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"And so I got this blue-gloves guy in a headlock and the little tiger kicks him straight in the chest--"
"River," Faith explains. "They did something to her, she's fast, like a tiger. Like a Slayer."
"Ah," Wesley replies, nodding. "Now everything is clear."
"Well, anyway, we whupped their asses good, me and the little tiger."
Tara smiles, but it is a smile that is equal parts sadness and sorrow. "You know you won't always be there to fight their battles for them, Faith."
Faith frowns. "Yeah, I've been guessing that's why Wes is here. Time for me to make my next quantum leap?"
Tara nods. "I'm sorry, Faith. I know you were enjoying it here."
Faith shrugs. "Hey, I knew the Powers wouldn't let me stay comfortable for too long. I made sure to have my fun while I could."
"You did at that," Tara agrees with a knowing laugh. "The foursome in the engine room was a particularly interesting choice, I'd have to say."
"Come on, Tar, you know you like to watch," Faith flirts innocently. The witch only smiles.
"So how's this switch going to work?" asks Faith. "Everyone wakes up and I'm gone and Wes is here instead, and no one knows you were ever here?"
"River knows I am here," Tara corrects Faith immediately. "River always knows when I am here."
"River knows," a young girl in a white nightgown agrees as she enters the kitchen. "River knows many things."
"So she does," Faith says. "How you doing, Little Tiger?"
"Grr," River says, an affectionate growl which is almost closer to a purr. She smiles as Faith affectionately squeezes her shoulder then ruffles her hair.
"She is to be my charge?" Wes asks.
"She is to be loved," the girl says, looking at him. "She demands loving."
Then he is woefully unequipped for the job, Wesley muses.
* * * * *II.
She comes to his room in the night, dressed in the same thin white nightgown, sliding open the door to his quarters and slipping inside. He sleeps lightly, has for years, and so wakes up immediately as he hears her enter.
"I've had a nightmare," she says. "I'm scared."
Good, he cannot help but think. You should be. River visibly flinches, and for a moment Wes wishes he had censored his thoughts.
But he will not lie to her, he owes her that much. She will have to face things horrible beyond her imagining, that make her nightmares--hell, that make his
nightmares--seem like pleasant fantasies. And she will have to choose whether she will stand against that which she fears, or cowers.
"You have a choice to make, River," he tells her. "Are you ready to be strong?"
"I'll be ready," she answers, looking away. "I'm a work in progress. A verb-given-name: a gerund."
Sometimes Wes wonders if the name isn't the only thing which holds River together, as she flows from one moment to the next in eponymous fashion. But no, there is a core beneath all, a girl, and River is going to have to find that core self if she has any hope of facing what fate has in store for her.
"You are the only one who can do this, River," he tells her. "I can guide you, but in the end it is up to you."
She nods, thoughtfully. She remains like that for a moment, as if pondering, and then she--well, she pounces, really, just like a tiger; Faith's nickname really was quite appropriate--and she is on top of him and her mouth is on his and her tongue--
He pushes her off him. "River," he says. They can't do this. It would be an abuse of power (although he has no power, not really, he isn't her Watcher). She's broken (although she stares at him with eyes that are pure lucidity). She can't consent, not really.
He wants to, but he can't. They can't.
"I have a choice to make," River echoes back at him. "My choice. It's up to me. I can't be broken forever."
And Wesley lets her make her choice, and acquiesces to it, but even as he does, as she pulls off her nightgown and presses herself against him, he wonders if he will have to lose himself in order to let her find herself.
* * * * *III.
Inara is--well, she is like no other woman Wes has ever met, as she gracefully moves across the room to pour Wesley's tea. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries held many and disparate extraordinary women, many of whom he had the pleasure or displeasure of meeting, but it would have had no room for the Companion, he muses.
He takes a sip of the tea. "This is quite good, thank you," he says, sincerely.
"Thank you," she says with a smile. "I thought maybe you might appreciate it better than your friend did."
"Yes," Wesley agrees over his teacup. "I'm afraid that sometimes Faith can be rather a philistine."
"And yet we all enjoyed her visit very much," Inara points out gently. "She always kept things interesting."
Not for the first time, Wes wonders who the three other people were in that engine room. "Yes," he agrees, "that she does."
Several moments of silence pass as they enjoy their tea. It is a comfortable silence, but still Wesley breaks it eventually. "It must be weird for all of you, having one passenger be replaced with another mid-voyage, and talk of fate and higher powers and so much."
"I'll admit that some of us were skeptical at first," the Companion agrees easily. "I don't think the Captain is still quite sure what to think, but we can all see what good work you're doing with River. You've managed to do what medicines couldn't."
Wesley wonders what they would think about what he was doing with River if they knew the full extent of their activities together. "She is an extraordinary girl."
"That she is," Inara agrees. There is another passage of time in silence, only this is one is somehow slightly less comfortable, as Inara looks at him, studies him, and he feels naked under the gaze of a woman who has been trained to read people since she started adolescence. "Is there a problem, Wesley?" she asks at last.
He frowns. "Sometimes I think about what I'm doing to her," he admits, "and--" He trails off, not certain what to say.
"You love her, Wesley," Inara says. "You wouldn't hurt her anymore than Simon or Mal or any of us would. Any idiot can see that."
He nods. He didn't realize it was true until just now, when Inara said those words, but it is the truth. He loves River, which only makes what he has to do harder. "I don't want to hurt her."
"Do you have a choice?"
There is always a choice. "No, not really. But sometimes I worry I'm going too far."
"You mean by making love to her." Wesley almost spills his tea, and Inara graces him with one of her smiles.
* * * * *IV.
"Actions have consequences, River," he had told her.
They had been sparring, and he had managed to pin her against the bulkhead. "The failure to act can have even greater consequences."
He slipped a hand into her pants, and into her, leaving it there just long enough and moving it just enough to whet an appetite and not satisfy it. The other hand rested on her shoulder, pressing her against the bulkhead, even as she struggled to break free. She twisted away, and Wesley countered by spinning himself and throwing her to the ground, and watched silently as she pulled herself to her feet.
He didn't even have to give an order; she knew from reading his thoughts what he wanted her to do, and wordlessly began to strip.
"You really do have to take this seriously, River. Lives--your own, even--may hang in the balance. Your government did not make you invincible, after all."
They made love with her pressed up naked against that bulkhead, and he can only hope that that will sear the lesson into her memory even if nothing else will.
* * * * *V.
"You need to feed the body to nourish the soul," Inara tells him. "It is the purpose behind everything a Companion is and does. How is what you are doing any different?"
Wes is not sure that he is reassured by the comparison.
* * * * *VI.
River kisses him, long and hard, full of love and longing and affection, and it doesn't feel like a goodbye kiss, but then they usually don't. She picks up a sleek katana and takes a step forward, ready to face her destiny.
"Go get them, little tiger," he whispers, and knows that everything he did, he did for this moment, and wouldn't do it again differently even if he could.