Wash was angry. Angry at Mal. Mal had yelled at him, insisted he leave his love. She was just lying there. Then again later, with the signal boost. And Wash had climbed out into the Black, on top of the dead ship.
I hate to admit it when he's right. He's always so gorram right. And now this. So noble and that. Sending us off to certain death while he dies alone. We're all gonna die.
Wash couldn’t help but respect him through all that. He'd shown Mal how to communicate if anyone answered, and how to call back the shuttles. But he was still angry. Respectfully angry. Wash didn’t know if that even worked out.
River was sitting there, staring at the recumbent Zoe as if she was a total stranger.
Wash wiped his eyes. "Go somewhere else, River."
Simon looked up. "There's nowhere for her to go." He looked a bit incensed, but softened at Wash's anguished look.
River didn’t move. Didn’t avert her eyes. She didn’t even give an indication that she'd heard Wash.
Wash rubbed Zoe's clammy hand. His face was hot from held-back tears. He simply didn’t feel like crying. Not now, not ever. He looked at her face; her strong nose, powerful jaw and tightly lidded eyes.
"Now." River said softly.
And Zoe's eyes fluttered open.
Simon gasped. Wash beamed. "Baby, Zoe, can you hear me?" His voice still quaked with emotion, not fear now, but hope.
Her eyes focused on him lazily. "Course." She said thickly. Oh, those eyes, those beautiful dark eyes. Opened again to him. Wash could think of nothing to say, just looked into them. Lost himself in relief.
Simon gently pushed Wash aside to inspect his patient. "This is amazing. I never thought she'd wake up." His voice was a bit awed, respectful. The patient had surprised the doctor.
"Course she'd wake up. It's Zoe." Wash's tone was back to a semblance of playfulness, yet his words were not meant as pure jest.
"What's up?" Zoe tried to lift her head.
"Please lie back down." Simon was firm.
But she wouldn’t let Simon keep her down. "Why're we in the shuttle?" Her voice was losing its groggy quality and regaining its former strength.
"Listen, we had some troubles, baby." Wash said gently, never taking his eyes off her face.
"Yeah, I remember the fire." She glanced around. "Is Kaylee okay?"
"Yeah, she's fine on account of you. She's in the other shuttle with Inara, Book and Jayne." Wash knew what the next question would be.
"He stayed with Serenity." He couldn’t keep the edge from his voice. The regret. The anger.
"Something wrong with the boat?" She was sitting up now, eyes narrowed at him, all business.
"Dead in space." Wash hung his head. "There's nothin' could be done."
"So why'd he stay? No wait. Why'd we leave?" She swayed a bit, but her gaze was firm. Wash wished there was someone else for her to quiz.
Mercifully, Simon interjected. "You really need to lie back down."
She glared at him, but obliged. "Why, Wash?" She wouldn't be deterred.
Wash felt his anger rise again. "Bein' all heroic an' go se. Goin' down with the ship."
Zoe eyed him. "Husband, you hate him right now." He eyes condemned him while simultaneously trying to comfort him. Wash was always amazed at what she could do to him in a simple glance.
"Not true." River said softly.
"Won't matter for long. We'll all be dead." Wash stated morosely.
Zoe sighed and her eyelids sagged. "We have to turn back. We have to go back to Serenity. He can't die there by himself. Recall the shuttles."
"Zoe, I can't. Mal said—"
"Mal ain't here. I'm the superior officer. Get us back to Serenity!"
Wash stood and made his way to the console. Why was she so vehement? So adamant? Wash could not get past the bitterness he felt for Mal.
"Baby," Zoe spoke again, "Mal needs us."
Then suddenly he understood. Understood that he had always known. Mal and Zoe had a history. Complicated and full of hardship. Mal loved Zoe as much as Wash did, just in a different way. And Zoe loved him right back. She'd die for him, just as he would for her. Wash repressed a twinge of jealousy.
When Mal yelled at me, he was controlling his own grief. Zoe's his stability too. Putting me back to my duties allowed him to do the same. And the ship's the same way. It ain't a foolish idea of nobility. It's only love.
He quickly punched the buttons that recalled the shuttles, then turned back to Zoe. She had her eyes closed and her skin had a sickly pallid cast to it.
"Will she be okay, Doc?" he asked quietly, and sat beside her once more.
"I think so, yes. Just weakened right now." He looked up from Zoe to Wash. "So we're headed back?"
"It's dead." River's voice was haunting.
"River, we're going back to Serenity." Simon the doctor vanished for a moment under the troubled Simon.
"But she's not serene anymore." She hung her head. "Must go faster."
The trip back to the ship seemed shorter than the one outward. Wash supposed it was because they now had a new goal. Even if it was as fatalistic as the previous one.
Wash carefully brought the shuttle in to dock. "Look!" He pointed so Simon could see. "The engines are on. Not firin', but workin'! He did it!" Wash felt suddenly very proud of his captain.
"We there?" Zoe asked weakly, opening her eyes again.
"Yeah, baby, just pulled in." He docked and popped the hatch.
Together, Wash and Simon hefted Zoe's stretcher. Wash stepped onto the catwalk and walked backwards to the stairs.
"I can walk."
"No, you can't." both Wash and Simon insisted simultaneously.
It was a little tricky carrying her down, but they reached the bay deck and headed for the infirmary.
That was when Wash noticed the trail of bloody handprints along the walls. His stomach lurched.
"Let's get her in there quick, Doc." He inclined his head to the stains and Simon nodded.
The infirmary was a mess. Blood and instruments were strewn everywhere. "Where's Mal?" Zoe asked when they set her up on the counter in the infirmary. They put her there instead of the chair, dreading that it might be needed very soon.
"Dunno." Wash answered. "Be right back." He headed off after kissing her on the forehead.
"Up again." River said. She was suddenly at his side, studying the stains.
She headed off up the corridor to the stairs. A clatter made Wash jump, then he recognized the sounds of the other shuttle docking. The hatch slid open and Jayne stepped out, testing the air suspiciously.
"Jayne!" Wash called up to him, "Get down here, I think the Captain's hurt."
Even from so far below, he heard Kaylee's gasp. "Hurt? How?"
"Dunno yet. Haven’t found him."
Wash took off after River. She had climbed to the upper deck and was standing in the doorway of the dining room, eyes closed.
"What's up, River?" Wash brushed by her.
"It's a puddle. He's drowning."
Wash strode through the dining room, noting more stains of blood. "Mal?"
And there he was, on the floor of the bridge. He'd nearly made it. Nearly fulfilled all the duties he'd left himself with. He'd accomplished the miracle, but not the follow-through.
Wash rushed to him. "Mal!" Then loudly: "Simon!" But the doctor was already there, kneeling beside Wash, gently rolling Mal over.
"We have to get him to the infirmary, now!" Wash shuddered at the amount of blood that was pooled under Mal and dripping eerily through the grating. He hooked his hands under the captain's armpits and Simon grabbed his feet. They made it nearly to the stairs before laying him down again.
"Jayne!" Wash bellowed. There was no way Simon and he could hope to carry Mal down the stairs.
Jayne bounded up and assessed the situation in one quick glance. He hefted Mal's torso while Wash repositioned himself on the lower limbs. Simon went ahead of them to prepare the infirmary.
Why is it that unconscious guys weigh so much more than normal? Wash was struggling even with Mal's feet, though Jayne seemed to be having no problem whatsoever. By thinking of this slightly humorous problem, Wash could keep his mind off the severity of Mal's injury.
When they reached the infirmary, Simon had the chair ready. Jayne positioned the captain on it almost tenderly. Wash could see his own concern mirrored in the big man's eyes.
"What the hell happened?" Jayne asked no one in particular.
Zoe turned her head toward them. "What the hell happened?"
Wash forced a grin. "Just lie back, baby. Simon's got it."
The others were all standing anxiously around the room now, watching as Simon stripped off Mal's bloodstained shirt and the hasty bandage that had been affixed. Inara's eyes were misty, and the hand she had firmly around Kaylee was quivering slightly. Kaylee had tears running freely down her cheeks and was gripping her coveralls in both white-knuckled hands. Jayne stood uncomfortably in a corner, awkward now that his only duty had been accomplished. Book had his head bowed, but Wash could see his lips moving slowly.
"Gunshot wound. Pretty much point blank. Clean entry and exit." Simon grabbed some supplies and began to work. "He lost way too much blood though."
"I'll give him mine." Kaylee said weakly.
Simon glanced her way with as sad smile. "Wrong type. There's only one person here with his blood type." Simon didn’t name the person.
Wash gulped. It's me now. Me being heroic. And it has to be the way of the gorram needle. He took a deep breath and unzipped his coverall. "Do what you need, Doc."
Simon nodded and without ceremony, began the transfer. Wash winced as the needle pierced him. Then he felt cool fingers on his other arm. He turned his head, careful to keep his body still. Zoe was smiling at him. Her smile was loving and proud; grateful even. It bolstered his confidence, and he kept his grimaces to a minimum as Simon tightened the band around his bicep. He watched his precious bodily fluids run out of him. Out and down a clear tube to a bag. And from that bag down another tube and into Mal.
Nearly half an hour passed and no one in the room had moved much. Inara, Jayne and River were just outside the door, talking quietly about the superfluous amounts of blood that Mal had lost.
Wash fancied that he could see some color returning to Mal's face, though he himself was beginning to feel a bit pale.
"Seems all's well now." Zoe definitely had color. "What happened to Simon's cake?" She smiled a bit.
"Actually I don’t recall. Prolly still lyin' about up in the dining room."
"Damn, and I really wanted some too."
"I'll run up and scrape up a piece."
"You'd do that for me?" Her eyes even twinkled a bit.
"I'd do anything for you. You know that."
She smiled again. "Even when I'm in this ugly state?"
"Oh, you're a pretty baby." Wash said, he was still attached to Mal, but his eyes were for Zoe. Hers were locked on his as well. Then they flicked to Mal.
"Welcome back, sir."
"I go someplace?" Mal asked groggily.
"Very nearly." Book stood and approached Mal.
"I thought we lost you." Inara reentered, her gaze tender. Wash noted the use of "I" with a brief smile.
"I been right here." Mal's gaze passed over them all then turned to Wash.
"Wash, you okay?"
"Yeah, Mal, I'm fine." And he meant it. He was overjoyed to see that after all this everyone would make it.
Mal just pointed at him. "You got a thing on your arm." He was seriously concerned, though he sounded seriously drunk.
Wash grinned and glanced at his arm. "Yeah." He didn’t explain, though.
"Try not to speak. You're heavily medicated and you lost a lot of blood." Simon checked all the instruments and uncapped another dose of medication.
Mal groaned and rolled his head from side to side. "I thought I ordered you all off the ship." He paused, confused. "I call you back?"
"No, Mal, you didn’t." Wash said gently. The horrifying image of Mal limp on the floor crossed his mind again.
"I take full responsibility, Cap'n." Zoe said.
Simon added, "The decision saved your life."
"Won't happen again, sir." Zoe looked at him fondly.
"Good." He paused, "And thanks. I'm grateful."
"My pleasure, sir." Zoe said softly. Wash swallowed back a lump.
Jayne began whinging about the smell in Inara's shuttle and Kaylee came out and congratulated Mal on fixing Serenity. Then Simon played his part and told everyone that Mal needed his rest.
"I think the doc might not be wrong about that one." Mal slurred. "Just gonna need a few." His eyes closed. Then he lifted his head again, "Y'all gonna be here when I wake up?" His voice held an edge of worry.
"We'll be here." Book assured him. Kaylee nodded emphatically.
"Good," his gaze passed Wash again. "That’s good." He lay back.
Wash smiled. Everything's fine now. No one helpless and alone. Mal's stronger than I'd ever imagined. The best captain in the 'verse. And we're all together again, on Serenity. He signed a bit, the grimaced as the needle moved under his skin.