"You sure these caves are the right ones?" Mal asked, looking at the dark entrance skeptically. "I'd hate to go to all this trouble for the wrong place."
"I'm sure," Zoe replied tersely. "Ain't any caves like them for a hundred miles in any direction."
"Ok then. Unload the cargo."
It took Jayne three trips on the mule to unload the heavy crates.
"Why we have to take 'nother shipment a' wobbly headed dolls?" he grumbled. "Why can't we haul somethin' dignified? Ain't fittin' for a hard-bitten criminal like myself to be smugglin' geisha dolls."
"We're in need of supplies," Simon said, his shirt sleeves rolled up and his muscles straining as he lifted a crate off the bed of the mule. "We have to take what we can get. Jobs haven't exactly been plentiful since…"
He let his sentence hang in the air. It had been almost six months since Miranda, and things still hadn't picked up for the crew of Serenity.
Jayne muttered under his breath.
"Ain't fittin'," he repeated, but he continued to unload the crates into the cave.
"So, what's the plan for this wobbly headed doll caper?" Inara asked Mal, shading her face with her hand.
"We store the merchandise here, then wait for our buyer to show. Then we get paid. Nice and simple like," answered Mal.
"Hopefully we get paid," Inara amended.
"Don't see you complainin' when you eat the food this money buys," Mal shot back.
"Oh, there's always something to complain about the food," Inara retaliated.
The two smiled at each other.
Janye reached for the last crate.
"Hop down, Moonbrain," he instructed.
Gracefully, River jumped off the last crate, where she had been perched for the ride, and brushed the dust off her skirt.
"Better a brain in the moon than none at all," she said as she walked past the mercenary.
"Gotcha there, Jayne."
River drifted into the mouth of the cave, examining it with interest. She peered into the gloom of the cave, which seemed to stretch a long way back.
"We should drop a stone into it and see how deep it goes," she commented to Mal.
"I'll keep that in mind, Albatross," Mal said mildly. "Meantime, where's that contact of ours?"
"Sir," said Zoe, alerting her captain to the dot on the horizon. Soon, they heard the familiar whine of an engine, and saw the dust it was kicking up.
"Bout time," Mal grunted.
Their contact turned out to be several burly men under the direction of a tall, dark haired woman.
"Reynolds," she greeted him, coolly.
"Parker," Mal replied.
"You got the goods?"
"You got the money?"
Both leaders considered each other, sizing each other up. Parker seemed to like what she saw, because she smiled, relaxed her stance, and pulled a heavy sack of coins off her belt.
"They're already in the cave," Mal said.
"Boys, let's inspect the merchandise," she said to her hired goons.
The interior of the cave was dimly lit. One of the goons pulled out a light-stick, activating it with a sharp shake. It lit up a few meters of the cave, as well as the neatly stacked boxes. Parker opened one, inspecting the wobbly geisha doll. She shook it so that its head wobbled, grinning.
"I love these things," she said. "Look at the way they wobble!"
"You think you can fence 'em?" Mal asked.
"Wouldn't be offerin' you money if I didn't," Parker replied. She grinned again, and tossed Mal the bag of coins.
"All yours, Reynolds."
"Pleasure doing business with you," Mal said.
"Alright, boys," called Parker to her goons. "Time to pack up."
Her goons surged forward.
"Seems to me you're a little premature in that, pet," said a voice from the darkness. A light flared to life, along with the sharp smell of tobacco.
The sound of guns cocking filled the small space. Parker sighed.
"Still chasing me, Spike?"
"Always luv," said the voice. Into the light stepped a singular man – bleached blond hair, skin so pale it was almost white, black clothing, and a long black leather coat. He had a dangerous air about him. "Been looking for you a long time, Eva Parker," he said. "Imagine finally catching up with you on this hunk of space rock."
"You must have been waiting for me here a long time," Parker said. "It's blazing sunlight outside."
"I had a tip you'd be coming here."
Parker glared at Mal.
"Not him!" Spike snapped. "I've never seen that bloke before. No, someone a little higher up the food chain who doesn't like the human trafficking business you've got going on the side."
"You don't scare me, Spike," Parker spat.
Spike took a step forward, so that he was more visible in the dim light. The shadows cast played eerily with the sharp planes of his face, making him seem more dangerous than before. He took a final drag of his cigarette, then threw it on the ground, crushing it under his heel.
"I should," he said menacingly.
Parker's gun was leveled at his head in two seconds flat.
"You know that wouldn't kill me, luv."
"No, but I bet it would hurt enough to make you regret chasing me all this way."
"I'd never regret that," Spike said, with a touch of bitterness in his voice. "My marching orders come from higher up than you."
"Ok," drawled Mal. "Well I can see that this is a fight that I got no part of. I've got my money, so I'm just gunna leave now." He was edging towards the entrance.
"You do that," said Spike. "My quarrel's not with you. Only with dear Eva here. The Higher Powers don't care about your little smuggling operation."
"Glad to hear it," muttered Mal. "I'll just be on my way now."
Spike glanced at a dark corner of the cave, where a pair of curious eyes watched him.
"Don't forget your…" He twitched his hand to indicate the corner where River was standing.
Parker, misinterpreting his actions, fired her gun. Spike dove out of the way, and the bullet ricocheted off the stone walls. Old and crumbling beams began to loosen, and rock to tremble. River realized what was going to happen a few seconds before it did.
"Cave in!" she shrieked, darting forward towards the entrance to the caves. A large piece of rock fell from the ceiling, smashing into her head. The last thing she saw was the cave floor rushing up.
River came to slowly. Everything hurt, but especially her head. It throbbed with a constant pain that she hadn't felt since her days at the Academy. She opened her eyes, but it was pitch dark. She knew she wasn't alone, though. She could hear him thinking in the cave with her. She stirred, attempting to sit up.
"Oh good," said the strange accent of the one called Spike. "You're awake." There was a shaking sound, and a light-stick ignited, lighting up his face. "Morning, sunshine."
River stared at him in amazement. The things she could see in his head!
"You think so loud," she said to him.
"Everyone's always telling me that."
River glanced around her, at the walls of the cave, at the completely blocked cave entrance. Around them were scattered the remains of the crates, and various pieces of wobbly headed geisha dolls. Slumped on the floor was one of Parker's goons.
"I hope you don't mind," Spike said. "He was dead already, so I sort of drained him. Not sure how long we're going to be in here, and I don't fancy going around the bend. I'm not fun when I'm crazy."
"You drank his blood," River stated.
Spike didn't seem embarrassed.
"You need his blood. It nourishes your body like food does mine. Your food is problematic."
"Aren't you afraid that I'm going to drink you dry as well?" Spike asked, looming closer to her.
River shook her head.
"I can see your soul. It shines out as bright as the sun," she said.
Spike smiled mockingly.
"Ta, luv," he said.
"You're a fairy tale construct," River told him, sitting up and rubbing her head. She could feel a large goose egg forming. She was lucky that was all it was. "You don't exist."
"I'm a vampire," said Spike matter of factly. "An old one. And you're a seer. I can feel you, poking around in my head. Not polite, you know, looking in drawers without permission."
"Can't control it," River admitted. "Went in and cut out. Can't stop it."
"I understand. Known a few seers. Most of 'em can't control it. What's your name, girl?"
"William," River corrected.
Spike tapped the side of his head.
"Get outta there," he said. But his tone wasn't angry, only slightly amused. He stood up, slinging a pack of his shoulder as he walked to her. "You alright to stand?"
River tried to get to her feet, and was overcome with a wave of dizziness. Spike grabbed her arm, holding her steady.
"Woah there girly. I gotcha," Spike said.
"We're lost in the dark," River whispered, looking around them. "Two moles in a burrow."
"Far as I know, these caves go on a good long while," Spike said. "There's no moving those rocks, I tried while you were out. And I'm stronger than your average superhero. As I figure it, if we stay here, we'll die for sure. Or rather, you will. I'll just go crazy. If we try to find another way out, we've got a chance. Your call."
River looked at the dark cave stretching back into oblivion, and then at Spike's lit face.
"Small chance is better than none," she said.
They set off.
They walked for hours. In order to conserve the light source, they turned it off, so the walk was in a darkness so profound that nothing could be seen. They were alone in the dark.
River didn't like the dark. It made her feel as if things were going to creep up on her.
"I can see just fine," Spike assured her. "Hold my hand and see through me, pet."
So River let him lead her through the dark passages.
"Do you know where we're going?" she asked.
"No idea," said Spike with a shrug. "But I know that the air is still here. Till we get to moving air, we're still in trouble."
The pitch dark began to get to River. Even though her eyes were open, it was like they weren't. She clung to Spike's hand like a small child, twitching at every footfall.
"You alright, luv?" Spike asked, when she jumped at nothing.
"See things that aren't there," River whispered. "Your head, my head. Hard to tell. So many images." She sighed, and shook her head as if to clear it. "Hard time distinguishing between fantasy and actuality. Simon calls it a psychotic break with reality."
"Who's Simon then?" Spike asked. "And why does he get to say those things about you?"
"Simon is my brother," River explained. "He's also a doctor. Top three percentile of his class, worked in a hospital on Osiris. Till he had to come find me."
As they had nothing else to keep them occupied, River found herself telling Spike everything. There didn't seem to be much sense in holding back. He was a myth, so why not tell him fantastical tales?
"I saw the Miranda wave," Spike said, with a shudder. "Bloody awful stuff, even for me, and I travelled with the Scourge of Europe for a hundred years."
"They looked out into the blackness of space and went mad," River quoted softly.
"More than that," Spike made an annoyed sound in the back of his throat. "I try not the get involved in politics, because when you live as long as me you know better. But really, I thought humans would change. You go to the stars, and you don't change at all."
"There's evil in the hearts of men," River said softly. "Evil always there."
"I know it better than most," replied Spike quietly.
They walked on in silence for a long time. River walked with her eyes closed, since it didn't seem to matter which she did, the darkness was so deep. It made it easier to watch the way through Spike's eyes, in that strange black-and-white night vision he seemed to have. But this also meant that she would catch his errant thoughts and memories. She was so caught up in a certain memory involving a violent fight on Circe with a couple of gangsters that she didn't see the stone lying in her way, and tripped.
Spike's arms automatically shot out, stopping her from falling flat on her face.
"Watch your step!" he said, wrapping his arms around her and setting her upright.
"Thank you," River breathed. It was a strange feeling, arms around her like this. It was a feeling she had never experienced. A feeling she wasn't equipped to deal with. It made her heart race and her breath come in short.
"You alright, luv? You're shaking," Spike said.
"I'm fine," River said.
He took her hand securely in his again, and they continued walking.
River was carefully rationing her food. There had been protein bars and dried fruit in the pack that Spike had taken off the goon he had drained, as well as a few more light-sticks and a canteen of water. She was careful with all of them. The light-sticks she only used when they made camp for the night, and she took small bites of the protein bars.
She had lost all sense of time. She wasn't sure how many days they had been travelling. Might have been only a couple; might have been a week. All she knew was all consuming darkness and putting one foot in front of the other, fatigue and hunger and the cadence of Spike's voice, the flavour of his thoughts.
They talked sometimes, and sometimes she listened as he thought. He didn't seem to mind her playing inside his head. Said he was used to it, would say all his thoughts aloud anyways if he could. It didn't seem to matter anyways. In the darkness all there was to do was talk. She told Spike everything – the Academy, Simon, Serenity, the way they cut into her brain and took away her innocence.
"That's a horrible thing to do to a girl," Spike said, sounding angry. "Right. First thing I do when we get out of this hole in the ground, I'm going after these Academy blokes."
"Can't," River said, "They go high and deep and wide. Higher and deeper than you."
"I'm not afraid of any Alliance stooges," Spike reminded her. "I predate the Alliance. Anyone who does things like that to someone like you… they deserve what's coming to them."
"They're not hunting me any more," River said thoughtfully. "I've already done my worst."
"The Miranda wave," Spike summed up.
In the dark, River nodded, knowing that Spike's superior vampire senses would pick the movement up.
"Miranda. I thought that was the worst humanity could do to each other."
Spike gave a dry chuckle.
"When you've lived as long as I have, luv, nothing surprises you any more. Especially not evil."
They walked until River began to tire. When she felt as though she would fall if she took another step, they sank down to the floor of the cave, their backs against the wall.
"Close your eyes," Spike instructed.
River screwed her eyes shut against the sudden harsh light. It was only the light-stick, but after hours of utter and complete darkness, even its small glow was a shock to her eyes. Slowly she allowed herself to acclimatize to it, opening her eyes again by degrees.
Finally, she opened her eyes fully. The light from the stick cast a strange glowing reflection on the sharp angles of Spike's face. His defined cheek bones, his high forehead, his icy blue eyes.
"Here," he said. He fished in the satchel, and pulled out a nutrient bar. It was half eaten.
"How many more?" River asked.
"You've got plenty," Spike lied. But his thoughts were troubled.
"Don't lie. I'll find out the truth anyways," River reminded him.
"Won't you please let me protect you?"
"Not a little girl any more," River argued. "Simon still sees me as a little girl, as his mei mei. But I'm not. I'm nineteen soon. Isn't that old enough to know the truth?"
"You're right," Spike said, with a sigh. "You're not a girl, you're a woman. I'm sorry. I just wish…" he shook his peroxide-dyed head. "Two bars. We have two bars left. That's four more days, five if we push it."
"Water?" River asked.
Spike shook his head.
"Two more days only."
Two more days, thought River. Her life consisted of two more days.
It was no good. No matter which way she turned, River was uncomfortable. The floor of the cave was rocky, and sharp stalagmites stuck up all over it. Spike had cleared a spot as best he could for her, but there was no place she could get comfortable.
River turned over again.
"It's no use, luv," Spike said.
"I didn't mean to wake you," River replied.
"With all that tossing and turning? You would have woken up an elephant. Come here."
River's eyes were useless, but in their absence, her sense of hearing, her attunement to her companion, had grown strong. Even in the darkness, she knew exactly where Spike was. Moving a few feet, River found him with his back against the stone wall of the cave.
Spike stretched out his legs.
"Put your head in my lap, luv," he said.
"You won't get any sleep," she murmured. "Not sitting up."
"Vampire," he reminded her. "Don't need as much sleep as you do. Now come here."
River felt a rush of gratitude towards the vampire, mixed with a feeling that she couldn't categorize. It was hot and dizzying and confusing. She inched towards him, putting her head tentatively in Spike's lap.
Spike shrugged out of his long leather coat, and draped it over River, so that she wouldn't be cold.
"You go to sleep now," Spike murmured. "When you wake up we'll keep walking. I think I hear water running. It's very far away, but we'll probably reach it by tomorrow."
His hand gently stroked her hair in a soothing motion, and River felt her eyelids getting heavy.
They were still stranded in a collapsed cave, with perhaps no way out. She still only had a day's worth of water left. They were perhaps going to die. But right at that moment, River felt safe.
The sound of water was the most beautiful thing River had ever heard. The chatter of a running stream sounded more beautiful than the most soul-stirring symphony that River's parents had ever taken her to. It pounded in her ears, even drowning out Spike's ubiquitous thoughts.
"Maybe we're not going to die after all," Spike said cheerfully.
"Did you think we were?" asked River, smiling.
"Nah," answered Spike. "We're pretty hard to kill, you and me."
"Ain't no power in the 'verse can stop us," River agreed.
The stream, when they got to it, was small and icy cold. But River didn't care. She had drunk the last drop from her flask hours ago, and thirst burned in her throat. The tunnel widened out a little, with flat ground between them and the stream. River ran forward with a cry of delight, dropping to her knees and scooping the water up with her hands, letting it run down her filthy arms and over her dusty face. She laughed with the delight of it, the taste and the feeling.
Spike was laughing too.
"You're a mess," he teased.
River, looking through his eyes, had to agree.
"So are you," she replied.
"You can't see me."
River reached over, touching a wet finger to his cheek.
"I can feel you," she replied.
Spike cleared his throat.
"Yeah, well, what I feel is wet." He reached his hand into the stream, and splashed her, eliciting a shriek of protest from River. She splashed him back, and it didn't stop until both were soaked and out of breath from laughing. At least, River was out of breath.
They both washed as best they could in the small stream, washing away many days' worth of dirt and grime.
Spike pulled a small packet out of his pocket.
"Do you mind if I use your flask?" he asked. "I'll wash it out afterwards."
River glanced at his mind, and knew instantly what he was going to do.
"Wash it thoroughly when you're done," she warned.
"Yeah, yeah," Spike grumbled. He filled the flask with water, then ripped open the packet and poured half the powder into the flask. He shook it well, and then drank it down in one gulp.
"What does it taste like?" River asked.
"Like chalk," Spike said, making a face. "But it's got all the essential vitamins and minerals for a growing vampire such as myself. Powdered blood. Gotta love progress."
"You're not still growing, are you?" River asked.
"Wouldn't you like to know," Spike teased.
River felt her face flush.
"Are you going to rinse that out?" she asked.
"Huh?" Spike glanced down at the flask in his hand. "Oh. Yeah. Right." He rinsed the flask out well, and refilled it with water.
River took another long drink, and then they set off again.
"We'll just follow the water," said Spike. "The water'll find a way to get out, and so will we."
His wet hand found River's, holding on to it above her damp sleeve.
"We're going to get out of this, luv," he said. And for the first time, River believed him.
They followed the water. As it went along, their tiny trickle became a larger and larger stream. Soon it took up the entire passageway, and they were forced to wade. It was lucky for them that as yet, it seemed to be shallow, if cold.
"We're just going to follow the little stream that could. It's getting bigger, it's got to get out of this cave some time. Soon it'll be a river, River," Spike said, chuckling at his own joke.
River rolled her eyes.
"You couldn't come up with better than that?"
"I'm working on powdered blood here. So sue me."
They lapsed into silence, the only sound the splashing that accompanied each step they took, and the echoes as the sound reverberated on the cave walls.
"Will you leave, when we get out of here?" River asked, suddenly.
Spike blinked at the sudden topic change.
"Go away. Off to wherever they send you. Will you go?"
"Do you want me to go?" Spike asked.
River thought about it for a moment.
His hand in hers was wet and cold, but it was comforting. River thought that perhaps she could live her whole life with his hand in hers. Which made it worse when he pulled his hand away. River felt the loss instantly.
"River, I… I don't think this is a good idea."
River could hear it in his thoughts before he spoke.
"That's no excuse," she whispered. "That girl, she hurt you. But I wouldn't."
"I loved her very much."
River saw her in his thoughts. She was the complete opposite of River – blond, peppy, sarcastic. Somehow older and more mature than her years. River felt his love for his girl, his willingness to die for her. His heartbreak when she chose another. His desire to shield himself from that kind of hurt again.
"It was a long time ago," Spike said softly. "And my heart mended. But it still feels the ache sometimes. I'd be afraid… River, luv, I don't want to hurt you like that. I'm a lot older than you. A lot older. And I'm a vampire."
"And I'm a broken doll," said River. "But I know what I feel."
She stopped walking, turning to face him in the dark. She pressed her hand against his chest.
"I've never felt this way before," she whispered.
Spike turned away from her, began walking again.
"You're confused. We've been trapped here, together, for so long. What you're feeling, it's fear and gratitude and relief at still being alive. That's all."
River shook her head. That wasn't it at all. He didn't understand.
"I've died before," she said. "At the Academy. On Miranda. Pieces of me died. Reevers and Alliance and bounty hunters. I know what afraid feels like. This is…" she didn't have the words to describe it.
"Not the same, luv. Not the same as knowing you were going to die, and then not."
River cocked her head to one side, peeping into his mind.
"You feel it, too."
"Get out of my head, seer!" Spike said, harshly. The splashing of his feet became louder as he attempted to put some distance between himself and River.
"Can't," said River firmly. "Can't help hearing what's being shouted. Spike, stop."
Spike stopped walking, waited with a helpless air as River caught up to him. She stood in front of him, looking up at where she knew his face was. She barely came up to his shoulders.
"I hear you," River said. "I know you. I've spent all these hours in the dark hearing nothing but your thoughts. I know what you know. I feel what you feel." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Am I feeling this, or are you?"
"We both are," Spike admitted. He sighed, and ran a hand through his unruly curls, long since fallen out of their gelled prison. "Bloody woman. What have you done to me?"
It was absurd, really. Both were filthy and soaking wet. They were both hungry and tired and alone in the pitch dark with no one but each other. But none of those things mattered. River rose up on her toes, and Spike inclined his head, and they met somewhere in the middle, their lips brushing in a soft kiss, as gentle and caressing as a butterfly's wing. River closed her eyes, savouring the feeling. She had never been kissed before. It made her feel light as air, like she would float away, if Spike's arms weren't holding her to the ground.
No one could blame her for wanting more. She had never felt anything like this before. She wrapped her arms around Spike's neck, and pulled him down, kissing him again. This kiss was different. It was full of heat and passion and a promise of… what exactly? River didn't know. But the echo of Spike's thoughts told her he did. And he wanted it as much as she did.
"River," Spike whispered. His voice was rough with emotion. "I…"
River put a finger to his lips.
"I know," she whispered.
"I wish I could…"
"Shhhh," River interrupted him suddenly. She could hear something. Something beyond Spike's thoughts, and the pounding of her own heart. Another mind. She could hear another mind.
"Someone else is here," she said, her voice filled with excitement. "Spike, there's a way out!"
Spike's mind shifted gears at a lightning pace.
"Come on!" he said.
Together, they splashed through the water.
"Can you see it?" Spike breathed. "Can you see?"
River closed her eyes, and looked through his. Through his vampire eyes, she could see it – a speck of light ahead in the distance.
"Light," she whispered. And then louder. "Light!"
Spike hugged her, picking her up and joyously swinging her around.
"Light! River, luv, we're getting out of here!"
The passage was wide enough now that they were able to scramble up the bank of the river and walk on dry land. It was a relief to walk on something solid.
It took several hours to get to the light. River was exhausted in half the time.
"I'll carry you, if you get too tired," Spike offered.
River shook her head.
"Want to walk out of here on my own two feet," she explained. "Want the cave to know I didn't die."
Spike nodded his head.
"I understand that."
So he didn't complain when she slowed the pace down just a little.
The light ahead of them grew and grew, until even River's weaker eyes could see it. The thoughts got louder, though they were a muddle of emotions and wordless thoughts. He was panning for gold. He wasn't supposed to be there.
And then River could see it. An opening in the cave. A starry sky. She laughed with delight, clapping her hands together like a small child.
"Oy, you there!" Spike called. "You up ahead!"
Silhouetted against the stars, a man turned.
"Who's there?" he called, lifting up a lantern.
River shielded her face from the sudden, intense light.
"Mind putting that away?" Spike said. "Our eyes are a little bit sensitive."
"Did you come from in there?" the man asked.
"All the way through."
"Impossible. There's miles and miles of cave."
"Long walk," Spike said. "Do you have something to eat? The girl's exhausted. Oh, and can we use your link to the Cortex?"
It took Serenity two hours and fourteen minutes to get to where they were. River counted every second. Simon's voice was weak with relief when he answered her wave.
"Mei Mei? River? Is that really you?"
"I'm me, Simon," she said, smiling at his face. She touched the screen lovingly.
"Where you been?" Mal demanded in the background. "We've been searchin' darn near the whole planet for you, Albatross."
"Got through the caves," said River. "Sending you my coordinates now."
She punched in the coordinates the gold panner had provided her with.
"Got 'em," said Mal
River tears creep into her voice.
"Come get me?" she asked.
"We're goin' right now," Mal assured her. "Liftin' off right this second."
"Don't worry, River," assured Simon. "We're coming to get you."
The screen went blank as she ended the wave.
A tear trickled down River's cheek. She hadn't cried before. Before, she had had to be strong, to concentrate on not dying. Now, there was no need. She didn't have to be brave now. Staring at the darkened screen, River felt another tear roll down her cheek, then another.
"Don't cry, luv," said a familiar and comforting voice. River turned into him, letting him hold her.
"I don't understand women," Spike said into her hair. "You face life or death situations and you're hard as nails. No water? No problem. We'll get out of it. Keep calm and carry on. Your family comes for you, and you start with the waterworks."
"Fear was holding me together before," River whispered. "Now nothing's holding me together."
"I'm holding you," Spike pointed out.
And he was.
River stood outside under the star studded sky as Serenity made her touchdown. The gold panner had long ago taken off, along with the satchel and its contents that had kept her alive for so long. His reward for his help. Spike hung back near the cave entrance, as if he was afraid of open spaces. But River was standing still under the sky, soaking in the feeling of big and wide and open.
As soon as Serenity touched down, and almost before the cargo hold opened, Simon was out, running towards her.
"River!" he shouted.
River gave a strangled cry of joy, and ran towards him, flinging herself into her brother's arms. They embraced tightly, as if to reassure each other that they were actually there, together.
Simon finally pulled away, taking her by the shoulders and shaking her lightly.
"Don't you ever do that to me again," he said.
By this time the hold was open, and the rest of Serenity was coming towards them. River hugged Kaylee and Inara, and received a gruff "glad you're alright," from Mal. Even Jayne looked happy to see her.
But while the reunion was going on, River couldn't help glancing over at the entrance to the cave, at a tall, lithe figure wreathed in shadow.
"How'd you get out anyhow?" Jayne asked. "We thought you were a goner."
Kaylee elbowed him in the ribs.
"Well, we did," he defended himself.
"Not that we ain't glad you survived, River," said Zoe, "But we're all mighty curious as to how."
"Spike," said River.
"What's a Spike?" asked Inara.
"The crazy guy with the gun back at the deal gone wrong?" Mal asked.
But River wasn't listening. She hadn't been answering their question, she had been calling to him. Breaking away from the group, River walked towards him, her hands outstretched.
"Spike," she said again. "Please."
"Nah, luv. You go play happy family," Spike answered. "I don't want to ruin that."
"Please," River said.
Spike looked away, then back up at her.
"Don't give me that look," he said. "Like I just kicked your puppy."
She was within reaching distance of him now. Her hands were still outstretched.
"Come with me," she begged. "Please, Spike."
Spike shook his head.
"I don't belong on a floating sardine can, pet. You know that."
But River could feel his hesitation. It gave her courage. She knew what to say.
"Just for a little while. I need you."
It was a low trick, playing on his need to be the hero, to rescue the damsel.
Spike looked at her face, then down at her hand. Then, he chuckled.
"You know how to wring a bloke's heart, pet. Even when he hasn't got one."
"You have a heart, Spike," River assured him. "I feel it."
He slipped his hand into hers, entwining their fingers.
River favoured him with a breathtaking smile.
"Come and meet my family," she said, pulling him back to the watching group. Everyone was looking at her curiously, and Simon's face was an interesting shade of purple.
River turned to Mal.
"Permission to come aboard, Captain?" she asked.