Cold, Cold Ground
Warning: Explicit, but not graphic het sex

Book had tended Wash's graze while Simon did what he could for the dying Tracey. Not much, what with Zoe's and Mal's bullets cozied up next to one another in his pilfered innards. However, Mal, recollecting how the blow of Tracey's shot had knocked Wash back in his chair, had insisted Simon check Wash for concussion before he flew them to Tracey's folk's settlement.

Wash, perched on the edge of the infirmary's examining table, tick-tocking his legs restlessly, had quipped that he was kinda getting used to being kicked in the head, and that Saffron actually packed a bigger wallop. When Simon had cleared him for duty, Zoe'd leaned in to set a kiss on Wash's uninjured temple, and murmured to him she'd always known he had an exceptionally thick skull. Snickering, Wash had aimed a swat at her ass, which she allowed to land. Mal had smirked at their foolery, but that was the last smile Zoe saw out of him for days.

After Tracey'd been laid to rest, in a grave sliced from St. Alban's icy earth with an industrial mining laser, Mal had felt obliged to join his ex-soldier's family for the traditional funeral meal, to share a few poetical, well-edited war stories starring their boy. Zoe had stuck close to Mal's shoulder, providing her steady, silent support, a familiar balm to both their raggedy nerves. Violence was a regular, inevitable part of the life they'd chosen. Having the scabs of their actual war-time experiences ripped off, not so much. The rest of the crew went back to Serenity, awaiting their return. Leaving the settlement as soon as felt polite, Mal and Zoe made straight forSerenity's bridge. As they'd expected, Wash was ensconced in his chair, lines of numbers and symbols running across the screen of his nav comp. He turned to look at them as they entered, eyes wide with concern, hair standing up in a frazzled mess. Zoe noted he still wore his shabby brown sweater. Even as bulky as it was, she didn't imagine it had offered much protection dirt-side; the razor-edged wind must have sliced right through the weave.

"Everything okay?" Wash's gaze flicked anxiously back and forth between them as Mal took a stance beside his chair. Zoe stepped past Mal, turning to lean lightly against the console so she could keep an eye on both men's expressions. Also gave her a clear view of the gauze square taped over her husband's right temple. She noted the bruising already beginning to creep out beyond its edges.

"Fine," Mal replied curtly, crossing his arms, glaring at the snow collecting on the window. "How's our fuel?"

Wash's cheeks puffed as he blew out a worried breath. "Not great. First that two days of hard burn, then that run, that useless run, I made in atmo..." He squinted up at Mal. "Can we get any here? Any little bit'll help."

Mal shook his head once, mouth hard. "Nope. Asked. Every kilo's spoke for."

Wash looked back down at his screen, chewing his lip, then stated, "Got two choices then, Duànbèi and Beylix. Beylix is closer, 47 hours from here. But it's a straight drive forward, sucking fuel all the way. It's 73 hours between here and Duànbèi, but there's three spots I can grab a boost, kinda coast a little, if I hit the gravity wells just right. Plus, fuel tends to be a mite cheaper on Duànbèi than on Beylix." He looked back up, casting Zoe a glance before settling his gaze on Mal. "Both routes, though, ain't too well traveled, seeing as we're coming from the back of beyond."

Zoe looked at Mal. His tiny frown let her know he understood Wash's point. If they ended up on the drift again, a helping hand might not be too quick to come along. And, just like last time, any hand that showed up might not be as helpful as it could be.

"Got a preference yourself?" Mal asked.

Zoe watched as Wash's face relaxed a bit. So, he did have a preference. And, he was relieved Mal was asking to hear what it was. A little spurt of impatience shot through her. Mal listened real well when being given information or advice by someone who knew what they were talking about. Usually. Then she made herself smooth over that impatience. She had to admit Wash had been out of the loop the last little while. While he'd been fending off the hunters dogging their heels, Tracey had been resurrected and had told his story, without a single word of it filtering forward to Wash and Book. Wash had yet to ask for or to hear an explanation of how a corpse had come to be walkin', talkin', and shootin' on his bridge. They'd all been too busy. So it might, with cause, be a bit soothing to him to be included, to be asked for his input.

"Yeah. I think we'll come out ahead, fuel-wise, if we head for Duànbèi. Plus, I get to fiddle about with the controls a bit more, do interesting piloty things." A small, wry, self-deprecating smile quirked up one side of his mouth for just a moment, before he became serious again. "But, if we're pressed for time, we'd probably make Beylix. Probably."

"Time, we got," Mal stated. "Fuel and coin for it, not so much." He made a fist, tapping it absently atop the back-rest of Wash's chair. "Take us to Duànbèi."

Wash nodded silently, turning to his board, left hand plugging in their course, right reaching for the comm, hitting wide speaker so he wouldn't have to mess with the handset. "We buttoned up, Kaylee?"

"Good to go, Wash." Her normally cheerful voice sounded flat to Zoe's ears, even more so than the comm static would account for.

"We're heading to Duànbèi." The warmth of his grin carried on his reply. "Gonna be pesterin' you a lot along the way."

"Duànbèi! Shiny! Ain't never been there before." The prospect of playing with her engines, and of new places, new people always perked the mechanic up.

"Think you'll like it." He flipped the switches that brought the pods on-line, and continued over their starting whine, saying, "There's this bar, last time we were there, had a floor show, all guys, real shuai, who stripped down to just those whatchamacallems, g-strings."

Kaylee giggled, deliciously scandalized. "Now, Wash, what were you doin' at a strip show with all fellas in it?"

"Scopin' the place out, see, to see if maybe Zoe might like it." He chuckled ruefully. "Decided she would. Too much, in fact, and that she'd throw me over for one of them oiled-up muscle men." Turbines sufficiently warmed, he pulled smoothly back on the yoke, easing them up into atmo.Serenity skittered sideways a bit, hit hard by an icy, blustering gust, and he balanced her deftly. "So I never took her. I'll take you though, if y' want."

"But what about Zoe?"

"Welll, if you wanna invite her too, I guess so." He glanced up at Zoe, and smiled at her a bit abstractedly, before running his eyes over his nav scans, the altimeter and the attitude indicator, flying blind as he was in the snow shrouded night.

"Oh, an' how 'bout 'Nara? And River! We should take River!"

"Simon would blow a gasket!" Wash objected, though he sounded rather too gleeful for his objection to be convincing. He set a light fingertip on the slider for ship's grav, other hand firm on the stick as Serenity rocked in the buffeting wind.

"Simon could use havin' a few gaskets blown." Kaylee's voice carried a bit more venom than was its wont.

Mal shook his head, pursing his lips, turning to leave, unwilling to get too deep in the know as to his tech crew's affairs and their schemes for planet-side mischief. Zoe bent down to set a kiss on the top of her busy husband's head, then followed the captain out. Time to debrief and suss out where they were going from here.

Two hours later, Zoe took herself back up to the bridge. She and Mal hadn't discussed, hadn't wanted to discuss the big thing, how Mal'd been carrying the bullet that had finished Tracey – although hers might have actually done the trick all on its own – years after the war ended. But they had gone through the cargo, checking through the stuff they'd picked up on spec, and matched it up with what they knew about the current market on Duànbèi. That wasn't a whole hell of a lot, but it wasn't nothing, and they figured they'd be able to make a least a hundred cred's profit.

As she strode up the steps, she wasn't surprised to hear the low murmur of voices from ahead. Wash spent a lot of time alone on the bridge, particularly on the shorter hops. But there were times he made long hauls. Times when he needed to closely monitor Serenity's course, when putting her on auto was risky. Those times, the rest of the crew cycled through spending a little time on the bridge. She'd come up and found Mal and Wash sitting quietly, listening Earth-That-Was music that had been popular long before the Migration; Kaylee, busy fingers tinkering with some little doohicky, speculating on the next up-grade they could wheedle out of Mal; Inara offering to his eager ears the difference, during a sexual encounter, between rose and patchouli incense; even Jayne, rambling through the story of how he'd come by Vera.

Last few months, there had been Book, engaged in a very polite debate with an unexpectedly knowledgeable Wash about the meaning of Job's experience. And Simon, relating an actually very funny emergency room story. Even River, quite a few times, sitting quietly curled up in the co-pilot's seat, the cute little dino with the beaky muzzle cradled in one hand. (Wash had told Zoe what kind it was, but the name hadn't stuck.) Once she'd had the T-Rex and one of the other raptors clamped together in the other, threatening the little one in a long, to Zoe's ears, nonsensical spiel, although Wash had listened carefully, nodding as though he understood everything she said.

She returned Inara's smile, as the woman, seated in the co-pilot's seat, turned gracefully toward her as she entered the bridge. Inara rose as Zoe came forward, saying, "Good night, Wash. I'll see you sometime tomorrow. And I'll bring that yerba mate tea."

"Bless you, my child," Wash replied, grinning up at her. "Thanks for the chat, and sleep well."

Inara swept by Zoe with a warm smile and a nod, murmuring another "Good night." Zoe responded with a silent, but equally warm nod and smile. She took Inara's place in the co-pilot's seat, her gaze sweeping over the controls, noting all the tell-tales shone green, before looking over at Wash.

He gave her a gentle smile, and asked, "How you doin'?"

"I'm fine." She flicked a glance at the bandage on his right temple. "You?"

His hand jerked up toward his head, but he quickly changed its direction, reaching out to pluck a dinosaur, the triceratops, off his helm. "I'm good. Little head-achy, but Simon gave me some pain-killers. So, I'm good." He leaned back in his seat, fiddling with the dino, pressing a fingertip against the point of one of its horns. "How's Mal?"

She shrugged. "He's Mal."

He gave a little snort, smiling wryly.

"So." She consciously checked over her posture, her expression, making sure they were neutral, non-defensive. "You got any questions about all that business with Tracey?"

He surprised her a little by shaking his head. "No. No, Inara filled me in, him not being dead, the organ smuggling, all that."

She wasn't sure how she felt about that, Inara telling him the story; seemed it was more her own place to explain to Wash what had happened and why. She wondered what, exactly, he'd been told.

He took a quick breath, lips parting as he shot a glance at her, then looked back down at the dinosaur in his hands. Quietly, he said, "I'm sorry."

She sighed inwardly. Here it came. She'd been waiting for this, his need to verbally vent. Wasn't a trait she'd ever admired in anyone. Though she'd come to appreciate that it did keep things open and aired out between the two of them. However, she couldn't imagine what he felt sorry for. Nothing about what went awry was any of his doing. "For?"

He lifted his head, meeting her gaze. "For Tracey. I'm sorry that–" He paused, biting his lip as he struggled with the phrasing. "That you– that he ended up dead. I know – Inara told me – you and him and Mal went through a lot together. That you were friends."

"He stopped bein' a friend the second he pointed a gun at you," she replied flatly.

"Oh." He looked a little taken aback, blinking a bit before he stammered out, "Well, but, but. I'm still sorry."

She grunted, and then, aware that that had been just the opening salvo, braced herself for what she knew was gonna come next. For what always came when Wash found issue with the way Mal handled things. For Wash to flood her with his complaints. About how it hadn't had to go that way. That if Mal had just unbent long enough to explain what was what to the guy, instead of ordering him around like the soldiers they weren't anymore, that Tracey'd still be alive. That Zoe wouldn't have had to shoot him. That he his own self wouldn't have taken unnecessary damage. She'd been hearing Wash's litany in her head, over and over again, for hours now.

But, apparently he'd said all he meant to say. For the moment, anyway. He dropped his gaze back to the triceratops, then leaned forward, setting it on the console. Silently, he rearranged a few of the other toys, shifting the groups around, working at it for a minute before finding a configuration that satisfied him. She knew he felt her watching him. And usually that attention was enough to keep his words flowing. But the silence stretched on as his hands dropped from the dinos to minutely adjust the trim on the pulse engine. Then he reached out, fingertips of his left hand stroking over the keys of the nav comp, his face smoothing into focused concentration. And he went away from her, into the endless story of the Black. Of moons, planets, stars swinging through their intricate orbits, the familiarly-plotted narrative spiced by the rumors of uncharted hazards that rim-running pilots passed to one another.

She felt oddly frustrated. She didn't want to have a fight with Wash. She knew, though, that the events on the bridge, how Mal had opted to deal with Tracey, with the boy's panic, had to be eating at him. Plenty of Mal's decisions ate at him, and she spent more time than she cared to explaining and defending their captain's tactics. Often enough, that, just like now, she could hear exactly what Wash would say well before he said it. And she was pretty sure he could hear her answers well before she made them. The sound of the familiar tread of Mal's boots on the stairs broke into her thoughts. She swung around in the chair as he stepped onto the bridge.

"How we doin'?" he asked as he came to stand at Wash's shoulder. He set one of the two mugs in his hands on the main console, turning it so his pilot could easily grasp its handle. Rising steam carried the invigorating scent of strong black tea.

"Good. Better by five percent than I thought we'd be after our pass through the Hotspur Cluster. Kaylee's got her runnin' real sweet." Wash picked up the mug, curling the fingers of both hands around its warm bowl.

"Kaylee's a right wonder," Mal replied, almost absently, then taking a wary sip from his own steaming mug. At the same time he reached out and gave Wash's shoulder a quick squeeze. An uncomfortably lucid part of Zoe's psyche noted that Wash responded positively, almost instinctively so, to the slightest physical sign of affection and approval, and that Mal, unconsciously or not, was using that vulnerability in him. Could be, unconsciously or not, that Mal felt a bit uncomfortable about Wash taking an injury because he was following Mal's orders.

Or not. Mal would do or endure anything it took to get the job done. She knew he expected the same from her and Jayne. Certainly didn't from Kaylee, though, and she could have sworn not from Wash. Maybe that business with Niska had tipped Wash over into the "combatant" category in Mal's mind. A thought, half noticed, bubbled up at the back of her brain. What would it take for Mal to put their Kaylee on the "combatant" side of the equation?

"Why don't you go grab a few hours shut-eye, Zo'?" Mal asked, hiding his order in a suggestion. "I can set a spell. Like to hear what my pilot has on our agenda."

"Yes, sir," she replied, levering herself out of the chair, stepping past Mal to snatch a quick kiss from Wash. She got one, was straightening up when his arm snaked around, his large, warm palm on her nape, pulling her back down for something involving more tongue. He smiled against her lips at Mal's grunt of protest, but let her go.

"Night, sweetie," he murmured.

"See you in the morning." She gave his shoulder a squeeze and headed toward their bunk. Fifteen minutes later, stripped, teeth brushed, alarm set to wake her in six hours, she dimmed the lights, and pulled the covers up under her chin. She took a couple deep breaths, and as she allowed herself to relax, the physical and mental exhaustion of the long, long day swept over her. A rush of images and sounds passed through her mind: Tracey in a box; the lurid flare of an exploding missile glaring through the bridge window; Wash's cry as he spun in his chair; the expression of shock and betrayal on Tracey's face; Tracey in the box again, wrapped now in one of Mal's old shirts instead of his own; the quiet, weary weeping of the boy's mother. Zoe permitted each their time, then put them firmly away, composing herself for sleep. Very last thing left running was Wash's litany, the one he hadn't gotten around to just yet, complaining about Mal's handling of Tracey on the bridge. She noticed, abruptly, that the voice carrying the litany was no longer Wash's. It was her own.

They soared through the Black's empty reaches, a place she and Mal took comfort in, and which she suspected Wash considered his true home, no matter how close they were running down to the wire, fuel and food wise. The only hazards here were those of the natural 'verse, not of humankind. And while those were no less deadly – perhaps more so – they had no malice behind them. A certain peace could be found in that. Wash, cradled in his chair, caught a couple carefully spaced ninety minute naps, an unneeded alarm set to wake him before the entered particularly tricky areas. Other than that, he was wide awake, focused on his piloting, chatting with bridge visitors, shifting the dinosaurs through a major seasonal migration.

Seventy-one point three hours from St. Alban's, he set them delicately down on Duànbèi, the flow of his hands over the helm fluid and precise. Through the comm to the engine room, he chortled with Kaylee about the amount of fuel they'd managed to conserve, cells at a whole seven percent. He powered down the engines, stood, tripped over his own feet as he stepped toward the hatch, and would have fallen if Zoe hadn't caught his elbow.

"Bed," she ordered, steering him toward their bunk with a firm hand. It was only early evening, ship time, and a few hours later than that at the main port on Duànbèi. But pilots' hours were never regular, ship- or dirt-side.

He grinned at her with a suggestive arch of his eyebrows, foolish with fatigue. "Yes, ma'am, wife, ma'am. Reporting for bed duty immediately." The grip she had on his arm prevented him from tossing off any kind of a crisp salute. He attempted it anyway, staggering himself down the first couple steps from the bridge. She jerked him briskly back under control with a sharp, alarmed inhalation, flashing on him breaking his neck in a tumble down the stairs. Jesu, except for a few trips to the head, he hadn't stepped off the bridge for days. On top of tired, she wondered if maybe Simon might have missed a minor concussion. But, sucking in a deep breath, Wash collected himself, muttering, "Sorry."

They sedately paced down the last steps together, arm in arm. Zoe triggered open the hatch to their bunk when they reached it, then went down the ladder first, prepared to catch Wash if he slipped.

"Ohhh, bed," he groaned when his eyes fell upon theirs. "I'm right here if you want me," he went on, grabbing the covers and yanking them down, collapsing bonelessly onto his pillow. He rolled onto his back, grabbing the bottom of his sweater, tugging it upward. "Haven't been of much use to you, husband-wise, lately. Sorry."

Zoe bent to put her hands on him, one on his cheek, the other on his hands working to get his sweater off, stilling them. "Sleep, Wash. Time for you to sleep."

He struggled a moment longer with his sweater, then went limp. "Okay," he mumbled, casting a burning, bloodshot look in her direction. "But I'm here, you know where to find me if you, if anyone needs me, okay?"

"Yep." She went to strip him, starting at his feet, unlacing his shoes, tugging them off, tossing them aside. Then he was on his side, curling tightly in on himself, and rather than fight him to get his clothing off, she simply grabbed the covers, hauling them over him. In a near fetal ball, he sighed, eyelids drooping shut, a small smile curving his lips as she tucked him in. She dimmed the lights and left him, to play backup to Mal's point, as the captain sniffed around Duànbèi's small port, assessing its trade possibilities and general atmosphere.

Around four hours later, she climbed back down into the bunk, and found Wash hadn't moved, still curled on his side, arms crossed over his chest, hands tucked in his armpits. Three days after the injury, the bruising had crept well beyond the edges of the gauze pad shielding his temple. Purple-black smudged his fair skin all across his cheekbone, encroaching on his eye socket. She did her teeth and undressed quietly, although she suspected she could have done so whistling the strippers' anthem and he wouldn't even twitch. He didn't even when she crawled in next to him. Not wanting to disturb him, but feeling a need to touch him, she simply placed her hand in the center of his back, the weave of his bulky sweater rough against her palm. She noticed, this close and under the covers with him, that he desperately needed a shower. She'd make sure they stayed connected to local water long enough for him to get in one of his favorite indulgences, at least fifteen minutes under a hard, full-on, steaming spray. She drifted off, the scent of her husband, over-strong but still welcome, in her nostrils.

She'd been asleep a couple hours when his sudden jerk under her hand snapped her to alertness. His loud, rapid breathing and the stiffness of the muscles in his back told her he was awake.

"Wash?" she said softly.

He sucked in a quick breath, then sat up, moving away from her, swinging his legs off the edge of the bed. "Sorry," he muttered.

"You okay?"

"Uh-huh." He stood up, shrugging his shoulders, rolling his head. "It's what? Midnight?" He glanced at the clock, confirming his estimate of the time, moving toward the ladder of their bunk.

"Uh-huh. Wash, no need for a check. We're all buttoned up, dirt-side."

"Can feel that, yeah. I been out six whole hours?"

"Could probably use six more."

He made blatant sniffing noises. "What I could really use is a shower. We all hooked up?"

"We are."

"Shiny. Sorry to wake you. I'll grab my stuff, let you get back to sleep." As she watched, he swiftly gathered up his toiletry kit and a change of clothing. A little concerned his co-ordination might still be a little off kilter, she kept an eye on him as he hitched himself up the ladder one-handed, kit and clothes bundled under one arm. Apparently he'd had enough sleep to get his agility back on-line.

"G'night, sweetie," he called down softly before triggering the hatch closed. She didn't know if he was up up, or would be coming back to bed. She knew she still needed some more down-time, so she made herself go back to sleep. She hoped, though, that he'd return soon, to snuggle his naked, freshly showered body against hers. It had been awhile.

She awoke alone, though, as the lights brightened with ship's dawn. She dressed and headed first up to the bridge. Wash wasn't there, however, so she made her way back down the corridor. Stepping down into the galley, her eyes swung toward the movement in the kitchen. There she found Book, chopping in a subdued manner, and Kaylee, who caught Zoe's eye and put a finger to her lips, then glanced into the lounge. Zoe followed her gaze to Wash, slumped on the couch, head tilted onto its back, mouth slightly agape, sound asleep. Playing cards lay in rows on the low table in front of him, an unfinished game of solitaire.

Shaking her head, Zoe moved through the kitchen, scoping out what Book and Kaylee had going for breakfast, before taking herself into the lounge. She settled on the arm of the couch, running an assessing eye over her husband, starting at his right temple. He'd removed the gauze bandage to shower. The scabbed five centimeter graze seemed to be healing well, and the dark bruise around it was shading to yellow and green along the edges. He'd smeared antibiotic over the whole area, giving it a greasy shine. His hair – getting a little long, needed to sit him down with the shears – while dry, stood up around his head in towel-tousled chaos. And he smelled like soap and shaving cream rather than over-worked pilot. In addition to pair of khakis, he had on one of his aloha shirts. But she only knew that because its colorful tails hung out from under the brown sweater.

She leaned down, setting a kiss on his nose. He didn't stir, so she tried his forehead, pressing a little longer and a little harder. His breath caught, making him snort, as his eyes flickered open. She straightened, lifting a hand to stroke his hair back from his brow, in an ineffectual attempt to smooth it, asking, "Why didn't you come back to bed?"

He smiled up at her, eyes still dazed with sleep, hands palm up, open and limp in his lap. "Didn't think I was sleepy anymore. The nap just kinda snuck up and attacked me from behind." He lifted his head from the back of the couch, fists tightening as he looked toward the kitchen. "Something smells nice. Is Book making breakfast?"

Smiling, she trailed her fingertips along the edge of his clean-shaven jaw. "Yep. Eggs with cheese and onions."

A little whimpering noise escaped him, and he lurched to his feet. "Am I allowed to marry him too? Because I'm surely lusting after his cooking, and I think there's this bit in the Bible about marrying to make this lust thing okay."

She chuckled, relieved to find him joking around. "Well, he's the fella to ask. Just be aware that if he says 'yes,' I ain't getting short changed in the sexin' department. If he wants you in his bed, y' still gotta keep up the standards you've set in mine."

He peered at her through narrowed eyes. "I might want to think this through."

"Yeah. You might."

"'Course, while it's true he's in pretty gorram good shape, he's near sixty. While I haven't noticed as much personally, they say the libido slows down as we age. Could probably handle the both of you. Especially if he's providing me high-protein breakfasts."

She stood up, getting eye to eye with him. "Wash," she said warningly. Because, sometimes, she honestly didn't know how far the man would go. And she could see him asking. And Book might be quirky enough to run with the joke and take him up on it. Just to torque Mal.

His mouth stretched into a wide, mischievous grin. He gave her a quick kiss on the lips and said, "The only thing I'll ask him for is seconds. Promise."

Breakfast turned into a kind of thanksgiving, as Kaylee, hitting the dockside market, had dickered ruthlessly for two kilos of ripe tomatoes, a bunch of green onions, and, for each of them, a tangerine, tiny, but exploding with tart sweetness. The eggs were Book's doing, as he'd left the ship before its dawn, hiked the eight klicks to and back from the small local chapter house of his order, returning with two dozen of them, along with a kilo of pungent cheese, a large loaf of dark rye bread, and a sprig of fresh basil. The onions and part of the cheese had been scrambled in with all of the eggs, the tomatoes sliced and sprinkled with pepper and shredded basil. The crew could have their bread toasted or not, grilled with cheese or not.

Zoe, while not neglecting her own plate, surveyed the faces of the others around the table, noting the subtle shift in their expressions, an easing around their eyes and at the corners of their mouths. She'd seen that in the war as well, the simple comfort a good meal brought to folks too long on the edge. While only Wash – and Tracey – had actually been hurt, they'd all endured being pursued, having their home bombed. Kaylee'd been used as a shield by a fellow she'd been crushing heavy on. Now easy chat and laughter rolled around the table. Even River seemed relaxed, peeling her tangerine slowly, close to her face, mouth bent in a sensual curve, clearly enjoying the fruit's sharp scent. Inspired, Zoe stashed her own in a pocket, deciding to share it with Wash later, an image of her own fingers slipping one of its segments between his parted lips sending a flare of heat through her.

She exchanged a complacent glance with Mal, knowing he'd seen the shift in the crew's demeanor, that he'd seen it in her, just as she'd seen it in him. She figured he'd known what he was doing when he sent Kaylee out to the market with some extra coin. Also got her to put another little tick mark next to the "Seen combat" entry in the list she was keeping under Book's name. Seems he knew how being fed well could settle folks, too.

She turned to Wash just as he bit into a thick slice of the dense dark bread, toasted with cheese, a juicy slice of basil-draped tomato on top of that. His drooping eyelids and the soft, almost indecent groan of pleasure that escaped him had her wondering, with a wry amusement, if it wasn't a good thing she'd met him before Book had. Although she was fairly certain, as far as Wash was concerned, that her assets in a bunk would beat Book's in a kitchen anytime. Except maybe right now this very second with all those flavors inundating his tongue. But then he was turning toward her, offering her a bite of his toast, hand coming up beneath her chin to catch drips, mouth slightly ajar, an unconscious encouragement for her to open hers. And she knew Book had never had a chance. She chomped down, tomato squirting through her teeth, savoring the treat her man gave her. Take that, Shepherd.

Mal let them linger over breakfast, allowing them to finish at their own pace, to push away from the table and start on the dishes in their own time. He caught Wash as he rose, empty plate in his hand and reaching for Zoe's.

"You know the suppliers best, Wash. Want you to go arrange t' get us fueled up. You know what we got in the way of funds." He took Wash's plate, tugging it from his fingers. He sent Wash after fuel whenever he could. Used to joke the man must be trading in sexual favors to get the prices he got. Cut that out once Zoe'd married him.

Wash glanced down at his empty hands, then looked up, squinting a bit. "Not sure I can fill us up with that, Mal."

"Enough to get us to Paquin? 'Cuz that's where the cargo we got is supposed to end up. And where I told Inara we'd be stoppin' next. She's got clients lined up."

Wash nodded, face clearing. "Yeah, Paquin, no problem."

"That's fine then. And me an' Zoe'll see what we can do to find some cargo here, maybe something with an advance, so we can fatten the purse a bit."

Nodding again, Wash leaned down to give Zoe a quick kiss, then headed aft, to the bay doors.

"Seems to be healin' up just fine," Mal commented, gesturing with his free hand toward his own temple.

"Yep." She set her empty plate on top of Wash's, making Mal balance them both. "Jayne comin' with us?"

"Thought he might."

"Heavy or light?" she queried, meaning the amount of armament.

"Light, I think. Didn't sense much troublesome last night."

She nodded, as she'd sensed the same, and rose, heading to cut Jayne off before he escaped the ship. It was just noon, local time, but he'd always been able to track down whores no matter what time it was dirt-side.

Turned out Wash never had time to take Kaylee to the all-boy floor show. Around 1400 ship-time, Zoe, Mal and Jayne returned to Serenity from their cargo hunting venture to find her people well occupied. A tanker was parked beside her, Wash working with its crew as they filled their fuel cells. Zoe noted, in Duànbèi's damp summer heat, Wash had stripped to the waist, finally shucking his shabby sweater. She supposed that in the shadow of Serenity's belly his spacer-pale hide was safe enough from the sun's white glare.

Kaylee, ensconced in the engine room, well and thoroughly begrimed, had five or six diagnostic programs running, and a truly astonishing tangle of wiring spread out on the floor. Book, much tidier, worked beside her, handing her tools and calling out readings when she asked for them. When the captain, eyes wide with alarm, demanded to know why his ship had her guts strewn hither and yon, Kaylee'd absently assured him everything was shiny, she was just tightening up some odds and ends that had got knocked loose during all the bombing, just a couple hours, things would be right as rain. She also mentioned that Simon was out looking to replace some of his med supplies, and that Inara had River up in her shuttle.

Crew accounted for, Mal set himself, Zoe and Jayne to shifting cargo, bringing the stuff they'd found buyers for forward, making room for the goods they'd managed to rustle up for their run to Paquin. Given they weren't well known here on Duànbèi, even at his most charming Mal hadn't talked any of their clients into coughing up an advance to move their freight. But they had sold off some of the merchandise they carried on spec. Weren't coming away with any profit, but they were covering docking costs, resupply, and getting their fuel cells up to 75 percent full.

The fuel truck rumbled away and Wash joined them hauling crates. By dusk planet-side, their last buyers and sellers had come and gone. The entire crew cycled quickly through the shower before they unhooked from local water and sewage. Dinner was stew, mostly processed protein, but greatly enhanced by a sweet onion and a bunch of bok choy. Wash grabbed a large bowl to take up to the bridge with him. Jayne had those around the table wrapped up in a story about one of Paquin's famous circus acts he'd seen a few years back, involving sword swallowers, a bear on a bicycle, and a flaming tuba as Wash lifted them off Duànbèi.

After dinner and clean up, Zoe worked with Mal for about an hour in the hold, updating their manifest. He would have kept her longer, but she finally had enough, very aware that Wash had crawled down into their bunk shortly after he'd charted a very placid course for Paquin and placed Serenity on autopilot. Shoving the clip-board into Mal's hands, she announced briskly, "See you at breakfast tomorrow morning, Captain. Sleep tight." She'd gotten well up the stairs from the cargo bay before he could call up, "Yeah, well, some folks don't quit 'fore a job's done." Ignoring the pathetic attempt to induce guilt, she strode swiftly through the galley and up the corridor to the crews' bunks.

As she expected, she found Wash already in bed. She hadn't expected to find him asleep. Sound asleep, not in the light doze he might drift in when he knew she was following him soon afterward. But it had been almost an hour, and, as hard a burn he'd been firing the last few days, it really wasn't unreasonable that he'd tumbled into deep, dark unconsciousness. He'd curled up on his left side so his bruised temple wasn't pressed into the pillow, covers pulled up to his ear. She gazed at his slack face with a pang of disappointment. It had been more time than she cared to think on since they'd last had sex, and she was feeling a little parched. But she further dimmed the lights, slipped silently out of her clothing and into bed next to him, careful not to disturb him. She'd wake him up the finest way tomorrow morning. Providing he didn't wake her up first.

Curling up next to him, she set light fingertips on his back, and was surprised when they found coarse wool rather than bare skin. Unless he was just too exhausted to strip, he always slept naked. A little further careful exploration revealed he also had on pants. Not the khakis he'd put on after showering, but the worn flannel pair he played hoop ball in, and kept handy in case he needed to make a quick dash to the helm. So he hadn't just collapsed without undressing at all; he'd changed. She hoped he wasn't coming down with something. Although coping with the chill of an on-coming cold might explain the persistence of the sweater. She fell asleep promising herself she'd hit Simon up for some vitamin supplements tomorrow, and then stand over Wash to make sure he swallowed them.

She woke, some hours later, not to Wash's caressing hands, but the hiss of their bunk's hatch opening. She rolled over, opening her eyes to see his flannel clad legs disappearing up the ladder, the hatch closing behind him. She glanced at the clock, saw it was a good two hours before ship's dawn. Maybe he had a course check. She didn't remember him mentioning it last evening, though, and he usually did, so she'd know he'd be moving around the bunk in the middle of the night. She dozed off, expecting him back eventually. But ship's light brightening from night to dawn pulled her to full awareness, not Wash's return. Quickly dressed and ready for the day, she climbed out of their bunk, heading toward the bridge first. Wash swiveled his chair toward her as she entered, smiling his welcome.

"Hey," he said, reaching a hand out to her. She took it, twining her fingers with his, bending to kiss him. "Should be on Paquin before midnight, ship's time," he informed her, once she'd straightened. "It'll be mid-day at Paquin's main port. Know how long we're gonna be lighting down?"

"Not sure yet. Inara's got clients."

"Yah, she said. But in passing. Didn't give me specifics."

Zoe grunted. They shared a silence. It had been almost a month since Inara had last had a client. An issue which she and the captain had discussed, fairly loudly, in the very recent past. Not that their conversations were any less fraught when she did have regular work.

"Generally," Wash said after a moment, "her engagements don't last longer than a week. Even in series."

"Were you to ask, Wash, she'd give a relatively precise time-table."

He ducked his head, nodding, taking on the task. Inara was actually always very precise in giving them her time-table, no matter who asked. The wider Serenity environment tended to be more pleasant, however, if Mal wasn't involved in the asking.

Knowing their arrival on Paquin would be midnight ship-time, but noon local-time, Zoe, Mal and Jayne turned in a bit earlier than usual, so they'd be sharp when meeting their buyers on landing. Zoe more than half expected Wash to climb down after her, as he often did when he needed to stay up past her bedtime. He'd put Serenity on autopilot for a bit, spend some time getting Zoe all nice and relaxed, then get up and back to work while she went to sleep. She drifted off waiting for him, but he never showed, and the sound of atmosphere buffeting Serenity's hull was what woke her.

Brushing out her hair before tying it back for the day, she did a little arithmetic. By her reckoning, between his needing to nurse the ship along while in hard burn for St. Alban's, then the run to Duànbèi and his exhaustion after that, it had been well over a week since she and Wash had made love. And now it almost seemed as if he were ignoring, maybe even avoiding, their usual opportunities for sex. Which, for Wash, was unprecedented.

She was beginning to wonder if he had some kind of mad going on, although he'd never withheld sex from her before, even at his most furious. That, she had to admit, was more one of her tactics. Petty, yes, but there it was. She'd learned too young to assess and use another's vulnerability, and it was hard to break that reflex. Although, with Wash, she was trying. Also, her man didn't tend hide his feelings from her, including anger. He did withhold affection when he was mad, those easy, sustaining hugs and kisses. And those hadn't been missing from her life lately. So if he was angry, it was deeply hidden, even from himself.

The Tracey thing, though. The way things had gone so terribly wrong on the bridge. That still hung between them. Other than telling her he was sorry that she'd had to mortally wound a man she'd managed to get alive through the war, he hadn't said boo. Not to her, anyway. Maybe he'd vented at Inara when she'd first brought him up to speed. Maybe he didn't want to hear Zoe's defense of Mal's actions any more than she wanted to hear him complain about them. She'd be able to do it too, to coldly list, one, two, three, all the points in favor of Mal's decisions and actions. It would hurt Wash though, she knew – she could even see the hurt pinching his open features closed in her mind's eye – as she explained why what Mal had done was right, even to the point of getting Wash shot.

And she wasn't sure anymore how much heart she could put behind reciting that list. Without Wash's words firing relentlessly at her, she hadn't been compelled to beat them back, to externalize the conflict. The mistakes were harder to defend when the only place she had to examine them was in her own head.

The hatch to the bunk clunked open, and Wash slid down the ladder. He caught her eye in the mirror over the sink, and smiled at her. "Good morning and good night. Mal's chaffing at the bit, Book's keeping something hearty and sustaining warm for you, and Jayne's gonna finish off the coffee if you don't get there quick. I'm gonna clean up a bit, grab a nap, then see about topping off the cells." This last was muffled a bit, spoken from underneath heavy knit, as he started dragging clothing over his head before climbing in bed.

She had put down her brush and turned while he was speaking. Twisting back and tying her hair, she nodded when he finished. "All right then. Sleep well. See ya when we get back." She snagged a quick peck from his lips as he untangled his arms from his sleeves before she swung up the bunk's ladder.

Turned out Inara had just three days of work scheduled here on Paquin. Mal had an appointment to discuss a possible transport job the day after tomorrow. While the possible end results of Mal's negotiations worried Zoe a tad (the gal he was talking to was the chief trainer of an elephant act), she was relieved that the captain's business kept him dirt-side as long as Inara's did. Lots less bickering when those two's schedules meshed.

That part of Serenity's domestic life looking to be peaceable, Zoe found herself a bit unsettled wondering what would happen next between her and Wash. If anything would happen. And what it meant if nothing did. Stuck planet-side for a few days with no actual piloting going on, Wash didn't have any duties that would skew his sleeping patterns, to make his down-time different from hers. No good, official reasons to stay away from their bed, away from her.

Not that he didn't make himself busy. Returning to Serenity after long hours spent in a series of shabby, smoke-filled rooms, with a series of less-than-lawful middle-men and -women, standing quiet and watchful while Mal gabbed and Jayne sneered, she headed forward, tracking down Wash. She checked their bunk, peering down through the open hatch, but found it empty, bed stripped. Looked like he was catching up with the laundry. Continuing forward, the leather ties on her holster creaking softly as she took the stairs two at a time, she made her way to the bridge. Stepping through the hatchway, she was unsurprised to discover him there. Nor was it unusual that he had a number of the access panels yanked open. What was a little odd was that he was simply standing in the center of the room, index finger stuck in his mouth as his eyes roamed, apparently idly, over the exposed wires, chips and cards.

"You okay?"

He twitched, turning toward her, pulling the finger from his mouth with a tiny sucking sound. "Huh?"

She nodded at his hand and he looked at his finger, oozing blood from a razor-fine slice across its pad. He licked at it, shrugging, and waved the volt probe in his other hand at an open panel. "Lots of sharp bits. Wasn't paying attention."

"Is there a problem?"

He shifted his feet slightly, his gaze returning to the comm system's innards. "Um, no. No, not really."

"Honey, don't make me go all first-matey on your ass." She lifted one warning brow.

He shot her a mildly annoyed glance, then said, "There isn't actually any actual official report-to-the-captain-worthy issue. It's just that I don't know where the bullet ended up."

"The bullet?"

"Yeah, y' know, the bullet?" He wriggled his fingers next to his scabbed temple. "The bullet that came out of Jayne's carelessly lying around gun and went winging around the bridge? I don't know where it stopped. I don't know if it banged up anything important. So, I'm trying to track it down."

Disturbed that neither she nor Mal had thought to follow up on what could have been a real problem, she frowned slightly and asked, "Need help?"

"Thanks, sweetie." He smiled, then his eyes drifted away from her as he stepped toward an unopened panel, gaze following a line traced in the air only he could see. "But I got it. 'S just a matter of plotting out trajectories and that I'm a wiz at." He reached out, setting the tip of an index finger on one ding of many in the dull gray metal.

Offer turned down, she stood there a moment. He'd shoved his sweater sleeves just short of his elbows, and she watched the fluid flex of the muscles in his forearms as he popped off the panel. She couldn't read his bringing up his injury for the first time, even tangentially, as a conversational opening. She'd pulled rank, pressing him where he hadn't wanted to venture. He'd even avoided mentioning Tracey.

"Should go stow my gear," she stated unnecessarily, testing. If he wanted her to stay, if he wanted to open up about whatever he was chewing on, he'd say something to keep her here.

"Uh-huh," he grunted absently, busy with the volt probe. She hesitated just a few short moments more, but he said nothing further, apparently intent on his task. Silently, she left the bridge.

As they were set in the dirt for more than a day or two, Mal had them shove their schedule around a bit. They sat down to an early dinner, protein patties and canned corn, their breakfast on Duànbèi now just a tantalizing memory. Zoe wished Simon would quit trying to get River to eat her vegetables. She clearly hated them unless they were as fresh as fresh could be, and canned creamed corn sprayed across the table was less than appetizing. Was odd though, that Wash ended up as River's target. Usually he was the guy on the sidelines, smiling behind his hand at her antics. Tonight, however, he was staring at the girl in blinking bemusement as he swabbed the rejected veggies off his face and chest. Simon's stammered apologies clashed with Jayne's barking laughter, River's glare of annoyance in Wash's direction a disturbing reflection of what Zoe felt building within herself.

Early bedtime for at least her, Mal, and Jayne followed early dinner, and Zoe'd been in bed an hour before Wash followed her down. If she hadn't been awake, waiting, the hiss of the hatch would have roused her. She watched though narrowed eyes as he moved quietly in the dim bunk as he changed, then slipped carefully under the covers, trying not to disturb her. He curled onto his left side, just as he had for the past week, facing away from her. But when she put a speculative, oddly anxious hand on his hip, squeezing gently, he turned over, smiling, eyes wide and dark in the dim light. She almost asked him if he'd found the bullet, but sharply bit the question back. If he was willing – and his fingertips caressing her thigh as one knee slipped between hers indicated he was – she wouldn't risk saying anything that might break his mood.

She peeled him out of his sweater and tank, jerking the fabric ruthlessly over his head, famished fingers stroking his skin, tweaking his perking nipples. Laughter skittered out of him in nervous, excited bursts. He loved this, loved it when her lust for him, specifically him, spilled over onto his body. She reached for the tie of his pants, extremely aware of his erection surging up under the worn flannel, stiffening against her thigh. She pushed his waistband down, over his hips, then he was rolling her over, wriggling his pants off his legs as he shoved her down onto her back. He nipped sharply at her neck, her breasts, his hands on her flesh gentle but implacable. Lips, teeth, tongue, relentless fingers, he overwhelmed her with the intensity of his focus, ferocious, demanding that she yield to the pleasure he pressed upon her.

Her fall, when he finally allowed it to happen, shattered her, left her utterly unstrung. Joints liquid, mind dazed by bliss, she let herself drift, aware of Wash mostly as a welcome, anchoring weight. He'd been silent as his own orgasm took him, but she could hear his breathing now, right in her ear, still a little ragged, beginning to slow. He eased off of her, tucking himself against her side, propped on an elbow. His own features veiled in shadow, he looked down at her, studying her face.

"Wash..." she sighed, fighting the desire to succumb to exhaustion. She'd rest a minute, catch her breath, collect her thoughts. It would be easy now to get him talking, to find out what was bothering him. Physical intimacy always tore down any emotional shields he might have erected. If she could find just the right question to slip under his guard, she could peel him wide open.

"Hm," he replied, closed lips curving in a small smile. Hitching himself up a bit, he bent over her, large palm, toasty warm, cupping her jaw. His face filled her vision, still blurry with the sweet, all-encompassing languor of her fall, and her eyes slid shut. A slow, gentle kiss pressed lightly on one lid, then the other, and dark, enveloping sleep hauled her under.

Zoe woke at the gentle chime of ship's dawn, smiling dreamily, reaching for him, eyes still closed. Her hand fell into empty space, and she dragged herself into wakefulness as the bunk light brightened. His side of the bed was deserted. Rolling onto her back, palm smacking into his irritatingly innocuous pillow, she glared up at the ceiling. Gorram the man. Instead of the sex giving her an opening to probe his state of mind, he'd side-stepped her, had used it himself. Had used her own weakness, her tendency to melt into unconsciousness after a particularly strenuous, satisfying bout of their love-making.

Fine. His tactics let her know it wasn't just fatigue and bad timing that had dried up their sex life. He was avoiding intimacy deliberately, hiding something from her. She suspected strongly it had something to do with Mal, with the Tracey business. Maybe Wash believed keeping his disapproval of Mal's command decisions to himself would help keep their marriage flying smooth. After some of their fights, especially the one that had ended up with Wash in a torture chamber, she could see why he might think that. But this wary avoidance was no better. She was getting sick of it. Of Wash feeling he was in some sort of competition with Mal. Of having her loyalties tugged back and forth. The man proved last night the snit he was working on didn't have anything to do with her. But he was steering toward having one of hers coming down on his own head.

The galley was empty, although the smell of fresh coffee indicated that Wash had been there earlier. She poured herself a mug, then set about fixing a pot of protein porridge. Mal and then Jayne emerged from their bunks just as she turned the heat off underneath it. As they ate, Mal went over their agenda for the day. Kaylee and Book showed up just as they were rising from the table, and she took herself off to her bunk to arm up, merely grunting at the "Good mornings" tossed in her direction.

While it was true his wariness was focused mostly on Zoe that day, Jayne's tight lipped, uneasy demeanor happened to work to their advantage during negotiations. Even he had realized in a few short years that it was best not to attempt frolicsome humor around her when she was out of sorts. Funny; was only the guy she'd chosen to marry who had never learned that particular lesson. There was a plus-side to her mood. All of their contacts gave them the best possible deal ever. The day passed swiftly, only Mal attempting any kind of conversation with her, and that only short and to the point of their business.

Bedtime, again. Wash followed a good hour after she'd bunked down. Tonight, though, if sex was gonna happen, it would be him making the first move, not her. Honestly didn't know how she'd respond if he did try to start something. She knew he knew she was awake, but he just crept under the covers as quietly as he could, curling into a tight knot beside her. She lay still, moving neither toward or away from him, listening to his breath, waiting for it to shift to sleep's gentle rhythm. She dropped off before it did.

She knew she'd been asleep awhile when something woke her. Not sure what, she kept still, her eyes slitting open. They came to rest immediately on Wash, sitting on the edge of the bed, his elbows propped on his knees, rubbing his eyes with one hand. She watched him silently a moment as he took in a deep breath, let it out in a long, careful sigh, then took in another, held it a moment, then exhaled slowly. The dim light cast a muted glow over the shaggy spikes of his hair, shadow pooling at the nape of his neck.

"Wash," she said softly, resisting the impulse to sit up, to stroke her fingertips over that vulnerable hollow.

He swiveled immediately, looking at her with wide eyes. "Sorry," he said, voice low. "Didn't mean to wake you."

"Wash, what's wrong?"

He peered at her a moment. Then he blinked, and his expression lightened. "Nothing," he replied, turning to stretch out on the bed beside her. His mouth curved in that little smile that always triggered a spark down low in her belly, as he murmured, "Absolutely nothing at all." Propped on one elbow, he reached out with the other hand to caress the line of her jaw.

"Mmm." She returned his smile and set a palm in the center of his chest, against thick wool, pushing him onto his back as she came up onto her own elbow. She slid up against him, drawing up one leg to lay a thigh across his. His smile deepened as he slipped his arm beneath her, putting his hand upon her back to pull her even closer. She leaned over him, and his lips parted slightly, preparing to welcome hers. Inches from his face, eye to eye, she paused, just looking. She felt him shift slightly under her, his breathing pick up a bit.

She asked again, "Wash, what's wrong?"

He stared up at her, then rolled his eyes, breaking their gaze as his brows rose, saying, "Zoe, nothing." He huffed out a small laugh, shaking his head slightly, and went on, "Except, actually, the fact that we're talking instead of kissing." He met her eyes again, his own narrowing as his smile widened into a grin, his hand stroking down, then back up her spine. He applied gentle pressure, urging her to complete their connection.

She rolled away from him, sitting up.

"Zoe," he protested. He tried for mild impatience, but she could clearly hear the underlying nerves.

"Is it Mal, how he handled Tracey?" she demanded, out of patience herself. She had come to admit, in the quiet of her own mind, that the captain had responded with a rigidity, with a rote authoritarianism that would probably never have worked with Tracey. Not during the war, and certainly not years after. And if she could see that, Wash would be all over it. She hated asking, really, really loathed bringing Mal into their bed. But sometimes, it just needed to happen.

"Oh, God," Wash groaned, grinding the heels of his palms in his eye sockets. "I so do not want to talk about Mal." He let his hands flop so he could peer up at her earnestly. "Look, Zoe, it's nothing. A little insomnia. My sleep cycle is out of whack."

She shot him a piercing look over her shoulder. "Wash, your sleep cycle is always out of whack. That's never kept you out of my bed for a week before."

Guilt flashed across his face. "I'm sorry, Zoe," he said, sitting up, placing a light hand on her bicep. "Can I make it up to you?" He offered a slanting apologetic smile, his thumb circling the point of her shoulder.

She shook him off. "I'm not havin' sex with a man who's lyin' to me."

"I'm not–" Frustrated, he let his hand drop. "Zoe, it's not Mal or, or his thing with Tracey. I'm- It really is just a sleep thing. Really. It's not important. I'll- I'll do better by you."

"So if it's not important, just tell me." She made herself ignore the shame darkening his features. Otherwise, she'd tumble to the temptation just to curl into his arms, telling him everything was fine, simply to get that look off his face.

His lips compressed as he turned away from her. Drawing up his far leg, he set his elbow on his knee, propping his forehead in his hand. She studied his profile in silence, the masking shadows making it hard for her to puzzle out his expression. Knowing he was on the verge of opening up, she gave him a moment to get his thoughts and words in order. After a few seconds, his fingers curled, clenching hard on the hair on top of his head.

"Zoe," he said, his reluctance to speak making his voice tight, almost too soft to hear. "If you ever... ever have to bury me–"

Shocked, she snapped out harshly, "Wash, I ain't gonna–"

He shocked her a second time, twisting rapidly to place two fingers over her lips to shut her up. "Please, Zoe, just–" He sucked in a quick breath, huffed it out again, rounded eyes locked on hers. "Just, please, if you ever do, make it someplace warm, or, or at least not cold. And, where you can see the stars."

She pulled his fingers from her mouth, gripping them hard in her fist, to growl out, "Gorram fool of a man." But a chill shivered through her, as she realized what had been preying on him the last week, what had wormed itself into his sleep, twisting his dreams. The thought of Tracey's bullet just scant centimeters to the left, through his eye socket and scrambling his brain. Didn't blame him for that, for that same image had flashed through her own mind when he'd jerked back in his seat, crying out, as she'd pulled the trigger, lusting to end the man who'd hurt her husband.

But then, typically, Wash's imagination had raced on, way past hers, to see himself in a box and buried, maybe even right next to Tracey. Left behind in the ice-cold dirt of St. Alban's, under its dark, glowering clouds. The vision, stark, breath-stopping in its clarity, froze her thoughts, striking her dumb.

After a long, silence-filled moment, Wash slumped, ducking his head, looking away. "Guess I am a fool," he said quietly, yielding the point to her. He gave a little chuckle, one she couldn't hear much humor or hope in. "Really, when you get right down to it, it doesn't matter much where the old corpus delicti ends up." Glancing at her sideways, he tugged lightly against the grip she still had on his fingers, saying mildly, "You're kinda hurting me, sweetie."

She loosed her hold instantly, then her hands were sliding up under his sweater, under his tank, across the bare skin of his belly, to his chest, shoving him down on his back.

"Whoa," he gasped, surprised by her sudden onslaught, arms flailing out to slap against the mattress. She had a moment when he lay stunned beneath her, her hands clamping hard on the dense flesh of his pectorals, her knees jamming between his, spreading his legs. Then he made a sound, harsh, animal, from down low in his throat, and he was pulling her face to his with one hand, fingers twisting hard in the hair on the back of her head, while the other dragged her hips against his, nails biting into the flesh of her buttock.

They wrestled him out of his clothing, his bared flesh an overwhelming temptation to nip, to suck and lick and stroke. She wouldn't let herself think about what this desperate need to possess him, to mark him as hers meant, not now. She knew she was scaring him. She could hear it in his ragged breaths, could feel it his hyper-sharp responses to her touch. But he held nothing back, spurring her on, his hands and mouth hot and demanding on her skin. He uttered a soft, desperate moan as she took him, arching up to push himself deeper inside.

Her climax, abrupt, unexpected, shook her through a series of sharp spasms, her cry muffled as she bit down on Wash's breast. She paused a moment, catching her breath, licking lightly at the teeth marks she'd pressed into his flesh. Then she rocked back, sitting up to gaze down at him. She still held him, hard and unfinished, within herself, and she shifted her hips, settling him deeper.

He stared into her face, eyes wide and watchful, panting through parted lips, his body taut and quivering beneath her. She began rocking again, slow first, then faster, holding his gaze with hers, seeing the wildness there grow, as he kept himself fiercely in check, waiting, waiting for her. Sweet heat burst back to life, building with every thrust of her hips. She groaned, deep in her throat, and Wash's breath quickened, coming in harsh gasps. He set his hands, light and trembling, on her flexing thighs, his eyes glittering, holding himself rigid and still. She picked up her pace, driving herself down on him, riding him hard. She brought herself right up to the edge, and she knew that he could see it in her face, that he teetered on the brink with her. But that he wouldn't let himself fall unless she pushed him. Pupils huge and black, he stared into her eyes, chest heaving, waiting.

"Let go, baby," she breathed. His eyelids fluttered, then his hips snapped up, his fingers clamping on her thighs, forcing her down onto him. A shout, an open-throated roar of surrender, erupted from him, heedless of the crew sleeping on the other side of the walls. His deep thrust ignited her own orgasm, flaring from her center outward, up her spine, blinding her in white ecstasy.

Then there were his hands, gentling her, stroking her back, smoothing her hair from her face. She realized her own hands were moving on him, fingertips tracing lightly over his skin. She knew it was weakness not to be acknowledging the why of her need to memorize every square inch of him she could reach. She forced her thoughts away from an icy grave under glowering clouds.

It was rare, very rare, for him to fall asleep before she did. But he drifted off, her head on his shoulder, his arm around her back, his other hand resting on hers where it lay on his chest. His seed sticky and drying on her thighs, she decided it was time to open that conversation again. The one about the child they could make together. She understood all his concerns, his very sensible fear of bringing a helpless child onto this ship, into this life. She also understood that her man knew, down to his core, that risk, that taking a chance and facing the consequences, wide-eyed, was the essence of life.

An itchiness under her hip finally irritated her out of her thoughts, and she shifted, lifting her head from his shoulder. As she did, Wash rolled onto his side, hunching into a tight ball, reacting in his sleep to the sweat cooling on his skin. She tugged his sweater from under her hip, and stared at it a moment, fingering the coarse knit, before tossing it away from her onto the floor. She understood now the nature of the chill he had been fighting. She curled up against his back, spooning tightly to him as she dragged the covers over them both. Reaching around him to set her palm over his heart, she could feel him relaxing into her heat. She kissed his nape, then, lips brushing against his skin, she whispered, "I'll keep you warm, Wash. I'll keep you warm."