and say when you're sober, but won't let yourself."

"Uh..." He'd heard that before. But in his experience, he behaved exactly like he did when he was sober, just louder. And with more singing and falling down. But he simply nodded, because this conversation was going in a fascinating direction, and he didn't want to interrupt the flow.

But Zoe had apparently said her piece. She put her hands on her thighs and levered herself out of her seat. He stood as well, automatically. "Anyhow," she said, all brisk business. "How soon 'til we hit landfall?"

"Landfall? Oh, um." He glanced down at the nav readings. "'Bout sixteen hours."

"Good." She started for the hatch, then stopped, turned back to face him. "Y' like Moroccan food?"

"Do I-" Ai ya, this was one twisty road he found himself on. "Well, I pretty much like food food. Anything with, you know, food in it."

"So, there's this place I know, dockside. Serves great old-style Moroccan food. Can I buy you dinner?"

"I, um, sure." He nodded, found his head bobbing with growing enthusiasm as he realized she'd actually just asked him out on a date. "Sure, yeah, that would be great. Fantastic!"

She tilted her head a bit, narrowed her eyes, as she admitted one possible drawback to where she intended to take him. "One thing 'bout the place though. Owner's a devout Muslim. So, he runs a dry establishment. 'S not a problem for you, is it?"

"Uh, no, 'course not." 'Course it wasn't a problem. She could take him anywhere, serve him anything, so long as he got to sit next to her while he ate it.

"Good." She nodded her satisfaction. "And that way, next time, you can be sure."

"Sure?" he repeated, puzzled.

"Yeah," she replied, with a wicked smile. "That the next time I ask ya, I'll be sober."