DISCLAIMER: Anyone with an ounce of common sense knows I own nada, zip, zilch. That honor belongs to the Jim Henson Co., Hallmark Entertainment, SciFi Channel, Rockne O. Bannon, and probably a bunch of others. They are the wonderful people who created this show; I just am grateful I can play in their sandbox.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I haven't seen very many episodes of this show. But there's something about the dynamic between Zhaan and Aeryn that has always caught my interest. I don't mean in a femslash, throw-any-available-female-characters-in-bed-together kind of way. And so this idea started simmering. I apologize if there are canon oriented errors in here, such as using the wrong phrases for swear words and the like … I dug up as much info as I could think of, but I'm aware that as a non-regular viewer, there are probably things that slipped through the cracks.
WARNING: This story includes violence and torture. While it's not overly graphic, you might want to read carefully if those are squicks for you.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

One Small Step
By ocean gazer


Prologue …

There's something about Zhaan that makes me uncomfortable.

Just putting that thought into words – even if they are only inside my own head – is hard to do. Admitting to things such as that is not a soldier's way; we ignore any hint of the personal to focus on the duty at hand. And, after all, my entire life since I was deemed "contaminated" and forced away from the world of the Peacekeepers has been a long series of new and discomfiting things. Everything in this world, this way of life, is foreign to me – being on the run, sharing close quarters with non-Sebaceans, meeting someone from another galaxy. Oh yes, and let's not forget dealing with emotions … or, more to the point, learning to feel emotions, not just automatically shove them aside as I was trained to do.

So many new things, and I've adapted well to all of them. At least I think I have. It's not as though I've had a lot of choice, since I can't return to my own kind. I tolerate all sorts of occurrences and behaviors that I find to be illogical, insubordinate, and ridiculous. I'm sure the others aboard Moya pick up on my unease at times. But it can't be all that obvious, or surely one of them would have discussed it with me. I know D'Argo would have no problem telling me if he found my actions to be inappropriate. I'm certain Crichton would as well. I know Rygel would delight in finding fault with me. And Pilot is usually fairly quiet, but has no hesitation about speaking up on any matter that concerns Moya.

I don't know about Zhaan … whether she'd confront me about my actions or not.

It's funny. She's so serene and careful and considerate most of the time. She is capable of speaking her mind – no question about it – but it's usually done in what I can only describe as a gentle way. Gentleness is something I am not familiar with; it has no place in the Peacekeeper world and I still don't quite trust it. I have seen her negative emotions get the better of her at times, and I can actually understand that. It fits in with how I've been trained to see the galaxy – as a place where greed, anger, hate, betrayal, and selfishness predominate. But usually, once she's had a chance to meditate or think or pray or whatever it is that she does, she ends up asking for forgiveness for being hurtful or unkind. That's definitely not behavior I've ever seen before.

I want to just attribute my discomfort around her to that – to the way she interacts with others, to the way her priestly nature is so different than the way we Peacekeepers are brought up. But when I'm completely honest with myself, I don't think that's entirely the case. It's something in the way she looks at me sometimes. There's some depth of emotion in her eyes at those times – something I've only seen on rare occasions … and only once directed at me.

I think you'd call it love.

Not romantic silliness or anything related to procreation. It's not the kind of look you get from someone who, as Crichton would say in his infuriatingly colloquial way, wants to get into your pants. While I have no interest in females that way, that would be easy enough to handle. Zhaan would definitely respect my refusal and would, dispassionately, accept my explanation that Sebaceans are not supposed to mate with non-Sebaceans. While that's true enough, I just can't see procreating with a plant – no matter how sentient.

But that's not really what I see in her gaze. It's like she wants a deeper connection on a spiritual level or something. I don't know why the hezmana she would want that with me; but it seems at times as though she senses something inside me that intrigues her. And I don't think I want to know what it is. I'm just a soldier – your basic fighter and pilot. We don't do that whole deep, meaningful, spiritual stuff. Thankfully, she hasn't pushed the issue, past making some hints here and there of wanting to get to know me better. And those I can ignore easily enough. I don't feel threatened by her, not at all.

I'm just uncomfortable being around her sometimes.

Today has not been one of my better days. Considering the types of situations that we seem to encounter on a regular basis, that's saying a lot.

It started out as well as could be expected, given that I got stuck with the task of keeping Rygel out of trouble. Or, at least, trying to keep him out of trouble. Actually, that's not quite true – Zhaan is the one who was actually told to "baby sit" him, whatever that means. Perhaps it was meant as an insult, since Crichton is well aware that the Hynerian is far from being a child. Acting like one, yes …

At any rate, Zhaan needed to do some trading to replenish her medicinal herb stores. Since Crichton and D'Argo had their minds set on trying to finish some upgrades to that piece of dren that Crichton calls a spacecraft, I volunteered to take her in my Prowler. It sounded better than just sitting around on Moya, and Zhaan is pleasant enough company when she's got her attention focused on her precious herbs. She leaves me alone and I keep quiet so she can meditate – it works out well for us.

Of course, Rygel had to come along, since he never willingly passes up an opportunity to try and make a profit. He wasn't quite a part of my original plan to get off Moya for a little while, but I didn't think he could be too much of a nuisance on a small, isolated asteroid. It wasn't like we were going to a major commerce planet where temptations lurk around every corner. He assured us that he'd been to this trading post before and that we would love it.

I figured he was wrong about that, since I don't trust his judgment. I just hadn't guessed how wrong he'd be.

None of us had any idea that there would be a Peacekeeper force coming to the asteroid. There's only one docking area, and there were no Peacekeeper ships there when we arrived – not even a Prowler. Nor were there any of the usual grots wandering around to indicate that a unit had been dropped off for guard duty at the trading post. And it's definitely not a place on any of the regular patrol routes.

The first and only clue we got was when, in the middle of our bartering session with the head trader, we heard scuffling feet behind us and turned to find weapons aimed at our heads. I was still armed, of course, but didn't have many options other than surrender. I was all too conscious that Crichton had trusted me to keep my companions safe, and I couldn't very well do that if I was dead. I don't mind the thought of dying in a fight; I was born and bred a Peacekeeper. But single-handedly taking on a group of guards isn't a fight; it's suicide. I mean, it's not exactly like Zhaan, being a priest and all, wanders around carrying weapons. And while I wouldn't be surprised if Rygel has some stashed away in his thronesled, he'd be too much a coward to use them in that kind of situation.

Once I surrendered my weapon, I watched as the troops shot both Rygel and Zhaan with tranquilizer darts. Both fell unconscious within microts – Rygel hunching over in his thronesled and Zhaan collapsing to the ground with a groan. Obviously, these Peacekeepers had come prepared to deal with Hynerians and Delvians – which meant that not only had they come looking specifically for crew members from Moya, but that someone had tipped them off once the three of us arrived at the trading post. The mere idea of betrayal infuriated me and I thought about picking up my weapon and taking down not only as many Peacekeepers as possible, but the head trader and his assistants. But two soldiers grabbed me and pinned my hands behind my back before I could anything more than think about it.

It was then that I realized their uniforms were somewhat different than the usual Peacekeeper outfits. Craning my neck, I spotted the gold and scarlet braided insignia on their shoulder bands, and knew then just how much of a mess we were in. This was a covert unit, one that worked on special assignments. It's such a top-secret unit that many Peacekeepers don't think it really exists. While all Peacekeeper squadrons use basic torture and deprivation to get information out of their prisoners, this unit is the one that does the heavy-duty torture and interrogation, the one that works well outside of the usual protocols. It shouldn't have come as a surprise to me that they'd been sent out to find us, given just how thoroughly Crichton has managed to anger the high command. Not to mention the fact that escaped prisoners, such as those on Moya, are dealt with harshly.

It surprised me anyhow.

They marched me through the corridors of the trading hall, then into the docking bay and onto their ship. I looked back to see that Rygel's thronesled was being pushed by one guard and another was dragging Zhaan along by one arm. They led us through their ship and to this cell, threw us all inside, and then left. That was quite some time ago. How long ago, I don't know; my time piece was taken from me, along with all the other contents of my pockets. That's alright though – I think knowing just how long we've been in this cell would just make me feel more restless.

It doesn't help that this isn't just your standard Peacekeeper holding cell. This is clearly a place of torture. And not the high-tech torture that I've grown accustomed to seeing over the years – the mind probes and lasers that are designed to break subjects quickly in order to get the information desired. This is something far more primitive. The tools that I can see locked in the transparent bin aren't sophisticated at all. I've read about them in the few historical books I've seen. They're designed to cause as much physical pain as possible for a great length of time. They're used by those who delight in causing pain.

The mere sight of them is making me feel ill. I never have liked watching torture sessions to begin with, and at least under normal Peacekeeper protocol, it's done to get information and the goal is for it to be as quick as possible. Of course, I realize that why we're locked in here, able to see these instruments, is to instill fear in us. It's one of the oldest techniques employed … to make the subjects' imagination work against them and weaken their resolve.

I'm trying to ignore it. I push to my feet again and start pacing the length of the cell once more. I've already done this more times than I can count, trying to keep my attention focused on the movements I'm making. Anything to avoid thinking too much. It's not that I'm scared of pain per se; I was born and bred a soldier, knowing my duty was to obey orders, regardless of pain, or injury, or even death. It's just … I don't want the others to see me like that. I don't want them to see me show weakness if the torture gets to be too much. I don't want them thinking I'm vulnerable. I don't want anyone to ever see me vulnerable.

I force myself to stop thinking about it. I look around the cell and see Rygel cowering in the corner, muttering to himself. While I can't hear what the yotz he's saying, I can hear the haughtiness in his tone and deduce that he's ranting about royalty being treated this way, or something of the sort. I find myself annoyed by him, even though I realize logically that he's trying to use arrogance and bluster to keep himself from being afraid. Still, I find it annoying and don't know why he's bothering to try and calm himself. He's such a useless coward that he won't even wait for them to start the torture session before he tells them everything they want to know.

Turning away before my irritation gets the better of me, I focus on Zhaan. Ever since she recovered from the sedative and checked to see that the two of us were unharmed, she's been sitting in the corner, chanting. Her hands are raised to head level and her eyes are closed. I guess she must be praying or meditating or something; I actually have no idea what she's doing. Whatever it is, it seems to me like a monumental waste of both time and energy. No matter how centered or balanced or "at peace with the universe" she is now, the pain of torture will break through anyhow. All she'll do is make it harder for them to break through, which will just postpone the inevitable and increase her suffering.

Then it occurs to me that she must have a reason for why she's wasting her time this way. She's been tortured before, as has Rygel. By the Peacekeepers. And on Moya. For some reason, that thought gives me a feeling of shame, but I shake it off quickly. It's not like I did anything to them. And they were prisoners at the time and the Peacekeepers were just doing their duty as they were told.

Before I have any more time to dwell on that thought, I see Zhaan's eyes pop open. Her voice sounds almost breathless as she tells us the Peacekeepers are coming. She catches my eye and I shrug and turn away. It's not like their arrival is any surprise, and I don't want to see any sense of concern or pity in her eyes. I need resolve and strength right now, not kindness. Though I'm carefully not looking at her, I hear the rustle of her robe as she pushes off the floor, and then hear the soft padding of her feet as she moves across the cell.

I do look up then, trying to figure out what she's doing, and see her kneeling in front of Rygel. Her hand is stroking the side of his face and she's whispering to him, urgently and passionately. I can't hear what she's saying, but figure it doesn't really matter. Whatever morale-boosting speech she's giving him won't make any difference once he starts feeling the pain. He's sweating and he looks scared, but I see him nod emphatically at whatever she just whispered. I wonder about it briefly, especially when she speaks in a loud, firm tone, telling him that she gives her word.

My curiosity is piqued, but I don't have any time to ask what the hezmana the two of them are up to before the Peacekeepers are at the cell door. Six of them pour into the room at once, all grinning in anticipation. Two of them head straight for me, grabbing hold of my arms and pinning me down while they chain my wrists and ankles to solid rings set into the wall. From the corner of my eye, I see that two other troops are doing the same to Zhaan. The last two grab hold of Rygel and yank him out of his thronesled, then chain him to the seat that's set in the middle of the cell.

It's standard procedure, nothing to be alarmed by yet. But I can see Rygel sweating from here. It's almost too bad that he's long past the point of mere nervousness; I can only imagine the reactions of our captors if he were to start farting helium right now. His fearful sweating only gets worse as someone new – the squadron leader – walks into the cell and marches up to the Hynerian. Again, it's standard procedure and doesn't surprise me. The ones who restrained us are the underlings … this man is the one in charge and, thus, is the lead torturer or interrogator or whatever title this special unit uses.

I glance over to Zhaan, unaccountably wanting to see how she's reacting to the scene. Given her compassionate nature, I expect to see her watching this with anguish in her eyes. It seems odd to me that her eyes are closed. I thought she would be looking at Rygel, focusing on him – trying to talk to him and encouraging him to be brave. This isn't what I'd envisioned from her. Of course, maybe she's finally come to her senses and realized that these guards will strike her if she dares speak. That explains her silence, though it still doesn't explain her refusal to look at him. I find myself somewhat disappointed in her, in her seeming cowardice, her inability to face this.

It alarms me that I'm even interested in her reaction. It's a sign of caring. Caring is weakness.

Perversely, I'm almost relieved when the torture session begins, since it banishes my uncomfortable train of thought. And then, I'm a bit shocked to realize that it has begun – that the royal blabbermouth hasn't tried to bargain with the Peacekeepers or spill his guts to avoid being hurt. He's grunting with pain and still sweating, but is handling the torture far better than I would have expected. I wonder when he managed, as Crichton would say, to grow a backbone. Clearly, the little runt learned something from the time he spent as a prisoner, or maybe he does have some latent loyalty to his shipmates.

Either way, he's enduring the pain without crying out or begging for mercy. It's a shame Zhaan isn't paying attention to this. She's the one who always tells us that there is good in the Hynerian, so it seems wrong somehow that she's not watching as he justifies her faith in him. I look over at her, thinking that maybe she's opened her eyes by now. No, they're still closed. But there's something going on with her. I can't quite figure out what it is.

Her brow is creased in concentration and her hands are clenched into tight fists. She's straining against the chains, not as if she's trying to break free, but as if her body is having a seizure. I half expect the guards on either side of her to notice her odd behavior and interfere – but they're oblivious to anything but their leader and his actions. Clearly, they don't see two chained and immobilized prisoners as any kind of threat they need to pay attention to. And it's all too obvious that they don't share my dislike for this sort of interrogation.

I continue to watch her, and I realize I've seen her do this sort of thing before. It suddenly becomes clear to me that she's either sharing his pain … or bearing the brunt of it. There's no other explanation that makes sense. It explains why Rygel is able to withstand the man's blows and why she's in such obvious distress. I just didn't know it was possible for her to do that without having physical contact with whoever's pain she's sharing.

I turn my eyes back to Rygel, noting that the interrogator is inflicting mostly surface damage. The blows appear painful, but nothing is being broken and there are no life-threatening injuries being inflicted. After a time, they release Rygel and shove him across the floor to the corner of the room. I can see discoloration from bruising on his skin and the sweat is still pouring off him, but he's mobile and coherent as he climbs into his thronesled, muttering under his breath.

They don't bother to chain him, though the two guards stand beside him, clearly to ensure that he doesn't do anything rash. I suddenly realize he was just the warm-up. They didn't plan to hurt him in any permanent fashion, and that explains why the questions they asked him were so banal and not the kinds of things you would expect to be asked while being tortured. They must, somehow, know that his stores of information are far more limited than mine or Zhaan's. They just wanted to soften us up, make us more susceptible to their treatment of us by making us watch him be hurt.

Of course, they erred by not knowing that, even among his shipmates, he's not exactly someone who inspires sympathy or concern. The thought amuses me, but only for a very brief time. With a sinking feeling, I carry that realization to its logical conclusion – the session will only increase in intensity, and Zhaan is going to be next, leaving me until last. I'm the renegade Peacekeeper, after all, and there's going to be something of a personal score settled with me, I have no doubt.

Sure enough, the guards unchain Zhaan from the wall, force her into the chair, and chain her in place. I take a good look at her, seeing that she's paler than she was before, and her body is trembling. I can't tell if it's from fear, or from something else. I don't have any idea how all her spiritual, mind-melding processes work – but I have seen enough to know that it takes a very real physical toll on her. I take a moment to mentally curse Rygel for needing her help, since it's clearly weakened her. I just hope she has enough energy reserves to get through this ordeal herself. Though it might be for the best if she loses consciousness quickly.

In a way, I'm almost grateful that I'll be last. I am, in no way, someone who enjoys pain. But I'm physically stronger than either Zhaan or Rygel. And I'm a soldier. It's my duty to protect the people around me, regardless of the cost to me. And while it's selfish, I admit to myself that I'd much rather endure the pain of the last session myself than have to witness someone else going through it. I can't imagine that it's going to be pleasant.

Just as I suspected, the interrogator starts out with Zhaan much more brutally than he had with Rygel. I see her biting her lip so hard it starts to bleed, but before long, she's crying out in pain. I try to keep myself detached from the scene, to stay as disconnected as I was while watching Rygel. It's hard though. He's a royal pain in the behind, and I entertain fantasies of dumping him out the nearest airlock sometimes. But Zhaan, however much I don't understand her gentleness and spirituality, is a genuinely good being. And while she's had moments of animosity towards me, as has everyone else onboard, she's been far kinder to me than I've deserved.

I can't seem to tune this out, and it's hard to listen to her suffering, to see the delight in the interrogator's eyes as he causes her pain. I've watched more torture sessions than I care to remember and not one of them has ever caused me to lose sleep or affected me in this way. I wish this one was the same as the others, but it's not. If I weren't chained to the wall right now, I think I could easily channel my feelings into bare-handed fighting and defeat all seven of the Peacekeepers by myself.

I close my eyes tightly, to shut out the sight. Futilely, I wish I could somehow block out the sound. I've never quite felt like this before, and it's scary. I'm not used to caring about those around me. Until I got to Moya, until I met Crichton – I never realized that my lack of emotion could be seen as a liability. When I was with the Peacekeepers, when I was surrounded by Sebaceans, my lack of emotion was seen as an admirable trait. I've spent the better part of a cycle trying to learn how to open up to my own feelings – to overcome the training and ingrained restrictions of the Peacekeepers – to see emotion as something useful.

I knew I'd made some progress on that front. Until now, however, I hadn't realized how much.

Their torture of Zhaan seems to last for arns. I'm not watching the scene, so I don't know whether they just stopped or whether she lost consciousness. I'm just suddenly aware of the silence. I open my eyes, watching as they release her from the chains holding her in place, and I'm surprised to feel tears trickling down my cheeks. I seldom cry and hadn't really expected that reaction, even under these circumstances. Crichton – and Zhaan – both seem to think crying is a good thing. I still don't understand why. They say that being able to recognize suffering and sorrow makes us more appreciative of happiness and joy. I'm not sure I believe that. Especially not right now.

The guards lift Zhaan from the chair and drop her unceremoniously on the floor. I think she must be unconscious, because she doesn't make a sound. I struggle as my guards start to undo my chains, but it doesn't do much good, and they manage to get me in the chair. As they chain me down, I glance over to see what Rygel is doing. He's in the corner, in his thronesled, rocking back and forth in what I can only think is his expression of distress. He must sense my gaze because he looks up and meets my eyes.

He shifts his gaze slightly to the guards and I see murderous rage in his eyes. It shocks me, since he's not exactly the fighting type. But I know how he feels. I nod at him briefly, promising him that if I get free, these Peacekeepers will die. He nods back, and I think there's a flash of satisfaction in his eyes. I know he doesn't care about me and my safety any more than I care about him and his. But we do agree that our companion should be avenged, and that's more common ground than we've ever had before.

Ignoring the man asking me questions, I look back at Zhaan. She's curled in on herself, tears creeping from the corners of her eyes. I see wounds on her face and her hands, and see holes and rips in her robe and the marred blue flesh beneath. The sight sickens me, and I'm not one who shies away from looking at wounds sustained in combat. This is different somehow. To my surprise, her eyes open and she looks at me. I didn't think she was still conscious enough to focus on anything but herself. Usually, such a frank stare from her disconcerts me and I turn away. Here, now … in this room, under these circumstances … her gaze is a lifeline I never imagined I'd need.

And the pure love in her eyes that has so bothered me before suddenly seems like the most important thing in the universe.

The shared moment is brief; my head snaps painfully to the side with a backhand. I taste blood in my mouth and steel myself for what is to come. I've been hurt before – in training and in combat – sometimes badly hurt. I've never faced something like this before; I was always a good Peacekeeper who didn't need to be disciplined. I should be terrified, having seen and heard what they did to Zhaan, and knowing it will be worse for me. But while I am scared, it's not as bad as I think it should be. It's as though there's a part of me that knows I can bear this … because there's someone here with me who gives a frell about whether I live or die.

It's a new concept for me. Peacekeepers are trained not to get attached to their squad mates, to not be affected when a fellow fighter dies. We protect our own, certainly, and try not to leave anyone behind. But we're trained to keep our mind on our duty – and are told that completing our mission is the only thing that matters, not how many soldiers fall while accomplishing it. I've fought alongside Crichton and D'Argo, and so I now know the sensation of actually watching out for the people fighting beside me; I know the sensation of fighting for my comrades, not for my commander, not just for a mission. And now, here, with Zhaan, I know the sensation of compassion and concern … of friendship. It's a scary feeling to me, still. But it, somehow, feels good at the same time.

I decide that these thoughts are a blessing, because they've kept me so occupied that I haven't really registered what the interrogator is doing to me. Well, until now. Pain explodes in my shoulder and I register the smell of burning flesh. My burning flesh. The intensity of it overwhelms me. I grit my teeth and try not to cry out, wanting to spare my companions, not wanting to give my tormentors the satisfaction of knowing how much it hurts.

The hot iron is taken away from my shoulder and pressed against my stomach. I bite my lip and taste blood; but try as I might, I can't help but groan in pain. The iron is held there for what seems like an arn, but is probably only several microts, and then it's taken away. I gasp with sudden relief, aware that the pain has left me panting. I manage to lift my head just enough to see the face of the man torturing me, and I see the pleasure in his eyes. He bends down close to me and asks where Crichton is. I croak out a response, telling this man where he can go and exactly what he can do once he gets there.

Rather than being annoyed with my stubbornness, the man seems happy. It makes sense, in a completely deranged way; the more stubborn I am, the longer he can indulge his sadistic side. He smiles broadly, and picks up something I can't quite identify. I can barely think as pain flares in my side, lancing up from hip to shoulder. I don't know what he's doing to me – my mind can't focus. All I'm aware of is the pain. It's more than I've ever felt in my life and I hear a scream echoing in the cell. Microts later, I realize I'm the one screaming. My vision starts to blur with tears and my breath feels caught in my chest, leaving me gasping.

And then, without warning, there's some kind of flash behind my eyes. It feels like there's some kind of pressure or presence in my skull, and the pain somehow recedes to a more tolerable level. At first I think the man has stopped whatever he's doing to me, but I can see through my blurred vision that he's still holding something against my flesh. For a terrifying moment, I think I'm dying – that the pain is fading because I'm disconnecting from my body. But then, somehow through the pain and the confusion, I sense the familiarity of the mental presence.

It's Zhaan, in my mind, sharing my pain as she did for Rygel.

I want to protest, but am distracted by the continuing torture. The lead interrogator looks displeased with the way my reaction has lessened to whatever it is that he's doing. But, thankfully, he doesn't seem to have any idea what's happened or why. He reaches down and when his hand comes up, I see light glinting off of metal. The knife is sharp as it cuts into the flesh of my forearm, and I grunt as the blade glides through tissue and muscle. He twists the knife, grinding it deeply into me, and I jerk against the pain, feeling the chains bite into me with the motion. But Zhaan is still in my mind, bolstering my strength, sharing my misery.

Somehow, I'm able to focus my eyes and look to where Zhaan is still crumpled on the ground. She's crying openly now, and her face is twisted in concentration. I try to tell her to stop … that I can take it … that I'm not worth it. But my mouth can't seem to form words and I don't have any idea how to think things at her to make her understand. As the man continues his knife play on other parts of my body, all I can do is brace myself against the pain and try to bear the brunt of it so she won't have to. I would never have asked her to do this, not for me. I'm supposed to be the strong one, the one who protects the weak and defenseless. I'm not supposed to need protecting.

I start to blank out – the continuing agony makes my thoughts shatter and I'm aware of nothing but pain. The man is still asking questions, but the words are just a buzz in my ear; I can't make out what he's saying. Through it all, I feel Zhaan's presence with me, and for the first time in memory, I'm glad to have someone so close. As horribly selfish as I feel admitting it, I'm grateful she's here with me. It comforts me as the interrogator continues his torture.

Abruptly, the pain dims and I can hear voices shouting. My thoughts feel fuzzy, and in my confused state, I wonder if Zhaan has somehow found a way to shoulder more of the burden. But as my mind begins to clear, I realize her mental presence has faded and I'm suddenly alone in my head again. I force my eyes to open, to focus, and find it easier than I expected. I'm still in agony, but it's from previously inflicted wounds, not new ones. A burst of light catches my eye and I recognize it as weapons fire. A guard slams into my legs, leaving me gasping, and as adrenaline helps kick my brain into gear, I realize he's been shot. And now I see my tormentor lying on the floor, whimpering, his hand blown to pieces and blood streaming from wounds in his side and chest. A fierce sense of satisfaction rushes through me at the sight.

Given Rygel's earlier murderous look, I briefly wonder if he's somehow responsible. No, the angle of fire is wrong; it's coming from outside the cell. I manage to turn my head to see what the frell is going on, to see who is coming after the Peacekeepers. I don't know why, but when I see it's Crichton and D'Argo, I'm surprised. Didn't we leave them on Moya? How did they know we were in trouble? Even as the questions form in my mind, I know the answers. We've been here a long time – long enough for them to start worrying – and they came looking for us.

The exchange of weapons fire is still going on, but there are only two of the seven Peacekeepers still standing. I guess that they're no match for a thoroughly irate Luxan and Human. I know I'm right when they both fall within microts of me finishing the thought. Of course, the element of surprise helped too, no doubt.

Now that the immediate danger is over and I'm not fighting the infliction of pain, I'm able to assess my condition, and I realize that I'm in terrible shape. Crichton comes to me, alarm on his face, and wrestles with the chains binding me. He's asking if I'm ok and I merely shake my head. I'm not in any danger of dying and all my wounds will heal in time; but I'm far from being ok after what just happened. I'm watching his struggles somewhat dispassionately and see that he's having problems freeing me. He motions D'Argo over to help and they both start looking for either a key for the locks or a weak link in the chains. There's nothing I can do except wait; my strength is sapped and it's taking all my concentration to remain upright. So I slowly move my head, looking for Zhaan. Oh, and Rygel too.

Zhaan is still lying on the floor, huddled in a ball and not moving. A sense of unexpected and entirely unwelcome panic rises in my chest. We're being rescued. She can't be dead. Not here … not like this. Not because of me.

The panic gives me strength and makes me struggle against the chains, desperate to be free. D'Argo tells me gruffly to be still. I manage to follow his command, but the sense of panic is still there. And then Rygel floats into view, heading straight for Zhaan's prone form. I watch, holding my breath, as he bends down over her, placing his hand on her side. He looks up, and instead of turning his attention to Crichton as I expected, he focuses on me. I don't know if it's simply because of the experience we've just endured together, or if there's something else going on in his little brain. Whatever it is, he apparently has some sense of what I'm thinking, what my fear is – probably because she was in his mind as well.

I stare intently at him, and we share a look of understanding before he nods and then turns the corners of his mouth up in a smile, letting us all know that she's drawing breath, that she's still alive. I let out the breath I've been holding, suddenly feeling drained of energy again. The surge of relief running through my veins leaves me feeling oddly weak.

D'Argo manages to free me and Crichton helps me out of the chair while D'Argo goes over to check on Zhaan. They're both asking what the frell happened, but I can't seem to find words. Thankfully, Rygel rises to the occasion and explains that we were captured and tortured for information about Moya's whereabouts. And that's all he says. He doesn't launch into a protracted explanation or whine about their mistreatment of him. And somehow, even in my lingering foggy and pain-racked state of mind, I realize it's because of Zhaan's influence. She somehow brings out the best in him. Just as she – and Crichton – can both help bring out the best in me.

Our rescuers share a look and seem to realize that none of us are in any condition to tell them any more than that. So they turn their energies to getting us all off the Peacekeeper ship, before any other patrol units come looking for them. Rygel, in his thronesled, can move on his own, but it's clear that he's not feeling well. I'm leaning heavily on Crichton, and can only make my feet move in a slow shuffle by concentrating extremely hard. I see D'Argo bend down and lift Zhaan into his arms as he would a small child.

The journey through the Peacekeeper ship is silent and slow, since I'm barely walking and D'Argo is burdened by Zhaan's weight. But we're all survivors – we all persevere – and so we make it back to where Crichton docked the transport pod. D'Argo carries Zhaan inside, Rygel hovering beside him; Crichton and I follow. As soon as we're in the open space of the cargo area, I slip out of Crichton's grasp and sink to the deck beside where Zhaan is lying. I reach out and put my hand on her shoulder. She's still unconscious and unaware of the contact. While I rarely seek physical touch as a means of reassurance, I'm aware enough right now to know the touch is for my benefit, not hers.

Crichton kneels down like he wants to play doctor, and D'Argo walks up towards the pilot's seat. For some reason, I manage to get my mouth to work and I remind them about the need to get the Prowler. Crichton curses and says we'll come back for it later. I know that he just wants to make sure that we're ok … that he values life over machinery any day. The only problem is that, in this case, we have to retrieve the Prowler for our own safety. It's not enough that we get off this blasted asteroid ourselves, we have to make sure that we don't leave anything behind that a Peacekeeper patrol can use to track us. Certainly, Moya can starburst and leave even a Marauder behind. But there's enough information held in the memory banks of the Prowler that even a half-witted Peacekeeper could work out a logical search pattern based on our past stops and supply runs.

I manage to give voice to these thoughts, and hear Crichton dismissing them. I'm too tired and sore to keep arguing. But Rygel jumps in, backing up my arguments. I'm not used to the two of us being allies of a sort. But I'm fairly certain that it's simply a situational alliance, one that only exists because of our silent vow to kill those who hurt Zhaan. Whatever the reason, I'm glad for it because he's managing to get Crichton and D'Argo to think logically about why we need to get the Prowler off this frelling rock.

D'Argo stomps out of the pod, headed for the Prowler. At least I know he's a good pilot and I don't have to worry that he'll damage my ship. Crichton is still trying to look at our injuries, but I reach out and lightly push his hand away. He stares at me and I remind him that our priority is to get away from this trading post, away from the Peacekeepers we killed, and back to Moya so we can starburst away from here and get to safety. The last thing we need is to be definitively linked to these deaths and have yet more resources poured into searching for us.

A hurt look settles on his face, but he stands up and heads to the pilot's seat without further argument. I know he's worried about me and about Zhaan, but he knows I'm right. He's no more a doctor than I am, and like it or not, there's nothing he can do right here and now to help heal our injuries. The best thing we can do for Zhaan is get her back to Moya, where at least we have Pilot to access the medical database if we need it.

He turns around and I brace myself for another argument, but he doesn't say anything. Instead, he gently moves Zhaan towards the wall and fastens a restraining belt loosely around her body. There's not normally much turbulence in this part of his ship, as I know from past experience, but better safe than sorry. He helps me slide back and fasten another belt around me. He stands up again, looks down at Zhaan, and opens his mouth to speak. But I silence him with a simple sentence.

"Don't worry, Crichton. I'll take care of her."

I'm relieved when he smiles and then heads back to the front of the ship, Rygel trailing after him. I hear the engines warming up and feel a sense of relief that we're actually going to escape this nightmare. Ignoring the pain in my body, I maneuver myself closer to where Zhaan is lying. I carefully lift her head and slide my thigh underneath it as a cushion. It's a slightly awkward position for me, but I owe her this.

I rest my hand against her cheek. It's the simplest of things – cushioning her head, stroking her skin. And yet it feels momentous to me, since it's a wholly unfamiliar sensation. I've never – ever – provided this kind of comfort to anyone. It feels odd. Concern for others still feels somewhat unnatural to me, given how I was raised. But she risked her life to help me, to ease my pain … and I can't help but be concerned about her. And in a flash of insight, I know the discomfort of caring about others is the good kind of discomfort – the kind that can make you into a better person. I never used to care about things like that when I was a Peacekeeper. But I'm a Peacekeeper no longer.

I lean back against the wall, and then realize there's movement under my hand. Looking down, I see that Zhaan is waking up, shifting her head from side to side. I continue stroking her cheek, hoping to calm her. And there's a part of me that's glad no one else is here to see this, to see how vulnerable I am to my emotions right now.

Her eyes flutter open, clouded with pain. For a microt, I read confusion in her gaze and know the sense of dislocation she must be feeling. I whisper that she's safe, that we've been rescued and that we're on Crichton's ship. I feel her sigh of relief – feel it in the way her skin shifts under my fingers.

"Is Rygel alright? And you, my dear?"

Her words are so soft I can barely make them out. But it's so like Zhaan. She's the one lying here barely conscious, and she's concerned about us. At one point in my life, I would have scoffed at her for her weakness. Now, having felt her in my mind, having felt her taking on my pain despite her own – I know she's far tougher than I've given her credit for. Her emotions, her compassion, don't make her weak; they give her strength.

I reassure her that we'll both recover. She seems satisfied with the answer, and her eyes slide shut again. I know she must be drained from the ordeal and hope that I can help her get some rest. She reaches up like she's searching for something, and I move my hand from her cheek and place it in her hand. I feel her fingers twining with mine, and I lower my arm, pushing hers back down until our hands are resting on her chest. I can feel the soft movements of her skin through her robe, telling me she's drawing in air. The rhythm is calming, soothing.

Normally, this kind of physical closeness unnerves me. I have no doubt it will again, once I'm healed from what has happened and back to my usual self. But I think it must be a good sign that, right now, I take comfort in it. I don't like to admit it to anyone, even myself. But I've had so little comfort in my life, so little care, so little compassion; and there's part of me that craves it, even as it scares me. This is a small step forward for me … a very small step. Then again, you don't learn to walk by taking giant leaps.

My hand held tightly in Zhaan's, my thigh cradling her head – I lean back against the wall again and close my eyes. I tune out everything but her presence.

It's a comfortable feeling.

The End

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