Sins of the Past - Chapter One

Author owns no rights what-so-ever to Firefly, nor the universe in which it lives. He writes solely for his own amusement. It's okay not to sue him.

Mal hobbled from his car to his office, leaning heavily on his cane. After three months of therapy and rehab, he still wasn't able to get around as well as he once had. And Simon had warned him he might never regain all of his mobility.

Mal sighed at the thought. He was used to being active. Going, doing, without a thought. He had taken that for granted. True, he'd been shot, stabbed, cut, injured dozens of times through his turbulent life. But the explosion that had injured him and killed Kathy Baker had done more damage than Mal had ever received at one time, even in Niska's hands. Thinking of Niska made Mal shudder a bit, and made him think fleetingly of Hoban Washburne. He still missed the little man. Figured he always would. He couldn't imagine how much more Zoe missed him.

But Zoe was moving on. She and Butler Tarrant were doing just fine it seemed to him, and Mal was glad for it. Zoe had been alone for too long, and Goldie seemed just the kind of man she needed. He was good to her, and would cheerfully die to keep her safe. Which placed him high on Mal's list of 'okay things about men involved with my women'.

Mal almost snorted at that. Any of them would cheerfully re-injure him if they heard him call them 'his' women. Inara especially. But that was how Mal thought. They were his. His friends, his crew, his people. His family. They were his to protect.

He left those thoughts behind as he limped into his office. Everyone was glad to see him, none more than Toby Bontrager. When Mal had come back to work three weeks ago, Toby had almost bowed in thanks, and immediately took a week's vacation. True, he had given Mal a week to get caught up, but the second week Mal was back, Toby was 'fishing in an undisclosed location'. He hadn't left any contact information, either.

Mal couldn't say he blamed the man. The office was a busy place, with Planetary Marshals still coming by from time to time to interview folks, look over evidence, and review case files. The Nine of Bickford Parish was only one of many, and the Argo Marshals Office was doing it's dead level best to roll up the rest of them, moon wide.

"Morning boss," Evelyn smiled. "Coffee on your desk, along with the night watch reports."

"You're a gift from heaven, woman," Mal assured her. Evelyn giggled lightly, then turned to answer her phone. Mal walked on into his office. Taking a seat, he sipped the always excellent coffee, then perused the night reports. Cattle missing, crops destroyed by off road riders, suspected drug operation that turned out to be a bunch of kids working to get a huge hot-rod tractor ready for the parish fair tractor pull. All in all, not too bad. He needed to see about those missing cattle, though. And try to find the vandals who had plowed through Mr. Hutchins field. That was taking money from folks pocket.

"Call for you, boss," Evelyn's voice came through his intercom. "I think it's Miss Inara." Mal picked up the phone at once.

"Sheriff speaking," he said in his most authoritative voice.

"Very impressive," Inara's smooth, educated voice floated to him over the com. "I told you to wake me before you left, Mal."

"You looked so peaceful, I couldn't," Mal replied defensively.

"I have things to do, you know," Inara's voice was only slightly agitated, so Mal was fairly sure she wasn't really angry. Like 'sleep on the couch until further notice' angry.

"I'm sorry," he said as contritely as he could. He wasn't, of course, and she knew it. But saying the words seemed to work. Usually.

"Well, I'll be in town looking at that building of Mrs. Brown's today. You want to meet and have lunch? Or will you be too busy?"

"Never too busy for you, ai ren," Mal replied at once. He knew the answer to that one.

"Good. I'll meet you at the restaurant. Say about one?"

"One's good for me," Mal smiled.

"I'll see you then," Inara told him. "I love you," she added, her voice softer. Gentler.

"Love you more!" Mal said, then snapped the com off quickly to avoid the comeback. It was a game they played. He didn't always win, but figured he held his own. He stood, stiffly, and wandered out into the lobby again.

"Everything lookin' good this mornin'?" he asked. Evelyn nodded.

"Yes, boss. Two men are in court this morning, so we're slightly short handed, but things are quiet so it shouldn't be a problem. Toby's in his office, by the way. And the Greggs boys are looking into the vandalism. Said they thought they might know who was responsible, and they would 'counsel' with them." Mal grinned at that. The only 'counseling' those two knew how to do involved fists and bruises.

"I feel sure they'll take good care of it," he almost laughed. He headed down the hall to Toby's office. He found his Investigator looking over the same reports he himself had seen.

"See you're up early," Toby smiled, when Mal knocked lightly on the open door, then walked in to take a seat.

"Early bird gets the worm," Mal nodded.

"How about the rustlers?" Toby asked, pointing at the report on his desk. "This is the fifth one in just two months. We've always had a bit o' trouble with this, but never like now. This has got to be organized rustling, Mal. And I don't have a clue who's behind it."

"Any kinda pattern?" Mal asked.

"None that I can see," Toby admitted.

"Maybe I can let River take a look," Mal offered. "She's a rare genius. If there is a pattern to it, she may can see it."

"I'll take anything I can get," Toby assured him.

"I'll do that, then. Anything else of interest?"

"Just rumblings," Toby shrugged. "Still a lotta talk about the Nine, o' course. Nothin' specific, mind you, just rumors. Some folks think that the main group is lyin' low for now, on account o' the Marshals being on to'em. Others think they'll hit us back, and not be too much longer doin' it."

"What do you think?" Mal asked.

"I don't think so," Toby said flatly. "We hurt'em, and the Marshals are hurtin'em worse. To my mind, it ain't worth the trouble to go after a little outfit like ours that happened to get lucky in takin' one o' their satellite outfits down. Too much chance they'd lose more than they have already." He leaned forward.

"Problem is, with no criminal 'boss' so to speak, we're seein' more and more enterprising individuals tryin' to fill the void here in Bickford. We're still keepin'em stoppered for now, but I don't know that it'll last."

"I want us to stay on it," Mal informed him. "Once the new folks get done with their training, we'll have Blade and her crew back as a kinda strike force. We'll set them on anyone who looks to be settin' up any sort o' organized crime activity. That should help."

"Yeah, that oughta do fine," Toby smiled. Mal stood.

"Well, let's us drive out and talk to Mister Fletcher about his wayward cows. We might get lucky and they've all wandered home by now."

"And pigs'll fly," Toby snorted, but stood and got his hat.

"I'd like to see that, actually. . . ."

"Your portfolio is doing quite well, Mrs. Ironhorse. The latest round of stock purchases has nearly doubled in value, and the bond issue has already turned up two points. I, uh, hope you don't mind, but I took the liberty of purchasing some of the bonds myself, on your advice."

"Of course not, Mister Jerrolds," River smiled sweetly at the man on the screen. "Anytime you want to follow me, feel free. Just remember," she cautioned, "I'm prone to gamble. I wouldn't want you to lose your shirt."

"I'll keep that in mind," Fredrick Jerrolds replied drily. "So far, though, you're batting one thousand. I don't let my business interfere with my representing you, however. Your patronage is far too valuable for that."

"I knew that without you telling me, Fredrick," River assured him. "If I didn't think I could trust you, you wouldn't be handling my money, or my business affairs. Is there anything else we need to discuss?"

"Not that I know of, ma'am," Jerrolds shook his head. "I'll look into the new acquisitions you mentioned, and send you a message if I manage to get them."

"That will be fine," River nodded. "Until next time." She killed the wave, and sat back, smiling. Her initial investments had done nicely. Her fledgling company was now looked at with envy, though no one knew who she was, aside from Jerrolds. And he didn't know the truth.

And she paid him well enough that he didn't want to know.

Rising from the cortex screen in shuttle two, she walked out into the passageway of the Private Companion. Pausing, she stretched out with her mind to check on everything and everyone.

Holly was napping in the engine room, taking a trick from Kaylee's book. He had strung a hammock similar to hers, and spent a good deal of his time there, in case he was needed.

Jayne was in the cargo bay, working out. She smiled at that, picturing his muscles working under the strain, and the sweat covered body that would result from the exercise.

Her daydreaming was jolted by a spike of anger from Liam Greggs. She concentrated for a moment, then smiled gently as she realized the source.

Chelsa, the girl that she and Jayne had found on Aberdeen, and then adopted, was apparently reading Liam the riot act over something. Probably the attractive young daughter of the family that had booked passage to Astra on this flight. River had seen the atypical 'farmer's daughter' eyeing Liam appreciatively at dinner.

Liam hadn't returned her looks, however, so River had to assume that Chelsa was angry at the girl, not Liam. But, since she couldn't march down to the passenger dorms and yank the other girl's hair out, she had to be content with making sure Liam knew where his bread was buttered.

Shaking her head in amusement at teen age love, River headed for the bridge, to check on their heading. As she walked, she reflected on the last six months.

Mal was healing, though he might never fully recover from the injuries he'd sustained in the blast that had killed Kathy Baker. He walked with a cane, and Simon was afraid he probably always would.

Zoe and Goldie seemed to be closer than ever, not that she and Jayne saw much of them anymore. Business had been picking up, with Serenity and Companion often passing each other going to and fro. She was glad the two of them had each other.

Inara had postponed opening her finishing school until Mal was back on his feet, but already it was the talk of the moon. She and Mal had bought a house in town, one large enough to serve as both a home, and a school. Once it was properly renovated, they wouldn't be around as often, which meant she wouldn't see much of them, either.

Simon was still at the clinic, though it had been enlarged by now to the point it was nearly a hospital. Not only did he care for the employees at Guilford, and their families, he also provided medical services to the entire community, which was some fifty miles from town. A long way to go, when you were sick or hurting.

Kaylee and her father, who had chosen to stay with them on Argo, had opened a mechanic shop not far from the plant. Though there wasn't so much in the way of shipping, machines were machines, and both Kaylee and her father, Caleb, had the 'touch' where any kind of machinery was concerned.

Kaylee's brother, Gerald, had also stayed, working now on Serenity, along with Rebecca Phillips, the daughter of one of Mal's deputies that had died in the line of duty recently. Kaylee's sister, Sophie, a nurse, had also stayed, working with Simon in the clinic. Once Simon and Kaylee's house was finished, Sophie would inherit the apartment over the clinic where the couple lived now.

All in all, things were going fairly smoothly for once, though the cost had been high. More than one had died, and several had been seriously injured, including Liam, who had taken a bullet to his chest to save Chelsa. As River settled into her seat, the only fly in the ointment was how to tell Jayne about her secret. She didn't expect him to react too badly, but she felt guilty about keeping it from him at all.

She'd make it up to him. Smiling, she went to work.

"What are you doing?"

Butler 'Goldie' Tarrant eased from beneath the engine he was working on, and looked up at Zoe. The warrior woman was standing nearby, weight on one leg and hip shot out to the side, looking down at him with a frown.

"Uh. . .workin'?" Goldie replied. Darn but Zoe looked good standing there like that. Except for that frown. . . .Goldie ran through a mental checklist entitled 'Things I Should Never, EVER, Do', but came up empty. He'd been a good boy for several days now.

"And why is it that you're layin' there, 'workin'?" Zoe made a quote mark with her hands.

"Um. . .it needed doin'?" Goldie answered, just as if he were a student taking an oral exam. And didn't know the right answer.

"Not today, it don't," Zoe informed him. "Haul your freight outta there, and get that grime off. You're takin' me on a picnic."

"I am?" Goldie immediately went through another mental checklist, this one called 'Things I should Never, EVER, forget', but once more came up blank.

"You are," Zoe nodded firmly. "It's a beautiful day outside, and we're takin' advantage of it. Now let's get movin'."

"Yes'm," Goldie nodded, rising from the floor. "Won't be a few minutes," he promised, heading straight for the shower.

"Better not be."

Inara looked at the stack of paperwork waiting for her, and couldn't suppress a frown. She couldn't be mad at Mal for letting her sleep, but she did have a great deal to do. There seemed to be an enormous amount of paperwork involved for something as simple as a finishing school. There couldn't be much more work involved in opening a real school.

Better get to it, or it will still be here later, she decided. Scarcely had Inara settled in at her desk when the cortex lit up. Sighing in aggravation, she reluctantly reached up and opened the wave. A severe looking woman appeared, and Inara recognized her at once as the Head Mistress of House Madrassa. A knot formed in her stomach.

"Mistress Selene, this is an unexpected pleasure," Inara put on her best business smile, and inclined her head respectfully.

"Inara, dear," the old hen purred. "You look lovely! How are you faring?"

"I'm very well, actually," Inara smiled again. "And how are you? You look wonderful, yourself."

"Pish," the hen cackled. "I'm an old and worn out woman, and you know it, child. Everything I have, that I can still feel, either hurts, or refuses to work. Life is catching up to me very quickly, I'm afraid."

"I don't believe that for a minute," Inara laughed, though it was strained. No one in Selene's position called just to chit chat. Especially not someone who had turned her back on the Guild.

"I'll get straight to the point, dear," Selene confirmed Inara's suspicion. "I've heard from the tribunal." Inara's heart threatened to seize. She had forgotten that. She had been gone for so long that she had long since forgotten that the Guild still had a hold over her.

"Oh?" she managed not to squeak. "After so long, I had wondered if I'd ever hear from them."

"Well, your case was deliberated for a long time," Selene replied, as if confiding a great secret to a star pupil. "There was a great deal of discussion, actually."

"May I ask what their decision was?" Inara fought not to hold her breath.

"The Guild has officially removed your status as a Companion, Inara," Selene told her swiftly. "That was a forgone conclusion, of course," the hen waved her hand in dismissal. "What took so long was a decision on the amount of remuneration you would be charged for violating your pact."

"I would have thought that the loss of my retirement would have covered that, Mistress," Inara said. "It was a sizeable sum, as I recall."

"That money was never rightfully yours, Inara, as I'm sure you're aware," the hen almost sneered in delight. "It was yours upon your retirement, not upon your being summarily dismissed. As per your pact with the Guild, that money is now forfeit, and the rightful property of the Guild."

"Then how much am I being forced to pay for my freedom?" Inara asked, her voice tinged with anger. The older woman leaned forward, eyes glittering with anger.

"Don't take that tone with me, you little tramp," she snarled. "You knew what would happen, when you turned your back on us."

"I asked how much," Inara fought to remain calm. This woman was dangerous, and could still cause trouble for her.

"Forty thousand credits," Selene announced triumphantly. Inara couldn't contain the gasp that escaped her lips.

"Forty thou. . . ." She cut herself off at that, fighting to regain her composure. "Surely that's excessive," she managed.

"Not at all," Selene replied airily. "We taught you, Inara. Housed and fed you, saw to your medical needs. To your every need, in fact. Surely you didn't think that the Guild would release one of it's star pupils without some form of compensation, did you?"

"I'm calling to let you know that you have two weeks to repay your debt to the Guild. After that, it will be out of my hands, and become a legal matter. I trust I don't have to explain what that means?"

"No, you don't," Inara's voice was cold, now. "I will require a signed receipt for the money, however, which clearly and expressly releases me from any future obligations to the Guild."

"You aren't in any position to be making demands, dear," Selene's voice was steel.

"Then it will become a legal matter, I suppose," Inara shrugged. "I'm not going to be held up by the Guild every year from now on. I'll pay you your forty-thousand credits in exchange for a complete and total release, in writing. Otherwise, we'll have to settle it in court."

Selene looked venomous, and Inara wondered at her courage. Apparently the past year or three had stiffened her own spine.

"Very well," Selene almost spat. "You'll have it. Two weeks, Inara. Not a day more." With that the screen went blank as the old hen cut the signal.

Inara sat stock still for some time, before burying her head in her hands, sobbing uncontrollably.