Mal groaned at the heavenly sensation of Simon's hands working his shoulders. It was real good to have a doctor give you a massage, they actually knew what they were doing.

"Don't fall asleep," Simon warned, amusement lighting his voice.

"Nope. Just enjoyin'."

"Well, don't enjoy too much, because I can't steer this thing."

Snorting, Mal took one of Simon's hands and tugged the other man onto his lap. "Maybe it's time for some lessons."

"Ah, that's not a good idea," Simon protested, wary.

Curious, Mal asked, "Why not?"

"Because mechanical things and I don't get along."

Arching an eyebrow at Simon, Mal pointed out, "You're a doctor. You use mechanical things all the time."

Simon shook his head. "Not the same thing at all. Those are tools, this is a ship."

With a laugh, Mal was about to start ragging on him, but there was an insistent beep signaling an urgent wave. He nudged Simon off then typed in the receive command. The picture opened up on an unfamiliar black man, in his late fifties, with mostly silver close-cropped hair. "Serenity here, Captain Malcolm Reynolds."

"Captain Reynolds! Good, you're a difficult man to track down," the man said.

"And you are?"

"Captain Hutch Williams."

"What can I do for you?"

"I'm looking to relay a message and I hear tell that you might know how to get in touch with this person."

"I know a lot of people. What's the name?"

"Dr. Simon Tam."

Simon flinched and instinctively shifted further from the screen, though there was no way the man could see him.

Mal didn't even blink as he replied, "Never heard of him."

"Really," Williams said. "That's too bad."

"How so?" Mal questioned.

"Seems his father's dying and wants to see his boy."

Mal shrugged. "Sad tale. Doesn't rightly concern me, though."

The other man shrugged as well and said, "Well, maybe you could spread the word. His parents'll be on Lilac within the week. He'll be at the Crowne in Hillshed. Wants to see both his kids before he dies."

"I'll surely pass it on, got no trouble doing that," Mal agreed.

"Thanks."

Even when the screen blanked, Simon stayed rooted to the spot, unable to believe what had just happened. He wasn't sure which was the worse news: that someone knew Mal knew him and River, or that his father was dying. So far, the first was winning and spreading terror and panic rapidly through him.

Mal got to his feet and approached cautiously with, "Simon? It's okay now, you don't have to worry."

Eyebrows raising with the force of his incredulity, Simon demanded, "Not worry!? Mal, how can I not? If he knows, then the Alliance knows where we are! You're all in danger as long as we're here! We have to go. I have to pack, have to tell River…"

Mal hauled Simon forward and held on tight, even when Simon struggled as hard as he could against the embrace. Finally, seeing that he wasn't going anywhere, Simon stopped moving, breathing hard as he leaned heavily on Mal. "What are we going to do?"

Kissing Simon's temple, Mal answered, "I'll tell you what we're not going to do. We're not going to panic and run off. We're not going to let you just leave. I'm not. Not after everything we've been through to get here."

"But Mal…"

Mal covered Simon's mouth with his hand, cutting him off. "I said no, and that's the end of it. I'll take care of this, Simon. You do not have to worry about it."

There was only calm assurance in Mal's eyes, so Simon slowly nodded.

Keeping his hand where it was, Mal continued, "First things first. Do you want to see your parents?"

A very good question, Simon thought bleakly. Mal removed his hand, but Simon had no answer for him.

* * * *

Simon smiled as he watched River and Kaylee chattering a mile a minute in that bizarre shorthand fashion that all girls seemed to share. River's happy expression clouded as she divined his presence and looked to him. Sighing to himself, Simon stepped into the engine room and asked, "Kaylee? Would you excuse us for a minute?"

Kaylee took one look at his face and nodded, getting to her feet and leaving without question.

Moving over to his sister, Simon sat on the floor and took her hand. For a few minutes he just sat there, unsure of how to broach the subject.

"I don't want to leave," River whispered.

Simon smiled and kissed her hand. "We aren't leaving. Mal has done everything except put a tracker on me to make sure of that. Well, that I know of, at least."

She breathed a sigh of relief and leaned against him, asking, "What's wrong?"

"It's Father, mei mei," Simon answered softly. "He wants to see us. They say that he's dying."

Confused, River said, "But…you just said Daddy Mal was…"

"Not Mal, River. Our Father," Simon interrupted harshly.

Whimpering, River curled against him, instantly a-tremble. "Don't make me go, don't make me go, please, don't make me go."

Simon wrapped his arms around her, rubbing her back in soothing circles. Well, that answered that question. "It's all right, River, you don't have to see him."

* * * *

"How's she doing?"

Simon sighed as Mal's arms slid around his waist and pulled him close, the hands settling at his waist, and leaned back against him. "I had to sedate her."

"Damn. Guess she doesn't want to go, then," Mal observed, chin resting on Simon's shoulder.

Shaking his head, Simon agreed, "Definitely not."

"What about you?"

Simon almost smiled at the careful tone, even as he appreciated it. There was no judgement either way. Mal would accept his decision. The decision he couldn't seem to make, no matter that he'd been agonizing over it since that morning's wave. Finally, he said, "I think…I think I should, but I just can't justify the risk."

"You let me worry about the risk. Do you want to see your father or not?"

"Yes," Simon whispered.

"All right, then. Let's see how we can set this up."

* * * *

Jayne moved silently towards the lone figure leaning on a rail and looking over the cargo bay. He grinned to himself as he stopped directly behind Simon and said, "Hey."

Simon jumped, hissing, "Do you have to do that!?"

Jayne smirked and answered smugly, "Yep."

Eyes rolling, Simon leaned on the rail again.

"What's so interesting?" Jayne asked.

"Nothing."

"So what're you doing?"

"Trying to think, Jayne. Alone. By myself. Without others."

Jayne shrugged and observed, "Well that's stupid."

Sighing and looking like he was mentally counting to ten, Simon asked, "Why is that?"

"Because everyone knows that you only get stuck in yourself when there's no one around to tell you you're being dumb," Jayne stated practically. "That's why people usually kill themselves at night. No one's there to tell them not to."

Simon frowned at him and opened his mouth as though to protest, then closed it again, thoughtful.

Grinning, Jayne said, "See? So what's the problem?"

"My father might be dying and wants to see me."

This time Jayne frowned. "So?"

Disbelief etched Simon's face as he repeated, "So?"

With a nod, Jayne said, "Yeah. He's the one who cut you off. You don't owe him nothin' cause the hwoon dahn didn't lift a finger to help you, or your sister. But I know you're the sentimental sort, so let me give you some advice."

Still astonished, Simon waited.

Tapping his fist to Simon's heart, Jayne informed him, "That's what makes family, not some damn accident of who birthed you."

When Simon didn't speak, Jayne shrugged and continued on his way to his bunk. He had guns that needed tending.

* * * *

Though it was late, Simon couldn't sleep. Even secure in Mal's arms, he couldn't stop the sour clench to his stomach at what was going to happen the next day. Or, well, later today since it was almost four in the morning.

The problem was that he didn't know what was going to happen. Worry that his father was really dying kept chasing through him. Then he'd be angry at himself for caring because why should he with the way his father had treated them? Aside from that was the panic lodged in the base of his spine that it was all an Alliance trap and the people he loved were going to be hurt because they were trying to make him happy.

And if it wasn't a trap, if his father really was dying, what could he possibly say? He didn't have any forgiveness because his heart was still eaten with anger and betrayal. His father should have believed him, should have taken his word over the government's. Mal's hand started rubbing his back and Simon groaned. "I've kept you awake, haven't I?"

"Maybe a little," Mal answered, a smile in his voice.

"I'm sorry."

"Hey, it's not every day something like this happens. You're allowed some jitters."

Sighing, Simon kissed the bare chest beneath him and asked, "What if it's not a trap?"

Mal shrugged. "Then you talk to him. You'll know what to say when you get there."

"I wish I could be as sure," Simon commented.

"Simon. One thing that you've never had a problem with, is talking," Mal pointed out dryly. "No matter how difficult the situation, you always had some kind of word to make heard. This might not be the kind of life or death situation that tends to inspire that silver tongue of yours, but I'm sure you'll think of something."

"Thanks."

"You're welcome."

Shaking his head, Simon snuggled closer and rested his head above Mal's heart, remembering the bizarre conversation with Jayne. "Jayne had some words of wisdom for me."

"Oh yeah? And what was that?"

"I think it boiled down to not letting the people who raised me have power they shouldn't just because of that fact."

"He's right."

"I know. Imagine my surprise."

Mal laughed and squeezed tight for a moment, then said, "Get some sleep, Simon. I need my beauty rest."

Chuckling, Simon sighed in deep contentment at where he was, right in that moment, and closed his eyes, falling asleep to the gentle rhythm of his lover's heart.

* * * *

Lilac was an older colony, well established, with several large cities, Hillshed being the largest and the location for their seat of government. It was almost like being on a Core world, with all the amenities a person could ask for. Like everyone else, he'd grinned upon seeing them in the hotel uniforms, but his heart had also warmed at the thought of what they would go through to make this happen. Simon shifted nervously as he waited for Mal and Jayne to get back from the scouting trip.

"They're not late, doc," Zoe commented from her perch at the window.

Simon nodded. "I know. Just fidgety, I guess."

She snorted indelicately and said, "You're the least fidgety person I know, save the Cap'n. Worried about seeing your Dad again?"

"Assuming it's not an Alliance trap?"

"Assuming that."

"Yes," Simon answered honestly. "I want to make him see how much he hurt River by leaving her in that place. I want to scream at him for abandoning her. But how can I if he's sick?"

Lips pursed, Zoe observed, "Seems to me, River's not the only one got hurt by what he didn't do. Maybe you should just concentrate on that."

Looking down at the floor, Simon admitted, "I can't. It gets me too angry. If I keep things focused on River, then I can control myself. Otherwise…I don't know what might happen."

"Not to say that's a bad thing. Honesty's been known to solve a problem here and there. Or so Wash keeps telling me."

Simon grinned at the wry statement, but the humor was fleeting. The door opened and Mal and Jayne walked in just then. Standing, Simon asked, "And?"

"It's clean," Mal answered. "No sign of Alliance, no sign of security, no sign of anything except your folks."

"Were they there?"

"No, but we checked over the room real good. If you want to see them, you can."

Looking at the window to the city scape outside, Simon knew that meant the decision was completely his to make. There weren't any more excuses.

"Zoe, Jayne, give us a minute."

Startled at the order, Simon looked over at Mal to find him staring intently back at him. Zoe and Jayne left the rented room quietly, the door closing behind them. Frowning, Simon asked, "What?"

"You don't have to go alone," Mal said. "Matter of fact, I want to go with you."

Simon's jaw dropped a bit as he questioned, "Why?"

Walking across the room, stopping beside Simon, Mal answered, "Call it my streak of over-protectiveness. I know this is going to be bad, Simon, I just want to be there for you like…like you were for me."

Lifting a hand to Mal's face, Simon smiled. "Thank you."

* * * *

The Crown Hotel was as luxurious as any Simon had been in before he'd gone on the run with River. It was subtly soothing, aimed to be so deliberately, just as the staff was hired to be helpful and servile.

Simon felt completely out of place.

He found himself eyeing the workers, wondering if they were paid properly and got good medical attention when necessary. He discovered that the lush surroundings made him itch, as if wearing something ill-fitted. Despite the fact that he still walked and moved like he belonged there, Simon knew that he didn't. His time on Serenity, his love for Mal, everything that had happened since finding out River was being hurt at the Academy had changed him.

The door to his parents' suite looked like all the others, and yet it felt as though a chasm loomed behind it. Mal reached around him and knocked sharply. Gaping at the other man, Simon hissed, "I'm not ready!"

With a shrug and a mild grin, Mal replied, "You never would be. No one would. Just remember something."

"What?"

"I love you. You've got a family who loves you, even if it's not by blood."

Simon flushed as happiness ran through him. He always went sappy when Mal said things like that, it was as though the other man had a direct connection to the mush-button hidden inside him. He swayed closer and murmured, "Oh, Mal…"

The opening of the door, with his mother on the other side, interrupted him. For a moment, no one moved. Then she gasped in shock and threw her arms around Simon's neck, clinging to him. Simon returned the embrace helplessly, as awkward and 'don't touch me' as he'd been with everyone before finding his place on Serenity.

"Simon, oh my God, Simon!" she exclaimed, pulling him inside.

Simon grabbed the door before she could close it in Mal's face. Startled, she looked at Mal, then Simon with a question. Though he wanted to introduce Mal formally, they'd decided that the less his parents knew about who Simon and River were with, the better. Taking a breath, he introduced, "Mother, this is Mal."

Polite, but confused, she held out a hand and greeted, "Hello, Mal."

Mal took her hand and replied, "Evening, Mrs. Tam."

Simon could feel his mother mentally trying to figure out where Mal belonged in the situation. Before he could explain, Mal stepped closer, placing his hand on Simon's shoulder, wordlessly answering that particular question.

To his mother's credit, she didn't react except to say, "It's nice to meet you, Mal. Simon, where's River?"

"She doesn't want to see you," Simon replied softly.

His mother flinched, her delicate features tightening with hurt and guilt.

Though he knew it wouldn't help, he added, "She doesn't want to see either of you."

"I see," she said. Meeting his gaze, she asked, "And what about you? Did you want to see either of us?"

"I don't know," Simon replied honestly.

"Then why are you here?"

Simon shrugged and said, "I thought you'd want to know that River and I are both safe now."

"You could have sent a wave for that."

"True."

"Simon."

Everyone turned at the voice that came from the other side of the room. Dr. Tam, Sr. was standing in the bedroom doorway, staring at his son in disbelief. Simon noted that he didn't look at all sick, that he seemed as strong and healthy as ever. And though there were many diseases that didn't take an outward toll at first, Simon knew right then that his father wasn't dying.

Simon straightened and greeted, "Father."

Walking closer, Dr. Tam looked him over and smiled briefly. "You've filled out, son, gained some strength."

"And you look remarkably healthy for a dying man," Simon stated dryly.

With an acknowledging shrug, Dr. Tam replied, "That's because I'm not dying."

Simon nodded. "What do you want?"

"To help you and River."

Astonishment closed his throat so that Simon couldn't even sputter with the indignation trying to claw its way out. "Help us? Now you want to help us?"

Head rising almost regally, Dr. Tam replied, "Yes."

Mal stepped forward and gripped Simon's shoulder, murmuring, "Easy, Simon. Take a breath."

Open-mouthed with a mix of emotions that he couldn't even begin to start sorting, Simon listened to his lover and took a breath. It didn't make him feel any better, but did give him enough of a moment to think about how to respond.

"And who are you, sir?"

Glancing at Dr. Tam, Mal eyed him a long moment before answering, "Well, I ain't no 'sir,' but I am someone with Simon and River's best interests at heart."

Dr. Tam half-sneered as he said, "Yes, I'm sure you do. How long before he warmed your bed?"

Simon grabbed Mal's hand before it could do more than grip his gun. "Please, Mal, just let me do this."

"Yes, let the boy do this. Leave us," Dr. Tam ordered.

"No chance."

"Excuse me?"

"Seems to me that you're lookin' to take a chunk out of Simon, and I can't allow that," Mal stated, casting a hard look at both parents.

Dr. Tam dismissed Mal from the conversation simply by turning his back on him to completely face Simon. "I know that River is with you. You made it abundantly clear that you were going to take her from the Academy and nothing we could do or say was going to change your mind. I don't know how you managed it, especially since I gave them warning that you were going to do so, but you will hand her over immediately."

Feeling as though he'd been sucker-punched by Jayne at his most violent, Simon staggered back at the casual admittance that his father had been the ones to set the Alliance on them. He did, but didn't, feel Mal's arms supporting him through the fog surrounding him.

"Ta mah duh hwun-dan!"

Dr. Tam's jaw tightened at Mal's insult, but he only continued with, "If you refuse to give her back to us, then we'll notify the authorities of your presence here and simply take her."

In an instant, Mal's gun was out of the holster and this time Simon didn't stop him.

"Now, I'm thinking that we all need to take a step back before making foolish claims like that," Mal said steadily, gun aimed at Dr. Tam's head. "Because I've grown right fond of River and know that she doesn't want to go anywhere with you. I'd hate to have to tell her that I'd gone and killed her folks."

Though he stiffened, Dr. Tam didn't otherwise react to the threat. "How do we know she wants? She's not here to say."

Finally getting control of himself, Simon pulled from Mal's supporting arm and said, "That's because she had a panic attack when I mentioned going to see you. I had to sedate her. God. You really don't have a clue what they did to her, do you?"

"Simon, stop being melodramatic. She's a brilliant girl, but she has stability problems," Mrs. Tam snapped.

"Not until you sent her to the Academy!" Simon shouted. "They operated on her! They removed part of her brain! Now she's got no control, no say over what she thinks or does! I have all I can do to keep her medicated enough to know day from night!"

"Simon, that's enough!" Dr. Tam ordered loudly, moving forward.

Mal stepped in front of Simon, cocking the hammer on his gun and aiming it steady at Dr. Tam's head. "That's close enough."

The door slammed open, startling everyone. River ran into the room, closely followed by Kaylee. She headed straight for their parents and leaped on Dr. Tam, screaming, "Your fault! All your fault! Don't hurt Simon, your fault!"

As one, Mal and Simon moved to get her off Dr. Tam. Mal encircled her completely with his arms, breaking the death-grip she had on her father's throat by hauling her backwards. Simon clasped her face between his hands and shouted over her, "River! River, I'm fine! Stop screaming, I'm fine!"

But she wouldn't, so he pulled out the hypo he always carried, just in case, in the packet hidden in his coat and injected her. Almost right away, the screaming dropped off and she sagged in Mal's arms. With Simon's help, he swung River into his arms.

Stricken, Kaylee exclaimed, "I'm so sorry, Cap'n! When she found out where Simon went, I couldn't stop her."

"It's all right, Kaylee," Mal assured her. Looking at Simon, he said, "Best finish up here."

"Daddy?"

Mal smiled gently at River and said, "Well there she is. What is it, River?"

"Wanna go home, Daddy," River whispered, though it was loud enough in the otherwise silent room for everyone to hear.

Meeting Dr. Tam's shocked eyes, Mal said, "We're going home right now, River. Simon?"

Simon nodded and kissed first River, and then Mal without even thinking about it. "I'll be right along."

"See you there," Mal said agreeably.

Simon caressed the juncture of jaw and throat, soothing the tension there, and murmured, "I'll be fine. Tuck her in for me."

With a faint grin, Mal nodded and headed for the door, saying, "Come along, little Kaylee."

Kaylee gave a short bob, half-curtsey and half-bow, to Simon's parents before darting after Mal and River.

Simon looked at his parents, who were still in shock; though whether from the attack itself, or River's behavior with Mal, he couldn't tell. Straightening his vest and smoothing his pants, Simon informed them coldly, "That's what they did to her. What they are still doing to who knows how many other children, the ones I couldn't save.

"If you really want to help us, if you actually love us, then get the Alliance off our backs. Shut down the Academy. But don't think for even a second that you can take River from us, because you can't. You had your chance and threw it away. Mal and I are her parents now and she has an extended family that will kill to protect her. To protect both of us."

He reached the door before his father called out in a shaken voice, "Wait, Simon, please."

Simon paused, but didn't turn. "What?"

"I'm sorry."

After a moment, Simon faced them. His mother was crying silent tears and his father looked as emotional as he'd ever seen. Feelings of betrayal and forgiveness battled for dominance inside his heart. He nodded abruptly and said, "It's a start. I'll send you the scans of River's brain so you have proof of what happened to her. What you do from there is up to you."

"How do we get in touch with you?" Dr. Tam asked.

"You don't," Simon answered simply. "Not until the day you send a wave out to anywhere, with my name on it, and I can answer it without fear of capture."

* * * *

Serenity was quiet as Simon fixed himself a cup of tea, still not completely relaxed from the confrontation with his parents. Mal and Wash were having a conference with Kaylee about some engine part while Jayne and Zoe occupied themselves with going through the haul they took off the planet. No sense doing only one thing, after all; at least they got something good for going to Lilac.

"Mind some company?"

Simon looked over at Book with a smile. "Not at all. Would you like a cup?"

Book echoed the smile and agreed, "I'd love one."

They sat at the table together and Simon breathed in the soothing fragrance steaming from the cup.

"Rough day."

"Very."

"How are you?"

Thinking about it, Simon stared into the amber liquid and replied, "I'm not sure yet. On the one hand, they were in ignorance of what was going on. They really were. When River showed up, they were really shocked, had no idea."

"And on the other?"

Bitter tears surfaced, but Simon refused to let them fall as he whispered painfully, "I told them, Book. I told them what was going on and they didn't believe me. They wouldn't have believed me today if River hadn't tried to kill our father. I'm their son, Book, doesn't that count for anything? Why don't they ever believe me?"

Book gripped Simon's shoulder, looking at him with compassion. "I don't know, Simon. You're one of the most honest, most trustworthy people that I've ever met. If you told me the moon was made of cheese, I'd give you the benefit of the doubt and check to make sure."

Smiling weakly to show his appreciation of the compliment, and the sincerity with which it was made, Simon sighed deeply. There were no clear answers, he knew that. He knew that his parents were fallible, but it hurt and it hurt bad. Today had renewed the barely scabbed over wound in his heart that had been dealt the first time they hadn't believed him. When his father had, essentially, disowned him for doing what he knew was right.

Taking a sip of the scalding liquid, Simon blamed the wetness that slipped from his eyes on the physical pain.