Rating: PG-13

 

The more he thought about it, the more clear it became to him that something had changed in the balance of power between himself and Scorpius. Without the tracer, the half-breed could no longer pursue him and that gave him some peace of mind. He wasn't keen on taking the next step by getting solid ground under his feet, but knew that he would have to get over that new anxiety before it turned into a phobia he couldn't manage.

It took two more stops at commerce planets before he could convince himself to go with the others and his palms were sweating and he felt the overwhelming need to hide all the time, but for once, the shopping spree went off without a hitch. There was no sign of Peacekeepers anywhere and once they set foot back on Moya, he began to shed that specific fear.

But he couldn't shed the urge that was growing inside him, the need to find out what the hell Scorpy wanted with him. For some reason that made no sense whatsoever, he felt like they were more on equal terms now that he could actually decide where he wanted to meet the half-breed and not the other way around. And it was clear to him at this point that he needed to make this happen, needed to find out what the hell Scorpius thought he had to offer.

The biggest obstacle right now was Aeryn. He knew without a shadow of doubt that she would oppose this; that she would get in his way if he involved her. But he couldn't very well make this happen without her knowing about it.

Command was quiet in the early hours of the morning and John just stood at the forward viewscreen and watched space glide by while trying to think of a way to do this without getting in over his head. His plans always turned to mush because he was too trusting, too naïve. Aeryn had a point there.

"What are you doing up?"

Her voice cut through his reverie and he turned back to face her, once again marveling at her beauty. She was a gorgeous woman, full of life and vigor. "Got stuff on my mind," he said and stepped up to meet her halfway. "What about you?"

"You were gone when I woke up," she said and slipped her arms around him. "What stuff?"

He grimaced. "Stupid stuff. Stuff that will land me in hot water if I go after it. Stuff I need to do," he said and knew he made little sense to her.

"I should never have told you that Scorpius just wants to talk," she said, surprising him. She knew him better than he thought.

"No, you did the right thing," he disagreed and pulled her closer. "I just can't ... I can't let it go," he confessed. "The more I think about it, the more I want to know what he wants. And I keep telling myself that we can meet on equal terms, that if I set the terms, he will follow them."

"He won't," she said. "Whatever the frell he wants, he will get it any way he can. If that means double-crossing you, he will. And you know what waits at the end of this path if you take it."

He grimaced. The Chair. It was a waking nightmare for him, another of those things he couldn't let go. Despite all the crap that had happened to him since, the Chair stood out as the worst of it. It had started it, had nearly liquefied his mind, had left him teetering on the brink of insanity, and he wasn't so sure he had actually recovered from that yet. "He wouldn't," he tried.

"He would," Aeryn disagreed. "And he will if he thinks it will give him what he's after. He will not hesitate to kill you if he feels he has to."

"He knows I don't have the tech any more, Aeryn," he argued.

"He knows you had it. And he may think he can force it to the surface by hurting you. And he will," she said, unrelenting in her approach. She knew how to push all the right buttons to make him uncertain about going forward.

He inhaled deeply and held his breath for a moment, then exhaled again. "You're right," he relented. For the time being, he thought. Give her time to process it, to realize it's the only way. She'll come around.

"You are not going to let this go, are you?" she asked quietly.

"I can't," he countered evenly. "You know I can't."

"You're frelled, John. You know that? You seek out these situations and you always end up in dren up to your frelling neck. Why can't you just let this go? He is not going to respond the way you want him to. You know he won't. Whatever it is that he wants from you this time around, he will get it whether you want to give it up or not." She grabbed his face with both hands. "Don't you understand yet? Why can't you see this? Why won't you understand that nothing good can come of meeting with Scorpius?"

He grabbed her wrists and just held on for a moment. "The more I think about it, the more I need to do it. It's ..." He closed his eyes, felt her hands on his face and just wished he could drop it. For her. For them both. But he knew he wouldn't be able to let it go. "I need to know what is so damned important that he has to hunt me all over the UTs to get it."

She tightened her grip a little. "Scorpius is obsessed. He will sacrifice the entire Peacekeeper corps just to get to whatever end goal he is after," she insisted.

"I know, but ..." He pulled her hands away from his face, kissed her palms and then looked her straight in the eye. "I need to know."

With a heavy sigh, she pulled back, away from him. "I am not going to stand by and watch you die, John. I can't do that again."

He could tell she was serious, but he also knew she wouldn't let him do this alone. "I'm not going to die. I'm just going to talk to that bastard, figure out what he wants. Maybe then I can sleep at night without worrying myself half to death that he's going to use whatever he managed to dig out of my head to lay waste to the galaxy."

"Then send him a frelling message. Don't meet him, John. Just communicate via com," she tried.

"I don't think he'll accept that as a viable option. Do you?" he asked.

"No," she consented. "At least let me make the plans then? Your plans always turn out wrong."

He couldn't help a smile at that. "I'm fine with that," he said.

"Good," she said. "Because if that frelling half-breed puts one toe out of line, I will shoot him myself," she added and eased back into his arms. "Now can we talk about something else?"

He wrapped his arms around her. "Like what?"

"Like how fast you can get back to bed so I can frell your brains out?" she countered with a vicious look in her eyes.

***

It turned out that getting a message to Scorpius wasn't all that difficult. The reply was short and to the point and the meeting had been set up for an out-of-the-way watering hole along the interstellar highways. It was a bare world with little to no hiding places. There would be no way that Scorpius and his soldiers could sneak up on them. Aeryn had chosen the planet for that specific purpose, but even so she was as nervous as she could get. Anything involving Scorpius would always make her nervous; especially when John was in the mix.

He stood a few paces away from where she stood waiting by the pod. She missed her prowler, which she had been forced to leave behind on the planet of the Sovereign, but knew they were well protected. D'Argo had Lo'La parked a bit further away, cloaked and ready to take off a moment's notice.

She watched John pace back and forth while he waited for Scorpius to arrive and when the prowler finally appeared, Aeryn was anything but surprised to see the marauder following closely in its wake. "John," she called out.

"I see it," he countered, but made no move to retreat.

She wanted to push away from the pod and grab him, make him see reason before the Peacekeepers could land, but she would be giving up the advantage her distance gave her. Instead she raised her pulse riffle and aimed it at the prowler, ready to shoot if necessary.

Scorpius exited the prowler and a moment later Braca and a few soldiers stepped out of the marauder. The half-breed held up a hand and they remained where they were while Scorpius covered the distance to where John now stood stock still.

"What a desolate place you have chosen, John," the half-Scarran said, spreading his arms in an all-encompassing gesture.

"The spot is not important, Scorpy. What do you want from me?" John countered. His tone was much steadier than Aeryn would have suspected.

"I have issues I wish to discuss with you. Issues best discussed in private," Scorpius countered. He kept his distance, but that didn't mean much.

"Whatever you have to say, Scorp, you can say here. There's nobody here but us chickens," John countered, which earned him a slight frown from Scorpius. Whether it was the saying the half-breed had issues with or John's refusal to play ball was beyond Aeryn.

She shifted her attention to the Peacekeepers loitering in the background, then back to Scorpius, who hadn't moved or spoken. He and John appeared to be engaged in a staring match and Aeryn again shifted her attention back to the soldiers. Braca was watching Scorpius very intently, which made Aeryn wonder what was going on. Technically, he should have been watching John and that worried her.

"I find your reluctance to meet me halfway a little annoying, John," Scorpius said.

John spread out his arms. "I'm here, aren't I? I met you halfway. I'm not going with you anywhere. If you want to talk, talk. Don't waste my time with this bullshit," he said, his tone steely.

Scorpius hissed, a sure sign of annoyance. Aeryn eyed him closely, then shifted her attention back to Braca and his men. Braca was still watching Scorpius and seemed oblivious to anything else. And then his features tightened a little, which alerted Aeryn to the very real possibility that she had missed something.

The split microt it took for things to go wrong was exactly what she had feared, although she had not foreseen what Scorpius had in mind. Where the pulse pistol came from was a mystery since he wasn't wearing a holster and his cooling suit had fairly few hiding places, but the sound of the shot was undeniable.

John jerked sideways, stumbled a step back and looked down himself before dropping down on one knee. His right hand found the wound before Aeryn could wrap her head around the event. Throwing caution to the wind, she rushed to his side, grabbing him before he could keel over. The fact alone that Scorpius had shot him was something she couldn't understand. If the half-breed wanted John alive, then how did it help to shoot him?

John groaned, the big ugly wound on his stomach oozing blood. Aeryn looked up to meet Scorpius' eyes. "What the frell?" she snapped.

"My medics can heal him," the half-breed said.

D'Argo came rushing toward them, his Qualta blade drawn and ready to fire.

"No," John gasped, clawing his fingers into Aeryn's arm.

And all she could do was hesitate. If she shot Scorpius, Braca and his men would shoot them all. If she turned Scorpius down, John would die. There was no other option. They were too far away from help and she did not have nearly enough medical expertise to deal with a wound that serious. If she wanted John to live - and there was really nothing in this universe she wanted more right now - then she would have to take Scorpius up on his offer.

"D'Argo," she said, holding up a hand, which stopped the Luxan in his tracks. "Go back to Moya. Wait for our signal," she said.

D'Argo stared at her, uncomprehending. "He shot him, Aeryn," he said as if he assumed she hadn't noticed.

"The medics on the command carrier are his only hope. He will die if we take him out of here without their help," she snarled, torn between anger and fear. "Please, D'Argo. Go."

Apparently, the Luxan could see the sense in her words, but he did not look happy. "Aeryn ..." he tried again.

"Go!" she demanded. "Please."

Finally, D'Argo relented. He lowered his Qualta blade and gave Scorpius a dark angry look before he turned around and strode back to his ship.

"Get him the help he needs," Aeryn barked at Scorpius. "Now!"

Scorpius waved his men over and they picked up John and carried him over to the marauder with Aeryn right behind them. She knew that John would never forgive her for this, but she also hoped that he would see reason; unless he died, of course, but that would leave her with only one reaction. She would shoot Scorpius and frell the consequences.

***

It was said that being shot in the stomach was the worst pain imaginable and John could only agree. It was a pain you wanted to get away from no matter what. The flight back to the command carrier was the longest he had ever been on for two specific reasons; the pain, which ate through him like acid, a burning, tearing kind of pain, and the fact that Aeryn had agreed to Scoprius' suggestion.

When she tried to help, all he could do was shove her away and she withdrew almost instantly, the hurt in her eyes very evident. He just did not have the stamina right now to address this issue. He needed her to know that he was not okay with this, but the thought of having to go through this alone, without her, made his heart shrivel inside his chest.

The medics stood by when they set down and hurried him to medical. The problem here was that none of them liked him all that much and their handling of him was therefore rough. With a wound like his, that meant a lot of added agony.

They moved him from the stretcher to an examination bed where he lashed out at one of the nurses - if that was what they were - because she grabbed him right next to the wound.

"Strap him down," one of the medics snapped, which he of course opposed with every ounce of strength he had left. The look in her icy-grey eyes was steely when she slapped a flat hand onto the wound and pressed down.

He couldn't breathe around the red hot agony her hand caused. The others held him down, forcing his arms down to the sides. "Let go," he ground out, straining against them. "Please, let go."

"Then stop fighting us," the medic snarled.

It took everything he had in him to stop resisting. She released her relentless pressure on the wound and instead turned to the task of stopping the bleeding and any seepage the shot may have caused. And he would have screamed but he simply didn't have the air. Having to restrain himself from squirming put added pressure on him and a part of him thought he would bust a vein if they didn't do something about the pain soon.

The sound of some sort of commotion drew everybody's attention for a second. The door to the room swung open and Aeryn stepped in, pulse pistol in hand, the look in her eyes that of pure rage. "Get the frell out of my way," she snarled when one of the medics tried to cut her off.

The man had sense enough to do as she said and scurried away, hands raised in surrender. John wanted to reach out for her, but with his hands tied to the examination table, he wasn't in any condition to do that. "Aeryn," he croaked, his voice breaking.

She pushed her way through the gathered, her eyes on him.

"Please, make them stop," he rasped, barely able to force the words out around the red hot ball of agony that was most of his torso.

Aeryn glanced at the wound, then at the head medic, and aimed her pulse pistol at the woman's head. "Give him something for the pain," she said, her tone icy.

"We don't know how he will respond," the medic countered in a sour tone of voice.

"Let's see how you respond to a blast in the face then," Aeryn snapped. "Do it! NOW!"

The medic raised both hands, obviously understanding that Aeryn meant business. She then nodded to one of her aides, who brought over an injector. The medic glared at Aeryn when she took it and then jammed it against John's neck and pulled the trigger. He jerked at the penetrating sting of the device, but the agony that was threatening to consume him abated immediately, fading away into a dull roar in the background.

He slumped back on the table, his breath ragged, until the medic returned her attention to his wound. Despite the painkiller, he felt every jab, and it made him grit his teeth.

Aeryn released his wrist from the restraints on her side and he used that moment to lash out and grab the front of the medic's tunic, yanking her in close. "Just because you don't like me doesn't mean you get to hurt me," he snarled, satisfied by the stunned and somewhat frightened look that crossed the woman's face.

She yanked out of his grip and took a step back. "Somebody else will finish this," she said, turned and marched out of the room.

For a moment, everybody just stood there and stared. Then one of the other medics, this one a male, stepped forward. Instead of continuing the abusive behavior of his colleague, he started out with numbing the area around the wound with a series of injections. Then he set about cauterizing the wound where it was needed before he filled it with something that looked like grey paste.

"What the hell is that?" John groaned.

"Synth-flesh. It closes the wound and promotes healing," Aeryn said while keeping an eye on what the medic was doing.

At this point, he was more scared than in pain. He wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of here, away from Scorpius and his demented ideas. And especially now he had no urge at all to talk to the half-breed. Fear made him feel phantom pain from the wound, but rather than take it out on the medic, who was doing a far better job than his colleague, John latched onto Aeryn's arm. "Don't you dare leave me alone," he rasped.

Aeryn glanced down at his hand locked around her arm, then met his eyes. "I never would," she promised.

***

After the deed was done, John was moved to a recovery room. Technically Aeryn wasn't allowed to stay with him, but after she had shoved the muzzle of her pulse pistol in a soldier's face, they had relented and left her with him.

For a long moment John just lay still and stared up at the ceiling. His right hand was still clamped around Aeryn's arm and he had yet to release his harsh hold. She glanced around the room, taking in the various surveillance devices scattered around the area, and sighed lightly. Her first instinct had been to demand they switch it off, but she knew they wouldn't. There really was no other option than to put the equipment out of commission, so she aimed her pulse pistol at the two cameras and shot them.

John jerked, glanced from the pistol to the now smoking holes in the walls, then back to Aeryn. "Surveillance?" he asked.

"Yes," she agreed. "There's probably more, but this will do for now."

Almost reluctantly, he unclenched his fingers and let go of her arm. In part, she was sorry he let go and assumed he was still angry with her.

"I had no choice," she said without looking at him, keeping her voice even while her eyes scanned the walls for further signs of surveillance.

When he made no move to reply, she glanced down at him and found him staring up at the ceiling. His breathing was shallow, his eyes a bit glassy. He looked feverish, but it was hard for her to tell if he was any warmer than normal without touching him and she assumed he wasn't too keen on her touch right now.

"I'm sorry. I should have worked harder on stopping you from going to this frelled meeting," she persisted. She had this need inside her for his forgiveness that made her feel almost sick.

"I should learn to listen to you," he countered quietly and groaned when he shifted. "I gotta learn to let go, huh?" he added with a shaky smile on his lips.

She pulled up a chair and settled down next to the bed and to her immediate relief he took her hand, squeezing it hard. "It would perhaps be beneficial if you could," she agreed with a vague smile of her own.

He took a couple of deep breaths, then started to struggle to sit up, a task severely hampered by the pain it was causing him.

Aeryn rose in alarm and grabbed his shoulders. "What the frell are you doing?" she demanded.

"We gotta get out of here," he rasped and only barely managed to repress a whimper.

"We can't leave, John. Not yet," she insisted and carefully pushed him back down. "You are in no condition to get up."

"I'm in no condition to answer any of Scorpy's questions, either," he pressed out, obviously afraid of what the half-breed had in mind.

"First and foremost, John, I am still armed. If he was going to harm you, he would have made certain I could not interfere," she said sternly, hoping to calm him down. It was not good for him to get this worked up in his present condition.

He stared at her for a moment longer, then deflated a little. "Won't take them any time at all to disarm you if they want to," he muttered.

She had to agree with him there, but she was still hopeful that it wouldn't come to that. If push came to shove, she had one option open. She just did not want to consider that unless there was no other way.

Before she could come up with an appropriate reply to that, Scorpius stepped into the recovery room. He eyed them, then glanced up at the destruction Aeryn had caused. "That was not necessary, Officer Sun. We are not keeping you under surveillance," he said.

"Better safe than sorry," Aeryn countered, using one of John's phrases. John in turn said nothing, but he didn't have to speak to let her know how nervous he was. "What do you want?"

"To check on our patient," Scorpius said evenly, "and to offer my sincerest apology. If I had known a shot would have that effect on him, I would never have ..."

"Spare me the dren," Aeryn snapped, cutting him off. "You knew what you did when you shot him. If all you want to do is talk, you could have talked to him on that planet."

Scorpius eyed her for a moment. He was hard to read, but no harder than that she could guess at what he might be thinking. "In any event," he said and paused to give her the opportunity of cutting him off again, which she didn't. "All I want is a word with John. Alone."

Aeryn shook her head. "Not going to happen. Whatever you have to say to him, you can say with me here." She made certain her tone revealed her intent to shoot to kill and Scorpius obviously got the point.

For a long moment none of them spoke. Then Scorpius took a step closer, which made Aeryn raise her pulse pistol. He stopped and raised his hands, signaling both surrender and no evil intent. "What business I have with John is for his ears alone," he said, focusing on John rather than her.

Aeryn glanced down at John, who was looking at anything other than Scorpius, his expression and body language revealing all too clearly how freaked out he was. It was not a good basis for negotiations. She knew that the shot had destroyed much of his bluster and that his almost primal fear of the half-breed was completely at the forefront. He felt exposed, vulnerable, at the mercy of a relentless enemy, and she assumed he expected Scorpius to strap him into the chair and rip his mind to shreds just for fun right now. She reached her left hand down to him and he grabbed it without hesitation, his sweaty fingers tightening almost convulsively over hers. "Then we have nothing to talk about," she said and looked back over at Scorpius. "As soon as John is able to walk, we are leaving. Unless we are your prisoners?"

Scorpius managed a smile at that. "Not at all. You are free to leave whenever you want," he claimed.

Aeryn aimed at testing that claim's validity as soon as possible. She nodded in acceptance of his words and squeezed John's hand. "He needs to rest," she said.

The half-Scarran lingered for a moment, then inclined his head in her direction, glanced briefly at John and then left the room again.

The microt the door had closed, John sat up. The fact alone that he could do this without passing out from pain told Aeryn a lot about his state of mind. "I can walk," he rasped.

"No, you can't," she disagreed.

"Aeryn, I need to get the hell out of here. Now! I'm about an inch away from a heartattack here," he pressed out and started to push the sheet aside.

She could tell that every move he made sent a shudder of pain through him and that was with the painkiller still in his system. She turned fully toward him and leaned down to grab his wrist, stopping him from pulling the sheet from his legs. "No," she said sternly. "You will not get up now. We are not leaving now. The pain-shot they gave you is very heavy duty. The fact that you are in agony now does not bode well. You need to rest."

He stared at her for a few heartbeats, his breath quick and shallow, his color ashen. "I can't stay here," he whispered.

"And you won't for any longer than necessary. But if that wound opens up again, you will die. And from what I could tell, it will be a very painful and most likely drawn out death. I am not watching you die when I can prevent it. And I can by keeping you in this frelling bed," she said sternly.

Obviously he responded better to her fear of losing him than his own recovery, so she used it as an incentive. And it wasn't exactly a lie either. She was terrified of losing him, of what it would do to her if he were to die. And she would do her utmost to prevent that from happening.

"Please, John. Rest now. We will leave as soon as you're able. But for now, you must rest," she insisted, hoping that she was finally getting through to him.

It took a moment longer than she had hoped, but eventually he gave a brief little nod and allowed her to help him lie back down. Needless to say he was not happy about it, but he did it for her and that put her mind at ease. "You'd better not go anywhere," he said quietly.

"I'm staying right here. All the time," she promised and settled back down on the chair.

***

He slept for a time. Knowing that Aeryn was there, keeping watch, made it a little easier, but he could not shed the fear. The realization of what Scorpius had in mind when he had suddenly brought out that gun had completely bypassed him until the split second before the half-breed had pulled the trigger and by then it had been far too late to avoid the shot. And he had to admit that it had knocked the sense right out of him. Despite his fear of the half-Scarran, he had never actually thought that Scorpius would consciously try to kill him and the shot that slammed into his stomach, searing its way through clothes and skin and flesh like a giant blowtorch, had rattled his conviction so much that he no longer knew what to believe.

When it had dawned on him that Scorpius had shot him to ensure they had a chance to talk, he knew that he could count on nothing where the half-breed was concerned, and that stoked his fear to newfound levels that bordered on terror; in other words, he lost control. All the bravado in the universe couldn't cover up how downright terrified he was at this point and he wouldn't put it past Scorpius to strap him into that horror contraption and rip his mind to shreds just to prove a point; namely that he could do whatever he wanted without anyone stopping him.

It was obvious that Scorpius wanted something from him, but John had no interest any more in finding out what that was. He wanted off this command carrier and he wanted to put so much distance between himself and Scorpius that he would practically be in another universe altogether. How he was ever going to get over this was beyond him. All he could see for his immediate future was fear-riddled to such a point that he would never want to set foot on another world ever again.

Aeryn was asleep in the chair next to the bed and John briefly wondered if Sebaceans were prone to getting kinks in their necks from sleeping in awkward positions like that. Since she had basically been up and running longer than he had, he didn't want to wake her up and, keeping himself as immobile as possible, he managed to get off the bed in a quest for a glass of water. The cup next to the bed was empty and he was parched.

Moving like a very old man and feeling older still, he made his way slowly over to the sink and came to a somewhat lurching halt when he reached it. The mirror reflected all that was wrong with him right now, he thought. He generally looked like Death warmed over, pale, tired, dark smudges under his eyes. Grabbing on to the sides of the sink, he leaned against it and dropped his head while trying to assess if he would be able to walk out of here today.

"What the frell are you doing out of bed?" Aeryn sounded tired and cranky and concerned all rolled into one when she stepped up beside him and stared at him as if he had lost his mind.

"Got thirsty," he countered and realized he sounded much the same.

"Then frelling tell me to get it for you," she chastised and invariably glanced down at his side, obviously looking for blood. "How the frell are you even moving with that wound?"

He blinked and looked down himself, then straightened up a little and gingerly brushed his fingertips over the edges of the area the synth-flesh covered. The thing he hadn't thought of before was the level of pain. It hurt, yes, but considering how it had felt when he had been shot and how it had felt at the subsequent manhandling by the PKs, he was doing worlds better today. "Uh …" He frowned and turned a little to face Aeryn. "I pretty much think I can walk out of here right now," he said.

Aeryn's expression was not what he had expected. She looked mostly like she wanted to rip the bandage off him to check the wound. "I have seen plenty of soldiers shot in the stomach," she said. "Some of them even survived it. And those that did had to recover for weekens before they were even able to get out of bed." She took an almost hesitant step back and eyed him up and down. "I have seen you wounded. You do not heal this quickly. What the frell is going on here?"

Uncertain about her reaction, he backed up and bumped into the edge of the sink, which sent a shiver a pain through him. He hissed through gritted teeth and only barely stopped himself from touching the wound.

Apparently his reaction settled whatever concerns she'd had, because she took a careful hold of his arm, steading him. "Let's get you back to bed," she said.

Although the idea was enticing - his legs did feel a bit wobbly right now - the thought that he might not be able to get back up made him stall. "No," he said. "We're leaving as long as I can stand on my own two feet, Aeryn. I need to get the hell out of here; as in right now."

She eyed him closely for a moment, then gave him the once over before settling for an arched eyebrow. "Are you certain you can walk more than a few steps without falling over? Scorpius will use it against you if you show weakness now," she said.

He considered her words, well aware that she wasn't doubting him, but rather worried what would happen if he wasn't up to the challenge. "I can walk out of here," he said with conviction. He might have to pay the price later, but he was convinced he could manage that much.

With a nod, she tapped the com-badge pinned to her vest. "D'Argo?"

"Right here," came the immediate reply.

"Pick us up. Now," she said, then glanced down at John's bare feet. "You need boots," she stated and strode over to the bed to pick them up.

With her help, he got into the boots and into his coat as well. By the time she was done, he was breathing hard.

"Are you sure about this?" she pressed.

"Never been more sure about anything in my life," he agreed.

"Good. And now we get to test Scorpius' claim that we are free to leave whenever we want," she said and guided him toward the door. "There is a bay right below us. All we need to do is get to the levelriser and into Lo'La and we're home free."

"Unless Scorpy decides to blast us out of the sky," he mused darkly.

Aeryn smirked. "He won't. If he wanted you dead, he would have killed you on that planet," she countered and opened the door.

They had barely stepped out of the recovery room before they saw Scorpius striding toward them, closely followed by Braca and a few soldiers. At the sight of John not only standing but walking on his own, Scorpius came to an immediate stop. Whatever had been on his mind, he was obviously surprised beyond reason at this turn of events.

"You're leaving?" he asked when they stopped a few steps from him right in front of the elevator doors.

"Yes. You said we were free to leave whenever we wanted to," Aeryn countered, not giving John a chance to open his mouth; not that he wanted to either.

It took a moment for the half-breed to reply, but obviously he was hard pressed to keep his end of this deal. "So I did," he admitted, albeit reluctantly. "I am just surprised to see John up and moving this soon. The wound was grievous at the best of times."

"Fortunately, John is a fast healer," Aeryn said, the conviction in her tone so strong, John would have stared at her openmouthed if he hadn't been so busy being scared of Scorpius' possible reaction to all of this. "I have taken the liberty of requesting a few necessities from medical to further his healing," she added. "And since he is now able to walk on his own, we see no reason to linger."

John had his right hand on his hip to prevent himself from leaning to the left to take the strain off the wound and he hoped they were through with the niceties, because he was rapidly running out of steam here.

Scorpius eyed them both for a moment, then narrowed his eyes. "Is John incapable of speaking for himself now?" he asked, his tone bordering on annoyed.

Before Aeryn could say something that John couldn't back up right now, he grabbed a hold of her shoulder and gritted his teeth in a display of anger. Whether it came out right was something he couldn't tell. "No, I'm not," he growled. "I just prefer to leave the talking to Aeryn where you're concerned."

Scorpius' expression tightened a little. He was obviously put off about the whole thing. But then he took a step back and made a sweeping gesture at the elevator. "By all means. If you feel you're up to the challenge," he said. "Allow me to take you to your ship then."

"I think we're perfectly capable of finding our own way," Aeryn shot back, her tone tight.

"Oh, but I insist," Scorpius said, his tone dry and chilly.

The doors to the elevator opened, admitting them into the spacious cabin, and Aeryn somehow managed to keep herself between John and Scorpius at all times. This might have a lot to do with the fact that he couldn't convince himself to release her shoulder. That she wasn't grimacing at the pressure he put on it was a bit surprising to him, but he was having a hard enough time focusing on breathing slowly and not doubling up to take the strain off his now throbbing stomach.

Scorpius and Braca left their platoon behind, but they were both keeping an eye on both Aeryn and John.

The cabin came to a stop and even though it could hardly be called a jolty stop, it still almost made John gasp. The idea of having to walk however many steps from the elevator to Lo'La almost made him dizzy, but he would be damned if he would let it show. In an effort to prove to the highly perceptive half-Scarran that he was indeed capable of doing this without help, he released his harsh grip on Aeryn's shoulder, but made certain she remained a barrier between him and Scorpius.

"You seem a little winded, John," Scorpius commented when the doors parted.

"You shot me in the stomach. What the hell did you expect?" John countered through gritted teeth.

"Don't talk to him," Aeryn advised and ushered him out of the cabin.

The anger gave him the needed momentum to get going and even though every step sent a shudder of hellish agony through him, he knew he could keep going until he was out of sight. The moment Lo'La's hatch closed, he could give up this pretense that he was fine.

D'Argo met them halfway and the path to Lo'La was framed by PKs. The Luxan eyed him worriedly, but made no move to step in. Obviously Aeryn had given him a warning glance.

"The bag I had brought down?" Aeryn asked, aiming this at one of the PKs standing around. The man glanced briefly at Scorpius, then picked up a bag and handed it to her.

They hurried as much as John could muster and all three of them expected to be stopped at any moment.

"I did want to talk to you, John," Scorpius said, trailing after them. "At your earliest convenience."

"Send me a postcard," John countered without looking back. He couldn't turn around. It would upend his balance and Aeryn was right, any sign of weakness apart from the obvious would land him in a world of trouble. There was no doubt that Scorpius was waiting for the moment to pounce.

He almost came to a stop when he caught sight of Lo'La's ramp. He had totally forgotten that it consisted of steps and he wasn't at all sure he could manage that right now. D'Argo, however, was as step ahead of him and grabbed his arm, literally hoisting him up the ramp without too much effort.

Aeryn backed up the steps and gave Scorpius a nod. "Thank you for your hospitality," she said, her tone dripping with sarcasm.

The half-breed hissed like an angry snake, but made no comment to that.

Lo'La's ramp closed and Aeryn turned back to face them. "Get us the frell out of here before he forgets his manners," she told D'Argo, who nodded and rushed for the controls.

Aeryn dumped the bag on the floor and took one step toward John, just in time to stop him from collapsing. His knees simply gave in and if she hadn't grabbed him, he would have landed on the floor. Instead she helped him ease down on the bench and then hunkered down in front of him.

"You are completely tinked, you know that?" she asked, but there was a smile in her voice.

Anything he may have wanted to say to that was lost in a groan when he doubled over. She grabbed his shoulders, forcing him back upright and nodded at the bench. Yeah, lying down would probably be a good idea.

He kind of lost track of what happened after that since the world around him grayed out and finally faded to black.

***

Aeryn tied him in as best she could to prevent him from falling off the bench and then glanced over at D'Argo. "How is he?" he asked without turning back.

Lo'La raced out of the hangar and into open space, the engine growling darkly. "I don't know, to be honest. I have a feeling that this burst of energy was out of sheer fear of Scorpius," she said and gave John a lingering look. "I'm afraid what this might have done to the wound."

"He is resilient," D'Argo said, a touch of admiration in his voice. "Moya has starburst away from this system. We are going to meet up with them in one solarday," he added.

Aeryn grimaced. She had hoped to get John into a bed as soon as possible. "Can they track you?" she asked and gently brushed her fingers through John's hair.

"No, not while she is cloaked," D'Argo said and sent a look back at her. "Are you alright?"

At that question, Aeryn deflated a little. She was sitting on the floor next to John and suddenly felt very tired. "Yes, I'm fine, D'Argo," she said and didn't really know if she was. She was tired and fed up with worrying about this frelling Human of hers.

"What did Scorpius want with him?" the Luxan asked, once more keeping his eyes on the controls. "Why would he go as far as shooting him and then letting you go?"

"I don't know. He wouldn't talk while I was around and I was not about to leave John alone with him." She leaned back against the edge of the bench, sensing the heat John was giving off. "Even at the best of times, I'm not happy about John being alone with Scorpius. With this wound, he's incapable of protecting himself. I just don't know what the frell Scorpius wants with him."

"This situation is frelled," D'Argo agreed quietly. "I suggest we keep a low profile for a while, stay away from the mainstream worlds and perhaps try to figure out what it is Scorpius wants before we make any other moves."

"Good suggestions, Ka D'Argo," Aeryn said with a smile. "I just have the feeling that Scorpius will only reveal his intentions to John alone and only face-to-face."

"That would be a problem," D'Argo agreed. "Get some rest, Aeryn. I shall get us to the rendezvous point as quickly as I can."

She nodded and leaned her head in against John's chest.

***

When the world decided to reassert itself, John was flat on his back, the golden vaulted ceiling of Moya's cells above him. He smiled vaguely, then raised his head and tried to remember how the hell he'd gotten back to his cell. Hell, he couldn't remember getting back to Moya. Yet here he was.

He exhaled slowly and let his head drop back down on the pillow. There was still pain, but it was dull and distant, more like an itch than actual pain. And he wanted it to stay that way, so he didn't move in the hopes of avoiding any aggravation of what should probably have been a fatal wound.

"You're awake."

"That's a blatantly stupid comment, really," he countered and rolled his head to the left. Aeryn stood in the doorway, a tray in her hands, a faintly bemused smile on her lips.

"Is it?" she asked. "You've been in and out of consciousness for two solardays. When we got you back here, you were burning up."

That made him frown. "Oh," he muttered and tried to reassess how he felt. But the pain was still a strong itch and he generally did feel far better than he had only two days ago. The first thing he moved was his left leg. Pulling it up a little, he tried to estimate if that would aggravate the itch into actual pain, but it didn't. The wound felt tight, but not painful.

"We should check the wound," she said and put the tray down next to the bed. "I managed to get a few packs of synth flesh in case you needed it. And some of that spray-on bandage."

"It feels … much better," he said and pulled the t-shirt up covering the wound. Where before it had looked angry red along the edges, it now didn't. "I'm pretty sure that stomach wounds aren't supposed to heal this fast," he added and looked up at her. "And, from what you said, I kinda get the feeling that's the same for Sebaceans, huh?"

"Pretty much," she agreed, her eyes on the wound. "Let's see how it looks," she added and went about peeling the spray-on bandage off. As it came off, it took big chunks of the synth-flesh with it, which had turned into a dry, bread-like substance. She carefully scraped it away, revealing thin yet healthy-looking pink skin underneath. The indent that should have been there was gone. Technically, there was no indication of a dangerous deep wound that had seemed to penetrate halfway through him. Aeryn stared at it for a moment, then looked up to meet his eyes. "It would seem that you respond differently to synth-flesh than Sebaceans do. I have never seen a wound that bad heal that fast in anyone," she said, stressing the words.

"Me neither," he admitted. "This has to be a good thing, right?"

"Yes, of course it is," Aeryn said, but sounded a bit doubtful. "I think you should be careful, though. Just in case. This new skin doesn't look very thick."

"Might be an idea to take it slow, huh?" he asked and gave her a ghost of a smile when she met his eyes. He wasn't entirely happy about this rapid healing either.

"I think we'll cover it with more synth-flesh for a few more solardays. Just to be on the safe side," she said and got up to grab the bag she had brought from the command carrier. She applied a layer of the artificial flesh and covered it with the spray-on bandage. "There. Just leave it on for a few more days and ... then we'll see."

"Right," he agreed and pushed up on his elbows. "It feels a little tight. The skin, I mean. And it's itching."

"That sounds like it should," Aeryn said with an arched eyebrow. "John ... about this whole mess."

"Yeah, I know," he said and dropped back down on the bed. "It's another one of those plans that went bad before it even began. I'm through trying to talk to that freak, though. Whatever he wants, he can shove it up the wazoo. I'm not interested anymore."

"He could have killed you," she said, a quiet intensity in her voice that made him look at her more closely.

"He almost did," he agreed. "I don't think I've ever experienced that sort of pain before. And I never want to experience it again."

"D'Argo suggested that we stay far away from mainstream planets for a while. That we stick to the backwaters and edges of the UTs," Aeryn said. "Pilot and Moya agree. They are as eager to be away from the Peacekeepers as the rest of us."

"Sounds like a plan to me," John said without hesitation.

"Are you hungry?" she asked and nodded at the tray.

John glanced down at it. "Foodcubes?" he asked. "That's all we've got?"

She smirked. "No, but I thought it might be best to start slow, considering that you've been shot in the stomach. And from what I could tell, there was seepage."

He frowned lightly until it dawned on him what she meant by seepage. "Well, whatever happened then isn't happening now. And I'm famished. It's not like those PKs fed me or anything," he complained. The idea of tasteless foodcubes made his skin crawl.

"I'll see if I can convince Chiana to create something then," Aeryn said and turned to leave, but she paused at the door. "Stay in bed. Please?"

"I'm not going anywhere," he promised and smiled lightly when she walked away. Then he sighed. "I was never a good patient," he muttered and pushed up on his elbows.

This was immediately followed by a stab in his guts that made him flinch. "Ow," he growled and shifted a little, hoping to take the pressure off the wound. The stab repeated itself, making him gasp at the intensity. "Shit," he muttered and figured he'd better go with Aeryn's suggestion and stay in bed. He eased back down and stretched out carefully, then held still for a moment. When no further pain followed in the wake of that, he breathed a sigh of relief. But the air got stuck in his throat when it suddenly felt as if someone was shoving a pin cushion into the wound.

He yanked the sheet away to reveal the synth-flesh covered wound and stared in terror at the rippling surface. Little welts in his skin branched out from the wound, the majority of them heading upward. "What the hell?" he gasped, then froze in mid-motion.

***

Aeryn tapped her com-badge when she didn't find Chiana in the galley. "Chiana? Where are you?"

"Indisposed," came the somewhat out of breath sounding reply.

Aeryn rolled her eyes. "Could you two frell on your own time? Like during the sleep cycle?" she snapped and cut the com-badge off before either of them could come up with a reply. She considered her options for a moment, but decided that she was not going to try her hand at preparing food just yet. John would just have to settle for foodcubes for now.

That decided, she left the galley again and headed back toward his quarters. He would understand.

She rounded the corner and came to a stop when she caught sight of his cell. The sheet was on the floor and there was no sign of John. "John?" she called and covered the distance in a few long strides. She listened to the silent interior for a moment. "John," she tried again.

She tapped her com-badge. "Pilot, do you know where John is?" she asked.

"No, I was not aware he was missing," Pilot replied.

"Can you send out some DRDs to locate him? He is in no condition to be wandering around Moya right now," Aeryn said and set off in the opposite direction she had come from. "I'll look for him too."

"I have dispatched as many DRDs as I can spare right now," Pilot said.

Aeryn searched the tier she was on with no luck. "Why the frell would you get out of bed?" she muttered and took an access ladder to the next tier.

"Aeryn. It would seem the Commander is in the landing bay on tier seven," Pilot suddenly said.

Aeryn, halfway up the ladder to tier five, stopped dead. "Why the frell is he in the landing bay?" she asked and reversed back down to tier six and onward to tier seven.

"It appears he is leaving," Pilot said and even he sounded puzzled now.

"Leaving?" Aeryn felt a cold rush of fear. "Open the coms. Put me through to the pod," she snapped.

"Coms are open," Pilot replied.

"John? Where the frell are you going?" she demanded. Nothing but dead air answered her. "John! Answer me!" she pressed.

And still there was nothing but silence at the other end.

"The pod has left Moya," Pilot announced.

Aeryn skittered to a stop outside the bay doors and stared at them. "What the frell is going on here?" she muttered. "Where is he going? Do you know?"

"Moya will attempt to keep up with the pod, but its course is erratic," Pilot said.

"Of course it is. He's in no condition to be up, let alone fly anywhere," Aeryn huffed and kicked the bay doors hard. Moya currently only had one pod and that meant Aeryn had no way of following John.

Moya suddenly made a violent turn, which sent Aeryn skittering backward into the opposite wall. The leviathan changed course again and Aeryn barely managed to hang onto the rib she had slammed into to stop herself from being thrown across the corridor again. And then Moya starburst. Hanging on for dear life, Aeryn could hear a squeal from Chiana over the coms and a grunt which probably came from D'Argo.

"What the frell is going on here?" D'Argo yelled.

"Pilot! Why is Moya starbursting?" Aeryn yelled.

"She detected a command carrier," Pilot replied.

"Frell it!" Aeryn snarled. "Tell her to turn around. Go back. We need to help John," she yelled.

"I shall attempt to reason with her," Pilot countered.

Moments later, the leviathan left starburst, made another abrupt turn and reentered starburst again. Aeryn felt her stomach roll uneasily at the constant back-and-forth, but also attributed it to being because of worry.

The microt Moya dropped out of starburst again, Aeryn was on her feet and on her way to command. She needed to see for herself what the frell was going on outside. "Pilot, any sign of the pod?" she yelled.

"No. Both the pod and the command carrier appear to have left the area," Pilot replied, worry in his voice.

Aeryn skittered into command and stopped at the map table. "Show me," she said.

The display flickered to life, showing her their immediate surroundings. And there was nothing out there; nothing but planets and space.

"Aeryn." D'Argo's voice pulled her out of her staring match with the map and she glanced over one shoulder at the Luxan.

"He's gone," she said, not sure how to handle this reality. "Why the frell would he leave? Why ..." She stopped, staring into the middle distance for a moment, then pushed away from the map table and strode past him.

D'Argo, obviously concerned, followed her. Chiana joined them on route and Rygel turned up close to John's quarters.

Aeryn grabbed the bag with the medical supplies and upended it, spilling a couple of packages of synth-flesh and a few cans of the spray-on bandages onto the floor. Without hesitation, she hunkered down, ripped open one package of synth-flesh and spilled it onto the floor. It leveled out, spreading into a fairly big pool, and in the sea of grey, little things wiggled. Aeryn picked one of these wiggling things up and eyed it for a moment. "Frell that fekkik," she snarled.

"What the frell is that?" Chiana asked and leaned closer.

"Stay away from it," Aeryn warned and rose, stepping back to avoid coming in contact with the synth-flesh. She dropped the little metal critter back into the puddle, pulled out her pulse pistol and blasted the dren out of it.

D'Argo, Chiana and Rygel drew back a little, all three of them concerned about her present state of mind. "Aeryn," D'Argo tried again. "What is going on here?"

"Those probes," she said, nodding at the now smoldering spot on the floor, "can be used for a lot of things. One of them is to assert temporary control over an individual." She exhaled slowly. "In other words ... Scorpius has once again frelled with John's head. And this time around, he has managed to make me give him the hardware."

"Frell me," Chiana muttered. "Does that mean he's gone back to that fekkik?"

"Very much against his will, yes," Aeryn said. "And we have no way of tracking them." The realization that this was it; that she had reached the end of the line and had no way of finding or retrieving John now, made her heart hurt. She closed her eyes and balled her hands into fists. "I failed him."

"No, you did not, Aeryn. Scorpius is cleverer than any of us thought. This is not your fault," D'Argo tried while placing a hand on her shoulder.

She shrugged it off and dropped down on the edge of John's bed. "No, it's my fault. I requested this dren. I should have found it myself, should have made certain they could not tamper with it. I should have known. This is my fault."

D'Argo hunkered down in front of her, drawing her attention. "Scorpius just really wants to talk to John. Let's hope that's all this is. That he wants to talk to him. We should stay here for a while; wait; see what happens. Maybe he managed to escape. Maybe they didn't see him," he said.

Aeryn eyed him for a microt, then nodded. "You're right. We should stay here, seeing as that running all over the UTs won't do anything," she said and met his eyes. "Have I ever told you that I hate waiting?"

D'Argo smiled. "You don't have to tell me. I know," he countered.

***

Two solardays passed where Aeryn found it hard to do anything other than pace around command. She was itching to move, to go after John, and if she had known where to look, she would have gone. But not knowing where to start looking made it impossible and she could see the sense in D'Argo's suggestion that they stay put; in case John came back.

"Frell," she muttered and kicked a discarded cup across the room. It hit the opposite wall with a loud clatter.

"Kicking the China isn't going to help."

Aeryn turned around to face Chiana. The girl was not smiling and Aeryn knew she was just as anxious to find John as the rest of them. "China?" she asked. "Is that a different way of saying Chiana?"

That made Chiana huff out a laugh that held little merriment. "No, you fekkik, it means cups and plates in Crichton-speak," she countered.

"English," Aeryn corrected her. "That's what he calls his language. English." She turned away, balling her hands into fists. "Frell, where is he?"

"I don't know. Are you itching as much as me to go out there and find him?" Chiana countered and slid up beside Aeryn. She hesitated briefly, glancing at Aeryn, then slipped an arm around her back.

"If ever I see Scorpius again, I am going to blast his frelling head off. And I will burn the remains to make sure he never comes back to haunt John again," Aeryn said, gritting her teeth in frustration. But she made no move to dislodge Chiana's arm around her back. Instead she leaned a little closer, feeling the heat coming off the younger female in waves.

"Good idea," Chiana said and nestled more closely against her. "Can I help?"

Aeryn smirked joylessly. "No, he's mine," she said and slipped an arm around Chiana's shoulders. "What's with you? You're not usually this hands-on with me."

"Nah, but I figured you might need a little closeness right now," Chiana countered quietly and wrapped her other arm around Aeryn too, locking her in a sideways embrace. "Maybe we should do something to take our minds off this, huh?"

Aeryn closed her eyes, then planted a kiss on top of the girl's head. "How many times do I have to tell you, Chiana? I will not frell with you," she said, but did not release her own hold on the girl.

Chiana chuckled. "Can't blame a girl for trying, can you? I get what Crichton sees in you."

"Thank you for that praise," Aeryn said a little dryly. "It's enough that I frell one alien, though."

This made Chiana laugh out loud. "You are so frelling tinked, Peacekeeper."

"Ex, if you please," Aeryn corrected her and returned her attention to the forward viewscreen. "Where the frell is he?" she muttered.

Chiana remained silent with her arms around her and her head resting against Aeryn's shoulder.

***

He was on a bed, his hands tied to the sides, while his breathing was shallow and a bit labored. One minute he had been on Moya, concerned about the stabbing pain from his wound, the next he had been standing in front of Scorpius, feeling so lousy he had dropped to his knees before some of Scorpy's soldiers had stopped him from hitting the floor face first. He had no recollection of how he had come to be on the command carrier and he was so close to terrified that he found it difficult to focus on anything other than this debilitating fear.

"How are you feeling?"

Scorpius stood at the foot end of the bed, the same one he had been in when he had been moved to recovery, watching him closely. So far, John had refused to talk to the half-breed. As a matter of fact, he hadn't spoken to anyone yet. All he wanted was to wake up from this damned nightmare. Whatever Scorpius had done to get him to come back here, it had left him depleted and his wound had opened up again a little.

"My medics tell me you are doing better," Scorpius continued. "The synth-flesh works much better on you than it does on Sebaceans." He trailed around the bed to John's right side, which made John turn his head to the left.  "Needless to say, you put yourself in jeopardy by leaving our care too soon. I apologize for the underhandedness of your return, but you left me no other option."

Anger rose in a wave inside him and he looked up at Scorpius. "What the hell do you want from me?" he pressed out through clenched teeth. Anger was better than fear, but not by much.

Scorpius reached out and patted his arm. "Just rest and revitalize. We shall speak soon enough," he said and put on that freakish smile of his again.

"I don't have the tech any more. You know that," John insisted.

"Oh, I know you think that," Scorpius agreed. Those words sent a shiver of fear through him. "I find it hard to believe that it's gone, though. I think it is merely repressed."

John shook his head. "No, it's gone. Why would they leave it in there?"

The somewhat bemused expression on Scorpius' face made him shudder. "Why would they have given it to you in the first place and not tell you about it? No, I am quite convinced that it's in there," he said and tapped a finger against John's brow. "I'm certain we can find a way to dig it out."

The hidden threat in those words upped his fear. "There's nothing to dig out," he insisted, well aware that nothing he said would change Scorpius' mind.

"We shall see," Scorpius said. "Now, rest. You'll need your strength." That said, he left John alone again.

***

It took two days more before the medic - the same one he had threatened during his 'surgery' - deemed him able to tolerate questioning. John wasn't at all sure he was ready for that, but then again, how did you get ready for something like the Aurora Chair?

It took four soldiers to get him to that dreaded room. Despite his fairly depleted state, he put up quite a fight, yet nothing he did was good enough to stop them from strapping him into the chair.

Scorpius stepped up on the dais, his demeanor that of a kindly teacher, yet all John saw when he looked at him was the impending trip to Hell. "As I told you before, if you do not fight the chair, it will be easier. Let us probe freely and I shall keep the digging to a minimum."

"How about you don't dig at all?" John countered, his voice jittery. The fear laced every word and he would sell his soul right now to avoid getting reacquainted with this contraption. "Please."

"What you know is of vital importance to the continued existence of the Peacekeepers as a whole. The freedom of this galaxy is in your hands, John. If you had not destroyed the wormhole weapon you created, none of this would be necessary," Scorpius said.

"So, you lied. You don't want to talk. You just want to torture me again." He couldn't help the almost pained smirk spreading over his lips.

"I do not torture people, John," Scorpius disagreed.

"Call it what you want. I call it torture," John shot back and made a helpless jerk forward without getting anywhere. "Don't do this to me. Please."

"Just allow us to probe freely and it will be over a lot faster," Scorpius said and raised a hand, signaling his aide to begin the process.

"No," John rasped.

***

The floor rose up to meet him and he made no attempt to brace the fall. The slap-in-the-face of the metal floor centered him a little, but even then he made no move to vacate the spot where he had fallen. The soldiers that had dragged him from his doom to this cell left again, slamming the door behind them, and all he could focus on was the constant jitter rippling through his limbs, the hot throb of the bleeding wound on his stomach, and the steady, pulsating agony that was his head. It was an effort to breathe, to think, and the notion of having to move made him feel nauseous, so he didn't.

How long he lay there wasn't something he wasted too many thoughts on, but when the door behind him opened, he groaned. It couldn't have been that long and the idea that they were back to drag him back to the chair almost made him panic. And still he could not find the motivation to move.

"Move him over to the mat," a sour voice said.

Two soldiers grabbed him, roughly, and dragged him over to the mat before dropping him again.

"Could you be a little more careful? Scorpius will have your heads if he dies," that voice snapped.

The soldiers grabbed him again and turned him over on his back and John kept his eyes closed, hoping against hope that whoever the voice belonged to would leave him alone if this person thought he was unconscious. No such luck, though.

"Get out. Give me some room to work," that voice said harshly. After a moment, the person behind the voice slapped him lightly. "Stop pretending. I know you're awake."

Reluctantly, he cracked a lid and squinted at the medic. There was some part of him that resented her deeply and wanted to lash out. But when he tried to rear up to do just that, she pressed a hand against his wound, driving all the air out of his lungs. Feebly, he clawed at her arm to get her hand away from the now very sore spot.

"Behave yourself," she warned and finally let go again. "I've come to check on your general state of health; in other words if you're capable of tolerating more of Scorpius' questioning right now."

Considering that this female had no love for him, he assumed she would give Scorpy the go-ahead and watch him die. Instead she examined him, changed the dressing on his wound, and finally rose again. She stared down at him for a moment, her cold eyes making him shiver, and then she turned around and left, closing the door behind her. Only, she didn't close it properly.

"How is he?" Braca's voice was low, almost too low to hear.

"Not good, I'm afraid. If Scorpius wants anything out of this one, he will have to let him rest for at least a solarday," the medic replied, her tone bordering on the derisive.

"I shall pass that on to Scorpius," Braca said.

"Do that," the medic agreed, her voice fading along with her footsteps.

John waited for the click of the door, telling him that it had been locked, but the click didn't come and he listened to the fading footsteps of the ambitious Peacekeeper captain.

For a long while he just laid there, eyes half closed, his breathing shallow and labored, while he listened, focusing all of his fading strengths on that one task. But there were no further sounds to be heard.

With an effort almost beyond him, he managed to sit up. His stomach burned, his head throbbed, his eyesight kept clouding over, but he still moved, slowly, meticulously, until he had gained his feet and stood leaning heavily against the wall. It took everything he had in him to move, but this chance might not present itself again. He took a slow step forward, already breathing hard, then another, using the wall for support, until he reached the door. He placed a shivering hand against the metal and felt it give. It wasn't locked, wasn't even closed all the way.

Carefully, he gave it a push and it swung halfway open, revealing an empty corridor beyond. He stood there for a moment, almost hanging off the doorframe, and listened intently to his surroundings. The lights in the corridor were dim, which told him that it was the sleep cycle. He wasn't entirely sure if that meant less crew would be about, but he assumed so. Using the wall for support, he made his way into the corridor, stopped briefly to allow his wavering eyesight to settle down, then pushed on.

Step by step he moved out of the detention area and judged that there were no other detainees since there was nobody around guarding the place. He veered off into another corridor, then another, and had no idea where he was heading. There were no signs directing him anywhere. All he could hope for was that he didn't run into anyone, which was a bit of a challenge on a ship that held fifty thousand people.

Worn thin, he stumbled now and again, and was only able to walk a fairly straight line because he was using the wall as a guide. He wasn't entirely sure of where he was going and could only think of the next step he had to take. A sound up ahead made him stumble into a side corridor and flatten himself against the wall, one hand pressed against his mouth to keep any sounds he might make at bay.

A few Peacekeepers walked past, but none of them noticed him. He remained where he was for a moment longer, having to convince himself to get moving again, and then finally peeled himself off the wall and staggered back out into the main corridor and continued his somewhat jittery trek toward destinations unknown. The floor beneath his bare feet was cold and the t-shirt and sweats he was wearing did little to warm him, but his main focus - such as it was - was on finding a place to hide or a way to get off the carrier. A part of him believed he would soon be discovered and dragged back to his doom, but there was that other part that wanted to fight, to get out in one piece.

He rounded another corner and hurriedly had to draw back. Just ahead of him, there were elevators, and a group of Peacekeepers were waiting there, their backs turned to the corridor he was in.

"I don't know about you, but I think that Scorpius is frelled," one of them said. "I mean, what is he even doing here, in command of a carrier like this?"

"Keep your voice down," another one warned. "Not that I don't agree with you. We are all irreversibly contaminated just by being under his command."

"Shut up. This is no way to talk about our commanding officer," a third one intoned a little angrily.

The elevator doors opened and the group filed in. Moments later, further comments were cut off and John was once again alone in the corridor. He stood still for a moment, considering his options as much as he was currently able to. The elevator would take him to the landing bays. But it would also leave him exposed if anyone was waiting for it. The best option would be to find the stairs, if there were any.

Pushing away from the wall again, he moved on, his right knee folding up every so often. He moved slowly, one hand constantly trailing along the wall, his head down, until he nearly stumbled over a well with rungs. He stared at it for a moment, his tired mind trying to make sense of what he was seeing, and realized he had found the elusive stairs. A ladder wasn't ideal in his present state, but he had no other options.

Sending a glance in either direction along the corridor, he assured himself he was unobserved and then made his way down the ladder. The next level was another corridor, so he continued. Since he had no idea where the landing bays were, he had to make the best of it. And something told him that moving into the bowls of the command carrier might make it easier for him to move undiscovered.

His right foot hit the floor on the next level, which told him that this was the end of this stair well. He hung onto the rung for a moment, trying to steady himself while an almost incontrollable shudder rippled through him. After it abated, he slowly turned, still holding onto the rung, and blinked at the expanse of the bay he had located out of sheer luck.

It was a landing bay and it was vast. Rows upon rows of prowlers sat there in the muted lighting of the bay and at the far end, the enticing opening that showed space drifting by. He couldn't retain a whimper, which spoke both of despair and hope.  Steeling himself for the trek across the bay, he sent a look around in search of mechanics or pilots or anyone, but the bay seemed devoid of life. Maybe this was some sort of backup bay, he mused and gingerly released the rung.

Without immediate support, walking became an ordeal as he staggered forward. His feet felt like lead weights, his stomach throbbed with every step he took, and most of all he just wanted to lie down and sleep.

When he reached the first prowler in line, he stopped to catch his breath, one hand on the pointy nose of the ship, but decided that the closer he got to the exit, the easier it would be to actually get the hell out of here. He had fairly few illusions left about his escape right now, though. His hope had almost been extinguished. If the Peacekeepers didn't catch him now, Scorpius would probably activate whatever hardware had forced him to return to this ship of horrors.

He moved forward, using the evenly spaced prowlers for support and almost lost track of time and space when he suddenly realized he'd reached the end of the line. But closer to the opening sat another row of prowlers. These looked slightly different, seemed to be a bit bigger, and they were pitch black.

There was a path between the normal prowlers and these new ones and he almost couldn't stomach having to walk that bit without support. But there was something about the sleekness of these crafts that beckoned him and he finally convinced himself to cover the distance and then made his way down to the last one in the row. This craft was so close to the opening that he could actually feel the chill of space enveloping him. His breath puffed out in thin vapor clouds. Mesmerized, he stared at the stars out there and wondered how far he would get before they blasted him out of the sky.

"Get going," he muttered to himself and shifted his wavering attention up to the craft he was currently leaning against. The six rungs on the side of the craft seemed almost too much for him to handle and he had to convince himself that it was worth the effort before he somehow managed to leverage himself upwards. His nearness activated some detection device, which opened the canopy for him. Grateful that he wouldn't have to wrestle with a locking mechanism he probably didn't understand, he slipped into the seat and slumped back in it, briefly allowing his eyes to close.

The canopy closed above him with a quit thud and he blinked rapidly a few times, then focused his aching eyes on the dashboard. Was it even called that in a craft like this? He smirked joylessly. There was really no reason for him having made it this far if he passed out now, so he would have to keep going a little bit longer. The console in front of him looked pretty much like that of the normal prowlers. There were a few extra buttons and dials, but for now he focused on the ones he recognized and pushed the button that would start the engine. Prowlers in general were quiet machines, but this one he couldn't even hear. "Huh," he muttered. Everything was in the clear, all the lights that should be on were on.

Using reserves he didn't know he had, he strapped himself in while trying to avoid any pressure on the wound on his stomach. That was a bit difficult because the harness wasn't designed with stomach wounds in mind. He considered the safety versus the pressure on the wound and decided to forego the safety for now. Then he grabbed the control column with a shivering hand and raised the craft off the bay floor. It wobbled a little, curtsy of his unsteady hands, but he managed to stabilize it before nudging it forward toward the enticing opening.

His tired gaze skimmed over the dashboard and settled on a sign he identified as 'shimmer'. "Huh," he muttered and pressed it. Nothing apparently happened with the exception of the control light over the label coming on. Aware that he needed to pay attention before he crashed into something, he tore his eyes away from the button and focused on guiding the craft out of the command carrier.

What he wasn't hearing the whole time were alarm claxons. He was stealing a Prowler, escaping from a Peacekeeper command carrier, and as of yet nobody seemed to have noticed. It made him smile a little as he guided the prowler - he had decided that it had to be one despite its slightly different shape - away from the command carrier with both hands wrapped around the control column.

One button looked interesting enough for him to push it and he was practically thrown back in the seat and flattened against it when the afterburner kicked in and hurtled the prowler into space. Within minutes the command carrier had fallen away behind him, a mere spec on the display that covered the front of the canopy. And still there was no pursuit. He figured he would wonder about that later, but right now he needed to be gone as fast as possible and that seemed to be a very real possibility now; at least until Scorpius realized he was gone and activated whatever had forced him to leave Moya in the first place. Well, at least that freak knew he wasn't happy with the situation now.

The afterburner sputtered out of life after a while and he wondered if he had burned up all the fuel. A brief check of the gauge that would tell him such things made him realize that the afterburner obviously ran on a different fuel supply than the craft in general.

"Auto-pilot," he muttered and searched for the right button. It refused to engage when he pushed it, until he realized he needed a destination. And that was when it hit him that he had no idea where he was or how to find Moya. "Aw man," he rasped.

Something was nagging at the back of his mind and he fingered the setup for a moment, then pressed the auto-pilot button again. This time it engaged. "Great. I'll probably end up at the butthole of the universe," he muttered. It was getting harder by the minute to keep his eyes open and eventually he allowed himself to drift off into oblivion.

***

Scorpius viewed the data stream with rising annoyance. "Is there anything? Any indication of a block?"

"No," his aide said. She glanced at him, her expression bland. She was one of the few Peacekeepers not afraid of him, but then, she wasn't afraid of anything. Scorpius assumed that she had a disorder that made her emotionless. "There is no indication of what you are looking for."

Scorpius hissed angrily. "And now they tell me I can't keep digging for another solarday because he's too frelling weak," he growled.

Before his aide could comment, the doors parted and Braca stepped in. "Sir," he said and stood at attention.

Scorpius could tell that something was amiss. "What is it, Captain?"

"I don't ... he's gone, sir," Braca stammered.

"Excuse me?" Scorpius asked, not sure what Braca meant with 'gone'.

"As in not in his cell. I have sent a platoon out to look for him, but ... it seems the medic neglected to close the door properly when she left him and ... he must be somewhere on the carrier. We just need to locate him," Braca said.

"No need," Scorpius said, picked up a box and pressed a button on it. "The probes will bring him back."

His aide glanced up at him. "Sir?"

Scorpius could already feel his temper flaring. "What now?"

"The probes will not bring him back," she said. "The current of the Aurora chair has a devastating effect on the probes. They are most likely not functioning anymore; and if they are, then at a severely reduced rate. One that Crichton will be able to overcome even in his depleted state."

It took every ounce of his considerable willpower to not rip her head off for this. Not that it was her fault. But the anger that seared through him made his head hurt. "So, you are telling me that Crichton, should he have found a way off this carrier, is out of my reach?" he asked, his voice forcibly calm.

"Yes, sir," the aide agreed.

Scorpius focused on Braca, who still stood at attention, his eyes on nothing. "Find him, Captain. And prey that he has not found a way off this carrier."

"Yes, sir," Braca said, his tone tight. He turned around and rushed out of the room.

For a moment Scorpius just stood there and stared at the door, every fiber of his body screaming to release the Scarran side. But then he drew in a deep breath and let it out again slowly. "What do you believe are his chances of making it out of here?" he asked quietly without looking at his aide.

"Fair," she countered evenly. "If he is together enough to find his way to the prowler deck, more than fair," she added almost thoughtfully.

"Find out if any of the prowlers are missing, will you?" Scorpius asked, his tone sugary.

She nodded and rose to pursue that order, leaving Scorpius to fume in peace.

***

It took less than an arn for Braca to return and he did not have good news. "Sir," he said. The man was pale as a sheet, which told Scorpius more than mere words could. "One Prowler is missing. There is no sign of it, no trajectory to pursue. We can only assume that Crichton has somehow made it off the carrier."

Scorpius stood very still, the control box for the probes in his hands, while he stared at the sole button and wondered what it all was good for when everything he tried to accomplish was destroyed like this. "Try to track him nonetheless," he suggested quietly. "And make certain that he is not harmed if you are able to retrieve him. He is extremely valuable to me."

Braca was obviously taken aback by the calmness Scorpius displayed, but like the good little Peacekeeper he was, he nodded once. "Yes, sir. Right away, sir." He turned around and rushed back out, leaving Scorpius alone again.

"And do make certain that you find him, Captain," Scorpius continued to the empty room. "Or I might be forced to take it out of your hide."

***

John jerked awake, then froze when the involuntary movement he made sent a shiver of pain through his stomach. The pain abated again and allowed him to focus on the fact that his skin was crawling. He grimaced and gingerly rubbed his left arm.

Something was beeping and he ran is gaze over the controls to locate the source of that sound for a moment before he focused on the transparent map display on the front of the canopy. Whatever he had programmed the auto-pilot for was getting closer, he realized. He just couldn't remember what he had programmed it for. Licking dry lips, he grabbed a hold of the control column, thereby disengaging the auto-pilot, and dragged back a little to take some of the speed of.

His whole body ached and not in a good way. He wanted a bed and about a year of recovery time. But most of all he wanted to find Moya. He just didn't know how.

Fighting to stay focused while trying hard to ignore that creepy-crawly feeling that rippled over his skin at regular intervals, he just sat back and watched while his destination approached. For all he knew, the hardware that Scorpius had once again managed to hide inside him had made him plot a return route to the command carrier.

The thought alone made him shudder. He took a firmer grip on the control column and slowed the prowler down even more. According to the instruments, whatever he was heading toward should now be visible and he scanned the immediate area of space for the hulking mass of a command carrier without finding even the slightest sign of it.

And then he saw her. Hidden in the cloudy atmosphere of a gas giant, he recognized the shape of the leviathan and leaned forward a bit, only to stop when that caused a cramp-like stab from his stomach. "Ow," he groaned and slumped back again. He couldn't tell if it was Moya, but it looked like her. How he had managed to locate her was so completely beyond him that he was beginning to think of it as a miracle.

He steered the prowler toward the leviathan and expected the coms to burst to life with demands for identification any moment now. But nothing happened and he couldn't for the life of him remember how the coms worked in a prowler right now. He felt lucky that he was even vaguely aware and able to think beyond basic needs right now and knew he was fading fast. He needed to land this craft before he passed out again.

Like it was customary for Moya, her bay doors were open while she drifted calmly through the upper atmosphere of the gas giant. He seemed to recall that she took on nutrients in this state. Whatever the reason, he was grateful that he didn't have to struggle to figure out how the coms worked right now and guided the prowler into the first bay he came across.

His landing was less than stellar, but he managed to avoid banging into anything. The canopy rose when he did and he hauled himself laboriously over the edge and ascended to the bay floor with slow measured movements. Even so, every move he made was a painful one. As worn out as he was, all he could focus on right now was getting to bed. The idea that this leviathan might not be Moya did cross his mind, but he didn't have the fortitude of mind to care about it. He stumbled over to the doors and out into the corridor, single-minded determination driving him forward.

How he got to his quarters was beyond him. All he knew was that he was suddenly there and that his stomach felt like he had just been shot again. He staggered and barely caught himself against the latticework of the wall, then pushed off and took the last few steps over to the bed, where he collapsed. He had enough clearness of mind left to shift onto his back before the darkness once again overtook him and plunged him into the depth of unconsciousness.

***

The waiting game had always been one that Aeryn hated. She had never been good at sitting around and waiting for the call before a campaign while she had still been a Peacekeeper, and she was no better at it now, sitting on Pilot's console, waiting for something, anything to reveal itself. How long had it been? Four solardays? Five? She couldn't remember, knew only that John was missing, and that Scorpius had him, and that she had no way of saving him, because she had no clue where he was.

"Anything?" she asked and glanced hopefully at Pilot.

"No, Aeryn, still nothing," Pilot countered with infinite patience. He glanced back at her and reached a claw out to her, laying it gently on her knee.

It always amazed her how something so big could be so gentle. She laid her own hand on top of his claw and smiled. "I'm driving you fahrbot, aren't I?" she asked.

"No, not at all. I understand the urgency. I just don't know what ..." He trailed off and shifted his attention to one of the controls. "That is odd," he said.

Aeryn leaned forward. "What is it?" she asked, hoping against hope.

"We seem to have picked up a prowler in the landing bay on tier seven, hammond side," he said and glanced at Aeryn, obviously not happy about the unannounced guest.

"How the frell did it get in there without Moya detecting it?" she asked and slipped off the console. "I'll take a look. Is there any sign of life?"

"No, none," Pilot said. "It seems to be merely sitting there. But I did not detect it the last time I made the sweep. It must have come in not too long ago."

Aeryn nodded, tapped her com-badge and strode across the bridge toward the door. "D'Argo, meet me in the landing bay on tier seven, hammond side. And bring your Qualta blade. We have unannounced visitors."

"On my way," D'Argo replied at once.

Aeryn detoured past what she had come to call the armory - a cell where they stored all the weapons they had collected over the arns - armed herself and hurried to the bay on tier seven. D'Argo had beat her to it and was standing just inside the doors.

"There is no sign of movement," he said quietly.

Aeyrn nodded and edged into the bay where she got her first look at the prowler. "What the frell?" she muttered. She recognized the design and understood now how this prowler had managed to approach and land in Moya without detection. But the design of the prowler was the least of their concerns right now. She sent a quick look around the bay, then approached the open craft slowly. It didn't take much to realize that the prowler and the bay around it was empty. She climbed the rungs and took a look inside.

D'Argo had stopped below and narrowed his eyes a little. "I know that smell," he said.

"What smell?" Aeryn asked and glanced down at him. "There's nothing in here indicating who the pilot might be," she added.

"I know who the pilot is," D'Argo insisted, reached up and grabbed the back of her vest to pull her down. "That's John's smell. I would recognize it anywhere."

Aeryn jumped down and stared at him. "What?" She couldn't believe what he was saying, mainly because she considered it to be impossible. "What the frell are you saying, Luxan?"

"John is on Moya. His scent is heavy on this craft," he said and waved at the prowler.

"D'Argo, no offence here, I know your olfactory sense is superior, but if John had come in, don't you think he would have let us know? And if it was him, where is he?"

The Luxan frowned. "I cannot answer that, Aeryn, but I can tell you how he got to wherever he is now," he said and started out the bay. "Follow me."

Together they made their way through Moya's tiers and corridors, following a scent trail that was erratic at best. D'Argo didn't know what to expect when they finally found the Human, but he seemed to know without the shadow of a doubt that it was John.

Aeryn followed close behind him, her disbelief coloring her reactions, but she said nothing.

D'Argo turned a corner and came to a stop. "He's in his quarters," he said quietly.

Aeryn threw caution to the wind by dropping her pulse riffle and rushed into the cell. D'Argo followed her, still keeping his Qualta blade at the ready just in case.

She stopped halfway to the bed and just stared at John. He looked pale, harried, like he had been pulled through the wringer. He was wearing a black t-shirt and black sweats and there was a moist spot on his stomach, making her assume his wound had opened up again and was bleeding. She closed the distance and hunkered down next to the bed, briefly pressing the back of one hand against her lips to keep her emotions at bay. "John?" she whispered and reached out to touch his shoulder.

He made a sound, shifted his head a little and cracked his eyelids. For a microt all he did was lie there and squint at the ceiling. Then he turned his face in her direction and a ghost of a smile crept over his lips. "Aeryn."

She pressed her lips together into a tight line and settled onto the edge of the bed. She trailed her fingertips over his face, taking in the devastating after-effects of that frelling chair. "Look at you," she whispered. "I can't believe he did this to you again."

His smile faltered and his lids drifted shut.

"How the frell ..." she tried, but stopped when D'Argo placed a hand on her shoulder.

"Let him rest," he said quietly.

She glanced up at him, then nodded. "Yes, of course," she agreed.

***

He woke up with a start, then grimaced at the dull ache in his head. It took him a moment to realize where he was before it all came back to him. He sat up slowly, winching at the tight pain from his stomach wound, and briefly glanced around his quarters.

He remembered vaguely how he had come to be back on Moya, and there was a big part of him that thought this was a dream. It had to be, really, because what he had pulled off in a severely depleted stated was impossible.

"Ow," he rasped, when he pulled his feet over the edge of the bed and settled them on the floor.

One of the reasons why he thought this had to be a dream was the absence of anyone else. Unless they hadn't noticed his return yet? Shifting a little, he tried to get up, but had to stop his attempts because it hurt too damned much.

"Pilot?" he called, appalled at how rusty his voice sounded. "Anyone home?"

"Commander. How good to hear your voice," Pilot's voice rang from the speaker system. "Are you alright?"

He coughed lightly. "As alright as I can be, I guess," he said and cleared his throat. "Where is everybody?"

"They decided to let you sleep. I shall alert them that you are awake," Pilot said.

"Thanks. You're the man," John countered, bracing himself against the edge of the bed. He felt like curling up on himself. Sitting upright was torture on the wound, but he didn't think that curling up would make it better.

It didn't take long before he heard footsteps approaching and moments later Aeryn, D'Argo and Chiana stepped into his cell.

John looked up and couldn't help a smile. "Hey, guys," he said and shifted stiffly to get a little more comfortable.

Aeryn was the first to move forward. She hunkered down in front of him, placing her hands on his knees. "How the frell did you get away from Scorpius?" she asked.

That would be her first question, wouldn't it? He smirked - or hoped he did. "Let's just say for now that he underestimated me," he said, drew in a deep breath and held it for a moment. "I'd better lie down again," he added. The world around him had become decidedly unsteady and it was making his nauseous.

"Yes, you'd better," Aeryn agreed. She helped him as much as he would let her and then settled down on the edge of the bed.

"I don't get how I found my way back here, though," he admitted. "I mean ... I wasn't exactly sure of where you guys were ... or where I was, for that matter."

Aeryn sent a look back at D'Argo, who looked all kinds of serious. "The black ghost you stole was programmed to track the pathfinder beacon in Moya," Aeryn said. "You don't remember setting it for that?"

"Oh yeah, the beacon," John muttered and focused on her. "I was pretty out of it when I ... what's a black ghost?" He had suddenly picked up on what she had said.

"The prowler you stole. It's a black ghost. It's a special ops craft, outfitted with a lot of helpful additions. Like the shimmer and the ability to track signals over long distances," Aeryn explained.

"Shimmer?" He wasn't really sure he was getting all of this right now.

"The shimmer is similar to the cloaking device in D'Argo's ship," Aeryn said. "I think they adapted it from Luxan technology."

"Oh," John muttered, then focused on her despite the rising ache behind his eyes. "So, that's why they didn't follow me, huh?"

"Must be. I can't tell if you had it activated, but since we have yet to see even the indication of a command carrier in the area, I think it's a safe bet that you were not followed," Aeryn agreed. The worry in both her tone and her expression was hard to miss. "What the frell did he do to you this time around?"

John snorted and briefly closed his eyes. "He thinks I still have the tech, that it's only buried. He wants to dig it out. With a teaspoon," he rasped and covered his face with both hands. "I am so screwed," he groaned.

"You've been screwed ever since you ran into him," she countered with a small smile and rubbed his arm lightly. "How is your wound?"

He dropped his hands again and raised his head to look down himself. "It hurts," he said and squinted at her. "They changed the bandage once, but ..."

"We should check it, make sure it's not infected," Chiana suggested and slid closer.

"She's right," Aeryn agreed and glanced up at the Nebari girl. "Could you get the bag?"

Chiana nodded and rushed off.

"How'd you know I was back? Did Pilot see me come in?" John asked.

"No, which is why I think the shimmer was active. Pilot detected the prowler in the landing bay during one of his sweeps. D'Argo picked up on your scent when we went to take a look. We thought we had a spy on board," Aeryn said.

"You still might," John said, not happy about the implications. "I don't think he stuffed any more hardware into me, but ... I didn't remember the neuro-tracer chip either."

"Perhaps we should scan him?" D'Argo suggested. "Just to be sure?"

Aeryn nodded and rose. "Chiana," she called. "Meet us in the med bay."

"Got it," came the instant reply.

"Can you walk?" Aeryn asked, returning her attention to John.

He pushed up on his elbows and briefly assessed his own condition, then shook his head. "I don't think so. Just sitting up makes me nauseous."

Aeryn glanced at D'Argo, who gave her a brief look, then shrugged. "I can take you," he said and stepped forward.

"I'm really not in favor of being carried around like that," John complained. "Can't you get that stretcher-thing again?"

"It will take too long," Aeryn countered and gave D'Argo another look, which the Luxan chose to ignore.

John wasn't entirely clear on what was going on, but didn't much care about it either. His main concern was finding out what new atrocities Scorpius might have stashed inside him.

D'Argo picked him up as if he weighed nothing and he had to remind himself to keep quiet about that. Of course, the movement sent shivers of pain through his already sore stomach and that helped divert his attention away from being carried around like a little kid.

In the med bay, D'Argo deposited him on the scanner bed and he gratefully stretched out while hoping his stomach would stop cramping so much. He shuddered briefly, feeling that itch under his skin again.

"Are you alright, my friend?" D'Argo asked and briefly draped a hand over John's brow.

John narrowed his eyes at him. "Define alright," he countered and grimaced when D'Argo pulled his hand away. "My skin's crawling."

Aeryn frowned lightly. "Where?" she asked.

"Uhm ... everywhere," he countered and exhaled sharply when the sensation stopped and was followed by a stab in the wound. "Shit," he hissed, "that hurt."

"Let me see," Aeryn said and started the scan. Her brow furrowed into a frown. "Frell," she muttered.

"What?" John twisted his head to get a look at the display and saw dozens of lit points, all of them converging on the wound. "What the hell are those?"

Aeryn ran the scanner again and this time all the little points had moved into the wound. "They're evacuating," she said, obviously confused by this.

"They? Who's they? What are they?" John pushed. Nausea rippled through him, making him struggle to keep the bile down. "Aeryn," he urged when she didn't respond.

"Probes," Aeryn finally said and put the scanner aside before pulling the edge of his t-shirt up. The bandage over the wound was alive with movement. "And they're evacuating the same way they came in," she added and peeled the edge off the bandage off and carefully pulled it away from his skin. The dried-out synth-flesh fell away too and with it the little probes dropped to the floor. Most of them were still wiggling, but as he watched, some of them slowed and stopped moving altogether. "For once, that frelling chair may have done some good," Aeryn said thoughtfully.

John kept his mouth shut because the sight of all those little bugs - artificial or not - dropping out of his wound made his previous struggle to keep whatever food he had in him to a battle of the ages.

"Better get him a bucket," Chiana chided and grabbed one when no one else did. She barely managed to hand it to him before he rolled over on his side and threw up.

"Frell," Aeryn muttered, noting that the wound wasn't the only exit strategy for the probes.

John winced at the sensation of bringing up hardware from his stomach, which upped the nausea. "Aw man," he groaned. "I felt empty before. This isn't helping."

Aeryn took a hold of the bucket. "Are you done?" she asked.

He considered it for a moment, then nodded weakly before unhanding the bucket and slumping back onto the scanner bed.

"Lie still. I'll run the scan again," she said. First she cleaned the wound as thoroughly as she could, then grabbed the scanner and ran it slowly over his body again. "Looks like they're all out," she said. "The scanner is not showing any further indications of hardware."

"Oh joy," John rasped. "I felt bad before. I feel worse now," he added.

That made Aeryn worry instantly. "You are supposed to feel better now that the probes are gone," she said.

John sighed. Why did she always have to take everything so literally? Sebaceans could do sarcasm. He knew they could. Scorpius was all sarcasm all the time. "That's not ..." he tried, but gave up right there. "Never mind. Can I go back to sleep now?"

"Not until I've deal with your wound," Aeryn said, opened the bag Chiana had procured and brought out a packet of synth-flesh, but D'Argo grabbed her wrist, stopping her before she could open it.

"What the frell are you doing? That's what started this in the first place," the Luxan said, concern in his voice.

"What?" John raised his head and tried to keep up. Most of all he wanted to sleep, but that was ominous enough to warrant his attention for a bit longer.

Aeryn pulled her wrist out of D'Argo's grasp. "I cleaned it up, of course," she said, her tone a little tight.

"And what if you missed one? Or two? Who's to say they can't take control again?" D'Argo demanded.

Aeryn held the packet out to him. "Scan the frelling thing if you don't believe me," she snapped. "He needs all the help he can get right now. And this seems to work so much better on him than it does on Sebaceans in general."

"What am I? Chopped liver?" John inserted a little angrily.

Both Aeryn and D'Argo stared at him for a second. "What?" Aeryn asked.

"Can I have a say in this?" he asked.

She looked a little baffled, like she hadn't expected him to ask for input, but then she nodded. "Of course."

"Thanks," he said and shifted his attention to D'Argo. "So, you were saying about this causing what?"

The Luxan glanced at Aeryn and grimaced. "The probes were in the synth-flesh packs. Scorpius must have arranged for that. When they came in contact with your wound, they invaded you and took control."

John blinked and shifted his attention back to Aeryn. "And you want to put that stuff on me again?" he asked, just trying to get clear on what was going on right now.

"I cleaned it. There are no probes left in this package," she insisted, grabbed the scanner and ran it over the package. The display came up empty, showing just the faint outlines of the package and her hand holding it. "No hardware."

He met her eyes for a moment, then dropped his head back down on the scanner bed. "Do your worst," he muttered and draped an arm over his eyes. The thought of having to endure a slowly healing stomach wound overrode the fear of there being more hardware in that package of synth-flesh. He wanted to get better as fast as possible and he trusted Aeryn's judgment.

***

It took days before he felt even marginally better. He spent a lot of time asleep and even more time feeling crappy when he was awake, but the shivers abated, the headache withdrew, and he stopped waking up soaked in sweat with memories of the chair ripping his psyche to shreds.

Aeryn spent a lot of time with him, keeping him company when he was awake and watching over him when he slept. His wound healed fast and eventually she was able to leave the synth-flesh off and give the new skin time to breathe.

He stood on shaky legs in front of the mirror and stared at his stomach. The skin was tender, a little red, but there was almost no sign of the shot wound anymore. Aeryn stepped up behind him, looking at his reflection over his shoulder. "It looks better," she said.

"Yeah," he agreed, his voice still rusty.

"And how do you feel?" she asked and almost gingerly touched the skin between his shoulder blades.

The touch sent a shiver through him. "I don't really know," he admitted reluctantly and cleared his throat.

"Your night terrors are getting better," she suggested and slipped her arms around him, making sure her hands did not come in contact with the still tender skin of the former wound.

"Yeah, I guess," he agreed. "You know ... I kinda thought that ... I've been scared of this damned chair since the first time he stuck me in it and ..." He shrugged, searching for the words, and wrapped his arms over hers, "... I partly figured that I would realize it wasn't as bad as I remembered it."

She rested her chin on his shoulder, staring at their reflection. "And?"

He smirked joylessly. "It was worse," he said, regret in his voice.

"Probably because you were wounded as well," she suggested.

He exhaled deeply and closed his eyes, leaning back against her a little. "Maybe," he said and began to realize he was cold. "I should get dressed."

"You should," she agreed. "You're shivering."

"It's not exactly warm in here," he countered evenly, but made no move to disengage himself from her embrace. "And I'm still not really up to speed, you know."

"I know," she agreed quietly. "You should maybe rest a little more?"

"I'm getting bedsores. I think I'm through sleeping through the day," he said.

"Does that mean you'll go on food runs with us soon?" she queried with a small smile on her lips.

The thought of leaving Moya, of subjecting himself to the dangers out there, made him feel very cold inside. "Not yet," he said and finally pulled forward out of her arms. A little stiffly, he picked up his t-shirt and pulled it on, then turned back to face her, but didn't really meet her eyes. "It's gonna take a bit."

Aeryn grabbed his face with both hands. "You cannot let this beat you. Not this. Not Scorpius," she said sternly.

He grimaced and grabbed her wrists in turn, meeting her eyes. "It already has," he said quietly. "As long as Scorpius is out there ..." He stopped, shook his head lightly and pulled her hands off his face. "I can't. Not yet."

"Scorpius will most likely be out there for a long time to come, John. He will most likely outlive you by about a hundred cycles. Are you going to hide on Moya for the rest of your natural life?" she asked. Her tone was not judgmental, but he saw the concern in her eyes.

He glanced off to the side and pulled back a step. "If that's what it takes to keep him away from me ... maybe," he said with a light shrug, stepped around her and walked over to the bed, where he sank down on the edge.

Aeryn turned around and watched him with a slight frown furrowing her brow. "So, he's won then? He's beaten you?" she asked.

He sat there and considered socks, but didn't know why he would need them right now. "Looks like," he said and briefly looked up to meet her eyes, then looked away again. With a tight smile, he held up his right hand, which shivered visibly. "When I even think of him, I get the jitters."

"Then don't think of him. Let it go, John. Focus on things you want to do. He can't track you anymore. That means he doesn't know where you are. It's a big universe out there. The chances of our paths crossing again are not very big," she said and folded her arms over her chest.

He picked up one sock and eyed it, then dropped it again, leaned forward and propped his elbows on his thighs while rubbing his left palm with his right thumb. It was a habit he had picked up at some point and couldn't shed. "Yet we keep running into him," he mused. "And every time we do, I'm worse off afterwards." He shifted a little and glanced down at his bare feet, considering that he was still a little cold and should probably put his socks on anyway. "And I keep getting in trouble even when he's not around," he added.

"The Sovereign would never have noticed you if it hadn't been for Scorpius' soldiers chasing you, John. You cannot think that way. Scorpius cannot track you, therefore he cannot find you. If we stay away from worlds that Peacekeepers frequent, we should stand a fair chance of never running into him again. If we stay out of trouble, keep our heads down, we should be fine," she countered.

He snorted a little helplessly at that. "I am as far from fine as I can get, Aeryn," he said and looked up to meet her eyes. This time he held her gaze. "The mere idea of making landfall anywhere makes me nauseous. I can feel cold sweat breaking out all over my body when I even consider it."

"Yes, I understand that," she said and settled down on the edge of the gaming table. "I understand that you need to get over this, that it takes time, but you have to want to get over it, John. And giving up is not like you. I refuse to believe that he has defeated you. And you cannot let him keep you from wanting to meet new people. You just have to go about it differently."

"Be more careful, not so naïve, you mean?" he asked with a joyless smirk and dropped his gaze to the floor again. "Yeah, I kinda get that I'm asking for trouble by wanting to trust others."

"That's not what I meant," Aeryn said, slightly exasperated now. She covered the distance between them in two long strides, hunkered down and grabbed his hands. "Look at me," she demanded, which he did. "You are not like this, John. This is not you. You have to find your center again. And maybe ... you should learn some defense mechanisms. I can teach you what I know. D'Argo can teach you a few things as well. Frell, even Chiana can probably teach you a thing or two."

That made him smirk. "Like how I should frell everything in sight to get what I want?" he asked.

Aeryn narrowed her eyes at him. "That was not what I was thinking, no. But she has managed to get through some pretty tight spots in her short life. She knows how to handle others, knows who to trust and who not." She tightened her grip on his hands. "What you need to learn most of all is that you cannot help everybody and whatever the frell Scorpius wants is not his to take. Push him out of your mind. Bury your need to make up for something you did not cause. You have to learn how to let things go."

Her words made him focus inward and he frowned lightly at a dawning realization. "Huh," he muttered.

"What?" she asked, eyeing him closely.

"I've just realized ..." He focused on her. "I haven't felt Harvey around for a while. Not since ..." He arched an eyebrow. "Do you think that my latest experience here could have ... mopped up that neural bleed?"

"Who knows?" Aeryn countered. "Is there any way you've been able to conjure him up before?"

He closed his eyes and focused on the wraith that had been living in his mind for so long now and found nothing but emptiness staring back at him. He opened his eyes again and there was such a profound sense of relief at that realization that he felt a little lightheaded. "He's gone," he whispered. "I really think he's gone."

"So, it wasn't all bad then, was it," Aeryn said.

It settled something inside him that he hadn't known had come unhinged. Even though he knew it would take some time before he was back to his good old self, he now felt that there was a definite possibility that he could get there within a foreseeable future. "Not the kind of therapy I would recommend to anyone, but ... I guess you're right," he said.

Aeryn smiled. "Well, at least you got something good out of it this time," she said, leaned in and kissed him.

When they're lips parted again, he just stared at her for a moment, then gave a half-shrug. "Looks like it," he agreed and could feel his renewed hope for a better future budding again. There was something nagging at him, though, and he focused on her. "What's going on between you and Big D, by the way?"

Aeryn stared at him for a moment. "What are you talking about?" she asked, obviously confused by this question.

"You kept glancing at each other, like there's something ... I don't know that D'Argo wants me to know and you don't," John said. There was a blooming suspicion in the back of his mind, but he kept trying to squash it out because he didn't want to come across as the jealous boyfriend.

Aeryn pursed her lips, obviously aware of what he was asking for, and glanced down at their joined hands. "Over the cycles I've known you, John, I have become very aware of the fact that Human males tend to be stronger physically than Human females."

He didn't really see the relevance of that observation. "Okay," he said.

"That is not the case for Sebaceans," she said and eyed him closely. "I am physically as strong as any Sebacean male."

He eyed her, wondering what the punchline was. "Okay. I kinda got that impression when you wiped the floor with me the first time we met," he admitted.

"Oh yes, that's right," she said and gave him a small smile. "I had forgotten about that." She released his hands, got up and took a step back. "The fact is, I am physically stronger than you. D'Argo suggested at one point that it might be best if I did not ... let you know this. He thought you might find it awkward."

He just sat there and stared at her for a moment. The idea that there was something going on between her and the Luxan had crossed his mind and that had not been something he would have appreciated. This was not what he had expected at all. "Is that all?" he asked.

"Yes, pretty much," Aeryn agreed with a light nod.

He couldn't help a grin at that. "Aeryn, babe, I don't care if you're stronger than me. It doesn't make any difference to me as long as you don't ... you know ... knock me on my ass when I say stuff you don't like."

She struggled briefly against a smile, but then let it come after all. "I promise I won't," she said. "Now, get up. Let's go eat. I'm hungry."

He rose carefully to his feet and slipped an arm around her back. "At least I'm still taller than you," he said, which made her grin.

The End