Wash grinned, a dreamy look in his eyes as he recalled the jubilant reaction to his successful flight. It occurred to Mal that even though Wash was a happy person, today was the first time heâ€™d seen such pure joy on his face. The man really does love to fly, he thought.
â€œI wasnâ€™t given any more assignments for a week after that, and I kinda started wondering if I was in trouble, or if Iâ€™d messed something up they didnâ€™t want to tell me about. Then one day the Captain pulled me into his office.â€
Washâ€™s legs had gone shaky as he walked in, his fears boiling to the surface. I messed up. He sat at the Captainâ€™s direction, and waited nervously. â€œHe told me Iâ€™d been chosen to fly the attack mission. A green fighter and here I was making one of the most important strikes of the war.â€ Wash had left the office, wandering onto the track and starting to run. It wasnâ€™t like him, he hated PT. But he was overwhelmed with adrenaline; excitement unlike anything heâ€™d ever felt was driving his steps.
Wash looked at Mal, his eyes glowing. â€œCanâ€™t even describe how happy I was. It was the most thrilling, humbling thing that ever happened to me. Just-â€ he threw his hands in the air with a grin. â€œEvery dream come true.â€
Mal smiled, clearly enjoying Washâ€™s enthusiasm. â€œMustâ€™ve been amazing.â€
Wash nodded rapidly. â€œMost certainly. It took them a while to get things all set up, and I did a lot of practice in simulators and such. Finally the day came, and getting in was pretty much exactly the same, tricky but doable. It was fun.â€
Washâ€™s eyes sparked with excitement as he remembered the thrill of that flight; danger and adventure the perfect accent to the unfolding of a perfect plan, executed without a hitch. â€œDidnâ€™t have to waste any time looking for the command center this time, just flew in, unloaded my missiles, admired the nice black crater Iâ€™d made, and ran like hell. Figured on it being easy getting back, seeing as Iâ€™d just destroyed the net. One of our fighters waved me, said there were Alliance fighters headed my way and Iâ€™d better scram.â€
He shook his head ruefully. â€œSounds so naive now, but that just made my day even better. I was playing, I really was. Thought evading Alliance fighters would be the perfect end to the perfect mission. I was thrilled.â€ He rolled his eyes and shook his head.
â€œNothing like a challenge, I guess,â€ said Mal playfully. â€œI tend to prefer my challenges without warheads attached, but-â€œ he grinned as Washâ€™s glare cut him off.
â€œIt just so happened that as I was so obediently scramming, I ran across an Alliance fighter and spotted it before it saw me, and I figured I could get a kill easily enough. My ship wasnâ€™t really meant for dogfighting, but I was coming up from behind and it was an easy target. Figured I could take it out and get back to the scramming in plenty of time.â€
Mal raised an eyebrow. â€œIs this where we cue the foreboding musical score?â€
â€œPretty much,â€ Wash chuckled. â€œI lined the shot up perfectly, finger on the button and one heck of an adrenaline rush happening. Then just in that split second when I was going to fire, I had to go realize there was some poor Wash-like guy in that ship, and I suddenly wasnâ€™t too keen on this whole murdering business.â€
Wash shook his head, his expression sobering. â€œI thought, â€˜Thereâ€™s a guy in that ship, flying along all unsuspecting and enjoying his day, and here youâ€™re gonna press a button and kill him, just like that?â€™ Started wondering when I got to be the kind of guy that blows people into small pieces for recreational value.â€ Washâ€™s voice had taken on a dryly sarcastic tone.
â€œBut I wasnâ€™t too keen on the whole Wash dying thing either, and thatâ€™s about when I learned that I picked a really bad time to work out moral issues. Guess I lack a certain killer instinct. I didnâ€™t fire. He picked up my reading, started evasive maneuvers and I lost him. It was weird, I knew I killed people when I hit the command center, but-â€œ he stared at Mal in confusion â€œ-this was just different.â€
â€œNo personal connection,â€ said Mal calmly. â€œItâ€™s a lot different, pressing the button on something that doesnâ€™t even really look like building from the air. Iâ€™m sure you had a lot of empathy for that guy, knowing he was a fellow pilot anâ€™ all.â€
Wash nodded, grateful for the understanding. â€œTurns out while I was wrestling with my conscience the rest of the fighters caught up with me.â€ He gulped. â€œA minute later I was taking fire, and one of the missiles I just couldnâ€™t quite evade.â€
â€œWhen it hit, I remember thinking that dying was really loud. Then I realized that it was just getting the wing of my ship blown off that was loud, and the dying was going to wait until I crashed into the ground. I worked on that not happening, and actually made it in one piece.â€
Â Wash closed his eyes momentarily. â€œI wasnâ€™t even scared then, during the crash. It was still a game, just a harder one, you know? It wasnâ€™t real, it just wasnâ€™t. Then it all hit.â€
He fell silent and looked away, the joy fading from his eyes. Heâ€™d wished for years that he could somehow forget the ending to this story, rewrite it so that the elation never bowed to harsh reality. In a single second, heâ€™d learned that he really was in a war, and that it was more real than any story could convey.
He sighed, wishing for the thousandth time he could change the outcome of that flight, change what had happened, change what heâ€™d done while in the grip of blinding fear. â€œI think you know what happened next. There was taking of Wash as a prisoner, bars, cells, fun stuff. Washâ€™s war, the end.â€
Mal noted with sympathy that it was the part of the ordeal that must have been the hardest that he skipped over so breezily. Remembering the fear heâ€™d felt his own self at having been taken prisoner, he knew Wash had been terrified, and Mal suspected theyâ€™d been very hard on the scared young pilot whoâ€™d caused the Alliance so much grief.
Mal had the advantage of being hardened by six years of combat, and heâ€™d been slowly dying on a field of death and heartbreak. There wasnâ€™t anything they could do to him worse than that; no torture to equal starving to death surrounded by the rotting bodies and suffering of the soldiers heâ€™d led to defeat. Though heâ€™d felt fear, knowing the grim reputuation of POW camps, it had been tempered by what heâ€™d already become accustomed to. But Wash had been a lighthearted, naÃ¯ve kid with nothing to help him cope with the shock of the world heâ€™d landed in.
â€œYou did good,â€ said Mal, careful to keep his voice kind. â€œNot many as can say they did as much for our side as you, just too bad you ended up in prison for it.â€
â€œI guess. I just didnâ€™t think about the killing when I thought it would be fun to go to war. Because Iâ€™m not so much a fan of exploding and blood.â€
â€œWell, you can explode other people,â€ Mal pointed out. â€œDid quite a bit of that, myself.â€
â€œAnd the blood? Thereâ€™s still blood! And an odd little concept called compassion? Iâ€™m just not into making people explode!â€
â€œIt grows on you,â€ said Mal mildly. â€œBut there is blood.â€
â€œMal, you have the heart of a poet,â€ said Wash sarcastically. â€œA really creepy, twisted poet, the kind whose mind you donâ€™t want to probe with a ten-foot pole.â€
â€œWell, Iâ€™m just saying! Bullets do interesting things too, nothing like a good killing to start the morning off right.â€
â€œYes, if youâ€™re a sociopath!â€ Wash was staring at Mal with genuine unease, and finally he stood. â€œLook. Iâ€™m not sure if youâ€™re joking right now or not. But youâ€™re talking to the kid who ruined his whole life because he wouldnâ€™t kill someone, and itâ€™s what you might call a sensitive issue. Forgive me if I donâ€™t want to joke about blowing people up.â€ With that, he walked away, leaving Mal with a befuddled expression on his face.
â€œBut â€“ I was joking,â€ said Mal to himself. He groaned internally and followed the disgruntled pilot, who stalked theatrically away, but finally turned to face him.
Mal smiled at Wash, trying to soften the harsh impression heâ€™d just made on his friend. â€œI couldnâ€™t do it either,â€ he said gently. â€œI fired off some rounds, but I couldnâ€™t kill, not right at first. Not easy, lookinâ€™ at a guy thatâ€™s just as human as you and puttinâ€™ a bullet through â€˜im.
â€œItâ€™s okay, Mal. Really, youâ€™re not living unless you have regular cause to wonder if your best pal, whom you also happen to be incarcerated with, is a ruthless killer. Everythingâ€™s shiny.â€
â€œDonâ€™t worry, Wash. Iâ€™m the cutest and most lovable ruthless killer youâ€™ll ever meet. Really. Thereâ€™s a plush toy made after me.â€
â€œIâ€™m glad I didnâ€™t learn to kill people.â€ Wash looked directly at Mal, confusion and insecurity written plainly on his face, and Mal immediately regretted his offhanded remarks. His attempts to lighten the mood had backfired resoundingly. â€œI wanted to be a soldier, but I didnâ€™t have the guts for it, and I wish I could get it straight how I feel about that.â€
Mal looked at Wash gently. â€œBrave is being there, facing the bullets and the missiles and taking the risk that youâ€™ll be killed or horribly injured in the blink of an eye. Itâ€™s putting yourself in that position that takes courage, and you did that. You took on a couple of missions that sound risky enough to be almost suicidal without even hesitating. Thatâ€™s courage, Wash, not pulling a trigger. Tell me you didnâ€™t know you could be killed or maimed or be taken prisoner when you agreed to do this.â€
â€œI did,â€ said Wash, his voice tight. â€œDidnâ€™t think it would happen, but, yeah, I did.â€
â€œWell, there yaâ€™ go,â€ said Mal. â€œI think you are a brave guy by nature. Stop worryin,â€™ okay?â€
Wash hung his head, a look of misery on his face. After an agonizingly long moment of silence, he turned and walked away, unable to speak. Mal watched as he wandered across the small yard, his feet crunching in the gravel. Wash finally sat down heavily in a corner and leaned back against the fence, and Mal sighed in frustration. This is not my best day ever for pep-talks, he thought. Iâ€™ve managed to scare him and depress him all in one conversation. Nicely done.
He slowly approached the pilot, wondering what on earth to say this time. He came up with exactly nothing and stood uselessly in front of his friend. Finally he sat down, and Wash raised his head and spoke, his voice deeply sad.
â€œIt was a much more horrible feeling than I thought. I didnâ€™t take being in the military all that seriously; heck it was really all one big role-playing game for me. But suddenly I saw everything theyâ€™d trusted me with, and I realized theyâ€™d taken me seriously even though I hadnâ€™t returned the favor. Theyâ€™d given me this huge responsibility and I wasnâ€™t prepared for it and I betrayed it.â€ There was a deep sincerity in those words that moved Mal; recognition and a sense of honor that Mal hadnâ€™t seen in him before.
â€œWhen I got here, the whole military thing started to sink in, I started to realize just what it meant to be willing to be a soldier. And when I started talking to the guys in here, saw what theyâ€™d done and went through, I just â€“ I could barely look them in the eye. I admired them so much, and I didnâ€™t deserve to call myself one of them.â€
Mal swallowed back the lump in his throat. â€œWash, thereâ€™s a whole group of soldiers in that building â€“â€œ he nodded towards the housing unit â€œ-that think the world of you. Youâ€™re the legend those pilots learned about in flight school, and I donâ€™t know if they got the nerve to say this to your face, but theyâ€™re prouderâ€™n peaches to be locked up with you. You might not see yourself as a soldier, but they sure as heck do.â€
Wash raised his head. â€œLegends arenâ€™t always altogether factual, you know.â€
â€œNever are, but it doesnâ€™t stop â€˜em from inspiring us,â€ said Mal with a quiet smile. â€œYou can look me in the eye any time, â€˜specially if you keep showing me how to cope with this place as well as you do. Legend or not, thatâ€™s a thing I look up to considerable.â€