Murder By Design

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Chapter 12

River woke up, and was instantly confused.

She was lying somewhere soft and warm, and felt more relaxed and at ease than she could ever remember feeling. As soon as she started to move around, though, she heard someone make a small sound of surprise, and then there was the clatter of feet - she assumed it was the same person who had gasped - as they ran out of the room and down the hallway.

“Mom!” a voice yelled - it sounded male, but not deep enough to be an adult. “Mom, she’s awake!”

River just rolled over in the bed, burrowing herself back under the covers. While whoever had screamed had done an excellent job of waking her up, they made the simple mistake of assuming that that would be enough to actually get her out of the bed. She had managed to return back to dozing off before someone else entered the room - this person was much lighter on their feet than the last, hence the distinction.

“Oh no you don’t, sweetie!” a cheerful voice drawled out, and River groaned as sunlight filled the room, even managing to pierce through her blanket cocoon, but only for a moment before the blankets were yanked off of her. She blinked up at the woman standing over her, feeling a hint of fear before relaxing as she recognized the red hair that the sunlight had turned to flames.

Scarlett Leone smiled down at the young girl before tossing her a pile of clothes.

“Here, sweetheart.” she said kindly. “Put these on- I’m sure you’d like to get out of those old rags of yours - they’re mine, so they might be a bit big on you, but I didn’t want to go out to get you any clothes yet because I wasn’t sure what size you were. Anyway, put them on, and then after breakfast you can go and get in the shower, alright?”

River looked at the woman, trying to figure out what her ulterior motives could be. She had to have one - why else would she be being so nice to her?

But she couldn’t find one. There was nothing in her eyes, facial expressions, or body language to say that she had any intentions other than to keep her safe.

“Alright.” River finally agreed, before going to get up out of bed. But as soon as she put any weight onto her legs, she fell back again, letting a whimper of pain escape her.

Scarlett froze in the doorway before turning back to face her.

“You alright, hon?” she asked, and although she managed to keep her features impassive, the tremors of her voice gave away her concern.

River grimaced slightly as she waved off the woman’s concerns. “I’m fine.” she said, moving to attempt to get out of the bed once more. This time, she managed it, though and started to stretch with a fake grin plastered across her face. “See?” she said, still smiling at Scarlett. “I’m fine.”

But Scarlett wasn’t smiling. In fact, she was looking at River with what appeared to be complete and utter horror on her face. It took a moment for the eleven-year-old girl to realize why - then she felt the cold air on her stomach and figured it out.

Her stretching had caused her shirt to rise up, and the girl could feel her cheeks heating up as she yanked it back into place. But it was too late - Scarlett had already seen the mess of yellow, green, purple, blue, and grey that made up just a sliver of her stomach.

The redheaded woman went to the doorway for a moment, pulling the door open so hard that it slammed into the wall.

“Robert Francis Leone, get up here!” she yelled, and River couldn’t help but smile at the way that Scarlett addressed her husband - like he was another child for her to take care of.

It was only a few moments before feet were thumping up the stairs, and voices were heard, and the sound of them was enough to draw up every childhood memory that she had tried so hard to forget.

“Scarlett? What is it?” came the worried voice of Agent Robert Leone, followed by that of Agent Ryan Jackson.

“What’s the matter, Red-Bird?”

Both men appeared in the doorway, looking almost exactly the same as River remembered them, but with slight differences. Agent Jackson’s blonde hair was now shaved off, and Agent Leone’s was shaggier. Both men wore t-shirts and jeans - which was probably the most startling change of all.

Scarlett just gave her husband a look before turning back to River.

“River, sweetheart,” she said calmly, “Can you take off your shirt please?”

The girl hesitated for a second, but that was long enough for Scarlett Leone to become horrified.

“Oh no, not like that!” Scarlett clarified. “Just lift up the back if it’ll make you feel better.”

River’s eyes went wide as she realized what was about to happen. They were going to see the marks on her, and then she’d have to go to a new foster home. And that couldn’t happen. Because as much as she hated her current home, as much as her foster parents terrified her, there was always that lingering fear that the next home would be worse. But then she made the mistake of looking at Agent Leone. He was looking at her, but not with the horror or revulsion that she expected, nor was it the expression of confusion and terror that he had worn when they had first met. Instead, it was something brand new, something that she had never seen on another person’s face - at least not when it was directed at her - and it took her a moment or two for her to decipher what it was.

It was sorrow.

That was all it took for her pride to come rearing back, and without another word she turned around and pulled off the shirt with her head held high.

She knew the moment that they saw it - or rather, realized what it was, as the actual bruising was rather hard to miss - by the barely muffled curses that both men let loose.

River let the shirt fall to the floor as the three adults in the room tried to think of a single thing to say, and looked over the light purple one that Scarlett had brought for her to wear. She had the new shirt halfway on, and was searching out the neck hole when Leone finally came up with something to say.

“RJ,” he said, so quietly that at first River could have sworn she was hearing things. Then he cleared his throat, and tried again. “RJ. I think Danny has some new moves that he wanted to show you. Maybe you could give him some tips, too, for next week’s game. D’you mind…?”

Jackson nodded, still in a state of shock. “Uh...sure.” he said, still not able to tear his eyes off of River’s mutilated back. “Yeah… yeah, no problem.” the man said, shaking his head as if to clear it before backing out of the room. River could hear him, his footsteps sounding strangely loud as he thudded down the stairs, as if he was still trying to shake himself out of his shock by being as loud as possible.

Although, if she were to be honest with herself, it was more than likely that he only seemed to be being so much louder than what she assumed he normally was because of the dead silence that filled the house.

“What happened, River?” Leone asked her, his voice surprisingly gentle.

She took a deep breath, trying to push down all of the emotions that were rolling around inside of her. She needed to stay strong - now was not the time to break down.

“Jazzie - one of the little girls in the home - she spilled a whole gallon of milk.” she said, finally turning to face them, but keeping her eyes on the floor.

“So?” Leone asked, a bit harsher now, most likely due to his impatience, although she wasn’t sure. She heard a faint smacking sound, and looked up to see Scarlett giving her husband a look, while he rubbed at his shoulder with a hurt expression on his face.

“Jazzie is only six.” River elaborated as she began to play with her hair. She wasn’t used to this sort of attention, and it was making her slightly uncomfortable. “So I told them that I spilled it instead.”

Scarlett’s eyes were filling with tears, but Leone only looked more confused. “I don’t get it.” he said. “I’ve seen you hold your own against an entire squad of highly trained S.W.A.T. agents. So why…?”

“Why wouldn’t I fight back?” she asked, anticipating his question. His confusion wasn’t helping her in her attempts to keep her anger in check, but she managed. Barely. “Because it was better for them to hurt me than for them to hurt the younger kids.”

She finally looked up at them, keeping her eyes fixed on Leone as her anger finally bubbled over. “Besides,” she said, and her tone was so cold that it could have frozen them. “Weren’t you the one who made me swear never to hurt anyone? To never use my strength, my training, to injure a living thing?”

Leone looked at her in shock. Up until this point, he had still seen the little girl that he had met in the initial investigation of her parents’ crimes two years ago. But now he was beginning to see what the foster system had done to her. Instead of giving her a home, it had merely taken her and broken her even farther.

“Well I did what you asked, Agent.” she sneered. “I never once lifted a finger against them. Can you see what my reward was?” She gestured to the scars and bruises that littered her body, and scoffed. “Yeah, thanks for the advice, but next time I think I can manage without it.”

“Alright, suit yourself.” Leone said, deciding to just give up for the moment. It wouldn’t help his case at all if he ended up getting mad at the girl, especially when all of this mess really was his fault to begin with. He walked out of the room, not at all surprised when his wife came barreling out behind him.

“What are you doing, Robert?” she said, and he could tell that she wanted to yell at him just by how frantic her whispering was. “That poor girl needs our help, and you’re just giving up on her?”

Leone turned to look at his wife. She was the only child of a Scottish man and a Southern woman, and so her temper was as fiery as her hair - and then some. It was times like these that Leone couldn’t tell if he wanted to just scoop her up in his arms and kiss her senseless, or run for his life.

“That’s not what I’m doing at all.” he said defensively. “I was actually planning on doing something else, I just wanted to see how you would react to it…”

He quickly outlined his plan, and by the time that he was done, Scarlett was looking at him in slack-jawed amazement.

“So you want to adopt her?” Scarlett asked, incredulous.

“Why not?” Robert questioned. “We’ve done it before.” And they had. Scarlett was a RN at the local hospital’s emergency room, which was where she had found Daniel Travers when he was only four years old. Daniel had been beaten to within an inch of his life by his biological father while the man was in a drunken rage, before his neighbors had heard the screaming and called 911. There had been no choice but to call Social Services to remove the child from the home, but before the representative had even arrived at the ER, Scarlett Leone had already fallen head-over-heels in love with the boy. It had only taken a few hours for Robert Leone to feel the same way.

“So you really want to do this?” Scarlett asked her husband. When he nodded, she just sighed. “I don’t know about this…” she whispered.

Leone drew her in for a hug. “Oh, come on, honey.” he said, pressing a kiss to her forehead. “Don’t even pretend like you don’t already love her.” When she didn’t even bother to answer, he smiled. “I told you so.”

“Husband, shut up.” Scarlett said, her words muffled as she appeared to be speaking to his shirt instead of Leone himself. “So how are we going to do this?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” Robert Leone asked, his brows furrowed in confusion as he looked down at his wife.

Scarlett just laughed at him, a fond, yet exasperated expression on her face. “Oh, sweetie.” she said, “Why don’t you go downstairs and hang out with RJ and let the professionals handle this, alright?” With that, Scarlett pulled herself out of her husband’s arms, and went back into the room where they had just left River.

Not even ten seconds later, she was back out of the room, looking pale and shaken.

“She’s gone.” Was all that the petite redhead had to say before Leone was rushing down the stairs and out of the house. Forget the fact that she was a highly-trained assassin, all Leone could see was the abused little girl that he had abandoned.

“I’ll find her!” he yelled.

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