A little bit crazy the first time she met Mal. Dug into an unnamed stretch of land. Water seeping through her boots, rotting at well-worn cotton socks. Barely breathing past the steady ack-ack-ack of enemy fire, responding chitter of her own troops' weapons. Nails gone black and crusted with blood and mud and things that squelched wet and soft beneath her scrambling hands. Hot nights and hotter days and choking on the scent of blood and shit and bloating corpses. Lice in her hair and she'd shaved it all off. Jagged lines down her naked scalp the first time she pulled her face from the mud and saw him.
Saw Mal. Clean, cleaner than anyone she'd seen in months. Strong hands at her elbow, pulling her to her feet. Twisting and sliding and running, running, running and she wasn't dead yet. Hugged her gun and loved the man at her side.
A boarding house at Gull Lake. More nervous than she'd expected. A deep copper tub and water so hot it steamed. Wash's pale skin red against the water's edge, a creeping pink heat up his shoulders and neck and face. Stuck her foot into the water; yelped and laughed when he grabbed her foot beneath its surface. Held onto his shoulders and slid into the tub and the waiting space between his knees. Clean scent of store-bought soap and Wash. Steady hands at the nape of her neck and she relaxed.
Heavy curls piled atop her head. Tumbling about his fingers. Hitched his chin over her shoulder and whispered things in her ears. Bit her lip and swallowed sudden tears. Turning and sloshing and kissing, kissing, kissing and she'd never been so alive. Grabbed on tight on loved her husband--her husband!--with all that she had.
The shelled remains of someone's home. Scrunched up between fallen slabs of stone with a flask hanging between her bent knees. Rumble of weapons down the block, screams and shuddering earth and that was as great a peace as she'd known in far too long. Wall shuddered at her back. Flinched and took a deep draw of ill-brewed liquor as the ceiling crumbled and rained down dust. Didn't look at Mal as he took the flask from her shaking hands. Listened to him swallow and the roughness of his breath.
Hugged her knees and bent her head towards the rough seam of her pants. She had a sister, she said. Mal hummed low in his throat. Passed the flask back to her. She turned it in her hands and talked slowly, wearily: Back home in momma and pa's store, laying out shiny tins of peas and beans and jars of bright red beets. Smiling at local boys an' thinking that Zoe's a fool. Thinking that Zoe's wrong for this war she's fighting.
Mal's answering hum drowned out by driving air as a ship passed low above them.
Cross-legged on their bed. Wash stretched out next to her, hands laced behind his head. Eyes half-slitted as he watched her carve an apple with a well-sharpened knife. Popped it in her mouth, chewed thoroughly, trying not to remember anything other than her momma's apple pies and thieving from Zeke Tanner's orchards. Licked juice from her fingers, rocked down to kiss the bridge of Wash's nose.
Flour on her hands and face and the table and floor as momma tried to teach her girls. She'd rather have been fishing; the river half-a-day out of town and the fish _this big_ she'd nearly caught. Deidre's hair unnaturally flat and still smelling of the chemicals she'd drawn through tight curls; itching to get back to the book on her bed. Neither of them happy cooks but momma and her snapping towel guarded the exits. Charred the pie crust and badly-cooked apples fell through too-thin bottom.
Wash snickered. Winced with exaggerated horror when she threatened him with her cooking.
Winter on Tango and nearly as many people dying from the cold as from the war itself. Five of them curled up beneath their shared pool of blankets. Mal's teeth chittering next to her ear. Gary pulling on the blankets too tight. Sveta curled tight at Gary's back. Darcy pressed close against Zoe's side, thin face pressed hard into her breast. Barely noticed the scent of sweat and dirt and sickness any longer; hardly thought about fleeting erections or how Darcy dug her hand into Zoe's shirt for warmth.
Sveta's legs blasted to nothing before it was all over. Gary reassigned and lost to time and space. Darcy married a nice boy from her home world and pretended not to recognize Zoe and Mal, years later, at a farmer's market at the edge of the 'verse.
Every now and then, they locked themselves away and drank to old friends.
Home, a lifetime ago and her best friend was named Mara. Turned her big brown eyes towards Zoe and pleaded her into agreement. Giggling and stuffed socks down their shirt-fronts and Mara smoothed at flat hips and turned her profile to Zoe. Lumpy cotton breasts and they smothered squeals behind their hands. Weren't careful enough because Mrs. Andrews caught them sprawled out on the floor, bellies aching. Made them darn the socks they pulled from their shirts. Couldn't look at Mr. Andrew's sock-clad feet without sharing a glance and a grin for months to come.
Shared the story with Wash months before he asked her to marry him. One of the only four people in the 'verse who knew the story, and his face had lighted when she told him that. And maybe Mal knew where Zoe's scars had come from, but he would never know that she'd had socks rolling about in her shirt as she danced with her best friend.
On a transport ship when she heard the news. A fresh wave of fighters and hardly enough room to stand, enough air to breath. Straight off the battlefield, they said. Alliance bound and determined to strip Agros down to rock. Strangled breath in Zoe's throat, might have screamed and clawed at the walls if Mal hadn't looked at her as if she were a damned fool.
Curled in on herself. Saw the places she'd been, the destruction she'd seen superimposed over her parents' store, the white-washed church, the sturdy little houses with their open kitchen doors and food enough for a dozen hungry children. Thought she'd given up crying a long time ago; never did tell Mal why she'd taken up the habit again then and there.
Didn't have to tell him; or maybe just didn't want to hear what he'd have to say.
Took Wash home with her. Grass not quite so green as she remembered, the river murkier, the store rebuilt so that reality echoed oddly with her memories. Strolled with her hands in her pockets. Showed Wash where she and Mara had set up forts with planks of woods. The stretch of dusty street where she'd broken Billy Willis' nose for calling her names. The unbroken line of sky she'd stared at for hours from the roof of her home.
Momma fussed over Wash. Patted at his face. Smiled, smiled so hard her eyes watered and pulled him into a hug. Pa talked about this and that and nothing at all. Puffed at his pipe. Nodded his approval to Zoe over Wash's bent head as he dug into his overflowing plate. And for all that it had changed, it was still home enough that Zoe took Wash to the roof, leaned into his side and stared at the sky for hours on end.
Had so much faith in Mal that she went numb to most everything else. Did wild things for him because she believed. Dirt-smudged face and intent eyes as he took her measure. Ordered her to hold their position. Yes sir! she'd said and hadn't watched as he slid away in the darkness, half-a-dozen shadow-figures darting after him. Stared out at the enemy and didn't allow herself to think that Mal would die. Was almost sure that she would.
Got a bullet through the thigh instead. Out of proper medical supplies and she oozed blood past her rough bandages. Gritted her teeth and shook with the rat-tat-tat of the weapon in her hands. Held position longer than common sense dictated.
And she'd faced death at Mal's orders so often by then that the particulars of this moment faded into nothing. It was war and it was what they did.
The stinging slice of a knife across her shoulder-blade. Criss-crossed over older scars. Wash paced the infirmary as Zoe got stitched up. The corner of his eyes tight with worry. Mouth twisted in fear. Wound his fingers with Zoe's when the doctor ordered him to stillness. Hand damp against hers.
Treated her as if she were fragile. The most precious thing he'd ever known. Pampered her for days and cursed Mal and his grand schemes under his breath. Curled next to her in bed and drew his fingers over old scars and unspoken memories. Loved her, he said, loved her so much and hated that she'd ever been hurt. Couldn't stand to see her hurt.
Stilled with sudden revelation. Stunned by her thoughts. Gasped and pulled Wash to her. Held on tight and reminded herself that the war was over, that she wasn't a soldier, that she wasn't a statistic. That she'd never be an acceptable loss.
War not yet far enough away. Every now and then, one of them would wake screaming. Sometimes crying. Choking and gasping on the memory of fumes that burned their eyes and noses and throats. Wake each other up and sit on the bed or floor or kitchen table. Talk softly about nothing of importance and avoid each other's eyes. Played cards and drank until weariness and liquor turned memories hazy at the edges.
Touched each other awkwardly with thoughts of comfort once. Hadn't done more than slid his hand up her shirt before he screwed his eyes shut and pushed his face into his pillow. Slept side by side in their clothes and never spoke about it again. They'd seen too much of each other--all of the worst: dark and dirty and hopeless.
Years away from the battlefield. Still woke crying and screaming and clawing at her skin and the mattress and Wash. Woke up with Wash's arms around her. Making soothing noises against the top of her head, the shell of her ear, the sweat-damp curve of her neck. Rocked her back and forth and learned soon enough not to ask for the stories behind her nightmares.
Couldn't understand why he'd want to know about the people she'd killed, the friends and comrades she'd lost. The things she'd seen and the things she'd done. Didn't want him to know. Didn't want that woman to find her way into Wash's thoughts. Loved him so much and couldn't bear for him to know how broken she'd been, what a monster she'd become.
Nightmares came less and less. And maybe Mal knew what made her cry in her sleep, but Wash made her feel alive when she woke.
Ask her who knew her best. Ask her who she loved the most.