AU; for a comment fic prompt "Simon never boarded Serenity that day"

Simon makes the decision to get aboard a different vessel that day on Persephone and his life, River's, and the lives of Serenity's crew, are forever altered.

Warning: Character Death

Simon needed to get onboard a ship and fast. He was spending the last of his financial reserves on a ticket off Persephone – didn't much matter where. An outlying planet would be best, far from the core worlds, somewhere the Alliance wouldn't find them. Then he could revive River and try to repair whatever damage had been done to her.

They'd been experimenting on River and the others, that much he knew. And River had always been athletic but her acrobatic display during their escape had stunned him. She knew him on sight, she wasn't completely lost to him, but Simon was certain she wasn't the same girl that his parents had cheerfully sent off to the Academy.

He liked the young woman who tried to persuade him to get aboard Serenity, but the ship looked as if it were falling apart. There was a difference between lying low by choosing less salubrious transport, and risking his and River's lives on a relic like that.

Besides, he'd seen the captain leave the ship not long after docking; a tall man with a pistol on his hip and a look in his eyes that said he'd be gratified by any chance to use it. He didn't seem like the sort of person Simon wanted to associate with.

Then again he couldn't be so picky now. He'd left behind everything to rescue River; his wealth, his privilege. Of course the Alliance called the rescue a kidnapping and so he was also now a criminal. Simon half hoped the knowledge of his son's atrocities gave his self-righteous father a heart attack.

Simon spotted another vessel; a bit newer than the dated Firefly class ship, with a bored looking but well dressed man taking down passenger details. He strode over, his choice made. Simon and his precious cargo boarded the Viviane.

The crew were not particularly friendly but they were very practical. When the captain caught Laurence Dobson snooping around in the cargo hold, Dobson told him that Simon had smuggled stolen merchandise onboard and that he, Dobson, was a Federal Officer sent to retrieve it, they cooperated. Simon watched helplessly, held by two security personnel, as Dobson scanned the crate and confirmed it held a living person.

Dobson asked for a detour to a nearby planet where he could rendezvous with his backup crew and the captain agreed – for a small fee to cover his expenses. They both smiled coldly through the exchange while Simon cried and begged. He tried to tell the crew the truth about River, about what had been done to her, how he couldn't let her go back to the Academy.

"What about him?" the captain asked, finally, pointing at Simon.

"He resisted arrest," Dobson said and drew his gun.

Dobson paid extra for the clean-up. It was cheaper than paying out reward money and kept the crew's mouths tightly shut.

Mal wasn't sure why Wash and Zoë liked the damn farm so much that they were haggling over price, desperate to buy it. It was dusty, too dusty for crops in his opinion. Course, no-one had paid his opinion much mind lately. Kaylee even thought it sweet that the two were going to settle down somewhere and raise a family.

It would just be him and the engineer if this kept up. Jayne had gotten himself shot a while back and Mal had been forced to take him to an Alliance facility to get the idiot patched up – and Jayne had been arrested on outstanding warrants the moment he regained consciousness. Mal had fled before he could get picked up too; far as he knew, Jayne was still serving a four year sentence for assault, assault with a deadly weapon, and grievous bodily harm.

The Shepherd they'd picked up on Persephone had stayed with them several months. Then he'd disembarked one day, pointed to a rock in a field, and declared he was going to build a church there. Mal had nodded politely and left him to it. Book wasn't so bad as priests went, but he wasn't going to miss him.

Inara still joined them from time to time but even she'd been talking about returning to a Companion Training House, passing on her knowledge to a new generation.

Wash had promised to help him find a new pilot but Mal wasn't sanguine about the success of that endeavour. He'd already hired and fired three more mercenary types since losing Jayne - and two cooks, and a medic who'd used up all their drug supplies getting high on them. No-one was trustworthy anymore it seemed. Maybe Wash and Zoë had the right idea after all. Maybe it was time to quit flying.

Trying to shake off his melancholy, Mal had left Wash and Zoë discussing plans for some stables and took himself into the nearest town. He wandered into the first bar he came to, downed a couple of ales, and was eyeing up the snooker table when the girl entered the bar.

Pretty thing like that was eye-catching, sure enough, but it wasn't her beauty that made him stare, but her demeanour. She strode into the bar as if she owned it, dark eyes scanning the room rapidly. She was dressed simply in a plain charcoal dress with knee high boots, and her long dark hair was straight and shoulder length. A man in a dark suit entered and stood just behind her, hands stuffed into his pockets.

"Alliance ain't welcome in this establishment," the bartender said. "Across the street gives you people special treatment. Try there."

"We're not Alliance," the male newcomer said, not even making eye contact with him. The girl ignored him completely.

"You look like Feds," the bartender persisted. Everyone took notice except the girl and her companion.

The girl extended one arm and pointed at a man sitting in the corner.

"Leo Erras," the man in the suit said.

The man – Leo, presumably, leapt to his feet, gun drawn. Several other men stirred at this. Mal sat perfectly still, waiting to see what would happen.

"Look, I told you," began the bartender, reaching for his gun. The girl faced him. Suddenly his face turned red. He clutched at his throat, gasping for breath, then fell to the floor. The girl, unperturbed, returned her attention to Leo.

"Come quietly or come dead," the man in the suit said. He took his hands from his pockets and spread them out. "Your choice." Mal saw he was wearing blue gloves which struck him as rather odd.

"Neither," said Leo. He fired. The girl ducked as her companion took a side step and the shot went wide. All hell broke loose. Mal clambered onto the bar for a better vantage point. No way he could safely get to the door, so he ducked behind the bar instead, peering over to watch the fight.

He watched in amazement as the probable Fed took shelter in a far corner while the girl – young woman, really – dispatched every man in the room. Kicks and punches brought men to their knees or knocked them out completely, weapons were removed from their grasp. The woman moved with a speed and grace that seemed at odds with the violence she was wreaking.

Finally, only the woman remained standing. She'd acquired a gun which she held casually in one hand. She glanced over at her companion. "Erras is dead."

The man frowned. "I would rather have had him alive."

"He resisted."

"I'm tired of your excuses, River. Perhaps another session is called for."

The word "session" didn't sound very pleasant to Mal's ears. Neither did it to the woman, River's, he guessed, because suddenly the man began choking, just as the bartender had.

"Stop," he wheezed.

"I'm tired of you," River said in a monotone that sent chills up Mal's spine.

"You can't…do this…to me."

"Found a way past your defences," River said. "Goodbye."

The man fell to the floor. He didn't move. Mal was fairly certain that unlike the bartender, still unconscious at his feet, the man in the suit was dead. River seemed to have caused both incidents, though how, Mal couldn't begin to fathom.

"Show yourself," River said, without looking in Mal's direction, but cocking one finger in a come-hither gesture.

Slowly Mal made his way around the bar, hands above his head. He didn't dare draw his weapon; from what he'd seen she could outmanoeuvre him in speed alone, let alone skill. He had a feeling that if she used the weapon she was holding so nonchalantly, she would not miss.

"What are you?" he asked, unable to stop the question falling from his lips, regretting it – regretting the choice of the words, especially – as soon as it was voiced.

She smiled then, the first show of expression he'd seen from her; a sad, terrible smile. She levelled her weapon at him.

"Death," she said simply and pulled the trigger.

Alternate ending

[while I liked the simplicity of the first ending, this one is a bit happier and more hopeful]

"What are you?" he asked, unable to stop the question falling from his lips, regretting it – regretting the choice of the words, especially – as soon as it was voiced.

She smiled then, the first show of expression he'd seen from her; a sad, terrible smile. She levelled her weapon at him.

"Death," she said, and Mal was certain she was about to pull the trigger when she frowned.

"You're damaged too," River said.

"Damaged?" Mal was reconsidering drawing his weapon, maybe take her down while she was distracted.

"Don't touch your gun," she said as if she were reading his mind. "The Alliance destroyed you. You lost yourself at Serenity Valley. I lost myself in the Academy. They made us what we are."

Mal nodded, feeling it unwise to argue with her. Her mood shifted abruptly and she lowered her gun. Mal lowered his hands.

"The Blue Sun Corporation is the power behind the Alliance," she said, and Mal fought the urge to voice that only a conspiracy nut would say such a thing. "They hide their true purpose, but the Alliance is their public face, and the Alliance does their bidding. For all intents and purposes they are the same thing, the same monster."

"If you say so," Mal said neutrally.

"You will help me," she said without preamble.

"I will?" Even as he asked, Mal was aware he didn't have a whole lot of options available.

"Yes, Malcolm Reynolds. You will help me. Together we will destroy those who broke your spirit and my mind, and killed your friends and my brother. I've waited months for this opportunity to escape and now I'm free to take my revenge. And fate has given me a starship captain who hates those responsible almost as much as I do."

"I don't believe in fate," Mal said.

"You will believe in a lot of things before our task is over," River said. She held out her hand and Mal, against his better judgement, took it. And together they left the bar.