Waking up slowly had always been something he did well, but not anymore. John went from almost comatose to wide awake in a split second and sat bolt upright, his mind reeling, every sense he had at his disposal tingling.

Gingerly running one hand over his face, he tried to gather his thoughts enough to not panic. The fear of pain, of waking up in agony, his eyes were burning and being unable to see anything worthwhile made it harder to keep the panic at bay. There was difference between shadow and light, but not enough to help him make out his surroundings.

"Shit," he rasped, cleared his throat and started coughing. The dust of the theben mines was still causing him trouble.

"John."

Aeryn's voice cut through the fear and reestablished what he had managed to forget. "Aer ..." He managed to reduce the coughing even though the tickle in his throat was very pronounced and the heaviness in his chest made him choke. Her hands were on him, gentle, caring. They were free. After however many months in Hell, they were back on Moya, back home. "Crap," he muttered. "I still can't see. Guess I freaked out a bit."

"No wonder," she agreed, cupping a hand against his face, turning it he assumed to face her.

"I feel like crap," he admitted and wrapped a hand over hers while closing his useless eyes.

"You smell like it too." He felt the bed give when she rose. "Come on. You need a shower and then food. Chiana has made grolash."

He let her pull him to his feet and lead him toward the bathroom. He could hear things sliding out of the way and assumed she was clearing a path through clutter. "This is gonna take a bit ... since I can't see and I don't know where anything is," he said.

"Don't worry. You won't have to do this on your own," she promised and he could almost see the smile in her voice.

However much that tone promised, he wasn't ready to move past what had happened to them. There were still too many reminders, too much ... He froze, came to an abrupt halt. "What about the collar?" It suddenly struck him that he was still wearing that damned thing. "What if it doesn't do well with water?"

He felt Aeryn fingering the band of destruction around his neck. "Wait here. I'll get a cutter," she said and disappeared.

He blinked rapidly a few times while trying to clear his vision with little luck, then took a hold of the collar again and pulled. He was able to put more effort into it, but it didn't budge. "Damn torture device," he muttered and fingered it, searching for breaks, for anything that might open this infernal contraption. He found the ring on it and gave it an idle tug. This produced a hissing sound, which made him freeze in place. "What ..." he muttered and then suddenly recalled having heard the same sound before; in the mines; from one of the other prisoners. He had yanked forward on the chain that had been attached to the collar in a fit of anger at one of the overseers and it had ...

Before he could complete that thought, the collar activated, spilling him to the floor in a heap of agony.

***

Aeryn found a cutter in the closest maintenance bay and jogged back to their quarters, expecting John to either have fallen asleep again or at least be annoyed by her tardiness.

What she wasn't prepared for was what she did find and it took her a microt longer than it should to respond.

"Getitoff." His words ran together and were muffled by his clenched jaw while he jerked violently under the effect of that frelling collar.

"Frell!" she snapped, dropped down on her knees next to him and took a hold of the offensive device, which was insulated on the outside, with one hand while applying the cutter with the other, hoping desperately that cutting it in two would break the circuit and not electrocute her as well.

The metal broke under the pressure of the cutter and she pried it apart, pulling the needles out of his neck as quickly as she dared. Only when the last needle released his skin did he stop twitching. For a moment, he just lay there and gasped for air. Then he muttered, "That hurt," and passed out.

Aeryn hurled the remains of the collar into a corner, then hoisted him up and dragged him back to the bed. She draped the covers over him and settled down on the edge. "I'm sorry," she said, carefully touching his mauled neck, inspecting the puncture wounds she could see. There was very little blood, but it was still too much for her liking. "I should have removed it at once."

***

The second time John woke up he knew where he was and he remembered all too clearly what had happened to put him in this position. His hands immediately went to his neck, searching for and not finding the offensive collar. This calmed him down enough for him to start breathing more normally.

"John?"

He blinked, turned his head and squinted at her. He could make out her outline, but that was about it. "Now I really feel like crap," he muttered.

"I don't blame you. I blame myself. I should have removed that frelling collar the microt we came on board," Aeryn said, regret in her voice. "I'm so sorry."

He grimaced. His skin felt too tight, his limbs too weak. "Not your fault. Shouldn't have pulled at it."

She brushed her fingers through his hair. "Perhaps not, but it's gone now," she said. "You never got that shower."

"Or food," he added and pushed up on his elbows. "I could use a shower. I feel dirty," he added and blinked a few times. "I think my eyes are getting better. I can see outlines now."

"That's good. Are you up for a bath or do you want to eat first?" She rose and held a hand out to him.

He groped for it, missed it in the first try, then latched onto her arm and allowed her to pull him to his feet. "Shower first. I'm still covered in dust from those damned mines and ..." A shudder rippled through him at the memory of his brief stay outside the slavers estate.

"Inside and out," she confirmed. "Do you still need a hand or ..."

"I still can't see enough to do this on my own," he said somewhat hesitantly. There was a part of him the bucked at the idea of someone touching him. For the past cycle, almost any touch was inflicting pain and it would take a while to let go of that fear. The world around him seemed to tilt a little too sharply and he tightened his grip on her. "Besides, if you let go of me right now, I may fall flat on my face," he admitted after a moment.

"We can't have that," she agreed with a smile in her voice. "Let's get you cleaned up."

***

Feeling marginally better for being clean and rid of that damned collar, John still felt like a burden and a liability because of his at present poor eyesight. Things were looking up, though. He could make out more now. But he tired easily, especially after his last encounter with the collar.

"Promise me one thing," he said while walking along beside Aeryn when they headed toward the center chamber and the food he was now so eager to get to.

"What?" Aeryn grabbed his arm and pulled him sideways, making him miss stepping on a DRD by an inch.

"If we ever get into a situation like this again, you just knock me out and drag me out of there before I can get us into another mess like this." He smirked to take the edge off, but he did actually mean it on some level.

"Oh, I will. That I promise you," Aeryn countered with a smile in her voice. "I'm actually surprised that you admit this is all your fault."

He couldn't help a tired chuckle at that. Now that they were back on Moya, away from the slavers estate and any risk of ending up as some deranged bastards pet, the whole thing was taking on an air of the ridiculous. "Of course," he agreed readily. "It's always my fault anyway."

Aeryn steered him through a doorway and into the center chamber. "Yes, it is," she said and pulled him to a stop. "Bench," she warned.

He glanced down and spotted the bench if only by the play between shadows and light. "This is gonna take time," he muttered and settled down.

"How're you feeling, old man?" Chiana's voice was a little unsteady. She sounded like she was on the verge of crying when she grabbed hold of his shoulders from behind.

John grabbed one of her hands. "I've been worse," he said and tilted his head back a little.

Chiana planted a kiss on his brow and sat down next to him. "You look like dren. All skinny and tired."

He managed to slip an arm around her shoulders and pulled her in close, which earned him a tight hug from the girl. "Yeah, being a slave will do that to you," he muttered into her hair. "What's got you so upset?"

Chiana pulled back. "I'm not upset," she claimed.

"Sure you are. Your voice is all jittery," he pushed. "I hope you're not blaming yourself for any of this. Because, as Aeryn so kindly has pointed out already, this is all my fault."

Chiana hissed lightly and he couldn't decipher if it was surprise or anger. "I should have warned you. I know about that sector. Been through there a time or two."

"And how does that make it your fault that John can't mind his own business?" Aeryn asked while placing a plate in front of John. "Him and his frelling bleeding heart," she added and ruffled his hair.

However annoying she thought it was that he felt he had to step in when he saw an injustice in progress, John liked to believe that she was also a little bit proud of him for doing it. That it had ended them up in that mess was unfortunate and probably predictable, but he figured his heart was in the right place and that had to make up for some of it. "You just have to learn to cut me off before I put my foot in it," he claimed and gave her a disarming smile.

"That would mean you never get to set foot on another commerce planet again," she said. "And, correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think that would make you happy at all."

"You might not have taken that extra step if you'd known what could happen," Chiana inserted a little timidly.

"Has that ever stopped me before?" he asked while tapping his fingers over the plate, trying to figure out what Aeryn had just served him. "It wasn't your fault. Period."

"That said," Aeryn said from the other side of the table where she had settled down. "What the frell is wrong with D'Argo and Rygel? They're both avoiding me like I had space madness or something."

"Come to think of it, I haven't seen either of them yet," John intoned. "What's up with that? I would have thought that at least D would pay me a visit."

Chiana took a moment to respond and John picked up on the sudden tension in the room. "There was a command carrier in the area," she finally said quietly.

John frowned. "What?" he asked. Command Carriers were never a good omen.

"When you left Moya to go to Kentar, it turned up about half an arn later. Moya panicked. She ran. Pilot couldn't stop her and ... before we knew it, we were ... somewhere else. Pilot took about a monan to figure out where we were and how to get the frell back to Kentar," Chiana said. "Moya did several extended starbursts. It landed us in a sector we hadn't been in before. And ... there were no starcharts. It took us almost half a cycle after that to get back to Kentar, and then another monan or so to figure out what the frell had happened to you. Rygel spent about two monans raising the credits needed to buy you out."

"So ... the whole rescue mission took a monan or two?" Aeryn asked. Her tone was tight, quiet.

"Yeah," Chiana agreed. "If Moya hadn't run, you would have been out a lot sooner. But ... D'Argo figured it would be best if we didn't tell you."

Whatever relief John had felt over being back, bled out of the situation. He couldn't blame the leviathan for panicking - Peacekeepers were the big girl's worst nightmare after all - but it still hurt on some level to know that their ordeal could have been cut short by over half a year. It could have spared him the encounter with Fishface, but in the end he couldn't blame any of them. They had come for them, had freed them, and that was all that mattered.

"Why do I get the feeling that Moya didn't just panic at seeing the command carrier?" Aeryn asked. "She's seen command carriers before without panicking. What made this one so different?"

"It was Scorpius' command carrier," D'Argo's voice cut in from somewhere behind John.

He turned a little and squinted at the doorway. He was able to make out D'Argo's outline by color alone. "How do you know?"

"Because they contacted us, John. 'He' contacted us," D'Argo said and came a little closer. "He wanted you. And if he couldn't have you, he swore he would enslave all of us. He threatened to replace Pilot, threatened to put that control collar back on Moya. We agreed that we would stand our ground; that we would not give him anything, but Moya had a different opinion. She fled."

"Frelling fekkik," Aeryn growled. "What I don't understand is why it took so long for you to get back here."

Chiana squirmed next to John and he grabbed her arm and gave it a light squeeze to make her stop.

"Because they followed us," D'Argo admitted. "Every time we thought we'd shaken them, they turned up again. It took us almost half a cycle to realize that while Scorpius had made his grand speech, they had tagged us. Once we found the tag and dislodged it, we finally lost them. And then we had no idea where we were and Pilot had to find a way to get back here. It took time."

"Why didn't you say so immediately? Why lie about it?" Aeryn demanded.

For a moment nothing answered her but silence and John wondered if D'Argo was angry or ashamed of this. "We didn't want to worry you. We were going to tell you once you both feel better," the Luxan finally said and he sounded more ashamed than angry.

John could easily imagine Aeryn's expression at that one. She took a moment to digest it before she replied. "What matters is that you came back for us. Let's forget the rest," she said, her tone forcibly calm.

"I second that," John agreed. "Now can I eat?"

"Dig in," Aeryn suggested and he did.

It took a moment, but then D'Argo and finally Rygel joined them as well.

***

It took two weekens before John was back on his feet strength-wise. His vision improved daily even though he still wasn't too fond of bright light. The medication helped and the fact that he was allowed to sleep as much as he wanted and eat as much as he could only added to his recuperation.

But with the improvement in his condition, his mood seemed to decrease. He had spent time talking to Bartok, who had come with them but wasn't going to stay. The big male wanted to enjoy his newfound freedom as far away from Kentar as he possibly could.

What they spoke about Aeryn didn't know, but it affected John's mood.

And the day after they had let Bartok off on a commerce planet, John's depression seemed to have hit a new low. When she added to this that he seemed unhappy with anyone touching him, it spelled trouble in more ways than she could imagine.

All of them had gathered for late meal in the center chamber and Aeryn kept glancing at him from time to time. After having realized that Chiana felt responsible for their capture, Aeryn spent a few arns talking the girl out of her delusions. And it worked. D'Argo and Rygel had given them some space to allow them to get back to normal, but any attempt at cheering John up was failing.

Uncertain of what else she could do, she left him be most of the time, allowed him to recuperate and heal at his own pace. But it still worried her that he was so changed; not that an ordeal as the one they had been through couldn't be the cause. Aeryn just had the feeling that he wasn't telling her everything.

***

"We have to go back and help them," John suddenly said and sat up straighter at the table. He blinked a few times. His eyes were still causing trouble. They were watering and sore when he got tired, but he could see again and with the return of his sight came the need for action.

"We can't," Aeryn disagreed and set her cup down on the table, the food residing on her plate untouched. "There's nothing we can do."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean? Are you gonna tell me that you're happy just to leave and let them suffer on?" he demanded heatedly. Sometimes he really didn't understand her way of thinking.

"I am not happy about it, no," Aeryn said, her tone calm. "But there's still nothing we can do. John, this is an accepted system that spans dozens of worlds. This is not just one world or one sector. If you overthrow the government of Kentar, it will gain you nothing. If you kill Teelum and his henchmen, it will not change anything."

"It may change something for those still living in bondage," John countered angrily and rubbed aggressively at one eye. The feeling of having sand in his eyes when he got tired was really annoying him at the moment.

"No, John, it won't, because we would never be able to get that far. They would kill us or capture us before that; and then what? You want to spend another cycle in bondage? Or the rest of your life?"

Her tone was tired, exasperated, and he couldn't really blame her. But it was so hard for him to accept that there was nothing to be done. "I ... I don't believe that there's nothing we can do," he tried, but could hear himself how feeble his tone was.

"Maybe not, but you will have to eventually. You cannot expect this galaxy to conform to your way of thinking, John. The Uncharted Territories have their own rules and just because you don't like them doesn't mean they will change," she said as patiently as any mother. "Most of what they do out here is not even accepted by the Peacekeepers and they are a formidable force. But even they cannot stop it all."

"I agree with Aeryn on this one," D'Argo said. He sat next to Aeryn, arms folded on top of the table while he stared at his mostly untouched food. "However much I hate to admit it, there's nothing we can do, John," he added and looked up to meet John's eyes.

John clapped both hands over his face and groaned deeply. "Aw man," he muttered into his palms, then dropped his hands again. "So, that's it? We just go on our merry way and forget this ever happened? These people are suffering. There's a reason for that slavery is forbidden on Earth, you know."

Aeryn sighed and briefly closed her eyes. "Listen to me, John," she then said quietly and fixed him with a dark sad stare. "Be thankful that you are free; that we both are. And consider this. Your mere presence, whatever you said to those slaves, may one day make a difference. Perhaps you have instilled hope in them like you do in most you encounter. But do not expect this galaxy to change that much in your life time. Change is a slow process. And on a grand scale like an entire galaxy ... it takes time. You cannot expect miracles. I know you do, but that is not how things work. Not out here at least."

With a light sigh she dropped her head and closed her eyes again. She sat silently for a while and the only sound heard was the low whirr of Rygel's thronesled. Everybody waited for what else she might have to say; John most of all. He watched her intently, torn between what he wanted to do and what he deep down knew was a fact, sad as it may be.

Then she raised her head again and John was a little surprised to see tears in her eyes. She sniffed, rubbed the back of one hand against her nose and pressed her lips together into a thin line for a moment. "Maybe on Earth, things are perfect that way. Maybe you can all ... get along," she said. "But that just doesn't happen out here. I don't know what it is. It might be ... that we're too different or too many or too few. I don't know." She shook her head lightly and rubbed at one eye with the heel of her hand. In the end she was just as tired as he was. "Frell, I wish things were different. But they're not. And, like it or not, we all have to live with them. We have to try and make the best of what we've got. Going back there is not an option unless you want to end your days as a slave. I don't want that. Nor do any of the others. And I can't believe that you would want that either. Moya and Pilot would rather die than return to being slaves. And that is what they were before that felling control collar came off. And D'Argo? A prisoner for how many cycles?"

"Eight," D'Argo said quietly.

Aeryn nodded once at him and then glanced toward the head of the table where Rygel had remained remarkably silent since she had started talking. "And Rygel?" she continued. "Or Chiana for that matter," she concluded and glanced at the Nebari, who sat next to John and was poking at her food with one gloved finger.

John closed his eyes for a moment and relished the brief relief this gave him. Then he opened them again, blinked a few times and focused fully on Aeryn. "No, I don't want that either," he finally said. "I just find it hard to believe that there's nothing we can do. I mean, we have the firepower."

"Yes, we do," Aeryn agreed. "But we don't have the commandos, John. We're only us. Moya and Pilot cannot help and we cannot ask them to anyway. Rygel can't handle weapons very well, so that leaves the four of us. D'Argo, Chiana, you and me. So you tell me. You think that's enough against a cluster of worlds that believe slavery is all right? You think we can stand our ground against platoons of soldiers? I don't and I used to be one. I know what it takes, John, and believe me, we don't have what it takes. Not by far."

The reality of her words sunk in and, however reluctant he was to give up, this was one of these times where he would have to back down. "Damn it," he muttered and ran both hands through his hair, smoothing it back against his skull.

"I don't like it any more than you do, John. And if anyone knows what this is about, D'Argo does," she said. "But D'Argo also knows what's at stake here. The sad fact of it all is ... that there is nothing we can do. Not on our own."

John nodded. "I get your point," he said dejectedly and pushed his plate away. "I don't like it, but I get it," he repeated and rose. "I'm gonna go lie down. My eyes are killing me," he added, stepped over the bench and left the center chamber. He felt like being alone right now and it hadn't been a lie that he needed to close his eyes. He just didn't want to let on just how deeply affected he was by this. Not all of the moisture seeping from his tired eyes was because of the irritation.

***

He lay on the bed on his stomach, face turned away from the door. To the casual observer he might look like he was asleep, but Aeryn knew him better than that. He wasn't sleeping. He was pondering, working things over in his mind, searching for a way out of this dilemma they were facing.

With a quiet sigh she settled on the edge of their bed and rested her hands in her lap while she herself pondered a little. It was like walking the edge of a knife when it came to dissuading him from something he felt he had to or wanted to do. And she would need to dissuade him from this or he would end up getting killed or worse.

"John?" she asked quietly. He didn't move, just lay there and – in want of a better word – sulked. She sighed again, heavier this time, and looked down at her hands. Then she placed one of them on his back. "John," she tried again, this time with a little more insistence, a little more determination. "We need to talk."

At that, he shifted. It was a minute movement, barely more than a breath taken, but he had moved. "About what? I thought the subject was closed," he replied, his voice muffled.

"I need you to understand why we can't go back, John." She hesitated. That was really the core of this, wasn't it? She agreed that they had the firepower. They didn't have the commandos, though, and she was not about to risk everyone and everything by charging into a fight that she knew they would lose.

He didn't move, but his breathing was a little deeper, a little heavier. After a moment of silence, he cleared his throat, shifted around and blinked bloodshot eyes at her. "I know why we can't go back. There's nothing we can do, Aeryn. You said so, D'Argo said so, Chiana, Rygel, Moya and Pilot said so. I'm outnumbered, outgunned, out-everything. And I know you're right too. So let's just drop it, okay? I'm not in the mood for another lecture here."

She cocked her head to the right. He was defensive and she didn't really blame him; but on some level she did blame him. "I'm not lecturing you, John," she said, her tone a tad more clipped than she had intended. "I just want you to understand that you can't change the universe just because it doesn't conform to your standards."

"My standards?" he asked and propped himself up on his elbows. "Aeryn, this isn't about 'my' standards. It's about everybody's standards. It's about what's right and wrong and you can't possibly think that this is right." He was angry, annoyed, and made no move to conceal either.

"I know that," she countered in much the same tone. "And I don't think it is right either. But what the frell do you want us to do?" She rose and made a sweeping gesture with both hands as she turned around to face him. "I know that change starts with one person; that someone has to make the first move to make things better. I've learned that from you," she said, her tone as tense as she felt. "But look at us. Look at yourself. Look at me. The worst thing I have ever had to go through, John, is being locked up, tied down and beaten into submission. I may have been a solider once, but I'm not one anymore. I may have been raised to fight to the death, but you've shown me another life, another way. And now you want me to put that aside so we can charge into an impossible situation and most likely get killed doing so?"

He stared at her, his expression revealing more than any words could, but then he dropped back down on the bed and draped an arm over his face. He understood. She knew he did. But that didn't change the fact that he felt the overwhelming need to do something about it. And she was not about to let him rush half-cocked into a fight he had no chance of winning.

"No matter how you twist and turn things in your mind, John, the end result will be the same. We will lose, probably die, most likely end up in bondage for the rest of our lives," she said, repeating what she had already said. She hoped that he would give in, that he would stop trying to pursue this. "Any drastic action from our side will probably get the majority of those slaves killed along with us. Is that what you want? You want to rob them of the chance of being free some day? Because they can't be freed if they're dead."

With an irritated hiss, he pulled his arm away from his face and stared up at the ceiling for a moment. "Which part of 'I get it' don't you understand, Aeryn?" he growled and glanced at her.

She could see the tears shimmering in his eyes, knew that they were caused not only by the irritation in his eyes but also by the feelings boiling underneath. She drew in a deep breath. His anger usually drove her away, as did his obstinacy, but not this time. "I feel the need to explain this to you ..." she began, but stopped short. How could she say what was on her mind without belittling him? How could she explain the dread she felt building in the pit of her stomach?

"I'm not a damn child, Aeryn. I'm not an idiot. I understand," he said, his tone harsh. He sat up and angrily wiped a tear away when it spilled down his cheek. "I get the point, okay? We're outnumbered and that's it. We can't help them. I get it. Okay?"

She closed her eyes while he spoke, tried to subdue the fear that rose in her. His anger was understandable even though it wasn't fair, and it proved to her that he wouldn't back down just yet, which scared her more than anything. But then it suddenly hit her that if he knew how she felt, really knew, then he might change his attitude. Perhaps he would be more inclined to let this go if he knew how scared she was of losing him. She opened her eyes and turned her head to look at him, allowing her feelings so tightly controlled to rise to the surface. It brought tears to her eyes.

His expression changed almost immediately, softening with sudden worry. "Aeryn? What's wrong?"

"Wrong?" she asked and shook her head. It was hard to let go, to let the feelings out, but she had learned a lesson on Kentar she would never forget. He understood fear, he understood tears, and if that was what it took to get through that thick skull of his, then she would open up and display it. "Oh, nothing," she said and struggled briefly to at least keep her tone steady. But it trembled helplessly.

"Aeryn, honey," he nearly whispered and wrapped his hands around her face, forcing her to look at him. "Don't tell me it's nothing. You don't cry that easily."

She closed her eyes again and allowed him to pull her into a hug. And at that point she realized that once the feelings were out, they were frelling hard to stop again. She sniffed helplessly against his shoulder and felt the need to cry rise. It took her a moment to regain control, to shove those pesky emotions back where they belonged. But she left enough of them out in the open to make him understand.

John just held her, gently rubbing her back. "I'm sorry. I'm such an ass sometimes," he muttered.

"Yes, you are," she agreed and straightened up again to face him. "We are not an army, John. I don't like what we left behind, but we should be thankful that we got out with our lives intact."

"I know," he agreed and sighed deeply. "I know. And I am grateful; grateful that we both made it." He hesitated, blinked rapidly a few times, and then closed his eyes and pressed his lips together into a thin line. "I just wish there was something we could do," he repeated in a hoarse whisper.

"As do I," Aeryn agreed, taking his hands in hers. "If we run into someone on our way that can do something about this, we will let them know. But we are outnumbered." She paused and met his gaze when he opened his eyes again. "And I don't want to lose you," she added in a whisper.

He held onto her hands and just sat there for a few microts. Then he nodded. "And I don't want to lose you either. So ... I guess we'll just ... move on and get the hell away from this sector," he said quietly.

Aeryn smiled vaguely at his words and nodded. It wasn't so much what he said; she could sense that he meant those words, that he would not dwell on this any further and get into trouble over it. It was the despair she heard in his voice, saw in his posture. It would keep him away from this, but it was not a favorable state of mind for him to be in. "Agreed," she said and reached up to touch his face, to trace her fingertips over his skin.

To her immediate surprise, he jerked back, a sideways glance giving away that he had issues with the touch. He stilled, seemed to consider this reaction for a moment, and then leaned forward again, into her touch.

"This isn't the first time you've pulled back from my touch," Aeryn said, stating a fact. Since they had returned - frell, even before that - he had given her the impression that he was not keen on being touched. And something told her that it was more than what he had endured. "What is it?"

He made a face, took her hand in both of his and examined her palm for a moment. "Nothing," he lied.

"That's a stack of dren," she warned. "This is not just from what Teelum did to you. This is more. What the frell happened while you were away?" If he had been Sebacean, even Peacekeeper, she would have let it slide; a Peacekeeper would not speak of atrocities committed against them; not to a fellow comrade in arms. But he was not a Peacekeeper, he was not Sebacean, and even though they were shipmates, they were more than that too, and she had learned over the cycles she had known him that he needed to talk, that he needed to unburden himself to move on.

He released her hands, pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around them. For a long moment he just sat there, chin resting on top of his knees, his arms tight around them, while he stared into space. "It's stupid," he finally muttered.

"If it's stupid, you can tell me," she said. "You were sold. That much I know. Bartok told me. So, who was the buyer? I'm assuming female?"

This earned her a quick glance and grimace. "If you can call that female." An involuntary shudder rippled through him at the memory. "Not my idea of fun."

"What happened?" she pressed. Something had happened that he wasn't happy with, something that had pushed him closer to whatever edge he was teetering on right now. "Talk to me."

At that he closed his eyes. "Do you know what a Hepple is?" His tone was quiet, subdued.

She briefly skimmed through her mental datastores. The term was familiar. "An ... aquatic creature from the planetary system Hepple," she said. "A biped, as far as I recall. Sought after for ..." She stopped, remembering why Hepple sounded familiar. 'Whatever you do, never get close to a female hepple,' her instructor had said to the class so many cycles ago. "Are you telling me that the buyer was a Hepple?"

He nodded, the discomfort the memory caused him obviously strong.

"Female, I assume," she pushed and he nodded again, the corners of his mouth drawing down in a display of disgust.

"That was the single most disgusting thing I've ever had to ... endure," he said without looking at her. "And there was nothing I could do to stop it. I ..."

"It's the oil,"Aeryn said, recalling vividly what her instructor had told her class about the Hepple oil. "It's a very potent frell drug from what I know." She eyed him closely. The part of her that was still Peacekeeper wanted to make fun of it, wanted to tease him about it, but on the other hand she knew how he had to feel. Consorting with a Hepple ... among Peacekeepers it would have earned him an 'irreversibly contaminated' sentence. But the lines were blurred now. To her, he was an alien. To him, a Hepple was. And the frelling thing had forced him into a situation that was now causing him trouble. There was really only one thing to say. "It means nothing. See it as part of the torture they put you through and leave it at that."

He gave her a frown for her trouble. "Leave it at that? That's your advice?" He shifted his attention away from her and stared holes in the wall across from him. "For all intents and purposes, it was rape. I kinda get what that means now, you know?"

"And has it ever helped anyone to dwell on something like that?" she asked. "It happened. You have to let it go or it will eat you alive." She knew it would, knew how frelled up it could make him if he let it. And if she didn't 'nip it in bud' - as he called it - he would let it frell him over.

"And how do you suggest I get over something like that?" he asked, a frown furrowing his brow.

"Was it worse than the box? Worse than the agony you have been through? Worse than being enslaved and forced to work in the mines?" she pressed.

He considered it for a microt and then his expression changed. "Well ... when you put it like that," he muttered and hunched his shoulders. "I feel dirty," he added.

"Are you going to let everything that happens to you against your will out here traumatize you?" she asked quietly, which earned her a sideways glance and a frown. "It's frelled. I agree. It's not something you want to go through. But if you let it rule your life now, they win. If you let every frelled experience you have chip away at you, there will be nothing left in about a cycle. Is that what you want? You want to let them get to you so much that you can't function?"

He pursed his lips, looking unhappy about her words. "No, of course not. But ... I can't let it go. I ..." He shuddered again. "Every time I think of ... every time someone touches me, I ..." He stopped, the frown deepening. "It just creeps me out, you know?"

"I understand," she agreed and eyed him closely. "Let's replace that memory with something better then." The idea came from the very odd thought that had just popped into her mind. 'What would Chiana do about this?'

He eyed her, uncertainty in his eyes. "Like what?"

"We could recreate," she suggested.

For some reason this seemed to baffle him. "What ... you wanna have sex now?" he asked, incredulous.

She shrugged and rose. "Why not? You're stressed. So am I. We could both use a good frell." It had to be casual, it had to be unforced, something he would want to do, something he felt the need for.

He blinked rapidly and whipped moisture from his still leaking eyes. "Yeah, but ... now?" It seemed to elude him that now was as good a time as any.

"Why not?" she repeated and pulled her t-shirt over her head.

He stared at her for a microt, then his gaze traveled downward and she knew she had him just where she wanted him when he chomped down on his lower lip. Finally, he shrugged. "Yeah, sure, why not," he finally agreed, took a hold of her hand and pulled her down on the edge of the bed.

***

He lay still for a long time after, Aeryn asleep beside him, her arm wrapped almost possessively over him, and he tried to decipher if this had helped or if he was going to dwell on it some more. It was not ideal.

The whole experience he could have done without, especially that disgusting fish-woman, but in the end, he assumed that this whole thing helped him understand this part of the universe better.

No, it wasn't ideal. But at least they had made it out of there, with the help of their friends, and they were both more or less okay. He rubbed idly at one eye and made a face at the lingering soreness. He would get over it and next time he wouldn't be so quick to stick his nose in other people's business; not if it meant Aeryn was at risk. And he knew by now that she would not leave him to take the rap for all the stupid moves he made. It wasn't about him anymore. It was about them and he had to incorporate that into his world view if they were to survive in this crazy, backwards part of the universe.

The End