Disclaimer: Serenity and her crew are the sole and rightful property of ME, Joss Whedon and Tim Minear. No disrespect is intended from my borrowing them; no financial gain is garnered by me from their use in this story.
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The cheap frame was chipped and rusted, and the picture it held was fading from age and misuse. The holo-tech hadn't been of the highest quality to begin with; now the images were bleeding into each other, the colors were going to gray. Even so there was no doubt in Simon's mind what he had stumbled upon.

He'd seen this type of picture before. It was standard practice during the war. Groups of young friends joined up together, eager for the battle, sure in their thirst for justice and right. Their first stop was at the enlistment office, but their second was invariably at a local photographers to capture the moment for history. Alliance, Independence - there was no division in this arena; the faces were the same, only the uniforms would be different.

He'd been too young to fight, of course. His parents wouldn't have allowed it even if his age hadn't been a barrier. There were bigger plans for the promising Simon Tam than being used as laser fodder in a war that was, as his father put it, "two parts bloody posturing and eight parts foregone conclusion." The Alliance would win, life would return to normal, and Simon would remain steadfastly on the path to the greatness for which he had been bred. The fighting and the dying, the pointless heroism, such things were for lesser men than he and his kind. It was to be left to the likes of those in the battered picture which he held in his trembling hands.

There were five of them, all looking so young that it hurt to think of the horrors laying in wait for them. With a start Simon realized that they were about the same age then as he was now. It didn't seem possible. They stared out at him from their endless prison, caught forever in this fragment of time: three standing in the back, two sitting in the front. They'd dressed in their workday best from what he could tell. All of them were overflowing with pride and youth and an indestructible belief in a glorious future. It was in their eyes. The heroic pose that they'd assumed for the photo could be manufactured, but the look in their eyes was so nakedly honest that Simon felt breathless. He turned his head, unable to stare another minute into those eyes, feeling very much the voyeur. It was no use; he was drawn back against his will. Drawn back to the tall figure standing on the left. Drawn back to the intensity of clear blue eyes. Back into the gaze of the young Malcolm Reynolds.

So different. There was hope in those eyes, and a conviction that the hope would become reality: adventure and ultimate victory, ready for the taking. And there was joy - the pure, unadulterated joy of being young and strong and on the path to glory.

So similar. The courage was there - that calm courage that he'd been witness to so often in the past year. And above all, there was the unsettling, unremitting determination, the unshakeable firmness of purpose that still defined the man.

Simon continued to stare at the youth who was. He recognized the cocky grin, the arrogant tilt of the head. Even then, Malcolm Reynolds was sure of his abilities. In the photo he stood with his hand placed unselfconsciously on the shoulder of the young man next to him. Each of them had an easy way of being with the others; despite the formal sitting, it spilled over into the picture. Lifelong friends - they had to be. Simon wondered to himself who they were. Did any besides the captain survive?

The doctor in him studied the photo closely as if it were a diagnostic tool for unlocking a mystery. Yes, see there - the relaxed attitude of chin and shoulders, the curve of the smile. There wasn't a hint of darkness about this young man, not a touch of the grimness that was at the heart of the man he knew now.

A chill ran through his body as he was shocked into the sudden realization that the boy smiling at him in the photo was dead. As dead as if a bullet had torn out his heart.

"Is this who you were? Before Serenity?" Simon whispered to the ghost staring out at him.

"Found something interesting, son?" Book was at his shoulder.

Simon jumped at being brought back from his reverie so unexpectedly; he bobbled the picture and it started to fall. The Shepherd reached out to catch it, but Simon recovered and snatched it back before the older man could get more than a glimpse.

Book straightened and gazed at Simon bemused, no doubt wondering what led to this bout of uncharacteristic discourtesy on his part. Simon lowered the frame so that it was dangling from his hand, the picture resting up against his thigh, obscured from general view.

"My apologies; I was startled. Where are the others?" He looked around the dusty shop, hoping to distract the preacher. The place was a fire-hazard by even the most generous standards. The walls were lined with shelves, the interior was a maze of poorly constructed tables and yet more shelves, all of it threatening to topple under the load of merchandise crammed into every spare inch. The effluvia of the system seemed to have settled into this little store on the edge of nowhere.

"Oh, they're around. Wash is over beyond that stack of books there." The preacher pointed off toward a dangerously high wall of books that partitioned off the front part of the store from the rear. "Kaylee took River off to look around the dress shop. She asked me to tell you that that's where they'd gone." He stood comfortably at Simon's side as he looked at the table they were standing next to, mounded with old pictures and photos and small wall hangings of all shapes and sizes and descriptions. "Rather a far-ranging selection, I see."

Simon eyed the table where he'd found the picture. It was a sorry heap of cheap and forgotten treasures, yet everything there had meant something to someone in the past, he realized with a flash of insight.

"I don't understand. These . . . things. They're from every part of the system." Simon gestured around the over-crowded, musty store. "How did it all make its way here?"

Book put his hands in his pockets and studied the room. "Some of it was sold by folks fallen on hard times, I imagine. Some of it was no doubt lost when families were uprooted during the war. A good portion of it was probably looted."

"Looted?" The frame seemed to jump in his hand.

"Fortunes of war, doctor. 'To the victor go the spoils.' What you don't want to keep for yourself, you sell to whoever will take it, as much as you can carry off. Or you just destroy it outright."

The preacher's tone was matter-of-fact, but Simon saw the shadow behind his eyes; Book was seeing something beyond the walls of this place, of that Simon was sure.

"Stolen goods . . . surely the law must . . ." Simon's voice trailed off. Not even he believed the words anymore. He found himself becoming angered by the volume of ragtag spoils that surrounded him. Every scrap a story, every remnant a tale of loss. It sickened him.

Book looked at him, a hint of sympathy playing around the edges of his eyes. "The law still has its purpose, son, but this," he gestured toward the table, "this has more to do with Fate than law."

"Fate, Shepherd? Isn't that just another word for God?" He regretted the words as soon as he spoke them. Book wasn't responsible for this obscenity. "I'm sorry. I had no call to say that to you."

The Shepherd clapped him gently on the shoulder. "I struggle with that thought daily, Doctor. There's no room in me for judging others who do so as well." He removed his hand and spoke with a somewhat forced cheer. "We should be heading back soon. Ah, I see Wash had a successful venture."

Simon twisted around to follow Book's gaze, and through the grime-covered window he spied Wash excitedly showing Zoe the book he'd just purchased. She put her arm through his and started to walk him back toward where the ship was docked, Wash still gesturing broadly. Whose book had it been? Was it given freely or stolen by a conquering soldier? Simon shook his head. What was wrong with him? He'd never been this sentimental, never allowed himself to be encumbered by the problems of others. A dispassionate perspective was one of a doctor's finest tools, and regardless of his current circumstances, he was still a doctor.

The weight of the framed photograph was suddenly heavy in his hand. He wanted nothing so much as to put it down - put it back. He wished the preacher would leave him in peace for just a minute.

As if reading his mind, Book spoke. "I'll gather up River and Kaylee and usher them back to the ship." He caught Simon up in an unnervingly prescient look. "You come along when you're finished up here, son."

"I? I, there's nothing to finish up, Shepherd."

"I'll tell the others that you'll be following right behind," Book said, then headed toward the doorway back into the street.

Simon was alone as he'd wished. There was no one to be seen on the street; the store clerk was tucked somewhere out of sight beyond the mountain of goods for sale. A hush had fallen, the only movement visible to him was the dance of dust particles in the few poor strands of sunlight that had managed to make their way into the sad little store. For all he knew at this moment, Simon was the only one alive in the 'verse.

He lifted the photograph once more into sight. Once more Malcolm Reynolds caught him in his fiercely proud gaze. Simon meant to move his arm to put the photograph back onto the pile of refuse from which he'd drawn it - was it hours ago? No, he shook his head again. Minutes. Mere minutes. He put a hand to his forehead, a bit worried now. What was wrong, he asked himself again?

Leave this, he ordered himself. It means nothing. He slowly laid the photo down on the heap. But he couldn't quite take his hand away; he was overcome with an irrational fear that when he removed his hand the photograph would disappear under the weight of the hundreds of other pieces of flotsam on the table. Buried alive. The image came shocking and unbidden to his mind.

Simon gasped and pulled his hand back, dropping the photograph to the floor as he did so. The clatter attracted the attention of the clerk who shambled his way into view.

"You need some help there, sonny?" He saw the photo laying on the dirty floor. "You break it, you buy it." He pointed to a sign barely legible under the accumulation of years of grime.

"No," Simon protested. "I didn't . . . it was already chipped. I . . ." A pair of blue eyes bored into him from the floor at his feet. Without further thought he quickly bent and retrieved the photo. "Yes, I'll take it. I'd like it wrapped, please."

The clerk stared at him to see if he was joking, then shrugged and shuffled back behind the counter. He turned to Simon, all business. "Credits or coin?"

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Simon sat cross-legged on his bunk contemplating the photograph in his lap. For the thousandth time today he castigated himself for this new and unsettling obsession. He was acting like a criminal, sneaking the picture on board, then hiding it away under the mattress of his bunk. No, worse than that - he was acting like a schoolboy bringing home a salacious vid that he feared his parents would find. Why didn't he just leave it where he found it among the cast-offs and spoils of so many sad histories?

He thought back to this evening's meal. He had felt embarrassed, uneasy, and he knew that the others had noticed. Kaylee had given up trying to distract him with stories and smiles. Book had thrown more than one questioning glance his way. And the captain - the captain had fixed Simon with one of his intensely focused stares; it was just for a moment, and Simon could practically see the cutting mind behind the eyes trying to determine if there was something he needed to pursue. Simon had been able to hold his gaze - just barely - and the captain went back to his easy conversation with Inara. At his own side, River stroked and petted his arm, as if she were trying to calm his inner turmoil.

After dinner he waited until the crew had settled in for the night and River was asleep in her own quarters before retrieving the photograph from its hiding place. "Alone at last," he thought with dark sarcasm and he looked yet again at the portrait of the doomed young man.

"Why you? I've seen worse outcomes. I've heard sadder tales. Why are you haunting me?" The figure in the photo had no answer beyond the fact of its existence. Simon looked more closely at the other young men in the picture. They were all of an age, no more than a few years separating the oldest from the youngest. Were any of them related? The thought brought Simon up straight. The captain had never spoken of a brother, but then the captain had never spoken of his life before Serenity at all. Could one of these boys have been a sibling? There was no obvious resemblance, but Simon was well aware of the randomness of sibling appearance. There. The sandy-haired one sitting in front: the brow was similar, the attitude a mirror for the captain's. Was he the brother? Did the captain survive and his brother died? Simon's heart rate accelerated. Did he fail to save him? Was that the reason for the darkness now?

"Graduation day." River's soft voice floated in from the doorway.

"River!" In one smooth motion Simon slid the photo under his pillow and arose from the bunk to go to his sister. "River, you need to go back to bed now."

She moved gracefully around him and went straight to his bunk; without hesitation she pulled the photo from its hiding place. Lovingly she traced her fingers across the figure of Malcolm Reynolds.

"Graduation day," she repeated, smiling sadly. "All dressed up. So much happiness. So much to look forward to." She looked at him. "He didn't know. How could he know?"

"River. I don't understand." He made a move to take the photo from her but she turned away, keeping it out of his reach.

"After the ceremony, after the party, you went with them. To take the picture." She looked at him, face alight. "Best friends! 'The future is ours!'" Now she traced her fingers across his cheek. "You didn't know. How could you know?"

He stood stunned. "You weren't there. You never saw that picture."

"This picture." She held it toward him. "Your picture."

For the life of him, he couldn't reach out now to touch it.

"No. No, that isn't me."

"Pictures don't lie, ge-ge." She laughed. "One picture worth a thousand words." She put a finger to his lips. "A thousand thousand words. Sad stories."

His heart felt like lead in his chest.

She smiled gently at him. "Once upon a time Simon had a sister. Not like him. No one. No one left. And Simon rescued his sister." She took his hand and pressed the frame of the photo into it, then wrapped her arms around him as she whispered in his ear, "And they all lived forever after." With a soft kiss to his cheek, she glided out the door and back to her room.

Simon had no idea how long he stood there, caught in the images that River had brought back to him, images he thought he had well and truly buried. It had been the happiest day of his life. He'd graduated top of his class, respected by his professors, admired by his peers, adored by his parents. They'd made a pact before the ceremony started to meet later that night, the four of them. Each of them had slipped away from their respective parties and met, glowing with pride and joy, to have their photo taken together. To capture the moment for history - this moment when the world was theirs for the taking. It had all stretched out before them, shining and unspoiled. It was all there in their eyes for the 'verse to see, and the photographer had done a masterful job of capturing the instant when Simon Tam and his friends knew that nothing stood between them and a perfect future.

Simon threw the photo away from him onto the bunk. Damn them. Damn the gods and the fates and the Alliance and the Independence and the fools who believed in a future. The bitterness welled up in him so quickly that he thought he would choke on it. The photo had landed leaning up against the bulkhead, the holograph facing out. Simon could see the young men looking at him from across the years.

In two quick angry steps he was at the bunk; he snatched up the photo again and stared back at them. "What? What do you think you have to tell me that I don't already know?" He fairly spit the words. The image kept morphing in his mind: first the young warriors, then the young doctors, then back and again, but the eyes - the eyes remained the same.

Simon crossed to the small mirror over the bureau and looked hard at his reflection. Dark eyes looked back. Angry, hurt, worried, care-worn. Gone was the joy and the certainty. "I will not become him. I will not become him!" The words ground past his lips before he was aware that he had spoken them.

He hung his head in shame. Captain Reynolds was the most honorable man he'd ever known. And he'd taken in the both of them when even their own blood had turned against them. Time and again the captain had risked all he held dear to keep River safe. To keep him safe. There were far worse things to aspire to than to be a man such as the captain of Serenity.

He raised his eyes again and forced himself to look into the mirror. Hard searching, unflinching. What do you see, Simon? He knew himself, knew that behind the genteel exterior was a steely determination that was a match for the captain himself. What else of the captain do you see? Look. Look harder. There. Courage. More than he knew he would have. A moral code that was his own, strict and hard and unyielding. A hard-won knowledge of the danger that comes with breathing as a free man. Yes, that was there, too. And a terrible responsibility for a life that he swore to protect beyond his own safety, his own needs. They shared that, too, he and the captain. Simon looked more closely, steeling himself against what he feared he would find at the end of his searching. In relief he moved back from the mirror. The darkness wasn't there. Not yet.

His knees felt weak, whether from relief or effort he wasn't quite sure. He sat back on his bunk, resting himself against the bulkhead and looked again at the photo. It's power was gone. What had just an hour ago been so portentous was now - bittersweet. He held the picture up closer to his face. If my friends could see me now, what would they see? Would they even recognize me as the Simon Tam that they knew?

He thought of them in their high tech hospitals, relaxing in their luxurious homes; he looked around at his spartan quarters, felt the thrum of Serenity's engines vibrating through the steel at his back. He laughed. It was a good laugh, and it surprised him so that he laughed again. Simon Tam, surgeon to smugglers and fugitives from the law. Wait - Simon Tam, Fugitive Surgeon! He laughed harder; he pulled the pillow up to his face to muffle the sound because he'd never be able to explain it if he woke someone who came asking what the joke was about. Finally he settled down.

He leaned back in contemplation. My life is my own, he instructed himself. My fate is my own. What happened to him . . . and here he had to pause, images of battles unseen forming in his mind, mixing with images of his own battles with the treachery and willful ignorance of those he once trusted. What happened to him and what happened to me - the outcomes are different. She lives. We both live. It's enough.

"I'm so sorry," he confessed to the young Malcolm Reynolds. "I'm sorry that you lost everyone, everything. I'm sorry that you had no one to rescue you like River rescues me." He dropped his voice to a whisper. "I respect you more than any man I have ever known. But I will not become you. Not while I have breath in my body to cure her. Not while I can still hope."

He laid the photo aside and closed his eyes. "Ta-ma-de!" His eyes flew open again. He stared at the photo. "What do I do with you now?"

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"Good evening, Captain." As he had guessed, if he went to the infirmary and waited, the captain would wander by at some point. They'd all suspected that the man never slept at all.

"Good morning, Doctor." The captain raised an eyebrow at him while shifting his look pointedly toward the chronometer. 0358. "Can't sleep, or you working on somethin' I need to know about?" He'd stepped into the infirmary and stood with his arms crossed, waiting.

Simon took a deep breath. He still didn't know what he was going to say to this most private man.

"Captain . . ." He walked to the workbench where he'd laid the photo face down. He picked it up but held it so that the back of the frame was facing out and crossed the infirmary to stand facing the older man.

"A present. For me?" The captain's tone was lightly sarcastic.

"Yes. Well, no. It's not a present, but it is for you."

"It's for me but it's not a present. Blackmail photo! I've been in some compromising positions, I do confess, but Doctor I'd always thought better of you than this. Not happy with your cut?" Simon cringed inwardly at the teasing tone.

Breathing deeply again, Simon wordlessly held out the picture to him. The captain took one look and it seemed to Simon as if all the air whooshed out of the room. He saw the blood drain from the captain's face, but the man stood as still as if he were made out of stone.

"Captain. Mal . . ." Simon began miserably.

"Where did you get this?" The words were harsh and so angry that Simon instinctively stepped back. The captain hadn't moved to take the photo from him, and Simon kept it outstretched between them.

"A little curio shop back on our last landfall. Yesterday. I was passing time, waiting for River and Kaylee, poking through a pile of old photos and pictures. It was . . . I just found it."

"Yesterday?" Mal sounded confused as he continued to stare unmoving at the photograph, looking both fascinated and repelled by what he saw. "The last time I saw this . . ." He bit off the rest of the sentence.

"Book says that almost everything there was probably," he dipped his eyes to the floor, "looted. During the war."

"Book? The Shepherd saw this!?" There was something new in the captain's voice that made Simon look up at him again: an edge of despair maybe, added to the anger.

"No," Simon assured him quickly. "No one else has seen this. The Shepherd was just explaining the way of things to me. I didn't show this around, Captain." He looked him in the eyes. "I wouldn't do that."

Mal held his look, held it hard. "No, you wouldn't," he said at last. The anger was gone; his tone was unreadable by Simon. The captain reached out at last and took the photograph from him.

"I'm sorry, Captain. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't leave it there. I don't know how to explain it to you."

"It's all right, Doctor." He was looking at the photo, his voice signifying that his attention was someplace other than here in the infirmary.

"It's a very nice photograph." Simon cursed himself as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Where did he think he was - a salon back on Osiris chatting with his mother's friends?

The captain shifted his attention to Simon and smiled darkly. "You think so?" He looked back down again. "We couldn't afford much, you know? Got one done and left it at the town hall so all our folks could admire it at the same time. Proud to have it there, they said. Our brave boys." His voice grew dark at that last part.

"I have a photograph similar to yours," Simon broke in. Why did he say that? His eyes grew wider at his own impulsiveness.

"That a fact?" Mal regarded him coolly.

"Well, of course, not just like yours." He stumbled across his words. "The circumstances were different, as you might imagine." Mal continued to hold him in his sights. Simon felt a surge of defiance run through him. Malcolm Reynolds didn't hold the patent on unfulfilled dreams. His confidence returned.

"The night I graduated from medacad, my friends and I - my best friends - stole off to have our picture taken. We were all a little drunk. Even so, nothing could have stopped us. We were at the top of the world, you know? It all lay before us: acclaim, riches, personal glory. All of it. Ours for the taking. I'd never felt so," he struggled for the words, "so alive. So alive to the possibilities." The captain was regarding him differently now, more seriously. Simon continued.

"It was gone in a heartbeat, it seems now." He gave a small laugh, and he heard the bitterness at the edges. "River's heartbeat." He stopped for a moment then stared into the captain's eyes. "I wouldn't change it. My decision. No matter where it leads me."

The captain held the look for a long moment and then nodded to Simon; there was an understanding between them now that hadn't existed before.

"Get some sleep, Doctor." Mal walked back toward the exit. Before he left the infirmary, though, he turned to Simon again, the photo held loosely in his hand. "You did the right thing." Without waiting for a response he left, headed in the direction of the crew quarters.

Simon sighed and leaned back against one of the beds. Well, that went differently than how he imagined. No blows had been exchanged, for one thing. And for the first time since he'd come aboard, Simon had the feeling that the captain actually saw him. Him, Simon Tam - not just as "the doctor with the crazy sister" but as a man with a history of his own and hard choices and a past that would haunt his dreams throughout his life. A man like Malcolm Reynolds.

He looked at the chronometer. If he was lucky he could still catch an hour or so of sleep. He turned off the lights and stood in the dimly-lit infirmary. This was his life now. No celebrations, no picture to capture the moment, just the quiet assurance in his heart that he'd chosen the right path after all. In the stillness of the early morning he returned to his bed, feeling as if he were coming home.

End