The Adventures of Simon and River had grown preposterously and that was due, mainly, to the fact the River just wouldn't shut up. Simon discretely pinched the bridge of his nose and contemplated clamping a hand over his sister's mouth. She was currently holding court over a group of peers, her hands animated as she played out a harrowing scene from their time on Serenity. She'd turned out to have quite the talent for storytelling, which Simon had already known, just, well, he hadn't realized how personally irritating it could be.

It had been several months since they'd returned home and during that time, between his father and himself, River had mostly been healed from what the Academy had done to her. She still had the occasional lapse into visions and psychic phenomena, but for the most part, she could live the life of a normal, nineteen year old girl.

There had been a public outcry over what had been done to her, and since the outcry had come from the upper echelons, reforms were even now underway to bring the 'secret' agencies under some kind of control. It was all for show, of course. The people who had hurt his sister would continue to operate with the same discretion that they always had. The fact that he'd been able to get River out was a fluke, he knew that with certainty, and one that they wouldn't allow to happen again.

"You don't look pleased to be here, Simon."

Startled, Simon jumped a little at the voice that was practically in his ear and hastily put some distance between himself and Elani. She was the current bane of his existence which, considering the past couple of years, spoke volumes of just how sedate his life had become.

Beautiful, intelligent, talented, and cunning, Elani Morias had her eye on becoming Mrs. Simon Tam. If it had been up to his parents, the wedding would have been held the moment she'd shown an interest. Not only was she the perfect match in society, but her family was impossibly wealthy.

"Celebrating your sister's birthday is supposed to be a happy event," Elani continued, dark eyes sparkling with mischief.

Clearing his throat, Simon agreed, "It is a very happy event. I'm afraid that I just have a minor headache is all."

Elani smiled. "I could take your mind off it, if you'd let me."

"Ah, thank you, Elani, but that won't be necessary," Simon answered, swallowing uneasily at the proprietary look she cast over him. God! He might as well be naked and chained to the bed!

Gripping his arm, Elani kept him in place and murmured, "I don't know why you're playing so hard to get, Simon, but I promise you that I'm enjoying the chase."

Smiling faintly, Simon replied, "I doubt that you'd be happy if you ever caught me. Which, by the way, you won't."

She eyed him thoughtfully and asked, "We're eminently suited, Simon, I don't know why you don't see that. We're both ambitious, highly intelligent, come from good families, have similar interests. Aside from all that, I think you're very handsome and that we would have beautiful children together."

But it's not your children I want to have, he thought silently. Keeping all of that from his face, Simon said, "If that's all that a marriage should be based upon then yes, I would have to agree with you."

Giving him a mystified look, she questioned, "What else is there?"

"Love."

The single word threw confusion onto her delicate face but, after a moment, she smiled and echoed, "Love? Simon, that's so sweet. I didn't realize that you were such a romantic."

Groaning to himself, Simon realized that he'd given her too much insight into him and tried to think of a way to extricate himself.

"May I have the honor of this dance, Dr. Tam?"

Simon froze completely, his heart stuttering at the familiar, confident voice. When he recovered a second later, he turned to find that, no, he wasn't hallucinating, Mal was actually standing right there. "Um, well...I don't..."

"Close enough for government work," Mal interrupted, holding out his hand.

Dazed, Simon took the hand and was led onto the dance floor. He was tugged smoothly into Mal's arms and slipped gracefully into the rhythm of the music. Mal looked…stunning…was the only word that his numb mind could come up with. The customary brown had been replaced with black slacks, a fitted gray-blue sweater that somehow brought out his eyes, and his hair had been trimmed neatly.

"I think the last time I saw you struck dumb like this was on the Mudder's planet, staring at that statue of Jayne," Mal observed, flashing a grin.

Recovering at long last, Simon demanded, "What are you doing here?"

"It looked like you needed a rescue from that barracuda."

"That's not what I meant, and you know it."

"A little birdie told me that it was River's birthday and that there was going to be all kinds of festivities goin' on."

Snorting softly, Simon looked over to his sister. Sure enough, Kaylee was leaning against River, an arm around her friend's waist and head on her shoulder. "Threatened to sabotage Serenity, did she?"

Mal smiled. "Something like that."

When he didn't find anyone else from the crew, Simon asked, "Where is everyone?"

"Back on Serenity," Mal replied, hitching Simon closer as the music slowed and shifted into another song. "Jayne broke his gorram leg falling off the ship during a job. Wash and Zoe are babysitting him, and Book's doing some kind of fasting-meditation thing. You might want to warn River as his hair's out and about most days now."

Laughing softly, Simon eased into the firm embrace and said, "I'll do that. Though I doubt that it's as much a problem as it used to be."

"I can see that. You done good, doc," Mal complimented, sincere.

Pleased, heat flushed through his face and Simon's eyes skittered automatically away as he decried softly, "It was mostly my father and access to proper care that did it."

Oh God. Speaking of his father, the man himself was staring hard at the two of them from across the room. When Simon tried to shift back a bit, Mal's strong arms prevented it. "My father's watching."

Mal leaned closer and murmured into his ear, "So is everyone else."

Shivering lightly at the hot, moist breath against his skin, Simon blinked in surprise as he glanced around the room. It wasn't just Elani and his father, though they were the only ones being blatant about it. It would be on all the gossip tongues that Simon had danced only with an unknown, handsome man tonight, and for several dances. "Oh wonderful."

"Not like you ain't been the center of attention before, doc," Mal reminded.

They were too close for him to see it, but Simon could hear the grin in the other man's voice and retorted softly, "Being beaten up, kidnapped, and almost burnt at the stake is not nearly as vicious, believe me."

"Ah yes, polite society," Mal agreed, voice replete with irony. "How is the good life these days, Simon?"

Simon shrugged, not willing to let on how agonizing the existence was for him. That he was choked with constraint and falsity and wanted to scream at least three times a day because his heart was dying. "About as it always is."

Instead of commenting or agreeing, Mal spun Simon off the dance floor and smirked. "Your vests have gotten fancier."

Well. He'd been successful at hiding his pain, that was for sure. Offering a faint smile, Simon replied, "It's much easier to shop when you don't have to worry about someone putting a gun in your side."

* * * *

When Mal had seen Simon standing alone, mostly in the shadows, his first instinct had been to grab the forlorn man and run. Life with his family was obviously not agreeing with him. The doc was thinner by a good twenty pounds, almost gaunt, and there were shadows under his eyes that spoke of far too little sleep. Not to say that he didn't still look handsome, because thinness and being tired only seemed to accentuate his good looks.

And then that shark in an evening gown had descended on the poor man. It had been all Mal could do not to stalk over then and there. Whatever she'd said had pained Simon, it had been written all over his too-easy to read face and Mal had been sorely tempted to do something about it.

The last months since the Tams' departure had been strangely quiet ones. Mal hadn't realized just how much he'd come to rely on the doctor's quiet sarcasm and biting wit. Or River's playful antics, even touched with weapons as they sometimes had been. There were only two of them, but they'd somehow made the ship feel even homier than it already had. With their leaving, a silence had overcome the ship.

Truthful, it hadn't taken hardly any whining on Kaylee's part to convince him to go to the Tams' birthday party for River. Jayne's broken leg couldn't have come at a better time because there was no way in hell that he'd allow the guay to go to the party.

He'd noticed, too, that no such party had been given in Simon's honor a few months back. He was still trying to figure out the elder Tam, had measured him up for several minutes when they'd first arrived. Watched him from the shadows, this man who held so much power. This was a man who had, apparently, shaken and moved a lot of people to get his children back in his life but, now that they were there, didn't seem to take much interest in his son.

"It usually is," Mal agreed mildly, to Simon's shopping comment. "Who do I have to shoot to get a drink?"

The sparkle was back in Simon's eyes as he replied dryly, "It's a free bar so you don't have to shoot anyone. Well, unless the service isn't up to par, of course. Then it's required."

"That's gotta be hell on the turnover rate," Mal observed, smirking.

Putting his hand at the small of Simon's back, he angled them towards the bar, pleased when Simon made no move to free himself of the touch. He hadn't really been sure of his welcome anymore, having been gone for so long from the other man. That one time he'd seen Simon with the whore could've been a fluke, a touch of circumstance, or any number of things. But being allowed to touch Simon like he was, outside the camouflage of dancing, that said a lot.

Mal stopped at the bar and ordered, "White wine and scotch on the rocks, thanks."

The young man nodded and moved to fill the order efficiently, while Simon looked at him in surprise. "How did you know what I would like?"

"I know a lot about you, doc, remember?"

Simon didn't reply, instead taking the glass of scotch from the bartender and looking across the room.

Reaching into his pocket, Mal pulled out a small box and held it out.

Surprised again, Simon asked, "What's this?"

Mal looked silently into Simon's eyes for a long moment before murmuring, "Happy Birthday, Simon."

Caught between a frown and a smile, Simon pointed out, "It's River's birthday, not mine."

Mal shrugged and said, "I seem to recall you had one a couple of months ago, despite the lack of a party."

Simon's eyes widened and he swallowed, needed to clear his throat before whispering, "Thank you."

Setting the glass on the table, Simon took the box and opened it. His breath caught as he gazed at the pin inside. It was a simple, silver lapel pin with the ancient medical symbol carved into it.

Mal waited tensely as the other man remained silent, then demanded, "You hate it, right?"

Lips twitching, Simon looked up at him with shining eyes and answered, "Definitely. So much so, that I'm going to put it on right now."

Mal laughed and relaxed, taking a small drink from his wine as Simon did just that.

"I don't believe that we've met, sir."

Even before Dr. Tam opened his mouth to speak, Mal saw Simon tense, as though sensing the older man's presence behind him. Mal held out his hand to the doctor and replied, "No, sir, we haven't. Captain Malcolm Reynolds, at your service."

Dr. Tam's eyebrows rose and the outstretched hand was ignored. "I don't recall sending you an invitation, Captain."

"Must've gotten lost in the mail," Mal said, forcing himself to remain pleasant as his hand fell to his side. Snobby tah ma duh. "I know how things can get overlooked by such a busy man like yourself."

Stiff and uncompromising, Dr. Tam stated, "You're here about the reward."

Mal's jaw flexed as he restrained himself from knocking the man unconscious. One look at Simon's horrified face and he knew that he couldn't afford to lose control. After only a brief pause, Mal said, "I'm here to wish River and Simon a happy birthday each, since I missed his a few months back. Of course, I don't think I'm the only one who did."

Eyes narrowing, Dr. Tam replied, "I think you should leave, Captain."

"Now why's that? We're all just having a nice, relaxing time, catching up with each other," Mal pointed out, subtly taunting the older man.

"Father, please, Mal's come a long way to see me," Simon pleaded softly, trying to keep the peace.

Dr. Tam glanced at his son and snapped quietly, "He's not here to see you, Simon, he's here to receive recompense for that time you spent on his ship. He's a mercenary, first and foremost, and certainly not your friend. You think that trinket he gave you means anything to him? It's a way to get back in your good graces and that's all. A means to an end now that you're back where you belong."

That cutting, almost belittling tone of voice told Mal everything he needed to know about the relationship between father and son. Simon was the heir all right, but meant only to breed the next generation because somehow, for whatever insane reason, he'd been found lacking.

Straightening, Mal said, "You know, for a smart man, you're not real bright. First off, I didn't come here for money. I came to see how Simon and River were doing because they're my crew, no matter where they live. Second, Simon might or might not be where he belongs, but that's for him to decide, dong ma?"

"Oh, I understand you perfectly well, Reynolds," Dr. Tam replied, cold. "And I want you off my property right now. You and that whore you brought with you."

Mal didn't even think. His fist slammed into the older man's face at the insult to Kaylee and sent him flying to the floor. There was a collective gasp around them, though the tension before it could hardly have been missed. Sour, he sighed and looked at Simon and apologized, "Sorry, Simon, but I can't have anyone speaking like that about Kaylee."

"No, of course not, I understand," Simon agreed, gazing at his father with an unreadable expression. The other man was unconscious and being fussed over by a number of matrons, including his mother.

"I meant it, you know," Mal said, moving closer so they could speak quiet.

Simon's eyes tore from his father to land on Mal. "Meant what?"

Brushing a hand across Simon's cheek, Mal answered, "You're my crew, Simon. If you ever need me or Serenity for something, you send a wave and we're back in a heartbeat."

Simon's mouth opened, but nothing came out.

With a wink, Mal said, "I think it's time me and Kaylee hot-footed it out of here before the cops show up."

"You don't have to go," Simon protested.

"Yeah, Simon, I do. But you know how to find me."

They stared at each other another moment, then Mal turned and strode across the room, people making way for him. Kaylee and River met him towards the door and he tugged on a long lock of River's hair in greeting. "Happy Birthday, River."

She threw her arms around his neck and whispered, "Thank you. Come back anytime for ultimate shopping pleasure."

Chuckling, Mal pulled back and wagged a finger at her. "I know you're teasin' because Simon's gone and fixed you."

River smiled broadly and answered, "Maybe a little."

"That's what I thought. C'mon, Kaylee, time to go."

"But, Cap'n!" Kaylee wailed.

Mal fixed a look on her and she sighed before hugging River tight and saying, "You take care. I'll talk with you tomorrow. Have fun!"

Nodding, River agreed, "Wave you in the afternoon."

"Well. That explains why my damn wave bill's gone through the roof," Mal observed, frowning at the girls.

Kaylee stuck her tongue out. "Not like we can't afford it now."

Taking her arm, he said, "That's not the point, young lady."

"Tight-fisted hwun dahn," she muttered before breaking free to grab one more hug from River. "Bye!"

River returned the hug and exclaimed, "Bye!"

As they walked out of the large ballroom, Kaylee asked brightly, "So why'd you punch their dad in the face? He was a real snob, right? I knew you couldn't go the whole night without punchin' somebody, but doing that to the host is kind of, well, rude, don't you think?"

Mal let her chatter wash over him, his mind's eye detailing the sad, wistful look on Simon's face that he'd glimpsed just before leaving the room. It irked him in too many ways to really count. The whole night had. Instead of settling things like he'd thought, it had only just stirred them up.

All he'd need would be to run into Inara and the night would be complete.