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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
When the Captain cooks, it’s an occasion.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2437 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10)
Follows BANDIAGARA (09). Precedes WHAT BEGINS WITH AN APPLE (11).
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)
When the Captain cooks, it’s an occasion.
Mouse over Chinese words in text for translations
Rating: This story is a bit of a departure from my usual PG or PG-13 with occasional scenes of R, as it very thoroughly earns an R rating, for violence, strong language, and sex, and it focuses on some mature themes. I don’t think it crosses the line into NC-17 territory, as the descriptions are not graphic. I have been advised that some sections of this story may be "NSFW"--not suitable for work. So you may wish to exercise caution if that applies. This is a ten-part story, and the NSFW label only applies to some of the sections. (I'm assuming that the NSFW label applies mostly to the sex; somehow everybody seems fine with the violence and language.) Anyway, I'll put a NSFW label on any chapter with that kind of content. After the build-up of Bandiagara, it’s time for the other shoe to drop, and it does so with a vengeance.
Thanks to my sister for beta reading, and for sticking with this long-winded saga. Thanks to Bytemite for additional beta reading of several sections of this story. Your feedback makes these stories better.
This chapter contains content that may be NSFW
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* * *
It was the Captain’s cook day, and everyone knew that something special was going on. The Captain had been in the galley for hours. Tantalizing smells began to drift through the metallic corridors of Serenity.
They were unusually well-provided with foodstores, since the bulk of their cargo from the remote world of Bandiagara consisted of fresh tropical fruits and vegetables. Bandiagara was corporate-controlled, with the world government securely in the pocket of the mining company that owned the mineral rights to the whole planet, and imports and exports were an exclusive concession held by 狐狸 Húli Network, an affiliate of the Blue Sun Conglomerate. They’d landed and traded illegally, and run the gauntlet of the exclusion zone by the simple expedient of not being looked for. Bandiagara was remote, underdeveloped, and disregarded by most of the rest of the ’Verse. No one expected an illegal trade ship to venture that far, and they got away clean.
Mal was doing his best to re-create the celebratory dinner that their Bandiagaran hosts, Nana and Mamadou, had given the Serenity crew their first night on the ground: white fish benachin—featuring a Bandiagaran river fish called a capitaine, with spicy sauce, vegetables, and rice. The fish had been caught only a few hours before their departure, and he had added a few twists of his own. He was limited by Serenity’s small galley—no grilling, no baking—and he had to improvise on the ingredients. But it was delightful to have a cargo hold full of fresh fruits and vegetables, and when he cast his eyes upon the crate of fresh pineapples, he felt inspired to attempt something he’d never tried aboard ship before.
No one was late for dinner. Zoe had set the autopilot, and the entire crew gathered around the table. Mal set the dishes of rice, vegetables, fish and sauce on the table with a flourish, although he couldn’t match the style of Nana. Jayne reached for the platter, but Mal stopped him with a gesture.
“I have a few words I’d like to say.” He looked down a moment.
Everyone hushed. Was Mal intending to say grace?
“I think y’all know how good the world of Bandiagara has been to us. We went there as our last straw—no cargo but the trash-pickings from Beylix, just about flat broke. Y’all worked hard and turned our trash into treasure. We still don’t have no money—” he grinned, and the crew shared in the moment, “—but we ain’t broke. Ship’s full of good things we can sell for money, next planetfall. So this dinner is by way of thankin’ you for making it work.” Jayne reached for the platter again, but Mal wasn’t quite finished. “It also happens, today is a special day. An anniversary.” There was a ripple of excitement, tinged with anxiety. Most of the Captain’s anniversaries weren’t good ones—U Day, the day of surrender at the Battle of Serenity Valley, the day he heard that Shadow was destroyed. Zoe looked at Mal and saw with relief that his mind was far from those battlefields. “Today is the anniversary of the first day I ever laid eyes—” He paused for dramatic effect.
Zoe was puzzled. Today was not the anniversary of the day he first laid eyes on Serenity.
“—on Inara Serra. The day she came aboard and told me I was going to rent my shuttle to her, for a quarter off the asking price.” He picked up his mug of tea and toasted Inara. “Here’s to you darlin’, and the day we met.” There was a roar of approval from the assembled crew, and Inara sat, eyes shining and nearly overflowing with emotion. Jayne dove for the platter.
The food was passed around, and everyone began tasting and enjoying, giving Inara a chance to recover some of that famous Companion control of hers. It took some doing. She had no particular recollection, in fact, of that day three years ago. Yes, she remembered their discussion well enough, but it had never occurred to her that Mal would mark it in his mind as ‘the day we met’ and fill it with romantic associations. And now he had gone through all this trouble to do something special. She began thinking of what she could do in return.
“How’d you cook this fish, Cap’n?” Kaylee was asking.
“Well, it ain’t grilled,” Mal replied. “Can’t grill a captain aboard Serenity.” He looked pointedly at Ip, then at Simon, causing River to hoot with laughter. One or the other of them was always asking the Captain uncomfortable questions. “It’s poached.”
“Ya mean ya bagged it out of season?” Jayne asked.
“He means he cooked it in broth,” Zoe responded with an eye-roll.
“Well, it eats uncommon good,” Jayne said, redeeming himself somewhat, as he speared another forkful. “Wish we could eat this good regular,” he said around his mouthful of food.
“The sauce is delicious, Captain,” Ip said. “Not quite the same as we had in Fajara, but still…”
“We didn’t have no tamarind paste, so I had to improvise,” Mal replied. “And we didn’t have bissap leaves. Well, actually, the only thing in there that was in Nana’s benachin sauce is the salt and pepper. But it ain’t half bad.”
“Well, it’s more ’n half good,” Jayne responded, further redeeming himself.
“But not according to the plan,” Mal returned.
“When did anything ever go according to the gorram plan?” Jayne asked, and the whole table burst into laughter.
As the meal wound down to its conclusion, Mal produced the pièce de résistance.
“Is that really a cake, Cap’n?”
“A pineapple upside-down cake!”
“Good gorram, ain’t a-seen one a those in donkey’s years!”
“Upside-down is a matter of perspective. I consider it right-side up,” River said, cocking her head at an angle.
“How’d you do that, sir?”
“It’s not, technically, a cake,” Mal replied. “It’s a steamed pudding. Had to improvise—”
“—’cause there ain’t no oven on Serenity, so you can’t bake, and anyways there ain’t enough proper wheat flour to make a cake, but you add some of them brown protein packets—”
“Gluten! It’s vital wheat gluten!” Ip exclaimed with an air of revelation.
“—to the cassava flour we took on in Bandiagara, and it holds together well enough. Then, I took advantage of the fact we got cane juice—”
“I never knew what sugar cane looked like, before this.”
“—and some of the bananas were startin’ to turn—”
“It’s banana cake!” Kaylee exclaimed.
“—and mixed up a batter, put the pineapples in the bottom of a big ol’ coffee can, and poured it on top, sealed the can and steamed it in the big soup kettle for three hours.” No discipline, this crew, interrupting everything he was saying, but he was basking in their enthusiasm. “Believe it or not, this is exactly how they used ta make ’em in the days of the old wooden sailing ships, on Earth-that-was. Steamed puddings with colorful names like Spotted Dog—”
“They ate dogs?” Someone hadn’t been paying attention.
“For dessert?” Jayne inserted, incredulous. “I mean, I done et grilled dogs, but that was—”
Mal cut through the unsavory chatter. “Inara, will you do the honors?” he asked, presenting her with a knife.
The slices of steamed pudding—which did, in fact, look and taste almost exactly like cake—were handed around, and for a while, appreciative murmurs dominated the conversation.
As she cleared some dishes from the table, Inara brushed Mal’s hand. “A dinner this grand should finish with an entremets,” she said, low in his ear. “Come to my shuttle.”
“So what is an entremets?” Mal asked, as he entered the shuttle with a couple of packages under his arm. “I’ll confess I never heard of it, but it sounds intriguing.”
“It’s an old French term,” Inara replied, “for an after-dinner entertainment, full of symbolism and replete with meaning.”
“I’m game,” Mal said, “but first, will you accept this—”
“You don’t have to give me any gifts, Mal,” she began.
“It ain’t a gift, Inara,” he cut in. “More like compensation.” She was puzzled. “Open it.”
The box contained a tea set. “I broke your tea set a while back. I’m sorry about it. I hope this is an acceptable substitute.”
It was more than acceptable. Inara had seen this tea set for sale on market day in Fajara. She liked it and intended to buy it, but when she came back to the stall after looking through the market, the tea set was gone. Now she knew why. Over the years, she had used many fine tea sets, including an ancient Chinese tea set, a modern five-piece Japanese-style tea set, and even an old-fashioned English tea set. This one was entirely different in style and appearance, and yet it maintained its function of brewing and serving tea. She set the box down on her table, and drew Mal in for a kiss. “谢谢 Xièxie.”
“No need to be thanking me. I owed you a tea set. Now this here—” He produced another package, something large and soft.
“Mal, there’s no need to be showering me with gifts. You’ve already given—”
“Inara, this here’s a selfish present. I…I want to see you wearing this. Will you please put it on—for me?”
“Alright.” Now she was intrigued. What was it that he wanted to see her wearing?
“I’ll wait outside.” He left the shuttle, shutting the hatch softly behind him.
She opened the wrapper. Carefully folded inside was some brightly colored fabric—some of the hand-tie-dye that the women of Fajara specialized in making. The colors were bright, and she feared they’d be garish, but as she pulled the garment out, she realized the colors were the perfect complement to her hair, eyes, and skin. When she unfolded the dress and laid it on the bed, she marveled for a moment. It was a re-make, in bold tropical colors, of the gown she’d worn to the ball on Persephone—the ball that ended with Mal defending her honor in a duel with swords. She looked inside. The gown was hand-sewn, and the tailor had captured the details with great care. She put it on. It fit like a glove. Mal had clearly had it hand-made just for her—but how had he managed that without her having to go for a fitting? The effect was unusual, but stunning. If she wore this dress in the Core, she could set a new fashion trend. She hastily checked her hair, make-up and jewelry, and opened the door.
He looked up from where he leaned against the rail, took in her appearance from head to toe, and rapidly closed the distance between them. She thought he would gather her in his arms, but instead he offered her his arm and escorted her, formally, back into the shuttle. Then he turned and leaned over and carefully, tenderly kissed her, touching nothing else but her fingertips. It was the same kind of kiss as their first kiss, three months ago, and had the same quality of holy passion she had come to associate with her memories of that first time. She melted with the intensity of it.
At length he drew back and spoke. “You don’t mind?”
“It’s perfect,” she whispered.
“You sure you wouldn’ta rather had a print? There was that fine bolt of fabric we saw—”
And there he was, breaking the intensity of the moment. She began to laugh, and he did too, as they remembered the particularly outrageous tropical print that had caught the eye of both of them as they strolled the Fajara market together. “You mean the one that was fuchsia—”
“—and turquoise. With a—ha—” She couldn’t go on, she was laughing so hard.
“Chickens,” he gasped, between guffaws.
“—and cell phones,” she gasped out, wiping her streaming eyes. “No. Much as I believe that print captures the spirit of Bandiagara in one—ha—ha—” With an effort, she controlled herself enough to finish the thought. “No. I like this one better.”
They kissed again, playfully this time, then Mal said, “Now, how’s about we get on with this entremets entertainment thing?”
“Let’s start with some tea,” she said, and set out the Bandiagaran tea things.
River groaned with contentment as she lay back on the sofa in the lounge area.
“Go ahead, rub it in,” Ip called from the kitchen, where he stood with his hands plunged into the soapy water in the sink. “Some of us have dish duty.”
“I’m not listening,” Ip replied. “It was your choice how much you ate. No one forced you to take a second slice of pineapple upside down cake.”
“Rightside up pudding,” River responded, dangling her head over the edge of the sofa and imagining that her feet were treading on the ceiling.
Yeah, yeah, Ip waved his hands in a gesture. “You’re going to throw up if you hang upside down like that after such a big meal.”
“Deep thoughts, no doubt,” Ip scoffed, “about puddings and pineapples.”
“Croutons, River? Croutons weren’t a part of the Captain’s dinner.”
“Wontons.” River wore a smirk. Ip began to suspect that she was teasing him. “Ions. Protons. Electrons. And neutral particles,” she finished.
“You’ve been thinking about the energetic particle data from Shadow,” Ip stated, drying his hands on a dish towel as he stepped over to the sofa.
“Hot spots in an equatorial band, adjusted for deviation from true north.”
“We don’t really have a clear picture of the current state of Shadow’s magnetosphere yet,” Ip explained. “We’ve only just begun to analyze the data from the fly-by.”
“Croutons swirling around in Shadow’s magnetic field. Swarming.”
“Ions,” Ip corrected, being a stickler for accuracy when it came to matters having to do with his scientific experiments. “But yes, that’s right. X-rays strike the planet, activate the surface materials. Pickup ions energized by the solar wind were detected by our particle detector on the fly-by. Because of all the volcanic activity on Shadow, we saw a lot of ions that wouldn’t ordinarily be seen in such abundance above a terraformed planet. Species of ion derived from elements that are not common on the surface of the crust, like thorium and strontium, and isotopes like oxygen-18. We also detected increased levels of neptunium, iridium, and linthicum.”
“Too much neptunium and iridium.”
“Yes, it’s pretty unusual. But so is the linthicum.”
“Linthicum is native. Neptunium is synthetic. Iridium is exotic. From Vinidium.”
“Near ancient Rome. There was a young man from Vinidium,” she quoted,
“Who wore a vest made of iridium;When asked why the vest,He replied, “ Id est Bonum sanguinem praesidium .”
Ip conceded the point. “But I wouldn’t call neptunium ‘exotic,’ River. It’s a very common component of modern nuclear weaponry.”
“Now sit up before you lose your dinner. It’s making my stomach turn just watching you hang upside down like that.”
“My gastroesophageal sphincter is in very good working order, thank you,” she answered haughtily, but righted herself nonetheless. “And your stomach should be turning. It’s a process known as chylification, an integral component of digestion.”
“What’s the matter, Kaylee?”
“I don’t know, Simon…oh, ugh—” Kaylee vomited into the basin. She just hadn’t been feeling right the whole evening. Felt like laying her head right down on the tabletop during dinner but had made the effort to eat and smile and talk because the Captain had worked so hard to make a shiny feast. To tell the truth, she hadn’t been feeling right for a while. She’d been so busy fixing up machines for the last few weeks that she’d barely had time to notice, but the fact was she’d felt queasy many a time, and dead tired every evening.
Simon helped her over to the edge of the bunk, and brought her a glass of water. “Did something about the food disagree with you tonight?” Simon thought the meal was one of the finest he’d ever eaten aboard Serenity.
“No, the food was delicious, Simon. It’s just—actually, I feel much better now.”
“Did you feel queasy before dinner?” The physician in Simon was taking over, and wouldn’t rest until he had diagnosed the problem to his satisfaction.
“Well, no, not really, not until I sat down at the table. Then I just kinda wanted to fold up and put my head down, but I tried to stay shiny for the Cap’n.”
“You mean you were feeling tired?” He placed his hand on her forehead to gauge her temperature. River had been running a moderate fever since their stop on Bandiagara. He hadn’t yet worked out the etiology of it, but he hoped it was just a cold, and not one of the rare, unusual diseases that he’d seen on Bandiagara.
“Simon, I been feeling tired every gorram evening for weeks. You know how hard I been workin’.”
“I know, that’s what you said on Bandiagara—and you were working very hard; I’m not surprised you needed more rest.” Simon had been working pretty hard as well, putting in long hours at the clinic, persisting even after Serenity ran out of medicines to dispense. He could still do surgery, and still make diagnoses, and still give advice, and he did, right up until lift off. The Bandiagarans’ need for a doctor was so great. If he hadn’t been working so hard himself, he might have noticed Kaylee’s fatigue sooner. “But the big push to put together machines ended five days ago, when you ran out of parts to assemble. Mal let you off the hook in loading up cargo, to give you a rest. So you’re saying you’re still tired?”
“Yes. I’m still tired.” She tried not to snap at him. She just wanted to sleep. “Just need to re-charge the batteries.”
But Simon was thinking, and this didn’t seem like a case of simply re-charging batteries. “Kaylee, will you please come to the infirmary? I think we’d better run some tests.”
The wave was for Captain Reynolds. The caller, a middle-aged man with an overbearing manner but kind eyes, waited with barely concealed impatience while she checked. River put the caller on hold, freezing sound and visuals, while she flipped open a direct connection to Inara’s shuttle, where she knew the Captain was—whoa! She nearly cried aloud. She pulled back rapidly, seared by the intensity of his passion, an embarrassed, unintentional witness of an extremely private moment of sensation. She blew out a few breaths, fanning herself, trying to calm her rapidly beating heart and willing the blood to settle back down from her flushed faced. She re-opened the vid channel. “The Captain is not available at the moment,” she said. “Would you like to speak with the First Officer, Mr Holden?”
Stars burst before his eyes as he rode seismic waves of sensation, that washed him over the crest, once, and again in an aftershock, gasping, shuddering, collapsing.
“我的天啊 Wǒ de tiān ā, Inara—that thing—that thing you did—what the hell was that?”
A silver laugh escaped Inara’s lips. “You really aren’t very experienced, are you, Mal?” It was kindly and affectionately said.
Maybe he should get annoyed, with her pointing up his “inexperience” like that—it weren’t like he was some lily-pure—oh, hell with it. He just felt too gorram good to argue the point. ’Sides, didn’t think he was capable of moving a muscle just at the present moment. That thing she did…
Anyways, it was true. He could count on one hand—well, okay, two—the number of sexual partners he’d had in his lifetime. Of course, he weren’t about to admit it to Inara, whose number of partners had to measure in the triple digits, at least. 鬼 Guǐ no, didn’t want to think about that. Was better off thinking about his own inexperience, as she put it.
It wasn’t that he’d wanted to spend all those nights alone. He’d held romantical notions, as a teenager, of “saving it for marriage.” As a kid, his momma—always the English teacher before she was a rancher—had fed him a diet of classic literature in which honorable men and virtuous women saved it for marriage, or paid the price for jumping the gun. Shepherd MacLeod of the Northside Church on Shadow had reinforced the idea with fiery sermons that made a deep impression on Malcolm at the time. Sometime in his late teens, his hormones got the better of his brain and he’d tossed that romantical “saving” notion to the winds. Still, he’d never treated sex as a casual thing, and the whole idea of one-night stands didn’t hold much appeal for him. If he was going to do it, he wanted it to mean something.
It had meant something, with one particular young woman who’d been his steady girlfriend back home, before. Then the war came, he’d joined the army, she’d stayed on Shadow—and he never saw her again. They’d corresponded. He’d even worked himself up into thinking he’d ask her to marry him if ever he got home on leave. But home leave never came, the fighting got more desperate, and finally the rug got pulled from under the whole edifice of his being at Serenity Valley, leaving him with no home, no family, no fiancée, no faith, no nothing. Even if he could have gone home, he’d changed beyond recognition.
There were people who figured the whole army experience was one of licentious debauchery—what else would you expect, young men and women thrown together in the circumstances of live-today-for-tomorrow-we-die? He’d been tempted to have a bit of fun that way, early on, but in the main his soldiering experience weren’t really like that. The women in his unit were comrades-in-arms first of all, and their gender was secondary. The bond they formed working together to save each other’s 屁股 pìgu under fire trumped any other bond. He’d heard it said the war buddy bond was a tough nut to crack. It was true. If you’d come through hell together, it didn’t make no matter if the one who helped you through hell was a woman or a man. You were just gorram grateful you weren’t still there in hell.
The other matter was that Mal hadn’t actually spent much time in the army as a private. Promotion had come early. Before he knew it he was a sergeant, responsible for the men and women under his command. It weren’t fitting for a sergeant to have relations with anyone under his command. A man of honor knew better than to press his advantage with someone beholden to him. After the defeat, the internment camp weren’t no place for intimate relations of any kind, even if he hadn’t been so damn broken at that point, a hollow shell of himself. When he got Serenity, started building a new life, a crew, a family of sorts—well, then he was the Captain, and it was the same gorram thing about relations with anyone who looked to him for their livelihood. And they weren’t dirtside long enough for him to form a meaningful relationship with someone who weren’t beholden. Even supposin’ he weren’t too shattered to form a meaningful relationship at all. So he’d fallen a few times for less meaningful relationships—he was only a human being, after all—but not so much, because afterwards it just felt wrong.
He realized, of course, on some level, that all that was just an excuse—that he could have found the time, could have made the opportunity. But to do that would have been to acknowledge his losses, admit the past hurts, feel the pain, and most of his adult life he’d kept that door firmly shut. Wash had told him he had intimacy issues, and he knew it was true, though nothing would have made him say so. It was Inara who found the chink in the wall.
Inara came into his life, and things changed. She wasn’t crew. She wasn’t a passenger. She was an independent businesswoman who rented his shuttle. She didn’t have to obey his orders. She never did obey his orders, gorrammit. She had a choice. She could leave. She could leave. And she had chosen to stay.
“I guess I ain’t.” That indescribable feeling still echoed throughout his body. He rolled over onto his side and collapsed bonelessly into a puddle around Inara. “Reckon ’m glad you are,” he murmured as sleep took him.
狐狸 Húli [fox]
谢谢 Xièxie [Thank you]
Id est bonum sanguinem praesidium. [It’s bloody good protection. (Latin)]
我的天啊 Wǒ de tiān ā [Oh god]
鬼 Guǐ [God, lit. ghost]
屁股 pìgu [asses]
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