The Companion and the Raven

Inara exited her shuttle, locking the door behind her, and looked around.

"Not a bad neighborhood," she said aloud. "Maybe Mal actually landed us somewhere decent, for a change."

The neighborhood looked a bit better than just "decent," she reluctantly conceded to herself as she looked over the area. Large manor houses dotted the valley, with sweeping lawns carefully tended by indentured servants. The mixed scents of southern flowers were unmistakable. The river she had seen before landing could be faintly heard. The only thing that distracted from the antebellum look of the area was the nearly invisible, electronic, PriSecure fences around the properties, ensuring that their owners wouldn't be robbed, or even disturbed by noise from their neighbors. The name on the gatepost read "Pinion Estate," proving she was in the correct place. The almost inaudible hum of the fence could barely be heard over the sounds of horses being led up the drive, and the singing and chirping of the birds. The contrast caused her to hesitate before crossing the barrier.

She realized she was hesitating, and shook her head. Mal was clearly becoming a bad influence on her. This was her kind of place; the kind of dwelling she had walked into, and out of, hundreds of times. She was a registered Companion, protected, to a certain extent, by the reputation of the Guild. She was as safe here as anywhere. She shook her head again, squared her shoulders, and walked in the front gate, right past the security scanners.

As she approached the main house, the front door opened. It revealed a gray-haired black man dressed in the classic Earth-That-Was clothing of a butler.

"Greetings on this fine day, Miss Serra," he said, bowing slightly as he opened the door. "Mr. Pinion is expecting you in the ballroom."

"Thank you," said Inara, smiling at the polite traditionalism.

The butler closed the door, and with an "If you will follow me," led her deeper into the house. Inara openly admired the exquisite decoration that was all around her. It was clearly designed to show how expensive it was, and yet it almost achieved tastefulness. It was a rare sight, in any of the worlds.

"This is a beautiful house," said Inara, being polite as always.

"Mr. Pinion is widely considered to have excellent taste, as people have often remarked since he moved here," said the butler.

That's doubtful, thought Inara. Out loud, she asked, "Has he lived here for very long?"

"Only a matter of months," said the butler, "but he has already become a noted figure in the community since his arrival from Persephone."

Inara smiled politely. "Persephone is a lovely world," she said, "but they are certainly poorer to lose a resident of such taste and refinement."

"Perhaps," said the butler. He stopped. "This is the door." He smoothly turned the knob, and stepped forward as the door opened in. "Miss Inara Serra to see Master Addison Pinion."

She could see her contracted client standing at the far end of the gold-and-red walled, and strangely windowless, ballroom. Chandeliers lit the entire room. Her footsteps echoed across the wooden floor as she entered. The butler closed the door behind her.

"Mr. Pinion, how lovely to make your acquaintance," Inara said, moving towards him.

He kept his back turned. "Actually, Miss Serra, we've met before."

Inara stopped in her tracks. She knew she'd heard that voice before. Her worst fears were quickly confirmed as "Mr. Pinion" turned around, revealing his face.

"Atherton!" stammered Inara. "Atherton Wing! But...."

"But you thought you had seen the last of me, didn't you, whore?" he said to her, calmly. He looked like a man in complete control of the situation. Inara decided upon the better part of valor, turned, and ran for the door.

"I'm afraid I can't stay," she said, trying to turn the knob. It wouldn't turn. The butler had locked it behind her.

The sound of his laughing filled the room behind her. "Oh, the doors of this room are quite securely closed," he said menacingly. "I said that I'd make sure you never worked again, and the time has come to keep my word," he continued, walking towards her as she struggled with the door. "My word, after all, has always been my bond," he said pretentiously. A thoughtful look crossed his face as he told said, "I believe, before, on Persephone, I really would have been content to ugly you up with a nice scar or two," his finger traced imaginary lines down his face, "but now a more permanent solution is called for."

She gave up on the doorknob, and ran toward another door. That one didn't open, either. Her Companion training was preventing panic, at least so far, but not by much. Her heart raced, her throat was dry, and her terrible fear was making it hard to think. Then he spoke again, and his voice was nerve-rackingly calm.

"Why did you do it, Inara? I would have made you my personal Companion, kept you in this kind of luxury and comfort. But you betrayed me!" His calm had evaporated, and his voice turned rough with anger. "If you hadn't distracted me, right at that moment, your oh-so brave captain would have paid for his insult, and you would have been mine! Instead, you took my money and stabbed me in the back as he stabbed me in the stomach! A cheating whore and a petty thief conspiring to rob me of my honor!"

Inara spoke up as she tried another door. "I would never have been yours. If you had killed Malcolm Reynolds, I would have had even less desire to be with you. Your lack of honor had nothing to do with it!"

"What would a whore know of honor?" He was almost snarling now. His eyes bored into her as he stalked after her. His whole body was shaking with his hurt and anger. "I don't like losing things that are mine. You and your precious thief of a captain will pay for that!"

"Mal?" she whispered, suddenly afraid for more than just her own life. "What are you talking about?" she demanded.

"Captain Malcolm Reynolds is on this world under false pretenses," he sneered. "A job that does not actually exist. I informed a man named Adelei Niska that he would be coming here." His face looked as if he smelled a skunk. "A more thoroughly despicable man I cannot imagine. Yet, it would appear that he also owes your Captain Reynolds a debt. I decided it would be much more efficient if we simply split the job between us. Instead of the captain making a profit, I'm afraid his loss will be permanent. Mr. Niska will ensure that the captain and crew of Serenity will not be flying again."

"No..." she said. "Please, Atherton, don't do this! It's me you want, not them!"

He sighed with what seemed to be regret. "I told you once to get ready to starve. You should have had the decency to do so. Instead, you outflanked me, with your 'Companion Registry.' I could not escape that black mark until I moved here, changed my name, and purchased an entirely new identity. You have caused me a great deal more trouble, not to mention the expense, than I had anticipated when I contracted with you." He drew his sword, and held it level, pointed at her heart. "I think you should pay for ruining my life, with yours. And since your captain played no small part in my humiliation and loss of honor, he will die, as well. I think both of you dying adds to the drama, don't you?" He chuckled. "Certainly it makes me feel better."

She stood up straight, and held her head high. The sparkling lights from the chandeliers dazzled into her eyes, and she thought to herself that, if she had to die here, this was at least a beautiful room to die in.

No, it's not, she thought again, as her eyes were drawn back to the unwavering point of the blade. The most beautiful rooms were inside the steel and composite walls of Serenity, with the people that had become closer than her family. She had once told Mal that he didn't have to die alone. He had responded that everyone dies alone. It was looking like he might be right.

Oh, that's just great, she thought, it has to be now that I start understanding that man.

She tried to put one last bit of defiance into her words. "That man you call a 'petty thief' has escaped Niska before," she told Atherton. "You can kill me, but you won't get him. And he will make sure you pay for this."

He smiled at her. It was a hard smile; one that didn't reach his eyes. "Then I will simply have to try again. No matter. He has more enemies to draw from, and I certainly have the time." He drew his sword back, preparing for the kill.

Inara could not take her eyes from the point of the sword. Hope vanished in a flood of despair, and she resigned herself to her fate. Perhaps her friends would escape; she could still hope for that. As she thought of them, part of her realized that the sword hadn't yet plunged into her heart. She looked up at Atherton in time to see him take a quick glance at the door; his expression radiated confusion, and, no, it couldn't be—was that fear she saw?

"Not now," he whispered, watching the main door. Inara tensed up, ready to dart away now that he was distracted. Just then, the knob turned; the door swung open; and a woman stepped inside.

She was a striking person, Inara thought, tall and slender. She exuded a confidence that Inara was sorely lacking right at the moment. Perhaps, Inara thought, that was because she, too, had a sword. Her long black coat swirled around her as she sauntered into the room. She smiled, almost casually, at the scene.

"Oh, Atherton, darling," the woman drawled, "did I come at a bad time?" She walked further into the room. "Your bodyguards seemed to think you might be busy, but I insisted upon seeing you. Don't be mad?" With a coquettish tilt of her head, she smiled at him. Inara saw that her sword had blood on it, and suddenly realized what the woman had meant by her reference to "bodyguards." An unexpected surge of hope threatened to beat back her despair.

"Amanda," said Atherton, drawing out each syllable of the name. "This is, indeed, a very bad time. You have caught me engaging the services of a Companion." He voice hardened; his face was like stone. "Leave, and we can deal with our business at a later date."

"A Companion?" asked the woman, apparently named Amanda. She looked at Inara. "I don't recall Companions providing target practice as part of their services." She was moving towards Atherton, her sword still out. "Things have certainly changed over the years."

"Help me!" shouted Inara at the interloper.

"Silence, whore!" shouted Atherton, thrusting his sword at her. Inara threw herself to the side, but he was too quick. The blade missed her heart, but it still stabbed below her shoulder, piercing a lung. Agony flared as she struggled to breath. The pain was making her dizzy. She saw Amanda break into a run. Without wasting a moment, Atherton pulled his blade back out and turned towards the newcomer. Inara tried to keep her eyes open as she collapsed on the floor, but the pain was threatening to send her into shock.

With the "Clang!" of the two swords, the fight began. Inara recognized, from her own training, that the woman had excellent fighting form. She was at least as good as Atherton. The fight moved around the room as the battle progressed, both of them hammering blows towards the other. Their energy seemed to be endless.

Her fog-shrouded brain finally realized that she was still losing blood. Shock was making it harder and harder to concentrate, but the flashing blades still mesmerized her. She saw the woman disarm Atherton, then spin around, her sword aiming at his neck. Inara's thoughts were very blurred; she could barely focus on what was happening. She watched, without reaction, as Atherton's head fell clean of his body. She felt an odd tingle in the air as her shock finally caught up with her.

"Oh, Mal," she whispered, quietly as a lost thought. Her consciousness fled.

"Come on, damn you, wake up!" she heard, and felt her face being slapped.

"What?" she mumbled.

"We've got to get you to a doctor!" said the woman, hauling Inara upright, and throwing Inara's arm across her shoulders.

"Ship...." said Inara. She realized her wound was packed full of something. Apparently, this woman (Amanda, was it?) had stopped the bleeding.

"What ship?" asked Amanda, dragging her bodily to the door.

Inara's eyes focused for a second, and saw the room. Most of the chandeliers had fallen, leaving shards of glass and crystal everywhere. Some of the wall coverings were on fire.

"What? Happen?" she mumbled.

"Never mind that! What ship?" snapped Amanda, as they entered the hallway.

"Serenity. Eavesdown. Warn Mal!" Inara gasped out.

"Okay," said Amanda, "we'll take your shuttle."

Inara tried to explain how to start the shuttle, but she passed out again before she could. When she came to, she found herself on her back, looking up at a bright light.

"Ugh," she groaned.

"Sorry," came a voice she recognized. Simon's head came into view as the light moved to the side. "You gave us quite a scare, Inara," he said. "You lost a lot of blood."

"Mal!" she said, trying to sit up. Simon grabbed her shoulders and forced her down.

In his best soothing voice, Simon explained. "Mal is down in the cargo bay dealing with some of Adelei Niska's men. They jumped us. Apparently, this whole run was a setup."

"I tried to get back to warn you," she said. "Atherton was there."

"Atherton Wing? The captain's erstwhile fencing adversary?" he asked. "He set this up?" He shook his head. "Amanda didn't tell us that."

"Amanda?" she asked. "She saved me." Oh, that was articulate, she thought. Simon saw her ladylike grimace, and smiled.

"I've given you a painkiller. It will wear off fairly soon." Simon smiled his best "bedside manner" smile. "Until then, you just relax. Everything is fine now."

"Please, Simon, tell me what happened," pleaded Inara.

Simon sighed. "Niska got the drop on Zoe somehow, and called everyone to the cargo bay. River was hiding, but Niska seemed to know every place to hide on the boat. With the rest of the crew hostage, she surrendered. We really didn't stand much of a chance, especially after his new chief henchman shot Mal."

"What?" Inara gasped.

"It's okay, it's okay, don't worry," he said, gently. "He was shot in the leg; I've already removed the bullet. It seems, this time, Niska wanted all of us alive 'to set a good example,' as he put it."

Simon took a deep breath. "Zoe pointed out that you would know something was wrong when you returned. Niska chuckled, and said his partner was taking care of that. After that came a lot more blustering and posturing. Jayne thought that he really overdid it." He smiled, and continued, "That man can really gloat. He did seem to enjoy winning a great deal. I don't blame him; I didn't see how we could've escaped from this one, but River told me not to worry; she said something about a 'raven' coming. Niska had one of his men strike her when she said it." Simon briefly closed his eyes at the memory. "That was when we heard your shuttle dock."

Simon smiled, and continued the story.

"Niska looked surprised, and mumbled something about gossip. Then he sent two of his men to bring you down. Instead, Amanda took them out, causing enough of a distraction for the crew to handle the rest. The captain is very grateful." He took another look at her shoulder. "Now, I want you to rest. I mean it!" He shook his head, and sighed. "No doubt, the captain will be up here before too long to see how you're doing, not like he's doing himself any favors walking on that leg."

Simon turned his back to her and went back to organizing the medical bay. Inara relaxed. This woman, Amanda, seemed very resourceful. She realized she hadn't even thanked her for saving her life. The chance came soon enough. Mal entered the infirmary, followed by Amanda.

Mal walked directly to the bed. "How are you feeling? Doc fix you up all right?" He smiled at her, his eyes were full of concern.

"I'll be fine, Mal," she said, trying to sound reassuring and condescending all at once. She was afraid it just sounded weak. Her fear was confirmed by Amanda's quick "hah!"

Mal smiled wider as he glanced back. "I suppose you two have already met," he said.

"Not very well," said Amanda, coming forward. "No more than passing acquaintances. No surprise, what with all that distressing commotion at Atherton's. It's simply a pleasure to meet you, my dear. I'm Amanda Montrose."

"Inara Serra," she said, smiling at the woman's flirtatiousness. Inara almost believed that Amanda could have been trained by the Companion Guild, except for her somewhat audacious manner. "Thank you for saving my life."

"You're entirely welcome, my dear; it was no trouble at all," said Amanda, smiling widely.

"Sure, as long as you were in the neighborhood," said Mal, "and speaking of which, you never did say what business brought you to that neighborhood just in time to rescue our fair Ambassador. Do you perform heroic rescues often?"

Amanda pursed her lips. "Now, Captain, such manners, asking after a woman's affairs," she said with a dangerous smile. "I assure you, my business is as perfectly respectable as your own. And," her voice picked up an edge, "it is... my... own."

"Hey, I didn't mean anything by it," said Mal, raising his hands in front of him. "It's just been the kind of day that might make anyone a little leery of...." He was clearly searching for the right word, and settled on, "surprises."

"Apology accepted, Captain," said Amanda. "Still, I must be going. In fact, I have some unfinished business back in that very neighborhood." She appraised him with a practiced eye, and seemed to come to a decision. "Perhaps you might lend a girl a hand? I could use some assistance with transportation, and you do happen to have a ship available, yes?"

Mal shrugged. "Can't say yes, if I can't ask your business," he said. Inara smiled. Watching these two negotiate promised to be very entertaining.

"Judging by your ship and crew, it would appear I'm in the same line of work as you," said Amanda.

"Honest, free-lance, shipping for an exclusive clientele who value discretion?" said Mal, smiling.

"Petty thievery?" said Inara, a little snarkily.

Mal frowned down at her as Amanda laughed. "Someone must be feeling better," he said.

Amanda laughed again, and said to Inara, "Oh, my dear, whatever else I have been in my sinfully long and misspent life, I have never been petty." She looked across at Mal. "You don't strike me as someone who likes being petty, either."

"Don't tell her about the dolls," said Inara.

Amanda tilted her head. "Dolls?"

Mal looked embarrassed, but confessed. "Once upon a time, when we were Between Jobs," he glared at Inara, "we smuggled some of those little Geisha dolls."

"With the big heads that wobble?" said Amanda. "I love those!" Inara rolled her eyes.

Amanda came around the medical bed and took Mal's arm. "Inara, I need to borrow your dashing and charming Captain for a little teeny bit of time. You rest." She pulled Mal toward the door. "I'm sure you'd like to recoup something for your trip here," she said to him. "I'm also sure that Atherton has a shamefully overburdened safe, or perhaps two, in his house, and I'm absolutely sure that we're just the people to alleviate that little problem. Don't you agree?"

As their voices faded, Inara reflected that either their lives had just gotten better, or a whole lot more complicated.

Inara shook her head. Knowing Mal's luck, it was probably both.

Disclaimer: I own none of these characters, Firefly, or Highlander: the Raven.