Chapter 1

Serenity's ramp set down with a loud, hard thud. Once his feet touched the hard, rocky ground, Simon's eyes fluttered shut as he paused to breathe deep. He never tired of this moment, the first few seconds off Serenity, when he could enjoy the simple act of breathing clean, fresh air. At least he hoped it was clean… His eyes snapped open, his enjoyment of the simple pleasure dimmed considerably.

Pushing aside his paranoid thoughts, Simon studied the barren landscape. Since his arrival on Serenity, he had visited more than his fair share of middle-of-nowhere places but never had he felt further from Osiris than he did at this moment. Still, there was a harsh beauty to the desolation. On the horizon, the seemingly endless flat land met the clear, cloudless blue sky. Blue and brown touched and that was all he could see for miles around. Quelling his homesickness, he shook his head in wonder at the absolute nothingness that greeted him.

"Wow," Simon commented as Kaylee wrapped her arms around him. "There's just nothing here at all. Is the whole planet like this?"

"Nah," Kaylee replied, resting her cheek on his shoulder. "It's got all the usual planet parts – oceans, forests, stuff like that. But I confess, ain't never seen badlands as bad as this."

He tilted his head to rest on hers. "It's hard to imagine anyone living here."

"Yeah, well, yonder coupla miles is a real town. Smallish, I expect, being near here. That's where the Cap'n's heading today."

"Then why park here?"

"Ship like ours landin' encourages speculation!" Jayne grumbled, coming up behind them. "Ain't you learned nothin' by now?"

"I've heard you ask the Captain the very same thing, Jayne," Simon said, not bothering to meet the glare he was certain Jayne was throwing his way.

"And," Kaylee chimed in, "he said the same thing he always says to you when you ask that question."

"For ya'lls information, I'm askin' in the capacity of a professional," Jayne replied, fixing his glare on Kaylee. "Might be other reasons I need to know, Miss Smarty Pants."

"Hey!" Kaylee exclaimed, turning to Simon. "Maybe Cap'n will let us tag along."

"To the job?" Simon frowned. Even though he had not felt exactly needed over the last several weeks, he was not yet prepared to embark on an active life of crime. He felt entirely comfortable leaving that aspect of his existence to the Captain.

"Ain't no way—" Jayne began before being interrupted by Kaylee.

"Don't think this is the job job." Kaylee told Simon. "Just the meet to set up details." She smiled hopefully up at him. "Might be nice to see what the town's got to offer."

"Reckon you're ready for a vacation all the work you been doin'?" Jayne snorted.

Kaylee tensed and Simon rolled his eyes. "Ignore him," she whispered. "Just thrills him to niggle you so."

"I got me a job here. Fixin' to do it, too." Jayne found a stone on the ground and hurled it as far as he could. "Bump on a log mean anythin' to ya?"

"You really want me busy, Jayne?" Simon snapped. Never in his life had he ever met a man so obstinately stupid yet so genius in his uncanny ability of detecting insecurities.

Simon allowed himself a brief fantasy wherein Jayne suffered a painful wound. Nothing serious, he decided, just something big enough to cause the beast a moderate amount of pain. Maybe a shade over moderate. Not a gunshot wound, though. Those had a potential of getting nasty and Simon couldn't enjoy his fantasy properly with thoughts of complications intruding. A nice, simple broken leg should be painful enough. Except Jayne's mouth would still be running and he'd be laid up in the infirmary. No. Simon contemplated possible ailments that could befall Jayne's foul mouth rendering the man incapable of speech.

"Simon?" Kaylee grasped his arm shaking gently. "So, you wanna go?"

Turning his thoughts away from lockjaw, he smiled at Kaylee. He doubted the town would have much in the way of interesting sites but, at this juncture, he would take what he could get. Time away from Serenity did have a certain appeal and since Jayne didn't want them to go, the trip enticed him even more. "I'll see if River wants to go."

He started to walk back into Serenity but the sound of Jayne sniggering stopped him. Kaylee's hopeful, eager expression had disappeared. Uh oh. Simon's mind raced as he tried to understand why River accompanying them would dampen Kaylee's spirit. They were friends and he couldn't think of anything that had happened between them to threaten that friendship. Granted she and River hadn't spent all that much time together in the past weeks...

"Jayne!" The Captain's voice rang out. "Get over here, got work to do!"

"See! Some got jobs 'round here." He spat on the ground and walked up the ramp into Serenity.

Simon fought the sigh that welled in him. "I'm not quite sure what I've done wrong here."

"Thought we'd go to town. Just the two of us. Date like."

He thought it best not to mention that three other people would also be accompanying them. "I'll see if Inara wouldn't mind keeping an eye on River."

Kaylee frowned slightly. "Now I feel guilty! Don't want to exclude her or nothin'. It's just…"

"It's okay, Kaylee," Simon said, taking her hand and smiling at her. He wanted her to see that he understood. He was in unchartered territory not only with Kaylee but with relationships in general. "A little time away will be good."

She smiled back at him and moved closer.

"Kaylee" Mal bellowed. "Get in here now."

"Duty calls!" She said pertly before flashing him an apologetic smile. "And don't pay Jayne any mind." Kaylee kissed him lightly and rushed inside.

He didn't, really. Jayne had not said anything that he had not already considered himself. Since he didn't have anything else to do, Simon turned back around and looked out at nothing.

********

"Jayne!" Mal called out. "Get in here we have work to do!" As he waited, Mal checked his weapon. While he didn't anticipate any problems with the brief prelim meeting he was always aware that little, if anything, ever turned out the way he planned.

"Can't you do somethin' about their constant coupling?" Jayne asked, nodding his head in the direction of Serenity's open ramp. "Their lip-lockedness is making me feel like an old man."

"Young love, Jayne." Mal said, holstering his gun.

"Yeah, but, you ever feel the need to carry on so?"

The question was asked idly but Mal had anything but an idle response. He wasn't so far gone he couldn't remember the rush of being young and in love. Wanting to be with that someone every possible opportunity. Feeling like your heart was on hold until you saw her again.

"Just cut her some slack, would you?" he said quietly. Shaking off his memories, he found his gruffness again. "Get the mule down and get 'er prepped. Places and people require our attention."

Jayne grumbled something but did as Mal ordered. Soon, the mule began its descent. Halfway down, a loud grinding noise ripped through the hold. Mal looked up to see three parts of the mule lowered while one stayed stationary.

"Kaylee!" he bellowed. "Get in here now!" He turned to Jayne. "Quit that!"

Instead of turning off the lowering mechanism, Jayne persisted in repeatedly pushing the button.

"Your take will be lightened considerably if you break that mule," Mal warned. "Where is that girl?"

"Like I told you, lip locked," Jayne said, pushing the button once more. The mule wobbled precariously. He looked up at Mal and shrugged an apology.

"What is it Cap'n?" Kaylee asked.

"Jayne broke the mule doohickey," he said, pointing up.

"Did not! Kaylee's just not doin' her job proper."

"What'd you do, Jayne?" Her brow furrowed as she looked up at the oddly hanging mule. "Cap'n, I told you not to let him near anything mechanical."

"Ain't my fault. Pushed the button is all. Like this." Jayne started to demonstrate how he had pushed the button but Kaylee rushed over and snatched the console out of his hand.

"You're pushin' it wrong!" she exclaimed, glaring at him.

"How could I push it wrong?" Jayne's look was baffled innocence. "It's just a button."

"Why don't matter, Kaylee. Got somewhere to be in an hour and my aggravation will not be contained if I miss it." Taking the shuttle was not an option. Oklahoma Burnside, their intermediary in this deal, had made it abundantly clear that no one should suspect that a spaceship was nearby. Spaceships drew attention they needed to avoid and since shuttles indicated attachment to a ship, the mule was their only option.

"Is everything alright?" Simon asked looking up to where the mule hung lopsidedly.

"Will be once Kaylee sets her right." Mal watched Kaylee scramble up a chain ladder to investigate the malfunctioning mechanism. "Affix yourself to something, Kaylee! You fall, I ain't pausin' to check your vitals." He looked at Simon and smirked. "Guess that's your job now."

Mal had meant the comment humorously but since the doctor hadn't received much in the way of good natured teasing as of late he hadn't seen the hilarity in the remark.

Simon nodded stiffly without cracking a smile. "Excuse me, Captain." He walked away.

Since watching Kaylee work up so high tweaked his nerves, Mal turned his attention to Zoë and Inara talking on the lower catwalk. He couldn't determine a whit of what Inara was thinking but Zoë's little tells led him to believe they were discussing her leaving. Nodding gravely, Zoë's eyes flickered about the cargo bay pointedly avoiding him.

Mal sat on an empty crate his good mood about the day gone. That was the one, big negative about this job. It was inevitable, he knew, she couldn't stay on. There wasn't one thing on this ship that she needed or wanted. She'd left for a reason - one that he chose not to dwell on overly much. Not unless you counted every morning, night and mealtimes not overly much.

Inara looked at him and their eyes held for a moment before he looked back up to check on Kaylee's progress. Anger at Inara flared. She and Zoë had become good friends over the last weeks and she was just going to leave her bereft and all? He should have made her leave as soon as they touched down on Persephone for repairs before she had time to make his crew get all attached.

"Try it now," Kaylee called down. "But don't let Jayne touch it!"

He pushed the button and was rewarded by the mule lowering to the floor with no additional difficulties. "Think you can prep 'er without breaking something else?" Mal asked Jayne. He forced all thoughts not job related firmly out of his mind. This job was a good one; one that could open up a continuing business relationship with Oklahoma. All they had to do was complete the job and prove Oklahoma could depend on them. Never worked with Oklahoma before but the man was connected. A connected man, on their side, was exactly what they needed at this juncture.

"All set for us to go!" Kaylee said, coming down the stairs.

"Us?" Mal asked.

"Yeah," she said, flashing him her sweetest, most guileless smile. "Was hopin' you might not be averse to two more. Simon and me ain't had no proper time away from Serenity." She darted a glance in the direction of the common area. "Just be nice to take a drink or somethin'."

"Drink? It's not even noon."

"But it's almost eighteen hundred for us…" She looked at him hopefully.

"This is business, Mal," Jayne called out from over by the mule. "Why we gotta cart them about?"

Jayne had a point but that was never a factor in swaying Mal's opinion. "What about her?" He nodded his head in the direction of the common area.

"Inara'll watch her," Kaylee said.

"Ain't gonna have your babysitter much longer, you know." Jayne growled. "She's ready to git. Had enough abuse, I 'spect."

Mal glared briefly at Jayne before returning his attention to Kaylee. "You and the doc are welcome to tag along." He smiled an insincere smile before returning his glare to Jayne.

"Ever contemplate the benefits of shutting up, Jayne?" Mal asked. "Might do you a world of good."

********

"After this job, I think we can all breathe a sigh of relief." Zoë stretched out her arms and rolled her head. She had pushed herself harder during her morning regimen in anticipation of the upcoming job. "This works out, I expect Oklahoma'll toss more our way."

"That's good," Inara said.

"That it is." Zoë responded absently. The job would be good in more ways than that. She needed something to shake her awake. A little excitement and death defying actions would not be unwelcome. She stood a little straighter. Defying death was something she was keen on. Sometimes, she caught a look from Jayne as if he thought she might take an opportunity to accidentally become bullet fodder. Never that. Zoë Washburne was a survivor.

A horrible sound tore through the hold startling her. Jayne was messing with the controls that lowered the mule. She frowned, remembering that was usually her duty. She should be over there with them preparing for the job, investigating the mechanical malfunction but she couldn't move.

Feeling outside herself, she watched as Mal and Jayne tried to deal with the faulty mechanism. A feeling of panic flared inside her. Just get through the next ten minutes, she told herself, and then we'll see about then. Ten minute increments. That was how she existed these days.

She felt a touch on her arm. "Then, you'll…"

Zoë had forgotten Inara was there.

"Pay down his debt?" Inara finished quietly.

It took Zoë a few moments to fully grasp Inara's meaning. Oh, yes, she thought, Mal's stupid debt to the lovely Sunny Dae. She really needed to shake this. This fog that swirled about her. Kept her mind from focusing on the task of living. No way would she have allowed Mal to appeal to the likes of Sunny. Captain just had to go and court the attention of another homicidal criminal overlord. Guess life wasn't interesting enough for him.

"Have you mentioned that you know about…that?"

Zoë shook her head. Mentioning implied communication. In the time since Miranda, Zoë had relied on the tried and true fact that she and Mal didn't need to speak to make themselves understood. Inara, like Wash, didn't appreciate that three years deep in the trenches with someone forged a powerful bond. Wash had always figured that Mal purposefully pulled some sort of soldier rank thing on her by not verbally communicating his every thought. It never penetrated his thick skull that Mal didn't tell her things because he knew she already knew. Hell, she could read the Captain far better than even River could.

Simon walked up to them and gave Zoë a tentative smile. Zoë stared blankly at him. Even if she wanted to, she couldn't find a smile, no matter how insincere, to come forth.

"Would you mind keeping an eye on River?" Simon asked Inara.

Zoë's irritation with Simon escalated. He kept parceling out River duty to Inara. Unable to muster the effort needed to censure him for that, she folded her arms and gazed at him steadily. He shifted uncomfortably under her scrutiny.

Inara glanced at Zoë, frowning slightly. "Sure, Simon,"

"Thank you. If the Captain says it's alright, we would like to go to town." He glanced back at Zoë who fixed her gaze on Kaylee up in Serenity's rafters fixing the mule crank.

Silence fell. Were they waiting for her? Zoë refused to respond. Had ten minutes passed already?

"A little time away from Serenity will be nice for you two," Inara finally said.

"I'll let River know." Zoë could feel his relief as he walked away from them toward the common area.

"Do you think you'll ever speak to him again?" Inara asked.

"It's doubtful." Zoë said but there was a sudden teasing glint in her eye.

"Sooner would be better than later."

Zoë sighed; the teasing glint had faded from her eyes. She didn't know how this not speaking thing had taken a hold of her but she couldn't find a way out of it. "Don't know what to say to him. Them."

Inara grinned. "How about this: How are you? Please pass the salt? Lovely weather we're having. Those are all pleasant ways of speaking to people without really saying anything."

Zoë looked over the cargo bay. Mal leaned nonchalantly on a crate pretending not to notice them talking. "And you would be an expert on that." For a moment, she wasn't sure she had uttered the words that popped into her brain. Her brow furrowed; she hadn't meant to say that. Her blossoming friendship with Inara was something she valued and her intention was not bent on insulting her friend.

Inara's open, easy grin faded instantly replaced by the calm, serene look that signaled to Zoë that she was angry. "Am I?"

"You set on leavin' after this?" Zoë asked abruptly. Might as well plunge ahead with this mess she just created.

"I'm having a difficult time explaining my extended leave of absence." Inara replied coolly but kept her gaze steadily on Zoë.

Zoë didn't hear a yes or no in her answer but her interest in pursuing a straight answer from Inara waned. She didn't have the strength to spar with her now. Zoë's eyes met Mal's and she nodded slightly. "Used up all your vacation time, have you?"

"Something like that."

Zoë detected a note in Inara's tone and looked up. "Are you in trouble? Are we causing you even more trouble?"

"No! I can handle the Guild."

Zoë leaned against the railing and studied Inara. She really did appreciate her presence on Serenity the last several weeks. Inara and Kaylee kept things…close to normal. At least they tried to. Tried to bridge the ever widening gap that was threatening the crew. But that should all change with the job. They just needed to get back on their feet and get back to business.

"I'll just feel better about leaving once this job is completed." Inara glanced around the cargo hold.

"Everybody's got to move on. Captain included." A muffled crash emanated from the common area. Zoë rolled her eyes. "Sounds like she's at it again."

"Maybe I better…" She and Zoë exchanged a look. Neither liking the direction their conversation had turned.

She watched Inara gracefully descend the stairs and followed her progress until her eyes met Mal's again. She wasn't mired so much in her own grief that she wasn't aware of what he was thinking and not thinking. But, even as she was, she always had his back. At least she thought so. Maybe she really did need to rethink her stubborn insistence that she could understand his very thought. Like Sunny. She really did need to talk to him about that. Her reading of Mal hadn't included details on the pay schedule. There were other things that needed to be said. Recriminations, apologies, rages… all due to be exchanged but she hadn't the inclination to go down that road with the captain. Not yet, anyway

"All set Zoë?" Jayne called out to her. "Mal's makin' us take squishy and squashy."

"That right?" She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. She decided that with the upcoming activity she could stretch her goal to fifteen minutes. That would give her enough time to get situated on the mule and they would be on their way. She could regroup during the ride to town.

Walking over to the mule, she absently surveyed Jayne's prep job.

"Don't see why we have to cart the doc's useless ass around when we got bona fide business." Jayne said, leaning on the mule pulling at one of his fingernails.

"I ain't complainin' 'bout the doctor's idleness. Way I figure, bored doc is good for us."

"Guess so. Never could abide laziness."

Zoë watched him throw the bit of nail on the floor. "Lazy is not a word I would assign to the doctor."

"Seems to me there's something he could do 'round here."

Folding her arms, Zoë assumed her patented steady gaze, hoping she could still muster it. "And I bet you're thinkin' of offerin' up some of your chores?"

Jayne opened his mouth to reply but then thought the better of it. Whatever her current feelings about the doctor and his sister, she wouldn't tolerate Jayne shifting his ship responsibilities to someone else.

"And," Zoë continued, "I wouldn't go angerin' Kaylee over much. Might find the temperature controls in your bunk on the fritz."

********

The sound of the mule malfunctioning sent River scurrying back to the common area. Sitting on the couch, she rolled a cylinder listlessly over the coffee table while she waited for Simon. It was time for her shot and he was nowhere around. She glared at the cylinder, deducing in all her geniusness that he was with Kaylee. Again. But it was time for her shot. She could have a psychotic episode and who knows what could happen but as long as got time with Kaylee why should he care?

"Did you forget it's time for my shot?" she asked when he finally came in.

"Of course not!" He headed to the infirmary. "I'll just---"

Without a sound, River appeared next to him holding out the shot. "I wasn't sure you would have time so I prepared it myself."

He looked down at it and back up at her. "Was this the one I had from this morning?"

"You don't think I could figure out the proper chemical composition?" She adopted a tone of condescension and gave him her most superior look.

"I don't like keeping the mixture for too long and wanted to make sure you used the one I prepared this morning," he explained, adopting a superior look of his own, winning the superior look contest.

She shrugged and went back to the couch.

"Well, is it?" he called after her.

"Yes!" She slumped on the couch crossing her arms.

Bringing his med kit, he smiled as he sat on the coffee table. His touch was gentle as he administered her shot. "I'm going to town," he told her.

"Am I invited?" she asked rudely, even though she knew the answer.

Simon sighed heavily and closed his eyes. He was well aware that she knew the answer and he also knew she wanted to make him say it. "No, you're not." He looked up at her, reminding her of their father in his sternness.

"That's not very nice is it?"

"It is what it is, River."

"I knew this would happen. Knew that once you and her became—"

Without warning, Simon threw his medkit against the wall. The instruments clattered harmlessly to the floor but created a loud clang that reverberated through the room. River's mouth fell open in shock; she had not seen that coming. She hadn't put up her walls or anything so how had he managed to slip that past her was a mystery.

"River, what do you want from me?" Simon ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "I can't…I just want to go to town with Kaylee. I'm not leaving you behind and it doesn't mean I love you any less. I just want a nice afternoon with her."

"You can't have a nice afternoon with me?"

"Not everything has to be about you."

"Maybe I want to go to town, too." Her lip jutted out in a perfect pout. She didn't have to stay with them, she didn't even want to. She was thoroughly sick of the sight of them.

"No, you don't," Simon said softly as he bent down to pick up his medical instruments. "You want to hide on this ship forever."

Her pout became a frown.

"Is everything alright?" Inara asked before almost tripping over Simon still stooped on the floor.

"Simon doesn't like me anymore," River said.

Inara raised her eyebrow but addressed Simon. "Why don't you get ready? I think they'll be leaving soon." Inara squeezed his arm encouragingly before he went to his bunk.

"Why does he even keep his things there?"

"Such drama, River!" Inara chided but she smiled.

"Why are you smiling?" River asked, suspiciously.

"Because this is the most normal I've ever seen you." She held out a hand to pull River off the couch. "Let's go outside."

As they entered the hold, the Captain fired up the mule. "You two be alright?"

"I'm sure we'll survive being parked in the middle of nowhere." Inara said before turning to River. "Maybe we'll go for a walk?"

"Try not to get lost," Mal said with a smirk.

River looked outside and saw the vast nothingness that she knew surrounded Serenity. "I think that would be impossible." She looked back at the Captain. "You're joking."

Kaylee approached the mule, casting a guilty glance to River. River's eyes narrowed. "I don't know where the goggles are." Her tone was snippy

"Hey!" Jayne exclaimed as he jumped in the back seat. "Thought the mule won't run with five."

"Shut up, Jayne," Zoë growled, climbing in the front seat.

"Won't run with five but she'll walk just fine," Kaylee explained, oblivious to the sudden tension between Mal and Zoë. "Maybe even find a sprint if she's a mind to."

"If we gotta get outta town quick, guess who's gettin' left behind?" Jayne looked at Simon who didn't even bother ignoring him.

"No one's getting left," Mal said. With a lingering look at Inara and a wink to River, he drove off to Barren Break.