TITLE: Pons Asinorum (The Bridge of Fools)
AUTHOR: Sonya
EMAIL: sonyajeb@swbell.net
FANDOM: Firefly
SPOILERS: Objects in Space
SUMMARY: Nothing is as it seems.
CHARACTERS: Book, Simon, Early, River
PAIRING: None
RATING: PG13
DISCLAIMER: Not mine. All belongs to Joss. Please donít sue.

THANKS: I had a really fabulous group of betas for this puppy. I never couldíve done it w/out them! So thanks goes out to Budclare for her constant encouragement and factoids on Bookís possible income, Skripka for the shipís layout info and encouragement on the Book!Eek? front (not to mention the Humperugen!!!), Tara for beating my numerous sentence fragments into submission and Erin for Early tips and long talks about plot and stuff during the dead of night. Any mistakes that remain belong to me, as always.

Oh! And finally, thanks goes out to Liss, who put all those Book/Simon ideas into my head in the first place. I doubt this is what you had in mind, hon, but it was inspired by you regardless. Hee!

AUTHOR'S NOTE: See end of story for notes/comments.

Translations
gorram - slang for "god damn"
mei mei - little sister
ge ge - big brother




"That ainít a shepherd." -- Jubal Early to Simon, in regards to Book (Objects in Space)

"...life has not been devised by morality: it wants deception, it lives on deception." -- Friedrich Nietzsche (Human, All Too Human)





Prologue: Early

The ship is quiet. Reminds him of a tomb, almost deathlike in its silence.

Without River - or Serenity, or whatever sheís calling herself now - on the comm system, everything seems to slow down. Air feels thick, almost like breathing molasses. Sets him on edge in a way that's indefinable, but there, lurking just underneath his skin.

Earlyís footsteps echo on the metal catwalk that stretches across the cargo bay, filling the still air, but no one is there to hear him. Crewís all locked up tight in their quarters, which is as it should be. Doctorís laid low just outside the bridge, which isnít quite as good. Heíd wanted to take them both, but the stupid boy went and got himself shot. Best to leave him behind, Early tells himself. Kid would just cause trouble otherwise. And he has the girl, which is the thing that really matters.

Heís planned this carefully, every particular mapped out in advance. He has no time for mistakes. Which is why itís so frustrating when they happen anyway. He canít get over the feeling of relief, that he somehow lucked his way out of a mess too big for him to handle alone. That bothers him, because it makes him feel too small, too insignificant, like a pawn in a chess match, and heís afraid heíll never be able to see the big picture from down here in the trenches.

Get in, get the girl, and get out. Seemed simple enough, as far as these things went. But nothing is as it seems anymore.

He quickens his pace, suddenly wanting to see the stars again. The walls of the ship feel like theyíre closing in on him, cutting off his breath. His skin itches, almost on fire, and he thinks he can actually feel that crazy girl inside his head. He sees her in his mindís eye, sifting through his thoughts, letting them fall through her fingers like starlight.

Of course, thatís all rubbish and he knows it. Girlís no psychic. Sheís just a kid. His meal ticket, assuredly. And wanted by people in very high places. But in the end, still just a little girl.

She couldnít read his mind. She didnít know about his mother. It was all guesswork, what from beiní inside his ship and among his things. Simple as that.

And yet, he has never been more relieved to put on his helmet. He's almost out. Beiní outside will taste like freedom; heís sure of it.

Of course, thatís a lie. Itís not freedom that awaits him. Not the kind of freedom he wants, anyway. All that waits for him is the blackness of space, empty and vast in a million ways that donít mean a gorram thing because it still pushes in on him until all his thoughts cave in under the pressure. And as he drifts to his death, only one thought remains, playing on an endless loop through his mind until itís like to drive him mad before the oxygen even comes close to running out.

"But... sheís just a girl..."




Part 1: Simon

He finds her in the passenger lounge, her papers and coloring things laid out around her in a circle thatís just a bit too perfectly formed to be accidental; a rainbow of colored pencils placed with mathematic precision. This time sheís drawing flowers and plants and growing things. She has the green pencil clutched in one hand, delicately tapered fingers wrapped around it tightly enough that her knuckles are starting to turn white.

"River?"

He breathes her name, so close to a whisper that she shouldnít be able to hear it. But of course she does. She always hears.

When she looks up at him, her eyes are shimmering in the dim light from unshed tears and it rends his heart in two, just like it always does.

"River."

This time, his voice is clearer, stronger, more substantial. He sees a small smile quirk at the corner of her lips before it vanishes and she looks away from him, eyes focusing down on her drawing once more.

Upon closer examination, he sees that his initial impression of the picture was wrong. These arenít happy, healthy things growing in the sunlight. The edges of the flowers are twisted and darkened, as if they are slowly blackening and burning away into nothingness. The blades of grass have taken on a sharp, menacing look. It is almost as if they are biding their time until some unsuspecting soul walks across in bare feet, at which point the greenery will cut into his soft, human flesh until the grass is colored crimson from blood.

Swallowing audibly, Simon forces himself past any lingering trepidation and sits beside his sister, carefully pulling her into his arms and silently offering himself up as a safe haven for her tears.

After the worst of it has passed, Simon slowly disentangles himself from River and smiles down into her upturned face, gentle fingers wiping away the last of the tears from her skin. He tweaks her nose lightly and grins at her, prompting her to smile back.

"Mei mei," he whispers fondly as he stands, moving slowly because of his leg. It's still sore from the gunshot would he received at Jubal Earlyís hands, though thankfully it's getting better. He takes River's hands and pulls her up to her feet beside him. "Letís go find Kaylee. Iím sure sheíd love to take a break."

Unspoken is the thought that a little bit of easy, carefree time spent playing with the cheerful mechanic will be good for River. Help take her mind off things. Help take his mind off things, too. Ever since that bounty hunter had crawled into this ship and into their lives, unwanted, there always seem to be far too many thoughts buzzing around his head. Not thinking, at least for a little while, sounds wonderfully good, almost like heaven.

River nods and lets Simon lead her out into the hallway, her smile tentative but still there, not fading away. Not yet, at any rate. And thatís all Simon can reasonably ask for right now.




Part 2: Book

Serenity is abuzz with activity. They have fresh cargo, which always seems to brighten the moods of the shipís hodge-podge crew. Knowing that soon money will be coming into their pockets is a good feeling, he supposes. Not that money is really of any concern to him. Even if it were, he knows that the Captain would be willing to work something out in regards to his rent. Heís been accepted here. Heís one of them, just as he intended to be when he first set foot on this ship. Heís family.

Jayne grunts rather impressively and Book glances down, eyes fixating on the mercenaryís muscles as he lifts the weights in sure, easy motions. A drop of sweat beads up on the larger manís forehead and slowly trickles down the side of his face, over his temple and down behind his ear, out of sight. It shouldnít interest him nearly half as much as it does, Book notes, a soft gust of air escaping his lips as he releases the breath heís been unintentionally holding.

Shaking his head in wry amusement, he focuses on the weights themselves. A shepherd does not ogle the man heís spotting. And besides, he tells himself, he has more restraint than this.

The sound of high pitched squeals and running feet catches his attention and he looks up, eyes immediately fixating on the two girls chasing each other down the stairs. Running at full tilt, dark hair flying out behind her, River Tam seems light years away from what she really is. Itís disconcerting, to say the least.

He canít help but remember what Captain Reynolds called her last week. A reader. A psychic. It sends a chill down his spine, though his face remains as composed as ever.

Almost as if she can feel the direction his thoughts have taken, River comes to a sudden halt in the middle of the cargo bay, eyes catching and holding his, not letting go. Kaylee almost slams right into her back, eyes wide and breath coming out in short pants.

"River? You alright, hon?" The mechanicís voice is full of concern, playtime already forgotten.

He tries to look away, but itís as if thereís some kind of invisible chord that stretches out between them, locking both he and the girl in this strange, silent battle of wills. Her eyes are twin pools of darkness, fathomless depths that he feels himself inexorably sinking into.

"River!"

Kaylee frowns and waves a hand in front of the younger Tamís face, unknowingly breaking the connection and allowing Book to breathe again. He looks away from them both, focusing instead on Jayne and his weights.

"Something has come to my attention," he announces without preamble, startling the mercenary into pausing. "Something of great importance. I must go meditate on it, try to order my thoughts."

He helps Jayne secure the weights and then steps back, giving him what feels like a hollow shadow of his normal smile and easily ignoring the other manís scowl at having his workout ended prematurely.

"If youíll excuse me?"

Though it is phrased as a question, he doesnít wait for an answer. Nodding to the others, he turns and begins to walk away, craving the solitude of his quarters. He imagines he can feel Riverís eyes on him the entire time.




Part 3: Simon

This time he finds her in the mess hall, sitting quietly at the table and staring at a small, tattered photograph held gently in her hands. As he moves closer, he sees that itís a picture of an elderly woman sitting on a porch. Her skin is dark like mahogany and a dog sits beside her, basking in the glow of its masterís smile. He wonders why she looks so familiar to him. Heís sure heís never met her before, but thereís something in her face that he recognizes on a visceral level, as strange as that is.

"River," he begins tentatively, lightly touching her shoulder with one hand. "Who is that?"

His sister looks up at him with an enigmatic smile and sets the picture down on the tabletop. She runs her fingers over the womanís face, looking for a moment like a blind person reading Braille.

Simon finds himself wondering what she sees through the pads of her fingers. He thinks she must see so much more than anyone else ever has. And then he shoves silly thoughts like those away, marking them merely as flights of fancy with no basis in reality. River may be intuitive, and she may be able to do some incredible things, but she is no magician. Sheís his baby sister, just as sheís always been, and nothing will ever change that.

"She tells me secrets," River whispers, her voice mischievous. "Lots of secrets. Good ones, too."

Simon canít help but think that she sounds just like she did when they were little and she used to always get him into trouble with their father. If he squints just right, he can almost see her as she used to be. Fourteen years old and full of life, twirling through the sunshine like a spinning top. It had been the last time heíd seen her before she went away. Before everything changed. And not for the hundredth time, he wishes heíd known then what he knows now. Maybe he could have changed things. Maybe he could have saved her. Maybe...

A slight rustling sound behind him causes Simon to start, snapping out of his reflective daze and seeing River as she really is once again. She smiles at him softly, fondly, almost forgivingly, as if she knows exactly where his mind has just been.

He turns around and sees Book standing just a few steps away. The older manís gaze is riveted on the photograph in Riverís hand and a fine tremor runs through his body.

Simon frowns, one eyebrow arching in puzzlement. "Are you okay?" he asks the shepherd carefully. "You look like youíve seen a ghost."

Bookís head snaps up and he meets Simonís gaze, looking like heís just now noticed that thereís somebody else in the room. Thereís a momentís pause and then Book seems to suddenly spring to life, smiling just like he always does and casually brushing off Simonís worries.

"No, no, Iím fine, son. Donít worry about me. Just lost in thought."

Itís offered up with a wry smile and Simon smiles back, albeit a bit hesitantly. "Um, sure," he replies. "You must have a lot on your mind."

The shepherd shrugs his shoulders and smiles again. "Nothing too taxing."

Simon nods and then reaches out and takes Riverís hand, gathering up his sister with ease borne of long practice and ushering her out into the hallway. "I need to see about Riverís medication," he tells Book in explanation as they leave.

Theyíre already halfway to the infirmary when Simon realizes that River left her photograph behind on the table. When he asks if she wants to go back for it, she just shakes her head and looks up at him, her earnest gaze more serious than heís ever seen it.

"Hush, ge ge," she tells him, placing one hand against his cheek. Her skin is cool to the touch. "Sheís where she belongs now. Heíll take good care of her."

Simon wonders why those seemingly innocent words sound so ominous coming from his baby sisterís mouth.




Part 4: Book

Itís dark in the infirmary, which seems only appropriate. Ransacking someoneís things just isnít something thatís done in the light of day, he thinks, as he pulls out yet another folder and begins to quickly skim through its contents.

After a moment, he tosses it to the side as well, watching it land on top of a small pile of similar folders with a frown. Still nothing. Heís getting nowhere with this and he doesnít have much more time. Being caught here with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar would be unthinkable. He knows this. And yet still he searches.

He has to know. She had the photograph, like a huge sign proclaiming his deceit, and he knows that intuitive doesnít even begin to describe River Tam. Saying sheís just a little bit more in tune with peopleís emotions than most is like saying that a tsunami is just a little bit wet. It would be laughable, if it didnít concern him this time. He wants to tell himself that itís nothing, but the appearance of the photograph right after everything that happened with Early is just too uncanny to be a coincidence.

He knows that if Riverís said anything, Simon would have recorded it in one of his logs. The boy is nothing if not meticulous.

And no matter what the risk, Book has to know.

Suddenly, the sound of a switch being hit makes him freeze in total, abject terror as light floods the room and reflects brightly off of all the sterile countertops and surfaces.

"What Godís name are you doing?"

Simon. And he sounds understandably upset at this invasion of his domain.

Book rises to his feet and slowly turns around, taking great care to render his features calm and expressionless. He aims for serene, but figures heíll be lucky if he manages unconcerned.

"I was looking for something," he says, as if this explains everything. He remembers that only the guilty fidget, so he makes sure to keep his hands steady.

Simon looks like a strange combination of angry and exasperated. If the situation wasnít so dire, he might find that amusing. Book tucks the mental image of Simonís flushed face, wide eyes and the way his teeth tug endearingly at his bottom lip away for future reflection.

"Well, I can see that," Simon finally replies, his voice the epitome of caged frustration. He doesnít yell, but Book can tell that heís considering it. "Would you mind telling me what it is youíre looking for? And why you felt the need to invade my privacy to do so?"

Lies are better told with a grain of truth to them. It makes them more convincing. Which is why Book decides to mention the photograph. After all, he has to give the boy something to go on here, if he hopes to get out of this one in one piece.

"The picture," he begins, allowing his voice to tremble just a little. "The one River had at the table the other day."

Simon nods. "I remember it."

"Her name was Madelyn."

He sees a flash of tightly wound curls in his mindís eye, remembers how her hair was as dark as midnight and course against his fingertips. And he remembers the curve of her smile and how seeing it reborn on her sonís face, the same and yet wrong in all the important ways, had been like a revelation to him, once upon a time.

"Was?" Simon asks pointedly, which would make Book smile if he could afford to. The boy certainly misses nothing.

"She died."

He remembers her sightless eyes looking up at him. And he recalls the stark, naked terror they held, even in death.

"So I gathered," the doctor replies stiffly. A pause. "How? And what does it have to do with you?"

"I couldnít save her," he whispers, looking away from Simonís probing gaze.

He can see the floor of her kitchen, covered in her blood. He can feel his feet begin to slip and slide across the newly crimsoned tile. He can see her left hand, fingernails torn and ragged from trying to fight off her killer.

He watches as Simonís demeanor begins to soften. He doesnít allow himself to smile.

"Iím sure you did everything you could." The doctor still looks puzzled, but the anger appears to have diminished considerably. And now sorrow and concern have been added to the mix of emotions that play across his expressive face.

"No, youíre wrong," Book replies brokenly. "I should have done something, I should have..." He lets the thought trail off, its conclusion both obvious enough and vague enough at the same time.

Simon takes a step toward him and he sees imaginary blood blossom on the doctorís white shirt like a terrible flower, its petals lengthening and falling. He almost thinks he can see the boyís eyes widen, a white film ghosting over them and covering them with the glaze of death.

"I thought she might know, she might see it in my thoughts. I thought she might tell you."

He can see Simonís mind easily follow the change of subject, going from one she to another, from the past to the present. And he can see as comprehension dawns in his eyes, followed almost immediately by forgiveness, and knows that heís won.

"She didnít say anything to me."

Book nods slowly. His voice, when he speaks, is so small that itís almost inaudible. But Simon hears him. He makes sure of that. "I just... I had to know." Well, that much is the truth, at least.

"Itís all right. Here, Iíll help you clean these up." The doctor kneels down and begins to pick up the folders, gathering them up into his arms like a mother would her children. His fingers are long and graceful, surgeonís hands, and Book stares at them for a minute, entranced.

He slowly lowers himself to his knees beside Simon and starts to make another stack of folders. They are quiet for a few moments, the rustle of papers as they work the only sound in the room.

After theyíve gotten everything cleaned up, Book moves toward the door, but Simon stops him with a hand on his shoulder. He can feel the heat from that touch go all the way through his body. It takes a supreme effort not to flinch away, and not to move closer. He is as still and as silent as a statue.

Simon clears his throat softly and Book meets his gaze, finding the boyís eyes uncertain and just a little bit shy. "Everyone has something in their past that they arenít... proud of." He shrugs awkwardly, releasing his grip on Bookís shoulder and taking a step back.

"And you donít need to worry," he adds, his voice all earnestness and a longing to be accepted that probably runs down to his very bones. In this moment, the doctor has never looked more alone. Book thinks that he must be almost desperate to find a way to connect with someone, anyone, if only for a moment. "I wonít mention this to anyone."

He nods and turns to the door, moving out into the hallway. And he sees River there, crouched by the window, watching her brother as he moves around through the infirmary, quickly becoming engrossed in whatever it is that heís working on now. Then she looks up at Book and smiles her funny little smile, her eyes looking far too old to belong to a girl as young as she is.

"Secrets," she says softly, her eyes slipping closed as she slowly sways from side to side like some kind of dancer lost in a strange trance. "She told me lots of secrets. Moreín she told you, even."

"She loved her son but he was dark inside, filled with little black bits that slowly ate him all up. You helped with that." Her tone is almost accusatory, making its way down his spine like a shiver. "And when the end was near, she looked at him and saw nothing."

Her eyes open and she lets herself fall to the ground in a slump, lacking any grace whatsoever. She looks up at him from the floor and smiles that smile of hers again, her teeth flashing in the shadows and making her look like some kind of predator stalking its prey.

"Does that seem right to you?"

He could swear he heard another voice, masculine and familiar, blending in with hers at those words. Itís a strange kind of amalgam that makes no logical sense.

He looks down at her and notices her pale neck, turned at an angle thatís almost unnatural. He can feel his hands as they wrap around her throat, but suddenly her skin is ebony and old, dry like parchment underneath his fingertips. He feels a knife in his hand, the handle slippery with blood. He watches as the blade sinks into her flesh, listens as her last breath rattles like death in her throat.

Then he blinks and sheís just a young girl again, lying in an undignified heap upon the floor, a serene smile on her lips as she stares up at him.




Epilogue: Book

When he makes it back to his quarters, he notices that his hands are shaking. He tries unsuccessfully to make them stop and curses under his breath when he realizes that they simply wonít. His breathing sounds much too loud to his own ears.

He wishes fleetingly for a cup of herbal tea to sooth his nerves, but doesnít dare venture out into the hallways just yet. He needs to get himself under control first.

This time had been too close for comfort. And the girl knows too much.

How much, he canít be sure. Madelyn Earlyís murder. Jubal Earlyís recruitment. His involvement in both. His assignment here.

Sitting down on his bed, he pulls a bag out from underneath and sets it beside him. He pulls out the small monitor inside and sets it on his lap, flipping a switch and watching as the screen comes to life. Then he begins to type, the message he finally sends encoded so well that he knows nobody on this ship would be able to decipher it. Its journey is long and circuitous, bouncing around between a hundred other lines before finally reaching its destination.

The message, once it's decoded, is short:

Earlyís attempt failed, as per your request. Subjects remain under surveillance. Girl is suspicious, but situation under control. Awaiting further instructions.

By the time heís sure itís been successfully sent, his hands have stopped shaking and his breathing has returned to normal. Standing up, he carefully returns everything to its proper place and steps out of his room, a calm smile on his face.

Herbal tea sounds really good, actually. Perhaps heíll go make some for himself after all.

End.




AUTHORíS NOTE: Okay, so youíre probably asking yourselves how I managed to turn the nice Ďn friendly preacher into a deceptive, latently bisexual, government agent/assassin with some major psychological issues. Well, the truth is, the journey from kind, old man to sociopath was a long and somewhat odd one. Hell, it even mystifies me somewhat!

But seriously, blame it on Joss and all those damn "clues" of his. Blame it on how Book could handle a gun with expert precision, on how his ID card made even high ranking Alliance soldiers jump to, and on how his mind seemed to be a very dark place when River ventured into it during her little mind trip at the beginning of "Objects in Space." Not to mention, there was also Earlyís little comment to Simon about how that "ainít a shepherd" that was said with utter certainty, not to mention familiarity.

Anyways, hereís hoping that you stayed with me during this long and twisted journey of mine. And hereís hoping that you donít totally hate me or anything for what I did to Book. I find him a fascinating character, whether heís written as a good guy or a bad guy. Either way, I think itís safe to assume that the man is more than what he seems to be at first glance. And that, my friends, is the mark of a really incredible character.

Also, just in case it wasnít made clear enough, the photograph of the woman and the dog? That was Jubal Earlyís mother. (The name Madelyn is my own addition.) In my universe, River swiped it from Earlyís ship before she left it at the end of OiS.

Everything else in the story, however, I leave up to the reader to figure out. ;)