"What in the gorram hell is -?!" Malcolm Reynolds' angry voice rose over the sounds of the girl's giggles but was cut short when a small white missile unexpectedly exploded against his chin.
It turned out to be a raw egg, and it dribbled messily down Mal's face to form a sticky pool on his shirtfront. He blinked in stunned silence as Loan and River froze. Both quickly dropped the other gobbets of food from their hands as if denying the chance that either one of them had thrown the egg. Loan tried unsuccessfully to brush the congealed mess from her fringed dress, but only managed to smear the glops of food further into the fabric. She gave up and instead risked a surreptitious glance at the captain.
Mal ignored the wet egg yolk on his face and stared in wide eyed horror at the war zone that had once been his galley. Egg goo mixed in a kaleidoscopic collage with flour, protein paste and something orange-colored on Serenity's kitchen walls, floor, and table. There wasn't a clean spot in the room he realized sickly. Most of it had begun to dry and harden but there were other more liquid portions that still oozed lazily down the wall in spots to plop loudly onto the food splattered floor. Mal slowly raised his eyes to stare
incredulously at the two girls covered in eggs, flour and gods knew what else. He was utterly speechless.
River reached over to pull a piece of noodle from Loan's hair, and Loan batted the girl's hand away giving River a mortified shake of her head. "Aiya, wo men wanle! (damn, we’re in big trouble)" she whispered tersely.
"What did you two gorram brats do to my galley?" Mal demanded his voice rising in anger as his brain tried to take in the scene and make sense of it.
"We had a food fight," chirped River.
"A food fight…" Mal's voice drifted off in disbelief. "Wuh de tyen, ah (god in heaven) …a food fight?!"
"Well, I mean," Loan stuttered miserably, "it's not really…well, River pitched a egg at me, see – in fun, ya know? And then... well…I guess I kinda hit her in the face with some flour in turn…and-"
Mal cut the girl off, his eyes drilling holes into her as he finally reached up to wipe the egg from his face. "You know how hard fresh food is to come by out here," he said.
The two girls before him fidgeted in shame. His eyes grew flinty. "Them eggs was to last us the month, and now…" he looked around at the flour spattered walls and then back to the girls. "And now, we don't got eggs, we don't got flour…not to mention the cost of
them lost goods, which weren't cheap and you know it."
Loan winced. She hadn't even considered the expense any more than the actual loss of rations. She knew from her time living alone around Eavesdown that the price of eggs around the border and rim planets ran close to five platinum a dozen. And they had destroyed several dozen of them, not to mention the other supplies that were now worthless. She cringed.
"That wasn't just your food, girls" Mal sternly lectured, "and it weren't just your hard sweat that earned the credits to pay for them. Your foolishness hurts everybody on this boat and I ain't standin' for it." Mal fixed the girls with a stony glare. He pointed to the kitchen. "The two of you are gonna clean up every speck of this here mess and make my kitchen shiny, and I mean shiny," he ordered, "and then you're gonna figure out a way to pay me back for the cost of all this waste, and then you, young lady," he indicated Loan, "are getting a licking."
"You can't be serious!" Loan sputtered in fear.
"Oh, I'm all kinds of serious," he shot back at her.
"But, but...you can't whup me!"
Mal shrugged and fixed her with a stern look. "Giving you extra chores and confining you to quarters sure ain't done the trick, and apparently my being captain of this here crew don't seem to hold much water with you neither. So, what, little Loan, do you suggest I do to get it into that thick skull of yours that staying out of trouble ain’t optional?"
"How come she," Loan pointed at her co-conspirator who was busy sniffing and licking the sleeve of her dress, "don't end up catchin' it?"
"Cause River don't always understand the outcome of what she does. But, you do." Loan couldn't argue with that. She remained silent and he continued, calmly. "Sides, I’m thinking River wasn’t the mastermind behind this bit of lunacy." Mal then fixed his stare on his young pilot. "You, on the other hand -are- the most likely culprit."
Loan's eyes fell guiltily to the floor not wanting to meet her captain's accusatory look.
"Well now," Mal said as he looked from one to the other, "Seems to me you two have work to be done." He made his way through the galley careful not to slip on any of the mess and headed out the door on the way to the bridge. His voice carried back to the two girls as they made their way over to the sink. "I want it shiny!"
Loan opened her mouth to offer a retort but never got the words out because just then, she was hit in the side of the face with a wet dishcloth. Her eyes widened, mouth stiffening into a thin angry line. She bent down to retrieve the bit of rag from the floor where it had fallen. River smiled expectantly as her friend shot her a dirty look.
"Thank you, River," Loan sneered sarcastically as she began to mop up some of the damage on the floor. She assessed the job ahead of her and sighed. This was going to be a long afternoon…
Loan finished scrubbing the last bit of scum off the kitchen table while River playfully waltzed up and down the now spotless floor with the broom in her arms. Loan didn't blame River for not fully understanding, but it would have been nice to have had a little more help with the cleaning. She was tired, miserable and itchy from the dried food still covering her hair and arms. She looked up as the captain's footsteps announced his entrance into the galley area.
Mal paused in the doorway, trying hard not to smirk at the sight of his two youngest crewmates busily cleaning away. He ran his eyes appreciatively around the room. They'd done a fine job. Hell, he mused, he couldn't remember the last time the galley looked this bright and clean.
"Well," he commented, "You done a right fine job. No less than I expected of you."
Loan wiped her forehead with her free hand and dropped the dirty washcloth onto the table. She waited for the captain to say more. Instead, Mal strode over to the table, pulled a chair out from its side and dragged it to the middle of the room. Patting the chair affectionately, Mal looked at the younger of the two miscreants and smiled grimly.
"Time to settle up," he said.
Loan sighed deeply. The inevitability of her situation seemed unfair to her. "You really mean to go through with this?" she questioned him.
"You break the rules on my ship, you get reminded of them – by me."
Loan somehow couldn't envision Jayne or Simon being asked to take a thrashing over the captain's knee though and remained unconvinced.
"I don't recall seein' no posting up `bout the illegality of food fights," she grumbled her lower lip jutting out in defiance.
Mal fixed her with a warning look, "You really think this a good time to be sassy?"
"No sir." Loan conceded unhappily, and forced herself to trudge reluctantly over to where Mal stood. She refused to look him in the face as he sat down in the chair and took her by the wrist.
"There's consequences to everything you do, Loan," Mal stated as he pulled the girl over his lap. "Some of `em are good, and some ...well, ain't so good."
River stood back by the sink, transfixed by the sight of her friend being put face down over the captain’s lap. Mal looked down at Loan's grimy dress, made a mild face of disgust, and then reached down and lifted up the dress hem with thumb and forefinger to bare her dirt-free panties. Loan reacted with a whimper of fear for what was about to come her way. Mal raised his arm and brought it down full force, his hard hand connecting solidly with the girl's unprotected backside. Loan yelped, River gasped and Mal let fly with another hard swat this one landing dead center.
"No spanking," River murmured fearfully as her hands went defensively to her own rear.
Mal paddled Loan’s bottom thoroughly giving her ten good hard swats before he stopped a moment.
"You know why you're gettin' this thrashing?" Mal asked the girl over his lap.
Loan sputtered in dismay. It wasn't enough he was whupping her raw, now he wanted to play twenty questions! She wanted very badly to tell Mal the reason she was getting the spanking was because he was a baboon's ass but remembered just as quickly that he hadn't taken too kindly to that sort of remark the last time she was bent over his knee.
Thinking she was being defiant in not answering him, Mal spoke up, his voice hard and flat. “You think you’re gonna sit here quiet like, tao shen (naughty child), you best think again. Answer the question or mayhap you feel the need for some more encouragement?” He began spanking her again, this time a bit harder and faster.
Loan quickly managed in between grunts of pain to provide a somewhat more diplomatic answer than she would have liked. "Because I'm a - OW! - brainless fool – OW! - what don't have smarts to know better – OW!- than to play with her food – AIYA! WO DE MA! (damn! Mother of god!)"
Mal laid down a rather painful pattern of swats going from the top of her backside to the top of her thighs, making sure to overlay every few of the swats for good measure. He remembered back to the thrashings he'd been on the receiving end of as a child back on Shadow and realized that his mother had been right. It did hurt as much to give as to get. Well, he reflected as he brought his hand down again on Loan's now tender sit spot and heard her hoarse yell, maybe those givin' weren't quite feeling the hurt as bad as those gettin'. Mal smiled faintly, somewhat amused by the irony.
"You going to be wastin' any more food, Loan?" he questioned as his hard hand continued to rise and fall against her incredibly sore bottom.
"AH! NO SIR!" Loan yelled as her eyes flooded with tears.
She felt as if her backside was on fire, each spank the captain delivered blazing a stinging trail of pain across her inflamed bottom. She was trying her best not to cry but the burning heat she felt was making it rather difficult and finally, with a small sob, Loan let go and began bawling in earnest. She was truly sorry for what she’d done and wished desperately that she could turn back the clock in order to avoid this whole painful mess.
Mal, upon hearing Loan crying, gave her one final hard smack on her sit spot, satisfied that his young pilot had gotten the message loud and clear. He let Loan up and she took a few steps back out of his reach while she sniffled miserably and cradled her sore butt in her hands. Mal waited a few moments for the girl to calm down and then reached out to raise Loan's chin up to meet his concerned gaze.
"I think you've learned a valuable lesson here, Loan. You wanna tell me what that might be?”
“Don’t waste food...’specially when it’s hard to come by and we can’t afford it and when I know better,” Loan muttered tearfully as she rubbed her aching backside.
“And?” Mal pressed.
Loan sniffed and scowled. What did he mean ‘and’!
“And don’t sass the captain when he’s already in a lather,” she sullenly added glaring at Mal who was now smiling at her.
“So, we're square on this?"
"Square, cap'n," was Loan’s small pained reply.
Mal stood up and dragged the chair back to its place as Zoe's voice came over the com.
"Sir, we're back with the cargo."
"Thanks, Zoe," Mal replied, "I'll be down in a minute. I need you to head up to the bridge and get Serenity warmed up."
"On my way, sir," Zoe replied.
Mal turned and looked at his charges. Loan stood groaning and rubbing her tingling backside while River stood near the sink still as a statue. The older girl had tried to tie a large pot lid to the back of her dress.
She looked up at Mal and shook her head. "No spanking - the behavior is modified! I don’t need a penalty!"
Mal chuckled, "I ain't gonna thrash ya this time, little one." He went over to River and reached down to untie the lid. "Much as you might be deservin', I kinda figure the bad plannin' on this caper wasn't yours." He shifted and pointed at Loan. "You can head yourself over to that corner and park your nose to the wall `til I come back."
Loan sighed deeply, the irony of the moment not lost on her and sullenly trudged to the designated spot and turned to face the wall. The incredibly clean, shiny wall, she silently noted and then glimpsed a speck of what looked to be protein paste mocking her on the surface of the wall directly in front of her nose. She reached out to scratch at it with a fingernail, squinting, and then absentmindedly licked a thumb and rubbed at the stain.
River and Mal just stared at the girl a moment. Then River giggled and skipped to the opposite corner from her friend and pirouetted to face the wall matching Loan's stance. To her it was just another game. Loan was not amused.
"Well, that's fine by me," Mal commented lightly. "But I catch you two naughty brats starin' at anything other than the wall when I come back, and you'll be takin' all your meals standin' up for the next week."
"Yes, captain." Both girls answered in unison.
Loan made a strangled sound, looked up and over at River in annoyance, and then put her forehead back against the wall and let out a ragged sigh. Mal left them to check on the rest of the crew down in the cargo bay.
"What in guay (hell) is going on here!?" Simon sputtered upon seeing his sister and Loan standing in opposite corners of the kitchen, noses to the wall. "And what have you got all over yourselves?"
The two teens looked for all the world like someone had dredged them in flour which made absolutely no sense whatsoever to the doctor. Zoe had entered the kitchen now and came to a dead stop, a look of confusion on her usually amiable face. She glanced at Simon shooting him a quizzical look. Simon shrugged helplessly, his mouth hung open in wonder and then gazed back at the two girls trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together but not succeeding.
“River?” Simon finally questioned and then looked hesitantly over to Loan. "Are you all right?"
“Oh, I'm just dandy!” was the acid reply from Loan’s corner.
"We were naughty," River piped up, her voice slightly muffled from facing the wall. She smiled at her brother over her shoulder, "Naughty gorramn brats. Captain spanked Loan, but not me."
"Well, thank you, River," Loan snapped tiredly from her corner, her face flushing with embarrassment. “Because I’m sure everyone needed to know that!”
Simon shook his head and shot a clinical eye at the ship’s wayward pilot. “You do seem to have a knack for getting yourself into...predicaments,” he wryly observed and Loan bit her tongue to keep from saying something she really, really shouldn’t.
Simon glanced over at River a moment. She looked to be measuring the distance from the floor to the ceiling of her corner with her hands while mumbling numbers under her breath. He then turned back to Loan and sighed. “While I can appreciate from an entirely objective standpoint why you drag my sister into your bu tai zheng chang de (not entirely sane) forays, I’d somehow feel a lot better if you’d just leave her out of them.”
A low growl issued from Loan’s corner but she refrained from further comment.
“Did…did she just…growl at me?” Simon sputtered in amazement and looked at Zoe for confirmation.
Zoe’s brows raised in disbelief. She shook her head, muttered something about nursery schools and headed for the bridge to get Serenity warmed up. Simon just stood in the middle of the spotless kitchen unsure of what to do.
"Well shiny. I'm glad you took me seriously this time," Mal stated as he strode into the galley from the aft hallway. He grinned at River and Loan as they stood in their respective corners, one standing in perfect attention like a little soldier and the other slumped dejectedly and rubbing her backside. "Looks like you two have learnt your lesson. Now, go get washed up and see about helping Kaylee and Jayne down in the cargo bay."
Simon, still confused, shot a look at the captain. "Mal?"
Mal ignored the doctor as he watched Loan trudged past. The captain smiled warmly and called after her retreating form. "By the way, zhao shou (annoying child)? Now that the two of you got everything neat and tidy ‘round here, I figure you should have the kitchen duties for the rest of the month."
Loan's back stiffened at this additional punishment. She closed her eyes a moment and sighed heavily but knew better than to complain out loud at this point. "Thank you, cap'n," she managed over her shoulder with difficulty and then continued down the aft hall to the stairwell cursing Mal’s name in Chinese under her breath. Loan stomped down the metal stairs, and brushed coldly past a startled Inara as she headed for the shower.
"Well, this just turned out to be a gorramn fine day…" Loan muttered angrily to River as she grabbed up a clean towel from the stack by the communal bathroom. River attempted to follow her friend into the room but was met with the door as Loan slammed it shut in her face.
"Fine day," River echoed.
Mal came through the hatch to the bridge to spy Loan at the controls of the ship flipping switches and busily making calculations on the nav charts. He noted wryly that the girl was not buckled into her seat, but was instead standing at her station trying very hard not to get bounced to the floor as Serenity rumbled and shuddered her way out of Santo’s atmo.
"Mal, how many times you gotta be told not to whup the pilot right afore take off?" Jayne yelled up from the hallway outside the cockpit as he pushed open his bunk door. The merc shot a smug grin in Loan’s direction as he dropped down the ladder to his bunk and disappeared.
"It never ends..." Loan wearily muttered.
Most of the crew of Serenity had called it a night and were long in their bunks. But, Loan couldn't sleep. She kept going over the day in her mind and somehow, she couldn't quite reconcile it all. There'd been no angry looks or reproachful comments from anyone when she'd sat down, albeit very gingerly, at the dinner table that evening. Not one person had made reference to her and River's inexcusable foolhardiness all day other than Jayne. Even the captain had treated her pleasantly enough as if nothing had ever happened and no one made any remarks about her constant squirming about on the hard wood chair due to her still sore behind. That gnawed at the young co-pilot.
Her mind churning, she swung her bare feet out of her bed and shivered in the cold but didn't grab for her boots or work clothes. Instead, she reached for something on her dresser and then headed for the hatch to her quarters. Loan quietly climbed the ladder of her bunk, her over-sized nightshirt swaying against her coltish legs. She listened for a moment hearing nothing more then the comforting hum and groan of Serenity around her. Glancing down the foredeck hallway, she spotted Inara sitting at the table in the galley and headed for her.
Inara was lounging at the kitchen table while Zoe, her back to Loan, stood at the ancient stove pouring tea into a chipped mug. Loan scrunched up her face as she came through the doorway of the kitchen and waved a hand dramatically in front of her nose as she cast a glance of uncertainty about the room.
"Smells like a wet sheepdog!" Loan remarked, "Was Jayne just in here?"
"I haven't seen Jayne since supper," said Inara. "But you can blame Kaylee for the new odor. She was flushing out the air ducts earlier."
Zoe chuckled at this and returned to the table with two steaming cups of tea. She set one down in front of Inara. "I like Loan's reasoning better," Zoe said. She took a sip of her tea. "Jayne does smell." Zoe looked over to Loan. "What are you still doing up, little girl?"
"Couldn't sleep," the girl replied offhandedly. "Cap'n gone to bed already?"
"No," said Inara, "He’s up on the bridge checking our course.
"For the hundredth time," Zoe smirked. “You got business with the captain at this hour?” she asked Loan.
Loan sighed and nodded. “Yeah...I need to give him something.”
Loan made her goodbyes and headed back down the foreward hallway and up the short flight of steps to the bridge of the ship. Mal was rechecking the fuel to speed ratios when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. Setting down the clipboard, he swiveled in his chair to see who it was and was somewhat surprised to see his youngest crew member standing in the doorway in nothing more than an old worn shirt. It must have been one of Zoe's cast offs he mused as the hem of it fluttered well below Loan’s knees.
"Something on your mind?" Mal asked trying to keep his tone casual as he checked the nav stats on the main screen.
Loan hesitated and then silently padded over to the captain and shoved something into the pocket of his work shirt. Mal frowned up at her and reached into his pocket to pull out a wad of crumpled bills. He stared at them and then back up at Loan.
"It's a hunnert credits." Loan quietly offered, "Was all I had. I hope it's enough."
"It's more'n `nough, mei-mei." Mal softly replied and tucked the wad back into his shirt pocket. Sensing that she wasn't done here, Mal remained silent waiting for Loan to continue.
Loan went over to the co-pilot chair and sat down, grimacing slightly as her butt made contact with the leather seat. She tucked her bare legs up under her nightshirt to keep them warm and looked up at her captain studying his care-worn face. He gave her a soft smile.
"Cap'n," she began and then halted, not sure of what she wanted to say. Mal waited patiently. "Cap'n, I did a lot of thinkin'. And well...well, I just wanted to say I'm real sorry and you was right and..." her voice faltered and she bit her lip.
Mal didn't let her finish. "When I said we were square on this, Loan, I meant it. It's done and over with and why we're still talkin' on it, I can't rightly figure."
"But the others-"
Mal shook his head. "This crew follows my orders and when I say something is done and over, then it's done. Ain't nobody's right to say otherwise, Loan. They all know that as the captain, it's my responsibility to keep things level and they know they can count on
me to be hard but fair when it comes to handin' out the law around here."
The girl remained silent. Mal's tone grew softer. "We're family, and family stands by each other in hard times and good. Family don't go layin' blame at one another's doorsteps. Hell, we may squabble at times, but it don't mean we don't care `bout one another. It don't mean we don't hurt when one of us is hurtin' or want to help when one of is in trouble." He leaned forward now to gaze into Loan's eyes as they welled up with tears. "They know what you and River done. And they know I settled it square. There weren't nothing more for any of `em to say or do on it."
A tear traveled slowly down Loan's cheek. Mal reached over and gently brushed away the tear, feeling a mite uncomfortable all of a sudden. "Best be gettin' to bed, xiaou mei-mei (little sister)," he softly murmured.
Loan stood up, started for the door, and then turned back and suddenly threw her arms around the captain to give him a fierce hug. Caught off guard, Mal raised his arms in mild bewilderment and then just as quickly enclosed the child in them and gave a gruff hug back. He reached over to tousle her hair as she sniffled into the front of his shirt. Loan grinned up at him, her lashes wet and he gave her a lopsided grin back, his heart aching a little at the realization of how attached he’d become to the little brat.
"It's good to have family," Loan whispered, a hitch in her voice as she looked up at Mal.
"It is at that,” Mal gently agreed and then gave her a mock stern look. “Bed, and that’s an order," he gently stated in a no-nonsense tone slinging a thumb in the direction of the hatchway. Loan nodded once and strode off down the hall her heart warm with the knowledge that for once in her young life she not only belonged but was very much loved and wanted.