By Roshni Santiago
Obligatory disclaimer: The following is in no way intended to infringe upon any copyrights; those belong to Sci Fi Channel, Jim Henson Co., Hallmark Entertainment, Nine Network Australia, the Farscape writers, producers, etc. This is for entertainment purposes only and is NOT FOR PROFIT, so please don't sue me.
This story takes place during and following Jeremiah Crichton. "After Starburst" refers to Moya's unexpected Starburst in the beginning of Jeremiah Crichton. Spoilers for Premiere, Exodus from Genesis, PK Tech Girl, That Old Black Magic, DNA Mad Scientist, They've Got A Secret, Till The Blood Runs Clear, Rhapsody in Blue, The Flax, and Jeremiah Crichton. This was written between Jeremiah Crichton and Durka Returns.
There were soft chimes in the air, wafting gently all around her, as though on a breeze. Aeryn opened her eyes to dazzling light, too bright, so she closed her eyes again. She was floating, cushioned by thick softness, and so very comfortable. She never wanted to move again. A wonderful sense of well-being flooded through her, wiping away every negative emotion she had ever experienced. Loneliness, fear, regret -- they were all gone in the glowing tide of -- could it really be? -- happiness that washed through her in waves. She felt cocooned and safe in the embrace of peace and contentment... this was a good life. No more running, just peace. It was good to rest awhile... to rest forever in this blissful womb...
So that was how it was, was it? Crichton could still feel the curling tendrils of terror that had seized him as he'd watched Moya Starburst away from the Farscape I, leaving him staring into an endless void of stars. The disbelief and fury still gnawed at him, even though so much time had passed. After all they'd been through together he had never expected them to turn on him like that.
He'd been so damned tired of the constant sideways comments, the outright insults, the put-downs that they'd all tossed around so casually -- as though he was the village idiot, or some brainless slug. No matter what he did, what he learned, or how he hauled ass to save theirs, nothing seemed to matter. The non-stop condescension and bickering had finally worn thin, and he'd lost it. He knew he'd lost it, and quite thoroughly, but he'd never expected -- ! Gee, a guy was entitled to a meltdown, right? That was no reason to abandon him in the middle of nowhere, right?
Ye gods, they'd pissed him off though! And now he was free of the endless bickering, the arguments, the beatings, the constant need to be on guard for the next blow that might come from anywhere, even from those he thought he could trust. In time he might weary of the simple life he'd found on this green planet, but for now, there was a certain pleasure in solitude. It was amazing to think it might actually be possible to find peace in this god-forsaken expanse of space they called The Uncharted Territories.
Crichton was gone. Left far behind, who knows where, in as desperate a situation as anyone could imagine. Aeryn couldn't quite quell the unexpected flare of panic as the realization had set in.
He was gone, and in the absence he'd left behind there was an emptiness that Aeryn found disturbing. Conflicting emotions warred within her for supremacy -- after all, he was the reason for her current state of exile, her homelessness, her unhappiness. If not for him, she wouldn't be here. But now, after all this time, she wasn't sure how she felt about that anymore.
Now she battled conflicting emotions. Being separated from her comrades and the life she had known had left her in the company of Crichton. He looked Sebacean, and despite his often strange behavior, she sometimes forgot that he was only human.
She had begun her new life at Crichton's behest, and he had accompanied her every step of the way during the time since she'd chosen life over death. Once she had told him that she'd never been alone, but now she was beginning to realize that without Crichton's presence, she truly was alone.
She was startled to discover the unpleasant sensation that his absence left behind, curling into her belly when she should have been sleeping. As much as she hated to admit it, she... missed... him.
The solitude settled into her more deeply as the days passed. They were on a reverse trajectory of Moya's unexpected Starburst, and already they had been greeted with failure enough times to grow discouraged. But Aeryn knew that they couldn't give up on him. She sensed that the others felt the same, even Rygel, although she realized that the more time passed, the smaller the chances of finding their lost crewmate, and the less likely the others would be to continue the search. That was a thought she couldn't face.
Their last conversation before he'd taken off in Farscape 1 still echoed:
"Crichton, I don't understand what you're talking about!"
"I'm going for a drive, I'm hitting the strip, I'm going cruising!
"What's going on?"
"I'm getting some space, Aeryn, and I'm not talking about the space outside the ship!"
"Look this is hardly the time for human nonsense, Crichton... "
"Oh, God, that is it! You are so damn smart! There is no time for any stupid human anything! And I'm sick of it, Aeryn, I'm sick of Napoleon the fourteenth, I'm sick of blue, I'm sick of tentacle-boy, and guess what? I'm sick of you. I'm sick of this whole turd-burp end of the universe... "
At first she'd been bemused by his tirade; normally D'Argo or Rygel were the only ones who stormed around like undisciplined children. She'd gotten so used to Crichton absorbing everything with his typical good nature, that she didn't think him capable of losing his temper in such spectacular fashion. Later, as his words had become increasingly more hostile, she had been taken aback. It was decidedly disconcerting to discover that he was "sick" of his crewmates -- that he felt they had made him ill such that he needed to physically leave the giant Leviathan -- because he wanted to "hit the strip?" She didn't quite understand what had happened, but his claim to illness certainly made sense after witnessing his erratic, unfamiliar behavior.
Or, as D'Argo believed, each of them was actively responsible for causing Crichton's behavior -- that he'd been angry with them for how they treated him. Aeryn wasn't ready to accept that. Crichton made his own choices -- none of them pushed him out the airlock. But if it was true... if they bore the responsibility for causing his apparent unhappiness... she didn't want to face that.
But then, as his absence dragged on, her mind flew back over the time that had passed since it had all begun...
"No! I will not come with you." She shied away.
"You've been irreversibly contaminated, remember?" the human challenged as he leaned in and began unlocking her manacles.
D'Argo's gruff voice: "It means death."
Then, a sudden rush of anguish, panic, fearful rejection -- "It is my duty, my breeding -- since birth! It's what I am!"
John Crichton just looked at her. "You can be more."
So there it was -- four small words that had changed her life. Four words that haunted her whenever she had the time to think about it, and she made sure she didn't think about it most of the time. Her life hadn't changed that much (or at least that was what she tried to tell herself) -- survival was still the key issue, as it had always been. The only difference was that now she had choices -- there was no one to tell her where to fight and when to die. She simply did the best she could to get through each day.
It was a strange, bewildering existence. I'm new to all this escaped-prisoner crap! All the skills she'd spent a lifetime honing were now being subverted against her own kind and in protection of fugitives! In protection of herself... No matter how hard she tried to hold on to her identity, she was forced to admit that she no longer had one. So what was she?
Peacekeeper? Not anymore...she was a disgrace to everyone who had ever known her and a cause for their punishment. She had shamed herself and her race through her actions, so... she had no right to call herself a Peacekeeper. But she was a soldier -- it was all she really knew how to do, and she was very good. It was all she had left to her now, and she clung to it with a ferocity that she never knew she possessed.
But every day she was forced to learn something new, to do something new and unfamiliar. She no longer had the luxury of a fully-staffed command carrier with personnel to carry out each and every task. There was only the six of them, and Moya, who needed extra care during her pregnancy. Aeryn could no longer hold herself aloof from tasks outside her field of expertise or manual labor... they all had to pitch in.
Crichton's presence, as exasperating as it often was, had somehow made it all easier to adjust. He had encouraged her, she realized now. In his way, he had given her the reinforcement she hadn't known she'd needed to learn how to take it all in. She realized it now, in his absence, how much he had done -- how much she'd needed to hear those things. For all that he had seemed such a savage at first, he had been there for her when she'd needed him -- and not just when her life was in danger, but when she was frustrated and angry -- when she'd lashed out at him, and he had borne it with grace -- Aeryn was beginning to understand that quality, and appreciate it.
From the first, there had been that flicker between them of... empathy, of wordless communication...
"Wait," she said without thinking.
"Yes, Officer Sun? You know something about this... alien?"
She spoke heedlessly. "Only that I have spent time with him, and I believe him when he says that what happened to your brother was an accident. I don't believe that he is brave enough or intelligent enough to attack one of our Prowlers intentionally."
"Exactly how much time have you spent with this human?" Crais' voice was oily, threatening. A tendril of fear slid into her gut.
"Not a lot," Crichton responded quickly, his eyes flickering between them, realizing immediately what was happening. "Not much at all." His eyes focused intently on her, and he gave her a tiny, barely perceptible nod.
Crais continued as though he hadn't heard, "because, as you know, Peacekeeper High Command has very clear parameters regarding contact with unclassified alien life forms. You may have very well exceeded those parameters, Officer Sun. That makes you irreversibly contaminated."
Horror -- "No, sir-
"Take them away!"
Blind panic -- "No, sir-"
"Take them all away!"
So her fate had been decided, or so she'd thought. Until Crichton had shown her the way out, and in one pivotal moment, their fortunes had been irreversibly joined. Crichton had seen to that, when he'd insisted that D'Argo take her with them when they had escaped. If not for him, she would be dead right now, or worse, sentenced to radiation-induced Living Death. Despite her duty and her breeding, she knew now with every fiber of her being that choosing life over certain death was the right choice. But the anguish of leaving everything behind -- the life she knew and loved, the people who trusted her -- all of that, for the life of a fugitive, would be with her for a long time.
She'd never imagined there was anything more for her than the hard life of a soldier. It was all she'd ever known and all she'd ever wanted. Experience had taught her differently. Crichton had taught her differently. He had shown her that there was a pride to be had in the learning of new skills. She'd been raised to believe in strength and power, but Crichton had taught her that there was honor in compassion.
"She's not a traitor," she remembered Crichton say to the PK Tech, Gilina. "Not by a long shot. Crais never gave her a chance. Not like the one we're giving you."
There was still a small sense of bitterness remaining when she recalled Gilina. She couldn't forget the sight of stumbling upon the young Sebacean and Crichton wrapped in a tender embrace... the stab of jealousy had startled her. And then Crichton had come chasing after her for some stupid reason:
"Hang on -- Aeryn?" She heard him call after her as she stomped off with the heavy component.
"Aeryn? Would you wait? Look, what the heck's the matter with you?"
She swung the component down to the floor and turned to him angrily. "I'm sure you could see how heavy these things are. There's least another ten in there. Do not come down this corridor without one." She swung it back up over her head and continued back down the narrow corridor.
"Would you stop? Hey! Look, hey what happened back there was -- "
" -- none of my business!"
"Yes, it was." She stopped in her tracks and turned back to him again with a mixture of confusion and fury. " You and I are shipmates," he continued. "What I'm trying to say is...haven't you ever just clicked with a guy?"
"Yeah, you know... found a guy attractive."
"Yes, but I didn't let it -- in the beginning I found you...interesting." She nearly spat that at him, almost immediately biting her tongue.
"Me." She could see the stunned expression spread over his face. Oh, frell!
"Yes, but only for a moment... "
So there, she'd said it, and had instantly wished she could have taken it back. She couldn't let Crichton know why she had spoken in his defense to Crais -- that she had ever had any interest in the savage human. But now that he was gone, there was no denying it. She had come to depend on him, and indeed, she trusted him. He had taken a stand for her, risked his own safety for her, more than once, and she owed him her life. He had truly become her comrade, a kind of brother-in-arms -- but her feelings were far from sisterly.
She remembered acutely the choking fear that had gripped her aboard their Flax-trapped transport pod, when he was dead and she couldn't revive him. She couldn't imagine going forward even one more day without Crichton there! He was the closest thing she had to a friend in this strange new life, and she knew during those awful moments as the microts ticked by, that she couldn't lose him. Her relief had been overwhelming when he'd finally gasped back to life.
And then despair had once more descended with the realization that she had saved his life only so they would face certain death together, huddled in the freezing transport pod, with less than a half-arn of oxygen left. She tried very hard not to remember what had happened between them in the delirious microts that preceded D'Argo's rescue. She'd never known she could feel that way, to be swept away so thoroughly that she'd forgotten about dying. But now those precious microts replayed in her mind; the memory of their inexplicable embrace haunted her, and... just thinking about it left her with an uncomfortable sense of weakness that was an affront to the soldier -- to the Sebacean -- in her.
She would not -- could not -- admit that it had been anything more than -- as the human put it -- the heat of the moment. An accident. Too much pure oxygen. A reaction to stress and the nearness of death. Admitting to anything more was far too dangerous. She -- and the human? -- her birth and training automatically recoiled at the very idea, but somehow, there was also a lightness in the memory of that brief experience that warmed her and fueled her need to find their lost ship-mate.
The anger and resentment had not yet left Crichton; if anything they seemed to burn more deeply with every passing planetary rotation. But something new had begun to emerge from amid the quagmire of churning emotion that he was steeped in: Disappointment. Sadness. Regret.
Amidst the outrage that still consumed him, he was beginning to realize what he had lost -- comrades, a way home. That had all vanished when Moya took off without him. But there was something that cut deeper. Aeryn.
He tried not to think about her, because somehow his heart still rebelled against the idea that Aeryn had left him behind. He just couldn't bring himself to believe it -- he had trusted her! And after all they had been through, all the times that they'd depended upon each other for their survival -- all of that meant nothing? She could just walk away from that and leave him behind? He could understand how the others might have done that, but from the beginning, he and Aeryn had been in the same boat -- they shared the same dilemma -- how to fit into a strange new world filled with pitfalls and hostilities.
He thought that they'd developed a camaraderie that transcended the petty arguments and annoyances that typified day to day existence on Moya. He thought there had been an understanding between them, an empathy, something that had been growing between them for months...he tasted the bitterness of betrayal in the realization that she'd been just as eager to ditch him as the rest of them. That all that they'd been through together had meant absolutely nothing. And that realization hurt.
He would be better off without them, without the fights and the attacks both from within and without. He knew that now. It looked like this green planet was as close to Earth as he was going to get, so he might as well enjoy it. Forget about Moya, and D'Argo, Zhaan, Rygel and Pilot. Forget about Aeryn. Forget about what life might have been like among the stars. Forget about going home.
He'd been left behind and abandoned to die. Now, all he had left was himself. Maybe here, on Acquara, he would finally find what he'd been looking for since he shot out of that wormhole. A little peace.
The group dynamic was slowly returning. After his return to Moya, there was still some interpersonal weirdness that left them all somewhat awkward around one another. Crichton had made his apologies freely, in full appreciation of their efforts to find and recover him. He still couldn't quite believe what they'd done for him -- that he'd spent those months unable to rid himself of bitterness and anger -- that he had misjudged them -- all of them -- and they had surprised him beyond belief.
Actually it was D'Argo and Rygel who had startled him the most. He hadn't realized when he and D'Argo had drawn their truce, what a powerful comrade he had acquired in the gruff, outspoken Luxan. Pilot had informed him of the Luxan's persistence in the search, and of how he had propelled it forward, even when it seemed doubtful that they would ever find him. Crichton found himself undeniably touched by D'Argo's loyalty. It's a good thing we're on the same side, he reflected ruefully. He knew now that D'Argo's threat to kill Crais was no empty one -- the same person who could relentlessly pursue a lost comrade would surely not back down from a hated adversary.
And Rygel! Their experiences on Acquara had left Crichton with a fledgling sense of admiration for the small creature who he'd always believed was as unpleasant as they come. But Rygel had demonstrated a nobility of spirit towards the Acquarans that still impressed Crichton. The human had been astounded to hear genuine conviction in Rygel's assertions of the terrible injustices committed against the Acquaran people. Crichton wondered how much of Rygel's more unpleasant personality traits were a product of being imprisoned for so many cycles. The Hynerian royal had spent longer in prison than two average human life spans! That would make anyone a little cranky. Rygel had positively glowed beneath the Acquarans lavish attention. Shockingly he had demonstrated a generosity that neither Crichton nor D'Argo had imagined the little guy possessed. Of course he had soaked up the Acquarans' attention with gusto, but amazingly it seemed to bring out the charm in him, rather than accentuate his otherwise pompous nature. Suddenly his claim to be ruler of more than six hundred billion subjects seemed a bit more plausible.
And then there was Zhaan. Pilot had discreetly informed him that hers had been the lone voice of dissension once the search had dragged on without success. Somehow that didn't bother him as much as he thought it might -- not in comparison to what he'd been thinking during the months he believed that he'd been abandoned.
The balance that hung between them was once more tipped in Zhaan's favor.
At first Crichton had been perhaps far more trusting of the Delvian priest than he should have been. When they had initially met, he had immediately recognized steel under all the serenity, but more often than not Zhaan had contributed a clear head and rational thinking to the group dynamic. She was the one person Crichton believed he could depend on to strive for compromise.
Which was why he had been so horribly shocked at the events that had transpired surrounding their ill-fated 'deal' with Namtar. He supposed that he should have seen it coming, judging by her post-Maldis reaction, but he could not have predicted the depravity of her actions when she joined with D'Argo and Rygel to hack off Pilot's arm in exchange for maps to their homeworlds.
He was torn between so many conflicting feelings when it came to Zhaan -- she had been the first to treat him with any kind of fairness. She had violated her own ethics and raised her own demons to save his life when he was in Maldis' thrall. He owed her a debt of gratitude for that, no matter that her actions were not for his sake alone, but in protection of them all... but then she had to go and help wrest Pilot's arm away. It's only one of his arms, and hell -- he's got four! Even though Pilot claimed he could live with it, John found it difficult to forgive her for participating in such selfish cruelty.
But then when Zhaan had needed help on the New Moon of Delvia, it was Crichton she had turned to. Why? Amazingly she claimed she trusted him! She had shared her true crime with him and depended on his faith in her to help her make a crucial decision -- she needed him to be her moral compass when her own failed. After Tahleen had ripped away Zhaan's ability to control the madness, he had repaid his debt to her by joining with her in Unity and saving her from insanity.
But then when he'd been inadvertently left behind, she came back to look for him...so he owed her again.
So that left Aeryn. Unfortunately the one person he'd missed the most all those months on Acquara was now the one person he saw the least. His return to Moya had resulted in rampant awkwardness between them. He had apologized to her separately from the others and tried to let her know that he hadn't meant what he'd said before he'd blasted off Moya.
"Hey, Aeryn! Got a minute? I wanted to talk to you." She looked up expectantly from the readout panel in Command and without looking at him, gazed out the main viewport before them.
"Look, I know I caused a lot of trouble for all of you and I just want to say I'm sorry. I never meant for any of this to happen. I want you to know I really appreciate that you all came back for me."
Still, she wouldn't look at him, although she inclined her head slightly in acknowledgment. When she finally spoke, she sounded...so... distant. "There is no need to apologize, Crichton. It's over, you're back. We move on."
Uh, oh. She wouldn't look at him -- not a good sign. He felt like he was in the proverbial doghouse, and in this case, he knew he deserved it. Especially after all the evil thoughts that had been going through his mind those months on Acquara -- what must she -- they all -- have been thinking of him, after how he'd behaved before he left. He could imagine, and it wasn't good.
"It's not over, Aeryn. Look, I didn't mean what I said to you before I left. At least, I didn't mean it forever. I was upset and I wasn't thinking clearly."
"Obviously." Her tone was dry...very dry. Okay, he could work with that.
"Yeah, well, what was that you said about 'human nonsense,' right? Every now and then I just get a little crazy. Look, haven't you ever heard of cabin fever?"
"Well, cabin fever is when a few people get stuck in a small space for a long time and they go nuts from all the happy togetherness. I just needed to be alone for a little while, away from everyone, even Moya -- Look, I know it's not an excuse, but -- "
"Yeah, well, you got what you wanted then, didn't you?" she cut in with unexpected harshness. Surprisingly, he also detected a note of hurt in her voice.
He sighed and then he lightly rested his hand on her shoulder; he felt her immediately stiffen. "I'm sorry, Aeryn. I'm sorry for everything."
Regretfully he let his hand fall, and without looking back, he walked out of Command.
Needless to say, things hadn't improved much since then. They talked...barely. It was like the beginning all over again. Only this time, instead of being wary strangers, there was something different between them -- they had to get to know each other all over again, but with all the baggage of their shared and individual experiences complicating the process...
Aeryn had simply withdrawn from him; all the camaraderie that they'd spent months building between them had been dealt a deadly blow by his long absence. They all had to get used to each other again. It was both frustrating and saddening, but Crichton understood that it was unhappy reality. None of them could simply go back to the way they had been overnight -- it would take time. He just wished he could have his friend back. He wished he didn't feel like he had irrevocably hurt her -- that he could take it all -- the unkind words, the months of absence -- all of it, back.
Crichton stood at the viewport, with one arm wrapped across his chest, looking out at the green planet below. Absently he rubbed his chin, while his eyes grew distant. The human was beginning to realize how much his shipmates had sacrificed for him in their months-long search. Their haste to recover him meant that they'd neglected many necessities, like obtaining long-term fresh food supplies. In fact, they'd been rationing what they had left in food cubes by the time they'd reached Acquara. Kato-Re, the Grondeer of the Hynerian-descended community had been generous, but what his people had given them would soon be gone. This small emerald sphere was a desperately needed supply stop.
"Crichton?" The transparent aqua and lavender image of a huge crustacean-like, multi-limbed creature appeared in the viewer.
"Yo, Pilot!" John answered as he swung away from the viewport and toward the holographic image.
"The transport pod is ready for departure. Aeryn Sun awaits you in the main cargo bay."
"Thanks, Pilot. Tell her I'll be right there." He leaned over the console, bowing his head for a moment to gather himself, to prepare himself for the next several awkward arns with the Sebacean female. He turned to leave, and then pulled up short.
"How is Moya today?" He was genuinely concerned, but there was also a small curl of paranoia, that what had happened before might happen again. This would be his first time leaving the ship since they'd left Acquara.
"Moya is doing very well today," Pilot answered crisply.
"And her baby?"
"Her fetus is also well. Do not worry, Crichton. We will be here when you and Officer Sun return."
Crichton shook his head ruefully; Pilot read him like a book! "Thanks, Pilot. See ya when we get back."
There was little communication between them on the flight down to the planet, and Aeryn was glad when it was over. The old quips and jokes that had once peppered their conversation were gone, replaced by a subdued silence that was only punctuated by necessary commentary. Crichton had tried to talk to her several times since his return to Moya, but she just wasn't ready yet. At least she wasn't ready for the kind of conversation that Crichton wanted to have.
She landed the transport very gently on the landing pad, and then sprang from her seat with a nod at Crichton who just sat there, his eyes following her as she moved.
"Aren't you coming?" She couldn't keep the note of impatience out of her voice.
"Yeah, Aeryn... I'm coming."
Then she was stepping out of the pod into chill air and too-bright sun -- make that two suns -- shine. She looked up briefly and noted the larger, closer one and the other, much smaller brilliant shape in the rose-tinted sky. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Crichton gazing upwards as well in something like admiration. Sometimes she just wanted to smack that slack-jawed expression off his face -- didn't he realize how stupid it made him look? With a quick glance around to get her bearings, she marched off in search of a transport vehicle.
They were at what amounted to a space port on the outskirts of a commerce center called Fell, where Rygel had set up the trade for their supplies. Under her black Peacekeeper uniform jacket, which she'd donned against the chill per Pilot's instruction, was a small pouch filled with six violet-hued hovarian crystals -- surprisingly their contact's only price. It amused her to know that the fossilized waste deposits of the hovar insect were worth something somewhere. Well, that and how much purchasing power they possessed -- according to Rygel, the crystals would buy a payload much larger than what they could normally afford.
Aeryn was inexplicably glad for this time away from the Leviathan. She thought she was beginning to understand why Crichton had taken off in his module all those months ago. She'd never before felt claustrophobic on board a ship -- ship life was the only life she'd ever known -- she'd always been around many more people than the mere six of them, but...
Maybe it was just Crichton. When he had been lost, Moya had seemed vast and empty. There was no one to share a meal with or a joke; in her worry over the missing human, she didn't feel like being very friendly with Zhaan or D'Argo. In fact, when she wasn't working in Command, taking refuge in physical conditioning, or otherwise occupied with duties aboard Moya, she'd spent what little free time she had left with Pilot, learning as much as she could about their host Leviathan. There was a rapport between them, she realized, despite the great disparity between their species. Despite the fact that she was an ex-Peacekeeper. Somehow, she didn't feel like she had to put up walls around Pilot, like she did around the others. Pilot's company allowed her the luxury of silence.
And then Crichton had returned and all of a sudden she was supposed to talk. Talk, talk -- the human talked too much! Suddenly Moya felt cramped, and constricted, tight with people, with questions, and agendas and arguments and.... sometimes she felt like she couldn't breathe. She just wanted to be left alone for a bit. Why couldn't Crichton understand that? Why did he keep seeking her out, trying to win her forgiveness, trying to coax her into conversation? She didn't want that right now -- she had to accustom herself to having him back, after she'd almost resigned herself to his irrevocable loss. Her Peacekeeper training had not prepared her for this -- this confusion, the bite of fear that she might lose this new 'family,' which was all she had left now. Her practicality was deserting her, and instead she was being consumed by the knowledge that all this, the little she had left, could all be destroyed so easily, it could all be lost. She didn't want to feel that knifing pain again -- the pain she'd felt when she knew that the life she loved, she would have to leave behind, forever. It was the same pain she'd felt when Crichton had been lost -- in his absence, a gaping hole had opened up in the new life she'd been attempting to stitch together.
It didn't matter how many times she told herself that she was a soldier, and that these new, bewildering emotions were unworthy of her, of her training and heritage. Try as she might to fend them off, they encroached upon her until she nearly choked. So she kept her distance -- from Crichton, from everyone.
The commerce center of Fell was clustered around the base of a vast white structure, seemingly built against living rock that gleamed in the suns' light. It had the appearance of a hillside monastery or a palace compound he'd once seen in India: high outer walls formed a perimeter around the base of the sprawling structure; there were terraces and domes and intricately carved stone screens within arched window frames. It reminded him of a Mogul palace, only instead of red sandstone, it was dazzlingly white, constructed of some kind of pale stone that captured and reflected all the colors of the visible spectrum. It practically sparkled.
Then his eyes dropped to Aeryn's back, swiftly moving among the maze of parked vehicles. He made after her, increasing his pace to catch up.
"Hey, Aeryn, would you wait up?" he called out after her, hurrying his steps a bit as she passed just out of sight beyond what looked like a helicopter. Then he saw her further ahead in brief conversation with one of the locals, who nodded, apparently in response to something the Sebacean female had asked, and gesticulated expansively. John assumed she was asking for directions. He couldn't help but grin -- he was half a universe from home, and females still asked for directions! Somehow he didn't think D'Argo would bother.
He caught up to her as she turned away from the thin fellow, but not before he caught a flash of something on the fellow's face as he looked at both of them. It was like...pity -- but it was immediately shuttered behind a blank smile and a friendly nod. Puzzled, Crichton followed Aeryn as she next approached a withered old biped with tusk-like protrusions that curved from either side of his mouth back to where ears would be on a human. Crichton thought they looked a little like ram's horns. Interestingly enough, he saw the same strange pitying expression cross the old fellow's face, before he, too, became blank. This one stood beside a contraption that looked like a motorized rickshaw. Aeryn spoke to him quietly, and Crichton heard random words --
"Granaea... .warehouse... upper Fell... Wallside." The fellow nodded quickly and gestured to them, including Crichton in the motion. Aeryn moved to climb in.
Whoa, John thought as he followed suit. The tiny seating area with its buggy-like roof was incredibly cramped as he squeezed in beside the Sebacean female. The driver hopped onto his seat in front of them and they were off on a jolting, dizzying ride that forced them to sway heavily with the movement of each hasty turn and fall uncomfortably against one another. John braced himself with one hand by gripping the edge of the small roof overhead. As they zigzagged through narrow winding streets and alleys, John turned his head fractionally to look at Aeryn.
"So this guy knows where we're going?" he asked over the loud grind of the motor.
"What? Yes," she replied briefly.
"Right." He stole another look at her, but she was staring straight ahead at the road before them, the breeze riffling her long dark hair. John decided to risk another attempt at conversation.
"Look, how long are you gonna be mad at me?"
"Mad? Me? Angry with you?" He saw the surprise flash across her features. It was his turn to be puzzled.
"Yeah. That is why you've been giving me the cold shoulder, isn't it?"
"Yeah, you've been avoiding me, you won't talk to me, you act as though I practically don't exist anymore!"
"I see." Her tone was even, and she was still staring straight ahead.
"Well? What gives, Aeryn? What's going on here?"
"Look, I -- " she faltered to a stop, uncertainty in her voice and expression. "I mean I -- I just need -- I want to -- " she finally ground to a halt. "Look, I don't want to talk about it right now." Her tone left no room for appeal. "Is that all right with you?" She glanced over at him with an arched eyebrow, and then turned to look out the side of the rickshaw, ignoring him again.
"Yeah. Sure." He passed the fingers of his right hand over his eyes, rubbing them in frustration. It was clear that there was something more complicated going on here than he'd realized, but he didn't know how to approach it when she wouldn't talk to him. Frankly, he wasn't sure how much more of this 'distant Aeryn' crap he could take. To redirect his attention, he decided to follow her example and take in the neighborhood along their route.
Fell was a colorful place and remarkably clean, in comparison to many such townships they had passed through. In an effort to cheer the worn, dull exteriors of the buildings, the residents had taken to hanging brightly colored banners from just about anything they could find -- from poles over doorways, from balconies; they flew as pennants on rooftops and hung as smaller drops of cloth from beneath arched windows. It gave the rabbit-warren city a festive aura that was nice to see, especially in his mood.
John noted that there were few people in the streets, and that those he did see were dressed warmly against the chill air. Per Pilot's recommendation, he had donned his orange IASA flight suit, and he was glad for it. Actually the cold air was welcome -- it reminded him of a month long camping expedition he'd gone on in northern Canada. It had been awhile since they'd been planetside during a cold season.
The ride through maze of narrow streets had changed, Crichton realized. They were speeding down a wide avenue with a high wall one side and large warehouse-like buildings on the other. He wondered if this was what Aeryn had described earlier when she'd mentioned 'Wallside' and 'Upper Fell' to their driver.
Finally, the jolting ride was over as the vehicle came to an abrupt halt. Aeryn sprang out and reached into a pocket for currency when the driver stopped her with a curt gesture. "No," he said quickly. He shook his head firmly and looked over his shoulder with impatience as he waited for Crichton to climb out. John looked at the wizened Fellite in puzzlement before unfolding himself from the tight quarters and stepping out onto golden-hued pavement. As soon as he was clear the rickshaw sped away.
"What the hell was that?" he asked, cocking his head at Aeryn. She was quiet as she surveyed the dust cloud left by the disappearing vehicle with a strange expression etched across her features. Curiously, he watched her as she swayed once, twice, her eyes strangely clouded. Crichton felt a small stab of alarm, but then she seemed to steady herself, drawing herself up and stiffening her spine.
"I don't know," she said finally, and she then turned to face their destination.
The rickshaw had left them on the side of a wide deserted avenue before another high wall with a gated entrance. It seemed incongruous after what he'd seen of the dusty desert-like town. The walls were made of clean gray brick-like stone, neatly masoned while the gate was a gleaming mass of intricate silverwork. Through the gate he could see lush foliage, and behind the property he could see the white-stone compound he'd seen earlier rising up along the hillside. He leaned into the recessed entranceway and looked for something like a doorbell, but as he did, the gate swung inwards and he looked up to see a small (as they all were) Fellite, female apparently, slender and fragile looking, with smaller, more delicate tusks than those he'd seen on the males. She beckoned to them to follow her inside.
Aeryn stepped forward with Crichton at her heels. But something was off in her stride... she didn't have quite the same cocky PK saunter about her. John frowned, and then pulled his eyes upwards from her... he forced himself to focus instead on the back of the female Fellite who led them along a curving path through brilliant vegetation. They did not enter the house... if it could be called a house. As they walked along its perimeter, Crichton eyed it with admiration. While not as magnificent as the vast white compound rising up behind this property, it was still a beautiful structure, replete with the eye-pleasing arched windows with daintily carved screens and exterior decorative carving along many of the outer surfaces. While on his left the house loomed, on his right there was a bubbling stream, flowing through a thick carpet of lavender grass-like vegetation. Their supplier must be pretty damn wealthy to have all this in what appeared to be an arid region.
Aeryn stopped short behind their halted guide and stumbled. Not paying attention, Crichton almost ploughed into her but managed to catch himself. Instead, he was forced to reach out and grab the Sebacean female by the waist as she wobbled dangerously. A few microts later he heard her say, "I'm fine." He let his hands dropped and watched her spine straighten once more and the angle of her head change as she lifted her chin in what he suspected was defiance of the misstep. Okay, now that was weird -- Aeryn stumbled? He didn't have a chance to think about it though, as they were suddenly facing who Crichton believed must be their supplier.
She was tall, much taller than what John had seen of Fellites, and willowy. Like their young female guide, she was delicate in appearance, but with an underlying steel in the fine bones of her frame. Her elegantly curving tusks were banded and tipped by silver. Her skin was covered in a fine, dense green-gray hair and she had huge, entirely black almond-shaped eyes with no iris whatsoever. She fixed him with her straightforward liquid gaze, her eyes floating from Crichton to Aeryn slowly as she inclined her head and spread her arms. She wore a gauzy azure gown through which her sleek greenish-gray-fur was visible.
"Welcome. I am Granaea," she said finally, her voice low and musical. "You must be the offworlders from the Leviathan, yes?"
"Yes," Aeryn stepped forward with quiet authority. "Our companion Rygel made arrangements with you for our supplies."
"Yes," the Fellite female replied, once more inclining her head. "But he did not tell me he was sending two Sebaceans." She was shaking her head, and her voice was heavy with regret. "Now I am afraid it is too late."
Alarm flared through John as her words registered and he saw the pity in Granaea's face.
"What are you talking about?" he demanded, stepping forward. The handmaid hissed and John drew up short. Granaea's eyes were on Aeryn, and she continued to shake her head in what Crichton believed was sorrow. The Fellite female began plucking at her gown seemingly in distress.
Just then, Aeryn made a small soft sound that drew Crichton's eyes. He watched as a huge shudder seemed to ripple through her, and then she was turning, sagging. She stood there, swaying for a moment, before she looked over at him. She was deathly white, and her eyes fastened on him. She stretched out one hand in a blind, groping gesture --
"Crichton," she choked breathlessly. He sprang towards her. "Aeryn!" And she collapsed heavily into his arms.
"What have you done to her?" Crichton demanded savagely.
Granaea lowered her gaze, her wide black pools wandering over Aeryn's form.
"It is not my doing," she finally said. "You don't realize how you insult me, and for that I forgive you."
"I don't care if I insult -- " Crichton began heatedly. Zhaan raised a hand to hush him and interrupted, "If you are not responsible, then what causes our friend's condition, Granaea?" Her voice was urgently quiet and she turned her pale gaze warningly at Crichton as if to say be silent.
"They call it... " Granaea hesitated. "The Dream of Endless Light." The Delvian locked eyes with the Fellite.
"What is that?" Zhaan asked, with a slight frown.
"We must take your friend to the Cloister," the Fellite said quickly.
"The Cloister?" Crichton broke in, earning another stern glance from Zhaan for the interruption.
Granaea gestured through the window behind them and John's eyes were immediately drawn to the white structure he'd been admiring earlier. "Wait -- that's the Cloister? What the hell is it? Can they help her?"
Granaea held up her forelimbs to forestall further questions. "It is where we must go."
Fear and fury exploded in Crichton's brain and he rushed around the slab to Granaea's side and grabbed her by her upper forelimbs.
"John!" Zhaan cried out in protest, but he ignored her.
"No, Granaea, you tell us what's going on now! Why do we have to take her there? What's wrong with Aeryn?" He released her roughly and tried to pull himself together. "You people have been looking at us funny since we got here, and I want to know why! What do you know?"
Granaea bowed her head and drew the edges of her robe together. "I will forgive you that, young Sebacean, for I understand your concern for your comrade. But I warn you -- do not handle me again, or you will force me to regrettable action!" The steel in her voice quelled the heat of Crichton's attack.
He sighed and looked down at Aeryn again, the fear knotting inside him. She was so pale... His shoulders slumped then in defeat as he leaned against the slab. He turned his head slightly toward the Fellite female. "Look, I'm sorry. I just want to know what's going on."
"I understand, young Sebacean. We must take your friend to the Cloister quickly."
"Fine." He pushed himself away from the slab and met Zhaan's eyes, before looking back at Granaea. "By the way," he continued as an aside, "I'm not Sebacean. I only look like one... I'm human."
Granaea hissed at his words. "You're not Sebacean?" Her voice was thick with disbelief.
"No." Questioningly he cocked his head at her and then exchanged a puzzled glance with Zhaan. The Fellite was looking around agitatedly and moving her forelimbs. "So that is why you remain unaffected," she murmured.
"You mean... " Zhaan began, her eyes widening.
"... it's because she's Sebacean?" Crichton finished. They both turned their gaze toward Granaea. She met their eyes and then quickly nodded her head.
"But what -- ?" Zhaan began.
"But how -- " John started, but Granaea once again stopped them both with a gesture and a firm shake of her head. "Not now, not here. We must take her to the Cloister immediately. Please remain with your friend until I arrange transport."
They're all Sebacean, he realized as he stared at them in surprise. As he stepped down, with Zhaan close behind, the Sebaceans parted to allow a tall figure through, also clad in the white robe, but with a silver pendant hanging from a long chain around his neck. He had peppery hair and deep-set piercingly blue eyes.
"Welcome," he said in a quiet voice. "I see you have brought us another pilgrim."
"She needs your help," Crichton said. "The Fellites say you are healers."
"Yes, we are." He studied him briefly, his blue eyes flicking to Zhaan and then back to Crichton. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Steppan."
"I am called Zhaan," the blue female responded. "And this is John Crichton."
Steppan nodded at both of them, while Crichton still studied him with a mixture of distrust, suspicion and hope.
He gestured, and two of the robes moved forward past Crichton and Zhaan to pull Aeryn from the bus. He watched as they lifted the slab from the bus and pulled it forward. Between them, they carried it easily and began to move past the taller robe when Crichton stopped them with a hand.
"Wait. Where are you taking her?" he asked suspiciously.
"Into the Cloister, young friend. We will care for her. She will be safe."
"We can see her in there, right?"
"Of course. Just as soon as she has been purified, you may see her."
"Purified?" Zhaan asked, cocking her head in curiosity.
"Yes. All those who Dream are bathed when they enter the Cloister. It is a very simple procedure." He paused, studying her thoughtfully. "You are a Delvian Pa'u?"
The blue-skinned female drew herself up and inclined her head. "I once was. Tenth level." Crichton smiled inwardly at that -- it was a good sign that Zhaan would embrace her priesthood again -- and soon hopefully. He hadn't missed the tinge of pride in her words.
"You may supervise then, if you wish."
Crichton exchanged a glance with Zhaan, and then nodded shortly. The Delvian moved to follow the white robes with Aeryn.
"Come, John Crichton," Steppan said. "Let us go within, and address this further."
The two of them followed the small crowd into a huge arched entranceway. John looked about him with wonder as they mounted a short flight of steps. He whirled on his heel to look out over what lay below: the city of Fell was spread out before him, forming a magnificent view. The dry plain extended to the horizon, where golden plain met rose-tinted sky, and the entirety of it was bathed in the glow of two suns.
With a final look, he turned to find his host watching him carefully. He bowed to John and motioned him in. John stepped forward into the warm interior, which was a pleasant contrast to the chill outside. Once again, he was awed by the vast vaulted chamber with its high airy dome and arched windows with the now-familiar carved screens. It was all made of the same dazzling white stone as the rest of the structure, and resplendent where light struck it at the right angle, sending up a shower of brilliance.
John followed Steppan through a series of passages, until they reached a long room lined with arched windows on one side and flooded with suns' shine. The older Sebacean gestured to him to sit among the blue floor cushions in one corner. John gingerly followed suit as Steppan lowered himself to the ground and settled himself comfortably.
"Do you know what's wrong with her?" Crichton asked as soon as Steppan was seated.
"Granaea told us that her people call it the Dream of Endless Light," he prompted the older Sebacean.
"As do we."
"... and that means what exactly?" Crichton asked impatiently.
"Before I answer that, may I ask you a question?"
Crichton grimaced in frustration. "Fine."
"How do you feel, young Sebacean?" His tone was curious. Right.
"Oh, that. I'm not Sebacean which is why I'm not affected by whatever's got Aeryn." John rubbed his fingers across his eyes tiredly.
"I... see. It's just that you look -- "
"I know, I know, I look Sebacean. Well, surprise! I'm not. I'm a human, from the planet Earth. You've never heard of it. But you know what? I've never heard of you, so we're even. But that's neither here nor there. Look, I don't have time to play twenty questions, okay? Just tell me what exactly is wrong with Aeryn?" And more importantly, can you help her?
Steppan closed his eyes and lay his hands, palms up, on each knee of his crossed legs. A long moment of silence stretched between them and Crichton grew more impatient as he waited.
"This planet is a remarkable sphere, young Crichton." Steppan's eyes had not opened. John waited with increasing impatience. Why does everything have to take so blasted long? Aeryn needs help now, damnit!
Steppan's eyes popped open suddenly, and Crichton met his disconcertingly direct gaze. Finally he spoke.
"We came to this planet many cycles ago as part of colonization project -- not of this sphere, you understand. We were only halfway to our destination when we were attacked by pirates. Our colony ship was crippled, and we were forced to take refuge here. After landing, we discovered that one by one, our complement was falling ill. The Cloister began as a hospice to care for them."
"What caused their illness?" Crichton asked.
"Wh-the planet?" John was a bit befuddled by that answer. "But -- how?"
Steppan sighed. "We Sebaceans carry a sort of bacteria in our bodies that under normal conditions never causes symptoms. But when we came here...well, something in this planet's atmosphere, which we have not yet been able to isolate, activated the bacteria, and caused symptoms to appear."
"What are the symptoms?"
"There is only one, really. The affected individual loses consciousness, and enters a dreaming state. Physically, there is nothing wrong -- in fact, even brain functions appear normal."
"I hear a 'but' coming," John interjected. "Obviously something is wrong if one minute they're conscious and the next they aren't."
"Yes, human. You are correct. Something is wrong, or rather, something is very right."
"Wait -- w-what do you mean by that?" John had a very bad feeling about this.
Steppan stared at him without blinking for several heartbeats. John's sense of dread mounted.
"Wait a second -- you can help her, right? There are drugs she can take, or -- " He sputtered to a halt as Steppan raised one hand to stop him.
"The Cloister exists because of people like your friend, young human. But we learned a very long time ago our limitations in dealing with this condition." He paused before continuing, trapping John's eyes. "You must understand that we no longer look upon the Dream of Endless Light as an illness. Rather, it is an enlightenment. A perfection. It is a state of mind, that many long for but few achieve. This planet has allowed us to attain that bliss.
"Any Sebacean who enters this planet's atmosphere will eventually succumb to the Dream. Some are taken quickly, as was your friend, and some are affected more slowly. But no one is spared."
"But -- " John frowned. "If every Sebacean is affected by it, then, it is possible to recover, right? I mean, you're conscious -- the others out there -- " He gestured randomly.
"Yes, some do, as you say, recover."
"Is there a percentage rate? How likely is it that Aeryn will recover?"
Steppan tilted his head to one side and gave Crichton a long considering look. "One in ten may regain consciousness."
"That's it? How is it possible that you Sebaceans with all your technology and superiority haven't been able to beat this thing?" He was reeling from the figure -- Aeryn only had a ten- percent chance of survival?
"It is very simple, human. We don't want to. Once, in the beginning, when we didn't understand the Dream, we tried to cure it. We tried to prevent the Dream from taking hold, but it was to no avail. Our condition proved resistant to everything we tried. Now we have learned not to fight it."
"The Dream is inside us, waiting to happen. This remarkable planet sets it free, and once the Dream is loose within us, it sets us free..."
"I don't understand."
"Those of us who are no longer part of the Dream, chose to return to this world, human."
"Chose? What do you mean you chose -- you get to choose to wake up?"
"You must understand -- the Dream is intoxicating -- it is Life itself, distilled and pure. It is a state of pure being, without any distractions. It is peace and happiness. It is perfection."
Sounds like Heaven, Crichton thought. Who'd want to leave that? "So what you're telling me is that you had all that, and you had to choose to leave the Dream?"
"Yes. It was my duty to return to this life; I had dedicated my life to the service of others, so I sacrificed the Dream to continue on that path. It was an intensely difficult decision -- I could never make you understand how hard it was to turn away from such bliss. Some days, it is only my memory of it that sustains me in my decision."
"So...what happens if you don't choose to leave the Dream?"
Steppan bowed his head and spread his hands with an expression of pity for Crichton's lack of understanding... "The spirit moves on. Within the Dream, the vessel decays."
Oh, God... "How long does she have?" he asked quietly.
Steppan shook his head. "It is different for each individual. For some it is days -- for others, weeks."
Crichton's face twisted. "So what you're telling me is that this planet activates this otherwise dormant bacteria, so you're on a comatose happy acid trip that you have to choose to wake up from or you die. Did I leave anything out?" He glared at the Sebacean, and then looked away with a mixture of anger and despair. "No? Didn't think so." He rubbed his eyes again.
Think, he had to think. There had to be something he could do to help her, despite whatever Steppan believed.
"I need to contact my ship and let them know what's happening," Crichton said finally. Steppan nodded his assent and smoothly rose. His slippered feet were silent as he padded from the long chamber.
"D'Argo! You there?" He bent his head to speak into the communication badge.
"Yes, Crichton. I'm here." It was good to hear the big guy's voice.
"Good. I've got news."
"How is Aeryn?" Crichton was surprised to hear genuine concern in the Luxan's voice. Too bad he didn't have better news to report. Maybe between the two of them they could think of something. He had no idea what, but two heads were always better than one. He rubbed his hand in agitation through his short-cropped hair and expelled his breath noisily, not bothering to keep the worry from his voice.
"Not good, D'Argo. Not good at all... "
"John!" Zhaan burst into the chamber, or came as close as he'd ever seen the Delvian come to 'bursting' into anywhere. She had been walking swiftly and seemed flushed -- as flushed as her dappled blue skin permitted.
"Yeah, Zhaan. What is it?" Crichton turned his gaze from the window and looked over his shoulder. "Are they done purifying her yet?"
"Yes," the former Pa'u replied with an air of suppressed excitement. "John, there might be a way to help Aeryn."
She paused for a moment to catch her breath and then half smiled. "I'm sorry, John. Let me collect my thoughts."
Crichton waited impatiently until she began to speak. Boy, he would be glad when she took up her priesthood again! He missed the calm peace that she had worn like a mantle before her run-in with Maldis, before Tahleen and the New Moon of Delvia. At least he'd known what to expect from her then.
"I have spoken with some of the other Sebaceans here," she began. "They explained the Dream of Endless Light to me."
"Right. So did Steppan. He wasn't very helpful, though. He said they don't have a cure because they don't want a cure. He -- " Crichton took a deep breath. "He told me that unless she wakes up on her own, she's gonna die."
"Not necessarily, John." Zhaan smiled at him. "There is a chance, albeit a small one. But it is a chance nonetheless."
"What do you mean?" A tiny flicker of hope sprang to life.
"As you probably know," she began, "all the Sebaceans remaining in the Cloister are survivors of the Dream." He nodded. "Each of them had a very powerful reason to return -- to wake from the Dream. For some it was their dedication to service -- "
Crichton interrupted, "Yeah, Steppan said that was why he came back."
Zhaan nodded. "Yes, but others returned because of something else that drew them more powerfully than the Dream -- especially loved ones."
Crichton was shaking his head. "I don't understand."
"It's very simple, John. You are Aeryn's friend, and you will have to convince her to come back."
"What? How?" He was royally confused now.
"After having spoken with some of the others, I think I might be able to assist in this, but there is danger for you."
"Wait -- back up a minute. What are you talking about?"
"I think I can send you into the Dream so you can talk to Aeryn, convince her to come back."
"What?" Worse and worse. Crichton shook his head in confusion. "No, no way. No way are you sending me into that-that -- are you crazy? Even if your hocus-pocus worked, you think she'd listen to me? Haven't you noticed? Aeryn and I haven't exactly been bosom buddies lately."
Zhaan merely blinked at him patiently; Crichton thought he saw a glint of knowing in her pale eyes. "You are the only one who can do this, John. Aeryn trusts you. You share a special bond with her. Perhaps it is greater than you realize. If you look inside yourself, examine your heart, John, and you will know that what I say is true."
She wouldn't say that if she'd been paying attention to how Aeryn's been treating me lately. But... if I don't try something, she'll die anyway... I can't just sit by and let that happen!
Despite his misgivings, he knew Zhaan was right. It was up to him. The question was, could he do it? How?
Crichton was still mulling it over as he underwent the ritual purification in the hot springs below the mountain that the Cloister was built against. It was required of all who Dreamed and Zhaan had thought it would be better and more practical for him to do it while still conscious since the Sebaceans would insist on it once she'd put him under, and she wasn't sure if they could afford the time.
John laughed to himself. Great. Just great. Zhaan doesn't know if she can put me in the Dream, she doesn't know if she can get me out, and she doesn't know how much time I'll have before it's irreversible. This is one hell of a plan!
The rattlers were on the move in his belly, coiling on themselves, knotting and unknotting. He wasn't ashamed to say that he was scared by all this -- pretty damned scared in fact. The whole proposition was one big 'if.' So what if he got stuck in the damned Dream -- Big deal, he thought with a sardonic smile. At least I'll die happy.
Actually that was part of his concern. If Zhaan somehow managed to inject him into this happy-happy-joy-joy-land, then how was he supposed to get out? She wasn't sure if she could bring him out, so she'd warned him that he might have to do it himself -- and how exactly am I supposed to do that, hmmm? Besides, he reflected, with all the crap that had been going on in his life, he might just want to stay in Joyland. His time on Acquara had given him a healthy taste for the good life -- the kind that didn't involve being hunted by insane Peackeeper captains and getting jumped by just about every other hostile life form in this neck of the woods. This Dream of Endless Light sounded like the ultimate fantasyland trip, and he didn't know that he might welcome it...
He woke from his reverie and looked up. Zhaan bent down toward him with an armload of fabric.
" I didn't think you wanted the others in here with you, John. I've brought you these." Her beautiful luminous smile touched her eyes as she met his gaze. She laid the pile on the floor near him and straightened.
"Thanks, Zhaan." He slid down into the pool, submerging his head, and rose dripping. He slicked his wet hair back and shook the water from his eyes.
Zhaan gave him one of her amused once-overs and then smiled almost flirtatiously. "I'll be back in a few moments to take you to Aeryn."
He nodded his response and waited until she had disappeared beyond the door before he heaved himself out of the sunken pool and onto the smooth flagstones. Steam still rose from the herb-strewn water as he left it. Quickly he rubbed himself dry and donned the white robe she had left him. Vainly he looked for undergarments or a cord to cinch the loose formless garment around his waist, but they seemed to be lacking.
He was folding the towels when Zhaan peered around the door. Their eyes met and John dropped everything and moved to follow her. On bare feet he padded after the Delvian through the warm corridors of the Cloister, until they found Steppan waiting for them outside an arched door. He looked Crichton up and down before turning his attention to Zhaan.
"You should not interfere with the Dreamer. You realize that this is an affront to us."
Zhaan was entirely unruffled by his hostility. "We are sorry, Steppan, but we must help our friend. She would not thank us to allow her needless death."
Steppan bristled. "Your efforts will be futile, Delvian."
She smiled serenely at the Sebacean. "Perhaps so, Steppan. But we must try. Our friend's life hangs in the balance, and we will not let her die without at least trying. Surely you cannot fault us our attempt."
Easy for her to say, Crichton thought. She wasn't the one going under. But he suppressed the rest of that thought. He was doing this for Aeryn, and that was more important than his apprehension.
Zhaan was opening the door for him into another long narrow room lined with windows on one side. The room was flooded with warm light that was dazzling within the white-walled chamber. Low frame beds were against the right hand wall, one beneath each window. John's eyes fell upon Aeryn's still figure laying on one of them at the far side of the room.
She looked almost child-like as she lay there, pale and motionless. He was amazed at how innocent and girlish she appeared with her long dark hair curling around her sleeping face and her thin shoulders. Her arms lay at her sides and bare feet emerged from beneath the voluminous white robe that swathed her from throat to ankle.
John went to her bedside and looked down at her with a strange expression. It was hard to see her like this -- she looked so helpless; he couldn't imagine this beautiful young woman as a fierce soldier with a pulse rifle. He took her hand gently in one of his and noted the slow rise and fall of her chest while his eyes roved over her sleeping body. This isn't Aeryn, it can't be. Boy would she hate it if she could see herself now.
"Are you ready, John?" He looked up to see the Delvian female hovering beside him. He ducked his head and glanced at Aeryn's slack face once more. He gently squeezed her hand and then lay it back at her side before he rose from her bedside. Following Zhaan's gesture, he moved around Aeryn's bed to the one close beside it... Zhaan moved to sit at the head of the bed, her legs crossed comfortably as she leaned back against the wall behind her. The suns shone in through the window over her head, bathing her in light. She placed a thick roll of fabric across her lap and waved him nearer.
"Lay down, John, and place your head in my lap." Obediently, John followed her instructions and tried not to feel too creeped out by the whole thing.
Well, this was it -- Zhaan was going to work her hocus pocus and if she succeeded he might never wake up again. He found himself staring intently at the corners and angles of the ceiling and the shadows thrown against the opposite wall. He might never see them again. He took a deep breath and memorized how it felt to feel the air fill his lungs and then he slowly let it out.
"Good," Zhaan said, as she gently laid her cool fingertips against his temples, enfolding his head between her two silver-ringed hands. "Close your eyes, John, and continue to breathe slowly and deeply. It will help me to guide you into the Dream."
Okay... in... and... out... He tried to quiet his mind, as though he was entering a meditative state... in... and... out... He really hoped this worked... in... and... out... When he woke up, he wanted to look into Aeryn's eyes and see her smile, just once... in... and... out...
He wanted Aeryn to live...
... In... and... Out...
He felt a tingling in his extremities and --
... In... and... Out...
-- he felt lightheaded, and there was a swooping sensation in the pit of his stomach --
... In... and... Out...
-- like he was flying...
... In... and... Out...
... he wanted Aeryn... getting harder... to... think...
... In... and... Out...
... Was it working... ?
... he thought... maybe... it was...
He felt like he'd never get there before he realized that he was already there. Or at least it felt like he was there. He was somewhere. Slowly he turned around in an attempt to get his bearings, and then he realized how pleasant it was to simply spin slowly and watch the white world turn around him. Mirth bubbled up, and he suddenly felt like laughing for the sheer pleasure of it.
But a small incredibly annoying voice spoke to him through the brightness and the warmth, cutting through the incredible sense of well-being that infused him like pulses of euphoria. Aeryn. He was supposed to find Aeryn. He couldn't remember what he was supposed to do when he found her, but he knew he had to find her soon..
It was becoming difficult to think...he didn't want to make the effort. Not when he felt this good. He struggled to maintain his sense of self amidst this white light. He had to force himself to focus on his mission without succumbing to the pulsating warmth that surrounded and penetrated him.
"Aeryn!" he heard himself call out, and then he attempted to move forward. Suddenly he was floating and laughing and crying all at the same time. Man, this was totally psychedelic. "Aeryn... "
Then she heard something in the distance. It was hard to hear, she didn't want to listen to anything but the melodic, hypnotic sound of soft breeze-blown chimes. But the sound persisted, penetrating even her efforts to block it out. She heard the sounds, but her mind had difficulty interpreting them. She didn't want to be disturbed in her floating bliss. But the sounds invaded her solitude...
" Aeryn! Where are you?" The voice was partly anxious, partly playful. "Come out, come out, where ever you are!"
The voice was familiar, but she couldn't place it yet. She'd heard it before, in another life. Her mind shied away from facing any life but the one that wrapped her in comfort at that moment. She didn't want to think or remember. She just wanted to be.
"Come on, Aeryn! You can't still be mad at me! I need to talk to you now -- it's important. Please, Aeryn, hurry up and tell me where you are -- I'm losing my mind in here..."
A strange feeling struck through her serenity. Confusion. Puzzlement.
"Aeryn, I know you're in here somewhere. They told me to find you here, so I know you're here. I'm gonna find you whether you want me to or not. You can't hide forever."
Oh! That was too much! She felt her mantle of peace unraveling as the voice continued. SHUT UP! she wanted to scream... I am so happy without you. Leave me alone.
The voice was babbling, and she could felt her euphoria shrink in its wake. Then, recognition bloomed through the layers of light that bound her. Memory ignited. But it was too hard to think. She didn't want to. It became harder still to formulate and sustain a thought. She heard herself try to speak, but her voice felt unfamiliar, as though it was someone else trying to talk.
The voice changed drastically -- a combination of fear and relief... "Aeryn?"
"Aeryn! Is that you?" Was it her imagination, or did she hear anxiety in that disembodied voice?
"... I... think... so... "
"Where are you? I can't see you." A hint of desperation.
It was a struggle to think, even harder to respond. "I'm here," she said finally.
"Where?" His voice was close and quiet now. She didn't want to open her eyes, didn't want to perforate the thin membrane that held her in this safe womb.
"... here... "
And then she felt the lightest caress, a presence surround her and enfold her. "Aeryn?" His voice was so near it was inside her, around her. A part of her wanted to recoil from the intimacy. Another part of her reached out for the pure sensation. She did not answer him; she could not.
"Aeryn, listen to me. I have something very important to tell you."
No... she would not listen to him... she only wanted to float within the gentle tides of this womb... but she felt a gentle pressure growing on her awareness, forcing her attention back to the voice.
"You are in great danger," he said. No, she laughed to herself, I feel fine! I feel wonderful...
"Your body is dying," she heard him say. So? She didn't need a body here... she had everything she needed here in this place. It was a good place.
"Come back, Aeryn." The voice was quietly insistent.
"We need you, Aeryn. We're waiting for you... Zhaan, D'Argo, Pilot, Rygel... "
"Please, Aeryn... come back. I -- " she thought she detected hesitation, apprehension. "I don't want to lose you... I don't want you to die." She felt the pressure increase around her uncomfortably, and she felt a sudden stab of something -- what? Regret?
"I...don't know...if I can...don't know...if I want to..."
She struggled then, fighting the urge to succumb further, and she opened her eyes. The light was too bright, blinding, but this time she did not turn away. She wanted to see him one last time...
She felt herself turning, rotating, searching through the brightness. "John, where are you? I can't...see you..."
"I'm right here." At first she felt rather than saw him, but then he seemed to materialize before her eyes, directly in front of her.
"Aeryn, you can't stay here..."
"But...I want to..."
"Yeah. I know. But you can't stay here. If you do, you will die!"
She winced at the force of his words -- they knifed through her warm protective bubble which burst with tremendous force, and suddenly she was flung backwards, outwards, into an explosion of light --
The both cried out as a storm of wind and lighting raged around them and they fell against one another, their selves briefly merging. Aeryn reeled as a powerful blow struck her, but somehow she managed to remain conscious. She was holding onto something with a fierce grip, and she had the overwhelming feeling that if she let go she would be swept away by the maelstrom that whirled about them.
"Aeryn!" She heard John cry out to her, and she clung tighter, reaching out to his voice.
"Aeryn, I don't think I have much time left...I'm not supposed to be here, and I think it's generating instability or something..."
The storm abruptly died away and with it, Aeryn felt a sudden massive wrench and the sensation of falling. She held on as tight as she could...
"Oh, wow..." she heard John say, with a delicious laugh. In fact she felt that laugh as though it had bubbled up inside her.
"John?" He heard her say, her voice a mixture of confusion and consternation.
"Yeah, Aeryn, I'm here..." She felt his voice surround her.
"What's happening?" John heard her voice, so subdued from the Aeryn he knew -- she sounded so...vulnerable. He felt her confusion as though it was his own.
"I'm not sure," he said, "...but somehow...it reminds me of Delvian Unity...what little I remember of it, anyway."
She felt his surprise and tension, but also his sudden euphoria. It did feel very, very good. But she shied away from those strong emotions, afraid of being pulled in....
"I know you want to stay," he said quietly. There was an upwelling of deep sorrow between them, and he felt her tears in his own eyes.
"John -- " she groped for him with her free hand. "I don't ... think...I...can leave!" she sobbed...somewhere inside a stern voice scolded her furiously for succumbing to this weakness, but she ignored it. "I've never been so...happy...in my life. I feel so safe...here, and.... protected...I've never known I could feel like this...how can I leave?"
Her words tore into him. She'd had a hard life, but it was one she'd been taught to love. This must be so overwhelming for her -- well, he could feel how overwhelmed she was as though they were his own feelings. He realized it was becoming more and more difficult to think, enveloped as they were in one another. The nearness of her and her emotions made it difficult for him to separate his thoughts from hers.
"Aeryn," he began urgently. "We have to leave this place. This is dangerous for both of us. Our bodies are dying..."
"John," she said suddenly, matching his urgency. "Why are you here? How did you come to this place?"
There was a pause. "I came to bring you out, Aeryn. You can't stay here. I can't stay here. I don't think this is what's meant for you. I believe you have a future waiting for you and you won't find it in this place. This is a dream, Aeryn -- a very beautiful," she heard the longing in his voice, " -- and powerful dream, but this isn't life."
There was finality in his words, and she felt the truth in them...but she didn't want to believe him, she didn't want to go back. It was so peaceful in here and there was no loneliness, no fear or regret -- only joy. The stern voice inside her was screaming at her for being a failure, and she wanted to ignore it -- but then she realized that if she stayed in this place, and her body died, maybe she was a failure, for wanting to remain in this cocoon, instead of living and facing her fears and making choices and becoming more than she was today...
Crichton felt her choose, between death and life, between mindless bliss and a never-ending adventure that held the potential for both happiness and suffering. The instant of her choice sent a very strong stomach-churning shock through him and he had to fight to steady himself.
There was no response. A sudden blast of something came out of nowhere and struck him with the force of a hurricane. Their separation was agonizingly painful, sending waves of excruciating agony through every nerve ending. And then he was free...and empty...and alone...
Aeryn awoke with a huge gasp, and flung out her right arm, her entire body arching off the bed as she spasmed with the bittersweet pain of rebirth. She drew in huge lung-fulls of air like a drowning person, or a baby emerging from the darkness and comfort of the amniotic sac into light. Finally she lay back, bathed in sweat and limp with exhaustion. Her eyes weakly flickered open, and then she was curling fetus-like onto her left side, her right arm wrapped around herself as she shook with sobs, the tears streaming down her pale cheeks. Dimly she was aware of arms wrapping around her and a gentle soothing hand stroking her back. She felt bitter pain and anguish that was centered somewhere in the center of her chest and radiated outwards, literally choking and blinding her with its intensity.
She wasn't sure how long she lay there, shaken by grief. She knew only that she would begin to calm and then the waves of pain and sadness would crash over her and all she could do was cry and cry some more, all the while holding tight...
Finally, the racking sobs subsided and she uncurled a bit to shift from her side onto her back. Hesitantly she opened her eyes and looked up into Zhaan's beautiful blue face. The Delvian ex-priest smiled down at her, and Aeryn thought it was the most incredible welcome sight. Zhaan reached out to her and brushed at the tears that wet her cheek and gently stroked her hair, much like a mother might comfort a child. Aeryn realized it had been Zhaan who had held her while she'd cried, and she felt an immense burst of gratitude toward the blue-skinned female.
"Welcome back," Zhaan said softly. "How are you feeling, my dear?"
Aeryn lay her right forearm across her eyes and didn't answer immediately. "Awful," she said finally, and then she must have turned green because she saw alarm flash across Zhaan's face and then the Delvian was swiftly reaching for a basin. The next thing Aeryn knew, she was propped on her left elbow, still holding on tight, with Zhaan supporting her head over the basin while she emptied her guts.
At last, she lay back weakly, her entire body cramping, and her head pounding. Zhaan wiped at her face with a mysteriously-produced cool cloth and put a ceramic bottle to her mouth. Water passed Aeryn's lips and trickled down her throat, which convulsed gratefully.
She turned her head away after the first few swallows, and lay there with her eyes closed for some time, trying to recoup her strength.
"Wh-what, what happened?" she asked when she could trust herself to speak. Her throat felt raw and her voice was hoarse.
"You've been ill, Aeryn," Zhaan told her and went on to explain the Dream of Endless Light to her; she concluded by saying frankly, "We thought you might die."
"Oh... " She was still as she processed that. Someone else had told her that she might die. Someone else had tried to help her -- Her eyes widened.
"John," she breathed softly.
"Yes, John entered the Dream to bring you out." Aeryn watched Zhaan's eyes as they flickered off to the side, eyeing something just to her left, and then they came back to her with disconcerting directness.
Aeryn felt a prickle along her scalp as she rolled her head to the left to follow the line of Zhaan's gaze. Suddenly something clicked. She saw Crichton lying on the bed beside her own, limp and pale. But across the short space that separated the beds, their arms were outstretched; her left and his right, and their hands were joined in a tight clasp. She understood what it was she had grabbed and clung to through the storm. In fact she was still holding on, her grip so tight that she could feel the tension all the way up to her shoulder. It was like a vise. She had to make a conscious effort to relax her fingers and after several microts she was able to release his hand. She felt the blood rush into her fingers as she did so, and her entire hand tingled.
"Is he all right?" she asked huskily.
Zhaan turned her gaze to the unconscious human. A look of distress flickered across her sculpted features. "I do not know," she said at last. "Sending him into the Dream was more dangerous than I had thought, and I'm afraid I was not able to protect him enough."
Aeryn heard Zhaan's unspoken words -- he might not survive. She turned her head away, closing suddenly lead-heavy eyelids.
"Rest, Aeryn," she heard the Delvian say as she curled onto her left side and the darkness of exhaustion wrapped her in its embrace.
Two days later and Crichton was still unconscious. The effects of emergence from the Dream had left Aeryn weak and often disoriented, in pain most of the time, and prone to excessive crying jags, all of which Zhaan told her was symptomatic of both physical and psychological withdrawal from the Dream. Zhaan had remained with her, caring for both of them. The Sebacean gratefully surrendered herself to Zhaan's attentions, knowing that she was utterly incapable of caring for herself.
D'Argo had even come down to the surface twice and visited her briefly. She recalled with warmth the compassion in his eyes as he had looked down at her and gently squeezed her shoulder in sympathy. He'd already seen to the supplies and settled their account with Granaea during his first trip to the surface; the second had been solely to check on her and Crichton. She knew he was probably eager to leave orbit, but when he'd come to see her, he'd given no indication of impatience. Instead, he had only given her encouragement toward her recovery and tried to hide the mounting dread they were all feeling about Crichton's unchanged condition.
This day, Aeryn waited until Zhaan had left the room before struggling to rise from the bed. She had been unable to rise unassisted and had needed Zhaan's help for even the simplest body functions that involved any kind of movement. It was humbling to be at the mercy of her failing limbs and dependent on another for her mobility. But this morning, she was determined to do for herself.
It was a struggle to sit up in the bed, and an even greater struggle to bring her legs over the side. But finally she was able to plant her feet on the floor, and by propping her arms on Crichton's bed less than an arm's length away, she awkwardly managed to lurch forward onto his bed. Despite the jostling as her weight shifted the bed, he remained limp and still. With every bit of her meager strength, she held herself in an upright position and looked down at him.
She remembered almost everything now. It was still hard to think about it; the experience had left her feeling raw and exposed, a bundle of sensitive nerve-endings. She had very little control over her emotions, no matter how hard she tried to keep the despair and tears at bay.
"How can you not feel pain after what you've been through?" Crichton had once asked her after she had told him that among her people showing pain was a sign of weakness. But right now, she didn't care much, because there wasn't much she could do about it. The tears came without forewarning and all she could do was hold on to herself so as not to be swept away in the flood.
The tears sprang into her eyes now as she sat there, and she could do nothing but give into the release it offered. This weakness was unfamiliar to her, but she couldn't think beyond drawing her next ragged breath and feeling the grief welling up from a bottomless source somewhere inside. Her strength gave out and she collapsed forward onto the bed alongside Crichton's inanimate body. She shook helplessly as the grief washed over her like a wave.
She lay there beside him, shaken like a leaf in a storm, her body limp and twisted. She didn't know how to handle the unfamiliar tide of emotion, so she simply gave into it, since she didn't have the strength, mental or physical to hold it off.
She felt the loss of the Dream deeply -- the grief was a lancing pain, yet she didn't resent Crichton for convincing her to return to this life. It would have been cowardly to retreat into that kind of false state of being. But still...
She felt overwhelmingly guilty for Crichton's condition -- after all, it was for her sake that he had risked his life -- to save hers. And the lack of change for better or worse was wearing on her more than anything else. As her tears slowed, she turned her head to face him and traced the outline of his jaw with her fingertips before she struggled to sit up.
"I'm sorry," she finally said as she looked down at him. "I'm sorry for everything." Again, she reached out to him and lay one trembling hand against the side of his face, cupping its curve. She used the back of her other hand to brush the wetness from her cheek. Finally she withdrew and decided to go back to her own bed.
She was attempting to rise to her feet when she felt him stir. In surprise, she lost her balance and collapsed heavily to her knees between the two beds. She lurched toward him in agitation as he moved again. She reached out awkwardly and took his head between her hands.
"John!" she said fiercely, her voice rusty from disuse. His eyelids fluttered as he seemed to struggle to open them, and then he gasped as though in suffocation, drawing in long lung-fulls of air.
"John!" she said again, shaking his head slightly between her hands. Please wake up, John! You can't die on me again!
"Aeryn!" he gasped and his eyes popped open, fluttering weakly. "You're alive, Aeryn! I thought you were dead! I thought I was dead... "
"No, you're alive, John," she said softly, chokingly, feeling tears threaten again. "You saved me -- again. You brought me back." She frowned and bit her lip as her eyes filled.
He half-smiled and then grimaced through the pain, as she had when she'd woken. "That's what friends are for, Aeryn. Hey -- does this mean I'm out of the doghouse?"
"What?" she asked with a laugh-sob.
"Does this mean you're speaking to me again? I promise, I'll behave myself from now on, just please don't do that to me again."
Anything... "Yes, I'm speaking to you, you idiot." She tried to frown at him, but failed, and instead broke into a weak giggle.
The door opened behind them and Aeryn turned her head to glimpse Zhaan who stopped abruptly as her eyes fell on the two of them.
"John!" she exclaimed before rushing over to his bedside.
"Hey, Zhaan -- guess we hit a few snags in our plan, huh?" He tried to laugh, but once again, his face twisted.
"I'm sorry, John. I did the best I could, but I could not entirely shield you from the effects of the Dream."
"It's okay, Zhaan. Just kidding." He winced again. "We both made it back, right?"
Both Aeryn and Zhaan saw his color rapidly change; Zhaan had the basin ready in time for Crichton as he began retching helplessly. The Delvian ex-priest held his head as he sagged. Aeryn looked on in frustration. There was nothing she could do to assist, and she felt wretched for both herself and for him. She knew exactly what he was in for -- for awhile anyway, and it wasn't going to be pretty.
Finally, Zhaan lay him back on the bed, and Aeryn could see the fine sheen sweat on his skin.
"Oh, God... " he finally mumbled. "I feel... awful." He tried to smile.
"Rest, John. This will pass," Zhaan said, laying her hand on his forehead. She brought him water and wiped his face. He drank a little and then sank back down again in exhaustion.
Zhaan smiled down at him and then her gaze flickered to Aeryn, who looked a little like a broken doll from where she had crumpled onto the floor. The Delvian decided she should leave them alone for awhile so they could compose themselves and probably have a much-needed reconciliation. Sometimes, she reflected, the Goddess works in mysterious ways. Besides, she should let D'Argo and the others know the good news.
"Will you two be all right for a little while?" When she saw their affirmative response, she continued, "I'll be back shortly. Aeryn, please let me know if either of you need anything." Aeryn looked back at her and held her gaze for a few heartbeats; she nodded and Zhaan withdrew.
When the door had closed behind her, Crichton turned away from Aeryn and reflexively began to curl up, his whole body shaking. Aeryn painfully hauled herself up from the floor and perched on the edge of his bed. She lay one hand on his shoulder and after a few microts she realized that it was his turn to grieve.
When he had regained a measure of composure, he gingerly rolled onto his back and covered his eyes with his forearm, just as she had.
"Are-" he began, swallowing noisily. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," she answered with a hint of asperity, and then softened it with a weak smile. He lifted his arm and peeped down at her in time to catch a glimpse. "I'll live, John, thanks to you."
"This is really hard," he said, with an attempt at a grin. "And it really hurts. I feel like I'm going to die."
"It's the withdrawal," she replied. "It will get better. At least that's what they tell me." Her tone was wry...very wry. "I haven't noticed any change, yet."
He laughed brokenly at that, before another grimace. "You, too?"
Silence stretched between them as they contemplated their own thoughts and mixed up feelings. Aeryn struggled to shift herself into a more comfortable position, until finally she slid back down onto the floor so she was seated with her back against the side of his bed and her knees upraised. She lay there, exhausted again by the effort required for such a simple motion. She tipped her head back onto the bed.
"John," she began.
"I am sorry," she said to him again, glad he could hear her this time. "For everything." He was silent, and then she felt a light touch against her hair, and she held her breath as he gently stroked her hair.
"Me, too, Aeryn." His hand stilled. She twisted her neck awkwardly to look back at him. There were tears in his eyes. He met her gaze for a long moment and looked like he was going to say something before he shook his head and looked away.
She thought she understood what she'd seen his eyes. This experience would be with both of them for a long time, and she realized that they would probably never talk about it much, but that if there had ever been understanding and empathy between them, this had strengthened that bond.
"So does this means we're even?" Crichton attempted to lighten the moment.
"You know, you save my life, I save your life, you save mine again -- I forget what we're up to now -- I keep losing track of the score -- "
"Yes," she interrupted. "We're even." Her eyes prickled.
"John," she tilted her head away so he couldn't see her face crumple as she tried to speak. "John, I'm afraid." I'm afraid of how much this hurts, this living-and-breathing-and-being-alive --
"I know, Aeryn." He sighed. "Me too."
"I've never felt like that before...I was...happy...content," she said it with an almost curious tone. And I walked away from it...
"You made the right choice, Aeryn. We both did."
"How do you know?" she challenged him softly.
"Because I can feel this pain -- that's how I know. If I can feel this awful right now, I know I can feel equally great later. I think pain is what let us know we're alive. That we're real. And I'd rather be alive here, right now, no matter how bad it hurts, than in la-la-land where everything is an illusion."
She didn't respond, but she felt deep inside that he was right. In time she'd be able to put this behind her, but right now...right now she didn't have the strength to fight the emotions that coursed through her. She was no longer capable of repressing them as she had always been trained, so she gave in to the storm. One day, this too, shall pass.
"Thank you, John," she said softly. There was no reply; she thought that maybe he'd drifted off to sleep, until she felt him stir and the hand that rested on her hair moved. His arm descended to cross her collarbone, his hand resting comfortably on her left shoulder. She shifted against him, laying her cheek against his forearm, and accepted his response with a smile.