She drifts quietly in the black, three or four hours out from the planet, waiting patiently for her little shuttle. Inara’s rendezvous is within three hours of their arrival, and there’s little point in both of them navigating the swirl of orbit and the slog of atmosphere. She slows her heartbeat and the thrusters flutter back; in the distance the shuttle crawls forward, until Serenity can see her with every set of her eyes. The tortoise catches up with the hare, every time.
“Missed you, over,” she says to the shuttle as it docks.
“Missed you too, River,” Inara’s voice trills over the intercom. “Ready to dock, over.”
Over and over. Hearing her name, and feeling the shuttle reconnect, help anchor River back into her bones and blood, out of her circuits and into her first set of eyes. She misses the ship, but it’s worth returning to her body to see her family.
Twelve hours later, she has waded through atmosphere and nestled into a landing bay. Simon and Kaylee are waiting for her, both grinning foolishly. They return to Serenity and to River joyously, like tired parents who are relieved to have left and are relieved to be getting back.
After the hugs, the quiet inspection, the “missed you, mei mei,” Simon pulls River impatiently towards sickbay. He’s been “considering the biochemical accretion of the neuroboosters you were conditioned with and how to lower the resonance of past treatments with your recovering neurons, and I think I’ve got a solution if I can just get the dosage right...”
River blinks at him silently.
“It would make it easier for you to stay in your head.”
“I heard you the first time,” River says. “I don’t want it this afternoon.”
“It doesn’t matter what time of day you take it,” Simon tells her. She gives him the c’mon, dummy look and leans over into the intercom.
“DON’T TOUCH THE SHIP,” Serenity says.
Jayne, chinning himself in the entrance to the engine room, looks confused and pulls his feet off the floor to hang from the railing. Then he looks at the railing in dismay.
Kaylee pulls her head out of the engine and frowns in the general direction of the ceiling. “But these wires are mucking up the throttle conduit and I can’t see they’re doing anything there,” she protests. “It’s gummed on to the control relay and it’s just gonna slow her down!”
“I’m growing something. Leave it be,” she replies.
In sickbay, Simon looks up from unpacking his medical valise when he realizes the room is empty. Though he’d purposefully gotten in between River and the door, she’s left silently and without a trace. For one unnerving moment, Simon wonders if his sister has become invisible. Then he swears gently under his breath.
“How does she do that?”
River reappears several hours later in the galley, just in time to steal some of Kaylee’s bao. Inara is draped gracefully over a bulkhead, sipping a glass of water that she could have just as easily fetched from her shuttle. Kaylee is a mess, her hands sticky and scalded from the effort of cooking, but she beams as Simon enters and peers over towards the steamer. River looks at Simon warily, but tucks herself up on the galley’s counter instead of fleeing with her meal.
Simon continues his pitch to River without the slightest hesitation for the two other people in the room.
“But you’ll be safer, mei mei, and more comfortable if you don’t have to...deal with ...all of your symptoms unexpectedly.” Simon looks down, unwilling to admit out loud that it would be easier on the rest of the ship as well. “We can begin to adjust you back once we figure out what a therapeutic dose looks like. It might even disable your triggers.”
“I left the trigger with Miranda, Simon. She’s holding it now.”
“There might be other triggers in your brain.”
“No others in the barn now. Owls have flown. Won’t be back til after dark.” River chews contemplatively on her bun. Simon rolls his eyes.
“How would you know?”
“I was there when they were put in, sha gua. How would YOU know?”
(The trigger had been one of Simon’s worries since the first time he’d seen it activated on Beaumonde. He’d taken pains to teach all the crew members, individually, the failsafe phrase before he’d agreed to leave with Kaylee, even for a three month trip. Zoe wrote the phrase on the inside of her holster. The week after Simon left, Jayne used the failsafe just for the glee of watching River crumple onto the cargo bay floor. Mal had pinned Jayne to the wall and threatened to airlock him again the next time Jayne spoke those words.)
River remembers all these machinations. She tried to speak the failsafe phrase herself, once, to see what would happen. She found she couldn’t speak the phrase when she tried, not even when she stole Zoe’s holster to read it aloud. Zoe’s handwriting had never been that good.
River's hands curl around her knees and she leans back towards the cabinets. Thinking about her failsafe always makes her breath catch, like a crease in her mind that she can never quite smooth. Simon is alert to her hesitation and comes over to gaze at her worriedly. Inara's gaze is fixed on River's bare feet, which are now curling towards the bulkhead. (Inara always tells River that the mind is naturally skittish, a thing to be tamed and controlled using the flesh. Inara's mind seems to have been tamed quite some time ago.)
Looking up, River sees Kaylee approach Simon before self-consciously changing course and moving in towards her instead. Kaylee still walks like a mechanic and still links arms with River like a little sister, but her eyes are worried and keep glancing toward Simon.
Mal comes into the galley then, taking in River’s perch on the high counter, Simon and Kaylee flanking her, and Inara’s outstretched, placating hands. He’s faintly puzzled as he turns the corner, then reads his crew and turns surly on the downstroke.
“All right, lolligaggers, if we ever want to be paid this year we’d best be breaking atmo. River, is my ship ready yet?”
“Cap’n, we’re just now sitting down to eat,” Kaylee says. “An’ Simon’s working on a project, right?”
On cue, River fastens her glare on Simon and declares, “I don’t want your medication, xiǎotùzǎizi!”
Mal fixes Simon with his glare and says, “That seems to settle it, doc, and we’ve some business to attend to. If that’s all right by you?”
“You don’t care about anything but your ship!” growls Simon.
“Hell, you don’t even care about your ship no more, never mind her pilot!” yells Kaylee. “Or her control relays,” she mutters under her breath.
“I need to keep my ship up in the air, Engineer,” he snarls at Kaylee. “As for you, Doc, if she don’t feed you and clothe you and give you bullet holes to sew up every so often, you’d best at least be thanking Serenity for a ride out of town. Or do you prefer Alliance-sanctioned transport these days?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Mal sees a set of bare toes wriggling up behind the galley cupboard and disappearing into the ductwork. He smirks, then turns heel and walks off in the middle of Simon’s protest.
Later, Mal finds River in the control room. “I didn’t mean that anything in here was on fire,” he says. “I just thought you might have wanted an elsewhere to be, with your brother and Kaylee putting in their bright ideas.”
“They’re just trying to help,” she sighs.
“Don’t recall you asking for it,” he tells her.
“Well, how often do you ask for help? Never,” she says.
“Well, that’d be ‘cause I never want any help,” Mal retorts. River sticks her tongue out at him.
“I...didn’t mean, back there, that I didn’t want you healthy. But I don’t see why they need to fix something that ain’t broken now.”
River shrugs. “Ships break, people break. I might need someone who knows the circuitry, someday. Normal doctors wouldn’t get the right end up anymore. Simon’s broken just right.”
“I don’t need you to be normal,” Mal repeats. He turns his head to gaze sullenly out the cockpit. “I don’t need you to be anybody but you.”
She crosses to the second conn station, pulls Mal’s head back around, and leans into his shoulder like a cat. Then she’s disappeared to the other side of the room, settling into the lead conn and running what appears to be a pre-flight check with her eyes closed, her head thrown back.
Mal, still wounded by the confrontation, gazes away with a plaintive look. “I love this ship,” he says.
River pulls her mind far enough out of the wiring so that she can speak again. “Love you, too,” she murmurs.
When Mal looks over at her, her head is thrown back again and they are slowly rising into the air.