What Begins with an Apple, Part 17b
Mal and Inara finally have it out.
They slept tangled together, as if they were one. Their bodies certainly had no problem with this arrangement. It was their minds, and the baggage each of them carried, that stood in their way. On the physical plane, they were already reconciled, and as long as conscious thought remained suspended in the depths of dreams, they derived nothing but comfort and strength from each other's presence. But their thoughts and feelings had a lot of catching up to do, and after a brief restorative sleep, Mal began stirring. Thoughts began to intrude, and soon he was fully awake. There were too many unresolved questions.
He disentangled himself and got up out of bed. He began pulling on his clothes.
Inara stirred. "What are you doing?"
"Gettin' dressed," he answered, stating the obvious.
"Won't you stay the night?" she asked.
"Don't think so. We still got issues between us."
Inara found his abrupt manner hurtful, and his words jolted her fully awake.
"You can't do that, then just act like it never happened," he continued.
Briefly, she wondered exactly what he meant by 'that';then, things clicked into place. Did he know? She had taken a client to her bed on Beaumonde. Not that he had any right to say anything about it. He had betrayed her first, and she had broken off their relationship. She had then scheduled the client in the course of ordinary business. It had nothing to do with him; he wasn't even her lover at the time. There was no betrayal on her part. Or so she tried to tell herself. Her heart informed her what nonsense that line of thinking was. Control is the first lesson, and the last, she told herself sternly, as she pushed her emotions firmly aside and engaged the rational part of her brain. She waited in silence for him to explain.
"Inara, I asked you to marry me…"
Not this again. She interrupted. "And I told you—"
"Don't interrupt. I know damn well what you told me. You told me you were delighted I asked."
"I never said yes."
"Don't interrupt me, Inara. I know you didn't say yes. You think I don't know that?" He rounded on her, his eyes flashing with fury.
"Will you listen to me, for a change?"
She was silent, though there were a thousand words that came to her tongue. He'd better have a good explanation, for all the hurt he had caused her.
"I asked you, and you gave me hope. Hope that one day, we might…" He couldn't continue the sentence, and shook his hand in a frustrated gesture, indicating that he was not finished, as she made to interrupt yet again. "You gave me hope, and you gave me lovin' such as I never had before. Made me feel like a shiny hero. Made me resolve to endeavor to be worthy of your love. To do whatever it took to work toward that goal. To please you. Then, next thing I know, not a week later, you're callin' me names and throwin' crockery at me—with not a word of explanation—"
"I explained," she broke in heatedly. "I made myself perfectly clear."
"Not a word I could understand as to why."
"Not my fault you couldn't understand."
He continued, ignoring her interruption. "And when I asked why—assuming I was at fault, mind—I even said sorry, for what, I don't know—you wouldn't even talk to me, not even to tell me off. Just walled yourself off, and tried to break my heart."
"I wasn't trying to break your heart."
"Well, you damn near did!" he exclaimed in a voice that was high and choked.
"Inara, I know I'm an ornery sonuvabitch. I get angry, and mean. I got dark places in me. I'm one messed up 混蛋 húndàn. I gotta be one helluva person to try to live with. But 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."
She gave him a significant look full of disbelief.
He met her gaze unflinchingly and returned it with a blazing blue look of high intensity. "So who is it you think I'm two-timing you with?"
She didn't speak.
"Saffron? Cold as ice and dead crazy on top of it. Surely you don't still believe I could ever carry on with that evil snake."
Inara remained silent.
"You can't believe what you were saying, about me having a girl in every port—if you believe that, you don't know me at all." He looked away, pained by the thought that she might not know him well enough to believe him. Then he renewed eye contact and added, "And trust me, the real me is bad enough, without you makin' up bad things I ain't done to add to the mix."
She still wouldn't speak, but Mal read her face.
"Someone on this ship…you think I'm sleepin' with a woman on this ship. I—" He broke off, momentarily speechless. I'm sleeping with you, Inara! he thought. You! And only you. And not nobody else. Can't you understand that?
"Alright, let's go through it logical," he began. "River? She's pleasant enough. And she ain't crazy all the time. But she's half my age. And she's too busy makin' googly eyes at Ip to look at a mean old man like me. Kaylee? Well, aside from the fact I think of her as a sister, I think Simon would have something to say if'n I tried something on with his girlfr—fiancée. So that leaves…Zoe," he stated, as the revelation hit him. "You think I'm carryin' on with Zoe."
To Inara's surprise he began to laugh.
"Well, if that don't beat all…"
"You're making it sound like it's an absurd notion." Inara broke her silence defensively.
"It is an absurd notion."
"What's so absurd about it?"
"Inara, what Zoe and I been through together—"
"Well, that's just it, isn't it, Mal?" Now it was Inara's turn for fury. "What you and Zoe have been through together, no one knows except yourselves! Everyone else is left to imagine it! And they have to base their imaginations on the evidence of their senses. Wash chose to trust Zoe, to believe that you weren't lovers—"
"Well, we ain't lovers," he interrupted.
"—despite the evidence to the contrary."
"Evidence? What the hell evidence you think you have?"
Inara's silence was filled with righteous anger.
"I won't stand for this," Mal spoke with cold fury. "You have something to accuse me of, you tell me, straight up. Don't damn me without a fair trial."
Inara made a decision. "On the way from Bandiagara to Beaumonde, I heard you and Zoe, laughing together on the bridge, talking about 'getting laid' and—and—how when you met, you weren't a virgin, and how you had 'done it, many a time'—"
"Whoa, now, you're taking things out of context—"
"Mal, you can't even talk to me about sex! Me! Your lover! And yet you can talk to her?"
Mal let out a deep breath. "Let me explain. I don't feel comfortable talkin' about sex."
"Do you think I'm an idiot? I heard you—"
"Not usually," he said, leaving his reference completely ambiguous. "But that particular morning—perhaps you recall what we done in bed that night before." It was a painful subject, now that he knew that even that had been nothing more than Inara playing him with her Companion wiles. He stopped and looked at her, and to his surprise, he saw her eyes grow soft and sensuous, as she recalled that night of seismic waves. Had she felt it, too? Was it more than just 'techniques' to her? He needed to focus, focus on the here and now. "I'm not like to forget it," he continued in a low voice. "It put me in an unusually good mood. Came onto the bridge whistling. Zoe tweaked me on it. Proved to me I ain't never been in such a good mood since '07. And we got to talkin' about old times—an' she was ribbin' me about how I used ta be such a straight-laced—anyway, I had to prove her wrong by tellin' tales on myself. It's the best mood I seen Zoe in since Wash died. She ain't had nothing shiny to temper her grief since Miranda, nothin' except the baby—"
"Right," Inara said acidly. "The. Baby."
"What's wrong with Zoe havin' a baby?"
"What's wrong indeed!"
"That baby is Zoe's one chance at happiness, her salvation from grief—"
"And you're her savior!"
"What the 地狱 dìyù do you mean? I don't got nothin' to do with it."
"That's what you say. And I believed it. I believed it right up until I saw you—kissing Zoe's belly—feeling her up—murmuring sweet nothings—kissing her! And you expect me to believe—"
"You saw that?!"
"Yes. I saw that." She stared him down, defying him to deny the evidence.
"I thought we were alone," he said, almost to himself.
Inare sat firmly on her high horse. "And what's your defense now?"
"It ain't what you think," he replied.
"Touching?! Kissing?! How isn't it what I think?"
"Zoe let me feel the baby kicking," he explained reasonably. "It was…unbelievable." His voice took on a note of awe.
"How moving." Inara spoke sarcastically. "The expectant father feels the first squirmings of his offspring."
"Expectant…offspring…Inara, you can't believe that!" he exclaimed as he realized what she meant.
"I can," she stated coldly.
"Inara, that's—that's Wash's baby! That's the last bit of Wash Zoe got left. That baby's precious."
"Of course your baby's precious," she echoed snippily.
"Wash's baby. Not mine."
Inara regarded him with skepticism, clearly not completely convinced. He glared right back, holding stubbornly to his line. She didn't flinch in the slightest.
"The kiss," she prompted.
"Can't I give my friend a chaste kiss? Ain't you never kissed a friend?"
"It's not right. You and Zoe don't kiss. You don't even touch!"
"Right," he responded heatedly. "Me and Zoe don't touch. So how is it you suppose we're doin' each other without touching?"
Inara's response was a sound of aggravated frustration.
"I don't touch Zoe. And she don't touch me. Except when the situation calls for it. Shoulda been Wash, holdin' her hand and feeling his child move inside his wife's belly. Shoulda been Wash, tellin' her she's special, that she done good, giving her comfort, lettin' her know what a marvel she got inside her. Shoulda been Wash, givin' her a real kiss, a lover's kiss, and makin' tender love to his pregnant wife. But she can't have that no more, and if she chooses to share that little shiny moment with me—a friend, a poor stand-in for the love she lost—what am I gonna say to her but, you done good? And give her what poor comfort a friend can."
Inara still seemed unconvinced, but she was listening, taking it in. At least it seemed she was not dead set against it.
"Reckon that makes the second time me and Zoe have kissed like that."
"And the other time?" Inara demanded.
"At her and Wash's wedding." Mal turned away. This discussion is over, he told her with a look, and he left the shuttle.
. . .
At last—it seemed at last to Mal, although in truth it hadn't taken any longer than expected, and he'd even shaved four hours off the usual—at last they reached Hektor and were able to rid themselves of both the crates of chickens and Saffron. He was prepared for trouble, perhaps even a hostile welcoming party, but weren't nobody but an old farmer in a wagon come for the chickens, and no greeter at all for Saffron, who didn't seem to expect nobody, for that matter. The entire crew turned out united to wish Saffron a fond farewell. Actually, no they didn't, they turned out to bid her good riddance, and to make sure she didn't try to pull any last-minute stunts as she got off the boat. Mal watched, with weapon at the ready, until Saffron was away across the spaceport.
The evil snake didn't waste a moment sightseeing. Within minutes she had contracted passage on a ship that was at point of departure, bound back to Beaumonde. Mal followed Saffron with his eyes as she made her way across the dust of the spaceport and mounted the ladder leading to the hatch of the Gurtsler Paragon spacecraft. He watched her up the ladder, as she clung to the rungs and pushed herself up from the legs and hips, climbing like a girl. He was not satisfied until he saw her enter the ship, the hatch swing shut, and the ship take off into the Black. At last Mal breathed deeply, letting down his guard for the first time in five days. Only then did he proceed with refueling his ship.
A few hours later, as Serenity climbed out into the Black bound for Bernadette, Mal couldn't shake the image from his mind of Saffron climbing the ladder. Saffron, with her big, round…curves, climbing the ladder up the side of the ship, clinging with her arms and moving from the hips…like a girl. Climbing like a girl. Suddenly a clear image of the Beaumonde saboteur from the security video played in his mind's eye. Gorrammit! Saffron was the saboteur! And he'd just let her fly off, free as a bird.
. . .
混蛋 húndàn [bastard]
地狱 dìyù [hell]
What?! you say. You call that an ending?!
Well, okay, so not everything's resolved. There's more to the story...but it became necessary to impose some limits, simply so that I could handle the story. At more than 60,000 words, this was when I began to realize that I've been making a transition from little 10,000 word "episodes" to something that was, if not exactly epic, at least verbose enough to be an epic. Novel-length fanfic is a more difficult beast to manage than little stories.
So...there's more coming, and most of the threads left dangling here are either resolved or at least pursued further in the next story. Which is mostly already written. However, you won't be seeing it for a little while, because I usually do not publish stories until I have reviewed and edited them many times, run them by a beta reader or two, and revised them. If you have comments or questions about the story, now's the time to review or PM me, because the new story is at a stage in which I can incorporate feedback. It took me about a year to write What Begins with an Apple. The next story (Ends with a Horse) is coming together faster, but it is nearly as long. I hope to have it finished within a few weeks.
I want to thank again my wonderful beta readers, my sister and Bytemite, for their very helpful discussions and suggestions for improvements to What Begins with an Apple.
And to the readers of this story: thank you for reading, for sticking with this, and thank you especially for your feedback. Your reviews are helpful and just the kind of encouragement I need to keep writing.