It was hot on Ithaca, a sticky unforgiving jungle heat that sat heavily on Serenity's bow. Her cargo bay doors sat wide open, with the atmosphere controls set at maximum, battling uselessly against the encroaching midday sun.
Mal, Jayne and Book had already peeled off sweat-damp shirts as they worked, pulling down crates of apples off their tidy stacks, and carrying them towards the battered farm vehicle that waited patiently at the foot of the gangplank.
Not the best paying job they'd ever had, Mal had admitted, but it was quick and it was legal. And that was something, these days.
Zoe had stripped too, down to a thin white undershirt as she worked alongside the men. Only Simon chose to remain fully covered, the sleeves on his cheap cotton shirt rolled up as he hefted one more crate from the depths of the cargo bay.
"Hey, doc, why so shy?" Jayne taunted him, deliberately jostling Simon as he passed him. "Ain't nobody looking at ya."
"Speak for yourself." Inara's voice drifted smoothly down from the catwalk. She was rewarded with a brief but gentle smile from Simon, as he paused mid-lift and glanced upwards.
"Yeah," Zoe agreed, her expression carefully blank, the way that it always was when she was making a joke. "Speak for yourself, Jayne."
"The doctor probably doesn't want to make anybody jealous," Mal suggested, his boots heavy on the dirt-covered floor as he stepped in from outdoors.
"It's right thoughtful of him, come to think about it," Book added.
Jayne scowled. "Hey, 'Nara," he called up to the catwalk. "You just gonna sit there looking pretty and watching us work all day?"
Inara smiled. Her feet dangled easily from the edge, underneath dark red skirts. She sat just beyond the reach of the sun, in peaceful shade. "No," she said. "I was thinking of breaking for lunch soon."
Pressed against her, curled into a ball with her head on Inara's shoulder, River giggled. Inara tangled two fingers in the girl's hair, in a slow distracted gesture.
"Worked hard enough last night?" Jayne suggested, and then staggered sideways into a stack of apple crates as Simon bumped into him.
"Sorry," Simon said, innocently.
"Gorram watch where you're going," Jayne growled.
"Jayne." Mal spoke between heavy breaths, on his way out of the ship again with another heavy box. "You talking, or working?"
Jayne glared, and fell silent.
Inara continued to watch them work. Watching Simon most of all, as he fell into a steady rhythm of labour with the others. He found himself helping out more often these days, as Serenity found itself more honest work, staying under the Alliance radar and out of trouble. It only made sense, when as Mal pointed out, there were boxes to move and not a wound in sight that needed stitching.
He was developing calluses on his fingers, on hands that had been so perfectly smooth when they had first met. She liked the sensation of them between her own hands, the feel of the hard day's work that had calmed and relaxed him. Inara wondered idly how that would feel, to have an entire day's strain heavy on every muscle in her body, the certainty of earning one's keep. She watched Simon working, and she smiled.
"Captain," she called out suddenly, "how much for a crate for these apples?"
Mal looked up at her curiously. "Don't know. Reckon I can ask. You buying?"
"Why not?" Inara asked, with her fingers still in River's hair, absorbing the even rise and fall of her breathing. Wide bright eyes followed each movement down below. "I imagine someone around here might enjoy them."
She was graced with another small smile from the cargo bay. Simon's mouth was hidden in shadow from the sun.