Title: What Makes a Browncoat
Author: Erin (erinm_)
Characters, Pairing: River, Zoe and Mal (with mention of Wash, Simon, Kaylee, Jayne and Inara)
Rating: PG
Summary: The crew of Serenity never has mastered timing.
Warning: post-BDM, with a flashback *Written for Round 13 of prompt_in_a_box on LiveJournal. Prompt #6: "Lavish spending may be disastrous, be careful." Thanks to buffybot76 for the quick beta! \O/
Disclaimer: Firefly belongs to Joss. Serenity belongs to Joss. Mal belongs... yeah, it all belongs to Joss. I will give *NO* credit to FOX, because they are stupid and canceled the show. So there!

Zoe sat on her bed, an open crate on her left. The crate normally sat on the shelf of their- her closet.

It had been a month after they'd left the docks on Persephone.

She refused to cry; to be weak. On occasion, she'd come close.

She hadn't slept the first two weeks. After that, she'd nod off and awaken to the scene on the bridge.

Like River, when she'd first come on board, Zoe had good days and bad. She refused to let anyone see her slip, though she knew there were two people on board Serenity she couldn't fool.

Today was not a good day.

Luckily, in Zoe's mind, she didn't have to work at hiding from the rest of the crew.

Serenity was currently planetside and everyone was taking the opportunity to enjoy it. River was allowed to visit the city, with Kaylee and Simon as chaperones; Inara was visiting clients and Jayne was doing whatever Jayne did.

Zoe let a long breath out and turned to the crate. She'd gotten it down, set it on the bed and proceeded to sink into herself. Not sure how long she'd been sitting there, staring into space, it was Mal's voice that brought her back.

"Zoe? You there?" she heard from the corridor above.

Taking a deep breath, Zoe wiped at her eyes as she responded: "Yes, sir." Having sat in silence for an extended time, however, her voice was barely there. Silently cursing herself, Zoe looked to the ladder to see Mal, just down enough steps to lean down and see her with his own eyes.

She gave him a nod and Mal continued down the ladder. He took a moment to notice that many items, visible on previous visits, were now missing. He said nothing, but knew Zoe had put things of Wash's away so she wouldn't be reminded he was gone.

Not that any of them would forget any time soon.

Zoe hated that everyone was always walking on eggshells around here. It wasn't like she was going to break down into a blubbering mess any time someone mentioned his name. The rest of the crew had a right to grieve – Wash was a friend, family.

"I was makin' a list for the grocery. Wondered if'n there was anythin' you had a hankerin' for... Zo?" Mal said quietly. She'd zoned out on him without realizing. "That for me?" he asked, nodding to the crate.

Near the top of the pile was a box, wrapped with a simple purple ribbon. Zoe turned to see what he was referring to. "You really shouldn't have," he added with a slight grin, emphasizing his lack of seriousness. Zoe reached into the crate and ran her hand over the paper, smoothing a wrinkle.

"No sir," she said simply. As she thought back to the gift inside, Zoe couldn't hold back a tear.

"Ahh..." Mal said, realizing what was inside. Wash had gone to Zoe, then Mal, with his idea. They'd required no discussion regarding the fact, both agreeing with the pilot's reasoning.

The only issue was timing.

When was appropriate? They'd been avoiding the Alliance for months and, with all the... excitement... in the last month – from Niska to babies to Jubal Early – Wash wanted to wait for the right time.

Zoe took another deep breath and blinked. "I've been... well, it's safe to say the time has been right." Mal didn't budge. "It just... it won't mean the same." Zoe's voice began to falter again.

Mal pulled the chair near the desk over and sat down, facing Zoe, elbows on his knees. "Zo, you know I'd never force ya... but I don't wanna see you go there. You're my best friend. Hell, my only friend. You're my support, my spine. If you fall, I fall. And I don't mean this to sound all 'bout me," he added defensively.

"I just don't wanna see ya fall." He sighed and shrugged. "You're tougher 'en me, so, if'n it comes to be me relyin' on myself, we're all doomed." Zoe couldn't help but laugh. "I guess what I'm sayin' is... let me be your spine for a while." He leaned back, hands up in defense.

"I swear, I'll think no less of ya," he chuckled, as did Zoe. "It's just 'bout time I started actin' deservin' of what we got here," he motioned between them. Zoe closed her eyes, slowly smiled and opened them again.

"Walnuts." Mal gave her a look. "At the grocery," Zoe added, knowing full well that there probably were no walnuts to be found for three moons. Mal smiled and stood.

Putting the chair back, he turned. "Walnuts it is. And, maybe they've got some of that fancy corn..." With a Cheshire grin, Mal knew that Zoe'd truly be fine, one day. For now, he was content she'd just be there.

Nodding to her, Mal moved toward the ladder, leaving Zoe to look at the crate again. With one foot on the ladder, Mal leaned to Zoe and pointed to the box. "And you're right, 'bout that." Zoe couldn't help but frown. "It'll mean more," Mal said softly then climbed the ladder. Zoe looked up at him, new tears forming over the old.

And, for the first time since they were on the bridge, Zoe cried.

***

A month had passed. The job had gone well – so well that the man taking delivery had a shipment to go out, which put the crew of Serenity right back into space and heading for the planet they'd just left.

Kaylee was adjusting something on the panel for the bay door; Jayne was loading crates from their visit to the grocer; and Simon was fidgeting over River, who'd been so intrigued listening to Mal gust to Zoe about how well the drop had gone, she's not noticed the brawl going on inside the saloon the group was passing.

She was just in front of the swinging doors when two large men barreled through, heading for the street, taking River with them. Mal dove to River's side, while Zoe had a hand on her weapon.

Jayne simply watched the fight.

River sat on the ground for a moment, took a deep breath and smoothed out her skirt. Shaking her head in the direction of the tussle, River took hold of Mal's offered hands and he picked her up, light as she was, bringing her to her feet.

Mal thumbed her forehead, causing River to flinch. She'd received a stray elbow just above her right eye and a knot had formed. "I'm fine," she said, stepping away, more from Mal's proximity than anything else. Tilting her head slightly, River sighed and continued down the street.

"Don't worry, Sir," Zoe deadpanned. "I'll treat the ship as if it was my very own." Mal made a face and watched her walk away.

"Very funny." Of course, the moment River fell, Mal knew he was set for no less than a verbal lashing from the doctor.

As expected, Simon over-reacted when he saw the welt, but Mal and Zoe knew enough to let River handle Simon. River was currently batting Simon's hands away when Zoe turned to Mal.

"It's time, Sir." Mal blinked. Time for what? Zoe gave the briefest glance toward River, Simon and the rest of the crew and Mal realized.

"Oh." Looking in the same direction for a moment, then back to Zoe, he repeated: "It's time?" Zoe simply nodded once. Mal sighed, a hand on his hip. "You wanna do it private, or?"

Zoe crossed her arms and looked at the ground. "I think it'd be best, Sir."

Mal nodded slowly. "'s your call, Zo. If you need any help though," he ended intentionally.

"Thank you, Sir." Zoe nodded again, uncrossed her arms and moved over to Simon and River.

River swatted at Simon again. "Not a baby," she said, forcefully.

Putting an arm around River's shoulders, Zoe asked: "Doc, mind if I borrow your sister? Need her help with somethin'." Zoe could see the thanks in River's eyes and smiled.

"Of course. River," he began.

"I'm fine, Simon," she huffed and walked away with Zoe, leaving Simon between Mal and Serenity.

A fact of which Mal was acutely aware.

***

River followed Zoe, silently, through the cargo bay, up the stairs and through the kitchen. When Zoe stopped at the ladder to her bunk, River stopped. She'd never been in Zoe and Wash's quarters.

She had, however, been in Kaylee's – mainly because Mal refused to spend one more night with Kaylee and Simon next door and had banished them to the guest quarters. After the third night of finding River asleep in the sitting area in the kitchen, Mal had suggested the temporary switch to Kaylee.

"I'm not sayin' it's permanent, Kaylee. Just that, what you and the doc are doin's pro'ly not for her ears." Kaylee felt bad that she hadn't considered it and happily made the offer to River.

Zoe climbed down the ladder and waved for River to follow. River moved down the ladder, tentatively, and let her eyes take in every sight of the room. There was a definite lack of adornments, and it just felt wrong.

It felt like Zoe-'to the job', not the Zoe she'd come to know.

River noticed a small, plastic dinosaur on the desktop and she smiled slightly, turning to see Zoe with the wrapped package in her hands. With a sad smile, she held the package out to River and nodded as River frowned.

"Not an appropriate occasion-" River started and Zoe shook her head.

"Meant to give this to you a while back," Zoe nodded as River took the package, letting her fingers move over the purple ribbon. River threw a concerned look to Zoe and set the box on the bed. Zoe nodded again and River reached for the end of the ribbon, giving it a gentle tug.

As the messy bow came free, Zoe watched as River carefully loosened the paper and tried not to laugh at the memory of Wash picking on her for opening packages the same way. He and Mal always tore the paper without a care and made fun of her for taking her time.

It was her grandmother who always said that the paper could be reused... and the box and the ribbon. Those were the things that stayed with Zoe Washburne through the war, reusing everything she could. Mal could joke all he wanted; that habit saved his life more than once when supplies were low.

River got the lid off the box and pushed the thin paper aside to see what was in the box. Her eyes went wide and her head shot up. Zoe simply smiled. River shook her head and stepped back. "It's okay, River," Zoe assured her.

"No. Wasn't earned. Isn't deserved."

"Yes, River. It was and it is," Zoe nodded, pulling River back. She took River's shoulders and leaned down slightly. "You may have fought on a different field, but you still fought." Zoe smiled and lifted a hand to River's cheek.

"But it's not right," River said, shaking her head.

"Wash disagreed." River's eyes went wide at the mention of his name. Zoe went off her normal pattern and pulled River into a hug. "He thought you were the best of us. And the Captain and I both agreed." She could feel the tears and knew River was probably sensing her emotions, too.

So Zoe focused on the conversation with Wash and Mal, letting the good memories of Wash flood both of them.

"Honey, what makes a Browncoat?"

"A brown cow," Zoe deadpanned. "Unless it's wool, then a brown sheep."

"Har har. My wife, the comedian," Wash grumbled. "Really, Zo. What defines a Browncoat?" Zoe raised an eyebrow and moved across the bridge to join Wash. She leaned on the railing and poked at one of the dinosaurs as she pondered her answer.

"Well, a dislike for the Alliance, for one," she replied.

Wash nodded. "Of course."

"Standing up for your beliefs, regardless of what someone tells you to believe," Zoe continued as she moved to join him in his chair. His arms went around her and he sighed contentedly.

"Doing what's right, instead of what's easy?" Wash asked. Zoe breathed in agreement as he pressed a kiss to her shoulder. She sat up a moment later and turned to look at him.

"What are you getting at, dear?" she asked with narrowed eyes.

Wash shrugged and let his arms tighten around her. "Just thinkin' about River." Zoe blinked and leaned back. "I mean, she didn't fight in the war," Wash nodded, "but she has fought the Alliance. She's paid a price at their hand, lost a lot..."

Zoe's hand moved to the back of his head and she smiled as he went on. "You're right," she assured him with a nod. River was definitely a qualified Browncoat by those standards.

"And, with everything she's been through lately," he mused, thinking back to the incident with Early.

"Yes, dear?" Zoe asked, still wondering what he was getting at.

"I just thought that, maybe, she deserves a little... I don't know," he shrugged. "Something." Zoe let her fingers trail through the short hairs on the back of his neck and she smiled. "Y'know, if it looks like a Browncoat, acts like a Browncoat..." Wash shifted in the chair.

"I mean, I know how Mal feels about folks who didn't fight in the-" Zoe stopped his thought by pressing a finger to his lips.

"I think it's a valid argument," she said with a nod. River may not have fought in the war, but she surely had the heart of a Browncoat... even if she was slightly insane. Of course, that was also the Alliance's fault.

River had proven herself on more than one occasion, and she did seem to be getting better – well... physically.

A nudge to Zoe's side made her jump slightly. "What do you think?" Wash asked.

"Sorry, dear," Zoe frowned and pressed a kiss to his cheek. Wash pretended to look upset, but was happy for the guilt kiss.

"I was saying that maybe we could find her a present. A token of our gratitude for saving us from Early and all. I mean, we could say it's from all of us, even though Jayne could care less and Kaylee's always for buyin' things when we're planetside. Maybe Inara can-" Wash's ramble was stopped by Zoe's hand on his neck and cheek.

"I think it's a very good idea, Wash," she smiled and nodded. Wash smiled and pulled Zoe to him, enjoying the silence of the bridge for a few minutes.

It was nearly three weeks before Wash approached Zoe and Mal with his find. He didn't want to offend anyone's honor, of course. Zoe stood with him and Wash explained his reasoning to Mal and Mal agreed, as Zoe had. He also agreed that Wash had a valid argument and couldn't find any particular hole for someone else to tear down.

Serenity had been on Beaumonde, dropping off a load of goods while Mal and Jayne went to see Fanty and Mingo about a new job and Wash and Zoe had grocery duty. While they were moving between the stalls, Wash saw it: the perfect gift for River. He pointed it out to Zoe and she smiled.

Wash paid the shopkeeper with his own money and he and the woman spent a good ten minutes deciding between the blue ribbon and the red. Zoe finally stepped in and pointed to the purple, offering a compromise.

They returned to the ship, unloaded the few groceries they'd been able to acquire and Wash stowed the gift for the perfect time. Within an hour, Mal and Jayne had returned, the ship was off to Lilac and, by the end of the week, Wash was gone and the Alliance had gone to war with the Reavers.

River stared down at the box and said nothing. She could hear Zoe's memories of Wash, but it was like listening through a door; everything was muffled. "He wanted to give it to you," Zoe finally said, smoothing River's hair.

River looked up to Zoe and frowned. "But, it's my fault-" she started, but Zoe stopped her.

"No, River. It was not your fault." Zoe knew she could go through all the reasons, but it wouldn't change anything. She didn't blame River – though she'd found a way to blame everyone at least once – and she didn't want River blaming herself. The girl hadn't fired the cannon, she hadn't ordered them to Universe's planet; she hadn't done anything – she'd followed orders, whether known or not.

They all had. They had all played the perfect soldiers and, when it came down to it, the lot of them chose right over easy. And paid a terrible price in the process. And, after all that, they'd managed to keep the family together... dysfunctional as it may be.

Zoe pushed River toward the box and nodded again. River gave her a look and slowly reached down, grabbing hold of the heavy, brown cloth. There was nothing fancy about the design – no adornments fit for a Companion, no place for weapons and only two pockets.

It was a simple, brown coat.

River looked at Zoe again and Zoe reached for the coat, holding it up for River to try on. She felt a sudden rush of warm, whether from the fabric or something else, River didn't know. Zoe moved her over to the small mirror near the ladder and adjusted the collar.

The sleeves were a little long, but that could be fixed. River frowned again as her hand brushed over the pocket and she looked down as she pulled something out. Glancing at her hand, River half-laughed and held up a small, plastic dinosaur, similar to the ones on the bridge.

"I miss him," she said simply and looked up to Zoe's reflection.

Zoe caught River's eyes through the mirror and she sighed. "So do I." They stood for a few more moments before River turned to Zoe.

"Can I go show my coat to the Captain?" Zoe smiled and nodded, waving to the ladder. River was two steps up when she stopped and went back down. "Thank you," she said, placing the dinosaur in Zoe's hand before hugging her quickly.

Zoe looked at the dinosaur for a second and smiled as River slipped past her, grabbed the purple ribbon and returned to the ladder. "Why don't you hang on to this for me," Zoe suggested, slipping the dinosaur back into River's pocket. Wash wouldn't have put it there if he didn't want her to have it. River nodded and started up the ladder again, giving Zoe a chance to look at her empty bunk.

Maybe it was time to pull out some of Wash's things again...