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Title: Home Again
Author: Scrunchy
Rating: NC-17 for dirty words & actions
Pairing: Wash/f
Notes: Thanks to slodwick for everything (everything and a tirelessly thorough beta job. There needs to be a better word for "awesome") and the spiffy cover art, and to übertodd for moral support and offers of Hula! Dancing! Wash!
Spoilers: General for entire season, nonspecific dialogue lifted whole from a yellow-tinted scene in "Out of Gas." Oh, and did ya'll know River's crazy?
Disclaimer: Except for the few who are, these folks ain't mine. They’s Joss’s and FOX’s, for better or worse. All I got is this piece of sky outside my window, and you can’t take it from me.
Feedback: Very much appreciated, and can be sent here

Submitted for Isilya's Literary Challenge

My assignment was:
Question: Why can't I go home again?
Taboo Word: Ship
Must Use: Tawdry
Fandom: Firefly

They were all so alive. Not just alive, but buzzing with it.

The seven of them were chattering away in the galley, sounding like twenty people. Kaylee and River sat at the table, folding cranes out of bits of the latest wanted poster. River tossed hers, which sailed across the room and landed in Simon’s hair. Kaylee dissolved into giggles when the doctor leapt up and frantically brushed the offending piece of paper off of him.

Wash sat across from Kaylee, picking away at a piece of bread and telling Zoe about all the things they were going to do with the money from the next big job, like starting a rabbit farm and funding a sock puppet theater troupe. Zoe was laughing, one hand petting Wash’s arm and the other resting on her stomach. Book sat towards the back of the room, watching everyone over the cover of his bible and smiling serenely. Jayne sat futher behind and watched Book.

Mal walked in, slowly and sporting a shade of green no one had seen since the last time Jayne had cooked dinner.

“Hey there, captain,” Kaylee smiled up at him, “how are you feeling?”

“For the last time,” he leaned heavily on the counter. “I’m fine.”

“‘Fine’ don’t vomit all over the deck, need me take an hour to clean it all up,” Jayne addressed the floor between his feet.

Mal winced and sat down heavily at the head of the table.

“Wash, when do we bump dock at Maida?”

“‘Bout another hour,” Wash lifted his head from Zoe’s shoulder, “...assuming I don’t crash us into something large and solid before that.”

“See that you don’t,” Mal leaned back and patted the tabletop, “Okay, here’s the thing-”

“There’s a thing?” Kaylee wore the pouty face of this can’t go anywhere good.

“There’s always a thing,” Mal reached out and squeezed her hand, “this thing in particular...we can’t all get off here. Alliance med folk are on world for some big symbi...semin, no. Doctor?”

“Symposium. The Annual Alliance Medical Symposium. Of course. I didn’t even realize it was that time of year again,” Simon moved to River’s side, “I’m sorry, I really did-”

“Wasn’t much planning for blaming you, unless you really want me to.”

“This ‘thing’? I’m liking it a whole lot less by the second,” Jayne stood.

“Jayne,” Zoe’s voice wasn’t loud enough to wake a baby, but it had Jayne sitting again.

“So, as you may have surmised already, Simon and River will be staying on board. The city’s going to be crawling with feds, so I’m thinking Jayne, now that the Alliance considers you pretty solidly linked with the Tams here, you’d best stay out of sight, too. I’ll stay here too...’s got to be some captainly things need doing.”

“Also, you’re sickly.”

“I am not sickly, Kaylee, and if you say that one more time, I won’t call Jayne next time my not sickliness needs cleaning up.”

“Fine...cranky. So Zoe and Wash, and Preacher and me? We can go?”

“No. One person goes, and it’s not you. You’re staying here and looking at shuttle two...see if you can’t figure out why it rattles so. Gorram thing’s like to fall off, sounds like. And stop pouting, Miss Kaylee. This was never billed as a vacation. This is a supply run. You just ain’t doing the running. Zoe, you’ll take the helm once we dock.”

“Sir?” she cocked her head.

“Well, I’ve all that...captain stuff, and - and we discussed this already.”

“No, Sir. If I’m at the helm, then that means I’m not doing the run, and if Wash isn’t at the helm, then...what exactly is the plan here?” Zoe cast a glance at Wash, who was chewing his bottom lip and tapping his fingertips anxiously on the table.

“Way I see it,” Mal leaned forward on his elbows, “only one of us familiar enough with Maida can do this run fast without calling too much attention back our way.

Wash looked up at Mal, imagined what the captain would look like if a thousand angry squirrels were to attack him at that moment.

Zoe’s eyes settled on Wash, but she spoke to Mal, “Still not following so much, sir.”

“You went to Braithwaite, yes?” he had his very Mal I’m in charge and you’re so not eye lock focused on his pilot, who was still picturing those squirrels.

“Sure did, sir,” Wash wasn’t surly so much as...really surly. And ooh, he changed to badgers and that was a whole new kind of fun.

“Braithwaite? Really?” Kaylee’s face could have lit all of Serenity with bright to spare. “Wow. I knew you were smart, but...”

“I don’t understand,” Book interjected, “if Wash’s spent so much time here, wouldn’t he be the last person you’d want to send out and risk getting recogni-”

“Shouldn’t be a one down there knows me,” Wash’s eyes were half closed and he pulled his hand away from Zoe’s, “and anyone who does won’t be rushing on up for a chat.”

Kaylee’s smile fell from her face.

Mal looked down, then cleared his throat. “Preacher, you’re to stay on board and...and I don’t care much what you do, so long as it’s here. Wash can handle this. Inara’s leaving us when we touch down, but she’ll be back by tomorrow dawn. We’re back in the air after that, latest by ten, dong ma?”

Jayne got up and brushed past Mal on his way out.

River held a crane across the table to Wash.

“It’s your way home. Don’t think it’s anything else, or you’ll never get back.”

He smiled up at the girl, sometimes he just couldn’t help it, and took the crane. Kaylee put a hand on River’s elbow and led her out of the room.

Mal looked over to where Wash was staring at the table and Zoe was staring at Wash. Zoe looked over to him and did that thing with her eyes where it could mean twenty different things, but it was always clear exactly what she meant. Mal clapped his hands and hoisted himself up.

“Right! Well, there’s...things. I should...get started on them. Yes. Wash, you go, you do this, you come back. I trust you.” With no answer from Wash’s profile, Mal nodded to Zoe and left.

“I’m...sensing the badness, but I don’t know why,” Zoe slid one hand across Wash’s back and the other in circles on his belly.

“You’re very perceptive,” he looked up with the world’s unhappiest smile, “that’s one of the things I love about you.”

Zoe kissed him then, soft, and brought her hands up around his cheeks.

“If you don’t wanna’ share right now that’s fine. Just come back, and in just the one piece.”

Wash’s smile was slightly more believable when he kissed the tip of Zoe’s nose and stood.

“It’s nothing...just spent some time here is all. This won’t take more than a few hours.” He stopped at the doorframe and turned back. “I love you.”

Zoe opened her mouth to reply in kind, but Wash had walked away.

The air was grayer on Maida than it had been only a few years before. Wash had zipped River’s crane into a pocket on his vest and the bag of coins Mal had given him into another one. The mule purred and slipped into traffic, and Wash made a mental note to thank Kaylee for fixing the muffler on it. He was just another driver on the congested road, but part of him kept wishing he’d thought to borrow Jayne’s dumb earflap hat. The larger part of him remembered that the hat had spent a lot of time on Jayne’s head, and applauded his decision not to borrow it.

The plan was to drive all the way out to the edge of town to the salvage yard and then work his way back into town. The yard hadn’t changed since the days when Wash and his classmates combed it for parts to finish their projects...was it second year? He strode in past the gate, kept his head down and headed for the small parts area of the yard. Kaylee’s loopy handwriting on a scrap of paper told Wash to find a replacement deflector plate. There was also a happy face.

The deflector plate was easy enough to find and only slightly harder to haggle down to a reasonable price. Wash headed back towards town. He stopped at Ana’s for the protein and dry goods. He hefted the load into the back and secured it. There was a woman walking towards him, carrying a small blonde boy. The boy must have been three or four years old. His hair looked like it had never seen a brush. He was wailing in his mother’s arms.

Wash was a good little boy who never cried, not even when he broke his fourth pair of glasses in as many months. His vision was awful, like glass smeared with grease. Consequently, certain things got in the way of his little feet before he had time to avoid them. His father didn’t yell at him when Wash stepped up to his desk and set down a mound of shattered black bits. Instead he just hauled his son onto his lap, ruffled the head of hair that shone more and more like his mother’s every day, and promised him a new pair when the next paycheck came. His mother demanded he stay inside until he was properly respectacled, handed him his little plastic rocket, and pointed him back towards his father’s study.

Wash sat back on the immense couch, softly narrating the adventures of his tiny vessel. He made barely audible “woosh!” “foom!” noises for less than ten minutes before he went silent. Then the toy thunked down onto the rug. Dad looked over at his son’s spindly little bundle of legs and arms all tucked in the impossibly tiny Wash-shaped growth on the sofa. Slowly he slid his soft brown coat from where Wash’s head had pinned it against the sofa’s arm, and spread it over the boy. Wash’s eyebrows contracted - an absurd consternation on the brow of an eight year old - and he wiggled himself deeper into the couch, pulling the collar of the worn coat tighter around his shoulders. His father planted a firm kiss above Wash’s ear and settled back behind his desk.

Two years later, Wash would go off planet for the first time. He stared out of the small window as the transport burned through Aldgate’s oily gray atmosphere. Four hours passed with Wash wide-eyed and fixed to the spot, and when Euston came into crisp, colorful view he breathed out an exultant sigh. Wash grabbed his mother’s hand as she readjusted her satchel of books and papers over her other arm. She looked down at him and smiled. He looked up at her and pulled her towards the exit. When he saw the light streaming in from the door, he let go of her hand and ran off the boat, jumping down onto planet. He made it three whole steps before catching his foot in a coil of rope and sailing face first into a pile of luggage.

His father ran over and pulled him up.

“Marian,” he called over his shoulder, “come help find Wash’s glasses.”

“Oh!” she hurried over, smoothing her son’s hair back and checking his limbs for obvious damage, “Sweetie, are you all right?”

Wash’s eyes were moving frenetically, across her face, over her shoulders, up at the clear blue sky.

“Thomas,” her voice quavered, “please come here a moment...”

His father popped up from behind the mound of luggage he was combing through and jogged over to his wife. A broad smile stretched Wash’s cheeks, and he flcikered his eyes between his parents.

“I can see,” he blinked and jammed the heels of his palms against his eyes, “...fine, I can see fine! Mom! Dad! Mom!”

Marian looked at Thomas, then at Wash. In two hours she and her husband would lead a rally for the Independents. Two hours after that they’d start arrangements to leave Aldgate for good.

But they couldn’t. Things were changing and making big moves wasn’t the best idea. Marian was livid and Thomas was red with guilt.

“It’s just not the best idea for either of us make that kind of change right now, things as they are. We move...we’ll just have to start all over again. We have tenure here, we have jobs that the Alliance can’t easily mess with. We have friends here who’ll help us if things start to go down the way people are talking they might. Alliance is cracking down on all us - everyone, not just the pugnacious kids. They’re starting to say we’ll war. Soon.”

“Thomas, he’s your son! He has the chance to be healthier than he ever could hope to be here,” Marian’s voice dropped.

Thomas’s could drop lower, though.

“Health won’t do him much good if it gets us all shot in our sleep.”

They stayed in Aldgate, and Wash hated his glasses even more, knowing that anywhere else he wouldn’t need them. Thomas soon published the scathing and legendary “Manifesto Independence,”and while Marian taught literature to teenagers during the day, at night she taught their older brothers and sisters civil disobedience.

One Sunday, when Wash was fifteen, he walked into the study and told his parents what he’d known since he was eight. When the word “pilot” escaped his lips, his father bristled and his mother gripped the arms of her chair.

“Not for the Alliance,” Wash smiled the smile he knew reminded his mom of his dad, and his dad of...himself, “Never for them. But I need to get out of this place. I love you, both, but I can’t live here anymore.”

He flew to Maida two years later and got perfect scores on the admissions exam for Braithwaite. A year after that, he returned, dragging a trunk of his possessions behind him. Wash tucked his glasses away in his coat pocket and headed towards the academy.

He climbed, sitting on his trunk for a rest halfway up, to the eighth floor of the residence hall. Standing in his room, balanced on a chair and wearing a shirt so orange Wash actually shielded his eyes, was his roommate. He was assembling, on a shelf, what looked to Wash like a tiny plastic menagerie.

“Friends of yours?” he called from the doorway, immediately wishing he’d chosen a better First Impression maneuver. When the person you’re supposed to live with is standing on one foot, on top of furniture, the surprise method’s generally not the way to go. The boy wobbled, his flail releasing a small white lamb in a graceful arc that ended in Wash’s hand, and finally jumped off the chair. He stood up tall and smiled.

“Quint Coleman,” he had the slow, happy drawl of every rancher Wash had ever met, “You must be Wash.”

Quint held his hand out. Wash accidentally shook it with the hand that held the sheep. Quint slipped it from his palm and held it up.

“Very smooth, kid,” he said, placing the sheep in its proper place between the tyrannosaurus and what looked a lot like a tiger in army gear.

Quint was from Kumar, the tiny ranch community on Lin Bing out by the Vance cluster. He was tall, a head higher than Wash and two years older, with a mop of dark hair that had been combed flat to his scalp and the scruffy facial hair of a young man still in awe of his hair-growing capabilities. His half of the closet pulsed with colors and patterns that contrasted sharply with Wash’s trunk full of whites, black, and grays.

That night Quint and Wash walked back from the bookstore and took turns reading their first year textbook out loud. They adopted the voices of cowboys, popular entertainers, and several of Quint’s animals. When they were both hoarse from laughing and reading, they got changed for sleep.

Wash stared up at a new ceiling and could barely contain the excitement that thrummed just under his temple. He heard Quint roll and shift, then sigh and laugh.

“I’m sorry, kid,” He was staring at his own patch of ceiling, “I just can’t believe tomorrow I’m going to be a pilot.”

Wash went to sleep smiling.

It was the most gorgeous day of his second year at Braithwaite. It was warm, the grass smelled like heaven, and the sun was just...holding everyone, sliding warm hands over skin. He was done with classes for the week, had just aced his last midterm, and was buzzing with the news that he’d been skipped a level to advanced maneuvers.

Wash was tossing a ball back and forth with Quint, joking about Captain Perng’s latest exercise in aeronautic torture when Dean Renshaw came into view, walking his too-fast stride, his face redder than usual.

He was very sorry but they were dead. Home in the middle of the day and their house burned to blackened splinters. No witnesses had come forth, no fire patrol assistance arrived until the conflagration had already swallowed itself and resolved into a pile of ash and bone in the middle of their usually busy street. Wash slid down into the grass and stared at it, breathing hard through his nose to keep the shaking lump in his throat down. Quint had pulled the dean away, asking questions, saying thank you, saying things the boy in the grass couldn’t hear. Wash blinked because all he could see was watery green, and suddenly Quint bent towards him, holding out his hands.

“Come on, kid,” he pulled Wash up and led him upstairs with a hand gentle on his back, “I think it’s inside time now.”

Wash never remembered clearly how he fell to tiny, him-shaped pieces, but he knows he was a wreck. Months later, Quint waved a dismissive hand at him and offered a kind, if entirely fictitious, “Don’t think a minute on it, kid. You were all sorts of brave.” A nice gesture, since Wash still could recall waking up with his sob-fuzzy head cradled in his sleeping roommate’s lap.

That morning, Wash went back to Aldgate for the memorial service arranged by his parents’ friends. Turns out they were getting better and better at organizing these quickly with each passing death. The viscous air rushed at him in a sour wave as he stepped off the gangway onto the dock. His throat seized around a rising gag and his eyes suddenly were those of a man who’d long ago forgotten to blink. Unfortunately, he was just a man who had forgotten his glasses.

The two impossibly small urns that held their remains were wrapped in brown fabric and buried under the planet’s tallest tree left standing. Stanley Tanaka, his father’s best friend, pressed a card into his hand, assured him a job once he completed school. His mother’s best friend left her hand on his cheek for too long before she said goodbye, jumping a little when her husband called out for her to hurry up.

Suddenly everyone cleared out, and Wash was alone when the thick, sunburned sky split and oozed drops that didn’t smell like anything should. He buttoned his coat (soaked now as it was with Aldgate rain and therefore unequivocally ruined) and jammed his hands into the pockets of his best pants. Heading back towards the docks, he told himself to get on the first transport off planet, regardless of where it took him. But there was a shuttle headed towards Maida when he arrived, so he got on and headed back to school.

Quint jumped up when Wash walked in, his books scattering to the floor. He pulled Wash into his chair and put a drink in his hand. Wash was looking around the room, assessing everything that was his...everything he had now that his home was gone.

“How was it? How was home?” Quint opened a bottle for himself and flopped back onto his bed.

“It...wasn’t.” Wash’s face was unreadable, the glaze-eyed blinkings of a man mentally orchestrating the suppression of a hundred thoughts and scores more emotions.

“Well, ya’ didn’t miss much here,” Quint reached over to his notebook, then looked up at Wash, “Oh, ‘cept we were in Maneuvers and Corporal Tu told us this phrase...for when everythin’s just shiny and you’re flying smooth...he goes, ‘yankin and bankin, kids’. Wash, I swear, I damn near died.”

Wash almost coughed a mouthful of beer into his hand, he leaned his forearms on his knees and laughed to the floor.

“I’m serious, kid...” Quint sighed, “I’m like to use that phrase every day, now. Just so you’re prepared.”

Wash couldn’t breathe now, he was shaking and gasping.

“Go on, laugh, I’ll be over here...

At some point, Quint had mastered the dramatic pause.

“...just yankin’ and bankin’ my friend.”

When he stopped laughing, Wash was pretty sure he had broken a rib.

They drank, and joked, and made up an entire musical about fission starring Quint’s toy dinosaurs. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t as brilliant as their liquor addled brains had imagined, but it was what Wash needed to distract him while his mind euthanized his last ties to Aldgate.

It was a full time job, though, keeping his mind off things, and with a war looming closer and closer by the month, he had a hard time figuring out what he was doing at Braithwaite. The Alliance was a growing presence, officials sitting in on classes and taking notes on students more and more by the day. Wash knew that when the war started, he’d be propositioned.

The summer after that term, Wash and Quint left their keys at the front desk of the res hall and moved into an apartment in a less...illustrious district of Maida. They ate dinner late that first night, sitting on the kitchen counter and looking around at the stacks of boxes and bags yet to be unpacked. “We should enjoy this, kid,” Quint poked Wash in the ribs with the end of his spoon, “I’m apt to think this is the cleanest this home’s ever gonna be.”

He was wrong, though, and whether it was a testament to Quint’s need to have his entire closet of loud shirts washed and at the ready at all times, or to the pair’s affinity for meals that could be bought, prepared, and consumed without sullying a dish, the apartment stayed remarkably clean. Wash suspected his roommate’s vigilance on the subject was due more to the fact that Quint was liable to bring home a girl at any given moment than it was to any particular homemaking kink in his personality.

A month after they moved in, Quint dragged Wash out to the bar down the street. Quint started talking to a girl, all stick straight blonde hair and sharp angles. Quint leaned in close as he spoke...Wash couldn’t hear what he was saying, but the eyebrows, he thought, spoke volumes. He made a fuzzy mental note to compliment Quint on his brow expressiveness when they got home.

For his own part, Wash was unsteadily holding court over six (or possibly just three) first year flight students. They clutched their mostly untouched glasses and drank in every word of the Wash’s stories. There was the gyroscope that shot out of the glass cover and knocked Captain Michaelson unconscious, and the time Quint pulled the thrust mech right out of the nav panel, causing much confusion and pretty sparks-

“Shut it, kid. That was loose ‘fore I ever got to it,” Quint and the girl had shifted their attentions away from each other and onto Wash.

“Right!” he threw his hands up, “How could I have forgotten - oh wait - because it didn’t happen that way!”

Quint punched him in the shoulder, downed the rest of his drink, and stood. The girl stood too.

“This is Naima, Wash - Naima, this is Wash,” Quint’s introductory gestures pointed to the wrong person at the wrong name, but the general idea got across.

Wash nodded at Naima, smiled his close-mouthed smile and held out his hand, “Pleasure to meet you.”

She took his hand, and Wash was suprised at how tiny it felt. All the little bird bones, nothing like the girls he had known. They were all soft and warm and not a corner on them. Naima looked like she could cut you. She was beautiful.

“I’m going to walk Naima home,” Quint tried twice to pat Wash on the shoulder, “You going to get home okay?”

Wash raised his glass to Quint, “I am fine, my friend. Naima, make sure he gets you both home okay, yeah?”

She was sleeping on their couch when he walked home at dawn.

A month later, Naima had moved from the couch to Quint’s bed, and she had moved her sole bag of belongings from the artists’ collective she had been living in to the boys’ apartment. The long hours that Quint spent studying for his finals, Wash spent down at the bar or helping Naima find scrap metal for her latest sculpture project. He was happy, sitting down to dinner every night with Quint and Naima, doing nothing particularly important every day. Quint was worried about him, but whenever he’d slide the topic across their pillow at night, Naima would wave it away.

“Everyone does things differently,” she cupped his face in her hand, “Wash is figuring it out. He’ll find his way.”

“You think?” Quint kissed up the inside of her forearm.

“I do,” she snuggled in close to him, “yes.”

Wash screamed “Noooo!” and threw his head back.

Quint moved his hands, advancing the little plastic animal until it stood millimeters away from Wash’s ceramic soldier. “I cow you!” he said in his best bovine impression, which Wash always insisted sounded more like Sergeant Holborn’s hoarse lisp than any cow he’d ever encountered.

“Ack!” Wash turned his figurine away, “Not...not the cow!”

“Yes! Do not avert your eyes!” The cow reared up on its tiny hind legs and boomed, “The cow has come, and it has come....for YOU!”

The cow brought his forelegs down on the tiny man, who struggled briefly. “Ohhh the pain! The horror! The beefy smell of death!” With one final stomp, it was over...mostly because one of the cow’s plastic legs had shattered the soldier’s head, rendering even the imaginary animus quenched.

“Gorram it, I--I’m sorry, kid,” Quint started picking up fragments of the soldier’s skull.

Wash was silent for the merest second before he snatched the cow and knocked Quint flat on his back.

“The cowslave has turned on his cruel master,” he marched the toy across Quint’s chest and pinned the taller boy’s arms down beneath his knees, “Muahaha! You are cow commander no more!”

Wash would have been perfectly content to continue torturing his best friend like that for at least a few more minutes, but a muffled giggle from behind him snapped his head around to where Naima stood. Quint heard it too, and sat up so quickly Wash was launched backwards onto his own ass.

“Ohh,” Naima fake pouted as Quint swept her into his arms, “Don’t stop on account of me! It looked like you were both really, really getting into that whole studying so you don’t fail your finals and end up slinging whiskey for the rest of your lives thing--”

Quint cut her off, pressing his mouth to the juncture of her neck and shoulder and lifting her over his shoulder. “Leave that,” he pointed, with the hand that wasn’t patting Naima’s backside, to the skull shrapnel still littering the living room floor in front of Wash, “I’ll clean that later.” He spun around, Naima shrieking like a child on a carnival ride, and strode off towards their bedroom. Wash smiled and started picking up the pieces of his brave soldier.

Finals were suddenly upon them, the culmination of their three years at Braithwaite. Wash hadn’t been to classes more than five times all term, and hadn’t even looked at a book. What Quint hated was that as long as Wash showed up to the testing hall, he’d still pass, and likely blow Quint and his two solid months of studying right out of the sky.

The night before the final, Quint accompanied Wash to the bar for the first time in a long time, and ended up trying to get Wash to stop before he drank his weight in cheap whiskey, reminding him that his license was getting farther away by the glass. Wash raised a hand and ordered another, never breaking eye contact with his friend. He was an amazing pilot, yes, but at some point he’d become a really obnoxious drunk. Quint pushed his chair back hard and shrugged into his coat.

“Fine,” he threw his hands up, “you go ahead and stay, and oh, drink more because that’s been workin’ for you. Your concept of going out for social interaction is seriously warped, kid. When you screw yourself over for the test tomorrow morning, don’t come crying to me.”

Wash stopped smiling. Quint’s face turned white.

"Not my meaning, kid," he sat back down and rubbed his eyes, "You know I din’t mean it that way. I’m really, really, sor-"

“Hey, no! Don’t worry about it. I wouldn’t want to burden you like that. Again, apparently.” Wash was staring at the scarred wood table so intensely, part of Quint expected it to burst into flames.

“And newsflash, kid,” Wash looked up as he spat the word out, “I’m not all that eager to get my license. You know how all those Alliance folks have been sniffing around us the past few months? I know we’ve both been approached by officers about making our future in noble service to them. I want none of it...”

“Wash, don’t-”

“Do you know how they died?” Wash spoke entirely through his teeth, his eyes narrow and red and burning directly through Quint’s, “Did you ever ask how my parents died?”

“I figured you’d tell me if you wanted.”

“They were murdered.” Wash sat back with an almost-smile, “Murdered by someone with the kind of power to burn a house down in broad daylight, a house on the busiest thoroughfare on the world. Did I mention they were Independents? ‘Cuz they were. Browncoats through and even had his own manifesto. We were very proud.”

“Wash, stop.” Quint closed his hand over his friend’s wrist.

Wash yanked it away, “Hey. No touch. I’m talking. So, where was I? Ahh, right. The brutal fiery murder of two academics whose greatest crime was distributing their ideas. My parents weren’t the crazy browncoats rolling gas bombs into Alliance symposiums. They never, neither of them held a gun. They were teachers. And the Alliance burned them and their house, my home to the ground. They didn’t find enough of either of them to fill this glass. And now the Alliance is going to ask me to join up. They’ll ask you too...but you’ll go. I can’t do it.”

Quint couldn’t look at him. Wash slammed his money on the table and pushed past Quint into the night.

He didn’t come home.

The next day Quint sat in the auditorium surrounded by anxious students. He shifted in his seat, craning his neck to find Wash in the crowd until the test booklet was slapped onto the desk in front of him.

Quint was the last one out of the room, distracted every time someone walked past him to the front with their completed booklet. Wash was not among them, and when Quint finally handed in his test, he ran towards the apartment praying that Wash would at least be there.

It was late, late that night when he finally heard Wash’s key in the door. Naima was sound asleep in their room, and he had nodded off at the kitchen table hours. Quint jumped to his feet and threw his arms around his friend. Wash looked awful and smelled worse, but he was suddenly a few inches off the ground in Quint’s rib crushing embrace.

“God, Wash,” Quint set him down and took hold of his shoulders, “Damn you. Are you all right? I can’t ruttin’ stand you, liú máng.”

Wash’s mouth was half open with retort, but he was being hugged again, so he held off.

“Don’t do that. Please. I thought you were dead. I thought you might be very very dead.”

Wash smiled at him, eased Quint’s death grip from his arm, “I’m okay. Promise. I’m sorry. Not dead, but sorry. Okay? Are you okay?”

Quint walked away, dropped heavily onto the couch. Wash followed and sat near him.

“So, did you take the final?” he reached over and prodded Quint’s arm.

“I can’t believe you,” Quint raised his head and smiled crazily at Wash, “Yes, I took it. In fact, if the wave that came over a few hours ago is to be believed, I passed.”

“Good!” Wash turned fully to face him, “That’s fantastic!”

Quint just shook his head, his smile flickering between genuine and not.

“Hey,” Wash said, “did I say I’m sorry, because...yes, that. For everything.”


“Everything,” Wash ticked the points off on his hands, “The drinking, the...the....not letting you study when you needed to, the more drinking, and the-uhh-the...oh! That time I threw up in the hallway! Yeah...really sorry about that one. I know how important this is to you...flying with the Alliance, if they draft you. I...what they did wasn’ won’t be you, I know that. I decided last night, or this morning, or tonight...sometime between the last time I saw you and allotted time to be a whiny brat has expired. I’m just sorry it took so long to figure it out.”

Quint laughed and stood up, ruffled Wash’s hair hard, and headed towards the hall.

“Hey, are we okay?” Wash looked down at his hands, then up at Quint.

“We will be.” He winked at Wash before disappearing into his bedroom.

Wash and Naima stood at the kitchen counter, drinking coffee and waiting for Quint. It was the end of summer, the windows were all open, and the air still smelled like dawn.

“So he goes, ‘No!’ and then there’s this long pause, and then, ‘but only because I just cleaned it!”

Naima laughed, louder than Wash had expected.

“You’re ridiculous, you know that right?” her eyes were watering.

“Yeahhh,” he stretched his arms above his head, “but you knew that too.”

“True, but-” Naima couldn’t have stopped more quickly had she died right there.

There he stood, tall and thin and completely clean shaven, wearing his Alliance uniform. He was all in blue, sharp pleats and shiny buttons, with a boyish smile playing at the corners of his mouth. Naima ran to him and jumped into his arms. Wash stepped around the counter and clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth.

“Well, well...aren’t you just the picture of military perfection?” he faked a swoon.

The three of them walked down to the docks together, Quint laughing and practically skipping down the streets between the love of his life and the best friend he’d ever had.

Wash muttered an awed swear when he saw the Alliance transport rise up from behind the buildings while they were still several blocks away. He was of equal parts “Go on, fight for what you believe in!” and “Come on...please just don’t go.” The war hadn’t been much more than a low, steady rumbling until a few weeks ago, when suddenly there were bombs and drafts and uniforms distributed. His best friend was going off to fly for the people who’d seen his parents killed. Wash couldn’t parse out the things slamming up against each other in his chest, but he could hear them in his ears.

It was chilly in the shadow of the big boat, The Mitre, and Naima wept a little when Quint pulled her in close. Wash just smiled at him, clapped his hand on Quint’s back when they hugged. Goodbyes said, Quint started up the gangway.

“Hey, Quint,” Wash called after him.

“What’s that, kid?” Quint adjusted his bag over his shoulder.

“Think real hard about coming back home again, okay?”

“You got it.” Quint saluted and turned away.

Naima slid her arm through Wash’s and shivered as they watched Quint’s form recede up the gangway and out of sight.

They waited in the whistling, shouting crowd until The Mitre was a gray dot breaking atmosphere.

Wash went back to Braithwaite a month later, prepared to beg, but sitting in the uncomfortable chair across from Dean Renshaw, he found the luck he thought was gone for good.

“So...what happened?” the dean leaned forward, resting his round red face in one of his hands.

Wash explained, in painful detail, the huge dive his life had taken since his parents’ death.

The dean pursed his lips and sat back in his chair.

“I knew your dad. You know that, right?” Renshaw smiled, “He was a great guy. Of course, we always were on opposing sides of a protest, but we ended up talking. Developed respect, I think. I considered him a friend. Even if you hadn’t phenomenally on the entrance exam, I was prepared to let you in because you were Tom’s kid. But I didn’t need to, you amazed us all, and that’s why it stung so much when we thought we lost you.”

There were only a handful of times in his life when Wash found himself entirely unable to speak.

“I let you come back, you do it on two conditions, okay?” Renshaw took a few forms from his desk.

“Yes,” Wash found his voice. His cracking, oddly too-highly pitched voice, “Of course, what? Do you want me to clean the classrooms, because let me tell you, I have a fierce mop.”

The dean laughed, “No, no maintenance required. However, I want you to take your last classes this term, then spend the next term teaching first years. Then, you’ll take the final. Consider your teaching stint repayment for a semester wasted. Clear?”

The sun streamed in through the east windows, and Wash was warm and happy and practically jumping out of his skin.

“Where do I sign?”

The winter was brutal, and it was only through sheer determination that Wash put on many more clothes than usual every day and trudged to Braithwaite for class. Every evening he’d come home and help Naima make dinner. Then they’d split up the newspapers, sit on opposite ends of the couch, and read the news to each other, both holding their breath as the other skimmed the article first for mention of losses in the war.

Sometimes when Naima wasn’t home, Wash would grab one of Quint’s toys from his shelf.

On any given day, he’d talk to a llama while shaving, sit by the window in the living room with a giraffe, or slam back his breakfast in the company of a squadron of bunnies. He’d talk to them all, but the topic was always the same.

Wash was bored off his ass without Quint.

Spring was a better gift than Wash would ever have thought to ask for. Every day he woke up earlier and earlier, took the long way through the center of Naima to Braithwaite, and had a blast teaching the nervous first years how to handle one of the school’s four operational but grounded boats.

It was fun, but it could also be really frustrating.

“Are you even looking or are you just...pushing buttons?” Wash grabbed the back of the kid’s chair and rolled him away from the nav.

Marcus, the redhead with the giant saucer eyes, looked sick. He squinted a little and looked up at Wash, murmured, “Is it bad if I say ‘just pushing buttons’?”

Wash patted him amiably on the shoulder, pointed to the lights and switches and spoke as if to a child.

“It goes like this,” he gestured in turn to the gear release levers, “the fourth, the fifth, then the minor, then the it?”

The kid nodded slowly and tried the sequence again. The boat lurched forward less than half a foot before Marcus yanked the brake hard. Wash grabbed Marcus’s chair to steady himself. Marcus turned and threw up all over Wash’s shoes.

Wash was laying on the couch in the living room. There was a lump in his throat that he found it difficult to breathe around. Naima was still shouting and throwing things in Quint’s room. She had been going on for hours, releasing a litany of swears, the majority of which Wash couldn’t make out. There was something about a goat and a typesetter, if he heard correctly.

He hadn’t cried, not one drop since he had walked in on Naima sobbing on the living room sofa, tears bubbling the ink on the wave that had come mere minutes before. The apartment felt different now, even more so than it had when Quint was just away. Now he wouldn’t be coming back. Naima stepped slowly out of the Quint’s room, carrying her largest bag and a smaller sack of her belongings.

“I left his things...” she spoke with a voice that Wash wouldn’t have known as hers had she not been standing before him, “His clothes, the...everything. You can probably use most of it.”

Wash turned from her, pulling his knees up and pushing his face into the back of the couch. The swelling in his throat moved up and out and Wash gasped as he tried to suppress the tears that edged the corners of his eyes. Naima’s bags clomped to the floor and a moment later her face was pressed against the back of Wash’s neck and across his chest, holding him to her. Naima cried all night, shaking and whispering into Wash’s shoulders long after she fell asleep. Wash lay until dawn with tears creeping from his eyes and a wisp of girl wrapped around him like a shell.

A few hours after dawn, he felt Naima’s short, round nails trailing up and down the inside of his forearm. Wash rolled his eyes as his body reacted to the sensation, glared down at his pants. Naima must still be sleeping, Wash told himself, she must have done this to Quint when they were together. Quint’s name in his head settled the party in Wash’s parts pretty effectively.

Slowly, not wanting to wake her, Wash turned to face Naima on the couch. Her eyes were open, watery blue, and when they caught Wash’s, it was over. She launched herself at his mouth, kissing him harder than he’d ever been kissed. It was the same effect as grabbing the uncapped end of a live wire, and Wash’s brain was suddenly a chorus of blue sparks. He tried to move on the narrow couch, pull away and move in closer and what was his name again? Naima pushed his shoulders back, threw a leg over him and hey, he could see the ceiling now. She sat back on his thighs, pushed his shirt up over his face and unbuckled his pants. Wash sat up and tossed away the shirt, moved to touch her hands or her face - to stop her or help her or -he didn’t know why he was even still on the couch. Naima twisted her fingers in his hair and pulled his head back up to hers. He slid his hands up her legs, under her dress, and over her belly. Naima pushed him back and his hands settled in the bends of her knees. Wash blinked hard as the cool air hit his cock. The world kicked down to slow motion, and the reality of the moment was loosely diagramed in his head. He was on his back. Quint was dead. Naima was leaning over him and looking at him like she could devour. She tightened her hands around his arms and held his gaze with hers, fierce and sad and how much did he want to be somebody else right then. Everything sped back up in a crashing flash when she sank down on him.

Wash’s hands flew to her hips to stop her from moving, but she wasn’t going anywhere. Her head was thrown back for a moment, then she reached forward and laced her fingers together behind Wash’s head. She bent and sucked his bottom lip into her mouth. Wash’s hands tightened on her hips and she started to move.

Slowly, at first, her chest parallel with his, staring into his eyes like a challenge. Then she sat up, her hands came from behind his head and raked through the hair on his chest, her nails catching his nipples. His whole body jerked and his hands moved around to her ass, pulling her back onto him harder every time she moved away.

She cried out and grabbed his hands, thrusting them back over his head and pinning them there with more strength than Wash thought was fair for such a tiny woman. Naima’s eyes still bore into his, and Wash couldn’t remember the last time he saw her blink. He breathed hard out of his mouth and stared back.

Naima rolled her hips and slammed down on him once, twice, and then she stilled. Something changed in her face, her jaw relaxed and her pupils ate the blue of her eyes. Wash reached up and touched her face; she batted his hand away and ground down hard onto him one last time. His eyes slammed shut and his stomach turned as he came. Naima shuddered and her eyes overflowed. She drew her legs up around Wash’s hips and curled down with her hands on Wash’s stomach, her forehead hot on his chest. She was crying again, her tears were the same unnatural hot as the rain on Aldgate.

Wash kept going to Braithwaite early every morning, even when he hadn’t slept the night before. Once he was on campus he could ignore the sympathetic glances and stares and just teach.

Coming home was the problem. He’d be two feet in the apartment and Naima’d be on him. For everything strong in him, he couldn’t fight once her hands were on him. The little bird-boned demons pulled his hair, pushed him down. She’d appear suddenly in the steam of the bathroom, sitting across his legs in the middle of the night when he awoke to her teeth scraping his throat and her busy hands.

Every night they collapsed in his bed, on the couch, on the floor. She cried herself unconscious every time. Every morning Wash woke up alone.

Once, after she’d fallen asleep, Wash walked into the bathroom. He grimaced a little when he turned on the light and a little more when he saw himself in the mirror. Did he look different now, living in this never-ending loop of moment where he and his dead best friend’s girlfriend did unspeakably dirty things to each other every night?

He felt different.

He looked like shit. His hair was too long, sticking out at pillow-angles. He yawned and scrubbed his palm against the rough of his jawline. He hadn’t thought to shave for probably over a week, and now his face was harder, scruffy and abrasive and why hadn’t Naima mentioned to him how ridiculous he looked with facial hair? The question was barely through his brain before the answer swept up behind it.

Quint’s little mustache.

The one Wash always said made him look like he was likely to drop his textbooks and go tie a fair maiden to the road. Naima probably didn’t mind the mustache. It just made it easier for her to pretend she wasn’t fucking Wash.

He filled the sink with water that steamed, and dunked his head beneath the surface. Open eyes, open mouth, the water was almost scalding and everywhere, pushing against his ears and making his hair swim before his eyes. He pulled up, gasping cold air in, and heard the splatter of a thousand tiny drops from his hair hitting the tile behind him.

His face was bright red, boiled, he thought as he fumbled in the drawer. He was more tired than he’d thought, and it took him almost a half hour to shave his neck, cheeks, and chin without severing a major artery. He splashed his face again, water cold now.

He decided to keep the mustache for a while.

One week later Wash walked out of the testing auditorium and laughed, loud and barking to the sky.

That? Was the easiest thing he’d ever done.

He headed towards the apartment to do the hardest.

She wasn’t home, so Wash started packing up his things and moving the bags into the kitchen area. His voice was a constant hum in the apartment, going over what he had to say, changing his mind about her and changing it back. He barely looked at the wave when it came in, just tore it off the machine, smiled briefly at his own face grinning up at him from the copy of his license. He’d pick it up on his way off world.

He dug the card out of an old box and sent a message to Stanley Tanaka. It came back almost immediately: when could he start? Wash folded that wave into his pocket and returned to packing.

Naima came in well after dark. Wash was in Quint’s room, folding the brightly colored shirts into his own bag of muted ones. He’d packed the menagerie hours before, wrapped each animal in newspaper and tucked them in the bottom of his trunk.

She stuck her head around the doorframe and bounded up to him smiling, still holding the wave. She stopped short when she looked around the room.

“What’s all this then?” her shoulders dropped.

“Start packing,” Wash stuffed the last two shirts in and zipped the bag shut. He moved past her, she followed him out.

“Where are we going?” she pulled at his arm.

He spun around and grabbed her elbows. Her breath caught in her throat, a suprised growl and she leaned into him. He ground his teeth together and held her away, releasing her arms.

“I’m leaving. I gave up the lease here, so you’re leaving too.”

“What is this?” She crossed her arms and stared him down.

“What is what, Naima?” he walked past her again, back into his room. That speech he’d planned for hours, days, it was gone.

“What did you think this was?”

“This? Us? Am I...horribly, horribly mistaken or have we not been together every night?” her eyes had narrowed to tiny slivers that Wash didn’t particularly want to look into.

“One thing straight here,” he rasped, “we...we were never ‘together.’ What this was...this was nothing. This was cheap and tawdry and I’d just as soon never think on it again.”

“That’s not true,” now Naima’s voice quavered and she took one step towards Wash, “Come on, Wash, come on...honey....”

“Ma de, no...there’s no ‘honey,’” his voice cracked and he turned to leave, to go anywhere but where she was.

“Don’t...I’m begging you to not make this any more than what it was. Leave it. Go. Let me go.”

“Tell me what to say,” she yelled at his back, “what do I need to say here?”

“Say you love me.”

She slammed Quint’s door in his face.

Tanaka was amazed when he saw Wash.

He was expecting the spindly teenager he’d last seen at the memorial to step off the transport. Then he saw him hop off the ramp, tall and broad with ropey muscles standing out on his arms. The hair that had been too long and wild since he was a baby was combed flat to his head, and he had a neat, wheat colored mustache edging his smile.

“Mr. Tanaka, hello!” Wash dropped his bag and reached out his hand.

“Wash, it’s good to see you,” they shook, and Stanley laughed and clapped Wash on the back, “It’s me Stan. You do that and I’ll try my best not to call you Tom, ok?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Wash grabbed his bag, “Where do we start?”

Wash spent two years in the service of Stanley Tanaka. The man didn’t ask much of pilot, and Wash found himself with hours and sometimes days of free time on some of the most beautiful places in the ‘verse. He wandered around a lot, spoke to locals, ate their food and drank what they drank. A man on Finn showed him how to make twenty kinds of shadow puppets, a whole village of people on Brent who demonstrated the proper methods for juggling geese, and a six foot tall tradeswoman on Raket who taught him this thing with his tongue that had Wash grinning like an idiot for days after they’d gotten back in the air.

Times in flight when his paperwork was put away and he’d nothing else at hand, Tanaka would come up to the cockpit. The two men exchanged stories and stared at the black. Tanaka talked about his friendship with Wash’s they changed when Wash was born. How Tom cooed and smiled and bragged to anyone who’d listen. How Marian would sit in a crowded room, oblivious to the dozens of conversations around her, just smiling down at the bundle of blue fabric in her lap, wanting only to be with her baby. Wash loved those stories.

“Do you ever feel like you’re missing something out here?” Tanaka suprised him sometimes, speaking suddenly after long minutes of gazing.

“There’s nothing down there for me to miss,” Wash kept his eyes trained straight ahead.

Tanaka turned towards him.

“That’s very sad, Wash.” He turned and left the cockpit.

Wash stood very still for a long time and stared at the stars.

Sunrise on Vien was a lot like being kicked in the head by an angry mule, and Wash happened to know that analogy was accurate. It was dark blue black one minute, and blazing sun the next.

It caught him by surprise as he helped Tanaka unload his belongings.

“Where’re we bringing this stuff?” Wash dragged a heavy trunk onto the dock.

“I’m afraid I’m leaving you now, Wash. Got to thinking about retiring...found this place here on Vien.”

“Oh,” Wash crossed his arms over his chest.

“Don’t give me the brave face, Wash.” Tanaka pulled a few more bags off of the boat. “Guy I know, needs a pilot. Fought for our side in the’ll like him. He’ll like you.”

“What’s the job?”

“Not sure,” Tanaka said, “He just got his hands on a firefly, looking for a crew. He asked if I knew anyone, so I recommended you. Wrote to Braithwaite too, had Renshaw send the captain a letter of endorsement...he almost wouldn’t. Been contacting me to get you on his staff for months now.”

“I’m considerably flattered.”

“Don’t be, you deserve everything I said. Take the Sherra transport to Persephone in the morning. Meet Captain Reynolds. Fly him and his around until you find something somewhere you can call home.”

Tanaka rested a heavy hand on Wash’s shoulder, “Take care of yourself.”

Wash pulled on Quint’s lucky shirt and combed his hair neatly to his head. Persephone was cool and brilliant bright when he walked down to the docks to meet the captain.

The firefly, the captain called her Serenity , was a nice craft. Nicer still was the woman who accompanied Captain Reynolds. Wash had Quint’s voice in his head, the one that worked so well for him in getting “the ladies.” It might have made Wash sound arrogant and entirely obnoxious, but at the moment his brain was stuck on hey baby.

He slid under the nav board in the cockpit, sunlight streaming through the windows as he tried to contain his grin. If he was allowed to tinker around a bit, this Serenity would be a beautiful rig.

“This is all very doable,” he slid out and clapped the dust from his hands, “shouldn’t be a problem at all.”

The woman was looking at him with a distaste that wavered even Wash’s facade of bravado.

“A few modifications,” he liked the way the pilot’s chair felt, the way everything just - felt right, “get some real maneuverability out of this boat. You’d be suprised.”

The captain’s face lit up and he formally offered him the job. The woman alongside him was leaning against a switch tower with arms crossed, uncomfortably alternating between an incredulous glower and full on sneer. Wash couldn’t stop looking at her legs. Curved out from her body, long and strong and curving back in like a bow. He thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

He took the job.

Thinking on it now made him cringe. A month or so after he started flying Serenity, Wash sat down next to Zoe at dinner one night. She smirked at him and left the room. That night she stuck her head in the cockpit while he was setting course for the next day.

“Shave that thing off your face and we’ll talk.”

He did.

They did.

They then proceeded to do more.

They talked for long stretches between jobs, about stupid things and important things and things Wash made up, just so she’d sit by his side a little longer. He didn’t talk about Quint, or his parents...she didn’t talk about the war memories that sometimes made her jump awake, shaking.

Sometimes Wash looked at Mal and wondered if he was the one who shot down his best friend. He looked at Zoe and wondered if she had put a bullet in the brain or a grenade at the feet of someone who had ordered his parents dead.

Wash felt safe with her, and it wasn’t just because she was strong and quick and simply the most amazing woman in the entire universe. Zoe loved him. She loved him because he was the only one in her life not wrecked by the war. Wash loved her too much to correct that with the truth.

The sun was rising over Maida, the sky was pink and blue and bright butter yellow in the East, over the central docks. Wash strapped the last bundle of goods to the back of the mule. He’d been going all night, wandering the streets he knew so well despite his best efforts to forget.

He reached into his pocket to check the list and pulled out a small paper crane, made by a lunatic and delivered with a cryptic message. Wash smiled down at it, zipped it back up safe in the pocket by his heart.

Serenity floated gently where he’d left it, though now Kaylee was sitting outside in a little wooden chair, blowing bubbles from soap inside a tin can. She stood up and smiled that smile, looked like seeing a dusty, exhausted Wash approach was everything happiness meant. Wash waved and she lowered the ramp for him.

He slowed to a stop in front of her and reached behind him to the back.

“A deflector plate for m’lady,” he rested it in her waiting hands.

She did the impossible and smiled even bigger, then kissed him on the temple and went skipping onboard.

The mule was shut off in the cargo bay and Wash stretched the long night from his back. His eyes shut involuntarily, he drank in the sounds of his crew. Somewhere nearby, Mal was laughing at Kaylee’s laughing and Simon and the Shepard loudly argued about the soul.

Jayne trotted down from the catwalk and started unloading supplies, thwapped Wash on the back as he passed him.

Zoe took the steps down two at a time, sunk both hands deep into Wash’s hair and kissed him like she hadn’t seen him in months.

“You’re filthy,” she smiled against his lips, “we can’t have that.”

River stood before them, arms down and palms out, serene smile playing at her pale lips.

“Welcome home again.”

Zoe had slipped a hand between his skin and his undershirt, was running her fingers up and down the valley where his back muscles joined his spine. He smiled at the half broken girl as his wife started to pull him off towards their bunk.

“It’s good to be here.”


© scrunchy 2003