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|Title: The Habits of a Lifetime
Author: Eleanor K.
Spoilers: for Safe
Disclaimer: Joss owns all.
Notes: Many thanks to Chrissy for the beta and Becc for reassuring me that it did indeed make sense.
Shepherd Book stretches and yawns and pushes away the blankets clinging to his legs. He stands without turning on the light. The cold water from the sink feels good on his sleep-dry face. He rubs his fingers against his scalp, succeeding only in fluffing up his hair before tying it back.
He is an early riser. It comes from his years in the abbey. Sleep was an ordered thing there. Vespers at sunset, Compline at full dark, Matins at midnight, up just after dawn to prepare for morning services.
His life on Serenity is...less ordered.
He takes out his bible and lets it fall open at random. Revelations, chapter 13, verse 11: *And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon.*
Interesting. He doesn't know yet how this will affect his view of the day, but these verses selected by the hand of chance always seem to have some bearing on his life.
This thought, like his routine, is a regular feature of his mornings. Regular as well is the one that follows it--a memory of his sister at seventeen with her hair bound back in a flowered scarf, reading tarot cards at the kitchen table. They don't mean anything, he told her. You're only seeing what you want to see.
He lingers over the memory, wishing as he does every morning that he had at least a photo to remember her by. All that is gone now.
Now he lays out his shirt, but here his routine is interrupted. He must change the bandage on his shoulder before he puts it on.
He pulls away the surgical gauze. There has been little leakage in the night. The white is stained with specks of rust and yellow, but it has healed considerably since Jiangyin. He drops the gauze into the garbage chute and tapes a fresh square in place.
Shirt on, pants, shoes, teeth brushed. This much of every morning, he can count on. All this he does in the semi-dark.
He switches on the light and picks up his bible again. Even this early, the crew is stirring. He won't have long to read, and he leaves this part of the morning to chance. Someone will stop by soon enough. They always do, if only to ask in hopeful tones, if he's planning to make breakfast this morning. After nearly three months, they still don't take it for granted.
This morning, it is River. He recognizes her aimless walk and slender frame through the translucent door panels. She doesn't knock, but slides the door open and stands just outside.
"I made the one where you can't speak," she says. "The dragon speaks for you."
He nods. He has not the first idea what the girl is talking about. He seldom does. It doesn't seem to matter. Maybe she just enjoys talking to someone who doesn't look at her like she's crazy.
"Even if he's thinking it," River says. Then she's gone, winding her way back and forth from one side of the hall to the other until she turns the corner out of sight.
Book steps out into the hall and goes to make breakfast.
"Planetfall in an hour, people." Mal walks into the kitchen and scoops up a dish of protein mush--spiced according to Book's secret recipe. "We'll be back in the sky two hours after that, and what is this stuff, preacher? And why haven't we had it before?"
"The usual, Captain. Just the usual. Maybe with a few extras."
"Yeah, well, you just keep it up with those extras."
Mal carries the bowl with him, eating as he leaves the room.
Book pours himself a cup of tea. Inara sits sipping at her own cup and reading a gilt-edged book in one of the easy chairs at the far end of the room. Kaylee sits on the floor beside her, eyes slipping shut every few minutes, head listing to one side.
Simon looks tired as well. He sits with his face so close to his bowl that it looks more like he's trying to get a steam facial than eat breakfast. River sits beside him, her chair tipped back in a way that would normally earn her an instant reprimand, from either her brother or the captain.
Jayne has his own morning routine, consisting of coffee and knife-sharpening. He goes through the motions methodically at the far end of the table from Simon. Drink coffee, set mug down, scrape of oilstone against metal. Scrape, scrape, scrape. Drink.
Wash left to tend to the last minute course corrections a few minutes ago. Zoe now sits by herself on the couch, shuffling papers.
Book pours a second cup of tea and goes to sit by her. She takes the tea with a nod.
"What's all this?" he asks.
"Ship's budget," she says shortly. "Last hard burn put us way down on fuel. Trying to figure how we'll pay for more when we hit Staub."
Their last hard burn was the one that got them to the Alliance cruiser in time to save his life. He smiles to himself. It's kindness of a sort not to gloss over that. Maybe some people wouldn't appreciate it, but he's been lied to enough during his life that honesty always seems like kindness to him.
"I don't suppose there's anything I can do to help."
She actually smiles at that. "Don't worry about it, preacher. We'll do fine. We always do."
He nods and leans back. "Somehow or another, we always seem to get by."
It's funny how easily that 'we' slipped into his vocabulary.
They land on Staub precisely on schedule. Heller is a dust-dry town on a dust-dry planet. The buildings are made of stone, or brick, or orange-clay adobe. You can see to the horizon with not a tree to impede the view.
"Where you headed, Shepherd?" the captain calls.
Book turns from his slow amble toward the town center. "My order has an abbey here, Captain. Thought I might stop in for a visit."
He waits for permission. It's one more thing he is used to from his time at the abbey. The vow of obedience was never too much of a hardship for him--once he figured out how to phrase his requests so they wouldn't be refused.
Mal frowns at him. "You're still healing. Sure you want to be walking around in this heat?"
"It's not a long walk, and I'm sure there'll be a cool drink at the end of it."
Mal nods. "Fine then. You take Kaylee with you. She's got stuff to pick up anyway." He turns to Kaylee. The girl is bent over the control panel next to the cargo bay doors. "Kaylee? You about done there?"
Her reply is muffled, but she jogs down the ramp, pushing her hair out of her face as she comes. The captain must have spoken with her earlier, for all his apparent spur-of-the-moment decision, for she loops her arm through Book's at once and waves over her shoulder as they set off.
"Isn't there some story about a guy who found God on a road like this?" Kaylee asks.
Book smiles, unsurprised. Kaylee likes stories. She would be equally interested in Paul on the road to Damascus or Prince Ivan in Baba Yaga's chicken-footed hut.
He likes stories himself, and he likes telling them. It's a good part of his job out here in the black. Mostly he tells stories to Kaylee and River in the evenings while Jayne pretends he's not listening, but sometimes he gets to talking with the people on these lonely planets. The grown-ups are just as happy to listen as the children. Sometimes, he thinks about Earth-that-was and imagines the shepherds who walked the land, spreading the word of God. From what ancient history he remembers, storytelling was a dangerous profession in those times.
"Paul on the road to Damascus," he tells Kaylee. "I've told you this one before, you know."
She shrugs, careful not to jar his shoulder. "Tell it again? Please?"
"Once upon a time," he starts, just to hear Kaylee's giggle.
"Once upon a time is for fairy stories!"
"Once upon a time is for true stories."
"So were there really fairies, then?" She looks as if she's willing to believe it.
"There might have been." He's seen enough in his years that he's not willing to deny anything out of hand any more. "Shall I go on, or are we talking about fairies now?"
"Story," she says firmly.
"Once upon a time, there was a man named Saul."
"I thought his name was Paul."
"It was. But where we are in the story, his name is Saul." He waits for her nod and then continues. "He wasn't an evil man, but he wasn't a particularly good man either. He had it set in his mind that Christianity would be the death of his religion and everything he loved, so maybe that justifies what he did, just a little."
"What did he do?"
"He had people arrested for their beliefs. He had one man stoned to death. His name became known and feared throughout the land."
"He had somebody stoned?" Kaylee frowns at him. "You didn't say that last time."
"Didn't I? Well, he did a lot of wrong in his life, before he changed. It's possible he might not remember all of it himself."
"So then what?"
"Well, Saul traveled a lot. He was a dedicated man, whatever else you might say about him. He was walking the road to Damascus alone, and it was a long road and a dry one. I imagine the sun was hitting him just about as hard as it's hitting us. That's when he heard the voice. It came from all around him, though as I said, he was all alone."
They walk through scattered houses on the town's edge now. Men and women nod to them from porches or turn away without meeting their eyes. A young girl bounces a half-deflated rubber ball in the middle of the road.
"Did he have water with him? My brother Kenny got so dehydrated once, he started seeing things that weren't there. He said there were snakes on the ceiling, and I was scared to sleep for weeks, even though mama said they weren't real."
Book pauses to give the matter due consideration. "I imagine he had water with him, yes. Mighty dangerous to travel in the desert without it."
"Well, Kenny was never really that bright, you know? And he did have a thing about snakes, 'cause of this one time when his friend Johnny put one in his sleeping bag. I mean, it wasn't poisonous or anything like that, but it did give him a terrible fright."
Kaylee likes to tell stories, too. Book lets Paul and Damascus go and listens.
They are in the town center now, and he looks around for a building that might house the abbey. They tend to have the same construction from world to world; solid brick, squat and square. He spots it as they enter the marketplace.
He spots something else, too. Something he wasn't looking to find here.
He angles their path toward a bench and sinks onto it with a sigh. Digging in his pocket, he fishes out a few coins.
"Go get an old man a lemonade, would you? I saw a stand a little ways back, and I might start seeing snakes myself if I don't get something to drink."
"Sure thing. Back in a jiffy." She takes the money and runs off.
She isn't even out of sight when the man Book saw detaches himself from the crowd and sits next to him.
"You didn't make your last meeting. Our superiors are not pleased."
"I got shot."
"Yeah," the man says. "They aren't pleased about that, either, or how you handled it."
Book resists the urge to tell him that he wasn't any too pleased about it his own self. Instead he says simply, "I'm sorry for the inconvenience. I realized the ident card would be an issue."
"Reynolds didn't throw you off the ship. Everyone at HQ was surprised about that."
"The captain's not one to throw over a crew member so easily."
The man gives him a sharp look. "Since when are you crew, *Agent* Book? You're just the preacher."
"The captain takes a proprietorial view of those on his ship."
"Whatever," the man says, and Book can't help thinking there's something slightly familiar in the way he says it. "The point is, you're still in. So report. We haven't got much time."
Book shifts on the bench, easing his shoulder. The walk tired him, and this encounter is tiring him still more.
"The girl's getting worse," he says. "She has good days, but the overall progression is as expected."
"And her brother?"
"Has not made significant progress in effecting a cure." He pauses. "Yet."
"Well, he hasn't got much longer."
The man sighs and rubs his eyes, twisting his neck as he does. Watching him, Book knows who he's talking to. If he looks closely enough, he can see the join of synthetic skin to real skin at the neck. The face has been altered considerably, but it takes more than technology to alter a man's habits.
His contact these past months has been a friend all along. Or was a friend once.
"How long do you figure, Henderson?"
Henderson glances at him and breathes a short laugh. "Told them you'd spot me eventually. You were a good agent, Sam. Don't know why you left."
"I still am a good agent, if you want to be technical about it. And how long? I need to know."
"That kid better think of something soon. A month. Two at most. Then they'll pull the plug."
"Captain won't like it."
Henderson frowns at him. "Since when do you care what *Sergeant* Reynolds of the fucking Independents likes or doesn't like?"
"I'm saying he'll make trouble. I've seen a lot of men make trouble in my life, and few of them were as good at it as Malcolm Reynolds."
Henderson shrugs and his face clears. He never could stay angry for long. "You think it'll matter once the freaks from R&D get their hands on him? Blue-handed bastards. They're the definition of trouble."
"I think that might happen sooner than expected."
Henderson blinks at him. "You think they're already looking for the Tams?"
"I think they consider the Tams their property, and they don't let go of their property easily. Research and Development has grown too fast. Management isn't controlling them any more."
"They think they are."
"They're wrong. I've seen the signs. Someone's looking for the girl. Someone with a lot more clout than bounty hunters."
Henderson rubs at his forehead, wrinkling the artificial skin there. "Okay. So they're using the arrest warrant as a cover to conduct their own recovery operation. Management won't like this."
"I just hope they can do something about it."
"Does it matter that much? The captain seems to be keeping them well out of range." Henderson looks around him, denouncing the entire planet with a glance. Then his expression changes.
"The boy will have to go to a hospital eventually," he says slowly. "He'll need the equipment. He doesn't even know what he's dealing with yet." Henderson swears under his breath. "Sam, if you're right, they'll get him the second he sticks his head above ground. They'll be waiting."
"Don't underestimate the boy. Or the captain."
"Or you. Hell of a situation you've got yourself in here."
"I did have help getting into it."
"Yeah. I couldn't think of anyone who could do the job like you could, and you know what's riding on this." He rubs his palms against his thighs, looking down. "I never apologized for that."
"Don't bother. The abbey was getting boring anyway."
"You liked it there. I could tell."
Book shrugs. Things change. This has been the only constant in his life.
"You should go. Kaylee will be back soon."
Henderson just looks at him. "Don't get attached to these people. You know better."
Book pauses, wondering how much to reveal. "That advice comes a little late, Jake."
"I wish you hadn't agreed to do this."
"Then you shouldn't have asked me."
Book lays a hand on Henderson's arm. "Go on. Get out of here. My shoulder's fine, incidentally. Healing nicely. The boy's a good doctor."
Henderson smiles a little and shakes his head. He looks as if he might speak. But in the end he just meets Book's eyes for a long moment and stands, fading away into the crowd.
Kaylee appears with Book's lemonade almost the second Henderson is gone. He sips in silence while she tells him about how nice the young man running the lemonade stand was. Then they get up and head toward the abbey.
Book learned to chop vegetables from one of the lay brothers who helped in the abbey kitchen. He learned to guide the knife with his knuckles and he learned the easy rocking motion that kept the knife moving.
That's what he thinks about while he's making dinner with produce from the Heller abbey's garden. He doesn't think about the nameless woman who taught his class to sink a knife into a bullŐs-eye from twenty feet away.
He doesn't think about the first time he used that particular skill, or about the time Jake Henderson missed and ended up hitting Book's thigh instead of the man who was trying to shoot him. Henderson stuck to revolvers and laser rifles after that. And that thought, which he isn't having, really shouldn't make him smile. If nothing else, it hurt like a son of a bitch at the time.
So Book keeps on chopping carrots. When he's done, he moves on to the celery. The abbey even had real cheese and fresh eggs. The crew will eat well for a few days.
"How's it going, preacher?"
He turns. Mal is leaning against the counter, watching him with careful eyes.
"Something I can do for you, Captain?" He doesn't see any point in pretending Mal came in here to make small talk.
"Kaylee mentioned she saw you talking to someone."
"I talk to a lot of people, Captain. Part of the job description."
"So I've noticed. Just remember who we've got on board and see you don't talk too much."
"That's never been a problem for me, Captain. Mostly, I just listen."
Mal's gaze holds steady. "I've noticed that, too."
He turns and walks out of the kitchen.
Book nods to himself and goes back to chopping celery.
The lights in the ship are lowered to indicate a night that never comes. Book sits on the edge of his bed and looks over his bible verse again.
"Two horns like a lamb," he says out loud. "And he spake as a dragon."
The words suggest that things are not as they appear, which is hardly news. They suggest deception, perhaps treachery. Apt enough. Henderson called him a good agent. He thinks he is, even now. But like his superiors, like Henderson, like the captain, he will have a choice to make. In two months at the most, perhaps sooner, if Henderson is correct.
*He spake as a dragon.*
It's been a long time since Book set himself in opposition to the prevailing powers. The current powers don't take well to opposition of any sort. The Research and Developement division has painful and above all *final* ways of dealing with it. As does his own division, his own people, if he must be honest.
If they are his people any more.
He takes off his shirt and hangs it up. His shoes go in the closet, lined up with his one other pair. He takes off his pants and folds them over a hanger.
He places his shepherd's collar on his dresser. Long ago, old Brother Talbot fixed him with watery eyes and passed on the one piece of advice he'd ever seen fit to give: *Always keep your collar in the same place, boy. Then you'll be able to find it when the bloody abbot hauls you out of bed to cover midnight services for him.*
He folds down his sheets and slides between them. The cotton is a slight pressure all over his body, a product of decades of making his bed tightly enough to bounce a coin off it.
That, like rising early, like the set order of his mornings, like his skill with a knife, is something he tries to associate with the abbey these days.
The ceiling is stifled in shadows. They coil in the corners. He watches them gather and dim and finally vanish as someone--probably the captain--turns out the last lights in the hall.
He watches the darkness and feels the minutes tick away. He closes his eyes. Wherever his habits came from, whatever past built the man he is, Serenity and her people are his present. His choice is already made.
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