PART 1: HE NAMED HER
Mal looked through the Infirmary window, shell-shocked. Simon tore about in a whirlwind, using every machine, drug, and verbal incantation he knew to bring her back. She, one of the few people in the 'verse who would give everything to save his life… she who had given everything. His body felt cold and hollow, a lump in his chest storing grief for later, a bitter taste in his mouth. He hadn't felt so alone since God left him to die in Serenity Valley.
The tiny baby squirmed in his shaking, calloused hands, crying for her mother. Yellow with jaundice, two months premature, but there was no choice. Come into this world, or die. And so she was here, her face scrunched as she wailed for nourishment. Mal shuddered and held the baby close to calm her.
"Take care of her," her mother had requested, knowing she was dying. "I trust you."
His hands shook all the harder, and he feared he would drop the little baby. She screamed in his ear as he rocked and cooed. How misplaced her mother's trust had been. He wanted to run. To find other relatives who could raise the baby, give her a proper home. But her mother's dying request echoed in his ears.
Mal's heart stopped as Simon slowed his work, checked his watch, and noted time of death. Through the window, he motioned Mal to come in, but Mal's legs were like jelly and he dare not move for fear of falling. Of dropping the little child. A child meant to be a sign of hope and a reminder of happier times. Now she was the last memorial of that happy union. A baby that would never taste her mother's milk or know her father's laugh. An orphan.
The child of Zoë and Wash, whose father never knew she was conceived; whose mother hadn't known her long enough to give her a name. And when Simon asked, he could only think of one. He named her Zoë.
PART 2: HE SLEPT
Mal lay face down on the double bed, sobbing. Throat raw, mouth parched, body exhausted from too many days with no sleep. Baby Zoë lay on the bed next to him, swaddled just as Simon had shown him how, surrounded by a throng of stuffed dinosaurs which served as the walls of her crib should she suddenly learn to roll tonight.
Clutching his pillow, Mal inhaled deeply, trying to clear his nose and find Zoë's scent on the sheets. He could still smell the relaxer she used to put in her hair, though the strength waned with each passing day. Holding the pillow more tightly, he wept again, wondering how he could continue with this life. He wasn't a hardened criminal; he just took the jobs he needed. Zoë had made those jobs worth taking. Made them fun. She was his life and his best friend. They were a set – one holding up the other. Without her, he was caving in.
The door to the bunk opened and Inara floated down, her sweet fragrance drowning and overpowering Zoë's. Mal stilled his sobs, waiting for her to speak. After Zoë's death, Inara had delayed her return to the Training House and Mal was waiting for the dreaded day when she would leave again. It didn't much matter now. He was alone with this tiny child and all reason in the 'verse seemed swept away.
Inara sat next to Mal on the bed, so lightly that none of the dinosaurs surrounding the baby tottered. Her hand touched his shoulder and Mal inhaled sharply as though he'd been stung. He accepted her comfort as she gently stroked his back, her presence soothing like a cool breeze through the burn of his grief. Her touch reeked of Companion training, but Mal pushed that thought from his mind and appreciated her effort.
Feeling calmer, Mal rolled carefully onto his back and reached a hand through the line of stuffed animals to touch baby Zoë. Inara continued to stroke his arm soothingly and he breathed deep the comfort of her presence.
"What did you bring me?" Mal asked, noting the canister in her hand.
"Oh, um, baby formula. Simon and Kaylee bought a case of it today."
"The good stuff?"
"So I'm told. Hopefully she'll like this mix better than the last."
"She wants her momma."
Inara was silent a moment, affording Zoë's mention the respect it deserved. She touched Mal's stubble-roughened face and he touched the baby's soft cheek. Somehow between the two, he found a moment of peace and clarity. Mal took Inara's hand in his and pulled it to rest on his heart, but she retracted awkwardly, reminding him that she wasn't his to hold. He watched as she stood and busied herself straightening the mess of baby supplies on the bureau and folding the blankets.
"When are you fixin' to leave?"
Inara slowed, but didn't stop her puttering. "I thought I might stay awhile. Rent out the shuttle again."
"Is the Training House boring you?"
"I just want to be here … to help with the baby. I didn't think you would resign yourself to a planet and she deserves proper schooling."
"I ain't raising a … companion." He had swallowed the word 'whore' and she knew it. But she read the desperation in his eyes and didn't goad him.
Weakened from too many days of not eating, Mal's head lolled against the pillow and he looked at the baby again. When he closed his eyes, all he could see was Zoë's pallid face begging him to care for her baby.
The cry of his heart was unexpectedly joined by the baby's as little Zoë lurched herself into wakefulness. Mal started to move his weary body, but Inara stilled him.
"I'll get her," she soothed, picking up baby Zoë and carrying her to the changing table. Mal shuddered in grief, but when he blinked it away, he saw Inara cuddling and cooing the baby like it was her own. It was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. For the first time, he felt like he might make it through this tragedy. He felt a little less alone.
Inara prepped a bottle of the new formula and sat on the bed next to him while she fed the baby. He reached up briefly to touch them both, and a relaxed sigh fell from his lips. And then, for the first time since Zoë died, he closed his eyes and fell asleep.
PART 3: HE LAUGHED
"Uh oh." Those were her first words. Perhaps he'd said them too often, because God knew he thought them every day. Her wild, curly hair tickled his arm, unable to be restrained even by Inara's professional touch. Her thin little lips curled into a smile, more from Mal's response than the situation at hand. He was flying the ship, she sat on his lap, and they looked out the window at the forbidding Alliance cruiser in front of them. Normally, he'd be concerned, but the sound of her tiny voice echoing his own apprehension filled him with delight.
He was laughing when he grabbed the P.A. to warn the crew, so much so that Jayne darted in to make sure he wasn't dying in his chair. On seeing the cruiser, Jayne pegged him delirious, and grabbed the P.A. to repeat the grave warning to the crew, when she said it again. "Uh oh." She drew out the "oh" as if it were a song. That's when the burly mercenary cracked.
Mal smiled as the cruiser demanded they dock and hand over their stolen goods. His heart somersaulted as she peaked her little head into view of the vid and repeated the word for the benefit of the Alliance officer. "Uh oh." He was in stitches as she pulled herself to standing on his lap, and blew the officer a kiss over vid.
Jayne practically had to lift Mal from the pilot's seat to take over the conversation. Not bothering to find a chair, Mal sank to the floor, baby Zoë still in his arms, trying to catch his breath. He sighed happily, wiping tears of laughter from his face.
Clutching his aching side, he told her, "Wo ai ni, little Zoë."
She answered with the only word she knew. "Uh oh."