Mal awoke to the smell of burning and Kaylee’s crying. It was still early, earlier than most of the crew was due to be awake for, but he could tell instantly something was amiss. It wasn’t about-to-crash-and-die-amiss but something was wrong.
Pulling on his clothes he climbed out of his bunk and headed towards the kitchen. Smoke hung on the ceiling like inverted mist and he coughed as he stepped inside. “Kaylee?” he called, listening to her sniffling. “You okay?”
“We’re in here, Mal.” The voice was Wash’s but Mal couldn’t see either of them. It wasn’t that the smoke was thick but that Kaylee had curled into a ball behind the counter and Wash was crouched down beside her.
Mal circled around until he found them. Then he reached over the stove and flipped the vents to air the kitchen. The smoke began rapidly dissipating as it was sucked out of the room. He glanced to the stove and eyed a mess of blackened something-or-other in a pan. “What’s going on here?” he asked, but he kept his tone neutral – Kaylee was already crying and he didn’t intent to exacerbate the problem.
“All them eggs,” she moaned miserably and hugged herself tighter.
Mal brought his eyes to Wash instead, hoping he could perhaps shed some light on the subject. “Eggs?”
Wash winced and shrugged. “Guess she bought eggs for the crew when we last landed. Real ones.” He looked to Kaylee sympathetically and stroked her hair. “Didn’t ask how to cook them though, and they burnt.”
Kaylee shuddered miserably. “They was so pretty, too,” she cried.
Mal straightened and looked at the mess in the pan. There was probably her entire last pay cut in eggs on that pan, all burnt to a crisp. He didn’t ask how. He just picked up the pan and began scraping the mess down the drain. “Well, no use in crying over burnt eggs, Kaylee. It ain’t the end of th’world.”
Kaylee sniffled and looked up at Mal as he set about washing the pan clean.
“It was gonna be a surprise,” she said in a whisper. “Wanted ya’ll t’wake up t’real eggs. My momma used t’make ‘em so good, back home.” She wiped at her eyes fitfully. “I thought I ‘membered how.”
“Kaylee,” Mal said sternly. “It don’t matter none now, okay? They’re just eggs.” The pan was clean and he set it on the side of the sink to dry. He looked to Wash and sighed before squatting down beside them. “You ain’t hurt, are you?”
Kaylee shook her head no.
“Then I don’t want t’see you cryin’ like this. Nothing t’make a fuss over.”
“But I ruined ‘em,” she whimpered. “And all that smoke . . .”
“Smokes gone, and so’re the eggs,” Mal noted cheerfully. “You ought t’just go back t’bed and forget this all happened.” He smiled at her. “It can be our secret, if you’d like.”
Wash nodded. “Though the thought was really nice and I don’t think anyone would blame you for accidentally burning them. It’s an accident.”
“Well, Jayne might,” Mal noted off-handed.
“No one that matters would blame you for accidentally burning them,” Wash corrected.
Mal nodded intently and then reached out and took Kaylee by the arm and gently dragged her to her feet. “C’mon, little Kaylee,” he mused. “Y’ain’t doin’ no one no good sitting in here breakin’ down like this.” He glanced over his shoulder briefly at Wash, and then led the girl through the kitchen and up the stairs, towards her quarters.
After he had deposited her and told her to get some more sleep, he wandered back into the galley. Wash had put on a pot of coffee in the meantime and now the kitchen reeked of smoke and cheap grounds. “She sure did a number,” Wash noted when Mal returned.
“Don’t rightly know how a girl could scorch eggs so bad,” Mal agreed. He picked up the pan he had scrubbed earlier and studied the scorch marks on it. “Ain’t sure this is salvageable.”
Wash yawned and moved to the cabinet and retrieved two mugs and filled them with coffee. He handed one to Mal and leaned against the counter, drinking his. “No one was hurt, so it doesn’t really matter,” he said off handedly.
Mal nodded and sipped at the drink and felt better almost as soon as he did. “What were you doing up so early?”
Wash shrugged. “Couldn’t sleep. Happens sometimes. I was already in the cockpit when she started cooking, sort of dozing. Came in here when I smelt the burning.”
“Gonna have t’scrub the stove,” Mal noted forlornly. He glanced up at Wash and noticed the other man had his attention elsewhere, probably back on his problems in the cabin. “You and Zoe have another fight or something?”
“No,” Wash said a little too quickly. Then he looked away and sighed. “Well, a little. We just disagree on things.”
Mal nodded, remembering now. “Like when to start a family,” he noted. Off of Wash’s surprised expression he shrugged. “Your bunk is right next to mine, remember? The walls ain’t that thick.”
Wash looked momentarily embarrassed but Mal shrugged it off. He was already pulling out cleaning solvents from under the sink and spraying them on the stovetop. “Ain’t really my business,” he noted plainly.
“But you’re going to weigh your opinion in anyway,” Wash said plainly as he pulled a rag out and handed it over to Mal so he could scrub. He knew the way Mal worked.
Mal shrugged and put his back into the effort, bringing up flakes of crusty burnt eggs. “Well,” he began, “I do tend t’have my opinions.”
“Well, I’m eager to hear them, Mal. Because you always side with Zoe, and yet I can’t honestly believe you’d want her pregnant. Can’t see you much caring for infants on Serenity, either.” His tone was tense though, like there was more to this conversation that Mal wasn’t privy to.
“What I know is that Zoe tends t’get what she wants. I ain’t gonna get in the way of your happily ever after just ‘cause I ain’t fond of breeding.”
Wash was quiet behind him for sometime and eventually Mal looked over his shoulder at him. His brow furrowed at the expression he found on Wash’s face. “Hey, I didn’t mean it like that,” he started.
Wash shook his head and waved Mal into silence. Then he drew up beside Mal and leaned heavily onto the counter top. He was silent but Mal could tell he was building up the courage to say something so he waited patiently and kept his eyes on the stovetop as he scrubbed. At last, Wash quietly said, “Do you remember the first night I flew Serenity . . . you came into the cockpit in the middle of the night and found me sitting there, watching the stars?”
Mal nodded. “It’s a sight I’ve since gotten used to.”
“Do you remember what I asked you that night?”
Mal thought on it but he couldn’t recall any particular conversation. “No.” He wondered where this was going.
Wash didn’t look at him, he just stared at the countertop. “When I met you, I looked into your eyes and I thought . . . this guy has seen it all. He’s seen death and lost everything, and yet here he is, alive and well, building a new life for himself and not turning away from the man he wants to be.” Wash’s voice was light and serious in a way Mal very rarely ever heard, other than when he was busy piloting. “So I took the job. And I sat myself in the pilot’s chair and I thought . . . I could learn from you. I could change; be more like you. And, I did.”
Mal’s hands came to a still on the stovetop, although he wasn’t finished cleaning. He had no idea where this was going but he was a little frightened by the way Wash was speaking. He didn’t know what to say, so he just listened, quietly.
Wash shrugged. “I asked you about your family.”
Mal remembered, now.
“I asked how they were, and your eyes darkened. I knew before about them, but I asked anyway. I asked because I wanted you to ask me.” Wash looked up at the ceiling over the table and caught the only glimpse of stars visible through the window there. He seemed to bathe in the starlight and take solace in it. “I didn’t want to answer,” he noted softly, “but I thought, maybe, if you’d asked I would.”
Mal had never asked. And if Zoe had asked, the information had never gotten back to him. He realized, numbly, that he didn’t even know where Wash had been born; it had never occurred to him to ask. For all he knew, Wash had grown up on Shadow, too. Mal’s fingers tightened on the rag he was holding and he quietly said, “Tell me about your family.” He kept his eyes fixed on his hands.
Wash let out his breath. “I was sixteen, she was fourteen,” he began in a whisper. “I’d just gotten accepted to the flight academy and a bunch of my friends and I, and her, went out to celebrate.” He remained unmoving, in a calm like Mal had rarely seen him in before. Time past in memories that Wash skipped over. “We were kids, and we were dumb. When our families found out, they were enraged. I wanted to do the right thing, flight school be damned, but my father refused. He took the burden on himself and more or less paid the girl and her family off. They weren’t very well off.”
He struggled with the words for a bit. “I saw her once or twice after that. She had a boy,” he whispered. “Named him Tyler.” He shook his head. “She sent me a capture of him, once, and then they disappeared and I lost myself in my training, to forget about them.” He blinked furiously a couple of times and his brows furrowed. “He’s River’s age now, Mal,” he whispered.
At last Wash looked over to him and Mal met his eyes and just studied his face. “I failed them, and I ran. I let my father control me. And when I was old enough to look, I didn’t. I just determined that I was . . . I was that sort of guy. I was skeevy and gross. I hated women and I hated men and I liked to abuse them both because then they couldn’t hurt me.” He shook his head.
“Why you tellin’ me this?” Mal asked in a low voice.
Wash’s eyes went up to him and he winced. “’Cause I’ve got t’tell someone, Mal.”
That was all Mal needed to hear to know that this was a story Zoe didn’t know. “You think she’d be mad for something you did over fifteen years ago?” he questioned. “You weren’t hardly but a babe yourself back then. Whatever man that made you become ain’t the man that married my first mate.”
Wash didn’t smile though. “Mal, I’ve got a son I was never a father to. How could I bring another child into the world and give that one everything the first one never had?” He shook his head. “How can I tell Zoe that’s it’s because I don’t want to lose another one that I won’t give her her first?”
There wasn’t any way Mal felt he could answer this without incriminating himself and he knew that that was why Wash had told it to him. He glanced over to him and realized that Wash had pegged him correctly from the very first time they had met and for years he hadn’t said anything about it, and Mal had never suspected. He looked away again and bunched up the rag in his hands, to have something to do. “I ain’t th’one y’ought t’be seekin’ advice from,” he finally managed. He shook his head. “Maybe we’re both too scared t’get too close t’something, for fear we’ll just lose it, like everything else,” he twisted the rag, “but you got one up on me.” He glanced to Wash. “You got Zoe.”
Wash actually laughed, which was a surprising sound at this point in the conversation. Wash’s smile was easy and he leaned into Mal, shoulder-to-shoulder. “If they had a ceremony and could make it legal, you and I both know you’d be married to this ship.” He smiled softly. “As it is, you’ve got her, and all of us on her. That’s a lot more to lose than just one person.”
Mal smiled sadly. “Guess so, though that one person can fill your days and nights like no other can, so it ain’t exactly fair.” He dropped the rag into the sink and put his hand out, on the small of Wash’s back. “’Sides, you got all the folk on this boat to lose, too. Ain’t like I’m th’only one who cares for ‘em.” He nodded to himself. “Was you I found out here with little Kaylee, after all.”
Wash let out a deep breath. “It just doesn’t feel right, forgetting him.”
Mal nodded. “Then don’t. Y’may not got him, but he still exists. Better t’remember him fondly and wish things hadn’t happened th’way they did than t’lie ‘bout him. You run his name through the Cortex? Hell, maybe the boy needs a job. Think he can pilot like his old man?”
Wash seemed to pale at the thought. “Do you think he can?” He laughed nervously, as though the idea had never occurred to him. “I don’t know . . . I’ve looked before but the name is common. She might have even changed it. Hell, for all I know, they’re both long dead.”
Mal’s hand tightened on the small of Wash’s back. “Don’t think like that,” he softly said.
“Why not?” Wash asked. “Means it will hurt less if it ends up true.”
Mal shook his head. “Y’sound like me right now.”
Wash bowed his head and closed his eyes. “I appreciate you listening.”
“Don’t know as I was much help, though,” Mal answered. He took his hand off Wash and pulled away from the sink.
Wash turned to watch him. “You were. I’ve never told anyone about that.”
“Maybe you should.”
“Maybe.” He studied Mal for several moments. “What now?”
Mal glanced about. “Think maybe we ought t’make some breakfast t’go with this coffee.” He smiled. “Gonna have us some hungry folk in here soon and we got an important job t’do today.”
Wash nodded and smiled. “Lilac’s a big place. Maybe I’ll . . . put out some feelers while we’re there, see if I can’t get any information on him.”
Mal laughed and shook his head. “Tyler,” he mused as he took out a different pan and set it on the stove. “Can’t quite imagine it. I’m trying but, you ain’t but a month or two older’n’me. Could be my kid.”
Wash looked sheepish. “You’re not allowed to make fun of me for this.”
Mal turned to the food locker and began pulling out protein packets. “I won’t,” he agreed and shrugged. “Less we’re in private.” Wash playfully punched at him and Mal squirmed away. “We got breakfast t’make! Got Kaylee’s dignity t’save! No time for teasing.”
Wash snickered and then caught the pan as Mal thrust it at him. “You want me to do this?” he laughed and looked around. “There’s a reason we don’t have cooking duty together, Mal. We’re going to burn the kitchen down.”
Mal just grinned. “Then I’ll go get my fiddle.”