CHAPTER 12

The crew lingered anxiously outside the Infirmary as Simon and Zoë tended to Wash. Simon discovered that he could use Wei's black cylinder to repair most of the bone damage, and having done that, was starting to cast Wash's feet. Book prayed silently and Jayne paced nervously, unwilling to sit still. The mission had only been a partial success—Inara's absence was palpable. As soon as the engines were running steady, Kaylee bolted from the engine room to watch and wait with the others. Having set a course that was firmly away from the core, Mal hoped he wasn't heading away from Inara as well.

"You're a strategist," Mal said to Alegra. "What ideas do you have?"

Alegra's crossed her arms tightly as if she were squirreling her innards. With a heavy sigh, she said, "Leave Inara for dead, run to the rim, and spend the rest of your life avoiding Jantis."

"No!" Kaylee cried.

"Second half is okay. Not so keen on the first point," Mal said.

Alegra thought again. "Find someone else with a grudge on Jantis who may be tracking his whereabouts."

"No time for that."

"Caddock!" Jayne interrupted. His feet stopped suddenly as if they couldn't run at the same time as his mouth. "Surely Caddock's figured Jantis is the one that black marked him."

"Don't mean he's found him," Mal countered.

"If Jantis black marked him, they've had direct dealings," Jayne pointed out. "Caddock would at least give us a solid start."

Mal rubbed his eyes, wearied by the prospect. Finally he turned to Kaylee. "Any chance he's still on Three Hills?"

"Damage I did to his ship, it'd take a team of folks a month to fix it. Far as I know, since I left he don't even have one mechanic."

"Jantis will be watching the ports for you," Alegra warned. "Three Hills doesn't allow landing out of port."

"Easter Island," Book volunteered, standing to join the discussion. They all looked at him, waiting for an explanation. "It's an abandoned Alliance base on Three Hills. We can land there easily enough and shouldn't be bothered."

"Kaylee, get the engines ready for a hard burn. We're going to Three Hills."

Happy to be doing something positive towards Inara's rescue, Kaylee headed back to the engine room. Her brain was already churning up ideas to boost the engine power. With a smirk, she told Serenity, "When I see that Caddock again I'll give him a piece of my mind. Hwa dun still has my lucky wrench."

-----

The Infirmary was quiet and smelled of plaster, paste, and canvas as Simon immobilized Wash's feet and ankles. Mal coughed at the powdery taste of the air. Wash was doped and stared lazily at Zoë, while Zoë held his hand and stroked his hair. She acknowledged Mal with a curt nod.

"How is he?" Mal asked.

"He suffered multiple fractures, but this device seems to have stimulated bone growth," Simon answered.

Confused, Mal looked to Zoë for a translation.

"He won't be running a marathon any time soon, but I expect he'll be flying by morning. We got a course?"

"Three Hills."

"Sir? You think he took Inara to Three Hills?"

"Not looking for Inara, we're looking for Caddock. There's a good chance Caddock can point us to Jantis."

Zoë raised an eyebrow. "Any chance he won't steal our cargo, kidnap our mechanic, and shoot us out of the sky?"

"Got no cargo to steal, so we're safe on the first."

"One less thing," Simon broke in sarcastically. "What about the kids?"

"Ain't worried about them at all. Powerful group like that don't need our protection.

"We leavin' 'em here, sir? On Osiris?"

"Alegra wants to get left on Three Hills. Plenty of ports there can take 'em to the edge of the 'verse."

Wash started mumbling and purring. "We gonna see the museum before we leave?"

"Museum?" Mal mouthed.

"Space History," Zoë explained to Mal. Then to Wash, she said, "No, sweetie. Next time."

"We gonna see the Earth ship? See our history?"

"Come on, Wash," Mal chuckled. "You had a front row seat in the history of obscure foot tortures."

"Qu ni de," Wash spat, his head lolling.

"I guess the sense of humor isn't recovering as quickly as his bones," Simon remarked dryly.

"We safe?" Wash asked looking at Zoë. "Are we all safe?"

Zoë shook her head. "Inara's missing. "Prio took her."

"When?" Wash become suddenly intense and alert, his eyes wide. "How long? Zoë, he's gonna kill her. Mal, we have to go now. Go help her. Baby, you can't stay here by my side. You have to go save her."

He tried to sit up and push Zoë into action, but she cooed softly to calm him. "She's not here anymore."

Wash didn't seem to hear her; he just continued looking at the others as if they were crazy to stand still at such a time as this. "I wouldn't have made it another day. If he's done to her what he did to me… if she finds a way to kill herself, she will. Why are you still sitting here?!"

"We're going. We're going now to get her." Zoë looked to Mal who turned and left for the cockpit. Then she turned back to Wash to reassure him. "She was alive yesterday. Alive and walking, we saw her. I don't think he means to hurt her."

Wash panted, fear filling his eyes. "Then he means to do much worse."

-----

Inara set up an altar in the corner of her cell, and knelt down to pray. This wall had the only light in the room and she angled it so that it shone down on her altar—only a pillow bordered by a silk scarf as that was all she had. She offered a square of red protein from her meal and asked for protection. In her minds eye, she envisioned the holy beings on her home altar melt into light and enter her heart to join her here. Inara closed her eyes, seeing the man she had seduced and later killed. Despite the rigorous scrubbing she'd done on her shuttle, she still felt his blood all over her hands and on her face. She prayed for Mal and the crew of Serenity, not wanting to believe them dead. She chanted her prayer until peace came and she could return to the moment.

Prio had sent her away from Osiris on a ship, heading to a place where no one would know to look. That meant she was on her own. From the folds of her gown, she pulled the immunization kit she had swiped. Did she dare open it here? Facing the altar to shield herself from any remote onlookers, she tipped open the box and checked its contents. Several types of microbicides, cleansers, and basic first aid supplies, including peroxide, pain killers, and instant heat/cold packs. Not enough for a cleansing ritual, nor were there any obvious weapons among them. But since no one from Serenity could come for her, these were the tools of her escape.

"Woman," a gruff guard said, entering the cell. Inara quickly closed the box, then pretending to pray again, she hid it in her sleeve. Taking her time to show her defiance, Inara then stood slowly and faced the guard.

"Come with me. Jantis will see you now."

-----

Zoë lay awake in the side bed of Infirmary, her eyes closed, her mind reeling. She wasn't in the habit of keeping secrets from her husband, but this one she just didn't know how to tell. Wash slept soundly on the center bed, aided by heavy medication. Though she was there to keep him company, she still felt alone. His breathing had settled into a gentle rhythm, but her mind stirred about. Not two months ago, she and Wash had talked about having a baby. At that time, it had been exciting, an ideal, a wonderful thought—at least for her. Wash had not been too keen on the idea. Now, in the middle of a rescue and heading into danger, it was a terrifying decision. Could they really raise a child on Serenity? She had been raised on a space ship, but not as an outlaw. With Mal constantly pulling them into bar fights, fist fights, sword fights, gun fights… Maybe Wash had been right. What if she had to leave Serenity? Would Wash stay behind? One of them had to earn a living.

And Mal! What would happen to him? He'd probably get himself killed real quick. She had saved his life countless times (and he hers), but lately, she'd felt herself slipping. Despite her denial, the mourning sickness had crept in and the others had certainly noticed. But she couldn't tell the doctor just yet. Didn't want him to know before Wash. She sighed as her mind replayed the pros and cons of keeping the baby over and over again. She knew it by heart now. If only this weren't happening now!

Her stomach churned and she feared she would be sick. Sweat beaded on her face and a tear glistened in her eye. Suddenly, she heard Wash stirring and with a groan, he rolled off the bed onto the floor.

"Gah!" he screamed, falling on his hands and feet. Then his feet slid out from under him and he landed hard on his knees. Zoë leapt out of bed to help him.

"Wash! Honey, are you okay?"

She dropped to the floor, putting an arm around his torso to stabilize him. Wash rolled into her, then onto the floor adopting a fetal position and crying. Or was he laughing?

"It seemed like such a good idea at the time," he snorted, his eyes squeezed shut in a mixture of pain and laughter.

"What did?"

"Just roll off the bed, don't need to land on my feet," Wash chuckled. Zoë wondered if this was a drug induced euphoria. "Bed's too tall. But my feet don't hurt… I just didn't know where they were. I can't feel them at all."

Zoë cradled his head, gently. "Can you feel me?"

Wash's eyes finally met hers and he swallowed hard, his face looking serious. "I was going to surprise you. Cozy up next to you while you slept."

Zoë chuckled, shaking her head and caressing his face. "You certainly surprised me."

Wash moaned deeply, kissing Zoë's hands and drifting back into the euphoria. Carefully, she placed a pillow under his head and another under his feet, then she pulled a blanket from the bed and snuggled up next to him on the floor. She felt his hand wrap around hers, squeeze lightly, and settle in until their two hands became one. The mental and emotional distance between them vanished. He's here, she told herself. Just tell him! Taking a few deep breaths to steady herself, she finally spoke; and though she whispered, it seemed as though her voice carried through all of Serenity.

"Wash?"

"Yes, my sweet?" His voice was soft and gentle. So peaceful, she hated to drop this bombshell in the middle of it.

"Wash," she repeated his name only to stall. She hadn't thought about how to say it. "I think—I know – I'm pregnant."

She waited. He was silent, still breathing steadily. For a moment, she wondered if he had fallen asleep again. But then, just as tenderly as before, he whispered, "I know."

A smile played across his face, and he hugged her a little more closely. Zoë was a bit relieved, but also a bit confused.

"You know?" she repeated irately. "What do you mean you know? How do you know?"

"I'm your husband," Wash explained softly, not opening his eyes. "I love you. I know all you're rhythms. Plus, I'm very intuitive."

Zoë swatted him dismissively. "You didn't know."

Wash shook his head and corrected her. "I've known since Newhall. Well… suspected… well…I don't know."

Zoë sat up crossly, considering him. She hadn't even suspected since Newhall! Quietly, he reached out and stroked her torso, hip to breast then back again—just as he had in the hatch on Newhall. Her breath caught. Had he really suspected that early? Why hadn't he said something to her? How dare he leave her to deal with this turmoil alone! He knew! How could he sleep so soundly? Why wasn't he lying awake worried about the future? Had he already come up with a plan?

Desperately upset and frustrated, Zoë pressed both hands against her face. She forced herself to breath steadily and maintain a clear head. "Wash, what are we going to do?"

With a deep breath, Wash propped himself on his elbows and pulled Zoë toward him. She laid on her back, looking up into his soft blue eyes, his blonde hair all askew. His hand caressed her face and she felt the scabs on his bruised knuckles.

"I seem to recall someone saying that we would make one beautiful baby. Here's your chance to meet him," Wash answered, kissing her nose. "We'll meet him together. But tonight, my lamby-toes, I'll hold you close to me."

-----

Jayne tossed a horseshoe and it landed a good two feet from the stake, clanking loudly against the cargo bay floor.

"That's not close enough," Tyler pointed out with a mischievous smile. Tyler stepped up to the line and tossed his horseshoe stake. It swung wildly up in the air, then in clear defiance of gravity, arced gracefully downward landing directly on the stake. He smiled triumphantly.

"Don't think I don't know what your doin'," Jayne warned.

"I'm just throwing it like you taught me," Tyler squeaked.

"It's cheating if you move it in mid-air." Jayne tossed another horseshoe. It sailed right past the stake, nearly sliding into the back door. He hadn't made a toss that bad since he was first learning the game—since he played with his cousin.

"It's cheating if you move mine too," Jayne pointed out. "This is a game tests your skills."

"That is my skill!"

Jayne laughed. "Don't get me wrong, Fidget; cheatin' is a good skill to have. But if a man knows your cheatin', he might shoot ya. Even you miss a bullet once in awhile. If you wanna cheat, you gotta make it look natural."

Tyler furrowed his brow and pursed his lips, staring at the horseshoe stake.

"Toss it. Watch it fall natural," Jayne encouraged him.

Tyler tossed the horseshoe lackadaisically and it only made it halfway to the stake. He turned disappointedly to Jayne. "Its not falling right."

Retrieving the horseshoes and placing one in Tyler's hand, Jayne explained, "Shoe always falls the same. The only thing that changes is how you toss it."

Tyler pouted at the horseshoe stake a moment, then turned to Jayne. "Can you show me again?"

With Jayne guiding his release, Tyler tossed the horseshoe and it landed on the steak.

"A leaner!" Jayne beamed. "Try again."

-----

River and Wei sat quietly at the dining room table. River sketched Serenity—her new home—and this picture, she had not intention of burning. The vision made sense now and the fire extinguished. She had no new pressing dreams to draw, which relieved her. For now, she could be a girl, and just draw to draw. Wei sat across from her, staring at the various devices he'd stolen from the Academy, holding the long rod in one hand and the wide cylinder in the other.

"What am I?" he finally asked. "A killer? A mender?"

"You saved my life," River answered.

"Did I? I don't remember."

"You taught me to resist so that I could call and Simon could come for me."

Wei didn't seem to hear at first. Finally he said, "No one came for me."

"Alegra did. She will take care of you, the way Simon takes care of me."

"Your turn will come."

They fell silent again. Abandoning the devices, Wei picked up a pencil and started drawing as well.

"Are you two gonna color all night or you gonna make us some supper?" Mal asked wandering in.

"We have no food," River told him.

"What?" Alarmed, Mal jumped to the cabinets, opened one and saw a stack of food stock. "What are you sayin'? We got protein in ever color of the rainbow."

"That's not food," Wei said. "Not even to first order."

River laughed, and Mal assumed it was some sort of smart-people joke.

"I'm sure if you put your heads together, you'll think of something."

Wei stopped drawing and picked up one of his devices. "Here's my two cents."

-----

A week later, Wash crawled out of the Infirmary and onto the bridge of Serenity, insisting on landing the ship himself. Mal stayed in the copilot's chair, waiting to take over at a moment's notice, but they landed smoothly and the old port was vacant, just as Book had predicted. With no time to waste, Mal headed outside to get a lay of the land. The cold night air chilled him to the bone and he wrapped his brown coat tightly round himself like a blanket. He was glad to be out of the zoot suit and back into the company of normal folk.

Alegra stepped onto Three Hills and gazed awestruck at the night sky, her breath steaming in the cold night air. Her steps slowed until she just stood, open-mouthed, gazing skywards, her arms crossed tightly across her chest, her teeth chattering. For all her strength, confidence, and determination for coming here, Mal saw fear in her eyes.

"Taking up stargazing?" he asked. She continued to gaze upwards, watching her breath eclipse the stars then disperse into the night.

"I don't know this sky."

"It's the same sky."

Alegra scrunched her nose, finally taking her eyes from the sky to look at Mal. "I've never seen it from this perspective before."

Mal came up beside her, looking skyward as well. He remembered the first time he'd left home and set down on a new planet. Why he kept returning to the sky after that. To not be a prisoner to the world was true freedom. After a moment, he stopped pondering the sky and returned to his work.

"Trust me," he promised. "You'll never look at it the same way again."

-----

TO BE CONTINUED…

Oh, the cliffhangers! But fear not, the end is nigh! Keep your eyes open for the final book of this trilogy... Big Damn Rescue!