John felt heavy, dull, like he'd crashed a while back. He knew it was smart to give her a break. Give her time to regroup, come back around later. He could figure that much. And he sure didn't have to make up an excuse, just took a whiff of his filthy self.
'Tell you what,' he'd said. 'I reek of that place. Think I'll go wash up.'
She'd straightened her shoulders. 'I'll finish here. Shouldn't be too long.'
Now he turned the water hotter, harder, gulping the steam 'til it made him cough. Tried to scrub off the stuff that had soaked in his skin, that coated his lungs. The thirty-one flavors of shit in that swamp. The things people did.
The stuff bad guys do. Torture the suspects. Shoot the prisoners.
Hell, he ought to do something right today. Just one good thing. And if something cut loose, if the lid came off, he had to be with her. At least he could give her somebody to grab.
That howl she'd let out while they crashed through the swamp – that still made him cringe. You could hear it all, before she slammed the lid back down. The day she met her battle-scarred hero... But, goddamn, she was strong. Pulled it together, jumped on the boat with her game face on. Dealt with Crais, dealt with Talyn. Still up there dealing. Officer Sun's doing Damage Control. Be on duty 'til everything's squared away.
And with all that shitstorm, she hadn't bailed. Hadn't run him off. Almost knocked him flat when she'd looked up at him, reached up out of that hole she was in. 'We can sleep. Or not.' Hell, more than just talking. Making a joke. Pulling a smile out of God knows where. Leaned there against him, and made it a point to let him know.
Still here. With me. Wanting me with her.
Now he was trying to get his mind right, to calm himself down. Didn't know what he had that might help tonight, but, surely to God, it needed to be about her. So he tried to get peaceful, tried not to picture Crais' brain, polluting Talyn, taking him over, pumping him full of Peacekeeper shit. 'Completely severed' – Like hell they are. He hit the controls, pushed up the temperature, needing more heat.
He soaped grimly, methodically, hitting every bit of his body, attacking the planet's stench. Vaguely, he noticed blood on the cloth. Then there was more, and he stopped to check. Some of his cuts had opened back up. Didn't hurt bad enough to hold his attention. But, still, his skin was an angry red, getting raw as he scoured.
Enough. That's as clean as you're gonna get. He groped up the wall to find the controls. When the water stopped, things got real quiet. Talyn's systems were thrumming, deep in the walls.
Okay. Okay. He worked on his breath, tried to slow it down as he toweled himself. Get the word to his nerves that it's time to stand down. Get the fuck out of your head.
He wiped down the shower, bundled the dirty stuff out of the way, and pulled on some clothes. Wandered around their quarters a while, trying to find something useful to do. Got the wound-dressing kit, some water to drink. Some food cubes, maybe she'd wake up hungry. Not much to offer, nothing much in his bag of tricks. No mellow jazz, no roses around. Wish I knew that Vulcan memory-wipe...
'You don't have to wait up.' Was she hoping he'd just conk out? Would that be a relief, to crawl into bed and not have to talk? Hey, nobody says we have to talk. That panicky feeling was starting to stir, while he just stood around, not knowing how she was doing now. He kept thinking he heard her, listening for her step in the passage, scanning for signals he couldn't hear. No, he'd stalled long enough. May not do it right. Just do what I can. Time to walk his girl home. Past time.
Command had gotten quiet, too. Aeryn was frowning at Talyn's displays, stroking the panel above her head. He leaned on the bulkhead, real casual, Joe Cool. Hey, don't mind me. I'm just hanging out.
She checked him over. "You're flushed," she said.
"Hot water, baby. Does a boy good."
That got half a smile as she shook her head. But he still couldn't keep his eyes off Crais, who was sprawled on a pallet she must have made, sleeping heavily, no longer wired.
"He'll be all right," she said.
What a fucking relief. Had me worried sick, that we might have lost him. John bit his tongue. That's one of those places you don't need to go. Not tonight.
Instead he spoke mildly, "Getting anywhere close to done?"
"Just now, I think." She stretched where she stood, moving like her joints were creaking, rubbing at the back of her neck.
He strolled over and laid his palm on her shoulder, stroking the skin that lay over the knots. Baby, I know. It's all still there. "Then let's go," he said. "We've had enough for one day." He waited for the argument, but she must have been ready to go.
Walking back through the tiers, nobody said much. Nobody was moving that fast. His hand strayed up and down her back, and his hip bumped against her lightly. Going to ground. Home Base. King's X.
She sat on the bed to pull off her boots, and sank into the blanket, flat on her back.
"Hey, you," he said. "Not so fast." She looked at him blankly. "Let's get you cleaned up."
She waved her hand weakly and moaned. Her message got through: Too much trouble, Crichton. Just shoot me now.
He sat beside her, unfastening her clothes. "Come on. Try me. Won't take but a minute. You'll be glad you did." She looked doubtful, bleary, but he kept coaxing. "You just have to stand there. I'll handle the rest. Let me do something for you. Just let me."
That got him a sigh. She let him haul her back up on her feet. "Good girl," he said, bringing her hand to his lips. Oh baby, your hands. Her knuckles were skinned and torn, dried blood in the creases, fingernails split. Helluva lot worse than his had been. Bad frelling day. Wrists chafed and burned – she must have been tied, she'd worked hard to get free. When did that happen? How much of that had Xhalax done? Most of it, all of it, all day long. Save that thought for tomorrow, okay?
"Come on," he said, "Get out of those clothes." Each piece hit the floor where she stood. "Where's your hairbrush, babe?" She dug in her duffel and handed it over. He put it down by the shower, and stripped. He tested the spray and gentled it down. Cool and easy. This is for her. Stepping inside, he stretched out his arm. "Here. Come on in." She stumbled, and grabbed him to steady herself. "Okay?" he asked softly.
"Fine. I'm good." Impatient, tired, she braced an arm on the wall. He began to soap her, watching carefully. Plenty of damage to work around. She'd been hit by an expert. Thank God she was young, and strong, and fast. She could have lost.
She closed her eyes. "That's right," he said. "Just take a break." She nodded. He kept lathering, easy, delicate, watching her balance. Don't let her slip. The cool water felt sort of soothing, calming, not bad on his skin.
Ugly gash on her arm. Heavy marks on her neck. She'd been choked – choked bad. Acid rose in his throat, but he swallowed it back. Nobody needed his anger, not here. He guided her under the steady spray, let it wash the grit from her cuts. Woke you this morning, kissing that spot... Dried blood on her scalp, mud caked in her hair. She had rolled in the muck, wrestled down, fighting back. He hadn't been able to reach her, to help. Let that shit wash off. Let it run down the drain. He soaped her hair carefully, hummed as he worked. I'm getting smarter. Sometimes I know to shut up.
He guided her under the water again. Looked like they'd gotten the worst of it out. He reached for the brush. "We're almost there." He eased it down through her tangles, letting the water run down through her hair to make it go smoother. No sense hurting anything more.
He turned off the water. Still humming softly, he grabbed a towel and patted her dry. He draped the towel around her shoulders, and she absently drew it around herself. "Here, have a seat." He guided her out and she sat on the stool while he wiped himself down. "Okay, show me your arm." She let him check. The gash had washed clean, and he'd seen plenty worse. He ran a bead of adhesive along the edge, carefully brought the skin back together, made sure it caught. "That should do it. Let's get your hair." He stood behind her, squeezing the towel to draw out the water. She looked better, more settled, looked like she might be able to rest. One good thing. "See," he said soothingly, "won't it be nice, to wake up clean?"
He could hear a tiny smile in her voice. "You always say that, when we're really tired."
"Guess I do. Just one of those things my Mom used to say, when I was little." Silence. Oh, shit. You shit! He kept toweling, willing his words to slip past her.
Her body trembled. Her shoulders were heaving, fist pressed to her mouth. Idiot. Asshole. She went rigid, clenching, on total defense. Something said, Give her room. Don't grab her. He listened to that. He stepped around her, stood close without touching, and kept his hands busy toweling her hair. She drove her head into him, found the soft spot just under his ribcage. Sobs wracked her body, in utter silence, an eerie thing. She was choked, flooded, hammered by something she'd never known.
He stood there, frozen, afraid to move. God, he wanted to suck it right out of her, take on its weight, wrestle it onto his shoulders before it could crush her. Had to do something, anything. DO. Something. And that was insane. You've got no powers here, none at all. All he could do was watch.
He had a flash of the tiny cadets in their creche. 'Don't suck your thumb, soldier.' Did the fist held against her mouth come from that? Oh, hell, he thought. As if you had been there. As if you had any idea how it was. He felt the abyss that had opened between them. Alien creatures. What the hell do you know?
He knew she was choking. "Take a breath, Aeryn. Take a deep breath." She shuddered, trying. Her fist was a lump against his skin. He willed his hands to lie still on her scalp. "That's right," he murmured. "Don't need to fight it. It's... faster to let it roll through." Nice theory, John-Boy. How do you know that? It had just come out, but it sounded right. Hell, fighting it never did him much good. What the fuck could he do? Those silent sobs were killing him, making him frantic to help.
Tears were soaking his chest. She'd fallen against him, using his body to hold herself up. Just stand right here, and don't go away. This is hers. She's strong. The stupidest, sorriest thing he could do would be trying to fix this. But, God, he wanted to knock something down, maybe blow something up. It made him feel worthless. Made him want to crawl out of his skin.
At last, she clutched at his back with both hands, broken nails biting into his flesh. That brought tears to his eyes, it felt so good, as if a few drops of that pain might drain into him. Now he could hear her, a weird broken keening. Okay, you can hold her. He reached down to her shoulders, her back, and cradled her, rocked her. I've got you. You're here. With me. Slowly she settled. Her hands moved distractedly over his back. "Baby, I'm sorry," he said. He squeezed her shoulders. "Let's get you fixed up." She nodded, quivering, trying to find her control.
He wet a cloth with cold water and handed it to her. She sat with it pressed to her eyes. Her hair was just damp. He ran the brush through with long, easy strokes. Divided in three, laced his fingers, began to braid, just watched as his hands slipped under, passed over. She sat there stoically, wiping her face. Better to get it too loose than too tight. "You've done that before," she mumbled.
"Lots of long-haired women, back where I come from. I know a few tricks." He kept his voice as light as he could. "There. All set. Stand up." She obeyed. He saw a smear across her chest, where her fist had bled. On his chest, too. He took the wet cloth and wiped them both clean. He gave her the towel. "Here. Get my back?" She could do that, too.
He picked up a tee shirt. She shook her head. "No. Just skin."
"You bet," he said, hardly trusting his voice. He dropped it, and touched his lips to her forehead, smoothing his palms down her back. They stood still a moment, both so drained. "Okay. Time for bed."
"Thank you," she said. "Thanks for waiting up."
She woke, confused. Deep in the dark cycle, lights very dim. She crawled out to pee, and came quietly back. He slept hard, not stirring. But as she fell back to bed his arms opened wide for her, drawing her back to his body, folding her close.
How long would he have reached for me? Tears blurred her eyes, seeing him alone in a bed – He'd be reaching toward a sound in the dark, expecting her there?
She sank back into darkness, wrapped in his warmth.
He was jarred awake. What had he heard? Might have been in his head, because she slept deeply, as if she'd been drugged. Still a few arns to morning. She was huddled tightly, clutching the pillow, fingers twitching. Should he wake her? See if it passes. She needs the sleep.
When grief had roared through her, the firewall around her emotions just... went. Catastrophic, wings ripped right off, too stunned to panic. And all he could do was watch the bird fall. He had thought his heart broke when her Prowler crashed. It seemed to be breaking again, cracking open, wanting her pain to soak in. What have I got that might heal? Warmth. Skin. A few hours of sleep. What he had seemed so small. But nothing I've got is off limits to you.
Her dream wasn't lifting. She had frozen into a cramped, tense curl, and her eyelids were fluttering hard. REM sleep, images. Didn't look good. Time to ease her awake. He said her name sharply, keeping well back. She might be in hand-to-hand combat right now. A guy doing this wrong could get himself hurt. Her frown deepened at first, but she came around.
"Oh," she said.
"Yes, a dream. You're okay." Now he moved toward her, drew her against him. "Shh. Come here." He rocked her silently, lips to her forehead.
She sighed, "Glad you were here."
"You do it for me."
She rolled away, and he folded around her. She said, "You were... kind, last night."
He spoke in her ear. "I was just proud to know you."
She shook her head. "I was weak. Lost control."
"No. You were doing hard things. You're grieving, Aeryn. Will be, for a while." He brushed his lips over her neck. "When my mom..." He stopped, and pressed his eyes to her head. At last he went on. "It's not that long since I saw you dead. It's a terrible thing."
"But you – I don't love Xhalax."
"You could have. You've lost all those... chances. That something might change. That's a lot to lose."
"I hate her."
"You hate what she did. But, Aeryn, baby, she got you born. I'm glad she lived."
She was shaking her head. He could picture her frown. He kept his voice low. "Look, it's powerful shit. And it's all mixed up –" He stopped himself. That's too many words. You're pushing your luck. He shifted her braid, stroking along her shoulders, her neck. He found a knot, and worked at it gently, and heard her moan. Good. That's good.
She rested against him. Her hand fumbled back to stroke his wrist. Warmth. Quiet. Shelter. Skin. He paced his breath to match her rhythm.
She rolled to face him. Her eyes were closed but her mouth was seeking him, wanting to kiss him. He met her and felt her shift in his arms, felt her press more closely, find the best fit. Her kiss was deepening. Hungry girl. She wanted something, was searching for something. Welcome, he thought. Come here. Come home.
He caressed her back, taking long, slow strokes that went with her breath. Take anything, baby. His cock was stirring, against her body. Her hand went downward – she felt that, too. Her mouth was wide open, pressed against his. He stroked the side of her breast, just grazing the skin. Skin wasn't enough to hold him back – he felt her right through it, as if it was melting, blurring their edges.
He imagined the trail that his hands were leaving, across her body. As if he could spread his warmth, work it in, soak it deeply into her flesh. Erase her bruises, cover her past, wipe off the other hands that had touched her. Fill in the blanks, where no one had been there to comfort, to care. Write a new story.
She broke the kiss. Her eyes were wet. "Touch me," she said.
A kind angel whispered, 'John, shut up,' and he asked no questions. He kissed her again as he shifted his weight, found space to reach her. He stroked down her belly, over her thighs. Those resilient muscles, alive in his hand. He kissed his way down her throat, her chest. God, that felt good, it satisfied something, to press his mouth against her body. Thrilling and peaceful, in the same breath.
He rested his hand on her pussy, her mound. His eyes had closed, but he saw her vividly, fingers reading her, listening, absorbing, his whole body searching.
Then he was kissing her breast, open-mouthed. A perfect mouthful, a perfect shape, her little nipple, her soft aureole. His senses were magnified. Mouth on her skin, wonderful curves, smelling melons and apricots, spices and salt. He needed to taste her. He settled in close and reached under her thigh while the other hand slowly stroked her belly. He lowered his mouth and began to explore. One place without bruises, don't have to be so careful down here. Something in him began to let go, soothed by her familiar body.
God, there was nothing else like this. Sweetness, salt, those wonderful textures. Butter smooth, silky, rose petal smooth. Organic, inviting, perfectly curved for a tongue, for a fingertip. Rich, irresistible, made to say, 'Touch me, kiss me.' His tongue swept and flickered, tasting her, warming her. Keep his mouth on those lips, he could spend the whole night in a trance. Cheerfully, eagerly, yes, in a heartbeat, just try me.
"My chest!" she said. Her voice sounded muffled, urgent, concerned. It brought him right back. She was tense, squirming, curling her spine.
He slipped his hand where his mouth had been and raised his head, saw her eyes squeezing tightly. "Yes. Your chest." He worked his other hand over her heart, down between her ribs. Brought it back up her side and down again. "I've got you, Aeryn." He laid his head just under her breasts and ruffled his hair against her. "I've got you, for sure."
Her heart was thumping, under his ear. He heard her small voice: "My throat. It..." The last word was lost. Inarticulate sound.
"Oh, baby, does it?" Blind but certain, he reached to her face with his other hand, brushing the line of her jaw. She twisted her head to capture his hand, her lips tight around it. She was mouthing his fingers, sucking them roughly, swirling her tongue. It made his cock jump to feel her clamp tight, her wet warm mouth. "That's good," he said, and felt her teeth pressing hard on his skin. Her need shivered through him. Oh, she was straining, yearning, asking.
He needed more skin. He shifted to cover her, press his mass over her, cover as much as he could and still move his hands. He turned his head to her, mouth wide open. Alive. In his mouth, his nose, all her flavors mingled. The mix made him dizzy. It was all so good. Nothing hurt anymore. His thighs, his pelvis, his cock, his chest, his nipples, his arms, all against her, absorbing her. Hold her. Cover her. As if he had all the gravity there, as if she could press up against him, and not come undone. It could work, it could work itself out, whatever roared through her could leave her alive and unharmed. He felt humbled, awed. She was moaning, a strangled sound.
Was that a protest? He asked, "Should I stop?"
"Don't stop – other things –" She was mumbling, the voice she had struggling up out of a dream, a voice from some other place.
"Shh," he said. "Just tell me if I... annoy you. Okay?" He was kissing her eyelids, the bridge of her nose. God, her face. He was swallowing hard.
"Okay," she murmured against his cheek. Sounded so tired, so stripped. So trusting.
"That's good," he said, as he kissed her again, feeling tears on his face. "That's good." He felt her nodding. Just try to stay out of her way. Her breathing went deeper and deeper, more ragged. She strained up against him, tensing, flexing, pressing so close.
He was undone. Nothing mattered but here, now, holding the only person who mattered, holding her while she was coming, this minute, against him, under him, while he was kissing her, while she was crying, while he was thanking whatever had brought her into his arms. I am not who I was.
Aeryn lay there, flung open, her fears blown away. She was with him. With. Him. She had put herself into his hands. It awed him, to feel it wash through her, washing her clean, how it left her trembling and light. He felt it all vividly, gratefully, brushed his face over and over her cheek, again and again, blessing himself with their tears. "I know," he murmured. "I know, oh god, you're amazing."
She was crying quietly. "In me. Please." His mouth found hers. His hand fumbled down, to guide himself into her, tenderly, easy, so easy, so wet all around him, so warm. He could feel tiny tremors around himself, echoes rippling away as his cock slipped home. Her fist went to his shoulder, her other hand gripped his back, down low, clenching him to her. Reflex. Need. Be marked with her blood.
"John," she whispered. God, it was such a tiny sound. "Oh, John." Just a long, soft breath, a sigh.
With me. With me.
He let her rest, with his face against hers. Finally he murmured, "You sleepy, babe?" She nodded against him. He eased himself out and felt her protest, her clutch at his back. "Shh, it's okay," he said soothingly, rolling her half on her side, half on her belly. He pressed close behind her, kissing her shoulder, fitting his body against her spine.
He twisted his hips and eased back into her, sliding his leg up over her thigh. He heard her soft moan of relief, of assent, as her toes curled around the sole of his foot. He used that anchor to press up firmly, to snug himself in. His arm went around her, pulling her to him, palm curving under to cup her breast. She buried her face in her pillow and sighed. He moved now and then, not going anywhere, just enough motion to keep his cock firm. Her hand found his wrist, her fingers just brushing the hairs on the back of his hand. Then her movements were slowing, along with her breath.
He cradled her, rocked her, pressing his mouth to the nape of her neck, his face wet, too. They lay there, joined. She mumbled something.
"Got you," he murmured. Rock her to sleep.