It was time. After countless moments of thought and agony and indecision, she knew what must be done, what he would have wanted, and now they had arrived. Not that she was ready, of course. Somehow she didn’t think she would ever be ready. Yet, as life had consistently seemed to show her, it didn’t seem to matter what she was ready for. It brought the pain and discomfort and grief anyway.
Aeryn bit her lip and formed her face into an impassive mask. If there was anything her upbringing had taught her it was control. Despite the cycles since, when she had been shown another way, it was comfortingly easy to bring that control back and let it cover the pain.
The transport doors opened and she let Rygel and Crais go first. She had no doubt that Crichton would be waiting outside and she could not face him without their doing so before her.
Yes, there he was, real and tangible, not a vision or a dream. She could smell him, that interesting mix of leather and chakan oil and something uniquely him. His face was full of expression, hope and desire and joy, and it met her like a knife to her insides. It was not fair, it was not fair that he was right there and he wasn’t hers and he didn’t know what had been theirs and could never be again.
“Well, there’s a familiar face.”
His voice, it was his voice, that strange Earth accent as familiar to her as her own hands. His voice decided her. It may have been time, but she couldn’t possibly do it right now. She would not break, she could not.
So the words were easy to say in a cold, even tone. Too easy.
She walked past him, her pace not quick, but as quick as she could make it without seeming like she was in a hurry. She still saw the confusion and hurt come into his expression.
She would not yield. That was not her Crichton.
She closed her eyes as soon as she was past and heard Crais begin to speak as she left the maintenance bay. She knew he would be giving John the duffel bag that she had so painstakingly packed with all of her John’s belongings. They were his by right and keeping them was too painful anyway.
She took her own belongings to her quarters, retracing the familiar steps that had always been slightly awkward but had once given her joy. She had no joy left.
Her quarters were untouched, Rygel not being there to do so, she imagined wryly. It was slightly comforting to know they were there waiting for her, but she had changed too much while she was gone. She put her bag down and stared at the bed before heading to the command chamber.
There was a debriefing, of course, minus the strange new castaways Moya had just picked up. At least what passed for a debriefing on Moya. Nothing new there.
She kept herself to the periphery, accepting the hug from Chiana and exchanging nods with D’Argo. The only time she felt a genuine smile on her face was when Pilot spoke to her over the clam shell.
Everyone’s adventures were recounted and she preferred listening to what they had gone through in her absence than speaking about what she had endured. Naturally it still had to be said. Rygel and Crais kept looking at her every time they had to mention their Crichton, as if unsure what to say. It was maddening. She did quell them with a look when it came time to tell of the events on Dam-Da-Ba.
In brisk, short terms she relayed that they had defeated a Scarran dreadnought and that Crichton had died doing so.
They all stared at her and she forced herself to meet their gazes evenly, though she would not look at Crichton, who had closed himself off in the corner, pointedly not speaking. As strange an event as any she’d ever encountered, but she was inwardly grateful because hearing his voice was even harder than having to see him.
Pilot spoke haltingly after that, turning the meeting toward what to do about their current refugees. It looked like everyone had their own ideas about that. No change there either. When Pilot ended their gathering, it was as if no one knew what to do. They wandered to their own self-appointed tasks, nothing like the reunion they had all envisioned when the ships had separated monens before.
Crichton was the last to leave and he hesitated at the door as if waiting for something. She tried to work up her resolve and he sighed and began to leave without saying anything.
The time had truly come and she could not put it off any longer.
“Crichton,” Aeryn said, relieved at how calm her voice sounded.
He stiffened on his way out of the room.
“Yup?” he asked, not turning back toward her.
“May I speak with you, please?”
“Sure thing, Officer Sun,” he said too casually and led the way out of the command chamber. They walked in silence to a tier level rarely used on the hamman side. It was strange how familiar it felt to walk with him, how effortless it was, how in sync they were. She felt like she was choking. “What’s up?” he asked, leaning against a strut in the hallway, folding his arms, and looking at the floor.
She stood rigidly, like she was giving a report to a superior officer.
“There are things I feel it only fair to tell you,” she began. “Personal details.”
“Shoot,” he said, still not looking at her.
She hated how hard it was to say the words.
“The other Crichton and I began a relationship.” She doubted that was a surprise considering how they had all been acting, but he still reacted. “So it was rather difficult for me when he died and you can imagine that it is also rather difficult to be around you.”
“Uh huh,” he said, still staring at the floor and clenching his fingers so tightly she wouldn’t wonder if he had bruises on his forearms later. Maybe it wasn’t really Crichton because normally he didn’t shut up, especially when he was upset. “I don’t say this to be cruel,” she continued. “I just thought you should hear it from me.”
He laughed, a bitter sound, and it hurt her to hear it. She had to remind herself again that it was not his fault that he lived and her John did not.
“Right, right,” he said, looking up, a grimace of a smile on his face. “Okay then, well, thanks for the info, sweetheart, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
She had imagined his reaction many times, but he still managed to surprise her.
“You are not being fair,” she said, her anger rising, which felt better than the frozen pain she’d been immersed in for so long.
She knew how to handle anger.
“You wanna talk about fair?” he said, rounding on her. “You two swan off by yourselves and make a happy little Talyn love nest and never stop to consider the rest of us. Now, just because your sweetie Johnny boy died, I’m supposed to accept that I’m some copy that hurts your delicate little sensibilities and not have any other kind of reaction! What did you expect me to do?”
“I expect you not to be so selfish,” she retorted. “This is not something I planned, you know. In fact, I planned to never meet you.”
“You did, you did meet me,” he said with deliberation. “We met and we bonded and we were so close to being happy and then you abandoned me. Now you’re acting like I’m not even John Crichton.”
“You are and that’s the problem,” she said.
“But I’m not him,” he said, suddenly quiet.
“No,” she said, stilling as well. “You are not.”
“I’m me,” he said, staring at her with such intensity and she knew it so well. “I was here. I missed that whole dance.”
“I’m, I’m sorry,” she said, trying to speak around her own feelings that were getting steadily harder to control. This was a mistake. She should have gone with her first instinct of avoiding him at all costs. “But you have to understand… I watched you die and now seeing you alive is killing me.”
He stopped at that and she could see his brain working, sorting through words, desperately searching for the right thing to say.
“I watched you die,” he said, his voice rough. “I killed you.”
“It’s not-” she began.
“It’s enough like it,” he interrupted. “You were given back to me,” he continued. “Fresh out of the grave and it was a gift, Aeryn; it was a second chance.”
“A second chance for pain,” she said. “Look what happened.”
“You fell in love,” he said, looking both angry at the thought and strangely happy.
“I was always in love,” she admitted. “And I do not understand why you think that is a magic cure for everything. Love is pain.”
“Sometimes,” he said, moving toward her and she put out a warning hand to stop him. If he touched her right now, she would injure him, and he stopped. “But how was it, Aeryn? How was it with him?”
“Don’t do that to yourself,” she said, more to protect herself from answering than to protect him.
“I’m not flogging myself emotionally for no reason here,” he said, half cracking a smile. “How was it?”
She couldn’t help but remember then, the memories crashing through the mental block she had placed over them. Long nights in their bunk, star gazing, planning a future, feeling hope and ecstasy and partnership and joy, the remembrance broke over her mind.
She let out a sob and turned her head.
“It was perfect,” she whispered. “We were perfect.”
He said something under his breath, some word the microbes did not know how to translate, but she had heard him say it before when he was angry.
There was a weighted silence between them while she got herself back under control and his heavy breathing echoed in the space between them.
“And what’s wrong with perfect?” he asked finally.
“Perfect does not last,” she said fiercely. “Perfect is a lie and I will not listen to it again.”
He nodded, tapping his hand against the wall aimlessly, thinking again. He was dangerous when he thought.
“I am sorry for your loss,” he said. “I truly am, Aeryn, but you are not the only one who’s lost someone. I get you’ve never been prepared for this and you didn’t know what you were getting into, but, newsflash, nobody does really. Don’t run from happiness because there is a chance of pain. That’s just life. Sometimes it just frells you up and sometimes it doesn’t, but you have to try.”
“I can’t. I won’t,” she said. It hurt too much and she was not willing to go through that again. It would kill her. “Please, John.”
He looked like he wanted to say something more, but he stopped and just looked at her for a moment. She did not look back.
“I won’t push,” he said slowly, holding his hands up and backing up slightly, obviously trying to be non-threatening. “I can be patient.”
“No, you can’t,” she said.
“I waited here on Moya,” he said, “no idea of what the two of you were getting up to, for you. I will be patient. Earth has mourning periods, too, you know. I’m not asking you to run away with me to Vegas. All I’m asking from you is that you don’t run.”
She didn’t know what to say to him. Why did he have to be so infuriatingly, achingly familiar? There was no doubt he was the same man, but she hated that she could not share with him the memories she held with such care and sadness.
Being around him was intolerable, but it also felt like being home, especially here on Moya, amongst the only people she had ever been allowed to fully express herself to.
The dangers surrounding them were not over and though she felt that her time remaining on Moya was short, she would not abandon her crew. She had come back to help and if this was what it cost her, she was a soldier, and she would get through it. She would get through it without yielding to the temptation of the future he always seemed to be holding out to her. Luckily grief was a strong motivator to not give in.
“We always worked well together,” she finally said. “But I promise nothing.”
“I’ll take it,” he said. “Now, any other bombshells you want to drop? My sanity’s running a two for one special today.”
“He left you a message,” she said. “As did Stark.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Okay,” she replied.
There did not seem to be any more to say and he apparently realized that.
“Welcome home,” he said, winking at her and striding off down the corridor, whistling something she did not recognize, but beneath his stride was a pain that she could recognize, it lived inside of her.
This hurt, this hurt, this hurt. But she watched him walk away and it didn’t make her feel like running. She wiped the tears from her eyes and walked in the opposite direction.
Later, she stood outside his quarters and watched her John give him the message he had asked her not to watch him make. She knew why, because her John was the same as this one, they still had hope for a future, both for the galaxy and for their relationship. Well, she could at least help give them one of those things.
Her control, she wrapped it around her again. She was not running, but that was the only thing she was willing to give.
Everything else had been taken from her.