He's staring up into Dean's eyes, trying to figure out what noise is coming out of his brother's mouth. He knows Dean's speaking, because he can see his mouth move and his throat work, but all he can hear is this muddied, bubbling mass of noise that is pointless to try to understand. He opts for trying to lip-read instead, which is total bust because he can only make out his own name. He can't understand anything.
Except one thing.
Dean's here. Dean's here to take him home.
He buries his face in the crook of Dean's neck, wraps his arms around his brother like he's all that's tying Sam to this world (which is not necessarily untrue). When his brother's arms wrap around him just as tightly, after all this time, he's finally home.
"It can't be helped," Mal muttered, trying to keep how cross he was from the others. He had to look like he was in control of the situation. "We're taking on passengers in Delma."
Simon raised fingers into the air, a mockery of asking permission to speak. "Unsure if you've forgotten, Captain, but asking strangers to share the same living space with us and miraculously not notice that River and I are fugitives is a little… hopeful."
"If by 'hopeful' you mean 'suicidal', I'm inclined to agree," said Wash.
"Did I give impressions that this was a debate?" Mal asked. "We're short on cash. We're not going to have enough to stay flying and maintain our healthy waistlines 'f we go much further like this. Doctor, your face isn't mightily recognisable, so you're free to wander even with unfamiliar folk about. Your sister… well, she stays put these days, so lying low shouldn't be too much of a chore."
"You're talking about locking her u-"
"I'll buy her some nice books to keep her busy in a way that is neither crazy nor damaging to my wallet, Doctor. End of discussion," Mal said firmly. "Something science-y, I'm thinking."
The crew filed out of the cockpit, save for Zoe and Wash, still manning his post like the dedicated pilot he was.
Jayne just had to have the last word, though, and stuck his head back in. "If we end up with more ruttin' government fugitives, I get to sell 'em this time, right?"
"Get yourself and your bile gone, Jayne," Zoe said.
"I'm just sayin'-"
"Okay, okay!" The clunking of his enormous combat boots steadily withdrawing was proof enough that he'd obeyed for once.
Zoe sighed. "That's not gonna be the end of this, Captain. Either from the Doctor or Jayne."
"Why are we worrying about our own house? Does no-one remember what happened last time we let crazy random people into Serenity? Because I remember shooting and yelling and naked government-tortured/insane fugitives that ended up becoming the norm after that incident. Has that slipped anyone's mind?" Wash said. "I also remember something about needing to unload stolen cargo on Whitefall with civilians and an Alliance mole on board – because that idea was some shiong-mao niao and you know it."
"I didn't say it was smart; I said it was necessary," Mal said. He knew damn well his words wouldn't leave the room, and it was the only reason he felt comfortable saying them at all. "I don't fancy the notion any more than you do, but this close to the inner planets, the only proper crime to be had is complicated and time-consuming, and we've not got the resources for that. Honest money can pay for fuel just as well as the dishonest kind, I'm sure. Nothing for it."
"Can't say I can argue too much with that, sir," Zoe said.
"I was unaware you were fixing to."
"And there's no kind of smuggling we can get up to? I remember something about smuggling beagles-?" Wash said.
Mal was already shaking his head. "Looked. Nothing even remotely underhanded or dishonest happening in the area while we're planning on being docked." He shuddered. "What an awful place to live. Can never understand how they do it."
Zoe cracked a smile at that. "Perhaps you can ask that of our passengers, sir."
"Still think we're all going to die this time," Wash called out as they left. He was promptly ignored, but then, he was used to it.
He wakes up and Dean is there again, hasn't gone away, is here to stay. He didn't dream him.
Dean leans over him and when he starts talking, and this time, Sam can make out the words.
"Hey, Sammy. You're okay. You're going to be okay now. I've got you. We're out. We're never going back." Sam is shaking his head and Dean stops, expression confused.
"Never free," Sam whispers to clarify. He hasn't spoken aloud in months. "Coming for us. 'Two by two; hands of blue; coming in the dark for you.'" The poem makes Dean's face tighten with worry, but Sam can't help it. The words come out and there's nothing he can do to stop them. He doesn't want Dean to worry, but experience tells him Dean is going to worry one way or another. He may as well be worried about the right thing.
"We're out, though. And we're together. That's got to count for something, right?" Dean asks.
Sam pauses, then shakes his head. Dean's face falls even further. "Not something," Sam says. "Everything."
And the joy that spreads over Dean's face makes all the pain worth it.
"River?" Simon called out softly. If she was asleep, he was hardly going to wake her. He could remember what a pissy wildcat she used to be if anyone woke her too early on a Saturday morning. He wasn't convinced that he didn't have a dent in the back of his head in remembrance of all the thrown objects.
River had open a colouring book on the floor, experimenting with light playing off surfaces. She only had about five coloured pencils, but somehow produced incredible pictures regardless. It was almost annoying how talented she was. She set down the teal pencil and levelled her gaze at her brother as best she could from lying on her stomach on the floor.
Simon sighed as he flopped down beside her. "Our Captain says we'll be having outsiders on the ship for a little while. He didn't say how long they would be here, but… you'll have to stay in here. We can't risk someone recognising you."
River simply blinked at him slowly. "Passengers." It wasn't a question.
"Yes." He shifted uncomfortably. "Listen, River. If you don't want to stay cooped up in here alone, I can stay with you. The whole time. I won't go out if you don't get to come with me."
She grinned up at him. "Nope. We'd kill each other by the end of it." Simon couldn't help cracking a smile at that. It was probably true.
"But you're okay with staying here while there are strangers wandering around?"
"New is good. Change of pace. Kaylee will bring me stories. New thoughts. New feelings. New histories bleeding into the ship." She smiled softly. "And she will grow with it. Get more beautiful, until she turns into a real person and starts talking back in tongues when it's asked of her. Serenity wants new friends. Can't begrudge her that."
"And you're not going to go crazy being cooped up in here?" Simon asked.
River just gave him a Look until he realised his less-than-amazing word choice.
"You know what I mean."
"Can deal with small spaces. Might get bored, though. No guarantees of the safety of stuff you leave in here. May decide to do experiments with your med kit if it gets bad enough."
Simon blanched and made a mental note to hide his med kit where River couldn't get to it – if indeed such a place existed. "The Captain promised to get you some books to entertain you. He was thinking of the scientific variety."
"Boring. I know them all. Old thoughts. Beaten to death. Thought them all before. Nothing new. I need something fresh and impossible. Fairy tales, please. Make sure there are dragons."
"I'll see what I can do about passing the word along," Simon said. "But right now, you're due for another shot."
"Sick of pinching."
"I know. I'm sorry. It's just until we can figure out a better way for you to get your medication."
"Could invent teleportation straight into my veins."
"Could you really?" Simon clearly thought she was full of it and was amused by the concept, which River took as a challenge more than anything else.
"Maybe. Needs further testing."
"Sounds like you've got a prototype."
"Teleported a biscuit. Meant it to go two metres. Ended up in Jayne's pants."
Simon levelled a suspicious look at her as he readied the syringe. "You're making all of this up."
"Doesn't mean it's not a good story."
River clenched her teeth almost imperceptibly as the air-compressed drug forced itself into her veins at speed.
"Lay down. Take a nap. I'll wake you up for dinner," Simon said, gathering up her colouring books and pencils, putting them in River's bag.
"Don't forget my dragons," she called imperiously after him as he left. Only after hearing his affirmative chuckles did she allow herself to drop off to sleep.
(A/N): Yes, I know I'm already working on, like, five other fics. I DO WHAT I WANT. Plus, this has been rattling around my brain for forever and a day. See if you can figure out what's going on before I hand it to you in a proper flashback.