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TITLE: The Jigsaw Man

AUTHOR: Maayan

EMAIL: maayan42@yahoo.com

SPOILERS: Everything up to 'Different Destinations'

RATING: R

ARCHIVING: Please ask first.

SUMMARY: In the midst of yet another crisis, Aeryn's reflects on the cost of John's journey. Angst.

NOTES: I'm new to the list, and this is my way of introducing myself. English isn't my first language, so forgive obvious mistakes, please.

DISCLAIMER: Not mine. Henson's and Co.

***********************************

 

"What the frell happened?"

Shards of light disturb the dust on the unforgiving, beaten floor of their hideout. The sun sets, night crawling in after thirty-six arns of uninterrupted daylight.

There's been no time for explanations until now. Nothing but frantic planning going to waste, running around, holding onto their weapons for dear life, dodging fire and keeping to the walls. Business as usual for the armed phalange of Moya's crew.

While she waits for an answer, Aeryn activates the comm badge pinned to her vest. Still nothing. Residual magnetic interference from the solar flares. Hopefully, as the planet rotates on its tilted axis, the disturbance will clear. They can call Chiana, arrange for a rendez-vous point.

Just a few more arns.

She blinks in the dimming tendrils of sunlight.

Solar flares.

Wormholes.

She felt like ripping Crichton to shreds when they woke up to find him gone. Down on the planet, Pilot said. Took his module.

Solar flares.

They were prompt to judge. John had disappointed them too often over the last few weekens. They weren't used to making allowances for him. They didn't feel like starting now.

They half-heartedly toyed with the idea of abandoning him down there. True to form, Rygel was the most vocal, but they knew what the outcome of the discussion would be. They would go after him. The reasons were numerous, most of them too nebulous or personal to be worded.

D'Argo and Aeryn climbed into the prowler and took off, following John's last known vector down to the surface.

Solar flares. No way to reach him.

Aeryn could have guessed that their suspicions were unfounded. If John were chasing wormhole data, he would have been in the air, not on the ground. 'Slingshoting' as he calls it. Opening doors he has no clue how to close again. Shades of the scientist, now a twisted shadow of his old curious self, which she had been relieved to glimpse after Scorpius, when he talked to her about wormholes.

The wonderment has faded, leaving only thirst in its wake. Obsession. Empty revenge. Hate without the dislike. Dislike without the hate. There's anger. Anger and very little wonder. She hasn't forgotten the Delvian ship - Crichton asking her if anything surprised her anymore.

Nothing appears to surprise him now.

Aeryn takes a moment to investigate their refuge. They stumbled across the abandoned shed on the outskirts of town. The walls are thin, no protection against high-velocity projectiles. Their pursuers don't carry pulse riffles. The ground is unsuitable for the culture of tannet, and the people are poor. No chakan oil for the cartridges. Their weapons are crude, but nevertheless deadly. There were small craters and puffs of smoke at her feet while they were running through town earlier. Dodging bullets, Crichton had called it. Little pellets of some metal propelled through the air by a controlled explosive mechanism.

D'Argo paces back and forth in front of the unique window, on watch.

John is still.

Aeryn's eyes narrow.

No. Not still. Shivering in the silence, head lowered. No crackling sarcasm.

For all their complains that the Human talks too much, each of them feels the vacuum of unassuming, self-deprecating wisdom when John gives up the incessant chatter.

She thinks of the cruel words exchanged the day before. Another fight. He came to her when she was exhausted and annoyed. He felt that she needed to talk about Zhann and pushed a little too hard. She shouldered him out of the way and he hit the door with a grunt.

Didn't let her get away with it that time.

//I know you don't give a shit, Aeryn, but where I come from you don't resort to violence with friends and family just because you can. It's an irremediable break of trust. How many times do I have to take this shit from you?//

She had almost felt shame, but John wasn't done with her.

Maybe she was the one who had pushed a little too hard.

//Relationships can fracture the crew? Bullshit, Aeryn. Distrust can fracture the crew. You love me, I'll believe that, but you don't trust me. You don't trust me at your back. And that's fine. I'll get used to it. Hell, I have already. But don't lie to me, and don't tell me it's about relationships.

I have a breaking point, Aeryn, and I'm sorry that it isn't set high enough for your standards. You'll never know how sorry. I'm just this puny little Human who likes to dress up and play captain. I thought I was finally getting on top of the game, and now I've realized that all this time, it was just blind luck. I still don't have a clue. I may be stupid, Aeryn, but eventually I do learn.//

That was the last she heard of John until now.

She wants to cross the space between them, go to him. Grab him by the shoulders and shake. D'Argo's back is taut. The Luxan is getting ready to launch into a tirade, and she might not manage to stifle her anger long enough to stop him from going for Crichton's throat.

"What the frell happened?" she asks again, her stance rigid.

"I'm sorry."

The words aren't whispered, but so very soft nonetheless. They grate on her frayed nerves.

"Don't be sorry," she snarls. "It achieves nothing. Just tell us what the frell is going on. How did you manage to annoy that many people this time?"

John flinches, one arm wrapped around his drawn knees, the other curled around his mid-section. She doesn't consider taking the words back - doesn't bother softening the blow.

D'Argo grips his Qualta blade. His eyes never stray from the window and the street outside. He hisses. "This better have nothing to do with wormholes, Crichton."

'Crichton'. Not 'John'.

Aeryn is not blind and sees that it hurts. The enduring silence, punctuated by too harsh breaths, leaves her unbalanced. Mesmerized, she watches John's thumb caress that soft bottom lip. His eyelids flutter. The silence is wrong on so many levels, but it's nothing new. Crichton uses stillness to cover up his anger, but the rage is there. She needn't even look at him. She listens to the roughness of his tone when he talks to Rygel. The sharp humor, the banter are giving way to pettiness in spades, until all that remains is childish cruelty.

Aeryn doesn't want to see this man's spirit destroyed. She doesn't think she could bear it. She would survive it - there is nothing she wouldn't survive. But she couldn't bear it.

"Crichton, are you listening to me?"

"I'm listening, Aeryn."

She snaps. "Then frelling answer me!"

"Why? Will *you* listen to me?"

"Stop playing, Crichton," D'Argo growls, having reached the boundaries of his limited patience. "We're here saving your eema, again. The least you can do is explain why those men are trying to kill us. Is there anyone in this galaxy who isn't after your head?"

The barb is harsher than D'Argo intended, Aeryn can tell. The warrior never wounds on purpose. He has no gift for cruelty, no matter how much he wished otherwise.

Crichton's face goes blank for a microt, then the lips tighten. He doesn't lash back.

Ally, brother, sometimes even father to D'Argo.

Of all of them he knows how to handle the Luxan best. Even more so now that Zhann is gone.

Aeryn kills that train of thought there and then.

Crichton shifts against the wooden panel, raising a small cloud of thin dust. Side-stepping the dying sun rays, Aeryn watches the play of copper hues on the ground.

There used to be streaks of rich gold in John's hair. It's darker now, like the rest of him, and not because he has done anything to alter the shade. He rarely lets the light touch him. At rest, he keeps to the shadowed corners, a wall at his back, visceral protection against the unseen enemy. When disaster strikes, when a crisis must be averted, he drifts back in the center, standing tall and unfazed, and Aeryn wonders at his unconcern, his eagerness. Is he learning that foes of flesh and blood should not be feared - their threat paling by comparison to the nemesis within?

//You must confront your fears with strength.//

John's gaze locks in on her. His head tilts - right, left - his eyes never shy from her own. Beautiful expressiveness of his face, sweet fullness of his mouth, stark, luminous eyes - and yes, there is strength there.

"Those guys are Caterien traders."

Even D'Argo groans at that. "Hezmana, Crichton, what did you do?"

Caterien traders are as ruthless as they come. They could teach negotiating skills to Rygel and overcome Scorpius on the psychopathic scale. How Crichton managed to annoy so many of them in such a short time is one of the universe's great mysteries. He couldn't have been on the planet alone for more than four arns.

Aeryn is well aware that John doesn't mind a little improvisation here and there. 'Flying by the seat of his pants' he said once, and she stared at him until he came up with an explanation, because the microbes couldn't possibly have gotten that one right. He's as likely to pause and think than rush headlong into danger - a strange hybrid of scientist and mercenary, which the Uncharted Territories and a significant fraction of its inhabitants, including Moya's crew, share a responsibility in birthing. Crichton has agendas. He does not need anyone to give him directions. There is always something going on in his head, an idea brewing behind those violently blue irises.

He didn't come down on this barren planet just for the view.

John's stare shifts away from her to an empty corner of the room. He blinks sleepily, absorbed by some internal dialogue. Aeryn can only be grateful that he's not talking out loud.

That frelling clone.

She doesn't care to be reminded that the thing which killed her is still in there, somewhere.

The lapse is short. Crichton snaps to attention when he feels her eyes on him. Acts as if nothing out of the ordinary happened, which is not so much of a stretch. John's forays into the psychotic landscape of his own mind have almost become part of their daily routine.

It doesn't stop the Human from going to great lengths to try and hide his continued interaction with the clone.

Too hard. He's trying too hard.

It hurts to look at him.

Pity tastes bitter in her throat. Aeryn grapples with it. She doesn't have enough experience with strong emotions to school her features into an unfeeling mask.

John sees.

His sideways smile betrays the strain that his natural cool-headedness would otherwise skillfully hide.

"I was on watch in Command, running a standard scan of the planet's surface. I know you guys said you didn't want to come down here, that you were just interested in getting supplies from the orbiting mining colony, but the analysis revealed traces of kronite. So I decided to nip down and try to get some."

D'Argo takes his attention off the window for the briefest moment, his thick eyebrows furrowed. "What in Hezmana would you need kronite for? There's plenty in the cargo bay."

Aeryn is shaking her head before John can respond. "No, in fact there's almost none left."

"Why does it matter?" D'Argo asks. "We don't need to make another ignition device, do we?"

"That's not the first purpose of kronite," says the ex-Peacekeeper, still watching John. "The shavings are a byproduct of Moya's functions. They're recycled by the DRDs. They use it as fuel, and to repair themselves..." D'Argo still looks confused. She shakes her head. "Why wouldn't Pilot tell us...?"

Tell *me*.

She doesn't say that out loud.

John's answer is mild.

"Pilot said that it wasn't a big deal. Moya's taken quite a beating between the parasites and the... the collision with Neeyala's ship. Her energies are focused on healing. Some of her functions and regulating systems run at a lower level, which means she produces less kronite..."

"Which means the DRDs are operating under optimum capacity, and do not perform their maintenance duties as well as could be expected," Aeryn interjected.

John shrugs. "Pilot told me the problem would be dealt with in a weeken, two at the most, that there was no immediate need to go out of our way and find kronite. But when I saw the planet's readings... I had to come here."

He wears the guilt like his Peacekeeper cloak.

"You wanted to help Moya heal faster."

No reply is forthcoming. Aeryn did not expect any.

"How do the Cateriens factor into this?" D'Argo asks roughly, appeased. It's clear John's excursion has nothing to do with wormholes.

Yet even if it had, Aeryn unexpectedly wonders, what right would they have to begrudge him? They have all allowed their personal quests to jeopardize the safety of the crew at one time or another. And they have all been forgiven. So why can't they forgive this man?

"I was followed from the moment I landed. They trailed me to the main square, probably testing the waters or something. I don't get the feeling many strangers stop by these parts. The Cateriens have been stranded here for monens - some propulsion failure. They heard me inquire about the kronite."

"And realized there was a Leviathan in orbit," Aeryn says.

John nods. "Yep. They wanted me to take them on board with their cargo, whatever that is. I told them no. They were rather vocal. I said they should go frell themselves. They got physical, so I ran. Tried to make it back to my module. Then I collided right smack into you." He frowns. "Why did you come after me, anyway?"

"We didn't know what you were up to. We couldn't get the comms to work because of the solar flares," D'Argo explains.

Crichton's chuckle is not at all amused.

"Ah. So that's what this is all about. Why all the freakin'. The flares."

Aeryn makes it a point to mollify her tone. "It was a reasonable assumption, John."

Another deceptive snigger. "*Reasonable*..." - barely a murmur - "yes," Crichton snorts quietly, nodding his head a little. "Of course."

That's all he says. Still sitting on the floor almost hugging himself and not looking at either of them.

He's too quick to shoulder the blame. Aeryn doesn't like it. From the first day, that man tormented her with his beautiful, glorious individualism, his annoying unpredictability, his self-confidence which ran so much deeper than her own. He taught her about being *one*. About standing on her own. About thinking for herself. About learning. About caring. It hasn't made her a better soldier, quite the opposite in fact, but she has to believe that it's made her better in more important ways. But what did she teach him in return?

How to pilot a transport pod.

Charge a pulse riffle.

Kill a man bare-handed.

The harshness, the hardness are evident in his face - no longer rounded and boyish, but sharp and thin, grave. Cerulean eyes, cold. Lean muscles rigid, right hand never straying far from his thigh, from the weapon strapped there.

Here they are again, being hunted on some remote planet, her standing in a corner of a derelict house with a gun in her hand, John huddled on the floor refusing to look at her, D'Argo standing between them without a clue.

//It should be easy... It's never easy.//

Inadequacy.

Aeryn is new to the concept.

***********************************

"We need to get a move on."

The microbes struggle with the wording, but she hardly takes notice.

"I think we should stay," D'Argo says. "We won't be able to contact Moya for another few arns. At least here we have cover."

"They've got hounds. They'll find us fast if we stay in one spot. And there's only one door. I don't wanna get trapped in here. We should make a break for it. I can come back for my module later. We could try to make it to the transport pod, maybe they haven't found it yet. In which case, we don't have to wait for reinforcements from Moya."

Aeryn arcs an eyebrow at that. Crichton the military expert.

"We crossed the river twice before coming back towards town. That should throw them off the scent. They are probably looking for us in the surrounding hills," D'Argo objects without heat.

Crichton smirks. "Trust me on this one, big guy," - he pauses, as if the words taste sour - "they'll pick up the scent."

For the first time, Aeryn notices how pale his skin looks in the cold light of a rudimentary lamp. His breaths are shallow and irregular. Sweat pearls on his brow.

"John."

He doesn't answer her call. Just holds his arm tighter around his waist.

Aeryn lowers her riffle and crosses the room over to him. He doesn't acknowledge her proximity. She gets down on one knee by his side. He smells like pain, leather, sickness and that clean male scent which is uniquely John.

Her fingers wrap gently around his wrist, prying his arm away from his midsection. He doesn't resist.

The blood glistens richly through the black T-shirt. She lifts the dark material to reveal bruised skin and an angry wound.

She clenches her teeth. "Frell you, Crichton. Why didn't you say something?"

He chuckles and this time he doesn't swallow a gasp. "Nope, no frelling me, babe. 'Member?"

The quip stings. He keeps teaching her; she's never known that particular brand of pain. His thoughts are loud and clear.

//If you can't beat 'em, mind-frell them.//

She prods the wound a bit more roughly than necessary and pushes down the guilt when the blood drains from John's face.

"Yeah, it hurts like a bitch, Aeryn. You could've just asked."

She does her best to look contrite and knows she's failing miserably. "What did this?"

"Bullet. It's still in my gut."

Now that she's close enough, she can tell that his eyes are burning bright with fever. She's seen Crichton ill before - more times than she cares to remember - and she understands the concept. He feels so very hot underneath her cold hand. Too hot for her sensitive Sebacean skin. Her palm settles on his cheek and he shivers. That gets his attention.

"Focus, John. How bad is it? Is there something I should be doing?"

A sigh. "It's not bad. I think it's just a flesh wound. It'll get infected if I don't clean it up soon and get the bullet out, but I'll be fine for the next few arns."

From d'Argo. "How much blood have you lost?"

Crichton's laugh is almost sane. "Just what you see here."

He closes his eyes and Aeryn doesn't remove her hand.

In the beginning, his fingers would stray to her elbow, sometimes to the small of her back when they walked down a tier. She would scowl him, incapable of understanding his constant desire for physical contact. The need might have been characteristic of his species. It might have sprung from being lost, without friends, family - even though she had trouble wrapping her mind around that notion.

The memory of those small touches is distant now. Distant and foreign. At times she finds herself looking longingly at the smooth dance of muscles along a forearm, startled at the most inopportune moment not to feel them wrapped around her.

What are they doing so far apart?

//You do believe people can change, don't you, John?

Well, you have... I have...//

Oh, yes.

They have changed. He has changed.

Zhann's last words taunt Aeryn still.

//Innocent Crichton.//

How could Zhann see that innocence, while Aeryn struggles with the simple duty of trusting him?

John Crichton is a honorable man - a good man - but two cycles spent fleeing through the Uncharted Territories have taken their toll.

Humility is still at the forefront. There's softness when he deals with her and Chiana. Guilt is too willingly shouldered, although he has yet to let it cripple him. He has barely enough hope left for himself, but will give it away when he can - when someone needs the tether more. He cares and never makes it sound trite. John possesses depths of self-knowledge and reserves of self-assurance Aeryn only dreams about. He knows his limitations, while her first impulse is to deny having any. She's still dubious of the idea that there could be strength in admitting to your weaknesses.

He watches. He's always watched a lot, but then he also talked a lot. Now he mostly watches. There's the established incomprehensible chatter, but its meaning seems to be lost to him as well.

//Are you okay?//

//Talk to me.//

He listens still, but rarely encourages people to share. His innocence allowed him to shoulder so many burdens; now he crumbles under his own. His fear, which he never bothered to hide, comes through as anger and cockiness.

To transcend the despair, he has turned the cycle of powerlessness into obsession.

She can't remember the last time he celebrated "one of the good days", the last time she found him on the terrace looking at the stars for no reason at all, the last time she heard him talk to his father in that little electromagnetic recording device of his.

His laughter is no longer soft, whole and warm, but cracked, bent and frozen. He's quick to anger, his patience no longer boundless. Eyes cold - colder than the lake had been. Shoulders taut. An aplomb which would have put Larraq's to shame.

//It is a grave misfortune that uniform did not fit me.//

With the dubious benefit of hindsight, Aeryn finds herself thinking back and wonders when it all began. Was this the genesis? Was John Crichton irremediably altered when he put on that uniform? Seeing him clad in the black and crimson leather of a Peacekeeper officer had sparked an irrational anger. She didn't understand why at the time. She does now.

The uniform stands for all the things John despises and struggles against.

Yet he wears the colors still.

That day, John killed. Twice. First Hassam, even if it wasn't his own doing. Then Larraq. His quick-thinking saved them all, and Aeryn never bothered to consider the cost. She has very little use for daydreams and doesn't understand whimsical.

Of all those on board - save for Pilot - Crichton was the only one who'd never taken a life. It means nothing to her, but must have been significant to him. She's never really stopped to consider the implications. She's never stopped period. Stopping isn't part of her training. She doesn't want to stop. She fears the silence and the stillness, for she might discover that when there is no movement, there is no thought. Aeryn Sun ceases to exist. Sometimes, she even dreads going to sleep.

It could have started before the virus. She's vaguely disgusted at her futile need to pin it down, but it doesn't stall the conjectures. A little voice whispers about rejection of responsibility and guilt, but she refuses to listen. She doesn't trust that voice.

Maybe the change began on the false Earth. Not because it was then that the Ancients deposited the wormhole knowledge in John's head //frelling poisoned gift// but because another seed was planted - a first tear in the fabric of the ultimate naiveté, which was at once John's greatest weapon and his staunchest foe. He learned that, sometimes, one should doubt their own mind. Aeryn watched trust and certitude burn out in his eyes. Until that moment, he didn't believe in the existence of cruelty, not really. Possessed some intellectual understanding of what it was, yes, but didn't believe that anyone would do this to him, for no reason at all - or for all the reasons in the universe.

Psychosomatic twinge in her side - a memory.

That knife in her belly set the charade rolling. Their existence has been one long deception ever since - as if John accepted a long time ago that, to survive he had to keep on lying, even to himself. Pretend to be what he was not. A Sebecean. A Peacekeeper captain. A killer.

Violence inflicted upon others scars deeper that violence bestowed upon you.

And the rest of the crew pushed, too.

//deficient... inadequate... always gets us into dren...//

John Crichton is not one to accept failure meekly, and he strove to prove himself.

//No, you're not gonna die... There's something we can do.//

And he didn't let her die. Has kept her alive, again and again, through the sheer force of his will, when nothing else could. But at what cost?

At other times, she glimpses the depth of the shadows at his core, and wonders at the darkness which resided there, ready to pounce long before John encountered the wormhole. Maybe, just //maybe//, her world has simply opened a door.

Strangely enough, the poetic irony is not lost on her.

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