BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

EBFIDDLER

TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10) Part (06)
Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mal sells fruit, Inara sees a doctor, and Mrs Li offers free advice, tea and cookies.


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TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10)

Part (06)

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)

Mal sells fruit, Inara sees a doctor, and Mrs Li offers free advice, tea and cookies.

This chapter contains content that may be NSFW

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* * *

Mal waved the wholesale greengrocer. The man was a contact of a contact of a contact. Not the way Mal preferred to do business, but he didn’t have much choice. Never having hauled a cargo of fresh produce before, he considered himself lucky to have found a produce broker on Beaumonde willing to deal with the cargo.

Pat Tao was a former Browncoat quartermaster sergeant, a contact Mal had made years ago when he was an infantry sergeant in the Independent Army. Many’s the time Mal had charmed a few extra rations for the troops out of Sergeant Tao, and Mal would trust Tao with his life. But there the trust ended. “I don’t reckon this woman’s all that trustworthy,” Tao had told him, “but she runs a network of, uh…business people…who are willing to deal with…goods such as your cargo.” Smuggled goods. “Not too particular about Alliance inspections and tariff stamps.”

Reading between the lines, Mal understood that the woman was a sort of broker of smuggled and black market goods, with some pretensions to kingpinnery—or perhaps queenpinnery was the correct term. Rather like the role Badger filled on Persephone. She’d have a circle of certain officials and inspectors that she had bribed or blackmailed to look the other way when people in her network were handling uncustomed goods in their purview. Mal didn’t much like her, but Marcela Devine (he was sure that was not her real name, that she’d adopted it simply to acquire the cachet associated with the Devine line of high-end clothing boutiques) was neither better nor worse than people like Badger and Patience. That is, he suspected that she’d be happy to sell him out for the right price, or shoot him if the transaction went pear-shaped. He could deal.

Devine referred him (for a percentage) to a produce broker named Pugh, who handled wholesale imports bound for the South Sirindhorn Farmers’ Market on Beaumonde. It was with him that Mal was speaking now.

你好 Nǐhǎo. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Marcela Devine recommended your brokerage services to me,” Mal commenced his spiel. He laid out the basics of the deal in the usual (that is to say, cagey) way of the typical straightforward shady business transaction. “…Pineapples, watermelons, limes, mangos, and papayas, all in prime condition,” he concluded.

“No durians?” Pugh inquired.

“No durians,” Mal affirmed.

“Can’t sell no durians without making special provision,” Pugh warned. “One of them things breaks open in transit, ain’t no way you can sneak it past the inspector. It’s more than any inspector can credibly manage, to pretend to ignore the smell of one of them things. There’s a reason the durian fruit is known as ‘the skunk of the orchard’.”

Mal reassured the man that his cargo included no durians to strain the olfactory credibility of Pugh’s corrupt agricultural inspector.

“Here’s the coordinates of where you can park it,” Pugh concluded, and the location of a discreet berth appeared on Mal’s screen. “I’ll meet you there, tomorrow eight a.m. local time.”

Mal acknowledged the instructions. “See you in the world.” Mal cut the connection and ran his fingers through his hair. Granted, he’d never smuggled produce before, so dealing with Ag Inspectors was a new aspect, but either Pugh put his entire trust in Devine to have vetted Mal and his cargo, or he was up to something. Mal himself wouldn’t never have dealt with a smuggler who hadn’t answered certain kinds of questions to his satisfaction, and Pugh hadn’t even asked. Something wasn’t sittin’ right about this whole transaction.

* * *

“That do it?” Pugh asked, glancing over his shoulder at the intimidating man who stood behind him, out of range of the wave screen’s vid.

“It is an acceptable beginning,” the man replied. “I expect your cooperation in this operation.”

“Believe me, inspector, you got my full cooperation,” Pugh reassured the agricultural inspector, for so the man was.

“You will do what it takes to make sure the crate is loaded onto that ship,” the inspector instructed, looming over Pugh so that his badge flashed in the man’s face. “That captain must not suspect that I nor any agricultural official has anything to do with that crate.”

“He won’t know it,” Pugh replied.

“Just remember that if he does, I will break you. We have had you under surveillance for a long, long time. I have enough evidence to destroy your operation completely—you, your brother-in-law, and your sister—and Ms Devine does not have enough power to protect you or buy your way out of it.” He paused to allow Pugh to feel appropriately intimidated. “If you’re unable to convince this smuggler of your sincerity, you’re busted. If he won’t take the crate, you’re busted. If you refuse to participate in this sting, you’re busted.” He straightened up and walked out of Pugh’s personal space. “On the other hand, if you do it right, I can offer you better protection than Marcela Devine ever did.”

* * *

Mal had always associated farmers’ markets with freshness, natural clean living and good health, and so the slimy feeling he felt after dealing with the black market fruit broker came as something of a surprise. The man had Mal over a barrel, and knew it. Mal knew from the minute he laid eyes on Pugh that he was a rotten apple, but his contacts in the produce world were few, and time was of the essence. The fruit man knew this, and stalled. And the fruit in Serenity’s cargo hold got riper. Mal had Kaylee keep the engine running, to power the atmo conditioner and keep the cargo bay cool, but that only slowed things down a mite. Mal wished for Inara’s negotiating skills—she would have known how to work around the cussed fruit broker’s orneriness.

Inara. Well, right there was another problem. Inara had taken off for downtown New Dunsmuir the minute Serenity got within shuttle range of Beaumonde. He’d tried to talk to her, gone to her locked shuttle door repeatedly, and requested, entreated, begged her to tell him what was wrong, but all his attempts were met with silence or “Go away, Mal,” except the one time he’d found the door open. That time his request was met with a fusillade of accurately-aimed small objects, followed by a slam of the door. He was baffled, confused, and upset. He never even had the chance to tell her about the problem with the contraceptives.

And the 该死的 gāisǐde fruit broker delayed, and hedged, and squeezed, until Mal finally agreed to terms far worse than he’d imagined when he took on the cargo. At last the fruits and vegetables were unloaded and Mal was the possessor of a modest-sized bag of coin, free and clear. But he’d been absolutely unable to avoid another encumbrance. The rotten fruit broker had insisted, absolutely stipulated as part of the deal, that Mal take two crates of live chickens to Hektor, Beaumonde’s trojan planet. Mal didn’t need that cargo; he was certain that Buck Holden had a good cover cargo that would fill his hold. But he’d had to agree, in order to get the fruit sold. And now he was stuck with the chickens. He decided that at least he’d put off loading up the chicken crates until Holden’s cargo was aboard and he was ready to leave Beaumonde.

He flew Serenity the short distance round the world from the produce market to Pedro Docks, still thinking on the recent events. The coin was less than he’d hoped, but he’d be able to pay his crew at last, and pay back Simon and the others who had advanced cash to the ship’s account on Beylix. He would also pay off Inara’s loan, made on Persephone more than two months ago. This last item he was absolutely determined to do, first opportunity he got. He was in the doghouse regarding personal matters—though he still couldn’t quite understand the why of it—and it wouldn’t do to remain beholden to her financially. He needed to regain some even footing from which to restore his position with respect to her.

He just didn’t understand it. Why was Inara so mad at him? He couldn’t think of a single thing he’d done to merit such opprobrium. Well, not a single thing recently, ’cause he knew well enough he’d done and said many a thing in times past to hurt her feelings, lashing out at her whenever his own feelings were hurt. He’d hurt her unintentionally, thoughtlessly, and yes, he’d also done it on purpose, when he was angry.

All he had to go on was Inara’s words: go and ask your mistress. And they thoroughly puzzled him. He had to guess that Inara thought he was two-timing her, but just who did she think he was doing it with? Kaylee? As if anyone could pry that girl out of Simon’s bunk. Besides, he thought of her as a sister. River? Guessed he also thought of the Albatross as a kid sister, or maybe as an almost-daughter. River was way too young for a mean old man like him. Zoe? The notion was absurd. After all he and Zoe had been through together….Mayhaps she meant someone off the ship. He just couldn’t imagine who. And just when would he have the time to carry on with someone dirtside? He was generally too busy—meeting contacts, making deals, loading and unloading cargo, stocking and re-fueling the ship, gettin’ shot at or stabbed….He guessed he’d looked at womenfolk on the various planets and moons they stopped at, but that’s about as far as it went. Lookin’. Well, except with Nandi…but that was….He shook off the guilt he felt about Nandi, and kept his train of thought on track. Since he and Inara had first got together, he hadn’t even especially looked, because all those looks ever told him was that he was a lucky sumbitch to be with Inara.

The more he thought on it, the more upset he got about the apparent double standard. When they hit a planet, he was supposed to be—what? Happy? Pleased? Or at least accepting that she was gonna fly off and spend her time with someone else, someone not him, doing—whatever Companions did. And Inara expected him to trust her, to believe that, despite all appearances and all history, it didn’t involve sex with clients. And yet he caught hell for supposedly carrying on with a phantom mistress that he couldn’t even identify. * * *

This was not good. This was painful. Why had she ever agreed to do this? Why had she ever thought this was a good idea? Inara stared up at the scalloped patterns on the ceiling of Dr Schneider’s therapy room, and was unable to avoid thinking of waves, waves of pain, washing over and through her as Dr Schneider worked the complicated machine. She’d had enough of prodding and needles, and it wasn’t even half over.

“Can we change the ceiling?” she asked.

“Certainly,” replied the doctor. “There’s a menu in the side pocket. Just enter your selection.”

She chose an animated rainforest scene, and at first she was pleasantly distracted, watching flights of brightly colored parrots moving through the treetops over her head. The artist had taken great care with the details, and she delightedly watched a tree frog climb up a bromeliad and hop into it with a splash. A scarlet macaw feasted on a ripe mango, until it was scared off by a troop of monkeys that came chattering through the treetops. The monkeys—males and females, adults and juveniles—descended gleefully upon the fruit. She was quite taken with one mother monkey, clutching an adorably cute infant to her chest with one arm, as she swung through the branches with her other arm, legs and tail. The tiny infant clung to her fur, and looked curiously out at the world with bright, big eyes. The mother settled into the crook of a branch and began to nurse the infant. Inara began to cry.

“I’m sorry,” Dr Schneider said. “I can give you something for the pain. Or we can take a brief hiatus before we continue with the therapy.”

“A hiatus,” Inara replied. “I need a break. A little distance, to regain my perspective.”

* * *

“You’ve not been very good at keeping to schedule,” Dr Schneider admonished Inara. The treatment was now completed, and she lay on the exam table, somewhat recovered. “I don’t think I need to remind you of how important these treatments are. You skip them at your peril. The consequences—”

“I am aware of—” Inara interrupted with heat.

“Mood swings and emotional instability are some of the symptoms of skipping treatments,” Dr Schneider remarked pointedly. “I advised you to schedule two treatments within an eight week period. Now you come here, nearly sixteen weeks later, and I find you have had only one treatment in the meantime, and it was more than ten weeks ago.”

“There have been few opportunities. My transport has been servicing mostly remote worlds on the Rim, worlds without suitable facilities,” Inara countered, as she tried not to sound defensive. It wasn’t entirely true. Amelioration therapy wasn’t available on Bandiagara, but she could have scheduled an appointment on Beylix. She would have had to fly the shuttle to the administrative capital, a good distance round the world from the places Serenity had stopped to do business. Time was tight. And she hadn’t wanted to miss the dinner with Juju Kamara.

“Then perhaps you should re-think your choice of transport,” Dr Schneider replied. “You may be on the wrong ship.”

* * *

“You’re not seriously considering pregnancy, with your condition?” Dr Schneider exclaimed. Inara sat in a chair opposite Dr Schneider’s desk now, fully clothed and struggling to maintain her poise as they discussed Inara’s treatment plan.

Inara was annoyed. Would she have asked, if she didn’t want the information? She concealed her feelings and smoothly replied, “In my profession, pregnancy is always a possibility, even if it is a remote one. What I am asking is, what are the risks associated with my condition, and particularly with this therapy, were I to become pregnant?”

“The first part of that question is easy to answer,” Dr Schneider replied. “Your condition is a genetic disorder. It is autosomal dominant. You would be very likely to pass it on to your children. Approximately a fifty percent chance, adjusted only for the fact that some fetuses with the genetic mutation spontaneously abort.”

“But neither my mother nor my father had this condition,” Inara replied. “They were both tested, when I was a child, as soon as it was discovered that I had…”

“Remember, the disorder is genetic, but the mutation that causes it can also arise spontaneously. You needn’t have a parent with the condition.”

“And what about the therapy?” Inara asked. “How does it affect…”

“This therapy is not approved for pregnant women,” Dr Schneider replied. “It simply hasn’t been sufficiently tested. Do you have any reason to apprehend that you are pregnant?” she asked with concern.

“No,” Inara answered. She’d taken all the usual precautions. The kinds of birth control available to Companions through the Guild were the best in the ’Verse, and while it wasn’t absolutely foolproof, she was certain that Mal—even though he was a betraying, 不忠的 山羊 bù zhōng de shānyáng—had been conscientious about using contraceptives. With two lines of protection in place, the possibility was quite remote. And then, of course, there was the fact that she had excluded Mal from her bed for the past week. Nothing was more effective at preventing pregnancy than abstinence. Which was a good thing, considering how irregular her cycles had become. “I merely wish to be correctly informed. What risks does this therapy pose for pregnant women?”

“There’s been very little research specifically on the subject of pregnancy and your condition. Very few people with your condition ever consider unassisted pregnancy. In fact many of them forego childbearing altogether, as you can readily understand.” Inara did not understand, and was annoyed by Dr Schneider’s supposition that people with her condition would not want to be parents. She kept her features schooled in an expression that gave nothing away.

“People with your condition,” Dr Schneider continued, “if they are determined to have a child,” and again Inara felt that twinge of annoyance, “should never attempt a pregnancy without the assistance of in vitro fertilization and genetic screening. The risk is simply too high. If their partner also has the condition, we recommend the use of a donor, even if the partner does not have the more serious Kossiakoff form as you do.” She eyed Inara seriously, and again Inara felt she was being judged. “It’s advisable in order to improve the odds of a healthy embryo,” the doctor added.

Inara nodded, but Dr Schneider was not finished. “In addition, the medication you’re taking is not approved for use during pregnancy. You would need to suspend using it during the time you were attempting to conceive, and throughout the pregnancy, should the effort be successful.” Dr Schneider was shaking her head sadly. “It’s likely that your condition would deteriorate during this time, although to tell the truth, it hasn’t been well studied. Little is known about the effects that the hormonal changes associated with pregnancy would have on your condition.”

Inara felt like she was climbing a hill that was growing into an ever-higher mountain peak even as she tried to gain ground. “We’d also need to cease amelioration therapy. In general, we try to avoid subjecting fetuses to magnetic fields this strong. Particularly embryos in the earliest stages of development. The research is inconclusive, but there’s some thought that the therapy might disturb early development, even arrest it.” Dr Schneider looked her directly in the eye. “If you should find that you are pregnant, you must not undergo amelioration therapy during the pregnancy, particularly during the first trimester.”

* * *

Mal made his way to the dockyard office. Unlike the Port Authority office, which was where the official business of permits, landings, tariffs, and all was carried out, the dockyard office was the place of business of the woman who actually ran the dockyard facility day-to-day, Mrs Li. She was an elderly lady, short of stature, but full of goodwill. Dockyards could be rough places, but Mrs Li brought a human touch to Pedro Docks, and despite the sometimes rough nature of the customers, Pedro Docks felt like a family business.

“Mal, my dear boy, so good to see you back at Pedro!”

“Mrs Li, 这是很高兴见到您。Zhè shì hěn gāoxìng jiàndào nín.”

“Are you here to stay? Or just quick drop, again?”

“No, Mrs Li, it’s another short stop this time. Just arranging a cargo with Holden Brothers, and expecting a delivery, then we’re off into the Black again.”

“You know that when you finally settle down, you do it here. I want to adopt you.”

He smiled at Mrs Li. “Couldn’t do better than to have a ma like you. Any deliveries for Serenity?”

“No mail, son, you know you have to visit post office for that. But there was crate delivered for you not two days ago.”

Mal wondered if it was the chickens—in which case the fruit man had broken his word, and the poor birds would have been sweltering within the confines of their crate in the dockyard for the past two days. “Live cargo? Two crates? Still clucking?”

“No, no. Just one crate, small, but heavy. Machine, not chickens. You expecting chickens?”

Mal heaved a sigh. “Yes, Mrs Li. My main cargo is a run for Holden Brothers, but yeah, I’m also expecting two crates of live chickens. Couldn’t say no.” He signed for the crate.

“Come back around the counter and help me. The crate is heavy. Too heavy for old woman like me to carry.”

“Ain’t none of your boys here?” Mal queried. Mrs Li’s eldest son Boqin, nearly two decades Mal’s senior in age, supervised the longshoremen who loaded and unloaded most of the heavy cargo at Pedro. “Or your gals?”

“Oh, they’re out and about. Huian is taking leave of absence. She went to help her daughter with new baby. And Shuan went with her.”

“Can’t believe your daughters are old enough to be grandmas.”

Mal stepped around the counter and followed Mrs Li to the storage room, where she indicated the crate. He bent over to pick it up off the floor, and once again Mrs Li found herself admiring the view. He was much, much too young for her—younger than her youngest son—and she had long since decided that her affection for him was motherly. Still, he oughtn’t to wear those tight pants unless he wanted to attract a certain kind of attention. Then again, maybe he knew that perfectly well. He was one of her favorite captains, of the many who stopped in at Pedro dockyard. Always well-mannered, and paid his docking fees properly, even if he did have a propensity for making hasty departures.

“Come, put that down over here,” she said. “Come have nice friendly cup of tea with me.”

Mal’s business with Mrs Li was far from over. The crate undoubtedly contained the navsat he had ordered the instant he had cash in hand from the fruit sale, and the fact that it had arrived so quickly from the Beaumonde factory was pleasing. But he still had some important and uncomfortable inquiries to make of Mrs Li, and he figured that they might be more easily made over tea. He followed her into the back office, and sat on the chair she indicated while she prepared the tea.

It wasn’t exactly the formal tea ceremony, but Mrs Li made more of a fuss over tea-making than almost anyone Mal knew except Inara. Inara. 该死 Gāisǐ. He breathed carefully until the heartache passed. It was just so confusing. Why couldn’t she just tell him exactly what was wrong, so he could try to fix it?

“So, what is new?” Mrs Li was saying, eager for gossip. “You are well? Your crew is well? Any new ties? You have girlfriend?” She saw a conscious look cross his face and knew she was on the right track. This was exciting. “You get married?” she speculated.

“No, not married,” he replied, with a grim smile. “Not for want of trying. I asked her.”

“You asked her!” Mrs Li exclaimed delightedly, clapping her hands together. “That is good! Who you ask?” she added, then, unable to resist speculating, she continued, “Not your beautiful first mate, she still too new a widow. Oh! Your sunshine mechanic!” Mal would have been annoyed had anyone else discussed his personal life like this, but Mrs Li was such a genuine busybody that it was hard to avoid being amused. He knew she had a fondness for his whole crew, all the ones she knew, anyway. “No, wait, she already have boyfriend.” Mrs Li considered for a moment, and a thought struck her. “She still have boyfriend?”

Mal nodded.

“Okay, then. No sunshine for you. Oh, oh, oh—you’re not marrying your little pilot girl, are you?” Mrs Li inquired warningly. “She too young for you. Much too young.” She considered a moment. “Well, maybe not. What is the formula? What your age, Mal?” she asked, not giving him a chance to answer. “Thirty-two, right? Divide by two, add seven. Pilot girl is not yet twenty-five, no older than twenty-one. No good, no good.”

Mrs Li’s math was off, but Mal had to smile as her mouth ran as fast as, or faster than, her thoughts.

How her favorite captain had stayed single so long, on a ship surrounded by beautiful women, she did not know. She considered the possibilities. “Ah! I have it,” she exclaimed. “Your lady passenger. You ask her.” Mrs Li paused and watched the blush creep up his face. She knew she was right. “Ah, you aim high. She’s beautiful.” When he didn’t speak, she speculated further. “You ask her. What’s the matter? She not say yes?” He didn’t answer and he kept his features calm, but his eyes glistened, and she knew what had happened. “She say no. Oh, Malcolm, honey, that is too bad. She doesn’t know what she’s missing. Drink your tea. Do you want a cookie?”

Mal couldn’t sit still for that kind of treatment. Cookies! He waved away the plate she offered. “Mrs Li, I can’t have you thinking that. She said, we’d wait and see…and all was goin’ well, until ten days ago, when we—well, we had words.”

“Oh, no, honey, that is not good—”

Mal cut her off before she could leap the fence into the field of wild speculations again. “She thought I was bein’…unfaithful. I honestly don’t know why. And now she won’t speak to me. And really, Mrs Li, that is all I got to say about it.”

“Hmm. That still is not good—” she stopped. She did not want to upset the dear boy any further with her chatter. But she was incapable of maintaining silence, so she opened her mouth, ready to start a new hare, when the young captain spoke.

“Mrs Li, I hate to bring this up, but I thought you should know. Last time I brought Serenity to Pedro Docks, she was sabotaged while she was here.”

“Sabotage! Oh, no, no, no. That should not happen here. Are you sure—?”

“It’s a certainty,” Mal replied. “My ship’s navigation and communication systems blew out, not a day out from Beaumonde. We found the remains of plastic explosives and a timing device.”

“Oh, Malcolm, honey, you could have been hurt! You could have been killed!” Mrs Li was genuinely shocked, and he considered it highly unlikely she had anything to do with the sabotage.

“Well, we weren’t killed, and we fixed the ship—’cept for the back-up navsat, that’s what came in the box today…”

“Did they catch the bad guys?”

Mal looked questioningly at Mrs Li.

“The bad guys who do this—to your ship, in my dockyard.” Mrs Li was indignant.

“No, ma’am, not as I’ve heard. We still don’t know who did it, and that’s why I wanted to ask you, Mrs Li—do you keep any surveillance footage here at Pedro? Maybe we can figure out who was lurking around my boat last time I was here.”

“You want to look at footage? We keep for six months. Come,” she insisted, pulling him by the hand. “Sit.” She placed him at her desk, while she activated the video surveillance archive system. “When you were here? What, three months? Four?” Mal gave her the date, and she went searching through her archive, biting her lip and muttering, until finally she said, “坏了 Huài le!”

Mal looked at her in surprise. In his view, “坏了 Huài le” was much too mild a swear word to do justice to the situation.

“Oh, I am sorry. Please excuse my bad language.” Mal had to smile at Mrs Li’s quaint manners. “Someone has tampered with the archive. All the vid files from that week have been deleted.”

“Really? Now that is odd. Who has access—?” he began, but soon realized it was a useless question. Mrs Li, her sons and daughters, their spouses, grandchildren, any of a large number of dockworkers and office employees, visiting captains and crew enjoying Mrs Li’s kind hospitality, friends, acquaintances, extended family—and anyone with a will to do it, who could find a way in during an unguarded moment. Mrs Li, meanwhile, was keeping up a steady stream of indignation at the invasion of her private office by parties unknown.

“I cannot believe, who would do such a thing? These are bad, bad, people. What is the world coming to? Mal, dear, you would not believe, the kind of people we see sometimes, right here at Pedro. Why, a few months ago I found four mean-looking 流氓 liúmáng wandering around the dockyard in a daze. Wearing misfit policeman clothes, all wrong! I’m sure 他们是捣乱 tāmen shì dǎoluàn, but they were not in their right heads. I had Boqin escort them off the dock. Never did know what they were doing here.”

“Mrs Li,” Mal said, a little disconcerted at her tale of the four thugs, “do you suppose I could trouble you further? I’m wondering if it’s possible to provide a little extra security for Serenity. Do you think—”

“Mal, honey, I will ask Boqin to watch your ship. I cannot have it getting around that ships at Pedro get sabotaged. Bad for business. Please, dear boy, do not say a word. Boqin will watch your ship. You promise?”

That was a turning of the tables. Mal had thought he’d be obligated to Mrs Li for her help; now she was asking him not to reveal the security holes in her operation. “Yes, Mrs Li, I won’t speak of it. 谢谢您 Xièxie nín.”

“Do not mention. And—honey? You buy girlfriend flowers, jewelry. Tell her sorry you so 顽固 wángù—not true! I know, but you say anyway—and ask her will she forgive.” Mrs Li reached a hand toward Mal, as if she would pinch or pat him on the cheek. Mal hastily took his leave. “Necklace is good!” she called after him. “Or bracelet.”

* * *

This was a disaster. A bad idea, start to finish. She never wanted to do this again, she thought, as she stared up at the ceiling.

The ceiling was dull, off-white. Someone had attempted to brighten the room by affixing a border of printed wallpaper to the top of the wall near the strip of molding. It was an attempt to be classy but the design was poorly balanced and the colors ill-matched, and the effect was cheesy. The 风水 fēngshuǐ of the place was completely off. Inara’s mind wandered as her body performed flawlessly, bringing him to a climax.

And then it was over, thank Buddha, and he collapsed heavily on top of her, crushing her ribcage and sending an involuntary expulsion of air out of her lungs. “Ooofff!” He didn’t give her a chance to breathe in before he planted a sloppy wet kiss on her lips. The minty mouthwash he had used did not quite cover up the bacterial reek of his infected tonsils. Finally, he broke the kiss and she could inhale, pushing aside the black spots that had threatened to engulf her vision.

“Fantastic,” he said, adding with a smirk, “and you weren’t so bad yourself, baby.”

She flashed him a blissful smile, even as she inwardly rolled her eyes, thinking, “混帐 Hún zhàng.” He rolled off her, turned his back on her, passed some gas, and fell asleep.

Why did I ever think this would be a good idea? she thought, as she lay awake next to her softly snuffling client. The man had met all the proper selection criteria. She had approached the selection process rationally, meditating beforehand to clear her head, just to be sure that she wasn’t doing this in a fit of pique, to get back at Mal for betraying her. And to be sure she wasn’t just looking for a rebound fling on the heels of their breakup. She would not think about Mal. This was her job, her profession, her avocation. It was what she wanted to be doing, what she was trained to do, what she was born to do. Mal had nothing to do with this. Damn it, she was thinking of Mal.

She met the client at The Renaissance. He was well-mannered, clean, and good-looking. He was impeccably dressed, with understated good taste. He escorted her to dinner and they dined on Chef Gallileo’s exquisite eleven-course tasting menu. They discoursed upon general topics until she discovered his areas of particular interest. Then she engaged him in intelligent conversation, letting him soar and wax poetical about the subjects closest to his heart. He spoke suavely, with assurance, in a cultured voice. Things were going well. She was not thinking of Mal.

After dinner, they danced, her feet executing the well-known steps, unobtrusively leading her partner to lead her in moves he didn’t know he could lead. He felt he had never danced so well in his life, and enjoyed himself thoroughly. Mal would have enjoyed the dancing, too, but he wasn’t there. She was not thinking of him.

Later, in the privacy of the hotel suite, the client undressed her, tediously spinning out the process while she concealed her yawns behind her perfect mask of pleasure. When he had spun things out long enough, according to his lights, he climbed on and set about it, never once stopping until the deed was done. And she watched the boring ceiling while fulfilling her contract. She had no idea what the ceiling in Mal’s bunk was like. She’d never looked. She was not thinking of Mal! She was thinking of her client. Tomorrow he would awake and leave the hotel a perfectly satisfied man.

Mal would have known she was faking it all, because he loved her.

Except Mal would not have known she was faking it all, because with Mal, there was no need to fake anything. It was all true. It was the real thing. Because she loved him.

What was she doing here, in bed with a stranger?

* * *

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glossary

你好 Nǐhǎo [Hello]

该死的 gāisǐde [damned]

不忠的 山羊 bù zhōng de shānyáng [unfaithful goat]

这是很高兴见到您。Zhè shì hěn gāoxìng jiàndào nín. [It’s good to see you]

该死 Gāisǐ [Damn]

坏了 Huài le [very bad]

流氓 liúmáng [hoodlums]

他们是捣乱 tāmen shì dǎoluàn [they were troublemakers]

谢谢您 Xièxie nín [Thank you (polite form)]

顽固 wángù [stubborn]

风水 fēngshuǐ [feng shui]

混帐 Hún zhàng [Asshole]

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COMMENTS

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 5:31 AM

BYTEMITE


I like Mrs. Li. :)

Some very interesting exposition in this chapter.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 7:57 AM

ZOESMOM


A guy named Pugh talking about how durians smell? Ha, ha!

And, I too thought Mrs Li sounded very sweet. I was half expecting her to say my great-grandmother's signature line: "If I'd know you was coming, I'd 'a baked you a cake!"

ROTFL bedroom scene! I get the very strong sense that this may have been Inara's last "conjugal" client. Mal's true love seems to have taken away her ability to even tolerate (much less enjoy) this type of work.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 8:06 AM

EBFIDDLER


So, do I get a prize for writing the world's most unsexy sex scene? ;-)
Glad that someone appreciated the durian joke. Look up "no durians" on the web for some amusing signage and stories about this notorious Asian fruit.
I hope no one minded Mrs Li's accent. As I wrote her scene, she insisted upon behaving a bit like *my* great grandmother, who spoke English with an accent, so...

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 9:53 AM

NUTLUCK


Could those be doom chickens? Or worse reaver chickens?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 10:30 AM

AMDOBELL


Oh no Inara! In bed with a stranger? And after accusing Mal of not being faithful? Doesn't bode well for either of them having a happy ending. Loved Mrs Li and that crack about wanting to adopt Mal. I'm thinking Mal has a lot of problems hanging on his tail, what with the satnavs being sabotaged first off then discovering Mrs Li's CCTV had been wiped but only for the week Serenity was on Pedro and it happened... Hmm, I smell a whole rotten nest of bad guys. Let's hope River is able to sense them and the danger surely pacing our valiant little crew. Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 2:29 PM

BYTEMITE


Ah, yes, durians. Imagine if you will a vanilla flavoured taste of apple ambrosia... That smells like a rotten egg bomb set off in a sewer.

Plug your nose and bottoms up.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 2:35 PM

BYTEMITE


Oh, and very nice moment with Mal realizing the hypocrisy of Inara treating him like this when her job is basically to cheat on him.

On the other hand, he was willing to allow it, since that's what he assumes her secret guild business is anyway. So it's not like technically Inara wasn't doing something that Mal wasn't already expecting. Disappointing yes, but still not a dealbreaker for the relationship.

I imagine that now that Inara is more sane, she'll quickly realize what was really going on or have it explained to her. Or barring that, feel guilty about her own infidelity and by extension how she's treated Mal, which itself will subsequently led to some clarity.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 3:13 PM

ZZETTA13


Hmmmmmmmmm……….defiantly trouble brewing on the horizon? Seems like a whole lot of headache up ahead for the crew of Serenity. One, they’ve got some bozo wanting to do them harm with sabotage. Best opportunity was at Mrs. Li’s dock. Then two, four fake Alliance security guards snooping around? That can’t be good. Mal better get his business done and be outta there as quickly as possible.

Also the guy calling the shots behind the produce deal. Bit of a nasty fellow seems to me. At least Inara seems to be coming to terms with her aggravation of what she thinks about Mal’s alleged cheating. I can understand her emotional state at this point. Heartbreaking for her…..still, Holy Smokes….that last client she was with, there had to be blubber!

Great read eb, very fun! ZBP

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 4:31 PM

PLATONIST


Mrs. Li's a wonderfully fleshed character, eb.

Mal's job is rotting fruit, and Inara's night with her client is a "regret and forget”, yep, it’s Firefly, great chapter, post more.

Thursday, January 26, 2012 6:57 AM

EBFIDDLER


Ah, exposition! And all those nefarious plots and subplots. Mal and Inara will have to confront the issue of her job sooner or later, and clarify for each other what their expectations are. They've been ignoring the elephants for too long. "Rotten nest of bad guys" indeed. And "reaver chickens"? Just you wait...
Thanks for your comments, all of you.

Thursday, January 26, 2012 7:23 AM

BYTEMITE


Those beady eyes, those terrible sharp beaks and spurs.

Can't you hear them? They are saying... "Do not cluck with us."

Friday, January 27, 2012 5:21 AM

ZOESMOM


Perhaps the chickens are just someone's way of saying "Cluck you!" to Mal.

Friday, January 27, 2012 7:02 AM

BYTEMITE


Me, I suspect fowl play.

Friday, January 27, 2012 9:59 AM

EBFIDDLER


*looks for a place to insert the phrase "Reaver chickens" into upcoming story*
*cackles with laughter*


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