"How long have you been here?"
"Two years, nearly three maybe. I stopped counting a while back."
"Do you think we'll ever get out?"
"Oh, probably not for a while. It's not too bad, though. Become like home, almost."
Wash always became louder on U-Day. He cracked jokes at the most inopportune moments, performed on the bridge for anyone willing to watch and took a few more risks at the controls than he normally would. His laughter echoed through the ship.
No one noticed, of course, since Mal's habit of hitting things and people on that day tended to grab everyone's attention. So Wash joked and performed and made sure that he kept laughing even when moonbrained schemes led to them stealing goods and then returning them with no profit.
At night, Zoe's hand found his under the covers and held on a little tighter than she normally would have. It took a while before he realised she was doing it for him as well as herself, and when he did he pulled her body against him and twined his tongue with hers, letting his spare hand comb through her hair to gently cradle the back of her head.
It ended, as these things often did, with some phenomenally good sex, and when they were lying worn out and sweaty in the afterglow Zoe rolled over to rest her chin on his chest, directly within his line of sight.
"Do you want to talk about it?" she suggested, running her fingers along his bicep. Her voice had the honeyed, just-been-fucked tone he loved so much, but the underlying seriousness was not to be overlooked.
He reached up to stroke her shoulder, smiling all the while. "Not really," he sighed, still smiling. "Do you?"
Wash gave a noncommittal grunt, kissed his wife and rolled over into sleep, like so many men did on U-day.
"Have you ever killed someone?"
"Yes, once. When I was shot down. He had a gun trained on me… I guess I had no choice."
"You did the right thing. He was the enemy. There's no shame in that. A noble thing…"
"No, I didn't. It was kill or be killed. You can call it self-preservation or animal instinct, whatever, but it sure as hell wasn't noble."
"Forget it. And I'm sleeping now, so if you could shut up for a few hours that would be great."
He got the occasional wave from old shipmates and even older friends, but in true pilot fashion Wash had never bothered much with forming ties and laying down roots until coming aboard Serenity. So it was a surprise to see a personal, private wave waiting for him when he plunked into the pilot seat.
Wash immediately threw a look over his shoulder to make sure the hall was clear before opening the wave. His behaviour may have come under Mal's definition of paranoid and crochetty, but Wash hadn't heard from Iago Chavez in a long, damn while and he didn't fancy sharing whatever information Chavez could possibly have to impart with any snooping crew, captains or crazy girls.
The wave was short, low quality, and audio only. "Hey, Washburne," Chavez's voice crackled through the speakers. "I heard you'd taken up on this boat from a friend of a friend, so if I'm wrong and this is some completely unknown pilot I'm talking to, feel free to ignore this message. If this is Hoban Washburne, then, um, hi. Look, I know we haven't spoken in a while. Not since the release, in fact. And if you're interested, it would be great to have a drink and a palaver next time our paths cross. I've taken a job as a ship hand at the Eavesdown docks on Persephone, so I should be easy to find. I don't expect you to answer, but it's U-Day, and that got me thinking I should… check. It'd be shiny to hear from you, friend. If not, I hope life landed you somewhere decent.
Wash muted the Cortex and leant his head back against the woollen cover of the pilot chair. Through the glass the stars seemed to wink at him, taunting him into making a decision, and he followed their constellations and tried to make sense of all those shapeless forms.
"Hey, Washburne. You awake?"
"I am now. You woke me from a very naughty dream involving scarves and a pirate queen. This'd better be good."
"How'd you end up in here, anyway?"
"Got into a battle with a T-Rex and lost. How do you think I ended up here? There were big guns. I got shot down and captured. End of story."
"No. Supply fleet. I was flying medkits to a hospital base."
"Oh. I like the T-Rex story more."
"So do I."
More jobs came along and Chavez' message was still gathering virtual dust in Wash's inbox. And yet the message seemed to fester at the back of his mind, teasing him with memories of a past he didn't really like to think of under normal circumstances. But when yet another U-Day ended with Mal getting himself defenestrated, Wash replayed the message. He played it again. Then he went to find Zoe.
He paused in the doorway of the mess, watching his wife as she bent her head over the account books on the dining table. Her unbound hair fell in a glorious waterfall over her shoulder, and for a moment Wash was seriously considering skipping the whole conversation and whisking her away to their bunk for relations of the intimate nature. He shook his head vigorously, forcing himself to snap out of it. This was no time for highly pleasurable procrastination.
Stepping down the metal stairs into the mess, he went to pull out a chair and sat down opposite Zoe at the table. "Hey, bao bei. Working hard?"
Zoe lifted her head to smile at him. As always, her smile made his heart leap. "Accounts. We're poorer than usual, even." She regarded him closely, taking in Wash's troubled expression written across his normally open face. "Something wrong, husband?"
"Nothing at all, muffin cake. I was just wondering if you'd like to come out for lunch with me when we reach Persephone." Wash paused, unsure how to continue, which was an unusual state for him to be in. "There's… someone I'd like you to meet."
Zoe set down her calculator and closed the accounts ledger. "Who?"
Wash reached forward to take her hand. "You know how I was shot down and spent most of the war in interment camps?"
Zoe blinked at his abrupt change of subject. "There's some logic I'm not following, lambykins. Care to bring me up to speed?"
Wash conceded. "I got a wave from one of the friends I made there. Chavez is his name. He was a real young kid then, still couldn't shave even. Shook for days when he first came in. I kinda looked out for him, y'know, tried to keep him out of trouble. Show him the happy prison ropes."
She frowned. "And he wants to see you?"
Wash forced out a bitter huff. "Yeah. Thing is, we went our separate ways after release. I wasn't in a hurry to be making ties and neither was he. I don't know why he wants to see me now, but I should go. And… well, it would be nice if you could come too. Not that you have to, if there's first matey stuff for you to do, but-"
"Wash," Zoe interrupted. "I'll be there. Whatever the reason, and I'm sure he has one."
Wash nodded in confirmation. "Okay then. I'll wave Chavez and let him know."
Chavez was thinner than Wash expected him to be. He wasn't as thin as he had been in the camp, naturally, but since Wash had made a miraculous recovery to his pre-war strength he had assumed his comrades had done the same.
They sat down at the low, rickety table that Chavez had managed to scrounge for himself, and Chavez immediately raised his hand to the brute passing for a waiter, indicating two more orders of the sweet tea he was drinking from a tiny chipped cup. The shaved head that had kept the lice at bay in the camps had been replaced by a riot of dreadlocks, and a cheerful tattoo of a topless hula dancer was emblazoned on his shoulder. His skin was tanned from working at the docks and seemed at odds with the hollows under his eyes. But when Wash looked down at Chavez's hands, he saw that the man had the same bitten fingernails he'd had when he was first dumped into the barracks, even though the Chavez he knew then was a boy and this was a man who appeared to have aged decades. The tea was delivered, and it was only then that he acknowledged Wash's presence.
"Washburne. Good to see you."
Under the table, Zoe reached out rest a gentle hand on Wash's knee. He gripped it in silent thanks. "Likewise. How've you been keeping?"
"Well, this and that. I can feed myself. I see you finally managed to find a missus."
"Oh, yeah! This is my lovely wife, Zoe. The only woman in the verse willing to make me an honest man."
"Honest? You've never been honest, Washburne. Zoe, I don't know how he managed to hitch himself to you, but might I say he is one lucky son of a bitch."
Zoe laughed and raised her cup to the compliment.
"Yeah," Wash agreed. "I keep waiting to wake up. So, lets cut to the chase, Chav. I haven't seen you in years. Why the sudden need for a reunion?"
Chavez leaned forward onto his arms, staring into his teacup as if it held all the answers in the universe. "Years go by and a man gets thinking, Wash. I ain't saying I felt a strong desire to reminisce about the good old days of torture and starvation, but… Truth told, I missed your stories. Thought it might be nice to hear if you had anything new."
The situation suddenly took on a layer of ludicrous to the already odd circumstances, and Wash couldn't help scoffing while he put down his cup with a little too much force. "You call me up out of the blue after I don't hear from you since we parted ways at the gate, and you want to hear one of my stories? C'mon, Chav. We're both not ones for reminiscing on stuff that should stay buried. So why are we really here?"
It was, not surprisingly, the completely wrong thing to say, as Chavez sat up straight and tensed visibly, the fingers of his right hand starting to curl into his fist. Zoe's hand on Wash's knee took on bruising levels of strength, and he shifted to relax the pressure whilst trying to dodge Zoe's questioning glare. The movement succeeded in slipping Zoe's hand further down his inner thigh, which under normal conditions would have been most welcome, but Wash reasoned that distractions of that sort probably wouldn't lead to the best outcome.
Brushing dirt from his cargoes, Chavez made to stand. Wash quickly leapt forward and grabbed him by the wrist, forcing him to remain put. Pilot reflexes definitely had other homely uses. Wash spoke in as calm a voice as he could muster. "Chavez, I'm sorry. You wave took me by surprise, is all. I don't like dragging up those memories and, well, you're a living, breathing example of one."
Chavez inclined his head, possibly to acknowledge the gesture. "Likewise, Washburne. I wanted to tell you later, maybe after a couple of rounds, but I'll get it off my chest." Stilling looking down, he paused, studying the nicks in the tabletop laid down by dozens of drinkers passed. "I got some sorta neo-HIV, Wash. Don't know how long I've got. Like I said, man gets thinking."
Ice ran down Wash's spine as Zoe's hand tightened even more on his knee. It was a testament to the shock that he didn't let out an unmanly yelp of pain. Across the table Chavez was still, like a statue, and everything about him suddenly made sense, as if the wave, the sunken cheeks and bony ribcage all added up to a death sentence written in code, and it made Wash shake because he should've seen it, should've guessed when he first listened to the wave, but he couldn't because his code cracking skills, however sharp with numbers, were obviously hopelessly inadequate.
"But…" He was reduced to babbling. "You didn't… How long?"
Chavez shrugged miserably. "A while now. Must've picked it up in some whorehouse. That's what I get for being too eager after we were released."
Beside him, Zoe shifted around. Her face had an expression Wash knew well. It was then same expression she had whenever she or Mal discussed the war, smooth, almost unaffected and totally unreadable to anyone who hadn't studied Zoe's expressions as closely as Wash had. This was the first time she had ever directed that expression at one of Wash's war stories, and he realised that was because he had never told any before. It seemed to be day of firsts, as instead of making his stomach sink, Zoe's involvement in war memories gave him the strength to recover his sense of speech.
"It's treatable," Wash managed. "There's medicine…"
"But medicine costs money," Chavez interrupted with the same dry laugh Wash knew from prison. "Money I don't have. Relax, I'm not asking you for any. If you're anything like me, then you're poor as dust." Another chuckle. "I'm happy to take my chances. Maybe I'll find affordable treatment, maybe not. It's okay. But I want to see my old friends. Just in case." His eyes were haunted, and suddenly it was like the first days of internment, when the world was crazy, uncertain fear, tense with possibility. He finally finished, raising his head but fixing his eyes on some point on Wash's shoulder. "You got me through that time in the camps, Washburne. Get me through the next few hours."
Wash raised his hand and waved over the waiter. "Another round, please." The waiter, who was a short, aggressive type who clearly wasn't a fan of customer service, slunk away with their used cups. Wash took Zoe's hand again, and, catching her eye, leant back into his chair. "Right," he began. "I'll tell you a story. Do you want the sequel to the T-Rex battle or a whole new set of whacky adventures?"
Chavez's face broke into a smile. "A new one. Please."
"Tell me another story."
"The Bard is at your service. Tell me what you'd like to hear. Do you want puppets?
"You want puppets, you've got to take over my dish duty tomorrow. Takes a lot out of me, you know."
"Okay, no puppets."
"Fair is foul, and foul is fair."
"It's an old story. Ancient, in fact. There's this empty field, and there're three witches…"
They got back to the ship far later than Wash had intended, and he thanked the timing gods that it didn't take him long to run through the takeoff sequence and pull out of Persephone's orbit. Zoe met him in the hallway and they headed straight for their bunk, silently agreeing to having dinner there instead of eating with the rest of the crew.
In the end, neither of them were hungry, and Zoe gently pushed Wash onto the bed without a word. Wash pulled down the covers and slipped beneath them as Zoe shed her clothes. He leant back against the pillows and enjoyed the pleasure of watching her undress. She noticed his interest and lingered on removing her bra, but her grin lacked its characteristic wickedness. She slipped off her panties and strode over to the bed, raising the blankets so she could crawl in with him. Wash sighed as she fitted her body to his, and he shuffled down to allow her to lay her head on his shoulder.
Zoe's hand rested on one of his pectorals. "I didn't know. I knew you were in the camps, but I didn't… I don't know what you went through. I guess I should've asked." She reached down to rub his midsection and Wash tried not to squirm in response to his body's natural urges, sensing that Zoe wasn't quite finished. "You told stories," she went on, bringing her hand to rest. "Shadow puppets. Baby, that kid looked to you to keep him sane, and I didn't know. I'm sorry." Her hair tickled him as she bent to press her lips against his skin.
He drew his arms around her, tucking his chin over the crown of her head. "S'okay. Can't say it was easy… Some of those officers in with us had no sense of humour. One of them even refused to laugh at the story with the flying pineapple. But I won him over in the end. Turned out he preferred jokes about melons."
"Hmm…" Zoe looked up at him. "My husband, doing the impossible. You're my hero, dear." Her tone was joking, her eyes serious.
"Yeah, that's me. I'm the laughing crusader. One hand on the helm, the other on my funnybone." His voice trailed off, and Wash found himself gazing off into some unknown distance, the ship's ever present hum throbbing into a deafening roar…
She grabbed his shoulder. "Hey, now. I ain't had as much schooling as you, but I know a thing or two about trauma. You've got to fight it. Don't let it take you." Her voice dropped as she pressed her cheek into the crook of his neck. "I'd die without you."
"Well, then," Wash murmured, leaning down to kiss her, "good thing I wasn't planning to."
He held Zoe as she drifted into sleep, just thinking.
Force of habit woke Wash an hour before ship's dawn. Placing a soft kiss on Zoe's shoulder, he scrambled off the end of the bed carefully so as not to wake her. He managed to locate his hastily discarded clothes strewn across the floor of their bunk, and after dressing he disappeared up the ladder and headed straight for the helm. The work he had to do that morning was simple, which was fortunate as his mind was definitely off on a holiday all of its own.
The rest of their day's travel could realistically be run by autopilot, even though Wash preferred to take care of these things himself if he was able. It made him feel connected to the ship, an integral cog in her fine workings, rather than some Jayne-like ape barging in to rudely press some buttons every few hours. Serenity was home and she kept them safe, so he owed to her to be committed and treat the ship with the respect she deserved. He was, after all, lucky enough to be at the helm of two of the finest creatures in the verse, and that was not to be taken for granted. But today Wash had a rather more pressing matter on his mind that needed to be addressed, and he punched in the autopilot coordinates with regret.
He found Mal in the mess, cleaning his guns like a walking cliché of the old West. A soldier who never left the battlefield and never dropped his guard, just like Wash had never fully lost the comedy mask that saw him through those years and never could lose it until those dinosaurs left the bridge.
"Hey, Mal," Wash ventured.
Mal seemed a little surprised to see him. "Oh, hey, Wash. Everything go well on that little outing for you and Zoe? No post-argumentation hi-jinks I'm gonna have to worry about?"
"Good. Get us prepped to go to Athens. Picked up a contact there could give us some work."
And that could have been all… Except of course it wasn't. Wash stepped up to lean against the table, feeling the rush of air in his lungs as he drew a huge breath. "Mal, I've been thinking… Since the whole Niska, unimaginable torture escapade we had. If something…" he cleared his throat before plunging ahead. "If something happens to me, and I don't make it through, then please, take care of Zoe."
Mal's head snapped up. "Wash, what in the seven levels of hell are you-"
"Just hear me out!" Wash interrupted. "I'm not asking you to sleep with my wife. Believe me, I'm not falling into that trap again. I'm just asking you to look to her, if anything happens to me."
Mal sat down on his usual chair and leant right back, his face unreadable as it so often was. "Zoe ain't the kind of woman needs taking care of. Thought you of all people would've realised that."
Wash pulled out another chair with a screech and sat down opposite Mal, resting one foot upon the table and his arm on top of that. Anyone would've thought they were discussing the functionality of the fuel cells. "And I'm not talking about taking care of in the traditional sense," Wash continued as if there had been no interruption. "No one's asking you to marry your dead brother's wife."
"So, we're brothers now? Any other family history you care to share with me?"
"I meant metaphorically!" Wash spluttered. "You know, Bible allusion? Although, my uncle was a pilot and he did do a lot of trading in the outer rim, so who knows…"
"Wash! Can we get back to the point, and you making it?"
Wash sighed, and leant back to look Mal straight in the eye. He wasn't joking, something that Mal finally seemed to realise. "Point is, if something happens to me, just let her know that she's not alone. She hates being alone. I think you know that. She won't ever show it, of course, she being the stoic goddess that she is, but I don't want her to face her worst fear and you're the only person I'd trust to make sure she doesn't have to. Now, that might account for a lot of pride swallowing on my part, but I'd do anything for Zoe. Even the chicken dance."
"Wash- The chicken dance?"
"It's a long story involving many bad experiences with poultry."
"Of course it was." Mal's I've hired me a loony at the helm line of thought was poorly concealed. "What brought this on, anyhow?"
Wash shrugged, trying to ignore the image of Chavez' ravaged body that haunted him across the table like the ghost of Banquo in an old Earth That Was play he once read. "A little reminder of my own mortality," he smiled grimly. "I need an answer, Mal. Not right away, but soon. I know it's not shooting around corners, but being a pilot isn't exactly a risk-free occupation."
Mal leant forward so that he could turn away from Wash's open gaze, choosing instead to scratch his cheek in a manner that seemed almost self-conscious. His voice dropped to a low rumble. "That kind of morbid talk ain't done nobody any favours, Wash. But should you one day annoy the wrong person and become a mighty bright coloured corpse, I'll do what you're asking. Thief's honour."
Wash nodded and got up to check the status report on the bridge.
"How long has it been?"
"It's been a long, damn while."