ILL GOTTEN GAINS
Malcolm Reynolds watched with some sense of relief as his transport ship known as Serenity glided safely into the space dock of the Dao Rhen Station skyplex. Ever since the tragic loss a few months prior of his pilot and good friend Hoban Washburne, or Wash as everyone knew him, Mal had been reluctant to give up the controls of his ship to anyone else during lift offs and set downs. While River Tam, the ship’s seventeen year old child prodigy, sometimes manned the co-pilot seat across from him, it was Mal’s steady hands that were on the controls at the crucial times.
It wasn’t a lack of confidence in River’s skills, Mal told himself. Lord knew she could dance rings around him with one brain lobe tied behind her back. And it wasn’t that he didn’t have anyone else to fly the ship either, he grudgingly admitted. Their most recent addition to the crew, Loan, had proved to be quite the jet jockey in the month and a half she’d been on board. She was no Hoban Washburne, Mal surmised, but the young stowaway had managed to coax the older firefly vessel into a few maneuvers that were almost ballet-like if not stomach churning. The girl had a reckless abandon about her that definitely came out when she was in the driver’s seat and that was no small thing when one was attempting to sidestep the law or outrun a carrion ship.
No, Mal sighed, as he flipped a switch to cut the engine’s thrusters. The problem lay in the fact that he couldn’t get the image of Wash pinioned to his seat by a reaver lance out of his head. It haunted him day and night. And nothing anyone said would convince him otherwise that it wasn’t his fault that Wash had died that day. And so, Mal was determined not to let such a possibility even enter the realm of existence for anyone else in his immediate vicinity by making sure it was his body now sitting in the pilot’s chair during landings and take offs.
Hearing a heavy exhale of dissatisfaction coming from the co-pilot’s seat, Mal glanced over to his left to see Loan hunched down in the chair, a teenaged scowl darkening her young face.
“You drive like an old granny,” the girl sullenly commented not taking her eyes off the view screen in front of her.
Mal grinned at the jibe, amused. “It’s a skyplex, nian qing de (young one). You come in hot and heavy here and you’re like as not to end up shooting out the other side of the place in a million tiny bits.”
Mal rose from the pilot’s seat and ambled over to Loan who still sat staring out the view port of the ship watching various vessels coming and going with disinterest. The captain watched for a moment himself and then placed a hand on top of the fourteen year old’s sandy blonde head.
“You’ll get your chance. Just not today,” he promised and then turned and headed for the hatch that led down to the walkway and the ship’s galley beyond. “The ‘verse wasn’t built in a day, little Loan,” Mal called back to her over his shoulder. “Gotta have patience.”
“Patience,” Loan hmmphed and rolled her eyes. The corners of her mouth suddenly twisted up in an evil smile and she hung over the arm of her seat calling after the captain’s retreating form. “Hey, wasn’t that the name of that old woman what shot you?”
Mal either didn’t hear her or was ignoring the comment since Loan didn’t get a return volley from him.
She got up and casually sauntered over to the pilot’s chair Mal had vacated and dusted off the worn cushioned seat as if the man had left cooties or something and then plopped down into it. She began the formal procedure of powering down the ship and checking the fuel levels in preparation for their trip to Silverhold to drop off some slightly illegal cargo they were picking up here on the skyplex.
Dao Rhen Station was a bustling trade center and fueling port between the border and rim planets near the Shang Ti quadrant. Since stowing aboard Serenity not quite two months ago, Loan had had the opportunity to visit planets and moons in several of the rim quadrants as Mal and crew shuttled cargo and passengers about the system. It had been a mix of tedium and adventure for the girl, but one thing remained constant and that was the sense of family the crew fostered among themselves. It was something Loan had never known and it was something she was beginning to get comfortable with.
“They come to play but they won’t leave their guns.” River’s eerie voice cut the quiet on the bridge.
Loan spun in her seat, startled. She hadn’t got quite used to the other girl’s uncanny ability to suddenly and stealthily materialize when least expected. Loan watched River quietly sidle up beside her to stare at the lights of the skyplex outside the viewport.
“I don’t think the Cap’n or Jayne go anywhere without their guns, River,” Loan said as a way of a greeting.
“Wrong soldiers,” River shook her head and pointed out the viewport, “Them.”
Loan followed her friend’s finger out the port and up to the far right to the docking stations on the upper part of the skyplex from where Serenity sat. Recognition was immediate, bringing a prickle of goosebumps out on the girl’s arms.
“Oh, gou cao de gao yang zhong! (dog humping motherless goats)” Loan hissed, her right hand simultaneously slapping the com button on the console in front of her. “Cap’n! Best get up here!” she fairly shouted into the receiver, her worried eyes never leaving the large Alliance troop carrier that was now berthing several levels above them. “I think we got a problem!” Loan shot River a wry look. “So much for shore leave.”
“What the hell’s going on up here?” Mal demanded as he came bounding up the steps to the cockpit a few minutes later.
He’d been down in the cargo bay in the middle of an argument with Jayne about whether or not they needed to stock up on grenades when Loan’s urgent distress call had boomed out over the speakers of the ship. Mal looked from one resolute face to the other, his brow rising in question. He gave Loan a quick scowl as if sensing that she, of course, was the problem at hand.
Loan nodded out the viewport. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say this place was having a purple belly convention.”
Mal caught site of the fed ship and his jaw tightened in anger. Ever since Miranda, the Alliance had been slowly and evasively making its overbearing presence known among the rim worlds they had chosen to ignore not so very long ago. It was as if the government, having been caught with its pants down, was now making sure that if they had to follow their own rules and regulations, then so did everyone else.
Zoe appeared behind Mal as he stood pondering options. She checked her captain’s frowning visage and then followed his gaze out to the docking ports.
Before Mal could answer, Jayne’s more abrasive tone interrupted. “What’s the big hold up, Mal?” the merc complained as he stuck his head through the hatchway, eyeing the now crowded bridge with suspicion. “I got coin burning a hole in my pocket, a gut what ain’t seen beer in weeks and a bunch of ladies I need to give some lovin’ to.”
“Well, you may have to hold off on those grand plans for the time being, Jayne,” Mal testily replied. “Seems we got unexpected and unwanted company sharing our shore leave.”
Jayne shouldered his way past Zoe to stand by Mal, thereby forcing River to slip into the vacant co-pilot’s chair in order not to be crushed by the big merc. Jayne groaned when he caught site of what everyone else had already seen. A childish pout formed on his unshaven face as his shoulders slumped in disappointment.
“Gorramit! Why they gotta be here now?” Jayne grumbled.
“They can’t see us, but we can see them,” River stated and everyone turned from the view port to stare at the girl. “Hide and seek is easy when you play in a barn.”
Zoe leaned conspiratorially toward the captain. “I thought Simon said she was getting better.”
“No,” Mal waved Zoe’s comment off and nodded, a gleam coming into his deep blue eyes. “No, Zoe, she’s right.” He turned to face his second in command a slow smile spreading over his lips. “Barn’s a big place. Lots of levels with nooks and crannies a plenty. We keep straight to our business here and chances are good our paths won’t even cross with those soldier boys.”
“We go low and they go high?” Zoe said, her brows rising.
Mal clapped a hand on the woman’s shoulder giving a curt nod. “Sounds like a plan.”
“So...does that mean our shore leave ain’t cancelled?” Jayne cautiously threw out.
“Not cancelled, just shortened,” Mal replied.
“Like, how short?” Jayne asked rubbing his sweaty hands on his pants in eager anticipation.
“We pick up our cargo from our contact, get any supplies we need and then we scoot out of the henhouse before the farmer catches wind of us.” Mal glanced up with anger at the troop ship. “I know I promised some time off for us here, but that’ll have to wait for another time. Ain’t lookin’ to get our faces back up on wanted posters quite so soon again.”
Satisfied that trouble had been averted, Mal began shooing everyone out of the cockpit. “Let’s go, people – we got us a job to do.”
The crew of Serenity stood in a loose half circle around their captain in the cargo bay while he divvied out assignments. Inara had already left to see to some guild business which left Kaylee, Zoe, Simon, Jayne, River and Loan standing listening to Mal’s orders.
“Doc, I want you to go with Kaylee and see about restocking our food stores,” Mal ordered.
Kaylee smiled happily and grabbed Simon’s hand. “Goodie! We get to shop together!”
Simon blushed, still new to his and Kaylee’s blossoming relationship. He gave the young woman’s hand a squeeze of reassurance, enjoying the fact that he now had someone other than his sister to share his love with. Mal cleared his throat to get the lovebirds’ attention.
“How’s the infirmary doing for supplies?” Mal questioned the doctor.
“I could use some more pressure bandages and we’re running low on sterile wipes,” Simon replied.
“Get what you need,” Mal said and then turned to Jayne who was busily stuffing bullets into the cartridge of one his guns. Mal shot the merc a stony glare of disapproval. “Jayne. No guns.”
“Whaddyou mean no guns?” Jayne scowled unhappily at Mal, stopping in mid load of a bullet. “Hell, Mal, we got the Feds crawlin’ all over –“
“Which is exactly why we ain’t takin’ any firepower in with us,” Mal snapped. He gave Jayne a cautionary look as if daring the merc to argue. “We go traipsing through Dao Rhen loaded for bear and we might as well be carrying a great big sign that says ‘arrest us now – we’re here to make trouble’!”
Mal’s stern countenance traveled around the semi-circle, landing on each one of his crew for a brief moment before moving on. “We do our job and we get out. That means we keep our heads low to the ground and our backsides out of the fire.”
Mal addressed his new pilot next. “Loan, see about getting the ship refueled,” Mal said and then added in a warning tone, “And no thieving here.”
Loan chuckled. “I thought the whole point of us bein’ here was to pick up some contraband cargo?”
Jayne smiled at that, but Mal wasn’t amused.
“You know what I mean, tao shen (naughty child),” Mal growled as he fixed her with his eyes singling her out of the group. “We need to slip through this station quiet as mice, so you can’t risk calling attention to yourself here. That means you keep your itchy fingers to yourself, dong le ma?”
Loan huffed, her blue eyes widening in offense. “What makes you think I was plannin’ on doing any pick pocketing?” she sullenly countered.
“How many worlds we been on now since you invited yourself on board my ship?” Mal asked her.
Loan didn’t miss the sarcastic reference to how she’d first arrived on Serenity. She shot Mal a nasty look in return and shrugged. “I don’t know...lots. Why?”
“Out of all them ‘lots’, Loan, you recall even one of them where you didn’t try to swipe something?” he stonily challenged.
Loan opened her mouth to offer the captain a smart retort, then just as quickly shut it as a crimson blush spread over her cheeks. She suddenly found the floor a more interesting focus for her attention.
“Figured as much,” Mal muttered. He left the girl to her embarrassment and addressed the group. “We all got our tasks. Let’s get ‘em done quickly and then get the hell outta here. I’ll be feeling much more inclined to relax and stay a spell somewhere else where there ain’t an entire platoon of Alliance soldiers having a camp out!”
With that, the crew of the firefly ship split up and went their respective ways on the skyplex.
Getting the ship refueled hadn’t taken much time at all, and so it was that Loan found herself with about an hour to kill before the rest of the crew returned. She let out another deep sigh switching her weight to her other leg for a change of pace. Exciting stuff, waiting. Loan leaned back against the bulkhead to the docking entrance of the skyplex. Her eyes roamed lazily over the bustle of activity in the marketplace a few yards away from where she stood. It was pretty easy to pick out the rich urbane shoppers who were usually easy marks from the more middle and lower class populace. Her fingers twitched unconsciously against the side of her pants.
“All those wallets ripe for the takin’,” she mumbled and then sighed once more, cursing the soldiers that had fatefully decided to take R&R on the skyplex at the exact same time she was here.
River had surprisingly elected to stay on board Serenity while everyone else was off working. She padded down the cargo bay ramp now, barefoot as usual, and slowly made her way over to her younger friend, her dark head swiveling to and fro taking in all the external data around her and processing it almost as fast as a super computer. Loan jumped upon turning and finding River suddenly standing right up next to her.
“You gotta quit doing that, River,” Loan gently chided. “It’s downright spooky the way you creep up on folks.”
Loan scooted over to give the other girl space against the wall to lean and nodded toward the colorful booths full of trinkets across from them. “Look at that,” Loan said and waved a hand towards the marketplace in disgust, watching the shoppers. “You ever see so many easy marks in one place afore?” She snorted and pushed away from the wall to wander a little closer to the crowd, pulled by the hypnotic lure of easy money.
She spoke over her shoulder to River. “I bet I could fill my pockets to overflow in less than fifteen minutes here...” She licked her lips and inched a few feet closer to one of the nearer market stalls, running a practiced eye over the gentlemen hovering about it. “Look, see? Right there!” Loan whispered conspiratorially to herself as she targeted one lavishly dressed fellow bent over the counter scrutinizing several glass jars full of pricey imported tobacco. “A rich sagwa (fool) with his poke of money hanging halfway outta his jacket!”
Without fully realizing what she was doing, Loan drew up alongside but slightly behind the unsuspecting man and leaned in as if to inspect the wares in the booth herself. No one paid the waif of a girl any mind, and in a blink, the gentleman’s wallet traveled from his coat pocket to Loan’s with a grace that had been honed by years of experience. Loan was already back leaning up against the wall next to River as her victim ambled off down the concourse totally oblivious to the fact that his pocket was now quite a bit lighter than before. The teen grinned, digging the fat wallet out of her jacket pocket to waggle at River.
“See what I mean? Easy-peasy!” Loan chuckled, pleased with herself. The grin riding her lips quickly fell away when River held up an expensive looking man’s watch attached to a fancy gold chain.
“Very easy,” River commented and smiled warmly at Loan.
“Hey there, where’d you get that?” Loan asked, then choked as River started to point towards the general vicinity of the marketplace.
Loan snagged the other girl’s hand and yanked it back down, her eyes widening in growing horror. “Oh no...no, no, no...” she spluttered as she spun the both of them to face the wall out of sight of any passersby. She stared at the watch and then at River, a look of mild alarm on her face.
“How?” Loan gasped, “How did you-“
“Monkey see, monkey do,” River laughed, playfully slapping Loan’s arm. “Misdirection and inattention are the keys to this sport. Rather simple, really, but I don’t fully comprehend the scoring or the object of the game yet.”
“Well I wouldn’t - I wouldn’t call it a game exactly,” Loan stuttered still trying to wrap her brain around what had just happened. She grabbed the watch from River’s hand and quickly stuffed it, along with the wallet, into her jacket. “Um, not really any score keeping to say of either, although I believe the main object here is to not get caught and have our hides tossed in the pokey.”
River digested this bit of information and nodded, her tone that of a serious student. “Best three out of five, then ” she replied and sauntered off into the crowd of shoppers leaving Loan to pick her jaw up off the metal floor of the skyplex.
Loan had tried very hard for the past several days to put the memory of what had happened back on Dao Rhen out of her head, but the overflowing box of money and trinkets that was now residing underneath the bed of her bunk made it difficult. River had proved to be a quick study in the art of shop lifting and pick pocketing much to Loan’s chagrin. The two of them had managed to amass close to a thousand credits as well as a small fortune in jewelry before realizing the insanity of what they were doing. Well, Loan thought in retrospect, she had considered it insanity. River had just gotten tired of the game and asked if she could forfeit the match. Good thing too, because Kaylee and Simon arrived back at the ship not too long after that.
The stolen goods had been hastily stashed underneath Loan’s bed out of sight of rest of the crew, and Loan has spent the better part of a harrowing evening trying to convince River why it wouldn’t be a good idea to share their little ‘game’ with everyone. Especially, since the captain had expressly ordered Loan to not do what she had effectively gone and done anyway. The orphaned teen didn’t really see what the big deal was. They hadn’t been seen and it wasn’t as if the extra money wouldn’t be appreciated. Still, Mal Reynolds wasn’t the type of boss one argued such points with. Loan remained silent about the escapade and fervently prayed that River would do the same.
Standing now in the noisy engine room of Serenity, Loan anxiously chewed on her lower lip and tried once again to push the panicky feelings of guilt out of her mind as she watched the ship’s mechanic Kaylee grunt and wrestle with a piece of grime-coated machinery. Kaylee was lying on the floor directly underneath the ship’s giant engine, coaxing a part out of one of the many compartment panels located on the belly of the engine’s core casing. They had been halfway to Silverhold when Serenity began to sputter harshly and lose power to her thrusters. Mal had been all manner of peeved to say the least as his ship slowed to a crawl, barely marking passage through the blackness of space. He had ordered Kaylee, along with Loan, back to the engine room to find and fix the problem.
“Yup. It’s the compression coil,” Kaylee muttered glumly as she scooted back out from under the ship’s engine.
“Ti wo de pigu (kick me in the butt)!” Loan swore softly. The young pilot bent down to crane her neck underneath the wires and cables spilling from the opening to stare with some disgust at the offending part. “Now what?”
Kaylee sighed, feeling somewhat responsible even though she knew there wasn’t anything more she could have done to keep the ancient piece of equipment working. She gave the coil a nudge with one oil-grimed finger.
Kaylee bit her lip, face scrunched in thought. “Well it ain’t fixable that’s for sure, and we don’t got a spare coil...Maybe I could rig the u-line directly into the compressor valve?”
“I knew this would happen!” Loan huffed angrily. “You told that pian zhi shagua (stubborn idiot) the coil wasn’t gonna hold and now look! The old grump – if he’d a just listened to you...”
“Well, I guess he’ll hafta listen now.” Kaylee muttered dejectedly as she reached back to undo the coupling on the coil.
Loan made a derisive face. “I can’t wait to tell him his ship’s broke.”
“My ship’s broke?” Mal’s voice startled the two girls.
“Capt’n!” Both girls echoed at once as they spied their boss standing at the hatchway, arms casually folded across his maroon work shirt.
“Uh, how long you been standing there?” Loan spluttered.
“Oh, right around you callin’ me a pian zhi sha gua.” Mal cocked an eyebrow at his pilot.
“Well now, that there was said with the utmost respect - sir,” Loan said her face flushing in embarrassment.
“Huh.” Mal didn’t seem convinced as he ambled into the engine room, casting a warning glare at Loan. “And the old grump part?” he challenged.
“Ancient Chinese term of affection?” Loan offered weakly and then cleared her throat, wishing she was somewhere else on the ship.
“Loan didn’t mean nothing by it, really,” Kaylee tried to assuage Mal’s irritation. “She’s just tetchy ‘cause we got a bit of a jam what with the compression coil bein’ busted.”
“How busted, Kaylee?” Mal asked.
Kaylee handed him the corroded piece in question. “Real busted, cap’n. It’s been running hot for awhile now and I guess it just got to be too much. See there? Where the end is all jagged and burnt off?” She shook her head sadly. “Poor thing just gave out and died.”
Mal thought a moment turning the engine piece over in his hand. “We got enough fuel to do a hard burn?” he asked.
Loan nodded. “Yeah, plenty. I filled up the reserves for us back on Dao Rhen.”
Kaylee shook her head. “Can’t do a hard burn without a working compression coil, cap’n. Serenity’d shake herself apart if we try.” She gave the engine a gentle pat as if trying to reassure it that she wouldn’t let that happen.
Mal set the broken part down on the engine cowling and turned to Loan. “What’s the nearest piece a rock to us?”
“We’re about seventeen hours out from Boros,” Loan answered back.
Mal shook his head, a look of disgust on his face. “Boros ain’t an option. It’s crawling with Alliance.”
Loan shrugged. “We don’t got another choice, cap’n. Boros is the closest planet within a week of us.”
Mal growled under his breath, cursing his continued poor luck. “Then Boros it is,” he grudgingly muttered. He jerked a thumb at the hatchway. “Loan, you go lay us in a course that’ll get us there the quickest.” He glared down at the broken compression coil. “I can’t say as I’m liking this plan one bit.”
What had turned out to be a minor inconvenience had only gotten worse for Mal and the crew of Serenity in the past few hours. Loan had been hastily working with River to plot a speedy trajectory for Boros when Mal had stomped onto the bridge all bristles and fangs. The two girls looked up from the navigation charts they’d been poring over and cringed slightly at the palpable waves of anger coming off their captain.
“You can forget about that new course,” Mal said, his voice matching his dark mood. He reached between the girls and angrily snatched up the chart they’d been using, sloppily rolling it up as he explained further. “Ain’t no sense in wasting time stopping anywhere to buy parts with coin we don’t have.”
“What?” Loan looked at the captain in puzzlement.
“We spent most of what we had on supplies back on Dao Rhen,” Mal declared heavily. He’d finished rolling up the chart and stood a moment, his fist clenching the middle of the tube until it bent slightly. “Wasn’t planning on needing to lay out any more coin ‘til we reached Silverhold and got paid for the job. So, now we got nothing left for broken engine parts.”
“We have enough,” River suddenly piped up from beside Loan.
Loan blanched, shooting River a terrified glance. She quickly corrected her friend, afraid their guilty secret was about to be spilled. “No we don’t, River! Didn’t ya hear the captain?”
She shook her head making a face and then mugged at Mal as if to say that River was suffering one of her less than lucid moments.
“We have money,” River insisted, ignoring Loan’s fingers pinching her thigh in warning. “And you can have it all.”
Mal smiled wearily and gave River’s head a pat. “That’s real nice of you, li’l albatross, but I somehow doubt you’ve got the amount of money we’re needin’ at the moment. I checked with everyone else and even if we pooled our resources, we’d be lucky to afford a tin of stale crackers much less a brand new compression coil.”
“Well that’s a piece of bad luck for sure,” Loan nervously added as she wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead.
“Nothing to be done but make our way as best we can to Silverhold so we can drop this shipment and get paid,” Mal pronounced with finality. “Looks like this job is going to be a bit of a wash for us. Money we get’s gonna be going for that new part.”
He turned and headed off the bridge and for his bunk wanting some privacy in which to stew in his foul mood. Loan exhaled a shaky breath, watching him disappear out the door. She gave River’s arm a stinging smack.
“Are you trying to bring about my early death?”
River rolled her eyes at Loan’s melodramatic statement.
“Kaylee needs compression coil model # G121 – BX which costs 634 credits retail on most of the peripheral planets,” River calmly explained to her friend. “We collected exactly 819 in Alliance credits, 300 in platinum and 590 credits worth of personal adornments during our skills competition.” The teen paused. “Of course that’s only an estimation of the value of the jewelry based on current black market rates.” River looked down at Loan and gave a small shrug. “Your death, early or otherwise, is irrelevant to the equation.”
“Well, I love you too!” Loan snapped, her nostrils flaring at the unintended insult. She jabbed an angry finger into River’s chest, her eyes blazing. “Maybe my death ain’t so all powerful relevant in the greater scheme of things, miss know-it-all, but it sure as hell is of the utmost importance to me!” Her voice dropped to a harsh whisper. “Now you just forget about handing over our spoils to the captain, ‘cause I plan to be suckin’ air for many more years out here in the black! What kind of ruttin’ friend are you anyway? My death don’t matter?”
“It wasn’t my intention to distress you,” River quietly replied as she gave Loan a sad frown “I would miss you very much if you were deceased.”
Loan gave River a brief smile. “Well, thank you, River. And I promise we’ll tell everybody all about our...competition winnings...once the ship’s running full speed and the captain’s in a better mood.”
“Wouldn’t having the money to fix the ship cheer him up?” River posed.
A burst of nervous laughter spilled from Loan’s lips. “No. I don’t think news of our pilfering on Dao Rhen Station would make the cap,n too happy, River. In fact, him finding out we stole all that loot would lead right back to that early death thing I was talking about, especially since I involved you in the caper.”
“I’ve been involved in capers before,” River solemnly said referring back to Mal bringing her along on the payroll heist back on Lilac. “It’s what we do.” She quoted Mal’s favorite line to refer to what the crew of Serenity did for a living.
Loan let out a frustrated sigh. “Yeah, I know it’s what we do. And it ain’t the thievery part of this whole predicament that’d have Mal wantin’ to string me up.” She tried to think how best to explain to her friend. “Look, just play along with this for a little while more, okay? I need time to figure how I’m gonna present the facts to the captain in a…more positive light. Think you can you can keep it hush-hush a bit longer?”
River nodded reluctantly, sensing the crushing anxiety and panic Loan was feeling.
Standing, Loan gave River a grudging nod of gratitude. “I appreciate you going along with this. And I’m sorry I pinched you earlier.”
“Pain is relative,” River casually observed.
Loan winced inwardly, realizing the magnitude of the statement considering who it came from. “I s’pose you’re right,” she softly agreed. “But it ain’t my place to add to yours.”
Feeling as if she were the worst person in the history of mankind at the moment, Loan slowly plodded off the bridge of the ship, her thoughts a roiling soup of remorse, anxiety and guilt.
Twelve days later, the crew made it to Silverhold and now sat within the orbital range of the silvery blue class M planet. Loan had spent most of the trip ensconced in her bunk unable to face the others, knowing she could have solved all their problems with one simple altruistic sacrifice. A sacrifice she hadn’t been willing to make. Loan had spent her entire life living by one simple rule: nobody took care of you save your own self. It was a life where you took what you could, watched your own back, and where sharing often meant going without later, so you learned to jealously guard any gains from friend and foe alike. That advice had worked well for her…until now.
Since she’d joined the crew, Loan had slowly begun to realize that the people here were different. There were disagreements, rivalries and egos amongst the eight of them, sure enough, but there was also a good measure of respect, love and a sense of family that gave the crew a tangible strength no one could deny. The more she thought about that, the more it ate at her that she hadn’t spoken up about the box of money. It got to the point that Loan couldn’t sleep; she lay wide-eyed and guilt-ridden on top of her bed the evening they landed on the planet.
“I can’t do this no more,” the girl whispered and slid off her bed and out of her quarters to try find some absolution before it was too late.
Loan found Malcolm Reynolds hunkered down in front of the secret hidey-hole in the cargo bay of Serenity. So intent was the captain on his job of counting the containers of contraband that he didn’t even notice his young pilot until she reached out and tapped him on the back of his shoulder.
“Bwah!” Eyes wide, Mal whipped around almost losing his balance in the process to face a very sheepish Loan.
She’d never seen the captain caught off guard like that and it was a bit unsettling. Mal truly felt the same way as he tried to recover. He steadied himself with one hand on the side of the wall and pretended as if nothing were out of sorts even though his heart was still galloping at a faster than normal rate.
“Sorry,” Loan muttered.
Mal gave her a half-smile, whether of encouragement or embarrassment, Loan wasn’t sure.
“What are you doin’ up, mei-mei?”
Loan shrugged trying to sound nonchalant. “I dunno. I can’t sleep, I guess.”
“Uh huh.” Mal mumbled distractedly as he returned his attention back to the stash. He spoke over his shoulder to Loan. “Best you find a way to get some shut eye. We have us a long day ahead tomorrow and I want everyone rested.”
Mal blinked and turned around, his voice conveying his annoyance at being interrupted a second time. “You still here?”
He was obviously not in the mood for talking, but Loan pressed on before her courage failed her. “I need to tell ya something and...well...you ain’t gonna like it...”
“That ain’t the way I like to start a conversation with you, Loan.” Mal said.
“Ain’t the way I’d prefer it either, but I can’t stand it no more, Cap’n. It’s eatin’ me up inside,” she replied.
Mal sighed, took one last wistful look at the cargo and then stood up, brushing the dust from his pants. “This oughtta be good,” he muttered to himself.
He took a seat on a nearby crate of surplus blankets they’d been trying to get rid of for the past several months. Apparently nobody was much interested in shocking pink souvenir throws with a picture of Miss Capital City on them. He gazed expectantly at Loan, hoping this would be something quick and easy so he could get back to work. Loan shoved a battered shoebox at him.
“What’s this?” Mal took the box frowning, then opened the cover and stared hard at its contents, his mouth falling open in wonder. “Shen sheng de gao (holy testicle)...”
The box was nearly full of hard currency, Alliance credits, jewelry and various other valuable trinkets. A smile spread over the captain’s face as he continued to gaze with avarice at the newfound take.
“Hell, there must be a small fortune in-” Mal stopped; the smile on his face quickly replaced by a scowl. His eyes suddenly flicked back to Loan’s, narrowing in accusation. “Correct me if I’m wrong, Loan, but I seem to recollect you swearing up and down you turned in all you had when we were taking up the collection last week for the compression coil. What? You just suddenly remember you had an extra box full of cashy-money laying about?”
“No, sir,” she replied quietly.
“Well, what then?” Mal asked, a touch of impatience creeping into his voice.
“I...I guess I lied.”
Mal raised an eyebrow at her. “You guess you lied?”
Loan winced at his tone. “All right, I did lie! I lied and it’s been gnawing at me ever since! But...well, I was afraid.”
“Of what?” Mal asked incredulous. “Donating more than anyone else??” He stared at her, trying hard to comprehend. “We been limping along for over a week without a ruttin’ compression coil when this,” Mal pointed to the swag for emphasis, “This would have easily given us enough to buy a new one – hell, we coulda even got us a spare!” he added in irritation. “So, you tell me –what possessed you to keep this little treasure all to yourself?”
Loan sounded miserable. “I know. Poor Kaylee’s been goin’ crazy trying to keep us afloat –”
“Poor Kaylee?!” Mal was incensed. “That all you got to say? Because I’m thinking you best have a gorramn good reason for lying to me or –“
“I knew you’d be mad at how I got all that, so I sorta didn’t mention I had it.” Loan quickly blurted out.
Mal made a face. “I know how you got, it, Loan. I ain’t exactly blind to your five finger discounts.”
“No sir,” she said, “But...well...I guess I did something I wasn’t s’posed to and -”
“You’re doin’ an awful lot of guessing, ni tao shen (you naughty child), and I’m about losing my patience with it!” Mal growled in warning.
Loan was in utter misery at this point not that Mal noticed or cared. She bit her lip, keeping her eyes on the floor, the wall, anywhere but on Mal. It didn’t help though. She could feel his eyes boring directly into her heart.
When she finally answered him, it was in a small defeated voice. “I got the stuff on Dao Rhen Station.”
“Dao Rhen?” Mal paused, a thunderous frown forming on his face. “Didn’t I tell you there was to be no thievin’ taking place on Dao Rhen Station? Didn’t I specifically tell you to keep your little mitts out of folk’s pockets while we were on Dao Rhen?”
“Yes, sir,” Loan mumbled to the floor.
Mal looked more closely down into the box again, calculating a moment. His eyes rose slowly from the box to fix on Loan. His mouth formed into a grim line of fury. “That ain’t the whole story, is it?”
“W-what?” Loan asked in a tiny scared voice.
Mal shook the box looking at her skeptically. “Now I know you’re good, Loan, but you ain’t that good. So, you wanna explain exactly how you managed to pick so many pockets in only an hour that you could almost fill this box? Just what part of your deceitful little tale are you leavin’ out here, and more important, why?”
Loan paled visibly. Mal felt the knot of anger tightening in his stomach as he waited for the girl to answer him.
“I sorta had help,” she squeaked.
“What kinda help?” Mal asked tightly.
Loan let out a ragged breath and forced herself to come clean. “River thought it was a game...and I didn’t see no harm...I mean...but then, I figured I better say something to you afore she did...cause-”
Mal held up a hand cutting her off abruptly and Loan swallowed heavily. The captain’s breathing had become loud and his face darkened as he used all his effort to control his rage.
“Let me see if I got this right.” He said between clenched teeth. “You took a known fugitive, who ain’t in her rightful mind to begin with, and taught her some shiny new skills that she didn’t need to be learning, and then asked her to help you go commit crimes all over Dao Rhen Station after I ordered you not to? Then, you lied about all of it and asked River to do the same while you kept back this box of ill-gotten gain when we could have used it – all because you were afraid of getting yourself into trouble you were already wading hip-dip in? And then, ho, then, you decide to come clean and confess your sins to me, not out of the goodness of your pure little heart, but because you figure your partner in crime might accidentally spill the beans?!”
“Sounds worse when you say it out loud like that,” Loan muttered dipping her head in shame.
Mal was thunderstruck. “Suo yuo di yuo de biaozi de ma! (mother of all whores in hell!) You do not have a single working brain cell in your head, you know that?!”
Loan hung her head even lower, her voice barely a whisper. “There ain’t nothin’ you can say, cap’n, that’s gonna make me feel lower than I already do.”
“Oh, don’t you be too sure on that!” Mal snorted.
She looked up at him, her tear-filled eyes pleading. “If I could go back and do the right thing, I would. Honest.”
“Honest?” Mal’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “What the gorramn hell would you know about honesty? You can’t seem to tell the truth even when you know it’ll help out your own crewmates. So, don’t you talk to me about honest!” Mal held up the box of valuables in front of Loan’s face. “You conjure this was worth losing my trust for? This ain’t never gonna defend you with its life or promise to keep you safe or love you like you was family…” He angrily threw the shoebox down at Loan’s feet, watches and coins tumbling onto the floor around her.
Loan stared down at the jumble, tears beginning to spill from her eyes. “Please, don’t.”
Mal glared at her without sympathy. “Don’t what, Loan? Don’t be angry? Don’t be disappointed? Don’t be wondering if I can ever trust you again?”
A sob escaped the girl. “Please...I can’t stand the way you’re lookin’ at me now. I’m sorry. I am so sorry!” She cried, “I don’t know why I didn’t listen. I just...I...I wish I could take it all back...make it right...”
Mal snorted. “You regret your mistakes? Is that it?”
She nodded unhappily.
“Well, I ain’t a shepherd, Loan,” Mal angrily shot back. “I can’t wash all your sins away for you. Living with the consequences of your deeds is something you best get used to. And you’ll be doing that somewhere other than my ship.”
Mal turned and strode away in disgust, leaving the girl standing in the vast lonely space of the cargo bay with nothing but her guilt to keep her company. Loan’s breath hitched once as realization sunk in, then hitched again, more drawn out this time. She slowly sank to her knees on the cold metal floor, feeling gut punched and empty. The torrent of tears followed soon after raking a path down her dirty face. Her broken sobs bled into the silence of the ship.
It wasn’t the angry words that she minded so much as the look of hatred the captain had tossed at her as he said them. Captain Reynolds had looked like he wanted Loan dead. Like he wished she’d never come aboard Serenity. That she’d never even been born. That one hurt. A lot. Because it was the same seething glower of loathing her own father had displayed towards Loan every time he’d looked at her. Like it was her fault he wasn’t happy with the world and the way of things- her fault that his wife lay dead and buried these past fifteen years. Her fault her father couldn’t find it in his heart to give her a proper upbringing.
Loan had spent her short childhood on Persephone enduring her father’s unforgiving disregard of her until he had found a way to be rid of her and the memories for good. He had loved his wife so much and his daughter so little that Barrett Grimes had sold his only child into indentured service at the ripe old age of ten. Not wanting to be under the thumb of another total stranger who had no interest in her, Loan had packed what little she owned in an old knapsack and had fled to the docks of Eavesdown where she had spent the past four years among the pilots, mechanics and dock workers subsisting on what she could beg, steal or earn doing odd jobs and running errands for the local crime lords.
Her life changed abruptly though when she’d run into a bit of trouble with the local law enforcement and had been forced to make a hasty departure from the area or risk being sent to a work camp for youth offenders. Not an option as far as Loan was concerned. She had instead snuck aboard the first transport vessel on the docks that she could find, and that had turned out to be Serenity. Captain Reynolds and his crew had taken her presence in stride, and in very short time, Loan had found herself a home. But now, Loan had once again become the target of someone’s hatred. Was it just meant to be, she wondered. Was her lot in life to always be alone and unloved? The girl took a shuddered breath and tried very hard to stop bawling but it was no use.
Loan jumped a little when she felt a hand touch her back but didn’t turn to see who was there until the same said hand gently grasped her shoulder and rolled her over and helped her to sit up. Loan slowly raised her red-rimmed eyes to spy the beautiful companion, Inara, looking back at her. Inara’s face was knotted in alarm. The woman had been on her way from her shuttle to the galley to make some tea when she’d heard the young pilot’s broken sobs coming from the floor below.
“Mei-mei, what is it? What’s wrong?” Inara asked with concern.
Seeing Inara all worried just made Loan feel even worse. Like she had let the woman down. Like she had let everyone on the ship down. Loan opened her mouth to say something but all that came out was a watery sob and then the girl was leaning into Inara as the companion held her and gently rocked to and fro, her soft arms and quiet voice comforting Loan like nothing she’d ever known.
“Oh sweetie, it’s okay,” Inara whispered into the teen’s ear as she bent Loan’s head to her chest. “Hush, xiǎo huā (little flower), hush. Everything is okay.”
It took a few more moments for Loan to get hold of herself enough to turn off the waterworks. Inara remained patient, rubbing the girl’s back and stroking her hair trying to help. She couldn’t imagine what had happened to get Loan this upset. Something glittery near Loan’s leg caught Inara’s eye and she frowned. She bent down for a closer look and was surprised to see several gold coins scattered around and underneath Loan’s legs. She then spied the battered cardboard box lying on its side a few feet away with more treasure spilling from it. Confused, Inara searched Loan’s tear stained face looking for an answer but found none.
“How about we get you up off this cold floor, hmm?” Inara stated as she carefully guided the child to a standing position. “Loan? Sweetie? Why don’t we go back to my shuttle and I’ll make us some tea, okay?”
Loan didn’t say anything but nodded assent, a string of snot dripping from her nose. Inara used the hem of her shawl to dab at the girl’s wet nose and reached up to brush the hair from Loan’s eyes as she slowly guided the teen over to the stairway and up the steps towards her shuttle on the upper level of the ship. The girl remained eerily silent save for an occasional hiccup or ragged breath of air.
Once inside the privacy and comfort of her own shuttle, Inara quickly filled a small basin with water from a ceramic pitcher she kept on her dresser. She grabbed up a soft cloth and padded back over to where Loan had settled on the pillowed sofa. Loan glanced up at Inara with a tiny smile of gratitude and then lapsed back into the frozen stare she’d been wearing.
“Let’s get you cleaned up,” Inara smiled nervously letting her companion training take over.
She placed the bowl of water on Loan’s lap forcing the girl to grab onto it so it wouldn’t spill. It also forced Loan to focus somewhat on her surroundings again bringing her out of her self inflicted state of withdrawal. With one hand, Inara raised the girl’s chin up to examine her grimy tear streaked face and with the other, the woman dipped the cloth into the bowl and then squeezed gently ringing it out. She began to softly swipe the damp cloth across Loan’s face, scrubbing a little in spots where the dirt seemed to be particularly heavy. Loan remained silent through these ministrations but followed Inara’s movements with her eyes.
“There,” Inara offered Loan a genuine smile, “Now I can see those blue eyes of yours.”
Inara took the bowl from Loan and set it and the cloth onto the large plush ottoman that sat in front of the sofa. She turned toward Loan once again and surprised the girl by gathering her up and pulling her close to nestle safely against Inara back to chest. The companion rested her chin on Loan’s shoulder for a moment before speaking again.
“Now, why don’t you tell me what has got you so upset, mei-mei.” Inara said her voice soft and coaxing.
Loan let go with a huge sigh, swallowing hard trying to collect her thoughts. She turned her head slightly to meet Inara’s waiting look. “I messed up,” she mumbled and then looked down at her hands in her lap. “I messed up real big.”
“I’m sure it’s not as –“
“No, it is...” Loan gave a harsh laugh and shot the older woman a rueful smile over her shoulder. “Cap’n is gonna throw me off the ship!”
Inara said nothing and Loan continued in a small sad voice. “I did something I shouldn’t have and then I lied about it and now he hates me.”
Ignoring the last part, Inara addressed the main issue. “What did you do?” she quietly asked Loan.
“You remember when we was on Dao Rhen?”
Inara nodded. Loan thought back to the incident wincing now at her what her foolishness had brought her.
“Captain told me not to do any thievin’ there. Ordered me not to on account of all the feds hanging about.” Loan moved from the safety of Inara’s hug, turning to sit up and face her crewmate now. The teen look tired and defeated. “I was bored waiting for you all to return to the ship and...you know...I started scoping for marks...just for fun and...” her voice trailed off.
“You decided to pick some pockets.” Inara finished Loan’s sentence giving her a minor look of disapproval. “Is that what was in the box?”
Loan nodded unhappily as she let her eyes fall back to her lap. “That ain’t the worst of it,” Loan said as she bit her lip, a single tear slipping down one cheek. “River joined me ‘cause...you know...we’re friends and all and I figured it’d be okay since we were gonna stay near the ship. But well...” Loan squirmed, her throat tightening. “She thought it was a game of sorts I was playin’ at and before I knew what was happening, River started doin’ it too!”
“Oh, Loan,” Inara groaned and reached out to put a hand on the girl’s knee in sympathy.
“Oh, it gets worse,” Loan wryly quipped risking a glance up to see Inara waiting. “She was good at it. I mean, really good; I couldn’t a taught her no better, ‘Nara. So, here I am watching River and thinking what harm is it? We lighten a few wallets and who’s the worse? Maybe we get enough cashy money to buy us some pretties, you know?”
Inara nodded and let Loan continue her story.
“So, we just about filled up that shoebox when I spy Kaylee and Simon comin’ back through the crowds, so I grabbed River and we hauled it back to the ship before they did. I told River she couldn’t tell anyone what we did which, let me just say, was a bit of work all on its own.” Loan hmmphed at that. “Then, I took the box of shiny and hid it under my bunk. I figured I’d bring some of it out now and again so’s nobody would be the wiser, but then the ruttin’ compression coil busted and well, you know about that part.”
“Why didn’t you just hand over the box to Mal then?” Inara questioned.
The girl sighed. “Lookin’ back at it now, I know I should have, but it didn’t seem so much in my best interests at the time. So, I just kept my trap shut and let it go.”
Inara shook her head, her dark curls bouncing about her shoulders. “Loan, you should never hide things like that, especially from the captain. Mal may come off gruff and unreasonable at times...well most of time,” Inara quickly amended then smiled softly, “But he truly does have our best interests at heart.”
“I know,” Loan muttered. “And that’s why it was eatin’ at me this whole time, ‘Nara. Just gnawing away at my gut these past few days like a dog worryin’ a bone.” She picked up a small round tasseled pillow from beside her on the couch and flipped it over and over in her hands as she spoke. “I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I went down to the cargo bay to tell the capt’n tonight...and well...he didn’t take it so good.”
Loan gave a small laugh that turned into a sob and Inara reached out to stroke the teen’s head in an effort to calm the storm before it broke again.
“Mei-mei, listen to me,” Inara’s voice held a stern note to it forcing Loan’s puffy eyes up to fix on the companion. “Mal may be angry with you, and he may have said some things, but you have to trust me that this will all blow over.”
Loan adamantly shook her head, ignoring the pleading look Inara gave her. “No. No, he ain’t ever gonna forgive me for this.” She set the pillow she’d been holding onto her lap and ran a shaking hand through her hair, panic setting in now. “Don’t you see? He don’t trust me no more and he’s got no reason to now. He thinks I’m a lowlife selfish bu fen de ma fan (piece of trouble), and he’s right!”
“No,” Inara argued but Loan cut her off, becoming more agitated.
“He’s right and my daddy was right too!” Loan began to cry again. “I ain’t nothing but sorrow for all who come my way. I ain’t no good and that’s why nobody wants me!”
Inara’s heart shattered into a million slivers at the last statement. Tears spilling from her own eyes, she scooted up next to Loan and once again scooped the despondent girl up in a loving embrace, this time planting tiny kisses on top of the teen’s head. Loan slowly began to relate her wretched childhood to Inara as they sat together, woman and child clutching one another. Loan’s wracking sobs shook them both and Inara let her cry because the child needed to get it out. Needed to release all the pent up hurt and then banish it forever.
“Oh bao-bei, no, no. You’re wanted very much.” Inara crooned to the girl. “We all love you, Loan, even if you don’t think so right now. Fang xin (don’t worry), mei-mei. I’ll talk to Mal. I’m sure he didn’t mean it. You’ll see. Everything is going to be all right.”
“I can’t never make up for this,” Loan sniffled into Inara’s silk clad shoulder holding tight to the companion as if she were gripping the side of a precipice. Inara carefully stood pulling Loan up with her and led the girl over to her bed.
“Loan, I want you to lie down and rest a bit. You need to calm down or you’ll make yourself sick. Dong ma?”
Loan nodded and crawled onto the lavishly made up bed as Inara grabbed up one of the soft plush throws from the foot of her bed. She unfolded it and spread it over Loan’s prone form as the girl lay shivering more from emotions than from cold.
“Rest, xiaou mei-mei,” Inara said. “I’ll be right here beside you. You’re safe. Rest now.”
Inara took a seat on the edge of the bed, her hand resting on Loan’s arm watching as the teen’s eyelids grew heavy and then finally shut. Loan’s breathing slowed and deepened, the heavy furrows of worry on her brow finally relaxing but not disappearing altogether. When Inara was sure that the girl was soundly asleep, she slowly rose from the edge of the bed and headed for the door to the shuttle. She took one last look at her worn out guest, and then, her jaw set in determination, went to find the captain so that she could give him a piece of her mind.
Malcolm Reynolds jerked awake at the sensation of cold water splashing into his face. His eyes snapped open, hand automatically reaching for where his holster would normally be as a string of Chinese invectives exploded from his mouth.
“Zheng qi de gou shi dui (steaming crap pile)! What the -” Mal lost his train of thought when he saw Inara standing over him, an empty tin mug clutched in one slender hand. “Inara?” Mal’s voice was still thick with sleep and he wondered a moment if he was dreaming. He sat up in the chair he’d fallen asleep in and glanced about his quarters in confusion a moment. He frowned up at the woman. “What’re you doin’...here?”
Inara set the mug down forcefully on the desk in front of Mal, making him jump at the noise. He blinked a few times reaching up to swipe at the water beading off his chin as she fixed an icy stare on him.
“I miss something?” Mal questioned, still not sure this wasn’t some tweaked hallucination he was having from all the recent stress.
“Ni doh ge zhen de hun dan (you are a real bastard)!” she spat out at him, her dark eyes slicing through Mal like razorblades. “How could you?”
“I conjure you got a disagreement with me?” Mal dryly shot back as he glanced over to the empty mug on his desk and then down at his soaked shirtfront. “Or mayhap you thought my shirt needed laundering.”
“She’s a little girl, Mal!” Inara angrily chided as she brought up her other hand now holding Loan’s shoebox of shame and tossed it onto the desk in front of Mal.
It landed with a jangle of coins knocking the mug and some star charts off the counter top and onto the floor. Mal stared hard at the box, his face taking on a stony glare of its own.
“No,” he shook his head and shoved away from the desk standing up to face Inara. “No. We are not discussing this!”
Mal turned to leave and then realized with some chagrin that he was facing a bulkhead and had nowhere to make a grand exit to. Inara had him essentially trapped between her and the back ass end of his room. He casually did an about face trying hard to regain some composure only to lose it upon seeing the look of disdainful amusement on Inara’s face.
“You’re not walking out on this conversation, Mal,” Inara flatly stated as she folded her arms across her chest. “Not this time; because this isn’t about you and me. This is about a fourteen year old little girl you just crushed and left for dead.”
Mal’s jaw clenched in anger at her accusation. “You don’t want to go there,” he cautioned her.
“That’s right, I don’t!” Inara caustically replied. “But I have a grief ridden child in my shuttle at this very moment because of you! How can you be so insensitive, Mal?”
“She broke the rules, ‘Nara,” Mal angrily began but Inara interrupted him.
“She thinks you hate her.”
“That ain’t too far off the mark at the moment,” Mal gruffly muttered then relented when Inara shot him a death glare. “She lied to me,” he coldly stated as if that was explanation enough.
Lying was a cardinal sin to Mal - worse than thieving from your own, worse than stealing your best friend’s woman, and even worse than murder. Lying led to mistrust which led to all sorts of bad things amongst a crew, and he wasn’t about to have that on his boat; not now, not ever. Jayne had found that little lesson out the hard way and Loan was learning it now. He sighed, kicking himself for taking Loan at face value instead of being more careful. He especially didn’t like being duped by a wet behind the ears young’un he had been kind, some would say insane, enough to take in when she had nowhere and no one else to turn to.
“Yes, she lied to you,” Inara repeated softly and Mal’s eyes widened slightly in surprise at this admission. “She lied because she was scared. And because she’s young and because no one’s ever given her a reason not to until now.” Inara sighed in frustration casting a glance about the room trying to find the right words to explain. “How do you learn to trust when no one’s ever trusted you or believed in you? How do you follow rules when no one’s ever cared enough to set any for you?”
Mal’s brows furrowed in puzzlement. “I’m not tracking here.”
“Did Loan ever tell you about her father?” Inara asked.
Mal shrugged. “Not that I can recall. What does that have to do with the fact that she disobeyed orders and then lied to me about it?”
Inara thought a moment before replying. “Do you remember your father?” she quietly asked.
Mal was caught off guard. “What?”
“Do you remember your parents when you were a boy?” Inara asked. “Did they love you? Take care of you?”
“I don’t see what this has to do with-“
“Just answer the question, Mal,” Inara pressed.
This was a topic he was neither used to nor comfortable sharing with anyone. In fact, the last person he’d chosen to discuss his childhood with had ended up sucker punching him and trying to steal his ship. Mal grimaced at the memory of Saffron and quickly put her out of his mind. Inara was still waiting for an answer.
“My pa died when I was still a babe in a basket, but yes, I do recall my mother with great affection. So, how ‘bout you, Inara? You get to spend any quality time with the folks or were you shuttled away to your whore academy at a tender age?”
Inara refused to rise to his barb. “As a matter of fact, I still keep in touch with my parents and we have a wonderful relationship, thank you for asking.”
Mal leaned up against the desk behind him realizing Inara was most likely going to keep him prisoner for a while.
“The point of all this, Mal, is that we’ve both been lucky enough to have had parents that actually wanted us.” Inara said. She grabbed the back of the chair Mal had been sitting in earlier and pulled it towards her and then took a seat facing the captain. “Loan’s mother died giving birth to her, and her father,” Inara spat the last word out as if it were a disease, “blamed Loan for it. Did you know that?”
“No,” Mal said quietly.
Inara continued. “He refused to acknowledge her. He wouldn’t even allow her to use the family name. That’s why she just goes by Loan.” Inara’s eyes teared up. “That fei fei de pi yan (baboon’s ass crack) pretty much left her to raise herself until he sold her into indentured service.” Her voice cracked. “She’s never had anyone to teach her, to love her, to just acknowledge her.”
Mal stared at the floor for a good long time, his own throat tightening as he listened. He felt like the biggest fool in the galaxy. “I didn’t know,” was all he could choke out. He took a few deep breaths and then looked up into Inara’s eyes. “I s’pose I could have handled it better than I did, but I didn’t know.” He pushed himself away from the desk and began pacing his room in agitation. “That still don’t excuse her from what she done though. She ain’t in short britches anymore. She knew full well what she was doing.”
“Maybe she did,” Inara agreed. Mal stopped pacing and turned to face her as she continued. “The difference is that our parents provided loving guidance and taught us right from wrong so that we learned how to function in society. Loan has never had that guidance.”
“I can’t have that tao shen (naughty child) running ‘round my boat thinking she can do whatever the hell she pleases just because I’m supposed to feel sorry for her!” Mal’s voice was tinged with impatience. “That ain’t happening.”
Inara nodded. “I agree. But threatening to banish her from the ship – the only family she’s ever known – is not the right thing to do either and you know it.”
“So, just what would you suggest, ‘Nara?” Mal wearily asked.
“Loan needs guidance, Mal, not hatred or dismissal. You can show her that you disapprove of what she did without making her feel like she’s unworthy of our love.”
Mal said nothing. It was late, and he was tired and Inara’s speechifying was only dulling his wits even further.
“Punish her for disobeying and lying to you,” Inara offered as way of clarification.
“She’s a child, Mal,” Inara gave him a pointed look as if he were just the slightest bit dense. “You need to discipline her as you would a child – with strictness tempered with love. Growing up, if you had pulled a stunt like that, what would your mother have done?”
Mal chuckled, a sly grin playing over his tired face. “Hell, she’d a thrashed me good,” he wryly observed.
“Then do it,” Inara said.
Mal frowned. “Do what?”
“Give Loan a spanking.”
Mal straightened up, wide awake now, a look of alarm crossing his features. “Whoa now, yi qi shen hu xi (let’s take a deep breath).” He started to back up his hands held out in front of him. “I don’t know the first thing about-“
“Mal, it’s not rocket science,” Inara snapped her patience slipping.
“You’re off your nut!” Mal sputtered in obvious consternation. Things were whizzing by a little too fast for his taste. “I ain’t her pa. I can’t just –“
“You’re her captain. For all intents and purposes, the only father figure she’s ever had.”
Mal shook his head still not willing to jump on board. “Seems to me you’re the one that should be heading up this strategy,” he argued. “All the mothering you’ve been providing her. Why don’t you do it?”
“Because I’m not the one that lost faith in her, Mal,” Inara bluntly replied and Mal winced. Inara went on. “She needs reassurance from you. To know that you still care about her.”
“You think I don’t?” Mal hissed and shot a glare at Inara.
Inara stood up and went over to the captain noticing his stiffened posture. She reached out and gently placed a hand on Mal’s arm trying to diffuse the situation before she lost him completely.
“What I do or don’t think isn’t relevant,” Inara whispered as she gazed into his eyes. “It’s what Loan thinks that matters. And right now, she believes that you’ve given up on her.”
Mal stared at Inara not saying a word for what seemed an eternity and then his gaze fell away and his shoulders slumped ever so slightly.
“I ain’t giving up on her,” he muttered under his breath.
“I know,” Inara said. A smile grazed her lips.
Mal’s eyes flicked back up to the woman in front of him, a slight scowl on his handsome face. “Just how is it you always manage to lead me safely down the hill with a burlap sack over my head?”
Inara’s smile widened. “Well, I am a trained companion, you know.”
Mal gave her a little bow to acknowledge the fact that he’d walked right into that one. He rubbed his jaw and sighed. “You say she’s in your shuttle?”
Inara nodded. “She was asleep on the bed when I left her.”
“Least she won’t be a movin’ target,” Mal remarked and then flinched when Inara smacked his arm. “What? I was kidding!”
Inara rolled her eyes wondering how the man standing before her had ever managed to lead a squadron into battle when he didn’t seem to have the practical sense of a cocker spaniel at times.
“Disciplining requires a measure of tact, of empathy…”
“Which is why you should be doing this instead of me,” Mal interrupted.
Inara’s eyes narrowed. “We’ve already been over that,” she stated. “Just be firm but loving. Explain to her why she’s being punished-“
“Oh, I think she already has that figured out.”
Inara ignored him. “And make sure you let her know that you forgive her and that you’re punishing her because you care, not because you’re angry or you hate her.”
Mal’s brows rose. “You ‘bout done with the lecture, perfessor?”
Inara nodded and looked around at Mal’s less than clean room with mild distaste. “I’ll wait here while you go…talk to Loan.”
Mal shot her a dubious look and grabbed her arm dragging the woman after him towards the ladder to his bunk.
“You’ll be waitin’ topside in the galley,” Mal announced as he gave Inara a gentle shove up the ladder. “Last thing this crew needs is more fodder for the gossip mill.”
He stood a moment at the bottom of the ladder taking a bit of naughty pleasure watching Inara’s long bare legs ascending up through the hatchway and then with a private sigh, he climbed up after her.
Loan was awake and sitting on Inara’s bed, her legs drawn up under her chin when Mal strode into the shuttle unannounced. Her heart almost screeched to a dead stop when he slowly stalked over his mouth set in a grim line of determination. This is it, the girl thought. He’s come to tell me to pack my belongings and get the hell off his boat. But instead of the expected dismissal, Mal just stood, wordless, contemplating her for a long pregnant moment. Loan grew uncomfortable under his inspection and decided to end the wait herself.
“I’ll just get my stuff and be off then,” she mumbled eyes downcast. She made to get off the bed, but Mal stopped her with a hand to her shoulder.
“I don’t recall giving you permission to leave my ship,” he remarked his tone conveying an air of authority. “Fact, you best forget about going anywhere ‘til the two of us have a little chat about your insubordination.”
Mal took a seat on the edge of the bed next to Loan and pointed to a spot in front of him. “Front and center, young lady!”
Loan looked from Mal to where his finger was pointing. She slowly slid off the bed and with a nervous frown she positioned herself to stand directly in front of the captain. Mal let her stew a minute before continuing.
“I may have been a mite harsh with you earlier - least that’s what I’ve been told,” he dryly commented recalling Inara’s earlier observation. He grew serious. “I forget sometimes that you’re just a bit of a thing and ain’t used to me and my ways.”
Loan remained silent, not sure what to say. She hadn’t expected the captain to apologize for his earlier tirade.
“But young’un or no, Loan, there are rules on my ship for a reason and I count on them being obeyed.” Mal held her gaze a moment. “Did you or did you not disobey my order to stay out of trouble on Dao Rhen?” he sternly asked the girl.
Loan licked her lips, eyes on the floor. She nodded once. “Yessir.”
“What?” She looked up, a puzzled look on her young face.
Mal leaned forward and spoke slowly. “Why didn’t you follow orders?”
Loan frowned and bit her lip thinking a moment on how to answer that. “I don’t know...” she finally responded, offering Mal a small shrug. “It didn’t seem like no big deal, really, I guess. I mean, what was the harm?”
“The harm?” Mal echoed his tone now growing dark to match the anger in his eyes. “Did you even weigh the risk you were taking what with all those Feds about? Or didn’t it matter to you that you might’a gotten bound over to the law, and the rest of us along with you two?” His mouth formed into a hard line as he eyed the teen with a calculated look. “What do you think those government boys would have done to the doctor and his sister?”
Loan drew in a sharp breath at the thought. Mal could see the wheels now turning in her mind at this unexpected consideration. He pressed home the point with deadly accuracy.
“The Alliance ain’t a forgiving soul, Loan. You think you’re ready to handle their deaths on your head?”
“Ren ci de fozu (merciful buddha)…” Loan whispered and shivered.
But, Mal wasn’t finished. “And if that weren’t bad enough, you then tried to cover your tracks and force River into going along with your deceit. Didn’t you?”
Loan nodded slowly, her voice now a weak whisper. “Yes.”
“Even when you knew River – your friend - wasn’t cozy with that plan? Even after you knew how I felt about lying?”
Loan had nothing to say to that. The enormity of her blunder overwhelmed her momentarily and she hung her head, too ashamed to face the captain’s disappointed expression.
“Is it getting a bit more clear to you now why I gave that order?” Mal snapped. “We stick together and we live – you start making decisions based on just your own welfare and you’re gonna find it mighty lonely out in the black. I give you an order, Loan, it’s for a good reason, not just ‘cause I like to hear myself talk!” The captain gave a heavy sigh realizing it was time to stop talking and start punishing. “All right.” Mal gave a curt nod. “You want to pay for your misbehavin’? Prove to me that you’re still worthy enough to fly with this crew?”
Loan looked up at the captain, her pale eyes searching his, unsure of where exactly all this was leading. She let out a ragged breath, stood up a little taller and nodded firmly.
“Good,” Mal said. “Then, hand me your belt and take down them britches of yours.”
Loan froze. “Shuh muh (what)?”
“Your belt. Hand. It. Over.”
“Whatcha need my –“ Mal’s firey glower shut her up. “Right,” she mumbled, “Followin’ orders...”
With shaking hands, Loan slowly unbuckled her belt, Mal’s eyes never leaving her. Tears pooling in the corners of her eyes, Loan quietly handed her belt to the captain who doubled it over in his hand.
“I thought we had a sense of respect between us, Loan, but what you done was selfish not to mention downright childish,” Mal lectured. “You act like a naughty child on my ship? You get punished like one. So, you’re gonna drop your britches and get your little pigu (butt) over my knee and prepare for a whupping the likes you’ve never seen.” He paused, eyeing Loan’s trembling form. “You ever been thrashed before?”
“No, sir,” Loan squeaked out, her voice cracking in mounting dread.
“Well that’s about to change,” Mal announced and motioned for her to undo her pants. “You’re about to find out the hard way what happens to mischievous young’uns on my ship.”
Without hesitation, because she knew there was no other option at this juncture, Loan slowly unbuttoned her pants. Mal clamped a hand onto one of Loan’s arms and firmly guided her over his lap, then reached down to her waistband to tug her slacks down over her shaking legs. Loan’s face reddened at the feeling of cold air wafting over her panty-clad bottom. Although she was scared witless of what the captain was about to do, she knew deep down that she deserved every lick she was about to get and that somehow this would help make things right again.
Part of Mal felt real bad for what he was about to do – he wasn’t used to beating someone who wasn’t trying to beat back on him. But a larger part of him felt downright justified, even eager, to teach a lesson to Loan that might well save her life some day.
Mal addressed the girl in his sternest captain’s voice. “I can’t repair your immortal soul, little Loan, but as your captain, I sure as hell can and will learn you right from wrong and maybe ease some of that guilt you got sittin’ so heavy on top of your head right now.”
With that, Mal raised Loan’s belt in his right hand and brought it down with a loud crack across the center of the teen’s upturned bottom. Loan hissed and almost swallowed her tongue at the sudden searing line of pain it created. That had really HURT! She heard and then felt the strip of leather come down again, this time across her upper thighs and Loan yelped out loud and instinctively tried to move away. Mal pressed the girl back down with one hand to the small of her back and held her there as he continued to apply the belt with what Loan thought was a rather heavy hand to her now blazing rear.
“Best hold still, nian qing de (young one),” Mal warned her, a hint of irritation in his voice. “This ain’t exactly pleasant for me either.”
Loan would have laughed at that if it weren’t for the fact that she felt like she was being flayed alive at the moment. She kicked and squirmed trying to get away from the punishing spanks of her own belt, the irony of that not lost on her either despite her rising discomfort. Mal snugged Loan up tight to his torso, his arm continuing to rise and fall in a measured cadence that quickly darkened the teen’s bottom to a rosy pink hue.
“Any man worth his salt in the verse would’a put his shipmates’ needs first before worrying about his own hide,” the captain lectured the teen as he brought the belt down a little harder than before.
“OW! Okay!” Loan howled unable to hold back her cries of pain any longer. “I’m SORRY!”
“Sorry ain’t good enough, Loan. I need to know that you’re going to start taking my orders seriously.”
“I WILL!” she managed in between sobs, the tears now falling hard. “I SWEAR!”
Mal increased the strength of the swats and Loan bawled even harder. He spoke once again. “This is for lying to me instead of coming clean about what you did.” The belt smacked her sit spot over and over, the sharp sting of it making the girl wail. “No more lying to me, Loan! I won’t stand for it. We can’t be truthsome, then we can’t be trusted.”
Loan was crying too hard to do anything but nod vigorously. She lay across the captain’s lap her body gone limp with exhaustion and resignation. Mal applied a few more swats to the girl’s aching behind for good measure and then stopped. He laid the belt on the bed behind him and put a hand on Loan’s back.
“That’s enough, now. It’s over and done with,” Mal softly ordered.
He carefully pulled Loan’s pants back up hearing the girl groan when he drew them up past her tender butt cheeks. Mal helped Loan stand up and she reached down to redo the buttons on her waistband, wincing in agony at her hot throbbing backside. She’d never experienced such pain as this, and was quite sure she never wanted to ever again! Mal rubbed the teen’s back, hating himself for what he’d had to do and hating Inara even more for being right once again.
“I won’t never lie to you again,” Loan tearfully apologized as she gingerly rubbed her sore bottom. “And I promise to follow orders from now on.” Her voice was hoarse from all the shouting and crying. “I’m so sorry, cap’n.”
“I know you are, mei-mei,” Mal comforted. “Hush now. I forgive you.”
“I said you’re forgiven. Slate’s clean between us. You got the rest of your life to pile up regrets…” Mal’s voice trailed off as he looked away a moment, a lump forming in his throat.
Loan surprised Mal by bending down and hugging him tightly. She sniffled noisily into his shirt, a shuddering sigh of relief passing through her. Mal patted her back softly for a few minutes and then pushed her to arm’s length in order to look into her reddened tearful eyes.
“I don’t know about you, but I am feeling a might wore out after all this.” Mal stood up and pulled a square of linen from his pants pocket and handed it to Loan. “Wipe your eyes and blow your nose there,” he gently ordered, “Then you best be gettin’ on to bed.”
She nodded blowing hard into the handkerchief. “Thank you,” Loan whispered.
“Oh, well, you were all snotty and whatnot – “
“No, not for the handkerchief, well, I mean, yeah, thanks for that too…but, what I meant was thanks for forgiving me and for…for you know…givin’ me a whupping.”
Mal gave her a look of genuine astonishment, his brows arching up. “You’re thanking me for…well now... that has to be a first! I don’t think I can ever recall anyone I laid a hand on before thanking me for it after.” He brushed her bangs off her forehead, squinting. “You sure you didn’t hit your head on something?”
Loan quirked a crooked smile at his attempted humor. She twisted the damp hankie in her hands as she spoke, her voice low and hesitant.
“My pa…never paid any mind to me one way or t’other…didn’t matter to him what was right or wrong, long as I didn’t bother him doing it. He was too busy tryin’ to earn money for another bottle of drink so he could forget…about me. But you – you care what I do.” Loan’s gaze traveled up to Mal’s face, a glint of hope shining from her eyes. “It matters to you. I ain’t never had anyone that I mattered to…and now that I do, well, it matters to me now too.”
“Don’t you ever think I don’t care about you, Loan,” Mal gently scolded her. “You’re part of this crew. And me being the captain means I’m responsible for you.” He motioned for Loan to follow him as he headed for the door to the shuttle. “I have a duty and a somewhat vested interest in watching out for the welfare of everyone on this boat, and I take that duty seriously. But, that also means that I expect a certain amount of respect and obedience in return.”
Loan nodded wiping at her nose. “So, I guess this means you ain’t kicking me off the ship?” she asked hopefully.
“Wasn’t planning on it.”
A corner of the captain’s mouth lifted in amusement. “Welcome. Now. I recall saying something about bed…”
Loan yawned and nodded. “I am a mite tired now that you mention it.”
Mal slung an arm around the teen’s shoulders. “You and me both, xiao mei-mei (little sister). You and me both.”
Mal hit the button to open the door to Inara’s shuttle and drew back in surprise when he caught site of River standing on the other side of the hatchway as the door slid open.
“I’m late,” River announced. “I was dreaming, so I missed the overture and the first movement.”
Mal frowned unsure of how to take that statement. He looked over at Loan for help but only received a shrug from the girl.
“Ain’t got a clue,” Loan said shaking her head, one hand still rubbing her tender backside.
“Listen, darlin’,” Mal addressed River with a forced smile, “It’s been a rather vexing evening for some of us, so if you don’t mind, how ‘bout we all –“
“You can’t end the progression without me,” River patiently explained to the captain. She took a step forward. “I’m part of the composition.”
“If you’re talking about what happened on Dao Rhen, little one, I already know all about it.” Mal shot Loan a calculated look. “Your partner in crime and I just had a nice little chat on that subject and I’m feeling pretty confident we got things squared away.”
River observed the blush of embarrassment on Loan’s face while the captain spoke and now fixed Mal with a frustrated gaze. “But you haven’t squared things with me,” she persevered, a note of despair now in her voice. “The deed still twists the shape of me, and it needs to be fixed.”
Mal blinked as her meaning finally dawned on him. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” His brows rose in disbelief.
“What’s she sayin’?” Loan asked, still clueless.
Mal looked from one child to the other in growing wonderment. He pointed at River. “I do believe River here is saying she thinks she oughta be punished for her part in all this mess.”
River smiled that he’d finally understood and nodded.
Loan’s eyes grew wide in horror and she shook her head vehemently. “Oh River, no! You do not want-“
“Hold on a second here,” Mal waved off Loan’s cautionary appeal as he studied the older of the two girls a moment. “Now my take on this is that you ain’t at fault.” He jerked a thumb at Loan. “Loan knew she was riding hell bent for trouble and you just happened to get dragged along for the trip.”
“I chose to play Loan’s game,” River calmly countered. “The rules were the same for all of us.”
Mal thought about that for a moment, a weary complacence settling over him. Might as well kill two birds with one stone, he figured. He fixed River with a hard look. “I guess I got no objections to you wanting to share in the punishment,” he gruffly replied.
“Capt’n, no!” Loan gulped, her head swiveling from him to her friend in panic. “River, run! I’ll throw myself –“
“Guan ni zi ji de shi, shuo, (mind your own business, child)” Mal warned. He pointed at River. “You. In there.” Mal indicated Inara’s shuttle behind him. River solemnly nodded then scooted past Loan to enter the shuttle. He turned to Loan. “You. Bed. Now.”
Mal left Loan standing in the breezeway outside with a look of incredulity on her face as the door slid shut.
“She really is crazy,” Loan muttered in terrified fascination. The girl turned and made for her bunk wincing every step or so from the stinging warmth of her still sore bottom.
This was turning out to be one long nightmarish evening, Mal observed as he returned back to his seat on Inara’s plush bed. He motioned for River.
“I’m gonna skip the formalities, here, and get right down to the fine print,” Mal declared as he reached up to take hold of River’s arm. “You understand I mean to spank you?”
“To spank: to strike with the flat of the hand as for punishment,” River politely recited.
“I guess you do,” Mal wryly quipped. He was still somewhat reluctant to proceed but understood River’s need for closure. “You say you know it was wrong to go along with Loan’s foolishness, but you conjure why?”
“Loan and I should have discussed the plan further before initiating it,” River said, her eyes lowering. “The odds were favorable for being apprehended.”
Mal nodded. “Seems the only thing you two young’uns do good together is get into a whole heap of trouble. So, you agree it was a bad idea to go traipsing around committing crimes with all those Alliance boys about?”
River nodded her head. “Simon could have been hurt.”
“Not just Simon,” Mal corrected her, “You would have been party to a whole world of hurt yourself.”
River appeared doubtful of this assertion.
“You may have taken out an entire bar of drunken thugs,” Mal acceded, “...and a horde of reavers...” He reluctantly added rubbing his chin, “But none of them realized what you were or what they were up against. The government, on the other hand, knows exactly how deadly you can be because they’re the huan dans (bastards) what made you that way.” Mal drew River closer to his side offering up a no-nonsense glare. “Cockiness ain’t an indulgence I’m willing to oblige in you, little one. It more often than not gets folks killed.”
He could see that the teen understood and so he continued, wanting to get this ordeal over with. “Now I’m pretty sure your brother’s gonna be none too pleased with me, but you readily admitted you did wrong. So I’m thinking it’s in your best interest to suffer the consequences of your poor judgment so that hopefully you won’t be making any more such mistakes down the road.”
Mal gently pulled River over his lap, positioning her so that her top half was supported by the bed while her bottom lay neatly raised over his left knee. He shook his head at the absurdity of actually having to dole out another thrashing to another one of his crew, but grudgingly acknowledged that the outcome had seemed to be quite successful earlier with Loan.
“I’ll be brave,” River’s muffled voice came from slightly behind him, and Mal gave her a sardonic grin, his eyes crinkling in amusement.
“We’ll see about that,” he shot back and then brought his hand down hard on River’s backside.
River jumped slightly at the sting but remained silent. The skirt of her dress absorbed some of the impact. Mal took that fact into consideration on his next smack and increased the strength of his swing a bit. He was rewarded with a gasp from the girl and so he continued to spank her with a firmer hand, making sure to pay attention to her entire backside.
Ten stinging swats into the spanking, River began to wonder whether or not she had made a crucial mistake in her assessment of the whole negative reinforcement theory and its usefulness in training. She began to hiss and gasp at every impact of Mal’s callused hand against her reddening bottom. Her parents had never taken a hand to either her or Simon and so, while River comprehended what a spanking entailed from a clinical standpoint, she’d never been privy to the painful experience first hand. The girl now squirmed as an uncomfortable sting began to spread across her rear end.
“The paradigm has been assimilated. I’m ready to stop now,” she announced with a wince of distress.
Mal chuckled. He stopped a moment, the corners of his mouth lifting in amusement. “Not sure what the first part of all that meant, darlin’” he said, his smirk getting wider. “But the licking don’t stop ‘til I say it does!” He resumed spanking River, taking a bit of delight in the bleat of surprise coming from his young crewmate.
“I won’t make the same error!” River loudly promised as she began to kick her feet trying to get away from Mal’s painful swats. “I understand. Your regulations supercede any and all others!”
Mal spanked the girl’s sit spot several times in succession making River squawk in indignant offense. “No more picking pockets,” he sternly ordered.
“No more!” River cried shaking her head vigorously, eager for the spanking to end.
“And no more following any of Loan’s le se (crappy) schemes!”
“Agreed!” River pleaded pitifully.
Mal stopped and let the girl go. River quickly scrambled off Mal’s lap taking a few cautionary steps away from him and out of reach. Her hands slid behind her to rub the sting out of her bottom as her lower lip jutted out into an angry pout.
“Spanking hurts!” she declared and gave Mal a nasty look.
“Anyone ever told you otherwise, they were lying,” Mal said trying hard not to laugh. “Gets the learnin’ across in a very direct way though don’t it?”
Before River could offer further comment, the door to the shuttle opened and Inara came whisking in a look of worry on her face.
“Mal, Loan just got finished telling me-“ She stopped upon spying River standing near the bed, the girl’s hands still covering her backside in misery. “You didn’t...” Inara’s eyes flicked over to Mal a look of uncertainty in them.
“I did,” Mal replied casually and stood up feeling rather satisfied with himself as he crossed his arms over his broad chest and nodded at River. “You wanna tell her what you just learned, li’l albatross?”
River straightened up as if preparing to give a poetry recitation and faced Inara. “No more pick-pocketing. The reward to risk ratio is negatively disproportionate. No more following Loan’s crappy schemes. Boredom does not necessitate productive creativity. And the captain of the ship has the final word. It’s not over until he says it’s over.”
Mal beamed. “You ever seen such a quick study?”
Inara’s mouth fell open. She stood speechless watching as the captain ushered a very penitent River to the door of the shuttle. Mal gave River a somber look as she headed out the hatchway.
“Get on to bed. And remember this little lesson because I got no interest in revisiting it any time soon, dong le ma?”
He watched her leave then called after her retreating form. “And tell your brother he can holler and carry on with me at breakfast. I ain’t ready to deal with any more problems on this boat ‘til I’ve had at least six or more hours of good hard sleep.”
Inara had managed to shut her mouth and compose herself while Mal turned and ambled back into her shuttle. “I think I’ve created a monster,” she muttered as she eyed him up and down in mild disbelief.
“What’sa matter, ‘Nara?” Mal asked, enjoying the fact that he had managed once again to confound the lovely companion. He hooked his thumbs into his suspenders adopting a cocky pose. “I thought you’d be all manner of pleased to see that I put your plan into action. You know, discipline, empathy and all that?”
“Oh, believe me, Mal,” Inara said as she came up to him, “I’m happy that things worked out for you, truly.” She studied him from the corner of her eye as a cat would a mouse. “I just didn’t realize you had such an aptitude and zest for being the big bad disciplinarian.” Her mouth twitched a little. “Jayne had better watch himself from now on!”
She couldn’t help but smirk as Mal’s ego deflated somewhat. He shot her a sour look his hands dropping to his sides. “Now there’s an image I really didn’t need to have moseyin’ through my head,” he sighed in disgust. He quickly changed the subject. “Loan okay?” he asked.
“She’s tired and a bit sore, of course,” Inara replied nodding as she went over to the couch and took a seat. She smiled. “Loan’s fine. And very relieved to know you care enough about her to give her a second chance. You did good, Mal.”
Mal smiled back, relaxing his usual guardedness with Inara. He ambled over to the companion and wearily plopped down beside her on the couch. With a casual nonchalance, Mal stretched one muscled arm out to lay across the top of the sofa where it would also by happenstance be across Inara’s shoulders as well. He cast a sidelong glance at the woman beside him remaining silent studying her with an appreciative smile. Inara’s heart fluttered a little as Mal scooted a bit closer to her so that their hips were barely touching.
Mal turned a bit now so that he faced toward Inara, his eyes holding hers in a steady gaze. He leaned in close to the woman until Inara could feel the heat of him. Mal kept his deep blue eyes locked on hers in a long drawn out stare that brought an unexpected blush to the companion’s high cheekbones. Inara could sense the electricity sparking between them as she licked her suddenly dry lips, her heart now pounding.
“So…tell me something, Inara,” Mal murmured with a hint of suggestion in his voice.
“What, Mal?” Inara asked in a breathless whisper.
Mal smiled, a wicked glint entering into his eyes. “You think River and Loan will let me borrow some of that filthy lucre of theirs to get a new compression coil?”