At the Edge of Darkness, part 2
by Charlotte C. Hill and Farad

The black, mid-way from Persephone to Triumph

Chris eased into the common room from the aft stairs, pausing just inside. The Dykstras were downstairs in the guest lounge, Josiah and Vin were helping Casey and JD flush pipes and do God knew what, Nathan was in the medical bay, and Ezra sat at the long table, dealing cards face-down, then turning them over, eying the hands, gathering them up and shuffling again.

Buck sat in the little alcove to Chris's right, legs stretched in front of him on the circular sofa, and let out a very satisfied-sounding sigh. It had taken two days of everybody settling in for Buck to remember what it was he loved about living aboard this ship. Oh, Chris knew the flying was obvious and exhilarating; Buck had said it was a bit like sexing a skilled woman, though Buck didn't have nearly as much skill with flying as he did with sexing women. Chris grinned, thinking that at least one, Buck could still practice.

What Buck really loved was the peace of space, and the pace of life out here. Chris loved that too, really, owning his own piece of the 'verse that was self-contained and all his own.

Buck liked getting to know people more than Chris did, studying their quirks and their tells and the tiny habits or ways of speaking that told him so much more than what they actually said. Chris watched the little smile on Buck's face as Buck watched Ezra dealing out hands of cards, over and over, knew Buck was passively enjoying Ezra's good looks as much as he was working on figuring the man out. Buck liked the fact that on board ship, people couldn't get away; even how they took themselves off and where they went told Buck things. He liked knowing people that intimately, and never minded if they tried to know him equally well.

Chris didn't mind either-as long as it was Buck and not him that people were trying to get to know. He had watched Ezra doing something a bit like Buck did, and he'd felt Ezra's scrutiny land on him more than once. He was just about ready to tell Ezra where he could stuff his curiosity.

"Settle down," Buck called, quietly enough that Chris barely heard him. Ezra's hands didn't even hesitate in his deal.

Chris eased over, his movement catching Ezra's eye briefly; he frowned, Ezra shrugged and went back to his cards, and Buck slid over a few inches to make space for Chris beside him.

"You like him, don't you?" Chris asked, sitting down.

"Ezra?" Buck asked. "He's all right."

"He crossed Mal," Chris reminded Buck, barely loud enough to hear his own voice.

"Not bad enough for Mal to do more than dump him at Serenity's first port of call," Buck replied. "He's..." Chris tilted his head, waiting for the assessment. "He's a core rat, Chris, and I'm willing to bet he's just looking for the right kind of home. He could find it here."

"Not if he gets too far under my skin," Chris muttered.

"No," Buck agreed.

Chris tilted his head, looking sideways at his partner. "And the rest of 'em?"

Buck nodded slowly. "Yeah," he said, "I like 'em all. Kind of a surprise, really, I figured we'd have to go through a few to find the right mix. But the kids keep things hopping, Ezra keeps you on your toes, you and Vin and Josiah get along good, with other folks if not with each other, and--hell," he frowned, "how come you never introduced me to Nathan before?"

Chris scowled. "You think you live in my back pocket."

Buck lifted his arm. Chris settled a little closer, relaxing as Buck dropped his arm down and held Chris loosely against him. "Yeah, I do," he said then, grinning. Chris elbowed him in the side.

A tiny 'oof' was all he got for his troubles, then Buck leaned a little closer, happy and filled with vim and vigor, and Chris knew he'd be getting his share again tonight. More than his share. "You keep all the secrets you want, Chris. Keep all the friends you want. I like what you give me."

Chris let himself be mollified for the moment, wondering if he really had many secrets he cared that much about anymore. It seemed Buck had been there for most of the big things, and the little things, those things he'd hoarded jealously after Sarah's death and Adam's and the rest of the women in the Maggie's crew, kept popping up like soap bubbles at the oddest times. He walked his fingers briefly onto Buck's knee, just to make him smile. "Want to play faddle?"

They'd played when they were kids, and gotten better as adults. It was one of the few habits they had kept to even after Sarah and Adam and the rest had been lost, something that had held them together when so little else could. When grief could have torn them apart as easily.

He squeezed Buck's knee and used it to push himself up, huffing out a laugh when Buck flinched, ticklish.

They played for hours, letting people join in as they came by seeking conversation or company, closing ranks when people wandered off. Ezra joined in for about 10 minutes until he realized they were serious about not playing for money, then leaned back, crossed his arms, and scowled at the side of Chris's head. Chris ignored him.

Buck was up on the score when they stopped for supper, just long enough to collect plates and clear their cards and dice off the table.

"Where are our newlyweds?" Buck asked, looking over his shoulder toward the door.

"Please," Ezra scoffed. "Ten platinum if they're even bedding each other."

"Some folks marry for different reasons, Ezra," Buck said, and Chris watched the two of them, wondering who was more right.

Ezra arched an eyebrow. "Indeed - some marry for money, but if that were the case, they wouldn't be traveling in these spare accommodations."

Buck tried to go back to their game after supper, but Chris shook his head minutely, then caught Ezra's eye. Buck left him alone, and Ezra followed him.

"You summoned?" Ezra asked dryly, heading down the stairs toward the cargo bay.

"We got cause to worry?" he asked, frowning back over his shoulder at Ezra.

Ezra's voice was carefully neutral when he said softly, "People do strange things for all sorts of reasons that don't--"

Chris paused in front of him, holding up a hand to silence him, and tilted his head forward. Ezra followed his look, frowning a little. "Guess you owe Buck ten platinum," Chris whispered.

Jael had John pressed up against a stack of cargo crates, her hands moving fast under his shirt, his on her ass. "I guess I do not," Ezra whispered back, stepping forward a little.

Chris frowned and stared down at the couple. The kiss looked deep enough to him, but Ezra's face clearly said he thought otherwise. "Ask your partner if you don't believe me," Ezra went on, "but that is a show for our benefit."

"What?" Chris asked. He looked again, but unlike Buck--and apparently Ezra--he didn't know what he was looking for. He waited, watching their repetitive motions, feeling a bit like an intruder even though they weren't doing much more than...

"It ain't stopping and it ain't going forward," he whispered, finally catching on.

"Let's leave them to their activities," Ezra said in a voice that might carry far enough for the Dykstras to hear them. More quietly he added, "whatever they may be."

Buck's eyes tracked to him the second he stepped back into the common room. Chris looked around the room, then gathered Buck up with his eyes, called, "Vin, come over here for a minute," and steered Ezra into a quiet corner.

Josiah glanced over his shoulder from where he and Nathan had taken clean-up duty--Chris would have to get Buck on that, make sure things got a little fairer among the crew--but then he shrugged it off. If Josiah was leaving after this run, he could work all he wanted until then.

Vin ambled over, loose-limbed, and Buck gathered him up with a friendly arm around his shoulder, walking with him. He let go of Vin as soon as they got close to Chris.

"Vin? Can you keep your mouth shut, or do you tell Josiah everything?" Chris asked bluntly.

Vin looked annoyed. "I don't tell him everything. Thought that was pretty clear."

Chris nodded toward Ezra. "Go ahead."

Ezra gave him a "what, me?" look, and Chris grimaced.


"I just got here," Buck said, shrugging his ignorance.

Chris rolled his eyes. "Vin?" he asked. "You got any reason to think the Dykstras ain't what they say they are?"

Vin shrugged, which Chris thought wasn't an answer. Still. "Ezra."

"I know they aren't what they say they are," he said testily. "But that doesn't mean I know what they really are."

Buck had caught on. "Probably just business of some sort," he said. "Not ours."

He was frowning at Ezra and, Chris realized, trying to back Chris up. "Maybe," he said tersely. "They're faking it awful hard in the cargo bay right now."

Buck grinned, sly amusement now. "Yeah? Worth seein'?"

"I doubt you'd think so," Chris retorted. Buck liked authenticity or artfulness, and if them two weren't being authentic, they sure as hell didn't have anything artful going for them. "What I'm wonderin', is why put on a show for us?"

"My point exactly," Ezra said, and Chris could tell he was annoyed all over again. It seemed like he lived in a chronic state of it.

Buck was frowning now, looking out toward the door. "We ain't got nothing worth taking," he mused.

"The Margaret May?" Chris asked.

"You're jumpin' at shadows there," Vin said, but his tone was doubtful enough that Chris didn't think Vin knew anything for certain. For Vin's way of certain, anyway.

"Why do you say that?" he asked anyway.

"I've..." He paused, a look of consternation crossing his face, and Chris realized he was trying to watch what he said after Chris's rebuke in Eavesdown.

He didn't push it, for now. "Keep your guards up," he said. "Buck, let Inez know, and make sure JD and Casey keep an eye on each other."

"You sure you ain't jumping at shadows, Chris?" Buck asked him, not challenging but genuinely curious.

Chris felt his lips compress into a hard, tight line. "No," he said, and walked away.

He turned at the door to the flight deck, unsurprised to see Buck and Ezra conferring right where he'd left them, but surprised as hell to catch Vin not five feet behind him, shadowing him up the hall.

"You got something needs saying in private?" Chris asked, looking over his shoulder at Buck.

"Reckon not. Just thought I could start mounting those climbing blocks, like I asked about?"

Vin had seal-on handholds for free-climbing practice and wanted to stick them up in the cargo bay. Plenty of spacers did that, looking for ways to keep fit that didn't interfere with the running of their ships and made use of the space available.

"I think Buck's got a few, too," he said. He was sure there were a couple of boxes of them somewhere around here.

Vin smiled, his face startlingly young of a sudden, and Chris realized the man didn't smile often. "Let's get to it."

"Buck!" Chris hollered, and Buck lifted his head.

Chris turned and jogged back down the hall. "You know where your climbing stuff is?" he asked.

Buck's eyebrows rose. "You're gonna put it up?"

Chris nodded.

"Storage bin, starboard aft?" Buck replied thoughtfully, clearly trying to visualize the last place he'd seen them. "Check under the jump ropes. And call me when you get 'em up, I want to try them out."

Chris slapped his arm and shouldered past him to the cargo bay stairs.

He and Vin worked well together, falling into comfortable silence as easily as he and Buck fell into conversation. The Dykstras still hadn't finished whatever they'd pretended to start, as far as Chris could tell. He rounded them up and suggested that the cargo bay wasn't the most comfortable place for passengers to hang about, and watched through narrowed eyes as they slipped off toward their cabin.

"You sure you don't have..." He didn't know what to call it, really so he finished lamely, "Any thoughts on them?"

"No," Vin answered. Chris frowned, wondering if Vin was saying no he didn't have thoughts, or no he wasn't sure. It was almost uncomfortable how easy they were together, the quiet after that one exchange broken only by requests for hardware or the shifting of a ladder or line. Up the stairs, over a big patch of the starboard wall they worked. At one point Chris paused, settling his fingers into a piece of the ship's grate that Buck had always wedged his toe into; Chris could almost hear Adam's voice, high and boyish over Buck's rowdier laughter, and if he closed his eyes he felt like he might see them hanging there, Adam squashed almost flat against the wall, Buck on a line and holding him securely, trying to get him to reach for the next handhold.

"Do you see anything beyond this life?" Chris asked, not quite recognizing his own voice.

The silence got uncomfortable, and he opened his eyes, saw a powerful anger and something else he couldn't begin to guess at in Vin's eyes. "Don't ever ask me that, Chris," Vin said, then powered up the stairs, screwdrivers and box in hand.

When Vin used the winch pulley to get himself closer to the ceiling, Chris stood in the open space on the floor and stared up at him, wondering. Buck strolled into the cargo bay about that time and leaned on the gangway railing above Chris, hip canted out.

He watched Buck's eyes track Vin near the ceiling. "Nobody works across the ceiling without a rope," he called up to Vin. "Set eyebolts or something while you're up there."

"Ropes take all the fun out of it," Vin called down, laughing. Whatever had gripped him so powerfully a few minutes ago had let go just as quick, as far as Chris could tell.

"It's an almost 40-foot drop," Chris answered. "Somebody falls on equipment and breaks their backs, you know what that would cost us to repair?"

Buck moseyed down to him and took up just as boneless a lean against the stack of stasis crates. "I could look into insurance," he said.

"Sheeit," Chris muttered.

"You make me carry it," Buck reasoned.

Chris smirked at him. "I'll make you use a tether every time you go up there, too," he said.

Buck shrugged, mostly ignoring his tone. "I filed all the right papers, Chris. If we want to offer the option to our contractors, it would make us seem more legitimate."

"We are legitimate."

Buck grinned. "Whatever you say, Captain." He sat on the floor right then and there and pulled off his boots and socks, and rolled up his shirtsleeves.

"We don't have safety lines rigged yet," Chris said.

Buck threw him a wink. "You c'n punish me later."

Chris mostly avoided watching Buck and went back to work himself. Between Vin's equipment and their own, they had a nice random set of holds spread out. By the time Chris had inched off a catwalk to affix his last one, Buck had shimmied halfway back down and Vin had mounted a couple of routes all the way across the ceiling.

Vin strolled up behind him, flushed and sweating and looking alert and pleased with his efforts. "Got the bolts for cable placed," he said, pointing along the ceiling. "I figure we can rig up a harness for whoever decides to use 'em."

"You don't?" Chris asked.

"Don't care for 'em," Vin said. "Besides, I won't fall."

"You go into one of those loony places I've seen you in, you could."

Vin speared him with a look, clear-eyed, but it was like fire licked out from the inside of him. "I won't fall," he said again, low and precise, and Chris understood that somehow, this was one of those things Vin just thought he knew.

He worked hard not to clench his jaw, riding out the wave of discomfort until it passed. He wasn't young or naive enough to think he wanted answers to too many questions, not after what Vin had said earlier.

Buck was climbing down now, grinning with the natural high of the exercise. "Whoo-eh! Good job, Vin! You climb planet-side?"

Vin shrugged, turning to watch Buck as he let go the last holds and dropped with a thud to the floor. Chris smiled to himself, knowing his lover would preen at the attention.

"Whenever I get a chance," Vin said, watching as Buck approached. "I ain't got no fear of falling, which makes it easier to get jobs sometimes, 'specially on building sites."

"Bet it does," Buck said, coming in close and slapping Vin on the shoulder. He looked to Chris, his eyes bright and happy in a way that made Chris's belly tighten and his blood drift south. "You wanna give it a go?" he asked, the undertones in his voice letting Chris know that if he climbed, Buck would be right behind him. Until he could be right on top of him.

It was a startlingly pleasant thought; it'd been a long time since they'd climbed together--longer since they'd fucked against the inner hull of the ship. That little trick had been a rare and dangerous thrill, and always memorable.

Vin snorted, taking a step back. "Didn't you just run the Dykstras away from doing stuff like that in the cargo bay?" he asked, but he was grinning.

"You never done it clinging to a wall?" Buck asked, low and flirty.

Vin actually laughed. "I reckon I'm already more of a thrill than Josiah wants, don't need nothing added to it."

He'd meant it to be funny, but as the words came out, he seemed to catch what he was saying, and the humor ebbed. For a few seconds an awkwardness hung in the air, and Chris shifted, uncomfortable in it.

As usual, Buck came through, saying lightly, "Bet he's right, bet you are a handful."

Before Chris could get annoyed with his lover for getting involved, Vin moved away.

Buck opened his mouth to say something else, but Chris caught his eye, shaking his head and frowning. He moved closer to Buck and said very softly, "Leave it be. I mean it."

Buck's eyes had gone soft, though, in that way that they did when it was already too late and he was investing himself. "Don't like to see somebody hurting like that, 'specially when it's for a dumb reason," he said, just loud enough for Chris to hear.

"Ain't none of our business, Buck," Chris warned again, this time catching Buck's arm and pulling, trying to push his point home. "You stay out of it."

Before Buck could answer, Vin called, "Chris, come here." His tone was just wary enough to get their attention, and Chris walked over to where Vin was standing, near the end of one of the narrow aisles they had created as they'd packed the cargo into the bay.

Vin's frown conveyed more than his hands that held the end of one of the stacking straps on a column of the stasis containers. He tilted his head back as he followed the line of the strap with his eyes.

"What?" Chris asked, coming up beside him.

Vin tugged on the line, drawing it tight. "I know I checked this thing, at least a couple of times, and it was tight. It's not now."

Chris reached over and took the end out of Vin's hand, pulling on it himself. The latch caught when he set it, and the strap tightened smoothly. It hadn't come undone on its own.

"Was this where our newlyweds were getting happy?" Buck asked.

"Yeah," Chris said, unlatching the strap and pulling it loose, then drawing it tight again.

"Maybe they knocked it loose?" Buck suggested.

Chris reached up, pushing at the stasis containers. They seemed steady enough. "So?"

"These ain't theirs," Vin said. "The ones they brought in are over there." He pointed toward the far side of the bay. "Right where you told me to put 'em."

"They just knocked it loose," Buck repeated. "Ain't like we haven't done the same thing from time to time--remember that time we did it in your dad's barn and opened the chute gate? We like to never got that bull out of the stock yard!"

Despite himself, Chris smiled; his dad wasn't sure what he was more pissed about, what Buck and Chris had been up to, or the fact that they'd almost gotten killed trying to get the bull back into the pen.

"Maybe," Vin said, his eyes still on the strap.

Chris ran his finger over a tracking label on the nearest container. "Need to keep a closer eye on things down here," he said quietly. He glanced to Vin, then back to Buck. "How late you stay up, Vin?"

Vin looked up, meeting his eyes. "Late as you need me to, I reckon. Ain't been sleeping too well the past few nights anyway."

Buck sighed, but Chris ignored him. "Let's try to keep someone down here most hours, keep 'em from having a chance to poke around. Between the three of us, we should be able to manage that."

Vin nodded, grinning a little. "Think I'll go climbing," he said, and he eased away, brushing past Buck and over to the lowest handholds.

Buck leaned in, crowding him against the containers, and his hands slid over Chris's hips as he whispered, "You thinking about a little midnight climbing?"

Chris looked up at him, arching an eyebrow and trying hard to hide just how appealing the idea was, now that Buck had put it into his head. "Might be too out of shape for that."

Buck chuckled, low and throaty, and his fingers slid firmly down between Chris's thighs, nudging him from behind. "You ain't never that out of shape," he said, just before he brushed his lips over Chris's.

Chris kissed him back, but just for a few seconds, a piece of him wondering whether Vin was climbing or looking. That piece made him push Buck away, say, "Save it for later. Right now, let's go take a nap. If we're gonna check back in for a midnight climb, we need to be rested."

Buck was grinning, and Chris knew what he was thinking. Not that it bothered him overmuch; maybe heat them both up before they took their turn running interference down here--might as well have some fun with this.

It was after two in the morning, ship standard, when Vin came in. Josiah hadn't seen Vin since Vin had disappeared with Chris and Buck and Ezra to do God knew what. Josiah didn't trust Ezra Standish to give the right time of day, much less to ignore Vin's value to the wrong people. Chris Larabee, Josiah had a little more confidence in, but not at two in the morning, not when this much time had passed.

But Vin appeared fresh from a shower, his hair still damp, his body relaxed and limber, a smile on his face that only came when he was feeling content.

"Where the hell have you been?" he snapped. It wasn't the greeting Josiah had planned to give, wasn't the way he'd wanted to start this conversation.

Vin stopped with his hand still on a ladder rung, his eyes adjusting to the dim light. "Chris and I set up the climbing blocks," he said. "I been climbing."

Josiah folded his arms across his chest and didn't ask. He knew the answer already, knew that Vin had been doing just what he'd said. Knew also that had he gone looking for Vin, he would have found him; a Firefly wasn't that big a ship.

But after the tension between them these last few days, it had been easier to sit here and stew on it. Truth be told, he hadn't even been stewing long; he'd missed Vin at dinner, thought about coming back here to fetch him, but Inez had drawn him into a conversation, then Nathan and Inez and suggested a game of Mah Jong, and Jael Dykstra had agreed to play fourth. Josiah had enjoyed the easy company so much that he'd barely noticed the time passing... and he hadn't minded.

It had been after midnight when he had returned to Vin's room, and his surprise at finding it empty had been surpassed only by annoyance at his realization that he'd expected Vin to be waiting for him. Especially under these circumstances, that wasn't fair to either of them.

He had debated going on to sleep, but once he'd tried to settle down in this austere, quiet room, all he wanted to do was talk to Vin about Nathan's ability to look into his head. He'd thought about it off and on all day, and he had decided that Nathan was right; it was Vin's decision. So Josiah needed to tell him.

Guilt at his own arrogance had sent the annoyance away for a good hour, but as the minutes ticked by, it had crept back in, alongside every slight perceived or real, and every reason he shouldn't have come on this trip. He'd prayed, hoping God would guide him--and maybe he had. Here was Vin, after all. Finally.

Vin moved around Josiah and toward the small chest where his clothes were stored. "Didn't have nothing else to do," he said. "Didn't think you'd mind if I was out of your way."

Josiah took a deep breath. "You're not in my way," he said keeping his tone as even as he could. "In fact, I waited up because I want to talk to you."

Vin stiffened, and Josiah plowed on. "I was helping Nathan in the medbay today, inventorying and testing the equipment. According to him, this ship has got better diagnostic tools than plenty of hospitals."

He let the words hang between them, trusting Vin to make the connections. After a while, Vin's shoulders hunched forward a little and he reached into a drawer, pulling out a clean shirt. He stripped down easily, and Josiah found his eyes traveling over the length of bare skin Vin exposed. New bruises, thick blue and purple lines around his hip, Josiah could guess the source of; Vin had lost his footing, and his body had banged against climbing blocks or other braces on the hull before he could get control.

"You trust him," Vin said as he pulled on the shirt, covering the bruises and the flesh.

Josiah took a deep breath, unable to look away as Vin pushed out of his pants and underwear. "Yeah," he said, watching the flex of muscle as Vin bent to pull on sleeping pants.

"You want me to let him poke around?" Vin asked quietly, standing back up and folding the clothes he'd been wearing before dropping them into the bag he kept for dirty laundry.

"What do you want?" Josiah countered.

Vin turned, looking at Josiah across the bed. His eyes were soft and clear, his face tired. "I want you to be happy," he said quietly. "I'll do whatever you want, J'siah, whatever I can to make that happen."

Josiah closed his eyes, lifting one hand to rub at his head as the headache started. "It's not about what I want, it's about you making a decision."

Vin didn't answer, and when Josiah finally looked over, he found Vin glaring at him. "You still don't trust that I know what I want." He shook his head, looking away. "Fine, sure, I'll let him play in my head. When you want to--"

"I don't want you to do it for me," Josiah said, feeling his own anger surge. "I want you to do it for you, Vin, because you want to know what's going on."

"No, you don't!" Vin didn't quite yell. "You want to know if they can fix me. You want to find out if how I feel about you is real or something that I do because I think I have to. You want to find out if what you feel for me--you, 'Siah, is real. And you don't know which scares you more, the idea that it'd be the same if I weren't a freak or that that's all it is, a--a perverted religious attraction that's not about me at all."

Josiah stared at him, stunned at the words and the truth in them. He had asked himself every one of those questions over the years, but he honestly hadn't thought Vin knew that.

Vin went on, softer but just as steady. "Every time I try to prove to you that my will's as much my own as the next man's, you think that it's because I knew already what the outcome is going to be. So yeah, I'll let him do whatever he wants. But it ain't gonna change how I feel about you. It ain't gonna make the visions go away. There ain't but one thing that's gonna do that, and it's gonna be a while before that happens." He shook his head again and eased over to his side of the bed, pulling back the bedcovers before he climbed in and curled onto his side, presenting his back to Josiah.

Josiah stood for a while, thinking on what Vin had said, watching him. The hard truth of it was that Vin was right about all of Josiah's arguments. Had Vin always been? Always known this, too? Clearly, Josiah hadn't cornered the market on frustration in this relationship.

He turned off the lights, stopping last at the desk with its recessed lamp. When he flicked that off, he had only the emergency track up the wall behind the ladder to see by; it wasn't enough, not nearly, and he found the bed by dint of bumping into it. Vin wasn't asleep, he could tell by the stiffness in his body, but he obviously didn't have anything else to say.

Josiah settled onto his back when he got into bed, letting his hand brush against Vin's back.

He had no idea what he'd do when Vin rolled in against him like usual, but Vin didn't move. That felt even worse.

Buck woke erect, not exactly a foreign experience to him, but since Chris had kicked off the covers and rolled all the way to the edge of the bed to avoid soaking up any more heat from him, he had to think for a minute about what had made him so. No erotic dreams, no flash of memory of last night, not even the stiffness of his ass and thighs, his shoulders and biceps from where he'd held so damned tightly to the handholds, with Chris pressed flat and spread before him, mashed against the wall and groaning....

He smiled. Must be the smell, then. They were all scents he was used to, himself and Chris, the smell of stale sex and sweat--but strong, strong enough that walking into the mess would let everyone in the room know just how athletic they'd been last night. His grin broadened. Chris wouldn't like that at all.

He rolled over, teasing himself by rubbing his cock against Chris's hip until his partner woke with a grunt. "Hot," Chris mumbled.

"You sure are," Buck said with a grin, then ducked when Chris flailed back with his arm, trying to hit him. "Come on," he said, pushing up and landing a hard smack on Chris's ass before he rolled out of bed. "Shower time."

"I am not..." Chris pushed up himself, his frown looking permanently etched onto his face, which was just plain unfair after all the effort Buck had put in to erase that look last night. This morning. Chris sniffed experimentally, and the frown deepened. "Shower," he muttered. "Definitely."

Lights spilled from the kitchen and common room so Buck kept quiet, treading lightly up the hall and resisting the urge to goose Chris or do anything he might do once everyone on the crew had gotten to know each other a little better. He just slipped on down the stairs into the cargo bay, edging around the stacked tractors and making his way across to the showers, with Chris right behind him. He wondered what his mother would say when he told her he'd developed a hard-on for cargo bays. Probably admonish him for ungallant reflexes in public places, he decided, amused.

He paused at the door to the lockers, then just in case, stuck up the "occupied" sign which he turned so it showed the outline of a man before he followed Chris on in. It was more obvious but more elegant than a pair of suspenders hanging from the doorframe. Chris watched him do it. "That better be a joke," he groused.

Buck shrugged. You never knew.

Chris skinned out of the sweats he'd pulled on before they left their room, moving stiffly and slowly. He kicked off his deck shoes, and elbowed Buck solidly in the ribs when Buck tried to follow him into a stall. Completely unfair, Buck decided with a grin.

He took a stall across the way and left his door open, watching Chris's silhouette moving around behind the frosted curtain, soaping up absently until he realized his cock was getting far more attention than it needed to get clean.

Chris started grumbling, muttering just loud enough for Buck to hear, about sore muscles and a sore ass, about them not being kids anymore and what the hell had Buck been thinking anyway. Buck worked hard to resist the smile even though Chris wouldn't see it, shaking his head at his partner's very contrariness.

"You made too much noise," Chris grumbled again, slamming off his shower and stepping out of the stall to reach for a towel.

Buck smirked, turning to let the heat of his own shower dig into the muscles of his shoulders. "You didn't say that at the time."

"Tonight, we're not climbing together," Chris said shortly, bending over to wipe at his legs. "I'll take the first half of the night, you can have the second."

Buck would have rolled his eyes, but it would have interrupted the view of Chris's upturned ass. Instead, he said, "Anybody who's spent more'n an hour with us will know that's queer."

Chris looked up long enough to throw a frown his way, then bent back to his drying. Buck, tempted even though he knew he wouldn't get anywhere, turned off his shower and stepped out, grabbed his towel and walked right up to Chris. "You smell good," he said, bending over him a little and breathing in deep.

"Not like a spent whore any longer?" Chris growled.

Buck glared at the back of his head. "What the hell did I do?" he demanded.

"You--" Chris stopped, and Buck listened to the hard exhale, watched Chris step just far enough away to turn without brushing up against him. "They could've marched a band through the cargo bay and we wouldn't have noticed."

Buck smiled at that, accepting it as the apology Chris wouldn't ever give, not over something like this. "The point was to have folks in there who'd ward off nosy passengers. I think us having a thrust in there did the trick as well or better than armed security. You think maybe you're over-reacting a little?" Not that he minded; sex on the inner hatch had brought back a lot of good memories. He'd trade on Chris's paranoia for as long as possible.

"Don't care," Chris grunted. "Not sure I like the idea of somebody seeing us all..." He trailed off, sighed more softly, "Be glad to get to Triumph and get the passengers off my ship."

Buck smiled. 'My ship'. Good to hear. "I thought I'd show the climbing setup to Casey and JD today," he said, stepping back a little to better enjoy the view. Chris's cock, heavy and soft, swung between his thighs as he reached for clothes and kit.

"You think they climb?"

"I think they will if I pitch it right," Buck said. Casey thought she had something to prove; most people her age did. If he made out like she couldn't do it she'd be in there all day. And JD would be there just to watch her at it.

"Good. Make sure they tether."

"I will," Buck promised. That wasn't just paranoia on Chris's part, and it wasn't over-protectiveness; they could lose Vin or Josiah or Ezra to injury without putting the ship at risk, but not the pilot or the mechanic.

"You, too."

"I will," Buck promised again. That was paranoia on Chris's part, but he didn't mind.

The hot shower had obviously done Chris some good, but he was still walking stiffly and he kept favoring his left shoulder. Buck reached out, to check on him or rub out the stiffness, and Chris groaned, dropping his head forward while Buck dug into the tight muscle for a long, easy minute. They dressed quickly and stood beside each other in boots and pants, suspenders hanging loose while they shaved.

After, before Chris could roll up his clothes and gear, Buck pulled Chris up against him, sliding his hands low on the slim hips and tugging him forward. "I love you," he said, catching Chris's gaze and holding it.

Chris slipped his arms around Buck's waist, not offering too much resistance to the embrace.

"Loved climbing with you," Buck went on, quiet and honest, "loved holding you up." His arms and legs had trembled, clinging for them both while Chris had worked to fit them together, and when Chris had latched back on to his handholds, taking some of the strain off Buck and letting him move--so carefully, so precariously--his body shuddered pleasantly with the memory of it. "Loved being in you, clinging to that wall. Feeling you panting and sweating, listening to all that noise you made... you know what it made me remember?" he asked.

Chris's eyes had softened as Buck spoke. He tilted his head up, licked his lips then pressed a kiss to Buck's mouth. "Yeah," he replied softly, "I do." He leaned back a little, putting pressure on Buck's embrace. "Coffee?" he said then, not forcing Buck to let him go, but letting his body ask.

"Coffee sounds good," Buck said, and released him.

Buck was surprised to find the common room pretty full when he followed Chris in. They hadn't dallied that long in the showers, but Nathan and Josiah were in the kitchen, working on breakfast, while Vin, Jael, John, Inez, and Ezra sat at the table with coffee or tea. JD had pulled Casey backward into his lap, and Buck thought they looked sweet like that: prim almost, no nuzzling or hands in inappropriate places, but comfortable. Close. Pretty much the opposite of Jael and John's business-like distance from each other.

Buck nodded around, raising his eyebrows at the disgusted look that shadowed across Ezra's face when their eyes met, and tuned in to Casey, who was talking.

Casey's fingers traced over JD's where they wrapped around her stomach, and she was grinning at something Vin had said. "That's how we met," she said to Vin. "JD did most of his work--towing and test flights--for the same company that paid me."

Buck settled into a chair near them to listen in.

"I've worked with older people who don't know half as much as she does, especially about the older models," JD said from behind her. "All they care about is the new stuff and what's coming along, what the big companies are tossing out. But Casey and her dad worked on older ships, the ones that are still worth something. She's real good."

Casey didn't quite preen at the compliment, but Buck could tell she liked hearing it.

"How about you, JD?" he asked. "Where do you hail from originally?"

"My ma was a housekeeper for one of the big estates on Kerry," he said easily. "She saved up money for me to go to college, but it wasn't nowhere near enough. So I used it to book passage out here, figured I'd get some more flying time in--I worked in the estate's garages, keeping up the family's hovercraft at first, then chauffeuring the family's kids around. Was flying by the time I was old enough to see over the controls."

Chris came up beside Buck, setting a coffee cup in front of him before settling in the chair to his right and resting a hand on his knee, so Buck figured he was forgiven for all the noise and the distraction Chris had complained about.

"Ezra?" Chris asked, taking a long swallow of his coffee.

"What?" Ezra replied, purposely obtuse.

"Where are you from, Ezra?" Buck asked him, wondering about his mood.

Ezra's story, it turned out, didn't veer too much from his record. It was a bit grander than Buck suspected the truth to be, but he'd expected that. He had a little trouble focusing anyway, with Chris's fingertip drawing gentle, tickling patterns over his kneecap.

Buck pushed Chris's hand away and, in self-defense, urged him up to help set out breakfast.

"Where are you from, Mr. Wilmington?" Jael asked as Chris walked away.

He glanced over to find her staring at him, her eyes direct but unreadable. "Persephone," he said, smiling. "Chris and I both, born and raised."

She tilted her head a little, smiling a smile that made her eyes light a little. "I find that hard to believe. You seem far too civilized to be from the outer worlds."

"Well," Buck said, shooting Chris a look, "Persephone isn't exactly the middle of nowhere. Before the war, she was the jewel of these parts." She had been, the heart of Alliance strongholds and culture this far from the core. The central government had drawn back after, though, probably in disgust. "Still is," he smiled, "just a little more chipped and tarnished."

Ezra snorted, but Buck ignored him. "And where are you from?" he asked. "To be so discerning?"

"I'm from Three Hills, as it happens. John is from," she glanced at her companion, and Buck saw the flash of uncertainty in her eyes.

"Originally Persephone," he said, and though he smiled at her, Buck could have sworn there was hostility in the expression. "And Buck is right, Jael. Persephone before the war was as civilized as the core worlds, at least in the big cities. The rural areas were less than that, I suppose." John looked back at the table and asked, "What do y'all do for fun around here? Anybody play hoops?"

"We're a new crew to each other, so we don't have much of a routine yet," Buck said, ignoring the frown on Vin's face.

"I play," JD piped up. "Casey too, but she's not much good at it."

Casey actually shrugged, so she must really be bad, to admit it.

"After lunch, perhaps?" John asked.

"We'll see," Buck said, wishing JD had any kind of poker face at all so he could've warned the kid off of them. The last thing he wanted to do was give the guests reason to be in the cargo bay; it'd drive Chris nuts.

"Do you climb, Mr. Dykstra?" JD asked. "Buck's offered to teach me and Casey after breakfast--you could come along if you'd like."

"Oh, I don't know about that," Jael laughed, and something in her voice drew Buck's attention back to her eyes--which were looking at him. "There are better places to play, but I bet you know that, don't you, Buck."

Buck wasn't certain that she could have been less subtle, but he was saved from having to answer by Chris's timely growl of, "Food's ready."

They chattered over breakfast, JD and Casey excited about climbing, Josiah and Nathan in their own little world, Chris and Inez quiet but responsive when called upon.

"You are quite a skilled chef, Josiah," Inez said as she pushed her plate away and grinned across the table at him. "What would it take to convince you to come to work for me?"

Josiah laughed, but shook his head. "I'm flattered," he said.

Vin had been looking at his plate, but he stiffened, then pushed away from the table. Buck couldn't decide what was bothering Vin this morning, but it seemed like it could be just about anything.

Most folks finished their meals and carried their own dishes to the bar, but Chris gripped Buck's wrist before he could rise. "Watch them--but not too close. She's up to something."

He turned, grinning at his lover and leaning in close enough to whisper back, "You saying that because she's flirting with me?"

Chris arched an eyebrow. "Saying that because she's picked now to start."

It was a backhanded compliment, but then plenty of Chris's were. "You say the sweetest things," he whispered, resisting the temptation to kiss the firm line off Chris's mouth. Louder he said, "Come on, Ezra, help me clean up so we can get down to the cargo bay. I want to show you and Casey and JD what we did down there yesterday."

Ezra actually paled, and things finally clicked into place. Buck chuckled, deeply amused, and waited until he and Ezra were alone in the kitchen area before leaning in close. "I take it you don't sleep too well?"

Ezra shot him a glare. "You are..." he sighed. "I can't fault your athletic prowess," he whispered then, "but really, Mr. Wilmington, have the two of you no shame?"

"Shame's for the poor and uneducated," Buck quoted, smiling at Ezra's startled look.

After a moment he replied, "But discretion is for the cultured."

"Discretion's over-rated," Buck said with a chuckle, and Ezra's expression only darkened. "Don't be like that," Buck chided him. He'd never survive aboard this ship if he really was.

"I... can't you put a sign up or something?"

"You don't think that'd be even more indiscreet?" Buck asked him, chortling at the very idea. Universal symbols came to mind, none of which would make Chris smile.

Ezra looked over his shoulder and cut off whatever he'd been about to reply as JD, Casey, Vin, and Josiah, who'd helped clear the table, came over to stack things up on the counter.

Buck told the kids about the new climbing wall, and dropped a few carefully chosen words to stir up Casey's competitive edge. "Go on then, get dressed in something you can really move around in. And that you don't mind getting torn up," he added, sending them away.

Vin leaned against the bar, coffee up in hand. "Y'all mind if I join in?" he asked.

Buck shook his head. "Give me ten minutes and I'll meet you in the cargo bay," Buck promised. Vin nodded, and Buck took just a moment to enjoy watching the man walk away from him. Josiah was a damned fool if he was letting that go.

"Disgusting, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra muttered from behind him, and Buck smiled, grabbed up a towel and a cloth, and went to wipe down the table.

"Call me Buck. Meet you downstairs in a few, Ez."

"Is that necessary?" Ezra asked. "My name is Ezra, and I really have no interest in climbing all over the inside of a ship which has perfectly good gravitational plates."

"You can take bets on how long it is before JD and Casey try a thrust on the walls," Buck said, then laughed at the horror that washed over Ezra's face.

"It is conceivable that some of the people in this universe actually practice discretion about their sexual activity," he said primly. "It's even conceivable that they could do it in your presence."

Buck laughed, slapping at Ezra's back as he led the way out of the mess. "Don't worry, I'm not interested in building up any competition for late-night recreation. I like this ship running just the way it is."

Casey was already in the bay when Buck got down there, dressed in a brown, skin-tight little thing that stretched from ankle to shoulder and down to her elbows, and showed him a lot more of what it was JD must appreciate about the girl. She was on the thin side, a bit boyish really, but she still had curves where she needed them.

He took his eyes off her before JD wandered in--no sense stirring up trouble there--and helped her into a climbing harness. "We go tethered, you, me, Chris and JD, you and JD always. No exceptions, I don't care if you're only going four feet up."

"You sure we can't be exceptions, too?" JD asked, wearing a skinsuit that stopped at the knee and was only a little looser than Casey's. He was damned fine looking, himself.

"I'm sure," Buck grinned. "If one of you fell, we could be stuck drifting or have to trust Chris to fly us out of a sticky situation. He doesn't want to be put in that position and neither do I. Besides, we'll tether most of the time, ourselves."

He made good on his word by grabbing his own harness, and loaning Chris's to JD. "Here, let me..."

"I know what to do," JD said, brushing Buck's hands away and stepping into the harness. "I've done this before."

"Oh, you've done this before," he said, giving Casey a little grin. "He always this cocky?"

"Yeah," she said, grinning and rolling her eyes.

JD seemed to know how to hook himself in, at least. He couldn't have done it more than a couple of times though, because he was pretty bad at it.

Ezra strolled in a couple of minutes later. "And this is supposed to be fun?" he asked, crossing his arms and staring up at Casey, who had managed to get about twelve feet up the wall without falling away or getting caught in her safety line.

"Supposed to be, yeah," Buck grinned, taking up a little more of her slack. "Is, if you know how to do it right." He threw Ezra a wink just for laughs. "Builds muscle, coordination, keeps you healthy. I know you appreciate staying in good form, Ezra."

Ezra frowned, dour. "I believe in treadmills and free weights."

"We've got those," Buck said, looking over his shoulder. "Uh..."

"Stuck behind cargo?" Ezra said, looking amused and superior.

"Maybe," Buck agreed. "This is a short trip." They hadn't exactly planned for longer hauls, yet.

Vin wandered in about then and reached for a handhold, getting one foot into place before he hesitated and dropped back to the floor. "Got a spare?" he asked, nodding to Buck's harness.

"Hold this." He carefully handed off Casey's line to Ezra. "And coach her a little," he added more quietly, then pulled off his own rig and dropped it in front of Vin. Once Vin had donned it and tied the lines so that he could take up his own slack and keep himself at least a little above the floor if he fell, he started up fast and paused beside Casey. Buck watched the pair of them, watched Vin carefully keeping at least two holds and then pointing with his free hand, sometimes grabbing her fingers and pushing them into a better position.

"He's really very good," Ezra mused.

"He's got a lotta practice, apparently," Buck said.

"When can I go?" JD looked fit to burst that Casey had made it almost level with the catwalk while he was still stuck down here, and Buck shot Ezra a look.

"I am not helping," he said flatly.

Buck grinned. He'd already figured out that Ezra liked people thinking the worst of him, but the façade had slipped more than once. "We'll set up a winch after this trip," he promised. "For now we belay each other. Casey!" he called up. "Try coming back down now."

"But I--" She chose that moment to slip, and Vin caught her harness and smacked her dead weight against the wall while Buck set himself against her slight weight, hanging mostly free on the line.

"Hah!" JD hollered, competitive as hell. "You're supposed to hold the grips, Case!"

"I can't wait to see you try it!" she called down, clearly humiliated as Buck began to lower her down to the bay floor.

He called up, "That's why we wear lines!" and to JD he tried more quietly, "JD, that's a sure way to guarantee sleeping alone later."

"Lot you know," JD grinned. "She's competitive there, too."

Buck raised his eyebrows, intrigued.

"Ahh, a wider audience. Welcome, guests," Ezra said, effectively warning Buck of their new company.

Buck caught Ezra's eye and motioned to the safety line, and Ezra sighed and stepped in, taking it over carefully and running the band around his hip. He had plenty of experience at this whether he wanted to admit it or not. Casey had managed to get a grip again, but Ezra seemed determined to get loose of the lines as quickly as possible and was already coaching her down.

"Hello Jael, John," Buck said. "Little early for hoops," he apologized. "We're trying to get our pilot and engineer practiced enough not to kill themselves out here," he added with a chuckle.

"Looks like a fair challenge," Jael said, staring up. "John, you ought to try this," she said over her shoulder.

"Better not," Buck said, stopping them before they could get started. "We carry liability insurance and that means we can't intentionally expose paying passengers to known risks."

"Climbing walls are known risks?" John asked, looking both surprised and annoyed by the idea.

"For a cargo transport, they are. We don't have the same kind of portage license that, say, a cruise ship or a public transport does."

"Laws like that are overrated," John argued, still looking up at the wall and watching JD's slow ascent. Ezra had given in and was holding the safety line for him. "And I'm already pretty expert at it."

"I'll bet you are," Buck agreed, smiling and trying to ignore the impulse to square off against the other man, "but I'm the one who pays the premium and it's high enough already. No climbing for paying passengers."

John sighed and looked back to the hoop hanging down from the ceiling.

"Balls are in the back, I'll go and fetch one," he said, patting John on the shoulder as he walked on by. He'd have to think of a reason for passengers not to be down here alone, either. Hell, from the beginning they should've made this area off-limits without an escort. When they were carrying something more dangerous or less legal than farm equipment and Inez's weapons and liquor, they'd have to keep strangers at bay.

The sports equipment was mostly stored in lockers along the aft wall, but when Buck passed the door down to guest cabins, he hesitated. He shot a quick glance over his shoulder, then ducked on down.

"Inez?" he called.

There was Chris, sitting with her and an open bottle with a very, very expensive-looking label in front of them. "Little early isn't it?" he asked.

"To sniff that?" Chris shook his head. "Huh uh." Chris held up his glass to prove his point; it looked like little more than a few drops had ever been in it, so Buck shrugged and sniffed, then licked the rim.

"Nice." And it was. It seemed like the kind of stuff he and Chris would never be willing to afford for themselves, in fact, and he looked at the label again. He'd appreciate a real taste of it later, if Inez wanted to offer. "Inez, what do you think of our other passengers?" he asked, handing the glass back to Chris.

"Nice enough. Close-mouthed. Hiding something," she said, recognizing that this wasn't a social conversation. "Why do you ask?"

"Suspicious behavior," Chris cut in. "They're unnaturally attracted to the cargo bay."

Inez looked thoughtful. "I thought you were hauling farming supplies," she said, a little upturn in her voice at the end opening up a question.

"We are. Only farming supplies. But they're worth plenty, this time of year."

"Hardly the kind of thing one can just sneak into their carry-on luggage, though," she went on.

"Hardly," Buck agreed. "They've got containers, too, anyway - just like the ones we're carrying. I think we just need a good reason to keep 'em out of the bay, and we'll be all right."

Chris solved that problem by following Buck back to the bay and waiting by his shoulder until he dug out the balls. The first words out of his mouth when he reached the Dykstras were, "Passengers shouldn't be in the bay unattended. Should've told you that from the start, or when I saw you in here earlier, but a man don't like to interrupt what you two were involved in then. Don't do it again."

"I'm claustrophobic," Jael said. She sounded a bit embarrassed, but she also sounded truthful enough.

"Best buy travel on a bigger ship next time, then," Chris said, completely unsympathetic, and walked back out the way he'd come.

Buck worked hard to hide his grin, and enjoyed a peaceful rest-of-the-day.

Supper wasn't long over when Chris gathered Vin up with a look and the two of them headed out into the cargo bay. It was empty, or should have been, but the Dykstras were just walking back from the showers. Chris grimaced, watching them veer straight to the stairs down to guest quarters.

Beside him, Vin raised an eyebrow.

"There're showers on the passenger deck," Chris said.

Vin's mouth tightened into a grim line. "She said she's claustrophobic. Good enough reason, I guess."

"To disobey my orders?" Chris frowned. "Not hardly."

Vin frowned, watching the door they'd disappeared into. "They look washed to you?"

Chris hadn't noticed. "Come on."

They made a quick circuit, weaving in and out of the stacked equipment, and when they reached the starboard stairs, Chris looked to Vin, to find the man's vacant eyes turned toward the sealed loading door. "Vin?" Nothing. He snapped his fingers in front of Vin's face and Vin jerked, but didn't seem to come back to the present. Finally Chris grabbed his arm and shook him a little. "Vin!"

Vin took a stumbling step back and raised his arm, then his eyes focused and he glanced down at Chris's hand where it clenched at him.

"What's gonna happen, Vin? What the hell do you see?"

"Don't know," Vin said flatly.

"Gou shi," he snapped, clenching Vin's arm a little tighter. "You just saw..."

Vin opened his mouth but hesitated. "People think they can change things, if they know what's gonna happen. And they can't, Chris. Nobody's ever been able to change a damned thing I've seen. Not once. Not even a little bit."

Chris nodded, shivering as ghosts walked through his soul. He felt an uneasy kinship to that feeling, remembering how Chi had recognized the damage on the Alliance ship as the Margaret May had been towed in, how he and Buck had demanded that somebody do something, take precautions, and how nobody'd bothered to listen to criminal suspects. Nobody had acknowledged their efforts even after every woman and the one adolescent aboard-over half of Chris's crew and who knew how many other people in those segregated holding cells--was dead.

"Tell me now," he grated out, anger rising up in him like a flood tide.

"Ellison's holding folks hostage," Vin said then. "We got something that wasn't supposed to be here, and he wants it back. You ain't gonna give it to him, though."

"Who the hell is Ellison?"

"Don't know," Vin said. "Never saw him before in my life."

"Who's he holding hostage?"

"Don't know that either," Vin said. "Can see a few faces, but I don't recognize any of 'em either. Boden's kin, maybe?"

Chris released Vin's arm and turned away to think. He came full circle around, stopping when he faced Vin again. "Josiah ever tell you you ain't much help at all?" he griped, wishing he were more annoyed, but the smirk on Vin's face said he hadn't even communicated that. He was beginning to understand just how frustrating this gift of Vin's could be, though.

Vin's face softened abruptly. "Guess you were right about the Dykstras," he said, and Chris frowned at the grin that touched the man's face. "Can I have my pay now?"


Vin just nodded, his smile broadening a little, and Chris turned to look over his shoulder.

The red beam of a laser sight bounced over his ribs, and behind that sight was the gun on which it was mounted. Behind that, John Dykstra stood, his grip on the stock and butt steady, his legs planted firmly. "It's farm equipment, for fuck's sake!" Dykstra hissed. "Who cares about this much about farm equipment?"

Chris sucked in a steady breath. Beside him, Vin hadn't even risen from his slouch against the crates. "You're right," he said flatly. He could see the impression of the stock against John's shoulder, tight. He was skilled with weapons, and if that sight was dialed in, he wouldn't miss. "It's just farm equipment." If he got himself shot over farming supplies--even his family's farming supplies--Buck would kill him. "So why are you two so interested?"

Triumph wasn't the most settled of worlds, hadn't been before the war and had become much worse after. Alliance territorial government had been mediocre at looking after things this far out, and after the war, had pretty much given up on it. "You looking to take out competition?"

"Shut up," John said, his voice tight and hard. "Shut up and everybody'll live to tell the tale."

Chris looked beyond him to find Jael staring at them with wide eyes. She held a handgun but it was pointed at the deck plates and she looked a lot more nervous. Chris knew this hadn't been on the plan, not the one John had shared with his 'wife'.

"Sounds good to me," he said, trying to imagine how Buck would handle this. His own way involved open threats of retribution and violent confrontation, but he had more to consider than his own hide.

"We're insured, you know," he went on. "No need to make this messy." Buck, if he wasn't pissed, tended to try and talk his way out of most messes he got himself into. Of course when he was pissed, his approach was as direct as Chris's and even less thought out.

He smiled, which had just the wrong effect on John. Chris watched the red dot of the laser tease up his body, losing it for a moment until it hit his eyes, blinding him. He squeezed his eyes shut against it, seeing dots on the insides of his eyelids still, and ducked his head down.

"I said it and I meant it," John said. "I won't listen to your gou shi and I won't put up with interference. But if all goes well, you'll all get out alive. If it doesn't, I swear to you, somebody will be carried off this boat."

Yeah, Chris thought, you will. "Take what you're gonna," he said, fighting the urge to just jump the bastard right now, gun or no gun. "We'll file a report and still get paid. Hell, the owners'll get reimbursement too, eventually." It couldn't be true. Buck hadn't had time to file papers, but these two didn't have to know that. All these two had to do was not kill anybody until Chris could get a chance to march them out an airlock. "Nobody needs to die." Nobody he cared about, anyway; he was itching to kill John Dykstra though, and he saw no reason to resist that urge.

"Least we can agree on that," John said darkly. "If you keep your mouths shut. One of you is gonna be with us at all times," he warned, "and all we want is part of that cargo you loaded on from New Born. Don't try anything you won't live to regret." He looked over his shoulder, checking the entrances from the dining hall and passenger quarters. "Jael. Hurry up."

Chris watched Jael approach, annoyed at how the woman stayed out of John's sight line, downright pissed when she set her gun down on a crate too far away to do Chris or Vin any good.

"Him first," John ordered, tilting his chin toward Vin, and finally Vin stood and turned, holding his wrists out behind him like this was nothing.

"We just want what's ours," the woman said, her words businesslike and terse as she worked though her tone carried a tremor that Chris hoped was worry - he could use that. "We're just taking back what's ours - once we get where we're going, you and yours and can move on, and everyone will be all right."

"Jael," John snapped, hard and angry. "Shut up."

She glanced at her partner with fire in her eyes. "We don't want anyone to get hurt," she said, and even though the words were meant to reassure, Chris had the sense that they were also a reminder to John. Or a warning.

Chris watched Jael work quickly and efficiently, more annoyed that she obviously knew how to tie a knot, pissed at the idea that Buck was going to find him trussed up like a turkey in his own cargo bay.

"You have made this very difficult, Captain Larabee," Jael said quietly as she finished with Vin and pushed him to sit on the floor. "We had hoped to handle this more subtly."

"Since this is neither, what's your new plan?" Chris asked, ignoring John now. He wasn't dead yet, so he didn't figure he was going to be any time soon. "You can't space us without the ship letting somebody know a seal broke. Can't shoot us with either of those things unless you want to wake everybody up." Just for a second, it occurred to him that they were both lying through their teeth, that they could have taken care of the others already. The Maggie could be holding nothing but corpses, and red dots that had more to do with anger than laser sights threatened to dance in front of his eyes.

Threatened to make him stupid, too, so he glanced at Vin and tried to take in some of the younger man's calm. "Hold us hostage to get Buck to land tomorrow? That's a whole lot of time to have to control all these people."

"Turn around," John snapped, stepping closer but keeping Jael out of the line of fire. "Looks to me like we only have to control you." Jael moved behind Chris with a tie. "If you do as you're told, you and your crew--and your lover--will make it out of this alive. You'll even have most of your cargo left for delivery."

The word hit hard in his gut--lover. He glanced down to Vin, remembering the man's promise, wondering if his visions were bullshit.

Vin's eyes caught his, and in them, he saw a plan.

Vin was on his ass on the floor, just a few steps in front of Chris. His eyes flicked to Jael, who was wrapping the cord around Chris's wrists. Vin stretched his feet out a little straighter in front of him, the move slow but easy for Chris to read. It wouldn't take much, just a little momentum, to send Jael sprawling backward over Vin's outstretched legs.

He'd have done it if John hadn't just mentioned Buck. He almost did it anyway, because John pissed him off and they were only two people and Vin's idea had as good a chance as any of working.

But Chris wasn't going to do that. Not on their maiden voyage, at least. He knew himself, knew he wouldn't be able to tolerate too much risk avoidance over time, but he could avoid it today. He worried a little about Jael panicking--he could feel the tremor in her fingers as she worked the knot, but the man with her was clearly a professional--reminded him a little of Jayne Cobb in fact, now that he wasn't play-acting. Jayne killed for business, not pleasure. "He's crew, too," he said, and turned away from Vin to offer Jael his other hand.

"What?" John frowned, glancing over his shoulder again.

"Buck's crew, too. I was already worried about him before you called him my lover."

His laugh was short and derisive. "Bi zui," John hissed.

Chris let the comment roll past and ignored the order too. "I'm just saying," he went on, thinking that Buck had better have set the alarm and had better not be late in trading their shift and had better be damned careful when he got his ass down this way at zero hundred, "I'm responsible for all of 'em. If all you want is some of this cargo, I'll help you load it myself. You want to borrow one of our shuttles?"

Jael had finished tying him up and moved back to stand near John. She looked honestly confused, her eyes wide as they flicked from Chris to John and back. "Let's just see this through," she said. "Captain, if you're as invested in your crew as you seem to be, and they in you, I can't see how anything more has to happen than this. We'll be landing at a different location on Triumph, long enough to--"

"Shut up, Jael," John snapped, cutting her off again.

Chris shrugged, flexing his hands to try and keep some slack in the rope. "You said it yourself. It's just farm equipment. I fought in the war," he said flatly. "Farm equipment ain't worth shit to me compared to people's lives." Well. His people's lives, anyway.

"You're being awfully helpful for a man who's had his people living down here the past couple of days," John said.

"Didn't know what we were up against before," he said as he nodded toward John's weapon, taking in its well-maintained sheen and the dot that still played around his chest. "I do now."

John smiled a little, his eyes glittering in the light, and Chris knew that this was the way to play it until somebody blew the back of his head off for him; flatter him a little, show the proper respect. Well-trained thugs were useful tools, or they wouldn't be so damned common in the black.

He leaned back against the support strut of the staircase and relaxed, wishing he knew what time it was. They might have as much as an hour to wait down here, by the time Buck came down. "What is it you wanted, anyway?" he asked.

But John wasn't interested in playing games. "Shut up. Jael, get started."

Jael headed for the very same tie-down strap Vin had first found loosened, and released the ratchet. Vin grinned, an I told you so look that shouldn't have amused Chris, in the middle of this gou shi. But it did.

"You untie us, we can help you shift the load," Vin called out, friendly, but John gave him a look just hard enough to shut him up. In case it didn't, the laser sight trailed across Vin's chest. Vin shrugged though, and leaned back against the stairs while Jael shimmied up the stack and started pulling down crates. Clearly, she had specific containers in mind and she knew how to identify them.

Chris looked at Vin, who shrugged. Nothing they could do but wait for something else to happen. But that didn't keep Chris from working the bindings, trying to make some space to slide a wrist through.

Josiah had made a point of coming back to the room early tonight. Last night's conversation still rang in his head, Vin's statements painfully true even in the harsh light of day--or what passed for it shipboard. Even though they were still sharing the same room, the same bed, he'd caught himself missing the younger man today. He missed his voice, missed his soft smiles in the morning and his easy warmth. Missed having him around and underfoot, even. Which just proved how far gone he was, that he was the one doing both the leaving and the pining.

Despite Vin's ambivalence, Josiah still wanted Vin to allow the brain scans. He sighed, wondering why he even asked for Vin's opinion about things like this, when he had clearly already made up his mind.

More tests, perhaps. God tested, challenged his prophets all the time. And while the comparison didn't sit well with him, Josiah was clear that he tested Vin, too-about the visions, about his feelings, about the conflicts between predestination and free will... about the point of it all. He wondered if prophets failed God's needs as often as Vin seemed to fail him, until he remembered that God was more forgiving than he himself was.

It was a little after ten then when he settled on the bed, book in his lap. The vagaries of Chinese myth kept his attention for a while, but gradually the distraction set in and he found himself reading the same page for the third time. The chrono said it was after eleven, and Vin was still absent.

He sighed, closing the book and setting in on the shelf by the bed. He knew where Vin was, had wandered through the cargo bay plenty today, even joined in a game of hoops at one point when the climbers were taking a break. Jael and John Dykstra had joined in, and Josiah was certain he hadn't been alone in feeling tension in the pair. But the game had been relaxing enough, and all participants had been ready to call a break for dinner.

Vin hadn't joined them, and Josiah had noticed Buck putting together some of the leftovers in a bowl, no doubt for Vin.

The idea that Buck was looking out for Vin didn't reassure him as much as he'd expected it should. But a new game of mah jong had started again with Nathan and Inez, this time with Casey as the fourth and JD watching over her shoulder.

Now, it was nearing midnight and Vin was still gone. Buck had never returned to the mess, nor had Chris, and Josiah decided there was nothing unnatural in his desire to learn where each of those men was right now.

He threw on pants and slid back into his boots and climbed the ladder to the companionway, but he barely got both feet on the deck before an arm came around his throat and a hand clamped down over his mouth. Instinct had him reaching for a counter-hold when a voice hissed, "It's me, Buck! Quiet!"

Now he knew where one of them was and in truth, it was a relief. Even if the man was trying to strangle him.

"Wha--" he stifled a cough and tried again, barely a breath. "What?"

Ezra Standish stepped around in front of him and Buck, and the man spoke so quietly that Josiah had to watch his lips move to discern the words. "The enemy has become emboldened."

"Enemy?" he asked, but quietly in deference to the anger emanating off Buck Wilmington and the hand gripping hard into the meat of his shoulder.

"The Dykstras are not our friends," Ezra said. "We have suspected it since the first night but they have now removed all doubt."

"What happened?" Josiah asked as Buck's arm slid off him. He straightened to his full height, rubbed absently at his throat.

"They have shown us their true colors--laser-sight red. Gun-oil blue. Greed." Ezra shrugged, his gaze drifting toward the door into the cargo bay. "The usual."

Josiah turned and stared at him, annoyed at the treatment and the vague comments. Before he could snap out another demand for an explanation, Buck was beside him, his words fast and hard but quiet.

"The Dykstras aren't here for a transport, they're here for something else, something in the cargo bay. We've been keeping an eye on it, apparently too well."

It clicked into place then, why Vin had been there so much, why he and Chris and Buck had been spending time together--or not together, but in the bay. Guard duty.

Jealousy was unattractive even on the young and naïve, but on the old and doddering, it was-he stiffened when the full import of the situation hit him. "They got Vin?"

"And Chris," Buck hissed, his voice as hard and cold as the vacuum of space.

A stab of fear tightened Josiah's belly. "What do they want?" he whispered, his eyes moving from Buck to Ezra and back.

"We're still trying to figure that out," Ezra said.

"No, we're not," Buck said harshly.

"I was. Not that it's my top priority at the moment," Ezra added, watching warily as Buck stiffened further in anger.

"Ezra, go on," Buck ordered. "Now. Josiah, go with him."

The fire flashed in eyes darker blue than Vin's but right now, Buck looked as certain and inevitable as Vin ever did when reporting on things only he could see.

Still, Josiah hesitated, glancing toward his cabin's open door. "We've got guns," he said.

"Get 'em when you get back with Inez," Buck said, tight-lipped. The words were clearly an order, and Josiah had enough experience with bishops and priests, chaplains and sergeants to know when to heed them. He nodded.

"Get going," Buck hissed, "get Inez, meet me in the mess. Go!" He pushed at Ezra's shoulder.

Ezra stepped toward Josiah even as Buck edged back toward the door to the cargo bay, keeping his body hidden but obviously listening intently. "Buck instructed me to wake Ms. Recillos and explain the situation," Ezra whispered. "No, I don't know why," he went on before Josiah could ask. "Please," he breathed, throwing a glance over his shoulder at Buck, "come along?"

Something made him respond to Ezra's quiet plea almost as he would have to one from Vin, and that well and truly angered him. He wasn't sure if Ezra was manipulating him on purpose, and he certainly wouldn't put it past the man, but Josiah set his jaw and followed. They moved silently through the dining hall and out the back, down the stairs by the medbay and into the guest quarters. Ezra didn't knock, but tried the door instead and grimaced when he found it locked. He pulled something from his vest and picked the lock in short order, ducking through it quickly.

Josiah followed in time to see Inez propped up on one arm, a pistol held firmly in her free hand and pointing at Ezra's chest. Josiah blinked. What kinds of people were they keeping company with?

"Buck said to wake you," Ezra said, ignoring her weapon like it wasn't even there. Josiah slid the door shut behind him and wondered exactly how many times Ezra had been on the wrong end of one.

She glanced past Ezra, and her frown faded when she recognized Josiah. She nodded, flicked on the lamp by the bed, and turned her attention back to Ezra.

"I am merely following orders," he said, the tiny smirk on his face suggesting that doing as he was told wasn't exactly a common practice for him. "Buck bade me inform you that the Dykstras are armed and unfriendly, and ask if you would supply us with arms. He invites you to remain here in your quarters, and understands if you'd prefer not to get involved in a potentially distasteful scene."

She smiled and set her gun aside, sliding swiftly out of her bed.

"And he has gone to confront them?" she asked.

"He's waiting for us. Or at least he said he was," Ezra added uncertainly.

"He'd best be," Josiah growled. Whatever Buck planned to get Chris and Vin out of trouble, Josiah wanted in on it. He deserved to be in on it, since he'd been so clearly left out of it until now.

Inez moved to one of her big shipping trunks against one wall. She crouched down in front of it, keying a lock, and beside Josiah, Ezra shifted to get a better look.

The top opened to display three rows of fine liquor, resting on a protective shipping blanket. Josiah didn't have time to curse before she reached down into the box and did something, and a click and a small 'chuff' of sound followed, as if air were being released from a vacuum, and the bottles shifted. She caught the side of the box and lifted the tray within it, on which the fine liquors rested. Its removal revealed a metal-lined container housing an array of weapons.

Top-line, state of the art weapons.

Ezra whistled, a low sound of appreciation.

"The bar business isn't as safe as it used to be," she said, a feeble explanation at best. She caught up the stock of a rifle then plundered through the accessories to one side, swiftly assembling a marksman's dream. As she worked, she talked, her voice flat and professional. "I should be able to get them from the catwalks--there are only the two, yes?"

"As far as we know," Josiah answered, watching her and wondering just how much a fool he himself was. "Are you--are you..." He couldn't finish the thought, the words too hard to say.

"I am not an assassin," she answered, glancing over her shoulder to smile at him. "I have done security work for a number of different businesses. These weapons are all legal purchases; I do not like to advertise them, though. Traveling alone in certain parts of the system causes me more than enough trouble without people knowing that I am also transporting valuable merchandise."

"Indeed," Ezra said, looking at her closely. And, Josiah saw, with a new respect.

She had put the rifle together and was now going through the box, pulling out a few other things. "Would you mind the loan of one of your very fine weapons?" Ezra asked and stepped over to kneel by the box. She nodded, and Ezra eased out a Callahan with obvious admiration.

"Josiah, Ezra," Inez said, "please tell Buck I'll be right up, and take these," she said, handing over an ammunition box and two handguns. "I need only a few more moments."

Buck had backed as far as the forward stair in the dining room, and Ezra turned right inside the doorway on his end of the room, moving to the cubby with the circular couch. Buck turned when they entered, moving swiftly across the room to join them. "You get--"

"She was very generous," Ezra whispered, "and is obviously very proficient. If there is a way onto the catwalk I doubt she'll need us at all."

"There ain't, not unless somebody's done more repairs than I know about," Buck muttered. "Pressure door hasn't been opened in ages. If it even opens without pry bars, it'll make a hell of a racket."

Ezra smiled wickedly, said, "I'm sure she'll do well enough with a less advantageous position." He lay the handguns out on the sofa. "I could," he went on speculatively, "fall deeply in love with a woman like that."

"Shut up, Ezra," Buck snapped. "I'm sick of hearing you yammer on."

In any other situation, a comment like that from the gregarious Mr. Wilmington would have been funny. Right now though, Josiah was inclined to agree with him.

"I'm surprised you heard a word I said," Ezra said, unfazed by the rebuke. "Really, it's worse than being back in primary school, watching the little girls fawn all over--"

Ezra didn't quite squawk when Buck grabbed him up by his shirtfront and marched him two feet backwards and into the wall. "Ezra," Buck breathed. "Shut up unless you have something useful to say."

Josiah ignored Ezra's startled stillness and Buck's white-knuckled grip in the man's clothes. Even holding Ezra, Buck had craned his head back, keeping his head cocked toward the front of the room and the now-distant cargo bay. Josiah hadn't seen the scene, didn't know what to expect. "Is Vin..." It was the first time he'd confronted the thought, tried to make shape out of the amorphous tangle of emotion that was distracting him too much.

For a second, the idea came that if Vin were dead the decision would be made for him, that he wouldn't hurt Vin by leaving him, that his life would be his own again. His stomach roiled in shame and at the hypocrisy of the very thought--he was no better than he'd accused Vin of being, wanting a decision of this magnitude made for him. And it wasn't true anyway; it was not what he wanted, nowhere close.

Buck let go of Ezra, making a show of smoothing his shirt with his free hand. "They were both alive and talking two minutes ago," Buck assured, "or I sure as hell wouldn't be standing here waiting for Inez."

Josiah frowned and reached out, grasping Buck's wrist briefly. His pulse ran hard and fast under Josiah's fingertips, and Josiah could understand that. Urgency pushed his own blood hard, too, and he wanted to get in there and do something just as much as Buck did. "Tell me what you've seen," he whispered.

Behind Buck, he caught shadows shifting and stiffened, but Buck saw his movement and shook his head. "That'll be Inez," he said, holding up a hand. "Come on." To Ezra, Buck said, "Here," holding out a tiny black thread with a lump at the end of it. Comm units. As Ezra took it, flicking into place expertly, Buck went on, "Head forward and keep an eye out. Let us know if anything changes." He tilted his head toward the door into the cargo bay, repeated, "Anything," and waited for Ezra's nod.

Josiah watched Ezra slip silently toward the exit and into the hall whose intersection connected common area, flight deck, an exit airlock, and the cargo bay, trusting him less now than he had on that drive into New Born. But Buck seemed too, and for now that had to be enough. Inez had slipped in via the aft entrance and was setting up, the dim night lighting silhouetting her body. Nathan Jackson was with her.

Buck reached immediately for an improvement over his own weapon while trading off more comm units with the rest of them; Inez was laying out a small but impressive arsenal on the couch, its cushions muffling any slight noise, just as the rubber soles of her flat boots muffled her footsteps.

"Nathan," Buck ordered, "get back downstairs and stay out of sight."

"Got an idea," Nathan said, moving quietly and talking more quietly still.

Josiah looked and realized Nathan was wearing surgical gloves as he handled a small medicine vial and three long, narrow throwing knives.

Knives--they were what Vin had taught him.

He stumbled as he remembered. Vin had known how to fight with knives. Down and dirty and nothing like the military training Josiah had had which was why Vin had been able to beat him, then show him. Vin had learned in Studstill, where the children were taught early to fight and learned on their own how to do it dirty. Fighting could be a survival technique in places like Studstill, but Josiah knew too that Alliance-run orphanages were little more than training grounds for Alliance infantry. He had two sharpened knives of his own, ones that Vin had taught him how to truly use.

"Don't want a stray shot to make either of them hurt Chris or Vin, right?" Nathan went on smoothly, affirming Josiah's faith in spacers and their ingrained calm.

Buck glared at the back of Nathan's head, but answered, "Right."

"This here," Nathan said, swabbing the tip of one knife with the clear, syrupy liquid before sliding it into a plastic sheath, "will put 'em out within a quarter-second of breaking the skin. Nerve paralysis, fast-acting, completely reliable. All you need to do is distract 'em long enough to let me hit 'em with it."

Buck's glare softened into a thoughtful frown, and he shot a look to Josiah.

"I like it," Josiah admitted. He was surprised Nathan had this particular skill, but he already knew he trusted the man.

"We might need your doctoring skills, Nathan," Buck said, hesitating. "If they shoot any of us..."

"You'll have it, Buck," Nathan promised. "Chris'll be fine. Just--let me do this first."

Josiah wanted to push Buck to right action, but Buck had already headed that direction on his own. "You get one chance," Buck said. "Then Inez, if you don't mind I'd dearly appreciate you blowing their heads off."

Inez's smile was as saucy now as it had been yesterday, but the look in her eye was far thirstier. "They will not harm Senor Larabee," she promised, and hefted her rifle. Josiah watched her check the chamber and feed a round in, its click-thump the loudest sound in the room thus far.

Buck gently slapped Inez's shoulder, an off-hand kind of touch Josiah had seen between many a military team.

"Be nice if they didn't harm Vin, either," he said, reminding her that Buck wasn't the only one worrying for good reason here.

Buck looked startled. "Yeah. Josiah, you grab Ezra and head to the flight deck, take the ladder down and wait for my signal before you risk being seen. The Dykstras' cargo should give you some cover going in. Won't give you much, and it'll protect them as much as it does you."

"What will we find in the bay?" Inez asked him.

"Last time I stuck my head in," Buck said, "everybody was over by the starboard stairs, floor level. Vin's tied up and sitting, Chris is tied and standing. I don't know if they're tied to the stair supports or not, so I don't know if either of 'em can get themselves out of the line of fire if people start shooting. So nobody shoots wild," he said, giving each of them a hard look that promised plenty if they made a mistake in this. "Sorry baobei," he added to Inez, "but you won't be able to get to the catwalk without exposing us all."

"Do not worry about me, Buck. The Dykstras?" Inez continued. Josiah kept mum; she was asking the right questions, and he figured he was better off letting her. These two obviously knew each other, trusted each other.

"They've broken up the stacks of the Bodens' stasis chambers and look to be thieving. Though what the hell they think they need with more soybeans is--"

"Oh please, who knows what we're really smuggling for your friends?" Ezra asked, and Josiah didn't quite jump out of his skin. Damn but the man was sneaky when he wanted to be. "I've taken the liberty of locking JD and Casey's cabin door," Ezra whispered. "Didn't want them sticking their heads up at an inopportune moment. Someone should make sure to let them out of there when this is over."

Someone? Josiah snorted, black humor reasserting itself. He didn't expect that Ezra would put himself in anywhere near enough danger to risk getting himself killed, but it was funny nonetheless. And thoughtful, he realized. JD might just as easily remain trapped in his their cabin until he starved to death, but Casey could break out of there, had the skill and the knowledge of ships.

"Nathan, you're probably best off coming into the bay through guest quarters downstairs," Buck said. "Get past the tractors and that other pile toward the showers. Inez, if you can get a line of sight on them from the entrance, that'd be good. Otherwise you pick your own position, and be ready if anything goes wrong."

Josiah spoke while Ezra was drawing a breath to start. "Buck, none of the entrances into the bay'll put us within fifty feet of those people. They're as far from the entrances as they can be. They're gonna see one of us."

"No, they won't," Buck said, "because they're gonna be looking at me." His eyes were bright, and Josiah thought there ought to be fear there, but he couldn't see anything past anger. Josiah knew he was seeing a new facet of the man, a part that had little relation to the smooth and genial society gentleman slumming around space with his cowboy of a partner.

"And you'll be doing... what, exactly?" Ezra asked.

"Strolling right in," Buck said. "They want something out of the cargo, and they want it before we land tomorrow. If they think Chris is worth something, they'll have to think I am, too."

"You sure?" Josiah asked. He wasn't pleased at having to learn the man's tactical abilities when Vin's life hung in the balance.

"You got a better plan?" Buck asked, his tone holding just enough hope to let Josiah know he was willing to hear any other option.

Josiah sighed and shook his head. "Only two ends to a hostage situation, and the right end is rare."

Buck nodded. "I'm going straight in. You folks get into the bay and spread out. If we surround them, they should see reason and surrender."

"Unless they're fanatics," Josiah said.

Buck swallowed. "If they were fanatics, Chris and Vin would already be dead. They want the cargo and they'll use hostages to negotiate. Don't think of anything else."

Josiah knew that last part was as much for Buck as it was for him. He nodded, touching Buck quickly on the shoulder.

"Get moving, all of you." Buck eased toward the front exit and Josiah watched as Nathan and Inez quickly peeled out the back. Ezra was watching him, raised eyebrow clearly begging him to come up with a better idea than this one, but Josiah didn't know the ship and he didn't know these people.

"I'll need to drop down to Vin's bunk," Josiah said, urgent now. He'd been missing his weapons since he'd witnessed Inez's. "Got weapons to fetch."

"Well then," Ezra sighed, seeing no answer in Josiah's face, "let's march."

Ezra had the pistol he'd picked up in Inez's room and loaded it expertly, hefting it to get a feel for its weight.

Josiah reached the doorway where Buck hovered in the shadows, impatiently waiting for them to get a move on just behind Ezra. "I won't need a minute to get my guns," he barely whispered.

At a look from Buck, he nodded and started up the companionway. Ezra hovered while he slid down the ladder the way Vin usually did, ignoring the way it pulled at his back. There were too many other things he was feeling right now for his body to have much of a say.

He strapped into a two-pistol rig, knowing without having to check that they were loaded and ready, flipped off the safeties and primed the chambers, hearing the satisfying click of rounds sliding home and the snick of springs tightening.

The rig was an old friend, as were the two knives he placed, at hip and boot. His movements were lightning-fast and fully automatic as his mind raced through and rejected possibilities. Vin's visions were never wrong, never changeable. Vin had hinted at a lot of things about their future together, about this trip being safe.

But all of Josiah's faith in those visions didn't quell the worry that settled in the pit of his stomach, because Vin hadn't even had any visions about this, as far as Josiah knew. Whatever was going on now, Vin was as blind to it as they all were-as men were meant to be. Even if Vin didn't end up dead, there were other things Josiah could lose before he was ready. He pushed all that aside as he hauled himself back up the ladder, where Ezra still waited. Together they ran toward the flight deck and its ladder down into an anteroom off the cargo bay. From habit, he found himself murmuring the Lord's Prayer.

Buck watched Josiah and Ezra slip into the flight deck and waited until Ezra's head disappeared down the ladder. Inez and Nathan must've had time to get downstairs via the back by now. He glanced up the hall to the steady blue light on the panel by JD's and Casey's door, grateful that Ezra had thought about the kids. Guilty that he hadn't, but they just hadn't been high on his list of priorities. Or on it at all, he knew. Chris wasn't going to like that, if it came out.

Buck shunted the thought aside. As long as Chris was alive to be angry, Buck would call that a win. He pulled his clip and checked the rounds, then sighed and set gun and clip carefully and quietly onto the deck. Chris would be pissed, but it was better than letting them find his gun and use it against them. He stood up, took a deep breath, and stepped out through the door.

Whistling a little, he jogged down the stairs and onto the floor, head down, painfully aware of the silence in the bay: no scrape of crates or equipment, no voices. He could picture John's gun trained on Chris's head, but he supposed the war had had more impact on him than he liked to believe, because the image just made him angrier.

"Chris!" he called out, not too loud but plenty loud to carry to where Josiah and Ezra had better be hunkered down up front. "Vin! Where're you fellas?" He kept walking past more equipment and stepped right into the open space they'd left for hoops play before he looked up.

Jael was nowhere to be seen, but John wasn't thirty feet away, his body hidden as much as it could be behind Chris's smaller one. Chris's body was unnaturally still, and a thin crimson line cut across the line of his throat like a necklace. Buck felt his gut tighten. The bastard had a filament around Chris's throat, the fine carbon strand thin enough to redefine the meaning of the word "sharp". If John slipped, if he even jerked too quickly, Chris's head would just roll off his shoulders like a toppled hoops ball.

The barrel of a handgun, held in John's other hand, that pressed hard into Chris's right temple seemed a lot like overkill.

Buck had to blink against the haze of fury and fear that swamped him. "What the..." He started, stumbling to a halt right out in the middle of the hoops court. Vin still sat on the floor, frowning up at him.

"You couldn't have paid a little damned attention?" Chris bit out, snide. "Were you so focused on another thrust you didn't even think to look before you walked in here?"

Buck ignored him. "I--there's no need to kill anybody," he said carefully, all of his attention on John now. "What the hell is going on?"

"You! John snapped, and his gun never wavered, "get over here."

"Okay." Buck took slow steps, giving the rest of the crew time to get into place. "I said, what the hell is going on?" he repeated.

John smirked a little, and Buck rode the fear that flashed through him. "I presume you want your man here to stay in one piece," John snapped. The garrote at Chris's throat made that threat all too literal.

"Yeah," Buck said, holding his arms carefully away from his sides. "All right. Yes, I want him alive. What is it you want?"

"All we want right now is for you to join the captain over here. We'll be making an unscheduled stop on Triumph, where Jael and I will be leaving the ship with what we came for. We can do that without bloodshed. We're willing to do it without bloodshed, if you cooperate."

"I'm cooperating, trust me," Buck replied.

John eyed him warily, but after a moment, nodded. "When we get closer to the planet, we'll give you landing coordinates. You put down there and we'll get off, and we'll take our property with us. Then you can go on and do - whatever it was you were hired to do. Just a little detour."

Buck glanced to the smallish stack of the Bodens' containers that lay almost directly between them. "Your property?" he asked.

"Yeah," he repeated. "Now why don't you step over here." It wasn't a question, but Buck still hesitated, wondering where the hell his backup was.

He felt something move behind and started to turn instinctively just as Chris's eyes widened and he yelled, "Buck!"

Buck saw the shadow flash to his right, but it didn't give him time to do much before something slammed into the back of his head. The force of it had him stumbling forward and he fell to his knees, sucking in a ragged breath and trying not to vomit from the immediate and sucking pain that shot through his brain and down his spine. Hands at his waist jerked roughly, patting him down, and he crumpled a little more, landing hard on one hip and looking up and behind him to where Jael Dykstra stood, rifle trembling in one hand. Something dripped from the stock, and Buck realized it must be his own blood.

"Buck!" Chris yelled again, and he heard the scuffling and just as quickly, frozen silence that followed.

He gasped, blinded by pain. He wasn't a man who shied away from necessary discomforts, but he was pretty sure Jael had just cracked his skull into many little pieces. He tried to reach up, but his arm felt funny, not in his control. "Hold... hold on," he mumbled. "Just hold on."

"Get over here, Wilmington," he heard John say, and blinked through the haze of pain. Moving his head sent another knife through his skull, so he slowed way down, lifting his chin an inch at a time. If he vomited now his head would hurt that much worse.

"Gorramit," Chris shouted, "he was doing what you said!"

"Not fast enough," John yelled. Maybe it wasn't a yell, but it felt like one. "Get over here, Wilmington, or I'll kill him right now!"

"John!" Jael's voice felt like a knife cutting through Buck's brain, the pitch too high and too sharp. "The shipment is mine by right, and I won't let you mess this up--"

John made a noise, a low sound that Buck felt more than heard. Jael shut up and John said slowly, through gritted teeth, "Get over here."

Buck grunted, but finally got his eyes to focus on the scene before him. Chris's temple had a thin line of blood dripping from it, where John had jammed the gun harder against his head. Chris's face looked white with fear--for him, Buck knew, and he flailed his right hand up to distract Jael. "I'm moving as fast as I can," he promised, and slowly pushed back to his hands and knees. "You--" His mouth felt mushy, like his tongue was swelling, and he swallowed hard. "Don't make a mistake, " he said. "Your pal did her job. Get that thing off his throat before you do something you can't walk away from."

John's laughter was short and hard. "You're not in a position to be making threats, Wilmington," he said.

"I'm not making threats," he said, trying to make his eyes focus on John and that damned deadly filament. "I'm not. Just... loosen up. Loosen up."

He crawled as slow as he could manage, and might have made it ten feet before his right arm wobbled and he went down hard again. This was ridiculous. He rolled onto his side and glared up at John, catching his eyes over Chris's shoulder. "Don't think I can make it all the way there, boss," he apologized. He wasn't even lying. But he knew none of the others could do anything to John without killing Chris, too. He had to get John to take that thing off of Chris.

"Oh for fuck's sake..." John snarled. He let go one of the grips on the garrote and Buck sucked in a panicked breath as it dropped and thumped on Chris's chest. The flailing wire could flense skin and muscle right off him.

A streak of light flashed through the air above his head, and Buck saw the metal haft of one of Nathan's knives sticking out of John's shoulder. John made a strange sound, said, "Wha..." and crumpled to his knees, taking Chris down with him. Buck watched Chris throw his shoulder up, trying to unseat John's hand before the filament could whip around and bite into any piece of him, then Vin was up and moving fast, butting his head square into Jael's midsection.

Buck wished he could tell Vin not to worry, that Vin's man was coming for him, but seeing John down and the knowledge that Inez, Nathan, Josiah and Ezra were sweeping in to take care of business seemed like enough reassurance to his body.

Everything went black.

When Buck's eyes fluttered closed, Chris wondered for half a second if the man was faking it to get out of the pounding Chris wanted to give him. He wouldn't put it past the man, after that stupid stunt.

He looked past Buck to see Vin plowing shoulders-first into Jael, putting her down. Vin went down with her, on top of her, unable to catch himself with his arms still behind his back. Josiah was there, then, pulling Vin up even as Inez moved in to stand over Jael with her rifle barrel inches from the woman's chest. Chris had a moment of vicarious thrill when Jael tried to throw her gun away and Inez flipped her rifle around, quick, and tapped the woman's temple with the butt. Jael fell flat, unconscious; a thin trickle of blood slid down into her hair.

Josiah pulled a knife from his boot while Inez held her gun and her eyes on the unconscious woman at her feet. Josiah made quick work of freeing Vin, muttering all the while.

Chris tensed as hands touched his back, then Ezra's voice sounded calmly in his ear, "My knife is very sharp, so I recommend that you don't move. I'd hate to cut you by accident--"

"Just do it!" he snapped, holding his hands away from his back to help the process along.

Ezra muttered something about stress bringing out the worst in people, but Chris was moving as soon as his wrists were free.

Buck wasn't, and blood was puddling on the floor under his head. "Nathan! Get over here!" Chris yelled, sliding next to his lover.

"Can't, Chris," Nathan said from behind him. "If I don't breathe for John here until I can get him to the medbay, we're gonna have a corpse on our hands."

"You think I care about that wang ba dan?" he yelled. "Get over here!" He reached out to touch, then pulled back, uncertain. If Buck's brain was damaged, he could do more harm than help. "Nathan!"

"Chris." Vin knelt on Buck's other side, well out of reach. "He's gonna be all right. I promise you that. He'll barely have a headache left by this time tomorrow."

"How do you know?" he growled. "How the hell do you know?"

Vin took the question literally. "Can't tell you, pard," he said sincerely. "Don't know what they did to me."

"For fuck's sake, I meant what have you seen?"

Vin looked surprised. "I see Buck talking to Ellison. He's pissed off, but he ain't hurting much." His gaze was direct, as open and clear as any man's could be.

"If you're lying, Vin..." He couldn't finish the thought, not with Buck here on the floor, with Buck's blood dripping through the grates.

Vin's face hardened. "I ain't," he snapped. "I don't lie. And the visions-they ain't never wrong. They can't be."

Chris let it go and gingerly lifted Buck's head from the deck, cupping it carefully. Blood had matted his thick hair, and Chris pressed carefully around the lump at the base of Buck's skull. He couldn't feel pieces--not broken shards at least, no depressions where the skull might've caved in toward his brain. "Nathan, get over here."

He turned his head, found Inez standing over Jael, eyeing her thoughtfully. Ezra watched them all from his perch on the bottom stair steps several feet away, and Nathan was bent over John, breathing into his mouth while Josiah compressed his chest.

"Josiah," Nathan said, "you mind getting him to the medbay with me? I can send back a stretcher for Buck."

"I'll take care of him, Nathan," Josiah said, giving Chris a look of worried understanding. "You'd best see to Buck."

Nathan nodded and stood up, clearly trusting Josiah.

"I will help Josiah," Inez offered to Nathan, then glanced at Chris. "And I'll bring back a stretcher," she promised. "Ezra?" she asked, stepping away from Jael without letting her aim waver.

Ezra took her place near the woman, casually pointing a Callahan down at her chest. "Fear not, Ms. Recillos, she won't be causing us any trouble in the near future."

"I'd prefer that you not kill her, Ezra," she said quietly. "We may yet need questions answered."

Chris watched Josiah push one last breath into John then lift him bodily with a grunt. Inez followed at a trot, and Chris dismissed the whole scene. The only reason he had any interest in seeing that son of a bitch wake up at all was so he could kill him himself.

"Ain't too bad, Chris," Nathan said, edging Vin back a little and kneeling at Buck's other side. He replaced Chris's fingers under Buck's head with his own. "I watched him go down. From the way he was moving, it's probably just a bad concussion, maybe some swelling in his brain or spinal cord. It's nothing I can't fix."

Inez ran back in with the collapsible stretcher a moment later and unfolded it behind Nathan, its supporting struts locking into place with audible clicks. Vin moved in to hold Buck's head steady while Nathan slid a board under it, then Chris, Inez and Nathan eased his weight over onto the stretcher. Chris grabbed the rails by his head and Inez the ones by his feet. They hoisted him up and Chris walked backwards across the bay, letting Vin's voice and a hand on his shoulder guide him.

Josiah had put John on the main exam bed, and Chris all but shoved him off and onto the floor. Vin snickered, Nathan cursed, and Chris didn't give a damn. "Come on," he said, and together they got Buck situated while behind him, Josiah moved John to the table off to one side.

They didn't try to ease Buck off the stretcher; Nathan just left it under him and pulled out several of his instruments. When he activated the first one, the panel above the bed blinked and waves of color flowed across it for a second before coalescing into an image of a brain--Buck's brain, Chris knew. He'd seen it before, with this very device, and claimed it was clearly smaller than the average man's. The memory made him want to smile, but the adrenaline coursing through him wouldn't let that smile surface.

"If you don't need me, I'll return to the cargo bay," Inez said, but Chris barely heard her, concentrating on the screen above the bed. "Where do you want the woman?"

"We got somewhere to put him?" Josiah cut in, his tone hard enough to draw a little more of Chris's attention than Inez's had been. Especially when he called, "Chris? You got a brig or a holding cell?"

"It's a cargo ship," Vin answered, but there was amusement in it. "Let's put him in one of the empty passenger rooms, tie him to the bed--once our gun gal's all right, we can do the same with her."

"Buck's all right," Nathan said, his voice registering quickly and cleanly. "Just a concussion, like I said. Bones are cracked but not splintered, and nothing's pushed into his brain. The equipment'll knit those cracks while he's still out. Reduce the swelling..." He turned Buck's head on the stretcher, using an antiseptic sheet to clean him up. "You want to do this, while I take care of him?"

Chris took the sheet. "What the hell was he thinking?" he muttered as he cleaned away the blood.

"He was thinking that we needed a distraction," Josiah answered, stepping away as Nathan set up a ventilator for John. "He wanted their attention on him so the rest of us could get into place to get you two out."

Chris stared at the big man. "That was your whole plan?"

Josiah arched an eyebrow, his body tightening. "It wasn't my plan, Chris. But I'd have done it myself if he'd let me. It wasn't open for discussion."

No, Chris thought, it wouldn't have been. The real wonder of it was that Buck had waited long enough to come up with a plan at all.

"How long you want John unconscious?" Nathan asked, holding up a syringe. "I can wake him up right now, counter the paralytic--safer for him--or keep him down for a while longer."

Chris glanced at him. "How long before Buck's awake?"

Nathan frowned, glancing back at the monitor over Buck's bed. "Might take a few minutes for it to knit the bones. Longer to clear up the impact hemorrhage. He ought to wake up on his own then. We'll need to wake him in a couple of hours if he doesn't."

Chris nodded. "I want that bastard out as long as Buck is--I don't want to talk to him until I know Buck's all right."

Vin chuckled. "Might have more patience once he knows Buck's all right--easier to get answers out of John if he ain't dead."

"Speaking of which," Josiah said, "if you two can handle this, we'd best go help Ezra and Inez with Jael."

Josiah looked as peaceful and serene as he did when serving a meal, which pissed Chris off. The man must've been feeling something, or he was better at faking affection than any but the best educated. But then, Vin was standing here without a damned scratch on him. Vin's wrists were barely abraded.

Chris nodded, more interested in staying with Buck than with what happened to the bitch in the cargo bay. "Go," he said.

The wound was still bleeding, but sluggishly now, after whatever Nathan had done, and Chris stepped back when Nathan stepped in, resting his hand on Buck's chest to feel the reassuring rise and fall of his breath. "Won't take much to knit the vessels. Y'all have some great equipment here. My wife'd be thrilled to have stuff like it."

"Most of it's seven or eight years old," Chris said quietly. Buck's face was as still as death even now. "Allie, our medic then, and Buck wanted the best we could get our hands on, and after Alliance troops 'evacuated' a town, they cleared out the portable stuff from the local hospital, before any other buzzards could get in to pick the bones."

"Good thing they did," Nathan said, lifting Buck's head deftly and sliding a net in behind it. He connected leads and Chris watched the image change, watched tiny cracks like spider webs in Buck's skull quickly disappear. "This is..." Nathan sounded awed, but to Chris's mind it was just equipment. He was used to it, and wondered--

"How bad would it have been if we didn't have this gear?" he asked.

Nathan frowned. "Bad enough. He'd still have been all right, but it would've taken more time."

"How much time?"

"You never had a concussion?"

Chris shot him a tight grin. He'd had plenty. He'd probably had one the night he'd met Vin and this whole mess had started.

"Well then, you know. This was a bad one, and the skull fractured-that doesn't usually happen. Still. Few hours for the brain bruising to start clearing up, with medication alone. Couple of weeks for the skull to heal. Nothing actually broke, just cracked a bit."

Chris chewed on his lip and stared down at Buck's quiet face. "So he'd have been all right either way."

Nathan's quiet chuckle brought Chris's head up, and Chris looked a question at him.

"You. Saw hints of this when you'd mention him, but I never expected it was--" Nathan paused. "Well. Quite what it is."

Chris ducked his head, watching his hand rise and fall with the small movements of Buck's breathing.

"Let me see to your wrists," Nathan said.

The mention of them made them hurt, and he spared a glance at them; blood had dripped onto the backs of his hands, but until now he'd thought it was Buck's. "Yeah, all right." He let Nathan see to them one at a time, keeping his free hand on the slow rise of Buck's chest.

Josiah had waited, but just barely, until the doors to the medbay closed behind them. Vin was in front of him, but not out of reach. He caught one shoulder, turning Vin around at the same time that he stepped into him, catching the smaller man around the waist and pulling him in close.

"Why in all the hells didn't you tell me?" he asked. "I thought--I thought --"

"You thought what?" Vin asked.

It took Josiah a minute to remember what he'd thought... to remember that Vin might not have told him this was his hour, that Vin might have died tonight, knowing it, and thinking that Josiah didn't care.

"I thought," he paused, needing to clear his throat, "I thought you were going to die in there."

Vin was still for a few seconds, then he pushed at Josiah. Reluctantly, Josiah eased his grip, not letting go, but putting enough space between them so that Vin could smile up at him.

"You've never told me," Josiah said, the words rushing. "How or when or--"

"Hey," Vin interrupted, one hand touching Josiah's lips. "Don't worry on it. Everything's all right."

Josiah caught Vin's wrist, looking at the damage to it from the ties. From where Vin had twisted, trying to get free. He looked back to meet Vin's eyes. "Don't you ever do that to me again," he ordered, gruff.

"I thought you wanted a break from me," Vin said softly, and while he might have been trying for amused, it came out sad.

Josiah let him go and Vin stepped back. His features tightened, his expression fading to a neutral wariness that Josiah couldn't stand, not now. "I... " He didn't know how to answer that. Those thoughts from earlier came swirling back in a haze of guilt--he understood the human condition, knew his mind for the devious and intractable thing it was. He didn't want Vin dead. Right now, he couldn't even say he wanted to be parted from him for long.

Vin sighed. "You weren't wrong," he said quietly. "You just had your... " He smiled, a flash of humor that was more sad than amused. "You had your faith tested," he said. "But I told you already, told you our future-leastwise, the bits of it I've seen." He stepped in close, clutching at Josiah's shoulders for a few seconds as he pulled himself up and kissed Josiah quickly--and chastely--on the lips. "I'm all right. And you love me, just like I love you."

Josiah reached out but drew his hand back before it connected. "I... it doesn't matter anymore. No matter what its cause is, it's what you feel for me."

Vin looked up at him, his face still tired. "It is what I feel, 'Siah," he said slowly. "It's what I'm always gonna feel."

Always. It was a word Vin used rarely, especially in reference to them. But he was using it now.

"Will you be in the room later?" Josiah murmured, knowing even as he did how stupid it was--Vin lived there.

Vin grinned, shaking his head. "Are you being stupid?"

"I... I'd like to be with you," Josiah said softly.

Vin's full mouth parted on a breath of air, and his pupils dilated, revealing his anticipation to anyone who knew how to see it. But what he said was, "Be nice if that were true."

Josiah frowned. "I..."

"Don't worry about it, Josiah. Got bigger fish to fry right now, anyway."

When Buck blinked his eyes open, he was feeling a whole lot better.

It took a second to identify the ceiling of the medbay, and he stared. He was sure he'd been in the cargo bay. A bitter taste at the back of his throat made him want to retch, but for now all he risked was turning his head a little. Much better.

"'d it work?" he asked.

"Your stupid gorram plan to be fresh meat for the carnivores?" Chris growled from somewhere off to his left.

Buck reached a hand out, reassured when Chris gripped it tightly. "Yeah, that plan," he grinned.

"I didn't make a play down there," Chris said, his eyes hard and angry. "Vin had an opening, a small one, and I let it go by because I didn't want to take stupid risks. Then you sauntered in there, no armor and no gorram sense! Don't expect me to be so thoughtful in future."

"Thank you," Buck said, meaning it. He'd been surprised as hell to see Chris and Vin tied up without even a visible bruise to speak of. Was still.

"You'd best enjoy it," Chris said, still sounding plenty angry, "'cause it won't happen again."

Buck squeezed his lover's hand a little tighter. "I am. I do. Thanks."

Chris frowned, but his eyes softened, and Buck smiled as the stuffing of anger just fell out of his partner. "Fool. We'd been down there uninterrupted for too long. John got nervous, started working them both into a lather."

Buck shrugged a shoulder, relieved when it seemed to work like he was telling it to. "I think..." he lifted his head and turned it right to left, his only reward a slight stabbing pain behind his eyes. "I think I came through it pretty well," he said easily, and made to sit up.

Chris's hand on his chest made that a bit harder. "You wait til Nathan gets back."

"Worrier," Buck said, but he grabbed Chris's hand and lay back down. Truth was, he wouldn't mind a little more rest. Adrenalin had burned the sleep right out of his mind when he'd peeked into the cargo bay that first time, but it was calling to him now. Chris's fingers took to stroking through his hair and Buck sighed, letting the slight movement lull him.

"Looks like he's better," a voice called from the distance, and Buck blinked. He'd slipped off, it seemed like, because Nathan stood next to the exam bed. "What's he doing still in bed?"

"This one," Buck said, tilting his head toward Chris, "likes to worry when there ain't no need."

"Oh, he does, does he?" Nathan asked, grinning. "Well there ain't no need, so the both of you can go worry someplace else."

Buck tried sitting up, testing his body carefully. His head hurt, and the back of it itched like blazes, but Chris's hand grabbed his wrist when he reached to scratch it.

"Leave it alone for a while," Chris ordered him, surly again.

Buck nodded and eased to his feet, swaying just slightly until he found his balance. "What did I miss?"

"The hard work," Ezra said from the doorway. How the hell did people keep sneaking in on him? "We dragged John into a guest room and secured him to an unused bed. Then our illustrious leader forced me to clean up the mess you made, bleeding all over the floor in the cargo bay."

Well, that accounted for the dizziness. "Thank you, Ezra," he said kindly. "You too, Nate. I feel as good as new."

Nathan snorted. "I doubt that, but you'll be all right. Chris? You mind if I go and see to our prisoners now? I haven't even looked at the woman yet."

"Take a gun with you," Chris said. "Let John know you're under orders to shoot him dead if he so much as twitches in a way you don't like."

"Don't worry," Nathan said, patting the bulge under his lab coat. Then he grinned, white teeth flashing against his darker skin. "He won't be awake for a while anyway."

Chris nodded, clearly thinking ahead. "Ezra, find Josiah. Meet us down in the cargo bay."

Ezra offered a lazy salute that wasn't even particularly condescending, and jogged out of the room.

Buck was moving slow, but he was moving, and Chris was hovering, and Chris was glaring. "I'm all right, Chris. Hell, I was expecting worse. The team came through, better than I'd have guessed."

Team. Chris sneered, probably at the very idea, and Buck snorted out a laugh. "They were, Chris. You'd have been proud of them. "Inez dived right in for ya, for us. Nathan--hell, where did you find that man? Cool as a snowy breeze. Ezra too, he was right there and ready." Buck chuckled again, more amused than he ought to be. "I forgot about the kids, but he locked their cabin door for 'em."

"How'd he get the codes?" Chris demanded, jumping on the one thing he could complain about, and Buck leaned a little more heavily on his partner.

"I'll talk to him about that. But he protected 'em. Did what I should have done." Buck paused, wondering. "You seen 'em since this went down?" he asked, wondering if Ezra had remembered to let them out.

Chris's glare softened into uncertainty. "No."

Buck turned for the stairs, just to check, and Chris sighed and went with him. Buck let Chris hold him up even though he really didn't need the help as they strolled companionably through the dining room. It felt good, to have it.

"Everybody did good," he went on. "They didn't lose their heads--hell, they probably did better than I did."

"They let you--"

"They didn't have a choice," Buck said, cutting Chris off. "Don't go blaming them for my decision. We got them, and we got you and Vin out. If all I have is a headache out of it, that's more than fine as far as I'm concerned." He met Chris's gaze, smiling even as he leaned against the door into the companionway to catch a little rest. He might need some plasma or something, and he reminded himself to ask Nathan about it when Chris wasn't around to worry.

Chris took a deep breath. "You ever do that again--"

"You ever get yourself stuck like that again, well, I can't make no promises."

Chris stared, and Buck knew he was looking for his reliable anger. Didn't seem like it was going to come, though. For all their differences, this was where they were alike. If it had been Buck in there, the garrote around his neck... hell, he thought fondly. Chris wouldn't have waited for any of them. "Don't worry about that," Chris told him gruffly, and Buck grinned.

He pushed off the doorway and took the last few steps to JD and Casey's door, where the light above the panel glowed yellow. They could come out when they would.

"Let's see if Ezra has figured out what they were after," Buck said, but he touched Chris's cheek with one hand, letting his fingers trail slowly over Chris's jaw and down to his throat.

Chris flinched as Buck's gentle touch rubbed over sensitive skin--the garrote had split the flesh. Buck just let his gaze follow his fingertip for a moment before turning and letting Chris help him into the cargo bay, where Ezra was busy leaning over a crate while Josiah stood and glared at the back of Ezra's head.

"These their containers?" Buck said, breathing hard by the time they made it to the stack of crates the Dykstras had commandeered.

"The ones they were after, yeah," Chris said grimly. "They pulled 'em out of the Bodens' pallets, seemed to know just which ones they were looking for." All the boxes the Dykstras-or whoever the hell they were-had removed were stacked with the bills of lading on one end. The Boden farm on Persephone was the destination, but as he knelt to look alongside Chris, he noticed a symbol written in a pale grey over the label. It was faint, something he only saw if he caught it at the right angle.

Below it was a tracking bar--but the light, which should have been green if it were operative, was dark. As were all the lights on all the other containers. Chris glanced over to the rest of the Bodens' shipment, saw the pale luminescent green shine back at him from every container he could see.

"Interesting, isn't it," Ezra said. "The state of the art security used by all core corporation shippers--but the tracking features appear to be less effective than intended on these."

Chris grimaced at Ezra's penchant for understatement. "Open 'em," he ordered.

"I'm trying. It's quite an elaborate key code required to get into these stasis containers, too," Ezra said distractedly, looking at the computer handset he was holding. "These aren't regular locks. I've run through almost every encryption I can think of."

Buck took a second--or several, maybe, since the pain in his head distorted his sense of things--and looked over Ezra's shoulder. "Do we want to know how much you paid for that gadget?" he asked.

Not that Chris wasted time looking at it. He was focused on the container, glaring like the force of his will could open it up. "We force 'em, everything goes up inside?" he asked. It was just the kind of overkill the Alliance loved--but it did do a pretty good job of making smuggling harder, too. Not hard enough, obviously.

"Yes," Ezra replied. "Give me a few more minutes. I assure you, I can get us in."

"You'd better," Chris said, hard, "because if you can't we're spacing every one of these containers. We might, anyway."

Buck didn't try to argue with him; when Chris was in this mood, it was a waste of breath. He just waited, watching Chris pace impatiently. He tried not to look at the red line on Chris's throat, but it kept drawing his gaze and reminding him what that garrote could have done. No pretty necklace. No pretty neck. He shook himself to rid his brain of the image, and the resulting pain in his head helped do the trick.

After what seemed an eternity-long enough that Vin wandered in, too, to watch the show-Ezra let out a satisfied breath and said, "There we go. I shall bill you for this, not to worry." He flashed them a grin and stepped back as the light on the lock panel flashed green. A soft whir of mechanical activity in the box and the lid opened.

There was a rush of air as the increased pressure inside the container blew it out, carrying with it the sweet smell of unknown flowers. When the breeze stilled, Buck looked down into the open container.

Soybeans just like what the Larabees grew on their own back ninety, he noted, and plenty of them. The seedlings were set in long rows, their roots buried in a nutrient substance that mimicked soil. Maybe there was something buried in the soil? Chris stuck his hand in, and Buck let it go--no sense worrying about them now-- watching as Chris dragged his fingers through the sticky stuff, tangling them with the roots. Annoyed, Chris pulled the plant out of the substance, tossing it onto the floor. Several more followed, but still nothing.

The others had crowded around, curious.

"Who's with the prisoners?" Chris asked, glaring his irritation indiscriminately at the press of people around him.

"Nathan," Josiah said from behind Vin. "We tied John to the bed - Jael, too, in a different room. She's still out but Nathan says Inez did a good job of putting her down-cleaner and gentler than the job Jael did on Buck, certainly."

Buck watched the grim smile that touched Chris's mouth and wondered what he'd do to them, before turning his attention back to the problem at hand. "Chris," he said, leaning on the container, "you can't go killing all these plants--let's think about this for a minute!"

"They're already dead, most like, just from opening 'em up early," Chris shot back. "There's something in these containers that's worth killing for, and we need to know what it is!" He pulled at another plant, started to toss it aside to join the others, but paused, staring down at it.

Ezra hissed, catching Chris' arm. "No wonder they wanted this shipment so badly!"

It wasn't the words that drew Buck's attention so much as the sound of Ezra's voice--no sarcasm, no irony. Instead, there was a sort of awe and wonder that Buck would have bet against the man even possessing. Chris turned, too, smirking up at the man.

Ezra looked up at Buck, and his face shifted to the more familiar one they knew--one with the mocking sneer and arched eyebrows. "Amalthya," he breathed. "I suspect, to the uninitiated, it would be easily confused with soybeans."

Buck glanced to Chris who was fingering the plant he still held. "Amalthya? What they make thyazomine from? The one that's so--"

"Expensive?" Ezra cut in. "Hard to get?" He leaned down, picking up three of the plants on the floor. "Look," he said, holding them out to Buck. "It's quite clear what the difference is, if you look closely."

Chris nodded to him, so Buck looked. They were green, mostly, their leaves long and slender and drooping, their stems and limbs pale brown and even. "What?" Buck asked. "It still looks like a soybean to me."

Ezra rolled his eyes, then glanced up at the assembled group. "Someone find me an image of actual soybeans," he ordered, and Josiah pulled an encyclopedia out of his back pocket. He punched in some instructions, and turned the viewpad around.

"Here you go," he said, bending down to hold it close to the plant in Ezra's hands.

"You see now?" Ezra asked them, sounding for all the world like a haughty temple priest.

Buck didn't see anything, but Chris nodded agreement. "They're are a different color, Buck--there's more red in them. They're smaller, too." He looked up at Buck like it should all be clear now, but Buck still didn't see it.

"Thank you, Captain Larabee," Ezra said. "You do your sly brethren proud."

"You don't think it's got something to do with having grown up on a farm?" Chris asked dryly, but Ezra ignored him.

"They're after these little things?" Buck said, touching one of the plants Ezra held.

" 'These little things'," Ezra mimicked with disdain, "are worth more than you'll make in a year with this ship. 'These little things' are worth more than all of our lives combined--do you know how hard it is to get a seed for one of these--much less to get it to germinate and grow to this size?"

"So?" Chris asked, which earned him a withering stare from Ezra and amused Buck, headache or no headache.

Ezra stared at the plant he cradled gently in his hand. "They're worth a fortune-you do realize that, right?"

"Not to us," Chris said, shortly. "We don't run drugs and we don't deal in them."

Clutching the three plants to his chest, Ezra stepped over and peered in, too, and his face went so pale Buck worried he'd fall over. "My God, there are hundreds, just in this one crate," he breathed, awed, and damned if he didn't sound even more like a temple priest. "One of these plants alone is worth probably a thousand credits. There must be--over a hundred in this one container. I'm surprised they didn't kill us in our sleep."

Chris closed the lid, barely waiting for Ezra to get his fingers out of the way. "Time to go talk to these people," he said shortly.

"Shall I watch over the cargo then?" Ezra asked, just a little too politely, and Buck grinned. The man's greed had overwhelmed his skills at subterfuge.

Chris turned to look over his shoulder, obviously prepared to answer the question. But he didn't have to; Buck dropped an arm around Ezra's shoulders and dragged him along behind them while he tugged the plants from his hands.

"Now you be nice in there," Buck warned Ezra, then caught himself grinning. "Because Chris sure as hell won't be."

"I'd never have guessed," Ezra replied dryly, his eyes still on the plants hanging in Buck's free hand. "You could be more careful with those," he tried.

Buck raised his eyebrows and squeezed Ezra's shoulder a little tighter. "Why?" he asked. "They're all gonna get turned over somewhere. Or spaced."

Ezra looked for a moment like he might be ill. "Now Mr. Wilmington, I wouldn't go out of my way to deal in illicit drugs, but this one isn't even particularly harmful! And it is particularly lucrative. We didn't ask to have them but since we do, shouldn't we at least take advantage of our good fortune?"

Buck pretended to think about it for a second, then grinned again. "No."

Ahead of them both, Chris snorted, and Buck smiled fondly at the back of his lover's head. Looked like he was starting to see the humor in all of this.

Chris found John first, mostly because the door to the room was open and Nathan was leaning against the outside of it. Buck nodded to him. "Hold onto these for a second, will you?" he asked, watching Nathan's eyes go wide when he handed the plants over. Looked like Nate knew what they were, too.

Buck didn't ask, just followed Chris on inside with Ezra on his heels.

John glared at them with hard eyes. He was too weak still to do more than shift on the bed but there was no doubt about his opinion of them.

"Amalthya," Chris said flatly. "You smuggled them in the soybean shipment."

John sneered. "Sure, Captain. Everybody has a pile of those lying around."

Chris glowered at him, but his voice was cold. "Only reason I haven't put you out an airlock is because I need to know who's responsible for these plants being on my ship. You'd best rethink your attitude."

John arched an eyebrow and shot back, "If you're planning to put me out the airlock, I don't feel very motivated to talk." Something in his tone said 'fuck you' very loudly and very clearly, and Buck had to give the guy points for balls if not brains.

Before Chris could answer--or throttle him--Ezra interrupted. "Perhaps we should approach this another way," he said, easing past Chris to stand at the bedside. "There's a veritable fortune in those containers. Would it not serve you better to split it with us than to be cut out of it all together?"

John cut his eyes to Ezra, one nostril flaring. Some of John's anger gave way to calculation, and he glanced back to Chris and asked, "He speaking for you?"

Chris smiled, hard and fierce, and Buck wished his head didn't hurt so he could appreciate it properly. "That depends on what you have to say."

John stared at him, and Buck saw the instant when he made the decision.

He drew a deep breath, then looked back to Ezra. "You have no idea what you're in the middle of. If you're smart--and I'll admit you're smarter than we figured you'd be," he said reluctantly, but it was a ploy and Buck knew Ezra would see it, too, "you'll do whatever it takes to get out of the way."

"What the hell do we need you for, if we're so smart?" Chris sneered, and Buck choked, hiding a grin behind his hand.

"Just... keep your agreement with us, Captain. Put us down on Triumph where we ask you, and we'll take those containers and be out of your way."

"I wouldn't exactly call a negotiation at gunpoint something you could take into court," Buck said reasonably. "We could lose the ship just for having those things on board, whether we had knowledge of them or not."

John tucked his chin a little and his hands unconsciously jerked at the cords that held him to the bed. "Where's Jael?" he asked abruptly.

"I'd worry more about myself if I was you," Chris said, stepping up close. His fists kept clenching and unclenching, and Buck took a step forward, ready to drag him off their captive if Chris lost the reins on his temper.

"I believe your friend is similarly, ah, tied up," Ezra offered with a grin. "Best you deal with us before she decides to do it and cut you out, too."

"Thrust off," John snapped. "You're nothing here."

Ezra stiffened, but he didn't have time for a snappy comeback before Chris punched John, catching him on the chin. He bounced backward onto the bed and lay there, stunned, then shook his head hard and relaxed.

Buck rubbed at his chin, thinking. "Chris," he called quietly before Chris could wind up again.

Chris turned, his eyes cold and hard, and Buck suspected he was thinking about the Maggie now. Chris didn't take kindly to the threat of losing her. He shook his head, but Chris waved him off like an annoying horsefly.

"You people are gonna get yourselves killed," John said, his words a little slurred. He jerked again at his bindings, trying to rub at his jaw.

Ezra examined his fingernails. "I'd say you're the one who has put us in danger. And that your life expectancy is considerably shorter than ours. I wager that the Alliance would dearly love to confiscate those plants."

He laughed. "If the Alliance finds out those plants are on this tub of junk, I won't be in prison alone--every last one of you will be right there with me."

Ezra shrugged, and Buck had to admire his poker face. "Then it would be to our best interests to put you out, as the good Captain suggests." He turned away, lifting one hand and gesturing towards John. "He's all yours, Captain."

Chris grinned, an expression colder and harder than Ezra could ever hope to manage. "Nathan," he called over his shoulder, "you got more of that muscle relaxer you used? It's probably too good a way for this hundan to die, but--"

"Hold on," John said, and his tone held desperation as his eyes went past Chris to where Nathan was coming through the doorway.

Ezra was still facing Chris and Buck, so Buck saw the flash of excitement--and the large grin--on his face. Both were gone by the time he turned back around. "You have something to add?" he asked.

John drew a deep breath, and shook his head before he spoke. "There's a man on Triumph," he said slowly, measuring his words. And thinking fast before each one. "The shipment was going to him, until the company misdelivered it."

"His name," Chris grated.

John hesitated then answered shortly, "Ellison."

Buck just happened to be looking at Chris; otherwise, he might have missed the look that flashed across his features, a combination of surprise and relief. He didn't understand the surprise, but he did understand the relief; since this had started, he had been worried about what they had gotten themselves into--what Chris's family had gotten into.

"So you work for Ellison?" Ezra asked. "Trying to recover his goods?"

John's gaze shifted and the corners of his lips twitched. "Yeah," he said, "we were sent to get it back for him."

"Bullshit." Chris spoke low but his tone was cutting. "You were stealing it from him."

It could have been an interrogation ploy--Buck wouldn't have put it past Chris. But something flashed in John's eyes. Chris was right--so he was either very lucky or he knew something.

John's eyes tightened as he studied Chris. "What do you know about Ellison's operation?" he asked, wary but in a different way.

"I know you either worked for him and are trying to cut him out, or you work for someone else. He's going to be looking for the plants when we get to the planet--so you better tell me now what's going on or he's getting you, too."

Ezra had stepped back, his eyes moving between Chris and John. He glanced at Buck, curious, but Buck didn't have an answer either.

John stared at Chris. He was thinking again, calculating. "Maybe we can trade," he said after a few seconds.

"Doesn't seem like you have much to trade with," Buck said, then cast a friendly gaze down his body. "Good looks notwithstanding."

For a second, the look in John's eyes flashed with repulsion, then he visibly relaxed as if he were interested. Buck choked down a chuckle. Mercenaries were all alike; if it was saleable, they'd market it if they had to. "Sorry," Buck said, "I was just making conversation. Let's go visit with Jael," he said easily. "I do believe she'll be a lot friendlier than John here."

"Don't count on that," John said.

"She can hardly be worse," Ezra sniffed. He strode past Nathan and out of the guest room without a backward glance, while Chris kept staring at Buck. Buck shrugged. If Chris thought it was the way to go, Buck wouldn't stand in his way. Still. Jael might talk or at least give them enough to know when John was lying.

Chris frowned at him, but he turned for the door.

"Chris," Nathan said, following them. "Hold up." He was still holding the plants that Buck had thrust into his hands earlier.

Buck slowed as Chris did, waiting for the medic to catch up with him. Ahead, Ezra also turned and walked back.

"What?" Chris asked. His voice was hard and cold, but Nathan paid it no mind, and Buck decided he liked Nathan better all the time.

"These plants. I think there's more to 'em than just being amalthya." He was holding up one of the stems, studying the root.

"What do you mean?" Chris said, frowning at the plant stems Nathan held out.

Buck also looked but he all he saw was a plant.

Nathan was frowning. "I need to run some tests. But there's something weird here." He pointed to a swelling at the place where the vine branched into roots strands. "This isn't usual to amalthya--not this big, anyway. And these colors aren't quite right." He was holding up one of the plants that Ezra had clung to so dearly. "I'm guessing - and it's just that, a guess - but I'm guessing that someone has re-engineered this stuff, to make the stock hardier, easier to grow."

Ezra came in closer, brushing past Buck to stare closely at the plant. "Do they teach this in medical school these days?" he asked but his tone was more distracted than critical.

"No," Nathan said shortly, "but these haven't even begun to wither, and they've been out of their nutrient mix for a while now." He looked at Chris as he went on, "I've seen more than my share of these plants on the street. Lot of vets try to raise them at home, to help with the pain when their veterans' benefits run out. Used even more by the vets who don't have any benefits to start with."

Buck's respect for Nathan went up.

"So they'll grow easier and more reliably," Chris said.

Nathan nodded, looking back at the plant. "Legally, too, if those White Cross labels are legitimate, but then you gotta wonder why the Alliance would want to."

Chris's lips thinned. "Find out what you can, as quick as you can."

Nathan nodded and turned for the medbay.

Jael, it turned out, was still unconscious, and Buck saw the flash of a grin on his lover's face again. Mean, ornery, tough guy, he thought fondly.

"Upstairs," Chris said, glaring back toward the open medbay door as they walked past. "Everybody. And someone go wake up JD and Casey."

Wake them up... Buck yawned on cue. It couldn't be ship's dawn yet, and even though he'd been out for a while, unconsciousness did nothing to replace sleep. "How about if we all go to--"

"Bi zui, Buck," Chris said. Buck sighed, did as ordered, and shut up, trudging up to the dining hall. No way was Chris going to sleep tonight, and if he couldn't he'd make damned sure Buck didn't either. Sometimes it just wasn't fair.

He tapped on Inez's door and when she opened it immediately, he realized how loud Chris had gotten. "Sorry to disturb your sleep, Inez," he started.

She waved a dismissive hand. "I was not sleeping."

"Can you fly our shuttles?"


"Then when we get into orbit tomorrow, I'd appreciate you allowing us to loan you one. You can go and do your business, and we'll take care of ours." She frowned at him, and he wanted to take his thumb and rub away the tiny furrow between her dark brows. "Think about it," he said. "This ain't your fight."

"It isn't yours either."

"It's our cargo," he rationalized. "The Bodens were neighbors. Chris's parents have a financial stake in them making good."

"I seriously doubt that stake is worth your lives to them, Buck," she said, her frown deepening enough that Buck gave in to his impulse, or partly, and touched her cheek instead.

"Nobody's gonna die, Inez."

She nodded uncertainly. "Is there something I can do in the meantime?" Her grin flashed then, even as she tilted her head away from his touch. "You are, after all, at my door."

"Chris wants everybody upstairs, even the kids. I thought you might be willing to keep an eye on our prisoners for us."

"I'm glad to." She turned back into her cabin and grabbed up a handgun, checking it automatically.

"Thanks," Buck said, and turned away. "Jael's still out and John's tied up pretty well--but I wouldn't put anything past him."

"No," Inez agreed, "I wouldn't either."

Upstairs, JD and Casey sat at the table, Casey still a bit bleary-eyed but JD fired up with excitement.

"We missed all of it! I can't believe we missed all of that!"

"Calm down, JD," Buck chided before Chris regretted rounding them up too. "Somebody get Josiah and Vin?" he asked, but he saw them at about the same time. Vin stood just outside the ladder to their bunk, and Josiah was climbing up.

He waited for them to get seated then started in. "All right, Chris," Buck said, rubbing at the back of his head. The lump was still there, and whatever Nathan had used to seal the skin had started to burn. "Why don't you catch us all up?"

"You were there," Chris said brusquely.

"Yeah, I was," Buck said, spearing him with a look. "I saw you ask for a name, and I saw how you reacted when you got it. Who's Ellison, Chris, and how do you know him?"

The next exchange was interesting. Chris shot Vin a look. Vin looked anxious, and shook his head 'no', the movement small enough that his long hair barely swayed. Then Chris slammed his fist down on the table hard enough to make everybody else jump.

"Vin saw something," Chris said tightly. "Said Ellison's name while we were in the cargo bay, before Jael and John or whatever the hell their names are came down."

Buck felt that burn in his head slip down his spine like melting ice. "Vin?" he asked, completely aware he'd just adopted his courtroom voice, even and uncondemning. "How do you know Ellison?"

"I don't," Vin snapped. "I saw it. Saw him. In my head!"

The room got very quiet very quickly, and Josiah's hand shot out, grasping Vin's forearm until the big man's knobby knuckles went white and bloodless. "Josiah," Vin said, low. "He's the captain."

Buck studied Vin, not sure what he was feeling. The idea that Vin could see the future, knew things, it required more faith-or more superstition-than he had, especially in light of what had just happened. The idea that Chris trusted in these 'visions' was a complication. Buck trusted Chris--but that trust didn't make Vin any less crazy.

"So," JD said, his voice startling in the silence, "you really see things? The future?"

Vin looked down at the table, shaking his head. "Yeah," he said shortly. "And I saw this Ellison guy holding hostages, waving a gun. Buck was talking to him, just as easy as if they'd met in a bar. Ellison wants something on this ship, and I reckon it's the plants- same things John and Jael were trying to take."

"So what happens?" JD asked, leaning forward. "What do we do?"

It was a good question. "Yeah," Buck said, "what do you see, Vin?"

Over Vin's head, Josiah glared at Buck, and he opened his mouth as if to answer. But Vin sighed, straightened and interrupted the glare. "It don't work that way," he said softly. "I can't control what I see or how much--I can't tell you your futures or none of that shit. You ain't gotta believe me--"

"I believe you," Chris said, his voice as hard and unyielding as it ever was when he'd already made up his mind about something. "And that's all the rest of you need to worry about."

Buck turned to stare at Chris, not certain whether to be more concerned by his acceptance of Vin's magical abilities or at his sudden demonstration of authority--one that was obviously intended to lump Buck under his command with everyone else.

"So--we're flying into a trap?" Casey asked.

"We don't know that," Buck said, even as Chris called, "Probably."

Buck turned, glaring at Chris. He tilted his head toward the door, and Chris clenched his jaw. Buck arched one eyebrow, and after a second, Chris said sharply, "Sit tight. Buck and I need a minute."

Buck heard the murmurs behind them, saw the way Josiah still glared at him but leaned in to whisper to Vin. Buck was far more intent, though, on what he was going to say to Chris when they got into the hallway.

Before Chris had a chance to turn and face him, Buck snapped out, "You are kidding, aren't you? You think he has some sort of ability to see the future, all because he told you I was going to be all right?"

Chris stiffened, then turned back to face him, his jaw set so hard and tight Buck could see the muscle jump. "You so sure he doesn't?" he countered.

Buck gaped at him, because yes, he was that sure nobody had magical powers of prescience. Chris should be, too. "Am I sure he can't defy the laws of physics? Hell, yes! He told you what you wanted to hear, Chris--hell, for all we know, he could be working for Ellison, planted here before we ever got off the ground."

"That's a little far-fetched, even for you," Chris said coldly. "I met him in a jail cell, he showed up the next day, before we even knew we were going to be off the ground--"

"And he happened to know that we would take a job for your family--'someone I wouldn't say no to'," Buck cut in just as short.

"You could have hated my family," Chris sniped.

Buck talked right over him. "Because something happened to the people who were originally contracted to haul the Boden shipment--which Ellison, or Tanner, could have arranged. Don't take a lot of thinking to set it up. He could have led you down a rosy path, Chris, and he could still be doing it, taking us right on into Ellison's hands. Hell, his neck wasn't the one in the garrotte, now was it?"

Chris stared at him, and Buck watched anger give way to calculation. Soon enough-too soon, in Buck's opinion--his eyes cleared and he shook his head. "Then why tell us about Ellison? About any of it?" he asked.

Buck shrugged. "I don't know, it's not my damned plan."

Chris's hard face cracked with a hint of humor, just for a second, then he sobered again and shrugged. "Don't feel right--Vin's not that way, and Josiah ain't either. I trust him, and even if I didn't, that son of a bitch Dykstra already confirmed that Ellison is after the shipment. We're flying into something no matter what."

Buck shook his head, looking away. "I don't like you trusting Vin like this. You don't know him, Chris."

"I feel like I-" Chris stopped with a frown, which just made Buck burn with curiosity over what Chris might have said. But he kept his mouth shut because he'd never get it out of the man, and trying would only piss them both off. Chris stepped closer, reaching out to catch one of his hands. "He was good in the cargo bay, ready to make a move before I was. Hell, if he'd wanted to take the plants, he could have when we left him alone down there."

"And he may have," Buck said. "We haven't checked all the containers yet--we don't know how many of them there are supposed to be anyway."

"No," Chris agreed, "we don't." He sighed but stepped even closer. "You want me to space him now?"

He could have been kidding--should have been. But there was something in his eyes that made Buck worry that he wasn't, and made him stop to think about their options. Which was what Chris had been doing all along. "No," he said tiredly, and felt his headache thud a little harder. "But I don't like the idea of trusting his 'visions'."

Chris tightened his grip a little. "You don't have to," he said quietly. "You just trust me."

"Trust you not to let him hand us over?"

Chris smiled and reached to rub his knuckles against Buck's stomach. "Not going to lose the ship," he said. "Or you."

Buck shook his head, not happy, but not as angry. "You got a plan?"

Chris smiled his dangerous smile, the one that always got Buck's blood flowing faster. "Got the start of one." It started with Chris leaning up and kissing him, a quick brush to the lips. "Let's get back," he said, pulling back.

Buck told himself to keep his mouth shut when they went back in there, but that didn't even last to the dining table. "All right, Vin, spell things out for us. What do you know?"

Vin looked wary, and for just a second Buck entertained the idea that Vin did see something of the future. Not that he needed to have any special talent to be worried right now; defendants looked anxious like that all the time, guilty or innocent, and here Vin was in a room full of strangers, revealing secrets Josiah had obviously schooled him not to share.

"What I told Chris." His hands moved in front of him like he was trying to shape clay. "These things I see, they're like moving pictures, just little pieces. Ellison's in one, on-planet--I ain't never been to Triumph, so I don't know where--"

"We've got topography maps," JD volunteered, "on the Coretex. Government survey maps from space of just about every planet in the occupied 'verse. Think those would help you spot the place, Vin?"

Vin looked surprised. "Maybe."

JD stood up but Buck waved him back into his chair. "Hold on a minute. Let's get through this one step at a time." Chris had turned a chair around backwards and straddled it, his chin on his fist. Giving Buck enough rope to hang himself? The thought wasn't reassuring.

"Well, what's the next step then?" JD asked.

Buck nodded Vin's way, annoyed at Chris and JD both. "What do you see?"

"Buildings," Vin said warily. "Big ol' barn, tilled fields. Rolling hills and lots of trees. The sun's low in the sky, mornin' or evenin', can't tell which. There's a wall, and Ellison with some folks."

"How many 'folks'?" Buck asked.

Vin closed his eyes and his lips moved minutely, clearly counting. "Nineteen that I saw. Not all of 'em are armed. Some of 'em look pretty scared."

"Well, how many are armed?" Ezra asked, sounding annoyed. Details, this man thrived on details like any good grifter would. Buck was just glad not to be asking all the questions alone. Glad that at least one other person on this ship wasn't blind to the idea that people didn't just see the future.

Vin closed his eyes again. "Five, that I see. Most of 'em are inside a building. It's got a window, and you c'n see other buildings through it. Ellison is outside, and that's where I see you, Buck. You're standing by the Maggie's mule, looking..." His eyes opened and he flushed a little. "You look like you're havin' fun," he said, not quite accusing.

Buck shrugged it off until Chris snorted, and he spared a glare for the man.

"Then I know you can't be seeing anything real," he groused, but Chris held up a hand.

"You usually get happy when a fight's about to happen," he said, then added pointedly, "Vin ain't seen that before."

Buck came that close to telling his captain to shut the hell up, but he caught himself in time. No sense sowing the seeds of sedition in front of Ezra Standish. Not yet, anyway.

"Go on, Vin."

"That's about it," Vin told him. "That's all I saw of it."

Buck thought about it for a second, picturing the scene in his head. "So what makes you think this is happening any time soon? How do you know this ain't some other farm, some other planet?"

Vin nodded to him, like he was acknowledging that it was a fair question. " 'Cause you've still got that headache." He shrugged. "Leastwise, you're rubbing that spot on your head where Jael tapped you. You're right about that, Buck," he said, "I wouldn't've known the when of it any other way."

"Buck stays aboard ship," Chris said then. "We keep that part from happening."

Buck watched Vin stiffen, and Josiah closed his eyes like he was in prayer.

"What?" Chris demanded. "Just because you see something bad happening don't mean I'm gonna send Buck or any of us into a crowd of armed strangers."

Vin looked over at Chris. "What I see happens, Chris. You can fight that all you want, but it's going to happen." He shot Josiah an annoyed look. "People trying to change it don't change nothing. Not ever. Buck'll be there, just like I saw. Us, too."

Ezra sat up a little straighter in his chair. "'Us'?" he asked. "You didn't say anything about seeing any of the rest of us."

Vin looked confused, but the look cleared in an instant. "I'm up high, looking down on you guys," Vin said. "Chris, too. Don't know where you are, Ezra --Josiah's dirt side." He turned, looking at his partner but not smiling.

"What about me?" JD asked, excited again. "Where am I?"

Vin shrugged. "Don't know, kid. Didn't see you."

"Well if everybody else is going, I'm going," JD said, stubborn with youthful excitement. "I already missed one part, I ain't gonna miss it all."

"You'll do as you're told, Dunne," Chris said shortly, his tone brooking no argument. "I ain't gonna tell you again that you don't risk yourself without my say so."

JD bristled, but it was Casey who defused the tension. She laughed, the sound authentic and unrestrained. "Look at you, all tough," she teased, reaching out to push her fingers though JD's. "You are so much trouble," she said fondly.

JD flushed and frowned at her. "I--" he started, but stopped, gently disentangling his hand from hers and shooting a look at Chris. "I can help," he said firmly, "but you're the captain." He nodded, a show of respect that Buck hadn't really expected from him. Youth coursed through his veins like a drumbeat, that craving for excitement that Buck remembered all too well. He'd lost that somewhere along the way, or most of it, and knew that JD would too. If he lived long enough.

"We don't know enough," Buck said flatly, and dropped heavily into a chair at the table. "And we're running on batteries. Anybody besides me remember that we've barely slept in over twenty hours?"

"You, sir, were sleeping just a few hours ago. I know," Ezra said snidely. "I watched them haul your heavy carcass to the medbay."

"Ezra," Chris said, absent and distracted, "bi zui."

Buck had the feeling Chris would be saying that a lot over the coming months, and grinned in spite of himself. "Chris?" he called quietly, waiting until Chris turned and met his eyes. "You think it's a good idea to try and get some shut-eye? Couple of hours, anyway, then we c'n roust Jael and see what she's willing to tell us."

"We ain't got time for sleep," Chris started, and Buck held up a hand.

"We ain't got time to go without, not if we're walking into trouble," he said, willing Chris to think it through. Chris was angry and he was scared, not that anybody else would characterize him that way. Buck could read the tension in the fine lines around Chris's eyes, in the hard set of his jaw. "JD, how far are we from Triumph?"

JD looked at his watch and Buck waited while he did calculations in his head. "Ten hours, maybe, from high orbit."

Buck looked to Chris, giving deference, and raised his eyebrows.

Chris took in everyone in the room with one sweeping, calculated glance. "We're running in circles," he muttered, clearly not liking it. Action was as natural to Chris as appreciating a pretty body was to Buck. "Downtime for four hours," he said. "Everybody but JD and Ezra." Before Ezra could protest, Chris went on. "Ezra, you go and roll Jael and John's quarters and be ready to tell us something, then get some rest yourself. We'll keep Inez on watch, if she's willing."

"I'll ask her," Buck said, making to rise.

Chris's voice wasn't pretty or kind when he replied, "You do that," and Buck reckoned he'd pay for maneuvering Chris like this. But he'd pay more if they all hit dirt exhausted and wound up and no more prepared than they were now. He made his way out the back of the common room and down the stairs, Nathan on his heels.

"Buck?" Nathan asked when they were alone. "You mind letting me take a quick look at you?"

"'preciate it, Nathan," he said. He glanced over his shoulder toward the empty stairs and lowered his voice anyway. "I'm none too steady."

Nathan nodded. "Thought so. You're looking pale, too. Meet me in the medbay when you're ready."

Buck nodded and walked into the guest quarters, sticking his head first into Jael's room, where the woman was still in the same position on the bed, unconscious, and then into the room they'd tied John up in. Inez sat comfortably in a chair, her gun held loosely in her lap. She and John stared coldly at each other, but both of them looked his way when he walked in. "Inez, it's way past my bedtime, darlin'. I was wondering if you'd mind keeping an eye out for a few hours."

"Not at all," she said. "John and I are becoming good friends."

John muttered a curse, and Buck grinned. "You always were good at making friends," he said to Inez. "Thanks."

He shuffled over to the bed where John was stretched out, bending to check the ropes that bound him and trusting Inez to cover him if John decided to try something stupid. The knots were tight, and would only tighten further if he struggled in them. "Be careful," he said to the other man. "You fight these too much you could cut off circulation completely, and lose both your hands."

"You could loosen them a little bit," he said, starting to wrench his hands and then freezing.

"You could count yourself lucky we didn't use your garrote to tie 'em," he countered. "We'll be around later to chat again. You'd best decide what you want to tell us, or else we'll throw you out first and let Ellison use you for target practice. Think he would?"

"I think you're all gonna be the ones laid out," he sneered. "But you won't need to be trussed up."

Buck snorted. "Big words for the guy on his back," he replied. Right now he wasn't going to worry on it. Chris would be doing plenty of thinking for both of them. "Inez, call Nathan if you need any help."

He stopped next at the medbay, where Nathan listened to his heart, felt the bump on the back of his head, and took some readings.

"Drop your pants," he ordered, and Buck unbuckled and eased them over his hip. He pressed the pressure injector to Buck's rump and Buck hissed at the prickle as he felt whatever it was forced through his skin. "This'll stimulate production of red blood cells," Nathan explained, swiping antiseptic over the injection site. "Should have your color back within a few hours."

"Thanks. I told Inez to call on you if she needed backup. You'd best get some rest." Buck slapped him on the shoulder but paused in the medbay doorway before heading on out. "Pack up a good field kit. Be ready for everything you can."

"Already done," Nathan told him, then he grinned, his teeth flashing. "Did it when I inventoried down here on day one."

Buck shook his head, admiring. Chris surely did pick himself some interesting friends. Which reminded him of something else. "You had a chance to look at that plant yet?" he asked.

Nathan's face tightened. "If I'm right, we're looking at something worth a hell of a lot more than we first thought."

Buck had been in the criminal legal system long enough to know all the subtleties of what Nathan was saying. "More potent?" he asked. "Or different effects?"

"Both," Nathan answered, "but maybe just as bad--I think it's being adapted for faster growth and more stability in wider environments. Somebody spent a lot of time and money on this genetic development."


Nathan's full lips compressed into a tight line. "Somebody with a lot of money and a state-of-the-art genetics lab. Did you notice the identifiers on the containers?"

Buck closed his eyes for a moment, wondering how big a fool he was being. Nathan went on before he had to admit to it.

"All of them - the ones going to the Bodens, the ones that Jael and John brought in - they all came from White Cross. They're a subsidiary of Blue Sun, known mostly for pharmaceuticals, and they have a lot of money tied up in research to produce better, faster-growing crops. It's possible that they're branching out into other avenues of agriculture, too."

Buck frowned. "You're not saying..."

"I don't know what I'm saying. Could be corporate research here. Could be government, though - most probably is. If it is, they're not going to be happy that it's in our hands."

"Ni ta ma de." Buck swiped a hand over the back of his sore head then caught himself--he was doing exactly what Vin had predicted, which didn't make him feel any better either.

"I'll let you know when I get test results," Nathan said. "For now, you get some rest."

Buck saw JD on the flight deck as he strode up the crew hall, so he stuck his head in. "Let us know if you see any other ships. I mean any other ships. Don't let nobody get within an hour of us without letting Chris or me know."

"Will do," JD said, and spun the chair back around. "I'm doing some research on Blue Sun Thirty-seven." He waved his hand toward the computer screen behind him. "It's one of those huge industrial ag farms on Triumph. Looks like this guy, Ellison, is in charge of it."

That... made a little bit of sense. This volume of something as valuable as amalthya couldn't very well have been ordered by Sarah Hick and her husband Harry. "You got pictures of the Dykstras?" he asked, leaning a little further into the room.

JD shook his head. "Not by that name, anyway," he said, looking smug. "On their 'meet the staff' section there's a picture of Jael, last name Danron. I was planning to see what I could find on him, too, though."

"Do that," Buck nodded. His head was starting to hurt now, more with these new developments and what they might mean.

Buck took the few steps back to his and Chris's cabin door, and lowered himself down the ladder. Much to his surprise, Chris wasn't trying to wear a hole in the deck plates. He was already in bed, his clothes draped over the back of the desk chair.

"That, pard, looks beautiful," Buck said, nodding to Chris's bare chest and reclined pose.

Chris frowned. "Don't get any ideas."

"Always have ideas," Buck said, stripping down fast. His head ached and he didn't think he had enough spare blood in his body to be able to execute any of them, but thinking did him no harm.

Horizontal had sounded like a wishful dream, but it felt better than a fantasy to slide between cool sheets and put his head down. He yawned and wriggled, rubbing his bare skin against the soft fabric before glancing up at Chris, who was looking far too alert for his liking. "You tired?"

"No," Chris said, lying.

"I'm exhausted, don't know how you can't be."

"I didn't get my brain scrambled three hours ago," Chris sniped, pushing himself up into a sit. Buck watched him punch the pillows and pile them against the headboard, making a rest for his back.

"Come on, get back down here," Buck tried, reaching for Chris's arm. But Chris shook his head and tugged on Buck instead. Buck went with it, let himself be pulled up against Chris's side, and draped his arm over Chris's bare thighs. "You won't get much sleep up there," Buck chided him. "Best stretch out." For a few seconds, he debated telling Chris what he'd just learned from both Nathan and JD, but that would just wind Chris tighter. Better to let him get what sleep he could, then tell him in the morning.

"I'm all right," Chris said. A second later his fingers started a meditative stroking, tugging gently through Buck's hair, carefully avoiding the tender spot at the back. Eyes closed, Buck listened to the dull thud of Chris's heart beating, felt the deep inhale lift his cheek as Chris sighed. "Didn't plan to get us into this," he said quietly.

"You didn't. If either one of us is to blame, it's me. I'm the one got tired of being dirt-side." Persephone, for all her diversity and beauty, was just one planet. One planet wasn't enough when they had the whole star system to live in. It never really had been, not for either of them.

"If something goes wrong..." Chris started, sounding too damned alert for his own good. They needed some sleep. Buck did, anyway.

"Nothing will. Hell, Vin said we'd be all right," he reminded, not above trading on Chris's faith in the man if it would help to settle him down. He wriggled a little, getting more comfortable against Chris's heat, and walked his fingers up a lean thigh. He didn't try to stimulate his partner, but just cupped Chris's genitals in his hand, liking the soft flesh and the silken texture of the skin against his palm, the slight tickle of straight pubic hairs.

"Don't even think about it," Chris warned him.

"I'm not. Too tired," he admitted.

Chris snorted, but Buck left his hand where it was and yawned, more content than he had a right to be with trouble coming at them.

Chris resumed his stroking of Buck's hair. "Get some sleep," Chris said quietly.

Buck nodded, mumbled, "You, too," against Chris's ribs, and drifted off.

When you were as old as Josiah was, it wasn't that hard to settle down when you really needed the rest. Sleep, however, was a whole different animal. He settled onto his back when he got into bed and listened to the whisper of clothing and the clunk of boots as Vin stripped down. When the sheet shifted, cool air touched him just before Vin's body did. He reached, letting his hand brush against Vin's back. Vin didn't move.

Everything Vin had been saying swirled in his head, a tumult he couldn't put aside. "How do you know I love you?" Josiah asked into the darkness, his fingers moving intentionally to rub over Vin's lower spine.

Vin's answer was muffled. "You wouldn't be with me if you didn't," he said. "You'd be with a woman." He hesitated, then went on, "I'm the last thing you want to love, and if there was any way you could get yourself out of it, you would. You think that if I didn't have visions, you wouldn't love me." He swallowed, the sound thick with emotion. "Old fool," Josiah thought he heard.

Josiah thought on the words, thought on how wrong he was finding himself to be about Vin. And about himself. A stranger shared his bed, one who had more sense than he had himself.

He hooked the hem of Vin's shirt, tugging gently at first, then harder as Vin resisted. When Vin finally rolled over, he didn't move straight into Josiah's arm or against him, but pushed himself up on his elbow so that he was looking down into Josiah's face.

"I'll let you push me away and go searching for whatever it is you think we ain't got," he said. "But you love me, and I love you, and the sooner you stop trying to figure out why and just let it be what it is, the sooner we'll both be happier."

In the faint glow of the omnipresent emergency lights, the blue of Vin's eyes was washed out, leaving the irises large and black. Josiah trailed his hand up Vin's chest to curl his fingers around the back of Vin's head, pulling him down. But Vin resisted, using his straight arms against the pull, and Josiah frowned up at him, as frustrated as he was annoyed. "What?"

"Nothin'," Vin said, but when he settled back against the mattress, he left a space between them, all the way to their feet.

"I thought you'd want more time together. I thought, after what happened in the cargo bay..." Josiah said, not sure what he was arguing for here. Vin was right, about all of it. Everything Vin had said, Josiah had been thinking on for--years, now.

"Nah," Vin replied, "I'm tired of you pretending it's a chore."

"I don't--"

"Yes, you do," Vin cut in, no more than a tired mumble now. "You tell yourself that, or that you're just doin' it for me, right up until you're hard and in it. Don't know why you waste all that time and energy, but you do. Go to sleep. Long day coming."

But Josiah didn't sleep. He lay and stared at the shadows on the ceiling, wondering if he really did that. If he'd done it all along.

Wondering when the balance between them had changed. Vin had never refused before - but he had now. He had said no. Lying there staring at the shadowed outline of Vin's body, he wondered if Vin was right about this, too.

Much later, the alarm beeped, but he just lay there until Vin sluggishly crawled off the bed to turn it off. Vin dressed in silence even though he must know Josiah was awake, and eventually Josiah said, "I could use some coffee."

"Me, too," Vin said. "Somebody'll have some on in the mess."

Josiah rolled off the bed, stepped into his trousers and pulled on the rest of his clothes, stomping last into his boots. By the time he was done, Vin had one hand on the ladder rung. "Go on, then," he said. "I'm right behind you."

He climbed up after Vin and headed into the dining room, unsurprised to find Chris and Buck already there, and Nathan.

"Mornin'," Buck called. "Coffee's on. I was just about to make breakfast."

"I'll do it," Josiah offered.

Beside Buck, Chris smirked. "He ain't even tasted your cooking yet, and already he knows," Chris said. His voice was hard enough that Josiah frowned, wondering just how bad a cook Buck was. Or just how bad-tempered Chris Larabee was before he'd properly woken.

Buck seemed to think it was funny, though, so perhaps it was just Larabee's sense of humor. "Laugh it up," Buck threatened good-naturedly, "and you can cook from now on."

Chris just tipped his cup back and emptied it, then pushed it in front of Buck and took his nearly-full one.

Josiah strode on into the kitchen and started pulling out food. Behind him, Chris started talking, filling them in.

"Space is quiet, as far as JD can tell. If the enemy has a ship they haven't shown it yet."

"You two talk to Jael?" Josiah asked.

"Not yet," Chris replied. " JD looked her up, learned that she worked for Blue Sun Thirty-seven. White Cross is one of Blue Sun's subsidiaries."

Josiah looked up. "White Cross? The name on those containers. Awful big coincidence."

Chris flashed a looked at Buck, who shrugged and answered. "Not hardly. White Cross controls half the Alliance-stamped total-nutrition food bars that come back to the rim. They supply half the big farms too, probably, and plenty of the smaller ones. Genetically tested crops, guaranteed to produce."

"Do we know who these people really are?" Josiah asked, exasperated.

Chris glanced to Buck, who nodded and started talking. "John--or whoever the hell he is--is keeping a lower profile than Jael. Nothing in the Coretex we can get to or match him to, not with what little we've got on him. Including any association with Jael. Jael managed the Blue Sun operations on Triumph. Including shipping and receiving of major imports and exports, looks like."

Josiah nodded to himself as he set pans onto the heat and started cubing up protein for a stir-fry. He planned to use up the leftover rice and vegetables from last night and add bits as needed. Last night seemed like a long time ago, and he picked up his coffee, finishing the cup to help speed his brain along. Vin slipped in and refilled it for him then set to helping, cutting the vegetables Josiah pointed him toward.

"Chris is thinking," Buck went on, "that we can just fly right in, offload the cargo, then fly out and notify the law. They'll move fast enough even out here, for Thyazomine."

"Never have understood why the government cares so much," Nathan said. "That stuff ain't deadly, after all, ain't hardly even addictive compared to some things. And it's a damned sight better for treating some forms of pain than anything the other pharmaceutical companies have come up with."

"Nathan, you clearly know something about this stuff," Buck said.

Nathan's face darkened, wary now. "Maybe."

Buck waved his worry away. "I'm not condemning, I'm asking for an education. Say a man puts twenty of those plants into the ground. How many will grow to fruition?"

Nathan shrugged. "One, if he's lucky. Two if he's gifted. Maybe."

"That's why it ain't taxable," Buck said. "Nobody can estimate what a farmer's crop will be, so the government can't control the output and it can't know how much is going to the black market. That's plenty to make the government bother with it." He sounded as critical of the law as Josiah sometimes felt; government liked to stick its nose in where no man had a right, just because it could.

"That's the thing," Nathan said. "These plants... the gene analyzer says these plants we've got will almost grow in sand. Reliably. They're hardy--the three Chris took out of stasis have only just begun to wither."


"So what if this is legitimate? What if White Cross somehow worked out a way to produce it legally and in reliable quantities?" He looked around and pursed his lips. "I have to say, that drug could improve a lot of people's lives."

"And make White Cross a lot of money," Chris muttered.

Josiah couldn't care about the legalities at the moment, because he and these people were clearly on the wrong side of them. "You think we could fly in, drop it off, and fly out again? You think that would work?" Josiah asked, loud enough for the men at the table to hear him but looking at Vin. Vin's eyes were serious, and he just barely shook his head.

"If it doesn't," Chris said, hard-voiced, "we go to plan B."

"I haven't heard plan A yet," Ezra said. Josiah turned to see him standing in the far door, looking more disheveled than the man had so far, even when he'd been cleaning the cargo bay.

"Morning, Ezra," he said. "Sleep well?"

"Very funny," Ezra said sourly, making his way to the coffee. He leaned against the counter beside the maker, drinking his first cup down tepid and pouring a second before sticking it in the reheater. "As it happens, I was up most of the night, doing the Captain's bidding."

It took Josiah a few seconds to recall what Ezra had been doing. Ezra pushed his memory by holding up a hand-sized square of dark plexi; two lights flashed from one side of it, one green, the other yellow.

"Well, now," Buck said quietly. "Haven't seen something like that in a while--it what I think it is?"

The others were looking at it, but Ezra was the one who answered, his voice low with excitement. "It appears to be one of the new ones--and I can but estimate the cost of such as this, given that it can access more networks and links than some Alliance ships--"

"A transponder," Chris said flatly. "So they were sending messages to someone."

Ezra smiled, an expression that Josiah hoped not to see very often. "To someone on Triumph," he said. "Short messages, and highly encrypted, but I managed to catch part of one." He put the transponder on the table while he reached into one pocket and took out a smaller personal messaging device. Josiah moved closer as Ezra brandished it, holding it out as he pressed a control.

"...trouble. I'm still trying to get to them, but the damned crew is right up under my ass." The voice was unmistakably John's, but twisted with just enough venom to evoke the image of the man in the cargo bay, violent and ready to kill. "If it goes bad, just have something ready on the ground--I don't care how you do it, just do it."

The signal cut off abruptly, replaced by a white hiss, and after a few seconds Ezra terminated the feed. "So," Ezra said, pocketing his own pmd then casually reaching for the transponder, "what was plan A?"

Quick as lightning, Chris snapped out one hand, pulling the transponder away so quickly that Ezra's hand hit the table with a small 'thunk'. Chris Larabee must be one hell of a quick draw.

Chris answered grimly but there was a flicker at the corners of his lips as he stared Ezra down. "We land, we offload our cargo, we take off, and we notify the law from space," Chris said.

"And plan B?" Ezra asked, drawing his hand back empty.

"We take care of the bad guys, save the good folk, and collect our ree-wards from a grateful people," Buck said with a leer.

Ezra frowned, looking around the table as he moved past it. "So then, our goal is to get the cargo out of our hands before law enforcement is involved. A wise plan--and might I also assume that our call for assistance will be anonymous?"

Buck grinned. "Maybe one of our guests can do that for us."

Chris ignored Buck and started in on the plan as if Ezra hadn't distracted him. Josiah moved back into the kitchen, getting back to breakfast. "Vin knows what some of these folks look like," he said, "which puts him ahead of any of us. We won't know the criminals from the residents. He goes in with the welcoming party and points out as many of 'em as he can, so we know who to shoot at. Then if the situation calls for it, we start shooting."

"How delightfully sophisticated," Ezra said dryly. "Really, I'm amazed you had time to sleep at all, what with the tedious minutiae your plan entails."

"You got a better one, Ezra?" Chris asked, and Josiah smiled down at the wok. Seemed it'd take a personality like Chris's to keep Ezra Standish from running over all and sundry.

"We sell this stuff on the black market and retire in comfort?" Ezra offered. "No?" He sighed. "Breakfast first. My brain isn't awake yet."

"Go round up everybody. If Inez thinks she can leave Jael and John unattended, have her come up too. If not..." Josiah could practically hear the man's brain working. "Keep 'em bound, hand and foot."

"Now that there is a good idea," Buck said. "Beats serving them breakfast in bed."

"Who said we were gonna feed 'em at all?" Chris asked as Ezra wandered out.

Ezra returned with everyone in tow just about the time Josiah was setting the food on the table. Casey and JD entered from the forward companionway while Vin set bowls out, and everyone settled in to eat without much fanfare.

Buck repeated their plan for the newcomers. "Casey," Ezra asked when he pushed his plate back, "does this ship have a supply of survey cameras?"

Casey shrugged. "Most Fireflies do. For checking the hull components," she said to the room at large--mainly Josiah and Vin himself, Josiah realized. Everyone else at the table seemed to know what she was talking about. "Split-hull ships usually carry crawler cameras that can go outside and check for damage to the seals, heat shields, stuff like that. Keeps the crew from having to suit up so much."

"Could you modify them a bit?" Ezra asked. "Anchor one to the Margaret May's mule and perhaps another to the first piece of equipment from the commune that rolls our way?"

She sat up straighter, looking excited. "I could, yeah. They all operate from remote, and the feed runs back to the ship's brain core. You thinking we can use 'em for sneak surveillance?"

"Good thinking, Ezra," Buck said.

Chris nodded thoughtfully. "Let Vin get a look at more of the people, help us figure out who's who."

"Exactly," Ezra said. Josiah wondered if Ezra believed in Vin's visions now, too. "I also have a camera or two I would be willing to loan to the cause. For a small fee, of course."

"Oh, of course," Chris said. He didn't sound amused.

"Trust me," Ezra said, "they're worth it. One is right here, in fact," he added, and held up his right hand. A signet ring flickered in the light and he grinned. "The other is a bit more obvious, but I could sell the idea of being an amateur photographer. I hear the scenery on Triumph is truly breathtaking."

Buck chuckled. "Slippery sonofabitch," he breathed, impressed.

"What do you want me to do, Chris?" Josiah asked.

Chris scooped the last of his rice into his mouth and set down his chopsticks. "Buck, Inez, Casey, JD, and Nathan stay aboard ship, and we'll keep Jael and John locked up for now, maybe use 'em to trade if we get into a tight spot. I don't want them smugglers knowing how many people we have available. Get the weapons ready and if we need them, then come in like the cavalry."

Josiah was, frankly, surprised. He knew he shouldn't be, that he'd expected Chris to keep Buck back due to his injury but also due to his obvious place in Chris's affections. But he'd believed Chris when Chris said he trusted Vin's sight. He shot a surreptitious look at Buck, wondering if the man would balk at being left behind. But Buck seemed calm enough, and Josiah shook his head. He had more trouble following than Buck did. But then, he was following a boy king, child-prophet. Chris Larabee's leadership rested far more naturally on his shoulders than it had on Vin at seventeen young years. Or now, at twenty-three.

"Buck, I want you and Inez to watch the camera feeds, see if there's an easy way to take down Ellison and his crew. Josiah'll stick close to Vin, watch his back. Ezra and I will move as we need to, and I'll try to keep an eye on him while he gathers intelligence and sends it back to the ship."

"Well hell. I'm stuck aboard ship while Josiah gets to watch Vin's... back? The 'verse ain't fair, ain't fair at all," Buck grumbled, and while Josiah could tell the man was teasing, the words reminded him of being rebuffed last night, and of just how off-kilter his life was.

Josiah collected his plate and retreated to the kitchen.

Chris followed him with a stack of bowls, eying him with no little curiosity. After a minute he said quietly, "Don't mind Buck. He likes the sound of his own voice, and he loves to wind me up just to see the fireworks." He rinsed bowls and chopsticks, handing them to Josiah to stack in the cleaner.

"How do you cope with it?" Josiah asked, surprising himself with the question. He didn't know Chris at all, but he felt a kinship with the taciturn man-more because Chris seemed to believe in Vin than because they'd both had wives, and both loved women.

Chris's grin was wolfish. "Fuck it out of him as much as I can, keep him sleepy and sated. Jerk on the leash when I have to. Same as you, I reckon." Josiah felt his cheeks heat and ducked his head. Maybe he had done that, once. Didn't seem like he was being given many options anymore. He cast about quickly for anything to change the subject, and found it. "Vin wasn't lying to you," he said, stacking the bowls. "You can't change what he sees--we've tried. It's one of the reasons we don't talk about it much any more."

Chris kept washing. "You don't talk because you still try to change the outcome?"

The insight startled him enough that he almost dropped the bowl he was holding. It also annoyed him. He took a deep breath, but he looked at the other man. "Something like that," he said. "It's hard to feel helpless. Hard to know things are going to happen that you can't stop."

"Better not to know, then," Chris said, his voice agreeable. "But I know, and I'm pretty hard-headed. I guess I need to run up against that wall myself. Especially since it's Buck's life we're playing with."

His voice went hard at the end, hard and cold, and Josiah threw down the drying towel and turned to face him. "So if it were anyone else, it wouldn't matter."

"I didn't say that," Chris shot back, but his voice wasn't loud. "If Vin had a vision about himself, about something happening to him--would you just let it happen?"

Six years ago he'd have said "No," without the slightest hesitation. Now, he knew better-and he still wanted to say no, but he couldn't. He'd lost that power somewhere along the way. "It's going to happen the way he sees it," he said shortly. "Fight it all you want, but be prepared for when it plays out. The visions are reality, Chris. You can no more change them than you can change the past."

"How does he see it?" Chris asked after a few seconds. "Or is that part of what you don't want him telling you?"

Josiah shook his head, frustrated. "He told you what he sees--pieces of things, most of them with no context."

"But you still don't want him talking about what he sees," Chris said, rinsing a bowl.

Josiah turned, waiting until Chris met his eyes. "You believe him," he said quietly. "Most people don't. At best, they treat him like a child, humoring him. At worst... " Josiah didn't like to remember the 'worsts', the blood and bruises. "You see how the people out there reacted. It doesn't help that when he has his visions, they disorient him, distract him. He can seem a little... "

"Crazy?" Chris asked with a smile. "Yeah, I've seen it."

Josiah nodded. "Others do, too. You think it helps when he starts spouting information about the future, things that are going to happen somewhere, someday? Or already have?" Josiah pursed his lips. "The first year, he described his visions to me in detail. Some of them contained images like no planet in this system. The descriptions... I think he's seen Earth That Was, Chris, seen that far back in time. So I can only guess he sees that far forward, too, things that will never pass while you and I breathe air, and he doesn't know, doesn't know the when of them, most of the time. I think he's seen too much, in both directions, and I think holding all of that..." He sighed. "Who could live with that without becoming at least a little feng le?"

Chris tilted his head to one side. "Seems like he can, from what I've seen."

Josiah stared, caught off guard. "You're in a very small minority, Captain-for believing him at all, much less believing what he sees doesn't... harm him. In fact, you're in a minority of two."

Chris shrugged, and Josiah didn't know what to make of that. "Three, at least. He sure don't think he's crazy." Josiah blinked at that. It hadn't occurred to him to get Vin's opinion on it, since folks who were a little off tended to be the last people in the 'verse to know it. Chris, watching him closely, nodded as if he'd just proved something to himself. "Must be hard for him, not having anyone to talk to about all that."

"He talks to me; I know when they're hard on him."

"Just not what's in them. You let him carry that burden alone."

Movement from behind them and the clatter of pans signaled Buck's approach. He was being purposely loud so as not to startle, and right now, Josiah appreciated that consideration.

"You two boys having a jawing party back here?" he asked. "How do I get in on it?"

"You don't," Chris said, his voice flat and annoyed. Josiah began to wonder if there was any truth at all in this tone, or if Chris feigned it, jerking on the leash as it were. Damned ineffective if it was; Buck hardly seemed to notice the tone, much less take offense. "Fetch the rest of the stuff off the table."

"Sir, yes sir!" Buck snapped off a salute and turned on his heel, and Josiah got the feeling both he and Chris were being laughed at.

He sighed. It wouldn't be the first time.

Over the next two hours they cleaned up the mess in the cargo bay and re-stacked the crates to make everything look like it should. After that, it was all about checking that points of easy ingress to the ship were protected. Inez and Casey sealed the cargo bay's aft hatch and jammed it shut, so that nobody without a cannon would be getting in that way. The walls of the shower were the weak points, aft; thin core separated the sink area from the hall into the guest cabins, and Josiah thought maybe they were going overboard when Chris made them reinforce it with spare deck plates. The port aft door was already closed and the locks readied. Only the stairs to the flight deck would remain passable, and Buck would seal that last door himself, before they opened up the bay.

Better safe than sorry, Josiah decided, and threw his back into his work.

Inez had brought out her arsenal--Josiah thought Ezra was going to slip in his own drool, and he grimaced at how transparent and foolish the man looked.

But then, Josiah was attracted to the woman himself, dammit. He was a man, and the woman was beautiful, intelligent, and charming, and any man would respond to a woman like her. Josiah took comfort in the certainty that his years and maturity hid his interest better than Ezra's.

Or so he thought until Vin drifted past. He looked at Josiah with sad eyes, and Chris's words came back, about squandering precious things.

Chris didn't know what he was talking about; this situation wasn't the same at all.

"Josiah," Chris called, startling Josiah out of his thoughts.

He looked across the open space they'd left for exercise and sport to find Buck, Ezra, and Nathan around Chris, and the Captain waving him over. Vin wasn't with them, but before he could glance around the room, Buck said, "He's helping Casey with the cameras."

"Didn't ask," he said gruffly, but instead of the amused smile he expected to see on Buck's face, a frown darkened it, shadowed with sadness.

"We're going down to talk to Jael and John," Chris said, getting to the point. "I want you with me and Ezra, talking to Jael--she's the one most likely to give us anything useful. Nathan and Inez and Buck are going to take on John." He headed for the stairwell without a backward glance.

"I'm the bad cop?" Josiah asked, looking to Buck.

"I think Chris'll have that role sewn up," Buck said, rubbing unconsciously at his head. A little more quietly he added, "Just... don't let him kill her."

Josiah didn't know if Buck was joking or not, and his stomach tightened with worry.

They caught up to Ezra first, who was waiting outside the closed door to the room holding Jael. "Captain Larabee wants five minutes alone," he said to Josiah, "and then we are to come in to the rescue."

Josiah grimaced, not sure he liked the sound of that until the image of Vin, tied and vulnerable, came back to mind.

Nathan moved past as Buck called quietly for him from around the curve of the hall.

They stood silently in the hall as Josiah counted the minutes and tried to ignore the sound of thrown objects and raised voices on the other side of the door. Eventually Ezra said quietly, "I can see why you are so protective of your lover." Ezra glanced back, his eyes warm with compassion that Josiah suspected was feigned. "If I had someone with the skill to foretell the future-or feign it effectively enough to sell it-under my control, I'd try to hide him away as well."

"He's his own man," Josiah said shortly.

"Yes, I could tell by the way you were so detached when he made his pronouncements," Ezra said with a smirk. At a particularly loud crash, Ezra squared his shoulders. "Ah, time to go in."

And not a moment too soon, Josiah thought as Ezra opened the door release and they stepped in to find Jael Dykstra held against the wall by the force of Chris's arm across her throat. Dykstra's face was turning a horrible shade of red as Chris stared silently into her bulging eyes.

"Hey now!" Josiah called, not even having to feign worry as he moved over to catch Chris's arm and pull him back. "She's no good to us dead!"

"Ain't no good to us alive either!" Chris snarled, but he let Josiah pull him off Jael, then stepped back so that she slid to the floor, choking and coughing. Her hands were still bound behind her back, and she curled against herself as she struggled to catch her breath.

"That is proving to be the case," Ezra said casually from where he leaned up against the wall. "I wonder if this Ellison person would have any interest in these two."

Jael was still spluttering on the floor, but her breathing was more even, great gulps that had taken on a pattern. The red flush from lack of air was fading fast, leaving her pale and washed out, and even though they had cleaned up the blood at her temple where Inez had hit her, there was a large bruise coming in, dark and ugly purple. She didn't try to say anything, and Josiah wondered if she had even heard Ezra's words.

"I say we give them two to Ellison as a gift," Chris said, sounding disgusted. "Just a good-faith present, maybe, something to say that we're willing to negotiate."

The desperation in Jael's eyes was clear enough though. "If he's really holding hostages, he'll know how far down the hole he's crawled, Captain. He won't negotiate."

"Then convince me you will," Chris said hotly. Josiah had expected Chris's anger to be feigned, but the evidence of his eyes was convincing him otherwise. "Problem is, I don't think you've got anything to trade. The pi gu in the other room is the one who does all the thinking--and by now, Nathan's got him drugged up enough to tell us everything we need to know."

"The asshole in the other room," Jael choked out, "is the cause of all of this!"

"How do you mean?" Josiah asked her gently, gratified when she turned hopeful eyes his way.

"I--don't know," she said, clearly frustrated. "I met him on the ag farm, a few times. I thought..."

"Ag farm?" Chris prodded.

"Blue Sun Thirty-seven," she said, and sighed. "John worked for White Cross's research division, and he was sent out with a team to collect soil and environmental data for a project they were working on--a new plant variation."

Chris huffed a grim laugh at that, but Jael gave him barely a wary glance before she continued. "I thought he was legitimate, that he just wanted to get the shipment back."

"The shipment," Josiah said, leading her.

"Yes. Part of what you're hauling for the Boden Commune doesn't belong to them. It's company property." Here, she paused and licked her lips, nervous.

Chris shifted slightly, his eyes narrowing. "Was that what you meant earlier, in the cargo bay? About the containers belonging to you?"

"To Blue Sun Thirty-seven," she said quickly, and Josiah thought she was being very careful to be honest. "It's very valuable property, on which White Cross holds a genetic patent, so don't make the mistake of trying to sell it."

"I ain't no lawyer," Chris said, "but I don't see how illegal drugs can have genetic patents." Some of his ire had faded, and Josiah took a step back, more than a little relieved.

"They can if the company wants them," she said flatly. "I don't know how or why-it's not my job to ask, not when the paperwork's all in order. The project proposition came across my desk eight months ago; we were to prepare an area for cultivation, fence it and secure it with monitors, controlled entry points, everything. That was when John showed up the first time, as part of a team sent out to get soil samples and climate readings. The project was confidential - we didn't even know what the plants were until the shipment went missing and I was getting fired over it." She sighed and looked down as she went on, "It's my job to make sure our deliveries get received, planted, tended, and harvested. Was my job," she added bitterly.

"What exactly did you do there?" Ezra asked. Josiah had almost forgotten he was in here, he'd been so quiet.

"I was the farm manager," she said.

"Until...?" Ezra prodded her.

"Until Joe Ellison got his balls tied into knots by his new girlfriend and canned me for this cock-up," she snapped. "Joe's new woman is John's sister-or that's how John introduced her, anyway. It's pretty clear now they were in on this together." She turned beseeching eyes to Chris. "You can't trust John, Captain. I thought I could, and then he was down there ready to kill you and your people." She hissed out a breath and pulled herself carefully upright. "I didn't sign on for that."

"We might be willing to let you loose somewhere else," Chris said, "if you help us now."

"No!" Jael yelped, sounding more afraid now than she had a moment ago.

Josiah stared at her, wondering. "What exactly are you afraid of, Jael?" he asked.

Her face tightened and her eyes went cold. "Failing. John Dykstra and whatever he's planning. Joe Ellison's new woman." Here she paused, her brows furrowing with her uncertainty. "Joe too, maybe. He's always been a little loose with the rules, but I didn't think he'd try to steal from Blue Sun. If he's in this... Captain, Joe Ellison has a big crew on Thirty-seven. A lot of his people are loyal. John might have more people there; I don't know."

Josiah raised his eyebrows at that. "What exactly are you doing here, Jael?" he asked.

"Trying to fix a mistake," she said, calming down a little. She looked eager to unburden herself; it was a look Josiah recognized from countless confessionals and counseling sessions over his decades of religious service. "I'm the one caused that shipment to get diverted--at least, I thought I was," she said darkly. "Now, I'm not so sure." She swallowed and started to look away but stopped herself and let out a slow breath. "When Joe fired me, he acted like I'd diverted the shipment on purpose, tried to steal from the company or make him look bad. I set out to find that property- to prove that fei fei de piyan wrong and to clear my name with the company." She stopped talking for a long moment, clearly thinking instead.

"You run out of words?" Chris prodded her, not quite sniping but with plenty of bite in his voice.

Jael closed her eyes. "Like I said, I wanted to find that shipment. I started at Whitefall and searched manually until I figured out where it had gone on Persephone. I was about to book passage to catch up to it when I ran into that-" her voice hardened, then she continued more evenly, "when I ran into John. He said he was doing the same thing, trying to find the shipment. I thought that the company had sent him out, sort of off the record. White Cross can't afford for this sort of thing to become public. So when he suggested that we could help each other, I thought he could put in a good word for me, help me get back into the company's good graces." She drew a breath and finally turned to look at Chris. "I told him where I thought it was. I led him right to it." In barely a whisper, she added, "I'm a damned fool."

Chris blew out a hard breath, and Josiah worried that the man would agree with her; Jael was giving them precious information, if it was true, and the wrong tack might make her button right back up. "Thank you, Jael," Josiah said quietly, trying to infuse a little reason into the room. "This is making a lot more sense now."

Chris took a step back from Jael and leaned against a wall. "All right," Chris said. "We've got you--who broke Buck's skull, by the way-I ain't forgot that. We've got John, who threatened worse. We've got a fortune sitting in stasis containers in our cargo bay. Say you get your precious shipment back, what then?"

"I..." Jael stopped and pushed herself carefully straighter. "I let the company know I've found it, and I return it to Thirty-seven."

"Oh, is that all?" Ezra asked, sarcasm rife in his voice.

Jael shot him a withering look. "That was always my intention," she said. "When we learned the Bodens had arranged transport, I kept to the same plan, to trade the soybeans we loaded onto your ship for the stasis containers that didn't belong to the Bodens anyway. But John convinced me it would be better to do it in secret, keep you and yours from 'getting caught up in confidential company business,' he said." Her words were bitter, and Josiah certainly understood that emotion.

She slumped against the wall and dropped her head tiredly. "I thought if I recovered the shipment I could redeem myself in Joe's eyes, and that he was the eyes of the company. I'd get my job back. But if Joe Ellison's in with John and his sister, we're all in more trouble than you can imagine."

"We can imagine a lot," Ezra said.

She shot him a dark look that Chris himself might have, otherwise. "Joe's head over heels for Trish Dykstra, and damned if that doesn't make more sense now." She was bitter, again, confirming Josiah's suspicion that her relationship with Ellison had been more than professional at some point. "Joe's a sucker, Captain. There's no telling what Trish can convince him of. It's not like he was a bastion of moral virtue before she showed up. Since then, well - he isn't the man I knew before. Maybe he never was. But Trish is dangerous, always pushing, always testing the limits. And now she's got Joe in this with her - "

"Enough," Ezra cut in. "Seriously," he said flatly, "enough. Jael, give us a few minutes. And think hard about what you know versus what you're speculating."

She nodded shortly, and Josiah let Ezra herd him toward the door, where he waited while Chris pulled Jael back onto the bed and tied her hands back to the frame. Josiah waited until they were all in the hall, the door closed behind them, before saying, "I am getting really tired of hearing how much trouble we're all in."

Chris chuckled darkly. "You'd better have a good reason for dragging us out of there just now."

"I think I do," Ezra said thoughtfully. "If anything she just told us is the truth, she is our ally in this mess."

"Ezra," Chris said tightly, "I'm not in a forgiving mood."

"Oh, please," Ezra snapped, peevish. "She conked Buck on the head. She could have shot him. Captain, her story makes sense. JD did say she was a recognized employee of Blue Sun Thirty-seven. If I'd been inclined to steal an extremely valuable and proprietary shipment from a company farm, I'd have enlisted the help of people on the ground. And I'd have been fully prepared with at least one fall guy."

"I'll remember that," Chris said tersely, and Ezra blanched.

"I didn't mean..."

"You'd better not," Chris cut him off. Chris glanced toward the closed door, a thoughtful frown on his face. "Get moving. Upstairs."

"Captain, we could-" Ezra started.

Chris cut him off with a wave of his hand. "Give her time to think about whose side she's on. Move it."

Chris paced the length of the dining room, annoyed at how relaxed Ezra seemed while they waited for Buck, Vin and Inez. He remembered that feeling, the relaxation before the fight, preparedness that let a body catch its breath while it could. He remembered it, but he couldn't touch it.

Josiah looked deeply perturbed, and for some reason that relaxed Chris more than Ezra's cool. "Where's Nathan?" Chris asked.

"In the medbay," Josiah said.

Buck, looking pissed, arrived with Vin and Inez in tow just before Chris was about to go looking for him.

"What did John tell you?" Chris asked.

"Not much," Buck said tersely. "I swear, Chris, it's like that man wanted me to hit him."

"Did you?"

Buck glared at him, answer enough, and Chris grinned. Buck in an ire could be as violent as the next man but he wasn't much good at the premeditated kind. He never had been. "What did you get from Jael?" Buck asked.

Chris outlined Jael's confession, Ezra interjected details, and Buck nodded thoughtfully.

"Some of that matches up to what John told us," he said. "But in his version, she's the evil mastermind who walked off the job right after misdirecting the shipments. You think that's possible?"

"No," Ezra said before Chris could.

"You mind telling us why?" Buck asked.

"Because she had full authority over shipments, and a legitimate role in Blue Sun. She could have shipped it directly to wherever she wanted it to end up. Whoever redirected the cargo did a sloppy job of it."

"She could be sloppy," Buck said.

"Yes," Ezra said, "she could. But I don't have the sense that she is. Nor is she homicidal, and John was the one holding that garrote."

"So we know John's nobody's friend. We know Ellison's bad because of Vin's vision," Chris said without even looking Buck's way. "And we know trouble's waiting for us on Triumph."

"With, potentially, a small army of loyal people," Josiah put in. "And this woman who may or may not be John's sister pulling Ellison's strings."

Buck nodded agreement. "We still might be able to slip in and slip right back out again, Chris. Just like you said."

"We won't," Vin said.

Josiah reached for him, but dropped his hand and made a sound of disgust. Chris felt a measure of that feeling, himself. "Vin? You remember what I told you?" he asked.

Vin frowned a question at him, then his face cleared and he grinned, a tiny quirk of his lips. "If I ain't got anything useful to say...?"

"Don't say anything," Chris finished. "So? You got anything useful to say?"

Vin appeared to think on it for a moment before he shook his head. "Nothing I ain't said before."

Chris resisted a curse. "Everybody collect their weapons and bring 'em up here. Ammunition, too. We'll inventory, load, pack rounds, and stash them on the ship. Concentrate on the cargo bay."

Nobody moved.

"Y'all need a written invitation?" Chris snapped. "Buck, go get our gear. Josiah, Vin, yours too. Ezra, I know you've got something hidden in your belongings. Bring up whatever you pulled out of Jael and John's room while you're at it."

"Bring the cash, too, Ezra," Buck said, grinning at Ezra's startled look.

"I didn't find any cash, Buck," Ezra said mournfully. Chris narrowed his eyes and Ezra stiffened. "I did not find any cash," he repeated. "They--"

"Had a wad on 'em that would choke a pig," Buck interrupted, finishing for him. "Saw it myself. Bring it, Ezra. All of it."

Ezra glared at him, but kept his mouth shut. Chris thought maybe the man was getting a little smarter.

Vin rose when Josiah came alongside him, but he stepped in front of the bigger man and Chris heard him say, "Can you take care of it? Got something I need to talk over with Chris."

Chris minded, but nobody had asked him, so he parked his hip against the edge of the table and waited. Buck hesitated, but Chris shook his head at him, sending him on out of the room.

Vin waited until everyone was gone but himself, Chris, and Inez, and cast a doubtful, uncomfortable look her way.

"Inez?" Chris asked with a sigh. "You mind giving us a minute?"

"Not at all," she said, and moved off down to the end of the room where her armory was laid out on the couches and low table.

"Well?" he asked as soon as she'd moved away.

Vin kept looking at her, worriedly, and he kept his voice down. "This ain't gonna work how you want it to."

Chris raised an eyebrow, waiting.

"I think the Boden commune members are being held by folks with guns and mean dispositions. There's a firefight comin'. Ain't sure it's on Triumph, or now, but one's comin'. And I saw Buck on the planet. He's gonna be on the planet."

"What happens if he ain't?"

"It don't work that way," Vin said, annoyed. "I'm sorry, Chris, but you either trust me or you don't. If you don't, you're just wasting your time. You ain't the kind of man likes doing that."

He wasn't. But there was faith and there was lunacy, and Chris wasn't going to order Buck out with the front crew just on Vin's say so. "It'll turn out the way you see, no matter what I do?" he asked.

Vin nodded. "Yeah."

"Then it don't matter if I try to hold him back."

Vin shook his head and sighed, "Guess it don't. But don't count on it is what I'm saying."

Vin had probably thought of efforts like this one as a waste before, and maybe that was part of the divide between him and Josiah now. Josiah didn't seem like a man to let other people decide his actions for him any more than Chris did. What a bitch that would be for both of 'em. "What were you seeing in the cargo bay?" he asked.

Vin shook his head. "I don't know."

Chris felt his jaw tighten. "I saw you down there, saw you going vague. Ain't that when you see things?"

"If I knew what I was seeing, I'd tell you," Vin said, resentful now.

"If you knew what? Or when?" Vin's lips tightened, and Chris let it go. "Go help Josiah."

He took the opportunity to head for the flight deck, where he found both of the kids. Casey sat with JD, a joystick in her hands. "That for the cameras?" he asked.

She nodded, looking pleased with herself. "Got one mounted behind the grill on the mule. Picture's a little fuzzy..." She reached to the co-pilot's console and flipped switches, and an image of the inside of the cargo bay door popped onto the display. "It's shooting through the screen, but I don't think nobody will be able to see it."

"Good work. JD? How much time?"

"Less than two hours now before we ought to hail them. Chris, I really could--"

Chris held up a hand to cut him off. If the kid volunteered to go out with the welcoming party one more time, Chris was pretty sure he was going to backhand him one. JD slumped back into his chair, and Chris turned on his heel. He still had Buck to deal with.

He'd managed to avoid being alone with Buck ever since he'd laid out the plan. With Buck down in their bunk collecting equipment, maybe it was time to get it over with. Better to do this in private than dress Buck down in front of everybody, and he could tell by the sneaked looks Buck had been throwing him that it wasn't going to wait.

He stepped one foot onto the ladder and leaned in, calling down the hole, "Buck!"


"Need a hand?"

"Yeah," came the instant reply, filled with cunning Chris was pretty sure Buck didn't know he recognized. He smirked and slid down the ladder.

Buck had bagged up all of their weapons, two duffels that he could easily haul up the ladder himself. "Thought you needed help," he said.

"Thought you trusted Vin's visions," Buck replied.

"Don't start."

"He said I'm dirt-side. You're the one trusts him, pard, not me. So what's your grand scheme?" He raised his eyebrows.

"He says it'll happen the way he saw it no matter what I do. So there's no reason for me to go down easy."

Buck sobered a little. "I don't like not having your back, Chris. Like even less you not having mine."

Chris leaned back against the ladder's face, feeling the bite of warm carbon at his ribs and shoulder blades, and just barely resisted thumping his head back against a rung. "Go on," he said, "get it out of your system."

But Buck huffed at him instead. "You're overreacting, too, digging in like it's the Fourth War."

"You're complaining about that?" Chris asked, feeling his eyebrows climb. "You that desperate to find something to bitch about?" He didn't say why he was digging in, that for whatever damned reason he did trust in what Vin said he saw, and had since Vin had called Buck his husband in that jail cell on Persephone. He didn't say that greedy people would kill for a lot less than the value of what they were carrying. He didn't even say he wasn't going to be responsible for more people dying. Buck already knew that.

Buck narrowed his eyes, clearly caught, and shoved away to pace across the room.

"Buck." Buck turned, still glaring at him, and Chris just looked at his partner, knowing he'd feel pretty much the same if their positions were reversed.

Buck sighed and frowned at him. "You'd think I'd be better at staying mad at you," Buck said, "you give me such good reason."

Chris reached out and waited until Buck sidled back over and clasped it, lacing their fingers together for a moment. "You'd think."

"Love you," Buck said.

Chris blinked. Buck hadn't said it in a while--wasn't like it needed saying--and Chris grinned at him. "You that worried?"

Buck looked disgruntled and tugged his hand away. "Shut up."

High Orbit Around the Moon called Triumph

"Twenty minutes to hail," JD's voice called over the comms. Chris crouched under the starboard stairwell, affixing a rifle up under the metal skirt where it was out of sight. Buck had done the same to port.

He shimmied out of the stair supports and reached back and up, feeling for it: yeah, that'd do all right. They had weapons hidden just about everywhere they could think to. Two handguns were tucked behind a urinal in the showers, and rifles loaded the rack on the flight deck.

Casey had actually suited up and gone outside, crawling under the ship's belly and affixing a pistol in each of the four bays that housed the landing legs. Electromagnets were strong enough to hold them by their barrels, but she promised that they'd loosen up as soon as the doors opened, fifty feet or so above the ground. She was just re-entering the airlock, and Chris watched through the porthole, waiting for gravity to kick in and the pressurization light to go green.

He looked around the bay while Buck helped Casey unseal her helmet, trying to see it like a stranger would. Vin had climbed atop the Bodens' stasis crates, doing one last check of the tie-down straps, and Josiah stood with his feet planted wide, staring up at him. Everything looked like it ought to. They had left no nutrient matrix to stain the floors, and Ezra had meticulously cleaned up the mess of Buck's blood, going back over that area again after Chris had laid out his plans.

"Wanna play hoops?" Buck asked him.

Chris leveled a glare at him, but Buck refused to be fazed.

"Want to do somethin' else?" he asked, his tone rife with innuendo.

"Casey," he said, ignoring Buck's damn fool efforts to cut through the tension, "we don't shut down for any reason while we're dirt-side, you got that?"

"Sure, cap'n."

"I want the Maggie able to lift off within three seconds of giving the order."

"She will," Casey assured him as she wriggled out of her space suit. Buck watched her openly, an absent, appreciative smile on his face. "She's in good shape, sir."

"Good. Hatches into the cargo bay are all to be locked from the inside. Jam 'em shut if you have to. The bay doors'll be open and somebody could slip in during the commotion."

She was nodding, taking it all in like a professional, which Chris hadn't expected. But she had dealt with heavy ships, dangerous equipment, and the vacuum of space for years now. Seemed like she was treating this the same. "Uh, Captain? If we lock everything up tight, how will you and Vin and Josiah and Ezra get in and out?"

Buck snorted behind his palm, and Chris didn't even look, just threw his hand out and whapped him on the belly, satisfied when Buck let out an 'oomph'. "Y'all'd best keep an eye out for us."

"Go and calm your man down," Buck told her. "Make sure he isn't chewing his fingernails to the quick."

"He does that already," Casey said, but she took off at a jog, ducking through the port forward door. If Chris leaned, he could see her starting up the steep stairs into the flight deck.

"You trying to scare that girl?" Buck asked quietly, watching her go.

Chris didn't answer, and after a second Buck's big hand settled at the back of his neck, squeezing gently. "Ain't gonna be more trouble than you and me know how to face," Buck assured, his voice even quieter now.

They'd faced a lot of trouble in their time-some that had found them, and some that they'd gone out and looked for. The fact that Buck was right didn't calm him down any. "Vin!" he called up, waiting for Vin to lean over the side of the tower of stasis chambers. "Up on the flight deck. I want to know if whoever answers is Ellison."

Vin nodded and started scrambling down the stacks, and Chris followed Casey. Buck followed him, and soon enough Vin and then Josiah, too. Damned carnival in here, he thought, but he didn't run Josiah off, or Inez when she came up via the companionway.

"Ezra and Nathan are with our prisoners," she said calmly. She'd finally changed out of her skirts, and her holster rode low on the wide curve of her hip, tied down over snug brown trousers that reminded Chris of the uniform pants they'd all worn during the war. "How long before we land?"

"Maybe ten minutes after we hit orbit?" JD offered. "Fifteen, twenty minutes from now, unless we got weather."

"She looks beautiful," Inez said, the slight dreaminess in her voice surprising Chris. He turned, looked out the port. Triumph hung suspended like a jewel against the black of space. They were approaching from the sun-side, and her one real city sat past her terminator, big enough that the city lights twinkled, visible even at this distance.

"That she does," Buck, beside her, said.

"Buck, Inez. Get back down there with Ezra and Nathan." In the end, she had turned down their offer of a shuttle and pronounced herself willing to remain on board to help them if the need arose. Their exchange was simple; they'd have to wait dirt-side for at least two days after they finished up on the Boden commune, for her to do her business in Gethen, or return to the planet in two days to get her, if this worked ideally and they managed to get in and get out. Not that any of them were thinking that it would.

The rest of them waited for JD to haul in the thrusters and spin the ship's nose around. Triumph filled most of the screen now, and Chris felt his anger tick up a notch that something that should have been easy wasn't going to be.

"Hail 'em, JD," he said. "Casey, Vin, stay back."

He dropped into the copilot's chair and waited until a face materialized on the screen, not one he recognized but familiar enough to be one of Marcus's close relatives. "Boden farms," the woman said.

"Captain Chris Larabee, of the Margaret May. We've got some goods to deliver."

Vin reached over the side of the console and hit the mute button. Grinning, deeply amused, he said, "That ain't him."

Chris tightened his mouth to keep from glaring at Vin; he was still in the camera's eye. But he consoled himself by reaching to shove Vin's hand off the console.

"Larabee?" She frowned, squinting at him. "My cousin has neighbors, back on Persephone."

Chris nodded. "Those are my kin."

He had expected the information to reassure her, but if anything she looked even tenser. "The owner of record is..." She looked away from her screen at something, clearly nervous now. "... Mr. Richard Lucius Wilmington."

"Yeah," Chris said.

"Captain Larabee, we only deal with the owners of record."

"You'll deal with me if you want your cargo," he snapped.

"I don't know how your world works," she said firmly. "But out here, we like to know who we're dealing with, and when we don't we deal with registered owners. We don't want trouble." Her lips tightened perceptibly. "And we don't want to bring trouble on family or friends."

He could picture the scene well enough; this woman, sitting in the commune's business office, her spouse or her children held at gunpoint just off screen. She probably thought she was doing her cousin a favor, trying to keep family friends out of it. "Hold on, I'll fetch him," he said. He closed the comm and cursed. "JD, tell Buck to get his ass up here." He glanced to Josiah, waving him out of the room.

When Buck arrived, Chris filled him in on the details. "Tell 'em I'm your captain, and that they'd best deal with me if they want their cargo," he snapped.

Buck nodded. "It ain't that unusual, Chris. Folks off the beaten path are superstitious about piracy. They won't want to think they're dealing with somebody who stole a ship."

"She recognized my family name, Buck," Chris snapped. "If they're being held hostage, she's probably trying to keep the blowback away from family and friends."

Buck smiled. "That's right nice of her."

Chris bit back a curse. "Wave."

He just barely listened to Buck's conversation with the woman--Geraldine, must've been named after a daddy or some other male relative--paying only enough attention to be sure that Buck wasn't trying to paint a target on his chest. She was persistent, but she gave ground eventually. "We'll look forward to meeting you both, uh... Richard?" Buck's eyes widened. "Lucius?" Buck shot Chris a look of betrayal.

"Buck," he said. "Ma'am. Just Buck."

Chris snorted off camera.

"Mr. Wilmington," she said in the end, doubtfully. "We're still pretty new down here, don't have a designated landing pad. Put down where ever you want."

"JD," Buck said, "pull the topography maps back up. Let's see where to set her down."

Chris directed JD to bring her down some distance from the farm's outbuildings. "Back her up against that rock face," he said, pointing. It had the advantage of a little altitude on the farm proper, and the smallish-looking bluff would make it harder for people to come up behind the ship.

JD nodded, handling the controls responsibly and with ease, and Chris collected Vin and Buck with a jerk of his head. He led them back to the guest common, where Inez, Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan all sat in varying states of tension. "Change of plans," Chris said. "Buck goes in with the load-out crew. Josiah stays behind."

The next ten minutes seemed to pass more slowly than the six hours previous. Chris stood in the cargo bay, shoulder to shoulder with Vin and Ezra, while Buck remained on the flight deck until the Margaret May touched down. It was Buck's own little ritual, always had been if he could tear himself away from whatever he was doing, so Chris had left him there with JD.

The ship lurched slightly as it touched down, giving itself over to local gravity. Chris pushed his jacket back over the butt of his sidearm, flexing his fingers. He nodded to Vin, who punched the button to drop the door as Buck jogged over from the flight deck ladder.

"Everything locked up tight?" Chris asked.

"Tighter than a virgin's panties," Buck assured him. "Engines are still running, JD's still at the helm, inner doors are sealed."

The bay door dropped slowly open, letting in a gust of warm, wet air that smelled of nothing but flowers and hay, earth and manure. The door hit the grassy earth with a muted thump and Chris stepped forward, looking around at the kind of scene artists painted pictures of. The sun, low in the sky and behind them, cast a long shadow off the cliff face that blanketed the ship and the ground nearby. A half-mile beyond that, the commune sat, big industrial farming buildings and silos, and rambling residences that took up the space of a small village. A solar array filled a hillside, the collectors' shiny faces glaring in the late sun. He estimated the population based on the number of buildings, guessing at least sixty or seventy, probably more with kids. There'd be plenty of those out here, hands and help and blood all important investments to any thriving family farm.

Trees dotted the nearer hillsides, thick natural stands well away from the cleared farming acreages, and a grove of producing trees sat in the lee of the same rock face that shaded the ship, stretching along the step all the way to a lazy river. The river flowed along the valley floor farther away, bisecting rich, black fields of turned earth that stretched into the distance. A fenced pasture off to the left held cattle and large stock birds; beside Chris, Buck sighed.

"Don't get taken in," he muttered, nodding his head toward the welcoming party. A mule crawled quietly along a narrow, hard-packed dirt track that led up from an open-sided equipment barn. Behind it, in a narrow corral, several people were mounting up on horses.

"I'll have no trouble selling the photography angle," Ezra murmured, glancing around. He breathed in deep and sighed like Buck had, and Chris couldn't blame either of them. The air was wild and sweet here, more so after the sterile, processed atmosphere aboard ship.

Chris stepped off the loading door and into knee-high grass, feeling his boot heels sink a little into springy earth. They had plenty of time before the people heading their way arrived, and he used it to take a circuit around the ship, looking up under the landing legs to see if he could spot the handguns Casey had placed. It took a careful search amongst the shadows up there to identify them as what they were, but he could reach the butt or the barrel of each one without having to stretch. Chris nodded to himself; Casey had done a good job.

By the time he'd made it back to the front of the ship, Buck and Vin had parked their asses on the lip of the bay door and Ezra was busily strolling around, taking pictures with a high-end camera. The people on horseback were trotting, almost caught up to the mule, whose engine burred a little louder now.

He stood beside Buck, kicking his foot to urge him up when the people got within a couple of hundred yards. "Up," he said for Vin's benefit too, and he headed toward the welcoming party, wanting to put distance between the newcomers and the ship.

"Vin?" he called quietly.

"Yeah, Chris?"

"You let me know if you see Ellison or anybody else you recognize. Maybe we can end this before it even starts."

He caught Vin's sigh but the man nodded his acquiescence and Chris lengthened his stride, meeting the mule a little ways off from the Maggie.

The kid driving it looked maybe fifteen or sixteen, with wheat-colored hair pulled into two tight ponytails back behind his ears. Thin as a rail and gangly, the boy hopped off the mule after planting its brake, looking expectantly at them. "Howdy," he said, neither frightened nor particularly excited.

"Howdy there, young man," Buck replied with a smile, buckling his knees a little to get more on the teen's level.

"Billy!" a woman on horseback called, her voice stern.

The boy stiffened at the call and stepped back a pace, and Buck straightened while Chris took in the group coming up behind the mule. "Vin?" he whispered.

"Nah, Ellison ain't there," Vin answered back, just as quiet.

Damn it.

Eight in all, the riders reined in beside the mule, herding the teen closer to the vehicle, and two of them put themselves between this 'Billy' and them. Only a few were armed, which wasn't that unusual for a meeting like this, but Chris filed those few away, labeling them as the enemy.

The horses sidled close to each other and so did the people as they dismounted, the one first in line who had called Billy to heel swinging a long leg over her saddle and kicking out of the stirrup. She was stunning enough that Chris took notice; tall and slender, she had the kind of form that made a man's head turn, filling out her button-down work shirt amply. It was her face that really caught his eye, though: smooth skin too pale for a woman who worked the fields, she had striking green eyes and a full mouth. When she ducked out of her hat and slung its strap around the saddle horn, a pile of thick silver-blond hair spilled out and over her shoulders.

"What did I tell you, Billy?" she reprimanded, her voice soft but stern. He wasn't quite her height, and gangly as he was, he still had some growing to do. "You stay with the mule," she told him, then turned toward Chris and his party.

From her bearing alone it was clear she was the leader of this group, and Chris wondered if she was a member of the commune or someone from Ellison's mob. The boy decided him; drug smugglers didn't travel with family, and this young man clearly belonged to her. He watched in silence as Buck stepped up to her, his hand outstretched.

"Beautiful," Buck said, the word loaded with innuendo, and Chris groaned inwardly. "Day," Buck added, giving the woman his most charming smile. "Beautiful day. Beautiful spread you've got here, too, ma'am. I'm Buck Wilmington, owner of the Margaret May."

She shook his hand, brief but firm, shooting him a confused look. "Mary Travis," she said. "I speak for the commune."

"A real pleasure to meet you," Buck said, his grin stretching impossibly wider. Chris should have kicked him harder a minute ago, and felt the urge to do so now.

The woman's--Mary's--confusion faded into a censuring frown, and Chris figured she got this kind of reception all the time. But beautiful women learned to handle it, and Mary handled it well. "I can't say the same, Mr. Wilmington," she said briskly. "You're a bit later than we'd hoped, and parked quite some distance from a more convenient landing area." Her nod back toward the buildings did nothing to illuminate Chris; there was no formal landing pad, no stripes or lights as far as he could see.

"Sorry about that, ma'am, but the Maggie's got a little trouble with her batteries," Buck said. "The captain says we need to keep the engine running while we're set down, and she gets a bit noisy when she runs up off idle. We don't want the noise spooking your animals." Chris stepped up, inserting himself between Buck and the woman. "This here is Chris Larabee," Buck introduced with a wave of his hand. "He's the man who speaks for the ship and her crew."

Chris cut another step in front of Buck. "We can help speed the unloading along."

"Well..." Her tone was doubtful, and she glanced nervously over her shoulder toward a squat, weathered man behind her. Chris looked him over carefully, deciding already that he was on the wrong side. "Captain, it'll be easier for us to off-load if you move on in."

"You've got four tractors on board the ship and we've got a forklift and a mule; we shouldn't have any trouble," he countered. "Folks who hire transports-especially with payment still due-ought to be a little more accommodating about working with the rightful captain," he added, happy to act affronted at the expense of the woman who'd greeted them on their approach. It wasn't much of an act; Buck's presence beside him instead of tucked safely inside the ship pissed him off.

She looked again to the man behind her, who shrugged, said stiffly, "I guess it will do for now. Welcome to the Boden Land Cooperative, and Triumph. Under other circumstances, we'd offer you supper, but as I'm certain you understand, time is short. We really need to get our cargo off your ship and the plants ready for the ground."

Country courtesy gone awry, Chris thought with some annoyance. "Thank you, Ms. Travis," he said, sure by the frown Buck shot him that he sounded anything but grateful. "Maybe some other time."

"Very kind of you, ma'am," Buck added. He had shut off the charm now, but he still sounded relaxed and friendly. "We're fresh and ready to get started with the offload whenever you are."

The weathered man stepped up then, extending a hand first to Chris, then to Buck. "Rev Williams," he greeted. "I'm one of the foremen around here. Be glad to look over the shipment right now, start an inventory." His hand stayed well clear of his sidearm.

Chris just bet he would. He tilted his head toward Mary. "That all right with you, Mrs. Travis?"

"Yes, Captain Larabee, thank you. I'll tag along."

"This is Ezra," Chris said, introducing him when he strolled up. He hooked a thumb over his shoulder, "And that's Vin."

"Ma'am," Vin said, nodding.

"Mrs. Travis," Ezra said, not quite gushing, "this has gotta be some of the most beautiful scenery I've ever had the joy of witnessing. Truly," and here he paused to glance around, "breathtaking!"

"Thank you... Ezra?"

"Mister Ezra Standish, at your service." He shifted the camera into his other hand and reached out, taking her hand in a genteel manner and ducking his head in a little bow. The move and his words were so obsequious, Chris almost did a double take. "Let me show you," Ezra said, turning the camera's back around for her. "I just grabbed some shots while we were waiting, but I suspect things will be even more breathtaking come morning."

Rev stepped up too, looking doubtfully at the camera's screen as Ezra filtered through several images--rocks, tiny flowers, not a single one with people in it. Rev relaxed, Mary looked politely interested, and Chris let Ezra play it out for a moment before gathering them up and leading them back toward the ship.

Chris felt an itch between his shoulder blades with all them strangers behind him like they were. Jael had said Ellison was smart, and the smartest thing for a man like Ellison to do might be to gun 'em all down and take over the load right now. That would make a mess and leave him with a load of witnesses in these commune members, though. If he already had a large farm on the planet, he could just take off and disappear.

Chris stopped the crowd at the bay door, waving a hand to usher Mrs. Travis and Williams on into the ship. "Y'all can wait here," he ordered curtly, glad when his men stopped there with the strangers.

Rev retrieved a clipboard from one of the others in the crowd, and he was very business-like as he wandered around the cargo bay. He paused by the first stack of stasis crates, counted across and then up, then nodded to himself, checking off something on his list. The list seemed to include the tractors and all the other equipment they'd loaded in New Born, too. If this Rev was one of the criminals, he was damned good at hiding it.

For her part, Mary Travis didn't seem as happy as she ought to, to have received what amounted to this commune's healthy future intact. Chris couldn't blame her, under the circumstances.

Rev and Mary continued their circuit around the cargo bay while Buck, Vin, and Ezra kept the commune members gathered on the loading ramp. He could hear Buck and Ezra making small talk, and occasionally Vin too.

Rev kept checking off items on his manifest, and Mary looked over his shoulder now and again. When Rev came up to the crates Jael and John had brought on, he paused, then stepped closer, examining a bill of lading sealed to the end of one chamber. Chris had a moment's worry; had those two idiots used containers or equipment that also belonged to Ellison? If John had tried to leave some clue out here for his fellows, he wouldn't survive til dawn.

"Somethin' you're interested in?" Chris asked him, trying to sound bored. They'd double-checked all the containers, found that they all had the White Cross label on them. But the ones with the amalthya, the twenty or so with the grey symbol that -they'd discovered on closer inspection, had the inoperative trackers. The ones that their prisoners had brought with them could have passed for the Bodens' crop, and had clearly been intended to if Jael and John had been successful at making their switch, right down to the soybeans inside 'em if Jael could be believed.

Chris's fingers twitched, and he set his palm atop his gun butt.

But Rev just glanced at him in confusion, then back across the bay to the crates they'd loaded for Boden Farms. He looked more closely at the print, then strode quickly back across the bay to examine the commune's stacks. Chris stayed where he was and Mary did, too, standing silently beside him and watching Rev intently. Very quietly, so quietly Chris almost missed it, Mary began to whisper. "Our farm has been taken over, Captain. We need your help."

"We figured that out already," he shot back. "How many are there?"

"Seventeen, including Rev there," she said, her lips tight and barely moving. "Armed. We think--"

Rev turned their way and she buttoned up instantly. Chris kept everyone else in his sights while Rev came back over.

He tilted his head toward Jael and John's crates. "Those ain't ours," he said.

Chris shook his head.

"Whose are they?" he asked.

Chris stared at him. "They belong to passengers we dropped at Gethen."

"Paying passengers left without their cargo?" Rev asked, frowning.

"You see a lot of farms in the city limits?" Chris shot back, annoyed and happy to show it. "Their cargo's going further east, soon as you people get your supplies unloaded."

Rev seemed to weigh his words before he finally went on. "You find yourself stuck with 'em, let us know. They won't be worth the containers they're stored in five days from now, and we might be able to offer you something for 'em."

If not for Mary's whispered words, Chris might have wanted to rethink his assessment of this Rev Williams. He said exactly the kind of things a farmer might.

He followed the pair of them out of the ship's belly, where dusk had settled in. Shadows stretched thick across the land now, lights had come up in many of the buildings in the distance, and stars popped out one by one. Buck and Vin eased up beside him while Ezra continued a conversation with two other folks. "Y'all want to get started?" he offered. "We got landing lights outside the ship."

"Thank you, Captain Larabee," Mary said.

Mary and Rev were very cooperative about anything that pushed things along. To that end, one of the first things they did was clear the area under the tractors, using both mules and trailers to move the goods from the ship to the barn. The kid, Billy, drove the commune mule and Ezra ended up driving the other. Chris didn't begrudge him the easy job, as he knew that Ezra was trying to get pictures inside the barn.

After an hour or so, Chris found it hard to believe that most of the people working with them were anything other than farmers--which could have been Ellison's people, of course, but there were other things that made it seem unlikely--the little conversations that Chris saw between different people, whispered and short, the way they acted around each other. These people knew each other.

And they were scared.

The only exception seemed to be Rev Williams who spent more time watching who was doing what under the guise of checking and rechecking the inventory lists. He veered close to the other shipment more than once, sneaking covert looks at the labels. Chris ignored him, but the tension in him rose, slow and steady.

"Mary Travis warned me, or tried," Chris said quietly when Buck passed by him with a stack of boxes.

Buck stopped and turned. "Yeah?"

Chris nodded. "Need to get Vin up to look at pictures."

"Will do," Buck said.

A little while later, he looked over to see Vin sliding back in through the door to the passenger cabins down below, which was less visible than the doors off the catwalk. The mules were trading off, one going down the ramp while the other one waited to come up, and the engine sounds muffled the noise of the door closing.

He caught Vin's eye, and after a second, Vin nodded. Whatever little hope Chris had had of Plan A succeeding--which had been scant-- died.

"He's in the barn," Vin said softly when Chris moved over to him. "Didn't get a good shot in--light's bad, but he was definitely there."

Chris sighed but nodded, looking to where Mary Travis was working with one of her people to heft an over-large crate onto a dolly. "How many?" he asked quietly.

Vin shrugged. "Couldn't tell. Most of the people are moving around so it's hard to tell who's Ellison's and who's part of the commune."

Chris nodded then bent over to pick up a box.

They worked until midnight, when the strong lights around the commune's buildings began to fade. "That's the solar batteries," Mary said pensively. "We can start again early."

"I'll stay behind with the cargo," Rev said, his manner friendly and his words directed at Mary. More so than Chris.

"No, you won't," Chris said, surly. "We don't keep guests on board."

"But it's our cargo..."

"Yeah," Chris said, daring him to try and make an issue of it. "And half of it is off already."

When Williams stiffened, Mary's eyes widened in an almost panic. Chris didn't say anything, waiting, and after a few seconds, Rev frowned at him.

"All right..." He glanced around once more, his eyes lingering over the inside of the cargo bay, and Chris thought they were done until Mary Travis took a step closer to him and lowered her voice.

"Captain Larabee," she said. "Geraldine meant you and yours no disrespect when she spoke earlier. Her daughter Ellie is pregnant with her first child, and Geraldine is rightly worried about her." Her eyes were direct on his, as if willing him to understand. "We have over thirty children here; her only goal was to protect them."

Chris tilted his head, accepting both the worry and the specific information. "No offense taken. See you at dawn."

Rev frowned, looking between them. "Yeah, all right."

Chris watched the little crowd walk back to their mule and trailer, heard Ezra's camera clicking almost subliminally beside him.

"The backs of their heads ain't gonna help us, Ezra," Chris snapped as they loaded up. The mule's engine whirred to life a second later, and its lights blinded him briefly as Billy swung it around.

"I'd like to have a clear mosaic of the inhabitants here," Ezra said quietly. His voice went softer still when he added, "I don't want to be responsible for the death of an innocent."

The words surprised Chris; he hadn't thought Ezra had an overabundance of feeling for human life.

"I don't either," Buck said heartily. "Come on. Looks like nothin's happening until the sun comes up, and I'm ready for some food or a nap."

"Food," Chris said shortly. He had no plans to sleep tonight. "Meet up in the dining room after we lock up."

Vin and Ezra wandered off while Chris closed and sealed the cargo bay door. Buck waited for him, then followed him up to the flight deck. Casey jumped up out of the copilot's chair, making room for Chris, but he ignored her and it, and stared out the forward screens. He couldn't see shit out there in the dark.

Buck laid a hand to his back and Chris jerked, shrugging him off. "Pressurize," he said to JD. The kid looked surprised, but he did as he was told, and after a moment Chris felt his ears pop.

"Seals are holding," JD confirmed. "We taking off?"

"No," Chris said, "but if somebody tries to get in, I want the alarm to sound."

JD spun in his chair, that star-struck look of admiration filling his eyes. "You are..." He paused, licked his lips. "That's a good idea, Captain."

Chris didn't say anything; he knew it was, and it said something about how green JD was that he hadn't thought of it himself.

"Hey now," Buck teased JD, "Chris is mine."

JD flushed and growled at Buck. "Can't a man show a little respect to somebody without you tryin' to make something of it?"

"I'd say you got a little more'n respect for Chris here," Buck went on, chuckling now. "Casey, you'd best watch your man. I think he's got himself a little crush on mine."

Chris ignored them all and jogged off the flight deck. It pissed him off, having the kid look at him like that, and he wondered if Buck had been spinning stories for JD or if the kid had looked him up on the Coretex. Either way he resented it.

He resented more that he was wide awake and that they were waiting again, and he paused briefly by the door to his bunk. He needed to get Vin to go through everything they had, get the others to assess what they knew.

Stalling until dawn was--a ploy, he knew. Mary Travis was desperate and he had no doubt but that this commune's batteries could get them through an entire night. She was planning something, and most likely something desperate and stupid that was going to drag them into it.

He pulled himself off the wall and headed on, hearing Buck and the kids behind him. Time for worrying was past.

Josiah had paced for so long that he was pretty sure the floor was thinner along the entire corridor. He'd stayed on the flight deck as long as he could, watching the images sent back, mostly the ones of Vin, working easily with these people, even knowing there was danger. Working with Chris and Buck as if he'd known them as long as he'd known Josiah.

Inez looked up at him, expectant. Her presence was reassuring, calming. She never asked, even though she seemed to understand. Which was far more than Josiah could say.

He was on his rotation in the mess, trying to drink a cup of tea, when JD's voice carried low over the intercom. "The lights are down--outside. They can't see." His tone was urgent and Josiah was on his feet and out the door before he realized it.

He came into the fight deck fast, catching himself on the metal of the doorframe. "What's going on?" he demanded. It was only as Casey turned to stare over her shoulder, her brown eyes wide, that he realized how he must sound.

"Their lights started to fade--solar batteries," Casey said. "Chris sent 'em home for the night."

Josiah frowned, looking at the monitor over JD's shoulder. The commune mule and a number of folks on foot were picking their way back to the farm. Josiah couldn't see Vin and that worried him.

"We're clear until dawn," JD announced, and Josiah turned, heading out the door. He had felt the vibrations as the cargo bay doors closed, and the pop of pressurization, but he was looking for Vin who was coming through the aft hatch from the cargo bay with Ezra.

"How's it going?" Josiah asked when Ezra nodded and moved past him to the mess.

"Good," Vin informed him. "Think they're tired. They want to take a break until the sun comes up in a few hours."

Josiah nodded as he looked at Vin. "How are the residents holding up?"

Vin smiled. "Strong bunch. Ellison's man's been wandering around like a keeper, claiming that it's to keep an eye on the cargo but I think he just wants to keep us away from the natives. He's been glued to the Travis woman, mostly."

They had all noticed that, the way Williams seemed to hover around her, especially when she was near Chris or Buck.

Buck came along then with JD and Casey in tow and they all settled down in the mess. "Anybody got a deck of cards?" Buck asked, pulling out a chair at the dining table.

"You want to play cards?" JD asked him, incredulous. "We're in the middle of a war, here!"

Buck made a show of looking around the quiet room. "Where? Looks to me like we're just taking a short break from doing all the real work while some of y'all get to sit up here and do nothing!"

JD huffed at him and went into the kitchen, filling a glass of water and grabbing some dried fruit off the counter. "You could suck the fun out of a carnival," he grumbled, and handed the glass to Casey while he munched.

"Don't see anything fun about waiting," Buck said reasonably. "And that's all we're doing right now. Hasn't been much fun in offloading all that cargo either," he added, "and I, for one, will be damned glad to be shut of it."

Inez came in before JD could get heated up. Nathan followed a moment later.

"They recognize anybody in your pictures?" Vin asked.

"John said he didn't even recognize Williams," Ezra huffed. "I'm not surprised."

"And Jael?" Josiah prodded.

"Rev Williams worked directly for Ellison. His right-hand man and, to hear Jael tell it, a son of a bitch."

Nathan shook his head. "Where's Chris?" he asked.

"Speak of the devil," Ezra murmured, and Josiah looked up to see Chris stalking down the hall.

Chris hesitated in the doorway, glancing around before he flew down the stairs and ducked into the kitchen, pouring leftover coffee from the pot. He took one of the tall chairs at the counter when he was done, keeping himself apart from the crew. His mood was dark enough that Josiah could tell something was riding Chris, something that had Buck stepping more lightly than Josiah had seen so far on this trip. Casey and JD pulled up chairs at the table, quiet but alert and obviously waiting for instructions, but Chris didn't give any.

"Captain?" JD nudged after a minute. "What's the plan?"

Before Chris could do more than stiffen in his chair, Ezra said, "This really is a beautiful place," scanning through the photographs he had taken. Josiah had looked them over as they had uploaded to the ship's brain. Most were scenery and wildlife shots, which had irked him some until he'd realized Ezra was just probably making good on his cover.

"It's a trap, Ezra," Chris sniped.

Ezra ignored him utterly. "I think I could actually sell some of these images," he went on. Then he turned serious. "Vin?" he asked.

"That fella who introduced himself as Rev, I seen him with Ellison," Vin said, tapping his fingers on the tabletop. "But none of the others doing the off-loading look familiar."

"Think we could've guessed that without your 'gift'," Chris sniped, his mood turning darker even as Josiah watched.

Vin ignored Chris as completely as Ezra had, and Josiah might have stepped in to smooth the way if Larabee hadn't ordered him to remain onboard at the last minute. "The woman leading them is who she says she is, I think," Vin went on.

Josiah didn't interject, though he privately agreed with Chris; once the cargo was out of the bay, they could leave it to the commune members to do what they would with it. He had a bad feeling about letting this ship stay here any longer than absolutely necessary.

"Anything for us to do, Chris?" he asked, hoping to break some of the building tension.

"Wait," Chris said, the one word surly and carrying with it a deep and abiding anger.

"Settle down, Chris," Buck said tiredly. "Get some sleep, maybe. Sun'll be up soon enough."

Chris said nothing, but he stormed out of the dining room the same way he'd stormed in, his head down and his anger dragging in his wake.

"What's wrong with him?" JD asked.

Buck turned his attention away from Chris's dramatic exit and leaned back in his chair. "I told you he ain't no hero, JD," Buck said kindly, clearly aware of how JD's eyes had started following Chris whenever he sniffed adventure in the air. "He don't like being reminded that some folks think of him like that."

"I..." JD swallowed, and Josiah wondered what he'd missed. What he'd missed about Chris Larabee that would make JD think such a thing.

"It's not all you," Buck went on and sighed. "There was a kid out there, I think he reminded Chris of somebody. And Mary was asking for help, not that Rev gave her much of a chance. You just keep doing what you're doing, and tone down those puppydog eyes if you can. He'll be all right."

JD flushed brightly. "I'm not-"

"You are, too," Buck said firmly, "but it's not your fault you can recognize a man who's worth your respect," he added, criticizing and mollifying JD in one sentence. Buck clapped his hands together, clearly trying to change the mood. "I'm gonna fix myself a snack. Anybody want anything?"

Only Vin joined him in the kitchen, and a minute later the pair of them came out with sandwiches and tall glasses of beer.

"How can y'all eat at a time like this?" JD asked them. Excitement was clearly running him, and Josiah wanted to tell the boy to rein it in.

"We got time," Buck shrugged, and took a big bite. "And like I said, we got nothing else to do. Might as well eat."

Vin, mouth full and chewing happily, nodded his agreement.

"Reckon I'll take a quick nap," Josiah said to the room at large. It earned him a raise of Vin's eyebrows, curiosity showing in the pale blue eyes. "Like Buck said," he elaborated, "we've got nothing else to do and too much time to do it in." He left the room, feeling Vin's eyes on his back.

It was less than an hour to dawn when the sharp bleep of depressurization surprised Buck as much as it did Ezra, by the look on the man's face. He hopped up and slapped the alarm to silence it, then stuck his head into the hall, looking left and right. The alarm had bleeped here because this was the comm nearest the airlock being broken into, off the short hallway just outside the common room.

"JD," he called over the comm. "You get that alarm up there?"

"Yeah," JD said, sounding excited. "I'll call Chris, then I'm on my way back to help--"

"You won't call anybody," Buck hissed at him, "and you're not going anywhere. Seal the doors to the flight deck and settle in. Be ready to narc the whole damned ship if we get overrun."

"But--" his voice cut off when Buck shut the comm down.

"Children," Ezra said, longsuffering, and drew his weapon. "Shall I call for support?"

Buck listened carefully, just making out the scuff of light boots against the ship's skin outside. "Doesn't sound like an army," he said.

"It would hardly need to be one," Ezra replied. "And you had best get the captain. I'd rather not incur his wrath for excluding him."

"Lily," Buck goaded him, but he knew Ezra was right--and right to be afraid of angering Chris right now. He hit the comm for their quarters. "Chris?" he called. "We got company."

The comm screeched, and Buck jerked his head back. Maybe Casey could fix that, or maybe it was just Chris's righteous fury, translated to digital form. The thought amused him.

"Where, Buck?" Chris asked.

"Port airlock, aft. Can't see the wheel turning yet."

"Be right there."

Chris's idea was to go out another airlock and come in behind the intruder, and Buck liked it. Clearly, whoever it was had no skill at managing the complicated entrance, and they were taking their sweet time. Buck left Ezra watching the door and jogged with Chris to the engine room, where the only other exit save for the bay doors or the shuttles was. "Seal it behind me," Chris said.

"Don't you worry, pard," Buck told him, and patted his rump as Chris stepped into the small, one-body lock.

He jogged back the way he'd come, found Inez and Josiah now with Ezra, three guns trained on the slowly turning wheel mounted in the center of the door. "You think we've got enough firepower?" Buck asked them dryly, but he drew his gun as well and stepped back out of range.

When the door came open, Buck watched a tangle of bodies fall through it, identified his partner on top of the body he didn't recognize, and recognized too that Chris was ready to kill whoever it was.

"Hey, wait!" he hollered, holstering his gun and stepping forward. "Wait a minute, Chris!"

The struggling body beneath Chris was a woman--a young and very round-bellied woman. Tears streaked her face and she looked terrified, and Buck could hardly blame her. He knew the moment Chris recognized what he was holding from the way his body stiffened, and he jerked away like an electric shock had jolted him.

Chris looked to her belly and pushed himself further back against the wall, and the woman dropped her hand protectively over the baby inside her. "Ow," she said, then pushed herself up into a sit. She peered at Chris closely. "You're Captain Larabee?" she asked then, regaining her composure admirably fast.

Chris nodded, and squinted down at her belly again. "You Ellie?"

Buck blinked. How the hell would Chris recognize this gal?

She nodded, then smiled briefly, barely a flash of brightness across her face. "They're scared I'm about to drop any minute," she explained, "and mostly they've left me alone in my sick room." The last two words weren't quite derisive, but they amused Buck nonetheless.

"You don't look sick to me, Ellie," he said, and reached down with both hands to help her to her feet. When she was upright in front of him, he held her ribs a moment longer than necessary. "In fact, you look damned healthy." He smiled and winked.

Chris growled from behind him, "Buck, get off her," and Buck shrugged, stepping back.

"She's Geraldine Boden's daughter, I think," Chris said, nodding to the woman. "Mary mentioned her."

"Yeah, that's right," Ellie said, nodding. She had caught her balance by now, and she looked curiously around the crowded hallway, eyes skipping over and dismissing the weapons in most people's hands. "Captain, you got a place we can talk?"

Chris sighed, loud and annoyed enough to make Buck swallow a grin. "Mess," Chris said, turning and walking away.

Ellie looked confused, until Buck held out his arm. "This way," he said with a smile. "We're going to the dining room, more or less."

She smiled then and let him lead her along, but about half way down the stairs she slowed, then froze for a few seconds. Buck glanced over his shoulder to Josiah, who nodded then turned around to head the other way, to get Nathan.

By the time they made it to the table, Nathan and Josiah were coming up from the back stairs. Buck helped Ellie get situated, amused at Chris's growing discomfort.

"You all right?" Nathan asked, dropping several instruments on the table as he came in close to her.

"This is Nathan," Buck said, "our medic. He can check you over real quick, if you want, while you talk to us."

"Much appreciated," she said. "I think my water might have broke on the way out here."

Buck barely restrained a snicker when Chris took two giant steps back from the woman.

Inez stood just inside the door, her weapons holstered, and Ezra had moved over to lean on the counter. It was to him that Buck said, "Why don't you heat us some coffee?" He wasn't surprised at the roll of Ezra's eyes, or at the fact that Josiah stepped in to perform the task. But his attention was on Ellie who was looking over Nathan's head to Chris.

"We're in trouble," Ellie said, and her smile was gone. "There's a man named Joe Ellison, he manages some holdings not too far from us--big industrial farm, big processin'. He got his final vetting from Alliance last spring, he c'n ship straight to the core worlds."

Buck glanced to Chris who was watching Ellie. Chris nodded for her to go on, letting her confirm what he thought they already knew from Vin.

Nathan had opened up one of his gadgets and it beeped softly in the background.

"Once you get that out here, nobody can touch you. And the Alliance don't care much what you do, long as you keep the supplies coming to the core. He came to our place last night with a bunch of his hired help. Told us first that we needed to clear out for a few days, that he and his people were giving us a little vacation. Well, Mary, she ain't never liked him--he's tried to get into her pants more than once and she's always turned him out. She let him know we had a shipment coming that needed to be met and put in the ground. That was when. . . " She swallowed, her eyes getting bigger. "The woman he was with kind of took over. Ellison's people pulled guns on us."

Buck caught movement in the doorway and looked up to see Vin slipping in. He moved over to stand near Josiah, raising his eyes in question, but Josiah shook his head.

"They must want something you have," she said quietly, still looking at Chris. "They're holding me with all the kids in the barn, threatening to kill people if we don't do what they say."

She looked on the verge of tears then, and Buck reached out, touching her shoulder. "It's all right, Ellie, we won't let them hurt anybody, not if we can help it."

"Any idea what they want?" Chris asked, and Buck knew his lover was glaring at him, angry that he'd make such a promise. He didn't mind. Chris had never once backed down from the right side of a fight, once he'd committed himself. Not once.

"Just something on your ship," she said once more, her voice cracking a little. "Mary's worried they're going to kill people if they don't get what they want, and she--we can't ask you to stop them or get involved. But we have children in the barn, little children. Mary sent me to ask you if you would take them, and me, even though I wouldn't ask if I weren't so close to term --"

"Hours away," Nathan told her, looking up. "You're already dilating."

She stiffened. "Now? I thought--it's really happening?" But her excitement turned to tears just as quickly as if someone had pressed a button, and Buck and Nathan both bent over her, trying to soothe her through the sobs she was trying to control.

"Hey, now," Buck said, sliding an arm around her shoulders. "Calm down, you're not doing yourself any good here, honey."

"Or us," Chris said, but he didn't sound irritable--just typically pragmatic.

"Try this," Josiah said, sliding a cup of hot tea across the table.

"Are you in pain?" Nathan asked, searching through his med kit. "I've got something for it--"

"My ma," she hiccupped, but when Buck put the tea in her hands, it didn't slosh over the side of the cup. "I want her to be here, but she's still there, the guns --"

"Deep breaths," Buck interrupted her. "Think of the baby."

She nodded, doing as she was told. Buck took a second to glance at Chris who was pacing back and forth across the widest part of the room, his face dark. Chris stopped in mid-stride, staring out one of the windows up into the night. Struggling, Buck could tell, before making his decision. Buck wasn't the least bit surprised when his lover called out, "Vin!"

Buck knew what Chris was looking for, knew from the shaking of Vin's head that Chris wasn't getting it.

Ellie calmed down enough to sit up straighter and wipe at her face with her fingers before calling out, "You've got to help us. At least the little ones. Captain, they've got over thirty kids in that barn, all of 'em under twelve."

"Lot of people to kill," Josiah said and Ellie's eyes went wide. Fat tears started slipping out again, and Buck shot a glare Josiah's way.

"Now, now," Ezra said, "less talk of killing. We don't know what they're planning."

Buck patted her shoulder, and looked to Nathan who nodded. "We'll do something," he said, looking back to Ellie. "You let Nathan, here, take care of you and that baby you got coming."

He pushed himself up and joined Vin, who had parked himself against one of the couches, watching Chris. Buck moved to lean beside him. "This the way you saw it?" he asked, trying not to let his skepticism show through.

Vin looked at him. "Saw what I told you I saw," he answered. "Knew we were going to end up in it, but I don't know how it gets to where it does. Could be now, could be days from now."

Ellie looked up as Chris approached her, and Buck noticed Nathan's frown. "We need some information," Chris said to her. His tone was hard and flat, and Josiah stepped forward as if to shield the woman from him.

But Ellie nodded with big, hopeful eyes. She was used to rural folk and hard edges, and she was used to dealing with hard problems. It didn't look like a surly Chris would scare her.

"Who's actually running the show?" he demanded.

"Mary Travis," she said decisively. "Her family owns most of the land we're on, but they didn't have hands to work it. She lost her husband in the war, see, and--"

Chris cut his hand through the air, dismissive. "I mean the bad 'uns," he said. "Ellison? Or the woman?"

"Well..." She paused, her pretty brows tugging together. "I thought it was Joe Ellison, but the woman with him was giving him most of his ideas." Her eyes narrowed. "She's the one first pulled weapons and started rounding our people up. She's - she's mean, and I think she makes him mean."

"What's her name?"

"Trish Dykstra," she said.

Buck eased in. "How do you know?"

"She came around, introduced herself a few weeks back. Said she was the new manager for Blue Sun's holdings. Then a week or more ago, she came back by, real friendly." Here, she frowned. "Too friendly, but Ms. Travis said it was good to be kind to neighbors." Her frown faded into a fierce grin. "She said it's good to pay 'em back what they bring you, too, after Trish started pushing us around."

"How many people do they have, where are they, and what sort of weapons are they carrying?" Chris snapped.

She looked around, bewildered, until Buck stepped past Chris and knelt beside her chair, taking her hand. "How much did you see?" he asked more gently. "Start there."

Her words started slow, but by the time they'd picked her brain using the images Ezra had captured with the cameras and a basic diagram of the barn she described, they had a better sense of what they were up against.

"You're sure there's no more than a dozen of them?" Ezra asked for the third time, studying the diagram of the barn. One large front room, but three smaller rooms, one for equipment, one for storage, one as a makeshift veterinary clinic. She had been kept in this room, along with the younger children. Another couple had been kept with them, to keep the children quiet.

Chris had stopped his pacing and dialed in on Ellie, as sober and intent as Buck ever saw him. "Mary Travis said seventeen, so there's at least a couple more tucked away. What else can you tell us?" Chris asked her.

"That's all I know," she said, shifting once more in her chair. She was uncomfortable, and Buck looked once more to Chris.

"What's keeping your people from fighting back?"

"Guns!" she said, affronted. "Lots of guns. And they've got security planted everywhere."

Chris frowned. "What kind of security?"

"Sensors, they said, around the barn, in the house, in most of the buildings. So they can keep an eye on everybody without spreading themselves too thin."

"What do they look like?"

She shrugged. "Big, 'bout this size," she said, holding her arms out in a fat circle. "Cylinders, squat and gray, about a foot high."

"Green blinking lights on one side?" Chris asked. "Fat black knob on top?"

Buck felt his stomach sink to the floor when Ellie nodded. "You know 'em?" she asked, hopeful. "Can you get around 'em?"

"I need to get her down to the medbay," Nathan cut in, his voice carefully calm. "Contractions'll be coming hard soon, if they ain't started already. Miss? That what hit you on the stairs?"

She frowned up at him. "Think so. Maybe. This is my first, so I'm not so sure." Her frown turned thoughtful. "Thought it'd hurt worse, you know?"

Nathan grinned at her. "Give it time. Chris, unless you want her to have that baby right here, we need to get moving." His tone was firm, and Buck knew it was nothing to ignore.

Chris must have known it as well. With a nod, he said, "Go, then." To Ellie he said, "Anything else you can remember? Vehicles?"

"Just what they came in on, a suborbital shuttle. They tarped it, out behind the equipment shed."

Chris pushed a photograph in front of her. "Show me."

She looked, orienting herself to the aerial view. "Here," she said. "I think. Yeah."

"All right. Go with Nathan."

Nathan helped her to her feet, and Josiah came in behind, to help. But she reached out and touched Chris on the shoulder where he sat at the end of the table. "You're going to help us?" she asked, and Buck was glad she wasn't asking him.

"We'll do what we can," Chris said without looking at her. His attention was focused on the photograph, and Buck felt a powerful urge that was completely inappropriate to the time. But Chris, all scoped in on the problem, he was irresistible to Buck. Always had been.

As Nathan and Josiah guided Ellie from the room and down the stairs, Inez said, "Less than an hour until sunrise."

Chris nodded, staring at the pictures spread over the table.

Buck reined in his urges and moved to take the seat Ellie had abandoned. The rest of them were already seated, most with mugs of coffee in front of them. At some point, JD and Casey had also come into the room, so that the only people on the ship not accounted for were John and Jael.

"Anybody in here not know what those 'security sensors' are?" Chris asked, looking around. After a second, JD hesitantly stuck his hand up in the air, then Casey.

"Incendiaries," Vin said. "Bombs. Slow-burners at first, but once they start you can't stop 'em. They'll send this whole place up."

Chris nodded, while Buck watched JD's eyes get big.

There was a clatter behind them and they turned to find Josiah coming up the stairs, his face lined with worry. "Ellie doesn't know what they're sitting on, but I think plenty of her elders do. Someone must know Ellison or this Dykstra woman is planning to kill them all. Must be why they're so focused on getting the children out."

Buck looked to Chris and saw the same understanding in his eyes.

"Fuck," Vin said ineloquently.

Inez shook her head. "That certainly makes the decision easier."

JD grabbed up Casey's hand, and beside him, Casey looked anxiously from one person to another. "Hell yes, it makes it easier!" she said, sounding outraged. "Those bastards are gonna kill innocent people? Kids? We've got to do something!"

"You think?" Ezra asked, peevish.

"Holdovers from the war," Josiah announced, "if her description is true."

"Probably keyed to one central control," Ezra mused. "So that they can load up the plants and be off, the commune destroyed while they are a distance away."

"Ellison will have some sort of device, then," Inez said. "Something that he can control."

"Or they're set to a timer," Ezra countered. "It's what I'd do. Then he can claim the innocence of not pressing the trigger."

"Fuck," Chris said, and Buck smiled to himself. Vin's eloquence was catching.

"Might make it easier to take him out," Vin commented, still looking through the pictures. He came to one and stopped, pulling it from the clutter. "We wouldn't have to worry about a deadman's hand if it's set on a timer."

"Mary said seventeen people, all armed with side arms, some with rifles," Chris mused out loud. "Most in the barn, but Ellie doesn't know how they're allocated or even if they're still there."

Ezra lifted one of the pictures taken from the camera mounted on the front of the mule. It was a straight shot of the inside of the barn. There were stacks of baled grass, and people and the shadows of people. "Too many obstacles," Ezra said. "We're not going to be able to tell who's where, or who's who."

"Anybody pointing a gun at us is bad," Chris said, grinning wildly.

Inez pulled over the diagram of the barn. "If they're holding mainly children, that narrows our targets considerably. How do you want to handle this, Captain?"

Buck felt a pleasantly brief rush of lust; he'd already figured out he and Ezra shared a similar passion for competent women. He wondered where Ezra had gotten his.

"We'll use people they haven't seen," Chris said. "That means you, Josiah, Nathan--I think he knows how to defuse one of those things--"

"He's gonna have his hands full with that delivery, Chris," Buck reminded him.

"Might have to wait," Chris said.

Buck glared at him. "Deliveries don't run on your timetables, Captain."

Chris glared right back. "Nathan's got to be able to slow it down. You got a better idea?"

Buck subsided, glowering, but it was Ezra who displayed a flash of brilliance. "Jael might know how to defuse those things. She's sure to have inside knowledge that would be useful!"

"You want to go and beat it out of her, Ezra?" Chris asked, dry as bone.

"I seriously doubt she'll require convincing," he said. "She has already realized she backed the wrong side in working with John."

Josiah stepped around Vin. "I know how to defuse a Wellson."

"I like making Jael do it," Buck put in. "But there's still a little problem with getting in there. They'll be watching the ship, if they're as smart as Jael says." Buck frowned, annoyed at the whole situation. "And so far, it looks like they are."

"What I'm wondering," Chris said thoughtfully, "is why they haven't just tried to overrun us."

Buck nodded. "They must have expected to hear from John, if we'd really put him off the ship."

Chris nodded shortly. "Casey, use one of the robot cameras, get it up top, check the hull. I want to make sure they haven't planted something on us while we were busy."

"Something?" she asked.

"Something that looks like Ellie described. Anything that don't belong."

Casey frowned. "I'd rather go myself. I put the best camera we have in the mule. I can be careful - I won't touch nothing I don't know how to deal with."

Chris's tone was sharp when he answered, but it wasn't anger. "Be quick and careful - and if you do touch anything you shouldn't, you'll be walking back to Abrams when this is done. You hear me?"

"Yessir." She trotted up the stairs, pausing only long enough to disengage the warning klaxon, then turned to exit the same way Ellie had come in. JD watched her go, but he didn't seem worried. That said plenty for her skills right there, as far as Buck was concerned.

Once she was out of sight, JD turned back to the table. "We could put a shuttle in behind the barn," he suggested. "There's a hill that should block the view of it coming in, especially if we do it before dawn."

"Trap them between us with a barn full of hostages?" Buck asked, frowning.

JD colored a little in embarrassment.

"Maybe not," Chris said. "Ellie got out. If we put the shuttle back there, then we can maybe get in the same way she got out--at least get the kids out, and then maybe get in to take out some of Ellison's people before they even know we're there." Chris didn't look like he liked the idea, though. "How are we going to get a shuttle back there without anyone seeing it?"

"Take it off now," JD said, his voice vibrating with energy. "I've done it before, back when I was running test runs on experimental ships. Take off with no lights, running completely on instruments. This is a low-travel planet; we didn't even have to enter a specific landing path, just the quad. The odds of me hitting anything are slim to none, especially if I go out in the opposite direction of the barn and stay low for about a hundred clicks, then do a long slow turn and come back around."

Chris looked at the kid, and Buck watched his lips go thin and hard. "How many times have you done this, JD, flown in the dark in unknown territory with only cold sensor readings to guide you?" Buck asked.

JD slowly looked from Chris to Buck, his eyes burning with his conviction. "Twenty-five, thirty. It's the way they test new systems on racing vehicles. And pilots for competition."

Ezra looked up. "Did you make the cut?" he asked, sounding more curious than challenging.

JD grinned, a flash of his bright teeth. "I've got more than twenty-five runs. What do you think?"

"Don't like it," Chris muttered, but JD was talking again.

"I can take her out, drop her down and come in silent, keep her running and ready while somebody else goes in and gets the kids and anybody else who can get out."

"We should tell Mary Travis," Ezra said. "If she could organize some sort of resistance, or get her people out of the way, that would be a great help."

Buck glanced to Chris, wondering how his lover would take this joint resistance. Chris's face was tight, but after a few seconds, he nodded, just as he had with Casey.

"Need to distract that Williams guy," Vin said, his dirty fingers drifting through the pictures. "Maybe we can find an extra plant crate or something? Drop something on his foot?"

Buck grinned. "Can't think of anyone who deserves it more."

"Ezra," Chris said, "talk to Ms. Travis. Williams will think less of it if it's you than if it's me. Tell her we have Ellie and we're having someone knock on the back door of the barn to get the rest of the kids out."

"I'll go with JD," Inez volunteered. "They might miss one of you, and I suspect that I have more recent close-quarters fighting experience than any of you do--current capture notwithstanding." She said it dryly and despite the situation, the others chuckled and Buck found himself smiling. Chris just looked sour.

Chris pushed out of his lean and took off for the back stairs fast enough that Buck had to trot to catch up to him. "Goin' somewhere?" he asked.

Chris didn't even turn his head.

By the time they got into the guest lounge, they had a whole circus train of crew behind them: Josiah, Ezra, Inez, and JD. He wondered why Vin had hung back.

Buck followed Chris into the room they had Jael locked up in, stopping in the doorway and letting the rest of them pile up outside.

"Ellison's got Wellsons planted everywhere," Chris said. "Is he gonna use 'em to incinerate any witnesses against him?"

Jael paled. "Shit."

"I take it that's a 'yes'," Buck muttered.

"I... didn't think Joe would do something like that," she said. "It does explain... " Her voice trailed off and she looked away, thinking.

"What?" Chris snapped.

She roused herself. "I knew that John was talking to someone - I assumed that it was his contact in White Cross, someone who was helping us to find the shipment. He was very private about the conversations, but once we were on this ship, he mentioned to me that he had regular check-ins he had to make. I assumed it was for accountability. But if - if he was checking in with Trish instead, then once we were taken and he didn't make the check in . . . "

"That's why they took the farm," Buck said slowly. "Because they lost touch with you guys."

"With John," she corrected quickly. "Not with me - I was not part of that deal, all I want - "

"Bi zui," Chris cut her off. "Right now, we've got more important things to deal with. Like saving those people from getting blown up."

"I can't believe Joe would do that," she said with a sigh.

"Well, somebody's doing it," Buck put in. "We've got an eye witness who just described a dozen or more Wellsons planted around this place."

"Maybe his new woman," she said, and swallowed hard. "Maybe Joe. Captain, you've got to take this ship off. If they're going to kill the Boden residents, there's no reason they'd leave any of us alive either."

Chris pretty much ignored her words. "Can you defuse a Wellson?"

Her eyes took on a predatory look. "I can."

"Then you've got work to do."

"Captain. If I do this, I want your help."

"You're not in a position to negotiate, lady!" Chris snapped, his anger so loud it filled up the room.

"Captain," she said, all the energy she could muster wrapped in her voice, "I won't let innocent people die. But I won't let that shipment land in the wrong hands, either."

"Why do you care so much?" Buck asked her.

She turned hard eyes his way. "You know what you're carrying. You want to let that loose on the 'verse?"

No, he didn't. "Won't Blue Sun be letting it loose on the 'verse?" he asked anyway. "Isn't that the point of designing this strain? And of patenting it?"

"Legal pharmaceuticals are much more controlled than every Harry in the 'verse growing this in his backyard garden," she snapped, impatient now. "Even if some leaks out--and we all know it will--it won't be because of me and my farm."

Her farm. She still wanted her job back. Wanted to salvage her reputation.

Buck shrugged and nodded when Chris turned questioning eyes his way. If they all got out of this alive, she might deserve it.

Nathan edged in beside Buck before anything else could get said. "What's the plan, Captain?"

"Get the kids from the commune to safety," he said shortly. "Take out Ellison. And Trish Dykstra."

Jael tried to push herself upright, panting. "Killing them won't solve anything," she said tiredly.

"Yeah, but it'll be the bright spot in my day," Chris replied, grinning wildly at Buck. Buck felt it again, that sweet rush of lust. Only thing in the 'verse more thrilling than a competent woman was the man in front of him right now.

Jael's eyes darted left and right as she carefully shifted her limbs against the mattress, and Buck watched her think it through. "You're sure they have Wellsons planted?"

"Sure as we can be," Chris said, turning back to her. "We ain't seen 'em yet, but the description's hard to mistake."

She looked around the room. "That bitch owes me more than she can ever repay." She caught Chris's eye with an appealingly direct stare. "I help you, nobody dies."

"If we can help it, and if 'nobody' includes the folks who live here," Chris agreed. Buck wondered if he was serious about that, noticed it wasn't exactly a promise.

Jael nodded. "All right. How do we go about making this happen?"

Buck was mighty interested in that part too.

Five minutes later, Jael was stumbling up the stairs in front of Josiah. They'd left John locked in his room with a handy sedative supplied by Nathan. Buck still didn't know what they were going to do with him.

Chris laid out aerial shots of the farm, all along the dining table. Josiah dumped Jael unceremoniously into a chair then moved back to his usual place beside Vin, while Chris started pointing. "We know they've got at least two Wellsons in the barn, here," he said, stabbing a photograph with his finger. "Where else will he have put them?"

Jael leaned forward, and Buck was relieved to see the enthusiasm on her face. Everybody had something they were willing to fight for; finding it was too often the trick. "I know where I'd put them," she said. "One in the main house and two in the power exchange station, let them set off fuel lines and anything else that'll spread the fire. One under the solar collectors, maybe."

"We can't get to them all," Ezra said thoughtfully, staring at the image.

"You won't have to. Get me to wherever they've set up their center of command. If Ellison has any control over this at all, he'll have a master control, and a kill switch."

"Are you sure?" Ezra asked again.

"I was with him for six years," she said and sighed. "I'm sure."

A clatter in the hall got Buck's attention, but it was only Casey, running full pelt down the stairs and skidding to a stop in front of Chris. "Yeah, there's something. Near the port thrusters. I don't know what it is and I didn't stay long enough to try and figure it out--"

"You checked everywhere else?"


Chris looked Josiah's way. "That's your first one, Josiah. Go find it, dismantle it, and peel it off my ship."

Josiah nodded briefly, paused to grab some tools out of a box in the kitchen, and took off.

"All right," Chris said as he pulled out a knife to cut Jael's bindings, all business now--which just pushed Buck's thrill with the man higher. "Buck goes with JD and Inez. Their job will be to get the kids out. If Ezra can get to Mary, he'll tell her to warn the others about what's going to happen, get them ready to help out when the time comes."

Buck nodded. He trusted Chris, maybe more than he ought to right now, but he did. If Chris was sending him out, not to mention the ship's only licensed pilot, he was in it until the end. Chris's eyes landed on him for a moment, and while the hard look in them might have signaled anger to anybody else, Buck knew fear in Chris when he saw it. He tried to think of something to say, something annoying enough to make Chris stop worrying, but for once words failed him.

"Once they're sure we're onto them, there's no turning back," Chris said grimly. His eyes drifted around the table, stalling on JD and Casey.

JD opened his mouth, but it was Casey who spoke up. "If we don't do our best to save these people, then we signed on with the wrong ship."

Buck shook his head, but he couldn't stop the smile.

"Out of the mouths of babes," Ezra intoned.

"Sun'll be up soon," Vin said, tilting his head toward the ports where the blackness of night was beginning to lighten. "Better get the shuttle gone and the bay open."

Chris nodded, pushing himself to his feet. "While Ezra talks to Mary, Vin and I will distract Williams, then I'll flush out Ellison. Jael, where will he be?"

"The house, maybe," she said. "Watch out for Trish, too."

Chris caught her eye. "You mess this up, you signal him in any way, we kill him and you and leave you both lying in the dirt. You'll be the first to go."

"If I helped him after this, I'd deserve it," she said with a grin that would cut glass. The woman had grit to spare.

JD jumped up, excited. "I can be ready to go in ten minutes, less if the shuttle cooperates. Shuttle two is on the lee side of the ship. Maybe they won't even notice it's gone."

Buck snorted. The kid was an optimist, but Buck couldn't fault his reasoning. "Come on JD, let's get a move on," he said, and slapped the kid on the shoulder as he passed. He and Inez were in lockstep to the weapons, and after a brief pause, he grabbed a pistol with a laser sight for JD; the kid had grown up on an estate, maybe he'd know how to shoot the thing.

"Take these," she said, pushing two rifles on him. "I'll meet you in the shuttle." She took off for below decks at a run.

"Hey kid," he called, and JD trotted over with Casey on his heels. "You ever fire a gun before?"

"Yeah," he said, but there wasn't what Buck would call confidence in the word.

"All right." Buck gave him a quick run-down, showing him the safety and how to align the sight. "Bullet'll go wherever the yellow dot lands. Try not to shoot us. Or yourself."

"Oh, real funny," JD said, taking the weapon gingerly.

Casey leaned in, giving JD last-minute instructions, and Vin was intent on the weapons, which left him a few seconds with Chris. He grabbed his partner and dragged him away from the table, and Jael. "Any last words of wisdom?" he asked, quiet now.

Chris shot him a look he couldn't decipher. "No."

"We still got Casey, Josiah, and Nathan as back-up on this side, Chris," he said, touching his lover's arm. "They don't know about JD and Inez at all."

"We don't know what they know about," Chris shot back. "We don't know what John told 'em, or why they ain't come after us when they didn't find him aboard. We--"

Buck cut in before Chris could wind himself up any more. "Hey now, don't," he whispered, and if his hands weren't full he'd have tugged Chris in close. "We just need to get them to move on."

Chris looked at him, shaking his head. "Ain't gonna happen," he said quietly.

He could argue, of course, but they didn't really have time. "I'm gonna be fine. Vin said I would be," he said, not above trading on Chris's faith in Vin's-whatever it was.

"And you said he was full of gou shi," Chris countered darkly.

Buck grinned. "This'll be just like sneaking into your daddy's barn loft, only not nearly as rewarding."

Chris frowned at him. "Be careful, Buck. Be damned careful," he said, and then he surprised Buck by leaning up to grab a quick kiss, right there in the cargo bay.

Buck kissed back with all the interest he had time for. "I'll consider that a down payment, stud," he said. "All right JD," he called, "let's get a move on!"

"I'm waiting for you," JD said, superior, and Buck chuckled. The kid was as green as grass in some ways, and fun for that, no two ways about it.

They went for the shuttle at a run, cutting through the cargo bay and up the stairs. "How rough is this ride gonna be, kid?" Buck asked.

"Rough. Once we cut most of the power she'll try to fall like a rock. I reckon I can get her pretty close to the barn though. Long as Ellison don't climb a hill to look around, he won't see her." JD dropped his gear--and his gun--into a holding net along one wall.

Buck reached before buckling in, and grasped the kid's shoulder. Not gently. "You'd best not have been bragging back there. You sure you can do this?"

JD reached and tried to wrench his hand away. "Yes, yes! How many times do I have to tell you?"

"Just that last one," Buck said, satisfied. Or as satisfied as he was going to get until this was over.

Chris had made it to the cargo bay when the ship shivered; the shuttle was away. He thought again that JD had no business out here doing this, Casey either. That Buck--but there wasn't a gorram thing he would do to change things now. For a second he dearly missed that time after Sarah's death when he hadn't been able to feel this much. When he had, he'd sunk all his grief and rage into fighting with the resistance, alternately trying to ignore Buck's existence and clinging to him when he got too worn down to resist the offered comfort, the shared solace, or Buck's own tightly-restrained need for both. Buck had been just as angry and just as glad to rail against the Alliance and all it stood for, but he'd handled it better. Buck had pretty much always handled the emotional shit better than Chris did, unless he was too pissed off to think.

That brief time of not caring had been easier than this. It hadn't been living, but it had been easier.

Vin caught him by the arm, just a gentle squeeze. "It's gonna happen," he said. "You can't stop it, Chris."

Chris started to snap out an answer, but before he could let loose, let cutting words try to flay the skin off Vin's bones, Ezra called out, "Company!"

Ezra took the stairs two at a time, moving with a purpose. "Headlamps and hand torches coming this way, from the farm. I should be going," he said, tilting his head.

Vin arched his eyebrows in question, and Chris hesitated, torn.

"Want me to get the bay doors?" Vin asked, nudging him.

He resented the handling almost as much as he resented the man right now, and swore. "Yeah. Ezra--"

"I can assure you that whatever you have to say can wait until this is over," Ezra said, grinning a little wildly.

"Don't thrust up."

Ezra's grin broadened. "I was right." When Chris lowered the interior lights Ezra ducked under the rising airlock door, slipping out as soon as the space was wide enough for him to get his body through. He disappeared almost immediately, and only then did Chris register that the man wasn't wearing his pristine white shirt or his colorful jacket. He'd dressed in muted browns and blacks, and he'd looked... he'd looked a hell of a lot like a farmer.

Chris shook his head and peered out at the dark sky, looking for a black dot that shouldn't be there, looking for the shuttle Buck and the others were in. But he couldn't find any evidence of it, so maybe no one else would either.

The mule chugged slowly closer, its bright headlights casting a wide circle of light against the slow dissipation of night. The shadow sitting in front must be Rev Williams, and the little body behind the wheel must be Billy, who was driving despite his earlier mistakes. Maybe because of them. Well behind them, folks seemed to be walking on foot this time, torches lighting their paths and marking their pace.

"What do you think about snatching Rev Williams ahead of the others, and beating some answers out of him?" he asked.

Vin grinned, his eyes bright and happy. "I think that's about the best damned idea I've heard all night."

They strode off the bay door shoulder to shoulder and ran along the path that people and loading equipment had churned up; soft earth sucked at his balance, kept him on the balls of his feet. A quick look to his right showed Vin adjusting the same way. They met the mule a ways out from the ship, where its lamps and the fading glimmer of stars offered the only light. As the mule slowed, Chris peeled left and Vin right, so that they came up on opposite sides of the mule's passenger seats.

"Mornin'," Chris said.

Rev glanced warily between them, and his hand dropped down by his hip where his gun was holstered. Chris didn't even look at Vin. He just turned his back and took two steps back toward the ship, listening for--there it was, the thud of impact. He swung around and grabbed the kid, dragging him clear of the seat and shoving him out of the way, then reached for where Vin and Rev thrashed together. A quick feel told him Rev's gun was out of its holster, but Chris couldn't say where it had gotten to. He threw himself into the man, using his weight to pin him until he went abruptly, deathly still.

"This here," Vin said, his voice low and as sharp as the blade that pressed to Williams' throat, "is my very favorite knife. Real sharp."

"What the--"

"Quiet down," Chris hissed, "or your next word'll be your last!"

Williams did, his voice barely a whisper when he said, "What the hell is wrong with you people? What do you want?" He almost sounded believable. Almost.

"We've got what we want, Rev," Chris said. "We've got you. And we've got time."

"You've got shit," he hissed.

"Company's comin' quick," Vin breathed with a glance over his shoulder.

"Not quick enough," Chris shot back with a grin. Vin must've found Rev's gun on the seat, because the knife disappeared somewhere and the muzzle of the foreign weapon pressed lovingly into Williams' temple.

"You fire that thing, you're all dead."

"You first," Chris replied with a grin. Buck would tell him he shouldn't enjoy this so much. But Buck wasn't here, and he felt his grin shift to something harder. "And if you warn 'em, then I got no reason not to shoot you. Kid," he hissed to Billy, "bring the mule on behind us, park it outside the shuttle like nothing's changed."

Williams offered some drag until Vin wrenched his arm high up behind his back, then he picked up the pace to keep it attached. "This is a big mistake," the man snarled. "You're signing your own death warrants, yours and everybody's on this ship."

"If I were you," Chris said, marching Williams fast toward the ship, "I'd be more worried about my own death."

The silence held between them, and behind them Billy had kept the mule moving a little slower, smart enough to keep its headlamps off them and their prisoner. They came up the side of the ramp, keeping to the shadows of the night-lit bay. The kid, Billy, left the mule idling and jogged up behind them, fluttering around like a moth, not sure what to do but not wanting to be in the way. "Kid," he called, "you hold the others back there for a few minutes when they get here, tell them that Williams said he wanted to talk to us. Can you do that?"

"Ah, yeah, I--I--"

"Do it." Chris was looking into Williams' eyes, and he saw the first flicker of worry in them. Good. "Vin, how far out do them torches look to you right now?" Vin had made the trip back and forth last night more than any of them.

"If they keep walkin'? Seven, eight minutes, maybe--we parked a good ways out. If they pick up the pace, maybe half that."

Chris hoped the residents would offer a little drag. "Time it," he said as they marched Williams through the cargo bay. "I want you back in the cargo bay in six minutes to run the show."

Vin looked a little disappointed, but he did as he was told. "Need to comm Josiah," he said, and didn't even drop the barrel of the gun from Williams' temple as he paused to make the short call to his partner.

Josiah met them in the passenger commons with Jael. Chris had the pleasure of seeing her surprise at his tactics and her greater surprise when she recognized Rev Williams.

"Jael? You bloody bitch--" He started, and Vin twisted his arm up a little higher to keep him from trying to lunge at her.

She was damned cool. She didn't even flinch, just snapped, "Don't even start, Rev. If you're helping Joe and Trish steal from the company, don't even start." Rev actually stood down. This was a man used to following orders, or a man completely cowed by Jael Danron.

"Josiah, you take care of the little problem outside?"

"Done and done," Josiah replied. He stepped away from Jael and pulled his own gun, pressing it against the other side of Williams' forehead. "Improvisation?" he asked mildly.

Chris nodded, counting down the seconds in his head.

Williams was calm, but his eyes blazed defiance. He wasn't new to this, and Chris had a moment of respect for him when he said, "Got nothing to say to you."

"Where you want him?" Josiah asked.

"Put Rev here in the chair in Jael's room," Chris said. "I'm gonna check in with Nathan real quick."

He turned and ducked into the medbay.

"She's coming along," Nathan growled, the first words out of his mouth, but he didn't bitch about being pulled away from Ellie.

Chris ignored her. "I need that stuff we talked about. Quick."

Nathan shot a grim look at him even as he hurried to retrieve a loaded hypo capsule. "Ellie looks good, but I'm keeping an eye on her."

"Couldn't have happened at a worse time," Chris muttered. "We need you outside." He was wearing a gun on each hip, the weapons bulging under his med-coat.

"Go if you gotta," Ellie said, watching Nathan's quick work with wide, interested eyes. "I'm all right." She looked all right, too, but then she grimaced and slid her hand below her belly. "Damn."

"Any idea when she'll drop?" he asked, quiet, but Ellie still heard him.

"This is her first," Nathan said, "so if I accelerate it, it's three to five hours. If we let it happen on its own, it's more likely ten to twelve." Nathan snapped the injector capsule into the spray gun and slapped that into Chris's palm. "You'll have maybe six minutes before he goes into cardiac arrest. He stops breathing, you inject him right then and call me." He handed Chris a second capsule from the tray. "You don't get this into him in time, we'll have committed cold-blooded murder," Nathan said, and looked him straight in the eye.

Chris knew where Nathan stood on the subject--a damned sight closer to righteousness than he himself did, since Williams seemed happy to hold hostages and Buck was out there wading into the mess, but on this they agreed. "Don't worry," he promised then grinned widely. "We ain't got six minutes."

Josiah and Vin had Jael and Williams both in the room, Williams tied to a chair at elbows and ankles, Jael standing unbound.

"I got nothing to say," Williams snarled as Chris came in, but his eyes widened when Chris walked up to him and with no hesitation, held up the injector gun, jabbed it against Williams' upper arm and pulled the trigger. "What the--"

"Two minutes," Chris said, holding up the second capsule and snapping it into place. "You got two minutes for me to give you the antidote. How many men does Ellison have and where are they?"

Williams stared, his gaze moving from Chris to the hypo and back.

Chris took two big steps to put him at the hall comms. "Casey! You on the flight deck?"


"Keep an eye out. Let me know before anybody from the farm gets within fifty yards of the Maggie."


He cut her off and stepped back inside the room. "You should start feeling a little light-headed about now," Chris said calmly. "That's the first sign you're dying. You better talk quick, Williams--I wait much longer than two minutes, there won't be a lot of you left to save."

Behind him, he heard Jael shift against the wall.

Williams swallowed, and his eyes moved past Chris to Jael and Josiah. "You didn't--you wouldn't--"

"Running out of time," Josiah said conversationally. "Down about ten seconds now."

"How many men?" Chris asked again.

Williams drew a shaky breath. "Jael? Is he serious?"

"Probably," she said, sounding bored now. Chris could see there was little love lost between these two lieutenants.

Williams was squinting already, and sweat started to bead across his forehead. He sucked in a panicked breath. "How did you even get caught up with them?" Williams demanded of Jael.

Chris smacked him on the cheek to get his attention back where he wanted it. "Clock's counting, Rev," he said. "You willing to die, or worse, for your boss?"

Williams looked again from Jael to Chris, then hurriedly to Josiah. His hand jerked up to try and rub over his chest.

"Feeling that?" Chris asked him. "That's the stuff working on your heart. Best not let it work too long. How many people does Ellison have here?"

"Seventeen," Williams said. "Give me the antidote."

"Where are they?" Chris dropped a photograph onto the bed right in front of Williams. "Specifics."

"Give me the antidote and I'll give you specifics!"

Chris grinned at him, deeply satisfied to have a clear advantage. "Specifics first. Hurry."

It was like uncorking sparkling wine; the words exploded then, and Williams poured out as much information as he could, as fast as he could: Ellison had set up in the main house, just as Jael had guessed. "He's just got Trish and a bodyman there with him!" Williams babbled. "We've got handguns and rifles but no anti-aircraft equipment." Chris counted that news as good for the Maggie as Williams started wheezing, his face going a sickly blue-tinged shade of gray. He was bent forward enough now that one of his hands clawed at his chest, right over his heart.

"Go on," Chris said.

Williams lunged, trying to get himself out of the chair and at the syringe in Chris's hand, but Chris danced back out of the way and Josiah stepped in to drop heavy hands to the back of his chair, pinning him down.

"Best not waste energy fighting," Josiah said.

"Any armor?" Chris asked him.

"No--only a--a few," Ellison wheezed. "Couple in monofiber. Give me the--"

"How many of you in all?"

"Seventeen! Seventeen!"

"How many Wellsons."

"Twelve," he gasped.

"Why so many?"

"Because--it's--" More gasping, and Chris twisted the capsule and flipped off its cap, readying it. "It's everything, months worth of--of invest--no mistakes, nobody can know... Gah me--"

His words were, Chris had to admit, getting too garbled to make out.

"Chris," Vin called quietly from the door. "That's nearly two minutes on that shot. Almost five since we dragged him down here." Vin sounded anxious, but his face was calm, his eyes cool and calculating. He was steady under pressure--hell, steadier than he was without pressure.

Chris injected Williams, right into the pounding vein in his neck, and dropped the injector gun onto the bed.

"Sixteen plus you, just a few in armor," Chris said, sharing a look with Josiah and Vin. "Jael, you gonna behave?"

"You kidding?" she asked, her voice as bitter as her face. "After what these idiots did?"

"Don't let him out of here, and don't kill him," Chris told her, then stepped out into the hall with a wave of his hand for Josiah and Vin.

"We need to get to Ellison," Josiah said.

"We need Jael to get to his kill switch, if he's got one," Chris retorted. "You think you can keep her in line alone, Josiah?"

Josiah's smile was all big teeth and gum, and downright unholy, for one who purported to be a religious man. "All right. You heard Williams, at least a few of Ellison's people have got armor, so we might as well figure Ellison's one of 'em. Go for the body, but if they don't drop and you need 'em to, take the head shots."

Vin's quiet chuckle surprised him, but when he looked, Vin just shrugged. "Gets the job done," he said.

Chris turned back to Josiah. "Do your best to get to the main house before the sun breaks the horizon. Keep your comm link on."

Josiah nodded. "I can do that."

"Can you kill her if she turns on us?"

Josiah frowned briefly, but he nodded. "She turns on us, I can put her out of commission."

It wasn't exactly an answer, but Chris didn't press for more, and Josiah ducked in to retrieve Jael. The comm on the wall behind him squealed, startling him: Casey.

"Chris, they're close," she said, her words urgent and whispered as if the folks outside might hear her, and Chris shared a quick flash of a grin with Vin. "The guy who drove the mule walked out to meet 'em, but they ain't stoppin'."

"All right," he replied, and killed the comm. "Vin, get back out there and run the show. If anyone asks, Williams here demanded a look at the ship. Act worried, like he was taking too much of an interest in it for your tastes. Tell 'em-- hell, I don't care, just stall it. Get the off-loading started, keep 'em busy."

Vin nodded, handed Chris Williams' gun, and vanished back up the stairs. Chris had already turned his attention back to the guest room and Williams, whose gasping was slowly beginning to even out. "We can do that again," he said, tucking Williams' gun into his waistband. "Or you can just finish telling me what I want to know."

Williams jerked up in the chair like Chris had actually tried to inject him again. "I..." He slumped. "What do you want?"

It was damned dark out here, and Josiah almost went down when Jael tripped on uneven ground in front of him. The stars had mostly faded and off to the east the sky was lightening just a bit, but not enough to see by. He'd been in cities or exurbs for so long, he'd almost forgotten what real night looked like. Looked like the black, except you had to walk around in it.

"What are you doing with these people?" Jael whispered.

"What are you doing with those people?" he countered, coming up beside her.

She snorted, shaking her head. "Nothing that I thought I'd be," she said, but it was more to herself than to him.

Oddly, it was an answer he could have given.

They were moving through a tilled field, over ground rough enough that they couldn't move fast. She was breathing a little hard, fear or exertion tiring her, but she kept moving.

"Your boyfriend's a pretty thing," she said, her tone a little snide. "Bet he's more than you can handle."

Josiah smiled a little--that was an answer he could have given, too. "He is," he agreed.

"Joe and I used to have a good thing," she said, again more to herself than to Josiah, but he heard it. Not a surprise now, just confirmation of what he'd already figured out.

"That why you're doing this? To get him back?" he asked, wanting to know just how far he could trust her. If she was trying to get back into Ellison's bed, then they could trust her only until she saw him.

She snorted. "I wouldn't have him back. Not after this."

She was still angry, but her tone carried no edge of hope; she wasn't desperate and she wouldn't forget Ellison's betrayal when she saw him.

The sky was still lightening, but it wasn't light enough to be a threat to them yet. Looking over his shoulder, he could make out the group of people nearing the Firefly, the electric lamps they carried cutting bright bands through the deeper darkness. He and Jael were far enough away that they couldn't been seen, he didn't think, but he could see them--could see the man edging into the group, his clothes too dark to make out--but his movements looked familiar. Ezra moved gracefully through the others toward the night-silver hair that had to be Mary Travis. He was good, blending right in. No one stopped him or even seemed to notice him.

Jael stumbled and almost fell, saved only by Josiah's tight grip on her upper arm. "Damn," she cursed quietly. "Need a damned light."

"We're almost there," he said, looking toward the buildings. His fingers tightened on the butt of his pistol, which he carried at the ready. It took all of their efforts, and Josiah was sweating in the dew-damp air by the time they stopped next.

They crouched behind the low rise that separated the field from buildings and the roadway. Josiah studied the dark shadows of buildings for several long minutes, looking for movement. It was still too dark to make out anything other than outlines and shapes.

The form of a person separated itself from the wall on one side of the house, then he heard the scuff of boots in the dirt. After a few seconds, the shadow headed toward the barn.

Sticking out from the person was the unmistakable barrel of a long gun.

He touched Jael lightly on the arm then leaned in close and whispered, "Guards?"

She shrugged, turning her head slowly from side to side as she watched, tracking the moving guard. "Most are going to be outside, running sentry duty. He doesn't like being watched when he's feeling guilty." Josiah nodded at the insight; he had that feeling himself. "Once we get in, we should only have one or two with him to deal with."

"And if he's not in there?"

She made a disgusted sound. "Even money says he won't leave somebody to guard his flank. He's not a soldier. He doesn't think like one."

"And this Trish?"

The whites of her eyes caught a glint of light. "I... maybe."

Luck was on their side, which always surprised Josiah. Before he could decide how to approach the house, a door opened and several people poured out. One of them was talking, and even though the words were unclear, the voice must not have been, for Jael hissed beside him.

"Ellison?" Josiah asked, even though he knew it was.

"Hundan!" she spat, and he assumed it was agreement.

More shadows detached themselves from the side of the house, and he thought he made out three men. But another voice was distinct as well, this one higher pitched and laughing. He barely caught Jael as she lunged forward, closing his hand over her collar and pulling her back.

"You want to get us killed?" he hissed, jerking her close and trapping her against his chest.

"Bitch!" she hissed this time, but it was quiet, muffled in Josiah's shoulder.

He watched as Ellison and his companions walked the distance from the house to the barn, never far from each other, and listened to the sounds of their voices carrying. No one sounded particularly stressed, but then they didn't talk much either. When they were out of sight, he loosened his hold on Jael and she jerked away from him. But she didn't go after them, and her breathing had slowed while he held her still and quiet.

He was wondering how they were going to make it to the house without attracting attention; there was little for them to hide behind, only a couple of large pieces of farm machinery and some outdoor furniture in the yard. He glanced around, noticed that the sky was getting lighter. If this was going to work, they had to move now.

Josiah touched Jael on the shoulder then pointed with the tip of his gun's barrel to the machine closest to them. "Stay low," he murmured, and he glanced around, gathering himself to run.

"Wait," she whispered, and he followed her gaze; the mule with the trailer was coming back from the ship. He looked toward the barn and noticed that the people moving around had stopped, most of them turning to watch the mule.

"Let it get a little closer," she said, "the guards will watch it and the people on it."

It had been Josiah's thinking already, but it was good to know she really was on their side. Or they were on hers, a thought that disquieted him more.

As the mule grew closer, its headlights getting brighter, Josiah could almost feel the tension growing around the barn. He waited until he heard the engine before touching Jael.

They moved fast, but Josiah still felt as if time were standing still. He fully expected to hear shouts and the sound of weapons being discharged, and it took him a few seconds after they reached the large tractor to understand that the sound he actually was hearing was his own blood rushing through his veins.

He edged past Jael, who was crouched on the ground catching her breath, and peered around the corner of the vehicle. The mule had stopped and people moved to unload it and haul things into the barn or near it. From this angle, Josiah could more clearly see the men who lurked on the side of the barn, obscured by the darkness and by stacks of grasses and other things positioned near the large building. Those same obstacles would obscure him and Jael from the guards. He hoped.

The house had a long porch that ran across the front and around both sides, windows that were covered with heavy drapes. To his left and further back sat a long outdoor table and chairs. It would give them some cover and put them closer to the house and off to one side. He touched Jael's shoulder and pointed. She'd caught her breath and she nodded as she wiped sweat from her forehead. He could smell the stale sweetness of whatever she was wearing, a body spray or some sort of perfume, and it made him miss the clean scent of Vin's sweat.

She nodded and drew herself together and looked at him, waiting for his signal. He looked back and saw the activity ongoing around the mule, took a deep breath, and once more took off for the next target.

He was getting used to it, he thought as he crouched behind a large chair. The adrenalin wasn't pumping as hard through his body. No one seemed to have noticed them, and he couldn't see anyone on the porch or near the house, even when he used the scope on the pistol.

From this angle, he could see along the side of the house farthest from the barn. The porch ran about half way down the side before giving way to a border of shrubs. There were several windows, and even though they were covered, light bled from behind at least one of them.

Once again, he touched Jael on the arm and indicated the window. She nodded, and he felt a strange pang of regret and of absence. He did miss Vin, wished he were the person here. It wasn't a thought he wanted to have now, not facing the possibility of months, more or less, without Vin around. The thought--as it always did these days--brought relief and regret in equal measure, and there wasn't time for this now; he set off toward the house, moving more slowly now to be more silent, leading with his pistol.

They came in close to the house, stepping into the bushes. He was glad his clothes were thick, and he almost grinned when he heard Jael's hissed curses; the plants were thorny and they seemed to like her clothing.

The curtain that covered the window was thick and heavy, blocking much of the light and sound, Josiah guessed. He listened, hearing nothing from inside the house. "Time to stroll right in," he whispered, barely a breath of sound.

Jael frowned, but she nodded, and after a last, quick glance around and a silent but heartfelt prayer, Josiah stood up. Beside him, Jael did the same, and they strolled up onto the porch like they belonged there.

The kitchen door was open and already, smells of cooking wafted out. Heart thudding, he gripped the door handle and pulled it open, then stepped inside. Two young women stood at a long island in the middle of the big room, chopping onions and peppers, and the grip on the knives in each of the young women's hands shifted to defensive holds. But the man at the sink stared at him with intent eyes and said, "Morning, Raffa." He was quick, thank God.

"Morning," Josiah said easily. His heart pounded and his skin itched with adrenalin, but his gun was under his coat and out of sight, and Jael's knife had disappeared somewhere in the folds of her clothing. "Smells good." The knives in the women's hands shifted back around, and they went back to chopping, but their eyes stayed glued to Josiah and Jael. The shorter woman, the one furthest away, had dark curls pulled back beneath a headband, and her eyes bore so hard into Jael, Josiah was surprised Jael couldn't feel the burn.

Jael, stiff and wary, nodded all around. "Hey, Margo," she whispered.

"You damned--" she said, but her sister--it had to be a sister, they looked so much alike--held out a staying hand.

"Jael," the sister whispered back. "What the hell are you doing?"

"Trying to fix this mess," Jael said grimly.

Josiah registered his surprise only distantly; if Blue Sun Thirty-seven shared a property line with this commune, Jael should know some of these people. He stepped up close to the woman who'd spoken. "How many guards in the house?" he whispered.

"One left, we think," she whispered back. As she spoke, Jael edged around the long counter and toward the house's interior. "He's tall, pale. Hair almost as light as Mary's, and--"

"Ta ma de." Jael's whispered curse caught everyone's attention, as did her swift move to stand ready beside the door.

Josiah looked up, caught sight of a light-haired man walking up the hall toward them, and held his breath. Jael, plastered against the wall, was looking around wildly, but there was no place for her to hide; the pantry was plenty big, but its door was open and it was on the other side of the entry door, and there was no time anyway. The man's head came up and his steps slowed, hand dropping to his sidearm as he caught sight of Josiah.

"Raffa," the sister said, without nearly as much strain in her voice as Josiah felt, "you going to help or just stand there staring at that ass?"

Josiah started forward, keeping his hands in sight, but he couldn't drag his eyes away from the guard, who paused just outside the kitchen door. "Who the hell are you?" he demanded, and drew his gun.

"Raffa," Josiah said, reaching to take the sister's knife and slide her cutting board toward him. He set to chopping the rest of the onion while the sister fisted her hands, and the guard stepped inside the room.

"Get over--"

He got no further before Jael, knife in hand, slashed across the inside of his wrist. A muffled shout from the man at the stove shocked everyone, but Jael and Margo were on the guard, fast. Margo shoved a dishtowel into his mouth while Jael held him in a chokehold from behind. "You sonofabitch," she hissed. "Andy, I thought you were a decent man!"

The guard's--Andy's--eyes widened, and kept moving from Jael's face to the blood gushing from the opened vein in his wrist. His hand hung at an odd angle, and Josiah felt his stomach roll as he realized just how sharp Jael's knife was. It looked to have cut through tendon right along with skin and veins.

The man at the stove had abandoned all pretense and skidded to his knees beside the guard. "You can't!" he whispered, urgent and frightened. "They've got our kids, you can't just--"

"We're getting your children out right now," Josiah whispered intently, praying it was true. He too had abandoned the cooking ruse and moved to kneel beside the injured man. "Can you stop his bleeding and hide him in the pantry?"

"Don't know why we should stop the bleeding," Margo's sister hissed. Anger or fear had her shaking, and Josiah didn't blame her.

The young man snorted. "Because it'll be hard to hide a gallon of blood on the floor, Monica." He looked to Josiah with hopeful eyes. "You're really getting our kids out of this?"

Josiah nodded. "We're trying. But there's a bigger worry Jael and I need to deal with. Was Ellison using a room in here, to run things from?"

"Mary and Geraldine's office," Monica said. "I can show you."

Josiah nodded. "Get this man out of sight, and keep him quiet," he told Margo and the man. "If Ellison or any of his people come back, try to keep them out of there."

Margo nodded, and Monica took off at a run. Josiah ushered Jael out in front of him, though she'd pretty much proved her worth, and followed, fast, down the hall and into a cluttered office. Storage cabinets lined the walls, as well as books and ledgers, electronic and old-fashioned paper, strewn about on various surfaces. A portable console sat on the edge of the desk, and Monica pointed to it. "That's not ours," she said. "They brought it with them."

Jael moved to it and touched the keyboard carefully, like she was afraid it would explode. "If it's Trish's, I don't know what the codes will be, but it looks like..." She sucked in a deep breath and laid her hands to the keyboard, bringing up the password prompt and typing in a long series of letters. "Hah! Idiot," she huffed, but Josiah just thanked the good Lord, because Jael was past the security and into the heart of the problem.

He moved around the desk to stand beside her and peer over her shoulder at the screen.

"Main control," she said. "It's a wireless network, he can probably key it from a distance. I can disarm it, but I'll have to reset the code for every one of the explosives on the feed. It's gonna take a while."

He looked at her, relieved to see that she was intent on the job, her attention focused. "Get it done as fast as you can," he said. "No telling when they'll be back."

She shrugged. "They don't have to come back," she said. "If he's got the trigger with him, he can detonate the Wellsons from anywhere."

Behind him, Monica gasped. Josiah drew a breath for patience--these folks hadn't asked for any of this--and turned toward her. "Go help your relatives in the kitchen," he said. "Try to keep things as normal as you can. And if anyone comes back into the house..."

"Keep them out of here. Right," she said, and jogged away.

Josiah moved to shut the door and sighed. He watched Jael, knowing just enough to know that she was doing what she needed to be doing. She had pulled up the main control for the units and was taking the time to reset the code for each one, but there were more than they had anticipated--closer to twenty than a dozen.

"Fuck," she muttered inelegantly, wiping her hands on her slacks again. She was getting nervous the longer this continued, and her face showed the strain of the pressure. She was thinking too hard and winding herself up.

"Ta ma de," she cursed, frowning at the monitor.


"I ran the shut down protocol on this one, but it's still showing active. Could be a glitch here, could be the Wellson."

"Where is it?"

She brought up coordinates and tilted her head. "By the solar array, looks like. It's probably at the coupling between the inverters and the step-up transformer--that's where it would cause the most damage."

Josiah touched her shoulder to get her attention and she jerked her head around. "I leave you here, you think you can finish the job and stay out of trouble?"

"Where will you be?"

"Disarming that Wellson."

She bit her lip--it seemed like the first womanly thing he had seen her do since this mess had started--and nodded. "Be careful. If it's malfunctioning, you can't trust it to behave."

Josiah felt the smile touch his lips and the irony of God touch his soul. Wouldn't that be a way to go. "Don't worry about that," he said. Holding onto his pistol, he moved to the window, peering out the side. He couldn't see anything and the noises were too muted to be clear. Be nice to have tea now, he thought with another sigh, and slipped out the office door.

"I know how to use a gun," JD said quickly, "I can--"

"You can stay here and have the shuttle ready to go on a second's notice, just like you said when you suggested this," Buck said, cutting off the kid. His teeth still ached from where they'd banged together with the landing impact; JD was right, it had been rough. But the field was all grass and soft earth, and it hadn't been loud either, a fact for which Buck was grateful. "We're going to have to move fast." He stuck his pistol into the holster at the back of his waistband.

"We should go," Inez said from the shuttle door. She was dressed in black, her hair pulled back, and she was wearing a set of night vision goggles. She held out a second pair for Buck.

The sky was turning grey when they stepped out of the open door of the shuttle, not yet light enough to be daylight, but getting there. Casey had reported through the comms that Chris and Vin had taken Williams and that Josiah and Jael were away, working on the Wellsons. It was coming together, but they had to get the kids out, had to take that leverage away from Ellison. He entertained himself with the fact that Chris was still safely aboard ship and likely joyfully scaring years off that Williams fella.

"Move fast," Inez said softly. "We need to be finished before it gets too light."

It already was, Buck thought, but he didn't say it.

They had landed behind a low rise, and the hatch opened onto a soft grassy meadow. Pasture land; he hoped the animals weren't grazing too close.

Outside the shuttle, he nodded his thanks as he slipped the goggles over his head. It took a few seconds for the world to come back into a perspective that his brain recognized, a wash of greens and yellows translating slowly into light and shadow.

"Ready?" Inez asked quietly, her voice carrying clearly over the short-range system they had tucked into their ears.


She led off, jogging along the soft ground and up the low rise that separated the ship and pasture from the barn and house.

Grass slippery with dew made a challenge out of climbing quietly, and his pant legs were damp by the time they reached the top of the rise. Inez crouched with the barrel of her rifle raised, and he knelt beside her, smelling the fresh grass and night air and surprised, when he thought about it, that he couldn't smell her perfume. She was that professional, though; all her personal identifiers were stripped away.

This would be a really bad time to get an erection. On the other hand, Chris would love to rib him if Buck told him about it. The thought comforted him a little, and distracted him more, which was good under the circumstances.

"There," she said, whispering into their linked network. "Exactly where she said it would be."

The barn was a big building, and its bulk almost completely obscured the house beyond it. The door Ellie had described was in the corner closest to them, separated from the low rise they were behind by a circular wooden and barbed wire fence. There was a gate, though, which Ellie claimed was easy to open.

Through the goggles, he could make out the heat of bodies moving around, at the sides of the barn and past it. An engine idled somewhere near; the first new shipment of cargo must be being off-loaded. They didn't have much time, not if they wanted to take advantage of the mule's throaty engine.

It wasn't a long jog, even staying low and wary. The fence was high, but it was designed for livestock; they slipped between the ground and the lowest planks without much trouble.

The ground under them was even for the most part, but occasionally Buck could feel a little slip as his foot pressed into a softer mass. It was a familiar feeling, but one he hadn't had in a while--the feel of grass-rich cow crap squishing under his boots --a sensation he actually enjoyed, because he'd learned it with Chris, visiting his family home. His brain supplied the damnedest memories, sometimes....

The door into the barn was closed but not locked, and Buck held his breath as he lifted the latch and pushed carefully inward.

The room was dark and it was only the goggles that gave him any idea of what was inside. It was a vet's room, a long metal table in the center, and long counters against the walls with drawers and cabinets under and above them. The far wall had a double door into the barn, bisected so that either the top or the bottom could open independently. Inez slid into the room behind him.

Voices on the other side let him know that they were close, and he drew a breath. Slow and easy. He crept across the floor until he was under the other door. On his knees, he could see out into the barn and the open barn doors that looked out onto the road.

There were a lot of people moving around, and he recognized some of them from the first party that had met the Maggie last night. They were unloading part of the shipment, working in a funereal silence, not at all the way he was used to from people who worked and lived together outside a monastery or a companions' temple.

Because there were people with guns hiding in corners and lurking in the background. Without the goggles, he might not have seen them--and had he been on the other side of the barn, looking in from the mule, he probably wouldn't have either. These guys were good, recessed and hidden, but loaded and looking ready to take out any problem.

"Buck," Inez whispered, her voice a breath through the earpieces.

He ducked and looked over his shoulder to find her peering out a smaller window on the wall adjacent.

He sidled over to her, not surprised but not pleased to see what she saw: a high-walled stall was on the other side, probably where they isolated and treated sick animals. Inside it now, though, were children, just as Ellie had said.

Most of them seemed to be sleeping, bunched together in the cooler air of the night, on pallets of hay. They ranged in age from toddlers to pre-teens, Buck thought, even though his own knowledge of children was pretty limited. None appeared to have reached puberty, though.

"That looks like twenty-five or more," she said. "But we have no direct access to that stall, other than this window. We have to open the door or get them out through the back wall somehow."

"It's for sick animals," he murmured. "There's got to be an access that doesn't require coming into the main part of the barn. Come on."

They moved low and fast once more, going quickly back out the door. The sun was approaching the horizon, and it was already light enough outside that he no longer needed the goggles. There was the stall door, as Buck had expected. A nice split door, the upper half able to open independent of the bottom half.

Buck eased the haft of the lower lock open and jiggled the door, but something was still keeping it from swinging free, which meant that one of them was going to have to go inside and either sneak out the door into the barn to get to the kids--or one of them was going to have to slip through the window from the vet's room into the stall and hope that door could be opened now from the inside.

"At least we only have to open the lower half," Inez whispered. "We won't draw attention by having the whole door open."

It was small consolation, in the big picture. "Need a distraction," Buck said. "Give you time to get into the stall and get those kids out."

"Buck," she said softly but he heard the warning in it. "Nothing stupid."

"No," he agreed, but he couldn't keep from grinning. "Nothing Chris wouldn't do." Or wouldn't do eventually, he thought fondly. Chris had shown admirable restraint in the face of danger and bad guys, but that wouldn't last.

He left his rifle and goggles with Inez, stood tall, dusted off his trousers and strolled, easy as you please, around the side of the barn, taking a path outside the corral fence to give her more time.

Oh yeah, Buck thought as the man who had to be Ellison stared at him, this guy was a bad ass. Certainly he thought so. "Buck Wilmington," he called out, holding out his hand. "I'm the Margaret May's owner of record--"

"I know who you are," the man said. He smiled, but it was not amused and Buck hoped Inez was working fast. "The question is what brings you here."

At his mother's temple, Buck had been well schooled in the ways of men and women. It was a skill that his mother swore came naturally to him before he'd entered his first initiate's courses, but to him it was less skill than habit: he just gave a person his undivided attention. "Thought I'd take an early morning stroll," Buck said, nodding to the people who were fanning out around him. "Been cooped up on the ship for days now, nice to get out and see a sunrise." He breathed in deep and let the air out on a smile. "Beautiful place you've got here."

Inez would be back in the barn already.

Ellison had a way of carrying himself that was interesting, guarded and proud at the same time. He'd lost a few fights in his day. His clothes were fine, finer than a farmer's ought to be, even management, but he wore them well and they appeared of the same make the woman beside him wore. Fair skin, sharp eyes--she must have a hunger for pretty things. "Buck Wilmington, at your service," he said, and gave her his best smile. "If I may say, ma'am, you make this place even prettier." Still, he presented his back to them both and took a few steps toward the gate, propping his foot up on a low post. The scuff of slow-moving boots eased closer, and he grinned.

"What the fuck? What the fuck does he think he's doing?" Chris snarled, slamming a hand down on the console.

Vin grinned at Chris's shock and the rage that was brewing underneath it. "That the only plan he's got?" Vin asked. "Walking straight into trouble?"

Chris spared him a glance but no more, before his eyes shifted back to the monitor. "He's got more balls than sense when his blood's up," Chris spat. "Thinks he can talk his way out of-" His voice trailed off and Vin looked back too, to see what had Chris so caught up.

On the monitor in front of them, the camera on the mule displayed the front of the barn, people moving around, taking things into the barn from the mule. There were others just standing around, men and a few women who didn't appear to be doing anything--but they wore weapons and they were watching.

Buck stood right in the middle of the frame now, hands on his hips, head tilted back as if he were looking out and enjoying the view. Smiling, he looked the picture of the curious tourist, a man with no problems and no agenda, and Vin felt that strange tic inside him when he walked square into vision become real and present and now.

"This is it," he said, all humor gone. He leaned past Chris and pointed at one of the men in the corner of the monitor. "And that's Ellison." This was where it started, where things went upside down. And when this vision ended, they'd be - he caught himself. He didn't know how things would be. He hadn't seen the end of it.

He couldn't remember that ever happening before, him not knowing how it played to the end, walking through it like an actor in a play while everyone around him struggled through it the normal way.

Chris jerked back and Vin pulled back as well, glancing at the other man.

"That's the man from your vision?" Chris said, his tone sharp.

Vin nodded, hearing Josiah's warnings in the back of his head, the ones about trusting people to respect his ability, the ones about trusting people not to turn him in. But those whispers were distant--he had no need of them here. Not with Chris.

"This is your vision, isn't it," Chris snapped, taking a step closer to Vin. "Just the way you described it."

Before Vin could answer, Buck turned and strolled toward the fence, put his foot up and smiled at the sky. "That," he said, pointing to the screen, "is my vision."

Chris turned and looked, swearing again. "Stupid fucker!" he spat. "I don't know how in the seven hells he convinced me to marry him." Then he stormed toward the door.

They were running by the time Chris reached the door to the cargo bay. "Them boys with Williams are gonna worry when we come through the door without him," Vin warned as they broke onto the catwalk.

"Then let's hope Ezra's had a chance to talk to Mary," Chris shot back, but he wasn't as loud. He scanned the crowd below them, and Vin turned to look as well. Several people looked up at them, people with guns and frowns on their faces.

Most of the cargo was gone now; the scaffolding for the tractors had been dismantled and the last two tractors were right now being backed out of the ship. One of the men who Vin had seen talking to Williams stood near Mary, watching the load-out. The rest clustered around the containers John and Jael had brought aboard. Chris glanced around, taking in the scene, then started down the stairs.

The sense of time shifting came over Vin quickly and he stumbled, barely catching himself in the railing. He hated these visions worst, the 'half-second' ones, as he thought of them, where what he saw was going to happen so soon that his body's reality was already stepping into it.

Two Chris Larabees stood in his world, one a few steps ahead of the other and speeding up, pulling away faster than time allowed. Every person in the bay did the same, and the place got so crowded, the people moving so dizzyingly fast, that Vin felt his stomach lurch. The Chris furthest away stepped off the stairs and broke into a jog, but his ears could hear the clank of boots on the metal stairs ahead of him, and he knew that if he tried to speed up too, he'd fall right into the Chris closest to him.

He hit the floor and stumbled, going to his knees. Chris turned--the real Chris, the one in the here-and-now. Then a hand closed on his upper arm, warm and solid, and the Chris of a moment away was gone, and all the other doppelgangers down in the bay. Breathing hard to quell the nausea, he looked around to be sure.

Behind Chris now, one of Williams' men headed towards them, his hand resting on the butt his gun. "Are you--"

"We'll close the hatch," he said, knowing now what they needed to do. "Trap as many inside as possible--ours and theirs, let our people disarm Willams' people."

"Our people?" Chris said the words like a curse. "We only got you, me, Casey and Nathan left in here!"

"Ezra, too, he's right over there," Vin said, pointing toward the starboard stairs. "They'll be all right."

"That something you see?" Chris hissed.

Vin blinked and shook his head violently, trying to rattle the pieces back into the right places and times. "Does it matter?"

Chris glanced around then stiffened. The man with the gun was halfway across the bay and closing fast.

Chris looked back at Vin, his lips compressed into a thin line. "Soon as I make a move, you get the hatch. Tell Nathan to be ready to handle anybody who gets through, then you meet me on the flight deck." Maybe Chris had his own visions, because he seemed to know exactly what Vin was thinking.

They broke apart and Vin climbed back up the stairs, keeping an eye out over his shoulder as the man approaching slowed, wary, eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Captain," the man called, and Chris looked up. All his anger had vanished, replaced with a fierce grin that Vin knew he'd see again; Chris Larabee with a purpose was a man afire.

Chris turned to meet the intruder, took two steps toward him and, as soon as he was in reach, hit him hard with a right hook that put him on the floor.

The cargo bay was silent for about two seconds, and Vin would dearly like to have seen the commune members take care of these assholes, but he was already moving toward the door control, his gun in his hand. He hit the emergency seal and the ramp rose quick enough that folks standing on it fell and slid into the bay. As soon as the door angle looked too steep to climb, he dropped the controller and took the stairs two, three at a time, racing across the catwalk toward the back of the ship. He heard the thud of another impact and glanced over his shoulder. Through the screen of his hair he saw a woman kick a feller in the balls and grunted in sympathy. Mary Travis grabbed the gun when it fell out of his hand and she had that boy under control by the time Vin managed to round up Nathan and bring him back.

"Guess he hoped you'd help keep these good people from killing those folks," he said, tilting his head toward the four men the settlers had corralled into a corner. "That, and make sure nobody gets where they ain't supposed to. We left a few outside too." He took off for the flight deck then, and shimmied up the ladder in time to hear Chris on the comm, calling to Casey to get up here and get the Maggie into the air, and that made sense now. The ship would put him high enough to see what he'd seen the way he'd seen it.

Distant pounding told him folks were trying to get in, and he hoped like hell they lifted off before someone got the idea to crawl up top and come in the way the pregnant Ellie had. He moved fast to stay out of Chris's way and followed Chris back down the ladder.

"Hang on!" Chris called, and he ran to talk to Mary. Chris headed next for the door control and let the ramp lower again, more slowly this time.

"Mary wants us to give them a few minutes to get into position," he said.

"Ain't got time," Vin said, nodding to Mary. "They can take the mule and get going--maybe get in place to do some damage with the guns."

"It's our people who are being held hostage," Mary said flatly. "We have to get them out."

"Ms. Travis," Chris said bluntly, "you've got maybe a minute to get your people off my ship and clear of the engines. After that, you c'n do whatever the hell you want."

He turned to head back the way he'd come, and Vin stepped in for his captain. "We've got folks trying to get your young'uns out," he said, talking as fast as he dared. "Ship's about to lift off and go help 'em."

"We have marksmen," Mary said, talking at least as fast. "We can cover you from this side, if you can supply us with weapons." A half-dozen settlers who weren't still pointing guns at the prisoners rallied around.

Vin glanced in the direction Chris had run. Casey'd be up there by now, or damned close. He ran to the stairs and pulled the rifle out of its hiding place. "There's another under the port stair," he said. "Best get off now if you're going," he warned. "Once she starts moving, it'll be fast. Don't try to jump."

"Wait!" Mary said, touching his arm when he'd have turned away. "What are you going to do?"

"Fetch Buck back, ma'am." If Ellison didn't kill him, Vin thought Chris might want to. Better to have the man in one piece, for that. "Fetch Josiah back, too." Vin knew already that his man was all right, but these folks wouldn't.

The colonists were quick, and four cleared out with Mary while the others stood sentry around the men they'd captured, by the time Casey's voice crackled over the speakers, noisy and static-rich. "Clear away from the ship!" she called, to anyone still standing too close outside. "Stand away, engines engaging in a matter of--now!"

The floor under his feet trembled as the engines thrummed into full power. The hatch doors slammed shut and Vin turned around to see less chaos than he had expected.

"Tie up these people, keep them contained," Chris yelled to the people from the farm who were still on board. Amid the clamor one voice rang louder, a man Vin knew only from offloading last night.

"Captain, you shouldn't have done this. They've got explosives planted all over the--"

Chris ignored him even as he jogged right up to where Vin stood. "Your aim good with a rifle?"

Vin grinned. "What you got in mind?"

Chris grinned back and yelled across the bay, "Ezra! Get your ass over here!"

What he had in mind required a climbing harness, two good ropes, goggles, and a lot of faith in Casey being able to keep the ship in the air.

"Are you insane?" Ezra asked, staring at Chris as if he'd grown a second head.

"Come on, Ez," Vin said, strapping on the harness. "You're my spotter." He tightened the buckles into place then leaned down and grabbed his rifle and the extra one Chris had come up with; it wasn't Alliance issue, but that was all right--it was almost better than the one he'd bought and modified.

"Does it matter to you that I don't know what a spotter is?" Ezra asked.

Vin grinned "Nope."

Ezra turned to Chris. "You intend to hang Vin out the belly of this ship while it's in atmosphere--"

"We're gonna be above the barn," Chris said, strapping on his own harness. "Him on one side of the Maggie, me on the other. Casey's linking me into the comm system, we can broadcast through the speakers or link. I want to get our people out of there, cover them so they can get clear."

"They have hostages," Ezra said, as if he were speaking to a child. "They'll start killing them--"

"Casey's on the link to JD--Inez is bringing the kids out now. We may have injuries--hell, probably will, so Nathan, you'd better be ready." He was strapped in as well, and he leaned over to pick up his own rifle, touching his ear-piece as he did. "Yeah," he said, straightening back up and slinging the rifles over his shoulder. He nodded at Vin as he said, "good. Get us in place." He tapped at his ear and said, "Josiah thinks Jael's got the Wellsons' central controller off. He's out by the solar array, taking care of one that didn't reset. Let's do this."

Vin nodded. "Careful, Chris--I ain't seen all of this play out." It was the truth, and he felt the need to warn Chris, or Ezra who was watching him intently, of things that he didn't know. Vin had the sense that Ezra was skeptical, but Ezra seemed skeptical of a lot of things. Vin didn't give him time to ask, moving for the airlock at the junction of the ship's body and neck.

"This is utterly insane," Ezra said, but he was right on Vin's heels, helping him tie off the lines and man the airlock release. "How are you going to brace--hanging upside down?"

"Sort of," Vin said, as the passenger doors on the side closest to the barn started to part and the wind battered at his face.

Ezra grabbed Vin by one arm, turning him around and for an instant, Vin thought he saw actual worry in the other man's eyes. Then, tilting his head, Ezra said, "You may not have seen this day play out, but you have seen something. You've seen your own death, haven't you."

It brought Vin up short. No one had ever asked him that, not even Josiah. He stared at Ezra, almost answering him--then the ship lurched, and he staggered to catch his balance. He turned around to face the open doors again, and closed his eyes and relaxed, appreciating the complete freedom of being in this minute, the rush of air drowning out all other sound, all other sensation. He leaned out, testing the rope and the harness and his own body's weight against the current. "I'll holler if I need you to haul me in," he yelled over his shoulder as he pulled at his ammo belts one last time. They were heavy and would help him position, as well as giving him reloads for the rifles.

Before Ezra could answer--or argue--he grabbed his line and dropped forward out of the airlock, coming up fast at the end of the short rope and twisting slowly under the line, finding his balance by getting his feet against the side of the ship.

Buck really didn't have much to do, now that he was standing here: just keep Ellison talking, provide a little noise to cover any that Inez and the escaping kids might make, and not get himself killed. He turned back to Ellison and propped one elbow on the top board of the corral fence. "Been a long time since I've spent a day in a place as pretty as this. Too citified, I reckon." Ellison didn't respond; dragging things out might be harder than Buck wanted it to be. "I'm from Persephone myself, grew up around Evansborough mostly, but I spent some time in the smaller villages to the east back when I was a boy." Still nothing. "So--you in charge here?"

Ellison tilted his head slightly, clearly confused, his gun still holstered. The combination relieved Buck to no end. "Is there a problem?" Beside him, the woman smiled but her eyes were on Buck, bright and assessing.

"Why, no, not as I know of," he answered, keeping his attention away from the inside of the barn and on the two of them. "I just wanted to meet the person in charge, say a right proper thanks for the business."

Ellison frowned at this and his hand came to rest on his gun belt. "Wasn't Ms. Travis on-board your ship, helping with the off-loading?"

Buck grinned as wide as he could and silently asked his mother's forgiveness as he said, "Now you can't tell me a pretty little filly like that is in charge of everything around here. That's just downright impossible to believe. No offense intended, ma'am."

The woman standing beside him didn't like that much. Her face hardened and she shot a contemptuous look Ellison's way. But a spark flickered in Ellison's eyes and Buck knew he'd been right; Ellison was a man who thought his gender meant something, and appealing to his masculinity was good for a few more seconds of distraction.

"Does make one wonder," Ellison agreed, relaxing a little. "I've been trying to make her understand that she'd do better to find a good man to take care of her, especially this far out."

"Right you are," Buck agreed, nodding to the woman at Ellison's side, seeing the cold calculation in her eyes and wondering how she'd tolerated this hundan for so long. "Present company notwithstanding, ma'am." To Ellison he said, "I didn't catch your name, there, and I surely do like to know the names of like-minded folk!" He stuck out his hand in greeting, wondering if he could be so lucky as to get Ellison to shake hands, then twist him around and get a gun to his head...

But the man was smart and wary, not a surprise. He nodded to Buck instead and said, "Just here lending a helping hand, trying to get these nice people off the ground, so to speak." He grinned, truly amused, and Buck wondered how many of the explosive devices were spread around them, and whether Josiah and Jael had managed to disarm them yet.

"Well, now, ain't that neighborly!" Buck said, looking around and smiling to the folks scattered but circling him. A tight knot of what had to be the rightful owners here stood just inside the barn door, huddled and silently watching. "I'm sure these folk appreciate your help--being as they're starting out new and all."

"Yes, well, the sooner we complete the off-loading, the faster we can help them get set up--now, can I have someone escort you back to your ship?" It wasn't a question.

"I'll be glad to take him," the woman said, her voice low and husky. Her smile now was flirtatious and she shifted a little, one hip drifting out enough to show off her curves. "I'd like to take a stroll around your ship."

Buck hesitated, trying to find something to say to give Inez more time. But before anything came to him, he heard the familiar rumble of the Maggie's thrusters kicking up. Fortunately, Buck's surprise was real because the last damned thing he'd expected was for Chris to decide to move the ship without him or JD on board. What the hell was Chris thinking?

Ellison looked at him at the same instant that he looked at Ellison. "You got me," he said, frowning. "I'm the owner, not the captain. And the captain--" he didn't even try to hold back his grin at this fact-- "he can be a little prickly on his best days."

Ellison had turned toward the distant ship, where it had clearly achieved a hover and was sliding slowly their direction. Everybody else was looking too, and the rising tension in the little crowd around him was palpable.

About the time Buck squinted to try and figure out what was dangling out of the open cargo bay, somebody yelled "Shooters!" and all hell broke loose.

Josiah had pulled the cap on the Wellson's computer and was just tugging soldered cable away from the drive chip when he felt the tingle in his ear that told him the comm unit was active. He touched it, muttering, "Yeah," and Casey's voice blasted through his head.

"I've got the ship in the air," she said, tight-voiced. "Captain says for you to get in place to fire--Buck's at the barn with Ellison and he and Vin will cover you guys!"

Josiah blinked, too many thoughts crowding into his head. "I'm a bit preoccupied, Casey," was all he managed to say.

"Well, Chris wants you outside!" Casey said impatiently. "We'll be above you shortly!"

As the comm clicked off, Josiah registered the hum of the ship's engines. He wondered what in the hell Larabee was thinking, and worse, what in the hell Vin was doing.

He drew in a careful breath, teased the drive chip up against the inner housing, then just ripped it completely out. Then he tapped his comm. "Jael? You hear that?"

"Yes," she said.

"How far along are you?" The last vestiges of night were fast receding, and while he couldn't see the ship against the shadow of the bluff, he knew that would change, and fast.

"Got four left--"

The sound of gunfire made him flinch even though he was at least two hundred yards away.

"What's going on?" Jael demanded, and Josiah thought he could hear the computer's keys clicking faster.

"Party's starting," Josiah said, and pushed to his feet. "Time to get involved, if you're going to, Jael."

More shots, mostly from the barn, and he wondered if anyone would notice him running along the front of the solar array, or imagine he was a threat if they did. He carried no rifle, and he wasn't anywhere near close enough to hit someone with his handgun.

"You hear that?" Josiah called over the growing cacophony. The Margaret May's engines were louder now, and coming in fast. She didn't have that much distance to cover, and would be on top of the barn any second.

"I'm already out the door," Jael said grimly.

He had to clear the tall solar panels to see the barn clearly, and he was maybe fifty yards away when the Maggie swept into his line of sight. She came in at a high angle, her downward-angled engines blowing up a storm on the ground. But through the haze and dust, he saw one thing that made his mouth dry and his hands clench on his gun: Vin was hanging out of the ship's side, his feet actually on the hull and his upper body supported by one of the damned climbing harnesses he wouldn't wear when he was actually climbing. He had a rifle at his shoulder, one eye on the sight, and Josiah knew that if he could see Vin's face, he'd find a wide grin there.

Every name of God. If they lived through this, he was going to kill Chris Larabee - if the son of a bitch lived through this excursion; he was standing on the ramp of the open cargo bay, feet planted squarely apart and turned to face the barn, rifle as comfortable on his shoulder as Vin's was.

At least he could blame Vin's insanity on his visions. Larabee was just plain damned crazy.

The first shot caught the man on Ellison's right, surprising--well, all of them, Buck thought. He didn't think the Maggie was close enough for Chris or Vin to get an accurate shot off, and Inez was busy with the kids. But it gave him a second that he used to move--straight ahead. It was a tactic he'd learned during the war, when they were constantly outnumbered and out-gunned. 'Go straight ahead, surprise them and take out everything you can along the way'--that had been the advice given to all units in that last year, and it had served them as well as anything else. Sometimes better.

It served Buck well now. He charged forward, right into Ellison as everyone around him, Trish included, ducked and scattered.

As he and Ellison tumbled he heard other shots go off, but Buck was pretty sure none of them were at him. He was also pretty sure that they were from the same gun and that that gun was a nice one--which meant Inez must be about.

The one weapon's report earned it a cacophony as other people opened fire, but he had all he could manage with Ellison, trying to get control of his body and his gun. They hit the ground hard, rolling until Buck found himself with his back to the dirt. He told himself it was a superior position, since at least he didn't have to wrestle a body and a gun hand. The hand in question, he got in a firm grip and twisted, jamming the muzzle hard into Ellison's belly at the same time that he caught the man by the back of the neck and held on.

Dust whipped around them, and the sound of the Maggie's engines was getting deafening now. Buck knew she was getting close and he wondered just what in the hell Chris was thinking, if he was trying to get them all fried down here. But he really didn't have time to think more than that, so he hissed at Ellison, "Ain't real neighborly of you to be shooting at people right off the bat."

"We just want the damned containers," Ellison hissed back, the damp spray of his breath hot against Buck's neck. "If you'd just give them to us, none of this would be necessary."

"Horse shit," Buck snapped back. "Those Wellsons were primed and ready - you people were planning death from the start." Something fell on their legs, heavy and painful and pinning them both. A body, he realized, trying to shift without losing control of Ellison. Ellison, on top of Buck, grunted. The gun jerked in his hand. More shouts echoed around him, and screaming, and gunfire, and they rolled left and right, still fighting for control.

"They're just for show," Ellison shot back, struggling against Buck. "They're not real--Trish said they weren't."

"She lied to you," Buck hissed back, trying to keep control. "We've been disarming them - they're real all right."

Then a voice he knew well, calling from the sky, just loud enough to be heard over everything else. "Ellison! You and your men are surrounded! Throw down your arms and surrender!"

Ellison froze on top of him and everything went still amidst the wind and noise from the ship's engines. Over the din he could hear Ellison breathing, hard and fast, and the muted sounds of moans and low voices in the barn behind him. Sounded like Chris had hit somebody, then. He'd always been a hell of a shot, always been fast. Buck didn't even worry he'd hit some innocent party; Chris never had before. He relaxed a little, everything but his grip on Ellison's gun hand, and grinned up at the guy.

"We have hostages," Ellison hollered desperately, half-deafening him. "A whole barn full of them."

Buck felt his smile widen. "Really? Seems like I got me one hostage--think he's worth a barn full of others?" He pushed the barrel of the gun hard into Ellison's belly, a mite too joyful at the man's grunt of pain.

Gunfire burbled through the noise of the Maggie's engines like corn popping, and Buck wondered who the hell was left to shoot at. Josiah and Jael would be in the main house, Vin and Chris had the barn area covered... which left Inez to round up the stragglers and deserters, maybe.

"We'll kill them," Ellison said, sounding desperate now.

"What's that gonna get you besides a longer prison sentence?" Buck asked, but Ellison tightened above him--he still had plenty of fight left in him. Buck gripped harder at the back of his neck and slung a leg around his thighs for good measure, kicking the body in the process. "We got family here on this farm," he added, far less amiably. "We don't take kindly to folks who mess with family."

Ellison's face paled, and Buck wondered if the man would let himself die at this point, perhaps out of shock. He didn't look too strong.

"We'll kill them all," a new voice called out, hard and decidedly feminine. "Every last one of them!" Trish. "Put down your guns - and give me back my brother!"

Chris's voice sounded closer when he yelled back, "You first!"

The female voice cursed in the guttural Chinese of the not-so-well-bred, but Buck didn't look up at her. He was too busy holding eye contact with his captive. Or with the guy who held him captive; he supposed that was a matter of interpretation.

Then a shadow fell across Ellison's face, and a new female voice spoke. "Nothing blowing up here," Jael said and Ellison's head jerked as he turned to look up at her. "I told you that you needed to change your codes, you stupid son of a bitch."

Jael moved, drawing one foot back to kick Ellison, but she didn't have a chance. Trish came from behind and landed on Jael's back, bringing them both down hard enough across Ellison that Buck, underneath him, grunted in pain. Somehow the corpse got shoved away in the fray, and everybody was rolling on the ground, jostling and pummeling. The curses and name-calling were worthy of a pit fight, and he wondered where Josiah was and what the hell was going on outside their little circle of mayhem and whether the charges really had been reset on the explosives and --

The trigger under his finger caught between them and went off.

Josiah was still a bit shocked not at the mayhem but at the idea Jael had gotten out of the house and charged right into the firestorm around the barn. He wasn't far behind her--and a curious piece of his brain was asking him why he ought to chase her into that mess--when she'd been tackled by a woman he didn't recognize, but who must surely be Trish Dykstra. The report of a gun and the bright muzzle flash had only meant one thing. He knew his God could be capricious, and wondered if one chance in four was good enough odds for Buck Wilmington.

He knew his God could be capricious because his prophet-lover hung suspended out of the bulk of a tilting spacecraft, smiling, rifle held securely against his shoulder even as he swayed in the engine wash and dust the ship's engines stirred up. That much was burned into his mind's eye, and the smile he could see from down here inspired as much shock as fury. Both, he put to good use, grabbing Jael around the waist and jerking her off the other woman. It had been a long time since he'd hit a woman--old manners died hard--but he was pissed enough now that he didn't even think about it. One well-placed punch to Trish's belly broke them apart then knocking their heads together put them both down, dazed.

He couldn't look up at Vin dangling in the air. Wouldn't. So he turned back to sort out the struggling men on the ground, Buck and Ellison and blood leaking out between them. Larabee was not going to be happy. Of course, the way this whole damned thing had played out wasn't making him very happy either.

A quick glance toward the open barn door revealed the locals on the attack, the few Inez hadn't escorted out swarming out of the stalls swinging, putting down anyone that they didn't know. That left him free to deal with the men on the ground in front of him.

The hardest part of it was figuring out what part was Ellison and what part was Buck as the two big men grappled and rolled. Ellison was thinner, and his lighter hair showed clearly through the dust the Maggie's engines had kicked up. When he reached down, grabbed a flailing arm, and pulled, he could see how the gun had gone off. He was more than a little worried that it would go off again.

The wind whipped up higher and harder, blowing dust around in clouds that stung and blinded. Josiah figured the Margaret May was putting down or going low enough for some of the people on it to drop down. Vin would be in the thick of it, if he hadn't fallen off the damned ship already. Things worse than death, dammit.

"You all right?" he hollered to Buck over the roar of the engines and the chaos around them.

"Yeah," Buck called back. He rose off of Ellison enough for Josiah to see the blood pulse from Ellison's side. The bullet had entered his hip and flown out his thigh, and while fabric covered the worst, he could see a gash and meat through torn flesh. "Need to get Nathan--"

"Let the hundan bleed to death," someone yelled, and Josiah looked up to find them surrounded by a mob of angry men and women who he guessed must be members of the commune. They had used the opportunity to overcome any guards still inside the barn, and swarmed out to join in what was left of the fight. Seemed that what was left now just included Buck and Ellison, and the barely-moving Jael and Trish.

"Let's just calm down here," Buck said, getting his knees under him. Josiah didn't feel as forgiving, his adrenalin still high and his temper with it. Buck still held Ellison's gun, but he held it down and to one side, keeping the hot barrel away from him. "Anybody hurt? Do we have all of his people together?"

Mary Travis stepped out of the crowd and took charge of her people. "Margo, Tomas, take some people and go check the house and the machine shop, make sure we've got those guards locked down. Everyone else, collect those we do have and line them up right here in the corral," she said, pointing to the barn's wall. Josiah pictured an old-fashioned firing squad, but he knew it was his own anger talking and nothing to do with reality. Mary Travis wouldn't summarily execute people and neither would he--no matter how pleasant the thought.

That got the commune members moving, and he waved his arms to try and catch Casey's attention until he remembered his comm link, and tapped at it. "Move off! Can't see to breathe down here!" he yelled.

Closer, so close he knew it wasn't comms, Vin's whispered voice said, "Thought you liked a dust-up now and then."

Josiah turned and glared at him, relieved he was all right - and still angry. Vin had too much fun scaring the shit out of him like this, too much fun doing things that were, literally, insane.

"Best help them clear the barn," he said, staring down at Ellison and ignoring Vin's droll humor which was more suited to a warm hearth than a firefight. The quick pat to his shoulder didn't surprise him, but he didn't welcome the touch. He did welcome the knowledge that Vin would do as Josiah had asked, and his voice, loud in the din, questioning the commune members about any stray hostage-takers, faded as Vin jogged away.

The anger didn't, not for a while. Not through the long seconds it took for the ship's engines to cycle down, not through the look Buck gave him, like the man wasn't sure what he was seeing but didn't have time to figure it out, and not through the sudden silence as the thrusters cut off completely. He could have stood there ten seconds or three minutes, staring at Ellison's bleeding body on the ground, mostly ignoring the people jostling past him. Seemed he had more sorting to do for himself especially when he thought about Vin hanging upside down beneath the belly of the ship, keeping his balance who knew how, and firing with a skill that was not natural. Wasn't even meant to be natural.

After all these years, the unnaturalness of Vin could still gnaw at him. The unnaturalness of them. Living with a miracle prophet took a lot out of a man's soul.

Buck had a thought about helping clean out stragglers with some of Mary's people, but he reckoned they knew their property better than he ever would, and headed toward the Maggie instead. She sat tilted at a slight angle on the sloped ground thirty feet away, her bulk casting a long shadow over the corral and the barn. Chris stood right in front of the open bay doors, still as a stone and holding his rifle, so Buck went up and pulled him into a quick, hard hug.

"You did good there," Buck told him. "Not something I'd have thought of, but--"

"Is any of that yours?" Chris cut in, mostly ignoring his words, it seemed.

Buck blinked, confused, until he realized that Chris was staring at his belly. Ellison's blood had soaked his shirt, probably ruined it if the scuffle hadn't. "Nope."

"I ought to shoot you myself," Chris said, disgusted. Buck eyed him, measured the tension in his body and the fire in his eyes, and grinned. Chris might not have liked Buck's method, but it had gotten the job done without either one of them getting any new holes poked in him, and ultimately, that was what mattered to Chris Larabee.

"Now where's the fun in that? Unless you want to play prison guard and the naughty--"

"Buck." One word, quelling, and Buck quit it just to humor Chris.

"Hey," Buck said, easy. He nudged Chris's chin with his knuckle; the way Chris stood now, head tucked down like he was ready to charge somebody, couldn't be good for him. "Ease up. We won."

Chris looked past him, scanning the corral nearby and the buildings beyond, and Buck turned to stand at his shoulder and do the same. A clearly injured Blue Sun flunkie was being herded from the house by two women in aprons, and a couple more were being prodded along at gunpoint from a big outbuilding back toward the shining solar array.

"You want to help the commune members round up the strays?" he asked, though it looked like they had things under control.

It was the commotion in the corral that got Chris's attention, and Buck followed him back there. Jael, protesting her innocence and spitting vitriol at the idea of being lumped in with the hostage-takers, looked right on the edge of another fight, guns pointed at her or no.

"Jael!" Chris yelled, cutting through the melee. Curt and effective, Chris's one word shut her up and brought her head around, hers and half a dozen commune members' too.

"You know this woman?" Mary asked.

"Of course we know her," Chris sniped, "we brought her in with us." Mutterings from the crowd worried Buck, but only for a second; Chris's leadership wasn't really in question here, nor was the crew's role in saving these good people. "We'll keep her with us, for the time being," Chris said, and stepped in between her and the man who held her. Chris just had that way about him that made people give ground; the guy looked nervously toward Mary Travis, but he let Jael go and stepped away when Chris stepped in.

Jael had buttoned up tight, which was probably for the best until they figured out what they were going to do with her. She wasn't exactly meek, but she did fall in between him and Chris as they walked her away from the crowd. They passed another knot of settlers who were just leaving the Maggie's cargo bay with the three criminals who'd been watching them during unloading. It didn't seem like there could be any left to round up now, but he didn't see John Dykstra among them. Somebody would have to hand him over, sooner rather than later.

Ezra stood on the ramp, and he looked to be waiting for them.

"Someone ought to secure those Wellsons," Jael said as they quickly covered the ground between the corral and the ship.

"I'm sure they are, darlin'," Buck replied. It really was a beautiful morning, and the idea that this mess was over with relatively little pain made him want to appreciate it.

"You don't understand," she went on as they stepped onto the loading ramp where Ezra stood, looking spectacularly unruffled for all the hoopla that had just gone on. "Company ships will be here within a day, and if you don't want corporate security trampling over every inch of this place, decisions have to be made soon."

Ezra looked suddenly ruffled. "What do you mean, company ships are headed this way? Blue Sun?"

Buck sighed and looked for someplace to sit down; seemed like any plans for appreciating the morning were on hold.

"White Cross, the subsidiary," Jael corrected. Her eyes tracked across the corral where the commune members escorted their prisoners to stand beside Trish Dykstra and Joe Ellison. "While I was disarming the Wellsons I waved the company to let them know what criminal activities their star manager was involved in."

The sound Chris made reminded Buck of that prize bull out in the pasture JD had landed the shuttle in. "You think they'll care?"

Jael dragged her eyes away from Ellison and grimaced. "I think they'll care that he was committing criminal acts against their interests, yes. They will certainly care that I recovered the shipment."

Buck nodded, smiling, and dropped an arm around Chris's shoulders. "She's got you there, stud." The subtle stiffening under his hand made him widen his smile; Chris Larabee didn't even like to lose an argument. He sobered quick before Chris felt the need to lash out in his direction, and drew his arm back in case Chris felt the urge to bite it off. "White Cross reps could be worse than Blue Sun's," he said. Blue Sun was a huge and rambling monopoly, but White Cross was smaller and more focused on protein and pharmaceuticals, and might respond in ways Chris would not want to get caught up in.

"Worse, how?" Chris snapped.

"Worse as in more efficient, more militant," Ezra supplied. "We're talking about drugs that could double the profits of an already staggeringly rich corporation. They'll be thorough."

Buck shrugged and finally just parked his ass on the stairs to starboard, because the wash of adrenalin that had been pushing him through the early morning hours was fading fast, and Ezra was clearly well informed.

"He's right," Jael said. "They're stand-up, or at least they always have been, but they aren't going to be happy about how this turned out, even with the recovery of their goods."

Ezra nodded. "They're known to pay attention to details and they won't want outsiders knowing their business. Frankly, I have no idea how they would react to news of this new strain of amalthya leaking out."

Chris grimaced and reached to grab Jael by her upper arm, tight enough that Buck could see her skin go white around his fingers. "Ezra, go let Mary Travis know to clean up as best she can, and quick. Buck, take Jael downstairs and hand her off to somebody, make sure she stays locked up for now." Chris sent a brief, hard glance Buck's way before he finished with, "Catch up with me in the cabin."

He nodded and stood to collect her. Jael had tensed when Chris grabbed her but she didn't try to squirm away. "Captain, I have to--"

Chris shook her, just once. "You brought this to me and mine," Chris said flatly. "You ain't out of the woods with me yet. Not after calling in 'your company'." The last words were sharp as a blade, and communicated his displeasure even better than the hard glint in his eyes.

"Ma'am," Buck said, gently peeling Chris's hand off her. "You'll have time to argue your case in a little bit, don't you worry about that." He'd seen the look in Chris's eyes; he wanted to question her right now, but didn't trust his temper. Well, Buck could work on that. "Come along now. Ezra, you mind coming downstairs with us and escorting John over to the barn with the rest of the prisoners?"

Ezra raised an eyebrow, but he nodded and waved Jael forward. Buck stepped in beside her and together they strode toward the back of the bay and her makeshift cell.

"Sorry about your head," she said.

Buck looked at her. "What?"

"Your head. When I..." She raised a hand, not quite miming a blow.

"Oh." He'd almost forgotten, in all the commotion. "I reckon you had your reasons."

"I thought John was going to shoot you."

Buck grinned. "Now, see? That's a damned good reason."

Geraldine Boden had made it onto the Maggie and reunited with her daughter in the medbay. Her lined face showed as much relief as exhaustion, and Ellie's eyes shone with joy to have her mama at her side. While Ezra slithered on by and went to collect John, Buck cleared his throat at the door. "Ladies, Nathan. Need somebody to keep an eye on Jael."

Geraldine's eyes narrowed. "Jael Danron, what the hell did you get mixed up in?"

"Idiots and thievery," she said darkly. "Not my fault."

Geraldine clearly had her suspicions, but she clearly had an acquaintanceship with Jael, too. "Ma'am, you mind making sure she stays in her room?" he asked.

"My sisters and Ellie's man will be along any time now," Geraldine said. "We can keep an eye on her."

Buck nodded his thanks and backed out. "I'd appreciate it if you'd keep your mouth shut and behave until Chris sends for you," Buck said. "Everybody will appreciate it."

"The shipment is sitting in the Bodens' barn, Mr. Wilmington. I'm too close to just leave it now!"

"Our people are out there; the Boden commune members are out there." He laughed suddenly. "And in two minutes, Ezra Standish will be out there. That product ain't gonna move without him knowing it."

"How do you know he won't move it?" she asked darkly.

Buck raised his eyebrows. "To where? He can't carry half a ton of stasis containers out on his back."

Jael tensed like she was readying for a fight, but Buck just looked at her and let her work it through. "That's right," he nodded when her body unwound a little. "You know we don't want it. It's not going anywhere."

Still, she didn't look ready to give up. "I need to get it back to Thirty-seven before the company reps arrive!"

"Jael," he said, trying to be pragmatic, "you don't have a choice. Now, give us a couple of hours. If nobody comes for you by the time two hours go by, you can send somebody up to fetch me down. Deal?"

She frowned, but deflated and stepped into her cabin. Buck took care to lock it, hoping Ezra had tossed it as well as Buck expected of him. Now he just had Chris to see to. Take care of the Captain, let the Captain take care of everything else....

Chris paced the worn footpath around the house, trying to calm down. The clean-up had taken less time than he'd imagined, with dozens of willing hands on the job. He knew he should have sent one of his own people out with a mule to recover the Wellsons and account for every one--that was their weak link--but the commune members had more vested than he did, and they were certainly competent enough. Chris had had the mob to see to, and it had taken him a while to decide whether to stop them from their mayhem or pour fuel on their fire. Nothing was worse than a righteous mob, but in that moment, standing there after Buck dusted himself off and strolled over, easy as you please and bloody as hell, Chris hadn't seen the wrong of it.

Buck had calmed him down, made him tend to his better self.

He still resented that, since Buck was a big chunk of what had riled him in the first place.

He resented a lot of things without whiskey to soothe him, like Vin Tanner and his unescapable visions. Like Josiah Sanchez, who stood quietly in the middle of the corral, staring down at Joe Ellison and ignoring the people around him like he was in a state. Like JD Dunne and Casey Wells, clearly too young to know better and too old to listen. But listen they had, and that was the only reason they had a chance at long-term employment, as far as Chris was concerned.

He looked up to the house, watching the movement of people around it. The mood was still high strung but exhaustion was beginning to settle in. Someone had suggested food--always a good distraction, and a comfort for many; he could smell fresh bread and some sort of sausage frying.

Ellison and his people were locked up in separate stalls in the barn, tied down if they posed any threat or if the residents thought they deserved it--which was pretty much everyone who'd held arms against them. He still hadn't decided what he was going to do with Jael, and the clock on that two hours Buck had given her was ticking down. It seemed she wanted what they all did, to regain ground with the residents here and make the problem go away.

"Captain Larabee."

Chris closed his eyes. As if he hadn't had enough of her over the short time they'd been dealing with this today. "Ms. Travis," he acknowledged as she strode up to him.

She stopped in front of him, her face grim and streaked with dirt and still she was a beautiful woman. Striking, like Buck had said--and he'd better go find Buck and wear some of this out before he did something stupid. Still, he was glad that Buck was somewhere--else. "There's an Alliance outpost three days away."

"Yeah. So?"

She frowned. "We have been attacked and we have a right to be safe from them--and from whatever is going on in that farm. I don't want those criminals here any longer than they have to be."

He couldn't blame her for that. But he didn't want to be around for this. "I understand. We'll be out of your way soon enough, and you can do what you want with 'em."

"Out of the way?" She put her hands on her hips, her pretty mouth turning down in a frown that Chris had the idea was more natural to her than a smile. "What does that mean? You're taking them with you."

He couldn't stop his snort of laughter. "No, I ain't."

She blinked, then her fine eyebrows rose and her shoulders straightened even more. "Excuse me?"

He flashed a smile at her, actually amused. "I said, they ain't boarding my ship."

"My cousins spoke well of you," she said stiffly.

The Bodens would have. They were close to his family and always had been. "Marcus ain't out here, ma'am. And nobody knew what we were walking into when we took this job to help out neighbors." He shifted, leaning on one leg with his hand resting comfortably on the butt of his gun. "We're not in trouble with the Alliance, and I ain't gonna walk into a prison cell for having carried contraband on my ship. You are welcome to turn Ellison and his people over just as soon as we're gone. But we do have folks who are neighborly, Ms. Travis, so I'll expect you to keep us out of it."

"The Alliance will want to know what happened," she said stiffly.

He offered her a hard-edged smile. "The Alliance ain't never gonna hear this tale, not if you don't tell 'em. Jael Danron waved the company in the middle of the firefight, and they'll have representatives here, by morning, I reckon."

Her frown shifted into a grimace. "Corporate marauders. I'm not sure they're any better than the thugs we're holding now."

He should have sent Buck out to deal with this. "Greedy people caused this mess when they tried to steal from the company. The shipment ended up in the hold of the Margaret May and Jael showed up to get it back for 'em." He hadn't believed her until he'd had Ezra check the comm logs at the house, but she had really made the call. She was--if not on the "right" side, at least on the side of the rightful owners. "The product everybody was so intent on stealing was legally shipped--it just went to the wrong place, due to either accident or intent. I expect the company representatives will only care if it doesn't end up back in the hands of their rightful owners--that Ag farm not far from here. If you're smart, you'll play ignorant about what Ellison and his people wanted."

"That won't be difficult, since we still don't know what they wanted. Would you care to enlighten me?"

It was more order than question, but Chris ignored the implicit command. "It's top secret, and I reckon that that's why those bombs were sitting all around your property, to ensure that no one ever knew what was in those containers. You so sure you want to know?"

She glared at him. "Those containers are sitting in our barn - we now have the same problem you clearly had: possession of something that we're not supposed to know anything about." He had to give her credit; she wasn't stupid. "And what about Ellison and the rest of his thugs? We have to live here, Captain Larabee; we can't just let them walk away."

"I expect the company security will take them off your hands for you," he said, and flashed a grim smile. "The containers, too."

"My family has lived on Triumph since the moon was settled," she said slowly. "I'm not comfortable letting people run roughshod over the law."

He shrugged. "Local law, maybe--but they can't fight Blue Sun. You and your group aren't this far out because you want to spread Alliance doctrine. You're here because you wanted your own land and your own justice, without their interference. If you bring the local law in for this, then you're inviting the Alliance into your house. And with farming interests out here now that are integral to 'civilized' life in the core, if they come at all they'll never leave."

She looked away from him, out toward the fields. In the early-morning sun, dew still sparkled on the green leaves and stalks, like jewels tossed wildly by nature. Wisps of her hair had come lose from her clasp, the silver undertones as bright as the dew.

"What do you propose we do?" she asked after a time. She sounded tired, resigned even, but there was steel in her voice.

"I might have an idea," he offered, "but I need to talk to my people first. In the meantime - don't you have plants that need to get into the ground?"

After a brief hesitation, she sighed and shook her head. "Yes, we do."

"I'll send somebody over to show you which containers not to touch. I mean that literally," he added. "I wouldn't even risk getting your DNA on them, if you don't have to."

She nodded. "I'll wait to hear from you then."

Vin trotted up, his hair still wild from riding the undercarriage upside down, his eyes brighter than Chris had yet seen them--bright and here. But he didn't say anything, just nodded and fell in beside Chris.

They trudged back around the house to find Buck sitting as pretty as you please on the wide porch, drinking what looked like iced tea, with a gaggle of pretty young things around him. Chris hesitated in front of the house, too annoyed to settle while Buck entertained half the eligible young adults. Somebody had helped him clean up, and Chris would lay odds on the pretty redhead curled up next to Buck right now. Ezra offered card tricks to the entranced children Inez had pulled from the barn. They seemed none the worse for wear, and whatever shock or upset they carried was clearly distracted by Ezra's theatrics. Buck and Ezra both were being social and friendly, easing everyone through the shock and hopefully, talking them off the idea of telling the tale. Chris understood their efforts, rationally, but they still pissed him off.

Somewhere on their ship, Ellie was probably in the midst of delivering her baby, her family at her side, Nathan up to his elbows in the parts of a woman Chris had spent a long time trying to forget.

Josiah had been standing on one side of the long porch, leaning on the rail, but as they neared the house, he turned, taking a set of side stairs. The Maggie was parked a good deal closer than she had been, just beyond a corral atop the hill JD had hidden the shuttle behind, and Josiah trudged off toward her. Chris watched Josiah take the coward's way out and came that close to following him.

Vin left his side to stroll up and settled into a chair beside Buck, calm for all the idiocy they'd both engaged in these past few days, and Buck, fool that he was, threw an arm around Vin's shoulders like a long-lost boyfriend. "This is one of the fellas did all that fancy shooting," Buck said, his voice reaching Chris's ears just before his laughter did. "Reckon you owe him at least as much thanks as any of us." Suddenly, Josiah's cowardice looked a little different and Chris turned, following the big man back to the ship.

The cargo bay was open, empty, and quiet and he turned over ideas in his head as he crossed it. He needed to talk to Ezra, but he didn't want to pull him away from the locals just yet. Mostly, he wanted certainty that he knew he wasn't going to get.

He stopped in the dining area first, to grab coffee, and found Josiah and Inez there. She was repacking her arsenal and Josiah appeared to be helping, even though Chris doubted that was all that he was doing. But as he put the mug in to heat, Josiah looked over at him, and he saw something in the big man's face, an anger as deep as his own. Post-stress adrenalin, battle fatigue, he told himself. They both understood it. But recognizing it didn't stop the need to get it out, like a poison.

"Hanging out of the belly of a space ship being flown in atmosphere by a kid barely old enough to vote--that your idea of a sound plan?" His voice was low, a growl that went straight to Chris's primitive instincts.

He straightened and took a step forward, his hands clenching into fists, his brain already targeting weak spots. "Didn't seem to bother him any - he jumped right on the idea. He made his own decision, I didn't force him to it."

Josiah stared at him, the muscles of his arms flexing as they moved back and forth at his sides and Chris watched him, waiting for it, craving the tell-tale flicker before the first punch. But the big man sighed and looked away, shaking his head with what seemed to be disgust. Chris still waited, though, knowing better than to assume anything. Turning away right before lashing out was a good fake, one he'd used himself more than once.

Josiah walked away from him though, taking long strides toward the door on the far side of the room.

Chris watched him walk out, not sure what any of it meant. Inez waited until he'd retrieved his coffee before saying, "He's a good man, Chris. Probably not suited to be the man you will all have to be in the black."

Chris shrugged. "Then it's good he's leaving now, before he has to deal with his conscience."

Inez's frown deepened and he saw her eyes flash with irritation. "I've always found you to be an honorable man." He snorted at the very idea, but she smiled and shook her head, kind. "Rigid, perhaps. Moody and mercurial, certainly. But honorable, too. If you'd lost Buck today, would you remain so?"

He scrubbed his hands through his hair; he knew where this woman's loyalties lay, damn her and Buck both. "I've been down that road before, Inez." He turned to glare at her. "And you damned well know it."

"I do," she said evenly. "But you still had a loved one who stood beside you then. If something had happened to Buck?"

He grit his teeth to keep from saying more than she deserved-and he still said more than Buck would have wanted him to. "Something didn't happen to Buck, in case nobody noticed, and something didn't happen to Vin, either."

"That's not an answer," she said. "We both know you have little room to criticize another for feeling that fear."

"I can criticize him all I want," he hissed, low and hard and angry. "He's already put Vin aside and he's all set to stay on Persephone, when we put down there."

Her eyes widened at that, but she said only, "Be that as it may, he was frightened for Vin. Perhaps for all of us." She waited as long as she was going to for an answer he had no intention of giving, then jerked up her rifle cases with practiced efficiency and followed Josiah out the door.

Maybe Josiah was. But that didn't concern Chris overmuch, not right now. In fact, Josiah Sanchez was the last thing on his mind, and the honor Inez accused him of having was the last thing he needed, to do what needed doing.

He headed up front and settled into the pilot's seat, mulling things over. He was still sitting there when Ezra strolled back to the ship a few minutes later, and he watched until the man disappeared into the shadow of the Maggie's hull. He waited, trusting Ezra to poke his nose up here soon enough; he didn't have to wait long.

"You aren't enjoying the festivities," Ezra said as he stepped through the hatch.

"Not in the mood," he said, and spun the chair around. "What do you know about setups like Ellison has out here?"

"Well," Ezra said thoughtfully, and Chris frowned when a deck of cards appeared in his hand, but apparently the man used them to think. He cut the deck one-handed, over and over, watching the cards fold in on themselves. "Not a lot. My people do not debase themselves with menial labor. Not even on an industrial scale."

He'd have to ask someday what exactly Ezra's people did debase themselves with. "You think corporate representatives could roll in here and put things back the way they should be without involving the Alliance?"

Ezra tilted his head, looking at Chris but thinking hard. "It is likely," he said slowly. "As the plants in question were corporate property, and the people involved in nefarious acts all seem to be Blue Sun employees in one capacity or another...certainly White Cross is reputed to have a security branch better trained and more efficient than any army. It's not like they'll want to announce this new patent in open court, after all, not until they succeed in the venture and have something ready to sell."

Chris shrugged. Buck might know more about this than Ezra, with his hand in the law. But he didn't want Buck involved in this.

Chris chewed on things for a second and swallowed down the dregs of his coffee. "You think we could trust Jael to leave the Boden commune alone?"

Ezra's eyebrows climbed and he almost fumbled the cards. Chris frowned at him, waiting, and eventually Ezra scowled and leaned back against the console. "What has she done to deserve such a windfall, if I may ask?"

"She's organized, she kept neighbors from getting blown into low orbit, and her chief concern was in getting back the property she was accused of losing. That, and clearing her name. And I don't know what else to do with her anyway."

"But--" Ezra stopped and sighed, and Chris wondered if the man had really intended to make a pitch for himself.

"You don't know any of 'em, Ezra," he said, helping him out a little. "They'd chew you up and spit the bits out before the first harvest of that gou shi."

Ezra scowled again, and the cards disappeared back into his pocket. "A man can dream, can't he?" he groused.

"Dream about earning the cash to pay Mal Reynolds back what you owe him," Chris smiled. "Dream about keeping your refined ass out of an unrefined prison cell."

"I'd be as happy if you'd keep my ass out of conversation, thank you," Ezra sniffed, but he seemed to accept Chris's estimation, and crossed his arms over his chest. "And if my knowledge and expertise hasn't earned me enough to pay back Captain Reynolds, you and I must end our association soon."

Chris thought about it, wondering if Buck would agree. Probably. "We'll get you part of the way there, at least."

Ezra frowned and parked his shoulder against the door frame. "What exactly do you intend?"

Chris shrugged. "I ain't lettin' Jael Danron drag us into this."

"She might want us as character witnesses."

"Well, that's her problem."

"And ours. If we leave her here unsupervised, as you're suggesting. It would be nice if we had something to hold over her head, to ensure her silence. Do we?"

Chris raised his eyebrows. "Do we?"

"Excuse me?" Ezra said primly.

"All your secret cameras, don't tell me you didn't rig something in the cargo bay after we started watching it."

"For that," and now Ezra glared, "I'd expect my debt to Reynolds to be wiped clean."

"For that, I might do it." Ezra Standish was going to come in very handy around here.

"Give me half an hour," Ezra said. "I need to collect the most incriminating parts."

Chris waved him away and spun the chair back around, pulling his foot up and planting it on the edge of the console. For half an hour, he could sit right here, look out at the morning sky, and think about nothing.

Buck accepted his third glass of tea along with the offer of a proper breakfast, and watched fondly as most of the men and women who'd gathered around earlier drifted back to the usual work of running this place. The farm folks were settling down nicely, collecting up the disarmed Wellsons carefully and, he hoped, stowing them somewhere for future use. Damned things were great for clearing new fields, if you knew how to convert them for it, and good for blasting holes in hillsides if you didn't. Those that weren't collecting explosives were cleaning up the mess, feeding the stock, or cooking. Homey aromas had drifted onto the porch, teasing at his appetite for good cooking. Not just for that talent, but he really hoped Josiah decided to get his head out of his pi gou, work things out with his lover, and stay on.

"Not a bad day's work," he said to Vin. Neither of them had anything to do and, it seemed, neither of them was in much of a hurry to face down lovers they'd put a fright into during the fight. They'd been sticking together since the fireworks ended.

"Couldn't have been much better," Vin agreed.

"Reckon I might've jumped to the wrong conclusion about you," he added easily. He didn't mind admitting when he was wrong. Sometimes.

"Reckon most would jump to the same ones," Vin said, accepting the words as Buck had intended them. The silence stretched for a long minute, until Vin huffed out an amused breath of laughter.


"I told Chris you've only got one plan. That true?"

Buck frowned. "Huh?"

"Walking right up to whoever's holding the biggest gun. Sheeit," he said, and shook his head.

Buck waved away the friendly insult. "I've got plenty of plans. I've got more plans than you've got years in this 'verse. I've got--"

"I've just seen the one so far," Vin interrupted with a grin.

Buck grinned back, and shrugged. "If something works, you stick with it," he said, thinking about just how true that was.

"You have a nice chat with Ellison, then?" Vin asked.

"It got the job done."

"I know it did," Vin agreed. "I was pretty sure it would."

That brought Buck up short, and he scowled. "You trying to tell me you saw that?"

"Yep. You tryin' to tell me I messed up any details?"

Buck thought about it: in front of the barn beside the Maggie's mule. He hadn't driven it in, but then, Vin hadn't said he did. Ellison had walked out of the barn. Buck had said his howdies as friendly as you please, to Ellison. In front of the barn. Bright sunlight, angled early in the morning, and damned if he hadn't been looking forward to the fight, if it was going to happen.

"Hell of a coincidence," Vin offered, and tilted his head and looked over at him, fey.

Buck frowned at him. "Yeah. Hell of one."

Vin shrugged, like he was all right either way, and Buck realized that if anything Vin said was true, he'd been coping with disbelief almost half of his life. Even Josiah seemed less faithful than a self-confessed follower ought to be. "You mind if I ask you something?" he asked.

"Go ahead."

"What's the problem between you and Josiah?" He was watching Vin's face when he asked, and the young man's surprise was clear. If he could see anything of the future at all, he certainly hadn't seen that question coming.

"Josiah deserves better than he has with me," Vin said slowly, measuring each word.

"He think that? Or you?"

Vin shrugged and leaned back in his chair. "Both of us, I reckon. He ain't sly, you know. He's just barely luen." Vin's grin was quick and sharp. "And even that took some doing."

Buck had seen Josiah's reaction to Inez--it wasn't like somebody could miss it--but it hadn't occurred to him that he didn't go for men at all… or hadn't, until Vin came along. "I'm sorry to hear that," he said, meaning it.

Vin shrugged again and closed his eyes, but pain was etched on his features. "Nothing to be done about it. We'll be together someday, and someday, he'll even be glad."

"Not today?"

Vin blinked open clear blue eyes. "You saw him a while ago; he look happy to you?"

Buck chuckled at that. "You gave him good reason not to be happy, hanging out of the Maggie like you did. That was some shooting, by the way."

"It ain't real," Vin said flatly.

Buck was about to contradict him, because he'd seen it himself, but then he realized what Vin must mean. "Even if that ability wasn't yours before, Vin, it is now. I reckon you saved a lot of good people today." He huffed out a laugh, remembering Vin outside the ship, hair flying wild in the wind kicked up by the Maggie's engines.

"Reckon so," Vin said, but his voice sounded desolate and again, Buck knew that what he'd paid for that skill couldn't possibly be worth the having of it.

"Okay, here's what I think," he volunteered, leaning forward to clasp his hands between his knees. "I think you aren't necessarily crazy, and that maybe--maybe--there's something to your prescience. I think I'm glad you're on our side. And I think Josiah Sanchez is a fool if he can't see what he's got, with you."

"Biggest fool in the world," Vin said dreamily.

Buck watched Vin's face, so placid and calm, eyes closed again, and wondered if Vin was off in one of his 'visions'. He reached out, grasping one knee gently. Vin stiffened and jerked forward, blinking his eyes open. "You in there?" Buck asked, peering at him.

Vin blinked then swallowed and nodded. "Yeah, sorry." He smiled, or tried to; it came out more as that crooked little grin of his that made him look like a kid. "Wish I weren't, right now."

"Worry about it later," Buck advised when the kitchen door banged open, and pointed to the line of people heading inside. "Breakfast's on."

Breakfast was a hearty affair, fresh-baked bread and fried meats, fresh eggs and soft cheeses that made Buck's mouth water, and some kind of apple fritter that he was determined to sneak back onto the ship for a snack later. He started to call for Chris, but thought better of it. Chris had walked away and back to the ship not long after Josiah had. Chris wouldn't be good company, nor would he want any, and Buck wasn't feeling particularly charitable toward Josiah at the moment.

But he did wave Casey and JD, and told them to mention breakfast to anyone else around.

It wasn't five minutes before the youngest crew members arrived, Casey still glowing from her success with piloting the Maggie a half a mile, JD still blushing at the thanks people bestowed for helping to free the children.

"She's still in labor," JD hissed as he sat down across the long table from Buck and Vin. "There are about a million women down there, with her and Nathan."

Buck shook his head but didn't correct the kid on his exaggeration. "You see Chris?" he asked, picking up a hot, fresh biscuit and tossing it between his hands to keep from burning his fingers.

JD frowned. "He and Ezra were up on the flight deck a while ago, talking."

Chris talking to Ezra? Buck grinned; knowing Chris, he was trying to figure out how to get them out of here with as little fanfare as possible, and Buck would be glad if Ezra helped the captain come up with something.

With work in front of them, the farmers ate hearty and fast, but Buck and Vin still got their share of attention, women--and some men-stopping by to squeeze their shoulders or bend to offer more private words of thanks. A few offered to brush Vin's hair back into some kind of order for him, which made Buck laugh, more at Vin's discomfort than at their attraction. Some of those offers clearly involved a private room and nakedness, and Vin--well, he was polite, but Buck could see that no matter how Josiah felt, Vin still had his heart in one place, still thought of himself as a committed man.

He was more committed than Buck had been at Vin's age. Unfortunately, that made Buck think of Chris, and how Chris was pissed off enough at him that he had less chance of a good, post-adrenalin thrust than Vin here, did with his man. There was no way Buck was going to get seen to before he dealt with that anger.

It was an unfair 'verse that gave him a lover who, when he was angry, was so damned desirable-and so damned unwilling. Buck often wondered if that was part of the man's damned appeal to him.

With a full breakfast in their bellies, no amount of coffee seemed up to the task of keeping them alert. Buck waved the crew up and out, and together they made their way back to the ship. It had been a long few days, and despite the hissing lecture he'd gotten from Mary Travis on what they were going to do with the prisoners, he was tired. They were all tired. Vin yawned every other step, and Casey and JD rocked back and forth as they held on to each other, half asleep. It wasn't even nine o'clock in the morning, standard.

The kids peeled off first, heading up the stairs, but Buck felt the need to check on Nathan, and two cooks had loaded Vin down with a basket for the commune members aboard the Margaret May, so they headed across the cargo bay for the medical section. It was surprisingly quiet, with a handful of women and one eager young man lounging in the guest commons, and Buck asked if Ellie's baby was already here--but it was just a short period of rest.

"Thanks," Nathan said, nodding to Vin as he served himself breakfast. Buck saw an apple fritter in there and reached for it before someone else could. "I hate first-borns. Stubborn, pig-headed, spoiled, testy little things--want everything done their way, damn them."

Buck looked down, trying not to laugh. Vin just shrugged. "Seems like we got a ship of 'em," he said, but he flashed a grin, and after a second, Nathan chuckled.

Before anyone else spoke, one of the women was calling, "She's back on." Nathan drew a breath, stuffed a piece of biscuit in his mouth, and trudged back into the medbay.

"We ain't leaving 'til that baby drops," Buck said, but he grinned, looking over at Vin.

Vin shrugged, looking as mystified as a man ever could in the center of the most female of activities.

"Come on," Buck said, pushing himself up. "Maybe Chris and Josiah are in better moods. Did I ever tell you about the time I delivered twins? Back when I was spending time at Chris's folks' farm... "

He was halfway through the tale, whispering in deference to the quiet women behind them, and they were half way into the corridor by the guest quarters, when Buck's temper got its first good work out in days. He'd had his arm around Vin's shoulder, leaning in close to give him the gory details of having his arm inside a cow's vagina, when they rounded a bend in the hallway to find Josiah ahead of them.

He was coming out of Inez's cabin, wearing his pants but nothing else.

He carried his boots, his gun belt, and some clothes that Buck knew without needing to look were his socks and shirts, and he was moving steadily in front of them--not running, because, Buck surmised quickly, he didn't know they were back there.

For one whirlwind of a second, Buck remembered what it was like to be sneaking out of someone's room, sated and happy, king of the galaxy. For one whirlwind of a second, he was jealous of what the man must be feeling. Inez was a prize he'd have been tempted to claim himself, had she ever shown a whit of serious interest in him.

But the whirlwind spun right on away as he felt the person under his arm stiffen, then stop in the hallway, shoulders rigid and breath catching.

Of all the times to pick this route, he thought, they could have gone back through the cargo bay or -

He let Vin drag him down the side hall, where they were stuck unless Vin wanted them to scamper out an airlock. "Son of a bitch," Buck hissed. "What the fuck is he--"

"Leave it," Vin whispered. He tilted his head, listening, and Buck realized Josiah had cleared the hall, no doubt sneaking up to his own cabin. Or if he was smart, to the showers. Then Vin pushed Buck backwards, driving him the way they had come and around the bend in the corridor.

"What the hell?" Buck demanded. "He--what the hell are you doing?" he hissed as he slapped Vin's hands off of him. "We got every right to be here--you got every right to be here, to question what he was doing--"

"Ain't it clear what he was doing?" Vin's voice was still calm, as if they were discussing the weather or a game of cards. But Buck, looking into his eyes, could see the hurt. It ran deep, so deep that Buck thought he might look down and see Vin's heart lying on the floor. "He don't owe me nothing, Buck. He already said he was leaving. This--" He raised a hand, gesturing toward the corridor, "This ain't none of my concern."

Buck stared at him, torn between wanting to laugh at the generosity of it and cry at the maturity. Vin wasn't much older than JD, but physical age didn't mean squat on the rim. It sure didn't mean squat for Vin.

"Thanks for caring," Vin said quietly. "But let it go."

He stared at Vin, not sure what to say, and finally he decide on, "Vin, I had my share of trysts in my youth."

"Only your share?" Vin teased, or tried to. "To hear you tell it, you've had your share and plenty of other men's, too."

"Well," Buck sighed and rubbed his mustache, thoughtful. "This don't necessarily mean what it looks like. People get excited after a dust-up, glad to be alive."

"I know how he gets after a dust-up," Vin said, his voice flat and even. He shifted back, pushing his hands into his pockets and looking away. "You better go check on Chris, make sure he and Ezra ain't killed each other."

"Where you going?" Buck asked, knowing Vin wasn't going back to the room he shared with Josiah.

Vin looked back down the hall in the direction they'd come. "Pretty planet," he said, his voice still soft. "Think I'll walk in the grass for awhile, maybe help with unpacking them new plants - that is what we came here for, isn't it?"


"Go find Chris," he said without looking back, and Buck heard the catch in his voice. He watched the young man walk away, his broad shoulders slumped, and felt a wash of sadness pour over him, weirdly reminiscent of the first months after Sarah had died. Great loss was great loss, and he reckoned that was what he was witnessing here.

Chris had chased JD off the flight deck once, then JD and Casey together when they'd trotted up to invite him to breakfast down at the commune's main house. The last thing he wanted to do right now was run into Mary Travis--or any curious commune members--before he'd decided what he was going to do. Ezra showed up not much later and stepped up to the computer console, pulling up a directory and then reaching over him to turn up the volume on the pilot's console. "This," he said, "barely needed to be edited. The woman does go on when she's angry. Really, she sounds very guilty."

There followed three or four minutes of exchanges between John and Jael in the cargo bay the night they'd grabbed him and Vin, then a bit where John Dykstra had spelled out Jael's motives and made her look as criminal as he had been. She hadn't helped, going on about how Ellison had used her and how she'd let him. It might not stand up in a court of law, but no court would ever hear this, and it was enough to incriminate her in the eyes of her employers. Certainly, it would force her to work a lot harder to regain the company's trust, which was what Chris was trading on.

Chris nodded to himself when the file ended. "Think it'll hold her?"

"Given that she's getting everything she wanted and more? Yes," Ezra said dryly, "I think it will hold her. More to the point, I think it will assuage the many reasons she and Mary Travis have not to trust each other."

Ezra was too damned smart. Chris pushed up without a word and headed for the stairs, waving Ezra to follow. Through the empty dining room and down the back stairs, he tried to ignore the hubbub in the medbay and strode quickly past Inez's closed door to Jael's with Ezra almost nipping at his heels, even less thrilled at the prospect of getting caught up in any aspect of the birthing process. A woman he recognized from the cargo bay sat across from the door, an old, sawed-off shotgun resting across her skirts. Chris barely acknowledged her as he slid open the door to Jael's makeshift cell.

"Let's talk," he said tersely as she sat up on the bed. "You fulfilled your end of it. We won't interfere with you taking over Ellison's operation."

She frowned between them, wary. "What's your angle, Captain Larabee?"

Chris nodded, appreciating her caution. "I want my neighbors protected. I want this whole damned planet left alone, from the Alliance and from Ellison and any others like them."

Ezra cleared his throat. "It's clear that Mr. Ellison hasn't the will to control the power granted him by White Cross or Blue Sun. He's already abused it and he's only had it for a couple of years, as I understand it."

"That's right," she said slowly. "He's... he's just not that smart."

Ezra flashed a quick grin before continuing. "He'd planned for the amalthya before he received his authorizations and clearances from the Alliance agricultural boards, yes?"

"I'd guess," she said, as if she was testing the words. "Blue Sun has all the appropriate documentation--which was why it confused us when the shipment went missing."

"So tell me this, honestly; where and why did he go wrong?"

Chris had always trusted his instincts, and Ezra Standish here was just another example of his instincts being proven right. He wasn't sure Jael would answer the question, but it took a shark's brain like Ezra's to even think to ask it.

"Honestly?" she huffed out a bitter laugh. "He went wrong when he brought that bitch, Trish, in. He went wrong when he thought he could let her do a job she's not qualified to do--and obviously never intended to do." She sighed and reached for her hair, twisting a curl absently. "He could have been a billionaire in fifteen years. He wanted it now--for her, I suppose."

"So," Ezra said, pursing his lips. "Simple greed."

"No," she said, hard. "Trish was the greedy one - just like John. She was wrenching up the works within a week of showing up. But then, I guess that was her plan, wasn't it. She was just using him to get to the plants out from under us."

"So it would seem," Ezra answered.

"The man thinks with his balls."

"Do you?" Ezra asked.

Her smile was like the slash of a knife. "What do you think?"

Chris was seeing more and more use in Ezra Standish by the minute. Ezra had Buck's skill with people without any of the personal investment Buck made without thinking. The thought made him smile. "You got loyal people back on your ag farm? Or were they all on Ellison's side?" Chris asked, cutting back into the conversation.

"I know them all," she said, "and we all worked well together. Whit Roarson must be in charge over there now--always is when Ellison's away. Rev Williams was always good at finding the short cuts, but Roarson's by the book. He and I get along fine, he won't give me any trouble about being the new boss."

"The people that Ellison answers to?"

She shrugged. "They know me, too. We might have to smooth a few feathers, but Whit and I can handle that--they'll be pissed off that Joe made such a mess here. The company will want Ellison and Williams and most of the others--that's what's going to make this work. They'll want them to answer for what happened, and they'll want to keep it as quiet as they can, no press and no law enforcement involvement, nothing to draw anyone's attention to what we're dealing with. No one at the home office wants to be out here, so they'll let it go as long as the operation runs the way it's supposed to. And it will." She sounded confident of that, and unless Chris was way off base, she took pride in it. She really liked her job, he thought, and it struck him that she and Mary Travis had a lot more in common than either of them realized.

"So," Ezra mused, "what will be your ruination, if we leave you to your own devices here?"

"Which we're not," Chris put in. "Not completely." He pulled the tiny disc out of his pocket and held it out to her. "If anybody comes looking to us to hear the story, this'll be one of the first things we give 'em. Listen to it. Decide."

"Wait," she called before they could leave, and Chris turned in the doorway. "You'll let me deal with White Cross?"

"If you can make me believe that they'll take care of cleaning up Ellison and his people--John, too," Chris nodded. "And that the Boden farm and its people will be safe."

"I... I can definitely promise that." She seemed elated by the prospect. "If anybody can, I can."

Chris wasn't impressed with the codicil, even though he understood it. Least she was being honest.

In the passengers' lounge a gaggle of women laughed quietly, and Chris tilted his head at the sound of a baby's piercing cry. He slipped up the stairs before anyone could stop him and returned to the flight deck, dropping heavily into the pilot's chair. Buck wouldn't like the insurance they were trying to use, and he wouldn't like Jael getting off free and clear. Chris touched his throat, felt the thin, nearly invisible scabs where John's garrote had cut him. Buck wouldn't like it at all. But if she was trustworthy, if she was able, she could redeem herself and keep everything that had happened here out of the Coretex, away from this commune, and away from the Margaret May.


Ezra strolled in a few minutes later. "A bouncing baby girl, six pounds, nine ounces. Apparently Ellie is determined to give her the middle name of Chris."

Chris smirked at him. "You think it ought to be Ezra?" he asked, surprised when Ezra shuddered.

"Perish the thought," he said, sounding faintly disgusted. He stared out the port. "I see the family has come and gone."

Chris turned and looked out the viewport, saw Vin strolling away from the Maggie. No telling where Buck was, then. "Shut the door, Ezra," he ordered.

"I..." Ezra cut off whatever he'd started to say and slid the hatch closed.

"Come up with a reason Buck will accept for Jael to take over that Blue Sun industrial farm--Jael had a change of heart, she's convinced you, whatever. Don't drag him into the insurance we're holding on her and using to get Mary Travis's buy in."

Ezra's cat-green eyes gleamed in the late morning light. "May I ask why?"

Chris grimaced. "No. Go talk to her. If she bites on our offer, tell her to keep her mouth shut about it with any of my people."

Ezra nodded, his eyes thoughtful, and headed for the door. He hadn't gotten it opened though, before Chris grabbed his arm in a tight grip and tugged him around. "Don't think you can use it against me. I do this to protect Buck. I don't tell him some things if I don't have to. Don't make me have to, Ezra. Because I can promise you it'll cost you more than it will me. Or him."

Ezra blinked, but his poker face held firm. "I believe we understand each other," he said, and glanced down at Chris's hand on his arm. "Now, if you'll be so kind as to stop wrinkling my clothes?" Chris smiled, and by the way Ezra's eyes widened, it was probably the one Buck liked to call his "crazy eyeball." But when Chris let him go, Ezra just straightened his shirtsleeve. "Captain," he said. It was the first time he'd said the word without a trace of irony or sarcasm. Chris nodded, and Ezra nodded back before he slipped out the door.

Ezra didn't understand, but it didn't matter. Buck was an attorney. He had certain legal obligations to a state he no more believed in than he believed in the tooth fairy. Chris avoided the need for Buck to twist that obligation unless it was actually necessary, and this wasn't.

He followed Ezra out and saw that the door to their cabin was open, which likely answered one question. "Buck?" he called down the ladder.

He heard the noise of movement a few seconds before Buck answered, a reluctant, "Yeah."

That was a surprise; he'd expected Buck to be tired, happy, and more than a little urgent to make up to him for walking out in front of Ellison like that, so he climbed down the ladder to see what was what. Buck was fully dressed, arms crossed over his chest and glaring off at nothing. "When did you get back?" Chris asked.

"While ago," Buck said, barely looking at him.

Chris swung the hatch shut above him and took off his gun belt, measuring Buck's mood without asking.

Whatever it was, Buck set it aside, or tried to. "What're you doing?"

"We're lifting off in two hours," Chris not-answered. "I want us long gone before company ships break atmo."

Buck frowned and stared at him, and Chris could feel the man's attention shifting, bit by bit, all onto him. Chris didn't need that, not now. It made him edgier and more pissed at this whole situation. "I thought you'd be more'n ready to try and talk me out of wanting to kick your ass for putting yourself in front of Ellison's weapons," he said, harder than he'd meant to.

Buck didn't even seem to notice his ire. "Thinking," he said. "You know, men are the damnedest fools?"

Chris dropped his rig into a chair, stepping a little closer and tilting his hips forward, testing. "I've heard that, yeah. Usually from women," he added with a grin.

"Well, they are."

Chris frowned. It wasn't often that Buck missed a subtle hint, and Chris didn't think he was being particularly subtle. So he reached out, pressing his palm right up against Buck's crotch. Buck's eyes went wide and his mouth dropped open. "Ain't like you to be so distracted," Chris chided, and rubbed at the flesh under his hand.

Buck's hand moved of its own accord to cover Chris's, but he frowned, too. "Can't say I'll be any good. Got some things on my mind."

Chris was edgy. He knew he was, knew he'd be showing it and that Buck would pick up on it if he got out of his own head. And not that he liked admitting it, but Buck not squirming to make up to him for that damned fool stunt out there threw him off balance. Maybe Buck could use the relief, too. He met Buck's eyes and it seemed like he could see just how it would go, less quiet union and far more use of muscle, strain to burn away recent frustrations and too much adrenaline--he licked suddenly dry lips. This would be better than the make-up sex he'd been expecting Buck to try for, where Buck gave in and went under without a peep of challenge or playful defiance. "I ain't never had any complaints, Buck."

Buck's tight mouth softened a little. "Like that, is it?" Buck asked him, and pressed his hips forward, grinding hard against Chris's palm.

Chris swallowed and squeezed, feeling the cock under soft fabric start to firm. His own had stiffened like an inflatable life raft. "Guess so."

Their coupling was fast and hard and on the verge of angry--not at each other, but at everything else. They didn't make it to the bed. They still had their boots on when they finished. Buck's belt buckle dug a bruise into his hip, and Chris was just fine with that. Panting and sweaty, feeling like a wrung-out rag and glad for it, Chris just worked to get his breath back and keep Buck from rubbing his come over his belly--it was a habit he never could break the man of, even after all these years.

Buck rubbed his face against the side of Chris's neck, hard enough to make his mustache and beard growth scratch. "Feel better?" he purred.

"Mmmn," Chris replied as waning pleasure zinged through him. "You?"

"Oh, yeah."

"Guess all men ain't fools then," he said through a smile, and Buck chuckled against his ear--and pressed his sticky hand against Chris's belly.

"Guess not." The scratch of beard gentled down into a tickle, and Chris ducked his head away. "Come to bed, Chris."

Chris stiffened and edged away, leaning forward against the embrace until Buck let him go. "Got things to do."

Buck's face got caught between a glare and a frown. "What things?"

"Need to talk to Ezra," he admitted.

"I might get jealous, you keep spending time with Ezra."

Chris smirked and bent to pull up his pants. "Funny. Catch a nap if you want, I'll fetch you before we lift off."

Damned if Buck didn't sprawl back across the bedcover with his dick hanging out and cover his eyes with his arm. He was asleep and snoring his exhaustion before Chris had righted his clothes and climbed up the ladder, so Chris shut and locked the door behind him.

He skimmed silently around the gaggle of women and a beaming young man in the guest common, all of whom were laughing and eating and congratulating Ellie and her man on the new baby. He needed to let Jael give him her answer, even though he was sure now what it would be. He needed to make sure Mary Travis was willing to go along--he'd leave it to her to manage Geraldine, who was back there with her daughter still. He unlocked the door to Jael's quarters and slipped inside. "You ready to finish what you started?"

She'd been standing beside the bed, clearly tense with waiting, and she straightened and nodded almost immediately. "More than."

He tilted his head toward the door. "Let's go find Mary Travis then."

He led her back the way he'd come and out of the ship, taking long strides that she had to hop to keep up with, and found Ezra sitting on the house's wide porch drinking tea.

"That don't look like what I sent you here to do," Chris said, frowning.

Ezra shrugged, supremely indifferent. "You try stopping that whirlwind when she's on target," he said, and tilted his head toward the machine shop where Mary stood surrounded by a crowd of residents. "Apparently all of the Wellsons are accounted for--she even had someone go pick up the one Josiah peeled off the ship--and they're locked in that shop. Lord knows what she's managing now."

"Mary!" Jael yelled loud enough to make Chris's ears ring and Ezra flinch and frown, but it got Mary's attention. She said something in parting to her family and took long strides across the yard.

"Jael," Mary said when she arrived, icily cool.

"I'm sorry for all of this," Jael said without preamble. "I don't know what I could have done to change it, but I'm taking responsibility for it now."

"For what, exactly?" Mary asked.

Jael frowned and cast a look Chris's way. "Better if you don't ask, Mary--at least, until I'm sure things are square with the company reps. After that..." She sighed and swiped her hair back off her forehead. "After that, I'll make us a pot of tea and tell you whatever you want to know."

"You think you'll be in a position to do that, Jael?" Mary asked.

Jael pursed her lips, but eventually she nodded. "I hope so. I'm the one got White Cross property back--and it's important cargo to them. Very valuable."

"Yes, I worked that out when Joe Ellison showed up with arms," Mary said dryly.

Jael just grinned, and so did Ezra.

Chris cut in, drawing Mary's attention back his way. "You've got a hell of a mess to clean up around here, Ms. Travis," he said. "The Margaret May kicked up plenty of dust."

"And saved our lives," she said gratefully. But her gratitude passed quickly as she returned to her business-like self. "So what have you decided to do, Captain?"

He laid it out for her, surprised when she didn't look horrified at the idea of Jael as the new senior manager of Blue Sun Thirty-seven. "I always wondered why you answered to Ellison," she said to Jael. "You seemed smarter than that."

Chris rubbed at his throat, but caught himself when he saw Ezra watching him. He reached into one pocket and pulled out a data chip, holding it out to Mary Travis. It took her a few seconds to look up at him, her gaze traveling from his hand up to his eyes.

"Insurance," he said calmly. "It don't make Jael look much like the company whore she is. If I were you, I'd bury it somewhere. When White Cross questions you, you don't want them to see it unless Jael crosses you."

Mary took it quickly, casting a dark look Jael's way. "I assume it's of short-term value?"

Chris frowned.

"If she secures her job, she'll have had to satisfy any concerns they have," Ezra answered easily.

Chris's irritation was growing and he knew it crept into his voice. "Look at it. It's gou shi, mostly, but it'll make her life harder at least until she's had time to prove herself, to them and to you."

Ezra shifted, getting Mary's attention. "I took the liberty of loading a list of contacts in the first file, Ms. Travis, people who issue the permits to be able to grow the sorts of experimental plants Jael recovered. Plenty of them won't like learning that you or anyone else learned of their current project, nor all the details of Jael's part in how this fiasco played out."

"That's the damned truth," Jael said vehemently.

Mary blew out a breath and pocketed the disc, then wiped her hands on her workpants as if the thing had been dirty. "This seems very precarious, Captain Larabee."

He nodded. "It is. But if you trust Jael, it's the best way to keep the Alliance out of your bed." The look of distaste on her face told him she'd agreed before she could open her mouth.

Jael shifted, and lifted her gaze from Mary's pocket to meet her eyes squarely. "We've all got pressing problems, Mary. One of them, I can help with." She turned to Chris. "Captain, you mind if I purchase that cargo John loaded on in Eavesdown?"

Chris raised his eyebrows, surprised. "The stasis pods?"

She shrugged. "It is soybeans. And you'll have to sell it somewhere. Unless I missed something, this commune still doesn't have all of its crop to put in the ground. I buy it, I can leave it with Mary, a good faith payment for their troubles, and you'll get some kind of payment for yours."

"And those containers in my barn?" Mary asked. "The ones that are so important?"

Jael nodded. "I'll get those out of the way as soon as we're all in agreement about this - and long before the White Cross ships get here. If Thirty-seven's property is still here when they arrive, it won't bode well for any of us."

Jael was clearly trying to make nice, and this would put a bit of coin to hand Mal Reynold's way on behalf of Ezra's debt too. He nodded. "Fair enough, if Mary'll take 'em."

Jael nodded once in return, and shifted her gaze back to Mary. "Mary?"

Mary wasn't so quick to forgive. "That doesn't replace what you'll be taking away, Jael," she said, still stiff.

"I know it. But you don't get something in the ground, you'll have more trouble come harvest--there's no need for that. I can check stocks when I get back to Thirty-seven. If we've got something hasn't been planted yet, I'll send that your way, too. But I can only guarantee what's aboard Captain Larabee's ship--the seedlings John and I loaded in, and the part of your own shipment that actually belongs to Boden Farms."

"Accept her offer, Ms. Travis," Ezra said, gracious and clearly trying to move things along. "Work out the details later."

Mary's fine brows were still tugged down, but she nodded slowly. "All right," she said. "Captain, I can send someone to offload it--"

"Right now. We won't be here much longer."

Mary studied Jael for a few seconds longer, then held her hand out. Jael grasped it immediately. "We expect no more trouble," Mary said flatly.

"You won't get any," Jael agreed. "Not from me."

And just like that, the tension was gone.

Some part of the female mystique, Chris thought, watching them make very quick work of the politics, and if Buck had been here, Chris would have enjoyed listening to him go on about it.

"I did take the liberty of contacting a Mr. Roarson, the gentleman running Thirty-seven in Mr. Ellison's absence," Ezra said smoothly. "He was quite relieved to hear of Ms. Danron's success."

Jael snorted. "I'll bet Whit was. He's a good man - and he didn't much like Trish Dykstra either."

"Apparently he has heard from an approaching company ship and expects to receive them at 2 a.m. local time. He said he could dispatch a shuttle to assist Ms. Danron and any, um, remaining staff, just as soon as we request it." He looked to Mary, smiling widely. "If the two of you are in agreement?"

Jael flashed Ezra a quick, toothy grin. "Whit's worked for me before. I know he wasn't thrilled that this shipment was lost, and he couldn't have known about Ellison's plans for it."

"So Blue Sun is simply going to turn over operations to you without question?" Mary asked.

Jael grinned. "Oh, I expect there'll be questions galore, Mary." She glanced to Chris, but it was Ezra who answered.

"Ms. Danron has managed to recover the items that Mr. Ellison 'lost'," Ezra said, "and she has now managed to negotiate a peaceful resolution to this mishap that doesn't involve the policing arm of the Alliance."

Chris was done here. "Ezra," he said curtly. "Time to go."

However Ezra managed the goodbyes, he was quick about it. He caught up to Chris before Chris had gotten fifteen feet, and together they walked back to the ship, leaving Mary and Jael to make the waves that would set everything into motion. "You know, I'm beginning to understand why you're the captain," he said easily.

Chris frowned at him. "Well, I feel so much better," he said, giving Ezra's opinion of him exactly as much attention as it deserved.

"I'm quite sincere," Ezra went on, and if he didn't sound admiring, he did sound honest. "You have exceptional self-control, Mr. Larabee. Buck Wilmington may have his own skills and talents, but he certainly doesn't have the steadiness of temper to think so strategically. Especially when he's angry."

"Bi zui, Ezra," Chris snapped. "Right now." Nobody got to bitch about Buck except him.

About half way back to the ship, Mary caught up to them and shot Chris a look, her eyes shrewd. "I owe you an apology," she said. "You were kind enough to take on this shipment at the last minute and you ended up in the middle of this mess. Not that any of us could have anticipated it, but still... "

He shrugged. "Things happen. Just glad no one we care about died."


"You've seen to your wounded?" Chris asked her.

"I was a medic," she said, "and we have two exceptional vets. Where are you headed when you leave here?" she asked, slowing down just a little as they drew closer to the crowd at the barn.

Chris eyed her for a few seconds, considering his answer. "Why?"

She grinned, amused at his wariness. "Have you ever hauled cattle?"

"What did you have in mind, Ms. Travis?"

"We've got breeding stock on Boros. The same ship that canceled on the transport of our plants from Persephone was also supposed to circle around and bring them back here. It's four days further out on the rim... pretty much in exactly the opposite direction the White Cross cruisers will be approaching from."

Chris grinned. "I reckon we can arrange something. If the price is right." He couldn't wait to tell Buck.

Buck, it turned out, was still asleep when Chris dropped down the ladder to their quarters. He'd woken enough at some point to pull his pants back up, but it looked like that was all he'd managed. "Wake up," Chris said, grabbing Buck's boot and shaking it. Hard.

Buck jerked his foot away and groaned, then glared up at him. "Why the hell are you bothering me?" Buck asked, but he rolled off the bed and stalked Chris's way.

The words reminded him why he'd wanted away from Buck in the first place. That, and whatever had pissed Buck off was still making him surly. Of course, a pissed off Buck was a noisy and annoying Buck. But a pissed off Buck was a Buck with a tenacious focus, too.

God damn it. "Never mind. Go back to sleep, I'll be up top."

Buck grabbed at the back of his coat firmly enough to slow him down. "What the hell is wrong with you?" Buck pressed him. "I thought you'd be glad to have me resting and out of your hair for a while, and now you're down here...." He frowned, and his eyes gained a sharper, far more alert focus. "Chris?"

He started to speak his mind, to dump the ethical load of blackmailing Jael Danron with lies and omissions on somebody else, and remind Buck that he was more than happy to put every member of the crew off at the next stop--but the worried annoyance on Buck's face stopped him. That, and the truth: the certain knowledge that he was captain of this ship because he'd chosen it. Buck hadn't wheedled him into it, not all those years ago and not this time either. The crew's deaths had changed him, the unfairness of the war and the 'verse-just like it had changed plenty of people. Buck being unrelievedly a part of his life might have made him soft, some ways, too. But mostly, Chris Larabee was the cantankerous bastard he wanted to be, and he'd lead and somebody would follow and that was all right by him. "You really need to know?" Chris asked, staring right into Buck's eyes.

"You don't want to tell me," Buck said, looking less worried and more annoyed.

Chris shook his head. He wasn't going to tell him, but there was no reason to make that distinction just yet.

Buck looked at him. He frowned, rubbed at his jaw, and generally wasted time until Chris was almost--almost--ready to leave him on his own to stew. But before he reached the ladder, Buck sighed long and loud. "Okay."

Chris turned back, surprised. "That's it?"

Buck stepped up and took his hands, using his thumbs to rub over Chris's knuckles, and Chris let him. "Chris, plenty of folks got no idea how good they've got it, but I don't aim to make that mistake. We've gotten our first trip under our belts with more adventure than we planned for, but without Alliance interference or any of our own dyin'. You've been all leadery and driving me right round the bend with it," Buck grinned, and squeezed Chris's hands for emphasis. The warmth in them seeped into his, and he squeezed back. So that was why Buck had been on heat a little more than normal lately.

"Leadery?" he asked, mocking a frown.

Buck closed the gap between them enough to bump his groin into Chris's, and grinned. "Yeah," he breathed, a one-syllable seduction attempt. "Leadery. Stubborn, strong-willed, determined, sure of yourself… all those things I love about you, it's like they're all awake at the same time lately. So if you have captain things you want to keep to yourself, why am I gonna complain about that?"

Chris twisted his wrists so he could lace their fingers together and squeezed back, holding tight to hands that were smoother than his own, better bred and better cared for. The move pushed their joined hands out from their bodies, and made their groins bump together again, and Chris decided it was the better part of valor to just pretend they hadn't shared a quick thrust less than an hour ago. Shaking one hand loose, he reached up an arm and hooked it around Buck's neck, pulling him into a long kiss. Buck resisted at first, which made Chris wonder distantly what secrets Buck might think needed keeping from him, but he didn't care. If Buck was the type who needed to know every thought that went through Chris's head-or at least who announced the pursuit and made it a problem-they'd never have gotten where they were today.

As Chris licked at his lips, Buck relaxed and the kiss grew into something warm and familiar. Something safe. He ended it with the same drive and control he'd begun it with and looked into Buck's eyes. "I tell you lately that I love you?" he asked, making the words as casual and off-hand as he could.

"All the time," Buck replied just as easily. Then, drawing away, he added, "Especially when you act like an ass."

Chris let that pass with a look and a frown, amused that Buck was pretending to reject the offer he was making. He could play that game, no problem. He started stripping off his clothes, making a little bit of a show of it, and said softly, "I've had enough of this place."

He had all of Buck's attention now, no doubt about that. "Yeah, all right." Buck nodded, and sent him a smile so brilliant, Chris felt it.

He grimaced back, paused with his thumbs in the waistband of his pants, and grinned at the way Buck's eyes drifted down to his hands and got stuck there. Then he remembered that he'd come down here in the first place not to give Buck another thrust, but to share the joke with him. "Mary Travis offered us a job," he said, and shucked his pants off.

Buck brightened further, but his gaze didn't roam above Chris's waist. "Yeah?"

"Yeah." He grinned, then grinned wider when Buck skinned off his pants like they were on fire. "Hauling cattle."

Buck grimaced, playing it for all he was worth in spite of the fact that his cock was already pointing at Chris like a compass pointing north. "Cattle? Come on, Chris, we just got the damned ship smelling halfway decent! It's-"

"Shut up and get your belly down on the bed," Chris ordered, gruff. But he smiled when Buck scrambled to obey.

Josiah's first surprise was that he woke up. He'd lain in bed for well over an hour, going over all the reasons why what had happened with Inez was all right, why he was well within his rights to bed her. Vin had never held his occasional interests and almost-events against him, and had no right to anyhow, having asked for far more from Josiah than God had a right to anyway.

Did God really ask his followers for sin? It made no sense to Josiah--not that fornication wasn't an equal sin so really, he didn't have a leg to stand on, except that he was leaving soon. He was already in the process of moving on-most of his things hadn't even moved here with him, but were back on Persephone. He wasn't staying, he didn't owe Vin an explanation or an excuse for anything he did with anyone else.

And if he believed any of that, he wouldn't feel so damned guilty for what he'd done. His conscience was loud and clear on its opinion of his behavior, and damned if Josiah didn't know it was right.

He wasn't a monk, even though he'd spent his fair share of time with monastic orders. He appreciated the quiet, contemplative lifestyle, the dedication to learning and consideration. But he'd known himself well enough to know that he couldn't forsake the 'verse, that his relationship to God was a complex one on his best days, and that he was just a man.

He liked his own vices too well to pretend to forsake them; he'd proven that with Vin often enough, and now he'd reverted to type and bedded a woman, too. It'd been years since he'd done that, longer than he'd been with Vin.

It all came right back, didn't it, the little devil in his head laughed. The feel, smell, taste of a woman…. He'd gotten hard again just thinking about her and what they'd done, and that had seemed a worse violation, that he was lying in Vin's bed, so hard that he was hurting, thinking about the kind of body that Vin had never had and never would.

Exhaustion must have finally pushed him to sleep, and into a hard sleep because he was disoriented when he woke, surprised he'd been asleep in the first place.

The second surprise was that he was still alone.

He glanced to the digital readout--it was over three hours since he'd returned from the shower. The message light was blinking and he rolled across the bed, caught for just an instant by the smell of Vin as he brushed against his pillow.

He slapped the comm unit to retrieve the messages--only two, a short one from Nathan letting him know that Ellie's baby had been born, which he'd missed, dammit, and one from Casey, a general bulletin to all the comms letting them know that the captain had set time for lift-off and he had--he checked the time--less than an hour left to breathe fresh air.

He got up, used the head and then splashed water on his face. He glanced into the mirror, not surprised to find that he looked his age and them some. Well, that was fine--he was old, and age ought to bring maturity or there was no damned point in staying alive.

He made it to the crew lounge and to the coffee pot before running into anyone else, and he wasn't really surprised that the first person he did see was Inez. She was heating water for tea and she looked at him with a softness in her features that made his blood stir.

"I've accepted the Captain's offer this time and will be taking the shuttle we used to help the children." Her voice was low and warm, reflecting the feeling he'd shared with her in bed, and he wondered if her news was an offer of one more or a "thanks for the thrust." Either way, it made him step in closer than he'd planned. He opened his mouth to reply when Nathan breezed in the door, looking as exhausted as Josiah but his mood was almost jubilant.

"Where the hell have you been? I've been looking all over for you--Ellie's mama wants you to bless her baby!"

Inez grinned, sincerely amused, and stepped away from him. "You can hardly pass that up," she said, pulling her water from the warmer. She touched Josiah's arm as she moved past, a gentle drag of fine fingertips over his skin that made the hairs stand on end. He watched her walk away, her skirt swaying like a red flag to his libido.

He watched until she was out the door and out of sight, and even then, he held the image in his head, lost in the memory of her bare breasts and dark nipples, the welcoming heat and natural wetness of the perfect place between her legs.

A noise drew his attention back to the present, and he turned to find Nathan staring at him, his elation tempered by a deep frown. "Josiah?" he asked, planting his hands on his hips, but his tone was carried more worry than anger. "You're not--you haven't--is that where you've been?"

Josiah sighed, damning the flesh one more time for good measure. "I've been in Vin's bunk," he answered shortly, and met Nathan's eyes squarely. "I came up here, out of Vin's bunk, because I got the announcement about the baby." He frowned. "And to get coffee. I need coffee." He thought about splitting hairs and the eye of the needle, but none of that was enough to make him admit the truth so easily. Not to a man Vin would be spending time with in the black-he wouldn't disrespect Vin or Inez by blabbering about it.

Nathan stared at him for several long seconds, frowning uncertainty at him. Eventually he decided he believed the words, or more likely decided it wasn't his business either way. "You want to see the baby before they take her away?"

Josiah nodded, surprised. "I thought they'd be gone already."

"Not yet, no. Ellie was tired, and I wanted to check the little one where we had the best equipment to do it. She's as healthy as can be, by the way." Nathan talked on about the birth while Josiah made himself a cup of coffee, about how well it had gone once the baby decided to be born. "Almost seven pounds," he said, "and she screamed her little lungs out as soon as she could."

Josiah nodded, sincerely happy to hear it. New life, and a life they had helped protect on its way into the 'verse. It was more than he'd managed for his sister, and more than he'd managed for Vin. A good day's work, no matter what else came of all this. And he'd be gone before the world tainted the baby; that was an unnervingly uplifting thought.

JD and Casey came bounding along behind them, excited and high on the success of the day--and whatever celebrating--they'd clearly done. Josiah suspected that like himself, they'd burned off some post-mission adrenalin in the time-honored way.

"She's a cute thing!" Casey said, joining in the discussion of the new baby. "So tiny!"

"They don't stay that way," Nathan warned, grinning at her.

"And don't be getting any ideas!" JD added with just enough panic in his voice that Josiah found himself smiling.

The chatter was light and easy and it swept the flotsam out of Josiah's head almost better than coffee would.

"Come bless the baby," Nathan offered again. "Just touch her head and say some prayer--you must know about a million." His voice was dry, but Josiah nodded soberly.

"Fifty prayers per sin," he thought aloud.

Nathan blinked. "What?"

Josiah shook his head slowly. "My first order believed you ought to have fifty good prayers to get out from under any one sin. Crazy, ain't it?" he said, and flashed his teeth, then swallowed down a gulp of his coffee.

It didn't take long, and Ellie was happy--tired, but happy, as was her mother and her husband.

"Shepherd Zell left last month for a refresher at his abbey," Ellie said, holding her baby close. "Sure would be nice if you stayed on while he was gone--both of you," she eyed Nathan, too. "Aren't you tired of moving around all the time?"

"Ma'am," Nathan said, friendly and warm, "I'm the kind gets tired of staying still too long."

Ellie blinked and turned her eyes to Josiah.

"Moving around has its own rhythm," he said, almost by rote, adding, "Family is where you find it."

It was only as the words were out of his mouth that he thought about them, about the cliché--and the truth of them. Josiah took advantage while Nathan did one final check of Ellie's personal places and left by way of the side stairs. He'd had plenty to think on for far too long, and now he had something more.

As he walked into the almost-empty cargo bay, Vin came in through the open hatch. For the barest instant, as their eyes met, Josiah thought he saw a hurt in Vin's, deep and endless. But before he could blink, whatever he thought he saw was gone, and the familiar blue eyes looked as placid as a summer lake.

It wouldn't take Vin's censure to tie his guts up in knots, and Josiah felt like he'd been ignoring the younger man's pain for too long now to react to an imagined one. He didn't need it anyway; all it took was his own mind, his own knowledge of right and wrong and just how far he'd stepped outside those boundaries over the course of his life to make his stomach churn and his soul ache.

He sat down on the stairs, stretching one leg out in front of him and cradling his coffee cup in hand, watching. He'd always been a watcher, an observer of people; many times it had been a source of great pleasure. Others, of great education. He didn't know what he'd gleaned in these past few years of watching Vin, and he had to wonder, watching him now, if he'd actually seen the man at all.

Vin entered the ship's cargo bay in the company of strangers, people from the commune led by Casey and JD. Those two were chattering away, answering questions about--everything, it seemed, from the recent incident to the Maggie to their personal lives before today. The conversations moved so fast that Josiah didn't even try to follow, other than to note that for every question JD answered, Casey contradicted him. He shook his head; young lovers, each as fiery as the other. Who knew how--or if--they'd last?

The group was small, and all of them looked to be close in age, late teens, early twenties: not quite Vin's peer group, most of them a bit younger by years and all of them a lot younger by experience. Two men and two women stood with Vin and talked to him, making jokes that drew smiles from him, and one of the young men took great pains to stand very close, obviously flirting. Seemed that fella had figured out Vin's leanings, and right quick too. Josiah thought distantly that a decent lover would be jealous, but even as the thought registered, he knew he had no cause to be. He could tell in the way he backed away from the contact, the way his attention wandered, his gaze drifting toward the sky or out to the fields. Was that what it was, to carry Vin's certainty? He would never know another person, man or woman, and he knew it; Josiah wondered if perhaps that certainty wasn't worth more than he could possibly imagine. No doubts. No questions. No fears from an aging man who wondered, at times, what Vin could possibly want from him. Whatever it was, it seemed more than enough to make Vin happy. At least, when Josiah wasn't being an ass it did. When Josiah wasn't caught up in the labyrinth of his brain, he knew Vin was happy with him. The why of it, that was another question entirely, but he had to wonder if the why even mattered. Vin had it and Josiah didn't and it was as plain as that.

Vin did a nice job of pretending to fit in. He wasn't inept or inexperienced, but he no more fit with most people his age than Josiah did. Whether it was because of the years in the orphanage or his years in the army or, more likely, the years he'd spent suffering the knowledge of the future, Vin was not as young as his body was.

His male body. Josiah watched as Vin and the others loaded the containers that Jael and John had brought with them onto the commune's mules. Hard muscles flexed in Vin's arms and across his back, defined under the tee shirt he was wearing. Vin's body had matured, trying to catch up to his experience. Josiah hadn't missed that, exactly-he knew Vin's body intimately-but he couldn't say that he'd noticed when Vin's jaw had become quite so strongly chiseled, or when his muscles had thickened through years of work.

Vin's body looked nothing like Josiah's, and Josiah suspected it never would; Vin would age more like the captain, whipcord thin, unneeded elements sloughing off never to be replaced by thickening torso or oversized muscles. Would Josiah be alive to see those changes age brought, to be proven right or wrong? He could ask Vin, but he wouldn't. Even though he was relatively sure that Vin knew. He could wait around and find out, he supposed, and with a clearer head now, he felt like he should, like the self-indulgence of petulance and doubt and struggle wasn't that much different from the self-indulgence of drink, something he'd mostly given up when Vin came along. Alcohol had made saying "yes" all the easier, all the more seductive and reasonable. But he'd said yes for years now without it.

The comparison came without invitation, images of Inez in her skirts, her body curved in all the right places. He recalled her drinking wine, the color of it a pretty pink that contrasted nicely with the dark tones of her skin. She smiled a lot, laughed a lot, a rich throaty sound that he recognized no matter where she was.

Unlike Vin who rarely laughed out loud. Try as he might, Josiah couldn't call to mind the sound of Vin's laugh. Vin's chuckle, he knew, low and dirty or light and whisper-quiet, but laughter, the kind he'd already associated with Buck Wilmington in this short week? He couldn't recall it, and wondered if its absence was due to him. Josiah watched Vin, saw him stand back as the last of the containers was loaded on the mules and the anti-grav plates were activated. He waved as the others headed off, Casey and JD walking with them outside and toward the barn.

Vin stood still, his hands in his pockets. He wasn't trapped in a vision; he was as much in the moment as Josiah had ever seen him. Come to think of it, Vin hadn't been having as many visions, not since they 'd met Chris that day in the Bow and Fiddle. Vin was right - this was where he was supposed to be.

But Vin didn't look happy. He hadn't changed clothes since this morning, and from the dark circles under his eyes, he hadn't slept. He'd not come back to the room.

Josiah sipped at his coffee, then took long swallows until the cup was empty. He was the cause of that unhappiness and he knew it. The only question was whether or not he'd be the half the man he thought he was and start listening to the damned truth when it was shouting so loud and clear at him.

He could have lost Vin one way or another and no matter how much he wanted to pretend otherwise, he loved the person he'd been living with, sharing a bed with for these past six years.

He might not be in love, not with Vin himself. He was in love with the prophet, in love with the idea of God's work in human form. But he did love Vin the man, deeply and dearly.

He wasn't aware of moving, but he must have because Vin turned suddenly, to look right at him. It was there again, that instant sensation of pain, and Josiah knew he wanted to soothe it. He even knew how; all he had to do was stay. Vin's lips flickered at the corners, a faint attempt at a grin of welcome. He didn't move, and Josiah suspected he wouldn't. Josiah could walk away right now, no word or touch, and Vin would let him.

A dark thought flashed through his head, that he could walk back to the mess and invite Inez back to her quarters, and Vin would let him do that, too. And if he wanted to bend Vin over a table three minutes later? Years ago Vin wouldn't have stopped him. Two days ago, Vin had rebuffed even a private and personal advance.

Vin had changed. He'd grown. He'd learned from what Josiah tried to teach him, even if the lessons he'd taken away weren't quite the ones Josiah had intended.

He stepped closer and Vin straightened, shoving his hands deeper into the pockets of his pants. Vin still didn't say anything and the grin on his face slipped away, leaving him alert, calm, and clearly thoughtful. Words, sentences, jumbled in Josiah's head, things he wanted to explain, confessions he wanted to offer that Vin shouldn't have to carry. He sorted through them, trying to find the one thing that was most important, but words eluded him.

"Leaving soon," Vin said after a while. "Chris wants to be gone before them corporate ships get here." He looked away, out into the sunlight. "Think we're headed off to pick up some cattle or something when we leave, so if you want to be dirtside, now's the time."

Josiah followed his gaze to where JD and Casey were standing, hugging each other and waving as the commune people moved away.

"I'm gonna clean up and change clothes," Vin said. He walked off and Josiah didn't think anything about his words until he returned to their quarters a few minutes later and found it empty, even though he could smell the scent of Vin's soap, see the clothes he'd been wearing piled in the top of Vin's laundry.

Vin couldn't know. But he could, Josiah realized, he could know the same way that he knew other things. Confession wasn't a luxury he could afford to withhold from Vin Tanner. He didn't deserve this sort of faith and loyalty, not after what he'd done hours ago and certainly not after he'd spent so much of his time trying to make his own doubts Vin's fault.

Habit drove him to his knees and into prayer, old rituals and tired meditations. He was aware of the ship closing up, of the thrum of the engines as they started, the warning klaxons before take off.

He was still deep in prayer, when he felt the nudge that meant the shuttle was away. Inez had left the ship. The relief that came with the awareness that she was gone, albeit temporarily, was wrapped in the smell of Vin, and the reminders of his presence in this room, and in Josiah's life. She would be back in a matter of days, and he would be tempted again-not that the invitation would be open. He'd had the sense even then that they were sharing the same post-adrenaline release, the comfort of another human being after lives had been risked or taken. That wouldn't ease the desire; it would just limit the options. He ought to be grateful for that. But for now, he was just grateful that she was gone.

He gave up on tired rituals and sat back on his heels, looking around the room that Vin had cleaned until the metal bits shone. Looking up seemed redundant when the ship was breaking orbit but he did anyway, staring into an overhead light fixture. "Would you just tell me what the hell you want me to do?" he groused at God.

As usual, God didn't answer him.

In the Black, somewhere between Boros and Triumph, Three Days Later, Ship's Standard

"Gonna miss you next trip," Buck said, peering over Josiah's shoulder.

"For my cooking," Josiah smiled, unoffended.

"That's part of it, yeah." Josiah frowned when Buck reached to steal a bite off the cutting board, but smiled again when Buck's eyes closed in pleasure as he chewed. "When you pressed all the moisture out of the protein and let it stand overnight, let those herbs soak in..." He sighed. "Better than I ever imagined a protein cube could be."

"It only takes a little planning," Josiah said, lifting the cutting board to scrape the cubes into a bowl.

"I've collected a lot of education, I suppose," Buck said offhand. "Never did learn how to cook though."

"I'd think cooking wasn't so different from some of your other lessons," he said, easier now with Buck than he'd first imagined he could be. But Buck had turned out to be an open book after all: more pages perhaps, different kinds of life and education, opportunities and challenges, but in the end he was a simple and contented man. Buck didn't like to overthink things and he was happy with simple pleasures: a man he loved, a job that made him feel clean, and pleasant company. That simplicity could put a person at ease, and Buck did just that, if he was of a mind to. "Put together what a person likes, plan ahead, have some idea of how it'll turn out if you do this instead of that."

Buck's chortle was low and pleasured. "I'd almost accuse you of flirting with me, Josiah, if I didn't know better."

Josiah frowned, not quite sincerely aghast. "But you do know better," he said firmly.

"Still don't know you well enough," Buck said pleasantly.

"I'm an open book, Buck," he said, and tossed a smile Buck's way. "A lot more like you than I first imagined."

Buck chuckled again, more relaxed this time. "Guess we are a little bit alike," Buck mused. "Not many men appreciate a woman's body as much as I do. Did," he corrected, and the forlorn look that crossed his face passed so quickly, Josiah suspected that he didn't even know it had been there.

"You mind telling me what you're talking about?" Josiah asked stiffly. He knew his guilt was making him feel like everyone knew the truth, and that in fact he was stuck sharing that guilt with God alone.

Buck shrugged. "Chris told me what you and him said, 'fore we left Persephone. Guess it's been on my mind. It's been a long while since I was with a woman. Wouldn't trade him though, not just for a friendly thrust, not with the best women in the 'verse."

"You didn't find giving them up a challenge?" Josiah asked after a moment. It was dangerous territory, but these men were Vin's friends, and they would be for a long time to come.

"Sure," Buck said, and flashed a grin that showed all his teeth and tugged his mustache straight. "The habits of a lifetime aren't easy to break. But it'd hurt Chris," Buck said simply. "There's no logic to that, no rational reason. But it would and that's all I need to know."

"And Chris?" Josiah asked. He wondered just how well Buck knew his man, wondered if they'd just stumbled through their lives to reach this point; it looked like it, some moments.

Buck waved a hand. "Chris wouldn't stray because he don't think he'd like the man it would make him, even though it wouldn't bother me half so much."

Josiah pursed his lips and nodded. He understood that well enough.

"So what's the problem with you and Vin? Really?" It annoyed him to no end that Buck was butting into his business, but then, he'd just opened the door for it. Still, he suspected Buck would have barged on in even if he hadn't; Vin and Buck had been spending a lot of time together recently - every time Josiah saw Vin, he was either with Buck and JD or with Chris, and Buck was soon to show up.

It was good that Vin had made such friends. It was.

But Josiah was beginning to feel something he hadn't felt in a long time, and not much in his years with Vin.

"You know," Buck went on, "it sure would be nice if you stayed on." He reached for another bite of food and Josiah had no doubts that it was Buck's stomach doing the inviting. But even as he crunched on a piece of carrot, he added, "You're decent people, Josiah, no matter your faults. Good in a fight, damned hard worker." He swallowed then, and tilted his head far to the side, and Josiah felt the scrutiny without even having to meet the man's narrowed eyes. "You make Vin happy, when you don't have your head up your pi gu," he went on, far more serious now. "But if you're gonna keep it stuck up there, I reckon it's best for everybody if you do move on."

"Reckon time will tell," Josiah said, knowing he had to answer something. Buck's words were pretty much exactly what he'd been thinking, the past three days. Mercifully, he'd kept those thoughts to himself, had avoided venting them to Vin as he'd been doing in the days prior. "You want to hand me that bowl?" He pointed with the knife toward a container of vegetables he'd already cut.

"Time, huh," Buck said as he caught up the bowl and gave it over. "How do you know that's all it's going to take? How do you know you - or Vin - won't find somebody else?" He paused for just a second, then added, "That's something that could happen in most relationships."

It was. But the rules of 'most relationships' didn't apply to this one, never had. Which was . . . the problem. "Vin knows we'll get together. He just doesn't know exactly when."

"What if it's supposed to be now?" Buck asked, leaning back on the counter so that he was a little more in the way - and a little better able to see Josiah. Which was even more annoying.

"If it's meant to be now, it will be now," he said, stirring the vegetables into the protein cubes. "But if it's not meant to now, then it's a good time for me to think about other things. Vin will know when it's time - his visions are never wrong. Sometimes, they're just low in detail."

"This why you have so much faith in what he says?" Buck asked, turning his head to watch Josiah sprinkle a vinegar and mustard combination on the mixture.

"What?" Josiah asked, turning to look at the other man. It wasn't the question - he'd heard it enough in the last six years, but it was something in Buck's tone.

Buck shrugged. "Well, seems like he thought he'd be saving a lot of people, 'cause of what he saw-the commune members, us. Whoever would have ended up running illegal drugs for the rest of their lives. If there's any truth to it, I guess he did."

Josiah blinked, blinked again. On another day he might have wondered how a man could have heard what Vin said, and then lived through it, and still been unable to believe, but he already knew the truth of that. Folks strolled right by the evidence of God in a sunrise or a moon set, and explained it away. But this wasn't that day.

This was Vin's tie to God. All this time, he'd been looking for evidence of Good being done without wanting to know the details up front so much. Without being willing to challenge the prophet's decisions about when to speak and when to hold back.

How the hell had he imagined he'd see the evidence if he wouldn't look at the data first?

"You..." He stopped, worked his jaw to loosen it and try to move through the revelation. "You were a good lawyer, weren't you?"

Buck frowned at him. "Guess so. Why?"

Josiah shook his head. Buck had proven his case for him without even trying it.

"Finish this," he said. "I need to find Vin."

"Hey - what?" Buck called after him. "What do I do now?"

"Put it in the wok," Josiah called over his shoulder. "Long as you don't burn it, you can't ruin it now."

This time had been different, yet he'd been so caught up in all the other bullshit - all his own bullshit-that he hadn't seen it. This time, they had made the kind of difference he'd spent years looking for. For the first time since he'd met Vin, they weren't coming in at the end of the story, unable to stop bad things from happening. This time - they had been a part of the solution.

In the time since they'd left Boros, he'd seen Vin sparingly, more in passing than in place. Vin had been absent from the room during the regular sleep cycle, and when Josiah had asked him about it--when he'd been able to get him alone in the kitchen before dinner one night--Vin had claimed that he'd been pulling 'guard duty'.

Either Chris was kuangzhe de or there was something else going on, but Josiah was still deep enough in the mire of his own thoughts and prayers that he hadn't pushed it. It was likely enough that Vin actually was watching over the herd at night. Vin liked animals, liked their simplicity.

Josiah pushed open the door to Vin's room then climbed down the ladder, catching himself easily at the bottom and taking several steps into the room before catching sight of Vin. Vin stopped short, straightening, and Josiah watched his handsome face tighten into a sort of non-expression he had become accustomed to these past few days.

"Sorry," Vin said quickly, "I thought you'd be upstairs." He glanced at the clock on the bedside shelf, no doubt confirming that it was time for lunch prep, where Josiah had been until Buck had provided him with an insight.

"Nothing to be sorry for," Josiah said, looking back to meet Vin's eyes. "It's your room." He watched, expecting Vin to say--something--to say that it was good to see Josiah, to say--to say that he was tired of the way things were between them.

But Vin merely nodded and looked away, continuing on toward the little water closet. No argument. No objections, no presence at all in Josiah's life.

"Did you know how this was going to turn out?" he asked as Vin stripped down; for a second, his attention was drawn to the body he knew as well as he knew his own, and he welcomed the inklings of desire it stirred in him.

"How what was going to turn out?" Vin asked.

"This," Josiah said, waving a hand in the air. "This thing on Triumph - did you know how it was going to turn out? Did you know we were going to save those people?"

Vin didn't stop moving, but from the side, Josiah could see the twist of his lips. "Nope," he said as he wiped himself down with a wash cloth. "Just knew we were in it."

"And we were," Josiah said slowly. "For the first time, we were involved in something working the way we wanted it to. We saved people, Vin."

A smile settled on Vin's face. "Yeah," he agreed. "Feels kinda good. Reckon that's what the visions were waiting for, for us to be where we're supposed to be, here with the rest of 'em."

Vin looked beautiful to him like this, almost radiant in his sense of success. Josiah knew then that Vin had realized this difference before, but he'd not said anything to Josiah. Because Josiah was planning to leave and Vin didn't want to try and influence him to stay? Didn't want to risk failing in the effort?

Free will. Vin exercised it more than Josiah had known. More than Josiah had been.

For the first time in a while, he found his desire, his own, independent from Vin's efforts to raise it in him. But with it came the memory of Vin's words from the last time they'd shared the bed.

"It was never a chore," he said quietly, as if Vin had just spoken them. "After all the time we've been together, I'd have thought you knew me better than that."

Vin turned, one hand on the opening to his pants. He met Josiah's gaze and for the first time in six years, Josiah felt that he was looking at a whole new man. The words that followed didn't dispel the impression but they did temper the radiance. "Hard to know someone who don't know himself," Vin said slowly. "And it wasn't always that way, not all the time, anyway." He shrugged and turned away. "Don't reckon it matters, not now."

Josiah turned over the realization that maybe all this time he had been wrong. He'd stopped seeing what was in front of him. Or maybe never seen it, finding it easer to accept excuses for what was too big to accept as real.

"We should be getting back to Triumph pretty soon," Vin said, his back to Josiah. "Buck says Inez will be joining back up right after."

There was no cue in his voice, no change of pitch, no heat, no pain, nothing to suggest that he was doing anything other than making conversation. But Josiah knew now that Vin knew. He stood, unsure of how to answer, what to say, if anything. Vin didn't seem to notice, though, stripping down completely and washing up at the sink. Josiah was still standing there when he reached for the towel to dry his naked body.

Josiah shifted and Vin jerked, instinctively dropping the towel to cover his groin like he'd forgotten Josiah was there, but his tension eased just as quickly. Josiah knew then how far Vin had pulled away. How far he'd pushed Vin away.

This time, he was aware of every step he took, every move he made. The debate raged in his head for the first two, but by his third step, he'd made the decision--his decision, of his own free will. The voices of doubt faded away, until he heard only one. Whether it was God or Satan, he didn't know and he doubted he ever would. But it was clear in his head, laughing in Vin's 'happy crazy' voice. He watched Vin's face as he drew close, saw the wariness return.

He stopped and held out a hand, feeling, for the first time in a very long time, the certainty that came when he knew God was guiding him. "It's not a chore now," he said. "And it won't ever be again, I promise you."

Vin glanced to his outstretched hand then back up into Josiah's eyes. "Don't want it to be," he said. "That ain't right, between us."

"No," Josiah agreed. "And I want things to be right."

Vin's lips twitched, the start of a grin. But it caught and he blinked as he said, "I know I ain't what you want--who you want, not right now. Maybe... " He swallowed and his gaze wavered.

Josiah caught his chin, leaning in closer. "If that was what I wanted, who I wanted, I'd wait. But I want you. Right now, Vin, I want you." He almost hated qualifying the words, but he felt driven by a newfound sense of honesty, and a newfound commitment to that. To them both.

Vin didn't ask questions, didn't push for explanation or promises. He drew a breath, slow and deep, then dropped the towel to the floor. He reached for Josiah--then stopped, standing taller, but waiting. Josiah wondered who was being tested, but just in case it was him, he took control without any urging from Vin.

Soft hair sifted through his fingers, and the softer skin of Vin's neck as he stroked and drew Vin forward, first into a kiss and then onto the bed. By the time he was naked, Vin had taken up more control, leading now rather than following, and Josiah had the sense that they were meeting as equals, not as one man urging another down a path he didn't want to go. As equals, their desires were fairly evenly matched, and Josiah entered as Vin received, took as much pleasure in his role as Vin clearly did in his.

Afterwards, as Josiah rolled onto his back, Vin eased a few inches away from him. Giving him room? He wasn't sure, but he gave no thought at all as he reached out and caught the back of Vin's neck, pulling him in close and familiarly to rest against him. This was more right than he'd ever wanted to admit, more right anything else he'd known in his long life.

He couldn't promise that he'd never stray. He certainly couldn't promise that doubt wouldn't eat him from the inside out on occasion, a cancer in remission until the next spiritual challenge. But he knew with the same certainty that he'd felt before, when he'd realized that Vin was aware of his time with Inez, that Vin would never ask him not to. All Vin wanted was what Josiah could give. It was up to him to give all he could.

"I'll remember this," Vin said softly against his shoulder, his breath warm. "Thanks."

Josiah turned his head, meeting Vin's eyes. Clear and vision-free, soft and - loving. "Buck asked me whether I was staying on," he said. "I thought I'd better ask you, seeing as I'd have to share your room."

Vin blinked. "I thought... " He swallowed, and Josiah felt his fingers tighten where they rested against Josiah's ribs. "I ain't got nothing new to add," he said honestly. "I can't say what you do when we get back to Persephone - "

"Then I guess it's up to us to decide. You want me to stay? After the kind of jackass I've been?" It encompassed all of it - his doubts, Inez, the hurt he'd caused Vin.

Vin started to smile but it caught. "You want to stay?" he asked. "I mean, with me? Sharing a - room?"

Josiah put one hand over Vin's, squeezing. "Yeah, I think I do. Sharing a room. And a bed."

The smile settled, bright and open and - loving. Radiant as a saint. "Yeah," Vin murmured. "I'd like that."


Triumph, Blue Sun Thirty-seven corporate farm

Josiah stared at the face on the monitor, listening again to the words Mr. Crouisette said; the old man's voice was rough and heavy under normal circumstances, but in this wave, sent three days ago, while they had been in the black between Boros and Triumph, it was even heavier and rougher than usual.

"...sorry to have to tell you, Josiah, but your apartment took the worst of it. We're still trying to put together the details, but the building-inspectors seem to think there was a defective seal in the pressure release which caught so that the emergency release didn't work - and I know you don't want to hear the details right now. What I can tell you is that there was no fault on our parts or yours, and the insurance company should be recompensing you for the losses. We recovered some things from what was left of the apartment - you were wise to have those storage units...."

The old man's voice droned on, but Josiah wasn't listening. This wasn't the first time he'd suffered the loss of personal possessions. It also wasn't the first time he'd avoided death or serious injury because he'd done what Vin had told him he'd do.

A freak accident had destroyed the apartment the night after they had left Persephone. Had he been in the apartment, he would have been killed. He chuckled, wondering at why God seemed to give him his answers after he'd already made his decisions. Better late than never, he thought; the spiritual confirmation was welcome.

The door to the cabin opened with a clank and he clicked off the wave in the middle of Mr. Crouisette's promise to keep what they had recovered safe until Josiah could find somewhere else to live. He looked over as Vin slid down the ladder and into the room, graceful and easy.

"What's wrong?" he asked as his feet touched the floor and he drew himself to a halt.

Josiah felt the smile tug at his lips, and wondered why Vin looked so concerned to see it. "Got a wave from Mr. Crouisette," he said slowly. "Seems that the apartment was destroyed - some sort of accident with the heating system." He watched Vin closely as he went on, "Did you know that was going to happen?"

Vin's eyebrows rose in surprise. "Nope," he said, taking no offense at the implications. "Just knew you were here, with us." He took several steps forward, reaching out to put his hands on Josiah's shoulders, offering sympathy. "Anybody hurt?"

Josiah shook his head. "No. Seems that most of the damage was to our place. There's some water damage to the neighboring apartments, but nothing that can't be repaired. But our apartment - well, it's gone, and Mr. Crouisette doesn't seem to think it's salvageable." He drew a deep breath and closed his eyes as Vin's fingers began to knead at the tension in his upper back. "Guess God's given me a sign I can't miss."

Vin's tone was chastising as he answered, "Don't go putting this on God. You never were the best follower anyhow, and you'll take it out on me if you put it on Him."

Josiah reached up and caught one of Vin's hands, trapping it against his shoulder. "Maybe I will, maybe I won't," he said lightly, "but at least I'll be around to decide."

He felt Vin shift his weight forward then the soft press of lips against his temple. "That bad?" he asked quietly.

"Would have killed anyone in there," he said. "Happened in the middle of the night, but no, not bad at all. I was where I was supposed to be."

"That's right," Vin said, but his voice was somber enough that Josiah wondered what else of their future Vin had seen. He'd ask, sometime soon, and he'd press for the answers. The thought didn't bother him so much now.

Josiah turned toward him, letting their noses brush. "Well, it looks like we really are destined to be together."

Vin drew back enough for Josiah to see the frown that marred his features. "Nothing destined about it," he said. "It's just the way it is."

Josiah opened his mouth to argue, but Vin's words actually made sense to him. Perhaps for the first time, he understood what the hell Vin had been trying to say to him. He stared at Vin, seeing him as he had those days ago in the cargo hold, the man who he had become. The man who had visions of things he didn't know.

A man who had the gift of prophecy, but still a man.

Instead of speaking, he smiled, watching the lines on Vin's face ease. "Yeah," he agreed. "It is." He pushed out of the chair and to his feet, catching Vin's hands as they fell away. "Reckon we'd best get outside," he said, but he leaned down to brush his lips over Vin's.

Vin smiled into the contact, the curve of his lips as much a part of the kiss as the taste of him. For a while, Josiah held him close, appreciating right where he was and who he was with. Appreciating that he was alive to be able to do it. Maybe it didn't matter so much who'd done the choosing.

Chris wasn't impressed. He knew he was supposed to be--the track lined for hovercraft but smooth enough for horses or wheeled vehicles that meandered toward some distant town probably cost as much to put in as the Margaret May when she was hot off the line. He could see it stretch for miles before it disappeared into the hills. The edifice of the house looked more like a Taoist temple, pillars and arches and an enormous bell that hung over a reflecting pond. Behind that edifice, he knew he'd find cells for workers and palatial rooms for guests of the management, and behind that--in every direction, really--the neat, ordered rows of crops, soybean and tomato, grapes, fruit trees.

This farm represented thousands of acres and billions in investment credits, and must have processing plants for half the produce right here on the grounds; most of this wouldn't keep for the trip into the core. Food for billions of people over time, and eventually some of it would wind up right back on moons like Triumph, at five hundred times the price and ten thousand times the shelf life.

"Where is she?" he muttered to Buck, annoyed.

Buck slapped him on the back hard enough to knock him off his balance. "Relax, she's got a farm to run. She said she'd meet us here, she'll come out eventually."

Chris blew out a hard breath. "You ain't gonna convince me you like waiting around a place like this."

Buck looked up at the edifice, took the last few steps he needed to get beside the pond under the bell, and stretched to flick it with a finger. The damn thing was so big and heavy, it barely tnkk'd for Buck's effort. "I'll admit, all this put on ain't nearly as impressive without good people behind it."

Good people. Chris smirked at the back of Buck's head. Half the time, Buck meant temple folk, people versed in the rituals and practices of prostitution. Nothing Chris had ever said would make Buck believe that calling wasn't at least as profound as a priest's. Nothing would make Buck see unlicensed whores, long as they carried themselves with the confidence of their services, as much less either. He thought about telling Buck how much he loved him, in spite of how the man kept walking into the muzzles of people's weapons, and in spite of how much he still liked a good drink or a good fight or a good fuck in an alley as much as he seemed to like the fact that they'd weathered all these years and miles and struggles. Not in spite of. Because of.

"We can't leave until Inez gets back anyway."

Chris hadn't forgotten, but he grimaced just the same. He wasn't in a mood to stand around waiting while his crew cleaned up after the cattle they'd dropped at the Boden commune on their way here. He'd rather have been able to watch Ezra's shrewd eyes calculating the value of every item in view of the cargo bay doors, while Casey and JD gawked openly, Vin stood looking politely curious, and Josiah and Nathan carried on a conversation as they worked.

He'd rather have been there, making sure that the cargo bay was getting thoroughly and completely cleaned.

Jael appeared at the gate before he could decide whether or not to simply walk away, and waved Chris and Buck inside. "I didn't realize you were already here," she said, shooting a cautious look over Chris's shoulder at the crew. "We've got pretty strict security around here--you could have been hurt."

Chris just looked at her. After the fiasco last week, their security didn't have much to speak well of it.

"Come on, then," she said, and led them through a grand entry hall and conference room. Through an ornate door though, the rooms got a lot more workmanlike, and Jael led them down a hallway into a much more ordinary part of the building. A plain wood door opened into a medium-sized office with a Coretex terminal and a big desk that she angled around. "I think we agreed on eight hundred?"

They'd agreed on six, so Chris just nodded. "Works for me."

She pulled out a slim plastic flimsy and pushed it across the desk. "I've got it deposited in a transfer center; you can pick it up with this ident number."

"Do we have to draw it all in one draft?" Buck asked as Chris swept in to retrieve the flimsy. Sometimes you did, sometimes you didn't.


"Good," Chris said, "because part of it's going to somebody else."

Jael gave him a curious look, but she didn't ask, which increased Chris's estimation of her. Instead, she said, "I assume that Mary has told you, but White Cross agreed to our proposals. In exchange for nondisclosure agreements about recent events and my recovery of company property, they have put me in charge of this farm. I did manage to keep you out of it, at least in terms of your knowledge of the contents of the shipment. They know that you delivered it, and that your people were involved in that le se on the ground. For the most part, though, they decided to trust my word that you're no threat to their interests. Painting you all as ignorant was helped a great deal by the fact that Mary and her people really were, and angry about it."

Chris nodded. "Better not to know some things," he said. "What about the Dykstras and Ellison? They're not going to be quiet about it, not if it will help them." Or let them get even.

Jael tilted her head to one side, meeting Chris's eyes. "They're employees of the company," she said, her tone even. "Blue Sun has many positions and locations, some purely for the purposes of re-education." The way she said the last word left little in doubt, and Ezra's words came back to mind, about corporations and their private armies. Private prisons, too.

Beside him, Buck shifted. "We'll be taking our leave, then," Buck said. "Thanks for the business."

Jael snorted at the suggestion, and Chris would have too if he weren't glad it was behind them now.

On the way out the front garden, Chris picked out a bright glare in the sky that grew as he watched it: the shuttle was returning home. "Get everybody aboard," he ordered Buck. "We're leavin'."

"You bet," Buck replied, and they moved off at a fast clip, Buck to spread the word around and Chris to get the hell away from this place.

Chris headed straight for the Maggie, his feet hitting the ramp just as the shuttle docked and sent a shudder through the ship. He waited in the bay, glad to see that the ship was looking better now. She smelled far better now than she had when they'd landed, before they'd swept out the cow dung and hosed off the deck plates, and he waited until the shuttle door opened and Inez strode out. She did the same thing he always did, surveying the space for anything out of place. When her eyes landed on him she smiled and nodded; he nodded in return, and made for the flight deck.

Ten minutes later everybody but JD and Casey was in the mess, and he paused at the door to give his crew the once-over. Nathan seemed embroiled in a heated argument with Ezra--that was gonna get old fast--while Buck welcomed Inez back as he usually did, by flirting, annoying and flattering her at the same time. Chris moved on, because Josiah had made him think of things he hadn't in a long time. While he figured Buck would give in and let him bed a woman just to make him happy, Chris wasn't nearly so generous; best just to leave that behind them both.

Vin and Josiah each had their hips parked right on the edge of the stools at the counter, but their chairs were turned out to face the room. They looked plenty settled, confirming what Buck had told him about how they'd worked out whatever differences they needed to.

"Seven days in the black," he announced. The trip back to Persephone was longer than the trip out, but everyone would know that. "Hoops before dinner for anybody who wants to join in. Other than that, find your own ways to keep yourselves occupied."

Buck's low chuckle reached him, and he shot a censuring look his partner's way that seemed to bounce right off Buck's widening smile. "Buck. You got that account code?"

"Right here," Buck said, making a show of digging into his trouser pocket.

"Come on, then." He turned right and went to the remote console in the corner, to send a wave out to Mal Reynolds. He hadn't decided if he was going to risk transmitting the account access in a wave no matter how encrypted, but he got a ping even before he made to rise from the seat in front of the monitor.

Buck, behind him, rested a heavy hand on his shoulder. "Looks like he's closer than we thought," Buck said, and leaned over him to hit the button.

Mal's face filled the screen, hard and cold until he recognized Chris. It didn't change that much even then. "Chris," he said.

"Mal. Got a number for you, if you're gonna be close enough to civilization to collect."

Mal's eyebrows rose at that. "For what?"

"Ezra Standish worked off his debt to you."

Suspicion darkened his face again. "That's his debt, Chris. It sure as hell ain't yours--"

"I know it is," Chris cut in, "but if I give him the money he's earned, you really think you'll ever see it?"

Mal grinned at that, and shook his head. "All right. It was ninety-five."

Chris nodded. "Take fifteen extra for work Ezra suckered out of Jayne Cobb. Buck's got an account access code that should work in any networked bank." He grinned then, friendly. "Don't clean it out."

Mal snorted. "Tell Standish that just because we're square don't mean I ever want to have to look at him again."

Chris nodded and eased out of the chair, watching as Buck slid in.

That represented the last piece of business that he knew of that needed handling, until they got back to Persephone, reported to the Bodens that the job was done, and readied for the next haul that he had lined up. They'd have a week on-planet. Nathan would want to see his wife, and maybe... maybe Chris was willing to finally go back and see his family.

Buck would like that.

Maybe Chris would, too.

Mal laughed at something Buck was saying and Chris turned to look at them. As he did, he caught sight of the black beyond the ship. Stars twinkled, far away, the only break in the darkness, and for a second he felt the fear of it.

Then Buck's voice rang clear and loud, as it always had. "Another few months, and you might see some serious competition out here."

"Kaylee's already warned me," Mal said, his voice holding a whisper of amusement. "Jayne has a different tale, but then, that just makes Kaylee all the more right, I reckon."

"She's something else, that girl," Buck answered, but he glanced at Chris and reached out, catching his hand. "You take good care of her, or she'll have a home right here with us."

"Never you mind," Mal answered. "You just keep your hands full with the ones you got."

That, they would. And for the first time in a long time, Chris felt ready for it.

The End

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