PART 11 – Back on their feet

Cole felt calmer as soon as he'd talked to his father. Maybe he should call more often. Maybe he could open a three-way comm link with Uncle Jayne and Baba and they could all have lunch together. Maybe then Uncle Jayne would have more to say … not that Cole minded the quiet company.

Wrapping his arms across his chest, Cole took a deep breath and rolled his shoulders backward, stretching his back. His arm was sore and bruised from wrestling and after twenty matches, he'd declared that he and Baba had done enough catching up for one day. Cole wasn't sure if he'd lost the last five matches because his father was stronger than he'd let on at first and had been playing him, or because his father simply had more endurance. It was probably the latter. Uncle Jayne always said Baba was completely off his nut and could keep strength through anything. There was the story of when Baba lost his ear – a man had killed him, but Baba came back to life, got up off the table, and tried to kill him right back. Baba always blamed his lack of success in that he'd died that morning and was still a little woozy.

Baba had lots of wisdom to share with regards to taking on Zoë's mission. It helped, talking to him, because he'd pointed out that Zoë had only asked Cole to get one box from Sihnon and speak in one place on Sunday. That made it significantly less overwhelming than the burden Cole had been feeling, because he'd lumped the request with Zoë's open invitation to join her on the campaign. He didn't have to give up his life to grant his sister's request. Still, he'd feel remiss if he didn't consider it. She needed his help, now more than ever. She'd been asking for it.

He kicked himself for all the times he thought he was just a name on the check list in this family, because every moment here at the hospital had been a revelation. His little brother kept coming to him and leaning on him. His sister had called out to him first, before anyone else. His father had been so glad to just sit and talk with him. Jamie had practically flattened him! They'd gathered because Zoë was sick, but they'd all needed healing.

The door to the cafeteria clattered and Cole looked up to see who had come to cheer him now. It was his wife. He smiled happily, unable to help himself, but he also twiddled his thumbs nervously, wondering what she thought about him taking on Zoë's campaign. They hadn't talked on the matter since before he proposed – before they got swept away in the wedding madness – and she'd never been anything but encouraging. Now that they were signed to have and to hold, the decision affected her as well.

She strode purposefully across the room, sat across from him, and folded her hands, looking serious and contemplative. Cole placed his hands over hers, hoping he could get the first word in. Genny was a force of nature and if she spoke first, there was no telling if he'd even know his own mind afterward.

"I love Sihnon," he said with a wistful smile, thinking of their home. "I love living there; I love working there. I love the feel of the towns and the richness of the culture, and I never want to leave. But at the same time, I feel like I'm sitting there waiting to find my true calling – waiting to be called."

He looked at their joint hands, and then he looked at Genny. He'd asked his boss about going to rendezvous with Zoë once and the Guild had been trying ever since to get him off Sihnon and into the field, but he'd resisted. He loved living there so much.

"Now, with Zoë –" he started, but couldn't finish the sentence. "I know my calling is to speak for those who have no voice of their own – for all the readers who would be in danger if they spoke on their own behalf. I've been called. I have to go and not just to this one place on Sunday. I have to keep going until I get God's hand in my face telling me to stop."

Genny nodded her head thoughtfully, and let the silence hover between them for a few minutes, waiting to see if he had anything else to add, before she decided what he really thought and explained it to him.

"That was beautiful," she dead-panned, like she'd been judging his diction and not weighing his words. Cole chuckled, waiting for a real opinion to emerge, but she continued with the sarcasm. "Very eloquent. Did you come up with that on the fly?"

"I'll understand if you don't want to come with me," Cole said, pushing the subject again, glad when Genny looked at him immediately like he was an idiot for suggesting such a thing.

"Cole, I didn't marry you so that we could go separate ways, and I didn't sit here to talk about this quest that Zoë is sending you on, because I think you are the only one in the 'verse who thought you had any choice about whether or not you'd actually do this for her," she said patronizingly. Cole started to feel offended, but then Genny touched his cheek lovingly and changed her tone. "And I don't want you to think this proposition has anything to do with that bit of poetry you just recited."

Their eyes met and, for a moment, their souls connected. Then Genny said very firmly, "I want to buy a space ship."

Cole's eyes bugged out and his jaw went slack.

"I miss living vessel-side and I think I'd be a good Captain," she explained simply. With Genny it was always simple and clear cut. It was frustrating for Cole, because in her mind living on a ship was as straightforward as declaring that she wanted it, and finding out how to make it work was up to him. But then, the Guild had been trying to get him to do ambassadorial work, so it was possible they could get a ship without even having to buy one. Would they let Genny captain it, though?

"You wouldn't happen to have a place on your ship for a lonesome traveler on a quest to speak for his sister and bring down the evil…"

Cole lost his words in a fluster when he felt Genny's hand snaking up his thigh. She was devious for a force of nature.

"I would like a cabin boy," she teased, licking her lips lustily.

Growling softly with pleasure, Cole pulled her onto his lap, and kissed her playfully. He could match her tease and make her sorry she'd started this in such a public place. He'd had Uncle Jayne's crash course and she hadn't. Nipping along her jaw line, he said, "Why wait for a cabin? There's still a few positions on that post-card we haven't tried."

"Did Uncle Jayne give you a new one, because I'm sure we've tried everything on the original at least twice over," Genny said excitedly, giggling as Cole snaked his hand around her waist and led her toward that supply closet he'd been hiding in earlier.

Cole laughed hotly against the skin on her neck. "That's only if you're holding it right-side up."

*~*

Jamie had a long-standing fear of Jayne that no one seemed to acknowledge, and everyone's denial of it perturbed Simon to no end. Jamie hadn't been strong enough to fight back when Jayne had attacked him, and while Simon could patch a broken bone, he couldn't help his son un-hear the accusations that Jayne had hurled at him. Simon always figured he'd be there, mediating, when Jamie finally got the courage to sit next to Jayne and talk. Jayne didn't seem to notice or care that he was crowding Jamie by sitting next to him. It may have been good that they'd talked, but the look in Jamie's eyes said that he'd said all he wanted and now he wanted to be alone. Jamie needed space, and even if Jayne was just sitting there quietly, he was taking up too much.

Simon led the way down the hall toward the medicine stores. He didn't speak and Jamie didn't ask where they were going, because he knew the answer was simple. They were going away to a private place where Jamie could think in peace. Sitting next to Jamie in a lounge would've been crowding, just like Jayne was doing. But as long as Simon had his focus on other work, they could find that space together, and Simon could keep anyone else from trying to be helpful and crowding in around his son.

Perhaps most surprising was that Jamie had asked Jayne to come see him off at the space port. It gave him hope that whatever was said between the two of them was leading toward a breakthrough and not a standoff. Simon didn't regret pulling Jamie away from the situation, though. Jamie spoke his mind on things like that, and if he'd wanted to stay, he would've said so.

When they got to the medicine storage room, Simon scanned the inventory sheet, trying to locate the dubrycylin that Jamie had suggested for River. His son paced the room once, and then found a step stool and sat down, resting his elbows on his knees and staring furtively at his fingers. For about fifteen minutes, Simon worked in silence, reading up on the drug interactions. Then Jamie spoke.

"There's nothing I can do to save her," he said softly. "There's nothing I could have done."

That was it. He'd finally processed the truth Simon had been telling him for years. He could almost see the weight lifted from his son's shoulders as he shed that burden. They exchange a look, but Jamie didn't need a long conversation or any more assurance, so Simon handed him the journal he was reading and changed the subject.

"I can't give her the dubrycylon until the kytazine is out of her system."

Jamie skimmed the journal – or perhaps he was speed reading – and then he checked the inventory sheet for the store room. Orienting himself quickly, he went to one of the shelves in the back and pulled out a vial of pink liquid.

"Add half a cc of this to the mix and she'll be fine."

Simon scanned the vial's code into his hand held, reading up on the drug Jamie had given him, then he handed it back. "This will react with the caphallin. She'll have renal failure within a week."

"Na mei guan xi. She's not on caphallin," Jamie said.

"She was six years ago," Simon explained. "That stuff never leaves the kidneys."

"I didn't know that. Zao gao. Then, yeah, we have to wait," Jamie said, furrowing his brow and scanning the inventory list for the store room again. "You should write papers, you know."

It was true. Simon had tested more drugs on River than were legal on most worlds, but he couldn't share any of his wisdom without exposing her. With a sigh, they both looked around the room, palmed a few vials of various meds that River might need, and headed out.

*~*

Simon smiled as he and Jamie entered Little Zoë's room, which was so crowded that one of the hospital orderlies was arguing vehemently with Kaylee on the fact that they were a fire hazard. His body was weary and aching to the point where soon even his cane wouldn't help him stay on his feet. Promising he'd handle the crowd, Simon dismissed the orderly and leaned heavily on the door frame. Kaylee kissed his cheek and laughed against his skin, tired, but happy (or perhaps delirious from weariness). Inara and Emily were standing by Little Zoë's bed, chatting amicably. River lay on the floor, curled into a ball, with her head resting on Michael's lap. Simon had already determined that there was no point in River sleeping here tonight. Michael had his head leaned back against the wall and his eyes closed. By the way he kept pressing his fingers against his temple and ghosting them past his ear, Simon guessed he was resisting the urge to turn off his hearing aid and tune them out.

"My patients need to rest," Simon said loudly, weaving between the ladies so he could examine Zoë.

"All she's done is sleep," Kaylee quipped. "She don't mind us."

Simon sighed, feeling a bit of relief. Zoë looked better already. There weren't any noticeable complications from the surgery and her vitals were stable. They'd probably be able to move her home before they started the next treatment. When he looked up, he noticed everyone was watching him, waiting for his verdict on Zoë. "She's resting. The rest of us need rest as well. I heard a rumor that someone reserved a block of hotel rooms for us."

"Three blocks east," Michael spoke up, pointing with his hand, but not opening his eyes. "There's little spa jets in the tub and plenty of hot water. Highly recommended."

"Anyone wanting to see Cole and Genny off – their transport leaves in an hour," Inara added.

"And Jamie," Simon said. "He leaves at midnight."

"So soon?" Emily asked, turning her puppy eyes on Jamie as if that could change his mind.

"I have school to finish," Jamie said with a smile.

Kaylee ruffled Emily's hair consolingly. "We can squeeze in a quick dinner and talk about this heist we got planned."

"Heist?" Michael repeated, opening his eyes, his interest piqued. Nudging River awake, he carefully got out from under her and jumped to his feet. "Any work for my crew in that heist?"

Simon looked back toward the hall and closed the door. "Maybe we shouldn't be discussing this in the open air."

"Why not?" River asked. She was still lying on the floor, pillowing her head with one hand. "We're a crime family."

The others laughed.

Simon knelt next to River and took her hands, hoping to coax her to his feet. His leg was throbbing so intensely now that his toes curled from the tension. He was surprised to feel a gentle tap on his shoulder. Michael came behind him, hooked his arms under Simon's shoulders, and hauled him back onto his feet. Then, with a few gentle words and a pinch on her nose, he got River on her feet as well.

"If you need me," Michael said seriously, presenting a business card to Simon. "I'm very good at my job and I never miss."

*~*

It was quiet and peaceful in Zoë's hospital room, and Michael hadn't even had to turn off his hearing aid. Zoë had inclined her bed so she could sit up, and Michael was curled next to her with his head resting on her lap while she cleaned and disinfected the cuts on his face. He was frustrated that he'd scratched the skin to the point of bleeding, because he worked so hard to control that impulse. Not since Athens had something riled him this much. It helped that Baba knew about that day. He didn't know why it helped, but it did. He decided he should try to tell Mama before he shipped out again, because she deserved to know the truth. If nothing else, she'd at least know how to pray. He always paused to listen when she prayed for him.

It was ironic that Zoë had woken up just as the Doc was kicking everyone out to eat and rest. They were all at the space port now to see off Jamie, Cole, and Genny. Michael was glad he'd stayed behind, because it was quieter here with Zoë. It didn't matter that she couldn't talk because, even before this, she spoke mostly with facial expressions and body language, and Michael could always assume that she hadn't said a word out loud. It was easy to see what was on her mind, because she didn't dwell on things trying to find the perfect way to verbalize them. She said things exactly once with expressions that spoke more than a thousand words could.

Michael hissed as she tapped one of the cuts behind his ear. Her fingers were getting more dexterous as her system metabolized the drugs in her system, and she could sign most of her letters recognizably, but every now and then, the muscles would spasm. She held her hand, waiting for the spasm to subside, and then, very tenderly, she kissed her finger tips and caressed over the scratches on his neck. It felt like a cool mist on Michael's skin, and he liked to imagine that his sister had special healing powers to make the cuts vanish. When she tickled the peach fuzz shadow on his jaw and he smiled lightheartedly.

"Didn't used to grow this fast," Michael chuckled, taking her hand and grating her palm against the stubble. These days, he had to shave twice a day if he wanted to look respectable at meals. "I guess when you left home, it didn't grow at all."

He craned his neck to look up at her and she smiled lovingly, pinching his chin as if to suggest he grow a goatee. She could always make him smile from the heart with her silly ideas. Using the backs of her knuckles, she uncurled his fingers and examined the scrapes he'd acquired when he tried to beat a hole through the bricks earlier. She kissed the bruises first, like he was a child and that could make everything better, then she dabbed a fresh rag with antiseptic and started cleaning. It wasn't like there was much else they could do with their time.

"You'll like Deadwood," Michael said, adjusting his position so he could lie down without her having to pull his arm at a weird angle. It was difficult because there was exactly one position she could sit comfortably in, and it took up most of the bed.

"It's a good place to recover," Michael continued. "Baba has a nice house by the creek, and there's something to be said for terra firma as far as keeping your stomach settled when you're on the happy drugs."

He thought about their house on Deadwood, and all the times he'd sat with his father in the garage, maintaining Uncle Jayne's guns. He thought about the school he and Cole had gone to and all the fights he'd gotten into before the other kids spread the word that no one messed with Cole's little brother. Michael never quite figured out how Cole got his reputation, but everyone was scared to cross him. Even after Cole graduated and left, no one bothered Michael, because they thought Cole would come back to get them. Michael had tried to talk his parents into home schooling again because fifty high-schoolers in one classroom was a lot to handle, but Baba always wanted him to find a way to deal with a 'verse that didn't know about him. He couldn't spend the rest of his life pressing his ear to his father's heart whenever he needed a boost of strength.

"Did you tell Baba about Athens?" Michael asked timidly. He looked back at Zoë, but she shook her head, and then gave him the 'I told you so' look. She'd warned him that Baba could find out anything if he put his mind to it. She'd told Michael to tell a long time ago.

"He knows now. He knows what I did," Michael whispered guiltily. Michael told Zoë everything about his abilities – about what he could and could not do, what he was learning, and what he was afraid to learn. Part of her journey was seeking out other readers, warning them of dangers, and giving them those meds that helped them not die when the tsunamis hit. She never wrote any of it down, because in the wrong hands, it was simply too dangerous, and she never told the ones she met about Michael.

"Have you ever met anyone who can do what I do?" Michael asked hesitantly.

Zoë's eyes crinkled in sadness and she cradled his cheek with her hand, then she shook her head again. Michael knew he could do more than Aunt River, but couldn't really handle the thought that he was so uniquely powerful. He always feared that one day, he'd become a power-crazed monster, like the Frankenstein man that killed all those readers and possessed Aunt River. Even today, Baba was just trying to ask him about Athens and Michael had lost control. He could have killed him. What was strange was that his father knew exactly what he'd tried to do, and didn't hold it against him.

Zoë touched the corners of Michael's eyes, catching the tear before it could fall.

"Be good," she whispered hoarsely.

Michael looked away. "That's not really an option in my line of work."

Zoë shook his shoulders and gave him a firm look to emphasize her directive, but she didn't try to speak again. She'd said all she wanted to on the matter. When their eyes met again, and she was sure that her message had been delivered, Zoë turned her attention back to Michael's hands, and he realized that she was filing away at his fingernails, smoothing the edges so he wouldn't break skin when he scratched. Michael's technique for keeping his nails short involved semi-frequent nail biting, but Zoë had a pink Emory board, and the sight of it made Michael bust out laughing.

"Are you giving me a manicure?!" he laughed incredulously.

She shrugged one shoulder, giving him that mischievous dead-pan face that only made him laugh harder.

*~*

Jayne hefted Emily in his arms, adjusting his grip as he walked next to Mal on the way back to the hotel. Jamie's transport back to Osiris had left two hours late and Emily had fallen asleep while they were waiting at the space port. Jayne had lifted Emily off of Jamie's lap and that was as close as he'd gotten to giving the boy a hug. In truth, he was glad to give Jamie the excuse. As much as he wanted to bowl the kid over and wish him luck the way Cole had done, Jamie couldn't handle that kind of rough-housing from Jayne at the moment. They didn't shake hands. Jamie couldn't even muster the words 'it was good seeing you,' which was something he always said if he meant it. He just said 'bye.' For the hurt he'd caused that kid, Jayne figured it was more than he deserved.

Mal paused, waiting for Jayne to catch up. Emily was slowing him down, but he didn't want to wake her. Jayne couldn't carry her like a kid anymore, since she was getting so long-legged. It was amazing to think – what would've happened if he'd shot Mal that day they'd met instead of switching sides? He and Mal had walked through hell, heaven, and all the roads in between together. They'd gone from enemies each looking to live one more day, to crew, to friends. They'd seen each other become fathers and then husbands. Mal had three grown kids making their way out there in the 'verse, and Jayne had his own little woman resting in his arms. Where once his goal was to make good sport of his life, now he tried to make his life good. Mal could've killed him a dozen times over, and Jayne had given him more than enough reasons too. Mal could have ditched him, left him dirt side, or left him in that bug house. But Mal never gave up on him; he'd pegged Jayne's as a life worth fighting for. That was how they all knew Mal was crazy.

"I've been hearing things," Mal said, when Jayne had caught up to him. "Seems the ladies are conspiring to buy a space ship. Don't know what they're going to use it for, besides living in space."

Jayne looked to the sky, remembering how freeing it felt to leave a world of his own accord and not wait for some transport to match his schedule. He hadn't been to Persephone in awhile, but they had the best interactive target practice arena and he wanted to take Emily. "I am gettin' a little land crazy."

"There's talk of a job."

"I heard that too," Jayne said with a nod. He might be ready to pick up a gun again, but he was in no condition to take up work. He was so out of shape, he'd probably be sore tomorrow just from carrying Emily.

"I have this image of myself hobbling to a job with an old hickory cane and beatin' people senseless with it. It's funny as hell. I laugh every time." Mal trailed off, chuckling quietly. "See? See how I'm laughing?"

"The kids can take care of it," Jayne agreed, dismissing the notion of joining the heist.

Mal nodded, but he seemed disappointed. "I never expected to live this long," he confessed. "I kinda resent the notion that I'll die of old age."

Jayne looked at Mal, startled that anyone could reflect his own sentiments so well, and speak those truths so plainly. He thought of Sky again, and how they had dared to dream they'd live a long life together and see their daughter grown.

"Sky always said that when we were too old to fight, we should get a gun shop," Jayne said, fighting to keep his voice steady. Talking about Sky was getting easier, but he felt guilty doing it – like he was letting go of the most precious thing he'd ever been given. But he also felt regret for neglecting so fiercely all the other bits of precious that blessed his life. There were those, like Jamie, that would be damn near impossible to reclaim, and wouldn't have been lost at all if he'd come to his senses three years ago.

Jayne chewed his lip and thought about that gun shop – about that dream that he didn't necessarily have to lose. He didn't figure he'd be wresting his guns from Michael anytime soon, and he hoped he'd have opportunity to bestow the legends of each weapon along with the parts. Every gun had a history. So did every man. Jayne had never figured he'd run across so many people worth knowing.

"Sky had a good eye for matching men and arms," Jayne said, picturing the time they'd gone into a gun shop and she kept talking to the customers like she owned the place. "She could tell what would fit in a body's hand, and what he could handle. She said we'd get to see everything new coming in, and try everything out at least once for the sake of market research… That kind of trade would do well on a boat."

Jayne trailed off and looked at his old friend, seeing in Mal's eyes that wistful peace he'd always gotten when he thought about Serenity and freedom.

"Is that something you want to do?" Mal asked cautiously, not daring to step into the dream if it wasn't an invitation.

Jayne smiled adventurously and turned his eyes to the path ahead. "It beats sitting on a swing doing nothing."

*~*

~FIN~