Mania Squared (maniasquared) wrote,
Mania Squared

Firefly: A Simple Twist of Fate, (River/Wash), (9/14), NC-17.

Title:: A Simple Twist of Fate, chapter nine
Date Posted: 26 June 2007
Author: srichard and van
Rating: This chapter: PG-13
Characters: River, Wash, crew
Pairing: River/Wash
Word count: 6,365
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 ff_fanfic.

Chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14.

An hour later, the whole crew was amassed in the galley, except River, who was obediently in bed. Mal looked around. "Obviously this ain't the way things was planned to go down, but the doctor paid up the extra money for this..." He waved his hand dismissively at Wash. "So the plan is the same. We drop 'em on Boros, and that's how it'll be."

"Uh, Cap'n?" Helo, the pilot, leaned forward. "Ain't maybe quite so simple as that. There's a bulletin out on the Cortex already." He nodded at Wash and Simon. "Got pictures of both of 'em."

Wash glanced at Simon, hating that he was lumped into camaraderie with the man, even though he didn’t know him at all. They were now accomplices. “Well, you did break into an Alliance facility and kidnap us. What did you expect; to level up?”

Mal silenced Wash with a glare, instead fixing his eyes on Helo. “We knew that would happen. There’s nothing to trace them back to us. We continue on to Boros. Drop ‘em off, let them deal with the Cortex broadwave.”

"Big reward offered, Mal,” Helo continued. “Likely they won't last a day on Boros.” Helo seemed to have something very definite on his mind.

Simon glanced at Wash, irritated. "I can take care of my sister. There won't be any trouble."

Zoe, ever sensitive to trouble, had her eyes fixed on Helo. "You thinkin' to maybe preempt that trouble some?" she said coolly.

Jayne had found a bag of protein chips and was munching them on the far end of the table, watching the conversation. “Reward’d be worth more than what the kid paid us,” he noted with a shrug. Off Mal’s glare, he looked away. “Just sayin’.”

“We didn’t take the job just t’turn around and rat our payin’ clients out to the Feds.” He focused his attention on Helo. “Reputations like that spread. Ain’t the sort of name we want to make. You just get us to Boros and be happy with your cut of the 300 credits our Alliance schoolmarm brought in.”

Wash tried to look indignant at the name, but he was too nervous to joke.

Simon, who had been tensed, relaxed a little. "Thank you, Captain," he said formally. "I appreciate that." He glanced at Wash. "If someone comes after us quickly, I won't assume it was your crew."

Mal kept his eyes on Helo for several seconds longer, staring the man down, until he looked away. Then he focused on Simon. “You bring the Feds down on us, things might change.”

“This is a real friendly bunch you joined up with,” Wash said to Simon.

Simon lifted his chin. He had a certain respect for Mal. "For obvious reasons, I won't be doing that. I'll give you my word that no one in will either. You keep your people controlled, and I'll handle mine."

Mal nodded. "Fair enough. Best watch him, son, no matter what that little girl in there may think."

"I'm aware of the dangers, Captain, thank you," Simon said calmly.

Mal crossed his arms. Now that the situation had dispelled, he felt more at ease. “We ain’t but a four day ride from Boros.” His attention was still on Simon. “Your people can use the kitchen, the lounges and the passenger quarters. The bridge, engine room and cargo bay are all off limits. You need something, you get an escort.”

He glanced to Wash. “Now, get out of here, and I don’t want to see that uniform on this boat again.” He turned to go.

Simon looked at Wash. "I'll need to be sure you're not carrying anything you shouldn't. I'm sure you understand."

Wash arched an eyebrow. “You going to pay me 300 credits too?”

"I don't think you're in much of a position to negotiate, and the only reason I can think of for you to be obstructive on this matter would be that you're carrying some sort of device that would be problematic. If that is the case, I'm sure the captain, for his own security, would be pleased to assist me in enforcing my request." Simon was nearly reptilian in his coldness.

Wash scowled a bit before shrugging. “I’m clean, Your Majesty,” he replied, raising his arms. “But, knock yourself out.”

"Perhaps we should do this in the passenger quarters? Unless you've some kind of exhibitionistic desire." Simon glanced at Zoe and rose.

Wash waggled his eyebrows, glanced at Zoe and grinned, hoping that he might find another humorous soul on board the ship, but she just stared him down. “Four days on this love boat, huh?” he mused, rubbing the back of his neck. He followed Simon, and once they were in the stairwell heading down, out of sight of the rest of the crew, he said, “I’d rather not be at each other’s throats. I really believe we’re on the same side.”

"I'm on River's side," Simon said calmly. "Yours remains to be seen." He led Wash into the quarters that would be his, then stood, waiting with an air of politeness.

Wash didn’t say he was also on River’s side. He knew he was, and River knew he was. He’d led their friendship prove it to Simon. Instead, he pulled his Alliance coat off and handed it to Simon. Beneath it, he wore an orange, green and white Hawaiian print shirt, and beneath that, a military issue heather grey tank top. He pulled the Hawaiian shirt off, tossing it atop the bed. His dog tags jingled slightly as he disrobed. “How far am I going?”

"I'm a doctor," Simon replied. "You needn't be ashamed."

“Well, I’d just like a little warning if you’re going to be doing a cavity search,” he stated as he stepped out of his shoes and unbuckled his pants. They dropped to the floor and he picked them up, folded them neatly, and set them aside.

Simon crossed his arms over his chest. "If everything is visible, I don't think a manual search is necessary."

Wash stared at him. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours?” Off the flat expression he received, he smiled. “You’re nothing like River.”

"You don't know me, nor do you know who my sister is beneath the torture she's endured. Now please don't make this difficult for me. I gave my word to the captain. I should like to keep it to encourage him to do the same." Simon moved to sit on the bed.

“Sorry, I’m just not used to having men ordering me to undress,” Wash replied, pulling the tank off. He strongly felt that Simon didn’t know who River was anymore. He meant well, but he seemed to think she was just a little girl. He had no idea how she had changed. Wash would let her decide how to reveal that to him.

Dropping the tank to the floor , he set about pulling off his briefs. “Dog tags too?”

Simon stood and gave them a cursory inspection. "Keep them if you're so attached to the force that tortured a helpless girl." He examined Wash's clothes briefly, spending longer on his shoes. Finally, he laid them down. "Thank you. I appreciate your cooperation."

Wash dressed slowly, putting everything back on but the coat. “I want to you know something,” he said as he fastened his belt. “You probably won’t believe me, but it’s the truth, and I’ve got to say it. After the inspection that you crashed I was going to leave the Alliance, on your sister’s orders, to go on a crazy mission that she begged me to do. I was more than willing to turn my back on the Alliance for her. I have no love for them.”

Simon hesitated, then shrugged. "River seems to care for you. If I decide this isn't some manifestation of further psychological disturbance, I shall be grateful to you for your kindness."

Wash managed at small smile at that. “I’m grateful you got her out of there. I was going to come back, after the mission she put me on, to get her.” He laughed, very briefly, then sobered. “It’s going to be better, now, I think.” He offered his hand out to Simon. “I’m Wash, by the way.”

Simon took it slowly. "Simon Tam." He turned away. "And now, since I don't believe for one moment that she's sleeping, we may as well go see how River is doing." He opened the door and moved towards River's quarters.

Wash followed him eagerly but waited at the door when her brother went in.

Simon sat down in the niche made by the curl of River's body. "How are you, mei mei?"

"Cursed," she whispered, opening her eyes. "Cursed to be free."

Wash leaned against the doorframe, watching them. Simon’s demeanor was completely different with River; it was like he was a completely different person. Wash hadn’t liked him at first, but it was clear Simon cared a great deal for River, and that he found admirable.

"It's all right," Simon said slowly, smoothing back River's hair as he tried to follow her logic. "I'll take care of you, be here for you. You aren't truly free, truly alone."

"But truly responsible..." River looked over to Wash in the doorway. "Need to talk to him."

Simon tensed a bit. "You need to rest, River."

“He doesn’t trust me, yet,” Wash said casually. He understood why.

"Simon, please..." River was going agitated. "Please. Want to be good, not scare you away. Please. Let me talk to him so I can be good. He knows things, but he has to understand. Please."

Simon bit his lip, glancing at Wash in the doorway. Finally, he stood. "I'll be just outside," he said, directing it more as a threat to Wash than a reassurance to River.

Wash just held his smile. He would gain Simon’s trust through kindness. There would be a point, soon, when Simon would know that Wash would never hurt anyone, let alone River. He crossed to River’s bed, kneeling beside her, smiling for real at last. He reached out to cup her cheek. “Tell me.”

River squirmed forward urgently, propelling herself into his arms, needing to be held before she could think, could talk, needing to shut everything out for a moment.

Wash sighed contentedly as he wrapped his arms around her. He held her easily, lifting them both to the bed, so he sat on it beside her, holding her. He closed his eyes and just felt. It felt wonderful to hold her for once, without his thick flight suit between them, without fear of the Alliance discovering them. He stroked her hair. “Your brother’s nice,” he mused softly. “Had me give him a strip tease already, and everything.”

"Simon is thorough," River said, a little primly, then narrowed her eyes. "Don't make him hate you. He's not made for it. Hurts him, confuses..."

“I’m trying not to. I was nice. I really was.” He smiled at her. “I think, given time, it’ll be okay. He just . . . well, everyone looks at me weird. I’m an Alliance officer—ex-Alliance officer, now—and they hate that. I understand, but it’s hard to get used to.”

"The hated shadows..." She reached up, stroking his cheek. "It will be better. But we have to wait now. To go and...and..." Her voice broke and she pressed her palms to her temples. "Stop," she whispered.

“Shadows aren’t all bad,” he reminded her gently. Then he kissed her brow. He could wait for her to gather her thoughts. A lot had happened. He was still stirred up over it; he could only imagine her agitation.

Finally, she swallowed. "We have to wait. Found the hero, but the pump must be primed. You'll trust me, not say anything?"

Wash studied her. “I trusted you to do it on my own. You’d better believe I’ll trust you to do it when you’re with me.” He smiled reassuringly. “We can’t go anywhere until we get to Boros, anyway.” He glanced at the ceiling. “Though this would be a nice ship to get us there.”

River nodded, then shuddered. "Not safe, though. Eyes. Too many. Never mind...nowhere is safe now." She wriggled closer still to him. "Do you promise that when Simon makes me a girl again, that I'll be..."

Wash knew what she meant. The ship was good, but the people weren’t. They didn’t need to be involved in this deal. He stroked her hair again, drawing her close. He took a deep breath. “I promise to do everything I can to help you.”

She looked at him. "Not what I asked."

“I promise that, if Simon makes you a girl again, that you’ll be safe, and loved, and made to laugh.”

"Properly loved?" River persisted. "Even if I'm still not...perfect?"

“You want your brother to kill me, don’t you?” he said, his voice dropping in tone, but still playful.

She smiled then. "I'll make it right. Make him see." She hugged him. "I want to see you...the way I should. Without..." She waved a hand. "Less clearly," she added, mischievously, then ducked her head and butted it at his shoulder. "I want to want you."

Wash laughed and it was marvelous. He felt like hugging her and tumbling down onto the bed with her. There was danger on the ship, but nothing he feared here was as great as his fear had been in the Academy. These people could hurt him, but they wouldn’t hurt River. She was safe, and they were free. He kissed her, quickly. “I promise,” he whispered. “When it’s right, when he understands, and everything is perfect, I promise.”

River looked anxious at that. "Won't be perfect. Not ever." She gripped his hand. "You can break the last doll, but the girl still won't be whole..."

“If I’m with you, it’ll be perfect.” He squeezed her hand back. “I’m not expecting fireworks and doves,” he added, smiling, “and maybe it won’t be the best possible, but it’ll still be perfect. It’s all relative, isn’t it?” He brushed her hair back behind her ear, staying close enough to her that their foreheads kissed. “Broken though you are, you’re still my perfect River.”

River relaxed then, stroking his hand more gently. "I love you. Don't know how I found you, goldfinch in a cold wind...mine now."

Wash smiled and wished Simon wasn’t just standing outside the doorway. He was weary and relieved and wanted nothing more than to tuck River into the crook of his body and sleep beside her. The thought alone, platonic and innocence, made him ache. “I love you,” he repeated, agreeing. “Keep thinking I’m going to wake up soon.”

River sighed softly. "Don't worry. We will."

The galley was awash in warm glow. The smell of food filled the air, and although it carried the tinge of protein reheated, it nevertheless smelled appetizing. There was laughter wafting down the halls, emanating from the kitchen, and Wash was surprised by it. He hadn’t expected the family-atmosphere that he found upon entering the room.

Mal and Jayne were already seated, laughing at something Kaylee had just said. Zoe smiled ruefully as she carried a basket of what appeared to be rolls over to the table. Helo was the only one not paying attention to the joke. He had his feet propped up on the far end of the table, and his eyes were steadily watching Wash, River and Simon’s descent into the galley.

“Looks like we’re just in time,” Wash said, trying to keep the mood light and join in on the joke. “Did we miss something funny?”

The atmosphere tensed just a little bit. "Prob'ly not to a fancy fella like you," Mal said, leaning forward to take a roll. He glanced at Simon. "Everything all right?"

"Fine," Simon said, also guarded.

Kaylee hurried forward and pulled River into the seat beside her, offering the girl a roll. "You sleep okay, sweetie?"

River looked off into nothing for a moment, then whispered, "Yes, fine." She looked down at the roll in confusion. "Not engineered for optimum health and stability," she said, looking to Simon for guidance. Coming from a life of perfect regimentation, where she was fed, exercised, and even washed on schedule, made adjustment difficult.

Kaylee looked quizzically at Simon, not sure how to answer River. “It tastes good,” she enticed. “We got butter too. It ain’t real, but sure does taste good.” She flashed all three bright smiles.

Jayne used his knife to stab one of the rolls out of the basket. His eyes were on the passengers, but he addressed Mal. “They paying for eatin’ our food?”

Kaylee turned to scold him. “They’re our guests, Jayne, and paid their fare already.” She turned back to Simon, smiling. “Don’t mind him.”

Simon didn't, but River did, setting down her roll and folding her hands nervously in her lap, bowing her head. After a moment, she reached for Wash's hand under the table. The strain of the situation was already taking its toll on her.

"River, you have to eat." Simon said, watching River abandoning her food. "I don't think you need to be on a highly regimented diet, and you have every right to eat this food." Rather irritated, he glanced at Mal for support on this point.

It took Mal a second to catch on; he wasn’t used to babysitting. “Boy’s right,” he finally said. “This food’s good, and you’re a scrawny thing. You could sure use some meat on your bones.” He eyed Jayne, shrugging. “If you don’t, Jayne’ll eat your portion.”

Wash gave River’s hand a squeeze and used his other to help himself to some of the food. “It smells good, at least,” he noted.

"Grudged food sticks in the throat," River said, then looked up at Mal, distracted. "Not scrawny. Optimal muscle density and mass. Nothing superfluous; honed." She took a bite off of Wash's plate, as though his willingness to share canceled out Jayne's reluctance.

"Sweetie, Jayne don't speak for anyone except his own nasty self," Kaylee said gently, laying a hand on River's flinching shoulder. "You just eat up."

Zoe glanced at both of them briefly, her face an unreadable mask. "Pass me the rolls, baby," she requested softly.

Wash looked up at the word, confused. Kaylee smiled and handed the basket over to Zoe. “You pass the butter down when you’re done too, Wash,” Kaylee said.

Wash finished with it, handing it down to her. Kaylee passed it down to Zoe.

Helo took his feet off the table at last. “So, what, exactly, did you do for the Alliance?” he asked in a rough tone. His eyes were cold.

Wash turned and answered easily. “I was a teacher.”

"Taught flying. He was the best pilot at the Academy," River said proudly, distracted from her tension by happiness at speaking about Wash. As she looked at Helo, though, she blinked quickly, and her face took on some of Simon's reptilian, shuttered quality. She glanced around the table, as if trying to reassure herself, but there was no help to be found.

Wash caught her shifting change. He didn’t know what caused it, but he was content to support, regardless. He squeezed her hand gently, reassuringly. “River was the best student,” he added. “At everything.”

Helo snorted, which drew a nasty look even from Mal. “Guess our little ship must be quite the junker to you, then.”

Wash could tell he was trying to start a fight, so he turned away to look at Mal. “I think she’s a great ship. You’ve kept her in great repair.” He didn’t have to look at Kaylee to see her beam, or the way Zoe faintly smiled at the compliment to the mechanic.

River had gone tense again at Wash talking about her training. "Don't mention the hangman at table," she whispered under her breath.

Kaylee was still blushing happily. "Just gotta pay attention to her, 's all. 'fore I first came on, Cap'n had this mechanic couldn't tell his ass from his elbow round the engine."

Zoe scowled faintly at mention of Bester. "Good riddance," she said coolly.

Helo was annoyed that his comment hadn’t started a rift. Leaning forward, he prepared to launch into another tirade about the Alliance and how untrustworthy it was. His thoughts drifted off as Inara stepped into the room.

She was dressed in red, with a black beaded shawl draped over her shoulders. “I see the job went smoothly,” she said, nodding her head cordially to Wash and River.

Wash self-consciously sat up in his seat a little straighter.

River scowled at that, then kicked Wash hard under the table. "Just another doll," she whispered, lip quivering.

"Smooth an' easy," Mal said proudly. "Lifted the girl right out of that gorram Academy--can you imagine the kind of stupid they look, with all that?"

Wash nearly doubled over wincing at the kick, but no one seemed to notice, they were too busy watching the new arrival.

Inara finished her decent, keeping her eyes coolly fixed on Mal. “I’m sure I can,” she replied. “I certainly get a bountiful view of the expression here.” She glided behind the counter, pulling out a tea packet for herself.

Wash laughed, mostly to work through his pain. “You’ve got a Companion on board!” He laughed again. The situation was really too strange.

"You got some kind of problem with that?" Mal snapped. "She's as respectable as you, and not half so..." He subsided, in turn, under a look from Kaylee.

"Are you defending my honor, Mal? I'm not sure whether to be touched or...offended," Inara said, wrinkling her nose as she prepared her tea.

“No, no, I’ve nothing against Companions,” Wash quickly said, waving his hand to emphasis the point. “You guys are just all so very . . . anti-Alliance, and yet you’ve got a gainfully employed worker on board your ship!” He chuckled again, but now it was a nervous sound.

Mal just narrowed his eyes. "Funny, ain't it." He glanced at Simon. "If he keeps talking, just might raise the price on him."

Simon lifted his eyebrows at Wash, not saying a word.

Wash suddenly found his food very interesting, studying the plate closely.

Inara brought her tea over to the table, taking one of the seats nearest Helo. “I don’t suppose I get the lurid details of how we ended up with the girl and, what,” she scrutinized Wash casually, taking in his bright Hawai’ian shirt, “a tour guide?”

Kaylee grinned at Inara. “He was her teacher. Helped her escape. He’s a good guy.”

Jayne snorted. “So he says.”

“Ain’t none of us good guys,” Mal mumbled into his cup as he drank.

Simon shrugged practically. "Good enough for us."

River was looking around her, interested. "They're embarrassed to be good," she said, quickly and clearly.

Wash opened his mouth to say something, then quickly closed his, letting his brow furrow as he redirected his attention back to his food.

“Mal has a strange sense of modesty, at times,” Inara explained. Easily changing subjects, she tilted her head, studying River. “You’ve come along way in a little time; you must be weary, and tired of those clothes. Did your brother bring anything for you to change into?”

Simon looked awkward. "She won't wear them."

River lifted her head to look at Inara, eyes dark and weary. "Bought by slavers, who took the coin for girl, the coin of safety. They're chains. Rags."

"Her...her old clothes. Bought by our parents," Simon explained.

Inara smiled in a way that showed she understood exactly how River felt. “I’ve got a few things I almost never wear anymore, if you’d like to look through them.”

Kaylee perked up. “Oh, me too!” She brightened, considerably. “Ain’t nothing fancy like what ‘Nara’s got, but they’re better than nothing.”

Jayne grinned lecherously. “Hell, I got some pants y’could get into too,” he said.

Wash’s head snapped up at that, as Mal smacked Jayne.

River's head whipped around. "Is that the choice? Sterility and the last doll or--or rape?" Her face furrowed incredulously.

"Be no rapin' on my boat. Jayne may be crude enough, but he knows his place. You're perfectly safe, miss," Mal said harshly, watching as River stood and backed away from the table. "Jayne, maybe you'd like to make our guests feel more comfortable?"


"By leavin' the table," Mal said, through gritted teeth.

“Aw. Was just playin’, Mal,” he protested. The glares he got, mostly from Mal, made him wrinkle his face up. Pushing to his feet with a grunt, he gathered his plate, piling it with extra food. He scowled once at no one in particular, then stalked off to the crew quarters.

Once he was gone, Wash reached out to River, trying to draw her back.

River moved slowly back to the table. "I'm sorry," she said, rather violently. "I'm sorry. I don't understand them. I don't."

"Well, you will pretty quickly--he ain't so complex," Kaylee said. "Why don't you finish your breakfast and then we can get you into some decent clothes?"

River glanced at Simon for permission, which he nodded, though it hurt him to not be able to provide her with what she needed. She began picking at her food again.

Wash touched River’s thigh under the table. He didn’t put his hand on it, just brushed his fingers against it in a way that mostly just meant, “I’m here.” He finished his food quickly, but stayed close to River, to encourage her to eat more than a few morsels.

Helo got up a few seconds later, making a lot of noise as he did. “Didn’t sign on board to listen to girls play dress up,” he said, dumping his dishes in the sink before stalking off.

Wash twisted in his seat, having difficulties holding his tongue.

River glanced at Wash, almost amused at his predicament, but she reached down and took his hand again. "It'll be all right," she whispered, then finished her food, mostly to make him happy.

When River was done, Kaylee and Inara drew her away, and she went with them, with a last, longing look at her brother and Wash.

Simon leaned forward. "I trust I don't need to ask you to keep the less...savory elements of your crew away from my sister?" he said in a soft voice.

Mal set his cup down, drawing serious, but before he could reply, Zoe did. “Kill him myself, he tries anything.”

“I would too,” Wash said, then quickly looked down at his plate again. He was probably just as monstrous looking to Simon as any of them.

Simon shook his head and murmured something about foxes and henhouses before standing and clearing away his own and River's dishes.

Wash found himself alone at the table with Mal and Zoe, and felt strangely outranked. He hesitated a moment, then followed suit after Simon, carrying his dishes to the sink. When he arrived, he turned the water on, to begin washing them; he’d be useful, if he couldn’t be liked. “I want to earn your trust, someday,” he said to Simon, keeping his eyes on the dishes.

"It might help if you told me what they did to River," Simon replied, just as quietly. "I need to examine her, but I don't want to frighten her."

Wash found the soap and kept working. “I . . . I don’t really know. I’m not a doctor,” he said. “They hurt her, though, I know. They opened her brain up.” He glanced to Simon and there was fear in his eyes. “They changed her medicine a lot. It unstabilized her: deadened her.”

He glanced over his shoulder, as Mal and Zoe both rose and departed on their own.

"What do you mean, opened her up?" Simon demanded incredulously.

Wash shrugged. “I don’t know. She had scars.” He shook one hand free of suds, and pointed to his head. “Here. They cut her.” He struggled, for a moment, with his inner rage, then added, “Seven times. She said they did it seven times.”

Simon turned away, trying to hide the revulsion and horror that shook him at these words. "They could...there could be anything, then," he said, trying to keep his voice steady.

Wash nodded, setting aside dishes in the other half of the sink, noting absently how Simon completely failed to consider helping out. He half wondered if he’d ever even done his own dishes before. “She knows what they did, I think. She knows better than I do.”

"Will she be able to talk about it? I don't want to..." Simon rubbed his forehead, turning around again. "She's mistrustful and frightened right now. I don't want to be one of the things she mistrusts."

Wash kept his eyes on the dishes. “She trusts me,” he softly said. “I can try to ask her . . .”

"I doubt you'd understand her answers," Simon said, not unkindly. "I'm not even sure I will. Do you know anything about behavioral modifications that may have been used?"

“Of course I wouldn’t understand, but that’s not the point, is it? I could remember the answers, and relay them, at least.” He began to rinse the dishes, focusing hard not to treat them roughly. “I know that they put her in isolation. Is that what you mean, or the names of drugs?”

"No...I mean something more subtle than either. Things you know if they did things while she slept? Implanted suggestions?" Simon was watching Wash closely.

Wash scanned back in his brain, trying to think of anything she might have said to him about that. “I . . . I don’t remember.” He glanced to Simon. “What would that mean?”

"I don't know fully myself," Simon said quietly. "Such modifications could...take over her behavior at times. Make her...not be River."

Wash took a deep breath, shutting the water off. “Then they probably did. She . . . well, you’ve seen her. She has lapses where I can’t understand her at all.”

"This would be more dramatic. She would be doing things..." Simon struggled to explain. "It's used on assassins, at times. Sleeper agents?"

Wash looked for a towel, but drew up short at the word assassin. He remembered her dancing. “I’ve heard of it,” he said, “in movies.” He studied Simon, looking him over carefully before resuming his search for the towel. “She’s a solider,” he said, mostly to himself. “It isn’t an Academy at all, is it?”

Simon shrugged. "Have you ever heard of a normal Academy with a military presence? Or one that drugged its students and kept them in isolation? What about her training, beyond flight? Did you ever observe anything, or did she say anything about it?"

“I’m stupid,” Wash announced. Not finding the towel, he wiped his hands off on his dry-clean only mess dress pants and stacked the dishes to air dry. “I was in charge of teaching her to fly.” He crossed his arms, turning to face Simon, leaning against the counter. “They didn’t trust me to do anything else, but I saw her dancing, once. I know she studied other subjects; all the students did. Painting, literature, all of that, I know she did them. I just figured whatever the students excelled at, the Academy would provide the track that would led them to a career path.”

"She always danced," Simon said, in a softer voice, then hardened again. "Did she like flight that much, that that would be here 'career path'?"

“I think so.” Wash looked away from Simon. “She had the top flight instructor from Sihnon Academy teaching her. That was the man who was with us, Colonel Nelson. She hated him. He made her fear flying. It was just a fluke that I got to teach her.” He shifted, agitated. “I was only certified to teach Basic Flight, but she refused to learn from anyone else.” He smiled faintly. “She didn’t need the training though; she knew it all, already.”

Simon sighed. "I can't work out whether you are being obstructive because you are a plant, or are so stupid that you couldn't possibly be a plant because any trained government agent would know better than to be this idiotic."

Wash stalked away from him. “I don’t know what you want from me,” he heatedly said. “Why don’t you just come out with it, instead of being all obtuse!”

"I want to know if you're stupid or evil," Simon said coldly. "Surely you can see why this would be a concern for me."

“Isn’t there a third option?” He put his hands on his hips, glaring. “I’ll take stupid, if that’s what you want. I didn’t see what they were training her for. My training trained me not to question anything. I did my job, I taught my students, and I went home. I didn’t think about it. It wasn’t until I met her that I questioned any of it. Sure, I’m stupid. The whole gou jiao gou Alliance is stupid!”

"And you never wondered. You never thought, 'Good heavens, this girl is being operated on constantly. Perhaps there's something wrong.' None of the other students ever said anything to disturb you, asked for help or expressed unhappiness?" Simon's arms were folded over his chest.

Wash stalked forward again. “They told us these students came from broken homes. They were extremely gifted, but extremely unstable. The implication was mentally challenged, and too reckless to stay at home anymore. Of course I knew the students were being operated on, but I’m a pilot, not a doctor. You go into a job like that trusting everyone to do his or her job. It doesn’t occur to you that they could be hurting these children. These were damaged kids to begin with. I thought, like everyone else thought, that the operations were the doctors trying to fix them.”

Wash looked away, disgusted, but it was self-directed. “We were trained to ignore cries for help. It was supposed to be part of healing process. I don’t know. The students did seem to get better. I just didn’t think about it. No one did.”

Simon looked and felt sick. "Damaged kids...I want you to look at something." He drew a small capture in a leather case out of his pocket. It was River, just before her departure, during her last dinner at home. She spoke and ate normally, and her face was clear, bright and excited. She looked like a normal girl.

Wash leaned forward, staring at the capture. When it ended, with River waving and smiling as she boarded the transport that would take her to the Academy, he sagged heavily back into the counter. He focused hard on the far wall and refused to blink. “I’m sorry.” It was barely a whisper.

Simon shook his head as he put it away. "People like're the reason they can do this," he said, with a miserable little laugh. "People who believe whatever they're told, don't ask questions... There aren't enough evil people in the 'verse, maybe, to run places like this, but if you just rely on ignorance and apathy..." He turned away, disgusted.

“So now it’s my fault?” Wash asked. “Because I did my job and trusted other people to do theirs? Listen, I admit to some wrongdoing, but I’m here, aren’t I? I followed the rules, but after I met River, I began breaking them for her. I started to understand.”

"River..." Simon closed his eyes and shook his head. "I can't talk to you right now," he said, finally, his voice tightly controlled. "I'm going to go find out what she can tell me."

Wash let his hands drop limply at his side. “If she’s having fun with those girls, you should let her,” he said in a softer voice. “Talk to her after.”

"All right," Simon said, in more normal tones. He could feel everything warring within him, the desire to just have the crew kill this man right there, or do so himself, and the knowledge that River, somehow, depended on him. And he needed to believe River was still herself enough to make that judgment. Had to.

For several seconds, Wash just stood there, staring. He wanted to go somewhere else, but he was linked to Simon now, owed him, even, and that was hard to ignore. “Do you believe anything I’ve just said?”

"I wish I knew." Simon rubbed his temples. "Do you know how long it took me to get through Alliance Security and do this?"

Wash shook his head. “She never mentioned you. It was the one thing she kept from me.”

"It took two years. She sent me letters, in code. Two years in which she probably believed I...didn't care, or didn't understand, wasn't coming." He turned to look at Wash again. "Why didn't she tell you?"

Wash let that sink in a bit. She wrote letters, for two years, but she never received any. “She didn’t trust me,” he replied. “That, and . . . I think the idea of you kept her going. You’d really have to ask her though.” He gave a faint smile. “For me, you didn’t exist, until yesterday.”

"If she didn't trust you," Simon said precisely, "then why should I?"

“Because she does now.”

Simon sighed. "Enough. This is going in circles. I'm going to go get ready to ask River about what's happened. If she seems too agitated, I may ask you to be present just to calm her."

“I don’t see any reason to disagree on that.” Wash wanted to keep things friendly, as best he could. Simon was a big part of River’s life, and River was a big part of his life. He had to tolerate Simon. “It’ll be nice to see her in something other than Academy issued apparel.”

Simon nodded. "She's...she was a beautiful girl," he said softly.

“She still is,” Wash replied, letting Simon lead the way to the Companion’s shuttle.
Tags: river/wash, simple twist of fate

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