Book was a man attuned to the nuances of irony. When casting about for a new identity - a new name for a new man - his quick-fire mind rested on Book without any conscious thought at all. It just appeared like a genie unbidden. Book. The Good Book. Oh, the irony appealed to him - to his intellectual vanity, to his sense of self-mockery, to his slowly flowering hope.

He was writing a new chapter. It was a personal joke, that little phrase. A dark joke, but that didn't make it any less true. He had walked away from the life that was. Walked, because he had too much arrogance still about him to run. He wonders now how the arrogance could have been so strong in him after all that he had done, all that he had seen done. It was a different time, he tells himself. It was a war.

But here is Book now: a man of peace. Not a man at peace, though. Not yet. Still, if he hadn't found peace, he had at least found Serenity. It was the girl that first caught his eye and piqued his interest, but it was the name that sealed the deal. Serenity. It seemed too good to be true. And, of course, it was.

As a man attuned to the nuances of irony, Book has learned to appreciate the complex series of events that lead to such moments. This ship, this town, this time, this lost shepherd, this crew. He didn't believe in coincidences. There was a time when he would have called it fate; now he calls it God.

Book stands in the galley at a countertop and chops herbs into fine pieces. They are an offering from Kaylee, something she was able to barter for at their last planet-side stop. Although nothing was ever formally stated, he has become the ship's cook; the situation is agreeable to all: they appreciate his cooking skills, he appreciates the chance to cement a closer tie to the ship and its crew. At least this is something tangible to offer. He has other skills, of course, but those are best kept under wraps.

There have been questions that have been left hanging or half-answered: his knowledge of weapons and armament, his familiarity with the more esoteric aspects of criminal enterprise, his skill with a gun - his ident card that sets Alliance officers scurrying. No one's pushed him for more than he is willing to divulge. If he has his secrets to keep, then most of them have theirs as well. It doesn't do to push a man to reveal what is best kept close. It's something that he had forgotten during his time at the abbey, but it has come back quickly out here.

Perhaps this is the reason that the Captain allows him to remain on board. He has extended his presence on Serenity long past his capacity to pay. Captain Reynolds had made it clear from their first words that Book the Shepherd was not welcome. His money was; his message was not. The man had a hate on against God, of that there was no doubt. But hallelujah - Book the pious, Book the righteous, Book the humble was here to set him on the path of return. This Book had all the answers. By the end of his first two days on Serenity he'd broken almost every vow he had taken when he entered the Order, every vow to renounce the violence of his past.

He is almost afraid to state the litany of his crimes these past weeks. He'd beaten a man, then watched him be killed. He'd taken up arms and brought down a dozen men. None killed, but all bloody at his hands. Yes, the cause was just, as such things are accounted, but he remembers a darker time when darker deeds were done with those same assurances. He came here to lead others away from that darkness. And all he'd done was slip closer to it himself. The Shepherd was losing his way.

He prays morning and night for the path to be shown to him again. The crew sees only a Shepherd at his prayers; they never see the man at war with himself. Since he joined with this crew, he has done terrible things. He comforts himself that if he had not done them, others would have paid the price. River returned to her captors. Simon executed. The Captain left to torture and death. God would forgive; of this Book was certain. What was uncertain was if Book would forgive. He was a better man now, but still he was too proud. As one part of him recoiled at the violence, another deeper part of him gloried in his prowess. Six years have passed, and he would have sworn on his soul that nothing could tempt him back to the man he was before. Six years and now he knows how easily he can fall.

Book thinks of his early days aboard Serenity and shakes his head at the arrogance of his own supposed humility. "I'm a Shepherd of the Southdown Abbey . . . Maybe bring the Word to them that need it told." Fool. He looks down and realizes that he has turned the fine shreds of dill nearly liquid with the intensity of his chopping. He sighs with regret for the waste caused by his negligence, then smiles with dark humor. He never was a knife man, always preferred a gun. He puts down the knife, closes his eyes, and bows his head.

"Oh, God," he prays silently, "You're not going to make it easy on this old man, are you?"

"Well now, if you're asking for some help with that recipe, I think you're just gonna have to make do. Your God don't take requests."

The Captain's voice holds its usual disdain for Book's prayers.

"You do have a sense of humor, God," he continues silently. "Thank you for that."

Book opens his eyes and looks into the face of Captain Reynolds. The smirk is there, but Book can almost see the hairs on the back of the Captain's neck rising.

"No requests, Captain. Just a little conversation."

"One sided, ain't it?"

"Oh, you'd be surprised."

"Nothin' surprises me anymore. Your God saw to that. Be that as it may, I ain't here to talk theology. We've been offered a new job. Never worked with this buyer before; somethin' ain't sittin' right with it. Zoe thinks you'd be the one to suss out what we might be overlookin'."

Book can sense that those words don't fall easily from his lips. He understands that kind of pride, knows that this is more than a simple request to placate Zoe.

"Me? I don't understand."

"You're more'n a shepherd, Shepherd. You know it. I know it. Hell, even Kaylee knows it."

Book grips the knife again. The feeling of the hilt in his hand is uncomfortably familiar. He drops it again. He will not be drawn in. Not again. The past is the past.

"Captain, I've perhaps given you the wrong impression with some of my past actions. I am still a man of God. It would be inapporpriate for me to become more involved with your . . ." he searches for an inoffensive word, "work."

The Captain laughs.

"See, I knew you'd say exactly that. I told her there was no point to askin', but she tends to worryin' about these new situations. I think Wash is rubbin' off on her."

Book is skilled at reading men; there was a time when his life depended on noticing the angle of the head, the twitch of a muscle in the hand, the rise or fall of a word. The Captain had wanted him to refuse. Book was playing out some internal drama that the Captain had already seen unfold in his own mind.

"She's worried? In truth?" Zoe didn't worry needlessly. Something deeper was going on. More was at stake than the Captain was telling him. He pushed the thought aside. This wasn't his affair now. Not anymore.

"Don't think no more about it. Go back to your . . . conversation." His tone is almost relieved. "We'll do just fine. I told her that. Just like we always have."

The Captain starts to leave the galley, but Book stops him. He can't help himself.

"Captain, wait. I . . ."

He turns back to Book, one foot on the hatch exit.

"I told her I'd ask. I did. I told her you'd say no. You did. There's no more to be told."

He's gone.

Book slaps his hands against the countertop in frustration. This isn't what his life is supposed to be like now. He feels as if he's slipping away from everything new that he tried to become. Two years after the war ended - it took two years for him to decide to enter the Order. Two years to crawl up from under the haze of self-hatred and disgust at what he had let himself become. It was then he became Book. The book with blank pages to be written on. By His will now. The Good Book, at last.

Four years then, to bury the habits of deceit and treachery and torture and violent, sudden death. "Oh, God, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief." It had all been for the cause of good, he had once believed. It had been. God was on their side, how could it have been otherwise? Book's sense of irony had been nowhere to be found.

The Abbot had taken a personal interest in this broken, struggling man. Long talks, longer confessions left him shattered and ultimately renewed. Book - the clean page - was becoming weighty with a new and hard-won knowledge of himself and his place in God's plan. The simplicity of it all! He was eager now to leave the abbey walls and rejoin the world. The Abbot was unsure, counseled patience and more prayer. But Book . . . ah, Book had seen his path, had heard the call. At last he gathered his now meager possessions. At last he shared a final prayer and heart-felt good-byes with his brethren. At last he rejoined the world. And found Serenity.

"I don't know what to do. God, tell me what to do." His head is bowed once more. He recognizes the touch of tears on his cheek and realizes that, for the first time in many years, he is crying. His mind is a riot of memories: relentless pursuits, brutal interrogations, anonymous executions. There were no ends, only means. How long before he finds himself there again? How little a push does he need? "I have foresworn those ways. Do you hear me, God? I have foresworn those ways!" More images: Kaylee, shot. The Captain, shot. Zoe, bruised and battered. River with a gun to her head. Inara, in benediction: "Maybe you're exactly where you ought to be."

"Shepherd?" The quiet voice, the gentle hand on his arm bring him back to the present with a rush.

"Kaylee?"

"Shepherd, I . . . I'm sorry. I was just comin' to get something to drink, and you looked so . . . Are you OK?" Hesitantly, "Can I help?"

He uses the palm of his hand to brush away the tears on his face, feeling very much the child as he does this. He attempts a smile.

"No, dear. Thank you. I'll be fine."

"You don't look fine." She takes his hand, which surprises him. "You do so much for us, but you never ask for help. You're just like the Cap'n."

"The Captain? Kaylee, you couldn't find two more different people if you searched the whole universe."

"No, it's true. I notice things. Nobody thinks I do, but I do." She releases his hand and settles in on a stool at the counter as if she's going to tell him a story. "You and the Cap'n, you both got these codes of honor. Like knights in the stories I read when I was little. You stand for what you believe is right, and you protect the people you love, and you don't let nobody hurt the weak, them that can't protect themselves. And you both got God."

"We both got God."

"Yeah."

"Kaylee, I think the Captain would disagree with you."

"Maybe, but that don't mean I'm wrong. He believes just as much as you do. He just don't like God, is all. You can't be mad at someone that you don't believe exists."

"Yes, but . . ."

"All I'm sayin' is that you and the Cap'n, you're comin' to the same point from different directions. I know it." She hops off the stool and fetches a glass of water while she continues. "I gotta get back to work; the Cap'n's kinda cranky today. I don't know, he's worried about that new job, I think."

"Yes, I believe I heard something about that."

"He'll find a way around it." She's so certain in her belief of him. "You doin' better now?"

"Yes. Thank you, Kaylee. You've been very helpful."

"Me?" She laughs. "All I did was get some water and tell you a story. I really gotta go." She kisses him on the cheek and starts to leave. "Shepherd, I'm real glad you're with us."

He's alone with his thoughts again. What are the uses of temptation? He used to debate such things at the abbey. Here and now, the argument is far from abstract. "I'm afraid to help them because I'm afraid that I'll be tempted back to the rush of power, to the excitement." What are the uses of temptation? "I'm afraid to help them because I'm afraid that I'll lose what I've become." What are the uses of temptation? "I'm afraid to help them because I'm unsure my faith is strong enough to show me the line that dare not be crossed." What are the uses of temptation? Suddenly Inara's voice is here again, clearly: "Maybe you're exactly where you ought to be." And he remembers the answer: the uses of temptation are to help us see more clearly who we are. The irony is not lost to him.

He leaves the galley and heads up to the bridge. As he thought he would, he finds them all there: the Captain, Zoe, Jayne, Wash. They notice him, each face a unique expression: suspicion, welcome, surprise, relief. The Captain breaks the brief silence.

"Somethin' we can do for you, Shepherd? This is a private meetin'"

"I've come to offer my help. If you'll still have me."

Zoe smiles, but looks to the Captain to respond.

"Well now, that's a change. You sayin' you're no longer a man of God?"

"No, Captain. I'm saying that the ways of being a man of God are more varied than I had been willing to admit."

"And you came to this how?"

"Through a conversation."

"With God?" The words are filled with scorn.

"With Kaylee, actually." That shut him up.

"Kinda ironic, ain't it?" Jayne addresses no one in particular.

"You have no idea." He can only smile. "Captain, if you'll fill me in, perhaps I can be of assistance after all."

There is a beginning, a middle, and an end to what is written in our lives. He hasn't reached the end yet. Pray God none of those gathered will end soon.

Finis