The Road to Haven
This story is set just after Those Left Behind. It is also a collaboration. See, this isn't just a SpaceAnJl fic, it's also the work of another FF author, by the name of Wytchcroft. Only, since they don't have a shiny account, I get to post it up here, and they get to post over at .
So, we present...a WytchAnJL production. I mean, most of it belongs to Joss Whedon, but there are some bits I don't think he'd want to claim responsibility for. This first chpater is pretty much all Wytchfic, but later, you can have fun trying to spot the joins.
Chapter one: No Maps for These Territories
Something comforting there is - and always - in the book, the Book - THE Book.
No need even to open the battered softened pages - just the feel of the leather binding, the resin-like smell absorbed over years; sweat, dirt, his own body's musk - the luxury of an infrequent aftershave, heat. All the different perfumes of emotion contained therein, in the Book. THE Book. His Book. His Bible.
All the secrets there, without even opening the cover…
But the book is open.
Some folk might smile at an irony - the Shepherd feels only a wave of sadness.
But then, what he is doing, as he sits in the cupboard that serves as a cabin - leaning awkwardly forward as he perches by the narrow reading shelf - what he is doing... well – there are many would call it sinful.
He is reading - his tired eyes wide and intent - scanning the words, scanning the lines, scanning the pages - and the edges of the adhesive tape used to repair them.
The Bible had been... damaged - had been attacked deliberately but uncomprehendingly - the attacker and the act fused into one - damaged... yes.
Trying to 'fix' the Bible, the child had said - tearing into Book's precious papers.
For the longest time, Shepherd Book had thought only of the damage - that the girl was damage. Over time however, he has changed this view - she changed it for him. It was more than just damage... Book knows the Alliance well enough to believe Simon when he calls his sister's condition deliberate - and well enough to know that there might be madness in the method - but method nonetheless. River - 'gifted' certainly, but with what? Sight perhaps... True sight. Captain Malcolm Reynolds calls the girl a 'reader'. How very apt.
But Shepherd Book is the one reading now - divining meaning from the reconstructed syntax - the re/ordered language - the fresh wording of his accidentally transformed Bible.
"By -- Rivers... I give to you a new H-aven... We wept... We Remembered."
Is it sin - to see the stars from the bottom of so deep a well? The Southdown Abbey had frowned and with good reason at this, this - this way lies madness, thinks Shepherd Book, with a sigh. But surely also this way holds wonder - has meaning - a real truth in the power of the new associations, the random couplings of vowels and consonant. This way might give direction... and Shepherd Book craves direction... a way through the fog.
I've tried… and I am tired… Book can't remember the last time he felt truly rested… and he has tried… The Southdown Abbey… but that didn't work out – was far from restful, seeing as how –
If sin - there is no/one to whom he might confess - the familiar gentle hand upon his brow, the reassuring voice, the rustle of fabric, the gift of relief. No, there is no/one - the Companion is gone, the woman has left - he has no/one now to turn to...
So, what - you turn inward now? The Shepherd rages at himself. You turn to this near madness? Using Holy Writ for personal divination? Reading what you will into the broken phrases - that is perversion!
The least of my sins then... The least of my crimes.
And I am meant to be leaving too...
He turns for a moment away from the lure of the page - catching sight of his face in the small mirror screwed into the clothing locker. Look now!
The strain, the lines of exhaustion etched like charcoal into the fine boned features, the troubled eyes - their guilty look.
If I feel guilty - it is because I am also comforted. - and the face in the mirror looks suddenly resolute. If I am comforted then I have received mercy, the Lord - not the Devil - has touched me here. The Lord lives in these words...
He turns back to read them anew.
"By -- Rivers... I give to you a new H-aven... We wept... We Remembered."
"Bony… Mmm…" Simon Tam considers this, looking with interest at his forearm, his elbow. "I suppose I am..."
He feels his sister nod agreement - but then it had been River that pointed out the fact. They are lying together on the pallet that serves as her bed, on top of the crumpled orange blanket. They can spend hours in such a way, with ease. They would be at ease - normally. But then,
"You don't normally complain." Simon points out. River is probably right though - rations onboard the ship being what they are - especially now that Shepherd Book has given up helping in the mess, since Inara's departure. But then the Shepherd has also announced his desire to go. Simon is unsettled by the sudden whittling down of the passenger-crew. With the Shepherd gone, he suspects, time will follow rapidly on that River and himself would be cut adrift...
River is still nodding eagerly meanwhile and rubbing that part of her side Simon has supposedly offended.
"Bony," she says. Then sticks out her tongue - a childish habit - Simon hasn't seen her do it for a while and he cherishes the mannerism. "Bony", River says once more as Simon looks at her, "And sulking."
"I'm not sulking!" Malcolm Reynolds sounds hurt by the accusation. His first mate regards him from across the dining table with scepticism - but worse is the elaborate display of faux-sympathy on the expressive features of his pilot. Wash's eyes, nose and mouth are dancing around together like children playing ring o' ring o' roses .
And so the Captain scowls with intent, the low lighting chiselling his features with shadow. "How many times do I have to - I ain't sore at Inara for leaving - and it don't matter to me I got hit by the Preacher." That much is true at least; if anything, Mal sounds childishly pleased.
Wash grins. "Because locking him in his cabin was... tell me again about the locking in, Captain. I'm sure you meant well..."
"Just figured he might wanna keep out my way for a spell - I was being helpful."
"Oh yeh sure - that's our Captain, always with the helpful."
Real fire blazes then in the Captain's eyes. Wash just grins the louder - but he's looking rigidly at the Captain - carefully not looking at his wife. One of these days husband dear, you'll go too far. - Wash doesn't have to see her to know Zoë's mind - Ain't looking to be a widow just yet.
Reynolds has kept up the glare. "Ain't you s'posed to be the one flies my boat?"
But Wash shrugs.
"Since you put it that way..." The sarcasm is lost on Mal, who remains unaware of his own often eccentric turns of phrase, "I guess I am." Wash shrugs again - to hide another attack of the wide and smilings - and rises from his seat to head on up to the flight deck.
Reynolds looks happier now - cramming a last piece of protein cake into his mouth. "You know..." he says slowly, "one of these days we're gonna get caught."
It's Zoë's turn to nod.
"Yes sir," she says. "Criminals that we are," she tidies her cutlery onto a plate, "we are also weak."
Mal knows the truth of this.
"Still," he says - and belches, "they don't seem to have found us out yet." He joins Zoë in clearing away the debris of their covert late night feast.
Mal is coming out of the galley when he hears the hollow ringing sound of something metallic strike the hull, a few seconds later and there's another noise - like gravel being flung at a window. He dives down the nearest access way to a comm. point.
"Talk to me Wash."
"Uh - hi, Captain... We, uh, the ship seems to be..." a louder thud - another scraping noise.
"Sorry Mal - you might wanna see this for yourself - I think we're in a junk-field."
Shaking his head furiously, Reynolds heads for the flight deck, his ears straining to hear any more unnatural sounds from the hull.
He damn near collides with Jayne Cobb as the man stumbles dazedly out from his bunk and out from his room - swearing.
The Captain opens his mouth to say something to the big man but is cut off by a teeth grinding screech - as if metal claws are raking Serenity's wings. Cobb says nothing - but his face turns an unpleasant green colour and he sprints away from Mal and down to the engine room.
Reynolds too moves at speed, grabbing the stair rails and ladder rails and climbing up to the cockpit, surprised - if not overly pleased - to find Wash looking relaxed enough in the well worn cushioning of the pilot's seat and gesturing with his arms.
The cockpit windows reveal a slow moving star field - for a moment nothing more - and then a rain of tiny metal fragments come down upon them, scattering and bouncing and back into the void.
Staring out - Reynolds agrees with his pilot. Sure looks like a junk field out there - a Sargasso Sea of twisted metal and plastic. No pieces large enough to scavenge - nor damage the ship, he hopes.
Another clang - this time followed by an ominous sounding rattle.
"What was...?" But Mal doesn't bother to finish, flicking the comm. switch to the engine room, he hollers for Kaylee.
His mechanic is reassuring.
"Not to fret, Cap'tn," comes her lively voice, "'S'all shiny down here. Primary buffer panel got jiggled is all."
But Mal ain't liking the sound of that, turns to Wash with an alarmed eyebrow - his pilot is still sitting back expansively in the padded chair, hands behind his head. Realising that Reynolds looks expectant, Wash says,
"Kaylee's right - nothing serious here. No way that buffer's coming loose."
"Well... fine." Mal still ain't convinced - that panel, they need it – can't so much as graze atmo' without.
As if to confirm his worst thoughts, there's a sudden beeping from the console in front of Wash.
"What we got now?"
Wash clicks switches with a studied casualness - and Mal pretends not to hear the audible sigh of relief.
"Just a Wave", says the pilot. "You wanna hear?"
Reynolds gives the uh-huh and Wash turns the speakers on - unleashing a burst of static and an angry sounding deluge of coarse Chinese. Mal frowns but he can only make out a few words at the end of the message. "...So you value your hides - quit bothering me and back off!"
With a shake of the head, Mal leans over to look at the screen. "We got a caller ID?" he asks.
"Uh... yeah," Wash flips more switches. "Wave's probably a beacon loop most likely - it's repeating already... The ID is a - J.D. Noakes." Wash frowns at his own words and looks up at Mal. "That old timer?" the pilot sounds disbelieving, "He's still - he's not dead already? Noakes, really?"
Mal ain't sure.
"Always figured that was one cheroot got smoked a ways back. Could be I was wrong", he adds thoughtfully, listening to the message again, whiskey and sandpaper. "Sounds like him alright." Another rain of metal and Mal tenses instantly, "Just get us out of this", he says through gritted teeth. Wash pulls up on the steering firing the manoeuvring thrusters as he does so. Serenity spirals along the edges of the flotsam they've blundered into. "I feel like a bug in a basin."
Wash does not reply - he's analysing something, "Got a fix, maybe. Mal - you want for me to lock on it?"
Serenity levels out again and, with a quick burn, heads towards the source of the wave.
Mal is surprised by the voice - low and unflustered as it is – as Book enters the flight area.
"No, Shepherd - nothing I'd call 'trouble'. Just..."
"You could say that."
"Ladies," interrupts Wash, "I could listen to you all night but..." The two 'ladies' in question turn to Serenity's pilot and he gives them his best shit-eating grin. "We're up close to the signal."
Reynolds pulls a headphone from a wall socket - the better to listen to the beacon relay. Shepherd Book meantime looks down at the data on Wash's screen.
"Noakes..." he murmurs, "You know him?"
"A little", answers Wash, "a mean old man..." Wash can't resist. "Helluva nose though - worked as a guide, gold mines and such - minerals, salvage jobs, lost weapons - you name it - time was that Noakes would get there first - or be helping them as were."
Book absorbs the information - whilst carefully watching Mal.
"Not good humoured then?"
"Most assuredly not, Preacher," This is Reynolds answering directly, before looking across at Wash.
"You thinking Noakes himself is around here someplace?" asks the pilot and Mal nods,
Wash is about to make with the shrugging but Book points a finger at the scope, a blip among the blur of the field.
"Isn't that a little over sized for a Beacon?"
"Well," a distracted Wash considers, "Could be mostly echo - some of the other fragments - dense enough... but - could be some kinda base..." The pilot looks at his Captain. "You wanna see?"
Mal puts the headphone back on its mount, ears still ringing with Chinese curses,
"Yeah, why not? Let's pay the old fella a visit - could be he might have a lead or two worth chasing for the salvage. We could be lucky."
"For a change," adds Wash.
"For a change," agrees the Captain.
Shepherd Book is gazing out the windows at the black and silver.
"That looks like deep thought Shepherd." Wash doesn't have a penny - but he's curious anyway.
"Hmm? Oh - yes." The Shepherd is talking to Mal though. "If you don't mind Captain, I'd like to come along if we do visit. A man alone out here - might appreciate hearing some Good News."
Mal looks bleak - but he says, "Sure, we all got our jobs to do. Just... keep out of the way."
Wash raises an eyebrow.
"What?" demands Mal.
Wash coughs but doesn't elaborate - instead he gets real busy with the steering, bringing round for a full view of whatever is waving at them.
The Exo-Platform hangs in space like a broken corkscrew stuck in a bottle of black glass. Between the twists of metal a small EVA-suited figure can be seen waving and jumping.
"That's nice," says Wash. "Our guy's happy to see us."
A scudding sound off the cock-pit window - "So happy," Wash drawls on, "that he's SHOOTING at us!" There's a resolute sound of panic in his voice.
Another noise - another shot.
"I don't get it - wouldn't he need oxygen to be to fire like that?" Wash's question is rhetorical in as much as the deep groan from Reynolds indicates a discussion on the subject will not be forth-coming.
"Ta ma de hun dan!" Mal snaps - grabbing up the comm. "Quit shooting at us! dong ma? Noakes? This is Serenity - this is..."
The Captain's words fade away as he regards the figure in the distance.
Wash is looking at him too. "What - is - he - doing?"
Noakes, if Noakes it be, is still hopping up and down - only now making strange monkey-like movements with his arm, waving it over and across his head - as if slicking down hair that has somehow sprouted up through his helmet.
There comes a fresh burst of static from the comm. and then the man's voice can be heard.
"Serenity huh? Uh..." the monkey movements continuing, "You got, uh, Inara Serra there with you?"
Wash and Mal exchange looks.
"Inara, huh. She graces us on occasion... that's true," Mal say into the comm. - with more diplomacy than sense perhaps.
"Well, now..." replies the old man yonder, "You boys better come over, let me see your jaws working in plain sight."
Mal acknowledges this - then turns to his pilot.
"One of those days huh?" Wash opines.
"As always", Mal agrees sourly. He toggles the switch on the comm. "Jayne? You busy?"
"Good. Get suited up. Shepherd?"
"Like you wanted. We're making a house call."
Ain't but a few minutes later and the be-suited figures of Malcolm Reynolds and Jayne Cobb are wading the vacuum - heading out towards the platform, a little way behind - and with surprising grace, Shepherd Book is following. Through the windows of the flight deck Wash watches them go.
Tin cups, thinks Malcolm Reynolds, how many memories can be found in the tiny hollow of a plain metal mug... He remembers the squeaking pump and the splash of water back on the ranch, back on Shadow, back home... Home-that-Was... gulping the cold liquid down after a hot day among the horses. He remembers taking the tin cup from Zoë as they sat together, backs against the ruins in the muddy meat fields of Serenity Valley - the taste of the brackish liquid and the sound of her voice, "congratulations on your promotion, Captain." The sudden eruption of gunfire - pulling his own weapon free with his left hand because his right was still clamped rigid to the handle of the cup and he couldn't make his fingers work. He remembers passing the tin cup - full of brandy, around the table in the galley of Serenity - celebrating her first run - first success - Kaylee and Wash with their competing smiles, Zoë again - but this time with shining eyes. And himself - watching them all... and drinking down the moment. Tin cups.
Surprisingly friendly, J.D. Noakes starts passing one to him now. They are sat together round a tiny table made of ill-assorted metal scrap - and the air is pressurised. Gravity though - that seems - he watches Noakes's hand bob towards him again - off a notch.
Nodding his thanks, Mal takes the cup. There's some sort of home brew inside, he can feel the muscles in his throat tightening already.
"Here, allow me", Shepherd Book shuffles across the cramped cabin to help the old man cut some bread and cheese. "Your own?" he asks.
"Yep," says the old man. "Made 'em myself - got a little, uh, refinery - for the distillation of fine foods and liquors." he cackles.
"That's quite impressive." Book nods. Mal is looking over at Jayne, Cobb's boredom threshold might be just about crossed by now... but could be he's content enough with a chop to hand. But then he drinks some of the whiskey, and slams a large fist down - denting the table, his face purple as he yelps in agonised Chinese. Noakes swears some in return, then taking a large gulp of his own whiskey leans in close, twisting his moustachioed face up towards Cobb. "Jayne Cobb..." the man growls, "Knew your Ma." And as if that makes everything simple and clear, Noakes sits back sudden on his haunches.
"So..." he says, this time to Mal, "Whaddya want from me, son? You got me real polite but I was hoping for finer company since I know you got the Companion in there, somewhere - but here you are showing up with a Preacher instead... is he really for me?" A rude cackle.
Mal decides to let the crazy Hoe-tze have his moment, Book could answer for himself. Indeed the Shepherd, passing plates around as he does so, says smoothly,
"A man gets the time allotted Mr. Noakes, seems to me you may not be far off your span of days. Perhaps then, I could be of service to you?"
He places some cheese upon the man's plate and looks expectant.
Wash is yawning as he leans back in his seat - aware that his stomach is already beginning to growl, that he hasn't slept in - like, a bed - since, well, too long for sure. His hands are beginning to get restless and his eyes starting to rove for distractions, looking listlessly over the dinosaurs, trolls and other toys that litter the flight desk.
"Look to me, oh my children..." he intones, with mock solemnity, leaning forward to address the ragged line of figures, "For I have brought you through the wilderness unto a new home - the promised land - the promised... well, not so much the promised land, the promised - well, not ok, technically, there with the promising, but I'm sure I hinted pretty strongly and - hey, you call ME ungrateful!" He waggles a finger sternly at the largest and most truculent dinosaur. "Look upon your God and tremble oh my fickle, fickle, children - do not anger me or there will be - badness will come and great... gnashing of teeth and, yes why do you think I gave you such lovely big teeth if not, you know, for the gnashing - and anyway, yes - wrath - in my anger and smiting with a big... thing that smites. A thing like -"
Without warning but with perfect timing there's a terrible rending sound and Serenity slams hard to port - the cock-pit twisting at an unnatural angle to deposit Wash half on the floor and half upside down in the chair - too shocked even to swear. No point in swearing anyhow - the proximity alarms start ringing - every gorram one.
"That", Wash says finally, in a flat low voice buried under the blare.