Note: This takes place after the events of The Message, but has almost nothing to do with that episode. There are references to War Stories and Out of Gas, though.
Also, this isn't really my usual fare, but this scene just wouldn't leave me alone. I hope you enjoy.
When you can't run anymore, you crawl. And when you can't crawl- when you can't do that...
You find someone to carry you.
"So this talk about carrying..."
Zoe twisted around to look at Wash's face in the dim light of their bunk. He had propped up his chin on his hand and was appraising her with interest.
"Was that all strictly metaphorical? Or was there, you know, carrying?"
Zoe rolled her eyes and let her head flop back down to the pillow. It had been a long day, a trying, confusing, aching mess of a day that made her want nothing more than to fall asleep in her husband's arms. Her quiet husband's arms. She spoke into the pillow. "I thought you hated war stories."
"Well, for some reasons, yes, I do." Wash shifted behind her, and Zoe mentally cursed herself for a moment for bringing the conversation round to the one topic that would make him even less asleep. "But I don't...I mean, it's all shiny between me and Mal, now. And I promise my war story hatred comes only from knowing how little fun it is to actually be in them." He sighed. "But you said those words like they meant something. And so I wonder. Was there carrying?"
Shiny with Mal or no, she'd been too close to sleep to give in so easily. "And just what makes you so curious right at this very moment?"
Though she remained nestled in spoon position, Zoe could practically feel her husband's eyebrows wander upwards as he considered her question. "Well, first I was thinking about it. Then I asked you. Then you didn't tell me, twice, and now for some reason I want to know even more than I did before I started this yu bun duh sentence."
"Right." Somehow, she couldn't help but smile. But then that was the magic of Wash.
"So there are stories then?"
Zoe snorted softly. "There are stories." She fell silent.
He waited a few seconds. "And will you tell me these stories?"
"You got all night?" she said. Then it was her turn to sigh. Seemed the man really did want to know. "I guess there's one I might tell. If you'd like."
"It was a cold winter night," she said. "Snow falling like crazy so we could hardly see ten feet ahead of us."
She waited for the inevitable quip about stories that started with "it was a cold winter night," but her husband was showing remarkable restraint. Glad of it, she went on, closing her eyes as the memory washed over her.
"We were on a mission. Me and Mal and three others. Halfway up a mountain, looking to knock out some kind of Alliance communications tower. Couldn't risk them noticing a shuttle, so we parked at the bottom and made a long hike up a game trail. I barely knew Mal then, except as the pretty new sarge who had an awful lot of enthusiasm for disposing of purplebellies. Only, this time, we didn't run into purplebellies. Just mines set about to protect the tower. The three men ahead of us got blown to pieces and I was thrown back with a gutful of shrapnel.
"So what'd Mal do? Carried me halfway back down that mountain, was what. Kept me talking the whole damn time, too, 'til I think he knew half my life story, not to mention the details of every campaign I'd been on and the names I had picked out for my future children. 'Course he was just keeping me awake, and himself too, I figured. It was dark and bitter cold and the snow kept falling. One wrong step and we'd've both taken a rough shortcut down. That being the case I didn't much mind.
"Turns out we'd been in even more danger than I'd thought. Mal made it to morning, then ten yards from the shuttle his leg gave out. Turned out he'd been packing a pretty sizable piece of metal in his own gorram thigh, bleeding all night long and not saying a word about it. Me so out of it I couldn't tell the limping from him finding his footing in the snow. Never even thought to ask. Somehow he got me into that shuttle and flew us back, though I never did quite figure how. I woke up in the med tent to him arguing with the nurse from the bed beside mine.
"Later I told him he was stupid for it, carrying me all that way when he could barely walk himself. 'Course, being who he is he just laughed it off and said he'd been glad for the company. Said that if I hadn't been there to keep him conversating he might've sat down to rest in some snowy bank and not got up again. We didn't come up with that phrase, you know, about carrying them that can no longer crawl, but it always did seem fitting after that."
She fell silent, and turned for the first time to see Wash's expression. There was a little of the annoyance she had come to expect when the war came up, but mostly he just seemed...thoughtful.
"Shoulda known it'd be about Mal acting all self-sacrificing and manly," he griped. It came out sounding perfunctory, though. Zoe wondered what was really on his mind.
"Not nearly so manly as you, dear," she said aloud.
At this, Wash frowned, then bit his lip, and Zoe supposed she was about to find out. Her husband stayed quiet for a good few seconds longer than she'd been expecting, though, and eventually she propped her head up on her own hand to stare at him.
"What is it?" she asked.
"You think he really would've done it?" Wash's voice was strangely affectless. "Sat down and not got back up again?"
"I don't know," Zoe admitted. It hadn't gone that way, and so she hadn't concerned herself overly about what might've happened or why. It was odd to think of doing so now.
"Y'know," Wash went on, closing his eyes for a moment as if he were steeling himself against something, "I've spent some time thinking about what keeps that man going. And I think I finally get it."
Curious, Zoe tilted her head and waited for him to go on.
Wash seemed to be searching for the words. "I think it's being needed. Relied on. Like if it weren't for having us to look out for, he would just give up, sit down and say to hell with all this. I think it's why he took on the wonder twins and why Niska couldn't break him. And I think it's why when it did come time to give up, when the air was gone, he couldn't stand having us around. And then I think about how I'm thinking about all this too much, and I go back to flying the ship." He sighed. "I'm right, though. And you have the saying wrong."
She raised her eyebrows in disbelief. "Do I now."
"For Mal, I mean. He doesn't need to find anyone to carry him," Wash said. "He needs someone to carry."
For a moment, Zoe was silent, turning the idea over in her mind. "I guess it's a good thing we ain't going anywhere, then," she said finally. "Seeing as we all need carrying sometimes."
"I guess," Wash agreed, but his brow remained furrowed and he couldn't have sounded less convinced.
"Hey," Zoe said. "It may be what he needs. Doesn't have to be easy to let him."
Then a thought crossed her mind, a very stupid thought that she nevertheless opened her mouth to say. Because, just sometimes, she understood what Wash needed too. "As long as this all stays metaphorical. God forbid our poor captain should actually have to carry Jayne anyplace."
"He is a very heavy man," Wash allowed. Then he shook his head, smiled, pulled her close. "I'm envisioning a system of pulleys..."