After Midnight

By Diana Valera Sonne
Copyright 1999

Mostly PG, perhaps some PG13 for language and innuendo.

Spoilers: Straight through to "A Human Reaction," with many stops along the way.

Commander John Crichton, Astronaut, IASA, chugged down the fellip nectar in two convulsive swallows, then tongued the few drops clinging to the lip of the narrow-necked bottle. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Not bad. Not bad at all, especially when he remembered to forget that the drink was liquified animal protein. He'd refused to let Aeryn tell him what part of the fellip the vintners mashed, pureed, or pressed through a sieve for its juices. Ignorance was bliss. In this section of the universe.

Pushing up from the backless stool, John stumbled over to the refrigeration unit. He rooted around inside the unit, pushing aside half-a-dozen Hynerian brews that smelled worse than curdled goat's milk, and found four more bottles of fellip nectar. Carrying the slender amber bottles back to his table, he lined them up next to the twelve empties he'd already finished off. He studied the resulting pattern as though it offered a map to to Sol. Then, picking up one of the full bottles, he unscrewed the cap. He planned to celebrate his return to the Uncharted Territories in style. Time for another drink.

Swiftly, John finished off his thirteenth bottle of fellip nectar. A metallic bitterness coated his tongue, and he considered switching to water. The thought died stillborn. Water offered nothing, certainly no surcease to the visions that haunted him both waking and sleeping.

Visions of Rygel vivisected. D'Argo cut and sliced and bleeding thick, toxic blackness. Pilot torn limb from limb. Zhaan left red-eyed and mad from her mating with a blue-skinned Lady Vader. And Aeryn...

Aeryn spasmed by the Living Death. Aeryn torn to pieces by a Vorkarian Blood Tracker's bitch. Aeryn questioned and tortured and injected and dissected. Aeryn dead.

Dead from Crais's hands, from alien hands... from human hands. Pale, manicured human hands protected from blood and guts and alien microbes by latex gloves. Human hands washed as clean as Pilate's. Human hands like his. Like his.

John swept his arm out, knocking half the bottles from the table. They crashed to the floor and slivered to pieces. One of the bottles had been unopened. The cold liquid hissed as it pooled on the warm floor. A DRD, one of the ones that looked and sounded like a compacted R2 unit, darted into the room. It chittered on three different wave bands when it saw the mess. Within minutes, two more DRDs joined it. They swept up the broken glass and mopped the spilled alcohol, then scittered away. The first DRD circled John's feet, as though sniffing for more damage, then spun and scooted off. No trace of glass or alcohol remained. Flexing his shoulders, John kneaded the back of his neck. Why weren't there DRDs to deal with guilt and nightmares as easily? Sweep them under some metaphysical rug somewhere, out of mind?

His gaze fell to the table. Two bottles of fellip left. Not enough. Not enough to bring oblivion. Not enough to stop the dreams. Not when fellip nectar was weaker than PX beer. Sighing, John reached for the closer full bottle. It might not bring the blackness he courted, but at least it muted the pain. He unscrewed the top and raised the bottle to his lips. The bottle clicked against his teeth and cold fellip nectar spilled down the front of his gray tee-shirt.

"Hey," he protested, wiping himself off, "who bumped me?" Setting the bottle back on the table, he looked around. "Rygel? That you, little buddy? No problems, I'm okay." Come to think of it, this was one of the few times he'd ever been in the mess hall when Rygel wasn't all too obvious. "Rygel?" John looked under the table. No one. "Pilot? Wheresh - where is everybody?" Whoops. He'd better be careful, how he bespoke himself. Didn't want to sound drunk, even if - especially if he were.

"The others are sleeping, JohnCrichton," Pilot's disembodied voice stated. Without one of the clamshell workstations, the symbiont's hologram could not appear in the mess hall. "It is early morning, ship's time. If you were planetside you would call this - predawn?"

Predawn. So it'd be what, about 3:00 am, standard time? That seemed about right. A time when haunts - and guilty consciences - walked free. John looked around. The mess hall was still well-lit. In the corridor, however, dimmed lights cast long shadows, turning Moya's warm gold and bronze walls shifting shades of tan, the floor a deep brown. One more drink and he might think himself the sole survivor on the Nostromo. Would Pilot warn him if something with double-jawed metallic teeth and a mean disposition waited out there for him?

And god, wasn't he the maudlin one tonight. The shadows were shadows, that was all. With only five passengers to provide for - six if he wanted to include Chiana, but he'd just as soon not, thank you - Moya had allowed herself the luxury of downtime. Not a bad idea for a pregnant Leviathan. Or a sleep-deprived, guilt-ridden human.

Lifting the bottle of fellip nectar again, he sploshed more alcohol down the front of his tee-shirt. He grunted. At this rate, Pilot had better find a commerce planet fast, before he ran out of clothes. Those clothes Aeryn and Rygel didn't appropriate in the first place. Setting the bottle down on the faux-wood table, John frowned, then announced, "Pilot, I'm drunk."

Pilot responded after an almost imperceptible pause. "I believe that to be an accurate summation of fact, JohnCrichton."

The comment startled John into laughter. Lifting the bottle high, he saluted the air. "Here's to you, Pilot. You're the best damn drinking buddy a guy could have."

Especially if what a guy really wanted was exactly what he couldn't have. At least not in this lifetime, and not in this end of the universe: a six-pack of beer, a rainy afternoon, and a certain stubborn, intelligent, brave young woman next to him... John rubbed his temples. Whoa, now. That way led to memories. The memories he drank to forget. Time to change the topic, think of something else. Something beside Aeryn...

"Hey, Pilot, you ever hear this one?" Hands beating out the time and rhythm in the air, he sang, "'Wha'd'ya do with a drunken human, wha'd'ya do with a drunken human, wha'd'ya do with a drunken human, ear-lie in the morning?'"

"I cannot recall your asking me a series of repeated questions with exactly that- that scanning pattern before, JohnCrichton."

"Yeah, well, I guess that's a great big 'No,' right, guy? Anyway, the rest of it goes like this, 'Put 'im in the...'." A small sound, unidentifiable, hooked his attention. He glanced across to the mess hall entrance. "Oh, hell."

Aeryn Sun leaned against the wall just inside the entryway. John had no idea how long she'd been there, but she still wore the dress and shoes he'd given her for a 'disguise' earlier that day, while they were... while they were on Earth. She looked beautiful, of course, but then he'd never seen her looking less than beautiful, not even in full PeaceKeeper Commando regalia. For all they'd been through, she looked remarkably calm and composed. She raised her left brow and said, "And 'Oh, hell' to you, too, Crichton." Straightening, she strode to his table, pulled out a chair, and sat down. She wrinkled her nose. "You smell like dren."

He bristled. "You'd smell even worse if you'd drunk as much as me." She reached for the remaining bottle of fellip nectar and he batted her hand away. "Get your own. That's my bottle, my nectar, my drunk on."

She pulled back. "Ri-ight, your bottle." Her tone compared human generosity with Hynerian, and not for the better.

John stretched out a hand. "Don't, Aeryn. It's just, if you take that last bottle I'll sober up too quickly. And I want... I need to be drunk for a good long time to come."

Aeryn looked at the bottles lined up on the table, then back to John. She shook her head. "Crichton, you could drink ten times as much fellip and you would still sober up inside two arns. Fellip nectar is designed that way." She snorted. "Why do you think it's one of the few alcoholic beverages allowed on PeaceKeeper vessels?"

Drawing himself up, John stared at her from bloodshot eyes. "Okay," he said, "okay, let me see if I got this straight." As he made each point, he drew a series of concentric circles in the air between himself and Aeryn. "You load up a sixteen-wheeler with this stuff. You drink till your kidneys are floatin' in brew. You get a buzz on, but you can't keep it up?"

Aeryn smothered a laugh. "I think you're the one who can't keep it up, John."

He waved the words away. "Out of the gutter, girl. We ain't talkin' trash, here."


"Aeryn, I'm try'na be serious. You mind?"

She held her hands up in mock surrender. "Please. Be my guest."

He stared at her a moment, wondering what she'd had to drink before coming to the mess hall. He'd seen her somber, serious, dedicated, determined, worried, happy. He'd seen her frightened, and scared. For the crew, for him, even for herself. But he couldn't remember seeing her playful before, and Aeryn in a playful mood, after everything that had gone down on that pseudo-Earth, was enough to sober him. He'd pulled a weapon on her, for gods' sakes! Hell, just thinking on that would be enough to sober him even if his drunk had come from battery-fluid-strong, down-home white lightning, instead of pissant weak fellip nectar.

And for that matter, what was she doing in the mess hall at three in the morning? In a dress she hadn't been comfortable wearing in the first place? His brow wrinkled. "You drinking, Aeryn? Or another figment of my imagination, maybe?"

"Not a drop. And as real as rain."

"Yeah, well..." Rain. Right. Nobody'd ever warned him about Sebaceans being telepathic. "Anyway, like I was saying, what's the point of alcohol you can't get blitzed on?" He knew he was acting like a drunk, fixating on a specific part of the conversation and constantly returning to it, but any subject was worth repeating, if it would keep his thoughts from returning to the topic that really haunted him.

Leaning forward, Aeryn rested her arms on the table. The temperature in the mess rose abruptly. John tore his gaze away from her and fixed it on his decimated row of bottles. Aeryn didn't react to the shift in temperature. "Crichton,"she said, "there are almost seven hundred PeaceKeepers, from the lowliest grot to the highest command staff, assigned to a carrier such as Crais's. Even more to a destroyer like the Zelbinion. And that's not counting ancillaries. Techs, medical staff, service workers... add them to the PeaceKeepers and the body count more than doubles."

He nodded. "That's a lot of bodies getting drunk."

She smiled, the left side of her mouth hooking upward. "And drunk bodies - especially drunk soldier bodies - sometimes fail to follow orders, sometimes go just a little wild, sometimes even ask questions. So..."

" let them have a few hours to relax, then, 'Wham!' back in PK mode."

"An elegant solution to an age-old problem, don't you think?"

He reared back. "Elegant? Aeryn, your 'elegant' solution is as sadistic as anything Durka's dreamt up! Don't you guys ever get the chance to just blow the whole thing off?"

"That is what our training is for, Crichton, to ensure there is no need to 'blow the whole thing off'." Her wry grin mocked herself as well as him. "It usually works."

"I guess." Damn. He could feel his intoxication slipping away. "Barring 'irreversible contamination' and exposure to new ideas, new cultures."

"New ways of thinking."

John reached for her hand. She made no attempt to pull away. "I'm sorry, Aeryn." So much for drinking to forget. He'd sobered up in even less than an arn.


"For everything."

"That's twice in two days you've apologized for 'everything.' For what, exactly? The Benalii War? The Lomish Incursions? The Sheyang Disputation? The..."

"Whoa, whoa." Laughing, he held his free hand up to stem the tide of wars and battles he'd never heard of. "Point taken. I'm not responsible for the woes of the universe." He shook his head. "Ya gotta admit, though, I'm responsible for an awful lot of your woes." And why wasn't she flaying him alive - literally as well as figuratively, if Rygel's tales of PeaceKeepers were to be believed - for everything he'd done to her? For all the problems he'd caused? For getting her exiled from her own kind, and almost dead more than once...

Aeryn looked down to where he still held her hand and smiled. Turning her hand so she could return his clasp, she said, "And you're also responsible for an awful lot of my joy. I think everything balances out in the end, don't you?"

Joy. Hope. Love. Before his thoughts could register, he pushed away any naming of the emotion that surged through him at her words. It was too soon to name it, to bring it into the harsh light of reality. It would burn itself out. "That doesn't sound like you, Aeryn."

"I know." She looked past him, her gaze seeming to take in another place, another time. "John, PeaceKeepers are trained to deny the truth about their emotions, to deny they even possess any." Her words came slowly, as though pulled from memories she'd hoped to leave behind. John didn't think she even realized that, this once, she wasn't identifying with the PeaceKeepers. They remained 'they' in her explanation. "During cadetship, PeaceKeepers are only allowed to be... analytical, rational, neutral. They're taught that lo- caring for another is the most dangerous emotion of all, because it endangers everyone else in the Command. So when PeaceKeepers come face to face with a truth, or an emotion, they can't accept, they... they go a little crazy. Like Crais, like Macton." In the slowness of her delivery, he might have missed her slight hesitation, but he felt her fingers tighten around his. "I don't want to go crazy, John." With her free hand, Aeryn gestured toward the line of bottles. "And if this is because you don't want to face the truth, well then, I think it's time we both faced the whole truth."

"Right, Ms Sun. And just what is the 'whole truth'?" He pulled free, unsure just where her "truth" would take them. Determined to bear with it no matter where it would lead. He'd complained that Aeryn only rarely shared her thoughts with him? Well, no more. And how much better he could understand her now!

"I know you'd like to bear the entire blame for what happened in the wormhole, John, but remember, we chose to come looking for you. We knew before we left Moya there was a chance we'd be greeted with suspicion, or even hostility, on your world. Frell, we all have stories of catastrophic first contacts with planet-bound cultures." She paused, then said, "When you told me you'd found your wormhole and asked me to go with you, I had to say no, to just let you go. I'd already said good-by to my entire life... And now, just when I was learning to care... you wanted me to leave Moya? To leave D'Argo and the others?"

He stared, fascinated, at her hands. Her voice was calm now, uninflected. Almost she could be discussing someone else's emotions and reactions. But her hands had tightened into claws that sought succor one from the other. "How could I go to Earth with you, John?" She shook her head. "It was too much, too much to ask, and too soon to ask it. I could not do it. Not then." A deep, shuddering sigh. For a moment he could not tell if the sound came from Aeryn or himself. "You promised me I would never be alone," she said, "but now... now you were going, and I could not, would not try to stop you, and I would be more alone than ever."

Looking across at him, she followed the direction of his stare and uncurled her fingers. She continued as though nothing unusual had happened. "Then we lost contact with your ship. After that..." She met his gaze. He could lose himself in her eyes. Green eyes, as green as the fertile world he'd lost twice in less than a year. A world well lost if only her green eyes didn't look at him with hatred, or distrust. "After that, I knew I would follow you to Earth, even if the others stayed behind."

"That's twice now, you've left everything behind to follow me." His hands ached with the need to touch her, to feel the silken length of her long black hair falling through his fingers, to caress the curve of her cheek, to trace the arc of her determined chin. He folded his hands against their desire and waited, breathlessly, to see if she would refute him.

"And that's once now, you've chosen me over your entire world."

"A world that would have killed you, Aeryn." He looked at her in wonder before lowering his gaze to his still-clasped hands. How could she stand to be in the same room - hell, the same universe, even - as he? And to be sharing so much of herself with him...

"I'd say you were 'irreversibly contaminated,' Crichton." Gentle, self-mocking laughter curled around her words, deepened and emphasized the throatiness of her voice.

His head snapped up. "Wha- Aeryn, how can you joke about this? What happened to you on that phony Earth could have been real, dammit! God knows we thought it was real it was real enought when we lived it! And the Old Ones didn't make Wilson and Cobb up out of thin air, you know!"

"I know. Wilson and Cobb came from your memories, and what they did to us... that was real, too, because you know that's the way men like Wilson and Cobb will act the first time they meet someone like Rygel or D'Argo. Or like me."

The horror of seeing Rygel's desecrated body swept over him again, and the despair of thinking Aeryn but another simulacrum. Movement. He needed to move, to act, to do. Spinning around on his stool, he hopped off. Staggering slightly, he headed for the dispenser. He was thirsty, but the fellip nectar had lost its appeal. He pulled a draught of water, drank it in three gulps, pulled another.

He stood there a moment, lost in thought. When he tried to talk Aeryn into coming to Earth with him, he'd been so damn sure there'd be no problems, that Earth would welcome her like the hero she was. Hell, he'd even thought about an NYC ticker tape parade, a spot on Oprah, a TV-movie of the week - "My Life as A Space Babe" for USA or the SciFi Channel.

But Aeryn was right. Down deep, somewhere under the "it'll be a great hurrah" facade, some part of him had been smart enough to fear the reaction of the Wilsons and the Cobbs, and that was what the Old Ones had uncovered. Mourning his lost innocence, John walked back to Aeryn. He set the glass of water on the table and hunkered down at her side.

"I've been an arrogant prick, haven't I?" He recognized the doubt in her eyes. Her translator microbes hiccupping again. Damn all idioms, anyway. But there was no way to say what he wanted to say, with the force he wanted, without them. "A prick, Aeryn, a prick, a dick, a pecker-wood. Always running on like that about PeaceKeepers and the way they treat other races? My people... my people would be even worse, given half the chance." He remembered telling NamTar about Dr. Mengele, and swallowed convulsively. The foul taste in his mouth was from more than the fellip."It's just that-" He took a deep breath. Whoever said 'And the truth shall set you free' didn't know a sharpei from a shihtzu. The truth was a bitch. And it had damn sharp teeth and claws. "It's just that I hoped we were beyond all that, that we'd learned from the past and now things would be different, would be better."

"Zhaan says we're doomed to repeat the past, and all we can ever hope for is that the second or even the third time around we learn our lesson faster, so we can go on to new levels of learning and experience."

"Zhaan." Oh yeah, Zhaan. He slumped to the floor. "She hates me, Aeryn. She'll never forgive me for what I said to her." Or for seeing her dark side so up close and personal. He rested his head on Aeryn's lap. "What the hell do I do about Zhaan?" Aeryn might bear no animosity toward him - though god knew if any one should, she should - but that didn't mean things were A-ok with the rest of the crew.

A touch, feather-light, brushed the hair back from his brow. Almost, he could convince himself it was his imagination, his desire, his fear-that-it-would-not-be. But the callouses on the fingers were real, the reward of a lifetime of hard military training. "Why do you think Zhaan hates you, John? She was as concerned as the rest of us when we lost communication with your craft."

If he turned his head just so... The thought gave birth to the action, and he dropped a kiss into Aeryn's palm, smiling as she closed her fingers over it. "John!" Laughter and impatience were threaded together in her voice as she shook his shoulder.

He straightened up. "Hmmm? Oh, Zhaan. Cripes, Aeryn, what the hell should I think when even Rygel seems more concerned about me than her?"

She frowned. "What, because Rygel came with us in the transport and Zhaan didn't?"

He nodded. "That'll do for starters."

"Oh, for... Crichton!" He grinned. Now that, that combination of impatience and, well, impatience. That was Aeryn, the Aeryn he knew and lo- the Aeryn he knew. "You know we can't trust Chiana. Leave her alone with Pilot and Moya, and she'd be off to join the worst pirate band in seven sectors. Someone had to protect them from her, and since she seems to fear Zhaan more than anyone else..." She held his gaze. "That was the only reason Zhaan didn't come with us. But before we left, she promised that if we didn't report back within three days, she and Pilot would track our landing and figure out a rescue plan." She grinned. "She also said if Chiana tried anything, she'd send her EVA. Without a space suit."

Now that he could definitely see - Zhaan threatening Chiana with an Extra-Vehicular Activity. Suitless. And meaning it. Too bad Chiana hadn't given her a reason to put threats into action. "But if Zhaan's not upset with me, why is she avoiding me?"

Aeryn stared at him. "Avoiding you? How would you know if anyone was avoiding you, the way you've been avoiding us?"

Ouch. That one hurt. But, as he'd been discovering, the truth did. "That obvious?"

"You don't have to be a rock smith to see it."

Rock smith? What the- He bit back a laugh. "Rocket scientist, Aeryn, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to see it."

"A rock smith." She glared at him. "That's what I said." She poked him in the chest, hard. "And don't try to evade the issue. You were avoiding me - us - even before you left for Earth. Since you got back from Acquara, actually."

"I - I apologized for that, Aeryn."

Her gaze was level. "Mumbling something about being sorry, and then keeping yourself busy and out of everyone's way is scarcely an apology, John."

"Oh, shit." He ran his hand across his face. What was there he could say or do now that he was brought face to face with his actions? "I know how much I hurt you, hurt all of you. And even worse, what I said wasn't even true. I mean, it was true, but only for then." Brilliant. Talk about tying yourself up in knots! "It's just that I was so- so tired of feeling like the village idiot. Here I am, with a doctorate in the kind of way-out theoretical physics most people don't even know exists, and I can't screw in a light bulb, or find my way out of the bathroom, or turn down the heat." He sighed. "I was angry and upset and I took it out on you. On all of you." He leaned back, his head once more resting against her leg. She didn't push him off.

"Don't you think we knew that, John? And you know we didn't starburst deliberately. Once Moya's amnexus levels were stabilized we searched for you." She paused. "I understand we found you just in time, too. Unless you wanted to marry the chief's daughter? I hear she worshiped you." John made a mental note to check out the life support systems. From being too hot, the temperature had just dropped by fifty degrees.

"Wrong person. It was Rygel she worshiped. Me? Hey, she just thought I was an okay guy, one she'd like to get to know."

He felt the sudden tension in her body. "Is that- is that why you 'clicked' with Gilina? Because she thought you were 'an okay guy'? Because she understood you, and didn't make you feel foolish? Or like the 'village idiot'?"

Not afraid to set off land-mines, was she? But that was Aeryn. And if there was one thing Aeryn worshiped, it was truth. Truth, and justice. Add 'the American way,' and she could stand in for Superman. He grimaced. All told, she'd be a lot better off if she had put less value on truth and justice, and more on her duty as a soldier - in which case he'd be dead, D'Argo and the others would most probably be recaptured, and she'd still be a happy little Commando - complete with promotion - still under Crais's command... but she sure as hell wouldn't be Aeryn.

"That was part of it, Aeryn. It was great to talk to someone who knew what I was talking about, and who thought science was important, and who admired me. And she reminded me a bit of Alex, of Alexandra, the woman I was- I was involved with back on Earth." He ran his tongue across suddenly dry lips. "But Aeryn, I had no problem saying good-by to Gilina."

"And you had no problem saying good-by to us, and leaving us in anger, either."

He twisted around until he could look up at her. "Aeryn, do you really think I would have been as angry as I was if I didn't want you, want all of you to accept me? To think I was part of this crew, at least as much as you or the others? To think I contributed, and wasn't just super-cargo? It got to the point where it was one 'human nonsense' put-down after another, and I just couldn't take any more. I needed space so I could get everything out of my system." He snorted. "If Moya hadn't pulled a starburst, I'd have been back in less than an arn. I'd have had the chance to get over my mad and would have apologized to everyone and that would have been it."

"But Moya did starburst, and you weren't back in less than an arn, and we did search for you. We searched for three whole monens. So how could you leave so easily for Earth, so soon after that, when you knew what you meant to us?"

He was reminded of the old Greek myth of the snake that encircled the Earth with its tail in its mouth. They'd come full circle now, he and Aeryn. He couldn't even explain his actions to himself. That was one of the reasons he'd been trying to lose himself in alcohol tonight. And if he couldn't explain himself to himself, how could he explain himself to Aeryn? Aeryn, who knew so little of subterfuge and deceit? She said she'd studied Durka's methods for PeaceKeeper training. How? When they seemed to have touched her so little?

"Aeryn, returning home was all I'd been thinking of for seven months. At least, I thought it was all I was thinking of. With everything that's happened, though - Maldis, NamTar, Crais, the Sheyangs - the only time I had to stop and smell the roses was when I was on Acquara. And then I was still too mad, too upset - too hurt to listen to my heart." He reached for her hand. She didn't pull away, and he allowed himself to hope. "I never gave myself the chance to realize that somehow, during the months I've been here, my heart's desire changed. Earth isn't my home now, Moya is." He paused. "No. Not Moya." With his free hand he reached up slowly, giving her time to pull back. She did not, and he gently traced the outline of her lips. "You, Aeryn. You are my home. The ancient Romans said it right... 'Ubi tu Aeryn, ego John'."

She frowned, and for a moment he wondered if her translator microbes were up to the task of converting Latin to Sebacean. "Where I am, you are, too?"

He smiled. "Our timing sucks warty green pickles-"

"Wordy green pic-"

"Warty. Warty green pickles. Long green vegetables with zits all over them. They start out as cucumbers, until someone dunks 'em in brine." She had the dazed expression of a doe caught in the headlights of his old four-by. "Aeryn, stop changing the subject." She started to protest. Putting his finger to her lips he said, simply, "Sssh. I'll explain warts and pickles and zits and cucumbers and brine later." She looked at him questioningly and he groaned. "All right, I'll explain pricks and dicks and peckerwoods, too. Right now, let's get back to us."

"You're saying there's an 'us' to get back to?"

"I don't think 'never again' is a viable option any more, do you?"

"But nothing-"

"Yeah, babe, it did." He took her hand in both of his. Fingerprints, lifeline, heartline. So many outward similarities to human. He intertwined his fingers with hers, then looked up at her. "Like I said, our timing sucks. If D'Argo's not breaking in on us-"

"Oh. D'Argo. John, he..."

He buried his head in her lap, hoping to muffle his scream of total frustration. "Aeryn, you're killing me here. STOP INTERRUPTING!" Silence. He turned his head so he could see her face. She was biting her lip over the words. He sighed. "All right, what about D'Argo?"

"We didn't fool him when he and Stanz located us in the Flax. When you were missing? And when you went to Earth? He ceded me espousal rights. Both times, I was the one who decided if we would look for you." She smiled, a shy turning-up of the lips that made her even more beautiful in his eyes. "When you were on Acquara? We were all concerned for you at the start, but by the end, there was nothing democratic about it. We would look for you until I decided it was time to put on a widow's mask."

"Well, I'm glad you decided not to." He smiled quizzically. "Can I get back to what I was saying?" She nodded. "Thank you. Our timing. If it isn't D'Argo, it's the need for sleep. So no, nothing's happened. Not yet, anyway. And I'm not gonna push to have something happen overnight-" He looked at the row of bottles on the table. Only one still filled to the brim. "And especially not tonight. But we got time, Aeryn, we got all the time in the world."

He chose his next words with the precision of a military strategist mapping out a battle plan. "We've got the time to really get to know one another. We're comrades, shipmates, shieldmates. We're friends." And someday, somewhere, at least if he had anything to say about it, they'd be more than that. "It's too soon to tell where we're going, but we're going there together." Raising her hands to his lips, he kissed the tips of her fingers. "And in the long run, friends are more important than lovers any day."

"But never say never?"

He grinned up at her. "Aeryn Sun, when'd you get to be so smart?"

Her answering smile lit all the dark places in his heart. "When an arrogant human had the audacity to tell a PeaceKeeper Commando she could be more than she'd ever dreamt of being."

He struggled to his feet. "God, I did say that, didn't I? I sound like an Army commercial. 'Be all that you can be.' Or is it the Air Force? Whatever." He staggered as blood rushed to his legs. "It's a good saying, original or not."

"A very good saying, John Crichton." Aeryn's arm slipped around his waist, preventing him from falling flat on his face.

He looked at her. Three Aeryns shimmered at his side. "Officer Sun, you lied about that fellip nectar. I'm drunk." All three Aeryns smiled. "Did you ever hear the one about the drunken Luxan and his pet pig? Or about the Hynerian despot and his wife of 1001 nights? Or about the young lady from Pawtucket?"

"I think something gets lost in translation, Crichton. Now come, I will put you to bed before you corrupt what little remains of Chiana's morals."