"Shreeee!" River's wail pierced the galley.  Her voice took on that familiar, creepy timbre, but given that dinner had been delayed by some excitement in port and that everyone was famished, no one paid her much mind.  She hung her head, making her hair seem even more unkempt than usual and began to speak. 

"They live with people and pose like people, but they have faces of the subhuman and hearts of the primal beasts.  They walk among us and try to pass as us, but they're animals, animals all!"  Turning sideways in her chair, she dug her face deep into Simon's shoulder and shivered.

Mal popped a chunk of honey-ginger flavored protein into his mouth and chewed. "Sister having a bad day?"

One hand on the back of her head, Simon turned his blank face up to Mal. "No. Why do you ask?"

"....Kuuh!"  At the head of the table, Book coughed hard and banged emphatically on his chest, his eyes glued front and center.

"Are you all right, Shepherd?"  Simon glanced over in concern as Inara pounded Book on the back. 

"Fine, Fine."  Book alternately thumped his hand against his chest and then out over the length of the table, index finger flicking out towards the galley door.  "I thought something was trapped, but it seems to have broken loose."  He put an odd stress on the last two words. 

Kaylee's eyes bugged out and she nearly jumped from her chair.  "'Scuse me, Cap'n.  I've got to go check...the engines."  She jogged across to the galley door, then stopped and peered out the window to the passageway beyond.

"Engines?  We're in dock."  Mal twisted towards her, a quizzical expression on his face.

"You can never be too careful with engines, Cap'n.  They're the heart of the ship, you know."  Kaylee tried to work up a smile, then pressed the door open and dashed down the aft passage at full tilt. 

"I should help," said Inara.  She dabbed her lips on her serviette and wafted from her chair.

"You're going to help with the engines?"  Mal couldn't have looked more shocked if she had just pledged her undying love for him in front of all of Londinium. 

"Kaylee's been teaching me.  It's really fascinating.  You should try learning something useful about your ship sometime.  Or something useful about anything." With a backwards huff, Inara floated out of the galley.

Mal watched her go.  "Hmmfph.  Now that's more like it."  As the door slid shut, Mal relaxed and dug back into his protein.

"You think she's done with her food?"  Jayne reached across the table and palmed Inara's bowl.  She'd left most of the good stuff.

"I should go check on them."  Zoë stood up abruptly.

Mal looked up over his bowl, chopsticks pretty much smack-dab in the middle between table and mouth, and stared at her.

"I'm second in command; freeing the captain from these minor issues and allowing him to concentrate on more important things is part of my job."  Zoë offered the explanation with the emotion in her delivery running the full gamut from A to A--like always.

Mal dropped his chopsticks into his bowl.  "Okay, what the go-se is this about?" 

"Women. Who knows?" Wash waved his chopsticks in the air in a dramatic gesture.

"Pardon?"  Zoë's tone--never much renowned for its warmth to begin with--dropped to near absolute zero.

"I didn't mean, you buttercup," Wash tried. "I meant--"

"You meant women."  Zoë finished for him.  Her voice reached zero and plummeted further to prove that negative temperatures can, in fact, exist on the Kelvin scale.

"Do I have any wiggle room here, sugarbuns?"  Now Wash tried the puppy eyes.

"Lemme tell you where you can wiggle it, bunnykins."  Zoë had never been big on puppies.

"Ooh!"  Book sucked in his breath and grimaced.  Even a never-married Shepherd could feel that jab land where it hurt.

"I think I'll go check the Bridge," said Wash.  He pushed back his chair and headed forward.

"Best thing to come out of your mouth all night.  Or likely to be in it all night either, baby dumpling." Zoë shot the words out after him as he left.

River giggled.  "Uh-oh.  The fall from grace may not be long, but it is far too steep to climb back up without a charitable hand."

For a half-second, they all stared at her.

"Does she make that stuff up?"  Jayne furled his brow and reached for Kaylee's abandoned bowl.  His T-shirt read, "Kiss me; I'm Irish."

"We're in dock," Mal called to Wash.   "What's to check?"

"Let him go, sir.  It's for the best.  Be a shame for me to have to kill him in port with Alliance all around.  That just asking for trouble."    Zoë tugged down her vest and headed for the aft passageway. 

"Now where are you going?" Mal stared at her like she had three heads. 

"Cargo bay."

"Just to check?"  Mal might not understand women, but following patterns was one of his fortes.

"Something like that."  Zoë waited for Mal's nod to give her permission to do exactly as she wanted, them headed out the galley door.

"You know, I think I'd better check you out, Shepherd."  Simon eyed Book with not terribly subtle intensity.

"Huh?" Book's hair kind of slid forward on his skull as his forehead furled.

"Choking can cause rebound airway oedema.  Very dangerous."  Simon cleared his throat.

"Oh, right.  Now that you mention it, I am feeling a bit wheezy."  Book gave two dramatic breaths. 

River's eyes rolled back in her head. "This life of mortal breath is but an annex of the life Elysian, whose portal we call death."

Jayne, Book and Mal all stared at her.  "Could just be a hiccup," she amended with a shrug.

"Doc, you've got to do something about her," Jayne said.

Simon spread his hands in a helpless gesture.  It wasn't like anyone else had a better idea.

"Let me guess: you're going to the Infirmary."  Mal directed it at Simon.  Patterns really were Mal's thing.  They were...smooth.

"That is where one generally treats the infirm, Captain."

Book gave another unconvincing wheeze.  It was not...smooth.  Mal fixed him with a perplexed gaze.

"Ooh, that's sounding much worse," Simon grabbed his patient by an arm.  "Elysian portals and all: better hurry."  Before Mal could get off another word, Simon hustled Book out the door with River in tow.

Unfazed, Jayne slid Simon's bowl over beside his stack of empties and started in on it with gusto. 

"You're not going too?" Mal asked.

"No; why?"  Arms thrown forward around the bowl like a fortress, Jayne launched himself into Simon's ex-food and munched.

Mal shrugged.  "I just--"

"Jayne!" Book stuck his head back in the doorway.

Mal threw his hands up in the air.

"What?"  Jayne protested.  "He was finished with it."   Jayne gestured at the bowl.  "Or least he never said otherwise.  Possession is nine tenths.  Ten tenths if there are no gorram Feds around."

Mal's eyebrow shot up.  He hadn't known Jayne could count that high.

"Jayne," Book's voice was carefully patient, but with an iron aftertaste--like one might use with a disobedient but not particularly bright child...or dog.  "I need you, now."

Eyes rolled in resignation, Mal motioned Jayne toward the door.  "Please, don't let me hold you.  I'm only the captain.  Leastwise, I think I still am.  You'll be...?"

Jayne stopped and percolated a look startlingly like severe constipation--or as if the process of trying to come up with an answer was an equal strain.  "In my bunk."

It would be a toss up to decide who gaped the most. "What?" asked Book?

"Book needs you in your bunk?"   Mal blurted simultaneously.

Jayne stomped his way out of the galley. 
He grunted to Book as they headed down the passage, "It was the best I could think of on the spot."   He added under his breath, "Why do they always give me the hard questions?"

Alone in the galley, Mal shook his head.  They may not be the sanest crew in the verse, but they were all his.  Not that that was necessarily a good thing....

He slid Simon's bowl over to his own place and sampled.   He cocked his eyebrows.  Not bad.   If nothing else, at least Jayne and Simon both had excellent taste in food, and Kaylee was not a half bad cook.


"Are you sure he's in here?" Simon asked as they entered the cargo bay.

"He's got to be.  Everything has to be somewhere and we've looked 'bout everyplace else," said Kaylee. 

"You're going to have to tell Mal, you know." Inara tried for the soothing voice of reason, but mostly she just sounded snooty.

"Don't see why," said Kaylee.  She poked around the few containers in the bay.

"Because it's his ship, and he gets the say of what's on it."  Zoë pushed into a pile of spare parts with a rifle barrel.

"Who!"  Kaylee protested. "Jacob is a 'who', not a 'what.'"

"I'd like him better as a dinner," said Jayne.  He wandered the catwalk with River prancing along behind him, shadowing him in pantomime as well done as it was disparaging.

"You're no better than the street vendors I rescued him from."  Kaylee pouted.  She pulled the lid off a cargo container and peeked in. "Being sold complete with roasting pan and recipes.  It ain't human, I say."

"Exactly," said Simon.  "Neither is he."

"Stop that!" Jayne exploded.  He whirled around with Vera cocked at the ready only to find River standing stock still behind him, hands innocently by her side. 

All the searchers looked up at them. 

"Stop what?" asked Simon, deadpan.   The pause thickened in the air.

Jayne readjusted his grip on Vera and proceeded forward.  "Gorramit, that sister of yours will never have one of my guns named after her, that's for goram sure."  Silently, River mouthed the same words as he said them and started again on her burlesque behind his back.  It was a perfect Jayne, just...sillier.

"Her loss, no doubt."  Simon rolled his eyes.

Kaylee's face skewed around with that look it got when she was thinking hard, but nothing particular was destined to come out.  "I was thinking maybe I would tell him after we were in flight.  You know, when it's too late to put him off ship."  She stuck her hands in her pockets and tried for cute.

"Might want to reconsider.  Ain't too late to put it off," said Zoë.  "Serenity's got airlocks, you know."  Zoë had never been much on cute either.

"The captain would never do something that cruel." Kaylee sounded sure enough for three people.  If only she could will Mal to be one of those three, she'd be set.

"Don't bet on it," Jayne mumbled.

"You should know about airlocks," River chanted sing-song.   She grabbed her own neck and made suffocating sounds in Jayne's direction.

"Stop that!" Jayne whirled, but of course River was already still and silent as marble by the time he had pivoted around.

"You can't hide him for ever, mei-mei."  Inara sat down on a cargo container and swathed her skirts around her legs.  "Or do you think a two-hundred pound orangutan can go unnoticed?"

"Hey, quit talking about me behind my back in front of my face!  What did I do, anyway?"  Jayne looked down from the catwalk in exasperation. 

River giggled.  "Two thirty-seven."

"Two-twenty," Jayne mumbled to no one in particular.

"Gosh!"  Kaylee's face lit up.  "That's not a bad idea!  I could hide him in Jayne's bunk.   The captain never goes in there."

Simon coughed.

Inara considered.  "Same smell, same manners, same vocabulary: it could work."  She nodded in approval.

"Oh no, you don't.  I ain't sleeping with no gorilla."  Jayne patted Vera almost tenderly.

"Orangutan." Simon, Inara, Book and Kaylee corrected, repeating the word in perfect harmony.  River just made chimp motions under her arms.

"What if he snores?  I'm a very delicate sleeper."  Jayne appeared to be genuinely concerned.

Simon rolled his eyes.  "The matter is moot if we don't find him.  "How did he get out anyway?"

"Gorramed if I know," said Kaylee.   "I had the cage double secured. "

"They are very intelligent animals," said Simon.  "He could have figured out the mechanism. "

"No way," said Jayne.  "I saw those locks; I couldn't have gotten out of them myself."

"My point exactly."  Simon resumed his search.

"Yeah," said Kaylee.  "I see what you mean."  She plopped down on the storage bin beside Inara and sighed.  "We've looked everywhere back here.  Are we sure he ain''t up forward?"

"Wash is searching the Bridge," said Zoë.  "He'd've let me know if he found it."

"Him."  Kaylee stressed the word again.  Inara patted her knee.

Jayne rolled his eyes.

Kaylee's face brightened.  "What about the captain's quarter's?  We haven't looked there."  

Zoë shook her head.  "No way.  The captain keeps 'em locked.  Nothing could get in."

"Right," said Jayne smugly.  "I tried once.  It's sealed tighter than Simon's ass."

Book coughed.

Just them a stream of excited Mandarin streamed in through the corridor from the direction of the captain's berth.    The acoustics muffled some of the exact words, but Mal's voice and the general idea were clear enough--and something about teriyaki satay.   The crew all looked at one another, then finally back at Zoë.

"Huh," she said.  "Or it could be I'm mistaken."