Author Topic: Blood Debt (G) - 19th Starburst Challenge  (Read 537 times)

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Blood Debt (G) - 19th Starburst Challenge
« on: June 10, 2016, 10:52:13 AM »
Blood Debt

* * * * *

Rating:  PG.
Disclaimer:  The characters and universe of Farscape are the property of the Henson Co.  In other words:  Not mine, no profit.   
Time Frame:  Future Fic -- Approximately 2 cycles after PK Wars.
Test Driver:  As always, PKLibrarian took the story out for a quick spin ahead of time.  Any remaining errors, oversights, or abysmal spelling are entirely my fault.

Note:  For the non-U.S. citizens out there, FDIC stands for 'Federal Deposit Insurance Company'.  Why am I mentioning this?  :whistle:  Oh, no particular reason.  ;)

* * * * *


John Crichton uses his full body weight to shoulder several aliens to one side and then slides into the space he has opened up, abandoning good manners in favor of staying close to Aeryn.  He does not like their surroundings.  Under other circumstances, he might have been fascinated by the scenery; he might have lingered for arns or even days, and explored this place from one end to the other.  That sort of extensive, relaxed scrutiny will have to wait.  This is not the right time for gawking. 

They have tracked their quarry to a section of the planet that could pass for a sunnier, sandier version of a street scene from Blade Runner.  The streets are jammed from one side to the other with every variety of sentient being, all of them swirling over, under, around, and through an entire galaxy’s worth of paraphernalia, most of which is for sale.  Their pursuit has drawn them into the midst of the ultimate intergalactic flea market:  pedestrians, vendors, rickety looking sales stalls, advertisements in more than a dozen languages, permanent and temporary shops festooned with wares ranging from live animals to items that look as though they belong in an interstellar porn shop, street performers ranging from knee high to more than three motras tall, creatures that could just as easily be abandoned pets as sentient shoppers; and everywhere they turn, the type of repulsive detritus under foot that tends to build up any time thousands of living bodies are jammed together in a limited amount of space.  It is crowded, noisy, hot, and for two people in a hurry, it is confusing. 

It is also close to impossible to watch for an ambush.  This is dangerous. 

“We should turn back.  This is a bad idea.”  He catches the fast movement of Aeryn’s head shake out of the corner of his eye.  The rest of his attention remains on the constantly shifting crowds.  He watches for fast, unnatural movements -- anything that might be the beginnings of an attack. 

“This is the first time we have gotten close,” Aeryn says.  “Keep looking.  Pilot will let us know if she leaves the commerce sector.” 

“Will that be before or after one of us gets skewered from behind?” he says. 

A quiet electronic chirp interrupts before she can respond to his question, which is probably a good thing.  She is starting to look annoyed.  Aeryn bends down toward her comms.  John can’t hear the conversation over the din of the street noise, but he figures that Pilot must have had some new information because when she straightens up, Aeryn points to the right, toward an avenue branching off to one side.  “That way.” 

The good news is that once they get away from the main thoroughfare, there are fewer people and more open space.  The bad news is that the street is narrower, and there are small alleys branching off at irregular intervals, any one of which could offer concealment for a single being.  He tries again.  “Aeryn --”

She holds up a hand, silencing him.  “Keep looking.”

He has had Winona out of her holster ever since they first waded into the ocean of bodies.  Now he goes one step further.  John turns so he is facing away from Aeryn at an angle.  He can still see her out of the corner of his eye, but between the two of them, they have most of the street covered.  They sidle along back-to-back, a four-legged creature wary to the point of shooting anyone or anything that moves in an unexpected manner.  Two sets of eyes watch for signs of trouble.  None of the merchants seem to care or even notice that there are two well-armed individuals conducting a search of the marketplace. 

“Just tell me how the hell Pilot can pick out one body from the middle of this oversized Super Saver sale?” he asks over his shoulder.  “For all we know, we could be headed in the wrong direction!” 

Aeryn’s elbow nudges him in the side, steering him more to the right.  “Her bio-print is distinctive.  Pilot and Moya are certain it is her.  She is not far.” 

“Great.  We’re practically on top of her, and we’d be lucky if we could spot a fluorescent green elephant complete with a traveling kazoo band trundling through this crowd, let alone one human-sized badass.”  The buildings in this area are not as tall as the ones further back.  Crichton can’t decide if that is better or worse.  On one hand, he and Aeryn have a better view of the rooftops.  The flip side is that if anyone hostile is up there watching, they will have a better chance of hitting a target on the ground on the first try.  He starts to feel like a fish in a barrel. 

“When we catch up to her, don’t hesitate,” Aeryn says. 

“I won’t hesitate.”  It comes out a little too fast and with too much vehemence.  It sounds every bit as defensive as he feels. 

Aeryn picks up on it.  “You always hesitate.”

“No, I don’t.  Half the time, I don’t even stop to think.”

“True.  On the occasions when we need a solution that does not involve pointing guns at people, you don’t think.  You go straight to waving guns at everyone involved.  And when the moment comes when you need to pull the trigger, you stand there like a moon-dazed flumiff calf and do nothing.  You hesitate.” 

“This is different,” he says.  “I will not hesitate.”  He dares to take his eyes off the masses of people flooding around them long enough to look over his shoulder at Aeryn.  She is slightly closer to his left side because she claims that his wild shots always go to his right.  She says she is safer from him if she is on his left.  He wants to deny it … and isn’t sure she is wrong.  For whatever reason she chooses that side, it means that every time he glances in her direction, the first sight that greets him is the scar. 

He had hesitated the last time and it had nearly cost Aeryn her right eye.  The evidence of his indecision is a blazing, livid reminder.  Given enough time, it will disappear.  He won’t have to live with the constant reminder of what his reluctance almost cost them.  The medical treatment had been top notch; eventually there will be nothing more than a hair-thin line that he won’t be able to find unless he is searching for it.  But for now, the healing furrow starts at the edge of her eyebrow, slashes hard and fast toward the point of her cheekbone, and dives into her hairline just above her ear. 

“I won’t hesitate,” he says again, thinking of how close they had come to disaster.

“You always hesitate,” Aeryn says under her breath.

He understands that she’s not angry or blaming him.  Most of her attention is focused on the tidal force of bodies surging around and against them.  This is more of a mindless response to whatever he is saying.  It is Aeryn’s equivalent of a patronizingly vague ‘Yes, dear’.  If he shuts up, she will too.

“Do not,” he says anyway, deliberately opening himself up to a ‘Do so’ in return. 

Aeryn simply snorts. 

The comms chirp again.  Aeryn consults with Pilot for several microts, after which they continue moving in the same direction as before, only with more caution.  They are within twenty motras of their target, Pilot reports. 

They shuffle through a bottleneck formed by an array of food vendors and their feasting customers.  Crichton ignores the revolting smells, doesn’t bother to look at what is for sale as he so frequently does out of pure curiosity, and turns several degrees further to his left, so he can keep more of Aeryn in sight. 

“Don’t,” she says.  “You can feel me.  Keep your eyes on the buildings.” 

He dislikes not being able to see her.  Aeryn is right about relying on touch alone to keep track of her movements.  The pressure of her body against his delivers a multitude of signals:  her level of tension, whether she is alarmed by something she has seen, and which way she is about to move.  Just the same, he would prefer to have her in the edge of his vision.  He turns away from her anyway, following her instructions.  “This is all wrong.  One of us is going to get killed, Aeryn.” 

“Not if you do your part.  All you have to do is not hesitate.” 

He doesn’t bother answering her. 

They pass junk dealers, booksellers, and a recessed hovel in the mouth of an ally that is selling nothing but shiny cubes that look like toasters.  Clothing merchants wave everything from pants and tunics to undergarments in their faces, trying for a sale.  A weapons vendor tries to grab Aeryn’s pulse rifle while offering her something the size of a bazooka, she fends him off with a kick to his stomach, and they shuffle on through the dirt, the dust and the heat.  They detour around a fetid, reeking mound of trash almost four motras high.  The entire heap is alive with vermin.  The mass surges, emitting squeaks and rustles; multi-limbed rodents, lizards, and insects swarm above, around, and presumably inside it.  The entire mountain swells for a moment, grumbles volcano-like, then belches up a massive bubble of gas.  The scent of putrefaction washes over them.   

“God,” John says, burying his nose in his upper arm. 

“This would not be a good time to get sick,” Aeryn says, reminding him to remain vigilant. 

“Right.”  He adds a mouthful of stomach acid to the already foul trash heap, and then does a fast sweep from his far left all the way around to his right, checking to make sure he hasn’t missed anything.  “Remind me later that I need to puke.” 

“If you think it is absolutely necessary.” 

“I’ll let you know.” 

Their slow progress and the mindless banter continue.  Life, death, and commerce continue all around them, unaffected by the presence of two hunters.  Crichton watches, his attention momentarily fixed on one spot, as a group of more than forty half-naked bipeds, each one no taller than his knee, assembles on a corner.  They are all bald, although some show hints of a feathery growth on their heads, which suggests that the bare skulls are a result of shaving rather than a natural occurrence; and they are all wearing droopy yellow loincloths.  They mill about for several moments, eventually sort themselves out into four equal lines, and begin to sing.  They sound like well-harmonized wind chimes.  The soft, tinkling melody is both enchanting and haunting, simultaneously summoning up memories of summer days at home and a sense of dread. 

The little creatures begin reaching out to passersby as they sing, seeking donations. 

“Aeryn, look!  Mini-krishnas!” 

Aeryn is no longer against his back.  He has allowed himself to be distracted, and she has not stopped. 

“Aeryn!”  He yells it this time, spinning around, searching for her. 

She has not gone far.  Aeryn is less than two motras away, waiting for him with a frown of impatience already firmly in place.  John starts to say something, intent on chastising her for stepping even that short distance away from him.  This close to their target, any distance is dangerous, even for someone with Aeryn’s training.   

“Dammit, Aeryn!” 

A complex pattern of mottled blue and green streaks from right to left, arrowing straight for Aeryn’s unprotected back. 

“NO!”  He snaps off a shot, forgets to lead far enough ahead, and misses by a full motra.  The figure slams into Aeryn, throwing her headfirst into a wall.  The hollow thonk of Aeryn’s skull slamming up against cerro-ceramic carries clearly across the short distance to where John is standing.  The way her body collapses into the loose dirt near the base of the building tells the rest of the story.  She is down for the count:  unconscious, and defenseless.

“Natira!  It’s me you want, not her!” he bellows, hoping to distract Aeryn’s attacker.  His next shot goes wide as well.  This one sails too far to the left, ricochets off the side of a building, and scorches a path within a dench or two of Natira’s head.  It has the effect he wanted.  She turns toward him. 

“Human,” she croons through her fangs.  “I have missed you.” 

“Not nearly enough,” he says, and lunges across the short gap between them, driving his shoulder into her midsection. 

It is Natira’s turn to go flying through the air -- in her case backwards.  She twists in midair, lands easily on all fours.  No concussion here.  A crouched, heavily armored opponent waits for the next attack.  He has managed to heave her two motras further away from Aeryn, however, which is what he was hoping for when he rushed her.   

They freeze, engaging in a split-microt standoff, giving him a moment to examine the person who has made no less than eight attacks on his family over the past two cycles.  Each time, her target has been Moya and Pilot, Aeryn, D’Argo, or all three.  Not once has she attacked him.  He understands the significance.  Natira wants to harm the people that make his life worth living.   

The passage of time has not been kind to her.  Her once iridescent blue carapace has turned lackluster and dull.  It is liberally tinged with streaks of brown, there is an irregular patch of black on her abdomen that looks spongy, and there are chips missing all along the edges of the plates.  The once brilliant white fangs have yellowed; one incisor is missing.  Tufts of what looks like moss peek out from the joints between her exoskeletal plates, as if she has either spent too much time hiding in dark damp places, or has been infected by some sort of internal algal parasite that is working its way outward.  She snarls at him, and gathers her feet beneath her body, preparing for another leap.

John swings Winona up … and hesitates. 

“Fool!”  She is on him before he can pull the trigger.  Winona spins off to one side, batted out of his hand by a hard-shelled swat.  She knocks him over backwards, knees him in the gut, knocking the wind out of him, and makes her first stab toward his eyes.  “I will have your blue eyes this time, human.  And then, while you are howling like the animal that you are, I will kill your mate.” 

He whips his head from one side to the other, barely avoiding the lancing strikes toward his eyes.  Her spike drives into the dirt beside his ear.  He gets one hand free.  The other one is pinned beneath her knee.  The next stab pierces the sleeve of his jacket, missing his wrist by less than a quarter of a dench.  Strike, parry.  Recoil.  She impales his hand.  He yells something -- he isn’t sure what -- and tries to heave her off.  Natira yanks her spike free in a spray of blood and tries again.  He doesn’t move fast or far enough.  Sharp-tipped blue shell screams along bone, rips free.  More blood.  He’ll have a scar to match Aeryn’s.

“Why?  Just tell me why?” he yells, hoping to buy some time. 

“You ruined my life,” she says through a spray of saliva. 

She feints left, drives right.  He manages to grab the spike, tries to rip it loose from her head.  It is blood-slick from piercing his hand.  It slips free.  “I didn’t ruin your life!  I saved it.  If it weren’t for me, Scorpius would have turned you into seafood delight, lady!”

“That would have been preferable to my current existence,” she yells back at him, battering at his head and arm with both hands. 

He does his best to fend her off, aware that each slap, driven by an insane level of fury, is tearing shreds of leather off the sleeve of his jacket.  If this keeps up, she will be down to flesh and blood in a matter of microts.  “I’m not your keeper,” he says between blows.  “What you did with your life is not my fault!”

Clawed fingers slap his arm further to one side.  A hand dives in to grasp him by the jaw.  His head is forced back into the dirt.  She can drive her spike into the underside of his throat now, if she decides she wants to kill him, or just squeeze tight and rip his throat out.  He squirms, throws his free hand out to the side, hoping to find Winona.  He can’t win this battle without a weapon or some help from an ally.  Natira is too strong, too fast … too well armored.  What little he can see of the street is empty.  Every merchant, shopper, and bystander has long since fled. 

What he really needs is Aeryn. 

Natira leans close.  Four of her head spikes curve downward in a creepily delicate manner.  They stroke his cheeks, each one moving at a different pace.  It is like being caressed by an oversized spider that is sizing him up as a meal.  He shudders with revulsion, and keeps fumbling with his free hand, searching for anything that might serve as a weapon. 

She doesn’t seem to notice his reaction or his flailing attempts to locate Winona.  Natira is focused on revenge.  “You are responsible.  You destroyed my depository.  Do you have any idea how much trouble that caused me?” 

“FDIC wouldn’t cover you?”  He struggles to force the words past the grip on his windpipe. 

“My customers were not the forgiving type.”  The main spike, the one that does all the damage, taps him between the eyes several times.  “They wanted compensation for their losses, Crichton.  Full compensation.  There was no business too insignificant, no venture too small for me to buy into without one of them noticing and coming after me.” 

Her head eases from one side to the other several times, contemplating her victim.  She moves closer.  Her tongue strokes the left side of his neck from his collar bone to beneath his ear.  He can feel his pulse banging away against the light pressure.  Her teeth are less than an eighth of an inch from his carotid artery.  He strains against her weight, hoping for a moment’s lapse on her part, and concentrates on not showing any fear.  “Witness relocation has been known to totally suck.” 

“My life turned to dren the moment I set you free, Crichton.  I have nothing!”  She hisses the last word into his ear.  “You will feel what it is like to have nothing.”

Natira’s hostility is not the product of anger or revenge, Crichton realizes.  This is the thin boundary that marries obsession to insanity.  Somewhere in the midst of the cycles of deprivation following the destruction of her shadow depository, she had become fixated on him as the cause of her misery.  There will be no talking his way out of this situation, no reasoning with the feral creature crouched over his body.  The best he can hope for is to buy some more time, and watch for an opportunity to create an advantage. 

“Been there, done that,” he gurgles.  “You’re a few cycles too late.”  He tries to get his free hand between their bodies, hoping to throw her off.  She catches it, pins it to the ground. 

“You have a wife.  You have a child.  I am going to take them away from you.  After I have your blue eyes.”  The central spike drives in again -- fast, unforgiving, without warning. 

He heaves hard with his entire body, shifting her weight to one side, and tears his hand out from under her knee.  Skin rips.  He ignores it, and gets a better grip on the spike this time, above the coating of blood and closer to one of the joints.  Natira does the wrong thing.  She tries to pull free.  It is like yanking a leg off a lobster, only messier.  Fluids spray in every direction. 

Natira lets out a screeching howl that is equal parts pain and anger.  “Keep your eyes, Crichton!  This way you can watch as your woman dies,” she screams. 

She knees him in the stomach, tries once for his groin, hits his thigh instead, and then scrambles away on all fours, headed toward Aeryn.  John flips over, grabs for her ankles, misses, and goes sprawling.  He comes up spitting dust, lunges after her, and misses again.  Natira is moving too fast.  He can’t catch her in time.  All he can see of Aeryn are her boots and legs.  They haven’t moved.  She is still unconscious.  Natira is almost on top of her. 

“AERYN!!”   

An energy blast comes out of nowhere.  It takes Natira square in the back of the head.  She goes down, fumbles at empty air for a moment, and then claws her way back onto her hands and knees.  Another blast, this time from a different angle.  She lets out a screech, clasps both hands to one side of her face.  Another shot smashes both of her hands.  They drop to in front of her chest.  Another blast, again square in the face.  She keels over backwards, floundering, blinded, still moving but without direction or intent.  Two more shots come out of nowhere.  They are aimed to blind, not kill.  Natira will never see again. 

John staggers to his feet, takes two limping steps to one side to pick up Winona, and then detours around Natira with caution.  She is rolling around, stricken, trying to right herself and having little luck, no longer a threat.  He is more concerned about Aeryn.  She is upright, sitting half sprawled against the side of the building, looking dazed and confused. 

He kneels down beside her.  “How you doin’?” 

It takes her several tries and a few microts to focus on his face.  “A bit --”  She makes a circular gesture, indicating that she is either dizzy or confused … or more likely both.  “How about you?  You’ve got a … a …”  She finishes the sentence by pointing toward the side of his face, indicating the bleeding gouge running from his cheekbone to above his ear.

“I decided to spring for a matched set.  I was jealous of yours.”  He takes a moment to wipe blood out of his ear.  His hearing on that side clears.  It has been annoying him. 

Aeryn’s eyes cross and uncross several times, then shift from his face to a point behind him.  “Blood trackers.”

“What?”  He rubs his ear first, finds nothing there, and then turns to look at Natira, trying to make sense of Aeryn’s comment.  Natira has managed to make it onto her knees, and is now hunched over her burnt and bleeding hands, emitting small whines and mewling cries of pain.   

“Blood trackers,” Aeryn repeats.  She nudges his shoulder, indicating that he should look in a different direction.  “Vorcarians.” 

John pivots on his knees.  Half a dozen vorcarians are emerging from alleyways on both side of the street.  They are wary, ducking down often, sniffing the air obsessively, checking in all directions before moving into the open.  All six are close to the same size and same age; three males and three females if he is interpreting their clothing correctly; with one common attribute that shocks him close to speechlessness.  “Aeryn … they’re kids!  They’re all kids!” 

“Young, yes,” Aeryn says.  “I’m not sure vorcarians are ever children.”

“You know what I mean.” 

“Yes, I do.  Help me up.” 

He helps her to her feet, steadies her when she wobbles, then guides her out into the sunlight.  Six energy weapons swing in their direction. 

The vorcarian youngster closest to Natira steps forward, showing that he is the leader of the pack.  He growls, “We claim bounty.”  It is the voice of an adolescent.  He is doing his best to sound threatening.  The occasional squawks and breaks in the growl aren’t helping.  “Do you yield?” 

“There is no bounty on Natira,” John says. 

“There is a blood debt owed, and you had lost dominance.  We claim bounty.  Do you yield?” the young one asks again. 

Aeryn squeezes John’s hand to get his attention, and then nods.  “We yield … on one condition,” he says, addressing the entire pack. 

“Condition,” the vorcarian teenager says, cocking his head.  “What is a … condition?” 

“It means I want some information before I yield our claim on her.  I want to ask a question.” 

The youngster retreats several steps, backing into the small cluster of vorcarians waiting behind him.  He ducks his head, both his eyes and his weapon steady on John and Aeryn, and consults with the others.  The growls, yips, and snarls go on for several microts.  “What is your question?” he calls. 

“Who are you?  What blood debt are you paying?” 

“If I answer this … condition,” the vorcarian says, “you will not interfere with our claim of bounty?” 

“You’re welcome to her.” 

Natira’s head comes up.  She turns in Crichton’s direction.  “No!  You can’t let them take me!   Crichton!  Don’t let them!”

“Shut up, you … you bitch!” another of the young vorcarians yells.  He makes a run toward Natira, stamping his feet and thrusting his weapon in her direction, a complex mixture of boldness and fear.  “You killed our father!  We have come to claim the blood debt!” 

All the clues start to merge into an answer.  A portion of it does not make sense, however.  “Your father,” John says.  “Your father was --” 

“Rorf,” the lead male says. 

John takes a step back, so he is beside Aeryn.  He lowers his voice.  “They’re too old to be Rorf’s.  That was” -- he does some quick math in his head -- “what?  Seven cycles ago?” 

“Short life span,” she says.  “They mature quickly, die young.” 

“Natira didn’t kill Rorf.  She only blinded him in one eye,” he says in a whisper. 

Aeryn turns so she is facing away from the whimpering captive and the six blood trackers.  “If you tell them that, they will go after Scorpius.”

“And they will die,” he says.

“Undoubtedly.”  Aeryn’s eyes slide out of focus; she staggers, nearly dropping to her knees. 

He catches her under one arm and pulls her back up, steadying her when she stumbles a second time.  “Screw the rest of the details.  They can have her.  I want to get you back to Moya and the medical scanner.”

“I’m fine.” 

“Right, Aeryn.  You don’t have a concussion, and I never hesitate.”  John turns back toward the collection of small yips, growls, and eager snufflings, fully prepared to turn over custody of Natira to the family of blood trackers.

The pack has closed in around their prisoner.  They are taking turns poking her with their weapons.  One of the females leaps in close, nips at a shoulder, and darts away.  Another creeps close, nicks her with a knife and scampers out of range.  The rest of the group throw back their heads and howl their approval.  Crichton’s stomach squirms.  The scene reminds him of a pack of jackals toying with a bleeding, bewildered water buffalo before going in for the kill.  The eventual outcome will undoubtedly be the same. 

He hesitates.  Aeryn gives the back of his shoulder a shove.  “Take her,” he says after one more microt worth of indecision. 

Natira is dragged to her feet and herded away.  Crichton’s last sight of her is one of a thoroughly cowed, defeated figure stumbling along in the midst of the cavorting, gleeful vocarians.  The sound of their victory continues to echo off the sides of the buildings long after they have disappeared from view. 

A simple statement from Aeryn drags John back from a stunned contemplation of what the next few arns hold in store for Natira.  “I have a headache.” 

“I’m not surprised.  You hit hard enough that I wasn’t sure who was going to fold first -- you or the building.”  He gestures in the general direction of the transport pod, inviting her to lead the way.  If she is in front of him, he can watch for signs of a more serious head injury.  She hit the wall hard enough that he is worried about a skull fracture. 

They trudge along in silence, passing quickly from the unnatural silence of the still-deserted scene of the short battle, into the bedlam of the main avenue, and from there into the relative peace of the footpath leading to the landing pads. 

“What were you planning to do?” Aeryn asks once they are alone again. 

John lengthens his stride to move up alongside her.  “When?” 

“When you weren’t going to let them take Natira.” 

Aeryn sounds furious.  She also sounds as though she feels sick.  He tries to placate her.  This is not the time or place for one of their full bore, knock-down-drag-out arguments.  “I don’t know.  I hadn’t made up my mind.” 

She turns on him, smacks him on the shoulder with the palm of her hand.  “Yes, you had.  You weren’t going to let them take her.  You wanted to save her!” 

“For god’s sake, Aeryn!  They are going to eat her!  Tell me they aren’t going to turn her into a meal before nightfall!”

She steps in front of him so quickly he has to do some tricky footwork to avoid running her over.  “I can’t tell you that because you’re right.  Yes!  They’re going to eat her, John.  What did you want to do about it?  Bring her back to Moya, nurse her back to health, and ask her to live with us?”  Aeryn makes a furious gesture toward the right side of her face, indicating the hard, fast slashing scar, then points at his own still-oozing wound, and raises her eyebrows as far as he has ever seen them travel.  The unspoken question is asking him if he is willing to let that sort of thing happen again. 

“No.  It’s just --”

“Just what?” she asks after several microts pass in silence. 

“Nuthin’.  Forget I said anything.” 

“You don’t like cruelty,” she says.  “You don’t want her to suffer.”

He shrugs, uncertain how to explain what he feels. 

Aeryn waits for a large group of chattering females to pass by, and then resumes course toward the transport pod.  “You don’t have to worry, John.  She won’t suffer,” she says.  “Vorcarians don’t eat live prey.  They have evolved to the point where they prefer to butcher and cook their meat.” 

He comes to a stop, stunned, for several microts, then has to hurry in order to catch up.  “That’s not a whole hell of a lot of comfort, Aeryn!” 

“It is all you are going to get.” 

After that contribution to the conversation, silence feels good for a while.  He listens to the quiet whisper of Aeryn’s leather pants, the creak of her boots, and the occasional slap of her overcoat as it flaps in the breeze; and holds a brief, internal celebration that they are both essentially unharmed, and that the threat to his family has been eliminated.  After several dozen microts of peace and quiet, a different kind of reaction starts to gnaw at him.  It involves guilt.  He opens his mouth, intending to say something; then closes it.  Some things are better left unsaid.

“What?” Aeryn asks. 

“Nothing.” 

“What?’ she says again, in a more demanding tone.

He confesses.  “I had a chance to shoot her, and I hesitated.”

“I thought you might have.”  Aeryn’s stride doesn’t falter.  She turns the corner onto the landing area, ducks under the wing of a parked spacecraft, and angles toward the transport pod squatting in the distance. 

“Why aren’t you ripping my head off right now?” John asks.  “You’ve been yammering at me all day not to hesitate.” 

Aeryn steps into the shade offered by one of the parked ships, and turns to face him.  “You hate to kill.  After everything we have been through over the past several cycles and all the time you have spent here, you still can’t stand to kill anyone.”  She steps close, cradles his face in both hands, wipes away a smear of blood with her thumb, and then kisses him.  “It is one of the reasons why I love you so much.” 

John gets in a kiss of his own before she has a chance to pull away.  “If you love me so much, then why do you always spend a month busting my chops whenever I have trouble pulling the trigger?” 

“Because each time it happens, I have to face the possibility that some day it will get you killed.  I will gladly live the rest of my life without ever seeing that wonderful, gentle part of you again if it means you will not die because you hesitated.”  She waits, looking relaxed, giving him no indication that she is in a hurry to return to Moya, or needs to do anything about her headache. 

John gestures for her to resume the rest of their journey back to the transport pod.  Aeryn links her arm into his and steps into the sunlight.   

“So you give me a hard time because you love me,” he says.

“Yes.” 

“Sounds kind of like a marriage.” 

“If you say so,” she says.

They reach the transport pod.  John triggers the hatch, and motions for Aeryn to go first.  “I can live with that.”

“That is all I want.” 


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Happiness is not a destination.  It is a method of life. -- Burton Hills
Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass.  It's about learning to dance in the rain. -- Vivian Greene