Disclaimer – Plot bunny planted by a Tin Man reader…it is absolutely LittleMender's fault! I own nothing from the movie, the TV show….let's just say I own nothing but this little plot!

A scream ripped through the darkness.

As people scrambled out of bunks, grabbing the closest weapons to hand, a slight figure hurried towards the pilot's seat. Hands moving with blurring speed, she made a number of course changes in rapid succession. Ignoring her shipmates bewildered questions, she stared at the blank instruments in front of her as she worked to avoid the problem only she could detect.

"Gorramn it, Mal!"

A pair of hard blue eyes pinned the speaker as he came barreling down the hallway. At the cold look, Jayne stopped and leaned on the bulkhead.

"And just when it got good…" he grumbled.

"I really don't want to hear it," warned Zoe as she came up behind Mal. "Keep your dreams to yourself. Captain?"

"Don't rightly know," replied Mal. "Lettin' her finish before I go interruptin'. "

Zoe nodded, peering into the control room at the young woman still desperately maneuvering the ship. Although her actions were becoming less frantic, she had yet to cease her motions. Several long moments passed before she fell back in the seat. Pulling her knees up and wrapping her arms around them, she lay her head down.

Mal's eyes narrowed as he looked over his young pilot. He had seen River in a kaleidoscope of behaviors and attitudes, but never quite so scared as this…at least not since she first popped out of that cryo-box her brother had smuggled her in. He turned to the rest of the crew.

"Go on back to your bunks. Doc and I'll take a look, see what's up. She don't need a lot of questions right now."

Jayne opened his mouth, but Zoe cut him off with a look before something could come out of it. She gave Mal a long look and then began herding the others away. Inara lifted a single sculptured brow before drifting off and Kaylee looked up at Simon.

"Go ahead. Just let me take a look and I'll be back in a bit."

Mal might have smirked at the exchange in other circumstances, and still might after talking to his pilot, but for the moment, he was more concerned over River's state of mind. Making his way over to the pilot's chair, he crouched down beside it so he could look up into her eyes as she lifted her head. Deep and full of dark secrets, they simply stared back at him.

"Hey, Lil' Albatross, want to let me know what's goin' on?" he asked gently, brushing a strand of hair out of her face.

Simon stood behind him, scrutinizing his sister. Since the events on Miranda, she had been more in control of herself and her senses; almost like that secret had been fighting her to get out. With her instability tapering off, he wanted to avoid using drugs if at all possible. He held them in reserve in case of emergencies now. She seemed calm at the moment however, so he waited to see if Mal could talk her down.

"River?" Mal prompted.

Balancing her chin on her upraised knees, she glanced up to Simon and then back down to the Captain.

"Recess is over…school's back in. All the little children should be answering the bells."

The two men exchanged a glance before looking back at the young woman. With a direct, probing look, Mal searched her eyes for any signs of danger or something that might prove a problem. When all he saw was a sorrowful, worried girl, he turned to Simon.

"Doc, why don't you go on back to bed? Me an' the Albatross here'll keep an eye on the ship."

Simon gave him an apprising look before nodding. Shifting around slightly, he pressed a kiss to the top of River's head.

"Night, mei mei."

She managed a hint of smile for her brother and he left – though not without another discerning look at their captain. Mal gave a small huff as he settled into the seat across from her. She turned questioning eyes in his direction. His lips quirked.

"Your brother's lackin' a bit in subtlety."

She tilted her head, but kept her eyes on him. He glanced over the changed flight plan, letting the silence settle. He knew she could focus better when people did not fill the air around her with unnecessary noise. After watching the stars pass by for ten minutes or so, he shot her a glance out of the corner of his eye.

"You ready to talk some more, lil' bit?"

A small tremor shook her frame and he frowned, turning to face her more fully. She had yet to uncurl, and she peeped at him over her knees.

"We sent the message; we told the secret. They let us out for recess, but now they ring the bells. They do not understand why one of the children does not come back. Truancy officers have been sent out."

He blinked at her. His eyebrows knit as he thought about her words. As clarity hit, he rubbed his hand over his face.

"Those folks that want you back, they finished lickin' their wounds and out searchin' again?"

She gave a half shrug.

"Had to change course…couldn't go to Springtime's planet. The little king gave a hiding place to the truancy officers and we are the mice for his maze. They want the girl back in the box."

He snorted.

"I'm fair certain I should be frightened – pretty sure I understood that. Badger sold us out did he? Well, guess we'll have to find another buyer for the grade A goods we've got in the hold. One good turn deserves another."

She remained silent, staring out at the black. He settled back in the chair, watching her. His eyes narrowed as he considered their position. The Alliance had left them alone for a good long while after the whole uproar over their secrets at Miranda. He shrugged; being on the run was nothing new to them. Her head snapped in his direction, eyes wide and wondering. He tilted his head in her direction, raising an eyebrow in question.

"Got a thought there, Albatross?"

"Why?" she asked.

"Why am I askin'?" he replied, confused.

She shook her head, long hair shifting and falling back in her face.

"Why do you keep us?" she clarified.

He scowled at her.

"Don't know where you two come from that this keeps surprisin' ya, but you're on my crew. That makes you mine. If'n I haven't thrown Jayne off of my boat, I'm not goin' to be lettin' go of the doc or new pilot either. So the law's after ya – it's after most of us."

"Less forgiving than the law…if they catch the thorn, they will remove you from their sides. They will see that you do not come back."

He shrugged again.

"People been tryin' to do that for awhile. I figure I got a better shot of stayin' safe than they have at catchin' me. Kaylee keeps us in the black; Jayne likes to shoot official types; Zoe watches my back; Doc patches me up; and you just tell us when their comin'. Little help from Inara and we all keep flyin'."

She stared at him, eyes still scared.

"Niu, they're not takin' you, okay? You ain't leavin' my ship 'til you choose to go."

A small smile flickered over her face even as a tear tracked down one cheek.

"Lao zi and sheng mu, they did not want to know…they did not ask…only lao da ge, only Simon asked what they taught when school was in."

"Yeah," he frowned. "Well, you belong with us now."

"Serenity's witch," she smiled.

"That's right," he said, smiling at her. "Serenity's witch, and pilot…so, if you're back on an even keel, you mind tellin' the captain just where in the hell we're goin'?"

She gave a little giggle and turned back to the controls without speaking.

"Albatross?"

"Lil' bit?"

"River!"

Chinese translations off the web – probably not right, but I'm afraid I don't speak the language!

Mei mei – sister

Niu – little girl

Lao zi – father

Sheng mu – mother

Lao do ge - brother