THERE ARE NO TREES ON MARS

By Frieda W. Landau

 

 

 

   CHAPTER 1

   

*****

   There are no trees on Mars: no trees, no bushes, nothing green. Just harsh reds and browns and greys, relieved here and there by the cold light of the sun refracted by the pale domes of the cities....

   

   

*****

   Ranger Captain Jason Kendrick, clad in somber black, paced the shuttle port lounge on the long legs that made him seem taller than his middle height. Light grey eyes, incongruous in a weather worn face, scanned as much as he could see of the horizon from the observation window. The shuttle from the Minbari passenger liner was late. It should have cleared Mars customs over an hour ago. He ran long fingers through the dark, curly hair that was sprinkled with more grey than he liked to contemplate and continued to pace.

   "I must be out of my mind," he muttered under his breath. "What the hell am I doing on Mars? In a desk job!!"

   True, it was a prestigious job at a prestigious desk: Ranger Liaison to the Mars government and military attache at the Interstellar Alliance embassy. And it was also true that he was getting too old to be chasing around the galaxy after raiders and the remnants of the Drakh allies. Still, it was a desk job, and he wasn't sure at all that he could handle a regular nine to five routine.

   "Where is that damned shuttle?"

   "I'm sorry, sir, there's been a delay...." The clerk who had just arrived behind the information desk trailed off as Kendrick whirled quickly, extended denn'bok at the ready.

   "What? Oh, sorry. I didn't realize I spoke aloud." He closed the fighting pike with a vicious click. The clerk jumped.

   "Sorry, again." Kendrick smiled at the young woman, a smile that softened the planes and angles of his face and lit up his eyes.

   The clerk, really little more than a girl, blushed and returned to her paperwork. But she glanced up surreptitiously every now and then at the pacing Ranger, wondering if he would do something bizarre again and if she should call security just in case. He forgot she was there almost immediately as he continued to watch the crimson sky for the wayward shuttle.

   He was struck again by the starkness of the Martian landscape. "Mayan will hate it," he thought. She always liked to have growing things around her, especially when she worked. He used to tease her that if she wasn't careful, she'd have no room for anything else, including him. She'd laughed then and said he was strong enough to make his own room. He remembered their first meeting, in the garden of her house in the small village near Tuzanor; the bright colours and heady scents of the summer blooms. He hadn't known what to expect from Minbar's premier poet and best friend of his boss. He knew about her, of course; every Ranger was familiar with her epic poem, Valen's Shadow. It was required reading at the training school. He certainly hadn't expected to fall in love with her. And he never expected it to last for so long. He wondered if she remembered that today was the ninth anniversary of that meeting.

   Nine years. Nine years they were apart, more often than not, because of his Ranger duties and her performance schedules; and once or twice because one of them walked out, only to return weeks, or months, later. How much time did they actually spend together during those nine years? Two years? Three? Thirty six months out of 108. He never asked if she had other lovers when he was gone. They made no demands on each other. Loving and leaving, that's how Mayan described their relationship. Is that all he really wanted? Four years ago, he would have said yes. And now? That's what this was all about, accepting the Mars posting and waiting for Mayan to join him, wasn't it?

   "In Valen's Name, what's keeping that shuttle!" He spoke aloud and turned away from the window, but the clerk pretended not to hear him. He started to pace again

   

   

*****

   Four years ago, Ranger Captain Kendrick was on Earth, overseeing the atmospheric flight trials of the new class of fighters for the Interstellar Alliance. Small and maneuverable like the EarthForce Thunderbolts, but with the firing power of a full size White Star, the three-man ships were badly needed to combat the raiders whose onslaughts against Alliance trade were becoming increasingly frequent and increasingly more severe. It had been a grueling six months working out the problems, which only appeared in actual flights, while trying to keep Minbari and EarthGov and Alliance bureaucrats from interfering with the engineers and pilots. All that remained now were the financial arrangements with the contractors. Thankfully, that wasn't his job. He was going on leave in a few days and Mayan was waiting on Babylon 5.

   He planned to spend some time doing nothing but sleeping and eating and making love. After that, they would probably travel a bit, visit friends maybe, nothing strenuous or intense. He needed to relax and recharge. When he called Mayan to tell her he would be there in three days, she suggested that new resort on the Antarean moon.

   "I don't know, Mayan. I don't think so." He tried to gauge her reaction on the com screen. Was she disappointed?

   "It was just a suggestion. We don't have to. What would you like to do?"

   Good question. What would he like to do, besides make love to her? "You know what I'd really like to do, Mayan? I'd like to go fishing!" Where did that come from? But it was true. "Yeah, I'd like to go fishing. I'm sick and tired of machines and artificial gravity and recycled air and people who change their minds hourly. I just want to sit under a tree on the bank of a river and watch the sky and the water and listen to the silence."

   "Why, Jason, that's very poetic." She smiled and blew him a kiss. "Very well. If you want to go fishing, we'll go fishing. There are some lovely spots on Minbar and...."

   He shook his head. "No, not on Minbar. Here, on Earth. In the mountains somewhere, where we'll be able to ride horses to the campsite, instead of air cars or flyers. And I want to catch the kind of fish I caught as a boy." He knew just the place too. Up in Big Sur, where the ravages of the 21st century never reached.

   "My dear, sweet Anla'shok. That sounds wonderful. But you're forgetting who and what I am." She smiled sadly at his look of puzzlement. "It has been five years since Earth joined the Alliance, and more than twenty years since the war between our people, and there are still many humans who do not look kindly on any interspecies couples, especially human/Minbari ones. Do you not remember what happened when we visited Earth together three years ago?"

   "I haven't forgotten, Mayan." He hadn't. His denn'bok was sufficient to deal with those who attempted to harm her, but he could do nothing about the hateful words that were hurled as well. "And I would never subject you to that again. But we'll be in a remote area, away from other people. I'd be surprised if we met anyone at all."

   She shook her head. "We will have to get there first. And there will be many formalities before we are allowed into such a protected area. What will you tell the authorities? That I am going with you so we can fuck when you are not fishing? It will not work, and you know it. Be sensible."

   Maybe if they were face to face, maybe if she was there to hold him, maybe it would have ended differently. Maybe. He could feel himself growing angry with her. "You're the one who isn't being sensible. I need a break, Mayan. I'd like you with me, but I'm going fishing, on Earth, with or without you."

   "Then you will go without me. When you have regained your senses, I will be waiting." She ended the communication.

   He thought about calling her back, telling her that they could work something out. But he didn't. He went fishing. He camped high up, by a stream that meandered through the trees until it joined the swifter waters of a river that ran down to the sea, hundreds of feet below. He fished and hiked and sat around doing nothing, not even thinking, in equal measure. And while he was up in the mountains, letting the peace sink into his soul, the Drakh sent their deadly cargo to Earth.

   Those first few weeks were a blur: trying to rejoin the fleet when the attack started, trying to get off Earth, until he accepted that he was stuck for the duration. He tried to call Mayan several times, but all channels were jammed by too many people trying to call. Not even official communications were getting through. He spent most of his time avoiding rioting mobs, who seemed to blame all who were not human for the plague, and helping their targets escape to the only refuge that would accept them; but the Minbari Embassy could not hold all of them. He soon lost count of the ones he could not save. The riots stopped, replaced by a profound sense of despair, dense as a mountain and as difficult to penetrate. Kendrick decided he preferred the rioting. Most of all, he felt helpless. He tried to meditate as he had been taught during his Ranger training. Nothing worked, not even the exercises of the mind that kept him alive and sane the time he was a captive during the telepath war.

   When communications with Ranger Headquarters were reestablished, Entil'Zha herself gave him his orders: to take command of all Rangers on Earth, about fifty, human and Minbari mostly with perhaps a few other races such as the Brakiri, and to provide protection and assistance to the director of the Xenobiological Institute who was leading the search for a cure. Kendrick was also to be the unofficial eyes and ears of the Alliance, a role he did not want, but Earth was a vital part of the Interstellar Alliance and EarthGov was not always as forthcoming as Alliance bylaws required. He bowed and saluted the One he had sworn to die for and started to turn away when she called him back.

   "There is someone else who wishes to speak with you," Delenn said with a smile in her voice. "I will say farewell now. Valen protect you."

   "I'm glad you are still alive, Anla'shok!" Mayan smiled at him, eyes bright with unshed tears. He could see she was making an effort to be cheerful. "I told Delenn you'd be in the thick of it..." Her voice broke and she stifled a sob. "Oh Jason...." Now she was crying openly. "I'm so sorry. I should be with you."

   "They wouldn't let you come," he said gently. "There's a quarantine...."

   "I know...." She sniffed once or twice and controlled her tears with a visible effort. "I tried."

    He shook his head. "Mayan, what am I going to do with you?" he said between exasperation and resignation. "Never mind. I'm glad you called. Don't worry about me. I'm sure they'll find the cure very soon. And meanwhile, I'm having that very long vacation...." He trailed off as he saw the expression on her face. "I know," he said, "but it helps to keep away the fear. And I do believe that we'll beat this thing before it's too late. Try to believe that too." He paused and took a breath. "Now then, tell me what you've been up to."

   They spoke for a few minutes of inconsequential things, ordinary things, until both could pretend it was just an everyday conversation. At the end, when he touched his hand to the screen and she reached out to him, their control slipped momentarily and he could see the pain in her eyes and his own fears reflected.

   He found a measure of comfort in his new duties, the work just challenging enough, especially when there was a revival of the 'Earth First' movement and the director of the Xenobiological Institute became a target because of his long association with Babylon 5 and the President of the Alliance. Kendrick renewed his acquaintance with Dr. Franklin and the two men relieved the long hours they worked together with lively conversation, which often continued over dinner. Sometimes, he could forget and think this was just another assignment, until a new wave of deaths from a hitherto unknown or heretofore benign virus reminded him.

   Mayan called often, several times a week, if possible, and often she used Delenn's own channel when no other was available. Kendrick was not entirely at ease with the friendship between his lover and his boss. Although Mayan had assured him she never asked Delenn for anything on his behalf, he sometimes wondered if Entil'Zha assigned him duties that she knew would please her old friend. He didn't think he would ever know for certain. It didn't matter now. If taking advantage of the friendship was the only way Mayan could talk to him, so be it. He needed to hear her voice and see her face. He knew he should encourage her to go on with her life without him, but he couldn't, at least not yet.

   When he received orders to resume the test flights of the new ships, he was puzzled. What was left to test? Construction had already started on Mars and Minbar, incorporating the changes he and his team had suggested. The test vehicles were already obsolete. But it felt good to be flying again, even if he could only go as far as the defense shields, which were now programmed to shoot down any vehicle that tried to leave Earth space. He worked out a pattern of daily flights at different altitudes within and without the atmosphere and during all kinds of weather. The quarantine authorities soon grew used to the agile fighters and took no notice.

   He was almost happy during this period. When he wasn't flying, he was running errands for Dr. Franklin or devising training exercises for his Rangers to keep their edge. Sometimes he was able to combine all three, like the time he was asked to pick up a specimen of a new strain of virus from a remote location in the Pacific. He sent three teams of Rangers: the first team to pick up the virus and return without being detected by any local authorities would win. He didn't even mind that his team came in third. He had just returned from a training exercise, tired and hungry, when he received a message that the President of the Interstellar Alliance would call in an hour. Kendrick had just enough time for a long, hot shower. After years in space and on space stations where sonic showers were the norm, he still appreciated the luxury of unlimited water at any temperature he wanted. He fixed himself something to eat and waited for President Sheridan to call.

   Like all who fought in the Army of Light, first against the Shadows and then against Clark's tyranny, he admired and respected its legendary Captain. Now, as a Ranger of the Alliance, he was sworn to obey its president as he would Entil'Zha. But he also had the opportunity to get to know Sheridan off duty, in an informal setting. When Mayan brought him to dinner at the Presidential Compound for the first time, he felt awkward and out of place, despite the best efforts of his hosts. Gradually, Kendrick relaxed and found himself enjoying the evening. Sheridan wanted to know how the policies and actions of the Alliance were viewed by 'the man in the street' or, in this case, 'the Ranger on patrol.' At first, Kendrick demurred, protesting he could not speak for the Anla'Shok, let alone the general population. Delenn also encouraged him to give his opinion. Then, Sheridan said something so outrageous, he was forced to protest. He didn't remember what it was now, but by the time he realized the President was joking, the two men were talking freely and easily. After that, whenever he was on Minbar, he would accompany Mayan at least once a month to dinner with Sheridan and Delenn, who were gracious and generous hosts. Kendrick didn't realize how much he missed those dinners until his forced incarceration, which is how he viewed it, on Earth.

   The ping of the com, announcing an incoming call, interrupted his thoughts. The President was using the secure channel, as expected, but the call was also encrypted which caused a fractional lag between picture and voice. The effect was a bit like one of those old vids where the sound was badly dubbed. Kendrick found it distracting at first, but not enough to miss what the President was saying.

   "Hello, Jason. How are you doing?" Sheridan was uncomfortable. You could hear it in his voice. A soldier visiting a mortally wounded comrade and trying too hard to be cheerful.

   "Fine, Sir, all things considered." A meaningless response to an inane question. There was something bothering the President. This was no sickbed visit by a commander.

   "Yes, well...." Sheridan cleared his throat. "I'll get right to the point. Jason, the researchers are having a hard time trying to figure out how this virus works. They need to isolate it from the moment it enters the body...."

   "Which is impossible because everyone on Earth is already infected...."Kendrick's voice trailed off as he realized the implications of what he was saying. No wonder the call was encrypted. The President of the Alliance was planning to evade the blockade he was responsible for enforcing.

   "Exactly. We have to get someone outside Earth space." He paused a moment.

   'So that's what's bothering him.' Kendrick smiled to himself. 'He doesn't think much of my chances. I wonder how long it took him to decide this was the only way?'

   Sheridan suddenly snapped to attention. Surprised, Kendrick did the same. He only just refrained from saluting.

    "Ranger Captain Kendrick, Earth and the Alliance need a volunteer to pilot a ship out of Earth space to an unspecified location and then return it to Earth...."

   "You've got one, Sir," Kendrick interrupted. It was the only response he could make.

   "It's a long shot. Most likely, anyone who tries will be killed...."

   "With all due respect, Sir," Kendrick interrupted again. "I'm already dead." He waited while Sheridan acknowledged the truth of this statement with a rueful shake of his head. "Now, Sir, when do Dr. Franklin and I leave?"

   "What makes you think Dr. Franklin will be...."

   "Because he wouldn't allow anyone to take a risk he won't, and because he probably doesn't trust anyone else to do it correctly."

   "Never mind, I see you've gotten to know him well." Sheridan smiled briefly. "I'm counting on you to come back alive, Jason, or I'll have to answer to Mayan and Delenn."

   "Don't worry, Sir. I wouldn't leave you to face those two when they're mad." Both men grinned in memory.

   Sheridan became serious again. "You'll receive all the details shortly. Thank you, Jason. Valen protect you. Sheridan out."

   Kendrick bowed formally as Sheridan's image faded from the screen.

   Six hours later, Kendrick turned off his com and rubbed his eyes. The plan was feasible. It was dangerous and would require split second timing, but it could work. The key was the new engine he'd heard rumors about, an engine capable of creating a jump point for ships as small as those Meteor class fighters he'd been testing. The prototype was being installed while he was talking to the President. Sheridan must have been very sure he would volunteer. He didn't know whether to be flattered or annoyed. The engine hadn't been tested yet, but it worked, at least in theory. Now to turn theory into fact. He called Franklin and arranged to meet him away from the Institute. They both had a lot of work to do in the next few days.

   The plan was simple. A shuttle on a routine flight to the factories on Earth's moon would malfunction. The explosion would, hopefully, mask the opening of the small jump point created by the new engine on Kendrick's fighter. Once through, he would deliver Franklin in a life pod to the rendevous point. Some time later, he would return with the doctor and another passenger. On the far side of the moon, he would rejoin the daily test flight squadron and report that he'd picked up a couple of life pods, presumably the crew from the unfortunate shuttle. Simple, really.

   Kendrick was satisfied they were ready. Stephen was a quick study and could operate the co-pilot's console in the fighter well enough for the brief time two pilots were necessary. The modified fighter joined the rest of the squadron. All they had to do now was wait for the signal that the shuttle was approaching the explosion point....

   

   

*****

   "Sir, the shuttle will be here in twenty minutes."

   "Wha...?" Kendrick started at the sound of the young clerk's voice. "Oh, yes, of course. Thank you." He turned back to the window. Yes, he could just make it out, a dark spot above the glowing pink horizon. Twenty minutes and Mayan would be here.

   

   CHAPTER 2

   

   

*****

   Mayan gave a sigh of relief. They were finally moving again. Whatever the problem was, it was fixed now. She fingered the fire crystal she wore on a fine, gold chain around her neck. Shading from a red so dark it appeared black to a faint, pale pink at the edges, it was carved with a stylized figure of a Minbari and a human on opposite sides. Jason gave it to her before he left for Earth four years ago. She'd been wearing it ever since. He would be waiting at the shuttle port. She smiled. Their reunions were always passionate and she was looking forward to this one after three months apart.

   The shuttle turned so that the rapidly approaching planet was visible from her seat. Oh, Valen! What a bleak world! She had seen vids, of course, but they had not prepared her for the reality of the Martian landscape. Another turn of the shuttle and the domes appeared, the domes that contained all life, sentient and otherwise. They looked so small and vulnerable against the stark vastness of the Martian desert. And she was committed to living here for at least a year! And working here too. She couldn't forget that. It was her own choice, after all. No one forced her to accept the post of guest lecturer and poet in residence at Sheridan College, the newest - less than ten years old - and smallest of the colleges that make up the University of Mars.

   She chuckled softly. Sheridan was so embarrassed when he received the news that the university wished to honour the Liberator of Mars by naming a college after him. When she and Delenn teased him, Sheridan usually turned a lovely shade of red. Once, during dinner, when Kendrick was there, Delenn turned to her husband and said in her most solemn and dignified manner, " Oh, Liberator of Mars, you have gravy stains all over your shirt!" Jason almost strangled trying to contain his laughter. Soon after, Kendrick left for Earth, for six months at the most. Six months that turned into four years. She stopped laughing and turned again to the window.

    She could see more of the domes now and even make out the general outlines of the structures inside. Everything seemed so crowded together. Good thing the college position included an apartment. The booming Mars economy, fueled by the recent embargo of Earth, was straining all the physical resources until the new dome was completed, or so the ISN documentary she saw last month maintained. She had no desire to discover the truth for herself. She thought wistfully of her house on Minbar. It was summer there now and the trees would be in full bloom. She didn't entirely trust that caretaker, despite Delenn's own assurance that she would keep an eye on the house. She should have trimmed that old t'chal'ma in the front yard herself. It would spread until its dense leaves deprived the flowers about it of sun.

   Jason was standing under that tree the first time she saw him, clad in Ranger black, checking the house name against the data pad in his hand. Delenn had sent him to escort her to Babylon 5. They became friends on the station, and lovers on Minbar. Neither expected or wanted more. He had a reputation of going from one woman to another, and she knew she would never fall in love again, not after Neroon's death. How could she? Neroon was her soul mate, the one she had been destined to love. Yet, somehow, she found herself in love with the human Ranger and he with her, or so she assumed They had never discussed it. Perhaps they should have....

   The pilot's voice broke into her thoughts. The shuttle was cleared to land. She checked the restraints and settled back into the seat.

   A few minutes later, the shuttle settled smoothly into its berth in the underground docking bay. A click and a brief shudder and the shuttle engaged the airlock. While they waited for the pressure to equalize, Mayan retrieved her travel duffle from stowage. She preferred to travel light, even when most of her clothes and possessions weren't in transit to Mars. She checked to see that her writing materials were undamaged and slung the strap on her shoulder. She crossed the threshold of the airlock and set foot on Mars soil, in a manner of speaking, for the first time. She walked along the corridor to the lift to the passenger terminal, curious about everything around her. Plastic boxes, containing breathers were regularly spaced along the walls. A stark reminder the cities on Mars were essentially space stations.

   She saw Kendrick before he noticed her. He was standing slightly to the side of the open door, his back to the solid bulkhead, a position that allowed him to see any attacker in time to defend himself. She smiled fondly. She used to tease him about it, how he always assumed the worst no matter where they were. She stopped teasing him the day she caught herself listening for the sound of footsteps before she turned a corner. She supposed that over the years they'd picked up a number of each others habits. She shrugged. He saw her then and she hurried to meet him.

   They stood facing each other, bowing in the Minbari manner. "Anla'shok," she said, "It pleases me to see you again. You are looking well."

    They were always formal with each other in public. She was too much Minbari to do otherwise, and he didn't want to do anything that would embarrass her.

   Nevertheless, as they both straightened, he said in a voice pitched for her ears only, "I want to make love to you, right here."

   "And I want to let you," she replied in the same tone.

   "I am happy to see you also." He pressed his hands together against his breast, formal once more.

   He offered her his arm and escorted her to the transit tube. They did not say another word until they were alone in a capsule speeding toward the nearest dome. He settled her against him and kissed the top of her head. She sighed and then pulled away.

   "We're alone here," he said as he pulled her close again. "No one can enter until we reach a station, which won't be for another fifteen minutes at least."

   She snuggled against him and he kissed her again, squarely in the middle of the blue blaze.

    "If you keep that up, we will shock the incoming passengers," she admonished.

   "I could engage the emergency stop..." He laughed at her expression. "No, huh? Okay. Then just relax. You must be tired from the long delay at customs"

   "I am, a little, " she admitted, leaning back against his shoulder.

   She was pleased to note that the travel tube was quite thick and sturdy. It had appeared so fragile from space, a slender rod easily broken. But the ubiquitous breather cases were still prominent. They changed tubes twice before finally arriving at their destination, the Interstellar Alliance Embassy compound in Lowell Dome. She was going to spend the next few days at Kendrick's quarters, until the modifications necessary for a Minbari resident were completed at the college apartment. The Alliance buildings formed a triangle, with the embassy proper at the apex, surrounded by a low wall that seemed more ornamental than anything else.

   Kendrick led her to an apartment in the center of the base of the triangle, explaining that while it was small, his flat had easy access to his Alliance office. She nodded absently as he spoke. She was feeling strangely shy about entering. She had never been in any of his quarters before. On Minbar, he always came to her house; and when he was offworld, they met somewhere mutually convenient, on Babylon 5 more often than not, where they stayed in rented suites. She preferred that her lovers come to her. Even Neroon. She shook her head impatiently. This was not the time to think about that. Kendrick didn't notice, she was relieved to note. He unlocked the door and stood aside for her to enter.

   "Welcome," he said as they walked in. "Make yourself comfortable while I take your things into the bedroom. That's the only other room, except for the kitchen and bath, but if you need to work alone, let me know and I'll set up a temporary office for you." He grinned. "I'll tell them it's a security matter. No one questions a military attache about security." She smiled briefly. He was nervous too. Maybe for the same reasons.

   Mayan eyed the room curiously. It was small, but well furnished with an eclectic mix of styles and worlds that fit comfortably together. Small mementos from various assignments were scattered around. She recognized some of them: the meditation crystal, a gift from his students when he taught at the Ranger Academy; a model of the first White Star he captained. Small things, but carefully chosen when space was limited. The main feature of the room was the elaborate com system on one wall. It was flanked by built-in shelves that held data crystals of all sorts, all carefully labeled. One shelf was devoted to a reader, with its book crystals; another held music crystals, including some she had given him. There was also a shelf of printed books. She stepped closer to read the titles. They were all collections of her own work, including a multi-volume edition printed in Minbari and Standard on facing pages. It must have cost him a young fortune! Printed books were so much more expensive than reader crystals. And bulkier too. Much harder to transport or find space for in the cramped quarters of a warship. The books looked well handled. She stepped forward to take down a volume, curious if she could ascertain his favorites. He rarely talked about her poetry.

   "Admiring my taste in reading matter?" Kendrick asked, cocking an eyebrow.

   The gesture always irritated her, although she had never told him so. She suspected that the irritation stemmed from envy. Humans could say so much by simply raising a brow.

   "If you had told me you wanted this edition, I could have given you a copy. The publishers gave me extras." She spoke more sharply than she had intended.

   "It didn't seem the right thing to do." His words were mumbled, as though he were embarrassed by them.

   She came close to him and reached up to touch the side of his face. He turned into her palm and kissed it. All constraint was gone. She kissed his collarbone, all she could reach while they were standing, while she undid the fastenings of his shirt. He opened the top of her travel tunic and slipped his hands inside, caressing those spots he knew were most sensitive. When his hands wandered to the triangular blue patch on her belly, she moaned with desire. He bent to kiss her briefly, but hard, and pulled her into the bedroom.

   They clawed at each other's clothing in a frenzy, tearing when fasteners proved too slow. He was not gentle and she didn't want him to be. His kisses bruised her mouth and she bit him, drawing blood. Neither noticed. She pressed herself against him; she couldn't get close enough. He lay back on the bed and threw her astride him in one motion. A quick, hard thrust of his hips and he was inside her. There was a desperate edge to their coupling, both eager to prove the attraction was still as strong as ever. He climaxed almost immediately and she came hard upon him, shaking so violently she would have fallen off if he had not pulled her against his chest. He was still holding her when they both fell asleep.

   She woke first. He was flaccid now, but still inside her. She started to move, but his arms tightened around her, pinning her to his chest. She was not uncomfortable. She had long since stretched to accommodate him. She wondered idly if a Minbari male would still be able to satisfy her, and fell asleep again.

   A few hours later, they woke together. He smiled at her.

   "Hello." His voice was diffident. "Are you okay?"

   "Yes, I'm fine." That was not exactly true. Her arms and thighs were bruised where he had gripped her, but those would fade quickly. His belly and chest were covered with the marks of her teeth and nails. His bottom lip was swollen and crusted with dried blood where she bit him. She wet her finger with saliva and tried to wipe it away. "What about you?"

   "I think so." He winced as he tried to sit up. "It's nothing, just a cramp." He winced again. "I've had worse in denn'bok training."

   She smiled and delicately wrinkled her nose. "In that case, I suggest we clean up. I'm greasy with cleansing secretions," she wrinkled her nose again, "and you, my love, stink."

   He laughed and pointed to the far wall. "The bathroom is through that door. I'll be there in a minute." He kissed her. "Ouch! I guess I'd better not do that for a while, huh?"

   The bathroom was small, barely room enough for a stall shower and a Minbari cleansing station. All Alliance buildings were equipped with dual human and Minbari facilities. She examined herself in the mirror. She was right about the bruising. The marks of his mouth were also evident on her breasts. Hickies, that's what humans called them. She used the cleansers until the night secretions were completely eliminated. She was applying the lotions that softened and preserved the skin after cleansing when Kendrick entered. He blew her a kiss and used the sanitary facility. That was something else she'd become accustomed to after nine years. Minbari did not take care of bodily functions with an audience. He started the shower and turned to her before getting in.

   "Do you want to wash my back?"

   "No! You know what always happens when I do." She was both amused and exasperated. "Well, then how about going out for something to eat? I'm starved."

   "It's the middle of the night!!"

   He smiled. "It's only eight o'clock local time."

   "Oh." She looked a bit sheepish. "In that case, I will dress while you bathe." She kissed his cheek and went back into the bedroom.

   Later that night, after dinner, and after a walk through the gardens of the Alliance compound, they returned to his apartment and made slow, gentle, love on the slanted bed until they both fell asleep.

   

   

*****

   Kendrick spent the next few days away from work to help Mayan learn how to get around Mars, after first persuading her that he was not neglecting his duties on her behalf. He showed her how to navigate the travel tubes between domes and the monorails within each dome. Mostly, they walked, to help Mayan accustom herself to the lesser gravity, which she did, rapidly, although she had a tendency to bounce going down stairs; and because she thought it was the best way to learn about a new place. They walked for hours, although Jason complained that this sort of physical exercise was not the preferred activity for an off-duty Ranger.

   They also walked because they could. She'd heard that Mars was unusually tolerant for a human settlement, but she hadn't really believed it. The first time someone approached them on the streets, she steeled herself for the hateful words - which never came. It took her a few moments to realize the man only wanted to welcome the Ranger to the city. Martians still remember that a Ranger piloted the ship that shattered Earth's hold on their world.

   The third day after her arrival, Mayan went to see the dean of the college, a petite, young woman who looked nothing like the hearty matrons or fussy, middle-aged men portrayed in Earth vids. The dean showed her around the campus, all the while talking about how lucky they were to have such a distinguished poet in their midst. Mayan didn't really pay much attention. She was more interested in her surroundings. The college didn't look that different from the temple schools at home, except for the architecture, of course. And the lack of lawns and trees. The buildings, set in a square, seemed to be of the local stone, but were probably some sort of composite, connected to each other by covered walkways every few stories. Geometric patterns of gravel and sand decorated the quadrangle. The stone benches scattered here and there provided the only curved lines. Everything looked new and raw. Mayan mentally shrugged. Time and weather would take care of that. No. Not here. No wind blew and no rain fell here. Nothing to soften the harsh edges and blend and mellow the colours.

   "Is anything the matter?" The dean asked when Mayan stopped abruptly.

   "No, nothing. I was just trying to get the geography straight in my head."

   Mayan smiled and followed the dean into a building marked 'Language and Literature' and then into an office, for her use while she was poet in residence. The office was small, as was everything on Mars. She wondered idly just how many of the inhabitants suffered from claustrophobia. There was a com and a separate library reader, she was pleased to note. Two walls contained built in data storage units and shelves, empty at the moment. There was a small desk and seat, and one visitor's chair. That was all. She was dismayed. She couldn't write here! It was too...efficient...too sterile. She walked over to the one window. It overlooked a small courtyard formed by the angle of two buildings. There was a fountain, marble perhaps. She could hear the plash of the water into the stone basin. A ring of the same, black stone surrounded it and provided seats. A few humans, students most likely, were sitting there now, reading or talking or just watching the water. That was where she would meet with students. She would have to remember to ask the dean if that was permitted. The weather wouldn't pose a problem.

   Mayan realized the dean was saying something about student work which would determine who would study with her. She turned away from the window and smiled and nodded her head. That was all very well, but Mayan would choose her students herself, after talking with them and finding out if the spark was there. Anyone with half a brain could learn the mechanics of poetry. But the inner fire, the soul, that was another matter. Nevertheless, she took the data crystals and placed them in the nearest storage bin.

   After showing her the campus maps and directory, and the codes for the com, the dean reminded her that the new term began in two weeks. Two weeks!! Mayan thanked the dean absently. Two weeks!! She thought she had at least a month before school started. She wasn't prepared! Her apartment wasn't even ready! It wasn't until she walked back to Kendrick's flat from the transport tube that she realized the dean was talking about Martian weeks, not standard weeks. A few people stopped at the sight of a Minbari woman laughing hysterically as she walked. Mayan collected herself and walked on, giggling only occasionally. She hoped she wasn't going to have a hard time dealing with the local calendar.

   She let herself into the flat. Kendrick wasn't home yet. There was some sort of crisis requiring his attention. She made herself comfortable and looked through the material the dean had given her. Her schedule didn't seem too arduous. She was expected to deliver a general lecture to the whole department once a month, and meet with students once a week. The rest of the time was her own, except for a faculty gathering a few days before classes started. She went over to the com and called up the calendar, which listed all dates in Minbari cycles, standard Earth years, and local years. She didn't want to make a mistake about the date.

   As she transferred the information to her data pad, she noticed that Kendrick had highlighted the date of her arrival. She scrolled down the entries for that day out of curiosity, smiling fondly, until she came to the last line. Nine. That was all it said. She frowned and bit her lower lip. Nine.

   "Valen help me," she said aloud and pressed her hand against her chest. How could she forget? She'd thought it a happy coincidence that she would arrive on Mars on the ninth anniversary of their meeting, a good omen for the future. Nine was a significant number to a Minbari. But Kendrick hadn't said anything either. Perhaps, in spite of his reminder, he forgot also? Neither of them were sentimental about things like that. He usually remembered her naming day and the anniversary of the day she was granted the right to bear the honorific, sha'al. And she remembered his birthday and the day he joined the Rangers. But not always. Yet he obviously thought it important enough to mark the day. She would find a way to make it up to him, she vowed.

   She still felt guilty, despite his best efforts to reassure her, that he was quarantined on Earth. She had tried to join him, volunteering to assist Alliance medical teams that were already in place, to no avail. She shamelessly took advantage of her long friendship with Delenn and used Ranger channels to call Jason. Delenn did not reproach her, which made her feel even more guilty. Those first months, Mayan called almost daily. When it became clear the cure would not soon be found, they gradually fell into a routine. She would call once or twice a week, to give him news of mutual friends or tell him what she was doing, or just to say "I'm thinking of you." Sometimes, he would call her, but those calls were brief, as if he wanted to reassure himself that she was still there.

   After a time, Mayan began to feel she was in a waking dream. It was unreal: the plague, the quarantine, the separation. It was a dream; and when she awoke, Jason would be back on Minbar or waiting for her on Babylon 5. When, inevitably, he told her to forget about him and go on with her life, she acquiesced with equanimity. It was only a dream, after all, and so it didn't matter. He seemed surprised at her lack of protest, but he never said anything. She stopped calling for a few months, and then resumed as though no time had passed, just like in a dream.

   Kendrick was one of the first to leave Earth when the quarantine was lifted. Mayan met her Ranger on the transfer station orbiting Io. She wanted to surprise him. When he disembarked from the Earth shuttle, she was waiting. They stared at each other for a long moment. Then she did something she had never done before. She threw her arms around him, not caring that they were in public, not caring if anyone disapproved. She clung to him, trembling. Feeling his body against hers, holding on to him, she realized how close she had come to losing him. He held her, gently stroking her back as she cried against his chest. No one paid attention, or if they did, they soon looked away when they saw the eyes of the Ranger daring anyone to comment.

   When she regained her composure, Mayan stepped back so she could look up into his face. She tried to keep her tone light. "Next time, Anla'shok, when you decide to go fishing, I'm coming with you."

    He had nothing to say to that.

    President Sheridan had arranged transport back to Alliance Headquarters on a Minbari liner and the crew treated them accordingly, eager to see to their every comfort, but they were given very little chance. Mayan and Jason spent the three days of the voyage in his cabin, rediscovering each other's bodies. She still marveled at the fact that she found the hair all over his body so erotic. Just the feel of it against her skin was enough to shorten her breath and make her tingle all over.

   On the second night out, after the first, frantic couplings had given way to leisurely lovemaking, Kendrick idly rubbed the blue patch that ran from her belly to her groin. "You know, it doesn't feel right anymore, making love to a woman who doesn't have these markings."

   "Oh?" If she had eyebrows, she would have arched them. "Have you had occasion to find that out lately?"

   "Jealous?"

   She only smiled and pulled him down for a passionate kiss. Anything else he was going to say was soon forgotten as his body responded to hers.

   Much later, he asked her again if she was jealous. She rolled over to face him. Gently stroking his cheek, she said "If, while you lived with the probability of dying such a death for so long, you found a measure of comfort with a human woman, it is not a matter for jealousy."

   "Mayan, I..." He stopped when she held a finger to his lips.

   "Sh...I do not need to know. It has nothing to do with us." She kissed him and snuggled against him to sleep.

   On Minbar, Kendrick spent long hours in debriefings by the President and Entil'Zha. Whatever time he had left, he spent with Mayan. Later, he took leave before accepting a new posting. He spent it exploring those parts of the Minbari home world he had always wanted to visit, but never made the time to do so. Mayan went with him. She could not remember a time when she had been more content with him, and with herself.

   When they returned, he was given a choice of assignments. To her dismay, he chose the Mars posting. He told her he didn't want to teach at the training school again. It was an honour to be asked, but he did not feel he had anything else to contribute. And the staff position at Alliance Headquarters was too confining. He knew he would have to accept a desk somewhere because of his age and the four years he lost on Earth, but at least Mars offered him a chance to work independent of most bureaucratic entanglements. He would have great responsibilities, but he would also have great freedom. She could not disagree in good conscience.

   He suggested she come with him. She laughed unhappily.

   "To do what? Wait for you to come home and tell me about your day?

   "That is not what I meant and you know it. Besides, if I had to come home to your cooking, I would expect hazardous duty pay!"

   She had to grin at this. He was a much better cook and often prepared their meals.

   He reminded her that she had a standing invitation to become poet in residence at one of the colleges on Mars. Perhaps she should finally accept. It wouldn't be forever, only for a year at most. She told him she would think about it.

   And now, here she was on Mars, waiting for him to come home. "But he's making dinner," she said out loud.

   

   CHAPTER 3

   

   

*****

   Her apartment was finally ready three days before the term started. Jason made sure all the furnishings and books she had sent from Minbar were in place before he would allow her to see it. She was touched to find he had arranged everything as closely as possible to her house on Minbar. There were even flowering plants and a small orange tree in a pot in the corner by the window. He apologized for the lack of Minbari plants, explaining that the ones he ordered violated some local import regulations and the replacements wouldn't arrive for another month yet. He offered to cook dinner in recompense. She told him there was no need for apologies. Everything was perfect the way it was.

   "Really, Jason, it's as close to home as possible." She stood on tiptoe to kiss him. "Now, didn't you say something about dinner?"

   "In a minute. There's something else I want to do first. Wait right here." He went into the kitchen, where she could hear him rummaging around. He emerged with a blue crystal tray holding a covered bowl and a small, clear crystal dish. He placed the tray on a table beneath a shelf on the back wall and turned to Mayan, who was watching his actions in disbelief.

   "Is that what I think it is? A hearth offering? But...there's no hearth here." She waved her arm around the room.

   "I know. That's why I put it under the Valen altar. It's the closest equivalent I can think of. Now, come here and help me. I'm not sure I know the order of the prayers."

   Mayan shook her head. "Sometime, Anla'shok, I think you are more Minbari than I am. A hearth offering!" She shook her head again, but she walked across to him.

   She bowed to the altar and then to him. His baritone blended with her clear soprano as they began the ancient ritual that sanctified a home and invoked Valen's blessings to protect the occupants from harm. They bowed again when the prayers were ended. He uncovered the bowl and reverently removed a piece of cooked flarn which he dipped into the crystal dish of salt. He offered it to Mayan who ate it in one bite and gave him a piece in turn. The rest of the flarn and salt would remain under the altar for three days, after which Mayan would burn it and save the ashes in a crystal vial that would stay on the altar as long as Mayan lived there.

   During dinner, which was delicious as usual when he cooked, she asked him what made him think of the hearth offering. It was an old rite that not all Minbari observed now.

   "I'm not sure," he said around a mouthful of roasted vegetables. "I guess I felt you'd like it. As a reminder of home, maybe...." He swallowed and shrugged. "It seemed appropriate."

   He didn't stay the night. He wanted to give her a chance to settle in first, although she protested it wasn't necessary. He kissed her goodnight. For the first time since her arrival, she was alone on Mars. She did not find that a comforting thought, which surprised her. She should be pleased that she was alone, with no distractions. She usually needed solitude the way she needed food or air. But not now, which was most strange. Mars seemed to be turning all her usual habits inside out. For a time she wandered the apartment, making minute changes here and there, moving a book or adjusting the angle of a picture. She was restless, unable to work and unwilling to go to bed just yet. She stopped before the crystal tray and smiled. Kendrick was right: it was appropriate, and a reminder that Minbar would still be there after her year on Mars was up. More like a year and a half, she reminded herself. She should go to bed. She had an early morning appointment with the dean.

   She turned too swiftly and knocked a small crystal ball off the table. She made a grab for it, sure it was too late, and watched in amazement as the ball took forever to drop. She started to laugh. She was forgetting the lesser gravity. She replaced the ball, a souvenir of her childhood, still laughing. She stopped abruptly when she realized she was on the verge of hysteria. "I'm probably just nervous about my first class," she said aloud.

   She made some tea and forced herself to sit down and drink it while she watched ISN coverage of local elections without interest. Politics bored her. Jason would know what was going on, she thought. It was a part of his job. She missed him. She'd become used to having him near. That happened before, when they'd been together for any length of time, but not like this. It felt wrong not to have him here. Which was very disturbing.

   Finally she went to bed. She started to adjust the shades on the window so she would see the morning sun when she remembered there was no view of the garden and the mountains. She brought the orange tree into the bedroom, where she would see it when she awoke. She stared at it for a long time before she fell into an uneasy sleep.

   

   

*****

   Kendrick walked home, it was only a few miles after all, wondering if he should have stayed. Mayan wanted him to. He didn't doubt that. And he wanted to stay too. As he entered his flat, he knew he had made the right decision. They had been together over a month now, waking up in the same bed, sharing meals, sharing their lives. That was longer than usual. Even when he was serving on Minbar, they did not see each other for so long without a break. Mayan needed solitude periodically. For her work and for herself. He understood and never minded when she withdrew for a few days or a few weeks. Besides, he didn't want her to tell him to leave. Still, the apartment felt strange without her, like something was missing, something that made the place feel warmer and brighter.

   He made himself a cup of tea and settled comfortably in the overstuffed armchair near the window. He slipped a data crystal into the reader and adjusted the angle. He had a pile of reports to go through and preferred the comfort of the chair to the convenience of the com. He sighed as the first page appeared on the screen. He hated the paperwork involved in his job, but he was conscientious about doing it. Mayan liked to tease him, asking how he could dislike the paperwork when there was no paper involved most of the time. He smiled at the memory. He'd grown accustomed to having her around, sitting on the couch reading, or working at the cramped table in the corner after dinner. Or pacing up and down the small room, hurling imprecations at whatever First One invented poetry, when she couldn't work out the effect she wanted. She'd calm down after a while, and laugh about it and drag him off to bed. He sighed again.

   He scanned through the first few reports, not really paying attention to the listings of facts and figures. He really didn't need to know the total consumption of water at the embassy or the efficiency rating of the recycling system. But for a reason known only to some faceless bureaucrat in an office at Alliance Headquarters, the military attache received copies of all embassy reports. At last something caught his interest. He scrolled back to the beginning of the document. Production of Meteor class fighters would increase once the new Edgars-Garibaldi Industries facility opened. That was good. It was a good machine, easy to fly and easy to maintain. He enjoyed the time he spent in them, despite the circumstances. Too bad the experimental jump engine was a failure. It was a good idea, even though the engine nearly killed him when he returned from the rendevous with the Excalibur....

   

   

*****

   Everything had gone so smoothly, the attack by the Drakh not withstanding, he did not expect any problems on the trip back to Earth space with Franklin and his human guinea pig, David Williams, who chatted happily about his fiancee and upcoming wedding. Kendrick did not pay much attention. He was busy plotting the best place to jump out and avoid detection, after using the jump gate near the rendevous point to enter hyperspace. He settled on the near end of the asteroid belt. Although it had been mined out years ago, there was still the occasional prospecting ship in the area. A small ship coming out of the belt would not be unusual. From there, he should be able to reach the far side of Earth's moon without a problem. No one would look for a ship heading toward Earth.

   He checked the instruments and warned his passengers to secure themselves firmly against the vibrations while the jump point was forming.

   "All set? Right. Here we go." The small cabin shook violently for a moment, then ceased abruptly as the blue waves of light flowed out from the expanding center of the point. When the jumpgate stabilized, Kendrick eased the ship in at seventy percent power. They were halfway through, everything normal, when Franklin called out.

   "Jase! These readings are crazy...there's something wrong..."

   "I see them Stephen. The jump point is unstable. What's the power readout?"

   "Sixty seven percent and falling."

   "Not enough to back out," Kendrick said evenly. "We have to go through, but the point is collapsing too quickly. We've got to increase our acceleration." He throttled the power up to 100 percent, but it was not enough. The fighter started shaking again, harder than before. "Stephen. The landing thrusters."

   "What?" Franklin was confused.

   "The landing thrusters. Activate them and rotate them. Prepare to fire on my mark."

   "Oh...right!" Franklin entered the activation sequence and pointed them directly aft.

   Kendrick's fingers flew over the controls, reconfiguring and transferring all the power he could spare from other systems to the engines. As he juggled safety parameters and acceptable risk in his head, a small corner of his mind watched with cold amusement at what would probably be a futile effort. Why bother? They were all going to die anyway? Why not die now, quickly and cleanly? Why wait for the inevitable agony of the slow death the plague would bring? Why not die in space, in a ship, the way a soldier, a Ranger, should die?

   "Thrusters ready." Franklin's voice was not quite steady. "Are you sure this is going to work?"

   "No, but unless you can think of anything else..." He shrugged. "Okay, now. One...two...three..."Kendrick's voice was calm. He told the cold voice in his mind to shut up. "Four...and...mark!" He pushed the throttle into the red zone as the doctor fired all six thrusters simultaneously. The ship bucked and leapt through the rapidly closing point with no room to spare. Later, he would find some of the rear gun nacelles crushed like foil.

   "Yes!" Franklin pumped his arm. "I take back all I said about having to do all those drills on the controls. For a moment there, I didn't think we were gonna make it." He grinned. "I was trying to remember all my sins so I could plan my defense."

   "There wasn't enough time for you to remember all of them," Kendrick laughed. He turned to face Williams. "You okay?"

   "Yeah...yeah, I'm fine. Or I will be when my stomach drops down to where it belongs." He laughed, but his pale face indicated the truth of his words.

   Kendrick nodded and turned back to his instruments. While Franklin and Williams continued to discuss their close call, he remained silent. He never talked much when the danger was over and the reaction set in. He'd always felt a tinge of fear, along with eager anticipation, before going into action, but the aftermath was getting worse, especially since his enforced stay on Earth. He knew there was no shame in admitting fear, especially after the fact, but he hated that he wasn't as calm and unconcerned as he appeared. He was a Ranger, dammit! He knew it was the result of the adrenaline rush wearing off. Still, he felt it made him less of a Ranger than his Minbari counterparts. He knew that was foolish too. Mayan had said as much the time he told her. She reminded him she came from a warrior clan and saw this reaction all the time. Not even Neroon was immune. Kendrick didn't press her for details. He didn't like to think of Mayan with her former lovers, especially that one. Besides, he didn't believe it. At least about Neroon.

   Despite his hostility toward their leader, all the Anla'Shok respected Neroon for his honour and courage. Kendrick remembered watching the events at the Temple of Varenni, along with the other Rangers convalescing at the training base hospital, remembered catching his breath when Entil'Zha Delenn entered the Starfire Wheel; remembered bowing his head in horror and resignation when she collapsed. And then Neroon entered the burning ring and departed into legend.

   This was Mayan's lover. Kendrick did not know, or perhaps he would have hesitated to approach her. Mayan did not tell him. She assumed he knew. He found out by accident early in their relationship when he picked up a still of the warrior alyt Mayan kept below her Valen altar. He thought it a mark of respect for the one who had saved her friend's life, until he saw the fragment of poetry on the back, written in Mayan's distinctive hand:

   In the light of two moons the summer sky
   Blazes with an aching brightness.
   A knife edge stands between
   The cool comfort of darkness
   And the stabbing light that pierces the soul,
   Insinuating the joyful pain of love,
   The bright burning that sears the heart

   He would always be second best in her heart, he realized. That never bothered him. He knew he couldn't compete with a legend and he wasn't even going to try. He had always been satisfied with the way things were between them. Until now.

   The rest of the return trip from the Excalibur was uneventful. Kendrick rejoined the squadron as planned and informed Earth Control that he had picked up two survivors from the exploding shuttle. When they landed, he told Franklin and Williams to return to the Institute without him. He wanted to inspect the engine. The doctor sent Williams ahead to the waiting air car and turned to Kendrick.

   "You okay, Jase? You've been awfully quiet ever since we jumped."

   "Yeah. I was just trying to figure out what went wrong."

   Franklin looked at him without saying anything.

   "I'm fine. Really. Go on, Stephen. I'll call you later."

   Franklin started to say something, then shook his head and loped after Williams.

   It was not an entire lie. Kendrick did want to inspect the engine. But he was not fine. While they were trying to avoid being crushed by the forces of the collapsing jump point, he realized that if he were alone, he would not have tried to save the ship. He would have listened to that part of his mind that told him it was futile to go on. He thought he had reconciled himself to dying from the virus. He was not afraid of death. No Ranger was. He would gladly give his life on orders from Entil'Zha or to save others. But to die because of an accident of time and place; to die without benefit to others; to die without a hope of victory....

   Kendrick put down the reader, got up and stretched. His father had died in space, during the Dilgar war, his only brother against the Minbari at the Line. It had been tempting to follow their path. To die in a small ship, in space, while on a desperate mission. But to quit, to give up, just like that...that wasn't him. At least he didn't think it was. He wasn't sure any more.

   He walked over to the refrigeration unit in the small kitchen. He felt like a drink, something alcoholic, to help him sleep, but that would mean going out, and besides, nothing was open in this section of Lowell Dome, so he settled for orange juice. He was never much of a drinker anyway, and when he began spending more and more time on Minbar, with Mayan, he stopped altogether. The last time he had a drink was on Earth, at David Williams' wedding. He didn't want to go, but Stephen insisted.

   Williams looked so happy, despite the plague, despite the near certainty of death. He bounced brightly from group to group, shaking hands enthusiastically and thanking everyone for coming. Kendrick thought him a fool, and envied him. It was painful to watch the newlywed couple. So he proceeded to get drunk. It wasn't difficult; there was plenty to drink, everything from champagne to fine single malts. And he tried everything. He vaguely remembered dancing with some of the bride's friends and going off with one of them, a redhead, he never did catch her name. Stephen found him asleep under a tree in the park across the way, his clothes disheveled and partially unfastened. He was still determined to remain faithful to Mayan at the time. He couldn't remember precisely what happened, even now, and he never saw the redhead again. To lose control like that...inexcusable...shameful... dishonorable....A Ranger was supposed to be aware of what he was doing at all times.

   A year later, he received a birth announcement. Williams and his wife had a baby girl. Idiocy! They were going to die in a few years! Couldn't they see that? That was the blackest time. He told Mayan to stop calling and get on with her life without him, and didn't even question that Mayan agreed so readily. He was sure they would never find a cure now. The optimism he felt at the beginning, reinforced by the flight to bring David Williams to Earth, was gone, totally. Despair ate at him until there was nothing left but a cold, bleak core. He stopped flying, stopped working at the lab with Franklin, stopped thinking. Nothing touched him; he felt nothing. Stephen tried to talk to him, but he refused to take his calls, or open the door to him. Kendrick would have killed himself during that time, but it was too much bother, and besides, he would be dead soon enough anyway.

   Two months later, Entil'Zha Delenn and President Sheridan issued orders that finally broke through the wall that surrounded him. The unrest on Earth, quiet for a time, was increasing again. There was a new group that believed their world itself was the cause of the plague, and the only way to survive was to leave the cursed planet. A few had tried and were easily turned back. But the cult, for that is what it was, kept growing and more and more were trying to escape. The defense grid could shoot down the larger ships that evaded EarthForce patrols, but there were not enough ships, or pilots, to patrol the whole perimeter of Earth space.

   "EarthGov has asked that we loan them your squadron, Jason. The President and I have agreed." Delenn looked at Sheridan, who nodded beside her, as she spoke. "Your formal orders will arrive shortly, but I wanted to tell you myself. It is a hard thing we are asking of you, to go against your own people, kill them, if necessary. Go with Valen's guidance and protection."

   Hard! It was impossible. When Clark's forces shot down the civilian transports at Proxima, Kendrick asked for reassignment to the fleet so he could help bring the killers to justice. Now he was expected to do the same as those murderers. But he could not refuse because he knew it was necessary.

   Through skill or luck, the squadron disabled the few ships, small and decrepit for the most part, that made it past the grid, and towed them to one of the space docks that orbited the moon. Until one day a large, unusually well-equipped transport eluded all pursuit from Earth. His ship was the closest and the fastest. When he fired, as usual, to cripple the transport's engines, something went horribly wrong. The ship exploded, killing all two hundred aboard.

   He shook his head, angry at himself for dwelling on that now. He did nothing wrong. The stolen transport's engines were faulty. An examination of the wreckage showed they exploded when his shot short-circuited the wiring. Finishing the juice, he placed the glass in the dishwasher, turned off the lights, and prepared for bed. He would call Mayan sometime tomorrow. Perhaps her period of solitude would be a short one this time. He lay awake for a long time.

   

   CHAPTER 4

   

   

*****

   In the morning, before he checked his messages, even before he brushed his teeth, Kendrick called Mayan, and got no answer. She was a heavy sleeper and never let the com interrupt. He thought about using the emergency override signal and decided it wasn't worth disturbing her and getting her mad. He'd call again later. He threw on a pair of old sweats and started his morning exercise routine. He had to be more diligent about it now, since he was spending so much time at a desk. It was much easier to stay in shape on a White Star chasing raiders or keeping the peace along a fractious border.

   Not that he didn't like what he was doing now. It was challenging work, helping Mars build a stronger defensive force without unnecessarily provoking Earth. The old resentments were strong on both sides. Ten years after independence, EarthDome still harbored illusions about regaining Mars, and MarsGov still felt inferior and took every misunderstanding as a deliberate slight. Sometimes, he felt like he spent most of his time refereeing a sandbox fight.

   He finished with a few, fluid movements, supple stretches that left him satisfactorily loose and sweaty. Too bad the flat was too small for denn'bok practice. He'd try to get in a few bouts this week with the ambassador's guards. He chuckled as he stowed his weights and other gear. The morning after Mayan arrived, he exercised as usual. Mayan looked on in disbelief.

   "Are you mad, Anla'shok? One would think you got quite enough exercise last night." She grinned at him.

   "I never get enough of that kind of exercise." He leered at her and she laughed. "But I'm in a more sedentary job in lesser gravity. I have to work harder to keep in shape." He patted his still flat stomach. "So it's either this or eat less."

   "Well..." she stretched luxuriously and lay back against the pillows. "An orgasm expends the same amount of energy as running a mile...and it's a lot more fun."

   "True." He laughed. "But it does nothing for the muscle tone."

   "Depends on which muscles you're interested in." Her grin was even wider. "Besides, you can always do push-ups if you feel the need." She thrust upward with her hips.

   "You are incorrigible...and adorable...."

   "And don't forget insatiable...." Her voice was thickening with desire. "That too...." He was short of breath, but not from exercising. He laughed as he threw his sweats on the floor and joined her in bed.

   Mayan started her own exercise program later that morning. God, he missed her! And they'd only been apart one night.

   He tried calling her again, and got no answer, again. She should be up by now. He'd wait until after his shower, then, if she still didn't answer, he'd use the emergency frequency. He was shaving when he remembered Mayan had an early appointment at the college.

   "Must be a sign of age," he muttered, "forgetting like that. And so is talking to yourself," he added crossly.

   

   

*****

   "Morning, Nerval."

   The young Minbari started at the sound, almost dislodging the plaque on the wall that held a display of antique weapons used by Rangers past. He quickly scurried out of Kendrick's office and returned a moment later with a data pad.

   "Those my appointments?" Jason rapidly scanned the list, ticking off a few items. "Cancel these and reschedule the guy from Mars Industrial. I need more time to study their new proposal." He glanced at the pad again. "Yup, that's all. Thank you."

   The Minbari bowed, stammering his apologies for not being prepared. Kendrick smiled.

   "My fault, Nerval. I should have let you know I was on the way." Nerval was not long out of Temple and somewhat overawed at the opportunity to serve a real Captain of Rangers! Kendrick found this amusing, but made certain that his aide never knew. Let the boy keep his illusions as long as possible.

   After his aide departed, with more bowing, Kendrick settled down to tackle the backlog caused by taking time to move Mayan to her apartment. When the young Minbari timidly knocked at eleven to announce the arrival of his morning tea, Jason was surprised to see just how much he'd accomplished. At this rate, he would finish in time to leave early, if nothing came up.

   He was savoring the last of the biscuits Nerval had thoughtfully brought with the tea when the com beeped to signal a call from Alliance Headquarters. It was the head of Covert Intelligence. Kendrick hastily swallowed.

   "Hello, Ms Halloran. What can I do for you today?"

   "Sorry to interrupt," she said, smiling at the sight of the crumb strewn tray. "I need your help on a job on Earth in about a week. I've cleared it with Entil'Zha Delenn and the President. I'll send you the details and then join you on Mars at the end of this week. If you accept, of course." Her tone made it clear she did not expect him to refuse.

   "Do I have a choice," he asked with a grin.

   "Not really." Her smile took the sting out of it.

   "So I'll see you then. Do you need any special preparations?"

   "It's all in the report. You'll have it by this afternoon. Thanks, Jason." She smiled again and cut the connection.

   Kendrick sighed and turned back to his desk. So much for leaving early. He wasn't looking forward to returning to Earth so soon, either, but Tessa was right. He had no choice in the matter. Still, it would be good to see her again. He first met her as Stephen's friend and they got along immediately. They'd worked well together in the past and he didn't expect any problems now, at least none that she could do anything about. He sighed again and called Nerval to cancel all his afternoon appointments.

   

   

*****

   The meeting with the dean lasted longer than she thought. It was after two when Mayan returned to her small office on the fourth floor. She dropped her data pad on the bare desk. It had gone well. She was not as anxious as before; today's meeting allayed some of her fears about things like grades and requirements. She was free to do as she wished, so long as she gave her students an end of semester evaluation. But there was so much to learn about how the college functioned and how her course fit in. She would download her notes later for study.

   She was suddenly dismayed when she realized how much she didn't even know enough about to ask. This was never going to work! She had never suffered from stage fright, never feared performing. Her work was for herself, something she had to do, like eating or sleeping. But teaching was another matter entirely. She would return to the dean and make some excuse to back out. No, she couldn't do that. Classes started in two days. It would be dishonorable to leave now. She had given her promise. And she had some ideas of what she wanted to do, although whether her ideas would work was another matter. Despite her qualms, it would be a new experience, a challenge, and the part of her that wasn't terrified into a new incarnation was looking forward to the test.

   She placed a call to Kendrick on his direct channel. She rarely called him at work, but she wanted to let him know she didn't want to be alone, at least not yet, which would surprise him. It certainly surprised her.

   "How may I serve you?" The face of the young Minbari aide appeared on the screen.

   "Greetings, Nerval," she said in the most formal dialect, careful to incline her head to just the right degree in keeping with her status and his. She was always punctilious about observing the niceties with Kendrick's aide. He was still of an age when such things are important.

   "It is pleasant to see you again. Is Captain Kendrick there?"

   "I regret he is unavailable, Sha'al Mayan. Perhaps I can be of service?" He bowed again.

   Bloody hell! Mayan had been around humans long enough to pick up some of their expletives. She couldn't very well leave a message saying she wanted Jason to spend the night with her because one night alone was quite sufficient. Not with Nerval. She thought a moment.

   "Thank you, Nerval. Would you please tell the Captain that I am still at the college, where he may call me if he is going to be late tonight." There. That was circumspect enough to keep from embarrassing Kendrick and his aide.

   "Of course. It is an honour to be of service to you, Sha'al Mayan." He bowed and faded from the screen as she ended the call.

   She didn't expect him to call. He would just show up as he usually did, she hoped. She looked around the office with distaste. It was as sterile as she remembered from her first visit. She should bring some of her things, some crystals, perhaps, and flowers, and a few wall hangings as well. More light would help, also. Maybe one or two stills. She knew just which ones, too. The large view taken at dusk of the mountains surrounding Tuzanor, the crystal peaks casting deep blue shadows on the city nestled within. It would look very good on the wall opposite the door. And her favorite, of the two Minbari girls, children really, no more than twelve or thirteen cycles. Flushed and disheveled, with dirt streaked faces, they leaned against each other, laughing helplessly at something only they could see. Delenn's father had taken it just before he called them in to clean up before temple. It had hung on the wall of his study until he passed beyond the veil. Afterward, Delenn gave it to her as a memento and memorial, both to her father and to their childhood.

   Tomorrow, the day before her first class, she would decorate. It would help to keep her mind off having to face a roomful of students for the first time. She checked for messages, found none, and locked the door behind her as she walked out.

   The college was busier than the last time she was here. Students and faculty walked purposefully toward their destinations or chatted in clumps near open doors. A few professors, mostly those she met at last week's meeting, called out a greeting in passing. Mayan nodded and smiled in turn. She made her way, without conscious thought, to the small courtyard and the black fountain. The seat surrounding it was empty, which suited her mood. She watched as the feeble sunlight tried to create a rainbow in the spray. The wan, Martian light, filtered through the domes that compensated for the lack of atmosphere, was a pale, inadequate substitute for the golden warmth of the Minbari sun. She missed the sunlight.

   She settled herself comfortably on the smooth stone, drawing her legs up to sit cross-legged, and stretched. She was tired after a restless night of very little sleep. It still bothered her that she felt so uncomfortable sleeping without Jason. She wondered, again, if coming to Mars was such a good idea. She was certain of only one thing. No matter what happened, there would be no turning back, no returning to the easy, undemanding familiarity of their relationship. The coming year, or year and a half, actually, would bring them to a new and more permanent arrangement, or they would part forever. She didn't know which possibility frightened her more.

   They had agreed that Jason would move in with her as soon as her apartment was ready, since it had more room than his. This would be the first time she would actually live with a lover for more than a few weeks. In fact, it would be the first time she lived with anyone. Rooming with Delenn for six years in school didn't count. She never even thought of cohabiting with anyone, not even Neroon, until they made up their mind to mate.

   Neroon! He was never entirely out of her thoughts, but long ago the memory of him had turned from searing pain to remembered sadness. Neroon. The humans say opposites attract, but for Minbari, like calls to like. She could feel the fire within his soul blaze up in her own. Almost from the moment they met, they became lovers. For over fifteen years they loved and quarreled and parted, only to love again because they could not live without each other. And then, when they finally came to their senses, realizing they were two halves of the same whole, when they decided to mate and completed all the rituals save the final one, then, he died. And a part of her died too.

   She never thought she would love again. When she first met Jason, she thought he would be a friend, nothing more. Even when they became lovers, she persuaded herself she didn't really love him, at least not in a serious way. For nine years, she held on to that, refusing to acknowledge that he had claimed a piece of her heart, if not also a piece of her soul. When she rushed into his arms on Io, all pretense crumbled. She loved Jason Kendrick, loved him as much as she had ever loved anyone.

   She wondered, if Neroon had lived, would they still be together?

   The soft swosh of the fountain, punctuated here and there by the plink of stray drops escaping from the main fall of water, lulled her as her eyelids seemed to close of their own volition, and her head nodded lower and lower, until she was jerked back to awareness by a strange hand on her shoulder. Her eyes flew open and beheld a tall, slim, human woman with golden eyes in a pale face surrounded by a cloud of dark hair.

   "I'm sorry to disturb you," the woman said, smiling at Mayan's confusion, "but you were about to fall into the fountain. It's a common hazard. The fountain often has that effect on people."

   "Oh...thank you...um...Ms..." Mayan was still a little befuddled.

   "Sorry." The woman held out her hand. "I'm Thoris Carter, comp. lit."

   Shaking her hand, Mayan said "I am pleased to meet you, Ms Complit."

   

   

*****

   "Oh, you didn't," Kendrick managed to gasp between paroxysms of laughter when she told him what happened.

   "It was a natural mistake," Mayan said indignantly." Many humans have three names and use all three. How was I to know she was telling me what subject she teaches?"

   "So, tell me about Ms Complit," he said when he finally stopped laughing. And neatly fielded the sponge Mayan threw at him. It was her turn to clean up after dinner.

   "She is an interesting woman, fourth generation Martian. Her great grandfather piloted the first settlement ship, and her cousin is a member of the Mars Senate. We got to talking afterward, which is why I was late getting home, and she told me a little about herself. I think we could become friends."

   I've met her cousin, the senator. A formidable woman," Kendrick said as he picked up the two cups of tea Mayan set on the long, L-shaped counter that divided the kitchen from the spacious - for Mars - living room. He placed them on a low table and made himself comfortable on the sofa facing the vid screen, propping his bare feet on the table without upsetting the cups.

   "Tables are not for feet," Mayan admonished as she came to sit next to him. The smile in her voice and on her face took the sting out of her words. It was an old argument she had lost long ago.

   "Mmm..." she murmured as she settled comfortably next to him. "I've been thinking...."

   "Always a dangerous proposition...Ouch!" She jabbed his ribs with her elbow."

   "Pay attention!"

   "Yes, ma'am!"

   "As I was saying...we can always screen off that area." She waved her hand in the general direction of the dining alcove. "And turn it into a second study. That way, if one of us prefers to work alone, neither of us will have to leave."

   "Whatever you want...."

   She shook her head. "Typical male response!"

   He squeezed her shoulder absently and she turned her head to smile at him.

   "So, when are you going to move in, too?"

   "Well..." Kendrick cleared his throat and started again. "I...I'm not sure.... I haven't changed my mind," he reassured her, seeing the look of alarm on her face. "It's just...I have to go to Earth next week. I'm sorry, Mayan, I have no choice. The orders came in this afternoon. It's not for very long, a month at most, probably much shorter."

   "Oh." Mayan caressed his cheek with the back of her fingers. "Will you be okay? Going back so soon?"

   He caught her hand and held it in both of his. "I don't know..."

   Gently, he kissed the tips of her fingers and released her hand. "I don't want to talk about it right now. Okay?" At her tentative nod, he put his arm around her again. He reached for the com control and started to scroll through the channels.

   "You are going to be here with me, anyway, until you leave for Earth, aren't you?" She hesitated, and at his nod, continued. "It's going to be awfully inconvenient to have to run back and forth for clothes and such. Why don't you bring over a week's worth of clothing and anything else you might need?" He thought a moment. "I don't know if that will work. I'm going to have to take home a lot of work with me and most of it will be sensitive...." He trailed off as he noticed the grin on her face.

   "There's a secure com in the study." The note of triumph was unmistakable. "It's just like the one you have in your office!"

   "How..."

   She grinned again, even broader than before. "I...um...reminded...um...your boss of your propensity to take your work home with you. And I pointed out that home was going to be here. Delenn ordered the secure com installed the next day. That's one of the reasons it took so long for the apartment to be ready. I didn't realize all that special wiring was involved."

   "Mayan..."

   "No, Jason. Don't start. You know I'm right about this."

   It was an old problem between them, one that had never been fully resolved and probably never would be. He was uncomfortable with the long-standing friendship between his lover and the commander of the Rangers, but in most instances, he had learned to live with it. He had no choice, really, not if he wanted to remain a Ranger and be with Mayan. And, in this instance, at least, he knew she was right.

   "Okay, okay," he said in resignation that was only partially feigned. "I'll have someone from Embassy security bring over some stuff tomorrow morning. I won't have time to do it myself. Will that be satisfactory?"

   "It will do," she said. Her smile was just this side of smug.

   He turned his attention back to the screen. "How about watching a vid?"

   "I don't think so. I've had a long day and I didn't sleep very well last night. Must have been the lack of company."

   "Must be. I had the same problem," he said with a feeble grin.

   She kissed him lightly on the lips. "Then don't stay out here too long. You know too little sleep makes me cranky." She stood up and walked toward the bedroom door, where she turned to him once more, her manner now serious.

   "Are you sure you will be all right here, alone?"

   "Yes. I'll be fine. I'll be in soon. I'm just going to watch ISN for a while."

   She started to say something, thought better of it, and went into the bedroom.

   

   

*****

   Mayan woke up because her back was cold. Jason was no longer curled around her. She turned to get closer and realized that he was not in bed with her and there was no sound from the bathroom. There was no sound from any part of the apartment. Alarmed she got up, not bothering with a robe, and hurried into the living room. And stopped suddenly.

   Kendrick was sitting cross legged on the carpet. Naked, except for the white towel beneath him which was partially draped across one thigh, he stared at a candle, the only light in the room. He took no notice of her until she stood before him, her body outlined by the flame. Then he looked up for a moment before bowing his head again.

   "What are you doing?" Her voice was soft, gentle, as with a child or frightened animal.

   "What does it look like I'm doing? Meditating, or trying to." He spoke in a monotone.

   "I can see that. But why now? It's the middle of the night."

   "Because alcohol is not an option." He raised his head. "Go back to bed, Mayan. There's no sense in both of us being up."

   Heedless of her own nakedness, she sank down beside him. She reached out to touch his face, sighing as he flinched away from her.

   "Will you not let me help you, then, Anla'shok?" She whispered.

   "I don't think anyone can help me," he answered after a long pause.

   She sighed again. And when he made no further response, she started to rise.

   "No, wait." He put out an arm to stop her. "There is something you can do."

   "Anything. Anything you need."

   "Help me meditate?"

   "Of course."

   "I seem to have lost the knack of it," he said ruefully, as she shifted position so that they sat facing each other, knees touching. "It was so much easier in training. I could meditate at the drop of a pike. But everything then was easier...and simpler," he added wistfully.

   She placed the candle between them. Taking both his hands, she began.

   "Look on the candle. Focus on the flame. Let your thoughts center on the light...."

   An hour later, they rose, stiff, but relaxed, and returned to bed. With his head cradled on her breast, Kendrick smiled and fell asleep immediately.

   Mayan held him in her arms and watched him long into the night.

   Kendrick was gone when Mayan woke later than she planned. Judging by the mix of simulated and real sunlight streaming in, the morning was well advanced. She yawned and stretched. She was still a little tired, but there was too much to do today to remain in bed any longer. Sighing, she reached for a nightrobe that she usually wore around the house and padded barefoot into the kitchen in search of breakfast.

   She found a note atop the bowl of fruit while she waited for the water to boil for tea. That was another thing about Mars: water boiled faster. After burning a few pots, Mayan decided it was safer to wait nearby. Biting into a lush, ripe fig, heedless of the juice dripping down her chin, she leaned comfortably against the counter and read the note. There was no salutation:

   I didn't want to wake you. I have to go hold the foreign minister's hand while he meets with his Earth counterpart. I'll try to make it home early. I finished the last of the premurr. Sorry. You'll have to make do with plain toasted bread.

   It was signed with a large, scrawled 'J.' She smiled. It was such a domestic note. The sort of thing Delenn said John always did when he'd eaten the last of something and forgotten, as usual, to notify the housekeeping staff. Maybe, it would be all right, this living together. Maybe, the problems weren't as big as she feared.

   Then she saw the postscript. "Thank you for last night." Her smile faded. She remembered the despairing, helpless man of the night before. There was no future for them unless he could banish his demons. She stood there, holding the note, but not seeing it, until the insistent whistle of the tea kettle broke across her thoughts.

   

   CHAPTER 5

   

   

*****

   Mayan was standing on a chair, trying to hang one of the stills in its acrylic frame on the wall behind her desk, when she heard a knock on her office door. She called out "come" absently. Only a few more inches. She stretched as far as she could reach. As the chair started to wobble, she felt someone steady it. There, that did it. She made a minor adjustment and turned around to find Thoris Carter holding the back of the chair and regarding her with amusement in those golden eyes.

   "If I'm going to make a habit of preventing you from falling, I'd better give you my schedule so you'll know when I'm around."

   Mayan laughed. "Thank you, again," and took the proffered hand to climb down.

   "Is that the City of Sorrows," Thoris asked, pointing to the still.

   "Yes," Mayan replied, surprised. "Do you know Tuzanor?"

   "Only from books and vids. I've never been there."

   She struck a formal pose. "Valen's shadow softly steals over the City of Sorrows...." She smiled. "That's always been one of my favorites of your work."

   Mayan bowed in acknowledgment. "Thank you. You should try to see it in person. It is one of my favourite places. My home is on the other side of those mountains."

   The other woman sighed. "I don't travel very much. I told you, I'm fourth generation Martian. I tend to find heavier gravities a problem. Studying on Earth was difficult enough. But I would like to hear more about Tuzanor, and Minbar."

   "I'd be delighted to teach you," Mayan said. "But I do not think that is why you are here now."

   "I saw the light in your office and thought I'd stop by. Some of us are going to the local café in a couple of hours. It's become a sort of tradition in the department. A last celebration before the new term starts and we're back to the old routines. You're more than welcome to join us."

   "I am honoured that you would include me in one of your rituals," Mayan began. "Oh, it's nothing so grand as a ritual," Thoris laughed. "It's just a bunch of old teachers savoring our last night of freedom. We usually order pizzas and tell each other horror stories about our worst students."

   "Nevertheless, I am honoured." Mayan bowed. "But I must decline. I do not wish to arrive home late tonight."

   Thoris looked at her thoughtfully for a moment. "Someone waiting for you, then, hmm?"

   "We are not formally mated, but yes, someone will be waiting." Mayan smiled. "That is, if he is not delayed."

   "Is he a poet like you?"

   "A poet? No, nothing like that. He is with the Alliance embassy."

   "A bureaucrat?" Thoris was incredulous. "That's as far from a poet as you can get, if Minbari bureaucrats are similar to ours. Never mind. If you change your mind, just come to my office. It's the one at the end of the corridor."

   "Thank you, but I think I will go straight home." Mayan smiled. "And thank you, again, for rescuing me. I promise I'll try not to let it become a habit."

   "Well, I won't keep you. I still have some work of my own to do. I'll see you tomorrow. We can have lunch." She walked toward the door.

   "I would like that," Mayan said. She waited until the human woman left and then returned to the remaining stills and hangings on her desk.

   She sighed softly. She wasn't ashamed of her relationship with the human male. Nor did she try to hide it. But people tended to ask all sorts of questions and she didn't feel up to answering just then. Especially not the one question human females invariably asked! How could she decide if humans or Minbari were better lovers on the basis of one example? Not that she wanted to experiment with any other humans. She was quite satisfied with the one she had now.

   Mayan picked up a small still of Kendrick, taken during their holiday on Minbar before he came to Mars. The Ranger was sitting relaxed against a rock at the edge of a small pool, hands behind his head, long legs comfortably stretched out. He was smiling, at peace with himself. There was no sign of the troubled and frightened man of last night. She sighed again and put the picture face down on her desk. She started to place the crystals she had brought with her around the room and then abruptly returned to the desk. She picked up the still of Kendrick and placed it upright in its frame.

   An hour later, as she turned off the lights and locked the door, Mayan realized she hadn't checked the acoustics of the classroom. She was not going to give a performance, but she planned to use ti'la, her own and others, in her lessons and the sound of the words was as important as the form and meaning. She walked down the corridor past the locked and dark offices of the other faculty and staff to the classrooms around the corner. If the room was locked, she'd have to take her chances in the morning. She tried the door: it was open. Calling "lights, normal," she entered and looked around. About fifty seats with built in data pads formed a semicircle three deep around the lectern on the raised platform at the far end. There was a huge vid screen behind it. The rest of the space was bare. Coupled with the plain, flat ceiling and the smooth walls, the layout of the room would deaden any sound. That was a good thing, she supposed, in a classroom, but not for a poet. Why was nothing simple for her on Mars?

   Nevertheless, she stood at the lectern and began to sing, softly at first and then louder:

   The gok wears a hood
   Striped red and green
   Complementing his blue eyes
   And sleek black and whiteness...

   The sound was not as bad as she feared. The building materials must have some acoustic qualities. She started again, this time in Adronato:

    Gok t're Lok...

   She broke off, a little embarrassed, as someone walked in. Perhaps she wasn't supposed to be here at this hour? Mayan relaxed. It was Thoris.

   "I thought you'd be with your friends by now," Mayan said. "I hope I wasn't disturbing anyone."

   "I was just on my way out when I heard you," Thoris explained. "Don't let me stop you. I've never heard that before. Is it new?"

   "No." Mayan smiled fondly. "I wrote it five years ago as a gift for a very small boy. I am his..." She hesitated, searching for the right term in Standard. "The closest concept among humans is 'godmother.' His mother is my clan sister and my closest friend."

   "He's a lucky boy, to have you for a godmother."

   "I feel I am the fortunate one, to have him in my life," Mayan answered.

   Thoris smiled. "Well, I won't keep you. Don't forget lunch tomorrow."

   She waved as she walked out the door.

   Mayan waited until she was gone and then continued, alternately reciting and singing until she was satisfied. The room was not the best, but it would do. As she left the building, she thought about David, Delenn's son. He was about eight now, in human years. She remembered how thrilled he was when he realized the poem was only for him, and no one else could read it without his permission. He showed the elaborately and lavishly coloured, illustrated book - she had commissioned the best painter on Minbar - only to special friends. One afternoon, six months ago, when Jason had finished briefing Delenn for the day, David shyly asked the Ranger if he would like to see the book 'Aunt Mayan' had made for him.

   Mayan had never wanted children of her own, and now she would never have the chance. But she loved David fiercely, for himself, and not just as Delenn's son.

   

   

*****

   The apartment was quiet when she returned home. As she took off her outer robe, she heard a noise from the bedroom.

   "Jason," she called out. "Is that you?"

   "I'll be right out, Mayan. I'm just putting away my stuff."

   "Take your time. I'll make us some tea."

    She brought two cups of tea into the bedroom and watched as Kendrick placed some neatly folded underwear and socks into one of the upper drawers of the built in bureau. She never used that one because she couldn't reach it comfortably. When the courier from the embassy had delivered the duffles and boxes that morning, she had considered putting everything away, but then she realized that she had no idea how Jason would want his belongings organized. In the past, he'd kept a few changes of clothes at her house for convenience, using whatever space was available. She'd never paid much attention.

   He finished emptying the last of the duffles and accepted the cup of tea gratefully. "Thanks. I got home earlier than I expected. For a wonder, both ministers decided to be sensible and accept the recommendations of their advisors." He grinned at the expression on her face. "I was as shocked as anyone in the room."

   Putting down the cup, he came up behind her and kissed her neck. "You're all tense." He rubbed her shoulders. "Worried about tomorrow? Why don't you let me give you a real massage? Come on. Get undressed and into the shower. I want to try a new technique I learned on Earth."

   "A massage sounds wonderful, but I'm not sure about the shower," she said, frowning.

   "You'll love it," he reassured her. "Trust me. You go on. I'll get everything we need."

   While she waited for Kendrick, Mayan took the opportunity to look around the shower enclosure for the first time. Since she didn't use it for cleansing, she hadn't bothered before. It was larger than she expected, more than adequate for two, tiled on three sides with what looked like the same black stone as the fountain at the college, with chrome fittings. She was investigating these when Jason entered carrying a few bottles which he placed on a shelf near the door.

   "Have to get you wet first. It works better that way."

   He turned on the water, a gentle flow neither hot nor cold, and positioned her with her back toward him. When her skin was moist enough, he angled the water so that it softly tickled the top of her head. She could barely feel it. The clean, crisp scent of the lotion he poured into his palms reminded her of the sea on a windy, winter's day. He rubbed the lotion into her neck and shoulders, taking care to avoid her delicate ears. It was cool and soothing, but, as he pressed deep into the muscle, she could feel a warmth spread out from his hands.

   "Ah....That feels good."

   "It's supposed to. Now just relax and let my fingers work their magic."

   She laughed as he added more lotion.

   Gradually, he increased the pressure, breaking up the knots of tension. She sighed softly. He reached around her to adjust the flow of water. The spray was brisker now, stimulating, but not arousing, on the blue blaze on her head. His hands worked on her back, kneading and digging, the heat penetrating wherever he touched. He pressed a control and jets of water streamed out of chrome disks on the side walls. This new spray tickled her sides and breasts and washed across the blue blaze on her abdomen, a very pleasant sensation. She was going to tell him, but didn't want to make the effort. She was melting, flowing into the stream of water, joining with it.

   He was massaging her hips and buttocks now, strong, firm strokes that continued on to her thighs. Back to her shoulders and upper arms. She was tingling all over with a pleasant warmth. She leaned back against him, to give him better access to the front of her neck and collarbone. The water was dancing along her breasts and thighs. Another adjustment and the main spray strummed along the erogenous tissue on head and belly. She could feel her body respond, resonate, the cerulean patch darkening as it throbbed in rhythm to the beat of the water. She was growing warmer, but the source of the heat was within her now, spreading out from a central point.

    "Jason..."

   "Shh..." He kissed the side of her crest where it met her forehead and she shuddered.

   Massage became caress. His hands were everywhere, feather light touches teasing and arousing: here on the sensitive inner folds of her crest, there on the tender skin behind her ears; the curve of her spine where it met her hips, the hollow of her throat. He pulled her closer, circling her with his arms, cupping the soft undersides of her breasts, flicking his thumbs across the tops. Her nipples were erect and hard, the dark blue standing out against her pale skin. She could feel his growing arousal as his genitals pressed against the small of her back, the heat adding to her own, the pubic hair prickly against her skin.

   She moaned softly as one hand trailed down her side to caress the inside of a thigh. She spread her legs to give him better access, leaning against him for balance. But he avoided touching her there. Instead, he traced smaller and smaller circles on the soft, sensitive skin surrounding her rapidly swelling vagina. The water continued to drum on her skin, stimulating the nerve endings so that she thought she would explode. She moaned again, calling his name. He bent his head to kiss the mouth she raised toward him, trapping her, preventing her from turning any further. At the same time, he inserted a finger into her, running the edge of his nail along the ridges within. She bucked against him and he held her tighter. She broke the kiss and cried out when he rubbed her clitoris.

   "Easy..." He was panting, his body trembling.

   He could feel her throbbing and contracting around his fingers. She was so wet it was impossible to know which was water. Warmth flowed around and through him. He spread her legs further and bent her forward. Before she could react, he entered her and pulled her against him in one fluid motion. He braced against the shower wall and thrust deeper and deeper into her, grinding his testicles against her buttocks at each stroke. She was keening now, her voice rising and swelling in concert with the contractions that were increasing in strength and frequency. He tried to hold on, to let her climax first, urging her to let go. But one final thrust and contraction, stronger than the rest, pushed him over the edge. He spilled into her, calling her name.

   The feel of the hot, thick fluid against her overstimulated vaginal walls set off answering waves within her until all the throbbing and contracting blended into one continuous pulse that pounded throughout her body. It was so intense she couldn't catch her breath, but it didn't matter. Nothing mattered except the sensations within her. Everything drew to a point deep within her womb and then exploded, shattering into a thousand shards of pleasure coursing through her. She cried out, a sound without form or shape, and convulsed, shaking both of them.

   They collapsed onto the shower floor, she still in his lap and he still in her. For a while they remained motionless, heedless of the water still streaming down on them. At last, he heaved a sigh and reached up to stop the flow. She moved off him, facing him for the first time since he entered the shower.

   "That was some massage," she said, still a bit breathless. "And you learned this on Earth?"

   "Yes." He grinned. "I added a few..um...embellishments of my own."

   She began to laugh then, and after a moment, so did he.

   Later, they leaned comfortably against each other on the couch, eating pizza and watching vids of space operas, of which Mayan was inexplicably fond.

   

   

*****

   Mayan woke to the sight of Jason sitting on the edge of the bed, his head wreathed in steam from the mug of tea in his hand. She blinked.

   "Why aren't you at a meeting or something?"

   "And a good morning to you, too," he replied dryly and placed the tea on the bedside table. "Breakfast will be ready by the time you are."

   "Good morning." She returned his grin and yawned. She took a sip of the tea. "Thank you."

   "Since you asked," he stood up, "I cleared my calendar this morning in anticipation of meeting with the minister. But, since he was suddenly and unexpectedly struck sensible yesterday, I have the morning free. So I'm making breakfast. Hurry up."

   Jason was at the stove when Mayan, dressed except for her over tunic walked into the main room. She sat down at the table and sniffed appreciatively.

   "Is that sh'lan I smell? You're mad! That's much too much for me."

   "Not today, it isn't." Kendrick ladled out the hot, thick, stew like porridge into a large bowl and placed it in front of her with a flourish.

   "You'll need the carbohydrates when the adrenaline rush wears off."

   "Minbari do not have adrenaline."

   "I know that, but I can't remember the name of the Minbari equivalent. But it's the same thing. Once the excitement of meeting your first class wears off, you're going to need the extra energy to make it through to lunch. Now, eat up." He grinned. "My mom always gave me a hearty breakfast on the first day of school."

   "Funny, I never thought of you as the motherly type," Mayan deadpanned.

   "I should hope not!" His attempt to look indignant failed.

   She laughed and started to eat. "This is good! You've added something to it, haven't you?" She tasted another spoonful. "Se n'kai and some human spices, cardamon, I think."

   "Right. The se n'kai is dried; I couldn't find any fresh ones. Now finish up. Your ride will be here in a few minutes."

   She widened her eyes at him.

   "Yeah, well, I requisitioned an embassy ground transport for you." He sounded sheepish, almost apologetic. "You're taking one of your lutes and you'll never get it on the tube without damage. Besides," he grinned, "part of my job is to encourage and facilitate better relations between member states of the Alliance. And if you arrive at the college frazzled and annoyed, I don't think relations between Mars and Minbar will be helped. And I need the transport anyway for the rest of the day."

   "Thank you," she said in between bites of the stew. "I appreciate it. I was worried about getting the lute to my office."

   Standing by the window, Kendrick watched fondly as Mayan maneuvered her second best lute in its triangular, leather case into the sleek ground car. Despite her doubts, she'd make a fine teacher. He envied her students a little bit. He'd never really discussed poetry with her, except in very general terms. His fault, he supposed, but he was reluctant to venture into her field of expertise. That was nonsense, he realized now. She wasn't going to think less of him because he couldn't tell a troche from a trope! He enjoyed reading her poetry and it was time he told her so.

   He watched until the transport rode out of sight and then continued to clean up the kitchen. The vehicle would return for him in a little while and he had a few more chores to complete.

   

   

*****

   Mayan stood at the open door to the classroom. They hadn't seen her yet. Her students. And not all young, either. There were so many of them! The room was full, all fifty seats filled. What could she teach them? How could she presume to teach anyone? She shook her head to clear it. She'd been through all the arguments with Jason. He, at least, had confidence in her, believed she would be as good a teacher as she was a poet. And she never doubted her abilities in her craft. Earlier, when he kissed her goodbye, he told her to 'knock 'em dead!' She didn't want to go quite that far, but she did want to make a favorable impression at the beginning. A few heads turned toward the door. The hum of conversation stopped. Everyone was watching her. Ready or not, it was too late to turn back now. She took a deep breath, let it out, and, looking straight ahead, she strode into the room.

   "My name is Mayan. Ni sec schlect slem wa," she said, looking at the sea of faces in front of her. "I am your friend, in peace." She stepped away from the lectern. It was too tall for her anyway.

   "I compose and perform ti'la, home songs that evoke old memories and provoke new ideas. I hope I can do both for you. And I expect to learn as much from you as you do from me." She paused and added, "Probably, you will do most of the teaching and I will do most of the learning."

   A few smiles. This wasn't as bad as she feared. She was beginning to see her audience, best to think of them as an audience right now, as individuals and not just as a single mass.

   "I only hope that in the process, I won't evoke old memories of boring lectures."

   They were laughing now, relaxed and ready to listen to her. It was going to be all right.

   "Ti'la has its origins in the family and clan stories that were handed down orally, with embellishments and new additions, from one generation to the next. Some of these 'home songs' left the boundaries of the families and entered the culture of society as a whole. The first poets to write new ti'la did so anonymously, trying to pass off their work as previously overlooked songs from ancient families. Change has always come slowly with the Minbari and the idea of new, specially created home songs that reflected the heart and mind of an individual writer took a while to sink in. But, approximately five hundred of your years ago...and before you ask, that's standard Earth years, not Mars years, although I find it hard to keep the distinction clear..." She paused while the class laughed. She couldn't imagine why she had been so worried.

   "As I was saying, about five hundred years ago, the idea of composed ti'la became established and poets vied to create new and more elaborate versions, until the simple, but clear and penetrating songs completely disappeared under the weight of the baroque, I think that is the right word, embellishments. It was only relatively recently, a hundred years or so, that poets returned to the basic forms. We'll learn more about the forms of ti'la, as well as other Minbari styles of poetry in subsequent classes.

   "The closest human equivalent to ti'la, in spirit, if not in form, is the folk song. The golden age of human folk music on the North American continent occurred in the middle and late 20th century...."

   

   

*****

   "I don't think I 'knocked them dead'," Mayan explained. "Incidently, why are there so many violent human expressions, especially about things that are not violent at all? But it went well. I think the class and I will get along."

   She had come home to find him in the study, diligently working through files and files of reports, matters that he wanted to clear away before he left for Earth. Judging by the quantity of data crystals next to the com, he had a long way to go.

   "I told you so." Kendrick grinned and patted her knee, which was conveniently to hand as she perched on the edge of the worktable.

   "So you did," she said. "Of course, the real test will come with the master class students. I've decided to choose them myself on the basis of their work. I've asked those who are interested to submit three of their own poems, on any subject, next week. What they choose to show me will tell me as much about them as the works themselves."

   She hopped off the table and ran her hand fondly through his hair. "You're busy. I'll start dinner. And then I think we should make it an early night." She grinned and ruffled his hair again before walking out.

   She puttered around in the kitchen for a while, opening various containers and checking the contents of the coolers. Finally, she decided to make something light, especially after that large breakfast. A variation of glivinn, using the vegetables at hand and replacing the premurr, which neither of them had remembered to purchase, with the tortillas Jason always insisted on having around in case he felt like a burrito. She had even developed a fondness for the vegetable ones. She really hadn't been doing her fair share of the cooking, she supposed, and Jason hadn't insisted, probably in self defense. But she did make a good glivinn. She set the timer for the vegetables and went into the main room. She had some notes she wanted to go over.

   It had gone well. The students were attentive and seemed to have a genuine interest in the subject. And they asked intelligent questions. Some of them continued to ask questions even after the class ended, which made her late for lunch. When she apologized to her friend, explaining the reason, Thoris laughed and said if Mayan didn't watch out, the after class questions and discussions would last longer than the class itself! But Mayan was pleased, nonetheless, that her students were not eager to leave. She was about to pick up her data pad from the table behind the couch where she had dropped it earlier, when her eye caught on the hearth offering.

   It was the third day. Time to complete the offering ceremony. She rose from the couch and collected what she would need, the candle lighter, the ceramic mortar and pestle Jason used to grind spices, and a small crystal vial, before calling Jason from the study.

   "Dinner so soon?" he asked as he emerged, stretching his arms and rotating his shoulders. "What did you do? Order take out?"

   "No!" She was slightly indignant. "I'm making glivinn. And it's not ready yet. I called you because it's time to complete the hearth offering."

   "You don't need me for that. This is your place." He turned to go back into the study.

   "Jason," she called softly. He stopped and she continued. "This is your home, too. Or why am I here?"

   "I know," he said, just as quietly. "I'm sorry. It's just...." he shrugged. "I guess I'm having a lot of trouble believing it."

   "Believe it." She walked over to him and gently touched his heart. "Believe it."

   He put his hand over hers. "I'm trying, but sometimes it's hard." He lifted her hand and softly kissed the back. "Now, do you have everything we need?"

   She nodded and led him over to the table beneath the Valen altar. After reciting a few brief prayers, she mounded the now dried flarn into the center of the crystal platter and set it alight. It smoldered for a few moments with a green glow and then collapsed into a grey ash. Mayan scooped the remains into the mortar, being careful to get every flake, and poured the salt on top. She bowed to the altar and then handed the mortar to Jason with another bow. He bowed in turn and carefully mashed the salt into the ashes of the flarn. When he was satisfied, he poured the mixture into the vial she held out to him and sealed it with the silver band around the stopper. With another bow, he handed the vial to Mayan, who, as the female of the household, was keeper of the hearth. She placed it onto the altar itself. A few more prayers and it was done. If the old beliefs were true, no harm would come to them in this place as long as the vial remained intact.

   

   CHAPTER 6

   

   

*****

   Kendrick continued working on his files after dinner, while Mayan did a few chores and then decided to make it an early night. It had been a strenuous day with all the new experiences of meeting the students and teaching her first class. She indulged in the Minbari equivalent of a bubble bath, slathering her skin with special lotions that frothed until she was covered with pink foam. When she wiped it off, her skin felt smooth and soft and clean. Wrapped in a fluffy terry robe, a present from Jason, she took care of a few personal items she'd neglected lately. When Kendrick entered the bedroom, Mayan was sitting at the small dressing table, honing and buffing her crest.

   "Do you want some help with that?"

   "Yes, please." She handed him the crystal handled file she used. "I can never get the edge of the center ridge the proper thinness."

   He filed along the ridges and points on the back of her bonecrest until she was satisfied. Then, after planting a kiss on the very center of the top of her head, he went off to prepare for bed. Mayan continued fussing for a while longer, using the buffing pads to smooth the file marks. Jason came out of the bathroom and was about to get into bed when, without turning toward her, he spoke.

   "Mayan, do you love me?"

   "Yes," she answered without thought or hesitation.

   "That's good to know. You've never said so before."

   "Of course I have." Taking off her robe, she rose from the dressing table and came toward the bed. "I must have, countless times."

   "No, you haven't...ever. Not in those words, at least." He faced her now.

   She stopped. He was right. She had never told him so. She'd always assumed he knew how she felt. "You're right. And I will make amends now." She stood in front of him and took his hand. Placing it over her heart, in the ancient gesture, she said slowly and distinctly, "I love you, Anla'shok."

   He smiled and leaned his forehead against hers. "It's been a long day. Let's go to bed."

   

   

*****

   Mayan barely saw Jason the rest of the week. Usually, he left the apartment before she got up and returned after she went to bed. The few times he came home early, he shut himself up in the study. Except for a vague unease, Mayan wasn't concerned. She was very busy preparing her next lectures and reading the poems submitted by those students who wanted to study with her, now weeded down to fifteen at the end of the week. She had originally decided to accept only ten students, but it was difficult to eliminate any more. Perhaps she should change her mind? She would talk it over with Jason when she got the chance.

   Fortunately, Jason was home early, working in the study. She knocked on the door and walked in when he did not answer.

   "I'm sorry to disturb you, but I wanted to ask your advice..." She broke off, when she realized that he did not hear her. He was sitting at the com, but he was not looking at it. He was staring beyond it, at something only he could see. She came up behind him and kissed him on the ear. His arm swung back, but he stopped the blow in time.

   "Don't do that," he admonished. "I could have hurt you."

   "You didn't hear me." You told me you had a few routine matters to finish before you left for Earth. Surely, some of that can wait until you get back." She stroked his hair with her fingers. "I've hardly seen you all week," she said wistfully.

   "I know. I'm almost finished now. I'm just leaving some notes for my successor in case I don't come back...."

   Mayan gasped. "You said there was no danger, that you wouldn't run into anything that could get you killed...."

   He took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "I didn't mean that. I'm coming back to you, if you'll still want me then." He released her hand and turned to face the com again.

   "Jason, what is wrong? You're frightening me."

   He sighed and turned off the com. "Come on, let's go into the other room. You have a right to know, I guess."

   He sat down heavily on the couch and indicated she should sit on the facing chair. For a few moments he stared silently at the floor, hands dangling between his legs. Finally, he looked up at her, eyes bleak and despairing.

   "I fell apart on Earth, Mayan." He spoke without emotion. "I couldn't take it after a while." She started to protest, but he held up a hand to silence her. "Oh, I did my job, did what I was ordered to do, but inside, I was tearing up. And then, I realized I could no longer do even that. I lost something, inside and the pain became unbearable."

   He paused. She could see him struggling for words. "I tried to stop the pain any way I could." He paused again. "I'm not proud of what I did." Another pause. "Getting drunk didn't work. Believe me, I tried. I turned to sex." He shook his head ruefully. "I must have screwed everything that moved. Anything to lose myself for even a few, brief minutes."

   Mayan reached across and gently touched his clasped hands. "It's all right, Anla'shok. I will not judge you."

   "Anla'shok," he repeated softly. "I haven't felt like a Ranger in a long time. It started even before I was marooned on Earth. I feel like a fraud every time I put on the uniform."

   "You are Anla'Shok, Jason, whatever you may believe. No one doubts it, except you." She rose from the chair and came to sit beside him. She turned his head toward her and held it between her hands. "Do not look away. I am not saying this to make you feel better. I was raised among warriors, remember? And I have known many as friends and a few as lovers. You are at least the equal of any of them."

   "All except one," he said sadly. He put his hands over hers and held them for a moment before removing her hands from his face. "I am not Neroon, Mayan...."

   "No, you are not. And I never wanted you to be." She sighed. "I should have spoken long ago. You cannot take his place in my heart. No one can. No. Do not look away again. Listen to me! And if I should lose you, no one could take your place in that same heart. Do you understand what I am telling you? Both of you are dear to me. I do not want to lose you, Jason. Do not destroy yourself trying to compete with the dead. Let the past remain where it belongs."

   "It's more than that, Mayan. I've come to question why I even joined the Rangers in the first place. Never mind, they're my demons and I have to tame them, or at least learn to live with them." He stood up abruptly. "I have to leave early in the morning. I don't want to spend the rest of the evening depressing both of us."

   "Jason, you can't just leave things like this...."

   "Please, Mayan. When I get back, I promise I'll tell you everything. Now, I just want to finish up my notes and then relax with you."

   She stood up and stepped back to search his face. "Very well, if that is what you wish." She moved to hold him, pressing her face into his chest. "Just see that you do come back to me," she said.

   They made love when they went to bed. The sex was always good, no matter the problems. At least that was still the same, Mayan thought. Later, just as she was drifting off to sleep, she realized Jason was still awake, although he usually fell asleep first. He was on his side, propped on one elbow, staring at her, seemingly trying to see inside her head.

   "What's the matter? Why aren't you sleeping?"

   "Nothing. I didn't mean to disturb you," he answered, trying and failing to sound nonchalant.

   Mayan turned to him, all thoughts of sleep gone. "It is not nothing. Something is disturbing you. Is it what you talked about before?"

   "No, nothing like that...well, not exactly." He hesitated, then, in a diffident tone, as if he were afraid to ask and afraid to hear the answer, he continued. "Earlier, when you said that you didn't care that I can't be like Neroon, that it didn't matter to you, did you really mean it? Do I really have at least a part of your heart? Or were you trying to spare my feelings?"

   "I did not lie, Anla'shok." She gently touched his lips with one finger. "I value you for who you are and what you mean to me." She smiled. "And you have more than just a part of my heart." When he did not respond, she kissed him. "I would not be here, now, with you, if it were otherwise."

   "I love you," he said. He lay down with his arms around her as they both fell asleep.

   

   

*****

   Mayan stood in the doorway of the study, watching as Kendrick stowed several small items into a carryall.

   "You promised to wake me," she said, pulling the night robe closed against the chill of the room. "Were you planning to leave without saying goodbye, Anla'shok?"

   "I was just coming to get you," he answered without turning around. "I'll be through here in a second. I made some tea." He snapped the lock and followed her into the main room.

   He placed the bag with the rest of his luggage near the door and sat down on the couch with the cup she handed him.

   "Thanks." He drank half the contents and leaned back. "You know I wouldn't leave while you were sleeping."

   Drawing her legs up beneath her, Mayan cuddled next to him. "I'm going to miss you," she said. "I've become accustomed to having you around." She leaned her head against his shoulder. "And, strangely enough, that pleases me."

   He laughed and put his arm around her, pulling her closer. "And that pleases me. I'll miss you too." He paused and the laughter was gone from his voice. "Mayan, when I get back, assuming everything is okay, which is a large assumption...." She protested and he squeezed her shoulder. "When I get back, I think we should talk about maybe starting the rituals for the mating na'fa'cha...."

   "There's no point," Mayan interrupted. "We cannot join our blood."

   "I know that...it's just...it's something I think I need, something we both need, maybe. Will you at least think about it?" She nodded, albeit reluctantly. "Good."

   He released her and stood up. "Now, I really have to get going." He walked over to the door. Before he could pick up his bags, she hugged him tight, burying her head in his chest.

   "Come back to me, Anla'shok," she whispered.

   He tilted her head up and kissed her very softly. "Be well," he said. "I'll call you from Earth when I get a chance."

   Mayan stood at the window, watching until he was out of sight.

   

   

*****

   Kendrick sat at a small table in the observation lounge of the shuttle to Earth watching Mars become smaller and smaller in the distance. Later, he would try to get some sleep in the first class berth EarthGov had provided, but now he wanted to go over the details of the assignment, check to make sure he hadn't missed anything. He inserted a data crystal in his portable reader. After a half hour, he gave up. He couldn't concentrate. Maybe a walk would help, or some food. He realized he hadn't eaten anything since the night before.

   Dinner was as mediocre as he expected. Why was food on commercial transports always uniformly awful? As he ate, he thought about his meeting with Tessa Halloran. She had come to his office two days ago, as formidable as ever, to discuss the problem. Earth was trying to rebuild its economy after the plague. Dormant facilities had to be revived and upgraded; and the people, eager to go on with their lives after the sentence of death was lifted, wanted all sorts of goods, especially those that were in short supply during the quarantine. To protect its own industries, and to obtain badly needed funds, EarthGov imposed tariffs on all incoming goods. Now, EarthDome had a smuggling problem of major proportions on its hands. The Alliance was cooperating, providing personnel and ships to patrol Earth space, and checking Earthbound manifests on ships departing from Alliance worlds. Mars, not surprisingly, was a major center of smuggling operations. It was almost patriotic for Mars citizens to try to avoid Earth tariffs. Not only was it a way to keep their own economic boom going, but it was also a way to stick it to Earth for all the attempts to obstruct MarsGov.

   Tessa had laughed at that. "What a joke! Here I am trying to help the very people who I've fought against for years. And who are still doing everything possible to prevent my world from developing further."

   "The universe has a perverse sense of humor," Jason said, and she agreed.

   Just how perverse, he didn't tell her. Here he was, on his way back to Earth, to do essentially what had threatened to destroy him in the first place. He had been chosen to train EarthForce pilots because of his knowledge of the various routes that could be used to avoid Earth patrols. The knowledge gained during those long months he intercepted ships trying to flee the quarantine. At least this time, the targets weren't innocent victims of circumstances beyond their control. And any ship that he destroyed would become an object lesson for other smugglers.

   He signed the bill for his dinner and returned to the observation lounge. He'd make one more attempt to go over the assignment and then try to get some sleep.

   

   CHAPTER 7

   

   

*****

   The briefing had gone well. Kendrick was satisfied the Thunderbolt III squadron was ready to go. The pilots were young an inexperienced, which was what he expected. EarthForce had lost a great many fighter pilots during the war against Clark and in the run up to the Drakh attack that launched the plague. The squadron stationed here on the orbiting launch platform was formed only a few months ago from new recruits and a few pilots who hadn't flown in space for the three years of the quarantine. But they were eager and quick to learn the basics of patrolling in space. A few trial runs, with himself as the target, to ensure that everyone understood the tactics involved in intercepting ships trying to land surreptitiously without destroying them and then the patrols would start.

   His agile Meteor, modified for one pilot control and with the ill-fated jump engine replaced by a conventional one, could outfly, outmaneuver and out shoot the Earth Thunderbolts. So if they could take him down, with simulated weaponry of course, they should be able to handle the varied craft used by the smugglers: everything from swift, sleek flyers to converted shuttles to ungainly, rusted out, old transports. Fortunately, there were only a very limited number of vectors that could be used to evade Earth patrols so actually intercepting smugglers would not be very difficult. The trick, of course, was to disable them enough to force them to land where the authorities could arrest them and confiscate the cargo. That's where his expertise came in also; the tactics he developed while trying to keep ships on Earth would work just as well keeping smugglers out.

   "If I'm lucky," Jason said, leaning back luxuriously in one of the comfortably overstuffed chairs in Stephen Franklin's living room, where the remains of a Mexican meal littered the low table in front of him. "The rest of the squadrons will be as quick to learn and I'll be able to go home."

   Kendrick, taking a break before training another patrol, had accepted Franklin's offer to watch the first game of the World Series between the Proxima Bombers and the Mars Dodgers. Proxima won, to Jason's chagrin. He had been boasting of the prowess of his adopted team. Now, the two men were catching up on their activities since they had last met.

   "I enjoy flying again, don't get me wrong," Jason continued. "But there's always going to be a smuggling problem as long as there are profits involved. Besides, I miss Mayan." He grinned. "I've gotten used to being around her full time."

    "Must be nice," Stephen agreed. "What about you, Jase? How are you doing? You haven't said much. And you were pretty messed up the last time I saw you."

   "I'm fine...well...not really...not all the way..." Kendrick paused for a moment and then, making up his mind, he said firmly, "I'm thinking of leaving the Rangers, Stephen."

   "Why?" Franklin was shocked. "You've been a Ranger from the beginning. You were in the first training group, one of the first ones hand picked by Sinclair."

   "You said it yourself, I messed up. Rangers don't mess up."

   "And just where does it say that in the Ranger manual? Besides, I didn't say that." Stephen sat forward in his chair. "Look, Jase, a lot of people were messed up during the quarantine. A lot of them took the easy way out. You didn't. Despite your personal problems, you did your job and you did it well."

   "Maybe I was just lucky..."

   Franklin sighed. "It wasn't luck. You're good at your job. Hell, even Tessa says so. And that kind of praise from Number One is the equivalent of the distinguished service medal!"

   "That reminds me," Jason drawled. "I've always wanted to ask you. Do you call her Number One in bed, too?"

   "That is none of your business! You want another beer?" At Kendrick's nod, Franklin rose and went into the kitchen. He returned with two, frosty cold bottles and handed one to the Ranger. He held up his own bottle. "You know, for all the advances in technology in the last couple of centuries, no one's ever come up with a better way of keeping beer cold and tasty. Cheers!" He took a long swallow and sat down.

   "So what else is bothering you, Jase, besides your curiosity about my sex life?"

   It was Jason's turn to sigh. "I don't know...I guess I'm just worried. I'm going to be doing desk jobs from now on. And I doubt they'll be as interesting as the Mars posting. And what about Mayan? Will she want to stay after this year? And you can joke about it, but I was messed up, still am, and I have no guarantee it won't happen again."

   "Life doesn't come with guarantees."

   "I knew you were going to say that." Jason smiled briefly. "It's not the same anymore, being a Ranger, I mean. It was different in the beginning, fighting the Shadows and then Clark. You knew who the bad guys were then, and you knew what you were doing made a difference. Now..." He shrugged. "It wasn't that simple then either," Stephen replied. "You've forgotten about the little matter of the Vorlons, among others. Your rose coloured glasses need cleaning."

   "Maybe. But the whole nature of the Rangers has changed. We're becoming a bureaucracy, there are so many now."

   "So you don't feel special anymore? Is that it?" Franklin was incredulous. "Is that why you joined in the first place?"

   "Of course not. I joined because I believed in Sinclair and what he was doing. And because I wanted to help."

   "And now you don't believe in Delenn and what she's doing? You don't believe in the goals of the Alliance?"

   "That's not what I mean! I've sworn my life to Entlil'Zha Delenn!" He leaned forward, eyes blazing with anger. Then he sighed and sat back. "I guess...what I'm trying to say is...I don't know where I fit in anymore...."

   "How old are you?" Franklin asked. "Forty? Forty two?"

   "Forty five, why?"

   "As your doctor, I prescribe that you go out and get yourself one of those sexy, racing flyers and an even sexier vid starlet. On second thought, forget the starlet and just stick with the flyer, or Mayan will kill both of us."

   "What the hell are you talking about?"

   "You, my friend, have a classic case of midlife crisis." Franklin smiled at Jason's incredulous expression. "Don't worry, it's not fatal. Seriously, your life's changing and you're worried about it. That's perfectly normal. You've had some rough times recently and that's undermined your confidence. That's normal too. A little counseling would probably help. I could set up an appointment for you. I know a good woman...."

   "You would!" Jason laughed.

   "At least think about it. Okay?" Jason nodded. "Good. Now, how's Mayan doing? Especially after all this time putting up with you?" He ducked the mock blow aimed at his head.

   "She's fine," Jason said, laughing. "She's still not used to living on Mars, but she's enjoying her work."

   

   

*****

   Mayan was not enjoying her work at the moment. She had finally, after much thought and with great difficulty, selected eight of the ten students for her master class. Choosing two more from the remaining seven was impossible. She said as much to Thoris Carter, who was perched on the corner of her desk, studying the picture of Jason Kendrick.

   "So don't choose," Thoris said, turning the still over to look for a name. "Why does it have to be ten anyway?"

   "I told the dean that I would accept ten students. It would be dishonorable to do otherwise now."

   "Why? It's not engraved in stone. No teacher is required to accept more students than she can manage. Accept the eight you have no doubts about and tell the others to apply again next term. Problem solved. Now come on, there's a new exhibit at the library I've been wanting to see." She stood up, still holding the picture.

   "Perhaps you are right." She sighed and replaced the papers she had been futilely studying in a folder. "As I have not been able to decide on the other two after trying for more than a week, I doubt very much that any more time will help." She stood up, pushed back her chair, and came around to the front of the desk. "I too would like to see the new exhibit. I have been told it includes some early examples of Earth poetry." She held out her hand for the still of Kendrick.

   "Oops. Sorry." Thoris gave the picture to Mayan who replaced it on the desk. "He has an interesting face. Who is he?"

   "The friend I told you about."

   "The bureaucrat?" Thoris asked. "He doesn't look like any bureaucrat I've ever known. And he is definitely not Minbari. "

   "No, he is not Minbari." Mayan smiled. "He is Anla'Shok. A Ranger. But he really does work at the Alliance Embassy. He is the military attache. I did not try to deliberately deceive you. You assumed he was Minbari."

   "Never mind. You can tell me about him on the way to the exhibit." She paused at the look on Mayan's face. "Or as much as you feel comfortable with," she added. "I won't even ask you about the differences between Minbari and human males. At least not yet."

   Mayan laughed and followed her friend out the door.

   

   

*****

   Mayan let herself into the apartment. Jason had been gone now for over two weeks, yet it still felt strange, and slightly disconcerting, to realize it was empty, and she was glad of that. But now she was also glad it was empty. She was beginning to feel the need for solitude, for a time away from everything and everybody. If she were home, on Minbar, she would retreat to her house in the mountains to refresh and recharge. She rarely did any writing during those times. Instead, she would work in her garden or wander the paths of the foothills, while the sun painted rainbows on the crystal cliffs of the Tuzanor range. At night, she would lie alone - by choice - in bed, watching the silver rivers of moonlight cascade down those cliffs to the darkened city below until she fell asleep.

   But she was not on Minbar, she was on Mars. And she had responsibilities. She couldn't just cancel her classes on the grounds that the teacher wanted to get away from it all. She would have to find another way, a way to be alone in the midst of the crowded Martian domes.

   Mayan taught her classes and met with students and longed for something green and growing. Until she remembered the gardens at Syria Planum. Jason had taken her there a few days after she arrived. Edgars Garibaldi Horticultural leased the land after the old Psi Corps was dismantled at the end of the telepath wars. The underground facilities, most of which were damaged or destroyed by the great quake of '62, were rebuilt to house all kinds of experimental facilities. The results of those experiments, as well as samples from all the Alliance worlds, were displayed to the public in the gardens above. She was astonished by the variety, representatives from virtually every environment from tropic to tundra.

   Mayan wandered around the gardens for a while and finally settled on the high desert area, chiefly because the flowers reminded her of the blooms of home. Making herself comfortable on a bench disguised as a rock formation, she watched as the long shadows cast by the simulated sun of late afternoon darkened the bright reds and yellows and deepened the dusky blues, colours that appeared richer and more intense when the shadows passed on. She let her mind wander, making no effort to control her thoughts.

   Inevitably, or so it seemed, her thoughts returned again and again to her Ranger. Except for a brief message on her com at the college telling her he had arrived on Earth and would call when he got a chance, she had not heard from him. But then, she very rarely received word from him when he was on assignment. Often, weeks and months would go by before he called, and then it was usually to tell her when he'd be back. There was no reason for her to worry this time. But why had he called when he knew she would be in class. Was it deliberate? She shouldn't have dismissed his desire to start the rituals so casually. She should have known it was important to him. Such things were. Look at the way he insisted on the hearth offering. Even their first time together, before they knew if there would be more than just a brief, sexual affair, he had insisted on a first night candle and the ceremony that went with it. She should have been more careful of his feelings. She should have tried to reassure him that she didn't need the rituals to commit to him. She should have....

   Mayan shook her head impatiently. This was useless. She went home and lay awake in the empty apartment for a good part of the night.

   The next afternoon, she sat in her favorite spot on the wall surrounding the black fountain. She came there often when she wanted to think or just be alone. And she liked to watch the students. Today, a group was tossing a brightly coloured disc back and forth amid a great deal of laughter. Mayan was trying to figure out if there were any rules to the game beyond keeping the disc in the air, when she sensed someone near her.

   "Hello. I thought I'd find you here," Thoris said as she sat down next to Mayan. "You've been hard to locate lately, like you're avoiding everyone."

   "I have not been avoiding anyone," Mayan responded. "I've been busy...."

   "Too busy to see your friends? You even missed the last staff meeting."

   "You said yourself, it was a waste of time...."

   "Never mind," Thoris interrupted. She smiled. "You obviously wanted to be alone. Do you want me to leave now?"

   "No, of course not!" Mayan softened her tone. "It's all right. You're not intruding. I was just watching the students and thinking." She smiled ruefully. "Watching seems to be the more productive activity at the moment."

   The two women sat in a companionable silence for a while. Two students sat intertwined on a nearby bench, kissing passionately. They rose, still intertwined and still kissing, and moved toward one of the buildings. As they reached the bottom of the stairway, Mayan nudged her friend.

   "They're going to hurt themselves if they continue like that."

   Thoris shrugged. "Nah, they're invulnerable at that age." She turned toward Mayan. "I've an idea. Why don't you come home with me tonight for dinner? Your um...friend is still away, isn't he?"

   "Yes, but..." Mayan hesitated.

   "No buts. Besides, I'm a good cook." She smiled. "Come on."

   "Well...." Suddenly, Mayan didn't want to be alone that evening. "All right. Thank you. I would like that."

   "Good. So would I. Meet me in my office in about an hour. I have to finish up some paperwork. No matter how much you do, there's always more paperwork!" Thoris stood up. "See you then."

   Mayan sighed when her friend was out of sight. She had some paperwork of her own to do. And she couldn't explain the change in her mood. Mars was playing havoc with all her emotions again.

   

   

*****

   "Make yourself at home," Thoris said with a wave of her hand, indicating a large, bright room. "The liquor's in the cabinet under the window, if you want a drink."

   "No, thank you," Mayan smiled. "I don't drink alcohol."

   "Too bad," Thoris grinned. "And here I was planning to get you drunk and have my way with you. "

   For a moment, Mayan was startled. Then she, too, grinned broadly. "That is a joke, right?"

   "Probably," Thoris said, smiling. "Never mind. There's juice and soda, if you want. I'm going to start dinner. And before you offer, I don't like anyone helping me when I cook."

   "I wouldn't dream of it!" Mayan said with a straight face. "As Jason can attest, my area of expertise does not lie in the kitchen."

   Thoris laughed and went off to make dinner.

   Mayan looked around the room with interest. The most notable feature was a wall of floor to ceiling books. There were more books on shelves and in cabinets along the other walls, interspersed with paintings and sculptures, mostly human, with some Minbari and Centauri works. There were no plants or flowers, she noted, but the room had a pleasant scent. Probably some sort of incense. Yes, there was an intricately formed burner on top of the liquor cabinet.

   Mayan walked over to the wall of books. It was an impressive and eclectic collection. A lavishly bound version of the Book of G'Kar stood next to a shabby, 100 year old edition of Sufic poetry. An interesting combination. Another shelf held My Life in Space, by Tom Corbett, and a collection of early, 20th century novels about Mars. These all had lurid covers depicting scantily clad human females and green, four-armed giants. She was thumbing through one of these, idly reading here and there, when Thoris came in to say dinner was ready.

   "Those are some of my favorites," she said, pointing to the series. "The writing is bad and the science is worse, but he tells a good story. Come on. Let's eat. I'm starved."

   Dinner, in a small, but elegantly appointed, room off the kitchen, was delicious as promised. The food was what Mayan thought of as oriental, but with subtle differences in spices and ingredients.

   "It's Persian," Thoris explained. "An old Earth culture from the Middle East. I like their poetry and their food." Afterward, Thoris insisted on leaving the cleanup until later and led the way back to the library, as she called it. She placed a silver tea tray on a low, table with clawed feet. Like the rest of the furniture in the room, the table was made of a dark red wood. They made themselves comfortable in tapestry chairs with matching footstools.

   "These chairs look like antiques," Mayan remarked as she picked up a cup and sipped. The tea was sweet and lightly spiced, perfect after what they had eaten.

   "I wish! The cost of shipping alone is prohibitive. There's this small shop over in MarsPort that will make just about any piece of furniture in virtually any style you want. It's expensive, but at least it's possible." She waved her hand. "They did all the furniture in this room."

   They drank their tea and talked lightly of trivial matters. Then, firmly setting her cup upon the tray, Thoris turned to Mayan.

   "Do you want to talk about it now?"

   "Talk about...?" Mayan hesitated.

   "What's been disturbing you these past few weeks," Thoris said.

   "What makes you think...." Mayan trailed off at the look on her friend's face. "You are right. There is something on my mind." She hesitated. "It's Jason...before he left on assignment...we talked about the mating rituals...."

   "And he doesn't want to," Thoris interruped. "Same old story...."

   "No," Mayan smiled briefly. "He does want to. Very much, I think. It's just that...well...there's no point. We can't mate according to Minbari tradition because we can't have children. I've tried to explain that to him...."

   "There's a simple solution. Get married."

   Mayan shook her head. "You don't understand. We cannot hold the final ceremony...."

   "I said get married. Here. On Mars. According to human tradition. Or on Earth, if you prefer. Just go over to MarsDome and get a license and go to the nearest magistrate. Problem solved." Thoris regarded Mayan. "No? It's not that simple, is it?"

   "No." Again, Mayan hesitated. "It's...I've never taken a mate.... Perhaps it's too late for me now....I don't know. There was someone...years ago, before I met Jason...we were going to mate...but...he died...." Mayan trailed off, silent for the moment. She sighed. "I do not wish to speak about this now."

   Thoris reached out and put her hand over Mayan's. She squeezed gently and then sat back in her chair. "So," she said firmly. "What do you think of K'Doth's new play? Personally, I think he's repeating himself. He's used that metaphor of the Centauri bombardment once too often."

   

   

*****

   Kendrick checked the sensor display on the console of his Meteor. The trap was set. One more minute and the unsuspecting prey, a big, fat transport crammed with contraband, would be caught. He had joined the 4th Special Interception Squadron on a routine patrol to observe their performance and to see if any improvements or changes were needed. An informant, probably a disgruntled crew member, had notified customs of the transport's route, giving the squadron the perfect opportunity to intercept. Thirty more seconds. The shadow of Earth's moon still provided cover. By the time the transport's sensors picked up the four ships, it would be too late. Fifteen seconds.... Suddenly, one of the thunderbolts shot out in front of the transport.

   "What the h....Kincaid! Grey Leader to Grey Two!" Kendrick was furious, but it was too late. The transport fired, hitting the fighter. The informant hadn't mentioned the smugglers were armed with heavy weapons! He wheeled his ship around.

   "Grey Leader to Grey Squadron. I'll take out the engines. The rest of you target weapons and communications systems. We want to disable him, not destroy him." The sensors locked onto the engines. For a moment, he saw an image of that other transport, the one with all those people. He blinked and the image disappeared. He fired once, twice, and the ship was wallowing around, unable to bring its guns to bear. The landing thrusters, which he had left intact, could not provide enough momentum to turn the ship. Kendrick was about to give the order to tow the transport to the nearest dock when the hapless thunderbolt drifted across its bow.

   "Get out of there, now, Kincaid! Eject!"

   Kendrick watched, helpless to interfere, as the transport fired its last remaining weapon. The thunderbolt shattered as one of its squadron mates took out the gun, a second too late. Part of a wing, with the nacelle still attached, smashed against the cockpit of the Meteor and imbedded in the side. The ship tumbled wildly, out of control, until Kendrick managed to level off. There was no breech, thank Valen! But the damage was considerable. The autopilot was out, so were the controls that allowed one pilot to safely fly the ship. Panels and wiring hung precariously. And there was something wrong with his right leg.

   He looked down. An access panel under the console had sheared off, stabbing him in the thigh. Strange, he didn't feel anything. He tugged at the panel, freeing it from his leg. Now he felt the pain! He cursed as the wound started bleeding profusely. It wasn't spurting, so it wasn't an artery. But he had to stop the bleeding. He couldn't take his hands off the controls long enough to apply a tourniquet and he couldn't reach the medical kit for a pressure bandage. Maybe if he could inflate the leg of the envirosuit.... But the metal had ripped right through it. He couldn't eject. By the time anyone picked him up, he'd have bled to death. He had to land, and quickly. The base was too far. It would have to be one of the factory ports on the moon.

   "Grey Leader to moon control..." Damn! Were his communications totally shot too? Kendrick quickly checked the panel. Everything seemed okay...wait. He was on the wrong channel. He laughed in relief and switched over to the emergency civilian frequency. "Moon control, this is Alliance ship Meteor One. I have an emergency and request immediate clearance to the nearest docking bay."

   "Meteor One, this is moon control. We have been monitoring your situation." The female voice was calm. "You are cleared to land at these coordinates." Kendrick punched in the information manually. The automatic docking system was out too. "Do you need any special assistance once you land?"

   "A medical team. I'm bleeding."

   "Already on the way. Good luck, Captain. Moon control out."

   He was coming in too fast! The landing thrusters were inoperable from his console. There was no help for it. He braced himself as well as he could and crashed into the dock. The ship shuddered violently. He passed out from the pain and loss of blood just as the docking clamps locked on and held.

   

   CHAPTER 8

   

   

*****

    "Hi. How are you feeling?" Franklin smiled as Kendrick opened his eyes.

   "How do you think I'm feeling?"

   "Hmm...." Franklin picked up the data pad at the foot of the bed. "Three bruised ribs, a black eye, a lacerated thigh and a mild concussion. Not to mention the loss of a hell of a lot of blood. I'd say you're feeling pretty lousy right now."

   Kendrick smiled. "I'd say that's a pretty good diagnosis. And that idiot, Kincaid?"

   "Search and Rescue picked him up without a scratch."

   "Figures! What are you doing here, Stephen?"

   "A medivac shuttle is taking you Earthside. I thought I'd come along for the ride. Now, how are you really feeling?"

   "Fine." He paused at the look on Franklin's face. "No, really. I'm fine, except for the physical stuff, and that will heal soon." He gestured toward his chest and leg and grimaced in pain.

   "You don't have to put on an act with me, Jase."

   "It's not an act. I mean it." Kendrick paused. "You know, I've been thinking these last few days. Well, there's really not much else you can do when you've got tubes sticking up your cock and everywhere else that's uncomfortable."

   Stephen laughed. "I guess not."

   "Anyway," Kendrick continued. "I've been thinking about what I've been doing lately and how I've been feeling, about being a Ranger and everything." He paused for breath. " I'm getting too old for this, Stephen. Chasing around the stars and getting shot up is a young man's game. I just want to get back to riding a desk. In fact, that's what I've wanted for a long time, only I've been too caught up in my own notions of what I should be to admit it before now." He shifted position slightly and winced.

   Franklin caught the motion and added a notation to Kendrick's chart. "I'm increasing the dose of your pain blockers."

   "Thanks. I couldn't admit I was tired of chasing raiders and patrolling borders and living aboard ship. I wanted to get on the administrative side. But that didn't fit into what I thought a Ranger should be. Who ever heard of a Ranger voluntarily giving up all that excitement?" He spread his arms and regretted the movement instantly. "Well, it's not all that exciting. A border patrol can be as tedious as a desk job. But, at least when you're riding a desk, you can go home. And that's part of it, too, Stephen. I want to come home to Mayan every day, or join her on the weekends when she's touring." He paused again.

   "Damn! Why do they make these beds so uncomfortable? And you complain about Minbari beds! I'm tired of a part-time relationship. I think she is, too. Or, at least I hope so." He smiled ruefully. "That is, if she isn't fed up with the way I've been moping around lately."

   Franklin was thoughtful. "Well, you certainly seem more relaxed than the last time I saw you. Are you quite sure about this?"

   "Yes, Stephen, I am. I've been making myself miserable trying to compete with ghosts and fantasies. Look, I enjoyed my time on active duty. I did my job well, and it was an important job. Now, well, the Rangers have changed and so have I. I've finally realized that."

   "Too bad you had to do it the hard way." Franklin grinned.

   Kendrick looked down on himself, sweeping a hand along the tubes and wires attached to him. "Ouch! I always seem to do things the hard way." He smiled. "You know what else I've realized, Stephen? I'm just as good at riding a desk, maybe even better."

   "That's nice. But aren't you being a bit simplistic? People just don't wake up one day and 'poof!' all their troubles are gone."

   "I know that, Stephen. I still have problems, including problems with Mayan. But for the first time in a long time, I'm sure those problems can be solved, or at least lived with. Do you know how long they're going to keep me in the hospital?"

   "Judging by your chart, I'd say about another week. Why?"

   "Remember that 'good woman' you mentioned?" Stephen nodded. "Well," Kendrick grinned. "Do you think she'd make house calls, or rather, hospital calls?"

   Stephen laughed. "I'm sure she would. In fact, I'll call her right away."

   "Thanks. Oh, and thank you for calling Mayan. I didn't want her to get the news about me from a stranger. I've got a call in to her now which should come through any minute."

   "Then I'll leave now," Franklin said. "I'll see you in a few hours."

   

   

*****

   Mayan watched Kendrick's image fade from the com screen. Fine, Mayan thought. He didn't look fine to her, not with all those tubes and drips. He looked awful. And only Valen knows how badly his leg is really hurt. How can he say he's fine? But his eyes were peaceful, without that wary, haunted look he's had for so long. Maybe, he really is fine.

   The com mirrored her own troubled gaze.

   

   

*****

   Mayan was waiting when Kendrick arrived at MarsPort. He noticed her sharp intake of breath when she saw him walking toward her, leaning heavily on his cane. Her eyes widened when she was close enough to see the purple and yellow bruising around his eye.

   "I'm okay," he tried to reassure her. "Really. The eye isn't damaged, and the doctors want me to use this," he swung his cane up for a moment, "to keep the strain off my leg until it's completely healed. There's no need to worry."

   She nodded and tried to smile, catching her lower lip between her teeth instead. He put his arm around her.

   "Come on, I'll tell you all about it on the way home." They walked slowly toward the nearest transit tube.

   "Did you find out why that pilot acted prematurely?" Mayan asked as they exited the monorail station near their apartment.

   "He said it was an errant sensor. He thought the smugglers had discovered him and were locking on to fire." Jason shrugged. "It could be true. They gave him the benefit of the doubt."

   By the time they reached home, Kendrick was visibly exhausted. He sank heavily onto the couch, his cane clattering to the floor. Mayan knelt to remove his boots and socks. He tried to protest, but she sh'd him and swung his bare feet onto the low table. "I'm going to make some tea. Just sit there and relax." She smiled and went into the kitchen.

   She returned in a little while and placed a tray with two mugs and a plate of toasted cheese sandwiches on the table, careful to avoid his feet. Handing him one of the mugs, she picked up the other one and sat in the chair opposite him.

   "Thanks," Jason said, sipping the hot liquid gratefully. He picked up one of the sandwiches and bit into it warily. He grinned and finished it in a few bites. "These are good.!" He reached for another one.

   "You don't have to sound so surprised!" Mayan said, feigning a pout. "I've watched you make them often enough!" She smiled. "Now finish eating and let's get you to bed."

   "I'm okay. I'm not that tired." he said.

   She sighed. "Jason, you're so tired your hand is shaking enough to spill the tea. You don't have to pretend with me."

   "I know...it's just...I don't want you to worry."

   "I know," she said softly.

   He did not object as Mayan picked up the cane and handed it to him. He took her proffered hand to rise and followed her into the bedroom, where he sat on the bed and wearily began to undo the fastenings on his uniform shirt. She brushed his hands aside and quickly opened it. She gasped at the livid, garish green and sickly yellow skin across his ribs.

   He shrugged. "I've been hurt worse."

   "I know," Mayan said, "but you were younger then...and so was I," she added under her breath. "Come on, let me get these clothes off you."

   She gently pulled off his shirt and undid his trousers as he lay down on the bed. He raised his hips to allow her to slip off his pants and shorts, revealing a thick, white bandage that covered his right thigh from knee to groin.

   "The wound isn't nearly as big as it seems. The bandage is just to protect the skin while the leg heals."

   She nodded her head. She pulled up the covers around him and tucked him in. "If you need anything, just call. Don't play hero. I'll be coming to bed soon." She kissed him gently near the bruised eye. He was asleep before she turned off the lights.

   

   

*****

   Mayan was dressing when Kendrick awoke.

   "Good morning," he said. "Um...it is morning, isn't it?"

   "Yes," she smiled. "It's morning, but just barely. You've been asleep for fifteen hours. Do you need help with the bathroom?"

   "I'm a big boy now. I can do it myself." The edge in his voice belied the smile on his face.

   "I unpacked your kit last night," she said as he tried to sit up and groaned. "Your pain blockers are over there, if you need them." She indicated the pile of blue packets on the bedside table.

   "I'll be all right," he said and groaned again as he shifted position.

   Mayan walked over to the bed and opened one of the packets. Peeling off the backing, she asked "Where do you want it? And don't tell me you can do without it."

   "Yes, ma'am," he said meekly. "Please put it here." He pointed to the base of the large vein on the right side of his neck. "Thank you."

   "Why do all males have to pretend they're supermen when it comes to pain? My father is the same way. Even Delenn's father was like that," she grumbled.

   "I guess we're afraid you'll think less of us if we admit we hurt."

   "That's foolish." She smiled. "Never mind. I have a class in an hour, but I'll be back right afterward. Don't do anything you shouldn't."

   "I don't think I can," he said dryly.

   She laughed. "No, I suppose not. I'll bring you some tea and premurr before I go."

   

   

*****

   The students, as usual, had kept her after class with their questions, so Mayan returned to the apartment later than she had planned. She walked through the door calling out "Jason, I'm home. Sorry I'm so...." Her voice trailed off and she gasped. "In Valen's name, what...."

   "Go away, Mayan," Kendrick said wearily. "I don't want you to see me like this."

   He was lying on the floor of the living room where he had obviously fallen, his right leg at a painful angle. The right thigh, free of the bandage, was visibly smaller than the left, with a long, puckered ridge of barely healed flesh that stretched from just above the knee to the groin. Blood was seeping from a few places along the ridge. A small hand weight rolled toward Mayan. She sidestepped it easily and knelt beside him.

   "Let me help you," she pleaded.

   "Go away." He tried to move, gritting his teeth against the pain which was too great for the blockers to affect.

   "No!" She straightened his leg, wincing as he moaned. Grabbing a few pillows from the couch, she placed one beneath his head and the rest under his right leg. When his breathing slowed to normal, she stood up.

   "Now," she said sternly, hands on hips. "Now you will tell me why you are trying to kill yourself."

   Kendrick closed his eyes and turned his head away.

   Without warning, Mayan leaned down and slapped him across the face. His eyes shot open. "Now that I've got your attention, are you going to tell me what's going on? Ni'a'cha! I love you!" She was shouting now.

   "I was trying to follow doctor's orders. And as much as I'd love you to fuck me, I'm in no shape for that right now."

   "I read the instructions the doctors left with you. The say absolutely nothing about falling and aggravating your wound."

   "That wasn't my intention." He sighed. "Since you won't go away, you might as well help me up." He held out his hand and winced. "I think you'd better get me another pain blocker patch. I've about used this one up."

   Mayan sighed. "You are impossible."

   Kendrick lay quietly while Mayan cleaned and bandaged his thigh. But he balked when she suggested calling a doctor. "It's not necessary."

   "Not necessary? You're bleeding!"

   "Not really. It's just seepage," he explained. "When I left the hospital, they told me I could expect that to happen, especially when I over exerted myself...."

   "Like exercising with weights," Mayan said dryly.

   "Yeah," he admitted sheepishly. "I guess it was too soon. Besides, I have an appointment with the embassy doctor the day after tomorrow. He has all the records and he's monitoring my progress. Now, if you'll help me get up...it's getting pretty cold lying here in just my shorts. Please," he added plaintively.

   Mayan did not smile, but her lips twitched.

   Kendrick spent the rest of the day in the study. Although he was still officially on sick leave, and would be so for some time yet, he wanted to get a start on the backlog that awaited him. Mayan protested, insisting he should rest instead. She gave in when he promised to stop at the first sign of fatigue. She checked on him every now and then to see if he needed anything and to see for herself that he was all right. After dinner, he did not resist when she suggested they watch ISN or a vid and then go to bed early.

   She awoke first the next morning, later than usual. Jason was still sleeping soundly. She stared at him for a few moments. Fatigue was evident even as he slept, his face drawn and pale, the dark circles making both eyes appear bruised. He hadn't said anything further about staying with the Rangers after he called her from the hospital. And he hadn't talked at all about the mating rituals. Not even a mention, after he was so insistent that he wanted to start them. She was relieved, but also worried. Had he changed his mind? She sighed softly and got up, taking care not to wake him.

   

   

*****

   Jason woke in the afternoon, sore and hungry. He told Mayan as much when she came in with a cup of tea after hearing him stirring. She laughed and brought him some premurr.

   "Thanks," he mumbled through a mouthful. He finished the tea in a few gulps. "Aren't you home early? Or is it later than I think?" He checked the time display at the bedside.

   "I played truant today," Mayan said, smiling. "There were no classes, only dull faculty meetings."

   He frowned. "I don't want you to neglect anything because of me."

   "They were departmental meetings about matters that do not concern me and in which I have no interest. Besides, I'd rather spend the time with you. You've been gone for almost two months, you know. I've missed you." She started forward as he tried to get out of bed. "Do you need help?"

   "No, I'm fine." He swung his legs to the floor. He would have fallen if Mayan had not been there to support him. "I guess I do need help. Thanks." He regained his balance and took a tentative step, still holding on to Mayan. "I think I can manage, now. The muscles are so sore and stiff, it's taking me a while to get them to work."

   "I will give you a dar'shai'lan.

   "If you think that will help...." He sounded uncertain.

   "Go! I will prepare everything while you are in the bathroom. Do not dry yourself thoroughly when you finish in the shower. Leave your skin damp." She watched him hobble toward the bathroom, waiting until she was sure he did not need any assistance before she left the room.

   Mayan returned wearing a white robe and carrying the oils and unguents Minbari warriors massaged into muscles that had been strained or injured. When Kendrick emerged, she instructed him to lie on the bed on his stomach. Taking care to keep her weight off his thighs, she straddled his legs. Applying a liberal amount of several oils, she kneaded his back and shoulders, working her way up his neck and back down his arms. She paid special attention to the bruises, applying a thick cream that had anesthetic qualities as well. Then she shifted position so she could work on his legs and buttocks.

    "You will tell me if I hurt you," she said as she massaged the back of his right thigh. She could feel how much thinner it was than the other. There was more damage than he had told her. He flinched. "I am sorry."

   "No, it's all right," he said. "It only hurt for a moment when I tensed. Don't stop. It feels good."

   "I am finished with this side now. Turn over." He grunted and did as he was told.

   Again, she started with his upper body, but this time she did not straddle him. It was more awkward working from the side of the bed, but she was less likely to hurt him that way. The bruises on his ribs were less vivid than the night before. She could not resist gently kissing them before she applied the unguents. Idly, Jason reached out and stroked her crest. She lifted her head and smiled at him. She massaged his belly and upper thighs, avoiding the wound itself. He was becoming aroused. The signs were unmistakable. She grinned and then caught herself. That wasn't her intention. She didn't even know if he was allowed sex. She looked up and saw he was watching her.

   "I'm sorry, Jason. I will stop now. I should have realized what could happen...."

   "No, don't." His voice was thick.

   "Are you certain? Are you permitted to make love? I am afraid you will hurt yourself...."

   "If I'm careful, and if you do all the work, the doctors say it's okay." She looked uncertain. "Really, it's okay. And I feel much better." He pulled her closer and kissed her a bit awkwardly because he could not sit up.

   She removed her robe and sighed with pleasure. Straddling him again, but keeping her weight off him, she stroked gently and then more firmly until he was fully erect. Then she took him into her mouth as far as she could, sucking and licking, and caressing his testicles at the same time. He was on the verge of climaxing when he suddenly pulled away.

   "What is wrong?" A bit of clear fluid dripped from her lower lip.

   "What about you," he said with an effort. "I don't want to leave you unsatisfied."

   "You won't," she said, smiling. Guiding his hand to her fully opened slit, she let him feel how wet she was.

   He grinned. "I'll let you get on with it then." He gasped as she rubbed herself against his erection before taking him in hand again. She laughed with delight.

   Afterward, as she lay curled against his side, she whispered, "I've missed you." He was fast asleep.

   

   

*****

   Mayan wanted to accompany him the next day, saying it would give her an opportunity to pack up more of his things at his old apartment while he was with the doctor. "That's not a good idea right now," he said. "I'm thinking of moving back there... at least for a while...."

   "So you can be closer to the medical staff at the embassy? I suppose so, but it's going to be awfully cramped with both of us working at home so much...." She trailed off as he shook his head.

   "I meant just me. I think that would be best."

   "But, why?" She was almost in tears.

   "I don't want to be a burden on you. I don't want you to have to care for me, do everything for me...."

   "It is not a burden! I love you! That's what people do who love each other. Was it a burden when I was so sick with that fever and you tended me day and night for a week?" He shook his head. "So how can you say it's a burden for me now?"

   "It's not the same." He hesitated and then continued. "That was temporary. This may not be."

   "What are you talking about?" Mayan demanded.

   "Look, I said the cane was temporary. It may not be. I may be crippled for life. The doctors don't know yet."

   "So, why should that matter to me? We can manage."

   "You don't understand." He was angry now. "I can't even get out of bed without help. Hell! I can't even make love to you properly!"

   "So you are leaving me to spare me? How dare you make that decision for me! Before you left, you wanted to start the mating rituals. Do you think so little of me now that you think I would find living with you such a burden? Go, then, if that's what you want!" She ran into the bedroom and locked the door.

   "Mayan, wait. I'm sorry, I didn't mean it the way you think...." He banged on the door. "Please, love, let me in."

   "Go away!"

   "I'm not going anywhere until you come out of there and talk to me!"

   Silence. After a few minutes, the door opened slowly. Mayan looked out to see Kendrick leaning against the wall, trying to keep his weight off his bad leg. His face was very pale. Without protest, he let her lead him to a chair.

   "You cannot be left alone," she said dryly as she stood next to him. Her voice softened. "I do not want to fight with you. But I will not let you go so easily. The whole idea of this year was to see if we could live together. If you leave at the first sign of trouble, what is the point?"

   He sighed. "I'm not sure anymore. When I left the hospital, I thought I knew what I wanted. I still know, I think. But I don't know if I can have it, at least not the way I planned. All I know is that I don't want you to stay with me out of pity, but I want you to stay with me...."

   She knelt beside him and stroked his cheek. "I want to stay with you." She rose. "We will talk later. You will be late for your appointment if we do not leave now." She helped him rise. "And there will be no more talk of your moving out," she said firmly.

   As he walked out the door in front of her, cane in hand, he did not see the tears in her eyes.

   

   CHAPTER 9

   

   

*****

   The doctor's examination was thorough, comprehensive, and inconclusive.

   "If, and it's a big if in this gravity," Jason said as he sat down next to Mayan on a bench in the Alliance Embassy gardens. "If I can rebuild the muscles, the leg should be almost as good as before."

   "Almost? How almost?" Mayan asked.

   "At least ninety percent, maybe more. But it's gonna be a long haul in this gravity. If it were Earth, or even better, Minbar, six months of hard work and I'd be fine. But here...." He shook his head. "I don't know how long it's gonna take."

   "Why don't you extend your sick leave, then, and go to Minbar?"

   "I can't, Mayan."

   "Why not? Delenn will allow it, and not just because of me," she added when he started to protest. "The Rangers are generous about things like that."

   "It has nothing to do with you or Entil'Zha." He sighed. "Look, I knew when I finally left Earth after the plague that I would never captain a ship again. I lost too much time and there were plenty of others who got more experience while I was marooned and moved ahead of me. If I take that much leave now, someone else will have to take over for me here on Mars. It wouldn't be fair to the Embassy or MarsGov otherwise. And I can't just come back and say, 'okay, buddy, thanks for filling in, but I'll take over now.' It doesn't work that way.

   "I like what I'm doing now, and I want to keep on doing it in other places too. Right now, I'm the senior man for those kinds of posts. And I want to keep it that way." "All right," Mayan said. "Then we'll do it here. Where do we start?"

   "It's not that simple...first of all, the wound has to heal totally. I didn't do it much good the other day." He smiled ruefully. "You were right about that. And I'll need some specialized equipment to target the muscles, variable resistance exercisers and stuff like that....And there are no guarantees. Maybe I should move back here...."

   "No," Mayan interrupted. "Not without me." She reached up and gently stroked along his jaw. "I almost lost you once. I won't lose you again."

   He removed her hand from his face, but he did not let go of it. "It's not the same. I can live with the fact that I may be crippled for life. It wouldn't change things that much for me now. I could still do the job I'm doing. But it wouldn't be the same for you. And I can't live with that. I can't live with the doubts." He dropped her hand and looked down. "I keep asking myself why you're so insistent on living with me now. You never wanted to before. I told you, I don't want your pity...."

   "Pity has nothing to do with it," she protested.

   "Doesn't it?" His voice was harsh now. "You wouldn't even think of a permanent relationship before, so why now? Huh? Well, maybe I don't want you now? Maybe I'm better off on my own, the way it's been all along?"

   Mayan sucked in a breath. She rose and in a voice as devoid of emotion as her face, she said, "I think we had better start for home now."

   Kendrick put out a hand to stop her. "Wait, Mayan. Pitrosh," he said softly. "I didn't mean it like that." She turned toward him. "Thank you. Sit down." He patted the bench beside him. "I think it's time we talked. Really talked."

   "Yes." She sighed. "We've been putting it off for too long. But not now." She smiled. "In case you haven't noticed, we're no longer alone."

   "Huh?" He turned his head. A mixed group of Minbari and humans, some in the black of the Rangers, was walking purposefully toward them. "Some of the people I work with," he said. "I guess they're curious about how I am." He picked up his cane and rose to greet them.

   "I think they're more concerned than curious," Mayan said.

   The two were soon engulfed. Cries of 'welcome back' and 'how are you feeling' echoed in two languages. Kendrick shook hands and bowed and tried to answer one shouted question before another interrupted. Mayan stood a little to the side, watching.

   She could see why he was good at his job. His ready charm, which had intrigued and captivated her when they first met, was evident, putting his colleagues at ease. She thought, regretfully, that she saw very little of that side of him lately. Part of it was her fault, she supposed. Could he really believe she would stay with him for any reason but love? Yes, it was past time they cleared the air. She noticed he was beginning to look pale and strained again. She was about to go to him when he beckoned to her.

   "Let me introduce you," he said as she came to his side. "These are some of my friends." She bowed as he named them, one by one, and smiled in welcome. Later, she would have to ask him who was who. She couldn't keep track right now.

   "I am honoured to meet you, Sha'al Mayan," a middle-aged man said as he bowed in turn. He pulled out a pad and pen and offered it to her. "My son would never forgive me if I didn't get your autograph. He's loved your poetry ever since he was a child. As do I," he added quickly.

   Mayan was used to the peculiar human custom of collecting the signatures of the famous. She smiled and signed with a flourish. Then she turned to Kendrick. "It's time to go or I'll be late for that appointment...."

   "Of course," he said. "I have to leave now. I promised to escort her. If you'll forgive me?" He took her arm as they walked slowly out of the garden, accompanied by the well wishes of the crowd.

   

   

*****

   They didn't talk much on the way home. A few desultory remarks about the people at the embassy that trailed off without a response. He didn't even tease her about the white lie she used to get them out of there. While Mayan made dinner, Kendrick said something about resuming where they left off in the garden, but she pretended she didn't hear him. They ate in silence, except for the occasional "please pass the salt." Afterward, he locked himself in the study, to tackle some more of the backlog, he said. That was fine with her. She wanted to go over the details of the examination she was giving her class tomorrow. She could work at the table in the alcove just as well.

   Mayan could see the door to the study if she lifted her head from the table, which she did frequently. She couldn't concentrate properly. This was not the solitude that aided her work. The weight of the silence pressed down on her, crushing her. It was hard to breathe When she could stand it no longer, she walked to the door of the study and lifted her hand. She stood there for a long moment, hand upraised, fist poised to knock. Then, of its own volition, or so it seemed, her fingers uncurled and her hand dropped to her side. She sighed and returned to the table.

   Kendrick emerged a few minutes later. He said it was a long day and he was tired. He kissed her lightly and went off to bed. He was asleep when she came in. The next morning, Mayan left two hours early, telling herself she wanted to make sure everything was in order for the first examination she had ever prepared. Jason was still asleep. After class, which ended on time for once because the students were all eager to leave when the test was over, Mayan sat in her favourite spot at the fountain, reluctant to go home.

   The test had gone well, she thought. The students were a bit apprehensive when they downloaded their answers to her data pad, but that was normal, she supposed. She was grading them when Thoris Carter sat down next to her.

   "Hi," Thoris said, a little surprised. "What are you still doing here? Not that I'm not glad to see you. Your class ended over an hour ago. Don't you have a wounded Ranger to care for at home?"

   "Probably," Mayan said dully.

   Thoris raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"

   "He doesn't seem to want my care."

   "Ah," Thoris said. "Come all noble on you, has he? Doesn't want to be a burden and all that rot, right?"

   Mayan's eyes widened. "Yes, but how did you...?"

   "Honey, I went through it about three years ago." Thoris sighed. "I think I used everything except a two by four to convince my friend it was not a burden, and I was very tempted to use that too."

   "What happened?" Mayan was intrigued.

   "She died."

   "I am so sorry, Thoris. I didn't mean to revive sad memories."

   "It's all right," Thoris said gently. "It was a happy time, actually. Once she got it into that thick Earther skull of hers that nothing she could do would drive me away. And, believe me, she did plenty!" She smiled wistfully. "We were happy right until the end...." She trailed off.

   "You loved her very much," Mayan said. It was not a question.

   "Yes," Thoris replied, gazing into the distance, seeking someone who was not there anymore.

   Mayan placed her hand on her friend's shoulder. "You will see her again, in the place where no shadows fall."

   "Thank you," Thoris whispered, and put her hand over the Minbari woman's smaller one. They sat like that for a few moments. Then, removing her hand, and Mayan's, Thoris rose. "Well, I have two more exams to give and if I don't leave now, I'll be late. Not that some of the students wouldn't mind."

   She smiled. "Go home to your Ranger, Mayan. He needs you, even if he's too stubborn to admit it."

   

   

*****

   Kendrick awoke half hoping Mayan wasn't home. They couldn't go on like this, he thought as he slowly showered and dressed. He was more than a bit clumsy changing the bandage. Mayan was much better at it, he noted absently. He was disturbed about last night. He usually wasn't bothered if they didn't talk much. They often spent an evening working or watching a vid, communicating only with smiles and touches. But last night was a horror! The silence was oppressive, filling the room, trying to squeeze him out. He'd taken refuge in the study, but that wasn't much better. When he couldn't stand it any more, he went to bed and feigned sleep when Mayan came in.

   No, they couldn't go on this way. Too bad they were interrupted in the embassy gardens. And then she didn't hear him when he tried to bring up that conversation. Just as well, he supposed. What could he have said? Maybe it was best that he leave, after all. At least until he knew if he would recover....

   

   

*****

   Mayan came home to an empty apartment. Her breath caught in her throat. He was gone. He'd left after all. She couldn't move. Her brain seemed to disconnect from her body. Gradually, she became aware of the aroma of tomatoes simmering. She let out a breath. He wouldn't leave something cooking if he were really going away. She paced restlessly until he came in a few minutes later.

   "Where have you been?" She rounded on him. "Do you have any idea how worried I've been?"

   "We were out of fresh parmesan," he said mildly.

   "Never mind," she said. "When is dinner?"

   "In about an hour."

   "Good." Mayan declared and went into the study. He could hear her rummaging around in the desk where she kept her writing materials. "What are you looking for," he called when she didn't come out right away.

   "A two by four."

   "What?"

   "I found it," she said coming out holding a piece of the paper she used for first drafts in her hand. "You know I don't show my work to anyone before it's finished," she said handing him the sheet. "But I'm making an exception in this case. I wrote this while you were training those squadrons last month. It's still rough, not polished, but I wrote it for you and I think now is the time for you to see it. Remember, I can only write the truth of my heart, no matter what the cost."

   Kendrick looked down at the paper in his hand. It was folded over. His hand shook slightly as he opened it. He looked at Mayan and then started to read.

   In the alien light of two moons
   The mellow sky of Autumn
   Warms the soul. The roseate glow
   A balm to soothe and heal the scars
   Of past passions spent.
   And the heart dares love anew.

   He read it again, this time aloud, savoring each word. He put his arms around her, still holding on to the poem, and pulled her close. "It is more polished than the most valuable diamond," he said.

   She pulled away and looked up at him. "Now, will you believe me and stop this nonsense about leaving?"

   He nodded. "But that won't make the problems go away."

   "I know," she sighed. "But at least now we can take the time and talk about them. But not until after dinner. I want to finish marking the test, and I think you should think about what I wrote for a while."

   She kissed him briefly and went off to work in the study. Maybe she was a coward, but she didn't want to face their problems right now.

   

   CHAPTER 10

   

   

*****

   When Kendrick called her to the table, Mayan was less than a third of the way through the examinations. "They're only a few simple 'compare and contrast' questions, which should take a few pages, at most, to answer. But some of these are book length," she complained as she sat down to eat. "Mmmm. This is good," she mumbled around a mouthful of lasagna. "More cheese, please. Thanks. Maybe next time I should make the test 'multiple choice' or 'true or false.' Then the computer could grade it."

   She paused to break off a piece of fresh bread to sop up the sauce. "I've missed your cooking." She smiled. "This is the first good meal I've had since Thoris invited me to dinner while you were gone."

   "Your cooking is not as bad as you like to believe, sharayan," Jason declared. "Of course, that's not saying very much." He ducked her mock blow.

   "Humph!"

   "You were telling me about the exam...."

   Mayan swallowed and continued. "Grading a multiple choice test is much easier, but then I'd miss learning more about how my students think. And I'd also miss the occasional insight."

   "Oh?"

   "Yes. One of the questions dealt with differences and similarities among Minbari and human styles. One student pointed out that some of Valen's early writings resemble in tone and themes the works of one of your 19th century poets. I hadn't really thought about it, but the student is right, of course." She sighed. "I just wish it didn't take so long to grade them."

   "You're really enjoying teaching, aren't you?"

   "Yes. Much to my surprise." She smiled. "And the funny thing is I enjoy teaching the lecture students more than the master class. Don't get me wrong, working with the master students is satisfying. They are all serious about improving their work, and there are one or two I suspect will become very well known in a few years. But there is something about teaching the other class...seeing their faces when they understand what I am trying to tell them...their eagerness to learn, to ask questions...I don't know...it speaks to me, here," she said, pointing to her heart. "I never expected that."

   Kendrick reached across and gently stroked her cheek. "I'm pleased you're happy," he said softly. She smiled at him. "And you were so worried," he said, smiling in turn. "It's often like that. The things you worry about turn out fine. It's the things you never have to think about that really hit you upside the head." Now his smile was rueful.

   "It's like this leg of mine," he continued. "I've always taken my body for granted. Always knew it would respond. I never had to worry. Now, I don't know if I can even cross a room without the leg giving out."

   "But that's temporary, until the leg heals," Mayan protested. "You said so yourself."

   "The immediate weakness will improve, but it won't change the situation. I don't know if I can explain it to you, but...." He thought a moment. "Before the accident, whether I was using a pike in hand to hand, or on the bridge of a ship, or in the training hall, or even in bed with you," he grinned briefly and then continued. "Whatever I did, I didn't have to think about doing it. I knew the parameters of my abilities. Now, that's changed. And I'll never have that confidence again, even if the leg recovers."

   "Aren't you being too pessimistic? Once you start the rehabilitation program, won't you be able to determine all that by trying?"

   "It won't be one hundred percent and I'll always have to think before I do something. And every time the leg improves, I'll have to find out again. I'll always wonder if I can walk that distance or climb that rock or make love...."

   "I'll help you find your limits in that last regard., no matter how long it takes." Mayan said straight faced.

   "I was afraid I would have to ask for volunteers," he replied just as deadpan. They both laughed at the same time.

   Mayan stopped laughing first. "We're having that talk now, aren't we?"

   "Do you mind very much?"

   "I suppose not...."

   "Good." He rose and held out his hand to her. "Let's go over to the couch. We'll be more comfortable, at least I will. No, leave the dishes. We'll do them later. This is too important." Mayan nodded and helped him across the room.

   "That's better," Kendrick said, stretching out his legs. "It stiffens up if I keep it in one position too long. Stephen says that will improve once the wound heals completely."

   "Shouldn't the bandage be changed? I can do it now...."

   "You're trying to stall, aren't you?" Jason said.

   "It's that obvious?"

   "Uh huh."

   Mayan sighed and sat back down next to him. "I'm sorry. I know we need to do this, it's just that...I don't know....I guess I'm afraid...of what I might hear."

   "I am too. But I'm more afraid of losing you." She started to protest but he held up his hand. "You've been the only constant in my life for so long now. Where ever I was assigned, no matter how long I was away, I knew when I came home, it would be to you. And I knew that you would be waiting for me. Even after that time we had that fight and we both swore we'd never go near each other again, even then, on my way back to Minbar, I knew I would go first to your house and that you would be expecting me."

   Mayan smiled in memory. "I know. It was irrational, but I expected you. You didn't even call to warn me you were coming."

   "How did you know? You've never said."

   "Well, I really shouldn't tell you," she said. "But, well...I was afraid you'd stay away, thinking I was still angry, so I asked Delenn." Mayan looked down at her hands. "I was...uh...if you didn't come, I was going to go find you."

   "I'm glad you did. It saved a lot of time." He paused for a moment. "Things were simpler for us then. When we were part time lovers."

   "You were never just part time with me," Mayan protested.

   "I've never asked you if there were others when I wasn't around, and I never will. It's not important."

   "That's good, because I can't remember that far back."

   Jason smiled briefly. "Neither can I. But it doesn't matter. What matters is now. When I was in the hospital, for the first time in a long time I knew what I wanted. I want to keep doing what I'm doing and I want to be with you. Now, I don't know how the leg will affect things. But I do know you're still the only constant in my life. And I want to keep it that way. I believe you when you say you're not staying out of pity. Or, at least I think I do. Which is probably the same thing. I also think we can deal with the leg, even if it's permanently damaged, as long as you don't mind.

   "What I can't deal with is not knowing if you're going to stay. I'm tired of part-time. And I don't want to be your lover, even full-time. I want to be your mate, or as close as we can get. I want to start the rituals. Right away. I want a commitment. A public acknowledgment that I belong to you and you belong to me. I can deal with just about anything except the uncertainty about you."

   "But you don't have to worry about that," Mayan insisted, taking his hand. "I'm here now and I'm going to stay."

   "For this year. But what about afterward?"

   "For as long as you want me," she said softly.

   "Then why won't you agree to mate with me?" He put his hand over hers. "You told me I have more than just a part of your heart. Was that a lie?"

   She shook her head. "No. I love you, Anla'shok. More than I ever thought possible."

   "Then why?" he insisted. "You were willing to mate with another. Why not with me?"

   "I can't," Mayan said, the pain in her voice almost choking her. "It's not you," she insisted when he started to speak. She pulled her hand loose and stood before him. "I will tell you something I have never told anyone, not even Delenn." She started to pace, becoming more and more agitated as she spoke.

   "When Neroon died, I nearly went mad with grief, but there was a small part of me that was...relieved...because now I would not have to go through with the final mating ceremony." She began to cry. "I loved him and part of me was glad he was dead!"

   Kendrick sat motionless, unable to say anything.

   "Don't you understand?" Mayan shouted. "How can I give you what I wouldn't give him?" "I'm sorry," he finally whispered. "I won't press you again."

   "I shouldn't have said anything. I have only made things worse." She ran out the door as he called out to her.

   "Wait, Mayan. Come back. I love you!"

   He tried to follow only to fall when he rose too quickly. He cursed himself, the leg and the universe in Adronato and Standard, and any other language he could remember. By the time he picked himself up and went to the door, she was out of sight. He cursed again as he walked around the neighborhood. If they were home on Minbar, he would have no trouble finding her. But here, on Mars, he could only hope she went to the college or the embassy. She would be safe there. She would be safe as long as she didn't go into the underground areas of the dome. Mars had its share of crime, every world did, but some of the subterranean parts were worse than Down Below on Babylon 5. He continued walking and cursing himself for pushing when it was obvious she was distressed. He should have handled it differently, not been so abrupt and direct. He should have....He should have watched where he was going, he thought as he just stopped himself from falling over a stone trash receptacle.

   Mayan had been gone for over half an hour now. Enough time for her to have reached the college. Kendrick stopped at a public com to call her office. Either she wasn't there or she wasn't answering. He debated going over there, but he knew he'd never make it. He had barely enough strength left to return to the apartment. He thought about calling out a security team. She would never forgive him if he did. Finally, he decided to go home. He'd call the college again and then, if she still didn't answer, he'd send out a team to scour Mars until he knew she was safe. With luck, she'd never find out.

   Kendrick returned home, his face drawn with pain and his leg on the verge of collapse. He hobbled over to the com. If he sat down to rest first, he'd never be able to get up again. There was a message. Mayan, he thought, she's calling to tell me not to worry. He called, 'play new messages', but instead of a petite woman with a delicate bonecrest, he saw a tall, dark haired stranger.

   "Hello, Captain Kendrick. I'm Thoris Carter. I teach at Sheridan. I know you're surprised to hear from me, and I'm probably being very presumptuous and jumping to all sorts of unwarranted conclusions, but...well...I thought you might want to know...Mayan is here, at the college. I...um...she doesn't know I'm calling you and I'd prefer she doesn't find out, especially if I'm making an absolute fool of myself, as I suspect.

   "I'm not being very coherent, especially for an English teacher, am I?" The woman gave a rueful grin. "Anyway, I thought you should know. Please, don't bother returning this call. I'm leaving my office in a few minutes. Um...I guess that's all."

   He watched, bemused, as the message ended. So that was Mayan's friend, he thought. Interesting face. And he collapsed on the couch in equal parts exhaustion and relief.

   

   

*****

   Mayan reached the sanctuary of the black fountain and sat down heavily on the wall, trying to slow her breathing. In Valen's Name, what had she done! The look on his face when she told him her guilty secret! She had to get out of that apartment, away from the pain and shame. She ran until she couldn't run anymore. Then she walked, heedless of her surroundings, not knowing where she was, not caring. Somehow, she ended up at the college, which didn't surprise her. It was deserted at this hour, the only sign of activity the lights in one or two of the faculty offices. Just as well. She didn't want to meet anyone she knew. She couldn't cry anymore, but her face showed the ravages of her tears.

   Oh, Valen! Mayan almost cried aloud. She couldn't bear it if she lost him now. But how could he stay with her after what she told him? Now that he knew how shamefully she had acted. But it would be worse if he stayed, out of pity or obligation. She couldn't bear that either. It would have been better if she had died with Neroon. She almost did. She had been that mad with grief and guilt. She became determined to follow him in death, in the manner of the old rites of lovers before the time of Valen, so their souls would be reborn together. But Delenn stopped her. Somehow, Delenn knew what she intended and stayed with her until the madness passed. Then it was too late. There was no way to atone and expunge the stain on her soul.

   One of the lights went out and someone walked out the door. Mayan couldn't tell if it were a man or a woman. The figure stopped and seemed to peer into the gloom, right where Mayan was sitting. She shrank further into the shadows After a long moment, the figure went back into the building, only to come out again a few minutes later. This time, whomever it was glanced quickly toward the fountain and then walked away in the opposite direction.

   "Ah, Neroon," Mayan whispered into the darkness. "You are still entangled in my life, even from beyond the veil." And yet, had he lived, had he returned to her, she would have cast aside her doubts and mated with him in joy and triumph. But he had died and she remained unmated.

   And now Jason wanted to mate with her, that is, if he did not leave her. No! She would not think that way! Her own sweet Anla'shok, she called him, the first time he came to her bed, when she knew only that he was amusing and pleasing to look at, before she learned his heart and soul were attuned with hers. He had never asked anything of her. Surely, she could acquiesce to his desire. What did it matter if they started the rituals? They could never complete them, never truly join their blood. Nothing would change except that he would be happy....

   "No!" She cried and jumped to her feet. She could not do that to him. He would know she was only trying to placate him. She must agree to a true mating or nothing. She began to pace around the fountain. But if she agreed, would she be able to go through with it? She was becoming agitated again, her breath short. With an effort, she sat down again and breathed slowly and deeply until she was calmer. She could not go on like this, She should go home. He would be worried about her, even if he did decide to leave her. The thought of living without him left her hollow inside...or maybe she was just hungry....

   She shook her head and smiled ruefully. "Mayan, you are being a fool," she told herself sternly. "You love him and you want to be with him. That is all that matters." She knew what she must do. She left the fountain and started for home.

   

   

*****

   Kendrick awoke with a groan. He sat up slowly, massaging the back of his neck and rubbing his shoulders. He had fallen asleep, or maybe passed out, half sitting and half lying on the couch and his body was complaining. He knew Mayan wasn't home because she would have insisted he go to bed, after checking him over and making him some tea. He would never tell her so, but secretly, he liked the way she fussed over him. Gingerly, he tested his legs. The injured one was stiff, but no worse than before. His left knee was sore, probably from the fall. It felt scraped, too. It was after midnight. She should have been back by now. If she intended to stay away all night, she would have called or left a message, no matter how angry or upset, knowing he would worry. Maybe, she had called while he was asleep. If there was no message from her on the com, he'd wait another half hour, then he would call out a security team, no matter how mad it made her. He would rather deal with an angry, but safe, Minbari. If anything happened to her.... He managed to stand, holding on to the arm of the couch, and hobbled over to the com. There was no message.

   Sitting down again was easier. He turned on ISN just to have something to do, but he didn't pay much attention to the news reader on the screen. As long as there was no news concerning injury to a visiting Minbari poet, it didn't matter. What would he say to her when she came home? What could he say? He'd been a fool, thinking she would change her mind about mating. He would have to accept her on her own terms or leave. Yesterday, before he knew for sure she loved him, he might have gone. Not now. Love would have to be enough. Where the hell was she? Maybe he should call her friend. No, better not. He banged his fist on the cushions. He couldn't even pace. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. That was better. A half hour wasn't so long. Not even on Mars. It was so easy in the hospital, when he realized that what he wanted was what he already had. What if Mayan didn't want to come back? What if she were afraid of being pressured again? Stephen tried to warn him that it wasn't so simple. What if he lost her? Was that the door?

    "Mayan?" He called out as he swung his legs off the table and started to stand.

   "I am here," she said softly, closing the door behind her. "No, don't get up!"

   He sank down into the couch again. "Where the....No. I won't ask you. Are you all right now?" He tried to speak calmly and almost made it.

   "You were concerned about me. I am sorry I worried you." Mayan sat opposite him. "I am sorry for a lot of things....Please," she held up her hand when he started to protest. "I must say this." She leaned forward. "I should not have run away like that. It was cowardly and shameful." She looked directly into his eyes. "I ask forgiveness."

   Kendrick started to say there was nothing to forgive, but stopped. He nodded and spoke a few words in Adronato, the ritual reply to such a plea.

   "Thank you," she replied, bowing her head slightly. "I believe we were having a conversation when I...uh...left so abruptly...." She smiled hesitantly. Then brightened at his answering grin. "I think we should continue where we left off."

   "Are you sure?" he asked. "We don't have to. I can accept things the way they are now."

   "But I cannot," she said and reached out to touch his left knee. He winced and she jumped up. "You are hurt," she cried. "Let me tend to it."

   "It's nothing. Just a scraped knee. Don't worry about it."

   "But...."

   "But nothing!" He pulled her down beside him on the couch. "You want to talk, let's talk."

   "Yes." She took a breath and let it out slowly. "You asked me for a commitment. I don't know if I can do that."

   "I'm not going to ask you for anything you can't give, Mayan. I can live with the way things are now...."

   "I cannot. I have not been fair to you, Anla'shok. I told you to put the past behind you when I have not been able to do the same. Until tonight. I want to leave the past where it belongs and make a life with you." She paused and he squeezed her hand. "I don't think I can do that without being honest with you about Neroon. You know I loved him." It was not a question. "And now, you know I was afraid to mate with him....."

   "Mayan, you don't have to do this...."

   She stroked his cheek with gentle fingers. "It's all right. I need to tell you. I was afraid of losing myself in him. But I would have gone ahead with the mating ceremony regardless. For him." She sighed softly. "I had it wrong before. I have not been able to give you what I gave him. I love you, my Anla'shok, and I will do no less for you. Even though I am still afraid." She was suddenly shy. "If you still want me, I will mate with you."

   He lifted her head and cupped her face. "I will always want you," he said and kissed her. When they broke the kiss, she snuggled against him and sighed into his shoulder. He put his arms around her and pulled her closer. "When do you want to start the rituals?"

   "I told you before, there is no point...." She smiled at the look of shock on his face. "We cannot complete them." She kissed him again, before he could say anything. "Instead..." she tapped him lightly on the nose. "Tomorrow, or as soon as you are able, we will go to MarsPort, to one of the jewelers there, and you will buy me a ring." She was amused at the expression on his face. "It is the custom, is it not, for the male to purchase a ring for the female when they become engaged to be married?"

   Kendrick laughed and pulled her onto his lap. "It was the last time I checked." He kissed her. "But I thought you would want to follow the Minbari way."

   "The Minbari way will not work for us. If we are going to mate, I want to do it all the way. Nothing will change if I know we can never truly become one. We will have to follow the human path." She shifted position to face him. "I cannot say if I will be able to go through with a wedding. I want to, but I do not know."

   "There's no rush about setting a date," he replied. "It is enough that you are willing to try."

   "Really?"

   "Really." She searched his face for a long moment and then buried her face in his neck. He kissed her crest and held her close.

   "It is late," Mayan said, reluctantly getting off his lap. "And we never cleared away the supper dishes. It's my turn, I think. And then, bed." She grinned and walked toward the kitchen.

   Kendrick smiled. Maybe it would be all right. ISN was still on. He was about to turn it off when he recognized the figure on the screen. He listened for a while and then groaned. "I don't believe it!" He shook his head.

   "What's the matter?" Mayan asked.

   "We'll have to put off buying that ring until later in the week. One of the lesser lights of the Martian Senate wants an investigation because Earth has arrested, and I quote, 'a prominent Mars businessman without any provocation.' I'm going to have to spend a good part of the day whispering into certain ears that the businessman in question is the head of the largest smuggling organization plaguing Earth."

   " Why can't you just call ISN or tell the senator?"

   "The Alliance and Earth want to keep the matter as quiet as possible for now. There are others involved, including the senator, we think. So, sick leave or not, I have to go to work tomorrow."

   "You'll be careful, won't you? And you'll come right home as soon as you feel tired," she admonished.

   "Yes, mother...." Mayan stuck her tongue out at him. He laughed. "Don't worry. I'll be careful. What are you going to do? There's no school tomorrow, is there?"

   "No. I thought I would finish grading the exams and then go to an art exhibit with Thoris. I was going to cancel...."

   "Good thing you didn't. She's got a crush on you, you know," he added with a smile.

   "I know," Mayan said. "She'll get over it. They always do." She shrugged.

   "That's all right, then. Why don't you invite her to dinner next week? I'll make flarn."

   "I'd like that." Mayan smiled at him and continued cleaning up.

 

*****

 

 

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