PART 37: HE UNCOVERED A TRUTH

Sky lay on the center bed of the Infirmary, Zoë on the side one. Mal had never assisted in surgery on a pregnant woman before, and would be happy to die never doing it again. Doesn't take much to dislodge a kid that young, but fortunately Sky had not miscarried.

Still shaking from the experience, Mal sat on the countertop that had become the second bed, setting Zoë's feet on his lap, so she could still lie stretched. Mal hadn't gotten her to speak more than a few words since bringing her home, but he could see in her eyes it was more than being taken that plagued her. She absently tugged a strand of her hair, staring at Sky, her shoulders slumped with the weight of her guilt. She felt stupid for running away; she felt responsible for Sky's injury. All things that were normal, and shouldn't be discouraged; teenagers are allowed to make mistakes. The one thing he did discourage was that she felt unforgivable. That, he wouldn't stand for.

"Those girls," Zoë croaked, her voice a welcome reprieve. It was the first time she had spoken voluntarily, and not in direct response to a health-related question. Mal handed her the cup of tea he'd been nursing and she drank carefully.

"We saw to them," Mal assured. "Were they what you went lookin' for?"

Zoë had yet to be specific as to why she ran away, and Mal had yet to push. But if she was talking, he could probe. Little Zoë didn't seem to hear, her eyes drifting closed, then open again, as if sleep was about to overtake her. Mal stroked her feet unconsciously but when Zoë shuddered, he immediately stopped, worried that he'd triggered an unbearable memory. Simon had assured him that she had not been physically assaulted, but still… verbal threats can echo through a girl's memory just as resonant.

"I didn't deserve this," she moaned, her eyes squeezing shut.

"Zo, no one deserves bein' treated like chattel. That's what all them letter's you been writin' are all about."

Zoë shook her head, her face collapsing darkly. "I mean bein' rescued. I told you not to come."

"You don't give the orders around here. I do. That's why everyone calls me Captain. Maybe you noticed."

"Yeah," Zoë nodded forlornly. "I just … I don't know if that's enough."

"Enough for what?" Mal pressed, his concern growing. "Little One, what's gotten into your head that's driven this wall between us?"

Zoë cringed a little, her fingers pinching against each other. The division between them had become so common to her, she seemed to have forgotten the source. He could see it in the way her eyes grew distant. "Remember when I yelled at you – said you had no legal claim over me."

"That was a long time ago, Zo. Water under the bridge."

Her breathing got a little heavier. Mal reached for her chin, bringing her almond eyes to look at his. He nearly shook with the intensity of her anguish, finally understanding the lie that had poisoned her heart. She'd said it to hurt him and ended up scaring herself.

"Just got me thinkin' is all," she whispered. "Because it wouldn't take much for them to take me from here."

"Who? The Alliance?"

"Anyone. Anyone who shares my blood even a little has more claim over me than you. Because... 'Cause you're not my…"

"Family?" Mal finished softly. "Yes I am. May not have begat you, but I took you in."

"It's just some ye bun de promise you made to my momma –"

"Family ain't just blood, Zo. Like you and Michael."

"That's different –"

Mal cut her off before she could dismiss the relationship too quickly. "You ain't some baby got dropped on my doorstep and you ain't some token reminder of a friend I lost. You're my daughter. And you'll never be anything less no matter what the law says."

Zoë's head lolled on the pillow, nodding, but not persuaded, guilt tugging the corners of her eyes. Mal took her hand, desperately wanting her to see. To come to her senses. She accepted his touch uncertainly, but then gripped him more urgently, her eyes locked on their connected hands. Clinging desperately to him, she started to cry.

Mal let her squeeze his hands till he thought his bones would crush. Perhaps he shouldn't have given her the one he'd broken.

"I wanna show you something," Mal decided impulsively, freeing his hand and reaching into his pocket for a box. "I had this ring made special for your Mama 'Nara."

Zoë took the little box and considered the ring inside, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand and sniffling. "It's beautiful."

"Do you know what it is?"

She shook her head, drying her cheeks with her sleeve.

"It's a mother's ring. One stone for each child, colored by when you were born. This one's for Michael, this one's for Cole, and this one's for you. Zoë, your family is here. Mama, me, your brothers. We're here. Ain't no one can take you away from us, even if you wanted to go."

She laughed a single desperate puff of air. He saw in her eyes how much she wanted to believe, and without thinking, he took her hand again. Flying on nothing but love, he rubbed his thumb over her fingers. "I want you to wear this."

"You said it was for Mama 'Nara," she protested. There it was. She'd said her name – 'Mama 'Nara' – for the first time in ages. And hope twitched inside of Mal.

"Mama 'Nara knows who her children are. Seems now you're the one that needs reminding," he said softly. He couldn't believe he was doing this. Testing the ring on her fingers, he finally found it fit best on the middle one, and he slid it over the last knuckle into place. Zoë looked at the ring, touching the three stones with her fingers, tears spilling over.

"I'm sorry, Baba. I'm so sorry."

She leaned up in the bed and Mal pulled her into a sweet embrace. She finally understood. Finally believed. Finally called him 'Baba' again. Little Zoë cried softly, and he could feel her still fiddling with the ring behind his back as they hugged.

"Was this for Mama 'Nara's birthday?" Zoë asked through sniffles.

Mal pulled back quickly, a glint in his eye. "Why, is her birthday comin' up?"

"Nooo," Zoë sang cautiously, color rising to her cheeks, looking like she'd been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Mal knew she was toying with him. Girl could lie better than that.

"You know when it is don't you," Mal pressed, tickling her side, making her break into giggles. He tickled again, from her knees to her toes.

"Baba," she pleaded through laughter, trying not to roll off the bed as she writhed happily.

"Tell me and I'll stop," Mal teased, alternately poking at her neck and her side, secretly hoping she'd call him 'Baba' again.

"Ok, ok, I'll tell you," Zoë squealed, grabbing his hands and holding them at bay long enough to catch her breath. Mal chuckled joyfully.

"Woman, you'll never be able to withstand torture if you give in to tickles."

Zoë panted happily, shaking her head. "It's about time you knew the truth anyhow."

Mal sat up straighter, hanging on by a thread, excited to finally uncover the long-kept secret, almost feeling guilty for tickling it out of Zoë. Almost. She had paused for dramatic effect, a devious smile spreading briefly across her face, before she suppressed it and went expressionless.

"Baba," she explained patiently, putting a hand on his shoulder, her face completely serious. "Mama 'Nara has no birthday. That's why she doesn't age."

-----

PART 38: HE SAW JOY

Sky had been ordered to bed rest in the rechristianed 'Maternity Suite' since she was released from the Infirmary, and she loathed every minute of it. Zoë waited on her hand and foot, at first out of guilt, but later just because she wanted too. Simon joked that she was perfect for the job, having seen all the other Serenity babies delivered and become an expert at recognizing the early signs of labor. By the ninth month, Sky's complaints were loud enough to be heard through the whole aft deck; unfortunately she was immune to what Simon had dubbed "Serenity preemie syndrome" and delivered two weeks late.

Mal stood in the lounge with his crew, his arms draped over Little Zoë's shoulders. She leaned back against him comfortably, smiling and talking his ear off about the latest news on the bioethics front… though it was hard to concentrate with the Sky's screams seeping through the door to the Maternity Suite.

After twelve hours of waiting, Jayne emerged from the room, a baby girl in his hands, ready to introduce his firstborn to her family. He came to the couch in the lounge, sitting down carefully, and all the children gathered around to peak in at the squirming bundle, the adults not far behind.

"Who's this?" Mal prompted, to which Jayne shrugged, a delirious smile on his face.

"Just my baby girl for now."

"Can I hold her, Uncle Jayne?" Zoë asked, sitting on the couch close to the pair. Mal wouldn't have guessed Jayne could look any more joyful than he already did, but Zoë calling him 'Uncle' again, still fresh to his ears, just put him over the top. Carefully Jayne handed over the baby girl, putting one arm around Zoë, one on the baby's face.

"She looks just like Sky."

"We can be thankful for some things," Inara quipped and Mal jabbed her playfully.

"Look at those eyes," Kaylee remarked in awe, taking the baby from Zoë after a few moments and walking her around to the other onlookers.

"What's she looking at?" River wondered, following the baby's gaze up and to the left.

Mal couldn't have been happier for Jayne, but there was the matter of avoiding that Alliance cruiser that had been stalking them the last week and a half and he needed to get back to the bridge. Planting a soft kiss on Inara's cheek, Mal excused himself from the group and started up the stairs. He paused, hearing Little Zoë's voice and stepped down to watch a moment longer.

"Guess I'm not your baby girl anymore," Zoë mulled softly, leaning on Jayne's shoulder. Jayne gave her a light squeeze.

"What kind of silly question is that? 'Course you're still my baby girl. You been stealin' the wine or somethin'?"

Zoë laughed lightly, twisting the ring on her finger. "I didn't mean…"

Jayne pulled Little Zoë closer, one eye on her, one on his baby, still making the circuit around the room in Kaylee's arms.

"Did I ever tell you about the time your daddy's ear got cut off?"

"Jian ta de gui," Zoë retorted, her eyes lighting up. Mal rubbed his ear ruefully, thinking he should leave before the story brought back too many memories.

"Not your daddy-Wash, your daddy-Mal," Jayne clarified. "But then they're both heroes in this story…"

With a wry smile, Mal headed upstairs and to the bridge, trying to keep his mind off his own ear. Had work to be done and a family to protect. His family. Every last one.

-----

PART 39: HE PROMISED (a flashback)

It had been three months since Wash died. Three months to the day, and Mal was starting to wish he hadn't scheduled himself for the late night shift. He sat on the bridge, staring into the boundless black, his fingers dancing every now and again over the controls, his stomach growling for a midnight lunch. Swallowing his hunger, his thoughts wafted over the crew and their slow recovery from the events following their encounter with the operative and the Reavers. Limping about as they were, made it difficult to find work they could handle, but they had to work. It would only get harder now with Zoë being pregnant.

His first mate came up the stairs to the bridge, bringing an aura of tension, walking gingerly so as not to disturb the bandage on her spine. She had loosened the straps on her vest, more for the injury than the pregnancy. It was still too early to show. With eerie stillness, she ghosted her fingers over her late husband's dinosaurs, still guarding the console, then came around and leaned on the bulkhead to face the sky.

Since her husband's death, Zoë rarely made unnecessary trips to the bridge, but tonight she seemed content to lean on the wall and stare at the stars, watching the slow-growing disk of Persephone in the distance. Over the years, Mal had learned to distinguish different levels of angst on her face with amazing accuracy. He could tell when she was thinking about the past (something he let go with respectful silence) or when she was worrying about the future (something he tended to interrupt, as worry was as useful as a handle on a snowball). Tonight, it was a mixture of both, and Mal's jaw clenched tensely. He dared not make a sound lest he scare her back into hiding. How he longed to hear her voice on something besides business – an old story, a smart remark, any glimmer of her dry humor, no matter how cutting the words.

"Sir…"

The word surfaced through the silence, seemingly as unexpected to Zoë as it had been to him. Zoë had always been a woman of few words, but rarely was she at a loss to find the ones she wanted.

"Zoë," Mal replied, encouraging her to speak again. She hesitated with a heavy heart, bad news, and no will to speak it. Tian xiao de, was she fixin' to leave, too? Not now! Not with Inara freshly packing. Please, don't let her leave now!

"Sir, I'm thinkin' to… not have this baby."

Mal's jaw dropped, unexpectedly struck with the notion that her not having the baby might be worse than her leaving. He could hear the struggle in her voice, and didn't know if she was telling him her decision of if she was, perhaps once in her life, asking for his opinion. So he replied neutrally. "That's a tough call."

'Please don't do this, Zoë!' his heart pleaded. 'You will hate yourself if you do this.'

"It's just not practical, bringin' a child into this life," she reasoned, and he could tell she hated her reasoning. Mal had worried about how a pregnancy and a baby would affect them as well, and how their jobs would change what with Zoë not on the field for awhile. But it wasn't an issue to him. How could he explain? He wasn't keeping her on the ship to work. He didn't care if she didn't pull her own weight. Hell, even if she left the ship, he'd be sending money and helping in any way he could. He had her back! That was the unspoken promise. Still, she seemed trapped by her reason and his only recourse was to break the tension with something unreasonable.

"So I add babysittin' to the chore list. Diaper rotation. We'll figure somethin' out."

Zoë shifted against the bulkhead, raising an eyebrow at him, her lips twitching, but not smiling. Sarcasm masking relief. She appreciated the 'we' and he hadn't even meant to say it that way. Though he did mean it. Perhaps what had always been understood between them still needed saying on occasion.

Some time, long ago, they'd carried each other through a war, their blood mingled in matching shrapnel wounds, and they healed as one. If either were ripped away, the other would be left bleeding. Maybe that was why she was reasoning – trying to choose him over the baby. But he knew, even as she did, that not having this baby would kill her a little more than she'd already died in losing Wash. She thought she could take it. Couldn't see another way. Mal hadn't worked out the details yet, but he wanted her to know she didn't have to choose. Didn't have to lose him, lose Serenity, to have the baby.

"Zoë, I can't know what you're strugglin' with –"

"I'm struggling with becoming a single parent, sir." She cut him off! Didn't want him to say it. Didn't want to hear. Mal paused only briefly in response to her sharp tone, hoping that the words he found would not feel like acid on a cut.

"Zoë, you can be the only blood relative this child has left in the 'verse, but you will never be a single parent."

Was he speaking the ever unspoken bond? The promise that neither made out loud for fear they couldn't keep, but that both held to their dying breath. She was watching him and promises were flying, though he couldn't say with certainty if his lips were moving or just his heart. When his thoughts found pause, only Zoë's charged, expressionless gaze filled the silence. How dare he speak?

"Not sayin' the decision ain't yours," Mal mumbled, trying to dismiss whatever embarrassing statement his lips may have made. "Just ask that you take that into consideration before you do what you're thinkin' on doin'."

"Of course, sir."

The tension in the room lifted somewhat, and Zoë took up the co-pilot's chair, her hands surfing the cortex, making small talk about the next job. The change in her manner between coming in and now was so minute, it could not be quantified, but Mal was assured she got the message. He relaxed in his chair, back to business as usual, smiling as she cracked a joke about their latest employer. In the end, he couldn't be sure if they'd actually exchanged words or just a series of glances that lead to understanding. But there was understanding. So long as there was blood in his veins and breath in his lungs, the promise would stand. Her family was here.

-----