Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction based on characters from the Firefly 'verse created by Joss Whedon. No copyright infringement is intended.

Rating: T (for disturbing situations and foul language)

Spoilers: None. This story is set pre-series, about eight months after Wash joins the crew and six months after Kaylee joins the crew.

Pairing(s): Wash/Kaylee, Wash/Zoë

Author's Notes: This story was inspired by a deleted scene from the series pilot episode, plus a little Shakespeare. The scene deals with the end of the Battle of Serenity Valley and is transcribed as the prologue to Dagger of the Mind. You can also watch it on the series DVD or on YouTube. Thank you to everyone who has provided feedback and encouragement for my very first-ever fanfic, particularly Jadzia Bear and my loyal sounding boards Patrick and Natasha.

Also, in order for certain elements of the story to make sense, I had to play with the timeline a little. Here, the war ended six years earlier.

Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle towards my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible to feeling as to sight? or art thou but a dagger of the mind, a false creation, proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? – Macbeth, Act 2 Scene 1


Zoë describes the end of the Battle of Serenity Valley to Simon

(Firefly pilot episode, deleted scene transcript, abridged)

SIMON: (turns on talking encyclopedia) Serenity. Read.

ENCYCLOPEDIA: In the war to unite the planets, the Battle of Serenity was among the most devastating and decisive. Located on Hera, the valley was considered a key position by both sides, and was bitterly fought over. The Independent Faction, with sixteen brigades and twenty air-tank squads, held the valley against the Alliance forces for almost two months, until superior numbers and a brilliant deep-flank strategy by General –

(Zoë enters the room. Simon turns off encyclopedia)

Zoë: Nearly half a million people lay dead on that field at day's end, about a third of them 'winners'.

SIMON: Mal was there with you.

Zoë: He was my sergeant. Commanded thirty-odd grunts – five days in, there were so many officers dead he commanded two thousand. Kept us together, kept us fighting, kept us sane. By the time the fighting was over, he had maybe four hundred still intact.

SIMON: Wow. That's a hell of a –

Zoë: I said the fighting was over. But you see they left us there. Wounded, and sick, and near to mad as can still walk and talk. Both sides left us there, while they negotiated the peace. For a week. And we kept dying. When they finally sent in medships, he had about a hundred and fifty left, and of our original platoon, just me. Mercy, forgiveness, trust... Those are things he left back there. What he has now is the ship, the ship and us on it.

SIMON: If that battle was so horrible, why'd he name the ship after it?

Zoë: (thinks for a minute) Once you've been in Serenity, you never leave. You just learn to live there.

End Prologue.

Chapter 1: Prospects

"He did not neither," Kaylee laughed, her hand flying up to her mouth in protest. A bit of extra color crept into her fair cheeks. "But he looks a darn sight better without it, don'cha think?"

The tall, dusky woman drinking with her let just the briefest flicker of a smile cross her face. She leaned over slightly farther than necessary to grab the wine bottle, which just happened to afford her a glimpse of the three men playing at darts in the corner of the bar, appraising each in turn.

Mal – well, he was a handsome man. No, take that back. Mal was a pretty man. He also had that whole dark, brooding cloud of disgruntlement thing that women mistook for hidden depths, still waters and all that romantic nonsense. Women tended to fall hard for Mal, which oddly seemed to please him not at all. This puzzled Zoë some, since she knew for a fact he wasn't sly.

Zoë herself almost never thought of Mal in those terms. He was, after all, her captain, and before that, her commanding officer in the war. They'd shared plenty of intimate moments, most involving incoming ordnance. Seen a fair amount of each other's bodies, too, what with patching up wounds caused by the aforementioned ordnance. But lying biblical with a man she still felt compelled to call 'sir'? Zoë's brow contracted imperceptibly at the thought – that was just all manner of creepifying.

As for the bulk they called Jayne, sure, it could fight well and handle a variety of weapons, which Zoë respected. Decent tracker. The looks were ... she decided to be charitable and went with 'rugged.' And there had to be a brain in there somewhere, 'cause it seemed mostly to comprehend human speech. Even produced some once in a while. But as soon as Jayne joined the crew he'd wasted no time informing Zoë that all his man parts were intact, impressive and available for sexin' everywhichaway... Ugh! Zoë gave a slight, involuntary shudder, commanding that image to stop in its tracks, wither and die.

The other one? Despite the jaw-droppingly tasteless shirts and seemingly endless stream of fei hua that spewed from his mouth, she had to admit he was a talented pilot, pulled his weight among the crew. And not a coward, at least. A good match for sweet, sunny Kaylee. They were kind of cute together when they were talking geek over something to do with Serenity's workings. Okay, he's got nice eyes. Never considered them before, but they were easier to notice now he'd shaved off that yu bun duh mustache for Kaylee (she could deny it all she wanted, but Zoë knew). And powerful arms. A very, very private part of her acknowledged it was kind of a turn-on to watch him wrestle the ship into submission. The man certainly did love his job, which was more than she could say for her own self.

But he was clearly intimidated by her, and that was just plain pathetic. Beyond pathetic. Weak. Wash and his huang tang plastic dinosaurs wouldn't last one day among real soldiers. Even today, new bar, new planet and the man refused to carry a weapon, not even a one. No way anybody that... that soft would'a made it out of the Valley intact. And the captain wondered why she didn't like him! She needed someone with real strength, tough like she was, willing to do what was necessary, without hesitation, when the time came. And taller. Who wasn't Jayne, of course.

"If you say so, mei mei." Zoë shrugged, leisurely refilling her glass, her eyes efficiently sweeping the bar to see whether there were prospects for any other male specimens to catch her interest (there so rarely were). Or any potential threats (the more likely scenario).

At the other end of the room, Wash had gotten bored with winning and was using his turns to make star charts on the dart board. Mal and Jayne, who had wondered why Wash refused to play for money at the start, watched, mesmerized. Right hand, left hand, ten extra paces back, didn't matter. All the darts just lined up wherever he took a fancy, first bullseyes, and then an ever-shifting panel of constellations and galaxies.

"And that, boys and girls," Wash intoned in a breathy, overly-patient voice, "is Virgo, once visible in the skies of Earth-that-Was. And above the smiling Virgin is the Southern Cross. Lost pilots used to navigate their ships home by the light of the Southern Cross." He paused, lost in some thought.

"Betcha navigated yer way 'round plenty o' smilin' virgins with them clever hands o' yers, little man," Jayne snorted licentiously, hoisting his beer in a mock salute.

It annoyed Wash to be called 'little man.' In point of fact, he was a perfectly respectable height. He just looked shorter in the company of the Amazon Queen, Captain Mal-content and Steroid Boy. Wash flashed a good-natured grin to Steroid Boy (aka HGH-Man*, aka Mr. Overcompensation, aka Vera's Tool, aka...). "As a gentleman, I never kiss and tell." He doffed an imaginary hat and bowed genteelly in the general direction of the ladies of Serenity.

Wash knew he had to tread carefully on that score. Kaylee? Sweet kid. Cute, too. And let's face it – kind of a sure thing. Well, so was he if given half a chance. He'd even kissed her in a mutually playful moment while they were fixing something under the flight console. Shaved off his gorram mustache 'cause she didn't like it. They had lots in common, understood each other's techno-babble. True, Mal treated Kaylee like a younger sister (with special emphasis on the 'young'), and would probably have no qualms about administering a righteous beating if he felt Wash was taking advantage. But yeah, Kaylee and him made sense. She was warm and comfortable. And uncomplicated. And mercifully free of gigantism! And, and...well... dull.

Now Zoë! If Kaylee was a camp fire for roasting marshmallows, Zoë was a blast furnace for tempering steel. The darkest eyes, the fullest lips, the longest legs. Intriguing – like a female praying mantis. And oh yes, mustn't forget that sawed-off rifle she apparently never put down, adding that extra little touch of back-the-fuck-off-or-I-will-hurt-you allure. And yet, and yet, the woman had a wicked sense of humor! A quick, dry wit so unexpected it came at him sideways and knocked him speechless. And smart. Smarter than the captain for sizing up a situation. More careful, too. Mal might be willing to dive in head first to get the coin, but Zoë gave more than a passing thought to the exit strategy, which Wash, being selfishly attached to keeping breathing, appreciated.

She wasn't happy, though. Wash could tell. Her smiles were too infrequent, and always laced with a sadness that made him want to touch her cheek or stroke her gorgeous hair. No, no. Just regular shipmate-type hair, Washburne. Best keep things professional, since he quite clearly tried her last nerve when he wasn't piloting them out of a jam. He'd start talking ('garrulous' it said on his flight school fitness reports), and that imperious, disapproving eyebrow'd start going up. So no prospects there. Just you put those un-shipmatey-type thoughts aside. That's right. After all, what could he possibly offer this fierce, indomitable, magnificent woman, except easy target practice?

"Well." Mal rose leisurely from his chair. "We best be getting back to the ship, Jayne. Comin' near the time for that call. Got us the prospect of a shiny job if this new employer pans out." Mal gulped down the last of his drink and roughly nudged the mercenary to his feet. "No need for you to cut short your astronomy class, Wash. Seems a clean, respectable place and the girls are still enjoying themselves, so y'all can stay another hour or so. If you get into any trouble, Zoë'll more 'n likely help you out." After pausing to consider further, he added, "But best if you don't go testing that theory."

As if pre-rehearsed, Mal exchanged a quick nod with Zoë across the room and strode out. Funny, Wash thought, how they were always aware of one another. Always, no matter the place or what else was happening.

So! Wash rubbed his hands together with nervous energy. Go join the ladies? Zoë's quick scowl out-voted Kaylee's cheery wave. Deciding maybe today was not the best day for a broken insert-bone-of-choice-here, Wash moved to the other end of the bar and ordered another beer. Two guys in flight suits were there talking and Wash was soon happily engrossed in swapping pilot stories. New drinks appeared. When Wash slid to the floor a few minutes later, he was more focused on his blurry vision than his failing limbs. "Tsai boo shr!" Then there was nothing.

Halfway into their second bottle of wine, amid the idle talk about places to go and pretties to buy, Zoë conducted one of her periodic room scans. She suddenly frowned and put her drink down. "Gorramit!" she muttered. No Wash in sight. She rose to her feet for a better view, leaning on the table, slightly light-headed. "Where's that fong luh pilot gotten to?"

Although it wasn't directed at Kaylee, the girl involuntarily shrank away from the sweep of Zoë's supremely dissatisfied glare. Zoë's hand abruptly slipped from the table's edge, but she managed to pivot with natural grace so as not to fall. She stared down at her arms, wondering how they came to be attached to her body. "Huaile...something wrong...gotta...get..." The room began to spin. Or was she dancing? Part of her was delighted at the thought – she hadn't danced since before the war.

Kaylee's wide, uncomprehending eyes, pupils unnaturally dilated, were her last sight before the black. The last thing she heard was, "That's the one, but I guess we should take all three."

The light flashed on Serenity's cortex. Incoming wave. Mal leaned casually over the console, ready to charm (or at least not piss off) the new employer. But he started when the client's face came into focus. Mal's countenance quickly paled, then darkened. Ta ma de, pull it together, Reynolds! He planted his feet to steady himself, shoulders tensing.

"Sergeant Reynolds." The man spat the words as if he couldn't get them out of his mouth fast enough.

Hearing his former title, Mal flinched and swallowed hard, anger swelling up faster than the fear. "Frog-humping sonofabitch! Is this some sick joke?"

"No joke, Sergeant. It's really me. Still alive. Leastwise, still breathing." Even as he said the words, the man's breathing seemed to become more labored, as if his lungs were unaccustomed to the extra effort speaking required. Mal groped far back in his memory for the name that matched. It registered somewhere in Mal's consciousness that the man was...lopsided. Crippled? Prosthesis? Using a cane?

"And I have guests," the man continued, regaining his composure. "For the trip."


Callum (Yes, thought Mal, that's right. The man's name was Callum) stepped aside and then Mal could see them, Zoë and Kaylee laying unconscious in a heap on the floor.

"To 'the be-all and the end-all', Sergeant. Back to Serenity Valley. Time to finish the war."

End Chapter 1.

Literary References, Chinese Translations and Miscellaneous:

* HGH = Human Growth Hormone

* Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 7 (Macbeth, while contemplating the murder of King Duncan, surmising it will lead to his own eventual downfall: "that but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all here...But in these cases / We still have judgment here; that we but teach / Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return / To plague the inventor")

fei hua = nonsense

yu bun duh = stupid

huang tang = ridiculous

mei mei = little sister

tsai boo shr = no way!

fong luh = crazy, loopy

huaile=something's wrong

ta ma de = dammit