The following morning, the overseers came in to take them to the mines. At that point, John was feeling less than able to cope and more than willing to cry uncle and admit defeat. As it were, he couldn't get up. And Popeye gave up on trying to make him move the moment the gates opened. John remained where he was and hoped against hope that they would take him for dead and just leave. No such luck, though.

"Get up." The overseer's tone was blunt, indifferent.

John sighed and tried to raise his head, but his equilibrium was still so much off kilter that he had no idea if he was raising his head or not. "Can't," he rasped. "Don't know which way is up." He figured he may be earning himself a bit of punishment with this, but he somehow hoped that the overseers weren't stupid and could tell that he wasn't faking it.

"What's wrong with your eyes?" the overseer suddenly asked, his voice and blurry outline much closer.

"I can't see too good," John countered. "I think I've got sunburn on my eyeballs," he added and couldn't help chuckling helplessly at the thought.

The overseer grabbed the front of his tunic and hauled him up a bit, obviously surveying the damage. Then he let go of John again, who crashed back down on the ground with a grunt. "Move them out. I will have a word with head overseer Teelum," the overseer said and disappeared from John's very sparse line of view.

He heard the shuffle of feet decreasing while the others were moved out and he thanked his lucky stars that they hadn't insisted he come along or had punished him for disobeying.

With a sigh, he closed his eyes and tried not to think of what came next. Right now, he was just happy to be able to stay horizontal, if that was what he was right now. He couldn't tell. In itself, that upset his stomach again, but he managed to keep down what little Popeye had managed to feed him the night before.

Before he had a chance to drift off, though, he heard approaching footfalls and knew whatever these bastards had in mind, it wouldn't be to his benefit.

Without a word, two pairs of hands grabbed him and hauled him to his feet, which he immediately lost track off again. Holding onto his arms, they dragged him along and finally hoisted him up on his feet when they came to a stop again. He could feel his feet and the surface beneath them, but he couldn't decide if it was up or down.

"Here he is," one of them said.

A blurry outline stepped into his line of view and bony fingers grabbed his chin harshly. "Interesting," Teelum said. "What others perceive as visual reprogramming works like too much time in the sun for you. Yours is a curious species."

At this point, John was struggling to keep from throwing up. The constant wobbling of his world was not good for his balance and hence not good for his stomach. He had never considered himself to be susceptible to motion sickness; if he had, he would never have become an astronaut in the first place; but it seemed that he had misjudged the forces of flashing lights and total darkness.

"Well, we can fix this," he heard Teelum say. The head overseer released his chin. Someone else grabbed a handful of his hair and yanked his head back. He let out a halfhearted groan of complaint, but figured he didn't stand much of a chance of putting up a fight anyway, so he might as well just accept whatever they had in mind.

Teelum pried the lids of his right eye apart and dripped some kind of liquid in his eye. His response to that was immediate and that mainly because Teelum might as well have dripped pure acid into his eye. Pain exploded like wildfire and John responded by rearing back with enough force to rip free of his tormentors. He hit the ground hard on his back, but had no sense for any possible injuries this may result in. Instead he clapped both hands over his now fiercely burning eye and only barely prevented himself from screaming out loud.

"Get him up," he heard Teelum say. "And this time, hold onto him."

Aware what those words meant, John suddenly didn't give a damn about what kind of trouble he would get himself into. He was not about to let that freak burn out his other eye as well. But no matter how he struggled, they got him back on his feet, whoever it was grabbed his hair again and yanked his head back, and Teelum dripped another drop of that vile liquid into his left eye with the same result. Only this time they held on and this time, he didn't even try to pretend that he could control the pain. So he let out a howl of agony and kicked out at the nearest bystander while grinding the heels of both hands into his eyes.

"Hold him still," Teelum insisted with an annoyed tone to his voice. The others tried and finally managed to steady John enough for Teelum to be able to grab a harsh hold of his chin. "Hmm," he said. "Looks like the normal treatment doesn't work on this one."

"You think he's blind for good?" one of the others asked.

"I'm afraid so. Damaged goods. He can't work in the mines if he can't see," Teelum confirmed with a sigh. "Ah well. He still has his uses. Let the females tend to him."

With that, the session of kicking Johnny while he was down was over and the overseers dragged him backwards away from that bony monster.

He heard the gates open and moments later, the overseers dropped him unceremoniously on the ground and left him there.

All John could focus his mind on right then was how badly his eyes hurt and how much he just wanted to throw up.

 

***

 

Aeryn looked up when the gates opened. Her initial thought was that there was another buyer looking for some female slaves. Well, she wasn't going to give them anything. Frellniks.

Like every other female in the enclosure, she leaned forward when two of the overseers dragged someone inside and dropped him on the ground. It had been two weekens since Aeryn had seen John and she had feared the worst. But seeing him like this hadn't been her wish.

Before anybody else could move, she was on her feet and running towards him. The overseers had left again, closing the gates behind them, but John made no move to rise. He just lay there with his hands pressed over his eyes and as she got closer to him, she could hear him groaning in agony.

She dropped down on her knees next to him and grabbed his wrists. "John," she said, alerting him to her identity to prevent any defensive actions he may otherwise perform.

He emitted a sound she couldn't readily identify, but it seemed mostly to be a mixture of a sob and a sigh. "My eyes," he rasped.

"Let me see," she said and gently pried his right hand away from his right eye. His eyelid was burning red and the eye itself was watering profusely. "Can you open your eye?" she asked quietly.

"No, it hurts too much," he ground out through clenched teeth.

Aeryn glanced around briefly. "Well, you can't stay out here," she said. "Can you walk?"

"No. I don't even know which way is up," he replied.

"Right," she said, hoisted him up and locked her hands over his chest before dragging him backward back to her place under the lean-tos. Despite her own waning strength due to lack of food and exercise she was still quite able to move him on her own.

Once there, she eased him carefully onto the blankets, grabbed her water-ration and settled down next to him. The other females were watching her, but she paid them no attention. Instead, she grabbed his right wrist again and pulled his hand away from his eye. "I'm going to pour some water on your face," she informed him and did so. He hissed, probably more at the sensation than at any real pain. She repeated the procedure without any opposition from him and he calmed down visibly when the water hit his face a second time.

"Better?" she asked and he nodded weakly.

"Aeryn?" he asked quietly.

She leaned closer and eyed his reddish skin with slight concern. "Yes?"

"I missed you, babe," he said with a tired smile.

"And I you," she admitted and brushed his lengthening hair away from his sweaty brow. "Rest. You look like you could need it," she added. She was not going to ask him questions about what had brought all this on. That could wait until later. Right now, all she wanted to do was relish his presence and hope that this was an omen of good things ahead.

She almost smirked to herself at that thought. Fate was his deal, not hers.

 

***

 

The following night was an uneasy one. John couldn't sleep because his eyes hurt and his skin hurt and his head hurt and he just wanted to sleep so he could get away from it all. It was a vicious circle and he couldn't break it.

Aeryn stayed awake with him and just held him throughout the night. Whenever the burning in his eyes got too bad, she dabbed some water on them and it both cooled and eased the pain.

But the pain kept coming back and the mere thought of opening his eyes was enough to make him cringe. Aeryn had said fairly little since she had dragged him into the shelter of the lean-tos, but the sense that she was there with him made a world of difference.

He shifted and groaned under his breath when his stomach made attempts to once again expel whatever he had managed to eat.

Aeryn's hand was instantly on his brow, cool and soothing. "Easy," she whispered, her lips close to his ear. She nestled close to him, spooning against him, and draped her arm over his chest.

Although his sense of direction was pretty much shot right now, he did manage to latch onto her arm with both hands and give it a light squeeze. "I thought they were gonna kill me when they realized I couldn't see," he whispered, hoping she would be able to disperse that notion.

"Why should they? You still have worth to them," she whispered back.

"I thought they were only interested in cheap labor," he admitted weakly.

"They are. But they're also interested in other things," she countered and nuzzled the side of his neck with the tip of her nose. "What the frell happened to you, John? You look like you've baked in the sun for too long."

He remained silent for a moment before turning his head a little. "I don't know. They put me in that damn box of theirs. The light and sound was nearly driving me nuts, but apart from that it was pitch black in there. I don't understand how it could have affected me this badly."

"The box?" Aeryn asked and he felt the movement of air when she raised her head. "You can't see into the ultraviolet spectrum, can you?" she asked quietly.

"No, no humans can," he replied. "What are you getting at?"

"Ultraviolet light is painful to Sebacean eyes if it's too strong. But it's not harmful. It seems to be to Humans, though," she stated.

John mostly felt like slapping his forehead, but refrained from doing that out of fear of missing and of aggravating the pain if he should manage to hit his own brow. "It's not healthy," he said and grunted in displeasure. "So, you think the light in the box is ultraviolet?"

"Not entirely," she disagreed. "If it was, you wouldn't be here now. No, I think it's comprised of various levels, the ultraviolet being the highest. They obviously didn't bother to check if you could tolerate high levels of it."

"Honestly, Aeryn, I don't think they give a damn," he said. "My eyes are itching. It's driving me nuts."

"Don't touch. You may make it worse if you do," she admonished him.

He settled for a restless night and tried not to think too much about what the future might bring.

 

***

 

Two days later

Aeryn squatted on the ground while she stared at the gates with a dark look in her eyes. John was doing better balance-wise, but his eyes were puffy red and the cornea had become milky white over the past two days. He was in pain constantly. She knew he was trying to be valiant because of her, but she couldn't help seeing him flinch now and then and cup his hands over his eyes whenever it got too bad.

She had so far been able to relieve some of the discomfort by regularly dabbing a piece of cloth soaked in water onto his lids, but in general she wasn't really able to help him and all she could do was curse Teelum for his inconsiderate behavior. That frelling fekkik had to be aware that John wasn't Sebacean.

"Hey, Aeryn."

She glanced over her shoulder at John, who sat with his back against the wall and apparently tried to pass the time by doing nothing at all. "What, John?" she asked and shifted a little to better face him.

"Are we having fun or what?" he asked and grimaced. She assumed he was trying to grin at her, but it didn't come out right.

"No, we're not," she disagreed with a light sigh. "How are you feeling today?" She had asked him this before, but felt the need to reconfirm that he wasn't about to die on her or something.

"Oh, apart from not being able to see, I'm doing just fine. Don't worry about me. I've never felt better," he replied cynically, sighed deeply and let his head drop back against the wall with a thud.

She narrowed her eyes a little. "Don't hurt yourself any more than necessary," she admonished him and returned her attention to the center of the enclosure. "We'll get out of here. One way or another."

"Yeah? How long have we been here now? About ten monans?" he asked sarcastically. "Now, correct me if I'm wrong, honey, but isn't that a little long to dig up the money needed to bail us out of this mess?"

Aeryn made a face and was glad he couldn't see it. She was ticked off about the entire thing right now, but didn't want to take it out on John. She kept telling herself that it didn't matter that he had gotten them into this mess in the first place. It made no difference at this stage.

"Aren't you gonna answer me?" he asked and leaned forward a little.

"No," she countered. "You're in a bad mood, John. Just shut up and get over it," she added and suppressed a sigh.

"Pain does that to a person, you know," a voice said right next to John.

Apparently, he had not noticed the presence of the old crone, because her sudden vocalization made him jerk sideways away from her and he hit the ground hard on his shoulder.

"Go away, you old fool," Aeryn growled. She wasn't in the mood to deal with the old hag right now. That crazy old bat was really driving her crazy with her constant interference.

The old woman did what was usual for her. She remained and put an almost comforting hand on John's arm. "You should do something about his pain, you know," she stated, sounding almost annoyed that Aeryn had not somehow procured a magical cure.

Aeryn shifted around without getting out of her squat and gave the old bat a dangerous look. "Get the frell away from him before I take your head off," she snapped.

John, in the meantime, had recovered somewhat from the shock the old woman had given him and pushed himself up again. "Take it easy, Aeryn," he admonished and turned in the general direction of the old woman. "What could she possibly do about my pain?" he asked.

Aeryn rolled her eyes. "Don't encourage her, John. She's crazy. She doesn't know anything."

"Doesn't know anything," the old woman sneered, mocking Aeryn. "I know a thing or two that you don't know, young one. So why don't you just shut your frelling trap and help your mate?"

Aeryn bared her teeth in a feral display and rose. "I'm not telling you again, you crazy old fool," she hissed and pointed off to the side. "Get going. Right now. Or I'll set you free from this existence once and for all."

John reached a searching hand out and grabbed Aeryn's shin. "Aeryn, relax," he said, now obviously concerned about her anger. "She's not doing any harm."

"Not yet, no," Aeryn agreed angrily, "but who's to say it will remain that way?"

"Why would I hurt him?" the old crone cackled. "He's not even Sebacean."

In a split microt, Aeryn had the old bat pinned to the wall, her right forearm pressed hard against the frail-looking neck. "How the frell do you know that?" she snarled.

John finally got up on his knees and managed to latch onto her arm. "Aeryn, stop it," he said. "Come on, let her go. She's not harming anyone. It doesn't matter."

Aggravated beyond reason, Aeryn released the old crone and pulled back. "It does matter," she said, her tone stern. "Frelling tralk. Get the frell away from us," she added and lashed out at the old woman, who scurried away from them.

"Aeryn," John tried again and reached out for her once again.

Aeryn allowed him to 'catch' her and settled down in front of him. "We don't need her help," she pressed out through clenched teeth. At this very microt, she was happy that John couldn't see her. The tears in her eyes would have betrayed her inner turmoil to him more clearly than any words she could say.

To have this frelling female throw in her face that John was not Sebacean reminded Aeryn of how easily he got in trouble for that fact alone and for them to be in a situation like this meant she could do fairly little to protect him. She scrubbed both palms over her face and barely prevented herself from hissing out loud. At some point – she couldn't remember when any more – she had taken it upon herself to make certain he stayed as safe as he could. Perhaps it had been after seeing what that frelling chip had done to him and how scared he had been by its implications. Whatever had brought it on, she felt it was her sacred duty to protect him and it made her feel helpless beyond anything she had ever experienced before that she could do next to nothing about their present situation.

"Maybe we do," John disagreed with her claim. "Maybe I do, Aeryn," he added quietly. She knew he would have been staring intently at her at this point, but his eyes were expressionless at the moment.

She stared at his puffy eyelids and felt the corner of her lips twitching. "Maybe you do," she agreed just as quietly, but then she shook her head. "No," she then said and grabbed his wrist hard. "No, John, we don't need her. We don't need anybody but each other. We cannot trust anyone in here."

"We have to," he disagreed. "I trusted Popeye and he didn't let me down."

She frowned. "Who?" The name meant nothing to her.

John hesitated, then let out a heartfelt sigh and settled back against the wall. "I don't even know his name. The big guy who helped me. He mentioned that you spoke to him at one point," he added. She could hear the regret in his voice, knew he was unhappy that he didn't know the big male's name.

Aeryn moved over beside him and tried hard not to let the need to kill somebody overcome her. She was torn between frustrating anger and the debilitating sense of not being good enough to do what needed to be done. In an effort to divert her thoughts away from these feelings, she slipped an arm around his shoulders and pulled him closer. He let his head drop onto her shoulder.

"We only need each other, John," she insisted. "You just have to be strong. And so do I. We'll make it. The others will come for us."

"And what if they don't, Aeryn?" he asked, his voice nearly a whisper. "What if they can't find the currency or ... what if they don't know what happened to us?"

"John," Aeryn said, her tone stern, "don't think that way. It's not productive."

That made him sit up straight. "Productive?" he asked and turned his head a little in her general direction. "This isn't a question of productive, Aeryn. It's a question of survival. Both physically and mentally. And I don't know how much more of this dren I can take."

She stopped him by pressing her hand over his lips. He was getting a little loud. "I know," she assured him. "We'll find a way. If the others don't come for us, we will find a way." She had no idea what that way would be or if it was even possible, but she would say anything at this point to calm him down.

 

***

 

John didn't believe her. He couldn't believe her. Not now. It had been too long and no matter how much he loved and adored her, he knew she was lying. There was no way out, no way to escape this prison and the knowledge of this settled like a heavy weight on his shoulders and threatened to crush him. He couldn't see any more, could hardly stand up any more, and now she wanted him to believe that they would get rescued and everything would be okay?

He grabbed her wrist after fumbling for it for a moment and pulled her hand away from his mouth. "Aeryn," he said and paused, unsure of what to say to make her understand how serious this situation was.

"Don't ... please don't be ..." she started and broke off as well.

"Be what? Useless?" he countered and couldn't help feeling a little angry all of a sudden. "Okay, so maybe I'm useless. Maybe I don't do things as easily as you do. I'm not a damn Sebacean, after all." Aeryn remained silent, seemed to have nothing to say to this, and it aggravated him that she didn't. He pushed away from her and ripped his arm free when she grabbed it. "No," he snapped. "I wouldn't want to be a burden to you."

"What the frell are you talking about?" Aeryn countered and he could hear by her tone that she was angry with him. Her anger was always sobering. Somehow hearing that edge to her voice always made him think twice about going off on a tangent. Well, maybe not always, but most times. "You are not a burden. Stop playing the victim," she added, her tone strict.

"Playing?" he asked. Okay, so maybe her anger didn't always do the trick. Right now, her attitude was making him angrier still. "I'm not playing, Aeryn. Take a good long look at me. If I look even half as bad as I feel, I must look pretty shitty." He snarled the words out and would have gotten up and walked away from her if he had been able to.

Aeryn's response to this was to grab the back of his neck hard and push him forward. He started when he felt her breath on his face. "You do look like dren," she confirmed in a voice he didn't recognize. She sounded furious and somewhere in there, he thought he could hear fear as well. "But you are only a victim if you allow yourself to be. What the frell did they do to you in that frelling box?"

He pulled out of her grip and pushed away from her once more. "That's got nothing to do with this," he countered aggressively and slapped her hand away when she grabbed his arm. "I'm tired of this crap. I just wanna sleep. I want to be left the hell alone. Does that register?"

Aeryn did something he hadn't expected of her. She slapped him. It was a stinging, humiliating slap, but it startled him enough to make him think twice about letting his mood escalate. He needed her and antagonizing her was not the most intelligent step he had ever taken.

"Are you done?" she asked, her tone flat, unemotional. He didn't feel his voice would be steady enough, so he settled for a curt nod. He felt like a little kid being reprimanded by an unforgiving adult. "What the frell did they do to you? This isn't you. You don't give up."

Some part of him acknowledged her words and agreed wholeheartedly with them, but the majority wanted to whine and insist she didn't understand, this had nothing to do with what that bony freak had done to him. "Everybody has a limit," he said quietly. "And I think mine's been reached."

"Would you just tell me what the frell they did? Was it the light?" she asked. Her tone had mellowed out a little.

He wrapped his arms around himself, suddenly cold. What he wouldn't give to be back on Moya, away from this hell hole. "Light, sound, sensory deprivation, sensory overload; I don't know. All I knew at the end was that I didn't want to die, not like that." He paused, briefly allowed his mind to touch on the box, and felt himself shy away from the idea. It had been bad, worse than he'd thought; much worse. He'd been at the end of his rope when they'd finally dragged him out of there and he knew with certainty that he would do anything to avoid ending up in the box again. "I've lost so much," he muttered under his breath and suddenly felt the overwhelming need to cry like a little child. It took quite a bit of fight to stop the tears from falling.

Aeryn sighed audibly. "Yes, you have. As have we all," she replied.

He turned his head a little. There was no pity to be had here, no support. D'Argo was the only one who'd ever really given him the time of day when he felt down. Aeryn was still too much in her shell to give comfort and he didn't feel like talking to her about what was going on in his mind right now. She wouldn't understand and that alone made him clam up.

When he suddenly felt her hand against his cheek, he almost shied away from it. But then she pressed her other hand against his brow. "You're not usually that warm," she said, worry in her voice. "Are you feeling all right?" He couldn't help himself. He started chuckling. After what he had just said, she still asked him if he was feeling all right. That had to be the dumbest comment he'd ever heard, given the circumstances.

Aeryn grabbed his face with both hands. "John, you're feverish," she said, her tone definitely worried now. "This is not good."

"What did you expect?" he asked and realized at the same time that he was definitely cold. The downside of that was that it was warm outside and had been for a long time now. He had no reason to freeze, to shiver, and yet he did.

"Frell," Aeryn hissed.

"I can help."

The old woman had obviously come back.

"No, you can't. Go away," Aeryn snapped at her and John heard the old crone scurrying away again. "Frelling tralk. She should learn to stay away."

"What if she can help?" he asked.

"She can't. She's crazy," Aeryn replied.

John made a face, which hurt his sunburned skin. "Oh yeah, right, I forgot. We don't need anybody else," he said sarcastically, but had to leave off further hurt-pride-comments because he was starting to feel really shitty. His burned skin hurt more than it had before and his eyes were throbbing with pain.

"Would you stop being so frelling annoying?" Aeryn growled. "Lie down. Rest. It's the best you can do unless you want me to alert the overseers."

He froze in place for a moment. "No, whatever you do, don't alert them. I don't want any more of their so-called treatment. For all I know, they'll kill me for being sick," he said while trying to control the tremors rippling through him.

"Then do as I say and lie down," she commanded gruffly.

He did so, but only because he felt too crappy to oppose her. She draped a blanket over him, which did next to nothing for him. Then she placed a moist piece of cloth over his face. It smelled bad, but then again, so did they both after not having seen a shower in ages. Almost a cycle, he reminded himself silently.

***