Title: A Simple Twist of Fate, chapter four
Date Posted: 10 April 2006
Author: S. Richard and Van Donovan
Rating: This chapter: PG
Characters: River, Wash
Pairing: River/Wash
Word count: 6,030
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. Crossposted to .
--

The day scheduled for River's next lesson was even more blustery than the last, but Wash’s gait was cheerful as he made his way across the tarmac toward River. He carried his data slip with him, as he always did, but today he also had a small parcel in his arms. “Good morning, River,” he happily said as he arrived. “How’re things today?”

River was hugging herself tightly, a little chilly. She wasn't quite as focused as before, but she gave him a little smile and a nod. "Cold, sir."

Wash’s smile tightened, and he wondered, not for the first time, why his students weren’t given proper flight suits. “I’m sorry.” He had nothing to offer her for her warmth, although if he could convince her to get in the cockpit, at least they could turn on the environmental system, to keep it warm. “Perhaps this will brighten you up a little.” He handed her the parcel, which contained the asked for book, along with a few data sticks on additional aircraft.

River took it hesitantly. "All approved?"

“All approved,” he echoed, smiling. “So you can read it when you get back to your room tonight.” He put his data slip away, putting his hands on his hips. “So, shall we go over what we learned last week? Can you open the boot panel and tell me the main parts of the engine and their basic functions?”

"Yes, sir," River said, eager to show off. She immediately did as he'd said, shivering just a little as she reached into the cockpit, then opened up the panel and began repeating every single thing he'd told her last lesson in perfect detail. She looked up at him occasionally, hoping for approval.

When she was done, Wash let out a low whistle of admiration. His eyebrows rose dramatically. “Well, I think you’re officially better versed in the mechanics of a Cobra VL-82 than I am.” His grin was crooked. “I’m not sure if I ought to be impressed or embarrassed.” Nodding he added, “That was excellent, River.”

"Thank you," River said with a little smile, then put her hands behind her back, waiting, bracing herself. He'd make her go into the cockpit next, she knew it, and she'd have to obey.

Wash popped the boot back in place, and then leaned against April’s hull, looking at River. “So, now where do you want to go?”

River bit her lip, eyes downcast. "Up, sir, please," she said, wanting to please him.

Wash studied her carefully. She wasn’t as together as she had been in the previous lesson. Her hair wasn’t tied back, and, although he was fairly certain she was wearing the same dress today as she had been then, it looked somehow lighter and she looked colder, perhaps even thinner. “Do you really want to?”

She made herself nod. "Yes, sir. Want to feel what you feel. Please."

He looked her over again, then nodded. “All right.” He popped the hatch on the cockpit open and stepped up to the runner before offering a hand down to her. “We’re playing by your rules today, River. You tell me what you want to do.”

River was breathing deeply, close to hyperventilation, but she took his hand and almost hurled herself into the cockpit. She'd never lacked in courage. Her hands, over-eager, fumbled at the harness as she tried to strap herself in, growing more and more agitated.

Wash remained standing on the runner, watching her as she seemed to transform once she entered the cockpit. Her fluid movements turned jerky; her soft breathing became harsh. Her actions frightened him, and he reached inside and put his hand over hers after she had snapped her harness in place. Her hands were cold and he covered them as best he could with his own, keeping her stilled. “Slow down, River. This isn’t a race, you know.”

River froze at his touch as though steeling herself for a blow, looking up at him with wild, fearful eyes.

His eyes reflected her fear, because, in that moment, Wash wasn’t sure who was reacting to whom. He very gently squeezed her hand. “Are you all right?”

Nodding jerkily, she whispered, "Yes, sir."

“You’re not,” he softly said. Wash wasn’t quite sure what to do to calm her. He wanted to tell her to just get out of the cockpit, that this was too soon, and they were making a mistake, but he was afraid to even do that. She wanted to do this for him, he could tell that much. So he wasn’t going to deny her. “Close your eyes,” he whispered. “Don’t look at her, just feel her.”

River did as he said, and it was welcome, because it wasn't a museum installation anymore, it was blood and pain and fear and nothing else. "What if I don't feel it?" she whispered again, once she had a little better grip on herself.

“That’s better than feeling fear,” Wash replied. He shifted on the runner so he could move closer to her, and his hand traced her hand, up her arm, until he was cupping the curve of her shoulder. The rise of the windscreen blocked much of the cold air, and created a sound dampener around them. “You’re in April, now,” he whispered. “She cradles you, and holds you. All those working parts, the smooth line of her hull, the rough tread of her tire . . . all of that fits together to support you. Can’t you feel that?”

River gave a little gasp. She could feel that, just as he'd said, but she could feel him too, the warmth and security he took from being on the plane. She leaned a little closer to him, even though she oughtn't, but he was . . . "Please," she whispered helplessly. "Tell her. Tell her I'm sorry."

Wash’s hand on her shoulder squeezed softly, and he closed his eyes. He placed his other hand on the outside of the hull, feeling and enjoying the contrast between River’s warmth, and April’s cold. “I can tell her, but she’d rather you did.”

"Scared," she whispered. "Please. Tell her first, and then I will," she bargained.

“All right.” Wash smiled, closing his eyes. He took a deep breath, and let his fingers spread out, touching both the girls before him. There wasn’t any way he could actually say he was communicating his apology, but he flooded the feeling he got from River into the ship, and felt the place his hand rested on her hull gradually warm. “I think she knows, now.”

She opened her eyes then. "Thank you," River whispered, and relaxed just a little bit.

Wash opened his eyes too, laughing. “I feel silly, talking to a ship, sometimes.” He glanced at River. “I’m glad you don’t think I’m too weird.”

"That," River said, rather primly, "would be impertinent." She relaxed back in her seat. "I'm all right now," she promised.

Wash grinned. “So, maybe you do think I’m silly.” He shrugged, nodding. “Which is okay. I am a silly guy, after all. I spend my afternoons devising epic shadow puppet plays. Talking to my ships isn’t that far off.” Wash let out his breath, and nodded. “Now what?”

She looked at him with wide, trusting eyes. "You want and so does she." River nodded towards the pilot's seat.

“You want to fly?” he asked, although he could guess that’s what she meant.

"Yes, sir," she promised, even though she still was fearful because being up and feeling nothing had been horrifying.

“Do you want to take her up, or shall I?”

"I . . ." River thought about that for a moment, trying to work out what would please him best. "I don't know." His wants were confusing, a contrast of wanting to feel the controls under his hands with wanting her to make progress, so she didn't get taken away. "Whatever you . . ."

Wash smiled lightly at her answer. “That isn’t what I asked.” His voice was kind, though he was serious. “Do you want to feel it directly, or through me? Both are viable. Both will make me happy. What will make you happy?”

"Don't make me decide, please," she begged, unsure, wanting only to please him, to do well.

Her fear and need to do well was painful to see. It made his chest ache, and he wasn’t entirely sure why. She was completely unlike any of the other students he’d taught. She seemed more delicate, and yet stronger, too. “Well, believe it or not, I already know how to fly. We’re doing this to teach you. It might not be a decision you want to make, but it is yours.” He patted her shoulder. “We don’t have to fly, today, either. We can just sit like this, or you can just show me how to do a start up sequence. You’re in the cockpit, River, and you’re calm. If we ended the lesson now, I’d consider it a success.”

"Yes, sir," she said, biting her lip, scrambling out of her harness, from the co-pilot's seat to the pilot's seat. Her hand shook before she touched the controls with a silvery, scarred hand. "It didn't hurt me," she whispered softly, then looked up at him. "I hurt her, though," she said, a little anxiously. "But I hadn't met her, then . . ."

“She forgives you, you know. She understands.” Wash moved close again, leaning against the ship, peering down at River. “Ships are smart. Smarter than you might think.”

River opened the communications link and reported her name and status then began powering up the ship perfectly, execution rapid, with few hesitations. When she was done, she looked up at him. "Do you want me to do it again?"

Wash was smiling. River was brilliant, despite what Colonel Nelson’s report on her had said. “Do you want to do it again?”

"No," she said, as though he were being stupid. "I just did it."

Wash gave her a toothy grin. “All right, you don’t have to be so cheeky.” He laughed softly. “Well, next up would be a U-taxi. Do you want to do that?”

Nelson had called her cheeky once, and it made River drop her eyes and look a bit unhappy. "Yes, sir," she said obediently, reharnessing herself.

Wash scowled just a bit at her reply. “Don’t get too invested in your training. I know that sounds weird, but flying is really more of an intuitive thing. Put your book on the dash. If you get nervous, look at it.” He didn’t yet climb into the copilot seat.

River looked puzzled at his reply, but did as he'd said. "I thought you wanted . . ." she whispered. "Because it's next."

“Hey, do I look like Old Monkey Man to you?” He gave her a goofy grin. “’Cause I’m not. I like to mix things up a bit. We already know his method of teaching you doesn’t work, right? So, instead we try the Wash Method.”

"Then tell me," she said, pleadingly, near to tears from the unhappiness of uncertainty. "Just tell me what to do, please. . ."

Wash smiled, leaning in to the cockpit toward her. He wasn’t supposed to have too much contact with his students, but he put a hand on her cheek. “We’re a team, River. I can’t tell you to do everything. You have to decide some things for yourself. And, if all you want to do is cry, then, I guess I can’t help that.”

"But I want to be good," she said, urgently, the tears beginning to fall because that touch, being touched with tenderness, against her skin . . . not since Simon. Simon. Her whole heart contracted. "Let me be good, please."

“You are good,” Wash reassured. He let his thumb lightly press her tears away. He had to wonder at how they treated her elsewhere that she so desperately wanted to prove herself.

"Can't be unless you tell me and then I do it," she said dully. "That's how good works."

“All right. Let’s make a promise? I’ll make suggestions, based on the guidelines we should be following, and you’ll let me know if there are any you’re not comfortable in doing yet. Does that sound fair?” He took his hand away from her face.

River nodded, sighing at the loss of his touch. "Yes, sir."

He looked down at her for several seconds, before pressing his lips tautly together, and moving behind her to get into the co-pilot’s chair. He harnessed himself in. “Put your book on the dash, like I asked. We’re going to do a U-taxi.”

Obeying quickly, River began to move the plane smoothly along the runway, her face focused and intent, though she still didn't look at the controls any more than she could help.

Wash drew serious as they taxied, monitoring everything she was doing with a professional grade level. He kept one hand on the co-pilot yoke, trusting, but ready to take action should anything happen. “How do you feel?” he questioned. Alone with her in the capsule of the cabin, he felt safe. Not even the comm. would pick up their chatter, unless he hooked it up to the tower.

"I'm all right," River said softly. It was true, too. The fear wasn't there, not yet, or perhaps not again. Regardless, she was all right.

Wash nodded, leaning back in his chair. “I trust you.” His eyes studied her profile as best he could, and he wondered what he would have been like with the ability to fly at sixteen.

River completed the U-taxi, bringing them back to their former position, then sat quietly, hoping he would tell her what to do next. It was . . . confusing when she had to work it out herself. It wasn't so hard with the others. She always knew, and they never asked, and she didn't care anyway.

“Very good job,” he said. He checked over all her gauges, just to make sure. “How are you feeling?”

River shrugged, a little irritably. "I don't know." It was the truth.

He nodded, closing his eyes. His hand went out to touch the controls lightly. “How does April feel?”

"I think . . . I think she's all right. I . . . does she say anything?" River twisted her head to look at Wash.

“She’s nervous,” he said carefully, keeping his eyes on River. “But she’s happy. She was made to do the things you’re doing, so it fills her with happiness to do them.”

"What does she want to do now?" River asked cautiously, but she knew, could feel the engine humming, and she knew.

Wash’s fingers spread out on the yoke and he sighed. “She wants to fly, River. She wants you to take her up, and feel the earth falling away beneath you.” He sat forward in his seat a bit. It wasn’t an order, but he wondered if she’d comply, anyway.

"May I, sir?" River replied, lips trembling. If she didn't feel . . . if she disappointed him, April, the sky, everything. It ought to be better. It should. "I was hurt before," she said quickly. "And that's why. I had to behave, and it hurt. I'm better now. . ." Her voice was just a tiny bit frantic as she tried to make him understand, at least that tiny bit.

Wash nodded. “You are better,” he agreed. “I can tell, and so can she.” He closed his eyes, envisioning the ground melting away, and the rain clouds parting to let them burst through to the sun, and warmth. “Take her up, River.” He flipped the comm. switch to connect them to the tower.

River swallowed and obeyed, moving slowly, edging April into position to wait for takeoff. Her lips trembled slightly, but her hands were steady on the yoke.

“Let her guide you as much as you guide her, River. She wants to be in the air, and will take you there if you just give her the proper coaxing.” He switched communications channels, and when they got the clear, he nodded. “You’re cleared for take off.”

Pausing for just a moment to feel the engine once more, River lifted her head, and began moving, smoothly, faster, faster, and then up. "Oh . . ." she gasped, for she felt it that time, felt it in every nerve.

Wash sucked in his breath as the roller coaster pull in his stomach gripped him. On most days, he could forget about that roll, ignoring it completely, but today it was as though he was hyper aware of every sensation as they rose. “Cabin pressure is level,” he announced. “You’re doing great. We’re going to his some turbulence when we reach those clouds, but just keep your eyes on your gauges and we’ll sail right though.”

"Yes, sir," she whispered dreamily, all fear lost as she felt. She ploughed into the bank of clouds straight and true, in one single, right movement of the sort she'd thought she lost forever. Her breathing was quick, skin tingling, all senses on high alert.

Wash felt a strange, prickling sensation course through him, one that he quickly identified as being inappropriate for the setting, and he shifted in his seat to squash it, focusing instead on the trembling of the Cobra as it sliced through the rain clouds. The little plane jostled, but held firm as River guided her, and before long they burst through, into the blinding sunshine, and Wash actually gasped.

River gave a little moan, arching slightly in her seat as well, and it was blue, blue all around, not cruel blue but perfect blue. "Sir . . ." It was a little, needy word.

Tian xiao de,, River,” he breathed in a voice that sounded huskier than it probably should have, “even I felt that.” He couldn’t keep the grin off his face as she piloted, bringing them up higher and higher, until the rainstorm was just a soft carpet of grey far below them.

She turned the plane so that the sun was behind them, spreading light over the tops of the clouds in a glittering path. "So beautiful. . ." It took her breath, and then the fear returned. She didn't want to go down. Not ever. Never. This was horrible, worse than anything, for she'd wanted nothing so fiercely, nothing at all.

Wash felt warm, and happy and secure. He knew he should have been more concerned with safety, and the fact that this was only his student’s second flight, but he knew she knew what she was doing, and he felt safe. “It is beautiful,” he agreed. And, he knew they ought to be heading back down now, as was the nature of the touch-and-go takeoff, but he didn’t want to dive back into those clouds, not yet. Around them, April hummed her delight. “When I get up here, I never want to come down.”

"But you can always come back," she said flatly. "It's different." She was still trying to reign in the burst of inappropriate, dangerous emotion.

He noticed, for the first time, that her tone had changed. She was darker again. The joy had ebbed away. “So you can, River. That’s what we’re training for.”

"Mmm." River said non-committally. "May we please go down now, sir?"

He’d lost her, and he knew he had, and wasn’t sure how to get her back. “If you’re ready to, then, yes.”

River went down carefully, signaling her descent, and took them down smoothly for a perfect, gentle landing with only the tiniest bump to signal her regret. When the plane was still, she began the power-down sequence without being told.

Wash was silent during the interim, letting her control her own actions. When the ship was completely silent and dormant around them, he let out his breath. “You were perfect.”

"Thank you," she said softly, then leaned her head back, closing her eyes for a moment, letting herself feel the tear of regret. She'd gotten into the cockpit, and now she never wanted to come out, not ever.

Wash closed his eyes too, feeling her regret as it permeated the cabin. He hadn’t understood it before, but now he did. She’d been freed, and flown, and now she was shackled by the world again. “It gets easier,” he whispered.

She shook her head. Finally, she said, "Tell them I was difficult." Her voice was firm. "That I hated it and cried."

That floored him. His brow furrowed in misunderstanding. “Why?”

"So they won't make me stop," she whispered.

“They want you to be a pilot. They won’t make you stop.” He didn’t want to have to lie. He lied too much in this job as it was. For once, he could tell the truth, tell them that River had shone and sparkled like the star pupil they said she was. He wanted them to be proud of her.

"Please," River begged. "You don't understand. Easy punishment, doesn't damage, and they won't let me see her, see you, they'll lock me in the room, keep me down . . ." Tears were fogging her voice again.

Wash struggled with his feelings. He wanted to do as she asked him, but he felt like lying about this could only be bad. “They wouldn’t punish you for doing good,” he tried to explain, but did he really know that?

She shook her head. "No, not for that, but other things, anytime I'm bad, they can just make it stop, they can use it, control me . . . tell them I hated it and don't like you, but I obeyed anyway. I was good."

“River,” he began, but then nodded, even if she couldn’t see him. “All right.” He didn’t like the implications she was speaking of, but he could understand, at least, what she meant. If they knew she liked flying, they could punish her by keeping her away from him. That, he understood. He felt a surge of protectiveness come over him, and he didn’t know where to direct the energy. Softly, he said, “I’m glad you enjoyed it, though. Even if we have to lie about it.”

River nodded, wanting to tell him about Carl and Charlie, how she'd tucked them in the book. His sincerity irradiated her . . . no one could lie that well. "I pasted them," she blurted out finally.

“What?” he questioned, uncertain. “Pasted what?”

"Carl and Charlie," she said insistently. "But don't tell. They mustn't know. Please."

A smile ghosted across his face, and then he laughed, short and sharp. “I thought the janitor tossed them,” he replied. “I’m glad they’re with you.”

She shook her head. Out of habitual caution, though, she didn't tell him where they were pasted. Instead, she just sighed, relaxing for a moment. "They'll be coming for me soon."

“Your lesson is almost over,” he agreed. “I won’t tell them your secrets. Do you believe me?”

"Today I do," she said slowly. It was all right. They weren't the important secrets. If he was a liar, a plant, then it didn't matter if they took Carl and Charlie. The sky mattered more, but . . . "I hope I'm right," she whispered.

Wash smiled; couldn’t help it. She believed him, for today, and that was a start. “You are.” He didn’t know any better way to convince her. “Do you want to tell me what I should report to them for today? They liked last week’s report a lot.”

River smirked and nodded. "Subject continues reluctant and fearful but was responsive to direct commands, despite expressing an antipathy towards her instructor. Materials on Cobra specs were delivered in order to continue her sense of integration in flight. Actual flight time was technically skilled, but emotionally problematic for the subject."

Wash laughed as he wrote the words down on his data slip, stopping once to ask how to spell ‘antipathy.’ When he was done, he signed his named and put the pad away. “Before long, they’re going to make you an instructor here.”

River laughed at that, almost hysterically. "Even that cage is too big," she said, then remembered that he was a goldfinch and stopped. She could see her handlers approaching the plane, and reluctantly she popped the hatch, her face shutting down to a pinched, anxious look.

His smile was wry, because sometimes, he just didn’t understand. But he saw her handlers, and knew he had to pretend he hadn’t enjoyed her company, or the flight, so he unbuckled and clamored out after her. “I’ll see you next lesson, River.” He inclined his head politely.

"Yes, sir," River said, in a watery, obedient tone, then left him without a backward look. The tearing in her heart made misery very, very easy to feign.
--

It had been a hard week for Wash. They were in full winter now, and the torrential rains had done nothing to cheer him up. His students were, for the most part, performing poorly under the wretched conditions, and their foul moods hadn’t reflected well on him. He was glad that he could take his lunch hour off to sneak away to the frequently unused classroom he sometimes practiced his shadow puppet plays in.

It was quiet, and dark, and dry, and he could be relatively at peace there. He had stopped hoping he’d happen upon River curled up in one of the chairs, since he hadn’t seen her there since the first time, but when he flipped on the runner lights again, he only smiled when he realized she was waiting for him. “Hey.”

"Hello." River looked at him appraisingly. "It's cold out. Sucks at me. I was good, so they let me be for a little. So I came here. Just wondered."

Wash shook his head, which caused little droplets of water to fling off of his hair. He wasn’t soaked, but neatly misted, and slightly damp. “It’s nice to see you in a setting other than on the tarmac.” He hesitated a moment, wondering for the first time if it would all right for him to sit so casually with a student of his.

If they were in the cafeteria, it would be all right, so he figured it couldn’t hurt. He wasn’t going to do anything, and he’d sat with her before. In his hand he carried a small tin box. “I come in here to eat my lunch sometimes.” He gestured to the seat beside her. “May I?”

River nodded. "We already lie a lot. I don't think it matters so much." She shifted a little to make room for him.

He settled down beside her. “I don’t like lying,” he said softly, cautiously. “But, I don’t think they’ll mind this. You’re not cheating on your tests, or anything.” He gave her a hopeful smile. “I’m glad you’ve been given some free time.”

River looked a little worried at that. "I'm sorry I make you." She lowered her head, wondering if she'd already shown the goldfinch too much of the cage.

“Hey, it’s okay. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it was worth it.” He opened his tin, revealing a neatly packed lunch of the not-protein variety. “Are you hungry?”

River leaned in to look. "What is it?"

Wash examined the contents. “Apple,” he noted, setting it aside. “Potato chips, tuna sandwich, and cookies.” He studied them. “I think they’re oatmeal raisin.”

River looked at the cookies hungrily. "Sweets raise my blood sugar artificially and destabilize my entire body chemistry."

Wash pulled one out of the bag, scrutinizing it closely. “It’s not very sweet,” he pointed out. “In fact, oatmeal is generally considered to be a bran. Very healthy.”

River bit her lip. "M-maybe just one," she said slowly.

He handed it to her, and would have given her the whole bag if she’d asked. “My roommate made them. I’ll have to let him know they were a hit.”

River nibbled at it slowly, a little smile crossing her face at the sweet taste. "You have a roommate?"

“Of course.” He settled back in the chair, beginning to munch whole-heartedly on his apple. “Not like they pay us enough to afford our own places. Not in this city, of all places, at least.” He gave her a wistful smile. “Do you have a roommate?”

River shook her head. "Fraternizing is not encouraged. Might make plans."

“Socialized integration is important though. Especially for . . . for teenagers.” He looked her over, carefully. “How old are you, anyway?”

Her brow furrowed for a moment in a calculation not done recently. "Sixteen."

“Oh? You look younger.” She was thin, and tiny, and frail. He quickly covered that up with a smile. “Not that I mean that like it’s a bad thing,” he began, tripping over his words. “I’m a bad judge of ages. I never was any good. Even when I was sixteen, I couldn’t tell how old other people were. You’ll be grateful for your youthful appearance when you’re thirty.” Sensing he was just digging himself into a hole, he quickly smiled and changed the topic. “How’s the cookie?”

She nodded. "Good." River fidgeted a little. "Why did you come here?" It had been burning at her for a while, that question, so unanswerable. Why would the goldfinch fly into the cage?

“This room is always empty at lunch,” he started. The look on her face made him reel himself in. “Oh, you mean the Academy?” He sighed, setting his apple down. “Well, it’s a job, isn’t it? I was in flight school, during the war, and ran a few solo operations for, you know, shady types. I nearly got killed on a few excursions, and found myself abandoned on a moon with little chance to leave. It was either pitch in with the shady folks again, and risk getting killed, or working for the Alliance.

“They promised me stable pay, and put me through instructor training. It’s a steady, safe and honest job, and fairly prestigious too. They only accept the best here, you know.” His answer was long and descriptive, but he felt it fell flat.

"That easily," River said, with a little sigh. She moved closer to him. It had sounded true. He was wrong, of course--it wasn't honest, not at all--but he believed it, and that was what mattered. "I'm sorry," she said softly.

“What do you possibly have to be sorry for?” He opened up his tuna sandwich, took a bite, and then offered it to her.

"For you," she said steadily, shaking her head. She was still slowly nibbling on the cookie, making the pleasure of it last.

He shrugged and resumed eating his sandwich. “I’m not sorry for myself. It isn’t like I’ll do this job forever. In a few years, I’ll have enough saved up to move off this rock to a more moderate planet, with better rent fees.” He chuckled softly. “Maybe I’ll open my own flight school, or buy my own ship and run legal freight.”

She shook her head. "You'll learn things in a few years." And then you'll never leave. She rested her chin on her knees. Goldfinches were sad.

Wash was overcome with the urge to push River’s tangle of hair behind her ear, so he could see her face, but he resisted. “You’re a strange girl, River.” He tilted his head, considering. “Then again, I guess I’m a strange guy.”

"You're nice," she whispered helplessly. "So nice."

He broke into a soft smile. “You’re pretty nice too. Too nice for a place like this. I know you’re brilliant, and this is where the brilliant kids come, but. . .” he shook his head. “Something about this place is dark, and gives me the creeps.”

"Don't think too hard," she said dully. "They told you, didn't they? Brilliant, crazy children come here? Families can't handle them?"

Wash set his sandwich down in its tin. “They didn’t use those words, exactly . . .”

"But roughly," River said, sounding tired. "Don't listen to them. They'll tell lies, ask for help. They're being helped here. Just teach them."

Wash got a shiver of goose pimples along his arms at her words. She sounded so clinical and grown up in that moment. “That’s what they said.” He sat up, studying her.

"Don't worry," she said, and gave him a sad little smile. "I won't ask."

He was at a loss for what to say, or how to reply. If she asked him for help, he knew he would. But, he remembered Michael asking for help too, help with something that wasn’t related to Wash’s field of teaching, and Wash had told him to ask his doctors, instead, which had shut Michael right up. “It’s all right, if you do.”

River shook her head. "No. It would hurt you." She leaned forward, laying her hand on his arm. "I won't hurt you. I promise."

His eyes drifted to the hand on his arm, and focused there. “Do you . . . do your parents know that you’re unhappy here?” He was grasping at straws, but the question felt right.

"They haven't seen me or spoken to me in two years," River said in a clear, calm voice. "Some kind of letters probably arrived. They may not be the ones I sent."

That caused Wash’s brow to furrow. “Shouldn’t that concern them?”

He was starting to see the bars. She had to stop. This was self-indulgent. "The letters were fine. They know I'm fine," she said, her voice growing colder.

She was closing up again, which as a tactic he was starting to understand. He shouldn’t press anymore; she’d start thinking he was someone bad again. He wasn’t even sure how to ask her how long she had to remain her. He didn’t know what the graduation process was; some students never seemed to advance, while others sped through in a matter of months. “I didn’t mean to press.”

"I know," she said, then gave him a smile of particular sweetness. "Just better not to ask."

Wash nodded, looking down at his lunch. He didn’t feel very hungry anymore. After sighing, he glanced to her hand, still on his arm. “Why did you wait here for me?”

River looked embarrassed and drew her hand back. "Nothing else to do. Told you, cold outside."

He followed her hand, to where she folded it in her lap. “I wish they’d give you proper flight suits. And warmer clothes.”

"It's cold outside," was all River said again. Warm clothes, unidentifiable clothes, those aided escape. He didn't even know the dress was only worn for lessons, and then it was back to the humiliating hospital gown and tights.

Wash rubbed his arm, where she’d touched him, with his other hand. It rubbed away the goose bumps and her coldness. It was a coldness he wanted to fix, but knew he couldn’t. “I hope you get to go home soon.”

River managed a smile for him. "Won't that be nice?"

He looked up, studying her smile, but for once couldn’t match it with his own. “Sometimes, when I’m away from work, I worry about you. They try to tell us not to worry about our students, and I never have.” He regretted telling her as soon as he said it.

"Nice," she repeated, standing up. "I should go now. Thank you for the cookie."

Wash got to his feet too, and his apple fell to the floor and rolled away, but he ignored it. “River, wait,” he started, aware that he was pushing her further away with his concern.

"Can't," she said sadly. "If I wait, they'll find me. I'd rather go on my own, do you see?"

His face twisted, just a bit. “I wanted to make you laugh again.” He said it like an apology.

She darted forward, giving him a soft kiss on the cheek. "Next time."

Stunned into silence, he watched her go.
--

.. A Simple Twist of Fate, chapter five



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