Wash wasn’t much for reading anything beyond what was practical, but in general he was fond of books. They were quiet and solid and all of their letters were always fixed in place; you never saw lines in a book switch places like the lines on the board. As a child he’d spent a decent amount of time in his father’s personal library, reading in old encyclopedias about the geography of distant planets. That, too, had been practicality; from a young age Wash had determined that he’d be leaving Earth behind one way or another.
There wasn’t a whole lot of practicality in having books on a spaceship with advanced technological resources, but it turned out that books were the sort of home-thing that people carried along with them if only because they were used to the weight. Books were the sort of things that soldiers started to crave after a while, like convenience stores and apartment buildings and hotels and all those other structures that equaled normal, equaled home. Carolina could be as stern as she liked, and Connie could be as sullen, and York could chatter cheerfully until nobody knew what he was talking about anymore, but all of them missed home in one way or another. It came upon them in little ghost-flashes, like seeing something green and remembering the brand of mint gum at the local supermarket. And it made sense, because according to every war movie Wash had ever seen, missing stuff was what you did in the army. You missed your bed and your family and very specific brands of mint gum and, yes, sometimes you missed books.
The whole thing started because North had left some comic books lying around in the common room, so Wash had organized them on a chair in the corner just to get them out of the way, and then people had started piling books there like it was their designated area. One night on his way to bed, Wash had knelt down beside the chair and organized the pile alphabetically out of exasperation, and that was when York had noticed.
“Hey man, good idea,” he said.
Wash looked up from the chair. York was half-leaning against the wall, dressed in flannel pajama pants and a band t-shirt and accompanied by his usual late-night cup of coffee.
“What is?” said Wash.
“The library. Good thinking.” York nodded in approval. “We could use one of those around here.”
Wash frowned back. “It’s not a library. It’s a chair.”
York just looked at him steadily for a moment, then picked up a trashy-looking fantasy novel that might or might not have belonged to Carolina. (She’d been the only one in the common room when this book had shown up, but Wash wasn’t all that interested in finding out a definitive answer. There were unicorns on the cover and he was pretty sure Carolina would hit him if he accused her of being involved with anything that had unicorns on the cover.) “Can I borrow this?” York asked.
Wash shrugged. “I guess. If you bring it back.”
“Okay, then it’s a library.” And before Wash could protest further (because it was a chair), York said brightly, “Wait a sec, I got a donation,” and strode off down the hall, promptly returning with an armful of field manuals. He settled down beside Wash, because it wasn’t like he was going to sleep anytime soon anyway, and together they re-alphabetized the book-chair.
Somehow the idea took off from there, possibly because it was an inexorable truth that wherever York went the rest of the team would follow…and also possibly because York had gone around declaring to everyone that Wash was accepting book donations. Either way, they began to build their library. North contributed another small stack of Batman comic books taken from his personal stash. (“I like Superman better,” he’d explained. “So you guys can have these.”) South stopped Wash in the corridor one day with a sharp, “Hey,” and then forced A History of Punk Rock into his hands before stalking off and leaving him perplexed. Wyoming contributed The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, dropping it by Wash’s plate in the mess hall one day. Connie had a few books with titles like Conspiracies and Secrets and The Truth Behind the Moon Landings, which she added to the pile herself. (Wash had had to entirely redo the alphabetical order, again.) Carolina left Facts and Figures of the United States propped against Wash and Maine’s bedroom door. Maine himself had a weapons encyclopedia under his bed, which he handed to Wash with a rumbled, “For the library.” And if Maine of all people was calling it that, then there was no helping it: somewhere along the line, Wash had become the team librarian.
“You’d be good at it in the real world, probably,” said Connie one evening, when North and South and York and Maine were too busy playing darts in the rec room to interrupt her. She didn’t talk a lot in front of any of them. Mostly just to Wash, and even then it was mostly just to tell him about how he was wrong about things. Right now, though, she seemed calmer than usual. They were sitting on the floor on either side of the book-chair. Facts and Figures of the United States was lying open on the floor beside Connie, and peering through the legs of the chair, Wash could just make out his name on the top of the page. He’d been reading The Flamethrower Safety Field Manual himself; she had interrupted him somewhere between “How to Avoid Injuring Your Teammates” and “How to Treat Burn Wounds.”
“Good at what?” said Wash, tilting his head to see her better around the comics section.
Connie smiled a little bit, so quick that he’d only seen it because he was looking for it, thinking maybe it would happen. She was looking down at his name-page still, her hair almost hiding her eyes. “Managing a library. You’re…organized.”
Wash allowed that to settle in his mind for a little while. “What did you mean, ‘the real world?’” he asked, because those words had caught in his head like a chipped knife edge.
Connie glanced up at him. “I meant not the army,” she said, like this was obvious.
Wash raised a brow at her, or tried to – he tended to end up with both brows raised no matter how hard he tried. “The army’s not real?”
She shook her head. “It’s not the same as the real world.”
“But it is the –”
“It’s hypothetical, Wash,” Connie snapped; he’d ruffled her now. “It’s a hypothetical scenario. Get it?” She brushed the hair from her eyes so as to see him better, and he didn’t get it so he just looked back down at his manual and said, “Oh.”
Do not operate your flamethrower in the direction of your teammates, advised the field manual. Do not operate your flamethrower in the direction of your commanding officers. Consult your commanding officer for the correct direction in which to –
“Look,” said Connie, and Wash hesitated, but she was waiting so he moved up a little so that he could see her completely.
“What,” he said, and she brandished the Washington page at him, pointing at what looked like a wide river, or maybe a bay.
“Deception Pass,” read Connie, “was so named by George Vancouver in 1792 because it deceived by appearing at first to be too narrow and rocky for navigation.” Connie gave him a significant look, and Wash blinked at her.
Connie rolled her eyes. “So, your state gets all the cool names. Deception Pass. You know what I have? …Hartford.” She paused to let that sink in, then repeated, “I have Hartford.”
Wash shrugged. “Names are just words,” he said.
She eyed him for a moment, then said, “What was your name?”
It took him a second to understand what she meant by was. “Are we allowed to tell each other that?”
“Why wouldn’t we be allowed?” Connie said, and she was flat-out glaring at him all of the sudden. Wash felt his shoulders stiffen in response.
“I don’t know, for…security, maybe.”
He reflected her frown back at her, then replied with great reluctance, “…David.”
Her face softened and she looked thoughtful. “David,” she repeated, treating each syllable carefully, as though treading foreign ground. “And that’s just a word?”
“Well, yeah, technically. A proper noun.”
“You can’t just classify it away like that. It’s your name.”
“Was,” he reminded her.
“It’s still yours,” Connie insisted. “You can’t take away somebody’s name.”
“But you can give them a new one,” Wash said. He shifted closer to her, looking over her shoulder at the open book. “Page 82,” he said, and when she just blinked at him, he reached tentatively over her arm to turn the pages back to the one that belonged to her. For a moment his forearm rested against hers as he read. “Connecticut,” he recited quietly, “is an Anglicized version of the Algonquian word ‘quinatucquet,’ meaning ‘upon the long river.’” He glanced up. She looked unimpressed.
“So?” she said.
“So nobody calls it Quinatucquet. They call it Connecticut.” He pronounced it slowly, like how she had said Da-vid, letting the sounds rest heavy like that in her mouth. “Names get taken away all the time.”
She just looked at him for a second, and he became abruptly aware of how close she was. He was about to move away when she very deliberately, almost stubbornly leaned into his shoulder – warm and weighted enough to be more library-real than army-real. Wash shifted a little nervously, but then Connie told him, “Stop it.” So he stopped. Carefully, he draped an arm across her shoulders, and it wasn’t totally comfortable, but she’d gone calm again so that was nice. He could feel her breathing, even and measured.
“What was yours?” he asked, after a while.
“My what?” Connie mumbled. She was less leaning, more falling against him now.
She lifted her head in abrupt alertness, considering him for what seemed like a very long time. “Names are just words,” she said finally, and shifted away from him.
“Connie,” he said, almost like a question but not quite enough that she had to give him an answer. She pushed herself to her feet, said, “Goodnight,” and left him there with the books.
He had never really considered the possibility that she would take her own name away. She’d replaced it with two letters, impersonal and solid and only a whisper of who she’d been. C.T. No hesitation. No calm. No concerns regarding Hartford. No chips in the blade when she’d snarled at him to wake the fuck up (from what, exactly?); she was all sharpness now, all bitterness edged in fear. It wasn’t until she’d shoved her helmet at him that he’d realized; she didn’t even feel army-real anymore.
So he took her helmet to the library, because he thought probably she would make her way back there sometime soon. The thing had grown a lot, mostly because York continued to mention “Wash’s library” in casual conversation with everyone from other Freelancers to random lower-ranked soldiers to the occasional medic. As a result, they had had to add on a second and then a third chair, and Wash had given up keeping everything entirely alphabetized but tried to make sure it was at least organized by genre. He felt pretty strongly that comic books and field manuals should not be mixed.
Wash looked up, and there was York – same pajama pants, same band t-shirt, same coffee cup, same curious expression as always. It was good to have people who stayed the same, who didn’t change their names or talk about choosing sides or lines or any sort of filtering system that didn’t have to do with the coffee.
“What?” said Wash.
“That,” said York, tipping his cup toward Con…CT…Connie’s helmet, sitting on its side next to the newly relocated Batman comics. “That’s Connie’s.” He raised an eyebrow at Wash and grinned. “What d’you have Connie’s helmet for, huh?”
“She changed her name,” Wash replied stiffly. “It’s CT now.”
“Oh, yeah?” York set his cup down on the nearest chair – atop a short pile of extremely cheesy mystery novels – and settled himself beside Wash. “That’s okay I guess.”
“You think so?” said Wash doubtfully.
“Yeah, I mean, everybody’s free to call themselves whatever they wanna be called, you know?”
Wash shrugged and extracted a grenade safety manual from a stack of Green Lantern comics. “She seemed pretty angry about it,” he said.
York nodded slowly. “Well,” he replied. “Well, maybe she’s just frustrated ‘cause she hasn’t figured out which name she likes. So maybe she’s trying it out. Seeing what words feel right.”
“So she gave you her helmet?”
“I didn’t have much choice,” Wash mumbled, lining up the spines of the field manuals. It took him a moment to become aware of the fact that York was grinning at him. “Why are you…I didn’t mean it like that!”
“Like what?” said York.
“I don’t even know,” said Wash, “because last I checked that wasn’t a euphemism, but you, you’re –”
“Joking,” said York easily. “Just joking, man.” He got to his feet and swiped his coffee cup from the mystery novels, rocking back and forth on his heels. “You gonna give it back?”
“No, I’m going to incinerate it,” said Wash flatly.
“Mmkay,” York replied. He yawned and ambled toward the door. “Good luck, man.”
Wash glanced up. “With what?”
York paused in the doorway to shrug at him. “Whatever you want,” he said, and then disappeared down the hall.
Wash stared at the stacks of books for a moment, then dragged out Facts and Figures of the United States, which was getting to look a little bit worn these days; a lot of people wanted to know something about their new names. Wash opened almost automatically to page eighty-two. Connecticut is an Anglicized version of the Algonquian word ‘quinatucquet,’ the page proclaimed, and the syllable sounds rolled through his brain as more of a noise-pattern than anything else at this point. He had read it too much. He set the book down, open, on the floor and carefully positioned Connie’s helmet on top of her page, just below the bolded letters of her full name.
Then he arranged himself more comfortably in the midst of the book piles, eyeing the lettering on their spines. He was trying to see which words felt right.