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Five Ways River Tam Left Serenity

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1. On Simon's back, in the traditional way, with Kaylee tripping along behind, carrying the train of the red dress. Mal waits at the bottom of the ramp, and puts his elbow out to escort her to the Shepherd. Mal smirks and Simon laughs at her eagerness, but he is waiting for her, and it will be joy, it will all be joy.

*

2. It's such a little mistake, one she would not have made ten years ago, or even five. But she is tired, and there is never enough time between the battles, and so when she dances across Serenity's outer hull and pushes off, she misses the line she'd left strung between the shuttle and Serenity's hull. Just a couple of inches, but that's all it takes, since the whole point of the exercise is that nobody else is there to catch her. She spins, quietly, watching the stars go by. "Huh," she says. Mal is going to be so angry with her; just for that, she wishes she'd been more careful.

*

3. The government falls in her fourth year on Serenity; the combined weight of the Miranda story, and all the others that followed it, spiralling out through the system via underground links and smuggled datacards, led finally to a No Confidence vote in the halls of power. Within a year things have eased for Serenity's crew: the Captain buys a new coat and finally speaks to Inara. Kaylee will not marry, but she paints flowers all over the walls in Simon's cabin, and he lets her. Zoe stays, and sleeps alone, but the shadows on the bridge are lighter, and when the Captain brings home a tiny ancient pilot who answers, when he speaks at all, to Li Po, Zoe smiles. When the university branch on Whitefall opens, Kaylee gives River a stuffed animal; Zoe gives her a knife small enough to carry in her boots; Inara gives her two amber drops for her earrings and a book full of complex diagrams (River hides it from Simon and the Captain). From the Captain she receives an affirming nod; from Simon far too much advice (she will find Inara's guidance more useful); from Jayne a grunt. She makes them drop her off at the transit center, and walks to her train alone, swinging her bag by the embroidered strap, and watching her boots kick up dust under her feet.

*

4. After the explosion--not that one, the one that came later--she takes Simon home to their parents. They sit in the beautifully-appointed parlor and stare at her in disbelief, their faces smoothing to blankness when they turn to look at Simon. She can feel him in there, still, feel the beauty he still has under the scars layered over his face like frosting. "He saved Zoe," she says, knowing that was the wrong time, knowing she's lost the tether. "He couldn't save Wash, nothing could save Wash. We were leaves in the wind, but the bonfire--" She stops: they do not hear her, they have never heard her. "They're coming," she says, seeing the blue hands lifting to press the door panel, and folds her hands to wait.

*

5. River Tam leaves Serenity in a box, still and cold, as she arrived.