Title: Stories for the Edge of Space
Characters: River, Simon, Crew
Disclaimer: Not mine. Kindly do not sue.
A/n: allusions to events in Jaynestown, written for the Shakespeare challenge at ff_friday; slightly over the word limit, but I cut what I could. Epigraph by Montgomery Clift. Crossposted for the firefly_15_fics prompt 'broken'; lines from Henry IV part 1.
Summary: in which Shakespeare is no fit reading material for decent folk
"The only line that's wrong in Shakespeare is 'holding a mirror up to nature.' You hold a magnifying glass up to nature....If it were a mirror, we would have no art."
On their next landfall, when Jayne leaves to buy supplies, Simon takes his sister and goes in search of a replacement Bible. He’s tried explaining the purpose of their errand—“you can’t just spoil other people’s things, River”—but River sulks and insists that the Shepherd’s book had been wrong, she had been doing him a favor by fixing it.
“It was broken…” River whines for the hundredth time as they enter a grimy little shop whose stained sign advertises JUNK FOR CHEAP. You can still find actual paper-and-ink books, sometimes, on these out-of-the-way moons.
“It wasn’t!” Simon snaps and River flinches at his tone, ducking behind the dark curtain of her hair. “Mei-mei,” he sighs, forcing himself to stay calm. “Just because people don’t understand something…” He kneels in front of her on the ramshackle porch until she finally meets his eyes. “Doesn’t mean it needs to be fixed.”
“Don’t mean it can be fixed,” Jayne observes mildly to a porch beam, “Some things’re just busted for good." Simon shoots him a dirty look. "What?" Jayne protests.
Simon lets River wander while he unearths a few volumes on a dusty shelf in the back the jumbled store. He thinks longingly of the Master Library on Osiris, of the thousands of neatly categorized discs and the shiny reading terminals. Of course, there’s been no rain on this planet for two months, according to
Scanning the titles, he remembers a MedAcad classmate theorizing that only the most popular titles from Earth-that-Was were published in sufficient quantities to survive this long. That would certainly explain why most book-texts are such trash: bodice-rippers and thrillers littering the universe long after the good stuff has vanished. Bane Johannsen, that was the guy’s name; he had all kinds of crazy conspiracy theories and reasons for why things are the way they are. Whatever happened to Bane? Simon has just returned his attention to the shelf—the Bible was widely published; surely there must be at least one copy on this yu bun duh—when River shrieks.
Simon is never sure exactly what set her off. By the time he reaches the front of the store, his sister is nearly hysterical, shouting unintelligibly at a clay punchbowl while the proprietor, a small, leering man who smells like dry tea, shouts at her.
“River, don’t—” Simon begins. River dashes around him to crouch behind a set of crooked shelves displaying mismatched crockery. The tail of her skirt catches the edge of a rough board and sends two ugly urns leaping to the deaths.
“What in the gorram ‘verse is all the ruckus?” Jayne appears in the doorway, takes a threatening step into the cramped little store. Sun-blind, he slams into a low table holding carved stones and sends them skittering across the floor.
Yelping, hands pressed tightly to her ears, River dives away from the noise, colliding with a huge basket of mended knit socks. Scrabbling across the dusty floorboards, she starts pelting Jayne with socks, frighteningly accurate.
“Hey!” Jayne protests, ducking.
River turns to run, crashes into a hanging display of moth-eaten tablecloths. Her flailing tangles her in the lacework, slowing her just long enough. He wraps his arms around her, but she’s stronger than he remembers, twisting and writhing. For a terrible moment, Simon thinks she’ll slip away from him and then—he can feel it happen—the fight simply goes out of her. River sags into him, her shivers like convulsions. “The boiling,” she whispers into his collar. “The boiling, the boiling.”
Simon is so caught up in soothing his sister that Jayne’s herded them halfway back to the ship before he realizes he’s still holding the book. He stops so suddenly that he nearly trips Jayne.
“I…didn’t, uh, pay for this,” Simon says, holding up the book.
Jayne snorts, disgusted. “Well, can’t reckon the shop would be glad to see us back. Couldn’t even steal something worth having. Had to snatch a ruttin’ book.” He studies the dark blue cover. “Shaykespeerie: th’ his-tor-ees,” he sounds out. “Huh,” he looks appraisingly at Simon and the doctor can feel himself blushing. Naturally, the one volume he had inadvertently stolen would contain both bodice-ripping and intrigue, all in a single, ungrammatical package. Simon’s heard about the works of Shakespeare, although he’s never actually read any: depraved books from Earth-that-Was, full of deceit and love triangles and scandal. Why, back on Osiris, Father wouldn’t even allow any of the man’s books in the house.
* * *
“Doc did a little shopping,” Jayne chortles, dropping the book onto the galley table when they reach Serenity.
Wash glances at the book, does a double-take. “Shakespeare? Something you wanna share, doctor?” Zoe slaps the back of his head. “Not that I’d want to hear it,”
Inara reaches for the volume.
“Seems your type of book,” Mal concedes under his breath, his eyes on the gun he’s oiling.
The companion pulls her hand back as though burnt, but her face remains expressionless. “Really, captain,” she says loftily, “I’m surprised you’re that familiar with any type of book.”
“I read,” Mal says flatly.
Inara shrugs. “Well, I guess you must do something to while away those long, lonely nights.”
Mal looks up at that, a retort on the tip of his tongue, but River darts past to present the volume to the Shepherd.
“Book for Book,” she says, delighted.
The Shepherd scans the title and glances at Simon over River’s head, eyebrows raised. “You bought me Shakespeare?”
“Not so much with the bought,” Jayne smirks. Simon feels himself blushing again. Shakespeare for a Shepherd! Might was well give the man Inara’s
“I, uh…it,” he stutters, but Book’s gentle attention is back on River.
“Now, you promise me this one isn’t broken?” he teases.
River looks at him quizzically, not getting the joke. “They’re all broken,” she says, stacking the Shakespeare on top of Book’s mangled Bible. “But these can be broken together.”
* * *
Three weeks later, an ice storm grounds them on the moonbelt beyond Garcia.
“Crash,” says River calmly, laying down three tiles. “Bang.”
They all look at her, alarmed, and in the sudden silence, they hear the thunder of an avalanche hurtling into a distant chasm.
There’s another avalanche, this one closer, and the sound of Inara idly flipping pages is loud in the quiet that follows. “So shaken as we are,” the companion reads, her voice, trained in elocution and epic poetry, carrying through the quiet ship. “So wan with care, find we a time for frighted peace…”