Story: After Present's Passed (all chapters)

Authors: Pat Kelly

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Chapter 1

Title: Belonging

[Author's notes:

Timeframe: Post-"Chosen" for BtVS, Post-"Objects in Space" and the comics for Firefly, but pre-movie.

All words in brackets are meant to be spoken Chinese, that I couldn't translate.

 Hope you like. :-)


 "Hot today, eh, my friend?" Smile.

The routine question received the routine answer, an agreeable nod not far behind. "Isn't it always?" 

Though that never surprised anybody, to a thrown-together bunch still feeling each other out, it provided a universal grumbling point with which to begin socializing. To relate as human beings. In the Core, you'd be amazed at the number of citizens who've forgotten how. Most who leave its "civilized" trappings blame the Alliance's deceptive, sales pitch for bringing them to border moons like this. In the process of being built, sweltering, New Abilene was the latest settlement on Dakota.

Of course, what was sweltering to some folk might've been just right to others; having been to hotter places, she fell into the latter group. No one else needed to know that story however, because it'd only complicate things, and complications already abounded. So with a second nod to Ahote, she just hefted the stack of lumber to the spot designated for the general store, keeping her mouth shut. Long as she worked, they didn't pry. Seemed a fair trade. Nothing said socializing had to involve honesty.

Besides, she herself could hardly remember who she'd been. What was her present turned into distant past, becoming ancient history so many times over that the truths of it got lost to myth. Her hair had even changed, the golden color she'd kept for so long having faded to a light, autumn brown decades ago--by linear, earths-ly standards. At this particular point, she was a nameless settler, who sweat and hauled and hammered, garnering respect from her fellows.

Adorned with scars hidden and not, possessing strength beyond understanding, and wearing a Verse-weary countenance, a few first thought she might've been in the war. Except, given her size and age, while not impossible, it didn't altogether fit. But they didn't pry.

Once the lumber was relocated, the outwardly twenty-three-year old removed the straw hat tied about her chin, allowing a confined mess of stringy locks to escape down her neck while she waved the hat in front of her face. Only aggravated the dirt residing there. Before she could get too annoyed, Shey passed her the spring-filled canteen. A quick sip then onto the next dehydrated soul.

"Xièxie nî," she said gratefully, still somewhat shocked that she'd picked up the mangled mix of languages this fast. Hadn't ever been her forte.

That there was a water source of any kind made New Abilene's prime generation luckier than most (despite the inconvenient spot), so even as exhausted as they felt, tongues were bitten. Yes, how successful terraforming would be depended in large part upon the raw conditions at the process' outset, but the other part, no less important, was the level of attention and care crews gave to their jobs. It wasn't simply flipping a switch and letting the automated processors and plants coldly go about their business. Skill was required, and on rare occasions, applied. Dakota's forming being an example. Mostly.

In the hills that encircled New Abilene stood green forests home to wild game and fish and...and someone with Parliamentary clout must've been chipper the day it was decided to make this moon hospitable. But their luck continued still. The chaplain who'd journeyed along had an old friend aboard a Firefly transport, and when he waved to ask whether its crew might aid in construction if compensated, the reply was affirmative. The ship?

Called "Serenity." Her captain had something of a reputation. Or so the talk went.

They arrived in shuttles from the port someways across the world, meaning no one had actually seen it, but those who lived aboard distrusted the Alliance, which suited the majority. Feeling the urge to investigate, the young woman with no name hoisted nine-year-old Shey onto her shoulders to the chagrin of every muscle in her body--didn't matter that she'd put them under worse stress--and began walking.


For some reason Shey took to her. The girl's kin trusted their daughter's judgment more with each passing day as they watched this stranger be the last to retire night after night, and Shey actually come out of her shell an inch or two. Meaning that when Dane, her father, accepted the canteen as they passed, he had no objection to his daughter's choice of perch.

On what was the main thoroughfare with buildings and half-buildings and foundations lining either side, they traveled in between, navigating mostly people, but every once a step, the odd wagon or horse. It was hard for her brain to reconcile the use of horses when spaceships were a common mode of transportation, but she vaguely recalled a notion that said history liked to repeat itself. She just never thought she'd see it; she never thought she'd see a lot of what she had.

The sick tent was up at the opposite end, but the thoroughfare wasn't that expansive, so they could see Serenity's doctor decent enough as he treated primarily heatstroke and exposure. The man, maybe a few years her senior, efficiently moved from patient to patient, and was the cleanest one in town. She recognized quality fabric when she saw it, which meant wealth, leading her to ponder what the hell he was doing this far out. Yet she didn't write him off.

Instinct said with the right motivation, he'd get his hands dirty. Non-medically. It also said that the ox with the goatee helping to build the rutting bar instead of, say, the pharmacy so they could finally stock the medicine crates (people's priorities tended to flummox the mind), was dangerous when pissed off but easy enough to outwit one-on-one--barring the involvement of guns.

Serenity's captain, first mate, and the preacher who led them here, however, were the next street over, getting houses built. A far smarter endeavor if you asked her. Then again, her view of alcohol was negatively colored. The plan was to size them up as well, but an object caught Shey's eye. A bright, multi-colored parasol (which awakened sleeping memories) was providing shade to a folding chair, making said chair quite appealing, because there'd been hat misplacement.

She took them to it straight away, not questioning its presence. Setting her companion down, she situated herself, an involuntary groan of sheer relief breaking free. All aching joints and limbs were thankful. Almost instantly her eyelids drooped, permitting images of collapse and being devoured, to play behind them. Though they were quickly interrupted.

A small hand tugged her shirt. Hazel eyes opened to see Shey running toward the nearest parent, and Serenity's mechanic, a pleasant-faced female about her age, partly blocking her sight.

A radiant smile more than made up for what was lacking in the muted green jumpsuit the visitor wore. "Ain't it awful cozy?"

"At this exact moment? Uh huh." She made the fast deduction that it was the other girl's property, and started to vacate. "But, isn't mine, and I was rude, so...moving."

"Oh, I wasn't...don't rise 'less ya meant to. It's gettin' to feel useful. Just need my tools is all," said the mechanic amicably, extending her hand. "I'm Kaylee."

Yeah. That sounded close to perfect. "Nice to meet you." She shook, but withheld her own name. "You're from Serenity, right?" She grabbed the toolbox beside the chair, and handed it over.

"Sure am, and she's the best boat floatin'." Kaylee stated like a proud mother, grinning widely. She looked then in the direction Shey had run. "Hope I didn't fright your little one too bad."

"Huh?" Bug-eyed. "Oh, Sh-Shey's not...she has a family."

Beat. "Yours passed." Kaylee couldn't miss the hollowness of her voice. "Oughta go an' tell me to stitch my lip...I'm sorry. Really sorry."

"No, it's okay." She spoke with a heavy sigh. "Was a long while back. Barely know their faces anymore." A look of sympathy came her way, which she tried to pretend not to see, clearing her throat. "Anyway, she's shy. S'nothing personal." Slight uncomfortable silence. "Um, I should...stop hogging your chair. Thanks and all."

Back to her feet.

"Shiny!" Kaylee pronounced cheerfully, as if the awkwardness was only imagined. "{God himself would urinate in disbelief at this fortuitous timing}, 'cause this minute matter of fact, I was gonna see about getting some company for the walk back. Be real nice to jabber with a'body who isn't me."

How could she say no? "Happily volunteering." She gave a genuine smile, having come to the conclusion that she liked this person quite a bit. "To where? The hills?"

"We think we figured how to make the water simpler to get at, so's you don't have to back and forth all day, uh..." Her new acquaintance explained as they set off, finding herself searching for what she didn't know. "I miss your name?"

She'd come into the Verse nearly two months ago, and had been in New Abilene just under two weeks; there was no one who knew it. But after knowing Kaylee for all of five minutes, she found herself speaking it for the first time in five-hundred plus years. "Buffy. It was 'Buffy.' Might still be, I'm not sure."

"Well I wouldn't change a single letter--it's plenty pretty. Why fret when you don't hafta?" Kaylee reassured before setting in stone, "It's officially nice to meet you too, Buffy."


"Half-a-year. More than, I'll bet, if I counted proper. But we been onthe same crew, shared the same troubles...and we both know full well the way our feelin's lean, 'cept it's like he's stuck waist-high in pig mud, and can't move anyplace." Kaylee lamented as they climbed, tromping through the trees, though somewhat halfheartedly. "Won't even try."

Buffy used to have conversations like this. It was so normal, so everyday. So reassuring. "Have you tried? Maybe he's just...overly shy."

"Oh, he is. That's for gorram sure." The mechanic didn't hesitate to support. "Thought I'd tiptoed'm past it, though. And every time I take a chance, he either gets all prim, or gets scared off. Ain't like I'm askin' him to vow--just wanna be bedded. For a start. Never had to work so long for it, neither. Feels like--"

"Forever?" Her voice and face turned grim as she spoke, but she overcame it before the questions arrived.

Kaylee nodded. "I mean, I know he's got River to worry over, but she's stopped bein' the reason..." It was here she was starting to say too much.

Though she didn't get the sense that Buffy meant any harm, she did tend to believe the best of people, even when it was a waste of time. This girl looked the pleasant sort, and to have someone nearer her age to converse with, who could relate, was something she'd craved. River was a sweetheart, but certain talks were prohibited by age and a fractured mind.

Thankfully, they'd reached the spring, Wash, and other townsfolk, so she didn't have to explain why she'd left off suddenly. "Buffy, this here's Wash. He's our pilot."

The man's bright-orange Hawaiian shirt stood out immediately, and Buffy blinked, thinking of a dead friend. She managed to get out, "Hi."

"Yeah, hi." He returned distractedly, tossing his arms animatedly at the stream. "What {sexually castrated, moronic offspring of a two-headed yak} would put the water this far from the town?" Damn terraforming crews.

"Funnel'll work though...right?" Kaylee asked, hoping her tools didn't come for nothing.

"Uh...possibly?" He said unsurely, and then sighed at the workload ahead of them. They didn't have much to work with, and certainly no technology to speak of.

"Won't know until we try." Buffy proclaimed, looking at the segments of metal piping that'd been scrounged up from various planets by Kaylee, who collected anything she deemed could be useful someday, and someday had come. Then there was lumber waiting to be cut. When she began, it spurred everyone else into action. "If it doesn't work, we try something else."

Somehow Kaylee knew that was meant for her to hear. And later, she smiled at hearing Buffy laugh at one of Wash's--most likely untrue--stories. It was the laugh of someone who badly needed it.


Two days of trial and error followed, and then New Abilene celebrated under the night sky. Not everything was finished, but the big tasks were seen to. Among them, the funnel. Constructed and held in place at sturdy intervals down out of the hills by wooden supports, it emptied water emptied into a well at the town's edge. It wasn't a perfect solution, but it'd do, and was much appreciated.

At the end of the first day, Buffy met Zoë, who'd come to collect her husband. An imposing figure to say the least. Minimal words had exchanged between the two women. Both studied the other, recognized a fellow soldier when they saw one, and nodded in respectful acknowledgement. Seeing her smile at Wash threw the once slayer for a loop until she watched them together.

Yesterday, at midday meal, she met the shepherd, Book. Buffy had always been nervous around religious types, never quite sure how favorable a light they were judging her in. She compensated for this uncertainty by monitoring her every word and step. However, Book looked into her, not at her. Next to Kaylee and a particular British man from times past, he was one of the warmest people she'd known.

That wasn't to say he didn't have an air of annoying, wise mystery about him, because he did. But like Kaylee, he was able to get her talking. She told him she was alone. Told him how after struggling toward a goal for so long and miraculously reaching it, her world had become unrecognizable. Ever since, her life lived her, as there was little else to do. Book argued that wasn't the case, nor did it have to be.

One, simple challenge and Buffy was beginning to think maybe it wasn't just her cautious, loner nature that kept her distant from the New Abilenians. They weren't the right fit. Well, neither exactly were these others, but what she felt where home used to be? She'd begun to feel a hint of now. Still, it was ultimately the captain's decision, whom Kaylee was introducing, away from the torch-lit thoroughfare and dancing locals.

She'd absorbed enough secondhand history to know Mal Reynolds wasn't wearing that brown coat due to cold. Serenity's leader (and he was a leader--his eyes spoke that pretty loud) fought for the Independents during the war. She looked at a man who'd had a cause, and gained a family.

He never went more than a few minutes before finding them amongst the crowd to see they were safe. Even the ox giving her lecherous glances he thought she wasn't seeing. Protective, but not overbearing about it. Possible even that they meant more than he let himself believe, in order to continue thinking he was this uncaring, hard-edged person always outside the goings on. Which she knew very easily could've described her. Had Mal gone through similar, kindred thoughts as they stood here?

"Feel kinda dry-tongued." Kaylee abruptly revealed, and eyed the table of drinks across the street. "Wouldn't ya know? The cider's callin'." She pointed. "Won't be but a holler away. Why not have a nice talk in the meanwhile?" With a hopeful smile and the subtlety of an anvil, she nudged Buffy encouragingly--prior to making just as subtle an exit.

Immediately after broaching the subject to Kaylee of whether Mal would entertain the notion of a new passenger, the girl had what Buffy would only describe as a "spaz attack of joy." That was one down.

"Every rock we lay anchor, Little Kaylee always hasta chat up them that's new." Mal commented at her side, watching his mechanic trying to discreetly watch them. "But you particular, Miss? She's taken a mighty quick shine to."

He doubted she noticed Simon's smitten gazing at all. Boy probably would've gone and tripped over himself again, anyhow.

"Buffy." She reminded him to avoid further "Miss" calling and added, "Summers. Buffy Summers." There it was. Her full name. Out in the ether, for anyone to snatch up. Mal raised an eyebrow. He just found it peculiar. "Look, Captain Reynolds--"

"Ain't even three days, and already she gushes at me. Says I should have you aboard." He turned his head to look at her. "Bein' the cynical type leaves me to wonder if that wasn't the plan. Charm my mechanic so passage don't appear your idea...and when the wool's got the whole of us blind, we're brain-splattered, you sailing off with my ship."

Now her eyebrow rose. "Previous experience?"

"A bit, yeah. Not so much the brain-splatter, a'course..." Not since the war.  

"If you really believed that about me, there wouldn't be talking right now." Buffy deduced, knowing she was being tested. "At least, *I* wouldn't be talking to me, if you were me and I was you, and..." She'd lost the point somewhere along the way. Nervousness shouldered the blame. "It's a saying. Shoes are involved. I forget how."

He smirked. "Well however that goes or doesn't, you got a fair read. Thought you were a danger, I'da marked ya for a bullet and been on my way." Giving her another appraisal, he'd learned not to judge a book by its cover. Or height, for that matter. "Nope, I don't expect you'd've done different, situations reversed.

"But my take, Kaylee's, Wash's, Zoë's, hell, even Shepherd's," His tone sounded like they vouched for her, "still don't paint a full picture." She was starting to feel disheartened. Silence pervaded a few moments. "See, you got the stare of a person with an itch for the Black, so I'm gonna venture it isn't just Kaylee wishin' you in a shuttle come morning."

"No." She confirmed for him, getting hope back.

"Then first question I gotta hear answered, Miss Buffy Summers, is why?"


Because Dakota was her only option until recent, Buffy had said. Because her only friend was a nine-year-old short on words. Because, for the first time, while working with Serenity's crew, she felt a part of something, and not apart from it. And more important, she wanted that feeling to last. Mal accepted that, saw the sincerity, and asked the natural follow-up.

Why had this moon been the sole path open to her? He wasn't after her life's tale--he wasn't one to share himself--but he did have to know if she had trouble that was like to follow, because they'd plenty on their heels as it was. Grateful she didn't have to lie, Buffy limited the summary to the month and a half before here.

Alliance prison for vagrancy and having no ident card. Being beaten for three weeks when she wouldn't tell them *why* she had no ident card. Then being left for dead in a bin when they needed her cell. She left out the part where she didn't worry about slayer healing raising their suspicions, because she already had had deep bruising and marring not hurrying to fade, when they found her. Which is how they got away with the beatings. And she had to let them.

All Mal had to understand, was that to the Alliance, she was a dead "Jane Doe" they hadn't even bothered to register into the Cortex as such. If not for the kindness of a preacher and his abbey, she said she probably would have died for real (for the fourth, or however many times she'd already done so) of being underweight and severely malnourished more than the pain. While there, she discovered the future, and saw that staying in the Core surrounded by Alliance, was too big a risk, even with her non-existence.

Two weeks in the abbey found her ready to go. She couldn't thank the brothers profusely enough; they'd given her clothes, money, and wished her well. The money bought a one-use ident card, convincing enough to get her past a checkpoint and onto the cheapest ride available. New Abilene, being an upstart settlement on an as yet sparsely-populated Dakota, fit the bill.

With a hand on her shoulder, the captain accepted this answer too, cursing the Alliance in a long string of angry Chinese. She deciphered "blue-balled" and "ass-raped by an elephant's tusk."

She could tell he didn't want to deny her. Not just because of her hardships, but because he knew he was getting more honesty than was common in the 'Verse. His last question had to be asked, though: What could she do? Any money she may have left would hardly pay fuel costs or restock their protein stores. All positions were also accounted for. And while it was true that having someone more or less untraceable by the law doing thieving had its pluses, tough as she seemed, he couldn't know if she was meant for it, and wouldn't see her killed in a tryout.

Buffy couldn't debate any of that, so their talk ended on a down note. They turned back to the crowd right when Auggie--resident, currently drunk town jackass--chose to react badly to Kaylee's polite decline of his advances. That'd been hard cider, then. Probably from the new bar. Exactly why she was against it.


You know, usually.

"You twirled! In the air!" Kaylee repeated for the sixty-fifth time, half because hours later she was still in shock, and half because she was as drunk as Auggie had been, but with a much more adorable disposition. "Graceful, like you was a swan! Or a dancer! Ooh, no! A dancing swan!" She rolled onto her side, wagging her finger at her new friend. "That, right there, is *a'xactly* how you looked, and {if that's not the full truth, may the universe spit on my head.}"

Buffy giggled. "Was more of a flip, technically."

"No, no, flips ain't that high." Kaylee shook her head in rapid succession, disagreeing with that entirely. "And you was up there--"

"Two seconds, tops."

The mechanic's foggy brain couldn't see how that made sense, and had her hand swat the body that lay beside her on the grassy hill above the town. "It weren't seconds! And I know 'cause I saw. If you'da seen what you were doin', you wouldn't fuss. 'Cept you were busy, so's you didn't! *Trust me*."

Buffy giggled some more. "Okay, okay. I trust you."

What happened was this: after three, slurred attempts to win Kaylee over, Auggie grabbed her wrist. Hard. Made her cry out in surprise.

In a split second, several things happened simultaneously. The majority of people became rapt, attentive onlookers, hoping events would take a turn. The minority (i.e. everyone in the mass who gave a damn about Kaylee), didn't like what they saw, and each was prepared to cause a riot to get to her.

Even Wash, who didn't come off as a man capable of sustaining a fight; and the ox, whose name she knew was Jayne, but he didn't seem evolved enough to have one. Let alone a name like that. Yet a brief flash of fear and worry right before the rage claimed him, humanized Jayne quickly. They all would have prevented any wrongdoing to their shipmate, she was sure of that.

But the crowd bunched together, forming a nice, tight circle of barely restrained violence, and Buffy was also sure that in the process of rescuing Kaylee, a riot was precisely what would result. And that would be bad. So she ran at the circle, and just before hitting the outer layer of gawkers, launched herself over them, went into a flip, and landed directly behind Auggie. An awed hush followed. She went ahead and freed his grip, and then got his arm in a grip of her own.

"It broke! Easy as a twig would!" Kaylee exclaimed, running it over in her mind, suddenly onto the part she had very clear. "Might as well been, with how you..."

Buffy had been pretending so well up to then, keeping her strength a secret. Most would chalk it up to their ciders, telling themselves Auggie's elbow shattered for a different reason altogether--if they even remembered while deep in tomorrow's hangovers. First in line to believe that would be Auggie himself. Serenity's people weren't going to explain it away, though.

Simon had that "fascinated doctor with a new experiment" look on his face; Jayne, if it was possible, leered more; Wash was speechless, trying to put two and two together but never quite having it equal four; Book and Zoë just seemed to accept it and move on; and Mal, while just as speechless as Wash, got over it sooner, and thanked her. Then said Serenity had a spare bunk if she still wanted it. She did.

Oh wait. River. Until her little performance, she couldn't ever recall seeing the doctor's sister, though now she had a feeling that the girl had always been around. Off-putting but well meaning, was Buffy's impression. There was no way River hadn't been through some sort of trauma. But it was her reaction Buffy hadn't anticipated--she looked unimpressed.

"Not jīng xùan, but I can do that." Before Buffy could utter her best Chinese cuss, River smiled, as if to tell her she knew how to keep secrets. "Better."

If the teen was what she appeared, they had to schedule a chat soon.

Presently, she wanted to make sure Kaylee's shock, funny as it was now, wasn't paving the way for the less funny, "scared avoidance" once sober. Brute, uncompromising strength was frightening to see no matter what the context, but the level of strength she possessed, and the mere fact *she* possessed it...difficult to reconcile, which led to the scary. The last thing she wanted was Kaylee afraid.

If she was asked, Buffy would explain. With no way to prove it, an explanation wouldn't help much, but that didn't matter. She wanted to be truthful. And the truth was, she was a freakish, mystical anomaly created to battle forces who'd been banished long ago. She was forced out of her own century, had fallen into this one, and was clinging to the hope that she'd found a place to belong.

"And yunno, even if Simon has River all pieced together, then gets hisself unstuck from the twig took root inside'a his rear and we make love till our bodies is jelly...this s'never gonna be his place, not really." From twig, Kaylee had gotten to Simon. And sex.


Buffy didn't try to redirect her, however. "Why not?"

"He's fancy, is why. An' fancy doctors belong in fancy hospitals, curin' diseases with fancy names." Kaylee replied, looking sad but resolute. "He'd wanna go back soon enough, then he'd ask... " She exhaled. "But Serenity's home; wouldn't leave her for no one. She's gotta be looked after. Sure, Cap'n fawns over her, but he don't know rut-all 'bout listening to her." A small smile broke out. "Fanciest thing I can claim is my dress. S'pink. Came with a bow, too."

"Bet you looked amazing." Wasn't any description to focus her imagination, but Buffy couldn't picture Kaylee looking otherwise.

She offered that compliment with little awareness as to what it sounded like; it just wanted to be said. Working with her on that funnel, joking with her, being her sounding board, Buffy had to admit to an attraction. Five-hundred years ago that probably would've been a lot more confusing, but currently, she didn't see the point in tying herself in knots over a feeling she couldn't change. A feeling still in its infancy, still discovering, but growing steadily.

"Naw, I'm...I mean...I dunno." Blush. "Anyhow, I'm only sayin'...if Simon and me ever paired, we wouldn't get nowheres near what Zoë and Wash..." Kaylee sat up, as did Buffy, prepared to keep her righted, should the need arise. "But all this talk's yúchûn, 'cause River's galaxies from whole, and Simon can't hardly relax enough to steer through a conversation like people do. Sex'd prob'ly drive him out the airlock.

"Both gave it our best tries, but I'm tuckered out waiting. Think I'll try an 'else.' When it's appropriate." This set her off into a fit of laughter, which ended as quick as it began. "That was *smart*, Buffy, advice you gave."

"Happy it helped." Buffy amusedly said, Kaylee flashing a full-toothed smile.

"Happy you're flyin' with us--I said so yet? 'Cause I am." Kaylee felt the need to assure, and after a few minutes of quiet, addressed the star-filled sky. "Wait'll you see. Gonna pass a nebula on course to Persephone, that turns Jayne poetical."

Buffy's jaw dropped. "Juéduì bù!"

"Hey! You're s'posed to trust me." Kaylee teased, and then her expression more serious than Buffy had seen during their short friendship. "Serenity's where you want, right? Not just till Persephone, but to stay...right?"

"As long as you all don't mind me there, yep, I plan on staying." Buffy promised, her arms were not only supporting her friend now, but enveloping her, making for an intimate position. She didn't dare spoil it. "I wanna be where I fit, Kaylee."

The amazing brunette's voice was beginning to tire. "This fits pretty fine."

Kaylee had also noticed. Great. Morning would test a lot of things.

"So what you saw me're okay with it?" Buffy might've been holding her breath. "It didn't freak you out?"

"Man was wrong." Kaylee yawned, adjusting herself for maximum comfort in Buffy's grip. "You made sure he knowed that so others wouldn't need t'worry down the road. And loosed his hold on me--thank you." That was the hundredth time or thereabouts. "I promise, too, that even though I ain't skilled how you are, if I smell trouble 'fore it goes bad, I'll keep ya," Another yawn, "outta harm."

"I...thanks. Also." Buffy lamely returned, not managing to express how much it meant to hear that.

She wasn't alone.

"My daddy says I got a gift for engines. Since I was a little girl, he could set me in front of a mess of parts, and they'd tell me where they got mucked up, and how to get 'em workin' again. Weren't due to books, or just is.

"Everybody's got a gift special to their ownselves. Yours is twirlin' like a dancing swan, and dealin' with people who oughta know better, natural as breathing. It just is, and isn't nothin' about it freaksome. K?"

Kaylee wished she'd had this accepting reaction back with River on Ariel, but River...River wasn't Buffy. It was different.

"Okay." Buffy nodded, and the breaths came calm and regular.

"Shiny." Kaylee's lids drooped closed, signaling slumber's victory. "Just gonna wait here...till my eyes...ain't so heavy..."

While she slept, in the peacefulness of the night, Buffy braved through scarred memories of Hell to remember further. To her friends, and to her sister whom she missed become a young woman. One foot in the Core and Willow would've been in technology heaven. Buffy would've taken Dawn shopping, and they'd both have wondered if the hot dogs sold in the plaza were actual dogs. Xander would've gone "nerd" over the spaceships. Giles would've been fascinated by the cultural mish-mash and the myths of their, "Earth-That-Was."

Out here on the Rim, she knew they'd be appalled by how little was supplied to settlers, and the unnecessary hardships people were forced to suffer. They'd want to do their share to help, just like Mal and those with him. But in the midst, they'd still love the horses, and Xander would search high-and-low for a ten-gallon hat matching his eye patch. She grinned at imagined moments until she couldn't.

Had they grown old? Died in the next apocalypse? Had kids? There was no way to know. Their lives, their accomplishments, time erased. Before she joined Serenity, Buffy cried for them. Soundlessly, so Kaylee didn't wake.


Chapter 2

Title: Welcome Home

[Author's notes:



The shuttles lifted off with very little fanfare just after first light. Most citizens were passed out, and the only ones who came to say goodbye were Shey and her family, and the town chaplain who contacted Book. He apologized for his flock's behavior, expressed his gratitude by words and money, and prayed their journey was a safe journey.

Shey hugged, and Buffy told her to take care of her parents, to speak more with them before she regretted not doing so. They needed her help. A shade above a whisper, Shey promised she would. Then it was time, and the nine of them split off into two groups, Buffy confident and chipper about undertaking this next step.

She, Kaylee, Simon, River and Book went in one shuttle (Book at the controls); Mal, Jayne, Zoë, and Wash in the other, that had already left. Buffy noticed a faint whiff of incense when she entered, and River conspiratorially whispered to her:

"Little deaths by tiny swords happened here. Almost all were staged."

Then her brother ushered her into the back corner of the dark, cold shuttle to sit for the relatively short ride to where Serenity was docked. Simon sat beside to make sure she didn't get knocked about, because there were no restraints or seats. Why weren't there seats?

"This used to be Inara's shuttle. It was decorated...passionate, you know? So soft and warm-colored. For when she had clients." Kaylee said, providing Buffy with the shuttle's history, who stared blankly. "She's a Companion." The mechanic explained further so Buffy wouldn't get the wrong idea. "Didn't service crew, though--we were sisterly. Always talked her ear off, if she was around. Talked like *sisters*."

"Got it." Buffy smiled.

"Companion"--how she loved euphemisms of the future.

"I hoped she woulda reconsidered leavin', but there was stuff that...made her have to." Kaylee stunk at her hiding her disappointment. "'Nara settled a few weeks ago, to train new girls for her guild." Then she groused under her breath, "Captain wasn't so dumb..."

"Ah, Kaylee? Just in case I'm a mite rusty," Book called back from the cockpit, "would you mind joining me?" There was an empty co-pilot's chair.

Kaylee did, gesturing that their new passenger come with. Buffy started to, when a light bulb turned on. "*Oh.*" She whipped her head around to look at River--who made a lot more sense than anybody seemed to realize.

Or perhaps she'd just spent a little too much time around crazy vampires back in her slaying years, which enabled her to break the code easier.

With a wry grin, Buffy moved into the cockpit, stood behind the pilots, and grabbed a handhold above her to keep balance while the shuttle lifted off.

"The others went on ahead to prep the ship." Book let them know. "Captain seemed anxious to be on the move."

"Never does like to idle in a place too long." Kaylee said to him, both she and Buffy recognizing the adeptness with which he handled the shuttle.

Rust? Not a speck.

Buffy watched out the window; they were traveling at brisk pace, a mix of colors rushing by them. She didn't have a concept of how fast they traveled until ten minutes passed and they'd gone almost halfway around the moon, arriving at the port, over Serenity's pad. They had to be mindful of quite a bit of air traffic.

When Book received clearance, he descended, giving Buffy her first look at Serenity. She gasped. Yes, she hadn't seen that many spaceships yet to become nonchalant about their existence--and that people went to other planets as normally as 21st century people went to supermarkets--but that wasn't a "SPACESHIP!" gasp.

Serenity had a personality. Cold or antiseptic it most certainly wasn't. Its design practically made it Like a machine having a soul wasn't a crazy notion. But to call it a machine sounded offensive, being that she could see a head, a neck, a body, wings, legs, and a tail. Kind of resembled...ooh. "Firefly" class. Understanding dawned.

She could feel it humming from inside the shuttle. The thrusters were down, raring to go. Worn, small, tough, and probably misjudged--Buffy saw those qualities, and thought this was fate. One word nicely summed up the sight she beheld. "Wow."

"Told ya." Kaylee was looking at her, grinning.

Then they were docked, and simple as that, safe and sound back home.


Serenity broke atmo before they had even left the shuttle's confines. Sliding open the outer door leading onto the cargo bay's catwalk, Kaylee politely let everyone else go first, then shut the door behind her. Mal came from the foredeck and strolled their way. Simon and River headed to their quarters (the former turning to Kaylee to possibly say something first, but changing his mind), and Book did the same prior to stopping Mal in the middle of the catwalk to once again thank him for agreeing to help the people of New Abilene.

"Almost forgot what it was like, earning an honest wage." Mal said in reply, his expression such that it seemed to be asking forgiveness for something.

Book smiled in his enigmatic way, and then continued walking towards the stairs, allowing Mal to continue to Kaylee and Buffy. He purposely avoided eye-contact with the shuttle door they stood in front of. The girls rolled theirs at each other--he was awfully transparent.

"Speakin' of wages," He addressed Buffy, pulling a fistful of bills out of his coat pocket, "that's your cut. Oughta buy yourself some clothes when we reach Persephone."

"Captain, I can't accept this." She tried to graciously turn him down, though considering she literally only owned the clothes on her back, new ones weren't a horrible thought. "I wasn't even part of--"

"Ya are now. And you worked hard as any of us down there." He said, thus refusing to take it back, "Shares're already counted out. It's done." He didn't wait for a "thank you," as it wasn't a gift, and talked to his mechanic. "Jayne put your tools back in the engine room. After you show Buffy around, he heard a 'rattle' ya might wanna check on."

"Panel probably just needs tightenin'. I'll take care of her." Kaylee assured, and then walked over to the railing where Buffy was watching Jayne clean Vera, sitting on the bench press. "Ready for the tour?"

"One sec." Buffy told her, and called down to Mal, who'd gotten to the bay floor. He looked up. "Just so you know? I don't use guns. They get in my way, and I've managed fine without 'em."

"Inclined to believe that." Came his response, and that was the end of that.

She let Kaylee pull her along to the foredeck, that contained the crew quarters (Kaylee's included), and the bridge. On the bay floor, Jayne talked to Mal while the captain sat down on a crate, trying to decide if he wanted to pay a call on Badger when they landed in three weeks. You never knew with Badger. Especially because they didn't part on the best of terms, last he saw him.

"You know Kaylee was sly?" The mercenary asked bluntly. Most times he wasn't the brightest, but when violence, money or sex was involved, he was very astute.

"Choose real careful the next words that leave your mouth." Mal warned, just as bluntly.

"Months she's been tryin' to get a poke from the doc..." Jayne was saying, but changed course at Mal's "What did I just say?" glare. "...uh, to, catch his eye permanent, 'stead of just when he idn't in a hover 'round his sister--who don't even need it--like a mother hen." That jab at Simon's masculinity was actually subtle, and Mal used Jayne's stop to breathe, to be stunned. "And all suddenly she ain't? For a *girl*?" He looked downright stumped. "I miss somethin'?"

"Surprise me if ya hadn't." Mal jibed, but Jayne was so confused by how she got from one person to the next, that it was ignored. "Kaylee's not one to exclude. Won't judge, looks at everybody equal and friendly. Guess the same holds true if she's of a mind to romance."

'Like Inara.' He thought to himself, refusing to look at that door.

"Tell you this: I wouldn'ta waited long as she did for Simon to come around. She's past due for movin' on." He sighed. Okay, maybe he was projecting some. Dumb. "But it ain't my business."

"Yeah, feel right about this girl, Mal?" Jayne asked, still wary. What kind of name was "Buffy," anyhow?

"Right as I need to at this juncture. She's after a fresh start, Jayne; been there myself." Mal looked contemplative a second, then hopped off the crate. "Pretty gorram obvious too, Kaylee's not gonna be disappointed, so I'm already more fond of her than the doctor." He walked toward the infirmary, but continued talking. "I think your issue is, there's three women about, who can kill you 'fore Vera ever got set to aim."

Jayne was left holding his gun, frowning.


"Tianna." Buffy uttered reverently, staring out the bridge windows to the starry blackness of space they sailed through. "It's mêilì."

"You've never seen the 'Verse before." Kaylee deduced from the reaction.

They were alone on the bridge, but could hear Zoë and Wash laughing and moving around in the dining area down the corridor behind them.

"Only in books and on T...screens." Caught herself before the "V." Knick of time. "They crammed us in on the way to Dakota, and, no windows."

Part of her didn't buy that it was real--it could've been a projector, projecting the "space" scenery at a special...projecting cloth. But that part was stupid, stubborn, and easily gagged. Kaylee sat at the left console, inviting her to sit at the right one, with the dinosaurs. Somehow, her brain connected the dots straight to Wash.

"No, if I sit, I'll just end up doing something not good elbow-wise, and then the grav-regulator'll break and we'll all be floating on the ceiling." Buffy discouraged, declining the invitation.

She wanted to add, "Like in Mary Poppins," but knew the reference would've been lost.

Kaylee grinned. "Grav-regulator's in the engine room. Can't so much as spit at it from here. Or in the engine room, either. Outer casing's solid."

"You mean it's seriously called that? Go me." Buffy congratulated herself, then went right back to making her point. "Still, you don't wanna take the chance. I may be swan-like while I'm in fight mode, but rest of the time? Clumsy'n accident prone." At the mention of "swan-like," Kaylee tucked some hair behind her ear and turned her eyes to her lap. "I was wondering if you remembered. High tolerance, huh?"

"Ain't forgotten a thing yet." Kaylee admitted, picking at the teddy bear on her pants for a few moments before meeting her friend's eyes again. "I didn't embarrass you none, did I?"

"Nah. You were sweet. Plus, my ego can always use more inflating." Buffy quipped, then turned Kaylee's comfy-looking chair so it faced away from the console, and kneeled herself down. "Best night I've had in a long, *long* time." Her emotional release was a bonus. "And I think we're feeling the same, y'know. Unless, um, we aren't, then feel free to ignore that last sentence. Sometimes my imagination likes to see stuff that doesn't exist. Example? Pink elephants eventually show up."

"Pink elephants'd be neat to see." Kaylee said, making her response hard to interpret. "But they wouldn'ta had one reason to leave their pillows last night, and be conjured up outta your brain."

"'Cause we are. Feeling the same about...y'know." Buffy stated slowly, to be positive there wasn't any miscommunication here.

Kaylee was certain. "Swear. It don't matter that I was liquored off my pigu. Trust me." She pulled Buffy's hand to her, and squeezed.

"Been established that I do." Buffy winked and stood, when Kaylee thought for sure something completely different was going to happen. "Whew. This is a relief." She said, acting as if there hadn't been a moment at all. "Then as soon as we know how we wanna--"

"I got a swell bed not two yards--" Kaylee began advocating, sixty percent for real.

"Whoa, uh-uh." Buffy shot down, trying to keep a straight face. "If I was gonna rush into sex, it was gonna be last night, when it was all romantic in the hills and your buzz was starting to rub off on me...but you fell asleep." She sighed sadly. "Like Serenity, that ship? Sailed. I mean, timing that perfect may never come again."

The mechanic was seconds away from sinking into full-blown sulking, when she noticed that the seriousness in Buffy's voice hadn't reached her eyes. "You're foolin' with me." Mouth upturned. "Chunrén!" She stood also, and hitting commenced. "Well, I was foolin', too. Sorta. Shouldn't hurry *too* quick; closest I been to having girl-relations is by my lonesome. There was once when I lived back with my folks, but that didn't get so far." Still, she wasn't completely sold on waiting. "Though you got to enjoy when ya can, lives like ours..."

In a flash, she was blindsided by an unexpected kiss from Buffy, which drew to a close before she could contribute. She knew there had been one, because her lips said so, her cheeks were red as a sun, and her toes were antsy. Except it must've been closed-mouthed, because her tongue didn't feel exercised. And she knew it was good, because she wanted to do it again. Next time she'd be prepared.

"That was as far as I've gotten--we caught up now?" Buffy asked, to which Kaylee nodded. "Good. Equal footing is good."

This was so unlike her, going into unknown territory without a plan. Analyzing every possible downfall until she doomed herself with a prophecy of her own making. But she'd vowed, before entering that high school in a life prior to this (it was the last thing she'd seen of the world, and was what she figured would finally kill her for good, which would've been ironically fitting), that she'd do things differently afterwards--better late than never.

And god that felt terrific.

She continued, "You wanna finish the...?" Kaylee, still mute, shook her head. "We really should've had a date before we did that. People still do, right?" Nod. "But we're not landing anywhere for weeks." Nod number two, though this one was done with wide-eyes. Too long. "So we hafta improvise. You free for dinner?" Here she lost Kaylee, who looked past her to the dining area that was just mid-deck, where supper would be same as always, and a very public affair. "Improvising, remember? Stay with me, Kaylee. Or this relationship's not gonna work." She teased.

The "r-word" brought forth a spontaneous, and second, kiss. From Kaylee. She didn't think she would've taken her turn so soon, but hearing what Buffy wanted, kissing felt like the thing to do. For almost five and a half years, she hadn't had a shot at one until Simon. But even back on her father's farm, none of the handful of boys her age that lived nearby, ever wanted that with her. They made do with her body.

That's not to say she was taken advantage of, because that wasn't how it went. Those she liked well enough? She wanted their bodies, too. Sex was fun, and there wasn't anything else to pass the time. They never parted on bad terms. But cut to Serenity, when Zoë and Wash started to get serious? Being around the couple day-after-day, she realized how fun a relationship could be. She'd missed out.

"I'd love to go to dinner with you." Kaylee accepted, smiling to her dimples and giving Buffy silent, recovery time. "But I won't be free if we don't do this tour. Then that panel needs fixin', then I gotta wash...and then you *definitely* gotta wash. Then we'll just see what happens."

"Yeah. Just what I was..." Buffy also agreed, but then replayed what was just said. "Wait, are you saying I smell?"

Grin. Kaylee took off down the corridor at a brisk pace, laughing, Buffy giving chase. As they passed through the dining area, Buffy yelled, "You know what? I think I'm starting to forget what 'sex' even is! It's getting hazier and hazier!"

Zoë and Wash, who'd heard everything up until then (sound traveled pretty well on a quiet spaceship), watched them speed by. On meal duty for tonight's supper, they were preparing in advance, so Zoë turned back to the stove, smiling to herself. Her husband, however, was stuck sputtering gibberish that amounted to, "Guh?"

She directed him to the boiling pot. "Don't overcook the rice, dear."


"They need to breathe, but they don't care." River said to her brother later, about three hours before dinner, as she walked light-footed into the infirmary.

"Who?" Simon asked absently, his back to her while he checked the medicines and other supplies in the cabinets.

He was doing a quick inventory, to see if he needed to pick up anything at Persephone. There was a game of horseshoes going on in the cargo bay--between the men of the crew. Every time Jayne hollered in triumph, he lost his place.

"Buffy and Kaylee." She answered, dragging her hand along the counter, and picking up the extractors he had used to remove many a bullet.

"Why aren't they breathing?" He was half-paying attention, which was always his biggest mistake with her.

"Because they're kissing, dummy." She said in the tone she reserved for him only. The, "Sometimes I can't believe we're related" tone. "This time in the hammock."

That got his attention. He faced her, disbelievingly. "They're *what*?!"

She clamped the extractors down on the air. "Pulling the air," She brought her elbow back, bringing the instrument with it, "out of their lungs, and then trapping it back inside," She stretched her fingers, making the instrument's two pieces separate, "before they die. All day. Couldn't wait."

Pale, Simon took the extractors from her, lest she hurt herself. Or him. "Wait for...?"

"The first date." Then she exhaled as if very exhausted by her noble but clueless sibling, and left the room, saying, "Don't be upset."

Placing the extractors down on the metal tray by the operating chair, he slumped down on that chair as the expected questions hammered his brain: Why didn't she give him time? Why hadn't he acted while he *had* time? What did Kaylee know about this girl? Well, what did she know about him? Going on seven months, had he ever really told her anything of consequence about himself? Since when did she like women? Could Buffy be trusted? What if Kaylee was in danger?

"She's not." River's head was all the sudden poking in. She gave him a second to remember that she was a mind-reader, and spoke again. "Kaylee's going to help her get over the nightmares. And you can't get in the way, Simon; it's not your concern."

His countenance befuddled, he wanted to know what she did. There were times, despite all the horror he knew she'd experienced because of it, that he was jealous of his sister's ability. And there were also times, her more lucid, aware moments (like now), when he believed she liked that he was jealous. As a typical sister would.

"I won't tell." Then she seemed crushingly, heartbreakingly sad. Though not over anything that belonged to her. "But they're worse than mine."


Everyone was seated and in mid-conversation when Kaylee and Buffy arrived side-by-side to the table.  Twenty minutes ago, Wash's finely cooked white rice was fried, and tossed with onions, and topped with soy sauce, which they were all eating. The new couple was fresh from their showers, Buffy wearing a set of Kaylee's clothes, hair tied back into a ponytail. Their "make out" high had yet to ebb, and they were trying hard to not give in. It wouldn't be too polite.

Buffy pulled out Kaylee's chair for her at the far end of the table next to River, pushed her in, and then sat opposite, next to Book.

"...and this chicken struts by as he's reversin'. It scares the niushi outta him, so he gets tripped up, ropes hisself in the catgut he was carryin' to hang the sign with, and the chicken squats out an egg. Right that very second. Lord's truth." Jayne finished a story of their latest job, guffawing with a mouthful of rice.

"Don't reckon you saved the egg." Zoë pressed, calling BS.

"Would have, 'cept it got stomped."

Book was wiping his mouth. "If I were you, Jayne, I'd be wary of lightning." That got everyone laughing, and Jayne fearfully eyeing the ceiling. When it died down, he turned his head to Buffy. "Not so alone, I see."

There were Orders that continued to disagree, but Book's stance was, He had plenty more pressing matters that needed tending, rather than spending His hours telling people whom and how to love. That people chose to love, no matter what its form, instead of treading the other path, was all He cared about. Yet, there remained nothing Book could do where formal ceremonies were concerned.

"No." She replied, triggering her and Kaylee's blushes, which they hid by turning their attention to using their chopsticks. Kaylee was more successful.

Geez, if she weren't so happy, she'd kick her own ass for being this moony. It was like she was seventeen again...only Kaylee wasn't an undead vampire whose mass-murdering habits got her cursed with a soul, and who she'd eventually have to bury a sword into to save the world. Otherwise, yeah, this was exactly like being seventeen. If she'd had a normal life.

"Congratulations." Zoë said sincerely, knowing how those first, few months were, and seeing those memories echoed in their faces.

Love was hard to find out here, and being one of the lucky who had, she gladly encouraged the budding relationship on display. Of course, the true, litmus test would come after the first fight. How much did they care? But it was too soon for that. For Kaylee's sake, she hoped it went well. She took Buffy to be loyal.


"And if you ever need advice," Wash said after his wife, "don't ask me. Most of the time I don't know what the hell I'm doing. There's usually a lot of praying that I don't screw up horribly."

Chuckles spread down the table.

"I'm a big advocate of that myself." Book commented.

"Praying, or screwing up?" Wash wondered, jokingly. "Because if it's the second thing? You were a smart man to avoid marriage, Shepherd."

Kaylee and Buffy both leaned forward to offer their thanks, and Kaylee noticed that Simon was picking at his rice, not looking at them. Discreetly, River kicked her brother under the table, causing wincing. It took him a second to remember where he was, but he got with the program, and gave the mechanic a smile that said while there was clearly regret, he was happy for her.

Buffy still couldn't handle the chopsticks.

Mal, at the head of the table, drank from his cup before speaking to them himself. "Well, tomorrow, if you two can pry yourselves apart and ease on the branding," The blushing resumed, "I'd like to start talkin' tactics with Buffy, if she don't mind."

"I don't." Buffy told him, sitting up straighter.

She'd never "followed" before, but she couldn't lead here. Not only did she have zero right, she was also still out of her depth when it came to this universe. And she liked not being in charge, honestly.

"I ain't made no decision yet, but if there's nothing pays much at Persephone, we could hafta knock on Badger's door." He explained, much to the chagrin of all present, save Buffy, who had that problem of being out of her depth. "With you, that makes four of us goin' to visit. Four means a different setup. We gotta suss out how it's gonna be, and work it right, 'cause frankly? It's my {fondest wish in the whole of the known universe,} that that man fall a notch or two, and maybe think twice about climbing again." This, everyone liked. "You'll go a mighty long way toward helping it happen, and gettin' us a proper percent. Sit fine with that?"

"Absolutely." She wasn't a freeloader. She was crew now, and she'd live up to that.

However, third attempt with the chopsticks? Not the charm.

Happy to hear that, Mal took a bite of food. "Oh, and Kaylee better not be kept from her work when it needs doing."

"Never." The girls unintentionally echoed, and Buffy just gave up on ever eating, dropping the chopsticks on her plate. Luckily, no one noticed the battle.

He smiled behind a closed fist as he coughed. "Uh, Kaylee? Possible I'm wrong, but wouldn't the girlfriend-ly thing to do, be t'grab the woman a spoon so she can eat her supper free'a struggle?"

Strike that--someone noticed.

"A...? Oh! Right, Cap'n."


They volunteered to clean up, and once finished, they spent the remainder of their date on one of the couches in the kitchen lounge, occasionally joining Book, Jayne, and Zoë for hands of Long Pai, while Wash stood away, pretending he was secretly helping his wife to cheat, and getting away with it. When the preacher went to retire, Simon dealt himself in. And like a patriarch, Mal looked on, nursing a cup of coffee a while, River drawing next to him at the table.

Buffy, for her part, soaked up the atmosphere, contentedly relishing it. She knew by flying with them, that more or less meant she was seen as "the criminal element" (a wide, flimsy lump of a category), but that wasn't a new experience. But would she be able to kill, if there were no other choice? A human being? A sure way to bring down the mood, she saved that moral quandary for the future.

When they both grew tired, she escorted Kaylee to the decorated hatch of her bunk.

"I had a great time." Kaylee said, pushing the ladder back so she could climb down.

"Me too." Buffy concurred, her voice low. "I didn't even mind the crowded."

"Breakfast's are usually quieter. Everybody doesn't all gather." Kaylee whispered, mostly because Buffy had. "Meaning if you want..."

"A second date? Nine hours after?" Buffy exaggerated her surprise. "That's just wacky." Then she smiled. "But what the heck. Hasn't been traditional yet, anyway."

"{Good answer.} 'Cause I wanna get to pull out a chair."

Laughing into a mild kiss--in comparison with their 29 others today--they officially ended their evening. They could survive without the sexual. Besides, they didn't want to seem easy after one date.

"Good night, Kaylee."

"'Night, Buffy."

As Kaylee went below, Buffy went to her dorm. Sitting on her bed was a drawing she assumed sketched by River earlier. It didn't reach Angel's art, but then, River probably wasn't looking to get that detailed. It was of her, hair still blonde and holding a scythe, surrounded by a mass of blackness. A closer look and she could see grotesque visages hiding within. Hands reached for her.

Holding the picture, she sat and stared. Was this River's way of confirming that yes, she was psychic? Or was she trying to tell her that she couldn't pretend her nightmares never happened? Whatever her intent, Buffy knew the girl was leaving the reveal up to her. But all it would do was make her look crazy.

She turned the picture over. Written on the back was: "Don't worry."


In her bunk, Kaylee had been anxiously awaiting an answer to her wave, when Inara Serra's face appeared:


"Hi, Inara! You'll never guess what..."


Chapter 3

Title: About Trust

[Author's notes:



"Much obliged." Mal said into the vid camera on the bridge, where he stood with Buffy. It was 11:30 in the morning, and outside the ship was the bustle of Eavesdown Docks.

"It's always a pleasure accommodating you and yours, Mal," The tiny bit eccentric Mr. Universe said from his compound, throwing a grin Buffy's way, "especially when they're as comely as the new, 'Miss Dawn Rosen-Giles LaVelle.' How *do* you find such pretty out there on the border?" He then called over his shoulder to his bot, "But of course, you're the prettiest in all the lands, Lenore."

Buffy visibly shuddered for personal reasons, and couldn't even make a Poe joke. And she was thinking she should've stuck to a simpler alias.

"Yeah, well," Mal cleared his throat, wanting to end this, "we gotta be off..."

"Don't we all? Busy, busy, busy, never a moment to rest." Mr. Universe sighed. "Vigilance does have its price. Keep your eyes open and your mind free, my friend." He advised, ending their communication with a wink.

"Seems like a guy with one phobia too many." She said to her captain, once the screen was blank. "Or just a stir-crazy, pervert hermit."

"Man can skitter from his own shadow and have tiny, robot younglings, long as he keeps his end." Mal removed the now "legit" ident card from the nav computer's reader, which Mr. Universe hacked into to upload the data. "He owed us for a thing, so this was an even trade of services. Had mine since I first took Serenity to air, and Alliance ain't never gotten wise." He handed it over. "Means *if* Badger meets you and sees all's in order? He won't have cause to alert the Feds."

She followed in step with him down the corridor, pocketing the ident card. They had a stash of blanks from which hers came--black market wholesale, Jayne said. "Just so I'm totally clear, the last time you took a job from...Badger," She would've chosen "Jackal," but whatever, "he set you up."

"Last twice, in actual fact." Mal amended. "First time we had some competition, but the job was real enough. Second was more your standard, out'n'out ambush."

"Uh huh. And before you went to the ambush, you dropped him miles from anywhere, as payback for screwing you over that first time." She said, as they turned to go down the stairs to the cargo bay, her moving behind.

"I was annoyed a touch." He said, looking at the largeness of his bay and never ever getting tired of it. On the middle landing, before the last staircase to the floor, he turned to look at her. "And it was funny."

They walked down the final staircase. "Which probably pissed him off, which means he'll probably kill you as soon as--" Buffy was about to finish.

"Which's why you're playin' a part." He reminded, completing the descent to the bay floor. "If ya can't handle it, best tell me now."

"I didn't say that." Buffy frowned, slightly offended. "I was only after clarity. Of back-story."


"I'm crystal. Sir."

He nodded at her, and she joined Jayne in the center of the bay, as the mercenary loaded his sniper rifle. Seeing her, he removed a blade from his belt.

"Have a dislike of knives, too?" Was his way of offering her the weapon, even though he still had his doubts, elbow-breaker or no.

"Nope." Unsheathing it from the protective holder, she felt the considerable weight in her hand. "Kinda...big, isn't it?" Unnecessarily so.

"I like 'big.'"

She didn't say a word.


When Mal entered the common area, River was on the couch, Simon arguing with her. Noticing the captain's entrance, she approached him with a determined look he wasn't used to. He might have taken a step back. Might have. He'd never cop to it if questioned.

"I can chase the weasel's family from the burrow before its bristles rise." River informed, as if that was supposed to mean something to him. "I'm going with her," She added, angry at herself when she saw that it meant nothing.

"Persephone's Core, girl, you know that. Wrong person's eye rests on ya too long, and hurt won't trail far behind, I expect." He didn't know if logic would get through to her, but it was all he had. "And Jayne's already--"

"He'll be loud and stupid." She interrupted, dismissing the agreed upon plan. "If he doesn't come into the burrow too, it's going to eat us all anyway--can't adapt to change." Her gaze was knowing. Since Early, he'd thought about this but pushed it aside because of the danger; he wasn't desperate enough yet. "But we'll mice with wings. Promise." She smiled like a little girl about to have her way.

"River, no. Absolutely not." Simon objected when Mal's opportunity passed, beginning to sound like a broken record. His sister mouthed his words as he said them, mocking his standard response. "It's just...the risk is much too...and you..." 'Need protection,' he thought, producing a glower from her. "There's no reason you have to leave the ship. Buffy will be fine, mei-mei."

"Why wouldn't she be?" Kaylee asked concernedly, her eyes finding River as she came down the steps beside the infirmary, in front of Zoë.

"I'm going." River said again, looking back at Kaylee. "You can take care of me later, Simon. It's okay." She turned to Mal. "Right, Captain?"

She didn't wait for an affirmative; she just went into the cargo bay. Kaylee followed after, repeating her question, "Why wouldn't she be? Plan's wú xiè kě jī. Ain't it?"

Simon was silently pleading with Mal. But the ex-sergeant had to agree that not having Jayne walk through the door with he and Zoë would make Badger edgy. River proved to him that she could focus when it became absolutely necessary, and provided she was as capable as she claimed, changing the plan could only help.

"It's her choice." He spoke to his medic, holding his hands up. "Your sister's her own person, Doctor. A little disordered, won't deny that, but sometimes I can't help thinkin' maybe it's us that're the crazy ones." His hands found Simon's shoulders. "Wouldn't concern myself if I were you--said she's just gonna float."

"Like a mouse. With wings." Simon said unhappily, wondering why that only seemed to bother him.

"See there? Rest easy now." Mal smiled, leaving him to walk beside Zoë into the cargo bay.  

The war vets stood a few feet removed from the trio of females--Kaylee, Buffy, and River--catching each other up on the altered scenario. When the girlfriends kissed and exchanged words of comfort and assurances, the psychic's eyes closed like their feelings were drifting over her. There was also an understanding between Buffy and River that Mal couldn't quite figure.

"You sure it's wise, sir? Trusting River to this?" Zoë asked, looking on with him.

"Well, you know, I looked hard, but none of the places in the middle are really that attractive." He said, and she very nearly smirked. "She may be broke, but coddlin' ain't what she needs. She could use a little trust." His voice lowered. "I gotta know, Zoë. Cause if she can be a benefit, and she's willing? Mind reader's a nice advantage to have."

"And if she gets caught?"

Mal frowned. "We're...there'll be..." He couldn't come up with a good reply. "Try to think positive." Now she smirked. "What about you? Never seen you accept someone fast as you have Buffy. Hell, it took six months 'fore your hand stopped going to your holster every time Wash entered a room."

"She has my respect. She was an asset back on Dakota, she follows orders, she's been good for Kaylee, and she hasn't tried to kill anyone. And whatever her past is, it's not seeming to interfere with us." Zoë corrected, and explained why. "After today, if she comes through, and we all survive? She might get my trust."

"But still--" He wasn't letting go of his "Wash" example.

"Different circumstance, sir." She foresaw his counter, addressed it, and moved on. "You think Book'll find what he's looking for this time?"

"'Verse is full of people waitin' to be saved from themselves." Mal answered but didn't, silently hoping Book was unsuccessful. "'If we survive'? What happened to positive?"

The preacher still intended to leave, and had been out and about for hours now, likely spending time with his fellow preachers and trying to learn whether or not there was some poor, lost border community in need of one. Then he would be gone, too. Same as Inara, like they were never here.


Wash was just now returning with supplies aboard their new, hover-mule, bought easily from the Lassiter profits. Once they convinced Fanty and Mingo to fence it.  Mal had begun going to them on Beaumonde for work, something that was sure to be another aggravation for Badger, as he and the twins were competitors. Mal would've gone to them again, but the arrangement was that they contacted him when there was work to be had, which there wasn't.

So instead he had to go beg Badger for scraps. Or, typically when in this position he would. Perhaps though, the tide could change for the better. Depending upon Buffy and River. His gut told him it was wise, even if everything else didn't.

He and Zoë went to her husband, their faces expectant. "There's a guy watching the docks." Wash confirmed for them. "And I can't be a hundred percent sure, but I coulda sworn somebody was watching the whole time. Everywhere I went." He pulled down the back of his collar, exposing his neck. "Are they standing up? 'Cause they feel like they're standing up." His wife rubbed his back comfortingly. "I promise never to complain about staying with the ship again...{that deeply unsettled even the nerves of the Almighty}."

Everyone else in the bay had gathered around them, and Mal spoke to Kaylee, who held her girlfriend close. "Know I said otherwise, but that's why I couldn't have you two off shopping, dong ma?" His eyes shifted to Buffy. "She'da been spotted comin' off this boat, and blown any shot at surprise."

"Oh yeah," The pilot remembered, talking to Buffy, "I didn't know what to buy exactly, so I went for 'functional' and 'unisex.'" He spoke of the clothes he'd purchased for her. "Hope it's all, uh," Cough, "...appropriate." Embarrassed, he didn't know how to finish that.

Had to do with being male.

She smiled at him. "Thanks, Wash."

"Jayne, you're with me and Zoë." Mal told his mercenary, who was plainly thrown by this new wrinkle in the setup, but said nothing. And to his secret weapons, "We hafta sneak you and River past the--"

Hearing the "R-word" moved Jayne to speech. "We're takin' *her*?"

"She's taking herself." River clarified for him. "And the ones underneath." Then she stared impatiently at Kaylee.

Kaylee, nor anyone else, could work out what she expected, so Buffy took a stab. "Is there a hatch or," She tapped her foot on the floor, "some way out down there?"

The mechanic had what in Sunnydale would've been called a "duh" moment, and then fetched the keypad that sat on the crate at her side, careful not to tangle anybody up in its wire. Wash caught on too, and reversed the Mule. Pushing a button, Kaylee opened the first set of "belly doors," then the second, showing the few feet between the ground and Serenity. The sounds of Persephone were loud.

River wasted no time in sitting and swinging her legs over the side. "Count down from nine-hundred."

Simon came into the bay just in time to see her dropping down. Buffy copied her, but not before saying, "Be back soon," to a worried Kaylee, and telling her to close up once she was flat to the ground.

"Good plan," Mal said quietly, newly confident. Then to his crew, "C'mon, let's give Badger's man something to see while they get clear." He, Jayne, and Zoë started for the ramp. "And one'a you better be counting."

"Why for?" Jayne asked, still short a card or two.

"Because zero's," His captain explained, "when we're supposed to head out and play our usual part." Beat. "I think."

Hushed grumble, "Girl's givin' orders?"

That left mechanic, doctor and pilot by themselves, and for the first time, Kaylee understood what Simon and Wash felt every time the person they loved stepped foot off the boat. Not that what she felt for Buffy was the same--certainly not in Simon's case--but three weeks of dates at the dining table and kissing and holding were getting her closer. Unfortunately, however, intimacy was not any closer.

No, not just sex, intimacy. Soon as it looked like a barrier was about to fall, Buffy got scared or cold feet or something. One second they'd be right there with each other and then it would stop. Shyness wasn't the cause or lack of wanting either...whatever the cause, Buffy didn't trust her with it. She kept waiting for her to, but as much as Buffy opened up, she hadn't yet let go.

It was sort of like it had been with Simon, only it seemed to hurt more. Partly because she couldn't understand what kept her distant. She didn't know what to do, and now Buffy was going off into danger, and there was always a chance she wouldn't be upright when Kaylee saw her next.


"It's getting harder to make them sleep. Not going to last." River enlightened her temporary partner, not waiting for an answer. "When the monsters wake up rested, you'll wish you hadn't." She said as they melded in with the crowd. "They're already shadows, hovering over us." Her eyes scanned the tops of the massive, rectangular, stacked shipping containers, almost disconnected from her words. "Still time to go into the open. Monsters have no power there...suns take it away."

Buffy sighed, seeing once again that the girl wasn't to be underestimated. That was a mix of personal advice and situational commentary, all rolled up into one, obtuse package. "So *that's* why you're here. Sneaky."

"Also, Kaylee'll cry if a bullet tunnels through your brain." River said offhandedly, leaving the stream of people when they got to the path that led to Badger's.

The slayer felt her stomach drop. "'If' meaning, not specifically written in stone, or in any way for sure. At least not today, because you'd see if it was. That kind of 'if'?"

"Ssh." Immediately after turning down it, the psychic led them both quickly over to a group of containers, and crouched. This was it. "Trap's waiting."

It took Buffy a second to see what River did, but the suns helped her out. Directly above them, lying prone atop the containers under tarp, was a sniper. She could see the glint of his rifle. And farther along the path on the right side, sat another grouping of containers, and another glint caught her eye. Mal, Jayne and Zoë were going to be picked off.  But there was something missing.

"Where's the cheese?" Buffy wondered, searching ground level.

It didn't take long; the large gun at his side was the tip off. The dreadlocked man, Strode, was Badger's most imposing muscle. He was also the appointed greeter to anyone who wanted an audience with his boss, so his being there wouldn't look out of place. Perfect bait. The girls nodded in agreement at one another, and then horror found its way into River's expressive, brown eyes.

"Blood bubbling up. Tries to find a way out, but it comes too fast and all at once; lungs can't expand, can't contract. They choke on themselves." River's hands went to her throat as she was suddenly mentally and emotionally incapacitated. "Before was worse. So many slices. Skin peeled back like an orange. Again and again." Her eyes teared up, as she drug her fingers like a claw across her forearm. Buffy pulled the girl to her, part for comfort, part to block others' views, because she'd be attracting attention soon. "Wéi shén me? Wéi shén me {is this happening}? Bǎo cún wǒ {from seeing what I see}!"

This was Buffy's first exposure to River when she wasn't just being...not straightforward with her words. This was her being assaulted by either a vision of the future, or at that man's thoughts. Attempting optimism, she guessed the latter. "River, listen to me. I don't know how the 'psychic' thing works, but whatever you're picking up--"

"Everybody dying." River hauntingly spoke. "Dark eyes grin while he watches."

Uh oh. "We're not letting that happen. But I need you to push him out, okay? Use what you saw, what he wants to do, and get mad. Make it help you stay focused." What else could she say? Oh. Yeah. "Remember Dakota, when you pretty much said you could show me up?" She sensed a smile. "Prove it."

When River looked at her, she was in control again. "Oldest girl in all the worlds; ancient end of an ancient line...born to strength and skill within and without." Her smile turned sympathetic. "For surviving. That's why Hell couldn't keep you."

"Now get outta my head." The slayer requested, uncomfortable. "Jiā yóu...didn't give us much time. They're gonna be coming soon."


"Made!" Kaylee cursed from beneath the engine. She slid out from underneath, threw the cutters at the entrance way, and sucked on her finger where the cut was.

Wash, who always made it a point to stay at the ship's controls while a job was in progress (his wife had left thirty-seven seconds ago) just in case, heard the expletive, though faintly, from the bridge. He made his way back to her, and when he got there, she was sitting on the floor, legs straight out, frustrated and still nursing her wound. He picked up her discarded tool from the ground.

He joined her, speaking lightly. "Okay, if I give these back," He showed her the cutters, "do you promise not to hurl them at any more space ghosts? Because I've heard many a tale in many a bar, from many a barfly, about the wrath of angry spirits--tain't pretty." She looked at him, amusedly curious. "You get pantsed. Doesn't matter where you are, oh no. In front of loved ones, casual acquaintances, Feds...and you never live a 'public pantsing' down. Take it from a guy who knows."

The mechanic laughed, taking her tool back and fiddling with it in her hand. When the laughter stopped, the smile was still there, but smaller. "Guess I just feel wound."

"Welcome to the club. Meetings are on Tuesdays and every other Friday." He joked. "This is great 'cause, meeting with myself was starting to turn really one-sided."

"Wash, how can you...?" Kaylee began, but then decided to say it differently. "How're ya able to see Zoë off? S'only my once so far, but I think my stomach's already jumpier than when that Reaver ship had a long look over at us." She admitted, restless. "I hate worryin'."

"Can't argue the general feeling of 'Wow, this is crappy', but you gotta like having a special person of your very own to worry about." He was well aware that she did. "I hafta think Zoë'll make it back safe. That Mal and Jayne won't let anything happen to her. Else I'd go wackier than River." He revealed to her honestly, sighing at the end. "Usually my brain gets to hear all that on a nice, numbing loop till she walks up the ramp. Or till the headache kicks in, whichever comes first. It's like a race."

"But Buffy don't have Jayne and the captain. Or Zoë. Least not yet. She's just got River...and they didn't even take no guns with 'em." Kaylee rambled, allowing it all to spill out. "Bullet won't care how strong she is; it'll find her and hit somethin' bad. And Simon's here so he can't tend to her if she's hurt, and by when he did, she could be past savin'. Quick as we met, she's gone, with me still hardly knowin' a thing of her. 'Cause for a reason I ain't allowed to have, she's afraid to trust me, even though she said opposite." She complained, and then asked with sweet, honest uncertainty, "Am I scary?"

"Eight-week old puppies, curled up in a tiny ball *sleeping*, are scarier than you." Wash was trying not to laugh at the fact she felt she had to ask. "So I'm picking 'no.' Except when you're mad." Hmm, well... "But y'know, compared to my wife? Not so much then, either." Zoë won that contest every, single time. "What do you mean you don't know anything about her? We all know you girls, uh, like to stick close, and wei, favorite pastime," He raised his hand, and someone blushed, "but you're telling me, in three weeks, you haven't covered the basics?" Kaylee's eyebrows rose. "Favorite color."

"Violet." Buffy had sworn that her color choice had nothing to do with her political views.

"Aha." Wash declared, having exposed and laid the truth bare. "Friends? Family? Goldfish?" Nodding, her look said, "I get it." "I'd leave bald-faced fibbing to the King of Londinium. Sad to say? It doesn't quite work for ya."

It's true that she had learned a lot about her girlfriend. She'd had a mother and father named Hank and Joyce, who divorced when Buffy was fifteen. Joyce died from a brain problem five years later. She had a sister named Dawn, and best friends named Willow and Xander. She used to love to ice skate. Her favorite fruit was watermelon. Kaylee knew lots, but they were little, mostly safe things.

"But they're all dead, Wash." At this reveal, the pilot wore his perfected, "Whaaaaa?" face. "Uh huh. Not a one alive. And she won't tell me what happened. If it was Reavers attacked, if they fell sick...I don't know what world she grew on, where she was taught at, if she even *went* to school, why she had no place on Hera, which is how come the Alliance bound her, there's these scars on her neck...

She was exhausted by it all. "And I can't remember what watermelon tastes like, and it don't make any kinda sense."

There was a lapse in the conversation as Wash absorbed all he'd heard. "Forgetting the fruit reference, because that's sorta," His hand whished overtop his head, signaling that it was, um, over his head, "sure *you* aren't the one who's...?" She opened her mouth to shoot that down, but he kept going. "Maybe it isn't about trust, Kaylee. Buffy might think, after hearing what you wanna hear, you will be scared. That you'll run screaming into the Black, and die a cold, yet twinkly and floaty, death."

"Buffy's a chuin-zi, then." Kaylee said flatly, annoyed. "I wouldn't. I'm more'n just sweet on her, and I *wouldn't* matter what's before."

"You know that, and I know that, but the problem? She's a lot like Mal and Zoë. I've been married to a warrior woman long enough to be able to read the signs, and most are right here." Wash went on to say, two fingers in a "V-shape" pointed at his eyes. He was getting at the heart of the matter. "Yeah, she carries herself different, but she's been through somethin'. First guess would be the War, but since Mal apparently knows every vet we run into, doubt she was officially in the ranks."

She tried to follow where he was going. "But the Cap'n and Zoë've told a buncha stories. She's heard 'em; she's seen I weren't scared."

"There're others, though. From before she knew Mal. That *he* hasn't heard of. But I have, and they're...even worse fun." This was one of the very rare times that she'd seen Wash so disturbed as to not bring in a little brevity. "As much as I hate the stories, when she's gotta tell one, to let it out, I listen." Pause. "For a while, it was a gāo pofù shān to climb between us, because it wasn't just wanting not to scare--she didn't wanna relive it. Who would?" He didn't blame his wife for being reluctant. "But talking about it helps her be the sane woman I love and share a bunk with, and I had to show her it was okay. That I was ready to help her through the tough." A sudden fear found him, then. "And if she knew I was spilling parts of our swell, private life together, even in overview? I'd be a dead man."

"I'll never even let on we chatted." Kaylee promised, thinking about what he said, and there was sense in it. Something to finally latch onto. "So if that's how Buffy feels, I shouldn't push."

He stood up, stretched his legs, and then brought her with him. "Only if it looks like she's holding back on purpose. Then do whatever you have to get it out of her. She'll thank you later, and next time'll be easier." He had one, last piece of knowledge to impart. "But you better prepare yourself for whatever's gonna be said. First reaction's key."

She didn't say anything to that, just took it in--could she be what Buffy needed her to be?

"Enough about our perfectly fine, injury-free women." Wash declared, leading her into the hall and toward the bridge. "Right now the one thing in this 'Verse that's gonna make the waiting bearable--well actually, they're four--are all pre-prehistoric. But also plastic and toy-sized, which means they can't eat and/or maim us." He gave her a thumbs up.

When they were sitting down and preparing to dino-battle, Simon unexpectedly popped his head in. And the rest of his body. He had a hopeful smile. "Is there, um, room for one more?"


"How did...?" Even after it was all over, Buffy was still rendered speechless by this move she saw River pull off, perched above Strode, legs planted between two crates in a narrow passage, was cool. "How'd you do that if you're not a slayer? You're more flexible than me."

"Said I was better." River grinned, tying the third sniper's hands with packing twine as he lay unconscious on the roof of the shipping containers that held Badger's lair.

"Are not." Came the argument, though it wasn't her best.

"Are too." The seventeen-year-old stuck out her tongue. "Don't need magick powers. Just have to calculate."

"They're not magick powers!" Buffy blew up at her, and then realized how quiet she wasn't. "It's...mystical."

River's face clearly spoke, "Come *on*." "Has the same meaning."

"See, a lot of people make that mistake, but--"


Not again. A tired groan forced its way out of Buffy. "What now?" She looked over the side. Mal, Jayne, and Zoë were coming. "Oh. Good."

When the trio reached the beginning of the covered passage that led to Badger, and saw the trio of restrained thugs waiting for them, Buffy rolled the one River just finished with, down to them with her foot. Jayne almost didn't catch him, and then unceremoniously dropped him to the ground. By the time her crewmates looked up, she was out of sight.

"It me, or is Christmas a mite early this year?" Mal asked the two flanking him, very amused and very happy that a plan, while technically not his, actually gorram worked.

Even Jayne had a grin.

"Gift-wrapped and everything, Cap'n." Zoë added, but choosing not to express.

All right, Buffy had her trust.

"Thoughtful." The merc grunted.

Badger and the two protectors he had inside with him, came rushing out after hearing the movement above them and a voice they didn't recognize (a.k.a. Buffy's little outburst). The left flank rushed right into the butt of Zoë's shotgun; the right flank had the barrel of Jayne's gun pressed between his eyes. Leaving Badger's options very dried out.

"Afternoon, Badger." Mal greeted amicably, letting the little man sweat for several seconds. "So...bygones?"

Back up top, the girls were working their way down the backside, so as never to be seen by the "crime boss." They helped each other descend, crate by crate.

"You have to or you'll lose her like Simon." River told her as they went, speaking of Kaylee and echoing the words she wrote on the back of that drawing. "Don't worry. She wants to help."

"I know, River." Buffy didn't want to hide from Kaylee, it was just chilling, the thought of going back. Then having to tell her she was five-hundred-years old...but she would.

Today had a couple close calls (luckily she hadn't had to make a decision whether or not to end any lives), but there would be a job where she might get killed during, and if she did having not been completely honest with her, she'd hate herself in the afterlife. And who knew where she'd end up this time? Oh, this was going to suck.

Their feet were touching earth. "And if the monsters stay too long where it's dark," River touched Buffy's forehead, "you won't be able to find them anymore; they'll make you like me." River said, with a little self-pity. "I'm crazy enough for everyone."

Buffy squeezed her hand--the poor girl. But it wasn't time to wallow. "Well, you better not use that as an excuse for why you joked about someone, namely me, being shot in the head. I'm really not a fan of 'psychic' humor."

There was that face again. "If I didn't come behind--"

"Huh? I don't know which stealth operation you were at, but, I was so--"

"Were not."

"Were too."


Buffy and River were already back onboard, as was Book, when Mal, Jayne, and Zoë returned. They were all in the cargo bay, waiting for the family to be whole again, before splitting to do their own things. Simon was back to hovering over River, not registering the fact that she had done what she set out to do. He only saw that she was here, sheltered--one step forward and two steps back. What would it take for him not to see her as some porcelain breakable?

Kaylee was with her girlfriend, sitting on a crate by the siblings, and just, for the moment, enjoying being back in the other's company. Book was chatting with Wash, when Zoë and Mal approached.

"Set us for Bernadette." The captain said, once husband and wife had kissed.

Wash nodded his okay, and he and Zoë headed for the bridge as Book spoke to Mal. "From here, that route ought to take us past Haven, if I'm remembering correct."

"Somethin' I need to know?" Mal asked, his good mood dampened. The shepherd walked with him back towards the infirmary, where the people he had to thank were, and now preoccupied, he would've passed them by, if Kaylee hadn't cleared her throat. "Good work." And that was it.

"Should we feel praised or underappreciated?" Buffy wondered.

"He's plenty grateful." Kaylee spoke for her captain, not wanting there to be any tension among anyone. "Just caught him in a state, is all."

As Jayne closed up, Buffy made a decision. "We'll be in her bunk."

This got both men's attentions.

"Not like that." River cleared up, shaking her head. "Boys."

She smiled at Buffy, who smiled back and returned to Jayne his sheathed knife, with a somewhat slayer-powered toss to make up the distance.


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