(Written before the BDM, so it takes place in a sort of AU-ish 'verse where Wash and Book are still alive, and Inara is still at the Training House.)
"Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, dear River! Happy birthday to you!"
The girl—young woman—beamed at the others around the table. She got to sit at the head for this special occasion, and was treated like a princess for today. Kaylee had made the protein cake, and they had even gone out for gifts. Usually, a birthday on Serenity was a strictly cake affair, but Kaylee had talked most of the crew members into getting the girl gifts, since River had been denied most of the other fun aspects of life while she was at the Academy.
River squished up her eyes and made a wish, then blew all eighteen candles out with in one breathe. She was all grown up now in the eyes of the law. River opened her eyes and looked around. "Where's the knife to cut the cake."
"Don't be givin' her no knives," Jayne warned, though in the past few months after the bounty hunter, he had taken a more mellow attitude where River was concerned.
"For the cake, not for you. Besides: ew," River dead-panned, looking pointedly at him in the seat to her left. "Jayne flavored cake would not taste good. Too gamey."
She made to poke at him unappetizingly with her fork, and he swatted her away. The crew laughed at the interplay, and Kaylee went about dividing the cake up into equal slices.
"So, what'd'ja wish for?" Wash asked, as he bounced in his seat, eager for his piece of the cake.
"She can't tell, silly!" Kaylee chastised. "If she tells, it won't come true. Them's the rules; everybody knows that."
"Sorry," Wash apologized with much mock shame. "I forgot. No telling….How about a hint?"
"River leaned in as if she could share a secret with the man at the far end of the table without everyone else hearing. "It involves…bells," she stage whispered.
"Ah…of course." Wash nodded. "Bells. Because that's a wonderful hint."
"It would be if you knew what I wished for," River pointed out.
"I suppose now would be the time for presents, yes?" Shepherd Book asked. River nodded, taking up Wash's earlier bouncing, and held out her hands for the first gift.
The Preacher reached under his chair and pulled out an inch-thick, floppy parcel wrapped in simple brown paper and tied with string knotted into a bow. "Happy Birthday, River."
She reached out and snatched it from the Shepherd's hands and tore the string off. She remembered that her mother had always made her carefully unwrap her presents as a child, and had a thought to do the same now, but soon decided that her parents could go stick their proper etiquette way up their pi-gu's for all she cared. River tore the paper away from the gift to reveal several magazines—science journals. They were all from different disciplines, and all from within the last three months. Quantum physics, genetics, astronomy, and chemistry.
"Oooooo. 'New discoveries made in negative energy research,'" she read. "Much thanks."
"This one's from us," Zoë announced and handed River a rectangular package with wrapping that the younger woman suspected Wash had done by the bright, vaguely tropical feel of those flowers on the paper.
Inside the bright paper was a box that had a handle on one long end, and latches on the other. River flipped the latches open and found a vast array of colored pencils, good paints—in tubes—three brushes, and even oil pastel crayons. She grinned up at her gifters. "This will keep me busy for a while," she promised them. "Thank you."
"Mine next! Mine next!" Kaylee squealed. She brought out a bigger, flatter, longer box, and passed it down the birthday girl. When River opened it, she found what she had known was in there: a new dress in shimmery green material. Kaylee giggled. "Okay. So it's not much of a surprise since you were with me when I bought it, but at least this way we know it definitely does fit!"
Everyone shared the joke, and then Simon handed his sister his gift. "It's not…well, I think I could have done better. I hope you like it, anyway."
It wasn't even in a box, and it wasn't well wrapped, so River didn't feel too bad about tearing into her present. Under the plain white paper was a stuffed animal—a stuffed pig, to be exact, with a curly plush tail and small, black, button eyes. River tipped her head to the side as she regarded it. The gift was meant for a child, but the sentiment was there. "Thank you, Simon. Perhaps next year you will get me something age-appropriate." She smiled at him to ease the sting of her comment. "I shall call him Mr. Pig."
Mal drew everyone's attention by sitting up noisily, wiping his mouth with his napkin, and throwing it down onto his empty plate. "I don't see why every one of you is babyin' this young woman. She is lazy. She don't take no part in the jobs we do. She is suckin' up our limited funds and not doin' a lick of work to make up for it. From now on, Miss River, I expect you to do your share of the chores around here." He held up a hand to Simon's ready protest. "If she's to be a part of this crew, then she does the work—when she's able. I'll expect you to do the dishes twice a week, help make dinners when it's your turn, and take a hand to the cargo bay every once in a while, dong ma?"
It was the best present the Captain could have given her. She was a part of the crew. She was earning her keep. She belonged. "Yes, sir," River answered eagerly.
"Good." He nodded.
"Oh! And one more thing." Kaylee glanced over at the Captain, her face unsure if what was coming next would hurt him. The last thing she ever wanted was to hurt him. "You know how me an 'Nara…how I keep in touch with her?"
Mal did have to look down, and he shifted in his seat uncomfortably. Once he had cleared his throat and looked up, he motioned for Kaylee to go on.
"Well, anyways, I told her 'bout us throwin' ya a party," she told River, "and she sent'cha a gift, too. She had to send it to me, 'cause, ya know, fugitive and all." Kaylee said apologetically and handed her a thick box. It was heavy, too, River discovered. When she opened it, the first thing she saw, on top of a lot of packing foam chips, was a letter.
Dear Boa Mei,
Happy Birthday. The law says that you are a full fledged adult now, but true maturity comes not from the number of years you have lived, but the amount of living you have done in those years. You have had so much of life thrust upon you, but you remain one of the most beautiful, talented, and caring people I have ever met. I am so proud of how far you have come in the short time that I have known you, and I hope that you will continue to strive to overcome your past. Do not let the cruelty of others dampen that wonderful spirit of yours.
As for your gift, I hope you like it. Only a few days after Kaylee told me about your party, I went to a charity auction and when I saw these, and in what I believe is your size, I had to get them. Don't get too excited; they're nothing special. No one famous wore these. But something I hope you will love is included at the bottom of the box, as well.
River read the letter silently, and then pushed aside the foam S's that protected the gift. It was a pair of toe shoes that lay amongst the foam. They were white, and a little worn around the heavy toe that allowed for prolonged time en pointe. "Shiny," River whispered, and then held her gift up so that everyone could see, and so that she could get to the bottom of the box.
"Perfect gift," Mal muttered.
River glanced sharply at him, warning not to ruin her day. She turned and looked back into the box for the second half of her gift. There was a picture there, half coved still by packaging material. River pulled it out and discovered the holographic action picture of a ballerina, complete with autograph. Her ecstatic squeal punctuated the room as she tried not to squeeze the picture too hard and rumple it, therefore disconnecting the hologram-generators in the fibers of the paper.
"What is it?" Jayne asked, trying to see the paper the girl was so happy about.
"It's Illiana Ampte!" Seeing that this meant nothing to the others in the room, River explained. "Prima ballerina. Famous in the Core. She's played Odette in five different productions of Swan Lake. She's Shaharizad and Madam Butterfly and Cinderella and Giselle. She is great. She's a swan, a gazelle, music in form." River turned the picture so that they could see the clip of Illiana play. "She's my hero!"
Everyone leaned in to see the tall blonde dance across the floor of some stage, go up on one toe, her other foot high over her head, and then begin again as the clip restarted. The autograph read:
"She's hot," Jayne observed, for which he was glared at by most of the occupants of the table. He shrugged. "What?"
River didn't take offence. "She is very beautiful," she agreed, almost sad. "Used to imagine I was her." She stared down at the autographed picture for a few seconds.
"So, you gonna try on them shoes, or what?" Kaylee asked.
River snapped out of her musing and grinned again. She pulled her feet up onto the chair to slip the first shoe on. Like most days, she had gone barefoot, so there was no need to take off those big, clunky combat boots. Once one was on, she laced it up her calf and tied it up in back, then moved on to the next to repeat the process. When she stood, she made a loud clomping on the metal.
River took a breath deep into her lungs and positioned her feet, one in front of the other, toes pointed outward. Then up she went. Once on her toes, she brought her legs together, so that they made one long stem, and slowly she raised her hands above her head to form a circle.
She looks like a flower, Kaylee thought; but it was the bright flash that lit up in Jayne's mind that made River lose her balance—a thing unheard of!—and have to quickly return to a normal stance, one hand on the back of her chair to steady herself.
When Simon made to bolt up and come to her side, River waved him back down. "Should have stretched first. Long time since I've been on my toes. Muscles are unused to the strain."
As she maneuvered back into her seat, she flicked a glance to Jayne and found him staring at the table. She didn't want to press to find out what that flash had been, but the temptation, spurred on by curiosity, ate at her.
Jayne kept his eyes on the table for a few more seconds. When she had stood up like that…with her arms over her head, it hit a little too close to home. He looked up again, and found all eyes on him. He was the only one that hadn't given River a present yet. Most of them were probably figuring that he hadn't gotten her anything. Jayne cleared his throat and reached under his seat to pull out the same box that his mother had sent him his hat in.
Before River could even take it, though, Mal cut in. "Wait!" He gave his mercenary a warning look. Jayne had a tendency to give…inappropriate gifts. "It's not any kind of weapon, is it?"
"I know, 'no touching guns'," he said.
"Any kind of weapon, Jayne," Mal reiterated. "Knives, small grenades, a sling shot."
"Did'ja not hear what I said about not givin' her no knives?"
"So it's not a weapon?"
"No!" both Jayne and River answered at the same time. Jayne cut a look over to the girl. She didn't know what the gift was, did she? It'd take all the point out of it if she'd done that weird brain thing and peaked. She didn't look like she knew, though. She just looked as annoyed at the Captain as he was. Good.
"Alright, alright. It's not anything else that River shouldn't be gettin', is it?"
"Alright." Mal sat back in his seat and held his hands up in front of him. "Go on ahead then. Happy birthday."
"Yeah," Jayne mumbled. "Here. Take it."
"Thank you," River told him, sincerely. Despite the truce and the subsequent…what? friendship, she supposed…that had sprung up between the two of them, River hadn't expected to get a present from Jayne. This was going to be interesting.
There was no wrapping paper. The box just had the lid folded down and under so that it stayed shut. It was heavier than Inara's had been, which caught River unprepared, and she had to quickly take it in both hands to keep from dropping it. Once she had set it down on the table in front of her, she opened the top and confronted yet more packaging material—little crinkled strips of paper over top of some bulky shape beneath. River cleared away the paper on top and revealed a wood carving.
Everyone leaned in to try and see what it was. Jayne leaned back in his seat, very uncomfortable.
Very gently, River slipped both of her hands into the box and brought out a fragile ballerina, no more than a foot tall. It was made of a single block of oak, polished so that it glowed in the dim light. Her arms were up over her head, framing it like a halo. It must have taken forever, and Jayne would have to have been so careful not to break the delicate spires. The ballerina's tutu stood straight out from the body, and even had ruffles. Her legs were together, pointed, as if on toe shoes, and served as the supporting pillar that flowed into an inch-thick, cylindrical base. The face was blank, but tiny etches indicated hair flowing back into a bun.
"She shines, Jayne," River whispered. "You made her shine."
For the life of him, Jayne couldn't figure out if she meant the carving, or herself because the smile on her face made her look like she was glowing. "Yeah, well…." He shifted and cleared his throat. "I just didn't want to go an' spend money on somethin' ya was probably gonna break when ya threw it across the room on one a'yer 'bad days'." He even did the finger quotes.
"Jayne!" Kaylee exclaimed.
"Wouldn't," River answered in a murmur, still focused on the statue. She blinked back to the reality and looked up at Jayne. "Best gift ever."
Now Jayne was very, very uncomfortable, so he pushed out from the table. "If we're done now, I'm gonna go…ya know…that'a way."
God, that sounded lame even to his own ears. What the hell was wrong with him? Rather than think about it, Jayne stood up and headed for his bunk. He could feel every gorram one of them staring at his back, but he made it like he didn't feel nothin', and climbed down to his quarters as easily as any other night.
"Well, guess that wraps up this party," Wash noted. "Happy birthday, River."
"Come on," Kaylee said, walking over to River. "I'll help you carry your stuff." She picked up the science journals, the art supplies, and the dress, which was still in the box. River carefully set the ballerina back in her box and closed the box in order to carry her more safely. Then she took up the autograph and the plush piggy that Simon had given her. She still had the toe shoes on, so that made carrying them a lot easier.
Kaylee bumped her friend's hip playfully and leaned in. "So? How'd ya like yer party?"
"Shiny," River responded, the undefeated grin once again claiming territory.
Kaylee's own smile dimmed under her crawling curiosity. She looked down at the box that held the tiny ballerina, then back over her shoulder to the crew's bunks, and then over at River, dieing for an explanation. The younger woman gave her a significant look, and then glanced over at both her brother and the Captain. Not now, was the clear message. Kaylee nodded and waited until the two had reached River's room before she asked her questions. Luckily, Simon had clean-up duty tonight, so he wasn't around to stop her.
"What was that about? Jayne made you a present. An' I don't care what he said about not wantin' ta spend money on somethin' you'd break, that don't explain it."
River placed the box on her bed, and put the stuffed animal up by her pillow before she answered Kaylee's question. "He's very green right now. It's confusing."
The mechanic shook her head. "Is green good or bad?"
"I don't know," she said, quite honestly. "He is embarrassed about showing softness in public." She shrugged. "Didn't even expect a gift from him. Opened the box…and there I was."
Kaylee thought she meant 'there it was.' That wasn't what River had meant at all. She had articulated exactly what she had meant, for once. She didn't even need to dig around in Jayne's mind to find that out. His over-flow was enough, and she remembered the flash in his mind when she had tested out the gift from Inara.
Jayne had heard he needed to get her a present for her birthday. He had decided to make her something, for whatever reasons he gave himself. He had gone on the Cortex and looked up pictures of ballerinas, found one, and used it as his model to carve the statue. No matter who the picture he used as his basis was of, it was her he was carving the entire time. Every thought had been about her; about the way she moved, and stood, and looked. He had been concentrating on her, knowing that the gift was for her. He had unconsciously imbued his carving with his thoughts of her. He had given her herself.
"So…your sayin' ya don't know why Jayne just up and decided ta make you a hand-made carving of a ballerina?" Kaylee needled.
River shrugged. "Better to ask him than ask me."
Kaylee showed that she didn't much believe that River had no idea what was going on, but she let her friend slide, just this once. But she was going to keep her eye on this. It was too good to just let go.
"Alright, then. Fine. Don't tell me." She stuck her tongue out at River. "I got work to do, anyway."
River took her presents out of Kaylee's hands, adding her own goofy face to the friendly antagonism. When the engineer was out of sight, River went about putting her things away. The dress went in the closet. The toe shoes came off, and they went in the closet, too—at the bottom, on the floor board. The art supplies she put in one of the drawers under her mattress, as did the science journals, along side her other colored pencils and pad of drawing paper.
She knelt on her bed and secured her autographed picture of Illiana Ampte between the wall and the board that made up the shelf. River considered putting her ballerina carving up there as well, but didn't trust the luck that Serenity had. The first time they had to run from Reavers or Feds, her carving would come tumbling down, and either break, or give her a concussion. Instead, she kept the box by her bed, on the floor, with the lid open.
After only a moment of staring at it, River couldn't resist picking it up again to study it. She followed the grain of the wood with her eyes and her finger. She ran her hands over the arms, and the head, and the body, and the legs, knowing that this was her, and Jayne had surely done the same as he was carving it. It gave her goosebumps.
Jayne had seen her as a child, as crazy, as dangerous, as all three together, but this was not any of those things. This was an adult, a talented dancer, a graceful woman. But there was no face to the carving.
"The lines are still blurry," she murmured. "I'm caught somewhere. I have not yet emerged. What else may hap, to time I will commit.°°"
°° Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare. Act I, scene ii, line 60.
Boa Mei—female cousin