Light Surrounding You
To be fair, Wash admitted as he was unceremoniously thrown out the window, a bar with a name like The Strutting Dodo really wasn't an indicator of quality. On reflection, he really should've thought of that before he accompanied Captain Mal Reynolds and First Mate Zoe Alleyne on their apparently annual U-Day binge drinking session. It had seemed a good idea at the time, and it wasn't even his own. He'd merely been enlisted to haul them back to the ship at an appropriate time, and now here he was, flat on his bum on a crowded street with a bullet through the forearm after a barroom scuffle that was entirely not his fault.
And it hurt.
All those times Mal and Zoe would return with lead somewhere in their bodies, and they never seemed to let on that it was so bloody painful. Well, Mal sometimes, but Zoe took it all in her characteristic stoicism, only grimacing slightly when Mal dug the slug out. He had seen them in the infirmary only a fortnight into his employment, and he swore Zoe didn't make a sound. It was only when he looked closer that he saw the knuckles of her fists were white.
He would be lying if he said this hadn't added to his interest in her, an interest that had started as soon as she had first come into view. But meanwhile, in all the bullet-digging and Zoe-fantasising, he had never really twigged that getting shot actually meant large amounts of pain for anyone who wasn't a warrior goddess with nerves of steel.
A warrior goddess who was currently kicking two lard mountains twice her size into the middle of next week, while he sat uselessly bleeding on the dirt. Aiya. Operation Impress Zoe With Manliness had well and truly failed.
Not that she had noticed. She was way too busy ridding her opponents of the ability to procreate. A spin kick sent one man flying and that movement turned her towards Wash. She stopped for a moment, eyes straying directly to his bleeding arm.
"Got yourself shot, pilot?"
Oh, fuck! He tried vainly to grin up at her from the ground, one hand clamped over the wound. "Um, ow?" he offered, his vision blurring.
He got a vague impression of Zoe kneeling down beside him to pull him up, and he had to admit that her hands running over him were a huge turn on. He would have used the opportunity for some appropriately witty chat-up lines had the pain and the blood not been something of a factor. And now he was dangerously close to passing out. This day just kept getting better.
About the passing out…
"Well," Mal concluded after he'd secured Wash's bandages. "I guess this puts out your pilotin' skills for a while."
"Uh, no, I can still, y'know, pilot things with the other arm, but the has-been-shot one might cause a problem," Wash replied hastily, panicking at the prospect of being left stranded and unemployed on an altogether too interesting planet.
"Huh." Mal stood back to let Wash jump off the operating chair. "You go up and pilot, then. That little piece of action didn't win us any friends. Looks like we won't be returning to Zephyr in a hurry."
Wash's boots clattered on the stairs. "Ain't that the way," he muttered. It seemed like every planet they landed on they lost in the making friends department.
The empty pilot's chair welcomed him like a friend, and he settled in for a few hours of unprofitable boredom. It was little wonder that most pilots were considered eccentric at best, as days spent entirely in one's own company had a way of turning one's head towards the wacky. Not that Wash would ever settle for any lifestyle other than this. One look at the stars was enough to remind him why he could never leave the sky.
"So…" Wash addressed Spike the T-Rex. "Looks like full burn for us again. 'Course, that whole switch thing might be a problem…"
"Which is why I'm here." Zoe landed gracefully in the co-pilot seat. "I'm helping you out till that arm of yours gets healed."
Wash was surprised. "You can sail this boat?"
Zoe shrugged while she glanced over the start-up sequence. "Grew up on a spaceship," she answered, terse. "Get us off the ground. Local law enforcement looked to be taking an interest in our heavy handed dealings."
He reached up with his good arm to flick the ignition switches, all the while considering whether or not Zoe Alleyne had actually made a joke. She had spoken with all of her usual deadpan delivery, but Wash was beginning to suspect that stoic exterior hid a well-developed sense of humour that he was keen to know more about. Eventually he decided it was a joke and allowed himself to laugh. Zoe didn't react.
"You a skylark?" he asked eventually, just to break the tedium. Piloting a ship was traditionally a lonely profession, and he intended to use the few hours he could converse with someone other than a plastic model of an extinct reptile. Zoe's eyes flicked over to him, and he backtracked, thinking he'd said something wrong. "'Cause you said you grew up on a spaceship, so I was wondering…"
"Yeah, I am," Zoe interrupted, shifting to lean her elbow on the console. "Whole family was. Learnt some piloting, among other things."
"But…?" Wash prompted, feeling that there was a but somewhere.
"But my father decided I was more captain material." Zoe's brow wrinkled as she bent over the scanners, but she sat back fairly soon, something like relief on her face.
Wash made a minute twist with his chair to get a better view of her. Even when doing something so mundane as checking a readout, Zoe was incredibly fascinating. Hell, especially when she was checking a readout. "Worried about something?"
He knew instantly that he shouldn't have said it. Zoe's glare was more deadly than a thruster malfunction in atmo. "No," Zoe replied, a little too quickly. "Just looking to see we ain't followed."
"Fair enough," Wash conceded, still studying her face. He could tell it was annoying her, and thus he stood a large chance of losing the use of his other arm, but it was the longest communication he had ever had with Zoe and the prospect of continuing it was too good to pass up. "Don't think we're likely to meet folks out here, though. We're far enough out from Zephyr, and the next moon's two days away." He grinned upon seeing Zoe's doubt. "I can do some calculations and give you a more accurate reading. Even down to the last millisecond, if you like."
"You often calculate things down to the millisecond, pilot?"
"Frequently. And call me Wash, please. Being called 'pilot' makes me feel like a machine."
Wash swore he saw the corner of Zoe's mouth twitch. "And the difference being…"
"Bizui. A machine isn't half as brilliant as me."
That time he knew she smiled. In fact, he might have heard the trace of a laugh. This was looking good.
He seemed to have hoped too soon, however, as Zoe quickly fell back into her usual silence. Wash was accustomed to silence despite his chatty nature, so found it didn't bother him. He did normally like to chat to his dinosaurs to pass the time, but all the self-confidence in the world didn't give him the courage to resume the next stage of the Great T-Rex Battle in front of the gorgeous yet deadly Corporal Alleyne.
So Wash leant back into his seat and propped his feet up on the console, gazing out into the stars. He could fly between one piece-of-crap-moon to another piece-of-crap-moon for the rest of his days and still never become tired of that sight. He let his head slide to one side and saw that Zoe was doing the same; leaning her neck against the headrest, staring out into the black. "Beautiful, isn't it?" he murmured. "Amazes me every day."
Zoe made some sort of affirmative noise.
"I suppose you're used to it, growing up in the black and all," Wash ventured further, still tracing the constellations with his eyes. "Seeing this all the time. Suppose it'd lose its impact."
"Maybe." Zoe's voice had lost some of its terseness, and Wash allowed himself a small glimpse at her expression. "The black's home, so I kinda stopped looking. I still notice some things, though. Meteor showers, sun setting over a planet, that sort of thing. They're real shiny."
"Yeah?" Wash wasn't watching the stars anymore, but Zoe didn't seem to have noticed.
"Yeah. I never even set foot on a rock 'til I was nine, and then it was only stopovers for refuelling and the like. Longest time I spent dirtside was during the war."
"Oh." He hadn't meant for the subject to turn towards the war, but conversations involving Zoe or Mal inevitably did.
"I used to look for the sky when we were in the trenches. Just to know it was still there. Could never catch a glimpse, though. Too much smoke. Too far away."
"Yeah," Wash agreed, sighing. "I know what that's like. Not the war part, obviously, but being so close to something you want that's just outta reach, yeah. I can relate."
A smile curled across Zoe's face again, but she caught herself. "You'd better not be using metaphors, pilot."
"What? No, I'm living metaphor free. I'm clean."
"Good to know."
Wash folded his arms behind his head and kept looking forward. "Go out with me," he suggested. He didn't look over or even change his casual tone, and he suspected that was what surprised Zoe enough for her to take a few moments to answer.
"Have you lost your mind?" she replied, as if addressing a complete idiot. Was it crazy that he even found flat rejection appealing?
He gave her answer due consideration, as a gentleman should. "Not to my knowledge. I'll inform you in the event of my mind-losing. But I take it your questioning my sanity counts as a no?"
Wash turned to face Zoe and found she was still glaring at him. That was fine, he decided. He could deal with hard to get.
Glaring or no, Zoe still had to help with the controls until Wash's arm was sufficiently healed, and Wash managed to score quite an impressive tally of Zoe-rejections.
"Go out with me," he asked while gliding into Boros' atmo.
Her stomach pressed against his chair as she leant to set in the landing sequence. The ends of her necklace tickled his ear, sending heat racing down his spine. "No."
"Go out with me," he mumbled around a hunk of warm protein. Zoe had brought up plates of food for both of them as the busy space around Beaumonde always required some long, fancy navigation.
"Go out with me." Wash set the coordinates for their rendezvous on Athens. This time Zoe was laughing.
He spun the chair around to her. "You're actually enjoying this," he declared, accusatory. 'You're enjoying watching me squirm while you toy with my emotions."
Zoe seemed to pout. "A little bit." Her voice was almost gentle.
Wash weighed his options. He could take the plunge into zero-grav and open himself up for serious rejection again, or he could make a joke.
"You sadist, you." Weakling! Coward! Go beat yourself into a pulp!
Her eyes dropped. "That arm's healing well," she remarked casually, changing the subject.
"Uh, yeah." Wash had never been less happy about healing wound. "I'm getting some mobility back."
"Hm." Zoe stood to move behind him, resting her hand against the back of his chair while she reached across for the navigational controls. The tips of her fingers brushed through the fine hairs at Wash's neck, and he knew she could've reached the controls just as easily from her own chair, but damned if he was going to say anything. The electricity between their bodies as she leant over him and the way the blood rushed to his crotch was enough to torture him into doing something rash.
Calculating his chances, he let his fingers flick over Zoe's wrist as he reached for the nav-com with his good arm. A small, almost invisible movement, executed with enough subtlety for her to mistake the contact as an accident. Still, she flinched and pulled back. "Good," she concluded. He swung his chair to face her. "Then you won't be needing my help soon."
"Uh huh." Damn.
Zoe's departure from the bridge was inevitable, and Wash's heart plummeted further every morning that he was able to lift his arm a little higher. Eventually Mal called Zoe back to the mess to do the accounting, and once again Wash was left with the company of Rex, Steggy, Spike and Snubbles.
Persephone loomed on the horizon, if indeed space had a horizon. Wash punched the shipwide com link. "Attention beautiful ladies, menfolk and Jayne, we should be approaching Persephone in approximately four hours, please secure your valuables in preparation for landing and for the love of God, don't vomit into the ventilation grates."
Wash fixed his hands firmly back upon the steering controls, ignoring Jayne's protest of "Hundan,Wash, that was one time!" For now, all annoying man-apes and interfering captains needed to be drowned out while he relied on the zone of calm that had kept his head in many a tricky situation.
Glancing over to check that the air traffic monitor was clear, he gently teased the thrusters into giving an extra push. The initial lurch from the changing speeds evened out quickly as he smoothed the controls, yet he overheard Mal's surprised yell anyway.
Oh yeah. Watch me work my magic. A quick jerk on the aft thruster sent the ship spinning towards Persephone's orbit in record time as he coaxed every ounce of power from the fuel cells. They were in need of a fill-up anyway, he reasoned, so he might as well take advantage of the remaining juice.
Another burst of speed and Mal stormed onto the bridge, panting as he gripped onto the doorway for support. "Wash!" Mal had a voice loud enough to cut through Wash's deepest calm. "Wash, what in hell's name are you playing at?"
Wash allowed himself a few seconds to answer the captain. "Flying us to Persephone, Mal, as ordered."
"But at a speed that's likely to send us shooting straight overthe gorram planet?"
Wash settled a little deeper into his chair. "No shooting of any kind, captain. If Zoe could come up here I'm sure she would agree."
"Zoe?" Mal steadied himself on the co-pilot's chair whilst glaring daggers.
"Well, she has watched me fly these past weeks. Trust her judgement. You do normally." Appealing to sense of loyalty and responsibility, all in all nice diversionary tactics. And now coming in to the home stretch.
Wash pulled Serenity into Persephone's orbit just as Zoe came onto the bridge. "Zoe!" Mal folded his arms and turned demonstratively to his first mate, evidently prepared for an argument. "Did you give permission for Wash to pull moonbrained stunts? Was there a moonbrained stunt mutiny I was unaware of?" he demanded, scratching his cheek.
But Zoe wasn't listening. She stared out at the bridge window as Persephone bathed in the burning sunset, casting warm ripples of gold across the clouds. Her skin took on a rosy glow as she stepped into the light, and the smile on her face was bright enough to dim the sun itself. "Sunset over a planet," Wash heard her murmur, and when her eyes met his Wash knew those spent fuel cells had not gone to waste.