You couldn't tell by looking at her, but Zoe was disturbed. The captain had just offered the job of pilot to one Hoban Washburne. "Wash," he had said. "Call me Wash."
He bothered her. His references checked out big time. Not only was the man an ace pilot with a lot of originality, but he had pulled many a ship out of scrapes that would have left scrapings of lesser men.
If Captain Tanaka was to be believed, the man could fly a square ship through a round hole without so much as a nick on the air inside said hole. She would hate to find out that the reputation was false while running in with the Alliance or the Reavers.
Zoe sat across the dinner table from Wash and the ever smiling Bester, the ship's 'genius mechanic'. The two of them would have to go. She couldn't possibly be expected to let them both live. Mal would understand if Zoe tripped and fell forward, accidentally snapping the pilot's neck on her way to the floor. Big universe. Lots of pilots. But any mechanic who could keep their flying death trap of a Firefly in the sky would be hard to replace.
It was decided. Zoe would kill the pilot as a warning to the mechanic. One dead, one warned. Not a bad deal. Core planet style efficiency. The captain would be proud.
"Is that ketchup?" asked a slightly whiny voice.
"Hello?" it whined again. "The red stuff in the red bottle?" He clapped his hands together and flagged them toward himself.
He actually called attention to himself. Not that the shirt of powder blue, fuscia and some other color Zoe had remembered seeing in a nightmare wasn't already handling the job.
Zoe stared directly at Wash, a little less than murder in her eyes. He bothered her.
"Never mind. I'll just...." he had taken the hint and helped himself. It meant reaching across the table, momentarily losing his balance, dropping his elbow on the table and looking up into the eyes of imminent doom. He smiled at death. That would serve him well. "Maybe I should cut down. Bad for the complexion."
Zoe's synth meat was flooded with ketchup.
He continued smiling. What was her problem? All he did was get a job on her ship. Was it her ship? He thought the tallish intense knot of muscle was the captain. Wash really wanted to know where everything landed once it was thrown up in the air, but he could see that she was bothered by something, certainly not him, and that she was going to explode on whatever gave her reason, however slight or undeserved.
He decided to call it a defeat and retire for the evening.
"G'night," he announced, standing erect. "I'll be in my bunk."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Zoe snapped. Her snappage was cool. But it was a snapping, all the same. More than a touch of menace in her voice.
"It means I'm going to sleep. Surrender to the call of Morpheus, the Sandman. I'm going to rest up for a big, big day of ..." he trailed off for no apparent reason, then resumed, " flying through space tomorrow. It's what I do."
Why couldn't he shut up? He worked his way, carefully backward out of the room.
Once out the door, he backed into the captain, Malcolm Reynolds. Reynolds was a browncoat in the war. The big clue was the brown coat that the captain wore everywhere.
"She's going to kill me!" he said, not necessarily to Mal.
"Who? She?" Mal was confused. He shouldn't be. There was only one 'she' on board his ship at the present time and precious few had ever been passengers he could call 'she'. He looked toward the dining area and back at Wash. "Zoe?" he was incredulous. "She ain't gonna kill ya. I think she even likes you."
"That tigress? That Amazon warrior woman? Where did you find her?"
"The war," Mal said, as if it were already a legend.
"On-YOUR-side?" asked Wash.
"Huh?" Mal was confused again.
"Look, Mal..." the pilot began.
"Captain, if you don't mind..and even if you do." Mal was adamant. He did adamant well. It should have been his middle name.
"Look. CAPTAIN!" he emphasized with a tiny salute, "You need a pilot. I need a job. She's your partner, your lieutenant, your wife or whatever..."
"Wife? Now wait a minute Hobart!"
"Ho-BAN! And it's Wash, if you don't mind...." he was looking Mal in the eye "...an' even if ya do!" Mal liked this guy. He wasn't going to tell him, though.
"I'm sure there's a touching story behind that moniker. Have to tell me some day."
"Actually, it's a nick name for Washburne. My sur name. Last name.I thought it was obvious. But can we get back to me for a second?"
" I thought we were....."The rest of the sentence went down the trail. The famous Reynolds trail. Off into the black.
Wash knew that the captain and Zoe had a history. Might even be lovers for all he knew, but business was business.
"You hired a pilot. Not a whipping boy, " he said."I have a problem with hostility in close quarters."
"Look, Wash. Zoe's just......" back to the trail. Mal looking into the ether for a descriptive term, phrase or paragraph. It wasn't easy.
"What? Psychotic? Murderous? Tidy?" Wash had pulled Mal back off the trail." Tidy, I can handle. But, captain, this woman bothers me and I think I need to find another ship to pilot."
Mal was okay with finding a new pilot. But it would take a long time. He would lose money. His ship would be on the dirt when it should be in the air. The wheels in his head started turning. There had to be a way to keep Washburne and Zoe and keep them both alive and doing their jobs. There had to be a contented medium, if not a happy one.
"She's intimidated, " Mal just blurted out the first thing that came to him, "is all."
Wash was shut down so fast, it looked as if someone had shot a poison dart in his neck. The captain had confused him. Wash's unknown consolation was that the captain had confused himself, as well.
She was a fighter. She fought. Ground wars spanning continents or hand to hand bar brawls. In her world, anything was a weapon. She preferred a shotgun. When it stops booming, it makes a good truncheon.
At the moment, she was cleaning her truncheon and wondering why the captain hadn't let Renshaw hire the pilot, brushy lip ferret and all.
She had told the captain and kept telling herself, "I just don't like him. Bothers me is all."
She could kill the man or ignore him. He had proven in two weeks of employment to be the best pilot she had ever seen. Still, she was bothered. Kill him and find another pilot. Better safe than sorry. Not that he meant any harm. In fact, he was more of a help to them than she cared to admit. A little man with a big business on Persephone grew annoyed with the captain and anticipating the situation, Washburne had the Firefly fired up and ready to ride as she and the captain came running.
Damn! The man was occupying her thoughts.The killing should come soon so as to save space in her brain.
The preceding thoughts had taken up a space of four seconds. Zoe made a 'face'.
"What's up?" came a way too friendly voice from across the table that she forgot she was sitting next to. Zoe's mind pushed the quandary of the moment aside so as to concentrate all of her attention to Bester, the tattooed wunderkind. "Go," she said ,"Away," she added for effect and resumed her polishing.
"You made a face!" he exclaimed in a happy, 'play with me' voice. "Looked like you had some extra weight on your mind. Best to unload."
"Never say that to a woman holding a shotgun," Zoe advised.
"Not loaded. Who cleans a loaded gun?"
Zoe never really was bothered by Bester. She seldom wasted her time on people she didn't connect with. She felt as if he were just passing through on his way to nowhere in particular.
"You're hot for the pilot dude." he offered, unbidden. "He churns your juices!"
"Churns?" she knew what the border world slang meant, but didn't want to give him the satisfaction."My juices?...." . The man was still the goofy smiler he had been on the day they met. Now, Zoe had two men to kill. Maybe the captain could find a new mech tech as well. Probably a female,so that the home spun psych-eval could be kept to a minimum. Not to mention the 'cheerfulness'.
On the flight deck, Wash was flicking switches and twisting knobs while he pressed buttons that needed pressing. He was arranging his small plastic dinosaurs on the console so that they were accessible but unobtrusive. Zoe appeared over his shoulder, causing the T-Rex to go flying. Not a generally tenable position for a T-Rex. Having a warrior woman over his shoulder was not the most comfy situation for Wash. He knew just how his plastic pal felt.
"Captain wants you to check for Alliance traffic the next two sectors," she announced to the man in the flowery shirt. He must have had twenty of the things. She could have sworn she had never seen this one before. "New shirt?" she asked before she could stop herself.
Wash chose not to answer that question. Instead, he took an advisory tack. "War's over. No more sneaking up on the enemy."
She stared out the forward viewport. "You mean the Alliance?"
"I mean me," he had taken inventory and found that he had the courage to face the author of his future demise.Zoe made a point of not looking at Wash. It made her appear aloof. She probably even believed she was aloof. She should look up the word, 'aloof'.
He still had his mouth open, preparing to speak as she turned to walk away. "That's a nice...uh...vest," he said, stopping her. "Where'd you get it?"
"The war," she said, with the same tone as he had heard earlier from the captain.
"Ah! Same place you got the captain!" He had said it light-heartedly and she knew it. She laughed. The next thing she did was to cover her mouth as if she were embarrassed. " Wow! You can do that?"
"Do what?" she asked, trying unsuccesfully to conceal the bit of a smile that remained.
"Laugh" he said."Or smile. Pretty when you do that!"
"Check the next two sectors, comedian." The ice was fractured. Maybe not broken, but there were definite cracks forming. On her way out of the cockpit, she allowed herself a slight giggle. It became a snort. He was being friendly and she wasn't stopping him. He gets to live another day.
Another thought flickered across her brain. He had shaved off the mustache.
Mal was mulling over the pilot's report. No Alliance the next two sectors, but the third, which no one asked him to check, but which he checked anyway, was swarming with Core ships and Alliance fighters and patrol ships. If Mal had taken Serenity to the next job, a less than ethical trade of goods, the law would have reeled him in like a fish. The job wasn't worth the risk, but another one waited down the line. So, no sweat.He allowed himself a smile. He was very smart for hiring this pilot. Smart man. That's why I'm the captain, he thought.
"Hey, Zoe," he greeted her with a small smirk.
"Hey, captain. Somethin' funny?" Zoe liked it when the captain was happy. Made the trips pass easier.
"Wash," he said, still with the smirking.
Zoe sniffed her armpits. "I guess I've been puttin' it off for a while."
Momentarily, the captain was a dummy. But he caught the missed meaning and explained it to Zoe. "No. I mean the pilot. Name's Wash. He just saved us a passle of worry.Good man."
"Yeah. He is kind of jokey, " she said. "And not in an annoying way that gets a fella killed with a shotgun.He doesn't bother me so much today."
"And what about tomorrow?" Mal asked.
"Aren't you the one says 'let tomorrow worry about itself'?"
"I do recall that bit of wisdom." He did his closed mouth grin that he did so well but not so often.
"You like him?" she asked Mal.
"Never said I didn't. You were the one with bother issues."
"So, when's the wedding, sir?" She was allowed the jibe as she had saved his life a time or twelve.
Mal let a dimple crack his cheek. Light moods all around, then. Mal thought it was time to lay the foundation for a good working relationship between Zoe and Wash."I'm pretty sure he doesn't hate you much."
Zoe went blank. She didn't do that often and certainly not without orders to do so. "Has he said something?"
Mal came up with a brilliant thing to say. If he played his cards right, there would be serenity on Serenity. They could all be one big, happy family of smugglers in no time.
"He's just intimidated is all."
In his most comfortable seat on Serenity, Wash had his right hand glued to the right fork of the steering yoke and was using his left hand to speak in Wash-ese to an attentive audience of one. Namely, one Zoe Alleyne.
"Well,I knew I couldn't outrun an Alliance fighter looking to score points back home, so I dropped a smoker and let it spew as it trailed behind me for a bit," he was relating his equivalent of a war story, "So, I dive low and it trails off into the black, leading the officer to believe I had gone off into space!"
"But didn't he see you peel off from your smoke trail?" asked a genuinely interested Zoe.
"All he saw was the credits he wasn't going to earn, sailing off into the upper atmo," Wash answered. "He couldn't be bothered to look down to a non smoking ship. Not to say that smoking on the ship was banned. We had a mechanic who puffed out more clouds than a deluxe atmosphere generator on a methane rich globe."
Zoe was smiling at this man who seemed like a mess at first blush, but who was hiding so much more.
Wash was silent for a moment, enjoying the smile that meant approval, friendship and no killing today.
Mal walked onto the flight deck into the middle of this happy family swapping stories. It had been almost two weeks since the captain had put his master plan into motion. Prideful of his work, he grinned with a closed mouth at how well the two were getting along. This was a good thing. Now, we were getting somewhere.
Zoe reached out and held the pilot's free hand. They were getting along, all right. They liked each other. Their body language was screaming it. Then, the nail that shut the coffin for good stared Mal in the face. Zoe was wearing a betrothal necklace!!!
"Overkill," Mal mumbled.
"Sir?" Zoe asked automatically.
"Oh. Nothin'. Just.... Zoe, shouldn't you be securing, " Mal couldn't think of another word that would make sense, "something?"
"Ship's battened down, Cap'n."
"Zoe. Can I see you out here for a minute?" He was going to have to think of a reason why he had to see her out there.
"Sure, Cap," she got up and walked to the doorway. In a second she turned and looked back at Wash. "Be right back."
Mal looked after her as she exited and, then, back at Wash, who was smiling a goofy smile and waving after Zoe.
"No!" Mal said, as if she should understand him psychically.
"No, what?" She was genuinely confused.
"You are not to marry that....THAT!" Mal halted and looked up in his mind. Did Wash shave off the lip brow?
"Sir?" she began. "Did you just tell me not to marry Wash?" Her brow was furrowed more from anger than confusion.
Mal took a half a step backward. "Yes," he said. "And that's an order."
Her features softened a bit. "Sorry, sir," she said, sympathetically."This isn't something you can just order away."
"But, he bothered you?"
"Not any more, " she said with a sly smile. "And he shaved off that wire brush."
"Lieutenant. Are you disobeying a direct order?" He was trying to sound official but came off as flustered
She put a hand on Mal's shoulder. "Just this one, sir."
"Um," Mal managed to say. " You sure about this?"
Mal looked away from Zoe. He had crawled in the mud and blood of Serenity Valley with her. They had fought side by side until they were among the last few surviving members of their unit. He knew her as well as any man he had ever called brother. They had kept each other alive across a half dozen planets or more. But, somehow, he didn't know she had this in her.
He would be mindful of change in the future. Too much of it was not good. Keep everything simple. Streamlined.
A voice broke Mal out of his self imposed stupor.
"Coming up on what appears to be a prairie planet," came Wash's voice over the P.A. "Bester, you can make those repairs to the engine there or we'll never make it to Pacquin alive."
Mal gave Zoe a manly pat on the shoulder. "Good enough."
They'd spend a few days in the sticks, mingle as little as possible and let Bester get Serenity spaceworthy again. But, no more changes.
Any more changes and Mal was going to have to shoot something.