Hiding a small smile, Aeryn headed for Moya's maintenance bay to see if John was ready to go. He'd agreed to take a break from the project that had consumed him for nearly two weekens. At their last stop he'd found a battered metal and ceramic artifact that bore a resemblance to the circuitry that allowed D'Argo's Lo'La to become invisible, and the gleam in his eye had let her know then and there that it would occupy John's attention until he had it figured out and working.
He was who he was, she understood that. A puzzle like this one was irresistible to him.
But that didn't mean that she was going to let him ignore his family completely, either.
She smiled again, a small, satisfied smile, and entered the maintenance bay.
John was hunched over a box that was nearly as wide as their son, TJ -- now three cycles old -- was tall. It had a hinged covering that was stretched wide open, with wires of four or five colors and sizes draped all across it, and several crystals and circuits stacked nearby. Two DRDs were on the bench as well, one apparently for light, and the red, white and blue 1812 was poking around inside the box with its mechanical claws. John was contemplating it all seriously, his thumb rubbing his chin in the way that he had when he was completely absorbed in a problem.
"Hey," she said conversationally from a motra or so behind him. When he didn't reply, she came up close behind him and put her hand on his shoulder, caressing him lightly.
He looked up without any apparent surprise and smiled at her. "Hey yourself."
"How's it coming? Have you got it working yet?"
"Does it look like it's working?" he asked peevishly.
She shrugged. "Well, since you don't really know for sure what it does, I don't actually know what it should look like if it's working, do I?" She grinned, and then moved on to her purpose. "Are you ready to go?"
"Go where," John asked, attention still focused on his project.
"To the commerce center on the planet below us," Aeryn told him. "Neelam. Remember? A walk in the sun, a meal? Chiana watching TJ for us...." Her eyes narrowed as she took in the look of guilt that crossed his face.
"The date!" he winced. "That was today?"
She looked at him, radiating annoyance, but said nothing, letting him stew for a little while.
He looked back and forth between her and his project, obviously torn. "Aw, Babe," he began finally, and plunged on even when she bristled at the endearment. "I'm sorry, really I am! But I think I'm getting really close with this. I've got all this circuitry traced in my head. If I leave now without finishing, I'll lose arns of work! Days!" He flashed her his most winning smile.
"You promised to come with me today," she said, apparently unmoved.
"We can go tomorrow," he promised. "Moya isn't going anywhere, D'Argo and Rygel won't be back for a couple days." Cajoling, he added, "Or tonight! We could go tonight! Moonlight strolls are nice.... I'll be all yours! Honest!"
Aeryn turned without a word and headed, back stiff, out of the room.
"Aw, frell," John muttered under his breath. "Aer? Babe? Where are you going?"
She paused for a microt near the doorway and looked back at him. "To the planet," she said. "Since you can't be bothered to keep a promise, I'll take Chiana and TJ."
At least she wasn't threatening to go alone, he thought...though Lord only knew what advice she'd get from Chiana if she chose to grouse about his behavior.... He tried again to make her understand. "Aeryn, I really need just a little more time with this." He gestured at the equipment spread in front of him. "I'll make it up to you. I promise." He tried the smile again, but it didn't work this time, either. He thought he caught a hint of moisture in her eyes just before she walked out of the room.
John looked from the empty doorway to the workbench and back again. He really must be spending too much time on this if Aeryn was that upset over him breaking a date. With a heavy sigh, he pushed away from the workbench and stood up. At that moment, 1812 began a loud series of beeps, arresting his attention once again. "What? Slow down!" he demanded. "What did you find?"
The DRD chirped again in earnest, pushing several wires and a bit of metal aside to expose a scorched-looking ceramic chip that had the look of something important.
John took one more look towards the doorway, thought a moment, then shook his head regretfully. At the speed Aeryn walked when she was angry, she'd be halfway to the docking bay by now. He promised himself she'd have his full attention tonight, and he'd spend all day tomorrow with her and TJ.
Guilt temporarily pushed to the back of his mind, he was almost smiling when he turned back to 1812's find in hopes of getting the mysterious gizmo to work....
* * * * * * * *
"You wanna talk about it?" Chiana asked, looking sideways at Aeryn.
The two women were seated in a small public nature preserve, watching TJ playing in the dirt beneath some bushes perhaps two motras away. They'd been in the city about an arn, wandering aimlessly until the boy had dragged them off the street to this area of greenery with its occasional splotch of brighter colors.
Aeryn blinked and took her eyes momentarily off of her son, who was happily digging in the damp soil with his hands. "Talk about what?"
"Why Teej and I are here with you and Crichton isn't."
Aeryn shrugged and said, "You know how John is when he has a puzzle." Her sour expression lightened a little when she looked back at TJ.
Chiana looked her friend over. She did know how Crichton was when he had a puzzle calling to him. And so did Aeryn. He'd been obsessing over this particular piece of dren since he found it. It wasn't like Aeryn to let it get to her like this. On the way down from Moya, the ex-PK pilot had pushed the transport pod to the limits of its flight tolerances -- and with her kid on board, too. Chiana swung her feet back and forth under the bench, attracting Aeryn's attention with the vibration, then said, "Yeah. He's a bigger drannit than D'Argo. So....." she encouraged.
Aeryn shook her head and smiled softly. She took a deep breath and said, "So, I'll get over it. I had plans, that's all."
Chiana looked at her skeptically. This was not the kind of place for a romantic getaway, even if Aeryn had had a romantic bone in her body. Neelam was the only inhabited spot on the planet, mostly dry and dusty, except for the few tiny areas like this one that were lavishly irrigated. There were plenty of places to shop, haggle, snurch, or drink, but romance? For that matter, Aeryn had dressed simply in her usual leathers and a t-shirt. Not that Crichton would care about that, Chiana thought. Given a little privacy, he'd have her out of whatever she was wearing in ten microts flat.... Chiana shook her head. Those two....together four cycles, and they still went at it like flixes in heat. "If you say so," she said finally.
"I say so," Aeryn told her with a grin, and then called, "TJ! What have you got there?"
The boy was so busy concentrating on what he had in his hand that he didn't hear her. Or perhaps, like his father under similar circumstances, he tuned her out. He had his mother's raven hair and lean frame, but his features were unmistakably those of John Crichton. When Aeryn called again, he turned around and grinned from ear to ear. He held his hands out and said, "Wanna see my critter? It tickles!" Whatever it was that he held, it was undeniably wiggling.
Chiana frowned and Aeryn was up and across the space between them in two long strides. She bent down and looked carefully at what he held. It was some kind of worm, and didn't appear to have teeth, so she gritted her own, and resisted the urge to grab it and throw it as if it were a live grenade. How a child of hers had ended up so fascinated by living creatures, she had no idea. On Moya TJ had found parasites and symbiotes even Pilot hadn't known were living there....
"You'd better put it down now, I think," Aeryn told TJ, crouching down next to him. "See, it doesn't like being away from the soil. That's its home."
Indeed, the "critter" was struggling to get out of the child's hands, and TJ complied with his mother's request. Mother and son watched as the worm dug its way back into the dirt.
"Shouldn't you wash his hands?" Chiana called from the safety of the bench when the two stood up.
TJ giggled and held his hands up to show her the dirt.
"Frell," Chiana said with elaborate concern. "I mean it kid, you gotta wash your hands if you're coming with me!"
TJ laughed again and started to run towards her, hands outstretched. Aeryn scooped him up before his short legs had taken him very far, and scanned the area for a public sanitary facility. She spotted a water dispenser nearby, and carried TJ over to it. She rinsed his hands and dried them on her shirt, then headed back to where Chiana had waited, safely out of range of small muddy hands, and keeping an eye on Aeryn's pack.
"Come 'ere, Kiddo!" Chiana said. She reached for the now-clean child, and Aeryn handed him over.
Aeryn cocked her head and wrinkled her face. "Um, could you two amuse yourselves for a while?" she asked.
"You got a hot date?" Chiana asked.
"Mom got a date?" TJ echoed.
"Oh, thank you Chiana, for teaching him that," Aeryn sighed. "If he repeats that in front of John...."
"Oh, yeah, right, like you're sneaking around behind Crichton's back," Chiana snickered.
Aeryn smiled at that, and said simply, "I've got to go somewhere. For about an arn. Could we meet back here?"
"I think the sweet shop up the block is better," Chiana told her. "Cold rutger berries," she whispered conspiratorially to the child in her arms.
"Yum!" he said loudly.
"You're as bad as his father is about feeding him sweets," Aeryn said, but she smiled to take the reproach out of her words. "All right, the sweet shop it is, in about an arn." Aeryn leaned in and kissed TJ on the cheek. "You behave for Chiana while I'm gone, all right?" she told him.
"Yep!" he said cheerfully. He waved at his mother and said in a sing-song voice, "Too-loo-loo-pip!"
Aeryn shook her head. Where did he get these things? Her translator microbes had no clue, and it didn't sound like English, either. She was pretty sure this one had something to do with one of John's nicknames for the Nebari, and perhaps an English colloquialism for "good bye."
She reminded Chiana of the modified survival pack, which contained some toys and snacks and a change of clothes for TJ, then headed off purposefully down the street.
As soon as Aeryn was out of hearing range, Chiana said to TJ, "What do you think? Should we follow Mommy? Find out where she's going? Huh?"
"Yep!" he agreed readily. "Put me down!"
"No problem, Kiddo. You weigh as much as a reat!" She set the child down beside her and took his hand, slinging the pack over her other shoulder. "What's your Mom got in this thing, huh? Some hand grenades? A pulse rifle? Whew!"
At the words "pulse rifle," TJ held his hands out and pretended to take aim down the street in front of them. "Pow! Pow!" he said cheerfully, miming the recoil of the weapon.
Chiana shook her head. Crichton. That was definitely Crichton's doing. Aeryn would never use a sound like "Pow" for a pulse weapon!
They walked down the street, TJ quietly observing everything at eye level. Chiana, on the other hand, plotted a course that kept Aeryn in view from a distance. It was a game, a chance to practice her tailing skills, and she didn't really care where her quarry -- in this case, Aeryn -- was going.
The town was modest, but the streets, paved with some sort of plasticrete, were clean. The buildings, built of the same tough material as the pavement, mostly lined up close to the street, and tended to be two stories tall, occasionally three. There was the usual mixed complement of races that was normally found on a commerce planet. Chiana found herself scanning the crowd for Nebari faces, but there were none to be seen.
They'd been walking only a small fraction of an arn when Aeryn turned off the main street into a large building that held about fifteen offices and stores, including a legal office and a medical clinic, assuming the signs in front were up to date. Chiana watched long enough to feel sure that Aeryn actually had entered the building, though not which office specifically, and then, curiosity satisfied, she turned her attention to diverting Crichton and Aeryn's son for the next little while.
* * * * * * * *
Chiana was watching TJ lay out the syrupy green rutger berries in a precise row on the table when Aeryn pushed the pack onto the floor and slipped into the seat beside her.
"Hi," Aeryn said, and something in the tone of her voice brought Chiana's head up with curiosity. Aeryn flashed TJ a blinding smile, and said without reproach, "Hey, those are to eat, not play with!"
The child smiled back and pinched a berry between the thumb and forefinger of each hand. With a glance to make sure his mother was watching, he stuffed them both in his mouth.
Aeryn shook her head indulgently, and turned to Chiana. "Any problems?"
"No," Chiana said, "We had fun. Huh, TJ?" TJ backed her up with a nod, and she continued, "So, your thing go okay?"
"Fine," Aeryn replied with a smug smile.
"You're not going to tell me any more than that, are you?" Chiana said with a sigh.
Aeryn said, "No." As a consolation she offered, "Is there somewhere you want to go before we head back to Moya? You choose."
The Nebari thought a moment and then announced, "I think there's a clothing bazaar about a metra and a half from here."
"Clothes," Aeryn said.
"Yeah," Chiana replied.
Aeryn laughed. "All right, why not? Maybe I can find some things for TJ. He's outgrown nearly everything again."
Sensing the adults were nearly ready to leave, TJ stuffed the remaining berries in his mouth and started to climb down to the floor. Aeryn fixed him with a parental stare and said, "Sit! You're still dirty." She reached down to the pack and extracted a cleansing cloth and handed it to him.
TJ held the soft cloth in two hands and scrubbed at his mouth. After that he did his best to get the sticky green syrup off his fingers, then held them out for inspection.
"Good job," she told him, making only a brief additional pass over his hands, and the three of them collected themselves and headed for the street. There were only a few pedestrians out and about, so Aeryn let TJ take the lead.
After a block or two of following the child's meandering pace, Aeryn picked him up and settled him on her shoulders, and Chiana took the bag from her. The two women walked along briskly, and the boy kept up a running commentary about the various people and things he could see from his high vantage point.
After about a quarter arn, Aeryn glanced casually at Chiana and said, "We're being followed."
"Yep," the younger woman agreed, equally casually. "For about the last half metra."
"What the frell now?" Aeryn muttered. "How many do you see?"
"Two," Chiana told her, "one on each side of the street."
"Both Sebacean males?" Aeryn asked, gripping TJ's feet tighter and craning her neck, ostensibly to look in the window of a shop that was along their route.
Chiana nodded. "Uh-huh!" she said brightly, as if it wasn't looking like they were in trouble again.
Without warning, as they neared the intersection with a small street, the walkway at their feet erupted in a sizzling shower of sparks and dust as an unsuspected assailant somewhere in front of them let off a blast from what sounded like a pulse pistol. Startled, TJ jerked and gave a cry, and nearly tumbled from his perch to the ground. Aeryn dropped to a crouch and rolled the boy off her shoulders and into her arms in one smooth move. Positioning herself in the limited shelter of a doorway, she hugged him tightly and whispered, "Hush, Baby, hush!" hoping he'd remember the code phrase and keep quiet while she got some idea what was going on.
TJ stifled the sobs that had been about to begin, and buried his face in his mother's chest.
The Nebari was at her side quickly, muttering, "Frelling dren!" while she tried to see if any of their attackers were closing in.
Innocent bystanders had vanished, and the only people visible now were the two Sebaceans they had seen following them. After a few microts, Aeryn spotted the person who had actually done the shooting, a Sebacean woman carefully peering over the edge of the roof of a nearby building, her weapon still in evidence. She silently pointed the woman out to Chiana, and Chi pointed back to the street. The other two were moving in slowly, each holding what appeared to be a standard Peacekeeper pulse pistol. This did not look good.
The two women looked at each other for a few microts. Though still silent, TJ was clinging tightly to his mother, his arms around her neck nearly strangling her. Aeryn knew she wasn't going to be able to defend him, and she came to a sudden decision. She whispered intensely to Chiana, "You have to go!"
Aeryn peeled TJ's stiff limbs from around her body and shoved him at the Nebari. "Take him! Now!"
Chiana gathered the child up automatically, but tried to protest. "I can't leave you here, we don't even know what they want!"
From the street, one of the Sebaceans, a tall slender man who carried himself like a coiled snake, called, "Aeryn Sun! Surrender and no one has to get hurt. Especially not the child."
The hard glint in Aeryn's eyes solidified. To Chiana, she hissed, "Yes we do, they want me! And before you ask, I don't know who they are." After a brief pause during which she looked longingly at TJ, she commanded, "Now you go! You take him, and you run, and you don't stop and you don't even think of coming back until my son is safe on Moya! Do you hear me?"
"Crichton's going to kill me," Chiana muttered under her breath as she nodded and prepared to stand and run.
Aeryn nodded back and said simply, "Good." She turned her back on the pair then, and raised her pulse pistol. She let off a shot at the woman on the roof, then pointed her weapon at the men in the street.
"Back off," Aeryn snarled at them. When they paused, she demanded, "Who are you? And why should I go anywhere with you?"
Hating herself because at least part of her was grateful for the chance to get away from danger, Chiana made use of the distraction. She stood, quickly got a good grip on TJ and sprinted around the corner into the side street.
As she ran, Chiana listened for any indication of what was happening, or sounds of pursuit. Obviously Aeryn and her attackers weren't coming to any kind of peaceful agreement. Chiana could feel the child stiffen at every loud pulse blast that echoed off the main street, and she couldn't believe he wasn't crying. She wondered how long he'd hold to his training without either of his parents there.
At the end of the block Chiana stopped just around the corner. Murmuring "It's okay, TJ, it's okay," in her most soothing voice, she looked back toward the main street. The side street was empty, which was good for her and TJ, unless, of course, the frellniks had sent someone around a different block to catch them unawares.
But the sight at the end of the block chilled her. Aeryn was standing in the street, arms outstretched. As Chiana watched, she knelt and put her pulse pistol on the ground. After she stood up again, slowly, still holding her hands out, one of the bad guys came over to her and slapped her across the face. He was holding his other arm stiffly, and the Nebari could only guess that Aeryn had managed to injure him in the firefight.
The second Sebacean had just come over to snap manacles around Aeryn's wrists when TJ lifted his head to see what was going on. Afraid he would be upset at the sight of his mother in trouble, Chiana turned quickly and started down the street, trying to visualize the quickest way back to where they'd left the transport pod.
She was only halfway there when the child in her arms began to sob for his mother. "Teej," she whispered, "If I could help her, I'd be there in a microt. Right now we gotta go get your Dad, Okay?" Apparently it wasn't okay, because he kept on crying.
Hoping she wasn't going to get accused of kidnapping, Chiana hardened her heart and kept on running until she collapsed into the transport pod. She strapped TJ, still crying, into his seat and took off, heading straight for Moya and John Crichton.
* * * * * * * *
"Crichton! Do you hear me?" Pilot's voice came through the comms. The testy edge suggested he'd been ignored several times already.
Still immersed in his mechanical mystery, John considered ignoring him yet another time, but thought the better of it. "What's so important it can't wait a few more microts, Pilot?" he asked.
"The transport pod is returning from Neelam," Pilot said. "Chiana just asked me to deploy the docking web."
"I have not had any other communication from her, but she seemed very....agitated. And I believe I heard your son crying in the background."
Puzzled, and a little worried in spite of himself, Crichton asked, "He's three, Pilot, he cries sometimes. What does Aeryn say?"
"Nothing," Pilot replied succinctly.
Frell. His spider sense was tingling, telling him there was trouble coming with the transport pod. He glared at 1812 as if whatever it was might be the little robot's fault and said, "Don't touch anything while I'm gone!"
Crichton slid into the docking bay just as Chiana opened the door of the transport pod and started down the steps. She hung grimly onto TJ, who was squirming and sobbing inconsolably in her arms. "See!" she said to the child in relief when she saw John. "I told ya! Here's your Daddy!"
John covered the distance between himself and the new arrivals in microts, demanding, "What's wrong? Is he hurt? TJ, are you hurt?"
Chiana thrust the child at him and said, breathless, "No, no, he's okay, he's okay. He's just upset."
John snatched TJ from Chiana's arms and tried to look him over for injuries, despite Chiana's assurances, while the child tried to wrap himself around his father's chest. Slightly mollified, John hugged the boy and kissed the top of his head and was rewarded by a noticeable decrease in sobs. Then he looked at Chiana. "Where's Aeryn, Pip?" he asked in a tight voice.
"In trouble," she said.
"I kinda guessed that for myself," John snapped. "What the frell happened? Is she okay?"
"Last we saw her, she was okay," Chiana said, answering the last question first, hoping to keep Crichton from going ballistic. "They were a little kranked at her for shooting at them, but, they didn't look like they were trying to hurt her."
"Dammit, Chiana, what happened? I do not need to play twenty questions here! I need to know what to do!"
"I know, I know," she said, bouncing from foot to foot. She collected herself and said, "We were just walking along the street, and Aeryn and me, we noticed we were being followed. And then outta nowhere, this tralk took a shot at us. But either she was a really bad shot, or she was just trying to get us to stop."
John hugged TJ just a little tighter, and said, "And?"
"And, Aeryn gave me TJ and told me to run. And then she started shooting at the fekkiks and I did what she said!"
Crichton closed his eyes momentarily, whether in pain or anger, Chiana couldn't tell. "You saw her captured?" he said, voice deceptively calm.
"Yeah," she said, jaw jutting forward. "They were putting binders on her. Like I said, it didn't look like they were trying to hurt her."
He let out a deep breath, and said, "Okay. That sounds like they're planning to hold her for a while. That's good, that gives us a little time." He paused for a moment and then called, "Pilot, get Jool in here, please!"
The Nebari looked puzzled.
"She can watch this guy," John said, nodding towards TJ. "You're coming back to Neelam with me."
"'Course I am, Old Man," Chiana said reassuringly. While they waited for Jool, Chiana filled Crichton in on the details of the attack, and Aeryn's contention that she didn't know who the attackers were.
John rocked TJ in his arms, and the child began to doze. "You said they knew her by name?"
"Yeah. I think they were ex-PK. I know the look."
"Shit. That's just what we need," John muttered, looking at the doorway just as Jool entered the docking bay.
"Excuse me?" the redhead asked, taken aback.
"Not you! Some bad guys snatched Aeryn, and we've got to go get her," John explained.
"And you need me to watch TJ while you're gone," Jool concluded.
"That's about the size of it," he granted.
Jool agreed immediately, and John strode over to transfer the now-sleeping child to her.
But as soon as John tried to unwrap TJ's arms from around him and let Jool take him, the boy woke up and resisted. "No!" he said loudly. "No! Don't want her!" He sniffled and wiped his nose on his father's shirt. "Daddy," he sniffled again.
"I gotta go, sport," John told him with as much cheer as he could muster. "Jool will take care of you till I get back."
"Hey, TJ," Jool wheedled, "Come on! I'll play chassti with you.... Won't that be fun?" She held her hands out to him, coaxing. "Come on! Come to Auntie Jool!"
TJ turned his head away from her and continued clinging tightly to his father. "No," he whimpered.
Knowing that they were going to have to go, Jool moved in to take him regardless, saying to Crichton, "He'll be okay once you're gone. Just give him to me, we'll be fine."
Stifling his need to be going, John held one hand up to hold her off. "Give me a few microts," he said softly.
Jool nodded, and Crichton carried his son over to the transport pod and sat down on the steps, settling the child sideways in his lap and holding him close with one arm. It was the first time he'd gotten a real look at TJ since Chiana had brought him back, and the boy looked heartbreakingly miserable. His black hair was matted, his eyes were puffy and red, his cheeks streaked with tears. And despite having used John's shirt for a Kleenex, there was plenty of snot on his face.
John brushed TJ's hair back, then wrapped his other arm around him for a brief hug. "Hey there, big guy," he said gently. "You doing okay?" When TJ snuffled hugely and nodded, John continued. "I know you're missing Mommy right now. And I wish I could stay here with you. You know that, right?" he said.
TJ sniffled and leaned his head on John's chest, but stayed quiet.
"I need you to stay with Jool now, so I can go get Mommy. Okay? I bet Jool has some critters you can see...."
"You'll get my Mom?"
"Yeah. I'll be back, and I'll bring your Mom. Promise. Cross my heart and hope to die," John said, making a cross with his finger on TJ's chest, and hoping he wouldn't regret that one.
"Okay," TJ told him, using his own finger to trace a similar "X" on his father's chest.
"Good boy," John told him, and kissed the top of his head again. He looked over at Jool and indicated she should come ahead.
TJ went with her this time without complaint, and John stood up at the base of the stairs and took a deep breath. "Come on, Chiana," he said, turning and walking up the stairs. "Let's go get Aeryn."
* * * * * * * *
Aeryn sat on the floor with her back against the wall and tried to decide how much trouble she was in.
The two Sebacean men who had marched her briskly through the back alleys of Neelam had brought her to a rundown estate on the outskirts of town half an arn ago. They had deposited her in an interior room without any obvious exits besides the one door, which was locked. The room was completely empty, no furniture, no sanitary facilities; she presumed her captors were using it as a temporary holding cell.
She pulled her knees up and draped her arms over her shins, wishing that they had removed the manacles from her wrists.
From what she had seen as she was brought in, the house looked very much like the buildings in town -- two stories, built of some kind of plasticrete, with unadorned walls. But it was set on a parcel of land about two hundred motras square. At one time, it had probably been irrigated and cared for, but now the vegetation was sparse and dry. Aeryn thought her captors were probably using the building because there was a clear field of view all around it; any visitors would find it difficult to approach unnoticed.
She listened carefully for any noises that might indicate someone was coming for her, but the walls seemed to muffle sound. The silence was almost a thing you could feel.... Long ago, she would have welcomed the silence, the chance to think without distraction. Now it only accentuated the fact that John wasn't here, chattering away in her ear, determined to keep her spirits up while they waited for....whatever was going to happen.
Still, she'd learned to use that feeling, too, to turn it on its head. He wasn't here -- but she knew what he would ask of her, what strength he would lend her, if he were here. Time to focus, banish the silence.
All right. The two men were surely ex-Peacekeepers. Their clothing, though not identical, was simple and dark and reminiscent of uniforms. They carried themselves like soldiers. And they had that air of men who were used to following orders. But not giving them.
So, where was their superior?
The woman who'd fired on her on the street had yet to make an appearance. Was she another grunt, or was she in charge? Was she tracking down Chiana and TJ?
Aeryn resolutely refused to allow herself to worry about her son and her friend, or...anything else. She needed to focus better than that. Chiana was extremely capable, and if it were possible for them to get away, she would have managed it.
They were safe. They had to be.
And, in the absence of any more information, Aeryn assumed, based on what had happened so far, that these people weren't planning to seriously damage her, either. That meant they were probably now earning a living catch as catch can, and one of their sources of income was bounty hunting. Some part of her past appeared to have caught up with her.
She sighed and stretched her legs out in front of her, rolled her shoulders back to work the kinks out from sitting on the floor. As she did so, her attention was diverted by movement in her field of vision -- the door across from her opened.
Before it was completely open, Aeryn was on her feet. The chain on the manacles clanked and she cursed the frelling things. Then she shook her hair out, and held herself straight and alert.
The missing marksman entered the room, carrying a handheld piece of electronic equipment. Aeryn made the snap assessment that it wasn't a weapon, and dismissed it from her consideration for the moment. The woman was nearly as tall as her captive, and though she was no longer in uniform, she still wore her blonde hair in a regulation Peacekeeper braid. She eyed Aeryn with distaste.
"Are you the Peacekeeper traitor Aeryn Sun?" she asked from safely across the room.
"What, don't you know? You were sure enough before to be shooting at me."
"Mind your manners," the woman snapped. "We had a visual ID," she said. "But you can't imagine we're going to waste time taking you to Hokothia without proof."
Hokothia. Aeryn's heart sank. She'd almost succeeded in forgetting the time she'd spent away from Moya, away from John, fighting a necessary battle that had included assassinating the Prime Hokothian. She'd nearly died in the process, from heat delirium contracted during the raid.
And she and John had been estranged for nearly a cycle after that.
Aeryn took a deep breath and smiled thinly. "What, you're going to take my word for it?"
PK Barbie, as John probably would have called her, shook her head. "Of course not, though we would appreciate your cooperation." She held up the device in her hand then, and crossed the short space between them.
Aeryn grimaced as she recognized it as a blood spectrometer, standard Peacekeeper field model, used primarily for testing racial purity. They were easily available on the black market.
"If you'll just put your thumb in here," Barbie said, holding the device out. "Aeryn Sun's DNA pattern is registered with the warrant."
Aeryn looked at her a moment, then reached out her thumb and did as commanded. There was no point in resisting. They would simply force her physically, or use drugs, and she didn't want that. As the device whirred, she wondered if the DNA spectrograph on the warrant had been obtained from Peacekeeper records, or during the raid on Hokothia. If the former, it was possible, after all that had happened to her body since Crais had declared her irreversibly contaminated, that her current blood spectrograph might not match it.
Aeryn could almost hear John's cynical tones: "With our luck?" She snorted softly as she pictured his face.
PK Barbie removed the device and the strip it produced, and said simply, "I'm going to go compare the results, and I shall be greatly surprised if I don't spend the next little while arranging for our passage to Hokothia."
That was interesting. They didn't have their own ship. They were....poorly equipped, these ex-PKs. She might be able to get away from them by herself before John came for her, as she had no doubt that he would. But now was not the time, not without knowing how many other people were in the building, and where, and whether they were armed. She could afford to wait for a more promising opportunity.
Besides, PK Barbie backed carefully towards the door so as not to give Aeryn the opportunity to throttle her.
Aeryn allowed the woman to leave and settled back down on the floor to await further developments.
* * * * * * * *
For the second time that day, Chiana was treated to a demonstration of how much abuse a Leviathan transport pod could take when its pilot was under emotional stress. She tried to ignore the creaking sounds and the occasional lurch of her stomach, understanding how worried Crichton was. Trouble was, he seemed inclined to take it out on her.
"You should have called me right away, Chiana!" he snapped when there was a brief delay getting landing clearance. "I could have met you on the planet! It would have saved time."
"I couldn't!" Chiana screeched back. "She threatened to cut off D'Argo's mivonks and feed them to me if I didn't get TJ back to Moya!"
In spite of his growing fear, Crichton chuckled. "Aeryn said that?" he said in disbelief.
"Well," Chiana admitted, "it wasn't so much what she said as how she said it!"
Just then they got their clearance to land, and the subject was tabled. Truthfully, though, unless Crichton had been willing to entrust TJ to Jool's piloting skills, there hadn't been another option besides Chiana bringing the boy back to Moya herself.
Crichton set the pod down smoothly in the docking port at Neelam, and Chiana was soon helping him backtrack Aeryn's mystery side trip. After a brief discussion, they had agreed that trouble had probably found Aeryn during that arn she'd been on her own.
As they walked, John got quieter and quieter. Finally he asked, "How was she? I mean, what kind of mood was she in?"
"Mostly kranked at you," Chiana told him with a shrug. When he grimaced, she continued, "Till after she went wherever she went. When she came back, she was really happy."
"Happy," he said.
"Beaming. Positively glowing," Chiana said.
Why that made him uneasy, John couldn't have said. Finally he ventured, "And she didn't tell you anything about where she went?"
"Nope." Chiana grabbed John's hand and tugged him a few motras further, and then turned him to face away from the street. "But she went in there," the Nebari said, waving a pale gray hand in the direction of the building she and TJ had trailed Aeryn to earlier. "Somewhere."
Crichton took a deep breath. "Okay, Pip, you take the high road, and I'll take the low road...."
"Crichton, I swear...."
"You check upstairs, see if anyone's seen her. I'll do the downstairs."
"And if she was there?"
"Find out what she was doing, if she pissed anyone off, stuff like that."
Chiana reached up and patted him on the cheek. "We'll find her, Old Man," she said, and took off for the upper story, all but dancing up the stairs.
John took another deep breath, willing himself to stay calm. He headed to one end of the building and entered the first establishment. It turned out to be a store catering to esoteric needs: herbs hanging in bunches from the ceiling, crystals sorted in bins by size and color, talismans of all sorts neatly laid out on shelves -- New Age, they would have called it back home. Zhaan would have been in her element, but he couldn't imagine what Aeryn might have gone into it for. That didn't mean she hadn't had some reason for it, though, and he damn well wasn't going to make any assumptions that might lead to him missing a chance to find her.
The proprietor turned out in fact to be a Delvian, tall, blue, and thin, like most of his race. He was busy with a customer, but, impatient and worried, John interrupted. "Excuse me, just a quick question, okay?"
The Delvian looked him up and down in that way Zhaan used to use when he'd interrupted her meditation, the one that made the human feel like he was one of the lesser races. But he nodded graciously for John to proceed.
"I'm looking for my wife," he said, because it was true in all but name, and it made things simpler, he'd found, when dealing with strangers, to say Aeryn was his wife, or his mate, and "wife" flowed more naturally off his tongue. "I was supposed to meet her in this building, and I'm late, and I thought she might be window shopping. Has she been in here? She's Sebacean, about this tall," and he held his hand up to indicate her height, "with long black hair. Very pretty...." He finished on a hopeful note. God, he was babbling.
But the proprietor shook his head. "I'm sorry, there have been no Sebaceans here today, except you." He turned back to his customer, dismissing John.
The Delvian didn't seem to be lying, and John murmured a "Thank you" as he moved on to the next door.
The next establishment proved to be a shop selling imported foodstuffs. This one was more crowded, with half a dozen beings of different races walking around the store, most carrying half-filled baskets. One of them was busy bargaining with the clerk, and it looked like they were going to be there a while. Getting more impatient by the minute, John simply let out a loud whistle and hollered, "Hey! Anybody seen my wife?" He repeated the description, and when everyone in the store answered in the negative, he moved on.
After three more negatives, he found himself in front of a door labeled as a clinic. He started to tell himself there was no reason she would have gone to a clinic, when once again he reminded himself not to take any shortcuts that might mean he'd miss her. They really didn't know what her captors wanted or if they were planning to take her off planet, or....
Shut up and go eliminate this one, he told himself sternly. Then you can move on!
Medical clinics seemed to look the same the galaxy over. There was a reception area, and a corridor of offices down the hall. Unlike human clinics, however, there was no door separating off the suite of offices and examination rooms from the waiting area, so John could see people of all races in the hallway inside as well as in the waiting area.
He walked up to the receptionist, and started his routine. He was running late, he was supposed to meet his wife. Had she been in yet? This tall, dark hair?
He was preparing to say thank you and walk out when the receptionist smiled and said, "Oh, you're really late. Aeryn Sun? She left here about two arns ago."
His heart dropped to his stomach. What the frell? John's imagination got the better of him. Was she ill? No, she was happy after the appointment, Chiana had said. Had she thought she was ill? Been told she wasn't? He took a deep breath, rubbed his neck, and asked, "So, was everything all right? She's good?"
"Oh, I think everything was fine, for her condition. Do you want to talk to the tech? I think he's available."
John nodded, completely forgetting that he was supposed to find out if she'd done anything to tick anyone off. The receptionist didn't seem annoyed....
She lead John past several examining rooms to an office where a Delvian man was working on some charts, entering data into electronic storage. John wondered idly if there was a Delvian colony on this planet. He wasn't used to running into Delvians at all, and here was the second one of the day.
The receptionist explained that he was Aeryn's mate and then returned to her station. When she was gone, the tech smiled at John. "Ah, you came after all. She was sorry you weren't here. Congratulations."
Congratu--- Wait a minute! The penny dropped, finally. "Pregnant?" John blurted. "She's pregnant?"
"About six weekens. The fetus appears to be healthy and developing normally, though I've never seen a DNA mix like this one."
While the tech continued to talk, John called himself every name in the book. Goddamn frelling idiot! No wonder she was so upset that he'd blown off their date.
After TJ's birth Aeryn had had the gene responsible for her stasis pregnancy turned off so any future pregnancies would be in real time, and they had talked about having another baby, but....
Well, that explains the glowing, he told himself, beginning to recover from the surprise. Funny Chiana should use those words. Did pregnant Nebari women glow?
The tech's voice intruded into his scattered thoughts. "Is that right?" he asked.
"Um, is what right?" John replied.
"You have one healthy child already."
"Yeah, our son TJ, he's three."
"Well, he's going to have a little sister, if all goes well."
John started to let himself be thrilled, and then the tech's words brought his thoughts back to the reason he was in this clinic in the first place. "If all goes well." All was not going well at this very moment. Aeryn was missing -- and pregnant. Why the hell was the universe always frelling with them?
"Um, look," John said. "Do you know if she, you know, had words with anyone, in the waiting room maybe? Or someone drawing blood or something?"
The blue tech eyed him curiously, but simply said, "I don't think so. Was she likely to?"
"Well, she doesn't suffer fools gladly," John said. "And you know, pregnant women are moody sometimes," he added, thinking of the tears he'd glimpsed in her eyes when she left him in the maintenance bay. Idiot.
He barely heard the man reiterate that he'd not heard of Aeryn having any kind of quarrel with anyone.
If anything happened to her or the baby....
John grimaced, but thanked the man for his help and headed back out to find Chiana.
She was just coming down the stairs, looking frustrated and worried. "No sign of her up there, Old Man. You have any better luck?"
"Yeah, actually," John admitted, gesturing back towards the clinic. "She went in there."
"She went to see a doctor?"
"Yep, she did."
Chiana cocked her head. "And the reason for this is....?" she trailed off encouragingly.
"Not relevant, Pip," he said flatly, deciding nothing good could come from them discussing the pregnancy now. "The point is, she didn't interact with anyone except the staff. But it's a pretty big waiting room."
"But...but, why would she....?"
"Just leave it alone Pip," he said, in a voice so sharp it could have cut through a tonka's hide.
Chiana tilted her head to the side and looked at him, appraising this new mood. She was bursting with curiosity, but who knew what was happening to Aeryn at this very minute. So, she stifled herself and kept to business. "Someone could have seen her and recognized her. Followed her from here like we thought."
John closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. After a few microts he said, "Time to go try to trace their movements after they grabbed her." That was probably going to be harder, because people weren't going to want to get involved....
Chiana eyed him critically. She didn't like the bribes that were rolling off of him. "Hey," she said. "We'll find her. Everything'll be fine. You'll see."
"I hope you're right, Pip. 'Cos I don't know what I'll do if you're wrong."
Chiana stared at him. The frelling human always had hope. She slapped him on the arm and said lightly, "Come on. I'll show you where they got us, and we'll follow these fekkiks to their hidey hole. Everything's going to be fine," she repeated, as much for her own benefit as for Crichton's.
John sighed once again and then gestured down to the street in front of them. "Lead on, McDuff," he said, and followed Chiana out onto the streets in search of Aeryn.
* * * * * * * *
It was a good thing she hadn't had anything to eat with Chiana and TJ, Aeryn thought. A wave of what John had perversely insisted on calling "morning sickness" during her first pregnancy, even though it had struck her almost exclusively in the afternoon, rolled over her. With an empty stomach, she was better able to control the urge to retch.
Sitting on the floor as she had been for several arns, she leaned her head back and closed her eyes, breathing evenly to distract her senses from her queasy stomach. She refused to allow her body to betray the tiny life within to her captors.
Though how the frell John had missed it the past half-monen -- she cut the angry thought off. If you wanted him to know you suspected you were pregnant, Aeryn Sun, she told herself sternly, you should have told him. He's not a frelling mind reader!
But she'd wanted to surprise him, selfishly wanted to see the joy in his eyes when he realized she was carrying his child, wanted him with her when the pregnancy was confirmed....all the things they hadn't had with TJ. She should have remembered that with their luck, if anything could go wrong, it would. If anything happened to the baby because of her indulgence, her hurt feelings....
The sound of the lock on the door being undone brought her to her feet, family worries pushed to the back of her mind. She took a deep breath to focus herself, and kept her attention on the door.
The shorter of the two men who had captured her, the one she'd injured slightly, pushed the door open and, after making certain of where she was, entered the room. He was still favoring one chubby arm, Aeryn noticed with brief satisfaction. Then she got a look at his face, fringed with unkempt dark hair. There was an edge of hatred in his eyes so sharp she could almost feel it. Involuntarily, she took a step backwards and nearly bumped the wall.
This time it was her jailor who smiled in satisfaction. "Not so high and mighty now, are you, Officer Sun? Top-rated cadet, youngest ever member of the Pleisar regiment....and here you are, prisoner in a cage on a frelling ball of dirt." He snorted and shook his head. "My prisoner," he added.
Obviously the man knew her, and expected her to know him. Without changing her expression, she studied his face. No, she didn't recognize him at all, though she had the nagging feeling that maybe she should. She would have to tread carefully here, even though he clearly wasn't in charge, and he seemed....well, sloppy. "I haven't been a Peacekeeper in a very long time," she told him. "And I'm glad of it. What about you?"
He cocked his head and took her measure. "The late unpleasantness with the Scarrans," he said. "My unit was disbanded at the end of the war."
"And you were fit for nothing else," Aeryn said, meaning only that being born and bred a soldier left one without many skills for civilian life, something she knew well from personal experience.
But he reacted as if she had struck him, and the hatred flared in his eyes again. Before she even registered the movement, he had reached out and backhanded her across the face.
Because he had surprised her, she took the blow with full force. His hand connected with more force than she would have expected from him, jerking her head backwards. Ummph. The pain was easily bearable, but it definitely hurt. She wouldn't underestimate him again.
Aeryn brought her manacled hands up to rub her stinging cheek with one palm. She tasted a trickle of blood -- probably a split lip, since he'd missed her nose. She looked at him, allowed herself to show pain, and some alarm, hoping it would mollify him.
It seemed to do the trick. He snorted at her, and sneered, "What about you? It's a long way down from the Pleisars to being a breeder."
Aeryn stiffened at the reference to TJ, fear rising again at the thought that she might have failed to protect her son, that these people might have him. But almost immediately she dismissed that worry. The annoying man in front of her wasn't threatening her child, he was using the biggest insult he could think of, calling her a breeder. She almost laughed.
Well, not so many cycles ago she herself would have sneered at the idea of bearing a child -- bearing children. Once upon a time, she would have thought it was an insult. But now she knew she'd give her life without hesitation for those children -- or their father -- if it came to that. But she wasn't going to discuss how she'd come to be more than a simple soldier with this stranger who seemed to bear her some very personal ill will, and so she asked a question of her own, hoping to distract him. "Did you come in here for something, then?"
"Biggs," he growled, finally tired of her lack of recognition. "I'm Biggs. And I'm here because the Commander says you're to be taken to the sanitary facilities. Twice a day, that's the schedule for prisoners," he said, and stepped to the side and motioned her in the direction of the door.
Well, Biggs, she thought, unsuccessfully searching her memory for some hint as to why that name tugged at something deep in her past. I would be foolish to turn down the opportunity to gain more intelligence about this base, wouldn't I? Aloud she simply said, "Thank you," and moved with dignity out of the open door into the hallway.
The man herded her down the hallway towards the facilities, and, ignoring his looming presence -- far closer than she would ordinarily have suffered him to be -- Aeryn made careful note of her surroundings, double-checking her memory of her arrival. She counted doorways -- four on the right, two on the left -- and estimated how much further the hall extended in either direction. She was certain that if she continued on down the hallway, she could find the front entrance. Two left turns, and then a right would bring her to the door, if she wasn't stopped by guards....
She filed the information away for future use, and entered the sanitary facility when her escort opened the door. To her consternation, he followed her into the room. When he made no attempt to remove the manacles, which was the only reason she could think of for him to be there, she glared at him, and waited for him to take the hint and leave. It would be awkward to maneuver her pants with her wrists bound, but she could manage. Biggs stood staring at her in a way that made her decidedly uncomfortable, and Aeryn finally snapped, "You can leave now."
"I don't think so, Aeryn Sun," he replied, drawing a deep breath. With a nasty grin on his face, he reached for the fastener on the waistband of her pants.
She honestly didn't think he was intending rape or even what passed for seduction in the Peacekeepers, he didn't have that air about him. This seemed to be a power game, and she could ignore his attempts at humiliation. But when his fingers grazed the naked skin of her belly at the base of her short t-shirt as he actually started to undo the fastener -- no matter what his motives, it made her flesh crawl. Without another thought for the consequences if she angered him, she brought her hands, heavy manacles and all, up and shoved at his chest with all her strength. He only ended up one very long arm's length away, but it was enough to calm her protective instincts. "Don't do that again," Aeryn commanded with her fists still aloft, and Biggs sulkily backed a little further away. She glared at him and added, "You can wait outside."
"The Commander said you were to be watched at all times," he told her, crossing his arms. "So I wait here."
Annoyed, Aeryn looked around the room, checking for exits of any kind besides the door they'd entered through. "Do you see anywhere for me to go if I'm left alone?" she asked.
"I follow orders," he said with an odd expression, and seemed to settle himself more firmly against the wall.
Well, if that was how he wanted to play it, fine. It wasn't as if she hadn't taken care of bodily functions in the presence of other soldiers before. True, her squadmates in that long-ago life wouldn't have been actively watching her, but still, why would he even think she would care? Ah, frell it, she tuned him out and struggled with her clothing till she was able to do what she needed to do.
Unfortunately, she could feel her stomach begin to rebel again without provocation. Frelling hormones! She hoped she could get through this and get back to her "cell" without being sick. She did not want these people to know about the baby, it would give them a weapon to use against her if she didn't find a way out or John didn't arrive soon.
She glanced at Biggs and saw anger growing on his face again. Ah, put out that I'm ignoring you? she wondered. Again, this seemed to be about domination, and it seemed prudent to attempt to appear dominated. It was harder to get the tight leather pants pulled up than it had been to get them down, especially with her wrists bound, but she managed it -- and then her poor stomach finally gave up the struggle, and she bent over on her hands and knees and had the dry heaves. When she brought her body under control, she rolled over to a sitting position, knees bent and arms draped over them, forehead resting on her knees, breathing shallowly.
Afraid of what she'd see, she at last looked over at her audience -- and was surprised to see satisfaction on his face.
"Afraid you're out in the cold, are you, Officer Sun? Lost the place you wanted to be? The thing you wanted more than anything in your life?" He smirked at her. "I'm the one who did that to you, I recognized you on the street out there. I knew there was a warrant on you. I knew." He patted himself smugly on the chest and elaborated. "Imagine my surprise when I found your name on the rolls when we started bounty hunting." He shook his head as if he were terribly disappointed in her. "Officer Aeryn Sun, not hunted by the Peacekeepers any more, no, even after being declared irreversibly contaminated. Lots of amnesties during the war, eh? But oh, my, what's this? A warrant for assassination.... Quite a come-down from the elite Pleisars, isn't it?"
Aeryn kept a satisfied smile to herself. He'd completely misunderstood her physical reaction, and took it for mortification, which seemed to serve some inner need of his. That was very good. She shook her head, trying to appear shamed by her apparent show of fear. "Take me back to my cell," she told him, trying to keep the sharpness out of her voice.
He shook his head pityingly, then hauled her roughly to her feet, getting in a kick or two on her ankles. He shoved her into the hallway and followed closely behind her.
On the trip back, she counted footsteps this time and pondered the mystery of what she'd apparently done in her past as a Peacekeeper -- not just a Peacekeeper, but clearly as a member of the Pleisar Regiment -- that had made this man so vengeful.
* * * * * * * *
John was sitting at a table in the corner of a dark café, waiting for Chiana to meet up with him. "Pilot," he said into his comm badge, voice under tight control. "How's it going up there?"
"Moya and I are fine," came the calm, steady reply from the ship in orbit above. "So far, no one from the planet appears to have taken any unusual interest in us."
Crichton snorted softly. "For what that's worth," he muttered. But that really wasn't why he'd called, and he said more clearly, "Um, Pilot, is TJ okay?" He'd hated to leave the boy behind like that, but what else could he do? He had to rescue Aeryn, and he had to keep their son safe. Aeryn had put herself in the line of fire to buy Chiana time to get TJ to safety, he knew that without question.
Pilot's voice interrupted his thoughts before he got too far into a downward spiral. "I believe he is asleep, Commander. Would you like to speak to Jool?"
John jammed the heels of his hands into his eyes and thought for a moment. Did he really want to talk to Jool? He wasn't sure he was up to dealing with her right now. And he really didn't want to know what Pip was doing in her quest to find out where Aeryn's captors had taken her....though it probably wasn't much more than flirting....
"Crichton?" Jool's voice came through his comms, interrupting his reverie. "Pilot said you wanted to talk to me. Is everything all right?"
"Uh, yeah, Jool, we're fine," he said, waving a deprecating hand even though she couldn't see him. "We haven't found Aeryn yet," he said, heading off her next question. "But we're working on it."
"You'll find her soon, I'm sure of it," she said. After a pause in which John chose not to reply, she added, "TJ's sleeping. He tried to stay awake, but he couldn't keep his eyes open. He's had a rough day, poor little kid."
Jool was too polite to say it, but something in her tone made John realize his son had cried himself to sleep. Guilt grabbed him in the gut, and he wished fervently that he hadn't called. But he'd come up empty on his half of the search, and waiting for Chi was making him crazy. He didn't wait any better than Aeryn did, not like this, not when his whole reason for living was in jeopardy, and the people who had Aeryn could be hurting her while he was just sitting here on his butt....
"John?" queried Jool again. "You still there?"
"Uh, yeah, Jool. Um, look, I better go," he told her, scrunching up his face in frustration. "I just wanted to make sure TJ was doing okay."
After a pause during which John could hear an affectionate sigh, Jool said, "Good luck then," and signed off.
John shook his head and took a drink of something that passed for coffee. What he really wanted was some good old fashioned Kentucky Bourbon, but that wasn't going to happen any time soon, and besides, he needed to keep his head clear. At least the liquid was hot. The need to avoid burning his tongue helped keep him alert.
If only he'd gone with Aeryn when she asked. Like he'd promised. If only --
"That's not going to help, Crichton. Cut yourself a break." Chiana's voice from behind made him jump and the hot drink sloshed out of the cup.
He whirled around, waving his hand to cool it, and snapped, "Holy crap, Pip, you're going to give me a heart attack, if you don't scald me to death! Quit sneakin' up behind me!"
Chiana gave him a lopsided grin and scratched her head. "Nah, that's Aeryn's job," she said, with a gleam in her eye that immediately raised his hopes and his spirits.
"You found her!" he told her.
"Uh-huh. Pretty sure, anyway." She shook her head. "Found a couple of narl rats that saw the whole thing. They say this ex-PK group is holed up at some fancy old house just outside of Neelam."
"That's just great," he snapped. "That mean we have a huge security system to work around? How many people?"
Chiana shook her head. "The narls didn't know for sure how many were in the group, but they think it's pretty small. Maybe four or five at the most."
"Thank Hezmana for small favors," John muttered, rubbing his thumb across his chin.
The Nebari danced sideways a step, and then said, "I went out there, to make sure I knew where it was before, well, before I told you. It was something drad once, but it's pretty rundown now. Hard to say how good their security is...."
John took a deep breath and unconsciously dropped his hand to his thigh where Winona was strapped. "Well, I guess we better go find out," he said grimly. He stood up and headed out the door with Chiana scurrying in his wake.
At the pace Crichton set, it was only a quarter of an arn before they were cautiously approaching the fence surrounding the estate. They circled the perimeter several times, hoping to look like they belonged in the area and trying to spot surveillance devices, cameras, or any other security measures. If there were cameras, they should have been spotted, even on the street, but no one came out to tell them to move along.
John chewed on his thumb for a minute and then announced, "I'm goin' in there."
"What, you're just going to walk up to the front door?"
John shrugged. "Why not?"
"Why would they let you in?"
"Because they're going to take one look at this boyish face and realize that I'm way more valuable than Aeryn."
Chiana stared at him. "You're going to trade yourself for Aeryn." She shook her head and continued, "That is the most fahrbot thing you've ever come up with, and your ideas are usually magra-fahrbot."
John set his jaw and looked back at her for a moment. Then he sighed. "There'll be no trading if I can help it, Pip, but I've got to get inside. We don't know when they're planning to bring her out, and we don't know what they're doing to her right now." He almost blurted out the news that Aeryn was pregnant, but he caught himself just in time. "Help me or stay out of the way,"
"What about TJ?" she persisted, grabbing his arm. "What's going to happen if he loses both of you?"
John scrubbed his cheek with his hand. "He's not going to lose either of us," he said flatly. "You coming?"
Chiana let her hand drop from his arm and shook her head. "No," she told him. "No, I'm not." Taking in the disappointment in his eyes she explained, "I'll be your back up." When a flicker of a smile appeared in his eyes, she added, "You're gonna need it!"
"You see that, Pip?" he asked wryly, a reference to her long-vanished power of precognition.
She shook her head and snickered. "Nah. You always need help, that's all."
John wasn't prepared to admit it, but she might be right at that. "Fine," he said, and climbed over the fence without a backwards glance, leaving Chiana to observe from the street.
John was halfway across what had once been a lush lawn, when there was a small explosion of noise behind him, and something about the size of a small cat banged into his shins and bounced off. He nearly leaped out of his skin, and he had Winona out of her holster before he realized he'd apparently startled several small animals of some sort, and one of them had been so frightened it had run straight into him while fleeing. Several of the creatures were still hopping across the dry grass. "Frelling rabbits," he muttered, willing his heart to slow back down. Back on the street, Chiana was nearly doubled over in laughter.
Well, it was pretty funny at that. And no one had come from inside to investigate. If this was indeed the right place, maybe this was going to be easier than he deserved.
He took a deep breath and crossed the rest of the grounds in long strides. On the front porch, he hefted Winona in his right hand, and reached his left hand for the door.
Unbelievably, from inside the door came, "Who is it?"
John snickered softly to himself and replied, "Candygram!"
There was a pause, and then the door opened. There were two men at the door, both of them with sidearms at the ready.
John could see the moment they recognized him. The gleam in their eyes was about what he imagined appeared in the eyes of a tribe of primitive humans when they spied a wooly mammoth near the edge of a cliff. He could all but hear their thoughts: "Hot damn! We're going to eat tonight!"
"I believe you have something of mine," he said. "Maybe we could do a deal."
The two men glanced at Winona, exchanged a feral look, and then stepped back to allow him to enter.
He hoped they were going to be civilized about all this, even though they outgunned him two to one. He took the risk for Aeryn, stepping through the door.
He should have remembered a Peacekeeper's first impulse was always force.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of the raised pulse pistol and ducked, but not quite soon enough to avoid a glancing blow to the head that sent him plunging into darkness, cursing his own impulsiveness....
* * * * * * * *
Crichton awoke lying on the floor on his back, head aching. Aeryn's steel-grey eyes hovered about a foot above him, and her dark hair trailed across his chest as she leaned over his face. It took him a moment to remember what had happened, and then he closed his eyes again briefly and groaned.
"So, you've decided to rejoin the living," she drawled, sitting up on her knees and shaking her head in apparent disgust.
But the expression in her eyes was anything but steel, and he could see her vast relief that he was all right. It made him feel that much more guilty to know he'd frightened her. Her puffy lip with the crust of dried blood made him feel even worse, but he knew better than to say anything about it.
She brushed his hair off of his forehead and he realized she was wearing some kind of wrist restraint. Damn! This just got better all the time. Testing his own hands without taking his eyes from hers, he found he was unbound. Thank heaven for small favors.
John pushed himself to a sitting position and then groaned once again as his abused head complained at the movement. He reached back to rub the knot, but Aeryn pushed his hand away, fingering the lump more gently than he'd expected from her usual all-business field medicine.
"Does that hurt?" she asked.
"Yes," he admitted.
Uh-oh.... Worried or not, she was still pissed at him.... Well, he deserved it, he guessed, wondering how to make it up to her.
"Your pupils are normal. Are you dizzy? Do you know where you are?" she asked, helping him turn to sit with his back against the wall.
"No, and yes," he told her. "I'm with you," he said, grinning as charmingly as he knew how. "That's all I need to know."
Aeryn sighed and settled against the wall next to him, sitting stiffly with her hands in her lap even though their bodies were touching. "Please tell me someone knows we're here."
He brightened. "Chiana does. She's my backup."
"Chiana. Well, that's a start. That girl can get in nearly anywhere." She paused for a moment and then asked fearfully, "TJ?"
"He's fine, baby, he's fine." Afraid they were being observed, he stifled the urge to put his arm around her shoulder and pull her close, instead patting her thigh gently where it rested next to his. "Chi got him back to Moya just fine, and he was sleeping, last time I talked to Jool."
John felt the tension drain out of her then and when she leaned into him he dared to drop a kiss on her head and ask, "They treating you all right here? Is...everyone okay?" He settled his hand gently on her belly just long enough for her to be sure of his meaning.
She was quiet so long he was afraid something bad had happened to the baby. A tear fell from her face to his hand, and he grew more alarmed. He lifted her chin to make her look at him. "Aeryn? What is it?"
In a small voice she said, "I didn't tell Chiana this time. I didn't tell anyone."
"You wanted to surprise me," he assured her, astonished that she was even worried about that. "And I frelled it up real bad."
Aeryn searched his eyes for a moment, looking for what, he wasn't sure. And then she pursed her lips and smirked, "As long as you understand that!"
Hallelujah! He was forgiven! John glanced around the room and then asked, "Are they watching us?"
Aeryn shook her head. "I haven't been able to find any cameras. They seem to be poorly equipped."
"Good," John grinned. "Then I'm going to kiss my daughter," he said, and leaned down and planted a kiss on Aeryn's stomach through the T-shirt.
She laughed then and told him, "Your daughter has been making me retch at the most inconvenient times!"
"I'm sorry," he said sincerely, and leaned in to kiss her gently, careful of her lip. When he pulled back, Aeryn remained leaning against the wall for a few microts, eyes closed and smiling softly. He wanted nothing more than to hold her and tell her everything was going to be all right, but this wasn't a time for words, it was a time for getting the hell out of there.
"Let me see those cuffs," he said. "Maybe I can get them off."
Aeryn obediently held them out, saying, crossly, "I don't know why they didn't put cuffs on you."
"Let's just be glad they didn't, okay?" he said, fiddling with the restraints.
"They're standard Peacekeeper issue for ordinary use," she told him. "They open with a simple code."
John eyed her suspiciously. "How simple?"
"Three numbers," she told him. "You're not thinking they've left them with the default setting, are you? Even this group has to have more sense than that. They were Peacekeepers. One of them was even in the Pleisars, I think."
"Darlin', you know as well as I do that brains were never a requirement for the PK's, present company excepted, of course," he said, and added, "What's the code?"
Despite his optimism, nothing happened when he entered the sequence, and John sighed. He tried a few more sequences at random, and several that Aeryn suggested, but the cuffs stayed locked, so he went for brute force. He pried part of a buckle off his boot, and using the metal as a tool, opened the service compartment on the restraints and popped the power cell out. Obligingly, the cuffs clicked open. "Voila!" he announced happily.
Aeryn dropped the restraints on the floor next to her and rubbed her wrists. "Thank you," she said. "I was definitely tired of those."
John took her hands and inspected both of her wrists, making sure there were no obvious injuries. He was about to examine her bloody lip as well when they both heard the sound of the door lock being undone. He whispered, "Follow my lead!" as they quickly moved to stand up.
Aeryn hauled John to his feet, impatient at his slower pace. As they stood side by side waiting for whatever was going to happen, she pulled her hands together in front of her in hopes that the missing manacles would be overlooked.
John noticed her movement and whispered, "Try to stay a little behind me. It'll be harder for them to see your hands." She nodded her agreement and took half a step backwards and towards him as the door finally creaked open.
Biggs entered the makeshift cell, carrying food cubes and water. He fixed a cautious eye on them, and stayed out of their reach.
Out of the corner of his eye John saw Aeryn grimace with distaste, and a vague plan took form in the back of his mind. He took a step towards the ex-Peacekeeper, jaw jutting out belligerently. "Hey, you! Did you hurt her? Is it you who did this?" He gestured dramatically towards Aeryn's injured lip, willing her to go with it. "No one hurts my woman!"
He darted a meaningful look at Aeryn, who picked up her cue with only the slightest hesitation. "I am no one's 'woman'!" she snapped, carefully keeping her hands together and edging closer to John -- and incidentally closer to her nemesis. "And I can take care of myself!"
Hiding a smile, John glared at Aeryn and sneered, "Yeah, right, look at you!" He took another step towards their startled captor as he did so.
"It's only a frelling split lip," she said in apparent disgust, moving as if to turn away from him.
John reached out a hand and grabbed her arm. "Hey! Where do you think you're going?"
"Here, now," Biggs started to interject, and took a step closer to the two apparent combatants, still holding the tray.
"This is between her and me," John growled, then gave Aeryn a quick look. She answered him with an affirmative smile in her eyes that didn't quite reach her face, and they both turned and punched the unfortunate Biggs, John taking his gut and Aeryn landing a punch on his face. Food cubes went flying and the ex-Peacekeeper sank to the floor, groaning.
John grabbed the man's gun while Aeryn quickly picked up the discarded manacles, reinstalled the power cell, and put them on her former captor.
She gave him a shove and snapped, "Against the wall!"
Biggs complied sulkily. "Bitch," he muttered under his breath as he slid down the wall and settled onto the floor.
"What the frell did I ever do to you, anyway?" Aeryn asked, exasperated at being his target for some offense she didn't even remember.
"I follow orders," he whined. "You had no call to say I didn't."
And finally it all snapped into place. "Frell. That was you?" She shook her head. "I was right, you know. You didn't belong in the Pleisars. You nearly got half the wing killed!"
"I worked myself half to death to get that posting."
"You mean you toadied up to anyone you could think of."
"And you took it away." Biggs shot her a look a pure venom.
"Fascinating as this reunion is," John interrupted, "I think we need to speed it up."
Aeryn nodded and looked back at Biggs. "No. I didn't do anything. You frelled up, just as you did just now."
Biggs spat on the floor. "You always did think too much of yourself Aeryn Sun. I found you once, I can find you again. And you'd better watch out for that snot-nosed spawn of yours."
Aeryn's face went completely still as she contemplated the man on the floor in front of her. He never even saw the blow that knocked him out. Without a backwards glance she headed to the door.
"Aer," John called softly. When she turned, he tossed her the pulse pistol they'd taken from Biggs.
She caught it expertly and nodded at him, and then at the door. Presumably there was no one on the other side, or they'd have come in to investigate the noisy altercation. Still, Aeryn opened the door cautiously, and stepped out slowly into the hallway.
As luck would have it, another member of the unit came from the direction that was hidden by the open door just as John followed Aeryn into the hallway. The man quickly joined Biggs in the holding cell, having reluctantly provided John with a pulse pistol.
While Aeryn locked the door, she said, "I haven't seen him before. That means there are at least two more of them."
"Two against two. Are you sure those are our odds?" John murmured. Aeryn shot him a 'Be careful what you wish for!' look and he added, "Um, you know the way out of here? I was kinda unconscious when they brought me in."
Aeryn nodded and rapidly led the way, four doorways on the right, two left turns and then...Frell! Between them and the right turn that led to the front door stood PK Barbie and the fourth member of the squad, talking. As the two startled bounty hunters drew their weapons, John and Aeryn scrambled back around the corner and assessed the situation.
"That's the way out," Aeryn reaffirmed. "It's only maybe twenty motras to the main door from here, if we can get past them."
John peeked back again and fired off a couple blasts to keep their adversaries from sneaking up on them. Wait a minute.... "Aeryn," he whispered, "take a quick look out there and tell me what you see."
Aeryn cautiously took a look and smiled broadly. "Chiana," she said. "Just around that last corner. She's armed."
"That's what I thought," John said. "Come on." And with that, he took off around the corner, pulse pistol at the ready, hollering at the top of his lungs.
Committed whether she wanted to be or not, Aeryn followed after him, with less noise but more gunplay.
John's foolhardy move had the desired effect: After taking several quick shots at him, PK Barbie and her subordinate retreated in the face of insanity -- directly into Chiana, who tackled the man, knocking him into Barbie. The three of them landed on the floor in a heap as John and Aeryn arrived. John helped a beaming Chiana to her feet while Aeryn relieved her former captors of their weapons.
Aeryn stood guard as John and Chiana tied the pair up with their own belts.
"There's two more of them somewhere," Chiana offered when they finished, adding, "I've been doin' a little exploring...."
Aeryn replied, "Mm-mmm, we took care of them already, but there may be more coming. We need to get out of here now!"
"Wait a minute," John said, hefting the weapons they'd collected from the various members of the group. "You get going! I can't leave yet."
"Oh, yes, you can!" Aeryn said, in a tone that only a fool would have argued with.
John looked like he was considering taking the risk, when Chiana reached behind her back and pulled something out of her waistband. "Looking for this?" she asked breezily.
John snagged the pulse pistol she casually tossed at him, and grinned. "Winona! Lord Almighty, Pip, you're a lifesaver!"
"Told you," Chiana giggled. "I've been exploring...."
"Well, you seem to have been exploring in all the right places," Aeryn said, genuine relief in her voice. "Now can we go please, John?"
"Come on," John said, reflexively pushing Aeryn ahead of him out the door.
Chiana grinned and followed the two of them out into the freedom of the night....
* * * * * * * *
Aeryn waited anxiously at the exit door to the transport pod, waiting for John to complete the shutdown cycle. She was desperate to see TJ again, but a little afraid of his reaction to her. After all, she hadn't so much as said 'Good-bye,' much less 'I love you,' when she'd thrust him into Chiana's care.
She needn't have worried.
As the steps came down she caught a glimpse of her son tugging to free his hand from Jool's. When he caught sight of her through the open doorway, he squealed, "Mommy!" and pulled harder. Jool managed to hold him back until the door was completely down, and then he broke free and was off like a shot, heading straight for his mother.
Aeryn was down the stairs in two bounds and scooped her child up in her arms. "Hey, baby," she whispered, hugging him tight. TJ held onto her just as tightly for a moment, and then started squirming. She loosened her grip and he sat back in her arms and regarded her happily. She brushed his dark hair out of his face and kissed him on the forehead. "I'm so glad to see you!" she told him, fighting to keep the tears from her eyes and her voice.
"Daddy got you?" the boy asked, peering behind her to see who else was coming down the ramp.
"Yes, TJ," she grinned, knowing without turning around that John was following right behind her. "Daddy got me. With a little help from Chiana."
"Yay! Everybody's home!" TJ hurrahed as his father arrived and enveloped mother and son in his arms.
"Yep, Sport, everyone's home!" John agreed with enthusiasm. He kissed TJ on the cheek, and then leaned in to kiss Aeryn on the lips.
As John pulled back, TJ looked at Aeryn's face. "You got a ouch, Mom?" he asked with concern, reaching one finger towards her lip.
Aeryn had to blink back tears again. What a remarkable child she had, and had almost lost. She smiled and shook her head. "It doesn't hurt, TJ," she assured him. "It's okay."
"Okay," he agreed, and rested his head on her shoulder.
Aeryn finally spared some attention for Chiana and Jool, standing together a little ways off from the family reunion. "Thank you," she said to both of them.
"I second that," John added.
The two women grinned, and then Chiana said devilishly, "Group hug!"
Everyone laughed, but John and Aeryn opened their arms and hugged their extended family before heading off for a little private "family time" with TJ.
Several arns of quiet play with TJ -- cuddling, stories, drawing, building blocks -- settled everyone's nerves. John and Aeryn had pushed the terrors of the past day aside and were sitting together on a large comfortable chair in the living area that John had dubbed the "family room" a couple cycles ago when they'd found the need for more private space as a family. TJ was curled between them, sound asleep. There was finally time to talk about things they hadn't wanted to discuss in front of little ears.
John chewed on his thumb briefly and said slowly, "You know, Keystone Cops or not, those guys had both of us. They sure as hell knew who I was, but I don't think they connected you with me."
"Not until you started that routine about me being 'your woman,' they didn't," Aeryn agreed.
"So, what did they think they were going to do with you?"
She hesitated for a microt and then came clean. "Apparently there's still a warrant out from Hokothia. For, you know."
John took a deep breath. He did know. Well, he evidently didn't see any more need to discuss the memories that brought up than she did. "How'd they make you?" he asked instead.
"Ahh," she said in disgust, "Biggs. The frelling incompetent recognized me, and he'd apparently taken special note of the fact that there was a bounty on me."
John shook his head. "Aeryn, darlin', don't get me wrong here. I'm sure you had your reasons. But what the frell did you do to that guy?"
It was her turn to shake her head. She looked off in the distance, remembering. "It was shortly after I was transferred to the Pleisar Regiment. I was very young, one of the youngest pilots ever to make the Regiment." She smiled at the memory of her accomplishment; it pleased her still. "Biggs arrived after I did, and I don't know how he ever got in. He was at best an adequate pilot, and he was a terrible coward. And one day, on a training mission, he disobeyed orders. Maybe he panicked, I don't know. But his actions nearly killed me and two other pilots, friends of mine as it happened. And when we got back to the base, I was so angry, I told him off in the hanger, in front of everyone who was there."
John winced, obviously imagining her tirade. "I don't imagine you were very delicate with your turn of phrase."
She smiled. "No. And it didn't take long for our squad leader to hear the story. He investigated, found I was right--"
"I'm sure you were," John interrupted.
"Who's telling this story?"
"You are, darlin'."
"The squad leader found I was right and had Biggs transferred right back to where he came from. I forgot all about him. Obviously he never forgot me." She nibbled on her lip in mild regret.
John was quiet for a moment, and then nodded towards the child sleeping between them and asked, "Do you think he meant it?" He paused again, and lowered his voice. "About TJ? Because I thought for a microt there you were going to kill him."
"If I thought he meant it, he would be dead," she said, equally softly.
John nodded, satisfied, and they both looked down at their son.
Aeryn smoothed the boy's hair and asked, "Do you think he'll be happy about the baby when we tell him?"
"Hell, yeah," John told her, happy to change the subject. "I loved having my sisters around! And there were two of them, they outnumbered me!"
Aeryn smiled at the dreamy expression on his face. She loved the moments when she could pretend he had the life he'd expected to lead. "I'll take your word for it. I never had the, what do you call it, nucleon family experience."
"Nuclear," he corrected fondly.
After a pause, she said softly, "I'm really sorry you had to find out like that."
John shook his head. "Babe, that was entirely my fault. Your plan was perfect." He grinned at the expression on her face. "I know, I know, unlike my plans."
"Just so you admit it," she said, laying her head on his shoulder.
He reached over and grabbed her hand. "Aeryn, I'm so sorry that I got so wrapped up in my work.... It won't happen again!"
"Don't make promises you can't keep," she said without lifting her head, but her voice was filled with warmth. "You are who you are, John, and I just need to remember that and make my plans accordingly."
He kissed her forehead and said comfortably, "I don't deserve you, you know."
Well, she didn't deserve him either but she knew she didn't need to say it. Neither did she need to rub it in by teasing. They sat quietly for a few minutes and then Aeryn, still a little unsettled the way John had found out about the baby, sat up and asked, "Are you okay with this? That I'm pregnant?"
John chuckled. "You know what I've been thinking in the back of my head since that clinic?"
Mystified, she shook her head.
"'We made a baby, we made a baby,'" he chanted with a huge grin on his face.
Aeryn's smile was tinged with puzzlement. It was clear that she really didn't understand what he meant.
The child between them stirred briefly, and John paused and rubbed TJ's back, choosing his words. When the boy settled down again, he continued, "Baby, TJ is my son, and I love him with all my heart. There is no way I could love him more." He paused, and Aeryn smiled at him encouragingly. "But....there's something amazing about knowing that I knocked you up this time!" And he reached out and put his hand on her belly.
The "bad boy" expression on his face called her usually-buried imp into play. "Well, you've certainly been trying hard enough," she said with a straight face.
John took a quick look at her eyes to make sure he was reading her right, and then sniggered, "Well, how about we put this guy to bed and re-enact the conception?"
She laughed softly, as the last of her fears dissolved. But she shook her head, smiling to take the rejection out of it. "That sounds really good, actually. But I'd like to just sit here for just a little while longer, okay? This is nice. You and me and TJ."
"It's very nice." He wrapped his arm around her and said, "I love you, Aeryn Sun."
She ran her hand along his thigh and told him, "I love you too."
And both of them knew they wouldn't be sitting there very much longer.