Pairing Requested: Wash/Zoe.
Word count: ~9500
Summary: Wash attempts to get a crashed shuttle flying again under less than ideal circumstances. The fact that he's nowhere near said shuttle is only the beginning of his problems.
A washathon entry, written for honu_girl, who asked for:
Requirement One: Wife soup, perhaps the origin of it.
Requirement Two: Techno-babble.
One Restriction: Not all sex, all the time.
(PS. Thank you, thunder_nari, for organizing the Washathon. And thank you, sarahetc, for reminding me it was happening!)
Above and Beyond (1/3)
A final emphatic jounce snapped up Wash's spine, and he throttled the mule back, then cut its engine, setting the brakes. Releasing the handlebars, he leaned back in the saddle, lifting his cap by its bill to swipe a sleeve over his sweaty brow. His ears rang in the sudden silence. He peered up the steep, rocky hill before him through the polarized lenses of his sunglasses. No way he could get the mule up that. He'd have to do the last kilometer or so on foot.
He swung out of the saddle, opening up the rear compartment to haul out the toolkit he and Kaylee had assembled into a backpack. He set it on the mule's seat as he reached back down to pull out the semi-automatic pistol and its holster. He felt faintly ridiculous buckling it around his waist, like maybe he was overindulging his sense of drama. He'd been careful smuggling it out of his and Zoe's bunk so neither Kaylee or Jayne spotted it. It would have triggered a spate of worry from Kaylee and of mockery from Jayne, neither of which he wanted to deal with. And it would no doubt get a lifted brow or two from Zoe and Mal, and maybe even a couple snide remarks.
But he'd rather look silly than be without the pistol on the very off chance it might come in handy. There were locals in the area; he'd spotted a settlement of maybe fifty households about five klicks from where Zoe'd been forced to set the shuttle down. Out here on the Rim, even folks who were most times peaceful could pick up some glitches in their social programming. And then of course there were those who didn't even make a pretense of being peaceful. And humans aside, sometimes a world's designers were feng le enough to include venomous snakes and even people-eating sized predators in their ecosystem's food chains. They'd introduced sharks – sharks! – on Newhall. A beach would have to be totally, absolutely naked, with Zoe majorly featured, for him to consider sticking even a toe in the waves there, let alone other, more important appendages.
He slung the backpack over his shoulders, clipped the liter canteen of water on the belt opposite the pistol, then touched the portable comm unit in his thigh pocket. Sticking his thumbs behind the straps of the pack, he began working his way uphill, toward the one clear spot Zoe had found in this rough, rocky terrain to set the malfunctioning shuttle down. Feeling a little out of his element, never really the outdoorsy type, still, he thought he'd covered the wilderness basics, what with the water and his sturdiest shoes. But he woulda done this dry and barefoot if he had to, to get to his wife. It would be sheer carelessness to lose her just short months after acquiring her.
He'd gotten her mayday over an hour ago now, as she and Mal had been returning from their wheeling and dealing. Just a brief, static-ladened burst that the shuttle was losing power and she was looking for a place to ditch. Then contact had been sharply cut off. Hollering over the ship's comm that they were lifting off Now, he had launched Serenity, in an engine-stressing cold start, out of the narrow arroyo she'd had been tucked away in. Fortunately, Kaylee'd been warned this particular job might need a quick lift-off, so she had refrained from taking any relevant parts off-line to tinker with.
He'd shoved them in the direction Zoe and Mal had taken for their meet-up, anxious eyes scanning the horizon for an ominous column of smoke. Kaylee and Jayne had scrambled up onto the bridge, a stampede of boots, questions, and demands. Not in a chatty mood, Wash simply spat out, “Got a mayday. Shuttle lost power, went down.”
While Kaylee fretted guiltily about not having had time for anything other than basic maintenance on the shuttles lately, Jayne offered up a wild series of crash scenarios, each more gruesome than the last. Wash ignored them both, intent on pinpointing the precise location of Zoe's last call.
Fortunately for his sanity, it didn't take him long to find them. Their landing site – on a near twenty degree slope in the one bare spot on a boulder-strewn hillside big enough for a shuttle – had him sending up waves of wordless gratitude for Zoe's survival to the 'verse at large. The relief he'd felt when he saw her (oh, and Mal too) outside the shuttle, waving up at Serenity as he overflew them had been dizzying.
Wash gathered, as Mal was waving with this hands rather than the shuttle's radio, that they must have somehow lost their back-up battery as well as main power. Then and there, he decided to make sure that ship-linked comm handsets were standard equipment in the emergency kits on the shuttles from then on, even if he had to buy them himself. 'Cause they would have been in range 16 klicks ago, and a little chit-chat would have prevented a lot of wear and tear on his nervous system.
He circled them three times, then waggling Serenity from side-to-side, slowly pulled away from them, hoping they'd get the message that rescue would be happening forthwith. Even as Wash scanned the terrain beneath them, he and Kaylee were batting ideas back and forth, Jayne happily shooting down some of their more excitable. In the end, Kaylee came around to Wash's way of thinking, and while Jayne kept at his picking, as no violence was impending, he really had nothing to suggest, useful or otherwise. So Wash's plans prevailed.
Those were to land Serenity as close to the shuttle as possible. She wasn't a big ship, and in fact, had a very neat and tidy footprint. Still, Wash needed a certain minimum of clearance to be able to set her down safely. And the closest spot he could find to the shuttle in these rugged hills was about four kilometers away. Wash decided that he would go alone, getting as close to the shuttle as he could with the mule. He'd hike whatever last bit he had to, and then do what he could to tinker the shuttle into flyable condition. As “flyable,” for him, was a pretty broad spectrum, he figured he had a good chance of being able to get the craft back into the air and at least limp her back home.
However, if the repairs were beyond him, he, Zoe, and Mal could leave the shuttle, returning to Serenity on the mule. Mal could decide then whether he wanted to schlep their genius mechanic back through the wilderness to the downed craft to fix it up. Or maybe Mal would go for Kaylee's idea of rigging up a harness to the cargo bay's winching rig and lowering her down to the stricken vessel. Which Wash considered actually a pretty nifty notion, although one he was unwilling to implement with just the three of them on-ship. With him stuck on the bridge flying, it would be Jayne working the winch. And while he didn't think Jayne would ever do anything to get Kaylee hurt on purpose, the thought of his hands on those controls gave Wash the heebie-jeebies. He did think Jayne could serve the valuable role, before they hitched Kaylee up, as test dummy to see how it all held together. Y' know, put some real weight on the system. One way or another, Wash figured Mal would get that job done. Never mind the cargo it was hauling; the shuttle was itself a very valuable piece of property. But Wash himself was not willing to put Kaylee into any kind of harm's way. So if he couldn't handle the repairs himself, the shuttle would have to wait until Mal got her there, either by mule or by winch.
About halfway to the top, he paused for a drink, easing the acridness at the back of his throat, rasped there by his heavy breathing in the thin, dry air. Lifting his eyes as he swallowed, he spotted movement where earth met sky, a dark shape rising up, and with a leap of his heart, he recognized Zoe's silhouette against the stark blue. With renewed energy, he dragged a sleeve over his smiling lips, and, replacing the canteen on his belt, pushed himself forward.
She started toward him, nimbly skipping from rock to rock, and after he'd tripped and almost fallen a couple times, distracted by his sheer delight in watching her move, alive and well, he forced himself to pay more attention to where he was putting his feet. He gave himself a break when she got a few meters away, stopping to watch her close the distance between them. He took off his sunglasses, sticking them in the breast pocket of his flightsuit, so that when she looked in his face, she couldn't miss how happy and relieved he was to see her writ all over it. And when their eyes finally met, he got to experience the joy of seeing the pleasure she felt on seeing him. Was true that when her gaze dropped to climb up and down his body, the pistol on his hip did get him the lifted brow he'd expected. However, she politely made no comment. Instead, the first thing she said when she reached him, peering into his sweaty, and no doubt bright red face was, “Did you put on sun-screen?”
“And it's good to see you too, honey,” he replied dryly. And it was good to see her, very good, and while a welcoming kiss would have been nice, being fussed over was kinda gratifying as well.
Not at all put off, she demanded, “Well, did you?”
Grinning, he nodded. “Yep. Slathered it on like icing on a wedding cake.”
That got him his kiss. Smiling, she leaned in, tilting her head to duck under the bill of his cap, her lips on his a momentary sweetness. Still smiling, she turned away, jerking her chin toward the crest of the hill. “We're just the other side of that.”
He squinted up at the ridge, nodded, hitched at the straps on the backpack, leaned into them, and began toiling his way uphill again. She fell in more or less beside him, the need to pick their way over the stony ground preventing them from walking right next to one another.
“Want me to take the pack?”
He shook his head, trudged a few more steps, the sandy soil sliding under his feet as the slope got steeper. Then, curious as to why the captain wasn't right there demanding updates and critiquing his decisions, he inquired shortly, “Mal?”
“He's fine. Wrenched his knee when he got up to mess with the cargo when we started slip-sliding around.” While she wouldn't say it out loud in front of Wash, he could hear the that idiot at the end of her sentence in the acerbity of her tone.
“So, what happened? To bring you down?” He supposed he should wait to question her until they weren't using their breath for scrabbling over rocks, but he was eager to know what kind of repairs he might be looking at. She was quiet for a moment, and he knew she was gathering her thoughts so she could give him a concise report.
“Happened fast,” she began. “One second we're fine, then we're sinking, nearly every tell-tale on the board goin' red. Diverted power to the pods for a moment, lookin' to get home sooner. They kicked right in, but we started sinking even faster, so I backed off, we rose up, just a bit. I call you, had enough juice to get in right over the clear spot, then everything cut out, and we pancaked the last four meters.”
He winced at the thought of that neck-snapping, tooth-rattling drop, glancing over at her to reassure himself yet again that all her parts were whole and in working order. “Thrusters were responsive,” he said, interested in that part of her iteration of the shuttle's symptoms.
“Uh huh. Right up until I just didn't have squat to work with. Even the battery was drained.”
“A systemic failure like that suggests a power feed issue. A bleed somewhere. You were sinking 'cause the grav screens were weakening, and manually diverting more power to the thrusters just sped that along. Good thing you backed off the thrusters, let the power go to the screens longer. Ship's designed to do that, it's a safety feature, actually. Lose the screens and suddenly you're trying to fly a slightly aerodynamic brick. Not so good. So power gets routed their way first, but that means other systems, like the composite drive, get robbed, so, so, so-” he panted, his spill of conjecture on pause a moment as he allowed his lungs to catch up. He saw they were just meters from the crest of the slope, and with a burst of speed, he scrambled to the top. There he stopped, heaving in the puny air as he took in the terrain on the other side.
He was looking into a shallow valley, its bottom a dry stream bed. On the other side more hills, higher, ranged beyond. And rocks, of course, lots and lots more rocks, large and small, jumbled about everywhere. And just below him, about 30 meters away, the shuttle, tucked into one of few spots open enough to allow a safe landing. And it was tight, and the angle steep, an area he would have approached cautiously even with a perfectly functioning craft.
“You're a damn fine driver, mooncake,” he murmured.
She shrugged off his words. “I was lucky,” she replied. Which was true, but...
“Luck can only get you so far,” he asserted, determined that she realize how much he admired her skill.
She shrugged again, but this time with a little sideways smile that seemed almost shy. Then she pointed, saying, “There's Mal,” cutting off further conversation.
And there indeed the man was, clambering out of the hatch awkwardly, set as it was at the top of the shuttle's tilt. Mal lifted a hand in greeting, his grin pure happiness, and Wash felt his own mouth stretching in a matching smile as he gave him a jaunty wave. Mal, truly happy to see someone, was hard to resist.
A loud, sharp crack startled Wash, as did the sudden spurt of dirt and pebbles spattering his feet and shins. It came to him, as Zoe's hand darted out to grab the shoulder strap on his backpack, that they were under fire. This conjecture was confirmed as she spun him, sort of tossing him toward a niche in the rocks. Not a lot of speculation occurred during the next few seconds as his body took over, only partly under control, as he tumbled into the hollow, ending up flat on his back. Moments later, Zoe dove on top of him, the full body contact knocking the breath from him. More sharp cracks were followed by spanging noises as bullets ricocheted off the stones sheltering them. Zoe wriggled around on him, elbows digging into his biceps before finding spots to either side of him, the hand guard on her mare's-leg clonking him between the eyes before she got it to one side, its stock up on her shoulder.
Then everything became still, the only sound in Wash's ears that of Zoe's quick, light breaths. He peered up into her impassive face, just inches above his, watching her eyes flicking back and forth, assessing the situation.
He managed to get a little air back, so he wheezed, “Mal?”
“Rolled back into the shuttle,” she bit out. “Wasn't hit.”
“Who's shooting, ya think. Not your recent contacts.”
“Nope. They'd be droppin' in from above. Gotta be locals. Lookin' for salvage. Passed over a settlement few klicks back.”
He nodded, remembering the small cluster of buildings on the opposite side of this hill from Serenity, and about five kilometers away to her four. Someone must have spotted the shuttle in trouble, going down, and come to see if they could profit by it.
An erratic series of shots hitting just below the rock barrier in front of Zoe's face had her ducking, a shower of dirt and dust raining down upon them. Nose to nose, the wisps of her hair that had escaped their tie-back tickled his cheeks. Was it weird that, even under these circumstances, the sensation triggered a cascade of images from their love-making?
A little distracted, he focused himself in the here and now by asking, “How many?”
“Counted six so far. Could be more. Now let me listen.”
He shut up, clamping his teeth on his lower lip to curb his need to ask questions, fighting against the frustration and fear spawned by not being able to see what was coming at them. All he had in his visual field was Zoe's face (and so, yeah, that was okay) with a narrow stripe of blue sky above her. Gray stone closed in on them from either side, maybe a meter high to his left and half that to his right, and he wished he could squash himself flatter so Zoe could duck lower in front of them. 'Cause that's where the incoming was coming in from and he wasn't happy that her head was their attackers' primary target. However, they did have the high ground, which he did know was a good thing to have.
But their hideout was extremely tight, a long, deep V shaped trench, with him stuffed in the bottom point, and he was very aware of the backpack he still wore underneath him, and something inside it, probably the spanner, gouging in under his left shoulder blade. He thought it would be very nice if they could wiggle around so that they were side by side rather than with him stuck beneath her, more or less useless except as a firing platform. A lone shot striking the tip of the stone a meter above Zoe's head, then whining away up into blue sky caused him to rethink that notion. He realized he didn't want to do any of the major shifting they'd need to do that could lift her up into the line of fire.
He decided, unless Zoe told him otherwise, that he would just lie still. She'd never take up yammering in his ear, telling him how to fly. And this situation now was exactly her area of expertise. So Tianwang bu yao he stick his fingers in to gum up the works.
He finished his physical assessment, confirming that his shoulders were compressed forward, his arms along his sides, Zoe's elbows tucked in tight to either side, sorta kinda jammed into his biceps. His hands had found a natural resting spot on her backside, one palm per buttock. Their legs were twined together, and she had shoved one knee between his, to brace more securely on solid ground. This had her thigh tucked up pretty nice and tight against his crotch.
And then he heartily wished that that particular bodily configuration had not come to his attention. Because with that and the tickly wisps and general full contact and where his hands were and being fairly wound up already, what with bullets flying, a lot of physiological energy was being generated. And that energy just had to go somewhere.
He squirmed under her, trying to shift away, just a little, not wanting to jostle her aim. That added friction just made it worse though, and besides he really didn't have anywhere away to squirm to. And maybe if he hadn't moved, she wouldn't have noticed, as she was sort of focused on the folks out there trying to kill them.
But he had moved, and she did notice, ducking her head to stare down into his face. She blinked a couple times, flexing the muscles of her thigh. Which really was not at all helpful, not in the slightest. Her eyes widened, and a wave of heat crept up his cheeks all the way to the tips of his ears. He hoped she'd just ignore it, but no.
“Wash, what the hell?”
“It's natural!” he blurted, staring earnestly up at her. “It's biological! It's a natural, biological, scientific response! To danger and, and stimulus. Dangerous stimulus.”
She shook her head, then lifted it slightly to scan the area through narrowed eyes. The tiniest smile curled the corner of her mouth, as she muttered, “I've married me a crazy man.”
“I never hid that from you,” he pointed out. “I've always been right up-front, with the craziness issue.”
She conceded that with a small grunt, tucked her head down as she acquired a target, and squeezed the trigger. The blast rang off the stone walls of their tiny alcove. Blinking, nostrils stinging with the acrid scent of burnt powder, Wash worked his jaw, attempting to bring his hearing back on-line.
Then he jerked, making an unfortunate “eep” noise, when something jammed between his thigh and the rock suddenly vibrated, buzzing angrily. It took a moment for his brain to shift out of the Snake! alarm mode to recognize it was the comm unit in his pocket signaling an incoming call.