HANDFUL OF STARS: 16. "The Mark of a Man"
Thursday, December 23, 2010

"Ritchie goes looking for Mal but finds Monty instead. Kaylee plans to get cosy with Simon. The messenger tells his story and Petrie decides it is time to get more creative."


TITLE: "THE MARK OF A MAN" AUTHOR: Alison M. DOBELL FANDOM: "FIREFLY" PAIRING: None. RATING: PG-13. STATUS: Sequel to "UPSTAGING THE DEVIL". ARCHIVE: Yes. Just let me know where. FEEDBACK: Welcomed. EMAIL: WEBSITE: None. All Firefly stories archived at

SUMMARY: "Ritchie goes looking for Mal but finds Monty instead. Kaylee plans to get cosy with Simon. The messenger tells his story and Petrie decides it is time to get more creative." The usual disclaimers apply. The characters and 'Firefly' are the property and gift of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. No infringement of copyright is intended.


"Firefly" story

Written by Alison M. DOBELL

* * * * *

Ritchie Thomas was a man in a hurry. Hardly anyone was on the streets, it being late and darkness bringing more than shadows to dog their steps. The Sheriff didn't notice. Didn't rightly care. His step was firm and brisk, his manner determined, pre-occupied. One or two of the townsfolk peered from candlelit windows and wondered but none stepped out of their doors to ask. Word had gone around like wildfire that there were wild wolves roaming. Had already attacked a man leaving him for dead. As the story spread the injuries grew until it was several people attacked, some dead and some wishing they had died. That it was only one man seemed to have got lost in the panic.

When he reached the place where he had last seen Serenity, Ritchie stopped and stared. He turned his head this way and that, wondered if he had lost his bearings but no, there was that scruffy Kingfisher over a ways. Some friend of Reynolds. So where was the gorram Firefly?

He stood irresolute for a minute or two then decided to speak to the crew of the Kingfisher. If Mal and his crew had somehow got wind of what Petrie was up to maybe they had made good their escape. At least that was what he was hoping. As he neared the old ship some instinct made him turn his head just as the cold barrel of a rifle jammed in the back of his neck.

"Best not be movin'. Ya so much as twitch an' you're a dead man."

Ritchie didn't bother raising his hands. Wasn't worried if he ended up full of holes neither. With Audrey dead he didn't give a good gorram what happened to himself and right now he had no patience with anyone seeking to delay him. "I'm the Sheriff, so unless you fancy spendin' a good while in my jail you'll shuck that weapon."

The barrel pulled back an inch or two but the man did not put down his gun. His voice was wary. "Turn around, let me see your face."

Turning, Ritchie was curious as to who had him at gunpoint. Rolly swore under his breath and flicked on his safety. "What in the nine hells ya doin' creepin' around in the dark, Sheriff? Nearly shot ya full o' holes."

"Need to speak to your Cap'n, *mashang*."

"What ya wantin' with Monty?"

He could have got snippy and refused to tell the man but Ritchie wasn't in the mood to drag this out. "I'm lookin' for Malcolm Reynolds. See his ship is gone, wanna know where he went, *dong ma*?"

Suspicion itched at the base of Rolly's skull. "An' why ya wantin' to know that?"

A hint of steel crept into Ritchie's voice, for once looking and acting like the Sheriff he had been in name if not in deed. "That's my business an' his. You really want to be obstructin' me in the execution of my duty?"

Rolly hesitated. He had never seen Ritchie so much as show the shadow of a backbone and it made him unsure. He didn't really want to tangle with the law, *diyu*, maybe Ritchie would call down the gorram Alliance on them if he got riled enough. With a huff, Rolly made his decision. *Duibuqi*, Sheriff, been odd things goin' on. Can't be too *xiaoxin*."

The Sheriff nodded and Rolly led him to the ship, giving a soft whistle so the others would know it was him.

* * * * *

It was late and most everybody had gone to their bunks for the night. Serenity was as quiet as she got, the low level hum the only sound in the sleepy ship. Kaylee was excited. It was the first time in weeks that she had managed to get any time alone with Simon. The fact that he was half dead on his feet just meant he couldn't disappear to his bunk before she could corner him.

"How's the Cap'n?"

"He's doin' well, in fact better than expected." Kaylee smiled sweetly and swayed a little on the spot. "That's 'cause you're a real shiny doctor."

Simon didn't blink. That would have taken energy he didn't have. He stared, finally noticing that Kaylee was blocking his way. "Um, I was going to get some sleep, Kaylee. Aren't you tired?"

"Nah, not been doin' much while we been hidin' behind this moon. Engine's in good shape an' there's nothin' to do 'til Cap'n tells us where we're goin' next. Was gonna fix a drink, you wanna join me?"

He opened his mouth to refuse but there was a look her eye, a glint daring him to let her down. The gentleman in him didn't want to leave Kaylee to drink her tea alone. Tired as he was he couldn't do that to her. "*Dang ran*."

She beamed at him then linked her arm in his and steered him towards the common room. When Simon went to pull out a chair at the table, Kaylee tutted at him and patted his arm. "Nah, let's sit in the comfy seats, *dong ma*?"

Once she had him seated she gave him a winning smile and Simon found himself smiling back. Tired as he was there was always something special about Kaylee.

"I'll just put the kettle on, won't be a moment."

* * * * *

Monty Reynolds was a big man with a mind like a steel trap when he fixed on to something. Right now he was leaning, hands down, on the table in the ship's galley bringing himself eye to eye with the Sheriff who was a mite shorter. "Ya sayin' someone's after Mal?"

Ritchie nodded. "An' he's all kinds of twisted."

"Twisted how?"

"Ya heard of a fella called Niska?"

The big man paled a mite. "Ya sayin' that ruttin' *tamade hundan* is behind all this?"

"*Bu qu*, this one's worse."

Monty's crew crowded round and exchanged unsettled looks. Monty straighted and crossed his arms. "Don't take this wrong Sheriff but I ain't in the mood to drag every word outta ya a minute at a time."

"*Duibuqi*. Maybe it's time to tell the whole of it especially as I'll be needin' you to help."

Rolly's eyebrows shot up. He was never fond of the law even at the best of times. "You makin' us deputies?"

"For what I have in mind I'll take my badge off, *dong ma*?"

They had never heard him talk like that. Intrigued Monty urged him to continue, giving Denny a nod to get the whiskey out of the cupboard. The quicker he could loosen the man's tongue, the more he was likely to get a handle on what the *diyu* was going on.

* * * * *

It was dark. Pitch black. So late that even the candles folks lit in their windows had gone out. Most everyone with a heartbeat was tucked up in their beds sleeping or doing what was needed to keep the population rising. Either way he didn't care. His head was a mess of conflicting sensations all underpinned by varying levels of pain and obscure sensations. The messenger sat by the side of the street like a marionette with it's strings broken, his eyes kind of vacant, his mind close to meltdown. Images sparred with his attempts to make sense of what was happening to him. Flashes lighting up the inside of his brainpan with fragments of the past. At least he thought that was what it was.

As he tried to quiet the rush of images and sounds from a flood to a crawl, the blur slowed until he could make out what was happening. A cruel pock marked face leaned down close to his own, the skin a thick ripple across the face making it hard to tell what had happened to it. A voice muffled words that he could not make out, a grin splitting the misshapen face and not improving it one bit. Only after a great deal of effort could he replay the scene enough times to pick out what was being said.

"You realise this is nothing personal?"

He realised he was strapped down. Something hard and unyielding beneath him like a table of some kind. That was when he saw the knife. It wasn't a bowie or a hunting knife, more like something you would use to fillet a fish. The thought disturbed him and he would have shaken the memory out of his mind but it was stuck there now and he found himself an unwilling observer in his own personal nightmare. "Why are ya doin' this?"

"Need to get a man's attention."

"No need for this, I'm listenin'."

The man seemed momentarily amused but the look in his eyes was cruel, calculating and completely remorseless. It chilled him to the bone. "*Ni bu dong*. I want to send a message."

None of it made sense. "Look, maybe ya got me mixed up with someone else..."

The man actually chuckled and straightened. "Where are my manners? My name is Lincoln James Petrie and I wish to send a message to Malcolm Reynolds, *dong ma*?"

His heart skipped a beat. What did this *shenjingbing* man have to do with Mal and why was he asking him to run errands for him? "*Wo bu dong*, why not just wave his ship?"

"I don't want him to know who it is from. Not yet."

"Best ya untie me, *mashang*. Ya got a message to pass ya tell him yourself."

Petrie shook his head and slowly raised his fillet knife, not a lick of humour on his face. "*zhege da an shi cuode*."

* * * * *

Kaylee fixed two mugs of tea and carried them carefully to the couch where she had left Simon. As she approached her eyes widened, her stomach doing a little flip. Simon Tam lay back in a bonelss sprawl as if sleep had claimed him the moment he sat on the couch, the welcome comfort reminding him just how tired he was as his eyes fluttered closed without any conscious decision on his part. A tender smile touched Kaylee's lips. Seeing him so vulnerable made her all manner of protective towards him. Didn't hurt that Simon was so *shuai*. Quietly Kaylee leaned forward and set the mugs on a little low table in front of the couch then slipped round it to sit next to the handsome doctor. Her smile was sweet, her look fond. The evening might not be turning out as she had hoped but she would take what she could get. Sidling closer to him, Kaylee moulded herself to Simon's side and dropped a gentle kiss on his cheek. He did not stir. Deciding that some things were more important than tea, Kaylee rested her head upon his shoulder and gazed at him until her eyes blurred and closed with sleep.

* * * * *

Typical, it was gorram typical! Most days you could see the useless man wandering around Cheverell like he owned the place but without ever lifting a rutting finger to do his job. At first folks were polite. "*Ni hao ma*, Sheriff?" Snippets of small talk, nothing too detailed or prying. Wanted the man to feel welcome, get settled. Their last couple of Sheriffs had come to untimely ends, one shot up by some men that had gone on the rampage after a drunken quarrel got out of hand, the other ate his own gun. Rumour had it that it was 'woman trouble'. The months that followed had seen a kind of reckless anarchy descend on the town with the upshot that the citizens had appealed to the Alliance for someone to put everything back in order for them. When Ritchie Thomas had arrived with his shiny new wife the folk had breathed a collective sigh of relief. Man seemed respectful enough and his being married made folk think they had turned a corner in the law department. Expected great things from Ritchie, but the reality slowly dawned that the only shiny thing about their new Sheriff was his rutting badge.

Ellis stopped at the Sheriff's office and noted it was in darkness. Huffing a frustrated breath he quickened his pace and made for the man's house. The sooner he got Ritchie Thomas to deal with the man he had dragged out of the middle of the street the sooner he could get back to the comfort of his yard. There were times when he cursed his own curiosity but then he wasn't a man to stand by and watch a man die.

* * * * *

His head was swimming. Old memories mixing with current nightmares, the present a blur of impossible images made flesh. Or so it seemed. A brief interlude of lucidity struck out of nowhere and the messenger's eyes opened - clear, bright and wanting to be somewhere else. He sat up with a bit of difficulty, his co-ordination off. What had happened? Slowly he got to his feet then hunched over with pain. Lights inside his head further disorientated himself with images of the man he hated most in the 'verse bringing his thin razor sharp knife up to his face. Pain burst from his haunted memories into every cell of his much abused body reliving every second of torment. The messenger dropped to his knees and hung his head, face in his hands.

For several minutes he did not move, could not if he had tried. A low agonised sound finally caused him to raise his head, more annoyed than curious. It took another few minutes to realise the moan was coming from his own lips. He clamped his mouth shut and waited for his head to stop aching so much, his balance shot to pieces leaving him feeling like a drunk in the aftermath of the biggest drinking bout of his life except not a drop had passed his lips. Not since the madman he was forced to obey had begun his torturous hobby. He stood on shaky legs, dared not move too fast, and wondered what he was doing at the side of the road. It was very dark among the trees on the north side of the road and he gravitated towards them, staggering across the street towards the anonymity of the shadows on the far side. He paused and clung to a tree, somewhat reassured by the rough bark beneath his fingertips. The hideously evil face of Lincoln James Petrie so close to his own as the monster slowly removed the skin from his face, holding the bloody trophy aloft while he found himself screaming. His agony savoured by that evil madman like a fine wine. It wasn't the worst of it though. No, that would come day by day, week by week. The endless operations, the torture, the experimentation. Vaguely he remembered having his head opened under local anaesthetic. The pain medication a trickle when he needed a flood. Petrie taking pleasure in orchestrating new forms of agony while visiting new atrocities on the bound man.

Now he was unbound. His mind in shattered broken pieces but for the first time in too long, it was his own. Before he could think about putting himself back together again he needed to find somewhere safe. Rest. Then try to piece together the past that had been stolen from him and as much as he could remember of Petrie's plans. He was too weak to go up against him and that was a shock. While under the man's power he had been unaware of little things like pain and trauma, almost acting like some automaton rather than a living breathing human being. Well now, the human had somehow been freed and trickles of memory began to join up in his mind creating a cracked and misshapen road back to some kind of sanity. It was something he needed. Craved. More than the air he breathed.

* * * * *

The Captain woke to darkness. No. Not darkness, the lights were merely dimmed. Once his eyes began to focus he took stock. Didn't move or turn his head until he had assessed the situation. Serenity's quiet hum was like a mother's heartbeat and all manner of reassuring. So. He hadn't been dreaming. He was back on his boat which meant his crew had rescued him from that *feng le tamade hundan*. The how or when of it was beyond him but he was all kinds of grateful. A movement to his side made him freeze. He wasn't alone. Somehow he must have shifted, made an involuntary move or sound because the figure leaned forward.

"Mal, are you awake?"

Inara! Surprise turned to pleasure then he seemed to recall her sitting with him before. Just how long had he been in this rutting infirmary and where in the nine hells was his shiny doctor? He opened his mouth to speak but only rust came out. Inara smiled gently down at him then moved out of his line of sight to return seconds later with a glass of water. The liquid wasn't cold but luke warm which puzzled him. Why was she giving him warm water? Wanted to drink it not bathe in it and yet it slid down his parched throat like nectar.

"*Xie xie ni*. You get the short straw?"

He saw her lovely face shift from content to a frown. Gorramit, it wasn't like he was criticising the contrary woman. Was she destined to forever take every word he uttered as some kind of insult? Her response was tart.

"I'm pleased to see you too, Captain."

Quick as a flash his hand shot out and caught her's as the Companion rose swiftly to her feet. Something in his eyes stilled her tongue just long enough for him to make himself clear. Didn't want no misunderstandings. Not now.

"*Wei*, 'Nara, wasn't lashin' out, *dong ma*? Just a mite confused is all."

A medly of thoughts shot across her face before she schooled her features into the bland professional mask he had come to hate. The woman beneath was far more worthy than the china doll she showed to the gorram world. For such a fine educated woman he was puzzled that she couldn't see that.

* * * * *

The guards hid their nerves well. Petrie was a man not to be crossed. Many of them had signed up without any knowledge of what the man was like beyond the rumours that he was richer and more powerful than God. They had laughed, joked about the oversized ego that would be their new boss and how working for him would make them all rich. None of them were laughing now. True, one or two found a soul mate of kinds in their twisted *laoban* but most of them were sickened and nauseated by the increasing depravity they became witness to. One thing penetrated deep and stuck. Once you signed up to work for Petrie you never left except in a box. No one joked about how many pieces your body would be in. Working for the man it was all too likely to be more gruesome than any of them could imagine. So they hardened their hearts and determined to give the boss no cause to add themselves to his list of 'volunteers'. Hardy Johnson shuddered at the thought.

Hardy and Davy Wainwright had the job of cleaning up after the boss's last violent tantrum. He looked at all the shattered equipment, much of it beyond repair. It was specialised, top of the range. Petrie had many of the items made to order. It was Davy who said what Hardy had only dared to think.

"Least that poor *tamade hundan* he's been usin' to pass his ruttin' messages is free of him now."

"Not sure if that's a blessin' or a curse."

Davy stared at him, wide eyed. "You kiddin'? If that was me I'd run 'til the breath in my gorram body was gone if it meant gettin' as far away from this slaughterhouse as possible."

Hardy's head whipped round from side to side. Nervous now. "*Bei chao*! Ya want the boss to hear ya talkin'? He'll like as not rip your tongue out."

"Na, monitors are all outta order now. Can have a hundred cameras an' if the tech that runs 'em is broke they're just useless bits of scrap."

"Still, don't like talkin' in here."

"Where else can we talk? Ya know we ain't allowed outside, not unless we're in pursuit."

That made Hardy think, his mind getting all twisty and thoughtful.


"Ya said that poor *hundan* was free now?"

Davy nodded.

"How long ya think it'll take the *laoban* to figure he's lost control?"

"Uh, hours. A day at most. *Weishenme*?"

"Just thinkin', when he works it out he's gonna be pretty mad. Probably want someone to hunt him down an' drag him back, *dui*?"

Davy Wainright stared at him for a minute then the dime dropped. A slow wide smile momentarily lit his face with rare hope. "Could be we could volunteer?"

"Let's say 'offer'." Hardy could not quite hide a shudder. 'Volunteers' quickly became victims, subjects for their master to play out his evil fantasies on. Nope. Not gonna say that word. *Diyu*, not gonna think it either.

"What ya thinkin'?"

"Best we wait an' see what happens next. Don't discuss this no further, Davy."

For a moment it looked like Davy would argue but though his smile had vanished at the look on his friend's face, he knew they had to be careful. A man as paranoid as Petrie didn't need a reason to make your life a living hell. He gave a nod and followed Hardy down the corridor and even though he knew the boss could not see or hear them tried not to feel the walls closing in on him as they walked.

* * * * *

Simon Tam woke slowly. He felt warm and rested for the first time in days. Closing his mouth on a yawn he blinked. Two eyes blinked back. Upside down. His brain didn't have to be fully awake to know what that meant. "River?"

A grin joined the eyes. "Sssh, still sleeping."

Her brother stared at her nonplussed then realised someone was snuggled up to him on the couch. Carefully he turned his head and almost kissed Kaylee, her face so close that he was now breathing her air. He stared, she looked utterly adorable. Her face as kind and open in sleep as it was when she was awake. Simon smiled just as Kaylee's eyes fluttered open then froze, her eyes locked on his. A slow sleepy smile woke into a shit eating grin.

"Don't let me stop ya if ya were gonna kiss me."

Panic blossomed briefly on Simon's face as he flushed. He saw her grin fade and blurted out the first thing to come into his head, anything to stop that grin turning into a frown and a big sign saying 'your fault' hanging over his head. "I... I didn't want to wake you."

Simon felt her wriggle even closer, a look in her eye that said she wasn't planning on letting him move any time soon. Kaylee did something with her hips that made his mouth flap on empty air. The look in her eyes telling him she knew exactly what she was doing. Then Kaylee closed the tiny gap left between them and kissed him. As her lips found his Kaylee let her hands get busy, burrowing between them and under layers of clothing until Simon jerked under her hand. He would have said something but Kaylee wasn't letting him up for air.

* * * * *

Petrie made the announcement to a room full of men, all of them hired for their particular range of skills. Right now he needed trackers. Seeing their chance, Hardy and Davy held their hands up. The shock was not that the boss wanted them to hunt down the messenger but that he wanted them to find a transport ship called Serenity and bring the body of Malcolm Reynolds back with them.

After the meeting broke up, Hardy and Davy hung back to exchange a few urgently hushed words.

"What the good gorram does he want with a dead body? Ain't it enough that he killed him already?"

Hardy shrugged. "He killed the other poor bastard eight or nine times an' he ain't dead yet. Kept him alive just to do his biddin'. Best hope Reynolds ain't been cremated."

Davy paused before saying anything else. "What if he is? Can't go luggin' a dead body through the 'verse, after a while the stink alone'll choke a horse t'death."

"Well then, boss's gonna be in an even bigger temper than he was in when he smashed everythin' up."

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*mashang* = at once/on the double/immediately *dong ma* = understand? *duibuqi* = sorry *diyu* = hell *xiaoxin* = careful *dang ran* = of course *tamade hundan* = fucking bastard *bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *ni bu dong* = you don't understand *wo bu dong* = I don't understand *zhege da an shi cuode* = it's the wrong answer *shuai* = handsome/snazzy *dui* = correct *ni hao ma* = how are you? *feng le*/*shenjingbing* = crazy *xie xie ni* = thank you *wei* = hey! *laoban* = boss *bei chao* = not so noisy *shenme* = what *hundan* = bastard *weishenme* = why


Thursday, December 23, 2010 3:14 PM


Don't think I've commented yet but I'm loving this story and watching the plot unfold. Poor Mal! One question - did River keep "hanging around" after Simon and Kaylee...woke up?

Thursday, December 23, 2010 3:22 PM


Good to see you commenting, fearthebunnyman. No, River whisked herself away just before they woke though I think it will take a while before she wipes the smile off her face. Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Saturday, December 25, 2010 5:36 AM


Awww..... with the Simon, Kaylee, and River. Very cute indeed. As for Mal, you just enjoy torturing the man, dont you? Great stuff and here's hoping it starts lookin' up for our BDHs.

Saturday, December 25, 2010 1:13 PM


Thanks, Angellemarcs, and a Very Happy Christmas to One and All. As for things looking up for our BDHs, in more ways than you can imagine! Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Tuesday, December 28, 2010 6:24 AM


Going back to catch up on this story. Very creepy bad guy you have here. Very good work.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011 6:37 PM


Well, now, that was just all manner of morbid and creepifying. Good work! :)


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His head still ached from the rutting probe but after the men had satisfied themselves that his story was true a thousand questions peppered the air like machine gun fire.

The vessel was shiny, sleek and black with nowhere near the bulk of an Alliance ship. Something about the way it moved through the Black was more than a little creepifying.

Personally she didn't care if Serenity was towed off to a junk yard and stripped into spare parts. She had promised the ship to Jer and his crew as a bonus but it looked like scavengers had beaten them to it.

UNFINISHED BUSINESS: 2. "Counting Chickens"
The fact that her eyes were hard and sharp with intelligence kind of chilled him. Smart women always made him uneasy, it just weren't natural.

What in the nine hells were they so afraid of? Then he remembered Tracy. The body mailed to them by their old war buddy and all the trouble that had brought down on them.

If it was too gorram wet to hunt for rabbits what in the nine hells was his son really hunting? And was it something on four legs or two?

The man was in a terrible condition, his pulse weak, and for some reason he was soaking wet which did nothing to staunch the blood soaking through his clothing and seeping from the poorly tended wound where he had been shot.

THE DICHOTOMY SERIES: 9. "All The King's Men"
The man sighed like the weight of the of the 'Verse was on his shoulders but unlike anyone else he looked like he could carry the weight.

THE DICHOTOMY SERIES: 8. "All The King's Horses"
Without warning something came through the opening and rolled with a metallic clang across the ground before exploding.

THE DICHOTOMY SERIES: 7. "Friend or Foe"
Then he found himself falling, the whole world silent as in slow motion the hordes of *diyu* came to swallow him up and everything disintegrated in fire, blood and pain.