John had stopped just around the bend of the corridor and couldn't help a wide grin at Aeryn's words. Well, it was time to put things straight between Aeryn and Chiana for them to take another step back towards the closest thing to normal they could get.

He didn't have to search long for Chiana. By now, he knew every hideout she had, but today she wasn't hiding. She was in the center chamber, cooking. He stopped at the other side of the cooking island and braced himself against the edge, watching the various pans and pots for a moment. "What are you cooking?"

"Food," Chiana countered and continued stirring the contents while flipping over a batch of grolac she was preparing as well.

John watched her for a moment. "I can tell," he said with a small smile. "Good thing Aeryn and D'Argo went shopping, huh?"

Chiana paused and looked up at him, shrugged without comment, and proceeded to stir one of the pots. She dipped a spoon into the concoction and tasted it, then held the spoon out to him.

He tried it and arched an eyebrow. "Good," he stated and noted the brief smile on her lips. "What is it?"

Again, she shrugged. "Don't know. Something new I'm trying," she said.

"We'd be starving with boredom foodwise if it wasn't for you, Pip," he said with a grin. "I'd almost be inclined to claim that things are back to normal around here."

"Aren't they?" she asked without looking at him.

"No, Pip, and you know that. This thing between you and Aeryn is really putting a strain on everybody. Won't you at least tell me what it's about?" He assumed there would be little to no chance that she would spill the beans, but he would keep pestering her until did.

She pressed her lips together into a thin line and kept stirring pots and turning stuff on pans.

John sighed. "Look, Pip, my favorite travel companion," he said, hoping to pull another smile from her in the process. "Whatever it was, it can't be as bad as all this, can it? I mean, you're giving Aeryn the silent treatment and it's really getting to her. Don't you think it's time to let her off the hook? She's sorry about it, you know."

Chiana stopped moving and just stood there for a moment, her lips slightly pursed. Then she returned to stirring the pots again.

Exasperation knew no bounds, it seemed. Chiana wasn't talking at all, Aeryn wasn't talking about that, and everybody else was stuck in-between. He sighed heavily. "I know things haven't been easy for you guys, okay, but this is putting too much strain on me right now. I can't stand this. I want peace, Pip. Okay? Is that too much to ask?"

"She's just being a frelling Peacekeeper," Chiana suddenly blurted out between clenched teeth. Suddenly very aggravated, she slammed the spoon down on the table top, grabbed one of the simmering pots and threw hit across the room with enough force for it to hit the opposite wall at the far end, before she turned burning eyes on John. "She thinks she's better than everybody else. She's frelled if she thinks she knows more about life than I do," she yelled.

John instinctively shied back a step, but caught himself. Her anger made him uncomfortable in more ways than one, but he knew she was about to open up and he had to stay put to let her do it. "What the hell did she say to you?" he asked, fighting down this by now ingrown instinct to turn tail and run when faced with a seething female.

Chiana apparently was aware of what her anger was doing to him and she toned it down immediately. Instead tears rose in her eyes and she pulled back a step herself. "She's not the only one who frelling missed you, you know," she stated and folded her arms over her chest. "She's not the only one who lost a friend. We all did. But she kept acting like we were the enemy. Like I said, she's just being a frelling Peacekeeper."

"Aeryn may still have a lot of growing to do when it comes to emotions, Chiana, but I'm sure she's not begrudging you anything. Why don't you tell me exactly what happened, huh? This seems like it's been a long time coming," he tried.

Chiana stared at him, her eyes liquid with unshed tears. Then she glanced away, her eyes trailing over the pots and pans without seeing them. "She always thinks the worst of me," she said quietly. "Remember that panic attack you had? The one where you got so cold?" she asked and focused on him again. John nodded silently. "Well, she thought I'd frelled you." She shook her head in disgust. "She actually thought I'd do what Zitta did to you. How tinked does she think I am?"

For a moment, John had no answer for her. He had no idea why Aeryn would respond that way, had never really thought that Aeryn in general had a problem with Chiana, but it seemed he was wrong in assuming that. For a moment, he worried his lower lip between his teeth while he watched the suddenly very fragile looking Nebari. "I can't say why Aeryn would respond that way, Pip, but I'm sure she didn't mean it as bad as that."

Chiana made a face. "I knew Zitta was up to no good, but she didn't listen when I warned her. She doesn't give a frell about what I say. She treats me like a stupid narl most of the time and like a half witted tralk the next."

There was really only one thing he could say to that without aggravating the situation any further. "I'll talk to her about that. I'm sure she doesn't mean it like that. Aeryn's just got this way. How many times don't you think she's made me feel dumber than the dumbest recruit? Hell, in the beginning she told me I was dumber than the dumbest recruit at least once a day. But, you gotta remember where she comes from, what kind of life she's had up until she got stuck with the lot of us," he said. "Aeryn's had to grow a lot and she's not done growing yet. It takes time to shed indoctrination and she's been indoctrinated since birth to hate and despise all that is different. It's not easy to get over stuff like that."

For a moment, he was of the impression that Chiana either wasn't hearing him or didn't want to listen. But then she sighed. "I guess," she muttered. "But that doesn't give her the right to treat me like I'm worthless."

"Oh, I totally agree with you there," he said with a smile. "But, come on, Pip. You know what Aeryn's like. She's been that way from the beginning. I'll have a word with her about this and I'm sure she'll change her behavior on that. I'm sure she has no idea how much it affects you."

For a moment longer it looked like Chiana was either going to cry or continue to be bitchy to Aeryn, but then she smiled. It was small, but it was better than nothing. "You're tinked, you know that?" she asked and slipped around the cooking island.

John pulled her into a hug and just held onto her and judging by the strength she put into the embrace, he knew that Aeryn had grated on her last nerve with her lack of trust in others. "We're all a bit wacko out here," he said into her hair. "Doesn't mean we don't love each other, right?"

Chiana leaned back a little and looked up at him. "You're better than Nerri," she said quietly. "At least you care."

There it was, staring him right in the face; the reason for Chiana being so touchy. Her brother. "I'm sure he cares too, Pip. He sent you away because he didn't want you to get hurt."

"Frell that," she exclaimed heatedly and pulled out of his arms. "If he cared that much, he would have contacted me. But he doesn't give a frell. Just like Aeryn."

John grabbed her upper arms and pulled her closer. "Chiana, stop that. You know that's not true; even about Aeryn. But especially about Nerri. They both care. They've just got other issues in their lives they need to deal with. For Nerri it's external. For Aeryn it's internal. You gotta give them time. Besides, how should Nerri be able to contact you? You haven't exactly been in one place for very long, have you?"

She looked angry and hurt at the same time, but he could see a softening in her eyes as they welled up with tears again. "You won't leave me, will you?" she asked quietly, her voice breaking with tension.

"Not a chance. You're stuck with me, Pip," he said and pulled her into another hug. "Don't make life harder than it has to be, okay? I'll talk to Aeryn. We'll sort this out. And maybe, with a bit of luck, we might be able to get a message through to Nerri. How about that?"

She clung to him again, holding on tight, and John mostly felt like he was holding a wounded bird in his arms; brittle and oh-so-frightened. In response to his suggestion, she merely nodded.


Aeryn was working on her prowler after having sent Ayla off to be with D'Argo for a while, when John stepped into the bay. "Hey," he said and picked up one of the tools, inspecting it as if he'd never seen it before.

Aeryn put the coil she had been cleaning down on the work table. "Hey yourself," she replied. "What did she say?"

John leaned one hip against the table, folded his arms over his chest, and eyed her for a microt. "She said that you don't trust her, that you treat her like she's worthless," he said.

"I do not," she disagreed, a tad indignant.

"Well, you do sometimes, Aeryn. Might be an idea to think about how you talk to her in future. She's pretty sensitive at the moment. I think she feels abandoned and you're not making it better by accusing her of things she hasn't done and never would do," he said quietly.

Aeryn just stared at him for a microt, then glanced off to the side and pursed her lips. "She told you?" she asked and glanced at him, not really facing him.

"Part of it," he agreed. "I know Chiana is young, Aeryn, but she's grown up a lot since she joined us. I don't think it's too much to ask if you treat her with a little more respect. She's razor sharp, that one. She doesn't miss a beat. And she's a hell of a lot more used to the 'outside world', as it were, than you are."

"What the frell is that supposed to mean?" She couldn't help the anger that surged through her.

"It's not critique, babe," he said and grabbed her hands. "It's ... a pointer. Just don't treat her like she's worthless, okay?"

She made a face. In general, she felt like walking out on him right now, but somewhere inside she also knew he was right and finally, she consented with a nod. "All right," she agreed. "I'll try if she will."

"I'm sure she will. Just give her time. She'll come around," he said.

Despite feeling a little stepped on at this point, Aeryn couldn't help a smile, which John obviously found peculiar.

"What?" he asked with a slight frown furrowing his brow.

"You," she countered and cupped her hands against his face. "You're a frelling diplomat, aren't you?" she asked. "No wonder we were falling apart while you were away. You keep us together."

"Do I?" he asked and there was sadness in his eyes. "I got the feeling that I was the one who got you guys in trouble all the time."

"That too," she agreed, leaned in and kissed him. "But you also keep us together," she repeated. "Zhaan would be proud of you."

He grabbed her wrists and pulled her hands away from his face. "I can't help thinking about what Zhaan would have thought of Zitta," he said while meshing his fingers with hers. "Would Zhaan have been capable of ... that as well?"

"Probably, if she had been as crazy as Zitta," Aeryn said with a quiet nod. "But if Zhaan had been around, Zitta would never have gotten near you, John. Zhaan would have been the one performing unity, not Zitta, and she would have saved you where I could not. Instead it was Chiana who saved you and for that I will be eternally grateful. I am sorry that I hurt her, that I didn't trust her enough. Believe me, I've learned my lesson."

He pulled her right hand up and kissed her knuckles. "That'll be enough," he said and pulled her closer. "I owe you guys. All of you. My life, my sanity. I can never repay you."

"This isn't about repaying anything, John. This is about friends; about family. We're family, aren't we?" she asked.

"Yeah, we are," he agreed and wove his fingers into her hair, his eyes on what he was doing rather than on her. "I need you so much, Aeryn."

"As I need you," she countered.

"No, I mean I need you. Right now," he said, a somewhat faraway look in his eyes. Then he focused on her and she realized what he was talking about.

"Here?" she asked with mild surprise.

"Why not?" he countered.

To test his resolve, she slipped her hands around him and grabbed his butt. "What are you waiting for?" she asked with a smile.

He pushed her hair off her shoulders, then unzipped her vest. "Let's just take this slow, okay?" he asked and pushed the vest off her shoulders.

"Take the lead and I'll follow," she countered. This time, she was certain he was ready for it. He seemed calm, balanced, and that alone had been missing the other times they had tried to take this step. This day had brought him as close to being fully healed in body and mind as he would probably ever get and Aeryn became aware of how much she had to be grateful for.

The End