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SCREWTHEALLIANCE

Unfinished Business -- Chapter Twenty-Six
Saturday, August 2, 2008

Inara Serra's Temptaion: The Lady, or the Tiger?


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2368    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Unfinished Business

Chapter Twenty-Six

“So . . . you’re planning a robbery in the middle of an invasion?” Inara asked, incredulously. She was preparing lunch, a light protein stir-fry with rice-like protein on the side, wearing her new shapeless coveralls, her hair up in a simple pony-tail. She still looked more elegant cooking in mufti than most women did made up for a formal affair. “More of a burglary than a robbery, for those of a technical bent,” Jayne replied, digging something unidentifiable out of his teeth with his thumbnail while he watched her. “Only a robbery if there are folk to get robbed. No folk, it’s a burglary.” He suddenly looked up at Inara as if she had just printed “stupid” on her head. “Didn’t you learn nothin’ in whore school?” “I skipped ‘Basic Thuggery’ and took ‘Advanced Muscular Control Techniques’, instead,” Inara shot back, rolling her eyes. Then, just to get a dig in, she hit Jayne where he was weakest. “The things I can do with a ping-pong ball . . .” Jayne stared, open mouthed, at a complete loss for words. “I think it’s a dandy idea,” Kaylee said, slouching in a kitchen chair. “Give Cap’n something to think about, rather than, y’know, Simon and Zoë.” “Robbing a vault is a dandy idea in a firefight?” Inara asked, skeptically. “Actually, no better time,” Kaylee affirmed. “Folk are like to be too busy duckin’ and shootin’ to pay much attention to a simple little burglary. Alarms won’t be an issue, guards either. We get the location, it could go shiny.” “Remember who’s planning this?” Inara pointed out. “Zoë’s not around to be the voice of reason. That leaves Mal in charge of the heavy thinking.” “Ain’t much o’ that to be done,” Jayne said, shaking his head. “Might reconsider, if it weren’t so simplistic. Don’t need no voice o’ reason when the plans pretty fair reasonable at the start!” “But . . . does he really want to be that far from the ship when . . . it happens?” “Everyone’s gotta be somewhere,” Jayne agreed, then paused. “A . . . ping pong ball?” Inara ignored him. “I just think it’s not the best idea,” she sighed, finally. “But then again, I just cook here.” “And mighty tasty fare, too,” Jayne said, as Inara set down a bowl in front of him. He crossed himself quickly and mumbled a blessing, then picked up the chopsticks and tore into the meal with all the grace and charm of a pack of starving dogs. Kaylee was more restrained, but no less appreciative. While she was a passable cook, her talents were definitely better suited to the engine room than the kitchen. And she loved the way Inara cooked. “Way Cap figgers,” Jayne said, his mouth full, “all that tasty loot is gonna get blowed up anyways, so we oughta chew us off a piece for our trouble. First bit o’ sense out o’ this business, y’ask me. No percentage in this job. Just . . . those poor, poor fellas gettin’ all ‘sperimented on . . .” he trailed off, a stricken look in his eye as he commiserated with the prisoners of the Suri Madron. Then he realized what he was doing. “Gorram tree on my ass!” he swore in disgust. “I’m just worried,” Inara dismissed. She didn’t elaborate further. “Oh, it’ll be fine,” Kaylee assured her. “Mal an’ Jayne step out for a bit, come back with cash. All we need is the location of that vault.” “You could just ask,” Inara pointed out, as she fixed Mal’s lunch. He was technically “on watch” according to the schedule posted on the refrigerator, but with Serenity docked there wasn’t much to do. He had disappeared into the cockpit an hour ago, and Inara thought he might be hungry. “I know men are pathological about asking directions, but . . .” “Well Inara, that might be a good way to start out,” Kaylee agreed, “if it wouldn’t raise alarms in them as we asked. Not good play to walk up to an Alliance fella and act all casual while you ask him whereabouts the valuables are located. Been known to raise suspicions in the past.” Jayne snorted. “Heh. Then that’s like to be the first thing Mal does. That Cap’n seems to prefer the unconventional approach. Which is why we end up getting shot in th’ pee goo near every time we try to score . . .” Inara flashed a tight little patient smile to both of them while she picked up the tray that held Mal’s lunch. While she had an inexpert judgment when it came to criminal enterprise – a knowledge that was, despite herself, growing daily – she had to agree with Jayne. Mal’s brilliance at approaching the impossible was also his downfall, oftentimes, and it had led to more than one impromptu shoot-out. And now he was going to rob a vault in the middle of a guaranteed shoot-out. That was either brilliant or idiotic or both, but it was bold. And that gave Inara a thrill she did not want to admit to. That kind of boldness, bravado, audacity, it was electrifying. And to pour it into such a well-muscled form with that maddeningly cocky boyish smile . . . She stopped halfway down the catwalk, startled at the realization that she was actively lusting . . . for Malcolm Reynolds. “Goddess!” she whispered to herself, her gorgeous eyes wide in disbelief. She really was getting aroused at the thought of the Captain, the arrogant, snide, uncultured, ignorant, brutish, sneaky, wisecracking asshole of a captain, doing something so clearly stupid and dangerous and brave and stupid like robbing a vault in the middle of a battle. There was something essentially attractive to such heroic foolhardiness, her brain – and parts south – was telling her. Magnetically attractive. Irresistibly attractive. She was no stranger to men of valor – she had clients who were in the military, especially during the War, and she well knew the heady excitement of bedding a strong man who had risked his life in danger and lived to tell the tale. At first they had been exciting, attractive, manly . . . but after a while she found them just as two-dimensional as her old, wealthy clients, just slightly more interesting. Risking your life (and, she had to admit, being willing to take a life) made most men more confident and secure, traits almost any woman would find favor with. But there were plenty of boring idiots for whom such battlefield tales were really the only intriguing thing about him. Not Malcolm Reynolds. That man had layers she could only suspect. Simple and complex, gentle and violent, outrageously humorous and deadly serious – he was like a big ball of yarn, each thread concealing a dozen below it. And those glutes . . . Stop it, Inara! She chided herself. You’re behaving like an infatuated schoolgirl, not a seasoned professional Companion! You are in control of yourself! she insisted. She had just about convinced herself, too, using meditation to force her thoughts back to the practical matter at hand. She had almost succeeded, too, when a tiny voice in the back of her mind pointed out a devastating truth: Right now, Inara, you aren’t a Companion. While that knowledge was always there, at the back of her mind, it ran to the fore, now. But it didn’t clobber her with the usual grief, sorrow, worry, and anxiety over her suspended status, as it usually did. It didn’t taunt her with the loss of social status, an income, a profession and a vocation. Instead it pointed out that she was, technically, unbound by the rules of the Guild at the moment. Unbound. She had gloried in the freedom and protection her Guild status gave her, and she had felt vulnerable without its cloak of security. But with her active status came all sorts of arcane rules about how she was to conduct herself, even when she wasn’t entertaining a client. A certain aloofness, a certain polite formality that put up a barrier between her and non-clients was required, lest a Companion be mistaken for a common whore. Or merely a flirtatious woman. At Inara’s prices, the number of men on any given world who could afford her services numbered usually in the hundreds. Yet she had to deal with men every day who had no hope of entertaining such a liaison. Rather than taunt them with what they could not afford, a wise Companion cultivated an aura of untouchability that few civilized men were willing to violate. And a good Companion, the Guild said, did not associate with uncivilized men. Malcolm Reynolds wasn’t very civilized. And Inara wasn’t really a Companion. Suddenly, a new and frightening vista of dangerous opportunity had opened for her. She had been so wrapped up in her anxiety and depression over her suspension that she had not seen it also as a loosening of bonds. For the moment – and, she forced herself to admit, perhaps forever if next-month’s hearing did not go in her favor – she was no more a Companion than Kaylee, or Zoe, or River, or any other woman. That aura of untouchability she had worked so hard to perfect had no basis, now, and she felt guilty and ashamed for some reason for continuing it. She had tried to respond to Kaylee’s inquiry, once, about if the Guild had rules about “dating” – relations for purely social or emotional reasons. She had bit her lip at the time and considered schooling the young woman in the complex and intricate weave of protocol and propriety a Companion must exercise in such affairs – not to mention the discretion involved. To do so would have taken the afternoon, and instead she had merely replied “It’s complicated,” and left it at that. But at the moment all of those protocols had fallen away like dried up leaves. For the first time in her life, Inara didn’t have to play by Guild rules in her personal life – indeed, she could actually have a personal life – and that was a heady thought. She could bed as many men from whatever social class she wanted without regard to their status, income, or economic wealth. She could indulge in any passing fancy she took to a man without recrimination of fear of reproval. She didn’t owe anyone an explanation for her actions anymore. She could rut like a bitch in heat from now until the day of the hearing, and as long as she didn’t charge for the time and attention the Guild couldn’t say anything about it. The thought of a steady stream of robust young men lining up at her shuttle door came to her mind unbidden, and then returned a moment later after she thought she had dispelled it. Her libido was desperate, she knew with cold certainty, and that was clouding her judgment. She shook her head to dismiss the image again, and again it swam back into her mind: a long line of wide-shouldered, strong armed men with big manly hands . . . . . . and every gorram one of them had Mal Reynold’s face on him. Suddenly, the prospect of serving the Captain lunch in the cockpit took on double and triple meanings as the raunchy part of her mind took over for an instant, and with great effort she suppressed it. To do something like that would add . . . complications to an already complicated relationship. It would be a wild, crazy, audacious thing, to bed Mal Reynolds. It would be daring and stupid and passionate, the moral equivalent of staging a robbery in the middle of battle. What was worse, she did not even have the cover that Zoe usually provided. She was not just Mal’s right hand, but also his moral compass on many matters – and affairs of the heart were one of them. Zoe’s usually dour presence kept Mal under guard – but she was gone. It was like the baby-sitter for the cute boy you had a crush on was suddenly called away, leaving nothing standing between her and a lusty, passionate tumble with Mal – a heart-rending, soul-cleansing, back-scratching humpfest of their combined lust and longing, pent up for close to two years, now – there was nothing between her and that but her own conscience. Sheydra’s words came back to her. “You can’t run from your own heart, mei-mei. Not when your heart is the horse you ride to work every day.” That had had been a powerful and damning observation. Companions weren’t expected to lack for a personal romantic life outside of their client base. That really would make them little better than whores. Inara had indulged in personal affairs before, earlier in her career, as she found herself attracted and even infatuated with men too poor to afford her services. There was a danger there, and more than one promising young Companion had ruined her career by a romantic entanglement gone awry. But after a while, as she perfected her craft in the Art, she had let that part of her self lie fallow. Until she had boarded Serenity, where it had sprouted unexpectedly to bloom while she wasn’t looking. She had been intrigued by her landlord from the moment she set her eyes on him. As the months rolled on, their daily banter had sustained her, given her a healthy spark of interest she could safely use to energize her professional life. She had grown to respect Mal more as a man the longer she knew him – a deeply flawed, imperfect, damaged man, perhaps, but a real man, a real person, with a far more complex mind than she ever would have suspected. The cloak of her Companion status had been a healthy safety net to anything developing – which from a business standpoint would have been a disastrous complication – but now that was gone. The profession he derided her for was no longer protecting her. From Mal or from herself. He had risked everything at Miranda and Mr. Universe’s tiny planetoid. Everything: his life, his ship, his crew, even her, in pursuit of justice and righteousness in the face of a damnable sin. A lesser man would have fled and hid. Indeed, that’s what his original plan had been, had she not been compelled to entrap him by the Parliament’s operative. She had expected him to play the scoundrel and slink off into the shadows. Instead he had emerged, guns blazing, and performed a daring and bloodless rescue, plucking her from the clutches of the Alliance without any of the girls at the Temple being hurt. That had led to Haven, and that had led to Miranda. She couldn’t think of a single one of her clients whom she knew, for a fact, possessed the kind of moral character and raw courage that Malcolm Reynolds had displayed when he had little to gain and everything to lose. And he hadn’t escaped unscathed. Wash. Book. Haven. The truth, she knew, was that he deserved a hero’s reward for his valor and his pugnacity. Because of what he did, worlds were trembling across the sky. She had to admit to holding a certain sense of awe about that. She had bedded plenty of powerful men, but none of them – none – had had the long-term, long range effect on the ‘verse that Mal Reynolds unwittingly had. He wasn’t truly aware of it himself. He had recovered from his titanic labors, buried his dead, repaired his ship, and limped off to the next job. He didn’t even brag about it, like most men would. That, in itself, was pretty ennobling. The fact was, Sheydra had been right. She had been denying her heart its due. Her feelings for Mal were muddied, muddled, mixed, contorted, and confounded, but she could not deny that they were strong. The strongest she had felt in . . . a very long time. Part of her mind was screaming that. Another part was yelling dire predictions of the future, should she act on her feelings. Beyond the purely practical considerations of rent, “servicing the crew”, the future of her career, every smartass comment that would fly out of Jayne Cobb’s mouth, and other sundry complications, there was the very real and very scary possibility that in indulging herself she would somehow destroy the very ideal that inspired those strong feelings. Once you bed a man, things are never the same afterwards. Once you gazed upon his face in the most vulnerable moments of his life, you could never go back. Was she willing to risk that? Inara Serra couldn’t move. She needed to – either to take Mal’s lunch back and have Kaylee or Jayne deliver it, hiding from temptation behind her crewmates, or move foreword into an uncertain, chaotic – and possibly sweaty – future with Mal. An ancient story she suddenly recalled told tale of a man condemned by a crazy monarch to choose between two unmarked doors. Behind one was a ferocious beast, a tiger starved to madness to ensure its bloodthirsty ferocity. Behind the other was a beautiful woman ready to wed. Choose the lady, and your life prospered. Chose the tiger, and your life ended in a particularly horrific way. One choice: the Lady, or the Tiger. Two doors. One choice. She was faced with a similar dilemma, here. Was her future with the safe, secure Guild, where her natural urges and intellectual drives could be sated with a long line of slightly pudgy men of means? Or was it with Mal Reynolds and Serenity, ensuring a chaotic maelstrom of poverty, danger, excitement, and a likely early grave? The Lady or the Tiger? Inara closed her eyes, calling forth an inner serenity she had trained diligently to command. Every time she seemed to manage to find that calm, a stray thought would come along and toss a pebble into her puddle of placidity. The Guild is safe. Mal is dangerous. The Guild will protect you. Mal will protect you . . . some. The Guild will lend you status and grant you respect for your career. Mal will honor you for who you are, and give you respect for that. The Guild will provide you with professional fulfillment and a dazzling array of partners. Mal will provide you with stunning passion and an interpersonal intensity unknown in your life. The Guild will give you a chance to achieve your wildest erotic dreams. Mal will give you a chance to achieve your wildest erotic dreams . . . The whirling in her head would not pass. She seemed immobile, and she knew with utter certainty that the very next step she took would decide the course of the rest of her life. Of course, a relaxed part of herself mentioned, that is true with every step we take in this life. Moments passed. Eternities passed. She was paralyzed. She had to make a decision. Some decision. Any decision. Buddha? God? Jesus? The Fates? Aprhodite? Mohammed? Ishtar? Anyone? She prayed miserably. A sign from any particular manifestation of the divine would be quite helpful about now . . . “’Nara, that my lunch?” Mal’s voice came from the front of the cockpit. “I been sniffin’ it for twenty minutes, now, you gonna just tease me or feed me?” he asked in that strong, confident, sexy, masculine voice. Inara swallowed and cleared her throat. “Coming!” she hollered back, instantly regretting her choice of words. Her mind sought desperately for an excuse for lingering. When none presented itself, she decided not to bother – she’d just sound like a twitterpated schoolgirl anyway. She didn’t know which divine force had intervened, but Inara Serra, free woman and ship’s cook, suddenly found her feet moving steadily towards the cockpit door, behind which the Tiger awaited.

*

*

*

“Don’t know what smells better,” Mal quipped without looking up from the flexi he was studying, “You or that chow.” Her heart skipped a beat. It was the same good-natured flirtation that they had shared since they had first met, but it was as if every word out of his mouth was laden with new meaning. “Probably the food,” she finally said, choosing her words carefully. She set it down on top of the radar screen – it wouldn’t be of use while they were docked, anyway – and took a pair of chopsticks out of her coveralls and laid them beside the bowl. “I’m almost out of perfume, so I’ve been sticking to just soap. And a few cosmetics,” she added, quietly. “Can’t say as its hurt your aroma,” he chuckled, tossing the flexi aside casually. “Womenfolk spend entirely too much time and treasure on such fripperies when their own essence works just as well.” That was a remarkably enlightened attitude from a man, she realized, and reasonably accurate. She found herself even more attracted to him, suddenly, for his understanding. She knew she shouldn’t have – casual flattery was so banal, usually insincere from the lips of a man, and a wise woman ignored it and didn’t let it affect her while acknowledging it – but the practical, matter-of-fact way he had presented it overwhelmed her reserve, for some reason. A dozen catty, sex-laden remarks sprang to mind, but thankfully her mouth wasn’t listening much to her brain right now. “A girl likes to smell nice,” she said, simply. “By comparison, I’d say that’d be simple,” he chuckled as he picked up the chopsticks and jauntily shoved a bite into his mouth. She watched his lips as he chewed, saw their strength and character, remembered the few tantalizing moments where they had pressed against hers . . . Oh, GOD! I’m watching him CHEW! her inner voice despaired. How pathetic was that? It was all she could do to not reach over and push a stray shock of hair out of his eyes. It was time for a subject change, something simple, everyday, innocuous . . . something she could hide her lust behind. “So Kaylee and Jayne say you’re considering an . . . extracurricular outing. Is that wise?” she asked. “Considering?” Mal shrugged his big, strong, manly shoulders, and Inara was thankful he was looking at his food, else he would have seen her shiver. “Mayhap not – but at the risk o’ ruinin’ my interplanetary rep as a font of mature wisdom, this is one o’ those opportunities where Fortune often favors the brash. Folk won’t notice us in the chaos, and if gunplay is involved they’re like to not notice, what with all the other gunplay occurin’. Way I figger, me an’ Jayne walk right up to the door, knock real polite-like, and then walk away with whatever easily portable wealth might be available. We get back here and button up in plenty of time for the retreat.” The casual way he spoke about the audacious plan did nothing for her self-control. “I guess you’re the best judge of that,” she said, trying to sound casual and resigned herself. “Me, I’m just a . . .” she hesitated, letting it hang out there, an open invitation for him to end this silliness once and for all by the surest way she knew. Call me a whore, she silently pleaded. Call me a whore and I can get pissed off and stomp off back to my shuttle where its safe and I can take care of this . . . frustration without this temptation. Call me a whore, Mal, and give me an escape pod. “. . . a damn fine ship’s cook! Honest, ‘Nara, I thought the Shepherd was a fair chef, and Kaylee’s always had a dab hand in the kitchen. But since you took on the duty, it’s been like we’re not even eating go se protein powder no more.” “I’m just glad to be of service,” she said, realizing that she had just given Mal another potential opening to refer to her as a whore. “Well, I know this has to be a tough time for you,” he continued between bites. Inara’s heart sank. Insults and banter she could contend with, even use as an excuse. But sympathy? Compassion? That was the last thing she needed from Mal Reynolds, if he intended to leave this room unmolested. I said ‘service’, Mal! she thought bitterly. Where’s the insult? Where’s the reference to whoring? If you get all fuzzy on me, we’re going to be rutting on the deck like crazed weasels inside of five minutes! “I’m happy to have you on crew, this way,” he continued, unaware of the war within Inara. “It’s been a grace to have you aboard. When you were at the House, it was . . .” Oh, God, don’t get all vulnerable! she pleaded with him in her head. Don’t reveal your inner feelings! Do you have any idea what that’s going to do to me? “. . . it was a lot quieter ‘rond the boat. You an’ Book gone, I’ve been told I got a li’l bit . . . cranky.” “You had a lot of pressure on you,” she said, evenly, her breath growing deeper. “I’m sure it was natural stress. It builds up tension,” she said, realizing how dumb it sounded the moment she said it. Perhaps she could drag this back into flirtatious banter and away from the dangerous ground they were on. She had to get him to call her a whore – it was the only way she could jerk herself out of this, this lunatic trance. But he was not playing nice, not playing nice at all. She needed to give him something so irresistible that he couldn’t dodge it. “Maybe you just need to find a way to blow off some stress.” C’mon, Mal! Help me out, here! “Well, a good crime is always fair relaxin’ – after the adrenaline wears off, ‘course. I guess we just went so long ‘twixt decent scores last few months . . . we ended up takin’ some raggedy jobs, low end weak tea. Made us a little desperate. Without you on board to balance things out some it was hard to sneak into those more upscale places. And Kaylee missed you somethin’ fierce.” Oh, thank GOD! Inara sang inside her head. Blame it on Kaylee! Deny your feelings! Make a gorram joke, call me a whore, and let’s stop this insanity! “Missed you a fair bit myself,” Mal murmured into his lunch. God damn you, Malcolm Reynolds, she seethed. Her face, well practiced in emotional deception, did not betray her inner thoughts, thankfully. The urge to reach out to him, run her fingers playfully through his hair, was nigh overwhelming. She suppressed a groan of despair and settled for swallowing, hard. “That a fact,” she said, her voice just above a whisper. There was a long, pregnant pause that grew more and more uncomfortable with each passing moment. “Truth,” Mal finally said, though the word seemed to have to fight to make it past his lips. Inara held her breath involuntarily. Time for the disarming joke, she reasoned, some method for him to claim some masculine dignity from such a vulnerable moment. She wasn’t disappointed. “Place ain’t smelled right since you left.” Inara was relieved – she could plunge back into their old, safe, comfortable routines again. And then Mal had to go and mess it up again. “No, more’n that. That’s just what I noticed, at first. But I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t miss the sound of your voice and your pretty face, too.” Inara sat down suddenly in the rarely-used navigator’s chair. Her knees were weak. She dredged her mind for a flippant response, but none was forthcoming. “I missed . . . you . . . too,” she said, haltingly. “All of you,” she added to cover herself. “I just wish that we hadn’t renewed our acquaintance under such tragic circumstances.” Yes! Her mind cheered. Dead people! Talk about dead people, and let the grief and sadness wash away the stain of lust and infatuation! “Miss Wash somethin’ fierce, and the Shepherd, of course,” Mal agreed. “That whole mess on Haven . . . I carry that guilt around with me everywhere I go. But after seein’ that, losin’ those folk, and layin’ my bare eyes on the festerin’ sore of Miranda . . . and then the Reavers . . . well, ain’t been so tore up since Serenity Valley,” he admitted – and Inara knew for a cold fact that this was as emotionally vulnerable as Mal Reynolds had allowed himself to get since she’d known him. Her shoulders sagged under the weight of that burden, and her heart ached with the knowledge that she and she alone had been the one to whom he had confided. “Makes a body reconsider things, somewhat. Gives a man some . . . perspective.” “That can be good,” she ventured, cautiously. “Don’t feel good, gorram it!” he said, a frown crossing his face. “Just keeps me up at night thinkin’ unproductive thoughts. But that’s better than when I close my eyes. ‘Cause that’s when I dream, and that’s been a worrisome time, of late.” “Worrisome?” she asked. The WAR! Of course, that was it – the Browncoats in the Gopher Hole on Bachhus, the uniforms, Zoë being gone, the mission, thr prisoners – it had brought back disturbing memories of the War. That’s as safe a topic as her loins could likely take, she knew. Get him to focus on the War, and sooner or later he’ll mention your whoring again and everything will be all right. “Are you having dreams of . . . of the war?” she asked, trying to elicit the response she wanted. “I know mental anguish after brutal trauma can haunt a military man for years—” “Ain’t that the truth!” Mal said, chuckling wryly. “Been dreamin’ ‘bout the War since I was in the War. But that kinda Hell I can contend with. Nah, what my brainpan has been tormenting me with since Miranda is . . . hope.” Hope – another good general, non-sexual, non-romantic, completely impersonal feeling. It wasn’t as profound as the War for shifting the conversation, but it would do! “Hope? Hope for what? A big haul? The Independents rising again? Revenge on your enemies?” she asked hopefully. “Nah, nothin’ so prosaic,” he sighed as he stuffed the last bite of his lunch in his mouth. “I been dreamin’ o’ you, ‘Nara.” The pause he left hanging in the air was devastating. How was she supposed to respond to that? Just about anything she said would lead in places she dare not go. Either his dreams would be overtly sexual – which was entirely predictable, but exceedingly dangerous in her current frame of mind – or they would be romantic in nature, displaying yet more of this maddening vulnerability she found so compelling. Either way, she was screwed. In every sense of the word. Steady, woman, she cautioned herself. The next words out of your mouth are apt to be deadly. Best stick with the basics, don’t get overly complicated. A pronoun, perhaps. “Me?” she squeaked. “Yep. You. Since you left, and then came back, all I seem to be dreaming about of late features you. Hell, I can even smell you, your hair, your shuttle. It’s ‘nuff to drive a man to distraction.” “And . . . just what are the nature of these . . . dreams?” she asked, trying to conceal her labored breathing by squirming in her chair and adopting an almost clinical tone. What she wanted to do, of course, was straddle the big man in his chair and suffocate him with kisses. It wouldn’t take much of an invitation. Was he really so blind and dim not to have noticed her condition? “Oh . . . all manner o’ things,” Mal dismissed. “The details are unimportant. What’s got my panties twisted ‘round is just you bein’ there and bein’ all . . . womanly.” “Womanly? Then I take it I’m not exactly mopping the deck in these dreams of yours?” she asked, knowing full well what a minefield she had just leapt into. Part of her brain was have screaming hysterics as it considered the folly of the other part of her brain, who was feeding lines to the sonofabitch and lapping up the attention like a kitten laps warm milk. “Uh . . . no, no, that ‘un ain’t popped up quite yet . But I’ll keep you informed if it does,” he added, wryly. “You do that,” she agreed, her eyes sliding to slits. Mal looked away, embarrassed. “Inara, I’m in a state. And a part o’ that is where we stand, you and I. We ain’t exactly just ‘business associates’ no more. Oh, I guess technically you’re a part o’ the crew, now, but we both know that’s a temporary condition. So that leaves me a mite confounded as to the exact nature of our relationship.” “It’s . . . complicated,” Inara admitted, exhaling when she realized she had been holding her breath. The two sides of her warred over control of her mouth as she considered and rejected suggestive phrases and lewd remarks that would spin this conversation back into safe waters. But she also knew that this was a part of Mal’s psyche that wasn’t easily or often exposed – if she missed this chance, then she might be loosing a valuable opportunity. “I think we have to start with . . . friendship. Which includes a certain degree of affection,” she said, cautiously. Mal nodded his head. “Stands to reason,” he agreed. “Friendship . . . ain’t that a nice, safe word . . . I s’pose we are friends, at the very least. Leastways, I confess I have a deep and abiding affection for . . . our friendship.” Even when he was being vulnerable, he was still emotionally constipated. Why did men have to be so gorram stubborn? Couldn’t he admit what he was feeling? Could she? “Mal, I have a confession to make,” she began, trembling at the words. “I value our friendship highly, perhaps . . . well, it wasn’t the food that made me leave Serenity. After Nandi, I . . .” “That was . . . an unusual situation,” Mal understated. “A little bit,” Inara agreed sarcastically. They both smiled guiltily. Nandi had been among Inara’s closest friends. Mal had bedded her the night before she had been killed in a battle that should never have happened. Inara had been sick over it at the time, though she never would admit that to Mal or anyone, but he’d have to have the emotional empathy of a sack of protein not to have noticed. He was a man, though . . . “One of the reasons I left Serenity was that I felt my . . . affection for . . . our friendship was starting to cloud my professional judgement.” “I was thinkin’ it might be somethin’ like that,” the Captain murmured. “Couldn’t rightly ask you to stay, once you made up your mind.” “Who said I made up my mind?” Inara asked, a little defensively. “You could have encouraged me to stay, you know.” Mal shook his head. “I figgered that once you had set your mind to an idea, it’d be a right disservice to dissuade you.” “You had a say in that, too, you know,” she replied, heatedly. “It wasn’t all me!” “And what was I supposed to say?” Mal demanded. “Hey, you woman who ain’t sleepin’ with me or otherwise showin’ any normal signs of interest, why don’t you stick around and drive me psychotic some more, when you really wanna go?” “All you had to say is that you didn’t want me to go. That would have been enough.” “Enough for what? What would you have done if you had stayed?” That question hung uncomfortably in the air between them as they searched each other’s eyes through it. The next words either one of them said would be meaningful for the rest of their lives. “The Monkey King is here!” Both of them turned towards the cockpit door, where River – in a gauzy black dress, combat boots, and her battered flight vest – was standing, a shocked expression on her face. “The which?” Mal asked, confused. “The Monkey King,” River insisted, impatiently. “He’s here! I know it! The Monkey King and all of his relations, scurrying higgledy piggeledy through the rafters, making mischief for the man.” “The . . . Monkey King?” Inara asked, just as baffled – but enormously relieved that she had been distracted from the intense discussion with Mal. “You mean the cartoon character . . . or the ancient Chinese folk hero the cartoon character was based on . . .” “The Monkey King,” River repeated a third time. “He sits and stares at the Black and smells the smoke from the forest. It’s time to go, he knows, it’s time to go before.” “Before what?” Inara said, beating Mal to it by milliseconds. River’s ravings were sometimes nonsense, sometimes entertaining, and sometimes a kind of code her brain seemed to have developed. Simon had tried to explain how her natural brilliance was attempting to bridge the gap left by the surgery that had maimed her, and how her subconscious could sometimes sneak real data into her monologues, if viewed symbolically. Inara knew that if you listened carefully, you could sometimes parse out some of that data, and that it could be valuable. As a telepath, empath, and all around knot of weirdness she had a preternatural sense for danger, and it was wise to pay attention even when it didn’t make sense. While she had been acting normally – well, what passed for normal for River – for a while, now, but since they had docked with the Suri Madron she had gotten . . . a little less stable than usual. Brittle, even. “Before someone stupid opens the tomb below, and frees the evil demons,” River said, sagely. “Before the slaughter begins.” “Yeah,” Mal said lightly, after a moment’s consideration. “I really hate it when that sort of thing happens.” The moment had passed, Inara knew, and she was thankful – even grateful – to the slightly-sane teenager for her interference. Had River heard her silent pleas for divine intervention, and then came busting in, crazy as a . . . colorful metaphor, and rescue her from her own libido? It seemed that some supernatural hand had been at work, Monkey King or Buddha or Indra— “Hey,” River said, suddenly, pulling herself away from her own mantic fantasy and seeming to recognize the two of them for the first time, “why aren’t you guys naked? The way you’ve both been thinking so loud, I thought you’d both be rutting away up here!” Of course, there was a compelling argument to be made for Satan too, Inara decided, as the mother of all awkward silences hung thickly in the air of the cockpit, and River strolled away back into her twilight reality.

COMMENTS

Saturday, August 2, 2008 1:39 PM

SCREWTHEALLIANCE


I love doing that to those guys!

StA

Saturday, August 2, 2008 2:09 PM

KATESFRIEND


Thanks, StA, for helping all your readers redefine the true meaning of UST. Wow. Loved this chapter as one of the best you've ever done. Loved Inara's logical arguments and Mal's slow sideways approach, and then River blows them both out of the water. Can't stuff that can of worms back down no matter how hard they try. I can so see this happening to the two of them. So what's next for them?

Saturday, August 2, 2008 4:19 PM

NCBROWNCOAT


StA, Katesfriend said it all. I loved this chapter especially Inara's internal dialog and then River coming in and stating the obvious subtext.

I can't wait to see what this will do to Inara and Mal, the projected heist and the rescue itself.

Saturday, August 2, 2008 6:06 PM

HOPERULES


Excellent!!!

Saturday, August 2, 2008 9:21 PM

NUTLUCK


Wow that was funny as hell, I especially like the end with River especially her parting comment.

Sunday, August 3, 2008 7:14 AM

PLATONIST


classic Mal and Inara, they are a lot of fun, thanks for writing

And it would be Inara who truly misses Zoe. She does create that buffer for her and she keeps Mal from doing the really stupid stuff, like telling Inara that how he feels.

Sunday, August 3, 2008 7:22 AM

SARAH0832


Gotta love River. She'll cut to the heart of the matter.

Sunday, August 3, 2008 10:29 AM

KENAN82


StA, once again you keep the mojo flowin'. Glad to see you're back in the saddle and cranking out more angst-ridden prose. When did Mal get a doctorate in smooth talking? Loved the surprise and frustration in Inara because of it!! Figures River needs to play the role of "Captain Obvious" for these two.

Keep flyin',

K

Friday, August 8, 2008 4:14 PM

DAWGFATHERJR


StA: You should publish your stories to one of those iPhone apps. "My Own Kind of Freedom" is on there (on the app "Stanza"), and it's not an "official" Firefly story either. It's a good read, but it's not as good as yours...

Saturday, August 16, 2008 4:34 PM

AVID


I always love tension between Mal and Inara. I have to say, though, that I was hoping for mention of the fact that Mal was going to propose to Inara had events played out differently in "Treasure." I know that "the problems of [two] little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world" after Miranda, but it was still an important moment in their relationship.

I'm looking forward to the commencement of craziness on Suri Madron. Silly of Simon not to have picked up on the fact that there are living Reavers confined on the ship. And only Mal would think of a burglary in the middle of a jail break.

Please keep up the wonderful work and post again soon!

Saturday, August 23, 2008 1:02 PM

RELFEXIVE


Love it. Shiny.

Thursday, August 28, 2008 9:05 AM

BROWNEYEDGIRL


Yet another massively shiny chapter!

I keep checking to see when you will post another one, since you still nail the characterizations on the head! And Inara, with her thought of "Oh God, I'm watching him CHEW!" Had me almost falling off my chair!

I need to learn not to read these at work, dangit.

I will await in breathless anticipation for another chapter...so hurry up!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011 1:54 PM

RIVERTAM1


LEGEND!


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