The Mouse and the Lion
River Tam was eight years old. She was a beautiful child with large dark eyes, rounded cheeks, and a fairy-like body. She was vastly intelligent, far too much so for someone so young, and woefully independent. Case in point: River stood on a small balcony attached to a window at the end of a hallway on the fifth story of the Amun-Ra Hotel in the second largest city on Osiris, Abydos. No one knew she was there, and she hoped that no one would find her. The entire family had been dragged along with Gabriel Tam to one of the televised summits of Concerned Businessmen of the Sino-Anglo Alliance where River's patriarch would give yet more money to fund the war against the Independent rebel faction.
Having reached the far more mature age of eight, River had stopped making up fantastic stories about battles and losses on the front. She instead picked up the newspaper and read about what was happening. She searched the Cortex under her concerned ge-ge's watchful eye to find out exactly what all the kafuffle was about. The more she read, the more her sympathies came to lie with the Independents. She did try to bring it up at dinner on a number of occasions, but her parents immediately shushed her and sent her to bed without desert. So her political leanings went underground, as it were.
Having a different opinion than her other family members, River didn't want to schmooze the other guests of the convention at the dinner party being thrown down in one of the ballrooms. They were all benefiting from the war or from the protection of the Alliance. They didn't want to hear the political viewpoint of a child. Instead, she wandered the halls of the hotel looking at the decorative art and playing hop-scotch with the floral carpet pattern until she found an open window and her little ledge.
River stayed out there for more than an hour to watch the sun set over the skyscrapers and wine hills beyond. It was peaceful, and the wind catching her hair and dress made her feel like she was flying.
A shiver went up her neck, onto her scalp, and made her hair stand on end. Odd, since it wasn't cold outside.
River climbed back through the window as the first whoops of the fire alarm sounded. Within moments, the hallway was filled with panicking guests, and smoke belched through the vents high on the walls. It was as if the fire was in the ventilation system itself.
River joined the others rushing down the hallway to evacuate the building, but she was so little. She was nearly trampled. She managed to reach the emergency stairwell, the lift tubes being shut down in compliance with procedure, but that was as far as she got. The number of bodies—wealthy business men and women, their entourage, celebrities with their entourage, and the housecleaning staff—smushed River into the corner created by the rail and the back wall.
"Hey!" She pushed.
No one listened. The stairwell was already filling up with smoke. River started to cough, and the air was harder to see through.
Suddenly arms were around her, lifting her up.
"Come on," a gruff voice directed. "Folks shouldn't go losin' their kids at a time like this."
River looked at the man who carried her down the steps. He was youngish, not yet thirty, anyway, and though he was dressed like one of the staff, he most certainly didn't belong in the five star hotel. His accent placed his origins somewhere farther out, near the Rim, and his dark tan spoke of someone who worked outdoors for a living. What in the world was he doing in the Amun-Ra Hotel?
A tight turn at the landing made River wrap her arms around the stranger's neck to keep her balance. He reached up and tugged a little. "Gotta breathe, girl! Loosen up!"
She did, but to compensate, River brought her legs up and circled his waist, locking her little patent leather shoes above his hip. When they reached the ground floor, her rescuer broke away from the group heading out the front doors, and went for a rear exit.
"Where are we going?"
"I got folks I need to meet out back, an' since you ain't lettin' go, I guess you're gonna meet 'em, too."
River couldn't decide if that was a threat. She got the distinct feeling that she wouldn't like the people he was meeting, but this man seemed nice enough. He didn't want to hurt her, in any case. He had her life in his jaws, so she would have to trust him.
The man pushed through the kitchen door, maneuvered around the state-of-the-art cooking and dishwashing equipment, and found the loading door. In the alley in back of the hotel was parked a produce vehicle with several more incongruous "staff members" loading what looked like laundry bags into it.
One of the men, grizzled and sharp, looked up. "'Bout damn time you got here! What's with the girl?"
A second colleague snickered, "Didn't figure you for likin' the young ones, Jayne. Can I have her after you're done?"
Her rescuer's arms tightened around her, and he glared at the other man. "You ain't gonna get a finger on her, Holtzman. Dirty ruttin' ass-feeder. I like my woman all growed an' willin'. I wouldn'a had ta bring her if'n someone hadn't started tsau-gau de fire."
Two younger men already in the back of the vehicle grinned at each other and traded hi-fives.
"You son of a bitch!" the first man, apparently the leader, cursed him. "She can ID us!"
Her rescuer—Jayne—set River down on her feet, and rested his heavy hands on her shoulders. "You're gonna go up this alley, an' find your folks, an' you're not gonna tell 'em what you saw back here, dong ma? Not a word, or I'll come find ya. I don't like hurtin' little kids, but I will."
River bobbled her head in agreement. She was fairly certain that these men had robbed the hotel, and had obviously set the fire as some kind of diversion. While she didn't want to be aiding and abetting criminals, she had a keen interest in living through this misadventure.
"Good." He turned her around, and pushed her forward a bit. "Now git."
She stumbled forward a few steps, but turned back to see Jayne hurrying over to the getaway van. "Wait!"
He turned around and raised his hands in a silent, 'What now?'
"Thank you for saving me! One day I'll repay the lion for his kindness."
Jayne smirked at her. "Sure you will, honey."
"I will!" she insisted. "That's how the story goes."
"Jayne!" his boss yelled. "Get your ass in here!"
Jayne scowled over his shoulder at the older man, and turned once again to the little girl. He actually smiled this time. His eyes were a lighter blue than Simon's. "I guess if ya plan on savin' me, I'll see ya later, then."
"I will," she promised.
Jayne climbed into the rear of the produce van, and gave her another smile, shaking his head, as he closed the doors. River watched the hovercraft speed down the alleyway before she turned and ran toward the main street to find her brother.