Standing before the mirror on the second floor landing of his parents' house, Simon craned his chin up and inspected the collar on his reflection. He adjusted it with a gentle tug, and then smoothed his lapels down. Taking a step back, he gave his entire wardrobe a once-over in the full-length glass. His deep green jacket felt a little stiff around the back and he rolled his shoulders in an attempt to loosen it, but otherwise the velveteen fabric had been pressed to perfection. There was nary a wrinkle to be found. Spying a speck of lint on his breast pocket, he brushed it aside and appraised his appearance one more time. He was not trying to be vain or fastidious, but he wanted everything to be perfect today. After all, it was going to be one of the most important days of his life. When he let his eyes drift up from his clothes to dwell on his face, though, there was no mistaking what it had cost him to get here. The path he had found himself on more than two years ago had been harrowing and fraught with the bitterest twists, although there were some unexpectedly pleasant detours, too. But clearly he was a person far different from the one he had been before he first came on board Serenity. In fact, he reckoned that he was a different person from the one he had been even just six months ago. Six months. Each time he thought about it, it was hard for him to reconcile with the reality that it had been that long, for it still felt like just yesterday that River had died. He never really had time to grieve for her properly. Things had begun unraveling for the Academy and its accomplices as soon as they had leaked River's file to Jansen Locherbie. And with that, he had been transformed from a fugitive into a crusader almost literally overnight. The next several months of his life had subsequently been consumed by a whirlwind of testimony before panels, investigative committees, Parliamentary hearings, and military tribunals. The same went for the rest of Serenity's crew, and Anna and Dr. Harder as well. And the revelations and accusations he and the others brought had sent tremendous shock waves throughout the Verse. No one in living memory could recall a time when so many in the topmost ranks of government had been implicated in such pervasive abuses of power, and the social and political backlash had been fierce.
The general outrage might have erupted into violence if it were not for Locherbie and several of his comrades. The usually fiery legislator had instead been the embodiment of rationality and level-headedness, and his decisive leadership in Parliament during the early, most critical stages of the crisis earned him the respect and trust of citizens and politicians alike. His eventual appointment to oversee and coordinate the complex and far-reaching investigations was mostly a formality, as he had already been selected as a champion of the cause by popular fiat. However, the fallout within the government as a result of those investigations was extensive. Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats, and military officials were impeached, fired, or imprisoned. Soong Chu-yu and a few of his cronies were expelled from Parliament for their roles in sanctioning the atrocities committed at the Academy, and for burying the holocaust on Miranda, although the now-former representative's preeminent connections and knowledge of the system meant that his formal ouster still hinged on yet another of multiple appeals. Meanwhile, SWORD, the division of the military which oversaw the Academy, was swiftly decommissioned and reorganized, with some of those most directly involved brought up on criminal charges. Since the top brass was so mired in the scandal, Parliament passed special legislation allowing civilian courts to try military personnel in the related cases rather than proceeding with the traditional court martial. Major General Kriegel was one of the first to stand trial and be convicted under that order. Many of those on the Academy's staff were likewise indicted or were awaiting arraignment on charges that ranged from abuse of a minor to accessory to murder. No one could explain why they had performed horrific experiments on innocent young women and men seemingly without scruples. The only excuse some of them could provide was that it was simply their job.
The Blue Sun Corporation also suffered a serious black mark when the investigations revealed that it was inextricably entangled in quite a few of the government's endeavors. As "merely" a contractor, though, it was able to foist the bulk of the responsibility for its involvement on Alliance. Still, the negative publicity and resulting losses shook up the board of directors, and for a time the company's entire existence was in limbo while Parliament debated forcibly breaking up the conglomerate to sever the unhealthily cozy relationship it had cultivated with certain parts of the government. Due to its dominance of large sectors of the Verse's economy, however, it was deemed too great a risk to attempt. While that was the official reason given for taking no action against it, it was commonly accepted that with the company's political connections, it was the politicians themselves who had the most to lose if they approved dissolution.
Amidst all of this upheaval, Simon had to wrest with even more emotional turmoil when his mother finally succumbed to her illness. The loss of her so soon after losing River probably would have undone him if it was not for Kaylee. Her simple, unconditional caring and kindness kept him together when he was on the brink of losing himself in his grief. The feeling had been growing in him for some time, but after that, he realized that he could not honestly imagine any meaningful future without her in it. And even as their bond was strengthened by the fires of all of this tragedy, yet another one was being re-forged in it as well. Simon and his father were finally able to shed their past disagreements and reconcile with each other. It was actually startling at how easy the bitterness was swept away when Simon decided to let go of it, and how much he truly missed his father. Aware of the truth now, Gabriel became a stalwart supporter of his son and the wider effort to reform the political structures that had led to the ravaging of River and others like her. In fact, it was Gabriel who had proposed the idea to remake the Academy into the sanctuary it was initially intended to be, all in River's name. Jansen Locherbie, whose sympathies had naturally led him to become a staunch ally, lauded the plan and was one of its most ardent supporters in Parliament, steering funds and raising donations with his influence. Unfortunately, some of the more conservative elements of the legislature balked at christening the facility after someone whose actions before her final capture had been equally as violent as those of her tormentors. Although the part of him that he could separate from his emotions understood the rationale for their concerns, it still rankled Simon as one last indignity, one final refusal to acknowledge his sister as an actual human being and take responsibility for what they had done to her. He was ready to fight over it, but Locherbie advised a compromise, and so the facility would be called the Regan Tam Memorial Rehabilitation Center instead.
And as the months wore on and his role in the investigations became less central, Simon found both some comfort and a new purpose in spearheading the endeavor to construct the facility. He was nominated for and willingly accepted the chairmanship of the foundation established to fund it. However, he found himself somewhat out of his depth in the complex social and political world of charitable organizations. Fortunately, his father's business acumen proved invaluable in helping to manage the intricate details of the growing foundation, and he gladly delegated the bulk of the financial and administrative responsibilities to his significantly more experienced parent. That allowed him to concentrate on the medical side, and his first priority was to secure the one person with the knowledge to run such a unique clinical and research institution. Dr. Harder was not surprisingly eager to sign on as the director, and with him in place, the two set about recruiting the best, most skilled medical staff the Verse had to offer. But even with that underway, there was still a copious amount of planning to look forward to, not to mention the design and construction of the actual building. It was in that brief space between finalizing the new facility's organizational structure and breaking ground that Simon found himself now. In all of the intervening time, though, he had never forgotten why he was here. He did not let himself forget what River had endured to make this all happen. This was her victory more so that it was anyone else's, and she deserved to be recognized for it, as well as for the beautiful, amazing person that she was. And so, today, at the ceremonial dedication, it was finally time to honor her and bring closure to her magnificent and yet all too brief life.
"Are you ready?" Kaylee's question broke Simon out of his recollections and he shifted his gaze to her reflection as she joined him in the mirror. In spite of himself, he could not help but stare and marvel once more at how stunning she looked. Inara had helped her pick out her dress for the occasion and it could not have been a more perfect choice. Rather than distracting with ostentatious design or decoration, it seemed to magnify her natural beauty and everything he found alluring about her, as if it was a canvas made expressly for that purpose. And with her hair done in a simple but elegant fashion, she looked as radiant as any Companion.
"You look gorgeous," he beamed at her. She grinned back, her cheeks glowing rosy.
"Speak for yourself, handsome," she said playfully. He turned and gave her a kiss, long and tender. When it broke, she held his face in her hands for a moment and smiled with such warmth that it charmed him all over again. "You sure you're okay?" she asked, her expression turning modestly concerned.
"I think so," Simon replied, although he could not completely keep the tide of emotions that were cycling through him right now from showing on his face. His eyes shifted aside, drawn to the open door down the hall. That was River's room. When he had finally returned home, he found it still in disarray from her encounter with the Feds. He had meticulously replaced everything the way he remembered it so it was the same as it had always been- the same furniture, the same decorations, nothing different… except for one thing. Now it was empty. He recalled something that had been said to him once by someone he would rather forget regarding the purpose of empty rooms, and sadness swelled within him again.
"Hey," Kaylee's tone softened as she gently turned his face and his attention back to her. "I miss her, too," she said, swallowing a slight catch in her words, her gaze breaking from him for just a second as she did. "But I know she's watching," she added. "Somewhere." Her eyes drifted toward the ceiling and a quirk of smile appeared on her lips. Then she gazed deeply into his eyes. "She'd be proud of you."
"I know," said Simon, surprising even himself a bit with his conviction. With that thought, some of the darkness in his mind lightened and he smiled genuinely again. "Let's go." Returning his grin, Kaylee moved to his side. Arm in arm, they strode down the stairs.
"I know it's cold out, so I won't talk too long, but it's fitting that we are gathered here to remember her so close to her birthday," Simon spoke from the podium, wrapped in his black overcoat while a brisk, late autumn wind tugged at the scarf around his neck. "My sister was more than gifted. River was a gift. She was such a beautiful person, so special and talented. She did more to change the Verse than anyone I know, because she believed in it, because it was right. And in the end, even though we didn't deserve it, she gave her life so that ours could be better. I wish she hadn't had to do that. I wish she was still alive, not just because she was my sister, but because I know she had so much more to give. I have no doubt that she could teach us all something about kindness and courage, about strength and conviction, about humility and understanding. But before she left, I did learn some things from her. I learned that your family is who you surround yourself with, those who love you for who you are. They may not always be your blood, but they will always be by your side. I also learned that all it takes is one person to shine the light for others to see the way. She was a single, extraordinary light for her time here. And even though we may not be as extraordinary as she was, if we come together, we can shine just as brightly. We have to take control when no one else will. We have to take a stand for those who cannot. We have to make the effort for those who do not have the strength. And we must do all this while we are here, right now, because tomorrow we may be gone. If we want the Verse to be the beacon of civilization that it can be, we must rise from the ashes of this tragedy and kindle that glorious light together, because no one will do it for us. That is what River taught me, and I think that is how she would want to be remembered."
The dignitaries and sponsors who lined the platform and the small audience gathered despite the chill beneath the overcast sky rose and burst into applause as Simon finished his speech. "Thank you," he said somewhat embarrassed and humbled as the clapping continued on longer than he anticipated. He stood silently at the podium and waited it out, feeling his cheeks flush slightly in response. When the applause finally did subside and the spectators retook their seats, the sky had grown a shade darker. The steely clouds were threatening rain or snow now, and the breeze kicked up a gust that chilled Simon and intensified the non-physical ache in his chest as he prepared his next words. "Thank you. I cannot say that enough to those of you who have come here today, and to all of those who have supported this project. I want to invite all of you to the reception beginning immediately after we adjourn here. But before we end, I want to ask you to join me for a moment in remembering River, for all that she's done." He turned nodded to Dr. Harder and Anna, who were seated at the end of the row of chairs on the stage. With Mathias slinging the strap of his guitar over his shoulder, they both rose and stepped forward to the two extra microphones beside the podium. The crowd grew respectfully quiet. Matthias, head down, started by plucking a few simple notes that rang out somber and crystalline in the cold air. He held in silence for a beat after a last little trill. Then he strummed an arpeggiated chord and Anna's voice soared clear and pure over them all.
"Now you're gone
We're left to carry on
Though the night seems twice as long
And here within my heart
I don't feel very strong
But we will meet again..."
Simon could not prevent his eyes from filling with tears as her words gave voice to all of the feelings that were in his heart. The love, the grief, the regret, the joy were all there as one, and they poured out of him now.
"Now you're gone
We're left to carry on
In the wind I hear your song
With every passing hour
I'm feeling more alone
But we will meet again
As Anna's voice rippled away with the last phrase, Matthias drew the song to a close with a final few notes on his guitar. Stillness, almost peaceful, settled over the gathering for a few moments. Even the wind seemed to die down and hold in respect for River. We did it, River, he said to her silently. We did it. It's over. And for the first time in all of these months, it actually felt true. It did not feel good per se, but it felt complete, like something that had been missing inside of him was finally whole again. It still hurt, and he knew it might never stop hurting, but it did not hurt quite as much now. He realized how much he had needed to hear that song and to finally spend all of those emotions he had not had the time to face. He did not know what the future held either in life or after death, but he knew now that even if it was only in his memories, somehow, somewhere, he would see River again. She would always be close as long as he remembered. She had kept him strong through everything. When he felt lost and wanted to give up, she carried him through it. She was the hope, the inspiration, the ray of sunlight breaking through the clouds that he needed when it was getting too dark to see his way. As if reading his mind, a shaft of light pierced the gray veil over the sky, parting the clouds as it widened. It fell on him and the surrounding crowd. He turned his face up to it, moisture blurring his vision and running down his cheeks, but smiling all the same. He hoped now that wherever she was, River was smiling, too.
Later that evening at the reception, people milled about and filled the air of the hall with the pleasant noise of folk enjoying themselves. Music buoyed up from a small stage area where Anna and Matthias were providing the event's entertainment, accompanied now by the same troupe of gypsy musicians they had been a part of back on Paquin. They struck up another song, a folk-y tune that was simple and had a nice bounce to it. A small group of people, predictably including Kaylee, had spontaneously begun dancing, which Simon felt it was fitting since that was just what River probably would have done. He might have joined them, but most of his time so far had been absorbed in playing host. He went around the room pausing for a word here or a handshake there with a notable person or two. His father had engaged him with some interested donors, and later Locherbie had dragged him around, jovially and boisterously declaring Simon a hero. Simon endured it as patiently as he could. However, he had been keeping half an eye out the entire time, scanning the crowd whenever possible. As the night wore on, he was beginning to fear that he had missed them altogether. But finally, while trapped in another discussion with Locherbie and a few of his cohorts, he spotted two familiar faces standing near the hall's exit. Simon quickly excused himself from the conversation and cut across the crowd, making a beeline for the couple.
"Captain," he grinned and clasped hands with Mal as he strode up. "Thank you for coming."
"Wouldn't miss it, Doc. Or did you honestly think we wouldn't show?"
"No, but I was worried that I might never get away from all of that gladhanding."
"Bein' the life o' the party ain't so easy, is it?" Mal jabbed with good humor.
"I guess I should be appreciative that you at least dressed appropriately," Simon shot back.
"That's gorram right," Mal retorted in mock seriousness, puffing up his chest in his formal suit.
"Don't worry. I wasn't going to let him embarrass himself this time," Inara chimed in. "So good to see you, Simon," she leaned in and gave Simon a warm hug.
"That was one time I got in a fight at a fancy party. One," Mal defended himself. Simon chuckled.
"Your speech was bu ping fan," Inara went on, ignoring the captain's protests.
"Xie xie," Simon inclined his head to her.
"There you are! Where have you guys been?" Kaylee suddenly ran up to them from behind. She threw her arms around Inara first, and then Mal. "So, how are things goin'? How's Serenity? How did your hearing go, Inara?" Kaylee fired questions at them.
"Yes, we never heard. How did that turn out?" Simon took up Kaylee's last question.
"As well as can be expected," Inara offered. "I've been officially exonerated by the Guild and regained my license."
"That's good," Kaylee said. "Are you gonna go back to the training house?"
"Ah… no. I'll be staying on Serenity for the time being," Inara responded, her eyes shifting away uncharacteristically. Beside her, Mal cleared his throat and shuffled a little.
"Oh," was all Simon replied with, as it was clear he was dancing around a sensitive subject. That did not stop Kaylee, however.
"So what're you gonna do, then?" she pressed.
"I… um, well…" Inara stammered.
"Maybe I'll teach her how to fly Serenity or somethin'," Mal blurted, covering for her lack of an explanation.
"Really? Ooh, that'd be shiny!" Kaylee took a liking to that suggestion, her enthusiasm dissolving some of the awkwardness that was beginning to pervade the conversation.
"Well, somebody's gotta fly her when me or Zoe ain't around, and it sure as hell ain't gonna be Jayne!" Mal grunted.
"Sure as hell ain't gonna be me what?" came Jayne's gruff response as the mercenary and Zoe strolled over to join the group.
"Zoe!" Kaylee embraced Serenity's first mate with the same fervor she had with Mal and Inara, followed by Jayne.
"Gah! Don't be doin' that in public!" Jayne complained, trying to extricate himself from the hug, much to the amusement of everyone else.
"So, this is where you're gonna stay, huh?" Zoe turned to Simon, sharing with him a warm smile, a rare occurrence by any account.
"Yes," Simon nodded.
"You sure you won't be wantin' to come with us, Doc?" Mal kept on. "Might be the last time we'll see you for a while."
"I know. But I've got to see that this gets off the ground. After that, well… who knows," Simon left the notion open.
"I understand, though can't say I'm too happy about it. You're stealin' my mechanic, after all. I don't know if I can trust anyone but lil' Kaylee here to keep Serenity runnin' right."
"Aww, thanks Cap'n," Kaylee grinned.
"Have you found a new mechanic?" Simon asked.
"Yeah," Mal said with a faint scowl. "Name's Jason. Young kid, younger n' you I'd guess. Got all kinds o' learning, too." Zoe smiled and shook her head.
"Kid's sharp as a firecracker, but he," she turned a sidelong glance to the captain, "kept sayin' that somethin' just wasn't right about him."
"Well it wasn't!" Mal argued.
"I'm sure he'll be fine," Simon laughed.
"All I know is you best not muck her up while I'm gone, or I'll muck you up!" Kaylee threatened, poking a finger at Mal's nose.
"Yes, ma'am!" Mal saluted with feigned subservience. They all chuckled heartily.
"So, you'll be heading out soon, then?" Simon asked after the laughter stopped.
"Yeah," Mal confirmed. "Probably tomorrow morning. Don't get me wrong, we appreciate all you and your dad have done for us, but a man's gotta make his own way." The lightness of the previous moment faded as they all realized what that meant. It was time to say goodbye. Likely it was only temporary, as Simon was sure they would see each other again at some point, but he would miss them all the same.
"'Bye Inara," Kaylee swept the Companion into another big hug.
"Goodbye, mei mei. Take care of yourself."
"Uh huh. And you take care of the Captain. Make sure he don't hurt my girl," she gave Mal another threatening look.
"Your girl? She's my ship," he protested. Kaylee settled her hands on her hips with a scowl, but it melted into a smile and she wrapped the captain in another hug, too. Simon exchanged a hearty handshake with Jayne.
"You turned out all right, Doc," Jayne grinned in his lopsided way.
"Thanks. So did you," Simon grinned back.
"Take care you two," Zoe hugged each of them. Then Simon turned to Mal.
"Captain, I have something I need to give you before you go. I'll be right back." He left Mal and the others with quizzical expressions as he hurried over to the bag and coat check by the doorway. He presented his claim ticket to the attendant who disappeared into the back room and returned momentarily with a modest-sized box made of dull, matte-finished metal. A transparent lid with small holes in it sat on top. Returning to the group with the parcel in his arms, he presented it to Mal, a heavy look weighing down his features. "I think this belongs with you," he said, urging Mal to take the box.
"What is it?" Mal asked, grasping it and peering through the clear lid. When he saw what was inside, though, he looked sharply at Simon. "It comes with a favor, Captain," Simon said before Mal could speak. "Do you remember when I asked you if you would bring River home?"
"I remember it," Mal said quietly after a long moment.
"Would you now, please? Serenity is where she belongs. It was more of a home for her than anywhere in the Verse. It's where her family is, and it's where she would want to be." Simon swallowed away the thickness in his voice and managed to add a little lightly, "Besides, what would Serenity do without her albatross to guide her?" This time it was Mal whose eyes teared up. He swallowed heavily and looked down into the box again. "And if you would," Simon went on, "when you get the chance, would you remember her with the others. I… I'm sorry I can't be there to do it myself but… if you could plant this." He carefully lifted the lid and reached inside the box, drawing out a small plant which had a star-like blue flower on the end of its stalk. "It was her favorite." Mal was too overwhelmed to speak for a moment and just stared at the plant. Finally, Inara gently took the flower from Simon's hand.
"I'll tend it," she offered.
"Thank you," Simon said to her. "Thank you all." He stepped back from them, Kaylee clinging tightly to his arm. "Well, I guess… zai jian." They all nodded and murmured goodbyes. Kaylee gave everyone one last, tearful hug that this time even Jayne did not protest over. Then they started walking towards the hall's exit, leaving Kaylee and Simon to watch. Along the way, Mal paused for a second and turned around, facing Simon.
"You know, whenever you get tired of this place, you just send me a wave," the captain called to him.
"I'll do that," Simon managed a smile.
"All right, then," Mal nodded, offering a crooked smile of his own. He turned again, joining the rest of his crew and cradling the box like it was the most precious thing in the Verse.
It was just over three months later before Mal finally found a job that took him out to the Rim. Along the way, he made a detour to the small comm station moon that had once belonged to Mr. Universe. There, in the near-perpetual twilight beneath the five suns of the Verse, he and his crew erected a small memorial for River, right next to Wash and Book's. She was smiling sweetly in the little holographic capture they had of her, one of only a scant few, taken coincidentally not long after they had left this place the last time. Inara planted the tiny blue cornflower, which she had nursed and tended since receiving it from Simon. Then they all stood back and said their respects in silence, to her and to all of their fallen friends. Finally, Mal took a handful of ashes from the urn in the box and let them fall from his hand over her marker. The wind swept them away before they even hit the ground. But that was River, graceful as a breeze, and gone all too quickly.
Later, before they departed, Mal walked the ship from stem to stern sprinkling her ashes in every corner. He had waited until this moment, because it just did not feel right to do it before. When it was done, he sighed, standing in the foredeck hall. There was a small sense of relief. Things felt just a little more complete now. He looked around with his hands on his hips and nodded satisfactorily. Then he climbed the stairs to the bridge.
"Ready to go?"
"I think so," Inara responded from the co-pilot's seat. With her experience flying a shuttle, Mal figured it would not be a stretch to teach her to fly Serenity after all, and he did need a new pilot. Besides, if she was going to be on his crew, she needed a job. He settled himself into the helm and started activating his controls.
"Zoe, we ready for up…" he called over the intercom.
"All set, sir," his first mate replied from right behind him. He whirled around, startled. "She's good to go," Zoe added with a nod of affirmation.
"All right," Mal said, resettling himself in his seat. We'll be liftin' off in a minute. Tell Jason to power her up. Probably gonna let Inara get some stick time in, too."
"Uh oh," Zoe gave the Companion a look of mock panic. "Maybe I'd better check everything one more time," she mentioned as she left the bridge.
"I do know how to fly, you know!" Inara shouted after her. "It's not that much different from the shuttle," she grumbled mostly to herself. Mal chuckled, continuing to set up his controls while Serenity's main engine rumbled to life.
"Don't worry," he said to Inara, initiating the ignition sequence and applying power to the jets. "You know what the first rule of flyin' is?" he asked, and then he stopped himself. Ever so slowly, he glanced at the copilot's station. For a moment he saw her there, her legs curled up on the seat, arms wrapped around them. Her dark hair framed her face as she rested her head on her knees and gazed at him with those intense eyes. She smiled; beautiful, peaceful, happy. Serenity's albatross was still here with them.
"What is it?" The vision was gone, and he was staring at Inara, she giving him an odd little look.
"Huh? What's what?" he shook himself.
"What is the first rule of flying?" she asked. Mal blinked for a second, and then smiled at her.
*Blackmore's Night. "Again Someday." Fires At Midnight. SPV Steamhammer, 2001.
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