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ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (11)
Thursday, May 2, 2013

Inara and Zoe have a little palaver


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2229    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12)

Part (11)

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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)

Inara and Zoe have a little palaver

* * *

When Zoe finally left the bridge, hours later, having completed Mal’s watch for him, Inara took the unusual step of visiting the first mate in her bunk.

She entered upon the first mate’s calm invitation, and as she climbed down, she took in the changes—and lack of changes—since the last time she had stood in Zoe’s quarters. Her visits to this room were infrequent, and her first impression was that very little had changed. Zoe had a soldier’s sense of orderliness that had always done battle with Wash’s spontaneous and erratic spurts of organizing. Despite its tidiness, Zoe’s side of the bunk looked lived in, with books on the bedside table, while Wash’s side, though slightly more chaotic, seemed frozen in time—unchanged, as if he would step down the ladder at any moment and join his wife. One of his plastic dinosaurs stood on the bedside table on his side of the bed, while his array of bright Hawaiian shirts still hung in the closet.

“I thought you were still staying in the passenger dorm,” was Inara’s first remark. “But apparently you can manage the ladder, with your knee—?” Inara couldn’t imagine navigating a ladder, six months pregnant and with a bad knee.

“I got arms, Inara.” Zoe flexed her muscles, wincing a bit. That’s when Inara remembered the bruising to her chest. Her body armor had stopped the bullet, but the impact had knocked her down. She had to be still sore. “But it’s true gettin’ down was easier than it’ll be gettin’ back up. Just wanted to lie down on my own bed.”

“Are you going to be able to get back up that ladder?”

“Cross that bridge when I come to it,” Zoe replied, closing her eyes. She was obviously not inclined to move at the moment.

Inara entered directly on the subject that had brought her there. “I hope that wasn’t…hard for you, Zoe. Listening to all of us talk about Wash.”

“No, it was good.” Zoe was lying on her side of the bed. As her pregnancy progressed, she discovered that if she didn’t spend a certain portion of the day stretched out horizontal, she paid dearly at day’s end. She wasn’t used to such idleness; it made her feel lazy. Having Inara come visit was a welcome diversion.

“Got me thinkin’ about Wash, about the good things. That’s good. It’s…” Zoe’s voice turned to a harsh whisper as the words rushed out of her, “Inara, sometimes I worry that I’ll forget him.”

“You won’t forget him, Zoe. You’ll never forget. And neither will we. He was part of our family, and still lives in our hearts.”

“So long as ears can hear and eyes can see,
          so long lives this, and this gives life to thee,”

Zoe quoted, tapping the cover of the book she had set aside when Inara entered the room.

Inara nodded in agreement, surprised that Zoe was quoting Shakespeare.

“Wash’s favorite sonnet,” Zoe continued. She nodded toward the book on her nightstand. “It’s one of Wash’s books. I been reading them. Man always did like a poem.”

Inara had never known that Wash liked Shakespeare. The closest she’d gotten was when Wash would propose fill-in-the-blank bawdy limericks as a party game. There were unsuspected depths to Wash that only his wife knew. Zoe was reading poetry because it connected her to Wash. What else had she missed, because she wasn’t paying attention?

“Inara,” Zoe continued, “Wash saved me. Mal saved me in the war, but Wash saved me afterwards. Now, I’m not gonna downplay it. Mal saved my life—more than once. Saved me from a miserable, muddy death at Serenity Valley, saved me from abuse at the internment camp, saved me after the war by giving me a job, something to do.” He’s still saving me—keeps me working, keeps my mind from dwelling on it. “But let me tell you—it was Wash who saved my sanity. He got me to laugh again. First time I laughed since the war was at one of Wash’s stupid jokes. Helped me figure out how to live, as opposed to just gettin’ through the day. Helped me regain my balance. Helped me find peace.” She put her hand on her belly. She could feel the child stirring within. The baby usually took her rest time as a signal to wake up and start kicking.

“Mal needs to do that,” Zoe continued, turning the subject to the Captain. She’d had enough of wallowing in her own grief for one day. “I saved his 屁股 pìgu in the war as well, and probably more ’n a few times since. But I can’t make him happy. That’s your job.”

“My job?”

Zoe didn’t answer directly. She shifted onto her back, watching as the baby’s movements rippled her belly. “Mal lost everything at Serenity Valley. He gave everything he had to keep us going. He kept us together, kept us fighting, kept us sane. But there was a cost, Inara, a cost to his spirit. Mercy, forgiveness, and trust—those were some of the things he left back there.”

Inara listened carefully. Zoe rarely talked about this period of history, and Mal avoided it altogether.

“Never lost his sense of honor, nor his loyalty to those he cares about. But he lost just about everything else, particularly after word reached us that Shadow was destroyed. He lost heart and hope, lost faith in god and in human heroics. Lost his sense of humor, and for a while I thought he even lost his most basic instincts of self-preservation.”

Inara had certainly seen Mal behave in a reckless manner. Was there also a suicidal component? Or did he just not care if there were risks to himself? She’d never heard this part of his history. He never talked about the darkest days in the immediate aftermath of the war.

“We were turned out of that internment camp with nothin’ more than the clothes on our backs. They gave us each a bus ticket to the city of Argos and five credits to buy a meal with. Told us to go find ourselves a job.” Zoe snorted. “You can guess what happened.”

Inara nodded. There had been news headlines in the Core. Hera experienced a crime wave. The politicians ranted that it was due to the innate criminality and irredeemable badness of the rebel Browncoats. Common sense said that if you turned out tens of thousands of hungry and unemployed ex-soldiers at once without a hope of finding legal employment, they would beg, borrow, or steal as necessary to get by. The fact that they were all trained in the use of firearms simply meant that armed robbery would go up as well, as soon as they managed to acquire weapons. “You turned to crime, as the only way of getting by.”

Zoe confirmed it with her silence. “Mal wouldn’t take from Hera’s civilian population. Said they’d suffered enough, with the war turning their world into a battleground. Only take from the Alliance, who’d taken so much from him he felt whatever they had was owed him. ’Course, the Feds were watchful over their own, so it was a tough way to get by. Most days we didn’t have enough to eat. We lived in a bombed-out section of the city, in basements, shacks, rubble-strewn lots, wherever we could find shelter from the elements, moving on whenever the Law started to get too close.”

Inara was appalled by the picture she painted. Cold, starving, exposed to the elements, and on the run—stealing a living from a well-armed and better-equipped force that had the legal authority to kill them.

“After a couple a’ months of this 狗屁 gǒupì, I was at the end of my tether. We couldn’t get off that gorram rock, ’cause we never had enough money to pay for passage. Coulda taken up indentures, I suppose, but Mal wouldn’t do that. Said it was selling ourselves into slavery. Line between indenture and slavery’s always been a mite fuzzy,” she said in an aside. “Made me all the more amazed when Mal fought the law and won on Persephone.” Zoe’s eyes grew distant, lost in the memories she had conjured. She blinked and shook it off. “Browncoats could apply for repatriation to their home world, down at the Veterans Affairs Office in Argos. Waiting list was months long, and even so you had to have funds. Anyways, there was nowhere to go. My family’s spaceship was blown up very early on in the war, and Shadow was destroyed.”

Zoe adjusted her position until the baby sat more comfortably in her, then took up the tale again. “The list of jobs we were disqualified for on account of our Browncoat status was as long as my leg. We tried and tried again to get jobs—got desperate enough to try even for the crap jobs and be grateful if we got ’em—but competition was fierce and as the days wore on we come to look downright disreputable. I wouldn’ta hired me, the way I looked back then, and Mal looked more like a walking shadow than a man.

“Managed to score a reasonable take once, one of our ‘jobs.’ Went to a bar to celebrate—or drown our sorrows for the time being, ’cause there weren’t no way to save for a rainy day. Ran into a fella in that bar, guy who’d been Quartermaster Sergeant for our Company back on Whittier. Recognized me, asked if I knew what became of Sergeant Reynolds.” She gave Inara a piercing look. “Mal was sittin’ right there. Guy didn’t even recognize him, that’s how low Mal’d sunk.”

Inara didn’t speak; the image Zoe had conjured up was dreadful. “Thought he’d give up, and die in a ditch. But then he got the ship.”

“How did he get the ship?”

Zoe shrugged. “Got arrested for vagrancy.” She gave a mirthless laugh. “Weren’t so bad. Lock-up for the night, didn’t have to sleep out in the cold. Even gave us breakfast. Next day, the Feds chewed him out. They’d checked his record, and found out that Hera Central Bank was lookin’ for him. Had a bulletin out on the public notices board. Why hadn’t he checked the gorram public bulletins? Like we could just walk into a public access site and use the cortex. Check our e-mail. Chat on the social networks.” Another snort. “Way we looked, we were gettin’ thrown outta jail for bein’ too disreputable-lookin’. Feds sent us over to the bank in the back of the paddy wagon. Figured the bank would dish the dirt on him, give them something they could really lock him up for. Instead, the bank manager thanked the police for bringing him over and confirming his identity, and told us that Mal was the legal owner of a substantial bank account held in their trust. To the astonishment of all and sundry.

“Anyways, we spent our first credits gettin’ cleaned up and buying clothes as was decent enough not to scare children away.” She looked Inara full in the face. “You know the rest. There was enough to buy a ship, and just barely enough to outfit it and get it flyin’ again. Hired a mechanic and a pilot and got the hell off that rock. Never looked back.”

That explained why Mal and Zoe never wanted to return to Hera. The place had been the scene of so much unmitigated misery.

“Serenity gave Mal a purpose. Something to take care of and look after. He always had a strong sense of responsibility. Well, now he had a ship and a crew that he was responsible for, and he started rising from the ashes, doin’ what needed to be done to keep the ship in the air and the crew fed and paid. To keep flyin’. He was a damn good sergeant, and he quickly became a damn good captain.”

Inara nodded. She was sure of it.

“Serenity saved him. He started gathering back some of the good things he’d lost. What he has now is the ship—the ship and us on it.”

“The bank account—” Inara began.

“Never did know where it came from.”

“It was in his name?”

Zoe nodded.

“But surely it was known whose account he had inherited?”

“Wasn’t properly a legacy. Account had been set up under his name.”

“But he didn’t set it up himself. Someone set it up for him. Who?”

Zoe shrugged. “I have no idea. Mal somehow had a notion the account was set up by his ma, but there was no evidence of that, and no one from Shadow to ask. It was like money dropped out of the sky. Mal always felt he didn’t deserve it, that he was unworthy of the legacy.”

“Why would he feel unworthy? After all that suffering…surely he deserved to have something go his way for once.”

Zoe was silent, and Inara was left alone with her own speculations for a time. Why in the worlds would Mal feel he didn’t deserve it? Did he really think he was so undeserving? And yet she knew the answer to her own questions. He gave his best effort, gave all, at Serenity Valley, only to find himself losing everything—abandoned by Independent Command, his prayer unheard by his god. He found himself on the losing side, and, being a responsible man, he shouldered the blame on behalf of the others, and took their punishment for them. His reward for heroism was to hear the news that his entire home world was destroyed. He was—or had been then—a devout believer, a follower of the austere denomination of Christianity that was widely practiced on Shadow. Serenity Valley, the destruction of Shadow, the hell of the prison camp and the suffering in the slums of Hera: if he felt that these misfortunes were some kind of divine retribution, that he was being punished for his sins, perhaps it was unsurprising that the notion entered his head that he had been judged unworthy. Inara was not so surprised that he had abandoned his religion under such circumstances, if it brought him feelings of guilt and unworthiness, instead of solace and comfort, in his time of misfortune.

Zoe broke in on her thoughts. “Inara,” she said seriously, “that man has a terribly difficult time accepting happiness. If talkin’ to Wash in his head can help him do that, I got no problem with it. Hell, he can go talkin’ out loud with Wash all over the ship if he wants to, if it helps him realize it ain’t a sin to be happy.”

“You…thank you, Zoe.”

“For what, Inara?”

For telling me everything, for telling me what Mal won’t say. “For understanding.”

“Inara, I understand because that’s what Wash did for me. Pulled me out of the dark, made me realize there was joy in life as well as sorrow. If the memory of Wash can help do that for the Captain—Mal, then I’m all for it.

“But listen, Inara,” Zoe continued, “you’re key here. Because it’s for you, he’s found his heart again. Thought it died and shriveled up, but turns out it’s alive and thumping. And it beats for you, Inara. Ooh!”

This unexpected interjection from Zoe was prompted by an unusually sharp kick from the baby. Even from a distance, Inara could see it.

“Do you want to feel the baby kicking?” Zoe queried, noting the direction of Inara’s gaze.

Inara nodded, silently.

“Sit down here.” Zoe patted the side of the bed next to where she lay. Inara did as she was told.

“May I—?”

“Right here, Inara.” Zoe directed Inara’s hands. “I think that’s a knee, or maybe an elbow.”

“Oh!” Inara jumped, startled at how energetic the little infant’s movements were. She couldn’t help but smile, as she imagined what the little baby looked like, part Wash and part Zoe.

“Little one’s got hiccoughs,” Zoe announced, and Inara felt it—little chirpy movements at infrequent, but regular intervals.

“Zoe?” Mal’s voice called down the open hatch. “You down there?”

“Yes, sir,” Zoe answered without moving so much as an eyelid. “You can come down if you want.”

“Zoe,” Mal continued as he descended the ladder, “when you went through the forward lockers, did you find any spare—well…will you look at that?” He grinned enormously at finding Zoe sprawled on the bed with her feet elevated, and Inara with both her hands on Zoe’s swollen belly and an indescribably wonderous look on her face as she felt the baby kicking. He contemplated the scene for a moment—天啊 tiān ā how he loved that look on Inara’s face. Motherhood would look good on her, too.

Inara lifted her head, and smiled at him, her eyes shining with baby joy. Zoe observed the two of them silently.

“I believe this is the part where I start callin’ you names,” Mal said slowly to Inara. “薄情 Bóqíng, 花心 huāxīn, and 外心 wàixīn, is how it starts, I do believe. Then it’s 烂鱼臭 làn yú chòu traitor, ain’t that what comes next?” he continued, as a teasing smile spread over his face. “I think that’s my cue to start pitchin’ crockery.” He gazed searchingly around Zoe’s bunk. “Don’t see none, but I could toss a plastic dinosaur, if Zoe don’t mind it.”

“Oh, you!” Inara exclaimed, jumping up from Zoe’s side and throwing herself at him. She kissed him, and he kissed her back with enthusiasm. Zoe wasn’t ordinarily one to observe private acts of romance, but it was damn good to see them kiss like that. Inara threw her arms around Mal’s neck and shoulders, murmurs of “Sorry” and “亲爱 Qīn'ài” slipping in between her kisses, while Mal’s teasing expression had been completely overtaken by the heartfelt love and happiness that radiated off of him in waves. Zoe smiled to see their reconciliation. After a minute or two, however, she gave a discreet cough and interrupted.

“Glad to see you two are such good friends again. Now how about you go get yourselves a room? And I don’t mean mine.”

Mal turned and gave Zoe a sheepish grin, while Inara scampered up the ladder. Mal gave her backside a playful swat and scampered after her.

Zoe spoke to her belly. “You may get a cousin yet, little one.”

* * *

“Why aren’t we getting a regular signal from the target?” Boromiro wondered out loud. He had his own speculations, but he was interested in Anatoly’s take on the situation, and asking a dumb question was a sure-fire way to get Anatoly talking.

As it happened, Anatoly had gathered fresh intelligence. He’d been called in to make duplicate data sticks for the bosses’ secure cortex devices, and had taken the opportunity to speed-read one of the reports as “verification” that the copies were true to the original. With hot intel like this, it was all he could do not to show off his importance, and he had been sitting impatiently on the info all day. Boromiro’s stupid question opened the floodgates. “The agent enabled the tracker, but was unable to turn on the continuous send mode.”

Wow. Boromiro was impressed. Anatoly actually seemed to know what he was talking about. “Why not?” he asked, eager for more. “It’s pretty straightforward. Didn’t she have the codes?”

“Yeah, 代號 Dài Hào gave her the codes. But it seems the master of this vessel is the suspicious type. Couldn’t enable the tracking function from the bridge. Required a special override from the captain’s quarters.”

“Ah. I see. That’s where the ‘friends and lovers’ part came in. She seduced him, and while he was sleeping off the Goodnight Kiss, she enabled the tracking function.”

“Weren’t you listening to yourself? She wasn’t able to.”

“Huh. Wonder what’s wrong with the guy?” Boromiro and Anatoly shook their heads in synchrony, as they tried to imagine what sort of freighter captain could resist the charms of a female agent who was a trained seductress.

“Maybe he’s sly,” Anatoly suggested.

A thought occurred to Boromiro. “Maybe he’s married.”

The two young date-deprived single men considered this possibility for a moment—a man who committed himself to one partner, and stuck to his vows no matter the temptation—before dismissing it out of hand. They shook their heads in synchrony over this unlikely scenario. “Nah.”

“Anyway, it seems he didn’t fall for her charms. She got interrupted. So what we’ve been seeing is the piggyback signal. The ship only sends its position when someone aboard uses the cortex.”

“Well, I don’t see why that’s a problem. Crew of, what, four? And passengers. Somebody’s bound to be waving somebody, or watching a cortex show, or doing a search, or just checking their mail, pretty often.”

“Seems this crew isn’t a very chatty bunch,” Anatoly continued, as if he knew all about it. “And maybe they don’t watch the soaps.”

“Got drama enough of their own aboard, do they? Self-made entertainment?”

Anatoly agreed. Sometimes Boromiro wasn’t a complete 二百五 èrbǎiwǔ. He observed, “They haven’t made but a few waves.”

“Still, it’s enough to get the picture of where they are.” Boromiro enlarged the screen that tracked the Firefly’s progress, and added a projection of their trajectory in bright blue. “Headed straight towards Bernadette.”

* * *

*

*

*

glossary

屁股 pìgu [butt]

狗屁 gǒupì [bullshit]

天啊 tiān ā [god]

薄情 Bóqíng [inconstant]

花心 huāxīn [fickle]

外心 wàixīn [unfaithful]

烂鱼臭 làn yú chòu [rotten fish-stinking]

亲爱 Qīn'ài [darling, beloved, dear]

代號 Dài Hào [Code name]

二百五 èrbǎiwǔ [idiot]

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COMMENTS

Thursday, May 2, 2013 4:29 PM

EBFIDDLER


Posted a day early, as I'll be traveling tomorrow. Hope you enjoy it.

Friday, May 3, 2013 3:56 AM

NUTLUCK


Very cool but now you MUST in a future story revel where the money came from.

Friday, May 3, 2013 12:44 PM

BYTEMITE


> The two young date-deprived single men considered this possibility for a moment—a man who committed himself to one partner, and stuck to his vows no matter the temptation—before dismissing it out of hand. They shook their heads in synchrony over this unlikely scenario. “Nah.”

Yep. Although if they want to be agents, they're going to show a tiny bit more willpower. Then again, I wonder i these two are accidentally going to Know Too Much.

Aw, Inara and Zoe and reconciliations. :)

Friday, May 3, 2013 2:21 PM

AMDOBELL


I really enjoyed the dialogue between Zoe and Inara, it did Inara good to learn a bit more about what Mal and Zoe had gone through as a result of the war and its' aftermath. Did you name Boromiro after Boromir the Bold in The Lord of the Rings? The name just seems a mite too close for coincidence. Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Monday, May 6, 2013 6:05 PM

EBFIDDLER


Nutluck, I know where the money came from; maybe I'll reveal it in another story. Bytemite, there's a reason these two guys didn't get their Blue Hand applications accepted right off the bat. Ali, I gave Boromiro his name after being reminded of a number of Spanish names whose origin is clearly from somewhere else -- e.g. "Vladimiro" and "Demeterio." I would hope LOTR is still being read in 500 years!
Thanks for reading and commenting.


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