Inara blamed herself, after. She never thought to keep an eye on Zoë. Mal,
yes. On an Alliance ship he would need constant looking-after. And Kaylee, and
Simon, and River. She split her time between their recovery rooms, wielding her
not inconsiderable influence to make sure none of the Alliance brass got any
And Zoë was always so practical, so level-headed.
But Zoë woke up from the worst nightmare of her life, strapped to a bed in an Alliance med facility.
Inara sat, knees drawn up, in a hideously uncomfortable hospital
chair, watching Mal sleep. They’d had to operate to repair the damage done by
the Operative’s sword, and he’d be out for a while yet.
Kaylee was asleep next
door, recovering from the Reaver poison. Simon was still in surgery. River was
sedated. Jayne had accepted treatment for the bullet wound in his shoulder,
then walked straight back out again, which gave her some hope the Alliance
would keep their word.
Inara herself had never felt so bone weary in all her life. She wanted nothing more than to crawl back to the safety of her shuttle and cry herself to sleep.
She didn’t hear the initial ruckus, but the shouts and running feet in the hall had her on her feet in an instant.
Zoë could barely stand, her left arm hung useless at her side, and she was
clearly still foggy on whatever medication she’d been given for the pain, but
she had managed to put one guard down for the count. She had the unconscious
guard’s gun trained on his partner, who had her cornered between the bed and
“Ma’am, please put the gun down.”
“’Nara? What’s going on?” Inara spun to find Kaylee at her elbow.
“Meimei, go back to bed. I'll handle this.”
Before Inara could stop her, Kaylee shouldered her way past and ducked around the guard, walking straight at the muzzle of Zoe’s gun. Inara didn’t like the look in Zoë’s eyes, but Kaylee was unafraid.
“Zoë, it’s ok, they’re helping us.”
“Miss, please step back, it isn’t safe.”
“Captain’s just next door. ‘Nara says he’s gonna be fine. Do you wanna see him?”
“Ma’am, please put down the gun. I won’t ask again.”
Kaylee whirled on the guard. “And you, just back off! She ain’t gonna hurt no one. Was just confused, is all.”
“Kaylee…” Inara really didn’t like the look in Zoë’s eyes.
“No! He’s only makin’ it worse.”
All heads swivelled back to Zoë. Kaylee’s face twisted, her voice dropped to a whisper in the heavy silence. “I’m so sorry, Zoë.”
The guard shifted his weight, nervous and twitchy, but Zoë’s gun wavered, sank, too heavy to hold.
Kaylee turned back to the guard, tears streaking her face. “You can go away now. She’ll be good.”
“Miss, she assaulted…”
Inara stepped forward and put her hand on his arm. “It’s all right, officer. She was just confused. It’s my fault, I should have been here when she woke.”
The guard looked down at Inara, and she knew she had him. He lowered his gun. With subtle pressure, she turned him towards the door.
“You should find an orderly with a stretcher to come and collect your friend.”
Kaylee, crying now, wrapped her arms around Zoë. Zoë draped her good arm over Kaylee’s shoulders, but her face remained closed and blank. Inara had the sneaking suspicion that Kaylee’s grip was the only thing holding her upright.
Inara got the guard through the door and closed it firmly behind him. “Kaylee, meimei, help me get Zoë back into bed.”
“No, I’m fine.” Zoë tried to pull away from Kaylee.
It was possibly the least convincing lie Inara had ever heard.
Weeks passed. Zoë kept going. What other choice was there? No time to be falling apart with so much to be done. The rage helped, too. And Simon’s drugs. Let her help repair the ship, let her think she might be able to keep up that stoic face, for the others. She could feel them watching her.
Zoe's job was to be the anchor. The support. She was the calm center of the crew, the pillar of strength behind Mal’s sometimes questionable leadership. And Zoë was very good at her job.
But the little voice in the back of her head never stopped screaming.
Mal hit the comms.
“Wash, take us up!”
And only as the words left his mouth, did Mal hear what he was saying. He felt everyone around him stiffen. Except Zoë, who after a brief hiccup, continued stacking boxes as though oblivious to all the eyes turned her way.
Kaylee looked at Zoë and hardly knew her.
A stone-cold, ass-kicking killer. Kaylee had said those words to Tracey with a laugh in her voice. It wasn’t something she could picture. Sure Zoë was stern sometimes, but she laughed, too, played ball in the cargo bay, teased the captain, told stories of the war. And since that time with Early, she’d been teaching Kaylee to defend herself, to hold a gun. Calm and patient.
Now, just looking at Zoë made Kaylee chill all over. Wash had died and taken all the warmth with him. Stone cold.
Always terse, Zoë had stopped speaking all together. Cap'n got a nod of acknowledgement, that was all. Kept to herself the rest of the time, working on Serenity’s seeming endless repairs. She sat down to meals but barely ate.
A month passed. Two months since the crash. Serenity was approaching something close to working order. What jobs they could find were milk runs. Zoë had taken to roaming the ship, not enough to occupy her. Even Jayne looked worried.
Mal found Zoë asleep on the floor in Shuttle 2. She was rolled in a spare blanket, hand on her gun, looking for all the world as though she was back in the war, grabbing some shuteye between shellings. And if her memories of the war were starting to feel warm and fuzzy compared to where she was at right now, then he hadn’t been nearly as worried for her as he ought to be.
She wanted to play war? Fine. He was on the point of kicking her boot and calling her to her feet by rank when, between one heartbeat and the next, she held a sawn-off shotgun pointed at his head.
The gun held steady a long moment longer, just to register her annoyance.
She lowered the gun.
“C’mon, get up. We’re goin’ out.”
Mal pulled Jayne aside as they entered the bar. “Don’t let her kill, don’t let her die. Anything else, you let her be. Dong ma?”
Jayne just rolled his eyes. “’Bout damn time.”
Within five minutes of sitting down, Mal noticed Zoë’s top had somehow opened another button or two. Jayne was already distracted by the sight, but for once Mal trusted him not to do anything stupid. Mostly because today it was Zoë’s turn.
Zoë drink was almost untouched, but when she offered to get the next round, he let her. Pushed his chair around to get a better view.
She sauntered across to the bar, a little more swagger in her step than usual, rested her elbows on the countertop and leaned into them. The pose did provide quite the view, both in front and behind. Only a matter of who got there first, really.
Mal would have laid odds, but there wasn’t time. The large man to Zoë’s right already had a hand on her hip that inched downwards as he nudged her around to face him.
He didn’t even get a word out before she introduced his face to the bar.
“Hey!” His buddy stood, pushing back his stool, and…
“Here we go.”
Jayne glanced over at Mal. “You not gettin’ in on this?”
“Gonna wait ‘til she needs the help.”
Jayne turned back to Zoë and the rage radiating off her. “Might be a long wait.”
It was late, ship’s time. Mal rinsed his cup in the sink, straightened the chairs as he passed. All in order in his little domain, everyone asleep. Such moments of calm were precious in their own way.
He shut out the lights, headed for the bridge. It had become his own paranoid ritual. No one had the instinct for flying that Wash had, and these days Mal couldn’t sleep at all unless the last thing he did at night and the first thing he did in the morning was to check the helm.
He noticed her as he came up the stairs. Zoë was sitting, knees drawn up, in Wash’s chair. Still Wash’s chair. She hadn’t stayed on the bridge a second longer than strictly necessary since Mal had dragged her off it. Wouldn’t even look at that chair. All decisions, now, were made over River’s shoulder, on the co-pilot’s side. Seeing Zoë sitting there, Mal felt the guilt rise up in his gut once again. Knew it was about to double.
She stood and turned as he came in. There was a certain set to her shoulders was new.
Mal’s lips twisted, gentle, but not quite a smile. “You ready to tell me yet?”
She considered him in silence a long moment longer, and Mal found himself wondering if she was still even able to speak.
“How did you know?”
It had taken him days to place it, himself. “You move differently.”
The silence returned. Zoë waited. Mal had a thousand different questions – so much needed to be planned – but they could all wait another day or so. All but one.
“Why did you wait so long?”
“I wanted to tell him first.”
Kaylee’s hands flew to her face – alwayss so expressive. Mal watched the struggle work its way across, waited.
“But… Wash…” The tears won, streaking her dusty face.
“Hey, now. Been enough tears on this boat. Someone needs to be glad of this baby, and ain’t no one does glad like you.”
“It’s just… Zoë’s so…”
“Serenity ain’t a fit place for a baby, but we’ll have to make do. You painted all them flowers ‘round the kitchen. I give you one of the passenger cabins, think you can make something of it?”
Kaylee nodded, scrubbed the tears away on the cuff of her coveralls.
“Think you can keep it secret?”
Kaylee nodded again, with the ghost of a smile.
Mal turned to leave.
“Captain?” Kaylee stopped him in the doorway. He could still hear the tears in her voice, couldn’t force himself to turn back. “Do you think Wash knew?”
Mal’s fingers gripped the doorframe, knuckles white. “Couldn’t have.”
Zoë ran into Shuttle 2, shoved the door to behind her with such force it
banged open again. She paced the small space like a caged animal; she could
feel her control unravelling and it terrified her. There wasn’t anyone left to
put back the pieces.
She forced herself to stillness, found herself standing by a stack of crates. Reaching into the nearest one, she pulled out an old serving dish, too cracked and chipped to use. Reached in again, came up with a tin cup, bent to scrap from the crash, no doubt, that no one had had time to fix. How right she should be in here with these broken, useless things.
She looked down; her hands were shaking.
The cup flew first, hit the wall, skittered across the floor. It was heaving the serving dish that tore the scream from her throat. The end of it caught on a sob. And as the dish splintered into a thousand pieces, so did she.
Inara was stepping out of her shuttle as she heard it, the sound of an entire kitchen coming down around her ears.
The door to Shuttle 2 was open a crack. She hurried across the catwalk. “River, honey, are you all right?”
She pulled the door open halfway and stopped short. A sea of ceramic shards and twisted tin spewed from an overturned crate. And in the middle knelt Zoë, sobbing with all of her broken heart, one fist pressed against her lips, still trying to push it back in.
Inara stepped inside and pushed the door firmly shut. She brushed a small patch clear, and knelt gently beside Zoë, sitting with her in silence while she cried.
Zoë lifted the soft package, wrapped in a length of plain white cotton fabric – a useful enough gift all on its own – and neatly tied with an elegant ribbon. No need to ask who this gift was from. Zoë fingered the delicate fabric of the ribbon and glanced up at Inara, who seemed… unsure.
“Please, open it.”
Zoë untied the ribbon, put it aside, and folded back the white cotton to reveal another carefully folded bundle of fabric. Zoë stood to shake it out and found herself staring down at the loudest, most hideous quilt she had ever seen. She stood very still for a long moment, fighting the sudden urge to cry.
Inara watched her, still hesitant. “It’s for the baby.”
“Where did you find these?”
“I followed you. Bought them back. It just seemed so soon. I thought one day you might want to see one again. And then when I heard about the baby…”
The silence stretched out. Zoë’s face was completely closed, but her fingers kept trailing across the fabric. Wash’s shirts. All his obnoxiously loud Hawaiian shirts. Inara had patchworked them into a sturdy quilt.
“I’m sorry, Zoë. I…” Inara reached out, as though to take it back.
“No.” Zoë finally tore her gaze from the quilt. “No. Don’t apologise. It’s beautiful. Thank you.”
Zoë folded the quilt carefully and set it aside with the cotton and the ribbon. From the look on her face, and the way her fingers kept straying back to trace its edges, Inara was fairly certain the little one would never get her gift. She smiled to herself. She already had a plan for the remaining scraps.
Mal tried not to look as uncomfortable as he felt when Zoë handed over her tiny daughter.
Simon, for his part, tried not to laugh. “Does she have a name yet?”
Zoë held Mal’s gaze evenly as she answered Simon. “Haven Grace Washburne.”
Mal nodded slowly, dropped his gaze down to the tiny girl in his arms. She blinked up at him through unfocused dark eyes and yawned. Mal couldn’t help but smile. “Welcome to the ‘verse, little Grace.”
Inara smiled. “Why don’t you take our newest passenger out and introduce her to her new family while I help Zoë get cleaned up?”
Simon wisely followed Mal out of the infirmary. Inara helped Zoë change into a pair of well-worn pyjamas.
“Do you think you can walk as far as the passenger dorms, or do you want to sleep here for a while?”
Zoë grimaced. “I can walk.”
When they reached the room, Inara pulled back the door to reveal an actual nursery. A bassinet had been improvised beside the bed, a changing table set up along one wall. The ceiling had been painted with stars and planets, the walls edged with birds and flowers. The Wash-quilt had been spread over the bed, and in the bassinet, Zoë caught sight of another splash of colour. From the scraps not used in the quilt, Inara had made a stuffed dinosaur.
“I do believe Kaylee wants one of her very own now. You shoulda seen the look on the young doctor’s face.”
Zoë smiled and reached up to take her daughter back. Mal stood and watched her a moment, cradling an infant in her arms. Hard to reconcile this with his first memories of her, covered in mud and blood and gore, head shaved in a futile battle against the fleas and lice, holding a gun in each hand as she saved his sorry ass.
The Wash-quilt Inara had made was spread across her knees. Mother and daughter… but the picture would never be complete. Mal shook his head. Zoë had more strength and more courage than anyone he had ever met. Haven, indeed.
Mal stepped in closer. He brushed her shoulder briefly, then bent to press a gentle kiss on Zoë’s dark curls. “She’s beautiful, meimei.”
A real smile this time, almost enough to chase the shadows from her eyes. “Thank you, Mal.”
Zoë glanced over at the improvised bassinette. And turned away. She shifted to make room on the narrow bed between herself and the wall and settled little Grace in beside her. One arm tucked protectively around her daughter, Zoë drifted to sleep, heartache easing slightly. For the first time in months she wasn’t alone in her bed.
It was the middle of ship’s night, and Grace was crying. The nursery for all she loved it, was only separated by paper-thin walls from Simon and River’s rooms. It wasn’t fair to them.
And, it was past time.
Zoë wrapped the Wash quilt around her shoulders and carried Grace up to the bridge.
She closed the door behind her, then hesitated, heading finally for the co-pilot’s chair. She sat and settled Grace to nursing, then swivelled the chair so she faced the stars. So long as she didn’t look, he could be sitting beside her.