Summary: ragged and sore, but flying. Serenity, after.
Spoilers for everything, including Serenity.
Original Story: Strained, bugchicklv.
The ship with River piloting is a different sort of beast than Serenity-with-Wash; she moves sleeker, quicker, and with altogether less concern for her passengers and the laws of nature. Mal keeps trying to have a stern talking-to with his new pilot, but it doesn't quite seem to take; girl can nod at him for an hour straight and then turn backflips down the hall with no nevermind about it.
Might be he should get her brother to do it, but that's got troubles all its own. Boy's a good sight less uppity, less inclined to stick his nose in the air and stab people with needles they don't properly need, and Mal's more than inclined to count those as blessings. 'Tother hand, he's never far from Kaylee, now, which either means not being able to find the gorram surgeon when they need him, or else axle grease all over the medbay.
Six of one, half dozen of the other, and they've all come down on the side of the angels, but that don't necessarily mean they know where their feet are, yet.
Zoe and Jayne: another twosome makes his head spin. Time was, Jayne'd get Zoe riled up—partly on purpose and partly on account of being dumber than two heads of cattle and three times as smelly—and Wash'd settle her down, make some fool joke or just settle his arm around her waist, lean in against her neck. Without that, Zoe and Jayne spin closer and angrier, rough edges catching every time they're near.
He asked Zoe about it, once—strictly Captain-to-Mate, and only in the interests of them not tearing his gorram ship to pieces—but she'd just shrugged.
"We're gettin' by, Mal." Her face is thinner, now, even with all the sweet things Kaylee can sneak into the requisitions and enough fake meat to choke a donkey. "S'what we do."
He thinks that means they're fucking, but he doesn't rightly like to inquire, neither.
Any road, they're flying: ragged and sore, but flying.
They hit New Hisani a couple of months out from Miranda. It's further in than they'd usually go, but with no telling how long the Alliance's good will will last, Mal's inclined to play it safe, do good while the eyes watching them are still mostly kindly.
It's a sleepy little place, all mountain plateaus and sheer cliffs; River listens politely to the landing instructions the Comptroller gives them, then doubles east and takes them in down a series of chasms and gulfs instead, laughing all the gorram way.
Mal doesn't hit her, but only because it looks bad, hitting a little girl, even if she's tougher than a regiment of cavalry, and a good bit less couth.
She plays it nice for the Comptroller, though—they all do, for a change. Simon and Kaylee keep their hands to themselves, mostly, and Jayne doesn't spit on anybody he shouldn't. Zoe is quiet, but she smiles at a little girl with a toy sword, and if she goes to bed early and wakes up looking hollow, well, Mal's not inclined to mention it first. River turns somersaults down off the ship and quotes dirty poetry to the Comptroller's husband, but for the most part she stays off to the side, climbing rocks and talking to empty air and letting business be business.
There's a bonfire, that night, in their honor—New Hisani don't get many guests—and they all huddle close while the winds howl, drinking honey wine from a dark blue jug, singing songs and telling stories. River wanders in sometime after the third, maybe the fourth go-round; she takes a sip, wrinkles her nose, and wanders off into a corner to stare at the walls, wide-eyed and baffling.
"That sister of yours ain't quite right in the head," Mal says, conversational-like, passing the jug along.
Simon takes a swig and leans back, sputtering; passes it along down the line. "She always will be, I think," he says, after a piece, and shrugs when Mal looks over. "There are things we can do—drugs, therapies—but ultimately it comes down to the brain's capacity for healing." They watch her, together, her head tilted and her back straight, wandering between people like they're part of the furniture, like it don't matter how close or how far she is.
"She's alive, though," Simon says, next time the jug comes around, "which is at least something."
Back in the air, and River's nowhere to be found: Doctor swears up, down, and sideways that she got on the ship, but nobody's seen hide nor hair of her since the doors closed, and the takeoff protocols are all askew. Mal's poking at them, one dial at a time, trying to figure out what in the name of love she's done this time, when the door clangs open and there she is, Simon and Kaylee calling down the hall after her.
"It isn't the configurations that matter," she says, vaulting quick and easy over the back of the seat. She drops her head back, rolls it to the side, looks over at him with those dark, crazy eyes; her hands are busy already, twisting things back into position, firing her up. "It's the pattern, Malcolm," she says, "the pattern that continues. Forward motion." She grins, sideways and a little loopy. "Progress."
Mal watches her. Girl's still crazy as a box of weasles, and no mistake; she's fast and mean and unpredictable and smarter by half than will let him ever be entirely at ease. Settled, now, some, but that don't mean nothing if they ain't got a way to hold her to it.
"Which you don't," she says, paging through a display on a system he'd been thinking about heading over to, a job or two from now. "We'll need to keep an eye out for the locals, if we do," she adds. "Rumor has they don't like interlopers."
"Now, who said anything about any interlopin', little girl?" Mal sniffs, disapproving. "We're honest traders now, or hadn't you heard?" Honest traders with a dozen crates of raw silk of dubious ancestry, to be sure, but it takes more than a shiny new paint job to change Serenity.
"Honest as the day is long," she chirps, "although of course that metric becomes problematic in deep space." Her fingers fly on the controls, flipping faster than he can keep track of, doing things the old system probably isn't supposed to be able to do. Mal's not worried, though, not more than usual.
"Well," he says, "In the black, I reckon the day's as long as we want it to be."