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Crashing Through

Chapter Text

Crashing Through

Setting: After the series, before the movie. Inara is still on the ship.
Disclaimer: They aren’t mine! You really think I could think up characters this good? Please… I’m just playing with them, I promise to give them back all nice and shiny.

Author’s note: I’m not exactly up to speed on all the planets in the ‘verse and I didn’t want to set this on Persephone or Whitefall, so I…um…made one up. Please forgive me if this is taboo.

 

Prologue

“Ooof.”

The sound left his lips involuntarily as a fist was slammed into his gut, stealing all his air. Wash tried to curl up protectively, but the hands holding tightly to his arms kept him upright and exposed. He struggled against their hold, but his actions lacked any real strength. He was light-headed and already sporting too many bruises in various places to put up much of a fight anymore.

The fist pulled back again and Wash closed his eyes, waiting for the blow to fall since there was nothing he could do to stop it. Then, even as he jerked from the force of it striking his chest, he silently vowed never, ever to go after supplies on his own again.

*****

Captain Malcolm Reynolds of the sometimes legal, oftentimes not freighter Serenity strode purposefully toward the open cargo door of his ship and his first mate who was standing at the top of it, gazing out at the planet below. Brilliant rays of late afternoon sun poured into the hold, filling it with warm light and making the woman’s dark skin glow. She looked like an angel, if angels wore revolvers strapped to their thighs and terror-inducing scowls on their faces.

“He’s late,” Zoë said without turning around.

“That he is,” Mal answered, stopping beside her. They were silent for a while.

“He’s never late.”

“We thinkin’ of the same man?” Mal countered. “Man who made us all wait while he ran back inta town fer a new toy last week?”

“He’s never late when it’s important,” Zoë amended, her voice warning the captain that this was not a laughing matter. “He knew we had a job.”

“Zoë, Corinth is a calm enough planet, ain’t even on the Alliance’s radar, and Wash is a peaceable enough guy.”

“An’ being calm and peaceable has always kept him out of trouble before…” One eyebrow arched.

“Which,” Mal continued quickly, “is why I came down here ta tell ya iffin he ain’t back in ten more minutes, me an’ you an’ Jayne er gonna go lookin’ for him.”

Zoë nodded once, never taking her gaze from the bustling city that spread out from their ramp. “Thanks, sir.”

“Just doin’ my job. Besides, I need him ta fly this boat.”

He turned and left her there to her thoughts. Truth be told, he was worried, too. It wasn’t like Wash to be late on a job, especially when he was entrusted with the purchasing of supplies for all on board as well as parts to fix the ship. The man might annoy the heck out of him at times, but that didn’t mean he didn’t care. Wash was part of his crew, and he didn’t like thinking of his crew being in trouble. More than that, Wash was a friend, and Mal was a might protective of his friends. He just hoped this time there was a simple excuse for Wash’s lateness. Perhaps the mule got a flat tire? It was possible, but highly improbably. Not with their luck. Mal sighed and wished the ‘verse would stop playing Russian Roulette with his civilians. It was getting down-right annoying.

Chapter Text

Chapter 1

Three Hours Earlier

Wash carefully drove the mule through the crowded streets of Corinth’s open-air marketplace, trying to avoid people, animals, and everything else. The sun was warm on his face and arms and his lips had settled into a comfortable smile. The Black was his home, it called to his soul, but that didn’t mean he didn’t like a good day planetside, mingling with people and enjoying the sights and sounds and smells. Well, most of the smells…

He had at least a couple hours before he was needed back on the ship, so he took his time with the purchases. Their last job had been one of the highly illegal kind which made for bad blood pressure while doing it, but nice payoffs when done. For the first time in a long while, they had real coin, and Mal had told him to splurge a little and go for some of that, what did people call it…oh yeah, real food.

Who knew shopping for little green vegetables could be so much fun?

Once he’d bought all the nice, fresh, yummy things he dared, including using a little of his own coin to get Kaylee a few of those strawberries he knew she loved so much, Wash moved on to the more practical, mundane parts of the shopping. He bought a case of protein, just to be safe, arranged for someone to stop by and top off Serenity’s water tanks, and grabbed the other stuff they were running low on like shampoo, laundry detergent, band-aids… Finally, after fifteen minutes of serious haggling, he added the two engine parts and the new screen for his console to the stack of purchases on his mule and surveyed the sight with satisfaction.

Yup, he done good.

The warmth of the day had risen steadily so he allowed himself the luxury of snagging a bottle of lemonade before he turned the mule back toward the ship. Might have liked something a mite stronger, but he was on the job. The market wasn’t terribly far from the docking yards, but the streets were small and meandered with a kind of apathetic order that could easily mix a person up and twist them around. Good thing Wash was up on his navigation skills.

The late afternoon sun was lazy and comforting, lulling him into a state of happy ease. It was almost enough to make a man consider putting down roots, what with the gentle breeze, the shady trees, and that glorious sunshine. Heck, if he stayed here long enough he might even lose that space-induced pallor to his skin and actually pick up a healthy tan. He wondered what Zoë would think of that…

Thoughts of his wife took his brain off on an entirely different tangent, so much so that he never even saw the wooden cart until he almost rammed into the back of it.

“Whoa!” he cried, slamming on the brakes hard. The mule lurched to a stop, missing the cart but loosing half its cargo in the process. Wash just sat there for a second, running a hand through his hair as he calmed his breathing and cussed himself soundly for his lack of attention to the road. He was finally spurred into motion when the owner of the cart came around from the front to check for damage.

“Hey, sorry about that,” Wash said sheepishly, jumping off the mule and stepping up to examine the cart for himself. “Think I stopped in time, though,” he added.

The other man ran a careful hand over the back of his wooden vehicle, then straightened. “Yeah, no damage done,” he agreed. He was tall, taller than Wash, and a little stockier. His hair, a light brown, was worn long and pulled back from his face with a tie at the nap of his neck. He was dressed in normal, everyday attire and looked like he could have grown up in the town, or just stepped off of any ship in the port.

“Looks like ya spilled a bit off your load, however,” he said with a smile, gesturing to the packages and engine parts lying in the dust behind the mule.

“Oh, I packed everything up real good, so it should all be fine,” Wash said as he bent over to pick up the first item. He was relieved the cart was undamaged, and even more relieved the man seemed to be taking the near hit well. He didn’t like to think about what Mal’s face would have looked like if he’d showed up at Serenity and had to explain how he, the pilot and navigator of said ship, was being sued by some guy for plowing over his cart.

“Here, let me help ya,” the other man offered. Together, they quickly gathered up the scattered packages and replaced them on the mule. Wash made a point to strap them down this time.

“So, ya look like you’re headin’ for the docks,” the man said conversationally. “You off a ship?”

“Yup, a little firefly named Serenity. Best ship in the ‘verse,” Wash replied with obvious pride.

“Ya own her then?”

Wash laughed deeply. “Heck no, I’m just the pilot. The boat belongs to the captain, Mal Reynolds.”

The man seemed to perk up at that. “Malcolm Reynolds?” he asked pointedly.

Something about the way he said it caught Wash’s attention. His eyes narrowed. “Yes,” he answered warily. “Why you askin’?”

“Oh, I weren’t asking,” the man replied coolly. “Not really. Just needed to confirm it for sure before I gave my men the go ahead.”

“Huh?” Wash asked, backing away toward the mule and starting to get royally creeped out, especially as it dawned on him for the first time that they were the only ones in this quiet, peaceful little street. “What are you talk –”

He never got to finish his sentence. A large hand came out of the blue and clamped over his mouth. He tried to turn and see who the offending hand belonged to, but suddenly two more men were next to him, pinning his arms to his sides and stopping him from struggling. Another man appeared out of nowhere and climbed on his mule, starting it up.

“Come on, Mr. Washburne,” the man said, looking decidedly less friendly now. “Let’s go somewhere a tad more comfy so we can chat a bit about your good captain.” As he was man-handled off into a dingy, side alley, Wash knew he was in big trouble.

When they reached the middle of the dark, little street, the men pulled him to a stop. Mr. Not-So-Friendly-Pony-Tail stepped in front of him again, this time with a very shiny, very deadly looking gun.

“My men are gonna let go of you now, but don’t get any funny ideas. You’re gonna come with us nice and easy like, because if ya don’t, or if ya make any noises or movements I don’t approve of, I’ll shoot ya on the spot, dong ma?”

Eyes wide, Wash nodded, wondering what cosmic force he had crossed this morning to land himself in this kettle of fish. The men holding him stepped back, letting go. As soon as the hand was removed from his mouth, Wash scrunched up his face and spit on the ground.

“Ugh!” he said, turning to face the thug who could give Jayne a run for his money in the big, ugly, and dirty category. “Don’t you ever wash that thing?” he asked, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Once a month, like clock-work,” the thug replied, sounding somewhat hurt. Wash gave him an incredulous look, then rolled his eyes and looked away.

“Come, Mr. Washburne,” Pony Tail growled, gesturing Wash forward with his gun. “You can be funny later; I ain’t got all day.”

Terror returned as Wash allowed them to lead him through the streets, one of the men following on his mule. It was not comforting at all to realize that he’d just been successfully kidnapped…again. He couldn’t stop his thoughts from drifting back to the last time someone had snatched him; that kidnapping had ended with him and Mal strapped to a rack in Niska’s torture chamber.

Blind panic surged through him and he stumbled a little. Niska was still out there, Mal hadn’t killed him. Could these be his men, back to finish what they started? And this time he was all alone. He’d barely survived last time, with Mal there to keep him sane… The thugs had made no attempt to restrain him or blindfold him, which was almost more unnerving. If they didn’t care that he saw where they were going, perhaps they weren’t planning on him ever needing to leave?

He considered making a run for it, or trying to take out the men, but knew there was no way he could succeed with either plan. He was no Zoë or Mal, he wouldn’t stand a chance in a fight, and all he’d get for running was a shot in the back. He’d have a much better chance to just go along quietly, and try to last out whatever was coming until the rescue squad rode in with guns blazing.

Didn’t mean he was looking forward to it, though…

It felt like hours but was probably only about ten minutes later, they arrived at a plain, nondescript building. Nothing made it stand out from all the other rusty, metal buildings around it. One door, no windows, flat roof… Judging by the route they’d taken, Wash figured they were actually closer to Serenity than they had been before, just on the other side of town.

One of the men took a key from his pocket and unlocked the door, pulling it up from the ground with a loud swooshing sound. The room beyond was dark and cool, stale air rushing out to hit Wash in the face. Pony Tail motioned with the gun for him to step inside.

“After you,” he said with false politeness.

Gulping just a little, Wash stepped into the darkened warehouse.

The others followed, the mule bringing up the rear, and then the door rolled shut again, plunging them into complete darkness. A hand took his elbow and Wash noticeably jumped, a small squeak escaping.

“This way,” Pony Tail spoke out of the darkness. Wash was guided forward into the depths of the building, unable to see anything and wondering how the heck the other guy could tell where he was going, and more importantly, what was waiting for him when they got there.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

Present Time

“All right folks, listen up.” Mal stood in the cargo bay, addressing his crew as the fading light of evening crept in through the open door. The rest of the crew spread out around him, standing or leaning against boxes and crates. “As ya all know, Wash’s a little too late getting’ back for my liking. Might be nothing, might be trouble, but either way, we’re gonna go find out. Jayne and Zoë, yer with me. The rest of ya hang out here, but keep yer eyes open.”

“I’d like to go with you,” Shepard Book spoke up.

“Preacher, I appreciate the offer but-”

“Captain,” Book cut the man off mid-sentence. “Another pair of eyes will significantly increase the search area, and the doctor and ladies are more than capable of watching your ship. I’d like to help.”

Mal paused, thinking. He didn’t like being interrupted, or having his orders questioned, but Book had a point. It was getting late and they needed their pilot back.

“Fine,” he agreed curtly. “You ‘n Jayne go check the taverns and bars. It may be Wash just got a mite distracted. Zoë, you ‘n me’ll go scout out the marketplace.” He tossed Jayne one of the hand-held comm. units. “Anyone see somethin’ interesting, or find the man, holler. Iffin he beats us back ta the ship, Kaylee give us a wave.”

Book and Jayne nodded then left, Jayne’s swagger as he marched down the ramp strangely complimentary to Book’s steady, purposefully gate. As he watched them leave, Mal motioned Kaylee over to him.

“Yeah, Cap’n?”

“Keep yer eyes open, little Kaylee, an’ keep the doc and his sis outa sight. This ain’t an Alliance planet, but Wash being this late is makin’ me nervous. Better safe ‘n sorry. You notice anything suspicious, anything at all, you lock this boat down tighter than a drum and call us back.”

“Okay, Cap’n,” Kaylee agree, nodding solemnly. She could tell Mal was worried about their friend, even though he was trying not to let it show. “We won’t do nothing stupid, I promise.”

Mal gave her a gentle smile, the one he reserved just for her, and then nodded to the waiting Zoë. “Let’s go find that husband of yours.”

*****

Wash opened his eyes to darkness. As he lay there, wondering if perhaps he’d gone blind, low moans filled his ears. It took him a few more minutes to realize the moans were coming from his own mouth. With a particularly loud groan, he managed to roll over onto his back, an action which sent all kinds of fiery agony racing up and down his body.

But, on the bright side, at least he now knew he wasn’t blind. The reason it was so dark was because he was in a dark alley, it was night, and he’d been staring into a slimy corner. Now on his back, he could vaguely see the stars in the sky above through his swollen eyes.

Gradually, as blessed unconsciousness fled, a few very unpleasant memories of the last couple hours drizzled back into his brain like scattered, random snapshots. They flitted around his mind, but actually left him more confused than before. He wasn’t sure what they all meant; he just knew that everything hurt, even his hair. Bruises throbbed, skin burned… He hadn’t hurt this bad since…well…never. The pain left him feeling fuzzy and disoriented, like he was viewing his own thoughts through a bad Cortex connection. Only one of those thoughts managed to push through with crystal clarity: he needed to get home.

Calling on an iron-will that was usually buried so deep most people forgot he even had it, Wash struggled to his knees, and then lurched to his feet, trying not to close his eyes as the world tilted drunkenly to one side. He leaned against the alley wall for support, the cement rough against the skin of his arm and shoulder. His bright, floral shirt was just gone and the top half of his jumpsuit hung down around his waist, but that didn’t mean his upper body was bare. He forced himself to ignore the mess, which was pretty easy given how much his head was spinning.

Home. Focus on getting home. Focus on Serenity, Wash told himself firmly. Once back at the ship he could blissfully pass out again and let the Doc and Mal and Zoë do the thinking for him. He looked around with fever-bright eyes and his gaze fell on the mule, not three feet away, waiting, still loaded. He couldn’t comprehend how odd that was right now, his brain feeling like jell-o and all, just knew it was something that could get him home.

Start-up was torture, and he realized distantly that his hands screamed at him and refused to work right as he tried to steer, but he gritted his teeth and let adrenalin keep him going. The mule and its rider oozed out of the dark, little street and headed in the general direction of the docks, its pace a slow, laborious crawl. Slumped gracelessly in the seat, Wash prayed he could get there before the dots swimming in front of his eyes all decided to join forces and he passed out again.

*****

A cool, evening breeze gently caressed Kaylee’s cheeks and toyed with the wisps of hair that escaped from her braids as the girl sat on the open cargo ramp, leaning back against the doorframe with her knees drawn up to her chest. Stars twinkled at her from above and the pleasant sounds of night drifted around her. It was just the kind of night she would normally take delight in, remembering evenings spent on the front porch, swapping tales and lies and slices of homemade pie. But not tonight. Tonight she found no comfort in the calm night while she sat watch as the captain had asked her to, only worry and fear, fear for a friend.

Kaylee was sure something was desperately wrong. Wash would never, ever be this late getting back, not if there was any way he could prevent it. He was just not that kind of guy. She’d known Wash as long as she’d known the captain and Zoë; Wash was funny, and irreverent, and a tad child-like, but he wasn’t reckless or irresponsible. Two things could sober him up real quick, the thought of harm coming to either Zoë or Serenity, and being this late put both in a bad spot. She knew he’d never do that on purpose.

Drawing her knees up closer, she sighed deeply. They didn’t talk about it much, but she and Wash shared a special bond. Nothing romantic, nothing at all like what he shared with Zoë, but it was strong and binding nonetheless. He was like a goofy older brother to her, but it was more than that. Together, Wash and Kaylee kept Serenity in the sky, brought her to life. They spoke the same language, felt the same love and pride for the old boat; a love that only those who knew her inside and out could feel.

Now Wash was missing and it was almost as if Kaylee could feel Serenity holding her breath around her; as if the old ship knew one of her charges was in trouble.

“Birds are cold. Want their coats back. Need them more than he does.”

Kaylee jumped and stifled a scream at the soft voice that spoke right in her ear, whirling around to find River kneeling there, long hair partially obscuring her face as she gazed knowingly past the mechanic and out into the night. It freaked her out to no end that the girl was able to sneak up on her like that, just suddenly be there. For just a second, Kaylee felt a spike of fear flash through her as she remembered River, and the gun, and Niska’s skyplex, but she shoved it purposefully aside and replaced it with images of the girl that was her friend.

“River, sweetie,” she said softly, brushing the girl’s hair out of her eyes and tucking it behind an ear, “you ain’t supposed to be here. Cap’n wanted ya to stay back from the door where folks ain’t like to see ya.”

“Sh!” River chided urgently, ignoring Kaylee’s words. “I’m listening to the feathers.”

“Honey, I’m sorry, but I don’t know what yer talkin’ about,” Kaylee replied, sadness in her voice. “There ain’t any feathers around here. But maybe if ya went back in, Simon could find ya some?”

River gave her a look, that one that said ‘just because I’m crazy doesn’t make me an idiot.’ “Not here,” she said, rolling her eyes. “There. He’s bringing them.” She pointed out into the night.

Tiredly, Kaylee followed River’s finger with her eyes, and then harshly drew in her breath. One of the colorful, Chinese curses she was always urging the good doctor to try slipped from her lips as she stared. There, about fifty feet down the docks and well-hidden in the darkness, sat the mule. It was unmoving, and a black lump lay on the ground at its wheels, just as still. The mechanic leapt to her feet, covering her mouth in shock as she strained to see through the darkness.

“River,” she said urgently, grabbing her by the shoulders and turning her around with a little shove, “go get Simon and Inara! Now!” The girl blinked at her, then ran across the cargo bay, yelling for her brother.

Kaylee didn’t wait for them. She sprinted down the ramp, rushed to the still mass by the mule and slid to a stop, tears filling her eyes as she crouched down.

“Oh, Wash,” she whispered brokenly, fingers reaching hesitantly to touch his face, but stopping short out of fear and uncertainty. Almost every inch of skin that she could see – chest, back, arms, face – was covered in a black, sticky substance that still radiated noticeable warmth as her fingers neared it. Stuck in it, all over, were feathers, along with dirt and gravel from the streets. It was even in his hair.

“Wash…” she whispered again, in shock and her heart literally breaking at seeing her friend like this. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to hurt him; he was just so fun and happy and kind.

A low moan came from the man on the ground beside her and he rolled over and opened his eyes. After a few seconds the blue eyes lit up with recognition, followed instantly with relief and a large amount of concern at seeing her next to him in tears.

“Hey,” he croaked. “Sh... s’alright… Made it home…” His words had a decided slur to them.

“Wash, what happened?” Kaylee asked, her voice sounding suspiciously like a sob. “Who did this ta you?”

“Tried to rob a chicken farm. Sick of protein, wanted fresh meat,” the pilot mumbled with a very small smile. Then his eyes slid shut once more, and he drifted off to unconsciousness again just as Simon and Inara rushed to their side. Farther back, River gazed at them fearfully from just inside the ship.

Kaylee stumbled back as Simon firmly pushed her out of the way, his expression blank as he took her place and focused on the job and his patient. She watched as he gave Wash a cursory glance-over, holding her breath. She could tell it unnerved him to see the kind pilot like this, but his professional training allowed him to shove his feelings aside for the moment. “I don’t think he’s in any life-threatening danger,” he said, rising to his feet again, “but we need to get him back to the ship and into the infirmary.”

As she listened to Simon, the young mechanic watched Inara out of the corner of her eye, wondering at her grace and composure, even under pressure and distressed for the welfare of a friend. Kaylee was exerting every ounce of willpower she had to keep the tears streaming from her eyes from becoming an uncontrollable flood, and yet Inara stood by silently, only her strangely sober expression betraying the depth of her concern. “I’ll go get the stretcher,” she offered quickly, and Kaylee thought she sounded glad for something to do.

Kaylee was right. Inara’s training was too ingrained to let it show, but she was very glad to get away for a moment and collect herself. Lifting her silken skirts slightly, she rushed back to Serenity. She didn’t spend as much time with Wash as she did with others on the crew, but she always appreciate his light-hearted presence on the ship and knew he was a kind, gentle soul. And she had to admit he often made her laugh. It wasn’t right that someone had hurt him, whatever the reason, and she didn’t like seeing him injured and in pain.

“Will he be all right?” Kaylee asked Simon as they waited with Wash for Inara to return, her voice trembling.

“I don’t know,” the young doctor answered seriously. “I need to get him inside.”

They fell silent after that. Kaylee wished she could hold Wash’s hand to give him a little comfort, but she didn’t dare. Something seemed seriously wrong with his hands, and she didn’t want to hurt him more.

It was not even a full five minutes before Inara returned carrying the stretcher, River with her this time, but to Kaylee and Simon it seemed like forever.

Carefully, they got the bulky body of their pilot onto the stretcher and then lifted him off the ground.

“But the mule…” Kaylee said, throwing a glance back over her shoulder as she helped Simon and Inara carry the heavy stretcher. “We shouldn’t leave it out here…”

“Well come back for –” Simon started to say but was interrupted by River.

“The girl can do it,” she said firmly, climbing gracefully onto the seat and starting the vehicle. “Wash taught her.”

Simon wasn’t happy, but realized now was not the time to argue and nodded. Still, he made a mental note to have a long conversation with the pilot about appropriate activities for mentally unstable teenagers at a later date.

Carefully, they carried Wash up the ramp and into the cargo hold, River following behind with the supplies. As soon as they were all on board, River jumped off the mule and raced over to the door controls, slamming her fist into the button that closed the large door. Kaylee and Inara looked at her, puzzled.

“Birds might come looking for him,” she explained solemnly. They didn’t have time to think about that or form an answer because Simon was snapping at them to keep going and help him carry Wash up to the infirmary.

It wasn’t easy, but Simon and the two women managed to get Wash up the steps and into the small medical room. Once there, they heaved the stretcher up onto the main bed and slipped it out from underneath the barely conscious man. It left them all breathless and smeared in the black goo that covered him. Kaylee cringed with guilt each time Wash half-woke and moaned in pain from the ordeal, but there was nothing she could do about that.

The doctor drafted Inara to help him with Wash but firmly kicked Kaylee out.

“Simon!” she pleaded. “I wanna help! Wash is my friend!”

“Kaylee, this isn’t going to be pleasant. Wash doesn’t need you to see this, and I need space to work,” Simon spoke more harshly than he normally would to the young mechanic, but he was in full doctor mode and not really concerned with hurt feelings right now.

“Why does ‘Nara get to stay then?”

“Because I need her help,” Simon responded distractedly as he rummaged quickly through various drawers.

“Kaylee,” Inara cut in gently, ushering the girl to the door, “you should go call the others back. The Cap’n needs to know about this, and he and Zoë should be here. Don’t worry, Simon will take good care of him.”

Realizing her protests would fall on deaf ears, Kaylee took one last watery look back at the horrible mess that was Wash, lying so still on the bed, and then she reluctantly turned and left. Her heart heavy, she slipped through the passenger lounge and headed toward the bridge. On her way, she passed River huddled on the stairs, her eyes large as saucers.

“Didn’t know the birds would hurt him,” she whispered as though somehow this could all be her fault, her fault for not understanding her own thoughts.

“I know you didn’t, and I’m sure Wash does, too,” Kaylee assured her, even though she really didn’t know what this conversation was all about to begin with. She gave her friend a pat on the shoulder then climbed up the stairs before River could see her start crying again.

*****

“Man’s really done it this time,” Mal groused, working his way through the crowd that had come out to enjoy an after-hours concert in the marketplace on a warm summer’s evening. “If he ain’t already dead, I’m gonna kill him myself when we find him. Man knows better ‘n ta make us late fer a job!”

Next to him, Zoë said nothing, but she stiffened slightly and her dark, brown eyes glinted with just a little flash of anger as they scanned the crowd of people around them. Anyone else saying that about her husband would have been on the ground with a gun leveled between his eyes two seconds later, but Zoë knew in this case it was just Mal’s way of distracting himself from how worried about his friend he actually was.

“If I find out all this was just so’s he could buy another one a’ them gorram creatures of his to sit on my bridge and glare at me with their beady, little –”

The comm. unit in his pocket beeped suddenly. Quickly, Mal drew it out and pressed the “talk” button.

“Yeah?” Mal asked as Zoë stepped closer to be able to hear.

“Hey, Cap’n,” Kaylee’s unmistakable voice came through.

“Hey, little Kaylee. You got news for me?”

They heard a deep sigh from the other end. “Yeah, I got news,” she said, sounding tired. “Ain’t the good kind though. Cap’n, you and Zoë oughta head back here quick-like. Wash’s back, but he don’t look so good. Been hurt real bad.”

A sliver of fear ran up Mal’s spine even as a large fist of anger slammed into his gut at her words. He had no idea what had happened, or how his pilot had managed to find trouble and get himself injured, but it made him angry nonetheless. Wash wasn’t supposed to end up in the line of fire; that was his job.

Seething inside, he turned to Zoë to tell her they were heading back only to see her already disappearing into the crowd at a fast sprint, her deadly glare alone enough to clear a path through the throng. Mal swore under his breath and shoved the comm. back into this pocked, hurrying after her.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

Simon slammed the drawer shut harder than he meant to, which caused a rare, rather colorful word to slip from his lips.

“What is it?” Inara asked quietly, watching him from where she stood by the bed. Wash was conscious now, if not completely lucid, and she’d been whispering softly to him, giving him something to focus on other than the pain.

The doctor forcefully shut another cupboard before turning around to answer. “This place is just not equipped to deal with this…” he trailed off and sagged against the counter, gesturing with disbelief at Wash, “…this mess.”

“I admit it’s barbaric, but surely this is easier than trauma surgery?”

“Yeah, if I was back in a hospital with the right chemicals around, but I didn’t exactly see this coming and stock up to prepare. I’m going to have to do this the old-fashioned way, which Wash isn’t going to appreciate.”

“I like old-fashioned,” Wash slurred, showing he wasn’t completely out of it even if he kept his eyes scrunched tightly closed. “Dino’s are old…”

Simon ignored the pilot to lock eyes with the companion. “Do we keep any turpentine on this ship?”

Inara blinked. “Probably. You could look in the storage locker in the engine room, but why do you need…”

The doctor’s back was disappearing through the doorway before she could finish her question. With a sigh, she shrugged her shoulders and then turned her attention back to the man on the medical bed. He really did look awful, covered in dirty, ratty feathers that were cemented into the tar that had cooled and hardened to his normally fair skin. The hideous concoction hid any other injuries or bruises from sight, but judging by the pilot’s reluctance to be touched or moved, and his continued fight to remain awake, they were there as well. The woman watched as he screwed up his face and turned his head from side to side as if listening. Suddenly, his lids crawled open revealing pain-glazed, blue eyes.

“Hey, where the doc go?” he asked softly. “Thought he was gonna wave his hands an’ make it better…”

“Sh, Wash,” Inara soothed, running a finger gently through his hair despite the grime in it. “He just stepped out for a moment to get something. He’ll be right back.”

Wash’s head swiveled to look at her and the action caused him to groan deeply.

“Zoë?” he asked thickly.

“No, Wash, it’s Inara. But Zoë will be here soon, I promise.”

The pilot seemed to ponder on that for a second before he closed his eyes again in acceptance.

“Hurts,” he admitted with another moan.

Inara’s heart broke. “You’re going to be just fine,” she soothed. “Simon will be right back.”

“Least he left a pretty nurse,” Wash muttered. “Not sexy, like Zoë, but pretty.”

Inara laughed gently, taking the compliment for what it was even as she wondered once again just who would want to hurt this sweet, kind man. Of all the men on the ship, Wash was the only one never bothered by her chosen profession. He never had to calculate what he was going to say to her, he simply talked. To him, she was always just Inara, a friend.

“You’re quite the charmer, Wash. I can see how you won Zoë.”

“Didn’t win Zoë,” the man corrected. “Survived the courtship and she decided to keep me.”

Inara laughed again, a gentle soothing sound, but her response was interrupted by Simon hurrying back through the door with a large, plastic jug.

“Did you know Kaylee keeps turpentine in the kitchen?” he groused to the room as he poured some of the liquid into a plastic bowl with markings on the side so he could dilute it properly. “In the kitchen! We all could have died of poisoning by now!”

“Told her to stop that…” Wash put in faintly.

A sudden fervent string of Chinese from the doorway caused everyone to turn sharply toward it, an action which elicited a deep moan in Wash’s case. The captain stood there, framed by the arch, his face a picture of shock and anger as he gazed at his pilot. As he remained there, frozen, Zoë pushed past him and stepped quickly to Wash’s side.

“Oh, bao bei,” she said, running her fingers down his blackened face. Wash closed his eyes and leaned into her attentions, finally drawing a little comfort. Zoë seemed unaware of the others in the room watching them, her face stern but her eyes soft and sad and only on her husband. “Sh, it’s okay. I’m here now.”

Mal then seemed to recover his wits, and with them his tongue. “What in the name of all that’s holy is going on here?” he growled, stepping inside and up next to the pilot’s bed. “Wash, who’d you tick off, an’ more importantly, are they gonna come back fer more?”

“Nice to see you, too, Captain,” Wash groaned, letting his eyes crawl open once again. “So glad to know you care.”

“Cap’n,” Kaylee cried, rushing into the already crowded room, Jayne and Book right behind her. “Jayne an’ the preacher er back now,” she said unnecessarily. She stopped at the foot of Wash’s bed, her eyes still red and already filling up with new tears. Unnoticed, River slunk in and crawled onto the counter in the corner, hugging her knees and muttered about chicken farms.

“Dang it, Wash,” Jayne said, giving the pilot a confused look. “What kinda costume is that? Ya look like somethin’ my ma’s cat woulda drug home.” Book shot Jayne a disgusted, if somewhat patient look, then bowed his head slightly in silent prayer.

“Wash, I asked ya what the heck – ”

“Oh, Wash, can I help, ya look so – ”

“Hey, little man, can I take a picture – ”

“Son, if there’s anything I can – ”

The cacophony of voices and noise bombarding Wash made the agony in his head spike sharply. He wrinkled his face in pain and attempted to keep the room from spinning around him.

“Enough!”

Sound died instantly as all eyes turned to the Simon.

“This is an infirmary, not a zoo, and you are upsetting my patient! I need to go to work here, and I can’t do it with all of you crowding around! Besides, I doubt very much Wash is going to want an audience for this. Everyone who isn’t me or Inara should leave right now.”

“Heck,” Jayne said in confusion, “he’s just a little dirty. What’s he need a doc for anyway?”

Simon rounded on Jayne in horrified disbelief. “It’s called tar and feathering,” he said forcefully, all his disgust at what had happened to Wash lacing his words.

“So, still don’t see why yer all so upset,” Jayne replied unfazed.

“Jayne, the tar was boiling when they put it on him…”

It took a minute, but a light of understanding finally flickered through the mercenary’s eyes. It was followed by a short burst of concern, but that disappeared before Simon could be sure whether he’d actually seen it or not. “Oh…all right, then. I’m hungry anyway, guess I’ll go fix me some grub,” he muttered, beating a hasty retreat from the room.

“Kaylee,” Mal said firmly, jumping into the conversation, “isn’t there a mule that needs unloading? Stuff Wash managed to get’s gonna spoil if it’s not taken care of properly right soon.” He was the captain after all. If someone was giving orders, it should be him. He should have taken charge the moment he stepped back on the ship, but the sight of Wash like that was so unexpected. It shocked him enough to be distracted for a second, but now he firmly reigned in his emotions and reclaimed his authority.

“But, Cap’n…”

“No buts, Kaylee. Now you go on and take care of that unloading like I asked ya to. Ain’t nothing here you need to be seein’.”

Her eyes still watery, Kaylee nodded reluctantly.

“I believe I will go assist Kaylee with the task,” Book said graciously. “My prayers can be heard as well in the cargo hold as they can here.”

Mal shrugged his agreement, ignoring the last part of the preacher’s words as he continued talking to Kaylee. “An’ take River with ya. Girl’ll just be in her brother’s way right now.” Kaylee nodded again and motioned for River to join her.

River slid from her perch and noiselessly followed the mechanic, but she stopped just in the doorway and looked directly at her brother. “His wings are crippled,” she said seriously. “Don’t push too hard.” Then she disappeared out the door.

“That girl just gets more creepifyin’ every day,” Mal said, shaking his head then he turned back to his pilot and first mate.

“Zoë?” he said pointedly, gesturing with his head toward the exit.

“Not leaving, sir,” Zoë said softly, never taking her eyes off her husband. She’d tried to take his hand earlier, but the sharp cry of pain he let out made her change her mind. Instead, she continued to gently cup his face with one slim hand.

“Zoë, I really think it would be best if you – ”

“I. Ain’t. Leavin’. Doc.”

Simon stashed his arguments, as did Mal. It didn’t take a genius to know that nothing short of divine intervention was going to get the woman to leave Wash’s side. Mal glanced up at the doctor to ask when he planned on actually doing any doctoring for his pilot and maybe stopping some of the obvious pain the man was in only to find Simon staring at him pointedly.

“What?” he asked, then quickly caught on. “No. I’m stayin’.”

“Mal, you’ll just be in my way. I need room to work.”

“Look, I might let ya pretend to be all in charge and get away with ordering everybody out so’s you can do yer work, but I am still the captain of this boat. I say I’m stayin’, you deal with it, dong ma?”

Simon sighed. “Fine, I’m not wasting any more time arguing, it’s not fair to Wash, but you’ll have to step back out of the way.”

Grudgingly, Mal allowed himself to be ushered into a corner and then stood there, his arms crossed and his eyes dark.

“You all done with the musical chairs thing now?” Wash spoke wearily, his voice thick from pain. “’Cause, I for one would really like to move forward with this shindig and on to the part where the doc here pulls out some of his happy juice…”

“I’m sorry, Wash,” Simon said, stepping up to his patient and looking Wash directly in the eyes, “but I can’t give you anything for the pain just yet. I’m worried you might have a mild concussion, among other things. Until I’m sure of the extent of your injuries, which I won’t know until we get this stuff cleaned off of you so I can examine you properly, I’d rather not risk giving you any medications that could cause more harm than good. If I have to perform any kind of surgery, even minor surgery, I want to be able to administer the right drugs without risk of interactions.”

The desperately hopefully expression on Wash’s face died as he stared at Simon for a moment, before turning his face away and closing his eyes tightly, letting a small curse slip out.

“I’m sorry,” Simon repeated as Mal shouldered his way into the thick of things again. “I know this isn’t going to feel very good.”

“Define isn’t gonna feel very good,” Mal demanded, glaring at the young doctor. “I don’t like the idea of you lettin’ a member a my crew suffer just so you can work without worry.”

Simon sighed, but handed Inara a length of soft cloth and asked her to cut it into smaller pieces before he turned to acknowledge the captain’s question.

“For the tar to be in liquid form and remain in that form long enough for it to be applied to the skin, it would have had to be at a very high temperature. I’m betting Wash has at least first degree burns everywhere the tar is touching his skin, and in some places they might be severe enough to be second or third degree. The only way I have to remove the tar and feathers is to scrub it off with turpentine, which even under normal circumstances is a skin irritant. Applying it to skin already abused by burns…”

“Doc,” Zoë suddenly interrupted, turning her face away from her husband to pin the doctor with a gaze. “Captain,” she added, eyeing Mal as well. “This ain’t the time for medical lectures. Really, really like to see some healin’ being done.” Her face was calm, but her eyes flashed dangerously as she looked between the two men. Simon nodded and pulled a metal tray of supplies over while Mal reluctantly backed out of his space again.

“If it gets too bad,” Simon spoke to the captain as he finished setting up, “I’ll try a localized nerve block, but only as a last resort. Some people have funny reactions to them, and often they don’t work at all.” Then the young man slipped into full doctor mode, issuing orders without regard for rank. “Inara, I’ll need you to keep me supplied with clean rags as I go. Make sure they are well soaked. When I finish an area, clean it gently with lukewarm water; I don’t want to leave the turpentine on any longer than needed. Let the skin air dry. Mal, Zoë, since you both insist on staying here, I want you to talk to Wash. Try to distract him, but above all make sure he stays awake. I don’t want him passing out on us if we can help it, not with a concussion. We’ll take this nice and slow and hopefully keep the pain tolerable.”

Wash listened distractedly to all the babbling going on around him, secretly wishing they would just shut up and get on with it. His head was starting to pound with an intensity that made him think Simon was right about that concussion thing, but even through the headache he’d managed to gather from the conversation that this was gonna hurt like heck. Which was saying something because he already hurt more than he could ever remember hurting…well, almost. He was intensely grateful for Zoë’s hand on his cheek, grounding him and giving him something to focus on other than the agony in his own body at the moment.

When Simon finally took a wet cloth and gently started scrubbing at his shoulder, Wash didn’t even bother to try and hold back the strangled cry that wrenched from his lips, or the tears that leaked down his cheeks. It’s not that he was a wimp; he could be brave, even exceptionally so when the stakes were high enough or those he loved were at risk, but he’d never felt the need to play macho games to prove his worth. He was an honest, upfront kind of person, and as such, he wore his emotions and feelings on the surface where everyone could see them. Sure, he had his secrets, his monsters in the dark and memories he tried to forget, but who didn’t? He just didn’t let them dictate who he was. And he sure didn’t think that bravery should be defined by a person’s ability to keep from hollering when they were being rubbed raw by what felt like liquid fire. If nothing else, he felt it was at least his duty to let everyone know how much he truly hated them right then.

“Sh, baby,” Zoë soothed, loathing every minute of watching her husband’s agony. She tried to keep the deadly fury in her eyes from being directed at the doctor, knowing he was only doing what had to be done, but it wasn’t easy. “I’m right here,” she continued, concentrating on her husband and burying the burning desire to hurt someone or something, at least for now. “Focus on me, bao bei.”

“Language, Wash,” Mal put in when Wash let loose a string of very creative curses, mostly directed at Simon. “You’re gonna blister the good doctor’s virgin ears with words like that.”

“You know,” Simon added calmly, even though he never stopped concentrating on clearing the horrible mess from Wash’s skin, “I’d take exception to what you just said if I didn’t feel pretty much the same way about my parents.”

Wash sent Mal and Simon what he hoped came across as a glare, knowing it’s affect would be diminished somewhat by the tears streaming out of his eyes, and then clamped his lips shut and tried to endure in silence, all the while wondering if this is what it felt like to be skinned alive by Reavers.

*****

“It just don’t make sense,” Kaylee said in frustration, pulling the box of protein off the back of the mule and setting it heavily on the deck. “Why would someone do such horrible things, hurt him so bad, but send him back without even touchin’ the goods?”

“I’ve been pondering the same thing myself,” Book answered, carefully stacking small crates of fresh produce off to one side. “Whatever their motive, it’s obvious they were not interested in robbery.”

“But why Wash? He’s never done nothing to hurt nobody!” Her face suddenly changed and she froze reaching for the two engine parts. “You don’t suppose this was all some awful mistake, do ya? Wash got taken fer somebody else?” she cried in horror.

“No mistake,” River stated firmly, shaking her head. Kaylee and Book both looked at her for an explanation, but she just picked up the box of toiletries Wash had bought and headed for the common area with them.

Kaylee sighed. “Guess I’ll go stash these parts and check on the injection plug. Be grounded for a while yet, might as well use the time,” she said sadly.

“Go ahead. I can finish up here,” Book agreed kindly. He watched for a moment until she disappeared up the stairs, then returned to his task.

Wash really had done well with the money Mal had agreed to let him spend. There was enough food here to last them for at least a month, and a lot of it was of the fresh and tasty variety. Sorrow filled him as he thought of the feast the crew had been anticipating for tonight; a chance to slow down, relax, and enjoy good food in the company of family. It was a simple pleasure, but one that was rare enough for the crew of Serenity to make it a special treat. Now it would be just one more casualty of the day.

Solemnly, Book withdrew the last two, small boxes from the mule and opened them. Momentarily surprised, his expression quickly turned into a small, sad smile. Gently he tucked one into his pocket. The other he set carefully on the top of the food crates and lifted the whole stack before carefully making his way to the dining room.

*****

Kaylee was half buried under her beloved engine when she heard Book calling her name.

“Just a sec, Shepherd,” she said thickly around the screwdriver in her mouth. Absently, she reached up and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, leaving a trail of grease behind on her skin. “Just gotta finish tweakin’ this casing…”

The truth was, she really didn’t want to come out and talk to him at all. As long as she stayed here, literally buried in her work, she could forget. But as soon as she pulled herself back out to find what the shepherd wanted she’d have to face the real world again, and the fact that someone she considered almost like a surrogate big brother was currently in the infirmary in horrible pain.

Finally, though, she tightened the last bolt and couldn’t put it off any longer. She slid out from under the machine and hit the button to power it up again. Then she wiped her hands on her coveralls and looked up at Book who was waiting patiently in the doorway.

“What can I do fer ya, Shepherd?”

“Oh, nothing,” he assured her gently. “I just finished unloading the mule and while I was doing it, I ran across this. I’m pretty sure they were meant for you.”

With that, he handed her a small wooden box and left. Puzzled, Kaylee opened the lid and then gasped slightly. Inside were five beautiful, red strawberries, each one perfect. Eyes that she’d only managed to dry a short while before instantly flooded with tears again, and she sat heavily on the ground, her mind whirling.

Strawberries were rare, and expensive. Mal hadn’t told Wash to get anything that fancy, she was sure of it. And besides, if he had, there would be enough for everyone in the box. No, these were bought for one person, as a gift: her. And that meant not only did Wash know her well enough to know how much she loved this particular treat, but he’d also been thinking of making her happy and used his own hard-earned coin to buy them for her when he saw them.

She didn’t know what to do, or say, or think. It was just too much on top of everything else and she couldn’t handle it. Finally, after placing the box of precious berries carefully on the floor beside her, she simply let her head sink into her hands and sat there in the middle of the engine room and sobbed.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

The lights in the infirmary were dimmed and the room eerily quiet. Mal leaned against the cabinet, his arms crossed and his posture casual and relaxed, but his thoughts were anything but as he stared at the man lying motionless on the medical bed.

Wash hadn’t been asleep long, but Mal was glad he was finally resting, even if it was only a light doze. Unable to handle listening to and watching the pilot’s agony any longer, Simon had finally given him a localized nerve block, despite his medical reservations. Sometimes, you just had to go by your gut and not the book, and Mal was grateful the doc had up and done it. Saved him the trouble of threatening to shoot the young man if he didn’t, which is what would have happened if the doc hadn’t acted first. The medication left Wash pretty much completely numb from the shoulders down, which under normal circumstances would have concerned him – tough to fly that way – but the exhausted, hurting pilot had welcomed it with tears of relief. It would wear off in a few hours, but it had at least allowed them to finish the gruesome task of cleaning their friend up.

Mal felt the anger that had been smoldering flare up again as he looked his friend over. He still wore his filthy flight suit from the waist down, but Simon had left his upper body bare to aid healing and save him more discomfort, so Mal had a perfect view of all Wash’s injuries. The hideous feathers and tar were gone now, removed after hours of painful scrubbing, but Wash’s skin was left red and raw, burned everywhere the hot tar had touched it. Where it had been smeared on first while the tar was at its warmest – across his chest and back – it had pooled slightly and the pilot now had worrisome second and even one third degree burn.

Unfortunately, the burns weren’t the end of it. As the tar was cleared from Wash’s skin, other injuries had emerged. Mottled black, blue, and purple bruises were littered across his face, back, chest, and arms – mute testimony to the treatment the man had endured first. Wash hadn’t mentioned it, but Mal knew the results of a sound beating when he saw them, and it just added more kindling to the already angry fire growing inside him.

As Simon had worked slowly and carefully to clear the gunk from Wash’s burned back, he had uncovered something else that almost sent the captain through the roof. Among the burns and bruises lay seven, long, bloody welts. Mal had let a short, harsh curse out when he realized what they were while Inara gasped, Zoë’s eyes darkened with deadly fury, and Simon had pursed his lips tightly together as he continued to work. Now wasn’t the time, but Mal vowed that sometime in the very near future, someone was going to pay dearly for this, and he knew at least one warrior woman who’d be backing him up…no, actually if he was reading the signs right, he’d probably be running just to keep up with said warrior woman as she charged forward with murderous intent.

Still plotting painful revenge, Mal had watched as Simon cleaned and treated the wounds, until something strange had caught his eye. None of the others seemed to notice, or be surprised, but Mal was rather confused and more than a little shocked. Sketched lightly across his pilot’s back, almost hidden beneath the fresh injuries, Mal noticed the faint, white lines of scars crisscrossing the skin, like distant echoes of the harsh, new ones but dimmed almost to invisibility by time. Distractedly, Mal stared at the marks, not even realizing until he was done that he was counting them: twelve, maybe fifteen. What on earth? That was just…wrong…not to mention all kinds of confusing!

And then Simon had reached Wash’s hands and all thoughts of strange, white scars had been driven from Mal’s mind.

Wash’s hands were…well… Mal stopped recalling the last few hours and just stared at them, not quite able to process the sight yet. Both were badly broken, practically crushed, and his fingers were no better. The bones had been snapped and they were grotesque and swollen. Six of them ended with no nails. Mal shuddered as he thought of how painful that must have been, and took a step closer, stopping next to the bed in the center of the room and the man sleeping on it.

His hands were lying motionless and limp at his sides, still untreated except for a few bandages to help stop the bleeding and a clotting agent added to the IV dripping slowing into a vein in the crook of Wash’s arm, replacing much needed fluids. The pilot’s hands would need several hours of surgery, but Simon wanted the nerve block to clear Wash’s system before he medicated the pilot up again and tried to pin them back together. In the meantime, the doctor was off with Zoë and Kaylee, checking the Cortex for the latest techniques and using the time to prepare while giving Wash a brief period to rest.

And leaving Mal with nothing to do and seething with rage, chomping at the bit to do something, find those responsible and deal out some, good old-fashioned justice, anything!

Unable to look away for long, the captain’s eyes were drawn to Wash’s terribly abused hands once more. Simon assured everyone that he could fix them, they would eventually be as good as new, but that didn’t change the fact that Wash wasn’t gonna be doing any piloting anytime soon, which was horribly frustrating for Wash and downright inconvenient for him.

Cursing quietly but heavily in Chinese, Mal sighed deeply and ran his fingers through his hair. “What did they do to you, Wash?” he whispered in frustration. “Run the mule over yer gorram hands?” The captain let his shoulders slump and his head fall forward.

“Actually, I think it was a chair leg, or maybe one from a table. The truth is, I really didn’t take the time to study it too closely.”

Mal jumped slightly at the quiet, rough voice and glanced up to see bright, pain-filled blue eyes staring back at him.

“Didn’t mean ta wake ya,” he apologized gently.

“You didn’t. Wasn’t asleep.”

“Meds wearing off?” Mal asked, genuinely concerned. Wash just nodded, looking away.

“Need me ta get the doc?”

“No,” the pilot said simply. “Nothin’ he can do anyway.” He glanced with anger and regret at his mangled hands.

“Simon says they’ll be fine.”

“Simon talks too much.”

Mal sensed the deep well of bitterness in his usually cheerful pilot and decided to skirt that issue for now.

“So, wanna tell me what happened out there today?” he asked. His words were kind, but laced with his firm captain’s voice so Wash would know it wasn’t a request.

Wash sighed. If he could have, he would have brought an arm up to shield his face, but the lingering nerve block made it so his limbs still weren’t responding to his orders. “I got snatched, Mal, by bad guys. You know, those lovely types of people you seem to attract so much.”

“Hey, not just me!” Mal protested, pretending to be hurt. “Half the time it’s Jayne’s fault, or Simon’s, or River’s.”

Wash just glared at him tiredly. “That’s three halves, Mal.”

“An’ that’s why you’re the pilot, an’ I’m the captain. Pilots do math, so captains don’t have to. So, anyway, wanna give me some specifics on these bad guys,” Mal prodded, kidding aside.

“Not particularly.”

“Don’t think I was offering ya a choice, Wash.”

“Maybe they just took exception to my uncommonly handsome and manly good looks?”

“Wash…”

The pilot sighed again. “Look, Mal, it doesn’t really matter. They’re long gone by now anyway.”

“I’ll be the judge of what does or doesn’t matter on this boat. My crew gets hurt, I wanna know how, why, and who. I conjure you’re still a member of my crew, dong ma?”

Wash looked away from him and stared at the wall, his face wrinkled with pain, and Mal didn’t know if it was from his injuries, or the unpleasantness of sifting through still-fresh bad memories. Finally, the injured man spoke again, refusing to meet the captain’s eyes.

“Don’t know their names. I’m not sure if they just conveniently forgot to tell me, or I was too busy with the pain and the screaming and the passing out to remember, but either way I don’t know.”

A horrible thought, one that had been nibbling at the back of his mind since he had walked in and seen Wash covered in tar and feathers, pushed itself to the front of Mal’s brain.

“Niska?” he asked softly. A chill went up his own spine as he said it, and he couldn’t help but notice Wash flinch slightly before he answered.

“We both know it weren’t Niska, Mal. Would’a been sent back in a match box if it were, or more likely, not sent back at all.”

“Then who?” Mal pressed. “They sent ya back with everything intact, didn’t even pick your gorram pockets! And yet, they beat the tar outta ya, Wash, fer three hours. Now, I wanna know why.”

“I know they did. I was there, remember?”

“Then quit dancin’ around it and tell me why!”

“To get to you.”

Wash’s voice was soft with pain and regret and for a moment, his blunt words failed to penetrate. “Huh?”

“I’m just the message, Mal. Don’t remember who Mr. Pony-Tail said he was, but whoever he is he’s got a powerful dislike of you, that much I know. Pounded it into me, you might say. He did all this just to make a point, and then let me go to make sure I came back here so you could get it loud and clear.” Wash closed his eyes. “I didn’t wanna play his games, Mal, be part of his plan, but it hurt so bad all I could think of was getting home, even though I knew that was just doin’ what he wanted.”

The fury that had been building inside of the captain’s soul all night finally erupted. He spun around and slammed his fist into the pad of the empty counter that also doubled as a second bed, swearing furiously in two languages. It was several minutes before he could see through the red in front of his eyes enough to trust himself to turn around again.

Wash was watching him, an unreadable expression painted across his burned and bruised face. “I’m sorry,” he said brokenly.

Mal forced himself to breathe deeply and regain control. “Nothin’ for you to be sorry about. Ain’t none of this yer fault. I’m the one that should be sorry for puttin’ ya in a situation to be takin’ shots that should be aimed at me.”

“Still, should’ve fought harder and been less of an easy target.”

“Gorramit, Wash, I hired ya to be a pilot, not a fighter. Got Zoë and Jayne for that. And it ain’t now nor never will be your fault that knowin’ me painted a bright red target on yer back!”

“So, ya know who did this?” Wash asked, not acknowledging the captain’s attempts to dissuade his guilt.

“Not a clue, but I aim to be rectifyin’ that shortly. You know where they held ya at?”

“Well, yeah, some warehouse, a couple streets south of here, but Mal, they ain’t gonna be there still! It’s been hours!”

“And they might still be there, thinkin’ we’re long gone by now. Either way, I aim ta find out. They got things to explain and a lot to atone for.”

Mal turned to leave the room but stopped when Wash called after him. The pilot struggled to push himself up on one elbow and pierced him with a very serious gaze, one of the most serious he had ever seen come from the man. “Be careful, Mal, and please don’t let Zoë do anything stupid.”

“Never known Zoë to do anything stupid.”

“She married me…” Wash replied, echoing a distant unfinished conversation from their past.

“Stick by what I just said, Wash. You think on that.” Then Mal turned and left the room, his eyes growing cold with anger and purpose. “Zoë!” he hollered up the steps to the bridge. “Jayne! Get yerselves down to the cargo hold! We got a job ta do!”

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

Mal squinted through the darkness at the nondescript door before turning to Jayne with skepticism. “You sure this is the right place? Looks just like every other door we’ve passed in the last twenty minutes.”

“Uh-huh, Mal, an’ every other door has a pile of feathers for a gorram welcome mat.”

Mal glanced down to where his mercenary was pointing. “Oh, good point,” he muttered. “Nice trackin’, Jayne.”

“Weren’t trackin’. I followed babies were harder to track than that trail of gunk and feathers.”

Zoë stepped between the two men, the stone-cold expression on her face hard to see in the blackness, but they didn’t have to see to know it was there. Just standing next to her they could feel the temperature drop a few degrees. “Sir, we gonna go in, or we gonna chat?”

Her tone snapped Mal back to business and he nodded. “We’re goin’ in, but not here. I’m bettin’ on these guys havin’ a back door. Guests use the front door, but after all that time they spent gettin’ to know my pilot today, we ain’t guests. I think we rank an unexpected visit through the back door.”

Jayne hefted Vera up higher on his shoulder and grinned, and Mal knew it was an unspoken nod to how the merc truly felt about the eccentric pilot. He might snarl and sneer at the little man, but he didn’t pull Vera out for just any job.

“Can I do the knockin’, Mal?” he stage whispered, his finger resting near the trigger.

“No blowin’ holes in things and givin’ away our presence before need be, Jayne,” Mal said firmly, moving swiftly around the building as he spoke, the other two following. He glanced back once at Zoë and actually shuddered at the hardness in her eyes. “Besides,” he added quickly, “I think Zoë wants to knock.”

Mal noticed a patch of wall darker than the rest and motioned for the others to be quiet. Silently, they approached. It was roughly seven feet high and four feet wide and made of a darker metal than the surrounding walls.

“Door?” he asked Zoë, tilting his head to get a better view.

“Door,” she agreed.

“Got a proposition on a way to be openin’ it?”

Jayne shifted Vera to point forward. “I got one, if ya’ll wanna step back a bit…”

“A quiet way of openin’ it,” Mal stressed, fighting the urge to roll his eyes. “I thought mercenaries were supposed to be schooled in stealth.”

“Heck, Mal, I tole ya before, I ain’t got no use for schoolin’.”

“Pro’bly got a hidden switch or trigger, Sir,” Zoë replied, ignoring Jayne as she stepped up to the wall and ran her fingers along the right side. Mal followed her lead on the left, leaving Jayne to cover them. About halfway down he felt his fingers catch on something. He tugged on it and a small metal flap snapped open revealing a box set in the wall that housed one thing, a large button.

“Bingo.” He turned and faced his two crewmembers. “All right, we go in quiet an’ we go in smart. Ain’t got no idea what or who’s waitin’ for us on the other side and I don’t plan on walkin’ into any trap. You need to shoot, shoot to disable, not kill. I got questions needin’ answers and corpses don’t talk so well.” He said the last bit to Jayne, but he was looking at Zoë. He waited until she gave him an almost imperceptible nod, then went on. “Jayne, you take the right, Zoë, the left, I’ll steer down the middle. Cover me if I signal. Now, remember, heavy on the quiet part, dong ma?”

Confident in their plan and ability to pull it off, Mal stepped forward and pushed the button.

Instantly, the high wail of a security alarm pierced the night air. The door however stayed firmly shut.

“Huh,” Mal said, staring stupidly at the unopened door, then back at his comrades. Zoë was glaring daggers at him, but she couldn’t quite hide the twitch of her lip.

“Plan B, Sir?”

“Uh, yeah, sounds good.” He moved aside and gestured sweepingly with one hand at the door. “Jayne?” he offered. “And nix the quiet part. Our schedule just got a mite tighter so more on the quick and less on the quiet would be just fine.”

Jayne’s grin was eager and the slightest bit evil as he shouldered his gun. After two blasts from Vera, the metal door gave way, twisting painfully back on its hinges and leaving a yawning black entrance in its place.

Drawing his gun, Mal strode through, eyes straining to see through the smoke and the darkness, expecting trouble and looking for cover. Zoë slipped in silently behind him, and then Jayne. The merc was finally quiet, proving that despite everything else that might be said about him, he really was the best at his job.

The inside of the building was pitch black; they couldn’t see a thing, and with that blasted alarm still wailing in the background, they couldn’t hear much either. “Find the lights,” Mal ordered Zoë through clenched teeth. “An’ turn that gorram alarm off while yer at it.”

“Sir, you sure ya want me to do that?” Zoë questioned. “Give away our position pretty fast…”

“Position’s already been made, if anyone’s in here wonderin’. Light’ll mean they can see us, but we get a fair crack at seein’ them as well. An’ the alarm’s makin’ me cranky. Cranky enough as it is, don’t need any help in that area.”

Wordlessly, Zoë melted back into the darkness. A few seconds later the dimness of emergency lighting flashed on, and shortly after that the alarm suddenly switched off, leaving Mal’s ears still ringing. He ignored them, however, and gave his attention to their surroundings, knowing any element of surprise had long since passed.

The building was huge. A few crates and boxes littered the edges of the warehouse, but for the most part their movements echoed off the concrete emptiness of the large space. On the far side, just visible in the limited lighting, Mal could make out the other door. Warily, Mal crouched behind a crate for cover as he listened and watched for any sign of trouble, but after only a minute or so he stood up. The building had that hollow emptiness that told him better than anything that they were the only ones there, which unexpected alarms and blasts from large guns included was probably a good thing as far as their health and safety was concerned, but did nothing to relieve the burning desire to hurt someone he’d had growing in his gut since he’d walked into that infirmary and seen Wash.

“Sir.”

Zoë’s voice was flat and dead. Mal jerked around and followed her eyes and the muzzle of her gun to the left-hand corner she was pointing at. His eyes went hard and his lips pressed together into a thin line as he moved forward to get a closer look.

Two barrels impertinently labeled “Tar” were pushed together, a small mound of feathers piled at their base. Leaning causally against them was an old, wooden fence post and a neatly coiled whip. Mal felt the darkness claw even further up inside him as he realized the whole thing had been “artfully” arranged, like a trophy.

And the pièce de résistance? Sitting on top of the first barrel of tar, crisply folded and pressed, was Wash’s bright, floral shirt.

Mal really, really wanted to shoot something. Or someone. And it was getting to the point he wasn’t all that picky about who as long as they fit the category of generic bad guy slash scum of the ‘verse.

While the captain remained frozen in his spot with disgust, Zoë stepped neatly around him and up to the display. Her face was cold as ice but her hands were surprisingly gentle as she reached out and gathered up her husband’s shirt. She sensed the captain’s eyes and spoke to him without moving.

“He’s got too few clothes as it is, an’ it’s one of his favorites. Ain’t leavin’ it here for their pleasure.”

She turned back to face Mal and held the shirt out to him purposefully. For a moment he just stared at it, stupid-like, then it dawned on him that she wanted him to pocket it. Her vest might be good for holding little things, like say an ear or two, but not bulky, garish Hawaiian shirts.

“It dawned on you his wardrobe might be improved considerable by leavin’ it here?” he asked, not completely in jest as he took the shirt while throwing her a wry look, wondering as he did at the strange bond between his first-mate and pilot that drove the usually stoic and practical Zoë to rescue something so silly; a bond he still didn’t really understand even after years to study it. The look she gave him in return he had no trouble understanding, however; it was the one that said just shut up and don’t ask questions. “Right,” he replied, balling the shirt up into a smaller wad, “but just so’s ya know, I draw the line at cartin’ any of his plastic creatures around.”

“Wouldn’t dream of askin’, Sir.”

Mal started to shove the wadded up shirt into one of the pockets of his old coat, but stopped when something hard and unyielding met his fingers through the cloth. Puzzled, he searched around until he found the shirt’s breast pocket. He reached inside and withdrew a recorder, just like the one they had found on Tracey not so long ago. Wordlessly, he shared a grim look with Zoë.

Jayne had wandered back to them after making a quick sweep of the building. He eyed the offending display curiously, taking in Mal and Zoë and the shirt, then shrugged and turned his attention back to the rest of the building, not entirely convinced they weren’t still walking into a trap.

“Maybe it’s Wash’s?” he suggested, nodding to the little message recorder.

“It ain’t,” Zoë replied darkly.

With a deep sense of foreboding, Mal clicked it on.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

Hello, Malcolm.

Mal jumped slightly and whipped his head around as the smooth, tenor voice filled the empty warehouse, forgetting for a moment that it came from the little device in his hand.

Actually, I think I’m gonna call you Mal, since I feel like I know ya so well. An’ I guess I should be sayin’ howdy to your little posse, too. Welcome, Jayne and Zoë.

Jayne’s eyes bugged out and he jerked around to look at Mal. “He’s watchin’ us!” the mercenary hissed through his teeth, his grip tightening alarmingly on Vera.

“He ain’t. It’s a recording, Jayne,” Mal told him, pretending he hadn’t done the exact thing seconds earlier when addressed by name and trying not to show how much it irked him that the man knew enough to predict who would be listening. “Hush up so’s I can hear it.”

The message continued on, oblivious to the reaction it was causing. I suppose I should give a little apology to Zoë for the manner in which I returned her spouse, but then again, my mama always taught me it ain’t polite to say things ya don’t mean.

The recording paused, as if the speaker was stopping to take a long breath. Or maybe for a good laugh.

I reckoned you’d come, Mal. Told your pilot it would be pointless ta come here, as I’d be long gone, but I ain’t too sure the message penetrated very well. None too bright that one, but mighty stubborn. Had ta resort to measures I hadn’t planned on ta make sure the fool got the point.

The sound on the recording changed, like a channel had been switched. It was more distant, fuzzy, as if it were father away, and there were several muffled voices that could be heard in the background. Suddenly, all of that was drowned out by a sound like something swooshing through the air and then a harsh crack, followed by a man screaming. Mal instantly recognized Wash’s agonized voice and shook with anger as he remembered the bloody welts across his friend’s back. He deliberately didn’t look at Zoë as the tape continued, the sharp crack and following tortured cry repeating three more times.

Then, just as abruptly as it had started, the second recording cut off; example over. The casual voice was back.

As I said, none too bright. But then, you hired him, and as birds of a feather tend to flock, I’m not exactly all that surprised like. I told the man there was no point in ya’ll comin’ back here, but I also knew you wouldn’t be able ta stay away. Predictable, Mal, that’s what you are, predictable to a fault.

Which brings us to the point of this little message: you. Painting Washburne up all pretty like in tar and feathers was great fun, but that ain’t why I did it. I did it because I know you; know you better than ya might even know yerself. I know you ‘cause I’ve spent the better part of many years preparing for this; watching ya, waiting, planning… I’ve learned all about you, how you work, your little quirks. An’ I’ve learned that the best way to hurt you is to take it out on those ya care about, those you feel responsible for. So, that’s the plan, because yes, Mal, I want to hurt you. Want ya ta feel the hurt so badly ya come crawlin’ ta me to make it stop.

You see, I’ve not just watched you all these years, I’ve watched your crew. I’ve learned all about your merry band of outlaws. There’s good ol’ Zoë, your second in command and undisputed right hand. There’s Jayne, your semi-faithful guard-dog. Wash, the class-clown and resident flyboy. Kaylee, that sweet, innocent grease-monkey. And the oh so lovely Inara. An’ let’s not forget your recent acquisitions: the preacher and the doting doctor and his nutty sister.

Mal breathed in sharply, something the man on the recording almost seemed to anticipate. Oh yes, I know all about the Tams. My mama also said, if somethin’s worth doin’, it’s worth doin’ right, and my sources are the best. I’d considered just setting the feds on ya, seein’ them haul the girl and her brother off and then watchin’ the rest of ya squirm in an Alliance prison, but there’s just something so impersonal about them doin’ my work for me. Not nearly as much fun, an’ I’ve waited so long for this.

So we’re doin’ this my way. It’s my little game, the ball’s in my court, an you’re all gonna play, like it or not. So what’s it gonna be, Mal? Who’s next? Cobb in a back alley, bullet to the brainpan after one too many beers down the gut some night? Kind, trusting Kaylee disappearing one day, right under your nose? Or maybe I should take Zoë? Finish the Washburne pattern I started, an’ I’m partial to a good challenge…

See where I’m goin’ here, Mal? It could be any one of them, at any time. Washburne was a strategic strike, but the rest of the game is up for grabs… An’ you’ll never know when the next hit will come. Could be tomorrow, could be next year. I’ve waited most my life for this; I can be a very patient man. You can try an’ hide, or run, but it won’t work. I will strike again, and you will suffer for it.

Maybe next time, I’ll even tell ya why.

Goodbye then, Mal. Run back to your little ship and warn your crew. Tell them not to talk to strangers, not to wander off, never to go unarmed. It won’t do ya a bit of good, but it might make ya feel better.

Oh yeah, and you might want to hurry. Ya could still have time for the good Doctor Tam to find the antidote for the poison percolatin’ through your pilot’s veins. But then, ya might not. So many unaccounted variables…

The recording clicked off, it’s message finished. For a moment, complete silence hung in the air as Mal stared with stunned shock at Zoë and Jayne. No one, not even Zoë seemed to be able to process all the craziness and creepiness they’d just heard, least of all that last statement. Then the captain shook his head and swore loudly.

“Gorramit, Wash!” he cried helplessly as Zoë suddenly rushed from the building. That kicked Mal into motion as well, reminding him that his pilot’s life was hanging in the balance here, and he quickly followed her. As he ran, he fumbled in his pocket for the hand-held comm. only to remember he hadn’t thought to bring one. Cursing himself six ways to Sunday, he pulled into a flat-out sprint, chasing Zoë’s heels and not waiting to see if Jayne kept up. The big man could take care of himself, which was more than could be said for their pilot at the present.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

Zoë took the ramp to Serenity at a dead run, racing across the empty cargo hold and through the entrance to the lower common room, an expression of worry and slight fear on her face that was rare and almost out of place. Shepherd Book met her at the closed infirmary door, stepping into her path with hands raised.

“He’s still in surgery. Simon asked that they not be disturbed until he’s done as this is tricky work and it’s too important for him to be distracted.”

“I appreciate that, Preacher, but Doc’s just gonna have to deal with a small distraction.”

“Zoë, I know you’re concerned, but Wash really is in the best hands. Let the doctor do his job,” Book reasoned, unmoving.

“I ain’t askin’, Shepherd.”

“Stand aside, Preacher,” Mal added, coming up behind them, thoroughly out of breath from his sprint. “Been developments the doc needs to know ‘bout.”

Book held the captain’s gaze for a few seconds, then nodded his head in acceptance and stepped aside. “Not more trouble for poor Wash, I hope,” he said with real concern.

“More’n likely,” Mal answered tightly. Without waiting to hear his reply, Zoë pushed open the infirmary doors and walked through, Mal at her heels.

Wash was lying on the table, his whole body covered by a sheet except for his face and left hand. If it wasn’t for the bruises on his face and the fact that Inara hovered worriedly nearby, keeping an eye on his breathing and pulse while Simon worked, he might have been stretched out for a nap.

Simon never looked up from his intense, careful work on Wash’s exposed hand, but his brow wrinkled in frustration as the doors opened and his voice was laced with anger as he spoke.

“Exactly what part of I’m not to be disturbed did you people not understand. I’m performing detailed surgery on this man’s hands! I need to be able to concentrate without interruptions unless you don’t care if your pilot or husband is crippled for life!”

Zoë smothered both the spike of rage and irrational fear the doctor’s words sent through her and forced herself to keep her emotions under control. It had been a very trying day for the young doctor as well, and she knew he was worried about performing such a tricky surgery away from the fancy equipment he was used to having, and on someone he was coming to respect as a friend. He was just trying to do his best to heal her husband, for which she was highly grateful, and had no way of knowing the added danger he was in.

“Sorry, Doc, but we’ve got strong reason to believe Wash’s been poisoned along with everythin’ else,” she said softly, aching to move to her husband’s side and run comforting fingers through his hair, but knowing his life depended on her staying focused.

Inara gasped and let a hand fly to her mouth in shock at her words, but Simon still never looked up or stopped his work.

“I don’t think so,” he said calmly.

“Don’t care what you think, want you to be checkin’ anyway,” Mal growled, moving closer. Simon finished tying off a suture and finally looked up. He took a deep breath before speaking, calming his temper so he didn’t say something he’d regret, and glanced at Mal before meeting Zoë’s gaze.

“Mal, Zoë, I know I haven’t been here that long, and I know you don’t always trust me completely, but I am a good doctor. I don’t practice medicine halfway, not even on little things, and certainly not when it’s this important. I ran every test for every substance I could think of before I started this procedure. There are no poisons currently in his system that are known to man at this time. Now I can run the tests again if you’d like me to, but Wash and I will both thank you if you’ll let me finish this up first. I’m quite sure he wouldn’t like to wake up to find me still working on pinning his fingers into place and sewing it all back up.”

Under any other circumstances, Zoë would have smiled at the slightly pale sheen that spread through the captain’s face at the mention of “pinning” and “sewing.” As it was she just felt a deep sense of relief, and a huge welling of renewed anger. She took a moment to step up to her husband’s side and run a gentle hand across his abused face and through his hair, before she schooled her expression to cool professionalism again and turned away.

“Right, well, good then,” Mal was stuttering sheepishly. “How’s about you just finish up here and…um…we’ll go wait outside. You call us soon as you’re done though, dong ma?” The captain beat a dignified, if rather hasty retreat from the medical room.

“Take good care of him?” Zoë asked, letting some of the warmth and fear creep into her eyes as she faced Simon. He smiled reassuringly at her in a strange reversal of roles.

“Of course. I hadn’t planned on anything less.”

Nodding, Zoë followed Mal out and left the doctor to his work.

She found him sitting on the bridge in Wash’s chair, staring out at the faint light of dawn streaming in the windows as the sunrise crept nearer on the planet. The silliness of a moment before was completely absent; instead she could feel the waves of worry, anger, shame, and pain rolling off him as she came up to stand silently behind him.

Mal didn’t speak for a long time, even though he was aware of her presence, and Zoë didn’t push him. Patience was one of her personality traits and silence suited her just fine. Life had taught her that words weren’t always needed. When he did break the stillness, his voice was raw and rough.

“This is all my fault, Zoë. My fault and I don’t even know why. The man knows me, too gorram well. Knew just how ta get to me, just how I’d react. Hurt Wash and enjoyed it, now he’s messin’ with my head. Every move from here out could be faked, just like that poison, but he knows I can’t afford not to believe it.”

“Ain’t your fault, sir. You got nothin’ to blame yourself for,” Zoë said firmly, meaning every word of it. Wash’s condition broke her heart, but she didn’t blame her captain, and knew there was no way Wash would either.

Mal gripped the arms of the chair until his knuckles turned white as he spoke. “They took my pilot! My dinosaur playin’, crazy shirt-wearing pilot and tortured him! Whipped him, crushed the man’s hands, smothered him in burning tar. Just to send me a little message, postage free. Findin’ it very hard not to see the fault in that. Captain’s supposed ta take care of his crew an’ I didn’t do that. Wash paid the price.”

He paused for breath, his voice cracking. Zoë flinched at his harsh words, feeling the pain and anger she already felt for her husband flair up again, but she stayed silent, knowing Mal needed to get this out.

“My heart’s screamin’ at me ta track down this monster an’ fill him full of holes, but I can’t even do that. Don’t know who he is; don’t know how to find him. Don’t even know if I can keep him from strikin’ again. How’m I ‘posed to keep my crew safe, Zoë, when I don’t know what’s comin’?”

Mal turned to her with a look so lost her heart almost broke. It was like seeing him back in that Valley again, his faith stripped away and his soul raw and bleeding. She swallowed the sudden emotions that rose up in her and stepped up to the pilot’s chair, crouching down so she was eye-level and laying a warm hand on the tense muscles of his arm.

“Never know what’s comin’, Cap’n. Never will. Been told that’s a good portion of what makes up life. You stop livin’ just because you can’t see what’s comin’, they win by default. Only thing we can do is keep goin’, take extra care to protect what’s ours, and make sure we got lots of bullets next time we meet.”

Zoë couldn’t tell by his expression if he bought her words or not. He simply shrugged her hand off and looked away, and she could almost see the walls he kept around his personal emotions standing back up. None of the tension was gone, however. It still hung in the air between them like a lead weight. He opened his mouth to say something but never got the chance as Kaylee’s voice floated in over the comm.

“Cap’n? Can you come down ta the engine room fer a second? Need ta talk to ya about the stabilizer.”

“Kaylee!” he snapped, standing up quickly to flip the comm. to speaker and letting all his frustration leak into his voice. “Told ya we spent all the coin we got fer parts already, so ya can’t go get any more no matter how nice ya ask, an’ I got more important things ta worry about right now!”

There was a moment of silence from the other end, then Kaylee’s voice came again, slightly wobbly. “Yes, Cap’n. Sorry,” she whispered and the line went dead.

Zoë raised a disapproving eyebrow at the exchange, and Mal let his head stink into his hands, realizing what he’d just done.

“The mean ol’ captain strikes again,” he muttered, massaging his temples. Zoë just stood up and crossed her arms.

“Gonna say anything?” Mal asked quietly.

“Don’t got nothin’ to say. Not the one needs talkin’ to.”

“Right. Well, guess I’ll be in the engine room if anyone needs me, talkin’ with my mechanic. Let me know when Simon finishes. I’m thinkin’ a meetin’ with all the crew is needed once Wash is restin’ easy for a bit. Got things need discussin’.”

“Aye, Cap’n,” Zoë agreed.

Mal left the bridge, his boots clanking on the deck plating and his usually proud shoulders sagging.

Zoë watched him until he disappeared around the corner then let the calm expression on her face crumble. With a bone-weary sigh, she sank into the pilot’s chair and brought her knees up to her chest. For the first time since she’d walked into that infirmary and seen her husband covered in tar and feathers, she allowed herself to feel the pain and sorrow and worry that caused.

It made her sick. Wash was the kindest, gentlest, most honest soul she knew – was part of what had allowed her to admit her attraction to him in the first place and to let him into her life. Oh, he could be petty, annoying, even mean with the mood struck, but that didn’t change who he was at the core. He balanced her, filled in the holes and cracks that life had left. And in return she tried her best to protect him from the very things that had caused those fissures in herself; not because she didn’t think he could handle it, but because she didn’t want him to have to.

In the end, it didn’t matter. The cruelty of the ‘verse still managed find him. It was just wrong in so many ways and it broke her heart.

Blinking back a lone, salty tear that threatened to leak out and roll down her cheek, Zoë leaned deep into the chair, drawing comfort from the almost tangible presence of her husband she could feel there. Her eyes fell on the flight consul and the little line of colorful “friends” that lived on its surface. Almost against her bidding, her lips cracked into a small smile even as her eyes filled up even more.

“Gorram, crazy man,” she muttered under her breath through the tiny smile. She reached out and gently picked up the mottled blue one with all the bumps down its back – Steggy, if she remembered right – and caressed it fondly with her fingers. “Plastic toys and palm trees…” she added, shaking her head. “Need ta get him a sandbox.”

“It could be worse you know,” Book’s calm, smooth voice came from the doorway of the bridge. Zoë was startled, so absorbed in her thoughts that she hadn’t heard him coming, but no one watching her would have known that. Outwardly, she dropped her legs back to the ground and answered as though she’d been expecting him, the dinosaur falling to her lap.

“What you mean, Preacher?”

Book wandered over to lean against the consul beside her chair, a warm smile on his face. “I knew a pilot once that collected candy wrappers; turned them into paper chains. He decorated the whole bridge with them, like paper streamers. I’ve never seen anything quite so distracting as that, and the worst thing was the smell. You entered the bridge and you were just hit with it, this sickly-sweet scent of sugar and spit.” He shuddered at the memory. “Compared to that, what are a few dinosaurs between friends?”

“You’ve never stepped on one barefoot in the dark when ya get up in the middle of the night ta answer nature.”

“No, I can’t say as I have,” Book said with a small chuckle. “But then, I guess we each have our own crosses to bear, don’t we.”

Zoë laughed for the first time in hours and she found it felt rather nice. “So, you need somethin’, Shepherd?” she asked lightly, still smiling.

“No. I actually just came up here to give you this,” he answered, sobering. He pulled a small, cardboard box, the lid painted a dull red, from his pocket. “I found it while unloading the mule earlier and thought you should have it before it got lost and forgotten or broken.” With sincere concern and kindness in his eyes, he stepped forward and pressed the box into her hands, giving them a warm squeeze. “That’s a mighty good man you’ve got there for a husband. Not many like him anywhere in the ‘verse, and I’m not referring to his quirks. You hold on to him. And don’t worry too much, Zoë, I believe he will make it through this just fine.”

Then he turned and silently exited, leaving her sitting there with the little box gripped in her hands and the strange feeling that she’d been given the reassurance she hadn’t known she was even seeking. It gave her pause and she let her mind drift for a while, but after several minutes, she shook her head and refocused her attention on the box in her hands.

It was about the size of a medium protein bar, but much, much lighter. Gently, she worked the top off and set it aside. Snowy folds of wrapping tissue met her eyes and increased her curiosity. Paper of any kind was rather rare in the ‘verse these days, and to use it so frivolously in packaging… Carefully, her long, slim fingers peeled back the folds of precious tissue, searching for what it hid. When they felt something smooth and cold, she pulled it out.

It was a hair clip. Nothing fancy – just a smooth metal bar polished up to give the appearance of silver with a small, turquoise stone in the center. But it was beautiful in its simplicity and even more so knowing who it had come from.

Clutching it in her hand, she closed her eyes. Wash knew she didn’t like fluff, wouldn’t put up with jewelry and trinkets, but somehow he still seemed to delight in finding little ways to remind her that he thought she was the most beautiful woman in existence and wanted everyone else to know it, too. The hair clip was elegant and functional, and she couldn’t help liking it, even as she told herself it was a total waste of good coin.

She tried to be angry with him, wasting their hard earned money like that. She didn’t need it and there were things he certainly did. The man hadn’t bought so much as a new shirt since he’d come on board all those years ago. He didn’t even have a good coat; just that ragged sweater and an equally ragged jacket. He just existed in the same worn jumpsuits and colorful shirts and seemed to hope the bright colors would hide the fact they were practically thread-bare. She’d lost track of the times she’d ordered him to buy something new for himself, only to have him return empty handed. The only thing she’d ever seen him splurge on was a new toy or two, and even that was rare. She really should be furious with him, but she just couldn’t. She felt the metal of the clip pressing against the palm of her hand and warming to the touch of her skin and thought of Wash gleefully picking it out, searching around for just the right one, hurrying home with a smile on his face to give it to her. And then she saw him beaten and burned, gazing at her with such anguish in his eyes…

With sorrow and determination, she opened her eyes. Gathering up her long curls in a bunch at her neck, she took the gift and deftly slipped it around her hair, clicking it shut and thanking whatever higher power might be listening that she had found such a man to love.

“Zoë?” Simon’s voice crackled in over the comm., breaking the stillness and the mood.

She stood quickly, the plastic toy falling from her lap into the chair, and grabbed the hand unit. “Doc.”

“I’m all finished here and everything went fine. Wash is resting, but he should be waking soon. I thought you might like to come sit with him, and I can fill you in on everything.”

“Will do, on my way now,” Zoë replied, relief flooding through her. She switched the channel to connect to the engine room. “Cap’n, Simon’s done. Says ta come to the infirmary,” she said briefly. Not waiting for a reply, she switched the comm. off and left the bridge, Steggy lying forgotten in the chair behind her.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

“If you want him to heal correctly, his hands must be completely non-functional for at least three weeks. After that, I can start him on a gradual physical therapy routine to get him back to full mobility and use. He will recover fully, but it’ll still be at least two months before he’s piloting again, maybe more. It depends on how quickly he heals and how hard he’s willing to work once he does.”

Mal sighed and ran a hand through his hair in frustration at the young doctor’s words. He felt bad for his pilot, awful in fact at the thought of what one of his own had suffered, but that didn’t negate the fact that he had a ship to run and jobs to do, none of which could wait two months while his pilot healed.

“What about the rest?” he asked, almost afraid to hear it as he watched Zoë gently stroke her husband’s hair. “He’s got more burns and bruises and cuts than skin! Makes a man think he’s not doin’ so well...”

Wash lay on the bed, his upper body bare, the skin raw and blistered where it wasn’t black and blue. Simon might have been working on him for hours, but Mal still thought he looked downright awful, especially now that his hands were wrapped tightly in white bandages and each was incased in a hard, plastic splint.

“He suffered a mild concussion, but while I’m still monitoring him, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about now. And, just to be safe, I ran my tests again. There is no trace of any poison that I can find. As for the rest, I’m still keeping a close eye on the burns. The last thing Wash needs right now is an infection, but everything else was rather superficial, despite what it looks like. He’s going to be very sore and tender for a week or so, but he’ll heal,” Simon answered, the weariness heavy in his voice.

“Thank you, Doc,” Zoë answered quietly, content just to listen and let Mal ask the questions. Her emotions were still churning more than she liked from Wash’s gift, and she had no desire to show just how much. As long as Mal was asking what she needed to know, there was no reason for her to do anything other than sit there and listen and hold onto her husband.

“I just wish I could do more for him,” Simon continued, slumping back against the cabinet. “I feel so helpless here. Back at the hospital, I could have fixed this and had him better in a week, but here he’ll have to suffer through the hard way.”

“You’ve done your best, Doc. Ain’t anyone can ask anymore’n that, ‘an I’m sure Wash would agree. We’ll just have to take it one step at a time from here.”

“I know. It just doesn’t seem right, or very fair.”

“Right and fair are things most of us gave up about six years ago, Simon,” Mal said heavily. “But that’s a story for another day. He stable?” the captain continued, standing as he gestured toward Wash.

“Yes.”

“Gonna be wakin’ anytime soon?”

“Probably within the hour, but he should be out for a bit longer yet.”

“All right. Means we got time for that little meetin’ I’ve been puttin’ off.” Mal held up a hand to forestall Simon’s predictable response. “Everyone’s presence is requested, Doc. Wash ain’t goin’ nowhere; he’ll be fine without you for a few minutes. Zoë, need you there as well. Only one exempt is Wash, and if I put any stock in that osmosis stuff, I’d have him be there, too. Got stuff everyone needs ta be hearing.”

“Mal, osmosis requires water…” Simon said, shaking his head in tired confusion.

“Which we got plenty of in the kitchen, so if you’d be so kind as to be headin’ there with me now,” Mal answered without batting an eye. He placed a firm hand on the young man’s shoulder and steered him toward the door, Simon casting reluctant, worried glances back at Wash over his shoulder, but not resisting. If there was one thing his time on Serenity had taught the doctor it was to recognize a losing battle when he saw one, especially when it was one that pitted him against the captain’s stubborn will. Zoë followed the two men out the door, carefully hiding a smile as she watched the exchange and deeply missing the commentary from her husband she knew such a conversation would have drawn.

*****

Mal sucked in a full breath as he looked over the faces sitting around the table. Each person met his gaze with expressions that were mixtures of expectance, anger, fear, and unease, waiting for him to speak. Discreetly, he drew another large breath. He was stalling and he knew it, but he didn’t care. He was not looking forward to what he had to say, and unfortunately, he had a lot that needed saying.

“Okay, folks.” Mal closed his eyes, steeling himself to keep the emotion out of his voice. They were all hurting for Wash, and they didn't need to see their captain breaking down, too. “Wash is - badly hurt. He got himself worked over pretty good. He's been whipped, burned – you saw that, know the mess he was in. But they also smashed up his hands, and he ain't gonna be flyin' any time soon. That's our immediate problem.”

“Ain't Wash’s health our immediate problem?” asked Kaylee. “Is he gonna be all right?”

He should have known he wasn't going to get off that easy. He bit back his inclination to snap an answer, vividly remembering the fact that he had already reduced his mechanic to tears once today, but it also wouldn’t do anyone any good, least of all Kaylee, to beat around the bush about this. “He's gonna live, gonna make a full recovery,” he said. “But he's got about two months a' painful healin' to do first. He can't just stand up an' walk away from this.”

Kaylee bit her lower lip and tears started streaming down her face once again. Without a word, Inara reached over and placed an arm around the girl’s shoulders, drawing her into a gentle hug. Book muttered a short prayer to counter-balance the small, angry curse that Jayne spat out, but the rest of the crew remained mostly the same, already knowing or expecting that piece of news. Mal sighed again, wondering when the ‘verse got so messed up that news his goofball pilot was so badly tortured he would take months to heal wasn’t a shocker.

“Kaylee,” he said, his voice weary but kind, “he’s gonna be okay. Be rough for a while, for all of us but especially Wash, but he is gonna be fine. But won’t none of us be okay for much longer if we don’t figure some things out soon. I’m not tryin’ to ignore what Wash went through, or make it seem like he’s not important, but I don’t have a lot a’ choice right now. I gots nine people on this ship an’ they all gotta eat, Wash included, and eatin’ costs money, which we don’t get without jobs. Dong ma?”

Kaylee made a noble effort to dry her eyes as she nodded. “Yeah, Cap’n. I’m just worried, s’all. I mean, it’s Wash…”

“I know, little Kaylee,” Mal said, letting a fond smile cross his tired face for a moment. “Would think somethin’ was wrong if ya weren’t.”

“This feelin’ sorry fer Wash is all well an’ good ‘n fills me chuck full a’ warm fuzzies, but it ain’t gonna solve our problem, Mal. How you fixin’ ta fly a boat with no pilot fer two months?” Jayne chimed in impatiently.

“Jayne!” Kaylee rounded on him in shocked disappointment.

“Man has a point, little one,” Book said gravely, holding up a hand. “Much as we all hate to press the selfish side of this, best hear him out.”

“An’ what ya gonna do about that recordin’?” Jayne’s voice dropped to a whisper and he unconsciously glanced over his shoulder as he spoke the rest. “He could be watchin’ us now fer all you know! I ain’t signed on ta get stalked by no crazy person.”

“What recording?” Inara asked sharply at the same time that Book intoned, “Crazy person?” Mal shot Jayne a glare that could have frozen a stream in mid-July. “Anyone ever told you that you have a big mouth?” he spat to the mercenary. He’d wanted to keep that little recording a secret, at least for a while.

“Cap’n, just tell them. They need to know,” Zoë spoke up for the first time in the conversation, giving her captain a steady, unyielding gaze. Mal found he couldn’t look into her eyes and not remember the fact that her husband had been beaten horrifically, just for a twisted man to send him a message, postage free. If anyone deserved the deciding vote in this, it was her.

Mal closed his eyes briefly as he pondered what to say, and for the first time in this crazy, crazy day spared a thought for how tired he was. It was early morning by the local planet’s time, and he’d been up since at least that time the day before. But more than that, he felt old, aged, used-up. So many untouchable things had been breached since then, so many promises and trusts held sacred shattered… It left him weary beyond belief in a way that went far past being tired, but he could feel the eyes of everyone in the room staring at him, waiting for answers from their captain. He forced himself to open his eyes.

“The monster who done this left us a little display at the warehouse they took Wash to when they kidnapped and – ” Mal sucked in a breath “ – hurt him. Not a very pretty sight, an’ for Wash’s sake you don’t need to be knowin’ what we saw there, but apparently Wash was just part a’ the message. Found a recording there, like the one Tracey had. Long an’ short of it is, someone out there doesn’t like me too good. If fact, seems they have a powerful dislike of me, to the point of bein’ downright murderous.”

“Who?” Simon asked, his eyes wide.

“Don’t rightly know. Man didn’t see fit to explain that part an’ I didn’t recognize him from either his voice or Wash’s description. But that ain’t the point. Thing we need ta be worrin’ about is the fact that he knows me an’ mine, way too much for comfort. Know’s about each an’ every one of you, even you an’ your crazy sister, Simon.”

There were gasps all around the table from those who weren’t already privy to that information and Simon blanched.

“What?”

“How?”

“Mal, how could someone know…”

Mal held up a hand to stop the outbursts and then continued, looking grim. “Don’t know how, but it doesn’t matter. Ain’t tellin’ you this to start a debate. I’m tellin’ you so you understand exactly what the situation is here. Man says he's after me, but he's got some twisted, sadistic idea that hurtin' my crew will get my attention. Well, it surely has," he said, gesturing toward the infirmary and unable to stop the rush of anger, shame and guilt that coursed through him as he ground out those words. “Already know that he’s willing to back up those threats. Now, the way I see it, there ain’t no need to play right into his hands, so I’m layin’ down some rules for the foreseeable future, an’ just so you know right from the get-go, they ain’t up for negotiation.”

The captain paused to make sure he had the attention of every single person in the room before continuing.

“No one, and I mean no one, leaves this boat alone. You wanna pick some pretty flowers just off the bow while we’re docked, you bring back-up, just in case. And when you do leave, you leave armed. Not good with a weapon, take someone who is – Zoë, Jayne, myself… Doc, you an’ your sister are stayin’ on the boat until further notice unless I give you express permission an’ accompany ya to wherever it is you’re going. And anyone gets left behind on the ship, you lock her up tight an’ don’t open until you’re good and sure it’s our own crew you’re openin’ up for. Wash is the only one who knows for sure what this guy looks like, and when he’s feelin’ better he’s gonna describe him in detail for us all, but don’t take that for granted. Appearances can change. I want you always on the look out. Don’t trust anyone, or anything, no matter how familiar or ordinary. Dong ma?”

“Mal, we can’t walk around for…whoever knows how long, being paranoid!” Inara spoke up, shaking her head.

Mal rounded on her, his face deadly serious. “Paranoid is exactly what I want you to be! This guy is good…and patient. He’ll wait us out, watch until we let down our guard, get careless. I don’t intend to let that happen! My boat, my crew, my rules. As I said, not negotiable, even for you.”

Her eyes darkened. “And exactly how do you expect me to entertain clients if I’m not to leave the ship alone?”

“You’ve entertained clients on my ship before. How come you got issues with it now?”

“That’s not the point, Mal!” Inara threw up her hands. “A companion needs to have the freedom to go where she pleases, see the clients she chooses, on her own terms and alone. That’s why I rented your shuttle in the first place. So I’m supposed to just tell all my clients ‘no, try back later,’ because you decided to make some new rules?”

“You think what happened to Wash ain’t real? That it’s some kind a’ joke? Think I’m making this up just to inconvenience your precious schedule?”

“Of course not, Mal!” Inara said, rising from her seat. “But this is far from the first time someone’s made threats against us and I –”

“Inara,” Mal cut in, his voice hard as ice, “this ain’t the time for this. My pilot and my friend, your friend, is lying in there in pieces, so you will play it safe. Choose clients you know on planets we all dock at, and do whatever it takes to make sure you don’t end up in that infirmary next ta Wash while the doc here tries to put you back together again!”

Inara’s eyes flashed but she sat back down, not so much conceding victory as postponing the argument.

“Same goes for the rest a’ you!” Mal growled, piercing his crew with a hard stare. “I ain’t gonna argue this, understand?” He waited for some sign of acceptance from every person before he let the subject drop.

“Right, now that’s settled, we’re back to our original problem; how we’re gonna work for the next few months so’s we can eat while Wash heals.”

“You could hire a temporary pilot,” Shepherd Book suggested carefully. “Every docking port from here to the Core is teaming with pilots looking for work.”

“Already thought of that, preacher, but don’t think that’s the way for us to go. Too predictable, and too easy for this crazy who’s after us to plant one a’ his own right in our laps. Besides, Wash’n Kaylee’d have kittens if I let some stranger fly Serenity, an’ I tend to agree with ‘em.”

“So, what are we gonna do, Mal?” Jayne growled. “Cause I don’t much like the idea a’ starvin’!”

“We tighten our belts a little, an’ we all pitch in, that’s what we do. Zoë, ‘Nara, you both pilot the shuttles…”

Inara looked up in surprise while Zoë started shaking her head. “Sir…” she said, her voice low just as the companion joined in, “Mal, there is a world of difference between flying a shuttle and actually piloting Serenity!”

“Exactly what I was gonna say,” Zoë added for good measure, eyeing her captain like he’d grown a second head.

“As my mama always used to say, beggars can’t be choosers, and at this point we’re about as close to beggars as I care to get, so you’re both drafted.” Neither woman looked happy, but Mal didn’t give them time to object.

“Kaylee?” he asked, hoping for some hidden talents he’d never been told about.

“Nuh uh, Cap’n. I only fix ships, I don’t drive ‘em. Last time my daddy let me fly, I took out the mayor’s favorite pine tree.”

Mal winced, moving on quickly. “Simon?” he tried, hopefully.

“City boy, remember? I’ve only driven land transports, and those usually come with big red buttons and signs that show you how to turn them on.”

Mal winced again. He looked around for the youngest member of his crew and suddenly realized he was one person short. His face darkened. “Doc, where’s that nutty sister a’ yours?”

Simon looked nervous but his voice was still clear and firm. “She slipped out about twenty minutes ago. She was getting more agitated and fidgety, and I figured it was better to let her go than to have her disrupt the meeting. I can go get her if you want.”

Mal decided it wasn’t worth the effort. “Let her be, but you make darn sure she understands what we talked about here.”

“I will,” Simon promised.

Mal nodded, then turned with his original question to the solemn black man sitting quietly and observing. “Shepherd?” he almost begged.

Book folded his hands together and looked down at the table, taking a moment before answering as if thinking through his words carefully. “I have…flown a bit in my time. Nothing fancy, mind you, nothing like Wash, and it’s been a long time since I did. A very long time.”

“You break and enter atmo?”

“It won’t be pretty,” the shepherd stressed with a grimace.

“Preacher, nothin’ about the flyin’ that’s gonna be done on this ship in the next little while is gonna be pretty. You’re hired.”

“Hey, Mal?” Jayne spoke up, his face creased in a frown. “What about me?”

“What about ya?” Mal replied, his expression blank.

“Ain’t ya gonna as me if I can fly the boat?”

“Nope.”

Jayne looked indignant but Mal ignored him.

“So, here’s how it’s gonna be. I can fly her myself if we don’t need nothin’ fancy, but I can’t always be on the bridge. Got captain-y things need doin’, so were gonna hafta take turns. Zoë and ‘Nara, I figure with a little practice, you can handle her when we’re in the Black as long as we stick to standard routes an’ take it easy. When he’s feelin’ better, Wash can ride shotgun with ya an’ talk you through any tricky bits. Give him somethin’ ta do. When we near our destination or run into anything a bit more complicated, the preacher or I will take over. An’ until we get our pilot back an’ get ourselves outta this mess, we keep our heads down, stay outta trouble, stick to known contacts, easy routes, an’ hope an’ pray the ‘Verse is in a good mood.”

Nobody looked the least bit happy about this arrangement, but everyone nodded.

“Good. Zoë, ‘spect you’ll be wanting to get back to that husband a’ yours. Don’t wanna see ya on duty for the rest of the day, dong ma?”

Zoë nodded, and Mal saw the gratitude in her expression that most people wouldn’t have been able to pick out. He nodded subtly to show he understood. Then he stood, letting the rest of the crew know the meeting was over and they were dismissed. “Now, we got a job to try an’ salvage and I want off this crappy planet, so I’m gonna get her in the Black.” He turned away, and started up the steps, then stopped and turned back. “Um…you all might wanna hang on ta somethin’, just for a little while…”

*****

Groggily, Wash pealed back one swollen eyelid to let in a sliver of light.

He’d been awake, or at least a rather loose definition of that word, for quite a while, but it had taken him this long to work up the energy to try such a task. He’d first had to come to terms with the army of small gnomes playing nine-pins inside his brain. Then, as the rest of his body parts chimed in for roll-call, he’d decided he should have just stayed asleep where he was blissfully unaware of the intense pain. Unfortunately, once he knew how much everything hurt, he found he couldn’t just ignore it and sleep again so he might as face the inevitable.

When only dim grey lights and bland grey ceiling met his watery eye, he gathered up his courage and rolled his head sideways, opening the other.

A bright, blue beast stared back at him, mere inches away.

Wash squeaked and flinched instinctively, trying to raise a hand to shield his forehead but the attempt caused agony to spike up the limb. He gasped in shock and quickly squeezed his eyes shut again in pain, turning his head away as he rasped out a string of colorful Chinese.

“I don’t think you should move that.”

Wash took deep breaths through his teeth until he was sure his stomach would obey his desperate command to remain where it should, then carefully opened his eyes once more.

“Yeah, I think I figured that out,” he said slowly, his teeth still gritted. He rolled his head back toward the blue creature. “River, why is there a stegosaurus staring me in the face?”

“He missed you,” the girl said, not moving from her perch on the padded countertop. She gazed at Wash intently, her arms wrapped around her knees and her long, tangled hair falling about her.

Not feeling at all up to a River conversation right now, Wash just sighed and tried not to move…anything.

“River, where’s Simon?”

“In the kitchen.”

“Could you go get him?”

“No.”

The gnomes in his head playing nine-pins invited their neighbors – the giants – over to join in.

“Why not?”

“Daddy is giving them rules.”

Wash gave up. He knew when he was out of his league.

“So, why are you here?” he asked, turning his face away and not bothering to hide the weariness or pain in his voice. There was no need to, not with River.

“No one should wake up alone,” she said solemnly, that statement somehow more lucid than anything she’d said so far. It gave him the chills.

“Thanks,” he said softly, and meant it.

They were silent for a long while. Wash tried to drift back to sleep, but couldn’t. The cuts and bruises and bumps he could mostly ignore if he tried, but his skin burned like it was still covered in tar and his hands throbbed mercilessly. Anytime he even got close to sleep, visions and memories assailed him; the smell of tar, the sound and feel of flesh hitting flesh, a leering man with a ponytail… And, just for kicks and giggles, since he didn’t have enough messed up issues to sort through right now, other memories were dragged out and added to the lot; Reaver ships closing in, electricity dancing over his tender skin as Mal’s screams joined his own, the sound of a whip cracking from long, long ago… All in all, it was really much simpler just to stay awake and deal with the pain.

“I’m sorry,” River eventually broke the stillness. Wash dragged an eye back open and turned to look at her.

“Why?”

“I should have known the chickens would hurt you. Should have stopped them.”

Wash didn’t have a clue how chickens became a part of their conversation, but decided not to dwell on that fact right now. He latched onto what he could understand.

“River, I have no idea what goes on in that creepy brain of yours, and I don’t really want to know either, but there is no way any of this is your fault, okay? And don’t argue with me, I’m liable to puke on you if you do.”

River cocked her head as if in deep thought. “The angle of projection from your mouth to me is all wrong. You would have to…”

Wash groaned. “A figure of speech, River,” he whispered as his stomach rolled. “Mostly…”

“You’re awake now. I’m not needed anymore,” the girl announced suddenly, slipping gracefully from her perch and starting for the door. “And the others will come soon.”

“River, wait,” Wash rasped before she could disappear out the door. His voice was hesitant when he continued. “Could you…um…move Steggy down farther so I can see him better?” he asked sheepishly. He really didn’t want to be alone.

More gently than Wash would have thought possible from a deranged, psychotic, freaky girl, River placed the plastic toy so it rested lightly against his arm, well within his line of sight.

“Thanks,” he said weakly, letting his eyes fall closed. When he opened them again several minutes later, River was gone.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

“Hey there, beautiful.”

Zoë started slightly at the rasping voice as she stood in the doorway of the infirmary, gazing at her battered husband and fighting her emotions.

“Thought you were sleeping, Husband,” she said tenderly, stepping into the room and up to his bed.

“Been awake for a while,” Wash admitted, turning his head carefully toward his wife. “Have to say, you’re much nicer to look at then these walls.”

Zoë smiled despite herself, glancing away. Her eyes landed on the dinosaur next to Wash’s arm. She picked it up, turning it over in her hands as she raised her eyebrows questioningly at her husband.

“He missed me,” Wash answered, shrugging slightly.

“Of course,” Zoë replied, shaking her head as she replaced the plastic toy. Then she sobered, running her eyes up and down Wash and taking in the horrible injuries.

“How you feeling, bao bei?” she asked softly, gently brushing her fingers through his hair.

Wash didn’t answer right away, struggling with what to say. His desire to protect Zoë from the knowledge of how much he really hurt warred with the fact that they weren’t in the habit of keeping things from each other. His non-answer, however, was answer enough in itself, and Zoë’s heart broke to know that her sweet, gentle, funny husband was in so much pain.

“Want me to get Simon?” she asked.

“Not yet,” Wash said quietly. “Just want you for a while.”

“Okay,” Zoë agreed.

“Wouldn’t mind a drink of water, though,” he said, his voice still scratchy and rough.

Zoë dug in various cupboards and drawers until she found a plastic cup which she then filled with cool water at the sink before bringing it over to Wash. Gently, she raised his head and held the cup to his lips, letting him drink a few slow sips.

“Thanks,” he told her after a few moments, his voice already sounding better.

Just then, Serenity lurched harshly under their feet, causing the remainder of the water to slosh out across Wash’s chest as Zoë grabbed the edge of the bed to stay upright.

“What the…” Wash muttered loudly. “Who’s flying Serenity?”

“Mal,” Zoë grimaced, grabbing the bed as the ship bucked and shuddered yet again.

“What! No! The man thinks piloting is akin to riding a horse! You gotta let me up there!” he said urgently, struggling to get his elbows underneath him. Zoë pushed him gently, but firmly back down.

“You ain’t goin’ anywhere, Hoban Washburne. Doc’s orders – an’ mine. Mal knows enough not to crash her or drive her into a planet. Hafta leave it at that for now.”

Wash reluctantly had to agree with her, even that small struggle to sit up having sapped his strength and kindled new fires of agony. “Holy saints preserve us all…” he muttered, sagging back into the bed.

“Don’t recall you bein’ Catholic,” Zoë said, raising an eyebrow as she adjusted the pillow beneath his head.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

“The captain loves this ship, maybe more’n you do, so I think we’re safe,” she told him, just as the ship jerked again, fighting Mal as he tried to take her out of atmosphere. “I hope…” she amended. Wash groaned.

“Brought you somethin’,” she said, changing the subject.

“Rex and Sera?” he asked hopefully. “Steggy’s getting lonely.”

“Toys are still on the bridge, baby. But thought you might like these,” she said, forestalling his feigned pouting by producing a threadbare pair of flannel pajama bottoms. He was usually more of a shorts and tank-top kinda guy when it came to bed-wear, but he had one set of flannels he dug out when it was especially cold, or he needed that extra comfort, and as far as she could tell, Zoë was the only one who knew of their existence. They were covered in faded gray space ships, the round kind from Earth-That-Was lore, complete with little green aliens. Personally, Zoë thought they were an eyesore, but then she thought that about much of her husband’s attire, and Wash loved them, so that was all that mattered.

Carefully, she pulled back the sheet, exposing the still-filthy flight suit that he wore from the waist down, and his worn shoes. She was once again struck by the rather sorry state of Wash’s wardrobe. She knew they were poor, but surely he didn’t need to keep wearing the same ten items he’d come on board in all those years ago? It puzzled her, how he was willing to spend coin on something frivolous for her, like her hair clip, but never for himself, unless it was the occasional toy to add to his collection, and even that were very rare and far between. Even when he really needed something, he shrugged it off or gave her a vague “I’ll get it later…” Of course he was careful with money, they all were, and she was aware he was saving, but it still confused her, the things he was willing to dish out coin for. It was something she meant to ask him about, but it could wait until he had recovered from the traumas of this night.

“Let’s get you into something more comfortable,” she said gently, starting in on his shoes.

It wasn’t very fun, for either of them, but twenty minutes later Wash was finally free of the dirty, stained clothes he’d worn since he was kidnapped. He lay there panting, a slight sheen of sweat across his face and upper body, but he really did feel better in a relative sort of way. If he was gonna be miserable, hurt, and in pain, he wanted to do it in comfy PJs verses smelly old work clothes.

“Thanks, honey,” he mumbled tiredly as she lightly pulled a blanket up over his bandaged hands and raw chest. “Glad you’re here,” he added, knowing that she would understand. “Wish we could talk more but…” his voice got fainter with each word and he had trouble keeping his eyes open.

“Rest now, plenty of time for talking later,” Zoë told him, knowing that sometimes you didn’t need a lot of conversation as long as you knew the person you loved was nearby.

“’K,” Was replied. “Gonna sleep now, s’okay with you. Watch Steggy, please… Likes to cause trouble…”

Zoë smiled sadly as his eyes drifted closed. Quietly, she pulled a chair over and sat down, resting one hand gently on his shoulder, mindful of the abused skin. With the other, she picked up the blue, plastic dinosaur and set him carefully in her lap. “You heard the man, no trouble,” she said solemnly. “Not on my watch,” she added as she settled in for a long day.