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Valley of the Shadow of Death

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Valley of the Shadow of Death

Valley of the Shadow of Death

by Nicole Clevenger

Valley of the Shadow of Death
Nicole Clevenger (c) December 2002

Notes and disclaimers: Firefly and the characters herein (with the exception of "the Lord," of course) belong to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. The reference to Zoe's speech patterns comes from Elizbeth Ann Lewis's "Marital/Martial." However, the specific details of the Reynolds family spring from me, as the show was cruelly taken from us before we got that far. I would be more than happy to be proven wrong in my backstory, were it to mean that we get to see more of Joss's true vision in future episodes.

Improv fic: plain.flaw.shadow.surrender/.


It was late into Serenity's night, and her captain couldn't sleep. Mal wandered into the mess looking for distraction, maybe even something to eat. What he found was Book, sitting at the big table with his bible open in front of him. He hesitated in the doorway, considering the merits of turning around and returning to his bunk, but the other man looked up from his reading.

"Captain."

"Preacher," Mal acknowledged with a nod. He stepped further into the room, heading for the small kitchen. Maybe there was still some of that coffee they'd picked up after the job on Ariel. It'd been expensive for sure and it wouldn't do much for helping him sleep, but it'd sure taste good.

Luck of some sort was with him, it seemed, and Mal returned to the table with a steaming cup. He sat down across the table from Book. The other man looked up again, apparently not at all disturbed by the interruption. "You're up late," he observed.

"No more so than you." He took a cautious sip, the liquid leaving a warm trail down his throat. He watched Book over the cup's rim. "Should think you'd know that by heart by now."

Book's eyes flicked down to the pages then back to the captain. He smiled. "Some of it. But I still find it fascinating... I don't suppose you've read it? Purely from an intellectual standpoint, of course."

Mal studied him for a moment, as if trying to decide how to respond. Finally he shrugged. " Ain't got much time or patience for 'intellectual standpoints,' Preacher."

Every night they'd gather as a family, sitting around the kitchen table after the work and the meal was done. Attendance was not optional, as his daddy'd made perfectly clear. He'd sit at his place at the head of the table, reading to his family in his strong clear baritone. They'd go through the entire book from one cover to the other, and then they'd start again. Sometimes, feeling like they were in need of a more particular sermon, Jonathan Reynolds would jump forward or back, but mostly they just picked up where they'd left off the night before.

The fire's crackling would be a steady background to the words of blood and flames. The darkness of the calm nights wrapped them in the feeling of safety sure as if the Lord's own arms were holding them close. It was due to His blessings and favor that they were together like this, full stomachs and warm, tired bodies. The smell of the food they'd eaten lingering faintly in the air. The Good Lord provided for those who followed and believed...

Mal blinked, focusing again on Book. The older man was looking at him curiously; Mal took another drink of the coffee, holding the eye contact. Years of practice had taught him never to look away first - a useful trick for many circumstances, including awkward ones.

Book did break the look first, though he held it longer than Mal would've expected. He was beginning to realize that Book rarely acted the way he expected. "Yes, well..." The shepard took a drink from his own cup. "Perhaps one day you'll find the time. And the patience."

Hours out in the hot sun, an honest day's work to be sure. Hours alone in his own head, planning for the future. A place of his own, maybe a family too. Or even a life off-world, on a new planet surrounded by new people. Adventure, excitement, love even. Before the War came, anything was possible.

Sometimes, when a task became repetitious, his thoughts would follow. Beatitudes running over and over through his head, though he never did seem to get the order right. Psalms. Short passages favored by his daddy that he'd heard so often he'd memorized them. Stories about saints and sinners and the reminder that he was never alone, was always being watched over. That good and right would prevail in the end.

And then his momma - the plain-looking Susan with the beautiful, beautiful soul - had died, called back to the Lord. Jonathan had read at the service, his deep voice wavering. "'Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms..." He'd been angry, angry that the Lord had taken her away to his rooms instead of here with them where she was still needed. He couldn't see why they were being punished, when they'd always lived according to His will. But people died - such was a fact of living - and in time he'd moved past the hurt to view the loss as yet another part of His plan...

In the silence, Book had returned to his reading. Mal watched him turn an onion skin thin page, the papery crinkling sound bringing again the smell of fire and home cooking out of his memory. Safety. Belonging. Faith.

*"Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."*

But it had all changed after his momma had passed. The evening readings had continued, but it was never the same with just his father and brothers. And he'd watched his daddy waste away, slowly but certainly, dwindling to a shell of the big man he'd once been. All the while wondering if somehow a mistake had been made, a flaw in the plan. Because surely the Lord could see how much his daddy needed Susan by his side.

One wasn't supposed to do such wondering, he knew. But if it was some kind of test, he sure didn't see the point.

Book turned another page, his dark fingers deftly separating two clinging leaves.

And then the War came. Or at least had gotten close enough that he'd gone to meet it. Another cause, another focus. And - though it shamed him to admit it, even to himself - an excuse to get away from the sorrow that invaded every breath at the Reynolds's household.

Turned out he was just walking straight into a whole 'nother kind of sorrow.

Serenity, the original valley of the shadow of death. That they were right, he knew without a doubt. That their cause was just, he did not question either. He thought that would be enough to pull them through. He thought that would be enough to let them win.

The blood and fire were there, as if pulled straight from the pages of the book itself. Though no amount of reading could come close to having prepared him for this hell. There had never been mention of what all that blood smelled like, let alone the decomposing corpses festering in the sun. No talk of the constant sound of gunfire and explosions, and the deafening silence on the rare occasions such noise stopped. Of the smoke that was everywhere, making it impossible sometimes to see the person crouching next to you in a hole reeking of shit and terror. The constant thirst, the hunger that cramped through your body so that it was difficult sometimes to even stand upright. The exhaustion that weighed so heavy you soon forgot what it felt like to be fully awake.

But he'd clung tight to his faith even then, half-formed prayers bubbling up easier than conscious thoughts. To think would be to root himself fully in this present; the remembered praises instead allowed him to look forward to their eventual triumph and escape from this nightmare.

The pleas for their deliverance just came naturally.

Sometimes he'd catch himself mumbling the words aloud, not aware he was even doing it until he'd notice Zoe looking at him oddly. Once, when he'd asked, she'd told him that what he was saying was never clear over the sounds of the battle raging endlessly around them. Just as the small cross he wore was rarely visible beneath the collar of his filthy shirt. Still, he'd noticed that soon after they'd joined together, she no longer took the Lord's name in vain as she had almost minutes after they'd met.

And then their commanding officer had been killed, shot in the back of the head even as he was standing there discussing possible strategy. Later, after countless sleepless nights, he had been hit with the solid fist of the realization that that bullet must have just missed him after passing through the officer's skull. But then it had just been the sudden shock of being covered in gore and abruptly in charge.

Book paused. Holding his place with a finger, he skipped ahead several pages to check a passage in a different section. With a small nod of satisfaction, he returned to where he'd been reading. Not once did he look up at Mal, leaving the captain alone with his thoughts.

He'd tried so hard to keep them all together, all safe. But it seemed like the battle just continued on, claiming them one by one. He held fast to the thought that rescue was on its way, that no power - God or man - would leave them alone to die in that horrible place. All he had to do was hold the ground, keep them alive until salvation came. They would be victorious, because they deserved to be. Because they were fighting on the side of the Lord - the side of justice - they would be saved.

It wasn't until those Alliance ships had risen dark and majestic over the valley, that he'd finally felt his faith surrender and die inside him.

The coffee - still plenty hot - sloshed over the side of the cup and onto his hands, scalding his skin. "Gorram it," he ground out through clenched teeth, getting up to find a dish towel. When he returned to the table, Book's eyes were on him again. He tried to ignore the shepard, concentrating only on mopping up the spilled liquid.

"You know, Captain," Book said lightly, "maybe you should be more careful about taking the Lord's name in vain. It is one of the first Commandments. Right up there at the top."

Mal froze, then forced himself to take a deep breath and finish cleaning up the coffee. When he did speak, his eyes remained on the table. His throat felt tight, his voice rough and weary. "Seems to me, Preacher, that when a man puts his faith in somethin' bigger than himself, he's just askin' to be disappointed."

Without another word, Mal dropped the towel on the table beside the half-empty cup and left the room.

end.


There's two different Bible passages quoted from here. The lines at Susan Reynolds's service come from John 14: 1 through 3 - [Jesus said,] 'Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.' The other quote and the title are from Psalm 23 - 'The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.'

Much thanks to Bible Gateway (http://bible.gospelcom.net) for being such an easy reference source.

If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Nicole Clevenger