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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Who stole the hot water? Mal and Inara have an uncomfortable conversation.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2017 RATING: 10 SERIES: FIREFLY
Follows ONE MAN’S TRASH (08). Precedes TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10).
The series so far:
A LION’S MOUTH (01)
ADVENTURES IN SITTING (02)
SPARKS FLY (03)
BREAK OUT (05)
THE TRIAL (06)
ONE MAN’S TRASH (08)
Who stole the hot water? Mal and Inara have an uncomfortable conversation.
Mouse over Chinese words in text for translations
Rating: All my stories are PG to PG-13 to occasional R. You will not find detailed descriptions of blood, gore, and sex, but you will find situations appropriate for mature readers, innuendo, implication, and (gasp) swear words. This story is PG-13 to R.
Thanks to my sister for beta reading.
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* * *
Inara docked the shuttle with Serenity. Kaylee sat in the passenger seat, still furious with Simon, but so tired she could barely keep her eyes open. When Inara finished the shut-down sequence she turned and looked over to find Kaylee drooping in her seat. She stood to tiptoe past, but Kaylee started awake, and resumed her ranting right where she’d left off.
“Made me so mad, actin’ like I was too dumb to follow directions, when he didn’t have no clue what to do, neither. Just had fancier words to talk about how dumb he was.”
“妹妹 Mèimei,” Inara said. “You’ve had a hard, hot day’s work. You need a bath and a good long sleep.”
“Oh, now, Inara, that does sound good,” Kaylee said, her voice softening somewhat. “But where ’m I gonna find a bath aboard Serenity? I’m so tired I don’t think I could even stand up long enough for a shower.”
Kaylee really was tired, Inara reflected, because it was Kaylee herself who had installed Serenity’s only proper bathtub, right here in Inara’s shuttle. Inara didn’t remind her—that kind of thing had clearly gotten Simon in the doghouse—she just set about getting out the tub and rigging it up.
It was ingenious, really. Space in the shuttle was limited, and the tub was a collapsible bath. When fully expanded, it was the size and shape of a Japanese お風呂 o-furo—not as long as a Western-style bathtub, but deep, and fully capable of providing a good, hot soak for a full-grown adult. When collapsed, it folded down into a nearly flat panel the size of the bottom of the tub, and fitted neatly behind the wall panel of the shuttle. Kaylee had rigged hoses that attached to the faucet in the shuttle’s head. The tub was a water-hog, of course, but Inara figured if anyone had earned the right to use Serenity’s hot water, it was Kaylee, whose expertise had been in constant demand the whole time they were on Beylix.
She sat Kaylee on the stool, washed her hair in the sink, helped her sponge herself off, and then assisted her into the tub.
“Ahhhh!” Kaylee sighed, relaxing into the warmth of the water.
The bath was not as hot as Inara would have liked—apparently it took more hot water than Serenity had to fill it up, and she’d had to compromise to a mere “warm.” The tub really had been used to its full potential only when Inara had the shuttle parked somewhere suitable planet-side, with access to plenty of hot water. But Kaylee found it cozy and comforting enough—she was nowhere near as fussy as some of Inara’s clients had been.
“Inara, I think I just done died and gone to heaven,” Kaylee murmured. “Or maybe I’m dreamin’. If this is a dream, it’s a good one—don’t wake me up.” She closed her eyes. Inara let Kaylee have her privacy, but stayed nearby. The young woman was actually tired enough that she might just nod off and slip under the waves. Inara didn’t want any accidental drowning in her shuttle.
The water in the shower was colder than a 巫婆的乳房 wūpó de rǔfáng. Mal was no hedonist, but even he had to admit that he preferred to have a little warm water to mix with the cold. He turned the water off and stood shivering as he scrubbed the dump filth from his hair and body. Hell with shaving, probably just cut himself, way he was shivering. Only time he’d bathed in colder water was the time near New Kasmir when the only option was glacial meltwater. Now that was cold. “Gah!” he exclaimed, despite himself, as he rinsed off the soap. Might not be glacial meltwater, but it ran a close second. Damn Zoe. He was gonna hafta have a word with that woman—clearly she’d gone and used up all the hot water before he got there. She might be an expectant mother, and deserved some indulgence on that account, but there weren’t no call for her to use up all the hot water Serenity had to offer when there were six others on the boat could use it too.
He was toweling off when there was a knock on the door. He hastily covered himself—might be Inara, and he didn’t want her to see him in this state. Actually, no man wanted any woman to see him in this state. Cold water shrinkage was no joke. Fact of nature that a man’s tender parts tended to run and hide when beset by cold, but that didn’t mean any female should bear witness to such a state of affairs.
Again the knock came, more insistent, and Mal hastily donned his trousers and shirt. He picked up his towel and opened the door to find Simon glaring daggers at him. Mal returned the glare with interest, as he stepped through the door and coolly buttoned his shirt. Doc had no call to be glaring—Mal’d been in there less than five minutes. He was surprised Simon hadn’t taken care of this earlier—hadn’t he been back at the ship before Mal and Zoe? Hell, he’d even do the Doc a favor—“Simon, you might want to wait. Ain’t no hot water to speak of.” He tucked in his shirt, pulled his suspenders over his shoulders, turned and walked away, while Simon’s redoubled glare bounced harmlessly off his retreating back.
Inara recognized Mal’s knock at the shuttle door.
“Inara, may I come in?”
She pre-empted that action by going out to him. “Kaylee’s just fallen asleep in my bed. I’m going to let her sleep it out there. She’s had such a hard day.”
“That she has, Inara. I worked her to the bone. Not nobody else could sort through that junk heap and find the hidden treasure like Kaylee.”
“She had a blow-up with Simon.” Mal raised his eyebrows, so she filled him in on how Simon and Kaylee, unable to fly themselves back from the dump, had had “words.” To her surprise, Mal looked more and more miserable as she told the story, even though she told it light-heartedly.
“It’s my fault, you know,” he said, when she finished.
“How could it be your fault, Mal? You weren’t even there!”
“Yeah, well, that’s the point, ain’t it? I left them stranded high and dry. Just ran off with the mule, tellin’ them to fly the shuttle back to Serenity when I knew right well enough neither of ’em’s a trained pilot. Never even thought to check back, just assumed they did as I said. Came back with Jayne and just barged in here and ordered Simon to run that test, like he’d been resting up at his ease drinkin’ lemonade ever since I left the dump.” He turned to walk away.
“Mal! Where are you going?”
“Gonna find Simon, and apologize. Reckon I better wait and let Kaylee sleep it out, afore I apologize to her.”
Kaylee slept through, and a somewhat subdued crew met for dinner. Zoe set the autopilot and joined the mostly silent group at the dinner table. At first everyone was too hungry to talk much beyond, “Please pass the tofu,” but soon Zoe found herself on the receiving end of one of Mal’s looks. Strange thing was, she couldn’t tell what the 地狱 dìyù he meant. Had no clue, in fact.
Mal flashed Zoe a look, and she looked back at him with a baffled expression. This was so unusual that Mal did a double take and looked at her again. His message was clear—in his own mind at least. What the 地狱 dìyù you mean by using up all the hot water, Zoe? Didn’t appreciate the cold shower. She still didn’t get it.
“What’re you talkin’ about, sir?” Zoe asked into the complete silence.
Inara, Simon, and Jayne were so used to Mal and Zoe’s wordless conversations that they didn’t find this question in any way unusual. Ip, however, was mystified—he expected the Captain to reply, “Wasn’t saying anything.” River, on the other hand, understood it all, and was having a hard time containing her giggles.
“The water, Zoe,” the Captain clarified.
“What about the water?” she asked, an edge entering her voice.
“The hot water,” Mal elaborated, glaring right back at Zoe. “Someone used it all up.” Next to him, Inara looked conscious and actually reddened a little, but Mal didn’t notice, as he was too busy accusing Zoe. River hugged her arms across her chest—her ribs ached with the effort of holding in her laughter. Inara shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
Zoe rose to her own defense. “Wasn’t me used it up. I was only in the shower five minutes. Three of that was washing my hair. And the hot water conked out before I could rinse the shampoo out. Rest of my shower was cold…sir,” she added pointedly.
“Don’t look at me,” Simon said to Mal in his most put-upon voice. “I had to shower in ice-cold water, after you told me that you’d used up all the hot water.”
“Did not use up all the hot water,” Mal retorted. “Weren’t none to use up. Coldest damn shower I’ve had since that glacial meltwater bath in New Kasmir.” He shivered at the memory and did not see Inara’s uncomfortable squirm. “Colder than a summer day on St Alban’s.”
“A summer day?” Jayne asked. “That don’t sound so cold.”
“It’s an expression, Jayne,” Zoe replied.
“You been to St Alban’s, Jayne,” Mal reminded him. “Don’t you recollect how cold it was?”
“Yeah, Mal, it was cold—but it was the middle of a ruttin’ snowstorm,” said Jayne, with an air of stating the obvious. “You know, Mal, winter.”
“I recollect well enough, Jayne. And no, actually, we were there in summer. That was a summer St Alban’s snowstorm.”
“耶稣 Yēsū, that was 发情 fāqíng summer?!” Jayne exclaimed, at the same time as Simon asked, “Is that the warmest it gets on St Alban’s?”
“It’s no wonder Tracey wanted to move his family to a warmer place,” Inara commented, to cover her mounting embarrassment. “And now I understand the proverbial expression, ‘Colder than a summer day on St Alban’s’.”
“I have to admit, I never did get that one, before,” Ip commented. “I thought it was a misquote.”
River was squirming in her seat with the effort of restraining her guffaws. The rest of the crew were so busy bickering over who had “used up” the hot water that they didn’t notice. She didn’t trust herself to point out that Serenity had a flash heating system that provided continuous hot water, rather than an old-fashioned reservoir tank. No one had “used it up.” Clearly the heating element had burnt out—probably when Inara filled the tub while Zoe showered and Ip did the dishes. River knew Kaylee could have pointed that out in an instant—but River wasn’t about to speak up on that point. The situation was way too entertaining.
Inara couldn’t make eye contact with Mal, who glared around the table trying to spot the hot-water thief. Zoe and Simon glared right back at him, while Jayne glared, too, but in his case there was nothing personal about it—it was just a habitual expression. Ip looked around, baffled by the strange group dynamics. River couldn’t contain herself any longer, and hooted with laughter. “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
“Mal, I have a confession to make,” Inara said. She was sitting cross-legged on the edge of Mal’s bed, and he stood on the floor behind her, busy with his hands. Best get this over with, while she couldn’t see his face.
“Mmmm?” he queried, pausing briefly in his task. He resumed running the comb and his fingers through Inara’s silky tresses, mesmerized by how they rippled through his hands and fell caressingly on her bare shoulders. He bent over, dropping kisses on the back of her neck, then whispered in her ear, “What d’you want to confess, darlin’?”
“I confess, Mal—that I—stole the hot water.”
“You?” He straightened up. “You stole the water?”
“Yes. I did.”
“Now whatever did you do that for?”
“I—gave Kaylee a bath. I filled the tub.” She turned and looked at him seriously. “It was selfish. I never considered that I was condemning the rest of you to cold showers.”
“You were very wrong to do that.”
She nodded, turning back. “Yes, I was.”
“You will have to pay for it.”
“You’re very lucky the cold water did not permanently damage my manliness.”
“Your manliness!” she exclaimed, turning to face him. “Your manliness,” she repeated in a different tone altogether, looking at what confronted her at eye level.
“You’ll pay for this, Inara Serra,” he growled.
“Oh, yes, I’ll pay,” she agreed, with a wicked glint in her eye.
“We’re not married. We’re courting.”
“But you do intend to marry her?”
“Nothing would please me better.”
“So, were you serious?” Inara asked Mal. They were lying naked side by side in a comfortable afterglow.
“Yes.” He rolled over and pinned her to the mattress with his elbows, with a gleam in his eye.
“Really?” she asked, her color rising.
“I meant it.”
Her heart began to beat faster.
“I was absolutely serious about you havin’ to pay for stealing the hot water,” he said with a smirk. “Why do you ask? Do you feel you ain’t paid enough yet?” He ducked his head down and made to recommence collecting payment.
“Were you serious about what you said to Juju Kamara?”
He rolled off her and lay next to her, looking away at the ceiling. He had a pretty good idea what she meant, but he wasn’t ready to admit it. Felt like he was handling high explosives. One wrong word and it’d blow up in his face. “Said lots of things to Juju Kamara.”
“But not all of them so personal.”
“Yeah, well, got to feeling a bit truthsome,” he said. Might as well admit to that. “She reminded me some of my ma. Never could lie to my ma.”
“You were being truthful, then?”
“Everything I said about finding Serenity is true,” Mal replied. “The prison camp, the beatings, the living in the slums, the credit account, then seein’ her for the first time and knowin’ I belonged with her.”
Inara was silent for a moment. That was not what she meant, and he knew it, but still he had slipped something to ponder into the mix. The beatings? He hadn’t mentioned beatings to Juju Kamara. Had he been beaten at the Alliance prison? She mentally shook herself. Back to the subject.
“Was it true what you said about marriage?” Nothing would please me better.
He could not pretend he didn’t know what she was talking about. “Inara, it’s what she expected to hear. Told you she reminded me of my ma. She’s from a traditional culture. Don’t hold with—what you—what I—what we’re doin’ if we don’t intend to marry. Couldn’t have given no other answer.”
Inara looked away, dissatisfied. Couldn’t give another answer? Wouldn’t give another answer? Didn’t want to give another answer? She’d thought, maybe, just maybe, he was ready to have this talk. She concealed her feelings on the subject. But there was still another topic that needed airing.
“What about you, Captain? How many children do you want?”
“Oh, four. Maybe five.”
“What about children?” she asked.
“Juju’s children?” he replied, deliberately misunderstanding.
“You told Kaylee and everyone else that you wanted five children.”
“Just flapping my mouth.” He sighed inwardly, careful not to let it show. She remembered it all, and now he was getting grilled. He’d just opened his mouth without thinking. Oh, four. Maybe five. 白痴 Báichī. Never heard tell of a Companion with children. ’Course I ain’t gonna have no four or five. Count myself lucky to have even a one. Even his hasty amendment didn’t help much. Still showed his heart on his sleeve, made himself vulnerable to hurt. He tried side-tracking. “Got carried away by Kaylee’s enthusiasm. Remember the look on Simon’s face when she said she wanted six kids?” He sure remembered the look on Inara’s face. Not exactly unqualified delight. Inscrutable, it was. Kinda like how she looked now. He tried more diversion. “And how Jayne said he wasn’t never gonna have a kid, and not three days later, Janice shows up claiming he was the father of her child?”
“How about you?”
“How about me what?”
“Any Janices in your past? Any chance you’re a father and you don’t know it?”
“No,” he answered with certainty. He remembered every woman he’d ever lain with—weren’t that many, truth to tell, so he wasn’t like to forget any—and they were all either dead or (with a glance at Inara) presently accounted for. No surprise children for him. “But I’m going to be a father for sure.”
Inara stretched her eyes wide. “For sure?” Tension coiled deep within her. Was there something he hadn’t told her?
He hastened to explain. “Zoe ain’t said anything, and she probably won’t, but I reckon whether she knows it or not, she’s expecting me to stand-in for father to her child. Even if she don’t expect it, I’m like to be the closest thing to a father that child will ever know, ’less Zoe decides to marry again.”
Was that what was behind his foolish grin when Zoe announced her pregnancy to Serenity? Inara wondered. The knowledge that he was going to be a father, sort of—and his feeling like a proud papa, sort of? “And how are you feeling about your imminent fatherhood?” she asked, lightly. Or as lightly as she could manage.
“Oh, I got past denial, I’m still kinda in shock,” he said with a smile, taking her banter at face value. “I reckon full-blown panic will hit me sometime soon.” He rolled over and propped himself up on an elbow. Enough with the uncomfortable questions all headed his direction. This could go both ways. “What about you?”
“Oh, I don’t think I’ll be in a state of panic about Zoe’s baby. Though I’ll be glad to help her out.”
“No, I meant, you never gave an answer to Kaylee’s question. About how many children you want.”
She was silent, and didn’t look at him.
He was determined not to let her off the hook, but he thought maybe he could ease the way, so he asked, “Do Companions ever have children?”
“Sometimes,” she answered. “Sometimes they retire, marry, and have children.”
His heart beat faster. Careful not to let his flutter of hope show, he waited for her to elaborate.
“That’s what my own mother did,” she continued. “After several decades as a successful Companion, she selected a husband from among her chosen field of candidates, retired, and married him. I was born a year and a half later.”
He was privately appalled, and tried hard not to let it show. Several decades as a Companion? And she selected a candidate? It all sounded so…calculated. Where was the falling in love part? “Didn’t she love your father?”
“She was fond of him,” Inara said simply. “They worked well together.”
Alright, maybe that was how the Core folks did it. Too damn cold-blooded for him. “You ever thought about retiring?” The question slipped out before he could think.
“I…no,” she answered from a far away place. “I…always thought I’d…die before I retired.”
It was a heart-wound. He collapsed back on the bed, exhaling suddenly. Damn. Damn, damn, damn. Shouldn’t have asked. Knew he wouldn’t like the answer.
“Mal?” she asked, in sudden concern. “Mal, no—情人 qíngrén no—that’s not what I meant. Before I—before we—亲爱的 qīn'àide Mal, I never thought about retiring before I met you.”
He was able to breathe again. Alright, least she was thinking of it. Maybe his ship weren’t sunk after all. “And now you are—thinking of it?” he asked softly, looking in her eyes, willing her to speak the truth.
She said nothing, but returned his look. He thought she gave a barely perceptible nod.
Relief flooded him. He dared not press his luck any farther. Time to retreat from the explosive topics. Enough with the uncomfortables. Enough grilling. With a great effort, he made his tone lighter. “You know, you once wished me hundreds of fat children.”
“I—did.” It was almost a question.
“You certainly did. So, if I’m goin’ for hundreds, better start practicing—right now.” He suddenly rolled back on top of her and kissed her lips, his hands caressing her in the way he now knew she liked to be touched. She responded by pulling him in for a deeper kiss, as she ran her hands through his soft hair and down the sculpted contours of his back.
It was only much later that he realized that she had never really answered the question.
妹妹 Mèimei [little sister]
お風呂 o-furo [Japanese-style bath (Japanese)]
巫婆的乳房 wūpó de rǔfáng [witch’s breast]
地狱 dìyù [hell]
耶稣 Yēsū [Jesu]
发情 fāqíng [ruttin’]
白痴 Báichī [Idiocy]
情人 qíngrén [lover]
亲爱的 qīn'àide [dear]
A/N: Many thanks to mal4prez for allowing me to borrow the idea for the bathtub in Inara's shuttle. A slightly different bathtub appears in Back Stories III, chapter 22, in which mal4prez gives us a tantalizing first half of Inara's backstory. Thanks, m4p, and please let us read more soon.
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