Warnings and Disclaimers: A brief, partial reversion back to canon. Sorry folks, but there were some parts that I thought needed to be kept, if altered a little.
What separates the sane from those
who plumb the depths of the burdened soul,
trace the wandering neural paths?
Where the edge, where the end
and where does intuition begin?
Ask as though there were a boundary,
as thin as the line 'tween shade
and effervescent light,
for there is no difference.
Only a different view…
-Recording retrieved from a corrupted data core in the ruins of the Academy after the terrorist attacks of 2520 A.D. Author unknown, but is according to analysts a young female.
"I dunno how the little bugger got past me-" Jayne tried to defend himself, but Mal wasn't hearing a word of it.
The captain could feel his face turning a deep puce as he stormed past the mercenary. Not that he really needed to be in such a hurry; when Harry vanished, he always ended up in the same place. "This boat ain't that big! How the hell's he getting out of your sight?"
"I dunno!" Jayne said again, following along behind him. "I swear I don't take my eye offa him for more'n a second or two, and then he's gone! I'm tellin' you, it ain't natural!"
Mal growled to himself, stopping in front of the storage locker where River Tam was still chained up. Inside, two dark heads bent close together as their owners conducted a conversation in whispers too low for him to hear. He spun the wheel to open up the door, cutting off Harry in mid-whisper.
"You know, kid, I'm getting mighty curious as to just how you keep pulling this off," he drawled with a questioning tilt to his head. "It keeps happening, and I conjure I'll have to keep an eye on you myself."
Harry looked up at him. "I'd tell you, but I don't think you'd believe me." He mulled over that statement for a moment. "Yet."
"You sure 'bout that? I've seen some mighty strange things this past year." Mal watched as the boy considered again.
Harry shook his head. "There's more than one kind of strange," he said, rising up from his crouch. Jayne waved impatiently at him, and the boy gave the merc a tiny smile as he walked past him out of the locker.
His last words floated back to Mal's ears. "And my kind of strange is really strange…"
The captain frowned to himself, gazing out after them. "He's getting better," a quiet voice said, bringing him out of his barely-begun thoughts.
Mal glanced at River. "He seemed a lot better, right there," he said mildly. "Don't know precisely what he meant by all that, but it was right plain he did."
The girl smiled sadly down at her shackles, tracing the edge of a cuff round and round with a fingertip. "Never trust a seeming. Seeming makes it seem like he's all in the now, but haven't you ever watched a feather in flight? It rises and falls on the wind, up and down, but this one hasn't yet touched ground…"
He crouched down to look her in the eyes, but was careful to keep out of her reach. "Sure that don't describe you? Some days you're saner than others, too. 'Cept for the last couple days, anyway."
River shook her head. "No, Harry's the feather!" She spread her arms out as far as the chains would allow, a beatific expression on her face.
"I am the leaf on the wind," she whispered. "Watch how I soar…"
Recognizing Wash's favorite phrase, Mal opened his mouth to ask just what she meant, but was interrupted as she dropped her arms and looked at him with serious eyes. "It won't be long now, before he's all the way better.
"Love him while you can…"
Despite Mr. Universe's dire warnings, the trip to Haven was uneventful. They set down just after daybreak, having seen neither hide nor hair nor deck plate of anyone trying to stop them.
Shepherd Book was waiting when they lowered Serenity's ramp, his lined, dark face creased in a welcoming smile. "Captain Reynolds," he greeted, bowing his head.
Mal nodded back. "Shepherd. Been a while."
The preacher's smile widened. "Indeed it has." His eyes dropped to the smaller figure Mal was very firmly clasping the hand of. "Well now, you're looking much better than the last time I saw you, young man."
Harry tilted his head to the side, studying Book carefully. "…I think I remember you," he said slowly. "You read to me, didn't you?"
Shepherd Book blinked in surprise, even as Mal's lips tried to twist into a smile. For most of the time the shepherd had been on board, Harry's physical condition was such that the boy had been confined to his bunk; not that he had cared much, considering mentally he was in very nearly worse shape. Even though Harry was in something the Doc had called a 'waking coma', Book and Inara had taken it upon themselves to read to him in turns.
It was that choice that had led to their almost-friendship, far warmer than it might have been given the little respect Mal had for religion anymore.
Book nodded. "You and I went through quite a few books together, yes." His eyes met Mal's, a silent question in them. Is he healed?
The captain grimaced a little and made a little wavy motion with his hand, down at his side. Somewhat, it said, and a flickering sadness in Book's face told Mal he understood. "Since reintroductions seem to be in order, my name is Derrial Book," the older man said, stepping closer and reaching out a hand. "I am a shepherd, of the faithful."
Harry's hand tightened in his, and Mal looked down at the boy in surprise. He was watching the shepherd with wide, almost fearful green eyes. "Suffer not a witch to live…?" he whispered, his voice trailing off quizzically.
Shepherd Book's eyebrows went up. "Er… no, my faith is rather more of the 'live and let live' kind. I can't say I've ever met a witch, either."
Harry hesitated for a moment longer, but finally stepped forward to put his free hand in the much larger shepherd's. "That's okay," he said sadly. "The witches are all gone, anyway."
The two men shared a startled, not to mention confused look, one interrupted only by Kaylee's delighted cry. "Shepherd!" she shouted, bounding down the ramp to nearly tackle Shepherd Book with an enthusiastic hug. The rest of the crew appeared at the top of the ramp behind her, for the most part wearing smiles of their own.
"Now, do-si-do and around we go," Kaylee chanted, leading Harry around the patch of stamped dirt that served the camp as a dance floor. Jayne was plucking out a tune for them on an ancient guitar one of the miners had lent him, while Zoë and Wash clapped to keep time.
Watching them, Mal couldn't help but grin fondly as he climbed the little hill with a bowl and chopsticks in hand. What he'd told Fanty and Mingo was true, his crew really was a bunch of fine ruebens, no matter how often he was tempted to strangle, shoot, or otherwise maim one of them. He couldn't imagine heading out to the black without a single one of them.
Well, maybe the Doc, little piece of go se he could be at times.
"Lord, I am walking your way," he heard as he approached the hilltop, a quiet murmur carried on the breeze. "Let me in, for my feet are sore, my clothes are ragged. Look in my eyes, Lord, and my sins will play out on them as on a screen. Read them all."
Mal walked over next to the seated preacher, silently leaning against a boulder as he waited for the man to finish. "Forgive what you can, and send me on my path. I will walk on, until you bid me rest."
"Hope that wasn't for me, Shepherd," Mal said as Book opened his eyes.
Shepherd Book smiled sadly to himself, pulling a cigar from a pocket and lighting it. "It was a prayer for the dead, and for the lost."
"Well, I ain't the first, and I don't really see myself as the second," Mal mused half to himself. "…Harry?"
"Partially," the shepherd said, bowing his head. "And partially for the men River may have killed in that bar."
Mal scowled down at his food. "That weren't River's fault. It was their's that did that to her, fenced off her mind and made it their own without so much as a 'please'."
Book eyed his bent head contemplatively. "You got a plan?"
"What, hiding ain't a plan?"
"A short-term one, perhaps. But for longer than that?" He shook his head. "You're not one to stay in one place forever, Mal. You act."
Mal had to snort softly. "Run when I ought to fight, fight when I ought to deal," he muttered to himself. "If I had any kind of sense at all, I'd drop the two of 'em off on Londinium and hightail it towards regions as uninhabited as can be."
The shepherd smiled wryly. "Perhaps."
There was a short silence. "The Alliance military will be coming," Mal finally said. "I keep expecting to hear their pounding feet any minute now."
Book took one last drag from his cigar and pinched it out, tucking it into his pocket for later. "No, I don't expect they will," he said thoughtfully. "Not the way you're expecting, leastwise."
Mal threw him a sharp look. "And just what do you mean by that? I gotta say, I'm getting really tired lately of cryptic go se."
"There's no sign of this on the wave, remember?" Book reminded him. "No news bulletins. No public sign of any interest in you whatsoever. That's not how the military works. This… this is quiet. The Closed File kind of quiet. That means an Operative, which means you're in far deeper than you think."
Mal could practically hear the capital letters on those words. "Oh, my estimate's getting deeper by the minute." He set his chopsticks in his bowl, feeling a sudden lack of appetite. "I coulda left her there. I had an out. Hell, I had every reason in the 'verse to leave her lay and haul anchor."
The shepherd nodded a little. "Likely you did. But that's not your way, Mal. No matter how much you try to pretend it is." He rose and started to walk away, only to stop and turn back towards Mal after a few feet. "Remember, Captain. There won't be any kind of frontal assault like what you're expecting. This kind of thing doesn't work like that.
"Operatives are trained to come at things sideways, something you're not terribly good at. He'll sidle up to you, smile until you start to see his way of the 'verse, and then hit you where you're weakest." His dark eyes were hard on Mal, shrouded in the night. "And perhaps worst of all, he'll believe with all his soul that what he is doing is right. You won't be able to bargain with him. All you can do is fight- or give in."
Mal stared back at him, feeling a little shivery in spite of himself. "It's of interest to me just how much you seem to know about what's coming down on us."
Shepherd Book smiled sadly. "I wasn't born a shepherd, Mal. I came to it late."
The captain nodded slowly, uneasily. "You'll have to tell me about that sometime."
The other man looked away into the darkness, and then back. "No, I don't," he said with a note of finality in his voice. He turned again to walk back to camp.
"Remember, Mal. Sideways."
A/N: This chapter was mostly to prove to myself that I could still work on something besides Moonshine Glories, since that story has been consuming most of my attention lately. And to answer some of your questions about the story, and as a sort of backwards birthday present to myself, so I'll get lots of pretty reviews for my birthday ) Lots of reasons.
Edited note: Oh, and no, there are no pairings in here beyond what's canon for Serenity, so get your minds out of the gutter, people! It's platonic love!
As I finish writing this, it's just past midnight, so in about two hours I'll be 18!
16 July 2006