Story: After Present's Passed (chapter 2)

Authors: Pat Kelly

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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..."


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