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!
Dean was waiting when Sam finally put an appearance on the bridge. It was late enough for both of the Tams to be asleep, but Sam was slowly putting himself on Deadwood time. He needed to be on the right cycle if he was going to be sharp for the hunt.
“Chick didn’t freak out?” Dean asked, leaning against the pilot’s console with his arms crossed.
Castiel was patiently feeding a route into the computer while Anna stared out the window as if she were standing watch. It never seemed to matter to her that usually the long-range scanners could pick up anything well before she could see it, she always stood watch. Those two had been a recent addition to the ship – they claimed they were angels, late for an Apocalypse that had never happened. Their claims of the origin of their powers may or may not have been true, but the two were the toughest hunters the Winchesters had come across, with the ability to send demons screaming back to hell, though they just didn’t seem to understand emotion. Neither of them would repeat a word Sam and Dean said, and the brothers had learned to talk together as if they weren’t even there. No one minded, and there was only so much privacy to be had on a ship.
“No, River’s fine,” Sam said. As Dean got the beginnings of a leer on his face, Sam cut him off. “She took it well.”
“Better than her brother, then. Ok, you-. Wait, took it well?” Dean’s eyes narrowed. “Sam…”
“She’s a fighter, Dean. She wanted to know how to keep Simon safe if anything happens.”
“Dammit, Sam.” Dean looked away, jaw set.
Sam looked back towards the main corridor, seeing the galley in his mind’s eye. River hadn’t blinked, hadn’t looked skeptical, hadn’t even asked him to repeat himself when he talked about wendigos. She had taken in the lore without a qualm, and Sam might have been worried she was just humoring him, if she hadn’t asked specific, pointed questions about wendigo habits.
“You know what Bobby and Ellen think,” Sam reminded him. Dean scowled, but didn’t contradict. Anyone that had tangled with Reavers was usually willing to open their minds a little more. And the more open eyes there were looking for trouble, the better the chances of a real hunter getting the word before half a planet was overrun by werewolves or vampires or somesuch. Hence the fact that Bobby hadn’t beat around the bush with the Tams when it came to what they were hunting, even if Simon wasn’t willing to accept it.
“Well Ellen ain’t here to back you up,” Dean said pointedly. Both she and her daughter Jo had taken a side job putting down a stubborn spirit on Whitefall, and wouldn’t be back for weeks.
“Doesn’t make her any less right. And Bobby’s still on my side,” Sam said.
“Ok, fine. You don’t expect them to go wanting to sign up, do you? Mal’d be pissed.”
Sam considered River’s claims of being a Reaver-killer, and her brother’s Core mannerisms that not even three years as a fugitive had dented. While Simon had been quiet while he listened to Sam and River’s conversation, Sam had seen the confusion and skepticism in his eyes. But River had been steady and accepting, as intense as a hawk. Sam had gotten the odd impression that she could have taken her chopsticks and stabbed out someone’s eyes if they’d walked through the galley door with hostile intent.
In that she reminded him of Jo.
Sam was more concerned that he might not be able to keep her away. He couldn’t imagine what she’d been doing on Mal’s ship in the near-year since the Miranda broadcast. She was too intelligent, too perceptive, to be just lounging around.
“Probably not,” he said with forced blandness, not wanting to get into a fight today on top of everything else.
“Bullshit,” Dean said, his momentary irritation gone, a glint of mischief in his eye. “Girl comes on the ship, I stick you with breaking bad news to a civilian, and you’re wining and dining and giving her lore in under a half-hour?”
“Uh… more like the other way around…” Sam mumbled.
“If that’s how you roll, more power to you, Sammy. She stayed with you, so something’s going right, for once.”
Sam sighed and looked out the windows, past Anna. Dean had a damn annoying habit of being right.
“She’s… good, Dean. She knows what she’s doing.” She knows me, he added mentally. She knew the dreams he’d had, the ones that had come true, and had accepted them without qualm. He hadn’t gotten that from anyone, not even Dean. Sam might have classified that under “too good to be true,” if he hadn’t seen the protectiveness in Simon’s eyes. That kind of wary tension didn’t come from River being perfectly all right all of the time.
“Good.” Dean bypassed the obvious crude joke, much to Sam’s relief. “With Ellen and Jo gone, we could use another hand. Mal’ll be pissed if she’s hunting, but probably more pissed if she got her heart ripped out by accident. Cas, how long to Deadwood?”
“Two cycles,” Cas said, not looking up from his plotting computer.
“You should sleep while you can,” Anna added, not breaking from her self-appointed watch. “It will be a long hunt.”
Dean cursed all the way back to his cabin, the Tams clearly dismissed from his mind, Sam trailing behind him to his own, a feeling of foreboding in his gut. Whenever Anna said things like that, everything usually went pear-shaped soon after.
Simon looked up from his inventory of the infirmary to hear the weird sounds of metal-on-metal clashing. He was used to hearing that from Serenity’s engine room, not from the cargo bay. Most of the Impala’s crew were in their quarters, but he thought Bobby had stayed behind to do some chores. What chores required that amount of noise, though?
Simon left the infirmary and paused, thunderstruck, at the entrance to the cargo bay. River was wielding a machete in a martial dance, coached by Bobby, as she menaced a dummy propped up on a crate.
Bobby called out some advice, busily cleaning a shotgun as River’s blade flashed under the harsh lights. River feinted ducked, twirled away and came in again, her blade a sheet of white light as it sliced clean through the canvas and stuffing. The head thunked to the floor, and River followed it with a clean thrust to the heart.
Simon swallowed, mouth gone dry. He’d never really seen River like this with his own eyes. At Mr. Universe’s station he’d been on the floor bleeding, trying not to go into shock when River had made her heroic, seemingly suicidal leap through the blast doors. He had seen the aftermath, skewered bodies littering the floor and the blood on the sword and axe in River’s hands. It was only much later that he’d seen the recording of the fight from Mr. Universe’s security cameras. It had been while watching his brilliant, damaged little sister put down over a dozen Reavers that he’d seen her deal the death-blow to his image of the childlike waif he’d been struggling to save.
The genius schoolgirl she’d been was gone forever. Simon had helped her find a way to save herself; River had grown up after Miranda. She now helped fly the ship, aided Kaylee in the engine room, too aware now to just lay there and dream.
Simon knew that. He’d just never really seen it in front of his eyes. Maybe he should be less worried if the hunters accidentally brought something back alive, whether it was outlaw or animal or something out of a story. River could probably take it blindfolded, literally. Simon remembered Kaylee describing how River had calmly and coolly shot three of Niska’s mercenaries with her eyes closed.
River withdrew the machete and used it to flick the head to Bobby. He caught it handily, placed it back atop the torso, and used a couple of daggers to fix it into place. He saw them talking, River with her head cocked, asking questions, Bobby answering them with subtle gestures of his hands, indicating explosions, decapitation, and more violence. And here River seemed right at home.
Anna sat waiting at the top of the stairs, a blade polished and gleaming in her hands. She turned the mirrored steel, making the light play over River’s face, holding the weapon at an angle that promised pain.
“I’m going to join the hunt.” River spoke, her voice echoing in the corridor.
“You know they’re deadly.”
River took two more steps forward up the stairs, flowing as easily as her namesake, her hand jabbing out in a deceptively slow-looking jab that would have taken Anna in the throat. The angel rolled from her awkward position, shoving off the wall and seemingly taking flight as she thrust an elbow back. River went low, pushing off with her hands, her booted feet kicking up to help Anna in her arc through the air and down the stairs. She landed lightly as a feather, and River sprang after her.
Anna twisted away, but River followed, one hand locking on Anna’s wrist and pulling back. Anna moved with her, reaching back to wind River’s hair around her fist and yank. River went with the painful pull, and let her leg sweep under her, scything under Anna’s and bringing her down. Rolling, River took the knife and laid the flat along Anna’s neck, before jumping backwards, freeing her.
Anna rose up in a single fluid motion, sheathing her knife, and bowing shortly to River.
“So am I,” River said.
“You didn’t need to prove it to me,” Anna said.
“I did. You only whisper when you fight. I dare not be uncertain. I have no spell or silver,” River said.
Anna shook her head. “Neither do I.”
“Sam says you’re an angel.”
“My parents told me angels were messengers and warriors.”
“Know you’re more and less than that. We’ve pulled you too thin, took you far away from home. Hard to be a messenger on Earth when Earth is gone.”
“Hard to be real when real was taken far from you,” Anna said. She circled two steps to the right and cocked her head curiously.
“I found it again,” River said. “I was lucky. But you were not. You shine under the skin, a bird beating itself against a cage. I knew I needed to be here.”
Anna’s lips moved in a stiff smile, and her eyes luminescent in the ship’s lights. “You were meant to be here, River Tam. But not for me.”
River nodded. “I know.” She turned and looked down the hallway, her dark eyes piercing the silence of the ship. “Sam knows why.”
In the shadows of that silence, a figure lurked, eyes like the void, dark smoke behind his teeth, and murder in what passed for his heart.
Sam sat up so fast he nearly brained himself in his bunk, heart thundering in his chest. His head ached, and he drew his knees up to press his forehead against them, as if he could press the dream-images out of his mind. River’s wide-eyed stare, too knowing and too familiar, kept looking back out at him from his mind’s eye.
He hadn’t been hit that hard by a dream in months. But maybe it wasn’t so strange that he should have one now.
He just didn’t know how he was going to explain it to Dean or Simon.
River was waiting for the hunters when they walked down the Impala’s ramp, Anna at her side. Dean flicked his eyes at River, Anna, and then Sam in quick succession, and kept walking like this was all part of the plan. River turned and fell in with the others, keeping up with their long-legged stride easily.
“You sure?” Sam asked. River nodded, and smiled up at him. Her eyes held the same knowing, steady stare he’d seen last night, and his anxiety drained out of him at her rock-steadiness. “Dean’s got this planned out, so listen, ok?”
“I know,” she said. “I also know he and Mal are too much alike. Unplanned triumphs are their specialty.”
Sam shrugged off the extra flamethrower and tossed it to River, trying to hide a smile. She strapped it on over one of Anna’s spare jackets without missing a beat as the hunters penetrated the green wall of the forest.
Simon was frantic. He’d been pacing, waiting for hours for any word from the hunters. And specifically any word from his sister. He’d thought she was just resting at first when he couldn’t find her. Then maybe having a bite to eat, or meditating, or anything else than what he hadn’t wanted to believe. He hadn’t wanted to think that she’d joined the hunters on the surface of Deadwood, clearing out the forest of whatever horror was supposed to be lurking in its depths.
“I believed you were aware of your sister’s departure,” Castiel had said. “Certainly she seemed confident that she would not be stopped.” The only member of the crew to remain on board with him, the pilot had refused, with maddening calm, to try to raise the hunters on the communicators.
“Wendigos are exceptionally fast – unnecessary communication could distract someone at a crucial moment. Trust to Captain Winchester, he will not allow anyone to come to harm save that which we hunt. And trust to your sister, she is a warrior.”
“No one told me she was going!” Simon protested.
Castiel stared at him, simple curiosity in his expression, no sarcasm, no anger. “She went of her own free will, Simon Tam.”
Simon might have tried something exceptionally stupid, like going after her himself, if Castiel hadn’t kept the cargo bay doors locked and parked himself in front of them with maddening, implacable calm. Nothing Simon had said to him in those tense hours made him change his mind. After that, Simon had had nothing to do but wait, pace, and imagine what the hell might be going on out there.
The rest of the Impala’s crew returned well after dark, smelling of smoke and burned flesh, spattered with mud, tired but triumphant. Castiel opened up the cargo bay as the communicators crackled to life, and they came marching up the ramp like a conquering army returning to the capital.
“-and then, whoosh, he comes flying around the corner, screaming like a damn banshee, and runs right into the nest. Whole thing goes up like fireworks,” Dean was saying, waving a blackened flamethrower for emphasis.
“About damn time,” Bobby groused, lowering the fuel tank to the ground with a grunt. “Those things move faster than anything has a right to. I’m getting too old to be camping out.”
Simon’s first response at the hunters’ casual attitudes toward their jobs was the same flash of red-hot anger that had led him to punch Mal once before. They’d let River come along on some escapade that had involved burning things alive. He actually had his hand clenched when he noticed Sam gingerly removing his heavy, padded jacket.
“Hey, you know the best we could do was narrow the area down,” Sam said, shrugging off a jacket that bore claw marks on one side. There were no corresponding claw marks through his shirt underneath, but Simon was at Sam’s side instantly as he winced. Pushing the shirt up revealed a head-sized bruise, black and red and vicious-looking.
“Fine, fine, but do you have to be so damn happy about it?” Bobby said.
“Hell no, Bobby. Why be happy when I got you to grump about it?” Dean said with a grin.
The two kept exchanging snarky remarks as River took the jacket from Sam’s hands, startling Simon. He’d been so consumed with the thought of her in danger that he’d missed her actual presence. That thought left a chill, sinking feeling in his stomach.
“One inch lower and you would have been eviscerated. The claws were impressive,” she said, touching the rents in the tough fabric.
Simon wanted to lay into her, to yell out his fear that she could have been hurt, but he was trying to figure out if Sam’s ribs had been cracked.
“Well, I have you to thank for keeping me in once piece. You’ve got a good touch with the flamethrower,” Sam said warmly.
“Burned out that pattern like a pro!” Dean said enthusiastically, leaving off from joking with Bobby to join Sam and River. “Left, right, center, channeled them right where we needed them to go. You got good timing, sister. Glad to have you along on that one.”
“Better than you, ya lughead,” Bobby said, sitting down and stretching out a leg. Simon smoothed the last medicated bandage on Sam’s side, and had to turn to Bobby’s twisted ankle before he could get a word in edgewise.
“Cool head in a crisis, too,” Dean said, finally laying down his flamethrower. “Charged down that straggler and herded him back into the death trap. No damn fear at all.”
“I knew Sam wouldn’t miss,” River said. “He was ready, needed the kill to spur the others on.”
“Yeah,” Sam said, and tentatively put his hand over hers. She smiled up at him, and Simon clamped his mouth shut as he looked over the rest of the hunters for any injuries. His sister had taken a shine to the oversized Winchester, maybe a passing fancy, maybe a genuine liking. River was eighteen going on eighty. She didn’t need Simon’s permission.
He lasted all of twenty seconds before going over to Sam to make sure the bruise on his face didn’t have a concussion attached to it.
“Simon is worried.”
Sam was sitting in one of the nooks in the galley, one where there was a scrap of privacy to be had. He didn’t think Simon knew about it, and just as well. The doctor had nearly burst trying to contain himself after the hunt, and Sam really didn’t want to be cornered. “Other than the obvious?”
“He’s worried about all things. It’s his nature. He worries about me most of all. He traded one set of worries for another in the last year and that worries him.”
Sam can’t help but grin ear to ear at that statement, and River answers his smile.
“It’s an appropriate absurdity. I have a possible solution for him.”
“Let’s hear it,” Sam said, settling back in his chair.
“I should leave Serenity.”
Sam sat back up abruptly. He had about five obvious questions on his lips and stopped himself from asking them when he saw River’s raised eyebrow. Instead he gestured at her to continue.
“He loves Kaylee, they copulate happily when he thinks I’m in my stable periods, but there’s always the thought in the back of his head that I could disrupt his happiness at any time, if I were to go wrong,” she said. “But if I were not on the ship, he would only have to worry distantly, instead of constantly. I love my brother, and I owe him.”
“But there’s more than that,” Sam said, leaning forward. “I left Dean for a few years, because I didn’t want to be a hunter anymore. I left Dad too, and thought that would somehow fix everything I didn’t like about my life.”
“I will never be able to fix everything in my life,” River said, fixing him with an intense stare. Sam felt a faint pain at that statement.
“So you’re not running away?”
“I’ve been running away for years. I want to run to something, Sam. I want Simon to be able to cheer me on from the sidelines, not be running alongside me, ready to catch me if I should fall. He needs to look away from me.”
“But a hunter’s ship?” Sam asked.
“I’ve eaten Reavers for breakfast, Sam. I need a job that will keep me on my toes.”
Somehow, Sam never doubted her for a second. He reached out to take her hand and nodded solemnly. “You’re going to have to work on convincing Simon and Dean both. He loved you against those wendigos, but he doesn’t want to break up anyone’s family.”
He wanted to say more, a lot more, but couldn’t lay all of his cards on the table, not this soon.
“There’s nothing to break, Sam. Simon deserves more than I can give him on Serenity. We just have to make sure that I’m wanted on the Impala for a long time,” she said, her eyes fixed right on him.
“Ok,” Sam said, understanding. Hadn’t he tried to leave hunting for a similar reason? “We have a vampire job on Newhope in a week.”
“Bobby’s been showing me the appropriate techniques.”
“Let’s up the ante.” Sam stood and held up the key to the armory. River grinned at him and linked her arm with his as they strolled over to look at implements of monster destruction.
Dean looked up from the open panel in front of him as Simon tentatively entered the engine room. His hands were stained with grease and mechanical lube, and there was a smudge of dirt alongside his nose. Simon felt a pang of longing for Kaylee even as he stiffened his spine. He’d punched Mal for taking River along on that heist before Miranda, and he was prepared to do the same to Dean for making him worry. And he’d known Mal; Dean was barely more than an acquaintance.
“If you’re here to yell, you can just take the whole conversation and space it,” Dean said, wiping his hands briefly with a rag before digging a spanner out of his toolbox. “River wanted to go. She talked to Anna, Anna loaned her some gear, and she was waiting for us when we left. No one asked her to come.”
“You couldn’t even drop a line back to the ship?” Simon demanded.
“We were a little busy. Wendigos are fast-.”
“Castiel said,” Simon cut in.
“You still think I’m full of shit, don’t you? Look, River’s a damn good draft pick. ‘Course, from what Sam said, she’s handled tougher than wendigos.” Dean raised an eyebrow as he tightened a loose fitting.
“No, you don’t know.” Dean dropped the spanner on the deck with a loud clang. He tugged at the hem of his shirt, bringing an old scar on his abdomen into view. Simon stepped closer for a better view. He’d seen knife wounds before, vehicle accidents, even wild animal attacks. This was none of them. No wild animal could have made a claw pattern like that, nothing so precise or so large.
“Hellhound. I got a near-matching one from a werewolf on the other side.” He dropped his shirt and pulled down his collar to reveal a tattoo below his collarbone. “Anti-demon possession mark. They’re bodiless, can jump into people and make them do what they want. This isn’t bullshit. This isn’t crazy talk. This is real.”
Simon didn’t think Dean had managed to scar himself for his benefit and felt a little of the off-balance feeling when he’d first learned that some of the scary stories of the black were actually true. There was no reason for all of the Impala’s crew to be in on some elaborate hoax or joke… and if they had been, he belatedly realized, River would have seen through them.
They both could be incredibly stubborn sometimes.
Simon breathed out slowly, feeling his worldview changing, the axis tilting a little more off-center, as he took in what he’d been hearing and seeing over the past week.
“So demons can possess…” he said slowly, trying to make sense of it, when something horrible occurred to him. “Demon Reavers?” The idea made Simon ill.
“Doubt it. Any demons jumping into a Reaver would jump right out again, screaming.”
Simon looked at Dean quizzically. “You know this how?”
“Ran into some Reavers once. And then I ran into some demons while I was running from the Reavers. Demons helped me fight off the Reavers before going back to trying to tear my head off.”
Simon digested that for a second, wanting to make all this new information fit into some kind of solid, reasonable box. “Demons really exist?”
“Earth-That-Was had a whole host of nasties that go bump in the night and most of them came with us when we left. There’s a lot more places for them to hide, now. We have enemies, and we know how to fight ‘em.”
“So do we,” Simon said.
“I got the gist. But I’m guessing your shadow Fed goons aren’t likely to hide out in the woods and try to stab you from behind. We’ve got some enemies that followed our ancestors from Earth. The wendigos were working with one of those; nasty hwen dan, been feuding with us for ages. The only good thing about our personal demons is that when you kill them no one goes looking for them.” Dean waited for Simon to say something. “You ok?”
“Ah… yes. I think.”
“Look, one good thing about what we hunt is that they have patterns, habits, ways to stop that usually don’t involve running for the hills or blowing them to shreds.” Dean picked up his spanner again. “It’s what we do.”
Simon looked over at the doorway. “River is… exceptionally smart. Genius. Even more than me, and I was one of the best in my class. If she puts her mind to it, she can become the best at anything. I know she can do this. But you can’t just leave me behind without saying something. I need to know where she is!”
Dean fiddled with something inside the panel, put the spanner back down, and picked up a small probe. “Why aren’t you talking with River?”
“What?” Simon asked.
“Why aren’t you talking with River? I let her come, yeah, and I didn’t talk to you, but I don’t have to, Doc. You’re on my ship by accident, and you’re being real good in paying me back. But what about her? She’s paying her own way. And if that’s messing with whatever rules you got in your family, why aren’t you talking to her?” Dean asked.
“Because-. I don’t-. She-,” Simon opened and closed his mouth a few times and didn’t have an answer.
“You know where she is?” Dean persisted.
“Galley, I think.”
Dean turned to look at him full on. “She’s your sister, dude. She’s moving away from you. It’s enough to freak anyone out.” Dean pried open a smaller panel and looked into it as he kept talking.
“Dad raised us to be hunters, from just about as long as I can remember. Sam got to hating it after a while. Hated moving around, hated being different, hated knowing what’s out there. So he studied his ass off and got himself a scholarship for some fancy school on Beaumonde. Dad nearly blew a coil when Sam left. And I barely talked to him for three years.”
“But you’re hunting together now,” Simon said, a question in his tone.
“Some blast from the past shook Sam out of his nest. We get some long-term enemies in this job. If that hadn’t of happened, I’m not sure where we’d be now. Probably a few systems apart.” Dean put the probe into the panel and twisted something delicately. “I wanted to help him every step of the way. And you know what? The best thing he told me I ever did for him was letting him try his own way for once.”
“I just never thought she’d pick…”
“This? Funny how life works out. What’s she been doing with herself ‘til now?”
Simon didn’t even have to think very hard on that. River had been taught, been experimented upon, escaped, and had been healing. She’d been doing very little; everything had been done to her.
Dean seemed to take Simon’s silence as an answer. “The reason you were going to try to rip into me was because River would’ve talked circles around you and you know Sam would cut his arm off rather than hurt the lady.”
Simon was startled into a laugh and sobered slightly when he remembered the bruise on Sam’s side. Had he taken that for River?
“How is Sam?” Simon asked.
“Sam’s good,” Dean said, the blunt comment taking Simon by surprise. “I’m not selling him short, there’s not a lot of ‘good’ in a lot of people. Loyal. Smart. Clever at what he does. Cares too damn much. How’s River?”
“Unpredictable. Wonderful. She’s…” Simon was at a loss for words and could only think of the way he’d first described her to Serenity’s crew. “A gift.”
Dean nodded, giving a grunt of satisfaction.
“You think you’re gonna be ok now?” Dean asked. “Not gonna go upsetting my first mate or getting into family feuds now that I’ve dispensed all my captainly advice?”
“Very insightful, yes, Captain,” Simon said, turning to go. He had a hell of a lot to chew on.
“Hey,” Dean said, making Simon wait. “Took Sam and me a while to straighten ourselves out after Beaumonde. Since you’re a genius and your sister is a double genius, I figure you can get the hang of it sooner.”
Simon nodded slowly. “Where’s the next job?”
“Vampires on Newhope. Should be able to get you to Mal soon after that. He’s close, but work comes first.”