Date Posted: 24 June 2007
Author: srichard and van
Rating: This chapter: PG-13
Characters: River, Wash, crew
Word count: 4,623
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.
Wash wore mess dress for the review. He wasn’t fond of the sharp looking grey suit and the tight-fitting hat that was standard issue, but he did look important wearing it, his major rank gleaming on his lapels. The nice thing about mess dress was the many deep pockets, hanging loose on him, so the fact that he had a loud red and yellow Hawaiian shirt on underneath passed unnoticed.
He had a tiny trinket in his left pocket, too, which he planned to present to River after she finished, before he left her for a long, long time. Colonel Nelson stood beside April, and Wash made his way to him, nodding in polite acknowledgement while they awaited River’s arrival with her judges.
River's face was perfectly controlled as she moved towards the plane, flanked by two high-ranking Alliance commanders to serve as her judges. One was a man Wash recognized from the Basic Flight reviews he’d attended, but the other man was younger and unfamiliar to him. River walked between them dispassionately, not a shiver or a falter giving anything away. Her gaze swept over Wash impersonally. She stood beside April at attention, waiting for orders, her eyes focused nowhere particularly, every muscle tense and straining. The review...
Wash had little to say during the review. His job was solely as observer. He was to be on hand in the event that one of the judges had questions for either he or Colonel Nelson, as they had been her instructors. It was a small meeting, as generally students had at least three flight commanders for each of the levels of flight. Wash could feel the contempt rolling off Nelson at being paired with a lower ranking officer who taught the star student through the advanced classes.
He and Nelson stepped away from the Cobra as the judges instructed River to perform some maneuvers in the plane. Wash tried to catch her eye, but either she was solely focused on her task, and blocking him out, or she’d had her drugs changed again. He hoped for the former because he wasn’t sure he could deal with a farewell that was drug stilted.
River performed her maneuvers perfectly, and when she touched back down, the higher-ranking of the two said, "Admirable...but to be expected. How capable is she of flying anything other than a Cobra? Has she received training for variances in controls?" Looking rather bored, he gazed to Nelson for a reply.
Nelson straightened his shoulders but his face was blank; he had no clue what River was capable of. Chagrined, he replied, “I was responsible for R. Tam’s training through Basic Flight, sir. Perhaps Major Washburn could shed some light on your question?” He deferred to Wash, grinning maliciously.
Wash met the cool blue eyes of the judge in question. “Although River hasn’t practiced on any vehicles other than the standard academy Cobra, it is my professional opinion that she could be put into a foreign ship and figure out the schematics with precision and alacrity.”
The commander looked at River appraisingly. "Very well. I want to see her in my ship, performing basic maneuvers. If she can."
"Sir, I need Major Washburn with me," River said, a little breathless for the first time.
He hesitated, then seemed to form some calculations. "Indeed. Perhaps Colonel Nelson will accompany us as well." He nudged the other judge. "Why don't you get us a table at the O-Club. Shouldn't be long." The other commander grinned amiably, then wandered off to do just that.
The younger man straightened. "If you'll all come this way, then?"
Wash found the arrangement a little curious, but followed as he was instructed. He was simply glad that he was being asked to accompany River along during the flight. It made sense that the commander would want a qualified pilot or two on hand, as well, in case she failed to perform as asked. The strange thing was the dismissal of the second judge.
Wash had never seen that before in any of the Basic Flight reviews he’d done. River was the star pupil, though: perhaps she was going to pass no matter what. Perhaps things were different for Advanced Flight.
The four of them filed into the commander’s small ship, through the cargo hold, and Wash waited for the man to lead them through to the cockpit. “Very nice ship you’ve got here, sir,” he said, conversationally.
"Thank you." The commander led the way into the cockpit, waiting as River harnessed herself in. He glanced at Wash. "Is she competent to keep from knocking us all over?" he asked, as the girl began powering up the ship.
Wash folded his hands behind him at rest. He didn’t meet the commander’s eyes, instead keeping them focused on River. “River is the Academy’s prize pupil, Commander. I think you ought to let her skills speak for themselves.”
River began taking them up, and her face was tense. It would be any minute now...there: the sound of a gun cocking.
"I think," came a low, confident drawl, "that y'all want to be layin' down any sidearms you're carryin' and puttin' your hands on top of your heads." Long, booted strides sounded on the hard metal floor.
"Simon," River whispered anxiously. "Don't let them hurt..."
The young Academy judge became Simon again, and he crossed to her, touching her furtively, eagerly, while keeping an eye on the situation. “Everything’s going to be fine now, River,” he breathed in relief.
Confused, Wash turned around. He stiffened immediately as he found himself facing the business end of two guns. He was not one to question that sort of logic and immediately raised his hands above his head.
“What in the blazes of hell do you think you’re doing?” Nelson demanded. It was too far fetched for him to comprehend that they might be hijacked out of the review yard. “Is this some sort of practical joke?”
"No. You don't understand." River wanted to run to Wash, and yet she was tied to the ship, taking her up out of atmo. "He was kind. Washburn. Don't let them hurt him. Please. Need him. Don't..." Her voice was growing higher and more hysterical.
"Jayne, keep 'em covered." The leader of the group crossed to River. "Doc, get her clear of this. Need to get back to the ship fast. And we're not gonna be doin' it with any Alliance officers on board, dong ma?"
As soon as the man’s hands took yoke and throttle from her, River ran to Wash, her arms wrapping tight around him. "You can't hurt him. I won't let you." Tears were in her eyes. "Simon, don't let them..."
Wash held her fiercely, turning a little, so he was shielding her from the nozzle of the bigger man’s gun. “River, you know these people?” he asked, bewildered. The gunmen he could almost understand, but the commander seemed to be in on the events too, and that was where his brain derailed.
“I could get rid of these Alliance folk real easy like, if you want, Mal,” Jayne stated with a dark grin.
“We ain’t killing Alliance folk, Jayne, not if we don’t got to,” Mal chided. He glanced over his shoulder at everyone. “We tie ‘em up, knock ‘em out and leave ‘em for the search and rescue to find.” His eyes fixed on Wash’s protective grip around the girl. “You’d best be seeing to that girl of yours,” he added, glancing to Simon.
River, with her quick perceptions of power lines, broke free of Wash and moved to Mal. "You can't hurt him. He saved my life. He won't betray us. If he does, I'll kill him. I can show you. On the other one." She looked over her shoulder at Nelson scornfully. "I would kill them all. But not him. He saved me. Please." She dropped down to her knees. "Please. I need him. You can put us out the airlock if he tries anything."
Mal glanced at Simon. "Your sister just stole my best threat."
Simon, beginning to free himself of the Alliance uniform he wore, moved to touch River's shoulder. "Mei mei, he's an Alliance officer. He was lying to you if he pretended--"
"No. I know when they pretend. I hurt them when they pretend," she nearly screamed. "I love him. He's safe. He likes dinosaurs..." River was crying now, her eyes still fixed on Mal.
Wash felt the wind go out of him as he realized the Alliance officer was River’s brother. She’d never mentioned she’d had one, but everything happening was starting to make sense now. He dropped to the floor too, keeping his hands up, but inching toward River. Seeing her crying, begging for his life, was undoing him. “River,” he began, weakly.
Mal’s gaze shifted to him sharply, then up to the other man. “Jayne, tie them both up.” He returned his eyes to the windscreen as they hit the atmosphere and the ship began to tremble. “If either of them tries to escape, you shoot ‘em.” He held the ship steady as she struggled against gravity but she wasn’t as steady as she could have been.
“Will do, Mal,” Jayne replied, grinning brightly. He pulled a length of rope out from behind his back, where it was looped through his belt and advanced on Nelson.
“What about him?” Simon asked, nodding to Wash. He let his Alliance jacket drop to the floor and was clearly at a loss for what to do about River’s attachment to the man.
“We ain’t sympathetic to no Alliance folk,” Mal replied without taking his eyes off the controls. “That weren’t part of the deal.”
River gritted her teeth. "Please..." She gripped at one of Mal's knees. "I'll do anything. I can do anything, anything, they took away all the limits, anything, I promised once, promised, and they tortured, burned holes in her brain with the nightmares, pulled them out one by one, but I kept my promise, and I promise now, I promise..." River was hysterical, almost unable to speak from the emotions that choked her.
"River..." Simon knelt down on the floor beside her, trying to draw her away from Mal, but she wouldn't be drawn. "You're safe now."
River elbowed him sharply in the ribs and returned her attention to Mal. "I know, I know why, I'm sorry, they hurt you, they left you, but he isn't. Joined the Alliance because they left him, people, on a planet..." She swiveled, fixing her gaze on Wash. "Tell him! Tell. About the people who left you, left you there to die..."
Wash’s eyes widened, confused at first. He followed River’s train of thought quickly, faster than anyone else could. He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, Jayne hauled him up by the collar of his coat and began to bind his arms behind him. Wash let him; he didn’t need his hands. Focusing his eyes on Mal, trusting that what River was saying would make sense, he explained. “You ever heard of a little moon called Geron?” he asked. “Well, I got to spent six weeks there after the crew I was with abandoned me there. Maybe they’re folks you know? Captain went by the name of Kerry McCullin. Real ugly fellow, and downright shady, too.” He inclined his head. “He’d never go in on a rescue operation like this.”
Whoever this Mal guy was, Wash had some respect for him. The brother had hired them to rescue River, and these men had agreed to do it. Undoubtedly for more coin than Wash could fathom, but they were taking River away from the Alliance, and he couldn’t fault them for that. “I’m not Alliance,” he added, quickly, realizing he was loosing his audience. “I work there, but I hate them. I hate what they’ve done to River. We had plans to escape together. I brought her a gift, even.” He jutted his hip forward, displaying the pocket the trinket in question was kept in. “Look. What self respecting Alliance officer would bring his student a present?”
"Listen..." River whispered, under her breath.
Slowly, Mal turned. "McCullin? Likes to drink coffee all day, yeah?" The ship set on auto-pilot, he began looking at Wash properly for almost the first time. Standing, he moved towards him.
Wash smiled nervously. He almost said yes and ran with it. McCullin was a bastard, and Wash had spent as little time with the man as he could. It had also been over six years ago. His brow furrowed. “No, no, he didn’t drink coffee,” he replied. “The coffee on the ship was go se, and I always was stuck making it, and being blamed for how bad it was. But McCullin wouldn’t spring for even the cheap stuff and I was stuck percolating old grounds.”
He glanced to River, and then shook his head. “McCullin only drank milk. Always had fresh milk on board, filling up the cupboards. Didn’t let anyone else near it, but he always had a fresh supply. Milk, and eggs.” He struggled to remember anything else distinguishing about McCullin. “He’s got a real taste for painted ladies, too. Companions especially. There was one on Persephone he engaged a lot.” He struggled for a name, but came up blank. Wash did not think he was doing very good with convincing Mal he used to be a hardened criminal.
Mal let out a slow breath. "Let's see what kind of present you brought the girl." He reached into Wash's pocket. "Huh."
Wash watched River’s face as Mal pulled out the small silver ring. It was her gift, and she’d be able to see him pull it out, so he wanted her expression more than Mal’s.
Mal turned it over in his hands. It was dainty, too small to fit over the first knuckle of his pinkie, and it had a small pink coral stone set into it. It wasn’t an expensive piece of jewelry, but Wash had dropped nearly thirty credits on it, so it wasn’t quite junk, either.
“It’s hers,” Wash pointed out. “I was going to give it to her today.” He smiled at River.
"Give it to me," River called out, trembling, all caution and watchfulness lost in the desire, the need to have what Wash had gotten for her.
Mal shrugged. "Ain't gonna take away your shinies." He moved over to drop the ring in her outstretched hand, and River slid it onto her finger, clutching it there tightly.
Mal looked at Simon for a long moment. "He'll be extra."
Wash smiled in relief as Mal gave the ring to River. Nothing else really mattered to him, then, just that she got it. Things would fall into place.
Simon’s brow furrowed as he watched the exchange between River and the Alliance officer. He shook his head, concerned. He had no desire to pay to keep an Alliance man with them, and yet, clearly River had some attachment to him. “How much extra?” he managed to ask.
Mal looked between Wash and River, and clearly River's state was upping the price a little too. "Three hundred."
"Simon. Simon, please. Need him. He's a goldfinch, and he'll pine, dash his head against the bars, Simon, please!" Her voice was rising to a scream again.
"All right," Simon said quickly. "I'll give it to you as soon as we get back to the ship."
"Shoulda asked more," Jayne said reproachfully.
Mal slumped back in the pilot's seat again. "Yeah. Prob'ly. Cut him loose."
It was done, then, and the animation, the tension in River's body fled, and she slumped to the floor, utterly prostrate, great, tearing sobs escaping her as all the reality of what had happened came crashing down on her.
Wash slumped forward as Jayne cut his arms loose. He was patted down quickly by the mercenary, but released, as he had no weapons on him. Dropping to his knees again, he moved to River, wasting no time in scooping her up and cradling her to him. They were free, somehow. They were free, and he was hers and they were together. He could hardly stand to think.
Mal eyed them contemptuously before turning his gaze back to Nelson. “Get that thing out of here,” he demanded. Jayne complied, marching Nelson out of the cockpit.
“Thank you,” Wash said reverently, lifting his face at last to look up at Simon.
Simon was shaking as well, as he stared down at his little sister, cradled in the arms of an Alliance officer. "River..." He knelt down beside them. "Come here, River," he said slowly.
It tore River's soul to obey, to pull away from Wash, but it was Simon, Simon, and it had taken two years... She crawled to him slowly. "I didn't think you'd come," she breathed, and then the choking sobs began again as she collapsed against Simon. "I thought I would die..."
“I never gave up hope, River,” Simon said, hugging her to him tightly. “I’m so grateful that you’re all right.” He eyed Wash carefully, over the top of River’s head.
Wash tried not to feel jealousy or anger at the other man’s ability to take River away from him. He was her brother, and he could respect that. He had done what Wash had been unable to do: he’d rescued River from the Academy. He managed a smile; River’s family hadn’t given up on her.
River turned her head to look at Wash. "I'm sorry," she whispered, in a tiny voice. "I couldn't tell. Not ever. Not anyone."
Wash just smiled at her. “It’s all right, River. I understand.” He just feared that she’d go to Simon, and not come back to him.
"No," River said, through her tears. "No." She let her head rest on Simon's chest.
"I'm uh...Dr. Simon Tam. This is Captain Reynolds," Simon said, with some attempt at the civilities.
“Wash,” he replied, pulling himself back to his feet. “Hoban Washburn, really, but everyone calls me Wash.” He nodded to Simon, then to Mal, and his hat tipped precariously on his head. He immediately snatched it off.
Mal grunted, swiveling his chair back to front. “Don’t much care for the heart warming reunion,” he said. “Take her in back and get her out of that uniform,” he commanded.
River turned her head to Mal quickly. "Xie xie, Captain Reynolds. Thank you." She leaned against Simon again, her mind almost blank. It was too much to process.
Simon stood up and bent to help her to her feet too, keeping a protective hand on her at all times. “It’s this way, River.”
Simon steered River away, leaving Wash alone in the cockpit with Mal.
"Be droppin' you with the others," Mal said, glancing over his shoulder again. "You try anything, you'll wish you were back on board with McCullin."
Wash loosened the buttons on the collar of his mess uniform. “That girl is, quite literally, my world. If you don’t do anything to hurt her, I can promise there will be no trying of anything on the part of me. I’m not the violent type.”
"I don't mess with little girls. Guess I never did spend enough time with the Alliance to go learnin' about that," Mal said, offense plain in his tone.
Wash squared his jaw at the tone of Mal’s voice, but knew he deserved it. He’d wrestled with the thought long enough himself. There was no sense in getting angry over it, though. Reynolds was trying to imply he had a sick thing for River, but Wash knew there was nothing sick about their relationship. He focused his gaze on the stars. “That line of thought is probably something I’d better start getting used to, I guess.”
Mal shrugged. "Reckon you'd best take that up with her brother. We'll be docking soon..."
Wash nodded. “Do I just stand here, then? I’m of the mind not to move, ‘less the hairy guy come back and shoots me.”
"Suit yourself." Mal opened a comm. channel. "Zoe, we're clear. Be headin' your way in a few. Picked ourselves up a spare, too."
“We takin’ in strays now, sir?” she asked coolly.
Mal eyed Wash. “This is genuine pedigree to the tune of 300 extra credits,” he replied. “We bein’ followed?”
Zoe was silent for a moment. “Nothing showin’, sir.”
Serenity came into view as Mal angled the ship around. Wash took a step closer, putting his hand on the back of the pilot’s chair so he could lean in to get a better look. “Ai ya, haven’t seen an operational Firefly since, well,” he pondered, “since I moved to the Core.” He shook his head, impressed. “Ain’t she a beauty?”
Mal's face softened, just a little. "Hell of a ship," was all he said, though, steering the ship just a little jerkily to dock on Serenity's hull.
A short time later, the five of them departed the Alliance ship. They left Colonel Nelson tied up in the back, figuring a rescue mission’d pick him up sooner or later. Jayne kept his hand on his gun as he led Wash through the door into Serenity’s airlock.
Zoe and Kaylee were waiting for them in the cargo hold, the former eyeing the new arrivals critically. “Good to have you back on board, sir,” she said.
"You must be River," Kaylee said, moving forward immediately with a smile and outstretched arm.
River winced and turned her face into Simon's arm. The stress of the day had been too much, and there were too many people, and where she'd once wanted nothing more than to hear her name, it was said too often now, rang in her ears. "Wash," she whispered unhappily.
Wash pushed past Simon to get closer to River, laying a protective hand over her arm. “I’m here.”
Kaylee appraised the situation, giving a curious look to Zoe.
“Ain’t got time for formal introductions yet,” Mal snapped. He stalked to the intercom system and picked up the link. “Everyone’s aboard, Helo. Disengage and get us out of here.”
“Right away, captain!” returned a gruff reply.
Mal punched the button to close the airlock, and seconds later the dock on the Alliance ship broke lose and the two ships drifted apart.
River caught at Wash, clinging to him. "I need...I need..." she stammered, but the words wouldn't come out.
Simon wrapped his arm more firmly around River. "She needs a smoother and to get some rest," he said, rather coldly.
"Got your...quarters all ready," Kaylee said, uncomfortably, with a little, hopeful smile. She looked after Mal anxiously, then at Simon.
River shook her head. "No. No. Not more. No more."
“Smoothers?” Wash asked, staring at Simon. “She doesn’t need more drugs.” He didn’t want this to turn into a tug of war with River as the rope, but though Simon meant well, he had no idea what she needed. “You don’t know what they’ve been doing to her.”
"And you do?" Simon said, his face hardening.
Simon didn’t intimidate Wash. “I think I know more than you do.”
Mal stepped forward. “You two work out your differences,” he stated. Then, to Simon, he added, “He gets out of hand, I shoot him. Man’s your responsibility.”
“He owes us money,” Jayne announced.
“Jayne!” Kaylee cried, incredulously.
“Well, he does.”
Mal pressed his lips taut. “That you do. So I guess you take these two up to their quarters. I gotta see we ain’t being tailed, then we’ll have a little party in the galley where I can lay down the law of the ship. Understood?”
River, silent, was nonetheless near hysteria, her eyes wide and frightened. "I'll lie down," she said quickly. "Simon, I'll go to sleep. I'll be good. Promise." It was all too much, the noise, the contention. "Promise." She stepped forward towards the young woman, who might be one of them, one of the pretenders, but it didn't matter--River knew how to handle them, even without violence. "Show me. Show me the bed."
"Sure, sweetie." Kaylee laid an arm around River's cringing shoulder and began leading the docile young girl away.
Wash immediately started to follow the girls.
“Hey,” Mal called.
Wash glared at him over his shoulder. “Believe me, the last thing I want is for you to end up shooting me. I’m not going to be any trouble.”
Simon crossed his arms over his chest. "I don't think that's the only reason you need to not be following my sister to bed." He glanced at Mal. "Captain, I'll get you the additional money I owe you. I want to thank you again. This could not...well, you can see what they've done to her. Thank you."
Mal shrugged, but his expression wasn't unfriendly. "All right. You go do that." He gazed at Wash. "Jayne can show you the way to the galley."
For a moment, Wash felt like he was adrift at sea. The further River got from him, the less he knew what to do or say. How had he arrived here, with these strange people? It was like being back with McCullin, only he wasn’t there of his own accord, and this time he was wearing the bad guy’s uniform.
He looked at Zoe, and then remembered that Jayne was the man. “You sure he isn’t going to just accidentally shoot me?” he bitterly asked.
"Any of my crew shoot you, won't be an accident," Mal said, his face hard once more.
Jayne stepped forward, nudging Wash with the muzzle of his gun. "That-a-way."
“Was that supposed to be comforting?” Wash mumbled as he allowed Jayne to prod him into motion. “Because I wasn’t comforted.”
Mal watched the two of them head up the stairs, ignoring Simon as he ducked into the passenger quarters. He crossed his arms when he found himself alone at last with Zoe. “We drop ‘em at Boros in less than a week.”
"You sure we can't get there any faster, sir?" Zoe said wryly. "This is lookin' like a boatload of trouble, as it stands."
“Always is,” he mused. “Always is.” Shaking his head, he added, “I’ll talk to Helo, see if he can step it up, shave off a couple days.” He looked over at her. “Don’t like it anymore than you.”
"Just so we're clear...who we workin' for here?" Zoe said, glancing down the corridor to where Simon had gone.
“Work for the highest bidder,” he said, letting a smile return to his face. “Right now, that’s the doctor.” He took a deep breath and started walking. “Ain’t complaining Zoe. We pissed on the Alliance in their home territory, made three hundred extra credits, and no one even got shot.” He smiled more genuinely. “I’d say that was a win.”
"Is this the part where you tell me this is a nice, smooth job, sir?" Zoe inquired. "What about that girl?"
“Girl ain’t our concern,” Mal called. “Let her brother deal with her.” Noticing Zoe still hadn’t yet started to follow him, he turned around. “You think I’m gonna interfere with all that?”
"Yes, sir," Zoe said flatly.
Mal frowned. “Girl’s messed up good,” he admitted.
"Uh huh. And you're gonna let that Alliance officer keep messin'?" Zoe said, smiling a little now.
Mal shrugged. “Think she trusts him.”
She deliberately mimicked his shrug. "Well, no troubles then. Let's get to Boros." She moved past him, toward the cockpit.
“Hey, if he bothers you that much, you shoot him. I ain’t gonna cry over the death of no Alliance officer.” He started up the stairs after her, leaving the big cargo hold empty and cold.