Notes: Just a bit of playing around with our favorite complex couple. Hope you enjoy. Honest feedback, comments, and suggestions and are always encouraged. Thanks to my betas for their hard work, as usual.
Email me--I'm a work in progress.
John Crichton wept.
He wept for his losses, and for the things he'd never had. He wept for his planet and for his family and for his innocence. He wept for the woman he'd barely known who had saved his life twice in the last day. He wept with fear and pain and guilt and rage at an unjust universe. And he wept with selfish relief at being home again.
How long he sat at Gilina's lifeless side, he didn't know. No one rushed him, and no one intruded. If his friends understood anything, they understood loss in its many forms.
He didn't respond to Zhaan at first, hoping she would go away. She didn't.
He rolled his head sideways, chin still resting on Gilina's shoulder where it had been for an arn.
"Why don't you get some rest? I'll take care of Gilina."
What was said between the lines was obvious, but he wasn't ready to hear it yet. He wasn't ready to deal with her, or any of the others. He supposed he should be more sociable, considering they had just pulled his ass, quite literally, out of the fire. But everything about him hurt right now, Gilina being only the freshest pain. He wasn't ready to move yet. Instead, he rolled his head back to its previous position watching Gilina's silent face and answered, "No, I'm fine."
"You may be, but Gilina is not."
That stopped him. "Huh?" This time, he did lift his head away from the body to face Zhaan.
It was the reaction Zhaan had expected. She smiled faintly, knowing that she been successful in capturing his attention away from the bubble he had created around himself. She was well aware that he was a strong man--and with a small nudge at the right time, he'd move in the direction he should. Nudges, and strategic ass-kickings, were well-used on board Moya.
She stepped aside to reveal Aeryn standing in the doorway to the room. Aeryn, too, had waited outside with uncustomary patience while John took the time rightfully his. As long as they could afford it, she would never have denied him the space he seemed to need. Needing space was something she understood too well for her own good.
"What's going on?" he asked.
"Aeryn has come to prepare the body for interment."
Aeryn was in the threshold, standing at a cross between Parade rest and a slouch. Like everything about her, even her body language was a constantly-shifting compromise between her old, ingrained life and her new, learned one. Today, it was more Peacekeeper than non-. John was happy to see, though, that at least she had taken off the Peacekeeper uniform. He hated the uniform--and not only because it had just tried to drive him insane. The uniform was about conformity, rigidity, restriction, acceptance. Letting others make decisions for you. Taking what you're given. Not questioning. Not feeling. The Aeryn Sun he knew didn't fit into that uniform any more. That person was a long time gone, and he was proud of that. He hated seeing her back there in any way. It was insulting.
She stepped forward. "Anyone who dies honorably in battle deserves a proper military service." As she said it, Aeryn watched John watch her, wondering whether he was going to give her an argument about it. Peacekeeper ways and John Crichton rarely made a good mix.
But he wasn't going to give her trouble. In fact, he liked the idea. It was a demonstration of respect, and Aeryn didn't take those things lightly. That she wanted to do whatever it was she wanted to do for Gilina meant a lot to John. And Gilina, he knew, would have been honored. So he pushed away from Gilina's body, physically and emotionally, taking the cue from his friends. Because the beauty of having friends is often to hear aloud the things a man already knows deep down.
Moving to stand up, he felt himself sway slightly. Like he was underwater, the room rippled and folded over on itself. He closed his eyes to clear his vision. Flashes of Earth flittered across his closed eyelids. He shook his head to rid himself of them, too. They did, so he walked away from the bed and toward the door.
More flashes assaulted him as he walked. Luanne Johnson on grad night. His sisters in prom dresses. His dad walking on the moon. The module. Racing DK on his bike down the sidewalk. The wormhole pulling him in. He stumbled over his own feet as he passed Aeryn--a very, very bad place to do so.
Aeryn caught his arm in an iron grip before she'd realized it. "Are you okay?"
He looked up at her, his eyes glazed over a bit. Aeryn's instincts screamed at her. "Crichton? Are you okay?" She held his arm tighter, suddenly aware that she was literally holding him vertical.
John scrunched up his eyes, the images of Earth flashing behind his eyelids. His father again. DK. His mom in the back yard. The shuttle. A beach at sunset. At sunrise. Wendy Pollack in the backseat of his dad's car. Moya's outer hull coming at him. Zhaan and D'Argo speaking gutteral alien tongues. Griffith Observatory. Aeryn pinning him to the floor. Lightning over the Cape.
They came faster and faster--as fast as they had been ripped from him in the Aurora Chair. The tide sucked at him and he couldn't shut them out, couldn't even ride them out. He floundered in the rush.
Then, just as quickly, they were gone. It was only Aeryn, watching him, her forehead furrowed into tiny lines. His male brain idly registered how beautiful she looked when she was worried. He wanted to reassure her, to tell her he was okay, but he couldn't seem to find the words. It scared him. And it scared her--in Aeryn's universe, when the human was at a loss for words, it was time to worry.
"Crichton? Talk to me." Aeryn was aware of Zhaan approaching from behind them, but she ignored her. All her energies were focused on John, his body beginning to shudder under her right hand.
"John?" Zhaan approached them from the left, coming around to look in John's eyes. Both women could now see the inner battle he was waging, fighting to stay upright. His mouth moved as he randomly mumbled along with the images that sparked in his brain only to disappear again as quickly as they came.
"John, tell us what's happening." Aeryn's fear made her voice sharp and demanding. She knew it but she didn't care. Besides, she figured John would respond to it. And she was right. He looked her straight in the eyes, surprised to find nothing but the two women and Moya's comforting brown walls around them.
"Uhm, I'm fine. Leftovers, I think. Been happenin'."
He nodded his head. "Scorpy leftovers. Freeze-dried and vacuum-packed for longer shelf life." Giggling a little at his own expense, he swayed again. Overwhelming exhaustion pressed in on him from out of nowhere, and he stumbled as his knees buckled before he could catch himself. He watched the walls move in curiously slow motion as he slid down a hand's-breadth. Two grips on his arms stopped the fall.
Zhaan and Aeryn had had enough. They moved him back inside the cell, the body of Gilina all but forgotten. John protested though, finding strength from what had kept him mostly sane on the Gammack Base--sheer red-blooded, corn-fed pigheadedness. He dug his heels in to stop their progress.
"I'm fine. Fine. I'm just tired," he insisted. From Aeryn's scowl to Zhaan's glare, though, he knew he wasn't fooling them. But he really, really didn't want to be poked and prodded any more. Session after session in that Chair, with the indignities Scorpius had subjected him to, had robbed him of his composure. He just wanted to escape prying eyes--even if they were trying to help--and retreat somewhere he could hide all his secrets and his fears and simply be left alone. Alone was what he wanted more than anything else he could possibly imagine. "I'm fine."
"Crichton, you're not fine."
"Yeah...yeah, I am. Fine." He tugged against her hold, but Aeryn held her ground, refusing to let go. Another stubborn tug, and she blew out a long-suffering breath. It was time to beat him at his own game.
"All right, then. If you're fine, walk out of here."
Letting go completely, she stepped away from him. Zhaan followed suit, understanding her intention perfectly. John stumbled slightly as they let go, but regained his footing. All he had to do, he knew, was to walk the short distance to the door. Prove that he was, in fact, okay, and they'd leave him alone. It was a simple thing--he could do it, couldn't he? For the prize of being able to stop having to be strong, instead be able to have a nice freak-out in private? He could do that, couldn't he?
It turned out he couldn't.
He made it two whole steps before his knees wouldn't stay straight any longer and he pitched forward in an ungraceful Greg Louganis. Zhaan and Aeryn were at his side before he hit the ground.
"Okay, uhm--" He gasped for air under sudden claustrophobia. Short coughs erupted with each inhalation, only to be bitten back as they escaped. "Maybe I can stay a while."
"Good choice." Aeryn hefted him off the floor and handed him to Zhaan. Then she hauled Gilina up off the bed and moved her to the far side of the room. Zhaan had him deposited on the bed by the time she was done, so Aeryn took up a position to his right side. Blocking his view of the body. "You're a stubborn bastard, Crichton."
Zhaan gathered up the discarded tools of her trade from near the bed while they traded insults, finding it hard to believe that she had been so negligent toward his health. "I'm so sorry, John. I've been remiss." Her first concern had been Gilina, of course. Not that she had been able to do anything. No, the Peacekeeper weaponry had accomplished exactly what it was designed to do.
But it was ironic that on a ship full of victims of imprisonment and persecution and torture, no one had questioned the apparent good health and well-being of the man at the center of the rescue. No one had been watching for the inevitable. The answers to why that might be were as unique as each of them was. But, in the end, it was because for this motley collection of tormented souls, there had been no one to give to or receive assistance and comfort from for far too long--if there ever had been at all. For far too long, they had all been far too alone. Riding into the jaws of hell for one another was one thing--but sharing could still be as alien a concept to them as they were to each other.
Zhaan could see their oversight now, though, as she ran trained hands and mind over him. The Chair had left calling cards from one end of John Crichton to the other. "Why didn't you say something?" As she extended herself ever-so-slightly into his spirit, she could sense the damage that was invisible to the outside world. Hormone levels fluctuated wildly from one end of his system to the other, hopelessly confused by the input they were receiving. Cells still struggled to recover from an unprecedented onslaught on his fragile human body. Her whole being fairly sizzled with electrical discharges bouncing up and down his body.
"Nah, s'okay," he responded. "I'm just tired."
Touching his head briefly, she extended herself farther into his mind, knowing this had been the prey of the amoral device Peacekeeper minds had dreamed up. He was distracted, but she was still careful not to probe too far. It was a familiar fine line that helped her gather the information she needed to heal them while never invading far enough that they became aware of her presence. But John's overwrought psyche was too sensitive, hyperaware and self-protective. At the first faint tendrils of her presence touching his, his whole being jerked away. It was too much--too many forced invasions of a mind not prepared for any of them. Too many secrets ripped from him. He'd had enough. He rolled over to make another break for it.
Aeryn grabbed his shoulders, pinning him down. Became an unmovable object to combat his unstoppable force. "Crichton, stop it. Just stop."
But he couldn't 'just stop'. He hadn't been able to 'just stop' for too long. 'Giving in' was to pull the trigger on Gilina personally. 'Just stopping' was a death sentence. And now he'd simply forgotten how.
"Crichton." Aeryn reached out and grabbed him by the chin, forcing him to look up at her. "John, listen to me." He concentrated on her voice, watched her face, still randomly barraged by images of his past. The crackling vortex of the wormhole sucking him in. Moonlight glinting off the shuttle. The soft skin of Alex's earlobe. His mother's beautiful face in the sunlight. The cockpit of a jet at take-off. His parents fighting in the kitchen. Beach sand squishing between bare toes. A night full of stars...
"Are you paying attention?" she demanded.
He nodded, blinking the images away.
She leaned down nose-to-nose with him, effectively removing Zhaan from their space. Her hot breath tickled his face. "John, you *survived*. You fought, you hung on long enough for us to come get you, you protected Gilina, and you kept your sanity. You won. But you're safe now. You're with us, and we're not going to hurt you. It's time to stop fighting. Can you do that? Can you stop fighting now?"
He considered it. She made it sound so easy. Maybe for Aeryn, he thought, it was easy. Maybe she could shift gears at the drop of a hat, but he couldn't figure out how to do it. The lives of his friends--people he cared about more than himself--had depended on his ability to fight everything and everyone to the death. Even in those moments he had been mercifully left alone, there was still the dread of what was to come next hanging over his head like an axe. He didn't know how to shut off the tap.
"John, you don't need to do anything," she finished, knowing exactly where his thoughts were drifting. "You just need to trust us. Do you? Trust us?"
Another nod. What she was asking from him was the one thing he could do without thinking. Trust them.
"Okay, then, just relax. Of course," she added, "if it'll help, you know I'd be happy to knock you out myself."
Just her tiny smirk broke the spell that had been dragging him down. He blew out a breath and glanced away, orienting himself against the familiar spaces of home. "Nah, you'd enjoy it too much." He straightened out on the bed, eyes drifting up to watch the ceiling.
Zhaan moved toward him again, now that Aeryn had done her job. "Where do you feel pain?"
"I need you to be as specific as possible, John."
He *was* being specific--everything hurt. Specifically. Every joint, every muscle, every hair follicle on his head. Muscles twitched and spasmed randomly. Some were just pins-and-needles; others froze his muscles hard as a rock and left him breathless. It was like he'd just finished a long marathon against pounding rain and driving wind. Nothing felt worse than anything else, though. It had all simply become a background hum of discomfort compared to what the Chair did to him.
"I don't know. It's all the same. My head, I guess."
His head, of course, was the cause of all this, so it was little surprise. Zhaan turned her attention to his mind again, extending herself carefully, tenderly, into it. The pain was still everywhere, carried on waves of images and sensations. As they paraded around her, she began to understand what Scorpius' device had been doing. What it had been digging for. How hard his untrained mind had fought, and what that had cost it.
The annoyed tone in Aeryn's voice drew Zhaan's attention back to the physical plane. John had once again squeezed his eyes tightly shut. His head thrashed as he fought the flashes. His first dog lying dead under a pickup truck. Swimming lessons. His mother crying at a launch. Zhaan's red eyes. College graduation. Frat parties. Puking in the bushes behind the house...
"John, focus." Aeryn tried to guess at what was going on behind closed eyes, but she kept getting distracted as he seemed to be choking on his own breaths. "What's going on, Zhaan? What's happening to him?" Rushing headlong into the Gammack Base with no intelligence and no back-up--those were things she had the skills to deal with, had been trained to do. Sneaking, impersonating, rescuing, shooting, fighting, escaping, fine. But this--a friend suffering the aftermath of something she could neither fight nor talk her way out of--this was something Peacekeeper life had worked very hard to keep her from having the chance to learn to handle.
Zhaan answered John instead. She took his head in both hands, forcing his attention back to her. "John, I want you to stop fighting them. Just ride it out, let it take its course."
"What kind of advice is that? How about something helpful?"
Zhaan ignored Aeryn a second time. As John's expression relaxed, she tried to explain it. "Your brain--especially the area devoted to memory--" she gently began massaging his pinched forehead with one thumb, "has been repeatedly subjected to intense over-stimulation, bordering on levels severely detrimental to your species. That has caused imbalances all over your body. However, knowing what this Scorpius was after, I think it would be accurate to assume the effect was not meant to damage you permanently."
'Intense over-stimulation'--it was such a nice euphemism for being deep-fried. But even the mention of it made John break into a sweat and his throat close up. He sucked in a draft of air and skittered away from the memory of knives being driven into his brain. "Nah, just a little slice and dice."
"Which means that it's very likely what you are experiencing are residual echoes of that stimulus. Random firings of your overworked and traumatized neurons."
"Aftershocks. Brain burps." Another eerie giggle.
She nodded. In anyone else, that sort of statement would have been cause for concern, but in John Crichton, it was a sign of normality. "Whatever you want to call it. However, there's no reason to think it isn't a temporary side effect."
"All right, so what do we do about it?"
Zhaan smiled at Aeryn's need to reduce the situation to something she could affect. "The body is very good at healing itself, if given the opportunity. I think the best way to start is to let you rest here and monitor your progress. If it continues, we can attempt more aggressive treatments then."
"Why is this happening now? I mean, he's been fine."
"He has appeared fine on the surface," she corrected, drawing on the patience she always had to draw on with Aeryn. "John, you've been under a tremendous amount of physical and emotional stress, and your body has sustained you with heightened levels of the hormones and endorphins you've needed to endure it. It's a very powerful stimulant effect, but you can't stay that way forever. And now that the danger has passed, you're coming down from that state. Your body is suffering the effects that it staved off with those increased levels."
"Adrenaline crash." John nodded. Anyone who had ever gone up strapped to the back of a rocket knew what it felt like. "See? Just tired."
"Not just tired--physically and mentally exhausted. There's a very significant difference. Scorpius' device not only wreaked havoc with your neural functions, but by extension your circulatory functions and your glandular functions, as well as other systems. You're having difficulty breathing, aren't you?"
Breathing? he thought. With his brain being siphoned out his nostrils, what was a little cough? "I guess so."
"That's because all the parts of your body suffer together. The stress on your brain has caused your heart to beat erratically, which in turn is impairing your respiratory system. It's all interdependent." She considered the small selection of vials she had used to try to treat Gilina. "So I want you to try to rest, and hopefully as your neurological systems find their balance again, these other symptoms will disappear."
But John was gone again, sucked under the tide of memories. Dark images of his mother in the hospital. Smashing into a tree on his motorcycle. D'Argo slamming him into a wall. Challenger exploding in a bright, blue sky. Headlights crossing the yellow line. Beating the crap out of Billy Carmichael in ninth grade. Scorpius standing over him. "C'mon, Blue. Can't you make 'em stop?"
"I'm sorry, John. I'd really rather we wait. Your brain has had quite enough intruders already. Here, swallow this."
He pulled back and made a face at the clear dropper hovering over his mouth. "Why? What is that?"
"Oh, for the love of--" Aeryn broke in, beginning to get frustrated with the lapses. This was not the John Crichton she had come--rather unexpectedly--to rely on. "Just hold still, John. Zhaan's not going to hurt you."
He looked up at Aeryn, scowling above him. Her censure grounded him. It was what they counted on each other for, whether they liked it or not. "Right, right. No freaking out--right, got it." He opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue. "Ahhh."
Zhaan slid a few drops down his tongue to run into his throat. "It's just something to help you relax. I want you to try to sleep for a while."
"Yeah, yeah, I'm feelin' relaxed already."
"Shh, just give it time. You appear to have acquired a slight respiratory infection, as well. Probably as a result of the Peacekeeper 'accommodations.' I'm going to get you a blanket and prepare something to combat it. Aeryn, will you stay with him until I return?"
She nodded once, efficiently.
"Hey, don' need a baby-sitter."
Aeryn pushed one shoulder down until he stopped fighting it. "That's not how it appeared a few microts ago. Just lie still, Crichton."
Much to his annoyance and the wounding of his male pride, it took a very short time before John's intermittent hitching snores were the only sound in the room. Aeryn leaned away and stretched her back, relishing the sound of her spine popping. She wiggled the fingers of her right hand experimentally, disappointed to find it had taken to shaking again. The move shot spikes from her fingertips to her shoulder blade. But it wasn't as bad as it had been earlier, and she was sure she could ignore it for a good while longer. Ignoring pain was one thing Officer Aeryn Sun had been very well-trained at. On many levels.
Standing up, she took a moment to steal a glance at John sleeping fitfully. Now, with no one to see, she had to admit that she wanted nothing more than to just stop, as well. As John would have said, she was running on fumes. Or, more accurately, on willpower. While she hadn't spent the last two days in a Peacekeeper torture device, she hadn't exactly been on a Caribbean vacation, either. Few things are more exhausting than facing death unable to do anything but spend your last hours listening to your own body breaking down--and think about all the things you've done and haven't done. It hadn't been a pleasant trip down memory lane for an ex-Peacekeeper cum current fugitive.
And then there had been the fear. Not for herself, not even about dying. About John. That was the part of the last two days that had really scared her. That he had been willing to go on a suicide mission to save her. That he'd been captured and tortured because of her. That she might fail to find him before the Peacekeepers could finish their dirty work. That all she would find left of him would be an empty husk, ripped apart with no regard for the man he had been.
It was a dangerous new vulnerability she had discovered. A liability she had allowed to form. Even now, after it was done, she was still frightened by the intensity of relief she felt. Relief at having everyone--at having him--safely back on board Moya. It was palpable, coccooning heavily around her, dragging her down with it...
She turned at Zhaan's voice, straightening involuntarily, instinctively--a lifetime of training whispering in her ear. Lapses were still unacceptable. "That was fast."
"Yes. I see John succumbed rather quickly," Zhaan said with shameless amusement. She tucked the blanket around him, not rousing him at all.
"I don't think he needed any help."
She looked up, pinning Aeryn with her eyes. "What about you?"
"You should take your own advice." She stepped forward to take Aeryn's shaking right hand in her own. Holding it out between the two of them, the weakness was obvious to both. Aeryn used her left hand to pull it back in.
"You're not. Why don't you rest for a while yourself? I can take care of Crichton alone."
"No, I'm fine. I'll rest later."
"*Later*. We may have made it off the Gammack Base, but we are far from out of danger. Crais has a full command carrier searching for us, and I have no doubt that we made a particularly nasty enemy today who still wants to fry Crichton's brain and capture all of us--including Moya's baby we are now responsible for. We have no way to leave this asteroid field undetected and no weapons to fight back with. When we're safe, then I'll worry about resting. When I have the luxury, not before."
"It's ironic what wisdom you share others that you are unwilling to accept yourself."
The two women watched each other, each daring the other to push it further. Finally, it was Aeryn that ended it. Retreat being a viable option when fighting a losing battle. "If that's all, I've got a body to attend to."
"Of course." Zhaan smiled her eternal smile. "And I have a patient to attend to, as well."
So Aeryn left the living to deal with the dead.
She had taken it upon herself to decide what arrangements to make for Gilina. The woman had saved her life, and her friend's, so it was the least Aeryn could do. But she hadn't been sure what to do for her. As a Tech, Gilina Renaez would not have rated burial in space. That was reserved for those higher up than a simple Tech. Even Aeryn herself--had she stayed--would only have been granted such an honorable burial if she had died heroically in battle. Otherwise, it was a simple cremation.
Gilina, like Aeryn, had held Peacekeeper ideals and values about this her entire life. But she had also broken with that more than once, to do the right thing and to save lives the Peacekeepers had considered null and void. And that made the choice for Aeryn. She would bury Gilina in space. Peacekeeper rules could no longer bind either of them.
So, while John had sat alone with Gilina's body, Aeryn had scoured the cargo bay alone. She had finally found a length of red fabric and a storage container that would suffice as a coffin. And now, while Zhaan performed the rites of her beliefs over Gilina, Aeryn performed her own. She wrapped Gilina carefully in the fabric. Blood red was a color of honor among Peacekeepers. Shedding one's blood in the line of duty was the most honorable thing a Peacekeeper could do. And, if nothing else, Gilina had displayed honor beyond her status.
As she wrapped the body, she couldn't escape the irony of burying someone she very easily could have been. It would have taken only the slightest of changes for everything to have ended up so different. If her Prowler had been just the tiniest bit farther away from Moya, she wouldn't have been pulled into Starburst with them. If she hadn't spoken up for Crichton in front of Crais, she would never have been punished. If she had only managed to fade into the background sufficiently, to play it quiet--as Gilina had--she would have been able to go back to her life.
She certainly would never have spent the last cycle bartering whatever miserable scraps she could scrounge in exchange for parts to keep her ship operational. Never have had to run like a coward from any tiny sign of danger because they had nothing to defend themselves with but the ability to run away. Never had to bounce from system to system with even odds on whether they would run out of supplies and starve to death first or if the Peacekeepers would capture them and torture them all to death first. Never been injected with alien DNA and mutated until death had been preferable.
Instead, she would have spent the last cycle flying her beloved Prowler, perhaps blissfully unaware there might be anything more for her. Or perhaps--like Gilina--spent it haunted by the memory of a single, tiny glimpse of the unattainable.
Which would have been worse, she wondered? Never to have known there was more? Or to have traded that ignorance for the pathetic, marginal existence she now had? Or to have been given a hint and had it taken away? Perhaps Gilina might have been able to answer the question for her, but she'd never know now.
John's scream broke her concentration.
It wasn't a scream of a man being startled, or even one of fright. It was a scream of rage and pain. It was the kind of inhuman sound ripped from a person as he was ambushed by a perfectly vivid, crystal-clear memory of his mother wheezing as she lay dying. He jerked himself awake and rolled off the bed to land clumsily on his feet, the blanket floating crumpled to the floor. Aware he was retreating from something he couldn't escape, he stumbled backwards a few steps before he could stop himself.
The torrent of images washing across his mind followed him. Howie Lewis' fist smashing into his nose. Fumbling with MaryAnn Croghan's bra under the bleachers. Maldis' sneering face. Gilina kissing his eyebrow. D'Argo's blood flowing thick between his fingers.
Aeryn pushed up off the floor and strode across the room as John backed away from the bed toward the far wall. "Crichton, what's going on?"
"I'm...I'm fine. Just-- I'm fine. Just gonna stand over--" he looked around, surprised to find himself near the back wall, and the center of attention to boot, "over here...for a while." He tried to regroup, unaware he was listing like a drunken sailor. "I'm fine," he repeated.
Not that he was. Far from it, in fact. Because Scorpius' soulless device hadn't simply replayed the high points of John Crichton's life and times--it had systematically probed for all the dark, monstrous things buried in his brain. Things that still woke him in the middle of the night in a sweat, even stuffed down deep inside for a lifetime. The kinds of horrific secrets every man carries, but that no man should ever have dredged out of his psyche and repeated time and time again in Surround Sound and Living Technicolor.
His head throbbed, pounding in time with every beat of his heart. Zhaan approached him, hand reached out instinctively. He didn't even have to open his eyes to feel her come towards him. He pulled away before she could touch him, backing up another wobbly step. Everyone just needed to leave him the *hell* alone.
"John," Aeryn shoved her way in front of Zhaan and tried to take control of the situation, "sit down before you fall down." She tugged him by the arms down to sit on the floor, maneuvering herself around directly behind him, preventing any further retreat. She held him firmly in place by the shoulders. His muscles were coiled whipcord tight under her hands, ready to run, and still trembling involuntarily.
"Fine. I'm sitting. I'm fine. A hundred percent A-OK." He flashed Zhaan--still standing over him with a bottle of something he couldn't hope to identify--a brittle, gallows smile that he desperately hoped had 'I'm perfectly okay' written all over it. It didn't. "Just leave me alone for a microt, okay?" He shoved frustratedly backwards at Aeryn as another surge of images crowded into his mind. But she didn't move. Stuck where he was, he scrubbed one hand vigorously over his face.
"Tell me what's going on, John," Aeryn demanded from behind him.
"I'm fine." It was his mantra. As though if he repeated it enough times, it would become true. He really was trying to reclaim control--he *was*. He knew he was safe for the moment. He knew they were still in danger from the Peacekeepers, and that they needed him. He just couldn't shake the images--and the fear that crawled up his neck fresh and laundered each time. The knowledge that his mind had been one zap away from becoming the main course for one maniacal madman. Crichton's Brain a la Scorpius--sliced, diced, fried, and served with a nice Chianti. And that he hadn't been able to stop them from chewing him up and spitting him out. "I just needed to...to move, you know?"
Needed to move. "I know." Aeryn's thoughts went back to Crais in the Chair. Strapped down and pinned in, unable even to turn away from what was happening to him. It had exhilarated some primal, angry part of her to see him so humiliated. But she was sucker-punched now by the stark reminder that John had been in that same position so many times.
Now that Aeryn had immobilized her wandering patient, Zhaan was able to reach out and lay her long, graceful fingers across his forehead, feeling the sweaty chill underneath it. "Are you cold?"
"I guess. Like I'd notice." The only warmth he had scrounged in two days had been the few moments when Stark had shared his gift. Unfortunately, John been lulled to sleep before he had time to savor it.
Zhaan cupped her hand gently around the side of his face, and he leaned into it. She lingered for just a moment, relieved to see him in control again. "I'm going to get you some warm liquids."
"Y'know," he dragged one hand across his eyes again, "maybe we should check the warranty on me. 'Cuz you might be able to get a refund."
Zhaan smiled, not sure what he meant, but glad for the attempt at humor. Humor, she knew, was one of his greatest defenses. And, while it frustrated her on occasion, she would not want to deny a man the weapons he needed to survive. Lest she be robbed of the weapons she herself needed to survive.
As she left, John looked over his shoulder at Aeryn. "I'm all right." He tried to relax as the next flood of memories came, concentrating on Zhaan's instructions. "I'm okay," he repeated when it passed, more to himself than her. He *needed* to be okay, to prove that Aeryn was right--that he had won. Because he couldn't shake the nagging suspicion that he really had lost. That he could hear Scorpius laughing at him from somewhere deep inside.
"No one is saying that you're not."
Come to think of it, he realized, they weren't. No wisecracks about the deficiency of humans. No remarks about how John was cracking up after only a couple of days of what others on this ship had suffered for years or decades. No one questioning his sanity except himself.
No, they weren't suggesting he wasn't okay, at all. The confirmation pulled an invisible, unidentifiable burden off his shoulders. The burden created by enduring alone. He leaned his head back into the soft spot below her shoulder. If he concentrated, he could almost drown out the sound of his own blood rushing through his veins with the faint thump of her heartbeat right on the base of his skull. "God. I was this close to losing it completely."
"But you didn't."
"But I would have. He's a total psycho, man. Nuts. And I was getting there. Another day or two--if I was even still alive--and I would have been totally gone. He was winning, Aeryn."
"But he *didn't*."
Not entirely comforting, considering John knew it was only due to lack of opportunity to finish what he started. "Thanks to you guys." He rolled his head sideways just far enough to see the upward curve of her neck. Fine black hairs wound lazily around it, escapees from her ponytail. He wished he could find the strength to curl them between his fingers. "Have I told you that you rocked today?"
One corner of her mouth drew up in a small, amused grin. Fairly confident he wasn't going to bolt again, she relaxed her grip on his shoulders and crossed her arms in front of his chest instead. Her left hand shuddered involuntarily, and she stilled it quickly with the other one. The rhythm of John's heart beat against her left biceps, distracting her. It had been so long since she had known any man she wanted to be this close to. A lot of years, a lot of mileage. "I suppose that's some kind of human compliment."
"Oh, yeah." He laughed a quick, slightly hysterical laugh, but it turned into a cough. "Huge, huge compliment."
"Does your species have any words at all that actually make sense?"
Oh, it made sense to John. He thought of all the incredible things he'd seen. The things that had really rocked. The shuttle rattling from its own power, Farscape 1 riding the atmosphere, the first time he'd seen Moya, his friends. Aliens, and their worlds. Wormholes, novas, pulsars, wonders of the universe. Lots of amazing things he'd seen, but none of them had compared to one thing.
"When I was a kid," he said, amused by Aeryn's long-suffering sigh as he began, "my dad went to the moon. Me and my sisters watched from Mission Control. When he climbed out onto the surface, I thought--man, my dad is on another planet. A whole other planet, you understand? Everyone else's fathers were going into offices and playing golf, but my dad--*my* dad--was walking on the goddamn moon. He was one of the great explorers, men who were heroes because they just couldn't be anything else. I never forgot how proud I was to be Colonel Jack Crichton's boy that day. He *rocked*. It was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my entire life. Until today."
He eased farther back against her--but cautiously, not wanting to spook her. Riding out the chaos going on in his brain, he held onto the single, beautiful image of the only thing that really rivaled that childhood memory: Aeryn come for him, guns blazing, descended into the abyss to reclaim him from his nightmare.
"You *rocked* today, Aeryn Sun."
She didn't know what to do with that. John's devotion to his father was all but legendary among his friends. Comparing her in any small way to that man was...both confusing and burdening. The idea of herself being anything to anyone remained too foreign to Aeryn. And too painful. Almost a cycle into her new life, and she still didn't have the tools to deal with the concept. And she was much too tired to try tonight. "And you're feverish. You should shut up before you say something you'll regret."
"Or before I say something you'll regret."
She rested her head on the bulkhead behind her and closed her eyes, relaxed by the heavy warmth of John's body tucked in tightly against hers. He was right, and they both knew it. Too many things had already been said that she regretted even now--not because they were untrue or undesirable, but because she could never undo them.
Each new experience, each emotion felt, each look, each tantalizing, dangerous longing--every one of them propelled her farther away from the solid, familiar shores behind her and forward into...what? She had no idea where she was going, nor who she was going to be when she got there. The only thing she did know for sure was that--for better or worse--she could not go back. Ever. Back to who and what she had been before Moya, before Zhaan and D'Argo and Chiana and Pilot, maybe even Rygel.
Definitely before John Crichton. Before he looked into the eyes of a
stranger and convinced her that she could be more.
Before she believed him.
"Go to sleep, Crichton."
But he was already.
So she did, too.
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.
Up-Hill, Christina Rossetti (1861)