I: Can't Take the Sky From Me.
She liked to creep along the catwalks and watch them, quiet-quiet, as they laughed and argued and traded blows and lifted weights in the cargo hold, their own little nest amidst the biggest and emptiest part of the world, the blackness of space. Sam hated being in space, hatedhatedhated it, like she hated getting shots or Jayne's oatmeal, could feel the nothing in it, where there should be people. Sam could Hear.
Dean couldn't hear, unless he was listening to his brother, and Dean liked space. He liked the quiet, liked it when nobody was shooting at them, knew how to move and fight and function out in the black. Dean was born to space, had moved inside and outside and across and back, had been in parts of space that physics didn't have the words or the math to explain, and he loved it the way she loved Simon, or the way he loved Sam. Dean had never been planetside for more than a day or two at a time, and he liked it that way. He only ever came down because he had to, or if Sam wanted it. Dean would give Sam anything he wanted.
"River, come down from there. It's time for dinner."
You'll fall. It was a fearful thought, from Simon's head, but he didn't say it aloud because he knew she wouldn't. Fear wasn't the same as logic. She'd learned that the hard way.
"Coming, Simon," she said, and danced across the metal grating, somewhere between a waltz and a jig. Sometimes I think her feet will just leave the ground. "Jayne isn't cooking, right?"
"No, meimei." He reached out automatically, his arm sliding around her shoulders, his hand coming up to stroke her hair. He loved her. Touching was important when you loved someone, but not the same for her as it was for Kaylee. Most of the time she even understood why. "Kaylee's cooking for us tonight."
Everyone was already seated when they got to the kitchen, 'cept for Kaylee who was bringing the food to the table. Wonder when Kaylee got ahold of those spices? God, I'm starving. Gorram girl better hurry up before my stomach eats isself.
Dean sat across from her, chewing his food with the single-minded intent of a man who knew that the luck of a full belly was a transient thing. She knew she was staring at him as she chewed her own meal without tasting it What is she looking at? If he touches her, I'll castrate him in his sleep. but he didn't look up, didn't so much as twitch. He could feel her staring, but he didn't care. The only things in his head were food and Sam.
Dean was simple. Sam was not.
Sam was twitchy, his eyes skimmingscanning the rest of the table, Mal and Zoe and Jayne and even Simon, anyone who could pose a threat, suspicious and ready to go for his gun in a second, 'cept the Captain wouldn't let them carry while they were onboard. Sam didn't trust them, because Sam didn't trust anybody. Sam had the trust beaten out of him, cut out of his brain bit by bit, until only Dean was left. River had people when she came out of the cold, River had crew but Sam only had Dean.
And her, now.
She wished she could have been there before, that she could have found him and kept him and loved him and made him better like Simon made her better, like MalInaraKayleeWashZoeJayneSerenity made her better, but she wasn't there and she couldn't fix him, not with Miranda in her head. Sam never had a Miranda in his head, Sam wasn't good enough for them never met the Bad People, but Sam had enough badness of his own. Sam needed someone to hear him, and Dean heard him, even though Dean couldn't Hear, but River was there now. River was going to find a way to make him better.
Starting with making him a mite less jumpy, so the Captain wouldn't shoot him just on general principle. Mal would do it too, he didn't like guns unless he was holding them, or his crew, and he liked people who carried guns a lot less, when he couldn't understand them. And Mal knew a lot, he could understand her, most of the time, but Mal couldn't never understand the Winchesters. Nobody could.
STOP TWITCHING. she told Sam, but it just made him twitch harder, a wince this time, and glare at her like it was her fault.
Stop shouting he said. I can hear you fine.
Oh. She'd forgotten how loud she was. Spent a year on a ship making no kind of sense with her mouthbox because she'd been tryingtryingtrying to make them HEAR HER and she just got louder and louder and every once in a while she'd come clear, even if they didn't realize it, and so she got used to shouting. But Sam could Hear her just fine. She didn't need to shout.
You're making them nervous she told him. You don't need to be afraid here. They won't hurt you.
He didn't respond, just bent his head back to his food, but he stopped twitching so bad. Dean shot her a look filled with something even she couldn't read, but he smiled at her good girl and went back to eating his dinner. If he was maybe leaning a little closer to Sam than he was before, nobody probably noticed but her.
After dinner she helped Dean wash up the dishes, because it was his turn and she wanted to talk to him. One by one the rest of the crew left them alone, Simon the last to go, trailing reluctantly away with several glances back over his shoulder, like if he went slow enough he could catch Dean doing something he oughtn't. River laughed at him and shooed him off, because Kaylee was waiting and she'd get in a mood if Simon spent the whole evening complaining about what he thought Dean was doing to his little sister. Simon would probably do it anyway, though.
"That boy is out for my blood," Dean said, as he passed her one of the plates. "Don't suppose you could tell him that I'm not lookin' to take your virtue, now, could you?"
"He wouldn't listen," she sighed. "He never listens."
"Yeah, well, big brothers are like that. Or so I've been told." Dean's smile is upside-down and inside-out, and wasn't really a smile at all. She set down her drying-rag and reached up to touch his mouth, wanting to smooth it upwards into a real smile this time. She didn't want him to be sad.
"You're the only thing he ever loved," she told him solemnly.
"You'd better hope your brother doesn't walk in like this," he said, his lips tickling her fingers. "He might get the wrong idea and shoot me."
"He doesn't have a gun."
"The captain would probably be happy to shoot me too."
She frowned at him. "He'd die for you."
"Honey, I don't think Malcolm Reynolds would die for the likes of me."
She frowned harder. "Deeeean."
He smiled, sadsadsad. "You sound like him. He was a whiny little kid."
"He'd die for you," she said again, insistent. "Just like you did for him."
He went very still, and inside the ticking of his heart got loud, loud, louder, till she couldn't barely hear anything else. "I didn't think you knew 'bout that."
She slid her hand down, her palm scraping over stubble, over the smooth skin of his throat, and came to rest over his chest, where gears turned and clicked with clockwork precision, hidden away under flesh and bone and scars. "You gave him your heart. Nobody in the 'verse could do anything like that 'cept you and him. The crazy Winchesters, all growed up."
He sighed and grabbed her hand, holding it tight in his bigger one, all calloused from guns and work and love. "It's not much."
"Time's running out," she said. "That's a lot."
"And it'll all be fine once we can get to my ship and recharge," he said. "It's not to be worried about, you hear me? I get enough of that from Sam."
"He loves you," she said helplessly. "He loves you."
Dean's face softened, and he tucked a strand of hair away from her face. "I know, honey. I've got a few months till my year's out. We'll be fine. We're always fine. It's what we do."
"Sam doesn't believe that."
"Sam will," Dean said. He gave her a light shove. "Go on, go bother him. Maybe if you tell him this 'stead of me, you might get some use out of your jawbone. He'll listen to you."
"Okay." She kissed him on the cheek. "He's my little brother too."
"Yeah, he is," he said, and went back to the dishes.
Sam was sitting on his bed with his back against the bulkhead, his knees against his chest with his arms wrapped loosely around them. He uncurled a little when she came down the ladder, making a space for her to curl up next to him, press her head against his chest and listen to Dean's heart beat underneath his ribs.
"Hey, duckling," he said.
"Tha-thump, tha-thump, tha-thump," she whispered. "Right on time."
He stroked her hair. His hand was even bigger than Dean's. "Don't worry, duck. I know we'll make it."
She tilted her head to look up at him. "You're all full of doubt, like maggoty little worms, all crawling inside your head," she said. "Dean's the one with faith."
"Then that's good enough for me." He pressed his lips to her forehead. "Don't be sorry you couldn't save me, River. You saved yourself. Dean saved me. It worked out."
"I missed you," she whispered.
"Me too, duckling. Me too."
Simon was waiting for her when she climbed back out of Sam's bunk, a couple hours later. He had his arms crossed over his chest, all protective big-brother, like she was ten and snuck out to go dancing at the country fair. She wanted to giggle, but she only did it on the inside. Simon didn't like people laughing at him when he thought he was being serious.
"What is it with them, River? I don't understand."
She tried to work her mouthbox around the words, but she couldn't make them come. He's like me, she tried. If only you could have seen him when they brought him in, Simon, he was so beautiful. They took me and they cut me and they shaped me and they made me better, stronger, faster, made me open to the world. And it hurt and it was bad but it was good, too. They didn't need to do anything to Sam, he was perfect already, but they thought he could be better, and they couldn't understand why it didn't work, so they kept cutting until they cut him down to nothing and I had to watch them do it. They took his heart out and his brother came along and Dean gave him his and Dean made him better but I wasn't there and I couldn't fix him and I should have because he's my little brother and I love him and he kept me safe even after they cut him into pieces and he loves me too.
But he couldn't hear her. He wouldn't be able to hear her even if she SHOUTED because Simon couldn't hear her the way Dean could hear Sam. Because Simon loved her, had sacrificed everything, but he didn't live for her. Not anymore. And that was good, that was right.
She couldn't say it, though. She couldn't make the words come, and he wouldn't want to understand even if she could. Incest made Simon nervous; so he turned his eyes from the Winchesters and pretended he didn't know. He didn't really want her to tell him. But he had to ask.
"He's like me," she said, and went to the cockpit. She wanted to look at space.
Mal found her there. Downright uncanny, he was, always came looking when she wanted to be found. His brain was such a tangle, all over bristles and spikes, and she couldn't get but a word in twenty. It was nice.
"Seems like your brother's working himself into a fret worryin' about those boys," Mal said. "There anything to his worrying, or can I tell him to shut up and stop askin' for my gun?"
She laughed. Mal made her laugh a lot these days. "He's just being silly," she said. "Sam would never hurt me, not ever. Not Dean either."
"That's what I thought," Mal said, exuding satisfaction. "Couple of good Browncoat boys like those wouldn't hold those kind of thoughts, no way."
She smiled. "Knew there was a reason you let them on board."
Mal shrugged. "They had the coin." He leaned back in his seat and looked at her. "That boy was with you back there, wasn't he? They did for him like they did you?"
She rested her cheek in her open palm and just smiled at him. Little brother's better now. He has Dean. They'll be fine.
"Yes ma'am, I do believe they will," Mal said, and reached for the controls. "How's about you let me drive for a bit?"
It wasn't until later that she realized she hadn't spoken aloud, and she hadn't had to shout. Mal had heard her just fine.