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Ship's Wards

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She’s getting worse, isn’t she?

Simon could hear the question rattling around in his head in every quiet moment. Even after Ariel, there was still no guarantee he could help River. It was just…there were so many possibilities, probabilities. River would understand it better than he would. His sister had always been so much better at seeing the larger patterns. He knew what they’d done to her, but that elusive why continued to peck at him. He was afraid that even knowing what they’d done, the Captain’s words would come again.

She’s getting worse, isn’t she?

Lying to the crew, to the captain, had seemed like the soundest plan when they first arrived. It was a little lie that kept other questions at bay. He wasn’t the only one who wasn’t being completely truthful about themselves. Everyone on this ship had secrets. It did make it easier to deal with the captain on even footing though.

Simon’s mother used to say he and River were Irish twins. Born one year apart, near to the day. There was even a day every year when they were the same age. Just the one, but River had always gloated about it. Their father had always been delighted to have two prodigies in the family, with Simon finished medical school at fifteen and a half, River at the Academy. Two perfect children. Well, until Simon’s father disowned him.

He didn’t think his father would find River perfect now.

Then, Gabriel Tam wasn’t really a good man. Simon had realized that. He hadn’t wanted to.

“You’re thinking of bad things.” River dangled upside down on her bed. “Gabriel isn’t worth thinking about.”

“I appreciate the sentiment mei-mei, but it’s hard not to think about him.”

River shrugged. “He abandoned me. You. He’s not family anymore.”

“I won’t argue that.” Simon ran a hand through his hair. “I was worrying more about someone doing math.”

“I know.” She tilted her head up. “Why hide? Kaylee is seventeen. The captain listens to her. You’ve proven capable too.”

“I—it’s hard to explain.” Simon sighed. “I just want him to see me as an adult. Nothing more. If he knows I’m not even eighteen…I feel like the power dynamics will shift. And Jayne? He’s a brute as it is.”

River sat up. “You scared him. I scared him. He knows we’re dangerous now.”

That was true. “You think he’ll still be so accommodating if he knew?”

“I think I can kill him with my brain.” River smiled. “Or a scalpel.”

“That’s comforting.” Simon grinned. “You did scare him.”

“I did.” She shook her hair away from her face. “At some point though, your secret will be out.”

“Not necessarily.”

“There is a difference between juvenile and adult fugitive alerts.” River blinked. “The juvenile alerts are blue, adult alerts are red.”

“Somehow, I doubt anyone on board will take notice.” He checked the time. “Come on, dinner time.”

River sighed. “Honesty is the best policy.”

“Just leave it alone, River. Please.”

“I will.”

Though there was a definite unspoken, for now.

***

“New Cortex blast came through,” Mal remarked casually, leaning in the infirmary doorway. “They raised the bounty on you and your sister.”

“How exciting.”

“It is a bit.” Mal licked his lips. “Might be you should stay on the ship this time around. Stay hid.”

“Don’t I usually?”

“It’s just a mite more important now. Updates mean attention and the bounty is big enough to make anyone stupid.”

“I don’t have a death wish, I’ll stay put.”

“Good to hear.” Mal smiled. “See you when we get back.”

Simon let out a breath in relief when Mal turned to walk away.

“Oh,” Mal turned back and Simon straightened. “And when I get back, maybe you’ll want to explain to me why you lied about your age.”

“Uh—”

“Like I said, later.” Mal gave a little wave and sauntered off.

“Well, shit.”

“I told you so,” River said in a sing-song. “Don’t worry.”

“Right. Because not worrying is totally my forte.”

River smiled. “But now Kaylee will know.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“It’s customary, isn’t it? She’s underage, you are underage, so you can date like normal teenagers instead of pining.”

“I do not pine.”

“You do.” She kept smiling. “You should have told her before now anyhow.”

“When I need relationship advice from my little sister, I’ll let you know.”

River shrugged and skipped away, humming to herself.

Simon sighed, and wondered briefly if it might be better for him if he left Serenity. River would be safe, Mal had proved that over and over again. He couldn’t leave River though, she was his family. All the family he had left in the ‘verse. He wouldn’t leave her. Which meant he’d just have to find a way to live with Mal knowing he was a teenager.

“Simon?” Inara knocked on the threshold. “I’m putting together a game of cards. Would you care to join?”

“Sure. Who’s still here?”

“You, me, Kaylee, Shepherd Book and River. Though River said something about watching the stars.” Inara gestured broadly.

“That sounds like her.” Simon followed Inara to the kitchen. “Hey, Kaylee.”

“Hey. Ready to get your ass beat at cards?”

“I’ll have you know, I am very good at cards.” Simon sat down. “I was banned from playing in the resident’s regular game, sore losers.”

Kaylee grinned. “Well, that sounds like a challenge, Doc.”

Simon grinned back. “You are so going to be doing dishes for the next month.”

“Oh, bring it on.”

***

Mal and the others returned successful from their criminal enterprise, not that Simon had doubted they would. They had a luck that had to be seen to be believed. He was in his quarters when they returned, but hiding out seemed like the safer option.

“Hey Doc.”

Simon startled. “It’s customary to knock before entering someone’s quarters, Captain.”

“Aye, it’s a bit rude of me not to.” Mal smiled. “But, I didn’t want you to rabbit on me. Hence the sneakery.”

Simon shook his head. “It’s not important you know. My age.”

“Then why’d you lie about it?” Mal folded his arms across his chest, leaning against the wall. “Eh?”

“Yes, because you would have been so much more accommodating to a seventeen-year-old.” Simon wiped one hand down his face. “I was already presenting you with an impossible story.”

Mal licked his lips. “I don’t know what I would’ve thought at the time. Might not’ve punched you in the face so many times.” His eyes narrowed. “You know my rules on this ship well enough. You being underage only changes a couple a things.”

“Like what?” Simon frowned.

“Well, for one, that means you and River are the wards of this ship. Well, the captain. So me. Just like Kaylee.”

Wards? I have a medical degree!”

“And I respect that. I don’t see it interfering none to change your status a bit. And it ain’t like I’m asking. Rules are the same across the ‘verse. You take on a crew member underage, you take responsibility for them. You can still do your job.” Mal raised an eyebrow. “Attitude isn’t going to change anything.”

“I turn eighteen in less than a year, it’s pointless.”

“Yeah, and age of majority is twenty-one.”

“That only applies to government wards.”

“I think I know the law in this regard pretty well,” Mal replied mildly. “Now then. Second thing this is gonna change is me ignoring you staying up all hours of the night in the infirmary, skipping meals and the like.”

Simon raised his eyebrows. “You’re joking.”

“I’m really not. Adults ought to know better, and as I thought you were grown it seemed best to let you be. But now, well now I know you ain’t. You can still learn a few things about self-preservation.” Mal gave him a look. “So, do we have an understanding?”

Simon actually had a sense of self-preservation, despite what Mal might think. “Yes.”

“Good.” Mal smiled. “Then I’ll see you at dinner.”

This was going to be just…great.

***

“Wards.” River fiddled with a soup label. “Protected.” She blinked. “Okay.”

Mal shook his head. “Okay.” He glanced at Simon. “See? That was easy.”

“Easy. Right.” Simon made a face. “What about Jayne?”

“Don’t worry about Jayne,” Zoey said. “He knows better. Captain taking on a ward is a serious thing. He won’t mess with you over it.” She flashed a smile. “I might give you a bit of a hard time. Just for fun.”

“Thanks,” Simon muttered.

“It’s not all bad,” Kaylee said, putting the soup pot on the table. She gave Simon a warm smile. “Captain’s a good man, or my parents never would let me join up.”

“I appreciate that. Not like my parents care one way or another.” Simon shook his head. “I’m not sure if they ever did.” He was feeling a bit nostalgic today. Thinking back, his parents had really only seemed to care about River and him so far as they were able to show them off to their friends. He and River might as well have been show ponies. “Anyway, dinner smells great.” He pasted on a smile.

“That it does,” Mal said. “Nice work, Kaylee.”

“Thanks, Captain.” She flashed a bright smile and plopped down next to Simon. “C’mon River. You gotta eat.”

River hummed but wandered over to the table. “Calories are important.”

“You got that right.” Mal smiled. “Sit down, little albatross.”

River sat. “Family dinners promote socialization and bonding.”

A smile flickered across Simon’s lips. He remembered her using that argument on their parents a few times. Insisting she and Simon would be improperly socialized with regular family meals. It’d worked. River was always very good at getting logic to work for her.

Simon did agree, a little. This wasn’t bad. The comradery felt good. This odd little ship with its slightly murderous crew did, on occasion, feel a bit like a family.

He didn’t think it would last, but he’d hold onto the moments that he could. For River.

For River.

***

“Hey, Simon,” Kaylee looked in Simon. “How long you been up?”

Simon blinked. “Is it morning?”

“Yup.” She shook her head. “You are in sooo much trouble.”

“Huh?”

“Didn’t Mal give the whole speech about sleeping and eating and, you know, taking care of yourself?” Kaylee raised her eyebrows.

“Yeah, but given that I am not a toddler, I made the decision to keep working on this.” Simon rubbed his eyes. “I could use a caffeine pill though.”

“So much trouble.” Kaylee shook her head.

“He doesn’t know everything that happens on this ship,” Simon replied. He grabbed a caffeine pill and swallowed it dry. “I’ll grab a nap later.” He headed out of the infirmary. “I’m getting so close to the right drug cocktail for River. I have to keep trying.”

“Yeah, but you ain’t gonna be any good to her half-asleep.” Kaylee sighed. “I won’t tell the captain, but that don’t mean he won’t figure it out. He’s pretty perceptive.”

“I’ll take my chances, thanks.”

Kaylee shook her head again. “You’ll see.”

Simon rolled his eyes and headed back to his room to splash a little water on his face and change his shirt.

“You were up,” River said. “Didn’t sleep?”

“I was working.”

River wrinkled her nose. “You work too hard.”

“I’m okay, really.”

“Gonna get in trouble.”

“You and Kaylee need to stop worrying about me.”

“Never gonna happen.” River smiled and skipped off to breakfast.

Simon sighed. This whole ward business wasn’t really going to change anything. No matter what Kaylee or River thought. He was still the ship’s doctor. He was still Simon Tam. And he definitely did not need anyone being parental toward him now.

 He headed into the kitchen. Eating something would help diminish the effect of the caffeine pill and some of the fatigue.

“Doc.” Mal stopped him in the guest quarter lounge. “You look a mite tired.”

“Captain. I was just headed to breakfast.”

Mal peered at him a bit more closely. “When did you go to bed last night?”

Simon blinked. “A little later than usual.”

“And the time was?” Mal pressed.

“Eleven or so, I think it was.” Simon wasn’t sure what Mal was after here.

“That’s funny, cause I saw you in the infirmary around midnight.” Mal raised an eyebrow. “Now, what time did you go to bed?”

Simon felt his own displeasure rise. “As if you’ve got a right to ask!”

“Now then, that’s an awfully hostile way to reply to an easy question.” Mal was still all mild querying.

“I didn’t,” Simon snapped. “Happy now?”

“Not particularly. Seeing how you maybe got to bed around two am the night before.” He shook his head. “What did I say about things changing around here in regards to yourself?”

“Something about you not ignoring my bad habits.” Simon frowned. “And it doesn’t matter. I don’t need anyone looking after me like I’m still in primary school.”

“I’m thinking you do.” Mal took him by the arm. “And seeing how you got all of zero hours sleep last night, a nap ought to do you some good. I’ll wake you for lunch.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“I think you’re gonna find I don’t rightly care what you think this is, boy.” Mal escorted him back to his room. “I told you I wasn’t going to ignore you anymore. I told you I take this seriously. I figured you’d need a demonstration sooner rather than later, so it’s okay that you pushed. I can handle that.”

Simon had no earthly idea what Malcolm meant, and he wasn’t keen to find out. Of course, what he wanted and what Mal was going to do didn’t exactly align. Mal deposited Simon in his room, closing the door behind them.

“I should tell you firstly, from now on you’ll be going to bed at ten sharp, every night, until I know you’re sleeping on the regular. You don’t get up until six at the earliest. You start skipping meals and I’ll make you eat all of them with me.”

Simon grimaced. “If you’re done—”

“Oh, we ain’t done yet.” Mal sat down on Simon’s bed, snagged the boy’s wrist and yanked him over his lap.

“What are you doing?” Simon squeaked.

“Demonstrating my dedication to your well-being.” Mal held Simon tight. “It’s your first time, I reckon, so we’ll do this with your trousers up, but you start skipping sleep again, you won’t get that privilege.”

Simon had made the connection between the position, the comment and all of it, he just hadn’t found a way to voice it. “You can’t be serious!”

“About spanking you? I can assure you, I am serious.” Mal laid down one hard swat to prove his point.

“Ow!” Simon thrashed. “Let me go!”

“I don’t think so, little boy.” Mal held tighter and got to work. He worked precisely, making a circuit around his wriggling charge’s rear. Top, center, bottom, left to right. Working around to paint an even image of his displeasure. “You’re going to think about this the next time you start to think I’m gonna ignore you not taking care of yourself. You’re gettin’ a little extra to, on account of you lying to me.”

“When did I lie?”

“When I asked about when you went to bed, about five minutes ago.” Mal shook his head. “You know, for a smart kid, you can be very foolish.” He swatted harder.

Simon yelped. “I hate you!”

“That’s all right.” Malcolm shook his head. “I got experience with being hated, don’t bother me much these days.” He lifted his leg, tilting Simon down. He wanted to finish this and put the boy to bed for his nap. He changed up his circuit to include the sensitive skin that would meet whatever chair Simon sat in. He’d be certain to feel it for a bit.

Simon voiced his displeasure at this additional chastisement, holding back his tears in a desperate attempt to keep some sense of composure in the situation. But with Mal lighting his ass on fire, it was getting harder, and harder, and then his composure dissolved all together. The tears started with the repetition of curses he slung at Mal.

Mal smiled. If the boy was cursing at him, they’d definitely gotten somewhere. He made another circuit before delivering a final dozen swats to Simon’s seat and stopping. “All right then, we’re done.” He pat Simon’s back gently and let the boy up.

Simon gave him a vicious look—and swung at him. Mal shook his head, catching Simon by the arm and pulling him in for a hug.

“Now, now, none of that, my boy.” Mal held up tight in his arms. “You took your lickin’, time to settle.”

Simon was a ball of uncertain emotions. The anger was still there, but for reasons he couldn’t muster, he started to cry harder. Sobbing into Mal’s shoulder like a heartbroken child.

“I got you,” Mal continued, rubbing slow circles on Simon’s back. “I got you.”

Simon’s fatigue was catching up with him now. Dragging on his limbs and drawing his eyes closed. “I-I still hate you,” he mumbled.

“That’s all right. So long as you listen. You are going to listen, aren’t you, Simon?”

“Yes, sir,” Simon managed.

“Good.” Mal maneuvered Simon into bed, laying the boy down on his stomach and tucking him in with care. “Go to sleep now.”

Simon’s eyes closed. The young doctor was still mumbling a few curses, but Mal just smiled and smoothed Simon’s hair back from his face.

“Kids.” Mal shook his head, waiting patiently until Simon was deep asleep and even a bit after that, before heading out. River was just outside. She tilted her head and stared at Mal.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“You punished Simon for not taking care of himself.”

“I did.” Mal eyed her. “You got a problem with that?”

“No.” She shook her head. “I want Simon to care about himself. Gabriel didn’t care that Simon didn’t care. He was not a good father. You have a lot of bad habits to help him break.”

“Is that a warning?”

“Yes.” She blinked. “I might have bad habits too.”

“If you do, we’ll handle them together. Come on, your brother needs his nap. We can play a game.”

“All right.” River nodded, and followed Mal off the deck.