Date Posted: 22 June 2007
Author: srichard and van
Rating: This chapter: PG-13
Characters: River, Wash, crew
Word count: 4,829
Warnings: Begins pre-TV series, completely AU, will invovle underage romance.
Summary: Blue Sun's Academy brings two unlikely people together.
Notes: River's "last doll" bit is an allusion to Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes.
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 ff_fanfic.
Chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14.
They had only a week of Advanced Flight before it happened again. River's lessons for the week were canceled, no explanations given. When she reappeared, her face was taut and pained, long hair down, and she spoke and walked and obeyed, but she wasn't River. Not quite. She was someone else, who smelled of antiseptic and was made of torn synapses and raw places in her soul. It would be time before she adjusted. Too long, perhaps.
Wash had prepared for it, this time. He knew what it meant when his lessons with River were cancelled. He didn’t know explicitly, but he could guess it meant she would return broken, and on a new drug regimen. He wasn’t willing to sit by and just let it keep happening, not the way he had been.
He’d spent the week he’d been without River devising a way to get them both out of the Academy. His plan wasn’t fool proof, but it seemed solid. As a result, he was eager to tell it to her, especially to hear her suggestions, when he finally saw her again. The dead look in her eyes told him that it might be a while before he got the chance. “River?” he asked as he approached.
River looked around for a long moment, then fixed on him. Her jaw worked for a long moment. "Classroom today," she said finally, through clenched teeth.
Wash glanced at the ships, then at her and nodded. “Of course.” At least that meant there was a sign of her still in there. He had a hard time not taking her by the arm as he led her off the flight deck. The room they’d used before was occupied, but he eventually found them another smaller room to use. “Are you all right?” Of course she wasn’t, but he still had to ask.
"Yes. Always. Lucky seven. Never so many before. Best toy ever." She gave him an unpleasant smile.
Wash shook his head, confused and concerned. He put his hands on her arms immediately, trying to impart some of himself into her. “You need to listen to me, River. Pay attention. I’ve got something important to tell you.” He folded one of her hands into his. “Are you with me?”
"You. Yes." With an effort, River schooled her face into docile attentiveness. Her eyes were fixed on his face, examining, memorizing every pore.
Wash felt a deep ache in his chest at her gaze. He kept one of his hands clinging to hers, but brought the other one up to cup her cheek. “Yes, me. I’m Wash. Your Wash.” He traced his thumb over her cheek, then brushed her hair back. Inside he seethed with hatred at the Academy for hurting her like this again, but outwardly he tried to remain strong and calm.
River shied away from his hand on her hair. "Don't touch. Unsanitary. You'll hurt." Her words were formed with a hesitation that was first cousin to a stammer. "Dirty. Infectious."
“You’re not,” he insisted. “That’s not real.” He tried, gently, to touch her hair again. “All the badness will rub away.”
"Don't," River repeated, insistent, and she pulled away from him. "I told you. You'll hurt."
He let her go, reluctantly. Something tightened inside him. It was as though he’d lost her. He’d gotten her back before, but every time he worried he’d not succeed the next time. “I want to help you.”
"Fine," she said, hardly listening, and she paced. "Listen. You told me to listen. Talk." Her movements were as restless and unhappy as a caged tiger.
Wash sat in one of the lecture chairs in the room, watching her pace. His foot bobbed up and down in anxiety. “I’ve devised a way to get us both out of here.”
River's gaze flickered about the room. "Corporeally?" She fixed on an air vent. "Or like that?"
Wash glanced at the air vent. “We’d be whole and alive, if it works.”
"If. Decomposition is alive if one believes Newton." She moved to the glass board, picked up a marker and began scribbling theorems.
Wash could only watch her. It was frustrating to see. She was broken again, and he wasn’t sure how to fix her. “Alive and breathing. I’ve got a friend in security staff who says he’ll help us out if we can reach him.”
"You told. You're a fool. A colander. I could be a colander next--or part." She began illustrating a colander, and diagramming how much of its material could be made up with the pertinent matter of her body.
“I didn’t. He doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t know who you are. I’m not stupid.” Annoyed, he got to his feet and stalked to the front of the classroom. “You’re not a colander.” He attempted to pull the pen away from her.
"I said next," she snapped, jerking the pen free. "This much." She completed her diagram.
“You’re not going to be a colander, ever, River. Though you’d certainly be easier to smuggle out like that, if you were.” He glared at the diagram and only just resisted wiping it out with the side of his hand.
"Someday," she said coldly. "Better than dust stopping a bunghole." She whirled away from him.
Wash leaned heavily against the front board, as she whirled. “I hate that they do this to you. I don’t even know who you are when you’re like this.”
She turned to glare at him. "And who are you? What did they do, for that matter? What do you think?"
He felt heavy, and tired. “I’m just Wash.” He shook his head. “I don’t know what they did. Changed your drugs again, I guess. Who are you? Are you still River?”
"Who's that?" she mocked, throwing herself into a chair, still watching him.
He turned around, following her progression but not her logic. “Why did you ask me to bring you to the classroom?”
River hesitated, as truth warred with mockery and anger. She tapped a temple slowly, as though trying to shake something loose. "Safer," she said finally.
Wash nodded. “Yes, it is safer.” He took a few halting steps toward her. “And what is it safer from?”
"Pollution. Can't wash, better not to get it dirty." She thought for a moment. "Also me."
“Why can’t you wash?” he asked. She looked frazzled and unkempt. She smelt somewhat of medicine and antiseptics, but he didn’t find her to be particularly dirty.
"They dissolve like the mills of God. You're cross with me."
“I’m not cross with you. I’m cross with them.” He wanted to touch her, to stroke her hair and kiss her cheeks and whisper comforting words to her. He knew he probably couldn’t do that, even if she was having a lucid period, but he wanted to protect her, again. “I love you, do you remember that?”
She looked away, almost ashamed. "I remember everything."
Wash didn’t know what to say to that. He just stood in front of her, looking down at her sitting in one of the chairs. “Soon, they won’t be able to hurt you anymore.”
She shook her head helplessly. "You don't understand. They hurt forever."
Wash managed a smile. “Well, I aim to change that.”
Her eyes were filled with cold fire when she looked at him again. "You. Can't."
Wash’s smile faltered, then faded. “You know, a little optimism never hurt anyone.”
Finally, frustrated, River dipped her head, reaching up with a shaking hand to part her hair. "Look. Look."
Suddenly, Wash was afraid. He didn’t want to see whatever it was she was parting her hair to show him. His legs acted of their own accord, against his will, bringing him closer. He peered down. The sutures to her skull were high precision and very carefully done. Someone had carefully cut into her brain. “Tien xiao de,” he breathed.
"Seventh," River said quietly. "There." She lifted her head again.
“Seventh,” Wash repeated. He wiped his palms off on his thighs. “Why would they do that?”
"To make me special," she said simply.
Wash scrubbed his face with one of his hands, trying to make sense of this. “ . . . what can I do?”
She sighed. "No more talking today. No more plans. Questions. Please."
Wash nodded, inching closer to her. He just wanted to gather her in his arms, to hold her. He felt a heavy solid weight in his stomach, because, once again, he’d been unable to keep her from being hurt. He had hopes that comforting her after it would, at least in someway, help.
River almost flung herself at him. "Just don't touch. If it gets infected, they'll shave me."
Wash caught her, shifted to hold her and settled down on the floor with her in his arms. He held her tightly around the middle, afraid she might melt away if he let her go. “I won’t touch it,” he promised, stroking her back softly.
"I still love you," she whispered, closing her eyes. "But it hurts. Buzzes."
Wash rocked her, just slightly, nodding his head. “I wish I could make it stop hurting.”
"You were cross with me," she whispered, huddled against him. "About the colander."
Wash let his smile creep back to his face. “Just a bit. A colander is such a strange thing to become.”
"Say I'm good," she pleaded. "Your good girl. That you want to hold and touch."
“You are my good girl,” he whispered softly. “You’re my River, the girl I want to spend time with, and to hold, and kiss and touch and hug.” He felt guilty she had to tell him to say these things to her. He should have said them on his own.
Only, he’d been afraid that the words might frighten her in her current state.
River began crying softly. "I love you," she sobbed. "Wash."
It was hard not to touch her hair, to run his fingers through it. He hugged her to him, instead. “Hey, shh, don’t cry, River. My sweet River.”
She lifted her tearful face to him, willing him to kiss her, not to turn away.
He did, kissing her sweetly and gently. First he kissed her lips, then he kissed away her tears before placing a kiss on her brow. “You scare me so much when you come back changed.”
"Don't mean to," she breathed. "Try so hard to be better for you."
“I know,” he whispered, his lips still against her forehead. “It’s not your fault.”
"They'll break me," she whispered miserably. "We'll never get free first."
“You’re such a morose girl,” he chided gently. “I told you I had a plan, didn’t I? I won’t go on about it, just trust me.” He kissed her brow again. “You do trust me, don’t you?”
River gave a little sigh. "Yes, Wash," she said obediently, and if it made him happy, to believe, then she would die for that happiness if need be.
“Good girl,” he crooned, squeezing her just a bit because he could. “That’s my good River.” He glanced around the classroom, duly. “Where do you want to go, when we’re free of all of this?”
"Somewhere warm," she said, absently.
Wash nodded, smiling. “Sure, somewhere warm. With beaches and real, soft sand and palm trees.” He shifted her on his lap. “You wouldn’t know it, just by looking at me, but when I’m off duty, I’ve got the best, most colorful Hawai’i-That-Was shirts you’ve ever seen. All the colors of the rainbow, and then some.”
"I'd like to see," she whispered. "Will you wear one under your uniform for me?" It was wonderful, really, allowing this drug of hope, or even the pretense at it. Made him so happy. River nestled happily against his chest and listened to him dream.
Wash had never thought of doing that before. There were sometimes two men named Wash that he lived with: the one who worked at the Academy, and the one who played with shadow puppets and bar hopped and wore Hawai’ian shirts. He had taken care to not let them cross, but looking down at River, he discovered he wouldn’t mind melding them. “Of course I will. What’s your favorite color?”
"Red," she said, looking up at his face, and wincing as her mind dissolved it to a bloody mess. She blinked and cleared her gaze. "Or pink."
He kissed her. “I’m not sure I’ve got a pink shirt, but if I do, I’ll definitely wear it.” Wash studied her sadly, aware that in all the time he’d known her, he’d never seen her in anything other than her olive green flight suit, or the bluish grey medical dresses. He’d buy her some dresses, soon. Lots of brightly colored dresses.
River let herself drowse in his pleasure for a while, but at last, she stirred herself. "Lesson's almost over."
Wash exhaled through his nose. “You’ll be all right, now?”
"Yes," she said, smiling tenderly at him and rising. "Fine."
He let her get to her feet, enjoying being the one on the floor, looking up at her. He couldn’t explain why, only that she deserved that sort of power. “I love you,” he quietly said before pushing to his feet and dusting his uniform off.
"Love you too." Her smile almost reached her eyes.
Reaching out, he gently bopped the tip of her nose, smiling as he did. “I’ll see you soon, all right? Once we past the review, we’ll actually break atmo, and there’s nothing quite like that.”
She hesitated. "The review?"
“Don’t worry about the review. We’ll deal with it when it comes. If we work hard, we’ll be out into the black before the review, and you’ll pass with flying colors.” Wash grinned brightly. “And after graduation, we’ll make our escape.”
River nodded again. It was too much bother to think about, even that odd frisson that had occurred when he'd mentioned the review. She rose up on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek silently, with love, then moved towards the door.
Wash smiled at her, watching her go. He envisioned her in a beautiful pink Hawai’ian dress and his smile broadened. With a white hibiscus in her hair, she’d be quite the goddess. “Everything is going to turn out just fine,” he mused, stepping to follow her, so he could lead her back to her doctors.
Two weeks later, River walked up for her lesson like a zombie, face ashen. She grabbed Wash’s arm forcefully, almost dragging him into the plane. "Up," she said, strapping herself in with fumbling fingers. "You fly. Can't." They needed privacy, and this was the best to be found, on short notice.
Wash’s senses were alert instantly, but instead of flailing about like he had before, he drew serious and did as she instructed. He scrambled into the Cobra behind her, strapping in quickly. There was a level of urgency in her voice that he had learned not to ignore. Within five minutes he’d cleared the tarmac and had them airborne, sailing up through the blue sky. “What’s wrong?” he asked, as soon as he could switch the commlink off.
"You have to leave. Without me," River said, rather wildly, hands coming up to press at her temples. "Too important. Can't think. Please. Go."
“Wha—” but Wash trailed off. They were in a plane, some 22,000 feet above the ground. There wasn’t anywhere he was could run off to at the moment. “I’m not going to leave you,” he firmly stated.
"You have to." River was breathing deeply. "Listen. Blood, they're swimming in it. You have to find out. Find the truth. Find her."
“Her?” Wash suddenly felt cold and confused. There was a different sort of intensity to what she was saying. She didn’t seem to be trying to protect him. “Her who? What truth?”
"Her. The one who knew. Ismene. Cassandra. You have to find her and then tell them, please...I can die, it doesn't matter, but they have to know. Please, Wash, please..." Her voice was growing hysterical.
Wash’s hand on the yoke of the plane tightened. He couldn’t hold her, or even really see her, and her words were digging at him, frightening him. He was about to tell her to put her helmet on so they could push out of orbit. It would be suicide to try to escape in a short-range Cobra, but he was desperate to stop the pain she kept experiencing. “I’ll do it, River. Calm down, baby. I’ll find these people, but you’ve got to slow down and explain it to me better.”
"Edge of the Burnam quadrant. They pretend it doesn't exist, but you can find it. Talk to someone, someone who knows, knows truth. Go there, follow the beacon. Find her, Wash, please, let her out..."
“Burnam quadrant?” Wash echoed. “River, muffin, that’s . . . that’s way beyond the borders. That’s almost Rim territory, and not well traveled at that.” He quickly tried to assuage her. “Whatever it is, we can do it together. I’m not going that far without you.” He half wondered if her newest drugs weren’t causing her to hallucinate.
"No, please. It's too dangerous. I'm a shackle, a shackle to your leg, but you have to go..." she pleaded through her tears.
“Bao bei, I can’t do anything without you. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” He leveled the plane and reached out to brush his fingers against her shoulder. “I’d get there and not even know what I was there for.”
"I told you...the beacon." She reached up, clinging to his fingers. "You'll know, then, you'll know what has to be done..."
“Beacon,” he repeated. Everything inside of him was protesting this. He couldn’t leave her, not now. To get to the Burnam quadrant he’d have to quit his job. If he did that, there might be no way he could ever get back to her. Yet, at the same time he was entertaining how he could get to a ship capable of traveling that far, and figuring how much money he had saved away in his account. “Can’t it wait, just a few more weeks? We could escape, go together. You’re not a shackle, you’re my light.”
"Oh, God..." River buried her face in her hands, instinct and logic at war. She swallowed. "One week. Until after the review. But then you have to go, by yourself--can't risk it. You can make another plan, from the outside, it'll be all right... I'll be fine. This can't be risked. Too important, believe me, please."
Wash’s stomach churned. He jammed the ship into autopilot, and the ride smoothed out. There was a beacon in the Burnam quadrant that he had to go see. He had to go alone, without River, and the thought terrified him. Agreeing to it meant he had to give up everything for her, including her. “I’m not a hero,” he whispered softly. “I don’t want to go it alone.” He had already made up his mind that he would go, if she truly needed him to.
"You have to be," she insisted. "Have to be a hero, for me...promise, Wash, you have to promise..."
Wash pressed his lips together, struggling against his own inner fears. Everything so far had been like a game. If he promised this, he promised everything. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, nodding. “I promise.”
River relaxed, going limp and closing her eyes. "I'll love you forever," she promised, in a high, thin voice. "Beyond forever."
Wash leaned forward as far as he could, pressing his fingers into her shoulder because it was their only contact. “I’ll come back for you. I promise that, too.”
She nodded. Nothing mattered, beyond this. If he survived it, it would be a miracle. "I know. I know you will."
There was nothing else he could say. He felt sick and anxious sitting there. He had questions to ask, but none of them that he was willing to phrase. He had a lot of self-evaluation he had to do, too. After all, she was just a girl; he could walk away from this, all of this. But, he had already promised. “I wore a pink Hawai’ian shirt for you, today,” he lamely said.
She smiled dreamily. "You'll have to show me, when we land."
He was silent for some time. “Someday I’ll buy you a matching dress and we’ll drink fabulous fruit smoothies while watching the sun set over the ocean.” He closed his eyes, picturing it, and immediately some of his anxiety melted away.
River nodded. "Yes." She could wish he wouldn't be so cruel as to inflict the happy dreams on her, but she'd been cruel too, so perhaps it was fair.
After a deep, calming breath, he felt better. “Do you want to fly now?”
She hesitated for a moment. "Yes. All right. Give me control." She lifted her hands to the yoke.
Wash disengaged the autopilot and returned the controls to the pilot console. He lifted his hands off, wiping his palms against the slick fabric of his flight suit. “She’s all yours.”
River began taking April through advanced maneuvers with the same grace as she danced, turning the lesson into expression. "She's so beautiful," she hummed contentedly.
Wash tried to concentrate on flying, and the lesson at hand. He was grateful River was such an adept student, because she knew what she was supposed to learn this lesson, and that made it easier on him. Of course, if she weren’t the star of the academy, he wouldn’t have been too shaken up to teach. “She is beautiful.” He leaned back, sighing. “In the hands of a skilled pilot, she’s amazing.”
River kept them up for a long time, moving the plane with complex, balletic grace, then finally began, reluctantly, to bring her down. "What happens at the review? You didn't say yet," she said, trying to manage the nagging at her consciousness.
“Not much. I don’t really know, since the only ones I’ve ever been at were ones I gave for Basic Flight.” He smiled sheepishly. “I imagine you’ll have two observers, me and probably Colonel Nelson, and two judges who will ask you questions, and who will want to see you perform maneuvers. I don’t think you’ll have any problem with it.”
"No." She thought about it for a short time. "I won't kill Nelson. As long as he keeps his distance. Tell him that. He'll know I mean it."
Wash let his mouth curve into a smile. “I’ll let him know.” He shifted in his seat. “We need to turn the comm. back on to get landing clearance.”
River obeyed, following the protocol easily. When they touched down and the plane was quiet once more, she just sat quietly in the plane for a moment, then twisted around. "Show me the shirt."
Wash nodded and quickly unzipped his flight suit. He couldn’t maneuver enough in the plane to get it off his shoulders, but he unzipped it enough to show the flash of pink fabric with pretty white flowers on it. “I’m not so sure pink is my color, really.”
She laughed, and leaned over the back of the seat to kiss him, lightning fast. "I love you."
Wash smirked. “Love you too.” He quickly zipped the flight suit back up, hiding the bright pink fabric again. Then, he popped the hatch and unharnessed. “Next week, if you’re well enough to, we’ll go all the way up, into the black. Would you like that?”
River nodded. It would be a good way to remember. She jumped out of the cockpit. "Will you bring me something? Something small? Before the review."
Wash nodded. “Of course. What would you like?” he smiled at her and wished they could just go off together now. The idea that he had to wait until the next lesson to see her again was heartrending.
"Anything. Anything I can keep, that they won't find." River looked at him with wide eyes, memorizing every part of him.
He was a little surprised by how much he wanted to kiss her. There had initially been aversion to the whole thought, because she was so young, but he’d apparently gotten over it. At least, when she was around him, the thoughts that plagued him about the inappropriateness of their relationship went away. “I’ll see what I can find.” He looked her over carefully. “How . . . how is your head?”
She nodded a little. "I don't know...better. Stitches are out." A little shrug.
Wash gave her a wavery smile. “Well, I’m glad for that.” He climbed out of the Cobra and stood beside it. In the distance he could see one of her doctors coming to see if there was a problem. He focused on her again. “You’d better go.”
"Yes, sir," River said clearly, and went back inside with her doctors. A week. A week and then it would all be over, like a dream, and she for the dark...
Wash spent his time away from River thinking about her. He was determined to find her something for her to remember him by, but everything he came across that screamed out perfect to him was something she’d have a hard time keeping hidden from her doctors. By the time they had their next lesson, he hadn’t yet found something to give her.
River came to him, her face set in a smile. If something went wrong, he should remember her like this. She could give him this, she could. "Into the black?" she said, as cheerfully as possible, sounding more or less normal.
Wash felt relief course through him at her smile. There was nothing so rewarding as seeing her lucid and happy, even if sometimes he knew it was put upon. “Into the black, then,” he agreed, returning her smile. “Always the head of the class.”
"Only since you came," she chided, climbing into the cockpit and pulling on the helmet.
Wash chuckled, climbing in after her. He let his fingers brush against her as he climbed in, settling into the co-pilot chair. “Well, you were the star pupil here before I came along. I’ve just helped you fly a bit.” He pulled his helmet on, affixing it to his flight suit so it sealed. “Flight suit check. You?”
"Yes, sir," River said, beginning the start-up sequence. She hummed with excitement, though unsure if it was joyous or destructive. This was the last. The last. Everything would change soon...
Wash let her seal her suit, and grinned when the green light came on announcing that both pilot and co-pilot had airtight seals on their suits. He lowered the cockpit hatch and settled in for her to take them up. “You know to expect a lot of turbulence when we hit atmo, right?”
"Always," River said, under her breath. Clearance requested and received, River began taking them up, up, in a sharp, steep ascent. "Do you trust me?" she cried out.
Wash nodded, riding the velocity as they ascended. “You know I do,” he called back.
River's hands gripped the yoke intently, and she stared up, they were still going up, up, into the blue...and then it hit, the turbulence, and she was laughing and laughing, nearly hysterical, and yet her hands were steady, compensating for everything...
Wash let out a whoop of delight because her enthusiasm was infectious. He burst into a sudden song. “High we fly, into the deep, dark black! Off we go, we won’t look back!”
One last patch of turbulence, and then there they were, in the black, and everything looked so different that River could scarcely imagine how she'd ever not looked up and seen this.
It was silence, and peace and blackness. To their left burned the sun, brilliant and white in the distance, but completely different now too. So unfamiliar that it was familiar. Wash was silent save for the sound of his breath circulating through his helmet. It was River’s moment.
It brought tears to her eyes, and River was close, so close, to just popping the hatch so that they could float free, away... But Wash had a mission, and he mustn't die gasping, mustn't. "I love you," she whispered, finally.
Wash smiled. That response made perfect sense to him. He took the controls from her, just for a moment, and tilted the ship so they were upside down. There was no gravity, so they felt no vertigo, but now the glitter of Osiris stretched out below them. The eggshell thin halo of atmosphere encircled the calming blue and green of the planet. “I love you too, River.”
"I hope," River said doggedly, knowing that she was a fool. "I hope we come back here."
Wash nodded, smiling, then closed his eyes. “We will.”
For once, River did not scorn his hope.