"I can do it myself," Wash said, stumbling away from Zoe. And he did. He had to catch himself on the wall, but he made it by himself, on his own two feet, and the three steps to the bed, too. Zoe smiled at the wall as she climbed down behind him. Her man. He wasn't a soldier, but he was strong. She'd always known it.
"Tired?" she said, shutting the hatch.
"Tired," Wash said. "Hungry. Mal's probably eating my soup." He drifted over to the bed, lying down on top of the striped spread. "Also," he said, "I mention lately? It hurts."
"It'll get better," Zoe said. She sat down next to his legs and started undoing the laces on his shoes.
"Sure, but right now? It hurts," Wash mumbled into the bedspread. "Everything. Including everything within about a two foot radius of my entire body."
"So what you're saying is…"
"More soup." Zoe nodded, dropped his left shoe to the floor and started on the right one. Wash was asleep by the time she finished.
He'd been sleeping a lot over the past few days. Some of it was the painkillers—Simon had broken out some of the good stuff from the Ariel job. Kept Wash alert enough most of the time, but took him right out at day's end. Some of it was just… well, you slept a lot after taking the kind of hurting that Wash and the Captain took.
In the end, Wash had gotten to shoot down the bastard that had tortured him. Zoe was glad for that; you didn't always get that chance. She'd got to put a few holes in him, too, and that was a gladdening thing as well. Kind of thing that kept a marriage strong, or so they said. Shared experiences. Mutual goals. Sharing a hobby.
Usually Wash slept at Zoe's back, his arm around her waist or his hand resting on her hip, but now he moved against her with a sigh, arm creeping over her thighs. She scooted up next to him, and he pillowed his head on her belly. She made herself comfortable and settled in for the duration. "No nightmares, baby," she said. "I'm here."
Seemed like things would get better after that, though Zoe didn't know why exactly she'd expected them to. Boundless optimism wasn't exactly her watchword. But it wasn't more than a few days after they lifted off that things went sour again, and worse than ever. Wash was sullen, snappish. Wouldn't talk to Zoe and used the sharp side of his tongue to tear strips off everyone else. Sat around fingering the healing cut on his lip, snapping glances at Zoe and the Captain with all the same old trouble in his eyes.
"Zoe," Mal said one night, after Wash had stumbled off to bed—refusing Zoe's help again, not meeting her eyes. Zoe didn't like it.
"I can't figure it, Captain," she said quietly, sitting down on the steps that led down into the hold. She rested her elbows on her knees, staring out at the emptiness, and after a few moments she heard Mal settle down behind her, just a step or two above.
"There's men that feel… there's men that mislike it, when a woman sees them weak," he said. "When their woman sees them like that."
"Not Wash," Zoe said. "He's not that kind of man. Besides. He knows what I see when I see him, and it's nothing but strong."
"Can't argue that," Mal said, which Zoe didn't quite know how to take. Was Mal saying he thought Wash was strong? Or just saying that sure enough, Zoe saw things in that light, whether it was true or not?
"Wash ain't weak," she said. Her voice was cool, but she was fighting the tremble of her lips. Mal could probably tell.
"Could be he's got a little gunshy," Mal offered. "And I ain't sayin' he's a coward," he added as she sat up straight. "Just, sometimes the shadow of the thing's worse than the thing itself. You know it."
Zoe knew it. Nobody was too scared going into their first battle. Nervous, maybe, sure. But not terrified. Nobody shot themselves in the arm or the leg to keep from going into that first engagement with the enemy; before you'd known battle you were just a virgin, full of piss and vinegar. Not even smart enough to know to be scared.
Afterward, though. That waiting time between battles when there was nothing to do but sit and think about what you'd seen, what you'd done, what you'd have to do again. That was when you got your breakdowns, your men going AWOL, your battlefield dementia, and it was nothing but the shadow of the thing.
"Could be," Zoe said. "I don't know. Whatever it is, he'll get over it."
"And if he doesn't?" Mal's voice wasn't challenging, was nothing but soft. It just made Zoe madder.
It helped. "He will," she said, and her voice was steady. "That's another thing I know."
Again, Mal nodded. She could hear him chafing his hands together, and Zoe rolled her eyes without moving her head. Of course he didn't believe her. He'd never liked Wash. She truly didn't know what she'd expected.
"Now listen, Zoe," Mal said. "I want you to listen to what I have to say here, without interruptin' me, or, uh… hittin' me… because if you knock this ear off me again, I ain't sure the doc can fix it with what we got in our infirmary."
"I'm listening," Zoe said. "Sir," she added, warningly.
"Now, I advised you not to marry Wash—"
"You ordered me, sir."
"Well, now, that's not—" Mal shifted. "I wouldn't say ordered—"
"You put it in writing, sir—"
"Now, Zoe, come on! I'm tryin' to talk friendly like, and you said you were going to listen. So listen!"
Zoe took a breath. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."
Mal was quiet for a while, and then he reached out and put his hand on her shoulder, flicking her braid aside like it was a fly. Zoe blinked but didn't turn.
"I was wrong," Mal said, and squeezed her shoulder. "All right? I admit it. Wash is… He's done right by you. Been good for you. Real good."
Zoe nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
"Him and me ain't always seen eye to eye, but if what he needs is to be someplace where he can heal—"
"He'll leave this ship over my dead, cold—"
Mal raised his voice again, talking right over her. "If what he needs is to not be here, then you better go on with him when he goes."
Zoe twisted around to stare. Mal pulled his hand off her shoulder, rubbing at his jaw.
"What?" she said.
"You're the one that's gotta do right by him, comes down to that. He's your man, and you gotta look to him." Mal said.
He sounded casual, his voice easy, but he still wouldn't look at Zoe, and that told her more than Mal maybe realized.
Running one hand back through his hair, Mal stood, staring out over Zoe's shoulder. "Don't have to say nothing. Just do for him—and that can be an order, my dear, if you want it to be. I can even put it in writing, seeing as how it's pretty short, and there ain't any long, complicated words."
"No," Zoe said. "No, you're coming through loud and clear."
Feeling strange and unstrung, Zoe went looking for Wash and took him to bed. Sex made Wash happy—made him silly afterward, made him laugh. Truth told, it wasn't any great hardship on Zoe, either. In the afterglow, their legs still entangled, his sweat drying on her skin, she thought maybe she was strong enough to actually do it, so she told Wash to say the word. Pick a world, and they'd go.
Predictably enough, of course, he just bristled and said, "Why? Does Mal want me gone?"
Zoe sighed. It wasn't worth the bother to be denying it. "He ain't such a damn fool as to want you gone, Wash. But you're his crew, and he wants you to be okay, and if that means leavin'…"
"So he gave you permission, then? Zoe's on leave? Or assigned to Operation Fix Wash until further notice?"
"If I thought it was hurting you to be on this ship, we'd be gone and no mistake," Zoe said sharply. "I don't need Malcolm Reynolds or no one else to tell me to look to my man. I just thought… maybe he was seeing something I wasn't."
Wash rolled onto his back and looked up at the support arches that curved across the ceiling of their cabin. Zoe reached out under the covers and found his hand. Held it.
"You'd really leave? I mean, you'd come with me?"
"All the days of my life," Zoe said, and Wash took a deep breath.
"We should stay," he said, and squeezed her hand. "I know lately I've been a little…"
"Bitchy?" Zoe suggested. "Horrible? Kwong-juh duh?"
"A little tense," Wash corrected. "'Specially when it comes to—Well, that's not the point. The point is, we have a good thing here, and Mal… Well, setting aside the crime and the rudeness and the part where he got me tortured that one time… he's a good man. A good captain."
Zoe stared, suspicious.
"What?" Wash said, shrugging widely. "I'm big enough to admit it! In fact, all things considered, I think I'm a very big man in that regard."
Zoe laughed and reached out for him, gathering him close. "Oh, you're definitely a very big man in my regard, baby."
"Not for another hour or so, I won't be." Wash said. "The big man's spent—your regard will have to wait." Then he just laughed when she tried to smother him with a pillow.
Things were better for a while after that. Mal made a point of pulling in easy jobs, jobs with people they knew well enough to trust past arms' length. He healed. Wash healed. They weren't quite avoiding each other, not that Zoe could see, but more often than not they just weren't in the same place, and it tended to be the case a bit more often than you could really chalk up to coincidence, seeing as how there weren't that many places to be on Serenity. Zoe couldn't bring herself to care overmuch, so long as they weren't ragging on each other any more.
Even Zoe was starting to get tired of milk runs and wobbly-headed dolls by the time they met up with Monty out on a dead moon near the edge of the system. Turned out Monty had gotten himself hitched to Mal's pretty, lying whore of a wife, and the Captain thought he could turn her devious nature to his own advantage. Zoe took back everything she'd been thinking in the back of her mind—bring on the boredom and the petty crime! But it was too late; the job was on, and that lying, hijacking, sabotaging jien hwo rode with them on Serenity all the way to Bellerephon.
It wasn't Zoe's idea of a good time, even if her part of the charade did involve the opportunity to knock that bitch on her ass. Now, getting away free and clear with the Lassiter? That did sweeten the deal. And in the end you had to love any day that ended with the Captain strutting up Serenity's ramp naked as a jaybird.
Zoe kept her eyes up and her face blank, but she was dying inside, laughter just thrumming up like water from a well, battering against the inside of her skull like a flock of shrieking birds. Beside her, Wash's eyes dipped low and then he snapped his head up, stammering. Well, he'd never lived in a barracks, never had nothing to wash in for months on end but the wide, flat streams that trickled through Serenity Valley. Zoe had seen all there was to see of Mal years ago. His tackle wasn't nothing to be ashamed of, but it wasn't the most impressive gui tou Zoe'd ever laid eyes on, either.
Course, back in the day—Zoe had to admit it—none of them had been at their best, had they? Starving on half rations, pale from hiding in foxholes and trenches, bruised all over and hollow-eyed from lack of sleep. You never did have time to wash off anything but the top layer of dirt and sweat.
Funny how that was still the picture in her mind, after all these years, but Zoe supposed it made sense. Only reason she'd ever seen Mal's skin since then was more of the same: Mal bleeding, Mal broken, Mal hurt. It was something of a shock to see him glowing pink in the sun, the clean lines of the muscles of his arms and legs and a bit of a pudge around the middle. Nice ass. Traces of golden dust were smudged up his arms and calves, glittering in the sun. Sure, it was all mostly a blur in her her peripheral vision, but Zoe's peripheral vision was pretty damned good.
She kept her eyes straight ahead, clutching at Wash's arm. Wash stammered out something that sounded like "okay." They fled together.
That night, Wash was nowhere to be found when Zoe was ready to bunk down, so she went looking for him. She found him asleep in the cockpit, head tipped back against the back of the pilot's chair. Zoe didn't think she'd ever seen him asleep at the wheel before, no matter how tired. He was twitching a little in his sleep, breathing through his mouth, lips moving now and then. His brow was wrinkled up; he looked angry, or maybe scared.
Zoe closed and locked the hatch, then crouched down next to Wash's chair. "Everything's all right, Wash," she said, speaking softly, keeping her hands on her knees. "You're on Serenity, honey, you're fine. Come on back, now. Come on back and be with me."
She kept on talking, saying nothing, talking sweet, and after a few minutes the lines on Wash's forehead smoothed out and he stopped muttering. Zoe stood and turned the chair to the side, and she perched in front of him, resting her butt on the low edge of the console, bending to rest her arms on the back of Wash's chair. She tucked her head up against his shoulder and rested there. It was uncomfortable, but Wash turned his head into the curtain of her hair, and he just looked so restful, so easy. Zoe could stay this way for a while.
Wash slept for maybe twenty more minutes. Zoe kept watch. When he finally shifted, she sat up, twisting from side to side to crack the bones in her spine—and then she giggled, because Wash was kissing the bare inch of skin above the waistband of her pants. "Hey, you," she said. "Sleep well?"
"Well enough, thanks to you," he said, looking away. His voice was rough with sleep. "Thanks for keeping watch. S'pose you've done it often enough, for Mal."
Zoe's back hurt and her ass was numb, but she sat stone-still. "I'm just gonna pretend that was sleep-talking, if you don't mind."
"But haven't you?" he said. He didn't sound angry, just tired. His thumb stroked over the crease in her pants, just at the knee. "I mean, of course you have, this is your thing. The wacky hijinks and then the wacky post-hijink-stress-disorder—"
"That what you think this is?" Zoe said. "You think this is what I do for my fellow soldiers?" Her hand itched to slap Wash's hand away, but she curled it into a fist instead, dropping it down to her side.
"I'm saying—" Wash began, and then he shook his head and sighed. Leaning back in the chair, he met Zoe's gaze. His eyes looked faded, gray in the dim light of the stars. "I'm saying I understand now. I understand what you feel." He smiled crookedly. "When you share hijinks with a person, there's a bond, and that bond is, you know—bonding—"
"You don't understand a damn thing." Zoe turned her face away, looking out into the black.
"I do!" Wash reached out, curling his hand over her clenched fist. She shook her head sharply. "I understand and I'm okay! I'm okay with it now, Zoe, because I know—" His voice cracked. "I know how you feel, how you must feel. And—and I know you'd choose me. I mean, I knew that. I guess I just didn't understand why it was so hard."
"You're a damn fool!" Zoe said, and her voice shook too, surprising her as well as Wash. "Why can't you gorram see? Wash, what I feel for the Captain is nothing near what I—what I feel for you, and I don't see how you could ever, ever confuse the two—"
And then she stopped, and her eyes went wide like dinner plates. And it was Wash's turn to look away.
"Unless," she said, and Wash stared up at the ceiling of the cockpit, blinking like a man about to look down and face the firing squad. His eyes were bright, and Zoe reached forward, cupping his face in her hand, wondering. "Baby?"
"See," he said, avoiding her eyes. "This is why men don't talk about their feelings. It leads to tears. Nothing but tears, I tell you!"
"You and the captain…" Zoe began, and then stopped, because hand to God she had no idea what came after that. Wash—for Mal? That was a whole new kettle of… of something.
"I want you to know," Wash said, cupping her fist in both his hands, and Zoe uncurled it, lacing her fingers with his. "I never lied. I mean, I never meant to. I swear, Zoe, I didn't even know myself—"
He was shaking, and she pulled him in close. "No, no… it's all right. Fang-xin, shh, it's okay. I mean, I understand."
Wash let out a sigh of relief against her shoulder. "Yeah?"
"Well, sure, hon," Zoe said. "I mean, come on. He's one damn sexy man."
Wash stiffened. "I knew it! I knew it!"
"I'm serious," Wash said later, against her shoulder. "I don't know where it came from. I never had a sly thought in my life."
"Before now." Zoe said, grinning. She stroked down his spine, stirring her fingers in the small of his back, and enjoyed the full-body wiggle that resulted.
"Devil woman!" Wash said, batting her hand away. "Come on, I'm trying to talk here!"
"If you can still talk, my skills are obviously slipping," Zoe said, letting her head loll back against the pillows. "Baby, look at me. This? Is the face of a satisfied woman. And as far as I'm concerned, any man that works the one square inch as well as you do is allowed to be a little sly."
"I do like that inch," Wash said thoughtfully, in that low, rough voice that never failed to get Zoe's engine rolling. "Actually, I like every one of your inches." He kissed the curve of her left breast, moved up a bit and laid another kiss next to the first one. "This one's okay." He did it again. "Oh, that's a nice one, I like that one."
"So is that what brought this on, today?" Zoe asked idly. "Getting a look at Mal's couple inches?"
Wash froze. "Devil woman!"
"'Cause I gotta say," Zoe admitted, "I never did either quite think of him like that before. But now I s'pose I see what you've been seeing."
Wash made a squished noise. "I don't believe it. How can you not? He's—he's there, isn't he? Walking around, being all… Mal!"
"And that there's the difference between men and women," Zoe said, shaking her head in amusement. "Someone just bein' there? Usually ain't enough to trip my trigger. There's gotta be more to it, there's gotta be… I mean, Simon's a pretty thing, but you ain't turned sly for Simon, now have you?"
"Um," Wash said. "No…"
Zoe gave him a look.
"Well, I mean—Have you seen his skin? His kindergarten probably had one of those fancy dermal regenerators—and you can quit giving me that look any old time now."
"Wow," Zoe said. "No, really, wow. I guess I should've seen that one coming."
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
"They say most men are a little bit sly, and it may be true," Zoe mused. "But I should've known no man who used to have that mustache could be a hundred percent upright."
"I liked that mustache," Wash muttered.
Zoe petted his hair. "Whatever you say, baby."
Things got better again after that, or at least calmer, without Mal and Wash hair-pulling like a couple of biao-tze fighting for the rights to a busy street corner. Zoe teased Wash about his all-new sly side for a while, and then he got used to it and it stopped making his ears turn red, so she stopped. They didn't manage to fence the Lassiter, but it was nice knowing it was there, tucked away in a corner for a rainy day. After a time, Mal even felt like prospects were shiny enough to stop off at a way station to pick up their post.
Mal and Zoe got one big crate. Big enough to carry more trouble in it than Zoe ever would have thought.
Goddamn Tracey. Running too long to remember how to crawl back to his friends. In the end she shot him, didn't even think. He'd shot Wash—she'd have probably killed him if Mal hadn't taken the shot.
Simon fixed Wash up—it really wasn't more than a scratch. Hadn't even bled too much, for a head wound. But still that night Zoe dreamed of the battle of Du-Khang for the first night in years, the stink and the noise and Mal making stupid jokes through the whole thing, back when he'd used to tell stories, back when he'd been able to laugh without it being a cutting thing.
She woke up to Wash's heavy weight at her back, his arm tucked around her, his hand cupping her breast, stroking her nipple. She could still smell blood under the bandage taped to his temple. "Wake up out of it," he was whispering. "Come on back, my hundred thousand stars."
"A hundred thousand, huh?" she whispered, and Wash pulled his hand away, pressing an embarrassed kiss against her shoulder. "Not just a thousand?"
"Well," Wash said. "Inflation these days—a thousand stars don't go as far as they used to." He brushed her hair back out of her face. "What were you dreaming?"
He never asked that, any more. She'd never told him before, and eventually he'd given up.
"Fighting," she said, "back when we knew Tracey." And then she answered more honestly, feeling a sharp tug somewhere under her ribs—that invisible cord that connected her to Wash, maybe, the one people said couldn't be proven to exist. "And Mal," she said. "I worry about him. We went to the war… and we didn't all come back. Not all the way. I worry sometimes that he's losing ground."
Somewhere far away snow was falling on Tracey's grave. Zoe knew like she knew the touch of Wash's hand that Mal was feeling it. That he hadn't left it behind with the planet, that ever so slow it was burying him too, down deep in the cold and the white.
Wash brushed her hair further back and kissed her neck. "You think you could carry him back?" he asked, and his voice was so calm she barely even recognized it. "Even a little way?"
"Me? How?" Zoe said, glancing over her shoulder at Wash in the dark, and then she stilled. He looked back at her, his eyes dark in the shadows of their room. "Wash. What exactly are you proposing, here?"
Wash shook his head. "I don't know. I guess I just figure… I wouldn't be jealous. I mean, I would be, but not… not for the wrong reason, or… I guess I just think—we don't leave men behind. That's your thing, isn't it?"
"Yeah," Zoe said. The coffin had been light alloy, not too heavy, but she could still feel the weight of it.
"So… I don't know." Wash said. "I don't know. I did get shot in the head today, remember."
Zoe rolled over, stopped his mouth with her fingers and then kissed him, long and slow. "I know," she said, and twined her fingers in with his, holding tight. "I remember."
Zoe waited till their next stop dirtside before she made her move. As was usual whenever they landed on a world that was closer in to the Core, Inara had an appointment, Jayne was drinking and whoring, and River and Simon were sitting in their room being quiet and still. Book stuck around this time to talk to them; Zoe didn't see how that was going to be any less boring, but Simon seemed to appreciate it. That left Mal, Zoe, Wash and Kaylee to do the supply run, and and once they'd got the engine parts they needed, Kaylee gathered the packages to her chest and dashed off back to the ship.
"How about a couple of rounds?" Zoe said, gesturing to an affordable-looking dive. She tucked one arm into Wash's and slung the other around Mal's shoulder. "Both my men. Come on. You're buying," she told Wash.
"I am?" he said, and she flicked him in the ear. "Ow! Suppose I am."
"What's the occasion?" Mal asked. "Wash forget your birthday?"
"That would be a shame indeed, as I got this helpful tattoo just to keep that very tragedy from occurring," Wash said, fumbling at his belt buckle.
"All right, all right!" Mal threw his hands up in surrender, but he was laughing. Zoe laughed too. She wasn't sure if Wash knew what was going through her head or not, but damn if he wasn't going right along with it. It was a good sign, she thought. Water running downhill didn't need much of a push.
They weren't drunk when they started heading back to Serenity, but they were feeling good as they stumbled through the purple-red twilight. Zoe was still in the middle as they walked, but after they reached the outskirts of town she begged off to go piss behind a bush. "I told you to go before we left!" Wash shouted after her, and then "damn, girl, I didn't know there was more than one full moon tonight!"
"Sure is a beauty!" Mal was hooting at her too, damn fool, like he'd never seen a soldier take care of business before. All right, so the bush was a bit scraggly. She tugged her pants back up and fell in again, this time on Wash's left side so that he was in the middle. She hip-checked him a bit, staggering to the side, and he crashed against Mal's chest, steadying himself with a hand on Mal's ribs.
"Gonna fall off your boots there, Zoe?" Mal caught Wash with an arm around his shoulders. "Wash! Did you know your wife's a lightweight?"
"Please. How do you think I got her to marry me?" Wash straightened up, but Zoe moved in close and leaned on him. He pretty much had to stay cuddled up to Mal or veer them all off course into the brush. And Wash was a better pilot than that.
Mal and Wash disengaged, drifting apart as the three of them sauntered up the ramp into Serenity's main bay, but Zoe pointed up towards the front of the ship before Mal could head off to his bunk. "Let's hit the cockpit, sir." she suggested. "Bet you all ten creds Kaylee's already hooked up those new proximity sensors. I want to see how they run."
"Ooh, yeah," Wash said. "Shiny!" Mal shrugged and followed along.
Zoe hung back, watching fondly as Wash hopped into his chair and started flipping switches. Mal leaned over his shoulder, ghosting a hand over the top edge of the console. Sure enough, Kaylee had already gone to town with her new toys, and a couple of consoles that had been dim for weeks lit up bright as a sunrise.
"These are great," Wash was muttering to himself. Drink made the man talkative. Made him cuddly, too, as Zoe had found out long ago to her delight. She watched them both, Wash's bright hair and his quick hands moving, Mal's strong shoulder bent to watch, still as a hawk before diving. Slowly, Zoe closed the hatch and stepped forward towards the main console. She bumped up against Mal's back, and he shifted absently away, giving her room.
She bumped up against him again, this time pressing her breasts up against his back. He tensed, and she slid a hand around to stroke his belly. Wash was still chattering, his voice just a little slurred with drink, and Mal stood real still and didn't move. Zoe snuggled in, her head resting on Mal's shoulder. They'd slept in each others' arms a few nights, back in the Valley, just for pure warmth, and she remembered the stink of fear-sweat on them both, the shuddering cold that felt like creeping death. Mal smelled clean, now, like engine grease and dust and Serenity, and he was so damn warm Zoe thought she might just melt into a puddle, right there on the deck. She circled her hand lower on Mal's belly, soothing him down, and she heard his throat click as he swallowed, hard.
"And the best part is," Wash said, glancing up, "that the new circuitry only responds to a signal that matches the modulation of the—huh."
"Hey." Zoe smiled at him over Mal's shoulder, and gave him a little wave. She was still stroking Mal's belly with her other hand, and she'd been circling her hand lower all the while. "Baby?"
Wash stared at her, then down at the console again, and stood up, pushing the chair around like he was going to—like he was going to leave. "I'll just—I guess—"
"Hey—!" Mal said finally, shifting, and Zoe shoved him, putting her whole body into it, trapping Wash between Mal's body and the console. Wash backed up against the console to avoid getting flattened. "Zoe—!"
"Wash," Zoe said calmly. "Undo the Captain's belt."
"Zoe," Mal said again, his hands carefully at his sides, but this time he said it softer, like a question.
"Wash is taking the lead on this one, sir," Zoe told him. She grinned at Wash, who stared back, wide-eyed. "I'll be riding flank."
"I see," Mal said, struggling for cool. "Watching my six?"
Zoe dipped her hand lower, cupped and squeezed. "I think Wash was hoping for more than six, sir."
Wash laughed and reached out with trembling hands, and Mal jerked back against Zoe. He was shaking too, but he didn't really try to move her. "You two are fahng-tzong if'n you think—Jesus!" Mal yelped. "Kwong-juh duh—what in the hell do you think you're—!"
"Relax, sir," Zoe said. She pulled him in closer, and Mal seemed to relax more the tighter she held him, as if she could convey her conviction about these proceedings through touch alone. She jerked her head at Wash, and he paused with one hand at the snaps of Mal's pants. "Just relax," she said. "We've got you."
Wash straightened up, standing tall. Zoe nodded to him, and he nodded back, lifting his hand to cup Mal's face.
"We've got you," Wash said, and Zoe felt Mal stiffen up again as Wash leaned forward and kissed him, soft and slow. She rested her cheek against Mal's, felt him burning up and the pulse jumping in his neck. "The both of us," Wash said as he pulled back. "Don't tell me you're dumb enough to turn that down."
"But since when do you—" Mal began, staring, and Zoe put a hand over his mouth. He turned his head away. "And Zoe, since when do you—"
Wash shut him up with a kiss, this one harder, hardly tentative at all, and Zoe reached across, stroking her finger down his neck as she felt Mal fall into it.
"Let's shuck these clothes," she whispered into Mal's ear, and he shuddered, hot and alive in her arms.
"I guess I ain't that dumb after all," he finally said. He pulled back from the kiss to bite gently at Wash's lip, taking Wash in his arms when he tried to jerk back. "Or maybe I'm just dumb enough—are you two sure?"
"We're sure," Wash said, and raised his chin, smiling over Mal's shoulder at Zoe. "Both of us."
"Well, all right then," Mal said. He twisted his head around and kissed her, an awkward brush of lips, and he seemed to be blushing even more than before when he turned back to Wash. "Lead the way."
"Huh," Wash said, and then "oh, me, right. Right. Well then. Let's… move this to a bed, huh?"
"I always said I didn't know why you two needed such a gorram big bed," Mal said as Zoe stepped back, letting him move away from the main console.
Zoe kissed his cheek, then stepped back far enough to slap his ass. "You'll find out, soldier."
"Devil woman," Mal said admiringly, and Zoe unlocked the hatch door, heading for that big, wide bed with a swing in her hips and a bounce in her step. "Oh, wow."
"You have no idea," Wash said. "But you will. C'mon." Zoe heard the slap of a palm on leather, and then Mal's gasp and the sound of a heavy pair of boots clattering after second, hurriedly retreating, pair of boots. The clomping and stomping rang out, amplified by the grating in the corridor. It was probably echoing halfway around the ship. Zoe shook her head, amused, and opened the hatch that led down to the cabin. Even the clattering wasn't loud enough to drown out the fact that Mal and Wash were laughing as they hurried to join her.