Title: Shiang Jing Ping
(or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Shakespeare)Fandoms:
Firefly/Slings & ArrowsNotes:
The planet names and Mandarin translations (bottom of the story) are from Serenity Role Playing Game
, which is a reasonable facsimile of canon — or perhaps it’s a reasonable index to canon. This takes place after Serenity
(the movie, not the pilot episode), so if you haven’t seen that, you may be confused by one or two things. Disclaimers:
Joss Whedon created Firefly
, and Susan Coyne (as far as I can tell) created Slings & Arrows
. Fox Television has certain rights to Firefly
, and Rhombus has certain rights to Slings & Arrows
. I have the right to vote and plan to exercise that right come Election Day.
“Where’s the rest of it?”
River ignored Captain. His noise was mostly ever just that. Only time she started to worry was when his noise shot out with bright, sharp shards, but that wasn’t today. Today, his noise was coated in sticky red, the kind that took forever to get out of hair and clothes.
She thought about warning the man that the sticky red was a problem.
And then she thought about something else. No use wasting words, not when Captain already had a plan. Everybody knew that once Captain had a plan, weren’t no power in the ’verse strong enough to sway him from it. Unless maybe that power looked and sounded a lot like Inara. Or Zoe. Sometimes even Kaylee.
She drifted toward the trunk. The man brought it with him, but Captain would be —
“You! Get away from that! It’s mine!” The man’s words washed over River, tickling her a little on the back of her neck, and she giggled.
“Not by my reckoning.” River didn’t look up to see it — she didn’t have to — but she knew all the same that Captain put his hand on the man’s chest and shoved him toward Jayne. “You offered me a hundred credits to get you to Bellerophon, and I accepted. Unless the other eighty-six you owe me is in that trunk, it’s mine ’til you pay me fair and square.”
“But you don’t understand!
River turned her ears off to the rest of the words. The man didn’t look or sound anything like Inara or Zoe or Kaylee, so the trunk was Captain’s, and he wouldn’t mind if she looked through it some. It was locked, but that wasn’t anything to worry about. The combination came into River’s head as easy as a bird flew in the sky, and when it opened up at her touch —
“River?” Simon squatted next to her, and dull yellow puffs of his worry got between her eyes and the trunk. “What is it?”
She gave him her biggest, best smile to make him feel better. “There’s so many worlds in here!”
“What?” River ignored Captain’s question and pulled a dress from the trunk.
“It looks like theatrics, Captain.”
Simon stood up and went away, which was all that River really wanted at that moment. It was selfish, she knew, to want to discover these things all by herself, and she supposed some day, she ought to be sorry about that. For now, though, there were brave new worlds before her. She reached down a little deeper and pulled out a sword. There was a lot of noise over that until Simon plucked it from her hand to show Captain it wasn’t a real sword. The way Simon acted might have been worth a pout if she hadn’t found Oliver so quickly.
She picked him up with both hands and held him above her head. “Alas! Poor Oliver. I knew him not, Simon.”
Captain’s voice turned to baby poop brown when he said, “Please tell me that isn’t real.”
“Real as real can be,” River said. When Simon reached out to take Oliver, she clutched him to her breast. “Can’t have.”
Simon put his hands up in pax. “I won’t take it from you. But could I take a closer look at it? Maybe touch it?”
River considered Simon’s request. His dull yellow puffs of worry were getting thicker, which River didn’t like at all, because they always made her choke a little.
“You can look, but you can’t have.”
“That’s fine.” Simon got as close as he could then stood up again to talk to Captain. “I’ll have to take it to the infirmary to be certain, but I’m pretty sure it’s a human skull, and an old one at that.”
“Of course it’s real!”
River glared at the man then caressed Oliver to let him know she would take care of him from now on and not to worry. No power in the ‘verse was going to make her give up her new friend, now that she’d rescued him.
“You mind explaining that, Mr. Spakter?” The sticky red in Captain’s voice was starting to harden a little.
“That’s Oliver Wells’ skull.” Everyone but River stared at the man. She knew all about Oliver, but they wouldn’t. Couldn’t. “The
Oliver Wells. From Earth That Was? He was only the greatest Shakespearean director of all time!”
“Geoffrey was better, truth be told.”
River cocked her head at Oliver’s pretend self. He was standing just behind the trunk. “Geoffrey who?”
“Geoffrey Tennant. He took over the New Burbage Festival after my unfortunate accident.” Oliver smiled at River. “You’re the first person I’ve been able to speak to in nearly three hundred years.”
“That’s because I’m shiang jing ping
. She reached out then pulled her hand back, knowing all of a sudden she didn’t want to not-touch the part of him that wasn’t really there. Best to leave some things alone.
“River? Who are you talking to?”
Without looking at Simon to answer, she said, “Oliver Wells. He says Geoffrey Tennant was a better director.”
“That ai chr jze se duh fohn diang gho
! Everybody knows
he was just riding on the good will generated by the untimely death of Wells.”
“Doc?” Captain’s voice didn’t sound good. River clutched Oliver to her even tighter than before and started moving away slowly. “I thought you said that medicine we got from Greenleaf would get her to stop making invisible friends.”
Worried now, River looked up at Simon and shook her head a little. He frowned. “I’m not sure that’s what’s happening.”
“Then what is
happenin’? We ain’t exactly got time to coddle her right now.”
“I think —” Simon frowned then stepped up to Captain to whisper in his ear. River tried hard not to hear it, because she remembered Mama saying eavesdroppers never heard good about themselves, but she couldn’t help it. Simon’s voice came to her as clear and loud as if he spoke directly into her own ear. “She might be reading something from the skull.”
Captain glared at Simon, and if River didn’t know better, she might have thought his noise would turn to cut-’til-you-bleed, but she did
know better. And she knew that Simon’s words relaxed Captain some. He glanced back at her and then at Simon before turning to the man.
take my trunk! It’s the only way I have of earning a living.”
Captain stood up straight at that. Everyone knew you didn’t tell Captain what he could and couldn’t do, but right then, River didn’t care much, because she was going to be able to keep Oliver with her no matter what.
“I’m thinking six months working on Beylix will let you earn enough to buy your trunk from me. By that time, it won’t cost you more than a hundred fifty credits.”
“One hundred — that’s robbery!”
River stood up slowly and eased her way out of the cargo bay. They weren’t going to Beylix, she knew that already, but it wouldn’t do to let Captain know she could see that far ahead. It would upset him all over again and take forever to set things to rights.
Time now was to go to the cockpit and set in the course to Beylix anyway, but do it so they wouldn’t lose too much time when Captain sent them on to Bellerophon again.
Mal noticed when River left the cargo bay. For a lot of good reasons, he’d made it his business to always be aware of her movements on Serenity. Even so, he didn’t let on. Spakter was a might too riled up as it was over his trunk, and Mal wanted the man to be more worried about paying Mal what he owed instead of worrying about a bunch of worthless junk.
Spakter was about to go off on them again when Jayne shut him up by grabbing the back of the fool’s neck and squeezing a little. Mal nodded his thanks to Jayne then said, “What you don’t seem to understand is I could space you now, and wouldn’t be no one to say I’m in the wrong.”
That made Spakter’s eyeballs bulge some — though it mighta been that Jayne was squeezing too hard — and Mal continued. “Could also be I’m willin’ to hunt down the nearest Alliance cruiser and turn you over to them as a stowaway. Do one or the other, I keep your trunk for good.”
Spakter made a noise that sounded like a cat getting strangled. “I drop you at Beylix, on the other hand, you work the scrap heaps for a few months, earn what you owe me plus extra on account of my pain and suffering, and then you get your trunk back, safe and sound.”
The man made another noise, and to Mal’s ears, it sounded like an agreement of sorts. “Thought you might see it my way. Jayne, lock him up in cabin three.”
“Where exactly am I?” Oliver wandered around River’s cabin, looking at the little treasures she’d been collecting lately.
“On Serenity. Best ship in the ‘verse.” She watched him carefully, enjoying that she could without pain or sorrow or surprise. Oliver was easy on her brain. He didn’t send it spiking every which way, like Simon did. Like anyone living did. Oliver was a cool summer breeze blowing over her, and when she talked to him, River almost felt the way she used to before — before —
“I see. I didn’t notice a theater tucked away anywhere, so I’m going to guess that passengers aren’t your primary business.”
“Nope,” she said cheerfully.
“Pity. I was rather hoping to end up with a company that could actually perform.” He smiled at River. “Tell me, my dear — are you truly crazy?”
River thought for a moment, then answered, “‘I am but mad north-northwest: when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.’”
After a long minute or two of staring at her, Oliver asked, “There’s never any wind on Serenity, is there?”
“No. But sometimes, the wind blows the right way when we’re planetside.”
River got up from where she was perched on her bed and did a slow walk around Oliver. She held her hands out, using them to sketch out where he seemed to be, but she didn’t let her hands get any closer than that. Most folks didn’t know it, but leaky brain pans went both ways — stuff leaked in as much as it leaked out — and she really didn’t want Oliver leaking through her, no matter how much she liked him.
“How droll.” Oliver wasn’t like the others. He never seemed to want to keep an eye on what she was doing every single minute, and that made River happy. “Oh well. I’ll enjoy talking with you until your Captain returns my skull to Amos.”
“Spakter.” Oliver stared at her. “The man who owns my skull.”
“Can’t own a man. Law says. Anyway, you’re part of Serenity’s crew now.”
River interrupted absently, “Captain hasn’t said yet, but he will.”
At that, Oliver turned around and ducked his head to catch River’s eye. “Will what?”
“He’ll say you’re crew. Won’t be for another three days, but he will. You always wear that white suit?”
Oliver blinked at River, and just then, a tiny spark of orange flew away from him. River watched as it drifted up to the ceiling then got tugged back to where Oliver’s pretend head was. She tuned back in to hear him say, “... en listening?”
“Now I am.”
“Oh.” River waited. “In that case, why are you so certain your Captain will give my skull to you?”
“Just am is all. Can you wear anything else?”
“Somethin’ you want to tell me about your sister?”
Mal leaned against the doorframe to the infirmary and watched as Doc twitched hard. It was easy enough to see him trying to figure out what to say, how much should be told, and by the time Doc opened his mouth, Mal knew he’d get most of the truth, but not the whole truth. Only question left after that was whether or not Mal needed the rest of it.
“She’s — she seems to be doing better.” He held up a few plastisheets. “Her tests the last couple of days have been remarkable for how close to normal they are.”
“So that medicine from Greenleaf did the trick, right?”
Here was where the lie would be, if it came at all. Mal would be disappointed if it did, though not surprised. He and Doc sparked off each other too much for trust to come easy, especially with River turning everything to da shiong la se la ch’wohn tian
whenever her brain went off without her. Made it downright difficult to keep things stable between him and Doc.
“Uh —” Mal waited. And he stared. Doc sighed loud and heavy. “I would say yes, but it’s too soon for that.”
“I don’t know.”
Mal was shaking his head even before Doc answered. “Don’t go there. Don’t lie to me.”
“I’m not —”
“You might not know for sure, but I’m thinkin’ you got a theory.”
“I want to hear it.” Mal kept his voice low and firm. He’d found it was the best way to spook Doc into the right frame of mind — that being the frame of mind where Doc did what Mal wanted him to do without talking it to death.
“This is going to sound crazy.”
“Most things to do with your sister sound crazy. Don’t mean they ain’t true.” Mal settled in to wait a while longer.
“It’s — it’s gruesome, but I think the skull from Spakter’s trunk might have something to do with it.”
“How so?” Mal didn’t let it show, but the idea of that skull was enough to give him the willies. He’d been thinking that maybe he’d let Spakter have it when they dropped him on Beylix.
Doc fumbled a few times before saying, “She talks to it. And I think it talks back to her.”
“Is this supposed to make me feel better?” Mal straightened up and took a step into the infirmary. “’Cause I gotta tell you, Doc, it doesn’t.”
“Look, I don’t know if she’s really talking to Oliver Wells or if she made up a new friend for herself. All I know for certain is that she’s calmer after she’s played with his skull. She’s coherent.” Doc took a step toward Mal and held out the plastisheets. “You’ve seen it yourself. She’s able to interact with the crew in a way that makes sense after she’s had a couple of hours alone with Oliver.”
“Could we please not call the skull by name?” Mal kept his sour gaze on Doc until he held his hands up in surrender.
“Fine. I won’t. It doesn’t change the fact that River is almost normal these days.”
Mal took a couple of hard breaths. “All right. She keeps the skull. But only as long as it keeps her from acting nuts. Soon as it doesn’t do its job, it’s out the airlock. Dohn luh mah
“Crystal, Captain.” Mal turned to leave when Doc added, “How are you going to convince Spakter not to ask for it six months from now?”
“Won’t have to.” Mal gave Doc a grin over his shoulder. “Spakter’s going to give it to me right now.”
“Why would he do that?”
“I’ll take him straight to Bellerophon if he does.”
“Just like that?”
“Yep. Mei wen ti
In her cabin, River smiled at Oliver. “I have to go now. Captain’s going to want me to change course to Bellerophon.”
“I suppose I should be upset over that. As bad an actor as he was, at least Amos was
an actor.” Oliver looked sad, and a tiny puff of blue hovered around his left ear.
“Whole ‘verse is a stage, Oliver,” River said with a sunny smile.
“I suppose you’re right.” He returned her smile and clapped his hands together. “Chop-chop. The sooner you change course, the sooner we can work on Hamlet
“And you’ll tell me more about Geoffrey and Ellen?”
1 Shiang jing ping
2 Ai chr jze se duh fohn diang gho
: Crazy dog in love with its own feces.
3 Da shiong la se la ch’wohn tian
: Explosive diarrhea of an elephant.
4 Dohn luh mah
: Are we clear?
5 Mei wen ti
: No problem.