River hesitantly glided throughout the dark, empty halls of Serenity, a look of worried confusion warping her face as she allowed herself to wrestle with her greatest quandary.
Serenity was on autopilot and had given her the freedom to seek a solution. Late nights meant wandering hands and wandering hands led to. . . trouble.
It should be clear, not muddled. The gift was meant for the ones intended. That was why it had been created and birthed. Now fate had left it to her of all people to determine whether the object would ever receive purpose. She could do it. She could give it life, see its intentions fulfilled but confusion filled her. Captain often said some things were better off in the past, some pains weren't meant to be unearthed every time we felt bad. Somehow none of that mattered and River found feet moving steadily forward, as if under their own power, propelling her towards her uncertain destination.
If only someone would interrupt her journey, stop her, give her space to think.
Most were asleep though, it was the night cycle on board after all. Everyone was asleep except her and, perhaps, the intended. River paused briefly. That wasn't true. Simon was awake. Simon and Kaylee were "talking" she remembered with a slight smirk. Silly brother thought she didn't understand what was going on when he appeared dishevelled and flushed from his talks and Kaylee bounced around with more joy than her usual, bubbly self. She wasn't jealous of their time though. Serenity was sad, too sad. She needed joy to fill her once again, she needed to heal from the day a part of them had died – Miranda.
Feeling the texture beneath her bare feet change, River look up with a startled glance at the realization that she had, somehow, arrived at the infirmary. She allowed herself a slight chuckle at the realization her destination had always been here, there had never been any true choice. Yet, the room she feared and despised was no longer one of merely pain and death, a fact which was reinforced as a soft mewl floated through the door.
"Someone there?" a voice softly called through the silence as River picked up the sounds of soothing movements and gentle utterances directed elsewhere.
"I think, I think I am," River replied haltingly.
Inside the infirmary, Zoe smiled to herself as she moved in front of the door to face her unexpected visitor. River's quirks had become a comfort to her since Wash's death. As the young girl had taken over as ship's pilot, Zoe had slowly discovered the discovered the mysteriously precious gift that had entranced her husband in his last year as she grieved surrounding by the space which still felt of his presence.
Spotting the young girl standing outside the infirmary with her head looking fixedly at the ground, Zoe gently asked "River, honey? Why don't you know who it is?"
"Don't want to be here, couldn't help it though, my feet brought me against my will, "the younger woman responded from behind a veil of hair.
"I can respect that" Zoe said slowly. "This hasn't always been any of our favourite place in the 'verse."
A sudden wail pierced the quiet space, causing River to glance up curiously. Zoe stood before her quietly rocking a newborn child, who had returned to whimpering in her arms.
Unable to hold back, River took a tentative step forward, craning her head for a better view "may I see?" River asked reverently.
"Course you can," Zoe offered with an easy smile, stepping back to allow River entrance into the smaller space.
Eyes large with wonder, River made her way towards the small bundle and looked down into Zoe's arms. "She looks like you . . . but not." River offered diplomatically. It was true, the baby girl had inherited Zoe's colouring but, at least for now, bore a striking resemblance to her father, a fact Zoe had painfully noted in the days since her birth.
"That she does, babies can change though as they age and I reckon this one will have the personality to do as she wishes with this group as her role models," Zoe reflected wistfully.
"Have you given her a designation yet?" River asked, unable to take her eyes of the small bundle before her.
Zoe smiled at River's choice of words. Though the girl had improved considerably in the past few months, some quirks were just River plain and simple. "Actually, I did happen to choose a name. Finally decided it was right to name her after Wash's mother, in memory of him." She said quietly. "River, I'd like you to meet Irina."
At this revelation River quirked her head up to meet Zoe's eyes. "Irina. From the earth-that-was language-Russian. It means peace which is also recognized as a synonym for the term serenity."
"That's right," Zoe said catching her breath. She should have realised that if anyone would figure out the meaning behind her daughter's name it would be the woman before her now.
"It's right," River said simply.
"Thank you. Now," Zoe fixed the girl before her with a stare. "What really brought you down here at this time of night?"
River jumped back as though physically struck by the memory, her hands flying behind her back to fidget furiously at the thoughts. Zoe watched the girl wrestle inside her head for control. She had seen River get lost so many times over the past year but this time seemed different as River's eyes flickered between Irina, Zoe, and the floor.
"I found something, something that was lost. It wasn't mine, it isn't mine, but I don't know how to give it back. It could be dangerous, cause great pain," River confessed rapidly as the words tripped out of her mouth in a rush.
"Well, if it belongs to someone else, maybe they should be the one to determine if the pain is worth it?" Zoe offered non-committedly. "So long as it ain't lethal."
"Not lethal, not to the body," River mumbled, eyes still downcast."Would you want it back? Knowing the danger, if it were yours?"
"Yes, I would," Zoe replied solemnly, sensing more in the question as she continued to rock Irina softly.
Squaring her shoulders, River walked over to the nearest terminal, her fingers flying over the console. "I was bored. Flying is fun but sometimes Serenity must sleep and I get lonely so I look. I wanted to make her fly better, shed the clutter. Instead I found this." River looked at Zoe. "It belongs to you, both of you."
Curious, Zoe stepped up to the screen and bit back a gasp as Wash's face filled the small space, sitting in his old pilot's chair, his face frozen in a grin.
"I can leave, if you want me too." River offered quietly.
"Thank you River." Zoe replied distantly, focused only on the screen before her.
Turning slightly, River glanced back before leaving "Please. Please don't break Zoe. We need you. If the pieces start to crack, don't throw us away." River pleaded, scared at what she may have unleashed.
Zoe turned to meet her gaze, eyes sad and bright. "We'll fly true. I'll call you if I need when it's done."
River nodded and lightly stepped over the threshold, closing the doors behind her.
Seeing the doors close, Zoe turned back towards the screen, adjusted Irina, and hit play as Wash's image sprung to life.
Leaning back in his chair, Wash scratched his head thoughtfully, looking puzzled despite his easy grin.
"Hey hunny," he began. "Wow, so, ummmm." Wash's image fidgeted in his chair nervously. "So, apparently we survived, well, I mean, we had to for me to be recording and you to be watching. I still can't believe it about Nandi though. Life on this ship, with this crew, it really makes you remember how short your time in this verse can be. You may not believe this but while you're sleeping all beautiful and peaceful-like in our bunk, I've been thinking about our, uh, earlier conversation." Wash looked away from the camera as he raked his fingers through his hair again.
"I know we agreed not to talk much of the past but I think you need to understand. Growing up on a rock like ours, the sky so filthy you could barely breathe when you played, it was hard. I can't imagine raising a kid on a ship, especially one like ours. I'd be a nervous wreck, like all the time, not just when you're off on one of Mal's hare-brained schemes. Umm, if Mal's watching, I mean that in the most respectful way Captain." Wash gestured in the air wildly. "I know ships, not kids but I'm pretty sure living in a place that crashes, through no fault of the amazingly handsome and talented pilot can't be good for their little skulls. We could end up with offspring as smart as Jayne." Wash mock shuddered through the screen causing Zoe to laugh slightly.
"Just kidding, no offense to the resident ape. I kid when I'm nervous. You already know that. Why did I say that? I tend to ramble too, but you also know that." Wash rambled on. "I guess what I'm trying to say..."
Wash stopped and looked pleadingly at the camera. "Can I start over?"
Taking a deep breath, the pilot re-started. "Lamby toes, I love you. I will love you as long as one of us is alive and probably longer than that. I can't think of anyone in the 'verse I would rather procreate with. However, right now I am scared beyond all scared, especially with our family slitting apart. I still can't believe Inara's leaving or that she thinks by not tellin' us we won't figure it out. The purpose of this vid is to show you how much I care about you and respect both you and your dreams. One day, we will have our own little one and I'm going to play this for you so you know how serious I am about you and are family, show you I was thinking too, even if I couldn't find the words to say so." Wash trailed off as he suddenly leapt up to grab a ragged, yellowing clump of paper that had been laying just out of the camera's view.
Settling himself back into his seat, Wash looked back into the camera with his grin firmly in place. "I wasn't actually tidying our bunk earlier that was just a side effect. I was actually looking for this." He waved the paper in front of him. "Growing up, we didn't have much but my momma managed to get her hands on some paper and copied out this story that had been passed on in our family since the days of earth-that-was apparently." Wash looked down at the paper wistfully. "She took the time to draw us pictures and everything but the book's seen better days as you can probably tell." He grinned ruefully.
"Anyway, I remember the story and hope to record it later but there's this song in the book and I figure, if I'm ever off ship at bedtime you'll need a vid of the song so that our kids never have to go a night without hearing how I feel, even if it comes through my terrible singing voice, don't worry, I'll sing it through a few times so that it's long enough to be a proper lullaby." Zoe's heart ached as she watched his face light up at the thought of passing down a family tradition. She kept her attention on the screen.
"Well this would be the part for my future spawn," Wash said clearing his throat. "Here goes."
"I'll love you forever.
I'll like you for always . . ."
Wash's voice trailed off as Irina settled into her father's voice for the first time and Zoe sat cradling her while weeping softly.
River, sensing the change in the room beside her, quietly opened the door, grabbed a clean cloth out of the cupboard and handed it to the crying woman while slipping something hard into her hand beneath it as Zoe looked at her questioningly.
"The fabric is for your tears, the other is a copy of Wash's message, with a separate recording of the song in case you wish to use it for its intended purpose."River explained gently.
"Thank you," Zoe replied, unable to say more in her renewed grief.
Wordlessly, River swept across the room and enveloped the older woman and infant in a rare hug.
"What'cha doin' River?" Zoe choked out confused.
River gazed solemnly at the family before her, "helping with the pieces," she replied simply as the three of them sat in a silence broken only by the sound of Wash swirling around them.