Date Posted: 8 March 2006
Author: srichard and van
Rating: This chapter: PG
Characters: River, Wash
Pairing: None now, eventual River/Wash
Word count: 4,462
Warnings: Begins pre-TV series, completely AU, will invovle some underage romance.
Summary: Blue Sun's Academy brings two unlikely people together.
Disclaimer: Co-written. We are not affliated with Mutant Enemy, Joss, Firefly/Serenity, Unversal, Fox or anyone. If we were, we'd be making money off this. We mean no harm. Title from the Bob Dylan song.
Chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14.
A Simple Twist of Fate
(8 March 2006)
River stood on the black tarmac, the wind whipping against her face, looking disinterested. Her soft, worn testing gown had been exchanged for a horribly starched dress, and her hair brushed and braided tight. They could do that now; the stitches from the last time had come out. Another success. River was always a success.
She stared at the sky and didn't believe in it, then looked down at the tarmac, which seemed just as unreal, but a little more likely. "Black," she said thoughtfully. "Do the petrels crash here, in search of a stormy sea?"
“What have I told you about not speaking until you’ve been spoke to?” Colonel Nelson snapped, looking up from the data pad in his hands. The weather-worn Alliance officer focused his dark eyes on River, scrutinizing her closely. “There is zero tolerance for your die die bu xiu out here. You are to be focusing on the here and now. Daydreaming in the cockpit will get you, and your fellow pilots, killed. You will be responsible for the deaths of those people because you couldn’t keep your mind focused at all times. Do you understand me?” He gestured to the Cobra jet standing beside River.
“This plane is your lifeline. When you are on the tarmac, it is your sole reason for living,” he continued. The plane in question was worth more money than her parent’s estate, and she had hardly paid it any mind. “You will address it, and myself, with proper respect at all times. Do you understand, Ms. Tam?”
River squinted at him. His face was coarsely lined and there were angry red veins in his nose and cheeks. She hated them. She'd almost like to see Them come for him with the little rods, just to see those little veins burst--surely the pressure must be too much for them to bear, bulging like that; they wanted to be free.
"Do I have to call it sir, too?"
Colonel Nelson’s eyes narrowed at her. “Don’t sass me, little girl,” he snapped. “Get in your cockpit and show me a proper start up sequence.” He gestured out to the other planes on the tarmac, several of which were already taxing. “You know this drill. We do this same procedure every lesson. They claim you’re the best student here, yet you’re weeks behind the rest of the trainees. That is unacceptable, Ms. Tam! We are through with dawdling. Now, get to work!”
River climbed into the cockpit slowly, memorizing the movement, and the metal beneath her hands. Cold. It was cold and wanted to suck at her, and she had no warmth to spare. She released it rapidly, settling into the pilot's seat. Languidly, she began flipping switches, hardly even looking at them.
Nelson stepped up onto the runner, leaning into the cockpit to watch at her. “Do you not announce your engagement into the communications link when you power up? Have these skills not be drilled into you from day one?” He reached out, slapping her hand away, and flipped on the communication link. “Report your status, then begin your proper sequencing. You’re not patched into the network, but protocol is protocol.” He scowled at her. “You are such an insufferable child.”
She glared at him. "Makes you angry that you can't hit me. Slap me silly, that's it, but you can't; might knock something loose. They wouldn't let you. I'm worth more than your temper." She picked up the communication link. "Pilot R. Tam. Status, Tired."
Nelson clenched his jaw, which caused the veins on his temple to surge and throb. She was right: he couldn’t hit her. “I would put you in solitary confinement for insubordination if this were a real situation,” he snarled. He was about to reprimand her further when one of the Alliance gophers ran up toward him.
Nelson recognized the man as one of Admiral Shui’s boys, and he looked to be carrying important news. Nelson scowled, readdressing River. “Continue your sequencing. I want you fully powered up by the time I finish talking to this Petty Officer.” He fixed her with a fierce glare, before hobbling off the runner.
The Petty Officer handed him another data pad slip, before pointing out across the tarmac. In the distance, Nelson could make out Admiral Shui, walking with a young blond man in proper flight suit. A teenaged student trailed behind them, looking bright-eyed and eager at his surroundings.
River finished powering up in about three seconds, then leaned forward, peering through the windscreen at the young man with--she squinted--Michael. Michael was stupid and slow. He didn't have to be with “The Pride of Osiris” Colonel Nelson. Lucky Michael. River leaned back, staring at the lights, and unfocused her eyes until they blurred into a pleasing pattern, like an installation at the museum, The Art of Technology. If she made it blur enough... River's eyelids sank lower and lower...
“River Tam!” Nelson shouted. “You cannot take your eyes off the controls when you are in the cockpit!” he screamed. “What do you think you’re doing, taking a nap? We are the best fleet in the universe. We do not sleep in our cockpits. We do not make a mockery of the Sino-Alliance fleet. Your lack of respect for this position, and myself, are riding my last nerves. What do you have to say for yourself?”
"Nothing, sir," River said dreamily, then sighed and opened her eyes. It hadn't worked again. She leaned down, getting right up in his veiny face, where she could smell him, but that wasn't so bad because he smelled alive, not like medicine, not like her. Him having to smell her was probably worse. Death was always worse, always. "You should try bribing me to be good."
Nelson’s nose wrinkled, his nostrils flaring, showing he was not fond of her smell, or her nearness. He didn’t back down, though, just fixed his dark, beady eyes on her. “Bribery is an illegal activity as underlined in article sixteen of the Flight Academy Rulebook. A Rulebook which you should have read and memorized six months ago, and which I know you knew before being assigned to me.” His hands tightened on the side of her cockpit. “I should teach you a lesson about attempting to subvert command from a superior officer, Ms. Tam. Maybe three days in confinement would open your eyes to the world of proper discipline. Or would you rather start obeying orders and acting like the star pupil they claim to me that you are?”
River couldn't decide, for a moment, whether confinement was the worst threat he could offer, or the reward he'd refused. Confinement was like unfocusing her eyes. It made everything blur, moments, days, light, self. But coming out was noisy and jostling, like a chick out of the egg who discovers more than downy feathers. Then again, they didn't like it if he ordered confinement too often. They'd be angry with him. He wouldn’t be able to do it again for a while, and then he'd have no threat at all to hang over her head. "You're not kind," she said calmly, crossing her arms over her chest.
Nelson’s eyes narrowed as he leaned in close to her. He was closer than he should have been, closer than rule regulations said he was allowed to get to his teenaged pilot, but he moved in anyway. He was close enough that his breath washed over her when he spoke, filling the space between them with the pungent stench of halitosis and brandy. “I can make your life a living hell," he said in dark tones.
“You don’t want to try me. You don’t want to force this, because I will win, and I will break you.” He straightened, pulling away from her just enough. “You will do as I order, and you will execute your maneuvers flawlessly. I took you as my pilot because they said you were the best student, and I’m the best pilot. If this attitude of nonchalance and ingratitude keeps up, I will not hesitate to send a bad report to your doctors and have Them deal with you as they see fit.”
River thought about that for a long time, and her heart screamed then, as it screamed every day she didn't kill them all. It screamed ruat coelum, let the heavens fall... But they might change the medicine. That was the worst, when they changed it and she didn't know. It took her time, time to isolate the effects, identify the compounds, and how could she know who she was when they kept changing it, and they never told her? She lowered her head miserably. "Yes, sir," she whispered.
“That’s better.” Nelson leaned back further, letting her continue her ignition sequencing. He grinned unkindly as she executed it flawlessly, like they’d told him she could.
A week later, River's dress was even more constrictive and less revealing, but even the starched collar couldn't hide the scratch marks that ascended the slim column of her throat, nor the cuffs the painful red lines streaking down her wrists. Her eyes were vacant and haunted, and she leaned against the plane as though she could hardly bear to stand. "Scratches," she said fretfully, tugging at her collar. "Too many potatoes."
Colonel Nelson’s fingers twitched as he approached her. Behind him trailed the young blond flight trainer who had arrived only a week ago. He fell into attention behind the colonel. Nelson heard River’s muttering and hoped his observer hadn’t. “Ms. Tam,” he said in a clipped tone. “Today we’ll be observed by one of our newest flight instructors, Captain Washburn.” He gestured quickly with one hand to the man behind him. “I expect you to be on your best behavior.”
River reached down, picking up a spanner from beneath the plane, left by a careless mechanic. She flung it harmlessly across the field, watching it fly, land and skid some distance. "I said, too many potatoes. Are you deaf?"
Nelson’s veins bulged again. “You are out of line,” he stated in a warning tone.
River leaned against the plane again, hugging herself and shaking her head. "No. Perfect lines, but they don't. They squirm under the skin, and get away." She looked at Nelson intently. "I could do it to you. Yours don't hide."
Nelson gave a brief, almost apologetic look to the captain behind him, before squaring his shoulders to face River. “You will get in that plane and initiate your start up sequencing immediately. Failure to comply will result in a failure report being returned to your doctors.”
River's eyes slid over the new captain's face, before fixing on Nelson's again. "Hurts," she whispered, almost pleadingly, as though she'd forgotten who he was. She held out her hands to him, marred wrists up. "Hide and seek, but they never came out."
Nelson’s eyes briefly darted down to her wrists. He was all too aware of her scratches, most likely self-inflicted. His desire to care for her had long ago burned out of him. If her doctors had deemed her well enough to attend flight school today, then he would deign to teach her. Her injuries were of no consequence to him. Pulling a data slip out of one of his flight suit pockets, he marked a tally. “You’ve been warned against speaking out of turn many times, Ms. Tam,” he snapped. “That’s twenty-percent off of today’s grade. Now, you have five seconds to do what you’re supposed to be doing, or I’ll drop you to fifty.”
Tears in her eyes, River dragged herself sluggishly to the cockpit, every movement an arduous task. Everything Colonel Nelson asked was a chore for her. She sat in the cockpit, staring straight ahead. The tears made the lights blur even better. Any moment and she would reenter the museum. She flipped on the communications switch. "Pilot R. Tam," she breathed, then stopped, unwilling or unable to say more.
“Continue,” Nelson prodded, moving to step up onto her Cobra’s runner. As the jet began its ignition sequence, the noise of the engines flooded over the tarmac. It afforded him several seconds of semi-privacy with his student. Keeping his back to the observing captain, he leaned in regulation-close to River. “I recommend you execute the rest of your ignition sequence flawlessly, Ms. Tam. Your spells of instability grate at me, and I’m very close to suggesting that your request to fly be permanently denied.”
He was bluffing, but she didn’t have to know that. He knew she longed to actually be allowed to take the Cobra off the tarmac and into the sky, but he was unwilling to afford her that luxury, not even while playing her co-pilot. She was too unstable, despite the drugs they attempted to sedate her with, and the ruses they tried to placate her with were ineffective. Beneath her shattered thoughts she was brilliant, and when she managed pulled herself together, she was beyond remarkable. That was the River he wanted to parade around to the observers.
"Put me in confinement," River said, almost inaudibly, not looking at him. If she didn't look, he could pretend it wasn't a favor. He could call it punishment. It would let him save face. "Please..." She was very, very close to completely breaking down.
Nelson actually hesitated for a moment. He straightened, gritting his teeth. “I won’t,” he hissed. “Your insubordination reflects poorly on me. I won’t allow it. You are beyond capable of executing this procedure flawlessly. You have done it a hundred times before. I expect you to do it a hundred times more, and not to complain about it.”
"Punish me," she pleaded, almost hyperventilating in her distress. "You want to hurt me, see me cry, then do it, punish me..." Her hands came up to claw at her throat again.
Nelson’s eyes narrowed as he pulled the data slip back out. He docked more points from her, clearly in plain view. “I tell you what to do. When you disobey, I let them punish you.” He’d learned that she feared Them more than she feared him. “Now, get out of my plane if you’re going to be useless today. You’ve wasted enough of my time as it is.”
River rolled out of the plane, retreating inside herself once more. Her arms wrapped tightly around herself, as though to keep her from flying apart. "Some day," she whispered, mostly to herself, "some day, I won't come. "
Nelson didn’t bother looking at the observing captain as he strode beside River, leading her back to her handlers. “No, someday you won’t come. Someday, they’ll have learned what a waste of time and energy you are. What good is a genius pilot if she can’t remain lucid long enough to execute the most basic of maneuvers? No, someday they’ll realize you’re utterly useless, and they’ll deal with you accordingly.”
She looked at him with a little, eerie smile. "All I want."
Nelson didn’t bother returning her look, he just opened the door to the faculty building and shoved her through, so her people could deal with her. The doctor that eventually met with them was not a pleasant man. All Nelson said was, “Next time, make sure she’s stable.”
The next time, River was stable, but her face was gaunt, and though the scratch marks on her throat and wrists had not been renewed, they still flamed a ghostly reminder of her misery. River stood gazing up at the sky again, wondering...if she floated--that would catch them, then. They wouldn't let her fly, but couldn't stop the floating, and she kept getting lighter every day. They were waiting for her to snap out of it. They said starving to death was too hard, but River was special: they all said so.
Nelson approached her on the tarmac and stood beside her for several seconds before speaking. It was the single most amiable moment of their relationship. “I hope you’re ready to work today, Ms. Tam. I’ve no desire for a repeat of our last lesson.”
"Yes, sir," River whispered, not looking at him. Obeying wasn’t unfamiliar. She'd tried it, in the beginning, to please him. But then they'd changed the medicine and it had gotten harder, but he hadn't cared, just scolded, so she'd stopped. Now she began again, because it was easier. He was a nightmare now, sometimes; the images of violence that tempted him battered her sleeping hours. But if she was good, he talked less, and that was better for both of them.
Nelson didn’t question what they did to her when she was out of his care. All he knew was that River Tam was the Academy’s star pupil and that it was his job to make sure the neural flight training she’d been conditioned with was effective manually. It seemed like such a simple job. Other, less skilled, flight instructors had made much better leeway than he had, with much dimmer students. Why River Tam continually resisted his attempts to make her the best that they claimed she was, he couldn’t understand.
“Then I don’t need to tell you what you ought to be doing,” he stated darkly.
River climbed silently into the cockpit, flipped on the communication channel, gave her name and status, and then began powering up the engine, executing the sequence perfectly. When she was done, she leaned her head against the yoke. "I want to die," she whispered.
“You already are,” Nelson reassured her, stepping onto the runner. He checked her status, pleased at her flawless execution. “Do that sequence five more times, as flawlessly as you did that one, and we’ll see about letting you taxi.”
"I don't want to," River said dully, but she did the sequence again, perfectly as before, fingers flying, her eyes closed. "Don't want to taxi. You said I was dead. Why can't I fly, then?"
“Not dead yet. Dying.” He liked to watch her when she was broken and operating flawlessly. It gave him hope for her. “You must learn to taxi before you can take off. You know that.” He reset her controls. “Do it again.”
She obeyed. "Do you remember the first day, the first lesson? One hundred twenty-nine thousand six hundred four minutes ago? I was clean and calm, and I did what you said. Do you remember?"
Nelson ignored her. “Focus on the task at hand, Ms. Tam. Don’t let outside thoughts cloud your judgment.”
She sighed softly and did the sequence again. "I don't either," she whispered miserably.
“Good,” he said, and it was as close to praise as the man was able to get. “Two more times.”
River continued, perfectly docile, receptive to every command. "I don't want to taxi," she repeated. "I don't want to fly anymore. I liked you then because I thought you'd teach me to fly. But I don't want to now."
Nelson knew he shouldn’t reply to her. He ought to ignore her drivel and drive into her that she needed to concentrate, to not flap her lip, and to initiate the sequence again. His judgment faltered. “Then why are you here?”
River powered up again. "They make me come. You know that. But I don't want to anymore."
Nelson checked her sequence again, pleased with the result. She seemed lucid today, if morbid. He made a mental note to tell her doctors that this drug regimen was working perfectly, and to give her some antidepressants. “Well, bring that up with your doctors. I have my orders to follow.” He lifted the cockpit canopy further, climbing inside to the co-pilot seat behind her. “Prepare to taxi.”
"Why?" she asked, turning her head to look at him. "We both know what will happen. It will roll and then you will make me stop, and then the power-down sequence."
“Rules,” Nelson answered, pulling on the shoulder harness. “You’re here to learn. I’m here to teach. Those are the rules. Release the brake.”
River obeyed, releasing the brake. "I wanted to learn, then. Why didn't you teach?"
“Don’t be difficult,” he replied. His eyes narrowed, scouting the tarmac. To their right, another pilot and his student were taxing. He couldn’t see the instructor, but the student looked like Michael Connolly, which meant that, most likely, Captain Washburn was in the co-pilot seat behind him. The thought made him bristle. Nelson had seen too many less talented instructors get their students into the air in far less time than he had with River.
She should have been flying months ago, yet they’d only made it to taxing a handful of times. “Keep your eyes on the tarmac, and stay in control with your coordinates. You do not want a collision. Focus, Ms. Tam.”
"I don't need to. I could taxi smoothly without focusing, or I could focus and collide. It wouldn't kill us, though, so there's no point. I can't go fast enough." River continued moving smoothly down the runway, executing a textbook taxi.
“Internalize your thoughts. Incessant, needless chatter fills up the communication lines, leading to accidents.” Nelson straightened as she taxied into position behind Connolly’s Cobra. The change of scenery afforded them the view of other Cobras taking off from another taxi lane.
"Can we power down now?" River looked tired. She didn't like watching them go up like that. It made the lies hurt and stick in her throat.
“Finish your U-taxi. Take us back to where we started.” Nelson felt a twinge of hatred surge in him as Connolly’s plane made the transition to the take-off taxi lane, while River completed the U-curve that would lead them back to their starting point.
River did as he commanded, returning them to the beginning. She put the brake back on and began powering down. "I want to die," she repeated.
Nelson ignored her. “That wasn’t so bad,” he said to himself. “What will it take to get that sort of performance out of you every time?”
She shrugged a little, hopelessly. "They make me come. Sometimes I do what you say because it's easier. But I don't like you."
“You don’t have to,” he answered, unbuckling his harness. “They will be kinder to you if you do as I say. I will be kinder.”
She shook her head. "It's not true. I liked you and I tried. Then it was hard, and I still tried, but you didn't care." She unbuckled her harness and opened the hatch.
“You’re just a student,” Nelson replied, pulling himself out of the cockpit. He groaned briefly, as his sixty-year-old bones reacted to being hauled out of a cockpit. “I care only about positive results. You make it difficult to like you.”
River slid down lightly. "I didn't always," she whispered, her voice choked with tears. "I tried to be good."
Nelson pursed his thin lips tautly. “Don’t cry. It’s unbecoming.” Looking at his watch, he sighed. “You finished early. I should put in a call to your doctors to pick you up now.”
"Yes, sir." River closed her eyes so he wouldn't see the tears and she wouldn't see the endless refractions of blue. They hurt too much.
Nelson stared at the back of her head for several moments before moving away from her. “Sit down out here, on that bench. I’ll fetch you when they arrive.” He pointed to a cold metal bench, before stalking away.
River obeyed mindlessly, sitting down, arranging the folds of her skirt so the metal couldn't suck at her. She closed her eyes again because if she did that, and if she made the engine sounds disappear, then she could pretend it was real outside. It could be the classroom when she was a little girl, bored, daydreaming.
River sat on the bench for over an hour. Whether it was a kindness on Colonel Nelson’s part, or because he’d completely forgotten about her was irrelevant. She might have stayed there longer, if one of the other pilots, finished with his daily session, hadn’t paused at seeing her sitting there, and considered the sight strange enough to question.
“It’s warmer in the sun,” he noted in a friendly voice.
"Told me to sit here," River said, not opening her eyes. "Have to obey or they put me in the room." Anything was better than the room, where the nightmares were milked out one by one, creating an artificial psychiatric crisis that left her limp and docile, with no will to struggle or dream.
He smiled at her reply. “Who told you to sit there?” His eyes flickered to the bench that was illuminated in the sun, not more than six feet away from her. “I doubt they’d mind very much if you moved seats.”
"Colonel Nelson. He minds everything." River opened her eyes finally, looking at the young pilot. "You're Michael's teacher. He's very stupid. I'm sorry for you."
“Colonel Nelson is a delightfully wretched chou hou,” he cheerfully said. “But, I’m really not seeing how he’d mind if you moved two seats over.” The man held his flight helmet in his arms, but he adjusted it so it rested on his hip. “Michael isn’t too stupid,” he added.
"I have to be good," River said, in a low, tense voice. Was this a trick? Had he been sent to make her disobey, so they could put her back in the room all day and night again? Had Nelson planned it to keep her away from him, just so he could send a bad report? "Fei fei de piyan," she spat out.
The pilot instructor chuckled. “Quite a colorful description, though I’m hoping you don’t address him as such to his face.” He looked around, scouting for observers. Seeing none, he continued, “Though it would be funny. I observed your lesson with Col. Nelson a few weeks back.” He gave her a smile that showed lots of his bright, white teeth. “I’m not so much with the blaming you for not liking the old monkey. He can be pretty overbearing. You should see him lecture during staff briefings. His face turns all red faced and veiny.”
"I meant you," River said flatly. "But it won't work. Go tell him it won't work because I don't want anything. Nothing, do you hear?" Her voice rose, though her teeth were gritted.
He just grinned more. “You’ve quite a way with flattery, little lady.” Shrugging, he walked past her. “I’ll think about relaying your kind message. Meanwhile, you still might want to move into the warmth of the sun.” He disappeared into the faculty building.
River closed her eyes again. They hadn't caught her this time. She was still safe.