After Dinner Conversation

Rated: PG

Category: Mal/Simon Friendship, Gen.
Spoilers: None Per Se. Occurs Sometime Before 'Safe'.
Summary: Mal Told Jayne That Simon Wasn't A Coward. But How Did He Know? A Little Story Of Mal's Misplaced Nobility And Simon's Response To It.

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Mal took his dinner in his quarters again.

He'd been doing that a lot lately.

The crew didn't like it, but since their captain went antisocial from time to time, nobody thought much of it.

Nobody except Simon Tam.

When the meal was done, Simon found himself outside Mal's quarters.

He took a deep breath and let it out, then knocked loudly on the hatch.

He'd never come to Mal's quarters before, and he didn't want to now, but this was a medical matter, and that gave Simon a courage that he might not have had otherwise.

Mal summoned the younger man inside with a questioning look.

"Somethin' I can do for you, doctor?"

Simon swallowed nervously. "Oh, just came by to apologize."

"For what?"

"Well, I know that chicken-turkey-pea soup surprise wouldn't exactly be anyone's choice for dinner, and since it was River who made it, well, I just wanted to say sorry."

"Hey, at least it wasn't just protein paste for once. Them canned goods were just fine, even all blended together like that."

Simon nodded. "That's nice of you to say, Captain. Too bad we had protein paste and potatoes tonight."

"What?"

"You didn't eat."

Mal realized he was caught, and that there was no sense denying Simon's words.

"Now, Doc, I don't much appreciate you meddlin in my affairs."

"I'm not meddling. I'm stating a fact. You didn't eat tonight. Nor did you eat last night or the night before. At least not much."

"Maybe I just wasn't hungry."

"And how exactly would that be normal for you?"

"It happens."

"Yes, it does. When one is ill. Are you feeling alright, Captain?"

"Been better. Don't like being played like that, Doc."

"My apologies, but I knew it was the only way to get you to admit that you're not eating lately."

Mal barked a short laugh. "Guess that's so. What of it?"

"I'm a doctor, Mal. I notice things about my patients. Especially when I only have eight of them."

Mal snorted. "And?"

"You've lost weight."

"Have not."

"You have. It's not a ton, but you have. I noticed when I patched you up a week ago, but I didn't say anything until I noticed this new dinner habit of yours. Or lack thereof."

Simon took a breath to continue, but Mal angrily interrupted him.

"This ain't none of your business, city boy! Why don't you keep that pretty face out of things that don't concern it before I beat it in for you?"

Simon blinked. He'd expected Mal to resist this conversation, but not with such violence. Then again, young Doctor Tam knew that being short on food could make anyone irritable, and there certainly was no overstock of foodstuffs on Serenity lately.

Mal ran a hand through his hair and stalked off to one corner of his small room as Simon blinked again.

No overstock of foodstuffs on Serenity.

Simon's eyes grew wide, and he suddenly knew why Mal was behaving this way.

"You're giving up your portion."

Mal turned, annoyed. "You still here? I thought I told you to get out."

"I won't."

"Won't what?"

"I won't leave, and I won't let you do that."

"You ain't got no choice in the matter, son. Now, you get out of my room before I beat you senseless, and if you breathe a word of what you just said to anyone else, I swear I'll take one of those pretty white teeth of yours for a trophy."

Simon stared at Mal. Two wills collided, and for a split second neither man backed down. But Simon was outmatched. After a moment, his gaze faltered. Mal grinned and half nodded to himself as Simon started to turn towards the door.

But before his turn was a quarter done, Simon's head snapped back up and he turned back to Mal.

"No."

Mal shook with fury at Simon's denial. "What did you say?"

"I said no." Simon stood up straight and looked Mal right in the eye. He wasn't backing down. Not from this fight. "You don't get to tell me what to do. Not this time. I'm your doctor. And it's my job to look after your health, even if you won't do it yourself. Especially if you won't do it yourself. It's noble what you're doing, but it won't do anyone any good."

"Crew's got to eat."

"So does their captain."

Mal stared hard at the young doctor for a moment before speaking. "It's my choice to make. We're gonna run short on this leg, ain't no doubt about that. Just stretching it a bit, is all."

"So we'll all stretch it. We've done it before."

"No, you don't catch my meaning, Doctor. I've done the math. I ain't no genius, but I can tell you we're all gonna get real hungry-like by the time we reach our next supply stop. You ain't never done what needs done right now. I have, and I'm a damn sight more able than you to handle it. I've made my choice."

Simon blinked, but he did not move.

"As have I."

It was Mal's turn to blink. "What are you talking about?"

"If you're not with the crew at meals from here on out, and if you don't actually eat a reasonable portion, I'll tell the crew."

"You wouldn't."

"I would. Every single person on this boat is my responsibility, and that includes you, sir. I'll make up a ration program if I have to, but you will not starve on my watch. I'll not allow it."

"I told you! It's not your decision to make!"

Simon grinned, and his response troubled Mal more than a little.

"Well, you're right about that," said Simon through his smirk. "It's up to you."

Mal started to congratulate himself on his sudden and unexpected victory, but his smile was wiped off his face by Simon's next words. He should've known it wouldn't be so easy.

"But keep in mind I'll start with Kaylee. Wouldn't you just love to see her reaction to this little bit of news? Or maybe I'll see if Inara can get us a favor from one of her well-connected clients. That might work, huh?"

As his words still hung in the air, Simon scrambled up the ladder and out of Mal's room, leaving his captain dumbfounded and at a complete loss for words.

Malcolm Reynolds ate dinner with his entire crew the following night.

And Simon Tam earned himself a lot more of the captain's notice from then on.