The Law Of Conservation Of Power
by Amy & Jennifer-Oksana

River's eyes are unclear, unfocused. Simon keeps saying that part of being clearer and cleaner and realer than before is that she needs to learn, but River doesn't want to learn anymore. Learning fills your head to overflowing and then they keep trying to get it out without letting you lose any of it. And when pieces clear out (Miranda) the chinks and chasms fill soon enough, all sorts of other details you didn't need to know, like why the newest ship to enter the 'verse has people who speak English but no Mandarin, are so happy to see people. Mostly it's don't-ask-don't-tell around here, but River knows anyway, because she is River.

Laura is the one who tells her, in the end. Laura, who Simon said not to disturb because you don't talk to the president of anything, not even a fleet that came from nowhere who didn't even recognize what Mal's coat meant, if you're on the run. But Laura doesn't mind River's company, and River likes the way Laura thinks. Her thoughts are always going, always moving, a calm waterfall of thoughts rather than the raging that's going on in everyone else's brains. The rest of the crew's all caught up in it, she thinks, everyone but her and Inara; new things lead to tidal waves that drown out routine if you don't know how to respond. Inara knows. So does River. And now, she learns, so does Laura.

So does Serenity, and that's why, without any of the protocol they both know should be called for, River invites Laura to Serenity for a meal, and also why Laura accepts. Laura understands better than anyone what's going on in River's head, because she's had dreams too, and visions, and she's acted on them, just like River has. No one's called Laura crazy because Laura wears a mask, and when she's Madam President she can't be crazy because she is in charge. Someday, River will be in charge, and people will trust her, even when she tells them the world is ending, even when she makes the world explode.

Laura made the world explode but no one knows it but she and River. That's why she agrees to eat dinner on Serenity. That's why she offers to tutor River in private, and that's why River decides to accept.

Laura's not like other teachers. She doesn't make River call her by any honorifics and she doesn't make River dumb herself down. She likes it when River is already enacting the concept before she's finished explaining it. River works better like this, ideas spilling out faster than the speed of (memory) light. And the things out of the corner of her eye that no one else notices? Laura sees them too, sometimes. And that makes it easier to pin them to the board and study their wings.


"Have you always been who you are?" River asks, leaning her head back. She has a long neck. All of River, Laura's noticed, is long and graceful, but in a way that isn't exactly right. Perfection would have made River a little less graceful, but infinitely more invisible.

It's impossible to look at River without knowing, somewhere in the marrow of your bones, that this is a remarkable creature. Whereas no one would look at Laura and see anything extraordinary, not unless Laura chooses to show it.

"That's a philosophical question," Laura answers lazily, kneading the bread dough. The lesson today is about normality; can River blend into walls? And she's pushing the girl -- teasing and tempting with gnomic statements and philosophical questions. "It also hinges on the meaning of who. In a real sense, my DNA has been mine since my father's sperm penetrated my mother's ovum. So I've always been me. However, is who contained in a zygote? Is there a soul? Is identity fixed? If my body's every cell is replaced every seven years, and that represents a new me, then I've been almost eight women, and that's ignoring how I was cured."

River narrows her eyes. "You know what I mean," she says.

"Then say what you mean and be upfront about it, young woman," Laura says, sinking her fingers into warm dough. It smells yeasty and living and delicious; Serenity is a good place for domestic activities, and they appreciate the change from eternal protein. "Words can be impenetrable, but that's no excuse to make fortresses of your questions."

"You like shaping things," River noted, bounding up next to Laura and watching her knead. "It satisfies a primal need inside of you."

"Making things is an important part of being alive," Laura reminds her. "Humanity is based on creation."

"Humanity destroyed itself," River shoots back. "Humanity creates only when it runs out of options. The universe folds in on itself whenever it gets the chance. Destruction is safer than creation."

"Energy and matter cannot be created. Even destroying something creates something else." If the dough were a person, River thinks, Laura would have killed it by now. But it smells like life, so it's okay.

River frowns. If destruction can be productive then everything that's been done to her has a point. But for torture to be the end rather than the means is indicative of the first fallacy of society, implying that --

"It's okay, River," Laura says. "Sometimes you need to remove the problem areas so that it is stronger as a whole." And it takes a moment to realize she's talking about the bread.

Laura cheats, when they talk, jumping ahead of the curve almost as fast as River does. But River likes that; Laura thinks in ways that make sense, rather than ways that are so slow she gets lost in the shuffle. When they work together, Laura insists on making River try. She knows the way the universe will shift before it happens, just like River does, and she uses it to her advantage. Every conversation is a challenge. River has to dance fast to keep up with the way Laura talks.

River's missed dancing, these past few years.


Everything about River makes Laura forget her very well-delineated borders, the things she has told herself she can do and she can't do. Laura has plans, deep and lovely and well-thought-out. And she has plans for River, whose progress has been simply amazing with her. At least, so says the brother, a pretty mouse of a man who is continually apologetic that a woman of her stature would waste time with a half-mad medical experiment.

"Loneliness is a pre-eminently human condition. Like Cain," River says. "Driven out and marked, so there could be no escaping into death for him. He had to live with it."

"Ambiguous statements, young lady," Laura teases, putting the dough into two warm pans and luxuriating in the heat of the stove. If she could be anything, she would be a sunflower in summertime, with nothing better to do than worship light and heat. "What have I said about those?"

"Many social ills and mistakes are caused by deeper emotional wounds," River replies tartly, sounding like a computer. "The drive to overcome loneliness and shame, as best encapsulated by the ancient myth of Cain and Abel, has led to jealousy and murder."

"Cain didn't kill Abel because he was lonely," Laura says, seating herself at the table and helping herself to a strawberry. "Cain was rejected by his god for no good reason. Why would this Yahweh reject an offering that was the natural produce of Cain?"

River snorts. "There's a misplaced cause and effect," she said. "Killing half the species because of a parental rebuke is a symptom of a deeper psychosis."

"Is that what you think?" Laura asks in a soft voice. "That any murder is irredeemable, that the blood never leaves your hands?"

River's eyes go wide; Laura hates when she has to punish the girl, but there are moments when River skirts too close to things she has no business vocalizing, let alone knowing. Laura looks at her with a smile, thinking of all those who fell to River. Of those who died on this very boat to undo what had been done to River.

"Please stop," River says in a very small voice. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry," Laura answers coldly. "Be better than that. Life is worthy of protection, of course, but a foolish sentimentality is no way to show virtue, River."

River nods. "Pride was still Cain's sin," she says, the words sounding thin and weak, but still thoroughly believed.

"It was," Laura agrees, patting River's hand. "There's a primal human weakness to believe that the whole world must suffer for their private pain. Except the whole world is usually the size of a hazelnut when an individual tries to think of it in their mind."

This is what it is, learning with Laura Roslin. Each day another lesson, harder to learn; each day River understands instinctively less and more, all at once. Laura knows how to work with her, good and bad; knows what actions are rewards and what are not. Understands being a positive role model and utilizing negative conditioning, understands complex theories of education and psychology and sociology and existence and the way they build together and the way they break down.

Laura knows how to break River down, and she can help put the pieces back together the right way.

Simon still thinks she's bothering Laura, she knows, thinks she needs to lay low and stay quiet, but he's stopped saying it because the last time he did, she screamed and cried until she couldn't breathe and then Laura talked to him and his arguments stopped. But she still sees it in his eyes sometimes, the way she announces she's off to school -- Laura says she can call the shuttle school even though everyone else calls it the President's shuttle -- and his face twists into something that he wants to think is unreadable even though River's never had a problem reading him, and even if she did she's heard him talking about it with Kaylee, because neither of them know how to hide anything. He doesn't say it to her, though, so she pretends she doesn't know how much he worries about her.

But she thinks about it anyway, as she pads silently across the ship to go in for another lesson.


"We could fly away, you know," River says. "The shuttle is independent of Serenity. Short-range, but it's independent. You don't need Mal's permission or anyone's permission."

"I don't know how to fly it yet," Laura confesses. River is having one of her uncanny days, where all her ideas are razor-keen but impossibly terrifying. Laura compares it to playing catch with a grenade with a slightly weak pin. It doesn't mean that there will be an explosion, but even the best athlete can't help but be a little bit cautious and uneasy tempting fate so.

"I could show you," River says. "I know all about flying. I pilot Serenity for Mal, now that Wash is dead. We could fly back to Galactica, or Colonial One, or anywhere that's close. Didn't you ever wish you could fly, all those months out beyond the edge?"

Laura shakes her head. "It never seemed important. I wanted privacy more than I wanted freedom. As president, I could go where I chose."

River considers this with her usual tics. "It's not really freedom when your menu is that small," she says. Then she giggles, not a crazy giggle, but a real, girlish chuckle. "Of course, when it's the perfect choice, even small menus like the one on Serenity seem bigger than the biggest menu ever."

Considering the horrible food on Serenity, the horrible food that the Colonial fleet had been surviving on, and how much Laura missed eating, she had to laugh herself. "I would run away for gourmet food," she allows. "Real gourmet, with all the trimmings. Bone china, real silver, heavy lead crystal, fine wine, good chocolate, meat so rare and tender that all one needs is a fork, fresh-ground pepper on a salad, butter so rich that it could be eaten on its own..."

Laura has suddenly made herself very hungry, and she can tell that River is a little bit perturbed by the outpouring of personal wishes on the shuttle. Usually, as River's teacher, Laura is mysterious and involved in complicated philosophical questions and exercises to strengthen mental and personal control. But even this is helping the girl, who is so used to being inside everyone's heads, in her own little universe where she is the only one like herself, that Laura thinks it's almost cute to watch her silent expectations vexed.

"You made yourself hungry," River says. "Made me hungry, too. And you weren't, you didn' did you do that? Teach me that."

"Teach you how to make yourself hungry? Don't eat," Laura says.

"Teach me how to make people want things," River says, her eyes bright. "I want to know that."


Laura's mind is a wonderland. That was the first thing River learned the first day she ever met her. Laura's open enough with her protégé that some days River thinks she's explored every inch of her brain, cerebrum to cerebellum, but sometimes River will watch her take a deep breath and in that moment of released control, she'll see solar systems she never knew existed, all in the flash before Laura exhales.

River knows that Laura believes in quiet, in the silent moments between the claps of thunder and the flashes of light, and in the calms before-during-after the storms she has been teaching River meditation, not by telling her but by showing her, and River finds she learns by doing even faster than by rote.

It's like that with this.

Laura doesn't teach her important things the way River thinks teachers ought to, doesn't spell out the patterns on blackboards and blank screens and wait for the class to catch up. She demonstrates, she chastises for ignorance, she doesn't wait for River before moving on to the next thing, so that River has to pay attention, has to focus (laser beam sharp, and it's all well and good until someone loses an eye), has to run through a minefield for just a few crumbs, but it's worth it when they're crumbs well-earned. Figuring out how Laura does it, figuring out the bait and the switch and the way a look can mean everything, is a painfully slow process, because Laura refuses to help. But that makes it worth even more.

The first time she realizes it worked, she runs to Laura's shuttle, to report back: she figured it out. She did what Laura wouldn't teach her how to do. And Laura tries to hide her smile, but River knows she isn't really trying because otherwise she wouldn't know.

"Is this what it's like to be president?" she asks.

"What you did to your brother?" Laura's glasses rest on her nose, and she looks impossibly schoolmarm-ish; River can imagine people being fooled easily, if they didn't know.

But River does know, and it just makes her smile. "No," she says. "What you do to me."

"It's far easier," Laura says, "and far harder, all at once."

"Why's that?"

"You tell me."

River thinks, squints, frowns. "Because I can read you. Because I can see the patterns. But that doesn't make sense. How is it harder if they don't see what you're doing?"

"Everyone notices patterns, River. Not just readers. If people can't pick one out immediately, they see the patterns where they never existed in the first place."

"They form their own Rorschach test," River shrugs. "What's wrong with that?"

Laura doesn't answer her, just lets her eyes flutter closed for a moment and then looks back at her student expectantly.

"Oh," River manages. Her voice is unnaturally quiet.

And then the warrior and the madwoman within the girl snaps and springs, turns a somersault and knocks Laura to the ground, hands on her throat.

"Are you evil?" River asks, eyes pinning Laura to the spot. "Are you trying to lead me down the path to hell, hip hop, skip plop, down and down until there's no up?"

Laura's heart is going fast, and River's terror is real, as is the squeeze of her skinny hands around Laura's throat. All the calm is gone from the girl, and the full power of her -- mad genius, trained to kill with grace and directness, wary and bloodthirsty as any human stripped to bare instinct could be -- is focused on Laura.

"Control yourself, River," is Laura's whisper.

"You're trying to wrap me around your fingers," River accuses. "Turn my brain into your plaything, round and round the mulberry bush. Brainwashing. Psychic warfare. So that I know, but I won't tell. Better than making it so they don't know, because then you can send me out for you."

"All gods are teachers, but not all teachers are gods," Laura answers, heart pounding. She's never been so afraid of anything in her life as she is of River at this very moment.

"Ambiguous statement," River replies, hard-voiced. "Attempting to express a profoundly complex truth by paradox. A moral teaching method that dates to the Zen Buddhists of Earth-That-Was if not earlier. Recognition causes a state nicknamed enlightenment, which is also a self-delusion."

"Control is always delusional and temporary," Laura says hoarsely. "Kill me or let go."

River lets go of Laura's throat. She puts her hands on Laura's arms instead, keeping them pinned to the floor.

"Fallacies," River says. "Either/or is disproved by a third possibility. Are you a third possibility? How can that be? There can't be that many. There's not room for you in this reality. You aren't. You are. That's a paradox."

As if Laura doesn't know it. River's education in this area really must be improved; there's no time for self-doubt causing relapses, bringing them back to square one, violence and fear and that helpless terror that comes from the inevitable knowledge that everyone is mortal.

Everyone is mortal. Everyone has to die.

"The primary way that society works is that we ignore the finality of death," Laura says, looking at River closely. "All of humanity is based on lies and forgetfulness. Understand that, and you can see the difficulty of what we do. All creation is doomed to die. All good things must end. There is no permanence, and we are all weak. There has to be control, River, and control begins with the self."

River shudders, and lets go of Laura. As quickly as the girl had tackled her, she's curled up in a corner, weeping her eyes out.

Laura follows her, sits down next to her, puts her arms around her. "It's okay. It's okay, River," she whispers. "You're doing well. And we have to look at the truth sometimes to understand why. Shhh, sweetheart, shhh. It's okay."

It's the fact that Laura seems safe that scares her the most. The way that she actually does calm down when Laura suggests she should, without even an indication that anything's wrong. She's not a trained pet with her teacher, there's no single word that drops her from one extreme to another. Laura just looks at her and it happens.

Simon offered her the word, when they started; said that if River grew dangerous it would knock her out, eliminating the worst of her rage. And Laura had just looked at him, and said coolly, calmly, "Thank you, Mr. Tam, but I don't think that will be necessary."

And it hadn't been.

River is rocking back and forth, back and forth, whispering to herself in languages that no one else knows (no one should; the dead must be permitted their secrets) and telling herself the pretty lies that will get her back to functioning, but she doesn't move away.

She knows that Simon told Laura that River did not let anyone touch her. She knows because the first time Laura did, there'd been a flash of ill-contained confusion, and River had smiled, secret and safe, that would have needed explanation if Laura Roslin were the type of person who needed explanation, which River had already known she was not.

River is learning about safety. No, relearning; bedtime stories from long ago and far away had told her everything, but they'd gotten lost in the flood of mustn'ts and shouldn'ts and can'ts. Strip a girl bare and she can calculate the distance from any sun to the nearest moon but two plus two evades her. Shivering and naked (she's in the box again) (she's running and running and never stopping, never ever again) (she's right there on the floor and she's safe she's safe she's safe) and Laura is there, not forcing any thoughts and feelings, just being there, just coaxing. Just safe.

In English, although the words sound hard and thick on her lips, as though her tongue has taken over her mouth, River still forces out the words: "If you hurt me, I will kill you."

Laura nods, like she knows, because she does, and if she hadn't before, she clearly does now; she won't underestimate River again.

"I don't want to be a pawn anymore," River says.

"I don't think you're a pawn," Laura replies. Her voice is gentle and calming and if it's a lie it's meant as a compassionate one. On anyone else, River would know it was the truth, but she doesn't expect Laura to read like other people anymore. She hasn't yet; there's no reason for her to start.

"Then don't treat me like one." River's eyes are cloaked with fright, but there's something else there too. "I want to do what you do."

"To who?"

"To everyone."

"Then do it," Laura says. "You don't need my permission."

River looks at her, skittish and nervous but undeniably more controlled than she usually is under these circumstances. She rubs her eye like a tired child, and Laura realizes that she is, herself, lonely and tired. That having this girl to train has been a pleasure as well as a need.

There are so many people in this universe, and to finally have a mind that reflects her own, even with the undammed passion, the instability (and are those really so unlike her, Laura thinks, remembering what she's done for revenge for slights) that it's restful to look at the girl and let go.

"But you can stop me," River says. "You're strong. Strongest. If you don't like what I'm doing, you can drop me in my misguided flight like Icarus into the sea. Like Phaeton, trying to drive his father's chariot."

Laura looks at the girl. "You're strong, and brave, and I couldn't really stop you unless I truly wanted to," she says, her every word imbued with honesty. Laura means this, and River knows, will know, she truly means it. "And I don't want to stop you. You have succeeded beyond my wildest expectations."

River smiles. "So I can come with you?" she asks. "Wherever you go, I want to come along."

"Of course," Laura says. "I've been alone until now. I don't think it's good to be so alone."

"Terrible thoughts can prey on your mind. Make things seem worse than they are until you can't stop screaming," River says solemnly, and Laura's eyes widen. That's exactly it, and has she made herself as vulnerable to this girl as the girl is to her in the admission of weakness?

It doesn't matter, really. They are tied to each other, and Laura has played her last card and come out triumphant, and River will follow her where she has to.

As if the very thought of her is a call, the girl stands up, dancing around happily before holding her hands out to Laura. Her joy is infectious, and Laura finds herself smiling and laughing before taking River's hands firmly.

"Come on," she says. "Let me show you how to fly."


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