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ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (01)
Sunday, January 27, 2013

What begins with an apple…ends with a horse.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3414    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12)

Part (01)

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Follows 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)
TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10)
WHAT BEGINS WITH AN APPLE (11)

Mouse over Chinese words in text for translations. If it looks like a language other than English, try mouse-over—I’ve probably translated it.

Rating: My stories are typically PG to PG-13 to occasional R. You will not find detailed descriptions of blood, gore, and sex, but you will find situations appropriate for mature readers, innuendo, implication, and (gasp) swear words. This story is rated PG-13, with a few R-ish scenes (language and mature topics).

I’d like to thank my wonderful beta readers, Bytemite and my sister, for taking the time to read this story and for their many helpful comments and suggestions. I would also like to thank TheAmazingDave for help with British slang expressions and usage. I want to thank the many regular readers here and at fanfiction.net for their comments, feedback, and encouragement—and for their patience! This story ended up being a lot longer than I had anticipated, and took longer to write than I imagined it would. (If you want to refresh on the events in the previous story, What Begins with an Apple, click on the link above.) And I’d like to thank the participants in the ficwriters’ forum, whose discussions over the summer jump-started this fic. Anyway, I hope you all enjoy the next installment in this series. Now…it’s actually not completely done—I’m still working on parts of it. But I decided it was close enough to begin posting…and you’ll understand if I have to take a break from a regular posting schedule if I haven’t managed to finish the next part by the time we catch up to it, right? :-) Okay, then. Here we go…

What begins with an apple…ends with a horse.

* * *

It was a painful necessity. Much as he might have liked to avoid it, Mal felt it was his duty to inform the crew about his realization. That evil, treacherous, double-crossing snake Saffron (the epithets came automatically at this point) was the saboteur who had planted timed explosive devices on Serenity’s navigational equipment and booby-trapped them with a Qianxia detonator—a banned weapon. And she had done it twice.

The first time, the sabotage remained undiscovered until they were deep in space and the ensuing electrical meltdowns had left them without navigational or communication equipment, far off course and out of range of help. Jayne had been blown up by the detonator in the repair attempt, and only good luck and quick thinking had allowed them to recover and make their way to their destination.

This time, Kaylee had discovered the sabotage before they left the dockyard on Beaumonde, and Mal had defused the detonator and removed the explosives. Saffron was the saboteur, and he had not known. She had been aboard his ship for five days, flying the crew in circles, making them upset with themselves and each other, misdirecting their attention so that they failed to see what she was up to. She’d played them thoroughly, and she’d done it even though they were expecting it, when she’d done it to them before—twice—and they all knew she was up to no good.

“Saffron was the saboteur.”

“And you just let her go.” Zoe’s tone was unforgiving.

Mal nodded.

“Told you we shoulda spaced her.” Zoe had come close to murdering the 说谎 的 shuōhuǎng de 贱货的 潑婦 jiàn huò de pōfù while she was aboard, but Mal had stopped her. She couldn’t understand why. Now, in light of Mal’s realization, it seemed to her that this had been a grave mistake.

“That wouldn’t do it, Zoe,” Mal responded. “Spacing her wouldn’ta answered the questions.”

“What questions?” Zoe waited a beat, but Mal didn’t answer. “Did you even ask?” she demanded.

“She’d only have lied anyhow.” Mal shifted uncomfortably under Zoe’s glare. “Spacing her ain’t the answer. Don’t take care of the problem.”

“Takes care of it pretty permanently, if you ask me.”

“No, it don’t,” Mal insisted, countering Zoe’s formidable look with one of his own. He weren’t no slouch in the glaring department, neither. “Saffron ain’t the problem.”

Zoe’s look spoke volumes, and he read it easily. It began with I can’t believe you still got a soft spot for that 贱货的 潑婦 jiàn huò de pōfù and ended with Are you insane, sir? Or just stupid?

“A little of both, as you know perfectly well,” Mal responded, “but I’m not wrong. Really,” he reiterated, “it wouldn’ta helped, to have spaced her.”

“Woulda helped plenty,” Zoe retorted.

The whole crew was silently observing the unusual public disagreement between the Captain and his first mate. “You don’t actually believe Saffron was acting on her own, do you?” Mal asked her rhetorically.

Zoe stood straight, almost like a soldier at attention.

“Think about it, Zoe. Those tools she had. Programmable fuse filaments. Security overrides. Access codes. She knew the plans for this boat by heart—knew where to hide her stuff, knew which access panel led to the crawl space, knew which systems to override, knew how to hack into the security.”

“You think she had accomplices off-ship.”

She absolutely had accomplices off-ship. “That’s her protection. She disappears, they come after us.”

“Have to track us down first, sir,” Zoe interjected with some heat.

Mal gave Zoe a glare, and even some of the less astute crewmembers could tell what he meant by it.

“You think she planted a tracker on us,” Zoe stated, and Mal nodded, folding his arms. “Where?”

Ain’t that the gorram one-million-credit question. “Zoe, she spent the last four days planting screw-up devices of every description in every corner of this boat. She was prepped for this mission, very well-prepped.” He paused before he delivered what he considered to be the real kicker. “She had Qianxia proximity detonators.”

“Sir…”

“Qianxia proximity detonators, Zoe. Banned since before the war. Not nobody has access to that kinda 狗屎 gǒushǐ unless they’re Alliance. Alliance military got stockpiles from before the war.”

“Could get one from a private arms dealer,” was Jayne’s unexpected contribution.

Mal turned to face him. “You know something about it, Jayne? Private arms dealers sellin’ Qianxia proximity detonators?”

“No, Mal. Not nothin’ specific. Just know, from when I was runnin’ with Marco. We used ta meet up with some of that kind of folk, from time to time. Some arms dealers ain’t too particular about whether what they’re sellin’ is banned or nothin’.”

“Saffron was married to that Alliance bio-weapons expert,” Kaylee reminded them. “She might have insider—”

Zoe’s knee-jerk reaction was swift. “That civilian-killing, city-destroying, 无用 wúyòng excuse for human being! Durran Haymer ain’t nothin’ more than an officially sanctioned terrorist.”

“Durran Haymer is the Director of the Bioweapons Defense Institute,” Inara supplied. “He was promoted to the directorship six years ago, shortly after the war. But before the war, he put in eight years as lab director, specializing in behavioral modifications research.”

“You know him personal-like?” Mal inquired sharply, shifting his intense blue-eyed look to her face. The entire crew watched with concern. Mal and Inara had spent the last two weeks at odds, very seriously out-of-sorts with one another. The altercation that led to their blow-up had resounded throughout the ship, and the crew tensed with apprehension, fearing another storm. Still, most of the crewmembers were very well aware that the Captain and Inara had spent a good part of the previous night “reconciling”—if the raised voices coming from Inara’s shuttle could be considered a measure of that. In any other couple, the love-bites visible on the necks and faces of both of them would have been a sure indication that they’d worked out their frustrations and differences with one another. But with the Captain and Inara, things were always complicated, and so, despite the obvious signs, the crew did not assume that they were back to smooth sailing. The potential for another explosion was still there.

“No, Mal,” she answered, and some of the tension eased from his shoulders, a visible relaxation. “He was never my client, if that’s what you’re asking. But I had heard of him, even before the Lassiter job. Back when I was still at House Madrassa on Sihnon.” Mal was still regarding her with an intense look. She wasn’t entirely sure if it had more to do with the personal information she was revealing, or the information as it related to Saffron. “It was my business to know the backgrounds and antecedents of government officials and business leaders on the House Madrassa Client List,” she explained, “the better to navigate the public events, soirees, and political salons, to which a Companion might be invited. I could do further research…”

“Thought Companions don’t kiss and tell.”

“I’m not saying I am at liberty to disclose confidential information, should I find any. But perhaps I can find out if the Guild does keep a confidential file on Durran Haymer. And given Saffron’s association with him, it may be that I can find a record of her as well. Particularly if she also had any Guild training. Although Buddha knows under what alias she might have studied.”

“Be useful to know more about Saffron’s history with Haymer. Likely she worked contacts made through him, to get at the high tech and banned weapons.” Mal unconsciously touched the place on the side of his jaw where Inara had marked him the previous night. “Worked ’em, slept with ’em. Hell, she’s probably married to half the Alliance top brass, too. 她是公共汽車 Tā shì gōng gòng qì chē. Slept and conned her way into all kinds of confidential information, I don’t doubt. And I’d hazard a guess she’s had access to higher levels than I previously figured.” There were murmurs of agreement. “She’s a professional con. She enjoys workin’ on her own, but I don’t reckon she’s in this game just for her own amusement. Somebody’s payin’ her, and that’s somebody with high-security access.”

“So she’s workin’ for the Alliance.” Zoe looked to him to confirm her suspicions.

“Could be,” Mal replied, “but…”

“I think she’s working for Blue Sun,” Ip interjected unexpectedly.

“What makes you think so?” Mal questioned sharply.

Ip glanced over at River, as if for reassurance, but her mind was elsewhere. “It was River’s idea, actually. When it was my turn to escort her, River suggested that if she tried to...I dunno, do something, I should use one of the Blue Sun hand signals to—”

“There are Blue Sun hand signals?” Mal exclaimed.

“Well, sure. If you’re in a meeting, and you need verification that the person you’re talking to is authorized to hear information of a certain security clearance level, you—”

“You have a high-security clearance?”

“No, no, nothing like that, Captain. I have—or had—a rather low-level security clearance. But yes, I did handle some sensitive corporate information, and as such, I had a certain security clearance level. Which means I was given passwords and signals to identify my security clearance level to other Blue Sun employees.”

“Kind of like a secret handshake.” Everybody looked at Jayne, who continued, “Like in them secret agent spy shows on the cortex. The one guy uses the secret handshake, then they all know he’s really the secret agent, an’ it’s okay, they don’t have to shoot ’im.” Jayne was amazed that none of the others knew this. “Don’t none of y’all never watch nothin’ on the cortex?” He rolled his eyes.

“So what did you do?” Mal queried, ignoring Jayne’s rhetorical question.

“Well, she tried to get to me…like she tried to get to everybody, Captain,” Ip continued. “So I flashed the ‘Blue Sun Employee—Blue Level Security Access’ hand sign—”

“How’s that go?” Jayne asked, all curious.

“It’s like—” Ip began openly, before stopping himself. He tried to glare briefly at Jayne, who glared back with interest. “Never mind. She stopped in her tracks, and gave the countersign.”

“So what does that mean?” Mal asked. “Well, Blue is one of the lower levels. Corporate confidential. It would give you access to proprietary and non-public information, but don’t go thinking that it’s a top secret clearance or something. The secret military projects, corporate security—heck, even the personnel office—all have their own secret signs that I don’t even know.” “So she works for Blue Sun?” “Yes. Well, or maybe she used to. Or she learned the sign from someone. I didn’t do a password challenge, because I don’t know what’s current myself. They change it every month. So I guess I don’t really know for sure.” There was silence for a moment. “What did she say, after the sign?” the Captain inquired.

“Nothing. She didn’t say a word after that. Just proceeded to the shower, and back, without further incident.”

他妈的 Tāmādē,” the Captain swore under his breath. Blue Level, Blue Sun, Blue Hands. There was altogether too much blue in all this for his liking. Too much Blue—sounded like something River would say. A cold feeling settled into his stomach at the thought that Saffron might have been working with Blue Sun somehow, or perhaps even Blue Sun’s secret operatives, the Blue Hands.

He turned toward Ip. “Why didn’t you tell me about this right away?”

“I tried, Captain. Several times. You cut me off, you told me to mind my own business, you said—”

“Aw, never mind.” Mal recognized that he had been his own worst enemy in this regard. He’d dismissed out of hand the notion that Ip might be effective against Saffron, and had told the man in so many words to shut up and keep out of the way. Still, this evidence that Saffron had aught to do with Blue Sun was mighty disturbing, to say the least. Alliance weren’t the only people with deep pockets, access to private information, and the unscrupulousness to use it against him. Ip had once told him that Blue Sun Marketing kept a record of everything he bought, through their rewards program—every navsat, every protein packet, every gorram piece of toilet paper and dental floss. What might they do with that knowledge, combined with Saffron’s spying, if she was working for them? He turned toward the other person who had known about Ip’s little stunt.

“You see this, River?” Zoe beat him to the question. River seemed to be particularly sensitive to Blue Sun’s touch: she seemed to know instinctively when Blue Sun’s operatives were involved, and most of Serenity’s crew was quite convinced that she could read minds. River had also been the one person aboard who had most effectively stood in Saffron’s way, and was least swayed by her subversions. Surely River would have known, if Saffron were working with the Blue Hands? “What do you know about this stunt?”

                                        “There may be in the cup
                    A spider steeped, and one may drink, depart,
                    And yet partake no venom.”

“What the ruttin’ 地狱 dìyù is that s’posed ta—?” Jayne began, but River continued speaking, cutting him off.

“A sad tale’s best for winter.” Her earnest gaze took in Mal and Inara.

“Ummm…” was Mal’s decidedly un-profound contribution to the conversation. River’s speech had him flummoxed, and considering how many cryptic word puzzles she’d tossed his way lately, that was sayin’ something. A glance at Zoe told him that she didn’t get the bit about the spider, neither. He looked around, to see if anyone else had fared better than he had with the puzzle. Blank expressions, for the most part—except Inara, who appeared to have a notion about what River meant, but she was still chewin’ it over.

“Why? Is it winter?” Jayne asked the room in general.

“Sure as the spinning of worlds it’s winter somewhere in the ’Verse,” Mal answered, rolling his eyes a bit as he allowed himself to be side-tracked. “Ain’t no season in space, and won’t be ’til we land on a world.”

“Well said, Hermione.”

Mal gave River a strange look. Had she just called him Hermione?

River was nodding at him. “She’s Leontes,” she clarified, indicating Inara.

“Wait a minute. Who’s Hermione?” Jayne asked, half a beat behind. “She just call the Cap ‘Hermione’?”

“She thought her pond was fished by her next neighbour.” River’s gaze was now fixed upon Inara.

“He’s Hermione?” Jayne pointed at Mal. “That’s a girl’s name. What—?”

“I have drunk, and seen the spider.”

Simon had his mouth open like he did when he was about to stand on his hind legs and pontificate; Kaylee was looking a mite creepified about the spider; Ip was speechless for a change; Inara appeared to be still workin’ it through; and Zoe’s impassive expression told Mal that she was getting mighty fed up with this 废话 fèihuà, and was itching to step in and bring the conversation back on track. So he did. “River, this ain’t on topic. What’s this all got to do with Saffron?”

“It is a bawdy planet.”

“Don’t see the relevance, River.” His puzzlement was giving way to impatience.

“Where’s the bawdy planet?” Jayne asked, his interest piqued. “Ya mean the one where Inara’s Training House is at?”

“Okay. How’s about we get back to the point. Which is—”

“Can we go there?” Jayne was still a few beats behind.

“Jaaa—yne!” Zoe’s voice carried a warning, as did her look. Cut the chatter. Captain’s trying to make a point here.

The silent message flew by Jayne’s head, unnoticed. “I’d like ta spend a few days on a bawdy planet. Or, hell, a whole week—”

“A snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.” This time, River’s gaze was directed at Jayne, and it diverted his stream-of-conscious.

哎呀 Āiyā,” he grinned, “Crazy’s even startin’ to make sense. ’Cause I love trifle. Snap it up any time. ’Specially when the fruit and spongecakes been soaked in whisky or rum. I remember—”

“Jayne, your mouth is runnin’.”

                    “We have been
                    A deceived in thy integrity, deceived
                    in that which seems so,”
River thundered dramatically, startling them all. She fixed Jayne with a stare, and into the silence she declaimed with vivid intensity,
                    “You lie, you lie:
                    I say thou liest, Camillo, and I hate thee.”

“Uh…is Camillo another one a’ Saffron’s names?” Jayne asked, in an odd voice.

Mal gave him a sharp look. Jayne gulped. 啊Ǎ, the man looked nervous. Or…guilty. Huh. What was goin’ on with—?

“She’s a liar,” River addressed the Captain, drawing his attention. “A liar and a thief. Feels no remorse.”

“I ain’t a girl,” Jayne objected faintly, but luckily for him, his words were drowned out as everyone else chimed in with their approval of River’s sentiment and their own assessments of Saffron.

不悔恨的 潑婦 Bùhuǐhènde pōfù,” Simon remarked.

“Lying 狐狸精 húli jīng,” Inara snarled.

贱货泼妇 Jiàn huò pōfù,” Zoe contributed.

“She’s the 所有的妓女的母亲在地狱 suǒyǒu de jìnǚ de mǔqīn zài dìyù.” Kaylee spoke with surprising vehemence.

“She’s all that,” Mal agreed. “She’s a professional con, and there ain’t a one of us what was able to see through all her nefarious 屁話 pìhuà. Fact is, despite there bein’ eight of us on this boat on the look-out for her and her evil ways, the only thing I’m sure of is that she pulled a fast one on us again. We gotta go over the whole boat, inside and out, every room, every system—”

“Ya think she managed to plant some kinda screw-up device, despite all our watching?” Jayne asked.

“It’s a dead certainty.”

“Thought we found a bunch of those things already.”

“We found half a dozen, and a few more she had stashed but not yet deployed. What I’m wondering is how many we missed.” And how much it’s gonna hurt when we find out, he added privately. “Only question is, how many, what kind, and where did she plant them? We gotta go over Serenity with a fine-tooth comb.”

“Ya mean a fine toothbrush,” corrected Jayne.

“I said fine-tooth comb.”

“I heard what ya said, Mal, I ain’t deaf. But any 傻瓜 shǎguā knows you don’t comb your teeth. Ya brush ’em. Ain’t never heard of no one combing their teeth.”

Mal shook his head. “Right, people. Let’s get to work. Comb, or—” looking pointedly at Jayne, “brush the ship for gifts left by Saffron.”

* * *

“…Okay, so you each got a portion of the ship to survey for evidence of Saffron’s tender care,” Mal concluded, “and you’re each responsible for searchin’ your own quarters, ’cause you know best whether anything’s been disturbed.”

Jayne breathed a huge sigh of relief—or he woulda, ’cept he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. Luckily, the Doc stepped right in and drew the spotlight his way.

“Good. Because I don’t even want to know the source of the noxious effluvium exuding from Jayne’s bunk.”

“Hey! There ain’t no obnoxious floozy intruding from my bunk,” he growled. “Saffron didn’t never even go in there.” He wasn’t really much concerned if everybody thought that what the Doc said was true. It was more that he knew that they all expected him to growl, so he did, so as not to draw undue attention. He was bein’ about as smooth and subtle as a bear in a china shop, but it was his experience that when you were as uncouth as a bear, the best bet was just to act exactly like a bear was expected ta do, and folk would disregard you. Simon opened his mouth, gasped, shook his head in disbelief, closed his mouth, bugged his eyes out, raised his hands in the air, started flappin’ ’em—the regular dance he did whenever Jayne set him off. It was gorram funny to watch him do it. Ordinarily, Jayne woulda played the doc-baitin’ game for longer, but given the circumstances, he decided to let the moment slide on by. Don’t wanna overplay it.

“Just check, Jayne,” the Captain insisted. “She coulda—”

“Yeah, yeah, Cap, I’ll do it. Don’t worry your pretty little head, Hermione.” Now Mal scowled, and between him and Simon’s dramatic performance, no one really cared about his bunk no more, and no one was really paying attention to Jayne neither.

Zoe hid her snicker of amusement at Mal’s discomfiture, gathered herself together, and limped out of the dining room to begin her searches. Jayne lumbered after her, figuring he’d laid enough smoke screen. Because he didn’t want anyone, particularly the Captain, to know what he really had in his bunk. Because that…was supposed to stay hidden. For now, anyways.

River watched them leave. “Exit Antigonus, pursued by a bear.”

* * *

Inara carefully checked her shuttle. She didn’t believe Saffron had been in it at all, but since she hadn’t spent the entire five-day journey to Hektor barricaded inside it, she had to consider the possibility that Mal was right.

She lifted up each and every item from the shelves, searched underneath, moved the furniture. River’s references to The Winter’s Tale hadn’t escaped her notice. It was not her favorite Shakespeare play, but she remembered it very well, because of the circumstances in which she’d first seen it performed.

It was very early in her first summer as a fully-fledged Companion, and her client was a recently divorced man. They went to Shakespeare in 玉叶 Yùyè Park, put on by the Sihnon Shakespeare Company, with some of the most notable stage actors of the day in the leading roles—the great Jakob Habib playing opposite Sinead Wang. The fashionable people of Sihnon were all there to see and be seen. It was part of the summer social milieu in the great City of Light.

After walking with her client on the Promenade and the obligatory mixing with political, business, and fashion notables, Inara spread the silken blanket on the jewel-green grass, and they settled down together to eat and watch the play. The picnic was pleasant, and any initial awkwardness in the tête-à-tête was quickly eased by the good wine and elegant repast, placed in the picnic basket by House Madrassa’s capable kitchen staff.

As soon as darkness fell, the play began. Inara remembered being immediately drawn in, first in watching such masterful actors ply their craft, then in the developing story. King Leontes begged his childhood friend Polixenes to extend his visit. Polixenes declined. He thanked his friend for his kind hospitality, but he’d been away from his home kingdom for nine months already, and needed to be getting back. Leontes then implored his pregnant wife Hermione to persuade his friend to stay. She succeeded where he did not, and Inara enjoyed watching a capable woman win her way with words, using techniques a Companion might have envied. Why had Inara’s professor of rhetoric never mentioned this play? But no sooner had Hermione persuaded Polixenes to change his mind and stay a while longer, than Leontes was seized with irrational jealousy—believing his wife and his friend were lovers. He had “drained the cup, and seen the spider.”

The man was not content simply to get angry, confront his wife, and listen to her rebuttal. No. He went completely 疯了 fēngle. He ordered his servants to kill his friend; he publicly accused his wife of infidelity, threw her in prison, and declared the unborn child was not his. It only got worse. Leontes ordered a servant to take the newborn and abandon it in the wilderness, and only after his loved ones died broken-hearted, did he cease raging, and begin to repent of his rashness. Inara remembered her conversation with the client during the intermission.

“The husband is unreasonably jealous. It’s perfectly obvious to everybody that Hermione is perfectly innocent—and yet he persists with this madness. She’s simply being a good hostess, and trying to please her husband, and he willfully misinterprets everything!” Inara exclaimed. She had not yet learned to temper her declarations of opinion, and the behavior of the character Leontes was extremely provoking. “He’s behaving like a complete 骚驴 sāolǘ,” she declared. “The level of jealousy he displays is just insane.”

“I think it’s very realistic,” the client replied quietly.

“Oh, surely, Shakespeare was exaggerating here,” Inara responded, “for dramatic effect. Or rather, melodramatic. No one acts like that in real life.”

“Actually,” the client told her seriously, “the character reminds me of my ex.”

And River had just called her Leontes. Insanely jealous.

Was she?

She’d seen Mal touch and kiss Zoe in the common area lounge, murmuring things to her. And snippets of an overheard conversation the two of them had on the bridge—an uproarious conversation about Mal’s sex life, as far as she could tell—just seemed to corroborate her conclusion. There was a real basis for her anger. She hadn’t pulled those things out of thin air. It wasn’t unreasonable, was it? She couldn’t possibly be compared to that raving lunatic in the play.

But Mal had a reply for every one of her questions. “We ain’t lovers,” he’d stated directly, when she asked about him and Zoe. And when she accused him of fathering Zoe’s baby? “Wash’s baby. Not mine.” He’d even renewed his declaration to her. “I love you. And when I gave you my heart, I gave you everything. All of me. Ain’t no part of me I’m holding back for somebody else.” Then he demanded that she exercise fair judgment: “Don’t damn me without a fair trial.”

Had she given him a fair trial? Or had she—as River implied—acted like Leontes, and condemned first without listening to the evidence?

She had isolated herself. She could admit that now. She had avoided talking with her Serenity family, because it seemed to her they all took Mal’s part. She didn’t want to hear what they said, if none of them could be objective.

Kaylee came to her to plead the Captain’s case. Told her straightforwardly, “Cap’n ain’t seein’ no one else. He ain’t that kind of man.” Kaylee was passionate in her defense of Mal. “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.” Inara believed that Kaylee was mistaken, even though she was no longer convinced that the “one” Kaylee referred to was Zoe.

River also came to her, and pled the Captain’s case more obliquely. “Megaera and Alecto. Tisophone not so much.” Interpreting what River meant was sometimes beyond Inara’s capabilities, but the reference to the Furies, the Jealous One and the Angry One, was clear enough. And now she was calling her Leontes—crazy jealous. Had she imagined it? Was there was nothing more than friendship between Mal and Zoe? Like Leontes, had she gathered around her only the evidence that supported a false conclusion?

Zoe herself had come to try to talk to her about Mal, and a mighty provoking conversation that was. Now Inara was wondering. Had she misinterpreted what Zoe was saying?

She thought back to the tea-time talk with Zoe. At the time it had seemed only to confirm her suspicions that Mal and Zoe were having an affair. Now she reconsidered the conversation, this time attempting to view it clearly, instead of through the lens of slighted love. Inara had the skills to read people’s body language and subtext. Why had she not used them?

Zoe had sought her out, to enlist her help. “Inara,” she said, “He listens to you. He pays attention to what you do and say. You’re the one can influence him.” It wasn’t the first time Zoe had asked her to exert her influence. She remembered how Zoe came to her some months back, when Mal liberated the slaves on 泥球 Ní Qiú and suffered a head injury in the noble-hearted but dangerous exploit. “Inara, I need your help in managing the Captain. You’re the only one he’ll listen to….He has been guided by your influence ever since you stepped on this boat.” Was Zoe simply trying to tell her: You have more influence over Mal than anybody else, including me.

Inara brought to mind some of Zoe’s other words, and she saw now that they could support this idea. “I’ve known the man for fourteen years. He’s my best friend.”—“When you stepped aboard this vessel, you kindled something in him. Part of him that had been dead since Serenity Valley started to come back to life.” Viewed in this light, Zoe’s reminiscences of Mal in the difficult times that followed the war took on a different meaning. Zoe and Mal weren’t lovers. They lived together in the slums of Hera, penniless and starving, because they were family. Zoe teased Mal like he was her brother—her headstrong, foolish, much-admired younger brother. And here was a new idea: Zoe bossed him around for the same reason. She told him ‘yes, sir’ and meant ‘hell, no’: she was the only person Inara knew who could actually veto one of Mal’s 神经病 shén jīng bìng plans by telling him ‘yes, sir.’ Even Zoe’s stories of Mal’s popularity with the women in their army unit in the war now struck her in a completely different light. Zoe was like the sister who looked at him and saw not the idol that other women admired. Zoe saw—and never hesitated to point out—his feet of clay. Mal had simply laughed when she asked him if he and Zoe were lovers. No wonder. Maybe it was as absurd as asking if he slept with his bossy elder sister who reminded him a dozen times a day what a gorram idiot he was.

Mal and Zoe’s recent disagreement fit this pattern. They’d disagreed in public, before everyone, about a matter of ship’s business. It wasn’t anything like a lovers’ quarrel. If she were to be objective, she would say it was the first officer (and bossy elder sister) telling her captain (her brother) that he was full of it, and the captain (younger brother) telling his first officer to stow it. Hmm. So Mal and Zoe weren’t always in perfect harmony, after all.

Thinking it over, Inara recognized how little she’d actually communicated with Zoe during the course of that tea. She’d turned inward and stopped paying attention. She’d focused on herself and her feelings—her apparently misguided feelings. She thought of the one important question she had asked Zoe: “Do you love him?” Zoe had answered, “Of course,” without the slightest hesitation, without breaking eye contact, right after telling Inara that she knew Mal wanted to marry her. Of course, Inara reflected now. Of course a woman loves her brother.

* * *

*

*

*

glossary

说谎 的 shuōhuǎng de [lying]

贱货的 潑婦 jiàn huò de pōfù [floozy]

潑婦 jian huo de pōfù [cheap floozy]

狗屎 gǒushǐ [shit]

无用 wúyòng [worthless]

她是公共汽車 Tā shì gōng gòng qì chē [She’s a slut (lit., “She’s a public bus,” i.e. “She gets around, and everyone has had a ride”)]

他妈的 Tāmādē [Damn]

地狱 dìyù [hell]

废话 fèihuà [nonsense]

哎呀 Āiyā [Damn]

啊Ǎ [Eh]

不悔恨的 潑婦 Bùhuǐhènde pōfù [Remorseless harridan]

狐狸精 húli jīng [vixen, bitch (lit., “fox spirit”)]

贱货泼妇 Jiàn huò pōfù [Cheap floozy]

所有的妓女的母亲在地狱 suǒyǒu de jìnǚ de mǔqīn zài dìyù [mother of all the whores in hell]

屁話 pìhuà [nonsense]

傻瓜 shǎguā [idiot]

玉叶 Yùyè [Jade Leaf]

疯了 fēngle [crazy]

骚驴 sāolǘ [jackass]

泥球 Ní Qiú [name of a world]

神经病 shén jīng bìng [insane]

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COMMENTS

Sunday, January 27, 2013 4:54 PM

BYTEMITE


Yay!

There's lots to like in this, of course. Zoe big-sistering to Mal's still-kinda-likes-Saffron-but-he's-NOT-wrong younger brother, River drawing on shakespeare, Inara getting the reference and finally beginning to unravel her own web of self-delusion, at which your entire readership will throw a parade in honour of the occasion.

And of course the most famous stage direction in theatre. Classy touch.

As I've said before, I think you've worked that problem section into something very functional. Your hard work shows, now for all the accolades.

Monday, January 28, 2013 6:40 AM

NUTLUCK


And finally the penny seems to have dropped for Inara.

Monday, January 28, 2013 8:09 AM

BYTEMITE


Penny dropped, heck. There's guys in clown costumes riding horses down the street, tossing pennies to onlookers and small children.

Monday, January 28, 2013 9:40 AM

EBFIDDLER


Well, Inara couldn't stay angry and misled forever. (Besides, the readers would probably gang up on me if I kept writing angry, unreasonable Inara! Virtual tomatoes might start flying my direction.) Stay tuned for Mal and Inara resolving some of their issues, and a certain amount of fluff. Although, it's Mal and Inara, so don't think you'll get an unlimited fluff-fest. Thanks for comments, Nutluck and Bytemite. I'm gonna sit here and watch the parade. Maybe I'll get a penny.

Monday, January 28, 2013 9:40 AM

EBFIDDLER


Well, Inara couldn't stay angry and misled forever. (Besides, the readers would probably gang up on me if I kept writing angry, unreasonable Inara! Virtual tomatoes might start flying my direction.) Stay tuned for Mal and Inara resolving some of their issues, and a certain amount of fluff. Although, it's Mal and Inara, so don't think you'll get an unlimited fluff-fest. Thanks for comments, Nutluck and Bytemite. I'm gonna sit here and watch the parade. Maybe I'll get a penny.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013 9:50 AM

AMDOBELL


At last, Inara finally clues in to the fact that Mal and Zoe are NOT romatically involved and realises their actual closeness is that of family not lovers. Now to find the rest of Saffron's nasty little toys preferably before any of them bring even more bad luck down on them. I would also worry about who sent Saffron. Ali D :-)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Monday, February 4, 2013 3:57 PM

EBFIDDLER


Ali, you are right to worry about who sent Saffron. Inara is finally making some progress, we'll see more. Thanks for your comments.


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