Zoe didn't make any secret of the fact that she wasn't overly fond of the new pilot. Sure, he could do his job well enough - better than well, if she was truthful - but he just rubbed her the wrong way. His tacky shirts, his hideous mustache, his penchant for bad jokes... And the ridiculous toys that he insisted on cluttering up Serenity's console with were just one more annoyance she had to put up with.
Mal hadn't asked too many questions about Mister Hoban Washburne's background when they'd hired him. Zoe had wanted to - there was a certain softness about him that spoke of an upbringing on some cushy Core world, and that automatically made her suspicious. That and the mustache. But the fact of the matter was they needed a pilot, and good ones were in short supply after the war, and he came well-recommended. So she stifled her concerns and bit her tongue, at least until they were safely out in the black and he couldn't decide to up and quit on the spot.
It didn't take long for him to get on her nerves, though. Serenity wasn't a real spacious ship, for a space ship, and they couldn't help spending time with one another, whether they liked it or not. And the most annoying part was that Washburne seemed to like it. He grinned at her when they crossed paths in the hallway, unfazed by her scowls in return. She could have sworn he made a point to take his meals at the same time she did, because he always seemed to be in the mess when she was feeling peckish. Once he even tipped his hat to her. She couldn't remember even seeing him wear a hat before, and wondered if he'd put it on just so as to irk her.
It was the toy lizards that finally brought her to the breaking point. They were forced to make a hasty getaway from an overly-nosy customs inspection ship, and Zoe found herself slammed ungracefully against the wall as the ship banked hard one way and then the other. When she could manage to stand upright, she made her way into the cockpit to have a stern talk with their so-called pilot. Striding through the door, all ready to tear a strip off him, she found herself staring at his backside as he rooted around on the floor. After a second she realized what he was doing - picking up the toys that had fallen.
"What in blazes do you think you're doing?" she shouted, the Corporal voice coming out unbidden. Washburne jumped, hit his head on the bottom of the console, and gave an undignified groan. "Last I checked," Zoe continued, not sparing a moment's sympathy for his obvious discomfort, "we pay you to fly this ship, not play with a bunch of gorram toys!"
He managed to pick himself up off the floor, rubbing the back of his head. The colorful plastic toys were clutched in his hands, which she noticed were going white around the knuckles. "Look, ma'am," he said with a strained politeness, "I do fly the ship, and I fly it well. What I do on my own time shouldn't matter. And last I checked," he added, "you weren't the one in charge."
Zoe bristled, and considered decking him to teach him a lesson about just where he ranked around here. But they weren't in the army, and so instead she simply said, "No more toys in the cockpit," and turned on her heel to leave.
She half-wondered if he'd go over her head to the captain, but he didn't - or at least, if he did, Mal never said anything about it to her. The next time she stuck her head into the front of the ship, the console was clear of its array of trinkets. Washburne was bringing them down on Beylix and concentrating on navigating through the haze of thick, freezing fog, a look of grim determination on his normally-cheerful face. If it hadn't been for the bright flowered shirt, he might almost have looked like a serious pilot.
"Everything all good up here?" Zoe asked. The ship had taken a number of alarming lurches during the descent, presumably as he swerved to avoid obstacles, and she was really hoping to make it to the ground in one piece.
"Be better if I had some peace and quiet to concentrate on not getting us killed," he snapped. Zoe knew enough by then to take him seriously when he said things like that, but she stayed nearby in case help was needed - or so she could yell at him when they crashed.
"I think that's ice building up on the hull," Zoe said a little while later, as the viewscreen grew increasingly hard to see through.
"I noticed," the pilot said. His voice was tense, verging on panicky, but he kept on flying. One of the engine gave an alarming creaking sound before sputtering to a halt, and Mal poked his head in, leaning over Zoe's shoulder.
"Hey, if we're gonna die today, let me know, dong ma?"
"Not gonna die," Washburne said through gritted teeth. "Not today, anyway." On quite literally a wing and a prayer (at least, some words Zoe had all but forgotten were running through her head, and that might have been a prayer) he brought them down to a bumpy but safe landing. When he finally loosed his grip on the controls, Zoe saw him reach up to the front pocket of his shirt and give it a little pat, like someone might comfort a tiny frightened animal.
She waited until Mal had gone off to hear Bester's excuses about the latest engine troubles, and then turned on Washburne again. "You've got those lizard-things in your pocket," she said. It wasn't a question.
He shrugged. "Just my favorites. Think of them as a good luck charm if you want. Got us on the ground safe and sound, didn't I?"
"You did," she admitted, with a grudging respect. She hesitated and then said, "As long as they aren't a distraction, you can put them back on the dash."
He gave a smile so bright it made stars seem dim. "Thanks, ma'am." He started pulling the little toys out at once, retrieving them from seemingly every pocket on his person, including some she didn't know existed, lining them up like troops for a commanding officer's review.
"Why..." Zoe began, and then trailed off, not sure if it would be prying too much to ask what they meant to him. "Just, why?" she finally said, leaving it up to him how he'd take it.
He shrugged, making a minute adjustment to one of the figurines. "I spent most of the war in a prisoner of war camp on Persephone." He glanced at Zoe to see how she'd take that news.
Zoe frowned. Being a prisoner on Persephone had to mean he'd fought for the Alliance. No wonder he kept quiet about his past, on this ship. "Funny," she said dryly, "you don't seem like the purple-belly type."
"I guess I wasn't very good at it," he said. "I got shot down on my first mission." He gave her a level stare, letting her read what she would into his words.
She knew how good a pilot he was, especially after today. If he'd been shot down his first time up, it had either been some powerful bad luck, or... "You did it on purpose," she guessed.
"It wasn't my war," he said simply. "I was young and stupid and figured it'd be safer to spend it locked up, so I ditched behind Independent lines and came out with my hands up."
"Lemme guess," Zoe said, crossing her arms. "That wasn't as cushy a deal as you reckoned on."
"Strangely, I didn't hate it. I mean, it was mostly awful - especially the food - but if you kept out of trouble, you could get away with a lot, and at least no one was trying to kill me. There's something to be said for that."
Zoe thought back to Serenity Valley, and nodded. "There is indeed."
"Anyway," Washburne continued, "one of the things we were allowed in the camp was care packages from home. Those who had folks that cared to send them, anyway. Most sent things you'd use - candy, socks, soap that wasn't made of carbolic acid... But there was one guy I was friendly with, and his son sent him a box with some of his toys in it. I guess he figured they kept him company, so why not his dad?"
With a sinking feeling that this story wasn't going to end well, Zoe asked, "What happened to him?"
"He got sick," Wash said. His voice was flat, grim. "Lungs. Not good. He didn't make it."
Zoe nodded. It had been bad in the camps, especially near the end of the war, with not enough medics or supplies to go around. "So you kept the lizards?"
"Well I couldn't very well throw them away," he said indignantly. "They didn't deserve that kind of shoddy treatment. I gave them a good home." He patted one of the little creatures on the head affectionately. "And they're dinosaurs, not lizards. They had them back on Earth That Was, a long time ago, but they all died off."
"So did most living things there, from what I heard," Zoe said.
"Before that," Wash clarified vaguely. "A long, loooong time ago. They went extinct, and their bodies and bones got smushed down in the ground and turned into oil over millions of years. Eventually people dug that up, turned it into plastics and fuels, burned it, and wrecked their planet."
"So," Zoe said, unable to resist smiling a little, "your good luck charms are dead animals that ruined a planet even after they were dead, and used to belong to a dead man. Don't sound all that lucky to me."
Wash grinned back, and leaned closer as though confiding in Zoe. "Between you and me, I figure they're going to turn it around any day now."
And that was the moment when Zoe decided she didn't hate him, even if he had been an Alliance pilot for all of fifteen minutes. Maybe she could even learn to like him, given half a chance - and if he shaved that gorram mustache.