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*********Page One of Two**********

 

 

Chiana loved a commerce planet. The savory smells of food cooking, the

bustling crowds exchanging goods and services, the voices of vendors

extolling the virtues of their wares--she loved it all. She was particularly

attracted to the booths filled with clothing and jewelry, and she was pawing

through a tray of bright trinkets with total delight. Rygel had been unusually

successful in his latest negotiations, and Moya's crew had more than

enough for food and necessary supplies, with a little left over for personal

items.

Chiana was holding a bracelet in each hand. Should she take the carved

metallic chain or the band set with dark stones? And then there were

necklaces and ear-clips and--she sighed in frustration. It might be a long

time before they found another commerce planet without Peacekeeper

presence or had the resources to spend on nonessentials. And she wanted

everything.

Her deliberations were interrupted by a male voice behind her. "Make a

decision, Pip. The food's been loaded on the transport pod, and we--"

John Crichton's voice broke off in mid-sentence. Chiana wheeled around

to find him staring fixedly at something on a shelf above her. For just a

microt, a look of pure joy crossed John's face, to be replaced in turn by

confusion, then resignation.

"What is it, John?"

"Nothing." He shook his head as if to clear it. "I thought I saw--, never

mind. Just pick one of the bracelets; hell," he said, dumping his unused

credits on the counter, "buy them both. But come on before Aeryn gets

impatient and tells D'Argo to leave without you." He looked at the shelf

again, then turned and stalked off through the crowd.

Puzzled, Chiana watched him go, then faced the booth again, searching

for the object that had caught John's attention. It was just a small

statuette, an elderly man in a garish costume. She'd seen hundreds like it,

many better done and painted in more subtle colors. A depiction of

someone's ancestor or a religious icon, perhaps. But it had meant something

to John, something that made him smile.

She dropped the bracelets back into the tray and gestured to the vendor.

"I'll take that," she pointed.

* * * * *

"Where's Crichton?" D'Argo demanded, stalking into Command on Moya.

Aeryn looked up from the schematics she had been studying. "Don't

know," she answered. "He was going to show me how to read these, but I

haven't seen him since we returned from the commerce planet yesterday."

"He heard a noise in the transport pod's navigation system. He was

supposed to help me fix it," D'Argo growled. "But he just unloaded the pod

and disappeared."

"Well, I haven't seen him. And he didn't answer his comms a while ago."

Aeryn stared at him suspiciously. "You didn't scare him into hiding with

another one of your Luxan hyper-rages, did you?"

"I haven't had one of those in over a cycle," D'Argo protested, "and John

doesn't hide anymore, he fights back."

"Perhaps he is tired of fighting," Zhaan said, entering the chamber to hear

the last part of the discussion. "He seemed a bit distracted while we were

putting the supplies away. Not himself. Quiet."

"Quiet? Crichton?" Aeryn scoffed. "He's never been quiet in his life. He

babbles constantly. Questions about the Peacekeepers, about Moya, how

things work, stories about Earth--"

Chiana swung her feet off the table and turned in her chair to face the

group. "Yeah, but does he ever really talk to any of us?"

Zhaan frowned. "What do you mean, Chiana?"

"What's the first thing John always says?"

"He says 'trust me," D'Argo answered, "just before the dren hits the

atmospheric scrubbers."

"No," Chiana corrected. "He says 'talk to me.' Everytime we have a

problem or things have gone all to hezmana, he tells us to talk to him. And he

keeps after us until we do. And it always makes us feel better. I was just

wondering, who does he talk to? I mean, he went through all that stuff with

Scorpy and the Aurora Chair, then Gilina, and floating in space hanging onto

what could have been D'Argo's corpse, not knowing if he'd be rescued or

what had happened to the rest of us. All the other dren since he came

aboard Moya. Has he ever talked to anyone about any of it?"

Zhaan reflected on Chiana's words. "His soul has become darker since

he joined us. He is much quicker to reach for a weapon now. And he killed

T'raltixx without even thinking about it."

"He's becoming a warrior," D'Argo nodded. "That's a good thing. You

don't reason with an enemy, you kill him."

"You sound like a Peacekeeper," Aeryn observed. "That's not Crichton.

He believes violence should be the last resort. He may reach for a weapon,

but he doesn't fire it unless it's the only way out. Where are you going with

this, Chiana?"

"He ever mention anything about some guy in a red suit?"

Aeryn frowned. "I don't think so."

"Nope."

"Why, Chiana?" Zhaan asked.

Chiana placed the small figure on the table. "He smiled when he saw it,

like he recognized this guy. Then he went all serious and left. I tried to ask

him about it in the pod, but he brushed me off. 'Later, Chi.' That's not like

him. After that time with Nerri, John always drops whatever he's doing to

talk to me."

"I've noticed," D'Argo said wryly. "So Crichton's acting strangely. He

won't talk, he isn't answering his comms, and he isn't anywhere we'd expect

to see him. What do we do about it?"

"Ignore him," Aeryn answered. "He'll come back when he gets hungry."

* * * * *

John Crichton was sulking. It hadn't started out as a sulk. He'd just

needed some time to himself after returning from the commerce planet. Time

to think. The others would be displaying their new acquisitions: Chiana

modeling her new jewelry, Zhaan reveling in new herbs and medicines,

Aeryn checking out the new weapons, Rygel gloating over cheating some

trader. He had gotten some new t-shirts. How exciting was that? But

things he found unique and exotic the others scoffed at as being

commonplace. And he simply wasn't good at bargaining because he had no

idea what anything was worth. The one object that he would have dearly

loved to have-- Well, he just didn't want to know what it really was and

listen to his shipmates laugh at his ignorance. So, feeling alien and distant

and more than a little homesick, he had wandered up to one of Moya's higher

tiers where he would be unlikely to be disturbed until he sorted out his

emotions.

But a little self-pity had grown into a lot of self-pity as he reflected on all

the things he had lost. Yes, being aboard Moya was an opportunity of a

lifetime, an adventure his heroic, moon-walking father would have given his

soul for, but his initial sense of awe and wonder at a universe Dad couldn't

have imagined had been overwhelmed by his daily struggle to survive. And

he didn't like what that struggle had cost him. He glanced down at the gun

strapped to his thigh. No, he didn't care for the person he was becoming.

And the small reminder of "Peace on Earth, goodwill to men" hadn't helped

his state of mind.

John slid down the wall to sit on the floor of the passageway, hugging his

knees to his chest. He had to shake this mood before he could return to the

others. But he felt so alone and lost. And so very far from home.

 

* * * * *

 

"Two days!" fumed Aeryn, striding across Command. "Crichton's been

gone two days! He's here on Moya somewhere because his module and all

the transport pods are here. It's frelling annoying."

"Don't tell me you miss him?" Zhaan's eyes twinkled with amusement.

Aeryn stopped her pacing and turned on the Delvian. "Of course not.

Why would I ever miss that treacherous sack of dren?" She slammed her

hand down on the strategy table where the incomprehensible schematics

still thwarted her. "But he has his duties, things only he can do. He should

be here to do them."

Zhaan nodded. "Things like make you smile? You haven't, you know.

Not once in the past two days. You have been stalking around here like a

caged animal, snapping at everyone, barking orders."

"I do not miss Crichton! I'm just busy, trying to do his work as well as my

own." Angrily, Aeryn swept the schematics to the floor. "I'm a soldier, not a

tech, but things are always breaking down and the DRDs can't fix most of

them. And I can't begin to understand some of these drawings. Crichton

can. He works at it until he does."

Zhaan shrugged and returned to cataloguing her new plants.. "Perhaps.

But I miss him. And Chiana is totally lost without him."

"She has D'Argo. A relationship I'll never understand."

"Chiana and D'Argo have become close," Zhaan agreed. "But D'Argo is

no substitute for John. She trusts John completely, something Chiana has

never done before. Without him, she has lost her anchor. And she blames

herself."

Aeryn stared at Zhaan. "Chiana had nothing to do with John's leaving."

"How do you know?"

Aeryn dropped her eyes. "Because I--" She faltered. Then her head

snapped up, eyes blazing. "I don't know why he left. Ask him. If you can

find him." She bent to collect the scattered diagrams.

"Best idea you've had in days, Aeryn." Rygel swooped in on his throne

sled, followed closely by D'Argo and Chiana. "But I had it first." He set

something on the table before them. "IF you want to know what's wrong

with Crichton, go to the source."

Chiana snatched at the object. "Put it back, Froggy. That's John's!"

"We were outside Crichton's quarters," D'Argo explained. "Chiana was

hoping he might have come back. We saw that thieving Hynerian sneak in

through the access shaft."

"That's his voice recorder," Aeryn said, taking the small device from

Chiana. "He records messages for his father. But he ran out of tape half a

cycle ago. Retrograde technology."

Rygel smiled. "He recorded this two days ago."

"Rygel!" Zhaan said tartly. "How many times have you been told to stay

out of our quarters? To leave our personal possessions alone? John will not

like your snooping."

Aeryn was examining the recorder. "It had to be important if Crichton

recorded over something."

"It is personal," Zhaan insisted. "John values his privacy."

Aeryn was thoughtful. "You remember what Chiana said yesterday?

About who Crichton talks to? Here's your answer; he talks to his father."

"Do you want to know what's happened to him? It's on the tape. Listen."

Rygel pressed the PLAY button.

* * * * *

It had been two days and John was beginning to feel a bit guilty. They

needed him. Hell, without his scientific expertise and his mechanical ability,

they wouldn't have survived the first arn. Not that any of them would ever

admit it. Oh, no. They were all so independent and self-reliant, so sure that

they were so much smarter and tougher than he was--

Anger occluded his guilt. Well, they were missing him now. Maybe they

would appreciate just how much he did for them. Of course, Aeryn had

tried to comm him only once; the others not at all. And he had avoided the

DRDs so Pilot couldn't use them to track him. But that didn't mean he wasn't

missed. They were deluding themselves into thinking they could survive

without his skills. Well, he'd show them!

Show them what? Why was he doing this? Because he'd seen

something that reminded him of home? Because he'd suddenly realized just

how far from home he was, among aliens who didn't, wouldn't, couldn't

understand? Yes, they'd lost everything, too. And part of that had been his

fault. Without Captain Crais' vendetta, the others would have escaped

safely into the Uncharted Territories and could have been on their way to

their various homeworlds by now. If Aeryn hadn't tried to stand up for him

against Crais, she could have gone home to the Peacekeepers a hero. But

she had, and she couldn't, and because of him, none of them would be home

for whatever their local equivalent of Christmas was.

No, no one, especially hot-shot rocket-jockey John Crichton, would be

home for Christmas.

* * * * *

"Dad," Crichton's voice filled Command from the pocket recorder on the

strategy table. "I saw Santa Claus on the commerce planet today. Well," he

laughed self-consciously, "it could have been a Santa Claus. Or any guy

with a long white beard in a red suit. I've been out here so long, I've lost

track of time. It could be Christmas and I wouldn't even know it. Or

Halloween or the 4th of July. We usually have enough fireworks for it." He

gave a long, sad sigh. "But I started thinking about snow and chestnuts

roasting on an open fire and trees with angels on the top. Putting up

Grandma's manger scene and listening to you read about shepherds

watching their flocks by night. Hanging my stocking and finding it filled with

oranges, nuts, and candy canes. Falling asleep waiting to hear the reindeer

on the roof and waking up to the smell of turkey cooking and pumpkin pies.

Unwrapping the presents and finding the prettiest one with the biggest bow

contained underwear or a sweater." He laughed again, remembering. "And

fruitcake that nobody ate. I'd eat it now, Dad. I'd eat anything that tasted

like home."

The voice stopped for a moment, then John cleared his throat. "I've got to

stop this, Dad. I'm just making myself crazy. I've got a new life here and a

strange sort of family. We'd probably have a Charlie Brown Christmas

where everything went wrong. So, as the song says, 'I'll be home for

Christmas, if only in my dreams'."

There was another stretch of silence, then John chuckled softly. "But

you know, Dad? I'd give anything to teach Aeryn about mistletoe."

* * * * *

As the tape hissed to an end, Chiana whispered, "Whoa. He called us

family."

"So he's homesick," D'Argo said gruffly. "We all are. What can we do

about it?"

"Nothing," Aeryn stated flatly. "If he wants to hide and nurse his ill-

temper, let him. He'll come back when he's ready."

Zhaan agreed sadly. "We have all missed events and celebrations that

are important to us. But we are all stuck out here in the Uncharted

Territories, far from our homeworlds and others of our own kind. We are

unable to observe local rituals and customs."

"Nothing?" Chiana shouted in frustration. "That's it? We do nothing?

After all he's done for us, we just say 'tough luck, John; get over it'?"

D'Argo looked disgusted. "Chiana--"

"No, D'Argo," The Nebari turned on him. "If it hadn't been for you and

Zhaan dragging him aboard Moya, he'd have turned that module thing

around and flown right back through the wormhole. You thought he could

help you escape. Which he did, as it turned out."

Aeryn scoffed. "If he hadn't been pulled onto Moya, the Peacekeepers

would have blasted him to bits. He wouldn't have lasted two microts against

a Command Carrier. Especially after Crais identified him as the one who

killed his brother."

Chiana wheeled on Aeryn, falling into fighting stance. "He's saved your

Peacekeeper ass more than once. Aren't you grateful?"

"And I've saved his. And yours, you little trelk. Don't lecture me about

gratitude!"

Chiana swung. Aeryn ducked, simultaneously landing a blow of her own.

D'Argo grabbed for the Nebari. Chiana was a feisty street fighter, but no

match for a trained Peacekeeper. Zhaan stepped between the combatants

and placed a hand on Aeryn's shoulder which she angrily shook off.

Tempers which had been held barely in check during John's absence

threatened to explode.

"Frel you!"

"Frel you all!!"

Rygel laughed.

"You find this amusing?" D'Argo snarled, straining to hold the struggling

Chiana. "It's your thieving and meddling that caused all this. We'd have all

been happier without hearing that pathetic tape. Ow!" Chiana's elbow had

caught him in a tender place.

"It's my meddling which has provided a solution," Rygel smiled. "It's

simple. Crichton wants Christmas, we'll give it to him."

"What?!?" The conflict temporarily put aside, Moya's crew turned to stare

at the Hynerian. They stopped to consider what he'd said.

"Froggy's right," Chiana admitted finally. As the others looked to her in

various attitudes of disbelief, she continued, "It can't be that hard to give him

what he wants. John listed everything he wanted on the tape. We just

have to figure out what all that stuff is and get it for him."

"What? Just like that?" Aeryn mocked. "Snow and reindeer and angels

and pumpkin pie? Do you know what any of that dren is?"

D'Argo shook his head. "Those are all things from his homeworld, from

Earth. There's nothing like them out here in the Uncharted Territories."

"Maybe there is," Zhaan mused. "My microbes could not translate all of

that because there are no approximations in the Delvian language. But I did

understand some of it. Nuts, for example, and fruit, like pumpkins and

oranges. The species may be different from what he's used to, but there

have to be some similarities." She smiled as she saw the others begin to

make other connections. "We are all from different worlds and cultures. And

John has talked about his homeworld--"

"Endlessly," D'Argo agreed.

"So what you're saying," Aeryn interposed, "is that each of us can

probably understand a part of Crichton's list. If we put all the parts

together--"

"We can do it," Chiana exclaimed, eyes glowing. "We can make Christmas

for John!"

* * * * *

John Crichton was unhappy. He had gotten over his sulk--it had been

three days, after all--and he was ready to rejoin Moya's crew. The problem

was, he didn't know how. If he simply sauntered into Command, he'd be

barraged with questions and recriminations. Worse, he'd probably be totally

ignored. The others were apparently getting along just fine without him.

There had been no further attempts to comm him. He'd tried having a long

conversation with a DRD, hoping Pilot might respond or tell the others where

to find him. But nothing had happened so far. In fact, they had taken away

the one excuse he might have used for returning. For the past several arns,

he'd been finding little stashes of food cubes and water all over the upper

tiers. And fresh clothing. He even found himself hoping for an attack so

he'd have a reason to reappear.

He sighed. He'd dug himself a hole and had no idea how to climb out.

* * * * *

Holiday preparations were proceeding in the Center Chamber. Chiana

had thrown herself into the project wholeheartedly, Zhaan with increasing

enthusiasm as she discovered the many uses for vegetable matter, and even

D'Argo and Rygel were catching the Christmas spirit. Only Aeryn seemed to

remain aloof from the activities.

Chiana hummed happily as she assembled layers of food cubes and

mashed fruits. "I'm glad we got so much food on the commerce planet. I

have almost everything I need for our Christmas dinner." She playfully

slapped at Rygel's hand as he snuck a taste. "Keep your fingers out of my

pie."

Aeryn looked up from the weapon she had removed from the Prowler and

was in the process of disassembling. "Don't use all our supplies; it may be a

long time before we can replenish them."

"What do you think of this?" Rygel asked, displaying a small green figure.

"Looks like you," Chiana observed.

"It does, doesn't it?" Rygel sounded pleased. "It's an angel. Zhaan said

they were spiritual beings. As the spiritual leader of the Hynerian Empire, I

felt an angel should somewhat resemble me."

Aeryn sniffed in derision and reached for another probe from the

selection spread on the table before her. "Crichton's from Earth. He never

saw a Hynerian before he met you."

"His loss." He studied the angel critically. "Besides, if angels don't have

throne sleds, how do they get to the top of trees?"

Chiana cocked her head to one side, thinking. "Maybe they climb. Or fly.

Like birds."

Rygel looked at her witheringly. "Don't be ridiculous. You are confusing

angels with that turkey thing. What the yotz is that?"

"It's a bird. It had feathers before I pulled them off. But, listen, Frogface,"

Chiana bent to meet him at eye level. "Just make that angel taller and less

green."

Rygel ignored her and began attaching his angel to an assembly of

branching wires.

"What's all that?" Chiana demanded.

"You couldn't fit an entire tree on Moya. So I built a representational tree.

It's symbolic."

"Of what?"

"Treeness." Rygel moved back to admire his handiwork. "It needs

something."

"Yeah, wings."

"I meant the tree. Maybe I could hang some jewels on it. Not the most

expensive ones," he hastened to clarify. "And, of course, I shall want them

back."

Zhaan entered the center chamber with an armload of fruit and seed

pods from her apothecary. She dumped them on the counter next to Chiana

and peered curiously at the Nebari's work in progress. "Are you sure about

this, Chiana?"

"Most of it. Remember right before we blew up the gammack base? While

we were waiting for the whatever to distill?"

Everyone nodded uneasily. It was a time none of them liked to think

about. They had survived, but barely, and the emotional scars were deep.

Chiana continued, "I wanted to fix everyone's favorite dishes. Most I

already knew, but I had a long talk with John about Earth food."

"He likes beer," Aeryn said, "and chocolate. Frel," she swore as her tool

slipped and a tiny screw escaped.

"Yeah, chocolate," Chiana said. "I'd like to try that. Sounds--" She

wriggled seductively.

Aeryn grunted and shot Chiana a look of pure disgust. But, as she

returned her attention to her work, Zhaan noticed that the Sebacean

seemed to half-smile as if remembering something.

"Anyway," Chiana said, "he told me about pies and cakes." She frowned.

"I wish I knew why no one eats fruitcake. It sounds good. Why make a

cake no one eats?"

"Who knows why people from Earth do anything?" D'Argo growled as he

came in, carrying the feed box he had spent a satisfying two arns building.

He put it down next to Rygel's tree and glared at Aeryn. "Why are you doing

that in here? That mess should be in the maintenance bay. I needed some

of those tools."

"I'm keeping Chiana from using all our food supplies for this load of dren

everyone's so excited about. I don't intend to starve until we can stumble

across another commerce planet."

"What'cha got, D'Argo?" Chiana skirted around Aeryn and scampered

over to the Luxan.

"It's a manger. I once wanted to be a farmer, remember? A manger is a

trough for feeding animals."

"Seems an odd thing for John to have," Zhaan said.

"It was his grandmother's," Rygel reminded them. "Maybe the old lady

was a bit, you know--"

"Runs in the family," Aeryn put in. "Anyway, Crichton said he loved

horses. Maybe he invited them to dinner."

"Perhaps it is for the reindeer," D'Argo said. "I believe a deer is an animal."

"Rain is water that falls from the sky. It's quite nice, actually."

Chiana laughed. "Everyone knows what rain is, Aeryn."

Zhaan made a conciliatory gesture. "Not if one grew up on a military

transport. Aeryn has not had the opportunity to see as many planets as you

have, Chiana."

She shrugged. "So why does a deer care about the weather? Most

animals stay out in the rain, don't they?"

Rygel thought about it. "Maybe they're aquatic, Chiana, like Hynerians."

"Then what's it doing on the rooF? So it can get closer to the rain?"

"Possibly they have wings. Like angels." Rygel had been working on his

creation. As per instructions, it was larger and pinker. And it now sported

wings resembling those on the Prowler.

Zhaan sighed. "Rygel, if you will not take this project seriously--"

"It's for Crichton," Rygel reminded her. "When has he ever taken anything

seriously?"

D'Argo was examining the contents of a storage cabinet. "There's a box

of food cubes missing. Are you hoarding food again, Rygel?"

"With all of the supplies we just acquired, due, in large part, to my efforts,

would I stoop to stealing food cubes?" the Hynerian huffed.

"Well, there's at least one box missing," D'Argo said. "Possibly more. If

you didn't take them, who did?"

Everyone found somewhere else to look rather than at one another.

There was a long, guilty silence. Then Aeryn said, "Why are you looking for

food cubes, anyway? Eat something else if you're hungry."

"I demand to know what happened to the food cubes!" He grabbed Rygel

and pulled him from the throne sled. "Where have you stashed them?"

"One of the upper tiers, if you must know. But I wasn't hoarding them."

D'Argo released him back into the sled and Rygel made a show of restoring

his injured dignity. "And I wasn't the first. There was another plate there."

Slightly embarrassed, Zhaan cleared her throat. "I was up on the higher

tiers several arns ago. I grow some of my fungi there. It's dark and it's quiet,

and there is nothing to disturb them. I may have left some food cubes

behind."

Chiana clapped her on the shoulder, "Way to go! I left some up there, too.

And some clothes." She glanced defiantly at Aeryn, clearly expecting her to

be angry. "I had to go to his quarters for the underwear for his gift." She

frowned. "It seems a strange thing to wrap up. Anyway, the upper tiers are

a great place to hide and there's lots of fun stuff up there that the

Peacekeepers left behind."

"So that's why--" Aeryn said thoughtfully.

"Yes, Aeryn?" Zhaan asked, attempting to hide a smile. "And what is

your excuse for visiting the upper tiers? I thought you wanted to let him

starve."

Aeryn leaped up indignantly, but her mood fizzled at the amused grins on

her shipmates' faces. "All right, I went up there, too. Pilot told me where

Crichton was; he finally tracked him. The idiot's completely lost what little

intelligence he had. He's now talking to the DRDs."

Chiana was concentrating on putting the finishing touches on her pie.

"So, you, um, went to visit?"

"I went," Aeryn explained patiently, "to take food and water. I made

certain he didn't see me. You don't want him coming back before we're

ready, do you?" She sat down and returned to work.

D'Argo shut the door to the storage cabinet. "I guess I don't need food

cubes after all." He grabbed a drink container and went over to watch

Chiana build the pie.

Zhaan considered John's list, mentally ticking things off. "I think we are

nearly finished. Aside from the reindeer and completing the gifts, there is

only one item left."

Pilot opened his comms. "Moya and I would like to help."

Abashed, Aeryn answered, "We're sorry, Pilot. We didn't mean to exclude

you and Moya."

"That's all right. We are grateful to Commander Crichton for helping to

keep Moya's systems operational. If you move the celebrations into my

chamber, Moya thinks she can crystallize some of her amnexus fluid and

make it fall from the ceiling. Once it accumulates on the floor, it may look

like snow."

"Snow," Chiana grinned. "John will have snow for Christmas!"

While the others danced with joy that the final obstacle had been

overcome, Aeryn threw down a probe in annoyance. "Could foot just mean

the bottom or base?" she muttered to herself.

* * * * *

"John Crichton," he told himself sternly. "Stop being a whiny crybaby. It

isn't so bad out here. It may not be home, but at least you have a home to go

to."

The others, if they should ever find their way back, were still criminals.

Zhaan had still overthrown the Delvian government, Rygel had still been

deposed, and D'Argo's son, after all these cycles, probably wouldn't

remember him. For them it would be "Welcome back, cue the Peacekeepers,

and off to the lifers' colony." When the time was right, he had a way home,

courtesy of the Ancients. And a beautiful woman who loved him, or would

as soon as she figured out what that meant.

"So, off your sorry ass and back down to face the music."

He just hoped they weren't playing "Taps."

* * * * *

Chiana was humming to herself as she put the finishing touches to the

dinner table they had set up along the outer wall in Pilot's chamber. The

metal trays and flatware had been polished to a high shine, and she had

built a centerpiece using some of her and Rygel's trinkets and the figurine

she had bought on the commerce planet. "I think we're nearly ready," she

said, stepping back to survey the table. "We just have to wrap the presents.

Where's Aeryn?"

Zhaan looked up from her work, stuffing socks with toasted seed pods

and fruit. "She went back to her quarters for something. I hope you washed

these socks, Chiana. Has Rygel decided on his gift? Generosity is not in his

nature."

Chiana nodded. "Rygel's helping D'Argo. D'Argo still feels bad about

losing John's father's ring, so they're making John a new one. It's more of a

bracelet, really. They got the rings to interlock, but they couldn't get it small

enough."

Zhaan was astounded. "D'Argo and Rygel are working together?"

"Yeah." Chiana stopped to think about it. "Maybe there is something to

this Christmas dren. Even Aeryn's been cooperating since Pilot said he and

Moya wanted to help."

"It is for Crichton," Zhaan said simply.

"She worked out the snow with them and supervised the DRDs hanging

the reindeer D'Argo built. She still complains a lot, but you know what? I

think she's having as much fun as we are. She almost smiled once or twice.

I asked her what she was giving John and she said it was none of my

business. Wonder what it is?"

"Why do you tease her, Chiana?"

"'Cause it's fun. She's always so serious about everything. She forgets

she's not a mean old Peacekeeper anymore. John says I'm 'yanking her

chain.' What do you think that means?"

Zhaan sighed. "I never know what he is talking about. Another Earth

custom, I assume."

"You think some people on Earth wear chains? Sounds interesting."

The door to the chamber pivoted, and Aeryn came in carrying several

metal containers. Liquid sloshed as she placed them on the table. "I thought

you might like to have this with your dinner."

"What's that?" Chiana asked suspiciously.

"Fellip nectar. I found some on the commerce planet. I was going to save

it for a special occasion, but I guess this is one." She smiled at Chiana and

explained, "Crichton and I drank something on Earth called beer. This tastes

just like it."

"Thank you, Aeryn," she said with surprise. "You wouldn't happen to

have any chocolate, would you?" She cocked her head coquettishly.

Aeryn stiffened and scowled.

"Chiana," Zhaan admonished. "It is very kind of you to share this, Aeryn."

Aeryn relaxed and turned to the Delvian with amusement. "It's all right,

Zhaan. Chiana's just jealous because she's never tasted chocolate. And,"

she grinned wickedly, "it's every bit as good as Crichton describes it." She

licked her lips. "Better."

Now it was Chiana who bristled. Confrontation was narrowly avoided

when Pilot broke in, "Crichton has left the upper tiers. He's now in the

passageway, approaching this chamber."

* * * * *

John walked hesitantly, his steps slowing as he neared the Den. There

was no one in Command or the Center Chamber, although the latter was

somewhat of a mess. Looked like they'd been partying without him. "These

are your friends," he reminded himself. "They are probably going freaking

insane wondering what happened to you. Chiana will jump for joy, Zhaan

will bless the goddess, and Aeryn, well, who knows what Aeryn will do?

She'll probably say something like--"

"What the frel are you doing here?" She closed the door behind her and

leaned against it.

"Well, Aeryn," he grinned sheepishly, "that wasn't my first choice for an

opening line, but I'm happy to see you, too. What's going on?"

Before Aeryn could answer, the door eased open a crack, and Chiana

slithered around the edge. "John, good to see you. Why don't you come

back later. Lots later. Tomorrow, maybe."

John's forehead wrinkled in confusion. "But I'm back today."

"We see that, Crichton." Aeryn looked at Chiana, rather desperately, he

thought. "Only, well, D'Argo's waiting for you in the maintenance bay. You

promised to fix the transport pod, or have you forgotten?"

"That's right," Chiana agreed smoothly and led him away from the door.

"Go help D'Argo. It's probably very complicated. Might take several arns,

maybe all day."

"What's in there you don't want me to see? And where's Zhaan?"

"She's busy," Chiana answered. "We're all busy. Girl stuff. You wouldn't

want to know about it."

"In Pilot's chamber? Pilot's a guy."

"But Moya's a girl."

"Just go, Crichton," Aeryn ordered. "It's just like you to show up at the

wrong microt. We don't want you here."

"Okay, okay, I'm going. But if you girls are having a slumber party, you

forgot your jammies." He held up his hands in surrender and headed for the

maintenance bay.

* * * * *

They watched his retreat down the passageway, attempting to look

innocent when he glanced back over his shoulder at them.

"Aeryn," Chiana pushed open the door, "what's a slumber party?"

"I haven't the faintest idea. What are jammies?"

Chiana shrugged. "I hope they haven't got anything to do with Christmas.

But you'd better comm D'Argo to get down to the maintenance bay and keep

Crichton down there for at least a couple of arns. He's in Rygel's quarters.

I'll start frying the turkey."

* * * * *

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