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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Fluff and nonsense, and River and Inara play cards against the crew. It's not who will win, but how'll they pay. One-shot, M/I because... because.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1076 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
River Plays a Hand
* Note: Characters and such belong to Mr. Whedon & co. Mistakes and follies are mine.
Inara was not one to get headaches. Or colds or flues or sicknesses. But she had not been sleeping well for some string of nights. There was a fizzing, always just outside her head. She took all the pins out of her hair, wore it down and loose. Made green tea. Then white. Then paced to the kitchen to borrow a blend with more caffeine. She hadn’t been planetside in... she ticked off days in her head. Near seven weeks. Freedom of the black was bought with many prices. Long trips through space left her feeling fuzzy. Like the line demarking her skin and the air was getting thinner. Her ears popped, leaving moments of silence broken only by a one-pitch hum. It was killing her sleep cycles. And she could not focus. She needed a city- streets, shops, sun.
She was remaking her bed for the third time, unable to get the corners right, when River sat down on top of the covers. “Come play with us.”
“Play what, sweetie?”
“Cards. All lined up. Seated and waiting, waiting for the last match made.”
“Isn’t Kaylee playing with you?”
“Reshuffled.” Inara smiled at River’s quip. The girl smiled back, but tugged on her hand.
“Come play.” And Inara, because River’s cool touch confirmed her skin was still attached, that it hadn’t floated a bit beyond her arm, followed the girl to the galley and saw the crew was indeed seated and waiting.
“Partner.” River held out her hand and gestured to Inara, as though she had pulled her from a silk hat.
“River. Deal was you play with Kaylee.”
“River tells me you sent Kaylee to the engine room to finish some project,” Inara stated, looking at Mal.
“She ain’t done?” Wash looked at Mal, amused.
“Mal, that’s gonna take all day and half the night to finish, ‘specially given the state of what spares she’s got to work with.”
“It looks as though Inara is a necessary stand-in, Cap’n,” Book offered. Inara pressed her hands firmly against the table, running over the rules of the game in her head, gladdened to find she could think, even concentrate, on numbers without a problem.
“This here’s a bad idea,” Mal fake-whispered to Jayne.
“What? Girls can’t play cards.” Inara raised her eyebrows and sat down. Looked over the pairs. Mal and Jayne, Simon and Book, Wash and Zoe, herself and River. She looked over at River.
“Can you play cards?”
“Depends on the table.”
“Well then. Whose deal?”
“I told him it was a bad idea.” Mal leaned over the railing, watching his crew make wholesale fools of themselves. Well, just Jayne and River, really. And even River did not look foolish so much as impossibly graceful.
“You could have just paid up.” Inara pointed out, leaning next to him.
“Are you kiddin’? Pile of coin you two racked up...don’t think a one of us could cover what we owed.”
“One wonders why you were so willing to bet it all, then.”
“One wonders, yes.”
“Captain. Do you mean to insinuate that my partner and I had some sort of unfair advantage over you and the others during the game?
“Unfair advantage? ‘Liance trained reader and a top of her class companion? What could they possibly know about cards and the wicked men that play them. Beginners’ luck, I’m sure.”
“Just so. Besides, River didn’t have to propose alternate means of payment. Even if they did prove quite enjoyable.”
“That looked like some supper Shepherd and the Doc cooked there.”
“It was. Knowing Wash and Zoe would clean up made things all the better.”
“Still don’t quite see why you’d share it with Kaylee and not the rest of us.”
“Kaylee didn’t get to play on your orders.”
“I see. Bet she’s... no wait, I’m giving up that habit. Evil card-sharks about and the like, out to rob a man blind.” Inara bit her lip to control her wide smile and refrained from answering. They watched River in silence for a while. She managed to point her toes, even in combat boots. And she was laughing, despite the fact she was out of breath, having just cartwheeled down the length of the cargo bay, in an effort to show Jayne what she meant by after-dinner entertainment.
“I ain’t some gorram circus freak.”
“You owe us a not insignificant stack of coins, Jayne,” Inara pointed out. He shook his head, snorted, but did a handstand, to River’s now right-side-up clapping and the rest of the crew’s catcalls—Zoe and Wash were near doubled over each other with laughter.
“Bad idea. Ma hou pao,” Mal called down. Inara whistled.
River came up the stairs breathless and shining, after talking to the crew and threatening Jayne with fair-ground games. “Your turn, Cap’n” she said to Mal, still standing next to Inara. The two had merely shouted and laughed with the crew during all of their games, never leaving the platform.
“My turn? Thought we were in charge of entertainment, which I know you got plenty of, making Jayne dance around like a puppet on string.”
“First act. Needs a second.”
“Little one, you missed your chance to have me play the fool, tonight. ‘Sides, you look right sleepy your ownself.”
“Exactly, Cap’n. Bedtime story.”
“I think, Mal, River is stating you can pay your debt with a bedtime story.”
“I gotta tell you a story?”
“ Good, ‘cuz I ain’t sure...”
“37 credits, 4 bits, owed. To each.” Both Inara and River held out their right hand, in unison.
“No, now, River, it ain’t—”
“Story it is.” Inara smiled at his easy surrender.
“I’ll leave you two, then. River, thank you for the invitation. It was just what I needed.” She wondered over that statement walking back to her shuttle, wondered what it was that made the night bearable. Enjoyable. Utterly lacking the sense of coming apart, wearing too thin. She shrugged and got ready for bed. She was not sleepy, but she was not about to jump out of her skin. It was a step in the right direction.
She had just pulled back the still imperfectly folded sheets when Mal knocked at the door.
“Qing jin?” she said, and stood still as he walked in.
“River’s story’s done.”
“I trust she liked it.”
“Seemed to, as a whole. Don’t reckon she’s got much to compare with. Her brother ain’t much for story-telling, and somehow I’m thinkin’ her parents weren’t like to...”
“Your patience is a kindness. I’m sure she appreciated the story. She probably needed it.”
“I pay my debts.” They both just stood still, looking at each other.
“I was planning on going to sleep, Mal. Is there something else...”
“River sent me here.”
“Says I’m to tell you a story, too. Says she’ll know if I don’t. She gonna ask you about it, or ya think she can—”
“Mal, I don’t need a bedtime story.”
“And I don’t need to lose credits when I can talk my way outta it.”
“Best stories told at night.”
“Can I pay you not to?” Inara watched Mal’s face lose warmth. He had been serious. Or something. “Mal, wait.” It had been a good day. Such a good day with him. “I was joking. I’ll take the story.” She sat down on her bed, intentionally bouncing a bit. Her smile was as bright as a young girl’s.
“All right,” Mal said, sitting down at the edge of the covers, once Inara had slid under them. “What’s the story about?”
“I have to tell you?”
“No, I mean, what to do you want to hear about?”
“How about the same story you told River?”
“Well, she wanted one that involved dinosaurs, a ballet recital, and a xiang xi description of Jayne’s Vera.”
“That’s a bit disconcerting.”
“Try hearing her say it. So, your story.”
“Something other than that, I suggest.”
“That’s helpful. You’re a helpful person, Inara.”
“I don’t believe River specified anything about making this—“
“Fine. Once upon a time on the Earth-that-was there was a beautiful princess.”
“What was her name?”
“You can’t interrupt.”
“Why not? That count as witty in companion-school?”
“Somehow, criticism from man telling me a bedtime story because a seventeen-year-old girl is holding his marker doesn’t seem to really sting.”
“She didn’t have a name. They called her princess.”
“Everyone in the castle, where she lived. And she didn’t have any sisters. Or brothers. One of kind, she was. Which is why the king and queen could just refer to her as ‘the princess’ in their speeches and the like. So all the peasants and poor folk called her princess, too. Got to be nobody could remember her name in the first place. One day she got tired of it.”
“Tired of what?”
“Of no one knowing her name. So she left. She decided she would go find a place on Earth where someone would call her by her name. And she just up and left it all, because she was very brave, as well as being very beautiful and very wise and you know what, this is dumb story. You want to hear River’s?”
“I like it. It’s making me sleepy.
“You saying I’m putting you to sleep now?”
“In a good way.”
“How’s there a good way to that?”
“Because I haven’t been sleeping well in a while, and this is a nice change.”
“You ain’t sleeping well? For how long? You don’t look sick, what—”
“Mal, it’s just being shut in for so long. Nothing but spaceports for the last seven weeks.”
“How long what?”
“How long you ain’t got sleep?”
“A week maybe? Five days? Why is this—”
“A week? Wode tian...gorramit, Inara, speak up if you need to touch dirt. We’ve been by half a dozen moons could have held us for a few.”
“Honestly, Mal. I’m not sick, just restless. Which your story was easing, remember? And this discussion is not.”
“Fine. Right. So the princess—wei...you ain’t slept in five days?”
“And you...on no sleep... remind me never to play cards with you again. Ever.”
“These are nice suggestions you’re making, but you forget you hate listening to me. Meanwhile, the princess...”
“The princess, right. She’s looking for a guy will know her name. And she walks through all the villages and ranches and is always kind and gracious to the people. But they don’t know her. They call her miss and ma’am and traveler and friend, but never her name.” Mal waited for another interruption, but it did not come.
“Finally she gets to this dirt path, one leading up the side of a big mountain, so high it scratches the ancient blue sky. And she thinks, at the top of this mountain, I will find the person knows my name. So she climbs, and when she gets to the top, it is night, and the stars stretch out and—”
“She meets her prince,” Inara said, somewhere from below the covers, her words slower sounding than usual, fuzzy with sleep.
“No. Not a prince. Not anybody. Just a man. And he says hello, and he calls her by her name...” Mal decided he did not like the way the story is going. Tried to change the tone.
“And she’s so shocked to hear it she whips around and hits him on the side of the head real hard, because she used to train with the guards, back at the castle.” Inara did not comment or laugh. Damn, Mal thought, wondering how to get out of this.
“He starts cursin’ ‘cuz it really hurt, and he weren’t expecting pain from such a cherry-blossom of a girl. And the princess, well, she’s a mite confounded her own self, not imagining the person knowing her name would be someone like to curse in front of a lady, so she asks him where he learned her name, and he said the stars whispered it to him, said it to him every night, ‘til it were the only prayer he believed in...”
Mal looked down at Inara. Her eyes were shut, her breathing even. “Great,” Mal told himself, “put her to sleep.” Which meant she likely did not catch the last part. He thought he should feel more relieved. And he could not quite stand, leave her curled up and breathing slowly, quiet and peaceful. He kept on with the story.
“She liked that answer, and he knew her name, which is what she wanted, even if things weren’t what she’d been expecting, so she stayed with him on the mountaintop, and ‘course it’s all huan ju yi tang, bai tou xie lao listening to the stars every night. The end.” He brushed some of her hair back off her face, and kissed her forehead, mirroring what he had done for River without thinking, whispering good night. Inara did not move. He sat straight on the bed, watching her. He leaned down again, kissed her temple. Then he was on his feet and out of the shuttle as fast as he could silently leave. Sticking around her weren’t never like to end happily, he thought, cursing, as he climbed down the ladder to his empty bunk.
Inara waited a minute and a half before opening her eyes. She had been sleepy. She had been just about to get some dearly needed sleep. No chance of that now. She flopped around on her bed, ended up staring at the draped ceiling. “Chou wan ba dan,” she said aloud, but most of the anger went out of her, even as she said it. Leaving her sleepless, craving dirt beneath her feet.
Ma hou pao: I told you so.
Shén me?: What?
Qing jin: Come in.
xiang xi: detailed, exact
Wode tìan: Oh God (oh heavens).
huan ju yi tang: to gather happily under the same roof
bai tou xie lao: remain a devoted couple to the end of their days.
Chou wan ba dan: lousy bastard
Note II: like hamsters, comments is nice
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