Author's Note: This story takes place one month after my story 'Daddy Will Come For Us', and three months after the movie 'Serenity'. This was written for 'suzy_queue' because of a 'guess the movie' challenge on my LJ page. Hope you like it, it turned into more then a drabble.
Simon put the cake down in front of River and said, "Don't forget to make a wish."
River smiled at him and closed her eyes for a few seconds. She opened them and blew all the candles out with one blow. She heard a few congratulations from the crew, and she heard Kaylee clap, but her mind wasn't in the now. She stared at the smoking candles without really seeing them as her mind looked at snips of the future and past. Her brother's hand on her shoulder broke the trance, and she looked up at him.
"Happy Birthday River. Now that you're eighteen, you're officially an adult." He gave her a smile, but she could see the worry behind it.
"You'll always be older." She reassured him.
Simon laughed and said, "Thanks for reminding me."
Kaylee started cutting up pieces of cake to hand out, and Inara handed River a gift. River opened the gift to find a new dress. She took it out and held it up against her. "It's beautiful. Thank you Inara."
Jayne handed River a crudely wrapped gift and muttered, "Happy Birthday."
Smiling, she opened it and saw a couple of bars of soap shaped like seashells. Kaylee was looking over River's shoulder as she handed a piece of cake to Jayne and said with surprise, "Wow Jayne, that's a mighty nice gift."
Frowning Jayne said defensively, "It ain't like I never gave a gift to a girl before." He snatched his piece of cake, and shoved a bite in his mouth.
River walked over, stood on her tiptoes, and pulled Jayne down to give him a kiss on the cheek. "Thanks Jayne."
Slightly embarrassed, Jayne shooed her away with, "Go open someone else's gift why don't ya."
Belinda, who had accepted Mal's offer to pilot the ship about two weeks after kidnapping half the crew, handed River a small box. River opened it and saw a small beaded bracelet inside. She put it on her wrist and said, "Thank you, it's very nice."
"Looks good on you." Belinda commented.
Mal handed River a box, which she opened with a smile. She took a small dagger out of the box, and took it out of it's sheath. The blade caught the light and she said in a far away voice, "Shiny."
Simon choked on his cake for a second before raising his voice, "A dagger? You gave my sister a dagger for her birthday? Are you crazy?"
Mal said defensively, "It's a solid weapon. Standard Army issue. Nothin' fancy, but it'll stop an enemy if you know how to use it."
Setting his cake down Simon crossed his arms, "That's not the problem! I don't want to encourage her to be fighting!"
Scoffing Mal said, "She can knock Jayne out without a weapon at all, I don't think giving her a dagger is going to make her want to fight more."
"Hey, that ain't necessarily true!" Jayne said offended.
Mal talked over him; "This will just be to help her defend herself if something happens."
River who was still staring at the dagger said, "Forty two."
Turning his attention away from Mal for a second, Simon looked at River. He didn't like the way she was staring at the dagger and said, "Forty two what River?"
"People stabbed with this knife."
Glaring at Mal, Simon said, "Nice." He gently put his hand over River's hand that held the dagger and tried to take it away as he said, "I think we should put this away for later."
Pulled out of the past and into the now again by her brother's touch, River jerked her hand away from his with the dagger still in it. "No. It's mine."
Sighing Simon said, "I don't think you should be…."
She put the dagger back in its sheath, looked into Simon's eyes with a serious expression and cut him off, "It's mine. I'm keeping it."
Simon glared at Mal and said, "Great. It's gonna be on your head when something happens."
Getting pissed Mal said; "You say that like she's three! She's better in combat then the best trained soldier. You can't keep her from growing up."
The crew, having heard Mal and Simon fight over what was best for River many times over the past month, mostly tuned it out and went about their own business. River looked back and forth between the two of them a couple of times while thoughts of the immediate future flooded her head.
River suddenly stood up and gave Mal a hug as she said, "Thank you for the gift Captain. It's very nice."
Giving Simon a smug look, Mal hugged River back and said, "You best only be using it when you need it for self defense."
Trying to smooth things over, Kaylee handed Simon his cake again while rubbing a hand up and down his arm. Once he took it, she walked over to River and handed her a gift. "This here's from me and Zoe."
River opened it and saw an ornately decorated and stained wooden box. She opened it and saw a variety of colors of eye shadow, blush, and lip gloss, with a mirror built into the lid. She smiled and offered her thanks to both women while everyone finished up their cake.
That night Mal and Belinda were talking about their next mission in the mess hall while the rest of the crew slept. Belinda was saying, "Should take about two days to go from…."
She trailed off as she saw River walk into the mess hall and head straight to the counter. Mal said to her, "You're up late tonight."
River didn't comment and picked a pear up off the counter. She pulled out her new dagger, and started to cut the pear into slices. Slightly concerned, Mal stood and said, "Somethin' weighin' on your mind little one?"
Without a word River turned abruptly and threw the dagger straight passed Mal's head. The dagger imbedded itself into the metal wall a few feet away. Belinda stood and drew her gun. She leveled it at River and waited to see what was going to happen. Mal stepped back and held out a hand to Belinda in a gesture for her to stand down. He focused on River and said, "River? Tell me what's wrong."
River snarled at the wall with the dagger in it and said in an accent that wasn't quite her own, "That'll teach ya not to sneak up on me."
She stalked over to the wall, yanked the dagger out of it, and carefully wiped both sides of the already clean dagger on the sleeve of her pajamas. Belinda, still holding the gun on River, asked, "Is she sleepwalking?"
"I don't rightly know." Mal walked a little closer to River and said, "River. River can you hear me? Do you know who I am?"
River closed her eyes, and started to fall to the ground. Mal caught her before she could fall all the way, and eased her to the floor. He put a hand on the side of her face and said with a touch of command in his voice, "River it's time to wake up."
When her eyes fluttered open a second later, River looked up at Mal and said with confusion, "Captain? Why am I in the kitchen?"
He helped her sit up and said, "You walked in here yourself. Don't you remember?"
She gave him a wide-eyed look. "Did I hurt anyone?"
"No." He reassured her as he helped her stand up and wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
Belinda took a deep breath and put her gun away now that it seemed to be over. "I'll be up on the bridge if anyone needs me."
Mal nodded absently and started River walking towards the guest quarters that she shared with Simon. "Let's go get you back in bed."
Looking close to tears River said, "Do you think something triggered me again?"
Giving her a squeeze Mal shook his head. "I doubt it. I think you were sleepwalking."
When they got to the hatch of the guest quarters, River said with a pout, "You don't need to tell him. He'll just worry."
"He needs to know. He's not just your brother, he's the only Doc we've got, and it'll help me not to worry overly much if he knows too."
River went in first, and went to sit on the couch. Mal went and knocked on the door to Simon's room. He heard Simon's voice, "Be right there."
Then he heard Kaylee's voice, "What's wrong?"
Simon said, "She probably had another nightmare. Go back to sleep."
A sleepy looking Simon opened the door in his boxers and tee shirt. "What's wr…..Mal?"
Mal said, "Sorry to wake you Simon, but something happened."
A few minutes later Simon and Kaylee were both on the couch with River between them listening to Mal's account of what happened. Simon turned to River and said, "And you don't remember any of this?"
With a shaky voice River said, "I don't want to do more tests Simon. You said I was better."
Simon pulled her into a hug and said, "It's okay River. We don't need to do anymore tests. I'm sure you were sleepwalking. Maybe you were too young to remember, but you did a lot of sleepwalking right after you turned four." He smiled softly at the memory and said, "You called it dreamwalking. You said your dream had come to life and you were playing inside it. You did it for about two months, and then it tapered off. But you did it again one time a couple days before you were sent to the Academy. So it's not unheard of for you to sleepwalk, and a mildly stressful event like turning eighteen could be a trigger for it."
After a tight hug back she let him go and said, "I'm tired. I want to go back to sleep."
Figuring that Simon and Mal needed a minute alone to talk, Kaylee stood and held out her hand to River. "Come on, I'll tuck you back in."
River took her hand and they went to River's room together. Simon stood and walked closer to Mal. Mal said, "You think she's okay Doc?"
"I think if this is a one time incident that she's okay. If there's another, then we'll have to rethink that."
Mal nodded. "Okay then. Night."
The next night the cargo hold was full with crates of oranges. The crew was being paid to deliver them to a moon, which was about two days away by ship. Zoe was keeping an eye on the bridge that night while everyone else slept. She walked down to the cargo bay to check the oranges three hours after the last of the crew had headed to their quarters. Finding nothing amiss, Zoe turned to go back to her room only to find River standing directly behind her in her personal space. Zoe's hand automatically went for her gun, but once she registered the fact that it was River, she took her hand away and smiled. "You startled me."
Her smile faded as she realized River wasn't looking at her, but through her to some invisible point further ahead. Zoe turned to look behind her, but only saw oranges. Turning back around she said, "River?"
River lunged at an unseen foe to the side, and started kicking and punching the air while slowly advancing on one of the stacks of orange crates.
Mal had told Zoe about River's sleepwalking, so Zoe said in a loud voice, "Wake up! Wake up right now River!"
River continued to fight the air, and soon one of her kicks knocked a crate to the floor. The crate broke on contact, and oranges spread across the floor in different directions. River got out her dagger and started stabbing the oranges as they rolled past her.
While River was busy fighting no one; Zoe walked across the room and pushed a button on the wall. She called Mal first and said, "Sir?"
She heard a tired, "What?"
"We have a problem in the cargo hold."
"Be right there."
Next she called Simon and said, "Simon?"
It took a few seconds, but soon there was a muffled, "What's wrong?"
"Medical issue in the cargo hold."
By the time Zoe was done calling people, River had stabbed each and every orange that had escaped from the crate. When the last one was stabbed she turned suddenly to look straight at Zoe. River was crouched in a fighting stance while holding the dagger, and she had a wild look in her eye. Zoe slowly reached for her weapon and said, "River, it's me Zoe. You need to wake up now before one of us gets hurt."
River blinked a couple of times and slowly rose to a fully standing position. She looked around her at the floor and then down at her orange juice soaked pajamas. "What happened?"
Taking her hand off her weapon Zoe breathed a sigh of relief and said, "You were sleepwalking again. The Captain and Simon will be here in just a few seconds."
With a look of dismay, River turned the broken crate over, and started gathering the stabbed oranges and putting them back in the intact part of the crate. Mal was there first and when he saw the mess River had made he said, "Ai ya!"
River continued to pick up and said, "I'm sorry."
Mal turned to Zoe for an explanation. "Sleepwalking again."
Before he could comment, Simon and Kaylee showed up as well. Simon saw the mess and then asked River, "Are you okay?"
River nodded with tears in her eyes. Simon saw the dagger in her hands and said, "Where did you get that?"
River looked down at her hands. Mal answered, "What do you mean where did she get it? It's the one I gave her."
Shaking his head Simon said, "No, after last night she agreed to let me keep her dagger in my bedroom for the night, just in case she ended up sleepwalking again."
Looking down at the dagger, River said, "It's mine. I know it's mine."
Kaylee said, "You must'a come in while we were sleepin' and took it."
"I'm sticky. I need a shower." River said as she put the last orange in the broken crate.
Simon turned to Mal and said, "I'll reimburse you for this."
Shaking his head Mal said, "I ain't worried about the money so much as I'm worried about a repeat performance."
Nodding in understanding Simon said, "Me too. I'll talk to you about it tomorrow."
River glared at her brother and said, "Don't talk like I'm not in the room, and don't offer to pay for it when I break things!"
A bit surprised Simon shook his head and said in a placating voice, "I'm just trying to help you River."
"I don't need your help." She hissed at him with venom. She turned to Mal and said, "I'll pay for the damages. Take it out of my cut, and let me know what else I owe you. And I'll talk to you tomorrow about how we're going to prevent a repeat performance."
Mal looked at Simon who looked hurt, and then back to River who looked angry. "I'll talk to both of you tomorrow. It's late, go back to bed. That's an order."
Kaylee put her hand in Simon's hand, knowing he was upset, and they headed for the guest quarters following River.
Once they were out of ear shot Mal turned to Zoe for her opinion. She answered the unspoken question; "Trouble's brewing between those two."
Nodding in agreement Mal said, "Best guard the fruit tonight."
The next morning after breakfast Mal told Simon and River to come with him to the infirmary. Once they were there Mal asked Simon, "You got any tests you can run to see what might be makin' River sleepwalk?"
River immediately said, "No tests!"
Mal said somewhat gently, "I know you ain't fond of tests, but we need to know what's going on in that head of yours."
Simon had been thinking it over and said, "I could monitor her brain waves tonight while……"
Interrupting, River shook her head and said with more force, "No tests! I'm better now!"
With a small glare Mal said forcefully, "If the Doc and I agree that you need a test, then you're gonna take it, like it or not."
River glared back and said, "I won't!"
"River!" Simon said with mild disapproval.
Mal just looked at River in shock for a few seconds. She'd never given him a direct no, and it took him a few seconds to react. She told Simon no often enough, but given time Simon could usually talk her into whatever it was if it was he wanted her to do. Mal wasn't about to take the time to talk his crew into following orders. Pointing a finger at her, Mal said, "You'd best be rememberin' that you're a member of my crew, and when I give an order I expect it to be obeyed. You're taking whatever tests the Doc thinks you need."
"I don't need any tests!"
Simon knew he could talk her into it with some time and patients. He was about to ask Mal to give him a few minutes alone with his sister but never got the chance. Time seemed to go in slow motion as he saw Mal grab his sister's upper arm, turn her to the side, and swat her on the butt four times before letting her go again. It was over before Simon had a chance to react, but the second it was over, Simon stepped in between the two and directed a murderous look at Mal. He hissed, "How dare you!"
With a seriously annoyed expression Mal said, "You wanna be next?" Before Simon could answer that Mal looked back at River who had both her hands on her butt and a pout on her face. He said, "Are you gonna take the tests?"
Nodding River quietly said, "Yes."
Mal's threat barely registered in Simon's head. All he could think about was protecting his sister. "If you ever lay a hand on my sister again…"
Leaning down into Simon's personal space Mal cut him off. "You don't wanna finish that statement." Mal could tell that Simon was too angry to be intimidated, so he looked over at River and said, "You stay."
He pulled a still angry looking Simon out of the infirmary and shut the door behind them. Mal leaned down close to Simon's ear and said quietly, "You need to think on this a minute. Your sister killed a whole slue of Reavers all by her lonesome because she could anticipate their moves. You really think she couldn't anticipate mine?"
Simon backed up a step away from Mal and shook his head no, not wanting to believe that. He hissed a whisper back, "That's insanity."
"Maybe so, but you can't deny that it's true. She was scared and she needed…." Mal paused and looked in the window at River who was now sitting on the exam table and staring off into the distance. "She needed someone to take control."
Looking back at Simon, Mal said, "We talked about this."
Simon was calming down, and his brain was working overtime trying to put the pieces together. He looked in at his sister who seemed much calmer for the moment, and then back at Mal. "We didn't discuss you striking her."
"No, but we did talk over her seein' me as a…." Mal found himself unable to say 'father figure'. He said, "We talked about how she sees me, and we both agreed that we were fine with it."
Simon looked over at River again, and a part of him could see Mal's point. A part of him could even see that it had worked. But another part of him was angry with both of them. Angry with Mal because his version of a father figure was not the version that Simon wanted for his sister. And angry at River because she hadn't stopped Mal, which did indicate that Mal's version was the version she wanted for herself. And though he wouldn't admit it, a part of him was jealous that Mal had taken the role that Simon himself had tried, but failed, to fill. Simon crossed his arms and said, "If you'd been a little more patient, we could have talked her into the testing. There was no need for violence."
"You're wrong. I ain't got time to talk my crew into following orders."
"I can see that being true in some instances, in a battle for example, but for something like this I disagree."
Simon and Mal glared at each other for a few seconds. Frustrated with the whole thing Mal said, "Talkin' is overrated, and I'm done. Get in there and explain the testing before I decide you're in need some violence too."
Feeling his face heat up Simon hissed, "She may see you as a father figure, but let's be clear on the fact that I don't." Before Mal could answer, Simon opened the door to the infirmary, went in, and started talking to River.
Mal rolled his eyes and muttered to himself, "Could'a fooled me."
Fifteen minutes later they had a plan for that night, and Mal left Simon alone with River to do a few small tests. Once Mal left, Simon gave his sister a serious look and said, "River?"
Finding he had to look away, Simon said, "Were you…. Did you know what Mal was going to do before he did it?"
River didn't respond at first. After a couple of seconds, Simon looked at her and she said, "Every action or word down to the smallest twitch of a muscle or inflection of sound can produce a different outcome. Timelines branch off into limbs and then into twigs and then into leaves, both forward and backwards in time in my head. I can't always tell if I'm on the right leaf, but I know which limb I'm on."
Trying to understand, Simon said, "So there were a few different ways Mal could have reacted to what you said, and you didn't know exactly which one it would be?"
Cocking her head to one side and looking into the distance, River said, "By the time I told the Captain I wouldn't take the tests, there were only a couple of leaves left."
"So then you did know?"
River gave Simon a sad smile and put a hand on the side of his face. "This isn't a good limb. Jump with me to another."
Sighing because he could tell she didn't want to talk about it anymore, Simon nodded his acceptance. He held up two plastic brain wave monitors for her to see. They were both white and about the size of three quarters stacked together. He said, "Okay. Lie back, and let me put these monitors on your temples so we can get a baseline."
That night after River had gotten ready for bed, Simon came into her room with the monitors. River was sitting on her bed and said, "I don't want the monitors on. They were on half the day, and I won't be able to sleep."
Having heard her complaints about this all day was making Simon slightly irritable; "Yes you will be able to sleep. Just let me put these on your temples, and you can climb into bed."
He headed to her with the brain wave monitors in his hands. Frowning she said, "I don't like it."
"You've made that perfectly clear all day. Saying it again isn't going to change things. Mal and I agree that you need to do this tonight so that we can see what's going on."
She crossed her arms and sat still while Simon put the self-sticking monitors on her head. He smiled at her and said, "There, all done."
River complained, "I like it better when Kaylee's here."
"Me too, but she went to sleep in her own bunk tonight so that I could stay up and watch the information the monitors send out. Enough stalling now, time to try and get some sleep."
Without much warning River stood up and hugged Simon tight. After a few seconds he hugged her back and said, "What's wrong mei mei?"
"Nothing. I… I just love you." she said as she let him go.
He beamed at her and said, "I love you too. Now get some rest okay?"
Once River was under the covers; Simon went out to the living area of their quarters and checked his computer screen to make sure the remote monitors were working. River's brain waves were normal for her in an awake state at this point. He pushed a button on the wall and called Mal who was on the bridge that night. "All set. She's in bed."
"Okay. Keep me posted."
Half an hour later Simon could tell by the brain waves that River was in the first stages of sleep. He watched the screen carefully and charted all the normal stages of sleep. She cycled through all four stages during the first hour and a half. Then fifteen minutes into her second cycle, Simon noticed a change in the brain waves, and thought she must have woken up, because the brain waves matched those of her awake state. He waited for her to start the cycle over again, but a minute later he heard her door open. He saw her walking out of her room and heading to the ladder. Simon said, "Did something wake you?"
She ignored him and went towards the hatch.
"River?" Still getting no response, Simon glanced back at the brain waves that were still coming to him and shook his head thinking something was very wrong. He pushed the button and called Mal. "She's up and unresponsive."
"I'm headed your way."
Simon glanced once more at the brain waves, and then headed up the ladder to follow River. He barely caught a glimpse of her as she turned the corner of the hall. He hurried to catch up with her, and as he turned the corner he saw her head into the infirmary. Mal had come from the other direction, and they met up in front of the infirmary door. They watched as River started digging through drawers. Mal said in a commanding voice, "River wake up!"
Simon put a hand on Mal's shoulder to get his attention and said, "Something's not right. Maybe she is being triggered somehow."
"What makes you say that?"
"Sleepwalking is most likely to occur during the fourth stage of sleep called delta sleep, but her brain waves don't match that at all. Her brain waves say she is in a normal waking state. I've never been able to check her brain waves after she's been triggered, but this could be an example of that."
"What would be the trigger?"
"I don't know. She was in her room alone. I didn't hear or see anything out of the ordinary. I thought maybe it was the dagger that you gave her, but Kaylee has it in her bunk tonight, and River didn't go to get it."
Mal saw that River now had a scalpel in her hand, and was looking at the exam table with a glare. Mal and Simon both watched while River jammed the scalpel into the exam table's cushion and gouged a large hole in it. Simon winced at his infirmary being wrecked and said, "Tzao gao."
After a second to think about what Simon had said, Mal had a theory. With a grim expression he walked towards River. Simon put a hand on his arm to stop him and said, "You shouldn't confront her when she's in this state. Especially when she's armed. Who knows what she'll do."
Mal put a hand on Simon's shoulder in reassurance and said, "The state she's in is awake. You said so yourself." With that statement in the air, Mal left Simon to think it over. River was cutting hole number twelve in the exam table when Mal walked over to her and said with calm anger, "You stop this right now River. The game is over."
She glared over at him and said, "It's not over until this table is destroyed."
Simon just stared at them; dumbfounded that Mal had been right, and that his sister had been doing this on purpose.
Mal held out his hand and said, "I say it's over. You're already in for a lickin' tonight for the fuss you've caused. Don't make it any worse. Hand over the scalpel."
With a grunt River jammed the scalpel into the table and left it there, giving Mal a defiant look. Simon started shaking his head at both of them, thinking the whole situation was somehow wrong.
With a determined look on his face, Mal turned River towards the table and bent her over it long enough to give her six hard swats. He pulled her up, turned her back to face him, and said, "Hand over the scalpel nicely."
River looked at the scalpel and then at Mal's hand, and seemed to be thinking it over.
Simon looked at the two of them facing off, and even though Mal was bigger, Simon knew that if River wanted to she could kill him with the scalpel before he had time to react. Simon said, "River please."
In unison Mal and River said, "Stay out of it."
After a couple of tense seconds, the defiance on River's face changed. She picked up the scalpel, placed it nicely in Mal's hand, and said with a pout, "No fair figuring out the game before I was done."
Setting the scalpel on the counter first, Mal grabbed River's arm and headed the two of them in the direction of the guest quarters. He said, "I don't know what you're playin' at little one, but it ends tonight."
Simon had backed out of their way so they could go through the door, and then followed closely behind them. The closer they got to their quarters, the more worried Simon got. He'd had two spankings from the Captain, and both of them were among his top ten worst experiences in life so far. He said, "Mal, I think you need to calm down a little bit. Maybe we should all sit down and talk about what happened. River must have some kind of explanation. She's a good kid, she wouldn't just…."
Before he could finish his sentence, River had yanked her arm out of Mal's grip, jumped and done a half turn in the air, and kicked Simon hard enough in the stomach to send him stumbling backwards onto the floor. With the wind knocked out of him, Simon looked up at River with tears of pain on his face and a look of betrayal in his eyes. River leaned down and said, "I told you to stay out of it."
Mal grabbed River by both shoulders and forced her to look at him. He gave her a look that had put fear in men twice her size and age, and said, "Go to your room and stay there 'till I get you."
River shrugged and said, "Fine." She walked away calmly, pulled the monitors off her head, and dropped them on the floor as she went.
Mal watched while she opened the hatch to the guest quarters and went in. Mal kneeled down next to Simon and said, "Let me see."
Simon was finally able to breathe and said raggedly, "I'm fine."
"Then you won't have a problem letting me see."
Groaning Simon turned to his back and started to unbutton his shirt. Mal said, "Do you taste any blood? Feel like you're gonna upchuck?"
Simon shook his head and finished unbuttoning his shirt. Mal looked at the area River had kicked. He said, "Good thing she wasn't wearing shoes."
That statement was more then Simon could take, and he felt tears pooling in his eyes again, but these weren't tears of pain. He didn't understand why his sister would hurt him on purpose like that, especially after all the things he'd done to save her.
Mal didn't see any immediate discoloring, and thought that Simon should be fine in a few hours. He turned to look at Simon and could tell he was crying. Mal put a hand on Simon's shoulder and said gently, "Come on, let's get you more comfortable."
Mal helped Simon stand up, and kept an eye on him as he went down the ladder. Once they were inside with the hatch closed, Mal could tell Simon was still crying. He put his arm around Simon's shoulders in comfort and headed them both to the couch. Simon hated that he couldn't stop crying, and wiped at his face in anger.
Once they were both sitting, Mal put his elbows on his knees and said, "You're 'bout what? Eight? Nine years older then River?"
Sniffing and trying to calm down, Simon answered, "Nine."
"And when you were little, you helped watch over her."
"And for the past couple of years you've been takin' care of her every day."
Looking away as more tears formed Simon whispered, "Yes."
"And for a couple years before that, you were still trying to look over her by trying to get her out of the Academy against your parents wishes."
Simon nodded, not trusting his voice.
Mal paused and thought about that for a few seconds. Then he sighed and said; "The nine years between you make it hard for you to see the difference between older brother and parent. But River sees it, and she wants you to see it too. I'm sure it's gonna be hard for you Simon, but you need to let me be the Pa tonight. For whatever reason, she wants me to fill that role, and I'm guessing she'll do whatever it takes to make sure I do."
Shaking his head Simon said without conviction, "But I can't just sit here and let you hit her. I'm supposed to protect her."
"I'm thinkin' she can protect herself just fine. That's what she was tryin' to tell you with that kick."
Simon knew Mal was right, but just couldn't bring himself to agree. He looked down at his lap and watched a couple of tears drip onto his pants. He felt Mal pull him into a hug, and he couldn't talk himself into pulling out of it.
After a few minutes Mal said, "You go sleep in Kaylee's bunk tonight, and I'll stay here with River. Zoe can take over for me on the bridge."
"But I should be here for her in case she…."
Mal cut him off, "No. You shouldn't." Mal pulled away so he could look Simon in the eye. "I know I've only got five or six years on you, and I know you said you don't see me as a… a parental figure, but how about an older brother? Or if you can't see that, could you at least say that you trust me?"
Simon considered this for a few seconds, "I do trust you."
Nodding Mal continued, "I've had you over my knee twice, and you're no worse off for it. In fact, I'd have to say you're better off because of it. So trust me and let me be who she needs me to be. She's still gonna need you to be her big brother. That's never gonna change."
Simon looked over towards River's room, and then back at Mal. Reluctantly he agreed. "Okay."
Mal patted his shoulder and said, "Come on, let's go get you settled with Kaylee."
Mal stood and held out his hand to help Simon up. Once Simon was up he said, "I can get to Kaylee's by myself."
Mal followed Simon to the ladder and said, "I know you can."
Soon they were in the corridor with the crews quarters, and when Simon was in front of Kaylee's door he turned and said quietly, "I don't need a father or a big brother."
Mal patted his shoulder. "You're right, but that don't mean it wouldn't be nice to have one."
Before Simon could answer, Mal had knocked on Kaylee's door to warn her, and then opened it up to let Simon in. Kaylee's voice said, "Simon?"
Mal called down to her and said, "Simon's spending the night here. Keep an eye on his stomach; he's been kicked. Come get me if he spews. I'll be on the couch in the guest quarters for the night."
Simon shook his head as he started down the ladder and said, "I'll be fine."
Kaylee started fussing over Simon the second his feet touched the floor of her quarters, and Mal was sure he would be fine. He shut the hatch and walked over to Zoe's room. He knocked once and waited ten seconds. Zoe opened her hatch and said, "Sir?"
"I need you on the bridge tonight. I'll be in the guest quarters."
"Give me five minutes."
He nodded and walked back towards the guest quarters, knowing that Zoe had it covered. Once he got back to the guest quarters he had to take a deep breath before going and knocking on River's door. River quickly opened it and looked up at Mal. "Thank you for helping him understand."
Mal was seriously unhappy with River. He took her arm and pulled her to the couch. "There was better ways of getting' him to understand then kickin' him. It was mean, and he didn't deserve it."
Once they got to the couch Mal sat and pulled River over his lap. He said, "Give me your hands."
She put both her hands behind her, and Mal grasped both her wrists at the small of her back with one of his hands. Her pajamas consisted of a button down top, and matching pants with an elastic waist. Mal pulled the pants down along with her underwear in one move, and started spanking her with solid swats that left pink handprints in their wake. River lay perfectly still and silent for the first twenty swats.
Mal stopped and said, "Oh no you don't, no hiding yourself away inside that head of yours. You wanted to play this game, and you don't get to finish early. I want you in the here and now for this. You tell me why you deserve this lickin'."
River squirmed once, but didn't answer. Mal refused to keep spanking until he knew River was paying attention. He said, "Your brother put his life on hold for you, and you repay him by makin' him worry for three days, and then kickin' him in the gut?"
River could hide in her head forever if she wanted to. There was no amount of pain that could draw her out. But she hadn't exactly been trying to hide from Mal as much as she'd been lost in thoughts of the future and lost in Simon's thoughts and hurt feelings. She turned her head over her shoulder to look at Mal and there were silent tears running down her face. "I hurt him."
Mal nodded and started swatting again; "Yes you did, in more ways then one. Why was that wrong?"
River stayed in the now, and when Mal started spanking again River kicked her feet and yelled out, "Oooooww! I had to!"
"Because he wouldn't listen!"
Mal stopped for a second and said, "What do you mean he wouldn't listen? Wouldn't listen to what?"
River wiped her face on her shoulder and said with a loud sniff, "Wouldn't listen to you next time if this time hadn't happened first."
"I don't understand. What next time?"
"Next time he has to trust you."
"You ain't makin' sense River."
"Sometime soon he's going to need to trust both me and you, and there won't be time to talk him into it. I had to make sure it would be automatic."
"What's gonna happen?"
"I don't know."
"But you just said…"
"I don't know for sure yet, I just know he needs to trust you."
Glaring Mal said, "Of all the… So somethin' you ain't even able to see yet made you to do all of this? Pretendin' to sleepwalk, wreckin' things, hurtin' your brother… it's all part of getting' Simon to trust me, but you don't even know why?"
River looked back over her shoulder and said with irritation, "None of the other options went to the right leaf."
Not quite sure what River was talking about, Mal said, "You can't make sound decisions about things that may or may not happen later!"
"I can't feel a bad future and not try to fix it!"
Shaking his head Mal said, "You can't fix somethin' by manipulating us, and lyin' to us!"
River shook her head. "I never said I was sleepwalking. Belinda's the one who said that first."
Mal almost started swatting again, but realized before his hand came down that those swats would be given because he was angry and frustrated, and not because they would be helpful to River. Instead he quickly pulled up her underwear and pajama bottoms, picked her up off his lap, and sat her next to him on the couch.
With confusion and surprise clearly written on her face, River looked to Mal for some kind of explanation. Mal said, "I won't give you a lickin' if you don't think what you done was wrong."
River wiped some stray tears off her face and scrutinized Mal for a few seconds. "But you think it was wrong."
"Oh I know it was wrong. I just haven't found a way to convince you yet." Mal paused to think about it and then asked, "When did you first conjure up this plan?"
"During my birthday party."
"The sleepwalking was never real?"
River gave him a conspiratory smirk and said, "Not even when I was four." Her smile faded and she looked away. "But that was because I was bored. This time was for Simon."
"You think you made him worry and kicked him for his own good?"
"There are times when I can agree with hurtin' someone for their own good. This ain't one of them. You didn't just hurt Simon either, you had all of us worried with your lies."
River shook her head, "But I didn't…."
Mal held a hand up to stop her. "First thing you said to me after pretendin' to wake up was 'What happened?', but you already knew the answer. That there is a manipulative lie. You lied every time you were pretendin' to sleepwalk and ignored the questions that I know you heard. I already gave you a lickin' for lyin' once. Do you remember why lyin' is wrong?"
River felt her face heating up a little, and she squirmed for a second on the couch before she whispered, "Because if I lie, you won't trust me."
Mal could see the slight change in her demeanor, and thought that was a step in the right direction. "After three days of lyin', Simon's gonna have a hard time trustin' you for a while. I know I am."
A couple of tears went down her face and she said, "But I did it for Simon."
"Don't matter. He ain't gonna trust someone who lies to him."
River looked away and muttered, "He trusts me." And then connected with Simon's current thoughts and feelings, and could tell his feelings of betrayal were building. After a few seconds she turned back to Mal and said with worry, "But… but he has to trust me too!"
"You're gonna have to work at getting' that trust back." Mal sighed and said, "You should'a come to me River. You should'a told me that somethin' bad was gonna happen. You should'a told me that we needed to work on Simon's trust. Even if just talking to him wasn't enough, we could'a worked together to come up with somethin' that wouldn't have been as hurtful to him. You say you did this to get Simon to trust me, but if you'd trusted me enough to tell me about it in the first place, we could'a avoided a lot of pain for both of you."
River closed her eyes as more tears came out, and she shook her head while crawling back through time and creating different pasts that could have occurred to produce roughly the same present. She was unhappy to find a number of pasts that would have hurt Simon less and still ended with him trusting Mal.
Mal wasn't sure what River was doing, but let her be for a couple of minutes. Eventually she opened her eyes and looked at Mal pleadingly. "Three days ago I couldn't see those options. I picked the only option I could see."
"And now I have to pick the only option I can see."
Looking down River said, "A spanking was inevitable. It's proof that he trusts you."
Exasperated Mal said, "If you knew this was gonna happen, and it didn't make you change your mind, then I doubt it will be of any use!"
"But you have to!"
"You want me to?"
Exasperated herself River said, "I don't want you to. I need you to."
"For Simon or for yourself?"
"Do you think you deserve it?" Mal looked at River closely waiting for an answer. If she said no, he wouldn't be able to do it.
River blushed in shame. "I didn't before. But now…. Now I know it was wrong."
Mal took her hand and pulled her back over his lap. He pulled the underpants and pajama pants back down, and started swatting just as hard as before, thinking it would be plenty painful since her bottom was already a solid pink. He said, "Okay let's try this again. Tell me why you deserve this lickin'."
River's mindset was very much in the present this time. She regretted what she had done now that she could see that there had been other options, which would have hurt Simon less. The pain was immediate and made her cry out, "Ow! Ow! I deserve it for.. Ow!.. for lying! Ow Captain!"
Mal nodded and kept spanking. "And what else?"
She kicked her feet as the smacks kept raining down. Her voice was more desperate as she said, "Ooow! For.. Ow! For hurting Simoooon!! Aaaaah!!"
River put both hands on Mal's thigh and tried to push herself forward, further away from his hand. Putting one arm around her waist, Mal hauled her back into place and kept swatting. River kicked harder and yelled, "I don't knooooooow!!" while reaching a hand back to cover her bottom.
Mal paused long enough to grab her wrist and pull it to the center of her lower back. He said, "For not trustin' me, especially since this whole thing started because you thought Simon needed to trust me."
He started swatting her again, and she called out, "I'm soooooorry!"
Nodding to himself, because he was sure she was sorry, Mal continued to swat her. He wanted to make sure she had a physical reminder of this for a few days to come, so that the lesson wouldn't get lost somewhere in her busy and jumbled mind.
Reading Mal's thoughts unintentionally, River called out, "I'll remember! Owwww! I wiiiiiiill! Captain I said I wiiiiiiill!"
When the swats didn't stop she hung her head and gave in to crying. She didn't have the air to yell anymore, but between sobs and gasps of air she said, "I'm sorry… Daddy I'm sorry."
Mal had only planned on giving her a few more swats once he heard the crying start, but was surprised into stopping when he heard her call him Daddy. Or at least he thought that's what he'd heard. She'd said it pretty quietly so he couldn't be completely sure. He let go of her hand and rubbed her back for a few minutes while she cried and he thought about it. In the end he decided it didn't matter if she'd said it or not, because that was the roll he was trying to fill right now.
"Okay let's get you upright."
Mal helped her stand up, and when she didn't make a move to fix her pants, he leaned down and pulled them up for her. He pulled her down to sit next to him on the couch and pulled her into a hug. He rubbed one hand up and down her back and said quietly, "Okay. It's all over now, and I know you're sorry for what you done."
Wrapping her arms around Mal's shoulders, River hugged him back tightly and let herself cry. After quite a few minutes she said, "I want Simon."
"Simon's sleepin' in Kaylee's bunk tonight, and he's already settled in. You can see him in the mornin'. I'm gonna stay here with you tonight."
Her crying was slowing down and she pulled out of Mal's embrace to see his face. "You're staying here to watch over me?"
He gave her a smile and wiped some tears off her face with his thumbs. He said, "Go wash up, and then I'll tuck you in so you can get back to sleep."
She got up and both hands immediately went to her rear and rubbed. "Ow." She said with a pout, "It hurts a lot more then last time."
"You misbehaved a lot more then last time. Go on now, get ready for bed."
River went to wash up, and a few minutes later when she came out of the bathroom Mal got up and followed her to her bedroom. She got in under the covers, and Mal sat on the edge of her bed after she was settled. He said, "Next time you see something worrisome in the future you to tell me about it, even if you don't think that's the best solution to the problem. Dong ma?"
"And first thing tomorrow, you're going to tell your brother that you're sorry for kickin' him, and makin' him worry."
He leaned down and gave her a kiss on the forehead. "Sleep tight. No more sleepwalkin'."
He got up and turned the lights off on the way. Before he shut her door she said, "Captain?"
Smiling softly he said, "You're welcome."
The next morning Simon woke up and looked around confused for a second. He saw Kaylee, who was already awake, and said, "Morning."
She gave him a kiss and then said, "Mornin'. How's your innards?"
He pulled the covers down and looked at his stomach. There was no discoloration where he'd been kicked. Sitting up and wincing slightly, Simon said, "It's a little sore, but it will be fine. No internal damage."
"I can't believe she kicked you."
Simon didn't respond. The pain of her betrayal was too fresh in his mind. "I.. I need to go talk to her."
Kaylee sat up and gave Simon a quick hug. "I don't know what was goin' through her mind. Maybe she don't know either. But I do know she loves you."
Letting him go so she could look into his eyes, she said, "I know it in my heart, and I can see it in her eyes every time she tells me stories about you."
Leaning in, Simon gave her a quick kiss and whispered, "Thank you," before getting up to get dressed.
A few minutes later he was climbing down the ladder into his quarters, and saw that Mal was already awake and sitting on the couch. Before he even got off the ladder Simon asked, "How is she?"
Mal stood and said, "Ain't talked to her yet this mornin', but she was fine last night. We had a long talk and came to an understanding. How's your gut?"
"It's fine. What kind of understanding?"
Mal walked towards River's door and said, "She thought she was doin' the right thing, and I convinced her she wasn't."
He knocked on her door and called out, "River. Time to wake up. Simon's here."
Simon crossed his arms, hating the helpless feeling that came over him. Knowing what Mal had done, and hating him for doing it, but not exactly thinking he'd been wrong to do it all at the same time.
Mal saw Simon's look and walked over to him. He put a hand on Simon's shoulder and said, "I know you hate it, but it's what she needed. She even thanked me when it was done."
Shaking his head, and not quite believing that one, Simon was about to protest when a sleepy looking River came out of her room. She saw Simon and immediately went to him, giving him a fierce hug. "I'm so sorry I kicked you Simon."
Mal decided it was time to make himself scarce. "I need to go… check on Zoe." He climbed up the latter and shut the hatch behind himself.
Simon ignored Mal's exit and hugged River back tightly. He was never able to stay angry with her for any significant length of time, and after hearing her apologize, he honestly meant it when he said, "It's okay."
River let him go, and had tears in her eyes when she said, "No. It's not. You always take care of me, and… and it was mean of me to kick you."
A couple of tears went down her face as she was talking. Simon pulled her back into a hug and said, "It wasn't nice, but I'm not mad about it anymore." After a pause he added, "It's not the first time you've kicked me you know."
She thought about it and said with confusion, "It's not?"
He let her go and said with a smile, "You kicked me a bunch of times when you were two. You understood everything, but you couldn't speak very well yet, and you'd get so frustrated when someone didn't understand what you were trying to say, you'd kick them."
She looked down, "Don't try to make me feel better."
Simon put a knuckle under her chin and made her look at him. "Well you did tell me to stay out of it last night. I just didn't want to listen."
"I'm sorry about the past three days too."
Simon found that a little less easy to forgive, and needed to know her reasoning. "Can you tell me why you did it?"
"We were on the wrong tree. All the branches turned into rotten leaves, so I had to find a new tree… But then after the Captain talked to me, I could see branches that were hidden before."
Shaking his head Simon said, "I don't understand."
"I knew things were going to go wrong in the future, and I needed to make sure that you had more trust in the Captain."
Simon shook his head even more, "So you're saying you did this for me?"
River nodded. Simon said with anger, "Instead of telling me things were going to go wrong, you lied to me? Lied to everyone? Made it all up like some kind of… elaborate game?"
Looking at him with pleading eyes she said, "I wanted to make you trust Mal the way you used to trust Daddy before he turned on us."
His anger went away, and left in it's place was just sadness. He said tiredly, "River, it's impossible for me to feel that way about anyone ever again."
River put a hand on his face and looked into his past with him. "Because Gabriel hurt you so much. You think if you trust someone again, they'll hurt you too, and that will kill you inside."
Uncomfortable with her reading him he took a few steps away and said, "I just… I just can't."
"Yes you can. You've already started; you just haven't accepted it yet. It's easier for me, because I've always had you to trust. Mal's a good Daddy… his name's a contradiction."
Cringing Simon said, "Don't say Mal and Daddy in the same sentence."
After a pause River said, "I am sorry for lying. And for making you worry."
Simon didn't necessarily agree with her methods, but knowing she had done it all to try and help him made it easier for him to forgive her. And he believed she was sorry. He knew he'd been sorry after both of the 'talks' he'd had with Mal. Instead of telling her he accepted her apology he raised an eyebrow and said, "Are you sorry for wrecking my exam table."
Looking away River mumbled, "I hate that table."
"I know you do, so you used this as an excuse to wreck it, didn't you?"
She crossed her arms defensively; "I don't see why that matters."
River gave him a confused look and watched as a smile formed on Simon's face. "Telling?"
"I'm going to go find dear old 'Captain Dad' and tell him you wrecked it on purpose just because you hated it."
River started to smile as well. It had been a long time, but this was familiar, and she remembered how to play. "Noooo, don't tell!"
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't tell."
"Because you love me."
He gave her an exaggerated sigh, pleased that she had remembered and given him her standard answer. "You're a brat."
"I'll make it up to you. I promise."
River thought about that one. The last time they'd played this out she'd been ten, and somehow the offer of letting Simon have the last popsicle didn't seem right anymore. But then even at ten she knew that Simon didn't actually want the last popsicle, he just wanted an excuse to forgive her. "I'll give you the chocolate I bought at our last stop."
Simon laughed at that and then said his usual line. "Okay, but only if you're really sorry about it."
"I am," she said with sincerity.
"Then I forgive you mei mei."
She hugged him one more time and whispered, "Thank you for understanding."
"The part I don't understand is what's going to happen in the future? Why do you think I need to trust Mal?"
"I can't see that yet," she said as she pulled away from him.
Frowning with worry Simon said, "But you'll tell me when you do?"
"I'm hungry. Let's get ready for breakfast."
Simon didn't like that answer. He said, "River I…"
Ignoring him, River headed to the bathroom to take a shower. She wasn't sure if she would tell Simon about it once she was able to see what had been worrying her. That would depend on what that future was. But even if she didn't think she should, she knew would tell Mal about it.