Mal couldn't rightly remember how long Juno's men had been beating on him. Did seem like Zoe and Jayne ought to have been back by now, unless there'd been an ambush.
The nasty little one drew back his foot for another kick.
"Hey," a cheerful voice called out. "Looks a little lopsided there, all'a you and not so much of him."
"Not your business, stranger," one of the other men said.
"Dean," another voice said warningly, not near enough to be one of the crew beating him up, but plainly of the same mind.
Too late. Juno's men were in the mood to deliver a whipping—the way Mal had spoken none-too-gentle to them might've had some relation to that—and he heard a swing being taken.
After that, matters improved considerably for Mal. The kicking stopped entirely, replaced by the sounds of scuffling and the meaty thud of fists and boots against other bodies.
"You need a doctor?" the one who wasn't Dean asked, kneeling beside him and running a gentle hand over his aching side.
Mal grunted a negative. "My ship," he said. No need to explain to strangers that his ship also meant his physician, least as long as Simon hadn't gone and gotten his fool self into another pickle. Mal was aware of the irony, curled up on the ground and more bruises than unmarked skin, but he didn't let it bother him any.
In the event, the strangers (Sam and Dean Winchester, brothers) helped him back to Serenity, and when Kaylee got a look at them—and then again when she got a look at Mal and heard him allow as how they might've done him a proper—nothing would do but that they stay and have their own cuts stitched by Simon (one of Juno's men had been waving a wicked knife) and then stay to eat at Serenity's table.
Mal never felt right when strangers were in his ship, and these weren't even paying passengers. But he couldn't rightly turn them away, not after Kaylee had offered, and the two of them looked like they hadn't split a good meal between them in a dog's year. Sure enough, they ate every scrap, quick and neat, and neither one would meet anyone's eyes when Kaylee piled seconds and thirds on their plates, Jayne the only one who kept loading his own.
River had been quiet all through dinner, which Mal ought to have known was a bad sign. When Kaylee took Dean's plate, Dean glanced up at her and gave her a quick smile that even Mal could tell could loosen a lady's corset at twenty paces. "Thank you, ma'am," he said, and this was heading to a bad place because Kaylee pinked and Simon frowned. Mal didn't give a soft fart that Dean didn't seem to be doing it on purpose; he was doing it to Mal's crew, and that was all Mal needed to know.
But River said, "She won't, not unless you'll go with Simon too. She'd really rather watch."
Sam dropped his fork. Everyone was frozen until Dean turned his head, gave Simon a thorough looking-at, and shrugged. "Works for me," he said easily. "Or not. We're not lookin' to make anyone unhappy here."
Sam opened his mouth, looking so much like Simon embarrassed on account of River that Mal was almost dizzy with it. "You should let him," River said before Sam could speak. "It'll make things easier when the angels return."
"Simon," Jayne said, pushing back from the table, "she ain't supposed to be this crazy no more."
But the Winchester brothers looked like that meant something entirely too specific to them. "You gentlemen have somethin' you want to share with us?" Mal asked, soft-like.
"They didn't know," River said. "They thought they'd gone far enough. You can't fly past where they can find you," she told the brothers. Then, without moving her eyes from them, she addressed Mal: "We have to take them with us. If we don't, we all die. If we do, only some will." The silence this time was even more profound.
Sam spoke first. "You're a psychic? You see the future?"
River smiled, and every hair on Mal's body stood up. "So do you."
Sam swallowed. "That's not—not any more." Simon jolted at that; he'd been too busy glowering at Dean to pay much attention to Sam, but Sam's words put him right on a different track.
River tilted her head, like seeing him from a different angle would make him easier to understand. For all Mal knew, it worked for her. "Both of you are seeing the future right now."
"Sam," Dean said, the way Mal would have said Zoe's name if things were about to get bloody. Mal eased himself another few centimeters back from the table and adjusted his gun.
"We might not have a choice," Sam said, still staring at River. "If you can help us, we'd—"
"Okay," Mal said, because he had a nasty suspicion that these boys were going to end up on his ship, and maybe he'd seen the blackest trouble that could come from letting a pair of messed-up siblings stay a while, but maybe he hadn't. "Now, we're gonna back this conversation up until we fill in the little details that River here considers unimportant. You might oughta start with the angels."
"Is that—is it anything like the men with the blue hands?" Simon chimed in.
Both Sam and Dean looked hornswoggled, one hundred percent ignorant.
"No," River said, and Mal closed his eyes, because he could already hear what came next, "it's worse."
"Winchester!" Mal bellowed, because if there was anything he knew after six months, it was that the brothers were even more likely to be the cause of his troubles than the Tams.
Dean came out onto the walkway, looked down, and yelled, "Sam!" the way Mal would have yelled 'Incoming!' a lifetime ago. Mal thought about reaching for his boot knife, but he was already pointing his gun at the stranger, and scrabbling for the knife might be taken as a sign of weakness. The coat, suit and tie the stranger was wearing could have come from the Inner Planets, at least by way of a roll in a ditch. He had nothing in his hands, but that coat could have concealed anything up to the Operative's fancy sword.
Mal heard the clatter of feet as crewmembers arrived from all directions. The intruder didn't react. Truth be told, he looked a trifle amused, though the expression on Dean's face was something like a man witnessing the approach of Reavers. Mal's stomach did that little flip that signalled the coming of violence the way some men's bones ached when a storm was coming.
"There is a man on my ship," Mal announced to all present. "I'm getting a mite tired of people showing up on my ship as I didn't approve or allow."
"I'm sorry to intrude," the stranger said, his voice rougher than Mal would've expected. "I had no choice."
"Cas," Dean said, like he was holding his guts in with his fingers. Sam was instantly at his brother's side, glowering down at the stranger; when this was over, Mal was going to have to have a talk with the two of them about mentioning things like knowing folks who could appear without notice out of the vasty deep.
Which was a reminder: "You had no choice but to show up on a ship floating in the middle of space," Mal said, putting much of his disbelief into the words. Still, he let his gun arm relax—looked like they'd have some call to bandy words about before the violence, and it'd do him no good to have a gun hand too worn out to aim. "Kaylee, can you figure out just where this fellow attached his ship to mine?"
"He didn't," River said, stepping out from behind Simon.
Cas, who'd been staring at Dean like Dean was oxygen and fresh fruit and a stack of gold all wrapped in one, snapped his head around quick as an owl.
"Prophet," he said.
River's face twisted in a snarl, and Mal brought his gun right back up and thought that next time he wouldn't bother to drop it. "I'm not your prophet," she spat.
"So said Jonah," Cas said, "and you are adrift on a wider sea."
River shuddered. Simon put his arm around her shoulders, but she shook him off like he was a spider dropping from the ceiling. "I don't consent," she said, high and frightened. Anything that could terrify River was likely to be either mortal danger or a child's toy—experience ran about half and half, and Cas didn't look to be selling trinkets. Mal caught Zoe's eye and shook his head just a bit: not yet.
Cas tilted his head. "Prophecy is a human capacity and requires no consent."
"Okay!" Dean barked and came clattering down the stairs to put himself in between Cas and River. Mal dropped his gun arm again, seeing as how Dean had taken away his line of sight, which might have been a-purpose. "Leave her alone," Dean ordered, which was almost funny; Dean knew by now that if River wanted to move a man, the man got moved. "How'd you find us?"
Cas frowned, giving Dean the kind of look Mal was more used to seeing on Sam's face when Dean was dragging his heels just for the joy of it. "That's not important now. You need to know: Lucifer is not far behind."
"Lucifer?" Inara asked; the rest of his crew had the same question written across their faces. Well, to the extent he was thinking at all, Jayne only wanted to know how many people he'd get to hurt on account of Dean and Sam's old friend, but other than that they were united in a powerful need to know what kind of mess this was.
"How?" Dean demanded. "It was supposed to—you guys were fighting over Earth, okay, it's Earth-that-Was now. Isn't that enough?"
"I am sorry," Cas said, no hesitation about it like most men would have. Dean shrank back a mite, though Sam had joined him now and Sam looked as angry as Mal had ever seen him even after that mysterious apology. "I have much to tell you. Is there a place where we may—sit down? Also I would like a hot beverage."
"You ain't related to River, are you?" Kaylee asked, then gulped.
Cas turned to see her and smiled, about as convincing as a scarecrow. "Not exactly," he said. "But perhaps when you hear my story, you will better understand the relationship."
"The fuck she will," Dean grumbled, almost under his breath. Then he squared his shoulders. "Cap'n?"
And even in the midst of all the commotion, Mal was just a little bit proud that he'd been able to beat the rules into Dean's fool head. "All right," he said. "Let's all head up to the kitchen, and this Cas fellow can try to convince me why I shouldn't put him—and maybe you—out the airlock, solve all our problems."
Mal sighed and waited for the rest of them to traipse past. He'd thought the Winchesters were like to get them all killed, but only because of Dean's wandering eyes. And hands. And other body parts. This was bigger trouble.
But they were part of his crew now, so he guessed he was just going to have to yell at them until they did something about it.
"I'm impressed, really," the man with the rotting face said, gesturing behind himself. "We shut down Hell, and you go and create something even worse all on your own. It truly makes me wonder what our father saw in you."
Mal had never reckoned there to be any sight more likely to make a man break down with fear than thirty Reavers slavering for his flesh. Come to find out, thirty Reavers standing nice and quiet, lined up as neat as if they'd just graduated boot camp, was a mite more terrifying. He could feel sensitive parts of his body trying to crawl back inside. Beside him, Zoe's breath came fast and shallow, nearly inaudible.
"There's nothing here for you," Sam said. Dean's hand was tight on his brother's arm, not holding him back, just hanging on. Dean had stepped forward just enough to get between River and the strangely sickened man—Lucifer, according to their newest passenger.
"To the contrary, Sam," Lucifer said. "There's an entire universe, devoid of leadership. Free of those pathetic revenants you called demons, so that's half the cleanup done already. Once you say yes, I can finish the job, and then all will be as it was in Heaven. Well, from my perspective, at least."
"You've got no leverage," Sam said, implacable.
"Why yes, Sam, I'd be delighted to tell you all my plans," Lucifer sneered. "It's not that easy, boy. But I'm happy to give you—and your charming little seer friend there—a preview."
River screamed, clawing at her face in a way Mal'd thought was years past. Sam was on her in an instant, pulling her arms tight as he clutched her against his chest, and she was too caught up in her vision to break free. Instead she only wailed, until Lucifer waved a hand and she sagged down like an empty sack.
"Fight me and I'll take her first, Sam. Then I'll take all your crew, and I'll take them slow, and then I'll come for Dean, and I'll only come for you once Dean's regained his confidence as my lead torturer. You want leverage? I can apply pressure anywhere I want."
In the same instant that he winked out of existence, the Reavers charged.
The room exploded into gunfire, Zoe and Mal and Jayne, Sam and Dean and even Simon with the gentlefolk's pistol Dean had finally convinced him to carry. But this wasn't a regular Reaver battle, firepower and nerve against unflinching bloodlust. They were thinking, working together, and Mal heard Jayne curse and Simon cry out in pain. River, awake again, flashed by in his peripheral vision, working that huge knife she'd taken off of Sam the first week he was aboard.
When it was all over, weren't none of them hadn't spilled some of their own blood along with the Reavers'. Dean made Simon sit still long enough to get his own leg sewn up before attending to Jayne and Zoe; the rest of them didn't need immediate doctoring.
Mal looked to where River and Sam were talking softly, and he was man enough to admit he was near solid with fear.
"Back to Serenity," he announced. "Mayhap your angel friend's found something to help." Having seen Lucifer, he wasn't inclined to believe that, but he'd think better on his ship.
"River," Dean said, all careful-like. Mal knew the look of a man hating himself for what he was asking. But he was asking, and Mal wasn't going to say Dean had the wrong of it.
"I don't know," she said. "I can't see."
"Okay, okay," Dean hurried, hesitating a second before putting his hand on her arm. "It's okay, baby girl, we'll figure it out."
"I know when you're lying," she said, fond like she was when Mal tried to tell her how to navigate.
"Yeah, yeah, my mouth is moving." Dean's grin was as fragile as the icing on Kaylee's favorite pastries.
River frowned. "No, sometimes you're not talking at all when you do that."
Dean flushed, and then Mal did when he figured it out. Mal didn't want to know if River's knowledge was direct or only from her powers of mind; for one thing, he didn't want to have to string Dean up, needed the crew strength. "Anyhow," Dean said on a cough, "we've beaten this ass—this guy before. We won't let him have you."
"I know," she said. Mal wished he could be reassured by that, but he'd seen too many of River's words come true in just the wrong ways.
"River, you should get some rest," Mal said as he stepped forward, deciding that it was time for the captain to enter the conversation.
River turned her head gracefully, like Serenity when she was at the helm. "You talk to Simon too much."
"Don't I know it," Mal said.
River snorted and glided past him. "Be gentle," she said as she went. "Nobody else is."
They both watched her go.
"So, how bad is it?" Mal asked when she was far enough gone that they could pretend she couldn't hear.
The way Dean looked down and scratched his neck was a strong answer. "Sorry, cap'n," he said.
Mal shook his head. "Way you tell it, you hadn't run here, nobody ever would've made it off Earth-that-Was."
"I don't think we can run any more," Dean said. His mouth twitched, and Mal looked away so that Dean could fight off the tears without anybody watching. Mal thought he might need to know, someday soon, what that business about Dean being a torturer had been about, but he could leave it be just for now.
"I've lost battles before," he told Dean. "Hell, I've lost wars. But I'm still flying. Win or lose, this crew'll fight. That's all a man can ask."
Dean nodded, straightening his shoulders with what looked like painful effort. "I'd better go pick the lock on Sam's door before he broods himself into a coma."
"You tell him from me, I don't tolerate malingering."
Dean smiled, or tried to anyhow, which was as close as Mal was going to get to a victory today. "Yessir," he said.
"Now how come when you say that, it never sounds like you're really fixing to obey me?" Mal wondered.
"Maybe because you're a distrustful bastard who'd be miserable without some reason to yell at his crew?" Dean suggested, perking up for true this time.
"Ah, go on with you." Mal waved at him, and Dean lumbered to his feet, favoring his left leg. He tromped up to the crew hallway, and shortly Mal heard the rhythm of Sam-and-Dean, a rise and fall of voices as familiar to him now as the sound of Serenity's engines.
Got to stop taking on pairs of strays, he thought. Next set's liable to start by blowing up the 'verse.
Well, nothing to be done for that now. He sighed and headed towards the cockpit. Maybe Castiel would have some thoughts about how in the seven frozen hells they were going to deal with a man who could make Reavers dance to his tune. And if not, at least there'd be some entertainment in doubting the existence of God to the face of a celestial being.
Inara always said Mal could drive a saint to intemperance. He was looking forward to seeing if he could prove it on an angel.