New Leaves

Zoe awakens from another sleepless night to a sick churning in her gut, and it isn't long before she's bent over the toilet, vomiting her dinner from the night before.

Her face is ashen in the mirror when she pushes herself up on the sink, the cold tile biting into her palms.

She can't be Mal's lookout. Not today.

She gets dressed and goes to find her captain, who, these days, can invariably be found teaching River to fly.

As her boots clap on the metal grate of the catwalk over the cargo hold, Zoe reflects that she doesn't spend much time in the cockpit anymore. She expects the strong hands of her husband gripping the controls, not River's slim, girlish ones. Mal insisted on leaving Wash's dinosaurs in their place, in his memory. But they're nothing without the pilot's voice to animate them.

She stops in front of the cockpit door, hesitates, an iceberg colliding with the ship of her heart. She presses the entry button, and the door slides open.

"Don't forget about that button. D'you hear? I mean it." Mal's fixing River with a serious stare. "You push that button without gripping that handle there—" he points, "—and our boat gets stranded in the middle of nowhere with the engine practically in the toilet. And Kaylee rips me a new one for not making it clear to you. Got it?"

"Boom," River murmurs, long fingers gliding over the button in question.

"Good." Mal turns to Zoe. "What can I do for you?"

Zoe hesitates again, mind flashing back to the days of the war, back when obeying Mal was so much more clear-cut. She hates to say it, but says it anyways. She takes a deep breath: "…Cap'n, you've gotta take Jayne." She bites her lip as Mal's eyes widen by a horrified fraction, but presses on: "I'm dead on my feet. You've gotta take him instead."

Mal protests: "Shit, Zoe, you know how he is, he'll blow the buyers halfway to kingdom come before anybody can name a price." He gives her a pleading look.

"I'm no good to you in a firefight right now."

"But with you, there might not be a firefight."

Zoe cuts him off: "Cap'n, I woke up vomiting."

Mal glances at her sidelong. "Food poisoning?"

Zoe shakes her head. "Don't think so…we restocked two days ago. Nothing should be rotten."

Mal grimaces. "It had better not be…"

"You've gotta take Jayne."

The captain heaves a heavy sigh. "…All right. But it's your fault if that lummox gets me killed."

Zoe manages a smile, and turns to leave.

Halfway out the door of the cockpit she feels another wave of nausea, accompanied now by dizziness. She stumbles, bracing herself on the railing and sinking into a squat, turning so that her back rests on the metal bars.

Mal and River are at her side in an instant.

"Oh—damn—" Zoe blinks, disoriented.

"What's wrong?" Mal's voice floats down to her from a hundred miles away. "Zoe?"

"She hasn't been eating enough," says River, and the girl's blurry image swims before Zoe's unfocused eyes. "Stomach filled up with more than food."

"Go get Simon."

Zoe feels the strain of the metal as River jumps to her feet and dashes off.

"Cap'n…" she murmurs, "I'm just gonna…shut my eyes…for a bit…"

She wakes up in the infirmary.

The bright lights overhead make her blink. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tries to sit up.

Simon's voice, to the left of her: "Please don't get up just yet…I'm still running some tests."

Zoe lies back down. "What happened?"

The doctor's tone is distracted. Probably preparing medication, Zoe's mind tells her. "You just fainted. You look like you haven't been getting enough sleep."

"I haven't." Zoe feels her face grow warm. She hasn't fainted since she was fifteen.

Simon nods and approaches her. "That's not an unusual effect of grief…which will pass with time. What about food?"

"What about it?"

"Grief can alter eating habits as well."

Zoe frowns, then shakes her head. "…I've been eating normally."

Simon nods again. "Would you mind lifting your shirt so I can see your stomach?" He goes back to the counter.

Zoe's eyes flit between her torso and the doctor, whose back is turned to her. Lifting the soft fabric to expose her coffee skin, she asks: "If I just fainted, why are you running so many tests?"

Simon returns with a tub of what looks like blue jello. With a gloved hand he picks up a scoop of the stuff and smears it onto Zoe's skin.

She gasps involuntarily. "That's cold."

"Sorry." Simon's mouth twitches into an apologetic smile as he turns back to the counter.

"Why?" Zoe asks, staring at the cold paste.

"Because if you're eating normally, there's only one explanation left I can think of."

Simon adjusts a screen attached to Zoe's bed. A churning noise from the screen's video feed fills the air.

Zoe watches Simon's face as he does so. "What's that?" she prompts. She watches the younger man's smile grow in the light of his eyes. "Simon?" She tries to crane her neck to see.

Simon meets her eyes, then turns the screen to face her.

Zoe's mouth gapes open.

Simon gently hands her the sonograph. "Here. Just press it gently to the skin. I'll be right back."

Zoe barely hears the infirmary doors slide cleanly shut behind Simon as she stares, fixated on the screen.

Mine, she thinks. No…mine and Wash's.

Clear beads at the corners of her eyes spill over onto her face.

It's too early to tell if it's a boy or a girl. Either way, Zoe already knows the name.