Chapter Twenty-Three
Returning Home

"Almost creepifyin' how smooth that went," Mal muttered as Zoë lifted the mule and they pulled away from the town of Two Rivers. He was turned in his seat, looking back for any sign of pursuit, but none was forthcoming.

"Finally a plan goes right, and he's gotta complain 'bout it," Jayne muttered, shaking his head in disgust, one hand resting protectively atop the large crate securely tied down beside him.

Zoë and Mal exchanged a look. "Thinkin' there's trouble back at Serenity, sir?"

He hesitated, but then said, "Wouldn't be averse to checkin' in."

She nodded sharply and hit a button. "Wash, we're headed back. All well on your end?"

Mal's expression darkened with every second of silence they waited before Zoë called, "Wash, baby, you there?"

When there was still no answer, Zoë hit the accelerator and spun the mule to head straight towards Serenity rather than following the roundabout path she'd used to get to town. Her face was stiffly unemotional, but Mal could read the terror buried in her eyes. "Could be they've got some radio problems," he pointed out.

"Could be," she agreed, banking hard to avoid a formation of rocks, and then resuming her course, ignoring Jayne's startled oath.

"No way they could know where we were settin' down."


"Even if some trouble came callin', they could close up. Like as not, nothin' could get in that wouldn't make a bang loud enough for us to hear back in town."

Zoë nodded, not wasting attention to form words.

"'Less it took 'em by surprise," Jayne pointed out. "Tall grass like this -- sneak right up an' get onboard 'fore anyone knew the difference."

Mal shot him a glare. "BEE-jway, Jayne. Not helping."

"S'what I'd do," the merc persisted. "Then wait for us to get back and we'd be in the position of havin' to break in. Gorram mess is what it'd be. No luck surprisin' 'em if we come in with the mule, either."

"They'll be surprised," Zoë swore, finally catching sight of Serenity and gunning towards the open cargo bay door.

Mal's eyes widened and he gripped side of the mule with one hand, and his seat with the other. "Zoë, bad idea-- won't do 'em no good if we don't survive to help 'em."

Her eyes narrowed slightly, but she didn't start braking.

"Ta ma duh!" Jayne screamed. "Yer gonna do their gorram job for 'em!"

Mal's attention was totally locked on Zoë. "Gotta slow down, Zoë."

Suddenly her jaw relaxed and she began carefully breaking. "It's okay," she said. "They're okay. I'm gonna skin him for not answerin' the gorram radio, but they're fine."

"What?" Mal asked, surprised, then followed her gaze away forward and saw Xander standing on the ramp, waving. A pressure released in his chest, and he deliberately unclenched teeth he didn't remember clenching. "False alarm, then."

Zoë navigated the mule up the ramp and sedately parked it in the bay, eyes still flashing with anger born from the ashes of fear. She vaulted out of the mule almost before it was fully stopped and started for the bridge, but was stopped by Xander's voice.

"We had some trouble while you were gone," he said, tone cheerful enough. "Everyone's fine," he added hurriedly, as Mal dropped directly before him and took a threatening step forward. "We figured that probably that guy you were talking about that didn't like you sent people all over and whichever team got lucky would try to take the ship while you guys were out. We should have about ten minutes to get out of here before anyone comes to check up on us -- maybe a little more, you made good time getting back."

Ignoring him after the essential bit of news, Zoë moved across the room to the intercom and called to the bridge. "Wash?"

"Zoë, darling, you're back! Sorry I couldn't answer your call earlier. Xander thought--"

"You left us worryin' you were dead because Xander thought?" she asked, voice louder than usual and painfully tense. She spun to stalk towards the carpenter, who backed away from her, hands spread defensively before him.

"I thought they might be monitoring radio waves," he said quickly. "And if Wash answered, they'd know their team failed after all and would have sent more. They might have intercepted you, or sent something bigger than we could take!"

"We're okay, baby," Wash's reassuring voice came through the intercom. "Everyone's okay."

She stopped advancing, and stood rigidly upright, every muscle tense with restrained emotion. "Whole story. Ma shong." She recollected that he didn't know Chinese, and impatiently amended, "Right now."

"I'm thinkin' maybe we'd best remove ourselves from the vicinity," Mal offered. "Mebbe the story can wait till we're away?"

"I'm thinkin' not, sir," Zoë replied firmly. "We need to know what happened."

Xander nodded sharply and his tone was slightly different as he stated with almost military precision, "I was looking out the hold when I noticed the grass moving. I looked more carefully, and found three people approaching the ship and one more staying still a ways out, a sniper."

"You killed 'em?" Mal asked, surprised. He'd seen that the kid could fight okay, but he wouldn't have bet on him against four others, especially not with a sniper in the mix.

A slightly startled look, almost offended, answered him. "I don't kill humans -- not unless I have to."

Jayne blinked. "What do ya gorram kill, then? Cattle?"

Zoë demanded at the same time, "What happened?" The way she bit off each carefully enunciated word emphasized the sentence more strongly than any oath.

"I beat them at their own game," Xander replied with an incongruously boyish grin. "I stalked them back and took them out one by one. They're down there if you want to question them -- they're awake by now, I've been keeping an eye on them."

They all moved down to the ramp and Mal followed Xander's pointing finger to the four carefully trussed up men lying in a line with about five feet separating them from each other a bit away from the ramp. He looked back to Xander, started to say something, but then thought better of it when he realized he wasn't quite sure what he wanted to say. Stalking down the ramp, he went to the nearest of the men, removed the gag, and snapped, "What was yer business with my gorram ship?"

The man glared at him silently.


"Yeah, Mal?"

"Ask him what he wanted, would you?"

A grin crossed the mercenary's face and he joined Mal, pulling out the foot-long blade Mal could never remember the name of.

"Taylor sent us!" the man on the ground said hurriedly. "Said you cheated him of a deal a long time ago, wanted a meetin' with you!"

"I cheated him?" Mal demanded, outraged. "That tah mah duh hwoon dahn! He--"

"Sir. Is this really the time?"

He looked over at Zoë and sighed. "Fine, then. What were ya plannin' to do, exactly?" he demanded, turning back to the bound man.

"Sneak in, take out the folks on the ship and wait for you to come back. Ambush you," the man stated. "He said there weren't no real fighters left on the ship," he added with an angry glare at Xander. "All the folks could be trusted with guns were s'posed to've gone inta town!"

Xander blinked. "But I didn't use a gun, what are you angry at me for?"

"Maybe 'cause you foiled his plan by upsettin' the rules and takin' him out even without a gun."

Mal turned to Zoë in surprise, and found her finally looking a bit more at ease, a hint of a smirk on her face as she added, turning to the bound man, "After all, gotta be a bit embarassin' to know you an' yer friends got taken' out by one man an' no gun."

"Ruttin' hard t'live down," Jayne agreed, shaking his head in disgust.

"Could I suggest we get out of here?" Xander asked. "I mean, some time can be explained away as them working out their ambush, but if we stick around for much longer, they're going to send reinforcements."

Mal nodded sharply. "Let's get in the sky. Book's waitin' for his delivery." They headed back onto the ship, and Jayne hit the button to pull up the ramp and close the doors, and then they fastened the chains around the mule and hoisted it up into its storage space near the ceiling. Zoë was out the door almost before the chains had been stowed, and Jayne followed a moment after.

"Take us away, Wash," Mal called out.

"Delighted to oblige," the pilot's voice came through the intercom, and within moments they were airborne.

Mal turned to Xander, who was standing uncertainly to one side, and stared at him steadily. "Think you've got a story to tell this evenin'."

The younger man sighed and nodded.

He started to turn, then paused, eyes locked on the carpenter's hands, one of which held a knife and the other a stick of wood he'd apparently been whittling. He raised his brows. "I've known many a man whittles when he's bored, but nary a one just puts a point on a stick o' wood -- the guay's that?"

Xander looked blankly down at his hands, and his eyes widened slightly as he sheathed the knife and moved as if he was going to hide the stick behind his back before catching himself. "I dunno," he said. "I was waiting for you guys to get back rather than concentrating on the work. Just happened, I guess."

Mal's eyes narrowed. There was a grain of truth in that, if he read his man right, but if ever he'd seen a man working to deceive, this was that time. He nodded sharply, turned, and headed for the bridge.