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EBFIDDLER

WHAT BEGINS WITH AN APPLE (11) Part (09)
Friday, June 22, 2012

Matters of the heart.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3175    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

WHAT BEGINS WITH AN APPLE (11)

Part (09)

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Follows TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10). Precedes ENDS WITH A HORSE (12).

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)
TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10)

Matters of the heart.

A/N: I want to thank Bytemite for very helpful discussions of the Mal/Inara/Saffron scene in this chapter. Those really helped me get over the writer's block on this fic, and jump-started the re-write of What Begins with an Apple.

* * *

It didn’t start off so well. Simon found a quiet moment, when they were alone together and unlikely to be disturbed. But he’d barely started before things took a downward turn that seemed likely to spiral out of control.

“You told the Cap’n I’m pregnant, didn’t you?”

“Kaylee, I told you I had to…”

“And he threatened to space you if ya didn’t marry me, is that it?”

“He didn’t threaten to space me, he—”

“Simon, I’m not interested in gettin’ married just ’cause the Cap’n’s got some 稀奇古怪 xīqígǔguài notion that it’s your duty to ask me. That ain’t a good enough reason.”

“And having a baby on the way isn’t a good enough reason, Kaylee? I thought you were pleased about the baby?”

“I am pleased about the baby, Simon. But I ain’t gonna marry you just ’cause the Cap’n’s threatened to tar and feather you if’n you don’t.”

“That’s not the case, Kaylee. The Captain’s threats have nothing to do with—”

“So he did threaten you.”

“Actually, he didn’t. He simply paid me the wages I was owed, so that I could buy a ring.”

Despite her anger, Kaylee melted. “A ring! Simon, you didn’t need to take that kind of trouble. Must have cost a—”

Simon smiled, and breathed a little easier. Maybe this wouldn’t end in disaster, after all. He pulled the little box out of his pocket and held it behind his back. He prepared to kneel down in front of her. “I wanted to buy a ring. I wanted to do this properly, Kaylee. I’ve been waiting—”

To his surprise, she cut him off, all angry again. “Properly! Always with the proper. And I ain’t gonna marry you ’cause of some confounded notion you got that it’s the proper thing to do, like it’s some gorram duty.”

“That’s not—! Kaylee, I—that’s—” Simon was completely nonplussed, and tried to gather his wits about him. He knew he was no good at talking to girls, but he’d thought he was doing better with Kaylee since Miranda. But tonight it seemed he was unable to open his mouth without Kaylee taking it the wrong way. This was not the way he imagined the marriage proposal going. “This is definitely not something I’m doing as an act of duty!”

“Then why don’t ya give me some better reasons than what I’ve heard so far?” Kaylee demanded, her eyes flashing.

“I’m asking because—I love you, and—” Kaylee’s eyes softened, and Simon’s hope renewed “…and—don’t take this the wrong way—you really are, literally, the only girl in the world—”

“That’s a hell of a thing to say!”

“Let me finish, Kaylee! You’re the only girl in the world, in my world—the only girl I want or need. You are my world. And without you, my world is incomplete and lacking. I’ve been waiting for the chance to say this to you, Kaylee. I don’t have the fancy phrases that other lovers might use; I tend to say the wrong thing. In fact, I was considering whether it might not be better for me to just give up on saying it in my own words, and just quote Shakespeare or Christopher Marlowe—you know, the one that goes, ‘Come live with me and be my Love’—but I wanted to try to say it myself. I’m sorry I’m such an idiot about expressing my feelings.” He paused, and noticed that Kaylee was no longer objecting, no longer angry. She was looking at him with that melty, loving look that he’d seen in his dreams when he’d imagined this moment. “I love you, Kaylee. More than I can express. I want to live my life with you. I want to share in your joys and sorrows, I want to see our child growing in you, and raise a family with you. I want to grow old with you, loving you all the while.” He knelt on one knee before her and presented her with the ring. “Will you do me the honor of marrying me?”

The rest of their evening went much better.

* * *

Their passion was disrupted by obnoxious arrhythmic taps sounding through the wall by Simon’s head. It was the sound of Mal banging on the bulkhead between the bunks. 混蛋 Húndàn. Simon knew it was just the Captain’s frustration speaking. But it wasn’t his and Kaylee’s fault that the man had quarreled with Inara. Mal got himself kicked out of Inara’s bed. If he couldn’t keep his foot out of his mouth long enough to…Simon stopped himself from pursuing this uncharitable line of thought. He was one to talk. Had Kaylee not been the sunniest woman in the ’Verse, he would not be where he was now, lying in the arms of the woman he loved, the woman who, despite all the times he’d put his foot in his mouth, had just agreed to marry him and become his wife.

* * *

When Mal and Inara showed up together to escort her, Saffron looked delighted to see them. That alone was enough to put Mal on his guard. Saffron was gonna try to play them—that he knew sure as the spinning of worlds. What he didn’t know was what line she was gonna take. So why did she look like a thespian looking out on the theatre and seeing her desired audience occupying every seat in the house?

“So pleasant to see you, my dear,” Saffron greeted Inara, with honey-coated barbed wire in her voice.

“I’d like to say the same,” Inara responded with a veneer of civility.

“I understand you’ve been sleeping with my husband,” Saffron said bluntly.

“I ain’t your—” Mal protested, but he shut up when Inara trod on his foot.

I’ll handle this, she told him with her look, and he understood. Just as easily as with Zoe. Huh. That gave him something to think on.

“If I remember correctly, you informed me that you were a widow,” Inara replied coolly.

“I thought I was, thank you for your sympathy,” Saffron responded with an artificial smile. “I was, however, misinformed. My husband is yet alive and well.” She cast an appraising look at Mal, skimming his body with her eyes, and bringing them to rest on the front of his trousers. “Resurrection of the flesh and all, you know.”

Mal began to hem and shift uncomfortably. He didn’t enjoy being appraised like he was a piece of meat. Inara didn’t miss a beat.

“Resurrection of the flesh? Somehow I hadn’t put you down as the religious type,” Inara responded sweetly.

“Oh, well, you would know more about resurrection of the flesh than I, my dear. Considering that it’s in your line of work.”

Mal grew more uncomfortable, but held his tongue. Uncomfortable, yes. But part of him was curious. He’d always wondered what Inara had to say about her work, but it wasn’t the kind of thing he ever wanted to ask.

“It certainly is,” Inara responded boldly. “I have an advanced degree in Architectural Sexual Mechanics.”

Architectural what? Mal nearly blurted it aloud. He didn’t understand what the 地狱 dìyù was going on between the two women. It was the opening moves of some kind of verbal fencing match, that much he could tell. He just didn’t see where they were aiming. Still, Inara talking about sex was kinda hot.

Inara favored him with a brief look—he was unsure how to interpret it—before addressing her response to Saffron.

“Architecture. Design and construction. As in, building erection.”

Am I even here? Mal thought, ready to sink into the floor. No, he was not comfortable with conversations about sex. On the other hand, yes, it was definitely hot.

“Oh! I had quite forgotten. You’ve been to the Academy.” Saffron smiled back at her. “Graduated at the top of your class, I daresay.”

“As a matter of fact I did,” Inara responded coldly.

“Then perhaps you can help me understand something.”

“I daresay there is a lot I could tell you. Not that you could understand. You’re welcome to try.”

“You’re truly a Registered Companion?”

“I am,” Inara answered, with a what-of-it? air.

“Companion First Class?”

“Yes. And if you’re intending to solicit my recommendation for entering the Academy, I feel obliged to inform you that you are at least three decades too late,” Inara replied, deliberately grossly overestimating Saffron’s age.

“Oh, la! No, indeed. I have no aspirations to become a professional.” Saffron’s emphasis of the word clearly implied insult, more clearly than Mal’s use of the word ‘whore’ ever had. Mal shifted his stance and clenched his fist, ready to intervene if necessary.

“No,” Saffron continued, “I’m just seeking information. To clarify. I haven’t the kind of experience you have, as a professional.” She paused, as if to access a mental checklist of questions. “I have heard—” She continued to address herself to Inara, but as she proceeded, she began flicking glances at Mal’s body, raking him up and down with her eyes. “—Well, what I really want to know is, is it true that to pleasure a man, one can—” Saffron proceeded to give a description that caused Mal’s ears to turn a furious shade of red. Forget being ready to sink into the floor before. Now he was sinking into the floor, and he wished he couldn’t see nor hear neither. She used no vulgar language, no improper terms for body parts, but what she was describing was so graphically salacious that it made Mal wish he were anywhere else but here. Just hearing that woman talk about the process she was describing made him feel violated. He couldn’t imagine what sort of answer anyone could possibly give to the question Saffron was asking.

“You have been misinformed,” Inara answered professorially, as if Saffron had merely asked if “swinging from the shoulder like you’re chopping wood” was an effective fencing technique. She then proceeded to explain, in precise, technical terms, exactly where the fallacious reasoning lay in Saffron’s description, and how to correct it.

To tell the truth, Mal had been somewhat fascinated by the beginning of the discussion—fascinated, even a bit intrigued. Inara revealing the secrets of Companioning, Inara talking about sex—yeah, he was definitely interested. Hell, yes. But as the talk continued, she started going into clinical details (“psychogenic arousal” — “insertion of the intromittent organ” — “stimulation of the Meissner corpuscles” — “involuntary parasympathetic reflexes” — “the nucleus accumbens, a pleasure center of the brain”) and his reaction began to shift. From thinking it was kinda hot, to thinking What. The. Hell. He knew—of course he knew—that Inara had some pretty specific professional training in matters having to do with sex—but—he’d thought, somehow he’d believed, that it was different for the two of them. “With a little practice, it’s relatively easy to induce a heightened response in the typical male,” Inara was saying. “Men aren’t exactly a mystery. Using the appropriate techniques…”

Oh god, I can’t know that! he thought, as Inara described one particular technique in great detail, using scientifically precise but nonetheless graphic terms. “You can gauge the response by noting the dilation of the pupils…” Had she done that to him? Was that all that their love-making had been? He had a moment of horrified realization—Inara had done something like that—and she’d pleasured him nearly out of his mind. He’d gone to the bridge whistling the next morning, because he’d never felt so gorram good. Was that just Inara and her fancy education, putting him through his paces, working him over like any—? He’d been ridiculous, to think it meant something more—to imagine that it was “deeply meaningful” and all that love-sick 屁話 pìhuà. Here he’d been believing the act of consummation was the physical expression of true love, while to her it was nothin’ but a skillful performance of the sexual mechanics she’d studied in her Clinical Analysis of Human Sexuality class at Companion Academy. He’d been a complete and utter fool to think he’d succeeded in loving the real Inara, when the whole time it was just Companion Inara successfully applying her techniques on him. Plying her trade. Manipulating him, controlling his reactions, playing him, just like any client. Mal was indescribably pained.

“…simply a matter of appropriate physical stimulation of the sensory neurons that participate in that reflex arc,” Inara concluded. “And that’s the end of my lecture. If you want more information than that, you’ll need to enroll in my classes. Read my brochure on the cortex.”

Saffron bowed her head, as if to acknowledge her defeat. Inara allowed herself the slightest smile of triumph. It had been a challenge, to avoid Saffron’s attempts to draw her out about her experiences with clients, made in order to rouse Mal to jealousy and anger. She’d purposely kept everything she said clinical and impersonal, eventually hitting her stride and sounding awfully like Professor Nansi, whose Academy lectures on sensory neurons, neurotransmitters, biochemical feedback loops, and brain anatomy were remarkable in Inara’s memory primarily for their ability to take an act of sublime emotional beauty and reduce it to a list of dry facts. She defied even Mal to find anything to be jealous over in her professorial dissertation. She risked a glance at him and noticed for the first time that he looked physically ill. As if he’d been struck through the heart and just hadn’t yet managed to fall down dead.

“Mal!” she exclaimed in concern, reaching out to him. “Are you—?”

“Go away,” he said in a choked voice, cringing away from her touch. “Leave me alone.”

Saffron strode triumphantly ahead of Inara into the dining room.

* * *

She had no choice but to enter the dining room, but it wasn’t alright. He wasn’t alright. In fact, he looked positively stricken. She’d tried to tell him—to let him know with a meaningful look—that he was not to take to heart what she was saying to Saffron. Her words were for Saffron’s benefit. He was not to take it personally. It had no bearing on him, or her, or their past relationship. She was playing Saffron. He had to know that, understand that. Surely he would understand that.

But apparently he didn’t. The non-verbal communication hadn’t translated to him. She wondered now why she had expected it. Certainly their verbal communication hadn’t been at all successful lately. Why had she assumed he would understand?

She got away from the dinner table as quickly as she could, and sought him out. He was cut off from his usual places of retreat—the bridge and his bunk—by the crowd in the dining room. She found him in the engine room, caressing Serenity’s workings unthinkingly, heart to heart with his ship.

“Mal.” She spoke softly from the doorway.

“Asked you to leave me alone, Inara.”

She hesitated. “You did,” she acknowledged, “but I thought I could—”

“Don’t,” he cut her off, retreating as she advanced into the room.

She stopped moving towards him, took a deep breath, and took a deliberate step back. She was not going to take the undignified course of pursuing the Captain and cornering him in his own engine room.

“I’m sorry, Mal.”

His eyes flashed. “Sorry for what?” he demanded. “Sorry for me and my pathetic feelings?—”

“Mal—”

“—Sorry I heard your secret techniques? Sorry to enlighten me on how your Companion wiles work?—”

“Mal, please—”

“—Sorry I know how you play your clients?—”

“Mal!”

“—Sorry I know it don’t mean a damn thing?!”

“Mal. Please. I’m sorry you had to hear that. It was unseemly. It was my mistake—”

“Just as unseemly if I hadn’t heard it. Better if I—”

She cut him off this time. “My mistake, Mal, was that I didn’t realize until too late that Saffron wanted me to play her. That she was using me to play you. I’m sorry. I never meant to cause you pain.”

“That’s rich,” he commented, in an audible undertone.

“It’s true. I have no desire to cause you further pain.” She was a long way from forgiving him for his infidelity with Zoe, and she wasn’t about to take back the names she had called him last week—faithless, weak-minded, 薄情 bóqíng, 花心 huāxīn, and 外心 wàixīn. They still applied, and those were just the beginning of the list: he richly deserved it, and had earned it through his own actions. But still, she had no malice in her heart. He had coaxed her out of her Companion’s armor, induced her to share her heart with him, and then abused the privilege. But paying him back in heart-pain was ungracious, unmerciful, unethical, and beneath her dignity.

“Really?” he sneered. “Could’ve fooled me. Did fool me,” he added in a mutter.

Inara was struck by an insight. “Surely you don’t think that what I said to Saffron constitutes my philosophy of love-making?”

“Philosophy of love-making!” he echoed. What she was saying certainly wasn’t doing anything to calm him down. “Sensory neurons and brain parts and spinal cord reflexes—is that all love-making is to you?” he suddenly demanded. “Thought I was making love to a woman—but it seems it ain’t never been nothin’ but a matter of releasin’ neurotransmitters, and—and—activatin’ biochemical feedback loops!”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Mal—”

“I am bein’ ridiculous, I know it—”

“—You can’t have an orgasm over biochemical feedback loops. Well, I can’t, anyway—”

“—I been ridiculous, this whole time—“

“—My approach to sex is not clinical—I would have thought you understood—”

“—such a fool, to believe—”

“I studied those subjects at the Academy. Those studies help shape me, but that doesn’t mean that they constitute my philosophy—”

“Listen, Inara,” he interrupted angrily. “I don’t know what-all they taught you at Whore Academy—I don’t wanna know. But I got my own philosophy when it comes to love-making. It ain’t just sex. It’s expressing with your body the love your soul feels for another. It’s giving reverence to your loved one, showin’ in a physical way the love you feel in your heart. Ever heard of them old wedding vows? ‘With my body I thee worship.’ That’s how I feel about it. Like it’s something holy.”

Inara was moved by the heartfelt emotion in his words. Was this the same man who had cheated on her with Zoe? The man who felt the act of love-making was holy, the physical expression of heart and soul, just didn’t seem like the type who could carry on a secret affair on the side. She couldn’t reconcile the two pictures. It just didn’t make sense; it wasn’t reasonable.

Mal wasn’t done speaking. “It’s not something I could take lightly,” he continued, and his voice began to rise with a charge of emotion. “And the thinkin’ that it could be reduced to stimulatin’ neurons and activating feedback loops just—”

“Knowing how it happens doesn’t deprive it of meaning,” Inara interrupted in her own defense. “Understanding the mechanisms doesn’t make it a mechanical act. I believe the knowledge of the underlying structure adds meaning, and makes it all the more beautiful.”

“Makes it a routine.”

“No, it makes it more real,” she countered reasonably, “and all the more wondrous that the same set of physical motions can result in such vastly different experiences. What we had together—”

“Spare me, Inara,” he interrupted harshly. “I don’t want to hear you analyze what we have—what we had,” he corrected, bitterly it seemed to her. “Don’t want to hear it reduced to involuntary reflexes and mechanisms.”

“That’s not what I was saying, Mal. Were you even listening?” Her voice hardened with annoyance as Mal broke eye contact and turned away. He was muttering angrily to himself. He seemed bent upon pig-headedly ignoring the meaning of her words. If he was going to persist in purposefully misunderstanding her, she’d soon have to abandon reasoned persuasion. “After what I just said, can you still believe that what we had together was nothing more than flesh meeting flesh and elevated hormone levels?”

Mal was beyond the reach of reason at this point. “Flesh—hormones—it just—makes me—” Mal swung his fist at the bulkhead, as words became inadequate to express his feelings.

“Mal,” she began, extending her hand in a soothing gesture, which he side-stepped. He shook the pain out of his hand, swearing silently. “You’re overwrought. You need—”

“What I need,” he ground out, “is to be left alone. I already done told you that, Inara.”

She reached out toward him, intending to take his hand gently in hers, to see if he needed a weave. He visibly recoiled from her touch.

She withdrew her hand and straightened her posture, gathering her dignity around her like a cloak.

“Go away,” he said, low and dangerous. “Go away.”

* * *

She left him standing under his dark cloud. Inara was both puzzled and angry over the encounter. He rejected her reasoned explanations, he rejected her soothing gestures, he rejected her calming words.

Companion training was supposed to help her navigate situations like this. It ought to enable her to reduce a client’s stress level and bring him comfort. But every technique she’d been taught seemed to backfire with Mal. Talking, gestures and other unspoken communication, body language—all her most tried and true techniques only served to antagonize him further. Never had her Companion training failed her so completely. Instead of comfort, their encounter brought anger, frustration, and trouble.

Well.

Well, and why should she care? she thought, as her own anger shot up to the boiling point. This was the man who had betrayed her with Zoe! Why was it important to her what he thought about the supposed “meaning” of love? It didn’t mean a damn thing—not when he could spout such profoundly beautiful thoughts about the meaning of sex between two true loves, and then turn around and betray her with another woman. He was false, false, false.

* * *

*

*

*

glossary

稀奇古怪 xīqígǔguài [fantastic, strange]

混蛋 Húndàn [Bastard]

地狱 dìyù [hell]

屁話 pìhuà [nonsense]

薄情 bóqíng [inconstant]

花心 huāxīn [fickle]

外心 wàixīn [unfaithful]

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COMMENTS

Friday, June 22, 2012 9:50 AM

NUTLUCK


Well Inara just walked right into that one. This is why no one but River should deal with Saf, the only one that can't be played at all.

Friday, June 22, 2012 11:09 AM

BYTEMITE


I like how you show that Kaylee isn't always fair - she starts off in that session just assuming the worst and doesn't really help Simon out a whole lot.

Though Mal's reaction to having to overhear them when Kaylee finally does let Simon talk is the best ever. Haha. He makes it hard to be sympathetic for him when his response is so hilarious.

The things Inara says to Saffron in front of Mal play right in to all of Mal's fears that we saw earlier in this story. Saffron really is good at playing them.

But then of course Inara keeps contradicting herself. First she cares about how she hurt him, then she doesn't, because he's "false." Why does she think Mal is so angry at her right now? Because he now thinks that SHE'S false. These two.

Friday, June 22, 2012 12:31 PM

AMDOBELL


Oh Inara, for all her Companion training she really did let Saffron push her buttons and put a great big spanner in the works between her and Mal. And as for her jealousy over Zoe, she really needs to actually speak to Zoe to get her facts straight as she certainly doesn't believe Mal. And Nutluck is right, Saffron should be left to River to deal with. Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Saturday, June 23, 2012 6:45 AM

JANE0904


To paraphrase Shakespeare ... How do I love thee? Let me count the ways I can cock things up! These two need to be locked in a shuttle for a month and see who comes out alive. Or at least admitting how they feel. Fantastic writing as always!

Saturday, June 23, 2012 6:39 PM

EBFIDDLER


Thank you all for your comments. Mal and Inara can certainly be their own worst enemies at times. Saffron figured this out right away and has been exploiting it ever since. If only they pulled together instead of against one another...I've said it before, but I'll say it again: there is much to be said for the "lock 'em in a shuttle" solution!

Sunday, June 24, 2012 6:26 AM

PLATONIST


Great chapter, one which really explores Mal's insecurities in regards to Inara.

Sunday, June 24, 2012 11:20 AM

M52NICKERSON


"but every technique she’d been taught seemed to backfire with Mal."

Perhaps Inara does not get that Mal is not looking to be with Inara the companion, but with Inara the person.


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