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!
Sam could still feel Simon’s nervousness as River adjusted the machete sheath on her thigh, even though they were nearly a mile from the ship. But despite the nerves practically radiating off the doc, he hadn’t said much to Sam. There hadn’t been any dramatic confrontations or yelling matches or stern warnings to stay away from River. Only a very intense, short discussion in the infirmary when Simon had been changing the medicated dressing on Sam’s side two days before.
“River’s been doing really well for most of the last year. I haven’t seen her this happy before.”
Sam had stiffened at the comment and tried to look over at Simon.
“I… like her,” Sam said quietly.
“Most people do. But she has bad days. Really bad days sometimes. Days when she sees too much.” Simon finished taping down the bandage and quickly wound gauze over it.
“Nightmares,” Sam said positively.
“Sometimes,” Simon nodded. “Just… be careful, all right?”
The man had looked nearly lost and all Sam could do was nod his agreement. For a minute, he could see River in him, telling him something important but not necessarily using direct communication. Sam was actually very comfortable with that.
It had been a remarkably quiet leave-taking on Newhope two days later, Simon only wishing River luck and hugging her until she’d nearly gone blue.
He had shot Sam a glance that promised pain if River came back harmed, though. Sam could live with that.
The one bad thing about hunting on the Outer Rim planets was the distance. With more tradition-bound monsters, you could get into their home range, circle them, and take them out with not too much trouble. But the smarter, more adaptable ones? They learned how to fly ships, blend in, take the stance of just another rancher or homesteader out to carve out a living. Sometimes that meant there were fewer civilians around when a hunt went down. Other times it meant there was a very long hike if you wanted to get near them without tipping them off that there were hunters come callin’.
River stalked next to Sam, almost ghostlike in the twilight. She was alert, head up, muscles taut and ready to run at Dean’s signal. Sam put a hand on her arm, lightly, warning her to relax. The vamps wouldn’t come out until night, and they didn’t have to remain on high alert until then. It was the easiest way to burn out, expecting an attack and remaining on a hair trigger.
“Hey, relax,” Sam whispered.
“Shouldn’t,” River said. “This is real, no game for children.”
“I know,” Sam said. “Believe me. I’ve been doing this since I was born, just about literally.”
River reached out and put a hand on Sam’s shoulder at the bitter undertone in his voice.
“Children shouldn’t have to fight, but it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t. Simon taught me that,” River said. “If I’d known how, I would have fought sooner.” They both paused at Dean’s signal, and River crouched down next to Sam as they moved into hiding.
“You’re doing a damn good job now,” Sam pointed out.
“Have to. I learned to dance the dance of death when dreaming, because it helped settle the ghosts.”
At one point, Sam would have found that statement utterly confusing. He wasn’t sure if Dean would consider it a good thing that River was making perfect sense to him now.
“And the ghosts?” Sam asked.
“Resting.” River reached out to squeeze Sam’s arm briefly, and caught his eyes in the dark. “It’s the best I can hope for.”
“It’s enough,” Sam said sincerely.
“Less talk,” Dean snapped. “We got company.”
The sun was barely down, and the farmhouse across the field was showing unexpected signs of life.
“They shouldn’t be movin’ this early,” Bobby said.
“They’re on the hunt,” Anna said and moved silently into the night.
“Hell,” Dean said. He directed Bobby to go the other way and Sam and River to stay where they were. “I hate it when she’s right.”
“She always is,” River said.
Out in the woods, something growled.
“Go!” Dean said and moved after Bobby. Sam and River kept their eyes on the farmhouse, River’s eyes straying up into the trees. At a touch from her, Sam looked up and swallowed hard. There were vampires up there, leaping from branch to branch, breaching the perimeter with contemptuous ease. Startled, Sam thrust his machete into his belt and pulled out his gun. Maybe he could surprise them into dropping if he fired, or at least bring them back around so they couldn’t circle towards the others.
“Wait,” River whispered. Sam hesitated and then heard a boom of a shotgun from Bobby’s direction. Sam swore and grabbed his machete again as the vampires hurled themselves from the trees and took off running. River kept right up with Sam as they loped into the night, knives flashing like the teeth of wolves.
Short, choked-off screams echoed in the woods as the hunters caught up with the vampires, slicing some throats and fending off getting their own ripped out as hunters and prey circled in a tight dance. Sometimes the hunters fought back-to-back while the vampires menaced them, others the vampires struggled to break through a loose circle of hunters. Anna fought like a machine, blade flicking out with painful precision to send heads flying all over the forest, while Bobby and Dean alternated between guns and blades, distracting with one so the other could move in.
They’d nearly gotten the numbers down to something acceptable, only a couple left, when one of them got lucky, body-slamming Dean and bouncing him off a tree, leaving a gap in their circle of death.
The remaining vampires took off, leaving Dean’s prone body behind as they headed towards some lights. Sam looked up for their source and cursed loudly. In the running fight in the woods, he hadn’t realized they’d circled back so close to the Impala. Which shouldn’t have the lights on. Castiel should have kept the ship dark and buttoned up, not lit up like a casino with the cargo bay door open.
Why the hell was the door open? Sam squinted into the light, and saw a very surprised Simon standing next to the control panel, bag in his hand, and Castiel lunging down the stairs towards him, an unexpected expression of surprise on his usually stoic face.
And running towards the tempting open door and the vulnerable doctor, two blood-speckled vampires.
River’s head came up as her arm came down as the scene came into focus. She turned and took off running hell-for-leather for the ship.
“River!” Sam called when he realized she was charging in alone.
Sam ran after her, his long-legged stride keeping up with her fear-induced flight. Dean was still struggling to his feet, Anna was still making sure of vamps on the far side of the circle, that only left – “Bobby, coming your way!” Sam bellowed.
River and Sam came into the harsh circle of light in front of the Impala’s cargo bay at the same time the vampires were wincing slightly at the brightness. It wouldn’t stop them, but it did slow them down, and that was Simon’s saving grace. Castiel was halfway down the stairs to the ground floor, and Simon had just realized the danger, eyes wide when he saw the vicious, rip-saw fangs of the vamps. Shotguns boomed in the night, Castiel and Bobby firing at once, making the vampires stagger with the force.
River put on an extra burst of speed and leapt high and gracefully into the air, her machete clearing her sheath and decapitating the vampire reaching for Simon. Blood sheeted from the wound and the blade, speckling Simon with red, as the body collapsed on the deck. She landed like a bird, whirling to face the last threat. The other vampire turned and launched himself at a new target, away from River’s deadly reach, before Sam could readjust, and ripped into Bobby with a roar. Sam felt like red had covered his vision as he closed the distance. River’s blade stabbed the vampire, careful not to pierce him through, and Sam sliced downward, mangling the head and the horrid mouth.
Bobby fell free with a pained gasp as Sam wrenched his blade free and made the final stroke, casting the head away.
“Simon!” River called imperiously, holding her bloody blade away from her as she stooped over Bobby’s bloody body. Sam felt himself go pale as River crouched next to Bobby’s head, his bloody lips moving as he tried to say something. The doctor shook off his own shock to kneel next to him, and moved aside the ruins of Bobby’s shirt to look at the wounds.
“Why the hell did you open the door?” Dean demanded, fear making his voice harsh.
“I heard River scream,” Simon said flatly, hands flying as he labored over Bobby. Sam felt a vague stab of curiosity at that even through his fear for Bobby’s life; River hadn’t called out until Bobby had fallen - after the door was already open.
“You should not have been able to open the door,” Castiel said.
“I’m dating an engineer,” Simon said. If Dean was looking for guilt to assuage his anger, it wasn’t going to happen; Sam recognized the steel in Simon’s expression. He’d thought he’d heard his family in pain and after that nothing else mattered.
Simon put patches over the rents in Bobby’s skin, stopping the worst of the bloodflow, and tilted his head to listen closely to his heart through the stethoscope.
When Simon shook his head, Sam thought his heard was going to stop.
“No, it’s not all lost,” River said fiercely, taking Sam’s hand to make him look at her. “He needs serenity.”
“He’s not going to die!” Sam snapped, trying to conceal his worry when he saw how pale Bobby was.
“No, he’s not, not if we can get him to Serenity,” she said.
“We don’t have time for one-with-the-universe bullshit. Fix him!” Dean roared.
“No, no,” Sam said, brain finally engaging. Simon was still quietly working, intent on keeping Bobby from death, but he nodded in silent affirmation of River’s words. “Cas, get us to Mal’s ship, now!” After nearly three years on Serenity, the doc had to have gotten a better medical set-up than Bobby’s jury-rigged first aid station.
Castiel vanished back up to the cockpit, while River and Sam helped get Bobby inside. He barely noticed Anna disappearing upstairs with Castiel. All his attention was focused on the quiet circle of him, Dean, Simon, and River, with Bobby barely clinging to life.
“River didn’t scream,” Dean said, his voice low and intense even as he kept a barely-respectable working distance from Simon.
“I know what her voice sounds like, trust me, it was her.”
“I didn’t, Simon,” River said. “I didn’t scream.” He looked up at her, guilt clouding his expression for a minute, before putting his head back down to work.
Dean turned towards Sam as Simon injected drugs and monitored vital signs. “What tripped Doc’s alarm, then?” Dean asked. “We miss a vamp with a ventriloquist kink?”
Sam shook his head. “No… I don’t think so. It was just the two and they’re…” Sam glanced over at the two decapitated bodies.
“Hell,” Dean let out a deep breath. “Anna warned us this was gonna be a bad one.”
“She said that about the wendigos.”
“Yeah, but she’s never wrong. The wendigos were nasty, but not as bad as they could have been. One of the vamps must have been a screamer.” Dean set his jaw, but nodded slightly at Simon. “We’ve done stupider for less reason. Hold down the fort, Sam, I gotta get Mal on the comm.” Back stiff, Dean left for the cockpit, leaving Sam in the blood-splattered cargo bay to help Simon and River.
It seemed a long time later when River pulled Sam away, prying his hand away from Bobby’s. “Let Simon work. We’re not alone.”
“I know,” Sam said, hugging her close as they stepped out of the infirmary.
“It’s going to be messy, Sam. Dangerous,” River warned. Sam pulled back to look at her, and could see how pale she was.
“It’s ok. It’s going to be ok. Simon’s one of the best; you told me that.”
“I’m not worried about Simon,” she whispered. Her hand clenched hard in his jacket, and she pressed her head to his chest. Like she was trying to listen to his heart… or force her head inside. “Bobby will be ok.”
River sounded confident, but Sam could feel her trembling against him.
Simon had never been so glad to see Mal’s face on the screen, with the rest of Serenity’s crew trying to peek in from every corner. Kaylee succeeded the most, and Simon felt nearly dizzy with relief. Bobby was a tough guy and had held up admirably under Simon’s care, but he needed more than sutures and simple analgesics.
“Aren’t you a sight for sore-,” Mal started.
“Mal, I have a gravely injured man and I need things prepped in the infirmary before we board.” Simon cut off the greetings and reeled off a list of drugs and tools he needed out and ready the second he hit Serenity’s deckplates. Dean was a silent, looming presence behind him, not quite absolving him, not quite blaming him for Bobby.
“Copy that,” Zoe said, her face momentarily filling the screen before vanishing to the side.
“One minute to docking,” Mal said.
“Heard,” Castiel’s voice broke in.
“Cap’n, that cruiser that’s been followin’ us around?” Kaylee said.
“Please tell me we shook him off, because I don’t fancy trying to ship-dock with a patrol breathing down our necks,” Mal said sharply.
“Looks like he lost us, but I don’t think we should linger long.” Kaylee flashed Simon a quick smile on the screen before turning back to staring at the scanner.
“Sending coordinates,” Castiel said. “Countdown on my mark…”
Simon could only smile briefly at Kaylee as he called for Sam and River to help him.
“I’ll need you, mei-mei,” Simon said. “I need you for the operation.” He didn’t even look up as a faint shudder went through the ship, signaling the two ships had managed to dock.
“Can’t,” she said, her voice a little distant. Simon looked up sharply, dismayed at seeing the too-focused gaze that marked River’s bad days. “Guardian at the gate. Can’t let the darkness past. Safer with me here, Simon.” She looked back at Sam, standing near the cargo bay doors, ready to move Bobby to Serentiy.
“River…” Simon’s voice softened, and he looked over at Sam. “I know you… want to stay, but I need some help. Just for now, to help Bobby, ok? We can talk after, I promise.”
“Safer without me, Simon. We’re not alone.”
Dean’s voice boomed through the cargo bay, “Ok, we’re solid. Opening the doors!”
The cargo bay doors cracked open, and Zoe and Mal slipped through, crowding around Bobby’s stretcher with quickly choked-off exclamations about the wounds. “Come on, Doc. This one looks more dead than alive.”
They barely looked up at River, trusting Simon to take care of her, maybe not even registering the blood drying on her clothes from the vampires. Everyone’s attention was focused on Bobby, on Simon and River, not minding anything else.
“River, you’re not alone, I promise,” Simon said and reached out to take her hand. “You won’t be alone.”
“It’s all right,” Sam said, putting both his massive hands on her shoulders. “I’ll be ok. You go take care of Bobby, and I’ll hold down the fort. We’ll catch back up in no time, I promise, even if I have to pilot her myself to get back to you, ok?”
River opened her mouth, a gleam of returning stability coming to her eyes, when Dean’s voice broke in.
“Alliance patrol vessel on long-range scanners. Pick where you’re going, people, and lock down the doors! Move!”
River went pale again, Simon looked over his shoulder towards his infirmary, and Sam got a haunted look on his face, guilt stamped across his features. His grip loosened as Simon pulled River away, sliding them both through the doors and sealing the two ships apart.
With a shudder, Serenity and the Impala separated.
“What the hell, Sam?” Dean asked the question without any real heat, his attention focused on leading the Alliance vessel on a little tail-chase until they could launch their decoy buoy. He kept an eye on the scanners as Castiel used every trick as their disposal to keep the Impala as the choice target. No damn point, Sam knew Dean was thinking, in risking everything to get Bobby to Serenity only to get her caught before Simon could work his magic.
“What was I supposed to do, Dean?” Sam said, imagining he could still feel River pressing against him. It was like she had been trying to press understanding into him, trying to tell him something other than words, but Sam couldn’t understand. But Simon could. It had been the first time he’d seen any hint of the damage that River had suffered in her past. And hadn’t he felt like a horse’s ass for not knowing what to do or say? “Simon needed her help for Bobby, and I don’t know much more than stitching up cuts.”
“Could’a gone with her.”
“You have two vamp bodies on the ship, Bobby’s not here, Castiel’s busy, Anna wouldn’t know a normal ship chore if it bit her on the ass, so you need me too!” Sam said defensively.
“She probably needs you more.”
Sam turned away, jaw clenched.
“Hey,” Dean said softly. “She isn’t Madison.”
Sam turned back. “I know that.”
“You’re flypaper for freaks, Sam. Learn to love it, because they sure as hell love you.”
Sam stared at Dean like he’d just grown a second head. “What?”
“Go police the vamp bodies if you can’t get it. This is going to be one long-ass chase.”
Feeling sick to his stomach, Sam descended to the cargo bay.
River was curled up in the corner of the infirmary, an uncomfortably familiar place. She’d spent the first few weeks on Serenity in here, not seeing it for what it was, uncertain of exactly when or who or how the universe was shaping itself around her. Simon hated seeing her like that, reverted to the frightened girl he’d rescued three years ago. Even if she’d competently helped him stitch Bobby’s organs back into place and seal his muscle and skin into position, the rest of her mind had been elsewhere.
She hadn’t moved since the operation, only kept her eyes nailed on the door, her hand on the machete blade at her side. Simon had only managed to wipe the blood from her face and clothes under protest and wondered if he had done her any favors by wresting her away from the Impala.
“Mei-mei?” Simon asked and River turned to look at him. “Are you all right?”
River seemed to wake up slightly and her gaze sharpened. “Simon.” Her soft, dreamy voice held an unexpected note of steel. “Stay here.”
She launched herself off of the counter and pulled a leather packet from her pocket. She poured a thick line of salt over the threshold and shut the door behind her. To his dismay, Simon heard her engage the lock with the whine that meant she’d used the override code. He wouldn’t be getting out now.
“River!” he yelled, pounding on the window.
“Simon, stay!” she shouted and ran hell-for-leather up the stairs.
Simon pressed himself helplessly against the glass as he watched her disappear into the darkness.
Sam started as the comm crackled to life. They were supposed to be maintaining radio silence; Mal had insisted.
“I saw the shadow, Sam. I remember what you dreamed.” River’s voice filled the cockpit of the Impala, abruptly clicked off again, and Dean swore.
“Sam, tell your girlfriend you two can exchange sweet crazies when we’re not on a dodge-.”
“Turn around,” Sam said, fear gripping him from the brief glimpse of River’s frightened face.
“What?” Dean asked.
“Castiel, bring her around, now!”
“Sam, what the hell?” Dean’s voice was taking on Dad’s stubborn tone and Sam knew he had to talk fast.
“You were right, Dean, I should have gone with her. She kept saying something about danger, and I wasn’t listening. Dean, those vamps shouldn’t have known we were coming. We came in dark, we crept in on foot, we did everything right, and they still got the drop on us. It was like someone tipped them off. Then Simon heard River scream when she didn’t and got him to open the door. There’s only one monster we pissed off that badly that could have gotten to them that fast.”
“Demons,” Dean said flatly. “Don’t tell me you-.”
“I had a vision,” Sam cut in. They both knew those had been getting a lot less frequent and reliable since they’d shut down the Hellgate, but it didn’t mean they were entirely wrong. “River knew. They’re gunning for us, Dean.”
“On Mal’s ship?” Dean went pale. “Shit, Bobby. Cas, go!”
The demons didn’t want to take on Castiel and Anna, but vulnerable Bobby and new hunter River were fair game. In the chaos of the hunt aftermath, and with the right kind of spells, it would have been possible to hide on the Impala for a short time, even from angels. But on Mal’s ship, a demon would have free reign. He could set things up to his liking, possessing the crew or taking out Bobby at his leisure. Or he could take down new opposition before it became too hard. River was going to be one of the best, Sam knew it. And now, so did one of their enemies. Forget the Alliance, there was something much more at stake here.
Simon couldn’t get out, but he could monitor a little of what was going on through the ship’s comm system. Doors were locking all over the ship, and there had been a very brief burst of subspace communication to the Impala. It reminded him of Jubal Early’s attack on Serenity, his careful separation of the crew, the breakdown of communications, leaving just one person stalking the corridors, looking for his prey.
Simon’s leg ached at the memory.
Something moved at the corner of his eye out of the infirmary windows, and Simon turned to see a furtive figure dart from behind one of Serenity’s cargo crates to the wall next to the control panel. With short, economical motions, the stranger sliced his palm with a dagger and daubed a diagram on the wall, his short red hair gleaming like fire in the cargo bay lights. Simon ducked down instinctively as the stranger started to turn around, and grabbed a small mirror to look behind him through the window.
When the stranger turned, staring, Simon could see his eyes were solid black. His guts turn to solid ice as a forcible sensation of wrong washed over him. River was out there alone with that thing. Simon dug in a drawer for his seldom-used bone saw and crept to the door, holding his makeshift weapon in both white-knuckled hands.
He prayed that the Winchester brothers had been right about his sister, because he knew River was going to let that thing hurt the crew only over her dead body.
Castiel accomplished the ship-dock with admirable efficiency, syncing with Serenity and locking them in without a single wasted second. As the clamps engaged, Castiel grabbed his own shotgun from beside his seat and followed the Winchesters to the cargo bay without a single word. Anna was already waiting, tight and set, covering the left as Castiel moved to the right. Dean moved to the middle as Sam triggered the cargo bay doors, his own gun covering the expanding opening. For a second, nothing happened, just the eerie silence of a space waiting in fear.
Then Castiel and Anna erupted in a flash of brilliant white light and vanished.
Sam blinked the spots from his eyes and looked over at Dean, who set his jaw and re-shouldered his weapon. Both of them stalked forward, covering each side of Serenity’s cargo bay.
“Banishing sigils. Wong ba duhn,” Dean swore.
“Let’s go,” Sam whispered. He jerked with his head towards one of the staircases, and Dean nodded, hitting the button to close the cargo bay doors as he did. Sam pulled out a packet of salt and poured down a line across the doorway; bad enough trying to find a demon on one ship, let alone two. And wouldn’t it be a bitch to have the demon sneak back aboard the Impala and steal it while they were running around over on Mal’s ship? It would take Castiel and Anna a while to get themselves back from wherever they’d been sent.
“We’re putting a devil’s trap on the ramp after this,” Dean muttered.
“I hear you.”
“Hsst!” Dean hissed, chin jerking towards the opening in front of them. Through the doorway at the back, Sam could see Simon on the other side of a window, face paper-white, pointing up. Sam didn’t even stop to think, just jerked his gun upwards and fired, winging the demon that had tried to leap down on them from the catwalk above.
Dean moved back and fired again, missing the cat-fast demon as he scrambled behind some boxes. Snarling, he moved around the side, Sam covering him, and suddenly yelled as the demon sprang over the crates to latch onto Sam. The sulfur stench had Sam’s eyes watering even as the demon twisted his arms, forcing him to drop the shotgun and then turned him to face Dean.
“So sweet, Winchesters. So adorably predictable,” the demon said, his voice a deeply-amused rasp. “Running off without a plan, without back-up, as usual. And all for little old me.”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Dean said, his aim steady even as the demon hid behind Sam’s larger frame. “I just hate leaving trash behind.”
The demon wrenched Sam’s arms again, and pain radiated from their sockets. Sam grimaced but kept silent, his eyes darting until they found who he’d hoped for. River was wedged between a wall support protection and a crate, feet ready to push off from the shadows. She was halfway behind Sam, out of the demon’s line of sight, and gave him the tiniest of smiles as she stared at them. Sam knew that look, the same look she’d used during the wendigo hunt and the vampire hunt. She was calculating the angles, looking for the weak point, the blind spot.
Sam let himself sag just a little in the demon’s grip and tapped a useless finger against the rune-covered knife on his hip. Dean’s eyes shifted imperceptibly down and then up again.
“It’s not just trash,” the demon taunted. “Little sister isn’t going to get the chance to cut her teeth on any more of us. You gotta learn, Winchesters, that you aren’t always going to have friends there to take the fall for you-.”
River sprang from hiding, and the demon turned to face the new threat, dragging Sam with him. She rolled low as Sam suddenly made himself a solid, dead weight in the demon’s arms, putting his head low enough that Dean could take the shot. Rock salt blasted where he was a second ago, making the demon scream, and Sam’s short fall was enough to bring his hip into range of River’s hand. She snatched the knife just as the demon screamed and hooked her foot on the demon’s leg, twisting herself around and up to plunge the knife into his chest in a single fluid motion.
The demon flared and flickered, burning from the inside out, before collapsing on the deck, silent and still. From the opposite side of the cargo bay, through the infirmary windows, Simon was pressed against the glass, jaw sagging open in astonishment.
“You very much mind telling me why you felt the need to lock us all up like a bunch of zoo critters?”
That was the first thing out of Mal’s mouth when River set him free and Sam could see she could barely hold back the smile. But she managed, and looked entirely serious and businesslike as she helped him up the ladder.
“Out of necessity, Captain. I couldn’t have you running around underfoot, now could I?” River asked with great solemnity. “It wasn’t your fight.”
“My boat, my fight,” Mal said, color rising in his cheeks. “You went and took that away from me.”
“No,” River shook her head. “Not your fight. It wasn’t after you. It was after me.”
“What was it?” Zoe asked, leaning against the corridor wall. “I’ve never seen anything go out like that.”
“Demon,” Simon piped up, before Sam could say anything.
“A what now?” Jayne asked.
“Demon,” River repeated. “I caught its attention during the hunt, and it felt the need for me to die. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring it here, but there was an aphasic episode and my point was less than clear.”
“The hell it wasn’t-.”
“It happens,” River cut Mal off abruptly. “I am less than whole.”
Mal grumbled something under his breath, and Inara moved in with artful timing to give River a hug and touch Mal with a soothing hand.
“Thank you for saving us. I don’t think anyone else would have known what to do.”
“I could’ve done it,” Jayne muttered.
“I had help,” River said.
“You weren’t doin’ too bad on your own,” Sam said and River grinned.
“Don’t compliment me in front of Mal. You’ll make him mad all over again,” she warned.
Mal considered that comment beneath his notice and changed the subject.
“So. You and River.”
“Me and River,” Sam agreed, their hands finding each other’s easily.
Mal shot a look at him, then over Sam’s shoulder at Dean.
“Hey, don’t go looking at me. They’ve both got a spot on my boat if they want it. River’s got skills, and she’s a good hunter already. She’s welcome on the Impala, with a full share,” Dean said.
“Full share? Bobby will squawk,” Sam said. River smiled.
“Bobby’s on bed rest for a month, so he can squawk from there,” Dean retorted. “Anyway, Mal, that’s the situation.”
“How about some of us getting a full share?” Jayne asked.
Mal looked ruminative, ignoring Jayne entirely. Zoe spoke up.
“Sounds like a place to stretch yourself, though we’re gonna miss you,” Zoe said to River. Mal glared, but Zoe held her ground. “Mal, River can’t run around here doing errands forever.”
“He knows,” River said, getting Mal to transfer his glare to her. “He just hates being blindsided.”
“Ain’t that the truth of man,” Mal said. He looked over at Sam. “You know what you’re getting yourself into?”
Dean shook his head before Sam could answer. “Any man who thinks they know what they’re getting into with a woman is a liar.”
“That’s God’s honest truth,” Jayne declared. Dean grinned.
Inara smiled beautifully and walked over to Sam to pull him into range for a chaste kiss on either cheek. “Never forget that and you’ll do fine.” She turned to River and gave her a hug. “You either.”
“Men are a mystery arcane, par on the meaning of life and the taste of strawberries,” River said, linking her arm with a slightly-confused Sam and leaning her head against him.
Dean raised an eyebrow, and Mal gave him an evil grin. “Good luck, you’ll be dealing with those pearls of wisdom the rest of the trip out.”
River’s bags were at her feet, just a few things she needed from her old life, as she stood in the cargo bays between the two ships.
“I love you,” River said and hugged Simon until he thought he was going to pass out. “You deserve better.”
“River-,” he protested, but she cut him off.
“Go be with Kaylee. Have fun. Love each other. I’m just a wave away, always.” She hugged him again, and Simon hugged her back, chin digging into her leather jacket. “I can fight my own nightmares now, Simon.”
If a few hot tears managed to decorate River’s jacket before Simon pulled away, neither of them commented on it.
“Make sure you keep Simon on his toes,” River said as Kaylee enveloped her in a hug.
“I will,” Kaylee said, and let go reluctantly. She shyly held out the bag of jacks, and River took them, tucking them reverently into a pocket.
“Be happy,” Inara said clasping River’s hands.
“I am,” River said, and kissed Inara’s cheek.
Zoe pulled her a handclasp like a soldier and nodded solemnly. “Shoot straight out there.”
River turned to Jayne next, who looked like he’d rather be elsewhere. “I’ll always remember threatening you fondly,” she said.
He shifted from side to side uncomfortably. “Um… me too.”
Mal stepped up last and pulled her into a quick hug. “Gonna miss you, little albatross.”
“Don’t say that, someone will hear,” River whispered loudly and hugged him back.
“Hey!” Dean’s yell echoed from the Impala. “We gotta pick up Ellen and Jo and get to Persephone sometime this week. Let’s go!”
Sam waved away Dean’s yell as he came to help River shoulder her bags. With a last backwards look, River resolutely turned and walked into the Impala. The cargo bay doors shut behind them, and with a faint rumble, Castiel kicked them loose from Serenity.
“Welcome home, River,” Sam said softly. River stood on her tiptoes and kissed him as the Impala carried them away.
Kaylee and Simon stood at the cargo bay doors as the others drifted away, imagining they could hear the faint sounds of the Impala’s engines as the other ship sped into the distance.
“Hey,” Simon said after a long moment. “River wanted me to give this to you.” He pressed a letter into Kaylee’s hands, one that River had slipped into his pocket while they were saying goodbye. The delicate rice paper crackled invitingly, and Kaylee unfolded it carefully, reading the elegantly inked lines with growing astonishment.
Don’t let my brother mope too much. He’s been entirely too morose since my escape, and he’s forgotten how to have fun. Reintroduce him, and don’t let him dwell. He gave more for me in two years than some of us get in a lifetime. But he doesn’t know how to stop. That’s part of why I left, what I couldn’t say to him. He deserves to be Simon again, not River’s brother, and you deserve Simon too.
I’m going to be fine. Nothing in the verse can stop me.
“Kaylee?” Simon asked, when the silence had gone on for too long. “What did it say?”
“Oh, you know. A River-ism,” Kaylee said lightly and began to pull Simon back towards her quarters.
Simon smiled as Kaylee and he ran lightly through the ship.
“I know exactly what you mean.”