OF SHIPS AND SHOES AND ELEPHANTS
WEDNESDAY - 10:17 PM BEAUMONDE TIME...
Loan scampered up the ramp of the firefly class ship known as Serenity, her mind desperately fixated on trying to come up with a plan, excuse...anything to keep her from getting into hot water for this one. She’d only let the girl out of her sight for a second, a paltry itty bitty second. Where the gorramn hell could River be??
ONE DAY EARLIER…
Mal had gotten word from Badger, one of his many shady contacts, that there was an easy job with a big payoff on Beaumonde that Mal and the crew could pick up if they were interested. Apparently, a local ‘entrepreneur’ named Denning owned most of the banks in the smaller towns on the planet. It had recently come to Badger’s attention that Denning kept a data stick containing all the security codes and download passwords for his banks in a wall safe in his office in Hedeby. All Mal had to do was get the stick from Denning’s safe and deliver it to Badger on Persephone. Simple enough, Mal thought.
WEDNESDAY – 1:17PM BEAUMONDE TIME…
Serenity had landed on the far side of Beaumonde outside the town of Hedeby where Jayne had taken the mule to pick up some much needed supplies and get the ‘lay of the land’ as he called it. The gruff merc had returned to the ship a few hours later quite excited to announce that a carnival was going on in the town and that there was a small zoo with a real live elephant you could ride on if you were willing to pay the ten credits charge for the privilege.
“Jayne,” Mal interrupted the other man’s enthusiastic rant by raising a hand, “What about the safe? Didja manage to find out about the safe?”
“Sure, Mal,” Jayne sounded somewhat hurt, “But don’tcha wanna hear ‘bout the dancing girls and the carnival rides? I love that one that spins ya about and –”
“The safe,” Mal tried again to change the subject back to the more important matter at hand.
“Yeah, right, okay, the safe.” Jayne sounded less enthused but answered his boss’s question. “Got to talkin’ with a feller what runs one of the local bars in town. His sister-in-law’s friendly with Denning, if ya know what I mean.”
Jayne smirked and raised an eyebrow, but no one else seemed amused so he continued. “So’s anyway, she told this here bartender that Denning has a little key he keeps attached to his watch chain that’s s’posed to be the one and only key to his wall safe. He even bragged about it to her sayin’ he don’t even worry lockin’ the door to the office half the time since no one would be able to get into the safe without the key and he don’t never take it off himself.”
“Can’t we just pick the lock or blow the safe?” Zoe questioned looking up from her cup of coffee.
“I’m gettin’ to that,” Jayne growled shooting the woman an impatient look. He turned back to the captain. “Seems Denning has some sort of booby-trap mechanism set up and if you mess with the lock or anything without that key, it goes off.”
Mal raised his brows. “Goes off? You mean, like an alarm?”
“More like a big explosion to hear the bartender talkin’.” Jayne shook his head. “This ain’t sounding as easy as Badger explained it, Mal. I ain’t up fer gettin’ pieces of me blowed off.”
“I hate to admit it, but I’m with Jayne,” Simon piped up. “I like life just the way it is – with all our original parts intact.”
“I can get the key.”
Loan’s cocksure voice carried from where she stood along with River leaning up against the far counter adjacent to one of the galley’s hatches. Everyone turned from the kitchen table to observe the teenager as she pushed herself off the edge of the counter and sauntered over to the group. She gave a little half shrug.
“There ain’t a pocket in the ‘verse what I can’t pick.”
“Ain’t that easy, l’il britches.” Jayne countered. “Denning’s got two goons he keeps around for protection. They ain’t gonna let you get anywhere near him.”
“I ain’t too worried about the hired help. We can take care of them easy enough.” Mal thought aloud, the wheels now turning in his head to form a plan. He glanced over to Loan fixing her with a steady stare. “What I need to know from you, mei-mei, is if you really think you can get that key.”
Loan snorted at his lack of faith in her abilities, her voice now touched with a bit of annoyance. “I already said I could. You just get rid of his shadows for me, and I’ll take care of the key.”
“I’m sorry,” Simon suddenly spoke up from his seat next to Kaylee, “but doesn’t anyone here think that endangering the life of a child might possibly be wrong?”
“Oh, Simon,” Kaylee patted his arm in reassurance, “Capt’n wouldn’t never let Loan do it if he thought she might get hurt.”
“’Sides,” Jayne cut in, “She’s the one what offered to help. Mal ain’t forcing her-“
“Oh, and I suppose that makes it okay then,” Simon shot back in agitation giving Jayne a look of disgust. They all knew where he stood on the issue of involving River in any of the captain’s petty heists.
Mal’s voice rose over the argument, “Ain’t nobody’s decision but mine to make, Doc. Loan’s a member of my crew and I wouldn’t have her doing this unless I was sure she could pull it off safe.”
“Which I can.” Loan attested when Mal gave her a look that begged for reassurance of his words. “Really.” she added when Simon still seemed unconvinced.
Zoe and Inara exchanged unsure glances, but Mal had made up his mind already. River who had been silently lurking around the edges of the ivy-painted room while the adults were discussing things, now spoke up, her voice oddly detached.
“Shouldn’t have fed the monkey,” she whispered sadly as she wrapped her arms protectively around herself.
Everyone gave the girl a puzzled look, but River didn’t feel the need to elaborate further. Instead, she backed up against the far wall of the kitchen still clutching herself and began to slowly slide down its surface as if her legs had given way. River reached the floor and sat down, her lacy skirt puddling about her thin legs. She drew her knees up to her chest, her eyes shadowed with something akin to fear.
Simon rose from the kitchen table, his face a mask of troubled alarm and quickly made his way over to his sister, kneeling down to check on her as the girl mumbled something incoherent. Shaking off River’s cryptic comment as nothing more than an over-medication issue, Mal went back to coming up with a plan to get the data stick from the wall safe once Loan had the key.
WEDNESDAY - 4:23 PM BEAUMONDE TIME ....
All had gone according to plan. Mal, Zoe and Jayne had managed to sidetrack Denning’s ape-like bodyguards long enough for Loan to snatch the key from the man. It hadn’t been that hard really what with all the noise and distractions provided by the carnival set up along the dusty main street of the town. Barkers in pinstriped suits and town folk dressed in their finest, buzzed around the maze of food and game booths like a swarm of lively bees.
Loan gazed longingly at the sparkly cotton candy and multi-colored ice cream cones in one booth, but Mal shook his head.
“We ain’t got time for that,” he told her as he steered her away from the enticement. “We got a job to do.”
“Can’t we just take an hour – just one teeny tiny hour, cap’n – to have some fun?” the girl wheedled. “We been working hard as draft horses the past two months and I can’t even remember the last time I had me some ice cream....pleeeease?”
Being in good spirits and somewhat amused at his young pilot’s eye fluttering plea, Mal was on the verge of giving in for once. He knew only too well how long it had been since he and the crew had been able to take a decent shore leave and just relax and let their hair down a little. Just as he was about to tell Loan to go ahead and run back to get her treat, he spotted a fluttering sign tacked to one of the nearby trees lining the side of the street nearest them. The captain’s blood turned suddenly cold as he stared at the familiar face on the leaflet.
Simon Tam’s smiling mug looked back at Mal from the faded wanted poster. The captain casually made his way over to the piece of paper forgetting about Loan and the others for a moment. The sign was basically an old warrant for the wayward doctor and his sister, but what set the hairs on the back of Mal’s neck quivering was the fact that such a poster was still being passed around at all after their little run in with the operative back on Miranda. Mal had been cautiously optimistic that once the secret about the pax experiment had been broadwaved out to the entire ‘verse, the alliance would be too busy trying to assuage the masses that they’d just forget about River and Simon all together or at the very least, no longer see them as potential liabilities. Apparently not, Mal realized with a growing sense of defeat. Just shiny.
“Problem, sir?” Zoe questioned from directly behind Mal, making him jump.
He nodded at the sign. “Looks like we might need to be a little more invisible than planned on,” he sighed. “Let’s get back to the ship, Zoe. All of a sudden, I got a bad feeling about all this.”
WEDNESDAY – 10:19 PM BEAUMONDE TIME...
Loan glanced nervously about before entering the cargo bay to make sure no one had seen her. It wouldn’t do to get caught walking back onto the ship when she wasn’t supposed to have left it in the first place!
The captain had been pretty clear on that after spotting the wanted poster in town. He had ordered everyone, but especially River and Simon, to stay on board the ship to be on the safe side. There were just too many Alliance friendly locals in the town, Mal had cautioned the crew - too much of a chance that someone might take a notion to fatten their wallets with the bounty being offered on Simon and River.
WEDNESDAY – 8:57PM BEAUMONDE TIME...
“How come we all gotta stay on board, Mal, when it’s just the two of them that are wanted?” Jayne complained. He shot Simon and River a nasty glare. “I wanted to ride the elephant.”
“And what about Inara?” Kaylee sounded worried, “She’s already on her way to New DunsMuir for a Guild meeting.”
“’Nara can take care of herself just fine,” Mal said as he stood in front of the weapons cage inside the cargo bay. “We’ll meet her in New DunsMuir soon as we’re finished up here. And you can ride an elephant some other time, Jayne.” Mal rolled his eyes at the lunacy of that image. “No one leaves this boat while Zoe and I go do our business.”
He handed an extra cartridge of bullets to his first mate who efficiently tucked them into her belt pouch. Mal shrugged into his worn brown duster and picked up a small hand grenade.
“Once we get that data stick and deliver it to Badger, we’ll have money enough to buy our own ruttin’ circus and you can eat cotton candy and watch dog and pony shows all the live long day.”
They had decided it was best to wait until nightfall before breaking into Denning’s office. The entire town would be out at the carnival’s stage show offering Mal and Zoe a chance to sneak in and out without notice. Kaylee gave Mal and Zoe a worried wave goodbye commanding them to be careful. Mal and Zoe headed down the cargo bay ramp and into the dusky evening towards the flickering lights of Hedeby. Kaylee hit the button to raise the ramp and then headed for the engine room. There was always enough tinkering to be done in there to keep her more than busy during the next few hours. Loan should have gone up to the bridge to re-check the nav stats in case they had to make a quick getaway. Instead, she stood near the closed bay doors pouting as did Jayne.
“Ain’t fair,” Jayne muttered as he pivoted and headed for the stairs and the privacy of his bunk to sulk. “Could’a had a capture made of me on that elephant...woulda been something to send home to my ma...”
Loan didn’t say anything. There was no point. River had padded up behind her friend and placed an amiable arm around Loan’s shoulders, whether done in comfort or just plain friendship, Loan didn’t know or care. She looked up at River and smiled wistfully.
“I woulda brought ya back a cone, ya know. Chocolate...or maybe strawberry.” Loan offered, her mouth watering at the images she conjured up. “Carnival food’s the best.”
“I’ve never been to a carnival,” River replied solemnly, and Loan blinked at her.
“Never? You mean never ever?”
River shook her head sadly. “No circus at the Academy. No ice cream. Just needles...and pain.”
Loan bit her lip in dismay. She knew her best friend had been through some pretty scary things, but it had never occurred to her that River hadn’t been able to experience the silly fun things most normal folks did. She had forgotten that the girl had been taken at a young age from her home and sent to that horrible place where they had messed with her brain. Loan had always just assumed that with all the money the Tams had, they would have certainly taken their children to the circus at least once.
“So, you ain’t never seen an elephant or rode on the whizzer cars or played shoot the hoop for a stuffed doll?”
River shook her head again and Loan stood a minute staring hard at the cargo bay door thinking, and then glanced up to the catwalk checking to see if anyone was about. She knew what she was planning was totally risky and ill advised, but one glance at River’s sad face decided it. Loan gave River a reassuring squeeze and disengaged from her friend to take one last look around.
“Know what?” She grinned at River who grinned right back in imitation. “You and me are gettin’ some ice cream and going on the whizzer cars. We’ll just be quick-like and be back afore Zoe and the captain - no one else’ll even miss us.”
Loan clapped River on the back a little too hard causing her to cough involuntarily. “It ain’t right you havin’ such a le se (crappy) time of it all your life. Let’s go have you some fun.”
“We’re going to ride a whizzer,” River happily exclaimed. Although she wasn’t quite sure what exactly a whizzer was, it sure sounded exciting the way Loan said it.
River followed the other girl to the small door set into the larger bay door, but pulled up short suddenly. Loan stopped and turned to see what was holding River up.
“No feeding the monkey,” River gravely stated.
Loan wasn’t sure what to make of that. “Um, okay…we won’t feed the monkey…that all?”
“Promise?” River demanded.
“Cross my heart, hope ta die,” Loan joked making a crossing motion over her breast with her finger.
“No, don’t die. That wouldn’t be fun.” River replied seriously. Loan grabbed the older girl’s hand with an exaggerated sigh and dragged her through the outer door hatch and into the night.
WEDNESDAY – 10:22PM BEAUMONDE TIME...
Loan and River had snuck out to go experience the sights and sounds of the Hedeby carnival, and now, Loan was returning - minus River - to the ship. Her legs shook at the thought of how the captain would react to this little glitch in his plan. Maybe she wouldn’t have to tell him, she convinced herself. Maybe he and Zoe wouldn’t be back before she found River and so he’d never have to know what happened. Maybe River was already back in her room on board the ship right this very second. Yeah sure, she thought, and maybe I’ll become the Queen of Londinium.
The bay proved to be empty. Loan kept to the shadows along the one side of the area anyway just in case and kept checking behind her dreading to hear the footsteps of the captain returning from the job. She had half hoped to somehow spot River in the huge cargo bay, but that would have been asking for a miracle at this point. Loan made it to the bottom metal step of the right hand stairway when she heard the doctor call out to her from the catwalk directly above. She froze one foot on the step not sure of what to do. She pretended not to hear him, but he called over to her again, more insistent. Simon started down the stairs towards her, and Loan figured it was too late to run without looking totally guilty. She hesitated on the metal stair, trying hard to act normal if that was even possible in her agitated state of mind.
“Hey,” He smiled at the girl. “Have you seen River? I know you two were playing down here earlier but I can’t seem to find her.”
“Uh...she’s probably just off hiding somewheres waiting for one of us to find her. You know how she likes to play at that.” Loan hastily rambled. She fidgeted uncomfortably as if a million ants were crawling up and down her skin.
Simon frowned slightly, observing her nervousness. “Everything all right here?”
“Sure,” Loan replied a little too loudly. She jumped at her own voice and then gave a short crazy little laugh before nodding once politely at Simon. “Gotta go. Business.” she blurted and just about flew up the stairs as Simon watched her in amused puzzlement.
Loan frantically searched the entire ship for her missing comrade not really believing she’d find River anywhere on board, but the act of searching made her feel less helpless and gave her a chance to form a plan of action, if one could call it that. Luckily, the Captain and Zoe hadn’t returned and most everyone else was busy with things and didn’t notice her somewhat erratic behavior. Giving up the search, she went to find the one person that might understand the situation and would offer to help rather than just kill her outright.
“Kaylee!” Loan yelled down the hall toward the engine room. Please be there, she silently prayed.
“In here,” a cheery female voice replied.
Loan ducked into the messy over-crowded engine room, checked to make sure no one else was there besides the mechanic and then smiled nervously while shifting from one foot to the other.
“Hey, Loan, whatcha up to?” Kaylee greeted her younger friend as she wiped grease off a rather dirty lug wrench she’d been working with.
“Yeah, great,” Loan replied not even hearing what the older girl had said. She looked at Kaylee and tried to speak in a normal voice that came out slightly jittery anyway. “I uh, kinda lost something...important...and I need ya to help me find it.”
“Well sure, sweetie,” Kaylee said. She dropped the now clean wrench into the battered steel toolbox on the floor in front of her and smiled up at Loan. “I’ll help ya. Whadja lose?”
Kaylee blinked. “Shu muh? (what)” she asked in disbelief.
Loan swallowed hard. “I lost River. Somewhere. Outside.”
“YOU LOST RIVER?!” Kaylee exploded in panic.
Loan blanched and quickly shoved her hands up over Kaylee’s mouth in scared annoyance. “Ta me da (shit on my head)!” She hissed at Kaylee. “Are you tryin’ to get me killed?”
Kaylee shook her head and Loan slowly removed her hands and then risked a quick peek out the engine room door to make sure no one had heard. She turned back to Kaylee who was standing there gaping at the girl in horror.
“You lost River?” Kaylee repeated and Loan cringed. It really sounded pretty horrible coming out of someone else’s mouth.
“I didn’t mean to!“
“But how? We weren’t s’posed to leave the ship, remember?” Kaylee’s voice was full of disbelief.
Loan sighed deeply, kicking herself for her lack judgment and her 20-20 hindsight in realizing it. She tried to explain. “One minute we was standing watching the little monkey dance, and the next –“
“Monkey?” Kaylee looked confused and Loan waved off the comment.
“That ain’t important. What’s important is River and me was at the carnival and one minute she was standing next to me and then she weren’t. And I swear to you, Kaylee, I looked all over that gorramn spit hole of a circus,” Loan lowered her voice conspiratorially, “I even checked the men’s room!”
“Oh,” Kaylee managed as she absently wiped her hands with the grease-stained rag she was holding. “Maybe we better call the captain and Zoe.” She suggested hesitantly.
“Are you off your nut?!” Loan choked, her eyes widening in horror. “The cap’n will have my hide if he finds out I left the ship much less misplaced River!”
She gave Kaylee a pleading look and reached out to take hold of one of the mechanic’s dirty sleeves. “Please, ya gotta help me, Kaylee! Afore anyone figures out what’s happened.” She gave the sleeve a little tug. “I’m too young to die!”
Kaylee sympathized with the girl’s plight. She reached over and gave Loan’s shoulder a gentle reassuring squeeze and offered up a weak smile. “It’s gonna be okay, Loan. We’ll…we’ll think of something.” She scrunched her face up in thought. “Let’s see. If I was River, where would I go?”
Loan snorted. “Considering this is a crazy genius we’re talking ‘bout, Kaylee, there could be an awful lot of places she could go.” She shook her head in dread. “Cap’n ain’t never gonna let me off this ship again. Well, that is, if he don’t shoot me.”
“He won’t shoot you,” Kaylee scolded, “I won’t let him. Now, you said you were watching a monkey before she disappeared?”
Loan nodded unhappily, silently cursing the mangy animal for even existing.
“Well, did River say or do anything while she was standing there? Anything at all?”
“River was going on ‘bout this n’ that as usual. She was talking about how Jayne wanted to ride the elephant. You know, how he was goin’ on and on about getting a capture made of him on the elephant to send home to his mother?”
“She said something like she wanted a capture made too, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I mean, she’s always repeating what folks say and all.”
“You think maybe River went for an elephant ride?”
Loan heaved another sigh. “I don’t know, Kaylee. I s’pose she might have, but I checked the elephant pen and didn’t see her there. Didn’t see the elephant either for that matter. Some zoo.” She said tiredly. Loan thought hard a moment, then closed her eyes and groaned.
“What?” Kaylee questioned.
For one so young, Loan wore a rather pained expression as she explained. “The elephant. He weren’t in his pen when I got there and the keeper wasn’t around neither. What if River took off on the elephant and the keeper reported her to the sheriff or somethin’?”
“We need to call the capt’n.” Kaylee said somberly and stopped Loan before she could protest. “Loan, this is way too big of a mess for you and me to handle alone. And the capt’n will have a plan. I just know he will. I know you’re scared, sweetie, but finding River is more important right now than you tryin’ to avoid a thrashing from the capt’n.”
Loan cringed at that comment. Kaylee was right. She nodded reluctantly as the mechanic went over to the com link on the wall and hit the button to open a channel. A desperate light came into Loan’s eyes and she turned suddenly and headed for the door of the engine room. Kaylee hit the button to stop the call and yelled after Loan.
“Where ya goin’?”
“Gimme half an hour afore you make that call.” Loan called over her shoulder, “I got me an idea.”
WEDNESDAY – 11:32PM BEAUMONDE TIME…
“What do you mean they’re not here?” Malcolm Reynolds demanded, his anger apparent.
Kaylee looked at the captain and winced. “I guess I sorta mean Loan and River ain’t on board the ship no more.”
Mal scowled at his mechanic, not amused to hear this news. It had been a pretty stressful past two hours what with breaking into Denning’s office. Now, he had to contend with this latest of setbacks. He reached up to hit the comlink shooting Kaylee a frustrated glare as if it was her fault for his troubles.
“Zoe? Need you and Jayne on the bridge. Now.” Mal turned from the console and shook his head. “Can’t things ever go smoothly?” he muttered.
Jayne was the first to reach the bridge, a bowl of steaming rice cupped in one hand and a large spoon in the other. He took a huge spoonful of the food while eyeing the two in front of him and then spoke around the mouthful.
“What’sa matter now?”
“Loan and River are missing.” Kaylee answered unhappily from behind Mal.
Zoe strode up the steps to the bridge and cocked an eyebrow at Kaylee. “Missing?”
Mal shot Kaylee a nasty glare before answering Zoe. “Kaylee here just told me Loan and River snuck out to go to the carnival earlier and River disappeared. Loan came back to the ship looking for her but then took off again saying something about the elephant ride.”
Jayne snorted as he set his bowl of food down on the console by Kaylee. “See? I ain’t the only one what was wantin’ to do that.”
Mal, Zoe and Kaylee looked at the merc as if he had suddenly sprouted another head.
“What?” Jayne asked his tone now defensive. “Hey, at least I weren’t dumb enough to run off and go do it. What the hell was l’il britches thinkin’ anyway?”
“Well, we can’t just leave them out there,” Kaylee said worriedly.
She looked around at her shipmates, concern growing in her eyes when no one spoke up. She sat up straighter in the pilot’s chair, giving Zoe and Mal a rather pointed if not accusatory stare.
“Please tell me we ain’t leaving them there, capt’n. There just little ‘uns!”
Mal closed his eyes and let his head drop. “Gorramn it!” He swore slapping the console in front of him in consternation. “That si sheng zi (illegitimate child) never listens!”
“Funny how she works that way, sir.” Zoe deadpanned.
Mal looked up at Zoe, his jaw tightening in determination. “Ain’t gonna be too funny when I get my hands on her.”
Jayne smirked at that, and then pulled his gun from the holster and began checking the rounds. “Looks like it’s rescuin’ time agin, ain’t it?” he quipped.
“Who are we rescuing?” Simon’s voice came from the hatchway and Mal gritted his teeth in frustration as the doctor joined the group on the bridge looking around expectantly.
“This just keeps gettin’ better and better.” Mal spat.
WEDNESDAY – 11:00 PM BEAUMONDE TIME…
Loan crouched unsteadily on the narrow beam of the overhang, hands braced up against the splintered wood of the ceiling. She surveyed the scene below her trying to press down the knot of fear rising in her belly. This was insane she told herself. What was supposed to be a simple plan to find and rescue River had somehow turned into a total nightmare instead.
How could she have possibly known that Denning and his crew owned the zoo and carnival? What were the odds of that? The one man they had come to this planet to steal from was the same man who now had River trussed up like a Christmas day turkey sitting on the fan-dancy over-stuffed leather sofa in his office. Stupid monkey, Loan angrily thought. If they hadn’t stopped to play with the ruttin’ hairball, River wouldn’t have been recognized by Denning’s men and gotten herself kidnapped.
“Look like anyone’s been here?” Denning asked his men.
The two hard cases he employed as bodyguards gazed about the small office a moment and shrugged.
“Don’t look like it.” Yancy rasped as he reached for a bottle on the shelf behind the desk.
Loan watched as the man grabbed the whiskey bottle and a glass from the upper shelf. She went cold as her eye spotted the telltale footprints in the dust of the shelf where she’d stepped earlier to climb up onto the rafter beam she was currently on. Hopefully, the angle was too high for anyone else to notice. She sure prayed it was.
“Hey, pour me one too,” Treager ordered his friend.
Yancy hooked another glass from the board and set them both down on the scarred desk. He yanked the cork out of the whiskey bottle with his teeth and began pouring the amber liquid into the glasses in front of him as Denning did a slow once around the room.
“It just doesn’t feel right,” he commented quietly. “Something’s up.”
Denning had come back early – way early. Loan had tracked River to Denning’s office using bribes and various implied threats. She’d been lucky enough to find River alone, but tied up in the room and had been in the process of freeing her friend when the three men had come barging up the stairs. Loan had barely had time to climb up onto her hidden perch. She knew she should just hang tight and wait for the captain and the others to come. But, then again, what if the others weren’t coming? What if Kaylee hadn’t told anyone yet that she and River were missing? Worse, what if she had and the captain figured they’d all be better off without the two young trouble-makers and they left them here?
She wobbled a little on the ledge and almost gasped aloud. Steadying herself again, she pushed that thought from her mind trying to think calming thoughts. Of course they’d come. Someone was bound to notice they were gone from the ship. Kaylee, at the very least, would make notice of it. And, what was it Zoe was always saying? Leave no man behind, right?
Of course, the three men standing below her in the makeshift office would most certainly have disagreed with that. They’d not only leave the man behind; they’d torture, rob and kill him first and not necessarily in that order. That malevolent image brought the fear right back up to the front for the teenager. She closed her eyes, wishing very hard for the cavalry to show up soon.
WEDNESDAY – 1:00AM BEAUMONDE TIME…
Serenity had never looked so good to the crew as they wearily trudged up the cargo walkway. No one spoke; they were too dazed and worn out. All the energy had been taken out of them by the gun battle they’d just left back in town. Zoe who was bleeding slightly from a bullet graze to her arm, shouldered a limping cursing Jayne, his leg shot to pieces once again. Mal briefly wondered why the bad guys always seemed to aim for the merc’s kneecaps as if that were some secret way to kill him.
River and Loan trudged dejectedly in front of Mal looking like a pair of convicts on their way to the hangman’s tree. The image was rather appropriate he decided considering that the crew’s present circumstances were a direct result of their foolhardiness. He’d given them quite an earful on the way back to the ship and wasn’t done yet at least with one of them. He eyed Loan angrily.
“Told you not to feed the monkey.” River quietly reproached her friend.
Loan stopped in her tracks turning to glare at River. She opened her mouth to deliver a scathing reply but couldn’t come up with anything for once. Shutting her mouth, she then shook her head in utter defeat and continued walking. Mal let everyone pass him by as they made their way into the vast cargo bay making sure to keep Loan in sight.
“Kaylee, you and Zoe help Jayne to the infirmary.” Mal ordered as Simon and Kaylee appeared on the upper gangway above them, their faces full of relief and concern. Mal addressed Simon.
“Doc, you got customers. See to ‘em. And you, little albatross-“
“Way ahead of you,” River called back over her shoulder as she took the metal stairs two at a time. “I’ll signal Inara and let her know we’ll be coming to pick her up ahead of schedule.”
“We got work to do, people, let’s get to it.” Mal barked.
The crew dispersed from the top of the stairway. All except for Loan who was stopped short by the captain’s grip on the back of her shirt collar. Without a word, Mal swung the girl in front of him almost flinging her off her feet and shoved her back towards the darkened end of the walkway where the second shuttle sat silent and empty. He slapped the door release; the other hand still clutching the girl’s collar, and propelled Loan into the empty shuttle then turned and hit the button to close the door behind the two of them.
“This has to be the all-time worst most harebrained stunt you have ever pulled!” Mal exploded in aggravation. He advanced on the teen, his eyes hard and cold. “You and River could have been killed…we could’a lost people tonight. And for what?” he finished in a harsh growl.
Loan looked up at him weakly. “We was only…I didn’t think-“
He angrily cut her off pointing at her. “That’s exactly right, Loan - you didn’t think! Not about the danger you dragged River into…not about what you put the rest of us through…not about anything but what you wanted!”
Loan just stared at the floor resigned while Mal continued his tone icy. “You conjure I give orders just so I can hear myself talk?”
“No,” Loan huffily replied, then quickly added as an afterthought, “-sir. No, sir.”
Mal eyed her a moment, his look one of deep fury and wordless exasperation. He seemed to have come to a decision as he then began to unbutton his cuffs and roll up the sleeves of his maroon work shirt. Loan watched him, obviously confused but the captain didn’t seem to want to offer an explanation.
“Uh, what’re you –“
“Bizui (shut up)!” Mal snapped and Loan instantly fell silent.
Sleeves sufficiently rolled up to suit him, Mal now bent down to untie the leather cords of his holster from around his thigh. The holster ties freed, Mal reached up and began to unbuckle his gun belt, his eyes never leaving the girl in front of him. The buckle undone, he pulled the gun belt from around his waist, grabbed the holster and threaded it out of the wide leather belt. He threw the holster and gun onto the passenger bench behind him. Loan watched him afraid to say anything after his last outburst. She just stood uneasily in front of him waiting until Mal doubled the belt in his right hand and slapped it once against his other hand. He watched with grim satisfaction as sudden realization flitted across her face.
“Oh, go se (shit),” Loan uttered in a small voice, her eyes widening in fear. She instinctively backed away from the armed man.
“Come here.” The captain intoned darkly.
Loan froze, swallowing hard her eyes going to the heavy gun belt Mal clenched in his right hand.
“I ain’t askin’ you again,” Mal warned.
“Aiya tian a! (merciless hell)” Mal angrily swore. That was the last straw for him. He strode over to Loan, snagged her left arm and dragged her none too gently over to one of the trunks containing extra supplies for the shuttle. Sitting on the edge of the trunk, Mal hauled Loan over his knee as she squawked in protest.
“Capt’n, I swear I won’t never –“
“Oh, I know you won’t never after I get done with you, nyen ching-duh (young one),” he intoned darkly. “I’m gonna make gorramn sure you won’t be sitting comfortable any time soon! Make you think twice before you ever do something this feng dian(insane) again!”
Loan tried unsuccessfully to push herself up from Mal’s lap, but he had a firm hold on her. She cursed under her breath struggling harder not at all wanting what was coming.
“You want this on the bare?” he threatened her, “You keep this up, and the britches are coming down!”
Loan immediately stopped resisting and lay still, but continued to plead her case. The pleading was abruptly cut off as Mal swung the belt down hard connecting solidly with Loan’s upturned backside. Loan hissed in pain at the sudden stripe of fire searing across her butt. She gasped as the belt cracked down once more in almost the same spot, her normal resolve withering away rather quickly.
Loan tried to catch her breath before the next lick landed but didn’t make it in time and could only gasp again as the belt landed on its target a third time. Loan was mortified. While Mal had found reason to spank her a few times in the past, he’d only used a belt on her once before and that had not been a pleasant experience.
Over and over the thick leather belt spanked the teen’s bottom, turning it a dark pink underneath her thin military style pants. Her aching backside stung beyond belief, and Loan began to bawl in earnest. Mal ignored her sobs as he continued to wallop Loan with his gun belt, making sure to cover her entire bottom with the searing whacks. He wanted to make sure she wouldn’t forget this lesson anytime soon because he wanted to make sure he didn’t have to do this ever again.
Mal held her tight to him to keep her from squirming and carried on the whipping until he felt her go limp, blubbering piteously, resigned to the situation. He laid down a few more stripes and then lowered his belt and pulled the girl from over his lap. She stood there stiffly, huge tears streaking her dirty face, her hands disappearing behind her to rub her hot throbbing backside.
“Work we do puts us in some tough spots at times, and I can’t have folk what I can’t trust to follow orders that may save their lives,” Mal sternly lectured. “I am responsible for each and every person on this boat, including you, Loan. And I ain’t about to have you runnin’ off gettin’ yourself killed without my permission!”
“Yes, sir,” Loan sniffled grimacing at the pain singing across her rear.
Mal stood up, picked up his gunbelt and went over to retrieve his holstered gun from the nearby bench. He turned back to gaze at Loan who kept her eyes on the floor directly in front of her looking like the saddest sorriest little ‘un he’d ever set eyes on.
“Get along to your bunk.” Mal quietly ordered as he hit the controls to open the shuttle door, suddenly feeling very old and very tired. “We’ll talk more later.”
Loan scooted past the man and fairly flew down the walkway toward the upper level and her quarters, snuffling as she went. Mal looked down at the belt in his hand and squeezed it hard. He sighed heavily as he began to thread the holster back onto it. This was the part of captaining he hated most.
INARA’S SHUTTLE 30 MINUTES LATER...
Inara was not at all surprised when Mal showed up at her shuttle door. What did take her back was that he actually knocked and asked permission to enter first.
“Will wonders never cease, you actually...” her voice trailed off at the look on Mal’s face. “Mal?” Inara questioned. “What is it?”
Mal slowly took a seat on the luxurious silk-cushioned couch across from where Inara stood looking at him. He still had his gunbelt clenched in his hand. He looked down at it for a moment and then with a tired sigh, tossed it onto the little table in front of him.
“Mal?” Inara asked again, concern in her voice, “Is everything all right? River said we had to leave in a hurry, but she didn’t give any details...” She paled, “No one got hurt, did they? Is Kaylee okay?”
“Everyone’s fine,” he finally replied, his voice unnaturally flat as he finally glanced up at the woman. “Jayne’s gonna be limping for a bit and Zoe’s got a new scar, but they’ll be all right.”
Inara relaxed somewhat to hear that none of the people she now considered “family” had died. Mal though didn’t look any more relieved. He stared at the belt on the table.
“Something else happened, didn’t it?” Inara carefully asked. She came around the table to sit next to Mal and placed a hand on his.
“I don’t know nothing ‘bout raising a young’un,” Mal started, “Never ‘magined I’d ever have any of my own...hell, what woman in her right mind would...” he stopped and looked away from Inara in embarrassment.
She removed her hand feeling the awkwardness. Mal continued. “I just whupped the hell out of Loan with my belt.” He said quietly. “And I feel like a de liu mang (son of a bitch) for doing it.”
“Oh, Mal,” Inara reached over again to take his hand and give it a squeeze. “What happened?”
Mal explained about Loan and River sneaking off to the carnival against orders and River’s subsequent disappearance leading up to the gun battle and injuries. He finished with Loan getting walloped over his knee for her disobedience. “I know I did the right thing, Inara, but I can’t help feeling like the bad guy here.”
“You’re not the bad guy, Mal and I’m sure Loan doesn’t think you are either.” Inara said.
Mal shot her a look. “Were you not listening? I took that belt there and -”
Inara didn’t let him finish. “Children stretch their limits from time to time, and they need to know when they’ve gone too far. Loan went way over the limit this time, and you punished her for it.”
“I licked her pretty hard.” Mal countered.
“The severity fit the crime.” Inara replied. “She and River could have been killed. You know...at the training academy...we were disciplined with spankings when we got out of line.” Mal’s brows raised in curiosity, and Inara elaborated. “I remember getting a pretty good switching from the House mother once for sneaking out after hours to see a play in town.” Inara blushed laughing at the memory. “Needless to say, I didn’t leave the training house without permission after that.”
Mal smiled back and then sighed. “It don’t get easier, does it?”
ONE HOUR LATER – SOMEWHERE OUT IN THE BLACK...
Loan lay on top of her bunk, face to the wall, apparently asleep when Mal came into her quarters to have their talk. His eyes traveled aimlessly around the walls of the small room taking in the garish teenage décor around him and he smiled to himself. He had thought Kaylee’s taste in decorating was pretty bad, but this was a nightmare compared to her.
The walls had been covered with a mix of cheap Asian tapestries none of which carried a similar color to any of its relatives. Among and sometimes pinned to these wall hangings were pictures torn from newspapers featuring an odd assortment of grinning studly men from various professional sports teams and images of puppies and kittens with cutsie sayings in Chinese script underneath them. The room was lit at either end by two paper lanterns that had seen better days and a string of multi-colored plastic Christmas lights nailed across the top of her bunk. The Christmas lights must have been Kaylee’s idea he supposed.
Across from the bed on the opposite wall, the young girl’s little dresser held a few candles and a ceramic incense burner donated, he was quite sure, by Inara. They looked slightly out of place among the litter of teenage girlie items scattered around. Well, girlie items except for the large bowie knife he noted with a pained expression. That had been given to her by Jayne. Strange gift he thought but Loan had been so thrilled by it that she wore it constantly to the point that Mal had had to finally tell her to leave it in her room unless they were planning to go planet-side. It didn’t sit right with him to have a child roaming around his boat armed with a pig sticker that was almost as long as her own forearm.
He ambled over to the girl, trying to step over the piles of clothes and some ratty stuffed animals strewn over the floor, but tripping over some old books that had been piled next to the bed. He looked down at her still form lying on top of the faded blue brocade coverlet that had once been his ma’s and sighed. He was not sure whether he should wake her or let her sleep and come back later.
“I ain’t asleep,” Loan mumbled to the wall.
Mal settled himself on the edge of her bed gazing a moment with almost fatherly affection at the back of her honey blond locks, which lay for once unbound and splayed over her pillow. He was amazed at how even the poor light of the lanterns made certain strands of her hair shine as if it were spun gold.
“You plannin’ on stayin’ to the wall, or can we talk like civilized folk?” he gently teased her.
She twisted around, careful to lift her very tender bottom off the bed as she did so, and slowly sat up grimacing slightly. Mal winced inwardly at that, feeling a tad bit guilty for being the one to have caused her the discomfort. He reached up to scratch the back of his head, not sure where to start. At the beginning, he figured.
“Look, I’m sorry,” he said to her.
Loan’s brows shot up in surprise at this admittance and Mal quickly corrected himself.
“Not for whuppin’ you, mei-mei (little sister). You got exactly what you deserved and you know it. I’m just sorry I was so mean about it when I did it.”
“Well...I guess I’m sorry too.” she muttered looking down at the bed cover uncomfortably.
It was Mal’s turn to look surprised now. Loan caught the look and rolled her eyes. She glanced up into the captain’s face with a rueful smile reaching behind her to rub at her still tender rear end.
“I’m not sayin’ I liked gettin’ my backside lashed, ‘cause that hurt like a duh liou mahng(son of a bitch), but I guess I’m not saying I didn’t have it coming neither.” She looked back down, frowning, as tears formed in her big blue eyes. “You still mad at me?”
Mal thought about it a moment before answering. “Well, I s’pose I oughtta be, but I can’t say as I am. I figure you paid square for disobeyin’ my orders, and I’m fairly convinced you and me are on the same page now.”
He brushed a stray lock of hair from her eyes and continued. “You caused a heap of trouble for all of us today. Jayne’s all shot up not to mention Zoe’s wounded, n’ Simon’s gone all feng le (loopy in the head) worrying about his sister which has got Kaylee in a quite a knot and River...well, she’s been all manner of traumatized by this whole situation. You made a yu ben de (stupid) decision, Loan, and it wasn’t just you what paid the consequences for your mischief this time, dong ma (understand)?”
He looked down when he heard soft sobbing, his captainly resolve quickly fading. Reaching over, Mal gathered the remorseful child into his arms and pulled her close, holding her against his chest letting her cry it out.
“I’m sorry,” she hiccupped against his shirt as the tears fell. “I wasn’t tryin’ to be bad, honest. I just...just wanted to take River to the carnival is all. ‘Cause, cause she’s never been to one...” Loan sobbed. “I didn’t think it was gonna be trouble. I mean, I didn’t realize...even though you told me...”
“Hush now,” Mal softly ordered. “Stop the tears. It’s done and over with.”
“But Jayne n’ the others,” she insisted looking up at her captain with trepidation, “They all hate me!” She erupted into fresh tears, and Mal pulled her back against his chest rubbing her back soothingly as he tried to calm her fears.
“They don’t hate you, xiaou mei-mei. They might be a bit tetchy with ya for a while maybe, but they don’t hate you. There ain’t a one of us in the bunch that ain’t done some foolish thing or another at some point that ended up gettin’ us all in hot water. Well, ‘cept for me, of course.”
He relaxed when he heard a small chuckle escape from the teen. He pulled her chin up to look in her face. “You understand now why it’s important to follow orders when I give ‘em?” he asked her.
She nodded wiping her nose on her sleeve.
“You understand why I gave you such a harsh licking this time?”
She nodded again, a bit more reluctantly than before.
“You plannin’ on being all wan-pi (naughty) and disobeying me anymore?”
He reached up to tousle her blonde head and grinned down at her. “Glad to hear that, ‘cause I don’t want to have to be takin’ my belt off for that reason again!” He stood up to leave but paused at the ladder surveying her room one last time. “Loan?”
“Any particular reason your bunk looks this scary other than a general lack of cleanliness on your part?”
“Clean it up.”
He gave her a pointed look as if to wonder whether or not she’d just paid attention to the conversation they’d been having the past few minutes.
She blushed and nodded sheepishly. “Got it, Cap’n. Clean it up.”
“Now. Would be good.” He quipped and opened the hatch to her quarters and began to climb the ladder out.
“Ke wu de lao bao jun (horrible old tyrant),” Loan sniped under her breath.
Mal poked his head back into the room. “You say something?”
“Didn’t think so.” He affirmed giving her a knowing look. “I’ll have Kaylee bring you down some grub.” He gave a nod to her messy room. “Now.”
LOAN’S BUNK A LITTLE WHILE LATER...
“I brought ya some supper,” Kaylee offered Loan and held up the tray.
“Thanks, Kaylee. But, I ain’t real hungry.”
Loan lay on her stomach on top of her bunk. It was the only position she could manage without causing any small amount of pain to her sore bruised butt. That’s one for the captain, she thought wryly.
“Sure you don’t want just a little bite?” Kaylee coaxed. “It ain’t half bad – Inara found some dehydrated vegetable powder hiding in the pantry and added it in. Makes it taste like it’s got real carrots and peas in it.”
Loan shook her head and winced as she slowly rolled over and swung her legs off the edge of the bed. “Maybe later.” She said then grimaced as she moved about trying to find a position that didn’t cause her hot bottom to throb.
Kaylee’s eyes narrowed as she studied Loan. “Loan, you okay?”
“Sure, I’m just dandy.” Loan quietly joked.
“You don’t seem okay...why you squirming so much?”
“Don’t you have engine stuff to fix?” Loan tiredly asked. She gave up trying to find a comfortable position to sit up in and lay back down on her belly.
Kaylee set the tray down on Loan’s dresser and walked over to the girl. Before Loan could do anything, Kaylee reached down and laid a palm on the other girl’s small backside. Loan hissed in pain and Kaylee drew her hand away quickly.
“Tsai boo shr (no way)!” Kaylee gasped as she watched Loan’s face redden. “You got a whuppin! The capt’n actually whupped you, didn’t he!”
“You notice I ain’t laughin’ here.” Loan replied testily.
“Oh, Loan, I’m sorry.” Kaylee quickly apologized. “I didn’t mean it like that...hurt much?”
Kaylee reached down to grab the top of Loan’s sweatpants. Loan batted at her friend’s hand in annoyance.
“Kaylee! What the hell you doing?!”
“I just wanna see how bad it is.”
“Kaylee!” Loan groaned in embarrassment. She shot her friend an exasperated look while keeping a tight grip on the waistband of her pants.
Kaylee rolled her eyes and made to reach for Loan’s waistband again. “Oh, come on. Ain’t like I haven’t seen a backside afore. Just hold still.”
Loan reluctantly acquiesced and Kaylee carefully peeled the young teen’s pants back to reveal a pair of still glowing cheeks. The older girl grimaced in sympathy. “Oh, sweetie, you won’t be sittin’ anytime soon.”
“Yeah, I kinda got that impression already.” Loan’s voice dripped with sarcasm as she carefully tugged her sweat pants back up over her sore bottom.
Kaylee perched herself on the side of Loan’s bed and offered the girl a conciliatory pat on the head. “It ain’t that bad, Loan. I’ve gotten plenty a whuppin’s.”
Loan raised a skeptical eyebrow at her shipmate.
“Oh, well, not from the capt’n of course,” Kaylee amended, “But my daddy’s had cause to tan me a time or two. And pride hurts more’n your backside, I think.”
“Well, it ain’t my pride that’s raw sore at the moment, Kaylee...”
Kaylee smiled at her friend’s comment. “I guess not, huh? Well, I know a cold cloth full of ice used to take the sting out for me. Want me to go get ya one?”
She began to get up from Loan’s bunk, but Loan reached over to grab hold of the young mechanic’s wrist to stop her.
“Thanks for the offer, Kaylee, but I’m fine.” Loan said. She glanced above her as if the ceiling to her bunk was transparent and she could see the rest of the crew as they went about their duties. Loan made a face. “The last thing I want is for everyone on this gorramn ship to be asking why you’re bringing me a towel full of ice. Let’s just leave it as is. I’ll survive.”
“Maybe Simon could-“
Loan’s eyes widened in horror. “Kaylee, no! I don’t want the doc down here looking at me bare and all! Aiya! How embarrassing!”
Kaylee nodded and held up her hands in defeat. “All right. But, if you need anything or just want some company, let me know.”
“I will. Thanks.” Loan mumbled.
Kaylee stood up and made her way to the ladder to leave. Loan half sat up before the other girl had got a foot on the first rung, a shadow of apprehension falling over her face.
“Don’t tell no one, okay?” Loan asked quietly.
“Oh, sure, Loan, I won’t tell.”
Loan lay back down, watching as Kaylee climbed up the ladder and exited her bunk. She sighed, wondering how long it would be before everyone knew she’d been taken to the woodshed by the captain.
“I give her an hour.” Loan said to herself, then chuffed, “hell, ten minutes if the doc looks at her pretty.” She shook her head, a wry smile playing over her lips as she reached back to rub at her sore bottom.