DANSE MACABRE

By Gentle

 

 

Disclaimer: The characters in the piece that follows belong to jms, Babylonian Productions and Warner Bros. I've just borrowed them for a while.

Summary: The journey from Babylon 5 to Z'ha'dum.

This one was sparked off by a few things. Firstly, in the episode Z'ha'dum there's the very slightest of glances between John and Anna over the teacups. Blink and you'll miss it, but it's there, and I thought it was interesting. Secondly, I saw a copy of a script that had a brief scene (cut out of the show) in which a 'saying hello properly' kiss was exchanged. I wanted to explore that a little more and try to work out how John and 'Anna' were going to get along with each other. Finally, I loved the way that Jeanne Cavelos handled the relationship between John and Anna in The Shadow Within and I wanted to play with the Anna character, in particular, some more.

In the show the timing of the trip isn't very well defined, but it's a B5 tradition that the end of the series coincides with the end of the year. So that's where it's set, at the very end of 2260.

Feedback: Always welcome - the good, the bad and the ugly.

Rating: PG

Thanks: To my beta readers -- thanks again, for the suggestions, and corrections. Any mistakes still in here are all my own work.

 

 

 

 

*****

   You're spinning, dancing, arms outstretched in freedom; just you in the vacuum.

   Apart from those who stand in your way.

   But not for long.

   Your mind laughs and you give out a shriek of exhilaration; another blot on the perfect landscape of space despatched to oblivion with perfect machine-like precision. You are metal and flesh, serving the machine and the guiding hands that control your mission. You wheel around and let them guide you now, lighting the way back to home world. You have done well. Your Masters are pleased. You will be rewarded.

   No!

   You open your eyes, screaming, scared, flesh and flesh alone without the machine. The room you are in is cold and bare, and there are aliens here, strange grey beings that you half-recognise from another time, but that recognition only augments the terror inside you. They are touching you, lifting you on to your feet, supporting your weight for you. Their mouths don't move, but you hear them tell you that your performance has been outstanding and that the Masters have a new task for you. You care nothing for that, or for them. All you want is the machine. You grieve for its loss. You need it, and your hunger for it gnaws at you until you cry out.

   The beings try to comfort you but seem at a loss to know how. They can't reach you. A word you don't recognise forms on your lips, a name that must remain unspoken, but then you lose track of it. It's gone. Your mind is raving, a mass of confusions and misdirected thoughts that tumble around like the flakes in a snow-globe.

   Whatever that is.

   You struggle, but you know that you'll never defeat them, you are merely flesh now and they are too strong.

   They carry you down a brightly-lit corridor into a small room. You are left there, huddled on a small sofa beneath a blanket, waiting for whatever will happen next. Time passes, but it means nothing to you now, and you have no desire to fill it. A man walks through the door and sits beside you. You remember him.

   'Morden? Is it really you?'

   He smiles and hugs you. 'Yes, it's me. It's good to see you again.'

   'What...where am I...?'

   'Anna, there's not much time...do you trust me?'

   You barely remember the last time you saw him but you know, instinctively, that you trust him. You're not sure who he is, but your memories tell you that he tried to help you once.

   You nod. 'Yes, I think so.'

   He smiles and takes your hand, squeezing it in friendship. 'Our associates have a job for you.'

   'A job?'

   'An important assignment.' His eyes grow sad for a moment. 'Anna, I don't know how much you remember from before, but I think, well, from the way you always talked about him I find it hard to believe you'd forget…do you remember John?'

   You clutch his arm. John. As soon as Morden speaks his name your mind is flooded with images of him. Your heart leaps, and you hardly dare to believe but you ask him anyway. 'Is he here?'

   'No.'

   'Is he well? Is he safe?'

   Morden smiles at you. 'Yes. Very well. At least he was the last time I saw him on Babylon 5. He's the station commander now.'

   'What?'

   Morden looks at you as a patient teacher would.

   'Time has passed since we got here, Anna. John is in charge of Babylon 5. Our associates are at war, and your John is gathering a force of his own, an army which is diverting our associates from their greater goal. He must be stopped, Anna. He's a good man, and a great leader, but he doesn't know what's really going on. The Vorlons are dangerous, and they're using him for their own ends. Our associates want you to help them to convince him he's wrong.'

   'Wait, you're going too fast. Has Earth...I mean, when you say John is gathering an army…how is that possible? He's just an Earthforce Captain.'

   Morden smiles. 'Not any more.'

   You rub your temples, trying to follow what Morden is saying, but you can't keep up. 'I don't understand...'

   Morden pauses for a moment, and then nods almost imperceptibly. 'Close your eyes,' he says.

   'But...'

   Morden's soft tones take on a slight edge. 'Do it. Please. Our associates want you to understand. They can show you far more easily than I can explain.' He squeezes your hand and smiles once again. 'Trust me. Close your eyes and they will show you.'

   You do as you are told, and your head is filled with images you had long forgotten. They come like a torrent, captured moments of a life you had forgotten, each one with its own story, each one with its own emotion. You have kept his memory in your heart but you have not dared to dream of him for so long. Now that memory is being allowed its freedom. Now, you are allowed to dream, and to remember, and to feel. You revel in the sensations that are coursing through your heart and mind, and you know that you can have all this again. Morden's voice, on the edge of your consciousness, provides a commentary. They promised you that you could have all this again before…before the machine, but vaguely you remember that you gave it all up. You gave it up and they gave you the machine. But this time it's different, now you can have it all. All you have to do is go to him and bring him back with you. Then you will be free. You will be free, and John will be with you.

   Your heart is so full you want to cry. You've missed him. God, how you've missed him.

   Then the images in your head shift. Instead of John you're looking at a creature who looks to be wearing some kind of environment suit. It is large, and the figure is intimidating.

   'Who is that?'

   'His name is Kosh. He is a Vorlon, one of our associates' vilest enemies. He is powerful, yet as you see he hides his true form inside an encounter suit. The Vorlons work in what they like to consider mysterious ways. This Vorlon has taken John under his wing. He's been teaching him how to fight us, and John has been more than willing to learn. Now, Kosh is dangerous enough, but Delenn...'

   The image changes again, and you see a female Minbari. As you watch she morphs into an almost human form. You see her walking with John, talking with him, laughing and crying with him, being comforted by him, and the final scene--his mouth on hers, her hands in his hair--makes you gag.

   'How could he? No!'

   You feel Morden's arm around your shoulder, and sense the sympathy in the soothing balm of his voice. 'Several years have gone by since you last saw him, Anna. He believes that the Icarus went down with all hands. He grieved for you, for a long time. I know he did, and I know how deeply he still feels for you, but it's as though she has him under some sort of spell. I think he's fallen in love with her...'

   'No. No, that's not right. I know John. He would never...'

   'I'm sorry.'

   'Tell me it's not true.'

   Morden hugs you, and his voice drops to a comforting whisper. 'If you want him back, Anna, then go get him. Our associates will help. They want you to be with him again. They want you to be happy. All they ask is that you bring him back here, away from her, away from Kosh, so that they can talk to him. There are no strings, all they want to do is try to explain their ideology to him, to show him it's not all as clear cut as he's been led to believe.'

   'Do you think it work? Will he come with me?'

   'I don't know, but it's worth a shot isn't it? What have you got to lose? If you do this for them, they will reward you. You'll fly like a god again, only this time you'll have John beside you, and your destination will be wherever you want it to be. You'll be free, Anna, and so will he.'

   'When do I leave?'

   ************************************

   John Sheridan sat in his quarters, feeling utterly alone. He nursed a glass of whisky in his left hand and stared impassively into the middle distance, agonising. About everything, and nothing. And everything and nothing, all over again.

   He rubbed the rudely crafted figurine he held in his right hand. As he fingered it, his thoughts took a turn to the man who had given it to him. Brother Edward. A man who had been re-born, who'd had his life and memories erased, re-shaped and then handed back to him on a clean platter, only to have them all torn brutally from him again. Brother Edward, who had always wondered if he would be able to answer the call, if the call came. He'd answered it, and he'd paid in full. He'd gone to his death reassured that he was equal to the task. And that was all fine and good, but he had died horribly just the same.

   It wasn't a very comforting thought.

   What was it that Brother Theo had said? Something about forgiveness being a permanent attitude, not an occasional act?1 Easy to say, nigh on impossible to achieve. He knew that. He'd tried. He was still trying.

   His fingers curled more tightly around the talisman, and he swore under his breath.

   She had hurt him more than he had thought possible. All this time she had been his rock, the one thing in the Universe he could depend on. When everything went pear-shaped, somehow Delenn managed to straighten it all out again. He had never doubted her. Then suddenly the wheel had turned, the rock had crumbled into sand, and she had driven him to an anger that he had never imagined for a second she could fire in him.

   He told himself not to dwell on it, to put the pain behind him, to try to understand, and he tried. He really tried.

   Did he really have to do this? Was there no other way?

   He laid his head back on the sofa. He had thought about it long and hard, until he had a headache, until he was tired of thinking, until the glass was empty.

   There was no other way.

   If he went to Z'ha'dum he would die. Kosh had said it, and John had no reason to doubt it. It was the most unequivocal statement he'd ever heard the Vorlon utter.

   Somehow, it didn't matter any more. Even if he didn't go to Z'ha'dum, he figured his days were numbered. The Shadows were not just going to by-pass Babylon 5 and Earth. Hell, they were already getting their claws into Earthgov. There was only a very slim chance they'd leave the Station alone if he refused to co-operate with their plans, and he wasn't going to stand by and watch it die at their hands. There was no way he would allow them take out his Station and then give a victory salute as they swooped off to annihilate the rest of the known galaxy.

   It wasn't going to happen. He wouldn't allow it.

   That was the bottom line, wasn't it? He, John Sheridan, couldn't allow it.

   Why not? Why couldn't he just let it go? The Shadows were a powerful enemy. No one would blame him for capitulating, for surrendering in the face of terrible odds. Why couldn't he just turn his back and run? Plenty of other people would. But where would he run to? And when he was done running, who but himself would there be to come back to?

   It didn't matter what they did to him any more. They'd taken Anna away from him; they'd used her, sucked the life out of her and sent her back to him. They had to pay for that. Nothing else meant a damn. Not any more. He wanted some answers and by God, he was going to get them.

   He looked around his quarters. It didn't add up to much: a few keepsakes to remind him of where he'd been and what he'd done. The whole lot would fit in a carton.

   He took another drink from his glass, swilling it around his mouth before he swallowed it. If this plan of his came off they'd be able to fit him in a carton too.

   Was there anything he could cling to?

   The time-flash that he'd experienced on Babylon 4, when Delenn had told him they had a son, surely that meant something. But who knew? In one version of the future they had had a child together. From the look on her face when he'd left her a few hours ago, it seemed unlikely they would have breakfast together again.

   She had told him not to go to Z'ha'dum in that time-flash, which meant that in her reality he had. In that same reality both he and their son were alive, and Centauri Prime was in ashes. She'd told him they'd won the war, but at a terrible price. If she'd been trying to give him a message it was as cryptic as they come. Would it have been any better if she'd told him less, or better still, nothing at all? Would any of it change if he didn't go? Would they lose the war but somehow save Centauri Prime? Would going to Z'ha'dum make any difference at all, to anything? Was Centauri Prime worth the price? Whatever that was? How could he possibly know?

   Every time he tried to think it through he could feel his synapses collapsing. There was no point in trying to figure it all out.

   He didn't know who to trust any more. Maybe 'Anna' was right. Maybe it was time he stood on his own two feet and stopped relying on Delenn and the Vorlons for information. Maybe the feelings he had for Delenn had blinded him. Maybe 'Anna' was telling the truth and Delenn really was using him.

   He was almost angry enough with her to believe it. But it was hard to stay angry with her when he could still smell her perfume, and still see that smile on her face last night when he'd fallen asleep beside her.

   He put down the glass, suddenly realising that even the slightest increase of pressure in his fingers would break it.

   It was almost time to collect 'Anna' from Medlab. He couldn't keep her cooped up in there like a lab rat much longer. Stephen had already started running out of tests when he'd last been over there, and that was hours ago. He was only keeping her there now because John had asked him to.

   For the hundredth time since he'd set eyes on her he wondered if there was anything left of her inside that body, and if there was, if he would be able to reach it. He wasn't sure that he wanted to, and that uncertainty was as distressing as anything else.

   Reluctantly, he pushed himself up from his sitting position and stood, trying to gather himself together. It was time for practicalities. If he didn't do the things he needed to do right now they'd remain undone, and he wouldn't leave unfinished business for the rest of the command staff to deal with.

   The final item on the list of jobs he'd given to Michael was to make sure that his last messages were sent home, somehow. Now it was time to get on with the unpleasant task of recording them. He desperately wanted to talk to his Dad face to face, but it wasn't to be. A recorded message would have to do.

   It took him three attempts, but finally he held himself together for long enough to tell his parents he loved them. It was the shortest message he'd ever recorded for them, and the hardest.

   When he'd finished it he set the crystal carefully on the desk in plain sight. Michael would get it home for him, if there was still a home for it to get to when all this was over.

   With a heavy heart he turned back to the comms unit. There was one last act he couldn't leave to Michael, or to anyone else.

   His chest tightened. Why did it have to come down to this? After he'd lost Anna he'd ring-fenced his emotions. It was lonely sometimes, but it was safe. No-one knew what he'd gone through. Lizzie had come closest, but even Lizzie had never really had a clue. He'd found that if you shut people out for long enough eventually they stop trying.

   Until Delenn.

   She'd taken one look in his eyes and recognised loneliness when she saw it. She'd understood. When the weight of command threatened to break his heart she was the only one he could turn to.

   But he'd been right, hadn't he? It would have been better to keep her out. It was all going to end the same way as it had with Anna: in pain and separation. He was never going to see her again. After the things he'd said to her maybe he didn't deserve to. He was still angry. He'd tried to bury it, tried to put himself in her position, but it was hard, so hard.

   Funny, he thought, how easy it was to hurt and be hurt.

   Frightening, how a few ill-chosen words could break your heart.

   Amazing, that he loved her just the same.

   And he did love her: sometimes with a quiet depth that anchored him, sometimes with a desperate ache that would not be soothed, sometimes with a burning passion he could barely control, and sometimes...just because.

   In the end, the need to tell her that overrode the betrayal he still felt. He wanted her to know how much he loved her, how much he wanted to be with her. He wanted her to know that none of this was her fault, but he couldn't tell her, not face to face. It was the coward's way out and he knew it, but his guts churned at the thought of seeing her again. He knew in his heart that if he looked into her eyes and felt her arms around him, there would be no room for words; he'd never be able to leave.

   And he had to leave.

   'Comms system. I want to record a time-delayed message for Ambassador Delenn. Stand by.'

   ************************************

   You can hardly believe it.

   He's agreed.

   He's coming back with you to Z'ha'dum.

   After those first few moments, when you'd walked into his quarters and she'd been there, you hadn't been sure, but now you know. You know.

   He loves you.

   He's having a hard time coming to terms with all of this, but he still loves you.

   You can see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice and you can sense it.

   He loves you.

   And it makes you feel like dancing.

   ************************************

   As the White Star slipped through the Epsilon jump-gate Sheridan bade a silent farewell to those who had stood beside him these last few years. It took every ounce of courage he had in him to refrain from turning around for one last look.

   Babylon 5.

   He had to keep faith. He couldn't bear to think he'd wouldn't be back this way again. It was his home and his refuge, and it was part of who he was. So were the people he was leaving behind.

   And so was the woman he was with.

   Five years ago she hadn't just been a part of him, she'd been all there was. He couldn't just sit there and pretend that wasn't true. He kept trying to do it, but he couldn't look at her face and not remember how it used to be.

   He couldn't afford to voice his doubts to her. As far as she knew, Franklin's tests had proved conclusively to him that she was his wife. He couldn't afford to tell her the rest; that those damned marks at the back of her neck gave her away. On the other hand, he wasn't entirely sure it mattered. After all, the Shadows were just using her as bait here. He had agreed to go to Z'ha'dum. As long as he got there, Anna was probably expendable anyway, but still he didn't want to give anything away. The fact that telepaths could be used against the Shadows might be the only lever they were ever going to have when the shooting started. Too many people's lives depended on him not throwing that away.

   He gave a mental shrug. All of it was idle speculation. Maybe there was nothing he could tell her that she didn't know already. Maybe the Shadows already knew what he knew. Maybe Anna was telepathic now. Carolyn Sanderson had been a teep. Anna wasn't, or she hadn't been. He had no idea if or when the Shadows would be in contact with her. Maybe never. Maybe on a daily basis. Maybe there were a couple of them on board. He'd had Michael conduct every conceivable kind of scan so it was unlikely, but he still shivered at the thought. Too many 'maybes'.

   He fingered the arms of his chair nervously, sneaking a cautious glance at her, his heart somewhere down around his boots.

   A part of him would always love her; they had been through too much together for him to deny it. But right now the love he still felt for her was being pushed aside by a terrifying blend of fear, curiosity, anger, sorrow, and guilt: fear that she would somehow discover his plans for Z'ha'dum; curiosity over what had really happened during their separation; a blazing anger that the Shadows were responsible for it; sorrow for what she had suffered, and a terrible guilt over the depth of feeling he had for Delenn.

   He wasn't sure he could keep all of that buried for the next six days.

   He busied himself at the targeting and navigation consoles, setting as many alerts as he could think of. This was a big ship to be crewing alone. If there was a problem he was going to need to know about it.

   When he'd finished he looked at her closely, watching as she studied the patterns of hyperspace. Hesitantly he moved up to stand beside her and his gaze too was drawn to the view outside.

   'You were thinking about them,' Anna said.

    It seemed to be more of an observation than an accusation, and that's the way he took it. He shook his head. 'No, I wasn't. I was just thinking about the view. It's pretty hypnotic.'

   Anna's face broke into a radiant smile. He hadn't intended to refer to the night they were now both remembering; the night they'd first met, at Lizzie's connivance. He hadn't thought about that night in years, but the words had just come out. She laughed. It was a light musical laugh, just the way he remembered, and he felt his heart-beat quicken.

   'That was the lamest line I had ever heard!'

   The familiar pattern of her speech touched him with a power that was almost sufficient to erase the missing years. He forced himself to relax. He had to treat her like his wife, the love of his life. If he couldn't do that she'd see through him and the game would be up.

   'Lizzie was breathing fire down my neck. I had to say something...'

   'You'd barely noticed me all evening, and then you came out with that one!'

   He smiled. 'I wouldn't say I hadn't noticed. In that dress? I may have been dumb, but I wasn't blind.'

   She produced a look that almost reached out and poked him in the ribs for teasing her.

   He cast his mind back to that first meeting, remembering how he'd told Lizzie and his parents that Anna was pleasant enough, but that there hadn't been any 'spark'.

   It was how he felt right now, but the time in between their first meeting and their last -- well, that was another story. The fire had taken a while to kindle, but it had glowed brighter with each moment that passed once it had been lit.

   'I was a little slow to see what was right in front of me, that's all,' he told her. 'It wasn't as if I didn't have other things on my mind at the time.'

   'Like saving the World?' She was laughing again, but he saw a sadness in her eyes that told him she remembered how it had really been.

   'Yeah, something like that,' he agreed.

   It had indeed been a frantic time, and his mind had been on things much darker and entirely more frightening than romance. With the Human race on the brink of extinction, falling in love hadn't been at the top of his 'to do' list, and his personal feelings, as always, had been sidelined in the name of duty. But there had been something there, something that told him she was worth coming home to and spending the rest of his life with. He'd never quite figured out what it was, but it felt real enough, and after the desperate days of the war he'd learned that you didn't question these things, you reached out and grabbed for them with both hands.

   'It all seems like a lifetime ago, doesn't it?' she said.

   The eyes that had seemed so dead to him a moment ago sparkled back into life, and there was a sadness there that touched him.

   There was a pause, and a definite change in the atmosphere. 'Yes, it does,' he said. 'Two lifetimes.'

   Slowly, hesitantly, he moved up behind her, placed his hands on her shoulders and rested his chin on the top of her head. It felt strange, and for a moment he couldn't figure out why.

   No bone-crest.

   He could feel the tension in his neck muscles, and he had to force himself not to pull away from her. Taking a deep breath he said, 'We haven't really taken the time to say hello properly yet, have we?'

   She moved her head slightly to look up at him, and she gave him the kind of welcoming smile that, five years earlier, would have had him lifting her off her feet into his arms.

   'No,' she said, turning into him. 'No, we haven't, and I say it's well overdue, wouldn't you?'

   'Didya miss me?' he asked, with a sad sort of laugh in his voice. It was an old opening gambit, delivered as always, but for no reason, in his best John Wayne accent. His brain had flipped onto automatic, and he cringed inside as he said it, but at least it gave him time to pause and think, to rein himself in, before he did something really stupid.

   'Absofraggin'relentlessly, pilgrim,' she said.

   He closed his eyes, and took in a breath that brought her perfume with it. It was exactly the response he'd expected, and afterwards he'd look back and recognise that moment and swear that that was when he began to feel his heart breaking all over again.

   She looked like Anna, she talked like Anna, she walked and smiled and laughed like Anna, but just how much was Anna. Half of the time he didn't want to know, the other half he thought of little else. For two whole years after she'd gone he'd thought about her every day. For two years she had been the first thing he thought of on waking, and the last thing on his mind before he fell asleep. Most of the time her image was the only thing that had filled the space in between. He'd lost her, and now she was back.

   And yet, she wasn't.

   Six days of this and he'd go nuts.

   He didn't really believe that there could be anything of her left inside this body that looked so much like hers, but if there was even the smallest chance...he owed her that much.

   He had to know.

   He bent his head towards her, so close that he could feel her breath warm on his cheek. He'd done this in his dreams so many times, it was hard to believe it was real. Perhaps it wasn't real, even now. But...perhaps...it was. He kissed her lightly, instantly remembering how good it felt, and pulled away again, afraid that she'd kiss him right back.

   'Hello,' he said, stupidly.

   Anna gave him a smile and a look that drifted dangerously close to a place he wasn't quite ready to go yet.

   'Your definition of "saying hello properly" has changed quite a bit since I last saw you, soldier,' she said.

   He stood back a pace or two, resting one fist inside the other in the at-ease position and straightening up, noticing her grin as he did so. She'd always called it the "buns-in, chest-out manoeuvre", and remembering that brought a sad smile to his lips.

   'Just give me some time, huh?'

   She smiled again, but this time it was a little forced. 'We've got, what, six days before we get there? That should be plenty of time.'

   ************************************

    The ship feels strange. It's part Vorlon, part Minbari technology. At least that's what he's told you. It certainly feels dangerous, or if not dangerous then 'other'. Different. Opposite from what you're used to.

   John looks a little older, but only a little, and you wonder how much he's changed. Five years is a long time, even if it only seems like five minutes to you. There are barriers between you that were never there before. But this is John. Your John. The barriers he's putting up will fall away. You can feel it. You're his wife. You know these things. You know him better than he knows himself.

   He's just having a hard time. He never did like change. And he's missing his crew. That loyalty, that special belief he has in people, it's one of the reasons you fell in love with him.

   You wish he didn't look so worried, though. He'll be back. The Shadows will persuade him, and he'll let them use Babylon 5 as a base of operations. He's not an idiot, and their arguments are compelling. Growth through strength; it will appeal to the soldier in him. He'll come round.

   By the time this journey is over, Delenn will be a memory. At some point he'll take you in his arms and let you help him to forget she ever existed.

   At least, you hope so. You really do hope so.

   ************************************

   It was getting late, and the question of the sleeping arrangements still hadn't been broached.

   John pressed his palms flat against his pants to blot up the sweat, wondering at the depth of his anxiety with a sort of curious detachment. He felt like the rookie commander he'd been the last time he'd seen her, and admonished himself for over-reacting. They were adults. There was no reason to be so scared about it. Maybe she'd assume that they'd be in separate quarters anyway.

   She smiled at him.

   Maybe little green men lived on Mars.

   The situation seemed so ridiculous he almost laughed out loud. When they'd started dating, when he'd come home after the War and realised how much he'd missed her, sex was something they both wanted to get on to and out of the way; something they needed and desperately wanted because they knew it would help them to move past the horrors of the fighting, into a relationship they could build on. In those early weeks and months the physical side of their relationship had certainly been enjoyable but not that important. Afterwards, in a life dominated by long periods of separation it had been elemental. They didn't get the little moments of affection that most couples shared as a part of their daily lives, everything had to be crammed in at once. Naturally, when they met again after months apart there was usually a lot of...cramming.

   He remembered Lizzie picking them up from the spaceport on Proxima Three once and jokingly telling them that the supply routes were open again now and there was plenty of food to go round--they didn't need to eat each other.

   He risked another glance at her. She was still smiling and the look on her face told him she was thinking along exactly the same lines that he was.

   He leaned his head back against his chair and closed his eyes for a moment, trying to calm down. Trying to forget. This was crazy. He breathed in, deeply, waiting until the thumping in his chest had slowed to normal rate. Better.

   'It's getting late,' he said. 'If you want to go to bed...'

   She stepped up beside him, resting her hand lightly on his knee. 'I thought you'd never ask.'

   He actually squirmed back into the chair, and the expression his reflex action had put on her face made him feel horrible. Trying to make amends, he squeezed her hand as he stood up. 'C'mon, let's get you settled in.'

   He led her down to the Captain's quarters, showing her the galley, and the med-bay on the way, all the while talking to her. Eventually, she caught his arm; forcing him to take a break from the impromptu sightseeing tour of the vessel he was giving her.

   'Have you slipped some stims while I wasn't looking?'

   'No! Why?'

   'Oh, I don't know, could be something to do with the fact that haven't let me get a word in edge-wise for the last ten minutes. Why're you so hyped, hon?'

   'I'm not! I'm fine! Look your quarters are just here, second door on the left, next to the communal rest area. It's the best room in the house. You make yourself comfortable, and I'll go fetch your gear and the rest of the supplies. Okay?'

   'I'll help.'

   'No, no no. There's no need. I'll just be a few minutes.'

   He was already striding off towards the docking bay, and hadn't gone more than a few yards when he heard her laughing. The beds. Everyone laughed at the beds.

   It didn't take long to fetch her bag, and the carton of goodies that Michael had packed for him, from the shuttle. He left his own gear behind, reasoning that it would give him another excuse to run away if he found he needed one.

   He turned through the door to the Captain's quarters with a gait that he hoped at least looked like he was oozing with confidence. He dropped her bag on the floor and dumped the goody-box on the nearby desk. She wasn't there. So much for the false show of confidence.

   He poked his head back into the corridor as she stepped out of the crew quarters and came to join him.

   Looking over her shoulder she asked, 'Are those beds for real?'

   'Yeah, they're for real.'

   'And that is the general sleeping quarters, not some sort of creepy torture chamber.'

   He rewarded her with a sardonic raise of an eyebrow as she walked forward to join him and then stepped through into the captain's quarters.

   She pointed at the slanted contraption in the bedroom and grinned at him. 'It's the same in here. You're going to have to hold on to me all night to keep me from falling off! How does anyone get a decent night's sleep on one of these things?'

   Somehow, he managed to keep his voice level. 'Beats me,' he said, 'but the Minbari seem to cope well enough. They believe that sleeping in the horizontal is bad for your health, fatal in fact. Hence the angle.'

   'Must make for a few interesting wedding-night stories,' she said, laughing.

   'Probably.'

   He began to examine the mechanism at the head of the bed, giving himself something practical to think of, something that wasn't quite so distracting as his memories of their wedding night.

   'They can be adjusted...so they tell me.'

   'Well, just try not to break anything, hon.'

   She smiled a smile that told him that she was well aware of what she'd just said. Another memory. A Christmas memory from before they were married. A story that started with him putting up some decorations and dressing an innocent tree, and ended with a box of broken baubles, a heap of tangled tinsel, one broken plastic angel, and a very wet Golden Labrador called Bonny licking him stupid in the midst of all the chaos. Anna's father had been most impressed.

   He gave her a look and pulled on a small lever between the bed and the wall. The mattress clicked up notch by notch until it was flat.

   'There, that should do it!' he said, satisfied that he'd solved the problem.

   He felt her fingers soft and light against his back, and couldn't find the strength to turn and face her.

   'It's a pity though,' she said, circling his waist with her arms, 'I was looking forward to the holding on part.'

   There was a moment of terrible silence as her open invitation hung in the air. He tried to respond, but his voice dried up. How was he supposed to tell her he'd missed her to the point of insanity, but that the very thought of making love to her, as she was, even just holding her again, was making him so tense he was about to throw up?

   She slid her way round him and looked up at him through half-closed eyes, her expression of undisguised need one he recognised from long ago.

   He gazed at her through the eyes of the man he'd been five years ago, and he wanted her so badly he thought his heart was going to burst out of his chest. But he couldn't do it. He wouldn't do it. If he took her now that's exactly what he'd be doing, taking. He wanted to do violence to something, there was no question about that, but not to her. Never to her.

   She reached up on her toes, surprising him with a kiss, and almost caught him off balance. He used his shifting body weight to move away from her slightly, but she followed him round and her soft sweet lips found his mouth again. The tiniest of strangled moans caught in his throat and he was filled with panic, hoping she wouldn't take it as a sign of encouragement. It wasn't lust in his voice, it was despair. This wasn't right. It was far from being right. He was only human, for crying out loud, but not like this, not with so much still to be worked out between them. He couldn't do this. He wouldn't. He broke away.

   'Anna...'

   She didn't wait for him to finish. Instead, she clasped her hands behind her back and twisted away from him, making a show of looking around.

   'This is all very Minbari. It's hard to picture you working so closely with them. They're such a spiritual race. Formidable, of course, but so naïve in so many respects, and completely subservient to the Vorlons...'

   She went on, but he couldn't hear her any more. Anna was standing there in front of him within tasting distance. He took a step towards her and then stopped, every muscle in his legs straining with the effort. More and more, he had to keep reminding himself that the real Anna, the Anna he'd grieved for, the Anna he still missed, no longer existed in any way, shape or form.

   Or did she?

   The more he saw of her, the more he heard, the less he knew for sure. So he kept on repeating to himself that she was gone, that this...thing...wasn't his wife, because he knew that if he didn't then he was lost.

   But his heart didn't want to listen.

   The memories of how passionate their reunions had been in the past washed over him like a tidal wave. His stomach turned a zero-g somersault, a physical reminder of the way he used to feel when he was counting the minutes until she'd walk back through the door, with tales of her latest mission on her lips and love in her eyes. She'd had that same look on her face just now and it was tearing him in two.

   She raised her hand to caress his cheek, tucking a stray lock of hair behind his ear, her expression one of infinite tenderness. Just as he remembered.

   'I love you, John Sheridan,' she said, kissing him gently. 'I always have, and no matter what, I always will.'

   He saw the unspoken question in her eyes, and his heart melted but he left it unanswered. He gave it his best shot and tried to smile but when it came it was weak and painful. 'I know.'

   The bed he had so carefully adjusted creaked slowly back to its original position, as if to remind him that there were some problems that weren't as easy to solve as they might seem.

   ************************************

   'Captain John J Sheridan. Personal log, December 26th 2260...'

   John wasn't quite sure why he was recording a log at all but it stopped him from brooding and old habits, not to mention Earthforce regulations, died hard. And maybe, he reasoned, if he could talk things through, even if he was only speaking into a recorder, it would help.

   'It's just over 24 hours since we left the Station. The White Star's proving easy to handle, easier than I thought at first.' He cleared his throat and smiled ruefully, adding, 'Which is more than I can say for Anna.'

   'I have to admit it's...ah...rougher than I expected. A lot rougher. Back on the Station, when Stephen showed me those read-outs, I thought I knew. But now? I look at her, and all I can see is the past, and it's scaring the crap out of me.'

   He paused to collect his thoughts, and there were tears in his eyes as he looked back to face the monitor that was recording a message no-one would ever see.

   'We don't know anything for sure. Maybe they did use her in one of their ships, but what does that mean? Maybe she was pulled out before there was any permanent damage. When I look at her sometimes…the things she says, the way she says them…there has to be something, some tiny part of her that…I don't know. She hasn't given me any reason to doubt her. Not yet. The only thing that doesn't ring true is that she's helping the Shadows. But what do I know? What do any of us know, apart from what Kosh and Delenn have chosen to tell us? Maybe the Shadows aren't evil incarnate after all. Is what they're doing that far removed from what the Minbari almost did to Earth during the War? From what the Centauri have tried to do to the Narn? From what Clark would do to our own people if he thought he could get away with it? Maybe Anna has a good reason to trust the Shadows. Who the Hell am I to say it's not so?'

   Even as he said it he could hear in his own voice the sound of a man trying to convince himself. But he wanted to believe it. He wanted so badly to believe it.

   ************************************

   You pace slowly around the quarters he's assigned to you but refuses to share with you. Sleep didn't come easily; in fact it hardly came at all, and you're tired now as well as angry and frustrated. He's treating you like an unwelcome guest, like a half-forgotten relative who invites herself over at Thanksgiving and eats you out of house and home. You know you deserve a lot better than that. You should demand it. You should go to him and force him to talk to you.

    You're half way out of the door before you stop. You can't do it. Not like this. Not until you've calmed down.

   You stand for a while and then sit down on the sofa. The furnishings are soft and comfortable, everything is in pastel shades, and it feels airy. It's certainly very different from any other ship you've been on, and its delicate lines are a far cry from the 'gropo-proof' interiors of the Earthforce ships you've seen. You feel cold though, and rub your upper arms to stave off the chill. There's something in the atmosphere that's giving you the creeps. Vorlon tech.

   This ship will never be part of you, will never speak to you, or hold you and sing to you in the night.

   You wonder where that thought came from and you shiver, feeling miserable and alone. You reach into your bag for a sweatshirt you borrowed from John's quarters on the Station. You hadn't meant to take it without asking first, but you'd needed it. The suit your associates had provided had been smart and business-like, but it wasn't very comfortable. John wouldn't mind. Anyway, you were always borrowing his shirts and jumpers. They swamped you, but he always said they made you look sexy.

   The thought reminds you of the look on his face when you'd kissed him earlier. He hadn't thought you were sexy then, not if that crooked smile on his face had been anything to go by.

   He doesn't trust you anymore. He doesn't love you anymore. He loves her. She's twisting him around her little finger, toying with him. Lying to him. Using him. Why can't he see that? How could he do this to you?

   The tears come again but you wipe them away. Crying isn't going to solve anything, and you'll be damned if you'll let him see how upset you are. You haven't done anything wrong. None of this is your fault.

   You'll get through to him. You'll make him understand. Morden said that it might take time for him to adjust. It's only to be expected. It's a shock that's all, having you back.

   You start to go through the box of crystals and vids that he left behind for you. Methodically, you begin to sort them out, not because you're especially interested but because it gives you something to do, something you can think about that doesn't involve Delenn.

   Gradually, the image of her standing there in his quarters, dressed in his bathrobe, fades from your mind and you can smile again. She was just a distraction. You're back now. It's all going to work out.

   He does love you. He's scared that's all. You can bring him round. You have to. Your associates need him. You need him too.

   As you dig deeper into the box you find a bottle of whisky packed away in a hand-towel at the bottom. It makes you smile. You need to find out what's going on inside his head. Maybe this will help. He needs to relax. A couple of slugs of this stuff, and he'll start talking. Mind you, with a brand name like 'Fury Juice' after a couple of slugs he may not be able to talk at all.

   You weigh the bottle carefully in your hand and then search out some glasses. It's time to see if the Captain wants some refreshment. Drinking on the bridge is strictly against the regs.

   You smile.

   So is screwing in a Starfury.

   John can bend the rules with the best of them when it suits him.

   ************************************

   He checked then re-checked everything down to the life-support system, environment controls, and the proximity alarms. It took him all of ten minutes.

   He sat down heavily in the command-chair.

   Hyperspace was still there.

   For a moment he considered jumping back into normal space, just for a change of scenery, but it would slow them down, and he suspected their progress was being tracked. If they deviated off course it might set a few Shadow alarm bells ringing. That, he could do without.

   Out of boredom rather than need he called up a few files from the ship's log, passing them through the translator. There wasn't much of interest, and he flicked through them in fast-forward mode, until he saw some images which caused him to stop and rewind.

   He let the recording play through at normal speed, and with each passing frame he grew more uncomfortable. He felt as though he was spying on her. It was so good to see her face again though, even if it was just a recording, and even if she was just doing the things he'd seen her do a hundred times; giving orders, moving from station to station, a touch of a shoulder here, a re-assuring smile there.

   He felt the now familiar lump build in his gullet and tried to swallow it away. He missed her so much. She'd know what to do. She'd know what to say. She'd find a way to help him get through this.

   Unaware, the Delenn on the other side of the screen looked straight ahead. She smiled past him and then at him. She was reacting to something one of her Rangers had said, no doubt, but he couldn't help feeling that the smile was meant for him.

   He told himself to stop torturing himself. He'd made his choices. Now he had to deal with them.

   The touch of her hand sent him six inches in the air.

   His heart-rate went through the roof. 'Nngh! Don't do that! You almost gave me a coronary!'

   Frantically he jabbed at the control that would switch off the player, and Delenn's image blinked out.

   Anna smiled at his cartoon-like response. She held up the bottle, saying, 'I found this. Want some? I thought it might help.'

   John was genuinely surprised, and his astonishment at her find initially overtook his awkward embarrassment. Then his blood ran cold. 'Where did you find that?'

   'In the box you left.' She stepped around him and set the two glasses down at the control console to his left. 'Did you forget you'd put it in there?'

   'I wasn't talking about the Scotch.'

   The tone of his voice put her back on the defensive.

   'Then what?'

   He didn't say anything, he couldn't say anything, he just glared at her sweatshirt, at the words 'EAS Galatea Buccaneers'. He wasn't seeing it though: he was seeing Lizzie, aged sixteen, one hand covering her left eye, saying 'If you're a pirate, then where are your Buccaneers', and himself replying 'under my Buccanhat'; he was seeing Anna's face as she corralled him into the shower after the 'Bucks' first win; he was seeing the faces of the rest of the team, two of them dead now, at his own hand, both of them gunnery sergeants on the EAS Roanoake; he was seeing the curve of Anna's naked back as she leaned over the edge of their bed to pick the shirt up off the floor, the last time they'd been together.

   She couldn't have hurt him more if she'd knifed him.

   'I'm sorry, I need something to wear, and I borrowed it. I didn't think you'd mind. I was cold earlier, and this is warm, and comfortable.'

   Then she shrugged, as though that explained everything.

   His jaws were clenched so tightly that there was a very real danger he would break some teeth. He glared at her, wondering if the hatred was coming through as loud and clear as he felt it. She was manipulating him.

   She grasped hold of the hem of the shirt and began to fiddle with it, nervously. 'I'm sorry, babe,' she said, backing away. 'It's upsetting you. I'll change.'

   He took a breath, then several more in rapid succession, and warned himself again to get a better grip on his emotions. It was pretty clear she was upset. She hadn't done it to wind him up. He was reacting to her as a Shadow-thrall, not as his wife. He couldn't afford that.

   'No,' he said, forcing himself to soften his voice and his demeanour even though it was the last thing he wanted to do. 'It's okay. Leave it on. It's just...you wore it...you were cold afterwards...it was the last time...before the Icarus.'

   'That's why you still have it, isn't it?' she whispered.

   He couldn't answer her.

   She ducked her head and stepped round him, almost as though she was afraid of him. Maybe she was. His heart sank, all the anger bleeding out of his system. Whatever those bastards had done to her, whatever plans they had for him, Anna was innocent in this.

   As she passed him he reached out to her and she stopped, but this time there was no flippant remark, and she didn't look at him.

   Hesitantly, he fingered her sleeve, and counted out five or six heartbeats before he could speak. 'It must've been rough,' he said at last. 'On the Icarus, I mean.'

   She nodded and he noticed her eyes cloud over for a second. 'It wasn't something I'd want to go through again,' she said.

   'I'll bet.' His voice was so low he was surprised she even heard him.

   'I did try to get a message out to you.'

   He shook his head. 'Must've been lost in the mail.'

   He pressed his lips tightly together as he concentrated on the fabric of the shirt beneath his fingers, and his voice was ragged as he told her, 'If I had known, I would have come for you. I'd've taken on the entire Shadow fleet in an EVA suit with a sharp stick in my hand if I'd had to.'

   'I believe you.'

   His stomach turned over, and he realised just how scared he was, not of her, but of the way she was making him feel. 'What happened?' he asked, lifting his gaze up from her arm. 'I need to know, Anna.'

   'I told you. The ship went down, we were lost, no communications, no power...nothing. If it hadn't been for the aliens I'd be dead. They looked after us, John.'

   John felt the anger bubble back again, rising in the heat that spread upwards from his chest into his throat. She was focussing over his left shoulder. She couldn't look at him. She always had been lousy at keeping things from him, and that's what she was doing now.

   'They looked after you. Everyone else who ever went near Z'ha'dum got blown out of the sky. As far as we know, no one who's gone there ever lived to tell the tale. What was so special about the Icarus, huh?'

   She shrugged. 'I don't know. They're an ancient race, John. Don't expect me to be able to understand their motivations. Maybe they figured it was time to find out who we were. They're just as curious about us as we are about them, and they can do so much for us! Their technology is light-years ahead of ours, and they're willing to share it with us.'

   'For a price!'

   'No! They just want to help us. Anyhow, does it matter why they did what they did for the Icarus? I survived!' She gave him a brilliant smile, took his hand and squeezed it hard. 'See? I'm here aren't I?'

   Well, that was the question wasn't it?

   'And you still haven't explained how...or why. Why now?'

   'I've tried to explain but you won't listen to me! When we found them they weren't ready to show themselves. They felt vulnerable and they knew the Vorlons were better prepared. They wanted to gather their forces, to protect themselves from those who wanted to destroy them. They've seen what you've done, John, they're so impressed with you, and they know you can help them.'

   It was a well-rehearsed speech, and he knew it. 'When Hell freezes over!'

   'Just give them a chance. Let them tell you their side of the story. And don't shoot me all right? I'm just the messenger! Or is it easier for you to punish me for something I didn't even know I'd done than to face the truth?'

   When he didn't respond her bitter smile disappeared and her expression hardened. She dropped his hand.

   'You certainly don't seem to be very pleased to have me around. I don't understand why you're like this. I thought you'd be happy to see me. When they sent me to get you I was beside myself. I was ecstatic. I know it's been a while, and I'm trying to give you some space here, but for God's sake, John, I'm your wife!'

   'A while?' He grabbed her by the elbows and forced her roughly round to face him. 'You don't get it, do you? It's been five years!'

   'I told you,' she said. 'Time doesn't work the same way there.'

   His grip tightened.

   'So you said, but I don't buy it. I don't believe that there was nothing you could do! You keep saying how powerful the Shadows are. You could have done something. You could have worked something out. Morden showed up on the Station, for God's sake! How come he could get out and not you, mmm?' '

   He choked the words out, his voice as rough as his emotions. He wanted to push her, make her admit the fact that she was lying, that none of this was real.

   'Morden?'

   'Yes, Morden. We had quite a chat, me and your crewmate Mister Morden. Oh yeah, we talked for a long time.'

   'What did he tell you?'

   'Zip, apart from a pile of bullshit so high we could fertilize the known Universe with it. But let's not get distracted here, we were talking about you!'

   She reached up to rake her fingers through his hair, letting her hand rest at the nape of his neck, and tried to look into his eyes, but he kept glancing away.

   'I didn't mean to hurt you,' she whispered. 'I never meant to hurt you.'

   He was too scared to meet her gaze in case he saw the glimmer in her eyes that told him she was his Anna, and that he was wrong. He couldn't afford to let himself find it because he was terrified of what he might do or say if he did.

   'There was nothing I could do,' she said. 'I'm sorry, babe.'

   He wrenched his head away from her. 'Me too.'

   'What's wrong? Why are you being like this?'

   'Like what?'

   'Do you love her?'

   He rocked on his heels. 'What?'

   'You heard me.'

   She cocked her head and gave him that 'don't-try-worming-your-way-out-of-this-one-mister' look she did so well.

   'You don't want to be anywhere near me. You're distracted. You're angry. You don't believe anything I say. The signs are pretty obvious, and the look on your face when I walked in here gave you away. I don't blame you. I can even handle the fact that you've been screwing her. At least I think I can. I just…need to hear you admit it.'

   He looked at his feet for a moment, and then slowly raised his eyes to meet her glance. This wasn't Anna. She had no business asking him, and he didn't have to answer, but his mouth opened and the words tumbled out anyway.

   'You're wrong. Dead wrong.'

   'Really. So what was she doing in your quarters at three in the morning?'

   'Anna, I'm sorry that you found out about Delenn the way that you did, but what you saw...well, it wasn't how it looked. And even if you were right, this is not about her. This is about us.'

   He was so wound up now he felt like a bomb ticking away to countdown, and either she didn't realise it or she didn't care, but the next words out of her mouth lit the fuse.

   'I think I have a right to know.'

   His head snapped up and he glared at her, eyes blazing. 'Don't you dare talk to me about rights! Five years ago you had rights!'

   'We made vows, John...'

   'Yeah, lots of them. I remember,' he said, pushing her away from him. 'Till death us do part. You died! We parted! I remember that too. I was there at the funeral. I remember. I spent two years in purgatory, hating myself for letting you leave me, for forgetting to tell you I loved you. I dreamed about you every night, and I missed you every single moment of every single day. For two years I kept your memory in my heart and everyone else at arms length. Everyone. And all that time, when I was in Hell, where were you?

   'Time's a great healer, that's what everybody told me. Well it wasn't, dammit! And...just when I thought I'd made it, begun to make peace with myself and find out what it was like to live again…you cannot just walk back into my life and act as though you've never been away. Do you have any idea what this is doing to me?'

   He took in several breaths, sucking the air deep into his lungs, and she took advantage of the break to get in a few words of her own.

   'Do you have any idea what it did to me to find another woman in your quarters when I arrived? Don't tell me the two of you weren't screwing, John, at least do me the courtesy and have the guts to tell me the truth!'

   'All right, I slept with her!'

   He stopped, waiting to see the reaction on her face, and almost admitting to himself that he enjoyed it when it came. 'Notice the verb there--slept. It's a little hard to believe I know, and if you really want the truth then yes, I wanted her to make love to me. Badly. I'd had a belly full of death and destruction--thanks to your friends the Shadows--and I wanted to feel human again. Is that so hard to understand? There was no-one else I could turn to, Anna. I thought you were dead!'

   'Because it's what she told you. It's what she wanted you to believe. It's what the Vorlons wanted you to believe. Don't you see that? She's been using you! They all have!'

   'Everyone but you and your friends the Shadows, huh?'

   'Yes!'

   'Yeah, right!' His inner voice was screaming at him to hold his peace, but it was so damned hard.

   They stood glaring at each other, each one mentally daring the other to take this further than it had already gone.

   'John, I know you're hurting, and I'm sorry for that, but I still love you. I don't blame you for turning to someone else, even to her, but I'm back now. We can work our way through this.'

   'It's too late for that!'

   'Tell me you don't love me.'

   He shook his head. 'Don't do this to me, Anna.'

   'Say it!'

   He didn't answer her immediately, and then he said, 'You always said that actions speak louder than words. Well, I'm here aren't I? I'm here because you asked me to go back with you to Z'ha'dum. I left Delenn behind on Babylon 5 and I'm taking the biggest risk of my life for you! Doesn't that mean anything? Isn't that enough? It should be enough, goddammit!'

   'John...I'

   There were tears in her voice and he couldn't take any more. 'Enough! Please!'

   The vehemence of his tone cut through the air and for a few moments there was only silence, followed by the mutter of Anna's protestations muted by the roaring sound of fury in his head.

   He stormed out of the door, telling himself he didn't care.

   It wasn't Anna he'd been screaming at, it was her shadow. He couldn't hurt Anna anymore, and she couldn't hurt him. The hurting was over, for both of them. Anna didn't exist. He couldn't hurt her. She was already dead. Maybe he was too.

   But then again, dead men didn't cry.

   ************************************

   You try to sleep, but it won't come, and anyway part of you is relieved, because when you sleep you know you'll only dream, and then you'll wake up and have to live on in this nightmare.

   This is useless. You can't go on like this, you won't. You have to talk to him. You have to.

   You find him standing behind the navigation console on the command deck. It doesn't seem as though he's doing much, but his brow is creased in concentration. It's a look you recognise all too well. His head shifts slightly as you approach, and you know he's studying you, furtively.

   Your hesitant apologies cross and are lost in an atmosphere of awkwardness. You recover first, moving over to stand beside the command chair in the centre of the room. 'Will it bother you if I sit here?' you ask.

   His body language gives him away but he gestures for you to sit down. 'Make yourself at home.'

   You perch on the edge of the seat, refusing to allow the sarcastic comment that's on your lips to escape. There's no way your going to feel at home. Not on this ship.

   'Can we talk?'

   John's mouth twitches, but he can't quite smile. 'Without yelling at each other you mean?'

   'It didn't used to be a problem.'

   He sighs and finally looks up at you. His anger's gone now. He never did stay angry for long. Oh he'd go off like a volcano when he did get mad, but he was too well grounded to ever let it get to him so badly he couldn't get over it.

   'Anna, I'm sorry I yelled at you, but the truth is…I am so screwed up over this I don't know which way is up any more. It's wrong of me to take it out on you. I know that, and I am truly sorry, but don't expect me to be able just to slide back into our relationship as though nothing has happened. I can't. It has.'

   You're shaking, but you manage to hold on. 'You've made that pretty clear.'

   'Let's not do this, okay?'

   'Okay. If that's what you want.'

   He takes his own sweet time in answering you. 'It's not what I want. But I can't deal with what I want. Not right now. Can we just leave it at that, huh?'

   'We're going to have to deal with this sometime, babe.'

   'I know. Just...not right now.'

   You sigh. 'You'd rather face down an enemy fleet than talk about this, wouldn't you? But you can't run away forever. We need to deal.'

   'Leave it? Please?'

   You get up and move to stand opposite him. You won't let him do this. He pretends you haven't moved, and continues to busy himself at the controls. So you try again.

   'I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said those things...about her.'

   He glances at you, but doesn't move his head to do it. 'She has a name.'

   'Yes,' you say, getting pissed at him again. 'I know. And believe me, when I saw her there in your quarters I invented a few more for her too.'

   'I thought we'd decided we weren't having this conversation.'

   'No. You decided. I'm not one of your crew John, you can't just dismiss me. I'm your wife, whether you like it or not, and we need to talk.'

   'Not right now.'

   You lean across the control board and grab the sleeve of his jacket, taking no small satisfaction from the surprise on his face. 'Yes right now!'

   He stares at you, blinks hard a few times and then picks up the whisky bottle and the glasses in one hand, and grabs you by the elbow with the other.

   'You want to talk? Hmm? Then we'll talk. But there's something I want to show you first. Come on.'

   He propels you down the corridors back to your quarters, saying nothing, just seething in silence.

   He rummages through the carton that you found earlier, and pulls out a data crystal from a box labelled Brakiri/Gaim. He shakes it at you and tells you this will explain everything.

   You sit down on the sofa, and wait as he sets up the viewer. Then he comes to sit down beside you, his brow furrowed, and his eyes stormy.

   'These are your friends, Anna. This is what they do when they're not on their home-world.'

   He grabs a handful of his shirt and clenches his fist into it, and his eyes bore into you, shining with a fervour that frightens you. 'You want to know where all this anger is coming from, huh? When you've seen the things I've seen, you'll understand.'

   He rests his long legs on the low table in front of you, his heels banging onto the glass top. He pours himself a large measure of the whisky. He doesn't pour one for you, just leaves the top off the bottle for you to help yourself. You do, and the initial burn as the first gulp goes down is hardly noticeable. Instead, your attention is grabbed by the first shots of a Shadow ship striking down its enemy bursting onto the screen.

   You recognise it immediately. The ship. So beautiful it takes your breath away. John would love it. It would give him the kind of flight he's only ever imagined in those dreams he used to have of soaring with the eagles. Mesmerised, you reach out, and walk over to the console, touching the screen, trying to contact it.

   The glass that was in your hand shatters as it hits the floor, and from somewhere far away you can hear John's voice calling out to you. There's real fear there, and you can sense his pain and his sadness, but you don't want him to be sad. You want him to feel good, and oh, you want to hold him but you can't move, all you can feel is the machine, the magnificent machine, crying for you.

   And then his voice pulls you back and you feel like the rope in an insane game of tug-of-war; the ship on one side, John on the other, yelling your name so loudly that's all you can hear and he is all you can feel.

   Then it comes.

   A tiny, forgotten part of you flares like a beacon in response to John's steadfast embrace. You know it won't last, it will slip away again, but it's stronger this time and you know for sure now that it's there: the part of yourself that you can never quite reach, the part you so desperately want to share with him; the part you can't always find and he can't see.

   You open your mouth to scream his name, to beg for him to help you, but the words won't come. The machine drags you back, luring you in, and you want it but you can feel John's arms tighten around you, holding you, and he gives you the strength to struggle against it. You fight it for a moment, both of you together, but it's too strong, the machine won't let you go. You begin to hear its comforting lullaby for what it really is. A shriek cuts into your brain like a laser-saw through metal and yanks you back towards it like a dog on a leash being brought to heel.

   You try to get away, but you know you'll fail. You can't fight the machine.

   Then everything fades to black and you fall into a deep well of emptiness.

   John's gone.

   The machine's gone.

   It's just you now.

   Then you fade away too.

   ************************************

   Anna shivered in her sleep and he got up as quietly as he could to retrieve another blanket. Laying it carefully over her he looked down at her face. Maybe the Minbari were right after all. Maybe your sleeping face really was your true face, and if it was then Anna's true face was...beautiful.

   'What have they done to you?' he asked her unconscious form. 'Of all the places...why did you have to go to Z'ha'dum?'

   He shook his head. He knew. When it came to her profession she was as determined as he was. "You're as ornery as a starving dog with a gnarly old bone when you set your mind to something, and so is Anna," his Dad had once said, "but don't let your careers blind you to what really matters, because one day you'll wake up and that's all you'll have. Trust me son, your job won't keep you warm on a cold night."

   They'd both done what they had to do at the time, and now they were both paying the price. He had to accept that, and he did, but he couldn't figure out why the price always seemed so much higher than the 'crime'. She'd just been doing her job. She didn't deserve this.

   He sat watch over her for another hour, remembering the past, raking through all the silly trivial things he'd half forgotten that made it all so real and so painful. Most of all he remembered the way she could hold him in her arms and make the world go away when he needed to shut out its barbarism for a few hours.

   He had missed her so much.

   Gently, he placed her hand back across her stomach, and got to his feet. He was worried that the sound of his erratic breathing was going to wake her, and as much as he wanted her to wake up, he knew he wouldn't be able to take what he saw in her eyes when she did, not when he was in this state.

   As he got up he felt something in his pocket rustle against his leg. It was the forgotten slip of paper that Michael had palmed him when they'd come aboard. Walking out of the Med-bay, into the harsher light of the corridor, he took the note out and unfolded it.

   Through watery eyes he read : "May a very large baseball bat, three feet of beryllium alloy and a king-sized nuke stand between you and harm in all the empty places you must walk. See you on the flip side. M."

   He leaned back against the bulkhead, breathing deeply in an effort to bring himself back under control as his white-knuckled fist clenched around the piece of paper. Under normal circumstances it would have made him smile, but not today.

   'There isn't a nuke big enough to do the damage I need to do to them, Michael,' he whispered to himself as he tossed the note angrily down the corridor, 'and it doesn't get any emptier than this.'

   He sank slowly down the wall, staring blankly through the doorway, never taking his eyes off the comatose body that enshrouded the woman he'd once loved.

   An hour passed, then another.

   At some point he must have found the strength in his legs to go back to her, because she was stirring now on the bed beside him, waking him from a desolate dream in which the hand he held in his didn't belong to Anna, but to his father.

   Barely conscious, he lifted his head from the mattress, opened his eyes and saw her true face; the empty, soulless, Shadow version.

   The voice in his head belonged to Kosh.

   'Let her go.'

   He bent his head to her lips and kissed her so gently she would have barely felt it even if she had been awake. He didn't need Kosh to tell him there was nothing he could do, he already knew.

   ********************************************

   You dream and this time it's different.

   This time there's no machine, no alien artefact, no screams from the teep who fried his brains out trying to communicate with the "mouse" you found, no flying, no images of an ancient dried-up world where confrontation is the key to happiness. There is none of that. There is no pain, no death, just an incredible sensation of warmth and compassion, and John.

   Tiny fragments of a life you've almost buried assault your dreaming senses one by one: your first real date, both of you so nervous; the first time he kissed you, sweet, and tender, with a promise of passion to come; the first time he was assigned away and the fearful nights you spent waiting to hear from him; your first Christmastime together; your grandmother's funeral, when he'd held you so tightly; your wedding day; the New Year's Eve you spent in Geneva, getting happily drunk together, and nursing each other through the New Year's Day hangover; they way he comforted you when Bonny died, with an understanding you'd never expected; the way he could look at you and make you feel like the most beautiful woman in the Universe; how awful it felt to be apart from him, and how great it was to be together; the smell of him fresh from the shower, and the feel of those protective arms around you; how easy it was...is...to love him.

   ********************************************

   She moaned softly and shifted in her sleep and he pulled the blanket up around her shoulders again, letting his hand linger there for a moment.

   Slowly, her eyes fluttered open, mirroring the fluttering in his heart.

   Her glance rested on his hand and he smiled down at her. 'You were cold,' he said, softly. 'I thought you could use an extra blanket.'

   She looked up at him, sleepily. 'No, not cold. I was dreaming...about you, actually. Where am I?'

   He rubbed her shoulder gently, through the fabric of the blanket.

   'You're in the med-bay, on the White Star.' He paused, somewhat embarrassed now. 'I er...had to knock you out.'

   Slowly she raised a hand to her head, which was throbbing with a dull ache, and turned to stare at him. 'What did you use, a mallet? What d'you mean you had to knock me out.'

   'You kind of…lost it,' he said. 'Don't you remember?'

   'No! Lost it how?'

   'It was kind of…well, it doesn't matter now.'

   'John, what happened?'

   He sighed heavily, knowing that what he was about to say was going to scare her, but not knowing what else to do but tell her the truth.

   'You kind of had a seizure, but…you were, I don't know how to describe it...I couldn't get through to you, and you were thrashing around. I didn't know what else to do so I picked you up, got you in here and tranq'd you. Don't you remember any of it?'

   She frowned and rubbed her forehead, trying to think. 'I remember that we fought, and you were angry, and you wanted to show me something...but that's it. I don't really remember anything else.'

   Her eyes showed her fear only too well and he took her hand in his. 'Try not to worry about it. You look much better now. How're you feeling?'

   She groaned and massaged her throat, 'Like I've been run over by a ten-ton digger.'

   'Sorry, the tranqs are Minbari. I didn't have time to stop and think about it, otherwise I would have halved the dose. You went down like a sack of lead, and you've been out for twelve hours.'

   'It feels like it.'

   'D'you want some water?'

   She nodded, and as he held the glass to her lips and helped her to drink she noticed the stubble around his chin, and the dark rings under his eyes. 'Have you been sitting there all this time?'

   He nodded, almost shyly, and squeezed her hand, noticing for the first time that her palms were smooth, devoid of the callouses that came with the job for your average xeno-archaeologist. Whatever it was she'd been doing on Z'ha'dum for the last five years there hadn't been much archaeology involved.

   He put the glass back onto the side table. 'Better?'

   She shrugged. 'A little scared I suppose. I just wish I knew why it happened.'

   'I'm no Doctor, but my guess is it was probably all down to stress, that's all,' he said as kindly as he could. He doubted it, he hadn't witnessed a panic attack last night it had been more like a maniacal frenzy. 'You've been through a lot, and I got pretty intense, yesterday. I said some things, a lot of things…and that couldn't have helped. I'm sorry I lost my temper.'

   She squeezed his hand. She remembered the yelling part just fine, and that look of total hatred in his eyes, but he didn't seem angry now, just concerned. 'I've never seen you that way before.'

   'I've never quite felt that way before.'

   She smiled thinly at him. Neither had she, but she didn't know how to explain it to him. She didn't understand it herself. She did remember fighting something, struggling against something, but whether it was real or not, she couldn't tell.

   She reached out to finger the bruise that had bloomed under his left eye.

   'How did that happen?'

   He smiled at her. 'You have lethal elbows.'

   She winced. 'Oh God.'

   'No problem. It's okay. I'm just glad you're all right.' He got up, went over to the table near the door and picked up a ration pack, turning to show it to her, and trying to behave normally. 'Feel like some Earth-force crap for breakfast?'

   She rubbed her eyes. 'Take a tip, John,' she said. 'Don't ever go into Sales.'

   He picked a meal bar out of the pack and passed it to her, but she put it down beside her. 'Maybe later,' she said, grimacing.

   'You've hardly eaten anything since we came aboard. There'll be some tea in the galley. Can't promise it's Earl Grey, but it's refreshing. It might help.'

   She pulled a face and grumbled, 'John, you sound like my mother. Stop fussing, and just let me come round before you try force-feeding me. I'm all right now.'

   He raised an eyebrow.

   'I have a headache, but I'm fine. Really.'

   'Okay, okay,' he said, holding up his hands. 'But you need to eat. And the crew don't get to argue with the Captain, by the way. Not on my Watch.' He smiled. 'Not unless they're Russian.'

   'Russian?'

   'I'll explain while we're eating.'

   'You never give up do you?'

   Once upon a time, the answer would have been 'never', but this time, it didn't feel like the truth.

   He folded his arms across his chest and squinted at her. 'Hardly ever.'

   She frowned at him, swung her legs off the bed and padded barefoot towards the door.

   'Are you sure you're okay?'

   'Ask me again when I've showered and changed.'

   'All right. Just meet me in the galley when you're done, huh?

   He followed her out of the door, relieved that she was awake and back to what passed for normal. Aside from giving him the opportunity to sort out his emotions, last night's episode had scared him witless. Her eyes had been wild and she'd found the strength of ten men. He had a feeling that if he cared to look his arms would be black and blue from the struggle they'd had.

   His first instinct had been to turn the ship around and go straight back to the Station. He'd reasoned that if she was sick, and 'sick' didn't begin to describe it, then she'd get better attention from Stephen than he could give her. On the other hand, that "episode" had started the minute that Anna had seen the Shadow ship on the display console. If it was something to do with those implants then she'd be better off on Z'ha'dum because there wasn't anything Stephen could do for her.

   The thought of implants and Z'ha'dum sent his blood pressure rising again. They'd done this to her. He'd had twelve long hours to come to terms with it, but the anger was never going to burn off; a lifetime wouldn't be enough for that. He swore to himself that the Shadows were going to regret they'd ever heard of John Sheridan.

   There wasn't a great deal in the galley but he found a few supplies in the cupboard over the recycler. He began preparations for a pot of tea, and even found some cookies that the previous crew had left behind. They didn't look very inspiring, but they were better than nothing, and he didn't think Anna would appreciate the three-day-old flarn that was festering in the cooler. He put the cookies on a plate and threw the flarn into the waste-disposal.

   Even Delenn would turn her nose up at that.

   The thought had just popped into his head.

   Delenn.

   He pushed it out again. Or at least he tried, but her face kept coming back to trouble him. He wondered if she had come to hate him for leaving yet. He couldn't help thinking it would make life easier for both of them if she did. He didn't know what the future had in store, but if he was going to have one he knew one thing for certain -- he wanted her to be a part of it. Somehow.

   He gave a mental shrug. What future?

   He sat down at the table, drumming his fingers lightly against the tabletop while he waited for the water to boil, trying to turn his mind from the past and the future to the present.

   At least Anna wasn't raving. At least she was awake. For a little while last night he'd thought he was going to be spending the rest of the trip with a lunatic, wondering what the Shadows would say when he turned up with her...damaged...like that. Thank God she'd been normal when she'd come round. And she had been, hadn't she? Even down to the early morning grouchies.

   He'd forgotten she wasn't a 'morning person'. When they'd first been married she'd bitten his head off when he'd bounced around like an overgrown puppy first thing in the morning. He'd learned his lesson, and whenever possible avoided her dawn-light moods. Depending on where they were he would go for a run, and by the time he'd got back and hit the shower, she would be waiting for him. Sometimes he would run for a little longer than usual, knowing that if he got the timing just right she would be ready and waiting...and in the shower.

   That was in the past.

   The kettle boiled unnoticed, switching itself off with a quiet buzz.

   He tried to think of other things. Even Delenn, as painful as that was.

   Anna, in the meantime, had pulled on a robe she had found in the med-bay, and was standing at the door, unseen. Slowly she walked in behind him and bent down to kiss his cheek, letting her hands slip over his shoulders to rest on his chest. 'Good morning, babe,' she said.

   He jumped at her touch, the tension jerking him bolt upright.

   'Penny for them?' she asked, smiling inwardly as she sat down beside him and noticed his eyes flicker towards her breasts, momentarily laid bare as her robe gaped open a little at the front.

   'Got a nickel or three?'

    It was another reflexive response to another old line they shared, and he saw the light in her eyes sparkle with delight that he'd remembered and used it. He closed his eyes quickly to shut it out, and when he opened them again he couldn't see it any more. Covering for himself he got to his feet and began to busy himself at the kitchen counter.

   As he poured the tea into the pot Anna wrinkled her nose.

   'I know it smells awful, but...'

   'It smells like pond-water!'

   '...it'll make you feel better. Trust me.'

   He put a cupful down in front of her and then left the pot beside it.

   'If this tastes half as bad as it looks and smells you are in big trouble, kiddo.'

   He pushed the cup towards her. 'It's not poison. Just try it!'

   She did as he asked, and found that it actually tasted quite good, something like a cross between camomile and chicory with a faintly sweet aftertaste.

   John got up from his perch on the edge of the table, a satisfied smirk at her change in attitude plastered all over his face.

   'I don't like leaving you alone,' he said, 'but I have to make a few checks, just to make sure we're still on beacon. We don't want to get lost after all, it'd be embarrassing.'

   She couldn't hide her disappointment at his itchiness to get away from her. 'You said you'd tell me about the Russian.'

   He paused, held in a sigh, and then turned and sat down again, unwilling to stay, but just as unwilling to hurt her feelings. The expression on her face seemed to say that she just wanted some company, nothing more, and somehow, now that he'd convinced himself of who, and what, she was, conversation came a little easier.

   'My Exec is from the Russian consortium. I served with her on Io. D'you ever remember me talking about Susan Ivanova?'

   Anna took a sip of her tea, and poured John another cup as he filled in some of the details. As it turned out, Anna remembered the 'throwing the teep out of the window' story.

   She laughed and said, 'How could I forget? You were like a cat on a hot tin roof for weeks until the verdict came through. You were so protective of her I almost convinced myself the two of you had something going.'

   'I think you mentioned that at the time.'

   Anna grinned at him. She'd ribbed him about it mercilessly, but never seriously. He'd never given her cause to doubt his faithfulness. Until now, of course, but she was trying very hard to give him the impression she wasn't all that concerned about that.

   'So Susan's your XO on Babylon 5? I'll bet the pair of you make quite a team.'

   John's tone was non-committal but he couldn't hide his smile. 'We have our moments.'

   'Tell me about the others. Garibaldi's the big stocky guy, right? The one who came to say goodbye when we left?'

   'Yeah. He's the one responsible for packing the vids, and the Scotch. I asked him to throw some things in a box that would stop us from going stir-crazy on the way to Z'ha'dum. I thought it would help you catch up with what's been going on while you've been...out of the loop.'

   'Ah, that explains it. I didn't think Duck Dodgers in the 23rd Century would head up your top-ten list of "must-have" vids. You used to hate cartoons.'

   'Well, they're growing on me, but you're right. As far as Michael's concerned though, they're his second favourite thing in the entire Universe...so he says. I dread to think what else he put in there. I don't suppose you found any popcorn?'

   'No popcorn.'

   'Pity.'

   'Michael sounds like fun.'

   'Oh, he is,' he told her, a touch of sincerity breaking through the false bonhomie. 'He's a lot of other things too, mind you.'

   'What sort of things?'

   She was relieved to see that he was beginning to relax around her. He still didn't trust her, but he would. He'd learn to trust her again, and when that happened love wouldn't be far behind. This was just a verbal dance, nothing more, for now.

   John turned the teacup around in his hands a few times, and then decided that there was no harm in talking about them. Morden knew all about his crew. If Morden knew then the Shadows knew, and Anna probably did too.

   'Ah, what can I say...he's loyal, he trusts no one, not even himself, which makes him an excellent Security Chief. He has what you might call an interesting turn of phrase. He likes cartoons. I'd put my life in his hands, and have done, many times. What else. He knows more dubious limericks than anyone else I've ever met. I'm almost certain he spends a lot of his time doing things I never get to hear about, but he's a damn good officer, a good pilot, and a good friend...'

   'A *good* guy then,' she teased him.

   'The best. When I first arrived on the station I wasn't sure about him, and I don't think he really trusted me for a long time, but he hasn't let me down yet, and I can't see it happening any time soon, so yes, he's a good guy.'

   'Sort of your right-hand man?'

   John put down the teacup, leaned back and grinned. 'No, Susan's my right-hand man. Michael's a south paw, so...'

   She groaned and finished off his sentence. 'He's your left-hand man.'

   He cocked his head to one side slightly and nodded, giving her a charming grin that only served to remind her just how handsome he was, and just how much she missed this easy friendship with him. Whenever things went wrong, no matter what sort of a godawful day she'd had he'd always been able to make her smile.

   She'd missed him so much.

   She threw a dishtowel at him and shook her head. 'Your sense of humour hasn't changed.'

   He sighed, leaning forward, letting the chair fall back onto all four legs with a thump. 'True,' he agreed, 'but a lot of other things have.'

   He fingered his Army of Light tunic, and realised that Anna hadn't even asked him why he was wearing it.

   'Doctor Franklin explained some of what happened,' she said, picking up on his gesture. 'He didn't seem keen to give too much away, but he told me some. I never figured you for a reb.'

   John smiled at that. 'It surprised the hell out of me too,' he said, 'but there was too much going on that I couldn't ignore. Earthforce is…not the Earthforce I joined, Anna…and…anyhow, what's done is done. Susan, Michael and Stephen stood by me, but it was my decision. I just hope I don't end up taking them down with me.'

   'Hey, who says you're going down, hot-shot?'

   His eyes warned her not to continue, and the look he gave her conveyed the hurt he was trying to keep inside far better than anything he could say. She watched as his eyes drifted away from her, and the smile on his face slowly fell away. She took his hand across the table.

   'John, the aliens...my associates...they just want to talk to you, that's all.'

   He let it go, but he'd heard enough. The words 'my associates' gave him a very, very bad feeling. He got to his feet.

   'You know, I do need to go check on a few things, and I could really, really, use a few hours sleep. That's if you're sure you're going to be okay.'

   'I'm fine.'

   'Mmm.'

   She shifted in her chair. 'I'm still a little worried it might happen again, but I feel okay now. You go do what you have to do.'

   He turned to leave but then turned back. 'Tell you what, if you want to hang out in your quarters, watch some more Duck Dodgers, do whatever, I'll catch a nap on your…on the bed in there. That way, if it happens…if you start to feel…unwell…I'll be on hand.'

   'I'd like that. Thank you.'

   'On one condition.'

   She tried to keep the sarcasm out of her expression, but couldn't help herself. 'I won't have my wicked way with you while you're sleeping, if that's what you're worrying about,' she said.

   'That's not what I was going to say. The condition is that you eat something. Right now.'

   She felt her cheeks flushing. 'Right.'

   'Deal?'

   She stared him out for a moment and then picked up a ration pack off the counter and tore it open, saying, 'All right, but I'm still not hungry...at least not for insta-heats.'

   Their eyes met, and the cookie he'd taken from the plate stopped halfway to his mouth. There was a terrifyingly long silence. And for a while, just for a little while, something dark and dangerous hovered in the air between them.

   'I'm sorry,' he said, 'that's all there is.'

   ********************************************

   John looked at the read-out on his console. They were halfway there. The point of no return. He allowed himself a grim smile. They'd reached the point of no return a long time ago. She'd gone. There was nothing left. He'd faced it once, he could do it again. He had to accept it. If he couldn't accept it, well that way madness lay.

   A loud alarm startled him out of his daydreaming, and he quickly turned to his scan read-outs to find out what had triggered the proximity warning. There was something out there, four thousand kilometres away and closing fast.

   **************************************************

   Suddenly, you recognise it, the part of you that's you, the same part that's part of him. In your dream you see it as crystal sphere enclosing a pulsing beam of light. Each pulse gives you strength, and with every beat you remember a little more.

   **************************************************

   Trying to do ten things at once he was looking for the recognition code. He saw it, and his heart went cold.

   It was a Shadow vessel.

   **************************************************

   You didn't want this. You didn't want to serve them. You didn't want the machine. They made you this way. They kept you alive but not alive. They kept you apart from him. They made you into something you didn't want to be. They merged you with the machine and turned you into a murderer. And John doesn't know. He doesn't know any of this. When he knows...

   The light in the crystal dims, and a dark inky ribbon flows across the sphere.

   You can't tell him. They'll kill him.

   Not if you find a way...between you you'll find a way. You can defeat them. You can't fight them alone, but together? Together, you might just be able to win.

   **************************************************

   'Anna!' he shouted. 'Buckle up! We've got company.'

   Then he remembered she was sleeping in the crew-quarters, and wasn't going to hear him. He couldn't get to the ship-wide intercom without leaving the command-chair, and everything else -- targeting, scan, navigation and firing control was routed through to him there. He only had one pair of hands.

   **************************************************

   It won't be easy, it never was and it never will be, but this is what he does. It's what he does best. And you know their weaknesses. You can help. You can turn this around, you can help him to beat them, and together you can stop the madness.

   The light in your inner crystal fades as an inky ooze surrounds it, but it hasn't disappeared altogether.

   It will never go out.

   Not if he's with you.

   Together, you're capable of anything.

   **************************************************

   'Dammit! Computer: red alert!' Another alarm started up, and he heard a computerised voice ordering all hands to battle stations. In Adronato.

   Oh, great job, Mister hot-shot, he thought to himself. He had triggered the translator for his console read-outs, but had forgotten the automated voice-output routines. Still, it should have the desired effect. A red-alert was a red-alert in any language, Anna would pick up on it, and he didn't have time to worry about it. The thing was still closing fast and it was taking all of his concentration to deal with the weapons systems and targeting control.

   The ship lurched slightly, and John cursed as the automatic repair system kicked in. The Shadow vessel hadn't fired, and so he assumed they'd been hit a glancing blow by a piece of hyperspace debris. It was a pretty rare event, but it happened from time to time. Just his luck it should happen now.

   **************************************************

   Your mind shifts with all the subtlety of a thermo-nuclear explosion.

   'No!'

   A voice screams.

   Yours.

   And then there's another. It's cold and hard and it scrapes its way into your brain like a steel trowel on granite.

   Remember your mission! You must bring him to us. He is the axle upon which the wheel will turn. He is important to us, and we will have him. The Vorlons are trying to use him for their own ends. That must stop. Remember your mission. When we are done with him, then he is yours, but you must deliver him!

   'No!'

   **************************************************

   His read-outs told him there was no major damage, and he shifted the problem back to the bottom of his mental priority list. His scanner read-outs told him the enemy was still closing. Three thousand klicks. He couldn't believe they'd lured him all this way just to frag him. They must have recognised the ship, but they hadn't even tried to make contact.

   Two Seven.

   He opened up a comms channel, barking, 'This is John Sheridan to approaching vessel. Please identify yourself!'

   **************************************************

   Remember your mission. Bring him to us. Tell him nothing. You must not fail. If you fail us, he will die.

   A wave of horror shudders through you, and suddenly you remember Morden. It all comes flooding back; your capture, the darkness, the sheer terror on Morden's face, the eternal suffering they had threatened to his family. You had refused to serve, even knowing what you were giving up. They couldn't do to you what they'd done to poor Morden, because at the time they didn't know how to hurt you badly enough to make you surrender to them.

   They know now.

   Oh God help you, they know it now.

   He will die, and his base of operations, Babylon 5, will be lost, and all those in it.

   With an almighty effort you try to make sense of the voice. You try to pretend that it's all lies. If they had wanted him dead he'd be dead already, if they had wanted to take Babylon 5 it would be in a million pieces by now. They don't want to kill him, they want to convert him. They want to turn his Army of Light into and Army of Darkness. And if they can't...

   Then we will kill him.. But that will be his choice. If you fail to bring us to him now it will be yours. You decide.

   **************************************************

   They'd never made contact with the Shadows like this before, and the last thing he wanted was a response, but he had nothing to lose. It wasn't as though he was giving his position away; they were practically on top of him. Hell, they could probably hear his heart beating.

   Too late, he realised that his signal had been broadcast on a scatter frequency. He prayed that there was no one else in the area who'd pick it up; they wouldn't stand a chance against a Shadow vessel, and he wouldn't have time to explain what was going on.

   **************************************************

   He will die, Doctor Sheridan.

   'No!'

   Tens of thousands of innocent lives will be lost. Because of you.

   'Stop it! Make it stop!'

   Your choice.

   **************************************************

   He moved a nervous finger across to cover the forward laser control, preparing to break the habit of a lifetime. He couldn't afford to let them take the first shot. Not this time.

   Two thousand clicks.

   His finger itched closer.

   One Nine.

   If it came to it he had two thermo-nuclear devices on board…he could arm them from here. He wasn't about to go down without taking at least one of the bastards with him, whatever happened. It wouldn't make a damned bit of difference, but it would make him feel a whole lot better, and it would be one less for Susan to worry about.

   One Seven.

   He set the nukes to standby, using an old trick that Mister Lennier had taught him to set up here; the dead man's switch.

   **************************************************

   Terrible images flash through your mind, images of death and suffering on a scale you've never before imagined. Babylon 5 explodes like the centrepiece in a deadly fireworks display, in a hail of blood and smoke and body-parts.

   You can feel John's shattering despair, as bleak as your own.

   You see him reaching for it as its centre falls apart, and hear him screaming in agony as it burns.

   This doesn't feel like a dream anymore.

   It feels real.

   **************************************************

   One Four.

   A familiar screech burst through his head. It was behind him now, sweeping around in a wide arc, and in desperation he flipped the White Star over on its nose, grimacing as the g-force hammered against his chest. He couldn't afford to let it get up behind him.

   **************************************************

   Do not fail us. Remember your mission! Do not fail!

   There is a terrible ear-splitting wail that lingers on in your head long after it has gone, and it turns your insides cold.

   You can't beat them.

   The wail fades away but you can feel their legacy cold and dark inside you, strengthened now, growing and filling you.

   The light in your imagined inner-crystal winks out.

   You are part of them.

   Part of the whole.

   It can never be otherwise.

   **************************************************

   And then it just...disappeared. It vanished from his visual display, and the targeting and scan read-outs were scrolling up to nothing, indicating that the danger had passed.

   He breathed a long sigh of relief, shut off all the alarms and re-set them, but didn't dare move. For several minutes he flicked through all the read-outs the computer could give him. Nothing.

   He disarmed the nukes, wiped away the drip of sweat that trickled down the side of his face, and tried to think.

   It didn't make sense. Why had they shown up like that? They didn't want him dead. Not yet, anyway. If they had they'd have fragged him a long time ago. Were they just keeping tabs on them, following them? Were they trying to contact Anna? Or had they just been in the area and pulled out because they didn't want to spook him.

   He smiled as he caught himself absent-mindedly massaging his chest. It was a little too late for that.

   Anna's voice came over the intercom, breaking his concentration.

   'John?' Are you there?'

   He got up from his seat to flick on the intercom mounted into the wall behind the nav console. 'False alarm,' he said, his voice uneven. 'We were buzzed by one of your alien friends, but they're gone now.'

   'Oh.'

   'Are you all right?' he asked. 'You sound a little freaked...'

   'I woke up to a Minbari red-alert!' she said. 'Wouldn't you be?'

   'Sorry about that, it was the only way I had to warn you...'

   Her disembodied voice interrupted him. 'John,' she added, sounding really worried now, 'the walls are moving.'

   'It's okay. Stay there. I'm on my way.'

   She could feel her heart pounding in her chest, and tried to concentrate on breathing. She looked up, hearing John's footsteps already hurrying down the corridor outside towards her.

   'Are you okay?' John asked, helping her to stand as she turned to stare past him. 'I had to do some fancy manoeuvring back there. Are you hurt?'

   She nodded at the wall behind him as it shimmered softly and then stilled. 'Vorlon?' she asked, her voice shaking.

   He looked over his shoulder where she was pointing.

   'Yeah,' he said, a little concerned by the strength of her reaction. 'We were hit by something, and that's just the auto-repair system kicking in. It's normal. Nothing to worry about. Everything's fine.'

   He had been all fired up to come down here and question her about the Shadow vessel, but something in her demeanour had rapidly cooled him off. She looked so lost and so vulnerable all of a sudden. He would have had to have been made of stone not to respond to it.

   'Are you sure you're all right?' he asked as she sank back down onto the bed.

   'No,' she said, quietly, rubbing her forearm where a bruise was already starting to form, trying to stay calm but unable to deny the hot tears in her eyes.

   When she held out her arms he sat down beside her and took her into his embrace, holding her so tightly it hurt.

   She buried her head in his chest. 'I'm frightened, John.'

   'Ssh. I know. It scared the Hell out of me too. But it's over now.'

   He rubbed slow circles up her back and stroked her hair and said all of the things he could think of that would make her feel safe. Protection, compassion, pity, even companionship, he could offer her all of those things now. The only thing he couldn't offer her was love.

   Her body shuddered against him, and he pulled her further into his chest, trying to stop her from shaking, just trying to give her what little comfort he could.

   He'd never felt so alone in her presence before.

   Nor had he felt so certain.

   They were going to pay for this.

   Until now he hadn't been sure he could go through with his insane plan to deliver a deadly nuclear strike on the Shadow home-world, but the sight of that Shadow vessel dancing across his screens out of nowhere, and the look on Anna's face right now had only served to strengthen his resolve.

   They'd already taken Anna's life.

   His, they were welcome to.

   For a price.

   *************************************

   Even though your surroundings seem even more claustrophobic, and even though the ship seems more threatening in its Vorlon-ness than before, for once you're actually glad he's not in the room with you.

   The machine is long gone but you can still hear that voice, deep as a funeral bell, and you can still see the nightmare explosions they planted in your brain behind your tightly closed eyes.

   You pull the pillow into your stomach and hug it close, but it's a poor substitute and you toss it aside and curl up into a ball.

   You're so afraid for him.

   This is how it's meant to be, isn't it? Development through conflict and fear, making you stronger, fitter, and happier? You laugh to yourself, and the hysteria behind it scares you more than any threat they could make.

   You have to hold on. You have to stay sane or you won't be able to help him or anyone else.

   The tears come again and you roll over, rocking yourself, whispering his name until the sound of it weaves a cocoon for you that you think nothing else can penetrate.

   You're wrong.

   You can feel their spiny grip tightening around you with every passing minute.

   They're not going to let you go again.

   You'll never be free of them.

   You will do as you are told.

   There is no other choice.

   ********************************

   John woke up with a crick in his neck, wearing full body-armour. At least that's how it felt. Rubbing his eyes he looked around the command deck and then glanced at the time on the monitor in front of him. He'd been out for just over six hours. He remembered recording a log, and then sitting back in the chair and closing his eyes, but not falling asleep.

   He didn't remember finding himself a pillow either, but as he lifted his head up a cushion fell out from behind his neck.

   He unfolded himself stiffly from the chair, a sudden panic overtaking him as he wondered where Anna was and what she was up to. The thought of her wandering around the ship on her own unnerved him.

   Quickly, he ran through his checks, and ordered up a full stat report. When it came through he cast a careful eye over it. Everything seemed to be functioning normally. He looked around, smiling with appreciation. It was a great ship. There was no other class of vessel of this size and power that he could think of that could be handled by a single crewman.

   Then he remembered, of course there were; there were two, but they were considerably more powerful. Anna had flown one of them. Kosh, the other.

   He tried the galley first, and then the med-bay but she wasn't there, so he continued on his way down to her quarters. It was such an eerie feeling, walking around a deserted White Star. The sound of his footsteps on the polished floor seemed to echo off the walls around him, and everywhere that there would normally have been signs of life there was only silence.

   He looked down at the ration pack he'd picked up from the galley and snorted to himself. He had no idea where Michael had filched these packs from, and he really didn't want to know. But, as unappetising as it was to think of opening one, he was almost too hungry to care. He ripped it open and took out a 'Fruit AB' bar, tearing the wrapper off with his teeth. In his cadet days they'd used to save these till last, a tiny comfort to savour at the end of a long and dirty day. They were everyone's favourite. He grimaced as he chewed. Funny how nothing was ever as good as you remembered it.

   As he turned the corner he slowed a little, and then stepped into the Captain's quarters, looking around.

   'Anna?'

   The door to the sleeping area was open, and he looked inside. She wasn't asleep. She was lying there on her back, her knees drawn up slightly, staring into space as though she were in a trance.

   He stood still and just watched her for a moment, and then he called out her name again.

   She jumped, and seemed confused and far away, as though she had just woken up. It made him feel uneasy, but maybe that's all it was, he thought; she had drifted off to sleep, and he had woken her.

   'Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. D'you want something to eat?'

   'Thanks,' she said, half-smiling. 'Maybe later.'

   He leaned against the doorjamb. 'Are you okay?' he asked, relieved that he had found her here rather than poking around the ship, but her expression was unnerving in a way he couldn't quite fathom.

   'Yes, why shouldn't I be?' she asked.

   She spoke up a little too quickly, and it put John on his guard. She had that look on her face that kids get when they've been interrupted doing something naughty. He just couldn't figure out what the something might be.

   John was sure his own expression would give away his concern, but if she noticed anything she didn't let on. Maybe he was just being paranoid.

   'I don't know,' he said. 'You just look a little...zoned, I guess. Long flights in hyperspace can do that, you know.'

   Anna smiled, bitterly. 'This is not my maiden voyage, John,' she reminded him. 'I'm fine. A little tired, maybe, but I'm fine.'

   'Did I wake you?'

   She shook her head. 'No. I watched a few of your vids, and then I came to find you but you were snoring. Some things never change.'

   'I do not snore.'

   She gave him a wry look. 'Like I said, some things never change.'

   He smiled back at her. 'Thanks for the pillow, by the way.'

   'You looked like you could use one.'

   He braced his hands on his hips and stretched the muscles in his back, easing his head from side to side in the process. 'Well you weren't wrong, I'm as stiff as a board this morning.'

   'Want me to help with that?'

   He wasn't sure whether the innuendo was intended or not, but the expression on her face was clear enough. It could only be described as one of utter frustration. Five years ago he'd have set a course for Hell and made love to her all the way. He couldn't blame her for not understanding why he couldn't do it now, but he couldn't do it.

   He shook his head, wincing as his neck muscles spasmed. 'No it's okay...ow.'

   She sighed. 'I'm just talking about a shoulder rub. Come on. Come over here and sit down.'

   He paused for a moment and then pulled up a chair. She kneeled up on the bed, making it easier to get some purchase on his shoulders, and got to work.

   He groaned with relief as her fingers pressed into his flesh and he felt the muscles in his neck beginning to respond; there was no doubt about it, she was doing a fine job.

   'Feel good? I'm a little out of practice.'

   'Yeah,' he admitted, easing his head around as she worked another knot out of his right shoulder. 'Don't worry, you haven't lost your touch.'

   She frowned as his shirt rumpled, interrupting the rhythm she'd just established. 'It would be easier if you took this off.'

   'Mmm,' he said, but he didn't move, and she didn't press the point.

   A few minutes later he shrugged out from under her kneading fingers, and turned to face her. 'That feels much better. Thanks.'

   'You're welcome.'

   'Are you okay?'

   'I'm fine.'

   'Right.'

   She turned away from him a little. 'I guess the love that knows no borders finally found one.'

   John sighed, knowing that any words that came out of his mouth would only make a bad situation worse.

   'I'm sorry,' Anna said, half-smiling. 'I got that translation wrong by the way. Morden told me it's 'the love that abides no borders.'

   'Morden didn't strike me as the romantic type.'

   She turned to look at him again. 'Maybe not, but he's a damned good linguist. It's a subtle difference, implies a certain degree of will on the part of the one doing the loving, doesn't it?'

   John shifted uncomfortably and twisted back round in his chair. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and laced his fingers together, nervously rubbing his thumbs together. 'Let's just get through this, mmm? Let's just get down to the planet, and then we'll figure the rest of it out from there.'

   Anna settled back onto the bed behind him and John stood up. There was nothing to figure out, and nowhere to go but down. He turned to face her.

   'I er...have to...'

   'Run away. I know.'

   'Anna...I can't...'

   She nodded, and the expression on her face seemed to say she understood, as she waved him away. 'You go and do your starship captain stuff. I need some sleep, anyhow. I'm tired.'

   John smiled with relief that she was giving him an out. 'Okay, you get some rest. There are some things I have to do but I'll come check back on you in an hour or so. If you're still awake I'll make you some tea and we can talk for a while, okay?'

   'Thank you.'

   He winked at her. 'You're the only crew I've got. I have to look after you. It's in the regs. It's what Captains do.'

   She turned over. 'And I always thought they just stood around looking stupid. You learn something new every day.'

   **********************************

   Earthforce One explodes into a billion pieces of space-debris and the recording fades to black. You feel John turn slightly beside you.

   'I think that was one of the saddest days of my life,' he murmurs, sipping the last of the whisky from his glass.

   You don't respond, and you feel him shift again, but his shoulder is comfortable, and you don't want to move. Through your half-closed eyes you can see that the whisky bottle is almost done. Your glass is still full, John's downed a few tonight.

   He snuggles just a tiny bit closer, and his arm falls across yours, relaxed. It feels good to be like this with him again. You open your eyes and sigh quietly, and although you feel him tense and stiffen just a little, he doesn't try to move away. As you stir, though, your fingers accidentally brush across his thigh, and this time he closes his hand firmly over yours.

   Pretending you hadn't noticed, you say, 'I must have drifted off to sleep. Did I miss much?'

   'About five years. Remember?'

   You sit up away from him. 'Thanks for that.'

   'I er...I didn't mean that to come out the way it did. That was the booze talking. I'm sorry.'

   His voice is soft, and you know that he means it. He even reaches out to take your hand again, and although every time he touches you it hurts, you let him.

   'John...'

   You look up at him and his eyes draw you in. You lean forward and kiss him, steeling yourself for the rejection that doesn't come. Not from him, anyway. The pain sears through you and you brace yourself against it, willing to ride it for the sake of the comfort of feeling him so close to you. It hurts but it's worth it.

   You try to deepen the kiss and at first he begins to respond. There's whisky on his breath, but that doesn't matter. You figure that maybe it's the whisky that's allowing him to get this close, and you give silent thanks for it. Your heart begins to sing through the heartache as his tongue comes shyly seeking. You can't give him up. Not again. You won't.

   You will.

   In your mind's eye three Shadow vessels, black as night, shimmer into view around Babylon 5, and the sound of an all too familiar screech fills your head with naked fear.

   You pull back, in tears, and at the same time John jerks away from you with a puzzled, frightened look on his face, almost as though he's reacting to something, or someone, you can't see. He mutters something, a name, but you can't quite hear it through the noise in your head.

   He rests his forehead against yours, and takes your cheeks in his long slender fingers, stroking away the tears.

   'I can't do this, Anna,' he whispers. 'I'm sorry. I'm truly sorry. But too much has happened. There's too much I don't understand.'

   The closer he comes, the harder he tries to explain how he feels, and the more you want to tell him what it's really all about, the stronger the icy grip of the Shadows around your soul.

   The images of Babylon 5 return, and you watch as a dozen tiny Starfuries spew out from her belly. The lives of a quarter of a million people are dependent on them, and on you.

   Your choice.

   You go numb, the tears dry up, and the words you speak don't belong to you.

   'You've been brainwashed, John. You've been used, and you've been lied to. It's time to learn the truth. The Shadows will tell you the truth. You'll see.'

*****************************************

   'Captain's personal log...

   'I really have no idea why I'm recording this at all, but maybe…if anyone finds it...it will help to explain. And it beats the hell out of talking to myself.

   'Anna's packing up, we're just about to jump into what passes for normal space at Z'ha'dum, and in a few hours I should be on the surface. I don't know what to expect when we get down there, but maybe, at last, some of this will start to make sense.

   'I'm here because Anna asked me to come and listen to their side of the story. Well, I hope it's worth it. It should be interesting. I'd like to hear them try to justify why they've done the things they've done...not just to our allies, but on a personal level, to Anna...and to Kosh.

   'Kosh has been on my mind a lot, lately. It sounds like I've finally gone nuts I know, but I still...see him...from time to time. It's as though he's still trying to reach me. He's turned up twice on this trip, and I even had a brief...vision...I suppose you'd call it, or a waking dream, just before I left Babylon 5. He told me...well, he told me this was a bad idea. But, as you probably know, I can be a stubborn son-of-a-bitch when the mood takes me, and now I've seen some of what they've done to Anna you might say I'm in the mood.'

   'I have to admit...I am dreading this. I wish I could have found another way, and I only hope that what I'm about to do doesn't make things ten times worse than they already are. Susan, if you're watching this...well, I guess that's a good sign, huh? Take care of that Station for me. Tell Michael I got his note. He forgot to pack the baseball bat by the way...you just can't get the staff these days...'

   He hesitated until he was sure he could keep the desperation out of his voice and then placed his hand against the monitor and twisted out a smile.

   'Delenn, if you're seeing this, I meant every word I said in my last message...never, ever doubt that. If, by some miracle, I do get back from this one, I'll make damn sure you know it. If I don't come back then I know that, one way or another, you'll find me, in the place where no Shadows fall.'

   ******************************************

   The shuttle seemed small and cramped after six days of rattling around on the White Star and the confined space only compounded John's anxiety. Anna had been careful to remind him that they mustn't take the White Star down to the surface. The aliens would not let it land. Their fear of anything Vorlon touching their home world might just be superstitious nonsense to John's mind, but she didn't want to anger them. Nor did he. At least not yet.

   He sneaked a glance across at her, sitting beside him in the pilot's seat. She had offered him the controls but he'd declined. It felt less suicidal that way.

   He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out the small glass figurine he'd tucked away in there almost week ago.

   'I don't know what will happen when we get down to the surface,' he said, turning to her. 'But in case we don't get the chance to be alone again for a while…I just…I wanted you to have this.'

   She gave him an ironic smile, and said, 'You picked a fine time to actually remember our anniversary.'

   His face deflated.

   'I'm sorry, that was low.' She reached her open palm out towards him. 'Let me see?'

   He dropped the figurine into her hand and she looked at it, curious now. 'What is it?'

   'To tell you the truth, I have no idea. It was given to me by somebody back on the Station. He made it himself, but he never got the chance to finish it.'

   'Who?'

   Someone else who didn't deserve what was coming, he thought, but instead he said, 'No-one very special, just...someone who...someone I understood, someone you'd've understood.'

   'Sounds cryptic.'

   John snorted. 'Must be the Vorlon in me.'

   Anna looked sideways at him, alerted by something in his tone, but the steely expression in his eyes didn't give anything away, and the feeling passed.

   'I don't have anything to give you,' she said.

   It wasn't quite true. She'd given him all she had to give, twice now, and he'd never know it, not if she could help it. There was too much at stake.

   He couldn't quite bring himself to meet her gaze but he reached across and took her hand anyway.

   'Everything that ever mattered was given and received years ago,' he said.

   Anna squeezed his hand. As their eyes finally met there was a fleeting moment of total understanding between them, but then it was gone as quickly as it had come. The love that would abide no borders had done its best to hold on, but caught between the Shadows on one side and the Vorlons on the other, simple Humanity didn't have a hope.

   Anna turned back to her console, and nodded out of the forward view-screen, releasing his hand as she did so.

   'We're almost there.'

   John smiled, grimly, watching as Z'ha'dum filled the forward window.

   'Uh-huh,' he said quietly. 'Just a little further to go.'



 

*****[END]*****

 

1"He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love...Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude." Martin Luther King

 

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