Disclaimer: I own Firefly! The DVDs are absolutely shiny. Outside of that, all rights and money go to Joss Whedon, which is how it should be. Fox sucks. Dialogue in the last section is lifted directly from the pilot episode. Not mine.
A/N: I haven't read a single Firefly fanfic that I really like (with the notable exception of Sol's intriguing Pax). I have a quarrel with every take on most characters, especially Mal. So here I am, aimin' to misbehave.
The day that life first stopped, he squatted behind white leather in the living room.
Their home was middling rich, Mother said. She would know. She'd never let her children visit the Rim, but she'd been off-planet with Father when he had work to tend to. 'Uncivilized', she'd called it. 'Wild.'
So he grew up wondering about the Rim, and pretending he was on one of the harsh outer planets, where life was a battle.
He was pinned down and outnumbered by the bandits aiming to steal his herd when he heard a woman's voice calling for him. "Yes, Mother?" Fourteen and thinking himself a man, he stood from behind his barricade. A fatal mistake.
A younger brother and sister, dressed in raggedy old clothes and armed to the teeth, squealed at his exposed position and pelted soft pillows at him. Most hit the couch before they hit him, but his littlest sister had the best aim. He was forced to concede defeat, death, and the loss of his herd to quiet them.
Mother called for them again, and her voice was choked with suppressed tears; in all his life, he'd never heard her sound like that. They ran.
In the light from the floor-to-ceiling kitchen windows, their mother's café-au-lait skin was blenched gray. A strong, elegant woman, she slumped at the table. Fine-boned hands strangled the piece of paper with official stamps.
Worried, he stepped to her side. "Momma?"
No smile at the youthful endearment greeted him. Instead, as oldest, he was allowed to take the notice and read it, quietly.
Words screamed off the page. Mechanical difficulty. Accident. Deepest condolences. Service of the Alliance. And the words that rang the most hollowly false. The remains.
He made himself read that whole sentence, twice.
The remains of the Commander will be transferred to the nearest Alliance morgue, on Saint Albans, and returned to you with all haste.
At the funeral, he wore the new suit Father had gone with him to pick out. 'A man always needs a good suit,' Poppa had said, straightening his son's silk tie before the dressing room's myriad glowing mirrors. He'd been so proud, to finally be a man. Grown up.
Standing before the coffin, the suit fit as well as it had under flattering lights. Now, he encouraged his little brother to be brave, and let his two younger sisters each clutch a hand and cry. He wore a smile or solemnity as his mother needed, and tried to cram all the real growing-up he could into a few short days.
Life began again only gradually; the reawakening of flowers in spring. When he turned sixteen, he followed in the paths of his father and grandfather, and entered the Alliance Training Academy on Osiris.
The noise of fire died; his shot had been the last.
"Weapons down!" came the command from the firing line.
The class flicked on safeties, removed magazines, and tilted the pistols so that each was pointing at a forty-five degree angle, downrange. Ear and eye protection came off as, one by one, they retreated behind the firing line. He was one of the first.
Technology had the far-off targets magnified; holographic images filling the space where the students had adjusted their stances. The Instructor, a large man with far more girth than humor, walked down the line. Perused each flashing target carefully, noting flaws and perfections with an exacting eye. Marking with critical experience each student, and the results they cast.
Two boys and a girl were called forward, after class was dismissed. He was one of them. "I will see you here tomorrow morning, before muster. 0430 exactly."
He arrived at 0400. The early morning time had always been his favorite; the world hushed for the coming of dawn with an almost sacred silence. Alone but for a few wary birds and the sky, he waited in the church-like quiet for the first rays of sunlight.
It was too dark for that now, but he was on time. With no instructor he was not allowed to use the range; he was still a cadet despite being twenty years old. Still a child in the eyes of the Alliance, and the Army.
The Instructor brought with him the two other students, as well as an assortment of different firearms, and weapons of all sorts. "Respect your weapon at all times," he drilled into them. "It means your survival against that of your enemies." Who they were, the Instructor didn't say.
He didn't ask.
"You'll be released from the firearms class to train with me. In that time slot, you will be offered a choice of substitute classes." The man nodded, hefting the first rifle with care. "Let us begin."
The early-morning rifle training became a part of his routine. As did the additional tracking and survival courses – urban and wilderness, advanced. Five more years saw him as one of the finest shots the Academy had ever turned out. One of the few cadets qualified for further Operative training.
When he declined, they made him a Sniper.
He'd been in the same position for two days, not moving for anything. Not that there was far to go; a foot's width of room in any direction before the freefall of thirty stories straight down.
So he didn't move.
Sleepless and hungry, he kept an eye trained through his scope at all times. The Intel said the target would be here; spent most of his time sitting in the brass-studded leather chair behind the great oaken desk. He could read the papers scattered atop it, the magnification was so high. He had, for the past few days, puzzling out words both upside-down and backwards as he patiently waited for the man to return home. Return to his business.
Return to his chair.
The window glass wouldn't be a problem; it wasn't bulletproof. He'd checked, and Intel had confirmed. He was more concerned about the wind. Being a hairsbreadth off target wasn't much, but it was enough to begin the long slow spiral into sloppiness.
He was many things, but never that.
He'd started to ask why, of himself if not of those who commanded him. His targets never seemed obvious military threats. Always on outer planets, always those of stature. Since he'd begun, he'd completed thirty-six assignments without a thought of why. Orders were given to be obeyed, and he had.
There were rumors of discontent on the outer planets. Whisperings that had started in the past few weeks; rumors he'd heard that Parliament hadn't. Rumors that would probably die. But they made him question.
Why would the people be discontent with the Alliance? No form of government was perfect, but the Alliance was much better than most alternatives. What would they have instead? Monarchy? Anarchy? None of the options in between was quite palatable.
Movement, inside his scope.
He shifted for the first time in hours, resettling the rifle against its support. The man matched the description of target forty-three. Puttering about the office, running fingers through the fall of paper across polished oak.
Sinking into the plush, burgundy chair.
He engaged the laser-sight.
And life came to a standstill once more.
His own life had long since slowed, to the pace of a laboring heart. Fragile, tentative, and easily coaxed into death. Over ten years of watching more endings than beginnings had done that to him.
The peace of the place soaked into him as he passed the outer gates, leaving the bloody soul to stare in amazement. It was green, everywhere. Trees, grass, flowers, and plants. To eyes accustomed to the extravagance of the rich and the plights of the deeply poor, it was a feast. Simple. Clean. Holy.
He imagined the ground cried out in pain at the touch of his feet.
"Can I help you?"
He stared into a kindly face, gathering the ashes of his faith. "I hope so."
Brown eyes softened, recognizing his voice as a desperate man who had called ahead, wondering about many things. Wondering now if he had the right to even try to find a place here.
"Everyone is welcome in God's sight."
The first year was a vow of silence. Meditation, and breath, and appreciation for all that lived. Service without complaint. Prayer without pleading.
At the end of that year, he couldn't talk even when he tried; not for several weeks. Sound could not be forced from a voiceless throat; but the others taken refuge in this Abbey knew of teas and honeys that could soothe, and call forth words.
The first question they put to him, however, was not whether or no he would stay. In the year of silence, that had already been decided.
"What is your name?"
He knew the shape of it, waiting behind his tongue. Waiting to bleed on the ears of the Abbey.
But that name was another person, one he wanted to leave behind. Not very Christian, but he had only been there a year. He would learn.
"I will not use it."
Could not, if he truly intended to follow this path. Too many knew it. Oh, the Alliance still had his vague allegiance, and he still laid claim to their respect. But there were others who had heard of the man who never missed, whose ability to kill cleanly and quickly and slip invisibly through the 'verse was as yet unmatched.
Others who would relish the prize of his death.
He was not yet ready to explain, to these gentle men of God, that life had fallen into deathly sleep for him once he had passed their gates. Fingers pressed on leather and paper, hoping they could accept this about him, as they had so much else.
Father Abbot glanced at the Bible that their newest member was never without. "Then we will call you Book, since you love it so well."
The decision had been, surprisingly, his own. A decade and a half in the Abbey had rekindled his belief, been a balm to his soul. The blood would never wash away, but he was comfortable with the stain now.
So he smiled as he collected his things, emptied his small garden and made for the sturdy gates of Southdon Abbey. He had hoped to feel different after passing through them. Not with the differentness of what life had been before, but the promise of what it could be. One long, slow, dusty inhalation brought the practicality of his own ministries back to him, and he chuckled ruefully.
He had learned much, in the Abbey. So Book began to walk.
The words caught his attention; bright and hopeful and confident, cutting through the dust of the Eavesdown Docks. The coveralled girl tossed him a sweet, sassy smile, twirling a bright parasol over one shoulder. "You're gonna come with us."
"Y'like ships." She had a good soul, too sweet for the grime of the world around her. "Y'don't seem t'be lookin' at the destinations, whatcha care about is the ships, an' mine's the nicest." Pure love, extended back toward that well-worn Firefly.
More beat-up than some I've seen. But he couldn't deny that it, like the girl, had a certain charm. "She don't look like much."
When the young lady spoke again, green eyes sparkled with mischief. And knowledge. "Well, she'll fool ya." The parasol twirled, a shimmering shine of color. "Y'ever sailed in a Firefly?"
Have I. Riding back to Osiris after the hit on – "Long before you were crawling. Not an R-3, though, didn't have the extenders. Tended to shake." Not the best he'd ever ridden. But he couldn't deny there was something about it that caught the imagination. Pricked the soul.
Something he'd said had pleased the little mechanic; she approached, the oil on her clothes giving her away. "So, uh, how come y'don't care where you're goin'?"
"Because how you get there's the worthier part." It had taken him years to see that clear, after so long focused on the destination, on the end. On the target. But that doesn't matter now. The world had changed while he had, but they'd been changing in different directions.
She still twirled the parasol, smiling and gently curious. "Are you a missionary?"
He hadn't really thought about it. "I guess. I'm a Shepard, from the Southdown Abbey. Book. I'm called Book." She grinned sweetly, the callouses on her hand from a firm grip on tools. "Been out of the world for a spell. Like to walk it awhile. Maybe bring the Word to them as need it told."
"Well I'm Kaylee, and this here's Serenity."
And life started again, with the jolt of a reviving heart.