By Castor (formerly known as Anon)
Usual disclaimers. With obvious exceptions the characters are Joe's, the rest are mine, the plot is mine.
This is a John and Delenn Hurt/Comfort so there is some violence (but all done in the best possible taste (Brit readers, yes I DID mean it to be said that way! <g>)
Many thanks to Karen for finding where I went wrong. Any remaining errors are my fault (Yes, Tamzin, I'm sure you'll find SOMETHING!!! <g>)
"Watch out for...ouch!" Garibaldi winced, ducking in sympathy as Sheridan got another blow from the Minbari. He looked up at Delenn as Sheridan got to his feet, resumed his stance, and beckoned the Minbari on once more. "He's a glutton for punishment isn't he?"
Delenn shook her head, the intense manner in which she watched the practice belying the apparent insouciance of her words. "He said he wanted to learn and there is no other way to do it. Turhan is the best Denn'bok instructor we have now Durhan has left us, and if John wishes to stop he has only to say the word."
"Yeah, but you'd think he'd pull his hits a bit, given it's the President of the Alliance he's beating the hell out of." Garibaldi, too, was trying to look calm, but his gut clenched in sympathy with the blows. He'd taken it upon himself to protect Sheridan -- payment for his earlier mistakes – and he was finding it hard to sit back. Still, he reminded himself, John knew what he was doing, and no fighting practice Garibaldi had ever been in left the trainee devoid of bruises. But the Denn'bok could kill. Over the years Garibaldi had seen it do so, and he saw no evidence that Turhan was not doing his best to grant him a repeat performance. The Minbari master was either even more skilled that Delenn said he was, or he had a real problem with the President of the Alliance. Garibaldi kept telling himself it was the former.
"Were someone to attack him I doubt they'd pull their blows. He might as well learn now." Despite her tone, Delenn flinched as another strike hit its mark, then clapped as Sheridan swung around and caught Turhan in a surprise move.
"He's definitely improving," Garibaldi muttered approvingly, relaxing slightly as he realised the fight was not as one sided as he'd thought. "Give him another few years and I'll advise Tessa she should take him on for Alliance security." The crack was merely an attempt to relieve the tension but Sheridan overheard.
"You think this is so damn easy, you try it!" he got out through gritted teeth, and then had to duck as a blow came at his head.
"No thank you very much. I'm quite happy letting you get beaten up. You know," he said with a thoughtful air, "All those years you made me go to Downbelow and risk my neck, it's kinda fun watching you on the receiving end for a change." Delenn batted Garibaldi reproachfully. "Hey! What was that for?" He rubbed his arm. She hadn't pulled her punch any more than Turhan seemed to be doing. "I think it's good the President finds out what the grunts have to go through every day."
"I was...a grunt once. Remember?" Sheridan blocked two strikes in quick succession, spun around and, with a flurry of blows, forced Turhan backwards.
Garibaldi relaxed. The fight was definitely improving. "Nah, you were never a real grunt. We got all the real dirty stuff."
With surprising agility Turhan leapt up, leaving Sheridan's pike swinging through empty space. Surprised, Sheridan looked up to see Turhan's pike coming down hard and fast towards his shoulder and he threw up his guard to block. In an instant Turhan had swung the other end of the pike under the blocked blow and caught the President in the ribs. Sheridan went down with a cry and Turhan stepped back, shutting his pike down and holstering it before bending down to check his opponent's state of health. Delenn and Garibaldi looked at each other and then stood up and ran over to see how bad the damage was.
Sheridan sat on the floor hunched over, nursing his side and shaking his head. "God dammit! When am I ever gonna learn those things have two ends?!" he muttered.
"Are you all right?" Delenn asked, squatting down beside him.
"Yeah, yeah. My pride's hurt more than I am." He looked up. "That was a good move, Turhan. I should have seen that coming."
"You were distracted by conversation. Next time I suggest you concentrate on the fight," he said with a mix of humour and mild reproach. Garibaldi looked suitably chagrined.
"Sorry John." He shrugged to indicate it wasn't intended.
Sheridan shook his head. "Not your fault. I should have known better." He made to stand up and groaned. "Oooooh. That's gonna leave a mark." Still seated he carefully lifted his sweat-soaked shirt and peered at the bruise that was already spreading over his ribs.
"I think that will do for today, Turhan," Delenn said, shaking her head. "There is only so much pounding from you my husband can take."
Turhan nodded. "The lesson was over anyway. I believe you have an appointment in an hour so I will let you prepare. I will teach you more when I see you next week."
Sheridan nodded and allowed Garibaldi to help him to his feet.
"You gonna be OK?" Garibaldi asked. The bruise looked as though the underlying damage was rather more severe than Sheridan was letting on. Garibaldi himself had been on the receiving end of similar marks and knew what they felt like all too well.
"Yeah. Nothing that won't heal. At least he didn't break anything this time."
"You sure?" Garibaldi asked, frowning. Sheridan shook his head and waved the question away.
Turhan smiled. "You are learning fast, Mr. President. You will soon be able to anticipate such attacks and defend yourself."
"Thank god for that! Ouch!" He winced as he straightened.
"Come. We will give you something for the pain before you go to the meeting," Delenn assured him, taking over from Garibaldi at Sheridan's side. The latter bowed to Turhan and then moved carefully out of the training room. Garibaldi turned to the trainer.
"Maybe I'm outta line here, but wasn't that a little *too* realistic?"
"The Denn'bok is an ancient and honourable weapon. You do not 'play' with it, Mr. Garibaldi. You either wield it correctly or not at all."
"You wield it like that on a novice you'd kill them."
"But the President is not a novice, and he was trained with practice pikes that do not inflict such damage on the protagonists. He has progressed to a standard which allows me to use the Denn'bok. If I did not think he could handle it I would not fight him."
"Yet you left quite a mark on him."
The master nodded and smiled. "And he has left some on me, I assure you. But the control of pain is another skill of the Rangers, one he has to work on. He has the techniques here," he tapped his temple "He merely has to apply them."
Garibaldi nodded, still not completely convinced. "Could you teach me some of that stuff?"
"If you wish to learn."
"Well, I can't always have a PPG. It may come in handy."
"There is more than just the skills of the Denn'bok required. Meditation is as important to a Ranger's fighting skills as an ability to swing the weapon. It is that which enables the skilful use of the blade."
"Well, I can't guarantee I'll be all that good at that side, but I'm willing to learn."
"Good. How long will you be here?"
"Only another week for now, but if you give me something to work on I can take it back to Mars with me and be a little more prepared next time I come visit."
"Then I will see you tomorrow at noon."
Garibaldi nodded and did his best to copy Sheridan's bow. It was a little clumsy and Turhan smiled. "And I will teach you that, too."
"You don't do things by halves, do you?"
"Never," Turhan replied solemnly.
Garibaldi nodded and then turned to follow Sheridan and Delenn out of the room.
After he'd gone Turhan turned and left the training area. Only his doctor would know of the broken bone he was presently ignoring.
Two hours later Sheridan was dressed in his normal civilian clothes and the stabbing pain in his side had been reduced to a dull ache. He had wanted to try and apply Turhan's pain control meditation, but there hadn't been the time. He would master it, eventually, but not today. Meantime, he had other concerns. The meeting was dragging on interminably.
"I still don't understand the problem," he said, sitting down carefully having paced the room for some minutes in agitation. "Why do we need so many Rangers if the place is safe?"
Gahrenn, a middle aged (as far as Sheridan could tell) Minbari with a clean shaven face, and a slightly dented head bone (a trophy from the civil war) sighed and tried to make his position clear. "Mr. President, Catazan was the site of fierce fighting during the civil war. There are many unstable buildings and many homeless." He began to pace, the light streaming from the windows in Sheridan's office causing him to go into silhouette as he crossed in front of the panes. Sheridan squinted his eyes to keep the Minbari in view. He was sure there was something more here, he just couldn't work out what. Gahrenn turned and, seeing Sheridan shading his face against the light, moved from the windows to stand by the table. "It was a mining community and the bombing has destabilised the local geology. All I am saying is that we would feel more comfortable if you had a strong Ranger presence. We're providing Rangers from the area who know where it is safe."
"One or two could do that. Why fifteen?"
"You are honoured and revered on Minbar." Sheridan raised his eyebrow but said nothing. "Any fewer would be an insult to your rank. You must have a proper honour guard." The Minbari was calm but Sheridan wasn't satisfied.
"Is there something you're not telling me, Gahrenn?"
"There are many things. No one can tell all that is to be known. It would take too long." There was a small smile on the Minbari's face.
Sheridan shook his head. "You know what I mean. Is there anything else I should know about this province?"
"I have told you all that you should require." Gahrenn's face was unreadable as he calmly held Sheridan's gaze without blinking.
"Hmm." Sheridan wasn't convinced and turned to Delenn. She shook her head slightly. If there were any more, Gahrenn would tell them. He would not allow them to go if he felt they were not properly prepared. To question any further would insult him. Sheridan sighed and nodded. "All right. If you're satisfied with the arrangements, we'll be off first thing in the morning."
"Mr. President. I am still not entirely clear why you feel the need to do this. It is only a small industrial province after all."
Sheridan leaned back only to be stopped when his ribs rubbed against the arm of the chair and reminded him they were still sore. He quietly rubbed his side and moved to a more comfortable position, leaning forward on the desk in front of him, his hands clasped together. "The Alliance cares about everyone, Gahrenn. Large or small it's all the same. I want them to know they're not alone and the Alliance is here to help them. Once I see how bad it is for myself I can make sure they get all the help they need to rebuild. In any case, the province may be small but Shallantir is a valuable commodity. Minbar needs to get the place up and running again to improve exports. The stockpiles are running low. OK, no one's going to die for want of a jewellery metal, but they're willing to pay through the nose for it because it's so rare. The sooner we can get the mines opened up and running again, the sooner we can lift the province out of the slump and help the rest of Minbar at the same time."
"The worker-caste are doing their best. I do not think there is anything more that can be provided."
"Except tools and other skilled workers from the rest of the Alliance. You have, what, around a thousand workers trying to put that place straight? I can get two thousand, more if they're needed, and machines to do the work of twenty men if required."
"Are you saying the worker caste is not capable?" There was the smallest hint of a rebuke in his voice.
Sheridan sighed and shook his head. "No, I'm not saying that. I wouldn't insult them. What I *am* saying is that the job is bigger than they are. They're working like heroes as it is. I've read the reports. The damage was extensive -- some of the worst barring the capital city itself. The worker caste are spread pretty thin trying to get everything up and running again. I think they could use some help. There's nothing to be ashamed of when you're overworked and undermanned. Frankly I'm astonished they've managed the near miracles they've already achieved."
"But if you know how bad it is from the reports, why do you need to go there? Why not just send whatever you see is required."
"Because..." he began. Delenn interrupted him.
"Because the President and I want to show the people that we are not isolated and unaware of what's going on. We want them to understand that we do not only want to visit places that are clean and safe. We are prepared to go where the problems are, and listen to the voice of the people directly. They will be able to tell us their grievances should they wish to and know that we have heard them. Neither John nor I will stand behind a wall of bureaucrats who pass on messages from others." She raised her hands to forestall Gahrenn's protestations. "I know you tell us all we need to know, Gahrenn. Nevertheless, sometimes it helps morale if the people see who it is that gives the orders. And in any case, I have friends there...or had," she added softly. "I have visited the province before. I would like to renew my acquaintance with the people." She fingered the broach on her dress, made of Shallantir and a gift from many years before.
Sheridan looked up and smiled reassuringly. "I'm sure they're all right, Delenn."
Delenn nodded but said nothing.
"If you tell me who it is you seek I may be able to bring news without your having to make the journey," Gahrenn pressed.
"No. We've made up our minds. Besides, I'm tired of sitting around here all day. Until I became President I never spent more than a few hours a day behind a desk. Less if I could manage it. Now I'm practically tied to the thing. I'm going stir crazy here. You say there is nothing to fear there, apart from unstable buildings and the rest. Unless there's some other reason you don't want us to go...?" Gahrenn shook his head. "Then have the shuttle ready by eight tomorrow morning."
"As you command." The Minbari bowed low. Sheridan answered with a nod of the head, it being impossible to bow while sitting at the table. Delenn returned the bow fully and Gahrenn left.
"You know, I'm still not convinced he's not hiding something." Sheridan muttered. Delenn put her hand on his shoulder and he squeezed her fingers before kissing them.
"If it were serious he would tell us. Minbari do not like to admit they do not have everything completely under control. It is a matter of pride to us that we always know what is happening."
"Even when you don't?"
"As you say. He feels the Ranger complement will be sufficient should there be anything unexpected. He would not put us into danger. We will be fine."
"Me, I don't mind. You, on the other hand..."
She frowned. "We have already discussed this, John."
"I know, I know. Still. David's gonna miss you."
"David is too thrilled that Michael's here. You have seen the way those two dote on each other. I might as well disappear once they get together. In any case, it's only for a day. I do not think he will even notice I'm gone."
"Oh, he notices. Just like his father." Delenn smiled at the sparkle in Sheridan's eyes, then frowned again as he winced. "Damn. I think those painkillers are already wearing off."
"They shouldn't be. Perhaps you should see the healer?"
"No. It'll be all right. Turhan always manages to get me there. I think it's just bruises over bruises. If it's no better tomorrow when I get up I'll visit the healer. Meantime..." he scanned over his diary. "I've got another meeting in twenty minutes, and I don't get off again until six. What about you?"
"I have to meet with Verkat about some shipments, and then Turhan wanted to see me about some of the new Ranger recruits."
"Anything I should know about?"
She shook her head. "Just the usual. Rangers are considered the elite forces. Everyone wants to become one, but not everyone wants to do so for the right reasons. We want loyal warriors, not well-trained mercenaries. He wants me to help him interview a couple of them. They may not accept Turhan's decision, but they have no choice but to accept mine. The very fact they are arguing with him suggests to me they are not suitable, but they do not seem to realise that." She sighed. "I will deal with it."
"When will you be finished?"
"That depends on how stubborn they are. Certainly by six."
"Then I'll order dinner for six-thirty." He tapped the communications panel and gave the order. There was a knock at the door and the Minbari secretary stepped in.
"Your pardon, Mr. President, but I have some papers here you may wish to review."
Sheridan nodded. "Fine. I've got a few minutes before the next meeting. Bring them over, Sheruth." He turned to Delenn. "See you later." Delenn nodded and bent down to kiss him. Sheruth stared at the floor, embarrassed by the show of affection. She was new to the job and exceedingly efficient, but while she had been told that Sheridan and Delenn did not act like Minbari, she was still having a hard time actually dealing with it. As Delenn left Sheridan looked up.
"Is there something wrong?"
"I am sorry, Mr. President. It is none of my business. I will learn. It is just...unusual."
Sheridan scanned the papers as he spoke. "For Minbari, yes." He looked up. "I'll try to remember to be a little more formal in front of you."
"No, no, please. I am sorry. I am not used to this, but...."
"But?" Sheridan prompted, returning to the reports. As the pause lengthened he raised his eyes, urging her to continue with a nod.
"Well," she looked around. She was a young Minbari and still, Sheridan suspected, rather prone to the giggles -- as far as any Minbari would be -- but she was the best at her job, and his sudden and last minute changes of plans hadn't fazed her yet. She was worth her weight in any precious metal. She didn't rise to his temper or fail to smile at his jokes. She admired Delenn enormously and was utterly determined to do the right thing no matter what. At last she cleared her throat and leaned down conspiratorially. "If I may speak freely?"
"I like it." She allowed a smile to spread across her face and Sheridan grinned in response.
"Good." He said, lowering his voice with hers. "So do I!"
She laughed properly and then clamped her hand over her mouth, embarrassed at her outburst, looking from side to side to see if she had been seen.
"I don't think the room is bugged," he assured her. "And if it is you can blame it on my bad influence. Now, what's this bit about?" He pointed to a paragraph and she started to explain.
Six o'clock couldn't come around fast enough. By the time Sheridan sat down in his own quarters his body felt like he'd been kicked by a horse. His side was stiffening and his muscles quivered with exhaustion. Meeting after meeting had ensured he did not have the time to apply any of Turhan's teachings, nor the opportunity to fetch more painkillers. "I have GOT to stop having those training sessions on long days," he muttered to the room at large. "I'm getting too old for this."
"Hell, I could've told you that!" Garibaldi chuckled as he walked in and handed the sleeping form of David over to a nanny to take to his bed. "I think I've finally run him ragged. He should let you two get some sleep for once."
"I don't think an earthquake's gonna wake me tonight!" Sheridan carefully rose and walked over to the nanny, still nursing his side. David opened his eyes.
"Well hello there. You been running your Uncle Mike into the ground?"
"Oh, and I'm not I suppose, hmm? What's this?" He gently removed the model of a Minbari Sharlinn cruiser from David's hand. "You been fighting the Battle of Corianna Six all over again? Who won?"
"Me!" David announced proudly.
"And who were you?"
David's young face drew itself together into a frown as he tried to articulate what he'd already been taught. "Mother is from Minbar. You're Earth. Ta'lon is Narn and he's a friend too, so I was all of them."
Sheridan burst out laughing and then winced as his side reminded him of its presence. David had been fascinated by Ta'lon when he'd come to visit a few weeks before. Clearly the Narn had had an effect on the boy. Not a bad thing, Sheridan decided. Ta'lon was an honourable Narn and a good example for his son. "That's the way to win. Be all sides at once! So who was Uncle Mike?"
"The Shadows," David announced seriously.
"And you beat him? Good for you."
"He's following in the steps of his old man," Garibaldi grinned.
"Not so much of the old!" Sheridan called over his shoulder.
"Tell me a story? " David asked, now rather more alert with his father paying him attention. Sheridan was not an absent father, but business meant he didn't see as much of his son as he would like. David had already learned to seize his chances when they came.
"Well now. That all depends on you. If you promise me you won't kick up a fuss over your bath I'll be in later. All right?"
" 'Kay." David's expression was sullen. "Promise?"
"Takar! Bath please. I wanna hear dad's story!"
Sheridan shook his head and smiled as the nanny ran after his son who was headed at top speed out of the room. "What a monster!" he grinned.
"And just exactly what do you mean saying our son's a monster?" Delenn chided from the doorway.
"Delenn, you didn't have him pretending to attack you all day. I think I've got more bruises than John!" Garibaldi groaned.
"Who was he this time?"
"Minbar, Earth *and* Narn," Sheridan provided proudly.
"Well, at least he's got the right idea." She turned to Garibaldi. "Who were you?"
Garibaldi lowered his voice. "The Shadows," he said in as intimidating tone as he could muster.
Delenn shook her head. "It's a good thing they aren't around any more. He'd think he could take them on all on his own."
"Not unheard of," Sheridan muttered and then stepped back before Delenn could round on him.
"No more fighting, please. I don't think I'm up to it!" Garibaldi groaned from the couch.
"Speaking of which..." Delenn stepped closer to Sheridan. Self-consciously he let his hand drop but it was too late. "How are you feeling?"
A shrug. "Sore and tired, but I'll be fine," he reassured her.
"I picked up some salve from the healer. It will give you some relief so you can sleep tonight. We have a long day tomorrow."
Sheridan grunted. Delenn looked towards the sound of squealing coming from the bathroom. Sheridan followed her eyes and smiled. "I promised him I'd tell him a story if he had his bath."
"And which battle will you describe this time? Honestly, John, you might teach him something other than war!"
"I do! He just keeps changing the subject. He'll get over it."
"He will if you stop encouraging him." Delenn's face was stern.
"Do you tell him war stories?"
"Then he's getting a balanced education." Sheridan smiled until Delenn finally threw up her hands in despair. He looked at Garibaldi who winked at him from the sofa. Delenn turned and caught the end of the exchange, only to be met with a look of innocence from Garibaldi when she raised her eyebrow.
"You two are incorrigible!"
"It's a man thing," Garibaldi muttered, struggling to keep a grin from spreading over his face.
"I wouldn't say that if I were you. Delenn can beat me at the Denn'bok still," Sheridan warned.
"You'll pardon me if I don't take up the challenge." He raised a finger. "Yet," he added. At Delenn's bemused expression he shook his head. "Never mind. Let's just say John's not the only one who can see advantages in learning how to use that thing." He sat up and leaned forward, rescuing a cigar from his top pocket and rolling it between his fingers briefly before putting it in his mouth. Delenn eyed him.
"Please don't tell me you're going to light that thing in here?"
Garibaldi raised his hands to show he had yet to get out his lighter and then took the cigar from between his teeth. He looked at it sadly for a moment. "Outside, huh?"
"If you wouldn't mind."
Sheridan smiled. "C'mon Michael. I need to talk to you in private anyway. How about a stroll around the gardens?" Garibaldi nodded and slowly drew himself to his feet. Sheridan turned to Delenn. "I won't be long. Can you ask them to hold off dinner until I finish telling David his story?" Delenn nodded and watched Sheridan and Garibaldi exit through the doors to the garden.
Once outside Garibaldi waited until Sheridan had closed the doors before retrieving his lighter and sucking long on the cigar, savouring the flavour. Finally he blew out a circle of smoke and turned. "So? What's up?"
"You know Delenn and I have an appointment in Catazan province tomorrow?"
Garibaldi nodded, pulling on the cigar once more. "Yeah. So, like I said, what's up?"
"I'm not sure. I just don't think Gahrenn's telling me all I need to know."
"So ask him. Or do you want me to lean on him?"
"No, no, no. Nothing like that. It's just...You always had an instinct for trouble, Michael. Could smell it a mile off. I'm worried because Delenn's going with me. I've got fifteen Rangers coming along for the ride." Garibaldi raised an eyebrow. "I know. That's my problem. It was Gahrenn's suggestion."
Garibaldi paused, letting the smoke issue slowly from his mouth before blowing out the last puff and watching it laze its way up into the cloudless sky. "Well, I'd say with fifteen nothing short of an army is gonna get to you, and I reckon if they *had* an army stationed there who didn't like you we'd know about it by now. He's worried, but it sounds like he's covered the bases. What excuse did he give?"
"Potholes," Sheridan responded with undisguised disgust, sitting on a low wall and looking out over the garden. The scent from a tree not unlike Earth's Mock Orange wafted towards him, blended with the aromatic smell of Garibaldi's cigar. Seeing the latter's confused expression he added "It's a mining province. The bombing destabilised the geology a bit. Well, that's his story and he's sticking to it."
"So they're guide dogs?"
"You're right. It's bullshit. You want me to see what I can dig up before tomorrow?"
Sheridan nodded. "Anything would help. But I don't want to worry Delenn or offend Gahrenn" He reached into his inner jacket pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. "My passwords are on here. You can use them to access all the files. That way you won't have to go through him or any of the others." He handed it over. Garibaldi opened the slip of paper, read it, nodded and passed it back. "You gonna remember those?"
Garibaldi tapped his temple. "Good memory for secrets," he winked.
"John." Delenn's voice sailed over the garden. "David wants his story." She stepped through the doors and walked towards them. "And I'd quite like some dinner, so..."
"I know, I know." Sheridan raised his hands. "Rides me like a mule, you know," he whispered to Garibaldi, all the while grinning from ear to ear. He pulled himself upright and winced again. "Damn! That really is sore." He rubbed and held his side tenderly as Delenn reached them. She watched his careful movements for a moment until he looked up and saw her expression. He straightened and smiled. "It's OK." He reassured her.
"I've already called the Healer. He wants to look you over before we go to bed." She raised her hand to prevent his protestations. "Just to be sure."
"Does the term 'mother hen' mean anything to you?"
"Does the term 'stubborn as a mule' mean anything to you?"
Sheridan growled as Garibaldi smothered a laugh. "Well, I'm gonna go inside and clean up before dinner. I'll leave you two love birds to it." He leaned over and gave Delenn a peck on the cheek before turning to Sheridan. "I'll get back to you on that."
Garibaldi sauntered back to the building, carefully extinguishing the cigar and putting the remainder back in his top pocket before opening the doors and stepping inside. Delenn turned to Sheridan.
"Get back to you on what?"
"Just a few things I asked him to check for me."
He snorted. "You don't miss a thing, do you?"
"I know you too well. Will it make you feel safer?"
Sheridan nodded. "It just doesn't feel right, you know?"
Delenn frowned and then nodded. "I know. Gahrenn is loyal, though."
Sheridan's eyes opened in shock. "I wasn't suggesting..." he sighed as she raised an eyebrow. "I'm not sure if I'll ever understand what makes you guys tick." He stepped closer and put his arms around her waist. He needed a distraction. Whatever was wrong he wouldn't find it by going over what he already knew. It was what he didn't know that was causing the problem. Garibaldi would find anything, if there was anything to find. Of that he was certain. In the meantime...."I enjoy finding out, though."
She placed her hands on his chest and smiled. "So do I."
They stood in the garden for a while, inhaling the strong scent of jasmine and freshly mown grass as a light breeze moved the air. It was going to be a beautiful summer's evening. Sheridan took a deep breath and then cut it short as his side twinged again. He coughed a little and then shook his head at her concerned look. "I'd better give David his story or he'll come looking for me. Are you going to join us?"
"I'll pop in to kiss him goodnight. He's barely seen you this week. I think he needs some time alone with you."
Sheridan shook his head. "You know I don't mean to avoid him. It just happens that way."
"I know. And so does he, but it's as well to make the most of the chances you have."
He nodded and together they walked back to the house.
Delenn oversaw the dinner preparations while Sheridan, mindful of Delenn's earlier complaint, regaled his son with stories of knights in armour and swords with names and power being wielded by heroes against impossible odds. It was close enough to David's preferred battle tales to placate him, while being rooted firmly in fantasy. Maybe it was something to do with the Minbari-Human mix in his genetic makeup but, whatever the reason, David seemed to latch onto ideas with lightning speed and showed a greater understanding than Sheridan thought possible in one so young. Of course, fatherly pride probably explained why he thought his son particularly bright, but the boy's halting speech earlier in the evening was more a product of exhaustion than his usual mode of address. He could already name the main Earth and Minbari ships with ease, and even some of the major battlefields, though he sometimes struggled with the pronunciation, and he rarely confused protagonists. Sheridan sincerely doubted he had such a grasp when he was David's age.
As the story drew to a close he could see his son was fighting to stay awake. He looked up and saw Delenn leaning against the door-post watching them, her arms folded across her chest and a soft smile on her face.
"So, you ready to sleep now?" Sheridan asked, wiping a lock of hair out of David's face. David nodded. "And are you going to dream of dragons and heroes?" The boy nodded once more. His eyes wandered over to Delenn.
"G'night, mother," he said sleepily.
Delenn stepped forward and sat on the other side of the bed, leaning forward to kiss his forehead. "Sleep well, David."
"Thanks, dad. Can you tell me more stories like that?"
Sheridan nodded. "Another time. Go to sleep now."
David's eyes were already closed. Sheridan leaned forward and, copying Delenn's previous movements, gently kissed his son on the forehead and then leaned back. Taking Delenn's hand in his own he rose from the bed, leading her to the foot of it. For a moment they stood, side by side, looking down on their child and then, with a whispered 'Goodnight' they quietly left, closing the door softly behind them.
"More battles?" Delenn asked, smiling.
"Not exactly. More a mishmash of Arthurian legends and anything else I could come up with. Is dinner ready?"
She nodded. "For some time. You were quite involved. I was beginning to worry you'd fallen asleep in there yourself."
He chuckled. "Believe me, I nearly did!" He smiled to himself. "He's a good kid, isn't he?"
"He's our son. Of course he is."
"Hmph. Remind me to ask dad to tell you what *I* was like at his age! I think your genes are the ones keeping him good!"
They entered the dinning room and settled down. Garibaldi rose from the settee in the next room where he'd been scanning a Mars paper he'd downloaded. "At last. I'm starving. I wondered if you two would ever eat!"
Sheridan eyed a bottle in the middle of the table. He picked it up and examined the label. "Wine?" he asked, turning to Michael.
"Just a little something from the Edgar's cellars. Since I can't drink it I thought you might appreciate some. Must get a little desperate out here sometimes without a drop of the good stuff to keep you going."
Sheridan looked at the label again. "Twenty two fourteen? This must be worth a fortune!"
Garibaldi grinned. "Ah, what the heck. I never understood the point of keeping bottles locked up gathering dust. Might as well drink it as admire it."
Sheridan expertly cracked the seal and wafted the bottle under his nose. "Wow." He turned to Delenn. "Do you mind?"
She shook her head. "I agree with Michael. It seems to a pity to waste it."
"A glass for you?" They'd discovered some time earlier that Delenn's mixed system could handle alcohol in small amounts. At worse it made her rather more prone to engage in more animated discussions. In larger amounts of course....
"Please." She held out her glass and Sheridan poured the wine, filling his own glass before setting the bottle down once more. As the food was served he lifted the glass, swilling the contents around before taking a deep breath. "Oh man. That *is* good. Thanks, Michael!"
"No problem. I can send over a case if you want it. I've got tons of the stuff."
Sheridan took a judicious sip and washed it around his mouth, savouring it before swallowing. "Hmm. Better not. I'd be drunk for a month. But feel free to bring a bottle over any time you come visiting."
The wine complemented the meal perfectly, a fact that was not lost on the participants. Garibaldi drank water and some Minbari fruit juice for which he'd discovered a fondness. By the end of the meal Sheridan was relaxed and smiling, leaning back in his chair and nodding to himself.
"Works better than the painkillers," he chuckled.
"Speaking of which..." Delenn said, rising.
"Delenn, I've just eaten! And I feel fine. If I need him I can see him tomorrow."
"No. You will see him now." She stood behind his chair. When he made no move to stand she folded her arms and scowled at him. Garibaldi saw her expression even if Sheridan was studiously avoiding it.
"John. She's got that look. I'd do what you're told if I were you."
Sheridan looked up, a slightly merry smile on his face, which was quickly schooled to seriousness when he saw she meant what she said. "Uh, right." He stood up, swaying slightly. "Whoah. That stuff's a little too good. Have you any idea how long it's been since I had any alcohol?"
"Too long, apparently. Delenn, do you need any help getting him to bed?"
She shook her head. "You're a bad influence, Michael!" she said, but there was nothing but humour in her voice. "I will be fine with him. And I believe you have some studying to do before tomorrow. An early night for us would probably be in your interests if you are to get any rest."
"I can sleep after you've gone. Just make sure he drinks plenty of water before he crashes, otherwise he's gonna have one hell of a thumper when he wakes up."
"Are you two determined to embarrass me?" Sheridan muttered, straightening with exaggerated care and slowly making his way to the door. "Anyone would think you were my parents!" He reached the doorway and paused, eyeing the handle for a few seconds. "Oh boy. It really *has* been too long. Delenn, which of these damn things opens the door?"
Garibaldi chuckled. "Sleep well, you two. See you in the morning."
Delenn was also laughing as she shook her head. "Goodnight, Michael. Thank you." She walked across to Sheridan who was still considering the matter of the door handles, of which he could presently see four when there were, in fact, only two. She moved his hand to the right one and gently guided him through the door.
"G'night Michael," Sheridan tossed back, his speech now slightly slurred.
Delenn walked him to the bedroom and eased him out of his jacket. He stood in front of her as she undid his shirt, his hands by his sides since any attempt on his part to help resulted in a smack. "I can undress myself, you know," he muttered.
"Not right now you can't. In any case, Healer Mondath has been kept waiting long enough. He does have other patients."
"Delenn, I'm fine, really." He paused as he heard her sharp intake of breath. "What is it?" He looked down and raised his arm to see the bruise, red and raw at the centre, moving to purple and green towards the edges. The centre line showed the impression of the pike. There was a sizeable lump forming. "Oops. That's a little worse than I thought."
"Mondath, could you come in here, please?"
The Healer had remained outside out of respect until he was called upon. Delenn had warned him via the communications console during a hiatus in the meal that he should delay his arrival given Sheridan's obvious enjoyment of the wine, so he had not, in truth, been kept waiting very long. Now summoned he entered and bowed. "Entil'zha. Mr. President."
"Mondath," Sheridan responded formally, trying to return the bow. Delenn reached out to steady him as he swayed once more. "My apologies. I'm not really fit to be seen right now."
"It is of no consequence, Mr. President."
Given David and John's tendency towards accidents of both minor and more serious kinds, Mondath had become a friend of the family. He was originally Delenn's personal Healer and had helped Sheridan overcome the trauma of his incarceration at the hands of Clark's forces. He understood Sheridan better than most Minbari and admired him, while seeing Delenn much like a daughter. Extremely open-minded he had no patience with those who still harboured resentment for Starkiller. Sheridan had proved himself on more than one occasion to Mondath's satisfaction. The man's dedication and determination to do the right thing no matter what it cost him had already resulted in a few call outs for stress related problems. Problems made the more severe by Sheridan's refusal to concern others with them until they had developed to the point where they could no longer be ignored.
Mondath remained formal in his greetings, but that was a professional courtesy. He had been a guest in the house on more than one occasion, enjoying the couple's easy banter and relaxing in their company. Just past middle age by Minbari standards but in his early seventies, Mondath had the patient look of one born to the task of healing. He carried a bag in which he kept a number of remedies both potent and swift. His long robes swirled at his feet as he helped Delenn guide Sheridan to the bed and lay him down. Gently he rolled Sheridan onto his right side so he could better examine the damage on his left. "I see Turhan gave you a going away present."
"I wasn't paying as much attention as I should," Sheridan muttered.
"Hmm. I would advise greater concentration in the future. He has caught you here before. It is a weakness he knows how to exploit."
"He's trying to teach me a lesson."
"And will you learn it before he breaks another rib?" Gently he probed the bruise with his fingers. Sheridan winced.
"I sincerely hope so. Can you do anything? I think the wine's starting to wear off."
"Not a medicine I would have advocated, but it has its advantages. Does this hurt?" He pressed and Sheridan grunted.
"So this would..." he pressed and Sheridan let out a cry which he quickly smothered.
"I thought so. You are lucky. He has not broken anything, but there may be a crack there and the damage to the surrounding tissue is extensive. Slightly harder and I doubt you would have kept going for so long."
"I've had worse." Sheridan now had his arms folded, one leg slightly drawn up to maintain his position.
"I know," Mondath returned, smiling. He reached down into his bag and retrieved a jar and a bottle. "The painkillers should not be taken on alcohol, so I suggest you keep them with you tomorrow. You will need them then, I think. The salve should ease the pain for tonight." He turned to Delenn. "Rub some of this in gently. There is an anaesthetic property that should ease his rest combined with the alcohol he has enjoyed tonight. He will tell you when it is enough."
"I understand." She showed him the salve she'd collected earlier and he examined the label.
"The new one is stronger. I think he will need it." He stood up, popping Delenn's bottle into his bag. "And I will speak to Turhan about pulling his blows. I think he sometimes allows himself too many liberties. I know you told him not to treat you any differently from the other recruits, but with all due respect, Mr. President, most of the other recruits are considerably younger than you are and can handle Turhan's blows rather better."
"You know he can't do that once we started using the Denn'bok. I know what I'm doing," Sheridan said defensively, and then added in a mutter "And the next person who calls me old..."
"Not old. Older. You cannot ask a body in its forties to do the same as a body in its twenties. And yours has already taken a considerable beating. It has served you well. Give it the respect it has earned." While Mondath still smiled there was a severity in his look which cowed the acerbic remark forming on Sheridan's lips. Sheridan sighed.
"I'll do my best," he allowed, nodding tightly.
"Then I will leave you. Should it still be causing you pain when you come back, come and see me."
"I will make sure that he does," Delenn replied, bowing. "Thank you for your time and patience."
"It is my pleasure to serve, Delenn. As always." He returned the bow. "Goodnight Mr. President."
"Goodnight, Mondath. Thanks."
The Healer turned and left. Delenn settled on the side of the bed and undid the lid of the salve. Carefully she smeared some over the bruise, mindful of the winces Sheridan smothered as she gently worked it into the skin.
"He's right, John. You really should take things more easily now. You don't have to achieve master standard on the Denn'bok."
"Oh god, not you too? Look, I got a bad wallop. I'll be fine. It's nothing, really. And my body is just....ouch! You did that on purpose!"
"You were saying?" After the slightly harder pressure she'd applied she now returned to the gentle circles which worked the salve into the bruise. Sheridan shook his head knowing he was beaten and let her continue her ministrations. After a few minutes he sighed.
"That's feeling a lot better."
"Is it enough?"
"Just a little more." She continued until..."That's enough. I can barely feel it. What's in that stuff, anyway?"
"We have had a long time to develop our medicines. While it looks less sophisticated than your Earth regen. packs this substance works in much the same way, as well as having the anaesthetic quality Mondath mentioned. It's also less cumbersome. There. How are you feeling?"
"Well, I'm feeling no pain, but anyone who saw me wipe out that bottle of Garibaldi's could have told you that. I feel fine, really." He sat up carefully and stretched his side, turning slightly to test it. "Yep. Much better." He reached down to undo his shoes and groaned. "But definitely still drunk. Would you mind?"
She knelt on the floor and helped him to untie his shoe-laces. She was a little clumsier than usual due to the salve's effect on her fingers, but she worked swiftly nonetheless. Free of those and his socks he stood carefully and undid his belt and trousers, steadying himself on the wall to remove them. While he finished putting on his shorts and T-shirt Delenn went into the bathroom to remove the rest of the salve from her hands and generally clean up, laying out his own stuff after she'd finished.
"It's all ready for you in there."
"Thanks." He walked with exaggerated care to the bathroom. There was a sound of running water for a few minutes and then he emerged with a glass of water that he set down on the bedside table. She was already in bed and the sheets were turned down on his side. He sat on the edge of the bed staring at the opposite wall. She rolled over.
"Hmm? Nothing. I was just thinking about tomorrow."
"Michael is working on it. If there is anything we need to know he'll find it. Now get some sleep, otherwise you won't be any use to anyone."
"Yeah, I know." He laid back, pulling the sheets over him. Delenn moved towards him and then hesitated. He raised his arm and nodded. "Just don't hit me there, OK?"
She moved closer, feeling his arm close around her shoulders and resting her head on his chest. With her left hand she slowly stroked her fingers over his chest and stomach through the T-shirt. After a minute she slipped her hand under the material to caress his bare skin before settling down. He kissed her and then waved off the light on his side and lay staring at the ceiling for a while until the combination of alcohol, exhaustion and comfort forced his body's surrender.
Garibaldi worked through the night checking every lead he could find. By morning he was more convinced than ever that there was something going on, but he couldn't pin down what was nagging at his brain. Names were spinning through his head. Warrior caste associations that he couldn't make sense of. He could see why the fighting had been bitter. With a major Religious Caste temple and a Warrior Caste training ground at either end of the province the clash was inevitable, but there was more to it than that. A similar situation held in at least three other provinces, so why did Catazan suffer so badly? And why were the reports since the end of the war leaving him with a feeling of incompleteness? There always seemed to be some detail missing. On the surface everything appeared normal, but Garibaldi had filled out too many reports of his own not to notice the omissions. There were always some details in a report which, on the surface, were not that important, but from which a trained security investigator could learn more than from the obvious facts. Yet none of those were present in any of the reports Garibaldi was reading. While some of that was undoubtedly due to Minbari reserve when it came to personal matters, there was still an element that could not be explained.
He let the chair he was leaning back on rock forward, the front legs hitting the ground with a bang, and thumped the desk in frustration. Shaking his head he checked the time. Assuming Sheridan was in a fit state to travel this morning, he'd be in to check up on what Garibaldi had learned in the next ten minutes. Apart from reinforcing the President's feelings of unease there was nothing Garibaldi could provide. At best he had hunches. Well, they'd served him in the past, they'd have to serve him now.
He stood up and stretched, trying to work the cramps out of his lower back from sitting at the console for so long. The closest Minbari equivalent to coffee was sitting on the desk and he snagged the cup and held it to his lips, considering the console again before downing it. He grimaced as the cold liquid hit his mouth. Strolling over to the warmer he poured a refill and let the heat flood his mouth before swallowing. The door announce warbled. Yep, right on time.
Sheridan stepped in, and paused in the open doorway. "Well?"
Garibaldi shrugged. "I can tell you more about what the reports aren't telling me than what they are. I've pulled up every goddamn thing I can think of and still there's something missing. All I can tell you now is that I think tempers are still running a bit high out there. Some of the Warrior Caste aren't happy and I think there's the occasional flare up. Not that it's actually being stated, but the gaps are telling."
"So it's still a war zone?"
"No," he took another swig and motioned to Sheridan with the cup. Sheridan shook his head. "No, I don't think it's that bad. I do think there are some pretty pissed off Minbari in there. Gahrenn was being cautious, and I think he's right to assign so many to you, but I don't think you'll face anything more than the occasional rowdy crowd and the Rangers can handle that. You might want a change of clothes for the fruit salad they're gonna throw at you."
"Given the food shortages I doubt they'll waste it on expressing their disapproval. Stones are more likely."
"The Rangers can scout on ahead and make sure you avoid anyone in that kind of a mood. Of course, there's always the possibility of someone with a real grudge who decides to take it out on the President from a distance."
Sheridan shook his head. "Assassination isn't the Minbari style. That's the coward's way. Religious Caste don't believe in it and Warrior Caste wouldn't do it. And since the Worker Caste just want to fix everything I know they're not going to try and mortar me to death." Garibaldi winced at the pun. "Sorry. So what you're saying is that at worst we're going to encounter unruly crowds we can probably avoid, right?"
"So far. I'm gonna keep digging for a while and if I come up with anything I'll call it through." He rubbed his eyes and yawned. Sheridan shook his head.
"Later. You're beat. Take a couple of hour's break. It's going to take us about three hours to get there and there's a reception before we tour the city. You've been at it all night. Whatever's wrong isn't obvious and you're more likely to miss it if you're tired. I'll keep checking the reports myself en route, it'll give me something to do."
"How are you feeling?"
"Better. Stiff, but better. That wine was a good idea."
Garibaldi grinned. "Well, for you at least!"
Sheridan nodded and reached forward to clap Garibaldi on the shoulder. "Thanks for trying, Michael. It's appreciated. I know it's not your area any more..."
"Hey, once a security officer... Anyway, what kind of a guy would I be if I didn't look out for my buddy?"
Sheridan snorted. "See you when we get back?"
"Sure. I've got a lesson from Turhan later. He's gonna teach me a thing or two. Knowin' me, by the time you get back I'll be able to beat you!"
"Knowing Turhan, by the time I get back you'll be in the infirmary!"
"Hey, have a little faith will ya?"
"I have," Sheridan said as he turned. "In him!" He shot Garibaldi a passing grin over his shoulder and stepped outside.
Garibaldi shook his head and laughed. He took another sip of the 'coffee' and then bent down to the console once more and stared at it. "Computer. Call up the Warrior Caste records again. I want a full listing of those presently registered at the Catazan training facility. Give me their backgrounds, known associations, family relations immediate and, uh, oh, let's go back a generation as well. See what that turns up. Something tells me we've got a grudge lurking somewhere and I want to know why."
"Full report requires access to central registration records," the clipped computer voice responded.
"Then access it. Jeez, what do I have to do, hold your hand?"
"Central registration computer power is presently down due to repairs. System should be operational in two hours."
"What a time to do an overhaul! Don't they have a back-up?"
"Back-up database was damaged by bombing. Main computer has been running on auxiliary power for two days due to maintenance. Files are being copied to a new holding facility. Connections to the new back-up database take priority over outside calls."
"How come it's taken so long? I mean, come on, these are the genealogical records for the entire planet, right? The war's been officially over for years, die-hards in the outer provinces excepted. Who goofed?"
"Do not understand term. Goofed."
Garibaldi shook his head in frustration, running his hand over the crown. "Jeez! Who isn't doing their job? Why is the mainframe not functioning correctly?" he said as formally as he could.
"Bombing caused previously undetected destabilisation of underground structures which have recently collapsed. The mainframe power core was damaged. Work is proceeding as a matter of priority." There was the slightest hint of an upturn in the computer's otherwise impassive voice.
"Is it my imagination, or is this thing getting pissed at me?" Garibaldi muttered. Louder he said "OK, do what you can until then, then pull up the other files. How long is it gonna take?"
"Estimate three point two hours if current estimates of repair times are accurate."
"OK. I'm gonna get some sleep. Call me when the reports are ready."
Garibaldi yawned and stepped into the corridor, heading for his bedroom. Three hours would work wonders on his tired mind. Eight hours once he'd done all he could would be even more welcome. It was cutting it fine if he did turn up something, but it was the best he could do. He caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to see Delenn at the end of the corridor. He waved and she responded. Sheridan joined her and, with a yelled 'See you later, Michael!', the two disappeared. Garibaldi nodded and entered his bedroom. He stripped off his jacket and shirt and sat down on the bed to take off his shoes. He contemplated his trousers for a minute and then fell back onto the bed. So they'd get a little crumpled. Who cared? Certainly not him.
The room was plunged into darkness.
The journey to the province was uneventful. Sheridan scanned the records but found nothing more than Garibaldi. Delenn offered to help but he waved her off. She had a speech she was supposed to give and he knew she wanted to do some final fine-tuning. Upon landing in the capital city, Drexor, they were met by the local officials. There were no crowds, a fact that caused the couple to exchange glances. While the Minbari were not a showy people, it was usual for there to be at least a few who turned out to see them. The Minbari equivalent of the local mayor assured them the absence was not meant as an offence, merely a reflection of the hard work everyone was putting in to get the province up and running. Better to work than spend time showing respect for someone who had already made it clear they wanted the province in full working order as soon as possible anyway.
They went to the reception. The drinks were standard and the food not particularly impressive. When the mayor attempted to apologise for the Spartan fare Sheridan shook his head, assuring him that he understood the needs of the province and he was, in fact, surprised they'd managed as well as they had.
During the meal Sheridan surreptitiously took the bottle of painkillers from his jacket pocket and downed two with a glass of water. The mayor noticed but said nothing. If the President was on medication it was none of his concern.
Once the reception itself was over Sheridan and Delenn, monitored at a discrete distance by the Rangers, exited the building. Standing on the steps Delenn gave the speech that was recorded to be relayed throughout the province later. Sheridan stood back, happy to let her take the limelight for a change. These were her people; she understood them better than he ever could. His Minbari was now of a sufficiently high standard that he could understand the bulk of the speech and he nodded approvingly as she expressed, far more eloquently than he, their feelings and hopes for the area. They had not discussed the speech itself, only the problems it sought to address. That she understood him so well as to put his every thought into words gave him a soft glow of pride.
The speech ended and the tour began. Rangers scouted out ahead along the route chosen by the officials, ensuring everything was clear. Their stance was alert but relaxed. There did not seem to be any reason for alarm. Sheridan found his tense muscles unwinding. Maybe it would be all right after all. He hugged Delenn to him as they rounded another corner and nodded at those who waited there for them.
The bleep of the communications console took a while to penetrate Garibaldi's sleep fogged mind. When at last he did recognise the sound he rolled over and groaned.
"How long have I been out?"
"Four hours twelve minutes."
"Four hours?!" Garibaldi was now wide awake. "I thought I said I was to be woken when the results came through."
"A delay in repairs halted processing of the request. The request has now been completed."
"OK, OK." Garibaldi stood up, stretched, and went into the bathroom to splash some cold water onto his face in the hope that it would shock his neurones into a more alert state. He emerged, still wiping his neck, and ordered the computer to display the results. He was halfway down the genealogical records when..."Oh shit! Computer, where is President Sheridan right now?"
"President Sheridan is presently touring Drexor."
"I need an open channel to him or any of the Rangers with him."
Sheridan noticed one of the Rangers to his right take out a communications link and speak into it for a few seconds. When the Ranger looked up, the concern on his face was apparent. Delenn was talking to a woman who had a child with her and didn't see the Ranger's face. Quietly, so as not to draw undue attention, Sheridan motioned for the Ranger to come over to him. The Ranger responded promptly, but without excessive haste, and bowed.
"Is there a problem?" Sheridan asked.
"Mr. Garibaldi just called. He thinks he's found out what's been going on here."
The mayor, overhearing the word 'problem' slowed his steps so that Sheridan's forward momentum would bring him within earshot. Seeing the mayor's attention Sheridan stopped dead and motioned for the Ranger to lean closer to relay the information. When he'd finished Sheridan looked up, surveying the surrounding buildings.
"You're sure?" he said at last.
"Mr. Garibaldi is sure."
"Then I think we ought to cut this tour a little short, don't you?"
"I think that would be a wise move, Mr. President."
Sheridan nodded and looked up. Delenn was still smiling and talking to the woman with the child. She beckoned to Sheridan.
"John! I've found them!" she cried happily.
Sheridan nodded and smiled, relieved at least that part of the walkabout had proved successful. Nonchalantly, he strolled over, nodded and shook hands with the woman and then bent to talk to the child. He chatted lightly with the little girl for a moment as Delenn introduced them, but he wasn't really listening to her words. After a few minutes he stood up, nodded to the woman and then leaned closer to Delenn.
"Delenn, we're going to have to cut this short," he whispered.
Delenn stiffened slightly but kept her composure. Finishing the conversation as naturally as she could, and assuring her friend that she would contact her as soon as she got back to Tuzanor, she stepped back into the centre of the road with her husband. They kept walking, arm in arm, but Sheridan motioned for the mayor to join them as they walked.
"John, what's wrong?"
"Michael tracked down what was annoying him." The mayor came smoothly up to them and Delenn refrained from any further comment as Sheridan switched on his most charming smile. "I'm sorry, but something's come up and we have to get back," he said.
"Nothing unpleasant I hope, Mr. President?"
"No, no. Just one of those things. As long as I deal with it quickly there'll be no problem, but we really do need to leave as soon as possible. I was wondering if there was a shortcut we might take back to the landing craft?"
"Of course. I will instruct the Anlashok. They can lead the way." He beckoned to one of the Rangers who responded quickly.
"Please extend our apologies. I hope we can come back and finish this at some time in the future."
"You will always be welcome, of course." The mayor continued to give directions to the Ranger until the latter nodded. With a hand signal he pulled all the Rangers together into a tighter formation around their charges and then took point, leading the way. A few members of the crowd looked surprised at the sudden change of direction but, true to their Minbari traditions, did not question. The show was, apparently, over. Time to return to their normal lives and their duties. It had been a pleasant diversion, but work beckoned. The crowd dissipated without further debate.
The woman frowned slightly as the presidential party turned down a side street. She knew something had happened, but she didn't know what. After a few moments she mentally shrugged. Delenn was no longer the little girl she remembered; she now had duties which ranged far beyond Minbar. It was not her concern or her business to question. The little girl, her granddaughter, smiled up at her.
"I like her. And he is nice too!" she said. "I hope we can see them again someday."
"I'm sure we will, Kat. I'm sure we will. Come along, now. I must get you back to your mother."
The two walked away.
Going down back-streets that were strewn with rubble the going was slower but the route shorter. Sheridan could already see the government complex less than a mile away. Much closer than he'd imagined given how long they'd been walking. At one intersection, as they turned down another small side street, a member of the local security forces ran up. At his words the mayor shook his head and then sighed. He turned the Sheridan.
"Mr. President, my apologies, but it seems I must leave you. Apparently there has been a cave in and there are casualties. As we are short-staffed at present, I must go and help co-ordinate our resources. Will you be all right returning to the complex alone?"
Sheridan indicated the Ranger complement. "Hardly alone. We'll be fine. Please, do what you can to help. We can find our own way back."
"If you are certain...?" The man still hesitated. He was clearly torn between his duty to his prestigious guests and his duty to his city. Delenn quickly resolved his dilemma.
"May Valen go with you to help you in your task. Please send us a report when you know the full extent of the damage and the casualties. Do you need any of our Rangers to help you?"
The mayor frowned. "I would not presume..."
"You are not presuming. We do not need so many. Would five be of use to you? Perhaps more?"
While Sheridan was nervous he understood Delenn's need to offer help. He looked up again at the government building. It was a fifteen-minute walk at most. They were no longer following the official route so any planned attacks wouldn't take place here, and he sincerely doubted a few resentful members of the Warrior Caste would go that far in expressing their annoyance. It simply wasn't worth it. The Rangers were more for show now. Ten or even five Rangers would be more than enough protection, should they be needed. He nodded as the mayor looked to him for confirmation.
"Delenn, as head of the Anlashok, can choose where she posts the Rangers," he said. "She's right. You need them more than we do. Take as many as you need."
The mayor was still torn. His security officer stepped into the breach. 'Sir, the situation is serious. We need all the help we can get if we are to save those caught in the rubble."
Sheridan decided to short-circuit the mayor's indecision and turned and summoned one of the Rangers, ordering him to take nine others with him to help. It was bad, one look at the security officer's face was enough to tell him that. When the mayor still hesitated Sheridan turned to Delenn who made it an order. The sense of relief emanating from the mayor was palpable.
"Valen bless you. I will send them back to you as soon as I can."
The couple waved off the thanks and watched as the group jogged away. Sheridan turned back towards the complex and motioned for Delenn to precede him.
She nodded and picked her way over some shattered crystals that crunched underfoot. Sheridan's heavier step and the steady marching beat of the Rangers echoed from the shattered walls of houses and the temple they had just passed. The strange acoustics generated by the crystal buildings still intact made it sound like far more were walking along the path. Sheridan ignored the effect, concentrating on getting Delenn over fallen debris. Then something caught his attention. A footstep that wasn't an echo, and wasn't one of theirs. He said nothing but strained his ears to hear. After a minute he was convinced there was a number of people mirroring their route along a parallel street. He tried to count the footsteps he heard. He saw the Rangers around him tense and knew they'd heard it too. Delenn sensed the change in atmosphere and turned.
"Is there something wrong?"
"I think it might be a good idea if we moved a little faster," he said, his hand pressing against her back. "I don't suppose you can jog in those shoes?"
"If required. Do you think it's that serious?"
Another sound brought Sheridan's head around, searching for the source. "I'd rather not find out." He quickened his step and Delenn matched him. The Rangers closed and Sheridan noticed several reached into the pouches at their belts and retrieved their pikes, carrying them at the ready in their hands. Another sound and then a cry of anger assured Sheridan it was time to pick up speed. "While I've never run from a fight in my life, given you're here I think this might be the time to try it out." Their speed increased and Sheridan looked over his shoulder to see four Warrior Caste Minbari headed towards them, Denn'boks already extended. That was all he needed. "Delenn, run!" he yelled, pushing her ahead of him. From what Garibaldi had discovered, she was the more likely target of their ire. If he could only get her safely away he reasoned he could probably persuade their attackers to desist. So long as she was there it was a red rag to a bull.
Sheridan hung back, cursing the fact that he had no weapon. As President it was no longer considered appropriate for him to carry anything like that. It would be an insult to his hosts as well as being completely out of place. Nevertheless, it looked like there was going to be a fight and bare hands weren't much use against a pike swung by a practised arm. He turned to one of the Rangers and instructed him to send for help. While the Ranger contacted the others Sheridan watched the warriors draw closer. Suddenly his attention was diverted by a cry. The Ranger who had gone with Delenn was standing, legs apart, his fighting pike open in his hands as nine more warriors blocked the way ahead. Delenn was standing behind him, looking from the warriors in front of her back to Sheridan.
"Damn! Come on!" he yelled at the Rangers and together they ran full tilt towards Delenn. United once more the Rangers surrounded the couple and took up a fighting stance. Sheridan looked around him. There was a building just behind them. The door was off its hinges and the building manifestly unsafe, but it would do as a retreat position until help arrived. "Are they on their way?" he asked the Ranger who'd made the call.
"Good. Then all we have to do is stall for a couple of minutes." He turned to the warriors and held up his hands. "We don't want to fight," he said flatly.
"But we do," replied one who stepped in front of the others. "But our fight is not with you this day, Starkiller. It is Delenn we want. Give her to us and we shall spare you."
"Now you know that's not going to happen. What has she done to you?" If he could just keep them talking long enough...
"My name is Alyt Kietzhak," the young warrior proclaimed loudly, pointedly ignoring Sheridan. "Does this name mean anything to you, Delenn?"
Delenn gasped and nodded. "Kietzhak, of the Star Rider clan, nephew of Neroon," she said.
"I see my reputation precedes me, as does yours. You, who convinced that fool Shakiri to risk the Starfire wheel in the belief that you would be honourable. He knew that even if he could not stand the fire, you would die because if he left, you would have to stay within its heat until it consumed you. But he did not know you as I do. He did not know you had lied to Neroon, had woven some spell on his mind, convincing him he was not the warrior true we knew him to be. I do not know what magic you used on him, or what drugs or other artifice, but whatever it was it destroyed him before the fire consumed him. You tricked our greatest warrior into suicide. For that there is a price."
Delenn took a deep breath. "Minbari do not kill Minbari, Kietzhak."
The warrior laughed. "Look around you, Delenn! We do not listen to the old ways here. Over two thousand Minbari have died at one another's hands in these streets. I myself killed over thirty of the accursed Religious Caste before Neroon's madness put an end to our holy war. And in the face of each I killed I saw you. I have been waiting for this moment for too long. If Starkiller chooses to remain with you then he, too, will die. There is no injunction upon our killing Earthers Delenn, and Sheridan is our sworn enemy. He may leave, as the coward he is, or he may stay and die with you. Either way, you will not leave Drexor alive."
Sheridan stepped forward, addressing the Warriors in their own tongue. "Kietzhak, Delenn did not lie to Neroon. He made his own decisions. You knew him. You knew he could only follow the calling of his heart. No one could persuade him to any path other than that he chose himself. Is this how you honour his name and his dying wish?"
"You LIE!" Kietzhak brought up the pike and instantly the Rangers surrounding the couple closed, protecting them. The other warriors took Kietzhak's attack as a signal and assaulted the Rangers closest to them. In the close combat required by the Denn'bok there was not the room for them to attack all at once, and Sheridan pulled Delenn back so that the wall and door of the building was at their backs, giving their attackers even less room for manoeuvre.
"Kietzhak NO! Don't do this!" Delenn screamed, trying to talk sense into the crazed warrior's grief-wracked mind. "I knew Neroon. He chose his path. I did not force him. But his sacrifice was as much a surprise to me as it was to you. I expected to die, I was willing to die if it ended the war. If that is what it takes now to end this..."
"Delenn, no!" Sheridan pulled her back as she moved forward. "I won't let you do this. The other Rangers will be here soon. Stay back!"
Kietzhak laughed again. A bitter, crazed sound with no humour in it. As Delenn looked into his eyes she saw there was no reasoning, no argument, no words that would dissuade him from the course he had chosen. "Your Rangers will not help you now, Sheridan. They are far away and loyal warriors even now hold them at bay. You are alone, as Neroon was alone. How does it feel? How does it feel to be lured into a trap and destroyed? How does it feel to be on the Black Star Starkiller? How does it feel?!" On the last cry he swung his pike and brought it crashing down on the head of one of the Rangers. The man's skull was crushed and he was dead before he hit the floor. Kietzhak moved into the gap towards Delenn but Sheridan quickly grabbed the fallen Ranger's Denn'bok and blocked him.
"You?! You, Starkiller, would dishonour us still further by attempting to wield the blade of the Minbari? These are weapons of honour, not toys for small children. Step aside. I will not soil myself by fighting you."
"Then you'll die," Sheridan responded through gritted teeth. Clearing a space he twisted the pike in his hands. It was showy, true, but it had the desired effect. Sheridan had expertly demonstrated one of the nine cardinal moves only mastered by senior exponents of the blade of honour. They were used to demonstrate to opponents the standard of the warrior before them. In Minbari battles between warriors of high rank, for a senior to attack a junior without first warning of the difference between them was considered dishonourable. It was the option of the opponents to choose this method to resolve their differences without battle if so desired. By this act Sheridan was announcing not only his skill, but the fact that he probably outranked Kietzhak. For a moment Sheridan was gratified to see a look of grudging respect in the warrior's eyes. Then he, too, stepped back and performed another of the nine effortlessly.
For all the show, these demonstrations were as much a part of the battle as the striking of the blades themselves. Kietzhak had taken up the challenge as one warrior to another. He could have refused and the fight would have fallen to blows without further delay, but Sheridan had guessed, correctly, that Kietzhak believed himself one of the Great Names. A warrior whose every incarnation had been warrior caste, and who had served with honour and died without stain on his name in each incarnation. With the challenge taken, Sheridan now had to prove his worth again. Silently thanking Turhan for insisting he learn them all and practice them until his arms ached and his mind swam, Sheridan performed another.
"Well, well, Starkiller. I see Turhan has been training you. But I trained with Durhan himself, not his student. Let us see how far you can go without error!" Another flawlessly performed sequence of movements left Sheridan nodding.
"He trained you well, Kietzhak. We know our worth. Let us end this."
"Run out of moves already, Starkiller?" Kietzhak lunged and Sheridan parried. As he stepped back he executed another of the nine, choosing a harder one than that which Kietzhak had demonstrated as was required. It was not one he had previously mastered, but the thought of death, not only his own (to which he was already resigned) but Delenn's concentrated his mind. Again, he executed the move without error. So long as he could continue to stall Kietzhak Sheridan was happy to keep this up until they ran out of moves. If they got that far without error, traditionally warriors of such proven rank tried to resolve their differences without battle. He wondered if Kietzhak would go that far, but he was determined to push him that way if he could. If one of them faltered, that one was offered the chance to leave without dishonour on his name. If Kietzhak failed, Sheridan was quite prepared to let him go if he chose to. If Sheridan failed he knew he'd still have to fight. Either way, the Challenge gave him time. Time to try and find another way out. Time for the other Rangers to get through the blockade and help them.
The rest of the warriors and Rangers continued their fight around the two challengers, but the fights seemed to have calmed slightly as they watched the Challenge while keeping their opponents at bay. This, too, had been Sheridan's intention. Since he was the highest ranking member of his side (Delenn not having a pike in her hands and so not being considered committed to the battle) and Kietzhak the senior of his own group, the entire battle could have stopped altogether while they fought it out alone. Sheridan noticed out of the corner of his eye that the Rangers were allowing the warriors that option by defending only and not attacking. The warriors seemed undecided and hence continued in their strikes, but the moves were half-hearted. Good. Maybe they'd still have four Rangers when this was over.
Kietzhak took the next level. That made six. Three more to go and, as Sheridan had started it, he would get the last and hardest of the moves. The next one, for some reason, had come easily to Sheridan on the practice floor. He performed it and stood back. While Minbari did not sweat, Sheridan was sure he saw something forming on Kietzhak's forehead. He took consolation in the thought that he'd already amazed the warrior and, perhaps, even confused him a bit. After all, how many Earthers had mastered the Denn'bok to this level? Even most of the Rangers never rose so high. Turhan had insisted Sheridan learn these moves as soon as his skills were of a sufficient standard. It was, he had said, a good way to stop Sheridan getting himself killed, assuming he was ever attacked by a Minbari who would accept the Challenge. Sheridan had laughed at the notion then, but had found the moves resembled some Japanese martial arts training he already knew, and so had taken the opportunity to hone skills he already had. Normally warriors would practice for another year before they moved onto these patterns, and many never bothered until very late in their careers. It was a vestige of an ancient time. Sheridan was fortunate that, despite Kietzhak's claim, he DID follow some of the old ways. Some, in fact, which predated Valen by several millennia.
Kietzhak frowned and then gazed at his own weapon. Sheridan was better than he'd dreamed. For a coward who killed by trickery, the man was proving himself a skilled and true warrior. This was not what Kietzhak had expected. He looked up into Sheridan's eyes. They were calmer than Kietzhak felt. He'd always had trouble with the last two. Until now he'd never needed them. If he failed he would look a fool in the eyes of his followers. If he succeeded and Sheridan performed the last movement as well as he'd performed the others he'd be offered the chance of a peaceful solution, one warrior to another. Inside his mind he spat. He didn't want a peaceful solution. He wanted Delenn dead, and at his hands, but it was clear he wouldn't have her except through Sheridan. He had to get this one right and Sheridan had to make an error. Taking a deep breath Kietzhak performed the eighth movement. He sighed when it was completed. He'd done it. Now it was up to Sheridan.
Sheridan maintained his level gaze. Years of poker playing had taught him how to maintain that calm exterior, but inside his nerves were jangling. The ninth movement looked deceptively simple, albeit long. The art lay in maintaining the correct positions and angles throughout. The angle of the Denn'bok to his own body, the angle of his body to the ground, the angle of his head to his opponent. Every horizontal pause of the blade had to be so accurate a spirit level could be put on the thing and the bubble stay exactly in the middle. The same for the vertical. That, on top of getting the right moves in the right order made the Ninth the greatest test of the discipline of the mind over the body Sheridan had ever encountered. He paused and noticed the fighting around them had stopped. Everyone was waiting to see the outcome.
Centring himself and trying to ignore the audience he'd now acquired, Sheridan dredged up every lesson Turhan had taught him about meditation and the mental skills of the warrior. He was going to need them. Closing his eyes he began the movement. The blade flowed in his hands. It felt like it was an extension of his body. He knew he was getting it right, even though he could not see what he was doing, for the Ninth required his eyes remain closed throughout. A bizarre rule, he had thought, given an unscrupulous opponent could kill you while you were thus incapacitated, but Turhan had shown him how the way the blade and his body moved actually limited quite substantially the number of openings for a would-be murderer. Besides, Turhan had told him, any warrior who attacked during the Ninth was both dishonourable and damned never to walk among the living again. None who took up the Challenge in the first place would attack in the last movement.
Still the movements flowed and Sheridan was nearing the end. Just two more steps and he'd be done.
And the building behind him chose that most inconvenient moment to drop a tile. Worse than that, the angle of the roof and the angle of his body at that moment ensured it landed on his weakest point. As it hit his side pain lanced through him and shattered his concentration. He hesitated for a second as he fought to bring the pain under control, and the movement was ruined.
He opened his eyes to see Kietzhak still watching him, a curious expression on his face. On the one hand Sheridan saw respect, on the other bewilderment, and underlying it all, a grim determination, made all the grimmer by the fact that it was clear Kietzhak was having doubts. Kietzhak would see this through to the end, but the madness had gone and only duty to his oath remained. Sheridan felt the sweat forming on his forehead as he fought down the pain, not only in his side, but the pain of failure. He could have done it. Even with the tile, if his side hadn't been injured already he could have carried on and completed it flawlessly, but not now.
True to the tradition, Kietzhak offered him the noble retreat. He could leave now, or stay and die. Sheridan suspected Kietzhak now hoped he would take the former option, but that was impossible. Sheridan took up the fighting stance once more, mentally cursing his body for letting him down. There was still no sign of the rest of the Rangers, and Sheridan had run out of stalling tactics. The battle raged once more.
When another Ranger fell to the steady onslaught Delenn seized his pike and began a flurry of blows that felled two of the warriors in quick succession. Again the hesitation in Kietzhak. Again the look of doubt. And, Sheridan sighed, again the determined returned to the fight. If the man had lost the will to fight, why not simply withdraw? But Sheridan knew the answer. Kietzhak had convinced himself and his followers of the rightness of his cause. All that remained was honour and death. Sheridan had heard it before, and he knew they meant it. Give the Minbari their due, they stuck with it to the bitter end.
Now there were four Rangers, Sheridan and Delenn against seven warriors, the remainder having been taken out before the Challenge began. Another fell and Sheridan nodded grimly to himself. At this rate the odds might get even in time. Then one of the Rangers fell and, a few seconds later, another. With only two Rangers left against six it was clear they had to beat a retreat. Pulling back into the building Sheridan managed a last blow that caught Kietzhak on the side of the head before ducking through the doorway. They backed into the building until they reached another door. The fighting area was limited by debris that worked to the advantage of Sheridan's small forces.
Pushing Delenn through he and a Ranger slammed the door shut and found debris to push up against it. The house rumbled dangerously. Sheridan noticed a small hole open in the floor and backed away as dust and small pieces of debris slipped inside and disappeared. The house was clearly on a mineshaft that was on the brink of collapse. He backed away as a hammering started on the other side of the door. The two Rangers took up position ready to defend their charges to the death, as had their comrades. Sheridan looked around trying to find another way out. There was a window, but it was high up where, he assumed, the second floor had once stood. He searched around him for something to stand on, something to build into a high enough pile for them to climb up and get out. More battering on the door brought his attention back. The house began to complain loudly. The ground shifted under their feet and Sheridan pushed Delenn back against the wall as far away from the hole as possible as it widened into a gaping chasm.
Another blow to the door and several things happened at once. The house finally decided it had had enough and the outer walls started to collapse. The ground beneath them had a similar opinion of the situation and it too collapsed. As the earth shifted Sheridan lost his balance and fell. Delenn tried to catch him and only succeeded in linking herself to his fate as both tumbled headlong into the shaft. The walls and roof clattered down and, with a resounding boom, buried the Rangers in the debris. As the couple fell, pieces of the house followed, buffeting them as they turned end over end down the steep incline that led to a lower cavern. The light was shut out from above by the depth to which they fell and the house's collapse.
Outside the door, Kietzhak's forces had sensed the impending demise of the building and all but one had managed to pull back before it buried them. As the dust settled they surveyed the damage. Kietzhak shook his head. His prize had been stolen from him, and while his aim had been achieved he was not satisfied with the means. During the battle his opinion of his opponents had changed. They were not the twisted, cowardly human and his freak he'd imagined over the years. A veil had been lifted from his heart and mind, and he was not happy with the truths about himself and his opponents his changed sight revealed to him.
"She is gone, Alyt. What more could you ask?" asked one of his men, sensing Kietzhak's displeasure.
"This is not the way it should be," he replied. "They fought well. Better than I had imagined possible. They earned the right to die as warriors, not victims of an accident."
"You change heart so easily, Alyt?" The warrior's voice carried a dangerous undertone.
Kietzhak growled. "Do not presume, Garimere. You saw Starkiller today. Those were not the actions of a coward. He proved himself warrior true."
"Are you claiming the Grey Council lied to us about the Dralafi? Be careful, Alyt. The Grey Council do not take such accusations lightly."
"I am saying that in times of war, interpretations of events depend upon who is speaking. As for the Grey Council, they are not what they were. They do not frighten me, and neither do you Garimere. If Delenn and Starkiller were marked to die, it was I who should have brought the death blow, not a house!"
"They are dead. What difference does it make how they died? Had the house not collapsed they would have died at our hands anyway."
"The difference is one of honour." He moved forward and began to dig into the debris, but a rumbling noise caused one of the warriors to pull him back once more.
"It is not safe, Alyt. Why throw your life away merely to prove what we already know? They are dead. You are right, the means was not what we intended, but if the universe says this is how it should be, who are we to argue with the universe? Our men will not be able to hold the Rangers for long. We must leave this place."
"I am not a coward, Theroval. I do not run from a fight." He looked again at the ruin. "Nor from the consequences of my actions."
"Then you are a fool!" Garimere shouted. "I, for one, did not do this to be told by children and cowards that I acted without honour. I came here to revenge the name of Neroon, your uncle, and to revenge those who died on the Dralafi if I could. There is no shame in what we have done this day. But if we stay here we will be captured and paraded through the streets like traitors."
"And if we run we show that we are not prepared to stand by our actions. Who is the coward, Garimere?"
The two warriors stood, their hands clenched tightly on their Denn'boks, their breaths coming short as both prepared for battle. Theroval stepped between them.
"Enough!" he yelled. "If Garimere wishes to leave then let him do so. I will stand with you, Alyt, as I have always done. But whatever we do, we must warn our comrades. Even now they are fighting and dying to keep us safe. Either we leave or we stay, but either way we must call them and tell them they can fall back."
Kietzhak glared at Garimere and then snapped the weapon shut, returning it to its holster. "Theroval is right. Give the command. Garimere, if you wish to leave, do so now. I will not hold it against you. I will remain."
"Alyt! If you stay here they will kill you!" Theroval warned.
"No, they will not. Arrest me? Yes. Condemn me as a traitor? Probably, but I am ready to defend myself on that charge. But the Rangers will not kill me unless I force them to, and I have no quarrel with them. I will await their arrival. At least I can honour two warriors by showing where they died."
"Had I known you could change your heart so easily Alyt, I would never have followed you. You shame me!" Garimere spat and turned away.
Theroval shook his head and gave the command to the other warriors to fall back.
"And you shame our order if you cannot recognise when an error has been made," Kietzhak returned.
Garimere paused. "That was no error. Our only error was in making you Alyt. Does Delenn weave her sorcery so cleverly she can even delude you? Do you forget so quickly what you said about her and Neroon? How she lured and tricked him into suicide?"
Kietzhak shook his head. "No," he said quietly, "I do not forget. I only regret."
Garimere turned on his heel and walked away without a backward glance. Kietzhak and the others stood and awaited the arrival of the Rangers.
In the darkness Sheridan and Delenn continued to trip and bounce and slide down the shaft until, at last, they hit the solid floor of the lower cavern. Dust and debris continued to fall, half-burying Sheridan who lay, unconscious from the last tumble, at the foot of the steep slope.
Delenn had been thrown clear by the fortunate happenstance of landing on her feet at the end. Stunned and dazed she staggered in the darkness, hearing the rattle of the stones and other bits and pieces as they settled once more. Carefully, fearing she would trip over the debris or even her husband, she inched back to the foot of the slope and found Sheridan, his body covered with stones, earth and building materials. Clearing as much as she could in the darkness she dragged his inert body free of the remainder. She felt for his pulse and, finding it, tried to wake him. He groaned and coughed briefly.
"I have...got to stop...doing that." His voice was barely above a whisper.
"How are you feeling?"
"Not good." His breath was coming in short gasps and it was clear his long abused side had finally given up on him. "You?"
"Not too bad. A few bruises, nothing more."
"Thank...god for that." He groaned again and tried to shift slightly to relieve the pressure on one leg. With a yelp he stopped, panting, as pain ripped though him. "Broken," he muttered. He tried to raise his arm to his head but the stabbing, searing pain in his side stopped him. "Oh god, this is...not good."
"Where does it hurt?"
"Everywhere." It was a gasp. He struggled to get his breath and coughed again, caught between trying to double over with the torture of the cough, and trying to stop himself because of the agony in his side from the broken ribs. Whatever he did his head and body was filled with pain. Delenn tried to support him but there was no position that was comfortable.
"I think...I'd better...rest a while. ...If I can."
Very carefully she helped him try to find a position in which he could relax, but even in the darkness she knew he was gritting his teeth against the pain.
"Turhan taught you pain control, did he not?"
A nod, useless in the blackness. "Uh huh." Another grunt of pain, quickly muffled. "But...right now, those painkillers...might be more...use. Can't...concentrate."
"Where are they?"
"Pocket. ...Left side."
Carefully, so as not to disturb him too much, she found the bottle. It had been broken in the fall and the pills and glass were mixed together in his pocket. She did her best to wipe the pills clean in the darkness.
"There's glass in there. Be careful," she warned as she offered them to him.
"What...I wouldn't give...for some water." He took the pills and forced them to the back of his throat, swallowing quickly against the bitterness. She continued to support him until she felt his breathing ease slightly.
She shrugged out of her outer tunic and wrapped it into a bundle, lifting his head briefly to place the makeshift pillow under his head.
"What should we do now?" she asked.
"Wait. They'll come looking for us....Shouldn't be long."
"Are we safe here?"
"Probably not, but I don't think I can...go anywhere just yet. We'll just have to hope...nothing else caves in."
She nodded. She had no idea where they were. Her body ached from the bruises she'd received as she fell, and she was exhausted from the battle. The images of the fallen Rangers filled her mind. All this because of a misunderstanding. Would anyone ever believe her intentions were always honourable? Why did everyone always assume the worst of her? Frustrated, frightened and exhausted she curled up on the floor beside him, trying to share body-heat against the damp cold that filled the cavern. He coughed briefly and then quietened. Sleep overtook them both.
When the Rangers finally arrived it was clear to Theroval that the battle had been hard fought. Many sported bruises and the signs of deeper injuries. Nevertheless, when they saw Kietzhak and the others they instantly prepared to do battle once more. Tiredly, Kietzhak raised his hands and shook his head.
"I have no quarrel with you, Rangers. Put down your weapons. You will find no battle with us."
A human Ranger, by the name of Fitch, stepped forward. His left arm hung loosely at his side, evidently broken. "What happened here? Where is the President and Entil'zha Delenn?"
Kietzhak nodded over his shoulder at the fallen house. "They were in there when it collapsed." At the Rangers rushed forward Kietzhak stepped in front of them. "I warn you, the ground is still unstable. I doubt they have survived, but if by some miracle they have you will surely kill them if you step unwisely."
The Rangers hesitated and Fitch lowered his eyes. "What part did you play in all this?"
"I fought them," he said simply. "I wanted to kill Delenn. I was willing to kill Sheridan too if he so wished it. I am Kietzhak, nephew of Neroon of the Star Riders' clan."
Fitch raised his eyebrows. He knew the full import of those words and now he was at a loss what to do. "Why did you stay here, Kietzhak of the Star Riders? You knew you'd be arrested."
"I did what I felt had to be done. I am not ashamed of my actions, although I am displeased with the manner of their death. They did not deserve to die in such a way."
"I wouldn't give up on them yet. Both have a tendency to survive even when the odds are stacked against them. I'll believe it when I see their bodies, not before. Now," he turned to the other Rangers. "See if you can get some Workers down here to help dig this out, or suggest another route in. We've got to find them." He considered Kietzhak in silence for a while. Kietzhak returned the look without blinking until Fitch shrugged. "If you want to stay and help us instead of spending your time in jail, you're welcome. Just one thing: if we find them and they're alive, I think we'd all be grateful if you didn't try and finish what you started. You're an honourable Warrior, you've proved that. Whether you stay a free and breathing honourable Warrior is up to you."
"Good. Now let's try and clear away some of the outer debris at least while we're waiting. It'll give us something to do."
The Rangers began to manhandle the debris away from the site.
Delenn had no idea how long she'd slept, but she was woken by the sound of stones tumbling down the slope. Quickly rising she found Sheridan trying to get up as the debris tumbled around him. Supporting him to keep the weight off his broken leg they made their way to the back of the room but, as he turned with her to sit down once more, he let out a yell of pain that tore through her.
"John? What happened?!"
"My...side!" He was in agony and, having lowered him to the ground, she struggled to find the source of the increased pain. She could see nothing in the blackness that surrounded them, and even the tenderest touch on his side produced agonised grunts of pain. His breath was also coming in shorter gasps. His ribs, it had to be. Something had been damaged internally. From the way his breathing had changed she guessed a lung had been punctured.
"Not...good," he managed to get out. "Have to...get out...of here."
"Are the painkillers still working?"
"Use what Turhan taught you."
"Not sure....it's enough."
She fumbled in his pocket and found only two more pills amidst the shattered remains of the bottle. "You must have dropped the rest as you fell. We have to save these."
She felt him work to bring his body under control. Coughs and gasps permeated the blackness and each time they did she felt him shake his head and start again. At last he stilled, but it was a tenuous grip he held at best.
"Can't...move. Need...help....Soon. "
Delenn felt panic rising within her as he fought for breath and severely repressed the urge to let it out. That wouldn't do either of them any good. He was seriously injured. Mentally she ran through everything she knew about trauma victims. He was going to need warmth. Light would help as well, if only for her own morale, and water. These mining caverns must have equipment stored somewhere. "John, I'm going to go and see if I can find anything we can use. It's going to get cold soon. We need something to keep us warm, and we need water."
He tried to speak but all his energy was being concentrated on trying to draw air into his lungs. She understood his fears even without his speaking them aloud.
"I can memorise the route. I have a very good sense of direction."
He thought back to the first time they'd visited Epsilon Three together. She'd found the path then with only one moment of hesitation. He could only hope she would be able to do it again. "Not...far."
"I will not go too far, and I will be careful. Will you be all right here alone?"
A grunt was all he could manage.
She was torn. She dared not leave him, but if their rescuers did not arrive soon anything she could find now might make the difference between life and death. She made her decision. She had to go, but she would be back as soon as she could. She did her best to make him comfortable and then went off in search of anything they could use. In the silence and stillness that followed her departure Sheridan groaned.
/Oh god. Hope she finds something fast./ he thought. He had some idea of the extent of his injuries, and they were far worse than he was letting on. Besides his leg and ribs, there was a problem with his right eye. Stabbing pains shot into the back of his skull and when he carefully reached up to touch it he could feel it was swollen. His lungs felt congested and pressure was slowly but surely building in his chest, making each breath harder than the last. A general tenderness told him there was probably some other internal damage as well, but as he fought merely to breathe, every other pain became mere background noise to that constant struggle. He didn't think he could hold out much longer, but there was no point in telling Delenn. She was worried enough. He could only pray their rescuers would find them in time
'Are you prepared to die friendless and alone and unremarked...and forgotten?' Sebastian's words returned to him. Well, he had friends, and he'd be remembered, if that counted for anything. Alone, though, and in pain, drowning in his own blood didn't appeal much. Sweat poured from him but he was starting to feel a chill. Definitely not good.
Delenn followed the walls of the cavern until she found an exit and then traced her way along the walls of the passageway for some distance. Whenever she came to an intersection she mentally plotted the route she had taken before moving on. After a while something felt familiar and she paused trying to pin it down. Of course! When she had come to visit Kat's grandmother, Nuvek, so many years ago she had been shown where they were digging on a map by Nuvek's husband. He'd explained that the mines were laid out in a similar pattern throughout the province. Of course the shafts had to follow the seams of the mineral, but there were certain aspects that were always required. Shafts to remove the ore as swiftly as possible to the sifting areas, storage caverns, shafts to deliver equipment and take away water and provide air. She was sure she was in one of those. If she followed it, sooner or later she would have to wind up at a storage cavern. The one they'd been in had been empty, but it also hadn't been very big. Probably a new addition. An older one might, just, have what she needed. She followed the path.
It took over an hour stumbling in the darkness until she felt the walls open up around her. Carefully tracing her way around the wall she suddenly touched something. A piece of material, heavy and slightly oily in feel. A protective cover. She found the edge and pulled it back, touching what lay underneath. With a shriek she fell back as something moved under her hand. A squeak in the darkness told her a Pretok, the Minbari equivalent of a rat, had just been disturbed. Edging forward once more, gritting her teeth against more unpleasant discoveries, she found a box. It was bolted shut but she quickly unlocked it and felt inside. Roof supports, or something similar. Another box offered what she felt sure were probably explosives. Another contained metal pieces. Parts for the machines they used.
In frustration she tore the cover back further and moved among the boxes. Pretoks scurried over her feet seeking a safer refuge. Gritting her teeth she ignored them. She had more important tasks and the animals were known for their cowardice. Another box contained tools, but nothing she could immediately identify. Surely they kept spare lamps somewhere? Might there be a power switch in the cavern? She returned to the walls, feeling her way around. At last she uttered the Minbari Worker Caste word for light in the hope something might be voice activated.
She returned to the boxes. More tools. Some material which she could carry. She had no idea what it was, but it would do to keep them warm. She carefully carried it to the exit back to their cavern and then resumed her search. More metal pieces, more explosives, some hardhats...Valen! Surely they kept something down here for light? They weren't nocturnal! Her fear mounted as her search kept her from John. She knew his injuries were severe. More severe than he was letting on. Soon she'd have to give up and go back with what she had. Just a few more boxes. She flipped the lid of another, silently grateful than the Minbari sense of duty to each other meant none of the boxes were locked with a key. She reached inside. Could it be? It felt familiar. Her hands fumbled over the dome until she found a switch. Nothing. Another one. Still nothing. Another one and suddenly the room was flooded with light. She clenched her eyes tight against the sudden burst of brilliance. Yes! When her eyes had grown accustomed to the light she slowly peered into the box. There was another lamp in there. The other two were clearly either run down or broken. She tried the second and was relieved to find it, too, was working. Smiling in triumph she examined the other boxes again to see if there was anything of value she'd missed. The material was clearly some kind of shaped cover for a machine, but large enough to work for their purposes despite its form. A small box off to one side, which she would never have found in the darkness caught her eye. It had the Minbari symbol for medical on the side. Opening it she let out a cry of delight as she realised it was a first aid box. Admittedly, there wasn't much, but anything would help. Just one more thing would make this a very successful trip.
She grabbed a hammer and a helmet from the boxes and, using the lamp, made her way out of the storage cavern following the mental map in her head. Finally she found what she was looking for: a pipe, cool and damp to her touch. Using the hammer she broke it open at the top. It wasn't full and she worked her way along until she could reach inside. Carefully she raised her damp fingers to her lips and tasted them. The water was brackish and had a strong iron tang, but it was water. Certainly better than nothing, though if they had to rely on it too long she was sure it had pollutants in it their systems wouldn't appreciate. Making sure she didn't disturb the residue at the bottom of the pipe she scooped as much as she could into the helmet. When she was finished she returned to the storage cavern.
Wrapping the box in the cover she slung it over her shoulder and, with the helmet balanced in the crook of the other arm and the lamp hanging from her fingers, began to make her way back to John. It took less time than she'd imagined but longer than she liked. Now that she could see she could move more quickly, but every minute it took she begrudged, and she was prevented by the slopping water from running full tilt. As she neared the cavern she heard him let out a groan and picked up speed. Rounding the corner she saw him, struggling to rise. Rushing forward she put the helmet down, wedging it against a piece of masonry. The bag was lowered to the ground and she got behind him and held him. In the light she could see a line of blood on his lips, running down his chin and staining his beard. His eye was swollen shut and weeping. There was blood in his hair where he'd cracked his head in the fall and his leg was swollen and at a slightly odd angle. It was hardly surprising he'd had trouble using what Turhan had taught him. A miracle he'd managed as well as he had. She tore some material from her dress and dipped it into the helmet, using it to wet his lips and wash away the worst of the blood. He was pale and sweating from exertion.
"Thanks." He breaths were coming shorter.
"Don't talk. Save your breath."
He nodded and closed his good eye as she ran the damp cloth over his forehead. As she worked to try and clean him up her eyes quickly scanned the route they'd taken into the cavern. It was well and truly blocked. Dared she risk trying to dig a way out, or would it merely bring the ceiling crashing down on their heads? The blood and shallow breathing terrified her. 'Barring injury' Lorien had said. This was as injured as she'd ever seen him. She knew he wouldn't be able to hold out much longer. She felt his forehead and cheek.
"You're cold. Here." She draped the cloth over him and wrapped it around him tightly. He nodded his thanks. Opening the first aid box she said "Let me take a look at your eye."
He shook his head. "No."
"I might be able to see what's causing the problem."
Another shake, as vigorous as he could manage. "No."
"All right. I won't. Please, just breathe." She was shaking. How long before they were rescued? Would their rescuers arrive in time? At all? Staring into the lamplight she prayed for help.
Michael Garibaldi had grabbed a shuttle as soon as he'd heard things had gone wrong. En route he'd listened to a hurried report of the events that had transpired. Now he was running as fast as he could to the site of the disaster. When he arrived it was to find a crew of Workers and Rangers trying to find a way to dig into the ruin without causing another fall.
"Have you got people trying to get in from the other end?" he asked one of the Rangers.
"We've sent for maps so we can trace the route. They should be here any minute."
"They should've been here hours ago. What have you been doing?!"
Fitch looked up calmly into Garibaldi's frustrated face. "The very best that we can."
Garibaldi met the man's eyes and saw the pain those words cost him. He then took into account Fitch's broken arm. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry," he said, running his hand over his head. "I know. I should have been here, dammit!"
"Then you would probably be dead. All of the Rangers that were here with them are. We just dug the last two bodies out of the rubble."
"Where's that bastard Kietzhak?"
Fitch pointed to a Minbari who was working diligently handing out large pieces of rubble to a line of Rangers and Workers who snaked away from the remains of the building. Smaller pieces he tossed away.
"He tried to kill them, now he's helping to try and rescue them?!"
Fitch shrugged. "He was willing, and we needed all the hands we could get. He seems to have had a change of heart."
"Too god-damned late!" Fitch said nothing and Garibaldi looked around him. "Where are the machines to help shift this lot?"
Fitch shook his head. "The ground's too unstable. We tried to bring one in and the earth began to shake. We're afraid if we bring it any closer it'll cause another fall in. Ah!"
Garibaldi turned to see a Worker Caste Minbari running towards them, waving something. The maps they'd been waiting for.
"I apologise it took so long. The building containing the maps was recently damaged. It took some time to find what we wanted," the young man explained.
"Whatever. Is this the one we need?"
They spread the map out on a low wall and the Worker pointed out the locations. "This is where we are. As you can see, it was a fairly recent extension. The entrance is here." He pointed to another point some distance away. Garibaldi looked for the scale of the map and did some quick calculations in his head to translate the Minbari measurements into human ones he could understand.
"So we're talking about five and a half kilometres. We're gonna need some medics, probably stretchers, and some workers to help us dig through anything in the way. Can you provide all that?"
Fitch pointed to some Minbari hovering at the edges of the street, looking restless. "Already here."
"Good." Garibaldi turned back to the Worker. "Can you take us to the entrance?" He nodded. "Then let's get going. We don't know how much time we've got." They rolled up the map and Fitch summoned the other Minbari and told them to follow Garibaldi and the Worker. "Keep going here. Either way, we'll get to them, but if it looks like it's gonna cave in, leave it. Have you got a communicator?" Fitch nodded. "Right, I'll link in when we have something."
Fitch watched as the group set off at a steady jog. An incautious movement sent a stabbing pain through his arm. A medic saw him wince and beckoned him over. Fitch looked at the line of Minbari and Humans slowly digging their way into the building. They could survive without him for a few minutes, and he'd be useless if he didn't get the arm strapped up. He nodded and walked over to the medic.
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