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TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10) Part (05)
Friday, January 20, 2012

A horrible fight


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1770    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10)

Part (05)

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) EXPECTATIONS (04) BREAK OUT (05) THE TRIAL (06) SHADOW (07) ONE MAN’S TRASH (08) BANDIAGARA (09)

A horrible fight

A/N: I want to thank my beta readers for going above and beyond the call of duty on this chapter, as I decided at the last minute to add two more scenes. Er…three, actually. Scenes that ballooned into more than 4000 extra words. So thanks to my sister, who has read all my Firefly stories again and again, all 200,000+ words, and never tires of offering commentary and discussing them with me; and special thanks to Bytemite, who helped me iron out the thorny issues in this chapter and offered many helpful suggestions. I also want to thank those of you who are following this story for your patience with the delay in posting it.

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* * *

Simon walked down to River’s room, and it occurred to him that it had been a very long time since he had actually talked to his sister. Sure, they saw each other every day, and they spoke to each other and sometimes hugged each other, and Simon interacted with her as a physician whenever he gave her medical treatments, but actually talking? It had been a while.

River was in bed. She hadn’t been feeling well, and though Simon’s first thoughts had immediately leapt to zebras—Bandiagara was a world seemingly rich in rare diseases he had never before encountered except in textbooks—it turned out she did not have malaria, or river blindness, or sleeping sickness, or any one of those exotic diseases that he had treated on Bandiagara. Just a cold. Now, it was a particularly nasty, fever-inducing, nose-that-won’t-stop-running, hacking-cough kind of cold, but still. Not a zebra. Just a plain old horse. He had given her an antipyretic, but other than that there was much to be said for the traditional advice of “get plenty of rest and drink plenty of fluids.” The old remedy of chicken soup was also not a bad idea, although Simon’s opinion was that Ip’s miso soup tasted better than the chicken-style protein broth that Serenity stocked.

“How are you feeling, 妹妹 mèimei?” he asked.

“I feel like 狗屎 gǒushǐ,” she answered.

Language, River! he wanted to admonish, but he held his tongue.

“Well, I do,” she replied, defensively. “Cephalgia, pyrexia, rhinorrhea, reflexive tussis, and malaise.”

He rolled his eyes. “Why don’t you just use plain language and tell me you have a headache, fever, runny nose, and a cough?”

She rolled her eyes. “I did. Said I felt like 狗屎 gǒushǐ.”

“Well, the medicine will help,” he continued. “It’s a fever-reducer.”

“Antipyretic.”

“The antipyretic,” he agreed, opting not to protest. River just liked to use the more complicated word sometimes. He smoothed the strands of hair off her face, and smiled to think what a beautiful sister he had. And what a beautiful girlfriend he had, too. He was a lucky man. “River, how would you like to be an aunt?”

“Ants are social insects of the order Hymenoptera. Nonetheless, there is a certain resemblance to the lampyridae. Live together in a colony, have specialized jobs such as foraging, defense, reproduction. Only some of them can fly. Work together to form a superorganism, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.” She paused, considering the proposition carefully, and came to her conclusion. “If I were to choose among insects, I should like to be an ant.” She smiled at Simon. “Or a firefly,” she added.

He automatically started to correct her misinterpretation. “River—” he began, then stopped, unsure of himself. Should he take her words at face value? Was she speaking metaphorically? Was she in an incoherent state? She was ill. He should cut her some slack. Or was she just messing with him? (She was still River, after all, and she had always been a bit of a brat.) He decided to take another tack. “Would you like to have a sister?”

Simon’s indirectness was maddening, she decided. “A bird of a feather is better than two beating around a bush,” she remarked, enjoying his expression as he tried to puzzle out the mixed-up aphorism. If he couldn’t just come out and say what he really meant, she wouldn’t dignify it with an appropriate response.

It was the fever talking, he decided.

“Two little birdies, sitting in a tree,” she chanted. Simon gave her a sharp look, but she veered off-course. “The animals came two by two. Noah’s ark is a problem,” she stated. “Vestigial record, accounting for mass extinctions. More than two million species of animal cannot fit on a single boat without invoking improbable fluctuations in space-time. A single ancestral pair does not allow for sufficient genetic diversity within a species. Inbreeding is a problem. Zoocentric. Focuses on animals to the exclusion of other life-forms, notably plants and microorganisms. Does not allow for ecological sustainability.” She took a breath, and looked Simon in the eye. “Shepherd’s bible is broken,” she concluded. “Tried to fix it, but Shepherd said it would fix me. Broken. Two by two, by two,” she hummed.

Now he hoped it was the fever talking. “River—” he began, with some alarm.

“The animals, they came on, they came on by twosies, twosies,” she sang. “Chickens, and ducks, and swans, and goosies-goosies…”

He relaxed.

刻鵠類鶩 Kèhúlèiwù.”

He smiled and patted her shoulder. River was just being River. “Get some rest, 妹妹 mèimei,” he said kindly. “I’ll save my news for later.”

It’s not news to me, she thought, watching his retreating back. Not when you already told me. He was a wonderful brother, and she loved him. But sometimes she couldn’t resist messing with Simon. “Simon and Kaylee, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” she taunted, sotto voce. “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage.” She rather liked being a brat.

* * *

Inara didn’t show at dinner, so after the table was cleared, Mal took the plate he had saved for her and went along to her shuttle to find out what was up. Mayhap she was sick. River seemed to have caught a cold, some sorta bug she picked up on Bandiagara, and Mal hoped Inara didn’t have it too. He tapped on the shuttle door. “Inara?”

“Go away, Mal.”

“May I come in?”

“No. Go away!”

He tried the door and found it locked. “Inara, what’s wrong?”

“I said, go away! You 好色 山羊的 拙劣的 儿子 hàosè shānyáng de zhuōliè de érzi! You 产卵的 有毒 毒蛇 chǎnluǎn de yǒudú dúshé! Betraying son of a 青蛙的 乱伦 的 猴子 qīngwā de luànlún de hóuzi!”

Huh. If Inara was cussing in Chinese, something was really wrong. “Let me in, please,” he insisted, raising his voice but careful to keep polite.

“The hell I will, Mal! 烂鱼臭 Làn yú chòu traitor! 闻屁 牲畜 操的 Wén pì shēngchù cào de treacherous 妓女的 儿子 jìnǚ de érzi!”

What the 地狱 dìyù was goin’ on here? Inara using the W-word? Well, technically, the 妓女-word, he amended. She must have gone completely off her nut. Something was really wrong. Setting down the dinner plate, he stepped over to the starboard control panel and began tapping in the codes to override the door lock.

As the lock clicked and the door hissed open, Mal rapidly covered the distance and wedged his leg through the door. Inara was already trying to slam it shut again, but Mal powered his way in. He knew she was trained in martial arts, and the fact that she had lost the advantage of surprise was the only thing that saved his manliness from serious damage. He warded off Inara’s furious kicks and blows, grateful that his own training in hand to hand combat allowed him to defend himself. All the while she kept up a stream of abuse, insults and profanity that would have made Jayne blush. At last Mal saw his opportunity and pulled Inara into an armlock. Here he had the advantage of strength, and he held her pinned until her thrashings subsided, and her cursing trailed off into gasping hiccoughs.

After a moment of relative quiet, Mal spoke, “Think you can talk without hitting me now?”

She was still furious, he could tell, but she was clearly regaining some of that famous Companion control of hers. He released his hold, and Inara scrambled out of reach, pulling herself up into a fully upright and composed posture. Her words were still less-than-controlled, and she practically spat them out.

“Alright, so you’ve proven you’re stronger than I am. Are you happy now?”

“No. I ain’t happy. What’s got you so upset?”

“You should know!”

He paused for a thoughtful moment. Should he know? Alright, Reynolds, he thought, what kind of idiocy you been up to, to make this woman go crazy-time on you? He racked his brain. He’d said please and thank you. Hadn’t called her whore for weeks. Hadn’t called her liar, neither. Thought he’d passed the test with flyin’ colors when she’d come up to the bridge and asked him to take her to Beaumonde for that gorram secret business that he didn’t want to know about. No doubt he’d bumbled somehow, somewhere, but he couldn’t for the life of him figure what he’d done. The last few weeks they’d gotten along so smoothly. He felt he’d made progress toward that goal of winning her heart and hand. He didn’t want to slide backwards and jeopardize their relationship, so instead of getting angry and defensive (which he woulda done just a few short weeks ago, sure enough) he said, “Sorry. I am drawin’ a blank.”

She snorted like a fire-breathing dragon and he nearly jumped to avoid the sparks. “How can you possibly not know why I’m ‘upset’?!”

天啊 Tiān ā, he musta done something monumentally stupid. Had he been drunk? Couldn’t recall gettin’ plastered. Had he forgotten her birthday? Nope, that was still coming. Forgotten their anniversary? He discarded that one—they weren’t married; and furthermore it was his idea to celebrate the anniversary of the day they met—and he wasn’t like to forget how well-received that notion had been with her. He was runnin’ out of ideas. Time just to eat humble pie. “I beg your pardon, Inara. I’m sorry for what I did. But I really got no idea what I done to make you angry.”

“Don’t you?” she hissed. “Why don’t you go and ask your mistress?”

Weren’t that what he just done? Although he never woulda called Inara “mistress.” That was probably as bad as “whore”—maybe worse. What was Inara to him, anyways? “Girlfriend” just didn’t seem strong enough. “Fiancée”? She’d made it clear that he couldn’t yet make that claim. “Wife”—he wished. He’d asked, and she’d put him off, but with such a look in her eyes that—ulp, the look she was fixin’ him with now was one he’d last seen in the eyes of one of the more deadly predators that stalked the mountains of Shadow. “Inara, I, uh—whaddya mean?” he finally blurted out.

“Get out! Get out, Malcolm Reynolds, you two-timing 妓女的儿子 jìnǚ de érzi! If you’re too dim to figure it out, go ask her!” Hurled objects flew toward his head like targeted missiles. She launched herself toward him with enraged fists flying, and he decided that discretion was the better part of beating a retreat.

* * *

He wanted to get to the bridge, where he could stare into the Black and think on this strange situation without interruption. He was utterly perplexed, but as he walked down the passage, a couple of LED’s lit up dimly in his brain. What did Inara mean, go ask her? As if there could be any other her for him, ’sides Inara herownself. Now if that weren’t a perplexion of pronouns, he didn’t know what was. And what was that she called him? ‘A two-timing son of a—’ son of a bitch! Was that it? Was it possible that Inara thought he was carrying on with another woman? Could it be that Inara Serra, the great rise-above-all-pettiness Inara Serra, first-class Companion, was jealous of his affections? Inara Serra worried that Malcolm Reynolds wouldn’t be true to her. Huh. The irony of such an unlikely situation struck him like a hammer hits an anvil. Inara fretting over his fidelity. Nah, he thought, dismissing the notion. It was just too improbable. He was too confounded in his own head to sort it out. Needed an outside opinion. He’d have to ask Zoe about it later.

* * *

Most of the crew were in the dining area, stunned into silence by the incredible row coming from the open door of Inara’s shuttle. They were used to fireworks. Captain and Inara’s love affair, with its fits and starts, break-ups and reconciliations, was better entertainment than the finest theatre in the Core. Jayne had amassed a small fortune taking bets on when and how their next fight would come about, how long the Captain would be in the doghouse, whether the Captain or Inara would be the first to crack and make up. But this row beat all the others hands down. For one thing, it was Inara screeching like a fishwife, cussing like a soldier, and throwing things. Jayne even learned a few new cuss words. No one could make out the Captain’s words because he didn’t even hardly raise his voice.

Inara’s voice reached a crescendo. “Get out! Get out, Malcolm Reynolds, you two-timing 妓女的儿子 jìnǚ de érzi!” they heard clear as a bell, if a bell could shriek, that is. A hail of objects landed on the gratings with metallic pings and clangs. The shuttle door hissed shut, and the Captain’s heavy step was heard in the corridor. A few moments later, he entered the dining area, looking stunned. Everyone stared blatantly at him while pretending to be deeply engaged with the variety of essential busy-work projects that they’d found it necessary to do within earshot of the shuttle. It was telling that the Captain seemed too stunned even to notice the unwanted attention. He focused in on Zoe, locked eyes for a moment, and stumped off to the bridge.

River looked up from the dining table, where she sat cocooned in a blanket, a steaming bowl of miso soup before her. She held out her hand toward Jayne. “Pay up, big man.”

* * *

As he worked out with his free weights in the cargo bay, Jayne felt the want of the Shepherd’s presence again. In more ’n one way, actually. Missed him as his workout partner. Missed his cooking. Missed how he would have eased the upset on the boat.

Book was always good for spotting with the weights. Workout and a homily. Jayne knew well enough that it was the Shepherd’s way of preachin’ at him without preachin’ at him, if ya could say such a thing. Book’d just drop in some good advice casually, slip in some morality without you hardly bein’ aware you was bein’ sermonized. Workin’ out was good for a man, not just for the muscles, but also for the spirit. Jayne had always known that. Workin’ out settled a man’s spirit like nothin’ else—except maybe gettin’ some trim. But the Shepherd had added an extra measure to it. The workout, not the trim.

Jayne also missed the Shepherd’s cooking. That fancy meal the Captain had made a while back just highlighted the problem. Sure, they ate packaged protein most of the time, but Shepherd with his herbs and whatnot always made it taste like good food. Jayne had asked him once, what his secret was, and Book had just smiled one of them Shepherd smiles of his, like he knew a secret he weren’t ever gonna spill. But then he added, “All it takes is a little flour, a little oil, a little bit of spice—and a lot of prayer.” Jayne thought he shoulda asked the Shepherd what some of them food prayers were, ’cause right now they were limited to Jayne prayin’ it weren’t the Doc’s cook day. Sure, he’d eat it, no matter what it was—Radiant Cobb hadn’t brought up her son to turn up his nose at any food—but that didn’t mean he didn’t have no sense of taste.

As he pumped his muscles up and down with the free weights, Jayne’s attention was caught by a commotion up above on the catwalk. It was Mal, tryin’ to talk to Inara again, tryin’ to kiss and make up. He heard the shuttle door slam and the Cap’s heavy exhalation, then his step slumping away down the corridor. Shepherd woulda talked some sense into them two by now, Jayne thought, as he worked through his reps.

Jayne knew what Mal should oughtta do: take charge, tell that woman to shut the 地狱 dìyù up and listen to reason. Oughtta just grab her, drag her to bed and then 操逼 càobī themselves silly ’til they didn’t have no fight left in ’em no more. Best course of action for everyone on the boat. Sure, watchin’ the two of them bicker was good entertainment, but Jayne understood that if they broke up for real it would just make trouble for the entire crew. Would put Mal in a black funk, and instead of blowin’ off his aggravations at a good whorehouse or takin’ matters into his own hands like Jayne would, he’d take it out on the crew. Like as not he’d make a mistake on the job that would result in somebody gettin’ stabbed or shot. Since Jayne was high on the list of folk what stood to get stabbed or shot on a job gone bad, he was eager for that not to happen. Mal in a black mood weren’t no fun to deal with nohow.

Jayne stood up and began a set of curls with the free weights. Man had got a lot easier to live with since he’d took to gettin’ laid regular. Jayne remembered what it was like before Inara had turned up. Seemed like he’d been tellin’ him that for years, but would Mal ever take his advice and come along to the cathouse with him? Nooooo. Was too far up on his high horse, disparaging Jayne’s perfectly sensible attendance to his perfectly natural urges. If ever was a man needed to attend regularly to them natural urges to keep hisself from goin’ plumb crazy, it was the Captain. Someone needed to impress upon Inara that the whole gorram crew depended on her to keep the Cap’n from turnin’ into a right raving 神经病 shén jīng bìng.

Jayne woulda told her, but she wouldn’t listen to him. Zoe wouldn’t break ranks with Mal, Kaylee was too nice to confront Inara, Doc was too much of a wuss to confront her, Crazy was too crazy to do it, and Doc ’Noyman didn’t have a clue. If anybody coulda told her, told her in a way that she’d listen and accept, it was Book. 哦 天啊 Ò tiān ā, he missed the Shepherd.

* * *

This time, he caught her by surprise. Her door was open, and he’d actually crossed the threshold before she was aware.

“Inara.” His voice was pleading.

“Go away, Mal.” It was the same answer she’d made every time. She wouldn’t look at him. The 花心 huāxīn, 背信棄義的 bèixìnqìyìde…. If she looked into those eyes, she’d be lost again, lost like she was before. Lost in the woods and the deep blue…and she couldn’t, now that the spell was broken and the fairy tale ended, and reality was descending with a thud of finality.

“Please, Inara—” He took a step forward.

“I said, go away!” Can’t look, can’t look.

“Look at me,” he implored. She wouldn’t.

“Go away.” He didn’t.

“Can we at least talk about it?”

“Go away,” she commanded, still refusing to look. Still he made no move.

“Inara—” he insisted.

Picking up the nearest object, she flung it at him. Companion education included archery, marksmanship, and a variety of field sports—skills that few people considered when they thought about Companion training. She actually had remarkably good aim, and the object struck his forehead.

“Ow. Inara—” He flung up his arms to protect his head.

“I. Said. Go. Away.” She punctuated each word with another object, still not meeting his eyes. He retreated, as each object struck its target. “Go away!” She hit the button to shut the door, and not content with its unhurried rate of closure, she gave it a powerful assist. The finality of its clang gave her some satisfaction, as did the click when she engaged the lock.

Then she curled up on the edge of her bed and wept silently, her heart pulling painfully in her chest.

Everything had gone so wrong, and it was hard to believe that a few short days ago, everything had been going so right. Mal had asked her to marry him—sincerely, seemingly without premeditation. Clearly without premeditation, she decided, for he obviously hadn’t thought it through. She hadn’t given a definite answer, but he’d acted as if she had. Acted as if it were a good answer. He’d overwhelmed her by remembering the anniversary of the day they met, and treating it as cause for celebration. And the sex…beautiful, amazing sex, better than any she’d experienced before, and she would have sworn he felt the same. When she’d gone to the bridge to inquire about their landfall, Mal had behaved well, cooperating in a way that surpassed her expectations.

She had been able to schedule her long-overdue appointments with a Guild-certified doctor. She still hadn’t told Mal the real reason why she needed to visit “civilized” planets on a regular basis, and he was still in the dark as to the true nature of her “secret business.” She’d felt mildly guilty about the concealment of her purpose. But her guilt was trivial compared with the enormity of Mal’s deception. He had concealed his affair with Zoe. Now she had nothing to look forward to on Beaumonde except the appointments that always made her feel sick—painful therapy that left her drained. It was bad enough that it made her wonder if the treatment was worse than the disease. And she had nothing to look forward to in coming back to Serenity, either.

Her life stretched out in front of her like a bleak and empty field, with no high points and no features of interest in the foreseeable future. And immediately surrounding her, nothing but grey fog and dull grey mud. Ashes and dust, mud and clay. Just a few days ago, her worries had been so different. She closed her eyes on the flat grey landscape, and remembered. Those worries looked inviting now. Biting her lip, Inara concluded the arrangements on the cortex. Her appointments with a Guild-certified doctor were confirmed, and the Guild comptroller’s office had pre-approved the charges for the expensive course of therapy. When she’d inquired about their landfall, so that she could schedule these appointments, Mal had been a darling, restraining himself from asking the questions that were clearly on his mind, if not on the tip of his tongue. She didn’t want to have to answer them, particularly now, when things had been going so well, as Kaylee would put it. He’d been in an extraordinarily good mood lately, and she didn’t want to be the one to spoil it. But she knew that, sooner or later, she wouldn’t have a choice.

“’Nara?” Kaylee’s voice was unsure at her shuttle door.

She was not in the mood to see anyone right now, but for Kaylee, she’d make an exception. And perhaps Kaylee’s natural sunshine would improve her own outlook. “请进 Qǐng jìn, 妹妹 mèimei.”

“’Nara, I—oooh, what a pretty tea set!” Kaylee exclaimed. She bounced over to the little table to examine the Bandiagaran tea set that Mal had given her. “Didya get it at market day in Fajara?”

Not trusting herself to speak, Inara kept her face blandly pleasant, and nodded.

Kaylee didn’t notice her preoccupation. “Shiny!” she exclaimed, picking up the teapot. She looked over at Inara with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes, and that’s when Inara finally noticed that Kaylee, too, seemed a little bit off from her usual sunshiny self.

“What is it, 妹妹 mèimei?” Inara asked.

“Oh, Inara!” Kaylee exclaimed, her eyes going sorrowful. “Have ya ever thought about having children?”

It was not what Inara was expecting to hear. And it was not a question she wanted to answer. Fortunately, Kaylee paused only briefly before continuing, her enthusiasm waxing as she spoke. “You and the Captain would make such darling 可爱 kě'ài babies. They’d be so beautiful. And he’d be over the moon about it.”

Inara had to bite her lip.

“Don’t want to talk about it, do ya?” Kaylee said, her eyes big and round and serious.

Inara shook her head. She regretted it, but she and Kaylee had not been quite so close recently. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but Inara recognized that as she spent more of her time with Mal, she spent less time with the others on Serenity. Kaylee, too, and Simon had been so wrapped up in each other and their work that they’d rarely been seen outside of mealtimes. Inara wondered briefly who had been paying attention to River. The answer came quickly: Mal. He paid attention to everyone on his crew, both as a matter of duty, because he was captain, and as a matter of choice, because (whether he would admit it or not) he cared for them all. And what about Zoe? Widowed and pregnant, she must need a shoulder to lean on now and then, despite her stoicism. Mal had been looking after Zoe. And clearly with some success: she’d heard the two of them laughing on the bridge the other day. Inara hadn’t heard Zoe laugh since Wash died, so Mal was apparently doing something right. Inara had always felt a strong sympathy with Kaylee, and the younger woman had always gravitated to Inara for girl-talk. But she hadn’t put as much effort into their friendship lately, and now she realized that the closeness of that connection had suffered. She wasn’t sure if she could talk to Kaylee now with the openness they once had shared.

Kaylee sighed. “Well, here I am, askin’ you nosy questions, when really what I mean is, I need to talk about me.” She paused and looked inward. She seemed to be trying to figure out how to say what she had come to say. But her next words took Inara completely off guard. “Inara, you ever thought about marryin’ the Cap’n?”

What?! Where did that come from? Knowing that Kaylee could not have known that Mal had, in fact, asked her to marry him on Bandiagara, Inara put on her act and rolled her eyes. “As if I would.”

“You mean ya wouldn’t?” Kaylee inquired seriously, with great interest. “Why not?”

“Kaylee,” Inara began, then changed her mind about explaining her heart. “It’s complicated.” It was a cop-out, but she didn’t feel like baring her soul at the moment.

“He’s 帅 shuài, and he’s a good man,” Kaylee went on, relentlessly. “He’s so in love with you, too. You can see it in his eyes.”

“Did he send you here to plead his case?” Inara asked with feigned amusement.

Kaylee stopped, like a balloon deflating. “Inara, all this babble…it’s just…对不起 duìbuqǐ, I’m askin’ you all this stuff, when really, what I mean is…”

Inara saw that Kaylee’s lip was quivering. Her habit of empathy was engaged, and suddenly she was doing what she did best, comforting other people. “妹妹 Mèimei, what’s wrong?” she asked softly, and the concern in her voice was genuine.

“Inara, I’m pregnant.” Kaylee looked uncertainly at her.

“That’s wonderful news,” Inara responded. Kaylee’s eyes were still bright with tears. “Unless…you don’t want—”

“No, no, I do want….Inara, I’m—” Kaylee took a deep breath and blurted, “I’m so happy and it’s wonderful and I’m so afraid Simon’s gonna think he’s gotta marry me just to be proper and maybe he don’t really love me after all!” She burst into tears.

Inara hugged Kaylee and patted her back, and soothed her, knowing that much of Kaylee’s emotional volatility could be attributed to the surges of pregnancy hormones. She listened and consoled. Despite Kaylee’s basic happiness at the thought of bearing Simon’s child, she had a lot of fears and doubts and insecurities that clouded her natural sunshine. She worried that she was not smart enough, not educated enough, not classy enough, to hold the Core-bred surgeon’s interest. That if he married her out of a sense of duty, he’d come to regret it. That she’d lose him.

Inara did her best to reassure Kaylee and restore her spirits. Simon loved her. Simon was an intelligent man: surely he understood by now what a unique jewel Kaylee was. Simon didn’t want to leave Serenity, he wanted to stay, he wanted to be with her. If he could choose any woman in the ’Verse, Inara asserted, he’d still choose Kaylee, and consider himself lucky to have her.

As she soothed, dispensed wisdom, and comforted her friend, Inara found herself growing wistful and sad. Kaylee was now chirping cheerfully about babies, and the happiness they naturally engendered. Except for Inara, they didn’t. In her mind’s eye she saw a vision of herself and Mal, hovering worriedly over the cradle of their newborn child. A flicker of life struggling with illness…

“…shouldn’ta been so surprised, babies are part of the natural rhythm of human life, ain’t they, Inara?” Kaylee was saying.

Inara nodded absently. The vision burst, the cradle fell. It wasn’t “natural” for her now, was it? She’d been told she couldn’t have children. Or shouldn’t have children. Or wouldn’t. She should check with a physician. She couldn’t talk to Simon. Too close to home. And it wasn’t his area of expertise. She’d consult Dr Schneider, the Guild-certified physician she was to see in a few days’ time, the specialist in amelioration therapy and a notable authority on her condition.

“…to live our lives together, share our joys and sorrows,” Kaylee was saying, “grow old together, because that’s the natural thing to do.”

Live together… sorrows…grow old…. Inara shook herself. It wasn’t natural. It was the strangest thing that had ever happened to her. She had never, ever intended to fall in love with a poor, luckless, smuggling, scofflaw thief of a transport captain out on the Rim. She had never intended to compromise her career for any man—yet for this one, she didn’t know what she might not do for his sake. Because she’d meant what she told him on Bandiagara: “I love where you and I have been, with respect to each other—I’m delighted you asked—I’m not saying ‘no’—It’s the first sincere marriage proposal I’ve ever had.” Some part of her wanted that fairy tale just as much as he did. The happy home, the family. The cottage garden that grows in one’s heart, with daisies, red roses, jasmine, and rosemary; love-in-a-mist, heartsease, carnations, and baby’s breath; bleeding hearts, yellow roses, nightshade, poppies, and iris; and love-lies-bleeding.

Inara sat up and wiped away the tears. Now, she had to face all her troubles alone.

* * *

It had been two days since Inara’s fight with the Captain, and she had been avoiding everyone else aboard Serenity, not just Mal. Kaylee tapped cautiously on Inara’s shuttle door.

“Go away, Mal.”

“’Nara, it’s me,” she called softly.

“Kaylee?” Inara’s voice came through the door.

“We need ta talk.”

“If you’re coming to plead the Captain’s case—” Inara began.

“It’s not about him.” Yes, it is. About him and you. Kaylee gathered her courage. Inara hadn’t left the shuttle for a couple of days now, except for a few quick trips to the dining room to grab some protein bars and retrieve her tea. She’d timed them carefully for when nobody was about, and even though Kaylee had hustled in there to try to talk, Inara had managed to get away afore she could catch up to her. “It’s about me,” Kaylee claimed, and it was partially true. You’re my role model, Inara, when it comes to understanding men-folk. And when you’re so off-kilter, it scares me some. “And you.” It’s definitely about you. You and the Captain. ’Cause when you two are at odds, it affects everyone on this boat. It weren’t just the fight. Everbody had heard the hollerin’ and the sound of Inara throwin’ things, and although at first everyone had rather enjoyed the fireworks, it weren’t long before they realized this was more serious than the couple’s usual spats. “Could use your counsel.” And you could use mine. Not that I’m any kind of qualified counselor, or nothin’, but sometimes folk just need ta see things from another viewpoint. Cap’n had gone by Inara’s locked shuttle door repeatedly, Kaylee knew. She’d seen him apologizing, refuting, sweet-talking, even begging and pleading, in front of Inara’s locked door. It weren’t like Inara not even to listen. Maybe I can help. And I gotta try at least. “Will you let me in?”

There was some scuffling noise. The door opened.

“Missed you today, Inara.”

Inara made no reply, but gave Kaylee a look, and led the way in. Kaylee noticed that Inara’s eyes were red-rimmed behind her make-up, but her voice was perfectly composed. “Would you like a cup of tea?” she offered, courteously seating Kaylee on the sofa.

“No thanks, 姐姐 jiějie,” Kaylee replied. 哦天啊 Ò tiān ā, this was awkward. Inara was politely offering tea, like a Companion, not a friend. Whatever it was that was goin’ on between her and the Captain was straining their friendship, too. “Sit down. We need ta talk.” She looked up anxiously at Inara, and something in the older woman seemed to change of a sudden, like flipping a switch.

“Oh! Of course, Kaylee.” Inara sat down, and looked at Kaylee, all sympathy now. And that, more than anything, brought home to Kaylee just how…unnatural Inara was acting. Not like herself. The regular Inara didn’t need to remind herself to be friends with her Serenity family. Didn’t need to turn off the Companion charm and remember to be real. The regular Inara was honestly more at ease, not pretending to be at ease. Something was really wrong.

Kaylee sat there for moment thinking about the last time she and Inara had a private conversation. It was only a couple days ago—just after she found out she was pregnant, and just before Inara had that big blow-up with the Captain.

Running over their talk in her mind now, Kaylee was appalled at herself. She’d been chirping away happily about babies and marriage, so caught up in herself, that she hadn’t really been paying attention to Inara’s reactions. And now, as she played the scene back in her mind, she noticed that her friend had been unusually, uncharacteristically cool on the subject. Almost silent. Kaylee was upset with herself for not noticing. Clearly babies and marriage were sensitive subjects. Kaylee had stepped in it. She thought back further, to the conversation about kids they’d all had on the way to Beylix. Captain jumped right in and said he wanted a large family—four or five kids. And Inara had been silent then, too. Dang. She should have noticed. She should have noticed something was wrong. Captain wanted kids, and Inara didn’t. Or wouldn’t. Or couldn’t. And she wasn’t sayin’. And, Kaylee was guessing now, she hadn’t told Cap’n either. Or she had, but she hadn’t told him why. And that was why they were at odds, or at least part of the underlying reason. And now Kaylee had another realization. Marriage. Inara and the Cap’n were at odds over marriage. Kaylee guessed this one easily. Cap’n wanted to marry Inara. And Inara, for some reason or other, didn’t want to marry the Cap’n. Shoot. And she had ta go open her big mouth, and talk marriage and babies with her best friend. She’d probably hit every raw nerve there was. No wonder the explosion, when it came, had been so tremendous.

She recollected the stunned feeling of every crew member as they listened to Inara accuse the Captain of being unfaithful to her. “Betraying son of a 青蛙的 乱伦 的 猴子 qīngwā de luànlún de hóuzi烂鱼臭 Làn yú chòu traitor….Get out, Malcolm Reynolds, you two-timing 妓女的儿子 jìnǚ de érzi!” Inara seemed to think the Cap’n was havin’ an affair with another woman. Now that was just plain crazy. There was, however, something she could do about it, Kaylee reflected. She thought she could help.

“Inara,” she ventured. “Cap’n ain’t seein’ no one else.”

“Kaylee,” Inara interjected, warningly, “I told you I’m not interested in hearing you plead his case.”

“He ain’t that kind of man,” Kaylee continued, passionately. “I been on this boat for nearly five years now, Inara, and you know how many women I seen him pursue in that time?” Inara gave her one significant glance, and looked away, silent. “One.” She shot Inara a serious look. You. She thought Inara understood what she meant.

“I know you’re trying to be helpful, Kaylee,” Inara said in a controlled voice, “but I know what I saw and what I heard.” Kaylee’s eyes grew big. “Yes,” Inara continued, noting Kaylee’s shock and meeting her eyes. “I saw. I heard. I’m not relying on anything other than the evidence of my own senses.” It took all of Inara’s training not to erupt into another impassioned outburst, such were the seething emotions she was feeling just thinking about it again. It took all her control not to scream. I thought he loved me! She wanted to break down and cry on Kaylee’s shoulder. Or yell and throw things. But it wouldn’t do. She tried to keep her voice calm, tried to sound steely and resolute. “I’m afraid it’s all too true.” She turned away. “Would you please…leave me alone?”

* * *

She was angry. Angrier than she’d been in years, and that was saying something, because Mal had a natural talent for antagonizing her and she’d been angry with him time and again ever since she first set foot on Serenity.

Everything had seemed to be going so right, and now it was all wrong. That was the problem. Things were seldom as they seemed. He’d seemed sincere in his offer of marriage. He’d acted pleased with her answer. He’d treated their anniversary as something special, and she would have sworn he felt the same as she did about their love. But he hadn’t sworn it.

And who paid attention to Zoe—forlorn, widowed, pregnant Zoe? Mal. Of course. They had been laughing together on the bridge. Just what had Mal been saying—or doing—to make Zoe laugh? Even Kaylee’s attempt to advocate for him only made things worse. “I been on this boat for nearly five years now, Inara, and you know how many women I seen him pursue in that time? One.” Zoe. Of course, Inara reflected bitterly. Because she hadn’t been on board for that long.

It was maddening how he played the innocent. “I got no idea what I did to make you angry.” Yeah, right. How could he be so clueless? No one could be so clueless. It was an act, and he was a better actor than she had given him credit for. How could she have been so deceived? She had studied so long how to read people. She had practiced reading people, professionally, for years. She was a Companion, for Buddha’s sake, a first-class Companion, and reading people was part of her job. But it had always been difficult to read Mal.

She’d had nothing but complaints from him about her profession. Was she supposed to give it all up—for him? That was a pile of 马屎 mǎ shǐ. No, she had read up on it. Companions who took lovers required those lovers to comply with the Guild’s rules on non-transactional relationships, or they risked losing their good standing with the Guild. The rules were complicated—as she’d once told Kaylee, when she asked about Companions “dating”—but anyone who truly loved would see they were necessary. Why couldn’t Mal see?

Why wouldn’t he let her work? He never asked her not to work—not outright. Nothing so straightforward as that. He simply made it impossible for her to do so. She recognized his passive-aggressive tendencies.

And what did he offer her in return for asking such a sacrifice of her? She had thought he offered her his heart, his whole, unswerving, unshakeable fidelity. Unused as she was to such an offering, she had recognized nonetheless the value of such sincere devotion. Well, apparently not. If he could carry on with Zoe, right under her nose, not two weeks after making her an offer of marriage, then his fidelity didn’t mean a damn thing. None of it meant a damn thing.

* * *

*

*

*

glossary

妹妹 mèimei [younger sister]

狗屎 gǒushǐ [crap]

刻鵠類鶩 Kèhúlèiwù [Aim to carve a swan and get a semblance of a duck (idiomatic expression for “get a reasonably good, but imperfect, result”; also “to fail utterly in trying to copy something”)]

妹妹 mèimei [younger sister]

好色山羊的 拙劣的儿子 hàosè shānyáng de zhuōliè de érzi [misbegotten son of a lecherous goat]

产卵的有毒毒蛇 chǎnluǎn de yǒudú dúshé [spawn of a venomous viper]

青蛙的 乱伦 的 猴子 qīngwā de luànlún de hóuzi [frog-humping monkey]

烂鱼臭 Làn yú chòu [Rotten fish-stinking]

闻屁 牲畜操的 Wén pì shēngchù cào de [Fart-smelling livestock-humping]

妓女的儿子 jìnǚ de érzi [son of a whore]

地狱 dìyù [hell]

天啊 Tiān ā [God]

妓女的儿子 jìnǚ de érzi [son of a whore]

地狱 dìyù [hell]

操逼 càobī [screw]

神经病 shén jīng bìng [lunatic, mental case]

哦 天啊 Ò tiān ā [God]

花心 huāxīn [unfaithful]

背信棄義的 bèixìnqìyìde [betraying]

请进 Qǐng jìn [Come in]

妹妹 mèimei [younger sister]

可爱 kě'ài [adorable, cute]

帅 shuài [handsome, smart]

对不起 duìbuqǐ [I’m sorry]

妹妹 Mèimei [younger sister]

姐姐 jiějie [older sister]

哦天啊 Ò tiān ā [Gosh]

青蛙的 乱伦 的 猴子 qīngwā de luànlún de hóuzi [frog-humping monkey]

烂鱼臭 Làn yú chòu [Rotten fish-stinking]

妓女的儿子 jìnǚ de érzi [son of a whore]

马屎 mǎ shǐ [horseshit]

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COMMENTS

Friday, January 20, 2012 5:51 AM

ZOESMOM


They have a pool going on when the next Mal - Inara blowup will be? Ha-ha-ha! I bet River, with her uncanny insights, wins that one a lot. "Pay up, big man!"

Friday, January 20, 2012 6:24 AM

BYTEMITE


Oh those two. Maybe there's still time for Operation "lock them in a shuttle until they sort things out" even though they're already together.

Friday, January 20, 2012 7:24 AM

NUTLUCK


I was beginning to wonder when you would get the next one up. So when's the next chapter? :)

Friday, January 20, 2012 12:53 PM

AMDOBELL


I feel sad that for all her Companion training Inara is good at giving everyone else advice but not taking any of it herself. Why doesn't she just ask Mal to explain what she saw? Get the story straight for once and for all? Going off in a fit of hysterics doesn't solve a thing. Anbd sooner or later she has to mix with the rest of the crew and that includes the Captain. Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Friday, January 20, 2012 2:34 PM

EBFIDDLER


Ali--So, I'm not the only one who's noticing that Inara's reaction is a little bit...extreme? Out of proportion? "Hysterical"? Even a wee bit out of character? Why doesn't she just demand an explanation from Mal? Good question! Hmmm.... ;-)
Nutluck--back on schedule. Look for the next in about 5 days.
Bytemite--There is much to be said for the "lock 'em in a shuttle" option. Jayne certainly advocates it.
ZM--Although I said Jayne had amassed a small fortune, River could probably clean up if she put her mind to it. She's trying to be a good sport.

Friday, January 20, 2012 7:13 PM

PLATONIST


Wow, an emotional and exhausting chapter for Inara, she’s definitely not acting herself, wonder what’s wrong?

Hope River is okay.

Friday, January 20, 2012 7:41 PM

BYTEMITE


Hysterical. From Latin: hystericus - of the womb.

*peers at EB*

Saturday, January 21, 2012 9:00 AM

EBFIDDLER


Platonist, Inara's running herself through the wringer here. We'll be finding out more about what's wrong in upcoming chapters.
Bytemite: Ali said it. I merely quoted it. *poker face*

Saturday, January 21, 2012 11:41 AM

ZZETTA13


Simon & River :
Brother having a hard time understanding sister. Sister holding all the cards. Great fun to be had by the female Tam sibling…looking for more of River teasing her big brother.

Simon & Kaylee :
Glad to see that each of them are happy with bringing a child into the world. Sad to think Kaylee feels that she’s not good enough when we all know that she totally IS.

Jayne & Book :
Totally understandable how the big man misses his friend. With the one person Jayne could confide in gone, leaves him with little but talking to himself sometime. Likely he’s been there many times before.

Inara & Mal;
Hell hath no fury as a woman scorn, or one that thinks she been. Mal should be grateful that she didn’t use her companion survival training and go for a small arms attack. That might have ruined their chance on having babies even if things get resolved.

Really enjoyed this chapter eb…..always ready for more. ZBP

Saturday, January 21, 2012 10:54 PM

MARKOMI


Yes, poor Jayne. People always talk about hw lonely Zoe would be after Miranda, but I think Jayne might be even worse off. He really is the odd man out.

Sunday, January 22, 2012 5:13 AM

M52NICKERSON


Okay, Inara not acting like her self and we are all waiting for a shoe to drop...not good for the crew.

....but a great story!

Sunday, January 22, 2012 10:44 AM

EBFIDDLER


MK and ZBP -- they all miss Shepherd Book, but Jayne really misses his friend. Book really was the one who took the time and effort to get to know Jayne.
m52n -- shoe dropping, coming right up. (nice to see you back.)


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