Choices - Part 13 A
Monday, July 24, 2006

Atherton reveals the truth to Mal and Inara, Jayne and Zoe continue their search, the Lawman knows something's up, and Book tries to save a lost soul.


Word Count: 5817 Rating: R for Violence Spoilers: Series. Mentions elements of 'Heart of Gold'. Disclaimer: I don't own Firefly. Firefly owns me. Characters/Pairing: Mal/Inara Dedication: To terimaru for taking the time to read the whole damn thing just to help me out; for being my sounding board and digging me out of the details, and asking the questions that made me realize I knew what was going to happen all along; for her suggestions and beta work and most of all for her tireless support through endless hours of chat. Thank-you. Author's Note: Well, it's been more than a heck of long time since I last updated and for that I apologize. The road to this last chapter has been a long and hard one, but at last the end is in sight. Many, many thanks go out to those of you who have waited so patiently for this part, for your comments and gentle nudges to finish, and just for continuing to want to read it. Without you, there wouldn't be much point in writing this, would there? This part, Part 13, will be the final chapter in this story, posted in three sections, with an Epilogue to follow.

Go back and read the Other Parts: 1 2 3A 3B 4 5 6 7 8A 8B 8C 9 10 11A 11B 11C 11D 12A 12B

CHOICES – Part 13 A by 2x2

"Atherton?" said Inara in shock, her mind reeling. Atherton? There was a moment of utter confusion before everything tilted to this new perspective, and she stared at him in disbelief.

Wing looked much the same as she remembered, except for the scar on his left cheek that she assumed was a souvenir from his duel with Mal, but why he hadn't had it repaired was worrisome. He certainly had the resources and the access to the technology to have it completely healed. The fact that he'd kept it was not a good sign, as far as she was concerned. This was an entirely different kind of trouble from Niska.

"Surprised?" said Atherton, smiling. "I don't doubt it! A great deal of planning has gone into this moment, believe me. But look!" he said, motioning to the fountain in excitement. "Your fountain. Did you recognize it? I had it brought here and reassembled, piece-by-piece, so you would always be in my thoughts." He laughed, the sound pitched a little too high for normal. Or sane, she thought, as she watched him trail a hand over the marble woman lovingly. She remembered the fountain. She hadn't been particularly fond of its style or subject but Atherton had said it reminded him of her (which she'd found more than a little insulting at the time, but of course had never said so) and had bought it and placed it in his summerhouse; that had been the last she'd thought about it. Seeing it here now was more than a little disturbing.

"She really is beautiful, isn't she?" he whispered reverently. He rounded on her suddenly, eyes narrowing. "So much like you—" he started in a low voice, but paused, his gaze roaming over her face, taking in every bruise, scratch and cut as if he only just realized they were there. Lifting a hand, he traced a finger through the air along her cheek, not quite touching her. "I apologize for your ill treatment. I am truly sorry for this…" he said with genuine sincerity, flashing a look of annoyance at Whelt and his men. Turning back to her, his face hardened, lips curling in a sneer as he moved closer, invading her space. "I’d hoped for the pleasure of ruining you myself," he said, hissing the last words in her face.

"Jie hong ta bing qie wo jiang sah hai nin,” Mal said in a deadly voice suddenly, his breath coming ragged and angry. The initial relief he'd felt at the realization that it wasn't Niska had been quickly eclipsed by the sheer rage he felt boiling inside him, no small amount of it directed at himself for not killing Wing when he'd had the chance.

Atherton gave Inara a feral grin, his eyes sliding over to Mal. “Captain Reynolds," he said with contempt, moving to his side. "My other 'guest of honour'. You’re a difficult man to track down, but I knew I’d find you, sooner or later." He glanced at Inara smugly. "Following in the wake of your appointments made things considerably easier," he said to her, and then turned back to Mal. "From there, it was just a simple matter of projecting possible flight paths, and ensuring that my men were in place ahead of you."

Inara felt herself go cold, face turning pale as Atherton's words sunk in. This was her fault. He'd found them because of her. She'd put them all in danger. And if Atherton could do it, anyone else who knew she was on board Serenity could do it too. Niska. The Alliance. All they'd need was a reason to look.

"I admit I almost lost you when you made your little detour to the whorehouse on that moon last month. Shame she died, wasn't it?" Wing continued with a mocking tone, watching their reactions closely as they absorbed the knowledge of just how closely he'd been following their activities.

Inara drew in a sharp breath at the mention of Nandi, anger washing through her at Atherton's violation of such a private event in their lives. More than anything, at that moment she wished with all her being that Mal had killed him when they'd dueled on Persephone.

What she didn't understand was how she hadn't heard that Atherton Wing had left Persephone. The Guild kept close watch on all its black marked clients, and she should have been notified the second Wing had relocated. The fact that she hadn't been led her to believe that there was either some sort of infiltrator in the Guild, or someone had deliberately withheld the information from her for some other, more personal reason. Unspoken punishment for helping Nandi, she wondered? But she couldn't see anyone from the Guild being so callous as to do such a thing. Either way, it was a worry she'd have to think about after the current situation was resolved.

"Fortunately, you stumbled on the job to Beylix yourself," Atherton said. "And from there it was a simple matter of having my man slip you the name of another contact who then sent you to me. I've spent a rather large amount of time and resources bringing you here," Wing said arrogantly. "Every job you've run in the last four months has been carefully planned and arranged by me."

"That ain't… that's crazy," Mal scoffed, trying to wrap his head around the idea. "Nobody'd go through all that, set up false jobs for months when you could'a just hired us to come here direct."

"No?" said Atherton with a patronizing smile. "Tell me, Captain, how has your business been these last few months? Good? Better than good, in fact, wouldn't you say? The work paying more than usual, jobs practically falling into your lap." He shook his head condescendingly. "Didn't you ever wonder why things were going so well?"

Mal wanted to deny it but every word Wing spoke was true and he could kick himself for being so complacent. The last four months had brought them some of the easiest, high paying work they'd had since he'd bought Serenity. He should've known better than to trust a run of good luck like that. But other things, namely Inara's impending departure, had kept his mind occupied and instead he'd just been grateful that for once things had been running smooth.

"Even if that's so, that still don't explain why you'd go through all the expense," he said, still disbelieving.

"For the same reason I had our friend Mr. Tomás here burn down that whorehouse and make it look like you were responsible. Your name here will always be sullied by the suspicion that you burnt up those poor girls in their beds. And you'll always know they died because of you." Wing sneered. "I laid out every job like a trail of breadcrumbs; I wanted you comfortable, better off than you'd ever been, content. And you were, weren't you?" smirked Atherton. "Unfortunately, for you, it was all a ruse and you've been working for me all along. And now I get to repay the favour you did me, and take it all away, so you know what it feels like."

A sarcastic laugh broke from Mal's lips, and he shook his head, a humourless grin on his face. "You want me to know what it feels like to lose everything? You liu kou shui biao zi he hou zi de ben e rzi! You're more'n seven years too late for that, Ath. Ya ought ta do more research n' that in the future, gonna spend so much time and resources on a plan for a settling of scores." He shook his head at Atherton's uncomprehending expression. "'You never hear of Serenity Valley, Ath?"

"Ah yes, that's right. You're the great martyr of Independence," Wing sneered derisively and the grin fell from Mal's face. "Just where is the infamous browncoat?" he questioned, looking to Whelt.

The bounty hunter, who'd been watching the proceedings in silence, gave a nod to Dusty and the other man pulled a tied leather bundle out from his satchel and handed it over to Wing.

Atherton untied the bundle, revealing that it was in fact Mal's browncoat. A heavy object in the middle turned out to be Mal's pistol, and Wing held it up in wonder. "Good Lord, is this what they gave you to fight with? These things were antiques when my grandfather was my age. No wonder you lost the war," he laughed and tucked the gun into his belt in a manner that told everyone else in the room that, though he may have some knowledge of pistols, he had absolutely no experience actually using them. He held up Mal's browncoat by the shoulders as though he might catch some disease from the well-worn leather, and shook his head derisively. "Such a pointless reminder of a futile cause," he said, voice laced with scorn. "It's not even worth the cost of the fuel it would take to burn it." He threw the coat aside with a snort of disgust.

Mal smiled an angry grin, eyes hard, but he said nothing. Seeing Atherton handle his belongings did nothing to improve his mood, but as Wing stuffed the gun in his pants, Mal contented himself with the fact that if he wasn't careful, the man just might shoot his own gao off, which would be all manner of satisfying as far as he was concerned. And as for his browncoat, it didn't bother him much to see it tossed to the floor, it had survived worse treatment. It was the man responsible he couldn't abide. Besides which, Mal knew Atherton was only trying to get a rise out of him and he would've been happy to oblige - he wanted nothing more than to wipe the smarmy grin off Atherton's face - but Whelt's men were still armed and until they got their payoff, Mal knew they weren't about to let anyone kill the wang ba dan. Besides which, he was in no shape to be trying anything right now anyway; his legs felt near to rubber from the long ride, his ribs and chest - hell his whole body – ached, face included, and the fingers of his left hand throbbed with such pain it felt like his whole hand was on fire. And on top of that he was dehydrated and sleep deprived. No. He'd wait for his opportunity. After everything Wing had put him and Inara through, he'd make the hun dan pay for it. He promised himself that much, at least.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Donovan Williams had been a Lawman going on twenty-two years and never in all that time had anything liken to this happened. Arson resulting in the death of ten people – they'd found the remains of the old Shepherd in the ashes this morning – murder in broad daylight leaving three more girls dead and more disappeared, riots in the streets – all in the space of two days. He didn't know what the hell was going on with his town. And all if it had started with the arrival of that damned Browncoat, he thought grimly. Williams wondered if he'd misjudged the Captain of the firefly transport, made a mistake about the man. He'd seemed genuinely concerned and cooperative when confronted about the Chapel of Love; Williams supposed it could've been a damn good act. But the man had a registered Companion on his ship, vouching for his whereabouts. Calling her into question would be a dangerous move. If the Guild chose to get involved, he knew it would be his job.

But the crew of the old firefly was mixed up in this somehow. He knew it. Witnesses had reported a ladybug shuttle touching down in the outskirts of town, right where those girls had been found and the only transport in the docks carrying ladybugs was that firefly. From what his men had been able to reconstruct from the scene, a hovercraft had been run down by a group of riders after a chase through the bazaar - he had several vendors up in arms over damaged carts and stands, demanding action already – and from what they could tell the hovercraft had crashed nose first into ground, one of the passengers carried off on horseback and the other's shot and left for dead. His tracker had followed the trail out before the riders split off into five different directions, and he hadn't had the manpower to spare more men to the task of following them out because at right about that same time, a gorram riot had broken out in front of the Chapel of Love, and he'd dispatched most of his deputies to see to that. 'Course, the whole thing seemed to have blown over by the time his men had arrived, but the general consensus was it'd been that damned Browncoat who'd started the whole thing.

To top it all off, his wife had waved to tell him that their son hadn't been home in near two days. That information, combined with the report he'd received this morning from his tracker left a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. The first trail had lead back to his own gorram barn. Which meant his son was not only missing, but was somehow involved in this mess too.

And the only lead Williams had to go on was the firefly sitting dockside and her Browncoat Captain.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The cold light of the infirmary made Gabr'elle's skin look almost bluish, the colour not far off from what it had been a few hours earlier when she'd first been brought on board, and Simon made a reprimanding sound in his throat as he checked Gabr'elle's output monitors, dissatisfied with their readings. He examined her dressing, unsurprised to see it soaked through with her blood.

"You've re-opened the wound," he scolded as he prepared a local anesthetic. "I'm going to have to close it up again."

Gabr'elle nodded absently, her mind still on the boy who'd shot her. She wasn't sure why she'd let the Shepherd stop her from killing the murdering little hun dan; if it had merely been that she was too tired to fight him, or because of something in his voice that told her he really did know what the empty satisfaction he claimed revenge to be felt like. Either way, she wasn't like to get another chance like that. Part of her was grateful she hadn't pulled the trigger, but the rest of her was still too angry to allow for forgiveness or understanding. Her girls were dead because of this boy playin' at the games of men, shot in the street like dogs. They deserved better than that. Gabr'elle had promised to look after them, to make their lives better, and she'd failed them. An' every minute that boy still breathed life in the other room she continued to fail them.

Simon frowned as he noticed sweat on her forehead and craned his neck to view her temperature reading as he removed the bandage and began applying the numbing agent. "You're still running a fever," he continued. "You need to stay in bed and concentrate on getting better. Understand?" he asked, trying for a response as he readied his suturing needle.

She turned her head and regarded him coolly as he began re-stitching her wound. "Do you believe in vengeance, Doctor?"

"An eye for an eye?" he asked, raising his eyebrows as he worked. "No. I heal people, I don't hurt them."

"Not even for the ones you love?"

Simon paused as he thought about it. If he had the opportunity to exact vengeance upon the men who had cut up River's brain, broken her and made her into this shell of the girl she used to be, wouldn't he take it? There was no denying he'd certainly want to, but whether or not he would act on it…

"I guess… it's not something I can answer until I've been in that situation," he said, bringing his concentration back to his suturing.

Gabr'elle nodded, accepting his answer as fair. "Well, let me tell you Doctor, bein' as one who's in that situation." Her eyes, hard and glittering, cut to him. "It's the only thing that means a damn."

Simon stopped again and stared back at her, needle held between his thumb and forefinger. "Gabr'elle," he said entreatingly. "If you don't stay in this bed and heal, there's a very good chance that you will die," he said, emphasizing the words gravely.

She met his stare with equal gravity. "Everybody dies, Doctor." * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It hadn't taken Jayne long to find the trail of hoof prints leading from the compound. He counted six sets, and assuming two of them accounted for the Captain and Inara, that left four men to deal with. The trail was several hours old, but he knew he and Zoe would be able to make up the time in the Mule.

"They's only four left," he said, jogging back to where Zoe waited with the Mule silently. "'On horseback, heading north east. Ain't more'n four hours ahead."

Zoe nodded and sprung up onto the mule, galvanized into action by the news. "Then let's go get them," she said determinedly as Jayne climbed in beside her. She fired up the engines, more than happy to get away from the sound of the vultures squabbling over their 'food'.

"Figure Mal's in a bad way," Jayne said as they pulled away from the compound, eyes following the ground as Zoe turned them to the North East. He couldn't see any other reason why Mal would let just four men take him out of here without putting up some kind of fight. Unless, of course, they were using Inara to make him cooperate, he realized.

"Most like," Zoe answered grimly. "But he an' Inara ain't being here means they're still like to be alive, an' that's somethin'." Jayne nodded. "That bein' said, sooner we catch up to 'em the better," she added and the mercenary knew she was right on that count. The longer they took, the less chance the Cap'n and 'Nara had of still bein' alive.

They headed across the barren landscape, acutely aware of the mid-day sun beating down on them. Even with the wind blowing on them as they drove, they were both quickly drenched in sweat, and Jayne ended up shedding his jacket in favour of going bare-armed. Zoe ignored the heat as best she could, forcing her mind to stay focused on piloting the mule, and finding Mal.

Two hours later, after several stops and some backtracking to re-find the trail, Jayne called out for Zoe to stop and he hopped off the Mule, eyes intent upon the ground as he walked in a wide circle around the area. Zoe took a long pull from her canteen and scanned the vicinity for any signs of trouble.

"They stopped here a while, watered the horses. Had some kind of scuffle," Jayne said, pointing to a mess of overlapping marks in the dirt. "Here, lookit," he said, squatting down and examining one print in particular. He spread his hand next to it to gauge its size and nodded. "Tha's Kaylee's boot," he said looking up at Zoe. "'Recognize the tread. They got 'Nara for sure, an' she was alive goin' on two hours ago."

Zoe nodded and lifted her eyes to gaze out across the expanse of land ahead of them. "Where in di yu they takin' 'em?" she wondered out loud. "Ain't nothin' out here."

Jayne shrugged as he stood and wiped the sweat from his brow, squinting into the distance. "They gotta be goin' somewheres, an' they's only got about two hours on us now. Could be we'll catch 'em out in the open."

Zoe nodded again, a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach telling her that they should hurry. Hang on, Mal, she prayed, we're comin'.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Wash headed downstairs to Serenity's lower level, his thoughts in turmoil, anger, sadness and worry for Zoe, Inara and Mal warring inside him, leaving him confused and anxious. Looking up, he saw Book heading toward the passenger dorms and hurried down to intercept him.

"So, what exactly are you planning to do with our guest now?" he asked as he reached the bottom step, his tone laced with the anger he still felt over the whole 'torturing' situation.

The Shepherd paused and turned to face the pilot compassionately. He understood Wash's position, better than the other man could ever possibly know, but he also knew that sometimes you weren't given a choice. "She did what had to be done, son," he said, hoping the man would come to accept it.

Wash dropped his hands to his hips and looked away, nodding, lips pressing together in a struggle to contain his angry emotions. "Yeah, well, it's not so much what she did, as what she would've done," he said, pale blue eyes holding an angry sadness as he brought them back to meet Book's.

The other man nodded. "So, it's not the torture you object to, but Zoe's part in it," he stated.

Wash laughed mirthlessly. "Oh, I don’t know. Why would I object? After my own little visit with 'Mr. Torture' I think everyone should give it a try," he said sarcastically.

Book stared at him, appraisingly. "And if it were you instead of the Captain? Do you think she'd do anything less to get you back?"

Wash sighed and rubbed his forehead, frustrated that the Shepherd just wasn't getting it. "No," he said in exasperation as he dropped his hand and met Book's eyes gravely. "I think she might do a hundred times worse. And that's what scares me."

Book blinked in slight surprise, on the verge of speaking when Simon interrupted suddenly, hurrying toward them from the infirmary.

"Um. I think we've got a problem," the young man said.

"How so?" asked Book.

"We need to get that boy off the ship," said Simon, nodding to the passenger dorms. "Or she's going to kill him."

"What? Who?" asked Wash.

"Gabr'elle. The woman in the infirmary," answered the Shepherd with a nod. "I'll get him off the ship."

"What are you going to do, just let him go?" asked Simon, worried.

"There's no reason we need to hold him any longer. He's helped us as much as he can," Book said, ignoring the sarcastic snort Wash let out at that. "I am going to try to convince him to turn himself in."

"I don't know if that's such a good idea," protested Simon uneasily. "What if he brings back the authorities? They'll search the ship. They could find River—"

"It's unlikely he will," the Shepherd reassured the younger man and then gave him a pointed look. "I don't know that there's another option, unless you find the alternative acceptable," he said, nodding back to Gabr'elle.

Simon's eyes widened. "No, of course not!" he exclaimed.

"Then I'm afraid we don't have much choice," said Book gravely. He turned to Wash. "Make sure everyone stays clear of the cargo bay," he said. "There's no need to let him see any more of us than he already has, especially River."

Wash agreed easily, simply relieved to be getting the kid off the ship, and bounded back up the stairs to find Kaylee and the doctor's sister.

Book turned to Simon. "I think it best if you keep an eye on your patient," he said. Reluctantly, Simon agreed and retreated to the infirmary, frowning in worry as the Shepherd opened the door to the passenger dorm and disappeared inside.

Book could feel the boy's fear the moment he opened the door, and as he stepped inside he heard the youth moan pitifully.

"Please. Please don't kill me," the boy begged, his throat tight and dry, the words falling from his lips desperately. "I'm sorry for what I done. I didn't mean it. I didn't even want ta do it!"

Book sat next to him, wordlessly loosening the ropes that bound the youth to his chair as he contemplated the best way to try to reach the young man. The boy's eyes filled with moisture, tears spilling down his pale cheeks, obviously terrified of what he expected to happen next, and the Shepherd knew he would get nowhere without a measure of trust. "What's your name son?" he asked, his voice soft and compassionate.

The boy looked at him in fearful confusion, sniffling as his breath hitched, distrustful of this new version of the man who had promised to kill him but too afraid not to obey. "Keegan," he said finally, his voice barely more than a whisper.

"I haven't come here to kill you, Keegan," Book said, shaking his head as he worked on the knots. "But neither can I offer you forgiveness." He brought his gaze up to the boy's. "Only God can do that. But I can offer you a chance." He paused, staring hard at the youth. The boy stared back at him, eyes wide and beseeching. "Turn yourself in," Book said softly. "Take responsibility for your actions. We can leave right now, together, and I'll do what I can on your behalf, but you will have to face the consequences."

"But…" the boy sniffed. "I can't. My Pa—"

"The alternative will be far less merciful," the Shepherd warned, helping the boy stand, lending a steadying hand as the circulation worked its way back into the youth's legs. "If you run, I can't help you. The law will hunt you down, boy, and you'll swing for it. You understand that, don't you?" Book asked, hoping for the boy's sake he did. "There won't be a thing your Pa can do to stop it."

The boy said nothing and, biting back a sigh, the Shepherd led Keegan out of the dorm, pausing as the youth's eyes lingered on the sleeping form of Gabr'elle through the infirmary window. "We all have our sins to atone for," he said.

The boy turned to the older man, the question unmistakable in his eyes.

"Even me," the Shepherd said. Especially me. He urged the boy up the stairs.

Once in the cargo bay, Book hit the button that opened the doors and then stepped back as the ramp descended.

Keegan looked out into the docks, a sudden rush of relief washing over him to see that he was still home. He turned and stared at Book suspiciously. "You… you're just gonna let me go?" he asked, his voice distrustful but tinged with hope at the same time.

"I am," Book said solemnly.

"You're not gonna make me turn myself in?"

The Shepherd shook his head. "No one can make you do anything, son. It's up to you to decide what to do. It always has been."

Slowly, as though he expected Book to change his mind and pull him back at any second, Keegan stepped down the ramp. When he reached the bottom and touched the earth he threw a look back over his shoulder, visibly relaxing when he saw that the old man hadn't followed him. Then, without another look back, he sprang away, running as fast as his legs could carry him, disappearing into the crowded streets almost instantly.

At the top of the ramp, Book closed his eyes and sighed. No matter how he tried, it never seemed to be enough to save those of God's lost flock he came upon. Shaking his head, he said a prayer for the foolish young man and added one for the rest of the crew for good measure. He had a feeling they were all going to need it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Whelt shook his head in annoyance, growing tired of being made to stand around and wait at the whim of this dandified rich-boy. As far as he was concerned, this fellow Wing was completely addlepated, and Whelt wanted nothing more than to put an end to this job so he could get paid and get the hell off this rock - the sooner the better.

"Conjure we got some business needs tendin' to," he said, drawing Atherton's gaze away form Mal. The other man blinked, seeming to have forgotten Whelt and his men were still there and he looked them over impassively.

"There's plenty of time for that," he started, pressing his lips together in displeasure as Whelt interrupted him.

"An' that time's now, I'm tellin' ya. I'm thinkin' you're ownin' us the agreed upon figures, including that bonus for gettin' 'em here early. We go much longer, price is gonna start goin' up," threatened the bounty hunter.

Wing clenched his teeth together and blew out a huff of air and stepped toward Whelt. "You assured me they were merely bruised, Mr. Tomás, and this is the condition you bring them in?" he said, disapprovingly, waving his hand in Mal and Inara's direction.

"'Were stubborn. Killed some of my people—" Whelt began.

"I don't care what they did, Mr. Tomás. I gave you express orders that they weren't to be damaged—"

"—anymore than necessary. An' they weren't," argued Whelt. "You're lucky they even made it here alive!"

Atherton advanced a step toward the bounty hunter, and the rest of the gang's hands twitched on their weapons, ready to act but Wing seemed unconcerned. "Had you delivered them to me dead, you'd have followed soon after," he assured. "So I'd consider yourselves the lucky ones."

Whelt shook his head at Wing's audacity. "'That so, 'cause I'm lookin' 'round here and I don't see as no one but me an' mine is armed, save for that 'antique' you got stickin' in your drawers, so, 'haps you'd like to explain how that'd come about?"

"Appearances can be more deceiving than you think, Mr. Tomás," said Wing and with a snap of his fingers several of his personal security force, all heavily armed, stepped out from where they had been concealed behind walls and pillars at various points around the room, effectively surrounding them all.

"I'm not a fool, nor do I suffer them gladly, Mr. Tomás. When this is over, you'll get your fee, and your bonus. However, push it beyond that and I may just change my mind," Atherton warned, the threat clear in his words.

Whelt stared around the room at the armed guards unhappily, his jaw clenched, angry with himself for getting caught in Wing's trap, his men looking no more pleased than he was. "Fine," he snapped in concession. "Let's get on with it."

Atherton smiled tightly and then turned back to Mal and Inara. "Where are my manners?" he scolded himself. "You both must be exhausted. If you gentlemen will escort our guests?" he said to Whelt's men, motioning for them to precede him past the fountain and into the long hallway behind it. Whelt nodded and he and the three other men, mindful of Wing's private guards around them, prodded Mal and Inara forward.

Atherton smirked as Mal was pushed past him. "We won't be needing this," he said, pulling the pistol from his pants and dumping it into the pool at the marble woman's feet. "I don't think I need to bother with making a wish, do I?" he leered but Mal just looked away and continued walking. Eyes narrowing, Wing caught up to him. "I've arranged something very special for you," Atherton confided, his tone belying the harmlessness of his words. "I'm afraid our last encounter did not end satisfactorily."

"That'd probably be 'cause you lost," Mal said, smirking. He glanced at Inara but she didn't return his smile, a frown of worry suddenly creasing her brow.

"Be that as it may," Atherton snarled. "I thought perhaps you'd indulge me, Captain." He paused as they entered another room, passing through a large set of double doors into a high, dome-ceilinged space. Pillars dotted the circumference of the arena, creating an arched walkway around the room while marble steps ringed the center, leading down to a sword pitch at their bottom - a pristine circle of white, sand-dusted stone that gleamed under the light through the glass windows in the dome above.

"Welcome to my Salle," he finished, an arrogant smile on his lips as he closed the doors behind them, inordinately pleased at the way Mal's smugness left him as realization slowly set in. Grinning, he led them along the right hand side of the room to a small seating area, moving immediately to a long lacquered box resting on a table behind the chairs.

"I had these specially made," he exclaimed, motioning for them all to come closer as he flipped the latches and lifted the lid reverently, revealing two stunning rapiers within. He lifted one out, laying the blade across two fingers as he turned to display it to them. "The quillon and basket are plated in platinum with silver inlay," he said, rotating the hilt. "The blade was crafted by Jiao Long from the finest Londinium maraging." He turned the rapier over and ran his fingers just above the maker's mark on the ricasso of the blade.

Inara couldn't help but stare in wonder. Jiao Long blades were priceless, even by Guild standards, and for Atherton to have a matching pair, custom made… It must have cost him a fortune.

Mal was less appreciative, considering the probability that they were admiring the instrument of his impending death.

"Truly, it's a far better death than you deserve, Reynolds," Atherton said.

"What makes you think I'm even gonna take up one a' them?" Mal challenged as he considered forcing Wing to shoot him just so he wouldn't get to use his fancy sword.

Atherton frowned sadly. "You disappoint me, Captain. Are we really going to have to play this game, when we both know how easily I can convince you?" he said, raising the tip of his blade to Inara's breast in demonstration. The Companion stared back at him coolly, clearly unimpressed, but it didn't matter. The only thing that did was that it was enough to force Mal to grab the other rapier with an angry exhalation of air and head down the stairs. Wing smiled at Inara sardonically. "We won't be long, bao bei. Keep an eye on her," he threw over his shoulder as he started down the stairs.

"Hang on," protested Whelt, taking hold of Atherton's arm fiercely. Wing turned an icy glare on the bounty hunter, but Whelt wasn't backing down. "What if he kills you?" he demanded. “I still ain’t got my money.”

"Then shoot him and take the swords," Atherton said, pulling his arm from Whelt's grasp calmly. He turned his eyes back to Mal and the sword pitch below. "Either way, he doesn't leave this room alive." . . . . . Chinese Translations:

Jie hong ta bing qie wo jiang sah hai nin = touch her and I will kill you liu kou shui biao zi he hou zi de ben e rzi! = stupid son of a drooling whore and a monkey gao = balls, testicles wang ba dan =son of a bitch hun dan = bastard di yu = hell Jiao Long = jiao = cunning, long = dragon bao bei = sweetheart

Go to Part 13B


Monday, July 24, 2006 8:37 AM


What??? Is it a blue moon already??? (Only joking).

So happy that you're really going to finish this. I love your slightly insane Atherton, it makes a great read!

Nice to see you making use of the talents of the whole crew in this series. Good work bringing Jayne and Zoe in.

Looking forward to the next instalment. We're on the home stretch now and it's still all great quality!

Monday, July 24, 2006 12:19 PM


hey 2x2,

so glad you're writing again! and i love love this series. dont take this wrong, but you have an amazing talent for putting our heroes in horrible situations lol. atherton seems to know just how to push mal, which is fun to read. and this exchange was just perfect:

"What if he kills you?" he demanded. “I still ain’t got my money.”

"Then shoot him and take the swords," Atherton said, pulling his arm from Whelt's grasp calmly. He turned his eyes back to Mal and the sword pitch below. "Either way, he doesn't leave this room alive."

so exciting and tense! and poor inara, having to watch. can't wait for more~

Monday, July 24, 2006 1:40 PM


Love Jayne and Zoe tracking Atherton and his hired thugs to rescue Inara and Mal, and Atherton's choice of revenge is perfect though I'm thinking it's a waste of two priceless rapiers them being in the hands of such a madman. Hope the next part is up soon! Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Wednesday, July 26, 2006 2:45 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER's been so long, 2x2...but you're back (again) with a vengeance;)

An amazing chapter here...especially your interpretation of a post-Shindig Atherton. He honestly reminds me of the character of Gustav Graves in the last James Bond film: wealthy, tweaked in the head and oh so eager to embarass the man who ruined his life the last time they met. But this is even better!

Can't wait for the last parts of this chapter and the feeling you have a big shiny emo-bomb to drop that allows for the BDM to come about without too much wiggling:D\


Wednesday, July 26, 2006 3:01 PM


Hello again, everyone! And thank-you for all your comments.

I am indeed going to finish this hun dan *G* hopefully soon! I am working on it even now.

Very good to know everyone is happy with my Atherton and his little madness :o)

More fun to come *G*

Oh, and Tayeatra, It's once in a blue *sun* actually *GRIN*


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History of an Object
There’s no reason to keep it, damaged as it is. Save one. Doesn’t matter that it’s finer than any other cup on the ship, even with the crack. Doesn’t matter that it would never hold liquid again without some of it seeping through. Burning your fingers. Was only one reason he still has the cup.

Five Years' War
The night was warm. Clouds, low on the horizon, blue black in the last light of the setting sun. Nothing but the breeze and the buzz of the cicadas breaking the stillness. A perfect evening.

The Close Shore, At the End, Untenable
“Dead ’re in my head tonight,” he said finally. “Can’t get ‘em out. Don’t got the booze or the bar to distract me. Don’t know why I’m here ‘cept I don’t think I can go through it alone.”

The Slower Path: All the Difference - Part 15 - Sequel to The One Less Traveled By
She let out a breath, saying nothing for a long moment before she raised her eyes again. “There are some things I want you to know,” she said softly. “Things I want you to understand.”

Much as he wished he could ignore it, he could see it was important to her that he know whatever it was she wanted to tell him. He knew he wouldn't have let himself see it in the past, but that weren't where they were anymore, or at least, not where they wanted to be, either of them. Their relationship had changed, was changing, and he weren’t so stupid he didn’t recognize that. He didn't know that he wanted to know it, much less understand it, but she was reluctant enough to talk about any aspect of her life as it was; could be he might ought not stop her when she wanted to.

Unlucky at Cards...
“I… You can’t be that lucky!” Mal moaned as Inara beat him again, laying out her cards with a flourish.

The Slower Path: The One Less Traveled By - Part 14 - Sequel to Regrets
They fell silent again, struggling to find the ease that they had found, before; before the argument that had almost ended things.

"I feel like-," she started.

"This is-," he said at the same time.

They looked at each other. "Awkward," they both said, laughing lightly.

Always Had Faith
Faith in a higher power? That was always Mal's thing, the Captain, back in the war.

Loved and Lost
Love’s the biggest kind of hurt there is.

And I wouldn't trade that love for nothin'.

The Mood That Passes Through
He felt the first trembling shudder go through her, heard her breath hitch and felt her fingers grip his skin; knew it was comin', the wave that was cresting the walls she'd built to hold it back, whatever it was. Knew they were about to come crashing down around her. The first sob still hurt though, still lanced through his heart like a searing hot blade to hear her make that sound.