Summary: The angel Castiel has been sent to recruit a soldier for a new struggle to save humanity -- this time, it's a veteran of the battle of Serenity Valley, who has little use for God and His plans. Castiel discovers Serenity is like a prism, each soul it carries reflecting a facet of Dean Winchester.
Characters: Castiel, Mal, Serenity crew and passengers, Dean Winchester
Notes: Thank you to girlguidejones and nestdweller for the great amounts of help, advice, reading and handholding during the freakout, and thanks to pandarus for her beta of the final product.
Disclaimer: Kripke's and Joss's characters and 'verses, I do this for fun and profit doesn't enter into it.
Original story: Shall Give His Angels Charge by Vesper (vespertanmer)
Notes: Spoilers through S4 Supernatural, "Jaynestown" Firefly.
Serenity Valley, Hera
Sgt. Mal Reynolds is wrong about the angels. The ones he believes will descend from the sky will not arrive. The surrender of this valley, so bravely defended, has long been ordained, and the sergeant can do nothing to change it.
Nor can Castiel.
Castiel sees Mal Reynolds kiss the cross that hangs from his neck, and knows before the night is out it will be cast aside, trampled underfoot into thick mud composed of dust and blood.
Castiel aches for this loss as he does for the lives of the soldiers who fight by Mal Reynolds' side. He has learned from Dean Winchester -- and from Jimmy Novak -- that the small picture is important as well as the larger view. And he has learned from his own experience what it is to feel abused and abandoned by superior officers. How loyalty freely offered can become like ashes in your mouth.
Mal Reynolds is wrong about the angels. They are already on the barren face of this battlefield; they're just unseen. It's Castiel's place to ensure that this is not Mal's last firefight -- or Zoe's. They have their parts to play in a coming battle, just as Castiel does.
Eavesdown Docks, Persephone
It has been hundreds of years since Castiel last walked the earth in human skin.
(The fact that he thinks of it as "earth" shows how long it has been. It's Earth-That-Was now. Mankind has long ago moved beyond the garden where the Lord planted them -- like a noxious weed, Uriel would have said.)
Though he knows precisely where Malcolm Reynolds is, Castiel alights some distance away, giving himself a chance to reaccustom himself to this body, to the rushing sensations that assail him. The Eavesdown Docks are crowded and noisy, but there is a vibrancy to the area that Castiel appreciates. He hears the laughter of children, the bleating of animals, the high-pitched sounds of fiddles and pennywhistles. Smoke from the food stalls stings his eyes, and the smell of roasting meat mingles with that of animal dung and unwashed human flesh. Children follow him, begging for coins. Women accost him, offering to let him sample their charms for a fee. Cutpurses eye his clothing and his bearing, weighing the risks of stealing from him against the likely rewards.
He's not yet comfortable in this garb. He has taken on the familiar form of his vessel Jimmy Novak, but found more appropriate clothing for this place and time. To tell the truth, he misses the coat he used to wear, although Dean used to mock it. He liked its weight, substantial enough that he did not feel quite so naked without his wings. Though the frock coat he now wears falls nearly to his knees, its fitted cut is more restrictive, and he's not certain he likes it.
Outside the tavern he seeks, a beggar with a missing leg sits on a keg, her crutch propped beside her. She wears a tattered brown coat, its brass buttons tarnished or gone, and a few other threadbare remnants of her uniform. Castiel feels a soldier's kinship with her. His own wartime experiences were equally disillusioning, although he at least had the satisfaction of bringing down Zachariah with his own hand.
He produces a coin, places it in her outstretched palm, letting his fingers curl briefly around her dirty hand. She looks up at him, startled, her eyes losing their dullness. Castiel moves on without speaking, mounting the rickety wooden steps leading to the tavern door.
Lingering just inside, Castiel lets his eyes adjust from the noonday glare to the sudden gloom, although he knows exactly where Mal Reynolds sits. Hand wrapped around a drink, with his long legs splayed in a pose that exudes confidence, Mal flirts with the barmaid standing by his table. He reminds Castiel, not for the first time, of Dean Winchester.
Like the beggar outside, Mal Reynolds wears a blend of civilian clothes and pieces of his old uniform. His coat is a bit threadbare, but not as ragged as that of the woman by the door. The cross he once wore, of course, no longer hangs on a chain around his neck.
Mal becomes aware of Castiel's gaze and his smile fades. His chin comes up in challenge, and Castiel crosses the barroom and sits at his table.
Mal notices the stranger straightaway, primarily because he's busy noticing Mal. He stands out just a touch in this rowdy tavern, dressed a little finer than anyone else in the place -- though not a dandy of Simon Tam's level. His dark, drab clothes put Mal in mind of a tax collector or an accountant.
Which is why Mal's none too thrilled to see the stranger making his way toward Mal's table.
Jayne has turned from the bar and is heading for his own table and doxy when the man cuts across his path, and Jayne steps aside without so much as a glare, then stops and looks after the stranger as if he can't quite believe it himself.
The man sits himself down at Mal's table without awaiting an invitation.
The barmaid leaves off her flirtation and asks the stranger if she can bring him anything.
"I require nothing," the man says, "except privacy."
She nods curtly and retreats.
"Captain Reynolds." His voice is low, a mite rough -- as is the man's jawline, which clearly hasn't seen a razor in a day or two.
"It's possible. And who might you be?"
There's just a whisker of a pause, but Mal catches it. "My name is Dean Winchester."
Mal cocks an eyebrow. Sounds like the sort of name a man thinks up for himself when he watches too many Cortex vids about life on the Rim.
Winchester adds, "I am given to understand that you sometimes take on passengers for a fee."
"'Sometimes' being the pivotal word in that sentence," Mal says. "If I like the look of the fee and him who's offering it."
"I'll pay whatever price you set." Winchester locks his eyes on Mal's as if waiting to be inspected and approved. His gaze is too direct, his eyes too blue, and Mal gets the odd sensation that he himself is the one who's being judged as to his worthiness.
"Where are you bound?" Mal asks.
"It makes no difference," Winchester says.
Mal raises his brows. "Really. Then where are you headed from?"
"I'll double your asking price if you do not question me," he says.
"Not trouble with the Feds," Mal says. "Man involves himself with that, it tends to complicate his life. Sometimes even shorten it."
"I assure you, I have no pursuers. But I do wish to be off this world."
Mal rubs his jaw, thinking. The last time he took on a passenger who led him to believe money was no object, he ended up with two fugitives, one of them crazy. On the other hand, and it's a mighty big hand, the last two jobs have gone bust. He names a price, and a separate per diem; half now, half on arrival at Beaumonde. The man pays twice the full amount up front, without an attempt at bargaining.
After a long moment, Mal says, "We leave in six hours. Not a minute after. Slip number 12. You can board anytime after four o'clock local time."
Winchester pulls out his pocket watch and has a look at its face. "I shall be there by the appointed time." He rises and strides on out the door.
"Well," Mal says under his breath. "Ain't it just my lucky day?"
By time he gets to Serenity, Mal's in a better mood. After Winchester left, he'd secured a last-minute job, and it's an honest one. It'll take them the better part of 5 days to move the goods from Persephone to Beaumonde. If he's lucky, his passenger will decide that's the somewhere else he wants to be. If not, they're negotiating another passage.
Kaylee's in the cargo bay, playing some kind of game with River, who seems to be forgetting the point and breaking into a dance. Or maybe it's just that she's watching River dance. Kaylee looks happy, and so, in her way, does River. The steps are so complex Mal can't imagine matching them on his best day ever.
Kaylee spots him coming up the hatchway, offering him a sunny smile. "Hi, Cap'n."
River falters in her dance, her movements winding down to a slow twirl, until she stops with her bare feet cocked. "A traveler through the heavens," she says.
"Sure," Mal says. "Soon. We got us a transport job, and a paying passenger."
"Shiny," Kaylee says.
Mal nods. "Chase off one or two of the wolves at the door, at any rate. I'm thinking' maybe she should --" He casts a significant glance toward River.
Kaylee catches his meaning. "Oh hey, River. Let's go to the galley and make some tea."
River levels a knowing look at Mal, but she makes her way up the catwalk stairs, Kaylee behind her. As Mal turns back toward the bay hatch, a figure approaches through the sudden blaze of light from outside. The glare passes, and Mal sees Dean Winchester, carrying a grip that looks altogether too lightweight for a man who's leaving a planet he never wants to set foot on again.
Mal hears an inrush of breath above and behind him, and River's voice, hushed but audible: "Shiny."
"I'll say," Kaylee stage-whispers, then says, "C'mon, we'll meet him later."
Mal can hear the unrhythmic sound of River's bare feet on the catwalk as Kaylee peels her away from the railing and tugs her toward the galley, and her wordless squawk of protest.
Winchester looks after them for a moment, then glances around the cargo bay. "Serenity," he says.
Mal can't tell if the tone is ironic, but he doesn't like it just on general principle. He resists saying welcome aboard. "I'll have to show you around a bit later. We're taking on cargo, and the crew's not back yet."
Winchester sets his bag at his feet. "I'm happy to help, if you need it."
"Just hold onto that thought." Mal flicks a look at the grip. "You have your porters carrying the rest?"
The man furrows his brow. "No. This is all I require."
Mr. Winchester is just full of surprises. Mal's not quite sure he likes it. "Well then."
Jayne saunters up the hatchway, whistling off key, which makes Mal feel unaccountably sour. "You seem happy."
"Got my ashes hauled good and proper." He realizes Winchester is there, and glowers. "Who the gorramn hell is this?"
"Our passenger," Mal says. "Dean Winchester. And this here's Jayne Cobb."
Jayne gives him a thorough looking-over, and receives the same. He grunts, heading for the catwalk stairs.
"Stick around," Mal says. "We've got cargo coming on board. I got us a job."
"Well, hallelujah," Jayne mutters, and the newcomer's brows shoot upward, no doubt surprised that it comes out sounding like a curse.
En route to Beaumonde
Castiel avoids dinner the first night, claiming the weariness of travel. He will be obligated to partake of their meals when he does appear, and although he has paid for his share of food, he prefers not to use up their resources unnecessarily. And, in truth, he is not anticipating the flavor of protein rations with any degree of enthusiasm.
The last human food Castiel consumed was a slice of pie. Dean Winchester had insisted, saying that they deserved a reward, and that Castiel should discover what Dean considered his idea of heaven -- or at least a variant of heaven you could experience while fully dressed.
It was strawberry rhubarb pie. He still recalls the startling mixture of sweet and tart, an intensity almost overwhelming, with the additional contrast of warm pie and melting ice cream. What Dean declared to be the perfect crust, dusted with a scattering of baked-on granules of sugar. Dean had offered him a sample of his own cherry pie, and the vast difference between the two was another element of surprise.
He tells himself it's not a pointless indulgence to be thinking of Dean. Castiel has been assigned the task of approaching Malcolm Reynolds and conveying his destiny to a man who no longer believes. In many ways, Reynolds reminds him of Dean, but in others he will be more of a challenge. Dean had long experience with the supernatural realm, even though he was still a skeptic as far as angels and heaven were concerned. One factor on Castiel's side was the indisputable evidence of Dean having been ripped from the Pit and restored to life. He'll have no such miracle to make his case this time.
Castiel considers each turning point in his association with Dean, for good or ill, trying to find some application to this situation. He paces his quarters, but the small space makes it highly unsatisfactory. It feels more a cage than a shelter.
He wills himself somewhere more spacious, finds himself at a lake, standing on a dock. He's been here before.
Dean squints up at Castiel, apparently without surprise. The sunlight makes his dusting of freckles more pronounced. "Well, look at you. Did you get a summer job at Frontier Village?"
Castiel looks down at himself and realizes he's wearing the garb he assumed for his meeting with Mal Reynolds. "I am on assignment," he states. He glances around. "Your heaven looks much like earth."
"Depends on the mood." Plunging his hand into the bucket by his fishing tackle box, Dean produces a brown bottle. "Want a cold one?"
"Actually, if it's all the same to you, I'd like some pie."
And then they are walking into a diner, its interior verging on shabby, out of date even during Dean's earthly life. The waitress looks up from her chat with a patron and says, "Hi there, hon. Your booth is open."
Dean grins at Castiel. "It's never not open."
They slide onto the bench seats facing one another, and the waitress approaches with a coffee pot. To Castiel's surprise, she's not a buxom brunette in her twenties, but a woman whose red hair is shot through with a few grays, and whose curves are well padded.
"Your usual, Dean?" she asks Dean as she pours their coffee.
She turns to Castiel. "Want a menu, hon?"
"Thank you, no. I'd like strawberry rhubarb pie. Warm, with ice cream."
Dean turns a grin on him. "You do me proud, Cas. So how's the angel business going? Is that what brings you here?"
"I hoped for some advice." He lays out what he knows about the latest threat, about the kind of man Mal Reynolds is.
"Smuggler, huh? Sounds like a man after my own heart."
"He very much is," Castiel says. "Which is why I came to you. I know I made mistakes with you, and with Sam. I don't know that I have that kind of time. I'm not even sure how to convince him that I am what I claim to be. Or when I should lay that claim on the table. Right now, I'm just a passenger."
"Can't tell you that," Dean says. "I do know this: Don't jerk this guy around. It's gonna be hard enough getting his trust the first time, because he had faith and he lost it. You won't get a second chance with this one."
Castiel nods slowly. He knows there's no further need to talk about his regret over past mistakes -- these things have been settled long ago. "I appreciate your honesty more than I can say."
"Who'd have thought it?" Dean says as the waitress returns and delivers their plates. "Dean Winchester, life coach to angels."
The tart-sweet rush of rhubarb and strawberry sings on Castiel's tongue. "I sought to speak with Dr. Phil, but he is engaged six weeks ahead."
"Dr. Phil," Dean blurts, and his tone of disgust is just what Castiel had striven for. "You're still a dick, you know that?"
Castiel emerges from his quarters in the morning, hoping to find his first opportunity for a private conversation with Mal Reynolds. He has worked out an approach. It may be slower than he'd prefer, but he believes it has a better chance of success. As he moves toward the companionway to the galley, he sees a dark haired young man through the infirmary window, and one of the young women he'd seen on the cargo bay catwalk when he first arrived. The girl's eyes meet his and she chatters excitedly to the young man, pointing at Castiel. The young man turns to look, then turns back to the girl, making soothing gestures.
"Have you met Simon and River?" a voice behind him asks.
Castiel turns. "I have not."
The speaker wears the garb of a holy man, and his grey hair is bound in a knot at the back of his head. "River is a troubled young woman. She has her good days, and her bad. She can be ... excitable at times, and less than predictable. We're all very protective of her."
Castiel nods. "Thank you for alerting me."
The shepherd offers his hand. "I'm Shepherd Book."
Castiel shakes his hand. "Dean Winchester."
Book reacts to the name, tilting his head. "Your folks were Shirleyites?"
This, if he truly were Dean Winchester, would be the moment when a rich assortment of curse words would stream through his mind. Castiel had been thinking of Dean just before he'd needed to provide Mal Reynolds with a human-sounding name, and had forgotten that in this era the believers in the Winchester Gospel had just started to find a foothold out on the Rim. He hadn't expected to run across anyone who actually knew of this small (at present) sect, hadn't even considered the possibility. "Yes," he stammers.
"Perhaps we'll have a chance to talk about them while you're traveling with us," Book suggests. His tone seems friendly, receptive. "They're so little understood."
"Perhaps so." He adds no answering warmth to his voice, hoping to avoid the topic altogether.
"I'd introduce you to Simon and River," Book says, "but I think it's best if we wait until she's a little less agitated."
"Of course. I was on my way to the galley." With Book at his heels, he climbs the companionway to the upper level, the throb of the engine room vibrating through his feet and hands as he makes contact with the steps and the railing.
Book shows him around the galley and offers him a cup of tea, which Castiel accepts. As they wait for the kettle to heat, Castiel looks around the space, livened by little bits of hand-painted decoration along the walls and storage bins. Humans, even ones who are constantly on the move, make homes for themselves as best they can. Again, Castiel thinks of Dean, of his pride in the black Impala. It has been manifested in Dean's heaven as well, and long stretches of two-lane blacktop where he can open its throttle. He touches a hand-painted vine along the wall.
"That's Kaylee's doing," Book says. "She's the ship's mechanic. She has a positive genius for machinery. She says they talk to her. If you want to stay on her good side, don't insult her ship."
Castiel can't suppress a smile. "She sounds like someone I know."
Inara, who has years of training in the art of reading strangers, cannot fathom Serenity's new passenger. His clothing is dark, carefully nondescript, neither rich nor poor. The only scrap of color is a blue cravat. He is reserved and watchful, and she wonders what he's making of his dinner companions and their varied clothing: Inara in her finery, Mal and Zoe in their veteran's pastiche, Kaylee in her embroidered silk jacket and olive drab pants, her cheeks and lips lightly rouged. Mix in Jayne, Wash and Shepherd Book, and they're a motley group to be sure. Even Simon and River, arriving at the table a few moments late, don't seem to fit together. River in her dainty flowered frock, baggy sweater and lace-up boots, her hair uncombed, paired with Simon in his fine clothes.
Inara suspects the source of the delay. Simon looks harried, while high spots of color tinge River's cheeks. She's having one of her days. As days go, it isn't precisely a bad day, since she is not rocking and crying in the corner of her room. But it looks like it hasn't been quiet.
River fixes her gaze on the newcomer. "Oh, Simon," she says in a hushed voice.
"It's all right," Simon says soothingly. "He's going to be traveling with us for a short while."
"River, this is Mr. Dean Winchester," Shepherd Book says. "This is River and her brother Simon."
Dean Winchester inclines his head, but before he can acknowledge the introduction, River says, "I tore him from your book, Shepherd, but the page turned into a feather and fluttered to the ground and up he sprang." To Mr. Winchester, she says, "I'm sorry, I didn't know."
He looks startled, but addresses her solemnly. "There is no need to apologize, River."
"Seven choirs," she says. "First sphere, seraphim, the burning ones. Terrible to look at, not even the angels can see. The cherubim and thrones."
"River," Simon says gently, but River persists, words coming in a torrent.
"Second sphere, dominions, virtues and powers."
Simon takes her shoulders. "Mei mei --"
"Third sphere, principalities, archangels and angels. Malakh wat watim, the messengers."
"Mei mei, please calm yourself," Simon implores, but Inara knows he knows this is something she cannot do.
River twists in his grip. "He's here for a reason, Simon."
Simon casts a helpless look at the others, who are all frozen, their meals forgotten. "I think maybe we'd better go below. Mr. Winchester, I'm terribly sorry."
Again, he says, "There is no need for apology, Simon Tam."
"Come on, River," Simon says, tugging at her.
"I'll make up two plates," Inara says, starting to rise.
Simon gestures her back into her seat. "Finish yours first. It'll take a while before we're ready to eat."
"Keep her away from the knives," Jayne calls after them.
River's voice echoes along the companionway. "Don't you see how beautiful he is?"
Complete silence has fallen over the table, not even broken by the sound of knives and forks. At last Shepherd Book says quietly, "That's not the usual form her madness takes."
"She wouldn't be on this boat if it was," Mal says, and there's something steely and dangerous in his voice. His gaze is fixed on their passenger, whose startling blue eyes are wide with shock.
"In fact, she told me a few weeks ago that my Bible was broken," Book adds. "She did in fact tear out a great many pages."
Dean Winchester gathers himself. "I assure you, I am not afraid of River."
"Well, perhaps you'd best be afraid of this," Mal says, and the newcomer finds himself looking into the barrel of Mal's gun.
Jayne wouldn't have thought him no threat, but the stranger ain't no coward, either. The others at the table scatter, but the man sits there staring down the barrel of Mal's six shooter. He hardly looks perturbed, Jayne has to give him that.
"You want to be telling me right now who you truly are," Mal says, all quiet like, but laced with a threat, "and how it is you know Simon Tam's full name, for I know for a fact that no one here has told you."
"I am not here to interfere with the Tams, " Winchester says.
"Why don't you start explaining exactly what you are here for."
"I don't believe this is the appropriate time."
Mal smiles in a way that anyone who knows him would recognize as a warning. "Oh, I think there's no time more appropriate than when you've got a gun pointed at your chest by someone who's feeling a mite tetchy."
Winchester flicks a glance at the gun, giving it a lot less respect than Jayne himself would have in similar circumstances. His gaze returns to Mal. "I would speak with you alone."
"If the rest of you would be so kind," Mal says.
Zoe ain't having none of that. "Sir."
"Zoe may stay," says Winchester, still showing a decided lack of nerves.
Mal says, "Can we stop here and review just who's holding a gun on whom?"
"Husband?" Zoe says, and Wash snaps to attention in that way that always makes Jayne wonder if it's just them two, or if all married folks is mind readers.
"Be right back." Wash bustles out of the dining area.
At a nod from Mal, the rest high-tail it out too -- except for Jayne, who draws out his pig-sticker as if to pick his teeth after dinner.
"Hands where I can see them," Mal orders, and Winchester places them flat on the table, well to either side of his plate. Jayne sidles in and removes his knife and fork.
Wash returns with Zoe's gun, a lever-action rifle with the butt sawed off. "Sweetheart."
"Thank you, dear."
He swoops up his dinner plate and retreats in the direction of the bridge.
Mal says, "Jayne, thank you and goodbye."
"What, no 'dear'?"
"Out," says Zoe. Guess you don't always got to be a mind-reader.
Scowling, Jayne follows Wash's lead, except he takes his plate down the stairs toward the common room.
Mal eyes their passenger for a long while, but he seems unruffled. "Now. Supposing you tell me who the hell you are and what you're doing here."
"This is a conversation I fully intended to have," Winchester says. "However I hadn't planned on doing so under these circumstances."
"No, I reckon not. However, we are having it now."
"I came here because you have a destiny. One that's too important to wait for you to discover it on your own."
Mal rolls his eyes. "Let me guess. You've got a new silver mine that needs a partner. Or a proposed railroad line. What d'you think, Zoe? Think I'm just a smart investment away from being governor of some terraformed moon?"
"Could be, sir. I can almost see it."
"I have no need of your money," Winchester says. He is a downright humorless bastard.
"In my experience," Mal responds, "those are the worst scams of all."
"You are needed to fight a war," Winchester says. "One in which far more than independence is at stake."
Mal and Zoe exchange a look, competing to see whose eyebrows can rise the highest.
"Why don't we get onto the question of just who the guay you are."
Their passenger looks distinctly unhappy at this turn in the conversation. "River recognized who -- or, to be more precise, what -- I am. My true name is Castiel. I am an angel of the Lord."
"Da-shiong bao-jah-shr duh la doo-tze!"
Mal gapes at Zoe, who calmly says, "It does sound like </i>go-se</i>, sir."
Castiel regards the captain and Zoe. "You see why I had hoped to wait for a better time to reveal myself."
"I think the optimum time you were waiting for is never, Mal says. "There's only room for one lunatic on this boat."
"You have but one," Castiel responds evenly. "And though she is lost she may yet find her way. Even now, does she not have the Sight?"
Mal and Zoe exchange a look.
"It was not my plan to announce my identity and my mission yet, but perhaps it is our Father's. Time may be shorter than my brethren and I believed."
Castiel is not surprised to see this bring forth a scowl from Mal. "You may have a father, but I don't. I don't believe in God."
"That may be. He still believes in you."
"Well, ain't those pretty words." Mal's voice is hard and angry. "Why don't you find yourself a flock on the Cortex and peddle your go-se there."
Castiel rises to his feet, unconcerned with the weapons aimed at him. "I have no interest in the Cortex. I am a warrior, not a shepherd. I have come to enlist you in the coming battle."
Castiel senses a brief impulse in Mal to take a step back and his stubborn refusal to give in to it. "Draft, more like. How about some proof, beyond the word of a feng kuang girl. Why don't you show yourself?"
"My true visage would burn the eyes from your head."
"Well, that's mighty convenient, isn't it? So which species of angel might you be? Are you one of those top shelf angels, the burning ones?"
Castiel pinches the bridge of his nose, a gesture of exasperation he knows he has borrowed from Dean Winchester. Fitting, as Dean is the only other human who's brought him to this height of annoyance. "Only the lower orders appear to humans. Perhaps because it's an unpopular job."
Abruptly Mal slides his pistol back into its holster. "Entertaining as this has been, my dinner's getting cold. Zoe, you want to sound the all-clear?"
For some reason he can't fathom, it's this dismissal that pushes Castiel past the point of irritation. He unleashes a flash of lightning and spreads his wings, giving the captain and Zoe a glimpse of their shadow, as he had with Dean centuries ago.
Mal Reynolds' face goes blank with shock, and Castiel does find satisfaction in this. He slashes a hand in the air. "Call them back. We will discuss these matters at a later time."
Castiel hurls himself off of Serenity, back to Dean's corner of heaven.
Zoe eyes the captain, who's still slack-jawed. "Nice work, sir," she says. "You just got into a pissing match with an angel."
Castiel finds Dean near the water again, but this time there's a cabin by a stream. Instead of a fishing pole, he wields a wrench, leaning beneath the hood of the black sedan. Smudges of grease mark his white t-shirt and his skin. A work light hangs from a tree branch, casting a harsh glare over the engine. A radio pumps out a driving rhythm, and a beer waits on top of Dean's toolbox. Though he doesn't look up, sensing a presence, he holds out a hand. "Sammy? Give me that socket wrench, will you?"
"It's Castiel," he says, and Dean looks up from his task, again with no apparent surprise. "Things did not go as I planned."
"Well, aren't you just a ray of sunshine. What happened?"
"My hand was forced much sooner than I intended. One of the other passengers on the ship saw my true nature and revealed it to the others before I had an opportunity to gain their trust."
Dean straightens, reaching for an orange rag to wipe his hands. "Did he go blind?"
Castiel shakes his head. "It was a young woman. And no, she apparently could see beyond my vessel without harm. She spoke of what I am."
"Psychic, demon or what?" Dean asks.
"A desperately ill girl. Her mind has been broken."
"But she could see you." He reaches for his beer, then says, "Hey, how about a beer?"
Castiel begins to decline the offer, but changes his mind. "Yes. Thank you."
Grinning, Dean reaches into a bucket of ice and withdraws a bottle, which he twists open and hands to Castiel.
"I do not understand this."
"Your vehicle. All exists here in a perfected form. There's no reason your car should be subject to mechanical breakdown."
"It's not. I'm just tinkering." He tips up his bottle and Castiel follows his lead.
It tastes nothing like what he'd expected.
"So what do you think?"
Castiel frowns at the bottle, which had seemed so promising, its cold, damp weight in his palm. "It's no threat to strawberry rhubarb pie," he finally says, and Dean laughs heartily.
"It grows on you."
Castiel takes another drink. "Your car should not need tinkering with."
"I like tinkering. This is my idea of heaven." He grins again. "One of 'em. So what happened when she outed you?"
"Her outburst was thought to be symptomatic of her illness."
"So then what's the problem? If everyone thought she was just being buckets of crazy, you're not really outed."
"That might have been the case." He tips the bottle again; it is not, he believes, going to grow on him. He relates what occurred then, from the slip that caused Mal to draw his gun to Castiel's revelation and the response. "Maddening," he says, frowning.
"What do you mean by that?"
"You seem to get assigned to all the humans who piss you off."
"Imagine that," Castiel echoes.
Dean smirks. "You love it."
"You like the challenge."
"Why would I want my task to be needlessly complicated?"
"Tinkering, dude. Dealing with us is your version. I think it's your idea of heaven, too." Dean reaches for the orange rag again. "Do me a favor, Cas. Get behind the wheel and start her up. I need to hear the engine."
Simon has seen River's illness take many different forms, but religious ecstasy is not one he'd ever thought to encounter.
Words tumble from her almost too fast to follow as she chatters about wheels within wheels and six-winged creatures. He's not even sure where she got all this. It wasn't part of her schooling, nor one of her many independent interests. It saddens and exhausts Simon, who sits with her until she falls asleep, her face still aglow with religious rapture.
He smoothes her hair, then rises to leave her room. Exhaustion and hunger press in on him, and he pauses to weigh whether he'd rather eat or sleep. After a moment's deliberation, he climbs the companionway to the galley.
Someone -- Inara, he assumes -- has put aside two plates of food from dinner, but the thought of reheating an entire plate seems much too involved. He fills the kettle and sets it on the heat, rummaging half-heartedly through the bin he shares with River for one of the Fruity Oaty Bars he bought on Persephone.
When he closes the bin and turns away, he's startled to find the passenger standing beside the table.
"I'm sorry about before. My sister --" He's too tired to explain River, but the other man lifts his hand.
"I took no offense. And Shepherd Book had already explained her difficulties."
"Usually her outbursts are much more rational -- " Simon shakes his head. "I know that makes no sense. What I mean is, she has a mind that's mathematical, scientific -- she isn't given to spouting religious nonsense."
A smile flickers at the corners of the stranger's mouth, but Simon can't read what it might mean. And he cannot for the life of him dredge up the man's name.
"She wasn't always like this," he adds helplessly.
"You have devoted yourself to her. Sacrificed your life, in a sense."
The skin at the back of Simon's neck prickles. Who is this man? For the first time Simon really takes him in: the formality of his manner and his dress -- it's hours past dinner time, and he has not removed his jacket. He hangs onto the vestiges of his planetside life, whatever that may be, even more tightly than Simon. He's not a Fed -- they have an arrogant ease that lets them feel at home anywhere. But how does he know --
"What makes you say that?" Simon asks.
"It is the truth."
The shriek of the teakettle splits the air, and Simon hastily turns to remove it from the heat. When he turns back, the stranger is gone. Pressing the heel of his hands into his eyes, he decides to skip the food and take himself to bed.
Serenity is a prism.
So many different personalities on board, almost every one of them reflecting a facet of the Dean Winchester Castiel knew on Earth.
Simon Tam's willing sacrifice to protect his sister, and his unending guilt that it is not enough.
Kaylee Frye's love for mechanical things, her fierce pride in her ship.
Zoe Alleyne's loyalty and competence. The good soldier.
Jayne Cobb's enthusiasm for mayhem.
Mal Reynolds' cockiness, his bitterness at betrayal. The criminal who is yet a righteous man.
And River Tam -- in her Castiel sees Dean after his return from the Pit -- broken, trying so desperately to make herself whole once more.
Castiel's thoughts are interrupted by a knock at the door of his quarters. "Enter."
Mal Reynolds steps into the room, his gaze taking in Castiel, who has not thought to remove his coat, and the bed, which has not been disturbed. Mal, he is sure, finds these things bothersome.
"I reckon it's time we had a word."
Castiel inclines his head and sees the same little flicker of irritation the gesture used to produce in Dean. "I agree. Please, take a seat."
Mal regards him for a long moment. "There's a war, you said."
"It's coming, yes."
"An uprising against the Alliance? I haven't heard a whisper of it, and I keep an ear for such talk."
"You do not frequent the sorts of places where these things are discussed. Not an uprising. A war. Its goal is to wipe out or subjugate humanity entirely and unleash hell on -- it seems I must find a new phrase. We used to say 'hell on earth.'"
"And exactly who is it who wants to put an end to us? I've traveled a fair bit of the black, and I've never seen anything out there that isn't us."
"You've seen them. They can take a human form just as I do. Demons. Fallen angels. They are gathering Reavers to do their work."
Mal utters a sound of disdain. "Reavers They can barely be corralled enough to fly a ship without eating each other alive. They do no one's work, man nor demon."
"They can be possessed. The demons are raising an army, and they will use every Reaver they can find."
Mal's expression changes with such swiftness that Castiel recalls Dean's words. No second chance with this guy. Castiel has somehow made a misstep, and he's not even certain how.
"How did you do that stunt with the wings?"
"If I needed a reminder of why I don't believe in no kind of God, mention of Reavers just did the trick. What kind of God sets people like that loose on other people? What kind of God makes people like that?"
"Reavers are not the work of our Father."
"Then what? He just sat back and let that happen. I'll believe in no God before I'll believe in a God who would do that." Mal rises to his feet. "Your passage on this vessel comes to an end when we reach Beaumonde. You're still free to use the common areas of the ship. But if you mention one word of this angel go-se to my crew or passengers, I will confine you to your quarters for the rest of this trip. Dong-ma?"
Castiel meets his gaze. "I understand."
Shepherd Book finds Dean Winchester at the airlock, gazing out at the black.
Winchester turns his head toward Book. "Shepherd."
"Mr. Winchester." Book waits for the man to bring up what's weighing on his mind, but he doesn't. "You seem troubled. I don't mean to interfere, but if there's any way I can be of assistance, don't hesitate to ask. Day or night."
A small, private smile flickers at the man's lips, but he keeps his gaze on the stars, and the spaces between them. "Thank you for your offer." The following silence gives Book a fair idea how unlikely it is the offer will be claimed, but he was bound by his vows to make it.
"May I ask a somewhat personal question?"
Winchester gives him a sidelong glance, brow raised.
"Have you kept your parents' teachings, or formed new beliefs or dropped faith entirely?" Book raises a hand. "I assure you, I don't mean to convert you. I have a professional curiosity about those whose parents are members of ... the more fervent sects."
Winchester says, "I have many questions about my father's ways, but I do my utmost to keep to them."
"Yet you have set foot off your home planet. That's very uncommon, in my understanding."
"I was sent," Winchester says simply.
"This is a rough part of the 'verse for a God-fearing man," Book says. "I set out to walk the world awhile, and it didn't take long for me to question the wisdom of that choice."
"Yet here you are."
"Perhaps I was sent too."
Winchester nods. "Do you find it ... uncomfortable to travel with Captain Reynolds, given his hostility toward divine matters?"
"You didn't attempt to convert him, did you?"
"I did not," he responds, and Book has the feeling he may have ruffled the man's feathers. "There were enough hints of it at the dinner table. I am surprised that he tolerates the presence of a man of God."
Book smiles. "We have an understanding. I don't speak of spiritual matters in his hearing. We respect one another's stance on the subject of God. We don't try to change one another."
"There is a time coming when change will be necessary," Winchester says, and Book senses the implacability of a fervent believer.
"You can't force change on a man."
Winchester's blue eyes blaze like ice-cold fire. "Circumstances will force it." He turns on his heel and strides away.
"Another game?" Kaylee asks Inara.
They each gather up the marbles from their last game and arrange them back on the star points. Kaylee's on the sofa, where she can look up and see Simon in the med bay checking his supplies before their landing on Beaumonde. "Sorry I'm going to miss the city," she says. Due to the transport job, she'll only have a couple of hours free, which she'll spend fueling Serenity and combing the shipyard for parts.
"Is there anything I can pick up for you while I'm there?" Inara asks.
"Won't you be busy?"
"I have supplies of my own to renew. I left some time for shopping."
"Lip rouge would be nice. I can give you my old tin for the color name."
"Sure, I'd be glad to." She raises her carefully tended brows. "Someone you're getting prettied up for?" They exchange a smile, and Inara whispers, "He is very intriguing. Is there anything else?"
"If you can find some of that chocolate you brought back last time -- I tried so hard to make it last. Half a square a day, until it's time for Aunt Ruby to drop by, and then I ate three weeks' worth in one --" A movement catches the corner of Kaylee's eye and she realizes their passenger has emerged from his quarters, hidden from her view until he rounded the entrance he shares with the shepherd. Her cheeks burn something fierce.
"Mr. Winchester, we were just talking about Beaumonde," Inara says, smooth as glass. "Have you ever been?"
"I have not." He greets them both, slightly formal, but less polished than Inara's way of being formal. Somehow he doesn't seem like he spends that much time around people. "Are there sights you would recommend I see? The -- " he offers a slight smile -- "the largest ball of twine in the 'verse?"
Inara throws a perplexed look Kaylee's way. "I don't think they have that. What sorts of sights do you enjoy?"
He considers. "Cathedrals. Temples."
"There are some beautiful examples there," Inara says. "I'll make a list with directions before we arrive so you can make the most of your time."
"That would be most kind," Mr. Winchester says.
Kaylee wishes she wasn't stuck down at the shipyard. She'd be happy to show him all the churches he could stand. "We're getting ready for another game here, care to join us?"
"Thank you, but I was just on my way to speak to the Captain."
Kaylee watches him head up the companionway, then turns her attention back to Inara and shrugs.
River can hear him all over the ship. Music runs through his body -- blood, bone, muscles, skin. It pours forth from him, but no one else seems to hear. It's like nothing she's heard before.
She dances with it, in the empty spaces of the cargo bay, then races up the fore companionway when she feels it surging up from the aft. It's soaring and elaborately mathematical. And at the same time, there's a discordant tone, almost buried beneath the complex harmonies.
"Can't you hear it?" she asks the shepherd as she whirls past him. Some preacherman, deaf to the song of angels. River follows the melody, anchored by the hollow rhythm of footsteps on metal mesh steps. She meets the angel halfway down the steps.
"Would you sing your name to me?" she asks.
The song falls out of its mathematical beauty. "I am Dean Winchester," the traveler says.
"That's not your name," River insists. "And it's not his." She rests her hand on his chest. "I hear him in there now. I see him. I was too dazzled before, but he's there, small and scared and alone. It's been a long time since he was folded away. So small, like a tiny origami creature. Beautiful, but hard to find."
Not-Dean Winchester pulls her hand from his chest, folds it away in his own. "River. I don't know what you think you see, but --"
Shepherd's voice booms above them. "River, your brother's been looking for you. You'd best go on down to the infirmary and see what he wants."
River looks up at him, his bushy hair barely contained, his eyebrows all angry. But he's looking at the angel, not at her.
"Tell me his name when you find it out," she says, then reluctantly slips down the stairs past Not-Dean Winchester.
"A word with you, sir," the shepherd says. His voice crackles with so much voltage that she glances up to see if his hair has gotten loose.
"Is it urgent?" Castiel asks.
"You'd do yourself a favor to consider it so." Shepherd Book indicates that he means Castiel to come up to the galley, and as Castiel reaches the top step he gestures him along a path that leads to a round table in its own niche just off the main dining area.
"Have a seat, Mr. Winchester. I had thought I'd made it clear that River is a vulnerable young woman and that we're all quite protective of her."
"You made it quite clear."
"I'm not sure the message got through, so let me be absolutely explicit." His eyes are cold and hard. "If you interfere with that young woman, there will be hell to pay."
"I thought you believed me to be a devout man of God."
"In my experience, a powerful number of men of God are running from something -- something that's either behind them or inside them."
Castiel turns his most penetrating gaze on the shepherd. "And which is it in your case, Shepherd Book?" He says the man's name in the softest tones, but Book's eyes widen. "It so happens that we are in agreement about River Tam." He surges to his feet, so swiftly that the shepherd takes an involuntary step backward. "Keep her out of my path."
"Smooth crossing so far," Mal says to Wash.
Wash glances over at him, wondering why this observation seems to make him sound so sour. "And this would be worrisome because --?"
"You heard any news on Reavers lately? Anything unusual -- or more unusual than usual?"
"Nothing. I'm not even sure there's been word of an attack recently. Of course, there hardly ever is." It's rare that there's time for a distress signal, rarer still that there are survivors, leastways one that can talk of what happened before madness takes over. Word gets out when a ship stumbles across a derelict, boards and sees the unmistakable signs. "Why?"
"Passenger said he'd heard some talk. I'm thinking it might be a good time to spend a little time on Beaumonde, see if we can pick up any rumors there. You and Zoe are due for a little R and R -- we all are. Just try to emerge from your room sometime to have a listen to what folks are saying."
Breaking into a grin, Wash turns toward Mal, but is startled to find the passenger standing on the bridge between them. "Whoa!"
"You will hear a great deal once you reach Beaumonde," says Winchester. "It has begun."
"It?" Wash flicks a look toward Mal, whose grim expression speaks volumes but explains nothing.
The passenger picks up the T-Rex from Wash's console, turning it over and examining it. "Your kind is still fascinated with these creatures. Such power and ferocity, yet erased from the earth by a cataclysm. Are they a symbol of the slender thread that keeps all things alive, even the most formidable?"
I just like to play with them when there's nothing going on, Wash thinks, but isn't about to say. And "Your kind"?
Winchester hands the dinosaur back to Wash, though he's looking directly at Mal. "I cannot stay," he says. "There are battles on another front, and I am needed there."
Wash says, "We're still a couple of days out from Beaumonde."
Winchester ignores that. "I will aid you when I can, be sure of that."
"Now wait just a gorramn minute," Mal says. "I haven't said --"
"No," Winchester answers. "But you have chosen." He reaches into the breast pocket of his coat. "I have something that belonged to you, which you lost some time ago." He takes Mal by the wrist and places something in his palm, then curves his fingers over it. "You looked for angels in the wrong place," he says. "We were beside you, not above you."
Then the bridge grows bright enough that Wash is forced to squeeze his eyes shut for a moment, and when he opens them, their passenger is gone. Wash looks back into the fore passageway, but the only person he sees is Zoe, headed their way.
"Where the hell did he go?" He turns back to Mal, who's staring at whatever it is that's in his palm. "What is it?"
Wordlessly, Mal tips his hand toward Wash. Resting in his hand is a gleaming silver cross.
"Well, he's barking up the wrong tree with that," Wash says, but Mal is strangely silent and unamused.
"Sir, I saw some kind of --" She stops, taking in the heaviness of the atmosphere on the bridge. "Sir?"
"Stranger left," Mal says at last. "Had somewhere to be."
Mal doesn't answer that. "But he said he found something of mine." He shows her the cross.
"Wuh de ma," she breathes. "Is it --?"
"Same engraving on the back."
"What do you make of it?"
Mal sifts the silver chain through his fingers, then tucks it in his watch pocket. "Seems to me if there's a fight to be had, it'd be yu bun duh to turn down any good luck charm."
"Seems about right, sir," Zoe says. She rubs a hand on Wash's shoulder. "Seems about right."