Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not. I claim nothing but the plot.
Summary: Firefly AU. Mal might have been her first love, but Wash-- somehow when she wasn't looking, he'd wired himself right into her crucial decision-making trees. (A sentient ship & pilot story).
Spoilers: All of Firefly. Specific quotes from "Serenity" (1.1), "Out of Gas" (1.9), "War Stories" (1.11), and the SERENITY movie.
Notes: This is my very belated entry for the brains-in-a-jar ficathon. I've seen stories before where Wash is the sentient ship and Zoe is his partner, but I thought it would be more of a challenge to write it the other way around.
Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don't care, I'm still free
You can't take the sky from me.
--"The Ballad of Serenity"
The Unification War began for much the same reason wars always did, between "haves" always grasping for more and "have-nots" who thought they'd given up enough already. It lasted near six years, raging from one planet to the next as men in brown coats and purple-bellied uniforms fought over every meter of ground they could lay claim to. And in the sky above them, others fought-- starfolk among them.
The war would've been over a lot sooner, if the Independents hadn't thought to offer unconditional freedom to any of the sentient ships who declared for their side. It was tempting, sure enough; the procedure that gifted paralyzed young ones with a set of atmo engines in place of their own legs was priced so high by the qingwa cao de government that perships and their families often spent decades paying them back. In the meantime, starfolk had no choice over where to fly or what to carry, and any deviation from Alliance orders incurred stiff fines that added to the required length of service. The only leeway allowed was in the choice of their assigned human partners, and that concession had only been made to keep them from turning xiongmeng de kuangren from lack of caring contact. Humans were social animals, even when they had hull for skin and ran on fuel instead of protein; the ones that came to the biotech interface later in their childhoods were especially prone to loneliness without another human around to train their sensors on.
Given everything, the idea of plotting one's own course outside Alliance control was damn near irresistible for many. Near thirty-five percent of the Alliance's sentient ships changed colors, most of them youngsters still under contract but not all, and enough were weapons-capable that rebellion became a viable prospect instead of virtual suicide. Didn't matter how many non-sentient ships the Browncoats could scrape up, a pilot with a control yoke in his hands couldn't never keep up with a ship as could fly herself.
The Loring was one of those ships, the latest shell for a technologically interfaced woman whose mother-given name had been Zoe Alleyne. From her birth on February 15, 2484, to the day she was shot and nearly killed by a raider seven years later, she was like any other shipborn girl: lively, intelligent, and beautiful, with large dark eyes, tightly curled hair that trailed her like a cloud when she darted through the passageways, and a love of the stars. The bullet damaged her spine, high enough she'd never walk or use the facilities on her own again, and she was left with only limited use of her arms; fortunately, the pership she lived on was also her mother's cousin, and that gave them an inside track on the application process.
When the war broke out in 2506, she was only twenty-two years old and had been hauling cargo for the Alliance since they'd plugged her into the Loring at the age of sixteen. Maude Alleyne, and all aboard her hull, had been lost to an Alliance interdiction patrol early on in the conflicts; the family had asked Zoe to stay behind, keep safe, and not make waves 'til it was all over, but her patience died when they did. Zoe waited until the next time she made port, then blasted back into orbit the moment her Alliance-sympathizing partner was ashore and ran for Independent lines.
She didn't fuss when they made her over as a troopship, rather than a weapons carrier; she didn't care that very few on the Browncoat side had the training or supplies to properly care for the flesh-bound heart of a pership; she didn't even quibble when Colonel Orbrin regretfully refused to allocate a valuable pair of hands just to sit around and keep her company. She hadn't gone into the war thinking things would be easy; she refused to take offense over a little hardship, when so many others had faced worse. As long as she had a chance to do her part, she didn't mind; she followed every order she was given as best she was able, and spoke cordially, if sparingly, to the soldiers assigned the watch rotation on her bridge.
Two years into the war, one of those soldiers finally returned her careful comments with more than mere pleasantries. His name was Malcolm Reynolds, and he'd recognized the name on her hull from the days when she'd made port near his mother's ranch to collect what limited goods the people of Shadow traded with the Core. He talked to her as though she were a human being, just like him; she'd almost forgotten what that kind of camaraderie felt like. For a brief moment, she missed her family again with an intensity that briefly dimmed the lights all throughout her-- then she gathered her courage and replied in kind.
By their fifth watch together, he'd requested a comlink to carry when he wasn't on duty, and before she knew it, he was the last person she spoke to at night and the first voice to greet her each ship's day. It may not have been the sort of official partnership the Bureau of Allied Sentient Shipping would recognize, but it was far more fulfilling than any she'd known before. When other perships requested, and were granted, the right to rotate out of front-line units, she declined every opportunity for leave from the 57th Overlanders-- and by the time the Balls and Bayonets Brigade was mired down on Hera, she flat refused to retreat even when other troop carriers were withdrawn from orbit. She hid among the broken warships and debris cluttering the space lanes, holding onto one fragile thread of radio contact.
She didn't know what she expected to accomplish, up there; she knew that even if they won, the Independent brass would never let her near the front lines again after her blatant defiance of orders. It was the chance-- no, the likelihood-- that they wouldn't, however, that kept her from leaving. If her Sergeant was going to take his last breath on that ball of rock, then by God she was going to be there to hear it leave him.
He had more luck than any ten men deserved; his breaths kept right on coming. But she was there to hear when his proud will was finally broken.
"If you won't listen to me, listen to that," Mal's voice carried hoarsely over the comm, directed to all the Browncoat troops still standing in the Valley. "Those are our Angels, coming to blow the Alliance to the hot place!"
But they weren't, they couldn't be; Zoe had her sensors trained on the atmo over the battlefield, and the ships vectoring in were not in the Independent registry. She opened a frequency, tight-beamed, aimed in the direction of the local command ship, and pinged its sentient system directly--
"Zoe, tell the 82nd..."
--If her lungs had still functioned, she would not have had the air to reply, so great was her dismay at the answer she had to give him. "They're not coming," she transmitted back, stunned. "Command says it's too hot. They're pulling out. We're to lay down arms."
"But what's..." he said, then trailed off into shocked silence.
When the picket ship found her hours later and warmed its lasers, she barely had enough will left to reply to its hail, much less put up a fight.
Things were never the same between them after that. Zoe knew he blamed the Angels for not disobeying orders and going in anyway, as he'd have done in their place-- and she knew he knew she felt guilty on behalf of the sentient warships, even though she weren't one of them. He came for her, after the Alliance dropped the wreck of the Loring in a junkyard on Persephone with her still in it, and paid through the nose to have her fitted illegally to a second-hand Firefly. He still carried her link, shared things he'd never tell another soul, laid out dreams for the both of 'em like he'd never leave her behind. All the same, there was a distance there as hadn't been between them since the day he first set foot aboard her during the War. All the pride and attention he could spare from his men had once been focused on her, but she was no longer the first thing he thought of in the morning or the last thing at night.
She hadn't realized how much she'd miss it. She hadn't loved any of her previous partners; and why would she have? She'd been a job for them, an extra voice to keep her from flying off course, an extra pair of hands in case of pirates or stowaways or mechanical disaster. Mal had been more. Was still more-- but not enough, not in the way she'd come to crave. And worst of all, Mal himself didn't seem to notice her growing discontent, just went on hiring crew and making contacts and parrying her increasingly sharp comments with what passed for wit from him as if nothing had changed.
Zoe was jealous of each and every pair of boots that crossed her decks-- and as time wore on, cared increasingly less whether or not Mal knew it.
The last straw came the day he brought a pilot on board-- a pilot! As if she'd need the assistance, even in an aging, crosswired boat like Serenity as had never been meant to host one of her kind. Especially not from a humor-driven, mustachioed little man who apparently hadn't even had the courage to pick a side to fight for during the War.
Of course, Zoe knew the real draw from Mal's point of view had less to do with the man's talents in the sky and more to do with what, and who, he knew. Hoban "Wash" Washburne had actually done his pilot's training at the Alliance school all perships and their prospective partners went through, and thus knew how to actually care for Zoe's organic, original shell, unlike Mal or his "genius mechanic". On top of that, he had an inside track with several of the sentient ships that had graduated a few classes ahead of Zoe's own, especially the intelligence guru that had parked himself on a backwater rock after the War and renamed himself Mr. Universe. You couldn't buy that kind of connection for love nor money these days, so Mal's glee at luring the pilot in was hardly a surprise. Still, the very idea of having him aboard rankled.
His casual attitude about her presence-- thoroughly illegal in Alliance space, and something he'd have to cover for when they flew the Core-- just made it worse.
"Shouldn't be a problem," the pilot said with a grin toward her bridge camera, then glanced under the main console where her connections had been wired into the ship's systems. "I'd wondered what all that was for; don't usually see that kind of cabling on a Firefly. Don't even see it much in perships, to be honest; it's pretty old tech, must be cramping her style. Don't worry, though, a few modifications, you'll get some real maneuverability out of this boat. You'd be surprised."
"So you'll take the job, then?" Mal asked him, grinning as though their next payday had come early.
Wash grinned and plopped down in the main chair, spinning around a little in front of the console. "Might do, might do. Think I'm startin' to get a feel here." He flipped a few switches on the console, then activated one of the screens and punched up a text interface with her, rudely pinging her automated shell systems for her current physical status.
"Good," Mal said, oblivious to her rising irritation. "Well, take your time. Make yourself to home. Just, uh, fiddle with the dials, there. We'll-- I'll-- be nearby."
Mal withdrew a little down the corridor then, patting a wall absently while he keyed her link. "He's great, ain't he?" he asked, an insufferably pleased note in his voice.
"I don't like him," Zoe replied stiffly. She knew, with the part of herself that ran on smooth, cool logic, that she was being irrational about this, but the rest of her had dug in her heels long ago and wasn't about to give in now. "Something about him bothers me."
"What?" Mal blurted, caught off guard. "What about him bothers you?"
"I'm not sure," she lied, smoothly. "It's just... something."
"Well, your 'something' comes up against a list of recommendations as long as my arm," Mal objected indignantly, and launched back into the whole argument she'd already memorized the first time he told her about his plan to hire a pilot, several days before.
"I understand, sir," Zoe broke in over him, retreating back into verbal distance. "He just bothers me."
Of course, Mal didn't listen. He hired the gorram pilot anyway. It was many, many months before she forgave him for it--
--the same day she demanded he fix her up another link and hand it over to Wash.
Mal might have been Zoe's first love, but Wash-- somehow when she wasn't looking, he'd wired himself right into her crucial decision-making trees. She still belonged to Mal in a fundamental way that had nothing to do with the price he'd paid for her current hull, but it was Wash she shared everything with now, Wash she spoke to at ship's dawn and dusk, Wash whose dreams she soothed with half-remembered lullabies over her speakers, and Wash who made her wish she was flesh and blood.
She'd never know the comfort of being physically held, never be more than a voyeur of his sexual experiences, and the lack burned her as it never had before. A man like him deserved as many laughing, blue-eyed babies as he could count, and she couldn't never give them to him. Miraculously, though, Wash didn't seem to care. He treated her as more than just another human being, he treated her as though she were the other half of himself without hardly stopping to think about it, and within the year even Mal was treating them-- grudgingly-- as though they was a matched pair.
There were times in the years that followed when the crew barely scraped through one mess or another; Wash was pressed into service as a gun-hand over his own objections more'n once until they finally hired a mercenary, a man named Jayne a good deal more capable than his name might suggest. They exchanged their genius mechanic early on for a prairie girl called Kaylee with a genuine gift; the young woman weren't too proud to take direction from the ship she was working on, and knew several tricks that soon had Zoe's aging engine running better'n it probably had all the rest of its long life. A Companion named Inara Serra rounded out the crew; she viewed Zoe's presence with carefully shielded distaste, but had enough secrets of her own that she weren't about to tattle, and Mal soon focused on her all the extra attention that had once gone Zoe's way. Before Wash, she would have been fiercely jealous, but all that her captain's romantic hijinks inspired in her now were a maternal sort of amusement.
It was a ramshackle kind of family, but it was one that worked.
It didn't last, of course. One day they lifted a cargo Badger hadn't warned them was marked and attracted Alliance attention in the doing. Mal had to take on passengers to pay for the fuel back off Persephone when Badger wouldn't buy the goods, and from that day forward they were on a downward spiral. The doc was efficient enough, but his sister surely did draw all the wrong sort of attention, and their other two passengers were both undercover Alliance: one fleeing his past, the other hot on the Tams' trail.
They got rid of the spy on Patience's moon without him ever realizing Zoe was there, but the ex-Operative was a sharp man and soon had enough facts at his fingertips to guarantee safe retirement in Allied territory no matter what he'd done to get himself exiled in the first place. All they could do was trust his conscience would keep him quiet, and Zoe hated to trust her life to someone on so little evidence. The doc and his meimei were another story; Mal'd took to them like they was a pair of lost lambs, and Zoe felt a certain kinship for the girl herself as another of the Alliance's toys who'd managed to slip her leash. Still, they was no less dangerous to the crew for all their innocence and ignorance, and it were a constant struggle to keep them safe hid.
It was several months before she let go of her last wariness of the lot of them-- and all on the same day, too. She and Wash had been having a stupid argument about the fact she still let Mal carry a link and talked with him of things she wouldn't with Wash-- not to mention that she wouldn't even consider the idea of putting the crew down on some backwater moon and leaving the smuggling life for a safer one with just him. She knew it was only jealousy-- the same ugly feeling as had nearly poisoned her friendship with Mal in the first place-- and was like to blow over once Wash managed to score some masculinity points in his unspoken competition with the Captain, but while she waited for that to happen it had grown increasingly hard to keep a neutral stance between them. In a fit of pique, Wash had demanded that he be the one to accompany Mal to his next meeting, and thus drove himself right into the less-than-tender clutches of Adelai Niska.
Niska held a grudge against Serenity and her crew, and was determined to take it out on them in the most painful way possible. He had the resources to get it done, too, unlike most of the enemies Mal seemed to collect like flies on manure. Zoe managed to organize a rescue, funded by all the cash the crew possessed, but all Niska would send back to them was Wash-- and the Captain's ear.
"He's crazy," Wash whispered, half-collapsing on the deck of her shuttle after Book brought him back aboard. "He wouldn't break, Zoe. He kept me from..."
"It's okay," Zoe whispered back to him. She didn't have the heart to tell him she'd heard the whole thing over the links they both carried; Niska had recognized them for communication devices and keyed them for added effect as he tortured both men.
"I wouldn't have made it," Wash continued, still shaking in reaction.
"Shhhh," she said, comfortingly. Stupid, posturing boys-- especially Mal, all the feng le things he'd said to make Wash hold onto his anger instead of panicking-- but she loved them both so much.
Wash refused to be soothed. "Niska's gonna kill him!" he objected, voice anguished.
He was right, and she wouldn't sugarcoat it, no matter how little she liked the idea. "He's gonna make it last as long as possible," she said, unhappily. "Days, if he can."
Wash stilled at that, and steel snapped into his voice that she'd never heard there before. "Bastard's not gonna get days," he spat, and climbed to his feet with great effort.
Never had she wished more for a pair of arms to wrap around him-- and never had she been prouder of this man who'd chosen to be her partner when he could have piloted any ship in the 'verse for the asking.
The preacher and little River more than proved their loyalty to ship and crew in the action that followed, and the Companion and the doc pooled their efforts to patch the Captain back together after their desperate charge on Niska's space station inexplicably succeeded. Wash said not another word to challenge her loyalties, no matter what ridiculous orders Mal gave in the months that followed, and Zoe dared believe, despite their increasingly difficult financial and legal situation, that their fortunes were finally on the mend.
She should have known better than to hope.
Serenity plunged through the clouds above Mr. Universe's complex, the Reaver fleet behind her and the rapidly scattering Alliance fleet ahead. Just days before, Zoe'd been maneuvering for a barn-swallow to catch her daredevil partner and Captain in their hovermule on Lilac; if she'd been asked beforehand, she would have said that was the most excitement they were ever like to encounter on a job. How they'd managed to go from there to this, with the best intentions--
A lance of energy speared out toward her from a following Reaver ship, and Zoe cried out in pain as it connected. Whole sections of her circuitry went down all at once, and her automatic protective software snapped her focus down still further; she lost control of flight systems, and everything temporarily went over to manual pilot's control. She trusted Wash at her helm-- he'd pulled some pretty fancy maneuvers before, when there'd been occasion-- but she absolutely hated being helpless.
"Where's the backup?" she heard Mal demanding, hoarse panic in his voice. "Where's the backup?"
Zoe tried to reset the systems on her own, then realized in horror that something had gone worse than wrong when they were hit by that Reaver beam. Only a few systems came back up, and she couldn't regain any degree of control. "Backup reads at 20 percent," she announced over the speakers, her computer-generated voice even more terse than usual as Wash struggled to straighten them out. "Wash, can you get us down?"
"I'm gonna have to glide her in," he replied, gripping her controls for all he was worth.
"Will that even work?" she asked, rhetorically. She was all too aware of how much she weighed, and how little lift was available to her thrusters at that power level.
The next few moments were painful; Zoe was aware, dimly, of decentralized pain probably related to her organics jostling about in their cramped container, but far more of her focus was on her landing gear as they snapped off against the runway, the thruster sheared off by a standing beam as Serenity skidded through a turn, the moans of her passengers thrown against their restraints, and the sounds of things breaking in every room, closet, and hold. It would take more effort and platinum than her crew could muster to fix her up again, that was for sure. And if any of the Reavers followed them down--
The ship groaned to a halt, edging off the landing strip entirely into the pedestrian area, slewed around so that the nose faced the open bit of sky beyond. Zoe's external sensors were all damaged, most of them registering little more than static; she ignored them to focus on her passengers instead, frantically checking every feed still active to listen for the sound of their breathing and glimpse their terrified, beautiful faces.
"I am a leaf on the wind," her Wash said, half-laughing in his relief. "Watch--"
Then a horrible, shattering noise sounded on the bridge, and a guttural choking noise cut his sentence short.
"WASH!" Zoe screamed, seeing too late the threat hovering just beyond Serenity's nose. "Wash baby, baby no, come on, you gotta move you gotta move baby please--"
There was another crash as a second harpoon jutted in through the window, fired from the Reaver ship that had followed them in. Mal was half-out of his own seat by then, reaching for Wash; Zoe saw, in slow motion, the path of the weapon as it followed the first one, and found herself literally unable to watch what happened next.
Her sensors all shut down at the same time, whether from hysterical denial or damage she was in no condition to judge.
It would be several hours-- and forever, and no time at all-- before she saw light again.
Time passed. The Operative came and went; the rain fell, and Serenity flew.
"We have a green light," Zoe said, speaking to her Captain for the first time in days. "Inspection's pos and we're clear for upthrust."
In the copilot's chair, a young Reader stroked her hand over the controls, smiling sadly to herself.
In the cargo bay, a man hampered by wounds and bandages of his own turned his face up toward the nearest speaker, an echoing expression on his face. "Think she'll hold together?" he asked obliquely, a world of hidden meanings in his voice.
Physically? The Alliance had patched up all her hurts; Zoe had no complaints as far as that went. Emotionally? Well.
She'd survived the last time she'd lost the one dearest to her, though he still walked her decks. River had tried to assure her that Wash still did, too; he might not register on her sensors, but he still loved her, and he didn't want her to cripple herself with grief. Zoe wasn't sure she believed her. And she knew River knew that. But, despite everything, it seemed to help all the same.
"She's tore up plenty," Zoe finally answered Mal. "But she'll fly true."
She followed him as he made his way up to the bridge, then watched warily as he handed something over to the waiting girl.
His link. Not Wash's; that one was still in his pocket. No, she recognized it as the link he'd carried first, all those years ago when she'd been the heart of the Loring.
"You know what the first rule of flying is?" Mal said quietly. "Well, I suppose you do, since you already know what I'm about to say."
River smiled at him, turning the link over in her hands. "I do," she said. "But I like to hear you say it."
"Love," he said hoarsely-- and in that word, Zoe heard all the apologies he'd never said before.
River reached up and took his hand before he could say anything else. "I understand," she said. "She does, too. Storm's not over yet, but we'll pass through it soon enough."
Listening to the girl's calm voice, Zoe could almost believe her.
They were still flying, after all. It would have to be enough.