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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.

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

<<Continued from page 1

When she realizes that Crichton is trying to stand, D'Argo is already by the Human's side, offering a hand up, steadying him.

Annoyance and anger have abetted. D'Argo's quixotic mood is both considerate and concerned - a relent of unfamiliar guilt, which has been lingering around the Luxan since the shadow depository debacle. He was tempted to give Crichton up to Scorpius, then failed to kill his friend when he begged him for release. The warrior still grapples with the self-ascribed betrayals, although the Human never so much as mentions either.

John struggles to his feet with a muffled groan, left hand tightly gripping the Luxan's powerful forearm. He sways a little and leans against the wall.

"Thanks, big guy."

"Can you walk?" Aeryn inquires softly.

"Yeah," he answers between clenched teeth, gaze averted. "Piece of cake."

How can he think about food at a time like this?

Feathery soft voice and purple shadows circle red-rimmed eyes. His hands shake, and she hovers close, prepared to catch him should he fall. He nods to acknowledge her closeness, shivers when the tips of her fingers drift along the back of his hand. Does she dream up the regret etched in the little lines, which crease the handsome face? Does she imagine the familiar shudder of want snaking down her spine?

She doesn't, and this is precisely why the rational Peacekeeper cannot afford to become more attached to the Human than she already is. Her senses cannot be dulled by the most basic instinct.

Crew first, individual second.

The creed is ingrained in her very genetic code.

//I've always been one among many. A member of a division, platoon, a unit, a team. I've never been on my own, John. Never been alone. Ever.//

She can't place the good //desires// of one above the safety of the group.

//When I find a way home -- if I find a way home -- I'll take you with me.//

When Aeryn is alone with her private terrors, in the early arns of the sleeping cycle, she stands on the terrace and remembers that she never had a friend like John. That she never had a friend. She stares without passion at the cold infinity of space and pokes morbidly at her fears. She's afraid of the shifts he triggered in her and fights to maintain her balance amid the chaos. She dreads losing the strength to do what needs to be done.

It happened, once, and she drowned.

Zhann died.

The ex-Peacekeeper measures her own valor in terms of efficiency first, emotional integrity second - compassion if there is room left for it. One must stay alive before they can hope to be of some good to others. The journey is long, treacherous and painful - she didn't lie to Pilot about that - and watching John only reminds her of how many more obstacles lay ahead. Crichton also shares the journey, by virtue of standing at her side. He asks much of her - gentle expectations devoid of reproach and guilt. They walk the same path. Even though, lately, they seem to be trekking in opposite directions.

The stars have no advice for her, no ancient, secret wisdom to share, and she shakes so hard that she must sit down or fall.

Zhann is gone. John is weighted down by his guilt and her fear. If John's spirit gives way, she might just cave in on herself. He's been their foundation for so long, whether they choose to acknowledge it or not. She can only hope not to collapse under the pull of his gravity.

Aeryn is the center now.

That unwanted realization makes her shake harder.

Aeryn knows what fear is.

Fear isn't being pronounced irreversibly contaminated; fear isn't alien DNA replicating inside your cells; fear isn't dying alone.

Fear is responsibility. Fear is holding them together.

She didn't understand until now how much John did for the crew.

Zhann liked to say that Crichton taught them about hope, compassion, trust. Aeryn doesn't think that she has it in her to be the one to remind him of hope - it's not her function, not her duty, her station - but there is no one else left. What will become of them the day John can find no compassion left in himself? Will they fracture when he does? Not his mind this time, but his spirit?

//Talk to me...//

Who will look after them if he breaks? Who will do the things she cannot do, save their hearts when all she can protect is their bodies? Who will care?

Aeryn's never had to hope for anything, dream of anything, because John was willing to take on the responsibility for them both - dream for them both, hope for them both. She was free to focus her energies on her duty - on being their first line of defense. These days she carries the hope by herself; she must hold it close, keep it safe. She's afraid to crumble under the weight of the precious, unfamiliar cargo, now that John is unwilling, or unable to shoulder his share.

//We're already destroyed, Aeryn. It's just that some of us don't know it yet.//

When she leaves the terrace, her traitorous feet systematically take the long way back to her quarters past his rooms. She blames the detour on a muddled mind and too little rest. She is very quiet. John's sleep is light. He flinches and moans, tangled in the sheets, but she never goes to him. She stands on the threshold of the converted cell and watches. Breathes in his warm, clean, sleepy smell. Wonders. Is he back in that cold cell on the Gammak base, strapped to the surgeon's table, tortured in the shadow depository? Is he condemned to err through another perfidious illusion of his earth?

"Aeryn?"

He's had to call twice to get her attention. This is unacceptable.

Distraction will get them killed.

Her distraction. His death.

"Yes, Crichton."

"Did you hear me? We're getting the hell out of this dump. Are you ready?"

"I'm ready."

The way he steals a look at her under thick eyelashes - he thinks that she never will be. But he'll keep waiting.

//Focus, Officer Sun. Focus.//

D'Argo and his Qualta blade lead the way. The big Luxan slips through the door with an effortless economy of movement. Crichton, one hand clasped to his wound, the other holding his pulse pistol flat against his leg, follows with an easy grace which belies his lack of military training. Aeryn brings up the rear, the heavy pulse riffle propped against her hip.

The night is cold. The ex-Peacekeeper and the Luxan are unaffected, but Aeryn can't ignore John renewed shivering. The fever and the freezing cold make for a crippling combination. Soon his movements will grow sluggish. She can already make out his lips, forming silent words in the dark.

That's the last thing they need. The clone reasserting himself because of the fever.

Heavy footfalls.

D'Argo hears them first. Without looking, the Luxan throws one arm across Crichton's chest and forces him flat against a wall. He doesn't see John go pale when the impact jars his injury. Aeryn has only a microt to press herself against him and clamp her hand over his mouth, muffling the involuntary gasp of pain. John squeezes his eyes shut.

Moist, burning lips against her palm. Strong, hard body - solid and real and so frelling hot - underneath her own.

When the echo of footsteps fades, John opens his eyes and blinks slowly.

Aeryn removes her hand. 

She wants to ask if he's all right, but can't afford to speak right now. John nods and she is reminded that, whatever else might be going on, there's been very little need for words between them for a long time.

Even his anger cannot shroud his thoughts from her.

He needs her to step back, and so she does.

Accustomed to their little dance, D'Argo barely spares them a glance before trudging forward.

The air is thick with mist. As long as they remain silent, they'll be invisible. There's nothing they can do to cloak the scent of blood from the hounds, but they'll hear the beasts coming. Cateriens traders may be ferocious, but they're no Peacekeepers. Organized search patterns are probably not their thing.

Aeryn's only concern is John. Although he's doing his best to hide it, he's struggling to keep up the pace, teeth clenched tight around the pain. The wound is bleeding freely - precious liquid dripping between his fingers. They are at least one thousand metras away from the transport pod. She doesn't think he can make it that far without losing consciousness. Their progression is slow by necessity. They must keep to the walls, stopping regularly to scan the silence and consult D'Argo's compass.

The town is small and the dwellings are gathered close together, rudimentary constructions of wood and some sort of dark stone - isolation against the day's heat and the night's cold. They would advance much faster jumping from roof to roof, but John can't possibly follow.

Once again, their silent connection is as much a burden as it is an asset. She is close enough to Crichton to see his eyes darken, his gaze stray to the ledges above him before shooting back to her.

"Don't even think it, John. We're not leaving you behind."

She actually uttered the warning out loud, and D'Argo's annoyed stare crucifies her to the wall at her back. She frowns.

"You can come back for me..."

//He dares to...//

"That makes no sense," she whispers harshly. She feels like hitting him. Hard. The bastard. Staying behind is the easy solution, for him. Has he no respect left for her, that he must force her to confront all the hard choices?

//There are always choices, Aeryn.//

Frell. Doesn't she know it.

The anger flows comfortably through wired limbs and she grabs his wrist, dragging him forward after D'Argo's fading form.

"Aeryn..."

"Shut the frell up, Crichton! You'd be dead by the time we came back. There's nothing we could do later that we can't do now. End of discussion. Now keep quiet and do as I say for once in your frelling life!"

He almost smiles.

"What's the catch?"

For the last two hundred microts, Aeryn has practically been carrying Crichton, and his voice is warm and feathery in her ear.

"Catch?" she whispers back, focused on the transport pod fifteen metras in front of them.

"The trap... the trick, the ambush. There gotta be one... of... those."

His breathing is ragged, his words a bit slurred. He's fading fast and D'Argo inches closer, ready to carry the Human the rest of the way.

"The... catch," Aeryn says, wrapping her tongue experimentally around the word, "is that we have to cross the distance without cover."

She peers over the slope of dirt they're hiding behind. The mist has lifted. The temperature is rising already. It seems that night on this part of the planet lasts less than three arns.

"Then we b... better get going, dontcha... think? Before sun... up."

"Can you make it?"

Crichton bites his lower lip. "I don't... know."

Does he always have to be so frelling honest?

"Well, we'll find out soon enough," Aeryn mutters.

The Human struggles to his knees, Winona firmly in hand. Aeryn has seen him care for the pulse pistol many times and trail the tips of his fingers over the lethal, sleek shape like a concerned lover. 

Who in their right mind would name their weapon?

"Do you smell anything, D'Argo?"

The Luxan shakes his head. "We're too close to the woods. All I smell is vegetation and some wild animals."

"We'll have to take our chances," Aeryn says, kneeling next to John. "I'll stay close to Crichton. Whatever happens, you plot a straight course for the transport pod, and get the engine started. We'll be right behind you."

She realizes how serious John's condition is when he doesn't argue with her. She wedges her shoulder under his arm, one knee bent, ready to take them both off the ground with a single push. Her free hand holds the riffle straight in front of her.

"Go, D'Argo. Now!" she orders urgently.

The Luxan leaps over the slope with a speed and agility, which belie his bulk.

"Come on!" She drags Crichton roughly to his feet and sets after the running warrior.

Her harsh commands come up in small puffs of moisture in the residual cold air. Her shoulder aches with exertion, but the pain and the fatigue are only another input to be processed along with their surroundings, D'Argo's position, the distance to the pod, and John's laborious breathing.

She hears them first.

They are only five metras from safety when the four Cateriens charge. D'Argo is already inside the transport. The engine hums and the ground shakes.

They're not going to make it.

But the traders don't open fire.

//Capture.//

Maybe they want to take them hostage, use them to negotiate transport aboard the Leviathan, who knows?

Aeryn manages to take one out, but the other three keep on coming, undeterred. Cateriens will not slow down, even for one of their own. She has to let go of Crichton to handle the recoil of the riffle, and he falls to his knees at her feet, dazed. He finds the strength to stagger away from her and raise his pistol.

"John, no!"

Their assailants overcome him before he can pull the trigger. The three Cateriens go for the weakest prey, like Borlgian beasts maddened by the scent of blood. Aeryn cannot shoot for fear of hitting Crichton.

"Go! Aeryn, g..."

He's on the ground, on his back, his wound unprotected.

The largest of the Cateriens lifts his antique riffle and drives the butt down in John's stomach. Again. And again.

John's gasps of pain echo loudly through the clearing.

Aeryn's rage is colder than the peeking dawn and just as crystal-clear. The woods rustle, heralding more hunters, and there's no frelling time. She rushes forward with a feral battle-cry, trading the riffle for the large knife strapped to the inside of her forearm.

In a blur, the blade cuts through skin, flesh, muscle, bone. Kill, disable... it doesn't matter, as long as the Cateriens fall.

She grabs John by the collar of his Peacekeeper coat, not stopping to check if he's conscious //alive//. She literally drags him to the transport, unmindful of anything but the edge of trees to their left, beyond the three warm corpses. When her back hits the pod, Aeryn forces John as upright as she can and throws him inside.

The door hisses loudly after them.

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

Aeryn never missed Zhann more.

Stark knows some rudimentary medical science, but he is no Pa'u.

The ex-Peacekeeper relays John's words about infection and removing the bullet. They perform the surgery as soon as the pod lands. They have no painkiller to offer. D'Argo volunteers to hold John down through the procedure, until the Human blessedly passes out. Chiana, who has sworn not to leave his side until he regains consciousness, has to excuse herself or be ill right there and then.

When there is nothing left to do but wait, D'Argo goes to retrieve John's module with Rygel and Chiana, all heavily armed, and manages to bring back the human craft unscathed. Very few words are exchanged, but the untold meaning is clear to all. The Farscape might soon become all that remains of John Crichton aboard Moya.

Even Jool seems to understand, and drops the obnoxious whining.

Now, twelve arns later, the planet is far behind, and John's fever still hasn't broken.

"No... no. Let go... Scorpy..."

Delirium.

Exactly what John needs.

More hallucinations.

Chiana has been in and out with cold towels, fresh bandages and warm food, but she mostly leaves Aeryn alone. The older woman resolves to never again call her a tralk.

"Stay... the hell out of... my... mind... freak."

The mumbles are not always intelligible, but the meaning is clear. John is trapped with Scorpius inside his own head. Again.

Aeryn sits quietly by the bed. She'd rather share his nightmares than be left alone with her own.

"Officer Sun?"

The hail is hesitant, as unobtrusive as can be.

"No change, Pilot. He's still unconscious."

"Thank you."

The unworded question comes like clockwork, every arn. Pilot heard that John went down to the planet to procure kronite for Moya, and the tang of guilt flows thickly through the comms.

As soon as Crichton is out of danger, Aeryn will go up to Pilot's chamber and talk to him.

She closes her eyes and listens to Moya breathe around them... the closest thing to a mother's embrace she's ever known.

"I... God... no... please..."

Strangled words - reluctant and afraid.

Aeryn lays her hand on Crichton's twitching brow. Her fingers tingle - perhaps the shared essence of Zhann, dragging them together like some magnetic beacon, some homing device.

Home. Moya is home, she can accept it now. Between those living walls there is kinship, if there is not always friendship. An ease and a familiarity. Comfort flows from habit and known surroundings.

Aeryn Sun will die protecting her home, and all those who share it with her. She will die contented.

"Please... please..."

Small, pathetic pleas of a mind stretched, prodded, raped one too many times. It's there for everyone to see - everyone who can be bothered to look. Memories of being strapped down, violated, defiled, bound, trapped, chained. Memories of killing her. Memories of bending and breaking.

//Being tortured has that effect.//

To think that John might relate more easily to Rygel than to her.

The little slug knows what it's like to see the pain coming, to be helpless to escape and defend yourself. Aeryn can't fathom sitting in that frelling chair, being forced to stare into the darkest corners of her mind, to relive the memories, have them exposed for every one to see. Betray Velorek again, and again, and again. Scorpius smiling over her shoulder.

The former Peacekeeper knows what it is to stand on the other side of the chair. Does that bother Crichton? Does he ever wonder - what would have happened if they had never met, if she had been stationed on the Gammak base, if he had gone down to save someone else and been captured? If Scorpius had ordered her to torture him.

Her fingers tighten around John's.

That way madness lurks.

In retrospect, it's a testament to his strength and resilience that his mind has survived so well while forced to share quarters with the consciousness of his nemesis. She remembers what it was like, to have the thoughts of another inside her head - but Pilot never had her tortured. There might be something to all this 'admit to your fears' dren after all.

She can't imagine how he dealt with the chip for so long. To feel insanity creeping up on you, reality pulling away, and not be able to do a frelling thing about it. To stare madness in the eye. To shudder helplessly, scream a silent plea as the net enfolds you tight. Yet even then she knew - the chip alone had not pushed John over the edge. He had already been looking down the abyss, trading ever more of his sanity for a chance to survive in her world.

John is so proud of his mind. He relies on it for everything. They all do.

"Cruel... this is... is... cruel..."

Aeryn's fingers map out the web of invisible scars on John's forearm and he settles down.

She never asked about the cuts - cuts that even the long-sleeved coat could not always hide. John had begun to make himself bleed, before their assault on the shadow depository. Battling the visions of Scorpius... trying to prove to himself that he could still feel, that he was still John Crichton in there somewhere, that he still held power over //something//, even if it was only his own grief. Unconsciously going against the chip's imperative of keeping him alive and unharmed. Pain must have become the sharpest reality of all, the only anchor he had left when his friends pulled away from him, disturbed by his growing instability.

The old failure still leaves an acrid taste in her mouth.

She never really understood the repercussions of what Scorpius did to John, never tried to. Empathy is not her strongest suit. How could she have believed that with the chip gone, he would be back to his old self, simple as that?

Perhaps she is the naive one.

//Was I wrong? You're no longer the Crichton I knew?//

She told him as much on the Royal Planet. He came right out and, in typical John-fashion, shared with her the true depth of his fear - no, his unadulterated terror. He was ready to let them turn him into a statue. He allowed them to do this to him because he was

So.

Scared.

And she didn't have the words to comfort him. He wasn't trying to cover up his weakness and it made her angry. As angry as the thought that he was giving up on both himself and her. He had dragged her off the beaten path and was now abandoning her, condemning her to journey alone.

In her rage, she was unable to dredge up something more meaningful than a furious //goodbye//.

Monens later, Aeryn can only cringe at the absurdity of her words. Not the Crichton that she knew? What does that mean? He is as he is. He is who he is at any given moment. Her perception of him has nothing to do with it. Fluctuation. Movement. Life is the opposite of stasis - Zhann taught her that. He is Crichton. Not what she wants him to be, or remembers him to be. More than the potential she envisions or the sum of her dreams.

She needs him now. They all do. She doesn't want to feel that he is past repair. She doesn't want to think of him as a weapon to be tended, but she does anyway. She knows the sharpness of his mind is their greatest ally, whatever has happened of late.

She will let him grieve for the man he has been. They haven't allowed him to mourn and he hasn't shown signs of wanting to, but he needs it. She needed it when they found the video-recorder. The others have had cycles to grieve in their cells, and now it is John's turn.

He must come to terms with the change and embrace the hope that still smothers under layers of scar tissue.

"Aeryn..."

She gets down on her knees by the bed.

Lays her palm against his cheek and lingers above soft blue eyes.

Like staring into a collapsing star.

"I'm here, John."

Warm, feathery shadow of his lips against her own.

"You're going to be fine."

"I'm... I'm so... sorry." Scared and lost and confused.

She shushes him softly and catches a tear, which rolls lazily down his temple. Kisses the matted silk of his dark hair.

There is still hope.

THE END.

Contact: maayan42@yahoo.com

 

 

 

 

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