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Shadows Underneath

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Summary: Inara's plea for help for herself and her - strangely familiar - associates draws the crew of Serenity into yet more complications.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Firefly > GeneralbernadetteFR18411,14002210,09127 Dec 0927 Aug 10No

A Sour Enterprise

Mal, Simon and Kaylee were heading towards the medbay, River still in Mal's arms, when Jayne's shout drew their attention to the cargo hold. Mal left Kaylee to watch over River, dumping her on the couch, and ran with Simon to see what was wrong with Jayne.

Jayne was already backing away from the open ramp, unlit cigar clamped between his teeth. He looked over as Mal and Simon clattered in and relief flashed on his face.

"C'mon, Mal, tell me I ain't dreamin'." He pointed into the half-lit night.

"Say what?" Mal looked out and swore, then spun to hit the panel that killed the overhead lights in the hold. Without the glare behind them, the three men could clearly see the fight moving their way. There were maybe ten men in the baggy pants, tight shirts, and weapons harnesses of soldiers, and another five on the ground, unconscious or dead. Two shapes at the center of the crowd, a man and a woman, were wearing the tunics and narrow trousers of desk-jockeys. And Inara, running at the three on Serenity.

"Mal! I need your help!" She was breathing hard when she met them, eyes wide and panicked, her tight, low-cut black top and loose red trousers hanging oddly, as if the silk were stiff with something. And then there was the sword strapped to her back.

Mal drew a breath and looked her over: the drying spray of blood on the side of her face, the rents in shirt and trousers that hinted at slashes in the skin beneath. "What do you need?"

She let out a quick sigh, tension bleeding from her. "Transport off-world for as many of us as make it. This whole enterprise has gone sour."

"Enterprise?" Simon asked, but Mal waved him silent.

"How many?"

"Four, plus Rae and I. The other three are coming from the shuttle." She winced. "We'll pay for that, of course."

"Uh, 'Nara?" Jayne's voice was uncharacteristically hesitant and they all turned to follow his gaze to where the two non-soldiers - with battle-axes? - were taking care of the last of their opponents. "Who are these folks?"

Inara blanched as the larger of the two staggered, falling heavily against his companion. She rushed out to meet them, Mal following after direction Simon to ready the infirmary with a grunt and tilt of his head. Jayne stayed on the ramp, gun drawn, scanning the shadows for any threat. He tenses as one of the shadows moved, relaxing only slightly when Rae stepped out into the dull glow of Serenity's exterior lighting.

Rae was as tall as Zoe, her body designed to carry a lot of muscle. She moved with all the grace of a trained companion, now transmuted into the light, prowling shuffle of a fighter.

Jayne blinked at her outfit, her usual rich gowns replaced by dark denim trousers and a close-fitting, long-sleeved black shirt. Her face and hands shone pale as her body blended into the half-light.

"They make it back?" She asked, voice raspy with wear.

He looked her over, marking the long knife strapped to her thigh and the empty scabbard, almost to her knee, at her belt. "'Nara's over there," he gestured with his chin.

Rae turned and flinched; Mal and the female fighter had the male braced between them, almost dragging them back to the ship. Rae called out, "Inara?"

The companion, leading the others, looked up and flashed a smile. "Clear!" She called. "Situation normal."

"All fucked up," Rae finished under her breath.She then turned and addressed the shadows at the side of the ship. "You heard the lady, let's walk before the second wave hits!"

Mal was close enough to hear her clearly and grunted with displeasure. "Second wave?"

A short blonde in another of the pale blue tunic-and-tights ensembles, this one significantly dirtier, answered him as she stepped out onto the ramp. "Figure of speech. Teams three and four are locked in, and team five is offworld. Two and one are taken care of. We're good, for now. You need help?" She asked the taller brunette who was helping him carry the now-unconscious man. The brunette rolled her eyes.

"You're short, Buff. If you haven't hit your growth-spurt yet, you ain't gonna."

The blonde shrugged. "Just offering."

By this point Inara was leading them into the medbay, where Simon had prepped both the exam and side beds. River had woken up, and she and Kaylee were standing in the lounge, Kaylee anxiously wringing her hands. Zoe was setting up to assist Simon, but she moved out of the way as Mal and the woman lowered the unconscious man to the exam bed and glared at the short blonde until she moved enough that Zoe could hit the comm button with her elbow.

"Wash, baby, we got guests. Lots of injuries, one bad."

"Crew okay?" Was asked, concern evident in his tone.

Mal nudged Zoe aside. "'Nara's nicked, but nothin' the doc can't handle. How long to prep for takeoff?"

"We leavin' the shuttle, sir?" Zoe asked.

"Inara's gonna buy me a new one," he smirked. "Wash?"

"With no external comms, no checklist, and no clearance? We can break atmo in thirty."

Mal nodded. "We'll get her closed up, then." He stuck his head out into the lounge. "Kaylee, best see to your girl."

Kaylee nodded shortly and headed up the stairs. River trailed behind for a moment, then turned to look over her shoulder. "No violence until I get back," she warned.

Mal shook his head and turned back into the medbay. Simon and Zoe were blocking his view of the man on the bed, though Simon's tense back and Zoe's set jaw didn't say good things about the situation. The tall brunette girl was helping Inara onto the second bed, careful of her injuries. He finally noticed that the back of her tunic was dark with blood.

"Um, tall girl..." He trailed off when she turned and winked at him.

"Don't worry, I'm next."

He just nodded at her and left, somewhat dazed by events, to seal off the cargo hold. The little blonde fell into step beside him.

"I'm Buffy. Thanks for this. The other girl's Dawn, my sister. The guy who passed out is Xander; he's -"

"Your brother?" Mal asked, turning slightly towards her.

"Only where it counts," she smiled and tapped her fingers over her heart. "You're about to meet Spike."

He raised an eyebrow at her and she nodded toward the ramp where Jayne, still wary, was watching Rae help a short-ish pale guy with ice-white hair up the ramp. He had a cut at his hairline, and was walking funny, but didn't seem in too much pain.

"Spike!" Buffy yelped and rushed to him, glaring at Jayne as she passed. "You couldn't help?"

He growled. "I look like a doctor to you, shorty?"

Spike snorted and Buffy just rolled her eyes, easing under Spike's other arm. "What happened? I thought you were doing that secure-the-perimeter dealie."

Spike sneered at her. "The end result of which is often a fight."

"And you got hurt?" She asked, incredulous.

"You know how much harder it is not to kill people?" He asked. "Set me down here. And fix my knee."

"Yes, your mewlishness," Rae muttered under her breath as she and Buffy helped him to the couch in the lounge.

"None of that, missy," he scolded, waving a finger in her face. She snapped her teeth at him, causing Mal to chuckle.

All three looked at him as if they had forgotten he was there, and Buffy used Spike's distraction to pull a knife from somewhere and slit his pants from mid-thigh. She frowned at the sight of his knee, extra bulges marking an obvious dislocation.

"Ouch," she murmured, running her fingers over the sprung kneecap and the displaced bone-ends, getting a feel for what had to be fixed. "Ass on the floor, old man," she ordered, shifting back to give him room and extending an arm for him to brace against as he levered himself up, injured leg still supported by Buffy's hand on his ankle, and folded his good leg down until he was on the ground, back against the couch.

Spike looked around for Rae, teeth clenched in obvious discomfort, and settled for Mal when he couldn't find her. "You, get me Xander."

"He's hurt, Spike," Buffy murmured, clamping a hand on his thigh and shoulder.

Mal saw why when Spike immediately tried to get to his feet.

"He's what?" He demanded.

"They got team one," Buffy shook her head. "He'll be okay, always is."

"The Bit?"

"Seemed fine, didn't really check."

"Losing your touch," Spike teased.

"Rae says the doc's the best, figure they're in good hands." Buffy shrugged, startling Mal with her apparent disinterest.

"Hey, kids. The big guy and I finished a last sweep," Rae interrupted, tossing two short swords onto the coffee table. "Got her sealed up. Your toys're in the bay, Spike."

He smiled up at her. "Cheers, pet."

Mal stared. "Who the hell fights with swords?"

"You did, once. For honor and fever-dreams." River had appeared behind him, silent as always. He turned to face her and she nodded towards the medbay, where he couldn't see Inara. Mal sighed and shrugged, acknowledging what she wasn't saying. Inara had been a dream, fair enough, vibrant and angry and bright; for all the passion, he couldn't love her. She was home, here on Serenity, and she was family, but she wasn't his. River bumped shoulders with him in unspoken solidarity, and he smiled down at her.

"What's the verdict upstairs?"

"Good to go, soon's Jayne closes the shop." She tilted her head, then smiled. "Now."

"Attention, passengers!" Wash's voice broke out over the intercom. "We are about to attempt a highly illegal - and possibly highly deadly - escape. If everyone would please grab 'hold of something, this might get bumpy." The speaker clicked off, then on again. "And send my wife up for a goodbye kiss!" He demanded.

Mal laughed as Zoe's voice followed his. "I'll be up soon as these folks stop bleedin' on me, husband."

"Fair enough," the pilot replied, and the ship shuddered as the landing gear creaked and engines whirred into life, gravity increasing slightly before the grav-ring kicked in and eased it out.

The speakers, left on in case of last minute warnings, hissed and spat and crackled, the strange static that filled the planet's air at night disrupting the ship's electronics.

Suddenly they snapped off.

"How're they doing?" Mal spoke in the hushed silence, noticing everyone's eyes boring through the ship in the direction of the engine room. The thrum of the engine overhead and the whispering friction of the sky splitting around them were the only noises; the lights flickered to emergency power, low and steady. Simon swore in the medbay, and Zoe murmured in response.

River closed her eyes, concentrating. "Electric's down; Kaylee's switched to the secondary generator - keep the engine moving. Wash's working blind, in control." She cocked her head to the side, listening for words that bypassed her ears. "River, if you're listening, warn everyone," she murmured, and Mal gripped her shoulder in acknowledgement. "The grav-ring's shielded; I'm gonna siphon the power to the DPN, get us more thrust. We'll be half-weight, so warn Simon."

Mal nodded and walked past the surprised passengers on the floor to duck into the medbay.

"Doc, your sister," he began, then stopped. He really, really did not want to throw up. The unconscious guy from earlier, sprawled out on the table with a sword-cut bisecting his belly and a lateral surgical cut opening him up like a flower wasn't the problem. It was Simon's long, adept fingers, curling around squodgy bits that had no business out in the open, that were giving him fits.

Clamps and sponges outlined the open space, and Zoe was working a narrow vacuum tube, trying to keep the spot Simon was stitching clear. She was sweating heavily, face rigid, though aside from the tightness at the base of his spine, Simon seemed calm as could be.

On the other bed, Dawn had cut away Inara's clothes. Mal didn't notice the fancy underwear, or the perfect skin slick under a glaze of disinfectant. He noticed the tiny, neat stitches that climbed the gash curling around Inara's side, almost complete, and the long slice down her thigh, butterfly bandages holding it closed until Dawn could get to it.

Mal swallowed.

"What is it?" Simon's voice was impatient, but his eyes were understanding as he watched Mal take in the unexpectedly gory room.

"They're all so... calm about it." Mal looked at Dawn. "All of you."

She shrugged. "Nobody's dead."

Mal jabbed a finger in Xander's direction. "He's sure as hell tryin'!"

Dawn just grinned at him and returned to Inara.

Mal and Simon's eyes met in mutual confusion, then Simon shook his head. "What did River want?"

Mal shook himself. "Kaylee's suckin' power from the artificial gravity to keep us movin'. Things are about to get - " He was cut off by a strange feeling in his legs and stomach. "Guess you can tell."

Simon sighed, shifting his hands. "Thank you, Captain."

There was a howl, followed by Buffy's shouted "Everything's fine!" Once again, Mal shook his head and made his way from the medbay.

It was obviously Spike who had yelled; he was cradling his leg, slapping Buffy's hands away as she tried to examine his now only slightly-swollen knee. At the door to the cargo bay, Rae had Jayne pressed to the wall, up on her tiptoes to whisper fast and low into his ear.

The look on Jayne's face...

He was breathing heavy, fast, eyes wide and white-rimmed, sweat popping out on his forehead, the vein in his temple beating quickly. He was terrified.

"What'n the sphincter of hell're you doin' to my mercenary?" Mal demanded, advancing. Before he could reach the man, Jayne broke away from Rae and started backing through the door.

"I'll be in my bunk," he stated, and left.

Mal stared at the empty door for a moment before turning back to his very confusing passengers. Buffy was laughing.

"What?" He growled. Even Spike was looking at her sideways.

"Sphincter," she spluttered, "sphincter of hell!"

Spike's eyes widened with some kind of realization and he started to chuckle. "Makes sense. Things were usually more interested in gettin' out than goin' in."

Even Rae and River were giggling along, which aggravated Mal. "Gorrammit, River, you couldn't'a told me they were crazy?" He glared at her, sitting cross-legged on the couch near Spike's head.

She shook her head. "Not as crazy as me, more reason to be."

Mal frowned. "Little girl, they cut into your brain."

Buffy shrugged and pointed at Spike. "Cut into his, too."

"Doubt it did as much," Spike demurred, turning to look up at the girl behind him. "Baby-Dru?" He asked, eyebrows raised.

She shook her head. "Don't see, only hear."

Spike scowled. "Not talkin' about that."

"Oh." River nodded her understanding, smiling just a little. "Drove me crazy, killed who I was, made a weapon of the girl. Broken prince came, found me a family." She cocked her head, thinking. "But I don't think I was ever evil."

Spike nodded, smiling a little sadly at the thought of his lost princess. "Got a name, then, Dru-light?"

She grinned. "The girl is a river that once heard the stars sing."

Mal was watching all of this with his mouth hanging open. He was about to ask a question when the intercom again burst into hissing and crackling that gradually faded into background thrum; the shaky gravity snapped on, sending Mal stumbling. He could hear Dawn cursing and Zoe chuckling.

"And we're not dead, folks!" Wash's voice rang out. "Congratulations and thanks to my very lovely assistant. Monetary donations always welcome, thank you." There was a pause. "I've set course for Persephone, Mal. Any problems?"

Mal hit the com and spoke. "Persephone's fine, Wash. Set her on auto and get down here; we gotta have a talk. You too, Kaylee."

"Gotcha, Captain!"

"Coming, Mal."

Mal turned back to the group watching him silently. "Looks like your friend'll be in there awhile. Think it's time for a little chat."

His audience looked warily at one another, then Buffy nodded.

"But you might want to wait for Inara, Captain," Rae added.

"She know somethin' you don't?" He asked.

"No sir, but you're less likely to shoot her."

River chuckled as Mal gawped. "You don't know them very well, do you?

Rae raised an eyebrow.

"You'll see," River grinned.

"We done treating the captain like he's invisible?" Mal asked, overly calm.

"Yessir," Rae replied sheepishly, even as River was shaking her head.

Mal glared at her, then turned his attention to where Kaylee and Wash were banging their way down the stairs.

"All clear?" He asked.

"Little rough, but we made it," Wash answered. He leaned heavily against the railing, Kaylee behind him in case he lost his balance. One booted foot hit the floor, followed by a rubber-coated clunk as the skids on the bottom of his artificial leg followed. The foot was an extended, angular S-curve of metal, designed to roughly approximate the workings of a real foot. The top of the curve wplit into three parts, the center segment swept backwards to make a long, narrow wedge that braced the high-tech interface between flesh and metal that made up his knee. He had been helping drag Zoe back behind cover on Mr. Universe's world when a heavy axe had caught his knee from the side, completely destroying it. The long wait for medical assistance had rendered his lower leg unrecoverable.

It had been a long and painful series of surgeries and physical therapy to reach his current point - he could handle pretty much anything but sand and stairs with relative ease - but considering that he had been willing to die that day, he wasn't complaining. Often.

"Oh, god." Compassionate Kaylee's first move after reaching the lounge was to peek in the medbay, where Zoe and Simon still weren't ready to close Xander up.Now she was backing away, shaking hand over her mouth.

"He's that bad?" Buffy snapped, helping Spike to his feet. The two of them peeked in the door, reaching out to hold hands at what they saw.

"Dawn, status!" Buffy barked, eyes tight.

Dawn, who was fiddling with the tubing on Inara's IV, looked up at them. "I'm done with Inara, couple of gashes; she'll have some scars, but if we keep the infection out, no big."

Spike growled.

"Ok, ok!" She muttered. "I took a hit to the back, nicked a rib or two. Hurts like a bitch, but I'll be fine. Need someone to sew me up. And Xan took one in the gut. Big and nasty, but Zoe's stopped freaking so I think he'll be ok."

"There are no guarantees," Simon started to warn her, but Dawn cut him off.

"If you can keep him from dying now, get him stable for an hour or so, we'll be peachy." She shook her head when he started to protest. "Trust me, we're tough stuff."

She finished checking Inara's medication and started to peel out of her shirt, then stopped. Spike was already behind her, flick-knife out and open. She nodded and he started cutting her tunic away from her back, until he could lift the long panel up and away. Buffy helped her get the front part of the tunic off of her arms, rolling her eyes as her torn braw came off as well.

"You are way too hard on clothes," Buffy grumbled.

Dawn rolled her eyes and accepted the sheet Spike pulled from an open cabinet; he winked.

"Right, Bit. Need to tell me what's where, then." Spike rubbed his hands together with faux glee and snapped on a sset of rubber gloves from the box on the counter.

Dawn pointed at the drawer under the counter where the tools she had used on Inara were laid out.

Buffy started laying out tweezers, thread, and the suture needle as Spike first wiped away the crusuted blood, then began sponging the long, shallow slash down with disinfectant.

"Bollocks. Sorry, Bit, you chipped a rib here. Gotta make sure it's out before I can close you up."

Dawn scowled and nodded; letting the sheet drop, she leaned forward to grip the edge of Inara's bed.

"Buff, you got a light?"

Buffy turned to question the doctor, but Simon was already pointing with his chin at a small hand torch on the tray at his right.

"Thanks," she beamed at him, then cast an appraising eye over the pallor of Xander's face and pulled off his eyepatch. Simon and Zoe both flinched at the unnaturalness of the flat lid, smooth and pale purple-white against his tanned face. "The strap chafes," Buffy explained, and turned back to her sister.

Spike nodded and she moved into position, holding the light steady at the top of the cut as Spike started working his way down, using the tweezers to remove thread and sand, and finally a tiny bone chip from the cut. Dawn's hands were clenched tight on the metal, her face wet with sweat, and Mal watched, gobsmacked, from the doorway.

When Spike turned to set aside his equipment, murmuring low assurances as he picked up the needle, Dawn let out a soft, pained hiss and flexed her fingers before clamping down again.

"Why the hell aren't you using anaesthetic?" He demanded, scowling at what seemed unnecessary brutality.

Spike and Buffy stared at one another, then Dawn.

"Oh, hell," Spike groaned.

"I'm so sorry, Dawnie," Buffy started, but Dawn cut her off.

"I didn't think of it either, and I'm the one who doped 'Nara. Don't worry, just fix it," she said.

"Who doesn't think about gettin' drugged when they're gettin' cut?" Mal squawked. Zoe craned her head to watch, and Simon glanced up from his steadily moving hands.

"We don't," Buffy answered curtly.

"Never been an option," Spike shrugged, following Zoe's pointing elbow to the right drawer. "Which are locals?" He asked.

"Purple bottles; syringes two drawers left." Simon eyeballed the cut. "Dawn, shift left. I can't see."

She complied, moving gingerly until he could see around Zoe. "Three shots, top, bottom and mid, half-dose each."

"Half dose?" Spike asked.

"More shots, less space to cover. They'll work faster than one central."

Spike nodded and pulled on a new pair of gloves before prepping the first shot. "You good, Bit?"

Dawn laughed shakily. "Adrenaline's wearing off. Fix me up, Sunshine."

Spike smirked and started the injections.

After a whispered conversation with Dawn, Buffy left Spike to the medical bit and slipped past Mal, out of the infirmary.

Rae and River were sitting on the couch, cross-legged and facing each other. "Rae, do you think we can borrow some clothes? Dawn's are cut up - she's flashing everyone right now - and mine are hopeless. Spike lost our bag, so he's out, too."

Rae and River grinned up at her. "Follow me," Rae invited, leading the way into the cargo bay. Mal followed as well.

Laid out on the tarp Kaylee used for tinkering on the mule were two short swords, a katana, two axes - one large and double-bladed, the other smaller with a sharp spike on one side - and a worn leather duffel. "Jayne and I went shopping; whaddaya think?" Rae bounced happily.

"Good job," Buffy smiled. "Um, where's Spike's stuff? He's gonna be ticked."

River pointed to the opposite end of the bay, where Jayne was coming down the stairs with a metal tool box, Spike's knives balanced on top.

He paused when he saw them, then warily continued his decent. "Thought I'd help out. Needed to check what oil I'd need for the leather, though." He dumped the tool box at the end of the tarp.

Buffy looked him over carefully, then nodded. "Thank you," she said, before turning to the duffel. Then she looked up again. "Xander - the guy they're working on - is gonna need clothes. Any chance he could borrow a shirt or two? He'll need something pretty big for a while."

Jayne nodded. "River, you get it?" He asked.

River looked up from tip-toeing exaggeratedly along the edge of the tarp and murmured acknowledgement before leaping across the tarp and heading towards the stairs. Mal stared after her.

"Did you just sent River to your bunk?" He asked, disbelieving.

Jayne shrugged. "Ain't nothin' excitin' to see; girl knows better than to go diggin'."

"You hate her!" Mal yelped.

Jayne just stared at him, then shook his head dismissively and started sorting his tools.

Buffy and Rae looked at one another and decided to ignore the strange tableau - Mal gaping and Jayne studiously attentive to Spike's knives - in favor of opening the duffel. Buffy loosed a hiss of pleasure at the sight of the clean clothes inside, but Rae stopped her before she could reach in.

"You're filthy. We need to clean up before we touch anything.

Buffy sighed and nodded; rocking back on her heels, she looked up to where the captain was still watching Jayne. "Captain Reynolds?

He looked away from Jayne, scowling. "What?"

"Any chance at a shower? We're all pretty filthy."

Mal's eyes glazed for a moment as he ran some kind of calculations in his head, then he nodded. "Keep it short. We've got a week afore we hit Persephone and a lot more folks on board than was planned for. Them what's been cut on tend to use a fair bit of water, too."

Buffy nodded and Rae grabbed her arm. "C'mon, Buffy. Let's get clean. Passenger dorms, sir?"

Mal nodded and watched as Rae shouldered the duffel and led Buffy back into the dorm area. Then he turned his attention to his mercenary.

"You know something." It wasn't a question.

Jayne nodded. "Nothin' I'm gonna talk about, as yet. Got some questions of my own, first." He kept his eyes on the steady sweep of cloth and solvent over honed metal. Mal huffed but gave it up as a lost cause. Sometimes, like now, Jayne gained an air of relaxed impenetrability that Mal had long since learned to steer clear of.

He shook his head and turned back to the lounge, sparing only a quick glance for Wash and Kaylee, talking quietly on the couch. River slipped past him going the other way, a bag in hand. "I can help," she murmured, and Mal let her pass.

The medbay was still disturbingly bloody; Inara was still unconscious, but Dawn had moved so she could lean her forehead against a closed cabinet. To Mal's surprise, Spike was almost done with the long row of tiny, neat stitches up Dawn's back. His hands were quick and sure, and he worked without the clamp and tweezers that Simon used. He noticed, though, that Dawn was trembling with fatigue.

Mal moved to lean on the counter next to her, resting the back of his head against the cabinet door. He turned his head to face her, and she rolled her forehead enough that he could see an eye. She grunted a query at him.

"Sister of yours's got a bag of clothes and such. When you're done here, get someone to help you clean off. Showers're at the end of the dorm hallway, outside to your left. Pick an empty room and crash. Someone'll bring by some water and food; stay down until Simon clears you." She furrowed her brow and he answered her unspoken question. "You lost a fair bit of blood while patchin' up 'Nara - for which I am most thankful, by the way. Can't replace my shuttle if she's down for the count," he paused, waiting for Spike's chuckle and Dawn's tired smile. "Point is, don't want hurt folks runnin' about, wearin' out the doc. Our luck, we'd need him. So you and your lot get clean, get some rest, and we'll talk once y'all're on your feet again."

"Yes, Captain." Dawn gave a little shoulder bob that was supposed to be a nod, and flinched. Mal was surprised to find himself patting her hand where it clasped the counter.

"Thank you," Spike said, and Mal looked up at his solemn face.

"Ain't nothin'," he demurred.

"I'm guessin' we'll be tellin' you anyway, so I figure a preview can't hurt." Spike turned away as he spoke, finding bandages and tape for Dawn. "We've been tryin' to get everyone out for a damn long time. River said a bit about what she's been through, so maybe you'll understand the kind of baddies we're runnin' from." He paused to smooth and seal the bandage, then turned to face Mal, eyes wide with unabashed gratitude. "There are not words for what I feel, Captain."

"Oh, thank god," Simon muttered, breaking the moment. Mal and Spike both turned, Spike pulling Dawn upright so she could lean against him. Mal made an inquiring noise, but the reason for Simon's outburst was obvious.

Xander, though streaked with blood and iodine, was sewn closed.

Simon leaned against the examination table, swaying slightly, carefully pulling off his bloody gloves before reaching for a new pair.

"Doctor?" Dawn asked, voice weak.

Simon shook his head. "Don't know." He started wiping Xander down while Zoe checked the drip on the two IVs - one saline, antibiotics, and anaesthetics, the other the expensive pseudo-blood that Serenity had ownly recently begun to stock. "He lost a lot of blood, and there was extensive damage to several systems. At this point, he needs time, nutrients, and to beat the infection."

"So he'll be okay for a few hours?" Spike asked, fingers digging into Dawn's shoulder.

Simon nodded slowly. "We'll have to monitor him, watch for slow bleeds, difficulty breathing, heart problems; barring complications, he should be fine if you want to rest up a bit."

Dawn whuffed a relieved breath that Mal couldn't help feeling was premature, and smiled brilliantly at the doctor. "Rest. Yeah. Thank you, doctor, Zoe. You have no idea - " She trailed off and Spike held her closer, both of them staring at Xander's lax face.

"Zoe," Spike asked, easing Dawn away from him. "Could you help Dawn get to her sister? I'm going to sit with him," he jerked his chin in Xander's direction. "And maybe someone could clean up Inara before she wakes up?"

Zoe nodded. "I'll get Kaylee." She finished scrubbing up and reached out a hand for Dawn. Dawn took it, leaning against her, but they were interrupted before they left the room.

"Here," Mal threw the sheet Dawn had been using earlier at Zoe. "River brought down some of Jayne's clothes for Xander, might be easier to get into than anything she brought."

Zoe nodded and helped Dawn drape the sheet over herself before they left.

Simon finished cleaning Xander and covered his legs with a blanket before moving to check on Inara.

"She does good work," he said, surprised.

Spike chuckled. "Lots of practice."

Simon nodded uncertainly, and Mal grimaced. "You lot keep sayin' things, hintin' at something I don't particularly wanna know about. But I do gotta know - how much danger are you bringin' down on my crew?"

Simon shook his head at Kaylee through the medbay window, stopping her before she could enter and interrupt. He kept his back to the two men, but his shoulders were tense. Mal's own body was almost coiled, as if waiting to be hit. Spike was faking relaxed rather well, but his grip on Xander's limp hand tightened.

"Less than you'd think," he started. "The Council has five teams trained to interact with us; we took out two tonight, which will leave the others demoralized and their handlers wary. Anyone else they might try to send after us who knows enough to be a threat simply won't go." He cast a rueful grin at Mal. "Anything else, we'll explain once everyone's up and about. Easier that way."

Mal nodded, not particularly liking the situation but compassionate enough to let things lie for the moment. "Com's on the wall, let us know if there's trouble." Nodding again, he left.

Simon waved Kaylee in, directing her towards Inara when her wide, scared eyes locked on to the vulgar black and red wound on Xander's abdomen.

"He'll be fine, pet," Spike murmured, drawing her attention to himself. "The kid's tougher than you can imagine. Just take care of your girl." He re-focused on Xander then, attention obviously fully occupied. Kaylee blinked and looked away.

"I want you to clean her up, if you can, and if she hasn't woken up I'll give her a stimulant so we can get her opinion. If there's nothing we missed, we move her to the passenger dorms to rest." Kaylee nodded at Simon and moved to fill a bowl with hot water while he fetched down soap and cloth.

Kaylee gently cleaned Inara of chemical and biological residue, talking quietly to her as she worked, and Simon moved around the room, checking display panels, cleaning away packaging, and setting instruments to sterilize. They had managed to keep the floor around the disposable pads clear; those he rolled up and shoved into the medical waste disposal. When he finished and turned, Kaylee and Inara were watching him.

Inara's eyes were glazed from the drugs, but she didn't seem to be feeling any pain. Simon smiled at her.

"How you doin', princess?" Spike broke the odd silence. Inara's eyes cleared frighteningly fast and snapped to his, before almost closing with relief. When she tensed again, it was obvious she had noticed Xander's state.

"Oh, god," she moaned.

"Hey, it's fine," Spike averred, locking eyes with her. "Only Harris here got it too bad, and he'll still be stakin' out the bridge in no time." He nodded decisively, and Inara seemed to relax a little.

"The bridge?" Kaylee asked, finishing Inara's leg and covering it with the sheet before moving up to her torso.

Spike smiled. "Kid loves the sky. Any time we left world, he'd be sittin' on the bridge, whittlin' somethin', starin' out as the stars rolled back."

Kaylee smiled and Inara relaxed, but Simon remained tense.

"Look, Doc," Spike forestalled him. "Everyone, including you, is damned near exhausted. For now, take my word that your sister is as safe as she's ever been, and we'll give you what answers we can once we've gotten some rest." He stared Simon down until he got a reluctant not. "'Til then, why don't you get cleaned up, grab yourself some food and a bunk? I'll keep an eye on my boy, here."

Simon's exhaustion - the stress and hyper-awareness of the past few hours getting to him - was the only thing keeping him from arguing further. Instead, he nodded resignedly and helped Kaylee lead Inara from the medbay.

After they were gone and all Spike could hear were the murmurs of people showering, settling into the dormitory, the low sounds of River and Jayne cleaning weapons in the cargo bay, Spike collapsed into the chair someone had set next to Xander's bed. He held a limp hand and ran his fingers over the pallid curves of his face before curling in to press his forehead against Xander's hip.

By the time Buffy looked in at the pair on the way to give the captain a quick update before passing out herself, the only sign of Spike's tears was the hint of salt in the blood-tinged air and the unnecessary breaths he was taking to calm himself.
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