A brief coda to "Objects in Space."
No dough, no foul.
Wash cooked dinner, with the help of some fearsome brow-mopping by Zoe. When she rang the chow bell the locals came running. Everyone grabbed plates, sat themselves down in their usual seats, and dug into the chow.
Mal lifted his glass. "To River."
"To River," Jayne echoed with the others, but added, "she does better crazy than the rest of us do sane."
Kaylee threw her hardtack at Jayne.
"I know I slept through most of the action," Wash said, "but what I still don't get is why the bounty hunter fell for River's trick. That he even considered she might have become one with the ship---"
"Ain't none of you read the latest warrant?" Jayne asked.
"No, we haven't," Mal said pointedly. He took another swig of his drink.
"I have," Shepherd Book said. Simon gave him a dirty look.
"Right. It says River has unnatural gifts," Jayne explained. "Says she melted the brains of those Feds back on Ariel with just the power of her mind."
"Melted their brains?" Zoe asked.
"It wasn't me," River said.
"River was scared out of her wits back there, same as me and Simon," Jayne said. "I know a clean-up operation when I hear the screaming. Somebody rubbed out the Feds so they wouldn't talk. Somebody melted their brains, sure, but---"
"How come we ain't heard about this till now, Jayne?" Kaylee retrieved Simon's wasted hardtack and dunked it in her own mug.
Jayne stole the hardtack back. "I had other things on my mind."
"Like your cut?"
"The one River cut on me, yeah."
Mal brought his fist down on the table. "Can we get back to the melted brains?"
Inara rolled her eyes.
"That's all I know. Look up the warrant yourself." Jayne gnawed sullenly at the hardtack.
"Shepherd." Simon wrapped an extra pair of quotation marks around the title and a telling pause after. "Have you heard of a weapon like that?"
"No, son. I work with more traditional tools."
"Maybe you could take a retreat at a monastery"---Simon put extra quotation marks around both retreat and monastery---"and find out more about it."
Book opened his mouth to reply, but Jayne interrupted. "Ain't none of us going nowhere."
"I decide who comes and goes on my ship."
"Right, Captain. I'm just saying, that bounty hunter tracked us from Ariel, and the evil anti-Feds can do the same. So less'n you want your brains dripping out your ears, you best stay aboard where there's somebody watching your back."
"Like you, sleepyhead?" Inara asked.
Jayne missed the bite in her voice. "And you watch who you go whoring with."
"Likewise," Inara snapped.
Mal tried to smooth things over. "Jayne means you might want to be careful what clients you take on from here out."
"I won't be taking on clients for the foreseeable future." That declaration brought a hush to the kitchen.
Kaylee leaned forward. "River wouldn't feel right interfering with your livelihood that way."
River disagreed. "It's not on account of me."
"Of course not, sweetie," Kaylee replied. "It's the Feds."
"It's not on account of the Feds."
"Whoever the people are who did this to you, they're to blame," Simon said.
"It's not on account of---"
Mal cut River off. "We get the point."
"I don't," Jayne said.
Inara snorted. "Fancy that."
"Ain't gonna be much custom for any of us where we're heading," Mal said. "Your rent is free while you're not working."
"That's not necessary."
"I ain't charging you rent when you can't work and you can't leave." Their eyes met. "Leastwise," Mal added, "not without getting your brains melted."
"Gos se." The prisoner retreated to her shuttle, leaving something of a pall over the dinner party.
"Well, there's nothing I enjoy more than a good conversation about melting brains," Wash said, "but I think I need some invigorating sex with the wife before I meet my sudden yet inevitable demise. Wife?"
Zoe rolled her eyes, but she followed him out of the kitchen. Mal downed whatever was left in his cup, then wished the reduced party a good night.
Simon stared the preacher down till he, too, made his excuses. Jayne gathered all their leftovers, except for a piece of hardtack Kaylee grabbed first. He didn't fight her for it.
River sculpted something unidentifiable out of her mashed protein.
"I should've listened," Simon said.
"To your parents?" Kaylee asked.
"To Zoe. When I came aboard, I asked her why the captain named his ship after a terrible battle."
"Ah." Kaylee seemed satisfied at that.
Jayne slammed his fork down. "What?"
"What what?" Simon asked.
"What did she say?"
Simon leaned back from the table. "Zoe said, Once you've been in Serenity you never leave. You just learn to live there."
"Well, that's shiny," Kaylee said.
"No it's not," Jayne snapped. "It's gorram depressing is what."
"Kaylee was using something we call irony." Simon wrapped irony in an extra set of quotes.
"I think you all got your brains melted already," Jayne said. "You know you're fong luh when River's the only one making sense."
"It's on account of the captain," River said on cue.
"See, that made sense."
"No it didn't," Simon and Kaylee said at once.
"You're both too gorram smart to see what's right in front of you." Jayne took one last bite of his ill-gotten dinner, then headed for his bunk.
"What?" Kaylee asked, but River stared into space, unresponsive.
"Shepherd Book's not a shepherd," Simon said.
"Early told me."
Kaylee shivered. "Don't believe him."
Simon put an arm around her shoulders. "He's dead," he said. "Don't let him haunt you."
"Do you think fake shepherds do exorcisms? I'm afraid to---"
"I'll come with you." Simon and Kaylee headed for the engine room.
River climbed onto the table and listened to the ceiling. Early was still breathing out there. The noise bothered her, so she melted his brain.
"'Cause we're very much alone out here," she told the corpse, by way of explanation.