One day later

Aeryn raised her head with a start. She's been on the verge of sleeping, barely aware of their surroundings, but a sound startled her awake again. The gates were opening. "Frell," she hissed lightly.

John, who was hotter than a furnace and on the verge of being delirious, shifted his head on her lap. "What?" he rasped. The fever was eating him alive and his burned skin and damaged eyes hadn't improved a whole lot during the night.

"There's going to be another auction," Aeryn said darkly and kept her eyes on the overseers when they stepped into the enclosure and looked around. One of them fixed his gaze on her and waved at her to come forward.

"Shit," John rasped and struggled to sit up. He shifted around and leaned back against the wall. He was too worn out to sit for long without support.

"Don't worry," Aeryn tried to reassure him. "I'll make those fekkiks think twice about buying me," she promised.

"Don't come on too strong, Aeryn. They may end up killing you instead," he countered.

Aeryn smiled vaguely. This was much more like him to worry about her even though his condition was far worse than hers. She cupped a hand against his cheek and kissed him briefly. "I won't let them kill me," she whispered and hurried out to join the others.

She didn't glance back as the overseers herded them out of the enclosure. She would be seeing him again soon.

***

The pen felt more crowded this evening than it had on other occasions, but Aeryn had no idea why. There weren't more of them. It just felt that way.

From experience hard earned, Aeryn had learned not to look at the buyers. That only appeared to attract their attention. Instead, she remained calm and quiet, her back straight, with a slight sneer on her lips and a dark look in her eyes as she stared at the ground instead. The buyers never went for the brooding ones and it had gotten her out of being sold a few times already.

But then a familiar sound hit her ears; the whirr of a hover device. Cautiously, she glanced up toward the platform and the first thing her gaze settled on was a pair of dusty red boots. A frown furrowed her brow while she slowly raised her gaze, following the legs up to the edge of the tunic, also red like the pants and the boots.

At this point her heart had started beating rapidly in her chest and she found it very hard to remain calm. It could be someone else, she told herself, but then she skipped up to the face and met a pair of blue eyes she would recognize anywhere. She almost said his name out loud, but refrained from doing so only because she was too surprised at actually seeing him. Never in her life had she been happier to see a Luxan than she was right then. It caused her great trouble to remain calm and not smile.

D'Argo smirked briefly and winked at her, but remained where he was, arms crossed over his chest, feet splayed. He was standing at attention, obviously pretending to be Rygel's bodyguard. The little Hynerian sat on his throne-sled and gazed imperiously down at the assembled females.

Aeryn straightened her back and focused fully on Rygel, who returned her gaze and rumbled with satisfaction like only he could.

"I suggest the blonde one," Teelum was saying and pointed at another of the females.

Rygel's gaze shifted to her and he rubbed his chin for a moment as if considering her, but then his gaze shifted back to Aeryn. "No, I want that one," he added and pointed at her.

Teelum frowned lightly. "If I may, Domniar, that one is not trainable. We have tried over the past cycle and nothing we do sticks. You would be hard pressed to keep her in line."

Rygel chuckled and Aeryn grimaced to fit the part. "All the more interesting," Rygel said. "I'll take her. My Luxan can handle her," he added.

Teelum made a face. He was unhappy about the choice, but he was also interested in selling, so he agreed. "If she becomes too much for you to handle, you can always bring her back. I will refund your credits in full."

Rygel nodded. "Now, we need a male as well. Not much sense in having a breeding female if there's no male around to fertilize her," he said.

Aeryn barely prevented herself from jumping up there and slapping him off his sled. She knew he was putting it on thick and probably had to, but she did not like it that he spoke of her that way. He was going to hear for that later.

The overseers stepped into the pen and herded the other females back to the enclosure. The old hag glanced at Aeryn on her way out and Aeryn knew that she had picked up on that this wasn't an ordinary sale. "You lucky probacto," she hissed and then was gone.

Aeryn merely pursed her lips to stop a smile from spreading.

"We have several males," Teelum said, "but unfortunately no more than one of them is reproductive."

"Let's see him," Rygel proclaimed.

To Aeryn's immediate surprise, they went to the male enclosure instead of going for John and that made her instantly nervous. She sent a quick glance up at D'Argo who frowned in return.

The overseers returned with the big guy that John had befriended and Aeryn's heart sank. What if they didn't offer him for sale? She would have to speak up on his behalf, make D'Argo and Rygel aware of that he was still around.

"This male is strong. He's a good worker and very obedient," Teelum said.

Rygel eyed him for a long moment and then glanced at Aeryn. She in turn gave him a warning glare, which made him waggle his eyebrows suggestively. "I don't know," he said and turned his attention to Teelum. "Is he really the only reproductive male you have?"

Teelum made a face in annoyance, but proved himself to be a business man first and foremost. "We do have another. But he's damaged and ill," he said.

Rygel's eyebrows lowered in a display of annoyance. "Damaged how?" he demanded.

"He's blind," Teelum replied.

Rygel huffed indignantly. "Blind? He does not need to be able to see to reproduce, head overseer Teelum. I want to see him. The illness he suffers from can be cured?" he asked.

"If you are willing to spend the credits, then I'm sure he can be cured," Teelum replied. "But he is in very poor condition."

D'Argo growled darkly and Teelum glanced at him, suddenly nervous. Then he made a gesture at two of the overseers, who hurried over to the female enclosure to get John.

Aeryn swore that she would kill them if they hurt him. Moments later, they returned with him between them. He was walking, but only barely.

The microt they released him, he stumbled and nearly fell, but the big guy grabbed his arm and steadied him. Teelum had obviously not given up on selling him yet since the overseers made no move to remove him from the pen.

"Hey, Popeye," John rasped with a half-hearted grin.

"Stand up straight if you can," Popeye advised him quietly and tried to help him do so. "There's a chance you'll be sold."

Aeryn slipped up beside John and slipped an arm around his back. "Be quiet and don't fight this," she whispered.

John turned his head slightly in her direction, his expression stuck somewhere between concerned and expectant.

"He doesn't look so ill," Rygel commented, which was an outrageous lie. John looked very sick.

At the sound of Rygel's voice, however, John straightened his back and turned his head to face the little Dominar. Even though he could not see him, he could hear him and that seemed to make all the difference.

"Well, he is ill. Rest assured of that," Teelum said. "But it is curable," he added.

"We'll take him. The female seems to like him. That means we won't have to bother about forcing them on each other," Rygel said.

Aeryn struggled against a surge of indignation and tightened her grip on John.

"I'll take the sick one off your hands if you throw in the big guy as well," Rygel suddenly said.

Teelum arched an eyebrow at him and then pursed his lips thoughtfully. "That would not be good business, Dominar," he said.

"Saves you the trouble of having to get rid of the body if the sick one dies," Rygel countered. "We could use the muscle," he added and glanced up at D'Argo who was watching him with a frown.

Teelum considered this suggestion for a moment. Aeryn glanced at John and realized he'd dropped his head and was slumped forward. He was either feeling worse than before or playing along to get his friend out of this as well.

For a moment, all was silent. Then Rygel cleared his throat. "Well? Do we have a deal? Or must I take my business elsewhere?" he demanded.

Teelum narrowed his eyes briefly, then sighed and nodded. "At a twenty percent increase, you can have both males and the female," he said.

Rygel tapped his lips for a moment. "Ten," he said.

Teelum gave him a thoughtful glance. "You drive a hard bargain, Dominar. Fifteen. That's my final offer."

"Twelve. And don't push me on this or I'll find another slavers estate to do business with. The stars know that there are plenty to go around in this sector," Rygel countered.

Teelum considered it and finally nodded. "Twelve it is," he agreed, grabbed a pay-pad one of the other overseers handed him and entered the amount. "Is this satisfactory?" he asked and showed the pad to Rygel.

The little Dominar eyed the figure for a moment, glanced down at the three in the pen, and nodded. "Yes, agreed," he said. "Luxan, pay the man and let's get out of here. The stench is killing me."

D'Argo paid Teelum the appropriate amount, then stepped down from the platform and pushed the overseers out of the way when they tried to help him retrieve Aeryn, John and the big guy. "I can handle them," he said gruffly, grabbed Aeryn's arm and guided the three of them out of the pen.

Aeryn and the big guy, whose name she didn't know, supported John while they made their way over to a luxurious transport. D'Argo urged all three of them into the passenger compartment, followed by Rygel, and then entered it himself after Teelum had handed him a control box for the collars.

"Good speed," Teelum said and stepped back as the door slid shut behind them and the transport started moving.

***

Aeryn sank down into the seat with John by her side and closed her eyes. She couldn't believe it was over, that this nightmare had finally ended. She was so tired, she felt she could sleep standing up.

John slumped against her. "Is this for real?" he whispered.

"Yes, John, it's for real," D'Argo confirmed with a worried look. He glanced briefly at Aeryn, who shook her head lightly. Now was not the time to get into what had happened.

"I would say it's good to see you, D, but I'm kinda impaired in that area right now," John countered. His voice sounded weak.

"Stop talking, you drannit," Aeryn said and pulled his head down on her shoulder. "Rest. We're going home."

He did as she said with a light sigh that started a cough. She held onto him until it ebbed away again and he was too spent to make any comments on what she'd said before.

Aeryn glanced at the big guy, who was sitting on the other side of John, and met his eyes when he looked back at her. He was completely confused about this.

"These are our friends, Ka D'Argo and Rygel the Sixteenth," she said with a small smile. "What's your name?"

"Bartok," he replied quietly and glanced at Rygel and D'Argo. "Friends?" he then asked. "That means ..."

"We're free," Aeryn agreed with a slight nod. "As soon as we get back to Moya, we can get these frelling collars off and start living our lives again," she added. "Did you use all the credits on this release?" She focused on the Luxan, whose attention seemed to be locked on John.

"No. You were cheaper than we thought," Rygel inserted with a smug smile. "Not that it surprises me."

She gave him a dark glare. "We need to find a medic, someone who can deal with John's eyes."

"I just wanna go home," John muttered, half asleep yet still aware enough to listen in on the conversation.

"I know you do. So do I," Aeryn agreed. "But you will not survive long out here if you're blind."

He frowned, flinched and rubbed the tips of his fingers over his brow and then sat up a little straighter. "Aeryn ... I want to get out of here as fast as possible."

"I know," she agreed once more. "But the longer this is allowed to fester, the harder it will be to fix. So shut the frell up and let me handle this."

He blinked and grimaced, then sank back into the seat and covered his face with both hands. "Whatever," he muttered.

Aeryn didn't take his dismissive tone to heart. She knew he was tired, worn thin. The least she could do to make him feel better was to make sure his sight returned. "Let's find a medic."

D'Argo nodded in agreement and directed that request to the driver of the vehicle they had rented for the occasion.

It took less than half an arn for them to arrive at the doors of a medic renowned in this part of the UTs. The male, Sebacean from the looks of it, received them without comment. He did not ask what had happened, merely had two of his assistants guide John over to an examination table. "Let's have a look then," he said and narrated what he was doing throughout. At first Aeryn found it strange, but realized almost at once that it was for John's benefit. The man could obviously tell that John was nervous like frell.

"This is a simple case of sunburn," the medic finally stated. "I need you to lie back so we can treat it."

One of the assistants took a hold of John's arm, which made him react a little too strongly. "Easy," Aeryn admonished and took a hold of his arm, warning the assistant off with a look. "Just lie back. I'm right here," she added to John, who reluctantly followed her direction.

The medic dripped some kind of fluid into his right eye and told him to blink a few times and then repeated the procedure with his left eye. After a moment, John started to relax visibly. "Better?" the medic asked.

"Much," John agreed and blinked furiously for a moment. "Still can't see too good, though."

"Your vision will return in time. It will take a few solardays," the medic said and handed a smallish silver container to Aeryn. "He should use this twice a day for about a weeken. It will soothe his eyes and aid healing."

"Thank you," Aeryn said and helped John off the table.

"You may want to consider a booster shot for both of you too," the medic added while eying them both critically.

She considered it and finally nodded. It was evident to her that he knew where they came from - the collars around their necks were a dead giveaway, after all. The medic gave both of them a shot and Aeryn felt the effectimmediately. John did liven up a little, but not as much as she would have liked. "Thank you for your assistance," she told the medic and guided John toward the door.

"I feel dizzy," he muttered.

"You're exhausted," she countered and pulled his arm over her shoulders while wrapping her own around his back to better keep him steady. "Let's get the frell off this dustball."

"Amen," he agreed.

***

For some reason Aeryn expected opposition, but they met none on their way to the spaceport and there was no sign of Peacekeeper activity or any other hostiles when they reached Moya.

Aeryn took John to their quarters and he was asleep before she had managed to drape the covers over him. She eyed him for a moment before leaning in to plant a kiss on his brow. "I love you, you drannit," she whispered.

The corner of his lips twitched. "Love you too," he muttered.

Content in the knowledge that he was asleep and would probably be so for a while, Aeryn stripped and stepped into the cleansing room. The thought of a bath was so enticing she could focus on little else, foregoing even her growling stomach. Shower first and then food, she promised herself.

After a lengthy shower, she felt marginally better. Not entirely clean, but better. It would take a while for her to get over this one and if John ever interfered in the business of others again, she would kill him herself. She loved him, but sometimes she hated him too.

Dressed in loose pants and a tank top, she patted barefoot over to the bed and leaned in over John, who was still asleep and as rank as she had felt before the shower. She considered waking him to get him to shower and eat, but assumed he needed rest more, so she let him sleep and headed toward the center chamber.

The microt she stepped inside, she had the sense of being watched despite the immediate impression that the area was empty. She stopped and sent a long look around, trying to determine where that sense might come from. Inhaling through the nose, she sorted through a myriad of olfactory impressions and fixated on the long counter. "Chiana?"

"Dren." The young Nebari slowly rose to her feet from behind the counter, her body language speaking volumes. "Hey ... Aeryn. Welcome back."

It was beyond Aeryn why Chiana would respond this way to her. The obvious reaction from the younger female should have been either indifference or exuberance, not fear and nervousness. Unless ... "Why the frell are you hiding back there?" she asked.

"Hiding?" Chiana looked startled for a microt, caught in a lie she had yet to voice. "I wasn't ... nah, not me. Dropped something," she added hastily and smiled, the twitchiness of the expression telling Aeryn all she needed to know.

Whatever this was, it had to wait. Food came first. Then sleep. And once she was rested, she would be able to deal with whatever had the girl up in arms. "Right," she muttered and turned her attention to the foodstores. "Do we have anything other than foodcubes?"

"Yeah, plenty," Chiana said and beat her to the refrigeration unit. She pulled it open and produced a few containers. "I made grolash the other day. And there's fresh Tella fruit."

"Anything other than foodcubes," Aeryn said and snatched the containers away from Chiana.

Chiana set about preparing food and moments later, D'Argo and Rygel joined them. Aeryn eyed them for a microt when D'Argo sat down across from her and Rygel steered his sled over to watch what Chiana was doing.

"How are you feeling?" D'Argo asked. His whole demeanor had been subdued.

"Better now that I'm free of this dren," Aeryn countered and absentmindedly rubbed a hand against the side of her neck. "It's been a cycle, D'Argo," she added. "Where were you?"

The Luxan looked ashamed and the clatter behind them indicated that Chiana had expected something like this and nervous about the outcome. "We had to find the credits first," D'Argo said. "And that was ... difficult."

Aeryn had expected that much, but found it a little hard to believe that it had taken them a cycle to mobilize the cash needed.

"And there was a lot of Peacekeeper activity in the area at the time," the Luxan added. "We had to leave for a while, could not really approach Kentar."

"I see," she said with a nod. "But you finally found the credits and you had us released," she summarized. "Thank you for that."

D'Argo could obviously tell that she wasn't entirely happy about the length of time, though, and he grimaced and bowed his head a little. "We had no other choice, Aeryn. We might have the firepower, but we do not have the numbers to go up against a system that accepts slavery. And it took time to figure out what had happened to you. Kentar does not exactly keep a record of who is enslaved by whom."

She had to subdue the feelings of betrayal that rippled through her. She could not blame them for the situation. "I realized that," she agreed. "I'm only happy this ordeal is over."

Chiana placed a plate of grolash in front of her. "For what it's worth, Aeryn, I thought we should have gone in guns blazing when we found out where you were being held," she said with a tentative smile.

Aeryn eyed her briefly, then picked up a piece of grolash and took a bite. She savored the taste for a moment, the feel of real food on her tongue. "If you had, you would have been killed. And then I would have had to take matters into my own hands ... which would most likely have gotten me killed as well, which would have left John at the mercy of those fekkiks." The last she said with a sneer. "I want to find that frelling overseer and wring his scrawny neck."

"We cannot go back, Aeryn. We have no way of fighting them and it would be a fight," D'Argo said a little helplessly. "And from what I can tell, it will be a while before John is back on his feet. And that Bartok ... I do not think he will be much help. He is dead set on getting out of this sector and back to something resembling a normal life."

"And you can't blame him," Aeryn said darkly. She was well aware that any revenge on the slavers would most likely end in their demise or recapture and there was no way in Hezmana that she would ever allow that to happen again. "No, it's better that we get the frell out of here and don't look back. John will recover and so will I. I'm just worried about his take on this." She looked around at all of them. "Promise me one thing. If he shows any signs of wanting to go back there for whatever reason he might think of as necessary ... you will stop him."

"Of course," D'Argo agreed immediately. "But ... he is headstrong at times."

Aeryn arched an eyebrow. "At times?" she countered. "Are we talking of the same man here?"

This drew a wry smile from the Luxan. "I am trying to be diplomatic, Aeryn," he said.

"Take your diplomacy elsewhere. If he even vents the idea, you stop him by any means necessary. If it means locking him in his quarters until we're far away from this sector, so be it. He will get over that. He will not recover from another stay with those slavers," Aeryn said and stifled a yawn. She glanced down at her plate and realized she had emptied it without realizing. The food did make her feel marginally better, but it also furthered her fatigue. "Can you clean this up? I need to sleep," she said. It wasn't exactly the best way to reintroduce herself to Moya's motley crew, but she really was tired enough to drop. She could always make it up to them later.

"Yeah, sure," Chiana agreed and said nothing more when Aeryn left the center chamber and returned to her quarters.

With slight concern for Chiana's behavior, Aeryn dropped down next to John and completely managed to ignore the less than appealing smell he gave off. She was just too frelling tired to care.

***