This is not the conversation Mal expected to be having. It makes his head hurt.
"I just always figured if you were going to settle down, you'd do it with someone..."
"More like you?" Zoe asks. "Sir," she adds, almost as an afterthought. She isn't smiling, exactly, but he can tell when he's being mocked.
Mal scowls. "Someone not quite so flighty."
"Flighty's a good quality in a pilot. And you trust him with your ship."
"Different." Ship didn't fight by my side, Mal thinks.
Zoe takes a long pause. "The thing is," she says, finally, "he makes me happy. After what we've been through, I think I deserve that."
Mal can't argue with her there. "Suit yourself. But if the two of you get tired of each other out there in the black, set your eye on somebody else and get to squabbling, so help me —"
"Won't be a problem," Zoe says, and stands. "Thank you."
"I still think it's a bad idea," Mal calls as she walks away.
He hears bootfalls entering the galley. He knows it's Zoe, but doesn't turn to see. His ribcage still hurts something fierce.
"Zoe," he says, quietly, holding as still as he can.
She sits right in his field of vision, which makes him more grateful than he wants to admit. "Sir."
"I do appreciate your husband coming with you to get me the hell off Niska's station." He takes a long swallow of tea. "Being as how he knew exactly what he was walking into."
"You saying we didn't?"
"I'm saying he'd already been beat up more than his share. I might have to rescind some of my objections to him marrying you."
"I imagine he'd appreciate hearing that from your lips."
"What would I appreciate hearing?" Wash, behind him. "Or am I not the 'he' of whom you're speaking? I'm not sure how I'd feel about that, sweetheart, you talking about another man behind my back."
With some difficulty, Mal shifts in his chair. Black eye looks garish on Wash, and he's standing a little gingerly, but at least he's up and moving. "I was telling your wife I surely do appreciate your coming along on that rescue mission."
Something in Wash's posture changes, and when he answers there is no joking in his tone. "There was never any question."
"Wouldn't have been any dishonor in staying back."
"That's where I have to respectfully disagree. You're the captain. And," he adds, quickly, as though he senses that Mal is about to talk back, "you kept me alive, and don't think I don't know it."
Zoe standing breaks the spell; Wash looks down, Mal looks away.
They stop for a drink on their way back from the delivery. They were paid in coin, and Mal is feeling flush.
"Spending a mighty lot of time on the bridge these days."
"I am the captain, 'case you hadn't noticed." Mal takes a swig of brandy. Later, he will reflect that if he had been slightly more alert, he would have sensed the ambush coming.
"You sure there's nothing untoward going on?" Zoe's eyes are wicked over the rim of her glass.
"Jien tah-duh guay!" Mal says, a little too fast. "I ain't got eyes for your husband. No way and no how."
"Just one minute!" Getting angry. "Where do you get off, shaming me for—first of all I ain't interested in my crew, and if I was, I surely wouldn't do anything about it, plus which the two of you are married, in case you'd forgotten!"
Zoe is smiling, which is worrisome. "I think you misunderstand. I meant, that's a shame, because I can think of more'n a few ways that would have been enjoyable for me."
Mal puts his glass down too loudly. Zoe looks calm, which is in no way fair. He takes a deep breath and counts to five, but things ain't making any more sense. "Either I am more drunk than I think I am, or you are opening the door to a world of bad idea."
The barman chooses that moment to sidle over. "Another round?"
Zoe nods, then waits until he leaves. "All I'm saying is, the two of you have an...interest. You and I never —"
"Gorram right we didn't." Though Mal can't help remembering the time they almost had. Starved, aching, leaden with despair. Mal had stood, as though in a dream, shrugging out of his flak jacket. All Zoe said was, 'Not like this,' and they never spoke of it again.
"Different now," Zoe says, almost gentle.
Mal's head is spinning, and it isn't the drink. "He'd do that?"
"I think I know my husband."
"You'd do that?" It is a source of pride to Mal that his voice does not crack.
"Wouldn't exactly be a hardship."
The barkeep bangs their glasses down. Without breaking eye contact with Mal, Zoe hands over a coin. "Keep the change," she says.
They lift their shot glasses and tip them back in unison.
"Best be getting back to the ship," Mal says.
Zoe nods. They're silent on the short walk back to the port. "Think on it," she says, as the door opens and the gangplank comes down.
He thinks on it, all right. In his bunk, despite himself.
He saw Zoe's body back then. Hell, everybody saw everybody and nobody thought a thing of it. They were all dirty and tired and wounded. She was scrawny, though not half so bad as he was. Now he lets himself notice where she has curves.
And he thinks about Wash. Shock of pale hair and nimble hands against Zoe's skin. How those hands might feel on his own hips.
What they might let him do. What they might do to him.
He can't remember the last time he wanted anything half so bad.
When they're working, Mal finds, he can put this thing out of his mind. And that's a powerful relief; they have a shady underbelly of a city to move about in, and then cargo to transport, and everybody on this ship could wind up dead if he ain't able to concentrate.
But at night, it's all he can think about. And once they finish the next job, something in him knows he's going to do it.
Turns out it's surprisingly easy to stop Zoe in the hall. "Been thinking on what you suggested," he says, and his voice sounds normal.
"It's still a bad idea."
Her mouth doesn't change, but her eyes are knowing. "That's a yes, then," she says.
"That it is."
"I'll talk to Wash," she says, and moves on. Mal's palms are sweating.
Six hours out of port Zoe finds him pacing in the cargo bay.
"I'm heading for bed," she says, lightly. "Wash is at the helm."
I know where he is, Mal almost says, I'm the captain and he's flying my boat. But then the impact of her words sinks in.
"I'll expect you two directly," she says, already heading up the stairs, her boots clanging on the metal.
Mal plans what he's going to say all the way to the bridge. But when he gets in and sees the vulnerable back of Wash's neck, exposed over his ridiculous shirt, the words desert him.
Because he and God are not on speaking terms, it is not prayer when he hopes, fervently, that Zoe and Wash really did talk this through. (If they didn't, this is going to be all manner of disaster, but there ain't a lot he can do about that now.)
And then he presses his lips to the back of Wash's neck.
Zoe is glorious on the bed, hair loose around her shoulders.
"Wo de ma," Mal mutters, awestruck. Unthinking he gropes for his belt, because if he doesn't get these trousers off soon there's going to be a problem.
"Need a hand with that?" Wash asks, arch.
"If you're offerin'," Mal says, trying to sound nonchalant, but when Wash drops to his knees on the deck Mal has to bite his tongue. Wash's mouth is hotter than the sun.
"Ain't that a pretty picture," says Zoe, and Mal's eyes fly open to the sight of her fingers toying with her own nest of curls. He pulls away, popping free into the cold air, which settles him a little. Wash licks his lips and Mal fights the temptation to push back in.
"Your wife needs tending to," he manages.
Wash turns and whistles at the sight. "I'm overdressed." Mal has half a mind to give him the same kind of 'help' he just received, but Zoe's laugh pulls him like a magnet. It takes him a second to get his boots and pants off, but he reaches her first. He smirks, proud of winning this particular race, and runs his hands up Zoe's legs.
She hums encouragement. Hardly believing she's letting him do this -- she could snap his neck with her thighs, and ain't it wrong that somehow that knowledge makes him harder?—he dips to taste. She's not a talker, but he can hear her breathing speeding.
"Oh, baby," Wash says from behind them, and Mal's not sure which one of them he's talking about, or to.
He's too startled to buck away when Wash's hands cradle his ass, and the press of Wash's tongue undoes him.
"Like that," Zoe says, her voice lower than Mal has ever heard. He's not sure which one of them she's encouraging, but he redoubles his efforts in case she means him. Though it's increasingly hard to concentrate. When Wash pulls away, Mal whimpers.
"She'll come harder if you fuck her," Wash murmurs, right behind his ear.
"Shouldn't that be your job?"
Wash's smile is not one Mal has seen on him before. "I want to watch."
He's the lucky hwoon dan shouldn't rightly be getting what he's getting, but the two of them act like he's the prize. Mal ain't about to complain, though. With a hand he schools not to tremble, he guides himself inside.
When Zoe clenches around him it is all he can do not to yell. "I ain't gonna last long," he warns her.
"Make it easier on you when my husband fucks you," Zoe murmurs, and maybe it's the shock of hearing the words, but that's the end of him. She convulses around him, laugh turning to a gasp.
After a long moment he pulls out, rolls over, rolls again onto his belly. Fear ripples through him, but he holds himself still as he can.
What he gets is Wash's tongue again, and the pleasure of it atop his own orgasm makes him almost weep. "This okay?" Wash murmurs, after a while, and Mal is too blissed-out to respond.
Doesn't even hurt much when Wash slides in, and Wash's groan of satisfaction makes his own cock try to stir. "Lao tian," Wash gasps, rocking back and forth in tiny movements that make Mal burn.
When Wash comes, Mal shivers long and hard, like his body wants to come again but can't quite.
He dresses silently, trying not to wince as his cold discarded pants meet tender flesh.
"Where you off to," Wash mumbles, sleepily.
"Ship to run," Mal says, terse.
"We're on autopilot. Come back to bed."
It's all Mal can do to resist, but he does. "Shouldn't."
He steels himself further and reaches for his shirt.
"We're not suggesting you move in permanent-like." Her voice is still lower than he's used to. Makes a chill run through him. "Fine, go on. But next time, I'm—"
"Next time?" The words hurt, and then they don't.
It's Wash who answers. "Unless you don't want there to be a next time." Something he sees in Mal returns the confidence to his voice. "Though given the way my lovely wife tends to get what my lovely wife wants, I can't say that seems advisable to me —"
"No, I don't imagine it is," Mal admits. "You two get your beauty rest, now," he says. Despite himself, he's smiling as he lets himself out the door.
- Jien tah-duh guay! - Like hell!
- Wo de ma - Mother of God
- hwoon dan - bastard
- Lao tian - oh God