**Part Twenty-Two**

Word Count: 1,690
This is for the LJ community 50_baby_fics Prompt #25-Fear

First thing Mal noticed when entering the bar, something didn't seem right. He knew fear, had seen it in action many times over the years. He wasn't immune to it himself, as much as he tried to pretend otherwise. He'd seen so much over the years that there was nothing left for him to fear, but he knew what it felt like when others were in the throes of it. Like passion it could be all-consuming, get a chokehold on you and not let go until it'd done a number on you both physically and mentally.

He wished now he'd left River and Kaylee behind on Serenity with Wash, Simon, and little Mal. Jayne and Zoe were both already here somewhere and in position. Make it seem less threatening if he came meandering in with these two women. River was more than capable. Once he'd become aware of what her talents were he, Jayne, and Zoe worked to hone them. There wasn't a weapon onboard Serenity she couldn't handle, even the ones Jayne didn't like anyone but him to know about.

River must have sensed something, too, because all of the sudden she grabbed onto his arm for dear life. And for the briefest of moments, before she was able to collect herself, something she claimed he helped her do, she looked like the frightened thing he'd first seen on Serenity.

The place was lively enough and bursting at the seams. It was just wrong, off. If he didn't know better he'd think they were actors playing a part. But for who? Him? Someone else? Or was just their lot in life?

"It's all right, Riv," he murmured careful his lips didn't move too much. "I make the deal and we're gone. In and out."


Yeah, I sense that, too.

"Kaylee, keep an eye on River will ya? I'm not taking her to the back with me."

"But, Cap'n."

It was well known that Mal liked having River along to read the situation. He wasn't stupid and he wasn't going to walk her into a dangerous situation. Could be dangerous out here, sure, but in a closed room things got even more dicey.

"You heard me, Kaylee. This ain't the place for someone sensitive like her."

"All right."

She nodded her agreement, but still looked confused. He'd explain it to her later if need, hopefully there'd be nothing to explain.

The hairs on the back of his neck stood at attention as he scanned the crowd, looking for anything or anyone that was cause for the thick feeling of fear and dread in here. He hadn't sensed it elsewhere, and Simon or Inara certainly hadn't come back from their jaunt with words of caution. Everyone looked normal, well as normal as can be for a place that served all walks of life from the Tam's of the moon down to the likes of him and Jayne, even lower. All classes were represented here.

Maybe that was it. This seemed to be the only place for people to go, perhaps things got tense with people having to rub elbows with people they normally wouldn't have cause to. He could imagine some wouldn't like that at all. Haves didn't like to be reminded that there were have-nots. And have-nots didn't like to see the haves flaunting that which made them such.

Something wasn't right, but life on moons could be brutal for those unaccustomed to a simpler life. So, he wasn't sure the not right was aimed at him.

As it turned out, the deal went down smoothly enough. Mal was cautiously optimistic that they might be able to pull a job off without risk of severe injury to his crew as he left the back room, instructions in his pocket. He gave a casual nod to both Zoe and Jayne when he came out from the back, letting them know it was a done deal and they could go on their way nice and leisurely like.

Chances were, they'd stay for a bit and toss a couple back. He might, too, now that he thought about it. He was a might parched from the feelings he encountered upon walking into the establishment and more than ready to wash them down with something. Now that the deal was done, there was nothing saying they couldn't be seen together as a group. It was just the beforehand he liked to keep his options open and the exact numbers in his backup a secret.

He spotted Kaylee at the bar, flirtatiously chatting with a fellow looked to be a little older then her. His eyes scanned the crowd near her, realizing right away what was missing. More aptly who. And he didn't like that one bit. He moved fast, closing the distance between them and grabbed Kaylee by the arm roughly, too rough. He couldn't help it, though. He'd expected to come out from making his deal and find her there, waiting for reassurance from him that everything was all right.

"Where is she?"


"Don't play coy with me, Kaylee? There's only one she I left you in charge of."

"Ow, Captain, you're hurting my arm." He promptly released his hold on her arm. Hurting her was not going to help matters. He just didn't like the casual way with which she was treating this. Maybe she hadn't picked up on River's ill at ease disposition when they'd entered.

"You can't have had that much to drink in so short a span to forget about River."

"She just went to the bathroom," Kaylee said, trying to go back to the conversation she was having with the man.

"Excuse me," he gave an impatient nod to the man and took hold of her arm again. "How long ago was that?" There was something going on here, River was sensitive to such things and if they were bad enough he felt them she had to, too. And Kaylee just let her wander off? He wouldn't put it past her to go exploring. Exploring where she probably shouldn't. He swallowed that train of thought, not liking it one bit.

"I'm not sure," she said. "Captain, it's just the bathroom. You didn't expect me to go with her?"

"When I tell you to keep an eye on something, Kaylee, I expect you to do just that."

"I'm sorry," she said, seeming to notice Mal's concern was genuine and not just a fleeting thing. "I'll go check on her."

"That would be mighty kind of you."

Zoe walked up to the bar casually. "What's up, Sir?"

"Kaylee's checking on River in the bathroom."

"Oh. You look worried."

"I just don't like the feel of things in here, Zoe. What's your take?"

"I'm not sure, but I feel the same as you. Jayne does, too, I could tell even if we didn't talk."

"The sooner Kaylee and River get back and we can return to the ship I'll be happy."

"The deal's done?"

"Yes, went smoothly enough. Not too smooth as to cause me to be suspicious. Finagling and haggling ensued."

"Finagling is a good thing."

"Yeah, proves no one's too anxious."

"Right, because anxiousness is a bad thing."

Mal chuckled lightly, eyes falling immediately on Kaylee as she approached them. Alone. Looking quite lost.

"She ain't in there, Captain."

"She's what?"

"She ain't in there. I checked, waited until I was the only one left in there."

"Lao tyen, boo," Zoe whispered.

"Wuo duh MA. What do you mean she ain't there? I give you one task while I'm getting us a job and your head spins around for the first shwai man that talks to you."

"Captain, that ain't fair. She said she was going to the bathroom."

"And I told you to watch her. Sensitive woman like she is in a place like this." He clenched his jaw, eyes taking in the bar. It was too crowded for him to see much beyond immediately in front of them. She could be anywhere. Could be anywhere that wasn't in this bar, too. "Tzao-gao!"

"Sir," Zoe said. "Perhaps we should save the mud slinging for later and worry about finding River."

"Yeah, let's split up. Do a once through, calm like. No need to cause undo attention to ourselves. Where the hell is Jayne?" He wasn't sure which one he wanted to look for most. Jayne could come in handy if it came to weapons getting drawn. River on the other hand was vulnerable and fragile, and prone to have a fit in this type of environment without him there. He'd stopped denying long ago that he helped her somehow, acted as some sort of anchor.

"I'll find him, Sir, he's probably sitting where he was not realizing anything's going on."

"Thanks, Zoe."

"No problem, Sir, we'll find her. She probably just wandered off, curious or something."

"Yeah, or something," he murmured.

Evidently, he'd jinxed himself with his thoughts earlier because he knew fear now, tasted it, smelled it, and felt it in his gut. He had been dead wrong when he walked in here and thought he'd nothing left to fear. He'd told her months ago that he wouldn't introduce her as his wife, not wanting to endanger her or his crew to the types of people he dealt with who might think she was worth a bargaining chip or two. There were some, like Adelei Niska, who wouldn't be kind to her at all while waiting for him to find her. They'd be especially brutal to someone that meant something to Mal because he'd thwarted them in the past. Can't find an Achilles heel on a man who didn't have one.

He readied his weapon without drawing it, just preparing himself for the worst because it always seemed to find him. He suddenly found it very important that whatever happened to her, people realized they were messing with something he considered his more than he had since Serenity. And Serenity didn't keep him up nights in the imaginative ways his wife did neither, so putting Serenity ahead of her might just be a lie.

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