Title: Something Old
Author: Eleanor K.
Posted: 28 June, 2003
Spoilers: Objects in Space, minor for War Stories
Disclaimer: All hail Joss.
Notes: For Cab, because she asked. And cuz, you know, she's just
really cool. :-)
"Nobody remembers being born, River," her mother told her.
And her mother sighed and smiled that smile that River remembers
seeing so often on her mother's face.
Late that night, creeping into Simon's room, too small to climb
up on the bed, she tugged at his hand until he woke up.
He smiled at her with sleepy eyes and swung her up to sit beside
"You believe me, don't you?"
"'Course I do."
She pouted. "You don't even know what I'm talking about."
"Doesn't matter." Simon put an arm around her. "I believe you."
The princess dreamed in her dark castle for an age and an age. By
the time her prince came to rescue her, she'd almost forgotten there
was anyone left to rescue.
"It's just a smoother. It'll help to--"
She hears the words, but they don't mean the same thing as they
do to Simon. She knows that. Sometimes she can remember what they
mean to Simon. But not now. Now she hears--
*Give her something to quiet her down. If she starts thrashing like
that when she's hooked up, she could damage the machine.*
"I won't, I won't hurt the machine, please--"
*Can she still hear us? Fuck. What we need is the brain without
the personality. The girl's too much trouble.*
"Won't be trouble, no, don't--"
But always the needle, and always the falling blackness afterward,
and she was/is a personality without a brain, without a body, no
place to exist, so does she really exist, and if she doesn't really
exist then she's not alive, and if she's not alive, then she can't
die and this will go on forever and--
"River! No needles. It's okay. I put them away. River, can you hear
She opens her eyes, and sees Simon's eyes looking into her, making
"I exist," she whispers.
And Simon smiles their mother's smile, confusion and worry and the
need for her to be what she isn't, what she doesn't know how to
be, though she would if she could.
"Sorry, Simon. Sorry."
He holds her in his arms as easily as when she was a baby. "Don't
be sorry, mei mei. Not ever. I'm not."
When her prince came with torches and strong warriors, the princess
tried to hide. She didn't know his face at first, and the others
scared her. So used was she to the dark, the torches burned her
"River, honey, what are you doing under the engine?"
This is a girl. Her hair is the color of honey, and it hangs down
and touches the floor as she bends over.
"You have a name and a face," River says. The name and the face
always go together.
"My name's Kaylee. Do you remember?"
"I remember everything. I remember when I was born."
Kaylee sits down next to the engine. "Really? Did it hurt? My mama
told me a baby's head gets sort of squished when it comes out, and
I always wondered if that hurt, and that's why they always cry."
River reaches out to touch the hem of Kaylee's dress. It is soft
and slippery, smooth and worn.
"Yes," she whispers. "It does. It does hurt."
The torches were candles, and the warriors sang.
"--with unicorns and harps."
This boy, this Wash boy with the heart that would balance a feather,
he saw the hurt coming before she did.
"Captain said wait, but they were so hungry. Don't make much noise..."
River doesn't hear any more. She only hears the quiet *pop* of a
man's death, a woman's death, of Zoe's grief and her own despair
as the candles waver in a sudden wind.
Wash can't ward the hurt off. Not even Simon can.
She clutches at Kaylee's hand, and Kaylee smiles at her, so bright
and clear. There are no shadows in Kaylee's eyes. Kaylee can't stop
the hurt either, but sometimes she can make River forget about it.
Sometimes the way Kaylee looks at her, like a real girl, is enough.
If the prince finds another girl, does that girl get to be the princess?
Is the princess written out of her own story?
"You like Kaylee."
Simon turns to her with a look she loves. It's an old look, an irritated
you-shouldn't-know-that look, but not the kind she gets now. It's
a big brother look.
"Of course I like Kaylee. Everyone likes Kaylee."
"She likes you, too. *Like* likes."
Simon rolls his eyes, but she can see he's trying not to smile.
"Maybe," he says.
"So? Are you going to ask her out?" It is a little sister demand.
She remembers how to be that person sometimes. She likes to make
He smiles for real this time. "I can't. Not right now. It's just...bad
Bad timing because of her. She has come at a bad time. She exists
at a bad time.
She is sorry on the surface, but below the surface she is glad/sorry/hurting
because she needs them both. She needs Simon to remember who she
was, and she needs Kaylee to be who she has become.
If they have each other, then she has neither of them, so she's
glad she is bad timing. Vicious sordid hurting glad, and she hates
it, but she can't help it.
She steals into Simon's room that night and watches him sleep. She
would like to tug on his hand and be pulled into his arms, but the
worst part, the very worst part of all, is that she knows it wouldn't
She wonders if this is growing up.
Sometimes the princess wore armor and slew dragons.
River likes the emptiness of space. She likes the closeness of the
suit around her, like a cradle of warmth and light. She likes the
way the stars shine on and on and the way you can see forever to
where the universe curves back on itself.
She likes the way the captain takes her hands and pulls her home.
"Permission to come aboard?"
"You know, you ain't quite right."
It's okay, the way he says it. She's not quite right, and he doesn't
expect anything different.
"It's the popular theory," she tells him.
He smiles, and it's a joke between them instead of a tragedy. She
could tell the captain how Early's armor fitted together like scales
and how his heart was a reptile coiled in his chest, but she doesn't
"Go on. Get in there. Give your brother a thrashing for messing
up your plan."
She can smile at that, and she does. "He takes so much looking after."
Inside Serenity, Simon gets his leg stitched up by Zoe, Wash and
his feather-heart hovering nearby. She smiles to Simon from the
doorway of the infirmary and moves on, wondering why rooms have
Kaylee finds her in the cargo bay.
"The ship is a person." That's the only explanation. People have
names, ships have names, rooms have names. There is a correlation
Kaylee sits down beside her on the floor. "She sure is." Kaylee
pats the floor. "She's my girl."
River watches Kaylee's fingers move across the metal deck plates,
wandering as she speaks about some boy she used to know, some boy
River doesn't care about. She watches as Kaylee's fingers lace into
the mesh of the grate a few inches away, grasping and easing away,
stroking and letting her fingertips bump over the metal ribs. Petting
River wonders what it would be like to be Kaylee's girl.
There are jacks on the floor, and River wonders how long they have
been there, how long they've been playing.
Kaylee bounces the ball, and it flies off in a crooked trajectory,
skewed by a bolt on the deck plate. River puts her hand in its path,
watches as it lands in her palm.
It's her turn.
She looks from the ball she holds to Kaylee and back again. A tiny
planet nestled in her palm, swirled with hydrogen, methane, frozen
ammonia, painted with the building blocks of the universe. She holds
it up to her eye.
She can see the particles moving, bouncing off one another, contained
in the structure of this imperfect sphere, but changing, always
She remembers an autumn day, long ago. She was five. Simon went
off to school in the morning and left her--and she still remembers
the feeling of betrayal when he was ripped away from her after a
summer of keeping constant company--and everything got worse after
that. She broke her mother's favorite vase, fell and skinned both
knees and elbows, couldn't find her parents and went crying to the
kitchen where the cook scolded her for running around like a hoyden.
When her father found her, she was hiding under the dining room
table. He pulled her out and held her on his knee, wiped her face
with his handkerchief. When she'd calmed down, her told her something.
"The one thing you can count on in life," he said, "is that everything
changes. No matter how bad today is, tomorrow will be different."
He smiled. "It might not be better, not right away, but it will
It was, she recognizes now, an odd truth with which to comfort a
child, an old truth, and a hard one. But she was an odd child, and
it did comfort her.
Simon hates their father now, hate/love/sadness all smashed together,
but River remembers this one day when he had time for her, a day
when she felt almost as lost as she does now.
Everything changes. Tomorrow will not be the same as today. That
has always been true, no matter how bad things got, and if that's
true, then she has a chance.
"I can win this." She says the words out loud, just to hear them
"I'm hearing a lot of talk there, genius. Come on, show me what
Kaylee's voice calls River back to here-and-now, and calls a smile
to her lips.
"I will," she says.
Continue to Something New.