Disclaimer: It's not mine. No, really. I wish it were, but that's life. Joss Whedon (may his ancestors smile upon him) is the creator. Mutant Enemy (Grrr, Argh!) is the production company, and 20th Century Fox (may they be cursed with a thousand open sores that weep as their mothers did on the days of their birth) is…whatever the technical term for heartbreaking ass monkeys is. No profit or infringement is intended, only abased and heartfelt worship.

Author's Notes: One of the best parts of writing fan fiction, I think, is asking those what-if questions. This one happened to be a two-part questions – what if Zoe and Wash had that baby they were talking about back in "Heart of Gold," and what could possibly thaw out Mal's damaged, frozen heart. Let's just say there's a reason she's named as she is. Reviews are welcome. If you feel up to it at all, please point out what you especially thought worked well and what needs work. It's the only way I'm going to improve.

Promises, Promises

The crew sat around the lounge area in various slumped positions. It had been a long night. Only Wash and Inara had been allowed in the infirmary once the second stage of labor had begun, and considering that there had been more yelling and screaming from Wash than from Zoe, there was a little doubt over Simon's wisdom in the matter.

Kaylee sat in lotus position, staring off into space and absentmindedly twirling a lock of her hair. She had been back and forth to the galley the first few hours, bringing food and hot drinks to anyone with the stomach to eat. Book sat at the end of the couch, quietly praying. Jayne was reading a comic book, or trying to without much success. His lips moved slowly as he read each of the lines, and he would occasionally chuckle when a joke finally penetrated. Every now and then, he would remember why they were sitting there, look about, and then grimace with impatience. River curled up in a corner, quietly telling a story to the power coupling Kaylee had left off repairing. Mal, on the other hand, hadn't been able to bring himself to sit down for more than five seconds. He would wipe his hands on his pants, get back up to his feet, and start pacing again. When he couldn't stand it any longer, he would leave the lounge and run up the stairs to the bridge, make sure – yet again – that the autopilot was configured properly and hadn't stopped working, and then walk a fast circuit of the ship to make sure everything was still attached.

There was a flurry of activity in the infirmary – voices and movement. Everyone sat up. Mal quit leaning against the bulkhead and stood straight.

"OW! OW!" Wash's voice carried quite well in the confines of Serenity. "Baby, you're crushing my hand. OW! LEGGO! Okay, it's all my fault! I'm sorry! I grovel!"

Everyone riveted their attention to the infirmary door since Simon had draped the windows for privacy. There was a moment of intense silence that lasted just long enough for the hairs on the back of Mal's neck to raise up in hackles. Then. A tiny hiccup and the sudden, loud sobbing of a soul shocked at the bright, cold world it had just been thrown into.

Mal took in air again, aware that he was getting light headed from not breathing. Kaylee got to her feet and joined him.

"That's a right good sound to hear, isn't it, Captain?"

"Surely is, mei mei," he agreed.

"Awful lotta work for something that'll only squall and make messes for the next ten years," Jayne commented.

"Oh, they do quite a bit more than that," Book answered, closing his Bible and getting to his feet as well.

The crying was muffled and then subsided entirely. Movement picked up inside the infirmary as, presumably, Wash put an ice pack on his hand, Inara looked to Zoe's and the infant's needs, and Simon helped Zoe through the last stages of the birth. For nearly ten minutes, the crew stood around looking at each other with idiotic grins, waiting for news. Finally, the door opened, and Inara stepped out, holding a swaddled bundle in the crook of her arm.

"Mother and father are both doing fine," she said, her face tired and filled with an irrepressible smile of joy. "Zoe asked me to bring her out and introduce her to you."

She went straight to Mal, and before he could protest or find a place to hide, she deftly transferred her charge into Mal's arm. Instantly, his arm curled around the baby, protecting and supporting her.

"She asked me to have you hold her first, Mal," Inara continued. "Everyone, I'd like you to meet Hope."

There was no doubt in his mind, only an instantaneous comprehension, as he looked down at Wash and Zoe's daughter, that she was the most incredible, the most beautiful, the most perfect thing he'd ever seen. She had her mother's full lips, and as Mal watched, she yawned, stretched a little against him, and then opened her eyes and looked up at him. Her eyes were a dark, indeterminate color, neither blue nor brown. Her skin was a mottled dark pink, giving no indication which parent's genes would hold sway.

"Where'd that red hair come from?" Kaylee asked, wide-eyed.

"Wash says his brother and an aunt are redheads," Inara answered.

Mal, for his part, was speechless. Hope's weight in his arm was negligible, hardly noticeable, but when she blinked, and her eyes focused on his face, she was the most important thing in the whole 'verse. People were talking around him, smiling, laughing, but they might as well have been light years away. All he saw was Hope, this brand new human being – the closest thing to perfection, love, and God that he would ever encounter.

Something began to hurt, deep inside his chest, a deep, aching pain like his rib cage was being slowly pulled apart. With the barest tip of his finger, he brushed her cheek and watched as she turned her face towards his knuckle, mouth working a little bit. His throat had completely closed up. He found he was working hard at breathing, and his jaw had clenched.

Never, he thought. You will never know fear. You will never know want. You will never be alone or lost or afraid or hungry, he promised her. Not while there is breath in my body, not while there is a single thing I can put my hand to.

There was a place in him, somewhere, that had long been buried. Buried, bricked up, sealed over, and all memory of its name wiped from existence. It had been that way since Serenity Valley. It had healed, if a scar that size could ever be truly healed. He found he could live – even laugh and love – while that place stayed as barren and withered as a lifeless moon. But this, this tiny creature in his arm that he touched with wonderment and pain, she settled over that place, and there was no denying her. There was no hiding from her.

"Captain?"

He looked up, startled. Kaylee was studying him with hopeful eyes.

"Can I hold her?"

He could not find his voice, so instead, he nodded shortly, and carefully, reluctantly, surrendered Hope into Kaylee's hands. Kaylee immediately started cooing at her, getting her attention, and tickling her cheek and hands. The others gathered around her and looked over her shoulder. Even Jayne was smiling with guileless delight.

He left the lounge, stepped over the hatchway that lead into the cargo bay and took several deep breaths, trying to find his center. He had known, of course he had known, that when Zoe and Wash announced their news that everything on Serenity would change. It's just that he was imagining diaper pails and his first officer burping a sausage shaped package on her shoulder, not something that dismantled all the walls he put up to protect himself against the verse. He put his hands on the struts above Jayne's weight bench and leaned against the cold metal.

"Mal?"

He hadn't heard her come up behind him. Since Inara had left – been repudiated by – the Guild, the tenor of their relationship had changed nearly as much as her own personality. She reminded him a little too much of himself now, of who he was in the months after Serenity Valley.

She put her hand on his back and came up under his arm. Without even thinking much about it, he let his arm fall over her shoulders, and they stood together for a long moment. She still wore the same scent – spicy and cinnamony and warm – that she always had, but she no longer wore the stylish, intricate clothing that had been a mark of her status. Instead, she favored plain, darker dresses. It seemed at times that her carefully cultivated veneer of tranquility had been stripped away, leaving an explosive temper and deep, impenetrable silence.

"Hell of a time to bring a brand new person into this verse," he said, finally locating his voice.

"Better now than never," she answered, the quirk in her voice a dead give-away of the smile that tugged at the corner of her mouth. "And I mean to make sure it's as good for her as humanly possible."

Mal looked down at her, at those huge, dark eyes filled with resolve.

"You too, huh?" he asked.

Her smile quirked a little more, giving him all the answer he needed. He tilted his head down a bit and kissed her forehead as she put her other arm around his waist, and they stood that way for a long moment.

"Captain? Inara?" It was Simon, looking even more tired than Inara. Probably the only one more tired than him was Zoe herself. He had even unbent far enough to roll up his sleeves, though his collar was still buttoned.

"Right here, doc," Mal replied, letting go of Inara.

"Zoe's asking for you."

"Be right there."

The End.