"Well…..Merry frelling Christmas."
Ambulance sirens could be heard in the distance, and as the officers rushed in, everything became a blur. Heavily armored FBI agents pounded down what was left of the door and rushed inside as Jack, still hunched over from the attack, did his best to call them off. Medics were more needed, and as soon as the overwhelming whine of the siren heralded their arrival, they were in instant attendance to the fallen agent unconscious on the other side of the brick wall, and to Jack and Olivia's bruises. John was lost in the sea of people, the sea of humans, things he had no control over, but the men and women in white scrubs and masks caused him to flash back to less favorable times and he soon found his way to Aeryn's side, just as eager as she was to fend off the overly attentive EMS workers. He snuck an unseen hand around her waist, just to be safe, just to make sure they really weren't there to cart them off to some base that didn't technically exist. It would be just their luck that this fight, this attack on his family, would break some unknown rule the government might have agreed on that if they, the aliens, caused any trouble, off they'd go.
Slowly his mind started to fold in on itself further. On the surface it may have looked, even felt, like any other skirmish they'd been in, but it really had been an attack on his father and his sister. His family. They were real, here, in this room, and they'd just been tossed around their own dining room like ragdolls.
"Oh my god, what have I done?"
A sigh escaped his throat as he turned his head towards Aeryn's shoulder.
"What?" she replied.
He shook his head. Must've said that out loud.
"Nothing, it's…..nothing," he said and, closing his eyes, eventually rested his chin on her shoulder.
Aeryn frowned slightly and peered at him without actually looking at him from the lower corners of her eyes. The threat seemed to be neutralized, and although the room was now swarming with people, she chose to stay on guard.
"Aeryn! John! Are you ok?"
D'Argo's voice boomed over both their comms, unintelligible to all others present save for Jack and Olivia who were some of the first to volunteer for translator microbes when John first arrived. Aeryn now looked at John directly but her expression remained unchanged.
"We're fine, D'Argo, thanks to you and Lo'la. How did you know to find us?" she asked, leaning slowly into the seemingly oblivious human perched on her shoulder.
"I'm afraid I have some bad news," he replied, standing on the other side of the blasted-open room from them with Chiana leaning her head against his arm. She was calm. Demure, even. Something was definitely wrong.
Aeryn felt John tense up beside her.
"Can it wait until…?" she started, glancing at the investigators who now began replacing medics who initially replaced SWAT agents. She huffed.
"IS there no end to these people?!" she asked loudly and rudely in her native tongue. All activity in the room ceased as if understanding her on instinct alone and Jack, almost back to his normal self, nodded and held up a hand.
"We appreciate the response here everybody, but I think we've got everything under control here," Jack said, addressing all present.
"With all due respect, sir," the head investigator began, "this incident really has to be—"
"Does it have to be now, though?" he interrupted. He tried to crack a smile. "I mean look at us. I'm sure we're all," he continued with a bit of a laugh, "rather keen on getting back home and returning to our families. It's Christmas Eve. And me and my family are already gonna have a long one as it is. So, if it's alright with you, I don't mind if this resumes again tomorrow evening, or even the day after."
"Sir," came a voice from the kitchen, "We've arranged hotel accommodations for you and everyone else."
Jack gingerly turned his head, lifting up a hand to rub his sore neck. "Thank you. And…I'm sure as soon as everybody's cleared out, we can pack up some of…well, what's left of, our Christmas presents, and have a less exciting Christmas Eve at the Ritz."
He turned back to the agents and others still in his totaled living room. "So if it's alright with you guys, I think we should call it a night."
Unable to really argue with the head of Extra-terrestrial Studies, the swat, the medics, and the investigators packed up their things and slowly trickled out, soon leaving a still stationary John stealthily clutching a suspicious Aeryn, a downcast Nebari, and a Luxan itching with the information he had to share.
When they were finally alone, with just the warm Florida wind gently blowing through gaping holes in the house, Jack carefully limped over to the couch and began brushing debris off it. Seeing what her father was doing, Olivia also shook herself out of her shock and eagerly helped out her father in clearing off places for everyone to sit in the rubble. Jack and his daughter took a seat on one of the couches and D'Argo, with a silent nod in greeting, took up the last of the space beside them. Chiana perched nervously on the armrest beside him and tried not to tug at the threads that had broken open over the seat's padding.
"John?" Aeryn said in hushed tones. With a deep breath, he detached himself, and solemnly walked over to the couch facing the one his family and friends sat on and took a seat on the nearest end cushion. Slowly he laid his arm on the busted armrest and looked his father and little sister in the eye. The corner of his mouth twitched.
"I am so, so sorry…" he said quietly.
Jack shook his head. "No, don't you worry about any of it, son."
John sniffed and looked away.
"Don't you worry about any of it," Jack confidently repeated. "Do you know what that thing was?"
"But it was alien. Right?"
John lifted his hands up and ran them down his face. "Yes. Alien. But," he said with a shake of his head, "Never seen anything like that before. Which, you know, isn't saying much. D'Argo?"
The Luxan carefully shook his head. "I've never seen it before either."
Jack nodded, focusing his eyes on some of the broken glass on the floor.
"John," D'Argo began slowly. "I have to tell you something. I actually had no idea that thing was here. We just got lucky. The real reason I came…" he trailed off, looking sympathetically at John who met his gaze with a tilt of his head.
"Yeah?" he said coldly, agitation apparent in his voice.
D'Argo folded his hands together and looked at anything but his friend. Eventually his eyes found their way to Chiana who looked back at him insistently and rested a hand on his back.
"When Chiana and I were leaving the press conference, we went into the parking garage and I smelled something….something I've never smelled before."
John raised his eyebrows incredulously. "Ookay," he prompted. D'Argo sighed.
"We followed the scent to one of the government cars inside, and found the windows down. Inside….Inside we found your friend, DK, and…and his wife."
John bolted to his feet, slammed a hand over his face, and quickly U-turned around the couch.
"I am so…sorry, John," he continued. John paused mid-stride behind the couch. D'Argo could feel Chiana's small hand grip the back of his tunic. "That…thing must've captured them, and then followed you home. I'm so sorry."
John gasped and seemed to fall to the ground.
Everyone shouted for him in unison, but with the couch blocking their line of sight, only Aeryn was able to reach him first. John huddled against the unsturdy fabric covering the back of the vintage couch, his face buried in his hands and his knees. Aeryn dove to her own knees and rested her hand on his back. She said nothing.
"Son? Son!" Jack cried, and circled around the furniture as if he hadn't just been slammed against a floor moments before to get to his child. He tried to approach his boy, who was now very firmly in the fetal position, but helplessly could do nothing. Olivia just sat where she was, silently weeping. She wiped her face with the sleeve of her shirt but it seemed to do no good.
Everyone just sat there in silence, huddled around John, both in shock and concern when suddenly his fist began to tighten. D'Argo and Aeryn were the only ones who noticed and Aeryn made an attempt once again to get his attention.
"John?" she repeated. Suddenly John made to spring up from his spot on the floor, utterly purple with rage.
"I'M GONNA KILL HIM! I'M GONNA KILL THAT SON OF A BITCH, THAT—!" he ranted, spittle frothing as if a physical manifestation of his hate. Aeryn flung out an arm to catch him before he could go any further.
"John! Who? Kill who?" she yelled back, trying desperately to get ahold of his arms as he struggled out of her grasp.
"ARHHHHHHHHHHHH!" he roared, almost slipping out of Aeryn's grasp when D'Argo stepped forward with a low growl that seemed to bring him back, at least for a moment, to reality.
"SCORPIUS!" he screamed. "He knows! He knows what that thing is! HE did this! He—"
"John!" Aeryn shouted, finally getting a grasp on his forearms. Jack sat back stunned, shocked into silence at the pure rage, the pure danger, the literally radiated out of his own flesh and blood.
"John! If you think he knows, why don't you ask him? Now?" Aeryn asked him. "Just comm him, now, and ask him—" she tried to continue, struggling to keep ahold of him, "—yourself!"
"NO! Don't you get it? Don't you see?" he began. "I ask him and then he knows he got to me, Aeryn!"
"What is there to know, John, really?" she reasoned loudly. "These are your friends. Your family? Of course they will matter to you and be people you care about. Where is the mystery in that?"
John fumed, breathing rapidly. He looked quickly at D'Argo, to Aeryn, and then back to D'Argo again. "Great, then it's agreed. We go, and we kill him now."
"Kill?" he father gasped. John's head snapped into the direction of the former astronaut, whose presence he had virtually forgotten about in the tumult.
"Yes, kill," he hissed.
"No, that's not what I said John," Aeryn said. John's attention immediately came back to her. "What I was suggesting was that as targets they are too easy for him. If he wanted to kill them, he would have done it sooner and made a show of it."
D'argo grunted. "Aeryn's right. This isn't his style," he said, crossing his arms.
John was becoming hysterical. "Huh, you're kidding me…you believe that?"
Suddenly, he was pulled inside his own mind, and everywhere he looked was dark wood panelling and every football rerun you could imagine.
"Looks to me like y'all need a drink," said a familiar voice in a hokey Southern drawl.
"Na' John, listen here," the neural clone continued, patting his host on the arm as he took up the swivel barstool next to him.
"Your friends….are actually right about this 'un. I agree indubitably," it continued. John downed the shot of whisky placed in front of him.
"Scorpius," the clone leaned in to murmur, resuming his customary tones.
"Hey barkeep! 'Nother one!" John bellowed to the imaginary bartender, trying to block the pest out.
"...was not responsible for this attack!" he hissed.
John turned to Harvey and choked back a laugh.
"You expect me to believe you, Harv?" he asked incredulously as he reached for the second shot.
"As I told you before, John," it said, staying John's hand from downing his drink. "I am utterly dedicated to both our survival—"
John pulled his hand away and hastily tossed the amber liquid down his throat.
"And I have no reason, nor desire," it continued, "to shield Scorpius in any way."
John glared at the clone and the clone glared back as reality pulled at him once again.
He closed his eyes and thumped his head against the billowy back of the old couch a couple times before slumping towards the floor but Aeryn caught an arm under his.
"No, John, broken glass," she grunted under the weight of holding him up. He sighed again and resumed his spot in the fetal position.
"Then who's style," came a muffled voice. "do you think it is?"
D'Argo took a look around, sniffed, and snarled. "Grayza."
Aeryn, the only one within reaching distance of John, saw him ever so slightly wince. She frowned. "Yes, that would actually make more sense," she agreed, pulling her eyes away from the human long enough to give a nod to D'Argo. "A hired hit would go under High Command's radar and still give her greater control of the situation. It's disconnected, impersonal…"
"Oh,"John scoffed, pulling his head above his arms to rest his tear-stained face on his knees. "She has no problem with 'personal'," he said pointedly, biting the skin on the back of his arm.
"Johnny?" came a small voice.
"Livvy?" came the reply back.
"Come sit on the couch," she sniffed, disliking being unable to see her brother despite hearing him, and unhappy being fairly alone on the couch despite Chiana there.
Aeryn stood up and extended a hand, which, after a moment, John took, and rose to his feet where they all resumed their previous positions in the family living room, except this time Aeryn took up the center cushion next to the visibly grieving human. Silence.
Jack, too, had tears running down his cheeks, but not just for his son's childhood friend he'd known for decades, but for what he'd just witnessed. He'd never seen anything like it. Sure John could get mad, especially as a teenager, but this….this was different. This was a seething rage he'd not seen before, and the worst part was that it clearly wasn't impotent. It occurred to him, then, that his son, his child, had actually taken a life before. And not just 'a' life, but probably many lives.
"John…" his father began. John looked up.
"I love you, son."
"I love you, too, dad."
Jack sniffed back his emotions, trying to drum up enough courage in himself. "I think it's time….time you tell us everything. And I don't mean the aliens or all the worlds you've visited. I….I know shell-shock when I see it, and…"
John laughed slightly. " 'Shell-shock'…."
"What is that?" D'Argo asked. Jack closed his eyes briefly to focus.
"Shell-shock…it's when soldiers come home from war but they can't cope. They think they're still in the warzone, that any second they're gonna be blown to pieces."
John scoffed. "Look around you, dad. You really think my fears were unfounded?"
Silence. John shook his head. "I hate…I hate that this has happened," he said quietly.
Aeryn looked from Jack to Crichton with a frown and breathed deeply. "We have had similar problems in the Peacekeepers."
Jack raised his brows. "And how do your people deal with it?"
Her mouth twisted slightly and she could feel John's gaze peering at her from the corner of his eye. "Well, it's not so much dealt with as eliminated. When…when a soldier can no longer perform their given duty and they cannot be reassigned anywhere else, and it's too soon to consider retirement, they are….'Honourably Discharged'." Aeryn laid her hands flat against her lap. "This means the soldier is taken from their regiment and painlessly executed."
"My god…," Jack murmured. John, D'Argo, and Chiana remained stoic, while Olivia's face contorted in disgust. Chiana gave a low laugh.
"Wha- that's it? The Nebari, my people, if y-y-you have a break down or something, they just mind cleanse you. Over and over, until you are blissfully emotionless a-a-and eager…eager to do whatever they tell you," she said, casually fingering one of D'Argo's tentacles.
John's family were in shock.
"Well dad…" John began. "After hearing those fun little teasers, you really sure you wanna hear it? You sure you really want all the gritty details?" Jack sat in stunned silence just staring at his son.
"Because you don't need to worry. Not too much," he continued, trying to force a smile. "Usually….well, this is just one of the bad days. Usually…usually it isn't this hard."
John raised the back of his hand to his face to wipe away fresh tears as Aeryn stared resolutely at the floor.
"Yes," Jack said suddenly. "Yes, I do."
John looked up to see his father staring him determinedly right in the eye and he swallowed hard. He looked at Olivia, at D'Argo, at Chiana, and finally at Aeryn who sat next to him. His eyes lingered on her, and as if sensing his gaze she looked up to meet him. For no more than a second or two, they stared at each other, but it felt like ages. In one breath, however, Crichton gathered his thoughts, looked at his father, and began.
'Rough' was an understatement. There were times where Jack was in tears but John continued, his face like stone, and other times where John verged on tears and his father could do nothing but listen. At times it seemed as if Jack couldn't listen anymore, and Olivia had long since buried her face in the couch cushion rather than bear looking her brother in the face as he recounted the horrors he'd experienced. D'Argo, Aeryn, and Chiana added details here and there where they could, where it was appropriate, but otherwise it was all John. This was his story to tell.
As they got closer and closer to more recent happenings, it was John, though, who found it harder to keep it together. These wounds were still fresh, and even as he recounted the joy of seeing Aeryn again- conveniently leaving out the part about her carrying his child and all of his wild fantasies about their potential life together- he shook at the anger of Scorpius coming with it and having to retell, vaguely, what had happened since they last parted. In fact, Aeryn had learned more about John's encounter with Grayza in that ruined living room than she had when she came back, and it was her turn to fume in silent indignation and pulse with flashes of desires for revenge.
Somewhere along the line, they had found each others' hands, and as they got closer and closer to the events of that evening, John, having recounted all of the sins and depravities of the past three and a half years on top of losing his best friend since middle school, found himself weeping in Aeryn's arms like a child as Jack, and now Olivia, too, merely looked on, faces blank, as if battle-hardened by just listening to John's story.
A deep, sapphire blue crested over the horizon of the dawn sky, soon to be followed by vivid purples, pinks, and greens. For hours John had talked. They'd talked right into Christmas Day. John was still slumped against Aeryn's shoulder as she rested her hand on his cheek and stared unblinking at a stain on the opposite couch. Jack had left the room. Apparently the car had waited out front all night to take them to the hotel.
"It's cold, don't you think?" Jack said. "We should probably…head over there."
One by one, everyone nodded and stood up. Olivia headed to the tree and attempted to gather up what was left of their Christmas presents. Christmas presents seemed so unreal to her now after everything that had happened that night, but somehow….somehow she knew that it was still important, that it would still matter, once they'd all gotten a good rest and some food. Family traditions. She looked over at her brother who had just poured his soul out to them and then quickly resumed packing up their stuff. Maybe a little family tradition was exactly what they needed right now.
D'Argo patted John on the back and nodded knowingly to Aeryn who smiled half-heartedly before he and Chiana took their leave in Lo'la.
"Aeryn?" Jack called. Aeryn looked over. "We'll wait for you guys in the car."
She nodded, watching Jack and Olivia weighed down with baggage as they left through the open doorframe. Slowly she patted John on the cheek.
"They're going to leave without us," she said quietly.
"Mmm," came the reply. Aeryn frowned and looked around unsure what to do.
"Well, is that a yes you want to go, or a no?" she queried, laying her hand flat against his cheek.
"Mmm," came the reply again. Aeryn sighed, and laid her head back against the couch cushion. She moved her arm so it hung over John's shoulder and slowly, gently began to caress his cheek with her thumb.
Just as sleep came tugging at her, she was pulled from her spot on the couch so suddenly that, mixed with her haze of almost-sleep, she lost track completely of where she was and was about to react defensively as her training so deftly taught her how when she found herself pulled across John's lap and engulfed firmly in his arms. Her head rested on his chest as he buried his face in her hair, and together, in the ruins of John's childhood home, with her fingers now digging into his shirt, they sat there. Aeryn could feel the steady rhythm of his heartbeat, counter-balanced by his breath in her hair, and mused briefly on how similar yet different the sounds of their two hearts were, Sebacean's and Human's, but was soon lost in the trance it induced in her as John seemed to hold onto her for dear life. He stayed perfectly still, inhaling the sweet scent of her hair and feeling the lukewarm heat her body radiated against his. He wanted to stay just like that, perfectly like that, because the entire scene was a metaphor for his entire life: His human past, that future, shot to ruin, yet in the middle of it all….somehow not yet shattered….Her. Him. Both of them. Not yet totally together, but never, ever again to be parted. He wouldn't, couldn't, have it. Losing her….after everything he'd related tonight, nothing, none of it, would be anything compared to losing Aeryn.
With a slight gasp, he slowly released her, but she didn't move. Instead as he looked down he watched as she drifted in and out of sleep against his chest. He smiled despite himself. It was way too familiar, and he missed it, badly. He brushed a few strands of her hair behind her ear and swayed slightly.
"Should we go?" he half-whispered against her ear.
"Mmm," came the reply, and John laughed.