Story: After Present's Passed (chapter 1)

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.


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