Tenderfoot

By Juli

June 2003


Hwoon dahn = jerk/son of a bitch (Chinese)

Mei mei = little sister (Chinese)

Lectus = bed (Latin)

Go se = dog shit (Chinese)

Dong ma = understand (Chinese)


Simon woke up feeling vaguely achy. He lay quiescent on his mattress for a few moments, keenly feeling every lump that protruded from his unfriendly bed. His mother would have been appalled. The mattresses in the Tam household had been filled with the best of synthetic down and feathers. What Simon was resting on wouldn't have been considered fit for a dog. In fact, it felt like perhaps its last occupant *had* been a dog. No one else on Serenity seemed to find fault with their beds, but Simon always woke feeling as though he'd been beaten during the night.

Sighing, he got up. The bed, he knew, wasn't going to improve any and he was only torturing himself by remembering the past. Simon dressed quickly, shivering as he fumbled with his clothes. The ship always felt cold to him, no matter what the thermostat said. Maybe he felt that way because of all the emptiness of space waiting just beyond the absurdly thin walls of Serenity's hull. Terrible in its beauty, the star-strewn desert always seemed to be waiting for an opportunity to pounce on any traveler foolhardy enough to try and live in its vast expanse.

The last garment Simon donned was his vest, a bright blue one. He smiled as he shrugged it on; the colorful fabric never failed to make him feel better. It didn't have much thermal value in a physical sense, but it warmed his soul nonetheless. Serenity seemed so gray sometimes. Wearing his vest felt like he was carrying a piece of his former life with him wherever he went.

Suitably armored for his day, Simon went in search of his sister.

The sound of laughter interrupted his quest, drawing him to the kitchen. The merriment rang in the corridors of the ship, a cheery homey noise that brightened up Serenity's stark interior. Simon stopped just outside the door, watching the interaction.

Kaylee apparently was attempting to teach Jayne to cook. Why, Simon couldn't fathom. Eating anything the less-than-hygienic mercenary had a hand in fixing didn't sound very appetizing to him. Jayne seemed to be taking the lessons less than seriously and was currently occupied in shaping the protein mush into a vaguely phallus-like shape. Intent on her lecture, Kaylee hadn't noticed yet. Inara and Zoe were looking on with expressions of barely suppressed amusement.

Kaylee turned to her student, finally seeing what he’d done. Simon smiled softly at her squeal of “oh, you!” and the way she went after Jayne with a spatula.

“What’d I do wrong?” Jayne asked with a grin. “You told me to knead it until it was stiff.” He pointed to where his ‘sculpture’ jutted proudly out of the bowl. “It’s stiff now!’

The big man whooped as Kaylee attacked him again, jumping nimbly out of the way. Inara laughed at their antics, while Zoe just wryly added, “He may be on to something there, Kaylee. There have been times when an edible man would have been a welcome change. Before I knew Wash, of course.”

Simon watched the scene with hungry eyes, envious of their easy of camaraderie. He hadn’t felt that sense of belonging since… since never. Given his intellect and the way his father constantly pushed him ahead, Simon had always been the youngest in his classes. It didn’t make him popular with his fellow students, especially when he could think circles around any of them. Yet, he was too young to fit in easily with the adults; he simply didn’t understand their stage of life. The only person who’d understood him, who’d simply seen him as Simon and not some snot-nosed over-smart boy, was River. Even before they’d been on the run from the Alliance, it had been the two of them against the world.

Determined to become part of the group, Simon gathered himself and stepped into the room. He had to step back again quickly, though, when Kaylee chased Jayne past him, almost knocking him down.

“Out of the way, Prissy Boy,” Jayne growled, not happy at almost having tripped over one of his least favorite people.

As usual, just about anything that came out of Jayne’s mouth aggravated Simon. “Sorry. I thought this was the kitchen and not some sort of battle zone.”

Breathless, Kaylee stopped and brushed the hair out of her eyes. “Just teachin’ Jayne how to cook.”

“I can see that,” Simon smiled at her, careful not to make it too friendly a smile. Kaylee had been his first friend on board and he didn’t want to give her the wrong idea again. “I guess teaching Jayne something is destined to become a contact sport.”

“Just having some good, clean fun,” Zoe said casually, her face as blank as only Zoe’s could be.

“Yeah, fun,” Jayne repeated. “They know how to have fun in the Core, don’t they?”

Simon hesitantly made his way over to the counter. “Yes. There are museums and art fairs, not to mention the theater…”

“I said, ‘fun’ Doc, not boring,” Jayne corrected him, causing Zoe and Kaylee both to snicker.

“Not everyone’s tastes are the same,” Inara murmured. “Fun can mean different things for different people.”

Simon looked at the Companion gratefully. “Of course.” He made a show of sniffing the protein mush concoction that Kaylee had been working on. “I’m sure Kaylee’s a very good teacher.”

“Thanks, Simon,” she responded, blushing.

Emboldened by his success, Simon added, “You have a way of making even the sorriest excuse for nutritional sustenance taste like something marginally better than cardboard.” Not realizing the emotional atmosphere in the room had changed, he let himself be carried away by his own attempt at wit. “I don’t know why the Rim has such a bad reputation when it comes to food, when there’s just a whole ‘verse full of difference between paste, mush, and slop. The swill is just swell.”

The silence his comment met made Simon wince. He’d done it again. No matter how hard he tried, he managed to say the wrong thing.

“Cardboard?” Kaylee repeated, her blush deepening into the flush of anger. “Slop! Hwoon dahn! I don’t know why I ever try with you.” Tossing her spatula down, she stomped out of the room, muttering something about snobs under her breath.

“Simon,” Inara said in an unusually cross voice. “You’ve made it clear that you don’t fancy Kaylee but that’s no excuse for being condescending – or hurtful.” Gathering her skirts, she hurried to follow her friend.

Simon heard the distinct sound of a knife being slipped from its sheath. Gulping, he turned to face Zoe. She was slowly turning the knife this way and that, idly looking at her reflection in its metal surface.

“If I thought for a minute that you said such stupid things deliberately, then no matter what Mal said, you’d be missing an inch or two by the time I got done with you.” Her eyes lifted to glare at him meaningfully before she shoved her knife back in its sheath with a definite thud. “I’m not hungry anymore.”

With her back regally stiff, Zoe also left the room, leaving Simon alone with Jayne. The doctor glanced at Jayne in trepidation.

“Don’t look at me,” Jayne said with a grin. “The one good thing about havin’ you around is that you say stupider shit than me.” His grin turned to a leer. “You wanna come over here and take a taste?” Jayne pointed to his phallus-of-mush, still erect in its bowl. “I told you the stuff tasted like crotch.” Jayne grabbed his. “We could always do a taste comparison, see which you like better.”

Simon fled.

He found his original quarry, River, in the infirmary. Although she was right were she was supposed to be, his sister was anything but cooperative.

“You big dummy!” She yelled at him as he entered. “Made Kaylee cry.”

“I know, River, but I didn’t mean to,” Simon responded, trying to placate her so he could give her the medicine she needed. “I’ll apologize after she’s had a chance to calm down a bit.”

“Dummy,” she repeated.

Simon sighed. “I know.” He reached for the already loaded injection gun. “Now, it’s time for your medicine.”

“No.”

“I’m sorry, River, but you need it,” Simon said calmly. “I’m only trying to help you.”

“Not trying to help!” River crept around the edge of the room as her brother approached her. “You don’t want to help the girl who’s weeping in the dark. You don’t care about her – you just want the dancing girl back. The pretty doll, all dressed up in ruffles and happy dreams.” Her eyes glistened with her own tears. “You want the doll but the blue hands pulled all her stuffing out.”

Simon watched his sister carefully and when she lunged to get past him, he grabbed her. She twisted and fought in his arms, a fiend in her frenzy to get away. He held on and awkwardly placed the injector against her hip and pressed, flinching when he felt the tool recoil in his hands as the dosage went in. As she felt the shot, River quieted. Simon let his grip loosen and he lifted his hand to smooth her hair back.

“I’m sorry, mei mei, but you need your medicine,” he crooned.

The touch and his words seemed to invigorate River again and she made her move. Seizing his hand, River bit down hard, and then kicked viciously as Simon cried out in shock. She grinned triumphantly and turned to run, bumping right into Shepherd Book, who gently but efficiently restrained her.

“Thank you, Book,” Simon said gratefully. He winced as he put weight on his leg but nonetheless moved towards his sister, who was weeping in the shepherd’s arms. “I’ll take care of her.”

“Oh, I think you’ve done quite enough for one day, son,” Book said frigidly. Simon swallowed at the coldness in the older man’s eyes… and the way that River let herself be calmed by Book’s touch when she’d shrugged off his. “I think it would be best if I look after River this morning.”

“But…” Simon tried to protest.

Book released River and she sped away, without so much as glancing back. Defeated, Simon let her go, so he could concentrate on the preacher’s words.

“Son, these people have gone out on a limb to help you. You got to learn not to bite the hand that feeds you, which you could maybe manage to do if you took time out from looking down your nose at folks.” Book’s expression turned sad and disappointed. “Kaylee never meant you any harm, even if you couldn’t feel about her the way she wanted you to.”

Simon deflated. “I know that,” he said softly.

“Well, you could try showing it,” Book said firmly and then walked away in the same direction River had taken.

Alone in his infirmary, Simon wrapped his arms around himself. For once, its sterile, gleaming surfaces weren’t a comfort. They didn’t remind him of medical precision and prowess. Instead, all they reflected was an aching silence.

Deciding that it was useless to try and get anything productive done, Simon retreated to his quarters. Once there, he flung himself down on his bed, recoiling almost immediately.

“Ow!”

A metal spring had poked loose from the mattress, sticking him sharply. The resulting puncture bled a little but worse was the hole it left in his vest. His colorful vest, a reminder of home and a different life.

”Et tu, lectus” Simon murmured before carefully stretching out on the bed.

He turned his back to the door, as though wanting to shut the rest of Serenity and her occupants out. For an indeterminate time, Simon succeeded in isolating himself but eventually a warm hand placed gently on the small of his back roused him.

“I just don’t belong here,” Simon said softly, not needing to turn around to identify who was touching him.

“I don’t know about that,” the newcomer replied, equally quiet but with confidence.

Simon snorted. “The air smells wrong. The colors are too subdued and I don’t even remember when I last saw the sun. The food, I’m not even sure it qualifies as food.” He turned over and looked into Malcolm Reynold’s concerned eyes. “I don’t fit in with the rest of the crew – I don’t understand when they’re teasing and when they’re not. I always say the wrong thing and either make people mad or make them cry. I just don’t get their cultural references and they sure as hell don’t understand mine.”

Mal let his lover wind down. When Simon had fallen silent, he finally responded. “Is that it?”

“And my sister hates me,” Simon sighed.

“Did you ever think,” Mal answered that last comment first, “that maybe she’s having a hard time adjusting too?”

Simon looked away. “She fits in better here than I do – and she’s insane.”

Mal chuckled. “Well, now. What does that tell you about the rest of us?” When Simon didn’t smile in response, he tried to explain. “Look, Simon, the others, they’re just getting used to your ways, that’s all. Once they realize that you’re not puttin’ on airs and just being you, they’ll come around.” “They give Jayne the benefit of the doubt,” Simon pointed out. “Even when he’s being especially… Jayne.”

Mal shrugged. “That’s because they understand him, even if they don’t necessarily like him. They’ve been around men like Jayne all their lives. They know where he comes from and what to expect. He’s an open book. You, you’re a whole ‘nother story.”

The younger man brought his eyes back to Mal’s face and reached out to cup his lover’s cheek. “You understand.” He smiled ruefully. “At least, once Kaylee got better from being shot because of me, you started to. What makes you different?”

Mal shrugged. “Could be I know a thing or two about bein’ the odd man out.”

“You?” Simon’s eyes were wide with disbelief.

“Yeah, me,” Mal looked away, breaking Simon’s gentle grip on his face. When he turned back, his expression had changed and Simon realized he wouldn’t be getting the whole story just yet. “Now, I’m told that you managed to alienate the rest of the crew before you had your breakfast.” He began to stroke Simon’s belly, as if trying to determine if it was empty or not.

“Well, I didn’t irritate Wash,” Simon temporized, “but only because he was in the cockpit.” The doctor’s mouth twisted. “I’m sure he’ll be suitably alienated once Zoe’s filled him in on the details. Oh, and Jayne. He wasn’t mad at me either. Said I’m so stupid that I make him look good.”

Mal grinned. “Well, I doubt that.” He patted Simon on the leg before rising from where he’d been perched on the edge of the mattress. “Scoot up, now. Time to eat.”

Simon protested even as he moved to obey. “I’m not hungry.”

“Don’t matter none, you got to eat,” Mal retorted. He’d turned away long enough to grab a bowl that had been placed on the floor. By its smell and odor, Simon had a feeling it was the ubiquitous protein mush. He felt his stomach roll.

“Mal, really, I can’t.”

For the first time in their conversation, Mal appeared angry. “How much weight have you lost since coming aboard, Simon?” The captain didn’t wait for an answer. “That’s what I thought. Bad nutrition’s one of the biggest killer’s a spacer has to deal with. Not eating right makes you think slow, act slow, make stupid mistakes. You’re eating – dong ma?”

“I understand,” Simon said softly. “I didn’t mean to worry you.”

Mal looked at his lover's downcast face and seemed to regret his harsh words. "Tell you what, I know a way to make it taste better."

"You do?"

"Yup." Mal assured him as he spooned up a big dollop of the brown and unappetizing food.

Simon looked doubtfully at both the utensil and the man holding it. "How?"

Mal grinned. "Trust me."

Simon's expression remained skeptical but he opened his mouth anyway - and almost immediately choked. Despite Mal's claim, the stuff tasted every bit as vile as it usually did and he glared at the other man balefully as he chewed. Mal just serenely looked back at him.

After swallowing, Simon started to give his lover an earful, only to be silenced as a warm mouth covered his own. By the time the kiss ended, Simon was breathless and Mal was looking smug.

"There, that sweeten it any?" Mal asked, a decidedly self-satisfied look on his face.

It had - a fact which Mal, no doubt, was well aware. Simon wasn't about to admit it, though.

"I don't know," he said coyly. "I think I'll need another bite, just to be sure."

If anything, Mal's self-satisfied expression intensified. "That so?" When Simon nodded, he dutifully spooned up another portion. "Can't have you wonderin', can we?"

He fed it to Simon the same way, including the post-feeding treat. This time, Simon grabbed the back of Mal's head and deepened the kiss. When the two men broke apart, both of them were breathless.

"I think you're right, Mal," Simon said, a sparkle back in his eye, "that does make it taste better."

"Thought it might," Mal replied. "Ma always said that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down."

Simon grinned. "Was she a doctor, then?"

Mal shook his head. "Nah. Just a really smart woman."

By this time, Simon was eagerly leaning towards the bowl and its noxious contents. Mal wisely hid his smile at the younger man's reversal of attitude, simply spooning up another mouthful without further comment. The rest of the bowl was consumed in the same manner, with the kisses becoming more lingering as the bowl emptied.

Finally, the spoon scraped the bottom and both men sighed in disappointment.

“That was better,” Simon admitted. “It still tasted like go se but at least eating it wasn’t so bad.”

Mal set the bowl aside and leaned forward to rest his forehead against Simon’s. “Best thing is, there’s still lunch and dinner.”

The younger man smiled, cheeks dimpling. “You suppose we could eat those in my room too? I’m not sure that Kaylee and Inara would be too impressed with your technique.”

“I suppose they wouldn’t at that,” Mal admitted.

Kaylee had developed a huge crush on Simon from the moment she laid eyes on him, not too surprising given that she was young and he was too. When Mal and Simon had become an romantic item, however, the engineer had been crushed in a whole other way. Both men regretted her heartache, but given Kaylee’s unselfish nature, knew she would quickly get over it. In fact, she’d probably soon be very happy for them. Inara, on the other hand, had been a surprise. At least, for Mal. Anyone else with eyes could see she was carrying a torch for the captain. Not having quite Kaylee’s generous spirit, the Companion was likely to carry a grudge for a while. If not for that, she might have been more inclined to encourage the rest of the crew to accept Simon.

“Thank you,” Simon said, kissing Mal quickly on the chin.

“For what?” Mal responded. “Couldn’t very well have my ship’s doctor starving himself, could I? This was nothin’.”

Simon shook his head. “Not just thanks for feeding me breakfast,” the doctor explained. “But thanks for what you didn’t do.”

There was no need to explain, Mal knew what Simon was talking about. From the first time they exchanged heated glances, Simon had been adamant that being the captain’s lover wouldn’t change his status on Serenity. So, no special priviledges and, especially, no Mal trying to smooth Simon’s way with the rest of the crew. If it hadn’t been for Kaylee’s broken heart and, to a lesser extent, Inara’s, the others would likely have warmed up more quickly to Simon. As it was, he had the triple strikes of being the recently-rich, of having the Alliance after him, AND of being the source of Kaylee’s tears. It was hard to tell which of the three that the rest of the crew resented most.

“They’ll come around,” Mal reassured Simon again. “They know you’re Core-bred. They’re expecting certain kinds of attitudes and behavior from you. Snobbishness isn’t pretty, but it happens and Core folk aren’t the only ones who can be infected by it. Once they realize what kind of man you are and that you’re not what they *think* you are, they’ll take to you like family.”

“I hope so.”

“I know so,” Mal kissed him on the nose before standing up. “Now, I’ve got captainy things to do and I’m sure you’ve got doctorin’ that needs to be done.” He offered Simon a hand then pulled the younger man off his bed. “Besides, I don’t know how you can stand that mattress.”

“It’s an acquired pleasure,” Simon said airily. He did not want to fret Mal about his sleeping arrangements.

“You could sleep with me,” Mal offered.

Simon’s lips thinned. “I am not sleeping with the captain,” he said firmly, allowing himself to be led towards the infirmary.

“You’re havin’ sex with me, how’s that different than sleepin’ with me?” Mal asked.

“Trust me, it’s different,” Simon responded. His resolve wavered, though, when he saw the flash of hurt in Mal’s eyes. “Maybe when the crew accepts me more, I’ll reconsider.”

It worked, Mal’s expression lightened just as they reached Simon’s destination. “Good. Until then, I’ll have Jayne move a mattress from one of the empty quarters. And before you fuss about me showing you favor, I promise that if we take on extra passengers, I’ll gladly make you put it back all by your lonesome.” The captain winked and turned to go.

Simon shook his head. Mal was incorrigible. “Why?”

His lover turned back to him, a frown wrinkling his forehead. “Why? So you won’t worry about the rest of the crew thinking that you’re getting special treatment, although none of them would, not for something like that.”

“No,” Simon explained. “Why do you care? Why do you see me more clearly than I see myself?”

Mal smiled. Not the shit-eating grin that said he was up to something devious and not the tight little smile that Simon loathed, the one that meant that Mal was mocking himself about something. No, this was a smile that spoke of sunshine and unbroken dreams. It took years from the captain’s face.

While Simon was held immobile by Mal’s smile, the captain took the two steps needed to reach his lover. Taking Simon’s face in both of his hands, he kissed him and said, “How could I not?” Mal dropped his hands and moved away while Simon was still stunned, whistling a merry tune as he walked.

Simon watched him walk away, realizing that, beating within that man, was the one place in the ‘verse where he belonged. Whistling himself, he entered the infirmary, which suddenly, was just a room.

~ the end ~

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