Notes:

In the timeline of the 'verse I'm using, River went to the Academy early in the year 2515. The events of the series begin in the year 2517.

This story is not a romance, though it does contain a great deal of Zoe/Wash. In the interest of full disclosure: I do occasionally hint at some Kaylee/Inara and some Mal/Simon, but it is in no way rampant, especially as this is decidedly pre-canon.

And finally: I do not own the genius that is Firefly; that honor goes to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy.

Beta'd by KrisEleven. Many thanks!

Translations: Are below.

Jian tal de gui - Like hell

Kewu de lao baojun - Horrible old tyrant

Dang ran - Of course

Zhen de shi tiancai - An absolute genius

Chapter 1: Simon Code

Osiris in the year 2515

All the allegiance propaganda taught in Simon Tam's pro-Alliance school was, in his opinion, redundant. No one with a sister like River needed a lesson in loyalty. Eliminating his social awkwardness would have been much more helpful.

"Excuse me, I didn't catch your—I was wondering if you could, ah—"

The MedAcad student who was the object of Simon's inquiry glanced at him with the same mild surprise he might have used had a snail crossed his path. "Were you talking to me?"

"Yes. Yes, I was. Dr. Robina Mahdavi—she still teaches here, doesn't she? Her room is locked and dark, but this is office hours and I thought—" Simon ordered himself to shut up, and did.

The student threw his friend a look and laughed. "Mahdavi? Seriously? You want to spend more time talking to the Devil than you have to for classes?"

Simon decided not to point out that he didn't attend MedAcad anymore. If Dr. Mahdavi had retained her former nickname, he was in for enough trouble as it was. "If you could just—"

"Oh, sure. They moved her office. It's just down the hall. I'd come back later, though, if I were you. She's in a mood."

"Yes, thank you," Simon replied distractedly, already hurrying towards the door which he could see, upon closer inquiry, bore the name of his former epidemiology professor. Knowing from experience that he would merely be sent away if he knocked, Simon pushed the door open directly.

A drinking cup bounced off his forehead and clattered to the ground. "Get lost, Zhou! I already told you, I'm not going to parade my research for the whims of your trustees." Were it not for the voice, no one would have been able to detect the presence of a human being in the room—it was completely jammed with heavy books, row upon row of bottles, and the latest technology. All was covered but the lab counters; these were scrupulously clean.

"Dr. Mahdavi? It's Simon Tam."

"Oh, really?" A face, framed by brown hair and almost entirely obscured behind a pair of lab goggles, appeared from behind one of the diagnostic machines. "So the Feds let you go after that incident with the statue of Hippocrates, did they?"

"That was over eight months ago."

"Ah, of course. I did hear the AMI thought you were good enough to employ. It's nice some people have sense." Simon smiled despite himself. Compliments from Mahdavi, even obscure ones, were few and far between. "Forgive the cup. That fool Zhou seems to think he runs this academy."

"He does run this academy."

"Jian tal de guihe does. If that man fell in a hole he'd spend his time writing articles on how the rest of us should pull him out of it. You know I hate social visits."

Simon swallowed. It was more difficult than he'd anticipated to share his 'conspiracy theories,' as many no doubt would term them, with another person. River's well-being was too important for him to take mockery over it lightly. "I think I spoke to you once or twice about my sister?"

"Once or twice? You've gotten your understatement down to an art, you have." Mahdavi grabbed a Cortex viewer off a high shelf and began tapping the screen. "Last time I checked, you worshiped the ground she walked on. Jiangyin, I want the set from Jiangyin, where are those stats?"

"She's been sending me coded letters."

Mahdavi didn't look up. "Is that unusual?"

"Yes."

"And what do they say, these coded letters?"

"I don't know. But I was hoping you could help me figure it out."

"Look, whatever game you're playing with—River, isn't it? If it's bothering you enough that you drag yourself in to see a kewu de lao baojun such as myself, you should really be talking to her about it."

"I can't. I haven't seen her in more than six months."

Mahdavi paused in her scrolling. "What? Why?"

"She's been at school. Or at least that's what we think. What we were told." Simon bit the inside of his mouth, cursing himself for not making more inquiries into the Academy while River was still with them. "It was supposed to be a government program. The best one. But she never comes home. We aren't supposed to wave her. It makes the separation easier, they say. All we get are these letters and they don't make any sense. They don't even sound like her."

"But you visited, didn't you?" Mahdavi tossed the viewer into a nearby garden pot and propped up her glasses. "Talked to other families who were sending their children there? Any of them have this problem?"

"We didn't visit," Simon snapped. "They didn't offer, and, because it seems we're idiots, we didn't insist. I did some research after the fact and there's nothing on the Cortex. Nothing. I dug through the Alliance official site for five hours."

"Did you bring the letters?"

"Dang ran." Simon handed her the folder with River's printed-out messages.

Mahdavi accepted it and flipped through the pages. "I'm guessing it isn't a habit of your sister's to misspell words?"

"Not at all. I don't remember the last time anyone managed to prove River wrong...about anything."

"Huh. Isn't there some Earth-That-Was legend about how being too smart makes the demons jealous?" Mahdavi narrowed her eyes. "Who are the D'arbanvilles again? The family that made a fortune off those fake embalming materials from Sihnon?"

Simon blinked. "Fake embalming materials?"

"Yes. Faux myrrh."

"I think you mean fur."

"Sure I do," Mahdavi said absently. "What happened at their ball?"

"The D'arbanvilles don't exist. At least, our family doesn't know them, if they do."

"Simon." Mahdavi peered at him seriously. "If that's the case, you ever think you might not want to hear what your sister's trying to tell you?"

Simon blinked. "No. Why wouldn't I?"

His former professor sighed. "You know what? Never mind. I'm most likely imagining Reavers where there're monkeys with leprosy." The epidemiologist tossed the folder back to Simon, plucked a pen out from the nearest chipped beaker, and handed it to him. "I have an hour or so. Circle any unfamiliar proper nouns. On all the letters. Then we'll get to work."

OoOoO

"All I want to know is if you're alright. Nothing more."

Simon looked at his mother's face in the wave screen. "I am fine. Never been better."

Regan Tam sighed. "Simon, your father and I, we know you're committed to your position. But you aren't a bad doctor if you take some time off once in a while."

"What makes you think I'm not?"

"Dr. Stuart says he has to order you not to come in for longer than your contract covers."

"So?"

"Your contract covers up to sixty hours a week." Simon's mother creased her brow. "And he said you work on wood carvings over your lunch hours."

Simon bristled. "I'm allowed to—"

"You know your father thought it might be compulsive."

"Dad is wrong. My carving is a hobby. It helps me cope when patients don't make it."

"And Aidan and Joanna say you go straight home afterwards, never join them for drinks or socialize like you used to—"

"I'm tired after work, not cutting myself off from the world. I went to visit Dr. Robina Mahdavi today."

Regan smiled a little. "Your old professor? That's nice. How is she?"

"She hasn't changed." Simon paused. "I brought her the letters River sent us. To see if—"

"Oh, Simon, you said you'd stop it with that nonsense."

"All I want to do is be sure." The doctor took a breath. "Look, if there's a code, Dr. Mahdavi will find it. If she doesn't, we'll know there's nothing to worry about. I'm getting a second opinion. Being realistic, as you want me to."

"This is insane." Regan shook her head. "Maybe you needed to say something to us. We're your parents. We're River's parents. But you cannot bring a stranger—"

"She's not a—"

"—into our private business like this."

"I left her copies of River's letters, not our banking statements!"

"I'm worried about you, Simon! Six months ago you would never have—"

"Six months ago I didn't have to worry that I'd never see my sister again!"

Simon knew he'd gone too far as his mother's face went tight. "If I thought we would never see River again," she said coldly, "I'd move heaven and earth to get her back. It is not fair of you to imply I love her less than you do, Simon."

"I'm sorry." Simon gripped the rim of his desk. "I just—I'm scared for her."

"But that's what we're trying to tell you. There is no reason to be scared. And when you see River next, I'm sure she'll tell you that herself."

OoOoO

"Your sister is zhen de shi tiancai." Mahdavi ruffled the edges of River's stacked letters. "I would never have found this code if I hadn't been looking for it."

Simon pressed his palms hard against the professor's immaculate counter. "So there is a code."

"Oh, yes." Mahdavi bit her lip thoughtfully. "But..."

"What?"

The epidemiologist set the letters aside and leaned forward on her elbows. "Listen, Simon. You're a law-abiding citizen."

Simon frowned. "Yes..."

"You've got a good position in society. A job you love. You're able to walk down the street without the fear of being dragged off to jail or some psychiatric institute, or getting shot."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm asking you how much you want to keep all that. Because if you care about being safe more than you care about your sister, I might as well not have cracked this code at all."

Simon held out a hand. "Let me see it. Now."

Wordlessly, Mahdavi handed over the letters. The original writing was barely visible under a swarm of scribbling, but the deciphered code, scrawled in red pencil, was clear enough: the same words, over and over again.

They're hurting us. Get me out. They're hurting us. Get me out. They're hurting us. Get me out...

To be continued. Reviews are helpful and encouraging!