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Disclaimer: Firefly and all related elements, characters and indicia © Mutant Enemy Productions and 20th Century Fox Television, 2003. All Rights Reserved. All characters and situations—save those created by the authors for use solely on this website—are copyright Mutant Enemy Productions and 20th Century Fox Television.

Dish Duty
by Nicole Clevenger

Zoe hated dish duty. Hated it. Sure, she imagined none of the rest of them much enjoyed it either, but she'd actually had several fairly complicated daydreams about ways to get out of her weekly turn.

All of them developed while stuck on dish duty, of course.

It just gave a person too much time to think is all. Standing there in front of that small sink, wrist-deep in murky water and scarred ceramic. Slippery soap suds and the feel of a glass's rim through cloth and no place to hide from what was in your head. She'd tried humming. She'd tried mentally reciting dirty limericks, most of which she'd learned during long nights on one battleground or another—a few she'd even picked up from Mal. She had discussions with her husband, ones where he'd actually keep his mouth shut for more than two minutes at a stretch. She'd even tried to remember the names of all the planets they'd hit, for as far back as she could go.

But she always seemed to come back to the thinking.

The image of Wash and Mal, bleeding and chained behind Niska's shriveled, triumphant face rose in her mind. Zoe blinked, forcing her eyes to focus on an unidentifiable piece of something that was once supposed to be food, now stubbornly sticking to the edge of a plate. She scrubbed at it hard, determined not to do this thinking thing. Not like this.

She should have been there, plain and simple. It should've been her with Mal, like it always was. Might not've kept them out of trouble at any rate— but then, it might've at that. She and the Captain had been through plenty of tight spots over the years, always managing to come through with all major body parts intact. Broken bones and bullet holes, sure, but nobody ever lost an ear.

Gorram speck wouldn't come off. She scratched at it with her thumbnail, trying to dislodge it. Trying to concentrate only on getting it off.

When she'd realized who had them, a gut-twisting chill had run through her. The picture of that man hanging from the ceiling was still there in her head, an all-too-fresh memory from their first meeting with that wang ba dahn Niska. Only now there were two men dangling there, and they both had faces she knew.

She thought nothing could be as sickening as that sudden comprehension, but she'd found out just how wrong she was upon walking into Niska's compound. The sight of them there and the knowledge that she had to make a choice was like a punch to the stomach when you're looking the other way—pain and shock and fear and rage, all delivered in one powerful stab. She'd seen worse in her time for certain, but it had still been all she could do to hold her composure when she realized she was going to have to leave one of them behind.

The plate slipped from her fingers, falling back into the water to smack against the other dishes waiting to be washed. Zoe cringed at the sharp crack that echoed through the empty room, wiping stray droplets of water from the splash off her face with a sleeve. She lifted the plate again, scanning its dripping surface for new chips. Breaking dishes, she already knew, was not a good way to get out of dish duty.

Jayne had already tried it. Captain just made him pay to replace the ones he broke.

She'd kept calm, explaining to all of them why she needed whatever money they had stashed. Leaving out her ideas of what might be happening to Wash and the Captain even as they stood there discussing it. Leaving out the part about how there might not be anything left to find if they didn't get to their men fast. Niska'd made it pretty clear how he felt about those with a mind to cheat him, and in his eyes that was exactly what they'd gone and done. Captain pushing one of his men through their engines was most likely not a point in their favor either.

She'd heard rumors about Niska's tendency to give out "'souvenirs' from his victims. Caught herself checking to see if both men had all ten fingers in the cursory glance she'd grabbed when they walked her inside that torture chamber. Before she made herself look away, pretending like she was bargaining for anyone other than the only two men she'd ever loved.

The little piece of leftover protein finally came off, and Zoe nodded in satisfaction. About time. Most days dish duty was little more than a wipe and rinse job; the food might not be the best tasting, but no one was about to let any of it go to waste. Today, though, a couple of the plates had needed scraping before they were dunked in the tepid water. Wash hadn't eaten much, but he'd accepted more soup when she'd offered later. Kaylee— generally one of the first finished eating come meal time—had toyed with her food until it was cold, getting through most of it before finally pushing her plate away. Mal'd taken less than usual, only to leave half of it behind. It was a pattern she thought she'd noticed repeating over the last few days, but she hadn't had proof of it until she'd landed dish duty.

There were other signs of the damage that'd been done them, marks from the experience they were all trying to ignore. And, just like her attempts over dishes, it wasn't working too well. She couldn't help but notice how much Kaylee was keeping to herself, how she and River hadn't as much as spoken together since they'd left the space station far as Zoe could tell. Couldn't help but notice the Captain wasn't running at one hundred percent, despite his claims to the contrary. Yesterday he'd been fool enough to help them clean up the mess in the cargo bay. Half-way through lifting a big bag of flour spilled out of a shot-up crate, he must've pulled something not yet healed; Zoe turned at the pained groan just behind her left shoulder in time to see all the color drain from his face. Doc saw it too, and hauled him off to the infirmary before he could gather the strength to protest.

Couldn't help but notice the raw, angry marks on her husband's skin left by electrodes, restraints. Or the dreams that woke her from her own unpleasant sleep. At least the moans had stopped after that first night back. Now it was just twitching spasms, nightmare jerks that increased in intensity until she shook him awake. He looked impossibly vulnerable in those first few seconds, making her want to hold him close and keep him safe from whatever horrors he was clinging to. He'd recover, insisting he was fine—fulfilling some archaic definition of what a "'man' should be. But it was only ever after she did take him into her arms that he was able to fall asleep again.

It should have been her down there, her instead of him. Not because she didn't think he could handle himself or because she thought he was weak, but because that was the way things worked. She'd made it perfectly clear before they were married that she was not the type to stay at home and play the role of Fretting Woman. She didn't like waiting any more than she liked dish duty.

Some days she thought he got it, and other days he pulled childish games like changing the shuttle's ignition sequence.

She'd been plenty pissed at that trick, and she knew for sure the Captain was none too pleased. Considered standing her ground and fighting the battle, but she could see it in his eyes that if she did, there might not be any more battles left to fight in the future. He needed to win this one, needed to prove something, so she'd backed down and let him go. Besides, she figured being stuck alone with Mal considering the mood he was in might be punishment enough.

The water in the sink had gone from lukewarm to downright cold. How in the 'verse was it possible that nine people could produce so many dirty dishes?

She didn't feel guilty about the choice she'd made. There'd been no choice at all, really. Captain had practice withstanding torture and the like. As much as she loved her husband, pain wasn't exactly what he was best at. Man was liable to go to pieces over a splinter wedged in too deep. Still, he'd proved himself against Niska—not only walked out of that room but was ready to turn right around and go back in. In Zoe's book, that was either some kind of hero, or some kind of stupid.

Contradiction like that might be why she married him. Could also be that she liked the look of him naked. No, she sure couldn't get enough of that sight.

Shipboard romances complicate things, Mal'd said, back when she'd discovered that the obnoxious pilot in the hideously patterned shirts and bad facial hair was beginning to be less annoying with every passing day. But she just wouldn't listen.

Couldn't see how it could possibly matter, really. Even now, after all this, she'd take the complications and the choices over not having Wash in her life. Zoe wasn't one for getting all mushy, but out here love and other pleasures were to be grabbed where you found them. Grabbed and held tightly, because you never knew what might come along to try and rip them away.

She didn't feel guilty. At all. It was the only choice that made sense, and she knew the Captain agreed. Knew he wouldn't look the same way at her had she opted to take him out first instead. But that hadn't stopped the near-paralyzing pang that had wrenched through her gut as she turned her back on him to help her husband to safety.

The memory brought it back in a sudden flash, the feeling wrapping its icy fingers around her insides. Zoe clutched the edge of the sink hard enough to make her fingers ache, forcing herself to calm down in slow, measured breaths. When she let go, she plunged her hands back into the cool water before she found out whether or not they were shaking.

She knew the Captain agreed, knew she made the right choice in taking Wash out first. Even if she had all but condemned him to die by Niska's sick torments. Even if he'd never turned his back on her to take someone else to freedom. He'd saved her life once by going back into the line of fire for her, retrieving her after she'd been hit by sniper fire and knocked unconscious. Run back through a hail of bullets coming from all directions, just because he'd seen her twitch and so knew she wasn't yet dead.

So she'd done the same for him. They'd all come together to help her, too. But none of the rest of them had left him there in the first place.

Just the forks left, then she was done. Her fingertips felt swollen and soft, distorted from too much time under water. She tried to come up with another limerick, but her brain wouldn't cooperate.

Zoe wondered if Wash understood her reasons for choosing him over Mal, but she doubted it. Most likely he assumed it was simply because he was her husband and she loved him—which was a part of it, certainly. She hadn't been able to stop touching him since she'd gotten him back, needing to continuously prove to herself that he was here, safe. She saw no need to go into the other factors of her decision with him. Even if he saw it as another victory in this imaginary pissing contest he sometimes seemed to be intent on waging for her affections.

She hadn't yet asked what went on between him and the Captain on their battered mission. Something, obviously, as the bizarre scene in the mess could attest. She'd played along, sensing the current of a much bigger something running beneath. Something that she figured would need sussing out before too long.

Before things got any more complicated.

And Niska had gotten away. It might take some time for him to regroup, but she knew he wouldn't let them go so easily. Captain and his crew had beaten him twice now, and for a man like Niska, blood and death could be the only penalty for such an outrageous grievance. Next time he'd be after all of them. Zoe wondered how many of the rest had figured that out by now.

Christ, she hated dish duty.

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