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. Notes: This story has gone through several iterations. Many thanks go out to hcwoodward and kelly_girl for their mad insights, as well as to hawkmoth, queenb, baba_kibbins, inalasahl, and the pouncer for their most welcome betas.


They buried her where the valley floor began its slope down to the river. Zoe had thought that he'd want to commit her body to the black, but Simon was horrified at the image of his sister tumbling, eternally alone, in the cold and endless expanse of space. It was the Shepherd who had told him of this hidden place with its verdant valley and its whispering water. He could rest his mind knowing that she slept here. She would sleep for them both.

He'd imagined her death, of course, as he'd imagined his own. They lived in a violent and unforgiving world out on the rim of the galaxy. He had expected that any of them - all of them - would one day fall to an Alliance bullet or die at the casual whim of a rival crew or expire from any heartstopping number of possible failures of the ship to keep them alive. He hadn't expected this. He could never have expected this . . . this random cruelty that the 'verse had visited on his sister. And now on him.

It was the captain who had found her. He had come to the cargo bay on an early morning errand, Simon wasn't sure what it was. It didn't matter. And there lay River, on her stomach, her head turned to the left, the right side of her face cracked open and bloodied from the impact of the fall. She had been dressed for a celebration - the red-and-gold scarf from Inara, a crimson shirt that Kaylee had given her, the long blue skirt that he had bought her with his cut from the job on Ariel. It was her birthday. She was eighteen.

He knew when the captain shook him awake that it was bad. One look at his grim face and he knew it was the worst possible news. He'd started from the bed, not sure where he was running to, but needing to move, needing to hurry to her. The captain had held him back, fighting him until he'd gained some control of himself again. When he was calm, Mal had led him to the cargo bay. The Shepherd had been standing in the corridor of the guest quarters, alerted by the commotion in Simon's room. He'd stepped forward but the captain had warned him away with a shake of his head. As they moved toward the stairs, Simon saw the rest of the crew huddled at the end of the corridor: Inara, Zoe and Wash half-dressed; Jayne and Kaylee looking as if they'd just awakened. Kaylee was crying.

He can't remember too much past that. He has images - distant and blurred. How frail she looked as she lay there. How her left eye was still open. How cool her body was as he touched her face and carefully smoothed the eyelid down. How the blood pooled like a halo around her head.

He'd bent to pick her up, but the captain had stopped him. Gently this time. "We'll see to her, Doc." A noise behind them and then Jayne and Wash were there, carrying the stretcher.

"Take her to the infirmary, please." They were his first words and he was shocked at how calmly professional his voice fell on his ears. He'd stepped back to let the men do their work and suddenly Kaylee was in his arms, sobbing against his chest. He let her hold him, and over her bent head he catalogued the visible injuries on his sister. Crushed skull. Broken neck. Broken shoulder. He'd determine the rest during the autopsy.

Looking up, he'd tried to picture the point from which she fell. He'd untangled himself from Kaylee and headed for the steps up to the topmost catwalk. Ignoring her call he'd moved steadily up the stairs, barely aware of a figure shadowing him as he climbed. Without hesitation he'd walked to the spot where River must have lost her balance. He placed his hands on the railing, a part of him expecting to feel it warm still from her touch. He looked down to the now empty bay; the stain of dark red on the deck trapping his gaze.

How had she fallen? He gave the railing a shake. Sturdy. No sign of wear or wobble. He placed one foot on the lower rail and started to hoist himself up to the top, as she must have done. A strong hand on his arm halted him.

"Doc. That ain't gonna help no one," a calm voice said to him. It was the captain. Yes, that's right. The captain had followed him.

"No. I'm just trying to understand." How had she fallen? She had remarkable balance; he'd never seen her falter or slip, not in their childhood, not in the year they'd been reunited. He'd warned her, though. He was a good brother. He'd warned her not to trust to her uncanny skill, because one day she would fall and hurt herself.

"Some things pass our understanding." Mal had pulled slightly on Simon's arm, leading him back and away from the railing. "You come with me, now."

He doesn't remember the walk back to the infirmary, but he remembers the crew crowded into the lounge outside the medlab. Kaylee sat on the couch in between Wash and Inara, all of them red-eyed; Jayne stood, his back against a wall, crossing and uncrossing his arms, looking unsure and uncomfortable.

He'd entered the infirmary and was suddenly disoriented by the bright light and by the flash of colors that was River, now laid out on the center bed. Zoe was cleaning her up; the Shepherd stood to one side, reading aloud from his book, his voice breaking.

His beautiful sister.

Not much made sense, but he'd tried to move ahead on his doctor's instinct. Determine the cause of death. That was obvious. Notify the next of kin. Their parents. He felt the blood leave his face. What should he tell their parents?

The next thing he knew he was sitting on the floor; the captain was crouched next to him, gently stroking his back and his neck, murmuring to him soothingly. Zoe was holding out a glass of water. The crew was huddled around the hatchway, concerned but hesitant.

Simon had never been so embarrassed. He was a grown man; he was a trauma surgeon. He didn't collapse. He'd struggled to his feet, shaking off the captain's help.

"I'm fine," he'd said, not able to look directly at any of them.

"You're in shock," Zoe had replied, simply.

"There's nothing more to be done here, son. I'll stay with the child, say a prayer, if you don't mind." The Shepherd was at his side, holding a blanket.

The captain had taken the blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders. He'd kept his arm across Simon's back and moved him steadily toward the exit. "Let's get you fixed up, Doc. You let us take care of things."

And he had, in his fashion. Two days later he'd laid his sister to rest. The Shepherd had been vague about how he knew of the sequestered valley, but it was of little consequence, really. It was serene and beautiful and remote. Simon had sent a wave to his parents - padded and hopscotched and hopefully untraceable back to Serenity. He didn't know if they would believe that River was dead; they might think it was merely a ploy to stop the Feds from tracking them. On the other hand, he'd doubted that they'd believe him capable of such a heartless deception. He wondered if they'd mourn her.

Inexplicably, Simon had become obsessed with the idea that the Alliance trackers would find River's grave and steal her body, reclaiming in death what they couldn't have while she lived. The Shepherd and the captain together calmed him, and he was able to say good-bye to her without fear. Without tears.

He thought he should be concerned about that, but somehow it didn't seem to matter. And the days moved by so quickly; he barely noticed when one melted into another. There was always something to do. Always some little crisis to attend to, a rhythmic flow of sprains and cuts and burns. Nothing more serious. Not yet. They'd been lucky recently. He enjoyed the gentle pace; he found it soothing. It filled his days but allowed him time to work the puzzle that consumed him.

How did she fall?


He should have done an autopsy. How many times had he reproved himself about this in the weeks since she died? A dozen? Two dozen? When he had stated his intentions in those first hours after her death, Inara and the Shepherd had convinced him that nothing was to be gained, and that he would later regret having done the procedure. The crew had looked shocked. Even the captain had raised an eyebrow. He had let himself be swayed by their emotions when science and the pursuit of knowledge should have been his guide. There was so much he could have learned about how she fell. A blood clot on her brain, perhaps. Fluid in her ear. It had to have been something hidden. Something physical. Tangible.

Simon looked again at the charts and the tests and the images that he had taken of his sister since he rescued her from the Academy. They were spread out across her bed - all that he had left of her now. All her genius, her beauty, her wit, her spirit, it was all reduced to numbers and symbols and medical jargon. Because of him. Because he missed something. Because he didn't get her back in time. Because he let her go in the first place.

"Doc - you there?"

Simon could see the captain's figure silhouetted against the door. He considered remaining silent, but then thought better of it. Obviously the man knew he was in here. He might as well see what the problem was and then get back to his work.

"Captain, come in."

The door slid back and Mal filled the frame with his presence. For a brief instant Simon had a flash of what the captain must be seeing as he took in the room: the charts and papers and films spread across the bed, Simon's unkempt appearance, his obvious lack of sleep. He pushed the thought aside and turned his attention to the man in the doorway. The captain folded his arms across his chest and entered the room.

"Ain't seen you around much lately."

Simon shrugged in response. It should have been obvious to anyone that he had important work to see to.

"Doc, we need to talk."

"Is it something urgent? Because as you can see, I'm rather busy here."

"Urgent? Yeah. Yeah, it is at that. Long past due, in fact."

Simon didn't like that sound of that, but he held his tongue and waited patiently for the older man to continue. Mal just stood there, looking at him. If Simon had to swear to it, he would have to say that the captain looked uncomfortable. It was a new experience - the captain seeming anything other than detached in his presence.

"Captain?" The sound of his voice seemed to settle something in the captain's mind. He moved closer to Simon.

"Yeah, well. The short of it is that I been holdin' onto something that should have been said weeks ago. I ain't proud of it, and I ain't tryin' to ease things on myself by sayin' that there just never seemed to be a good time."

Simon smiled up at him, puzzled.

"I admit, I have no clue as to what you're trying to tell me. Perhaps if you just said it . . ."

"You're right. You're right. Ain't no easy way to put this, so let me just get it out. That night, with your sister . . ."

The captain hesitated, not looking at him for a moment, then he swung his gaze back, his face set like granite.

"Doc, she didn't fall."

"I'm sorry." The words weren't registering. Of course she fell.

"It wasn't an accident."

"I . . . What are you saying? Someone killed her? Someone pushed her off the railing? Who . . . no one . . ."

"Doc." Mal cut through his rambling. "She didn't fall. And nobody pushed her." His voice grew steely. "She walked off that rail of her own free will." He paused just a moment. "Simon, she killed herself."

"You couldn't know that. How could you possibly know that?" Simon was on his feet.

"I saw her. I was there."

"And you didn't stop her?"

"I tried, but she was too far away."

"If she was that far away . . ." Mal rode over him as if he hadn't spoken.

"I . . . she was singing. I heard her singing out in the cargo bay, and I went to look." Simon could tell that he was seeing it all again, reliving it. "She was standing on the top rail. Decked out like it was Christmas. She saw me, and she waved. I started to call to her to come down before she hurt herself. But . . . she just." He looked back up at Simon. "She just walked off the rail and into the air."


"I ran down to her, but I knew it was too late. She was dead when I reached her."

"No, it was her birthday. We were going to celebrate. You saw her, saw how she was dressed. She was exited. When she went to bed that night she was so happy."

"She was happy, Doc; she was smiling," Mal said.

Simon closed his eyes against the image, but of course that just made it more real. He could see her now, the way the smile would light her face, her eyes.

God. She was smiling. River. River, what did you do?

"I missed it." He was talking out loud, but he was talking to himself. "She must have given me a sign. I should have seen it. I should have known." He searched his memory for something - anything that could have been the clue that he missed. The moment when he could have saved her again.

"Doc, none of us saw anything."

"But I'm her brother," Simon said, and the weight of all his sadness threatened to drown him at that moment. "I know her better than anyone. I know her better than I know myself." How could he have missed it? No. No! He couldn't; he didn't. The captain was wrong. "She would have said good-bye." He said it with great certainty. And relief. "She wouldn't have just left me."

"She did. Say good-bye, I mean."

"Are you saying that there's a note? She left a note and you hid that from me, too?" He was reeling again. "There wasn't no note. There don't have to be words to say good-bye." Mal crossed his arms and shifted his weight. "Think on what she was wearin', Doc. I figure that was her way of saying good-bye to you. And the others."

Simon looked at him, astounded. Of course. All her favorite clothes, all gifts to her from the people who loved her, who she loved. Oh my God. It was true. She killed herself. He sank back onto River's bed.

"I know it's a shock . . ."

Simon cut him off. "A shock? What? Finding out after all these weeks - months! - that my sister killed herself? That she couldn't trust me to find a way to cure her? A shock?"

"Whoa, Doc. You don't know why she did it. None of us do, but I been thinkin' on it . . ."

Simon cut him off again, enraged. He shot up from his seat and strode across the small room to confront Mal.

"You've been thinking on it!? I'm so pleased that you had the luxury of time to think about this so deeply. While you were 'thinking', did it ever cross your mind that I had a right to know how she died? Were you enjoying watching me make a fool out of myself chasing false hopes? Did you laugh to see me so blind to the truth?" He was eye to eye with the larger man, his body shaking with anger and grief.

For his part the captain stood his ground, although Simon saw the color rise up in his face. Mal never flinched and never broke his gaze. He spoke slowly and clearly.

"I never meant for it to go on this long. I was wrong, and I own up to that. I kept waiting for you to move past it, but you wouldn't let it go." Mal's glance shifted over to the bed, and Simon knew he was looking at the stacks of documents and charts that had become his life since hers ended. "Anyone can fall, Doc. Even a genius like your sis. What you been doin' here - it ain't about her anymore. Maybe it never was."

"Get out."

The two men stared at each other, and then Mal moved past Simon and left the room. Simon returned to the bed, to the field of his last battle. The bedcovers were rumpled and streaked from the pens he had strewn around as he used her bed for a makeshift work area. His gaze took in the rest of the room - almost a nun's cell in its simplicity except for her drawings and her few personal belongings. It was just as she had left it; no one had disturbed a thing at his insistence. He saw for the first time the soft covering of dust on everything but the bed, and the sight made him weep inside. She was everywhere around him. She was gone forever.

He sat on the very edge and the shift in the weight caused one of the stacks to tip and slide toward him. He put his hand out to stop the avalanche, but to his shock he grasped a handful of papers and slides instead and threw them against the far wall.

River killed herself. He should have known. The papers rustled and settled around him on the bed, on the floor, and they sighed to him the words he could not bring himself to say: You knew. You always knew.


He was packing the last of the charts away when Mal walked into the infirmary.

"Doctor. It's good to see you back on the job." He took in the boxes labeled and stacked over to one side. "You packin' up and leavin'?"

The thought hadn't even occurred to him; in fact, he was startled at the notion.

"No, not at all. I mean, I just assumed that, even with River gone . . ."

"Relax, Doc," Mal said with an easy smile. "You're still the only ship's medic we got. We're still a might too prone to gettin' shot at. When we ain't gettin' stabbed, that is."

"Yes, well, good. No, I don't mean good that you're getting wounded. I mean . . ."

"I know what you mean." He crossed closer to Simon and looked into the box still waiting to be taped shut. "Your notes on what they did to your sister?"

"I won't be needing them now, but I don't want to destroy them, either. She wasn't the only one being experimented on at the Academy. There may a chance in the future to help someone else." He folded the top of the carton down. "Maybe I won't fail the next time," he finished, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

"You didn't fail this time," Mal responded. "That deck was stacked long before you came to the table. You did your best, and you bought her some good days."

"Not enough apparently." Simon fastened the top closed and moved it to the stack. He looked at the stack and then back at the captain. "It just occurs to me that I have no idea where to store these."

"I'll have Jayne haul them back to the hold. Wouldn't do to have all that fall into the wrong hands."

"Thank you. Oh," he tried for a casual tone, "I cleaned out River's things. She didn't have much, really. It's all in a box in my room now." He turned and started fiddling with a drawer full of instruments, pretending to work. "You can rent it out again. Her room. The room," he corrected himself. "For passengers."

"There'll be time enough for that. No need to be worryin' about it." He started to leave, but turned back again. "You joinin' us for supper? They all been askin' after you."

Simon sighed inwardly. He'd have to face them sooner or later.

"Yes. Of course. I suppose it will be a relief for them not to have to pretend anymore." He saw Mal's puzzled look and he went on to clarify. "About River."

Mal took a couple steps back into the infirmary. "Doctor, all they know is that your sister fell and died. Ain't nobody's business but yours how that came to be."

Simon was speechless for a moment. When he found his voice again all he could say was. "Thank you."

Mal nodded and made to leave again. He turned back once more, though, and stood for a moment, looking intently at Simon.


Mal walked back into the room and crossed to where Simon stood.

"I seen people die for all sorts of reasons. Most fell at the hands of others, but there's some fell by their own hand. We can't never know why they do what they do. Even when they leave a message, we can't know the truth inside. Our only choice is to carry on. You understand me, doctor?" Mal's voice was strong but soft. "You carry on."

He turned and left Simon standing alone amid the boxes.


There were days when he thought he wouldn't make it. Days when it seemed as if River had chosen the wiser path, one that he himself should follow. Always he pulled himself back from that edge without falling, unsure what it was that stopped him but willing to trust that life was the answer. He was a doctor, after all; a reverence for life was his creed - even his own life, even when it seemed as if life itself were the enemy.

Time put an end to those dark imaginings. The next phase, though, brought neither light nor peace. He'd become consumed with the idea that the monsters who tortured River had implanted a suicide scenario in her brain; some trigger must have been applied that night, the eve of her 18th birthday - and she fell to her death, smiling and unaware. She wouldn't have left him of her own accord; she wouldn't have given in to despair. They did this sickening thing to her. They had to pay.

He'd sought out the captain, certain that he'd have a ready ally. He was shocked back to reality by Mal's absolute refusal to seek revenge.

"I want them to pay for what they did to River." Simon paced back and forth across the small med lab. His anger was a physical thing, keeping him moving.

"Alliance has a lot to pay for," Mal agreed. "More'n a few on this boat have a debt due. But we ain't in the vengeance business. We're in the stayin' alive business."

"I can't believe that you're saying this to me. After everything that they did to you during the war. You hate them!"

The captain placed himself in Simon's path, forcing him to stop his constant motion, forcing him to look up at him.

"Hate can keep you alive when you should have sense enough to fall down dead. But it don't work for everyone, and I can't say I recommend it as a way of life in general." He crossed his arms on his chest and moved a step closer to Simon. "You got a berth on Serenity if you want it, that still stands. Hate the Alliance all you want. I do. But understand this - never put my people or my boat in harm's way because you want payback for what you think they did to your sister. You want to kill yourself and them as is around you fightin' a battle you can't win, you do it under another captain. We clear?"

"Yes." Simon felt himself speared by the cold blue eyes that held his. "We're clear."

Mal smiled. "Xuduo. Now, I actually have important work to see to, so . . . "

He made for the hatch, but he turned around after a few steps.

"You really believe that's what happened? They brainwashed her to kill herself?"

"Yes." Mal continued to stare at him, silent. Simon felt as if he were an insect pinned to a plate for examination. "It makes sense. They wouldn't have wanted her running free; they would have come up with some way to protect the secrets that she carried." Mal continued his steady gaze. "It makes sense," he repeated.

"Now, I'm the first to say that the Alliance ain't overburdened with humanity, and killin' girls ain't in no way beyond them, but . . . she was gone a year. If they wanted to make her a time bomb, they'd a give her a shorter fuse."

"You don't believe me."

"Does it matter what I believe? Ain't gonna change a thing."

"Of course it matters. The truth always matters."

"Doc, the only truth that matters here is that your sister is dead. She was a sweet kid who had a lotta bad happen to her, and she's gonna be missed. Everything else you just gotta leave behind."

"Leave behind?" Simon couldn't keep the incredulity from his voice. "What should I leave behind, Captain? My sister's body was left behind, buried - hidden - so that I don't know if I could ever find my way there again. My career? I left that behind years ago, along with any hope of being able to use my skills in a meaningful way ever again. My reputation? That's gone, too. Along with the remnants of my family and my home. What else is there for me to leave behind? Please. I want you to tell me."

His anger had flared again, carrying him physically along with it, placing him a handbreadth away from the captain.

"I'm waiting, Captain. Enlighten me. What else is there?"

Mal stood his ground, unperturbed.

"Your guilt. Simon, you have to leave your guilt behind. It'll kill you otherwise." He moved around Simon as if her were just another piece of furniture and left the infirmary without a backward glance.


It was almost amazing what changes a year could bring in the wild. The scar in the earth that marked her grave had long since healed over. Simon had almost despaired of finding her after all this time; it was Jayne, of all people, who led him to his sister. All Simon could see was a gentle mound on which lay a pile of rusty-colored leaves, fallen during the autumn past. Jayne assured him that this was the grave site, and with Mal standing next to the mercenary, stern and quietly in charge, Simon believed him.

Simon glanced from the grave to Mal, and with a short nudge the captain motioned for Jayne to follow him back aways, leaving Simon alone with the ghost of his sister.

"I miss you, mei-mei," Simon whispered. He closed his eyes and he could see her. He didn't need the presence of her body to achieve that feat; he saw her whenever he closed his eyes, although the images had changed over the past year. He no longer saw her falling, smiling at the great joke to which only she was privy. He no longer saw her screaming, desperate and afraid and clinging to the hope that her brother would free her from the prison that her mind had become. He no longer saw her accusing him. That was the image hardest to banish, and it wasn't all that long gone. Simon could feel its presence still - the true ghost that haunted him.

The captain had been right about his guilt. It had overwhelmed him, become the thing that kept him alive, the thing that vowed to end him. What if . . . He should have . . . Why hadn't he . . . The endless questions and suppositions and second-guessing nearly drove him insane. He became uncharacteristically volatile, pushing the crew away at every opportunity, hurting Kaylee, picking fights with Jayne, worse yet picking fights with the captain. Simon shook his head at the memory. It's a wonder that they didn't space him.

It ended suddenly. Nobody questioned why; they were just relieved to have Simon back to his old self. If they had asked, Simon would have lied. He wouldn't have told them about the dream. About River coming to him, as real as if he could hold her again.

She was wearing the clothes that she wore when she'd died. He was asleep and she slipped into his room and put her hand across his eyes. The feel of her skin on his woke him instantly, but she kept her hand in place.

"No peeking," she laughed.

"River!" He reached out for her, but she danced away from him.

"You looked," she scolded, waving one finger at him.

"River." He was speechless beyond her name; there were too many words to be said. "Why?"

"You've been calling me, and I've kept you waiting for so long. Forgive me."

He could feel tears on his face. They were his.

"Forgive . . . No, mei-mei - I should be asking you. Begging you." He sat up and threw off his blanket. He stood, feeling how cold the metal floor was to his feet. It was so real. "I failed you. Everything I did was wrong. I didn't get to you in time. I shouldn't have let you go; I should have known. Look what they did to you. Look at what you did." He couldn't speak now for the force of his grief.

She laughed and his breath hitched in his throat.

"Silly Simon. Thinking himself so powerful. You didn't fail. You didn't succeed. You were."

He closed his eyes, weary. "I don't understand."

"You don't understand," she repeated. Then she laughed again. "I wasn't yours to fail, jie-jie. I was mine. Always only mine. To lose. To win."

"You fell." The words were an accusation, and they shocked him.

"We fall, Simon. It's what we do." She was smiling.

"You left me," he cried out.

"I'm right here. I'm always right here." She'd put her hand on his heart; he swore he could feel the moisture from her palm as it pressed against his chest.

"River, why . . ."

"Shhhhh," she cut off his question before he could ask it. "You were always such a curious boy." She twirled suddenly, and her skirt swirled around her like an exotic blossom. "Do you like what I wore? I wore it for you. It said that everything was going to be all right. Did you understand?"

"No," he said. He closed his eyes again, overcome at the sudden memory of her body lying in the cargo bay. "No, I didn't understand. No, it wasn't all right."

"I keep forgetting that you can sometimes be so slow." The tone of her voice was that of the child he knew who would tease him because he wasn't at her level of genius. He looked over at her and saw the young woman she was, alive and whole. "It's all right, Simon. Cross my heart and hope to die." She laughed again, and this time he laughed with her.

"I'm dreaming. I don't want to wake up."

"Dream. Real. Experience afforded substance. There is no choice, there only is."

He grinned, exasperated at her word games and enthralled to have her back.

"You're real," he touched her hair and let it trail through his fingers.

"You're real," she echoed and passed her hand through his as if it were made of water. He gasped.

"We're real," she whispered.

He'd awoken with a start, his heart pounding. She was gone. But she was there. It was the moment when it finally changed for him, when he began to find the peace that had deserted him since he understood the hidden message in her letters from the Academy.

It was still a struggle, but mostly now he felt as if he were winning. He allowed himself to think of a future - a future without her. He was still a wanted man and would be for the rest of his life. He'd resigned himself to that; he'd even come to take a perverse pride in it. The captain seemed willing to keep him on the crew; there were worse lives - and who knew what the future would hold? It turned out that Simon had a liking for the adventurous life. Now that he had time and perspective, he realized that Serenity was truly his home, more of a home than his parents' house had ever been. He had friends, people who would fight for him, people for whom he would fight. There was the possibility of more than friendship, too, but Simon couldn't let himself think of that just yet. There was time. Now, at last, there was time.

He knelt on the grass and placed his hand deep into the fallen leaves until he touched the earth beneath.

"I miss you," he whispered again. "I think I will always miss you. But I know that you're all right now - and I will be soon." He stood and gave a small smile as a soft breeze touched his face. "I love you, River."

He walked to where his friends waited, and then the three of them started on their way back home. Around them, the breeze rustled the branches of the trees and set the leaves to gently falling.