"Not everybody gets me and Zoë at first glance," Wash said once to Saffron, or whatever her name was.
Truth was, it usually took a few glances and some storytelling to get any kind of understanding. But no couple fits into a neat box, and Wash and Zoë were no different.
Zoë's version of the story was, like her, to the point.
"He joined ship not long after we got it running," Zoë said, when most people asked. "We got to know each other, found we had a liking, and married."
This was a true story. It was, of course, lacking the details.
Wash's version of the story was, like him, inflated.
"Fought off ten Alliance ships," he related in a Browncoat-friendly bar once. He barely had any alcohol in his system, but the story was rarely less grand in the telling when he was surrounded by sober people. He was just less likely to be believed. "Ten! And I dodged every single one. Serenity's a good ship, but it had kicked a power coupling a couple days before, and we didn't have one onboard. How many people could slip the Alliance, much less with a broken ship?"
Most in the bar were fellow fliers on Serenity, and either tending to business, like Mal, Zoë, and Jayne, or spending quiet alone time, like Kaylee and Simon. The rest of the patrons were either passed out, or just drunk enough to buy it all.
"S' wha' happened next?" one asked, swaying on his stool.
"You see that woman over there?" Wash dropped his voice marginally. But every word practically strained with pride, so if Zoë heard snippets, all she would do is smile to herself and vow to teach that man of her some manners. Which is why she spent the entire outing with the corners of her mouth upturned, and an occasional shake of the head. "She took off her clothes right on the bridge, and that was it. We've never looked back."
There was a lot of truth to this story. But what it lacked in subtlety, it also lacked in details.
Zoë's side of the story started on her eighteenth birthday.
She'd lugged cargo on a boat called the Hermes starting a couple years before, to bide time after leaving her parents and before taking up arms with the Browncoats. Her birthday lined up with a free night before landing in Persephone, so the crew threw her a party in the recently emptied cargo hold. They weren't particularly attached to her; they took any excuse to drink.
As the stores of liquor shrank and lips grew looser, a fellow by the name of Marko stumbled across the slippery metal floor to Zoë, who drank in peace by the stairs.
"You," he said, with the clear emphasis of the soused, "are joinin' up with them Independents."
"Yes, sir," Zoë said.
"They're outnumbered. Outgunned. Hell, they're probably gonna be outspent too, war breaks out."
"They're likely to at that."
"So why?" His breath was thick with the smell of whiskey. "You wanna die?"
Zoë shook her head. "Hardly."
"But you could die."
"It's a possibility."
"So this could be your last night."
Her hand drifted down to her holster, too subtle for someone sloppy to catch notice.
"Could be," she said. Any smile or hint of humor in her voice was gone.
Marko eased back. "So are you ready? To die?"
"How do you mean?"
"You've barely lived yer life, unlike this grizzled pirate. I got regrets, but I'm settled. You there already?"
Captain Wong distracted Marko before Zoë could answer, but she ruminated on the question. It was a good one, and one she hadn't fully considered. Death was a real possibility, if the Independents and Alliance did go to war, but she'd socked away every credit she'd made on the ship anyway. Like she'd have a future.
But what good were credits if she lay bloody on the battlefield?
The minute the ship landed in Persephone, she took her money and walked into the nearest med clinic. When she walked out a couple days later, the given name on her papers read Zoë, instead of her birth name, Zo. And no one in command of the Independents ever knew she'd ever been considered anything but a woman.
Wash's side of the story started in flight school.
She'd had to copilot a piece of go-se freighter with Manfred Asbach for a test. Scanners stood attached to both their readouts for grading, but Wash was comfortable enough to ignore what it said about her. Not that red marks popped up much.
Manfred wasn't as good. He wasn't bad, but he didn't have Wash's finesse. Still, his readout remained completely in the green, despite the shuddering of the ship under Wash's feet when he hit the wind wrong.
"How do you do that?" Wash asked, after they broke atmo.
"That!" Wash gestured at Manfred's readout. "You never get marked up. They're always…broken!"
Manfred smirked. "Yes. Every single ship I go in magically likes me."
"Right, they…oh. Oh! You!"
"Now she gets it."
"It's not fair!" Wash said, hitting her fist on her controls for emphasis. The computer, however, read it as an aborted attempt at altitude, and marked her down. "Hey!"
Manfred laughed. "Relax. I can make it fair."
"Oh no," Wash said. "I earned that screw-up fair and square. I've got standards!"
"So do I. Just different ones."
"Because cheating isn't bad?"
"It's a means to an end." Manfred grinned. "And boy, do I have an end in mind."
Wash banked the ship and allowed Manfred to begin docking procedures.
"Have you...ever wanted to be different?"
Manfred sighed. "You throw a stone, you hit ten guys in our sector who look the same, talk the same, and like the same things. It's boring."
"There's other ways to stand out," Wash said. "Rob a store. Run naked through town. Pay your taxes on time. Things like that."
"And I mean to stand out. Everyone in the 'verse'll know my name. Except…"
"It's not the name I use now. I'm thinking Mr. Universe."
"You think Manfred's my real name?"
"I hope not."
"I'll get married, claim a planet somewhere– "
"–set up an array."
"So you'll become a new man."
Manfred – Mr. Universe – shook his head. "I'll be the man I've always been. Just more obvious."
They docked in the space station. The teachers took over the ship and guided them back down to the planet, correcting Wash on her mistakes on the way. But she was deep in thought about something else.
In the days after, she started dressing differently – binders across her chest, baggy Hawaiian shirts and men's slacks to hid her curves – and cut her hair. She tried telling herself it was because it was harder for female pilots to get jobs, but she knew – he knew – there was another answer.
He was the man he'd always been. Just more obvious.
Zoë didn't trust Wash right away. She couldn't say why, but it probably had something to do with the god-awful mustache he kept on his face.
She kept her distance until Mal asked her to stay on the bridge for an operation. They had four horses corralled in the hold, and Mal took it upon himself to keep them as still as possible once an Alliance ship came into the barest hint of range. He told Wash to fly, and for Zoë to send him updates.
The power coupling was loose, so the ride was bumpy. Wash fell out of his chair at one point and hit the deck, at the same time Zoë's shirt caught on her chair and tore. But Wash ignored the blood dripping down his arm and Zoë ignored the air on her stomach, and they resumed their duties until they'd made it to a clear sector.
"Nice flying," Zoë said. "Your arm okay?"
Wash tipped the side of his arm up. Red trickled down his skin. "Oh. I get worse shaving."
"Uh-huh." Zoë stood and tore the dangling piece of her shirt off. She wiped up the blood on his arm as he watched.
"Isn't there an infirmary?"
"It's no problem."
He stared for a moment at her newly bared hip, and to her surprise, Zoë felt a chill dance over her skin. Dragging her fingertips on the smooth part of his arm wasn't helping.
Well, she thought.
And just like that, her mind was made up.
So Wash's feat wasn't as heroic as he made out. But it was just as important to their story.
He'd seen the curve of her hip, bared by her newly ruined shirt. And he'd be lying to himself if he didn't admit he spent a good moment appreciating where her torso and legs met. Or that he hadn't admired everything from hair to feet in his short time onboard Serenity.
After the moment passed, he noticed a mark on her hip. A small little scar, from what looked like an incision.
But Zoë withdrew to the hold to check on the captain, and Wash forgot about the scar for most of the day. It didn't help when Zoë cornered him in the hall after dinner.
"I'll be straight with you," she said, hands on her hips and her unwavering gaze on Wash's face. "I want to bed you."
Zoë nodded. "You heard right."
He stammered out a yes, and they climbed down into Zoë's bunk. The minute both of their feet were on solid ground, Zoë pushed him onto her bed. He grinned as she shucked the rest of her torn shirt, but he caught sight of the scar on her hip again as she reached up to unhook her bra.
"What?" For an instant, Zoë sounded something he'd never heard from her before: surprise.
Wash reached forward and drew the tip of his finger across the scar, feeling the jagged edges under his skin.
"Hormone chip, right?" he asked. "So you wouldn't have to do injections?"
Zoë's expression went from curious to downright closed off. She crossed her arms. "What's it to you?"
Wash got to his feet. He unbuttoned his shirt as quickly as he could and bared not only the binder holding his breasts in, but the scar on his own hip. His was red, and much fresher.
"I don't know if you've had surgery," he said, and quickly. He always ran his mouth off when he was nervous. "It doesn't matter. To me. It's not a deal breaker, is what I'm trying to say. But I thought you should know I haven't. In case it is for you."
Zoë's face was completely blank at this point, and her arms hung by her sides. Wash shut his jaw and winced, waiting for whatever answer Zoë would give.
She leaned in and kissed Wash full on the lips.
A few minutes later, when they'd drawn back and Wash could feel his hair sticking up in the back, he asked, dazed, "So it doesn't bother you?"
"Nah," Zoë said, and went in for more.
Nobody knows Wash and Zoë's real story. But come to it, folk only need to know it's a love story. Even if some of the details are a mite different.