Chapter 12: House and Home

Blessed are you, whose worthiness gives scope / Being had, to triumph, being lack'd, to hope.*

Author's Notes: And finally, we come to the bittersweet beginning of Wash and Zoë's future together. It's been an amazing experience – developing, writing and sending this story out into the world. A huge thank you to those who have been interested enough to ponder on and correspond with me about the themes and issues raised in DOTM and how the characters were presented. I'll be keeping my proud parent's eye on the story, so feel free to place a review and/or send me a message if there is anything you want to discuss, or just to let me know what you did or didn't like. See you all in the Black! Ella

It didn't take long for Mal to get around to that conversation with Zoë. He gave them both a few weeks to get more or less back on their feet, before he came calling at her bunk. Zoë knew unpleasantness was forthcoming, but she composed her face as usual and waited for him to have his say.

"You know I frown on shipboard romances?"

Zoë's impassive expression didn't change. "Don't know what you mean, sir."

Damn, she was good! "I mean," said Mal, a bit tetchy, "I frown on shipboard romances. They complicate matters, distract people from their proper duties. Then when it don't work out, just creates discord among the crew. And I just want to recall this fact to your mind, as it seems you've taken to looking at Wash in an amorous-type fashion of late."

Captain or not, this was going too far. Telling, no, ordering her, and about this, of all things! "Who I look at is my business, sir," Zoë said with cool finality. "I ain't sexin' the man, and he hasn't crashed us, yet. So I reckon 'til one of those scenarios changes there's nothing to discuss."

That was not the answer Mal expected. Arguing back to, taking issue with – that was definitely not what he was accustomed to from 'Yes, sir, No, sir' Zoë. So there was an it going on, and it was already starting to change things. For the worse, from his perspective. But her imperious, you-really-want-to-have-this-conversation? stare shut down the continuation of what promised to be, at best, a mutually vexing discourse, and Mal retreated, uh, strategically withdrew from her space.

He didn't even consider speaking to Wash. He was different, too, Mal had noticed. Like an element in his core had shifted, given him a more sober hue. Seemed kinda worried about something, but Mal's efforts to draw the pilot out had met with responses that were positively Jayne-like in their brevity. Was that on account of the it, or had Callum really shook him up that bad? Well, things would get back to normal soon enough, Mal was confident. Everyone was safe, Serenitywas flying true, he and Zoë were healing, and Mal had a lead on the prospect of a shiny new job. Maybe that wasn't much, but it was enough.

After Mal had gone, Zoë looked at the effrontery that was Wash's blue, green and yellow print shirt, still thrown over the chair in her bunk. She hadn't gotten around to returning it. It was clean, though, all the stains of sweat and dirt and blood gone, because when she did return it, she didn't want Wash thinking she was ungrateful for what he'd done. He didn't ask after it, so appeared to be in no rush. Sad to say, the man seemed to have a small army of similar monstrosities to take its place.

That didn't bother her. The clothes didn't hide anything, now she knew the look and feel of the well-proportioned, muscular body underneath them.

As for monstrosities, those plastic dinosaurs remained scattered around the flight console, which suggested that Wash was gonna stay on as Serenity's pilot, at least for the time being.

And that did bother her.

Mal wasn't wrong about romance complicating the running of a ship. Dividing loyalties and such. But ta ma de, it meant a lot, more than she would have expected, having a man put her first like Wash had done when she told him what happened in the Valley. Wash was wrong, of course, blaming Mal. Didn't know what he was talking about. But still…

Zoë shook her head in protest. He wasn't the sort of man she needed, a soft man. How could he be? Hell, she didn't want to need a man at all. But sonofabitch if there wasn't something comforting about having that gorram ugly shirt around. Her frown deepened as she tried to find something else to look at in the bare little room. Knife… rifle… bed… pistol… mirror… second rifle...gorram ugly shirt. And it was just like him – chatty, irreverent, playful.

Driven to honesty, Zoë had to admit she was in love. She'd been there once or twice before, a long ways back, and wasn't so keen to return. Didn't like how it made her feel all warm and girly. And vulnerable. That'd all be fine and good if Wash felt the same way, but things didn't look to be headed down that road. He hadn't had much of anything real to say to her after they got back to the ship, although he fussed awkwardly over her at first, sitting with her in the infirmary and later in the common area, talking, listening, telling his fei hua stories to make her laugh. And she had leaned against him, and smiled, and laughed, feeling in herself an unaccustomed lightness.

But that all stopped about a week back. He hadn't said much of anything at all for some days. And he spent a lot of time on the bridge, surely more than necessary. Seemed kinda worried about something.

Chances are the man felt embarrassed, maybe even guilty. Going through an intense experience like they done at the asylum, conjures feelings in the heat of the moment that maybe aren't real. Emotions get all mixed up. And what he said before the doors opened, well, he'd probably reconsidered, but didn't want to hurt her feelings. Zoë understood, she did. It was a tough thing to ask of a man, a soft man, to look past the violent, vagabond life she had led. Was still leading. And they both knew that part of her life wasn't gonna change.

It'd been her and Mal, the two of them, for a long time. And Serenity was their home, their refuge, a place to hold, together, against whatever the ruttin' 'verse threw at them. But Zoë had no illusions. Mal lived in Serenity Valley. She hadn't had cause to think on it before, but now it struck her that, like Callum, he'd never really left there. But where Callum had lost pieces of his mind, Mal had lost pieces of his soul. And Zoë stayed in the Valley with him, of course she stayed, and willingly so. Out of loyalty, yes, but also out of love. A type of love. And it was companionship, of a sort. So they holed up there, in a house with no laughter, a cold house, full of shadows and things they both tried to forget.

Lately, she'd got to thinking – that part, where she lived – that might be susceptible to change.

Soldiers had to hold.

But women got held.

That's what she was thinking the last time she caught herself looking right at Wash. Fortunately, he didn't notice.

He'd been spending a fair amount of time with Kaylee these days. Maybe that was back on again. Better for everyone, Zoë supposed. No, she didn't begrudge that Wash should choose Kaylee. After all, I am a stone.

"My wife."

Wash was taking the phrase for another test run, getting a better feel for it, really putting it through its paces this time. "Meet my wife. Have you met my wife? She's pretty hot, isn't she, my wife!" He grinned broadly. Yes, he definitely liked the sound of that phrase. Sounded like he belonged somewhere.

Speaking of belongings, she still had his shirt. That was a good sign, right? Don't women take the shirts of the men they like? Wear them around the house. Sleep in them, 'au naturel', as it were, with nothing separating their soft, supple cocoa skin from the shirts of the men they like. Oh how Wash envied his shirt!

"I'll just have to check with my wife. Love to stay and chat, but I'm going to have sex with my sexy, sexy wife."

He'd been rehearsing with Kaylee, who declared she'd never heard a more romantic speech. But Kaylee was easily pleased. For Zoë, he needed to sound decisive, persuasive, strong. Especially that last one, although he knew that, of course, he'd never be as strong as she was.

"My deadly wife." The grin lost some luster, but hung on tenaciously.

He'd had plenty of time to think it over, the 'deadly' part. As far as Wash was concerned, he'd made his choice, back at the asylum, and he was surprisingly at peace with it. Zoë wasn't going to forget the war or pretend that Serenity Valley didn't happen. Those experiences were all part of what made her Zoë, and he understood that, he did. So everything that followed was simple. He loved her. He wanted her. And she wouldn't leave Mal. So, yes, to stay with her he would choose this life, this time with his eyes open.

If she would have him. That was still the question. She hadn't said anything afterwards, about his declaration of undying love, blurted out at just the wrong time, just before those heavy doors opened. And yeah, that was gonna be a great bedtime story for the kids one day, how mommy and daddy fell in love in a mental ward! She practically had to marry him now, if for no other reason than to end the fairytale with that.

And why shouldn't the story end happily? That's what he was thinking when he caught her looking at him again. She still had his shirt. As long as she held on to that, Wash held on to hope. And the dinosaurs remained on the flight console.

Zoë sighed. The thoughts had gone 'round in her head long enough. Best have it out with him. Not good for ship morale when folks don't know where they stand with one another. She swung her long legs out of bed, tucked the gorram ugly shirt under her arm and headed to the bridge, resigned.

Stay cool. Straighten your posture. breathe.

He heard her approaching. Tzao gao, I'm not ready, not yet! Calm down, Washburne. Breathe. I said breathe! Okay, now just like you practiced. Commanding, serious, tall. Above all, no blathering. Blather is a definite turn-off to this particular woman.

"Hey there," he said breezily, swiveling around in his chair to flash her a wide smile. So far, so good.

Ha! thought Zoë. You don't fool me with that yu bun duh grin on your face, Hoban Washburne, 'cause your eyes ain't smiling. Yep, just as she'd suspected. He looked downright unsettled – nervous, agitated, apparently not at all pleased to see her. She decided to be brief, get right to business and spare him the distress.

"I wanted to return your shirt," she announced, her pitch low and unemotional.

Oh, so that's why she's here. The grin drained away.

It upset her to see that smile run and hide.

"Oh, um, thanks," he said awkwardly, holding the shirt at arm's length, as if it was a lump of moldy protein.

"It's clean." Zoë watched him carefully. Did he not want it back?

"Hm? Oh, yeah. Thanks." Wash seemed thoroughly distracted, in consequence of which there was a decided lack of conviction in his voice.

Huh! After all her pains, he didn't even care. She nodded once, hiding her disappointment pretty well, she thought, and turned to go.

But…but…the hero is supposed to get the girl at the end! Damn it, Washburne, do something!

"Zoë?" She turned back to him. "I...I got you something." In an instant he was next to her. And then he had retreated to stand by the flight console. He moved so quickly, it took Zoë a beat to understand that he had pulled something out of his baggy vest pocket and nervously thrust it at her, and now a small, flat box was in her hand.

As she started to open the box, Wash couldn't help himself. He shifted into full-on panic mode, and the carefully crafted phrases of tender and ardent devotion were unceremoniously shoved aside, replaced by:

"I saw it when we were on Persephone. A week back. And I thought maybe you'd like it, 'cause I know you wore your old one every day and Callum took it when he...uh, took the rest of your things. Er, your clothes. Anyway, I just thought maybe you'd like to wear this one. And...and think about ...think about it, y'know? The idea. Or not."

The words finally ran themselves out and dropped from nervous exhaustion. Oh God, Washburne! That was just a big, hot mess! You'd have done better reading off a gorram greeting card.

Zoë looked at the contents of the box for a few seconds. Then she lifted the necklace and held it up against the background of night and stars outside the cock pit windows. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she examined it closely in the dim bridge light, and then she raised a questioning eyebrow at Wash. He screwed his courage to the sticking-place and bobbed his head, hardly daring to breathe.

"This is a betrothal necklace." Keep your tone level, girl. Perhaps he just made a mistake. Menfolk don't know from jewelry.

Wash gulped air and nodded again. "Um, yes, yes it is." Stop! That was great, nice and short. Might be we can salvage the situation.

Zoë looked at him thoughtfully. So it wasn't a mistake. And now she had a choice. Maybe. "I'm not leaving Mal. You understand that, right? And he's still the captain. Whatever hard feelings you got towards him, you're gonna have to put those aside or this won't work."

It took tremendous effort. In fact, it was probably the single most difficult thing he ever did in his life, and he didn't dare trust the job to his voice. But in the confines of that tiny bridge, under her smart, savvy, and potentially bone-crushing scrutiny, Wash managed to give a thoroughly convincing nod. It was to be the first, last and only time he ever lied to her.

They'd make it work, that much was true.

But no, he would never forgive Mal. Never forgive him for putting extra blood on Zoë's hands. For inspiring this blind, irrational loyalty that bound her to him and their violent, risky life. For any part of Zoë she would never give Wash, because Mal had already laid claim to it. For letting her be unhappy. Selfish bastard didn't deserve...

Wait! Shut up a minute…

Was that a yes? She just said yes, didn't she? She's smiling. She's laughing. She's coming closer. Musta been a yes!

He opened his arms to embrace her, but Zoë pushed him down into the pilot's chair and folded herself onto his lap. Then, to Wash's amazement and delight, she mussed his fair hair playfully. He gazed up at her, his earth, his ether, his new and glorious eternal after.

Then she took his head in her hands and kissed her man full on the mouth. Her man.

And Zoë thought, 'Once you've been in Serenity, you never leave.' Well, hump that all to hell! She wasn't going to stay and lose pieces of herself, like some. Behind her closed lids, she looked once more around the Valley, engulfed in dark and death. And then, feeling mighty, she climbed the hill and saw a fertile plain stretch out before her. For the first time in two years, the dawn rose, yellow with a hint of strawberry. The sky was endless blue. Yes, she would build her new house here, in this land, and she would thrive.

And Wash? He thought nothing at all. There was only a warm, velvety silence and the endless evening sky. And then, enveloped in her kiss, that's when it happened. That's when he saw it – the Southern Cross. He was home.


Literary References and Chinese Translations:

* Shakespeare's Sonnet 52

ta ma de = dammit!

fei hua = nonsense

tzao gao = oh, crap!

yu bun duh = stupid