One of the many things I failed to learn at MedAcad was never to play Tall Card with a Shepherd. If he weren't a man of God, I would have suspected him of cheating. No, wait – I do suspect him of cheating. There was a glint in his eye when he managed to pass on septic vat duty to Jayne. A glint that only grew bigger when I picked up a week's worth of cooking. In retrospect, I think he was trying to do me a favour: cooking is considered one of the lighter duties on Serenity, but I dread it.
Because cooking is another of the many things I failed to learn at MedAcad.
In my mind, I can picture the perfect meal easily enough. It's full of taste and texture and delicious aromas. Rich, indulgent, sensuous. On Earth-that-was they used to say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. If that's true, I'm doomed.
Maybe I'd fare better if I had a recipe book. I'm sure I could follow a recipe. I could weigh the ingredients out precisely, time every stage to perfection. But there is no book, and I have to improvise with basic provisions and the occasional box of fresh produce. The result, though edible and nutritionally balanced, is never a delight to the senses.
"Why the hell's he cookin' again?" Jayne demands, arriving late for supper and joining the others round the table.
"It's his turn." Book's mellow tone carries a hint of amusement.
Jayne grunts. "Why can't it be Zoe's turn?"
There's a little ripple of laughter, because it's a standing joke that Zoe's cooking is as bad as it's possible to get.
I turn round and glare at them all. I'm hot, I'm flustered and my back is aching. I've been standing here for over an hour trying to make something nice for them all, and the stress is too much.
"Well, thank you! Thank you very much for your support!"
The kinder crew members arrange their faces into pictures of sympathy. Kaylee gives me a big encouraging smile. " 's'all right Simon. You're learnin' is all." She sniffs the air. "Smells real good."
"No it don't." Jayne grumbles. "Smells like crotch. Bet it tastes like it too."
Mal grins. "Might be you're hittin' on all the sellin' points, Jayne."
Amidst the coarse laughter that follows, he looks directly at me and winks. Or at least I think he does. But that hardly seems possible.
Kaylee slaps Jayne on the arm. "Don't be mean." She looks up at me. "You oughta keep tastin' it as you go along. Make sure you got enough flavour."
Well, that comes as a revelation to me. How come I didn't know that? It seems obvious now she's said it.
Mal pushes his chair back from the table and stands up. He comes over to the stove to stand beside me. "Best to start with somethin' you know you like," he advises, like he's some master chef or something. "Then you can start experimentin'. Find out what others like. Add a bit of spice here, a touch of sharpness there."
I stare at him, wondering if perhaps he isn't talking about cooking at all, but he gives me an innocent flash of a smile, and I tell myself not to be so stupid.
"Helps to put a finger in first," he continues, peering into the pan. "For a quick taste," he clarifies, glancing up at me with a look that on anyone else I'd think a leer. "Go on."
Obediently I extend a forefinger into the glutinous slop and scoop some out. I'm about to taste it, when Mal catches my hand and lifts it to his own mouth. He closes his lips around my finger and sucks. Time slows down. His eyelids slide shut as slowly as the tide coming in and open again with all the haste of a flower blooming. My pulse comes in strong, slow, measured beats. And meanwhile the buds on his tongue scrape like soft grains of sand over the grooves on my finger tip.
"Needs more salt," he diagnoses, sprinkling a pinch over the slop and stirring it in. "And maybe a touch of pepper. Always did like a bit of heat." He twists the wooden pepper mill between his hands and gives it a little shake. Then he scrapes a little of the pan's contents onto his own finger and holds it out to me. "Here. Have a taste."
The others have gone very quiet and I know all eyes are on me. Mal is gazing down at me, watching my mouth. Suddenly I feel very weak and have to close my eyes. Then Mal's finger is in my mouth. I try not to shiver as I suck on it. He's right about the salt. It has given the meal some flavour - but it's the taste of him I want more of.
I hear him chuckle.
"Whoah, tha's enough Doc! Keep that up an' I'll be thinkin' you wanna eat me."
His laugh encourages the others to start chatting and joking, and the tension breaks. He lifts the pan from the hob and carries it to the table. With every step he takes away from me, the yearning inside me grows stronger.
"This ain't half bad now, Doc," Jayne concedes, spluttering out the words as he chews.
"Come on, Simon," Wash urges. "Come an' get some before Jayne's eaten the lot." He snatches the serving spoon from Jayne, who yanks it back again.
"I ... it's ridiculous," I reply, "but now I feel too full to eat."
Too full of an emptiness I realize I've wanted Mal to fill ever since I first set eyes on him.
"I think I'll just go to my bunk," I mumble. I need to get these feelings under control. Take myself in hand. Pretend he's there with me.
"But Simon!" Kaylee begins to wheedle but Mal cuts her off.
"Leave the boy alone, mei-mei." He looks across at me. "Go. Have a rest, son. I'll bring you something later. Maybe you'll be hungry by then. Often get that way myself."