Story: After Present's Passed (chapter 3)

Authors: Pat Kelly

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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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