Ch. 2: Hunter in SpaceTitle: Firefly: Shadow’s DawningAuthor: Amanda Rau (manda091987)Show: Firefly/SerenityCharacters/Pairing: (Characters) All from Firefly/Serenity (Pairing) Mal/AthenaDisclaimer: All characters and story are the sole property of Fox/Joss Whedon. Athena is mine. Please ask for permission for the use of any added material or characters.-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------After a tour of Serenity, Athena went back to her allotted space. She got to work on unpacking all her more personal items, finding places for the things that had sentimental meaning. Once finishing, Thena cleaned herself up, changed into fresh clothing, then navigated toward Serenity’s galley. When she arrived, Book was already present, portioning ingredients in preparation.“Shepherd. May I help you?”“I was told you liked to cook. I would welcome your help.” She went past him, going to the other side. His eyes closed as her scent permeated the space surrounding him. “That smell.”Athena glanced at him. “I’m sorry if it's--”He looked up at her from opening his eyes. “It’s not overpowering.” He smiled. “It has been some time since I have smelled anything so fresh and clean. I’m merely reveling a bit.”“I’m a bit of a sucker for being hygienic. It’s why I had my shuttle fitted with its own water supply.”“I’ve noticed that comes when the soul feels dirty.”She huffed. “Mine feels that way consistently.”Book gently nodded his head. “I was told about your line of work. I am here should you ever need to talk.”Athena leaned against the counter. “I had a Shepherd that I met with frequently. I needed that source of comfort after a job. If you are up for the abuse…”“How is it abuse?” he wondered.“I tend to take the service for granted,” she admitted. “By that, I mean to say that I’m not the type to sugar coat. You will know everything about me and what I do. I trust you because you are bound to secrecy, due in no small part, to your position.”“As you should,” he responded. “This is part of my job, to listen, Athena.”“I understand. I just want to be upfront, Shepherd. I never assume anything about anyone, but I also have no illusions about you.” Her eyes traced him. “There is an aura, darkness in your eyes. The others might not see it, or worse, they do but ignore it. What I will bring to you is the demon inside. It means you no harm but is harmful. This… spiritual vulnerability, nakedness is not given lightly. You will know everything about me, and it could change how you see me.”“It will,” he guaranteed. “I did come across another. Their confessions were shocking, to say the least. I even learned, at a later time, that I counseled one of this woman’s victims. You’re not the only one with darkness, young Athena. I simply chose not to live amidst mine. You have to because of your line of work. I will cherish and accept you as God would. He loves all His children, regardless of their walk of life.”“At least we’re in good company.”Shepherd voiced, “We are.”After soft expressions were exchanged, Book nudged some vegetables and a knife her way with a smile. The two proceeded to prepare dinner for them and the rest of the crew. Athena homemade some wontons for wonton soup and helped Book with chive dumplings and orange braised ribs. As everything was finishing up, Book set the table and brought the dumplings and ribs over. Athena brought over bowls of wonton soup just as everyone began to file in.“It smells amazing.” Kaylee took her seat.Wash brushed off a chair, then scooted down, putting Athena’s chair to his left. He patted the seat.“Pop a squat, Thena.”She gracefully bowed her head. “As you wish.”Zoe and Mal entered, taking their places.“Smells good, Shepherd.” Zoe readied her plate.“Not all the credit is mine tonight.”“You helped?” Kaylee wondered, staring at Athena.“She’s a natural.” Zoe picked up her utensils.“It sits at the table with people, blessing us with its presence,” Inara ridiculed as she took her seat at the other end.Athena’s smile, from a joke Wash told, quickly faded. She wiped her mouth. “I should eat in my room. I’m messing up the dynamic of the table.”Mal put his hand on her resting wrist. “No. You’re welcome at this table.”“Yes.” Inara placed her napkin on her lap. “We accept all kinds of beings from all walks of life. Just remember to swallow as you are in polite company.”“Wow, that was effortlessly put. Must come from hearing it from clients all day long.”Once again, laughter was stifled, except Jayne, who laughed out loud, pointing to Athena. “A reference for he—”“Jayne!” Zoe and Mal said in unison.“What?” he asked.“The ape.” Wash shook his head.Inara voiced, “About as much as you’ve heard, ‘that was easy’, I’d imagine.”Athena huffed, setting her chopsticks down. She looked at Mal then bowed her head, getting up from the table. Before she left, she leaned down, staring into Inara’s eyes.“Being with a companion isn’t supposed to involve work. If it’s not easy, you aren’t doing it right. That explains why you have a lot of tension. Especially when one’s only tool is her mouth, she can’t shut.”Athena exited the Mess Hall, going back to her space.“Wash?” Zoe turned to him.He understood Zoe’s expression. He stood, grabbing Athena’s plate, placing it on a tray, along with the bowls of soup. Wash soon followed the woman’s trail to her room.“Thank you, Wash.” Mal waited for him to leave, then faced Inara. “I thought we had an understanding.”“We do. Athena’s here, is she not? I never stated anything about being kind when she was.”“Of course, you didn’t.” Mal scoffed.The remainder of dinner was awkward, but they still talked and laughed over stories, mostly due to Book trying to break the tension.***Wash and Athena were sitting comfortably on her couch. Athena was cross-legged, facing his position to her left. Wash had only his right leg resting on the cushion. Their tray was on her table, picking the last little bits off the platters as they laughed over a story she had finished telling.“It was one of my more interesting jobs.”Wash’s eyes went to slits. “I think going through all the effort is a bit extreme, but the professional knows best.”“I suppose so.”“How did you turn to bounty hunting?” Wash wondered.“Well” she maneuvered, “I lost my husband and son to such people.”“I wasn’t told how they were taken,” he confessed.“The Guild spared no expense.”“The Guild?” Wash’s eyes popped. “From the way Inara talks about her work and employers, it doesn’t sound like that type of organization.”“Which is why they get away with it.”Wash exhaled. “Not too happy about that, I suppose.”“No,” she replied. “They came after me, but I wasn’t home, so they took them instead.”“How long ago?” Wash inquired.“A little over three years now.”“I’m sorry.”“Don’t be.” She shook her head. “I’m not. Not anymore, at least. I miss them every day. But I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. Some call it God, Buddha, Muhammed, Nature, Karma, Positive Energy, Negative Energy, The Forces That Be... I was needed here, this time and place, more than they needed me and me them.”“So you trained for this job?”“Yes,” she confirmed. “A man found me. There is no literal translation of what he is. To the Earth-That-Was, he’d be compared to a Shaman or Monk in behavior, assassin or mercenary in profession. He taught me a great many things. My training was intense, almost killed me a few times, but I took to it much quicker than most.”“Are you set?” She glanced at him. He shook his head. “What I mean is, have you made vows that would stop you from having another family if you want it?”She shook her head. “We do make vows, and some do require more of themselves to do this profession, but I am not so strict with mine. Though, it’s tricky. To have someone in my life filling that particular position would be demanding and require that they know everything, every single detail. If any such men exist, they’d also have enough common sense to steer clear of me. It’s a double-edged sword. I’m not actively looking, but I do believe I will marry again, have more children, despite the odds. It is something I desire.”“You are a courageous woman, Thena.”“Some days.” She bobbed her head.“Wash” he deepened his voice to an ominous tone, “this is your captain speaking.” Both Athena and Wash glanced at each other with amused expressions. Mal’s voice returned to normal. “You’re married, stop dotin on the beautiful goddess, and get to the bridge to fly my ship.”Wash picked up their plates and set them on the tray.“I better go, or he’s going to keep going, finally resorting to embarrassing us both.”She chuckled. “Thank you for joining me, Wash. It was kind of you.” She took a deep breath, slowly releasing it. “It’s been a long time since I have been able to laugh how I have in your company.”“You know where to find me, should you need to feel a little bit of humanity.”Wash left the shuttle, carrying everything to the kitchen where Book added the dishes to the others. The pilot continued to the cockpit, Zoe patiently waiting, Mal impatiently waiting.“Thank you for joining us.” Mal leaned over the helm.Wash motioned to Mal as he peered at Zoe. “You just stood there and let him misbehave?” She stifled a laugh. “So it’s funny?”“It is! I know you’d never do anything with her.”“I could. Thena’s a beautiful woman.” Wash crossed his arms.“That woman is out of your league,” Mal rebutted.“You’ve seen my wife, right?” Wash pointed to her. “Oh wait, I get it. Thena out of my league because you’re dragging her, kicking and screaming, into yours.”“Yes.” Mal’s ocean blue orbs bounced between them. “I thought the flirtin made that obvious.”They chuckled.“Thanks, Wife, for taking me for granted.”“You’re welcome, Husband.” Zoe put her hands on his shoulder.“Badger has somethin for us,” Mal stated.Wash sat down, responding with a sarcastic tone, “Oh! Goodie!”“E.T.A?”“Uh” Wash pressed a few buttons, “from here, I’d say ten days if there are no surprises.”“Good.” Mal jerked his head.“You wanted to see me?” Inara stepped in.“Zoe, go get Athena and bring her to my room, please.”“Yes, Sir.”Zoe retreated. Mal inched closer to Inara. “You’re right. What you said at dinner. I respect it. Athena told me what happened between you two—““What did she say about it?” Inara inquired.“It’s none of your gorram business what we discussed. Just as it’s none of hers what you and I discuss. This is nothin more than a courtesy. Out of respect for our comradery, I will give you this one and only warnin: Athena is now a member of this crew. My crew; your crew. Whatever you do to my crew, you do to me. You ever step out of line like that again, you will be permanently banned from eating with us. Do we have an understandin?”Inara glared at him. It appeared as if she wanted to protest, but she decided against it. Instead, she chose mockery, “As you wish, my Captain.”“Don’t call me that,” he retorted. “It’s fair for you to be angry at me even. But you said you were okay with this. So be okay with it, or find somewhere else to hang your robe.”“Fine.”“Persephone is our next destination. Let your clients know.”“Gladly,” she snorted.Inara left. Mal put his hands on his face, rubbing his eyes. “羔羊中的孤羊, she’s going to be the death of me.” (Motherless goats of all motherless goats.)Wash chuckled. “No one stays on this ship very long before whatever is tense gets more relaxed. It’s too confined.”“Athena?” Mal inquired.“She’s fine.” Wash reported.“Good.” Mal slapped Wash’s upper chest as he left the cockpit.“Ow.” Wash said quietly.There was a knock at the door.“Come in.”Zoe complied, seeing Athena sitting on her bed partially naked, rubbing in lotion.“I’m sorry.”Athena snickered. “Don’t apologize, Venus. I’m not shy. Unless you are.”“Not generally.”Athena put her tank top on. “Did you need something?”“The Captain wanted to see you.”Athena stood, following Zoe. When they arrived at Mal’s quarters, Zoe motioned, then kept walking. After she disappeared behind the walls, Athena opened Mal’s door, descending the ladder. Mal was positioned at his sink, pants still on, suspenders falling to the side, shirtless. He was cleaning his face.“Is this a bad time?” she wondered.“No. I asked for you.”She jerked her head. “You did.”His hands supported his weight as he leaned on the sink, blue eyes gazing at the woman to his left. “How are you?”“If you’re referring to what happened during dinner, I’m fine. But, I should be apologizing to you.” She stepped over, leaning against the wall to the left of Mal. “I underestimated the amount of anger she has toward me.”“Don’t apologize, Atty.” Her eyes glimmered with his added nickname. “Hey, you give me one; I have to give you one too.”She shivered. “All is fair in love and war, My Captain.”He took his shirt off the bed he had worn that day and wrapped it around her. “I prefer it cold when I sleep as well.”“It’s the only way to sleep. It’s my fault, however. I probably shouldn’t be walking around the ship in minimal clothing.”“Hell of a view, though.”Her left eyebrow rose. “Flirt.”He poured her some whisky, then handed her the cup after she took a seat on his bed. “Has it ever crossed your mind to tell Inara what actually happened?”Athena thought for a moment after taking a sip of her drink. “No.” She peered into his eyes. “Reyn, my sister was told, by The Guild, that I fell into a habit with unsavory types. That they let me go when they found out I was sick with an S.T.D. Months later, they persisted in their festering, claiming I was trying to pollute her clientele and usurp The Guild itself. She gave me an earful without even being willing to hear my side. That’s when we stopped speaking. She chose The Guild over her own sister, her own flesh and blood. I couldn’t justify a reason to stick by her after that, especially given everything else we went through. My love for her never waned, just my respect and faith that things could be better.”“I know the feeling.”Athena observed Mal. “You and her…?”Mal shook his head, sighing. “It wouldn’t be right to divulge anything until you and I are closer.”Athena put her hand up. “You don’t owe me anything.”“Maybe I want to. Just wanna get better acquainted first.” He noticed Athena hiding a smile behind her whisky glass. He continued, “She chose her work. So believe me when I say I know how you’re feelin.”“I’m sorry.”“Don’t be.” He swallowed a sip of his drink. “I love her, but not in that way. Haven’t for a while. I just miss my friend. It seemed like we were finally getting to a good place till a few days ago.”“I hope you don’t let my situation with her color your opinion. She is a good person.”“How are you this kind to her despite how she feels about you?” Mal questioned.“She’s only this way with me. I have my theories as to why, but I will only ever truly know when she decides to tell me. But, I’ve seen a lot more in this life than she has. I chose to make the most out of it; to revel in the positive and good things; the love.”“Maybe because I’m a man who’s seen more than his fair share, I can see the look of another who has too.”She exhaled. “Reavers, war, torture, undignified death... It’s a lot. But I promise that I’m sane. I just struggle with where it leaves me some days.”“I think you have your work to thank for that. Quiets the ghosts I’m sure.”“Not always,” she confessed. “I try to make the kills quick and clean. There are times where that isn’t possible. I’m forced to conduct my work on harsher terms.”“You have to stay alive, Atty.”“Perhaps.” She jerked her head. “I’m sure you didn’t call me in here to dig through my life’s rather uninteresting, depressing story.”“No, but I would like to give it a read sometime.”She gazed into his eyes. “Someday, I will let you.”Mal’s sharp inhale caused their staring contest to end. “We’re heading for Persephone. Wash’s E.T.A puts us there in about ten days. Thought you should know so you can contact your people.”“I will, thank you.”Athena stood, setting her cup on the table across from the bed. Before she could get too far, Mal’s voice stopped her.“Atty.”“Yes, Reyn.” She turned.“If you ever need help with your work—“She stepped closer, putting up her hand. “I thank you for the offer. It will be an adjustment working without Silas, but he wasn’t always with me. I wouldn’t put my bounties over the crew’s head. You have some amazing people here. I wouldn’t be kind to myself if anything happened to them.”“I didn’t offer their help. I offered mine.”Her expression softened. “Thank you. But, despite the humane methods in which I complete my bounties, there is still an animal inside of me. There has to be. It’s a side of me no one should have to see. Especially you.”“Why me?”“You’re not the only one curious if there is chemistry.”“Oh.”She shook her head. “I’ve been out of companionship for some time. My skills are a bit rusty. But I’m not afraid to admit that I find you attractive, Mal, and we’ve bonded over some personal information. I’d like it to develop organically in the way it does, no matter the outcome. Keeping you away from what I do will ensure that whatever happens between us is a natural course.”Mal nodded. “I can respect that.”She went to remove his shirt, but he grabbed the sides, pulling them together. Blue eyes glanced from her breast to her hazel orbs, their faces close enough to feel the other’s breath. “You’re still cold. Give it back to me tomorrow.”They gave each other one last glimpse, then Athena made her way out of his room. Mal took a few deep breaths as he cleaned out the cups of whisky.Athena made it back to her space, closing the door and plopping down in front of her terminal. She turned it on, then made a call. A few moments later, an older but pretty woman appeared.“Alianna.”“Goddess.”“I am making my way to Persephone. I should be there in about ten days,” she divulged.“I’ll have everything ready for you. Send me a message when you dock.” “I will.”The transmission ended, Athena tiptoeing to her bed. She sat on the mattress, tired eyes peering over to the light on the closest nightstand. Simulated stars appeared overhead after a click elicited from the switch. Her exhausted body plopped down, covetous arms bringing a pillow closer as she rolled to her side. Athena breathed deep, the scent of Mal’s shirt filling her senses.Athena abruptly rose, knife extended, panicked panting, causing an all too familiar tightness in her chest. Her heart raced, mind adjusting to the realization that it was a nightmare. She plunked on the mattress, placing her right hand over her bare breast. Eyes closed as the woman stabilized her breathing, then stood, going to the bathroom. She used the restroom, then pulled out the sink. Tremoring hands washed her face, pooling her hair into a messy bun, as dainty feet padded to the main area. Athena dressed in some comfortable clothing in preparation for yoga. She pulled out her mat, enduring through sequences, trying to calm her nerves. Ending with meditation only aided in the tranquility. After finishing, Thena sauntered to the galley. When she entered, Book was to the right, meditating on the bible.“I’m sorry, Shepherd.”“It’s all right. I was just finishing up.” He stood. “How are you feeling this morning?”“Better. Thank you.”“Did you get some exercise?” He observed her.She looked at her shoulders, wiping the sweat beads off with a nearby kitchen rag. “I did. I like to have tea after my yoga, but my tea set was left back at home. Silly of me. I will have to get one when we get to Persephone.”“They have some great tea places,” Book stated.“Would you like to enjoy some with me while I start breakfast?” Athena asked.“That would be nice.” Book smiled.Book readied the tea and fixings, the two conversing as Athena prepared breakfast. She went traditional, cooking powdered eggs, bacon, pancakes, and hash browns. After cutting up some fruit, Book assisted in setting the table, followed by serving dishes containing the rest of the food. The first two to join them were Kaylee and Wash.“Hey, Thena.”“Wash,” she greeted in return.“How are you this morning?” he wondered.“I’m better. Thank you for checking on me.”He nudged her. “It’s what best friends do.”She kissed him on the cheek.“Careful,” Zoe warned.“It was an innocent kiss,” Wash defended.“Not to Zoe.” Mal walked in. “She’s developed a bit of a crush.”“Can I be involved at least?” Wash inquired.“No.” Zoe put a pancake on her plate.Athena pat Wash’s back. The couple continued to banter. As Inara followed everyone sitting around the table, she glanced over to see Mal and Athena quietly conversing, very close to each other. She removed pooled fabric off her shoulder, handing it to Mal. He said something, Athena trying to hide her amusement, grabbing a mug and a bowl of fruit, making her way to the cockpit. Mal watched her leave, then took his seat, getting his plate ready.Mornings were usually quiet as the crew was waking up and getting food and caffeine into their system. Like most mornings, crewmates would converse, but it was a scattered conversation. Wash and Zoe finished first, leaving the galley.“Everything okay, Athena?” Zoe wondered as she and her husband stepped into the cockpit.“Yes. I just wanted to have a few minutes with the stars by myself.”“Did the two of you have sex?” They heard Inara ask.“Why do you think it’s your business?” Mal wondered.“She had your shirt.”“Sex would be the only explanation,” Mal mocked.“This isn’t a joke, Mal. You don’t know her like I do. She will hurt you. At the very least, she’ll get you sick. The blacklist is nothing to sneer at.”“You don’t know her well enough to make that call.”“You loved me once—“Mal interrupted, “You don’t get to use that against me. Whatever you have against her will not be projected onto me. You most certainly won’t drag our previous history through the mud with it. Do we have an understandin?”“I’m just trying to protect you.”“I don’t need it. I’m a grown man. I asked you if her bein here was okay. You said yes. I don’t know why we’re havin the same conversation for the third time.”“This isn’t about her being here; this is about you having sex with her. She’s a whore, Mal.” Zoe and Wash glanced from Athena to each other.“I’m sorry, for ever callin you that. Cause when I hear it come from your mouth directed at your flesh and blood, I hear how degradin it sounds. Nothin is goin on between Athena and me other than some flirtin. If there was, it wouldn’t be your business. You walked away, and at some point, you are goin to have to stop thinkin it gives you a gorram right to make the call of who can and can’t be in my life.” It was quiet for a moment, then they heard footsteps retreat, and a few more seconds later, others led Mal into the room with them. He noticed Athena sitting there.“Atty…” He exhaled.Athena stopped him as she approached. She paused to his left, however, facing him, and after some hesitation, Mal turned his head, eyes meeting Athena’s. The woman brought a hand up, but there was hesitation in her desire to touch him. Her frame slumped into submission, the extremity going to his closest shoulder. It lightly skimmed his left pectoral before her warmth left him altogether. The trail was light, almost as if she were uncomfortable with how Mal might react to her physical contact. His eyes closed, breathing the last little bit of her that remained.Zoe approached him. “Inara’s hate is only going to fester.”“I’m not compromising, Zoe.”“I’m not suggesting you do, Sir. We need them both. Let me take care of it next time there’s a problem.”“All right.”Athena was sitting at the table in the galley. The hum of Serenity’s engines all that could be heard. The crew turned in for the night hours ago, so she stole away to the mess hall, drinking some warm tea and read a book she had started some time ago but never completed. Her silhouette’s posture was proper, back to the chair, chest raised in support. The book nestled between an index and pinky finger, holding crisp parchment down, her free hand methodically stirring tea, eager eyes absorbing the ink-stained pages. Mal halted in the doorway, watching her left hand let go of the utensil and glide to her chin, caressing.“You stare at me like a visionary studies art.” Her gaze remained on her book.“Maybe you make me realize why they look on it so intently.”The woman managed to hiccup a laugh. She closed her book, leaning back in her seat, arms crossing.“Has your study led to any interesting finds?” she inquired.“A few.”She paused the conversation, comfortable with the silence. Mal poured himself some bourbon, bringing his tumbler and the bottle, depositing them on the surface, sitting to Athena’s left. She maneuvered forward, arms propping up her torso as hazel eyes found deep baby blues.“Only a few?”“I’d have to see the whole piece.”Her left eyebrow rose. “Why don’t you?”“Could I?” he combated.“Hard to say when you aren’t willing to try, no?”Mal swallowed a sip of the burning liquid, though it wasn’t biting him as much as Athena’s flirting. But he knew full well he brought this on himself, so he finished it.“Willing to, yes.”“But…?”“I find our conversation rather stimulatin. I don’t want to ruin that.” He licked the liquid off his lips.“Seeing me naked will ruin our conversation?”“If we want this to run a proper course, yes.”Once more, Athena’s eyebrow twitched in amusement. “Well, you’re even more a gentleman than you let on, Malcolm Reynolds.”He exhaled, snickering with it. “You were testing me.”“A bit.”“Unbecoming to taunt a hungry man.”She managed a chuckle. “Then I humbly ask you for forgiveness.”“Granted.” His eyes bounced from the book to Athena. “Did you come in here last night to read?”“No,” she answered. “I was too tired. But I love how quiet it is in here. The hum of Serenity’s engines is just right in here, as is the temperature. It’s her heart, and I prefer to be close to it.”“Interestin.” He leaned forward. “Why do you perceive this as her heart?”“Isn’t this where there is the most life? Her crew comes into contact here. Stories, laughter, love… Here is where there is beating, activity, ebb, and flow. Things a heart needs.”“The way you see things is unique.”“Perhaps to outsiders. Getting here wasn’t easy.”“I imagine not,” he agreed.“Tell me something, my Captain.” Athena sipped her tea, swallowing. “It’s been a little over two years since Reaver territory and protecting River. What have you been doing since? I can’t imagine going back to work as if everything was normal after that was as effortless as saying it.”He jerked his head. “It wasn’t. Shepherd went back to his abbey. He nearly died and needed to be away from Serenity.”“How long was he gone?” Athena inquired.“We only picked him up three months ago,” Mal confessed. “I’m not much for religion, but I did find somethin lackin without him.”“He’s your crew. When one goes missing, there’s a void.”He nodded in agreement. “As I’m sure you know, Inara went back to The Guild’s headquarters for a while.” He took a deep breath. “We tried.” His eyes met Athena’s. “She confessed feelin’s, I confessed mine. We were together for a while. But, The Guild found out. She was gone a few days, came back and ended it without much of an explanation, then went back. She was gone for about a year and a half. We’ve seemingly returned to what we were before all the confessions and whatever we had.”“For what it’s worth, I can see the loss in your eyes. It doesn’t sit right with you.”“It would if she gave me closure. She resents me.” He shrugged. “I didn’t want that. It’s why I don’t think relationships with people you work with is a good idea.”“Good to know.” Athena finished her tea. “For what it’s worth, I do agree. But take Zoe and Wash, for example. That is destiny. When you find that in a person, more harm can come from being separate than being together. Love is no chooser of persons. Fighting it only makes things worse.” She twitched. “I actually never wanted to be married. It’s why I became a Companion. I liked the idea of being with someone when I needed it, then being independent when not. I didn’t want a man telling me where to go or when. I perceived that it was all that men were. Bossy, controlling, owners who viewed me as nothing more than property to be owned.” She turned to him. “That says volumes about me and not my father. He was never controlling over my mother. I wanted the sex and not the attachment. Then came Matthew. He annoyed the hell out of me.”“Really?”“Yes.” Her brows furrowed, causing Mal to chuckle. She continued, “He didn’t even try. He just was. But something about him made me realize what it was; not marriage, love. Marriage is a byproduct of it, but not necessary. Not that I’ve become a pessimist in the wake of his death. I’ve always felt that way. All marriage is, is a commitment with paper. Why the paper? It’s material and can be burned or thrown away.”“You don’t need the paper,” Mal stated.“Representation.” He realized what she meant. Her chest rose and fell as she breathed deep. “A year later, I married him. Now, without the one thing I never wanted, I’m lonely. I’d rather argue and debate someone every day of my life than have this. But I guess it’s relative. I’d rather have it, but that doesn’t mean you do. Preference.”Thena’s fingers grasped the bottle Mal brought to the table, pouring the alcoholic liquid into her teacup.“I suppose I can see the poetic injustice.”Athena managed a laugh. “What about Jayne?”“Jayne actually got his own ship and crew.”“Really?” her tone conveyed intrigue.Mal jerked his head. “He ran too tight a ship. He was mutinied against. I found him on Persephone sometime later, drownin his woes. He came back about a year ago.”“What of his crew?”Mal shrugged. “We don’t know. Apparently, the separation wasn’t pleasin. They want to kill him. At least, last we heard.”“I perceived him as the troublemaker,” Athena said.“A word not suitin for a perpetual toddler.”Athena snickered. “I suppose not.”“River and Simon went back home. A lot happened, but it was good. His parents admitted they were very wrong not to be worried, and Simon was reinstated in both license and reputation. Not that it mattered. He’s a pretty nuisance, but he knows his stuff. He is an amazin doctor. As far as I was concerned, he never deserved that treatment, and I don’t believe they can reinstate what wasn’t theirs to take in the first place.”“I agree.”“They were only gone for a few months before I received a transmission. Apparently, the doc was bored and wanted to come back. In truth, River and I are alike in a lot of ways. Being without them both was like being without a limb.”“I’ll take that to my grave.”“Good girl,” he complimented. “Kaylee, Wash, and Zoe never left. We had fewer jobs when I was missing crewmates. If I can be honest, work has been scarce. We get enough to keep Serenity floating, but just so.”“Can I ask you something, Mal?” He nodded, so she continued, “Wash told me you’re not much for killing. Act of the lazy man--”“That doesn’t pertain to you or your work, Atty.”She put her hand up, a slight smile gracing her features. “I believe you, but it does raise the question, why have someone with my lack of restraint come on board if that’s how you feel?”Mal seemed to ponder her question, not answering until he felt like all the correctly ordered words would suffice. He leaned closer, their faces no more than a foot apart. “Each member of the crew represents a part of me that I’ve lost. Book is my faith, Wash is my sense of humor, Zoe is my love…”“Me?”“We’ve been in a lot of positions where killin would make it easier. I don’t see much merit in it in my line of work. Dishonesty shouldn’t lead to instant lack of livin. That’s not your work. You eliminate the threat with no questions asked. I’m tired of endangering my crew. I saw my impatience in you. I need it now. We’re all back together, and if I want to find work and feed my people, I need to take riskier jobs I’d usually turn down.”“That’s a double-edged sword, Mal.”“How so?”“I may not have your patience, but if that is to be my position, you better invest in a leash. I stand beside you, but just by being here, I’ve bound my life to you and Serenity’s crew. At the end of the day, it’s them or us. In that situation, I will always choose us no matter who is involved. It’s my life; it’s how I operate. Fight or flight.”“Suggestions on where I can get a good quality leash, then?”“I’ll let you know.”The next nine days were similar. Inara made passive-aggressive comments or gave Athena glaring looks. Every now and then, someone would ask her to stop. Even Kaylee would get on her case, which caused most of the commentary to cease when others were within earshot. During that time, Athena familiarized herself with the group. Most of that time was spent with Wash and Zoe, or sometimes just one of them. She got better acquainted with River, Simon, Jayne, Kaylee, and Book, each having their own way of connecting. During that week plus, Athena and Mal continued to meet in the mess hall. He told her about their crewmates, sharing more adventurous tales. However, in the last four nights, they had added chess to their drinking and storytelling. It had become a habit to have that one-on-one time not being interrupted, nor forced.Athena woke up and rolled over.“Good morning to the lovely Thena.” Wash spoke over the comm to her shuttle. “It is August 21st, 2501. The weather outside is currently a brisk -270 Celsius in our vicinity, so dress accordingly. This has been your ordered morning wake up call.” Athena drunkenly snickered, the comm switching off. She then laid there processing and rose, going through her morning routine of yoga, meditation, and cleaning. The young woman got dressed in black form-fitting pants, a coordinating tightish v-neck shirt, and similar boots with light brown accents. The belt she put on matched the tan leather accents and holsters she shrugged over her shoulders. Pistols slipped into their assigned pockets. Thena pinned wild curls back, letting the rest of them fall. Before exiting the shuttle, she tidied up her space and made her bed, making a pit stop in the galley for breakfast, but it was short-lived.“The Captain is waiting for you.”“Thank you, Book.”She set her bowl down, putting it aside, going toward the cockpit.“I think so, Sir,” Zoe voiced.“We’ll know when we get there.” Wash shrugged.“What’s going on?” Athena asked.“Well good morning, Sunshine,” Wash chirped.“Hey, I’m Sunshine.” Kaylee pouted.Athena wrapped her arm around Kaylee. “And no one, not even Wash, can take my Sunshine away.” She kissed Kaylee’s temple then stepped further in.“Aww, ain’t she sweet?” Kaylee cooed.“Sweeter than pie.”“Is that sarcasm I hear?” she asked Wash.“Maybe a little bit.”They all laughed. Athena took a grape from his bowl, causing him to playfully protest. Inara entered a moment later.“How long before I can depart?”“We should be flying over your preferred docking space in about 15 minutes,” Wash reported.“If Trystan is your first client, I would wear something more form-fitting and red. Bright colors keep his attention. Oh, and, don’t eat anything. He doesn’t like his women turgid.”“Says the woman currently stuffing her face.”“With a grape.”“Right now. What did you have for dinner? You keep eating like that, and you’re going to get fat.”Athena hooked her thumb under her shirt and pulled it up, revealing her firm stomach. Her abs were pronounced, but only just so, as were her hips. Her belly button piercing, hip anchors, and side tattoo only accentuated her taut, hourglass figure.“I think I’m okay.”“She’s good.” Wash turned to Athena. “You’re good.”Inara gave a disgusted sigh. “Call me when I’m good to go.”She left, and Kaylee walked closer, observing her side. “Did you have all this when you were a companion?”“Most of it. Some of it is new.”“From the way Inara talks about them, this kind of thing is frowned upon when it comes to companions.” Zoe leaned against Wash’s chair.“She’s just giving you a personal preference. The Guild doesn’t really care if you can earn them money and make them look good. In fact, there are varieties of women in The Guild. We’re sorted into categories though, I mean that as in people have preferences and Companions are suggested.”“Which were you considered?” Mal wondered.“Bright hazel eyes, darker skin, tattoos, piercings… I was considered ‘exotic.’”“Exotic,” Mal whispered. “If the shoe fits.”“Why? What would you call it?”Mal reached over and wrapped Kaylee up in his arm, leaning over her shoulder. “Not in earshot of my innocent little Kaylee.”“So, Inara is running off. Where does that leave me?” Athena asked Mal.“Where does it?” Mal wondered.“My informant is delayed till the evening. I can go meet Badger with you if you’d like a fourth.”“Evermore, Atty.”“Well, at least I can find you my own nickname while you’re gone.” Kaylee’s lips curved as she processed.“You could just call her Thena like we do,” Zoe suggested.“No, that’s for you and Wash.”“Atty?” Wash said.“That’s the Captain’s,” Kaylee responded. “She’s given us each one. We should do the same.”“Don’t overthink it, Sunshine. The nicknaming thing has always been something I do, and to be fair, I haven’t nicknamed everyone.”“The Captain is the only one I’ve ever given one to,” Kaylee confessed.“What did he get?” Athena questioned.“Kaylee—““Captain Tight Pants,” Kaylee, Wash, and Zoe said in unison.“Good to know you’re like that with everyone.” Athena’s eyes drifted to him.“All right” he got flustered, “fist off, I am like this with everyone. It’s one of my definin features. Secondly, I pretend that it is about my actual pants, so my feelins aren’t hurt.”They all chuckled as Athena walked around him.“Well, they’re not that tight. Just so. I think you look good. The pants show off your butt.”“My—?” He paused. “Explains why the girls find me pretty.”Athena shrugged. “Well, it helps. It is a nice butt.”“Flirtin.”She shook her head. “You don’t own rights to it.”“I should remedy that.”“I wish you luck on your endeavor, my Captain.”Everyone in the room laughed, Jayne entering.“What did I miss?”“The sexual tension,” Wash responded.“Oh.” Jayne looked disappointed.Athena put her arm on his shoulder, fidgeting. She looked over to Mal. “I’m gonna need a stool.”“I like your height. Less to go between you and the floor.” He winked. “If you know what I mean.”Athena lightly patted his cheek a few times. However, it was harder the last time.“All right, Wash.” Mal put all his weight back on his feet. “Let Inara know that we’re coming up.”Athena dismissed herself, going back into the kitchen, helping Book put everything away. She and Book conversed while Athena and Kaylee ate some fruit, and Shepherd drank his coffee. When Thena finished, she put her arm around Kaylee, telling her they’d meet in the Cargo Bay. First, Athena needed to see Simon, feet padding to the Med-Bay, entering a calm presence.“Doc,” she greeted.“Athena.”“We had some good time bonding over the last few days, but it hasn’t been as much as I’d like.”“Same,” he confessed. “Platonically speaking.”“I know. I, uh…”“It’s hard. Being the ‘new guy’ with this crew. Inara fought for River and me to be here, to stay. The rest of the group felt the opposite. For you, it’s different. I’m sorry.”“Thank you, Doc.”“Is there anything I can do to help?” he wondered.“Did Mal tell you about me when he told everyone else? My work?”“Yes.”She nodded. “Because of events in my life, I have a hard time trusting people once I know others who perfectly fall into certain roles.”He made a face of realization. “I’m the ship’s doctor. You’re trusting me for your medical needs.”“Any and all of them,” she confirmed.“I consider it an honor.”“You may not when that puts you at odds with anyone here.”He hiccuped a laugh. “I’ve been at odds with all of them at one point or another.”“I imagine so. My agreement with my previous doctor was that he and I had a code word. Should that word be uttered, he would come to my aid.”“You want a word for us.”“Yes,” she replied. “I have medical training. Understand that if a courier or messenger comes to you and gives you this word, only your skill can help. I am not using it lightly. Especially given what it is I do. It earns me wounds at times. I am very strict about who I let into that world. Hence the need for trust.”“I understand. I will be worthy of it.”“Of that, I have no doubts. Please ensure that if there has been an emergency here, you care for whoever that may be. They are your family. As of right now, I am not a part of it.”Simon put his hand on Athena’s shoulder. “I have your back, Athena. Thank you for choosing me.”She slid a paper over. On her way out, she glanced at River standing by the door, kissing the woman’s temple before going to the bay.“I like her. Honest. Sincere. She’s a protector. Soft and warm. But I should hate her.”“That’s the Alliance talking, River. Not you,” Simon stated.“Yes.” River nodded with a smile. “That’s why she’s better.”Athena entered the Hold, hanging her jacket on a hook she installed to the weapons case’s right side. She opened the caddy, removing her pistols from the holsters, setting them to the left where perfect foam cutouts for them to rest. Thena removed the clips, putting them in their assigned drawer.Kaylee picked them up and looked at one of the bullets. “Those aren’t normal bullets.”“Rubber rounds. That way, if I have to shoot anyone on the ship, the trajectory is slowed. It goes through a person, which diminishes speed enough it will bounce off the hull.”“Genius.”Athena loaded live rounds, turning on the safety just as Jayne, Zoe, and Mal approached. Thena holstered the handguns, putting on her matching brown leather jacket, locking everything down. She nodded to Mal as he lowered the door.“Stay put until we know what’s going on, everyone.”“You got it, Boss.” Wash turned, walking back into the ship.Mal led Athena, Jayne, and Zoe through the sea of civilians. It was busy with people cooking, maneuvering around, and selling wares. The group eventually made it through, nearing a shipyard full of old cargo containers. Finally, they stumbled on some guards, who motioned Mal and his small army to enter a makeshift office.“Malcolm Reynolds. Been a while since I’ve seen the likes of you ’round here.”“You needed someone. We’re here.” Mal’s shoulders jolted.“That I did.” He glanced over at Athena, who was standing no more than a foot to Mal’s left. “Well, hello, Gorgeous.”Before Badger could touch her, Mal got his attention. “Careful. You do well to look but not touch with that one.”“Right.” The man turned closer to his desk. “Some of my people managed to get a hold of some Earth-That-Was items. Some goody-two-shoes wants them for a private auction, he does. Private being the keyword, Captain.”“Just point us in the direction.”“Well, it isn’t here, Love. You have to go get it.”Mal’s eyes rolled in frustration. “Let me guess, it’s not a simple ‘swing by and pick up our package’, is it?”“It will be when you get a hold of these to trade.” Badger handed him a parchment. “We deliver those; we get to deliver the small payload.”Mal handed the paper to Zoe. Jayne looked at it over her shoulder.“You want us to steal those from someone and take them to a drop point to be picked up. Then, just maybe we’ll get the job.”“Price of doing business, Love.”“Of course.” Mal smiled sarcastically. “When do we steal?”“Three night’s from now. Meet us at the address at the bottom of the paper.”Mal nodded, retreating from Bager’s place of business, Jayne, Athena, and Zoe following on his heels. Badger blew a kiss to Athena and Zoe as they were the last to exit. Mal didn’t speak much until arriving at Serenity. Athena stood in the background, the rest of the crew approaching their captain.“So?” Wash asked.“We have to steal from the rich and give to the poor in hopes that we get a good job.” Jayne took a seat on a crate.“Oh, that’s nice,” Wash said with sarcasm.“Let me do some digging and see if we can find out who exactly we’re stealing from. It may be worth doing,” Mal spoke.“Guns like that don’t come from folk around here, Sir.”“I know.” He sighed. “Jayne, Zoe, hit the streets.”“And you, Sir?”“I’ll be along.” They nodded. Mal turned to Wash. “Start resupplying.”“Go to Earth Town and ask for a man by the name of Otto. When he asks how you know him, tell him I sent you. He’ll take care of you for a reasonable price.” Athena handed him some credits.“You got it.” Wash rode the A.T.V off the ship with River and Simon tagging along.“Stay here.” Book nodded to Mal, going further into the ship. “Kaylee, get to the cockpit and be ready for Atty’s signal.”“Of course.”“You sure you don’t need me to stick around?” Thena inquired.“No,” he confirmed. “We’ll handle this.”“How long do I have?” she wondered.“A week,” he replied. “That’s how long I gave Inara.”“All right.” Before he could walk away, she stopped him. “If you need me…”“I’ll get ahold of you.”When she made it to the catwalk above, Mal called out to her.“Atty.”“Yes?” She leaned over the railing.“Be careful.”“Evermore, my Captain.”They smiled at each other, then Athena went into her shuttle. A few moments later, her shuttle was off. Mal watched her leave, then pursued his other crewmates.
Ch. 1: The Daughter of SecretsTitle: Firefly: Shadow’s DawningAuthor: Amanda Rau (manda091987)Show: Firefly/SerenityCharacters/Pairing: (Characters) All from Firefly/Serenity (Pairing) Mal/AthenaDisclaimer: All characters and story are the sole property of Fox/Joss Whedon. Athena is mine. Please ask for permission for the use of any added material or characters.-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Mal sighed with frustration as he watched civilians pass him by. Cerulean orbs peered into Zoe’s chocolate ones. The dissatisfaction he was currently feeling came too consistently these days, which added to the irritation. He used his head to coax Zoe into following him. Jayne had been busy stealing glimpses of two women flirting with him. Zoe roughly nudged him to get his attention. He was so enamored that Zoe’s jostling nearly caused him to lose his footing; the girls could be heard giggling. Jayne glanced once more before retreating, following his group back to Serenity.“So where do we want to head first, Sir?” Zoe inquired.“Well, if we can’t find work here, we know where we will. New Dunsmuir should be nice this time of year.”“I agree, Sir.” Zoe slightly bobbed her head.Mal, Zoe, and Jayne entered Serenity’s Cargo Bay, though Mal’s covetous eyes caught another glimpse of the medium-sized metropolis beyond the docks. It had been months since the crew had a job that paid worth a damn. His desperation was beginning to lead to all the physical signs, and that worried him. The sound of Zoe and Jayne quickly cocking weapons caused Mal to abruptly swivel around, noticing Kaylee, Wash, Shepherd, River, and Simon cinched. Various brawny gunmen well over six feet surrounded Mal and his crewmen. Nothing but silence existed between them as they sized each other up, waiting for the other to speak first.“Wash, what’s going on here?”“Beats me, Captain,” he answered.“My name is Demyan, and these are my men.” The man motioned to the others. “We are looking for a woman. We were told that she flies on a ship matching the description and name of this vessel.”“That so?” Mal asked, then smiled. “You’ll have to be more specific. I have quite a few women on this ship, as you can see.”“Beautiful, clean, dark hair, charming smile,” Demyan added.“Again, more specific.”“Registered companion,” Demyan grumbled.“Inara?” Zoe’s eyes squinted in confusion.“Yes?” she asked, coming down the stairs.Demyan nodded to his men, then to the woman. “Take her.”“Excuse me?” Inara protested.Before the rest of the crew could react, the thugs aimed their guns.“Put down your weapons and kick them over!” Demyan commanded.After hesitating, Mal indicated Jayne and Zoe should comply with the demand. All three lowered their weapons, nudging them to Demyan and his men. They picked up the guns, moving them away. The leader circled Inara, blunt fingers running through her hair when behind her.“What do you want with me?” she inquired.The man laughed. “I want nothing to do with you. I want Athena. The only way to get her is to come after you. Lucky for us, you happened to be on this rock when that need arose.”Before Inara could respond, a woman’s voice came from behind them, everyone’s attention diverting to the direction from which it came.“I wouldn’t touch her again if you want to keep your hands attached to your arms.”Seemingly bulkier than the ones Serenity’s crew were staring down, three men stood intimidatingly behind a woman at the opening of the cargo. She was leaning on her left leg, arms crossed. Dark brown hair with subtle highlights accompanied by layers and curls. Rosy skin with ruddy undertones glimmering like flecks of small glitter across her smooth frame, save for a few visible tattoos and piercings. Despite her make-up having darker accents, her appearance was airy and clean. Form-fitting pants and boots accented fit, muscular legs. Small throwing knives were belted to her waist and right thigh, gun holsters decorated her shoulders, a pistol on either side. The top donned a pinstripe vest buttoned up the front right up to the bust; the top was a wrap design. She was a handsome woman.“Athena,” Inara scoffed.“I knew you’d show up if I got your sister involved,” Demyan’s tone dripped with pleasure.“Sister?!” the Serenity crew yelped.“What in gorram hell have you done now?” Inara exhaled.“Language!” Athena glared at Inara. “Just zip it up and let me help.”“流口水的婊子和猴子的笨儿子,” Inara mumbled. (Stupid son of a whore that drools and a monkey.)“Knock it off!” Athena yelled, then peered back at Demyan. “Your quarrel is with me. You had no right to involve her or her crewmen.”“Inara shoulda.” Jayne checked her out. “Where you been hidin her?” He turned to Inara.“Cute,” Athena said sarcastically.“It figures that I would be targeted when you’ve run up a debt.” Inara’s arms crossed.“I don’t owe these men anything,” Athena snipped back.“You expect me to believe that?” Inara mocked.“I learned a long time not to ‘expect’ anything from you,” Athena rebutted.“The same could be said for you.”“Right,” Athena jeered. “You in all your flawless glory.”“Shut up!” Demyan shouted. “Your sister don’t owe us anything yet. But there is a price for her refusal, and we’ll extract it from her” he eyed Athena, “while you’re on your back.” He faced Inara. “You’re just leverage.”“‘Yet?’” Mal reiterated. Inara glared at him. “What? I can’t be curious?”“It’s no concern of yours,” Demyan snarled.“You’ve taken my crew and I hostage. That makes it my business. Right?” He glanced back at Zoe. “I think it makes it my business.”“It does, sir.”“Yet, you’ll never know,” Demyan snorted.The leader turned to Inara, motioning for two of his men to pick her up. Just as he was about to cause harm to the woman, a knife went into his wrist. He yelled, attempting to pull it out.“I wouldn’t. That knife is sitting in the middle of your ulnar artery and median nerve. Tendons are severed, so it’s moderately useless. But, you have a bigger decision to make because it can get worse. Leave it in, lose the hand.” She turned to one of the gentlemen with her. “Didn’t I say that was going to happen, Silas?”“You did, ma’am,” the man confirmed.Demyan went to pull it out, but Athena stopped him. “Ah, ah, ah. Predicament number two, that knife has a hook on the end of it. You do that, you’ll tear the artery on the way out, which will cause you to bleed to death.”“Captain” Jayne got their attention, “can we keep her? I think I’m in love.”“Get her!” Demyan yelled.A bandit charged toward Athena. Hazel orbs remained, peering into Demyan’s as she seized and flung a throwing knife at the oncoming threat, the blade plunging between his eyes. Demyan motioned to the left; two other delinquents ending up with daggers in their chests. Another pair came from forwarding positions; Athena slapped one against his head, causing him to double over. Quickly, she stepped to his right, taking his arm as she rolled over his back, kicking the other aggressor. The bully went down, Thena stomping his throat, the first man’s arm dislocating in the process. The woman released her grip in a speed-filled flurry, kneeing him in the face. She drew her weapon, shooting him in the head—the last doublet on each side, more behind them.Athena dashed when a man swiftly encroached on her position. The agile woman turned when arriving at some crates, using his limp body to hoist her legs onto the boxes while maintaining a tight grip on his torso. This prevented the bandit from grabbing her legs, leaving her with the upper hand. Thena pushed off the metal chest, rotating and wrapping her legs around his abdomen. Despite repeated hits to his head, the man managed to stand and slammed Athena against the containers, loosening her grip. She crouched down, anticipating his right hook, stopping the left that followed. This allowed her to pivot and elbow him in the face. A nimble hand took control of the weapon in his hand, pressing it to his chest, her index finger pulling the trigger. He tumbled to the ground, landing with a familiar thunk! The woman instantly shot the other three gangsters before they could pose a threat.Athena breathed deep, but it was short-lived; Demyan sprinted toward her silhouette. She leaped, kneeing him in the chest, the action shoving him back. He persisted, Thena using his height against him. A maneuver allowed her to wrap her legs around his shoulders. The woman’s frame impeded his view as both hands molded together, beating his crown. He ran into a crate, her body instinctively dropping. Demyan inched away, Thena calmly inhaling, trying to recuperate from the slight loss of air. The leader charged, Athena seizing his body in her guard, both calves and thighs encircled his waist, holding him tightly, her palms pooled Demyan’s shirt into her grasp. Her arms crossed opposite his throat, cutting off oxygen, nothing more than small wheezes escaping his lips as her grip was too compacted.“Your time is done, and you’ve served your purpose. This world has no more use for you. Accept it and be at peace.”The man breathed his final breath, falling dead moments later. Athena let go, grabbing her knife out of his arm, cleaning it off, and holstering it.“Get them out of here, please, Silas.”“Yes, ma’am.”She faced the crew. “My apologies, Captain. This was a misunderstanding. I wasn’t even aware of Demyan’s knowledge of Inara and her crewmen, nor his ability to gain it.”“I’m intrigued, and that doesn’t happen often,” Mal stated.“I’m sure you are. No doubt Inara never told you of me.”“No, she didn’t,” he confirmed.“Good. Let’s keep it that way.” She observed Inara. “I’ve angered her enough.” She set money down on a crate. “For the trouble I’ve caused or any damages that were accumulated.”Athena exited the ship with her men behind her. Everyone observed Inara, who was behind them on the steps.“No.” She put her hand up.“You have a sister?” Mal leaned forward.“She’s beautiful, Inara!” Kaylee smiled. “She’s your sister. Why wouldn’t you want her in your life?”“Looks can be deceiving,” Inara snorted. “Don’t even consider going down this road, Mal.”“What road?” he wondered.“Do not let her on this ship.” She stepped closer to him. “I can see the thought in your eyes.”“This is my ship; you don’t get to tell me what to do, Inara. I thought I made that clear?”Inara glowered. “If you think bringing her aboard is going to make me leave, you’re wrong.”“You walked away. You turned me down. Don’t put that on me. You stay or don’t, but it’s your decision.”Inara retreated to her quarters. Mal followed, causing the crew to hear her protests until he closed the shuttle door. The crewmembers lingered in the Cargo Bay, waiting for a final decision. Mal left Inara’s space almost an hour later, stepping down the steps, boots clanging against the metal. Inara suddenly appeared, body hanging over the railing, grimaced features presenting themselves.“I think this is a mistake, Mal. Since you won’t listen, keep her clear of me and don’t trust a gorram word she says. She will stab you in the back.”Inara turned on her heels, going back into her shuttle. Mal faced Zoe, who peered through thick eyelashes, arms crossed.“Inara is our crew, and despite my decision, her opinion is important. But I don’t much care for it over yours.” Mal’s eyes found those of his right hand.“Sir, we need a job. We’re desperate. It’s coming down to accepting even the most dangerous. It looks like Athena would be beneficial in a tight spot. She is skilled; that much is clear.”“Skilled hands indeed. Inara said she’s 刺客 ,” Mal revealed.Wash’s eyes widened. “Assassin?”“I thought they were a myth,” Kaylee said. “Legend carried on from Earth-That-Was.”“No.” Shepherd stepped forward. “They exist now. But they are much different.”“What do you mean?” Wash wondered.“I’ve only seen it one other time before River. She has the abilities, but her gifts were designed in a lab. Athena’s are much more organic. These skills were taught and perfected. Aside from Companions, Soul Seekers, as they’re called now, were the one thing Alliance and Independents could agree on. An Agency was formed. They are given contracts and take down the targets. More like mercenaries.”“How does a preacher man know so much about it?” Mal inquired.“Confessions, young man. Be careful should you proceed. Athena is a dangerous woman. More so than our River. She has more experience. However, should you earn her trust, you’ll never lose it. Unless you do something completely unlawful.”“Do I go to the special hell?”Book hiccuped a laugh. “Yes. Hers.”“Are you opposed to her being on board?” Zoe wondered.Book responded, “On the contrary, I welcome her presence. She may be a danger, but she has a code. It is the breath of life to them. She’d only break it if you made her do something to go against it.”“What code?” Wash questioned, a worried tone coating his words.“That depends on her, really.”Mal tensed his shoulders. “This should be fun. Wash?”“Yes, Captain?”“We’re going to coax another unwanted misfit. Hold down the fort.”“You got it, sir. Good luck.” Wash sighed. “Something tells me you are going to need it.”Mal and Zoe left the ship, going to the address Inara reluctantly provided. The ride was about an hour from where they were docked. They landed in a gravel area in front of a big house.“Is this where she lives?” Zoe asked in awe.“Guessin so,” Mal responded.They go to the door and knock. A few moments later, Athena opened it.“Captain?”“Reynolds. Malcolm Reynolds. This is Zoe Washburne. We have a proposition for you.”She motioned them inside, both stepping through the threshold.“I was just about to have dinner. Have you two eaten?” They shook their heads. Athena held her hand out, indicating they should follow her. “Please join me.” She entered the dining room with her guests, addressing an older female. “Anora, please add two more places for our guests.”“Of course.”Mal and Zoe sat down, the elderly woman placed all the necessary items in front of them. She filled their glasses, one with water, the other with wine; plates of delicious food appeared before them, mouths salivating over a home-cooked meal.Athena sipped her water, then spoke after swallowing, “This is my only meal of the day. So I apologize for not separating time to hear you out.”“It’s probably bold to admit,” Zoe began, “but it has been some time since I’ve had a decent meal.”Athena smiled, but it was small and quick; Mal wasn’t convinced he even saw it all.“I’m a fan of the bold. I don’t appreciate words lazily spoken or feelings that leave me guessing.” Hazel-colored eyes made their way from Zoe to Mal. “If your presence is accompanied by the offer that I think it is, you came a long way for nothing, Captain.”“I don’t believe we did,” Mal disagreed, wiping his mouth. “I can be persuasive.”She leaned forward. “Inara has been with you for some time. I won’t compromise her or her worth to you by accompanying you when she doesn’t want me there. Despite how she feels about me, I care about her. I appreciate your candor, but I have a particular set of talents. I’m not sure you want that aboard your ship, or any of it coalesced with your crew members.”“Inara told me you were a Soul Seeker.” Mal leaned back in his seat, sizing her up.“I was unaware she was privy to that information, though I cannot say it’s surprising. But she doesn’t exactly have all the pieces, or you wouldn’t be here. It should be stated that I don’t take just any job that comes across my desk, as it were. I don’t kill anyone for petty crimes, nor do I target women or children. We are allowed choices in our contracts. The gentlemen that boarded your boat wanted me to take out an orphanage run by shepherds and nuns because they wouldn’t pay taxes for ‘offered’ protection. Petty thugs.”“Who do you target?” Mal wondered.“Rapists, mass murders, child molesters, abusers, kidnappers, pedophiles, cannibals, those who dabble in necrophilia… the worst of the worst. I was even hired to take out a small group of Reavers a few years back.”“That kind of work is universal,” Zoe replied. “Finding jobs won’t be hard.”“I know,” Athena responded. “I’ve taken many jobs that have led me all over.”“We’ve already talked to Inara about bringin you on board,” Mal stated matter-of-factly.“No doubt her protests were accompanied with the phrases, ‘don’t trust her’ and ‘she’ll betray you’.”“More-or-less,” Mal stated.“I’m not that type of woman. I don’t betray anyone unless given a reason. When that happens, you’ll see it coming, and you’ll be armed.”Mal cleaned his face and pushed his empty plate away. “My kind of woman.”Athena stared into his eyes, then took a deep breath, slowly letting it out. “Can I have the night to think about your offer?”“I would be disappointed if you didn’t.”She nodded. “It’s a long way back; I have an extra room if you’d like to stay. The beds are separate and comfortable.”“That would be great, thank you,” Zoe said, smiling. “Can I ask you a question?” Athena bobbed her head. “What happened between you and Inara?”The woman hesitated, seemingly fighting the words trying to release themselves. Athena stood, handing dishes to Anora. She motioned for Mal and Zoe to follow her down a hallway. When they arrived, Athena opened a door, gesturing them inside. Her guests faced her when she shuffled through the entrance.“Out of respect for Inara and the relationship she shares with you and your crewmen, I refuse to share the most intimate of details. Suffice it to say, she took the side of The Guild when I ‘left’ Companionship. I never heard from her after that.”“How long has that been?” Zoe inquired.“Today was the first time I have seen her in years,” Athena confessed.“You’ve seen her since she cut communication?” Zoe distorted her face.Athena admitted, “I convinced Atherton to take a nosedive. Captain Malcolm Reynolds is talented at a great many things. The sword is not one of them. Atherton agreed, keeping his family jewels intact. Though, after Inara marked him, he probably would have rather died.”“You knew about that?” Mal asked nervously.“The Guild holds her tightly. She believes it’s because of her skill. While that may be so—““It’s also because of you,” Zoe realized.“Yes. I keep an eye on her regardless of our relationship. We may be at an impasse, but she is my blood.”“Wait, you were a Companion too?” Mal hinted.“Was.” She acknowledged Anora’s presence, taking the offered linens. “Extra blankets. I prefer to sleep in cooler temperatures. Free-range to the house should you be too excited to sleep. My room is at the end of the hall to the left. Don’t be afraid to wake me should you need anything.”They returned her slight bow with their own before leaving them alone.“Consensus?”“It hasn’t changed, sir. If anything, I want her as a part of the crew more. The last thing I wanted this much was Wash.”“Developed a bit of a lady crush, have you?”“Yes, sir.”He chuckled. “I’ll see what I can do.”Zoe shuffled by, getting comfortable in the bed to their right. Mal plopped down on the other twin mattress. He managed to fall asleep with no issues but was woken up by a nightmare. The same Mal had been consistently confronting since that mess a few years back. He was content to lay in bed, but muffled voices chatting caught his attention. Mal quietly got up, putting his shirt on, then left the cubbyhole, careful not to wake his counterpart. Mal tiptoed down the hall, halting when he saw Athena conversing with a man who appeared distressed. He caught her giving him money, an indication that he needed to keep a respectful distance. The captain studied his surroundings, noticing a few photographs on the fireplace’s mantle, observing the sizable rectangular picture in particular.“That was taken just before the final battle for Independence.”“You served?” he inquired.Athena nodded. “Seemed fitting…”She trailed off, causing Mal to pick up the other picture. “Them?”“Yes.” She confirmed. “My husband and son.”“Where are they?”“Murdered.” She swallowed.“By who? How long ago?”She gazed into his eyes. “The Guild. It’s been about some years now.”“I’m guessin Inara doesn’t know.”“No.” Athena exhaled. “She doesn’t even know I was married.”“From the way that Inara talks about The Guild, I find it hard to believe they would murder someone. Sex seems to be their only business.”“I was very good at being a Companion, Captain. But you have to understand, you’re receiving opinions from Inara that are jaded, colored by her opinion of success with The Guild. Mine is colored as well, only with betrayal. Different colors, yet the same painting. The Guild has its own rules; if you do not abide by them, you are destroyed.” She pointed to the man in the picture. “Matthew’s the reason I left. They blacklisted me in response.”“What does it mean when they blacklist you?” Mal questioned.“No one knows but The Guild and the person involved. It could mean any number of things: the Companion did something unforgivable, the Companion contracted an incurable S.T.D, the Companion accumulated too many debts. Some use the aid of substances and could become addicted. Then, there’s my case. A Companion, who once earned them substantial amounts of money and clientele angers them by leaving; thus, their business takes a hit.” Athena’s hazel orbs stared at the picture with a glimmer in her eyes. “After Matthew and David were taken from me, I met a man who helped me channel every bad thing in my life into discipline and training. There is no translative term; the closest is a Shaman. It was brutal, and I wanted to die but never quit. I made a vow. I do what I do now, because of them. No one should have to live with this type of unjustified pain.”“I agree.” Mal set the picture back on the mantel. “Have you made a decision yet?”“No.”“You’ll say yes,” Mal stated matter-of-factly.“Is that so, Captain?”“It is. I’m too pretty to say no to.”She managed a chuckle. Something Mal gathered she didn’t often do. The woman spoke, “Is that your way of flirting with me?”“If it is?”She placed her hand over her heart. “Oh, Captain, my Captain.”“‘Our fearful trip is done, the ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won’.” He grinned. “I do believe I will win in this deal. You could too.”“We’ll see, Reyn.”“Reyn?”“You find me attractive. Your dilated pupils and flushed skin give you away. You hide behind the humor, forgetting that Companions are well versed in the art of reading people. But it isn’t nervousness. No. You, Malcolm Reynolds, are very confident. However, I’m an unknown. You’re cautious despite your eager behavior. As you should be. I’m a dangerous woman, My Captain. You want to keep me at arm’s length because of it. Which is why, when you introduced yourself to me, you gave me your last name first, and that is smart thinking.”“Maybe. Or maybe it’s just curiosity.”She noticed the fleck in his eyes, causing her to inch closer. “Well, if that’s what you’re after, the only danger I pose is making you sweat.”“Also confident.”She smirked. “I have nothing to be ashamed of. I have skills, and I am very comfortable in my skin.”“As one should be when they look like you.”“I didn’t take you as they type to objectify.”He shook his head. “Then I humbly call myself a village idiot and ask for an apology. It was nothin more than a compliment.”Athena’s stature was significantly shorter. Her head could lay against his chest, ear adjacent to his heart. Despite her height versus his, Athena’s face was within intimate proximity. The warmth of her breath, tainted by wine. Its stain on her lips, tantalizing, calling for him to crumble and bend to her will. Emerald-honey eyes tempted him, testing the limit of his boundaries with effortless ease. Her small frame mentally and emotionally towered over his weak-willed nature as a man. Long, luscious eyelashes fluttered, orbs coming to rest on his mouth. When she leaned closer, her aquatic scent nearly made his knees buckle.“Good night, Captain.”Thena left the room, having the final word. A gleam in her eyes let Mal know where he stood, and vice versa. Something about her was easily readable, but people like her never gave more information than necessary. Literally, every encounter was calculated and planned out before decisions were finalized and words were chosen. Mal watched her leave, disappearing into the shadows. An exit so dramatically her. The captain glanced at the photographs once more, then padded back toward his room. He climbed into bed, laying on his back, peering up to the ceiling where there was a skylight, allowing him to see the stars above. A slight smile graced his features as he thought about his exchange with the huntress.***The next morning, Mal awoke, noticing that he was unaccompanied by his right hand in the guestroom. After a few moments of adjusting his eyes and stretching his rigid body, he got up and dressed, leaving to search for Zoe and Athena. He located Zoe in the dining hall, peering out the glass window at something on the other side. Mal padded over, seeing what she was observing so intently. Athena was doing yoga sequences beside her small pool.Mal turned his head, causing him to slightly bend with her movement. “Can the human body actually do that?”“Apparently.” Zoe motioned him to the table where they took their seats. “How did you sleep, sir?”“Good. Beds are comfortable.”Anora stepped in, setting plates down in front of them.“You keep spoilin us, ma’am, and we’ll take you on the ship too.”She laughed. “I break every rule about women you know, boy. I couldn’t cook to save my life.”“You aren’t the only one, ma’am.” Zoe took a bite.Anora pointed to the young woman outside. “You’re getting the cook.”“If you don’t mind me askin, how is it you know Athena?” Mal questioned her.Anora replied, “Matthew, her late husband, was my son.”The elderly woman retreated, leaving Mal and Zoe to face each other, then back out the window.“She was married?”Mal nodded. “Had a son too. The Guild had them killed.”“天晓得.” Zoe huffed. (Name of all that’s sacred.) “Does Inara know?”Mal shook his head. “No.”They were quiet for a moment until Mal caught a glimpse of what was outside.“我的媽和她的瘋狂的外甥都!” Mal breathed. (Holy Mother of God and All Her Wacky Nephews!)Athena had stripped off her clothes, getting down to a two-piece suit. She leaped into the pool.“Need a cloth, sir?”Mal peered at Zoe, attempting to glare. The duo was halfway through breakfast when Athena entered. She appeared to have cleaned up and dressed for the day’s events. Her dense strands were slightly more curly now that they were sodden. The scent of Thena’s soaps filled their senses, notifying them she had showered. The light from the system’s star made it clear she was curvier and more athletic than Serenity’s Cargo Bay’s shade depicted. Her tone was notably more of a warm honey tinge, darker than her sister’s. Mal was becoming increasingly enamored by Athena, but it wasn’t solely her appearance. Last night’s personal, private encounter had him coveting many more in-depth, intimate discussions.“Denim jeans?” Zoe got up and went closer to Athena.She glanced to her legs, then back up, pouring Zoe another cup of coffee. “Don’t live life without them.”“I didn’t know people still made them.”“I know a few. Let me know if you want a pair or two.”Athena took a seat, eating after Anora brought her a plate. Mal pushed away his platter, wiping his mouth. He leaned forward, gazing at the woman, resting his arms on the table.“Do you have an answer for us this morning, Athena?”There was an exhale as she mirrored his stance. “I will, after…”They both waited for her to continue; when she didn’t, Zoe spoke, “After what?”“As soldiers who served, you can both understand the need for communication and trust. I have one more truth to tell you concerning both Inara and me. She doesn’t remember much. I shielded her from any dangerous or harsh memories that might haunt her. Nonetheless, I don’t depend on her honesty, mostly where I’m concerned. I refuse to enter this agreement without giving you all the facts about me I feel are relevant.Inara was 16, and I 20. We were on transport going home to visit family. The ship was raided by Reavers. We stowed away where we couldn’t be found. Inara was afraid. It was the first time I ever saw fear in her eyes. My sister is a strong woman. I shielded her, protected her. Perhaps it was the tipping point for our relationship. What I witnessed doesn’t come close to the horror stories you’ve been told. I didn’t see enough to go mad, but only just.” She exhaled, looking away. “I understand that might make you weary, but I need you to know exactly what and who you’re letting aboard your ship.”“Is this why I was told not to trust you?” Mal inquired.“Not solely. My sister seems to believe the lies she was fed by The Guild. She believes it’s all tied together.” She turned to Mal. “It’s not. I will leave you to discuss all that you’ve learned. No doubt it’s a lot.”Athena got up and left the room. Mal faced Zoe.“Sir, I understand that you’ve been wary in the past about this. We all have, with good reason. This happened years ago, and we were here last night. If she wanted to go mad and kill us, she would have. Besides, we’ve encountered Reavers. It wouldn’t be right to turn her away.”“I agree.”“We need the extra help,” Zoe added.“We do. I ain’t intendin to take our offer back. Athena’s had every opportunity to lie to us.”“Reavers are a hard truth to face.”“Indeed,” Mal responded. “I suppose we’d know that better than anyone.”“I say we keep the offer.”“Lady crush not waned?” Mal’s eyebrow rose.“Not in the slightest, sir.”He huffed a laugh. “All right.”They got up, searching for Athena, finding her in the living room, speaking with Silas. She noticed and bowed her head.“Tell them I will take care of it.”“Yes, Lady Athena.”“Thank you, Silas.”“Ma’am.”Silas exited the house, Athena turning from him to Mal and Zoe.“Offer still stands, Lady Athena,” Mal said, the woman doing her best to hide any amusement. He continued, “I’m sure it wasn’t easy on you to be so forward. Though we’re both cautious, Zoe here’s developed a bit of a crush. I wouldn’t hear the end of it if I rescinded the offer.”Athena managed a laugh. “I suppose not.” She raised an eyebrow when smirking at Zoe. “The feeling is mutual.”“Wash might get a little jealous.”“A little, sir.” Zoe grinned.“All right, Reyn. A few addenda to the offer.”“I’ll grant them.” Mal jerked his head.“I’ve been an empath from birth. It’s led me to be a private person. I would prefer a place out of everyone’s way, somewhere I can decompress. Being around, even a small number of people, will become exhausting, very quickly, especially after a job.”“We have another shuttle you could use.” Mal nodded. “Your sister—““Inara,” she corrected him.“Inara rents the other. As long as you keep it clean for emergency purposes...”“Fair,” she agreed. “Next, to pay rent for the shuttle as well as food and living, my payment will be helping you on jobs without taking a cut. I refuse to put blood on your hands by paying you with money from contracts. I’m not comfortable with it. Besides, it’s less you have to split between everyone.”“Deal.” His head bobbed up and down. “Anything else?”“Despite what Inara knows about my choice of career, I reiterate that she does not know that I had a family. It should stay that way as it is my secret to tell.”“That is more than fair. I agree.” Mal blinked.“One last thing.” She inched closer to him. “I have a lot of contacts spanning over many systems. People who owe me favors and give me discounts on anything I ask for. It’s mutual exchanges. I can make sure your ship is stocked with fresh rations. More than protein and nutrient paste… among other things. I can also find you more jobs from people whom I traditionally turn down.”Mal smiled. “Not really an addendum.”“A bonus then,” she corrected.“A great bonus, sir,” Zoe stated.“No doubt.” Mal glanced from Zoe to Athena, then held out his hand. “You have yourself a deal, Athena.”She shook it. “Thank you, My Captain.”“Thank you for offering to help despite what might be waiting for you.” Zoe leaned on her other leg.“What time would you like me aboard?” Athena wondered.“We might have a job,” Mal confessed. “Zoe and I are meeting Jayne. Hard to say at the moment.”“Well, it won’t take me no time at all to get my affairs in order. I shouldn’t take too long.”“You’ll be worth the wait,” Mal teased.“There goes that flirting again.”Mal grinned. “Minor payback from last night.” His ocean blue orbs bounced from her to Zoe. “Let’s go.”“Sir.”The two of them retreated. Athena padded to her bedroom, getting everything together that she needed, packing it away. A few bags were stored by the door. She sauntered to Silas, who returned moments before.“You are in charge of things around here now. You may keep your guest house, no need to uproot yourself. You won’t find rent so affordable anywhere else.”“Thank you, ma’am.”“I’m just a transmission away if you need anything.”Silas bobbed his head about. “Understood. Keep yourself safe.”She wrapped her arms around him. “You’ll do me proud.”Anora beamed at Silas. “May I have these last moments alone, young Silas?”“Of course.”Once again, he made himself scarce.“I want you to take care of yourself, young one.” Anora exhaled, though the manner was more blissful, despite the current setting.“I wanted you to move on after your son died.”“I wouldn’t have left you alone. We needed each other,” Anora stated.“I will always need you.”“Not always.” Anora gently smiled at her.Athena put her arms on the woman’s upper arms. “I want you to stay put, as well. Silas will protect you, and you will have a place to stay.”“I will.”“I will come back to visit whenever I can,” Athena promised.“I know, my dear. I love you.”“I love you too.”They hugged for a long while. Anora reached back and grabbed the woman’s upper arms, gently pushing her away.“God bless you, child.”“And you.”Athena turned, seizing her bags, taking them outside. When she stepped out of the front door, a shuttle landed. The door opened, a red-headed man exiting.“I’m Hoban Washburne. Everyone calls me Wash.”“Zoe’s husband.” The woman motioned to him.“Yup! Mal wanted me to come to get you.”“That’s nice of him,” Athena said.“Let me get those for you.”He grabbed her bags with Silas’ help, taking the last one aboard. Athena gave Silas and Anora a final wave as Wash set off. Athena glanced around the shuttle.“It’s bigger than I thought.”“I was told you were getting the shuttle. It’s very roomy,” Wash agreed.“Is there a way for us to take a detour?” she inquired.Wash observed her. “Modifications?”“None that will upset Mal or your mechanic.” She glimpsed over her shoulder. “If I am going to live in it, it needs to be a bit more… homey.”He nodded. “I agree. Where am I headed?”Her expression was questioning; Wash read it, giving her the controls. She set them down about 20 minutes later in the middle of a nice shipyard. Athena motioned Wash to follow her, both exiting the shuttle.“Gerard!” Athena embraced the man.“Firefly shuttle? Where did you get that?”“From him.” She held her hand out in Wash’s direction. “Gerard, this is Wash. He is a part of the crew I joined.”“Joining a crew? That’s not the Goddess’ style.” Gerard’s eyes widening.“I follow the work. Things have been quiet here lately. This crew will be good company.”“Good. You deserve it.”Athena motioned to the shuttle. “As part of the arrangement, this gorgeous shuttle is now home. I want to get it fitted with its own water source, without compromising too much weight. I’d also like a remodel in the wash area.”“You got it.” Gerald jerked his head.“Time frame?”“Only a few hours.”“All right.” She intertwined her arm with Wash’s, walking away. “Feel like being the man who rolls his eyes and impatiently taps his foot while I shop?”“I think I can handle that.”Wash and Athena make their way to a few nearby stores with tapestries and home goods. She had various items delivered to the shipyard after purchasing them. Thena proceeded to take Wash to get some delicious grub at one of her favorite places. They took their seats shortly after ordering their preferred meals. While they waited, Wash started the conversation.“I know it may not mean much, but thank you for deciding to join us.”Athena’s brows slightly furrowed. “It’s been a while since I’ve gotten a ‘thank you.’ Especially where it concerns work.”“You’re going after people who deserve what’s coming to them, so thank you for that too.”Wash continued, telling Athena stories about the crew and about a few of the jobs they had taken. They laughed, especially when it came to Jayne and being the ‘Hero of Canton’. It was, by far, one of Athena’s favorite stories. Wash proceeded to tell her everything about Simon and River next, which led to the mess that happened a few years back with Reavers and their territory.“I’m glad you all survived.” Thena wiped her mouth.Wash’s eyes got big. “It was touch-and-go for Book and me. He’s still not fully healed, and he may never be. But we’ve made the most out of the experience.”“That’s good to hear, Wash. I am happy.” She leaned back in her seat. “So, what made you agree to Mal’s terms and be his pilot?” she questioned.“Well, I had a living to make. Putting my skills to use seemed like the best way to do that.”“Yes. But, Mal’s work isn’t always honest,” Athena pressed.“Can’t really be picky out here.”“No, you can’t.”“Do you have a problem with his methods?” Wash countered.“No.” She leaned forward. “My apologies if my rebuttal sounded as if I did. Even if I did, I would need to reevaluate myself first. A bounty hunter can’t exactly call out a smuggler with good cause, can she?”“I suppose not. But your work isn’t illegal. Even the Alliance upholds your methods and justifies them.”“It’s still murder, Master Washburne.”He chuckled. “Just Wash.”“You pilot the ship; that makes you a little more important than a simpleton.” She raised her water glass.He squinted at her. “I like you.”Her eyebrow raised. “Then I hope I maintain that appreciation. Tell me, is this how you and Zoe met, being aboard Serenity?”“Yes.” He nodded. “She didn’t like me so much at first.”“Really?” Her brows furrowed.“Yeah.”Athena’s head slightly jerked back in shock. “I find that hard to believe.”“We don’t usually get that kind of response.” Wash looked at her with surprise.“That’s sad.” She glanced at him with a sincere expression. “You are comfortable with who you are. Anyone less couldn’t be with a woman like Zoe. She’s hard, resilient, and sure of who she is and what she wants. She’s tough. You may not wield a gun for Serenity, but you’d do so for Zoe. She makes you a better version of yourself, and you do that for her. Loving someone as strong and supple, especially a woman, makes her man no less than a hero.”“Was your husband that way?” Athena gazed into Wash’s eyes with intensity at the memories that came with his question. He stated, “Hope you don’t mind if the Captain gave us a history lesson. Don’t worry, Inara wasn’t around, and he told us not to open our mouths about it. Threatened more like.” Wash shivered.“I was hoping he would. It was a way for me to instill trust in him. If he looks out for the people he loves most, then he’s exactly who I am pleased I made a deal with.”“It was just as much a test as it was honesty.” Wash realized.“Yes.”“He chose well. Zoe is a lot like you. Which is another reason why I say that a lot of people don’t get us at first.”“Well, they don’t have a keen eye.” She winked at him.Wash grinned. “After talking to you, I think you’ve become my best friend.”“How about that. I haven’t had one of those in years,” Athena confessed.“No better time to find a new one.”“I suppose not. I’ll need one going into this Lion’s den.”Wash exhaled. “I have known Inara a long time, Thena. She doesn’t stay mad very long. At least, I’ve never seen her hold a grudge. Maybe being on board will be just what gets you both over what happened.”“You’re sweet, Wash. Thank you for the hope. It has been some time since I’ve had any to spare.”“What’s a crew for?” he cooed.“And a girl’s best friend?” She gazed at him questioningly.“Exactly.”Athena paid the bill, the doublet returning to the shipyard. Gerard greeted them. He had finished retrofitting the bathroom and exchanged some rusty parts after adding a water tank. Gerald’s work was completed an hour ago, so the man took the liberty of setting up a few of the items delivered. Wash had a piece fitted for her bed, as well as a footboard and headboard he discovered. The pilot coated the wood after sanding it down a bit, adding some stained beams to the top, hiding the shuttle’s roof. After double-checking the setup, both she and Wash nodded to Gerald with appreciation. Wash went into the shuttle, Athena paying Gerard. She said her goodbyes, following her crewmate. On the way to Serenity, Wash told Athena more stories while she finished decorating. Black velvety fabric draped the top beams, accompanied sheer material around her bed since there was a pillar to hang it on. She made her bed, adding pillows she liked. Wash set the shuttle down, leaving the cockpit once docked with Serenity.“Wow, this looks great!” Wash chirped.“Thank you.”“Inara did something similar on the ceiling as well.” He glimpsed above his head.“It makes the eyes less sore.”“On that, we can agree.” Wash folded his lips.She held up a few items. “Want to help me?”“Sure!”Athena handed Wash one of the small nightstands. He placed them on either side of the bed, arranging two smaller lamps, taking the garbage to a more giant box. Though she lined the ceiling with black velvet, the other colors were turquoise, light brown, and ivory. Her makeshift couch across the way was ebony adorned with throw pillows that matched the different colors. Athena set a small coffee table down after laying a rug out.“That should be good enough. Everything else is just personal items from my bags.”“It looks great, Thena.”“Thank you. You helped me pick out some of it.”“You’re welcome.” He motioned for her to follow. “Come on. Time to introduce you to the crew, Newbie.” Wash led her down the stairs, then over to the crew. “You all remember Athena Serra.” He looked from her to Jayne. “Thena, this is Jayne.”“Are you still a registered companion? Or do you freelance now? Captain wasn’t clear.” Jayne shook her hand.“Just know, it wasn’t my idea to name the ape. I warned the Captain and Zoe the minute they named it, they’d get attached. We mostly just ignore him.” He nudged her past Jayne. “This is Book, our Shepherd.”“Nice to meet you.” Book smiled.“You as well.” Athena shook his hand.“You know the Captain and Zoe.” He motioned past them. “This is our doctor, Simon, and his sister, River.”“Nice to meet you both,” Athena greeted.They all shook hands, though River held it a little longer.“River, what are you doing?” Simon got anxious.Athena stopped Simon. “She’s deciding. Let her complete her task.”“Deciding what?” Simon wondered.“Your sister was put in a lab, and her brain was manipulated to become something else, making her someone else. Did you ever find out the exact reasons why?”Simon shrugged. “Just that they wanted a weapon.”“They did. But it goes deeper. People like me are rare.”“Soul Seekers.”“Yes. The reason? Our training is brutal. About 90 percent die. Of the ten left, five go mad, three wear their bodies out so bad they lose basic functions, and one percent quit. Whoever is left do this job. Why is it that strenuous? Because we are a weapon. We have to train to kill a man with anything, anywhere, at any time, and leave no trace that we were there.” She glimpsed around the bay. “There are over 700 ways I could kill you, half of them without even touching you. This training takes decades. Alliance got tired of waiting and losing people. They wanted an army of us without the statistics getting in the way.”“How do you know this?” Simon asked.“When you take a group of people, and you go through intense scenarios together, manage to remain sane, and live? You’re bonded. These men and women, these assassins, are my brothers and sisters. We’ll be there at a moment’s notice for any of the others. We were there to fight a second war with them. You can’t use needles and wires to get this training. Sure, River could kill you with her pinky, but she isn’t whole, is she?”Simon shook his head. “No.”“How come we didn’t hear about this?” Zoe asked.Athena shook her head. “You know just as much as I, Lady V, that the Alliance never tells anyone why to do what’s needed, just that you simply should do it. This is inhuman. But, River can get better.”“You can help her?” Simon inquired.Athena faced River. “That’s up to her. The hard part is already done.”“I’d like to see the sunlight again.” River’s smile disappeared. “They wanted us to kill you. You found what made their veins dark, spotty. They didn’t like that.”“I know.” Athena handed her a knife. “Now’s your chance, should you like to fulfill that.”River took the knife and holstered it back in its spot. “No. You aren’t a monster. That’s what they wanted me to believe. You bleed red. Not black. It’s dirty. You are clean, clear. Like warm water on a beach.”“You can be too.” She turned to see a woman standing next to Mal, beaming brightly. “You must be Kaylee.”“Athena. You’re so damn pretty.” Her eyes got big. “I hope that’s not rude to say.”Athena managed a smile, though the crew gathered it was a rare occasion by the fact she tried to hide it.“You’re cute.” Athena complimented her.“I thought I was the cute one.” Jayne’s face distorted.“You are, but in a helpless-fragile-baby-bird-who-needs-it’s-mother kind of way. Kaylee’s cute in a pinch-the-baby’s-yummy-cheeks—“she lightly pinched the young woman’s cheeks “—kind of way.”“I’ve got cheeks.” Jayne pouted.“This is physically hurting right now.” Wash put his hand on his chest.They all laugh but quiet down when they see Inara come down the steps.“So, Athena, tell me: what have you been up to these last ten years?”“Keeping myself busy with work,” Athena replied slowly.“You mean to tell me that you’ve been making an honest living?”“One of us has to,” Athena said simply.Inara raised her eyebrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”“I’m not lying and keeping secrets. I’ve been pretty transparent.”“What do you call what happened yesterday?” Inara inquired.“None of your business. But, I could give you some really great ammunition to destroy my name in front of everyone so they hate me if you’d like,” Athena suggested.“You already did that yourself.” Inara snorted. “They just haven’t figured it out yet.”Athena responded, “Until they do, you’d do well to keep your mouth shut. Which I realize is hard for a woman of your, what is it, stature? Personally, I don’t see a difference between a whore or Companion when they’re on their knees, and I was one.”Everyone caught glimpses of each other as they tried to keep their laughs stifled. Inara stepped closer, putting her face inches from her sister’s.“I gave Mal permission to let you onboard—““No, you didn’t.” Athena interrupted. “Mal is the Captain. In the end, I’d be here whether you wanted me to be or not. He was just courteous enough to consult first.”“Let me be clear.” Inara slightly raised her voice. “While you’re here, you will stay out of my way.”Athena bowed. “As you wish, your ladyship.”Inara scoffed then left the hold, going back to her shuttle. Wash put his hand on her shoulder.“You have work to do, Master Washburne. Should Kaylee feel up to it, I would love a tour. Help me get acquainted.”“I’d like that!” The young woman beamed. “You’ll love Serenity. She’s a great ship.”The two also left Cargo, Book accompanying them.“I like her.” River smiled, following them.Simon went after her.“Let her get settled in. We’ll check on her later.” Mal turned to everyone else.“You want to get better acquainted?” Wash smirked at Mal.“Careful, Wash. We get into space, I’ll boot you into the airlock.”“Yes, sir.”“Take off in an hour,” Mal told them.
Wormwood (Firefly)She remembered the dreams.
Little bits of memories that had never really been hers, floating in her ears like wisps of smoke. The memories themselves had stopped coming to her, had abated since their trip to Miranda, but she remembered them. Images of men who breathed too deeply. Went to bed at night with something stirring in their lungs and in their blood, the men who turned to monsters in the darkest hours of the morning, and woke as Reavers, and burst from their homes and from their planet and then spread like a cancer to the skies.
It didn't happen all at once that they laid themselves down and began to die, out on Miranda, or in the worst of cases, that their humanity began to disappear beneath a growing sense of frenzied rage. It happened, in fact, very slowly. Took a while for the chemicals to react; cells to change. It disfigured the tissues of their brains in a gradual way, like a slow rot that began at the stem and spread up, around, flowering up into the hollows of their sk
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