Title: A Simple Twist of Fate, chapter five
Date Posted: 23 June 2006
Author: [info]srichard and [info]vandonovan
Rating: This chapter: PG
Characters: River, Wash
Pairing: River/Wash
Word count: 6,564
Warnings: Begins pre-TV series, completely AU, will invovle 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 [info]ff_fanfic.



A Simple Twist of Fate
chapter five
(23 June 2006)

During the following weeks, the lessons with Wash went well. River was as sane as she ever was, clear and focused, almost happy. It made a difference, just having those two flight classes a week to look forward to. She occasionally managed to see Wash at other times, too, and they wisely stayed away from graver topics in favor of dinosaurs and plane specs.

And then it happened again, as it always would. They changed the medicine again, and River went to her lesson groggy, floating, scarcely able to thread together reality. She leaned against the plane, waiting for him, trying to seek comfort in April's chilly warmth, shivering in the cold wind.

Wash had gotten attuned to many of River’s moods over the past few weeks. He could tell her on days from her off days, and knew when they’d have better results talking instead of flying. It was instantly clear to him that today was an off day, although as he approached her, he felt like perhaps there was something even worse than that.

“Good morning, River,” he said. “You’re looking a bit under the weather today.” His face was concerned.

"Under..." River whispered absently. "It's cold." She gave a little shudder, and came half-back to herself. "Sir," she said, a little slurred. "Sorry. So sorry. Tried. Too late now. Gone. Done. Sorry."

“Hey, it’s okay,” Wash replied, stepping close to her. He was broad enough to shield her from some of the wind, by putting himself in front of her and using April as a breaker. His hand went out to touch her, putting his warm palm on her shoulder. “We don’t have to fly today, if you’re not feeling up to it.”

"Bad," River managed fretfully, her face turning towards his hand. "Sorry. Promised, but I lied. Too hard. Always too hard."

“What . . . what’re you talking about?” Her behavior was worrying him.

"Will you make them . . . no, sorry. Promised not to ask. Sorry." She blinked rapidly, trying to keep the tears back. It was so hard, being there with him, unable to communicate, to understand. "Sorry." It was the only comprehensible thing she could manage.

Wash bit his lower lip, concerned. He lifted his head, scanning the tarmac to see if he was being watched. Not seeing any surveillance, he stepped closer to her. “You’re forgiven,” he said emphatically. “For whatever it is you said, or did, or didn’t. It’s all right. I forgive you.”

River gave a little sob and moved slowly until she was pressed against him. "It hurts so much, sir," she whispered.

Wash’s back went ramrod straight as she pressed into him, but that was his only adverse reaction. The hand on her shoulder slipped to her back, and he stroked his fingers through the tips of her hair. “Shhh. You’re all right.” He had no idea what was going on, but something wasn’t right. “What hurts?”

"Soul," River said dully. "What's left." She clung to him, but even in that state, she knew how dangerous this was, for him. "There are things," she said, slowly, turning around to face April. "Under things. Things . . . not the ones that go round. The . . . sparky things. You could show them. Under. They can't see under. You could make her warm."

Wash’s brow furrowed and he let her turn in his arms, afraid to touch her, even though he wanted to keep her warm, and protect her from whatever was hurting her. “Under,” he repeated, trying to make sense of her. His eyes focused on April, and he suddenly knew exactly what she meant. Under the plane, he could show her the wiring to the communications system. “Under,” he repeated, stepping beside her. He ducked down, dropping to his knees to move under the plane.

They were hardly invisible there, but two forms huddled together beneath the plane, with the control panels opened around them would look far less suspicious than them huddled together against the hull. “Down here,” he called, keeping his eyes on the control panels, as he pried the release mechanisms to open them.

River followed, every movement slow and deliberate, her knees scraping on the tarmac and tearing, but she didn't notice. She was still crying softly. "I know. I know," she whispered. "It happened before. I was good. And then. And then. You should send me back to him. Hurt less." She didn't move into his arms, but was very close.

Wash was pulling her toward him before he actually considered what he was doing. The movement was instinctual: she was cold and he could warm her. It was as simple as that. “I’m sorry if I hurt you,” he whispered. He kept one arm around her, trying to transfer some of his warmth to her, but he raised his other hand up into the wiring, so it at least looked like he was schooling.

"Not yet," River whispered, cuddling close against his chest. "Will. Soon. Because I'm bad. Won't be good for weeks, but it won't matter then. You won't. You'll be. I remember. Nelson. I was good, at first. I was," she said insistently. "But you . . . hurt too much. Couldn't bear it. Can't."

“Hey, shhh,” Wash crooned. He wasn’t sure what was going on. All he could figure out was that River had been curious and amiable to him over the past few weeks, and today she was different. It was as though some piece of her had been broken. “I’m never going to hurt you, River. I’m your friend.” He wished he could promise that he’d never let anyone else hurt her, but he couldn’t.

"But I'm bad," she whispered helplessly. "Remember. Remember, I promised. Promised as long as I could. Can't . . . can't see now, through the fluffy things. Do you understand? Remember. You promised to understand that you didn't."

Wash gritted his teeth. He did remember promising to not try to understand what he didn’t understand. It made his insides boil, and he wasn’t sure why. “I want to help you,” he said, and his hand tightened where he was holding her.

"Can't," River said, a little limp. "But if I . . . if I tell. About the fluffy things? Will you listen? And be quiet. To everyone. Mute."

Wash swallowed. He wasn’t sure what he was promising to, but he nodded. “I’ll listen, and I’ll be quiet. I won’t tell anyone.” His hand up in the belly of the ship hooked up on the ledge and just rested there; his attention was solely focused on her.

"It's the things," she said quietly, and looked up at him as though that had explained everything.

Wash studied her eyes, and the serious expression therein. He couldn’t help but smile down at her. “The things?”

She sighed a little. "The ones. You . . . fasting, or with a meal? They give you the things? Or in a sharp thing. In the arm. Those."

He struggled to follow her. “Shots? You mean, like needles? in your arm?”

River added, "Or in a little cup. With water."

Wash nodded, slowly understanding. “Pills. They make you take pills?”

She nodded eagerly. "But then . . . then they change, do you see? Blue into white or yellow or pink. And then the fluffy things."

Shifting on the tarmac, Wash pressed closer to her as he got more comfortable. “They change the pills? Your medicine?” A little light went off in his head. “You’re different because the medication changed? And it hurts?” He felt the light dimming.

River sighed with gratitude. "Yes. The things."

Wash didn’t know how to respond to that. His hand just trailed up her back, to stroke at the tips of her hair again. He knew that the students were medicated, and he’d been told that it was being done for their own good. But it didn’t take a genius to see that River wasn’t benefiting from this drug change. “Why do they do it?”

"Off balance. Little changes. Not too crazy, just hard to get used to. Still lucid . . . some. But can't think, can't plan, can't function." Her voice rose as she spoke, closer and closer to hysteria.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Wash broke in, trying to sooth her down. He didn’t know if it was all right, or would ever be all right, but he wanted to reassure her. He wondered if she’d think he was lying to her. “They’ll . . . they’ll wear off soon, won’t they?”

"No. I adjust. I adapt. I am superior," River sighed. "But weeks. Weeks lost. No planning when weeks are lost at random. Can't."

Wash nodded, understanding. Only, he didn’t know what. “What are we planning for?”

River gave a little laugh. "We aren't. Not now. That's . . . that's what makes it so funny . . . the plan died. He failed her. It's done."

There was a deflated feeling that sank through Wash, and he wasn’t sure why. “He who failed?” Wash smiled, realizing he was starting to talk like her. Shaking his head, he rephrased himself. “Who failed you?”

River looked up at him, suddenly, eyes wide and fearful. "God," she choked out. She'd forgotten. Not Simon, not ever. In case. Just in case.

Wash didn’t follow, he just took what she gave him, and her words made him smile tightly. “God hasn’t failed you, River.” He pressed his hand across her upper back. “Sometimes he’s just a little slow. Or, a lot slow.”

"God is dead," River said flatly. She let her head rest against his chest. "Are you going to scold now? And hate?"

“No,” he softly said, holding her and wishing in a strange way that they weren’t huddled together under a plane during a lesson. The thoughts weren’t improper, not really, but he shouldn’t be thinking them, all the same. “It’s all right if I disagree a bit, though, isn’t it?”

"Not that. Because I can't. Can't follow orders. Be respectful. Can't."

Wash sighed. She was broken in a way he couldn’t fix, and the knowledge of that hurt him more than he ought to let it. She was here to be fixed, not to be further torn asunder. The knowledge that maybe she wasn’t being treated right frightened him. “What can I do?”

"Wait," she whispered. "Don't be . . . monkey. Be all right. Soon. Superior."

Wash studied her for several seconds before nodding. “All right. But, you tell me if things change; if I can stop waiting.”

She gave a little, sad laugh. "You'll know. Couldn't not."

He smiled at her laugh. It was sad, and broken, but he liked to hear it. “Your nose is red,” he noted. “You must be freezing.”

She nodded. "Yes. But inside."

Her words made the smile slide off his face. “It won’t be like that forever.”

River didn't answer that. "Just . . . hold," she said thickly, snuggling closer to him.

Closing his eyes, Wash did as he was told, even dropping his other hand from the control panel to wrap around her. He rested his chin lightly on the top of her head, sighing.

"Why worried?" she whispered, feeling so peaceful and warm. She was floating now, and it was almost as good as flying. "Always when you hold me . . . worried."

He didn’t open his eyes. “They wouldn’t understand, if they saw us.”

"Not all," she muttered, then cleared her throat. "That's not all. You think . . . bad."

He smiled, guilty. “Maybe so. I’m a bad man.” He lifted his head a little, looking down at the top of her hair. “But, the ones around here wouldn’t like me holding you. I’m supposed to be teaching you.” He smiled wryly. “And, maybe I am, but not the things they want you to be learning.”

"You teach," she promised muzzily. "I'll learn. Promise. Everything. Promise."

Wash sighed, glancing up at the opened belly above them. His mind was so far away from his lessons, he couldn’t even pretend to instruct. “I worry about everything though, not just you. So, don’t fret about that.”

"Mostly me," she said, echoing his sigh.

“Well, I’ve not exactly got a lot going for me right now,” he replied, offhandedly. “So, yeah, mostly you. You should feel special.”

"Special is dangerous," she said gravely. "Or in danger. Why I always am."

“Well,” he said, squeezing her lightly, “lucky you for, I like living on the edge.”

"Sir," she whispered, very close to being asleep. "Can you . . . are you clever? Teach more than basic?"

Wash chuckled deeply, amused at the question. “I could, I suppose. If the committee ever got their collective heads out of their asses, and knocked off the nepotism.”

"Make it work," she whispered. "Through fire. Promise. No one but you."

“Through . . . fire?” He wasn’t following again.

"I will," she swore. "They'll put me in the room. But I promise I'll remember. No one but you."

Wash studied her carefully, uncertainly. “Then, I’ll make it work.” He didn’t entirely know what he was agreeing to, but he felt certain that he could do what she was asking of him. “Are you any warmer, now?”

River nodded. "You could take me back, though. Tell them . . . learned about sparky things. Know anyway. Read the book and all the specs. Make them . . . bed, please?" Her tone was pitiful.

“I’ll tell them I taught you about the sparky things,” he chuckled softly. “Though, don’t call them sparky things when you report to them, or they’ll think you were lying.” His hand went to stroking her hair again. Her tone broke his heart. “It’ll be all right.”

"I wish," she whispered hazily. "Wish you could take me to bed."

Wash sputtered at that. If he’d been drinking something, it might have sprayed all over the place. He didn’t quite push her away, but he certainly straightened up, dropping his hand from her hair. “That’s . . . River, that’s not appropriate.” He was flustered at the implication, and his skin was the sort that turned brilliant pink when he blushed.

"What . . . ?" She lifted her head, confused. "You touch me. Gently. They just . . . take me to the room. You'd tuck the covers over me, wouldn't you?"

Wash opened his mouth to reply, but nothing came out. It just hung there, open, in a sort of disbelief. “Wo de ang lao han!” He laughed nervously, slapping a hand to his brow. “Of course, I’d tuck you into bed, River. Of course.”

"I didn't mean to be inappropriate," she whispered sadly. "Just tired."

“It’s all right, River.” He laughed, finding the situation hilarious. “Really, it’s fine. You’re . . . you’re fine. Just ignore me. I’m off in my own little world, hahaha.” He hugged her again. “If you’re tired, we can finish early. You want to go back inside now?”

River nodded. "Bed. Please."

Wash nodded. He used one hand to close the panels to the underside of the ship, then wormed his way out from underneath, letting River go so he could. “This way.” He offered a hand out to her.

River took his hand, following, staring down at her bloodied knees. "Doesn't feel," she said softly. "At all."

Wash looked down, noticing her scarred knees for the first time. “Cao,” he muttered. “You should have said something.” Looking up from them, to her face, he followed her meaning. “That isn’t right.” He didn’t want her to feel pain, but she ought to.

"Nothing is," River said, perfectly clear in that moment. She swayed a little. "Bed. Please."

Nodding, he let her back to the building, to her handlers and doctors, so they could put her to bed.
--

It took two weeks for River to regain a semblance of her usual brilliance, but when she did, they finished with basic flight training rapidly. One cold day, River stood beside April, waiting for him, wearing a tiny, almost-hidden smile on her face.

Wash didn’t come.

A figure approached, but it was taller and lankier, and the man had a curve of gray hair, and wore a scowl. Colonel Nelson drew up short before River, holding in his hands a large metallic briefcase. He dropped it at her feet. “Congratulations, Ms. Tam, you’ve somehow managed to pass basic flight and graduated to intermediate training. Your flight suit and helmet are inside. If I’m lucky, I’ll have you actually breaking atmo before the end of the year.” He smiled at her, but it was not a kindly one.

River took one look at him, then lay down flat on the freezing tarmac. She'd been expecting this, was ready for it. "No."

Nelson gave a short, barking laugh. “I don’t think you understood me, Ms. Tam. I was not making a request. Now, on your feet!”

"You're cruel, and I hate you," River said flatly. "And I won't. Ever. Not with you. He can teach me."

Nelson’s eyes narrowed, and the vein on his temple throbbed. “Unfortunately for you, Captain Washburn isn’t qualified to teach intermediate flight. And, in case you’ve forgotten, you’re here to learn, not to make friends. I won’t ask you again. On your feet.”

"He is qualified. He knows how. I hate him, but he isn't cruel. You can ask all day. Won't," River said firmly, her heart pounding. She knew what the results would be of this, knew they would put her back in the room, perhaps even into surgery again--it didn't matter. She wouldn't. Not ever. She'd promised. Through fire.

Nelson clenched his teeth so hard that the vein on his forehead looked for certain as though it would burst. His eyes widened at her insolence, his face turning vermilion. “You will regret this!” he snarled. “I’ll see that you do, Ms. Tam. I’ll see that you’re properly dealt with.”

"I know," River said, teeth chattering. The chill seeped right through her dress, made every bit of her tremble and shiver, painfully.

Nelson spun about, leaving her there. He fetched her handlers, told them of her disobedience, and returned with them. It was raining by the time they made it back to her, Nelson flanked by her two doctors, and he watched with unveiled glee as they forced her onto her feet.

River rose, looking at Nelson, her face hard as marble. "You're an ugly, veiny, cruel man. But you won't win."

Nelson’s smile was full of bitter triumph. “Perhaps not, but then, neither will you.”

River ignored him, turning to the silent, grave doctors, beginning to explain her position and Wash's qualifications. It wouldn't work, not yet, but it would be a beginning.
--

Wash knew he shouldn’t worry. Students ‘disappeared’ all the time. They went home, or were transferred to other medical facilities that were more suited to their needs, or graduated, or were demoted. They were never harmed, or mistreated. The academy wasn’t that sort of place. Students were taken care of here. They were well treated.

Only, Wash had started to hear rumors, and he’d started opening his mind instead of turning a blind eye to the things around him. Nelson had gotten River for intermediate flight and then the girl had vanished, and no amount of subtle hinting or snooping around had helped him unveil what happened to her.

He had a birthday, and the Osiris New Year came and went, and he saw no sign of her. It plagued him. He felt, in a sense, that he had let her down. The promises he’d made with her nagged at him. He tried to push the thoughts of her away, but they always crept back, consuming him. Sometimes he didn’t think of her until he was alone in his room at night, but she was always close to his mind.

Then, one day, nearly two months after he’d first lost sight of her, he got word that he had her again. Unannounced, he was promoted him to teaching intermediate flight. He was given no circumstances as to why. They just handed him new rank and a new flight suit and told him to report to the intermediate hanger for debriefing.

When the day he was to meet with her again arrived, he was beside himself with anxiety. He half expected her not to show, or for it to be some other girl named River. In the depths of his heart, he knew it would be her, had to be her, but he shielded himself, so he wouldn’t be disappointed if it turned out not to be. He feared, too, what condition she’d be in. He had no reason to suspect she’d been harmed, but he felt, intuitively, that she had.

At last, River came forward, looking much the same, except maintaining a posture far more rigid than usual, and her face perfectly expressionless. "Sir. I'm ready for my lesson." She was more frozen and locked inside herself than ever before. They had tried everything to sway her. Long days in the room; one of the orderlies told her that she'd clocked more time there than anyone else, before the doctor told him to shut up. It didn't matter. She'd won. Kept her promise, through fire.

Wash swallowed hard, seeing her. She looked undamaged, as far as a little thing like her could look undamaged. She didn’t look any worse, at least not physically. Except, her eyes were darkened and he wasn’t sure she recognized him. He blinked quickly, leading her away from the doors, heading out to their ship. If he could get her to the ship, at least he could speak candidly with her.

They’d told him to be careful with her; she was dangerous. He had been told, again, how she’d put her hand through the controls of a Cobra. Since then, she’d apparently almost choked an orderly to death, as well. He didn’t fear her though, just what they’d done to her. When they arrived at the Cobra, he reached out to touch her. “River?”

"Yes, sir." Her tone was still flat, and she didn't move towards or away from his touch, merely stood still.

Zao gao,” he whispered. He wasn’t sure how to react, and the pounding of his heart was making him far more nervous than he should have been. “Do . . . do you—” He trailed off, helplessly. “Are you all right?”

"Yes, sir." Something niggled at her. Something she'd been afraid they'd do. What was it? She glanced at the Cobra. Oh, yes. "Tell me the names," she said, still expressionless. If they'd made her confused, believe it was him, they wouldn't know this. No one would, except him.

“Names?” He looked from her to the ship. “Names of what?”

"Them. The ones that are pasted. Captain Washburn knows. Do you?" Her expression was intent.

“I am—” he began, and then faltered. Pasted. He sucked in his breath, turning to angle his body so his back faced the observation windows. “Carl and Charlie? You’re talking about Carl and Charlie?”

"Good." There was one other thing she'd meant to remember . . . that River had wanted to know . . . some little shard remained. "Does Colonel Nelson know I won?"

Wash let out his breath, shaking his head. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I’m not even sure if I know.”

"I'll kill him if he comes back," she said evenly. "Do you believe me?"

He nodded, slowly. “Yes.”

She nodded as well. "Tell him. He should know. She won." She turned to the plane, climbing into it.

Wash watched her, almost expecting her to just climb aboard and fly away without him. He expected it so much that he didn’t move to follow her, just stood there, watching, waiting. She had told him to wait.

She sat still once she was strapped in. "Orders, sir?"

“Orders?” He blinked. Who he was, and what he was doing, suddenly came back to him. He wasn’t there to watch her. He was there to teach her. He immediately stepped up onto the runner, putting a hand on her arm. “You’re different,” he stated. “The pills and the . . . the fluff. They’ve changed you again.”

"No," River said flatly. "Crisis. And crisis. And crisis. Thrice three. No fluff."

Wash’s brow furrowed. “But you’re different. They’ve changed you. No matter how they did, they changed you. How do I get you back?”

River stared at him blankly, his words not processing correctly.

“I’m not . . .” He cut himself off, his eyebrows drawing together. “Not like this,” he stated. “Get out of the plane, River. We’re not . . . you’re not ready to go up.” He thought, in a sense, that flying might do her good, to free her again. But the remembrance of her punching through a control panel when she wasn’t feeling kept coming to him, and he couldn’t risk it. He had to get her somewhere else; somewhere they could talk. “Follow me. That’s an order.”

"Yes, sir." River undid the harness, climbing out of the plane, dropping down with her usual uncanny grace and falling in behind him.

Wash signed her out under his authority, which he could now do with his promotion. No one questioned him, although he was prepared to tell them that, bright as River was, she needed to rehearse in the classroom before attempting actual intermediate maneuvers. He knew they’d believe him too, because she was difficult, and he was green. “In here.” He unlocked the door to the classroom they’d met in before. He let her enter, then slipped in, closing the door after, and pressed his back to it, sighing.

Once she was in the room, River stood motionless, waiting for further orders. Her head was perfectly clear, and mostly empty.

Wash watched her, knowing she wasn’t following him. “Do you know where we are?”

"Classroom, sir. Room E14. North wing, first floor," River recited obediently.

“No,” he moaned, stepping away from the door. He didn’t know what to do, how to talk to her or approach her. He reached out, letting his fingers brush her arm. “We . . . we met in this classroom. Not for the first time, but for the real time. I showed you the shadow puppet show, remember?”

"Yes, sir." River stood perfectly still. "Carl and Charlie and their evolutionary triumph."

He smiled at that, feeling ridiculous at being so happy about it. “What’s wrong with you?” he demanded in a voice that he rare ever used.

Some tiny part of her composure crumbled at that tone, and she took an involuntary step backwards. "Sir?"

Wash’s hand gripped her arm, so she couldn’t retreat further. It went soft, almost immediately after. He didn’t want to hurt her. Instead he just closed his eyes, stepping into her, enveloping her in a hug before she could back away. It was foolish, and he was likely going to get kneed in the groin for it, but he was feeling desperate. “River, come back.”

River went very stiff, but she was trembling slightly. "She's here," she said, still in that perfectly calm tone. "She promised. She keeps promises. Knows not to make too many."

Wash laughed, sadly. One of his hands tangled in the ends of her hair, the other stroked her back. “She promised,” he agreed. “And so did I.”

"She asked easy promises of you," River said, a little coldly. "She expected little. Little enough."

He released her, but didn’t move away. His eyes studied her, darting over her face, drinking in the changes to her features. She seemed sallow now, and her eyes more sunken in. She felt lighter, smaller. She was impossibly fragile. “I tried to find you,” he began to explain. “I looked for you, asked around. I thought they’d taken you away . . .” He felt now, that whatever he’d done to find her hadn’t been enough. Then, it had seemed like all he could have done. He knew now he could have done more. He could have risked his career and identity record to find her. He should have. “I didn’t try hard enough.” His eyes searched her face, looking for some sign of familiarity. “I’m sorry.”

"You'll never know," she said softly, sounding a tiny bit more natural. "I'll never tell. She knew. The goldfinch still sings because it can't see. I'll never tell, but I hate you because you don't know."

Wash dropped his hand to his sides, feeling like a gulf as wide as a canyon had opened up between them. He wasn’t sure how to cross it. It hurt his chest in a way he couldn’t explain. Her hating him was quite possibly the last thing he had expected, and yet perhaps the realest thing she’d said to him yet. He couldn’t even formulate another apology.

River stared at him blankly for a moment, then blinked. "Too much. Already too much."

Wash shook his head. “No. It’s not enough.”

"You don't know. Can't," River said, a little more roughly. "Or she did it in vain. She loved."

Wash bit his lower lip, nodding. “All right. All right, fine. I won’t ask. I promised not to ask.” Closing his eyes tightly, he tried to force himself to think rationally. It was hard. Nothing about River, or how he wanted to help her, was rational. “But, now where?” He opened his eyes. “What did you do it for, if it made you hate me?”

"To be with you. It was the only thing." Some tinge of sadness crept into her eyes.

“River,” he whispered, uncertainly. He wanted to reach for her again, but he was afraid that she wouldn’t react again; that’d he be hugging someone who hated him. “You’re with me now. We don’t have much time.”

She peered at him. "What do you want?"

He smiled sadly. “For you to be happy.”

"Someday. Don't know. Unprecedented." Driven by a bleak urge, she stepped closer to him again. "Listen carefully. Unprecedented. Thrice three."

He listened, but he didn’t understand. She was closer though, so there was hope. “What does that mean?”

"Imagine the worst minute," she ordered. "Ever."

He did, or tried to, although his imagination was weak. “Thrice three?” He was soft.

She shook her head. "Multiply by sixty. By twenty-four. Three. And three."

Wash reached out to her, gripping her arm in his. It wasn’t hard, but almost needy. “River,” he whispered in a voice that sounded weak. “No,” he breathed, pleaded, as if he could beg enough to make it not true.

"For you," she concluded, still staring at him. "She promised."

His other hand rose, touching her cheeks, wiping away tears that weren’t falling. The idea that she’d endure this sort of pain, for him, was beyond his comprehension. The fact that she was subjected to that sort of torture was incomprehensible. Slowly, he shook his head. “I want it to stop.”

Her jaw hardened. "Won't. Be happy. Dinosaurs. Flight. Oatmeal cookies. Live in the day."

Wash managed a little smile. “I am happy, but not completely.” He shook his head, studying her. “You . . . you shouldn’t be hurt like that. That’s not the way to fix you.”

"I wasn't broken," she said plainly. "Someday, they'll smash the toy soldier on the floor, grind it under their heels. Someday. Then I won't come back."

Wash shook his head. “I won’t let that happen.”

"You can't stop it." She faltered a little. "I shouldn't have. You can never leave. Not now. Can't leave unless your eyes are clear. Never will be again. I'm sorry."

“Shh,” he crooned, cupping his hand into her face. He stepped closer to her, probably too close. “I’ll figure something out. We can. Together. Can’t we?”

River shook her head, reaching up for him. "I'm sorry . . . would have happened anyway. But it shouldn't have been me. Betrayed you. Sorry." She held him close. "Poor goldfinch." One of her hands came up to stroke his hair, almost frantically.

Wash shook his head lightly, confused and hurt, but happy she was responding to him at least. He felt like perhaps things would start making sense again. “One day, we’ll fly away together, or something. You’ll see.”

She was beginning to cry now, and she couldn't even bring herself to refute his words, just kept holding and stroking him. "Sorry. So sorry . . .”

“Stop,” he whispered, frightened now. “Don’t cry, River.” His fingers tried to staunch the tears before they streaked her cheeks, but they fell too fast. “Don’t apologize, don’t. Please, don’t. Just . . . just let me believe I can do something about this.”

"What's happiness?" she sobbed. "Is it lies? Should I? Should I let you? No, you'll hurt yourself, dash your brains out on the bars . . . be still, please, little bird, be still.”

“Let me decide that,” Wash pleaded. He cupped her face in his hands more, trying to hold on to her, and to protect her, but he found he didn’t really know how.

River shook her head frantically, her body sagging as she fell to her knees. "Please . . . don't want you to die, please . . .”

Wash fell with her, trying to catch and cradle her as she dropped, but only partially succeeded. “What else can I do then? I can’t just . . . do nothing.”

"Just be . . . be kind. Love me," she pleaded, pressing her hot face against his neck. "All I need . . .”

Wash closed his eyes, letting her press into him. He felt her hot tears against his skin and without thinking he wrapped his arms around her, drawing her closer to him. He’d give her what she needed, but he knew it wasn’t going to be enough.

"I love you,” River breathed, finally, once her storm of tears had ended. "And I need you. Don't know how long, but as long as I'm here. Please. Promise."

“God,” Wash muttered, dimly aware he was clinging to a slight, sixteen-year-old girl. His hands loosened, rising to stroke at her hair. “I promise. I’m here for you. I promise,” he repeated.

River lifted her head, kissing his jaw sweetly. "The rest too. Say it.”

Wash’s body stiffened at her kiss, reacting in the ways that it ought to, but which he felt were betraying him. He did love her, that was easy to admit. Perhaps not in the same way her broken sixteen-year-old mind loved him, but he could say it. He could even mean it. “I love you, River.” He swallowed hard after that.

She raised her face level with his, looking at him, her warm eyes luminous with tears, waiting for his kiss with her lips just slightly parted.

“River,” Wash breathed, uncertainly. He brought his hand back, to cup her face, running his thumb over her still damp cheeks. “We shouldn’t--not here.” He could only imagine what they’d do to him if he discovered him kissing her. The fact that he was thinking of granting her request—maybe even wanted to --terrified him.

River lowered her head, nodding. "All right." She kissed his cheek lightly, drawing back a little uncertainly, even though she understood the logic of his rejection. She sat back on her heels. "What now?"

Wash kept close to her, wanting to touch her, but afraid to, and of his need to. “I . . . I don’t know.” He studied her. “Do you?”

"I suppose," she said, a little sadly. "Same as before." She looked up at him and smiled. "But together."

Wash gave her a stronger smile, to show that it was going to be all right. “Someday, I want to get you out of this place.”

Her face shuttered just a little. "Can't think like that. Live now, I'm alive now, still, and I don't count, don't look forward or back. Back makes now hurt, and forward makes you weak. Just now."

Wash nodded. “All right.” He disagreed, but that was all right. He could think about this sort of thing on his own. He stroked her hair one last time before dropping his hand back into his lap. “If they change your drugs again and change you though, I’m afraid I’ll be unable to pull you out again.”

"It's all right," River said, showing him the strength that despair lent her. "They don't break me wholly. Not yet. It'll be all right."

He nodded, believing her, though he wasn’t sure it’d be all right. He wasn’t sure why she was comforting him, when it ought to be the other way. “I believe you.” He pushed to his feet, reaching a hand down to help her up.

River stood up. "Lesson's almost over. Only two days, though." She smiled at him.

“Is there anything you need?” he asked. “I could bring you something next lesson. They won’t question me, I don’t think.”

River shook her head. "Fine," she promised, kissing his cheek again, before stepping back, smoothing her dress.

Wash floundered a little. He wanted to give her things, presents and niceties that all teenaged girls should have. He wanted to do things for her. He wanted to make her unhappy life a little happier, and he didn’t know how. He pressed his hand over his cheek, sealing her kiss in. “If you say so.”

"You can," she said, encouragingly. "Plight your troth. Something small, not to be found." She turned to leave the classroom.

Wash followed her, shaking his legs a bit to ward off any feeling that still remained about him from their time on the floor. “I’ll see what I can do.” He took a deep breath, opening the classroom door for her, wondering if people passing them by would be able to see right through him.

River moved calmly, her face glum and just a little chastened. "Do I have to go up, sir?" she asked, with every sign of reluctance.

Wash looked at her, amazed by her apparent ease of transformation. “If . . . if you want to?” He wasn’t sure how to act anymore. He shook his head, quickly. “That is . . . the lesson is almost over . . .”

River sighed. "Yes, sir." She wondered if he was so bewildered that he wouldn't even remember he had to return her to her handlers.

“Where . . .” He turned about a moment, reorienting himself. He’d been headed back to the flight deck, but they didn’t need to return there. He altered course to where she’d be dropped off after their lesson. “I’ll see you later then,” he said, realizing too late that that probably sounded much too familiar.

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." River wanted to pinch him. She managed to go to the handlers without a look backward, but it would be a long time, she knew, before she would ever forgive herself for what she had done that day.

Wash watched them lead her away, and stood there for a long time after, wondering what the hell had just happened. --

.. A Simple Twist of Fate, chapter six



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