Zoe Washburne watched with a sense of growing contentment as Loan carefully maneuvered Serenity into an empty berth of the Eavesdown docks on the border world of Persephone. The firefly class ship groaned and shook slightly as it set down on the docking pad taking the weight of the vessel onto its four metal retractable legs. Zoe sighed deeply as she stood on the bridge, both hands resting on the back of Loan’s chair while staring out the viewport at the busy dock workers.
“Mmm...feels like home,” the dark-skinned woman said as she let a smile play over her full lips.
Loan gave the older woman an apathetic shrug. “It is home for some of us,” the teen casually remarked as she reached above her head to flip the switches to shut the engine down.
Zoe cocked her head at Loan. “That’s right, huh? You were born and raised on Persephone, weren’t you?”
“Grew up on these very docks, in fact.” Loan nodded as she continued to shut the ship down concentrating on the various dials and gauges in front of her.
“Well, maybe you’ll get to see some old friends while we’re here,” Zoe suggested hopefully.
Loan stopped what she was doing and made a face. “I hope not!” she muttered looking up at Zoe with trepidation. “There are some here as aren’t particularly friendly to me, if you get my meaning.”
“There are gonna be some here as aren’t particularly happy with any of us if we don’t get moving and get this cargo unloaded,” Malcolm Reynold’s determined voice came from directly behind the two women.
Zoe and Loan turned to see the captain coming through the hatchway onto the bridge. He was wearing his usual ‘work’ uniform of a brown button down shirt and his old tan army pants held up by leather suspenders that had seen better days.
“Badger’s expecting his cut by sundown, so we best get these crates of oranges and strawberries to Sir Harrow quick like,” Mal stated all business-like in his demeanor.
Mal had done some work once before for Sir Warrick Harrow, a titled Lord and part of the upper echelon of Persephone’s gentrified business men. Mal and the crew of Serenity had, with the aid of a local crime boss named Badger, smuggled a shipload of Harrow’s cattle off-world to be sold for a handsome profit. Neither end of that deal had gone smoothly Mal unhappily recalled. He’d been stabbed during a sword duel right after meeting Sir Harrow and had almost lost one of his passengers, Shepherd Book, to a nasty gunshot wound during the offloading of the cattle on Jiangyin. Nevertheless, Mal wasn’t one to hold a grudge when payment was involved, especially when he was on the receiving end of said money. And Sir Harrow was nothing if not generous when paying Mal for his services. Mal only hoped the current transaction wouldn’t involve anyone getting hurt this time.
“I’m gonna miss all that fruity goodness...” Loan spoke up in a dreamy tone, her eyes half closed with the pleasant memory of their current cargo. “Made the whole ship smell like a summer orchard.”
Mal shot Loan a look of mild irritation as he checked the docking control read out on the panel in front of the girl. “I better not find out you been plucking any souvenirs from that orchard, Loan. We get paid by the pound this trip.”
Loan huffed in mock offense and gave the captain a hurt pout. “I ain’t the one that’s all feng le (loopy in the head) over strawberries!” she snidely retorted, then gave Mal a sly grin. She twisted in her seat stretching to get the kinks out of her back. “Shoot, anything’s gone missin’ this time, best you check Kaylee’s pockets first.”
Mal couldn’t argue with that. His mechanic’s obsessive passion for the little red berries was well known if not somewhat unsettling. In fact, Kaylee had spent most of the past eighteen and half hours of their little jumper trip from Paquin wandering around the cargo bay joyously sniffing the crates of fruit as if she were a hound dog on the hunt for a juicy bone.
“Speaking of our little Kaylee,” Mal said, “I need you and her to go help Jayne offload the cargo onto a skiff while Zoe and I contact ‘little Lord Fauntleroy’ about the drop off point. You girls act snappy, and you can take a jaunt into town if you’ve a mind.” Mal fixed Loan with a parental look. “Just don’t be overlong - I want you all back by noon time.”
Loan grinned at the prospect of hitting the shops with Kaylee. She quickly rose from her seat tugging the hem of her dress down and bounded out the door almost knocking Mal over as she went by him.
Mal shook his head, smirking as he turned to watch the girl skipping excitedly down the foredeck. “Wish she had that kinda enthusiasm when she was doing her chores,” he commented under his breath.
He turned back surprised to see Zoe standing directly in front of him staring at him with a look akin to a sad puppy dog. “If I act excited and shove you into a bulkhead, can I go into town too, sir?” she deadpanned.
Mal rolled his eyes at Zoe refusing to acknowledge her smart aleck-ness. Instead, he moved past her, swiveling the pilot’s chair around and casually dropping into it. He reached across the control panel and brought up the cortex screen preparing to wave Sir Harrow.
“Tell ya what, Zo,” Mal said tiredly over his shoulder to his second in command, “We get this deal done and over with before the dinner bell rings? I’ll buy the first round at The Jade Tiger.”
“You’re on, sir,” Zoe replied, a smile splitting her face. “Could use a tall, cold one at that. And it’ll be nice to see Mei-Ying and her boys again.”
The Jade Tiger was a humble back alley establishment run by a weathered old Asian woman named Mei-Ying and her three grown sons. The bar was known to most of the more disreputable types around the docks and was second home to Mal and his crew whenever they were planet-side and could spare a few moments between jobs.
“Let’s hope his lordship is up and ready to receive a visit,” Mal dryly commented to Zoe as he turned on the vid screen for the wave to be sent. “Not sure if seven-thirty in the morning is a civil hour for a swanky gent such as Harrow, but if he wants his produce before it rots in the sun, he best be awake and ready to negotiate.”
“Hey!” Jayne growled giving Kaylee a threatening scowl. “Them ain’t for us!”
Jayne set the last crate of goods onto the rented skiff at the bottom of the ship’s ramp and stalked around the other side of the vehicle to where Kaylee stood, her hands behind her back, a look of pure innocence on her sweet face.
“What?” Kaylee asked the big merc, her eyes widening in question.
“Quit eatin’ the profits!” Jayne spat eyeing the young woman with a mixture of suspicion and anger.
“Why, I ain’t touched a one, Jayne!” Kaylee replied, frowning at the man in front of her.
“Touched more’n one, I’m thinking,” Jayne shot back. His eyes narrowed as he pointed at the young woman’s face. “If you ain’t been snatchin’ any, then what’s that red stuff on your chin, there?”
Kaylee’s eyes grew wide in shame. She quickly wiped her chin with the cuff of her patterned shirt, a blush settling over her round cheeks. Jayne glared at her in disgust.
“I hardly think a few missing berries is gonna hurt our payout, Jayne,” Loan laughed.
Jayne’s lip curled at that. “You wanna give up part of your earnings for this ‘un,” he jerked a thumb at Kaylee, “that’s your business. But, Mal’s orders was no snackin’ on the goods!”
Loan gave a conciliatory shrug to Kaylee. She’d tried. Jayne tightened the straps holding the crates to the skiff, taking a bit of time with the last strap. His head bent low for a moment before he straightened up and then he wandered over to where the two girls stood at the end of the cargo bay ramp. He hastily chewed then swallowed something causing Loan to glare distrustfully at the man.
“Did you just eat a strawberry?” she accused him folding her arms across her chest.
Jayne shot the fourteen-year-old a dirty look. “Mind your own business,” he gruffly retorted but appeared slightly embarrassed at having been caught. He motioned towards the loaded skiff with impatience. “You two stay here and keep an eye on our stuff. I’m gonna go find out what’s keeping Mal.”
“Uh uh,” Loan firmly stated shaking her head. “Capt’n said Kaylee and me can go into town for some shopping. You stay here and guard the stuff!”
Jayne was not happy with that idea. His forehead creased into a deep frown, a snarl forming on his unshaven face. “I’m givin’ the orders ‘round here, l’il britches. So you just do as I say!”
Loan straightened up to her full five foot height, her sapphire eyes flinty with resentment at Jayne’s attitude. “You ain’t the boss of me!” she angrily retorted taking a step into the man’s space.
The merc’s eyes narrowed and he pointed a finger at the teen, “Lookit here, shorty-“
“No, you lookit here, old man...” Loan cut him off, her hand creeping down to the knife she kept sheathed in her boot while Jayne’s hand wandered nearer his own knife at his belt.
“There a problem here?” Mal’s hard voice broke the tension as he strode down the ramp of his ship, the edges of his brown leather duster flapping in the hazy breeze. Zoe followed directly behind him, her brows raised in curiosity. Mal did not look at all pleased as he stood waiting for an answer. Jayne and Loan straightened up and gave the captain an uncomfortable look. “Well?” Mal purposely asked as his gaze flicked from one combatant to the other.
Mal eyed the two a moment longer making sure they both understood that he wasn’t about to put up with any antics this morning. “Then, let’s get these goods delivered,” he ordered. Mal looked over to where Kaylee still stood by the skiff. “I thought you and Loan were going into town?”
Kaylee nodded. “Well we was, but Jayne sorta had a different opinion.”
Mal turned raising a brow at the merc who shot Kaylee a nasty glare for ratting him out. “I told the girls they could go play after helping you load the skiff. That a problem for you, Jayne?” Mal’s tone suggested he wasn’t expecting a challenge back and Jayne didn’t offer one.
“Nope, shiny,” Jayne muttered. “Now that I know that,” he added giving Loan and Kaylee another dirty look which they ignored.
“Zoe, you and Jayne will be going with me to the drop off. ” Mal said as Simon and River came down the ramp to join the others. “The rest of you...behave. Everyone meet back at the Jade Tiger in three hours, dong ma (understand)?”
“Jade Tiger at noon, got it,” Kaylee cheerily replied and hooked an arm in one of Loan’s. “C’mon, let’s go see all the pretties,” She smiled at the younger girl and they turned to head off for town.
Loan couldn’t resist a parting shot. She swiveled her head around at Jayne and offered him a loud wet razzberry.
Mal shot Loan a warning look. “That ain’t behaving,” he sternly stated.
“Sorry,” Loan sheepishly replied over her shoulder as she and Kaylee began to giggle.
“Hey, wait up!” Simon Tam called after the two and Kaylee stopped, bringing Loan up short as well.
Loan rolled her eyes as Simon and his sister, River, ran to catch up with them. Kaylee gave the doctor her warmest smile. It was quite obvious to Loan how in love the two were as Kaylee and Simon grinned and flirted with their eyes.
“You wanna come along?” Kaylee eagerly asked the doctor.
“Well, yes, actually,” Simon smiled back taking Kaylee’s other arm in his. “It’s been awhile since River’s been off the ship and I think this little excursion would do her some good.”
“Uh huh, doc,” Loan teased, smirking at the man. “This is all for River...right.”
Kaylee elbowed her friend in the ribs. “I’m sure we all have things we need to shop for,” she offered as a way to be diplomatic.
“Simon wants to buy you a new dress, since he broke the zipper on your other one, but he doesn’t know your size,” River told Kaylee matter of factly.
Simon and Kaylee turned a bright crimson as Loan burst out laughing. “Oh, this oughtta be an interesting little trip!” she managed between snorts and then ducked as both Simon and Kaylee took a swing at her head.
Mal Reynolds checked the ancient cuckoo clock over the bar once again, his temper slowly rising. It was quarter to one and still no sign of his wayward crewmembers.
“I’m sure they’ll be here soon, sir,” Zoe stated for the third time as she tried to keep her captain’s anger from boiling over. “Kaylee probably couldn’t decide over which bit of lace to get and you know how River has to stop to smell and touch everything, sir.”
“I told them noon,” Mal angrily replied as he chanced another look towards the door to the Jade Tiger, his handsome face a mask of stone.
“Doc’s probably got ‘em all lost,” Jayne smugly commented as he took a long swig from his bottle of beer and then followed it with a loud belch.
“Ain’t helping, Jayne,” Zoe growled at the merc under her breath and shot him a glare.
“What?” Jayne grouchily retorted, “All’s I’m sayin-“
He never got to finish his sentence as Simon, obviously out of breath from running, staggered into the Jade Tiger, his eyes frantically searching the crowded bar for a familiar face. Mal caught sight of the man and rose from the table, his own drink forgotten. He started towards the doctor and Zoe and Jayne followed, a feeling of dread settling over them.
“Mal!” Simon gasped as he all but fell into the captain. Mal grabbed Simon to steady him. Simon’s eyes searched Mal’s face in worry. “They took Kaylee!”
They had appeared out of nowhere while Simon was busy helping River choose some new boots at the back of one of the stores they’d been shopping in. Loan and Kaylee had been trying on some beaded necklaces in front of an old cracked mirror when three burly looking types had suddenly surrounded the two girls and tried to grab them. Loan caught a glimpse of the men in the mirror before they attacked and immediately went for her knife while shoving Kaylee out of the way. The teen was able to slash the arm of the one squat fellow that had tried to snake an arm around her middle, but Kaylee hadn’t been so lucky. Unarmed and unprepared, the young mechanic had literally been picked up off her feet by the other two men and hustled out the back door right past a stunned Simon and River.
Loan had managed to corner her assailant between a shelving unit and a dress mannequin after disarming him. She toyed with him, slicing at the felon with her blade whenever he tried to move until Simon grabbed up a ceramic statue from a nearby table and smashed it over the belligerent attacker’s bald head thereby knocking him out cold. The three quickly dragged the unconscious man out the back door before the store owner could panic and alert the authorities. With a little bit of threatening from Loan and her knife, they were able to gain some information from their captive.
Apparently, the three rowdies were part of the crew of another smuggling ship that Badger sometimes used. Badger, being the arrogant fool that he was and wanting to put their captain, a nasty scar-ridden drunk by the name of Treager in his place, had taunted the man with the fact that he’d given Mal and his crew the somewhat easy and well-paying job of delivering Harrow’s fruit. Treager had been quite displeased about losing out on the job, until he came up with the kidnapping idea. He figured he could still make some coin off the deal by holding a few of Mal’s people for ransom. And so, he’d sent some of his boys to snatch the women-folk while they were out and about. The plot now uncovered, River rewarded the little man by clocking him over the head and knocking him out once more. Simon had then run off to get Mal, Zoe and Jayne while River and Loan stayed behind to keep an eye on things.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Loan hissed as she grabbed hold of the collar of River’s tattered sweater and yanked backwards. “Where you think you’re going?” She gave her friend a critical look as River frowned.
“I’m going to help Kaylee,” River calmly answered.
Loan gave a harsh laugh at that bold statement. The two girls were crouched down behind a large pile of bundled newspapers and old cardboard boxes in a narrow alley across from a seedy hotel of sorts. The local prostitutes used it more often than any true vacationers but the men that had kidnapped Kaylee were holed up in there along with Kaylee according to their prisoner.
Loan gave River an exasperated look. “You see a gun on me anywheres?” she asked the girl.
River shook her head.
“You gotta a gun on you?” Loan went on and then looked about the deserted alley for effect. “You see a gun anywhere about here?” River again shook her head, and Loan made a face. “Then that means we’re shit outta luck, River. We stay here and wait for the captain ‘cause I guarantee, he’ll have a gun.”
River wasn’t convinced and started to move off again but was pulled up short once more by Loan.
“I can help,” River insisted prying her sweater loose from Loan’s grip.
“What d’you plan on doing?” Loan tiredly questioned her friend, a frown forming on her face. “You gonna go in there and confuse ‘em to death?”
“I can fight,” River replied with conviction and Loan snorted.
“Fight? What’re you talking about?” Loan snapped. “You go in their without a weapon and those guys are gonna tear you apart, River!”
River’s face relaxed as she looked at Loan, her brown eyes staring coldly. “I am a weapon,” she calmly stated as she slowly rose from behind their makeshift barrier.
Loan’s blood froze. She’d never seen her friend so calm and deadly before and it gave her goosebumps. “River...what d’you mean...you’re a weapon?” Loan slowly asked, her fear ramping up as she felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickle.
River smiled gently at Loan patting the girl on the head like she was a frightened puppy. “You stay here. I’ll get Kaylee.”
Loan just sat helplessly and watched River boldly stalk across the dirty alley to the open doorway of the hotel. She didn’t know what else to do. River seemed so confident that Loan wasn’t sure her friend couldn’t accomplish the task bare-handed. The teen sat a few moments longer then clenched her fists and blew out a ragged breath trying to steel herself to follow River into battle. She pulled her knife from its sheath and started to rise from a crouch when a voice spoke up right by her ear.
Loan dropped the knife in surprise and almost jumped out of her skin. She let out a terrified gasp, her mouth opening wider to scream but Mal quickly clamped one of his hands over Loan’s mouth cutting off her cry.
“Ho now, there,” Mal whispered trying to calm Loan’s fright, “Let’s not alert the folks to our position just yet.” He slowly removed his hand from the girl’s lips eyeing her warily. “Simon said he left you and River here. So, where is she?”
Loan, not trusting her voice just yet, pointed toward the hotel doorway, her finger shaking slightly.
Simon’s breath hitched in fear. “They took River?” he gulped.
“Not exactly,” Loan muttered shooting the doctor a quizzical look. “Just what kinda scary-ass school did your sister go to anyway, doc?”
Simon blinked in confusion. “What do you mean?”
Loan’s voice was tinged with sarcasm. “I mean most places teach you readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmatic. You know, the basics. Where exactly did she get lessons on hand-to-hand combat?”
“River has...abilities...” Simon stuttered.
“Abilities?” Loan echoed, her voice full of skepticism. “Hell’s bells, she looked like she could’a killed me with just a finger! Abilities!”
Mal sighed heavily not liking what he had just heard. “Simon, you and Loan stay here while Zoe, Jayne and me go in and fetch Kaylee and your xiong can sha shou (ass-kicking killer) of a sister.” He motioned for Zoe and Jayne to follow him and then stopped and turned back to Simon with a calculated look. “What’s that phrase you use on her again?”
“Eta kooram nah smech,” Simon said unhappily.
“Eat a what?” Loan asked in confusion but was ignored as Mal reached over and pulled her and Simon from behind the wall of papers and boxes.
“I ain’t gonna remember that at the crucial moment, doc, so you might as well come along,” Mal reluctantly said. He gave Loan a short look of warning. “You stay behind me. Bullets start flying, you kiss dirt, dong ma (understand)?”
Loan pointed at Jayne. “Can’t I have one of his guns instead?”
Jayne snorted at this. “You ever use one of these afore li’l britches?” he asked the teen brandishing one of his smaller six-shooters at her.
“Cap’n showed me how to shoot,” Loan insisted but Mal held up his hand to cut off the argument waiting to happen.
“Hold on there, Loan,” Mal cautioned as he motioned for Jayne to put up the gun he was about to offer the girl. “I taught you to shoot at some old cans...while they were sitting up nice and still on a fence post. The men in there ain’t gonna be quite so polite, nian qing de (young one). They’ll be moving around quite a bit and I’ll lay good odds that they’ll be shooting right back at us.”
Loan’s mouth formed into a pout. “I can throw a blade and hit dead center,” she angrily argued, “You think I can’t do the same with a bullet?”
Mal didn’t have time to argue and his voice let Loan know that. “You stay low and behind me. That’s an order!” He moved off then not allowing Loan the benefit of a rejoinder. “When we get inside, we fan out and take cover positions. If it ain’t Kaylee and it’s holding a gun, shoot it. Clear?”
Mal realized later that he shouldn’t have worried so much about anyone trying to put up a fight once he and the others entered the hotel room where River and Kaylee were. The scene inside the room was similar to the one in the Maidenhead bar the last time River decided to get ‘angry’. The room was a mess with broken furniture and glass everywhere. River had made short work of the two kidnappers disarming them and taking them out in a matter of minutes. Both ruffians lay bruised and bleeding on the faded carpet groaning in pain. River knelt by Kaylee’s side a look of sad concern on her tired face as she stared down at her unconscious friend. Kaylee had tried to fight off her captors when they began to tie her up, and one of the men had hit her pretty brutally across the temple with the butt of his pistol to quiet her.
“She sleeps but she doesn’t dream,” River commented and gently brushed Kaylee’s bangs from her closed eyes.
Jayne cut Simon off on his way to Kaylee knocking the smaller man to the side as he knelt down and carefully gathered Kaylee up in his beefy arms. He shot the doctor a challenging look and then easily carried the mechanic back to the ship, the others following behind. Simon now worked on Kaylee in the infirmary, making sure she didn’t have a concussion or any internal injuries.
Mal was none too pleased to hear from Loan that Badger had been the one to tip off Treager and his gang. “We do that ben tian sheng de yi dui rou (stupid inbred stack of meat) a favor and he tips off the competition!” Mal growled as he angrily paced up and down the cargo area in front of the open bay doors. “Just great!”
“I say we shoot the huan dahn (bastard),” Jayne commented matter of factly. He sat down on a crate and sited down the barrel of his pistol at an imaginary Badger standing before him.
“We ain’t shootin’any-“ Mal wearily began but Loan cut him off.
“I agree with Jayne. Badger ain’t worth go se (shit),” she snapped as she came through the hatchway from the living area and into the cargo bay where Zoe, Jayne and Mal stood. She came up to Mal’s side and offered him a belligerent glare. “I say we let Jayne have at him.”
Mal gave Jayne a look as if to say ‘see what you started?’ and then shook his head. “Nobody’s shooting anybody. I ain’t looking to walk into that kind of mess.” Mal swiveled around to face Loan, his eyes flashing in displeasure. “And since when do you have a say in matters?” Loan scowled at him but Mal continued, his weariness now showing through. “We pay Badger his cut and then we burn fuel getting off this hunk of rock. The man may not be my favorite person in the ‘verse right about now, but he does manage to throw some decent jobs our way from time to time, and we can’t afford to be looking a gift horse in the mouth.”
“Speaking of the gift horse, sir,” Zoe wryly stated and nodded toward the open bay doors to the lone figure making its way toward the bottom of the ship’s ramp.
Mal sighed trying to push his anger and resentment down deep inside before meeting with Badger. “Let’s get this done, people,” he quietly said.
Loan remained behind a moment, unable to hide her rage at Mal’s decision to do nothing. She also wanted to make sure the captain and the others were busy with Badger before she made her move. Her crisp blue eyes slowly crawled down to stare at the gun now clenched in her small hand and she smiled coldly.
Loan’s contempt for the local crime lord went deep. She’d dealt with Badger and his rowdy minions a few times while growing up on the docks around Eavesdown, and her low opinion of the man hadn’t improved since she’d left her squalid life in the slums for a job aboard the transport vessel Serenity with Captain Reynolds and his crew. Badger was an arrogant opportunist at best and a malicious thug most of the rest of time, Loan mused. He’d sell his own mother to the highest bidder if he thought there was profit to be had. It didn’t help either that Badger had, upon more than one occasion, humped Loan out of her rightful earnings on some less than reputable jobs she’d done for him. And now, the lowlife niu fen (cow poop) had gone and hurt one of her friends. Loan had come to the late conclusion that the ‘verse would be much better off without the likes of Badger mucking around in it, and she was more than willing to play the avenging angel for just that purpose.
“Time to pay the piper, Badger,” Loan whispered in an ominous tone as she brought the gun up in her hand and stalked down the ramp of the ship towards the small crowd outside.
Malcolm Reynold’s caught the glint of sun off gun metal and instantly swept his hand down over his holster, eyes widening in surprise at finding it empty and then narrowing in anger at the sudden realization that the weapon his young pilot was brandishing at their business partner was none other than his own beloved revolver.
“LOAN.” It was one word, yet Mal’s tone carried a thousand inferences in it as he fixed the fourteen-year-old girl with a malevolent glare. “Give. Me. My. Gun.” He bit off each syllable, his jaw clenching so hard that his teeth ground together.
Loan’s eyes flicked nervously over to the captain and then quickly back to the terrified man now cowering in front of her. She gave Badger a particularly nasty smile and steadied Mal’s old army pistol in both hands, squinting as she aimed for the thief’s forehead directly above his bulging frightened eyes. Badger paled and raised his hands even higher as if that would somehow appease Loan and keep her from pulling the trigger. Loan noticed from the corner of her eye that Mal was still impatiently waiting for her to comply with his demand for the return of his revolver. Not really an option at this juncture she reflected, but she did owe the captain an explanation at the very least.
“He don’t deserve to live!” Loan sharply stated never taking her eyes off Badger.
“Don’t matter what he deserves,” Mal cautioned. “Right now, we need him. Alive.”
Slivers of dread began to mix with his anger which was already at a hot simmer. Why couldn’t things ever go smoothly, he wondered as he shot Loan another warning look. “Now give me my gorramn gun or-”
“It ain’t right...” Loan muttered darkly as she cocked the big revolver in her hands.
Badger flinched visibly at the noise, sweat now dripping from under his faded brown bowler hat.
“He ain’t even armed!” Mal pointed out in frustration, and Badger wiggled his empty hands as proof.
Loan’s smile turned cold. “Don’t matter none to me.”
Loan stood, frozen in place, anger boiling at the thought of letting the weasel of a man in front of her go unpunished. It was his fault they’d walked right into that mess in town! His fault that Kaylee was now lying in the infirmary! It just wasn’t right, no matter what the captain thought. She shook her head and once again drew a bead on the man cringing before her.
Not one for remaining passive in potentially volatile situations, Mal turned slightly and caught his first mate, Zoe’s, attention with his gaze, held it for a moment, flipped his eyes over to Loan and then back to Zoe. Zoe had been a permanent fixture at Mal’s side ever since the big war for independence over a decade ago. They’d been through hell and back together and so, it wasn’t any wonder that the graceful warrior woman knew exactly what Mal was asking of her even though no words had been spoken. Zoe gave an imperceptible nod towards Mal and slowly backed herself away from the captain’s side while keeping a practiced eye on the events unfolding in front of everyone.
What little patience Mal might have been harboring had vanished. His voice was hard and sharp. “Put up that weapon, Loan! That ain’t a request!”
“How ‘bout I just wing him?” the girl insolently offered back.
“How ‘bout I thrash you raw in front of all these pretty people?” Mal furiously countered.
Loan’s full attention snapped over to her captain, her look one of shocked disbelief.
“You think I’m bluffing?” Mal’s dark look showed that he wasn’t.
Loan swallowed, hard. Mal took a warning step in her direction. The girl’s resolve wavered, and the hand holding the cocked pistol dropped slightly. It was enough for Zoe, who had been quietly edging up behind the girl waiting for a break. Zoe reached up and tapped Loan on the shoulder once to draw her attention. Loan jumped slightly and snapped her head to the left in stunned surprise, her gun hand falling completely away from its original target whereupon Zoe reacted instantly by snatching the gun from Loan. The girl stared stupidly at her empty hand for a moment before giving the older woman a sheepish look of defeat. Everyone visibly relaxed a bit as the tension of the situation eased.
Mal, though, wasn’t satisfied. He strode purposely over to Loan, a cold rage masking his features and grabbed a handful of the back of her dress spinning the teen roughly around toward the ramp up to the cargo bay of the ship. Without so much as a word, Mal smacked Loan’s rear once hard, the loud report breaking the quiet. Loan yelped in surprise, hands flying to her stinging backside as she quickly scrambled up the ramp mortified. Jayne grinned as he watched the girl disappear into the ship.
“Nice to see discipline isn’t totally lost on your crew,” Badger remarked dryly, his cockney-like accent thicker than usual.
“Bizui! (shut up)” Mal barked at Badger as he turned back to the group still standing outside the ship, his anger still at the forefront of his emotions.
“Just trying to lighten the mood is all,” Badger claimed as he straightened his collar and adjusted his hat. “You’re lucky I’m a forgiving man, Mal.”
Mal glared at Badger then turned to take his revolver from Zoe who remained silent. He examined it a moment before holstering it and waited patiently for Badger to make his next move.
“Well now, seems to me that a bit of reparation is due,” Badger stated smoothly, an oily smile curling his lips. “I think my cut on this job is going to be forty percent instead of the usual twenty-five.”
“Forty!” Jayne growled as he reached for his own weapon, “Jien tah-duh guay (like hell) forty!”
Mal held up his hand at Jayne to quiet the merc while keeping his hard stare on Badger.
“Forty’s a might steep, dontcha think, Badger?” Mal softly questioned.
“No, I don’t think.” Badger snapped his pug face mottled in anger. “Forty sounds about right for almost being murdered by that feng dian pang yi (insane child born of a concubine)! You want any more jobs or not, Reynolds? ‘Cause I have plenty of other contacts that would jump at the chances I give them, and they wouldn’t try to shoot the hand what feeds them.”
Mal gritted his teeth in irritation, feeling the blood pounding in his temples. He hated being put over a barrel by the smug criminal, but had no choice. Serenity was in need of repairs, his crew needed to be paid and no one else seemed willing to hire them lately. It was this or nothing, Mal concluded, and nothing didn’t put food in their mouths.
“Forty it is,” Mal managed a tight smile as he answered Badger. He motioned for Zoe to hand him the duffel containing their portion of the pay off and slowly counted out a bit more. With great reluctance, Mal handed the extra cash over to Badger, his mouth a grim line of seething hatred. “See you around,” he coldly said.
Badger gave a curt nod then turned and left the crew to their business. Mal closed his eyes a moment trying to compose himself while Jayne, now bored that the excitement was over, wandered up the ramp and into the ship. Mal finally followed, Zoe at his side.
“Quite a show back there,” Zoe casually remarked to Mal as they climbed the ramp up to the cargo bay area of the ship. “Sir, you wouldn’t really have-”
“Zoe, you know I ain’t one for grandstanding,” Mal brusquely cut her off. He wasn’t really in the mood to discuss what had just happened but Zoe pressed him.
“I also know you’re not one for false threats either, sir,” Zoe commented referring to his warning toward Loan.
“Wasn’t a false threat.” Mal growled as he hit the button at the top of the ramp to raise it and shut the huge blast doors in preparation for take off. “You hadn’t grabbed my gun from Loan just now, I’d have blistered her backside right then and there. Guess she owes you a big thank you for that.” Mal’s eyes took on a hard edge as he shot Zoe a look. “Not that I ain’t gonna have a private chat with her later,” he added ominously.
“She is a handful, sir.”
“That’s a fact,” Mal dryly replied then grew serious as the two continued to make their way through the cargo bay toward the metal stairs to the upper level of the ship. “Loan’s earned her keep on this boat for the most part, but I let her get away with more’n I should have, Zoe. And for that, we paid dear today.”
Zoe shrugged as they began to climb the stairs. “No worse than River or Jayne have cost us before.”
“River can’t be helped,” Mal argued with a wave of his hand as he climbed. “She ain’t all tight in her gears and you know it. Hell, half the time, that moonbrain don’t even know what she’s doing or saying, so you can’t really blame her for the mishaps she gets into. As for Jayne,” he continued a sarcastic note to his voice, “That’s easy – he misbehaves? I knock him upside the head with a lug wrench.” Mal stopped and turned on the stairway to face Zoe. “But just what exactly am I supposed to do with a smart-mouth child-pilot who’s got too big for her britches?”
Zoe had no answer to that. Mal turned back and began to climb the steps again. “No sense putting it off,” he sighed.
Zoe put a hand on his arm stopping him. “Sir, I think she already got the point.”
“What’re you saying, Zo? You think that tao shen (naughty child) don’t deserve a good licking?” Mal asked.
“Not saying that at all, sir. But, I think you both need some time to cool off. Maybe get a little perspective on things before you go doing something you might regret.”
Mal gave an evil chuckle. “Regret? Hell, it’ll be my pleasure to-“
“You know what I mean, sir,” Zoe interrupted. “Loan looks up to you.”
“Really?” Mal retorted as he reached the landing to the second deck feeling the engine of his ship rumble to life. “Well, I’m finding that a mite hard to see as how she just about killed someone I told her not to!”
“She was watching out for one of her own,” Zoe gently chided. “You or I wouldn’t have done any different.”
“There’s a big difference,” Mal wearily explained, “Being that yes, I’d a shot the wang ba dan (dirty son of a bitch) myself if I thought Kaylee wasn’t gonna pull through. But, I gave Loan a direct order to stand down and she didn’t. Now, that only cost us a chunk of the earnings and some hurt feelings this time, but what happens next time?” Mal turned to meet Zoe’s eyes, a cold and serious look on his face. “You willing to watch her take a bullet for her heroics? Or take one yourself?”
Mal sighed heavily. “Zoe, I say I’m going to do something and I do it. My word is all I have. And my word is what keeps this ship flying and the folks on it alive and breathing. You know that better than anyone.”
“Yes, sir, I do, but Loan is just beginning to understand that.”
“You let me worry on that. Right now, I need to get this boat in the air. We’re already behind schedule.” Having reached the aft hallway between the engine room and the galley, Mal started off toward the cockpit of his ship, speaking over his shoulder to Zoe. “Got coin to make.”
Mal strode into the galley of Serenity as the ship began its familiar rumble and shake of taking off. Jayne was lounging at the kitchen table casually scanning through a well-worn weapons catalog as Mal passed by him. The merc noticed Mal’s dark scowl and smiled. For once, it wasn’t him on the receiving end of the captain’s temper.
“Wallop her good, Mal,” Jayne urged. “That brat’s been asking for it ever since she came on board. Costin’ us forty percent!” He huffed in disgust.
Mal tried to ignore Jayne’s misplaced enthusiasm as he headed for the hatch door leading to the foredeck hallway and the bridge.
Jayne called after him. “Hey, ya wanna borrow my belt?” The merc stood up and began to unbuckle the aforementioned item. “It’s good n’ heavy – make the right impression, if ya know what I mean.”
Mal stopped and sighed loudly. He shot the bigger man a withering look. “Jayne...go play with your guns.”
Mal continued on to Serenity’s bridge where Loan sat in the old weathered pilot’s seat carefully guiding the transport ship up and out of the familiar blue-gray atmosphere of Persephone. Her emotions were a muddled soup of anger and humiliation. After the episode outside, she’d gone to check on Kaylee in the infirmary before coming here to begin the usual pre-flight warm up. The young mechanic was now conscious but a bit out of it. Simon had assured Loan several times that Kaylee would recover fully. It hadn’t made Loan feel any less angry or worried for her friend though. Loan glanced up only briefly when Mal stalked into the cockpit and fixed her with a menacing glare.
“You wanna tell me what in the sphincter of hell you thought you were playin’ at back there?” Mal demanded. Assuming the question to be rhetorical, Loan didn’t answer so Mal continued, his tone demonstrating his growing irritation with the girl. “I thought I’d made it abundantly clear about thievin’ other folk’s stuff on board, Loan – you don’t! And you ‘specially DON’T when the item is MINE and is still in my holster and hanging at my side!”
Loan bit her tongue and continued to concentrate on the instrument panel and breaking orbit from the planet. Mal stood for a moment while Persephone fell safely away from their view, then reached over and whirled Loan’s chair around so hard, she was almost flung from it. Mal leaned down, his face close to hers, his eyes pinning her to the back of the chair.
His voice had a dangerous edge to it that made Loan cringe. “The next time I tell you to put up a weapon, you’d best have it holstered before I even finish my sentence! Dong le ma? (are we clear here?)”
“You ain’t always right, you know,” she stubbornly retorted.
Mal gave a harsh laugh. “Who said anything about right?” he countered and straightened back up, leveling an imposing look at the girl. “This ain’t a democracy, Loan. I’m the captain, and you do as I say or you can take your merry leave at the next piece of rock we stop off at.”
Loan looked up at the captain, a worried frown crinkling her brow. “I don’t wanna leave,” she pouted.
“Well, I’d rather you didn’t either seein’ as how the ship’d be without a pilot again,” Mal confessed in irritation, then pointed at her. “But, I’m done wrestling with you, nian qing de (child). Now, I know you ain’t had the best of lifes and all, but I conjure somewhere down the line, someone in this gorram ‘verse should have already taught you the dangers of poking a stick into a hornet’s nest!”
Loan gave him an indignant look that Mal promptly dismissed. He continued, his voice taking on the tenor of someone who was used to explaining the obvious. “Seems to me you’re a might more unfettered than most fourteen-year-olds, and there’s no doubt some on my crew have spoilt you-“
“Spoilt me?!” Loan choked, her cheeks flushing in anger.
Mal ignored her. “Feeling sorry for you and all, but I’m here to tell you that ain’t happening anymore on my ship. You’re part of my crew and you best get to learnin’ that I give an order, it’s to be followed without question!”
Loan’s mouth hung open in annoyed wonder. She glared at Mal, her temper rising. “And what if one of your orders costs one of us our lives?” Loan snapped. “What then?”
“What d’you think Badger’s men would’ve done to us if I’da let you shoot him back there?” Mal angrily countered.
Loan blinked digesting his words. “I didn’t think about that,” she slowly answered.
“Because you were too busy concentrating on your own version of revenge,” Mal said. “Which is why I’m the one giving the orders around here. You think I’d have let it go so easily if I thought for one minute Kaylee’s life was in the balance?”
Mal’s words nettled her so badly Loan couldn’t think straight. She shook her head feeling rather foolish all of a sudden. It was true that she hadn’t thought about the possible consequences of her earlier actions. She’d let her anger over the situation take the front seat instead of listening to common sense and Mal’s orders.
“Fine,” she quietly conceded and then flashed a look of injured contempt at Mal who stood with his arms crossed over his work shirt. “But, you didn’t have to hit me in front of everyone,” she sullenly admonished.
Mal blinked in surprise, uncrossing his arms. “Hit you? You think I...” He chuckled in disbelief at her attempted umbrage and then became serious. “I don’t go hitting women-folk as a rule,” Mal stopped thinking back to Patience and Saffron and made a face. “Well, less they hit me first leastways, but let’s not confuse the issue here.” He waved off the notion and fixed a weighty look on his young pilot. “If I’d a hit you, you’d still be out napping on the floor with a busted jaw. You got a well earned swat to the britches and nothing more. And you can consider that a warm up to the dance that’s coming.”
Loan’s head snapped up and she gave Mal a worried look. “Whaddyou mean?” she asked warily.
Mal’s tone was no-nonsense. “You and me are gonna take a little walk to the woodshed, darlin’. I may not be an old pro at handing out lickings, but I think I’ll manage fair enough you won’t mistake my meaning.”
She digested this a moment not at all happy with the way events were turning. Loan gave Mal a weak smile. “Don’t s’pose I can get out of this one?” She wheedled.
Mal plastered a false smile on his face as he addressed her. “Never let it be said I ain’t a generous man, Loan. I’ll give you a choice. We can have this little woodshed chat right here and now...or you can get yourself to your bunk within the next, oh, two seconds and do your hollering in private.”
“That ain’t fair!” Loan cried.
Mal sighed. “Guess we’re doing this here, then.” He made to grab for the girl, but Loan bolted out of her seat ducking under his arm.
“Bunk’s good!” She blurted as she quickly headed out the hatch and down the steps toward the crew’s quarters.
Loan heard the captain coming down the ladder of her bunk directly behind her. As soon as her feet hit the floor, the girl made for the opposite side of her small room to put distance between herself and Mal. Mal scowled at Loan, not amused by her half-hearted escape attempt. He crooked a finger at Loan motioning for her to come back over to him. Loan crossed her arms and scowled back stubbornly refusing to close the distance. Mal’s irritation grew and he shot her a cautioning glare.
“We gonna have to do this the hard way?” he warned her.
“You thinkin’ I oughtta be helpsome?” Loan sarcastically asked.
“I’m thinking,” Mal slowly replied, a dark glint in his eyes, “That you oughtta be a little more cooperative, less you’re wantin’ worse than what’s already coming.”
Loan actually snickered at this. “How you plannin’ on making it worse exactly? I’m already gettin’ a licking!”
Mal’s look at that moment could have frozen an ocean. He spotted a wooden hairbrush Inara had given Loan lying on the nearby dresser and reached over to pick it up. He studied it a moment and smiled grimly at Loan who was still glowering at him her lower lip insolently jutting out.
“This’ll do,” he said to himself.
Without further notice, Mal crossed the small space of Loan’s room in three long strides and took hold of the teen’s upper arm dragging her unwillingly back across the room. He took a seat on the edge of her unmade bunk and yanked Loan down across his lap, her feet flying up and her face meeting the softness of the bedspread.
Mal calmly addressed the girl’s upturned backside. “Was planning on giving you just a few with my hand, but since you’re feeling a mite feisty and contestable, we’ll make this a bit of a learning lesson for you, Loan.”
“Learnin’ less-” Loan stopped and swore softly as she realized Mal still had hold of the hairbrush. “Hey! Wait a minute!” she gulped and tried to push herself off his lap.
Mal clamped an arm around her waist stopping Loan’s hasty escape. Ignoring the teen’s pleas for leniency, he flipped up the hem of her skirt with his free hand to uncover her panty-clad bottom.
“What’re you – hey!” she hollered upon feeling the cool air of the room on her near bare backside. “Zao gao (damn it)! You wouldn’t! Capt’n!”
Even though she knew it was hopeless, Loan frantically tried to kick off Mal’s lap with no success. Mal just ignored her little tirade and raised the hairbrush high then let it come down hard against Loan’s unprotected bottom, the crack sounding like a pistol shot in the small room. Loan gasped in shock as she felt the burning sting spread its warmth across her right butt cheek. She stopped struggling for a moment until Mal followed his first swat with a volley of scalding spanks up and down her entire backside.
“I don’t have time to play games with you, Loan.” Mal angrily stated as he spanked her with the hairbrush. “So it’s ending right here and now.”
Loan was determined to remain silent throughout her punishment refusing to give her captain the satisfaction of knowing he was gaining any in this latest battle of wills. Seeing that his efforts were being countermanded, Mal increased the strength of the spanks, concentrating on her sit spot.
“OWWW!” Loan finally howled, her eyes watering from the burning steady ache now blooming across her rear end. “Okay! Okay! OW! I’m – Agghh - SORRY!”
“Yao shagua (stubborn idiot).” Mal rolled his eyes. “Don’t have the brains of a gnat!”
He kept up a steady quick rhythm of forceful swats with the hairbrush, the blows rocking the girl across his lap as she squirmed and hollered. Loan mentally kicked herself for wearing a skirt instead of pants which at least might have absorbed some of the painful sting. No amount of pleading, crying or kicking did any good though. Loan shrieked holy murder as her bottom reddened from Mal’s punishing spanks. She realized too late that Mal wasn’t going to let her up until she’d paid dearly for her stubborn defiance.
Whack! OW! Whack! OW! Whack! OW!
“You gonna touch my gun ever again?” Mal questioned as he continued to spank her.
“NO!” Loan bawled, her voice now hoarse.
“There best be a sir at the end of that sentence, nyen ching de (young one)!”
Whack! Whack! Whack!
“EEEEIIIIIYYOWWW! Sir! I meant no, SIR!”
Whack! OW! Whack! OW! Oww! Ow!
“The next time you get a fool idea in your head, you come talk to me first, dong ma?”
“Okay! I’ll...OW...I will! Cap’n, please!”
Whack! OW! Whack! OW! Whack! OW!
“We done with the misbehavin’?” Mal sternly questioned.
Whack! Whack! Whack!
“Yes! Done! OOOOWWWWIIEE!!!”
Whack! Whack! Whack! YAAAOOOOWWWW!
“You and me got an understanding then?”
Whack! Whack! Whack!
“Aiyaaa! YES! I sssweeearrrr! SIR!”
Mal stopped when Loan stopped struggling and finally went limp with compliance over his knees. He figured she’d gotten the message loud and clear. Mal dropped the hairbrush onto the bed next to him and helped Loan stand back up. She groaned and reached up to swipe at her tear-filled eyes with the sleeve of her dress then reached back to rub her hot throbbing backside.
“Wo de mah (mother of god) - that hurt!” she tearfully sniffed.
“I s’pose it did,” Mal mildly observed. His face softened a little as he watched Loan grimacing and rubbing. “You know I hate doing that, don’t you?”
“Coulda fooled me!” she hissed in pain making a face at him.
Mal chuckled. “You can dislike a job, Loan, n’ still be good at doing it.”
Loan’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Yeah? Well, I conjure you didn’t dislike it as much as you’re saying!”
Mal raised a brow at her impudence. “You wanna go again?”
Loan’s eyes widened. “No sir.”
“Didn’t think so,” Mal replied as he got up from the girl’s bunk. “You know we could both avoid this bit of thorny unpleasantry in the future if you’d stop being so stubborn.”
Loan sheepishly nodded in agreement. “I reckon so.”
Mal gave the girl an evil grin. “Well, I’ll always be around to help remind you. And I guarantee you, little Loan, my hand’ll outlast your stubborness every time.”
Loan watched Mal leave, a sour grapes look on her face from his last comment. She sighed heavily as she gingerly made her way over to her bed glaring at the hairbrush that had so recently been applied to her tender glowing bottom. She snatched the offending implement from where it lay and moodily pitched it across the room.
“Zhao wo ma fan (cause me trouble)!” the teen spat after it. “You’re goin’ out the airlock first chance I get!”