Disclaimer: It's Joss's world, I'm just playing in it.
Author's Note: Didn't expect this chapter to go where it did but it gave me an idea for another one if people are still interested.
Mal, Zoe, and Jayne were out on a job, Kaylee was fiddling in the engine room, Inara was with a client, and Book was meeting with an old friend, which left Wash and Simon to get supplies again. They'd brought River with them this time.
"I think they're cute" Wash insisted. He pointed to a lage box overflowing with identical stuffed animals. Simon picked one up and stared at it for a moment.
"It looks like a deformed cat," he said after a moment. "Which is probably why they're so cheap." They were, in fact, extremely cheap. The entire box was listed with a price one would usually expect to pay for two or three stuffed animals.
"Production problem," River diagnosed. She rattled off some technical sounding details and finished with "Endlessly embarrassing error. Executives are eager to eliminate evidence."
Twenty minutes later the three of them returned to the ship knowing just how desperate the factory's executives and the store's owner had been to get rid or them.
"I'm gonna go put these away." Wash said.
"What are you gonna do with them, anyway?"
"Don't know yet, I'll think of something." Wash assured him.
"Would you permit me to possess a part of your purchase?" River inquired.
"Mei mei, if you want a stuffed animal, I'll get you one that actually looks like an animal."
River shook her head. "Want that one." She picked one out of the box and petted it's squashy head.
"See?" Wash told Simon. "I already found a use for one!" Wash whistled happily as he trotted off to his room to hide his latest whim. Simon looked at the one River was still holding. She was humming a lullaby to it.
Later that night, Simon was sitting on his bed staring at another of the creepy toys. River had put it on the foot of his bed before going to sleep, insisting that it would guard him from nightmares.
"More likely to give me nightmares if I wake up to that," he muttered to himself, leaning forward to turn it so at least it wasn't looking at him. As he lay back, however, an idea crept into his mind.
The next morning he found Wash on the bridge.
"Does Zoe know about your box of mutated creatures yet?"
"My sweet little kittens, you mean?"
"Yes, sweet little kittens. Does anyone besides you, me, and River know how many of them there are?"
Wash sat up straighter and absently handed Simon a dinosaur. "Got an idea?"
For various reasons, most of the crew were in the cargo bay. The only people missing, in fact, were River and Book, which soon changed.
"Are you sure you he can't be saved sweetheart?" Book asked as he followed River into the cargo bay.
"Heart halted, death decided." River informed him seriously. Zoe noted that she was holding the cat Wash had given her.
"What's going on?" Simon asked, intercepting his sister who seemed to be heading for the airlock.
River held the toy out. "Santana suffered serious sickness." Simon took the cat and exmained it as River continued. "Body must be burried. The Black bars basic burrial so burrial backup becomes basic."
"You're going to space him?" Zoe asked after a moment. River nodded.
"Are you sure, mei mei?" Simon asked gently.
River nodded again. "Display dignity and deference for dearly departed."
Simon looked over at Mal. "Uh, do you mind, captain?" For a moment Zoe thought Mal might try to object, but River gave him a look of wide-eyed innocence and she knew Mal would cave; he couldn't resist that look.
"Yeah, alright. If it'll help her say goodbye."
Wash worked the door controls for the funeral. River solemnly placed Santana in the airlock and after an appropriate moment of silence, Wash cycled the ugly toy into the black.
Zoe was grabbing a second cup of coffee the next morning. Simon had spread some of his books out on the table and was going over what looked like an inventory. Zoe was making a mental to do list when she heard a startled yell. Jayne appeared a moment later and thumped something down on the table in front of Simon.
"What the hell was that doin in my bunk?" he demanded.
Simon blinked. "Where did that come from?"
"It was in my bunk!"
"I got that part, what I meant was that I distinctly remember spacing that thing yesterday." Simon objected. "You were there."
"Well Wash musta bought her two. But that still don't explain what it was doing in my bunk."
"What's the noise about?" Mal asked, appearing with Kaylee and Wash from the bridge.
"Malevolent Mammalian Manifestation!" River had appeared at the other door and she pounced on the offending cat. "Frightening feline phantom following fearsome fighter?" she asked it.
"How many of those you got?" Mal asked, picking it up and inspecting it.
"Requires respacing." River informed him as she took it back. She headed out with the cat. Everybody followed her to the cargo bay, picking Inara and Book up on the way. Kaylee explained the situation and there was a second funeral for Santana.
The cat appeared in Mal's bunk the next day, Wash and Zoe's the next, then Inara's shuttle, and later that day in Simon's infirmerary. When Simon put Santana VI on the table Mal looked at Wash.
"Now, being as I'm the one that pays you, I've an idea how much money you have. How the guay did you afford so many stuffed animals and how many more of these gorram things can possibly appear?"
Wash shook his head. "Don't look at me, Mal. As you said, where would I get the money for this kind of prank?"
"Happy haunter is not hostile." River assured the captain.
Mal blinked at her and looked back at Santana.
"It wasn't a big town." Mal said to Zoe later. "I mean, where would Wash get that many stuffed animals. Let alone that many badly made ones."
"Haven't the faintest idea sir. He's not keeping them in our room, I've checked."
"Is there any way they could be faking the spacings?"
"Don't see how. River just places him loose in the middle of the air lock and we know the doors open."
"Then where are the gorrams things coming from?" Zoe just shrugged.
Santana was back in Jayne's bunk the next day. He showed up on Jayne's weight bench that afternoon, and on his chair in the kitchen at dinner. He was spaced each time and Mal was trying not to think about the trail of mutant kittens they must be leaving. Wash continued to insist he didn't know where the replacements were coming from. Simon had searched the infirmerary and River's room and turned up no supply. Mal didn't necessarily trust Simon's search, especially after the rude things Jayne had said about Simon and Kaylee the week before, but his own search, which included Simon's room, turned up no kitten stash either. He was beginning to wonder who they might have involved in their plan. He was fairly sure Zoe, although she seemed to be enjoying the show, was not directly involved. He also doubted that either Kaylee or Inara was involved. And it didn't seem the Shepherd's style either.
Eight more cats appeared over the next three days. They were starting to look like they had been spaced a few times.
"This is impossible. The spaced cat cannot keep reappearing!"
Wash shrugged helplessly. "I'll admit there were six of them. River liked them and they were cheap. I swear to God I don't know how we've spaced 17 of them."
The night before they landed again, Mal was sitting the kitchen, waiting for Simon, Wash, or River to come through with another cat. He'd put Zoe on the bridge to make sure they didn't come around the other way. But somehow, he woke up the next morning to Jayne's alarmed yelling.
He pelted down the hall and pushed Jayne's door open. "What's the matter?"
"They're everywhere!" He sounded somewhat panicked.
Kaylee and River appeared from Kaylee's bunk, Zoe and Wash from theirs, and Simon, Inara, and Book arrived a moment later. Zoe and Kaylee vouched that Wash and River had both been with them all night. Mal didn't think Simon would risk going into Jayne's bunk on his own. But there were at least two dozen Santanas in Jayne's bunk.
Mal gathered everyone in the kitchen and looked every member of his crew in the eye, looking for the accomplice.
"I do not believe in ghosts," Mal announced firmly. "Not human ones, and sure as hell not stuffed animal ones. So where are these gorram cats coming from?"
Each and every crew member looked innocently back at him. Mal tried to figure out when Simon had gone from fumbling fake buyer to convincingly innocent culprit. When no one gave in or gave themselves away, Mal turned to Jayne. "Alright, fine, who else did you piss off?"
Jayne looked offended, but Mal raised an eyebrow and the mercenary finally admitted that he might have been pestering Inara about a client.
Mal sighed. "So, are we done with the cats then?"
"Saving for the selection in the simian's salon, a single specimen still stays spaceside." River assured him.
"Uh huh. And is someone going to tell me where you managed to hide a giant collection of mutant cats?"
"We kept them in Inara's shuttle after she agreed to help." Simon admitted. "We knew you'd never look there."