I approached the infirmary slowly, taking the time to check that the rest of the crew was elsewhere. I didn't want an audience for this. I entered the room and closed the door behind me before taking a seat next to the battered man lying in the middle of it.
"Hey," I said quietly. Mal looked towards me as I spoke.
"Wash," he acknowledged.
"How are you feeling?" I asked. Mal attempted to shrug, wincing at the motion. I nodded, trying not to do the same thing myself. It was more difficult than I'd imagined to see Mal like this. There was a large bandage covering the middle of his chest, but that didn't covering the red, sore looking lines that covered his body, stemming from under the bandage. I could even think what sort of tool could make that sort of mark. We sat in silence for a few moments. "You've had…that happen before." I finally said. It wasn't a question, and I was guessing he knew that.
"I'm thinking so," he responded. I nodded.
"Has…has Zoe?" I don't know why I asked; I definitely didn't think I wanted to know the answer.
"Couldn't rightly say," he replied smoothly. I looked at him for a long second. I wasn't sure if he was lying or not. But, as the Captain had made abundantly clear, he and Zoe had a history. My understanding was that they had all the same war experiences, so if it had happened to Mal… No, that wasn't a road I wanted to go down. The thought of what Niska had done to me happening to Zoe made me sick to my stomach.
"I…" I cleared my throat and looked away. "I wanted to apologise." Mal frowned at me, clearly caught by surprise.
"Don't see why. S'not like you did this." He made a vague, feeble gesture towards himself.
"I got a lot to apologise for, Mal. I said things that I shouldn't've."
"Hell Wash, you know I pushed you into that. Needed to keep you alive." I shrugged.
"If I hadn't gone, Zoe wouldn't've had to choose." I looked directly at him again. "You wouldn't have been left behind, Mal." He shook his head.
"That ain't so. Zoe had been there, you'd pick her. 'Sides, we got the worst of it before you left." I didn't know why he was doing this. Mal was strong, but he wasn't one for making less of his injuries. Admittedly, most of the time he honestly did have more important things to worry about, being the captain and all, but this different. When you're lying in an infirmary, too weak to move, it's pretty hard to convince anyone that you're ok.
"Mal, we heard you. We heard you screamin'. I don't know what he was doing to you, but you never once screamed when I was in the room with you." I didn't feel the need to tell him that walking down that corridor when I knew how much Niska was hurting him was one of the hardest things I'd ever done.
"Could be that's true. I don't remember things too good." I opened my mouth to continue my argument. I was going to tell him that he didn't have to be strong when the crew wasn't there. That he shouldn't have had to have been strong for me, that he wouldn't have done for Zoe. But he cut me off. "Listen, Wash, I got no issue against you. I don't see why you're so set on having this conversation."
"Zoe's told me things 'bout the war. Not much, but little things, here and there. And until now, I never could see what it meant. I didn't understand why she was so…attached to you, why she followed your every order, explicit or otherwise." Mal raised any eyebrow.
"And now you do?" He asked incredulously. I shrugged.
"Yeah, I think I do. A bit, at least." Mal laughed, then stopped suddenly, grimacing at the pain.
"Listen, Wash, you ain't got no gorram idea." I flinched slightly at his angry tone. Mal could be damn scary when he wanted to be. "And that's ok," he continued. "That's the way it's s'posed to be. It ain't right that folks like Zoe have seen the things they have." I had to agree with him. The fact that Zoe still hurt from the war was one of the only things I hated more than the fact that only Mal could understand why.
"But I do." I insisted. "Look, Mal, maybe I haven't seen as much violence as you have. Maybe I've never been to war. But that doesn't mean I don't get the way things are with you and Zoe more than I did before." He sighed.
"I ain't gonna argue with you Wash. Don't have the energy, even if I did have the notion." He closed his eyes, a clear signal that he was done talking. I stood but didn't move, hesitating. I hoped he'd got what I was trying to say, since he didn't let me say it properly. I hoped he understood how grateful I was that I was standing here now, intact and breathing. And I hoped he knew that my allegiance to him was stronger because of it.
Still, if he didn't, there wasn't much I could do about it now. I turned towards the infirmary door, pausing briefly when I reached it. There was one last thing I needed to know, I realised.
"Mmm?" He opened his eyes and I tried to ignore his glare.
"Did you really tell her not to marry me?" He stared at me blankly, giving nothing away. I sighed and left the small room. His silence was answer enough.