Part XX—Out to the Black
Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just playin' in Joss' sandbox.
Sumamry: Conclusion. Adam gets a taste of life on a farm, and Jim says his first word.
Mal eased down onto the bed, wincing with the effort. Thinking ruefully that he wasn't as young as he used to be, he pulled off his boots and pulled down his suspenders.
"Need some help with that, ai ren?" River asked, moving easily as if she had not been working in the fields all day herself.
"It ain't polite to rub it in," Mal groused. "Bad enough to be faced with irrefutable evidence that I am old without havin' my young slip of a wife reminding me."
"You're not old yet, ai ren," she said softly.
"Oh no?" Mal replied. "Then why was it I almost couldn't lift Adam into the saddle with me just now? After I spent the day baling hay, that boy felt like he weighed a ton."
River laughed. "Maybe he did," she said. "You should have seen the dirt caked all over him when I gave him a bath. Could have been at least a ton, I calculate."
Mal laughed, reviewing the mental image of his boy covered head to toe in sticky mud, his teeth shining white against his grimy face. "He is having fun, isn't he?" he said, peeling his shirt off his sore shoulders carefully.
River nodded. "So are the other children. Anya spent the day with Lily learning how to make strawberry preserves. It was all we could do to keep Kaylee out of the kitchen until it was done."
Mal nodded. "Seems Daniel's picked up his mama's habits. Jayne had to run him out of the strawberry patch at least five times. And I don't think those juice stains are ever comin' outta those overalls."
River laughed. "Simon was horrified when Inara brought Daniel back to Serenity looking like that. I think he may still be soaking his shirt where Daniel's handprints were."
Mal leaned back against the wall, swinging his tired legs into the bed. "You ever think we should maybehaps find a place, settle down somewhere dirtside, so's Adam and Hannah can play in the dirt every day?"
River's brush stopped in mid-stroke as she considered the question carefully. "I don't think so," she said after a moment. "The Black's their home. They were born there. Grounding them would be taking them from their home, and ours."
Mal sighed. "Still, seems the life we lead ain't exactly how I imagined raisin' a family," he said.
River slipped into bed beside him, curling up close to his warmth. "Perhaps not as you imagined it, but still, what they have is more than what many children receive."
"Such as?" Mal asked.
"Love, freedom, an extended family that lives with them in their home and loves them as if they were their own."
Mal thought about her words. "Conjure you're right," he said softly. "But I'm not sure Adam will be so happy to go back out to the Black when the refueler gets here."
"He'll be ready," River said, beginning to yawn.
"Guess a child raised on a ship can turn out pretty good," Mal observed. "Zoe did."
River nodded, beginning to lose the train of the conversation to sleep. Mal shifted slightly, deliberately waking her up. "'Bout Zoe," he said. "There's something I haven't told you."
River's eyes popped open. "What?" she asked.
"She don't want to marry Jim to get the meds she needs," Mal said, a note of irritation in his voice.
"I can understand that," River said. "Marriage is something important to Zoe, something that should last forever. You know if Wash had not died, they would still be here, arguing and making up like they always did."
"I know," Mal said. "But this is her life she's playin' with. I just can't stand the thought of…" His words trailed off.
"And you tried to change her mind?" River asked.
Mal nodded. "It ain't that easy a task. She's dead set that if he don't ask her himself, she won't marry him."
River sighed. "Then there's nothing to do about it now," she said. "We'll work it out when the time comes." Turning onto her side, she said, "But right now, I need some sleep. Getting up with the chickens is not a natural state."
Mal chuckled, kissing her cheek tenderly. "Night. bao bei," he said, pulling the covers up over them.
"Night," River replied, quietly planning as he turned out the light how to solve Zoe's dilemma.
Lily lay in David's arms, the patch of moonlight coming through the open window illuminating the room. "I see why you wanted them to come," she said softly. "They are really quite extraordinary people."
"Yes, they are," David said, stroking his wife's back with his fingertips. "Wouldn't mind if they'd stay through the harvest. They've been such a help around here, and good company to boot."
"Don't think we should push our luck and ask," Lily said, smiling against his chest. "I'd say they've done enough work that we should never ask them to do anything again." She paused for a minute. "They even brought us children to care for. If Captain Reynolds hadn't gone after Zoe, the twins would have died in that camp. And now…" she stopped, momentarily overcome with emotion. "Well, now, they have us, and we have them. It's more of a blessing than we could have hoped for."
"That it is," David replied softly, thinking that Mal and Zoe had once again managed to give him his life back.
Zoe stepped slowly down the stairs into the galley, still moving with great care after her surgery. Kaylee looked up from the frying pan and smiled. "Morning," she said sunnily. "Looks like you're gettin' back into the swing of things."
Zoe nodded. "Hard to resist the smell of bacon, no matter how much it hurts to make your way to it."
"There's coffee too," Kaylee said, quickly reaching up to get a mug for her. "You just have a seat and I'll have it ready in a jiffy."
Zoe sat down carefully. "Listen, Kaylee, there's somethin' I've been meaning to say to you for the past two weeks. I appreciate you comin' down to the infirmary to talk to Jim every day. I know it must be wearin' on you, spending time with him and then looking after Daniel too."
Kaylee smiled. "It don't wear on me at all," she said. "I enjoy talkin' to him, and seein' him make progress. Even Simon said he was amazed at how well he's doin'."
Zoe's lips curved slightly. "I can tell he's gettin' better every day, though sometimes I can see it frustrates him when he can't say what he wants to say."
Kaylee speared a piece of bacon and put it on Zoe's plate. "It'll get better," she said with confidence. "Just takes time is all."
Zoe nodded and sipped her coffee. The thought came unbidden to her that she might not have enough time left to see Jim recover fully, depending on whether she could find a way to get the treatment she needed. Pushing that thought ruthlessly aside, she ate her bacon in silence.
Mal and Adam found River walking out of the infirmary. "Everything all right?" Mal asked, seeing her serious look.
River smiled. "Everything's fine. I was just having a visit with Jim."
"Any progress today?" Mal asked quickly.
"Processing words and thoughts faster," River said. "And learning how to sit up without slipping sideways."
"Well, that is progress," Mal said.
Adam tugged on his sleeve. "Can we go now? You said we could go when you found Mama."
River raised an eyebrow. "Go where?"
"We're riding back down to the farmhouse. Lily sent word that some chicks were hatched today, and Adam is in a lather to see them before the refueler gets here," Mal explained.
"Wanna come, Mama?" Adam said, fairly bouncing.
"I think not," River replied. "Though you must look at them carefully and tell me all about them when you get back."
"'Kay, Mama," Adam said, running toward the cargo bay as fast as his young legs could pump.
"Think I'll follow at a more gentlemanly pace," Mal said, giving her a quick peck on the cheek. "See you in awhile."
River nodded, watching the two make their way out into the open field, her heart filled with more joy than she could have imagined in her days at the Academy.
Zoe sat on the edge of Jim's bed, carefully spooning scrambled eggs into his mouth. "Fair amazing how much better fresh eggs taste than those powdered ones we usually eat," she said, making conversation while she watched Jim chew slowly and swallow.
"I'll miss these when we leave here."
Jim looked at her, thinking that she looked very pale and tired. Over the past two weeks, he had come to understand what had happened to him, and to her, through the hours of conversation of the various members of Serenity's crew. He yearned to tell her how he felt, longed to ease the burden she was carrying for them both. And River had made it very clear that he could do so, at least in one small way. He chewed slowly, experimenting with the movement of his jaws and mouth.
Zoe looked down to get another bite onto the spoon. "I expect the refueler will be coming today," she continued.
"Mmmaaa," Jim said, his voice sounding strange and frightful to him.
Zoe looked up at him, startled. "What?" she asked.
Jim concentrated every muscle of his body to respond. "Marrr," he said again, reaching for her hand and missing by several inches.
Zoe wrapped her hand around his. "It's okay. Whatever it is, it's okay," she said soothingly.
Jim blew out a huff of frustration. Scrunching his face up, he tried again. "Marry," he said, squeezing her hand as well as he could manage.
Zoe blinked rapidly several times. "You askin' me to marry you?" she said, holding her voice steady with great effort.
Jim squeezed her hand again and did his best approximation of nodding. "Marry," he said, staring at her intently.
Zoe sat for a long moment, thoughts swirling in her head dizzyingly. "This is not the time to be thinking about this, Jim Bowden," she said.
Jim did not blink. "Marry," he repeated with a little more force.
"You realize if I say yes, you ain't ever gonna be rid of me, right?" Zoe asked, her voice steady but her hands trembling.
Jim blinked distinctly once, which Zoe had come to understand in the last two weeks was his way of saying yes.
"And you understand we got all manner of go se to get through in the next few months?" she pressed.
Jim blinked again.
Zoe looked down at her lap for a moment. "And you understand I can not give you a child?"
Jim squeezed her hand, blinking once more.
Zoe blew out a deep breath she hadn't even been aware of holding. "That being the case, I'd be honored to be your wife."
River flicked the three overhead switches, bringing Serenity to roaring life as Mal stood behind the pilot's chair. She turned to look at him expectantly.
"Take us out of the world," Mal said, loving the sound of those words deep in his soul.
River nodded, lifting Serenity into the air with a delicate touch. Moments later, the view of Whittier's atmosphere was replaced by the Black and Mal felt a lightness that had nothing to do with the gravitational change.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Mal said, struck as always by the sight.
"It is," River and Adam said at the same time.
"So, little fella', you're not sad to be leavin' the farm?" Mal asked, hoisting Adam up into his arms.
Adam's brow wrinkled as he thought about his answer. "No," he said finally. "Like home the very best." He looked out at the stars. "But I wish we coulda' kept the chicks."
Mal and River laughed, the sound reverberating against the bulkhead as Serenity sailed into the Black once more.
Author's Note: Thus ends this part of the tales of the 'verse. There are, of course, more tales to tell, and they will be coming along shortly, as our intrepid crew goes to Osiris and beyond, meeting old friends and enemies alike. To those brave souls who have stuck with this storyline, I thank you kindly. You've made the journey pleasant indeed. Happy reading and writing to you all!