He feels himself wake a half-second before it happens; a half-second stretched out into a lifespan of its own, infinitely more frightening than the darkness that has come before it. In that slip of time he sees a lot of things--faces, words, sounds. All of them far away and indistinct, as if they didn't belong in the first place, or any place for that matter.
Because waking shouldn't happen. Because when he looks beyond everything, all he sees with any true conviction is a shadow, and that shadow is an eye-piercing wall of red, with a great spike at its core, and his body, him, alone in a crushed metal cabin. In the hell he's never known, there is nothing more final.
So this is a problem. But he has only that half-second to fight it, believe it even, before it is done, his eyes are open, and a fierce slap of air into working lungs brings reality crashing to ground.
Wash wakes. Wash breathes. One follows the other, in the same innocuous moment. A happy circumstance, really.
"Do you know where you are?"
It is the oddest sensation, trying to think from the perspective of a man who basically has no real ideas of his own. Like someone washed up on dry land, without knowledge or bearing. So when he does try, the one burning question that comes to mind is how there could be any doubt--any doubt--about who he is. Because that would imply that he doesn't know himself.
Which is plainly the most ridiculous notion in the 'verse.
"Sure," he says, very calmly. "I'm...I'm a--I fell. From a tree. Floating on the wind."
He can't actually see them. There is just a hazy yellow light, and a distance away two figures, who react to his answer by turning to one another.
"Not who," replies one. "Where."
Implying that they already know the first part. A problem, then, seeing as Wash's main hope at this point is that being cryptic might actually lead to the one answer he can't seem to provide. "Please," he says. The light hurts his eyes; he feels his chest thump, over and again, reminding him of a ship, spinning, falling from a star-bright point in the sky. It pains him to think. "Am I dead. Tell me--I can take it. I'm handy in a crisis."
There is a beat. His voice wavers, drifts away. This, now, has evidently satisfied their interest, for the figures don't speak again.
He doesn't know it yet, but it's a moment of levity that will be the highest point for a very long time.
Sleep keeps him prone for days, drifting in a world of mostly unidentifiable dreams. Not that he can leave this room. Not that he's ever asked, point be told.
It is not until a week has passed, that he finally remembers. Everything, everyone. Every action, every feeling. Every memory belonging to one Hoban Washburne, pilot, husband, dearly departed. At which point he truly wishes he were dead.
"Allow me to tell you something--you're a very lucky man. What we have been perfecting over the last seven years has yielded success on only one occasion. Do you know what occasion that was? Exactly eleven days ago, a ship crash landed on the planetary body called Miranda. A Firefly-class ship; at its tail, a convoy of miserly fun otherwise known as Reavers. You were piloting this ship, your talents in this field being so considerable that this particular crash landing happened largely without fatality or irreversible damage. Your fellow conspirators left that cockpit thirty-two seconds after the event in order to escape the Reavers who had followed you down."
Footsteps approach his side. One hand, gloved, reaching for his wrist releases a cap on the hypodermic needle. Something dark snakes along the clear tubing; Wash blinks and sweat breaks across his brow. The voice is closer.
"You didn't," it continues, as the gloved hand retreats and white heat shoots to his core, until his cries rattle the bedrail and there is blood everywhere, everywhere. "You didn't, and you are our first great success."
He won't speak her name. They ask, does he think of his friends, what they are doing, how quickly will they forget? He uses a tap of his thumb to indicate indifference, while his heart jerks sideways, and his mind crafts images of goslings, a necklace tied in a knot, and eyes of deep sorrow.
Wash is a liar.
"Who is this man?"
Pictures are flashed up on a screen--blurred closed circuit shots, men coated in dust, world-weary rebels fighting for something arcane and precious. Independence. There is no recognition here, nothing he can say.
"Your Captain Reynolds smuggled eighteen crates of foodstuffs across three moons and delivered to this man a bounty that had been marked for one of our facilities. Illegal activity, Mr Washburne. Who is this man?"
"I don't know," he murmurs. "Believe me, I don't." And he's pushed against a wall, tastes iron in his mouth. The point of something metallic touches his leg, and the room collapses around him.
Wash is a liar. There is recognition, but he won't dare say it because he knows they will never understand. One look at the figure on screen and it is there, plain to see, in the coat on his back.
Months pass. He tries not to think of barriers crumbling, resolve melting away, but it is happening, and the more he tries to stop it, the more it gnaws away at him. He tells them things and hates himself for doing so. Every bit he gives means something gone that he knows he can't get back. Deep down, he understands. After all, he has never been the hero as dictated in grand tradition. He has never floored three men with one knockout punch like Jayne, or fired like Mal through a gap under rattling train tracks to shatter a lock with a single bullet. Those are acts of which no man with an ounce of sanity could possibly attempt--and why should they? His strengths are of a pilot with nothing to lose, a man out to make the little world he knows a happier place, with a goofy quip at every turn and cheerfulness in frank superfluity. Of a loving husband, who never forgets the one thing that has stopped him, here and now, from purposeful antagonism, and dying a second death.
There is a chip on his shoulder: literal, not metaphorical, although one could make the argument for both, and likely win. Stray more than a preconceived distance, and prepare to feel the iron grip of something inhuman strike through your centre; to sap any ability you might have had to stand, move, run, escape.
Wash tries it, just once. He no longer has any memory of that day.
"We have something we'd like you to do."
He's sitting, having eaten a meal for the first time unaccompanied by men in white coats or dark suits, and not a gloved hand in sight. The pain, although it's all relative here, has been manageable, having settled somewhere in the periphery, more easily if not completely forgotten. He looks up, feigning curiosity.
"Tomorrow we're going to take you to Persephone. From the names you gave us we have reason to believe that something's going to happen there, and we'd like to see this ourselves, confirm that what you've been saying isn't one plain untruth. If we do that, can we trust you?"
He chews slowly. "Okay."
The fact that the answer doesn't quite match the question is not touched upon, although Wash has a feeling this is of little importance in the greater scheme of things, whatever that might be.
Five months and five days since he last saw them, and the least surprising part in the scene he is witness to now is that it is happening in the first place.
He's turning a corner when somebody knocks him bodily from the side, swears loudly in Chinese and continues racing ahead. Wash grips a post and squints through the bright Persephone sun to see the back of Jayne Cobb disappearing rapidly, like a directionless bullock, through the suddenly muted crowd. Shots are fired; he ducks for cover instinctively. The urge to run after Jayne is so great, so unbelievably great, that he has to close his eyes, grip again until he loses all feeling in his hands, and hope that when he opens them they will be gone. There is too much that scares him if they are not.
But there is one thing he can't escape. Eyes still closed and lost in his imagination, he sees Mal in the distance, gun raised and boots planted in the ground, cheek and exuberance in every inch of his stance. The captain steps aside, and from his shadow another figure comes into view. Shoulders squared, gaze fixed unblinking to a point beyond the gun-sight, she cocks her head and in that moment meets his eyes. Her lips move. Time passes, slows. Come back, she is saying.
But I left, he tries to say. I left you.
The figures disappear, replaced with a featureless dark that is strangely comforting. Coward, he thinks. The word fires out with a gunshot ricochet. Wash covers his face with wood-splintered hands, buries tears into the skin, and cries alone.
He wonders if she has moved on.
He wonders if Mal would let her.
He wonders if love, like in the penny-store fantasy he caught Kaylee reading one time, can stay true in the case of a man who's died one day and woken the next.
He's fairly certain he has answers to all of these. Except he'd kind of like to ask them firsthand, and the sort of strength required to achieve that feat is far and away the hardest, furthest thing he knows. It takes almost everything just to wonder; sometimes it's all he can do.
It happens at night, when he dreams of being woken by the sound of gunshots, echoes and great crashes, and sees the silhouette of a figure at the door, smoke from a gun curling with theatrical bravado in the air. In his dream, the rescue begins.
It happens, but not in that way.
Fear grips him. It's the conditioning he's been subjected to, doing its own, terrible job of freezing his limbs and quashing any hope he might have had to get the gorram hell out of there. Wash can do nothing but lie and pray for his conscious mind to close up and be done. But then a hand is touching his shoulder, gently, and that hand is real, and--
At first he can't speak. It is not for wanting, for the fear has disappeared as quickly as it came; he would cry out to the skies if only he could see them. Instead he swallows, breathes deeply and says, "Doc?"
"You have to come. Now."
This is not the grand entrance Wash had imagined, and strangely, that's what makes him believe it. "I have so many questions--" Simon begins, suddenly hesitant, and there's something very real in his voice that makes the moment hang, suspended. He takes his hand away.
"Well, yeah. I guess you would."
"Can you stand?"
Wash does. The situation is too surreal to do anything but blindly follow orders. The room spins a little; he feels light-headed. "Look, I have this...thing." He points to his shoulder. "Here. I don't know what it is, but--"
"Don't worry about it," Simon says, quickly. Out of nowhere he produces a small device and moves it over Wash's skin. There is a beep, a sudden tightening, like a muscle straining against unnatural movement.
Six months, he's been here. Nothing, nothing in that time has even come close to allowing him the freedom to think that way. "Don't worry..." he repeats, numbly.
Simon faces him square on. When he speaks, his words are precise. He's done it all before, Wash realises. He's seen these places, met these men. Ran through a hell just like this to see his sister safe. "I mean...not now. We have to go. Later, there'll be time. All that you need."
"I'd like that," Wash says.
Things rather descend into a blur after that. Running, stopping, running again, all on silent feet through doors and dark corridors. Through windows of thick glass he sees a calm outdoor world. But he keeps following, until a hatch opens before him and suddenly he's in a shuttle--a shuttle with Chinese scripture on the walls, rose-lit candles, and Inara. She falls into him, tears in her eyes, hands cradled against his face. The whole 'verse is moving like a gunshot and he can't catch up. He feels the engines burn; there's a small figure at the controls that looks a whole lot like River, but he's not sure. He's not entirely sure of anything, really. He smiles instead, weakly, and collapses where he stands.
Mal's still the same. He puts a hand to Wash's shoulder, shakes his head in astonishment. "I'll be damned..."
"Boy wonder here to the rescue," Wash says, indicating Simon, who's hovering beside him in close proximity like he's afraid Wash will topple again. He tries to smile and hopes it comes across, because he means every word. It's been too long a time.
He looks Mal in the eye now. The captain offers without prompting.
"They're comin' in soon. Took the mule out a short while."
They're both thinking the same thing. Wash can feel himself breathing, everything heavy around him. He's not properly sure how to ask it. They're discussing extraordinary things in an ordinary world. Quietly, he follows Mal down into the cargo hold, positions himself at the base of the stairwell. He glances back and sees Inara, standing with Simon; he wonders how they found him, what they had to do to get him out.
But then the doors creak open, and he can't wonder any more.
When they drive in, when he's seen, properly, there are great wells of silence that carry and carry, but then it's as if they've gone and burst, because suddenly Jayne's shouting, and poor Kaylee's got both hands to her face and seems stuck between holding onto the mule and jumping off it proper. Wash watches it all, very calmly, trying not to look where his eyes badly want to go.
"Wo de tìan," he says, "what happened while I was gone? You folks look like you've seen a ghost."
She hasn't changed. The only thing he notices, and it's stupid, nonsensical really, is that the hold seems larger somehow. He wonders vaguely if his spatial recognition has shifted, if they have done something, but he doesn't know. It doesn't matter; she hasn't changed.
"Hey," Wash says, softly. "Need a hand?" And he's not sure if it's him pulling her off the mule, or that she's gone and fallen. She never cries but she's crying now like he's a damned miracle returned from someplace far and wretched. This, of course, is true, and it hits him deep--but it's pain of a different sort, one he wants, so he welcomes it. He puts his arms around her and waits.
Zoe pulls away, looks at him until he feels it. There. "You came back," is all she says, and the words alone make his heart soar.
"What can I tell you?"
Wash shifts on the bed, his gaze trailing from the electrodes pattered across his chest and down his arms. He turns his left wrist slightly, to where a faint bloom of colour darkens the skin. A bruise. If Simon has seen it he hasn't commented. He hasn't commented on a lot, actually, since gently insisting on this examination. It's just to make sure, Simon tells him. Now he's making intermittent marks on an electronic tablet, small taps as if unconsciously marking time, and he glances up at Wash's words.
"What can I tell you that will make any sense?" Wash continues. "I mean, I hardly know where to start..."
He trails off. He doesn't want to think about a whole lot of it, to be perfectly honest. The guilt hurts almost as much as anything physical, and in some ways more. He looks at Simon; helpless Wash on an infirmary bed with tubes and electrodes that only remind him of waking up and wanting to disappear into a place of nothing.
"At the beginning," offers Simon quietly, his fingers loose around the pen, his expression very still. Something hot springs to Wash's eyes; he makes to rub it away and finds that his shoulders are shaking. It takes him whole minutes to realise it's not laughter.
For a time they leave him alone, to wander about, do what he needs to do to familiarise himself with the ship, of what he'd almost gone and lost. He's in the hold now, down near the infirmary steps when he hears a noise on the catwalk above and looks back to see Zoe and Mal. They stop at the junction where the catwalk ends and the stairs begin, and they don't see him.
Zoe's looking at the captain, a hard, fast stare that reminds Wash of a horse with ears pricked to a hawk circling high above. Mal's face is set in a frown; he says something quickly, meeting her gaze the whole time. Zoe folds her arms, but whatever he's said appears to work, because somehow the atmosphere shifts, and she's no longer standing so rigid. Mal steps forward, touches her shoulder and breaks away, and the thing Wash has sensed lifts itself on all fours and scurries to the pit of his stomach.
He thinks several thoughts at once, is surprised that none really hurt. But maybe he says one out loud, because Zoe turns around very quickly and their eyes meet. She walks down without hesitation and without a word, pulling her husband away by the hand.
They're not out of their room for the rest of the day. He touches her under the half-light through faded sheets, and in his mind he works backwards through events in his absence. He draws no conclusions, apart from this: he loves Zoe; the rest is only life. He'll take whatever comes.
Mal's alone in the galley when Wash comes in later that night. In fact, it's so late it's hardly night any more, and he's a little surprised to see the captain still up. He stops by the sink and leans against it, saying nothing--nothing, that is, until Mal cracks and opens his mouth; but Wash wants him to wait, and Wash is faster. "I spent six months alone, thinking I was never going to see Zoe again," he says, very carefully. "Never thought you folks would realise I was alive. Wasn't sure if you did, that you'd want me back after all I told them."
Setting down the mug he's been holding as if it were suddenly very unfamiliar, Mal tucks his hands into his belt. He nods.
"Yeah." There's tension in his voice, anticipation. "Wouldn't wish that on anyone."
Wash ignores it. He feels light, unburdened in a way he can't rightly figure. "I guess Zoe felt the same way maybe," he says, looking at Mal now, properly. "I'm glad she wasn't alone."
"Sure," Mal says.
"I thought, I thought I'd lost Zoe forever. Being alone like that--" He breaks off, because there's something new in the way Mal's staring back at him. Wash knows it isn't guilt, for that had been plain to see from the moment he'd opened Inara's shuttle, and in a second's hesitation had caught a glimpse of realisation in the captain's eyes, like a tiny corner of the 'verse was caving in. And he sees it again here. "Wouldn't even...wouldn't ever wish it on you."
He'll suppose, later on, that there was a moment when it all clicked into place. Perhaps it was watching while hidden on Persephone, how in his imagination he couldn't separate his wife from his captain; that he was the last link in a relationship that somehow felt both strange and ideal. Here, though, in this little galley, he's careful, because there's a whole lot to be scared of, more than just words.
In the pause that follows, while Mal continues to stand rigid like stone, Wash moves forward, judging the distance with extreme care, and behind him a leaking tap punches great holes in the quiet, drip drip, into the sink. He skims a hand against Mal's wrist, keeps it there.
"You're wrong," the captain says, voice low. "That's all wrong--I ain't, Zoe never--"
"None of us should have to go through what I did. What she did. None of us." He repeats it, a little for himself, a lot for Zoe, a whole lot more for what he's missed and thought of when dying had seemed the only way out. "I want her to be happy, Mal. I'm done playing by their rules."
Maybe Mal relaxes. Maybe Mal understands. Wash can't tell if he really knows which, but he decides none of it matters, because there's warmth in the room now, he can smell grease and gunsmoke on Mal's shirt, the ship and Zoe on Mal's skin. "Okay," Mal says. "Okay." And it don't sound like much, but it's enough.
Flying is better when you're not looking for the easiest way through. Sometimes he sits back, allows River the piloting, the rein over their little ship, so he can watch the 'verse go by. He actually prefers it that way now. He's tired a lot these days, feeling like he's been awake for a lifetime that wasn't his to live through. He's giving himself time.
Serenity flies true; faster than any worries, any fears. Wash watches the stars because they outshine the dark. They remind him that he's home.
That night Zoe's breasts are soft under his halting touch as he pulls her vest away. Her mouth tastes sweet. Mal's hips are right behind him, wide palms pressed across Wash's shoulders, and none of it, none of it feels strange at all. No one says anything. Wash wakes, Wash breathes, in the same perfect moment, and this time he knows it's for real.