John stood still for a long moment after Ayla had left and tried to gather his thoughts. It was hard work because thinking meant remembering and remembering what the last thing he wanted to do.

Almost cautiously, he glanced down himself again and tried to remember what it was the little girl wanted him to do. But then the sound of the running water caught his attention and he turned his head a little to glance at the steam rising from the shower stall.

Something inside him became almost frantic at the thought of soaking in warm water and he slowly turned and limped over to the unit. The steam hit him in the face and he reeled back for a moment. The breath of hot air was too similar to the feel of the fire. But then his mind settled on the moisture. Water killed fire. If he was wet, he couldn't burn.

With some effort, he took a hold of the edge of the unit and hoisted his right leg over the low wall stopping the water from flooding the entire unit. The leather of his pants creaked and ripped around him, but he didn't notice. His right foot, sore and painfully infected, sent a shock through him when it hit the water and he almost pulled it back out. But the allure of the water, of feeling the moisture, overruled all else.

Somehow B he later had no recollection of the specifics B he managed to get into the shower stall and carefully stepped toward the spray of water cascading down from the showerhead. At first it was like a light spray on his face. He closed his eyes and leaned forward and just felt the water soak into his skin. It was painful, but the underlying thought that fire could not touch him if he was wet kept him where he was.

As the water soaked through him, the garments kept together by filth slowly came unraveled. Pieces of his t-shirt fell off, hitting the bottom of the stall with wet plops. They were almost immediately sucked out with the water.

The remaining clothes started to irritated him slightly and with numb, inflexible fingers, he started peeling the t-shirt and the pants off until both hit the bottom of the stall as well. The suction briefly increased and the broken pieces of both t-shirt and pants were pulled out with the water through a slit at the bottom edge of the stall.

John did not register this. All he could think of doing was just stand there while the water slowly softened his skin little by little. After an unspecified length of time had passed, fatigue began to settle in, but he could not face the thought of having to leave the water behind. Instead, he settled down on the bottom of the stall, leaned back against the wall and let the water cascade down over him in a never-ending stream.


Aeryn was not in the mood to discuss issues she considered important with D'Argo and his sensitive nose. She did understand him, could easily comprehend how it might be a problem for him, but she still felt that he was being overtly sensitive about this.

"Frell this," she muttered as she strode back toward John's quarters. She came to a stop just inside the door and settled down on the floor where she had been sitting previously, keeping her eyes averted.

Only once she was seated did she glance toward the place where she had left John and was somewhat stunned to realize that he was no longer there. With a frown, she shifted forward and got up on one knee. He usually didn't move much unless something had frightened him. And all the others knew better than to get anywhere near him.

So where the frell was he? She leaned forward, supporting herself with one hand against the floor, and peeked under the bed. He was neither under it nor on the other side of it. With a deep frown, she straightened up and glanced around. Only then did she become aware of the sound of running water from the cleansing unit.

Before she had a chance to get up, Ayla came marching in with a big towel in her arms. The fabric was almost too heavy for her to carry and she was having her share of trouble with it.

Aeryn stopped her by grabbing the towel as she rose to her feet. "What are you doing, Ayla?" she asked. She was not yet sure if she should be concerned or relieved.

Ayla looked up at her with big eyes and Aeryn had the distinct impression that she had either done something she wasn't supposed to or something she wasn't sure she could handle. "I was bringing John a towel," she said quietly.

"Why?" Aeryn asked and glanced toward the door to the cleansing unit.

"Because you and uncle D'Argo were fighting because he smells. So I told him he had to take a bath," Ayla said and shuffled her feet nervously.

Aeryn arched an eyebrow. "And he did that without complaining?" she asked, stunned by this development.

Ayla nodded self-consciously. "His boots were all ... breaky," she said.

"Brittle," Aeryn corrected her distractedly, then glanced down at Ayla. "Listen, Ayla, I think it's best if you go find Auntie Chi or Auntie Zitta now. I'll handle it from here," she added. The last thing she wanted right now was that her four cycle old daughter was subjected to a hyper-sensitive, naked male.

"But ..." Ayla tried, but stopped short and nodded. "All right," she agreed reluctantly, sent another lingering look toward the door to the cleansing unit and then turned around and left.

"Clever girl," Aeryn muttered under her breath and turned toward the door herself. "Ready or not, here I come," she added quietly and hoped he wouldn't freak out on her once she stepped inside. The cleansing unit wasn't very big and definitely violated the distance John had set for her presence. But Aeryn figured that if he had taken the step to get into the shower, he might be ready to relax those rules a little as well. At least she hoped so.

Unaware of what she would find, she stepped into the cramped chamber and immediately caught sight of what was left of his boots. With a grimace, she picked them up and dumped them in the recycling unit before turning her attention to the shower stall. He sat on the floor of it at the far end with the water cascading down over him. He had his eyes closed and was leaning back against the wall. And he didn't have a thread on.

Aeryn glanced around. Apart from a single, moldering piece of black fabric on the floor, all other signs of his clothing were gone. And with it, the intense stench of rot and decay had evaporated as well.

"John," she said, alerting him to her presence.

He opened his eyes and blinked a few times, then shifted a little to avoid getting water in his eyes. He said nothing and he did not respond to her close proximity either, which Aeryn took as a very good sign. With the towel in hand, she settled down on the floor outside of the stall and opposite of where he was sitting and leaned against the edge.

"Are you feeling any better?" she asked quietly.

He seemed to mull that over for a moment, then nodded weakly. "I'm bleeding," he muttered.

Aeryn frowned. "What?"

He glanced down himself to the gaping wound on his stomach. It had opened up a little and it was oozing puss along with thick, dark blood. "I'm bleeding," he repeated.

"Ah frell, John," Aeryn sighed. "We need to deal with your wounds," she added and ran her eyes over those she could see. There were a lot of them. Most were not big enough to warrant any specific treatment and they would seal up on their own, but the one on his arm, his brow, his stomach and his leg would not. They needed treatment and fast. Then her gaze caught on his extremely swollen and very sore-looking right foot. "Frell," she muttered. No wonder he was limping.

To leave him in this state for much longer would probably mean that he would die of his injuries and she could not allow that to happen. It was necessary to impress on him how serious this was. "John," she said, attracting his attention. "We need to deal with your wounds. And I mean now. Do you understand?"

He eyed her and blinked repeatedly to keep the water out of his eyes. Then he scrubbed the heel of one hand over his eyes.

"That means I have to touch you," she continued, hoping somehow to impress on him what she had to do.

Her words had an effect on him, although it wasn't nearly as powerful as the last time she'd gotten too close to him. He shifted sideways into the corner of the stall and shook his head lightly.

"We have no other choice. Doesn't it hurt? Don't you want the pain to stop?" she asked, her tone insistent.

For the longest time he just sat there in the corner, unmoving, and stared at her through the falling water. Then finally, he seemed to relax a little and shifted forward. She knew that every dench he moved towards her was a victory hard won and she was not going to take it lightly either.

"First of all, though, we need to get you clean," she said quietly. "Do you need help?"

He shook his head in a manner that made her realize that this wasn't going to happen while he was awake. The fear in him outweighed any rationality and overcoming that would take too long at this point.

"You need treatment, John," she pressed, well aware now that no amount of urging would change his mind right now.

He shook his head again. Apparently, the thought of being touched was venomous to him. Aeryn sighed. There was really only one thing she could do right now. Slowly, so she didn't scare him, she rose and stepped out of the cleansing unit. He had said something once that fitted this scenario quite well right now. 'If the man wouldn't come to the mountain, the mountain would have to come to the man.' Or something along those lines. She hadn't really understood the analogy then, but she did now. It was a question of overcoming seemingly impossible hurdles.

Once the door had shut behind her, she tapped her com badge. "D'Argo, I need your help," she said.


Zitta had quickly whipped up a concoction of some sort to keep John sedated after D'Argo had knocked him out. Aeryn had no idea how he would respond when he came to again, but for now she, Chiana and Zitta concentrated strictly on cleaning him up and tending to his wounds.

Zitta was adamant about keeping him sedated for so long that his wounds would be healed, but Aeryn wouldn't hear of it.

"I know you mean well, but his body is not the only thing that needs healing and I doubt severely that keeping him sedated is going to benefit his mental state at all," Aeryn said somewhat aggressively.

Zitta, in her capacity of being a Delvian, was calm and rational, but she wasn't Zhaan and Aeryn couldn't help comparing them. "Aeryn, I understand what you are saying, but for his sake, I do believe it would be best to keep him under at least until the wounds have healed enough to prevent further infection. At this point, I am actually amazed that he is still alive."

"We're not having this discussion," Aeryn stated. "He is my mate, not yours. And I know him a lot better than you do. He needs to work through this at his own pace. You cannot force him to get better."

"I have no intention of forcing him to do anything, Aeryn," Zitta argued. "All I want to do is help him."

"Well, you're not frelling helping him by keeping him sedated. We may as well drop him off at the nearest medical facility to accomplish that," Aeryn snapped.

"Now, now, ladies," D'Argo intervened and stepped between them. "Aeryn has a point, Zitta. She is his mate and that is all there is to it. She would never do anything to hurt him. Besides, you don't know him well enough."

Zitta arched a perfectly sculpted brow and backed down. "All right. I was merely offering my help," she said and smiled.

Aeryn sneered and returned her attention to John. Throughout their argument, Chiana had continued the task of dealing with his wounds and nearly all of them were now covered by bandages. Zitta had mixed a paste that was supposed to expedite healing and draw out the infection in his open wounds and Aeryn trusted her explicitly when it came to that. It was just in the matters of John's mind that she dug her heels in.

Chiana eyed Aeryn for a moment, then handed her the bowl with the paste. "You wanna deal with that?" she asked and nodded at the wound on John's stomach.

It occurred to Aeryn that her argument with Zitta had next to nothing to do with Chiana's shirking of that duty. The girl looked absolutely queasy and did not once look at the wound. Aeryn took the bowl from her, spread the paste over the wound and covered it with a bandage.

Then she glanced back at D'Argo. "Is your nose satisfied now?" she asked.

D'Argo made a face, but nodded. "He smells much better," he agreed and watched the proceedings with a slight frown. "Now what? We leave him here?"

Aeryn shook her head. "No. We take him back to his quarters. He needs to be in familiar surroundings."

Chiana had, with Zitta's help, dressed him in loose fitting clothes in the meantime. D'Argo nodded once, scooped the unconscious Human up in his arms and carried him back to his quarters.

Aeryn followed close behind and helped get him settled once D'Argo put him down on the bed. She draped a blanket over him and then settled down on the edge. Now that she had the chance, she brushed her fingers over his face, tracing lines she would never forget.

"How damaged do you think he is?"

She had managed to forget that D'Argo was still there. His question made her sigh. "I don't know," she said quietly. "I wish I knew how to handle him. The only one who can get even remotely close to him is Ayla and I'm not sure I want her close to him at the moment. In a panic, he might hurt her."

D'Argo grabbed her shoulders and gave them a light squeeze. "Ayla is a strong child, Aeryn. She instinctively knows what he needs and I believe she is the one to bring him back if that is possible. She has brought him this far."

Aeryn smiled vaguely at his words and reached up to drape a hand over his. "You seem to have changed your attitude toward this," she said and glanced up at him.

D'Argo shrugged lightly, his eyes on John. "He is a friend, a brother. What I said was out of consideration for him and nothing more. I'm still not completely convinced that we're doing him a favor, but you were right in your assumption that he would get better."

A vague nod was all Aeryn offered him. "We'd better leave him alone. I don't want him to have a panic attack when he wakes up because we're too close," she said and sighed lightly.

"Time for midday meal then," D'Argo agreed and stepped back when she rose. "Gives him time to wake up on his own."

"Right," Aeryn agreed, sent one lingering glance down at John and followed the Luxan out of his quarters.


Ayla watched her mother and uncle D'Argo leave John's quarters from a safe position under the bed of the neighboring cell and only wiggled out of her hiding place when their voices had died down.

A quick check to make sure she had the area to herself, she hurried out of that cell and into the next. John was asleep and he looked much better than he had before. Tentatively, she approached the bed, her doll hugged closely to her chest, while she inspected this male. He seemed nice enough in a quiet kind of way. His fear of her mother and the others was a bit perplexing for her, but she made her own deductions from what she saw and heard. And her mother was very upset about John's fear.

For a while, she just stood and watched him, then she yawned heartily. Being too curious for her own good B auntie Chi's words B she could not even conceive the thought of leaving. She wanted to be here when John woke up. So instead of going to her own quarters to take a nap, something auntie Zitta insisted on as a rule, she crawled up on the bed, curled up next to John and went to sleep moments later.


When John woke up again, it wasn't a slow coming to. He went from dead to the world to wide awake in a split second, everything he had ever experienced rushing in on him and threatening to drown him with sheer intensity all at once.

He sat bolt upright, his breath caught in his throat. His body went from oddly numb to being on fire with pain in a heartbeat and nothing even remotely rational managed to work its way into his mind at that point.

Fear and pain was all he felt. He had been out and being out was dangerous. The evil ones could sneak up on you when you were out.

He sucked in a breath of air, every inch of his body shivering. He was cold and his stomach hurt. A quick glance down himself made him frown. Confusion put a damper on the panic when he slowly pulled the copper colored sheet away. He was wearing clothes. Gingerly, he pulled at the loose t shirt, then pulled it up a little. There was a white something on his stomach. His initial response was to draw in a terrified, shuddering breath, but then his mind, still riddled with the waves of panic, made sense of what he saw. A bandage. He had a bandage on his stomach.

The panic abated even further and allowed him to become aware of his surroundings in a more sedate manner than before. And at that point he noticed the warmth coming from something lying next to him. A little afraid of what he would find, he turned his head a little, then completed the turn by turning his upper body. His neck was awfully stiff.

A small shape was curled up next to him, its back touching his hip. The panic bubbled back up, but was just as quickly subdued again when he realized who the shape was. The little girl. Ayla. She was asleep, her doll in her arms. For a long moment, all he could think of doing was stare at her. And then he realized that her presences softened the fear in him to a level where he wasn't so scared any more.

He drew in a shaky breath and then slowly laid back down. The girl mumbled in her sleep and pushed back against him, then turned around and slipped an arm over his stomach. He just lay there and tried not to panic again. No matter how innocent she might be, it was the touching that he couldn't handle right now. With cold sweat springing out on his brow, he edged away from her and found it impossible to even entertain the thought of touching her to remove her arm.

Instead he slipped off the bed on the opposite side and edged along the wall to get away from her. He was almost at the door when she woke up. The mere thought of having her come after him sent a chill through him and spurred him on. He took off at a shaky run, panic rippling through him with bone breaking intensity. All he could think of was to hide; get away and hide.


"Mommy! "

Aeryn's head came up with a snap when she heard her daughter's cry over the coms. "Ayla?" she countered and rose. "What's wrong?"

"John is afraid, " came the instant reply.

Aeryn met D'Argo's eyes and frowned. "Afraid?" she asked. "Where are you, Ayla? Are you all right?"

"Yes, but he's gone," Ayla replied and she sounded close to tears.

Aeryn swallowed. She had no idea what had transpired between father and daughter and she was at the same time working herself up because Ayla's nannies hadn't been with her. Again! "Zitta, Chiana," she yelled. "Why aren't you looking after Ayla?"

All that answered her was silence.

"Frell," she hissed as D'Argo rose too. "Let's find John. If you see him, incapacitate him. I don't want him hurting Ayla because he's panicking."

D'Argo nodded and took off at a run.

Aeryn hesitated for a microt. "Ayla, where are you?" she repeated.

"In John's quarters," came the timid reply.

Aeryn drew in a deep breath. Now was not the time to chastise the girl for disobeying orders. Ayla's voice betrayed her fear and that was lesson enough. "Stay where you are. I'm coming," she said and hurried out of the center chamber.


Ayla was sitting on John's bed with her head down. She was very much aware of that she had done something wrong. Aeryn squatted down in front of her. "Ayla," she said quietly. "I'm not angry. Just tell me what happened."

The girl refused to look at her, only stared self consciously at her knees. "He ran away," she repeated and her voice was thick with unshed tears.

"Why did he run away?" Aeryn asked. She marveled at her own ability to remain calm in this situation. Had it been anybody else than Ayla who had caused this, she would have raised Hezmana right around now. But her daughter was a different matter. "Ayla," she said, took a gentle hold of the girl's chin and raised her head. "Why did he run away?"

Ayla swallowed. "He ... was asleep," she said as tears started forming in her eyes and broke free. "I ... I ... thought it was ... okay," she hiccuped.

"What was okay? What did you do?" Aeryn prompted her.

"I ... was ... tired," she tried to explain.

Aeryn knew what came next. She wrapped her hands around the child's face and looked into her eyes. "You did nothing wrong, Ayla. But from now on I want you to listen to what I say, all right? Don't go near John unless he invites you to do so. He is very scared right now and people do stupid things when they are scared. Remember that oola we saw on one of the commerce planets? The one that snapped at you?" Ayla nodded. "It only did that because it was scared. The same thing goes for John. He's scared. He doesn't know what he's doing right now. But he would never, ever hurt you on purpose, all right?"

Ayla sniffed and rubbed at her right eye with the heel of one hand. "All ... right," she said and sniffed again.

Aeryn opened her arms to her. "Come on. Let's find John," she suggested.

Ayla slipped into her arms and Aeryn rose and positioned the child on her hip before turning around to leave John's quarters again.

She stopped dead in her tracks when she spotted Chiana hanging around the doorway. Righteous anger rose in her that her daughter had been subjected to danger because her nannies couldn't figure out who was supposed to look after her.

"Aeryn," Chiana said. Her eyes darted from Ayla to Aeryn and back again. "I ... need to talk to you."

"Not right now you don't. John has run off somewhere. We have to find him before he hurts himself," Aeryn countered, then glanced up at the ceiling. "Pilot, please seal off any external hatches," she said.

"I already have, Aeryn, " Pilot replied. "I have also sent as many DRDs out as I can spare to look for the Commander. "

"Thank you, Pilot. Let me know the microt you find him," she said, then returned her attention to Chiana. "I will have words with the two of you later," she added darkly and strode past the worried looking Nebari. Oh, she had reason to look worried, Aeryn thought.


He ran as if the hounds of hell were snapping at his heels. He ran despite the pain from the wound on his stomach, despite the infection in his foot, despite the bone crushing fatigue. He ran because his mind was wrapped in a bloody haze of very base terror.

His vision was clouded, the edges tinged red. All he felt was fear and all he wanted was to get away from it.

Another corner brought him into another room, this one dimly lit. There was moisture in the air, moisture dripping from pipes and conduits. The floor beneath his naked feet was spongy, soggy. He skittered to a halt, nearly lost his balance and only barely caught himself while he scanned the room with wide eyes. Nowhere to hide. There was nowhere to hide.

"John! Can you hear me? Stop running. We won't hurt you. "

That voice rang from somewhere above his head, far away and yet far too close. Panic blurred his senses, upped his stamina, and sent him into another head over heels dash out of the room and down the slanting corridor. Soon he was splashing through water, ankle deep, then knee deep, and still he strove forward, struggled against his failing resources, against his aching body that was screaming for rest now.

When the water reached his mid section, he came to an instant halt. It was icy, this water, and murky. His breath caught in his throat when the thought of the dangers lurking beneath the surface rippled through him. He turned around frantically, searching for a spot out of the water, somewhere where he could hide, while his breath came in hitching little sobs.

Too much noise. He was making far too much noise. At that thought his breath caught in his throat and for a brief, horrible moment all he could hear was the rushing of the blood in his own veins and the dripping of water in this cave of horrors.

Then he spotted it. A ledge, and on that ledge a conduit, and behind it a niche. Trying desperately to keep his breathing at bay so he wouldn't give himself away with hysterical gasping, he waded through the ever deepening water toward the ledge. He reached it without incident and struggled to drag himself out of the sludge. The conduit blocked the niche, but there was room underneath. He squeezed under it, wiggled through the narrow confines, and came to rest in the niche behind. Here he settled into the furthest corner, pulled his knees up to his chest, wrapped his arms around them and pressed his aching brow against them.

If only he was silent, if only he didn't move, then maybe the evil ones wouldn't find him. He was completely oblivious to the cold creeping into his body, to the uncontrollable shivers going through his limbs. All that mattered was silence; silence so they couldn't find him.