Rygel raised his glass in yet another toast to his six billion subjects. John barely tasted the brandy for this one. His head already felt like it was floating six feet in the air. He and the rest of Moya's crew were gathered in the Terrace, standing in a loose semicircle. The stars sparkled behind them.
"How much of this s-stuff is left?" asked John. Rygel had this crazy notion that once you opened a bottle of Royal Hynerian brandy, you had to finish every drop or a thousand curses were visited upon your house, or something like that.
But it was a good cause, or it had seemed like a good one at the time. John had a hard time remembering now. "What are we celebrating again?" he asked.
Aeryn looked at him like he was slow. "It was your idea, Crichton. We've been together for a cycle now, remember? You said it was our antinursery."
John squinted at her. "You mean our anniversary. I remember now. I think."
"Except for me," said Chiana. She ran a finger up John's arm and leaned close. "I haven't been here a cycle. But you said I could come, too."
Aeryn scowled and pushed herself between Chiana and John. John stared at the two of them. He suddenly felt like he was at a frat party and they were a couple of sorority girls. Chiana slunk off to stand next to D'Argo.
"This is the stupidest tradition I've ever heard of," announced D'Argo.
"Does that mean you don't want anymore of my brandy?" said Rygel, his bushy eyebrows raised.
"Of course not." D'Argo stuck out his glass for a refill, which Rygel gleefully obliged.
"I'll have some more, too," said Aeryn.
"Me, too," said Zahn and Chiana together.
Rygel filled everyone's glass, including John's. John stared at his wondering how that could have happened. He distinctly remembered barely starting his last glass.
"They say," said Zahn with a slow smile, "that Royal Hynerian brandy can have some strange effects."
"It's true," said Rygel. "I've known people who've seen their future while drinking the brandy. I've known others, though, who've gone insane. Or, you could just get drunk. It all depends."
John thought he might want to sit down and did so, right on the floor. Everyone gave him an amused look, but no one commented. John didn't care. Was he going insane or getting drunk? He hoped this wasn't the future.
Aeryn sat down next to him with a surprised look on her face, and John realized that he'd been tugging on her pant leg. He put his arm around her and brushed her neck with his lips. She turned toward him then and let him kiss her before pulling back with an embarrassed glance around the room.
John looked around, too, surprised at his behavior. It was definitely starting to look like a frat party now. Chiana was sitting on D'Argo's lap in the corner. Zahn was lying on the floor smiling. And Rygel was drinking straight out of the bottle.
What the hell, John thought. He leaned toward Aeryn again, but this time she turned her head.
John stared at her for a moment, waiting to see if she'd change her mind, waiting to see if the brandy had opened a door into that wall of hers. Instead, she wore the distant look she was so good at putting on, her face expressionless. John withdrew his arm. He suddenly felt almost sober.
They sat together for several microts, not talking, not doing anything. It was the story of their relationship and John was tired of it. He stood up fast, ignoring the way the room tilted, and staggered to his quarters. It took him a long time to fall asleep.
The next morning, Pilot woke them all up with a stunning announcement. "Talyn is here, people. Talyn is here!"
John stumbled out of bed, threw on his clothes and ran to Command, ignoring the mushy feeling of his brain from last night's brandy. Aeryn was already there, still in her nightclothes. Zahn came running in adjusting the collar of her dress, followed by D'Argo, Chiana and Rygel.
"Look at him," whispered Chiana. The baby leviathan had more than doubled his size.
"He could take down a whole fleet just by himself," said D'Argo.
"Praise the goddess, he looks like he's all right," said Zahn.
John glanced at Aeryn. She had such an intense look of concentration on her face, that he figured she was examining every inch of his hull for nicks or holes or something.
"How is he, Pilot?" asked Aeryn.
"He is saying hello to Moya," said Pilot. "Moya is very happy."
"What about Crais?" said John. He could feel his mouth set in hard lines like it always did when he said Crais's name.
"He's signaling us now," said Pilot.
Crais's image popped up on the screen. "Hello," he said and smiled coolly.
"We should've killed him," muttered D'Argo, then louder, "What do you want, Crais?"
"How's Talyn?" said Aeryn at the same moment.
Crais stepped back to show them the inside of Talyn's command area. "As you can see he is doing quite well. We've been traveling the Uncharted Territories ... practicing. Talyn is an expert at starburst as well as battle strategy. We are almost ready."
"Ready for what?" growled John.
"Ah, Commander Crichton." Crais turned his eyes on John. "I see that you haven't hunted me across the universe as promised. Or was it a threat?"
John forced himself to smile.
"Perhaps you were only going to follow me if Officer Sun was on board?"
John's smile slipped, but he folded his arms and remained silent.
D'Argo glanced from Crais to John to Aeryn. "If you don't tell us why you are back, this conversation is over."
"I'd like to come aboard," said Crais. "I have a proposal to make."
Crais used Talyn's transport pod to reach Moya, and D'Argo escorted him to the mess hall, Qualta blade drawn. Rygel, Chiana, and John were already gathered around the table when Aeryn rushed in after having gone to her quarters to change. She was wearing her most severe black leather outfit, the one John always thought made her look like a biker chick.
"Just like old times," said John when Crais entered.
Crais took a seat at the table. "I see you've all survived remarkably well. You've avoided Scorpius, stayed hidden, haven't turned on each other. I'm impressed."
John rolled his eyes. "Cut the crap. Tell us why we shouldn't kill you now."
Crais touched the back of his neck. "As Officer Sun must've told you, I am joined to Talyn through the hand of friendship. One thought from me and he'll fire on Moya. I'm sure you don't want that."
Everyone exchanged glances around the table.
Aeryn leaned forward. "You said you had a proposal."
"Yes, Officer Sun, I do." Crais stared at Aeryn for several microts as if sizing her up. "I plan on seizing power from Scorpius. With Talyn at my disposal, I have the most potent offensive and defensive ship ever designed. We can decimate Scorpius's forces."
Crais smiled and looked at each of them in turn. "I am sure that all of you would like to see Scorpius dead. If you help me, I promise that when I am back in power, I will grant you full pardons. And I will give Officer Sun her commission again."
"What's the catch?" said John.
"I have need of a prowler and a good pilot," said Crais. He got up and stood near Aeryn. "You, Officer Sun, are the best there is."
"I'm the only one there is," said Aeryn, with a slight smile.
John scowled. She actually looked pleased.
"I would like you to join me in defeating Scorpius. Once I am back in command, you will have your choice of assignments. Or you could retire, if you wanted, and come back to Moya. The choice is yours."
Aeryn frowned and studied her fingers. She'd folded them in front of her, the knuckles white.
"Why should we believe you?" said D'Argo.
Crais spread is hands in a gesture of goodwill. "Because I have not killed you. Because I need you as much as you need me."
No one spoke.
"I can see you have a lot to think about," said Crais. "I'll be aboard Talyn. Call me when you've made your decision."
When Crais had left, they all began talking.
"I don't believe him," said John.
"Neither do I," said D'Argo.
"The guy's frelling nuts," said Chiana. "Taking on Scorpy is like taking on the whole Peace Keeper force."
"I agree with Chiana," said Zahn. "I don't think Crais has thought this fully through. He is a man after revenge. And that is always a dangerous ally."
"Aeryn," said D'Argo. "What do you think?"
Aeryn looked up, a determined set to her jaw. "I believe him. I believe that he could defeat Scorpius with Talyn. And I believe that he will keep his promises to us--if I am there to hold him to it."
Everyone protested at once, but Aeryn just shook her head. "He is right. He could have killed us many times. He needs us--he needs me. Plus, if I am aboard Talyn with him, maybe I can convince Talyn to trust us again."
As she got up to leave, John ran to her side. "Aeryn, this is a devil's bargain. You can't possibly consider it."
"I know," she said, turning away from him, from all of them. "But I have to."
After Aeryn left the room, the rest of the crew debated Crais's proposal for another arn. No one could come up with a way to change Aeryn's mind, nor were they sure they wanted to. In the end, all they could agree on was that it was Aeryn's decision to stay or go.
John hardly said anything during the debate. He paced the room, chewing on a finger, envisioning various ways to keep Aeryn here, but ropes and a locked cell were not the answer. He wasn't sure what was, he just knew he had to find one.
Finally, he left the mess hall and wandered Moya's corridors for another arn, still no closer to an answer, and ended up in front of Aeryn's door.
"Come in," said Aeryn when he knocked.
John found her in the midst of packing. "So you're actually going," he said. He felt like someone had just punched him in the stomach.
"Yes." Aeryn sat on the edge of her bed, avoiding his eyes.
John sat next to her and stared at the design on the floor. "For two arns, I've tried to think of ways to convince you to stay," he said.
Aeryn glanced at him but didn't say anything.
"And the only thing I can think of is that you should stay because I want you to. Crazy, huh?"
"John," Aeryn began.
"Aeryn, you have to know how much I care about you--"
"You've made life on Moya bearable. I don't know what I would do without--"
"John." Aeryn placed a hand on his arm. Tears ran down her cheeks. "Please don't make this any harder. I care about you a great deal, too. You're closest friend I've ever had." Her voice cracked and she wiped angrily at her tears. "I have to do this."
John opened his mouth. There was so much more he wanted to tell her, had wanted to tell her for a long time. How much he looked forward to seeing her scowl at everyone first thing in the morning, how he enjoyed the way they argued over stupid things even if it did drive him nuts, how much fun he had trying to make her smile, the way her skin felt so cool when she let him touch her.
And then he thought of all the times he could have told her these things and hadn't, all the times she'd withdrawn and he'd let her because he thought she'd been too scared to hear about his feelings, when really he had been the one that was too scared, too scared that she might not feel the same way, or too scared that she'd look at him in scorn for being weak.
And now it was too late.
"Okay," he said and squeezed her hand. "Okay." And something inside of him broke apart. He could feel the pieces, like shards of glass, cutting through him.
Everyone lined up in front of Moya's docking bay to see Aeryn off.
Chiana gave Aeryn a hug, much to Aeryn's surprise. "I can't believe you're doing this," Chiana said.
Rygel gave Aeryn a large violet gem. "For emergencies only. I want it back when you're done."
Aeryn smiled and promised Rygel the things she had left behind.
Zahn gave Aeryn a bag of herbs and medicines. "I will pray to the goddess for your safety," she said.
D'Argo clasped her shoulder. "I have no gift but that of one warrior to another. I will be at your side in any battle you are in. You have my pledge on that."
Aeryn thanked each of them solemnly.
Finally it was John's turn. He walked slowly up to her and brushed a lock of hair out of her face. The careful composure he'd struggled to keep crumpled when she met his eyes. "You can always come back," he said, his voice unsteady. "If things get dicey or Crais becomes dangerous, I want you to hop in your prowler and find us."
Aeryn nodded. John tried to smile reassuringly. Then he pressed his lips to hers once, turned and joined the others.
"I'll keep in touch," said Aeryn, backing into the docking bay. "I'll make sure Crais does what he's promised, you can be sure of that."
As the docking bay door swung shut, Aeryn raised one hand toward them, a final gesture of good bye.
"They say that Royal Hynerian brandy can have some strange effects," Zahn was saying. The stars in the Terrace gave her an ethereal glow.
John stared, first at her then at Rygel. How did he get here?
Rygel said, "I've known people who've seen their future ..."
Suddenly, John whirled around, spilling some of his brandy on the floor. He was back at the anniversary party of the night before. Chiana was standing next to D'Argo. Rygel was starting to pour more brandy into everyone's glass. And Aeryn, Aeryn was standing next to him as if nothing had happened, as if Crais had never come aboard with his proposal, as if she hadn't just left.
John felt his knees buckle and he sat on the floor with a thud. Everyone gave him an amused look. "Rygel," he said. "Rygel, did you say you could see the future with this stuff?"
"Some people say you can see the future, but I've never experienced it. You'd think if anyone would see the future, it would be a Dominar." Rygel sniffed.
Aeryn stooped next to John. "Are you all right? You don't look well."
"I don't know." John set his glass on the floor and rubbed his eyes. He couldn't think. He couldn't tell what was real and what wasn't. When he noticed Aeryn examining his face, he gestured toward the floor. "Have a seat."
"All right." She sat across from him.
"Aeryn," he said, "You are real, right? I mean, you haven't been packing or anything, thinking about leaving Moya, have you?"
"Crichton, what are you talking about? I hope you're not going insane."
John grabbed both her hands in his. They felt real enough. He rubbed her knuckles with his thumbs. As always the skin was cool, smooth. It felt good to touch her. "I have to tell you something before I chicken out."
"What is it?"
He took a deep breath. "We're good friends. We've come to care for each other a lot, I'd say. You agree?"
She nodded cautiously.
Suddenly, he couldn't meet her eyes. "Aeryn, I love you. I don't want us to be just friends anymore. I want more."
Aeryn pulled her hands away, shaking her head. "John, I don't think I--"
"Aeryn, I know you're scared. I'm scared too. Right now I'm scared to death that you'll tell me you don't feel the same way. But I'm not Velorek and you're not the same person you were back then. It's time to move on. If we wait until we're not scared ..."
Aeryn hung her head. Her hair fell across her face, a shield.
"Tell me you don't feel the same way," said John. "Tell me you don't love me and I'll never bother you again."
Aeryn shook her head. "I can't." Her voice was thick with emotion. "I - I can't." Then she got up and hurried from the room, head down.
John lay back, not seeing the ceiling or anything else. Tears burned in his eyes. He'd hoped that if she knew his feelings, she wouldn't want to leave with Crais the next day. Now he wondered if he'd just made it easier for her to do so.
One by one the rest of the crew left until John was alone.
After a while, someone approached him. The footsteps echoed on Moya's hard floor. "Go away," said John.
"No," said Aeryn.
John sat up quickly. "Aeryn."
She lowered herself to the floor and gave him a slight smile. "We seem to be talking on the floor a lot lately."
He just looked at her. He felt out of breath. He couldn't smile.
"I can't sleep." Aeryn played with a loose thread on her shirt. "I'm tired of being scared all the time, John. I'm really tired. And I want more, too, only I'm, I'm ..."
"Scared?" said John.
Aeryn caught his eye and started to laugh. "Yes."
John laughed and hugged her close, breathing in her scent of soap and leather. He kissed her face, her neck, her lips. She kissed him back, tentative at first, then hard and desperate, as if she were afraid she'd change her mind. John didn't mind. He felt almost desperate himself, knowing how close they'd come to never having this moment and knowing how little time they had till it disappeared. They stayed that way for a long time, arms wrapped around each other, talking softly, not talking, just being close.
Finally, John stood up. In a few arns, Pilot would be calling them with news about Talyn, and there was still more he wanted from this evening. He pulled Aeryn to her feet and led her down the hall to his quarters. They walked arm in arm.
"Happy Anniversary," said John.
"Mmm," said Aeryn, resting her head on his shoulder. "One cycle. Where do you think we'll be next cycle?"
"Let's not think about it," said John, kissing the top of her head. "Believe me, it's better to just think about tonight. Much better."