Title: A Simple Twist of Fate, chapter two
Date Posted: 22 March 2006
Author: S. Richard and Van Donovan
Rating: This chapter: PG
Characters: River, Wash
Pairing: None now, eventual River/Wash
Word count: 4,590
Warnings: Begins pre-TV series, completely AU, will invovle some underage romance.
Summary: Blue Sun's Academy brings two unlikely people together.
Disclaimer: Co-written. We are not affliated with Mutant Enemy, Joss, Firefly/Serenity, Unversal, Fox or anyone. If we were, we'd be making money off this. We mean no harm. Title from the Bob Dylan song.

Nelson was in unusually good spirits when he met River out on the tarmac for their next lesson. “You give me a sequencing like you did last time, and we might just get you out into the black by the end of this month.”

River looked at him dully. They'd changed the medicine again, made it hard to hear, hard to see… Sometimes she thought they did it just to keep her off balance. She only thought that once she'd adjusted, though. Nelson seemed to be waiting for something. "Yes, sir," she muttered hazily.

The faint gleam in his eye dimmed at her watery reply. A scowl slipped easily into place on his face. “Get in your Cobra and give me a proper ignition sequence,” he instructed.

River moved to obey, but slowly, sluggishly, every step a trial, but she couldn't fall. River hit one of her now far-too-apparent wrist bones on the cockpit door, but made no sound of pain. She didn't even feel it. She flipped the comm. on, slowly. "R. Tam."

Nelson followed her, standing on the runner. He could tell, already, that they weren’t going to being reaching lift off today. He snarled. “Focus!”

River didn't even look at him. She was focused, and it hurt: hurt to narrow down the jagged edges to a point. She pushed buttons and flipped switches with a slow, slow precision, too intent on her task to even notice his tone.

Nelson leaned over the hatch, looking at her operations. “You probably think you’re being cute, Ms. Tam, but in this Academy, we value speed as well as quality. I suggest you step up your actions. If you work the throttle like this, you’ll never make lift off.”

His words penetrated her fog, then coalesced with the swirling haze inside her, settling in her stomach. Suddenly, she leaned out the hatch, head hanging low, vomiting the acidic contents of her stomach and the little bit she'd eaten when the medicine made her forget she wasn't eating. She hung there, abject, uncaring.

Nelson let out a string of Chinese swearwords that were entirely inappropriate coming from him around a pupil. “That’s fantastic,” he sarcastically said. He slammed a hand on the side of his Cobra, then pulled her communications link off her ear and spoke into it. “This is Colonel Nelson requesting medical and janitorial services on the tarmac, pod seventeen. Pupil R. Tam has just . . . gotten sick. Over.” He flung the link back into the cockpit, over her. “You did a real bang up job with this one today,” he hissed.

River wept, not moving, tears falling to mingle with the contents of her stomach on the tarmac.

“Get out of there,” he snapped. “Get up! Show some respect for your Cobra!”

River slid out of the cockpit, falling to her knees and bruising them. "Tried," she sobbed thickly.

Nelson wrinkled his nose in distaste at her and the situation. He hopped off the runner, grunting as his body protested at the action. A quick scan of their surroundings showed that, though requested, the medics weren’t in any hustle to arrive. “You’re a disgrace,” he said in a low growl. “To yourself, to me, and to this academy.”

"Yes," was all River could groan, and then she was cut off as her stomach began heaving again, helplessly, her body trying to expel what was no longer there.

Nelson gritted his teeth, his voice coming more forcefully. “You never should have been accepted into this academy. You don’t have what it takes to be a pilot. I hardly think you have what it takes to be a decent human being! Get up! Get on your feet!”

River looked up at him, eyes narrowed. "No," she said thickly.

“You will address me with respect! Now, on your feet!” he shouted. The veins on his temple throbbed, and the ones in his nose gleamed bright red. His eyes narrowed, glinting black in the sunlight. “Get on your gorram feet, you scumrider!”

At that moment, it appeared, the only appropriate thing to do was pass out. And so she did, falling heedlessly into her own sickness, her head hitting hard on the tarmac. --

Colonel Nelson glared at the data slip he’d just been transmitted. He had just been notified that he was getting his problem student back–the “brilliant” River Tam–after several glorious weeks without her. His instructions were bold, and pointed. He was to handle her more gently. He was reminded that she wasn’t a soldier, not yet at least, and that he ought to treat her like he would treat his own daughter.

He scowled across the tarmac as he approached her, standing by her Cobra. “I never had kids for a reason,” he muttered to himself.

River stood still, her face completely white and closed down. There was still a scab on her forehead from where the needle had gone in. It had taken them a week to stabilize her on the new medicine, and two more to make her come back. In the end, she'd been left in the nightmare room for three straight days. And now she was back.

Nelson clenched his jaw tightly, and then slowly relaxed it. “Ms. Tam,” he said in as cordial of a voice as he could muster, “it’s nice to see you back in the service of the Alliance. Are you ready for today’s lesson?” His words were kind but it was impossible for him to keep his distaste of this assignment out of his tone.

"Yes, sir." There was no emotion at all in her voice. She moved towards the cockpit and climbed in.

At least now she was operating. She was ghostly, more robot than girl, but she was cooperating. Nelson stepped up on the runner after her. “Give me a proper ignition sequence, Ms. Tam.” As an after thought, he added, “Please.”

River obeyed perfectly, performing the task in record time.

“Good,” he commended. He then hoisted himself into the co-pilot’s chair, harnessing himself in. “Let’s lower the hatch and try a U-taxi.”

Still expressionless, perfectly controlled, River did as he said, in perfect silence, with none of the extraneous talk that he so hated.

“Very good.” That was the best compliment he’d ever given her, and she was performing, by far, the best he’d ever seen her. When they’d completed the U-taxi and were back to their beginning, he let out a breath. “Do you feel up for a touch-and-go take off, Ms. Tam?”

River didn't move or speak, just waited for the next command.

Nelson managed the ghost of a smile, pleased at her lack of banter. “Very well then, Ms. Tam. Let’s take her up. Proper protocol; get your clearance. On my mark.” He looked at their control settings via his co-pilot console. “Mark.”

River took the plane up, but she couldn't feel the speed, the lift. She was scarcely human now. It was worse than if they had never left the ground. She felt nothing, and even the knowledge that now she could finally kill them both didn't stir her.

River was robotic, but her actions were flawless, and they pleased Colonel Nelson. After six months with her, she had finally lifted off for the first time. “Good.” He kept his eyes on all the controls, but found nothing to warn her of. She was making modifications even as he saw them. “Do a complete circuit, then bring her in for a landing.”

River flew in a perfect circle, before gently lowering the plane down so that it landed with scarcely a bump. She applied the brakes smoothly, bringing the plane to a halt.

Nelson let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. His grip on the yoke loosened, too. He hadn’t been terribly scared of River screwing up while they were in the air, but the fact remained that, with relative ease, she could have killed them both. “Good job, Ms. Tam,” he said, and maybe he actually meant it, even though he didn’t realize that it wasn’t her he was commending.

River performed the power-down sequence perfectly, then, seemingly without any more interest than she had done any of the rest, she punched one bony fist through the glass over the controls, sending splinters flying, cutting herself deeply.

Nelson had been busy looking out the cockpit hatch, seeing if anyone else had noticed him making a perfect touchdown with his trouble-student, when the sound of shattering glass distracted him. A malfunction alarm on the Cobra sounded. “What the Gods was that?” he asked, leaning forward. He caught an eyeful of blood and her hand still stuck in the control panel.

“Ms. Tam, what do you think you’re doing?” he cried. He flipped the comm. over to him, requesting immediate, emergency medical assistance.

"I thought it would hurt," River said flatly, not moving. Her head whipped around so she could fix her eyes on him. "Do you know what they did?" she asked, in a low, strained voice.

Nelson was startled, both by her calmness, and the intensity of her eyes. “I don’t know,” he replied, confused. He hit the canopy release, and the hatch opened. “There’s a first aid kit beneath your feet. Hand it to me.”

"Three days," she said, shaking now. She didn't move to obey him, and her voice was still level. "No one ever had three days before. Took three days to make me come back."

Nelson said nothing, knew nothing to reply with. Instead he unbuckled his harness and climbed out of the hatch himself. There was something wrong here, something very wrong. Seeing her hand closer up showed him how very badly she’d damaged herself, and the Cobra. It was surprising such a little hand had such a force.

To get to the medical kit, he’d have to reach between her legs. “The medical kit, Ms. Tam. Please hand it to me. You’re bleeding.”

"If you try to help me, I will kill you," she said calmly. "I want you to say my name, and then I want you to say that you heard what I said. Three days." She was beginning to shiver, on the verge of going into shock.

This was not a situation he had been trained for, nor even one he had heard talked about. He wasn’t sure how to respond. All he knew was that there was a lot of blood. In the distance he could hear the medical squad scrambling toward them, but they weren’t there yet. “Three days, Ms. Tam,” he answered. “You’re hurt.”

"My name," River said, through teeth clenched so that they might not chatter.

“River,” Nelson replied, hesitating a second as his brain scrambled to remember it. “River. You’re hurt. You need to get out of your cockpit.”

River relaxed then. "No," she said, and, without any further ado, fainted.

“Son of a bitch,” Nelson breathed, slumping against the Cobra. He was soon surrounded by medics and pulled away so they could get to River.

He stood on the tarmac for a long time after she was wheeled away. Long enough that the Cobra was towed off for repairs and another was sent in, to replace it.

He looked the new ship over dully, then went inside, and clocked out early. --

It was quickly deemed that River would do better in a less hazardous setting after that. Two weeks later, she was in a classroom with Nelson, answering his questions in a small voice. They hadn't used the nightmare room again, for fear of repercussions, but the lack of sun and freedom was just another form of discipline. Everything was. River looked at the man as though he were a devil from hell, cradling her still-healing hand in her lap.

It was clear Nelson hated this job worse than the previous one. His student wasn’t going forward, but backward. They were in the classroom, going over procedures he’d seen her execute a hundred times in the cockpit flawlessly before. He knew it was a waste of his time, and hers, and made him a laughing stock amongst his peers. There was nothing he could do for it, either. It wasn’t a commission he could resign on, and her doctors were determined to train her.

So he prattled on about things she knew backward and forward, and he reprimanded her anyway, for being too stupid to use this knowledge that she knew, and that he knew she knew, in the cockpit, properly. He shut off the projector, casting the room back into cold, dark light. “And that’s the proper shut down sequence on a Cobra VL-82.” His tone was distant and clipped. “Any questions?”

"No, sir." River's voice was still thin and weak. She had caused change, perhaps, but she had broken herself in the process, and there was nothing left in her to resist him. The lesson over, she slowly began curling up in her chair, coiling into her own body protectively. It was a pose she often assumed, these days.

“Then you’re dismissed.” He said that everyday, and each day it was he who left and she who tended to stay, curled up. He gathered his things in his briefcase and made to depart. “This room is booked after this lesson, today. I recommend you have your daily freak-out session somewhere else.” His words were unkind and he left, shutting the lights off after him, not bothering to see if she’d actually heard, or understood him.

River's tears fell heedlessly, wetting dress and arms and hair. Every day it was worse. She hadn't thought it possible. Had thought it had reached the nadir. But now she knew, for human beings, there was no bottom, no firm ground on which to stand. It just kept getting worse.

There was darkness, and silence, for a long time after Nelson left. It seemed to extend throughout the room into infinity. The monotony was interrupted in the end, by the common door opening. The runner lights, along the path of the floor, flipped on, and someone entered the room, humming something softly. It took a few moments for the humming to falter, as the man humming realized he wasn’t alone in the room.

“Hello?” he called, squinting into the darkness. “Is someone in here?”

River tried to go still, to silence her tears and escape detection. Alone. She had to be alone. Alone hurt less.

His eyes adjusted to the darkness before too long, and it was easy to see the girl curled up in the middle of the lecture hall. Her form was small, but she wore the regulation dress that almost all the female academy students did, and it was white, and bright, even in the darkness. He walked to the front of the classroom and flipped the projector switch on, which cast the room into contrast, illuminating the front wall with white light, but leaving the rest in darkness. It wasn’t much of a light, but it was easier to see, and less bright on the eyes than turning the overheads on would have been. “You all right?”

"I'll go," River said miserably, but she didn't move. "I'm sorry."

“Didn’t say you had to go,” he said, picking now through the seats to approach her. “Just asked if you’re all right.”

River shook her head, hugging herself tightly. "I'm sorry," she repeated, as though it were all she knew how to say. "Sir," she added unhappily.

He slid down into a seat beside her, leaning back into it, like he was awaiting the professor himself. “Sorry for what?”

"Staying and troubling you," she said, as if by rote.

“Is this trouble?” he asked, smiling into the darkness. “I should get into this sort of trouble more often. It’s a lot nicer than my usual type.”

She looked up at him, propping her chin on her knees. "Does Michael get to fly still?" she asked, remembering him from before.

“Sometimes.” He glanced over at her, still smiling, pleased at being remembered. “He’s stupid though,” he noted kindly. “Kid has a good hand, in the air, but his take offs and landings are pretty, well,” he shrugged, “they’re gou shi, but don’t tell the commander I said that around you.”

"No, sir," River said simply, then couldn't help adding, "I told you he was stupid."

“That you did,” he agreed, nodding conceding. “Guess I should have listened. Not that it would have made him any smarter.”

River nodded peaceably. She was uncoiling from her usual tight position, just a little. "I don't fly."

He nodded, noting the classroom. “Old monkey man has you locked up this classroom instead.” He glanced at her bandaged hand, but said nothing about it. “Not very nice of him.”

"Not him. Them. He hates it too." Something vaguely approaching a laugh bubbled inside River, though it came to nothing, after all. "Sometimes I almost feel sorry for him."

He nodded, raising a hand to rub at his face. “I know I do.” Shaking his head, he kicked his feet up, putting them on the top of the chair in front of him, completely out of order for an officer. “I don’t think this is quite like any of us planned it would be.”

She scanned him, really looking at him properly, listening to his whispers, his breath, his heartbeat. "You didn't know. Still don't."

“Mmm,” he mused, shrugging. His eyes fixed on hers for a bit. “It’s not so bad, though, really. Not if you know how to pass the time.”

"Glad you're having fun, sir," she said, a hint of humor in her voice, though it was bitter and dark.

“Why were you crying?” he asked casually.

"It's how I pass the time," she said, lowering her head again.

“Seems awful lonely.” He looked over his shoulder, then back to the front of the classroom. “Don’t you think it’s lonely in here?”

She nodded. "Once he's gone, it's my favorite place."

His smile was tight. “You’re a morbid little girl, aren’t you?” His tone was light though, almost playful.

"I didn't used to be," she said, and it was a measure of how much he'd unbent her that she said it at all.

“No, I bet you didn’t.” He dropped his feet down, sitting up a little. “I come in here to practice after I get off work, sometimes. Would you like to stay and watch?”

"Practice what?" River said, slow and suspicious.

One of his hands rose up and crinkled into a strange shape. He met her eyes, grinning, then nodded his head toward the front of the classroom. His hand was now projecting the shadowy profile of a dog on the white screen. “Shadow puppets,” he said, and the dog’s mouth moved along with his. “I entertain in the commons on Thursdays. I’ve got a whole show.”

The tiny quiver of a laugh was back, struggling to become more this time. It still didn't manage, but it put up a valiant fight. "You're crazy," River breathed.

He brightened considerably. “I am. But it’s a good sort of crazy. A fun crazy.” His hands dropped to one of the pockets on his flight suit, at his left arm. He unzipped it and began pulling out little slips of paper and began assembling them together. When he finished, he held one up, on a little thin stick he’d extended. It projected the blurry figure of a bird on the screen. “We should be closer for this to work better,” he noted pointedly. “But you get the idea, right?”

River nodded eagerly. "Is there a story?"

“Oh, yes.” He was clearly getting excited. “I know several. Theory of creation, parody of creation, couple Bible tales, a few uh,” he glanced at her, “officers jokes,” he pocketed the busty cutout of a lady in his sleeve again. “Or I could make one up. What’s your fancy?”

"Make one up? For me?" River's voice was excited now, and she didn't even sense the danger of wanting something, letting herself want something from one of them.

He grinned brightly. “I like making them up.” He rifled through his slips of paper, replacing the bird on the stick with a bigger, lumbering one. He sat up a little better, letting his fingers nimbly assemble a few more figures. “I hope you like dinosaurs,” he cheerfully said, raising the stick to reveal a blurry brontosaurs. “This is Charlie. He’s a herbivore.”

"Charlie's a silly name for a dinosaur," River said scornfully, leaning forward to watch with anticipation.

He grinned at her apparent eagerness. “Well, his real name is Charles. But he’s not fond of it. Thinks it makes him sound too pretentious.” He made Charlie lumber back and forth on the white screen. “And Charlie is a most unpretentious dinosaur.” He used his other hand to pick up another paper figure. “Now, Charlie’s best friend is Carl. He’s a tyrannosaurus rex.” The figure loomed into place on the white board. “He’s a carnivore. Can you guess the problem that’s going to result with their friendship?”

"They're separated by millions of years and can never see each other or talk?" Something hit her at that, memory, loss, tried to assail her, but she shoved them down ruthlessly. Theatre always made you feel.

His eyes shifted, uncertainly. He was clearly put a little off track. “Well, yes, of course. But, fortunately, these are time-traveling dinosaurs.” He gave her a quick, reassuring grin. “So, they hang out together all the time.”

She gave a little sigh of relief at that. "In that case, Carl's going to eat Charlie and upset the whole timeline. He might even never come to exist!"

He laughed at her playing right along. “Well, Charlie’s hardly the only brontosaurus in existence. Anyway, Carl’s a vegetarian, so it’s not an issue. No, see, their major conflict, of course, is the fact that Carl likes his potatoes mashed and Charlie likes his baked. They bicker on and on about this.”

River pondered that for a time. "Couldn't they bake the potatoes, and then Carl could just mash his up in the skin?"

He eyed her suspiciously. “You’re trying to circumvent my creative storytelling with your surly logic, aren’t you?” He teased. “Well, yes, they could. But, see these are dinosaurs. They have very, very little brains. It’s a wonder they know how to cook potatoes at all.”

"Do they cook them in volcanoes?" River asked, and she was completely uncoiled now, leaning forward to watch.

“Er. Yes, I suppose they could. They’d have to, wouldn’t they? Not like they have stoves.” He shifted in his seat, flipping Carl around so both dinosaurs were facing River. “Look over yonder, Carl!” he said in a deeper voice. “I see a volcano!”

The voice he made for Carl was higher pitched. “That’s not a volcano, stupid, that’s the shadow of a girl.” For, surely enough, both dinosaurs were now surveying River’s shadow projected on the wall.

“Oh,” Charlie said, sullenly. “Wait. What’s a girl?”

Something like a giggle even now made River's voice tremble. "They haven't time-traveled far enough forward yet!"

“Whoa!” Carl said. “The girl is talking!”

Charlie crowded up close next to Carl, until their forms merged. “What’s she saying? What’s she saying?” he asked excited.

“Shh,” Carl chided. “Be quiet and listen.” Both dinosaurs leaned forward, toward River’s shadow, listening intently.

River bit her lip to contain the smile that wanted to come. "If you fight, you'll get your potatoes taken away," she said severely.

“She’s going to take away our potatoes,” Charlie pouted.

Carl was pulled closer to the projector light, so his form enlarged to twice the size of Charlie’s. In a booming voice, he asked, “Are you threatening us?”

"No." River smirked. "I'm not the narrator." She leaned closer to the narrator, almost touching him, her face rapt on the screen.

“Oh. Well, okay then,” Carl said. “Drat. And I’m hungry, too.” His form became smaller again, until he was the same size as Charlie.

“We’re out of potatoes,” Charlie lamented. “They’re all gone.”

“Someone stole our potatoes?” Carl cried, dismayed.

“No, they were eaten!” Charlie moped. “By you, I think.”

Alarmed, Carl ran in circles. “What’ll we do? What’ll we do? We’ll starve to death!”

"Have to adapt and find a new food source. Or else they'll become extinct." She laid a little, timid hand on the man’s arm. "Don't make them be extinct. Not in the story," she pleaded, biting her lip.

“No, no, they won’t go extinct.” He looked at her small hand on his arm, noticing the scars from scratches, and glass crossing over her skin. He lifted his eyes to hers, and smiled at her through the darkness. “It’s not that sort of story.”

Turning his attention back to the dinosaur puppets, he continued their story. “We have to adapt and find a new food source,” Charlie quickly said. “We have to.”

Carl grumbled deeply. “I could just eat you. That’s what I should be doing.”

Charlie scrambled back, appalled. “You’re not a cannibal, though!”

This gave Carl a moment’s pause, and he dipped his head in thought. “Well, I guess you’re right. We’ll have to eat all of this corn, instead.”

"They can roast it over the volcano," River said, excited. "It's good, roasted. Tell them."

He grinned at her leaning closer, conspiratorially. “They can hear you,” he whispered.

“Roast it!” Charlie gleefully cried. “We’ll roast it! Over the girl-volcano!”

Carl grumbled a lot, but stooped to help Charlie gather up all the corn, which was created by the fingertips holding the puppets. “Into the volcano it goes!” the dinosaurs said. They hauled the corn to River’s shadow, and then mimed throwing it in.

There was silence, for a moment, before he began making popping noises.

“It’s raining food!” Charlie gleefully called, and began dancing on his hind legs.

The giggle finally took over, exploding out of River, and she rocked and hugged herself with delight. "I didn't think of popcorn. Now they won't fight anymore?"

He laughed too, mostly because she was laughing. “And now they won’t fight anymore. They’ll be too stuffed too.”

He casually brought the shadow puppets together again, linking them so they appeared to be dancing. “Just pretend it looks like they’re dancing under a rainfall of popcorn,” he said wistfully.

"That was a good show," she told him kindly, then said, without thinking. "Would you do another one some ti--" She broke off in mid-sentence as the implications of her words hit. "I'm sorry. Sorry, sir. I have to go." Asking one of them for something, that was powerlessness. That was surrender. She stood up, backing away from him.

He got to his feet, just as quickly, though it was out of confusion for her reaction. Little scraps of animal-shaped paper went fluttering to the ground around him. “You don’t have to apologize, you know,” he began. “I enjoyed giving you a show. And, I’d be happy to do another one for you, someday.”

River shrugged. "I won't wait. Or look for you. I won't." With that, she turned and fled the room as quickly as she could.

“Hey, wait!” he called, and went to chase her. He burst out of the room and into the hallway, but she was already gone. He sighed, turning back to the classroom to clean up, but left the two scraps of paper that represented Carl and Charlie on her chair.

.. A Simple Twist of Fate, chapter three

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