The trip to Persephone took forever, what with the way they needed to conserve fuel. Serenity had nearly fallen out of the air, but less than five hours later, they were back on the move again, fueled up, and with a fresh course laid in. Wash reached into his boot and pulled out the note Zoë had written him a world and a lifetime away. "I'll hold you close to me," it promised. Where was she now?
He stared vacantly into the Black, searching for pieces of himself. In his mind's eye, he had been chewed up and torn apart. His heart was missing, most of his torso, and his left arm. He wasn't sure he'd survive. He wasn't sure his marriage would survive either. Zoë always seemed to be puttering about the ship up to something. She never spoke to him anymore. It tore him up inside to see her face every day, to be so close, but to feel a million miles away. It seemed as though she were a stranger to him and his true wife was dead. He couldn't handle it. He'd stopped going back to their bunk. He ate and slept on the bridge and she never visited. She only ever came up when following Mal and even then, she never stayed long. Wash didn't mind. Every time he saw her, cold and stoic as she was, it was as though he were watching her die all over again. The light of life—the glow that had first made him suspect her pregnant—had gone out.
Mal wandered into the cockpit and took a moment to look into the sky. It was as empty as Wash felt, but he saw in Mal's eyes that love for the black and for the freedom it represented.
"You're up late," Wash commented, checking the time.
"Thought I might give you a break."
"Go see to your wife."
"She's fine too. Just ask her," he grumbled, bitterly. "Do the job."
"That is what she says," Mal acknowledged. "But I know for a fact that neither of you are fine and I got a whole crew full of folk can't do their jobs because they're so busy watching you two. They're all worried sick because you two are too stubborn to worry about each other. Pretty soon, the whole ship will be useless and I aim to prevent that. Now take the night off and tend to your wife."
Saskia's head rose and fell softly to the rhythm of Jayne's breathing, her silky black hair cascading over his bare chest. As she slept, Jayne traced the lines of her face, thinking she must have at least half Chinese ancestry behind those exotic features. Every few breaths, her body shuddered from pain. She was too weak for sex tonight and Jayne wanted to leave her bed in case she died.
Accustomed to more frilly trim, Jayne had enjoyed Saskia's raw power and energy and was intimately aware of her waning strength. Her words had been simple. A turn of the head. "Come on." She understood his motives, his rules – no kissing on the mouth. God, he wanted to taste her lips! More than anything, he wanted to leave her alone so she could die in private. He didn't want to wake up under a stiff.
He was surprised to feel the flutter of her long lashes against his chest hair. Saskia lifted her head and planted a row of kisses across his clavicle, up his neck, to his chin, stopping just short of his hungry lips. Jayne held to his principles, arbitrary as they seemed.
"Once more?" She murmured, rolling so that Jayne could be on top.
"Bao bei," Jayne whispered, surprised at his own gentleness. "I'm not sure you have the strength."
"If I don't now, I never will again."
Jayne considered again, plagued by the prospect of her imminent death. She noticed his hesitation.
"Will you leave me so unsatisfied?"
Jayne started at the poetical challenge. "Unsatisfied," he repeated, a smile spilling on his lips, leaning in for a kiss. Suddenly, Saskia's body went rigid and her eyes clouded over.
"Sask!" Jayne cried, jumping up and shaking her shoulders. "Sask?"
"Maybe not tonight," she gasped through a grimace.
Not now! Jayne's mind cried. Don't die now!
Thinking quickly, he cinched her robe shut, scooped her up in his arms, and darted for the Infirmary.
"Doc!" he hollered, kicking Simon's door as he ran past. Simon stumbled out a moment later, shirtless and bleary-eyed, but quickly sprang into action. A fast shot of dopamine later, Saskia' body relaxed and her eyes fluttered closed. Seeing her at peace, Jayne left the Infirmary, retrieved his own shirt from Saskia's room, and headed for his own bunk. He refused to watch her die.
As per Mal's orders, Wash climbed grudgingly into the bunk he technically shared with Zoë. The room had been straightened up considerably since he'd last been down, though the mattress was still tilted at an odd angle. The crib, though not dismantled, was covered with an old tarp.
Zoë sat on the bed, wearing a silky, lilac pajama top, holding the bottoms, having been distracted by a thought before she'd finished dressing. Wash couldn't remember the last time they had ever worn pajamas to bed. He searched his heart for what to do, but his heart was still MIA. Trembling with trepidation, he reached out and put a hand on her shoulder.
"Hey, Zoë, how are you?"
Zoë jumped up immediately pulling away, busying herself with dressing, brushing her teeth, turning down the covers.
"Captain got us a job."
Disappointed, Wash just stood by the bed and let her whirl about like a leaf on the wind. "I heard. How are you doing?"
"A little sore. Doc is taking the stitches out in a few days."
"Yeah, I know."
"We'll get a decent take on the next job."
"Zoë, I'm not interested in the next job," Wash interrupted irately. "I'm interested in you."
Zoë stopped fluffing the pillows, looking at him without seeing. "I'm shiny."
"That's what you're telling the rest of the crew. I'm your husband. You can tell me the truth."
Now it was Zoë's turn to be irate. "The truth is I'm fine and I don't need you telling me who you are."
"Yes, you do!" He hadn't come here for a fight. Why was this happening. "You are pushing me away, treating me like just another ship mate. And not even one you care about! Like Jayne! You're treating me like Jayne!"
"I don't need your counsel. I've seen worse loss than this!"
"Worse than losing your child?! Zoë, listen to yourself! It's hardly been a month and you are running around the ship, buried in the next job." As soon as he said it, the memory of their lost child deflated him.
"I'm focused on the task at hand."
"You haven't talked to me at all," Wash cried. "I can't imagine what you're thinking. I can only hope it's the same thing I am. I've lost a child too! And it hurts like hell! You carried this baby, you must feel something!"
"So long as those feelings don't get me killed next time I go out," she answered icily. The words welled within him now. He was responsible. But instead of being angry with him, she was stone.
"Fine. Don't feel."
"Baby, I want to be here for you, really I do, but I'm not nearly strong enough," Wash whispered. "If you're strong enough, then I need you to see me through this. I need you here. Really here. You and not some plastic warrior woman who feels nothing. I need my wife! The one who loved this baby as much as I did…"
He was in tears now, still standing beside the bed. She was by the wall, as far from him as she could be and still be in the same bunk. Her face was turned away, her body rigid as merciless marble. Her voice was cold and hollow as the black.
"You may not see me crying, but don't think for a second that I didn't care about this child."
When he didn't answer, she started rearranging the pictures on the bureau. He searched the statue before him for signs of his wife. Finally, she paused and in the broken mirror, he was a single tear roll down her cheek.
"It's my fault," she whispered. "I wasn't strong enough to save him."
Overwhelmed, Wash rushed to her side and wrapped her in his arms. There was nothing left to do but cry together.
As he held her, he sobbed, "I've missed you, wife."
Mal entered Inara's shuttle without knocking. Seeing as she was unconscious at the moment, it didn't seem to make much difference. River lay on the bed next to Inara, painting fresh rouge on her lips. Mal smiled inwardly at the care River and Kaylee had showered on Inara. He knew the companion would hate to be underdressed for the crew's daily visits, even if she was unconscious.
"Hey, little one. How is she?"
"Just sleeping now," River assured. "She'll wake soon."
River nodded and skipped out of the shuttle.
Mal circled the bed, wanting to touch Inara, but he restrained himself, instead he picked up a book and started reading one of the poems inside – Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Seemed that life on the blue and out in the black were similar enough … he only hoped he'd do better than the Mariner of protecting his crew.
Suddenly the book slipped out of his hands and clattered to the floor. As he bent to pick it up, Inara stirred.
"Hey there. Welcome back to the land of the living?"
Her beautiful brown eyes were hazy, unaccustomed to seeing. She coughed and he gave her a sip of water.
"You see me…" she murmured as soon as she could speak.
Confusion clouded her face. "Are we dead?"
"You were dead. But you ain't anymore."
"Am I?" Here head tilted side to side, her memory still fuzzy. "Where?"
"On your shuttle," Mal said, hoping he was answering the right question. "I thought you'd prefer to recover here. Plus, all the beds in the Infirmary were full for awhile."
"My shuttle?" she repeated. "You came for me."
"Don't look so surprised."
"I thought you were dead. I watched for you on Osiris. You didn't come."
"It was a trap."
"I didn't think that would stop you." Her voice was returning. The decorum, the charm. The irritation whenever she spoke to him. Mal smiled broadly, as though the last pieces of the puzzle were coming together.
"Tell you what. Next time someone uses you to bait a trap for me, I'll be sure to walk right into it."
There was that graceful, superior laugh on her lips. "That won't be necessary."
Mal let her collect herself for a few moments and busied himself finding the shelf where he'd picked up the book. He finally just laid it horizontally across the top and turned back to Inara. Her eyes had the squint of perplexed concentration.
"Prio?" she asked.
"Less than dead, but it's on my to-do list. You up for company?"
He nearly laughed at the alarmed look that crossed her face. He wondered if he could prolong that hilarious look of angst. "I mean, well everyone has been coming through anyway, but they'll probably come much more quickly now that you're awake."
Inara had been staring at the unlit incense for hours. The altar had gone fallow, her faith but a hollow memory. She had been invisible, unseen, uncared for. The deep spiritual peace she'd known since her youth seemed contrived now – as though it had never been more than an imaginary friend. She considered removing all the old religious icons from her shuttle… or packing them away until she decided whether she wanted to try her faith again.
"Am I interrupting?" a soothing voice asked.
"Shepherd Book … not at all."
"Were you praying?"
Inara gave a short, uncertain laugh. "Hardly. I'm afraid my faith is still in recovery."
"I'm sure a faith crisis is common after the trauma you've experienced."
Inara nodded, wanting to ask him if he'd ever wandered far from faith and if so, how had he found his way back.
"Did you come just to visit?" she asked politely.
"Oh, no," he said, remembering his purpose. "We're cooking the last of the fresh food tonight. I know the young doctor still has you on the liquids, but it's going to be protein mash for the next two weeks till we get to Constance."
"Thank you, I'd love to come," Inara smiled.
As she walked beside Shepherd Book, Inara felt herself praying for the first time in a long time. They saw her. They all saw her. And they'd risked everything to come for her. It made her heart rejoice.
As she stepped over the doorway into the dining room, dinner was already in full swing. Jayne reclined in his chair, plate already clean, telling stories about the days he and Elle ran together.
"Is her name really Jen?" Mal asked.
"Depends on the year."
River argued with Simon about the proper placement of the silverware on the table. Zoë and Wash held each other a little tighter than usual, but were up for the good cheer. Kaylee's eyes were red with old tears, but brightened when she saw Inara. Two candles burned on the table in honor of Saskia and Little Malcolm.
"So Jayne," Kaylee interrupted as Jayne was telling about a particularly cold night on Greenleaf. "Did you and Elle or Jen or whoever ever get together?"
"No, that'd be sick!" Jayne balked. "She's my cousin!"
"Your cousin!" Zoë repeated incredulously.
Inara took a seat next to Mal and smiled. "That explains so much."
"Not enough," Mal shook his head, shoveling more food into his mouth.
"How could you not know it was winter?" Wash asked, returning to the story.
"Not everyone sits on the cortex all day checking the weather channel, Little Man."
"I don't sit on the cortex all day!"
"What else would you be doing up there in that chair all day?"
"I can think of a few things," Zoë mused.
"Not at the dinner table, please," Mal warned.
"Why did you wait till now to tell us now that she's your cousin?" Simon asked.
"What are you mad at me for? Preacher knew Jantis and kept his mouth shut."
Book offered a placating smile, but said nothing in his defense.
"Got nothin' to say Preacher?" Jayne challenged.
"Are you looking for a fight?"
"We can take this outside."
"Put your space suits on, it's a mite cold out there," Wash interrupted.
"Weather channel," River giggled and the whole table burst into laughter. Inara watched, listened, and prayed again.