Impala-class vessels are fast and flashy; classic models bring a good amount of credits in the collector's market, enough that so many sad piles of luh suh have been shined up and pawned off on trusting members of society that the Alliance now takes a hard look at ship sales in the Core.
What they're not are freight vessels. The few Impalas in commercial use are strictly passenger affairs, not carrying cargo larger than personal luggage.
So Simon has no idea how River's pod wound up loaded aboard the Impala at the edge of the shipyard, a black vessel with the words Dean's Baby scrawled across the bow. By the time he realizes the mix-up there's no time to unload her and barely enough time to sneak aboard himself.
Which of course brings Simon to his current problem: Captain Winchester also doesn't know how they got there, and he's even less happy about it than Simon. He's especially unhappy when Simon follows the gunpoint order to open the pod and River wakes up panicked and screaming. "Wong Ba Duhn, someone explain right now why there's a chick in a box on my boat!"
"Dean. You're frightening her." The sigh comes from the man crouching beside the pod, dark-haired with piercing blue eyes and dressed in a Shepherd's frock. The Captain - Dean - rolls his eyes; Simon looks between him and the first mate, apparently the captain's brother from what Simon's gathered, and Wuo Duh Tien Ah, these are big men. They make the shepherd look small, and he has a couple of inches on Simon. If this comes to a fight Simon has no idea what he's going to do. "What's her name?" the shepherd asks Simon, catching his eye.
The voice is deeper and rougher than Simon expects, speaking with precise Core diction while the two brothers have the loose cadence of the outer colonies. The voice doesn't seem to fit the shepherd and it makes Simon uneasy for reasons he can't pin down. "River. Look, just let me handle this, I can calm her down..."
But Simon's rapidly realizing that no one in the entire 'verse is interested in listening to him. "River," the shepherd says, "you're safe here. Do you understand?" River's stopped screaming but Simon wouldn't exactly call her calm, curled up on herself as she is with her eyes darting all around the room. "My name is Castiel."
River shakes her head, her hair flying out in all directions. "Only on Thursdays," she says, and Simon catches the man's soft intake of breath. Simon's just astonished she's this verbal so soon. "Other days you remember your name was changed and shortened. But it's okay," and she smiles at him, almost as if she wants to reassure him, "you like the new one better." She leans close. "Don't worry. I won't tell him."
"I think she's a psychic, Dean," he says, with the dry tone of someone stating the obvious. His eyes dart over to the first mate (Sam, Simon remembers, the captain had called him Sam) and then back to Dean, a look Simon recognizes as significant without understanding why.
She glances up, not so much at the shepherd as over his shoulder. "Your wings are pretty."
An unreadable expression flickers for a moment on Castiel's face and the captain twitches, his hand much too close to his gun for Simon's comfort. Simon's trying desperately to come up with some lie when the shepherd speaks again, his voice grave and serious. "Thank you. They were."
She gives her head another hard, vehement shake. "No. Tense is important. It has to agree or language runs backward and time starts spinning in circles. They are pretty, they're just sleeping and don't remember they were wings. That's why they sing."
The shepherd looks stricken and Dean puts one hand on his shoulder, pulling him back; Simon can tell he intends to be gentle but is too angry to quite manage it. "You shut her up if you don't want a close-up look at the black." The shepherd tries to protest but it's waved away. "This is still my boat, Cas."
"Look, as I said, our coming here was an accident. You can let us off on the nearest planet and all of us can forget any of this ever happened."
"Yeah, problem is we're not stopping any time soon." He sighs and catches his brother's eye, who just gives him a helpless shrug. "You two stay here, we'll figure out what to do with you." He stomps away, the other two following; at the hatch the first mate turns around and throws River his jacket. He gives them a look that Simon thinks is supposed to be reassuring, although he's not sure to interpret it to mean that everything will be fine or just that when they're thrown out of the airlock it'll be a fast death.
Simon sits on the floor against the pod. "We'll be all right, mei-mei." He still has his pistol; he doesn't relish the idea of using it, but they've come too far to be stopped now. "I'll think of something."
River crawls out of the pod and sits on the cold floor next to him. "The captain will let us stay, Simon," she says as Simon wraps the jacket around her shoulders, using the exact tone of voice as when she would correct a logic mistake in his homework years ago.
The sound of arguing echoes through the ship. "I don't think we should count on that."
She stares out into space and Simon wonders what she sees. "He already knows he will."
Simon shakes his head. "Why are you so sure?"
She looks at him like something about the question was funny. "Because he's you."
The infirmary is a little antiquated to Simon's eyes but it's well-stocked and clearly well used. "Sam convinced me that we could use a real doctor but you're going to have to earn your keep," Dean says, although Simon's not sure when he gave the impression that would be a problem.
He supposes he'll just have to get used to it. "That seems more than fair." He finishes putting away his instruments and turns back to Dean. "You should probably disrobe now."
Sam snickers at the look on Dean's face. "You wanna come again, Doc?"
Simon shrugs. "You said I need to 'earn my keep.' Examinations are something doctors generally do. Unless you'd ratherI not have a baseline when there's an emergency and by the looks of things," he says, gesturing to the battered supply cabinet, "it seems like this crew doesn't go very long between those. And you've just implied it's been some time since any of you have had proper medical treatment."
Dean glares at Sam, as if this is all his fault somehow, but he takes off his shirt and sits on the exam table. "Usually I make someone buy me a couple of drinks before I take my clothes off."
Sam snorts at that. "No you don't."
"Dai Shing Ren."
Simon ignores the brothers' continued bickering as he starts the examination, making a mental note of where River is hiding under the table so he doesn't step on her. "Remember, River, you have to be very quiet." Dean is a mess of old and new scars, most of them having clearly been roughly stitched instead of being sealed with proper equipment. "I'm getting the feeling you don't trust doctors, Captain."
"Not that I don't trust them, they're just not usually an option. And if it's something me or Sam can fix up I usually don't see the point."
"What exactly do you doto yourselves?"
Dean shrugs, forcing Simon to chide him to hold still as he takes some blood. "Sometimes hunts go bad."
"Is that what the three of you do? What do you hunt?"
"You stay on this crew long enough, you'll find out."
Simon works his way over to Dean's left side, blinking in surprise when he finds a handprint-shaped brand on his left shoulder. "What caused this?"
Dean shrugs him off, shifting further up on the table. "None of your business. We about done?" When Simon tries to examine it Dean shifts away further, snarling "Don't touch it." He jumps off the table and tugs his shirt back on; Simon sends a questioning look at Sam, who just raises his hands in a hey, don't look at me gesture. "Look, Doc, I get that you're thorough but I'm fine. Right?"
Simon examines the preliminary readings on the samples and frowns. "Yes. Obviously I'll need to wait for more precise readings, but everything looks normal. Although you could probably stand to cut down on the drinking."
Sam snickers at that – which lasts right up until Simon gestures for him to hop up on the table. "Oh, no, no, I'm good."
"C'mon, Sammy, time to share the pain."
Simon's never understood why people approached simple examinations as if they were about to be tortured. Sam at least doesn't grumble as much as his brother; he's not quite as scarred as Dean but there are several recent surgical scars that catch Simon's eye. "This is very good work. What hospital were you in?"
Sam glances over at Dean. "I was kind of out of it."
"Just tell him, Sam. Better yet, show him. He's gonna figure it out anyway."
Sam sighs, then to Simon's complete surprise he peels back a flap in his chest, exposing some of the most sophisticated cyberware Simon's ever seen. "This is astonishing," he says, hardly knowing what to look at first. "I would be surprised to see this kind of work on the Core."
"Can you maintain that stuff?" Dean asks. "'Cause otherwise you're not much use to us."
"Cybersurgery wasn't my specialty but everyone in the Core receives basic training." He lets out a low whistle. "You must have sustained some extensive damage, there's few million credits worth of hardware in you, Sam."
"Came out on the wrong end of a fight," he says, and there's a strange tension between the two brothers now. "Dean's the one who got me fixed up."
"How did you afford it, if that's not overstepping my bounds? My family was well off but my father could only dream about affording this."
"Sold my soul," Dean snaps. "You done, Doc?"
Simon takes off his gloves, not sure what he's suddenly in the middle of but very sure he doesn't need to be part of it. "I'll test these samples and let you two know if I find anything."
Sam slides off the table without closing the panel over his chest – which turns out to be mistake, because a second later a piercing shriek fills the room. Before Simon can stop her River scrambles out from under the table, snatches a nearby scalpel and brandishes it at Sam. "They replaced you!" she shouts when Sam step toward her, that note of rising hysteria in her voice Simon's learned to recognize all too well. "You're circuit Sam. Where did they hide the original?" she demands, looking around at the med bay cabinets as if he was hiding there. "Who else did they take?"
Simon feels Dean's Deal with this, now, look but before he can do anything Sam steps forward again, his hands held up in front of him. "No one replaced me." He drops to one knee, getting as close as he can to eye level with her. "It's just some parts. It's not really me."
River slashes the scalpel across his cheek, a quick, shallow cut; Dean tenses but Sam raises one hand, waving him away. The sudden panic evaporates from River's eyes as a thin line of blood trails down Sam's face, the look replaced by the same intense curiosity Simon remembers from late nights of watching her perfect science fair projects. "See?" Sam says, his voice even. "Circuits don't bleed."
She lunges toward him, the scalpel clattering to the floor; Sam murmurs, "Keep back," to Simon and Dean as she presses her fingers against either side of his head, her forehead pressed against his as she concentrates.
After a handful of tense seconds River backs away, nodding to herself. "Your thoughts aren't binary."
Sam lets out a shaky laugh. "Good to know."
She looks up at Simon, a gravely serious expression on her face. "You should make sure the cybernetics don't expand."
"I...of course." He sees Dean throw up his hands in a why do I deal with you people? gesture but Simon doesn't know what else to say. "Mei-mei, why don't you go back to the room while I finish here."
"Was I bad?"
She sounds so young and upset. It's beginning to hit Simon that this might be their lives from now on. "Of course not. I just need some privacy with my patients."
She nods, although he can tell she knows there more than what he's saying. "For confidentiality."
She says the oath in Latin, the one it took him two weeks of studying to remember. "That's right." Her pronunciation is still better than his.
She slips out the door, leaving Simon alone with the two brothers; it takes Dean less than a second to round on him. "She ever cuts my brother again and you're both going out the airlock."
Sam just sighs. "Dean. Stop."
"You're the one bleeding, Sam, why're you taking her side."
Sam shrugs, touching the cut on his face. "Hey, at least now we know they didn't mess with my head."
"This, Doc. This is why I drink." He turns to storm out and almost runs right into the shepherd, who has one hand raised as if he was about to knock on the door. "Watch where you're going, Cas."
Castiel blinks at him but as he looks over the room he seems to think better of questioning Dean's agitation. "There's a wave from Bobby. It's flagged important, I thought you would want to know." He looks over Dean's shoulder at Sam, who's still down on one knee with blood running down his face. "What did I miss?"
"Never mind, Cas. My boat's full of crazy people all of a sudden." He grabs the other man by one arm and starts dragging him back into the corridor. "Hopefully Bobby's got something good, I could use something to shoot."
When they leave Simon looks down at Sam, who's still lost in thought. "Let me treat that."
It takes a second for Sam to realize someone's spoken. "Huh? Oh, right."
Sam leans against the table as Simon finds the gel that prevents scarring. "She's not always like that," Simon says, although it's hard to admit that she's like that much too often for Simon's comfort.
"No, it's not. She could have hurt you. I'll be more careful with her from now on."
"Really, Doctor, it's okay. She wasn't going to hurt me."
"How could you know that?"
Sam shrugs. "Just knew."
A sudden, insistent tingle in the back of Sam's mind pulls him from dreams he's glad he can't remember and he opens his eyes to find River looming at the foot of his bed. "Hey."
She doesn't look angry or frightened, just frustrated; at first Sam doesn't know what she could possibly be talking about, but then he remembers that the bunk she and her brother are sharing adjoin Dean and Cas'. "You mean the room next to you is noisy." She nods and Sam sits up. "Are they okay?"
"Cas doesn't sleep and Dean has his nightmares for him."
Sam relaxes. "Yeah. I guess that's what they do." He scoots over, patting the empty place on the bed, and she sits on the edge, her feet dangling. He watches her tap out a melody with her fingertips against the palm of her other hand as she hums under her breath; he doesn't recognize the tune and wonders if she's making it up on the spot. "Everything okay?"
She nods, her hair hiding her face. When she reaches the end of whatever it is she's composing she takes a deep breath, sliding her hands beneath her as if it's the only way to keep them still. "It was rude to question your humanity."
Sam can only chuckle. "God, you're just like talking to Cas sometimes."
With no warning and without her even looking her hand shoots out and splays flat against this chest. After a few tense seconds she says, "Do you miss it?"
"New heartbeat did take a while to get used to."
She nods, rubbing a spot on the back of her head. "Two by two, hands of blue," she whispers softly to herself, rocking back and forth, before suddenly snapping out of it. "But the Russian had black eyes, not blue hands. He walks around sharp in Dean's dreams."
She's looking at him as if she's asked a question. He props himself up against the wall, searching for words. "I got...hurt," he finally says, choosing not to revisit the whys there. "Hurt bad. Dead, bad. But, you know, the 'verse being what it is, dead doesn't necessarily mean dead if you know the right people. Dean got me fixed up, but to pay for it he had to...he did some bad things."
"For the Russian."
"Yeah. But that doesn't mean Dean's bad, okay?" He drums his fingers against the bed. "That's why we met Cas in the first place, really. He worked for Parliament then and they sent him to get Dean. They...wanted him to do something for them. Wanted both of us to."
"That was when Dean changed his name."
Sam nods. "Yeah, I guess so. Cas found out what was really going on and he decided to help us. Probably would have been better for him if he hadn't." The faint flutter of guilt burns hot. Sam knows Dean blames himself for everything – he always does, he's Dean – but Sam knows the whole chain started with him. "Not everyone's lucky enough to have brothers like ours."
River's hand is still pressed against his chest. "Okay if I tell you a secret?" he says. She nods and he continues, "Here's the secret about this boat. If you stay here long enough you become family, if you let yourself. I don't know what Simon has planned for the two of you, but trust me, sooner or later you'll forget you wanted to be anywhere else. Dohn-ma?"
If she's heard him, she doesn't give any sign. "It's quiet here. I like that." Then without another word she curls up at the foot of the bed like a cat and is asleep in seconds.
Sam decides to play the gentleman and camps out on the floor. He has a pretty good night's sleep regardless.
Two nights later Sam wakes up to again find River curled up on his bed. "What happened?" he asks, trying to force his sleep-deprived brain to function. "Did Dean have another nightmare?"
"No," she says, scowling as she shakes her head. "They're just loud."
Sam knows it's wrong but he can't help grinning. "Hey, there's a reason my bunk's all the way on the other side of the boat. Some things I just don't need to know."
When he moves one of the spare cots into his bunk the next morning Dean gives him a look but mercifully holds off on any teasing, possibly storing it all up for a big moment. Simon corners him and they have an incredibly awkward conversation about liberties and taking advantage that leaves Sam with the absolutely certainty that the doctor would joyfully put a bullet in his brain pan at the slightest whiff of impropriety.
Sam's proud of himself for swallowing his wounded pride because honestly, as if he would. And he's very proud of himself for not retorting, Hey, do I look like Dean to you?, especially since Cas makes the same joke at breakfast, giving Sam a little sideways glance of solidarity.
When the two of them are alone cleaning up afterward, Cas asks him, almost casually, "How are your dreams, Sam?"
"Hmm? Fine? Well, normal, anyway?"
"Really?" It's been a long time since Cas could make him nervous with just a look but he's giving Sam a sideways, knowing one now that makes him distinctly uneasy. "That's good to hear."
Sam lets out a long breath. If Cas has ever been good at anything, it's keeping secrets. "Thanks, man."
Cas nods at him, wipes one last dish and leaves Sam to his thoughts. His dreams havebeen fine.
And if he's pretty sure his dreams aren't the only ones he's been having, he doesn't think that's anyone's business just yet.
Sam swears at the data screen, willing the blinking lights to makes sense. "Hey, River."
She leans over his shoulder, her hair tickling his neck. She hadn't announced her presence but then, she hadn't needed to. It's another of the unspoken things between them Sam doesn't feel any need to talk about. "Those are a lot of dots."
Sam pushes the chair back in frustration. "There's a pattern to the attacks, I know it. I just can't see it."
She squints that the screen for a moment, then says, "It's a fractal." He blinks and she gives him a condescending look as he turns the screen on its side. "See?'
And suddenly he can. "Gao Guhn, you're right." He takes out a note book and starts sketching as she settles cross-legged on the table.
"I used to write you notes."
He wonders if he's been concentrating hard enough to miss the beginning of the conversation. "Hmm?"
"At the Academy. When they put me in the advanced class you sat in front of me but you were always late. I wrote you notes but there was no one to pass them to." She frowns. "They're probably burned now."
Sam knows that if he still had an organic heart it would be pounding out of his chest right now. "My dad didn't let me go to the Academy."
"You were enrolled. When you were a baby, like me. But you played hookey and the instructors were cross. They sent the truant officers but they couldn't find you." She takes the sketch pad from Sam and starts erasing his drawing. "I was glad you were always late," she says, handing him back the pad with the corrected fractal before slipping out of the room.
"I don't why you're so upset over this, Sam."
Sam leans against the bulkhead, handing him tools as Dean tries to figure out what's wrong with the engines. "It's just...all this time I've been angry with Dad for not letting me go, moving us around. I mean, when I found out I ran away and tried to hitch a ride to the Core to go by myself."
"Like I don't remember? I almost killed you myself when we finally tracked you down." He smacks the machinery with the head of the wrench out of frustration. "C'mon girl, don't do this to me," he says, swapping the wrench out for a pair of pliers. "Why's it such a shock Dad was looking out for you? I've been telling you that for years."
Sam shakes his head. "You heard when Simon told us the shape River was in when he found her. That would have been me, Dean."
"That would never have been you."
"Dean, you can't just say that..."
"Sure I can. Dad would never have sent you off with people he didn't know, where he didn't know what was going on. I'm just sorry as hell the Doc's parents weren't the same way."
Sam sighs, absently handing Dean tools as he asks for them. "River said they chose us when we were babies..."
"Maybe you kids aced your baby IQ tests, how should I know?" Sam just gives him a hard look, because this is deliberately obtuse even for Dean. "It doesn't matter, so stop worrying about it." The engines finally purr back to life and Dean strokes one hand carefully along the metal. "I ran those coordinates you found by Bobby, he says it's a good lead." Dean slams down the access panel and wipes his hands on a grease rag. "How'd you find them?"
"I found the pattern. Well, me and River."
"Not what I asked, Sam. How did you know there was a pattern? Those attacks you found, we didn't get any word on them. Except you did." Sam doesn't answer and Dean swears. "You're having dreams again." It's not technically a question, so Sam doesn't see the point of answering. "We're not going through this again, Sam."
"We shouldn't just ignore the lead."
"When did it start? When they came on board?"
"Don't blame River."
"So, that's a yes, then. Fuck, Sam."
"Look, Dean, I'm psychic. I thought all that went away, but it didn't and maybe that's a good thing! If we can predict attacks, we can stop them."
"Yeah, 'cause that's how it worked out last time."
Sam gives him a long, steady look. "We ignoring the lead or not, Dean?"
Dead sighs. "Of course we're not."
"Good." The subject isn't dropped, not completely, but the hunt always comes first. "Where's Cas? I haven't seen him today."
"Wherever he goes. It's one of his bad days."
Sam can hear the leave it alone tone in Dean's voice. Sam's not sure why Dean bothers, because he never listens to it. "He's having a lot of those lately."
Dean just gives him a hopeless shrug. "What do you want me to do?"
"Maybe you should let the doctor look at him." Dean just scoffs and honestly, Sam wants to strangle his brother sometimes. "Why not?"
"What's that gonna do?"
"You don't know! You haven't even tried it." It's so hard to make Dean see sense sometimes. "It's been over a year. He should be better by now."
"This is better." The words are growled out and Sam can see Dean flashing back to those horrible first few days after the run on the Skyplex. "I don't need the Doc to tell me he's hurting, Sam. What he needs isn't in that med bay."
Sam's not sure if this is the right time to bring this up. "Simon told me we'd have to make a run on supplies soon," he said, choosing each word incredibly carefully. "He mentioned painkillers, especially. And he seemed kind of surprised about it, said some stuff must have gotten lost sneaking aboard." He lets that sink in. "Is that starting up again? Cause that sucked."
Dean shakes his head. "I'll talk to Cas."
"Just make sure it's talk, not 'yell at so the whole ship can hear,' okay? You and me would probably be bombed out of our minds around the clock if we were him."
"I just don't like the sneaking around. From either of you." He points a wrench at Sam as he gathers up the tools. "You have any more dreams, dude, tell me. I can't have everyone running off the rails at the same time."
Castiel squeezes his way through the access chute into the smuggling compartment only to find River already huddled in there, her skinny knees pulled up to her chest. "I guess I need to find a new hiding place."
"The flow of atmosphere is adequate." She shuffles over, keeping her head pressed to her knees. "Castiel can stay."
"Is it Castiel today?" He just manages to curl up next to her; the compartment isn't really big enough for one, let alone two, but it's not as if River takes up much room.
She nods. "It's Thursday."
"I actually don't think it is."
"Triumph counts its days one behind. It's Thursday there." She looks at him, her eyes puffy and red. "I didn't tell Simon about your medicine. Even when he asked."
He feels the shame creep up over his cheeks. That hadn't been his intention when he went to the med bay that day, at least not consciously, but they'd just been left out in the open. "Thank you. But please don't lie for me."
"Not answering is a valid counter-interrogation technique. It's been a long time since I could practice." He's fairly certain that translates to don't mention it. "Dean doesn't like you taking it."
"Yeah, well, when Dean gets back down under a fifth a day I'll note his objections." He traces his thumb along the tear trail down her cheek. "Are you all right?"
She curls up into a tighter ball. "Simon loves River." She spits the words out, vibrating with sudden rage.
"Of course he does."
"I don't. I hate her. I hate her." The tears start streaming back down. "Simon looked for her but they'd already scooped her out and thrown her away. I have her face and I pretend but Simon always knows. He lost her and only found me."
"He loves both of you."
She's quiet for a long time. "I broke a beaker. I didn't mean to. Simon said he would fix it but later I found it in the trash. It had no purpose. Luh suh."
Castiel runs his tongue over his lips as he searches for the right words. "If the beaker was something precious to him he wouldn't have thrown it away."
"Even if he glued its shape back together it wouldn't be a beaker anymore. It would still be broken."
"But if it was something precious he would try."
She looks up at the metal walls cocooning them. "This ship has been broken and Dean fixed it. He doesn't throw anything away."
"No," he agrees, feeling his lips twist into something sour. "He doesn't know how to."
She passes her hand over his back, just shy of touching him as she traces the twin scars hidden under his vestments. He can still hardly bear Dean touching them; he feels his muscles tense but she doesn't press closer. "I'm sorry their ghosts are angry."
The phantom pains had come at dawn or what passed for it out here, the way they always did, fire racing up those scars and through the jagged, hollow scar running through him no one could see. "Thank you."
She wraps her arms back around herself. "If the beaker couldn't be fixed the way it was before, it could still learn to be something else, right?" She sounds like she wants to be hopeful but the words come out desperate and scared.
"Yes. It probably could." He leans closer down. "But sometimes it might want to take time to remember what it was like to be a beaker." He snakes one arm around her shoulders and lets her snuggle against him. "I never knew that other River but I'm glad I was able to meet this one."
She smiles, a brief, fleeting thing like a butterfly opening its wings. "You didn't take your medicine."
"Good. It's bad for you." She closes her eyes as she leans against his shoulder. "I wish you could still hear the singing. The Russian muffled your hearing when he locked you in the dark." He's not sure when she first took his hand or how long he's been squeezing it this hard. "I can't find my doorway, either." She nudges him with her shoulder. "Dean's looking for you."
A second later he hears Dean's voice bellowing "Cas!" his voice echoing through the ship. He groans, leaning his head against the wall. "You should go," she says. "Fornication makes you feel better."
He gives her a sharp look. "You're much too young to be speaking like that."
Her expression falls. "Why? What does that mean?"
"It means never say that word around your brother." He kisses her temple. "Thank you, mei-mei," he says before sliding back down the chute before Dean starts taking a wrench to the walls.
She is right, though. It does make him feel better.
Simon stares down at the body in stunned fascination. "This...this isn't possible."
River crouches down at his feet, poking its head. "I can't see the mirror."
Simon understands the feeling. It's like looking at his twin. His very dead twin. "Can someone please explain what's going on?"
"It's a shifter," Dean says, and Simon can tell he's taking perverse joy in Simon's confusion. "Nasty pieces of work. Make themselves look like people, take over people's lives, cause a whole lot of trouble. And you wondered why we keep so much silver around."
"This doesn't exist. These are...there are earth-that-was legends. This is a bedtime story."
"'There's more on heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy,'" Castiel says, crouching opposite him over the body.
"You stay on this boat, you'll see a lot weirder," Dean says. "It does look just like you," he muses. "Too bad we can't just ship this thing off to the Alliance. Get them off your tail, at least."
"It won't work," Castiel says. "They'll perform tests on anything they come by so easily."
Simon still has too many questions about the shepherd to be comfortable with him. "You seem to know an awful lot about the Alliance."
"I have family there."
"All right, ladies, let's torch this thing and get moving," Dean says, cutting off the conversation. "We got a lot to do."
The wave comes through from a dummy location, one Simon's seen them get friendly messages from before.
This isn't one of those times. Dean accepts the wave and the reader above the console blinks to life, an elderly, jovial looking face filling the screen. "Ah, finally," he says, in a soft, accented voice, wagging his finger like a disappointed parent. "You Winchesters are very hard to find!"
Dean jumps out of his chair and actually pulls his gun, running on pure instinct for one moment - in fact the whole bridge goes on alert, Sam's hands going tight on the controls as he keeps a wary eye on his brother. Simon sees Castiel grab River and push her out of sight behind him, then he motions for Simon to be quiet, one finger over his lips.
Niska – and Simon doesn't know how it's taken him this long to recognize Adelei Niska, he had to write a civics paper on the man at University – just looks disappointed. "Now, is that any way to address old friend? Especially one who only wants to help?" He cranes his neck, as if he's trying to see around the screen's edges. "Is that Castiel I see? You look much better!" He leans forward, like a grandfather about to tell a story. "You know, I would guess fifty percent of those who were my guests as long as you are never able to speak again? You should be quite proud." The words are edged like a scalpel, sharp enough that even Simon feels them; he sees the shepherd's eyes go hard but the man's still shaking.
"You don't talk to Cas," Dean says, his voice low. "You got anything to say, you talk to me."
"Quite right." Niska smiles like the wolf Simon once saw in an Ariel museum, "We did have special connection, didn't we. Always my favorite apprentice, Dean Winchester."
"Say your piece."
"There are rumors – unfounded rumors, I'm sure – that you have some passengers. Perhaps hired a doctor? These are things one hears. Surely they're not true?"
"My boat, my business."
"Ah, but that is not precisely true, is it? Pile of rust is yours, but the rumors state you also have Alliance property. Property they want back." He smiles again. "Poor Castiel must miss his family. I am hearing he may see them again soon."
"We've dealt with those dicks before, we'll do it again."
"Why do you spurn friends? I only want to help."
"Yeah. Yeah, I bet."
Niska steeples his fingers in front of his face. "If you will do one thing for me, I can ensure nothing touches that crew of yours. You can pick up all the refuse of the universe you desire."
Simon sees Sam turn and stare down his brother, looking appalled that Dean's even considering the conversation. "What?" Dean asks, making a point of not returning the look.
"Come back to me. It is physical pain to see talent squandered."
There's a long, painful silence. "No."
Niska tsks him. "You cannot say I didn't warn you. And Dean, someday you will return. One can only fight your true nature so long." The message blinks off and there's only silence on the bridge.
Simon feels Dean fill up the doorway and sighs. He'd hoped he'd have more time. "Going somewhere, Doc?"
"It's not safe here, Captain," he says, throwing the last of the clothes into the pack. "Not for us, and certainly not for you."
"The 'verse isn't safe, Doc. Learned that when I was four years old."
"There are degrees of safety, Captain..."
Dean walks over and slams his fist hard against the case, keeping Simon from closing it. "Joo Koh. Found out the hard way running doesn't make you any safer, just a bigger target. I know what's tracking you, and trust me, you got no idea. We know how to fight them, we've done it before. Besides, Sammy's taken a shine to your sister and he'll give me nothing but bitchface if you leave."
"This is beginning to sound like an order, Captain."
"It's beginning to sound like you're our doctor and we have a hunt. Get your damn lab ready."
"Like the shifter? That didn't seem to be much of problem."
"Nah, that was just a warm up. This is the real thing."
"Why won't anyone on this crew tell me what you hunt?"
Dean's quiet for a moment. "Some things you've just gotta see. C'mon."
The hull of the ship is derelict and flaking off; small explosions erupt from the rear engines and it's leaking oxygen and radiation into the vacuum. "You sure this is it, Sam?"
"These are the right coordinates." He doesn't look very happy about being right, and behind him Castiel's eyes are locked on the ship.
Simon knocks on the door panel and all three heads swivel to look at him. "What's happening?" He's impressed by how even he manages to keep his voice. "I just had to sedate River because she kept screaming."
The other three all look at each other. "Guess that means they're home."
Castiel shrugs, sliding himself into an encounter suit. "We're on a mission of purification," he says, a twist to the words Simon doesn't understand.
"Take a good look, Doc," Dean says. "Not many get this close to a Reaver ship and live to tell the tale."
"Reavers. Of course. And tomorrow we'll round up a herd of unicorns and board a vessel crewed by fairies."
"Don't even jokeabout that."
Simon looks between the three men, waiting to see which one will let him in on the joke. "You're saying Reavers are real."
"Sad to say."
"So...you hunt cannibalistic pirates, this is their ship, and we're not flying in the other direction as quickly as we can?"
"You catch on pretty quick, Doc. It's been attacking cargo ships all along this route, Sam and River figured out the pattern. They took three of the last crew this morning and we're ending this now." Dean looks at him, a clear challenge. "You wanted to know what we hunt. Well, this is it."
Simon stares out of the ship in horror. "I'd always heard Reavers didn't take prisoners."
"They do when they want to make more Reavers."
"If it's only been this morning maybe we can rescue..."
"Not a chance. They've long since bit or bled on them by now."
"What? What does that have to do..."
"We know a little bit more about these things than you do, Doc." He turns to Cas. "You ready? The helmet cam working?"
Castiel nods. "I truly hate doing this, Dean."
Dean lets out a long breath. "I know, buddy." Even Simon can hear the unspoken be careful. Castiel perches at the lip of the boarding hatch for a moment, then he slips from sight. All eyes turn to the video screen, but there's nothing but static. "Usually takes a bit," Dean says, his fingers drumming against the console.
"Why exactlyare we doing this insane thing?"
"We can't just blow the ship, we're too close to one of the big passenger lanes and the momentum'll blow the debris everywhere, not even counting in the radiation. We gotta sweep the ship, make sure we take out every last one of them. If we're really lucky they're still coherent enough to keep records." A slow, almost cruel smile curls his lips. "They're hiding in there. They recognize my baby."
"If they're in there. I've heard these ships are often found abandoned."
"Your sister seems to think otherwise." Dean shakes his head. "That's why we send Cas in first, he can't catch it." Whatever it is, this is the first Simon's heard of Reavers being an easily communicable disease. "He's gonna flush them and lead them into the bottleneck here," he says, pointing to a readout of the ship blueprints.
"You said they were hiding."
"They can't hide from him." The smile widens. "Cas can smell them."
There's a burst of static, then the readout on the screen snaps into focus. "...reading me?"
"Yeah, Cas. You're loud and clear. How's it look in there?"
"How does it ever look?" They can see the inside of the ship as Castiel pans the camera over the corridor; Simon can make out stripped wires and broken panels. When the camera passes over the widest part of the wall Simon catches the word Croatoan scrawled in what looks to Simon like fresh blood. "The air is breathable, although I doubt the doctor will be happy about these radiation levels."
"Why wouldn't the air be breathable?" Simon asks, although he never like the answers he gets when he questions these people. "Reavers still have to breathe."
"It depends on what color their eyes are," Dean says, as if that made any sense at all. "Cas, it sounds quiet in there."
"Yes. It is," he says, and Simon can hear the frustration in the shepherd's voice. "There's perhaps five or six still here. I found where they kept the new converts."
"That problem solved?"
When the camera moves again Simon catches a flash of metal in Castiel's hand and realizes he's holding a bloodied sword. "Where did he get that?"
"Heaven," Dean deadpans.
Simon doesn't have time to question that further before Castiel's voice crackles back over the line, sounding much too calm: "Here they come."
Over the video feed Simon sees three lumbering shapes at the end of the corridor, seconds before he hears a low, inhuman growl. "Okay Cas, fall back to the bottleneck. We'll meet you there."
"There's only three. I can take them."
"I'm fine, Dean," is all he says back, a strange, exhilarated note in his voice. Seconds later the feed cuts out.
Dean swears, grabbing his gun and a long, curved knife. "C'mon, Sam. And Doc, you get that lab ready, if Cas is still breathing I might kill him myself."
It feels like hours before the three of them come back, long enough that Simon wonders if he's gleaned enough to be able to pilot the ship. Everyone's bleeding, the shepherd worse than the others, but just from a quick glance Simon doesn't think the injuries are lethal. "What the hell was that, Cas?" Dean growls, shoving the shepherd against the wall. "You trying to get yourself killed?" Castiel doesn't answer and Simon sees the mingled fury and fear flood the captain's eyes. Dean leans in very close. "You promised."
The shepherd's eyes close, the fight draining out of him and Dean backs away. "Patch him up, Doc."
"But the two of you..."
"We can wait, we've gotta call this in and I wanna be far away by the time the Alliance gets here." He taps in coordinates and begins moving the ship away, pointedly not looking behind him.
Dean winces when he walks into the med bay and sees that Simon laid Cas out on his back. He rolls him over to his side; he tries to be careful but Cas stirs anyway. "Dean?" he murmurs, and hearing his voice pained and doped up brings back bad memories.
"Yeah, buddy, it's me."
"The doctor made me sleep," Castiel says, sounding put out.
"Yeah, that's what doctors do, sew you up and knock you out." He strokes his fingers through Cas' hair and feels him relax into the touch.
"I don't like sleeping."
"I know you don't. I'm gonna be right here, okay?"
Castiel nods, his eyes drifting closed again. "I'm sorry, Dean."
"Hey, don't mention it. Remember that mess back on Hera? I did practically the same thing and you and Sam both kicked my ass for it."
"I just...I'm so tired."
Dean watches as his breathing goes deep and even again, fighting down the cold fear snaking through his insides. "We'll get you through it Cas, I promised you we would," he says, kissing Castiel's forehead. "You just gotta hang in there."
When he straightens up he sees River staring at him from the other bed. He doesn't know why the fear grips tighter when she says, "You're not enough glue."
"Can I help?"
River's sitting cross-legged on the work table, watching Sam clean his guns. "Your brother would have my head if he saw you with a gun."
She picks up a 9-millimeter anyway, turning it over in her hands. Sam can only stare as she takes it apart, laying each piece on the table as fast as any Alliance cadet, faster even than his father used to be. She looks up at him, eyes wide with expectation. "Now what?"
"Um...okay." It turns out there isn't a single gun she doesn't know how to handle and take apart, a skill it took Sam a lifetime of his father's drills to master.
"The screams were too loud for me," she whispers, carefully removing the firing pin of an antique .22. "They echoed and squirmed like snakes and Simon made me sleep."
"That's okay. No one expects you to fight Reavers. Hell, I don't want to fight Reavers."
"But you do. You make the screams quiet and you fight." Before he can stop her she slides his knife out of his belt and hurls it into the wall, the point burying itself in the bullseye of Dean's dart board. "There was blood," she says, putting one hand over the half-healed gash on his arm.
River leans forward and kisses him on the lips. "I'll make them quiet next time." Then she races out of the room, bare feet quiet on the metal floor.
Sam sinks back into his chair, head in his hands. "Special hell," he groans to himself. "Definitely going to the special hell."
Sam lurches awake to the autopilot claxon blaring; he runs into Dean in the corridor, looking sleep-deprived and furious, Cas close behind him. A little further up they find Simon, the doctor just on the edge of panic. "Has anyone seen River? I can't find her."
Everyone looks at Sam, who can only shrug; Dean swears and they all rush to the bridge. Sam's not surprised to see River sitting in the pilot's seat. It looks like she was born there. "The alarm is loud. Make it go back to sleep."
"River," Simon says, stepping forward before Dean starts shouting. "River, come away from there."
She banks the ship to the left, as smoothly as if she's had years of instruction. "I solved the puzzle. The box was thrown away and the pieces were missing but I know what it looks like."
"River, I don't..."
"Shadow was the puzzlement. The name is wrong, but I realized you need light to have shadows. That's what's been singing."
Dean looks like he's about to kill something, and they're fresh out of monsters to aim him at. "Sam, Doc, one of you better be able to speak crazy."
"There's a planet called Shadow, isn't there?" Simon guesses.
"Yeah, but the Alliance slagged it during the war. There's nothing there but fire."
"No," River says, her hands tight on the wheel. "That's why they hid it there. They thought the darkness would hide the light but it won't stay quiet. It wants to go home."
From the corner of his eye Sam sees Cas go very, very pale. "Dean," he whispers, one hand on Dean's arm like he doesn't trust his legs to keep him up.
She looks around, desperate eyes lingering first on Simon, then on Sam. "You can hear it too, Sam? You have to. I know you do."
Sam slides into the co-pilot seat, ignoring his brother's protesting, "C'mon Sam, don't you take the crazy pills too," because there's no conviction in it. "Yeah. Yeah, I hear it," he lies, because he wantsto hear it, and he's sure River hears it, and because there's hope in his brother's eyes from the first time in over a year. "We can get there faster if we cut through the shipping lanes."
"This is crazy Sam," Dean says again, although he doesn't make a move to stop Sam as he shuts off the alarm and opens the throttle.
Simon doesn't know what Dean means when he hears the horrified whisper, "Fuck, the smoke's not from the fires," but he knows they're all in trouble when a black-eyed horde rushes toward them. It only throws the hunters for a second, then the guns are out and the fight is on. "Cas, go," Dean says, pushing the shepherd toward River. "Follow the kid, that's why we're here. We'll catch up." Castiel hesitates for an instant, but River's already almost out of sight and in the end he follows her, Simon bringing up the rear. He hears the shepherd murmuring under his breath, the language a harsh one Simon doesn't recognize but the rhythm of the words bringing to mind an incantation or a prayer. Half of the mob took off following them but when he says the last word they stop, seizing for a second before black smoke erupts from them.
"What are they?"
"Demons," Castiel growls, picking up the pace to keep up with River. Simon doesn't have the breath to insist that's not possible.
They hear a cry of pain from behind and Castiel freezes, stumbling in the black gravel under his feet. He starts to turn around and suddenly River's right there, grabbing Castiel by the hand and half-dragging him up the hill. "We're almost there."
When they crest the hill Simon feels his mind slowly grind to a halt. There in the scorched, barren soil is an enormous tree towering over one hundred feet high; Simon recognizes it as a redwood, a species extinct even before the exodus from earth-that-was. Simon doesn't know how long they stand there. Long enough to hear movement behind him; he turns to see Sam supporting his brother, Dean's arm across his shoulders. They both drop to the ground, Sam in exhaustion and Dean groaning. Simon makes his way over – thisat least, is something he can make sense of – and finds Dean on the verge of shock, an in-and-out stab through his abdomen that's spurting blood. Simon puts pressure on the wound although he knows that's not going to help. "This is a lethal wound," Simon says, his bedside manner deserting him.
To Simon's surprise, Dean smiles. "I'll be fine, Doc," he says, his voice a breathy whisper. He nods over to the tree. "Gonna...want to close your eyes in a second."
When Castiel touches the bark blueish white light streams from it, surrounding him in a spiral. He stares at his hands for a moment, as if he's never seem them before, then his head snaps back, his eyes glowing white. Simon can see River, her eyes bright with what he can only call rapture as enormous wings made of light unfurl from Castiel's shoulders, curling around him and putting out so much heat Simon thinks his skin is about to blister. He sees Sam run up and clap one hand over River's eyes and decides to take that as a cue.
Simon feels a rush of energy hit him in a wave. Before he passes out he has just enough time to think about how this is absolutely not how he thought he was going to die.
Simon wakes up to a blue sky. He thinks he must have imagined all of that, because no one's been able to see Shadow's sky since the war.
He rolls over and quickly realizes that if the last few minutes were just a fit of insanity, he's still in it; he's definitely on Shadow, although a Shadow cleansed of the stench of sulfur and choking smoke. He drags himself over to Dean and it takes two tries to find the weak pulse. He hears a strange sound, almost like a wingbeat, then he almost falls over at finding Castiel right next to him.
The shepherd presses two fingers to Dean's forehead and to Simon's astonishment the wound is gone. Dean groans as his eyes flutter back open. "Please stop almost dying, Dean," Castiel says, a tremor shaking his voice. "It's vexing."
Dean gives Simon a tired grin. "See, Doc? Told ya I'd be fine." He looks up at Castiel. "You redecorated the planet some. Guess that means you're mojoed up again?"
Castiel nods, his wide eyes betraying his emotion. "Dean, I..."
"Hey," Dean says, waving that off. "Told you we'd get you through it, right?"
Simon gets to his feet and goes to check on River. Not to mention to give the two of them some privacy.
Two days after the incident on Shadow Castiel disappears. In the middle of a conversation. With the ship in full vacuum.
And what really baffles Simon is that no one seems surprised. Dean just shrugs when asked, saying, "Yeah, Cas does that. Well, did that. Guess he's doing it again." He's back the next day, rambling about nebulas and touching the tails of comets. Simon's about to sit him down and perform a toxicology screen when Dean presses Castiel against the wall, efficiently cutting off the stream of words. "Yeah, yeah, your feathers grew back," Dean says after a long (and to Simon, awkward) minute. "Is that all out of your system, or do you need another test drive?"
"I have another errand."
"You gotta head out now?"
Simon rolls his eyes. "Please gentlemen, not in my med bay."
"This involves you as well, Simon."
"In what way?" Being involved in things is never a good thing on this ship.
The experience on Shadow – whatever that was, Simon still hasn't heard an explanation he can believe – has only served to make the shepherd's intense stare all the more focused. "You'll see when I return."
This time he's gone a week. Simon's glad he can sequester himself in the med bay after the first few days; never in his life has he been happier to not be Sam Winchester and not have to put up with the captain's moods.
Then one day he appears behind Simon in the med bay, quiet as a whisper. Simon wonders sometimes how many years being on this ship is taking off his life. "It's good to see you back," Simon stammers out. "Which nebula was it this time?"
"Nothing so scenic." He holds out a data chip. "I paid the Academy a visit." Simon feels his heart pound as Castiel places the tiny thing in his hand. "This is River Tam's complete record, medical and otherwise. The most recent entry dates from the day before I took it."
"I...I tried to get records, the people I paid to help me said that would be impossible. How did you..."
"Impossible for them, perhaps," Castiel says, pride glinting in his eye. "And apparently I still have some clearances." He closes Simon's hand over the chip. "There are some harrowing things on there. It will take time to go through."
"I can't even begin to thank you."
Castiel shakes his head. "I owe River a great debt. I only wish I could have dismantled the Academy while I was there." He gives Simon a look that turns him cold. "Commit as much as you can to memory. My brothers have already been sent to retrieve it and they will not stop until it's found."
Buried deep in that mountain of records is the first mention of the name Miranda.
Two days later Sam and River both dream about it.
"How's Cas doing, Dean?"
Dean doesn't answer and Sam knows that means not good.
The ambush came from nowhere, an Alliance ship that forced them to land on the planet below, forced them to sit there and watch as a man in an Alliance uniform walked off that cruiser, one who identified himself as an Operative and who Cas named as Raphael. He'd seemed surprised to see Cas.
He seemed even more surprised when Cas zapped over to him, grabbed him and disappeared again, taking them both God knows where. Even with the visit to the Academy it seemed like not everyone in the Alliance had gotten the memo that Castiel was back in fighting shape.
That had been enough of a distraction for everyone else to make a run for it. They'd managed to hole up in a vacant landing bay, giving themselves what Sam thought could be, oh, maybe five extra minutes of life before the Alliance troopers broke down the door.
Sam remembers that's when River screamed. He'd been closest to her; when he grabbed to calm her down he was almost knocked off his feet by a vision, like the ones that sometimes come in his dreams but so clear and crisp Sam thought he could almost smell the Reaver ship landing just outside the facility. The sound of the Alliance troops trying to break through died away and Sam couldn't hold back the malicious hope that the Reavers cut them off before they could get back to their ship.
Before he could warn Dean and Simon about what was waiting outside Cas showed back up, beaten half to hell and blood soaking his clothes from a stab wound that must have missed his heart by a prayer. He's the one who rasped out the word "Reavers" before dropping into Dean's arms.
Sam listens to the pounding as the Reavers try to break into the landing bay but it's hard to hear anything over the sound of Simon working on Cas in the background; Dean's threatening them both, the way he does when he's scared out of his mind. Sam had heard Simon say he didn't think the wound was lethal if they got him back to the ship.
Simon knows the Reavers are massing outside because they know he and the others are hiding here. If they drag Cas out to the ship the Reavers will cut them off – unless there's a distraction. Sam knows Dean's thinking the same thing, he knows Dean. Any second now Dean's going to drag himself away from Cas and tell everyone to run for it, he'll hold them off.
Sam's so tired of Dean having to save him.
He looks over at River beside him. "You don't have to stay."
Her hands ball into fists. "I told you. I'll make them quiet."
They spend a precious second to look back at their brothers, then Sam closes his eyes. It's been a long time since he did this and Sam feels the strain as he reaches out with his power. Dean looks up just as the inner door slam shut. He's pretty sure Dean will forgive him. Eventually.
They don't have to wait nearly long enough for Sam's taste; River grabs his hand and squeezes hard as the Reavers break through. The fight rushes by in a blur, the way fights always do, but there's one moment where the entire 'verse comes to a halt, an instant seared into his mind like it's been carved in crystal. His entire life Sam's had a dream he's never told anyone else, a dream of a girl fighting like whirlwind, perfect and deadly and untouchable.
He realizes now it was never a dream. All his life he's been waiting to see this moment.
Dean almost comes off his feet when they finally get that door open and he sees Sam lying there still and quiet, his head in River's lap. He doesn't think his heart starts beating again until she looks up, one finger pressed to her lips. "Shh. Sam's sleeping," she says, and Dean sees his brother's chest rise and fall. All around them is a ring of dead Reavers, more than Dean's ever seen in one place in his life.
Dean swallows that all down. "Well, tell him to get his lazy ass up," Dean says, because he never knows what to say when the universe hands him that rare win. He claps Simon on the back as he heads back to sit with Cas; he needs to just sit down and shake for a minute. Sam doesn't look like he needs any looking after and if he does, the doctor's more than shown he's capable of taking care of it.
And really, the dumbfounded look on Simon's face when he sees River in the middle of all those dead Reavers almost makes the whole mess worth it.
"So here's how I see it," Dean says, looking around at the faces around his table. Excepting Bobby, it suddenly hits Dean that he's got his whole family here, Cas on one side of him and Sam on the other, River next to Sam (they're holding hands under the table like grade-schoolers, Dean's going to give Sam so much hell over that later), then Simon opposite her. Dean's not sure when the Tams worked their way into being family but damned if they hadn't managed it. "Yeah, the Alliance wants River but they want what's in her head just as much. River and Sam are both dreaming about Miranda and we weren't up to our necks in Operatives until we started going that way." Dean lays a star chart across the table, making eye contact with everyone. "I say that means we keep going. Dad used to say that when someone didn't want you to know something, that's what you went after the hardest. Anyone have a problem with that?"
Cas' eyes go hard, his lips curling up; Dean knows he wants one more round with his dick brother. Sam and River are on board, that goes without saying, and even though Simon would normally be the one with objections River's nightmares are getting worse and he'll do anything to make them stop. Dean's always admired that about the guy.
"Piao Leoung," Dean says, smiling. Their father had kept them out of the war and Dean's never cared one way or another about the Alliance, but that been changing for a while now. They'd come after his family for the last time. Time for a little payback. "Time to go hunting."