Crichton slumped on his bunk in the dim, ruddy light, staring at nothing, ignoring the viewport. His notebook lay in his hands, forgotten. Too wound up to sleep, too tired to focus. Hung over as hell, at the end of a long, ugly day.
By now she'd be back in Crais' quarters. They'd be celebrating, recreating. Does Talyn like to watch?
Shit, man, get off that. You'll just make it worse.
Steps in the passageway made him jump. When he saw it was Aeryn, that startled him more.
He put his pen to the paper again. Busy. Look busy. She might take the hint.
"I see you found Winona," she said calmly.
Thought you had places to be. "DRD had it."
"Have you seen this?" she asked. She tossed the vid chip onto his bunk.
"Yeah." He could handle this. He'd done harder things.
"WHEN did you see it?" God, she's relentless.
"Aeryn, I'm not your boyfriend, I'm not your husband, I'm not your... anything. You can do what you want." He grabbed the chip and pitched it away. It hit the floor with more force than he meant. Hey, tell me we can still be friends. Make my frelling day complete.
"It's not real. You know that, don't you?"
What? A blast of relief, like a call from the governor: Turn that boy loose, he's suffered enough. Good news, sure, they say a few words, and you've got your life back. No harm, no foul, let's move on. Like hell. Tears stung his eyes, as if he'd been slapped.
She was looking right into his face, but he wouldn't let her catch his eye. "The last part. Talyn altered the image. I never recreated with Crais."
Shit – she didn't – What have I done?
She was still talking. "Not that it should matter."
"It does." It did. It would. A soft voice, himself – defiant, strained.
"It never did before. I had this life, and I LIKED it. It had rules. I followed the rules, and that made everything... right." She smiled, remembering. "Then you come along, and you frell everything up. This strange human – " Sounds like a cussword. " – with arrogance, stubbornness – "
"Dumb..." The word stuck in his throat. Screwed, I'm so screwed –
"Let me finish." Like I've got any choice. "You saw the recording – and you didn't say a word." He sat rigid, braced. This is it. Here it comes. "You are like a plague, John Crichton, and you have ruined my life, and yet I just... keep coming back."
He was stunned. This is big. She was reaming him out – but then – He tried to catch up. This is huge.
She had run out of words. She leaned back on his bunk and stared at the floor, her shoulders slumped. He sat there trying to take it in, hardly daring to breathe, still thinking he hadn't heard her right. She wrapped her arms around herself. The silence stretched out. Every word he thought of to say felt wrong.
She sighed and waved her hand impatiently, not looking in his direction. "You could talk now."
And, God help him, that gesture undid him. Oh, baby, baby, you came to me. It gave him a rush of tenderness, to see her laid open like that – whatever he did, it would be a risk, a shot in the dark. But she had taken it first. 'I keep coming back.' What have I got, to answer that?
"Let me show you something." He stretched out his arm in invitation, and she shot him a look. "Come here. I'm not going to bite." She took his hand and let him pull her up beside him.
And there they were. She was so close, in that tight little space. He paged through the notebook and found a chart, glad to see that his hands weren't shaking. Just start with the facts. "This is a star chart. These are names I gave to stars."
"They've already got names." She was looking out the window, collecting herself.
"I know. But Mintaka 3 sounds boring to me. Anyway, that's Huey, Louie, Dewie. You see that one, that's that star right there." He pointed out at the brightest star in their view. "It's my point of reference, my guide. It always becomes the center of my chart." He paused, searching her eyes. "I always name it Aeryn."
"You say it's your guide?" She got it, all right. Hope swelled in his chest, made his throat tighten up.
"It's my one constant." His fingertips were brushing her face. How long since he'd touched her like that? His mouth had gone dry. "Would you like to name some stars?"
"There's a lot of them." Was that a yes?
"We can take our time." He could feel her breath, he could feel her warmth on the pallet beside him. He leaned toward her, not moving, not really, just shifting his weight, afraid to move, afraid to stop moving, afraid it would end. But she wasn't retreating. His lips found hers.
A kiss. Holy Mother of Pearl, a kiss. And she hadn't bailed. Hadn't punched him out. Wasn't cursing his hormones. He could feel her opening, melting against him. He pulled back, just slightly, his lips almost touching hers. Time stretched out around him. Her head tilted, seeking him, fitting their mouths together again.
Of all the ways for this day to end, this was one he'd never considered. What made him think this was real, at all? Hell, as tired as he was, it wouldn't take much to mess with his mind. But she felt real, smelled real, tasted real. He was fried to the bone, sore all over, grubby and stale. A lucky man. Not a thing wrong, here. He began to let the relief filter in.
She was still kissing him. How had he forgotten how good she tasted, how right? His hand homed in to the nape of her neck, and grazed a fresh bandage. God, the transponder. That clutched at his gut. In and out, just that fast. Bad day for her, too. Oh, baby, I didn't mean... He flinched, remembering how he'd behaved – Talyn, please, I was wrong, I should be there for her. He broke the kiss, and spoke in her ear.
"About... before – " His voice sounded distant. Go on. Get past it. "I'm... sorry." Nearly choked himself, getting that out. "I said things, today, to you – You should have kicked my ass. You could have left me out there."
"John, it's over. Behind us." Through the blur of exhaustion he caught the "us." What a fabulous word to hear.
"Aeryn, listen..." He tried again. "When I saw that recording, it knocked me flat."
This was dangerous ground. "Crichton, I told you – "
"No, please, I need to say this." He reached for her hand, and wrapped both hands around it. "It wasn't who you had... been with." You liar. You wish. "Or, not the worst thing. It was like being..." What? Spaced. Shut out. Alone. She had gone tense, but he couldn't stop now. "I know... I should have asked. But I thought – Oh, shit. I thought I knew. And I couldn't stand to hear you say it." He swallowed hard. "Every time I saw you," saw you with Crais, "It just – I couldn't – " Hey, Goober, you got a point in there? "God, Aeryn, I wish..." His voice trailed off.
She said nothing, just gazed down at his hands as they cradled hers. His hands. The hands that had killed her. Got no right to be here. Neither of us. This went past all hope. He opened his arms and she moved right in to embrace him. He wrapped his arms further around her, caught her more tightly, deliberately making his muscles ache. Proof. She's real. He buried his face in her shoulder, his mouth pressed hard on the side of her neck, his lips open to taste her. Her sweat smelled of melons and apricots, salt and spice, like no woman's on earth. Best smell in the world. In any world. He looked out over her back. Aeryn, the star, shone brightly. The center held. He felt dizzy with wonder.
He squeezed his eyes shut. No need to keep watch, when you've got the whole world in your arms. He wanted to tell her how much this meant, how much he loved her. Just the facts, John-Boy. He let out his breath. "So. Here we are."
He could feel her nod.
She felt his face press on her neck, her jaw, their fierceness too much for a kiss. They had clung together like this before – When Zhaan brought me back. In the maintenance bay. Before that, coming in from the ice. How you cling to life. If you sink toward unconsciousness, tighten your grip.
She thought of him out there, pounding the hatch. Alone, trapped – she knew how it was to hear voices over your comm, know that your death is coming in microts, know that they'll hear you die – Now she pressed close enough to feel his heart, as close as she could, feeling his urgency, feeling a strange relief.
Her momentum was gone. When she'd come in with the chip, she'd had a plan, she'd had things to say. The whole day long, he'd been maddening, awful. But whatever that chip had made him think, he had risked his life for them. Even Crais had said it: 'Honorable man.'
She shut her eyes. Nothing in her wanted to move. She was in his arms, in the place she had dreaded, denied herself. She had worked so hard, so long, not to act, refusing the risk. And that had been futile, protecting nothing. It wouldn't have kept him from dying. After all that, it was her need that had saved him. My weakness.
She had no idea how much time passed while they sat crushed together. She let her cheek rest against his hair, smelling it, fitting her palm to the back of his skull. Those acrid smells took her back. Skin after a firefight – sweat, explosives, blood, fear, soaked in and gone stale. But his human odor was under that, too. Never the same, when it's with him. What came next? Sex, she supposed. But now she felt strangely unsure.
"John – " Just saying his name made her hesitate more. "What do you want to do?"
She began to wonder if he had heard, he took so long to speak. "Just... stay." He shivered, and roused, and brushed his face across hers. She could feel his eyelashes grazing her skin, feel him sigh and inhale, as he loosened his grip. He let go of her slowly and leaned back against the wall, his legs sprawled apart. His eyes never left her – his face unguarded, stripped bare. "Stay with me."
She settled herself with her back to his chest, sinking against the warm mass of his body. His arms enfolded her, draping around her, his hands at her waist. He hardly moved, just held her, nuzzling the back of her neck. They sat for a while, looking out at the stars together. Then she felt his head droop, and snap back up. She stirred and straightened. "You're tired. You should sleep."
"Could you sleep here tonight?" he suddenly said. "That would be..." A pause. "We could talk in the morning."
"That's ...such an odd custom." But it didn't feel right to leave, not yet. "But – All right, I could stay." His body relaxed.
"Just let me clean up." He hauled himself to his feet, and dug a tee from his duffel. As he pulled off his shirt she saw him wince. Bruises had bloomed on his shoulders and sides. Hands cut, knuckles skinned – just scrapes and gashes, no wounds. But it caught at her throat, that the day had left marks on his body.
"Let me see," she said. He didn't argue, just eased his arms down and bent carefully, stiffly, undoing his pants. She went to him and knelt to help him remove his boots. Glancing up, she saw an odd look on his face as he watched her.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Nothing," he said, but he was smiling. She dropped down on her heels again. He finished pulling off his pants and sat back on the bunk with his legs apart. She thought about touching his calves, his thighs. His stillness felt strangely moving to her. She slid her hands down to his ankle, wrapped them around his foot. An impulse made her squeeze hard with her thumbs on his sole, his toes, gripping, massaging. "Oh, man," he said softly. "That's nice."
She smiled, and switched to his other foot. "Better?"
"Yeah. Thanks." He reached down and touched her face.
She stood up and reached for his unworn shirt. He put it on and rose to his feet. When she spoke, her voice was halting. "John Crichton, I'm... glad that you're here. This is where you should be." Your words, John. I'll give you your words. He just stood there, his jaw working silently. But then their eyes caught, and he nodded.
He cleared his throat. "Aeryn, something – Sometimes I dream. It's no big deal. Just – "
"All right." She laid her weapon on top of her clothes, in easy reach. "Let's go to bed."
He climbed up on the bunk, pulling her after him. "Need me to talk you through this?"
"I have done it before," she said, before she caught his joking tone.
"Then you know the drill. Come here and we'll try it again." He stretched out on the bunk, and she rolled on top of him, sliding her leg between his. He ran his hands over her body, kissing the side of her neck. "Very good start." She caught his head in her hands and brought his mouth up to hers.
They kissed slowly, lazily; his hands were absently stroking her back, but when she felt them stop she pulled away and looked at him inquisitively.
"Aeryn?" His eyes were half-lidded.
"Mmm?" she said.
He groaned, laughing softly. "This is so sad – I get you in bed, and I'm... passing out," he confessed. He rolled onto his side and eased his body against her, curve for curve. Wove their fingers together. "Look, if I bother you, just wake me up. Just..."
"Crichton, shut up. Get some rest."
He nudged the lights lower, but left them on. "I like to know where I am, in the night." They lay in silence. Had she made a mistake? The bunk was so compact, tucked into the bulkheads. His body filled so much of the space. She thought back to the other bed they had shared, that night when their deaths seemed so close. That had seemed so hopeless, when things between them had hardly begun.
She lay there, willing herself to relax. He was gone already. She shifted her body, opened a gap between them, touching a little bit less. What came next? They would sleep. Their bodies would touch, in sleep. Through arns of unconsciousness, weakness.
Right. Well. She'd done stranger things, since she'd stepped onto Moya. She could manage this.
She came to awareness. He lay on his back, panting rapidly, muscles coiled tight.
"John. Wake up, John." Spoke clearly, sharply. "Crichton! You're dreaming."
He jerked, bolted up, mumbling nonsense, wild-eyed, frowning, shaking his head. She gripped his arm firmly, kept her voice calm. "John, it's all right. You're with me." At last his eyes found her, and cleared.
"Whoooo," he said, sinking back, "Good – Good to see you."
In the dim light, she took his measure: trembling, blinking, pale. She worked her hand under his damp neck, feeling his stubble sharp on her hand as she stroked his jaw. His pulse was racing. She leaned to kiss him and sank down against him. His arms went around her; she rolled to her back and carried him with her, over her.
He ducked his head, brushing his hair down her cheek, silently pressing his eyes to her chest, brow to her collarbone. Held his face there, breathing slowly. Controlling himself.
He shifted to lie close at her side. She kept her hand on his back, kneading his muscles. His heart was slowing. She touched his cheek, and he buried his face in her palm. "Your hand is so cool," he murmured. Kissed her hand tenderly. "Could you turn over?" he asked.
His arm twined around and found her waist. He was wrapped around her, magnetic fit, his body locked on. A few more breaths and she felt him relax.
Awareness again. He was moaning, or humming, a wordless noise. Eyelids twitching, frozen limbs. She spoke in his ear. "John. John. Wake up." His whole body jumped as his eyes flew open, unfocused, confused. "Just a dream. Easy."
He nodded and swallowed and closed his eyes. He caught her hand. "Thanks," he sighed, and shivered, rolling over. Resting her hand on his back again, she watched as under her palm his breath rose and fell, evenly, slowly, his tension melting away. That was one he had dodged.
In the dim light she saw only edges, shapes, the dark blotch of a bruise at the sleeve of his shirt. She tried curling herself around his back, pulling him close. Her palm moved down his chest and slid under his shirt. His breath moved there, too. She rested her lips on the crook of his shoulder, tasting the faint tinge of salt.
His warmth soaked into her belly, her breast.
She slept again.
When she woke it was early. It seemed odd, how the bed felt softer now, warmer. There seemed to be room. He was stretched out before her, unconsciously graceful.
Awake, his face was never this quiet. Smooth curve of his lips, line of his cheekbone. Tiny lines at his eyes, where a laugh made them crinkle. A record, there, of his smiles. Eyelashes, eyebrows, texture of skin. Scar on his forehead. She bit her lip. That other, honorable man. Nothing that she could do about that. If she waited for things to be clear, to be right, she'd never act again. She shook off that thought, and took stock of herself. She had rested well. Her training still held: snap awake at the slightest alarm, then sink back to sleep at 'all clear.' Over and over, no problem. She could watch his back. He could use more rest. Might make him less difficult. They had fought alone long enough.
The lights crept brighter. The shadows were fading. She looked down the line of his shoulder and arm, relaxed on top of the blanket. His long fingers curled, his hands lying still. She thought about what those hands could do: dexterity, cleverness, comfort. She looked at the hairs where his forearm tapered, the bump of bone at his wrist.
He lay relaxed, his back to the viewport. A human, sleeping among the stars. A moment between.
So. The rules of engagement were gone. Frelled. Smashed, every one.
And the lights still came up in the morning.