The cat and the pilot

The crowded streets of Persephone had become familiar territory. The whole planet was practically their second home, so he knew every shop and vendor on this particular street. He had bought something from pretty much everyone, except for the small pet store on the corner.

Mal had never been one for pets. He had the cattle and his horse. That was all he needed growing up. Fish were for eating, birds were for watching, rabbits were for hunting.

He'd pass that shop a million times, but he never went in. There was no point. Every animal in there was legal. He was only interested in them if they were of the illegal variety.

River, on the other hand, loved pets. She had a fish growing up and, at one point, a hamster named Edgar. Then there was Fifi, her bunny. Simon had a dog named Hopkins for a little while too. They were always great company. So, when she saw the pet shop, she turned to Mal with a big smile.

"Can we go into the pet store? Please, Captain?" she begged excitedly.

"Fine, but you're not gettin' anything."

She beamed and grabbed his coat sleeve to pull him towards the door. It was her latest habit. He knew the way. He could walk. Still, she insisted on pulling him everywhere. Not that he minded.

They entered the small store, and he wrinkled his nose at the strong stench of wood chips and wet fur. He leaned towards an enclosure, glancing inside just briefly. A frog leapt at the glass and he recoiled to the lilted sound of his albatross's laughter.

"Little froggy won't hurt you," she smirked.

He shook his head and followed her graceful footsteps down a long aisle. She abruptly stopped and turned towards one of the cages. Her eyes got wider and a smile crossed her face.

He stood awkwardly behind her, leaning over her shoulder at the cat inside the cage.

There was nothing extraordinary about the feline. It was solid black, save three white hairs in the center of its chest. It was older, long and lean, with a slender tail curled into a perfect question mark. The only thing that stood out was its big, golden eyes that reminded him all too much of a certain mindreading pilot…

"Her name is May," River informed him. She frowned suddenly.

"What?" he asked.

"Her family left her. They had to move and she couldn't come. Been here a long time. No one wants an older kitty."

"That's real sad. We should get goin' soon."

The owner saw them and briskly ambled to their side. "Can I help ya?"

"No," Mal said quickly.

The cat in the crate mewed loudly, almost as if it were protesting. Mal watched in amazement as River leaned forward and the cat touched her nose with her own. She giggled when the cat's paw reached out and snatched some of her hair.

"I see yer lookin' at May. It's a shame really. I gotta put her down today."

River's head snapped towards him with a grimace tugging at her mouth. "Why?"

"I gotta make room. I can't take care of her forever."

"You can't kill her!" River cried, returning to the crate. The pained expression on her face and the tears forming her big, brown eyes tore a hole in Mal's heart.

"Are cats easy to take care of?" he asked.

"Yeah. They can be totally indoor. May's already box trained. She's old, so she don't play much. She's real calm. Sleeps mostly."

Mal looked back at River who was still bonding with the thing, talking to it and stroking it through the bars. The words slipped out before he knew he had said them.

"We'll take her."

An hour later, they were back on Serenity. He lugged the tons of things they bought for the gorram cat while River carried the fancy, little carrier they got for her.

Mal put all of the stuff in her room. May had already curled up on River's pillow like it was home.

"Listen up lil' albatross," he began sternly. "That thing is yours. You take care of it. You're responsible for it. Keep it out of the way. I'm not takin' care of that thing and neither is anyone else. From now on food and whatever else it needs comes outta your paycheck. And—"

She hugged him with a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you, Captain."

And just like that, he forgot the rest of his speech. "Take good care of it after all the ruttin' money it cost."

She grinned. "I will."

He nodded and looked at the black ball of fuzz he just spent over half of his cut on. He walked out shaking his head. That crazy little witch had him whipped.