The first time he meets the boy, Mal figures the kid's insane. Best pilot in the 'verse folks were sayin', to be found on Persephone, if he's found at all. Runs odd jobs for Badger. When he feels like it. Known for the red coat and the sunglasses he rarely takes off. All that could fit on a business card.
What folks neglected to talk about were the hands that never still. The eyes, not quite hidden behind the lenses, that never look directly at you, that look at your gun, the door, the drink he's just gotten. Eyes that appear, in the brief flashes that Mal sees of them, glazed over and cold. Nor did they say quite how young the kid is. Mal would wager he's barely older than River, younger than Simon or Kaylee.
He doesn't smile when Mal sits down across from him. He inclines his head, a slow subtle move that any diplomat might envy, and raises his eyebrows.
"Captain Malcolm Reynolds, of the good ship Serenity. Did you want something?" His voice is soft, almost gentle, and he speaks politely,but it gives Mal chills all the same. He almost makes some excuse, walks away. River can fly Serenity. They don't need her on jobs that badly. He would make Simon happy if he did that, finally get the doc's angry, nervous glare off his back.
Except he can't.
"Word is you're looking for a job, get you off of this rock. Something semi-permanent," he forces out, and the kid's eyebrow climbs higher up his forehead. He picks at the sleeve of his ratty red coat, and then, suddenly, smiles.
"You mean to offer me a job? Flying your rustbucket of a ship and praying she doesn't fall apart ..." The smile widens but is gone as suddenly as it came. The boy shakes himself, and looks at Mal directly for the first time. The weight of his stare sets Mal's teeth on edge. "Conditions?" the boy asks.
Mal blinks, stares at the boy. "Conditions?" he repeats, feeling slow and nervous as the boy's ever-moving eyes search his face.
"Do I get paid? Do I share a bunk? What sort of service am I looking at, sir?" The 'sir' gets tacked on at the end, unintentionally if the boy's face is anything to go by. Now it's Mal's turn to smile, as the kids eyes finally leave his face.
"Five percent. Own bunk. And you have to tell me your name," he drawls, at ease now.
The boy nods, gives a shaky smirk, and doesn't look up from his drink. They sit there, long enough for Mal to almost give up and leave, and he almost does. Rising out of his chair and knocking back whatever had been in his glass when he first walked in.
The voice catches him mid-swallow and he chokes for a minute before dropping his eyes to the top of the kid's head. The hair, which had previously looked black, strikes Mal as blue suddenly.
"My name. Athrun," the boy repeats. "I'll see you tomorrow morning. Don't leave without me,"
And they leave it at that. Mal walks away, steps into the bright sunlight and then stops, glancing back once. The kid, Athrun, hasn't moved. Mal shakes his head, looks away, and walks towards the docks.