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EBFIDDLER

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (08)
Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The perils of comparing your significant other to a cow. Also, be warned: there is sleeping in this chapter.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2763    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12)

Part (08)

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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)

The perils of comparing your significant other to a cow. Also, be warned: there is sleeping in this chapter.

* * *

The humor had broken the tension, and they found they were able to talk. Inara also found comfort in the ritual of preparing tea, and while she gathered the teacups and heated the water, they spoke about Zoe’s knee operation. She was staying in the passenger dorm while she was on crutches and couldn’t manage the ladder in her bunk. In a few days, she’d begin physical therapy to regain strength and range of motion, and Simon had already spoken to Inara about using her shuttle’s bathtub as a therapy pool.

“It’s not really big enough to call it a ‘therapy pool’,” Inara said.

“Ain’t it?” he asked. “What kind of tub is it, anyhow?”

“You’ve never seen it?”

“Never had occasion to.”

“We’ll have to remedy that some time.”

Mal watched as Inara fussed over the tea things. She was using the tea set he had bought for her on Bandiagara. It seemed to be intact. He felt a kind of relief, for he’d worried that she’d smashed it, what with all the bits of things she had flung at his head the past couple of weeks. It was an odd sentiment, but he viewed that tea set as symbolic—as if it were his wedding gift to his intended bride or something like that, because it was the first thing he had bought for her after the Bandiagarans had presumed the two of them to be married.

He gave himself a stern shake. Couldn’t let himself get carried away by sentimentality. There was a reason he’d come to Inara’s shuttle. He still had his own confession to make, and she wasn’t gonna like it.

He waited until Inara was finished with the tea-making, and sat at the opposite end of the sofa holding her tea cup. Mal took a sip of the scalding hot beverage.

“You—you made it Bandiagara-style,” he blathered in surprise.

“Yes,” she answered.

For some reason, this threw him completely. Everything he was going to say flew out of his head, along with the remnants of resentment and anger. Memories of their beautiful idyll on Bandiagara flooded his mind. “Inara,” he said, and his voice was full of emotion, “it’s my turn. I have a confession to make, and I owe you an apology.

“Inara, I been irresponsible. It weren’t intentional, but I wasn’t acting like a responsible man ought, and it might have consequences for you. You need to know.”

She gave him her full attention. “What is it, Mal?”

“Inara, when we…uh…” He really needed to get the better of this awkwardness. They were lovers, and there were few things they hadn’t shared physically. It was ridiculous that he couldn’t speak of this without difficulty. Just start at the beginning and tell it the way it is. He swallowed a gulp of scalding hot tea and blurted, “The first time we made love, I didn’t use protection.”

Inara repressed the urge to laugh. It would be unkind. Months had passed since their first time, and she most certainly would have known by now, had there been consequences of the kind he was alluding to. The first time they made love, neither of them had expected it. It would have surprised her if he had been prepared.

It was the last thing Inara had expected, that night. She had returned from her doctors’ appointments in the city, to find the ship had been boarded by thugs, and Simon, Kaylee, and River had dealt with them while the others were out. They sailed out into the Black, and when she finally felt recovered enough to leave her shuttle, she found Mal hanging around in the cargo bay, lurking near her door. That was not so unusual: for more than two years he’d been making excuses to come talk to her. What was unexpected was his sudden declaration of love and his offer of devotion. It led to their first kiss, which rapidly led to the rest. There was nothing hasty about it—their courtship dance of more than two years’ duration meant that they weren’t exactly strangers to each other. Still, she believed that Mal had not come out there that evening expecting to end up in her bed, and if he hadn’t been prepared, she could readily forgive that. She hadn’t expected it either. But she had been prepared. A Companion was always prepared.

“I didn’t expect—I never expected—Inara, I didn’t come out there with no presumption I’d end the night in your arms. I wasn’t prepared, and I’m sorry. You’re probably thinkin’ I’m some uncivilized 混蛋 húndàn was brought up in a barn. I—”

“Mal, please, this is unnecessary. Don’t beat yourself up over this.”

He wasn’t finished. “I got the inoculation next morning. I been using it ever since. I want you to know that. I would never just presume that you’d want—” he paused and swallowed, and she could see how difficult this was for him “—that you’d be willing to have a child by me.”

“Mal, I know. I never thought you’d…Mal, it’s alright. I know you’re not that kind of man.”

“Yes, I am. I’m a right 王八蛋 wángbādàn, all hollowed out and empty, don’t got nothin’ to offer.” He was staring off into the floor. “I’m an angry, mean old—”

“Mal.” She reached over and touched his arm. “You’re not a mean old man. You’re…exasperating, sometimes. But also thoughtful and considerate. You’re impetuous and impulsive, Mal, but not irresponsible. You’re—”

“Inara,” he interrupted, with a bleak look. “I never told you. Never got a chance to tell you. I was on my way to tell you when we started fightin’. Simon told me two weeks gone—the inoculation’s no good. Expired months ago. Might as well have been injecting saline for all the effectiveness left in it. I’m sorry. I shoulda told you anyway, even when you were throwin’ things at me. Now go ahead and tell me what a 混蛋 húndàn I am. Tell me that I ain’t a gentleman.”

“I won’t tell you that, Mal, because it’s not true. I’m sorry to hear about the ineffective contraceptives, but there’s little to worry about there. Even if yours were no good, mine are working fine, and there’s no reason to fear unforeseen consequences.

“I’m sorry, Inara,” he said, adding, without conscious thought, the kind of look Zoe would have interpreted easily. Can you forgive me?

“Of course I can forgive you, Mal. There’s nothing to forgive.” Inara reached over and held his hand, giving it a squeeze. They sat in silence for a time.

“Inara?”

“Yes, Mal?”

“You sure about those contraceptives of yours?”

“Yes.”

“Hundred percent?”

“Mal, why are you still worried?”

“Well, it’s just…um…well, you’ve been moody.”

“Moody? Just what do you mean?”

“Inara, you been cold-shoulderin’ me, yellin’ at me, and pitchin’ crockery at my head. I think that counts as moody.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

“Also, your skin and hair—they’re different. Your hair’s thick and full, and your skin has a kinda quality to it that’s just—”

“Mal, those are just old wives’ tales.” She tried not to show how much his words distressed her. Whatever he’d noticed was not what he thought, and she didn’t want him to jump to conclusions and be disappointed. It wasn’t the possibility of pregnancy that concerned her—she wasn’t even sure she could become pregnant. The things he had pointed out were also all signs of inadequate use of medication and irregular attention to therapy—and perhaps also that her illness was entering an escalated phase. She needed to tell him about it, but now was not the right time to introduce the added stress of her illness to their relationship. It was still so fragile, and they had barely achieved a kind of precarious equilibrium after all they’d gone through.

“No,” Mal countered firmly, “they’re not just old wives’ tales. There’s a sound basis for every one of ’em. Inara, I think you’re forgetting that I grew up on a ranch, and I been trained to notice the signs of hormonal changes in females. Estrogen surges cause restless, moody behavior—you know, wandering about and mooing and the like. Used to ride out to pasture morning and evening to observe the cows and heifers, to watch for standing and mounting behaviors, to know if it was time to turn the bull loose to service the herd. And then we had ta watch for the signs that the breeding had took, so as to cull the open cows from the herd. So what I been seeing here is—”

“Mal. Did you just seriously compare me to a cow in heat?”

“No, not a cow in heat. What I was just sayin’, about the open cows—”

“You compared me to a pregnant cow.”

“Umm. Uh…yeah, guess I did.” Mal grinned sheepishly at her.

“Do you really think you ought to be comparing your girlfriend to a cow?”

“Uh. Well. Umm. I didn’t mean—” To his great relief, Inara burst into great, hooting peals of laughter, and after a moment he joined in, as the absurdity of his comparison finally struck him.

“Oh, 诙谐 的佛 huīxié de Fó.” Finally she wiped her streaming eyes and said, “So you think I’ve been acting like a pregnant cow?”

“Yeah. I mean, um, no! I mean—” He stopped, unable to find a way out of the hole he was digging. “Inara, will you just humor me and get Simon to run a test? Won’t take but a few minutes.”

“No, not Simon,” she said too quickly. He gave her a sharp look, and she recollected herself. “No, it’s—Mal, that’s too close to home. Look, I already have a doctor’s appointment scheduled on Bernadette in only a few days. I’ll just have them run a test while I’m there.”

“A doctor’s appointment?” he asked, concerned. “Why? Ain’t you been feelin’ well?”

“No,” she lied. “It’s a routine check-up. The Guild provides free medical care to all Registered Companions, Mal. It’s no big deal. I can just ask them to check.”

“Okay. I guess it can wait a few. But please,” and he looked at her with an appeal in his deep blue eyes, “get it checked out. I wanna know if I’m responsible for all your moody behavior.”

“I’m not moody!” she insisted huffily.

“See?” he teased. “What I was sayin’.”

“Mal, you 蠢蛋 chǔn dàn—” she began, the affectionate insult coming readily to her lips.

“Hey, 小蛋 xiǎodàn,” he said softly to Inara’s stomach, a goofy smile on his face. “It’s your 爸爸 bàba. Just wanna say—”

“Oh, cut that out, Mal.” She batted affectionately at his ears and smiled at him, immensely relieved that he was taking a humorous approach to the situation, and seriously hoping that he did not really expect to be proven correct in his surmises.

* * *

“That girl is a wonder.” 代號 Dài Hào had followed up on the mercenary agent’s performance, and was quite impressed with it.

“Did she succeed, then?”

“On all points.”

“I don’t know about that. They weren’t neutralized, and the subject was not recovered.”

Oh ye of little faith. 代號 Dài Hào kept his expression blank, almost inhuman. It was a skill that came easily to a trained agent. He couldn’t help feeling that this was a conversation that should have taken place face to face, instead of over an encrypted wave. But it would have endangered the operation if he had traveled to Bernadette to oversee its conclusion himself. Besides, he needed to maintain his cover on Beaumonde, and it was not as if this retrieval operation were the only one he was involved in. “Remember, the plan has multiple facets. It wasn’t necessary to kill them for the plan to be successful. She reported that she was able to install the software and enable the special features. If the ship comes into Core airspace within range of one of our flight manipulators, we’ll be able to guide it to ground in one of our secure facilities. If the subject is indeed aboard, we will recover her, and her fellow travelers can be de-briefed and quietly disposed of.”

* * *

Inara lay awake that night, watching Mal sleep next to her. He always looked so young and innocent when he was sleeping, when the burdens were lifted from his shoulders and the care-worn lines on his face relaxed.

“No better than grade schoolers in a sandbox,” Mal had said. It was true. Because really—

Experience with men? Experience with clients? Plenty. Experience with a long-term, committed, meaningful relationship? None. None whatsoever. This was a connection meant to last, and she found she had no relevant experience at all to draw from. Just a long string of transient and shallow connections with clients. Yes, from time to time she’d contracted with a client for more than a day. Extended weekends were not uncommon. Repeat engagements with regular clients were generally to be preferred to the tedious and careful screening that went into accepting new clients. But only rarely had she contracted with a client for more than a week at a time.

She and Mal had been together for months now, fits and starts notwithstanding, and they had known each other for three years. If she were to be perfectly honest about it, they had been together (minus only the physical connection) for most of those three years. She wanted so much to do this right, and yet she knew she had already done much of it wrong. She had already screwed up, and only hoped that her mistakes were not irredeemable. Because she was improvising here, and that was kind of scary, to tell the truth.

The Art of Companioning revolved so much around control—controlling oneself, and thereby gaining more control of a situation generally. Companions learned that there were always factors that were beyond one’s control, but it was possible to limit the number and scope of those factors through one’s own actions and reactions, thereby assuring a positive outcome for any given human encounter. But in her relationship with Mal, things always had a way of jumping beyond control and going to unexpected places. It was thrilling, but also alarming—the best and most frightening relationship of her life. And that was before they added sexual intimacy to the mix.

“No…no…” Mal muttered in his sleep. He was no longer sleeping serenely. “Have to get out…” He was twisting around in the sheets, and even though most of what he said was indistinguishable, enough words were clear for her to recognize it as one of his Serenity Valley nightmares.

“Ssshhh, Mal, it’s okay,” she soothed, brushing her hands softly through his hair and against his cheek. “I’m here. It’s alright.”

“’Nara?” he said woozily. “What’re you—” doing here on the battlefield? He trailed off as he surfaced from the nightmare, and began to understand he wasn’t at Serenity Valley, but in her bed, in the shuttle, on the ship.

“It’s okay, Mal. Go back to sleep.” She kept contact, her hands gentle and soothing, and, as he settled deeper into a more restful slumber, she kissed him. He didn’t wake, but smiled in his sleep, a sweet smile that Inara never got to see when he was awake. He rolled over and breathed easier, and as Inara snuggled into his side, she breathed easier, too. Soon she was fast asleep.

* * *

Mal awoke early, as usual, but remained motionless and thoughtful. Inara was still sleeping, peaceful and lovely perfection to look at. In his months with her, he had discovered that as soon as he began stirring, Inara would respond, rousing herself, ready to do…anything. Companion training, he supposed. Ready to meet the client’s needs. Ugh, didn’t want to think about that. But if he was really quiet and still, he could watch her sleep, and he found it very peaceful and calming. Serenity in the early morning.

Okay, so maybe bringing up the cows wasn’t such a smooth move. But it was, truly, his window to understanding females, and it applied. Hormonal swings might explain everything, and it was much easier to stomach that explanation than to believe that Inara was mean or cruel or just didn’t care. He had feelings, too, and even when she was angry she must know that. It had to be hormones.

How had it taken him so long to figure that out? Musta been that he weren’t really looking, weren’t really listening. He kept asking her what he’d done, what was wrong with him. He coulda asked her what was wrong with her. Coulda asked her why she was upset, coulda looked beyond reasons related to himself. Coulda looked past the surface. But he didn’t. He wasn’t trying to see things from her perspective. So sorry again, Inara.

Even last night’s happy mood just confirmed his suspicions. She was pregnant. He had gotten her pregnant. Wasn’t anything else he knew about could cause mood swings like this, and despite her laughing at him for comparing her to a cow, the truth was that it was his knowledge of cattle breeding that gave him insight into the matter. Sure didn’t have much first-hand experience with pregnant womenfolk, excepting Zoe these last few months. And well, Kaylee, too, he supposed. Both of them had moments of bein’ all unreasonable and upset. So it stood to reason. He had gotten Inara pregnant.

The thought was scary and anxiety-provoking. He couldn’t imagine himself being a particularly good father. He was dead certain that he would screw it up, and do it all wrong. But still the notion of becoming a father made him feel inordinately pleased, at a very profound and basic level. Some deep and primal part of him felt like crowin’ like a rooster.

This whole relationship business was a confounding one, beset with pitfalls. It was why he’d avoided intimacy, made it his policy. ‘No shipboard relationships.’ Relationships complicated things, and much as he hated to say it, he really wasn’t very experienced.

With human intimate relationships, anyhow. He understood bovine intimate relationships rather well. He was a ranch kid, and as such, the facts of animal breeding were part of his daily life from a very early age. He wasn’t ignorant of the mechanics of reproduction. But unlike some of his peers who put their knowledge into practice, Mal was held off from a premature start due to a combination of strict religious training and lack of opportunity. His mother, though not a Shadow native, had found the strict doctrine of Shepherd MacLeod and the Northside United Family Christian Church very congenial to her tastes—much to the dismay of her relatives back on Londinium, who thought she’d gone off the deep end with the puritan religion. Like many converts, she took her convictions a mite more seriously than those who were born to the faith, and imparted her strict beliefs to her only son. Mother and son attended church regularly, and although Jeannie Reynolds didn’t insist that everyone conform to her religious beliefs, those who didn’t pay similar reverence to their respective deities and who failed to uphold certain standards of morality were not welcome on her ranch.

Mal also suspected that his ma had somewhat to do with the lack of opportunity. He wasn’t watched like a hawk, but the rural community was tight-knit. There were adults enough around, and all of them had known him his whole life. There was very little he could get away with without word getting back to his ma. The Reynolds Ranch was also like a village apart, somewhat isolated, with only the small hamlet of Tairbeart within easy distance. Although there were girls his age in residence, he’d been raised with them and they felt like family. It took a determined (and much looser) girl at high school to seduce him.

It didn’t occur to him at the time that she might not hold to his notions of exclusivity and the holiness of union, so when she tired of him and moved on to her next conquest, he felt betrayed. The idea that he was nothing more than a fleeting recreation to her, that she didn’t love him to the last syllable of recorded time (or at least with a mind toward holy wedlock), was bitter medicine for his young self to stomach. He’d nursed his wounded tender heart (and his wounded male pride) in solitude and repented of his sins. He was surrounded by folk whose collective wisdom—and self-interest as well—inclined them to warn Jeannie Reynolds’s son and heir of the perils of gold-diggers and entrapment, and he’d fallen into a period of righteous abstinence.

His only serious relationship had occurred in the last year before he left Shadow. He met a girl in Edmonds City, Shadow’s principal town, when he went there to sit his exams for the Ag School correspondence courses he was taking. Mindy was bright, sweet, religious, and pretty—a combination that young Mal had found irresistible—and her unfeigned interest in the agricultural sciences made her a highly suitable candidate for the attentions of the sole heir of one of Shadow’s most prosperous ranches. His ma approved wholeheartedly, and when he and Mindy began dating seriously, all the older folk nodded knowingly. They expected Mal to marry her within a year or two, to become a father a few years after that, and to follow a well-worn, comfortable trail into middle age.

To tell the truth, so did Mal. Had there been no war, Mal would’ve expected, at his current ripe old age of thirty-five, to have a happy marriage, a comfortable home, and a passel of young ’uns. He’d have taken on the duty of the day-to-day management of the ranch, freeing up his mother for other enterprises and giving her an occasional day of leisure after a lifetime of toil.

But that never happened. The war intervened when he’d been with Mindy for a little less than a year. Rather than diving into a hasty marriage before he left to take up his enlistment, they agreed to wait for each other. He’d stayed faithful to her throughout the war, and as he grew older and more experienced in the ways of the ’Verse, he had determined to waste no more time and marry Mindy at the first opportunity.

It never came. Home leave never came his way, the war reached its crushing and soul-blighting culmination, and Shadow was destroyed. An Alliance bombing raid unaccountably triggered a terraforming disaster of apocalyptic proportions, rapidly overwhelming the environment and killing all the life-forms—plants, animals, and people. His ma, his family and friends, and Mindy as well, were all presumed dead, like Shadow itself. The war ended, and Mal was a so-called “white widower”—widowed before ever he had a chance to be married.

The war broke him. Left him shattered, hollowed out. He felt he had nothing to offer anyone, and if Zoe hadn’t stuck to him out of some confounded sense of loyalty, most like he would’ve sunk to the bottom in short order, and wound up blowin’ his brains out or drinking himself to death in some filthy alley. But responsibility toward Zoe kept him from falling into that death spiral—he couldn’t let her down, so he had to pick himself up and keep going. A rare bit of luck had led him to his ship Serenity. Before Serenity Valley, he might have called it the Hand of Providence, but he didn’t hold with that no more.

He kept flying, but life on the fringes and a shoestring budget left little room for romance. A few days here, a few days there—short, intense encounters with hostile worlds where folk would just as soon shoot at you as give you a job. Damn little time to be developing any kind of meaningful human relationship. Or maybe Wash was dead-on right, when he told Mal he had intimacy issues. His experience had taught him that when you loved and gave your heart, it got betrayed, snatched away, and destroyed.

* * *

*

*

*

glossary

混蛋 húndàn [bastard]

王八蛋 wángbādàn [son of a bitch]

诙谐 的佛 huīxié de Fó [jocular, zany Buddha]

蠢蛋 chǔn dàn [fool, lit. “sluggish egg”]

小蛋 xiǎodàn [little egg]

爸爸 bàba [daddy]

代號 Dài Hào [Code Name]

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COMMENTS

Wednesday, March 27, 2013 4:32 AM

BYTEMITE


Uh oh. It's so easy to get caught up in all the sweet in this chapter that I almost missed that vague whiff of maybe-foreshadowing.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013 7:07 AM

NUTLUCK


Interesting take on Mals old life. Though something has had me thinking, if it started with a apple wouldn't the horse technically be the middle part and the it would end with... well whats about to hit the fan due to the foreshadowing?

Saturday, March 30, 2013 6:12 AM

AMDOBELL


I loved Mal trying to apologise for maybehaps getting Inara pregnant and her reaction at being likened to a pregnant cow was hi-larious fun. Think Inara was wrong to put off telling him her own news though as the opportunity given for clearing the air for them both was ripe for it. I did like the harkening back to Mal's past but am worried about the other shoe falling and what that is going to mean. Great to have another chapter up, Ebfiddler. Very shiny! Ali D :-)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Saturday, April 6, 2013 11:19 AM

EBFIDDLER


Ali, Inara should have told him. He's ready to hear it. It's more that she's not ready to deal with it herself. Ali and Nutluck, I have quite a bit of backstory for Mal, and I enjoyed getting to write up part of it for this story. Bytemite is right, with all the sweet Mal/Inara fluff here it's a sure bet that something is going to happen. Sorry for the big long delay in response and next posting. I've been ill and then on a much-needed vacation.


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