Spike woke five hours later to a near-silent ship and fingers in his hair. He jerked upright and the first thing he saw was River, knees tucked to her chin, perched on the side-bed. She was watching him, head tilted to the side, then she smiled and looked down.
Spike followed her gaze and couldn't help his own grin. Xander looked back at him, eye bright, waiting with mocking patience to be noticed.
"About time, whelp. Thought you'd sleep the day away?"
Xander smirked and tangled his fingers with Spike's. "Which one of us was waiting for whom? I seem to recall being the one getting drooled on."
"I never!" Spike choked out. "You wound me with your vile, hateful words."
Xander rolled his eye. "Speaking of, how's the damage?"
Spike flinched. "You are never, ever allowed to break out of a Council facility again, do you hear me?"
"That good, huh?" Xander turned his head, not letting go of Spike's hand, and addressed River. "So you're either Kaylee or River - I'm guessing the wide-eyed psychic."
River grinned and unfolded herself before dropping to her feet and bobbing a curtsey."River the reader is ravenous, but otherwise pleased to make your acquaintance. Are your insides ready for food? We'd best sate your tummy, lest its rumblings shake the room apart."
Xander exchanged an incredulous glance with Spike, but at his nod, beamed at River. "I'm Xander, and I could eat. But water or broth to start, ok?"
River nodded and pecked him on the forehead before leaving the room.
"I missed a fair bit, I guess," Xander sighed.
Spike growled. "Having your insides on the outside will take a person out of it, I'd wager."
"How're the others? Dawn ok?"
"Cut up a bit, all fairly superficial. You were the only one who needed the actual doctor's attention." He pointed at Xander's abdomen, and Xander blanched at the heavy cross of red scars and black threads.
"It's been hours, right? I still look like this?"
"Hence my aggravation, pet." Spike smacked Xander on the shoulder with his free hand. "Don't do it again."
Xander smiled tightly and nodded. "Do my best." He cocked an eyebrow. "If we wait any longer, you're gonna have to cut my stitches out."
“Left it too long already; I’ll have to do a bit of that anyway.”
“What the hell!”
Spike and Xander turned toward the door to see River, with Simon lurking behind her. Simon’s eyes were enormous. Spike chuckled. “Watch it, Doc. You’ll get your chin dirty, draggin’ it on the floor like that.”
He ignored Spike and stalked towards his patient. “This – this is impossible. Even with the best tech on the market, this is days worth of recovery! How long was I asleep?” He looked back at River, face so plaintive that Spike chuckled.
“Boy’s a bit anomalous, no doubt. Dawn tried to warn you.”
“You’re the doctor?” Simon looked down at Xander’s pale, smiling face. “Xander. Nice to meet you, and thanks for what feels like an excellent patch-up job.”
Simon stuttered over vowel-sounds, but was spared the further indignities of speech by a squealed “Xander!” and a flash of brown and blue.
Dawn practically leapt onto the bed, only holding herself back at the last. Simon noted that her face still looked worn, though her giant blue eyes were bright as she fluttered her fingertips over Xander’s face and torso. She was wearing Jayne’s ‘whoring shirt,’ and what must have been her own leggings; from the way she was holding herself, overlooking her hyperactive hands, Simon guessed that her back was hurting her.
“Dawn,” he spoke loudly, getting her attention even over her and Xander’s rapid-fire exchange.
“Mmm?” She half-turned to him, questioning.
“Let me take a look at your back.”
She nodded before reluctantly moving from Xander’s side and fumbling open the buttons of her shirt. When it slipped from her shoulders, it was immediately evident that she wasn’t wearing a bra. Simon berated himself for thinking that she would be, and for not giving her privacy before the examination. But he realized that both Xander and Spike were cataloguing exposed skin for health – unlike the captain, who was gawping unattractively in the doorway.
“Mal!” He scolded, grabbing Dawn’s shoulders and turning her to face the back of the infirmary. She just chuckled.
“Sorry,” Mal blushed. “Came down to check on folks, wasn’t expectin’ the – “ He gasped. “What… Heaven’s wept, boy! What’re you doin’ awake?”
Xander looked a question at Spike, who bent to murmur something to him before turning to rifle through a drawer. Dawn slipped her shirt up and faced the room, though she held it closed with a hand rather than buttoning it.
“Captain Reynolds, I’m Xander Harris. I’m sure my friends, in their infinitely diplomatic way, have thanked you for your help, but I’d like to say just how much we appreciate it.” He looked down at the livid, cross-hatched scars on his belly. “Me more than most.”
Mal ungraciously waved the thanks aside. “Hell with that. Not six hours ago I was lookin’ at your innards, with the doc not sure he’d be able to pack ‘em away again. Now you’re sealed up, talkin’, and not screamin’ for meds. Explanation?”
Any further ranting was disrupted by River’s elbow in his back. He spun to face her, snarling, but she just eyeballed him until he subsided.
She was holding two mugs, one of the sugar-rich pseudo juice that Kaylee liked, and the other of some salty-scented gruel that looked decidedly unappetizing. “Need to feed the Cyclops; he hasn’t any sheep.”
“Sheep?” Mal asked, bewildered.
“Polyphemus,” Simon answered, watching Spike helping Xander to a sitting position. “Obviously I don’t have a clue what’s going on here, but should he be moving – or eating – already?”
Dawn chuckled. “Nothing in the ‘verse could keep Xander from eating.”
Xander’s scowl was muffled by the cup River was pressing to his mouth. Spike was arched uncomfortably over the bed, supporting Xander’s back, but he was smirking.
“Possibly more to the point,” Spike added, “the whelp can heal, and damned quick, from just about anything.”
“As long as he gets patched together properly,” Dawn added. “So thank you for that.” She smiled at Simon, who nodded distractedly.
“That why you’ve got folks after you?” Mal asked, eyeing the boy who was slurping happily at his juice.
“Part of it, anyway,” Spike answered. “Easy,” he added to Xander, whose fresh organs were protesting such cavalier treatment. “You know the drill, pet. Get ‘em used to the Harris experience, yeah?”
Xander laughed ruefully and settled back against Spike’s arm. “Yeah. Just thirsty.”
Meanwhile, Simon was peeling the bandages away from Dawn’s back. “You don’t heal like he does?” He asked, half surprised. The row of tiny stitches had lost its red immediacy, but nothing unusual for five hours of healing.
Dawn’s chuckle was wry. “My talents lie in other areas.”
“Trouble-making, for one,” Spike interjected.
Dawn’s glare was cut off by a yelp as Simon’s prodding fingers found a bruise on her side. She turned her scowl on him and he murmured an apology. “What’s this from?”
“Bo staff.” She twisted slightly to get a better look. “We staged our break-out during training. Get the kids all worn out, lots of weapons to hand…” She trailed off.
“You trained to fight with your guards?” Mal’s voice was heavy with skepticism.
“Ostensibly they’re our backup.” Xander exchanged a look with Spike, who nodded. “The four of us are generally considered the best fighters in certain situations at the Alliance’s disposal – possibly in the ‘verse. The Council – the organization that sent us out and provided backup – was originally a force for good. It has since been thoroughly degraded into just another power-seeking bureaucratic behemoth.” He subsided, wincing a little at the pain in his abdomen.
Spike, reminded of his task, began snipping and removing stitches even as he continued Xander’s story. “When the original members of the Council began to worry that they were losing control, they divided their responsibilities, their programs, among other institutions. One sect was absorbed into the Companions’ Guild, which is where Rae and Inara come in.
Buffy’s voice suddenly broke in. “How ‘bout you finish up with Xan, Spike, and the rest of us’ll move this party out to the couch?” The last was addressed to Mal, who looked at the half-dozen people peering in through the door and nodded.
“Give me a minute to rouse the crew.”
Fifteen minutes later, everyone but Inara was gathered in the lounge. Simon had finished checking Dawn and thrown up his hands at the fresh scars on Xander’s stomach.
The two settled on the couch, flanked by Buffy and Spike. River sat on the floor, back curled against Spike’s shins, while Wash sprawled in the single chair, rubbing the flesh-and-metal node at the end of his leg, with Zoe standing warily behind his seat. Mal leaned against the wall, and Jayne and Kaylee took seats on the stairs. Simon had pulled the stool out from the medbay and perched awkwardly near the end of the couch, and Rae was poised near the entrance to the dorms, keeping one ear out for Inara.
All assembled watched one another with cautious eyes until Mal finally sighed and spoke. “You were sayin’ that part of your Council is tied to the Companions’ Guild?”
Spike, Buffy, Xander and Dawn exchanged glances with each other and with Rae, but River interrupted before anyone could speak.
“Tell them everything,” she urged. “Tell it all!”
“River – “ Buffy cautioned, but Spike cut her off.
“It changes everything, poppet. They won’t thank us for it.”
River lifted to her knees and spun to face him, bracing her hands on his thighs. “They’re already in the fight, an informed choice, but their choice! Her voice was unusually strident, and Serenity’s crew reacted with stiffened spines and twitchy fingers.
“Information would be most welcome, River-girl,” Mal’s voice almost soothed in contrast to his tense frame.
River stood and moved to lean against Mal’s side. His arm curved protectively around her as her murmur filled the room. “Time flows, and people erode away. But some can ride the waves and are swept out to sea.” There was silence as her family tried to make sense of her words, but when prompted for clarification she shook her head and pointed to Dawn. “The Watcher is the Key to the story.”
Suddenly her eyes flew wide and she shrank back against Mal, whimpering.
“What the hell?” He demanded, sheltering her.
Xander flew to his feet, pushing past his friends’ restraining arms and hissing at the burn in his guts. Buffy glared Zoe down when she made a grab for him, and Zoe was shocked to find herself subsiding.
“It’ll be fine!” Dawn assured hastily. “Let him talk to her. He won’t hurt her!”
The desperate tone to her voice, and the plaintive wails squeezing past River’s tight lips, earned Xander a grudged moment of grace. He hunched down, with a grimace, and slipped his hands over River’s, clamped to the sides of her head. He began a soft trill that grated on Mal’s sensitive nerves, but seemed to call to something in River. Slowly, she raised her head and locked her eyes with his.
“That’s it, raindrop. Be with me, here with me. Slip inside and find her, the River that flows and flies and runs; feel your heartbeat, taste your breath… The world is true and real and you are real in it…” His murmurs trailed off as her breathing steadied and she straightened slightly.
"River?" Simon sounded pained, and Dawn reached out to grip his hand. Kaylee's face was white and strained, and Jayne's was stoic, his fingers tight on her shoulder.
River sighed and turned to press her face into Mal's shoulder. "River is fine; read with the familiar sign, though Enigma is lost. Working with a slide-rule but the language is archaic." She leaned back and looked around at the crew, at the confusion hanging like ribbons in the air, then huffed. "Tried to read the girl, but learned the universe."
There was an epidemic of blinking, then Dawn blushed.
"Sorry, my bad." She held up forestalling hands as half a dozen glares settled on her. "Not on purpose! It's just not a good idea to try to enter my head."
"Xan!" Spike's exclamation broke up everyone's attempts to find something to say, and suddenly Mal found himself with an armful of one-eyed mystery, with River flailing in her attempts to help take his weight.
Then Spike was there, pulling the man off and leading him to the couch. "You. Sit. Hush." he commanded, and plopped himself sideways so his legs were trapping Xander in place.
"He okay?" Wash asked, concerned.
"He'll be fine," Buffy answered as Xander patted Spike's leg in an attempt to soothe him. "It takes a lot of energy to pull somebody out of their head like that, and he's already pretty well drained. Rae?" She got the Companion's attention. "Could you grab the juice from Dawn's room? I think he could use the sugar."
Rae nodded and left, back almost immediately.
Xander chugged the bottle, grimaced, then sighed happily. "Story-time!" He chirped. "Without the telepathic invasion this time, if you please," he scolded River. "Surface thoughts only. Ask questions if you want to know more."
River nodded, chagrined, while Mal and Simon gaped at him. "Again I'm noticin' just how casual-like you're takin' our little reader."
Xander shrugged. "'Sall part of the story."
"Which you won't
be telling!" Spike smirked when Xander pouted, and Buffy grinned at Dawn.
"Rae," Dawn said, shifting the burden yet again. "You're the historian, you do it."
Rae sighed with faux resignation, then smiled ruefully.
"You all are familiar, I believe, with the Academy." She nodded at the sudden spike of tension in the room. "Before there was an Academy, there was a school. The school found and trained anomalies - those who could manipulate their bodies, minds, or the world around them in unusual ways. It trained fighters for the battles against the monsters of Earth-that-Was, and often the fighters won…
"When Earth-that-Was was abandoned, so, for the most part, were the monsters. The school was divided into a dozen academies, all under the purview of the original Council. As the Alliance grew in power, the academies developed camouflage - empaths trained amongst Companions, for example, and there were private schools and summer camps for others. Some talents were tied to the Earth, and were left behind with the monsters. Others remained."
"So this school became the Academy?" Simon demanded.
River and Rae shook their heads in unison. "The school still exists, outside of Alliance control, still hidden. But records remain within the shell of the original Council, records of children with remarkable skills. Unable to find evidence of the school, of its students, the Alliance developed the Academy. Originally they knew very little. Now, they know less. The talents they look for stem from genetic aberrations, from confluences of poorly understood energies, from interactions with the monsters - "
"What monsters?" Simon asked. "I never heard of monsters."
River interrupted, shaking her head. "You never heard of Reavers, either. But those on the Rim knew, those on the border between known and unknown." She closed her eyes and her voice changed, collecting echoes. "Life in the liminal breeds the beast, calls the champion. The rest of the 'verse stays out of their way."
"So you're sayin' that there were monsters on Earth-that-Was, but only the people that fought them knew about them?" Zoe looked skeptical.
Rae examined Zoe, then the others, judging. "Just like the Alliance denied the Reavers' existence, institutions on Earth-that-Was denied the demons'. Many knew, but would not act, and so the fighting was left to those who stumbled across the truth and refused to hide. Conditions on Earth were right to create heroes."
"Heroes?" Mal snorted.
"Big damn heroes," River answered pertly, and he looked away.
"What does all this have to do with the Academy?" Simon cut in.
Buffy picked up the story. "The Council has always been secretive, for obvious reasons. When it became clear that the Alliance wasn't going to stop until it got us - the Council - in its greedy, slimy grasp, we sent most divisions even further underground. We left the core - a few of our most skilled associates, the main libraries, an overhauled administration office - as a diversion. We let ourselves, over time, be 'persuaded' to join the Alliance -"
Mal cut her off. "Why?" He growled.
"Politics," Dawn answered.
"Self-preservation," was Xander's contribution.
"Keepin' the kiddies safe." Mal blinked at Spike, who nodded and continued. The Alliance was too powerful, too insidious. If we hadn't opened the door to them, they'd've ransacked the house, yeah? Feed 'em information, just enough good stuff to keep 'em from searchin' out the rest."
"We led them to believe that every
ability we'd documented had died out with Earth. We showed them examples of what had been possible, then evidence - real or contrived - that those were no longer feasible." Dawn sighed and shifted restlessly against Xander's side.
He picked up the narrative. "So we hid in plain sight; our contact with the rest of the organization was limited to the Companions. We mis-directed Alliance attentions. But we screwed up."
"How?" Wash asked, fascinated.
"Shoulda known that not all monsters are tied to Earth." Spike sighed. "We ended up as some fancy strike team for super- and preternatural threats. Eventually…" He trailed off, unsure of how to continue, and Dawn picked up the thread.
"At first, from what we can tell, our handlers assumed that anything we encountered came with us from Earth. Eventually, they realized that some of these threats were new
: empowered humans who hadn't been found by the Council, or trained, or who refuted their training, who called up new monsters or became monsters themselves."
"Since we'd provided them with indisputable evidence that that was impossible, the evidence must be flawed." Buffy stood and began pacing restlessly, careful not to come too near any of the hesitant crew. "They were smart, didn't let us know what they'd figured out. Gradually, we got phased out of the ops that might bring new information, new allies, whatever."
"Fortunately, anyone who was far enough gone to draw the Alliance's attention was too far gone to be helpful." Dawn screwed her face up. "The Alliance established a kill-on-contact policy for discovered anomalies; because they only encountered the extremists they concluded that, rather than being eradicated by the exodus from Earth, the anomalies had been corrupted. That there was some balancing, stabilizing force that was absent."
"So they decided to build their own." Simon's voice was cold, slick, and heavy with rage. That same implacable wrath was etched onto every face in the room.
Rae cleared her throat. "We didn't know about the Academy until you did. Inara's not part of the Council's school, but one of her superiors is. She filed a report, horrified by what the Academy had done -"
"What the hell?" Mal cut her off. "How could… The Companion's guild supports the Alliance. How could she know…" His mouth worked with frustrated anger.
"That we wouldn't turn you in? Report to the Alliance?" Mall nodded, and Rae's smile was sharp. "You operate under a common - and intentional - misconception. Companions are not all whores."
"River mentioned that," Zoe interjected. "Said you were a secret, not a whore."
Rae grinned at Zoe and dropped a wink at River, who winked back. "She's right." Rae leaned back against the wall. "The Guild trains Companions - high-class prostitutes, skilled in counseling, psychological manipulation, and self-defense. It also trains empaths, telepaths, and Shadows."
"Shadows?" Wash asked, blinking.
"Shadow diplomats," Simon spoke warily. "Another legend, a conspiracy theory. Some organization training assassins and spies, infiltrating all levels of government, of industry…" He paused, wrapping his mind around it. "It's true?"
Rae sighed. "After a fashion. Between the influence and observations of Companions, and the more immediate influence of Shadows, the Companions Guild has the potential to be the most powerful political force in the 'verse - but only surreptitiously. Outright action would lose us the vast majority of our advantage." She turned to Mal, finally answering his question. "Much as I hate to say it, to someone who's gone through so much on behalf of freedom, we opposed the Independents. The Alliance operates, after a fashion, and we can monitor it. But this is more than a case of the devil you know." She flinched away from the tight expressions on his and Zoe's aces. "The anomalies, the monsters - the Guild is what searches them out, keeps them coordinated, in check, protects and trains those it can. They are our purpose, " the resolve in her face more than matched Mal's, " and we will fight for them. If the Independents had won, and the Alliance pulled into the Core to lick its wounds, the efficacy of the Guild would have been greatly reduced. Already, the Shadows have missed details; the Academy slipped by." She shook her head and met River's stare with remorse. "As soon as we knew, we began to plan. Not until Inara decided to stay on Serenity, after the Miranda broadcast - after she made the choice to fight - did we pull her in."
"In to what?" Mal asked.
"We worked for the Alliance, supported the Alliance, because for 500 years it has been the best way to support our people." Buffy looked at River, who nodded. "That is no longer true."