River didn't mean to brood, really she didn't. She wasn't one for that sort of thing. But somehow she couldn't help aimlessly wandering from one room to the next, looking for something to do. The ship seemed too quiet, and she was so restless that she couldn't sit still.

"You're up late," Inara's voice startled River out of a chat she was having with Serenity's engines about the power couplings.

River nodded, dark hair tumbling in front of her face. She tucked a strand behind her ear.

"Can't sleep."

Inara smiled sympathetically.

"Do you want some tea?" the Companion asked, hovering in the doorway of her shuttle.

River hesitated, searching out the flavour of Inara's intentions. But she needn't have bothered; the Companion only wanted to comfort her. River accepted, walking into Inara's sanctuary.

The shuttle was a temple to beauty, and Inara the goddess that was worshipped there. Everything was soft and sensual, designed to please every sense. Inara sat gracefully on her couch, and poured steaming tea from a delicate looking teapot. She waved for River to sit next to her.

"You seem sad, Mei Mei."

River shook her head.

"Not sad. Just…" she struggled to categorize her emotions. No, she wasn't sad. Or lonely, particularly. If she wanted someone to talk to, she could always talk to Serenity. But she felt as though something was missing. It wasn't as if she and Spike had spent every minute in each others' company, but she could always reach out and touch his thoughts if she felt the need to. They had been like a gentle, comforting hum in the back of her mind, as familiar as her own thoughts to her now. Their absence created a silence she wasn't sure she liked.

"You miss him," Inara summed up.

There wasn't any point denying it. It was a small ship. There weren't many secrets.

"Said he was coming back," River said.

Inara put her teacup down, and reached out a slender, manicured hand to stroke River's hair. River sighed, and her eyes slid shut at the older woman's comforting, motherly touch.

"Can't sleep. Can't sit. Can't even stand still."

"You've been restless for two days," said Inara. "Ever since Spike left. I've noticed."

River couldn't deny it.

"Can't concentrate on anything," she admitted. "Can't seem to sit still and focus like I used to."

"What did Spike say he was doing?"

River smiled in spite of herself.

"Being a champion," she said. "We have our marching orders and he has his." She opened her eyes and turned to look at Inara's beautiful face. "Nara… how do you know when it's love? The sticking kind, I mean. The forever kind."

Inara ought to know, after all, River reasoned. Inara knew about all kinds of love.

"Love feels different for every person," Inara said, looking thoughtful. "So it's hard to say. But I'd say, the kind of love you're talking about feels like that person is part of you. It feels like when they're gone, half of you is missing."

"That how you felt when you were away from the Captain?" River asked.

Inara's fingers through her hair stopped for a moment, and then resumed.

"Yes, I suppose it was," said Inara. "I shouldn't be surprised that you know about that."

River shrugged, not opening her eyes.

"Can't help hearing what's shouted," she said. "Try not to listen."

"Not your fault," Inara said. Her repetitive motions through River's hair was relaxing, soothing River's ruffled spirit. "Are you in love with Spike?"

"Yes. No. Can't tell," River admitted. "Never been in love before. Can't categorize."

Inara nodded.

"Love is a hard thing to categorize," she agreed. "I don't think you can. It's not something you can reach out and touch, and yet it is a thing, tangible as any other."

"Spike is… is…" River struggled to put her feelings into words. "I feel him. Here," she touched her heart. "And here," she tapped her head. "He doesn't see me as a little girl. He doesn't think I'm broken."

Inara's picked up an ivory-backed hairbrush, and began brushing the tangles out of River's dark hair, starting from the ragged ends and working her way up to the crown of River's head, making the dark tangle into chestnut silk. Each sweep of the brush wiped away a little more of River's anxiety, and she could feel her body relaxing bit by bit.

"I confess I don't quite understand him," Inara said. "He's a very interesting person. He seems like he's carrying around a great sorrow."

"He wants absolution," River said. "I told him that's not something you can earn."

"Perhaps it says something for his character that he tries anyways," said Inara. "If you want my advice, Mei Mei, I'd say take things slowly. Make sure absolutely about your own feelings before you do anything. I know you feel things that other people around you feel, and he cares for you…"

"You're worried I'm feeling his for me, not mine for him," River summed up.

Inara smiled.

"I don't want you to get hurt, little one," she said. "You're my family. And I protect my family. I would hate to have to break Spike's legs."

River giggled at the suggestion of the delicate companion going up against her vampire champion.

"You're just looking out for me, Nara. I know that."

"But are you sure he's… that is to say… Mei Mei, are you sure he's safe?"

River shook her head.

"No. He's not safe. But he's good."

"If you approve of him, then so do I," said Inara. She gave one final sweep of the brush, then put it down. River got up, and impulsively hugged the beautiful companion.

"Think I can sleep now," she said.

Inara smiled, brushing a strand of hair out of River's pale face.

"Goodnight, Mei Mei. Sleep well."

River paused in the doorway to Inara's shuttle.

"Nara? Thank you."

Inara smiled.

"Anytime, River."

Spike hummed under his breath as he walked through the streets the main city of Ibis. Ever since his little rumble with River at the Academy, his blood had been up, and he was spoiling for a fight. So when the Council had sent him the wave, he'd been more than happy to take on the mission they gave him. Being stuck on that flying tin can made his feet itch sometimes. And hopefully he could get it out of his system quick and be back to River for tea time.

He turned a corner and saw what he had been looking for – a man in a long trench coat, his wide straw hat hiding his horns.

"Monty," Spike greeted him.

Spike's contact to the Higher Powers nodded to him.

"Spike. See you managed to pull yourself away from your lady love."

Spike scowled.

"Keep them visions out of my personal life, Monty-boy, and you get to keep those pretty horns of yours on your head where they belong."

Monty smiled, showing sharp pointed teeth that looked shockingly out of place in his otherwise human looking mouth.

"Sticks and stones, vampire," He pushed himself off of the wall, and stubbed out his cigarette. "Coming?"

Spike grunted his assent, and they took off down the street, dodging food carts and customers alike.

"Guess who's back in town?" Monty said, pointing to a large flashing billboard overhead. "Old friends of yours."

Spike groaned.

"Don't they ever die?"

Monty's grin was full of shark-sharp teeth.

"You're one to talk. Besides, we both know the Wolf, Ram, and Hart aren't what you would call 'mortal'."

"Great," Spike mumbled, rubbing a hand over his face. "Just blood great. Wolfram and Hart are setting up shop in this dimension again. No wonder they called me in on this one." Bloody lawyers. This was going to take forever.

Monty shrugged.

"You are the closest thing we have to an expert on them. You defeated them once before, if I remember."

"Sort of," Spike groused. "And it wasn't in a way that I'd like to try again. Only Peaches is that insane." He groaned. "Why me? Couldn't they find some other sucker this time?"

"You're the Higher Powers' whipping boy. I'm just the messenger," Monty reminded him.

"Do I at least get Council backup?" Spike asked. He thought of River, all warm and sleepy in his bed as he'd seen her before he left Serenity, and groaned inwardly. If Wolfram and Hart were involved, it would be a long time before he would be able to share another quiet moment with her again.

"Council man's on his way," Monty said, recalling Spike back to the present. He leaned casually on a grimy wall and grinned. "So I hear you've got yourself a seer."

Spike winced.

"Whole universe know of my business, or just nosy messenger boys?"

Monty chuckled.

"News travels fast, specially when it's as juicy as that. Not every day our resident souled vampires pair with a little slip of a seer. Besides, we saw what you did on Isis. Nice work there, by the way. What'd they do to get your fangs up?"

Spike shrugged.

"River doesn't like em. She wanted my help to take them down, and she asked nice. Besides, they were all around black hats. I trust the Higher Powers doesn't have a problem with me going on a personal vendetta or two in my spare time?"

Monty shrugged.

"We don't exactly chat, remember? It's strictly a one-way communication."

Spike grinned through his teeth.

"Must be fun, bein' their whipping boy."

Monty made a non-committal grunt. He glanced over to the shadow under a large flashing sign.

"Looks like our contact is here."

The watcher detached herself from the shadows as they walked towards her. Spike took a moment to give her a once-over. He may have River now, and all the confusing feelings the slip of a girl brought with her, but that didn't stop him from appreciating a fine woman when he saw one. And this one was very fine. Under her dark coat, she had all the right curves in all the right places. Her face was well-structured, and she would have been beautiful if her dark hair hadn't been pulled back from her face so severely. Almond shaped eyes and dusky skin gave hint to her West Indian descent. She caught Spike's eye and smirked. She had seen his appreciative glance.

"Which one of you is Spike?" she asked, her voice delicately accented.

Monty grinned.

"Don't be fooled by the spikes on my head," he said doffing his straw hat in a show of gallantry. "I'm just the errand boy. He's the vampire you're looking for." He jabbed his thumb in Spike's direction.

Spike stepped forward, leering at the pretty watcher.

"You sure you're up for this rumble, luv?" he asked. "You look like a strong breath of wind would break you in two. The Wolf, Ram, and Hart, they ain't no picnic on a core world, if you take my meaning."

His comment had the desired effect. The watcher drew herself up to her full height, a fiery look springing into her dark eyes.

"This isn't my first scuffle, vampire. I had three years of field experience after I graduated from the Giles Institute."

"So then how'd you get stuck working with me?" Spike asked, allowing a smile to tug at the corners of his mouth.

The watcher gave him a defiant look.

"I volunteered."

Spike shook his head.

"You're either insane, or you're crazy. Wolfram and Hart, they're pure evil followed by a side of deviously sneaky. You sure you're ready for this?"

The watcher raised a delicate eyebrow.

"The question, Mr. Spike, is: are you?"

Spike gave her a wolfish grin.

"Pet, I've been ready for this rumble for a hundred years. I was born ready. Now, let's quit jabbering and go kill us some baddies.

River was in the engine room talking to Kaylee when Mal called her.

"Then you just run the catalyser through the hard water pipes, and…"

River cocked her head, interrupting Kaylee's explanation of how Serenity was still in the air.

"Cap'n wants me," she said.

Kaylee blinked in surprise.

"You can here em all the way from down here?"

River shrugged, getting to her feet in one graceful move.

"He shouted."

She waved goodbye to Kaylee and made her way to the cockpit, where Mal was sitting in Wash's chair. River felt a pang of sadness at the sight. No matter who else used it or how much time had passed, it was still Wash's chair. An essential part of their former pilot still lingered there.
River shook off the sadness creeping into her thoughts, and turned to Mal.

"You called, Cap'n?" River asked.

Mal smirked.

"Someone on the Cortex for you, Albatross."

He got up, pressing the screen as he did so. It jumped to life, revealing a familiar paroxide-dyed blond.

"Spike!" A smile spread across River's face. She felt a well of happiness bubble up inside her as she slid into Wash's chair and leaned towards the screen. Behind her, she heard Mal leaving the cockpit, sliding the door behind him to give them privacy. No doubt he was going straight to Inara's shuttle to listen in on the whole conversation. River didn't mind too much.

"'Ello, Luv," said Spike grinning at her. "Thought I'd call n' see how my girl's getting on."

"Miss you," River said, smoothing her fragile skirt, a hand-me-down from Inara, over her knees. "Miss your thoughts. Miss you beside me in the night. When're you coming back?"

Spike grimaced.

"That's the thing, Luv. I might be gone longer than I thought. Turns out the Big Bad is bigger and badder than previously expected."

River felt a shiver go through the universe, stars and space and planets rumbling as if an earthquake had passed over them. Words came to her, dark, sinister words.

"Wolf. Ram. Hart."

Spike nodded.

"The baddies themselves. So you understand that I might be gone for a good long while."

"More than one white hat can handle," River said. "Could help, fight by your side."

Spike shook his head.

"Las thing I want is them slimy lawyers knowing 'bout a seer of your caliber. Longer you say under the radar, the better."

River frowned. It was a familiar argument. Spike was trying to protect her.

"They made me a weapon," she reminded Spike. "I could be a weapon for good."

"You forget the primary thing about weapons," said Spike. "When they're used up, they get thrown away. I don't want that for you."

"Don't need protecting," River reminded him, her eyes flashing as her temper flared up.

To her immense annoyance, Spike chuckled.

"I ain't shelterin' you, Luv. I know what you can do, remember? I've seen you in action. What I'm sayin' is, this is only the beginning of the game. And it's going to be a long one, if my previous encounters with those slimy buggers are any indication. You're our ace in the hole, our secret weapon. Don't want to show all our cards at once, do we?" Spike sighed, and ran and hand through his gelled hair. "You understand, don't you, River?"

River thought for a moment.

"Got to play your ace some time," she reminded him. "If you need me, call. You know I'll come."

They exchanged a glance, both knowing that she didn't mean on the Cortex.

"I know," said Spike. He held his hand up to the screen, and River pressed her own small fingers to the spot where his were.

"Stay safe," she said.

"Back atcha, Luv," Spike replied. He gave her a cocky grin, the disconnected, the screen going blank.

"I love you," River said to blank screen. She tested the words out on her tongue, weighing them. Perhaps Inara was right, and she was ready to say them. But she wasn't quite ready to say them to him yet.

River sat still in Wash's chair for a moment, her hand still on the screen. Then, she got up, and quietly left the cockpit, closing the door behind her.