I don't own the characters. I just work here

….

The mule whirred through the mostly deserted streets of Fenton's east side, carrying Serenity's crew and their unexpected passengers away from danger with River's deft hands at the controls.

Avin Zao had his arm around the young woman, who, it transpired, was his nephew's fiancée. She was past the point of being fearful for her betrothed and was now directing them towards the house where they had agreed to meet him.

It wasn't long before they coasted to a halt outside a small, wooden but clearly well kept farmhouse not far from the edge of Fenton. Danny's fiancée leapt from the mule before they had stopped moving and rushed towards the house, circling it and then running off to the barn. She returned with an ashen look on her face before the rest had all dismounted.

"It's not here Av! He's not back! If they've got him I swear I'll…" She ran one hand through her hair and clenched the other into a fist, breathing deeply to try and calm herself.

Avin put a hand on each of her shoulders, "It'll be alright Veronica, we were much faster than he'd be, pullin' that trailer. He'll be back before you know it."

Veronica exhaled sharply, then stalked to the fence and lent on it, staring intently down the road from the town.

Mal turned to Zao, who was gazing worriedly at Veronica. "You seem like too good a' kind of folk to be involved this business, by rights you should all should be either dead at the hands o' folk less kind than us or in lock-up. My advice to you would be to get rid of that booze and go back to whatever it was you did beforehand."

Chewing on his bottom lip, Zao avoided Mal's eye. "We… I… made mistakes I know, but I was just tasked with getting alcohol and I have no idea how this business is supposed to work you know, I'm just a sales manager in the Pan Solar Bank for crying out loud!" He threw up his arms and then let them fall limply. "Well at least I'm never going to get this job again."

Mal frowned at this, he had assumed Zao was trying to break into the illegal side of importation business, but he had what must be a well-paid middle management job in a bank? This situation was rapidly becoming nonsensical. He could see Jayne and Zoe looking quizzically at Zao as well.

"I'm a little confused here friend, why risk the lives of you and yours when you clearly don't need the financial assistance? He asked.

Sighing, Zao explained. " It was never about the money, I'm not making any profit from this at all. What you have to understand is that there are a great many people on this world who don't agree with the laws the gorram fanatics in the magistrate's office have brought in. So those of us who don't appreciate having every aspect of our lives being scrutinised and controlled have the occasional… gathering. I was asked to provide the drink."

"Why'd ya do sumpthin' that'll ee-ven-choo-ally get y'all pinched by the law?" Queried Jayne.

"Because not doing it would mean that they lost." Mal answered in Zao's place.

Jayne rolled his eyes. Zao looked sideways at Mal. "That's the best way I've heard it put, captain."

Mal just shrugged. "We need to get gone from this rock 'fore the law finds someone who can point them in this direction, we got you your stuff, I'd appreciate if you gave us ours…" He raised an eyebrow at Zao, who pulled the bag of credits out of his pocket and handed it over.

"Thanks again for not murdering us and helping us get out of there. We owe you a lot more than that." He said.

A yelp from Veronica saved Mal the trouble of a reply as the sound of an approaching engine heralded Danny's arrival into the farmyard. He had barely turned off the engine before he was practically tackled off the machine by Veronica.

Mal tossed the coin bag to Zoe, then ran to the road and scanned the darkness for any sign of pursuers. Not anxious to see if any would turn up, He ordered his crew onto their mule.

As he himself made to clamber onto the machine, Avin Zao put a hand on his shoulder. "I know this isn't the kind of invitation you're going to accept captain, but I feel that I should ask you to attend our little bash this evening."

"That's not a good idea Av, last time I was at a party there was some unpleasantness with swords and we ain't aiming to stay 'round for someone to figure out we aren't on the up-an-up. Besides, we're criminals, you're just some honest folk who like to get up to no good, we wouldn't fit in too well."

"I don't think you're quite as much of a criminal as you say," It was Zao's turn to surprise Mal. "I got a good look at that pistol of yours when you stuck it in my face. Independent army standard issue Moses brothers model B. Now there's plenty a' other handguns a man in your business would prefer, the model B is an incredibly accurate piece of equipment at range but the weight and recoil of it means you can't fire off multiple shots quickly and stay any sort of accurate as say, a LeMat like your friend here."

Jayne glanced at the LeMat in his holster, he'd had Zao pegged as a puddle of piss who'd never seen a gun from the moment he saw him. Zoe caught his eye and raised her eyebrows, showing her appreciation f Zao's knowledge as well.

They weren't the only ones, Danny took a break from having his ribcage squished by Veronica and voiced the question Mal had been about to ask. "Uncle, how in the diyú d'ya know all that?!"

"Cos I have one of those myself." Zao slowly produced a pistol identical to Mal's from behind his back. "Turns out I know too little about how to hide a gun where you can get to it quickly, takes a different set of skills to be a crook than a soldier. But I don't think you're a crook, you know all about doing something not cos you'll win, but just cos while you do, the other guy won't either, am I right?"

Mal looked hard at Zao, now that he could see his eyes and face in the light from the windows of the farmhouse he could see something that he saw in Zoe's eye, the bulletproof steel look of someone who'd seen and done the things he had. There was a small scar on his neck at the top of his collar that disappeared down under his shirt as well.

This man definitely hadn't spent his life behind a desk like Mal had assumed.

Mal sighed. "I gotta think 'bout the safety of my crew." He turned to get into the mule.

"I understand," said Zao. "but you will be missing one heck of a shindig. We head out into the desert 'bout fifty miles from town, bout sixty-five of us depending on who can make it. We always welcome new faces."

Mal was about to decline for the final time when the communicator on his belt crackled to life and Kaylee's voice floated into the farmyard.

"Cap'n, you there? We might have a problem here."

Amazed that yet another facet of this job could go wrong on him, Mal picked up the device. "Go ahead Kaylee, please tell me nobody's 'bin shot or anythin'."

"Its not that cap'n, but one of them customs men came along just now and said everyone's grounded till further notice, said sumpthin' about a possible smugglin' operation goin' on. Is everything ok on your end?"

"We're doin' just fine, we weren't followed but I don't think we can bring the mule back to the port, someone mighta' talked to the law and described us, you're gonna have ta pick us up somewhere away from town when they lift the blockade. I'll send River, Zoe and Jayne back on foot and I'll take the mule out into the desert, far enough away so's if they see ya doubling back after take off they won't be able ta catch us 'fore we break atmo and go for hard burn."

"Can do cap'n!" Kaylee signed off with her usual cheeriness.

Ignoring Jayne's protests about having to walk back to the spaceport, Mal turned to Zao. "Know anywhere sheltered n' quiet out in the desert Av? He asked.

Avin smiled. "Indeed I do captain, unfortunately it'll be occupied by yours truly this evening. Might I suggest an alternative to your plan that will ensure you have a more pleasant evening than sleeping in a hovermule?

Mal knew where this was going. "You may."

"You're crew and you come join us this evening in the desert, it's the least we can do for you after what you did for us and your crew can return to the port, come back and pick up the mule in the morning."

Mal bit his lip. "I dunno…"

Jayne overrode him with a question for Avin. "Will there be womenfolk?"

Amused, Zao nodded. "You are also welcome to help us get rid of the evidence…" He waved theatrically at the trailer filled with drink.

Jayne looked at Mal with the look of a child trying to convince a parent to buy him a toy. "Where's the harm cap'n? We've been hidin' on the ship too long, need to get out and see what's what."

Mal looked at his crew, River and even Zoe looked to be agreeing with Jayne on this one.

He grudgingly took the communicator off his belt. "Kaylee, ya there?"

"Aye cap'n!"

"Belay that last order. Get the doc and 'Nara, walk to the edge of town. We're gonna meet ya there, we made some new friends who are taking us out for the night."

Kaylee's excitement flooded down the line in a way that couldn't but make Mal's lip curl in a smile. "Ooooooh! That's just shiny cap'n! How long till we see you?"

"I'd say about half an hour. Make sure no one follows ya."

"Will do cap'n, you're the best!"

Mal put the communicator down. Someway, somehow, I'm gonna regret this…

….

Sorry it took me a while to get this one to you. My professors seem to think it hilarious to put every single essay deadline in the same two-week period, that is, this past week and next week. Wankers.