Word Count: 15,700
Characters/Pairings: Sam Winchester/River Tam, Simon Tam, Dean Winchester, Anna, Castiel, Bobby, rest of Serenity’s crew.
Warnings: Violence, some gore, mentions of mental illness
Spoilers: S2 Supernatural storyline, some characters introduced in S4 and S5. Set post Serenity-movie for Firefly.
Summary: Simon and River accidentally end up on the hunter ship Impala, where River discovers new talents, new purpose, and maybe someone she just might like. Simon only finds a brand new set of worries when he realizes River has grown up in an entirely different way than he ever could have guessed.
Author’s Notes: Written for sncross_bigbang. Inspired by a comment_fic prompt: Simon and River accidentally get on the wrong ship, prompted by darkmagic_luvr. Thanks to filenotch for invaluable plot advice and game_byrd for betaing and helping plug plot holes! Additional thanks to brighteyed_jill for listening to me winge and giving me hovertext code!
Art Link here
“We’re in slip fifteen, don’t forget,” River said, tossing a grin over her shoulder at Simon. He hesitated on the threshold between Serenity and Taggamort station, and Kaylee gave him a little shove.
“Go on, have fun,” she admonished.
“You should come,” he said, tugging gently on her hand.
“Captain wants the cargo in, fast,” Kaylee said apologetically. Jayne grunted extravagantly behind her as he wheeled a red-stamped crate up the ramp, clearly pointing out that he was doing work, damn it, and anyone else who was standing around should be doing some too and not mooning over each other. “Besides, I have to get those new couplings in or we’re going to have a mighty short trip out of here. Go get your stuff.”
Simon smiled at her, kissed her quickly, and headed down the busy corridor after his sister.
“Kaylee is planning a welcome-home party. Be certain to bring her a gift,” River said when he caught up with her. Simon blushed just a little, and coughed.
“Right. And where are we going?” he asked.
“To see the photosynthesis effect in plants warmed by two-point-six billion wavelengths of light,” she said instantly. “They have one of the best atriums off-planet in this system.”
Simon smiled in spite of himself. Mal had been taking a lot of ship-to-ship and ship-to-station jobs lately, and Simon was seriously starting to long for seeing something growing that wasn’t mold on food. That amused him whenever he stopped to think about it; he hadn’t even thought about something as simple as good scenery in a while. It was amazing what you could stop to consider when the fierce edge of fear of discovery had faded. Ever since Miranda, Alliance heat had been turned down slightly on the Tams. None of the higher-ups wanted a repeat of the Mr. Universe broadcast.
Ahead, the market announced itself with colorful banners and an increase in chatter. Taggamort Station was on the border between Core space and Outer Rim space, which made it a good place for smugglers and thieves (and the occasional semi-honest businessman) to sell their goods. Simon’s eyes lit up at the tables of medical supplies, locked and guarded, and subtly felt for the coins in his belt pouch. Yes, he had enough to resupply, finally. Serenity had been doing decently, for a change.
River nodded at him absently and continued to stroll in the direction of the atrium. It was only a stone’s throw away from the market, lit up with three nearer stars and billions of farther ones, and Simon only felt a faint hint of his usual unease as River vanished into the crowd. She’d gotten a lot more independent, confident, and stable in the last year, and little of it had to do with the drugs he’d given her. Confronting her demons had done more to heal her than Simon could have hoped for.
Shunting aside his near-reflexive worry on her behalf, Simon walked up to the merchant’s stall to begin a thorough bargaining session.
Undoubtedly Zoe would have gotten him better prices a lot faster, but Simon’s genuine medical knowledge had finally impressed the seller enough to get him what he needed. Turning away from the bustling crowds, he entered the atrium, listening closely for River. He knew he didn’t dare go back to the ship without something for Kaylee, and heaven help him, he needed River’s assistance to find the right thing. It was astoundingly quiet amidst the lush trees, bushes, and flowers, and the scent in here was rich and sweet. It reminded him of Inara’s perfume, and he wondered if Kaylee would like something like that.
“Unlikely. It would clash with engine grease,” River said from right behind him. Simon didn’t even start.
“Do you have any better ideas?” he asked, hefting his now-heavy medical bag into a more comfortable position.
“Run,” she said quietly, eyes fixed behind him.
Simon blinked. “What?” He peered over his shoulder and his heart almost stopped. The man strolling the paths behind them wasn’t wearing the full Alliance uniform, but the patch on his arm and gun in his holster proclaimed his allegiance. The man looked right at them, squinted fixedly, and then his eyes flew open wide in recognition.
“Halt!” he barked, and Simon took River’s excellent advice. They ducked down the paths of the atrium, shredding foliage in their wake, and burst back into the market. They could hear the Alliance officer shouting behind them, muffled by the distance and the crowd, and kept elbowing their way through.
The docking ring was the next corridor down, nearly within sight, when alarms starting wailing, lights flashing, a synthesized voice telling everyone that the station was about to go on lockdown. If that happened, more Alliance military would show up, and there was little anyone could do to stop it. Simon and River ran into the docking ring in time to see pressure doors start to close all along the corridor. The docked captains were sealing up and blasting off, not daring to risk their business with more Alliance on the way.
Seven, eight… Simon was mentally counting the slips, hunting for a familiar face, while trying to keep up with River’s lighter, unburdened step. Ten. Another door slammed down next to them, sealing off another ship. Twelve.
“HALT!” A magnified voice boomed through the corridor, and Simon could hear the tramp of feet quick-marching in unison. They were close, too close!
“Fourteen!” he gasped out loud, and his eyes strained ahead to look for Serenity. Something ricocheted off a beam next to them, and Simon ducked, his heart pounding. He twisted to look behind him, feet still flying, and saw a small squad of security officers only a half-dozen slips away. Terrified, he faced forward, and saw the familiar red-stamped crates Jayne had been loading this afternoon. He grabbed River’s hand and nearly flung her into the slip, both of them tripping and landing on the deck in their haste. The pressure door slammed shut nearly at their heels.
“Get a move on before they try to override the dock controls!” someone yelled, their voice distorted on the aged comm system. He’d assumed it was Mal, and closed his eyes for a moment in relief as Zoe overrode the docking couplings and engaged the engines.
Simon’s eyes flew open again. The deep rumble that vibrated the ship was nothing like Serenity’s quieter susurration. He sat up, looking around more closely, realizing the spacious cargo bay, while somewhat beat-up, was not a Firefly. He didn’t know what kind of ship it was (Kaylee might know, but the roar of the engines as the drives were revved up to full meant Kaylee was nowhere near to ask), other than aged and spacious. River just looked around curiously, taking in the surroundings with a calm Simon wished he felt.
“We’ve fallen in with rough folk, Simon,” she said serenely.
Simon opened his mouth to ask for clarification when he heard the uncomfortably familiar sound of someone priming a shotgun. He turned to see a pale, red-haired woman leveling the weapon at him, her attractiveness mitigated by her somber demeanor. More cocking guns drew his attention to a freakishly tall man who looked like he could have bested Mal in a fair fight, and Jayne in an unfair one.
This is just not fair at all, Simon thought faintly.
“Hello Sam,” River said, and turned to look up at the red-haired woman. “Anna.”
“Sam, what the hell is going on down there?” a gruff voice demanded over the comm. Now that Simon wasn’t hearing it through a haze of adrenaline, it clearly wasn’t Mal’s voice.
“Looks like two of Mal’s crew ran on here by accident when the alarms sounded,” Sam called as he slapped open the comm.
“Who we got?”
There was a beat of silence, and then a curse. “Anna, you mind taking these two to Bobby? I’m gonna call Mal before he accuses me of crew-napping.”
Sam holstered his weapon, but it took Dean coming back on to say, “Anna, stand down,” to get her to shoulder her piece.
The tall man reached down to haul Simon up from the floor.
“Welcome to The Impala.”
"He's taking this badly," Dean said over his shoulder.
Sam could see the view screen, and the view wasn’t pretty. To say Mal took the news badly was a bit of an understatement. Sam knew Dean had Bobby take the Tams to their infirmary to keep them occupied while he contacted Serenity, because he didn’t need an audience for this. It wasn't unusual that Dean and Mal got into a shouting match, but Sam thought this one was more colorful than most. Mal was downright tetchy about the Tams, and Dean had been right to keep them out of the conversation.
“What the hell were you thinking?” Mal demanded, looking furious even over the bad connection.
“Oh, you know, just the usual; get my crew out of any Fed entanglements. I thought you, of all the ships I know, might appreciate that!” Dean snapped right back.
“How am I supposed to get my medic back?”
“What, you want us to keep little sister?”
“Hey now, that’s our albatross you’re talking about,” Mal said, sounding irritated.
“Be that as it may, we both rabbited from Taggamort. Feds will be watching for both of us,” Dean pointed out.
“So we head for one of the border moons, do a hand-off there.”
“I don’t know about you, Mal, but we blasted off with only half our fuel and cargo. And we have got a job on Deadwood and another on Chiron. If we get enough off those two, we can meet you on Whitefall in two weeks.”
“Two weeks?!” Mal all but sputtered.
“I got a crew, and two more mouths, to feed.” Oh, if looks could kill, Dean would be dead, dead, dead. He hadn’t known Mal would get so bent out of shape over this.
“They better be in one piece. I know how you run your ship,” Mal warned.
“Scout’s honor,” Dean said shortly, with a sharp gesture off-screen. Castiel discommed before Mal could launch another volley. Sam knew it pissed Dean off that Mal was right to threaten him. Despite the fact that the whole crew of the Impala could and did take up arms, Serenity was far more likely to be able to get past Alliance patrols. With their registered Companion and wealth of crew onboard with no outstanding criminal records, they could appear innocuous if they wanted to. But the Impala’s mercenary reputation earned it a much harder look from anyone official. No one on his ship appeared innocent. If the Fed found both ships, they’d board Mal’s but shoot Dean’s out of the sky. And that just wouldn’t make his day.
“Cas, let’s get to Deadwood, quietly,” Dean said. Castiel nodded solemnly and set a new course.
Simon was appalled at the state of the Impala’s infirmary. He’d seen more modern amenities in the back alley chop-shops that had made Cortex news on a slow day. When Bobby had shown Simon into his “second office,” being the resident sawbones, Simon had tried to keep a neutral expression. Mal had kept a better infirmary due to his military background. It looked like the Winchesters’ crew spent their passion, and money, elsewhere on the ship.
“Mal speaks highly of you. Mind putting’ yer talents to work while you’re here?”
Simon nodded his head in assent, grateful he’d taken his bag with him to restock before he’d hopped into the wrong cargo bay. He didn’t want to think about touching the motley collection of primitive-looking knives and unlabeled bottles of pills and powders.
“Don’t worry, I got a few more things than whiskey and chewing gum,” Bobby said with a faint smile. He unlocked a half-hidden cabinet with a much better selection of tools and medicine. “Gotta keep ‘em locked up with all the apes around here. Too many hunters think they can sew their own guts back in.”
Simon was startled into a laugh at the last comment. “Hunters? I thought you were mercenaries.”
“The appellation is convenient, but their true title is more descriptive.” River stood on tiptoe to look over Simon’s shoulder, not at the supplies, but at Bobby.
Simon turned back to Bobby, getting concerned all over again. “What are you hunting that needs five of you?” Five of them, all heavily armed, with an armory Simon had passed by that was as big as Serenity’s galley. Jayne would have been green with envy.
“A lot of nasty things most folks don’t want to believe exist,” Bobby said after a moment’s thought and a hard look at both of them.
Simon went pale. “Reavers?”
Bobby shook his head violently. “We’re not that stupid. Reavers don’t have rules.”
“And what you hunt does?” Simon asked.
“Salt and iron, sulfur and blood, silver and spell,” River chanted softly. She looked over at Bobby sharply. “Anna told me.”
“Anna did no such thing,” Bobby said positively.
“She carried them in her coat. One of her ribs is broken, Simon, will you fix it?”
“Of course,” he said automatically.
Bobby snorted. “Better you than me.”
Bobby left, and River ducked out briefly, and returned all but towing the reluctant Anna. Though physically she didn’t seem that imposing, Simon had lived on the same ship with Zoe for two years. He knew better than to underestimate anyone Zoe was impressed by. And Anna had really impressed her once.
“My brother will make you well,” River said earnestly to Anna. “He’s very clever. And properly terrified of making a mistake.”
It was a sign of both Simon’s filial love and physician’s patience that he didn’t even sigh.
He carefully manipulated Anna’s rib back into place and wrapped her ribcage tightly to keep them aligned. She hadn’t even winced at what had to be at least a sore procedure, and left him with barely more than a nod of acknowledgement. Simon just sighed quietly and began cleaning up.
Bobby came in a moment later, looking slightly shocked. “If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.” He shook his head. “Anna’s fought me tooth and nail before letting me treat her.”
“Simon’s learned on the most reluctant patients the ‘verse has to offer. He’s the best. Top three percent of his class,” River said. Simon had to agree with her. Despite his promises to Jayne after Ariel, Jayne had to be drug into the infirmary, bleeding and semi-conscious, before he’d go to Simon on his own. Not to mention River herself wasn’t exactly lining up to take her medicine all the time, even if she needed less of it nowadays.
“Well, hell, son, we could use you here,” Bobby said. “I patch them up as best I can, but I never had proper schooling. Learned most of what I do from a couple of animal docs and a few war buddies.”
“Your crew,” Simon said slowly. “Do they need patching up often?”
“Like yer sister said, we’re hunters. Most of what we hunt is smart, strong, most often with teeth and claws.”
Simon desperately wanted to ask exactly what they’d gotten themselves into on this ship, but stopped himself. He worried that if he knew too much, Dean might make him stay. Every captain had secrets, and everything he knew pointed to the fact that the Winchesters had quite a lot.
“Anna and Castiel are a hell of a lot tougher than they look. Anna took that rib shot from a vampire that tried to rip her heart out,” Bobby volunteered, just itching for Simon to ask questions, prodding at him.
Simon wasn’t going to rise to the bait. The last time Serenity’s crew had dealt in any way with the Impala, River had had screaming nightmares for three days straight.
“They destroy creatures of darkness, Simon. We can trust them,” River said.
“What do you call Reavers, then?” Simon asked.
“Chaos,” River said flatly.
“What she said. You think about what I said. We got a contract to clear out a wendigo tribe on Deadwood in two days, so if you’ll excuse me, I need to go check the flamethrowers.”
Bobby left, both Simon and River looking after him.
“We can trust them?” Simon asked.
“A very little,” River amended.
It seemed Simon’s successful treatment of Anna had gotten the attention of the redoubtable Captain Winchester. He’d never met the man face-to-face; the last time the Impala and Serenity had been at the same dock, Simon had been asked to stay on board, not that he’d needed much encouragement. He’d remembered Jiangyin, and nearly being burned at the stake, all too well to go exploring.
Simon had barely gotten cleaned up when Dean Winchester loomed in the doorway. Simon looked up, craning his neck a bit. While Dean’s younger brother was ridiculously tall, topping Jayne by a head easily, Dean wasn’t much shorter. Simon finished putting the bandages away before turning his attention to the captain; he’d learned not to back down in front of Mal.
“So, Bobby tells me you have a way with women.”
Of all the things that Simon had been expecting to come out of Dean Winchester’s mouth, that hadn’t been among them.
“Ah, yes,” Simon said slowly, with all the dignity he could muster. Dean grinned and took a step inside the infirmary.
“Mal ain’t half mad that you ended up here, so you know.”
“We didn’t mean to impose-.”
“You just had Alliance goons on your tail,” Dean finished. Simon got a sinking feeling in his stomach. Mal already knew what he was getting into, sheltering the Tams, and while Dean didn’t have a squeaky-clean record, he didn’t deserve that same kind of heat involuntarily.
“Don’t be sorry yet,” Dean said. “You’re gonna be stuck here a while.”
Sam didn’t wince when the outraged, “What?!” echoed through the cargo hold and corridors. Dean had the tact of a boot to the head sometimes. He was trying to be a little kinder in breaker the news to the younger Tam.
“Simon’s frustration is understandable,” River said, before Sam could open his mouth. “He’s come to think of Serenity as home, a stabilizing influence on me. He fears I may backslide.”
“Mental stability. You know.”
Sam was both worried and a little embarrassed by River’s knowing stare. Somehow she knew something he hadn’t discussed with anyone but Dean. Granted Mal was closemouthed about his pet fugitives, and rightly so, but Sam had gotten the impression he thought River uncanny in a way that couldn’t be easily explained. Face-to-face with her, Sam was put in mind of Pamela, but without the seer’s earthy warmth. River was almost unworldly, but reachable. She didn’t have Anna or Castiel’s remote calm.
“What do you know?” Sam asked carefully.
“What you dream isn’t what you mean to, not what’s in your mind, but in others,” she said, and touched his temple for a moment. “My dreams aren’t often my own either.”
Sam put his hand over her fingers and slowly pulled her hand away, closing his hand gently around hers. She did know, and wasn’t afraid. Sam had caught Dean looking at him when he didn’t think Sam was watching, worry in his eyes, but not her. And she knew more than Sam had ever managed to articulate to Dean.
He kept his hand around hers when he answered, “Ever afraid to sleep?”
“Sometimes.” River squeezed his hand and pulled away. She looked over in the direction of the infirmary and picked up the thread of Sam’s original conversation. “We can’t meet up with Serenity for a while, to deflect suspicion. So Simon and I should make ourselves useful and keep out of the way,” River said brightly, taking Sam’s words out of his mouth.
“You already have,” Sam said.
River smiled guilelessly. “I mustn’t backslide, Sam. Nor should you.”
He nodded solemnly. “Deal,” he said, bowing his head briefly to seal the promise. Even if she were normal, trying to adjust to life on the Impala, albeit temporarily, could be hard. Actually, the fact that River wasn’t normal was a plus in this situation.
He nodded his head at the corridor beyond the cargo hold. No time to start like the present. “Tour?”
River reached out and took his elbow as if she were a debutant at a fancy ball. “Of course,” she said, as if they’d had a long-standing date.
Inexplicably blushing, Sam led River deeper into the ship.
“Two weeks?!” Simon said, finally managing to hold his temper.
“Shortest we can manage, and I’m not even sure I can hold that date. If one of our jobs goes on long, or Mal runs into trouble, could be longer.”
Simon took a deep breath and let his frustration run out as he let it go. An old technique, but valuable even for a Core-trained doctor. Doubly so in this life. Simon’s knew Mal’s schedule was more guesswork than anything else, subject to the vagaries of engine repair status, route choice around Alliance patrols, state of anyplace they docked, and cash flow for fuel. Other Outer Rim captains were the same. The trains, as it were, almost never ran on time out here.
“You ok with that?” Dean asked, when Simon’s silence stretched on.
“I’ll have to be, won’t I?” Simon said tightly, and winced internally at his bad manners. “Thanks for keeping us.” Dean had been more than courteous in letting him and River stay on board. He could have dropped them on the nearest station or planet, handed them over to the Alliance, or even just shoved them out the airlock. Having two more people on board drawing on their air and food, not to mention drawing down more Alliance attention, wasn’t a small thing.
“I’ll help your crew as long as we’re here,” Simon added. Making the offer to the captain made it official. And it was the only way of repayment he had.
“Good, that makes us even.” Dean hesitated before going on. “Bobby told you what we do?”
“A little,” Simon said, not bothering to keep the skepticism out of his voice.
Dean grinned. “Think we’re a bunch of crazies, don’t you? Been out on the Rim too long, thinking every outlaw and hungry wolf looks like some sort of monster?”
“You’re mercenaries,” Simon said. “I saw the size of your arsenal. If people pay you to get rid of their problems, fine-.”
“Doc, I know you ain’t been out here that long, but you’ve seen how many people out here go armed. Aside from a few peaceful religious types, I don’t think there’s many who wouldn’t be able to ward off a predator- human or animal. We go after what falls in between those definitions.”
Simon gestured in acquiescence, not wanting to fight, no matter how mad he found Dean’s beliefs. “You do what you have to. That’s what Mal does.”
“You believe in Reavers, but not wendigos?” Dean asked.
“Ok, one, I don’t even know what a ‘wendigo’ is, and two, Reavers are people driven into insanity through chemical exposure. They’re not some kind of Earth-That-Was legend,” Simon said.
“Doesn’t mean they can’t still kill you,” Dean said darkly.
“I’ll believe it when I see it.” Simon was a lot wiser in the ways of the ‘verse than he had been since he left Osiris. Even Reavers left behind evidence; surely rumors of whatever Dean claimed to hunt would have crossed his ears at least once in three years.
“Pray you never have to,” Dean said, and sighed. “Look, we keep the ship pretty safe and do our hunting away from her. But if someone tells you to get down, run away, or lock the door? You do it. You don’t want to mess with the things we hunt.
“Right.” Simon nodded instantly. He certainly wouldn’t be risking putting himself into the line of fire… but he wasn’t sure he could vouch for River. She’d become a lot more independent since Miranda. Simon wondered, with a pang, if there was any chance he could get a wave to Kaylee before they got out of communication range. It was just then he realized it was a little too quiet. “Where’s River?”
Sam didn’t quite understand when his tour of the ship had turned into a date. He’d barely gotten through a brief run-down of a few storerooms and gestured vaguely in the direction of the engine room when they’d gotten to the galley. Food had been laid out for anyone who cared to eat, and River had plied them both with plates and cups, settling them down like a couple at a restaurant.
“I didn’t-,” Sam began, trying to figure out how he’d ended up here.
“I know you didn’t,” River said serenely, and took a bite of the crispy noodles and vegetables on her plate. The Impala worked a lot of agro worlds, and food-barter was good a payout as any.
“I want to know what we’ve gotten ourselves into. You hunt dangerous things, things few others believe in. But you’re not weak, not been lied to about this. You have a good purpose.”
Sam didn’t quite know what to say to that.
“I fought and killed two dozen Reavers in hand-to-hand combat,” she added casually, and speared a square of squash on her chopsticks with precision.
Sam’s jaw dropped. “That was your ship? You sent out that recording?”
“We lost two of our crew,” River said, nodding.
“I’m sorry,” Sam said, mind going furiously. He was impressed – he would have thought the Alliance would have wiped out the people who’d upset the status quo so badly. With all the little fires that recording had stirred up, the Impala had been able to slip through the cracks a lot easier. But right on the heels of being impressed was a stab of fear. Nobody sane tangled with Reavers, nobody. Anyone that had fought them instead of running away had usually blown up the pursuing ship in any way they could. Anyone that could fight a Reaver hand-to-hand and come out on top was someone to be reckoned with. Someone that could fight and kill two dozen and not be scarred or maimed for life… that was a person you might want to avoid.
Except that you could almost say the same for any of the Impala’s crew.
“What exactly are you going to hunt on Deadwood? Bobby said wendigos.”
Sam pondered his usual reticence around hunting subjects. He also pondered that the young woman in front of him had killed Reavers and wasn’t maimed or dead. He didn’t even entertain the idea she was lying; you didn’t lie about Reavers.
And River had said her dreams weren’t her own. What he didn’t tell her, she might find out the hard way. After all she must have been through, if it was anything like what had happened to him, she didn’t need another hard lesson.
He started talking.
Simon found River in the galley, talking animatedly with Sam, both of them using their chopsticks for emphasis. Simon quietly sighed in relief; he’d been half-afraid things had gone very wrong. River didn’t often talk with those outside the ship. He quashed his overprotective physician’s instincts and got himself some food, sitting on the other side of the room to give them a little privacy. He kept stealing glances at the two, when he wasn’t in silent raptures of joy over the fresh food. And after a few minutes, an entirely different and rather rusty set of protective instincts came to the fore.
He could remember the last time River had smiled that way at a boy, just a year or so before the academy. Simon had been deep in his residency, but he’d made sure to pass a wary eye over Trey, just enough to make the kid nervous. It hadn’t gone any farther than that, but Simon had mentally put together the whole program. What he’d say before their first real date or dance, the speeches about not daring to break her heart; he’d been ready for that.
And honestly he’d thought he’d never have to use them after he’d gotten River out of the academy. Simon had privately doubted, somewhere in the place where he hid all his shameful thoughts, that she’d ever be whole enough to think about dating again. To discover that maybe, just possibly, he’d been wrong, made him both elated and terrified at the same time.
Simon reapplied himself to his food and kept his mouth shut. They’d just gotten on board, just met the crew, just barely started to fit in. It could be that those old instincts were off-base, or maybe that River wanted a little bit of privacy and conversation with someone who wasn’t excruciatingly aware of all of her past problems. If so, Simon couldn’t blame her a bit.