The ice cubes clinked in his glass as Wash set it down on the dining table with an absent thud. "Do you remember Earth?" He looked across to Mal and rocked back in his chair.

Zoë knew the answer. After ten years, she had heard all of Mal's stories of things that had happened, and more than a few about things that hadn't quite. Mal sometimes looked to her to tell the difference when the distinction got a mite blurry to him, but she couldn't help him here.

She pushed her chair back. "Excuse me." She picked up Wash's bowl, then hers and kissed her husband on the forehead. "I'm going to check on Kaylee. She's feeling kind of rough."

"Not everyone takes to space," said Wash. "I've seen plenty of people a lot tougher than her wash out. Big strong, manly men..." Wash made gorilla movements with his arms and grunted through his nose.

Zoë rolled her eyes and carried the soup bowls back into the kitchen area.

"She'll be fine," said Mal. He took a swallow from his glass and worked it down purposefully with his tongue.

Wash twisted his facial muscles around in a not particularly respectful manner.

Arms crossed, Zoë leaned against the doorframe. "He could be right, sir."

Mal looked up. "Taking his side? That's not a trait of a particularly loyalsome nature."

"I'm just saying, sir, it's been six months. That's longer than you'd give a recruit."

"This ain't a war--case you ain't noticed; this is my ship. She'll be fine."

"Because you say so? Some powers you have there, oh great captain, sir." Wash's voice walked that tenuous territory between a question, a laugh and a scoff.

"Need be." Mal studied his hands where they turned his glass round and round. "My ship."

"And everyone always does what you say?" Wash pushed.

Mal looked up. "Not always." He shifted his eyes to Zoë where she stood.

There was a noise as Zoë moved from the kitchen door. She filled a bowl up with soup. "I'll go see to her. Night, Captain." She ruffled her husband's hair as she walked by.

Wash relaxed and broke into a goofy grin as her fingers messed his already hopeless hair. "Be in in a minute, sweetie." He caught her wrist and kissed her hand in a grossly exaggerated fashion.

Zoë dropped her fingers down to his chest and pulled at the upper buttons of his shirt. She nuzzled next to his ear. "Nice shirt, sweetums. It'd look better on the floor than on you. Don't be long." Before she left, she tweaked something under the Hawaiian print.

Wash's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. And he wiggled in his chair. "Whooo!"

"If I were you, I might start concerning myself with what she says 'stead of with me." Mal drained his glass and cocked his head in the general direction that Zoë had gone.

"Always. Believe you me." Wash spoke to no one as he watched Zoë's ass disappear down the passageway. "You just pay me; she can beat me up!"

"Best you remember that, sweetcakes!" Zoë's voice called backwards.

Wash gave a sloppy mock salute into the air, then downed the rest of his drink in a single gulp.

Mal chuckled and refilled both of their glasses. "I was always a mite afraid of her too. Why do you think I hired her? Least if I pay her wages, I get a little say-so." They clinked glasses and together they sipped in silence.

"So, do you?" Wash asked, after a minute.

"What?" Mal blinked over his glass.

"Remember Earth?"

Mal made a face into his drink. "Not so much." It wasn't strictly true in a factualish sense, but since he couldn't tell Wash what he wanted to hear about the home planet Wash had never seen, it seemed the most appropriate answer. Although Mal had lived there until he was eleven, the vision of The Earth that Was that Wash had idealized in his mind, Mal had never known.

Not many alive had. California had been among the first places to get used up.

Mal remembered bits and clips from a child's point of view. His family had been among the very last to leave. His memories were concrete and ephemeral, like the chill of an ice-soy sliding down his throat, the buzz and sting of a wasp before his arm began to swell painfully tight, or the shimmer of a rainbow in the scales of a carp as they fell from under the blade of his first real pocketknife.

He couldn't have answered questions or given specifics, but some things like that were so real that they could have been just yesterday.

Sometimes when old folks told him stories, Mal thought he could remember things, but it was in that odd way that it happens when you can't separate what you know from what you have been told.

His identcard said that he was born in North Dakota. His brother, Luther--Lou--had said they were evicted when Mal was only two, so that didn't seem much likely. To a kid one place is pretty much like another, as long as those you take to are there with you. The big distinction is whether you put on a swimsuit or a snowsuit to go play. In that respect North Dakota had been pretty much like Nunavut, so Mal figured the two most likely had rolled together in his mind.

Mal remembered the way that the Northern lights had kaleidoscoped to make even the view of the raw strip mines look pretty. He remembered the warmth of a church and the musty smell of the hymnals as he sat cross-legged on the worn, wooden pews with his mother wedged in beside him so that he wouldn't squirm. The pews were stolen one winter--presumably for firewood. They were never seen again. Sometimes Mal thought he remembered gathering in the gutted building to pray, but most times he decided that was a false memory from a story someone had told him once too often.

Mal remembered the melt of snowflakes on his tongue and of ripping off his radiation facesheild, when no one was watching, to feel the downy fall of them against his face. He remembered skating on a frozen lake, going as fast as a Solidarity scoutship burning through space. He liked skating best in the dead of winter when it never really got light. There wasn't much on land worth seeing no way, then when it got real dark and you were out in the middle of the lake, it was just you and the stars. Mal would spin and speed and twirl and zoom pretending not to hear the call of his mother or brother telling him to come back home.

They might take everything else away, but they couldn't take away the beauty of the freedom of gliding effortlessly under that big, open, starry sky.

Almost all the land on the world was already used up. There hadn't been many options for relocation back then: the arctic, the desert, or off-world. When the Solidarity government razed their settlement in Minot, North Dakota to harvest minerals underneath for terraforming, most folks had chosen the last--at least, that's what Lou had said--but his parents wouldn't be forced off their planet by anyone.

Parts of Nunavut were still habitable. Glacial runoff had left some potable water and Somerset Island and the Boothia Peninsula had retained a little ozone protection.

Folks had thought their dad was feng kuang, taking a delicate woman and two kids into the arctic, but Mal remembered his mother's face as--after a storm--they had grimly shoveled the ice and snow that had all but sealed them in once again. This had been her idea--no doubt about it.

Mom had always said that some things were worth fighting for.

His father had never be the kind to say much, least not from what Mal could remember, but he never got the idea that Dad disagreed.

Mal remembered the night his father was killed, again, in a child's way, not so much as he now wished he did. He didn't remember being sad, just excited--and maybe a little scared. Shots flew in both directions as the raiders charged their food storage ice shed. Damn, it, go! His father had screamed back at them as their mother had pushed them through a back window. Take care of your brother, boy, were the last words that Mal had heard. Mal took Lou's hand and together they ran through the darkness, following their mother's lead across the lake.

It wasn't until a few years later, Mal reckoned that their dad had most likely been talking to Lou--not to him.

Lou told him that their dad had been sick with a radiation cancer--same as mom--growing in his neck. It's not like they could afford a doctor, said Lou, so it's probably just as well. There are only two things that really belong to a man: his pride and his life. One's not worth niou-se without the other.

Mal saw reason and hoped that what Lou had said was true. But Lou had also told him that his missing pet ermine had migrated north to live happily with a whole tribe of other weasels as his mother served stew with real meat--for once--allegedly to soften the blow.

Mal supposed he would never really know the truth. Not that it mattered: dead was dead, no doubt about that.

When his mother found the lump in her own neck, she was the one to tell both boys. She said that they would have to be grown-ups now, and grown-ups had to accept things like that.

When she finally died, Lou had moved them off world. It put them among the very last to leave. Lou had said some things were worth fighting for and some ain't.

Mal remembered a day the last spring before she died. At the time it felt like his first day as a man, though it was supposed to be one of his last days as a kid. I don't care how warm it is, keep your radiation garb on, his mother had called to him as he ran with his skates to the lake. The daylight hours were already getting longer. Soon the ice would begin to thaw and break; he would have to make every remaining day count.

The sun shone down hard making the lake sparkle through the grime. In the spring melt, all the accumulated precipitated pollution hiding under the layers of snow was beginning to emerge. Mal shoved on his skates and raced out to the middle of the lake, under his big sky, as fast as he could. The scrape of his blades on ice mixed with the whoosh of slush pushed aside where the sun had already begun to melt the surface.

The loud whine of a Gault Conversion Engine filled his ears. Mal turned around. Lou was driving across to join him, not on blades but on their personal icemobile. There was no more fossil fuel on Earth and imported fuel was too expensive, so it ran off of the static electricity it could gather from the atmosphere. Not powerful, but people had to make do these days. Lou had souped it up with a custom capacitor so that at full charge it had more speed than most, but still it would get you anywhere you cared to go nohow fast.

"Race you!" Mal called. Lou lined up with him.

Go, said Lou. He burned off without warning.

"No fair!" said Mal, pushing to catch up. The wind whistled in his ears as he darted, fast as a shooting star.

Whoo-woo! Lou hollered as he widened the gap. He spun a little victory twirl and jumped the mobile a few inches in the air.

Crack! There was a ominous sound as the icemobile settled down still for a few seconds before sinking through the layer of spring ice. Mal watched his brother vanish beneath the surface.

"Lou!" he shouted and dashed to within a few yards. He stopped and dropped to his belly--inching carefully towards the hole. "Lou!"

A head appeared. Lou ripped of his facesheild and scrambled for the edge of the ice. Another small piece broke off. Lou threw both arms up over the edge and tried to heave up, but slipped back into the water.

"Use the key!" Mal shouted.

What? Lou struggled to stay afloat.

"The key! Dig into the ice with the key!" Mal pointed to metal mobile key that dangled from the dead man's lanyard on Lou's wrist.

Lou wrapped the key in a fist and stabbed it into the ice. He pulled up again--just a little farther before dropping back with a splash.

"Here." Mal slid his pocketknife across the lake. "Don't let it drop."

Lou took it in his other hand and rammed it hard into the ice it. He grunted and heaved up clearing most of his torso over the edge--but the weight of his body and the water-laden clothing pulled him back down again.

Mal swore as he struggled out of his parka. Holding it by one cuff, he stretched it as far out as he could. "Grab on!"

Lou hauled himself up and grabbed the other sleeve.

"Ai ya!" Mal grimaced and grunted, trying for traction as Lou's weight pulled him towards the hole instead. He dug in with the tips of his skate blades and strained with all his might. His legs cramped and his shoulder burned. With his other hand, Mal pulled back on the sleeve. Slowly, Lou crept up.

Aaaach! With a grunt, Lou flopped onto the ice like a seal on his belly, his legs still dangling into the water.

"Come on!" Mal yelled. "It'll crack if you don't."

Lou crawled out and lay panting on his stomach.
"Keep flat. Keep moving," Mal said as he scuttled backwards himself. "Ice don't hold as well if you're still as if you're moving."

On his belly Lou slithered towards his brother. A safe distance from the hole, they both collapsed, breathing hard and laughing for no reason that a sane person could understand.

We could get the tractor and go again, said Lou.

Mal balled his jacket up. "You lost my knife, you niou-pigu."

Lou uncurled his hand. The pocketknife was there.

Mal grabbed it back and stuffed it in his pocket. "Thanks."

Yeah, said Lou. You too.

Sure, there were clear events, but overall Mal wished his memories of Earth were more exact, especially of the sky and the starfield he had known. A few weeks ago, he had flown Serenity to the Sol system. He'd parked in Earth orbit over Somerset Island and relieved Wash from the Bridge. He'd just sat there and stared out the Bridge window. He wanted to imprint the star pattern on his brain.

You going down? Zoë had appeared in the doorway.


You sending any one down? Zoë had asked. The ozone was totally eradicated and solar radiation bombarded the planet ceaselessly. There was no place that could be visited without a suit. In addition, most land areas had been made unstable by overmining and massive tectonic shifts made the seas even more unstable. There was nothing left of the Earth that was. Any plants left had been rendered too radioactive for consumption and the last of the native had either left or died.


You just going to sit there?

"Yup." Mal had stretched back in the pilot's seat.

Fine, sir. We'll be in our bunk. Zoë had left. She'd never set foot on Earth either. He couldn't realistically expect her to understand. Mal had watched the stars for hours.

"Hello! Hello!" Wash waved a hand in his face.

"Interesting invention, this conversation thing," said Wash. "I talk, you talk, I talk, you talk. It's been known to work, but it does take two."

"Huh?" Mal looked up. His glass was empty.

"I-talk. You-talk." Wash mouthed each word slowly.

Mal stood up abruptly. The chair scraped back with a rude noise as he did. "Check the Bridge for space traffic. I'm going to check on Kaylee."

"Zoë's with Kaylee."

"So she is," said Mal.

"Alone with Kaylee." Wash stressed the first word.

"And when I get there, she won't be alone. Take the Bridge." Mal picked up his glass tried to shake one last drop out. He strode out of the dining area without looking back.

Ironically, it was on Saint Albans that it had all come to a head. Their squad was gunning for an Alliance weapons' depot. The lieutenant had gone down with frostbite, of all things. He was a college boy from Osiris and unprepared for prolonged seige on a planetsized ball of ice.

Don't do that, Sarge, Zoë had said as she changed out of her wet clothes and pulled on a pair of dry pants.

Mal started from behind her back. "I hadn't figured you as like to be offended."

She'd turned around to face him: nude from the waist up, 'cepting her necklace. I'm not, she'd said. It's a bad idea, Sir.

"Don't seem like it from where I stand. I figured you for a mite more pragmatical. In fact--"

She interrupted him for the first time that he could remember. I am pragmatic, Sargent. So which do you plan on: sending your girlfriend into the first wave of a firefight, or having someone else watch your back?

He stopped. He nodded. He felt his jaw straighten into a tight line. "Get dressed. You're holding us up."

She'd pulled on her top. Sorry, Sarge. It won't happen again. In less than twenty seconds she was into her parka, had shouldered her automatic rifle and was on her way after him.

"How you doing, Kaylee?" Mal stood in the doorway.

From her hammock, Kaylee twisted her neck around. "Shiny, Captain." Suddenly her face fell and turned an unexpected shade of gray. She jumped up, hand to her mouth, and made a dash for the head.

Zoë shrugged. "Told you, sir."

"You've been wrong about our crew before," said Mal.

"Suppose you're right." Zoë crossed her arms in front of her chest.

I don't think she likes me, said Wash as Zoë left the Bridge.

"Could be," said Mal going through the navigational data.

I don't see how you can be so cavalier, said Wash. She's got big guns. He spread his arms wide. Great big guns!

"Not my concern." Mal dismissed the comment. "It ain't me they're angling for."

She's also got big-- Wash made jiggling gestures with his upturned palms.

"I don't pay you to think; I pay you to fly," said Mal with a sharp note.

You haven't paid me at all, quipped Wash his moustache seeming to turn up in a smile even after his mouth had stopped moving.

"You keep your lips flapping like that, that ain't likely to change." Mal clicked off the screen and turned to the fuel mix comps.

I'll do that; you'll just muck it up. Wash pushed him out of the way and took over the calculations himself.

"Good idea--you doing something along usefulsome lines." Mal stepped back from the controls. "Bad enough one of us not liking you. Be a gorram shame to make it two." With a final look at the long-range sensors, Mal left Wash alone on his Bridge.

"Worked out okay before." Zoë's tone was bland as ever.

"Suppose you're right," Mal said.

Captain, Zoë and I are going to be married! Wash grinned from ear to ear as he burst into the dining area.

"I know." Methodically, Mal continued cleaning his handguns.

What do you mean you know, Wash asked. She just agreed five minutes ago.

Mal shrugged. "She told me last night."

Wash ran his fingers through his hair. I don't believe this. I don't qiang bao hou zi de believe this! Wash paced in increasing fervor. She asked you for permission to live her personal life?

"No." Mal set down one clip and picked up another with his oiled rag.

That's sure how it gorram sounds, said Wash, slamming his hand down on the table.

"T'ain't," said Mal, unruffled.

Right. Says you. How do I know that? Wash glared in his direction.

"Simple." Mal shrugged. "I told her to say no."

You... You.. Wash stammered. Zhe zhen shi ge kuai le de jin zhan! He exploded at the top of his lungs. I knew it! I knew it! I wun gwo pee in this 'old army buddy story' from the beginning. You've been comrades in arms and-- Wash made an obscene gesture with his hands--tian xiao de in arms too! Wuh de ma! Wash slammed the table again.

"Relax," said Mal, sliding an empty clip into a pistol and testing the hammer in Wash's general direction. "I tried once; she turned me down."

Wash stopped cold, his face blank. Yeah?

Mal set the gun down. "Emphatically. Yeah."

Yeah? Wash beamed.

"Yeah." Mal extended a hand. "Congratulations."

Yeah! Wash pumped Mal's outstretched hand.

"Suppose it did." Mal crossed his arms across his chest too.


She waited, meeting his gaze, her entire body language as coolly impassive as ever.

"What would have happened?"

She cocked an eyebrow at him.

He recrossed his arms the other one on top, now. He recrossed his legs as well where he leaned. He cleared his throat. "You know, back then, if I had decided to..." He cleared his throat again. "...let someone else watch my back."

"You should know I would have never let that happen, sir."

Mal worked to keep his face flat.

"I will never stop watching your back, sir." Zoë spoke with conviction and without a pause.

Mal swallowed and reached for something to say. She beat him to it.

"Sir, you being raised where you were, you should know all about thin ice."

"And you should know I ain't never been afraid of it--being that we've been through the history that we have."

"Who said I was talking about you, sir?" Zoë crossed her arms, mirroring his stance.

They stood like that for several long heartbeats.

"Excuse me, cap'n." Kaylee's voice broke the silence. "Coming through." She put her hands on Mal's waist and pressured him aside. Her face was still a sickly gray, but a spark of a smile was back in her eyes. "Must have been something I ate. I'm much better now, sir," she said. She ran her hand over Serenity's engine before flopping back in her hammock.

"Good," said Mal. "Good to hear that."

"Good," said Zoë.

Kaylee pushed her hair back and reclined into her blanket. The bowl of soup sat untouched on the ledge beside her.

Mal straightened. "In that case, night, Kaylee. I'll be 'specting an engine overhaul in the morning."

"Yes, Cap'n. I'll have her done bright and shiny. Night."

"Night, Kaylee," said Zoë.

"Night, Zoë." Kaylee squeezed her hand as Zoë moved to the doorway.

"Night, Zoë." Mal motioned Zoë through the doorway in front of him.

Zoë stepped up and out of Kaylee's engine room. "Night, sir."

"Night, Zoë." Mal watched her walk down the passageways of his ship toward her husband. He took a step down the passage, then another. Thin ice held better if you kept moving. He brushed his fingertips over the bulkhead of Serenity--his girl--as he walked.

We're still flying, he thought.