"My nicknames when I was little were Kaylee-Bear, Kayls, and in school my friends sometimes called me KiKi or Lan Ju because I always had sweets. What about you?" Kaylee asked Inara over dinner one night.
"Somehow I can't picture you with a nickname, 'Nara," Mal said.
"Actually, I did have one when I was a child," the Companion said. "As a little girl, my mother's friends would call me Hoo Tieh. And what were you called, Mal?"
"My Momma used to call me, 'Mal-y,' 'wan no,' and 'you damn fool boy.' That last was usually followed by 'get your pigu to your room an' stay there,' or 'somebody go for the doctor.'"
"You had a tendency to get shot as a child, as well?" River asked.
"Oh, ain't you hilarious, lil' albatross," Mal said as the crew laughed. "And just what were you called as a—well, as more of a child than you are now?"
River thought back. "For a time when I was six I insisted on being referred to as The Supreme High Commander, General Tam of the 144th Dragon Division—in Tabric, of course. At the time I was busy conquering the unknown reaches of the universe with my army of three-headed lizards."
The crew nodded like they understood—the best way to take one of River's more unique comments, they found.
"Was that when you brought that gecko into the house?" Simon asked. "I remember that. Mom nearly fainted when that lizard crawled on the tea service she was using during a power brunch." He chuckled at the memory. "That was great, by the way."
"Thank you," his sister chirped.
"Doc," Mal said, "that may be the most trouble-making thing I've ever heard you say."
"Yes, well…." He blushed.
River cleared her throat to signal that she wasn't done yet. "Also, Simon has always called me 'mei-mei,' one of my teachers called me 'duckling,' the girls in ballet called me 'prima bitcherina,' the other children in school called me 'freak girl' or 'little mouse.'
Mouse, Jayne thought. Wasn't she just? A creeping, creepy little pest.
"Oh, sweetie," Kaylee cried. "Those weren't very nice names they called you."
"I didn't mind the last one so much," River admitted with a secret smile. "Little mouse has a promise to keep to a lion."
"Huh?" Kaylee asked.
Lion…Jayne mused. Why did that sound familiar? Lion…lio—oh, shit!
Jayne chocked on his bite of fried rice, and started to cough, drawing the crew's attention. Mal pounded the merc on his back, and Kaylee asked if he was alright. Simon tried to assess whether the Heimlich would be necessary, as he really didn't want to touch the ape if he could avoid it.
The soft smile slowly disintegrated on River's face as it was replaced by dawning horror in her widening eyes and dropping jaw.
As soon as he had his breath back, Jayne asked, "That was you?!"
"That was you," she accused.
"What was who?" Mal asked.
It was him. Of course it was him. How many men named Jayne in the 'verse could there be? She hadn't thought about what happened at the Amun-Ra Hotel in years until Kaylee urged them to share childhood nicknames, and the reference to Aesop's fable returned again to her mind. Still, she hadn't put the two bits of information together until Jayne acknowledged that he remembered her.
River scooted her chair back from the table and crossed her arms. "I was wrong. The debt has been repaid, I just forgot to remember."
Jayne raised his brows. "How you figure?" he demanded. Now that he connected the little girl from nearly a decade ago with the little crazy girl seated diagonal from him at the dinner table, it was easy to see how the first grew up into the second. He thought those damn big eyes of hers were familiar. "Seems more like you gotten me into more trouble rather than savin' me from it."
"Now, that don't count. That was for all of us, not just me."
"You were demoted!"
"What the hell're you talkin' about?!" Mal demanded.
They glanced at the Captain then resumed staring in shock and, at least on River's side, more than a little disappointment. River dropped her eyes to her lap wherein she folded her hands and concentrated on her breathing, as Inara showed her how to do to help regulate her emotional responses.
"Once there was a little mouse who was caught by a great lion. But the mouse wasn't more than a bite for the lion, so he let her go, and she promised one day to return the favor."
"And I take it the lion is Jayne?" Mal asked.
The mercenary tossed his fork onto his plate. "Uh-huh. 'Bout ten years ago I was workin' in the Core with a fella named Pry. We was robbin' this hotel on Osirus, an' two of the others decided to create a diversion by lightin' a fire in the air ducts. I was up on one'a the top floors finishin' up in some opera singer's room when the smoke started comin' in. I high-tailed it outta there, and in the stairwell, all pushed into a corner, was a bitty little thing coughin' her head off. Couldn't leave a kid to fend for herself, so I carried down the stairs."
"Wouldn't let the slimy one touch her," River murmured.
Jayne shifted. "Yeah, well, Holtzman always was a bit wrong."
"Wait," Simon demanded. "Are you talking about the fire at the Amun-Ra Hotel? River, I thought you got lost that day."
"No. I didn't want to mingle with Dad's business associates. I disagreed with them on every social, economic, and political point, so I went to explore the top levels."
Kaylee gaped at them. "An' here ya are today! You was livin' on the same boat all along, an' ya never knew it. That's so…."
"Uncanny," Inara finished for her. "And Jayne, apparently you make occasional heroic acts a habit. Who would have thought?"
He scowled at her. "No, I don't. An' it wasn't heroic. She was just a kid. Anyone would'a done it."
"No," River said. "They wouldn't. They didn't."
Jayne looked at her out of the corner of his eye. He hadn't thought about that job in a long time. Since before he joined up with Serenity. But just after it happened, he thought on it a deal. Gorram kid looked at him like he was a hero, but he knew right off he wasn't. Could be that was why Canton bothered him so much, he mused. He'd let them down, and part of him felt he'd let her down, too, even if he didn't know who she was at the time.
Of course, he let the girl herself down later on. Wasn't he just a piece of work?
The fact that Serenity's Jayne was her Jayne hurt and confused her more than anything had since Miranda. After all, she was only eight at the time Jayne carried her down the smoke-filled stairs, and she was a romantic child at heart. She had put her rescuer on a pedestal. Growing up, he had become something of a Black Knight to her. When she was teased at school, she would remember that she had a destiny to meet that none of her classmates could hope to have. When she was ignored by the boys, once she started noticing them, she recalled her rescuer's eyes—bluer than Simon's. He'd helped her get through so many days and scream-filled nights at the Academy, but everything got so tangled up, all the pieces mixed together, tossed to the ceiling, and she was still finding pieces under the bed. She had forgotten. Now it came back to bite her in the ass.
The girl didn't look happy. He wasn't too happy at this point, either. Jayne had to agree, he was a disappointment. He went and saved the girl when she was little only to try and get rid of her later.
The conversation eddied around them, but he and River were quiet.
Suddenly, River spoke up, "It was the story."
The crew looked at her, confused.
She raised her eyes to meet Jayne's. "When you enter a story, Karma finds a way to make it play to the end. Snow White will meet the Seven Dwarves. Aladdin will find the lamp. Perhaps I went to the Academy because there was no other way for me to save you. Simon chose Serenity because I needed to be where you are to end the fable."
Simon rested his hand over his sister's. "Mei-mei, that's—"
She shot him a glare. "Stories are told to impose order within the chaos of life. It's better than senseless randomness."
"She's right, Simon," Inara interjected. "It's a good story. Once upon a time, there was a little girl who promised to return the favor of a rescue. That girl became a great warrior, and not only saved the man she made the promise to, but a group of others besides."
"And so the story ends," River declared. She took a deep breath, brought her fists up to the table, and slowly uncurled them as she released the air from her lungs. She opened her eyes, and went back to her dinner.
Jayne clenched his jaw a few times, and followed her example by picking up his fork and returning to the meal in front of him. After a second's hesitation, the crew metaphorically shrugged, and resumed their conversation.
After supper was over, it was River's turn to do the dishes. Jayne lagged behind the others in leaving the table. When it was finally just him and the girl in the room, Jayne cleared his throat.
"It's not relevant," she said, her hands buried in the sudsy water. "One moment in time almost a decade ago hardly has an effect on the present state of affairs."
He frowned, and sucked on his teeth. "Sorry I'm such a disappointment."
River sighed as she rinsed the last plate and put in on the drying rack. "Not your fault. I should have had the sense not to idealize a criminal."
"Yeah, well…sorry just the same."
She dried her hands on the dish towel, and turned to face him. She smelled the yellow shame pooling in his belly, and heard the hissing of snakes around his throat. He truly was sorry. River nodded with a smile. "The lion has nothing to be sorry about, but if it will make him feel better, the mouse forgives him for trying to eat her. She understands it was a natural reaction for a predator."
Confused, but deciding to take it, Jayne nodded. River dipped a curtsy and headed down to her bunk since it was Mal's turn to put the boat to sleep. As he turned to go, Jayne's gaze caught something under the table. The girl was nearly to the stairs, so Jayne grabbed one of her boots and held it up.
"Hey, girl! You forgot your shoes!"
He recalled what she said about stories finding a way to end themselves, looked at the shoe, and dropped it like it burned. "Gah!"
The End—I think…