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Author's Note: Written for Firefly Friday fic challenge #2.

Home
by Tara O'Shea

Mal isn't really sure when home stopped meaning Shadow.

It started during the war. He knows that much. Shadow was what he was fighting for. Shadow was what he was fighting to return to. His mother's ranch—his ranch. The life he'd left behind, waking up at crack of dawn to work alongside Jim, and Toby, Niels and the Chen boys. People he'd grown up alongside. People he'd hired at the fairs, and watched go from strangers to friends to family from one season to the next. Drovers were the same all over Shadow—a fellowship of sorts. You saw the same faces year to year, as you took the cattle to market—haggled over the price of feed, grazing land, breeding stock and methods with the same boys who became men working for their bothers and fathers. Danced with the same daughters are barn raisings and sweet sixteens, harvest fairs and Christmas parties.

War changed all that. Half the herd was lost when some crazy Alliance bastards poisoned the reservoirs. Chen brothers got knifed in a bar fight outside of Newhope, and that gal he was sweet on three summers running got married off to some fella in a suit, and they moved closer to the Core. When the man in the brown coat rode up the long road to the house, Mal was itching to take up the cause, even if it meant leaving home for the first and possibly last time.

Mama was gone. She was gone before the first shot was fired. But she was still in every nook and cranny of that old farmhouse. From the gigantic kitchen where she presided over meals like God on the last day, to the iron bed she'd brought with her from home when she'd first gotten married, and hadn't shared—so far as he knew—with another man since Charles Reynolds had left for town one day and never came back.

Even after Mama was gone, Shadow was still home. As mortars rained down, and the dead and dying surrounded him, Malcolm Reynolds still dreamed at night of coming home all that first year he'd worn a brown coat. Had vivid daydreams of picking up right where he'd left off. Rebuilding. Make it all better than before. Because Shadow would be free. Independent. Just like a home ought to be.

He'd tried to get leave to go back twice—but each time, his sergeant had refused. So he'd stayed wherever they sent him. Stayed put and learned to kill, to live. At the end of that first year, he'd had six lieutenants and two sergeants above him. Dozens of raw recruits below him. He watched the new faces change, becoming familiar too often just before being buried, or their ashes scattered to the winds.

The second year, he never even tried to make it back. Home became the corner of a trench on New Kasmir, a piece of sheet metal overhead the only thing between him and the snows. He became a sergeant when theirs was killed. They hadn't had any stripes to give him, but everyone just called him that from that moment on. Zoe was a constant by that point—he wouldn't go anywhere without her, Michaels, O'Neill and crazy Kate.

He couldn't recall what day Shadow stopped being home. He couldn't remember the exact hour. He'd just gradually stopped telling Zoe stories about Toby getting smacked around by his momma for cleaning his gun at the dinner table. Or the two-headed calf he saw at Summerfair when he was twelve. As the days became months, she stopped asking about family or friends he'd left behind, or he stopped telling. Or maybe it was hard to think of home when all you could see was the look on Kate's face when she bit into that apple. Or the magazine—six months old if it was a day, and half the pages tore out—still clutched in O'Neill's hand when they finally found what was left of him. Either way, the stories stopped, and home fled not long after.

Shadow became a dream, a memory, but by the time the Alliance rained down fire on Serenity Valley, it wasn't home any longer.

Mal isn't sure when Serenity became home. He'd like to say it was the moment he first set foot in the cargo bay, despite the protestations of the salesman who kept trying to steer him back towards a slick new-used G88-9. But truth was, it wasn't home yet—it was the promise of a home. The potential. The sheer raw potential he saw at the scarred kitchen table in the mess, surrounded by five mis-matched chairs. In the engine which hadn't spun in maybe years even, but would—he was sure of it. Would beat like the living heart of the ship and lift her out of this dune and up into the black where she—and he—belonged.

It wasn't yet home the first night he slept in his quarters—Zoe and Wash's quarters now, on account of the captain's quarters were bigger'n the rest—his meagre possessions still in his knapsack in one corner, and half the lights not yet re-wired and burned out in their sockets. It wasn't home the first morning he woke up to find the cooling system in the larder had failed, and the supplies they'd left Persephone with had already started to go off—beginning his love/hate relationship with moulded protein, with fruit, meat, eggs and cheese sudden luxuries he couldn't have imagined being so scarce, growing up in his mother's house on Shadow.

But some time between Wash finally shaving that godforsaken moustache, and Mal coming into the dining area one morning to find Kaylee painting flowers on one pale yellow wall while Jayne cleaned his gun at the kitchen table, he realised that Serenity was as much a home to him as Shadow had ever been.

He just couldn't name the day or the hour.