At the Edge of Darkness
by Charlotte C. Hill and Farad
Universe: crossover with Firefly/Serenity, set in that universe called The Margaret May
Pairings: Chris/Buck, Josiah/Vin; in addition-and offscreen for the most part-JD/Casey, Josiah/Inez, Nathan/Rain, Jayne Cobb and a professional woman, Kaylee Frye and a very nice man she picked up in a bar. Visits from Serenity crew members Mal Reynolds, Zoe Alleyne-Washburne, Kaylee Frye, and Jayne Cobb
Warnings: slash, a tiny little bit of rough sex, religious themes, prophecy, Firefly darkness
Authors Notes: special thanks to Dail and Megan who struggled through the early drafts in search of elusive coherency and questionable plot, and to Mardi. Thanks also to all of the people who helped us better see the story, so we could take one more pass at it and hopefully make it shine: Megan, Dail, Mardi, Van, EJ, Jen, Fritti, and everybody else I'm sure we missed.

Persephone, the slums outside Eavesdown Docks

The cell was cold and dark and stank of piss and vomit and unclean people--like any other cell on any other world he'd had the displeasure to visit.

Chris leaned back against the wall, his head throbbing from something--a chair? Table? Something that one of the Alliance loyalists had slammed into him. Fucking Unification Day.

Buck was probably laughing his ass off out there somewhere, the son of a bitch. They'd been in the same bar, drinking the same cheap rotgut that the ignorant bartender called whiskey, when the Alliance whoredog had called for a toast to unification. Chris had never and would never raise a glass to the day the Alliance had officially and finally broken the rebellion and ended the war, even with the amnesty the Alliance had supposedly offered the browncoats who'd fought against the central government. Piss on the central government, in his opinion. And Buck had been right there, maybe not as enthusiastic about rejecting the toast, rolling his eyes a little and trying to get Chris to ignore it, but when the first punch had been thrown, he'd been giving as good as he got.

Up until the point that they got separated, and Chris had been put down by a gorram chair, or table, or whatever the hell it had been. He lifted his hand, probing gently at the sensitive spot on the side of his head. He'd been halfway to unconsciousness, which was the only reason the fucking cops had pinched him. Buck had gotten away clean. Damn him. Usually Chris was the one fishing Buck out of jail when gou shi like this happened.

The holding cells were small, but that didn't stop the locals from cramming as many men as possible into each one. Oddly, though, he seemed to have lucked out. It was just him and one other guy in this one.

Of course, he had ended up with a pacer, someone who couldn't sit still, who seemed nervous in the confines of a cell.

He wasn't the only one bothered by the pacing. From a nearby cell, he heard someone yell, "Sit down, Sweet-Ass, you're getting on my nerves."

He wasn't terribly surprised that his cell-mate ignored the other man. He was a little surprised to see the lips moving though, as if the guy were talking to himself.

Great, a kuangzhe de. No wonder he was alone in here. Not even the locals would throw a schizo into a crowded cell--nobody wanted to clean up the mess. He sighed, wishing he could close his eyes again, but he didn't think that was a good idea.

Damn Buck. He better get here soon.

The guy was moving slow, which was good--at least he wasn't hyped up. Good looking--Buck would appreciate him--with long hair tied back in some sort of rag, lank and knotted. The rest of the man was almost as dirty, his short-sleeved undershirt smeared with things Chris didn't want to think about, his work pants about the same, even though it was harder to tell as they were a darker color. He wore work boots as well, and they looked to be in pretty good shape, thick-soled and broken in.

That more than anything made him take a closer look at his cellmate.

He carried himself like a fighter, maybe even a good one, muscular and lean, bulkier than Chris but not as big as Buck. He was muttering to himself, just loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough for the words to be clear. Blue eyes, bright and clear, checked out every thing around him, moving steadily back and forth like an electronic scanner.

Faking it? Maybe, Chris thought, and he had to give the guy some credit. Good way to get a cell to himself. And if he was faking it, he was damned good. Almost too good.

It really wasn't fair, it shoulda been Buck here with the pretty psycho, not him.

" here soon," the pacer mumbled, just a little louder. He had reached the corner of the cell and was turning back now, his eyes alert and interested as they met Chris's. "Ain't no time at all, you just relax and your partner will get you out." His voice was still low, the words uninflected, as if he was reciting a prayer, but the certainty in the eyes that met his so squarely made Chris shiver.

"You talking to me?" he asked, hard.

The eyes drifted on away, taking on a vagueness that Chris had been expecting. The muttering continued, quieter now.

He waited, watching, growing more curious as the minutes passed and the guy continued his patrol, muttering continuously, watching everything. It was weird; sometimes his eyes seemed sharp and alert, at other times, they went hazy and unfocused. Two people maybe, a real schizo.

The second time he passed close, Chris sat forward and murmured, "Who's coming?"

The blue eyes flickered to him, focused, then the volume rose just a little. "Buck? Your husband," he said, like it was a question, and Chris felt a chill that he hoped to hell had to do with his sore head. He could've mumbled Buck's name as he came awake; he often did. But he rarely even thought about their contract. The guy glanced out the cell bars toward the clock mounted above the sealed door that led to the front offices. "Be here in thirteen minutes."

The number was just odd enough to get his attention. "Thirteen minutes?"

The guy didn't blink, didn't crack a smile. "Twelve, now." He paced by, his steps as even and smooth as they had been from the start. The little hairs on the back of Chris's neck tried to rise, and the throbbing in the back of his head worsened.

"Sit down, freak!" someone called from nearby, and something loud clanged against the bars of the cell.

Chris stiffened instinctively at the affront, then winced when the movement made the throbbing worse. He glanced at his cellmate, annoyed that the guy kept pacing undeterred. "Would you slow down? He hits those bars again my brain's going to explode."

"All he has to do is ask," the guy said, cold-voiced as he stared attentively through the cell bars at whoever stood on the other side. Damned creepy.

The guy paced a little while longer, and Chris watched him, the way he moved. Easy, unafraid, still unhurried, his balance forward on the balls of his feet. He'd trained somewhere, with someone good. He was muttering again, acting the part, maybe, and Chris was sure now that it was an act. Well. Pretty sure.

He leaned forward when the guy came near enough to hear a whisper. "You faking all this?" he asked.

The stranger stopped and looked down at him, smiled at him like they were friends, and said, "Yeah."

Chris nodded, happy to be right. Then he felt his face harden. "How do you know about Buck?"

The smile turned a little coy, a lot amused. "I wanted my own cell," he barely breathed, "but that don't mean I ain't crazy, too."

A reluctant grin tugged at the corners of Chris's mouth, and when the guy smiled back, Chris decided he liked him. Anybody who thought that kind of joke was funny, he'd probably get along with.

"Name's Vin, by the way," he said, and started walking again, and Chris relaxed back against the wall to wait. The quiet mumbles, never recognizable-never loud enough to be-kept up, a quiet, steady cadence that relaxed him like distant music, right in time with his quiet footfalls, over and away, over and away like a tide. Vin rounded the corner again, even steps, arms flexed, hands in his pockets--and stopped.

The sudden lack of motion drew Chris instantly upright. He looked around, searching for whatever had gotten his cellmate's attention.

But the guy's eyes were closed, long lashes lying still on the sharp bones of his cheeks. He was so still that Chris wondered if something really was wrong with him, but just as he reached out, thinking to touch one tanned arm, the guy blinked and his head shifted, his eyes catching Chris's. "Time's up," he announced, his voice a little louder than it had been, loud enough for Chris to hear the rasp in it, the twang of an accent he couldn't place.

"What?" he asked.

The guy arched one eye brow, and for the first time in minutes, he showed some expression. His lips quirked slightly into a grin as he answered, "Buck's here." Chris stared at him, disbelieving, and the man looked pointedly at the clock outside their cell. "It's time."

Numbly, Chris glanced at it--it was about right, he couldn't swear to the minute as he hadn't looked when the guy had called it at thirteen.

Before he could say that though, the klaxon blared and the large metal doors that segregated the cells from the rest of the building started to rumble, then whine as they parted. Three men came through, two locals in front, one with his baton drawn and held tightly in his meaty fist, the other more relaxed, almost bored as he yelled, "Larabee! Answer up!" Behind them, smiling brightly, Buck ambled along as if he didn't have a care in the world.

"Chris!" his lover called, "there you are, you old dog! What's this I hear--a bar fight? You?"

He shot Buck a scowl but stood away from the door as the two locals keyed it open. Buck went on, oblivious to--or ignoring, most like--the way Chris's temper was building. "The owner of the bar dropped the charges against you. Guess it was all a misunderstanding. I told him you'd be by to accept his apology, just as soon as I got you out of here."

"Is that Larabee, Esquire?" the one without the baton asked Buck, his gaze flicking from Larabee to the crazy guy behind him and back.

"Yeah," Chris answered, annoyed as always when officials deferred to Buck with his title. Attorneys got too damned much respect from the law, in his opinion--informed as it was by his knowledge that Buck deserved little of it. Not for that title, anyway. "I'm out?"

The man shook his head, but it wasn't the answer, it was exasperation. "Yeah, you're out-not you, freak boy, you stand right on back there at the wall. Don't need no more trouble from you tonight."

Chris felt his cellmate step back even as he saw the more hostile of the two guards grin, looking Vin. The baton bounced on his palm, the message clear.

"Come on now, Chris," Buck was saying, "let's don't tie these boys up, they have things they need to be doing."

But he knew Buck, knew Buck had already read the tension in the air and recognized that the other guy was a target. Chris shrugged; crazy people often were.

He stepped forward, not challenging, but pushing the cop in the doorway back. He also turned, though, just enough that he could look over his shoulder at the man behind him. "You have a way out of here?" Chris asked, quiet.

"Mine's here, too," the guy-Vin--said, an absent look on his face. "He'll be along any minute."

Buck watched the exchange avidly. "You in need of legal counsel, son?" Buck offered.

Vin ignored Buck, blinked, then looked to catch Chris's eyes. "We might be interested in hiring on."

From behind Chris, Buck chuckled. "You recruiting from the jail cells now?" he asked, making no effort to hide his curiosity.

Chris shook his head; he hadn't said a word about it. The creepiness he'd been feeling since he'd seen the stranger came back, strong, but not enough to stop the words that came out of his mouth. "What do you and he do?"

The other's lips quirked again. "Anything needs doing," Vin said softly. "Fighting. Maintenance. Josiah's a good cook. Whatever."

Chris thought about it for a second. "Buck and me are staying at the Fiddle and Bow. Look us up if you're really interested."

"Will do," the younger man said.

Chris shook his head and stepped through the doorway, reaching for Buck's shoulder to steer him back up the hall. If he ever found the one who'd hit him on the head…. "What the hell was that all about?" Buck asked in his ear, looking as confused as Chris felt. They nodded to the two locals who fell in behind them.

"I'm not sure," he said slowly, looking around. He had an inkling though, that hiring the guy on could be a good thing. If Vin could keep his head on straight. He glanced back over his shoulder, catching the blue gaze. Vin was leaning against the bars, that strange little smile on his lips.

By the time they reached the Fiddle and Bow, Chris had firm enough command of his legs that he made it up to their room and into its only chair under his own steam. "Ta ma de," he said, touching his head again. He'd been doing it every few minutes or so, as it had started to throb with the rhythm of walking.

"Don't mess with it," Buck chided him, stepping closer to see. "Let me look." His fingers prodded gently around the goose egg on Chris's head, then Buck whistled low. "Looks like you got hit with a pool cue," he surmised.

"Chair, I think," Chris mumbled. His tongue felt thick in his dry mouth, and he blinked around the room until he spotted Buck's bag. He got up and dug around it for a little bottle of round white pills, shook out two and swallowed them dry, while Buck pulled out what looked like a sock, pouring on a little water from a glass before handing Chris the glass, too. Chris washed down the tablets while Buck used the wet sock to soften the blood matting in his hair. "You look like gou shi by the way," Buck said casually.

"Feel like it," he said, waiting for the pain tabs to kick in while he sat still for Buck's nursing. "Did I miss anything?"

"Just your wave from Mal," Buck replied absently. "He touched down yesterday, said he's got a dream mechanic now and he'll loan her to you if you'll let her scrounge parts and supplies off the Margaret May."

"Yeah, all right." They had more than they needed, and wouldn't need any if they couldn't get the engine running reliably. "When?"

"They'll come 'round in the morning, which is sooner than you probably think, pard. Best put your head down and try to get some sleep."

"Don't know if I can sleep just yet," Chris admitted. "My head's pounding like a drum."

"Who was that guy in the cell with you?" Buck asked, and Chris looked around at him; he'd almost forgotten about the stranger.

"Some crazy," he said, but then paused to think about it. "He told me exactly when you'd be in," he said, remembering the details now. Damn, his brain was rattled more than he'd thought. "To the minute. Called you my husband."

That got Buck's head around; he stared suspiciously, frowning.

"He told me your name."


Chris shrugged carefully. "Damnedest thing. He told me you were on your way. I asked him who and he said, 'Buck'. Told me when you got there too, just before they opened the lock-down doors."

"Yeah?" Buck grinned. "Word gets around."

"Asshole. It wasn't like that. It was… he's touched or something."

"Then why the hell did you offer him a job?"

"I didn't," Chris answered. "I didn't say a word about it. He just seemed to know."

Buck shrugged it off. "Everybody's lookin' for work," he said, trying to reason it away, but there was something different about that dirty stranger. Maybe something useful.

"He's fit," Chris went on. "I'd say he'd seen his share of battles. Could be good."

"Okay," Buck said, in that way he had that meant he didn't care one way or the other. "Come on, get yourself ready for bed."

Buck really didn't care, and Chris wasn't interested in more talk anyway. He stood up and eased carefully out of his clothes, falling behind because he was trying not to jostle his brain, and joined Buck under the covers a minute later.

"Here," Buck whispered, mother-henning him a bit. He had rinsed the sock and pressed it, cool and soothing, against the swelling on Chris's head. With his other hand, Buck started a gentle massage of Chris's neck and shoulders. "Here's to another Unification Day survived," he added, more soberly than just about anything else he'd said.

Chris wanted to hunker a little deeper into his skin, but he tried sliding an inch closer to Buck instead, glad Buck had been in that bar with him even if that was one fight Buck might have preferred to avoid. "Yeah."

"You'll feel better in the morning," Buck said.

With the drugs kicking in and Buck's careful handling, Chris felt better right now.

"You forgot to turn out the light," Buck said, a grin in his voice.

Chris settled in close, sliding a leg in between Buck's and a hand over his waist. "So I did."

Buck curled around him, and Chris let himself fall.

Buck woke slowly to cooling sheets under his outstretched hand and the sounds of Chris bumping around their room. He groaned quietly and pressed his face harder into the pillow; Chris had been conked on the head and had absolutely no call to be getting up early. At least, Buck thought it was early. He chased that thought lazily around in his head, unwilling to go to the effort of opening his eyes and peering at a timepiece, until Chris cursed and something fell to the floor with a rattle.

Buck lifted his head in time to see his partner bend carefully to pick up the bottle of pain tabs from the floor. Mission accomplished, Buck dropped his head back down onto the pillow.

"Buck," Chris called amidst rustling and more movement, then louder, "Buck!"

"Hmuh…" Buck blinked his eyes open, because long experience told him that Chris would only get worse, and frowned up at his grinning lover before closing his eyes once more. He was still more asleep than awake, and he wanted like hell to stay that way.

"Buck," Chris called again, and then the mattress dipped with Chris's weight, and Chris shook his shoulder. Hard. Buck considered grabbing Chris and shaking part of him, but if his head was still hurting, Chris wouldn't be any fun at all. So Buck ignored him. "Rise and shine, pard." Chris whispered. "I'm gonna go get a shower."


Chris laughed, but its fragile tone said too much about the headache he must have. "I'll be down the hall. You be up before I get back."

Buck considered filing a harassment complaint against the man.

He should have filed an assault complaint in the bar last night, against the hundan who'd dropped Chris to his knees. On-site security would have listened to him the second he showed them his copy of his mother's companion's license and his own initiate's certification. They'd probably have paid for Chris's medical treatment, but he'd have had to listen to a lot of groveling. And Chris wouldn't have wanted a doctor just for that knot on his head, anyhow; unsteady or not, he'd walked out of that bar with the cops under his own steam. Buck had been more interested in getting Chris out of jail than filling out forms.

Ignorant black-coats weren't worth the time it took to beat 'em in a good fight. Still, watching Chris go at it, all controlled power and fury... he chuckled, low, and decided it was time to get up after all. Drawing in a deep, wakeful breath, he rolled out of bed, wrapped a robe around himself, slid his feet into indoor shoes and padded to the baths at the end of the hall. Steam seeped out when he pushed open the door, testament to how Chris must have slid into a cubicle and stuck his head under water so hot it would scald his brain. He heard the sigh, a not quite groan that made him wonder if Chris had abandoned him to take matters in hand, so to speak, which would be monumentally unfair of his partner, but then a hard silence descended, broken only by the unimpeded splash of water on tiles.

He shook his head fondly; Chris would be looking to plug him any second now. "Chris," he called out, fending off violence.

More splashing, a quiet, "Buck," was his answer. He flicked open the opaque curtain and let his eyes slide right past Chris's pistol and the water droplets dripping off its butt and onto the towel. He was far more interested in the wet glow of firm ass cheeks and the narrow waist above, the strong, wiry legs below... the pink tinge to the water that streamed off Chris's head and down his back. "A man shouldn't look so good when I know for a fact he's beat up and probably hung over," he said casually. "Want me to wash your back?"

It wasn't a question that usually got an answer when they weren't in their own place or their own room, so Buck was surprised when Chris tilted his head around and said, "Thanks."

"Whooee," Buck murmured, and Chris grinned. Buck shook his head at that grin; he knew what it meant, all right, but he would cope.

Buck shed his robe and tossed it atop Chris's towel and gun. A second later, he slid up against all that slippery wet flesh and sighed, enjoying it for a moment before he reached around Chris's lean waist to lather a cloth. He considered lathering something else while his hands were up front, but in the end, dredged up a little restraint. Headache, he reminded himself. So Buck did as he'd offered, scrubbing hard from Chris's neck to his ass, lingering there because he might be well-schooled, but he wasn't dead. Chris's ass fit so well in his kneading hands, round and firm. He squeezed gently, then abandoned it to scrub right back up. "How do you feel, pard?" Buck asked him.

"Not as bad as I probably look," he said.

"You look pretty good to me," Buck breathed, and smoothed the cloth unerringly back down to his ass.

Chris snorted and stood still for it, almost purring under the attention. He turned around to catch a kiss good morning, and Buck lingered under the lazy, intimate brush of Chris's mouth and the softer tongue that teased at him. "You couldn't save it for our room?" Chris asked, acting far more affronted than he was.

"I was asleep in our room. I'm awake now." He bumped his hardness into Chris's hip, stirring that grin again, but Chris still shook his head.

"You're gonna have to take care of yourself," Chris said. "My head's still not quite on straight." His voice sounded faintly regretful, like he liked the idea plenty, but the execution felt beyond him. Buck understood that well enough. He'd never admit it out loud, but he did.

He glanced down, appeasing himself with the sight of Chris's half-hard cock, and thought again, Headache. Bar fight. "No problem," he said, and grinned. He backed out of Chris's cubicle and into the one next to it, pushing on the shower and reaching for cloth and soap.

"When's Mal due in?" Chris called out.

"Told him we'd buy him and his people breakfast if they wanted to meet us here, then mosey over to the Maggie!" Buck answered, loud enough to be heard over the water.

Buck ducked his head under the spray, wetting his hair while he soaped down his belly and, after a brief hesitation, on into his pubic hair. His cock was still firm, still eager, and would probably annoy him off and on all day if he left it unsatisfied. Especially if Chris stayed all moody and purposeful.

I'm doing it for my husband, he thought with a snicker, and wrapped the wet soapy cloth around his shaft.

He didn't notice when the shower next to him shut off, and barely registered Chris leaving the room. But Chris was all that was on his mind.

Persephone, Sandler City, 100 klicks from Eavesdown Docks

Josiah Sanchez didn't like waking early. In fact he could honestly say that there were days he didn't like waking at all. This felt like one of them. "What?" he asked, hoping he'd heard wrong.

"I said it's time to go," Vin repeated.

Josiah rolled onto his back, then winced as sunlight blazed into his face, bright even through his closed eyelids. He groaned, turning his head away. "Close the damned curtains," he grunted, "and get your ass back to bed. Do you know what time it is? We got back from Eavesdown just hours ago--where I wouldn't have had to go if you hadn't gotten distracted, and landed yourself in another altercation."

He hadn't meant to chide Vin, but this was the third time in a week that Vin had gotten himself into a spot. The bruises from the first two were still dark on his ribs and back. This time had involved the police, which was always worse. One day, they were going to really arrest Vin instead of just logging him in and toss him in a holding cell. It would be bad publicity for the police to charge someone working at a homeless shelter with obstruction, especially as there was already discontent with police brutality among the rising working class. But eventually if Vin wasn't more careful, he was going to truly piss off one of these cops and they were going to find the warrant for his desertion from the Alliance six years ago.

That wasn't a prospect Josiah relished, not with what those bastards had done to Vin - and what they might do if they got him back. The surgery they'd done to make his eyes sharper, so he could kill better for them, had had such unintended, impossible effects. At least he hoped they were unintended; the idea of the Alliance trying to make folks see through time was enough to challenge... not his faith. But everything else he believed about the goodness of his fellow man.

"One day, they're gonna catch you," he said, and yawned. It was a joke, in its way, even though it was also true.

Vin's low chuckle teased at his insides. "And then what'll you do with your free time?" Vin replied.

Right now the thought of that kind of free time again was tempting.

The good Lord knew he wasn't making any progress bringing Vin into the faith, not with all the time he had to apply just to keeping him out of trouble. He'd thought for years that it was his purpose: to protect Vin until he was ready, until they could figure out what God meant for them to do with this knowledge Vin kept gathering, this knowledge of the future. But it was getting harder to believe that, especially as Vin's visions were becoming more consuming and more frequent. The man looked like a lunatic some days, wandering around staring at things that no one else could see.

In the six years since they'd met, they'd learned that more-and more intense--visions meant that something was going to happen. Usually it was something Vin 'saw' but not always something that happened to them directly.

And it was always bad.

Maybe his prayers were being answered--worse things could happen to Vin than had so far. But he seemed to be praying constantly, every minute he was awake and sometimes, lately, even in his dreams.

Maybe, another voice said, one that had been getting louder these last few months, growing in proportion to Vin's distraction, maybe he was wrong about the whole thing and Vin wasn't a prophet. Maybe he was just a freak of nature, teased out of his genes by Alliance tech. Maybe the demons Josiah had been looking for weren't really there, and he was driving a bigger wedge between himself and God than the wages of sin had already bought him.

"Time to move on," Vin repeated from his position at the window. "Today."

The words echoed his doubts, solemn and deep. "Why today?" he asked, trying to ignore the burst of anger that came with the question --with himself, with Vin . . . He'd gotten pretty good at subverting his feelings, good at deflecting his anger, or ignoring it. As he felt the jump in the pulse at his throat, he decided that like as not, it would be the death of him one day.

"We're going to be meeting a ship, going with them, soon."

Josiah waited, but the joke wasn't going to come. After all their time together, he knew that tone of voice too well. That was prophecy.

"Any reason why we didn't just stay last night, save the train fares?" he asked mildly. Vin might be going; but suddenly, he wasn't sure he'd be following, not this time.

"Wanted to let you sleep in a familiar bed one last night," Vin said, thoughtful-sounding. If he'd wanted to be thoughtful he could have ignored the damned vision and stayed in bed.

That wasn't fair; Vin could no more ignore his visions than Josiah could the urge to relieve himself. "Today, we're going back to Eavesdown, even though I just got you out of it last night," he said with a sigh. "We're going to meet someone, who we're going to have to leave with, so that we have to pack up everything, tell Mr. Crousiette we're not renewing the lease, put in our notices with our bosses, tell the people at the shelter that we won't be back, tell Mandy that I won't be able to take care of little Ennis this weekend, tell Shepherd Amon that I'm going to miss the reading group Saturday, pick up the books that I ordered-not to mention the fact that we both have jobs at the moment. Could you not have mentioned this earlier, Vin, before I made commitments?" He scrubbed a hand across his face then pushed back the blankets so he could struggle to sit up.

Vin stood staring out the window, his tan skin burnished gold in the bright morning light, his long hair almost shining. He still carried the bruises he'd collected over the past several days, some from his encounters with the police and some from the very people he was paid to care for, and some from - the things that happened when his mind didn't know quite where his body was.

The sight of him though, scrubbed clean and here, and naked, took Josiah's breath, and involuntarily, he thought of the Old Testament prophets, wondering if they had looked this beautiful.

This erotic.

Perhaps that was how the prophets of old had influenced their followers, too.

He sighed again, hating himself for the thought, for the desire. For the stirring in his groin.

Vin turned then, his face solemn. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. He stepped back, letting the curtain fall back into place, and the room darkened to dusk. "The captain's waiting for us."

"The man you met last night in jail?"

Vin nodded somberly.

"All right." Josiah closed his eyes, leaning back against the wall. He tried to organize the things that needed to be done. He could send Vin to get the books--they were already paid for. They could go meet this man, get Vin his job, and Josiah would have a little time to get things together. Maybe a lot of time; Vin didn't often have a sense of specifics, and time was strange in his visions. Josiah tried to comfort himself with that.

But as the list of things that needed doing grew, what little comfort he'd found was weighted down by ennui and depression. They'd been doing this since the first day he'd known Vin. Moving on, never settling long enough in one spot to know people, to put down roots. He'd convinced himself for a while that he was okay with it, that being the follower of a prophet, the veritable keeper of one, was a divine calling. Some days, it beat the hell out of spiritual study and wearing out his knees in prayer. Some nights, it made him think he'd never learned how to pray right.

But the visions were a riddle Josiah couldn't find the solution to. Nothing they'd done so far had stopped anything or made anything happen differently. People died, sometimes horribly, or suffered some fate as bad as death - pain, suffering, grief. In the six years they'd been together, all Josiah had learned was that knowing the future was a pain in his pi gu.

The bed shifted but he was lost in thought, thinking about what he'd be leaving behind, what he was giving up and for no reason he was privy to, so he was unprepared for the soft fingers that touched his forehead, or the softer lips that touched his.

"I am sorry," Vin whispered against his mouth, even as those talented fingers trailed down his face, then lower, over the plane of his chest to toy with one large nipple. "We'll have time to take care of everything, I promise."

He reached out, his hands curving around the solid weight of Vin's ribs, holding him close as he opened his mouth for the curious tongue. Even after all this time together, Vin still seemed fascinated by everything they did, as intent and sensually preoccupied as he had been that first time, on a cargo ship light years away from here, on a cold metal floor hidden behind stacks of dirty crates.

As it had been then, as it was most times, he let Vin do as he wanted, letting him kiss and touch and press against him until they were both hard and leaking, then letting Vin spread his legs and settle atop him, Vin's long back arched as he took Josiah's cock inside himself. As it had been then, Josiah strained not to move, not to take more than what was being offered, but as always, he fell to the whispered pleas of his young lover, the entreaties to go faster, deeper, harder, to drive away the demons in Vin's pretty head with the fierce urges of the flesh and this simple, inconsequential sin. Josiah knew real sin, and he'd made at least temporary peace with these sins of the flesh.

It was only afterwards that his facile rationalizations faded, and he admitted that carnal sin was perhaps the most insidious. His head cushioned on the flat pillow of Vin's chest, he sighed again, knowing his decision. "Where is this ship going to take you?"

"Don't know," Vin answered, squirming to stretch his legs.

Josiah pushed himself up and off, running one hand down Vin's side and over the fine curve of his hip. He flinched as he saw the bruises, wondered if they were from his hands or the hands of a fellow prisoner. How many sins there lay in them, if they were his; one for the whole collection, or one for each imprint?

"'Siah?" Vin said quietly, and he looked up to meet those blue eyes, wide and guileless as they didn't often get, these days. "I know you'd rather stay here."

Josiah studied him, searching for the truth, and finding it this time. He was learning how to read those eyes, finally. "Yes," he agreed, "I would."

Vin looked away then, not in a lie or a game, but in sadness that made Josiah wonder what drove it. "It don't change anything," he answered.

"I know that, too," Josiah agreed. And he did. Vin could not deny his visions which were as real to him as the physical things he could touch, and Vin had seen him there. He could tell by the conviction in that raspy voice. Still, Josiah didn't have to accept it without a fight. Josiah rarely even knew what Vin's visions showed him; he could do whatever the hell he wanted instead of doing as he was told by a lover twenty years his junior. Instead of putting all his faith in the words of one man. He had before, and perhaps it was time he did again.

Perhaps it was time to step back and think about what he was doing, had been doing. God allowed his followers time to think and reconsider--time to doubt. Even Jesus Christ had got himself a vacation, wondering in the wilderness for forty days alone.

"'Siah?" Vin was staring up at him, his strong features drawn tight in a frown. "You'll like it. You're happy there. I see you - "

"Hush." He reached up, touching Vin's lips with his fingers. He didn't want to hear Vin's future. He wanted to make his own.

Vin blinked, his gaze as clear as it always was after they'd had sex, in that space of time when he was alone in his head. He pressed back into the mattress, catching Josiah's wrist with one hand and holding it away. "I ain't lying to you," he said slowly, and Josiah saw something he rarely saw in Vin: doubt.

But it wasn't doubt in himself or his visions. It was doubt in Josiah.

No use arguing this now; if Vin said they were going on this trip, then no matter what Josiah planned, they were going. But there were other things Vin might not have answers to.

"This a permanent thing?" he asked, propping up on one arm and holding Vin's gaze. "Or is this just a vacation for us, a little cruise around the system?"

Vin's frown deepened and the hand he'd been using to hold Josiah's wrist shifted to twine their fingers together. He was thinking about the answer, but Josiah knew that Vin would tell him the truth, and that truth would be only what Vin really knew. Years of living with his visions had taught Vin the error of making assumptions about anything they showed him. "I think that whatever is it that we have to be there for takes place in this first trip," he said slowly. "I mean, I've seen the Captain and his partner in a lot of places and with lots of things going on and I've seen other ships and other places and things but . . ." He trailed off, closing his eyes for several seconds, and when he spoke again, his voice was strained. "I've seen you and me together, Josiah, you know that. We're going to be togeth- "

"So you've said," Josiah interrupted, harder than he'd intended. "Many times."

Vin sighed. "You gonna come with me today or what?"

Josiah tilted his head. "I don't know, am I?"

Vin glared at him, showing as much anger as he ever did. "I don't know," he answered flatly, pulling away. "Are you?"

The fact that Vin didn't know this was reassuring, and it reminded Josiah that Vin really didn't know everything. In fact, he usually knew very little that he could make sense of, this far ahead of things. Josiah wondered how long Vin had been waiting for the man he'd just met in the jail cell. He could have seen him in a vision last week, last year.... But what he did know this far ahead was usually 'big'. And if Vin saw them together on this ship that belonged to this man that he'd met in a jail cell last night, then maybe it'd be in Josiah's better interests to at least meet this man.

He watched as Vin got out of the bed and bent down, picking up his sleep pants. "Reckon I will," he said, watching the graceful movements of his young prophet.

His young demon, maybe. Perhaps those were one in the same.

Persephone, Eavesdown: Fiddle & Bow Inn and Bar

Downstairs in the restaurant, Chris ordered coffee and fresh eggs for him and Buck, setting the tone for breakfast. They were flush at the moment, and if Mal was keeping to the sky like usual he'd appreciate real food. Buck came down the stairs just as the front door to the restaurant opened, and Chris split his attention between his partner and Mal's crew. Zoe was there, and Jayne, damn it.

Jayne barreled in like he owned the place, a dumb ox wearing a tight tee shirt and a big gun. Zoe hung back beside Mal, her long curls pulled back from her face but loose around her shoulders, sporting her own sidearm, but Chris would have been surprised if she hadn't. She looked good, better than he thought he'd ever seen her. Still fit, still with all the curves Buck appreciated too much, but she looked rested, too. Content.

Malcolm Reynolds looked exactly the same: hard body, hard eyes, brows drawn into a mild but permanent frown.

"Jayne Cobb!" Buck's voice boomed through the restaurant. Chris watched the two of them grip arms and slap each other's backs good-naturedly, caught Buck's covert survey of the big man's form. Chris didn't like Jayne, never had, so of course Buck had to go and like him even more.

Chris rose to shake hands with Mal and Zoe, happy to see old friends, old survivors. The mechanic Mal was loaning them was the one he was interested in, and he only got a good look at her when she stepped out from behind Mal and Zoe. In patched overalls, her hip bare of any weaponry, she looked like she'd just walked in off the farm.

"You Kaylee?" he asked, holding out a hand for her to shake.

"I am. Pleased to meet ya. You Chris Larabee?" Her eyes were wide and innocent even as they greedily checked out his form, and Chris made a mental note to lock Buck up while she was aboard ship.

He nodded. "That's Buck Wilmington over there," he said quietly. "Steer clear of him."

A look of confusion crossed her face, but only for a moment. "Shiny. Mal told me you two found yourselves a Firefly. I'll tell ya now, it ain't gonna be in as good a shape as Serenity."

"That's what you're here for."

Buck ambled over then, dragging Zoe into something a whole lot less proper--or tried to be. She thwapped Buck's belly to get him off her and quirked a grin at Chris when Buck let her go.

Buck pulled Mal into the same manly hug he'd given Jayne. "Buck!" Mal said, "Larabee still slumming it with the likes of you?"

Chris ignored it, mostly, because Mal thought it was such a big joke that he'd landed and held onto a companion's son. But high social standing or not, Buck was still Buck; he strolled over and pointedly patted Chris on the ass, saying, "He'll never find better, not anywhere in the 'verse." Chris resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

"He's not lookin' hard enough, then," Mal said, and grinned.

"He never changes, does he?" Zoe asked, sounding as longsuffering as Chris sometimes had.

"He better not," Chris agreed easily, then shook hands with Jayne. "Jayne."

"Chris," Jayne replied, eyes skating around the room. That look, overtly taking in everything, reminded him a little of the crazy in the jail cell last night.

"Mal and Zoe still treating you better'n you deserve?" he asked, just to needle the man.

"Ain't treatin' me near as good as I'm worth," Jayne shot back, then his eyes landed on Chris's plate. "They got eggs here?"

"Sure," Chris said, and pointed toward a menu. "Help yourself." He knew he'd regret saying that, but if Jayne was eating he wouldn't be talking so much. And every now and again, he enjoyed reminding Jayne that he was the better man.

Mal hooked a chair out with his leg and eased into it, tilting his head to examine Chris's jaw. "How'd you celebrate U-Day?" he asked with a cocky grin.

" 'Bout the same as you, I reckon. Zoe's better at keeping you out of trouble than Buck is. I woke up in jail last night."

"How do you know Mal didn't do the same?" Zoe asked, dry as bone.

Chris grinned at her, conceding the point. There were times that he didn't envy Zoe her job anymore than he envied Buck his. He liked to think he gave more back than Mal did, and he knew Buck wouldn't have him any other way anyhow. "Help yourselves to breakfast," he offered, and picked up his fork.

Kaylee opened the menu, and after a quick, hopeful glance to Mal, ordered fruit salad, which would set Chris back at least as far as the eggs. But she didn't order anything else, unlike Jayne who ordered double on everything, and was still perusing the menu when Mal said sternly, "Jayne."

Jayne frowned and put down the menu, sulking, and Chris grinned. He didn't know what kind of leash Mal kept on Jayne, but it seemed to be holding-better than the leash Chris kept Buck on, the way Buck kept eying Kaylee. Chris made a point of ignoring it for now; Buck only got worse with attention.

"So, Zoe," Buck started as soon as the orders were given, "what's he like?"

Chris frowned his confusion, first at his partner, then over at Mal, who was also frowning, but more at Zoe. For her part, the woman arched one eyebrow at Buck, a look that had scared brave men and that made Buck simply laugh.

"That good, huh? But then, he'd have to be to snare you up." Buck lifted his mug. "Congratulations. I can't wait to meet the man that stole you away from me!"

"I believe he's sitting right next to you," she said calmly, but she joined him in the toast as Chris and Mal grinned and Jayne groaned.

"You ain't gonna believe it, Buck," Jayne said. "Wash is about the last man in the 'verse I'd have expected Zoe to go for."

"Maybe that's why I do, Jayne," Zoe said, still smiling. "There's a lot to be said for a man who's not at all what anyone expects."

"Ain't that the truth," Buck agreed. "That's what I say about Chris, here, all the time."

"So are you two hitched up?" Kaylee asked so uncertainly that the others at the table laughed again.

"Except for Unification Day," Buck said, looking over to Chris and grinning from ear to ear. "No matter how hard I try, we do seem to spend a good percentage of those days apart."

"Buck," Chris warned, but Mal was nodding in approval, Zoe was rolling her eyes, and Jayne was just looking confused. Jayne looked that way a lot.

Kaylee stared at them openly now, her wide-eyed gaze even more interested. "Don't know that I've met two fellas actually, you know," she said, clearly just making conversation.

"Sure ya have, Kaylee," Jayne muttered, looking around for his food. "Ain't like you can see it, most ways, 'less'n they're girlie-boys or they decide they need to brag on it. And most got sense enough not to brag on being luen or sly."

Chris stiffened but decided to let Buck handle it when Buck's hand squeezed on his arm. Well go on, then, he challenged with a look.

Buck grinned. "You're right, Jayne," he agreed. "Be stupid to invite the criticism, in some parts. But then, most don't have somebody as fine as Chris to brag about."

Jayne glared at him. "You're both full a' gou shi," he said.

"I think it's real sweet," Kaylee said. "Just like Wash and Zoe."

Mal snorted and Chris looked over in time to see him roll his eyes. "Don't think it's a good idea," he said, and from the way Zoe didn't look at him, Chris gathered this was a conversation they'd had before. "Relationships on-board only lead to trouble."

"You could order her not to do it," Buck said, but he was grinning and looking at Zoe, who still pointedly ignored her captain.

"Don't think for a second that I didn't," Mal shot back, and Chris laughed. He'd expected no less from Reynolds--and no less from Zoe either.

"Captain!" Kaylee said, horrified. "You didn't!"

"Oh," Buck said laughing, "he did, darlin'."

The food arrived before Buck could engage the girl in any more conversation, and the food shut Jayne up right quick. Chris settled back with his coffee, watching the way Kaylee just about came every time she took a bite. He cast a covert glance Buck's way, and yeah, Buck was watching too, eyes glazing over a little. He grinned, reckoning it would pay off for him later, especially the way her cheeks hollowed out as she sucked on half of a large berry.

He and Mal and Zoe made small talk, catching up mostly, until Buck finished his plate. "You about ready to see the ship?" Buck asked them.

"Soon as we finish eating," Jayne said around a mouthful. The way he shoveled it in, it wouldn't take long.

"Everybody coming?" Chris asked, throwing a pointed look Jayne's way.

"Don't know about the cap or Zoe," Kaylee answered for all of them, "but Jayne and me are, yeah."

"She needs my muscle," Jayne said.

Chris nodded. She probably would, if she had to dig too deep into the engine's innards. Well, better Jayne than him.

Chris walked with Mal and Zoe while Buck, Jayne and Kaylee walked behind, and they made their way through the thickening crowds, turning off the quiet side streets and onto the port's wide open market.

Jayne and Buck started reminiscing about old fights in older bars, and Chris resisted the grimace he felt tugging at his mouth. That Mal had hired Jayne on still surprised him, at times. That Zoe put up with it surprised him more. They reached the Margaret May's berth, tucked back behind a retired cruiser, and Chris paused to point. "There she is."

"She's in… better shape than I expected her to be," Zoe said then, mitigating, "It's been a while since she's seen space?"

"We barely limped her back to the port," Chris admitted. It had been a harrowing ride, but he'd kept her close to the ground, so that the couple of times she dropped she didn't have that far to go. The last jump over the suburbs and to the port had been the worst of it.

"But she spaced okay, way back when?" Kaylee asked.

Chris nodded. "Buck's been babying her when he had the time. Like I told you in my wave, every part that wears on its own just from sitting is beat to hell. We replaced the fuel lines and flushed the cells--that took a month. Water storage was eaten through but we patched it up okay. There's still a lot to be done, but we can handle it if the engine's reliable. Which it isn't," he said, annoyed at himself now. Buck had taken her up every couple of months the first year they'd been back here on Persephone after the war, going orbital and circling before bringing her back in-about the full range of his flight skills, in fact--until the first time the engine had hiccoughed and Chris had fought like kuangzhe de to make Buck promise never again. Not until she'd had the overhaul she needed.

That overhaul had never come.

"We'll let Kaylee take a look at it," Mal said, "see what she thinks. I can't promise you we've got the time…."

"I can't promise you what we can pay will be worth it," Chris replied.

For all her youth, Kaylee was all business the minute Buck sequenced the lock and the bay doors opened. "Gonna need a lot of cleaning," she announced as they walked in, and her pert nose wrinkled a little. "I'm guessing she hauled a lotta cattle in her day."

To Buck, the Maggie was as much a lady as any woman he'd ever known, and he came immediately to her defense. "You talk nicely to her," he said. "She's done more than her fair share of hard work, and she'll do it again."

"Oh, she will," Kaylee agreed, too distracted to take offense. "You need to leave her bay doors open for a while, and you'd best vent her atmo in space, clear the stale out--y'all are planning on staying with her, aren't you? Fireflies need love and attention, and they get lonely too."

Chris glanced over at Mal, arching an eyebrow. The other man was still grinning, but he shrugged, and Chris knew that Kaylee wasn't alone in her philosophy about these ships. Buck was a kindred spirit there, too.

At that point, Kaylee, Jayne, and Buck broke off, heading for the engine room, a place Chris knew he would be worse than useless. He was glad when Mal suggested a walk to the flight deck; he hadn't spent enough time on her to get comfortable walking her corridors alone, since the Alliance had arrested them on trumped-up charges and got half her crew killed in the process.

"Not bad," Mal said as they made their way up. "She's in good shape to have been sitting for so long."

"You had her in storage?" Zoe asked, and the way she cut her eyes at Chris asked the rest of the question.

For a second, he wanted to take her head off for even asking. But these two were old friends, war friends, the kind that knew everything whether you told them or not. If he owed anyone in the 'verse the truth of it, it was Mal and Zoe. "Alliance didn't keep her, didn't even hold her after their cruiser's damage asphyxiated the women and Adam, even though they thought about it," he said with what bitterness he still had left. "They decided that it might be in bad taste to confiscate her. I piloted her best I could when we needed her, before we joined up. After the war was over, we set her down. Haven't flown her much since." He'd never told them these details, and wondered if Buck had. He paused for a long moment before admitting, "I wasn't willing to see something else happen. Now, though..."

"Reckon it's time," Mal said, and ducked forward, leading the way into the mess. It was still dirty enough, but it didn't reek of rotted food. He'd done that much himself before he'd left her five years back.

"You thought this through, Chris?" Mal asked, moving slowly around the room, touching a few things but mostly keeping his hands to himself. "Not a lot of work out there for people not flying the Alliance flag. We know; we're in it."

This wasn't news to him, and he knew that Mal didn't mean it as anything other than a fact. "Yeah, we know. But I'm sure this is the thing to do. Buck don't relish the idea of being land-tied anymore, either; he's fed up with working for the local judiciary. My folks and my sister are running things on the ranch as well as anyone can, and I ain't never going back to ranching. I reckon Buck's more ready to get away from here than I am, give it another go." He'd made Buck wait for him long enough. Too long, not that Buck had ever complained.

At that Zoe snorted and Mal actually chuckled. "Never did quite see litigation in him," he said, and Chris had to agree. Buck was a good attorney, applying lessons he'd learned as an initiate in his mother's temple to wooing judges and juries alike, but it wasn't what he'd have chosen for himself. Chris knew Buck had done it for him, keeping their bills paid when Chris wouldn't, and when Chris had finally started working again-mostly hard labor at the loading docks-socking extra platinum away for a rainy day. Maybe for this. Mal and Zoe didn't know any of that--or if they did, they were too kind to say it.

After a silence that went on a little too long, Mal said slowly, "I ain't trying to talk you out of it, not if your mind's made up. But you need to be sure you're ready for this, Chris. You and Buck were pretty land-tied before the war from what you've told me. After what happened out there, well, the land's better, for some."

He was sorely tempted to tell Mal where he could shove his suggestion - it wasn't anybody's business what he and Buck did. But this wasn't about just Buck, and he'd known Mal and Zoe a long time - a lifetime, in some ways. He drew a breath, looking away from both of them and out into the docks, even though he wasn't seeing anything. "Can't go back," he said simply. "We were all three going to do that together - me, Buck, Sarah - that was the plan, settle here, raise a passel of kids, show 'em the verse when the time came. But I can't - I can't be around that life now. Buck's the only one seems to understand I'm not that same man anymore." At least, Buck was the one who didn't seem to hold it against him. His family, his parents, the people who had known and loved Sarah, too, and Adam, it seemed like they couldn't look at him without dragging it all back up. Buck had been the closest to it, hit the hardest of anybody not him, and Buck was still the only one who didn't seem to think he'd broken or gone crazy. Even though for a little bit, maybe he had. "We've been here since they - since then, but it's not the same. Buck hates what he's doing, and I - I don't want it for him or for me, not this life. I can't say this is the right one either, yet," he said, lifting one hand to indicate the ship, "but it's a start on the road to finding out, I guess."

He turned back, not surprised to see them sharing a look, but it wasn't one that said they thought he was crazy.

"It not always simple out there," Zoe said enigmatically. "You need a good crew."

"Like you guys got in Jayne Cobb?" he countered, leaning back against the counter to watch them.

Zoe left it to Mal to answer. "Jayne's as good as we need right now," he said, "and Zoe will attest to the fact that we've got a damned fine pilot, for all the other problems he's causing." He smiled a little, letting Chris know it was more a grumble than a true complaint, and Chris thought about how he was going to go about finding a good pilot, himself. "And we got a dream mechanic in Kaylee. But yeah, we've been thinking about taking on more regular fare, renting out one of the shuttles. We take on passengers, too. You might want to be thinking on that."

"Buck always likes passengers," Chris replied with a shrug. "Says they keep him entertained. And we got a cushion, enough to get her space-worthy and carry us for a while, if need be. Kaylee's awful young."

"She is," Mal agreed and turned to meet Chris's gaze. "But what she don't know about making a Firefly run ain't worth knowing. Girl can damned talk to these things, and get them to do whatever she wants. If she thinks it can be done, it can be."

Chris nodded. "Good enough for me." He frowned then. "So why you got Jayne body-guarding her?"

Mal grinned. "Can't have her around Wilmington on her own, now can we?"

All three of them laughed at that as they headed on up to the flight deck. "Buck's safe enough."

"He wasn't before," Zoe said, and Chris didn't even try to hold back his grin at her annoyance. Zoe was another of Buck's lost causes, someone he'd just known would come around for something more than their one tumble in a trench, and he acted like he'd never given up hope there.

That time during the war, when Chris had been murderous with grief and his surviving crew had lit off back to their ranch homes or into the fighting, he and Buck had both done things they wouldn't have, if the 'verse was fair and just. He'd given Buck free rein do whatever he needed to do to stay sane, and fucked enough whores himself, when the urge took him. Only after, as he'd woken to the fact that the 'verse still existed-and that some of it still mattered-had he laid down the law, for both of them. "He's tied down again," Chris told her, as amused by that fact as he was sometimes amazed.

"Seems like you'd just about have to tie him down, to keep him in line," Zoe joked.

Chris laughed at that, and the echo of it in the crew hall sounded back to him like a ghost. He ducked his head and headed on for the helm. That was where Buck found them a little while later.

"Kaylee says the ship needs some loving attention," he announced, but he was grinning. "Says she could have her up and running like a dream in just a few days, if you'll allow, Mal."

Mal looked to Chris and before he could say anything, Chris said, "We're willing to pay for her time and effort. If you can spare her."

Mal looked to Zoe, who shrugged. "We got that run to make to Rosetta," she said. "Time-wise, won't take more than five or six days, seven at most if you and Jayne spend a night drinking and consorting with the local constabulary."

Mal frowned at that, but Chris found himself grinning. "Hell, we'll pay for that night especially," he said. No sense in him being the only one among them to see the inside of a lock-up.

"If Kaylee wants to stay, and she thinks Serenity won't fall out of the sky without her," Mal added, "then it's all right with me. Jayne'll probably stay with her," he said, shooting a glare at the back of Zoe's head. "But no guarantees after we finish this haul, not unless we find work close to hand."

"We'll see what we can dig up," Buck said with a nod.

Chris nodded too. He'd made his fair share of enemies on the loading docks, but he'd made a fair share of allies too, contacts he had every intention of using when they were space-worthy. "Might be something we can find for you, if need be."

"Be mighty welcome if you could," Mal said, and made to rise. "We'd best be off. Got to see a man about a cargo."

"I'll see you out," Chris said. He nodded to Buck and slid out of the co-pilot's seat, watching as Buck slipped into it straight away to stare out at the sky. Buck was anxious to get off Persephone, had been for a while. He touched Buck's shoulder in silent apology, the only kind he could make, and followed Mal and Zoe.

They cut through the common area instead of left toward the cargo bay, heading for the engine room, and Chris paused in the doorway, looking askance at the pieces of ship Kaylee had already started to spread around.

"A few days, you say?" Mal asked her, and she looked up from where she was taking something apart to smile at him.

"Maybe less, unless I find something in her innards that looks worse'n what I'm seeing up top." She patted the engine housing.

"How's Serenity running?"

"Tip top, cap'n."

"Well then, I'm thinking maybe we'll give you and Jayne the time here, and Zoe, Wash and me will head on over to Rosetta, take care of that business."

"Jayne?" Zoe said, "You willing to stay here, do what Kaylee says?"

"Hell no I ain't gonna do what Kaylee says," Jayne said, but he was smiling. Apparently he hadn't been looking forward to this particular haul.

"Jayne'll be a big help," Kaylee said, her eyes skittering back to the engine. "I got big pieces to move around, and he's good company."

Chris didn't believe it for a second. "Take a break when you want it," Chris told them both, "but lock up if you leave the ship. Buck and I are heading back to the inn."

Persephone, Eavesdown: Fiddle & Bow Inn and Bar

The Fiddle, Josiah sighed, looking at the place. This inn sat right in the middle of a two-block-wide line of demarcation between the slums to the west, and the tourist corridor to the east. It was a better sort of place than he'd expected, frankly. He glanced around, relieved that it was busy. The early afternoon sun shone brightly and it was a beautiful day, the kind most people should be outside enjoying, not inside a dark, stinking bar. Reality as Josiah knew it had become mighty skewed in recent years. It was past time Josiah remembered he didn't need visions of the future or a seductive prophet to make it through the day.

Beside him, Vin shifted, letting his hand rub against Josiah's. "You worry too much," he murmured, even though he pulled his hat lower over his eyes. "Come on, a good beer will make you feel better."

Josiah sighed again, but he followed his companion into the growing crowd of the bar. It wasn't really Vin he was angry at. He'd promised himself he wouldn't get attached to any one place, not as long as he was with Vin. But they'd been here on Persephone long enough that he had started getting to know and care about some people. It was almost as if whatever power controlled Vin sensed when Josiah was at his most reluctant, because it was then that Vin's visions dictated leaving, or they got themselves into some sort of mess that made running necessary.

Vin claimed he'd seen them together, bits of time he thought were close up and years on years from now, too-and Josiah believed him, like he always did. But Vin had never said just what "together" meant, not how long nor if their time was continuous, from now on. When he asked, Josiah would get answers about 'things happening soon', or a tale of some event - but not the timing of it. Of course, he'd stopped asking the hard questions. Vin's visions were no clearer than Bible parables, something you could only apply once the example had happened in your own life. He'd gotten stubborn enough to shut Vin up when he even started talking in that direction, these days. Knowing what Vin knew was a torture all its own, because they couldn't change anything or stop anything from happening. Trying to do so failed, and more often than not, ended up with them being in trouble with someone for knowing too much. Those were the times he questioned most whether it was God or Satan who held sway over them both.

It was darker inside, and cooler, and like thousands of bars all over the system, it smelled of alcohol, smoke, sweat, and cheap perfume, and made him miss the beauty of the day outside. They edged their way to the bar, Vin in front and Josiah at his back, watching it, since Vin rarely seemed willing to.

The beer helped, Josiah had to admit as he took a sip of a cold, dark brew.

"Over there," Vin said, canting his head slightly as he drank from his own mug.

They sat at a small table in a corner, a blond man dressed all in black, pouring from a bottle of whiskey that sat on the table. His companion was taller and broader, rangy, with dark hair and an easy laugh, and expansive gestures that made him the center of attention to those around him, mostly women who were there to ply their own personal wares to the patrons, if Josiah knew his bars.

At that instant, the blond looked up, and his gaze caught Josiah's before moving sharply to his left, to Vin. Two seconds later, Josiah was following Vin to the corner table--it was that or get left alone at the bar.

"Didn't know if you'd come," the blond man said to Vin. He stood up, surprising Josiah with an outstretched hand. "Chris Larabee."

"Josiah Sanchez," Josiah said, accepting the handshake.

Buck tipped his head forward, smiling in a way that didn't quite reach his eyes. He kept his chair and said, "Buck Wilmington, Josiah." He turned to Vin and raised his eyebrows.

"Vin Tanner," Vin said, and Josiah pursed his lips. Vin had a damned warrant on his head, and he still persisted in giving folks his whole name if he thought they were worthy of it. But Vin knew what he was doing, had proven that time and again over the years. "Met you last night, sorta."

Buck shrugged. "Guess so. Have a seat, boys, and tell us why you think we might want to hire you on."

Vin slid into the chair on Buck's right, and took a long draught of his beer. "Don't rightly know," Vin told him, "just that you need us."

Josiah didn't miss the look Wilmington shot Larabee, but he thought Vin might have. He couldn't decide which of them was running this show, so he eased into the vacant chair across from them both.

"We need you for anything in particular?" Buck asked.

Vin looked uncertain at the question, then leaned back in his chair, suddenly taking on an air beyond his years. Josiah had seen this before, too. "Josiah? You and Buck want to get a little better acquainted?" he asked.

Larabee stiffened, his face going dark and hard. Interesting. Josiah held up a hand to forestall anything Larabee might say, trying to keep things rolling smoothly. "He doesn't like to tell me things, sometimes," he said, and made to rise. "I don't know why he isn't interested in filling Buck in just yet, but he'll make it clear enough or the two of you won't feel the need to hire him on." He ignored the irritation he saw in Vin's eyes, firm in his own resolve that if it was meant to be, it was meant to be. Josiah didn't disagree, but he didn't have to like it.

Buck glanced Chris's way and shrugged; he seemed a good-natured man, if a little willfully rough around the edges, and confident of himself and his position--whatever it was. "I could use a little more caffeine, and we need to get lunch for Kaylee and Jayne," Buck said genially, and rose as well. "Come on, Josiah. Let's you and me get to know each other."

"Thanks. I'll buy, the coffee at least," he said, hoping the offer would help. Coffee didn't come cheap this near the spaceport--nothing did--but he and Vin were doing all right; Vin had squirreled away plenty of the platinum he'd made as a rigger on the skyscrapers under reconstruction, and he'd supplemented it with the part-time work at the shelter. He had no fear of heights, and was sure-footed enough to go places few others would. They'd managed to stockpile enough cold currency to cover the next move - damn it all.

"Much obliged." Buck leaned toward Chris before he left the table, whispered, "You be good now." Chris rolled his eyes, which this Buck character seemed to find amusing. His laughter was low and infectious, and Josiah decided that he might like the man.

Larabee, he'd reserve judgment for. He'd met men like him: reserved, controlled, with that dangerous energy that had flared when Vin had tried to send Buck off. Those kinds of men were sure they could handle anything the 'verse threw at them-and most of the time, they were wrong. The 'verse just hadn't proven it to them yet.

Buck was talking before they got to the bar, friendly chatter that Josiah didn't worry about until a heavy hand settled on his shoulder. He turned, caught up in a harder stare than he'd seen so far. Buck's mouth smiled, but his eyes definitely didn't. "What's up with your friend?" he asked, his tone somewhere between those hard eyes and that smiling mouth.

He chuckled and leaned against the bar; if now was his time and this was the man who'd send him to God, worrying about it wouldn't change a thing. At least he wouldn't have to decide whether or not to pack. "More things than you or I will ever understand," he said. "Nothing to worry about, though."

Buck's hand slipped away, and Josiah watched him glance across the bar to where Chris and Vin sat, Larabee still stiff in his chair, giving away nothing while Vin had relaxed, elbows on the table as he leaned toward Larabee. "Chris don't take well to people disrespecting him." He said it like a friendly warning, like he was just trying to help out.

Josiah chewed on that for a second as he scanned behind the bar to find someone to serve them. "Vin wasn't disrespecting Chris. He might have been disrespecting you; I'm not sure."

"Well, Chris don't take to having people do that either. Your friend ain't putting his best foot forward."

His "friend" paid too little attention to where he was putting his feet sometimes. "He tries. Now, you want that coffee?"

Buck frowned, obviously trying to work him out, but Josiah himself was an open book. Sometimes though, that took people longer to understand than hidden schemes and ulterior motives. He applied himself to working this Buck out, since Vin was going to be moving on with Larabee and this man. A few minutes of quiet chat revealed that Buck was both more and less than he seemed; a companion's son, which meant he oughtn't to be anywhere near a bar this cheap, and Chris Larabee's partner, with fond emphasis on the word that left Josiah in no doubt of its meaning. Thought he was smarter than he actually seemed, but maybe that had more to do with the education his social standing had netted him, or perhaps the social standing itself-but Josiah decided against that thought almost as soon as he had it. This man wore his sophistication like a coat rather than in his bones, and clearly didn't have much respect for the upper class that had bred him.

Buck's genial affection for the unlicensed whores in the bar made sense enough, and before they'd even got their coffees Josiah felt like he knew the man, like they were friends. Education or instinct, Buck's style worked for him, and Josiah wanted to resent how at ease he felt with the man. Twinkling eyes and quick smiles, and the way Buck leaned forward to share what might ought to be confidences, made that hard though. He sighed, casting covert glances over to Vin and wondering what the hell Vin had seen this time.

Chris watched Buck and Josiah at the bar, angrier than he should have been but damn it, his head was pounding again and this Vin guy bothered him. "You mind telling me why you just did that?" he asked.

Vin shook his head. "Nah. I didn't want Josiah having to hear."

"You're the one brought him," Chris replied coolly, wondering if the older man was some uncle or relative Tanner took care of. That'd be just what they needed, a crazy and a geezer to have to babysit.

"Yeah..." Vin's eyes tracked across to Josiah at the bar, and Chris caught the softening of his face. When he turned back, his pale eyes were alert and clear. "Josiah don't like me talking about what I see, the things I just know," Tanner began, sounding like a priest in the confessional--then he flashed Chris a grin. "I reckon there's money in it for you, if you found the right people to trade me back to."

Chris grinned. That kind of black humor appealed to him.

"I don't like to make him listen unless he needs to know," Vin went on. "Your man--I reckon you can find some way to break it to him gently, if at all, as I can't see him much liking it either. Didn't figure he needed to hear it right off, leastways not from me."

Chris wasn't interested in being told how to handle Buck, and he'd already told Buck everything he knew about this guy anyway. "What the hell are you talking about, Tanner?"

Tanner held up a hand, a gesture meant to placate, and it annoyed Chris that it did. "I'm talking about what you already know, Chris," he said, leaning forward a little more. "But here's something you don't. You'll need to crew up quick--you'll be on the move soon, for someone Buck won't say no to. Won't let you say no to. I just wanted you to know that Buck'll be all right. He ain't gonna die out there in the black-not anytime soon, in fact."

"I... what?" Chris didn't want to understand, but the words were clear enough when coupled with those muttered predictions from the cell last night. He tilted his head, trying to think tactically past the remnants of his headache and unsettled by how this guy had pegged what was important to him. "What is it you think you know?"

Vin shrugged. "I wouldn't tell Buck until this is all over," he said, ignoring the question. "Can't say why--and you'll do what you want, anyway. But if I was you, I wouldn't tell him until it's over."

A tingle ran down his spine like devils dancing on his grave. "Until what's over?"

Vin just looked at him, then his eyes went distant and vague like they'd been the night before. "You're safe with us," he said out of nowhere.

The only thing Chris liked less than hearing crazy words from a stranger was thinking he believed them. Shit.

He waited a second for Vin to volunteer something tangible, something he could measure, but Vin's eyes stayed focused on the middle distance and he didn't look like he was coming back any time soon. "Buck!" Chris called, loud enough to attract his partner's attention at the bar. Buck turned in his lean, one hand cradling a coffee mug. Chris watched him turn to Josiah to gather him up, watched them amble back together, Buck carrying a second steaming mug and a big bag that smelled of food. As soon as the two had resettled in their chairs he said to Vin, "The Margaret May is berthed in row 17, bay C in the south section. We'll be on board as soon as we leave here. You got things you want to move in, you can start then. We'll get you settled and you can start work cleaning today."

Buck's eyebrows climbed and Josiah looked about to speak, so Chris went on before either of them could. "Room and board, flat salary, station scale until we're on our feet. After thirty days, we'll negotiate based on how useful you make yourselves and how the jobs look. That suit you to start?" The whole ship needed a good scrubbing; he might as well make use of these two right off.

Vin nodded, and Josiah glanced around the table, then chugged down most of his coffee before pushing the remains Vin's way. "We'll see you later, then," he said, nodding peaceably. He rose, waiting while Vin polished off the last of the coffee, then Vin stood too, tapping the brim of his slouch hat.

As soon as they cleared the exit, Buck whistled under his breath. "What the hell was that?"

Chris frowned, resisting the urge to fidget. "Can't say," he replied.

"Can't? Or won't?"

He heard the grin in Buck's voice, right alongside the mild rebuke, and tilted his head to meet Buck's eyes. "Can't," he admitted.

"All right," Buck said, relaxing a little more. "Glad you're hiring on crew, though I'll admit I thought I'd get to talk to 'em first." Chris winced at that; normally Buck would have, because Buck was the one responsible for keeping the peace aboard ship. If things got bad enough for Chris to be involved, it was usually with threats of spacing the instigators. He was glad though when Buck let it pass with just that mild comment. "What do they do, anyway? What did we just hire them for?" Chris stiffened even further, frowning at the exit door, and Buck barked out a breath of laughter. "You don't know, do you?"

Chris smirked at him. "Reckon we'll find out."

"Damn, pard, what did that boy say to you--he offer something I haven't?"

Chris reached out and snagged his coffee mug, sipping thoughtfully before answering, "I don't quite know that either. Come on, let's get back to the ship. She's not gonna get ready with us sitting on our asses."

"I think that conk on your head did you some good, pard," Buck said, making to rise. Chris pinched him on the ass and grinned when Buck turned to glare at him, rubbing his offended hindquarter. "You'll kiss that and make it better later, Larabee," Buck said darkly, and Chris grinned.

"Maybe I will," he agreed, and tamped down on the smile that tried to come up when Buck's eyes got big and interested.

The walk to the ship was quick, with Buck walking so close their hips kept bumping, and on the way Buck filled him in on what little he had learned about Josiah. "I can't tell you why, but I'd almost say he was a preacher," Buck mused. "Said something about it being the Lord's will that they meet us, and he must believe it 'cause he didn't seem too keen on us, at least at first. Makes me wonder what those two are into."

"You think they're trouble?" Chris asked, which made some sense; he had, after all, met Tanner in the lock-up.

Buck shrugged. "I'll check around. Ain't like we're in any hurry." He turned to wave at one of the ladies walking past them, and Chris remembered Tanner's words: 'someone Buck won't say no to. Won't let you say no to.' Anybody could spout predictions--hell, people did it all the time. But something about Tanner, the certainty in his voice and in his eyes, made it seem as if it had already happened.

The thought was kuangzhe de, just flat-out crazy, and Chris let it lie, for now.

"Coming in!" Buck yelled as they entered the cargo bay.

Jayne was lounging on a crate set back in the hold, a gun close at hand. He looked dirty and sweaty and irritated, and Chris suddenly felt the same way.

"Ain't you supposed to be helping Kaylee?" he asked, and it was about then that he noticed engine parts strewn about the bay, some big enough to make him wince.

"Have been," Jayne shot back. "Think she moved all this herself?"

"My, my!" Buck whistled, walking among the various groupings of metal and ceramic, carbon and wire. "Sure hope that gal knows what she's doing. There are pieces here I don't think I've ever seen before."

"And it shows!" Kaylee called out from the doorway. She was smudged with grease and dirt, and her coveralls looked like she'd been rolling in an oil pit. Her hair, coming loose from its tie, looked almost as dirty as the rest of her.

Chris stepped closer. "What's that mean?" he asked, eyeing the gleam in her bright eyes.

"The inside pieces have never been cleaned--she ain't been stripped down and overhauled in as long as I been breathin', looks like. Do you know how much longer she'll last if she gets regular attention? She needs to be torn down at least once every twenty thousand flight hours--maybe ten, since she ain't been took good care of--to keep her prime. I'm amazed that you got her this far, with as much gunk is in her core parts." She shook her head, but she was smiling. "She's practically a virgin down there, and you boys don't even know it."

Chris rolled his eyes even as Buck laughed out, "I gather she's in good hands for her first time then!"

"How far along are you?" Chris asked, trying to get the conversation back on point.

"Don't take long to strip her down. The cleaning's the worst part. I've started a list of things I'm gonna need--you had some cleaner on board, but I'm gonna need a whole lot more--and some lube for putting her back together. The list is in the engine room. So far, most of the parts look to be in good shape, won't have to replace much other than the usual seals and degradables. Fireflies were built to last, captain, one of the best ever made." Unconsciously, she reached out and patted the wall nearby, as if the ship were a living thing.

"Y'all need a break?" Buck said over Chris's shoulder. "We brought you some lunch."

Jayne was on his feet instantly, taking the bag from Buck and heading up the stairs toward the mess.

"Thanks," Kaylee smiled at Buck, then a little more broadly for Chris.

"You can get all these parts back where they go, right?" Chris asked, once more running his gaze along the various pieces spread out around the bay.

She laughed, brushing past him as she followed Jayne. "Most of 'em. If I have some extras, I'll take 'em back to Serenity."

Buck blinked. "What did you say?" he called, staring at her as she climbed the stairs. She looked back over her shoulder and grinned, and Chris laughed out loud, slapping Buck on the shoulder.

"She's got your number, stud," he said. But then, Buck seemed to have hers too; he was admiring the rounded curve of her ass more than he was her quick wit.

"She can have it, and anything else she wants," Buck smiled, throwing him a grin that was all tease.

"She'd best not, or I'll turn you from stud to gelding," he teased right back.

"Ow," Buck said, ignoring him mostly. Then a hand slid down his arm, cupping his hand and pulling it back against Buck's crotch. "You couldn't live without it," he said, smug as he pressed Chris's palm firmly against his flaccid parts.

Chris squeezed briefly before he pulled his hand away, admitting to himself just how true that was. "Wouldn't want to," he said, "but you trust me, I could if I had to."

Buck's hand returned to his shoulder, steering him toward the common room. "Hey, you're the one she was looking harder at," Buck said, in that confiding, preoccupied voice that promised great things when they were alone.

Chris grimaced. "Last thing I'd need is to have Mal Reynolds coming after me for interfering with his crew."

Buck's chuckle was low and lewd. "Last thing you need is to have me coming after you for interfering with Mal's crew," Buck said, and Chris swallowed back a smile, glad that this game was still so easy between them. It had been a challenge for a little time there, after the war. "Get moving before Jayne eats all the food."

Most of it was just Buck's way; he related to people in sexual ways as much as with words or anything else--a natural side effect, he claimed, of his schooling at a companion's temple. Chris didn't know about that, because Margaret Wilmington was a damned sight more discreet and self-controlled than Buck had ever been, back before they'd settled down.

Of course, she looked for different things in a client than Buck had in a friendly thrust. Chris had often wondered how his own daddy had ever attracted her attention, but these days, he was gladder than ever that something in Samuel Larabee had appealed to Buck's mother. Margaret Wilmington was one of the most influential people Chris knew, but she was one of the most real, too. He'd never expected that of a companion. Sure as hell never expected it of a companion's son. But he'd found it, and because of that he'd gotten the man, and rare was the day he wasn't grateful for that.

He set his musings aside when they entered the common room, where Jayne surprised him by having the food out and bowls set, but was waiting for them to settle at the table before he started serving himself. They were still eating when Kaylee started eyeing the door, her mind clearly back in the Maggie's engine room. "Go on then," Chris said. "We'll clean up."

"Jayne?" she called, hopping up out of the chair but pushing it back in before she moved away, "come on. I need you to move the atmo processor for me."

"Damn, Kaylee, I done moved it three times! Can't you just decide where you want it?"

"I want it on its back," she replied. "I didn't before. Hurry up now," she added, her voice fading as she walked away. "I gotta clean the filter and make sure all the parts ain't wore out. You do want them to be able to breathe out in the black, don't you?"

"Thanks for the grub," Jayne said, hovering for a second before he followed Kaylee out.

Buck watched Jayne leave, pretty much exactly the way he'd watched Kaylee on the stairs, but Chris didn't extend another warning. It was different, not as fun to play that game of threats and teases when it was a man Buck appreciated. So unless Buck made a point of it, Chris generally let Buck do what came naturally to him and ignored it.

He helped Buck stack the dishes and went to the head to wash up. Chris was crossing the cargo bay on his way back when a baritone voice hollered, "Hello the ship!" Sanchez.

He strode to the open loading door to find both Josiah Sanchez and Vin Tanner standing at the ramp. "That all you've got?" he asked, pointing to their bags. Tanner held an Alliance gray rucksack that Chris was making no assumptions about; military surplus fed half the economy in rural Persephone. While he'd wondered if it wasn't the Alliance's way of getting its seals spread as far as possible, the equipment itself was well-made. Buck had some, himself.

Sanchez stood next to a smaller duffel that looked more like an overnight bag.

"We've got plenty more," Vin said. "Just not here in town."

"Thought we'd see how this worked out first," Josiah said easily, meeting Chris' eyes. "Some journeys together don't have the same destination."

Looking at him, Chris felt the same. "Fair enough. Buck's in the galley. Bring your bags back over here so the scavengers don't pick at them." He turned and headed back for the stairs, pointing to a place underneath. "Before you take rooms, you'll need to clean 'em up."

Buck had stepped out onto the stairs. "Where you want to start, captain?" he asked, his eyes drifting over Sanchez and Tanner again. Curious, Chris knew, trying to figure out why Chris was interested in them. It was something Chris was trying to figure out, himself.

"How 'bout the flight deck?" Tanner suggested. "Seems it'll be needed before anything else."

It could have been an innocent statement, and given the way Buck and Sanchez didn't seem to give it a second thought, maybe it was. But the memory of Tanner's prediction about something happening "soon" bothered Chris.

They grabbed cleaning supplies from the storage closets off the galley and set about polishing the dust and dirt from the second most important room in the ship. Sanchez and Tanner worked efficiently but thoroughly, speaking little and mostly to each other. They'd done this sort of thing before; they had a routine, the same way he and Buck did.

"I'd forgotten how hot these hunks of metal get," Buck said, but with a certain affection.

Chris looked over at him in time to see him shrug out of his shirt, and rolled his eyes. "Faster we get her done, quicker we can get the air processors back on-line."

He was polishing the plating with a cleaner when he felt a rich tension thicken the air. When he looked over his shoulder, he wasn't really surprised to find his partner at the center of it; Tanner and Sanchez were too big a mystery for Buck not to poke at, and when it came to Buck Wilmington, there were only so many ways the man picked at a knot.

"Ain't you hot, Vin?" Buck asked. He was using a floor sweeper, picking up the dust and dirt that had fallen in the course of their cleaning, and he had moved in close to where Tanner knelt, wiping down the seals of one of the ports.

"Reckon I'm as hot as the rest of y'all," Tanner answered distractedly, concentrating on what he was doing. He didn't even glance Buck's way.

"Oh, I don't know," Buck said, playing his eyes over Tanner's body and paying close attention to his ass.

Chris snorted, amused at how flat Buck's flirtation fell. "Way a man looks when he's actually getting work done," he said, trying to goad Buck back to the tasks at hand.

"Now, Chris," Buck chided even as he continued his sweeping, "man can look good and still get the job done--hell, sometimes looking good is all it takes to get the job done. Look at me!" He took several steps as if he were dancing with the handle of the floor wipe, his long muscles shimmering with sweat and glittering a little with the dust wafting about the room.

He could, Chris thought grudgingly, but then he caught a glimpse of Sanchez. Chris narrowed his eyes, because no way would Buck not have noticed that. The big man had turned from his own chore of lubricating the chairs at the consoles and checking the safety fittings and was frowning across the room at Buck.

Protective, Chris thought, remembering the way Sanchez had run interference at the Fiddle, smoothing things over when Tanner's words had been irritating or ill-chosen. "Bet we'd get through with this a lot sooner if you put as much energy behind your cleaning as you do behind your yapping," Chris said with enough bite that Buck glanced at him.

Chris shot a quick look to Sanchez, leading Buck's attention. Something flickered across Buck's face, even as Sanchez said calmly to Chris, "You're gonna need to reseat these chairs. Some of these screws are stripped and one bad entry into atmosphere is going to land somebody on their head."

"Buck, you handle that," Chris ordered. "May as well take care of it now."

"And here I was, with my dance card full," Buck sighed as he set the floor wipe aside and went off in search of tools and screws.

Chris looked over to Sanchez who had gone back to what he was doing, but his face looked troubled.

It took them a couple of hours, but eventually, the flight deck was actually shining in some places, reminding Chris of what the Margaret May had looked like on their first trip. His crew looked a lot different though, and not just because they were covered from head to foot in sweat and grime.

"How 'bout a break?" Buck asked, handing out bottles of water he had brought back on his last trip to the supply closet.

Chris nodded his agreement as he pulled at the mouthpiece on his bottle, squirting the liquid into his mouth.

"Thought maybe we could pick quarters now," Vin said easily, using his discarded shirt to wipe sweat and dust out of his hair. Buck watched him, of course, his intrigue ill-concealed. "Y'all care which we take?"

Chris felt anxiety roil in his gut, and threw Buck a look that he figured telegraphed his uncertainty well enough.

"Give us a minute, boys," Buck said, and Chris let himself be herded back toward the crew quarters. The other two men tromped behind them, but they veered off, heading toward the cargo bay, and their gear--or a breeze from the open bay doors.

Once they were alone, Buck turned and leaned against one wall, raising his eyebrows. "You gonna let fate decide for us?" he asked, crossing his arms loosely over his chest.

Chris grimaced, hating to be pushed by Buck as much as by circumstances, but he knew his partner was right. He'd caught Buck in his and Sarah's old cabin a time or two over the years, just standing at the bottom of the ladder. Each time Buck had climbed back out, he'd had a somber look on his face, almost sad.

"You want my old bunk? Or yours?" Chris asked, keeping his voice neutral.

"Yours, long as you do," Buck replied, just as careful with him, and Chris cursed under his breath. They were both being so damned careful, neither of them knew what the other thought on the subject.

"It don't seem right asking you to share quarters with her ghost," Chris finally said into Buck's waiting silence. He expected annoyance, not that sudden softness that spread from Buck's eyes down into his body, making him look boneless and just about ready to slide down the wall into a puddle on the floor.

"Good memories there, Chris, for both of us."

"Well." Chris shuffled a little and cleared his throat, uncomfortable with this much old feeling. "Long as you don't mind, I'll try not to give you too much shit about it while I'm settling in."

Buck stepped up to him then, reaching out, and Chris straightened as Buck's arms slid around his waist and pulled him in close. "I'm happy with everything you give me, Chris," he said. "Always have been." Then he grinned. "And I never minded sharing those quarters when she was alive."

Buck hadn't, happy enough with the door cut through the partitions between what had officially been Sarah's and Chris's quarters, and his own, happy to share that big bed with the two of them whenever any of them wanted and just as happy that Sarah had never resented those nights when Chris wandered into Buck's quarters on his own. While Buck and Sarah had been better friends than lovers, it had worked for all three of them, right up until the end.

Chris huffed out a breath of laughter. "You're so sophisticated," he said, trying to mock Buck a little.

"Can't help the way I was raised," Buck said with a grin and a wink.

"All right, then," Chris said, dragging his mind back to the details. "We take my old cabin, keep the little one under the stairs here for a pilot if we can ever track one down, let Vin and Josiah pick from the other five." Chris nodded, glad that the choice was finally made. He didn't know what had worried him so much, but he had been. Worried. "Come on."

They tracked Vin and Josiah down in the cargo bay well away from the strewn engine parts, where Josiah was sitting on the stairwell. Vin lay back on the floor near him. "Five rooms to choose from," Chris told them.

Vin pulled up onto his elbows and glanced from Josiah to Chris. "Which one has the best furniture?"

"All the same, standard kits," Chris said.

"Your beds sturdy enough?" Vin asked easily.

"For what?" Chris asked, just as he heard Buck cough, trying and failing to cover a laugh. Chris got it then, and clenched his jaw tight on some choice words. Josiah covered his face with his hands. Buck chuckled lewdly.

Vin raised his eyebrows, looking around. "What? Y'all didn't think he was my pa, did you?"

Buck just laughed louder. "I didn't think he was your pa." When Buck's arm dropped heavily around his shoulder, Chris steeled himself for what he knew was coming. "As for the beds, they hold up well enough for Chris and me."

Josiah's head popped up in surprise at that, and Chris stared him down. He would have anyway, because his business was his own and he couldn't care less about other people's opinions of it. But he knew Buck had said it to put the old man at ease, and he tried hard not to resent it. "You can still have a cabin each, if you want 'em. But if you won't be using two, don't waste the space."

Vin pulled himself into a sitting position then looked over to Josiah. His eyes were big but soft now, and his lips carried that little quirk that Chris was getting used to. "Took me long enough to get into his bed," he said quietly, reaching out a hand and putting it on Sanchez's knee. "Don't want him to remember how much he liked sleeping alone."

Sanchez shook his head, but one of his hands fell to rest on top of Vin's. "One cabin will be fine," he said, looking back to Chris. "Probably be best to have the one furthest away from anyone else."

"The cabins are sound-dampened," Buck volunteered, "don't reckon you gotta worry about bothering anybody." Chris didn't have to look to know Buck was waggling his eyebrows.

"Was thinking more about privacy," Josiah answered easily, but his hand drew off of Vin's as he continued. "Vin has trouble sleeping from time to time and likes to walk around."

Chris didn't miss the way Tanner looked away, or the fact that his fingers tightened where they rested over Sanchez's knee. "You get space-happy?" he asked, worried again about what he was taking on here.

Sanchez opened his mouth to answer, but Tanner beat him to it. "Ain't got anything to do with the black--or being on dirt or anywhere else. And it ain't nothing for you to worry on." He rolled to his knees and rose to his feet, leaning back down to heft a pack. "We'll throw this stuff in a cabin and get back to work." He started off without looking back at any of them, not even Sanchez. The older man shook his head but hefted up his bag and followed.

Chris turned to glare at Buck as soon as the two men disappeared up the stairs. "You couldn't have mentioned that to me?"

"Hell, I wasn't sure," Buck said, holding his hands up in feigned self defense. "Age difference and all. I thought maybe, when we met 'em, then more when Sanchez gave me the evil eye upstairs. You know, I'm liking those two better all the time!" He pulled his arm from its resting place over Chris's shoulder and teased his hand down Chris's back to cup his ass. "Bet they could break a bed if they put their minds to it."

Chris shook his head. "Bet you could put your mind to getting some work done if you want to have any chance at breaking a bed of your own."

"That a challenge?" Buck asked, his mouth close to Chris's ear.

Chris turned quickly enough to brush his lips over Buck's, feeling the draw of breaking in their bed tug at him. "That's a promise."

Buck sighed and caught his jaw, holding him steady for a deeper, sweeter kiss. "Never been disappointed by your promises, Larabee," he whispered, and his tongue swiped like silk over Chris's open lips, his fingers spreading to tease along Chris's throat.

It wasn't going to work. Chris drew back as much as Buck's hand allowed, grinning up at his partner, and said as much. "You think you're gonna use your wiles to get out of some sweat equity here, you've got another think coming."

"Maybe I c'n just wave the bill of sale around, show who owns this thing. Somebody ought to respect that," Buck said, but his voice was still honey-sweet, his eyes still smiling, and Chris was tempted... sorely tempted.

It was in that temptation that he realized his head didn't hurt any more. "I want to get the common area cleaned up, maybe see about hiring some day labor to do the hard work in the cargo bay. Please?" he added as gently as he knew how to say the word, not above using some wiles of his own.

He watched Buck's pupils widen, glad he still had this kind of effect on a man who'd known more men and women than a non-professional had any right to.

"You are pure platinum, Larabee," Buck whispered.

Chris swallowed, wondering which of them was going to win this little contest. His groin throbbed to the beat of his heart much like his head had last night, catching up most of his attention.

As usual though, it was Buck who gave ground, stepping back with a theatrical shudder like he just couldn't get enough. "Come on then," Buck said. "If I've got a prize waiting at the end of the day, I'd best get through it."

Chris paused at the bottom of the stairs, watching Buck walk away from him, before shaking his head and jogging to catch up.

Buck left Chris standing in the cargo bay, and leaving the man was an effort, no two ways about that. When Chris got all smooth and manipulative, when Buck knew Chris's body was warming even while his mind sped along on all its various routes, it was damned hard to give in to the man and walk away. But he did, shaking his head at all that natural ability and tactical skill, proud of it even when Chris used it against him to get his own way. Chris might doubt himself, rarely, but very few people around him ever doubted him, Buck included. He just had that way about him that made you hate him or made you love him or made you want to follow him-Buck had seen people do it for decades, sometimes trying to cut Buck out and sometimes just walking right alongside them both. Chris had ignored those people who did the former, and let the latter do as they pleased as long as they also did as they were told.

Buck had chosen two out of three, himself, and never regretted it.

He ducked into the mess to find Josiah already there with most of the supplies they'd used on the flight deck.

"Ready to go again?" Buck asked him, unsurprised when he received no friendly reply. Josiah didn't know quite how to behave, not toward Buck who'd flirted a little with his man, and not toward his man either, as far as Buck could tell.

He heard Chris behind him and turned, but Chris hadn't stepped to the stairs. Instead, Chris had his head bent over the closest cabin door, the one it looked like Josiah and Vin had picked. It was a little bigger than the rest, and it would do the pair of them fine. What Chris was doing peering down into it, though, was a mystery.

Then Chris hollered, "Tanner!" down the hole, which cleared that up.

Vin had stepped up behind Chris while Chris was bent over, and peered over his shoulder. When Chris hollered, Vin reached and tapped him on the shoulder; Buck thought he'd do himself an injury, holding in his laughter when Chris stiffened like he'd been shot, and collected himself again just as quick to tilt his head and give Vin a hard look.

Tanner stood there, grinning. "What?"

Buck couldn't hold back anymore; Chris didn't ruffle easily, but it was clear this Tanner ruffled him. "You expecting an ambush, pard?" he asked, not so loud as to mortify Chris, but loud enough, Chris couldn't miss it. Chris shot him a dark look and pushed past him into the mess.

Buck found himself next to Vin while both of them watched Chris go. "You're a sneaky bastard," he said, slapping Vin on the back when Vin made to pass him. But he let his eyes drift over the younger man, appreciating the tone of his muscles and testing the waters a little. "Might come in handy."

"I've been told I'm pretty handy," Vin said easily, grinning.

Buck wasn't sure if Vin picked up on his innuendo, but then Vin's grin widened, and he shook his head in understanding. "I'd best get back to helping Josiah - we're almost finished up."

Buck watched Vin walk away, appreciating his easy stride, then he turned to find Chris smirking at him. "Best not try to play too much there," Chris muttered when Buck came alongside him, "not until he gets to know you well enough to understand you don't mean anything."

"Who says I don't?" Buck grinned. "That boy's right easy on the eyes, and I get the impression he'd be a handful horizontal." Chris frowned, and Buck just loved the way his eyes went a little stormy in spite of his best efforts. He slipped his hand around Chris's waist, tugging him toward the common room. "Looks like you're no little jealous," he teased.

Chris smiled faintly. "You give me cause to be?" Buck smiled and shook his head. Except for a little time there during the war, when Chris was too full of grief and Buck too full of anger, he hadn't wandered since they'd married, and Chris knew it-knew he had nothing to worry about there, not from Buck. It looked like Vin Tanner was ruffling more than Chris's composure.

"You know you've got nothing to worry about," he said, not really needing to but willing anyway.

"You might, if you piss off Sanchez," Chris muttered. "He tries to break you in half for that gou shi, I won't stop him." But there was a hint of a grin on his face as he walked away. Buck leaned against the doorway and watched Chris's ass sway as he walked down the steps into the mess, touched in spite of himself.

"Hey," he said from his perch at the top of the stairs. He waited until Chris turned and looked back at him. But with Chris standing there all prickly and worrying on him, Buck found he had nothing to say. Plenty of things he wanted to do, but they'd keep for a while. He took the stairs two at a time and stepped up close enough to make Chris give him a censuring frown, and grinned at him. "What're you standing around for?" Buck finished. "Let's get to work."

They weren't at it ten minutes before Josiah and Vin came back in, though when Buck tried to start up a conversation with Josiah, the big man all but ignored him. Buck checked on Chris who yes, was laughing at him again, then cast a critical eye around the space. It was too big to just start in one corner of, but too important to leave off making the place livable again.

The combined galley, dining, and common area was the best place in the ship for gathering, was in fact designed for that purpose. The long, open dining space that sat atop the Maggie's spine had itself a table for ten, if they liked each other well enough, and a side table across from the galley with four more chairs. Bar stools locked into the deck plates in front of the kitchen counter, and everything Buck could see wore a fine coat of dust and grime. At one end of the room was a circular sitting area, and it looked like someone had got started there, suctioned the curved couch and worn, comfortable chairs. A table in front of it--also clean--let it double as an eating space in a pinch, or for people who wanted a little privacy.

Chris had figured out the same in the time it took Buck to look around, and he pointed at the floor. "You two," he said to Josiah and Vin, "haul the deck plates up, then clean up the kitchen. I'll get the sub-floor, check the conduits while I'm at it."

Josiah and Vin made short work of pulling up and hauling the floor plates away, stacking them off to one side, then they set out working as they had before. The two of them seemed more practiced at cleaning kitchens than Buck hoped he ever would be. It was telling, he thought; their ease in finding their way around the new ship told him that they moved around a lot, and the way they worked told him at least one of them was a firm believer in cleanliness.

"So, where you hail from?" he asked after a while. "You two clean like you've had a lifetime in the service."

"Did some time in the service, yes," Josiah answered, glancing over at Buck. "Long enough to know how to handle myself and any trouble comes my way."

"Reckon you do," Buck said, friendly. "Ain't many of us around these days that haven't served, on one side or the other. What was your specialty?"

"Chaplains Service," Josiah answered, confirming what Buck had surmised. "But I did a long stint with the artillery. Vin was infantry."

Buck glanced at the younger man; he didn't look near old enough.

"War?" Chris asked, his tone sharp.

Josiah looked up from where he was scouring something unrecognizable out of the bottom of a heating unit, and his eyes were softer on Chris. "Like too many," he said quietly. "I got out before it was over, couldn't stand it. Vin--well, he wasn't given an option."

Buck glanced too, worried about how Chris might take that. Like himself, though, Chris seemed to be more interested in Vin's age. "How old are you, Tanner?" Chris asked.

Vin looked up and shrugged, blowing at the wisps of hair that hung down over his eyes. "Now? Twenty-three or thereabouts. I was about fifteen when they decided that us Studstill kids could serve the Alliance better as regular conscripts."

Buck stared at him. He shouldn't have been surprised. He'd heard enough stories about how the Alliance treated its dependents if they had no money or connections, and he knew that state-run facilities were better than letting a kid starve on the streets--but fodder for the war effort? "Of all the...."

"Fifteen?" Chris repeated, his eyes wide.

Vin looked back down at the drawer he was cleaning, uncomfortable. Sanchez was the one who answered quietly, "It's over now, for all of us. No use worrying over something that can't be changed."

"Next time, we'll figure out a way to win," Vin said, with far too much certainty in his voice for Buck's liking.

"I spent the last year of the war searching for answers at the Southdown Abbey," Josiah said conversationally, keeping his eyes on his cleaning. "It was while I was working there that I met Vin, just before the war was declared over."

"That the reason you left the monastery?" Buck asked, glad that Chris had returned to cleaning. He didn't know squat about Southdown, but he knew most monasteries were strict on coupling and stricter on gender. Add to it that Vin had been barely a man that long ago, well, that could explain a lot.

"One of them," Josiah answered. "The Lord works in His own time and His own way."

"Reckon if he's sending out gifts like Vin, I might need to rethink my faith," Buck said, trying to lighten the conversation.

"Reckon you'd better not," Chris said darkly, but the twinkle in his eyes was as clear as day, right back behind that scowl. Buck shot his captain a cocky grin, but he shut up and got back to work.

Four pairs of hands made short work of an ugly job; not much later, the empty refrigerators stood open, airing out the bleach and detergent Josiah had used to kill the mold and cut the dust, and all of the cabinets and drawers in the galley looked as clean and smelled as fresh as the day they were new. That man didn't do anything by halves, and Buck wondered if he always worked this way or if they were getting some sort of special effort on the big man's part.

Glad as he was of good help, he was more interested in the couple they made. They were an interesting pair. Vin had that comfortable air of the long haul about him, and he seemed happy about it and mostly happy with the man he'd chosen. Josiah... there was a man conflicted if Buck had ever seen one. Josiah worked alongside Vin with the same ease of long practice that Vin showed, but he kept catching himself reaching out to Vin then pulling back. It looked like half the time he was remembering he was supposed to be mad about something.

He wondered what it was; after Vin's announcement about liking sturdy furniture-and after just taking an objective look or two at Vin's form-he couldn't see how the problem lay in their sex life. On the other hand, Vin did have an air of the insane about him. At least, Chris said so; Buck hadn't really seen evidence of that beyond occasional vague looks that would cross his face, before he or Josiah would snap him out of it.

Buck grinned. It'd make for an entertaining drama to watch on long trips, if nothing else.

Vin and Buck replaced the deck plates once Chris had finished out the sub-floor, then Vin took a mop to them. After, Vin righted the chairs and pushed them back under the table, then untied the band he'd been using to hold back his hair, shaking it loose. "What's next? The rest of the cabins in the same shape as the one Josiah and I took?"

Chris nodded while Buck pulled a chair back out and dropped heavily into it, eyeing the empty shelves. His stomach growled, and he checked his chrono--yeah, it was so far past suppertime, it was closing in on bedtime. Buck thought for a minute, wondering which of his appetites he'd give in to first.

Chris pulled out the chair next to him, swiveling it around and straddling its back. He looked tired too, and a little pinched around the eyes as if his head were bothering him again.

"Want us to get on those next?" Vin asked.

"Yeah, might as well," Buck said, sighing. He'd gone hungry before, and it wasn't going to kill him to do it again.

A ruckus amidships had Chris on his feet, body stiff and ready for a fight, but Buck had already recognized the noisy voices. Hell, Chris probably had too. Chris had never liked Jayne Cobb much, had never trusted him, whereas Buck knew exactly what drove the man and trusted him to be exactly what he was: a dumb, competent, entertaining thug who you didn't turn your back on when money was involved.

"It's just Jayne," Buck said anyway, because Vin and Josiah had also gone on the alert. "Jayne Cobb, and Kaylee--did you catch her last name, Chris?" At Chris's negative headshake, Buck went on. "They're on loan from a friend of ours, helping us get the engine spaceworthy."

Jayne shouldered through the doorway at that moment with Kaylee on his heels, and Buck spared a moment to appreciate their forms, absently thinking about his impressions of them back at the Fiddle. Kaylee was a pretty one all right, healthy and round and fresh even with engine grease running halfway up both her arms and her hair all tangled and messy. Jayne still filled out his tight clothes in a way Buck couldn't help but appreciate: hard muscle, big form, a little more weight on his bones than the last time Buck had seen him... and Jayne wouldn't appreciate his harmless interest like Kaylee would. He noticed that Josiah was giving Jayne a similar look-see, but for entirely different reasons. Measuring the man, and the possible threat of him. Buck glanced between the two of them: Jayne was bigger and younger and no doubt more skilled at fighting, but Josiah's weight shifted to the balls of his feet, light and on the ready. Looked like he'd be good in a fight.

"But I've just about got this bit done, Jayne!" Kaylee was saying. "Just a little longer, and--"

"Just a little longer and you'll be on to the next bit," Jayne said flatly. "I'm hungry, and--" He stopped dead, taking in the empty refrigerators and bare cupboards before he even acknowledged the strangers in the room. "Y'all ain't got no food on board? What the hell you been doing all this time?" he demanded.

Chris took a step forward. "Yeah, Jayne, I'll introduce you," he said dryly. "This here's Josiah, and that's Vin," he said, pointing to each.

Jayne nodded. "Jayne Cobb," he said, then turned back to Chris. "Seriously, Chris, you ain't got nothing to eat in here?"

"That's 'Captain' to you, Jayne," Chris snapped, and Buck stood up and stepped in before Chris got hungry for blood.

"We're going out for dinner," Buck said. "I'm even buying," he added, coddling Jayne some, he knew, but damn it, he liked the man, liked how little he needed to be satisfied with his life.

"Fair enough," Jayne replied. He turned toward the door like they were heading out right this minute. "Come on, then."

Chris held up a hand. "We aren't going out to eat when we've got too much to do here yet," he said, surprising Buck a little. He wondered what the hurry was all of a sudden. "Buck, you fetch us something," Chris ordered.

"All righty."

Chris dropped back into his chair, folding his arms along its back. "Check us out of the inn while you're out. No sense paying for lodging when we've got our own right here."

That had been Buck's argument a week ago, one Chris had rejected without saying why. Buck figured picking their cabin today had been the reason and nodded his agreement. "Okay. I'll take Vin along, let him help carry."

Chris shot Buck an annoyed look. "You can take Jayne," Chris said. "No sense taking someone who might actually get some work done."

It took Jayne Cobb a second to realize he'd been insulted. "Hey! I'm doin' my share! I've been hauling shit and laying out tools and holding up engine parts the whole damned day."

"He has," Kaylee agreed, sensing tension and quick to ease it. "He's been real helpful. I couldn't have done some of it myself."

Buck snorted when Chris frowned his annoyance to the room at large. He paused behind Chris's chair to drop his hands to his partner's shoulders and squeeze. "Settle down now, pard. We know Jayne's been helping, don't we?"

Chris tilted his head around to look at him, his eyes clearly saying he wouldn't admit it even if he did know it, and Buck smiled fondly. Stubborn to a fault, that was Chris.

"Come on, Jayne, let's get moving. We'll pick up Chris's and my stuff from the Fiddle, then I know a great place to grab dinner that won't cost us an arm."

"I'm gonna eat your arm if you don't hurry up and get me some grub," Jayne threatened. "Chris, folks," he nodded to everybody, and Buck marveled at how well Mal Reynolds seemed to be teaching Jayne manners.

The light had gone while they worked inside, and a dusky sun hid somewhere behind the smog layer and turned the sky over the spaceport pretty shades of pink. "Good chance for us to catch up, Jayne," he said, grabbing a thick forearm arm to steer him down the market.

"Food," Jayne said, obstinately single-minded.

Buck chuckled. "Yeah, Jayne, food." He bought Jayne a kabob at the first stand they passed just to keep him quiet, and they headed on to the Fiddle.

"Them two aboard the Margaret May new crew?" Jayne asked between big bites off his kabob.

"Looks like," Buck said. "We hired 'em on today." They walked on companionable silence mostly because Jayne's mouth stayed full, and the big man finished his kabob about the time they approached the inn's rooming house door. "Come on, you can help me pack up."

"Well, seein' as you fed me something to tide me over," Jayne said, and offered up a smile that was all teeth and humor. They took the stairs two at a time and Buck used his key, pausing just inside the door to make sure everything was as it should be; old habits died hard.

"You lookin' for trouble?" Jayne asked.

"No. Don't mean trouble don't find us now and again."

They got packed up in no time and Buck stopped by the desk on his way out, signing for a receipt and handing over his key. "You forfeit tonight's room," the woman behind the counter said.

"Yeah, I know. I'll take the rest though." They'd paid up through the end of the week, after all. Buck watched her count his platinum and pocketed it, then he shouldered Chris's lighter bag. "Let's go," he said, hoping that Chris was faring well with the new folks, and being kind to Kaylee.

When they stopped for food at Silva's, near the Fiddle, Buck handed off both of the carryalls and carried the food himself, because he knew that Jayne would start eating while they walked back to the ship otherwise. The food did smell good, making his mouth water and his stomach growl again, and he'd bought enough of it that he'd needed to rent a basket to push it back to the ship. Dinner was already hot, some kind of stir-fry with fried rice in huge paper boxes, and breakfast tomorrow would likely be the roasted chickens he'd finagled out of Silva for a bearable price, and two apples for Kaylee. Silva'd thrown in eggs when he'd offered to mention her again to his mother's old house, because she sniffed around a good contract like Jayne sniffed around an ammunition wholesaler. He should've stopped by a real shop, stocked up while they were still out in Brunswick; stores and staples cost five times as much here, and most of the fools parking their ships here didn't have the sense or the time to take a train out into the country to get a better deal.

Chris trotted down the stairs and across the deck to meet them when they reached the ship, following his nose. "What'd you get us?" he asked, grabbing up bags and one box, leaving the other for Buck. Jayne, grumbling, took off at a run to return the cart they'd used to haul most of what they'd brought back.

"Little of this, little of that. No dog," he added, "but not because it wasn't cheap."

"Always is," Chris replied. "Too tough, though."

"Yep." They shouldered the food and got it into the kitchen just as Josiah and Vin wandered in.

"Thought I smelled something," Josiah said mildly, but he stood away from the bar, waiting politely--right between Buck and Vin. Buck couldn't tell if Vin noticed or not, the younger man's attention on--the wall, from what Buck could tell. He was staring hard enough that Buck actually glanced over to see if there was a bug or something, but no. Just a clock that was broken and that somebody really ought to fix. Vin flinched in surprise but smiled when Josiah reached out and caught his arm to draw him close, and leaned comfortably against the bigger man. They seemed intimate, affectionate in a way that confirmed what Buck had already decided: they were in it for the long haul, even if they were clearly having some trouble.

"Josiah, get this packed away," Chris ordered, breaking the moment. Buck hid a grin; Chris always did like to get the crew used to pulling their load right from the start. "Vin, go fetch Kaylee out of the engine room, tell her supper's on, and help her close up anything needs closing."

Vin nodded and took off, and they had bowls out and containers open before he got back with her. Jayne trotted through the door a minute after that, panting lightly and holding their carryalls. "Where do these go?" he asked.

Chris raised his eyebrows, surprised, but Buck just smiled. Chris didn't understand Jayne, who didn't see the need to wait to be told something if it was clearly in need of doing.

"Leave 'em by the door there," Buck instructed. "We'll take 'em to our cabin after supper."

Everybody settled in quickly, Chris at the head of the table, Jayne, Vin and Josiah on one side, and Buck and Kaylee on the other. Buck split his attention between the good grub and his companions. One of the things his mother had taught him when he was barely walking was that you could tell a lot about someone by their manners.

Chris, of course, he'd known long enough to know everything about.

Jayne ate like he was being paid to do it, or worried he wouldn't get his fair share if he fell behind--typical poor kid from a big family. But he was friendly at the table too, making an effort to be sociable. Kaylee ate slowly, clearly enjoying the flavor of the food more than the sustenance it offered. She didn't use her fingers much, just to pick up bits of chicken and to push rice on her plate. It was a pleasure to watch her pleasure at eating, and he found himself sneaking more glances at her than anybody.

But his real interest, when she wasn't distracting him, was on their new crew.

Josiah was mannered, if simple, and knew his way around a meal table as well as a kitchen. He was also discreet; had Buck not been looking for it, he wouldn't have caught how the man paused and just barely bowed his head, a silent grace. He ate sedately and used his napkin often and well.

And, like Buck, he kept his eyes on those around him. Mostly, though, on Vin.

Vin was not as bad as Jayne, but Buck thought that might have had to do with the subtle reminders Josiah proffered, little touches to his hand where it rested on the table, his arm curled protectively around his bowl when he wasn't holding it up to his mouth to shovel in the rice. He'd had to fight for food, Buck thought, and from the way he gripped the chopsticks like most would a blade, he'd been good at it. Studstill, Buck remembered, then noticed how Vin kept his head down, his eyes on the circumference of his bowl like he was guarding it against potential invasion. Probably, he was.

Eventually, as the initial hunger passed and Jayne and Vin demolished their first helpings, conversation picked back up.

"Y'all got enough for seconds?" Jayne asked, staring hungrily at the boxes spread out across the table.

Buck handed down the box of the stuff he didn't care for as much; Jayne hadn't shown much preference, after all.

"Thanks." Jayne started to upend it, paused, and tilted it just to its side, pouring some out but leaving a little for somebody else.

Buck grinned and reached for more rice. "Here, Jayne," he said, passing it along as well; the man had already emptied the one in front of him.

"I'm all right," Jayne said, looking uncomfortable, which made Buck want to laugh. Bull in a china shop, trying not to knock over anything he couldn't afford.

"I'll take it," Vin said, reaching. He'd actually scooted back so that his ass wasn't parked on the very edge of his chair, settling down a little now that he'd gotten something in his belly. He poured most of the rice out before he handed the rest to Josiah, who nodded his thanks with a slight smile.

"You buy raw rice?" Josiah asked as he carefully measured more into his own bowl before putting the box on the table. As he picked up his chopsticks, his free hand dropped to rest comfortably on Vin's arm. Buck would have bet platinum that the man didn't even know he was doing it.

"Not yet. Bread though, for breakfast."

"Bread?" Kaylee asked, looking hopeful.

Buck turned in his chair, the better to see her. "Yeah. I'll show you a shop where you can buy the good stuff, not too far from the port. They bake it fresh every morning."

"Mmm," she replied, her eyes half-closing, and Buck thought she looked like nothing more than a woman on the edge of an orgasm. "I'd be happy just to smell it," she added dreamily, and a little shiver ran through her that made Buck shift in his chair.

"I'll eat your share then," Jayne said, chortling like he thought he was being funny. "What're y'all planning to do with this ship?" he asked.

He'd asked Buck, but it was Chris who answered. "I've already got some work lined up."

Buck had kind of liked it when Chris had opted to work at the docks, because it had honed him back into his finest form, and what man wouldn't appreciate that? But it had clearly been good for his spirit too, and in retrospect, Chris's work at the docks had been a perfect prelude for heading back out into the black. Chris's grit had made the hard men and women who ran freight for their livings respect him, and there weren't many who missed what he stood for or how hard he was willing to fight for it.

Chris had already lined up a contract for a haul from here to Boros in a few weeks' time, when they'd figured the Margaret May would have the dust shaken off her, and he had the promise of more work from more than one shipper. It might be enough to make the Maggie pay for herself while they examined their options.

"Well, won't be long," Kaylee piped up, finishing off her own plate and pushing it away. "I should have the engine put back together tomorrow night, if the cleaning goes easy tomorrow."

"That quick?" Chris asked, looking skeptical.

"Oh, she's a lot easier to put back together than she is to take apart, 'specially when she's clean." She sat back in her chair, crossing her legs almost demurely, and Buck couldn't help but grin at her. Even blotted with grease and with her hair tied back by a pink oil rag, a woman was always a woman.

"Two days?" Vin piped up, his chopsticks paused on their way to his mouth. "It gonna be able to fly then?"

Buck tilted his head, curious about the way Josiah tapped Vin's arm, his face set in a frown. But Vin was looking at Kaylee, with none of that vagueness in his eyes.

"Soon as the engine's back together, yeah," she shrugged, wasting a pretty grin on the oblivious young man. "We'll need to take her orbital before I can adjust some bits just right, but yeah, once the engine's up, she's good to go. Why, you got somewhere you need to be?"

She meant it as a flirt, and Buck glanced to Sanchez to see if he was jealous of a pretty girl. Sanchez's eyes were closed, though, and he was sighing as if he knew what was to come.

"Yeah," Vin answered. "Ain't sure where yet, but we'll know by this time tomorrow." The words were easy, and Vin delivered them as though he were talking about the weather. He took the waiting mouthful, looking down to his bowl without a second thought.

Buck blinked, glanced to Kaylee who was staring pretty, wide-eyed confusion at Vin, then looked to Chris. Chris was staring at Vin as well, but his eyes held no surprise.

"You know something we don't?" Jayne asked, but Buck heard the note of fear in the other man's voice. Jayne was superstitious, and it sure sounded like Vin thought he was telling the future.

Before Vin could answer, Josiah spoke up, his tone soft and gentle. Buck had the feeling he'd done a lot of this in the time he'd been with Vin. "Sometimes Vin overhears things," he said smoothly. But his fingers tightened around Vin's wrist. Vin glanced at Josiah, and Buck watched irritation flare in his blue eyes, but he didn't argue.

"Mighty useful talent," Chris agreed, pushing his own bowl away with food left in it. "But if you're right," he went on, turning the conversation, "we ain't nowhere near ready to take on a job. It's just the four of us, as I can't see Mal taking kindly to us carting part of his crew away. Anybody know anyone who might suit us?"

Buck saw Jayne's eyes flicker back to Vin, saw the worry in them, but he answered cautiously, "What kind of crew you looking for?"

Chris shrugged and sat back. "Crew willing to fly out in two days, if need be," he answered lightly. "Crew who can adapt on their feet. Why, you know someone?"

Jayne looked as surprised as Buck was that Chris was listening to him at all. "Maybe," he said, wary of Chris's good humor towards him. "I know a guy here who's pretty good at running his mouth, smooth talker. Might come in handy in some situations."

"Yeah?" Chris prompted, and he crossed one leg over the other, looking at Jayne in a way that made Buck wonder--until he realized, suddenly, that Chris was working to draw Jayne's attention away from Vin.

The thought was so startling that he actually sat forward, dropping his chopsticks into his bowl. He cut his eyes to Vin. The man was still staring into his bowl, eating more slowly now. Sanchez's hand was on him, his grip not as tight now but not as easy as it had been before Vin started talking.

Chris slipped out of his chair and reached out a hand, clasping Buck's shoulder as he said more loudly, "So tell me about your friend, Jayne."

Jayne's eyes had drifted back to Vin, but he jerked when Chris said his name. "My friend? Oh, yeah, not my friend. I mean, I knowed him a little from when he booked passage with Serenity. He's slick as snot, Ezra is, and he knows everybody who's anybody in the smuggling business. He'd be worth your time to talk to, maybe."

"Why ain't Mal keeping him on?" Chris asked. Jayne's opinion of people's character wasn't worth anything at all to Chris, but Chris must know the man could spot talent.

"Mal won't trust him, 'cause he went and stiffed him for credits," Jayne said with a chuckle. "He suckered Mal into a free ride to Boros and it weren't til we were almost to Persephone that Mal figured out the money he was throwing around was counterfeit. Mal spaced it, and threatened to space him too, but decided it'd be easier to set him down here. He confiscated Ezra's belongings, almost everything but the clothes on his back, a carryall, and his idents."

Josiah put in, "We want a crook and a counterfeiter why?" Like Chris, he, too, seemed to have finished eating; he sat back in his chair, and his arm fell easily along the back of Vin's.

Jayne looked like he hadn't thought of it like that exactly, but it was Chris who said, "Might come in handy. Can he do anything else?"

"Talk. Use a sword--don't know how good he was, though. I don't know nothin' about swordplay. Shoot straight. Wrestle. I took him down every time, but he weren't bad." Jayne pushed his bowl back and burped loudly.

"He trustworthy?" Chris asked, and Buck frowned at the question. Obviously, the man wasn't.

Jayne just shrugged. "'Bout as trustworthy as anybody who owes you money. But uh," and here Jayne lowered his voice as if this stranger might hear, "he don't like being stuck dirt side. Got the feeling he wasn't welcome in these here parts, even though he didn't say nothing about it. You give him a reason to come with you, I reckon he would."

"What's his last name?" Chris asked, sounding no more than curious, but Buck understood. With his legal connections, he could check this guy out, see if he was worth taking a chance on.

"Standish," Jayne said. "Mal'll have a copy of his idents, but he ain't run 'em through the Coretex. You know how Mal feels about the Alliance."

"Same way I do, Jayne," Chris said from behind Buck.

Buck watched Jayne's eyes track to where Chris's hand still rubbed at his shoulder, caught the sneer Jayne couldn't quite hold back. Buck twisted around in his chair until he was facing Chris, reaching a hand up to cover Chris's own. The best way to teach Jayne anything was just to show him. "You want me to see if I can wave Mal? Ask him to forward any information he's got?"

Chris nodded and squeezed his shoulder again. "Yeah. Careful though, all right?"

"Pard, I don't know any other way to be." He pushed up from the table, nodding his thanks for the dinner company before he headed up to the helm.

Closing the hatch and dropping into the pilot's chair, he powered up the Navcom and sent a wave, being properly vague but still getting his point across. It'd take it a while to catch up to Mal and Serenity, but his ship was sailing to Rosetta: plenty of traffic went that way, and stations supported comms along all the regular routes. They'd reach out to whatever route Mal Reynolds had taken.

He spent a little more time chatting with the Coretex, framing his questions carefully so as not to draw unwanted attention, and before he signed off, sent a wave to his mom. Then he sat back in the pilot's chair and watched the pretty lights outside the viewports. Parked like she was, Buck couldn't see beneath the ship, but he had a nice view of the ships around them, and in the spaces between, swathes of the slums around the docks. In the distance, buildings of Alliance construction reached toward the sky.

Demeter was one of the most civilized cities on Persephone, made so by Alliance tax dollars and Alliance military support. He didn't mind looking at it, and he hadn't minded working in it for a time, but he'd be happier to put it behind him.

Chris had sent everybody packing as soon as Buck left the room. It was late enough for bed, and he'd promised Buck something if they got the common room cleaned up. "Jayne, Kaylee, you c'n bunk in the guest cabins," he told them.

Kaylee nodded, but got a little hopeful look and turned to Jayne. "Jayne? You willing to lift just a couple more things for me? I got the underhousing down but I need it out of the way. You do that, I c'n get a little more done tonight while you hit the sack."

"Yeah, yeah," Jayne muttered.

"Thanks, Chris," Vin said, while Josiah stacked up bowls and collected their trash.

"Leave the dishes, Josiah," Chris said when the big man made his way to the sinks.

"I don't mind."

"I do. Engine's down, fuel cells are connected through the engine room so until it cranks, we're running on backup batteries. Water recycling takes too much out of them. Kill the lights when you leave, and get some rest. We start early in the morning."

Josiah didn't look happy about that, but Chris didn't much care. He gathered up his and Buck's carryalls, but before he'd gotten far, Vin caught up to him in the companionway.

"Standish," he whispered. "I recognized his name."

"You know why?" Chris asked, annoyed at these half-stories and uncertainty. If Vin knew something useful, that'd be one thing.


Chris felt the tick start up in his jaw, but Vin didn't comment on his annoyance--hell, he might not have even recognized it. Vin just grinned and said, "If he's in debt, he'll work cheap."

Vin was a bit like Buck, Chris realized, in how he ignored Chris's sharp edges. Probably, it was a good thing. "Or he won't work at all."

Vin shrugged, and glanced back up the hall where Josiah waited by their cabin door. "Just thought you should know," he said and drifted back up the hall.

Chris watched him, saw how he practically slithered up and against Josiah, saw how Josiah frowned and tried to shrug him off but then rested a hand on his shoulder before waving him to the ladder first. He grinned; that was a lot like him and Buck, too.

He trod lightly on up the hall, noting the closed door to the flight deck and trying to decide what to do. He'd thought maybe he'd go to his and Buck's quarters, but Buck hadn't been down there yet, and he wanted--he wanted stupid things, like to remember. To forget.

He'd actually hoisted Sarah down that ladder the first time they'd gone in as husband and wife, and she'd been screaming and laughing, her pistol poking him in the belly and threatening his dick the way they half-climbed, half-fell down. She hadn't even let him close the door.

Buck had been down there--well, down in "his" quarters, leaning in the door they'd cut through the bulkhead. He'd laughed at them, a question in his eyes for Sarah. Buck had figured he knew how Chris would answer, and hadn't even looked Chris's way.

Howdy, darlin', Sarah had said to Buck--her own answer--trilling her fingers at him before she'd tackled Chris onto the big bed. It wasn't like this was their first time.

Chris had finally set to work getting that damned holster and sidearm off before she did him serious damage, and he'd felt extra hands at her waist, felt Sarah go expectantly still above him. Then Buck's shadow had blotted out the overhead light, and the two of them had squashed the stuffing out of him, laughing. So much laughter.

He couldn't imagine the man he'd have become if Buck hadn't been beside him. As it was, the 'verse had gotten ugly and dark after Alliance arrogance had killed Sarah and Adam, Allie, Chi, and others he had been responsible for, and Chris had been plenty pissed off at every part of it. Even Buck, for finding a way through the grief. Buck's mother, Margaret May Wilmington--the ship's namesake--had reserved some choice words to rain down on Chris, words like life, and love, and devotion. He remembered fool and bai chi, and squander everything you have left sprinkled in liberally, too.

Later, after the war and more losses, when he'd been able to breathe again without every inhalation hurting his heart like a knife, Chris had found that Margaret's wisdom had percolated in. She wasn't wrong, after all; he did still have Buck and his future intact.

It had been easier, with Buck, to get a lot of that laughter back, enough that now he didn't want to go down this damned ladder by himself even though both of them trying was sure to net them a broken leg at the bottom. Buck might understand, or Buck might laugh at him some more, and he'd never live that down.

He bent to drop both their bags down, then reached for a ladder rung and hauled himself down after them, reaching to trigger the door. Above him, it closed with a sigh.

This cabin was cleaner than the others, and he knew that was because of Buck. A few things still remained, things Buck had obviously snuck out of their house and deposited here before they'd limped the Maggie to the Eavesdown docks. Not too much, though: a folded quilt lay across the end of the bare mattress, one Sarah's mother had made them, "extra-long, for Buck's big feet," she'd whispered to Chris and Sarah, her face torn between discomfort and laughter. She had come around, because her daughter was happy--even though Hank never had.

A long fold of silk, deep green shot with threads of gold, was draped over a mirror mounted tight to the wall--the cloth Sarah had used as a veil when they got married. Strands of shell necklaces hung from the low posts on the bed, their celebration necklaces from the first planet they'd visited after the wedding. Her honeymoon reminders, she'd laughed, seashells from a desert world where the only water lay in the underground lakes where the three of them had laughed and played naked for a night before taking on contraband cargo.

A photo frame sat by the bed, the picture one of him and Sarah, and he knew if he pressed the button what others would rotate through: that one of Sarah naked, sheet pulled up over her breasts and one finger pointing, mock-angry, threatening the life of the photographer. Buck. It was one of their favorites, always had been. The ones Sarah had sneaked of them in pretty much the same positions. He went to it and rotated through its memory until just he and Buck were on display, him smiling, Buck's arm resting heavily around his shoulder.

He wasn't going to keep his ghosts here. He wasn't going to do that to either of them.

Somewhere there were linens, army brown because Chris had spaced everything Buck hadn't hidden away years ago. He set to work with a simple plan: make the bed, put away their gear, and wait.

He heard Buck whistling on the gangway above just after the door hissed open and locked back. "Aww, you didn't wait for me!" Buck said as he scrambled down the ladder. "I was going see if I could get you to carry me down."

"Drop you down, more like," Chris said, throwing him a censuring look before admitting, "I thought about that myself. Decided it wasn't worth injuries."

Buck's smile softened and Chris took the initiative, walking up to Buck and pressing both hands flat against his chest, feeling it move with Buck's slowing breaths. He pressed a little harder when Buck made to lean toward him, holding him still. Making him wait.

He'd known plenty about men and women and relations before he and Buck had gotten serious, but he'd learned plenty, too. Learned about observing rituals, taking things slow. Learned how much a man fucked with his brain as well as his cock, no matter what he might think. Twisting his wrists, he drew his fingers outward over Buck's ribs, and felt Buck's nipples pebble against his palms. Buck's hands reached, fingers circling his wrists and just holding onto them. "Chris..."

Buck liked to say none of this was necessary, and it wasn't. But then, plenty of things worth doing weren't necessary, either. They were setting a new course now, and it deserved a little acknowledgment. Buck leaned his head forward just enough to drag his lips over Chris's temple, not quite a kiss. His fingers slid up Chris's arms, over his shirtsleeves until his thumbs pressed into Chris's elbows, and Chris felt the blood pulse in his veins under that light pressure. Gentle. So filled with easy anticipation. He sucked in a ragged breath, and Buck smiled at him.

"Pure platinum," Buck breathed, and Chris smiled back.

At this steady pace, it took them a while to undress, and Chris stood still for all of it: for Buck's fingers finally reaching his throat and working down his front, easing shirt buttons loose; for his own hands to mirror Buck's actions; for Buck's fingers to slide in under the waistband of his pants, just tickling over his bare skin there, warming him in all parts but especially parts south. His cock strained toward Buck's fingers, but they danced away and eased his gun belt off.

Belt and gun dropped to the deck with a muted thunk.

They were both panting and Chris was achingly erect by the time they separated to pull their boots off, and as soon as Chris straightened back up Buck dropped to the floor, his knees spread wide outside Chris's feet. Chris smiled and bent to slide his fingers into that wealth of hair, petting, knowing that he wasn't about to get what it looked like he was. Buck just looked at him, palms running up and down Chris's thighs, and Chris felt his cock swell further under that hungry gaze. When Buck leaned forward Chris sucked in a sharp breath. Anticipating the tongue that licked the pearly droplet off the tip of his cock, he shuddered at the thrill that small touch sent through him, and fought against his urge to just grab Buck's head and rut into his mouth.

Buck looked up and Chris just stared down, at his erection that hid part of Buck's face, at the heat and love in deep blue eyes gone almost black here in the dim light. "What can I do?" Buck whispered.

"Everything." Chris swallowed, cleared his throat, and looked at the tip of his cock where a pearlescent bead of semen formed. "Nothing."

Buck licked again, then rose gracefully back to his feet, trailing his fingers up Chris's thighs and hips to settle just at the swell of his ass. "I vote 'everything'."

This was as different from their first night as a married family as it could be. And while Chris hadn't planned it that way, he liked that there was a difference. Loved how the bed bounced when they fell back into it, and he pushed Buck onto his belly and explored his partner's body like it was a first time, seeking out all the things he knew of it and searching for secrets that might have escaped him still... touching a bullet scar that marred the smooth skin of Buck's lower back with two careful fingertips, pressing his fingers against the resilience of that soft swell of flesh where ass met thigh, bending to kiss somewhere in the vicinity of the pinch he'd laid on his partner's ass in the bar today. Buck's body called out to him, the skin warm and smooth; Chris finally nudged Buck onto his back and circled his fingers around the thick erection, watching the blood-darkened skin slide over the shaft.

Buck's breath stuttered, but Chris had no worries there. He sealed his mouth over the crown and opened, sliding down, down, until his throat threatened to rebel and his cock dripped a trail of fluid onto Buck's thigh.


He pulled off reluctantly. Buck had propped up on his elbows to watch him. "Yeah?" he asked, sliding his fist back down, moving the loose skin over the spit-slick shaft.

Buck just shook his head then reached, grabbing under Chris's armpits to hoist him up and over. "Want you up here where I can see those stormy eyes of yours," Buck said.

Chris didn't flinch from the flowery words. He'd grown used to them over the years. "I like yours too," he replied. It wasn't like he was half as good at the language of a civilized seduction as Buck was, but he'd never minded the effort and never cared that much for civilization anyway. "Looking at them. At you." As if Buck didn't know that already, but that wasn't really the point. Buck liked hearing him talk, was the point.

Buck flexed his hips, rubbing his cock against Chris's, and it was like match to tinder, forcing a breath from him. "You're close, aren't you?" Buck asked, eyes crinkling at the corners now, laughing a little and shining with arousal and emotion.


The world tilted as Buck heaved and rolled them over. Buck stretched for the slick that sat on the nightstand, squeezed some into his hand and then squeezed his hand around both their cocks. Propped on one arm, his legs splayed outside Chris's, Buck set up an easy rhythm of hand and hips that Chris matched, said, "Then we'd best hurry up and get there."

It didn't take much: the touch of Buck's hand and cock sliding against his, the security of having him back in this place that had been their home during the happiest time of his life. It wouldn't be the same without Sarah--but then nothing in his life had been.

It would be good though. It already was. It was in that admission that he caught the crest of his own climax, feeling it roll through him and over him, taking him to a place that was his and Buck's now--and Buck was right there with him, their seed mixing together over Buck's hand and Chris's belly, as bound together as their lives were.

Lying half-on top of Buck minutes later, his fingers tracing lazy patterns down the soft skin of his flank, Chris just floated along on the wave of waning pleasure. Every part of him felt sated and loose, even the parts they hadn't gotten around to using tonight; he smiled against Buck's chest.

"Two days?" Buck asked, his voice dreamy and soft enough that it took Chris a second to make sense of the words. He stiffened when he did, and Buck's arms tightened around him. "What did he tell you, Chris?"

He should have known better than to get too relaxed. "Nothin'."


Vin had told him not to say, but Chris never had been much of a good listener. Besides, there was only one important piece in Vin Tanner's message, as far as he was concerned. "He said you'd be safe," he said. "Said you wouldn't be dying on this trip." What Vin had actually said was that Buck wouldn't die out in the black, a far more vague but comprehensive promise that Chris was nowhere near to believing. Life was dangerous, and any man who didn't understand that it could be taken away in an instant was a fool.

Buck's warm hands slid up his bare back, cupping his head and bringing him round for a kiss that stretched on for a time. Buck pulled away and grinned, and Chris watched his swollen, damp lips move as Buck said, "Well that's good news."

"If it's true. If he's actually got any kind of gift."

"If he does," Buck agreed. A thigh pressed between his and he threw his leg over Buck's hip, letting it settle along his flank.

"He said we'd be leaving in two days, too."

"Jayne said something."

Chris knew when Buck didn't believe something but wasn't willing to argue about it, and this was one of those times. Still, he wasn't about to complain. "I don't care what Jayne says."

"You'll care about this," Buck huffed. "When we were going to pick up the gear from the inn, he told me he thinks Josiah's got some good training. Hand to hand, martial arts he guessed. And that there was something strange about Vin. You think he picked up on that gift?"

"I think Jayne can't pick up a stick unless there's meat attached to it," Chris groused.

"Come on now, quit that. Jayne's useful."

"He's a thug."


Buck was clearly waiting for more, but Chris didn't have anything more. "That ain't enough?"

"You're a thug, Chris," Buck said mildly. "We both are. Have been, anyway. And you're meaner'n Jayne'll ever be, because you've got the smarts to know why to be mad. Don't be so hard on him."

"I'll be any way I want with him, as long as he's aboard this ship."

"Fine, fine," Buck said, settling a little more deeply into the mattress and pulling Chris on top of him. "Just don't make him take a swing at you. I don't need to clean up any more messes."

Chris pushed up off Buck's chest, glaring down at him even as he edged on over to rest his full weight on his partner. Kneeing Buck's legs wider, he settled in and pressed their groins together again. "You think I can't take Jayne Cobb?"

Buck's hands found his ass cheeks and squeezed, a lazy and affectionate gesture that had always had an effect on Chris. "I know you can take Jayne," he said, a smile in his voice. "Like I said, you're meaner'n him. Now come on, I like where you're going with this."

Chris reckoned Buck was right. On both counts. He leaned in for more kisses, not sure he had another round in him but happy to find out.

Josiah pushed at the rusty pins until they screeched, coming loose from the metal locks. He didn't seem to notice the effort he was putting into it, didn't seem to notice the bruises he was leaving on his hands and knuckles as he attacked the braces that held the bed to the wall and floor so that it wouldn't move when the ship was in motion against gravity. Only Josiah would think that they needed to be cleaned and oiled then put back together - only Josiah would want to be sure the hinges were in place.

Vin sighed. Josiah had been on edge since they'd left home--hell, Josiah had been moody and distant for weeks now, maybe longer. Vin had trouble placing things in time because it rolled so fluidly around him, the time he was in and the times he saw, the things he saw. But he had felt the restlessness in his lover, the disquiet, and he knew it had been with them for a while. It reminded him of their first year together, the distance Josiah had forced between them. Even after he'd accepted that Vin's visions were real, Josiah had still fought against accepting Vin himself. Vin didn't want to go back to that, didn't want to be without the older man, but he knew that Josiah didn't want to come. While he'd foreseen that Josiah would be on this trip, he hadn't seen shit beyond glimpses of the man, and the time beyond was more formless than the black of space.

He hated it, this not-knowing. He knew all sorts of things that made no sense to him, about people he'd probably never meet, about men and women already dead and people not yet born, about events in the past that were long gone and things he reckoned were so far in the future that they weren't like anything he could understand--but this thing, this important thing to his own life was a blank.

Josiah had been going through the checklist of things they needed to do to leave, had been making all the plans and arrangements that Vin rarely gave much thought to. "You gonna tell me what I did wrong?" he asked after Josiah cursed. One of the pins just flat-out refused to let go, despite the kicks Josiah was giving it.

Josiah stood breathing heavily, glaring at the pin, his big fists clenched. One of them dripped blood from a cut that he'd gotten from the rough edge of a metal plate. The crimson drops splattered over the floor, and for an instant, time wavered. Josiah stood tall and angry, blood streaming down one cheek and off his chin, his teeth bared in fury - but it was a different Josiah, older, his hair shorter and all grey, his face more scarred. It comforted Vin, to see that. Must be at least a decade in the future, from the age on Josiah's face, and Josiah was still alive and as full of fire as he was today.

"You're sure I have to be here?" Josiah asked, his voice a low rumble that vibrated through Vin's belly, drawing him thankfully out of the vision.

Vin blinked then shook his head a little to clear it. "What--who--what the hell are you talking about?" he asked, stepping in closer, needing to touch Josiah, to affirm this reality. "I've seen you here- today, 'Siah, there was a moment today - "

Josiah turned then, so fast, and the other Josiah appeared again. Vin didn't move, couldn't, unsure suddenly which was true. He stared into Josiah's eyes, measuring the anger there, a fury he rarely saw. The blood ran faster now, and Vin saw it blossom on one of Josiah's shoulders. He swallowed, closed his eyes, and when he opened them, he was looking into calmer eyes, angry, but not so consumed by it. The blood on Josiah's face was gone, as were the scars he didn't know, leaving only the sharp lines of irritation. This trip, Vin remembered, the words sliding back to mind. His turn to speak. "We're here - and we'll be here when whatever it is happens - it feels right, the way we know these men - "

Josiah smacked the bed frame with the palm of his hand, turning away. "We don't know these men," he growled. But after a second, he sighed and closed his eyes. "But that's what you mean, isn't it. That you don't know them any better than you do now, that this is the right place and time." He stopped then, drawing air, but he didn't have to finish the sentence.

Vin slapped at the bunk, too, frustrated as hell. "You're here with me, Josiah," he said, trying to get through to the man. "You know you can't change that so how about you stop makin' it so hard on both of us!"

Josiah whirled to face him, catching one of Vin's arms and pulling him close. The anger was there, but there was something under it that worried Vin more. "I heard you, all right? But it doesn't mean I have to like it! I'm tired of this, moving every time something goes wrong, or is about to, because of what you know. I like it here and I'm not leaving Sandler City, a place and a life that makes me happy, just because you say so."

It was hard to think when Josiah held him tight like this, hard not to let his mind shut off and his gut open up, he so loved this man's hands on him. Because you say so. It sounded foreign to Vin's head, as if he had some sort of control over what he saw, what he knew. Because you say so. "I didn't say so," he said, concentrating to think through the wash of arousal. "I didn't say a word about it. The fucking future said so."

"Said it to you, you mean," Josiah chided, deflating some.

"I can't help that, Josiah. I know I don't tell you everything, but I thought..." He sighed quietly. "I thought...."

Josiah sighed, but then he let go of Vin and kicked out hard at the brace one more time. The metal squeaked, and the pin finally gave way. Despite Vin's concentration, the scene wavered again. The older Josiah appeared, bloody and sweating and waving a gun. When he spoke, though, his words didn't match the sounds Vin was hearing, and the words drew Vin back to his body, back to this time. "I think you don't tell me a lot of things, I think you know more than you want me to know--"

"Yeah," Vin cut in tiredly, "because you don't want to know. Because you don't want to think about what's going to be, the things you can't change." He turned away, hating when Josiah got like this, hating more that he didn't understand the why of it. "But if you want to know, I'll tell you. I saw this, I saw them. I saw that they've got a mission, no different from the ones you set yourself on. And we're a part of it, from the start. They're good men, men you'll like and men who you'll want to work with, once you get to know 'em."

Josiah was still now, staring at the bed. "What are we doing here, Vin?" he asked. "Why do we have to go with these men? Why do I?"

Vin swallowed. The image was hovering there, like a ghost just on the edge of his vision. He focused on forming words, on keeping himself here and now, with his body and with the man he loved. "Why do you ask things you don't want answers to?" he asked, a whispered question he'd asked a dozen times before, and a part of him really wanted to understand because it could piss him off to hell and back, the way Josiah skirted the knowledge Vin was stuck with, picking and choosing when he wanted Vin to tell him things and when he wanted to pretend that the future wasn't set, then confusing Vin all over with these moods. "And I don't know the why of it anyway," he added bluntly. "I've seen us with them, here, on this ship. We'll fight beside them, and live with them, and we're us, together. I've seen us here, 'Siah, and we're happy. You're happy." The image filled his mind's eye, suddenly, such a contrast to the previous one that it made his belly flip, end over end. Josiah was laughing, his eyes wide with pleasure, no blood, no sweat, no anger. It had come in the dreams, at first, but now it came in the visions, while he was awake. He'd seen it, been in a vision of it at dinner, so strong and vivid that it was hard to tell what was real and which part was the vision of a future meal, all of them together like they had been. If Josiah hadn't touched him, he'd have gotten lost in it.

Vin reached out, trying to touch now.

Josiah sighed again, one hand rubbing over his eyes. "I was happy here on Persephone," he whispered, and Vin knew he wasn't supposed to hear it. "I am happy here."

"I know," he said, wishing that things were different. That he was different. But he wasn't and Vin Tanner wasn't one to waste time on things he couldn't change. It was hard enough struggling between what was right now and what was past or yet to come. "I can't not know what I know--you been with me long enough to know that. But I don't want you to be unhappy, 'Siah, and if you don't want to pull up stakes...." He steeled himself. "This is where I am now."

They'd been together six years, and at first Vin hadn't been too sure of the future. He'd loved the way they made love, how Josiah's spiritual struggles seemed to make them coming together even better, but the man was conflicted, no two ways about that. Still, it hadn't taken long for Vin to realize he'd fallen for the man, that soul deep kind of love that he didn't want to be without. That he'd thought he wouldn't be without, until Josiah had started questioning them again. His gut clenched at the idea, missing the man even though he stood tall and stiff before him. "Listen, something's going to happen soon, and you're there for that. But..." He sighed, rubbing a hand across his tight belly. "But maybe you wanna keep the apartment, keep your life here. We'll be back this way, and if you decide you need to stay...."

Josiah's head jerked fast enough that his hair rustled and flew around his neck. "That true? You don't see me here after this trip?"

Vin smiled, sad at the relief he heard in the other man's voice. "Can't say it's permanent, but no," he said, firming his voice. "I don't see much that I can say is any time soon. So I don't know if you're here or not. Don't know when you'll come back to me." He stopped, willing himself to say the words he knew he owed Josiah. "You need some time away from me, I can't stop you." The words hurt, bringing back memories of those first months together, when Josiah was right in front of him but so distant that it made Vin ache. Josiah hadn't believed him then, didn't believe in his knowledge or his love. He'd kept such a distance between them that Vin had come to doubt himself, and almost come to accept that Josiah might never return his love. "Hell," he said, waving a hand and trying to laugh it off, "I can't even convince you of the simple stuff."

The simple stuff that was the most important, as far as Vin was concerned. That Vin loved him, with all his heart. Josiah thought otherwise, thought Vin was too young, or too messed up to know what he felt. But he did know. He hadn't been a virgin when he'd come to Josiah, either in body or in heart. He knew what love was, and he knew how he felt.

The feeling from so long ago was back, the sense that Josiah was only hanging around for what he thought Vin was, some messenger from his god. If that was so, Josiah's god had himself one hell of a dark sense of humor. He sighed, watching, and when Josiah didn't move, he turned away. Life without Josiah was black, as if all the color in his head had bled away and black was all he could see, all he could think. When he thought of life with Josiah but not on this ship, it was a little better, but not much--gray and grainy and mute, as if he was seeing everything through a storm cloud that smothered him in snow. Or as if he wishing for something he knew would never, ever come to pass.

He trusted his visions like most men trusted a good spacesuit; he couldn't survive without them, not now. But he'd gladly have given them up, every last one, if it would make Josiah love him for who he was. Hell, he'd be happy if Josiah would just admit he knew Vin, who Vin really was, because after this many years Josiah must.

And folks thought he was the kuangzhe de one.

"Vin." The pained whisper turned him back around. Josiah hadn't moved, but the tension around him wasn't as sharp. After a few seconds, Josiah's arm lifted, one hand reaching out to Vin. He took it between both of his, and the color in his head came back, sharp and bright and beautiful.

Josiah pulled him in close, burrowing his nose into Vin's hair as he held him. "Are you telling me the truth?"

Vin smiled, covering Josiah's arm with his own. "Always do," he admitted. He tugged back so that he could meet Josiah's eyes. "I'd never lie to you, and I'd never hold back on something you wanted to hear."

Josiah held his gaze, and Vin knew he was looking to see if Vin believed what he was saying. After a space, Josiah nodded. "So if I stayed on Persephone for a time, I'd be back," he said, as if he were testing the words. "'Cause you know we're meant to be together."

He wasn't mocking Vin, not this time; if anything, Josiah was trying to reassure him.

He weighed the words he'd never said before, the ones that Josiah had never wanted to hear, the ones he'd always fought in the past. Now, Vin needed to say them, to try to make Josiah understand. "I die without ever knowing nobody else. You're the best part of my whole 'verse, Josiah."

Josiah met his eyes, and there was an instant of amusement there that Vin knew was because of his words. It was funny that of the two of them, he knew more about the real wickedness of the universe, but when he spoke truth, when he used the words that came from his heart, Josiah always thought he was being young.

Maybe he was.

"Then I reckon I'll be back," Josiah said against his lips. "Can't have you pining after an old preacher forever, can I?" The kiss was warm and deep and washed away everything that had blinded and distracted Vin. Josiah's touches let him know what was real, that he was real.

When Josiah kicked at it again, the pin came loose easily. But instead of reaching for the cleaner, Josiah stepped back. "I'm going to head back to the apartment," he said quietly, staring at the bed. "There's still a lot that needs to be done before I take off for this vacation with you - "

"Two days," Vin said, catching Josiah's wrist. "We've got two days, that's plenty of time - "

"Vin." Josiah turned and looked at him, and though his eyes were gentle, Vin felt the distance in him. "I'll be back in the morning. You sure we've only got two days?"

Vin frowned. He didn't often know timing, but he'd been learning, thanks to Josiah's advice, to look for things in his visions to place them into time. He'd seen a chronometer in the vision that tied them to this ship, and he'd clung to the memory of the date and time.

"I'm sure," he said, trying to smile. "You been teaching me real good."

Josiah nodded. "Two days. Lot to get done between now and then, especially if I'm working here, too. I'd best head on back to the apartment, get things as squared away as I can."

"But..." Vin was confused at first, then merely frustrated. He ached to have Josiah in him, because when they were making love, when Josiah got all caught up in it, it was about the one place the man let all his doubts go. "We start work early in the mornin'. You heard what Chris said."

"Yes, I did."

"I could come with you, halve the work." Then wrap himself around Josiah, lose himself in the peace of their bodies melding together.

"No. I'll be all right on my own for half a night. So will you. It's all right, Vin." Josiah's fingers brushed over his face and a thumb traced his lower lip. "Might give me a little time to reflect on what's to be." Josiah glanced around the cabin. "I wouldn't mind it if you finished cleaning up this place while I'm gone."

Vin grimaced, looking around at the mess. Josiah's kicking had stirred up more dust and now that damned heavy bunk sat two feet into the middle of the room. "You're leaving to get out of the hard work," he grumbled, trying to make light of it.

"Just wanted to give you something to take your mind off being alone."

Vin frowned, a knot of worry big and heavy in his belly again, the vision now a memory but one he didn't like. A memory of a future time, undetermined. "You'd best be careful." Not a warning of anything he knew, because he didn't. These were the words he gave to his lover whenever they were parting. Because he didn't know everything. Sometimes, he didn't know gou shi.

Josiah hesitated for a few seconds, then he bent and kissed Vin, and Vin relished the contact: dry lips, wet tongue, the tiny wrinkles in the skin around Josiah's mouth. He clung to the memory of them for as long as he could. "Smooth sailing, Vin."

Vin watched him walk away, staring at the empty ladder long after Josiah's footsteps had echoed into silence. Try as he might to guide them, to draw them up, the visions he had through the long, restless night were as silent on the subject of their life together as Josiah had been.

Josiah slipped out of the ship and made his way to the transit station, settling into a train seat. Lights flashed by at high speeds, a mash of color and blackness too fast for the eye to see. Inside his mind, his thoughts flashed by much the same.

He'd been overwhelmed at Vin's admission. Vin didn't often share the details of his visions. Because Josiah didn't want to hear them, as Vin had pointed out.

He certainly hadn't wanted to hear this one. Vin was too young to be saddled with that sort of knowledge. He deserved better than what Josiah had to offer - and Josiah had always held out hope that Vin would have it. He'd expected it even - watching Buck flirt with Vin today, he'd felt a stir of jealousy, but more, he'd felt a stir of hope. Maybe Vin was to find someone else, now, someone to care for him the way he deserved. Maybe that was why he didn't have visions of them together in the near term.

The idea that Vin would be alone without him left his heart heavy.

It was more rare for Vin to admit to--or perhaps, more truthfully, for Vin to be aware of, the areas where his visions lapsed. He had known here, had been aware that while Josiah was on this trip, he wasn't necessarily on the voyages after.

Was this a message, was God giving him this break?

The thoughts spiraled in circles as he made his way to their small apartment, and they kept him company as he packed and arranged and made lists of the things he needed to do--two lists, the one for Vin's more permanent departure and the one for his own 'vacation'. The thoughts spiraled around him as he plundered through closets and drawers, and perhaps they guided him. Half way through the process, he became aware that he was packing Vin's things and nothing of his own. It was then that he stopped, knowing he had to sleep. But the dreams were more of the same, dreams of prophets and demons, of bodies melding with unnatural ease, of inquests and the elusive question of what was God's will and what was man's--or Satan's.

Hours later, Josiah disembarked from the train back near the docks just as dawn was breaking somewhere behind the smog layer; the light was pink and cool, cutting across the sky. He'd brought their hauler and used it to load boxes of Vin's meager belongings and the things he'd thought the younger man would need - blankets, pillows, a few of the things that had been theirs, together, but that Vin could use far more than Josiah.

It was disconcerting to realize how entwined their lives had become, how much of what they had was 'theirs' and not his or Vin's alone. After six years of traveling together though, that happened to any couple.

He pressed the button to start the cart up and steered it before him. Early morning vendors thronged, a meat distribution center throwing off smells of dead animal and lye. He moved on toward the market near the spaceport, stomach rumbling. But he'd put roasted chickens away himself last night, and eggs, and he knew there'd be breakfast on board the ship.

He recalled that he hadn't seen any coffee, and he picked up a paper bag of dehydrated powder, enough for all of them. It had been a long night, filled with too much work, too little sleep, too many thoughts running around in his head and leaving him dreaming of things he didn't want to remember in the light of morning. A rough night always made him feel more sympathetic to Vin; at least Josiah's own dreams didn't overlap the reality of his day. Josiah wasn't sure he could handle it if they did, was certain he'd be insane.

As he walked along toward the Margaret May's berth, he watched the ships waking up--at least the early risers, men and women who weren't accustomed to the rhythms of Persephone but to the ones they established in transit through the black. Two teenaged girls laughed at the loading ramp of a trawler, pulling burlap bags half their size up into her belly. Other men and women worked with quiet efficiency and the caution of strangers in foreign lands.

Josiah felt like one himself.

When he walked past the cruise ship that hid the Margaret May from the main street, he was surprised to find her door open; he'd expected to have to cool his heels for a little, maybe bang on the hull for entrance. "Hello the ship," he called, stepping through the door and steering the big cart in with him.

The big man, Jayne Cobb, sat on a box just inside the door, blowing steam off an oversized ceramic mug. "Mornin'," he said, voice surprisingly alert for this time of day.

"Good morning. Breakfast already on?" he asked, drawing the hauler back past the stairs and out of the way of Kaylee's engine parts.

"Nope," Jayne said grumpily. "Chris 'n Buck ain't even come out of their bunk yet, as far as I know. Kaylee's up though, and she bribed me with this here tea." He nodded to his cup and smiled a little. "Don't know about your friend."

He said the last with a certain reserve, and Josiah nodded, hiding his grimace. Hadn't taken but one meal for Vin to scare the superstitious among them.

"Big cart," Jayne said, eyeing the container in a way that made Josiah glad he'd reset the cabin's lock to a code he and Vin would know. "Guns and gear?" he asked hopefully.

"Different things, stuff for living," he said.

Jayne's frown didn't lessen, but before he could say anything, Vin called softly from above them, "That you, Josiah?"

"Morning," he called in response, and he found himself smiling as Vin jogged down the stairs, more dirty and ragged than he'd been when Josiah had left. And as tired; there were dark circles under his eyes, but the energy of youth hid most of it. He didn't sleep well when they were apart, often confusing his visions and his dreams. Josiah felt a stir of guilt but forced it away; Vin had survived without him before, and he was far better suited to do that now, if need be. Vin would adapt.

"I got our room clean," Vin said, "maybe as clean as you like." He was coming close, right up to Josiah, but Josiah caught him by the shoulders to stop him.

"Jayne and I were just talking about breakfast," he said, tilting his head in the direction of the other man.

Vin glanced to Jayne and nodded, even as he said, "Yeah, I heard. You have any trouble?" Vin had never minded an audience as much as Josiah did, and he clearly wanted the reassurance of touch. Josiah couldn't deny it, not now.

"No trouble," Josiah answered, and he shook his head sharply even as he pushed Vin back a little, trying to put some space between them.

"You two sharing a bunk?" Jayne said suddenly, as if Vin's words had just caught up to him. "Two more sly--well, hell." He spat, a sharp noise that made Josiah wince and Vin jerk. "Guess I should have knowed."

The last was not as loud, but it did carry the flavor of disgust, and Josiah let his hands fall from Vin's shoulders.

Vin started to turn, and Josiah saw the fire in his blue eyes that rarely boded well. Even if Vin knew already what the outcome of a fight with Jayne might be, he didn't always understand the politics of it.

"Vin," he called quickly, "I got coffee."

For a split second, he thought it wasn't going to work, and he felt the flash of acceptance that often came when he knew something was out of his hands.

But Vin took a breath and looked back at him. "Let's go make it, then," he said, taking the bag that Josiah held out to him. "Unless you want to go back to the room and--"

"Coffee's good," he said, quickly cutting off the offer, sure that it was more to piss off Jayne than it was to get him into bed. He started back up the stairs, but paused to look back at Jayne. "I got enough coffee for everyone. Care to join us?"

Jayne eyed him suspiciously and said, "I don't do boys. And I sure as hell don't do old men."

Josiah smiled. "That's good to hear. Coffee's up here if you want it."

Vin had gone on ahead, for which Josiah was relieved, and was well into making up three cups by the time Josiah joined him in the mess. Kaylee was there, and dark circles under her eyes told him she'd been up half the night also. Nothing else did, though; her eyes were as bright as the smile she offered in greeting, which she extended to Jayne too, when he followed them all in. She waited until they were leaning on the counter, cups in hand and Vin standing close enough to brush against, before she asked, "You two together, too?"

"That a problem?" Vin answered, wary. He was feeling put upon by Jayne, and Josiah stepped in, squeezing at Vin's elbow as he took the chair across from Kaylee, who was shaking her head.

"No, not for me anyway," she answered quickly, casting a doubtful look at Jayne, who was making a sour face. "I just--I've never met a couple that was together that was, you know, two men, or a couple that I knew was, anyway. And here I've met two couples in two days. It's real nice."

"I suppose it is," Josiah agreed, not really agreeing at all. "It doesn't set well with many folks, though," he said, casting a pointed look at Jayne.

She waved the comment away. "Jayne just likes simple things the best, is all," she said, like there was no need for concern on that score, then, "Y'all have a ceremony?" Josiah wondered if she was thinking of pretty dresses and flowers and receptions with cake and sake.

Behind him, Vin snorted and said, "Yeah, we had a ceremony. The best kind, one with clean sheets and--"

"Vin?" he said, hard. "You trying to be rude to this woman?"

Vin glared at the side of Jayne's head, but he settled down some.

"Not in the way you mean," Josiah said, answering Kaylee's question. Even though, now that he thought about it, they had--just last night, if he had understood Vin's words correctly, the commitment in them. It didn't make him feel any better about leaving, and that awareness brought him up short. Was that why Vin had said it?

"But you care about each other. That's real nice," Kaylee said, and from her tone of voice, Josiah knew she was sincere.

"It is," Vin said softly. "He is."

Josiah watched Kaylee's face soften at Vin's words, and he pulled out the chair beside him, trying to be kind to Vin even though he didn't look at him--couldn't. He knew what he'd see, the sincerity and commitment that Vin had given him too easily. Instead, he asked Kaylee, "How long have you known Chris and Buck?"

She giggled, a sound soft and childlike that made Josiah smile. "Just told you--'bout a day. My captain, Mal Reynolds, asked me and Jayne to help 'em get the Margaret May here back running good. Serenity, my ship, she's a Firefly, too."

Kaylee was a delight and very much in love with her ship. "I suspect Serenity runs like a dream," he said, enjoying the way her eyes lit up with her passion. A child blessed by God, bright and energetic, and full of joy. It was the look all women should have.

Beside him, Vin slid into the chair, his mug thumping on the table. Jayne was also moving forward, slowly, but he seemed a little more relaxed as he took a chair near Kaylee and stretched out his long, thick legs.

"She sure does," Kaylee said proudly. "She's fine lady, just like this one. You show 'em that you care and they'll do anything for you."

"That was always my experience," came a voice from behind him. Josiah jerked, startled that a big man like Buck Wilmington had moved so quietly.

Chris stood just at his shoulder in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest and glaring moodily at all of them. "We havin' a picking party? I don't see any reason to celebrate until the engine's up and running and this ship is cleaned up."

"I smell coffee. That's a reason to celebrate," Buck said, steering him toward the counter by dint of grabbing his shoulders and shoving him forward.

Larabee's whole demeanor changed, even after almost tripping down the stairs. Oh, he didn't smile or relax, but it was clear that this was a man who liked something to kick-start him in the mornings. Josiah filed that information away; it never hurt to know what the boss liked, even if he didn't know how long he'd be working for the man.

"We was talking about ceremonies," Kaylee said, and Josiah smiled into his coffee cup. He couldn't begin to imagine how Larabee would respond to that topic.

"Ceremonies?" Buck asked, confused, as he followed Chris to the counter. Chris spooned powder into two cups and Buck poured bottled water in after him, then grabbed up both cups, even as Chris was clearly about to reach for one tepid, and stuck them into the reheater.

"Wedding ceremonies. Josiah and Vin didn't have one, not official like," she said brightly, which made Josiah want to grin, especially at Vin's bemused look. "Did y'all?"

"Yeah," Buck said, surprising Josiah no little. "It was beautiful," he went on, the fondness of memory coloring his voice, "everybody bedecked in their finest red colors. The bride and groom were about fit to burst."

Jayne chortled. "You sure it weren't two brides?"

Buck shook his head easily, ignoring the slight. "Nope. Just the one bride," he said, but his smile faded and his eyes darted like he was feeling a memory. "Just the one groom, too, on account of her daddy, but I wore red under my gold, and as best man I stood extra close," he said. His next smile was forced and so was the wink he gave Kaylee.

"Huh?" She frowned between them, blinking owlishly. "I thought you two was together," Kaylee said.

Buck pulled the cups out and walked around the island to settle in a chair at Kaylee's right, while Chris followed the cups like a dog. "You thought right enough," Buck said somberly.

Chris, sitting down beside him and finally snatching his coffee, said flatly, "My qí zi died. Alliance killed her."

Kaylee's face collapsed into a look of sorrow. "I'm real sorry to hear that," she said.

"Years ago," Chris said. He took a deep draught of steaming coffee and sighed, hunching over his cup, then he tilted his head in Buck's direction. "Yeah," he said, his voice quiet and wry. "I just got the pain in the ass zhang fu left."

"Chris and me have a contract," Buck said softly, his eyes on Larabee's face.

Josiah watched Chris's body tense when Buck spoke, watched Chris peel one hand off his coffee cup long enough to reach for Buck's waistband and tug him out of the chair and up beside him. His hand eased further around Buck's waist, a gesture of affirmation if Josiah had ever seen one. Then he met Kaylee's gaze head on. "The three of us filed our contract the day before my wedding," he said, as evenly as if he were talking about the ship's engine; Chris Larabee was clearly a man who was what he was, and damn the one who thought they had a right to judge him for it.

Buck had gotten his own feelings in check and carried the story on. "It wasn't nearly as pretty as that big ceremony, but it suited us just fine."

"Still suits Buck and me just fine," Chris added, and picked up his coffee cup with his free hand.

Kaylee looked to Josiah, clearly hoping for more of an explanation, but Josiah shrugged. "I only met these two yesterday, too," he said and smiled at her. But he knew now what he was seeing in Larabee, the pain of a loss still mourned-the same thing that had given Buck's voice that hollow sound a moment ago.

"We got nothing better to do than jaw all morning?" Jayne asked, changing the subject so forcefully that Josiah found himself chuckling. "What about breakfast?"

"What about it?" Chris asked sourly, sliding his hand off his partner and back around his coffee cup. Buck just leaned a little closer to him, like a dog settling at a warm hearth.

"Well, we gonna eat, or what?" Jayne was clearly uncomfortable with love talk of any kind, and Josiah couldn't really blame him.

"I'll see to it, if we want to break fast before we start in," he said, pushing to his feet. "Chris?"

Chris nodded and took another gulp of his coffee.

"Contract don't sound very romantic," Kaylee said doubtfully, then her eyes went dreamy and bright. "If I ever wed, I want a ceremony. All my folks, all of his, a real pretty dress that looks like a wedding cake."

Jayne chuckled darkly at that. "I c'n just see any of you boys in a dress that looks like a wedding cake," he said. His eyes cut to Vin.

"Jayne," Chris muttered, "bi zui and make yourself useful, if you want to eat."

"Don't see any of you bein' useful," Jayne muttered, plenty loud to be heard, but Chris ignored him.

"Jayne, you mind helping me get breakfast out?" Josiah asked. He could see Vin's annoyance as clear as he could Chris's, and he emphatically didn't want this day to start with a brawl. He was too tired.

Kaylee and Buck were quick to strike up a conversation, both of them about as social as any two people Josiah had ever seen. He whipped up scrambled eggs with cheese and thick slices of toast from the fresh bread. Jayne tried to filch bites, so he handed over tomatoes and said, "Slice those, would you?" Jayne set to work with a clean-enough looking Bowie knife while Josiah mixed some of the local grain-gruel and listened to Buck and Kaylee chatter on about dresses and fashion and some of the things Buck had seen women wear, and some of the things Kaylee wanted to wear.

It didn't take Josiah long to figure out that he hadn't quite figured Buck out yet. He knew about style and society, fashion and what women wore, and the more Josiah heard him talking to Kaylee, the more he knew that Buck knew women--knew them intimately, or had. More, he admired them in a way that reminded Josiah of himself.

It seemed contradictory, that this man who was so obviously involved with another man was so knowledgeable about women. Josiah wondered with dark humor if Chris Larabee had visions, too.

The thought of that, though, made him glance back to check on Vin. He wasn't surprised to see him listening to the conversation, his wide brow creased in a frown. Women were a mystery to his companion; Vin had slept with girls, or so he'd told Josiah, a few back in his early adolescence at the orphanage and at the beginning of his service to the Alliance.

But after the Alliance had messed with his head, the visions had started. Vin swore, and on this Josiah had no reason to doubt him, that he had known he was destined to find Josiah long before they'd met. He'd been faithful to him since that destiny had presented itself, a fact that was both amusing and intimidating. More so now, in the face of this new knowledge.

Vin turned and looked at Josiah, his face clearing. So handsome, Josiah marveled again, so independent, and so sure of his own truth. A truth that put him squarely and exclusively in Josiah's bed--or alone. God would want that, he thought as he recalled the scriptures of monogamy. Of course, the Scriptures were pretty mixed on that subject too.

Not for the first time, Josiah wondered what game God was playing with them both.

"You're burning them," Jayne snapped, drawing Josiah's attention back to what he was doing. "And where're them chickens?"

They ate quickly, more of necessity than enjoyment, even though Kaylee certainly did enjoy the bread and apples. Oddly, Buck's attentions to her made Josiah feel a little easier, partly because he wasn't the only one noticing her responsiveness, and partly because it was clear that Buck Wilmington was a flirt and a tease, more talk than action.

Chris was waking up and ready to get things started, and Josiah could feel Vin's restless energy as well. As soon as the bowls were empty, Kaylee and Jayne went back to the engine room, Josiah and Vin cleaned things up, and Buck disappeared for parts unknown.

"How 'bout you two start on the passenger quarters down below," Chris said as he dropped off his mug near the dish sanitizer that Vin was loading. "Any new crew can clean their own cabins."

Vin quirked a smile. "Sounds fair, as we had to clean our own place."

Chris grinned at Vin, and Josiah thought it made Chris look younger.

"We're gonna go out and pick up more supplies," Chris said. "You mentioned raw rice last night--you of a mind to cook?"

"He's always of a mind to cook," Vin answered, "and damned good at it, too. All that monastery training." He was grinning at Josiah, and Josiah shrugged.

"Glad to," he answered. "Pick up any cheap vegetables you come across. I can make protein sticks taste like something. I should be able to take care of us without it costing you an arm and a leg."

"Yeah, Jayne could take care of a nest egg in no time," Chris said sourly.

"I'm used to feeding the young and hungry," Josiah answered easily. "I brought a spice garden back with me."

Chris blinked at that, his eyes widening a little. "Yeah?" he asked. "A real one?"

Josiah nodded, entertained that the idea of well-seasoned food made the man a little more animated. "It's a trick that one of the brothers taught me, how to keep a small garden thriving in a closed pot. Vin and I have moved around quite a bit. This makes it easier to adapt to--new places."

"Glad to have it aboard, then. Get tired of rations pretty quick in the black."

Josiah watched him walk away before he looked to Vin, who was looking right back at him. "Wanna come see how clean I got the room?" Vin grinned, his voice low and husky.

His damned cock jumped at the idea, more than happy to drag the rest of him to one of the many hells right with it. Josiah smiled at him, letting one hand fall to rest on Vin's shoulder. "In time," he said.

Vin nodded, disappointed but patient, and Josiah reflected that Vin had pretty much had to become so, given his periodic fits of reticence. Well, if Vin could master his flesh Josiah certainly had no excuse not to. He followed Vin out the door of the mess and towards the lower decks.

"Rice?" Buck raised his eyebrows, actually surprised. "You're buying rice and--vegetables?" He took a step back, pretending to be worried.

Chris glared at him, but it was half-hearted at best. "Josiah keeps a spice garden, said he'd cook if I brought stuff back. It'll be cheaper than buying out all the time, especially that close to the port, and taste better if you're not the one cooking."

"Hey!" Buck growled, "you never complained before."

Chris smirked at him. "Too sick at my stomach," he said, jibing on purpose now.

Buck squared his shoulders and tried to glower. "Well you can cook any damned time you want, captain," he started, but Chris had already sobered some, letting the joke fall away.

"We keep spending like this and we ain't gonna have enough for fuel to get her off the ground."

Buck shook his head, grinning. "So you like them boys? They are right different--what do you think Vin meant last night at dinner, talking about us going somewhere?" He reached out and took one of the bags Chris was hefting, slinging it over his shoulder. They had a hauler too, but it was already loaded with boxes and unwieldy stuff like the cleaners and tubs of engine lubricant for Kaylee. The fragile food stuffs could go on top, after they finished up with everything else.

"Reckon he's like everybody else," Chris said shortly, "running his mouth when there are other things need doing."

Buck grinned and countered, "Could be true. I know for a fact there are a few other things I'd rather be doing with my mouth."

Chris pretended to ignore him, but Buck saw the flush creep over his neck as he moved on through the open-air market, pushing the hauler before him. Buck followed close behind.

"You really think we're gonna be taking off soon?" he asked, nodding to people as they passed, then almost tripping over Chris when he stopped suddenly. "What the--"

"Nathan!" Chris called loudly over the din of the crowd. "Nathan Jackson!"

Out of the crowd before them, a tall man drew still and turned around. He was dark-skinned, his black hair trimmed close to his scalp and his eyes dark and wary. Until he recognized Chris. Then he smiled wide, taking long strides to reach them.

"Larabee!" he said in a warm tone that made Buck relax.

They shook hands, both smiling, then Jackson turned to Buck. "Buck Wilmington?" he asked, holding out an eager hand.

Buck smiled for real then--Chris had been talking about him and apparently saying good things. "One and only, Mr. Jackson," he answered, taking the long-fingered hand in his own. The clasp was strong and tight, but not challenging.

"Call me Nathan. Chris told me a lot about you," Nathan said.

"The hell I did," Chris muttered, but Buck could see equal parts discomfort and amusement in Chris's stiff stance and the way his eyes crinkled at the corners.

Nathan laughed and countered, "Anytime I asked you about some cut or bruise, you'd say, 'Buck's already seen to it, leave it be.' If you caught a punch in a brawl down here, it was always, 'Stop fussing, you're worse'n Buck,' prickly as you please." Nathan laughed, low. "So I knew this Buck had to be a good man, for you to rely on him like you did."

Chris shrugged lazily, but Buck saw that blush rise up again, and this time the color inched all the way up to his cheeks, turning them light pink in the morning sun. He wanted to puff up with pride, because clearly Chris had been bragging on him whether he'd meant to or not, but Nathan turned his attention to Buck. "Looks like you're solid," he said, and Buck thought he heard a hint of approval in the words. Nathan shot a sly grin Chris's way. "The way he makes friends as fast as enemies, and all of 'em, every time, the most powerful people in any room, you might deserve an award for that."

"Chris does have a way with people," Buck said, grinning. "But he gives me all the reward I need. If you're offering currency, though, I'm listening."

They both laughed as Chris rolled his eyes, and Buck relaxed and eased his weight backward a little when Chris got down to business. "You still looking for extra work?" he asked when he had Nathan's attention again.

Nathan shrugged. "Depends on the work. Raine's working at the veteran's clinic in Seminole and I don't want to be gone from her too much. Kinda hard to keep a marriage working that way."

Buck glanced at Chris, worried for a second. Last night in the cabin had been beautiful, but he'd felt Sarah's memory there like a shroud, like he hadn't in a year or more, and he knew Chris must have felt it, too.

Chris merely nodded as he answered. "We're gonna put Buck's Firefly in the black, see if we can make a living with her."

Buck blinked at the news even as Nathan's eyes widened-not that it was news to him, but that Chris was talking about it. Made him damned curious about the dark man before him, and more curious than usual about what Chris got up to on his own.

"The Margaret May?" Nathan asked, nodding with clear knowledge, and Buck bumped Chris's shoulder with his own.

Chris ignored Buck and nodded to Nathan. "Need some crew, got a spot if you're interested. We'll be running short hops to start, can always use a man with your talents."

Jackson nodded, but his smile faded a bit. "You expecting trouble? Those kinds of missions?" His voice was also quieter, Buck noted, and he cast a quick glance around for eavesdroppers. Seemed private enough--as private as people could get in this crowded street.

"No," Chris said, "but a good medic is hard to come by. One who can hold his own in a fight's even rarer. You'll be loading and cleaning more than fighting or mending, but I'd rather be safe than sorry."

Buck watched as Jackson eyed Chris then nodded. "When would you need me?"

He couldn't stop himself from grinning when Chris shifted from one foot to the other. "Could be soon," he hedged, which was more than Buck had expected. "We've got a mechanic working on the ship now. How quick can you be ready?"

Nathan shrugged. "I'm picking up supplies for Raine now, but I'm between jobs otherwise. Wave me when you're ready. Or if you change your mind." He gave Chris a quick sequence of numbers.

The two men parted with a slap for each other's back before they moved along different paths. Buck took over the hauler. "So," he teased, "you talked about me and the Margaret May? Damn, Chris, you must've been excited."

Chris speared him with a hard look and said, "I was. You happy now?"

Buck grinned. "Yeah, pard, I am. Still," he said, trying to be gruff, "you go hiring everybody before I get a say, I'm gonna start expecting you to handle the dust ups."

Chris tilted his head to meet Buck's eyes. He didn't apologize-he rarely did-but he had that look on his face like he was criticizing himself a little, so Buck bumped his shoulder again for good measure. "I like him," he said, in case he hadn't made that clear.

They walked in silence for a time, until Buck looked over and broached the more tender subject. "You really trust that Vin knows what he's talking about, don't you?"

Chris didn't look at him, but Buck caught the grimace just the same. "I didn't tell Nathan a date."

Buck whistled low. "What'd he say to sell you?" he asked. "Tell you where we could get to the Alliance stash of gold?" Chris just looked at him. Buck could read a man almost as well as his mother could, and he sighed. "It's a pretty thing to hear, I'll admit, but you can't trust him just because he says I'm not going to die, Chris."

"He didn't know you, Buck. Didn't know a damned thing about you. If he's just that good at guessing what's important to a man, then he'll still be good for something."

"If?" Buck asked, but he settled a hand on Chris's neck, squeezing briefly, a soft and familiar touch that anyone who wanted to see might recognize, but anyone who didn't, wouldn't. "Softie," Buck muttered before letting him go.

"Soft head, probably," he muttered back.

"That too," Buck agreed, liking the way Chris fought the smile that was tugging at his lips. He tried another topic that he knew was on Chris' mind - especially if they were starting out sooner rather than later. "Now what about this guy Jayne told us about? You want to wait for Mal to hail us, or see if we can't flush this Standish out?"

"I'm thinking," Chris said, so Buck left it alone until they reached the ship.

Chris pulled up short at the Maggie's loading ramp and looked around, thinking. They ought to get to work on the cargo bay; it was big and dusty and could use the attention. "Head up to the flight deck," he ordered Buck. "See if we've heard anything from Mal. I'll offload."

"Will do." With another squeeze of his shoulder, Buck sauntered away.

Chris watched him go and let out a soft breath. He had once wondered about Buck's touches, so common and casual, so much a part of the man. He'd wondered until he'd gotten to know Margaret Wilmington, seen how she didn't touch and how she did, and why. Then he'd known. Then he'd started touching back.

He realized abruptly that he'd just helped Buck wiggle out of unloading the hauler, but it was short work, once Josiah and Vin showed up, to unload the cart and pack equipment away. He left them to stow the hauler and truck the foodstuffs up to the kitchen, and took the ladder up to the flight deck.

"We got it," Buck said, pivoting back and forth in the pilot's chair. He was whistling low even as he scanned through information on the forward screen.

Chris came up behind Buck, stilling him with a hand to his shoulder, and leaned over to look. "Slow it down," he ordered, and Buck obliged him, backing up to the photograph on Standish's identity chit.

"Pretty enough," Buck mused, and Chris considered huffing at his partner, but Standish was, if you liked that kind of polished air. "But he's either a hell of an asset or the biggest liability we could trip over."

"How do you mean?"

Buck toggled through screens and paused, pointing. "Lookie here. He's from Georgia, but his family name's marked. He's no high-class boy, even though there's other things that suggest he is. Warrants on five moons, including Persephone. Most were bought off. Not here, though."

"So, wait. Standish is his real name, or an alias?"

Buck shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. Just one warrant under it here, though. I say we use it to smoke him out, if we're gonna."

"Back it up, let me see him again."

Chris stared at the grainy photograph, trying to get a bead on the man who'd managed to con free passage out of Malcolm Reynolds. He didn't trust Jayne's estimation, but he knew Mal well enough. Mal looked for the wrong kind of trouble too often for good business. And he let his attitude get in the way, too. "What are the warrants for? Anything violent?"

Buck shook his head, hitting several keys to page through the packet. "Petty stuff, mostly scams. He ran up a bill in a hotel on Regina and left without paying, then on Harvest he was accused of stealing some rare and expensive book from one of the moon's councilmen. When he was arrested, he claimed that the man had given it to him in return for a debt. He made bail then left before the hearing, so the warrant is for Failure to Appear before the Court. Bet the councilman used it as collateral in a bet and lost, then decided to get it back the easy way." He was scanning the screens, moving them faster than Chris wanted to watch. "Third warrant is another Failure to Appear--seems he's very forgetful of his court dates."

"Most of these crimes are probationary?" Chris asked, dropping one hand to knead at the back of Buck's neck.

Buck relaxed under his touch, and his voice went a little distracted. "Yeah, nothing here that would get him locked up, even if you tried them all together. If he were convicted of all five and got the maximum, he'd have to pay a pretty huge fine and his travel would be restricted for a handful of months. But the odds of the Alliance going after him on these alone are pretty slim. He'd either have to commit a felony worthy of notice, or he'd have to have something they wanted. He's a bad boy, but one little scam at a time."

"A grifter," Chris mused, thinking on it.

"Pretty good, too," Buck said with a sigh as Chris dug his fingers into the tight space at the junction of Buck's neck and upper back. "Good enough to make bail, at least twice. Knows the right things to say, and what to leave on the record after he's gone."

"Gambler, too. Where are the big games around here?" Chris asked.

Buck sighed, but this time he tensed under Chris's hand and pulled away, turning to look up at him. "You're gonna go looking for him?"

Chris shrugged.

Buck shook his head, but he was grinning. "Should I be jealous?"

"Bi zui," he sniped, and squeezed a little harder.

Buck flinched even as his grin broadened. "I'll check around, call a couple of people, see where the roving games are right now. You might ask our locals too--Vin had to be locked up for something the other night. Maybe he plays cards. You know, knowing how things are going to fall out."

Chris scowled, more at Buck's teasing which he knew was aimed at him. But it did make him wonder just how far the younger man's gift went.

He slid his hand to Buck's shoulder and squeezed as he pushed himself up straight. "Come find me when you're done; I'll be in the engine room."

He stopped first to check in with his newest employees; they were finishing up another of the guest rooms, and dusty linens lay in a heap near the door. The room was clean and smelled it, not so much like bleach.

"Need to get the washers up," Josiah grunted as he gathered up the linens. "Can do all of them in a couple of rounds."

"Soon as the engine's back online," Chris agreed, trying to build this into the schedule of things they could do better on-planet. "I'm on my way to talk to Kaylee now, get a sense of things. Either of you know anything about any high-stakes gambling going on around here that a newcomer might find out about?"

Sanchez frowned, but there was a certain amusement in his tone as he said lightly, "Gambling's illegal here."

Chris ignored the words, turning to look at Vin who was collecting the cleaning equipment into a cart. "Last I heard, the big games were being held at Zaxter's, on the far end of the port," the younger man said. "You got an idea to play?"

Chris found himself grinning. "Looking for a player, maybe. You know anybody who can get us in?"

Vin shrugged. "Anybody can get in, if you got the money. But I know a couple of guys who work there."

Peripherally, Chris was aware of Sanchez's frown and the shake of his head. The big man didn't say anything though as he moved to stand in the doorway. Chris nodded. "I'll let you know when we're ready to go," he said, and headed down to the engine room.

Jayne, holding up a wall just outside the room, looked relatively clean and bored, which to Chris's eye meant the man wasn't working hard enough. Engine parts littered the corridor, though, plenty of them almost as big as Kaylee and others definitely heavier. She couldn't have shifted them herself. Kaylee's round little ass stuck out from the engine housing, her body bent double over a work pad she'd thrown over the lip to keep it from trying to saw her in half. Her feet weren't even in contact with the deck plates.

"Kaylee?" he called so as not to startle her, but she still jumped, and he heard a clanging from somewhere deeper than she should be able to reach.

"Damn!" she cursed, balancing back onto her feet. She pushed to a stand, peering down into the hole. "Dropped my--I can get it," she said, brows drawn into a tight frown.

Kaylee was dirtier that she'd been the last time Chris had seen her. Her face was streaked with dust and engine grease, as were her overalls and her hands--Chris flinched away from her as she talked, because she waved her arms around like she was going to touch him any second. One little piece of her hair kept falling forward over the tie she used. Even with all that grime, her liveliness made him smile; he should invent a reason to send Buck down here to enjoy her company.

"Jayne, can you help me pull this deck plate?" Kaylee called. She dropped to her knees as she talked, throwing the latches on the metal grill. "I can reach where I'm trying to get easier from underneath anyway."

Jayne pushed off the wall he'd been holding up and grumbled like an irate big brother, "Get out of the way, then. Git!" Kaylee got, grinning and slapping Jayne affectionately on the arm. When Jayne started to heave, Chris slid his fingers into the grill at the other end, and together they pulled it up and hauled it out of the way.

"Okay Jayne, can you get that--yeah, thanks." She turned to Chris, not quite bouncing on her toes. "She's coming together like a dream!" she bubbled, waving and pointing to where Jayne was struggling to get one of the larger pieces pushed into place. "I'd always heard that taking one of these babies apart for the first time was as good as sex, but I'd never seen it 'til now--it's almost too easy!"

"You mind if I ask what you're doing?" he asked her, but felt his eyes glaze over when she entered into a long monologue that clearly made sense to her. "I ain't a mechanic, Kaylee," he cut in, trying to hold onto his patience.

"Oh. Well, when I get that torque wrench back," she concluded, "I'm gonna pull out the grav boot and clean it out. Don't know that you won't need a new one, though," she added dubiously. "Those are the most expensive problems I'm runnin' into, captain. Replacement parts."

"We've got spare parts," he said, and pointed back toward the cargo bay. "Those crates over by the showers, they're all from the last run we didn't finish."

Her eyes lit up like he'd told her it was Christmas morning. "All of 'em? Firefly parts?"

"Plenty of them are, yeah," he said, grinning. This girl had machines in her blood.

"Well, damn! Let's go see if you've got the coupling I want, and--"

"Come on, I'll unlock things for you."

"Great," Jayne grumbled from just behind Chris, "now she's gonna get all wound up again. She was just startin' to calm down, too."

Chris blinked at him. That was calm? His estimation of Jayne increased the slightest bit.

Seemed like Jayne was right, and Kaylee had a much higher thermostat than he'd given her credit for. She hadn't gotten through the first crate's inventory label before she leaned in close, Buck-close, and whispered, "Don't tell my cap'n I said this, but I oughtta be payin' you." She winked then, looking older than her years.

"I'll keep that in mind when Mal sends us the bill," he said easily.

He let her lead him around for a while, watching as she showed him the inner workings and secrets of Buck's ship, listening to her happy explanations of things he didn't understand much of. It occurred to him that there was nobody on board but Buck who even knew where the 'on' switch was back here, and Buck knew precious little more than that. Chi had been their mechanic and Sarah their pilot, and both women had been lost to Alliance arrogance. That made him think about his own expired pilot's license, and made him wonder if Buck's was still valid. Neither of them had more than a "D" license though, and he wouldn't want to trust the ship and her crew to either one of them in the long term. He frowned; damned stupid thing not to have put much thought into, if they were getting ready to take her into the black. He excused himself, leaving Kaylee to wind Jayne to her bidding.

He found Buck with Vin and Josiah in the hallway near the last guest quarters, Buck's arms full of more dirty linens and Vin still pushing the cart of cleaning supplies. They all looked tired and hot and dirty, but the ship--the ship was looking good.

"Cargo bay left," Buck grinned, "and we can start on that just as soon as Kaylee's got all the parts out of it!"

"Won't be long," Chris said, reaching up to wipe at a smear of dirt over Buck's right eyebrow. "Kaylee's putting her back together like she was made of cake and icing."

"If we got some time," Josiah said, his deep voice low but unmistakable, "I've got a few things I need to take care of. You mind if Vin and I run a few errands?"

Chris turned to face him, letting his hand fall away from Buck's face. "I need Vin to go with me, see about finding Standish. And Buck, you need to talk to Kaylee, let her know how much fuel you're planning to buy so we can get her tested as soon as Kaylee's ready. But if you can manage on your own, I reckon we can spare you for a while," Chris nodded to Josiah.

Josiah moved past Buck and out the door, and Vin followed, looking back at Chris long enough to ask, "When you want to leave?"

"Soon," Chris answered.

"Could stand to stop by the port facilities and clean up," Vin said, and he let his eyes sweep over Chris, reminding him that he could use a good scrubbing, himself.

"Grab some decent clothes," Chris agreed. "Might as well not scare the man off on first appearance."

Vin grinned his agreement, moving off to follow Josiah and leaving Chris with Buck.

"I hate thinking of you in a den of iniquity without me along," Buck said, his tone saying he couldn't care less except that he didn't want to miss out on any fun.

"You could go instead," Chris tried.

"Hell, no. You need to size up Standish and decide if you can tolerate him."

"Yeah..." Chris nodded. He'd never much thought about why people followed him--and they did, either looking for someone to tell them what to do or looking for a leader. He hadn't been much of one in recent years, but he couldn't deny it was a comfortable fit, that he had even started to look forward to it. "I'll check him out."

Buck nodded.

Chris pursed his lips, thinking about how or whether to broach the subject, then just spit it out. "Your pilot's license valid?" he asked, and raised his eyebrows.

"Mostly, yeah," Buck said with a grin. "But you can fly her better'n me."

Chris frowned at the thought. "Neither one of us is good enough to handle her if we run into trouble, and you know it."

Buck shrugged, clearly willing to accept the truth of it. "So we need a pilot too. No hurry, though; you or I can get her to Boros and back, and the route's well traveled enough I'm not worried about pirates or worse," he said.

Chris pressed his lips together. If that was where they were going, and if Vin's tales didn't pan out. His gut told him they would. "What're you gonna do while we're gone? I don't want you cleaning the cargo bay; we leave that to people under us."

"I'm gonna go and entertain that beautiful flower down in the engine room," Buck said, looking excited at the prospect. Chris snorted, keeping her grease stains to himself. "Then I'm going to get us fresh fuel cells. After that I think I'll get cleaned up myself, then sit on my ass and have a beer and wait for you to come home."

He might never know exactly why people followed him, but he was damned glad Buck did. "Go on, then. Take a comm link when you go out."

"You, too." Buck's fingers trailed over the back of his hand before Buck headed back the way he'd come.

Chris went to their bunk and grabbed up his kit and a change of clothes, then rapped on the closed door to Vin's and Josiah's quarters. They'd better not be down there doing something that would make him have to wait--

The lock clicked and the door fell open, and Tanner stood at the bottom of the ladder, staring up. "You ready?" he asked, swinging onto the ladder with a bag slung over his shoulder.

Chris walked on, and Vin caught up to him at the cargo bay door. "You got credits?" he asked.

"Enough for a clean-up, yeah," Vin said, but he was frowning, his eyes distant.

Chris didn't ask. He just turned left and headed for the signs.

It didn't occur to Chris until later that Vin was a quiet guy. They made it to the public facilities, and without a word moved to the back, away from the few people making use of it this time of the day. They were both quick, not wanting to waste credits. As he stood under the sanitizer, his thoughts meandering through the mire of things that still needed to get done, he caught himself watching Tanner. He was in good shape, toned and trim, pretty much as Chris had expected, and plenty of pretty to make Buck want to look. A few scars here and there, but nothing that suggested he'd suffered serious physical damage.

Mental though... that was still up in the air.

Good ass, nice legs, more than handsome enough--what the hell was he doing with Sanchez? The thought flashed through his mind before he could stop it, and he shook his head, closing his eyes. Wasn't any of his business, certainly wasn't any need for him to waste his time thinking on why people did what they did or who they did it with. Some people probably wondered about him and Buck--hell, Tanner could be standing over there wondering why Buck was with Chris.

Chris had wondered often enough, back in the day. Buck's mother was of an elite social class, the kind of woman crowds parted for. She wasn't stuffy or standoffish like he'd always expected a companion to be, and she had a way about her--she made people comfortable, no matter their status. If it was a learned skill, it was one that she or her Temple had trained Buck in, because he could slide into a behavior to match a room. Chris had watched him hobnob with elites, and watched him share the crudest kind of fun with pretty dockworkers. With his mother's connections, Buck had a lot of choices. A lot. But Buck had chosen him, the irate son of a rancher. That had perplexed him at first as much as why Buck's mother had accepted the patronage of his daddy. Wasn't like Samuel Larabee could have afforded her rates.

No, Margaret Wilmington had seen something in Chris's daddy, something she cherished. Whatever it was must be genetic, because Buck had seen the same thing in Chris. Margaret had told him long ago--back when he was still a boy--that Buck's paternity came from a man a little like Chris's father, and that Buck despised pretense. Chris had never been sure what one had to do with the other, but maybe it was that simple, because the Larabee clan was in short supply of that commodity. What you saw was what you got.

When he'd been that young, being with Buck had worried him some. Before the war he'd planned on a wife and kids, on taking over his part in the family business. Loving a man like Buck had seemed like a complication, and he'd resented it some. But Buck loved him back and he knew it, and they'd been plenty happy with each other when they were young and wild. He'd worried again when Sarah came along, but Buck had accepted his love for Sarah without batting an eye or taking any offense.

That had sealed things for him, right there; Chris had watched closely as Buck had charmed Sarah, looking for the very pretense Buck disliked in people. But if it had been there, he hadn't seen it; Buck's and Sarah's friendship had been real, and intimate, and looking back on it, Chris knew he'd been a lucky man. Buck's initiate's training at his mother's temple had put him above idle jealousy, and Buck was too much a lover of women to resent Sarah her place in Chris's heart.

He shook himself out of his woolgathering and stepped out of the stall a few seconds behind Vin, pulling on clean clothes. Vin was standing at the door, waiting for him, when Chris realized that they had yet to actually say anything to each other since they'd left the ship.

"You play?" he asked as they left the facility, heading toward the far end of the port.

Vin looked at him, frowning. "Play what?" he asked.

"Cards, dice, the races--anything. I figured that if you knew the future, you could make a nice living off the tables."

Vin shook his head, and his face clouded over with annoyance. "Don't work that way. I ain't got no control over what I see or when." He said it with a sort of flatness that let Chris know he'd said this before, enough to be tired of having to explain it. "Josiah's been teaching me to look for details, like where and when, but sometimes they happen real quick, or there ain't no way to know. And sometimes, they're like dreams, only more clear. More real. And I can't wake up and get out of 'em."

Chris glanced at him. "But you think you know we're leaving tomorrow or thereabouts," he said, challenging.

Vin shrugged. "I saw a clock and a calendar," he said simply. "Can't get more sure'n that." His voice went softer though, and sadder when he said, "Don't know about Josiah, if he's staying on or not. But he'll be here for you this trip, he'll stand tall."

Chris slowed as a surge of anger rose up in him. Vin took a few steps before he realized, then turned back and stopped, waiting for Chris to catch up. "I ain't getting caught in the middle of no lover's quarrel," Chris growled.

Vin looked away from him, but not before Chris saw the bleakness in his eyes. "Ain't nothing for you to worry on," he said quietly, shifting so that his pack resettled on his back. "We'll both be going this first trip, like I said. After, well, I... " He shifted again, but this time it was uncomfortable. "Reckon we'll see."

Chris stared at him for a long moment, then started off again. "You aren't giving me a lot of confidence in you," he grumbled, because Vin wasn't doing a damned thing to reassure him. It didn't bother Chris, but he kept thinking it should.

Vin shrugged. "Reckon it's a good thing I can clean a ship, then."

It was. That, at least, made him feel less like a fool for hiring Vin and Josiah on.

When they reached Zaxter's, Vin proved he had skills besides cleaning. The business was busy even at this time of the day, filled with off-duty crew from ships in port. It was no problem for them to get into the main floor, the one that was open to the public and offered the sorts of legal and semi-legal diversions that most bars did.

It was getting to the upper floors, the private floors where the serious gambling went on, that was the trick. But Vin knew people, knew who to talk to, and after losing only a little money at the dominos tables on the second floor, they found themselves making it to the third.

Chris was glad he'd taken the time to shower and clean up. In the dim lights of the elegant interior, he wasn't as worried about how he was dressed as he probably should have been. Next to him, Vin stuck out more in his common clothes, tan pants and work shirt, scuffed boots and empty holster still strapped to his side where Chris had handed over his whole rig.

And there were plenty of looks, because Vin had the kind of features that attracted the eye. Problem was, once somebody was looking closely they'd see that vague quality about him and get disdainful or unsettled. Vin didn't seem to mind it-didn't even seem to notice, which only added to that vague sense about him. Chris tried to measure it against what he'd seen in the holding cell and what he'd seen at other times since then, but before he could think much on it Vin twitched, and shot him a clear-eyed, attentive look.

"My turn to buy?" Vin asked, low enough to blend into the quieter mood of this room.

"Whiskey," Chris answered, looking around.

There were more gaming tables here than downstairs, and with much higher stakes. This room wasn't as crowded, and the mid-afternoon patrons gave the impression of being both bored and dangerous at the same time. Except for the finery, this was Chris's kind of place.

They had time to kill, it seemed. Vin stayed more toward the roulette while Chris played at several different card tables. He won for a while, but when he started losing, gave up his seat before he lost too much. Vin leaned against the bar, sipping on another beer, and he nodded as Chris joined him.

They took a table against one wall, Vin seated so he could see the main doorway into the bar, Chris seated so he could watch a single door to an inner room. Every so often, the door to that room would open and someone would come out. Few went in, however, and only bar staff, as far as Chris could tell.

The next time their waitress passed by, Vin ordered coffee, dropping several chips on the tray to cover his and Chris's drinks. Chris glanced at his companion, noting that Vin's pocket seemed more full than it had when they'd come in.

"You always been able to see things?" he asked softly, leaning in to keep their conversation private.

Vin looked at him, then away, then back. "Weren't born with it, if that's what you're asking."

"Fall off a ship and land on your head?" Chris asked lightly, thinking back on all the tales he'd heard about people with unusual 'gifts' and how they'd come by them.

Vin's face tightened, and his hands clenched into fists where they rested on the table. "Alliance doctors wanted to make my eyes see better. Think they might have slipped some with them knives or some of the gadgets they put in." He picked up his coffee and took a long sip, and Chris found himself doing the same with his whiskey.

As it burned a path into his belly, he asked, "That who you meant before? 'Bout selling you back?"

Vin turned and met his eyes. "They started cutting on me 'bout when they decided I was old enough to serve in their army. If they knew 'bout the visions, they never said anything to me. Hell, if they knew about 'em, seems they'd have stopped me from running. They didn't though, even though there's a warrant still out on me for deserting."

"There shouldn't be," Chris mused. "Not after the amnesty."

Vin nodded. "Josiah figures they might want me back 'cause of what they did to me, and I reckon he's right. They don't care much 'bout deserters no more, but that bounty's still on my head."

Chris studied him. "Why you telling me?"

Vin grinned, relaxing. "You ain't gonna sell me out."

"You see that?" Chris asked.

Vin shook his head. "Don't have to. You ain't that kind of man."

Chris looked away. He didn't usually like folks thinking they knew him so well, but with Vin, it was comfortable.

So comfortable that he found himself asking, "So what's the problem between you and Josiah? His religion getting in the way?"

Vin grinned again, but it was a little tighter than the last one. "Reckon you could say that, but not in the way you mean. He thinks I'm some sort of prophet, thinks he's bound to me 'cause his god gives me these visions."

"And you don't."

Vin snorted. "Alliance fucked with my head, that's what gave me these damned things," he said shortly. "Ain't no god worth respecting who'd do this to a man." He picked up his mug but just stared into it as if it had answers. "Josiah thinks I do things, feel things, 'cause the visions tell me to. Reckon that's mostly my fault - when we first met, I'd had so many visions about him that I knew him as well as I knew my own self. Thought I knew how I felt about him, too, and time only made me sure. But he didn't know me at all - hell, I had him so confused, it's a wonder he didn't have me committed to an asylum. I think he thought about it enough." He did drink then, a long swallow that gave Chris a few seconds to think.

"Why didn't he?" he asked, curious not just about Josiah but also about just how crazy Vin might be.

Vin shrugged and looked over at Chris. "Ain't 'cause he was fucking me, if that's what you're thinking," he breathed.

"I wasn't."

Vin looked doubtful, but he hunkered a little lower in his chair. "Think guilt's what kept me out of an asylum," he said after a moment. "He thinks it's his fault somehow, me thinking I love him." Vin snorted. "He don't believe it to this day, thinks it's all hung up in how my brain works now, what it sees." Vin blinked and looked up at him, spearing him with an intent stare. "What would you do if you couldn't convince Buck you really cared about him? About him, and not his social position or his connections, or..." Vin cut his hand in a short arc between them, "or whatever."

Chris grinned at the thought. "I'd lock him up in an asylum."

Vin didn't laugh with him, though.

"Six years?" Chris frowned, thinking on it. "Any chance he's right, that you don't know your own mind?"

Vin just looked at him again, and Chris grinned. "Maybe he's the one ought to check into an asylum."

Vin chuckled this time, and finished his coffee. "Hell, sometimes I love him despite what I know - everybody's the same. Buck seems like a handful and I reckon you've got your own not so fine qualities."

Chris actually liked his "not so fine qualities," and Buck did too; he wasn't going to complain about the truth. "Everything you see happens?"

Vin sighed and nodded. "Yep."

"You ever even tried to change what you see?"

Vin rolled his eyes. "Nah, I like recognizin' tomorrow when I step into a room, like seeing all the bad shit happen right in front of me. Hell, yes, I've tried to change it. I thought at first, when I first realized what was going on, that that was what I was supposed to do, stop all the bad things from happening. But no matter how hard I tried, it still happened, as if what I was doing to stop it was just a part of what was making it happen. When I started telling Josiah, he tried too, thinking the same thing, thinking his god had some sort of meaning to it. That didn't work neither - hell, nearly got us killed more times than not. All it nets me is headaches and frustration like you wouldn't believe." He shook his head, and when he looked at Chris again, he looked older. "What I see happens, and it don't matter what anyone wants. Josiah - well, I reckon he's getting tired of it, of standing on the sidelines with me, watching it all and not being able to change it."

Chris nodded; he couldn't tolerate standing idle either, not if he knew what was coming.

They drank in silence for a while, Vin seeming to be out of words and Chris wondering what the hell he'd gotten himself into. Finally, the inner door opened and Standish drifted through it, looking just enough like his picture for Chris to recognize him.

His hair was longer than it had been in the id-pic, and his eyes were greener, but the look of boredom was the same, as was the arch of one eyebrow that could have been disdain or surprise or barely-restrained annoyance. Whatever the case, Standish's humor was the same now as it had been at the time the id-pic was taken.

Chris rose as Standish settled on a bar stool and strolled over, Vin at his back, in time to hear Standish answer the bartender's question with, "I fear that I find myself at the mercy of the house brand."

The bartender snorted. "Credits?" he demanded, not even moving to pour the drink.

Standish glared, but he was reaching into his pocket even as Chris produced several chips and said, "This one's on me."

"In that case," Standish said, glancing at Chris quickly, "I'll have--"

"He'll have the house brand," Chris said, meeting the cool gaze. Behind him, Vin chuckled.

The bartender went to get the drink, leaving Standish watching Chris and Vin steadily and with a certain wariness that his face didn't show as much as his eyes did. Concealed carry, Chris thought as Standish stretched his left arm down, past the flat of the seat. He wondered why the man had risked smuggling it in--and how he'd done it--but he appreciated that kind of caution.

"To what do I owe this charitable deed?" Standish asked.

"Mal Reynolds," Chris answered bluntly, nodding his thanks as the bartender slid a crystal snifter in front of Standish and collected the cost from the chips on the bar.

At the name, Standish stiffened for an instant, but just an instant. It was hardly time for Chris to notice, and he wouldn't have if he hadn't been watching closely. He was good, this one.

"Should I know that name?" Standish asked, but his eyes had darted to Vin, and then past him to the door, gauging the distance, calculating the odds of a successful escape.

"Only if you want to get off this planet quick," Chris answered, relaxing with his elbows on the bar. "Seeing as he's the man who posted on the port warning blog that you're a credit risk and a counterfeiter and--you know, I think your id-pic does you justice, don't you, Vin?"

"Damned fine likeness," Vin agreed, his raspy voice warm with amusement.

"What do you want?" Standish asked with a sigh, sipping at his cognac. "And be warned beforehand that I am far too short of economic resources for any sort of bribe."

"No bribe," Chris said, gesturing to the bartender to refill Standish's drink and ordering another whiskey for himself and a beer for Vin. "Honest work."

Standish snorted. "Few people consider me a danger to that trade," he said. "I fear that you have come to the wrong man."

"I'm crewing up a Firefly," Chris said, ignoring Standish's attitude. "You owe Reynolds money, and I hear you're looking for a way off Persephone. Here's your chance to pay off some of that debt to Mal and get off this rock at the same time."

Standish stared at him, his green eyes intent like a cat's, and the look in them alternated between consideration and affront.

Chris could deal with those. "You're broke. I know for a fact Mal Reynolds stripped you clean and you still owe him, and you didn't order the house brand because you struck it rich in there. You got somewhere better to be?"

Standish sipped from his cognac, and stared at them from a studiously blank face. This guy must be a hell of a poker player. "What are you paying?" he asked after a while, his voice uninflected.

"Depends on what you're good for," Chris hedged. He wasn't willing to pay untested crew out of his own pocket for long, and it would be a while yet before they started turning a profit.

"Well, I'm good at a lot. And trust me, I would require a lot." Standish's lips quirked in a grin that was still too close to a sneer for Chris's tastes.

"My offer gets you off Persephone before you get picked up for that outstanding warrant. That's a lot." He raised his glass to his lips, but before he drank, he said, "Be a damned shame if the wrong people found out where you were."

Standish proffered a cold, calculated smile. "You're certainly well-informed, Mr. ..."

"Chris'll do."

Standish sniffed. "If you're so well-informed, then you're aware I could buy my way out of my difficulties here."

"If you had the credits, maybe," Vin said lazily.

Chris smirked. This guy could be entertaining, at least to Buck. "And if that warrant is all you have to worry about around here." He reached out and grabbed Standish's wrist, right over the rig he'd sussed that was strapped to his forearm. "You c'n obviously handle yourself and stay under the radar. I hear you're good with your mouth and good in a fight. Decide whether you want off-planet bad enough to work off your debt to Reynolds and show me what you're worth to me. Our ship's The Margaret May, and you'll find her here," he said, handing across a scrap of paper with her registry and berth. "You've got 'til noon tomorrow to make up your mind."

Vin snorted behind him, sounding amused enough that Chris and Ezra both turned to see why. Vin just waved a hand. "Nothin' that makes no difference," he said easily.

"I'll be the judge of that," Ezra said archly.

Vin tilted his head and grinned, then said enigmatically, "I just don't picture you as an early riser."

"That, at least, is correct," Standish said dryly. "And?" he let the word trail off, inviting an answer from Vin that made sense.

Chris turned his head away to hide his grin; wasn't much chance of that. "See you tomorrow," he said, and left Ezra glaring at the scrap of paper. As Vin fell in beside him on his way to the door, said he whispered, "You don't have anything better than 'he's an early riser', keep your mouth shut. People don't listen to shit that sounds crazy."

Vin frowned. "You did."

Chris stared at him.

"In the cells, you did."

He had. Damn it twice. "Well, most people don't. Josiah knows you shouldn't go spouting gou shi you think you've seen that nobody else has. How come you don't?"

Vin just shrugged and bellied up to the coat check to collect his weapon.

Buck was on his way off ship when the comms bleeped. He accepted the wave, and felt his mouth drop open in surprise when a too-familiar face stared back at him.

"Samuel!" Buck smiled. "Long time!" He liked looking at Samuel Larabee, possibly for the same reasons his mother did; Sam had Chris's eyes, and a little of his bearing. Good heart, too, though the man wasn't prone to showing it. Like father, like son.

"Too long." Sam slumped back in his chair, pulling his face out of focus for a second. "We've tried to give him room."

"I know," Buck said softly, leaning in. "He appreciates it, Sam."

The elder Larabee nodded, and a tight smile touched his mouth. "Just as we appreciate you keeping in touch." Buck nodded. Samuel Larabee had adjusted to the fact that Chris wasn't going to be the responsible oldest child, wasn't going to carry on the family business, but that adjustment had taken its toll on all of them. "I wish this was a social call, Buck..." Sam started.

Buck straightened, expecting the worst; another death in the family was the last thing anyone needed right now, but Sam had already raised a hand, stilling him.

"No, it's not--everyone's well. This is business. Small potatoes for most, but you know we stick close out here."

"And you know we'll help, if we can," Buck said. Chris's father was a stern man, and proud, with a code of ethics Buck had always respected. He didn't ask favors lightly. In fact, now that Buck thought of it, Sam had only ever asked him for one, that he look out for Chris in that dark time after half the crew had died and the other half had returned to their rural homes. Sam needn't have wasted his breath and knew it, and that fact alone had touched Buck as much as Sam's request had.

"You can. I talked to your mother. She sends her love and encourages you to visit her." Buck smiled at that; these two always had tried to outmaneuver him and each other. "So you've got the Margaret May up and running again?" Sam asked.

"Just about, yeah."

"This is just a delivery contract. You remember Marcus Boden, out east of us?"

"Donna's boy?" Buck did, barely. He hadn't seen Marcus since before the war ended, though.

"That's him." Samuel pushed his hand through his ash-blond hair, a move so similar to the way Chris worried, Buck might have loved the man for that alone. "His family homesteaded land out on Triumph after the war. They broke new ground over the last season, mortgaged part of their farm here to send the Triumph commune this season's seedlings and borrowed some from us too, but the shipment was lost in transit or damaged or some damned thing, and you know Blue Sun; they'll fight the claim tooth and nail. Even if Marcus gets reimbursement eventually, he'll lose the whole growing season if they can't get fresh stock out there soon. And that will cost them the farm. They've got another allotment on their spread here, but Triumph will yield more and better, and the crew out there can't survive a dead season. Marcus needs a transport."

"Ships are easy to come by, Sam," he said, thinking out loud.

"Not this time of year, not without payment up front. They've looked. We've looked. The one ship they managed to cut a deal with ended up backing out. It's no charity job, but they won't be able to pay in full until after they harvest and sell. They need delivery in the next week or the seedlings won't wake out of stasis. We can front you a little money...."

Buck held up a hand to stop him. "No need. It's a legitimate arrangement, and Chris and I can cover it til the harvest comes in."

Sam smiled, and reached a finger toward the monitor on his end. "You've got a good heart, Buck," he said. "So like your mother..."

"You too, Sam," Buck said, and smiled. "So like your son."

Sam snorted at that, the sentiment on his face disappearing like it had never been. All business, he leaned forward, eyes on something outside the view of the monitor. "I'm forwarding you Marcus's information. Let us know if you can't do it."

"Come on, Sam, I wouldn't say no to you. I'll wave Marcus as soon as I talk to Chris."

Sam nodded his thanks and signed off. Buck leaned back in the pilot's chair, pleased that work was coming in already. He clicked the intercom. "Kaylee?" he called.

The speaker clicked, followed by loud banging and Jayne's cursing in the background before it clicked back off. Buck smiled and leaned back in the chair; maybe it was better to wait for her to surface on her own. And wait for Jayne to mend whatever he'd just done to himself.

When Chris and Vin got back to the ship, Vin peeled off immediately, taking the steps two at a time. "When you find Josiah, you two can come back and start on the cargo bay," Chris called to Vin's retreating back. He took the vague wave as agreement, then set off to drop his bag back in his quarters.

The door was open and Buck was in, sitting with his feet propped on the desk, reading the news feed.

"Hey," Chris greeted, coming up to peer over Buck's shoulder at the screen. "I thought you were going out for a drink."

"Change of plans," Buck said, standing and stretching tall. "We've got a job. Easy too, a straight transport to Triumph." He smiled, pleased with himself, and Chris felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle.

Buck's smile faded. "What?" he asked.

"Which one of us is running this ship, Buck?"

"You are," Buck replied easily, slouching a little and sticking his hand into the waistband of his pants. "But I reckoned you'd actually want work, if it came our way."

"Depends on what it is," Chris said, trying to tamp down his unease.

"Straight transport, like I said. You remember Marcus Boden?"

Chris nodded, and Buck filled him in on the details, scant as they were. "You can wave Marcus, get the rest," Buck finished.

Two days."How'd he know to find you?" Chris asked.

"He didn't. Your daddy called. He loaned the Bodens money, it'll hurt him too if their planting fails." Buck lifted his hands to Chris's shoulders, kneading lightly. "Come on, Chris. It's family."

It was, and Chris knew how important it must be, for his pa to ask a favor. He took a step back, away from Buck's hands. "Vin's prediction. Two days, Buck."

Buck's eyebrows climbed high in surprise and he whistled under his breath. "Well, I'll be damned. That's what he said to you?"

Chris pursed his lips and nodded, waiting, but Buck just shrugged. "Well, it's your father, Chris," Buck went on. "You know we have to do this."

"He said that too," Chris muttered. "And no, we don't have to," he said, annoyed.

Buck dropped his hands away. "Chris," he said, frowning. "He's family. You can't say no to your family."

Someone he won't say 'no' to. "You saying Vin's prediction don't spook you?" Chris asked. He didn't know what he'd expected, and thought he ought to feel pleased his gut instinct about Vin was proven right. He didn't.

Buck tilted his head, trying to peer into him. "The timing could just be coincidence."

The timing could, but not the person who'd asked. Someone Buck won't say 'no' to. He should have told Buck the rest of it. "What about the fuel cells?" he asked. "We ain't flyin' without fuel cells."

"Be here tomorrow," Buck said. "Kaylee's almost got everything back together now, said she was just fine-tuning some things."

As if on cue, there came a low-pitched hum, a vibration that was more sensation than sound. Air whooshed through the vents, making paper on the desk rustle and sounding loud for a second before it eased back to a whisper. At about the same time, the hum faded to nothing.

Buck grinned. "Engine's back on-line."

The intercom beeped, and when Buck leaned across the desk to touch the reception knob, Kaylee's happy voice exploded through the room. "She turned over like a dream!" Kaylee laughed, and the sound in her voice made Chris wonder if she'd been drinking. "The Margaret May's a great ship!"

"That she is," Buck laughed. Unconsciously, he reached out to stroke his fingertips down the wall, but the look he gave Chris said he had other ideas of celebrating on his mind.

"Atmo processor won't turn over until we run up the engine, even though I've got the ventilation open now," she said.

"We weren't flat-out when we landed, Kaylee," Chris told her. "We should be able to get orbital if we need; sure as hell, we can get her hot and recharge the batteries."


"You want to do it now, or come up and get started on supper?" Buck asked her.

"Now!" Kaylee said, while Jayne's voice cut in just as fast with, "Supper!"

"Go for it, girl," Buck said more loudly. "And tell Jayne that if he wants those drinks I promised him tonight, he better smell a damn sight better than he has been!"

"What?" Jayne squawked. "I smell great! Better than you bunch of sly sumbitches! I'll tell you--"

"He will," Kaylee said, her voice close to the mic and overriding Jayne. Her laughter cut off as the connection terminated.

"You think she's got a sister?" Buck asked, sounding far too interested for Chris's peace of mind. He'd be stepping quick to avoid a thrust in the middle of the day from his partner.

"I think if she did, I'd be worried about you tripping and falling into her," Chris said.

Buck grinned, his eyebrows still up in invitation as he said, "I promised Kaylee and Jayne I'd take them out tonight--they've done good work, fine and fast."

Chris waved it off, more worried about the big picture. "We need a mechanic," he said, wiping at his forehead. "We can't put the Maggie in the black without someone to keep her running."

Buck laughed, stepping in close. "Ahead of you there, stud," he said, sliding his hands easily to catch Chris's hips. "Kaylee's already sent out some waves, and we're gonna talk about it over dinner."

He didn't resist Buck's kiss, but as they drew apart, he asked, "There anything you won't do for my family?"

Buck smiled, but it was softer now. "No, and despite what you think, there's nothing you won't do, either."

A rap on their open door diverted any plans Buck might have had for more private celebrating. "You two seen Josiah?" Vin called from above.

"Come on down, Vin," Buck called back, but he didn't move away from Chris. So Chris did, putting a couple of feet between them and wondering why he still expected Buck to be proper in front of new folks.

Vin slid down the ladder but stopped at the bottom, one hand still holding a rung. "Either of you know where Josiah is?" he asked again, a frown furrowing his brows.

"Said he had errands to run, but that was before we left," Chris said. He glanced over to Buck. "He not back yet?"

Buck shrugged. "I haven't seen him. Maybe things took longer than he thought."

Vin's eyes drifted, and he looked sort of out of it, which didn't sit well with Chris at all. "Go on up and get started on the cargo bay," he said shortly, drawing Vin back. "There's a blower where we stored the equipment, you can start with that."

Vin nodded, still frowning, and climbed back up the ladder.

Chris walked over to close the door behind Vin.

Giving into a little temptation, Buck said, "Seems like he'd know where Josiah is, since he, you know, knows stuff." He grinned at his own wit, then grinned wider when Chris pointedly rolled his eyes at him.

"It doesn't work that way, Buck," he said, leaning tiredly on the ladder.

Buck stared at Chris, and Chris watched emotion chase across his features: uncertainty, suspicion, but ultimately, more faith in him than Chris felt like he warranted right now. Chris had no qualms about mocking him when he got caught out by a grifter's sob story or a good snake oil seller, mostly because it wasn't Chris himself who usually got caught out by such. With Vin Tanner, he wasn't so sure.

Buck frowned, ready to accuse or defend, but whatever look Chris gave in reply quieted him down, and Chris shook his head and grinned, a quick flash of teeth and a promise in his eyes. He wasn't going to let anything get away from them.

Buck smiled broadly and announced, "There's the man I fell in love with."

Chris frowned. "What?"

Buck tilted his head, his eyes taking on a decidedly sexual look. "Look at you - handsome, happy, and laughing at us both. I swear, Chris..."

"We found Standish," Chris said, changing the subject. He grinned again, easy and wicked. "Slinking out of the biggest game we found. He played it cool but I expect he's desperate enough to show."

Buck stepped forward and a hand palmed his buttock, kneading lightly. "So a man needs to be desperate to sign on with us?"

It took an effort to step away from that hand and that look, but Chris did. "It's the middle of the day," he chided.

Buck frowned. "Why'd you close the door, then?" Chris shook his head, and after a second Buck shrugged. "If I'm not gonna get one appetite fed, I'm gonna go and buy that beer."

"Bring enough back to get Jayne started; it'll save us some coin."

"Okay." Buck paused with his chin on a rung, his face framed on all four sides by the bars and rails. "You could call Marcus if you want," he said. "Get that started."

Chris looked at him. "I could."


"All right, all right!" He tugged a hand through his hair, more unsettled than he wanted to admit about just how true Vin's prediction was coming. "Just go."

"Aye aye, Captain!" Buck gave him a mock salute and took the rungs two at a time, and Chris watched his boots disappear up out of sight.

When he considered it, he didn't have a single damned reason not to like this job, except that he'd likely have to see his family. But even that felt easier now--something he resented slightly but not enough to get het up over. So he waited a minute for Buck to clear the corridor, and climbed out, locking their door behind him.

It had been years since he'd talked to Marcus, all the years since the deaths of his family and friends, even though Barnabus, Marcus' first cousin, had been one of the survivors off the Margaret May. The Bodens had lost a daughter on the ship, Marcus a betrothed, and they'd blamed Chris for that, Chris and Buck. Marcus himself had said a few things in the days after, things that Chris had wanted to kill him for.

He hadn't spoken to Marcus since, hadn't spoken to anyone from the community other than his immediate kin-mostly his mother and more rarely, his father, both of whom had told him that Marcus's anger had moved on to the Alliance military, where it ought to have been in the first place. It was through them--and through Buck--that he had any knowledge at all of the goings-on in the community, of the fact that the Bodens had started expanding, that Marcus himself had married and now had three kids and a farm almost the size of his father's.

He stood on the flight deck, looking at the comm unit, willing himself to patience, and sent the wave.

The woman who answered was tanned, her freckles darker, her pale eyes calm and direct. "Boden Farms," she said in a warm and friendly tone.

"Name's Chris Larabee," he said shortly. "I captain the Margaret May, and I understand that you folks are looking for someone to carry some cargo to Triumph. Is Marcus around?"

The woman tilted her head, then said, "Pleased to hear from you, Captain. I'm Marcus' wife, Biayla. Hold on, I'll fetch him for you."

While he waited, he watched video clips for Boden Farms scroll over his screen, pictures of healthy-looking cattle on ground he recognized from down around the southern part of their property, beautiful rich fields against a background of Persephone's setting moons.

Marcus came on quickly, looking older and tireder than he had the last time Chris had spoken to him. "Chris," he said evenly. "Thanks for calling."

"Marcus," Chris said, matching his tone. "Sam said you need cargo carried."

Marcus nodded, seeming to relax a little under Chris' directness. "Long story, but we had a carrier who bailed out on us two days ago. The shipment needs to get there in the next eight days--we have seedlings in stasis that aren't likely to wake up after that, and we're basing our net survival on their growth and breeding. There's other stuff that needs to go too, but that's the time-sensitive delivery. We can pay you a down payment, and set up payments for a monthly situation, if you don't mind 'em being small with a big pay-off after the harvest."

Chris nodded, relaxing a little himself. All business. "Sam and Buck talked about it already. We're going to take the ship up tomorrow to test the refit of the engines, out to Abrams and back. We can put down in your landing field, if you got one. Load from there, take off to Triumph the morning after. Should be a four-day trip. That in your window?"

Marcus exhaled a relieved breath, then nodded. "Yeah. Abrams shouldn't be more'n a couple of hours from us, depending on where she is in orbit. When you start your return, wave us and I'll have the landing coordinates for you for the farm."

"Will do," Chris agreed. "Talk tomorrow." He reached forward to terminate the call, but as he did, Marcus cleared his throat.

"Chris." His voice was tight now, the lines around his eyes and mouth deeper. "About before... after..."

"You need someone to carry cargo, right?" Chris said brusquely.

Marcus nodded.

"Let's worry on that. Anything else is in the past."

Marcus blew out a breath, then nodded. "Until tomorrow," he said, signing off.

When he finished with the call, Chris headed down to the cargo bay to see how Vin was coming along and wait for Buck to get back with the beers. A beer sounded good right now, but whiskey sounded better; he wondered if Buck would get him any.

Vin had the blower running and a pile of debris collected up near the loading ramp, so Chris hit the lock and lowered it for him. Legally, he couldn't just blow garbage out into the street, but that was what everybody did if they couldn't afford the atmosphere to vent their holds in space. He stepped back when Vin looked up and waited for the worst of the mess to clear the ramp, then grabbed a crate and set it down outside the ship.

People bustled in every direction, and the smell of something barbecuing wafted his way, reminding him that he ought to go in and do something about supper. But he didn't move, just sat and wondered what it meant that he had a seer on board, cleaning out Buck's cargo bay.

He heard Buck's laughter before he spotted his head in the crowd, and pushed himself up, grabbing the crate and heading back up the ramp. Buck came up fast though, the sound of clinking bottles marking his approach. "Put that crate right back down, pard," Buck called. "No sense going inside at the prettiest time of day."

Chris frowned out at the smog layer, pink whorls of dust and pollutants picking up early evening sun. But it wasn't the sky, really; it was the people, rushing around as the day wound down, laughter and anger, stoicism and pain. It was the people Buck liked to watch while he sipped a beer and thought about what his night had in store for him.

Chris put the crate back down and went to fetch another, and looked at the beer Buck offered. "No whiskey?"

"We'll find some when we get out to the New Born area."

Chris grabbed his bottle and tipped it up, startled by its chill but welcoming it.

"If Josiah doesn't get back before I finish this beer, I'm gonna have to cook, aren't I?" Buck asked, not sounding like he relished the idea.

"How do you know he ain't back already?" Chris asked, tilting his head to watch his partner's face.

Buck's grin stretched wide, teeth gleaming. "'Cause he's not cleaning out the cargo bay with Vin, that's why."

Chris thought about that. "You think we'll have a problem with those two?"

Buck shook his head and poured down a long swallow of beer, sighing his satisfaction. "Nah." Then he looked Chris's way. "But you wouldn't be letting him skive off work now, would you?"

Chris grinned reluctantly. "Guess not."

Buck stood and pulled his crate closer to Chris's, pushing the carry bag forward with his boot. "Looks to me like Josiah looks after him, is all," Buck said quietly. "Probably a good thing for both of 'em. They might have a lifetime of years between 'em, but it ain't often you see two people who care about each other as much as they do. They'll be fine."

Chris wasn't sure he agreed-about them caring or about them being fine--but he let it go for now. "You've got time for a couple of beers at least," he said.

Buck frowned. "Before what?"

Chris grinned. "Before you have to start cooking."

"Feifei de piyan," Buck said without heat.

Chris noticed that Buck's beer bottle emptied far more slowly than it usually would, and laughed under his breath.

When Josiah did show up, Buck made a show of downing his second in one long swallow, and Chris laughed again. "Come on, stud. Least you can do is keep him company." They headed up the ramp, Chris with the crates and Buck with the beers, two steps ahead of Josiah.

Vin dropped his broom and came over to them. "Josiah? You get things squared away?"

At the big man's hesitation, Chris stepped in. "Later, Vin. He promised us supper."

Up in the common room, Buck put his feet up and opened another beer while Chris pitched in, cutting vegetables on the bar counter and answering Josiah's polite questions with grunts until the man gave up and engaged Buck instead. Vin ambled in a bit later, free of dust.

"Anything I can do to help?" he offered.

"We've got it," Josiah said when Chris might have let Vin take his place.

Chris jerked his chin toward the table, and Buck. "Keep him company."

Buck chatted on with Josiah and Vin, mostly small talk so Chris paid only enough attention to get annoyed when every glance up found Buck's eyes casually roving over Vin's fresh-washed body. It took him a few minutes to work out that Buck was waiting for him to turn his head to do it, and Chris grinned to himself, concentrating on his work until the tread of a heavy boot echoed in the hall.

"Jayne!" Buck called out. "I brought you a beer to get your evening started right!"

Chris didn't need to look to know the stupid look Jayne Cobb would have on his face, but he turned anyway, surprised that the man was clean. His short hair was still damp in fact, dripping tiny flecks of water onto his army brown tee shirt.

"That's more like it," Jayne said, and chair legs scraped on the floor. "Captain," Jayne said with a nod, probably trying to show him the proper respect.

"Jayne," he said back, and nothing more.

"Where's pretty Kaylee?" Buck asked Jayne.

"Still gettin' cleaned up," Jayne replied. He twisted the lid off his bottle and swallowed thirstily, downing half of it in one go. "Don't know how that girl got dirtier than me." He sounded puzzled at the idea, but then, Jayne sounded that way a lot.

Josiah spoke up then. "She'll be along soon, though? Supper's almost ready."

"Reckon so. She was gettin' dressed by the time I left her."

"Getting dressed?" Buck mused, "And you still left? Hell, Jayne, that's a beautiful woman there. What the hell did you leave her naked and alone for?"

Jayne frowned and chugged again at his beer. "Mal don't allow that stuff between crew. And she was changing behind the curtains anyway, so, nothing to see."

"That right there would be a reason to jump ship, in my opinion," Buck said easily. "A woman like that shouldn't have to go without, not when she likes it."

Jayne's frown deepened. "You think?"

"You don't?" Buck asked him. "The way Kaylee carries herself, mmm-mmn, that's a gal who knows what she likes and what to do with it when she finds it."

"Huh," Jayne muttered, and emptied his first bottle, then reached for another. Chris watched him hesitate before pulling out a second and offering it to Vin, who shook his head. Jayne just shrugged and set the second down in front of him, clearly planning to get to it quick.

Chris stared at the tomatoes on the cutting board, careful not to slice harder just because Jayne was breathing.

"Kaylee ain't like that, Buck," Jayne prattled on. "Leastwise, not no more. She told me she screwed Serenity's last mechanic the day she met him," he said thoughtfully, "but I ain't seen her step out much since I been on board."

"Engine room, right?" Buck said with a throaty chuckle.

"Huh?" This from Vin, which brought Chris's eyes up again; it was the first sound Vin had made since Jayne came in.

"I said 'engine room', Vin," Buck said. "I'll bet she took him down there. She loves her ships." Buck stood up tall and grabbed a fresh bottle, strolling Chris's way but then ducking around behind the bar. A second later Chris flinched when the cold bottle was pressed against his neck. "You need another one, pard?" Buck asked.

Chris frowned over his shoulder at him, but accepted it. "Shut up," he muttered, "she'll be along any minute."

"And she'd be flattered we think she's worth talking about," Buck assured him.

Chris shrugged; Buck tended to read women better than he did, so he was probably right.

Kaylee bounced into the room a second later, and he heard Josiah groan when Jayne flat-out asked, "Kaylee? When you done Bender, was it in his bunk or the engine room?"

"Engine room," she said easily. Chris snorted when Buck did. "How come?"

Chris watched the interplay, laughing under his breath when Buck suggested they'd been fantasizing about her, and teased her into telling more of the story. It was a good one, made better by her enthusiasm. She was certainly accustomed to being around men folk, unashamed of her own needs or of their interest in them.

"I'm ready over here," Josiah said quietly from behind him as the story wound down and Jayne and Buck were laughing, and Vin was still looking confused but with a little smile on his face. Chris picked up the cutting board and followed Josiah to the table, setting out the pots he'd used to cook in.

The food was good, damned good, and he made an effort to let Josiah know. Which was pretty hard to work in, given the praising Buck was doing after almost every bite.

"Damned fine," Buck said for the sixth or seventh time. "I knew the monks had to have something going for them!"

The meal passed easily enough. Buck offered to clean up, and Chris knew he was using the time to stall, so that Jayne would drink a few more of the beers they'd already paid for.

Josiah insisted on helping, and Chris had the distinct impression that it had less to do with making sure his kitchen was left clean enough and more to do with not wanting to be alone yet with Vin.

"Where we goin'?" Kaylee asked, finally taking a beer for herself.

"Little place called the Butterfly," Buck called back. "You can find somebody willing there too, Kaylee, if you've got an interest."

"Really?" She sounded excited by the prospect. "Seems like it's been an age since..." She stopped and glanced around the table, probably hearing her daddy's voice in her head telling her to mind her manners in company. Then she giggled. "Since anything. You coming with us, Chris?"

"I'm staying in," Vin said.

Chris didn't know if it was an offer for him to be able to go, which he had no intention of doing, or something else, because Vin seemed - quiet, which wasn't a word that made a lot of sense to Chris, not after spending much of the afternoon with him. This was a different kind of quiet though, sadder. It reminded him of the conversation that afternoon in the bar.

Josiah, too, seemed different, and Chris recalled Vin's comment about Josiah not wanting to go.

Chris sat at the table and listened to the chatter between Jayne and Buck and Kaylee, and watched the dance--Josiah pretending that everything was all right between him and Vin, smiling at the younger man every now and then, patting his shoulder, but there was a distance between them that he could almost see.

He wondered if he could find a way to keep the spice garden on board after this job.

"You going with us?" a voice said loudly, catching his attention, and he realized that Kaylee was looking at him, friendly and open, and asking again.

"Yeah, Chris," Buck called, twisting a drying towel as if to flick it at him. "You coming along? Keep me out of trouble?"

"Get you in trouble, more like," Jayne shot back, and for an instant, Chris thought that he'd like to go along--if for no other reason than to drink the son of a bitch under the table, outfight him in a brawl, and generally do all the things necessary to live up to Buck's assessment of the night before: that he was meaner than Jayne.

He was no more willing to indulge that than he was to admit it. "Reckon someone has to be here to bail you boys out of jail," he said, arching an eyebrow in Buck's direction. "Seems only fair."

"Jail?" Jayne laughed out loud. "Don't plan on that, 'less that's where they keep the pretty women on this here rock! But then, you boys probably don't know too much about that, do you?"

"Boy," Josiah called from the kitchen area, "what I don't know about women ain't meant for any man to know. And I suspect I speak for Buck on that as well."

"Hell," Jayne countered, "Ain't no way you can know that much about women and choose a man instead."

"It ain't an easy choice," Buck said smoothly, still grinning, but he was looking at Chris.

"But the Lord works in mysterious ways," Josiah finished.

"Ain't that the damned truth," Buck seconded.

Chris glanced around the room, noting that Vin stood with his hands deep in the pockets of his pants, staring out the window into the night.

"Y'all act like there's not a woman here!" Kaylee called out, huffing playfully. "I'll have you to know that there's a lot about women that you can't know."

Buck eased up behind Chris and slid his arms around his waist, and Chris let him because he was pretty sure what was coming next.

"Darlin'," Buck said, smooth and honey-voiced, "if I weren't hitched, you and I both would enjoy me proving you wrong."

Chris worried for a second that he'd flush when Kaylee's sweet smile widened, then softened visibly as she looked between the two of them. He pushed forward, tugging out of Buck's loose hold. "But you are, so you'd best prove you're a gentleman tonight."

"I'd be happy just knowin' why women wear all them extra underclothes," Jayne said. "All that does is slow down the important stuff."

"You tore into your birthday presents when you were a kid too, didn't you?" Buck asked genially.

"Still do," Jayne said. "What's that got to do with anything?"

Kaylee giggled, Buck shook his head, and Chris decided he was damned glad he was staying in tonight. "Bring me back some whiskey," he ordered Buck softly.

But Buck was feeling his oats; he palmed Chris's buttock fast enough to make him flinch away and leered, "I'll bring you back something better than that." Buck eased past Chris with a wink and a smile. "Don't kill anybody while I'm gone," he said in parting.

Chris shook his head and smiled. The ship was nearly empty and he was pretty sure Vin was about to drag Josiah down to their bunk to resolve whatever was going on between them. Who would he kill?

"I picked up some more coffee," Josiah said. "Can I interest you in a cup?"

"Right nice of you," Chris accepted, settling back into a chair. He had some unfinished business here. "You sure you don't want to go out with them? Buck wouldn't mind more company. You either, Vin."

Vin flinched, as if Chris had startled him--and from the distant look in his eyes, Chris might have. He glanced at Chris, then back to Josiah who was putting the mugs in to heat. "I'm staying here, I reckon. Think I'll turn in now." He glanced to Josiah then shrugged and headed out the door.

Chris shook his head, hoping he wasn't going to have to deal with this very often.

"Something wrong, Chris?" the big man asked as he retrieved the mugs and made his way to table.

Chris watched him as he set the coffee on the table, trying to find something other than the truth. "Seems Vin was right," Chris said after a few seconds.

Josiah frowned at him.

"About the job Buck couldn't say no to." He lifted his mug to his mouth, appreciating the heat of the beverage and the richness of the taste. Josiah had gotten the good stuff.

"When are we leaving?" Josiah asked, not at all surprised by Chris' comments, but sounding resigned.

"Tomorrow morning, according to Buck and Kaylee, we can take her up for a test run, land her to make the pick-up. Farm equipment," he went on, seeing the question on Josiah's face. "Some of the local farms have a collective on Triumph, pretty new. They're still supplying it. We've got eight days before the plants in stasis are at risk of not waking up. Four-day trip, so it should be a piece of cake. I'm going to turn in, get some sleep before the police call me."

Josiah blinked. "You really expecting that?"

Chris nodded. "With Buck, I never know what to expect," he said. "On his own, he'd rather be abed somewhere. Jayne, though, he's trouble just waiting for a place to happen. If it were up to me, he'd never have set foot on the Maggie. But Kaylee needed him, and Buck likes him."

"And there's not a lot you won't do for Buck," Josiah said. His eyes met Chris's.

Chris sighed at the damned truth of that, and nodded his good nights, leaving Josiah alone. He wondered, though, as he climbed down the ladder into his bunk, how much Josiah was willing to do for Vin. Even though he had few doubts about what Vin would do for Josiah; Buck was right, it was written all over the man.

Buck--he knew Buck. It was odd; he'd never thought about the equity in their relationship, but here it was staring him in the face. Didn't strike most people that way, he knew, but he and Buck knew plenty that most people didn't, like the fact that Buck hadn't been gone an hour, and Chris missed the man.

It was ridiculous. He stripped down and climbed into their empty bed.

It was late when Josiah finally made it to the room, tired but feeling the weight of Vin's prediction, the sure knowledge that this was it. They hadn't really done anything, but there was something about Kaylee's excitement and Buck's enthusiasm that was contagious even with the undertone of Chris's distaste for the job. Josiah understood that, he did; the job itself was nothing, but it was clear Vin had told Chris about it in enough detail for Chris to understand now, and accept, that Vin's visions were true.

Vin hadn't waited around for that news. Vin was feeling the strain, the uncertainty of things between them--or perhaps he was feeling whatever it was that put him in tune with future events. Josiah could tell by the sadness that haunted his wide eyes, by the way he'd left without a backward look.

When he reached the bottom of the ladder into the room they were sharing he found Vin facing him, his back to the bed. Vin stood straight and tall, meeting Josiah's gaze directly, but his hands were clasped tight together in front of him and Josiah saw the white knuckles and the way Vin was holding himself in rigid control. Josiah had taught him that over the years. Unintentionally. He sighed now.

It was the first night they'd spent together since Vin had told Josiah of his future with - and without - him. It was the first night they'd spent together since Josiah had made his decision not to stay with Vin.

"I - I can't go back to how it was," Vin said quietly. "I ain't sleeping on the floor again. You might not want me in your bed, but," he swallowed but then pushed on, determined, "it's my bed, too, and I love you."

Josiah stared at him, surprised. Vin saved his determination and his hard edges for other people, and he rarely trotted it out against Josiah. Part of him was pleased about it, but another part was too tired for the challenge right now. "Sleep wherever you want," he said, shaking his head.

He turned, looking around for his duffel bag. He was tired - more tired than he'd been in a very long time, and he still had plenty to do before they left tomorrow. He closed his eyes, praying for strength.

Vin was so quiet, Josiah almost forgot he was there. His thoughts moved in spirals around what he'd done today, the people he'd talked to. Most were understanding about him taking some time off - he could keep the apartment - the post office would hold his parcels, and he'd already waved his work to apologize that he'd be away. Enough people had already been told that news would spread as people asked, and the idea he could just let it all lie, leave a minor mess to clean up when he got back, appealed to him mightily.

When he started dressing for bed, his concentration on prioritizing what absolutely had to be done as soon as he was awake in the morning, Vin was still standing there, his face drawn into a frown. "You're a piece of work," he said, his tone low and colored with disbelief.

Josiah blinked, thought back over their exchange so far tonight, and dropped his eyes, working his jaw left and right to try and shake some of the tension loose. He was. "Never argued that," he said quietly.

Vin shook his head and looked away, but not before Josiah saw what was in his eyes: pain. Josiah couldn't abide that. He held out a hand and after a few seconds of hesitation, Vin came to him, a tiny frown furrowing between his eyebrows.

Josiah used his thumb to rub at it, but the furrows didn't fade, and Vin's lips tightened into a firmer line. "I'm sorry," Josiah said. That helped, but he knew what Vin really craved.

It wasn't a big bed, not as big as the ones they were accustomed to. Even in those, they always ended up together. Even when Josiah was annoyed with Vin or angry at God and the unfairness of the 'verse.

He pulled back the bedding as Vin shed his clothes, appreciating the smell and feel of clean sheets and a firm mattress, and despite himself, the heat of the familiar body under his. He hadn't thought much about sleeping alone, but he'd grown accustomed to having Vin in the bed with him, a man who positively thrived on doing anything-things Josiah had once shunned with ease and now shamefully enjoyed.

Vin did some of those things now, drawing Josiah to desire as easily as he had days before, his hands and mouth knowing exactly what Josiah liked, exactly how to overcome his mind's natural ambivalence.

Afterwards, when his breathing slowed and Vin stretched beside him, he turned off the light and settled back, willing himself to relax and rest, and for a while, it worked.

Then Vin shifted, rolling over to face him, and he could feel the weight of the young man's gaze on him, the weight of his anxiety, the weight of all the things building between them.

Josiah sighed. "I'm sorry," he said into the darkness, keeping his eyes closed. "I know it's not your fault I'm here." It wasn't. Even if he hadn't known Vin, he'd still have been here. That much they knew about the visions.

"I know," Vin said softly. "I'm sorry you don't want to be here. But I'm glad you are. I miss you when you ain't with me."

"Vin," he started, but stopped. There was no point to this conversation. Vin's feelings were based in his visions, not in himself. He wanted Josiah because his visions told him to, and no matter how often they talked about it, Vin refused to understand the difference between authentic emotions, and predestination.

Josiah reached out, caught Vin's wrist and drew him close. Vin didn't resist, he never resisted. He never refused, believing that everything they did was supposed to be exactly as it was. From the start, he'd offered himself to Josiah and he'd been confused at Josiah's rejection. He'd worked hard to woo Josiah, to convince him that what was between them was real, and something more than Vin's faith in what his damaged brain revealed.

For Josiah, this thing between them had become muddled and grey. When he'd met Vin, he'd been just barely luen enough-and just young enough-to appreciate what Vin offered him. But a male wasn't his preference, and it was rare for him to reach for the younger man - which he knew was a big part of why Vin never refused him.

He pulled Vin in beside him, curling the familiar naked body against his own. Vin settled quickly, but his body held its tension and Vin lay stiffly in his arms. Josiah ran one hand meditatively up and down the long spine, testing the texture of smooth skin, feeling the bumps of bone beneath the flesh before he finally felt further and curled his hand around the dense muscle of one buttock.

Today had been good. He'd gone to do things that needed doing, but through it all, talking to people, settling things to hold the apartment and his accounts, his work at the church and various other places, he'd felt a freedom he'd been craving for a while, now. Everything he'd done had been for himself, to hold his place in the world, a place that was his alone. He couldn't deny the joy of feeling like the master of his own destiny again. Though it would be a lie, he was wise enough to know that... still, men lived lies all the time. The demands Vin placed on his faith were trying at the best of times, just as the demands Vin placed on his body were both unwelcome and much desired.

He had struggled with this from the start, trying to reconcile the things Vin wanted from him, seemed to need from him, with the dictates of his faith--or what he had understood his faith to be. That understanding was in constant flux, even after all this time. Or perhaps because of all this time. In the six years they had been together, he had thought that part of his calling in this was to lead this young prophet to God, to pull him to the faith. But that hadn't worked either. Vin had taken to the learning well enough, as interested in the Books and the history and the philosophy as much as he was in everything else.

But he was no closer to God - Josiah's one God - now than he had been when he'd first crawled out of that dirty storage box on that freighter all those years ago.

He eased his hand off Vin's ass and back up, more properly to his waist. "I miss you, too," he murmured.

"Horse shit," Vin muttered, and Josiah sighed. For a man who had once known so little about the 'verse, sometimes Vin knew too much.

He let his hand once more wander down Vin's back. "I... can't think," he said softly, wishing Vin couldn't hear him, half-certain Vin knew already. "I'm tired, Vin, tired of - all of it. Of knowing, of not knowing, of not having the answers. It's not about you--not about what you think or want or believe. It's me. Before... before you came into my life, I knew exactly what my sins were and exactly what I owed. Even how I thought I was supposed to pay 'em. I don't even know that anymore."

Vin sighed and his words, while quiet, were strong. "I don't control you. I can't."

"No," Josiah agreed, "but I need to know what parts of me I still own. The pieces of my faith that I have to find again. Debts I still have to pay." Maybe more debts, because of Vin.

Vin shifted, and Josiah tightened his hold.

"You're still you," Vin said, frustrated. "You still got all your parts or whatever the hell else you want to call 'em."

Josiah used his other hand to stroke through Vin's hair, cradling Vin's head in the hollow of his neck and shoulder. "I think I just need some time for me. You know I'll be back, that we'll be together--you've already seen it."

Like the last time he'd said it, he'd meant for it to be reassuring. But tonight, Vin didn't take it that way, his anger sharp and surprising in its rareness.

"Stop it," he snapped, pushing at Josiah, "just quit treating me like I'm stupid, like I can't think for myself - like I can't feel for myself. I have been, for a long damned time. You can write it off as being less than what it is 'cause it's easier for you to pretend it ain't real, but it is. I love you - and I'd love you even if I didn't have these damned visions, even if I didn't know what was to be - hell, sometimes I love you despite the knowing!" He leaned up on one arm, staring down into Josiah's face with bright, angry eyes. "I ain't gonna let you take off thinking that it's okay with me, and I ain't gonna give you a free pass on it. But I ain't saying it's what's to be, and I ain't pretending that I'm happy about it. As you like to remind me, I don't know everything, but what I do know, I know better than most men - and I know how I feel about you. I love you, you bastard."

It was hard to hold onto his convictions when Vin was this passionate, but it was also hard to believe that Vin knew what he was saying. Josiah'd wasted breath pointing out that he'd been over forty when they'd met, that he was closer to fifty now. That he had more than his measure of faults and a bad habit of letting other people get caught in his wake when his guilt forced him toward self-flagellation. Easier to accept that Vin loved him because Vin thought he was supposed to, than that Vin was crazy enough to love the man Josiah actually was. It made Josiah wonder, though, if there were more to this than Vin had told him. More that Vin knew.

He rolled to one side, so that Vin was beneath him and pressed down by his weight. His hand slid to cup the back of Vin's head, and he stared down into Vin's surprised features, into wide and unguarded eyes.

Carefully, watching Vin's eyes, he said, "You do know that I'll be back."

For a second, the anger flashed across Vin's face again. But it faded quickly and when he answered, the only thing left in his voice was the tired. "Yeah, I've told you." Vin sighed. "I just... I miss you when we're apart." Vin raised a hand to touch Josiah's face. His fingers traced over Josiah's cheek, then his lips. The pad of his thumb was rough, tickling a little as it moved over Josiah's skin. "You gonna tell me that's bad too?"

I could, he thought but didn't say, not wanting more hard words between them. Instead, he leaned down, kissing Vin full on the mouth, pressing him deeper into the bed. Vin moved against him, his arms around Josiah's shoulders, holding him close. His hips pressed up, rubbing himself against Josiah in desire and, Josiah knew, offering. As the kiss broke, Vin said it as well.

"Want you," he murmured, "fuck me again." Josiah was already between Vin's legs, and it took only the flex of Vin's knees to hook his ankles behind Josiah's thighs. "Give me something to remember when you ain't with me."

He wanted to, but his body wouldn't cooperate, not this soon. Still, it wasn't like his cock was the only thing he had to offer. He nodded and slid down Vin's body, so beautiful and still so foreign, so damned male. Vin's fingers slid into his hair and the flat belly tightened; sucking him wasn't something Josiah did often, though Vin did it to him anytime Josiah allowed. He pressed a kiss to the juncture of thigh and groin, and slid one hand under the firm ass, finding his way and pressing his fingers deep. Maybe because of its rarity, this was something Vin would remember for a long while.

His fingers went in easily, Vin still relaxed from minutes before, the passage well lubricated with slick and Josiah's own seed. Vin moaned at the penetration and clenched around the fingers, then clenched harder as Josiah licked at him. The taste was tangy and musky, so familiar that Josiah thought of it now as a part of himself.

He would miss it, he thought as he took the slender cock in his mouth, sucking on the flared head. He'd miss the taste of it, the weight of Vin's erection on his palm, the heat of it as his fingers closed around it. The slickness of it as he pulled it, drawing Vin to release as he took his own in the body that would know no one else but him.

He wouldn't be gone forever, he reminded himself, taking Vin as far into his throat as he could. Perhaps not long at all.

Vin arched under him, his hands pulling at Josiah's hair. Josiah added another finger to the ones working inside Vin, stroking over the sweet spot that had Vin moaning. No one else would ever have this. He trapped Vin between his mouth and his fingers. No one else would ever bring Vin to this pleasure.

But that wasn't right, not for Vin and not for him. He could do this - and he was, giving Vin back something that he didn't often give. But Vin deserved better, he deserved someone who could love him for himself, for the man. Not the prophet or the demon, not the conduit of God's - or Satan's - obscure messages.

And Josiah - he deserved more, too, he deserved something more than this mire of frustration and doubt, these questions of faith. He was not Job.

He wasn't certain when it started, but somewhere along the way, his cock reawakened. Perhaps the frustration, the anger that this was what he was driven to, keeper of a man God had given sight but not understanding, personal servant to one who he could not love.

Whatever he offered, whatever he gave, wasn't enough for either of them.

Vin cried out, staring up at him as he drew off and out, and it wasn't just Vin now who was trembling with need. Vin had been close to release and he looked desperate - desperate and wanton and every bit the demon Josiah sometimes imagined he was.

He caught Vin's legs just beneath the knees, lifting them back and apart. Vin blinked at the pressure, but he bent as he was directed, raising his hips off the bed. Opening himself, incubus or succubus or angel, Josiah's own personal curse.

They rarely did it in this position, and Josiah rarely wanted it this badly. But Josiah wanted it now, wanted the control and the depth it gave, the possession, the vengeance on a God so determined to make every answer a riddle and every gift a curse.

He penetrated fast and hard, and Vin's body surrendered with only passing resistance. This position made Vin seem tighter, hotter, not virginal, but not like he'd fucked himself hard minutes before.

Vin clung to him, his heels catching at Josiah's lower back, his arms bruising on Josiah's shoulders. Josiah barely noticed, lost in the pleasure and the anger and a desperation that might mirror Vin's own. At some point, he bent low, his teeth finding the taut tendon where Vin's neck and shoulder met. With each bite, Vin rocked up against him, sounds vibrating through his body and into Josiah, humming through the zinging currents of ecstasy.

He let go of one of Vin's legs, sliding his hand under Vin and down into the cleft of his ass. He brushed his fingers against the stretched ring of satin flesh and pressed one in beside his cock, just that extra little pressure on them both, and Vin came. His back arched, his pelvis slammed against Josiah's belly as his body locked in orgasm, and Josiah felt the tremors of it pulling him as deep as he had ever been in any other person.

His own climax followed, a roiling sequence of explosions that made time stop and nothing else matter.

Afterwards, it was an effort to pull free, as Vin's body held him with a fervor that was matched only by Vin himself, his arms and legs still clenched tight. Josiah rolled onto his back, hot and sweaty and sticky, the smell of their sex cloying. Rising from it, fast and searing, was the guilt; Vin didn't deserve this conflict. It contradicted everything Josiah wanted for him, wanted for them both.

Vin shifted beside him, and while he knew, even felt, that he should pull him close, comfort him, it was all Josiah could bring himself to do to put a hand on Vin's chest, holding him still and away. Too deep, he thought, he'd gone too deep, put more of himself into Vin than he could get back. Done more to Vin, denied more from Vin, and taken more from Vin than he had a right to expect forgiveness for.

Maybe this break was God's answer. Maybe it was a means to protect Vin from him, and to protect Josiah from more penance.

He awoke some time later to a distant pounding and the low lights of the security system blinking their pale blue warnings, his body lethargic and his head cloudy. His hand was stretched out to the side, but he slowly realized that Vin wasn't under it. As the banging stopped and the security lights stabilized, he found Vin curled at the foot of the bed, his hands pulled protectively to his chest, over his heart, deep purple bruises blotched along his collar bone.

The urge came again, to pull the younger man close and ask forgiveness, but if Vin's brain was God's mouthpiece, that didn't make Vin God. And even God had a funny way of forgiving a man who didn't truly repent. Josiah rolled onto his side, watching the security lights fade to nothing in the absence of any action, and prayed for dreamless sleep.

Something woke Chris in the middle of the night, a distant pounding that definitely wasn't coming from inside his head. He stirred and reached out, remembering when his hand met empty sheets that Buck had taken Jayne and Kaylee out to get them drunk and sexed. He groaned and pushed himself up, glancing blearily around for the chrono. He blinked when the wee hours registered on his brain, and sat up.

The pounding wasn't pounding. It was just the steady pong, pong, pong of the ship's comms, routed down here from the flight deck. Somebody was buzzing at the door. Repeatedly.

He pulled on pants and boots, and grabbed his gun on the way to the ladder. If this somebody didn't have a pile of money in their hand or a damned good reason for waking him, he was going to shoot them where they stood.

If something had happened to Buck, he was going to shoot someone, too.

Standing to one side of the door, he peered out through the port and groaned: Standish.

He should have known.

The man had lost his jacket somewhere along the way, and while his hair was perfectly smooth Chris could see already the slight swelling around his eye and jaw, and the scrapes on his knuckles. "What the hell are you doing here?" he growled, pushing the door closed behind him.

"I believe it was you who sought me out, sir," Standish said.

"I didn't say anything about waking people up in the middle of the night," he growled.

Ezra's head twitched, like he was resisting the urge to look over his shoulder. "May I come in?" he asked.

Chris stepped back and waved his hand in a grand gesture that he hoped Standish knew was mocking. "They follow you?"


"Whoever did that to your face and made you wriggle out of your jacket to get away from them," he said. "It's too early for you to start shoveling shit, Standish."

The wide shoulders slumped a little and Standish glared at him. "No, I don't think they were able to follow me," he said.

Chris headed across the cargo bay and back to bed. "You're not making a great first impression here."

Standish caught up to him as he moved through the cargo bay, falling into step beside him. "Believe me, I'm not trying to," he said. "But if I'm accepting your offer, I see no reason to pay for a night's sleep elsewhere."

"And risk missing your free ticket out of trouble?" Chris snorted and pulled himself up the stairs. "No, I reckon you don't. Find a bunk. The forward four are off limits and this one's already taken," he said, pointing to Vin's and Josiah's as he passed. "Don't touch anything that doesn't belong to you or you won't live to tell about it. You'll meet Buck at breakfast."

He stumbled back down the ladder to his and Buck's bunk, barely listening to Ezra's muttered words about how the mighty had fallen. This guy had better make a better impression on Buck then he had so far on Chris.

Bright light woke Buck when he'd successfully ignored Chris's prodding and the too-loud noises of his partner's morning ablutions.

Too bright for inside quarters. Buck raised his arm in front of his eyes to block it out, then squinted to look. Chris stood at the foot of the bed, holding up a high-powered portable torch and trying to sear the inside of his brain with it. "What the hell?" he muttered, then rolled onto his belly and buried his face in Chris's pillow.

"Up and at 'em," Chris said. Around the edges of his vision, the light went out.

Buck turned his head just enough for his mouth to clear the pillow. "You couldn't find a better way to wake me than that?" he mumbled.

"What way were you thinking on?" Chris asked him. Buck just lay there, regretting the extra beers and the late hour after Kaylee had come back from a thrust with a nice young man Buck had introduced her to; she'd returned with a flush to her cheeks and a satisfied smile on her face that might almost make up for how tired he was going to be today. He'd have been less tired if Jayne had been half as cooperative; it'd been almost an hour later before Buck had finally had to send someone up to Elyse's working rooms to roust Jayne.

"Something a little less..." he let his voice trail off as he felt the blanket start to slide down his back, the smooth motion tugging it along his spine, over his ass and eventually down his thighs. "Yeah," he breathed, wondering if Chris was going to offer something up or just slap his bare ass, "more like that."

Chris obliged. His body pressed long up against Buck's back and a cloth-covered groin thrust gently against his rump. "More like this?" Chris breathed into his ear.

"Mmm hmm. Honeymoon ain't over yet, is it?" he mumbled with a happy smile.

It was just exactly the wrong thing to say; Chris stiffened and climbed off him, and Buck credited his slip to still being mostly asleep. He rolled onto his back to prop on his elbows, looking forlornly at his waking erection. "Well it isn't, is it?" he asked.

Chris frowned at him, and Buck could see the ghosts dancing there in hazel-green eyes. "No, it isn't. Get up, we've got work to do."

"Something that can't wait half an hour?"

"Ezra came aboard last night," Chris said. "He's probably still asleep but I don't want to give him a chance to start prowling on his own until we decide if we're keeping him."

"When did he come in?"

"Three a.m. or so, local. Looked like he let somebody chase him right up to the door."


Chris shook his head, but he looked up and met Buck's eyes squarely. "I'm all right. I just want to get to work." One lightning-quick glance down Buck's naked body, and Chris's mouth quirked into a tiny, familiar grin. "Save it for me," he said, fond, but he still turned to pack the torch away.

Buck sighed and rolled off the bed, annoyed that he hadn't managed that better, hadn't managed the thrust he'd been so clearly about to get. Hadn't managed to start Chris's day off with more joy than this.

"How'd last night go?" Chris asked.

Buck thought about it. There were a couple of things -like the glow on Kaylee's cheeks and his speculation about what she'd gotten up to-that were best shared when the mood was right. "I saw Inez. She was planning to ship out to Triumph on a cruiser. I convinced her to take the ride with us instead."

"Huh," Chris said, sounding surprised. "She'll get a cheaper trip with us, that's for certain."

"I don't think she has to worry too much about money, pard. She's going to look at a new potential acquisition. I hit her up for some advertising, steering people our way if this goes well."

Chris just nodded and headed toward the ladder. "Hurry up, then." A quick glance over his shoulder, and that grin again. "There'll be coffee upstairs, and you look like you'll need it."

When Buck had dressed and shaved, he wandered upstairs and followed his nose to the kitchen. Josiah was going to be a godsend, if he kept cooking like he had yesterday.

He recognized Standish from his ident photograph, perfectly groomed and perfectly dressed, sitting at one end of the table. He'd pushed his plate back already, leaving eggs and half a slice of toast. Jockeying for status already, Buck thought, frowning at the wasted food.

He slid into the empty chair by Chris and poked through the pans, loading a plate and bowl while Chris got up and fetched him a cup of coffee from the bar. "Josiah, you cooked again. Makes it worth getting out of bed," Buck said.

"It's nothing," Josiah said quietly.

"It's a lot," Vin, beside him, said stubbornly. Vin looked a little more relaxed today, not guarding his food so much--or else he'd already finished his first serving and wasn't so hungry anymore. He looked to Josiah and smiled, but Josiah looked away.

Chris put one hand to his shoulder and squeezed when he set the coffee cup down, and Buck shot him a grateful smile. Chris was right, he was running on empty.

"Mr. Wilmington, I presume," Ezra said. "A pleasure to meet you."

"Buck'll do, Ezra," Buck said. "So who were you running from last night?"

Ezra frowned, the very picture of innocence. "Excuse me?"

"Look, some of us here understand why you'd think making the right impression is important. But finish your food or stop taking too much unless you plan to pay for your meals. And cut the crap. You're among friends here. Who were you running from?"

Ezra glanced to his plate and then back up to Buck, his eyes measuring and shrewd. After a second he tugged it toward him and picked up his chopsticks. "There was some confusion over a pot in a poker game," he said mildly. "They were mistaken."

"Uh huh. You owe more now than you did when Mal dumped you off here?"

"Possibly," Ezra hedged, but it was more than Buck had expected him to give up. They could work with him.

"Thought you were good at that," Jayne said with a frown. "Hell, you were always winning on the ship--surprised you didn't win free passage off of Mal."

"Yes," Ezra said, "but you can't win what someone refuses to bet." His tone was just bitter enough that Buck smiled.

"Anybody want more coffee?" Kaylee asked, holding up the pot.

"Thank you," Josiah said, holding out his mug. She smiled as she poured for him, and then for Vin as well.

"You're a professional gambler?" Josiah asked, looking to Ezra.

Ezra's eyes swept over Josiah quickly, assessing and dismissing him before he answered, "I abhor gambling, and as such, leave nothing to chance."

"Which is why you've been doing so well at Zaxter's," Chris countered, pushing his empty plate away.

"My problems there have less to do with my abilities than with the men who impugn my honor," he said with a sort of huff that almost made Buck laugh.

"Men are fickle things at the best of times," Josiah said musingly. "Constant sources of doubt and questions."

Beside him, Vin stopped eating, and his hands came up to rest on either side of his plate. Josiah glanced at him then dropped his arm along the back of Vin's chair, his fingers tracing along Vin's spine. Buck smiled at the older man's thoughtfulness, and wondered if he even knew he was doing it.

"Indeed," Ezra agreed, this time pushing back an almost empty plate. The crusts from his toast were still there, and Buck wasn't surprised when Jayne reached over and filched them, chewing happily. "The fickleness of man is hard to underestimate. I won those pots fairly and honorably, and they had the gall to challenge the veracity of my deal."

"The gall," Buck agreed, and Chris snorted. Josiah smiled, Kaylee lifted her coffee and made a noise that could have been a laugh but was lost in the mug, and Jayne picked another crust off of Ezra's plate. Vin cleaned his plate too, with mechanical swiftness.

Ezra cut his eyes to Buck. "I'll have you know--"

"No need for me to know anything," Buck held up a hand, "we're all agreeing with you here, Ezra, even Josiah, our preacher."

"Preacher?" Ezra asked, looking to Josiah.

"Former preacher," Josiah said easily.

"I did a turn preaching the word," Ezra commented. "One of the best cons I've ever worked."

Josiah arched an eyebrow. "Yes?" he prompted.

Ezra grinned, picking up his mug. "Just stand in front of the congregation, terrify them with visions of hellfire, and pass the collection plate. I have often thought that I should have joined the Church. The opportunities for long-term gain are infinite."

"If you can give up sex," Jayne said. "You sly, too?" He stared at the piece of crust he was holding as if it might be contagious, then shrugged and popped it into his mouth.

Ezra lifted both eyebrows and glanced down the table. Buck, waiting for him, tilted his head toward Chris and smiled. No sense letting Ezra think Jayne was lying.

After breakfast Chris pushed off the table and assigned cleanup duty to Vin and Josiah, who were already on it anyway. Vin seemed to be moving a little stiffly, Buck thought, and he wondered briefly--and a little enviously--how well the bed had held up for them.

"Ezra," Chris asked, as he pushed his chair under the table, "do you have anything else to wear?"

"I have some things I'll need to retrieve before our departure, which I assume is coming shortly?"

"Later today, we expect," Chris said. "Vin, you mind loaning him work clothes?"

"Nah. Ain't gonna fit him right but I've got some coveralls, somewhere." The words were distracted, Vin's gaze distant and a little unfocused. Josiah reached out and grasped his shoulder, which seemed to bring Vin back to himself.

"Good enough," Chris said.

"Excuse me," Ezra said, his back ramrod straight, "but a gentleman does not debase himself with menial labor."

Buck laughed under his breath when Chris snorted and said, "Well lucky for you Buck's the only gentleman on board. And if he's working, you can bet your ass you're working. Or you can find your way off this ship right now, and leave that fancy ring as payment for the meal you just ate."

Buck watched Ezra squaring off, measuring his situation, and knew before Ezra did that he'd back down. He might need to have a talk with him later. Maybe a few talks.

"Don't expect me to make a habit of it," Ezra said quietly.

"Don't expect me to put up with too much from you," Chris retorted. "Vin, fetch him something, everybody but Jayne and Kaylee meet up in the cargo bay."

Ezra didn't like work, but he was competent enough with a broom and his sulking didn't seem to bother Chris. Buck thought it was pretty funny, really, but he kept that to himself. They'd need some entertainment out in the black, after all, and Ezra was sure to provide it.

They weren't at it an hour before a delivery woman walked up the ramp in solid gray coveralls and heavy gloves. Must be the fuel cells.

He set Kaylee to supervising the load-in and headed back inside the cargo bay, where Josiah and Vin were up on the port gangway with brushes and cleaning rags, and Ezra was up on the starboard with the same. Ezra didn't look nearly as productive, so Buck hustled up the starboard stairs to speed him up a little.

Vin's coveralls were a better fit than Buck had expected; Ezra was more solid, so the fabric stretched at waist and hip and thigh, and he'd rolled a cuff into the legs. He didn't look like he was ready to burst out of them and he didn't look like a boy in his daddy's clothes, and now that he was out of his ruffles and lace, Buck could see the muscle on him, stretching Vin's tee shirt through the shoulder and biceps. Ezra's body was stockier, good-looking in a put-together sort of way that reminded Buck of many men in his mother's social circles but far fitter. Ezra didn't have to work to look good, and the fact that he did made him all the more attractive.

"Where's Chris, Ezra?" he asked, picking up a reagent cloth and adding some elbow grease to the effort. The rails were coated with dust and old grime.

"How should I know?" Ezra replied peevishly.

Buck noticed that Ezra stopped moving every time he started. He shot a pointed look down to Ezra's resting hand. "Ezra, don't make this hard on anybody, okay? You need what we're offering or you wouldn't have shown up. Once the ship's cleaned up there won't be that much sweat work to do, and at the end of this you'll have a little change in your pocket and you'll owe a little less to Mal Reynolds."

"End of what?" Ezra asked with a frown.

Buck turned back to the rail, running the cloth over it and the bars below it in long swipes. "We've got some trips lined up over the next month, should be easy jobs. There's no better place to hide out from your enemies than a Firefly doing gray-market transports to out of the way places. So make nice, give people their proper respect, and do at least half of what you're told. You do that, we'll all get along just fine."

He cocked an ear, listening for the swipe of the rag behind him, and smiled when it started up. Ezra might think he was above honest labor, but it wasn't foreign to him.

"To whom, besides you, do you imagine I owe respect on this ship?" Ezra asked him. Buck turned to watch him laying down the layer of cleaning agent on his side of the rails, not particularly surprised that Ezra had noticed either his words or his manners. He liked fitting in, but he didn't try to hide in the doing of it.

"To the captain."

"Your lover?" Ezra arched an eyebrow. "I did notice. Hard not to," he sniffed, "the two of you telegraph it loudly enough."

"We do?" Buck smiled, stupidly pleased by the idea. He knew he did, but it was nice to know that others saw it from Chris, too. At least, people with Ezra's people-watching skills.

"It's not something to be proud of," Ezra chided him. "It's a weakness, and weaknesses can be exploited."

Buck clapped him on the back and reached for more reagent. "Now see, Ezra? That's one way you could make yourself useful around here, shore up our weak spots."

They cleaned in silence for a while, working their way down eight or ten feet of the gangway then moving back with clean rags to start buffing the grime off. "Getting kind of boring up here," Buck said after a time.

"It was boring before," Ezra said.

Buck chuckled. "Guess so. You spend much time in space?"

"Some, yes," Ezra said. "Usually on luxury liners; this whole low-rent transit experience is quite new to me."

Buck doubted that, but he let it pass. "What did you do to impress Jayne?"

"I taught him card tricks. I shared my liquor with him. And I participated in fisticuffs for my exercise and his entertainment."

"He didn't lay you out?" Buck asked, ready to compare Ezra's story against Jayne's.

"They weren't actual brawls," Ezra said. "More a way to pass the time."

Interesting. Most people wouldn't engage Jayne just for the sport of it. "So what do you think you'll be able to do for us?" Buck asked.

"I honestly don't know. Grunt work, obviously," he said, annoyed. "I have been known to arrange passage to places where passage shouldn't necessarily be allowed. I'm adept at removing things from secure areas."

"And you can't be bad in a fight, not if Jayne spoke well of you."

Ezra shrugged. "A gentleman knows how to defend himself."

"A gentleman, Ezra, doesn't have to."

Ezra stood up at that and threw his rag onto the gangway deck. "What are you doing here, Buck?" he asked.

"How do you mean?"

"I mean, what is a man of your obvious education doing out here? On a ship, heading for what I can only imagine will be boring space travel with few amenities, potential danger, and menial labor. What are you running from?"

Buck debated the truth over Ezra's right to know it, then shrugged. "Nothing. The Margaret May is my ship."

Ezra's mouth dropped open, so Buck figured the truth had been worth it for that alone. "I... but Larabee is the captain."

"Yeah," Buck nodded, and looked back down the section of gangway they'd cleaned so far, glad to see that the shine on the metal had come out from under all that grime.

Buck let Ezra lean against the rail while he used the wire broom on the gangway deck, then Buck passed the cleaning fluid to Ezra and they started on the next section.

They'd finished about half of the gangway before Ezra started up again. "So," he said, bored-sounding as if he didn't care one way of the other, which amused Buck to no end, "you own this ship."


"But you're the one in here doing the work while the 'captain'--" Buck could practically hear the quotation marks around the word-- "does... what exactly is he doing at present?"

"I asked you when I came up here, remember?" Buck chided. "Hell, Chris could be asleep in our bunk for all I know."

When Ezra spoke next his voice was low and conspiratorial. "What does he have on you?"

"Ezra, you said it yourself that you could see we have something between us--and thanks for that, by the way. What makes you think he's got something on me?"

"Again," Ezra said in that bored tone, "your ship; you're working; he isn't; he's the captain and you're not. Do I really need any more information than that?" Apparently Ezra did.

"Good point," he said, and dropped the dirty rags over the rail to the deck below. "I don't really need to be doing this. See you when you're finished here."

He strolled away without looking back; Ezra had pride standing in place of the social position his family had lost. Buck didn't need to prick at it any more today.

Chris, as it turned out, had been on the bridge scheduling an afternoon liftoff with port control. Buck eased into the copilot's seat and watched him at the pilot's console, grinning at the frown on Chris's face as he concentrated on checking the systems. "My damned pilot's license is expired," Chris said. "I need to renew it."

"You should."

"And you should listen to me. I told you not to clean the cargo bay, to leave it for the help."

Buck waived off the complaint. "I was just interviewing Ezra."

"Yeah?" Chris arched an eyebrow as he looked at him. "You smell like you've been cleaning."

Buck looked at his hands, then sniffed at his fingers. That reagent was strong stuff, but mostly non-toxic. "I'll go wash up."

Chris shook his head and slid up out of the chair, then parked his butt on the ladder rail. "What did you find out about Standish?"

That was a very good question. "I think... I think he's a decent enough guy. He measures that by his own code of ethics, so we'll have to figure out exactly what those are before we can be sure," Buck said, working through his thoughts out loud. "It's been a while since he's had anybody on his side, though. He's trying to work out how the pieces are going to fit together for him here."

Chris grinned, not a pleasant one. "Well, he deigned to accept our offer; he wouldn't be 'demeaning himself' if he hadn't."

Buck chuckled. "Yeah. He looks pretty good when he's out of his finery, by the way," he added, remembering how Vin's clothes had stretched over a strong, firm body.

Chris frowned. "There's nobody around to watch your antics, so don't start," he groused.

Buck grinned when he realized how that sounded. "No, I just meant I could see how he could hold up in a fight with Jayne. He's fit. That could be useful too."

Chris nodded, but didn't laugh with him even though the corners of his lips twitched.

"Come on, Chris, relax. I'll even make lunch for this crowd if you'll come back and keep me company."

Chris nodded and set off out of the flight deck, and Buck rose to follow.

"We have any of that leftover stir-fry around?" he asked as they set to work in the kitchen.

"Unless somebody raided the cooler," Chris said, rummaging around for him.

It was in there, then; Chris didn't eat at night, Jayne had been out with him, and Josiah wouldn't. Vin wouldn't either, probably. He locked a pan onto the burner and poured most everything in. "Rice'll be done in a few minutes," he said. "Go and round everybody up, okay?"

Chris's fingers dragged over his shoulders as he passed.

Everybody but Ezra showed up within minutes. Chris frowned around the table. "Where is he?"

"Changing for lunch," Buck said, because Ezra was just that kind of man.

Ezra strolled in two minutes later, dressed in the clothes he'd arrived in and working hard to look like he'd been dozing the morning away instead of actually working. "Jayne," he said as he took his seat at the end of the table, "you should let me buy you a drink after lunch, to thank you for putting me in contact with these fine men." It almost sounded sincere.

Buck tilted his head to watch, wishing he were beside Jayne so he could kick him under the table. Turned out, he didn't need to; Jayne looked hopeful, but he sent that look Chris's way. "Can I, Cap'n?" he asked.

"Yeah, go on. Anybody needs anything done, you've got two hours after lunch. We lift off in three."

An hour later Jayne stomped back into the common room where Buck had settled down to wait for port control's ident-checks. He'd lost his long-range pilot's license when the Alliance had taken the Maggie during the war, but then, you only needed a "D" license for orbital flight or local transit. His was still valid, which mean he'd get to talk to everybody while Chris actually flew.

"Hun dan, gorram sorry sumbitch," Jayne was muttering under his breath.

"What, Jayne?" Buck asked him.

"Weren't no drinks," he growled, fists clenching and unclenching at his sides. "He just wanted to pick up his stuff and the boys holding it didn't want him taking it without paying what they said he owed."

Buck grinned. "He took you along as his muscle?"

"Yeah. Damn near got us both shot, for two stole suitcases and whatever's in 'em. I should've left him back there."

"If you did that, you wouldn't be able to make him pay later," Buck told him. "Keep it to yourself, okay?"

"Why should I?" Jayne demanded, glowering at him.

"Because he's new crew and there's no need to piss Chris off," Buck said. "I'll take care of him for you. How much do you figure he owes you for an hour's bodyguard work?"

Jayne's face scrunched up as he did arithmetic in his head. He came up with a number that satisfied him and offered it up, and Buck nodded.

"I'll add it to his debt to Mal, and you'll see it eventually if he works out here. That fair?"

"No," Jayne said, but it was without heat so Buck figured it was done until Jayne said, "I really wanted a beer."

Buck sighed, adding his own tally to Ezra's growing bill. "I can probably handle that, too," he said, pushing to his feet. He thought he might have seen Jayne smile as he passed the other man, on his way to where he'd hidden the beer.

Josiah had finished up in the kitchen and been killing time, mostly, until Jayne came in. When Buck reached for the beers and offered him one, though, Josiah shook his head. It was a little early yet for that sort of thing - even though, after last night, part of him welcomed the idea of losing himself and his thoughts in the emptiness of a good drunk.

"You and Vin been together awhile now, huh?" Buck asked, settling down at the table.

"About six years," Josiah answered, going back over to the coffee pot. There was still enough in it for another cup, which he emptied into a mug and put in the reheater. "Traveling together, mostly. Keeping him out of trouble as much as I can." It was the standard answer he gave to most people he didn't know - most people.

"So you think you're his keeper? Not a bad job if you can get it," Buck smiled. "Reckon he needs one?"

Josiah met Buck's eyes, the next 'standard answer' on his tongue - only to catch it before it passed his lips as Buck quirked an eyebrow at him. These people already knew about Vin - the warrant and the visions and everything Josiah worked to protect Vin from. He sighed. "Reckon he's my penance," he said instead, more to himself than to Buck.

Buck chuckled though, running his fingers up and down the neck of his beer bottle. "You must not have done much to warrant a punishment, then, not if you've got Vin as the price of your sin."

Josiah blinked. "What?"

Buck shrugged and raised his eyebrows. "You're the one said 'penance,' Josiah. But from where I stand, neither one of you is missing much in the other. Seems like y'all get on right well together, when your head ain't in the way."

From where Buck Wilmington stood, the 'verse was some rosy reflection of his own high opinion of himself. Not that Josiah could blame the man; he was handsome enough and lively enough, clearly in love with his partner, and clearly happy with his life-as happy as most could be, when they'd picked the side that lost. Buck had put the past where it belonged, and looked toward the future with a close eye on enjoying the present, and had none of the weight of prophecy to contend with.

Josiah grinned. "Can't say the same of you and Chris."

"Now that's just mean," Buck huffed, but his eyes still smiled, like he knew the game they were playing, so Josiah went along.

"I can't see how a man like him puts up with your childish antics or your wandering eyes. And I certainly can't see how you keep all his hard edges from slicing you open," he said.

Buck sobered up and pulled out the chair next to Josiah, easing down into it. When he spoke his voice was gentle, belying the frivolous way he seemed to approach his life. "There was a time I defended him to anybody who'd listen," he said softly. "Chris walked a hard road. We both did," he added after a second, "but mostly it was him who made the big decisions, and I followed along and was happy to do that. So the things that happened, they cut him deeper. I thought what he suffered might end him-might end us. But it didn't, because he's got more grit, more courage, and more integrity than just about any man I've ever met. More heart, too."

Josiah blinked at this side of the man. He should have known it was there, but in truth he hadn't paid that much attention, too wrapped up in his own conundrum to look past the playfulness that seemed to define Buck. "I wasn't criticizing," he hazarded, but Buck raised a hand, waving his effort away.

"Nah, I know. But you are worried. You're worried about your own man and what trouble he could get into here. No reason to be. Chris likes him - ain't many men who he's come to terms with as quick as he has with Vin. Your man's safe here."

"I..." He wished that were true. "He's hardly 'my man'," Josiah said, trying not to put too much anger into the words.

Apparently he hadn't put enough, because Buck gave him one of those grins, clearly preoccupied with his own view of things. "You really think that, huh?" he asked.

Josiah glowered, and glowered harder when Buck's grin broadened and he started chuckling. "All the gou shi in this 'verse, Josiah, I half-thought you were old and wise enough not to get yourself stuck in it."

"Half of it sounds like it's coming out of your mouth, Buck," he shot back, trying to pull them out of this serious bent and put them on safer ground.

Buck just laughed some more, and he pushed out of his chair and slapped Josiah's shoulder. Hard. "Guess you ain't listenin' to yourself too closely, then, pard."

Josiah shook his head, annoyed now, at Buck, at himself, at whatever it was that had gotten them here. He pushed up from the chair. "Think I'll walk around a bit," he said stiffly.

"Enjoy it while you can," Buck said, lifting his beer. "Heading out pretty soon here."

The sooner, the better, Josiah thought, ready to get this trip over. He walked around the ship a ways then wandered down to Vin's quarters. There was more work to be done on the cargo bay, but Chris was giving them a break and he felt the need of it, using the time to reflect on all the things happening. Didn't take him long to realize that his biggest need right now was to say something to Vin, to make some peace between them, to find some way back to the man he wanted to be, not the man he had become.

Not that Vin had said a word to him about what had happened, either in anger or pain-- and knowing Vin as he did, he knew Vin never would. But he was distant, not afraid of Josiah, but wary. Maybe - maybe it had taught Vin something, finally, something about giving too much of himself.

Josiah stopped at the bottom of the ladder, looking about. Vin had unpacked his stuff, but the room still looked more like a hotel room than a place where someone would live. Vin didn't collect personal things the way Josiah did. He'd said once that the visions made him not know what he owned today and what he'd owned, or own some other time, and Josiah believed him.

Josiah couldn't stay in here, not in this room that was both too empty and too full. They'd be sharing it for another eight days or more, plenty of time to confront his own personal demons and try to find a way to make things right with Vin. For now, he needed light and warmth and signs that God was with him.

The cargo bay doors were still wide open, the bay smelling clean and looking a lot better, even though there was more to do. Outside, he could hear the sound of people climbing on the hull, knew that was where Vin and Kaylee were. He eased out of the ship, looking up and searching for where the two young people were checking the seals on the exhaust vents.

They had climbed the braces on the outer wall, something Josiah was prepared for with Vin, who climbed anywhere and everywhere he got a chance. But it was a bit of a surprise to see Kaylee plastered to the side of the ship as well, a safety rope wrapped around her slender waist and her bare feet resting on the thin metal braces.

He shook his head, turning away. There was little need to watch this either.

"Jealous?" The voice was quiet but critical, enough so that he identified it instantly.

He took a deep breath, then turned to find Chris sitting on a crate in the shade of the ship. "Not of this," he said quietly. "I wish I could be."

Chris watched him, then nodded, once, and waved toward another crate nearby. "He's got no interest in women," he said quietly.

Josiah sat, torn. It was none of Chris's business, and while he might not be jealous of Vin climbing all over the ship with Kaylee, he wasn't nearly as unmoved by Chris's interest in Vin. Vin trusted this man, had given him his last name, inviting trouble. That didn't mean Josiah was ready to do the same, no matter what Buck Wilmington said.

But then again, if he was leaving Vin alone, he needed to leave him with someone who would help to look after him.

"He says not," he answered after a while. "And I have no reason to doubt him."

Chris grinned. "No, reckon you don't. His head don't turn at their pretty smiles, that's for sure. But then, his head doesn't turn for men, either. Buck says he's wrapped up in you."

Josiah shook his head, recalling Buck's words from earlier. "Vin's too wrapped up in himself to have true feelings for anyone else. Buck sees love everywhere."

Chris waved a hand. "Anybody who knows Buck knows not to take that gou shi seriously," he said. "Vin's eyes are for you."

"Because it's what his visions tell him," Josiah said slowly. "It's not about me, it's about his visions."

Chris frowned. "That ain't Buck's take on him."

"Is Buck always right?"

"About people?" Chris shrugged. "Buck can be gullible..." Chris huffed a short laugh. "Gets caught up by the most ridiculous sob stories. But most of the time, yeah."

"Vin's not most people," Josiah said. "He does what his visions tell him. He really believes he cares for me, but his visions have told him we're together. He's got no choice but to think he feels, cares."

Chris shook his head. "I haven't known him long, but I know him well enough to know that he's not an idiot. Only doubts I've seen in him seem to be about you."

Josiah was more surprised than he could say, not just by the assessment but by who was offering it. Chris Larabee hadn't exactly proven himself to be the most social of men. But maybe Larabee had something. Josiah couldn't begin to imagine what they must look like to outsiders, what Vin must look like. And he didn't trust his own perspective anymore.

"You think that?" he asked quietly. "You think he truly cares?"

Chris chuffed a laugh, turning to stare directly at Josiah. His green eyes were hard and sharp enough to cut stone. "Who the hell knows what makes us love anyone? It ain't in the 'why' of it, it's in the fact of it. Yeah, he loves you. Maybe more than you deserve."

Josiah sighed, scrubbing a hand through his graying hair. They sat quiet for a while, watching the comings and goings around the port, the laughter of kids playing between other ships, the cries of roving vendors hawking their over-priced wares, the cries of ships offering to take on passengers. Above them, Kaylee and Vin would occasionally call to each other, or laugh.

"You were married to a woman once," Josiah started tentatively, after a while. "So was I. Before Vin, I..." He paused, not sure of how to go on.

Chris picked it up, though, his own thoughts probably close. "I wasn't lying earlier, and neither was Buck--I doubt either one of us would have expected to be where we are now, two men, no women, committed." He shifted, the words as hard to find for him as they were for Josiah.

"Yet you trusted him to go out last night," he said.

"Of course I did." Chris flicked a glance Josiah's way. "I'm his partner, not his pa--" Chris stopped short and laughed, and Josiah knew it was him Chris was laughing at. "You don't trust Vin on his own?"

Josiah smiled despite himself. "No, I trust Vin completely." He glanced up toward the ship, watching as Kaylee made her way nimbly around another level. "Reckon it's me who needs a leash."

Chris blew out a breath, sobering, then sighed. "I guess I know that feeling some. Buck's got some talents though, more than enough to keep me from missing the things he ain't got."

Josiah grinned. "You're a lucky man," he said, leaning back against the ship and stretching out his legs.

Chris nodded. "Yeah, I am. I know that well enough to be careful 'bout squandering something precious." He pushed himself up, stretched, then said, "Tell them to let me know when they're done. I'll be on the flight deck."

Josiah nodded, glancing up to the top of the ship as Vin called something out to Kaylee. 'Squandering', he thought. Hardly a word he'd have used, but it was something to think on.

Vin and Kaylee had worked their way around to the far side of the ship when the sunlight finally hit Josiah full on, driving him up. He hadn't managed to resolve anything, and brooding on it was giving him a headache.

He went to work on the port gangway, trying to catch it up to where he and Vin had gotten on the starboard side, and he was just about even when he heard Kaylee and Vin approaching. She was talking, easy and friendly, about her previous evening.

"... and Buck just waited for us. It was the sweetest thing, him talking to Inez, even dancing with her, but as far as I could tell, dancing was all he did. He was a right gentleman!"

"Can't see that too easy," Vin said.

"Reckon he and Chris got something powerful 'tween them."

Vin didn't say anything, and Josiah wished he could see them, could see Vin. After a few seconds, Kaylee went on, her voice softer. "Vin? You all right?"

"Yeah," he sighed. "Just wish... " He sighed again, then said more forcefully, "What else needs doing before we go up? Chris said three, and it's getting on to time."

They came into view then, and Josiah went back to cleaning, acting as though he hadn't been eavesdropping.

Kaylee picked up speed as she came in, enthusiastic at the prospect of getting the Margaret May off the planet.

"Chris is on the flight deck, said to tell you to come on up," Josiah called down to her.

She laughed and ran on ahead, but Josiah's attention was on Vin.

Vin was moving slow, hesitant, his eyes on Josiah as he approached. "You want help?" he asked, quiet.

"If you've a mind," Josiah said, trying to smile. Vin nodded, searched out another rag and cleaner. He was wearing a collar shirt, hiding the bruises from the night, and the thought of them made Josiah a little ill. He wondered if there was anything he could do that would drive Vin away, any way he could hurt him, or if Vin was so locked into the truth of his visions that he'd let Josiah do anything to him.

No man should have that kind of power over another.

They worked in silence, both of them putting their frustrations into the cleaning. Josiah wasn't aware of time passing, wasn't aware of much of anything other than Vin's presence nearby, his steady pace and lack of chatter. His constancy. A clatter of feet drew his attention in time to see Chris below them. "Let's close her up!" he yelled, moving to the control box.

The big door rose, sealing them, and a second later his ears felt the change in pressure. Vin started moving around the bay, securing anything that was loose. Josiah watched for a few seconds. There were things Vin knew that Josiah had never taught him. They'd been together for a long time, but somewhere along the way, Vin had learned plenty on his own. That thought shouldn't surprise him so, but today it did.

It didn't take them long as there wasn't much yet in the hold in need of securing, then Chris waved them after him as he trotted back up the stairs. "Common room," he ordered. "Want to make sure we're all secure before we break orbit."

As they cleared the stairs, Josiah felt the tremors as the thrusters came on-line, and despite himself, his stomach lurched a little. He'd never quite grown accustomed to breaking gravity, even though he'd done it more times in his life than he could count.

Above him, Chris paused, and he saw the death-grip the man had on the railing.

They followed Chris in to find Ezra already seated at the table, with the lovely woman who had come aboard earlier. Ezra was looking better than he had when he and Jayne had returned to the ship, his hair tidy, his clothes fresh and barely wrinkled. He was deep in his conversation with the woman.

"Inez," Chris said, interrupting, "this is Josiah and Vin, they're crew." He looked to Josiah and Vin and said, "Inez Recillos, she's a passenger. She's also a friend."

Josiah nodded, understanding the implicit command to take care of her.

Chris went on smoothly, "I'll be flying, Kaylee's in the engine room to look out for problems and Jayne's down there in case she needs things moved. You guys sit down and strap in. Shouldn't be long now."

The last words sounded more like a threat than a promise, and Josiah caught Chris's eye as he turned. "Everything all right?" he asked quietly.

Chris nodded, but his face was grim and determined. "Hate these damned test runs," he said flatly.

"We'll be fine," Vin said softly behind Josiah, and he turned in time to see Vin and Chris lock eyes. "Ride might be a little bumpy, but nothing to worry on."

Chris swallowed, started to ask but stopped. Afraid of the answer? It was something Josiah often felt himself.

Vin grinned a little. "I know this," he said, nodding. "No worries."

Chris took a breath, held it for a second, then nodded as he released it. "If you're wrong, I'm putting you out the bay doors," he said, but his tone was lighter, and Vin chuckled.

Chris went out and Josiah led the way to the area couches, settling back on one side. Vin hesitated, then sat down near the windows, away from Josiah. He stared out the window, quiet and still, giving Josiah space.

The engines revved and released several times, test runs, and Josiah leaned his head back against the couch and closed his eyes.

"May I join you?"

He opened his eyes to find himself looking into the beautiful brown eyes of Ms. Recillos, who was standing at the break in the circular couch.

"Of course," he said, sitting up straighter.

She had a warm smile and a casual grace, slipping in easily to take a seat just out of reach but near enough for conversation. Past her, Josiah noticed that Ezra still sat at the table, shuffling a deck of cards and laying them out in what looked to be some sort of solitaire.

"Have you known Captain Larabee long?" she asked, settling in and crossing her legs casually. She wore a long, full skirt of rich brown, and a colorful, loose cotton top over a fitted t-shirt that matched the skirt. Low brown boots covered her feet, supple and strong, Josiah noticed. She was all woman, in all the ways a woman could be.

"Couple of days," he answered. "You?"

She shrugged, her long hair swaying prettily. "I have known him for several years, but I know Senor Buck much better."

Josiah laughed. "Buck seems a fine man to know," he said, pleased when she laughed.

They chatted for a while about the usual things; she owned a small business in Evansborough, a place called The Butterfly, which was close enough to the court annex to draw that business which was how she had met Buck. That little piece of news surprised him. It hadn't occurred to him that Buck was an attorney, and one could never know too many of those. Not when one had a lover who was on the run from the Alliance.

"And you?" she asked. "I hear you were once a man of the cloth."

He tilted his head. "The attractions of the world tempted me one time too many."

"It is easy to be tempted," she agreed, and she glanced past him, to Vin. "Especially by pretty things."

Before he could answer, the ship shuddered and he felt the deck plates vibrate under his feet in a way that did nothing to instill confidence. But Vin had said she'd be all right, so even though his instinct was to grab onto something and pray, his faith in Vin overrode it. For a minute or so, the sound of the engine overcame everything else. Rhythmic clanging signaled the retraction of the landing legs, then the ship was pushing up with a hard thrust before slowly arcing, her body rolling with the gravitational pull.

He drew a deep breath, glancing around. Vin was staring out the window, leaning a little closer to it. He was always fascinated by take-offs and landings. Ezra was shuffling cards, testing the gravitational roll of the ship.

The intercom clicked and Buck's voice called through the ship, "All right, boys and girls! All systems are running fine, we should be breaking orbit in a few minutes, and we'll arrive at Abrams in an hour or so. Sit back and enjoy the flight!"

"Could I interest anyone in a friendly game of cards?" Ezra asked with a smile.

Josiah was a little surprised when Vin rose and ambled over to the table. He looked to Inez, who shrugged. "I suspect we will have ample time for that over the next four days," she said. "I would rather hear of your adventures. Which faith do you follow?"

The time passed swiftly, or perhaps it was the attention of a beautiful woman. He found himself talking about things he hadn't thought about in a while, his father and his father's missionary work among the terra-formed moons of Athens, his wild youth among the counter-cultures of Greenleaf, where his father had sent him to seminary and he had promptly rebelled, and then his marriage to Emma. It had been during those years that he had settled, or changed, his sister Hannah's life deteriorating and his own slowly coming back into line.

"You miss her?" Inez asked. "Emma?"

He'd glanced to the table where Vin sat, his undeniably handsome features sharp in profile as he played whatever game Ezra had tempted him into.

"At times," he answered honestly.

She nodded. "I married once as well, and like you, young. It seemed the thing to do at the time. I do not miss the marriage, not now, but at times, I miss Rafael. He is a good man, and I do not doubt his love for me."

"No one since then?" he asked.

She shrugged. "Many. But none that I am willing to give myself to, not yet, anyway. Loving someone else takes away a part of you, and the more you love them, the more you lose. It may be selfish, but I'm not ready to lose myself yet."

Yes, that was it exactly. It was what he'd found himself doing with Vin, losing parts of himself and only lately realizing that they were gone, that he'd given them to a man, a young man who was blessed or cursed. "Or perhaps you haven't found the right person to exchange parts with?" he suggested absently.

She laughed, but as she did, he realized what he had said.

"Sorry," he said, and cleared his throat. "I didn't mean..."

She laid her hand on his arm, and he felt the thrill of it all the way into his chest. "Josiah, I would not mind if you had."

This was a part of himself he'd lost, and lost unfairly, the rush of blood at a beautiful woman's attention.

What, he wondered, was he taking from Vin? It was a question he damned well deserved the answer to, after all this time, even if God proved stubborn about giving up the information. As for what Vin was taking... hell, an old body, doubts, resistance and the occasional dragging Vin out of jail couldn't be worth much to the man. Not as much as Vin's visions made him believe.

Abrams Moon, The Shipyards

Buck eased the Maggie toward her assigned landing pad, coming down past a big old freighter and a squad of Alliance scouts, surprised to see military ships on this out-of-the-way moon. This port wasn't anything like Eavesdown; it was all engineering here, mechanics and towing equipment, inventory and scrap metal to feed the beast of industry in Persephone's larger cities. Buck liked to think of Abrams as the place where happy equipment went to die and get reincarnated.

Lower gravity forgave his rustiness, and the landing was textbook. Buck laughed with the thrill of it. It'd been too long since he'd done this, far too long, and he resisted the urge to wiggle a little in his seat to make room for parts of him that shouldn't be enjoying this quite so much. Chris's fault, he thought with amusement, for not taking care of him this morning.

He clicked the intercom for the engine room. "Kaylee?" he called, idling back the engine. "We good for shut down?"

"Good to go!" she called and there was as much pleasure in her voice as he felt in himself. If they had been in the same room...

"Good job," Chris said close and quiet, just before his hands fell to Buck's shoulders. "I'd forgotten how much you love this."

Buck looked back and up, catching his lover's eyes. The worry and tension Chris had carried since they'd sealed the ship for liftoff was draining away now, slowly, but steadily. They'd gone up and come down once and everything was all right.

"Yeah," Buck agreed, "I do. But only with you, Chris." He covered one of Chris's hands with one of his own, squeezing, and grinned. "Wanna fuck?"

The coarseness was intentional, and it got the desired effect: Chris's eyes widened in actual surprise, then he laughed.

Buck grinned wider, not disappointed as Chris answered, "Later."

They left the flight deck, meeting up with Jayne and the rest of the crew in the common room. Ezra had started a card game with Vin and Jayne at the table while Josiah and Inez sat on the couches in the back corner alcove, deep in conversation.

"Where's Kaylee?" Buck asked.

"She wanted to make sure everything shut down all right, or some such," Jayne said, distracted by the cards in his hands. "This is some shit, Ezra," he said shortly. "I see you ain't learned how to deal cards any better in the time since Mal put you off."

"I certainly hope not," Ezra agreed, but he was looking at Vin over the top of his own hand. "Even though the way Mr. Tanner is playing leads me to believe that I have lost some of my talents."

"Him?" Jayne snorted. "He already knows what we got before you deal 'em."

Buck shook his head, ignoring Chris's glare.

"You gonna embarrass us all with that sort of talk, Jayne?" Chris groused.

"Don't work that way," Vin said shortly, even as he tossed down a couple of cards and threw a low coin in the pot.

Ezra frowned, narrowing his eyes at Vin. "What doesn't work what way?" he asked, folding his own hand up to tap it gently on the table.

"We working or y'all slacking off?" Chris said loudly, startling everyone. "We're here to do a job."

"I thought we were here to test the ship," Ezra countered, and his eyes cut away from Vin to glare at Chris. "Surely you don't expect--"

"I expect you to finish the cargo bay," Chris announced. "Atmosphere here works about as well as it does on Persephone, and you've got the rest of today and tonight to finish. Sooner you get on it, sooner we get on with making money." Buck grinned.

Vin and Josiah rose immediately, used to working for their pay. Josiah did take a few seconds to say his pardons to Inez, who smiled back at him in a way that made Buck shake his head in wonder. He hadn't seen the appeal of the old man, but it was clear that Inez did. By the time Josiah passed him, Vin was long gone.

"You can't be serious," Ezra grumbled as he tucked away his cards. He reached to gather the pot, but Jayne cut him off.

"Seems to me that no one won this one," Jayne said, clearly ready to challenge Ezra for the change on the table.

"House always wins if the players leave," Ezra countered. "Rules of the trade."

"He's right, Jayne," Chris said, stepping up. With one quick sweep, he gathered the coins out from under both men. "And the house thanks you."

"Wei!" Ezra and Jayne cried together, but Chris was already headed out the door.

Over his shoulder, he called, "Let's go, Buck! Sooner we get this done, sooner we're on our way!"

"Buck!" Jayne called. "You can't let him--"

"Certainly you cannot!" Ezra agreed more loudly.

Buck shrugged, paying more attention to the beautiful sound of Inez's laughter from across the room than he did to their complaints. "He's the captain, boys. Take it up with him. Or let it go if you know what's good for you."

Inez stood, elegant in her mélange of brown, and said, "Buck, would you do me the honor of escorting me out? I have an appointment of my own to keep."

Buck waved an arm as he bowed, as formal as the confined space would allow, and offered her his arm. "The honor, Inez, is more than ample reward." He placed his palm over the back of her hand, and paused by the door to wait for Chris.

Chris put Josiah in charge; of the three who were actually crew, the odds were that Josiah could manipulate Ezra into behaving a damn sight better than Vin could. Kaylee was going with them to handle introductions.

Inez laughingly peeled away from them as they reached the exit from the municipal landing field and sauntered into the port thoroughfare.

As he watched her walk away, the skirt swaying like a flag to the whip of her hips, Chris whapped him on the arm to get his attention off the view. "How many weapons you think she's carrying?" he asked, leaning in.

"Huh?" Buck stumbled as Chris grabbed his arm. "What--"

Chris snorted, pulling Buck along. "She's a soldier for hire--you forget that, you're gonna get us killed one day."

"She's security," Buck countered. "And a damned sight more competent and honorable than plenty who came out of the war. You make her sound like some Alliance reject with more muscles than brains and a built-in laser site in her eyeballs."

"Like Jayne?"

"Har har," Buck shot back sarcastically, then he chuckled. "At the very least, Jayne's smart enough not to want to be an Alliance reject." Chris cocked an eyebrow at him in challenge, but Buck ignored it, going for the kill. "Vin, maybe..."

Chris scowled at him and Buck was amused as hell that Chris wasn't quite sure which way to jump about the younger man. Buck himself thought Vin and Chris were getting along right well.

"Where the hell is Kaylee?" Chris asked, turning back to look toward the ship.

"There." And she was, trotting out of the Maggie's belly and straight toward them.

"I'm looking forward to seeing Casey again," she said, excitement flushing her cheeks. "If we get these meets done quick, Captain, I think we ought to take whichever of 'em you hire up with us. The Margaret May needs some more time in the black, little further outside Persephone's gravity well."

"Anything wrong?" Chris asked, and Buck sighed at the tension in his voice.

"Aw, hell no, Cap'n! But you don't just take a ship out of mothballs and send her up without having to adjust a few things." She frowned, which to Buck's mind made her no less pretty. "A lot of things, really. Come on, we're s'posed to meet 'em both at the Turnscrew twenty minutes ago."

Chris looked after her like he couldn't figure out when she thought she'd taken over his position on the ship, but Buck just laughed and grabbed his shoulders to steer him forward.

The bar was like thousands of others he and Buck had been in--dark and tired and crowded. Kaylee seemed to know it, though, and she pushed through the crowd to the back, slapping a few reaching hands as she went. Buck followed after, pleased that she could handle herself.

"Casey!" she called out, waving her hand as she darted through the crowd.

Buck got his first look, then, at their possible mechanic--and stopped dead. Kaylee was young, but this girl looked hardly old enough to be out primary school.

Behind him, Chris snorted. "Think we need to get her folks' permission?" he said. "This one's a no go. Where's the other one?"

"Buck! Chris!" Kaylee was waving her hand toward them, trying to draw them over. "This is Casey!"

"Come on," Buck said, pasting on a smile. "Kaylee's done good work for us, we need to at least talk to the girl."

"You're the lawyer," Chris answered dryly. "Think we got enough to make bail for child-stealing?"

As they drew near the table, Buck noticed a young man sitting in the shadows, beside Casey. The boyfriend, he thought, remembering a piece of conversation with Kaylee from the Butterfly last night.

The young man bounced to his feet, coming around the table and holding out his hand to Buck as they neared. "JD Dunne," he announced. "Kaylee says you're looking for crew, and I want to offer my services."

Buck managed to keep a straight face at the effusiveness, even though he couldn't stop his grin. Behind him, Chris snorted and said, "What services do you have, kid?"

The kid--JD--glanced past Buck and his eyes widened. "Chris Larabee." The awe in his voice made Buck tense up a little; there were a few things Chris might be famous for, and none of 'em he was proud of. "It's a real honor to meet you, sir."

JD stuck his hand out toward Chris, who glanced at it, then back to his face. "Take a breath, you're turning blue."

The words weren't sharp, certainly not as sharp as Chris had been known to speak, but JD's face fell in disappointment.

"Come on," Buck said, grabbing at the kid's shoulder. It wasn't that he was really a kid; it was that he acted like one, with starry eyes and puppy-dog energy. A decade ago-maybe two-JD was just the kind of guy he'd liked best when he wanted easy play. "Let's sit down and talk to the pretty ladies. I'm Buck Wilmington, by the by, the Margaret May's first officer." It was too fancy a title, really, for what amounted to being Chris's right hand and the guy who smoothed the feathers Chris ruffled, but it was the easiest way to convey that he was a crewmember with some pull. More quietly he said, "Shut up about Chris. Right now."

JD, whose mouth had dropped open again, shut it so hard his teeth clicked audibly, but he edged back around the table and dropped into his chair without another word.

Kaylee was already seated beside Casey, and already talking a mile a minute in the language of engines that few people knew. That surprised him, not that they'd dropped into it so fast but that Casey appeared to be keeping up. Kaylee turned after a minute or two, announcing, "Casey knows engines like I do--her pa and my daddy done a lot of work together on engines a hell of a lot bigger'n a Firefly's back home, 'fore the work dried up."

Worked for their fathers, Buck thought, and he glanced at Chris, seeing the skepticism on his face.

Casey did too, apparently, and she was quick to try and dispel it. "No proof like a test run," she said, meeting Chris's gaze straight on. "If Kaylee just took her apart for you, there's some things you need to do in zero gee when you put her back together--but I reckon Kaylee's done told you that."

Buck was interested in spite of himself. She was a little spitfire all right, dark hair and big brown eyes. She even had freckles sprinkled across her cheekbones. "Firefly engines were all designed by the Jerricks, and they were great engineering architects. That's why there's so many of 'em still in the sky. But there's some things you c'n only do to 'em in space. Kaylee said she still had the core out yesterday, so you likely ain't been into the black yet. Reckon I can prove myself there," she said, turning hopeful eyes Kaylee's way. She was bold, and excitable, and plenty confident, and if her skills checked out Buck decided he wanted her onboard right then and there.

"How old are you?" Chris asked quietly.

"I'm legal!" she retorted, defensive. "I'm almost eighteen, and I've already got my multi-engine mechanic's license and my travel papers." She pushed a packet across the table at them and when Chris picked it up, Buck leaned in to get a closer look. The emancipation papers looked legitimate, and... he chewed on his lip to hide his grin. The "signature of parent or guardian" was filled in with a female-sounding name, apparently her mother. "Lots of people don't got neither," she went on, "so papers are worth something." She glanced to her boyfriend, uncertainty showing for the first time. "A little something, anyway."

"We've got someone else to talk to," Chris said, pushing her document packet back across the table. "We'll be in touch."

"Captain Larabee," JD jumped in, "Casey's real good, everybody says so. I know she's young, I do," he said earnestly. "But time'll fix that."

"Or it won't," Chris said flatly. He turned away without another word and headed straight for the bar, leaving JD and Casey looking a touch shell-shocked. Kaylee just looked disappointed as hell.

"How do you know the Captain, kid?" Buck asked JD just as soon as Chris was out of earshot.

"You kidding?" JD sounded incredulous. Buck just looked at him until he swallowed and leaned conspiratorially close. "There's all kinds of stories about the war," he said, excitement coloring his voice, "about lots of heroes of the rebellion. They say Chris Larabee didn't pick sides until an Alliance carrier brought in his ship on charges of hauling contraband for the browncoats. That he lost part of his crew because of it, and that after that, he joined the rebellion. He led squads on Persephone, Shadow, Santo, Silverhold-even Hera."

Buck frowned. "A lot of people fought on the side of the rebellion. Chris ain't no different."

"He is too!" JD defended, and Buck felt like he was tilted sideways, being the one on the wrong side of defending Chris. "They say he was fast and deadly, did hit-and-runs on Alliance strongholds, blowing supply and ammunitions depots and stirring up all kinds of mayhem, and getting away clean every time. They say he and his were helping to turn the tide in the war, until Serenity Valley pretty much killed the resistance."

Buck looked at Chris's stiff back, wondering at how stories like those kept circulating. They made something pretty and romantic out of what had been rage and desperation, hunger and blood. "You don't think he'd be rotting in an Alliance prison if any of that were true?"

"Not since he was too good to get caught," JD reasoned. "Besides, the amnesty-"

"-wouldn't have meant squat if those tales had any truth to them," Buck interrupted.

"But they do, don't they? Have truth to 'em?"

Buck frowned and looked back at the young man. "How would I know?"

JD gave him an impatient look. "You served under him. Your name's in some of those stories, too."

"The war's over and done with, kid," Buck said repressively. "I'm just a lawyer who owns a cargo ship, and Chris is just her captain. Tall tales get taller with every repetition. Don't believe everything you hear."


"But nothing. Shut up about all that. I mean it. Kaylee?" Buck asked, as much to cut through JD's starry-eyed enthusiasm as to get back to the reason they were here. "You want to wait here while we handle this other interview?"

"No, I'll come along," she said, frowning a little. Embarrassed maybe, that Chris had dismissed her friend so fast. Or by everything she'd just heard JD spout about Chris. Buck watched JD's hand cover the fist Casey had balled up on the tabletop, and looked up at the girl's dark eyes. Seemed like she had one hell of a temper on her.

He liked that, too. "You two give us a while, okay? I'll come back by either way."

When Kaylee pulled alongside him he stopped her with a touch to her forearm. "She anywhere near as good as you say?" Kaylee started to nod until Buck wrapped his fingers around her wrist, gently but firm enough to get her attention. "You know Chris and me lost a wife," he said, just loud enough to be heard over the noise of the bar, "and now, with JD's tale, you know how he lost her, and a little brother and four other friends, good ones, off the Margaret May."

"They--he--" Her eyes darted from JD back at the table to Chris standing stiffly at the bar, his back to the room and a whiskey glass in his hand already. "That was the Margaret May got pulled in by the carrier?" she asked.

"It was."

"But... it weren't her fault, was it?" she asked, frowning, then more doubtfully, "I didn't see no real trouble with her, nothing wrong with her parts, no bad scars...."

"Nah," Buck replied, "it wasn't the Maggie's fault. They were asphyxiated on board a damaged Alliance cruiser. They died from lack of oxygen," he added in case she didn't know the word. "So you see why this is important to me. Everybody needs work but not everybody can handle the responsibility. I can't afford to have you let your opinion get too muddied up in loyalty. I won't risk Chris, and I won't risk him having to watch something like that again." He softened his words a little, adding, "Not even for your pretty smile."

Eyes as big as saucers, Kaylee nodded her understanding. "Casey's better'n I was at her age, not as good as I am now, maybe. But she's worked on plenty of Fireflies and lots of other ships too, here on Abrams. I'd never done that before Captain Reynolds took me on."

"Keep thinking on that while we talk to this next mechanic, all right?"

Fetching Chris was a littler harder than it should have been, because he'd bought a whole bottle. It sat, just opened, on the bar. As they approached Chris tipped it up again, and Buck reached for the glass as soon as Chris stopped pouring, gulping it down in one swallow. "Come on, let's see this other one, and then decide how to decide."

Chris's face went blank and hard as he capped the bottle and slid it into his coat pocket.

"Um, Cap'n, I think that's him," Kaylee said, tentatively, pointing over to a pool table where several men were playing. "The older man, on the far side."

He was old, older than Josiah, and not in the same shape. Heavy set, balding on top, he compensated with long, straight hair that was tied back with a metal coil. His beard was the same--long enough to rest over his belly, and separated into three braids with metal wires.

He looked up as Buck and Chris stopped, and didn't quite smile. "You looking for a mechanic?" he asked, his voice guttural.

Buck straightened, trying to control his instinctive repugnance for a man who didn't keep himself clean. "Buck Wilmington," he announced, holding out a hand. "This is Chris Larabee, captain of the Margaret May, and Kaylee."

"Pres Harkness," the man said, taking Buck's hand. His grip was strong, his hands dry and leathery, well-used to hard work. The man drew his hand from Buck's and put it back on his cue stick as he looked back at the table. "Fireflies are old ships," he said, lining up a shot. "But decent. Need to refit the engine though if it's been sitting as long as the post said."

"Done and done," Buck said, waving a hand towards Kaylee.

"Never take one out that I haven't fitted myself," the man said, leaning over the table. "Don't like to clean up other people's fuck-ups."

Behind him, Chris said, "You ever tear down a Firefly engine?"

Harkness took the shot, sending the cue ball down the table to nudge the five ball into a corner pocket. "Firefly? Once or twice." He stood up, watching as the cue ball rolled to a stop. "Nothing special 'bout them except that they'll gum up on you no matter how good a mechanic you are. Every now and then you have to hit something with a wrench to shake it loose."

Kaylee gaped. "You hit an engine to make it work? Captain Larabee, that's about the dumbest thing I ever heard. Machines got to be taken care of and treated with respect--"

"Young'uns," Harkness laughed, lining up his next shot. "Can see why you want someone who knows something."

"When can you start?" Chris asked before Buck could say anything.

Harkness glanced back at him, grinning. "Tear her down tomorrow, have her in the black in a couple of days."

Chris nodded. "We'll be in touch," he said turning and walking away.

Buck stared after him, and after Kaylee too when she followed at a run.

"You can't be serious!" she said, coming up on Chris and grabbing his arm. Buck winced, more than a little worried for the woman. "You treat the Maggie like that and she'll never forgive you--she's a lady, you don't beat on her!"

Behind them, Harkness laughed and said, "Kids--so full of romance! The little lady said it herself, Cap," he called, "it's a machine, not a child."

Kaylee hounded Chris all the way to the bar, with Buck right behind her. He could tell when Chris had reached the limit of his patience by the way his shirt stretched tight across his shoulders and his chin came up.

"Kaylee!" Buck called loudly, catching her by the hips and pulling her several feet away. It wasn't easy--she was at full momentum and it was like holding a wildcat.

"It's not right!" she said, but she didn't fight him or try to go after Chris. "A good ship deserves better!"

"Hush, now," Buck soothed, turning her around to face him, and catching her wrist loosely. "It's all right, Kaylee, nothing's going to happen to the Maggie."

She was looking up at him, her eyes brimming with tears and Buck couldn't stop himself from pulling her closer. "Hey, now," he said, "Kaylee, it's all right."

She wiped at her eyes with the hand Buck wasn't holding. "She's a fine ship, Buck, you don't--you just don't do that!"

Buck glanced over, not really surprised to find Chris pouring from his bottle. "Now listen," he said lowering his voice and leaning down to look into her face. "I'm gonna go over here and talk to Chris."

"I'm goin' with you." Her eyes narrowed as she glanced back toward Harkness. "He's a he chusheng za jiao de zanghuo," she said loudly, and the vehemence in her voice made Buck smile. The tears weren't upset, they were anger, and he almost laughed. It was probably for the best that Kaylee wasn't available for hire; Buck's appreciation of her might have driven him mad, over time.

Chris scowled at him when they approached, then turned to Kaylee. "What do you think?" he asked her. His voice had a hard enough edge that maybe Kaylee would have answered honestly even if Buck hadn't talked to her.

"I think he don't deserve to get near a ship worth anything," she said, her voice smooth but so hard. "I ain't seen him work and I ain't gonna, Cap'n. I've seen Casey. I know she's good."

"She's a kid," Chris said, "I don't care how good she is."

Buck waved a hand behind Chris's head to call her to heel, and Kaylee saw it. She bit her lip though, and started in anyway. "I reckon you don't want to uproot children," she said slowly, "but she's already weeks from home and she's been here on Abrams almost two years now. You ain't taking her away from home, Cap'n... you're giving her one."

"Not my job," Chris snarled, turning on her now, fast enough and cold enough that she took an instinctive step back.

But she held her ground, meeting Chris' eyes as she answered. "No," she said gently. "No, sir, it ain't. Don't mean it ain't true."

Chris shot him a colder look than Buck had received from him in a long while. "You see what you've done?" Chris snapped, then pushed away from the bar and swept up to Casey and JD's table like an angel of death. Buck followed fast enough to hear what he said.

"Two trips," Chris was saying to Casey. "A month, tops."

"Two trips ain't hardly worth giving up my job here," she said, but she wasn't trying to negotiate. She meant it.

"If you prove yourself, then I reckon it might be a longer contract," Buck threw in. "If you don't, then we all learned something, right?"

JD grinned, clearly willing to take any conditions to get into the black. "That's right. And you will, Casey, you'll dazzle 'em and you know it."

Chris rolled his eyes. "You won't have much chance to dazzle unless you know how to operate loaders and forklifts, kid," Chris told him. "And I'll put you out the first place we land, if you don't carry your own weight. That means doing what I tell you, when I tell you, and working hard."

JD nodded, his enthusiasm undampened, and Buck caught himself grinning again. JD might drive Chris right around the bend, but Buck liked these two already. And whether Chris liked it or not, a home was exactly what Buck thought they were trying to build.

"All right then," Chris said, clearly regretting his decision, "you've got an hour before we leave. Meet us at the ship."

They got there in thirty minutes, pushing a rented cart full of junk, tools, clothes, and whatever else they weren't willing to let go of. Chris watched them trotting in and grabbed Buck up by his shirtfront, dragging him back down the hall and onto the flight deck, where he sealed the hatch for the first time.

"A pair of damned kids," he said, sounding angry but looking pale.

"You remember what you were doing when you were eighteen?" Buck asked, urging Chris to think.

Chris opened his mouth a couple of times, then scrubbed his hand through his hair. "Bastard," he muttered, and Buck grinned. Chris had been able to run the whole ranch at that age, had done so when his parents had gone off-planet for a month at a time, working to establish their other holdings long before the war had started. He'd had the support of experienced hands, but Chris had already earned their respect and his was the last word. He'd done a damn fine job.

Buck had missed the hell out of Chris that month; it had been the longest they hadn't seen each other since he'd been twelve and Chris fourteen.

"Fifty thousand head of cattle back then, Chris. Hundreds of acres of crops. Hell, Sam said you handled the place better'n he did. Come on, let's get her locked up. Kaylee'll need three or four hours and I'm feeling my belly grumbling already. Another hour to hop back to the Boden ranch'll put us there around lunch, local time. They promised to feed us."

Chris's fists balled up and he looked ready to spit nails, but he'd already made his decision and Chris wasn't the kind of man who changed his mind or second-guessed himself. He did walk stiff-legged to the hatch, punch it once, then wrench the latch open. "You watch her like a hawk, you hear me? If she don't know something, we cancel and start again."

"Will do, Captain," Buck said without a trace of irony. He left Chris on the flight deck to seal the bay doors, then jogged back down to the engine room, all too happy to follow Chris's order.

Casey and Kaylee chattered like little monkeys while Chris took her out, and JD mostly stayed out of the way and did what he was told.

Buck watched them all for a couple of hours until he was convinced of several things: one, that Casey really was competent; two, that JD apparently had his own pilot's license and had been running test flights off Abrams for a dozen different refitters for the past two years; and three, that JD was older than he looked.

"What do you know about engines?" Buck asked him when Kaylee and Casey shooed them both out.

"What Casey's taught me," JD replied, following Buck back up to the flight deck for maneuvering tests. "I only ever liked one end of a spacecraft," he said, his eyes already on the pilot's console. "These are good ships to pilot, responsive in atmo and out."

Chris shot JD one dark look and pushed out of the pilot's seat without a word, leaving the same way they'd come in. Buck grinned at Chris's back, then turned to watch as JD used both hands now to touch the console, as delicately as he'd touched Casey. No question about who was in charge in their relationship, but then, that was a fine thing too.

"How many Fireflies have you flown?" Buck asked, leaning back against the wall beside the door.

JD's eyes were still on the console as he answered, "Eight or ten I guess. I did testing after the refits, like what we're doing now. Some maneuvering tests too, but not so much. They got personality, but they all know how to dance if you know how to lead."

No way to argue with that, Buck thought. "What about other ships?"

"Other kinds? Dozens," JD answered. "It's what I've been doing here for almost three years now. I guess if it's flying and old enough to need major overhaul, I've probably flown it."

Buck nodded, thinking that as much as Chris hated the idea of relying on Casey to keep the Maggie secure, he was really going to hate the idea Buck had now. "You and Casey worked together before?"

"When we get the chance," he said. "I try to get her crew jobs when I can, and she gets me test-flights for engines she's worked on. But so far, it's been day-work, or short-term temp."

"And you think--both of you think--you're ready to settle down together, find something more permanent? Something where you live and work together?" He shifted a little, watching JD closely.

JD shrugged without looking away from the navcom. "She's special, Buck," JD said, and Buck could tell he meant it, that Casey Wells had JD wrapped right up in a pretty bow. "I've been on Abrams almost six years now, and she's the only one who caught me like this." Consciously or no, he rubbed a hand over his heart. It was ridiculously sweet.

"If you've got it so good, why are you anxious to leave Abrams behind?"

JD snorted. "You're kidding, right? Towing beauties in and out of docks, having my hands on fine ships but not being able to do much with 'em? Half the time knowing the engine parts are still hanging out of the fuselage and pretty sure that the mechanic working on 'em is hung-over?" He shook his head and looked out the windows where Abrams hung dark in the black, and Persephone shone like a jewel beyond it. "I've just been waiting for Casey, 'til she could find someone willing to take her on."

"To take on the both of you," Buck clarified.

JD nodded. "Lots of people want to hire me, being a pilot and all, but they already have engine-crew. Casey, well, she's got her pride. She won't take a job doing nothing but engines, not even if it means getting on a ship." He sighed. "I been waiting 'til she found somewhere to make her happy."

"That, kid, is the way it will always be, if you want to keep her around."

JD glared over his shoulder at Buck. "Yeah, I can tell you're an expert on women--y'all got a thing against women-crew?"

"Hell, no!" Buck retorted quickly, but even as he did, he realized that for the most part, Chris had done all the hiring--Vin, Josiah, Ezra, even Nathan. Jealous bastard, his lover, and he smiled despite himself. "I know plenty 'bout women. You stick with me, kid, and I'll make sure you give Casey everything she deserves."

JD rolled his eyes. "I know plenty 'bout women, don't you worry none. Hell, Casey ain't my first, not by a long shot."

Buck arched his eyebrows. "You don't say," he grinned, knowing a lie when he heard it. "You been on your own for--what, couple of years now?"

JD frowned. "I been on my own since I was sixteen, I know how things work, 'specially out in the border moons."

Buck glanced around, debating with himself, even though he knew he was going to do it. He just hoped Chris stayed holed up wherever he was, as he waved his hand toward the flight console. "Go ahead then, do what Kaylee wants done," he said. "Just, uh... don't use system-wide comms."

Wondering if he was as big a fool as he felt, Buck settled into the co-pilot's chair and opened up the Coretex, looking up JD's pilot's status and history of infractions; his license was valid and spaceworthy, and a level "A"--which put him ahead of Buck and Chris--he did indeed have a great many flight-hours logged on plenty of different ships, and his history was clear: no incidents, no fines, no collisions, no infractions, no litigations. Frowning thoughtfully, Buck leaned back to watch and think.

Something about the pilot's seat, Buck thought later, after the tests were done and JD was grinning from ear to ear. In the chair, the kid had been completely professional, acting every one of his twenty-two years and doing exactly what Casey asked without question--young professionals, both of them. He'd have to check with Kaylee, but from what he had heard and seen, Casey had done everything she was supposed to. JD hadn't questioned her, other than for elaboration on lengths of time and precision rotations, and he'd executed most of them better than Buck would have.

He sighed, admitting to himself alone that being away from the ship for years showed, and that he'd never been the kind of pilot Sarah had been anyway. Or, apparently, JD.

Now, out of the seat, he was a kid again, grinning and full of energy.

"You set the proximity alarms?' Buck asked, looking over JD's shoulder to the monitoring screens.

"And the autopilot and the long-range sensors," JD answered impatiently. "We'll be back near Persephone in an hour or so, ready to take her down."

Buck nodded, even as his own eyes verified what the kid said, and he grinned. "Well, then, I reckon we better see how the ladies are," he said, and they strolled through the ship together.

Kaylee appeared, crawling over the top of the coupling. She wasn't as dirty this time, but she was glaring at Casey. "You just remember to tighten that..." Buck tuned them out and turned out of the engine room. Women might have less testosterone in their bodies than men did, but their pissing contests were far more elaborate.

He veered through the cargo bay where Vin and Josiah were working hard and Ezra was, at least, working. It was looking better--smelling better, too. "Hey, boys. Seen Chris around?"

"The master has not deigned to spend time with the lowly grunts," Ezra called down, and Buck laughed even though he knew he shouldn't encourage the guy.

"Ain't seen him, Buck," Vin said, and Josiah shook his head in agreement. They were working on opposite sides of the bay, Buck noticed, with Ezra between them.

Buck thought for a second and headed downstairs to the guest sitting area off the medical bay. Sure enough, Chris sat in a ratty chair, staring at the medbay's dark windows.

Buck watched his fingertip running lightly around the rim of his whiskey glass. He took a breath as Buck strode on over and checked the bottle: empty now, but it had only been a half-pint to start with three or four hours ago. He chucked it toward the bin as Chris said, "We got a wave from Mal. He picked up a second run, needs Kaylee and Jayne back. They're coming through tomorrow, and he asked if we could leave 'em on Abrams. How'd the rest of the flight tests go?"

Buck smiled. "Casey's good, Chris. I think we're gonna be fine with her."

Chris turned to look at him, his gaze clear but distant. "You're not just saying that because you like her better than Harkness, are you?"

Buck shook his head. "She did it by the book, and from what I can see, she's got the touch."

Chris took a breath, still rubbing at the rim of his glass. "They don't act much older than Adam," he said, so quiet that Buck had to strain to hear him. "Ain't got enough life in 'em to know--"

"Chris," Buck cut him off, not ready to go down this road, not this close to going back into the black. "They're all on their own, have been for a while. Everything's going to be fine. If you don't like the way they work on this run, then we drop 'em off here and find someone new."

Chris looked at him, the same distance in his eyes.

After a few seconds, Buck smiled, dropping his hand to Chris shoulder. "So we head back to Abrams, make the necessary trade-offs, and haul our asses down to Marcus's place so I can get some grub?"

Chris was silent still, but after a while he glanced up from under the fringe of his too-long hair, and nodded. "Yeah, reckon so." His hand fell on Buck's, his fingers gripping hard. "Reckon we better go tell Kaylee to get packed up," Chris said. Buck didn't move, though, and neither did Chris. They were quiet for a little while, and Buck was happy to keep standing there until he felt Chris relax a little.

It was a gamble, no matter when he said it, but in one way, it was as much a mood-breaker as anything else. "Sounds good. Hey, guess what JD knows how to do?"

Chris stiffened, and Buck grinned. Anger was definitely better than distance.

An hour later they'd said their goodbyes and given their thanks to Jayne and Kaylee. Inez was heading back to Demeter on the next public shuttle run, something about fallout from this meeting she'd had up here. They would arrange to meet up with her tomorrow morning, and since he had the time, Buck placed an announcement for passengers on the port's wireless. Vin and Josiah had cleaned up the cabins so nice, it'd be a shame not to r ent them.

Persephone, Boden Farms near the township of New Born

Chris sat in the copilot's chair as they approached Persephone, because no matter what Buck said about JD's flight records, Chris didn't trust his flying. Not yet, maybe not ever. So he sat in the copilot's chair watching JD like a hawk.

I'm not worried, Buck had said. If you're so worried, you watch him. And that had pretty much been that. Buck was too busy hobnobbing with Ezra to care if the ship went down, Chris thought sourly.

That wasn't true and he knew it, but it gave him a twisted pleasure to think it. What was true was that Chris was tense about the fact that very soon, he'd be less than eight miles from the Larabee ranch. Buck didn't like him tense, said he got mean. That was probably true too, he thought, staring at JD's tight mouth. The kid hadn't done anything wrong so far, but probably, Chris's mood was getting to him.

"Geosynchronous," JD announced, pushing a couple of buttons and opening comms to port control. "We're waiting in line," he said, even though Chris hadn't seen another ship this side of the planet in at least five or ten minutes.

"For what?"

JD frowned at him. "For them to tell us we're clear to break atmo outside the landing grids," he said. "Um, Captain, you know that, right?"

"Yeah," Chris answered, staring out at the view. Persephone's surface radiated plenty of light, and he could pick out the planet's one big ocean to the east and the range of old mountains inland, half-hidden behind clouds. The Boden ranch lay just west of them. Further north, two hundred miles or so, the Connelly ranch ate into the mountains, and Chris felt his mouth tighten in fresh anger.

His family's ranch shared the Bodens' southern border, nestled in the foothills and spreading west toward the plains. He felt like if he squinted just right, he could see the crew working, cowfolks around the barns working from horses and from hovercraft or cheaper, more reliable mules, bringing animals in or throwing out feed. It was calving time, and the place would be busy.

The comms buzzed and he jerked, shaking himself out of his memories.

"We're cleared to land," JD said.

The planet grew slowly, filling the screen until JD tipped her belly-down and flicked on a monitor, and two squares brightened in the corners of the windows, showing them what was coming up beneath them. But most of the windows were filled with stars and the bright bodies of nearby moons.

Minutes ticked by, distant land resolving itself into rivers and jagged crevasses, canyons they'd herded cattle into, hiding them along the Middow River under thick tree canopy, trying to keep them fed and out of Alliance hands, because no one had been able to keep Alliance procurement officers away from the livestock. Chris had watched for months as the herds thinned to feed the occupying troops here on Persephone and others up in the black. He'd watched and fumed and when legal efforts to protect ranch owners' property had fallen flat.

It was then that Chris had asked for the loan of the Margaret May.

They had sneaked cattle first off the Larabee ranch and the Connelly place, and then for any other neighbors who could afford to share the costs of transport, shipping them to other worlds further from the core, where demand and prices were high, land was cheap, and taxes were unenforced. Right out from under the security forces' noses, they'd made dozens of trips with a full hold, mostly on the hoof to help set up new ranges on Triumph where the Bodens had finally marked off this new farm, and moons even farther out.

It was in the black, in the Maggie's tight-packed hold, that Buck had learned the first thing about cattle. Chris felt a smile tug at his mouth, remembering Buck and Sarah and Adam and Chi, working their way through the cargo bay with rebranding equipment or feed, water or shots to prepare the stock for new worlds. It was because of that learning that Chris's mother had finally warmed to Buck. Ingrid Larabee had been leery of Buck's charm and his breeding, and even more wary of how easily he had fit into Chris and Sarah's relationship right from the start, untrusting of a companion's son so determined to slum it with a ranch family.

Never imagined I'd grow to love the smell of manure. The words came out of nowhere, an echo in his head. That must've been twenty trips in, when they'd unloaded in a pasture and left the hold open to off-gas the methane, when Chi had herded Adam and the rest of the crew to a nearby creek for swimming and sun. Buck and Sarah had stayed onboard, and made love on an army blanket right there on the loading ramp.

Chris had watched them from the overhead catwalk, powerfully aroused and very much in love, hopeful too after two years of resentment and helpless frustration. Buck had spotted him from where he lay on his back below, and smiled welcome, but Chris had shaken his head before Buck could call up to Chris to join them.

He'd loved watching the two of them together that day.

Later, after they had righted their clothes and tugged their boots back on, he'd made his way down the stairs with a hard-on and so damned much desire.

"Never imagined I'd grow to love the smell of manure," Buck had said, his eyes dropping to the front of Chris's pants. "But I suppose there's no better conditioning than pleasure in the middle of a hold full of it," he'd added, and grinned.

Two hours later they were back up in the black, headed back for Persephone and the ranch to pick up another load. Tell my mother, Chris had said. Tell her you've learned to appreciate the smell of cattle.

JD reached to throw the intercom switch. "Two minutes to set-down," he called, his voice echoing back up to them from the crew hall.

Two minutes? How long had he sat here on his ass caught up in memories?

Barely resisting a growl, he pushed himself out of the copilot's chair and headed down to the cargo bay. When the ship bumped into earth and the internal air pressurized to match that outside, the seal lights went green. He grabbed the switch to open the doors, itching to be outside, resentful of the fact that Buck had been right, that JD was good.

The smell hit him, new grass and turned earth and cows. Marcus waited by an idling mule, and Chris recognized his wife, Biayla. A passel of kids swarmed around the landing area, and several adults who were obviously farm hands. In the background stood the collection of buildings of the farm proper, the big, rambling house where the family and most of the hands resided, the larger tool building and the even larger barn.

Marcus handed off the infant he'd been holding to his wife, and Chris ignored the kids who were old enough to be staring intently at his rig. "Chris," Marcus called, covering the ground between them in long strides. He held out his hand and Chris shook it, sparing him a quick look before glancing back out over the fields. They were less than a half a mile from the house, but a mule with a trailer attached idled ten feet away. A padded bench had been bolted down the trailer's middle, so Chris reckoned that was their ride.

"You won't need that here," Marcus said, waving his hand toward Chris's holster and sidearm.

"Never think you do," Chris said, and waited for Marcus to try and make an issue of it. He didn't.

"You've met Biayla," Marcus said, gesturing back to his approaching wife. "These are our girls, that's Marisa and Elena."

Chris nodded at the girls - two little blonde girls who smiled up at him, looking just like their mother. For an instant, Chi's face flashed before him, and he wondered if Marcus thought of her when he looked at his girls, if he wondered how his life would have been different if Chi had lived. "Pretty kids," he said when he realized the silence had gone on too long and Marcus was staring at him.

Marcus nodded, beaming. "Thank you for taking this job. It means a lot to us."

"It's a job," Chris answered, "no reason not to."

Bialya reached them by this time and shifted the baby to her hip, extending a hand. Chris accepted her firm grip and nodded at her welcome. "What all are we carrying?"

"Four pallets of stasis pods, that's the soybeans, ten by twelve by sixteen high," Marcus said, retreating to the safety of business. "Four tractors, a mule, and--"

"Marcus! Hell, you're a sight for sore eyes!"

Damn Buck.

Buck strode past Chris and pulled Marcus into a brief hug, no doubt surprising the man after Chris's cooler greeting. "How are you?"

"Buck." Marcus drew back a hair and shot Chris a nervous glance. "This is my wife, Bialya."

"Bialya," Buck said, offering his hand and stepping close. "What a pretty name. Almost as pretty as this little 'un here, what should I call it?"

"I'll be back in a minute," Chris said, then turned and retreated back into the hold. It had rattled him, the familiarity of this place, the no-nonsense approach to work and to life that was so much like his own had been and was becoming again. He wasn't needed out there anyway, not once Buck got to talking. He walked around the cargo bay, pretending that he was gauging the empty space for packing it, but the images behind his eyes were of other times, other things that had happened here. He let them run for a time; some of them, he wished he'd never see again, and others he hoped he'd hold onto every detail. When he'd stuffed his memories back down where they belonged, he strode back out to find everyone milling around outside: Josiah and Vin, JD and Casey--even Ezra, who was being polite enough though he kept checking the ground, presumably for cow shit, before moving his feet and risking his expensive boots.

Chris stopped a few feet away, watching Buck, who'd knelt down beside one of the older daughters. Chris watched him for a minute, measuring the effort it took him to smile and the slight tension around his eyes, and something in him relaxed a little more. Buck wasn't unaffected by being back here, either.

"We ready to go?" Bialya asked, ushering them toward the mule. "We waited lunch for you."

"We're not expecting you to feed this whole crew, Bialya," Buck said, climbing into the trailer anyway.

After lunch, Marcus and his foreman, Ted, kept a small crew about to help, and Chris wasted no time as he assigned tasks: Vin and JD were to work with Marcus and his people to get the cargo transferred to the landing area, while Buck worked out how best to pack and stow everything.

Chris sent Josiah into town for food, supplies, and Nathan Jackson, who was to meet them out here. Ezra volunteered to tag along--probably to get out of the hard work, but maybe he'd prove himself useful in town, more than here. Chris slipped into Marcus's living room and back out, then headed back into the ship.

Josiah and Ezra had been gone almost an hour before Buck tracked him down.

"They're starting the load-in," Buck said, leaning in the doorway to the common area on the passenger deck. "Got everything sorted out so we'll still have room to shoot hoops in there, if we're careful," Buck went on. "Where'd you get that, anyway?" Buck nodded toward the glass he held.

Chris shot him a look. "Marcus's liquor cabinet."

Buck laughed out loud. "You stole whiskey?" he asked, sounding far too entertained by the news. "Hell, you haven't done that since we were kids and my mother caught you at it."

That was true enough. They'd stolen other things over the years, but nothing so mundane as a bottle of liquor.

He waited, not looking toward his partner because Buck wouldn't need provocation to continue.

"He understands," Buck said quietly. "He's moved on, doesn't hold any grudge."

"He should."

"Quit it," Buck said, sounding peeved. "Self-pity doesn't look good on any man, but it looks especially bad on the guy I've hitched my wagon to."

Chris scowled at his partner. It wasn't self-pity and Buck had to know that, was probably just trying to rile him out of his mood. But his mood was justified. "My parents are coming over here, aren't they?" he asked.

Buck stiffened, then frowned and nodded. "Ingrid is, anyway. I don't know about Sam." Buck blew out a quick breath and knelt down in front of him to take his glass and toss back a tiny swallow. He handed it back and clasped his hands between his knees. "Your father always did understand you better than your ma did."

"Guess he did," Chris said. His parents had always understood each other damned well, too-married for business, to combine two ranches out here, they'd built a deep and lasting affection for each other, and a family and a business that had still left room for his daddy to fall in love, long as he kept it away from home. Maybe his ma too; he'd never asked, and she'd always been more circumspect than his father. He'd always suspected that was why they hadn't frowned overmuch at him taking Buck and Sarah both for himself.

He emptied the glass and poured another, shorter one, then drained that too.

"I need to hide that somewhere for you?" Buck asked him, standing up and reaching toward the bottle.

"Have you ever?" he asked, meeting Buck's eyes now.

Somber, mouth a smooth, straight line, Buck nodded. "I used to water it down, too," he admitted.

Somehow they'd never talked about it, about the months after the war had ended when Chris had spent too many of his days drunk. Funny, that they might talk about it now. "I figured you did. Didn't hold it against you," he said, meaning it.

Buck's hand veered away from the bottle and grabbed Chris's hand instead, holding it tight. "Neither did I."

Persephone, the township of New Born

Ezra Standish liked to hear his own voice, Josiah decided. Ezra seemed determined to comment on the weather, the late hour even though the sun still shone on this part of the planet, and flora and fauna he was surprisingly knowledgeable about.

"So," Ezra eventually said, "you and young Mr. Tanner?"

Josiah smiled despite himself. He'd been wondering when Ezra would get around to it. "Yes," he agreed pleasantly.

"He's, well, he's rather young." Ezra turned to look at him, one eyebrow arched inquisitively.

Josiah shrugged. "As are we all, in our ways," he answered. "And he is older than he looks."

"As are we all, in our ways," Ezra mimicked back. But it wasn't malicious. "I hear he has certain abilities," he said after a few seconds. His tone was casual, too much so.

Josiah sighed. "People like to think so, but you know how people are. Like to talk about things they don't understand."

"Perhaps you'd like to explain it to me." Ezra sounded friendly and open, as if they were two friends having a gentle conversation about a third.

But they weren't. "Nothing to understand," he said with a little edge in his tone.

Ezra waited for a short while, polite, but he was persistent. Sometimes, Josiah appreciated that quality in others. This was not one of them. "He does quite well playing cards. Does he really know what other people have in their hands?" Ezra asked. He settled back in the seat, his arms crossed loosely over his chest.

Josiah shook his head. It would be nice to have a break, he thought, to have conversations that didn't revolve around Vin's eccentricities. "Guess he's a better poker player than you are," he said bluntly, ready to put an end to this line of talk.

Ezra laughed, though. "That's more far-fetched than the idea he's a seer," he said. "I'm far more inclined to think he has some system or special power--which is it? Is he psychic?"

Would it were something that simple, Josiah thought. "He's lucky, and he's smart, and by your definition, he's a little crazy," he said flatly.

"Pity," Ezra sighed. "My talents and those of a natural psychic--we could do quite well. But if he's merely 'a little crazy', well, that's hardly beneficial." He sighed once more, melodramatically. "And I suppose that 'a little crazy' doesn't meet the threshold for Alliance curiosity?"

It wasn't the question itself so much as the tone in which it was delivered, a tone bearing just enough threat to tap into the primordial instincts of Josiah's lower brain.

He wasn't aware of the mule slowing, or of reaching out and catching Ezra by the front of his shirt. What he was aware of was the smell of the man's cologne as he pulled him in close, the wideness of his green eyes as he snarled into Ezra's face, "The Alliance made him this way. Anything happens to him, and there's nowhere in the 'verse safe for the man who sold him back to them."

Ezra stared at him.

"My Lord is a vengeful one when provoked," he intoned. "I got no problem following his ways."

"I take your point," Ezra said, his words even but holding just a trace of worry. Enough to let Josiah know that he did, indeed, understand.

Josiah released him, uncaring of the impact Ezra made against the seat as he kicked the mule back to speed.

They rode in silence for the time it took for Ezra to compose himself, then he tugged at his shirt cuffs and started complaining. "Did you really have to be so common? You could have ripped this, and I'm damned short on clothes at the moment."

Despite his anger, Josiah had a little room to be surprised. And impressed. "Shut up for a minute, would you?" he asked.

Ezra did, all the way into town, but his silence was amazingly loud.

New Born was a community that served the outlying farms and ranches as well as the commerce those businesses generated: they passed a feed mill and equipment repair garages, fuel stations, restaurants and a few insurance and attorneys' offices--a very few, Josiah noted.

"You dislike small hamlets?" Ezra asked him, mild and bored and all too observant.

Josiah frowned harder. "Don't much like the thought of you loose in one," he said.

Ezra touched a hand to his heart. "I am wounded," he said snidely.

Josiah tried ignoring him and followed rough-hewn signs to an open air market. It sat next door to the only grocer's store so he reckoned on not moving the mule until it was loaded. There wasn't a crowd, not as Josiah was accustomed to in Eavesdown or Sandler City, but there were enough people milling around that they didn't stand out.

Ezra started away from him, then paused and looked back over his shoulder, his tone flat. "What are you looking to purchase, and in what quantities?"

Josiah shrugged. "I'll know it when I see it."

Ezra glared at him, but his voice was still neutral as he said, "It is helpful to have some idea of the range of competition in the marketplace," he said. "I can hardly haggle down the price of grain from one vendor without knowing the prices of the competition."

Josiah grinned. "Then I suggest you do like I do, and walk through the market to see what's available first."

He set off, knowing Ezra was behind him by the annoyed and pointed sighs.

There weren't many vendors and surprisingly, there wasn't a lot of duplication of product. The prices were excellent, though, so much so that he almost felt bad about questioning them.

To his credit, slim at the moment, Ezra was polite and solicitous. He did haggle, but mostly for quantity. In the end, they had several large bags of rice--brown, red, and black, fresh squash, beans, peas, onions, cabbages, radishes, and canned goods. Ezra had done better than Josiah had expected him to, enough so that he decided on a little fresh meat. The mule was well-provisioned and Josiah had spent little more than half of what Chris had given him, which Ezra noticed as they paid the grocery clerk for protein bars, dried and wrapped for easy preparation.

"Chris did say we were to meet this friend of his," Ezra said, with that casual tone Josiah was learning to understand. "Perhaps we should look for the tavern? Any sensible man would await pick-up where there is somewhere to sit, and libation at hand."

There were two taverns in town, one on each end, and he chose the one closest to the train station, parking the mule right next to the building and in clear view out the big windows. This time of the day, there weren't many people inside, and even though most of them were alone, there was only one who looked up, interested, when they came in.

Josiah nodded to him and asked, "Nathan Jackson?"

The man smiled, a gentle expression that Josiah knew was sincere. "You Sanchez?" he asked, standing and holding out his hand. His grip was firm and strong.

"I am," Josiah answered, relaxing a little. "Josiah. This," he nodded toward Ezra, "is Ezra Standish."

"A pleasure," Ezra said.

"Chris doesn't seem the patient sort, so we might as well get back. If they haven't got the ship loaded, we can probably move it a lot faster."

"My wife's a surgeon," Nathan offered after Josiah had the mule rolling and they were out of the town, "over in Seminole, at the VA clinic. Chris seems pretty intent on making Persephone his home base. I can't stay on otherwise."

"Your wife's all right with you being gone like this?" The thought offered a little hope for him and Vin; maybe, if Vin knew they'd be seeing each other on occasion, the separation wouldn't bother him so much.

Nathan shrugged. "She knows I'm not like her. I grew up on ships myself. My folks were transport people, lived more in the black than on the dirt. Me and my brothers and sisters didn't know how to walk in wide open spaces until we were old enough to make our own way."

Josiah nodded. He'd known spacers; they were a hardy lot, taking each day as it came. Good folk to have around, usually calm in bad situations. He and Vin had run across more than the usual number of them in the past six years, and he'd never met one he didn't like. "How'd you end up tied down?" he asked, even though he knew the answer.

Nathan grinned. "Love, pure and simple and stupid. I've got a picture of her here..." He started digging in his wallet, and Josiah couldn't help but smile.

Behind Josiah, Ezra snorted his agreement. "Certainly love has led to more problems that it has solved," Ezra said.

Josiah shook his head. " 'If more men loved with their entire beings, the universe would revolve in light.' "

Nathan cocked his head. "Ben Wei, the prophet? You a Ganji?"

"No, just a simple man curious about the way of things," Josiah answered, but he was impressed that Nathan had recognized not only the quote, but its author's faith. The Ganji were not well-known.

As if reading his thoughts, Nathan said, "Raine's father is the spiritual leader of his clan. I spend a lot of time talking to him about the way of things."

From there, it was as if they had known each other for years. Nathan's faith wasn't Josiah's, but his conviction in his own beliefs seemed to be as strong. And like Josiah, he cared less for a particular doctrine than he seemed to for the whole concept of paths to God.

They rode the rest of the way back to the ship in comfortable conversation, him and Nathan doing the bulk of the talking, with Ezra adding a droll comment every now and then, mostly at Josiah's expense.

It was only as he eased the mule up to the ship and saw Vin driving the loader that he realized he hadn't had any feeling of discomfort since Nathan had joined them. Something had quieted a little in his soul and he wondered how to hold on to it.

Persephone, Boden Farms near the township of New Born

Vin seemed to like driving the tractors, and Chris had him start moving them inside, parking the first two close enough to the walls aft that a person would have to squeeze sideways to edge past or use the gangways overhead. Vin and JD swung around the scaffolding like monkeys, competent with hard labor, and together they used the winch to hoist the next two tractors up, stacking them above the first two. If a person knew how to organize, he could fit a hell of a lot into a Firefly's hold.

He and Buck knew how to organize.

They'd gotten most of the rigging up by the time Ezra and Josiah returned with Nathan and the Maggie's mule, its bed loaded with supplies.

"Looks like we missed out on the fun, Ezra," Josiah said, pulling the mule half-way up the ramp before shutting her down.

"Yes," Ezra said happily, "yes it does."

"Don't worry, Ezra," Chris said dryly, "there's plenty more work left to do." He turned to Nathan, extending a hand to shake. "Drop your gear in the common room and come pitch in," he continued quietly. "You c'n find a bunk after they feed us supper."

They'd gotten the big equipment stowed and tied down by the time Biayla rode out. "Supper's in half an hour or so," she said. "My people usually clean up and go about prayers before we sit down. You mind finishing up after we eat?" she asked.

"We'll be on in a few minutes," he told her, with every intention of avoiding those prayers. As soon as the work crew climbed aboard the trailer Bialya still towed, Chris called his own people together. "Get cleaned up and we'll take the mule over for supper," he said.

"Don't see the purpose in cleaning up if we've still got work to do after dinner," JD said reasonably.

"It's the custom out here, JD," Chris told him. "And there ain't much heavy lifting left to be done anyway."

Hard work had cleared Chris's head, and the sun was low as they headed back to the Boden house, pretty pinks and blues unhindered by the smog of the cities far west. His internal clock was telling him he wanted sleep almost as much as he wanted food, so he was looking forward to both. Buck, beside him in the mule's shotgun seat, was still making an effort to act alert and friendly, but Chris could see exhaustion in him, tugging at his shoulders and the corners of his mouth.

"Not long now," Chris promised, quiet. "Quick meal, good night's sleep, take care of you if you're of a mind, finish the load-in at dawn."

"Yeah. Damn it," Buck groused, "sleep's about all I've got a mind for."

Chris chuckled in spite of himself.

He parked the mule and watched his crew pile out. JD and Casey were on a clock a lot closer to the one here, and still looked fresh and energetic. The rest of them were dragging, even Ezra. Chris shot Buck a look.

Buck caught it and clapped his hands together. "Okay boys and girls, nice meal, maybe a drink if they're feeling generous, and then we'll turn in."

Chris stood back to let them all pass in front of him, herding them up onto the wide, wraparound porch and into the big farmhouse.

As his boots hit the porch boards, Buck's hand touched the small of his back. He frowned back at his partner, wondering what had Buck coddling him, and realized it only after he'd stepped into the great-room.

He'd forgotten about his mother.

Conversation came to a halt, or he thought it did. But it looked like people's mouths were still moving. Buck nudged him a foot forward then sidled around him, walking over to Ingrid Larabee and scooping her into a hug that lifted her feet off the floor: giving him cover, Chris knew, grateful for it.

By the time Buck set her back down, Chris could hear the quiet laughter of onlookers, and identify the confusion in Vin's face, the polite curiosity in Josiah's and the interest in Ezra's that was entirely feigned. He took the space between himself and Buck with long strides, not wanting her to have to come to him.

"Ma," he said, and gingerly put his hands to her waist when she hugged him.

"Chris." Her voice was even but he could see the shine in her eyes of tears wanting to spill. He pulled back and stepped away from her, giving them both room to regroup.

"You look good," he said, meaning it.

She smiled at him. "You look alive. That's a damned fine thing."

He shook his head, suddenly speechless.

"Ingrid," Buck said, once more saving him, "reckon you oughta meet the people who are gonna be putting up with his ornery moods for the next little while."

Buck took his time making introductions, and by the time that was done, Chris was back under control. Which was good, because Linny showed up, then, helping to carry food to the big table.

He hadn't seen her since just after the war had ended, but she was just as Chris remembered her: quiet, square face and wide green eyes as direct as the ones that looked back at Chris from the mirror every day. And a mouth to go with them.

"'Bout time you got yourself together," she said bluntly, stepping up to him. They didn't hug, but she did squeeze his arms with strong hands.

"Linny. How's it working out over there?"

"Fine. Better'n if you'd tried to do it," she said. Her voice was flat and firm, but Chris hoped that was a smile around her eyes. They'd stopped competing somewhere around the time Chris had met Sarah, set his father down, then his ma, and told them both he wouldn't be taking over the farm. Linny was second-eldest, and next in line to inherit. She'd been more than happy to hear that news.

"I know it's true," he said quietly, just for her to hear, and her next smile was small but real.

"It's good you've finally gotten your head out of your pi gu, Chris," she said, and Chris frowned at her. She'd always thought him weak for holding his grief so tightly. I lost a brother too, and friends, she'd been quick to remind him at the funerals. But we have obligations to the others who survived. Get your head out of your ass, Chris - you still have people who care about you. It was little fights like those that had kept him from coming back to the farm the past few years, and maybe those were over too, part of the past like so much else.

Bialya Boden stepped in. "Supper's ready," she said. "Family at the table, kids and crew in the great room."

Chris nodded and turned toward the kitchen, where Marcus and his brother stood. Bialya led the way and waved her hand toward the table, and Chris knew he wasn't going to get out of having his mother to one side. He looked around again for Buck, caught him hovering in the wide doorway between the two rooms, obviously waiting to see if there was a plate for him in here. If there wasn't, Buck would join the crew in the other room without making mention. Hell, probably with relief; Chris had the slightest tendency to punish Buck when he saw too much.

"Buck," Ingrid called, "come on in here and sit down, before Chris bolts."

He shot his mother a reproving frown, and as she had always done, she stared right back at him, a little smile playing at the corners of her lips. Buck laughed, moving over to the table and taking the seat on his mother's left. The one on her right, Chris knew, was for him. It always had been.

They said grace, and sitting here holding his mother's hand made him feel like a little boy again, and he had the wildest urge to kick his feet against his chair or stick out his tongue. As if sensing it, his mother's hand gripped his harder, reproving.

Or, Buck's voice said inside his head, because she's missed you.

Things went far more smoothly than Chris had anticipated. Partly, it was Buck's doing; when his mother asked how they were doing, Buck stepped in to tell about getting the Maggie ready, talking about Kaylee and Jayne, and Josiah--nothing like a former preacher to validate the crew to this crowd, Chris thought-- and the interview with Pres Harkness who now came off as something of a monster. His family seemed determined to catch him up on news he didn't care that much about anymore; the three men who'd survived the Maggie's impoundment with him and Buck were well and on their way to making their fortunes, and he was distantly glad to learn that they'd moved on with their lives, were married or aiming to be or working on their family farms.

Dessert was served in the yard, where everybody mingled around a large fire pit. He wasn't surprised when his mother caught him alone, sliding up next to him as he watched his crew mingle with the locals; Josiah and Nathan had drawn several of the working hands into a conversation about the spiritual side of growing things or some such. Vin had tagged up with JD and Casey, helping with the clean-up and talking to some of the younger adults.

"Small crew," Ingrid said quietly, one hand catching at Chris's upper arm affectionately. "That enough for being in the black?"

Chris nodded. "Ship can run with just a pilot and an engineer, if necessary, if they're good enough," he said quietly. "The others are for the hauling and the work."

"Fewer people to lose," she said just as quietly.

He straightened, wanting to draw away from her, but she held tight. "Nothing to be ashamed of, Chris," she said. "But you need to remember that you're the only one still holds you responsible for what happened out there."

"Hank Connelly," he shot back.

"Is a damned fool," she said just as vehemently. "And you know it." Her tone softened and she sighed, pulling him against her despite his resistance. "I'm glad you took this job, though. I've missed you coming out this way. We all have."

Buck's laughter rang from nearby and Chris glanced over to find him with Linny and Marcus, laughing at some story Marcus was telling.

He patted her hand on his arm. "I know."

"You should come by the farm when you come back," she said. "Got new young'uns you need to meet--Linny and Darrin had twins two years ago. Boy and a girl."

He nodded; Buck had learned of it on some friendly call home, because Linny sure as hell wouldn't have wasted the money to wave and tell him.

"Laida is going to wed next spring, one of the boys from the Balfour collective. Your father tried talking her out of it, but she's got his stubbornness, just like you. The harder we try, the more determined she gets."

Chris frowned. "She's--what, sixteen?"

Ingrid laughed, a throaty sound that kindled memories of happy family dinners, holiday get-togethers, hugs and kisses. "Nigh on eighteen, Chris, a woman, or so she keeps reminding us. Seems just yesterday she was bitching about having to wear dresses to church."

He saw her, his youngest sister, blond hair cut shorter than his, her freckles big on her round cheeks, dressed in coveralls as dirty as the ones Kaylee had worn, stomping her foot in the mud as she yelled at the dogs. "He gonna be good to her?" he asked, wondering if he needed to go shoot the boy now.

Ingrid shrugged. "They're kids. Be a while before we know for sure, but for now, I think he loves her, at least enough to put up with her."

The words echoed in his memory, from years ago--Now, Ingrid, his father's voice carried through the closed door, you may as well let it go. Sarah loves him, enough to put up with him and Buck both.

He felt a wash of affection at that memory, warm enough that he caught himself smiling at her. "Reckon you know that better'n I would," he said, meaning it.

Ingrid was still talking, her voice almost musical in the falling night. "Just leaves Andy at home. Wants to go off to school, of course, loves hearing from Buck about the great and varied 'verse past New Born and the farm."

Andy, he thought, remembering the last time he'd seen the baby of the family. Wide eyes and dark hair, looking so much like Adam that Chris had run.

"He follows your father around a lot like you used to," she said, and Chris could picture that.

"There you are!" Buck's voice called through the darkness. "You getting him squared away, Ingrid?" Buck closed in on them, slipping one arm around each set of shoulders, forcing a little welcome distance between Chris and his mother.

"Doing what I can," she answered, but her tone was light.

"How's everybody doing?" Chris asked, glad to change the subject.

"Getting tired," Buck answered honestly. "I told JD he could drive the mule and take back anyone who wanted to go, if we didn't catch him quick."

"We'd best get on before he wrecks the thing, then," he said, firmly enough that Buck better not argue.

His mother's goodbye was surprisingly painless, and Buck's hand on his knee as Chris drove the mule back to the Maggie was a comfort.

Morning came early. Chris stared out at the farm, peripherally aware of Buck's slow saunter toward him.

"Everything all right?" Buck asked as he drew near.

He drew a deep breath and turned a looked at his man. He suspected that Buck's waves to the family were so carefully crafted that little of the reality of that time right after the war had slipped through. Chris had certainly never been willing to speak of it to them, had barely been willing to see either of his parents early on, when they made it into Demeter. He nodded his head. "Can we now get the hell off this planet?"

Buck grinned. "Uh."

Chris felt his shoulders tighten and wondered who else they could possibly have left to visit. "What."

"No, it's good," Buck said, holding up his hands. "More cargo, a couple of passengers back at Eavesdown. Since Inez was going out that way, I put up an advert and got a reply. Kept her from having to take a train out here, and gives us a little more in cargo fees and passenger fare."

"You already agreed to all this, didn't you."

"Uh huh," Buck said, not even the slightest bit repentant.

Chris chewed on that for a second. "We're gonna have a little talk about what 'I'm the Captain' means."

Buck snapped off a sharp salute. "Sir! Yes sir!"

Chris shoved him out of the way and walked on up to the ship, trying to ignore Buck's laughter.

Buck lagged a few steps but followed his partner out, grinning at Chris's easy swagger of a walk. If the man thought for a second that Buck believed he was annoyed, he'd have to work a lot harder on his acting skills.

"We ready?" JD asked Chris, vibrating with excitement. Chris passed him without a word, heading into the ship.

Buck grinned at JD and punched him lightly on the shoulder to get his attention. "Slow down, speed-boy, let's get everybody inside."

Vin was actually the last one in, looking over the landscape as the ramp came up and the airlock doors sealed. When the younger man turned from the door controls, he grinned at Buck and said, "Always miss the sunshine when I'm in the black."

"We ready down here?" Buck asked.

Vin nodded. "Everything's strapped down tight as a drum, I reckon."

"Next stop, Eavesdown," Buck said, leading the way up the stairs.

Vin was frowning. "Think I'll head down to the room, 'less you got something needs doing."

Buck grinned. "Should I send Josiah down to find you?" he asked, wagging his eyebrows.

But Vin's frown deepened and he looked away. "Don't reckon so." He broke off then, heading off to his room and leaving Buck to worry that over as he headed up to the flight deck.

He was surprised to find Chris there, his face set in determination.

JD was running down the pre-flight checklist, listening to Casey on the other end of the intercom. Buck moved over to stand behind Chris.

Right now, Buck felt so emotionally drained that he was ready to go back to bed. "Take a nap once we're up?" he asked, hoping Chris would agree.

Chris shrugged. "Let's get up first."

The take-off was flawless. The Margaret May rose as smooth as a new ship, and they broke atmosphere cleanly and easily.

"Ezra was starting a card game in the mess," JD announced, glancing at them. He was as subtle as he could be, but it was still clear that he wanted Chris off the flight deck, and Buck couldn't quite blame him.

"Want to go steal some money from him?" Buck asked, kneading at the tension in Chris's shoulders.

"Win back some of that money he took off Marcus' people?" Chris said, and Buck smiled, liking the sound of Chris's righteous irritation.

"Yeah, that money," he agreed, nap forgotten. "Come on." Ezra had managed to get Nathan and Josiah to sit down at the little round table in the corner beyond the galley, and seemed even more pleased when Buck and Chris arrived to join in.

Josiah frowned as they came in, looking past Buck, then catching his eyes. "Vin's not with you?" he asked.

Buck shook his head. "Said he was heading to the room," he answered.

"Ante up, gentlemen," Ezra said happily as Chris took a chair. "Dealer's choice and I'm the dealer this round."

It took several hands--and Chris beating Ezra each time, which made Buck wonder if the man was throwing the game--for the lines of stress to lessen and for Chris to start relaxing. Buck watched Ezra; he couldn't see a cheat, but that didn't mean squat if a man was skilled enough. Sure enough, Ezra wasn't helping him any.

Buck glared at his cards. "Damn, Ezra, that hand's about a useless as a woodstove on a fuel hauler."

"Approaching Eavesdown," JD called through the intercom not much later.

"I got it," Buck said, throwing his cards in. "Not going to win this hand, anyway."

"Takes a big man to walk away," Nathan said, just before he threw in his own cards.

Buck slapped Chris on the shoulder as he passed. "Won't be gone long." He went to the flight deck to peer through the darkness of pre-dawn here, watching Eavesdown's bright lights flare in the forward screen until the subtle bump rattled a loose bolt and told him JD had made touchdown. The kid really was good. He headed aft, pausing by the ladder down to Vin's bunk. The door was open, so he knelt down and called quietly, "Vin? Little help with the load-in?"

They took the overhead gangway rather than thread their way around the tractors, and Buck pointed toward the open space in the middle of the bay as they came down the starboard stairs. "You play hoops?"

Vin snorted. "Ain't much skill involved," he said, laughing. "I've seen--" he stopped, frowning, and stared hard at the empty space below them.

"Vin?" Buck asked. When Vin didn't turn, Buck reached for his shoulder, startled when he almost jerked away, more startled when he settled down.

"Thanks," Vin said softly, taking a deep breath.

Buck wasn't about to ask for what. The truth was, Vin's behavior and Chris's faith in the man was spooking Buck just a little.

He pushed buttons to drop the loading ramp and rode it down, looking for a pile of freight about the right size, but what he spotted first was the couple, holding hands.

"Mr. Wilmington?" the man called out.

Buck waved, then watched as they hurried over. The man was big, broader than Buck and almost as tall. Sort-of built like Josiah, but younger by decades, his pale skin and dark hair caught Buck's attention; you didn't usually find a farmer who had skin that pretty. But there was something hard about his eyes, even when he smiled at Buck. Buck had worked in criminal justice long enough to spot someone with a past--and this man had one.

The woman was a different kind of pretty, and more what he'd expected somehow: her body was slim without being skinny, work-strong, and her skin knew the sun and the outdoors. Brown hair curled past her shoulders, and she didn't quite skid to a stop in front of him.

"I'm Jael Dysktra," she said, pumping his hand vigorously, "and this is my husband, John. I can't tell you how glad we were to find transport at the last minute like this."

He smiled and took her hand, wondering why these two thought they needed to lie about being married. Running off together, maybe? That didn't quite fit either, since neither one of them seemed particularly attracted to the other. Maybe it was a business arrangement. "Pleased to meet you both."

John pointed behind him to a parked pallet loader with stasis pods on it, and several boxes and suitcases stacked beside it. "Our cargo's right here, ready to go," he said. "We can get them stowed in no time, Mr. Wilmington."

"Call me Buck," Buck said, and smiled genially. "Be happy to take your payment on behalf of Captain Larabee, and then we'll load in."

Something crossed John's face, just a flicker, and Buck filed it away. Enough subtle clues, enough bits of information, and he'd have this old boy figured out. John pulled a cashbox out of his duffel and they counted out platinum right there on the loading ramp.

Buck reached for Vin's shoulder, bracing himself in case Vin startled again, but Vin just glanced a question at him. "Vin? You mind helping these people get their cargo situated under the starboard gangway?"

"Looks good there," Vin grinned, and Buck decided then and there that he needed to spend some more time with this boy. Buck had pegged him three different ways already, and now he doubted every one.

"Bring the Dysktras up to the common room when you're all done, okay?"

"Will do."

He paused at the top of the stairs, and watched the load-in from the shadows in the hall, not too surprised when Chris stepped in behind him. "Going okay?"

"See for yourself. Vin's keeping 'em in line."

The couple had tried to steer Vin and their loader to port, but Vin had taken control of the thing, easing it through the open court they'd left for playing games and under the gangway high overhead, then turning the empty loader back to the cargo bay doors and the other pallet outside. This couple's investment looked like less than a quarter the size of the Boden Farms seed stock, but cash up front was a nice treat; Buck dug into his coat pocket and handed it over.

"Nice," he heard. "So what's the matter with 'em?" Chris asked, his voice low and just barely carrying to Buck's ear.


"I expected you back to the game before now."

Buck thought about it, and shrugged. "They aren't married, the Dykstras." He grinned. "Reckon they're having an illicit affair? Running away from husbands or wives with enough stock to start up on their own?"

"I think you spend too much time on media stories."

Chris might be right about that. "Inez'll be along shortly," he informed his captain. "I'll wait for her."

Chris squeezed his shoulder and peeled away, heading back into the common room and Ezra's poker game.

Inez showed up not many minutes later, maneuvering a large rolling cart up the ramp. Buck slid down the ladder, wound a path through the cargo and opened up the door to the passenger section, aft. He leaned against it and waited for her, thinking it was damned nice to be able to, that the spit and polish Vin and Josiah had used and the breaking of atmosphere more than once had cleared the cobwebs off the hull. Her skirt swayed, the greens and golds that shot through the brown catching glints off the ceiling lights. Then he spied the box on top of the stack. "Tell me that's what I think it is," he said, rubbing his hands together in anticipation, "and I'll dump Chris and marry you this minute."

"If only I were in the market," she said, then grinned. "And willing to slum it with the likes of you. Yes, it is samples," she went on before he could feign offense, "but it is mostly spoken for. A bottle perhaps, for you and Senor Larabee. Not enough to share with the entire crew I'm afraid."

"Guess he's stuck with me then," Buck said.

He moved to take over the box but her hand shot out, stopping him. "No, I've got it," she said.

He grinned, stood back and folded his arms across his chest to watch. She had to lean forward and use her legs to pull the cart, which was about half her size, which meant it was heavy. That, along with Inez's innocent air, told him that what was inside sure as hell wasn't just spirits. He wondered whether the seals on these cartons were bogus, and just what kind of deals she was looking to make on Triumph.

Buck stepped up beside her, close enough to get a whiff of her perfume. Nice. "We've got two new passengers, too. They're in the cabin across from yours, I think."

"I'll meet them soon enough," she said, as she unlocked the door to her own room and pushed the cart inside. "If you have an estimated time of arrival on Triumph, I'd like to call ahead."

"Go and see JD on the flight deck, he's the one who filed the plan. Feel free to join us in the common room when you like." Buck watched her walk away, enjoying the view.

Vin brought the Dykstras in about the same time Buck got back. "I put 'em in the middle guest cabin," he said, quiet, then slipped back out the door. Buck watched Josiah frowning at Vin's stiff back. Maybe he'd have those two sussed by Triumph, too; either way, it would give him something to do. Not that annoying Chris wasn't entertaining in its own right.

Ezra had moved the game to the big dining table as more players arrived. John played, though he wasn't very good at it; Ezra and Chris were both up before the man finally cursed under his breath and pushed away from the table. Jael watched the man with thinly veiled annoyance, and Buck frowned, throwing in his own hand and wandering over to the sitting area to visit with her. "You been on Triumph before?" he asked.

"Hmm?" She looked up. "Oh, on and off--I worked at the Blue Sun Thirty-seven for a while, long enough to take a shining to the place."

"Nice moon," Buck said. "Pretty. And that's big agriculture."

"It is," she said with a sigh. "And it is. I'm looking forward to getting back to it."

Buck didn't know if she meant Triumph, or the industrial agricultural giant she'd cited, so he settled a little closer, making small talk and feeling her out, glad when she showed a bit of unconscious interest.

"Jael," John called from across the way.

Her eyes jerked and darted to John's, and Buck grinned at the man's stare. Jealousy was rife around a man as good-looking and talented as Buck was. Always had been. It was a curse, he thought with a satisfied little smile.

"Buck," Chris called from the table.

Buck turned his head, saw the frown Chris was trying to give him that couldn't quite overcome the quirk at the corners of his mouth. "Ready for that nap?" Buck called back, not really interested in standing on ceremony. He kind of wanted to tell Chris about that flush on Kaylee's cheeks from the young man at the Butterfly, and see about raising a flush like that on Chris's own. Chris was fair enough, he could redden prettily given the right provocation.

Chris mocked a frown at him, but the grin still played around his lips. Buck shrugged and let it go. If Chris disappeared, Buck would follow. If not, he'd really take a nap, and until he was ready to do either, he decided to get back into the card game.

An hour later Buck threw in his hand. He was down a little but not a lot, and couldn't decide yet if Ezra was cheating. If he was, he was both skilled and smart about it.

"Gonna be a good trip," Buck told them all. "Just need to get our other passenger up here to set a good party."

"Inez?" Josiah said, looking over his own cards at Buck.

"Yep," Buck answered. "I'm excited about having somebody prettier than you boys to look at. No offense ma'am," he said, smiling at Jael. "I try to behave myself around married folk."

"None taken," she said with a smile of her own, then she reached for John's hand.

Buck glanced back as he walked out the door, watching Chris. Chris was as stoic as always, his hand flat on the table in front of him as he studied Ezra. He tossed a credit casually into the pile, then a second one. "Raise," he said, and Buck grinned as he walked away.

He shook his head as he made his way to the flight deck, thinking that maybe it was time to give the kid a break. "You want to synchronize to space standard?" JD asked as soon as Buck came through the door.

Buck thought about it and shrugged. Four days in the black, who knew what time it'd be on whatever part of Triumph they set down on, and at least five days back? "Go ahead."

"Attention, crew and guests," JD said into the ship-wide comms, sounding like he was trying to tamp down his excitement, "this is your pilot speaking."

Buck snickered, and JD shot him a withering look. "You want to do this?"

"Sure," he said, and snickered again when JD looked disappointed. Buck leaned forward though, and hit the switch. "And now it's your first officer speaking," he said, still grinning. "Ship's standard time is... 22:02," he said, frowning. "Due to the late hour, a formal meal will not be served. Those guests who wish can join the captain in the kitchens for a snack before turning in."

He didn't have to go back there to imagine the sour look that would be on Chris's face, but he wanted to anyway. "Come on, kid. Let's get some lunch and try to turn in. You can pry your gal away from the engines," he suggested, then waggled his eyebrows, "and take her off to celebrate your new positions."

Damned if the kid didn't blush.

By the time they got to the mess, Josiah and Nathan were setting out a light meal, sandwiches and some sort of salad that made Buck salivate. "Looks good, preacher," he said heartily.

"You're a shepherd?" John Dykstra asked. He and his wife were sitting companionably close together at one corner of the table.

"I was," Josiah said, shooting Buck a frown, "for a while."

Jael was looking down at her food, toying with it as though she'd lost her appetite.

"Don't see many out this far," John answered. "What faith?"

"One that allows for robbery," Ezra chimed in dryly, taking a seat on the other side of Jael. "He and his young friend have a gift with the cards, as you have seen."

The group was now large enough that Buck lost track of what was going on at the other end of the table, and cut a sandwich in half to share with Chris.

As they finished up, Chris called, "Best take advantage of this break, especially crew. Hit your bunks, catch up on sleep while you can. Breakfast will be on the table at 08:00 ship standard." He stood up.

Vin was up already, working on cleaning up. Buck glanced back to Jael and John, measuring the physical distance between them. Vin had put distance between him and Josiah at the table, more distance than usual, but he had sat beside his lover. There was something between Jael and John, too, but it didn't seem to be love, or the loss of it. Didn't seem to be lust, either. Clearly they had a common interest; it just wasn't in each other.

"You coming?" Chris asked, stopping beside Buck.

"Lead the way," he grinned, getting to his feet.

Chris frowned, though, turning back to see what Buck had been looking at. "Something I need to know?" This question was softer than the first one.

Buck shrugged. "Don't think so. Right now, all you need to know is that I was too damned tired to take advantage of your offer last night, and I want to make up for it now." He thought again on Kaylee's flushed cheeks and on what he was going to do to Chris to give him that same replete look.

Chris snorted but he led the way out.

Some unknown minutes later, naked, his body filled with the pleasant ache of sexual exertion and his heart filled with something better, Buck blinked up at Chris's face, relishing the flush he'd put there and completely unconcerned about the flush he felt on his own skin. It amazed him, sometimes, that things still worked so well between them--not just out of bed, but in it too. Or it would have amazed him, if Chris weren't frowning. "What?"

Chris humped, rubbing their groins together, and Buck eased him to one side, propping his head on his bent arm. "You ever...?" Chris started.

"Probably," he said into the pause that followed, mostly to nudge Chris along.

"Miss women enough that it really bothers you?" Chris finished flatly, looking over at him.

Buck stared at him, surprised by the question and the sobriety with which it was asked. "What brought this on?" he asked lightly. "You have something you need to tell me?" He'd have noticed if Chris had found a woman, would certainly have noticed if Chris's emotions had been stirred. Of course, they'd just returned from the farm, and Chris had spent more time with his past than he had in years. Maybe he was thinking on Sarah, or the kids or something his folks wanted for him...

"No. Josiah was talking. He definitely feels the need for what he ain't got."

Buck pondered that with a little relief, and reached to trace his fingers through the traces of semen on Chris's flat belly. The muscles tightened, but Chris didn't move, and Buck wondered if they were talking about Sanchez or themselves. "I think that man can't see how good he has it," he grumbled.

Chris made a faint sound of amusement. "That's what I told him. In so many words."

Buck could imagine just how few words Chris might have used. Certainly he wouldn't have extolled Vin's obvious virtues; Vin was markedly handsome, with a quick mind and quicker wit-when he wasn't having a delusion, or whatever it was--and he was clearly loyal to his man and unashamed of his passion for him. It was a wonder that Josiah could think otherwise regardless of his past inclinations. "Bodies are bodies, Chris," he said. "I know that. So do you," he added pointedly.

"Sanchez doesn't."

Buck huffed an annoyed breath. "At his age, he damned well should."

"Man was a monk," Chris replied, and yawned. "Maybe he don't have the exposure we do."

Chris hadn't sown as many wild oats as Buck had, but then Chris hadn't had a temple education and practical studies in the subject. Buck bent forward to press his mouth to his partner's. Strong jaw, beard stubble that scratched gently at his cheeks, wide shoulders and flat, flat chest. All the other parts that made him a man, and all of the grit and power that were uniquely Larabee. "I think if I fell in love with a woman, you and I might have a problem," he said when he drew back. "She'd be so much like you, one of you would surely kill the other."

Chris's hand moved then, his fingers meditatively stroking up and down the length of Buck's forearm. "You're not enough of a masochist to want more than one of me around," he asserted, dry and amused.

"I don't know about that," Buck teased back. "Remember that time you tied me to the ladder and--"

"Buck." The word was chopped and hard; Chris was serious. Whatever he and Josiah had talked about, it was eating at him.

"Vin's picked himself a hard road, if he's fallen for a man who can't appreciate what's right in front of him," Buck said, more than willing to put this on some other couple. "Josiah's picked himself a hard road, if he thinks he needs a woman's body to satisfy his soul."

"Josiah thinks Vin hasn't picked his road, doesn't know how to choose anything for himself. That he follows his visions and doesn't think further than that."

"What do you think?"

Chris's eyes went vague and thoughtful. "I think Josiah's trapped in the memory of the boy he met. He don't seem to see the man Vin is, very much."

That did size up the situation pretty well. And Vin didn't help matters by getting anxious when Josiah was around. "I see the man you are," he said, changing the subject and tucking his head to rub his nose along the hard line of Chris's jaw. "I don't have any regrets."

The subtle relaxation of his partner's body betrayed him, but Buck waited for the words anyway. Chris just used one: "Good," he said, and proceeded to manhandle Buck into a position he liked, turned away with Chris's front pressed up against Buck's back. One hand dropped heavily over his waist and warm breath sighed out against the back of his neck.

It was.

Once he had breakfast cooked and warming, Josiah drained his coffee cup and sighed his pleasure. Even though they'd turned in early last night, his body's clock all twisted around by the stops in too many time zones and the shift to Universal, morning had seemed to come too early. The distance between him and Vin was wearing on him; Vin was being stoic about Josiah leaving, and while Josiah appreciated the effort, it still made him feel guilty. One more punishment for one more sin, to add to the sin he'd committed against them both that night. He sighed. Eventually he was going to run out of time in this life to pay for all those sins.

"You always cook?" Nathan asked as he poured more coffee for himself and then added more to Josiah's own cup.

Josiah grinned. "Not always, but I don't mind and the others seem to," he answered, stirring the pot of meal before covering it and turning his attention back to the wok. "Gives me something to earn my way."

Nathan stretched. "Yeah, I want to get down to the medbay after breakfast, start getting it in order. It needs restocking, lot of the things in it are out of date now."

"Want help?" Josiah offered.


Crew and passengers found their way in in ones and twos, and Josiah thought of the ark-ships that had brought the people to this system, and smiled. Folks made short work of breakfast, and Ezra ducked in just before the food was completely gone.

"Josiah and I are going to start on the medbay after breakfast," Nathan said to Chris as eating slowed. "Unless you need us for something else."

Chris nodded, pushing his empty plate away.

After breakfast, Vin volunteered to do the clean-up, and Chris assigned Ezra to help him so that Nathan and Josiah could get started. Josiah hung back long enough to drop a hand on Ezra's shoulder, interrupting him in mid-bitch.

"I enjoyed our conversation on the way to New Born the other day," he said, smiling into Ezra's face. "I keep thinking on some of the fine things we shared with each other, insights, observations, promises." He arched an eyebrow, then smiled wider as Ezra's stare hardened and his mouth tightened into an annoyed line.

He patted Ezra's shoulder, then walked toward the door and the medbay.

"That man is a menace," he heard Ezra griping behind him, and grinned. Long as Ezra truly believed that, things would work just fine between them.

Nathan had started the process, just as he had said; the counters in the small room were cluttered with tools and instruments.

"Good!" he called as Josiah came through the doors. "I can use you as my test subject."

"Test subject?" Josiah asked as Nathan held a small device out toward him. There was a beep from the console at the head of the medical bed, and Nathan looked at it, then nodded.

"Looks about right," Nathan said.

"About?" Josiah asked.

"Will know more when I can test some of the others and compare results." He frowned at a read-out. "Maybe ask my wife to look some of this over...."

They worked for a while, chatting about casual things as they did, until Nathan held up a small device and placed it on Josiah's forehead. It vibrated a little against his skin, then the screen above the bed flashed and formed a high resolution image of his brain.

Nathan looked over his shoulder at the screen, then back. "Nice, isn't it? Whoever outfitted this ship was more than a field tech like me. There's some fancy stuff in here."

"How much does this one tell you?" Josiah asked, thinking.

"Tells you if there's any damage, any scar tissue, any areas where the brain's not functioning properly. Why?"

"Just curious," he answered automatically, his eyes on the image.

It remained for a few seconds after Nathan lowered that instrument and moved on to the next one, and despite himself, Josiah thought on it, on what it might mean.

He'd never found someone he trusted who had both the skill and the equipment to look into Vin's head, not for anything more than a cursory exam, and most of those had been to look for implants or other devices that didn't belong.


He blinked, looked to the other man and realized, from the look on Nathan's face, that he had missed something.

"You all right?" Nathan asked, grinning. "You're thinking awful hard over there."

Josiah smiled back, glancing back up at the screen above the bed. "Just fascinated by all these gadgets," he said easily.

Trust, he thought, it all came down to that. It was easy not to trust Ezra; the man was driven by a desire for money that seemed to outweigh any more humane needs. Easier to trust Chris and Buck; Chris's hatred of the Alliance was clear enough. And while Buck had been raised in society circles on Persephone--and therefore Alliance circles--it was clear that Buck's loyalty was to people and not to politics. There was a core of honor in both of them that Josiah was beginning to see. They lived by their word, and by their sense of right. Vin would do well here.

Nathan, though... His instinct was to trust Nathan. Their talks over the past day led Josiah to believe that they shared a similar conviction about many things, not the least of which was the same distrust of the Alliance. It had led him to trust Nathan when he'd asked about Vin's 'visions', having heard the rumors from--Ezra, probably, but it wasn't a secret.

But trusting Nathan to poke around in Vin's head...

"You want me to teach you how to use this thing?" Nathan asked. The question was casual, too casual, Josiah thought.

He looked at the other man, catching his eyes.

Nathan tilted his head. "I think if I was involved with someone who 'knew things'," he put a little more weight on the last two words, "I'd want to see if there was something else going on."

"I suppose I would, if I thought there was anything to see."

Nathan shrugged. "Some good equipment here, but it's your choice. And his."

That thought brought Josiah up short. He had always thought that knowledge of what had been done to Vin might be power. But Vin's knowledge so often wasn't, a curse instead of a gift as far as Josiah could tell. Did Vin want to know anything more than that the Alliance had no hardware in his skull that could be used to track him down? Would it change anything, knowing the why of it? Oddly, because he'd never imagined having the chance to let someone examine Vin, he'd never asked himself these questions.


When he looked up, Nathan's eyes were warm and kind. "I wasn't trying to stir up trouble," he said. "Like I said, his choice."

Josiah pondered the words, and measured them carefully. "Vin doesn't exercise choice overmuch," he began. "His visions... he sees them, and when he recognizes the visions in real time-in his present reality, the one you and I are in--he lives through them, does what he thinks has to be done."

"Damn." Nathan's voice was a whisper. "Must be hard on you both. But at least he can tell you what's happening."

Josiah shook his head, sighing. "You'd think." He smiled, wry. "But if you knew what God was thinking, would that calm you down any?"

Nathan's eyes widened. "Never thought about it like that."

Josiah shrugged it away. "Why would you? Why would any man? I've never been able to understand it, and he doesn't either."

"He has visions," Nathan said slowly, "of--what?"

This question was harder. "The future, the past. Some of it his, much of it other people's. Some are--they've been proved out, every detail. They could be anything. They could be..." delusions, he wanted to say, but didn't. "You could teach me how to read these results?" he asked slowly, watching the other man.

Nathan met his gaze. "If it were Raine, I'd want to know what I was looking at--even if I trusted the man to know his job."

Josiah weighed the sincerity in his eyes, then smiled a little. "Thanks, Nathan. I'll talk to him."

Nathan grinned back at him. "Besides, I might need me an assistant from time to time. Never had one I trained myself." He picked up another device, looking closely at it. "Y'all been together long?" he asked, his tone a little more formal than it had been, as if he were wary of being too inquisitive.

Josiah smiled, trying to let him know that it was all right. "Six years," he said.

Nathan nodded. "That's 'bout how long Raine and I been together."

Josiah nodded. "You ever feel crowded?" he asked, his voice softer now.

Nathan grinned. "Why you think I hired on here?"

To Part 2

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