As a person who was not interested in parading his body around, having a pain is this rather private place was more than a bit embarrassing. How it transpired that he hurt in this particular place was also rather embarrassing. It was the fault of a girl. A little, petite girl. A little, petite girl who was a better shot at long distance than he'd ever be.
Maisie had gotten him into trouble more than once growing up on the ranch on Shadow. If she weren't the daughter of the Reynolds ranch foreman, Chi Linn, and his wife, Sophia, and his mei mei, in spirit if not in blood, he would have killed her long ago. Despite the sharp pain in his he chuckled at the thought. It was more than likely that Maisie would kill him first.
This whole thing had all started the last day of training on Persephone. Mal's squad, which included Maisie, was given leave to visit the city of Persephone itself on a eight hour pass in order to pick up sundries and let off a little steam. They were given the usual admonitions by the Shepherds not to drink or fight and to generally conduct themselves like admirable Independent soldiers. As usual with young soldiers granted freedom after a period of isolated training, this advice fell on deaf ears.
The transport had stopped in a commercial district just outside the boundary of the Eavesdown docks. The sergeant in charge of the transport came around to open the door and dispensed more last minute advice. Mal half listened as the sergeant launched into an impromptu sermon of his own. "I know you're gonna get drunk but don't get too drunk that you aren't here in eight hours. If you're not here we'll leave without you, and you'll be counted AWOL. You all know by now what that means."
"Keep an eye on each other. You can have your fun. Some of the locals here are all patriotic and will buy you more liquor than you can drink in a week once they see you in a brown coat, but some of em'll rob you blind in the space of a second."
"There ain't no Companions round here, not that any of you could attract or afford one, but there are plenty of good old fashioned working girls. Just be sure they don't cheat ya. Dong le mah?"
Before Mal could take in all of what the sergeant said he was playfully but viciously poked in the ribs by an elbow.
"Come on, do you want to do the shopping first, or go and do it first?" Maisie hissed.
"Chui se," he said affectionately, instead of poking back.
"What makes you think I'm gonna do this with you?" Mal asked.
Maisie said, " Coward, you promised"
"Mebbe I did, but what if I don't go through with it?"
"You'll do it. Because if you don't I'll tell everyone that you won't do it. I've heard that's it's a tradition from Earth-That-Was that soldiers and especially sailors come back with home with at least one. And
Becky will find out what we did on your weddin' night, if not before," Maisie taunted.
"I know, but don't mean I gotta be enthusiastic about this plan a yours. I'm only in this 'cause I promised your Pa that I'd see that you come to no harm. That's the only reason I'm gonna do it with you."
"I wonder if we should ask where one is?" Maisie asked.
"I'm sure there a lot of 'em hereabouts. There'll be signs."
A few of the other Browncoats from another squad quietly snickered at the two.
Mal gave them a threatening look and remarked quietly, "I'd keep my mouth shut, if I was you."
Another member of Mal's squad, Jonas Womble piped up quickly in a threatening voice. "You don't want to rile up Private Linn here. Not only is she the best shot in this whole daggone battalion, she's a bit of a wildcat when she uses her claws. And Mal here has quite a reputation with his fists. And if you make it through the both of them, you'll have to deal with the rest of us too."
The snickers looked quickly at each other, counted the members of Mal's squad versus the two of them and decided wordlessly that they didn't want to risk having various parts of their faces blooded before they had even gotten off the transport and quickly quieted.
The sergeant finished his sermon without knowing what had happened and stepped out of the way. The load of young soldiers headed out of the transport as fast as they could and dispersed quickly into the crowd, Mal and Maisie heading off together before the rest of their squad swept them up
Mal and Maisie wandered the streets for a while, trying not to gawk at all the strange sights, wrinkling their noses at the strong smells from the vendors that offered all sorts of exotic foods, and trying not to stare at the oddly dressed people that inhabited the dock area.
They did a little shopping. Mal wanted shaving soap and a new brush – shaving hadn't become boring yet and he was devoted to his straight razor and all its accessories. Maisie bought almond oil, useful for any number of purposes up to and including drizzling on hot cereal.
"You need any thing to drink, Mal? We can stop and get something. It's not like we're still underage, you know. I know you're not too keen on doing this." Maisie said, sounding a little concerned..
"I'm all right with this. Can't wait to do it." Mal said firmly.
"I didn't know the city would be this big. Have you seen one yet?" Maisie sounded more and more excited. "Wait, there's one over there."
"You sure that one's OK? Looks sorta seedy to me," Mal said, frowning a little.
"It looks OK. Anyway, how are we going to know without going in?"
The two entered the shop and looked around in amazement. Plastered on the walls were all sorts of illustrations, from simple Chinese designs and words like "Mother" to nude women in all sorts of positions.
Mal blanched at some of the racier drawings, but he held back from saying something to Maisie. She was so enthusiastic and besides, trying to dampen her enthusiasm would probably earn him more names like 'chicken-heart' and 'big baby' and 'scaredy cat' from Maisie.
"It's just about what I expected," Maisie said brightly. "It looks clean and hygienic to me, that's important."
"You really sure you want to do this?" An uncharacteristic hesitation crept into his speech.
"You promised." Maisie gave him a slightly pleading look. "I've got the design all laid out. Come on. I'll even go first. I think I'll get it put on my arm so everybody'll see it."
Mal sighed. He never could deny his mei mei anything. "Don't want it on my arm. Want it somewhere where only I know where it is. Like I said last night, on my hip. No one but me'll see it unless I want'em to."
About that time a muscular, bearded man approached the two, limping slightly. He was wearing a white apron over his shirt and pants. He wiped his hands on a clean towel as he came towards them.
"Can I help you? Name's Roger Wang. I'm the proprietor here." He stuck out his hand in the traditional way of a proprietor greeting a new customer.
Maisie piped up "We both want a tattoo, I've got the design right here." She thrust the paper into the man's outstretched hand. It was covered with a stylized kanji.
He studied the paper for a moment. "Looks pretty simple. The kanji for Shadow, huh? Guess you two must be some of the volunteers from the camp outside of town."
"Yes sir, we are." Maisie said with a proud air as she instinctively straightened her shoulders and stood as tall as her five foot two height would let her. "We want everyone to know where we're from."
"That right huh? Glad you two are gonna fight for the Independent cause. I'd be there myself if it wasn't for this bum knee." He got a faraway look in his eyes. "Where you want these tattoos?"
"I want mine on my right arm so that when I roll up my sleeve it'll be there."
"On my hip."
"Don't do many on the hip these days. Most want their tattoos where it'll show. Like to show off the art work. Now that I got an idea what you want, I can give you a price. Tell you what, since you're such fine upstanding young Browncoats, I'll give you a discount. How about 10 credits for both? If you want laser reversible ink it'll be a bit more."
"Regular ink'll be fine. Don't plan on getting it reversed so 10 credits, it is... You wanna go first, Maisie?" Mal said, as he uncrumpled a few bills from his pants pocket and laid them down on a nearby table.
Wang picked up the bills, smoothed them out and put them in a pocket on his apron. He gestured toward a chair which looked remarkably like a barber chair; Maisie sat down eagerly, taking off her uniform shirt to reveal a sleeveless white undershirt. She laid her small but muscular arm on a padded arm rest attached to the seat.
Wang got out his implements and proceeded to lay them out like a surgeon. "Every thing's sterilized and sanitized, not that you're askin'. Gotta a brand new laser tattoo system from Osiris 'bout eight months ago. Faster, sharper detail and it heals better."
Taking Maisie's arm in his hands, Wang took a long look at her upper arm, mentally laying out the design. He them showed her where he planned to put the tattoo. "That the right spot?" Maisie nodded yes, her mouth shut tight. Wang traced the design from Maisie's paper onto her arm. "Take a look. That what you want?" Maisie nodded yes again.
"Now I need you to put on these glasses and hold your arm out while I put some of this ointment on your arm. It'll help keep the pain down." Wang coated her upper arm with ointment from a tube he had laid out with his other implements.
"It's cold." She shivered as she slipped the glasses over her eyes.
"It'll take away a bit of the pain. You still feel more than a bit, but it helps."
The proprietor put on his own protective glasses before he flipped a couple of switches on the machine next to her. A curious whine filled the room and Wang pulled pulled a snake like tube over to her arm.
He traced the pattern of the kanji expertly onto her arm. The skin reddened and then darkened with the stain of the ink. As the design took shape he asked, "Am I hurtin' you?"
"It's bearable. No worse 'n one of Mal's Indian burns. 'Spect I'll feel worse later if I get shot," Maisie answered flippantly, sticking her tongue out at Mal.
"Aw, shut up, Maisie, you ain't ever gonna get shot. You'll shoot 'em first." Mal said, from the stool where he sat watching the process intently.
"You never know what God's got planned" Maisie said, suddenly serious. "Mal, you make sure I get back to Shadow if something happens to me." She looked up at Mal intently.
"Nothin's gonna happen to you. We're gonna drive the Alliance all the way back to Londinium on their pi guisand beyond. We'll be on the steps of Parliament by the beginning of December and back home in time for Christmas. If we aren't, I'll give you Janey's next foal. I got plans for the one she just had, but you can have the next."
"What am I goin' to do with a baby horse that I can't ride for at least two years when I'm out here shootin' Purplebellies?"
"Well, you can ride her when she's grown up. Iffen you graduate from that kid's pony you rode last season ," Mal gave her one of his wide, snarky smiles.
"Smokey's not a child's pony. He's the best dang cow horse in three counties." Maisie was getting annoyed with Mal and was even more irritated with him because she couldn't reach him to smack him. She was at her breaking point when the parlor owner pulled the tube from Maisie's arm and cut off the machine.
"All done. I'll cover it with a bandage for right now. Take it off in the next day or two, keep it clean and it should be OK." He took a deep breath hoping that his customers wouldn't come to blows. "You ready?"
"I reckon. Maisie, why don't you go in the other room while I get this done? Don't want your maidenly eyes to see somethin' they ain't supposed to see."
"Malcolm Reynolds, I've seen you skinny dippin' in the pond before, so what's to see?" Maisie broke into a knowing smile and her eyes squinted shut with glee. "If I remember right last summer your clothes disappeared while you were swimming and you had to run from the pond and across the barn yard naked as a jay bird. Not that I actually saw but I heard all about it. All about it."
Her laugh grew from nothing more than a little twitter to a full body shaking laugh. She had trouble composing herself enough to get the words out. "Didn't you ever wonder how those clothes up and walked away?"
Mal's face crimsoned in remembered embarrassment. "That was you? I tried for weeks to figure out who it was. And it was you! I should have known. Always messin' around and doin' stupid stuff that you think's funny. That was down right embrassin'. Something like that's gonna be the end of you one day. You'd do anything if you thought it was funny. You get on outta here Maisie Linn or I'll wear you out."
Maisie left with a gleeful smirk on her face and waited in a chair on the porch in front of the parlor for what seemed like an hour. She paced back and forth, wondering suddenly if maybe she hadn't ought to have bullied Mal into this. Well, too late now.
All of a sudden the whirring sound of the laser tattoo machine stopped. About five minutes later Mal emerged from the building, carrying his leg a little funny, and still looking tight around the mouth when he saw Maisie. He nodded brusquely at her.
"You still mad at me for stealin' your clothes or for makin' you get a tattoo? I just couldn't resist stealin' them clothes – they were just askin' to be stole, sittin' on that rock, all by their lonesome. Had to be really sneaky, made sure you didn't see me.
Maisie looked so proud of her exploit that Mal couldn't be mad at her any longer.
"I forgive you. I guess I forgive you." She could always bring him around no matter what she did.
Maisie gave him a quick peck on the check. "You'll always be my ge ge no matter what."
Later that night Mal's right thigh was on fire. It hurt more than he cared to admit and he had a sudden sympathy for every calf he'd ever branded. Wo de ma, is this what that had felt like to those little critters? He'd have something to think about come branding time.
He was beginning to regret what he'd let Maisie talk him into getting a tattoo. . But then he reconsidered a bit. This was something that would remain with him for the rest of his life. And if the Alliance were to get a hold of him somehow, they would be no doubt where his heart was. On his backside – well, all right, not on his backside, but at least right where they couldn't miss it.