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Meeting the Challenge


Denial only gets your so far.

Romance / Scifi
Kristin McKenna
Age Rating:

Meeting the Challenge

The black slowly fades to gray, a sickly sort of steel punctuated by a bright, blinding light, and Mal's first thought is to wonder if he's dead, but that thought is immediately overruled by the stabbing pain in his temple, a weight bearing down on his chest making it hard to breath, the simple fact that he has to breath.

"Wo de ma..." It comes out soft, scratchy and foreign to his own ears. He clears his throat, slamming his eyes shut against the light and tries again. "What happened?"

"You were knocked unconscious," Simon says very matter-of-factly and in a way that has Mal wishing he could jump up and prove that he ain't no weakling, that a silly little blow to the head isn't going to stop him from taking control of his ship.

He opens his eyes, intent on doing just that, pain or no, but there's the Doc standing over him, ready with yet another light to shine in his eyes for no discernable reason.

When the spots fade and Mal can see properly again, Simon is back across the room, face neutral, jotting something down on a sheaf of paper.

"You'll be fine," he replies to Mal's unasked question, still irritatingly calm, "but you did crack a few ribs when you hit those rocks, so I'm insisting that you stay in bed for a few days."

"Like Hell," Mal mutters, completely missing Simon's weary "And yes, the cargo is fine." Mal pushes himself up on his elbows, ignoring the fact that the pain is so fierce he can't breath for a moment. He knows Simon is right, but that superior tone borders on a challenge, and Mal ain't never one to back down from a challenge. "I got a ship to run."

"Zoe has the bridge," Simon informs him. The boy is silent as a cat, and before Mal knows it, he's back by the bedside, palm on Mal's sternum to press him gently back down, mindful to keep his hands away from any sore spots. But even if the Doc ain't hurting him, there's still a fire along his side making his vision blur and turning his muscles to jelly so that even that slight pressure has him tumbling back down, head hitting the pillow with a thump.

"Who told her she could do that?" Oh, he was fine with Zoe taking command. What he was not fine with was anyone assuming he was down for the count.

"I did."

And now he's filling a syringe with God knows what.

"This is my ship, boy."

"And you're my patient."

The syringe is in Mal's arm, plunger being depressed even as Mal says, "You're not doping me."

"Of course not," Simon agrees sarcastically, his eyes finally slipping up to meet Mal's, a hint of a smile on his lips.

And damn, but that boy needs a talking to. Mal opens his mouth to let loose a string of curses, but his tongue is a thick, heavy thing in his mouth that doesn't seem to be working right. Simon's face looms above him, outlined by the overhead lights in a halo that makes him seem incredibly soft, but the light soon dims, and then everything is black once more.

When Mal opens his eyes again, the brightness and most of the pain is gone. There is merely a dull throb halfway down his left side, and the only thing constricting his movements is the thin blanket tucked tight to his chin.

He could get up, should get up and check on the state of his ship, but he has to admit that the bed—his own bed, he realizes—is quite comfortable, and as long as no one's watching him, might as well lay back and relax.

There's nothing but black outside the window and the ever present hum of the engine through the walls and floor. Everything's fine, Serenity tells him, sleep some more.

Mal's about to do just that when the nearly inaudible slip of a page turning tells Mal that he's far from alone. He shoots up, head swinging toward the sound, fighting back a cringe as pain flares in his chest and side.

Simon looks up from his seat in Mal's armchair and smiles very slightly. "Good morning."

"Get out of my room."

But Simon doesn't even dignify that with a response; he merely lays his book aside and stands, crossing the room to take up Mal's wrist, his soft, pale fingers pressing against the pulse point. Mal makes to jerk out of reach, but the gorram boy is stronger than he looks and keeps a firm hold on his arm.

Nodding in satisfaction, Simon finally lets Mal go, returning to his chair only to retrieve his red bag.

"Are you in pain?" he asks, sifting through a series of plastic containers.


"Of course not." Finding what he's apparently looking for, Simon taps two round white pills into his palm and extends his hand to Mal. "Swallow these."

"I ain't taking no drugs."

"Don't worry," Simon assures him, taking up Mal's hand and pressing the pills into it, "this won't knock you out."

With nothing short of a deadly scowl, Mal accepts the pills and the glass of water Simon retrieves shortly after. He doesn't swallow them straight away, however—just continues to glare.

"Didn't I tell you to get the hell out of my room?"

Again Simon doesn't answer, just smiles and retakes both seat and book, ignoring Mal.

It frustrates him to no end, but he gets it. Doc wants to watch over him but give him the illusion of privacy. Knows Mal won't show any sign of weakness when the boy's eyes are on him. With a weary sigh, Mal finally takes the pills, no water, placing the glass on the floor by his bed. Simon's smile widens even as his eyes stay focused on the words before him.

Damn him. "If I'm so fine, then what are you doing here?"

And there might be just a bit of fear behind those words, but Mal ignores it. The fear washes away immediately when Simon looks up again. There ain't nothing wrong with him; the boy just wants to be there.

Mal can see it in his eyes, that damned concern. That Thing between them that the boy insists on feeling and Mal insists on pretending doesn't exist. He heaves a very heavy sigh and waves Simon away. "Go on. Get out of here."

"I'm watching over my patient."

Whatever. "Shouldn't you be watching over your girlfriend?"

Simon is silent a moment, watching Mal with unreadable eyes. "I don't have a girlfriend."

"You don't..." Mal starts incredulously and then pauses, struck by the seriousness of Simon's tone. He couldn't have been out for more than a day; what in the 'Verse could have happened in such short a time? "All right," he growls, sitting up straight and leaning back against the shelves behind his bed to face Simon properly. "What did you do?"

"I didn't do anything."

"If you hurt her–"

"This is none of your business!"

"Son," Mal hisses, loud and furious, scaring the boy's mouth shut, "everything that goes on in my ship is my business. Whatever you done to her, you get your ass up out of my chair and apologize. Now. I won't have my mechanic a wreck when I need her."

Simon stays absolutely still, lips pressed into a thin, white line.

"Boy..." Mal warns.

Just one more second passes, and then Simon is up and out of his seat, bag in hand. "Fine," he says, eyes never leaving Mal's. His words are tight, clipped. "I'll go right now and apologize to Kaylee for dumping me."

He's out the door before Mal can say another word.

A few days later, Mal is finally up and about. He'd only seen either Kaylee or Simon in passing or at meals, but there seems to be no tension between them. It has him flabbergasted. By all rights, the boy must have said some dumb thing or another, meaning Kaylee would have had a little fit and dropped him. If that were the case, though, Mal would know. Kaylee was never one to hide her feelings well.

But she's not mad, not in the slightest. A little sad, mayhaps, and Mal catches her watching Simon at meal times, but when they talk, it's perfectly civil. Still, they wouldn't have made up, not when they hadn't spent more than meals in each others' presence for three days.

Mal is crossing the catwalk on his way to the bridge when Kaylee's voice drifts up from the cargo bay floor, and her words stop Mal in his tracks.

"You coulda just told me you was sly."

Mal looks down over the railing to see Kaylee and Simon side by side on Jayne's workout bench. They're not touching, not even looking at each other, both just staring off at the opposite wall. Mal doesn't think he's ever seen Kaylee so still in all the time he's known her.

Simon sighs. "Kaylee," he says in that pleading tone he's so fond of, "I'm not."

"I mean, I seen the looks you give the captain," she goes on as though he hadn't even spoken, "but I didn't think nothing of it. And Jayne's been telling me for ages, but I just thought he was jealous. Told him you was just refined."

"I'm..." Simon is blushing now, so hard that Mal can tell even from a distance. "I like you. I don't... I don't look at the captain..."

"Everyone sees the way you look at the captain," a new voice chimes in, and Mal moves his gaze to see Zoe climbing through the door from the direction of the infirmary.

Simon had tensed at her words, but Zoe pays neither Simon nor Kaylee any mind, barely glances at them as she moves to check on the cargo.

"I don't," Simon protests weakly.

Zoe simply laughs, and Kaylee runs a sympathetic hand through the hair at Simon's nape. "It's okay," she says quietly. "I'm not mad. Just disappointed."

And watching this display just confuses Mal. Of course he's seen the way the boy looks at him, but it wasn't his business. Now, however, knowing he was the reason for Simon and Kaylee's break up, despite Simon's protests, just fills him with anger. It sickens him to see the way Kaylee tries to comfort Simon, love still shining brightly in her eyes.

"Don't ya'll have work to be doing?" Mal calls down to them, gratified when Simon gasps and colors yet further.

He begins to stutter some excuse, but Mal doesn't stick around to hear it. He's got things to be doing himself after all. He had planned on heading straight to the cockpit to check on how much longer it'd be till Santo, but now he takes a detour, heading for the kitchen to pull out a plastic tumbler and a jug of Kaylee's home brew, wishing it was something stronger.

The alcohol goes down easy, and Mal leans back against the counter, closing his eyes and letting his mind wonder on thoughts he'd rather not be thinking. There's a lot about the Doc that reminds Mal of Inara: the cleanliness, the fine manners and even finer speech, not to mention the absolute feel of forbidden fruit he carries. He's just as frustrating, maybe even more fun to frustrate back, but Mal doesn't quite know what that means.

It's their Thing, that Thing that he ignores, hoping he'll just wake up one day and it'll be gone. Same Thing he's got going on with Inara, but the Doc ain't no whore, got more morals and a softer tongue, and he's strong...an equal, much as Mal is loathe to admit it. It's not easy to find equals out in the black, and it's part of the reason he keeps the boy on. Still, doesn't mean he's like to take the boy into his bed any time soon.

"Care too much."

Eyes still closed, Mal smiles. "That so, little one?"

He hadn't heard River approach, but the next time she speaks, she seems almost right on top of him.

"Don't want to like the circus, but you get sick on the cotton candy."

Mal chuckles. "Never liked sweets myself," he says. He opens his eyes, and yes, there's River not two feet in front of him, leaning forward and peering up into his eyes, her own distant and smiling. She nods and wags a finger admonishingly.

"Can't have the circus without the lion and the bearded lady."

Mal has to wonder when it stopped worrying him that everything River says made perfect sense. He takes another sip from his cup with a sigh. "I never asked to be the ring master."

She doesn't answer, simply watches him, studies him, her dark eyes skipping back and forth as she looks over his face.

It's finally starting to make Mal uncomfortable. He knows she can see into his mind, delving into things he hadn't even realized were there. He pushes off the counter and stands straight, hoping in vain that his height will remind her just who's captain here, and tries to change the subject.

A light smile plays across his lips in an attempt to bring back some levity. "You got any light to shine on this situation your brother's got himself into?"

River nods. "I saw it. The day we met."

The clarity of that sentence startles Mal and confuses him all the same. It's one of the most coherent things she's ever uttered, and it makes no sense. The day she met her brother? But then River is continuing, and Mal loses track of exactly where she had been taking him.

"Tries to make the blood go away, but it was on his mouth. Likes it there."

Mal stares at her. She watches him for a moment and then sighs and straightens herself. "He is such a boob."

That Mal can deal with—no riddles or double entendres. He reaches out to ruffle River's hair affectionately.

"Go pilot my ship, girl."

"Aye aye, Captain." She gives him a salute and skips off toward the bridge.

Mal watches her go. She pauses just short of the door and speaks to someone down the corridor and out of Mal's line of sight.

"He's waiting for you," she says, and Mal can hear the smile on her lips.

Then she's gone, but Mal keeps his eyes on the door, knowing who's on the other side but hoping to hell he's mistaken. He's not, of course.

Simon takes a hesitant step into the kitchen, eyes on Mal for maybe half a second before they dart away to stare at anything and everything else.

"About what you heard in the cargo bay..." he says quietly, and then pauses, actually looking Mal in the eye. "How much did you hear, anyway?"

Mal shrugs. "Enough." He doesn't want to be having this conversation now, doesn't want to be having it ever for that matter, so before Simon can continue, Mal hurries to end it before it's begun. "It don't bother me none if you're sly–"

"I'm not," Simon interrupts, but Mal ignores him.

"–just stay away from me and we're square, got it?"

Simon is blushing again, but he looks furious, and Mal takes a moment to wonder just which circus freak represents him. Something about te Doc's anger makes Mal want to play, even now when he wishes this conversation wasn't happening.

"If you think," Simon is spitting out, eyes hard, "that I would ever–"

"I must admit that I have a right fine ass," Mal smiles, running a hand over the back of his pants, all light and sunshine now, giving the boy a shit-eating grin when Simon cuts himself off, eyes inevitably darting down to where Mal is still caressing himself. "It's no wonder that you fancy me, but I don't swing that way, son."

It's far too easy and far too fun to get the boy flustered, and Mal's enjoying every second of the crimson staining Simon's cheeks, his mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water.

With quite the show of self control, Simon gathers himself enough to once again meet Mal's eyes and say, "I have not once thought about your ass."

"Oh, come on now," Mal says, chuckling. He turns slightly to show off the well defined curves. "Not even a little?"


Now he's far too composed to be any fun, so Mal kicks it up a notch. "Well, I know you thought about kissing me. I seen you watching my mouth." And he hasn't, not really, but Simon averts his eyes, telling Mal all he needs to know.

"I don't want to kiss you."

"Sure you do." Mal lays his cup aside to take a swaggering step toward Simon. "Hell, I'd kiss myself if I had the chance. I am one damn fine looking man." Simon snorts; the sound pisses Mal off just a bit, but he doesn't let on, just gets right in Simon's face. "You know you want to."

"Do you want me to kiss you?" Simon asks incredulously, inadvertently taking a step back. A little noise, a nasal kind of scoff leaves him on a breath, and it is so righteous, so uppity that Mal has no choice but to reply, "Well maybe I do."

And aw hell, he had not meant to say that. Mal bites back a curse, blaming it on the Doc's gorram tone and his own qing wa cao de need to meet any challenge head on.

Simon looks absolutely taken aback. Mal's eyes leave him for a fraction of a second as he catches a hint of movement. He can see the girls crowded into the open doorway, Zoe's wry smile, Kaylee's big, round eyes and Inara's... oh, sweet mother of Jesus, Inara's here, too? How in the hell hadn't he noticed her earlier?

He has to fix this. Now.

Drawing himself up—taking full advantage of his height over the boy—Mal looks down on Simon and sneers, "You don't have it in you."

That was probably not the best thing to say if the flush of anger and determination in Simon's eyes is any indication. Still, the boy's keeping a tight reign on his self worth as he mutters, "This is ridiculous."

Mal does not like to be called ridiculous. He forgets everything else, the fact that he was, in fact, trying to get the hell out of this argument, the fact that he wanted to save face in front of Inara—even her sheer presence. Everything narrows down to the man in front of him. Simon's eyes are once again averted, the color slowly fading from his cheeks but leaving his lips a soft red. He's breathing in quick, shallow pants.

Mal thinks he must be not much better off. It must be a lack of oxygen that's leaving him light headed or maybe Kaylee's moonshine is getting to him. He stumbles forward a step, one hand stretched out to grasp at Simon's forearm in an attempt to regain his balance. He plays it off by gripping the cloth and skin beneath tightly, aiming to leave bruises, but all that registers is the strength of the muscles under his fingers. It comes to Mal again; this man is his equal.

They're so close that with every breath Simon's chest brushes Mal's.

"Don't call me ridiculous, boy," Mal says. It comes out little more than a growl.

When Mal had moved forward, Simon's eyes had immediately gone back to him. Simon watches him now, his gaze a mixture of anger and lust, but unlike Mal he can think past his emotions and grins.

"You do want to kiss me."

He does. Of course he does. "Best shut up, boy."

And then Simon's hands are sliding up Mal's chest, arms snaking around his neck to pull him down. "My pleasure."

The next thing Mal knows, Simon's lips are on his, tongue slipping out to caress Mal's lower lip, coaxing him into opening up, and Mal obliges without thought. There's no need for thought when the man feels so gorram good against him.

The kiss is just another fight, another test to try and show Mal up, but Mal sure as hell won't let that happen. He chases Simon's tongue back into his mouth, exploring the other man, sliding over the sharp angles of his teeth and curve of his lips, only satisfied when he pulls a feral groan from him.

Finally finding the presence of mind to back off, Mal pulls away, breathing heaving through still parted lips.

"Like that?" he whispers.

And even though Simon's eyes are glazed over, lips dark and swollen, he still manages a smile as he replies, "Not as much as you."

Well forget that. The boy ain't won yet; this fight is far from over. Mal grabs Simon's hand, tugging him out of the kitchen and away from the girls still huddled in the doorway—the girls Mal still doesn't remember are there until Zoe pointedly clears her throat.

Mal stops and half turns toward her.

"Sir?" she says, the makings of a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

Mal just smiles back and does his best to ignore Inara's presence, still partially hidden behind his first officer.

"Going to the infirmary," he says. "I must have hit my head harder than I thought."

And then it's Simon pulling him out the door, taking control once again.

But not for long.


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