Chapter 6: Family

Zoe waited in the stairwell for her husband. She had sent Jayne on ahead to guard the bottom entrance, while Kaylee remained with her. Her belly was hurting something fierce, but that was nothing compared to the pounding in her head.

Her concept of who her husband was just wasn't fitting with what she had seen here today. Oh she knew that there was a lot more to him than met the eye. She had always figured that. He had proven her suspicions about his bravery and willingness to fight if it could not be avoided to be true the time they had rescued Mal from Niska.

And she had already heard Mal read the public record, the obituary, he had dug up. Still, it was so much more information about her husband, about abilities and facets of him that he had kept carefully hidden, that it had seemed all but impossible to take it all in. That was until just now, when she had direct evidence that it was not only possible, but true.

Just then the man in question made an appearance, gun drawn, carefully checking the stairwell before entering. When he saw her and Kaylee, he stepped in and then transferred his bag to the hand holding the gun. He had the weapon cleverly hidden by some clothing that hung out the top of the bag, but fact was that the gun was still firmly in his grasp. All he would have to do was drop the bag and he'd be ready to fire.

Again, not like the man she thought she knew. Still, that might be a good thing given their situation. Zoe turned and led the way down the stairs, but was brought up short by Wash's hand on her arm as she turned the corner leading to the fifth floor landing.

"There's something I need to check on before we leave," he said.

"And what might that be? We don't have time to take in the sights, husband," she threw back.

"Don't I know it!" he answered, talking quickly. "Alliance military are already on their way. But I was taken captive in the room below my own and I want to grab their papers before we go. Need to know whatever I can."

Zoe nodded. "I'll do it. You and Kaylee go on down the stairs towards the lobby. Jayne's waiting there for us. I'll be along directly."

Reaching out, Wash took hold of her shirt and pulled her towards him. She reflexively began to raise the rifle butt and he froze. There was a look of both shock and sadness on his face as he slowly, carefully leaned in and kissed her.

"I'm still the same man," he whispered before straightening up and handing her the keycard for the room.

"Maybe so," she whispered back. "But that doesn't change the fact that I've never seen you before." Maybe they weren't the right words, the best words, to have used, but they were honest. It still hurt to see how they seemed to wound her husband.

"Zoe..." he began, but she turned and left the stairwell before things could get more complicated. She had something to get done. No use in squandering more time.

There would hopefully be time for talk later.

"Where's Zoe?" Jayne asked suspiciously when Wash and Kaylee reached him.

"She went to gather some information. Some other men took Wash hostage downstairs and he had to take them out," Kaylee answered when it appeared that the pilot himself was in no mood for talking.

Jayne snorted. "Well ain't you a regular killing machine," he commented. He ignored the pained expression his words brought to his crewmate's face. "Sure hope Zoe hurries, though... We gotta be leaving before things really get tough."

"She shouldn't be long," Wash answered.

Jayne crooked a finger at him. "Hey, come here a second."

Wash gave him a suspicious look, but moved to stand next to him, whereupon the big man handed him his rifle.

"Hold that a sec, willya?" He then removed his floppy-eared hat and pushed it down over the pilot's head. "There. That'll at least cover all that light hair of yours. Make it a bit easier to blend in on the street."

Jayne had a hard time hiding his amusement at the appalled look on Wash's face. Damn, but good old, gut-wrenching situations like this really put him in a good mood. The only thing that would have made it a better evening was if he had had the chance to finish bashing in toothless' face upstairs.

Darn that Zoe. She always took out the ones he had his sights on!

Zoe entered the fifth floor room and paused only long enough to scan the interior and ascertain that there was no immediate danger to herself. Then she crossed over to the man who lay hog-tied on the floor. He had begun to groan and come around.

Without the slightest qualm, she kicked him in the head, knocking him out again.

Then she crossed to the man at the desk.

He was dead. Near as she could tell, from a blow to the base of the skull.

Goosebumps rose on her flesh at the same time as a thrill ran through her. How could one person feel such a rush of amazement, elation and profound sadness at the same time?

She again was forced to realize that her husband was nowhere near being the coward some like Jayne, and perhaps Mal, had thought him to be. True that she herself had never thought of him in that way, but to be faced with proof that he was capable of this?

"Snap out of it!" she chastised herself, then turned and surveyed the papers on the desk.

She gathered them up, along with a few which had been generated by the vid com system, folded them and tucked them into her leather vest.

Time to call Mal and then get back to the ship.

They took a detour through the bar, Jayne hiding the rifle under his large overcoat, Wash hiding his hair under Jayne's ridiculous looking hat.

Kaylee was well aware that she looked like an Earth-that-was deer caught in the headlights.

Only Zoe looked calm, unruffled and like an average person on the street. She led the way, followed by Jayne, then Kaylee, with Wash bringing up the rear.

It was a definite elevation of his status and Kaylee wondered if he had noted it. The point and the rear were areas where the better fighters were always placed. Always before, Wash had been in the middle with her. Then again, maybe Zoe did it this way to help Jayne in hiding his larger weapon.

They pushed their way through the crowded establishment and at one point stopped at the bar itself as they saw six Alliance military suddenly pass by the street entrance. The soldiers had to be on their way into the hotel.

"Jayne," Zoe motioned him closer to her. "They're going to send someone in here soon as they realize it opens up on the hotel lobby."

"Yeah, I was just figuring that. Question is, how many more troops are on the way?"

Zoe nodded. "Kaylee, need you to peek outside," she whispered.

With a gulp, she put on her best innocent look and walked calmly to the door. She looked left and right and didn't see anything out of the ordinary. With a deep breath, she pushed open the door and crossed the street. Standing on the far curb, she knew her crewmates could see her clearly as she scanned the street.

At first everything seemed OK. Then she noticed them: three men, plain clothes, but military nonetheless. She could tell by the way they were groomed, how they stood in the alleyway entrance and how one of them kept turning away to talk on a com. No doubt that they were stationed there to intercept anyone sneaking away from the hotel.

She shook her head side to side when she knew the enemy wasn't watching her, then dropped her hand and held three fingers out to signal the number of men to Zoe. Lastly she looked pointedly in the direction of the ambush.

Zoe nodded that she understood, then signaled her to start walking down the street past the area by moving two of her fingers in a walking motion.

Kaylee gulped and nodded. Whatever was going to happen, was going to happen real soon. She wasn't certain what else she should be doing, but she had an idea that getting past the men and then distracting them was the most likely plan.

She walked slowly until she had just passed the men, then started crossing towards their side of the street. Zoe and the others had emerged from the bar and were slowly moving towards the alley. Just as they got to within range of their would-be ambushers, Kaylee screamed and fell down.

The men instantly turned all their attention to her. One even began to draw his weapon. That's when her crewmates sprang into action.

Zoe let fly with a kick to the closest man's jaw, then followed up with two punches as he started to collapse.

The man behind him started to bring his gun to bear when Wash blocked his arm hard enough to knock the gun away, landed a punch to his throat and then somehow locked up his arm and pulled the man over backward. The guy's head connected soundly with the road, ending the fight.

At the same time that Wash was dispatching his foe, Jayne stepped up and clocked the remaining man with the rifle.

It was all over in seconds and with very little nose to draw attention to them.

Zoe motioned them to follow her and took off down the alleyway. She apparently knew a less conspicuous way back to Serenity.

"Good job, Kaylee," she called back over her shoulder.

"Th-th-thanks," she stuttered, unable to suppress the adrenaline surge that the terrifying incident had generated.

"Yeah. Nice scream," Jayne laughed.

Before she could show her annoyance by mentioning an embarrassing moment or two from the large man's past, Wash interrupted.

"I don't know, Jayne," he deadpanned. "I think I could have screamed louder."

Jayne snorted. "I know you could. We've all had occasion to hear you."

Despite herself, Kaylee was amused. The butterflies in her stomach began to settle, either from the men's exchange or from the run. Either way she felt well enough to crack, "Yeah, but what about pitch, Jayne? My scream was higher pitched than any of Wash's, right?"

The tall man looked skeptical.

"Don't know, Kaylee," Zoe joined in. "Wash has come pretty close a time or two..."

"Thanks, wife," the pilot responded with a smile.

By then they were all too winded to keep up the conversation, so they just saved their breath and ran harder.

When they turned another corner Serenity was in sight. And a sight for sore eyes she was.

"Home sweet home!" Wash gasped as they headed up the landing ramp.

Captain Malcolm Reynolds had Serenity warmed up and ready to go.

Ever since Zoe had informed him that they were on their way back, he had stayed on the bridge, tensely watching through the main viewports for any sign of his missing crew.

He was so intent on watching for them that he failed to notice that River and Shepherd Book had joined him, until River spoke.

"Kaylee fooled them," she suddenly said, causing Mal to start and turn towards her.

He noted Book standing by the entranceway, then spoke. "Are they on their way, River?" he asked. "Are they all right?"

She giggled. "Right as rain... ahead of the game..." Then she wandered back out.

He exchanged another look with the Shepherd.

"Yeah, I know," Book commented. "She knows things."

"Damn straight she does, preacher," Mal answered. "And so do you. Would you mind taking the helm for a few minutes while I go on down to the cargo bay?"

"Certainly not, but why do you need to go down there?"

"I plan on lending a hand should the Alliance put two and two together and try to cut them off from the ship."

"Dandy," Book smiled. "But you might want to consider sending me down there instead. I have something I've been working on for just such an occasion..."

"And you call yourself a man of God?" Mal smirked. "Yeah, all right. Show us what you've got."

"Anything to keep the final death toll to a minimum," Book admonished as he turned and left the bridge.
Zoe was more than a little surprised when no ambush was sprung on them as they approached their boat. Still she wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth – she kept running and encouraged the others to do the same right up until they could get aboard.

The bay doors and ramp opened as they neared and she was surprised to see Shepherd Book was the one greeting them. He stood at the ramp controls with some sort of four-wheeled contraption next to him.

No matter, she didn't have time for questions right now.

As Kaylee and Wash entered the cargo bay, Book immediately closed the doors and ramp.

"We're all aboard, Captain," Zoe informed Mal via com.

"Get Wash up here and let's get outta here before they start carrying out searches," came the reply.

"Yes sir." She cut the com and turned to survey the rest of her crewmates.

They were all taking long, deep breaths, trying to calm their breathing. Kaylee was bend forward at the waist, gasping. Wash was walking in small circles, clutching at his side, obviously experiencing a stitch from all the running. Jayne looked fine, just breathed a bit faster and deeper than usual. He headed for the Shepherd first.

"Hey preacher," he greeted. "What you got there?"

Book produced a remote. "It's sort of a remote controlled bomb," he answered proudly.

Jayne was joined by Kaylee as he peered at the thing more closely. "No kidding? You built that?" he asked.

"What can I say? I had plenty of time and thought it might come in handy one day."

"Good job," Kaylee praised him. "Definitely has plenty of 'blast power'. Hope you disarm it when you store it away."

"I will indeed. Why don't you give me a hand with it?"

As the three of them disarmed and stored the weapon, Zoe approached Wash. "Mal wants to get out of here pronto," she urged.

"Don't have to ask me twice," he replied, finally taking his hand away from his side. "First things first, though..."

He surprised her then by pulling her to him and kissing her passionately. Not that she minded, but her husband, although demonstrative in front of the others, usually didn't get quite this brazen.

She all but melted as he kissed her, his hands kneading her posterior. They were both breathless again by the time he came up for air.

Kaylee's, "Whoa!" and Jayne's enthusiastic, "Hot damn!" brought them both back to the here and now.

With a huge grin, Wash slapped her on the rear and started up the stairs towards the bridge.

"Glad to see that you two have made up," Book commented.

That's when she became aware that they were all gawking at her. As much as she might have otherwise chitchatted with them, she was the first mate on Serenity and she knew that had to always be driven home when she was interacting with more than one of them at a time.

So all she said was, "Working on it. We're about to take off, people. Time to see to your duties. Shepherd, you certain that thing of yours isn't going to accidentally blow us out of the sky?"

Kaylee and Jayne took off while Book answered her. "It's perfectly safe now."

With a nod she headed up the stairs to the bridge. Her abdomen was one huge hurt right then, but she still had things to see to before she could rest.

Mal had to admit that it felt good to see Wash on the bridge again. True that the man had only been away a day, but having wondered if they would ever get him back... well, it just made you appreciate a person more when they did return.

"Bout damn time," he commented, as the man took the pilot's chair.

"Yeah, I missed you, too, honey," Wash cracked back, a smile on his face.

"Well, if you really mean that, then you'll prove it by avoiding any and all Alliance who might be in the area."

The pilot's eyebrow shot up. "Can't have you thinking I'm insincere, so you better hang on to something..."

There was a thrum of power through the ship's infrastructure as Wash rev'd the engines and shot them straight up off the launch pad.

Mal's stomach felt like it had been left behind, and that was OK by him. There really was both exhilaration and intense satisfaction in having a fine pilot coax Serenity to her limits. Nothing made him prouder to see just what his boat could do. And that both Serenity and her crew had developed a reputation, a growing one at that, was at least in great part due to the paces her pilot put her through.

The following few hours were the kind of thrill ride he had come to enjoy. Wash deftly eluded arriving Alliance cruisers and out maneuvered stationed patrol ships, managing to embarrass each engaged pilot in turn.

In the end it was just them and the open expanse of space, though. There just had never been much of a doubt. It was time to bring up a thorny subject.

Mal sat forward in his chair. "You know that I mean to have the full accounting of the facts leading up to you becoming a pilot for hire."

Wash nervously swallowed but then met his eyes, "I do sir."

The captain leaned back in his seat and gave his pilot a measuring look. "I know you have other important personal things to get straight first. How about if you, me and Zoe get together tomorrow morning so you can fill us in on who you really are?"

"Well, how about we do it over breakfast and include the entire crew?"

"You being sarcastic?" Mal asked him, uncertain of what he was thinking.

"No. Just feel that I'd rather tell it one time and have it finally out in the open." Wash sighed, "I think that I owe them that much. They deserve to know who it is they're trusting their lives to. Besides: we're pretty much the closest thing to family that any of us is likely to have."

Mal nodded. If there was another thing he liked about Wash, it was his honesty. He was about to get up, clap Wash on the back and leave him in peace when it occurred to him that his pilot still had things to straighten out with Zoe.

"Would you like permission to track down the first officer?" he asked with a smirk. "Go on. I'll watch the bridge."

Wash needed no further permission. With a grin he bounded out of his seat and took off.

Mal settled into the pilot's chair and sighed. Tomorrow was certain to be a taxing day for all of them.

He went in search of Zoe as soon as he was able to finish his navigation calculations and programming. After searching all over Serenity, he finally risked entering the bunk they had once shared and found her crouched on the floor near the washing station.

All tentativeness forgotten, he moved quickly to help her up, his heart pounding. There was plenty of evidence that she had been quite ill just before he showed up.

"Zoe? Honey? What's wrong?" he asked, as he managed to guide her over to and seat her on the edge of their bed.

She let herself fall back on the bed and took several deep breaths... She was very pale and obviously still fighting to keep the retching at bay. Perspiration beaded her brow.

Without thinking about it, he wiped it away with his sleeve. "I'll go get Simon," he began.

She grabbed his sleeve, stopping him from leaving. "No. I'm all right," she insisted.

"You most definitely are not!" he argued. "Is this part of why you were in the hospital earlier?" When she didn't answer he insisted, "Tell me what's wrong!"

Zoe watched his face silently for a while, then put a hand up to cup his cheek. "I really do love you. Do you know that?" she asked.

He covered her hand with his own and rubbed his cheek against it. "Now you're really worrying me..." he quipped.

"No, Wash... or Hoban, whichever your name is..."

"It's Wash now," he insisted.

"I've always known there was so much more to you," she whispered. "I was just waiting for you to stop hiding it." Their eyes locked. "Despite what you might have thought, I've always respected you. I've always respected your insistence on not fighting or killing if you could help it. I respect that even more now that I see that you can easily do such things if you need to. It takes a very strong man to just refuse like you do..."

He looked both touched and pained. "Zoe..."

"No matter what your story is, I still love you. I think I always will," she insisted.

Wash lay down beside her and buried his face in the crook of her neck. He loved to smell her hair and plant small kisses on her neck while curled beside her like this. This time, he simply held her, content for a time, to simply be with her again. Long minutes passed before he broke the silence. "You're good," he finally chuckled. "Found a way to make me forget what I was thinking earlier." He propped himself up on an elbow. "Why were you in the hospital, Lambie-toes?"

She started pulling at her vest. "Help me get undressed."

He started to reach for her shirt buttons as a rush of excitement electrified him, then froze.

"Wait a minute... that's an unfair way to make me forget the question again!" he complained.

"No trick, honey. Help me and all will be revealed."

Needing no further encouragement in stripping his wife, Wash helped her with her shirt and pants, but frowned as he realized she had a pressure bandage on her abdomen.

Zoe struggled to a sitting position and began to gingerly remove the wrap, which in turn revealed a large gauze pad taped to her lower right side. She lay back down and carefully peeled it off, grimacing as the tape pulled her sore flesh.

Wash found himself staring at a three-inch incision. "My God!" he exclaimed. "What? How did this happen?"

His wife removed her remaining clothes and carefully scooted up in the bed, pulling the blankets over herself. She patted the bed next to her. "Get your clothes off and come on up here," she urged.

Again he looked at her as though she was trying to distract him from learning the full story, but complied. Who was he, after all, to resist a beautiful woman, who happened to be his wife, when she asked him to climb into a bed naked with her?

As soon as he pulled the covers over himself, she tried to curl up next to him but gasped and went rigid.

"I'm OK," she volunteered before he could ask. "Can't lie on my side right now is all." Instead, she placed her head on his shoulder and held her belly with both hands, slowly rubbing it.

"You lost the baby, didn't you?" he suddenly found himself asking. His wife was usually pretty straightforward with him. Her inability to explain her condition without continually procrastinating... Well, all the puzzle pieces had suddenly just fit together.

Tears began to track down the sides of her face. "Yes."

He listened in a kind of deep shock as she recounted what had happened to her: how she had asked Mal to keep him from leaving and then the next thing she remembered was awaking in the hospital. As she explained everything to him a very deep anger at himself began to build.

"I should have been there," he cried. "I shouldn't have made such a big deal of it... I should have told you why I didn't want a child... explained myself instead of just refusing"

She shushed him and pulled him to her for a kiss. "We were both wrong and perhaps that is why this happened. We just weren't ready for a child. It wouldn't have been a good situation for the baby..."

"No. No Zoe! You can't think that," he protested. "Many times this happens during a pregnancy. It wasn't because of anything either of us did or thought. It just wasn't meant to be this time." He kissed her then. "But, you were right: if we don't have a child now, then when will be the right time? We can try again when you're healed up. That is... if you still want to?"

"What do you want, husband?"

"I just let my fears overcome all reason," he admitted. "But I want a child with you and there's no sense in putting it off."

"It's all water under the bridge now," she sighed. "I still have one functioning side. Perhaps next year or the year after we'll try again."

Wash leaned over her and began nibbling her neck, below her ear. "Or maybe we could try sooner..." he suggested.

She smacked him, but not all that hard. "I'm still healing here!"

"Ok." He raised his head long enough to raise an eyebrow. "So then we'll just practice..." He returned to nibbling.

Zoe put her arms around him and hugged him tightly. "I missed you so much..."

He returned the embrace. "Not nearly as much as I missed you."

They fell asleep embracing each other, neither willing to let go for even an instant.

Mal was still on the bridge when Inara found him. He appeared to be deep in thought and she could easily guess what it was about.

"Wash and Zoe making up?" she asked.

Startled, he swung his chair around to face her. "Inara. What brings you up here?"

"You didn't answer my question," she prodded.

"Oh, I suppose that they are. I hope they work it out," he admitted.

"If he leaves, she will, too," she stated.

He looked annoyed. "You know, no one on this boat seems to give me enough credit. And it ain't like I haven't earned it," he groused. "Course I know she'd most likely go with him if'n it came to it. Only way she'd stay would be if he did something really unforgivable, which is the only reason that I would have for putting him off Serenity anyway. So, as you see, if I'm going to lose my pilot because of a decision I make, then I will most likely keep my second in command."

"I remember when you couldn't wait to find a reason to get rid of him."

"Yeah, but as you'll recall, that was only after he began to woo Zoe. Before that I was the one arguing all the reasons why he was the perfect pilot for us."

"So, up until a few days ago, you felt strongly about keeping him?" she pressed.

"Course! Fortunately, although he and Zoe have their ups and downs, usually things are kept private and away from the crew. For the most part, they don't cause trouble. That is the only problem I had with them becoming a couple: that it could complicate things for everyone. They've proved that in their case that ain't gonna happen." He frowned at her. "Look, I got a lot on my mind right now, I don't need you riling me just for the sake of it."

She shrugged. "Just trying to see where you stood where they were concerned. I really came up here to thank you for dinner."

Mal actually seemed at a loss for words. "Really?"

She nodded. "You were right. We don't get much of a chance to actually talk to each other. Both the dinner and the company were excellent."

A rare smile lit his face. "Well hopefully we'll get another chance sometime soon."

She sighed. "Perhaps, but in the meantime you might want to just take the time to talk with me now and then. And when the time comes, don't be afraid to ask me."

"Ask you what?" he looked puzzled and alarmed.

"Ask me what the Guild rules for dating are," she said, bluntly. Then she laid a hand on his shoulder briefly before turning to leave. "And Mal?"

"Yeah?" He still looked alarmed.

"Don't wait too long to ask." With that she turned and headed back to her shuttle for the night.

To be concluded next chapter