Aeryn stopped short when she heard the sound of a voice coming from the far end of the corridor. At first she thought her greatest wish had come true, but then it struck her that it was her daughter's voice and not John's she was hearing and sudden panic grabbed her, forcing her to break into a sprint. She was going to have words with both Zitta and Chiana about letting Ayla out of their sight.

She rounded the corner with her pulse pistol drawn, ready to shoot on sight if there was even the slightest indication of Ayla being in trouble, but what she saw made her stop short in her tracks and stare in confused amazement at the scene unfolding before her eyes.

Ayla sat on the floor outside the cell, surrounded by piles of dirty towels. She was talking seriously while she was meticulously washing John's right hand. All Aeryn could do was stand and stare; not so much because of her daughter's actions, but more because John was letting her do it. The scene brought tears to her eyes. This had to be a good development.

Without delay, she holstered her pulse pistol again and dropped down into a crouch to watch. Ayla hadn't noticed her yet and she didn't want to interrupt this bonding moment between father and daughter.

Finally, the girl dropped the towel she had been using and nodded. "There," she said proudly and smiled. "You're cleaner now." She sniffed the air and made a face. "You still smell, though," she added and pushed some of the towels away. "What's your name?"

Aeryn held her breath, not wanting to miss anything, and wondered if her daughter would be the one to pull John back into the land of the living. For a moment, nothing happened.

"Don't you have a name?" Ayla asked and eyed him a little critically.

"Don't know." The response was so low that Aeryn wasn't completely sure he had spoken, but Ayla's expression proved to her that he had.

She frowned. "Everybody has a name," she stated and reached a hand into the cell. "Can I have my doll back now?"

To Aeryn's great surprise, he picked up the doll and handed it over to Ayla, who pulled it out and set it on the floor next to her.

"Are you sick?" Ayla asked. "Mommy says you are." She tilted her head to one side and eyed John. "You look sick," she added and reached into the cell again.

Aeryn couldn't see what she was doing, but the fact that her daughter was sticking her hand into the cell without getting hurt was very encouraging. Deciding that it was time to act, she rose and stepped into Ayla's line of sight. The girl's expression changed as she ducked her head, fully aware that she had broken her promise to Aeryn about not coming down here.

"Take your doll and go back to Zitta, Ayla," Aeryn said and folded her arms over her chest.

Ayla obeyed immediately, but not without a brief glance at her charge. Then she grabbed her doll and took off at a run, racing past Aeryn without looking at her.

But Aeryn did not have time to be upset about Ayla's disobedience. She was too thrilled at the thought that John had returned to them. With a soft smile on her lips, she opened the door to the cell and stepped inside. "John," she said quietly.

He remained where he was, sitting on the floor, leaning heavily against the latticework, and she assumed that he was just too worn out to do anything right now.

She made it all the way over there before he responded to her presence. He turned his head and looked up at her and for a moment, she saw true recognition in his eyes. But then his expression changed. His skin paled and his eyes widened and within a split microt, he was on the edge of terror. Without delay, he was up and moving, drawing back from her by rushing into the furthest corner, where he crumbled up on the floor, pressing himself helplessly against the wall there.

Aeryn's immediate response would have been to go after him, but something stopped her from doing that. She remained where she was and stared at him with nothing short of disappointment. She knew he couldn't help it, but it still hurt her that he couldn't trust her.

"John," she tried and turned a little to face him fully. But before she could say anything further, he let out a low-key whimper and she knew she was scaring him with her presence. She closed her eyes and tried to think. Only microts ago, she had come down here with the intention of putting an end to his misery. Now there was nothing in the universe that could bring her to pull her pulse pistol on him.

"Pilot?" she called and glanced toward the ceiling. "Where is Ayla?"

"She is with Zitta, " Pilot replied instantly.

"Tell Zitta to bring her down here," she said and looked back over at John.

"Are you sure that's wise? " Pilot asked.

Aeryn sent a frown toward the ceiling. "You knew she was down here in the first place, Pilot," she said, her tone a little clipped. "Don't tell me you and Moya didn't know what was going on."

Pilot refrained from answering that.

Aeryn sighed and turned her attention back to John. "Ayla is coming back," she said. "You like her, don't you?"

John didn't move, just sat there, huddled into the corner, his arms covering his head. Most of all, she wanted to go over there and shake some sense into him, but she wasn't certain how he would respond and she wasn't going to do anything without some backup.

***

The child was gone, leaving Aeryn behind, but it couldn't be Aeryn. He had seen her before, many times, and every time she had turned ugly; every time she had transformed into something or someone else. He wanted to scream, but did not have the voice to do so. Instead he hid, hoping against hope that she would disappear and leave him alone. He could not bear the thought of having the suffering start up again. It had been silent for awhile now and he knew that it would become much worse for him if the stillness was broken now and the hell dimension returned.

He so desperately wanted to merge with the wall, to slip through it and hide in nothingness, but it was unrelenting, hard as rock, no matter how he pushed. She spoke to him, mentioned a name he had never heard before, but his fear was too strong, his need to hide too powerful. He tuned her out, wouldn't listen to her lies, didn't dare to glance at her out of fear that she was wearing that burnt bitch's face again.

The sound of distant voices droned in his head and he draped one arm over his ear to block out the sounds, still not daring to even glance in her general direction.

***

Zitta came in with Ayla by the hand and Aeryn squatted down in front of her daughter. "What did you do to get him to talk to you, Ayla?" she asked.

Ayla looked very guilty, but at the same time her eyes were on John. "Nothing," she said and glanced at her mother.

Aeryn gave her a moderately stern look. "Ayla," she warned. "You must have done something. Did you say something to him? Do something?"

Ayla's eyes shifted to John again and she frowned, obviously trying to remember what she had been doing. "I sang," she finally said and looked up at Aeryn.

"You sang?" Aeryn asked with a frown.

"Yes. I sang. And he came over and sat there and listened to me sing," Ayla confirmed with a nod.

Aeryn glanced over at John for a microt, her mind working hard on finding a solution. She wasn't too keen on subjecting her daughter to a potentially dangerous male, but on the other hand Ayla had made contact with him earlier and might be able to do it again. "Go talk to him, Ayla," she finally said and took a firm hold of Ayla's shoulder. "But be careful."

Ayla started chewing on her lower lip and stared into Aeryn's eyes for a moment before she nodded once, sent Zitta a lingering look, and then walked over to John. "Hi," she tried. "Remember me?"

He didn't budge. At that very moment, D'Argo came striding into the area, his expression stuck somewhere between angry and concerned. When he saw Ayla standing next to John, who in his view hadn't moved since the last time they'd looked in on him, he nearly lost his temper. It took both Aeryn and Zitta's combined strength to hold him back.

"Stop it, D'Argo," Aeryn hissed. "He won't hurt her. He allowed her to wash is face."

D'Argo stopped trying to get past them and gave Aeryn a dark look. "I hope you know what you're doing, Aeryn. A few arns ago, he tried to kill you."

"A few arns ago he hadn't met Ayla," Aeryn countered angrily. "Now back off and let her do her thing."

D'Argo turned dark eyes on Zitta. "How can you stand by while your charge is subjected to this kind of danger?" he demanded.

Zitta smiled and shrugged her shoulders. "Ayla is a wise little girl, D'Argo. She can handle herself," she said and glanced over at where Ayla had dropped down on the floor next to John while she was talking quietly to him. "Besides, sometimes it takes the touch of a child to heal a wounded soul," she added.

D'Argo glance over at the child sitting cross-legged on the floor. She was talking slowly, meticulously, while her right hand was steadily caressing John's back.

Aeryn watched in fascination as he started to respond to her. He pulled his arm away from his head and turned slowly to face Ayla, who smiled brightly at him and encouraged him to not be afraid, it wasn't like anyone would hurt him after all. And somehow he took her words for granted. He reached out and gingerly touched her face as if trying to assure himself that she was real.

Ayla took his hand in hers and glanced back at Aeryn, who encouraged her to go on with a smile and a nod. Best not to speak right now, she thought.

"Look," Ayla said and returned her attention to John. "That's my mommy. And she would never hurt you. She's real nice."

John's gaze shifted from her face to Aeryn's and for a moment, they just stared at each other. Then he returned his attention to Ayla.

"And that's uncle D'Argo," Ayla continued and pointed at the Luxan. "And auntie Zitta. She's taking care of me when mommy doesn't have time." She smiled almost wistfully. "And then there's auntie Chiana. I don't know where she is right now, but she's here too. And then there's uncle Rygel. He's probably eating."

Aeryn felt her heart skip a beat when that coment produced a very small smile on John's lips. Whether he was responding to Ayla's words or just the way she said it was uncertain, but he was responding without getting violent and that was the most important part in Aeryn's opinion.

"And this," Ayla went on and patted the floor, "is momma Moya. And she's taking real good care of all of us together with Pilot, who's ..." Ayla struggled with the description for a microt, then made a sweeping gesture with one hand, "somewhere up front," she ended her narrative.

John's response to that was like a dreamer waking from a nightmare. He blinked at her, then shifted his gaze to the floor. Carefully, he placed a flat hand on it and his lips moved.

"Yes, that's right. Moya," Ayla confirmed and patted the floor again.

"Moya," he rasped and raised his gaze to meet Ayla's again. "Moya. I'm home?" His eyes overflowed with tears that started trickling down his face in a steady stream while Ayla watched him with concern.

"Yes, Moya is home," she agreed and rubbed a flat hand over his cheek to remove the tears that just kept coming. "There's not need to cry over that," she added as if she thought he was being silly.

Aeryn remained where she was, desperate to console him and scared stiff that he would retreat from her if she approached him. But then his gaze shifted to her again and he stared at her for a long moment as if he expected her to disappear.

He swallowed as his gaze began to waver, shifting back and forth between all of them, until it once again settled on her. "Aeryn?"

She smiled and found it exceptionally hard to keep the tears from her eyes as she nodded.

He was obviously confused and scared and Aeryn knew that he had a long way to go before he was fully healed, but this was the first real step in the right direction. He recognized her and although she could still see the lingering fear in his eyes, he was now trying to fight it rather than giving in to it. And it was all because of Ayla's disobedience.

Ayla glanced at Aeryn with a frown, and then returned her attention to John. "Do you remember your name now?" she asked.

"His name is John, Ayla," Aeryn inserted. She found it incredibly hard to not just rush over there. Instead, she would keep her distance until he gave her the sign that it was okay to come closer.

Ayla's brow was wrinkled with her frown as she glanced back at John. Then she pursed her lips. "I'm Ayla," she said.

The ghost of a smile slipped over his lips. "You're ... all ... really ... here?" he whispered hoarsely.

"Yes, we are," Aeryn agreed. "We're real. You're safe. You're home."

"Home," he muttered. The look in his eyes grew distant and he slumped a little like the air was going out of him. Then he closed his eyes and tightened his grip on Ayla's hand.

Ayla patted his hand like a concerned mother. "It's all right," she assured him.

Aeryn sighed lightly and regarded her daughter with loving eyes. Such a smart little being she was raising there. And Aeryn was certain that her smarts came from her father.

***

A weeken later

A weeken passed where John's general health became steadily better. With Ayla's assistance, they had managed to get him back to his own quarters and the familiar surroundings seemed to speed up the healing.

He didn't talk much and none of the adults on Moya were able to go near him as of yet. To put it mildly, he seemed intimidated by them. Aeryn had made the mistake of getting too close to him and his response had been rather immediate. He had freaked out and it had taken Ayla almost a full arn to coax him out into the open again.

What had Aeryn confused about his responses were that he was obviously fully aware that he was being silly and he behaved rather ashamed afterwards, but he still could not stop the panic attack from taking him over if any of them got too close.

Aeryn had assumed at first that Ayla was the only one who could get close because she was so small. But Rygel could not get close to him either, not that the Donimar wanted to, and that shot down that theory rather quickly.

She sat cross-legged on the floor just inside the door opening of his quarters and fiddled with a bit of string while he sat on the floor in the far corner, knees pulled up to his chest. He didn't look at her, just sat there and stared ahead of himself. His pants were threadbare with holes at the knees and the seams coming apart here and there. The skin underneath looked neither healthy nor clean and Aeryn was itching to get him in the cleansing unit both for his own sake and for Ayla's.

But getting him there would be impossible without helping him and she most certainly was not about to ask her daughter to do that. Ayla was too young for such antics and too impressionable as well.

"John?" she asked while she made little knots in the piece of string.

He glanced at her, his movements sluggish when he did not feel threatened.

"You need a bath," she said and shifted her attention forcibly to the string between her fingers. Somehow, he was more likely to respond to anything she said when she wasn't looking at him.

A quick glance in his direction told her that he either wasn't paying attention to her right now or didn't want to talk. Either way, he was once again staring listlessly ahead of himself.

With a light sigh, she returned her attention to the string and made another knot in it. "You need a lot of things," she continued. She wasn't sure he heard her, but she felt like talking right now. "Some clean clothes." Another glance at him made her smirk. She couldn't help herself. There was something slightly comical about the situation. "Some pants that are not coming apart around you," she added and leaned her head back against the latticework. "I wish you would just talk to me."

He blinked and shifted a little. "'bout what?"

So he was listening. But it was obvious to her that she would have to go further and try harder to get him to smile again. "How are you feeling?"

His eyelids slid shut for a moment and he tilted his head to the right a little. "Tired," he mumbled. A light sigh escaped him and she could tell he was struggling to stay awake.

"Why don't you sleep?" she asked. She knew he did occasionally, but never on his bed. He slept on the floor behind it. And he never did so lying down.

He shook his head lightly but firmly. "No," he said.

Aeryn shifted a little and noted that the minute movement she made caused him to become more alert. "Don't worry. I won't get up," she said, hoping to put him at ease. It didn't work very well. He only calmed down again when she didn't move for awhile.

He had only just calmed down again when something sent him further into the corner. Aeryn glanced behind her and saw D'Argo striding towards her with a purposeful gait. It was obvious that the way he moved set off alarm bells in John and she rose quickly and slipped out of his quarters to stop D'Argo and not frighten him any further.

"Aeryn, we need to talk," D'Argo said, his tone close to a dangerous growl.

For a brief moment, Aeryn feared that D'Argo was going into hyper-rage and the implications of this sent a shiver up her spine. But the look in his eyes was intense rather than angry and she quickly pushed that thought aside. "About what?" she asked quietly.

D'Argo glanced past her and eyed John for a moment, then took her arm and pulled her along. "Not here," he insisted.

Aeryn wasn't happy about leaving John alone, but figured she could spare a moment. "Stop pulling at me," she snapped at D'Argo after a moment and yanked her arm out of his hand.

D'Argo stopped and turned toward her. "This has got to stop," he stated firmly.

"What the frell are you talking about?" she countered with slight concern. Was he going to start up on the 'this is cruel to John' business again? If so, she would kick his eema out the nearest airlock.

"That ... smell," he said and waved a hand in the general direction of John's quarters. "Even Pilot is beginning to complain about it."

Aeryn frowned at him. "What a stack of dren," she said, then shook her head. "I know he doesn't smell good, D'Argo. Trust me, I know. But what the frell do you want me to do? I can't touch him, let alone get close to him. And I do not really think that he will be persuaded to bathe on his own right now."

"Well, then we have to frelling force him, because this smell is driving me crazy. It's either him and me," D'Argo replied angrily.

That made Aeryn purse her lips in annoyance. "Either him or you? What are you suggesting, Luxan? That we throw a severely traumatized individual off Moya because you can't tolerate that he smells a little?" She was getting worked up now, angered by his selfishness. Somewhere deep down, Aeryn knew that the smell, which she herself considered to be horrible, had to be ten times worse for the Luxan's sensitive nose, but it still angered her.

"No, of course not. Convince him to bathe or I will have to leave," he countered and made a face. "I am not happy about this, Aeryn. But I cannot stand this much longer."

To say that she was exasperated by this conversation was an understatement. Aeryn folded her arms over her chest and gave D'Argo a scrutinizing look. "Do you have any idea how traumatized John is?" she asked. "He had a full-fledged panic attack two days ago because I got a little too close to him. He's like a frelling animal right now. No amount of reason will get through the haze of panic surrounding him. I have no frelling clue what he's gone through, D'Argo, and on some levels I don't want to know. I cannot force him to bathe because I cannot frelling get close enough to touch him. Do you understand that?"

"Of course I do ..." D'Argo tried, but Aeryn saw fit to interrupt him before he could say anything else.

"No, you don't," she claimed heatedly. "You don't understand. None of you do. You're not spending every waking arn with him. He's not thinking straight yet and we are all frelling well going to have to suck it up and put up with the way he smells until he's ready to face us all again."

"Aeryn ..." D'Argo tried, but yet again she interrupted him.

"No," she snapped. "I will not listen to any stupid excuses for why he should leave or why you would want to leave. Give him the frelling time he needs, D'Argo. He needs to heal. He's been in Hezmana for four frelling cycles. Have a little compassion."

***

Unbeknownst to the two verbal combatants, Ayla was watching and listening and the fact that they were angry with each other over something as benign as a wash made her uneasy. And when Ayla felt uneasy, she tried to do something about it so the unease would go away.

Without delay, she scuttled out of her hiding place, sent another brief glance toward her mother and uncle D'Argo and hurried down the corridor to John's quarters. She thought the adults were a bit silly for walking away from him and then being so loud that he could hear them. John didn't look like he was listening, but Ayla had watched him enough over the past many solardays to know that he was paying a lot more attention to his surroundings than anybody thought.

She slipped inside with another glance over her shoulder and then walked straight over to him. He didn't move when she approached and until recently, Ayla had not thought too much about that. It was only after he had panicked when Aeryn had approached him that Ayla had realized she had a very special connection with him.

Slowly, he raised his head and looked up at her. She was slightly taller than him as she stood there in front of him. "You know, my mommy is right. You do smell. And uncle D'Argo has a very sensitive nose. So maybe you should just take that bath now," she stated firmly.

John eyed her, then glanced toward the door to the cleansing unit. "I can't," he whispered and let his head drop forward.

Ayla made a face. "Of course you can," she disagreed. "I can bathe on my own and I'm only four cycles old," she added with a stern tone to her voice.

John raised his head again and looked at her for a moment. Then he started moving. Very slowly and with obvious discomfort, he got to his feet.

Ayla assumed he needed some prompting, so she took his hand and pulled lightly at it. "Come on," she said. "I'll show you how it's done."

He followed her without a word. Ayla didn't see him on his feet much and it always worried her that he was limping so heavily. He was nearly dragging his right foot when he walked. And the wounds, scabbed over as most of them were, made her feel a little sick to her stomach. The wound on his stomach especially was in part the source of the bad smell he gave off.

But there was no time to think about that right then. She guided him into the cleansing unit and then turned back to face him. "You'll have to take your clothes off," she said and frowned at him. "Do you want me to stay?"

John just stood there, slightly unsteady, and stared ahead of himself.

Ayla reached out and poked his arm. "Do you want me to stay?" she repeated.

For a long moment he continued to stare into space, but then he looked down at her with a slight frown on his brow. "Stay?" he asked.

"Yeah, you know. To help you and things," she said.

He glanced around him for a moment, then glanced down himself. "Uh ... I don't know," he muttered and focused on her again. "I ..."

"It's okay," Ayla stated and hunkered down in front of him. "First you need to take your boots off," she added and eyed the remnants of his boots. With a grimace, she glanced up at him. "You really should have taken them off earlier," she added, reached out and pried the moldering laces apart. They more of less broke apart in her hands when she dug her fingers into them.

Once they were out of the way, she pulled cautiously at the edges of the boots and the leather, brittle and dirty, broke apart in several places. At the same time, there was a peculiar sound as if she were removing a strip of adhesive tape from his skin. She made a face when the removal of the leather from his skin increased the stench.

"Ew," she muttered, but kept going until the crumbling mess of a boot was almost off his foot. Then she went to work on the other one and removed that as much as she could too. "You really should have taken them off earlier," she repeated and glanced up at him.

John just stood there and stared down at her without saying a word in return.

Ayla rose again and shifted a little uncomfortably. "You have to step out of them," she instructed him quietly.

John sighed lightly, then shifted a little and somehow managed to get his feet out of the remains of the boots without falling over. Then he took a hold of the edge of his t-shirt and started pulling it up. Apparently, he was responding on instinct right then, but the movement came to a stop when he got to the part where the t-shirt had caught in the wound on his stomach. His face twitched and he stopped moving.

Ayla frowned. "What is it?" she asked quietly.

He glanced down at her and released the porous fabric again. A piece of it fell to the floor in front of his feet.

For a moment, Ayla didn't know how to respond. Then she figured that if she could only get him into the shower unit, it would be a vast improvement over his present state. She pushed past him and turned the water on, made sure it wasn't too hot, and then turned back to face him. "Maybe it will be easier to get that off if its wet," she theorized and stepped aside. "Go on," she added when he didn't move. "I'll go get you a towel," she added thoughtfully, slipped around him and rushed outside to find said towel. She wasn't too sure he understood her most of the time, but she assumed that all she had to do was keep talking to him to make him understand her.

***