Thanks, as always, to beccatoria for betaing.

Dead Man's Jacket

They are quiet on the way back from the Gammak Base, stunned by what they will do for one another, exhausted with the relief of an impossible escape. Stark has grown muted, lips moving in soundless soliloquy. Gilina is slowly, very quietly bleeding to death on the transport pod's floor.

John, holding her hand, finds his eyes drawn again to a smear of her blood on his sleeve. It is only the latest taint on the smudged leather. There's his own blood, spattered from his nose down the front when the Peacekeeper thugs took him down. Other stains precede his ownership: a thin spray across one sleeve, darker than human or Sebacean blood, raised like a welt; blotches on the back that someone has tried to scrub out with some sort of solvent, half-successfully.

When Gilina's grip grows weaker he strengthens his in response. For all that he owes the dying woman, staying awake is the best he can do, and he hardly manages that. He hasn't slept properly in days: an hour, a half hour here and there, jerked awake by random synapses firing in his overstimulated brain; waked by nightmares, Stark's stumbling commentary, guards rattling doors for the hell of it.

His hand goes slack. His chin falls to his chest, bringing his nostrils close enough to catch a whiff of the jacket. Chakan oil and stale alien sweat; a surprisingly familiar smell of leather. He has never asked what the ubiquitous Peacekeeper leather is made from. He suspects that, like the origins of Fellip nectar, it is one more thing he would rather not know.

(Later, years later, on a drunk dare, he does ask, and Aeryn laughs at his trepidation. It's vat-grown, of course. What did he think? What he thought/suspected/feared must show on his face, for Aeryn draws back, disgusted. Humans would do that? - No! I mean yes, but no! And she gives him that look, and he decides to shelve any attempt to explain psychopaths or Nazis or conquistadors to her until he's less drunk. Or maybe shelve it indefinitely.

Then realises, with a start, that she hasn't told him exactly what those vat cultures are grown from.)

Their pod arrives to find new mother Moya trailed by a baby armed with Peacekeeper weaponry, a headache for another day. Zhaan, medicinal plant, does her best to make Gilina comfortable. Stark, his madness receding, gives her an image that is a refuge.

John stays. Gilina makes it easy on him, not asking for reassurances that he can't provide, and he is glad for Peacekeeper discipline for once.

After, they unanimously postpone the funeral. They trudge off to their various quarters in silence, shared survival all the communication they need, or can cope with now.

John finds himself in front of his cell without a memory of walking there. A DRD on the wall beside the door points its eye-stalks at him

"I'm fine," he tells it, in graveyard tones. The DRD keeps its flashlight eyes fixed on him. "I'm fine," he repeats with emphasis. The DRD chitters, dubious.

He swipes his hand past the door sensor and the bronze lattice swings up. Stepping through, he notes the familiar irony finally including him: escaped prisoners, seeking shelter on a prison ship.

The cell's half-light wraps around him like a blanket. He sits heavily on the bed, pulls off his boots. Putting his feet on Leviathan warmth, he listens to the soft noises, feels the disconcerting comfort of the familiar, strange ship.

All of a sudden, he is acutely aware of the weight of padded leather on his shoulders. The need for protective coloration has been over for hours; past time to get rid of it. He shrugs out of the jacket, holds it at arm's length - lets it drop. Heavy and stiff, it doesn't crumple but slumps, then sits there like a dead thing.

He stares at it with a dull hatred.

PK gear, scavenged off a dead body. He doesn't remember the name or the face of the commando they stripped it from, months ago. It was a ghoulish thing to do, he'd felt, but his objection fell flat against the practicality of soldiers and fugitives. They were right, he has to admit: it has served him well.

He gets up, moves away from the carcass.

He only owns five, ten things in this new life: it's easy to keep the cell in meticulous order. His IASA jacket is on its peg on the wall, right where he left it when he went to save Aeryn, went to get himself killed. It has been the brightest thing in the room since the Robinson jaunt on Acquarra cost him his shirt and pants. It's the only thing that isn't a murky shade of brown or bronze or black. Putting it on requires more strength than he has left, so he simply lists forward and rests his head against it.

It still holds a scent of home - though perhaps lately that is memory tricking his nose.

There will always be this much for comfort: it smells human.

He leans into the fabric, breathes deeply, waits for the ache of nostalgia.

Comes to, an indeterminate time later, still waiting. The wall's flesh pulses against his forehead through cotton, very slowly.

Panic rises in him, sudden and clenching. He tears the flight jacket from its hook, pulls it on. It is comfortable, pliable, moulded to his body by long wear.

The skin on the back of his neck prickles.

He shucks off the jacket, roughly; holds it in both fists. A shudder begins somewhere near his core, ripples outwards, makes his teeth chatter.

When it subsides, his hands open without volition. The jacket drops soundlessly, immaterial.

He takes a step back towards the bed. Another. Bends down. His fingers brush against time-smoothed leather. A draught of air wafts a fleeting trace of sweat and tanned hide to his nose as he lifts the PK jacket and pulls it back on.

It hugs him in its constricting embrace: armor, memento mori. Exhaustion settles with its mass, nearly knocking the legs out from under him. He collapses on the curving mattress. Like the jacket, the bed will never be comfortable. He draws his legs in to curl around himself. As he falls, quickly, into unconsciousness, he is aware of the weight of leather, and the smell of blood.