Author's Note: This story comes after Namesake and Hell in a Handbasket. If you haven't read those first, you'll likely be very confused. If you have read them and just need the two minute summary ...
Zoë died while giving birth to her namesake, Little Zoë, who was adopted by Mal and Inara. Little Zoë is now 24. Mal and Inara have two other children: Cole (age 19) and Michael (age 17). Michael is deaf, but is also a reader.
Simon and Kaylee have 18-year-old twins, Jamie and Genny.
About 16 years ago, Sky joined the crew as a hired gun. She is your typical Joss-style bad-ass and beautiful woman, and she broke Mal's hand the day he hired her. She and Jayne got married at the behest of Jayne's mother, after Sky became pregnant with their daughter, Emily (now age 10).
Other tidbits can be gleaned from the story itself.
PART 1 – A Cry Goes Out
A rock exploded to the left and Michael Reynolds sidled closer to his boss, Berke Addison, and the last of their cover. His father had warned him about taking on this kind of work, and now Michael was starting to realize how much he'd romanticized his childhood on Serenity. His parents, his siblings, his surrogate family – there'd been too much wonderful in his life growing up for him to suspect that the work had nothing to do with it.
The work wasn't terrible, though. Michael loved the gunplay and the way he could politely mess with people who didn't know he was a reader – which included everyone who hadn't grown up with him on Serenity. Michael closed his eyes and listened to the battle around him.
They were outnumbered three to eight. Michael had already taken out two. Berke's knee had been grazed and he was staying down, being more careful about how he took his shots. Jarvis, their mercenary, was on the north ridge, trying to get an angle on the leader so that the others would scatter. Where was Jarvis looking? If Michael could figure that out, he could target his own fire to draw the man out and give Jarvis the shot.
A grenade got tossed into the dell where Michael was hiding, and he lost the luxury of waiting. He dove left, rolled, and fired at his attacker, hitting right between the eyes, and cursed himself for relying too much on his psychic ability and not enough on common sense and survival instincts. Everything was right there in front of him. His enemy was hiding in a lean-to. Switching from pistol to M4, Michael let loose a spray across the front wall, but none penetrated. The thing was solid, though slightly weaker on the left. Michael aimed for the supports.
Before he could fire, the world went gray, then black. His vision blurred and swirled, like he was being pulled into a vortex, and then everything became blindingly bright. Michael gasped, and fell, feeling a sharp pain in his throat as stars exploded behind his eyes. He couldn't scream. He couldn't breathe.
His fist closed around the M4, clinging to the heat of the metal and the solidity of it between his fingers. His whole body went stiff. Knowing he'd been shot, he reached a hand up to his neck to staunch the blood flow, and then concentrated hard to see if he could get a message to River before he blacked out. His calloused fingers were hot and rough against his neck and his skin was slick with sweat, but not blood. There was no pain.
Forcing a deep breath, Michael felt that constricting pressure on his throat again. He saw the white room, and then it faded. Whatever pain had hit him, it was not his own, and he knew that the only ones capable of affecting him this way were other readers or his family. Gathering his wits, Michael forced some mental shields into place, but it felt like throwing sand into a windstorm. He could barely hear the outside world through the turmoil, until Berke's voice penetrated the maelstrom, carried as much by mental force as his panicked hollering.
"Shorty! You hit?" Berke yelled, limping across the rocks, keeping a hand on his own bleeding leg.
Michael lifted his head and checked himself over, testing muscles. Things were quieter now, and the gunfight seemed to have ended. His neck still throbbed painfully.
"This ain't one of them seizures you warned me about?" Berke said, falling to his knees next to Michael and pulling his eyelids open. The light glared and Michael felt his eyeballs going dry.
There were always waves of energy traveling through the psychic plane, and every now and then a tsunami would come. For a reader, it was like having one's soul ripped from one's body, and as a side-effect, the body stopped functioning, to the point of death. Michael had only experienced it twice in his life and Uncle Simon had developed a treatment for it. Michael made a habit of warning his employers and keeping an emergency syringe on hand, because if he went down, he couldn't very well treat himself.
"No," Michael said slowly, pushing up to his elbows and swatting Berke's hand away from his face. He blinked hard, trying to lubricate his eyes. Something had happened and he didn't know what, but now that he wasn't in the middle of a gun battle, it was safe to probe just a little. "No, I … I'm okay."
Berke looked doubtful, but was relieved that Michael was moving and talking. "I know that ain't so," Berke said, as they slowly helped each other to their feet. "We've been running together six months and you have never missed a shot. All the sudden, you shoot wild and land flat on your back, and you're not even hit?! What's going on?"
Michael prayed it wasn't his Mama. He prayed hard. The blinding white pressed in and Michael swooned, but Berke caught him. Michael saw the seal on the door to the place – another clue.
"I have to get to Ariel," he said.
Although being a reader was in principle a marketable skill, it was practically a death sentence if the wrong people knew. Michael smoothed his jacket and checked his guns, searching for a lie. "It's a wave I got. It finally hit me what it meant."
"Seems to have hit you pretty hard," Berke commented.
Michael ignored him and oriented himself, trying to remember the path back to civilization on this world. "I have to get to Ariel, as fast as possible. I can catch a transport –"
"Wait, Shorty!" Berke grabbed his elbow and whipped him around, confused and concerned, but wanting to help. "I'll get you there."
"You have a job to finish."
Berke made a face and wiped his blood-damped hand on his pant leg, then pressed his wound again. "You said you have to get there as fast as possible, and ain't no one can get you there faster than Cadence. A transport from here will take you near a week. We'll have you dropped off by morning and still have plenty of time to finish this job."
Michael's breath caught in his throat, and for the first time since he'd left home, he felt that sense of family that he'd been looking for since his father's crew had disbanded three years ago. "Thank you," he said softly. "I will pay you back."
Berke clapped his back and nodded toward the ship. "Shorty, since you joined my crew, I haven't been shot once – well not to the point of needing someone to carry me home. You can pay me back by coming back to me then your business on Ariel is done."
They set off slowly at first. Berke's knee gave out and Michael caught him easily.
"Come on, boy," Berke grunted, picking up pace. "Let's get you where you need to be."
Kaylee hummed softly as she packed the jumper for a nice, relaxing vacation. A planet called Athos had recently been terraformed, and she wanted to get their before rumors of its beauty spread too far and it got overrun with tourists. She'd been packed for days, and Simon had finally pulled out his suitcase last night. They'd leave in an hour, as soon as everyone woke up and had breakfast.
River had shown up last night unexpectedly, and Kaylee was putting together some things for her sister-in-law. There was no question as to whether she'd come along, only as to whether she was well enough that they could go at all, and as a career optimist, Kaylee intended to be prepared, packed, and ready.
Kaylee hadn't even heard River come in last night, and she'd nearly screamed when she woke up that morning and seen an intruder lying in her bed. Thankfully she'd caught herself in time, and hadn't woken anyone. River crawling into bed with them was something they had grown accustomed to too long ago. Simon had probably just rolled over in his sleep to hold her. River had a glow about her, and while it was clear she wasn't well, she wasn't unwell enough to have woken them up, and so long as she was sleeping peacefully in Simon's arms, Kaylee had no mind to disturb them.
Now that she had coffee in her, though, Kaylee was mulling over River's sudden appearance. She'd invited River to come with them to Athos weeks ago, but River had declined, so Kaylee knew this wasn't a last minute crash of the vacation. River's last drug cocktail had been working for four years. That was a record – four years of River being lucid, happy, and well. She was working as a pilot on a luxury liner in the core. She had an on-again, off-again relationship with the ship's cook, and was anticipating a proposal. If she was here now, it meant that she felt the meds failing, and no boyfriend seemed to last through that phase of a relationship. Maybe she was hoping the space would help her hold on to him. River crawling into bed … it had been even longer since that had happened. It'd been maybe six or seven years since she'd done that. Poor thing was either crashing hard or scared that she might.
Kaylee heard a creak on the stairs as her husband hobbled down. Simon had walked with a cane since his leg got burnt eight years ago. Once he got warmed up, he could get around without it, but first thing in the morning and anytime there were stairs, he always had it. As he came into the garage, he smiled at her and bit his lip bashfully, like they'd just met and he was falling in love with her all over again. Kaylee smiled back at him and nipped her finger coyly. The look on his face said that he wasn't worried enough about River to post-pone their trip either.
"Genny says the hot springs are to die for," Kaylee said excitedly. "She and Cole were there last week for their honeymoon and she said they nearly canceled the rest of their travel plans just to stay longer."
Simon came up behind her, snaked his arms around her waist, then nuzzled and kissed her neck. He always smelled so clean first thing in the morning, and he was warm as he pressed his body against her. His fingers dipped into the waistband of her pants, and then changed direction, gliding up her torso and pushing up her shirt.
"If you start this now, we'll never make it to the springs," Kaylee giggled, squirming against him. He had her pinned to the hull of the jumper.
"That would be a shame," Simon whispered hotly, breaking contact and heading over to the table to hand her another box to pack. The tease and separation left her wanting.
"I didn't say stop," Kaylee said, reaching for his hand again. He pulled her close, and then lifted her onto the table, sitting her on the edge, and wrapping her legs around him. Kaylee fell against him eagerly, her tongue tracing his lips.
The stairs creaked again as River padded down, light-footed, but wobbly. "Simon."
"Busy," Simon said, not turning his attention away from Kaylee. They eased up a moment, listening and waiting. It had taken awhile Simon to realize that he didn't have to drop everything the moment River called. It made sharing Simon with his sister much easier for Kaylee to deal with. Sometimes they could steal another hour together, other times only a few minutes. There was a subtle change in tone that Simon seemed to recognize when waiting was not an option.
River retreated up the stairs again, her question not pressing enough for her to interrupt the moment. Kaylee smiled and squeezed her legs around Simon's waist, pulling him close and rubbing her body against his. They stopped when they heard River retching.
With a resigned sigh, Simon hugged Kaylee one last time, and the two of them went upstairs to find River. Kaylee was glad to see she'd made it to the toilet and hadn't left a mess. River knelt on the floor of the bathroom, resting her elbows on the rim of the toilet, and cradling her head in both hands. Her short-cropped hair clung to her sweat-soaked skin. Kaylee couldn't tell if she was simply flushed, or if River was crying. Simon knelt next to River, turning her face in his hands so he could get a good look, but she trembled and fell against his shoulder, throwing her arms around his neck. She was crying.
"I'm sorry," she wept miserably.
Closing his eyes, Simon rocked her gently, and brushed his fingers soothingly through her hair. Kaylee leaned over them to fill a cup with water from the sink, and she squatted on the floor, waiting for River to relax enough to take a sip.
"The hemoxalin always works for short term," Simon thought out loud. Hemoxalin was Simon's least favorite drug to give to River, since it was pretty harsh on her organs, but he sometimes used it to smooth a transition from one medicine to the next.
River shook her head and wiped her nose on Simon's shirt. "Detox."
Kaylee bit her lip and covered her mouth with her hand to keep swear words from flying out. Running River through a detox was good for gauging a new drug, but it often meant a month of unpleasantness and close monitoring. So much for the hot springs.
"River, can't it wait a few days," Kaylee asked hopefully.
River's face scrunched wretchedly, and she crawled out of Simon's embrace, pressing her back against the bathtub, and hugging her knees. Wiping the sweat from her face, she looked at Kaylee like she was about to yield, then she cocked her head to the side and didn't say anything. Kaylee and Simon looked at each other in confusion.
"What is it?" Simon asked River, scooting close and caressing her cheek.
River's eyes rolled back into her head.
"I'll get the hemoxalin," Kaylee said and Simon nodded urgently. She froze when River spoke.
"You have to go to Ariel," River said with incredible lucidity. "Something's wrong."
"What's wrong?" Simon pressed.
River looked at him, like it was he who had zoned out and was behaving weirdly. "Michael didn't say. But he called for you. You should go."
Kaylee gasped immediately, connecting the warning to the location of her Serenity family. "Little Zoë was on Ariel. Just last week, she went," Kaylee whispered fearfully as she gripped Simon's shoulder. "You don't think… oh, Simon, you have to go."
Michael hated hospitals in general, and core hospitals in particular. There was a sterility about core facilities that seemed to suck the life and hope out of a body, making even the most mundane injury seem burdensome. This hospital seemed less white in the lobby area, favoring stainless steel and stone architectures. It created a huge empty void in his heart through which his sister's cries echoed piteously. He wished she could hear him as well as he heard her, and then maybe she'd calm. Soon, he kept telling himself. His chest was tight with effort to keep from losing his mind.
Fervently, he strode to the reception desk, shifting his jacket to keep his guns hidden. He'd stepped off the Cadence without so much as a thought to what he might need to carry, and realized about half a mile later that core people didn't take to unconcealed weapons the way folks on the rim did.
The woman behind the desk did not even glance at him, but Michael sensed her fervently ignoring him, so he felt no shame in barging into her personal space and presenting a picture of Zoë.
"I am looking for this woman," Michael said.
The woman glanced disinterestedly at the picture, and then did a double take. She recognized Zoë and was concerned. "Who are you?"
"I'm her brother."
The woman looked doubtful and Michael didn't blame her. He and Zoë looked about as related as a chameleon and a chinchilla. Family was more than blood, but Michael didn't have time for a lecture with Zoë crying out the way she was.
"Her name is Zoë Washburn," he persisted. "I can connect you to our father and her personal physician and anything else you need. Please, may I see her?"
The woman pressed her lips together, took the capture from Michael, and picked up a handset on the far side of the table. "Harry, we got a hit on the Jane Doe."
Michael steeled himself as he passed through the hospital corridors, blocking the waves of pain, sadness, and confusion that swept through the halls thicker than the air. They hadn't even known her name! It was no wonder she'd cried out to him. Michael pressed his hand over his heart to stop it from jack-hammering out of his chest and followed the nurse down the hall to Zoë's room. She'd been stabbed in the throat three days ago, and in repairing the damage, the doctor's had seen the cancer.
Tears stung Michael's eyes as he entered the room. Zoë lay on the bed, her body bowed in pain, her eyes squeezed shut. The doctors had been keeping her heavily medicated. The nurse had explained it, but Michael was too anxious to listen properly. As soon as they entered Zoë's room, he went to the bed, and slipped his hand into hers.
The tension in Zoë's body vanished so quickly that the nurse pressed in to check Zoë's vitals. Slowly, Zoë's cold, dry fingers curled into Michael's palm. The screaming stopped and the world became so silent that Michael touched his ear just to make sure his hearing aid was still working. Zoë's jaw quivered and she squeezed his hand, a small smile pressing through the pain crinkling her almond brown eyes.
"I'm here," he whispered. His voice sounded peaceful in the silence as his sister opened her eyes and stared at him. "I found you."
Concentrating hard and looking him in the eye, Zoë thought directly at him. My neck hurts.
"I'm sure it does," Michael smiled, rubbing warmth into Zoë's fingers. She had a large bandage on her neck and scars peaking over the edge of the bandage across her chin and along her collar bone.
Wait for the sign, she thought. Her fingers were moving clumsily in his hand, signing her words to him. Being face-to-face helped, but he and Zoë weren't great at straight telepathy, and though Michael was pretty sure he was reading her right, he knew the nurse would think it weird for him to carry on a one-sided conversation. He waited patiently for her fingers to stop moving, not even paying attention to what signs she used, because half of them were incomplete.
"Her neck hurts," Michael told the nurse.
"Sir, I know you care very much for your sister, but rest assured, we are giving her the best care," the nurse said diplomatically.
"I'm just the messenger," Michael said defensively, looking more at his sister than the nurse he was conversing with.
"Are you also a mind reader?" the nurse joked and Michael had to wonder at how quickly her tone turned patronizing.
Michael sighed and rolled his eyes, indicating Zoë's hand in his. "She signed. I was born deaf. We ..."
He trailed off losing the heart to explain, but the nurse accepted it either way and adjusted the dosage of Zoë's meds. Zoë's fingers were moving again.
"I just found you, jie jie," he said. When he touched her face, she closed her eyes and nuzzled against him. She'd been so frightened being here alone. "Don't worry. I'll make sure everyone knows."