THE JOURNEY HOME

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: Takes place at the beginning of season four with the good Captain waking up in a strange (but familiar) place. It follows canon but offers a couple of explanations for the way things might have happened the way that they did. I didn't start out with the intention of writing a sequel to 'Danse Macabre' but that's the way it's turned out.

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

Rating: I'm hopeless at rating (are kids older these days, or is it just me?) but I think this one sneaks in below an NC-17.

Thanks: To my overworked beta readers -- the one who reminded me that encounter suits don't come with a 'Made in Taiwan' label attached, the one who made me think things through--properly, and the one who always comes up with so many ideas I never know what to do with them. You know who you are and you know how very much it's appreciated.

 

 

   Part One - Check-in

   John woke up with the taste of dust in his mouth, and the numbness that comes from lying on hard ground. He swallowed on a dry throat and tried to move, swearing as his palm skidded across the grit on the floor and the motion jarred his shoulder. As he pushed himself up, he tried to fight off the disturbing sensation that something about his situation had changed; getting himself upright was his first priority.

   He checked for damage, running one hand across his torso, chest and arms, and shifting his stiff legs. His hips were aching, his tongue felt too large in his mouth, and the tense knot in his stomach was a painful indication that he hadn't eaten for a long time, but as far as he could tell he had no significant injuries. He was weak, though; that much was clear from the energy he'd expended just heaving himself into a sitting position.

   He looked around. The sputtering torches that lined the walls weren't giving off a great deal of light, not that it mattered much as there wasn't a lot to see. He could smell the ashes of a dead fire, close by, and even in the gloom he could see that it formed an almost perfect circle. He didn't remember lighting a fire, and couldn't imagine where he would have found any kindling, but then again, he didn't remember a lot of anything else either.

   As the blood started to reach his fingertips with a stinging, tickling sensation, he began to shiver, and then to shake. After a while he gave up trying to stop it and focussed his energy on working out where he was and how the hell he'd gotten there.

   He shifted a little, attempting to see a little further down the passageway that he could just make out on his left. There didn't appear to be anything there. The air was musty, and dry, and still. Wherever the passageway led it didn't seem to lead outside, or to anywhere that might provide some ventilation. Not that he had the strength to follow up on it even if it did.

   Apart from the occasional crackle of the lantern flames, it was all quiet. He was alone. But he hadn't been. He remembered...something. Someone else. There had been someone, or something, else here.

   He suddenly felt very vulnerable. If whoever, or whatever, came back, there was nowhere to hide. In what he figured was probably a vain attempt to find some cover, he rolled himself across the floor, gritting his teeth against the stabbing pain in his shoulder, and flattened himself against the roughly-hewn wall. Hiding in the shadows wasn't going to help him much, but it was better than nothing.

   The shadows.

      ***********************

      'And so it begins...again.'

      'Indeed.'

      'He remembers.'

      'He needs to remember.'

      'I hoped he would forget.'

      ***********************

   John closed his eyes tight shut, and although he didn't want them there a steady stream of images started to play in his head, repeating over and over, in a ghostly monochrome. His mental slideshow began with Anna on the White Star, and ended with Anna on a balcony, her hand outstretched, begging him for something he could not give.

   He could almost hear his father telling him it was no use dwelling on ifs and maybes, but he couldn't help it. If he'd been there for her all those years ago, when she'd really needed him, then maybe, just maybe, none of this would have happened. He rested his chin on his knees and buried his head in his arms, prayed to a God he hadn't believed in for a long time, and whispered his goodbyes to her. Again.

   Eventually, he forced his eyes open, hoping that by doing so he could put the nightmare on hold, if only for a little while. It didn't work, not at first, but then, gradually, each momentary respite grew longer, as though the image of Anna was losing its power to prevent him from seeing what was coming next.

   When it came, it came in a flood, and he remembered it all; falling, and then not falling; Lorien trying to explain about tick and tock, asking him "Why are you here?" And then that cycle of images stopped too. No matter how hard he tried he couldn't remember anything else, the only thing he knew for sure was that something had happened between then and now. What it was, he didn't know.

   It took a little while but, as he rested his head back against the wall and took in another breath, he worked it out.

   Du-dum.

   He felt the air rush in through his mouth and nostrils and fill his lungs, and he watched as his chest rose and fell. His mind choked on the thought, but the evidence was hard to ignore. He had been dead. Really dead. Now he was alive, and he was so wrapped up in the mystery of that simple fact that he didn't even hear the approaching footsteps.

   'Captain?'

   John tensed, startled by the sound, and his gaze fell on the hem of a satin robe. He followed it upwards for what seemed like a mile, until a golden-eyed gaze ensnared him. It was Lorien.

   John looked up at him for a long moment, trying to piece together fragments of a half-remembered conversation. In a confused, small, voice he whispered, 'I'm alive.'

   'Yes.'

   John twisted around to face him, propping himself up against the wall, his tiredness overridden by a burning need to know. 'You did something,' he said. 'You were here. Before? I talked to you? I was dead.'

   Lorien's only response was a patient nod of the head.

    'There was no pulse.' John said, as he held a finger against his jugular vein. 'And now there is. How did that...how did you...?'

      ***********************

      'How did you?'

      'A simple transfer of energy. It will sustain him. I did what I could for him, under the circumstances. But he is very weak. I had hoped he would be stronger.'

      'He is. But he has human needs.'

      'Such as?'

      'Food. Water. Nourishment. Warmth.'

      'Ah.'

      ***********************

    John frowned. Lorien didn't appear to be listening. In fact, he was already turning aside, gesturing behind him with a slow sweep of his arm.

   'You need to eat,' he said.

   John's stomach rumbled and his mouth filled with saliva as the aroma of something beefy wafted towards him. He peered over his companion's shoulder. Sure enough, there was an earthenware bowl on the ground just beside the dead fire and, judging by the steam coming from it in thin regular wisps, it was hot. He struggled to one knee and accepted Lorien's offer of support, stepping towards the food, half-expecting it to disappear as he advanced on it. There was bread, too. Hot beef something or other, and bread. He still hadn't had his answer, but that could wait.

   Lorien stood by, watching, and after a while he said, 'Tell me, does the act of taking nourishment always bring you such pleasure?'

   John stared up at him, a hunk of bread dripping with the juice of the broth from the bowl halfway to his mouth. He tried to answer, coughed and swallowed, then gave an embarrassed shake of his head, too wrapped up in the sheer joy of eating to talk.

   Lorien smiled, swept a hand over the ashes of the fire until they began to glow, bent down to retrieve a blanket and draped it around John's shoulders. John nodded his thanks, but he remained fixed on his task and Lorien sat down to wait.

   'Thank you,' John said, at last, wiping the bread around the bowl to mop up every last drop of his meal. He had no idea what he'd just eaten, and he didn't care. It had warmed him, it had put a stop to the shakes, and it had tasted like heaven.

   'You didn't answer my question,' Lorien said.

   Sheridan chewed at the last of the bread, calmly met his companion's gaze, and swallowed. 'You didn't answer mine,' he said.

      ***********************

      'Are all humans like this?'

      'No.'

      'You find his impertinence amusing?'

      'Yes.'

      'Why?'

      'Because it surprised you, too.'

      ***********************

   Lorien gazed across the fire through a pair of flat golden eyes, and for a moment he reminded John of a classroom-weary headmaster disappointed by the attitude of an otherwise promising pupil. He said, 'You are alive, my young friend, because you need to be.'

   John pushed the bowl to one side. It was the second time that his life had been saved-the second time that he'd fallen and been caught by an angel, for want of a better word-and he was no closer to understanding why it had happened now than he had been then. He studied Lorien's face, wondering if he'd get an answer if he asked. Then he figured he had nothing to lose.

   'Why?' he said. 'Why me? What do I have that is so damned important to you?'

   Lorien shrugged at him. 'You are a nexus.'

   John jerked his thumb up towards the ancient city above their heads. 'That's what they said.'

      ***********************

      'We said it too.'

      'Really?'

      'Our Inquisitor was impressed.'

      ***********************

   Lorien smiled that knowing smile that was beginning to grate on John's nerves. It was a smile that said: you have no idea. And it was annoying him because that was absolutely true.

   'And you don't believe it?'

   'No,' John said. 'Not for a minute!'

   'Believe it. The universe has called you into its service.'

   'The universe is...it's just a...it doesn't have a--'

   'It does, you know. It has a voice, and it calls to all of us, from time to time. Few hear it, even fewer respond and, of those who do, a very small number are capable of answering its summons. This time, when the universe called, it found three of you, almost at the same time, and almost in the same place.'

   John spent a few moments going over Lorien's speech. Three of them; Sinclair, himself and Delenn. The Minbari had said it, the Vorlons had said it, even Zathras had said it, but it was only now that Lorien had said it that it felt real. He pulled the blanket a little closer around him, needing something tangible to grasp on to as the weight of understanding finally settled on his shoulders.

   Lorien leaned over and laid a hand on his arm. He was smiling that smile again. 'Extraordinary, is it not?'

   John stared at him for a long time. And then he realised that no matter how long he stared, none of what he'd heard was going to make any more sense that it did already.

   'So,' he said, 'what happens now?'

   'That depends on you. It always has. You can explore. Breathe. Cease to breathe. You can go home. Or go somewhere else. Or stay. There are an infinite number of possibilities.'

   John almost laughed. Here he was, sitting in a hole in the ground on the most godforsaken planet in the known universe, talking to someone who claimed he'd been around since the Big Bang. He had to believe that the possibilities truly were endless, but it was still difficult to keep the scepticism out of his voice.

   'I fragged my ship, somehow I don't think I can yell loud enough for Ivanova to hear me, and the last time I looked I didn't have wings,' he said.

   'Oh? And when did you last look?'

   John twisted his head over his shoulder then snapped it back, his lips almost forming a rueful grin as Lorien made a sound that might have been a chuckle.

   'It has been a long time since I made someone smile.'

   There was a wistful tone to Lorien's voice that made John pause, but he didn't comment on it. The smile faded and he pulled at his blanket, twisting the rough fabric round his fists, hardly daring to ask the question.

   'You're serious? I can go...home?'

   'You may return whenever you like. If that is what you wish.'

   John's breath caught in his throat as he spoke. 'Just like that, huh?'

   'Just like that.'

   John pointed upwards. 'What about them?'

   'What about them?'

   'I think I just put myself right at the top of the Shadows most-wanted list,' John said. 'Won't they try to stop me?'

    Lorien tilted his head to one side, as though he was listening for something. 'They have other concerns,' he said.

   John did his best not to smile: he was sitting as close to God as he ever expected to get, and rejoicing in the death and destruction he'd caused up there on the planet's surface didn't seem appropriate. But the smile came anyway. He'd hurt them. Good. He'd meant to hurt them.

   'Then what are we waiting for?'

    Lorien didn't so much look at him as appraise him. 'For you to be ready.'

   John looked up at him, keeping a steady, level gaze going as he removed the blanket from his shoulders, and unfolded his long legs from beneath him. He didn't know why he was here, or how he'd survived, but now that he had he didn't intend to spend the rest of his life sitting around wondering about it. 'I'm ready,' he said.

   Lorien smiled his quiet smile, but his tone was serious. 'You came to Z'ha'dum for answers.'

   John nodded, but went about the business of getting back on his feet. 'Uh-huh.'

   'Did you get them?'

   'Not all of them.' John finally managed to get up, using the wall for support. He didn't feel as though he'd be running any marathons any time soon, but at least he was standing. He began to sweep the dust off his pants; a gesture of nonchalance that he hoped would hide any signs of his shakiness.

   'There is still much that you do not understand,' Lorien said.

   'Uh-huh,' John said. 'And there's a good chance I never will. But I do know that the longer we sit around here talking, the shorter the odds get that it won't matter very much one way or the other.'

      ***********************

      'Patience is not one of his more obvious virtues, is it?'

      'No.'

      ***********************

   Lorien gave another acquiescent nod. 'Very well, Captain,' he said. 'I see no reason to prolong our stay here. We will continue our conversation on the way.'

   Lorien went a few yards down the passageway, and beckoned John over to what appeared to be some kind of door. John hadn't even noticed it before-possibly because it hadn't been there before. He followed, though, folding the blanket into a neat square as he walked. Travelling light, he thought, sometimes it was the only way. The thought made him smile, but as he caught up with Lorien he was suddenly overwhelmed by an inner sense of foreboding that was strong enough to make him stop. He had a feeling that he was about to cross a threshold, and somehow he knew it had nothing to do with the door he was about to pass through; the line he was about to cross had more to do with flesh and blood than wood and rock.

   He glanced back, and upwards, as though if he looked hard enough he'd be able to see a city, and beyond that a balcony. He dug the fingers of his left hand into his right arm, trying to turn the heartache into something physical.

   After a very long moment, Lorien said, 'She meant a great deal to you.'

   John wiped a hand over his face and cleared his throat. 'Looks that way, doesn't it?' he said.

   'You loved her.'

   He wiped his face again, using his sleeve this time, and finally managed to wrench his gaze away from the ceiling. 'Yes, I loved her. I always will.'

   Lorien reached out to touch him, but then withdrew his hand, as though he wasn't sure how to react. 'Do not mourn for her, my friend,' he said, in a quiet voice. 'She is at peace, now. What is done is done. It is over.'

   John shook his head. 'I loved her,' he repeated. 'It's never over.'

   'And Delenn?'

   'Is the reason I'm still breathing,' John said, spinning round. 'Your point?'

      ***********************

      'I seem to have angered him.'

      'Yes.'

      'Why?'

      'He believes that love is eternal. Many of them do.'

      'Despite the evidence to the contrary?'

      'Yes.'

      ***********************

   'Forgive me, Captain. I meant no offence, I merely wish to understand. Love, at least that kind of love, is an emotion that my people abandoned a long, long time ago.'

   'What, too primitive for you?"

   Lorien shook his head and his ever-present smile faded to nothing. 'Too painful,' he said. 'Your poetry, literature and music is full of allusions to the eternal bond that is stronger than death and as precious as the air you breathe. But you have no understanding of what it really means to love someone like that, for an eternity, and then to lose them-for an eternity. My people do.'

   John straightened up, and nodded. He was quiet for a moment, thinking about it, and then he said, 'No, we understand just fine. Like I said, it's never over--even when it's over.'

   Lorien looked puzzled, but he didn't ask for any further explanations, and John didn't offer any. It all made sense to him. He pointed towards the door, hoping to stir Lorien into action. 'So, where does this lead?' he asked.

   'To the future.'

      ***********************

      'He doesn't have a future. Does he?'

      'Not as long a future as I had hoped, no, but he will have as long as is necessary.'

      'You must explain. Now. Before he leaves here.'

      'Why? What possible good would it do if he knew?'

      'It would make the choice his.'

      'The choice has always been his to make. I made that clear to him.'

      'If you do not tell him, the choice is yours.'

      'Is that important?'

      'It is to him.'

      ***********************

   Lorien's smile faded once again, and there was something in his expression that sounded a warning bell. If John hadn't been hearing the sound of warning bells ever since he'd stepped on the planet it might have worried him. As it was, it just made him even more impatient. 'Look, Lorien, can't you just tell me whatever it is you have to tell me when we're under way?'

   'When you have heard what I have to say,' he said, 'you may not wish to leave.'

   John gave a disbelieving snort. 'Believe me,' he said. 'There is nothing you could say that would make me want to stay. C'mon, let's go. We're just wasting time here.'

   John made a move towards the door but Lorien caught him by the shoulder, exerting enough pressure to stop him, and threatening enough to hurt him if he tried to move on. He didn't. But he didn't turn around either. The door was there, just inches away, and he found himself staring at it, willing it to stay ajar.

   'Just get me off this rock, Lorien,' he said, through closed teeth. 'Everything else can wait.'

   'I'm afraid it can't,' Lorien said. 'I cannot allow you to leave here until you know the truth. You are under the impression that I saved your life, Captain. I didn't.'

   John's world slipped out from under him, as though he were standing in a transport tube and the power had failed. Lorien was still speaking, but he couldn't hear much beyond the sound of rushing water in his ears. He curled his toes, trying to dig his shoes into the ground to keep his balance, but it wasn't enough.

   '--If it helps for you to think of it this way, I put a small portion of it to one side, and then returned it to you. I tried to give you more but, under the circumstances, it was not possible--'

   John reached out for the wall. All he could see was Delenn's face, and in his mind's eye he saw an image of her fading from him, as though the line that bound them together was stretching out to breaking point. Any minute now he was going to go into freefall, and his stomach felt like it was already way ahead of him.

   You're going to get home, he said to himself. You haven't come this far to blow it now. You're going to get home. That's all that matters. First rule of survival is to survive. Just hang in there.

   '--Your span will be short. Much shorter than it would have been--'

    John breathed in, long and hard, and then pushed the air out, all the way, straining to hear what Lorien was saying over the pounding in his head. He forced his eyes open and looked across at his companion. The man who'd saved his life. But hadn't. Lorien's face told him that First One guilt was just as heavy an emotion as First One love, and even if John couldn't hear him anymore it wasn't hard for him to lip-read the words, 'I'm sorry.'

   He forced the words out. 'How long, Lorien?'

   Lorien lowered his eyes, but didn't answer.

   'How long have I got?'

   'By your reckoning of time, several lunar cycles, perhaps as much as a year.'

   John pushed himself off the wall and grabbed Lorien's arm, not believing he'd heard it right. 'What?'

   'I tried to do more. It wasn't possible.'

   'Did you say...a year?'

   Lorien nodded. 'I'm sorry.'

   John stared at him. And then he laughed. It was a big, deep belly laugh that rumbled up inside of him and echoed off the cavern walls as he opened his mouth and let it all out. A year? He could get from here to Babylon Five and back a hundred times in a year. 'Ha!'

      ***********************

      'I don't understand.'

      'I never did.'

      'Curious. Is he all right?'

      'He will be.'

      ***********************

   John looked at Lorien's perplexed expression, and wanted to say something, but he didn't know what, and he wasn't sure he could. He just knew he felt like laughing and crying all at the same time. A year. He'd gone through all of this for a lousy year? Oh, but it was enough. He was going to see that sweet face again. For sure. He grinned so hard his face hurt, and he fought off the urge to kiss his companion on both cheeks; the poor guy seemed confused enough.

   'Okay,' he said, standing braced against the wall, one arm across his waist. 'You've told me. Now, can we go?'

   Lorien wiggled his shoulders, in what appeared to John to be a surprisingly human attempt to collect himself. Then he felt something heavy in his hand, and promptly dropped it. When he looked down he was staring at a standard Earthforce-issue breather mask.

   'You will need that,' Lorien said. 'Put it on.'

   John looked at the door, and then at the mask. The air was safe. He gave Lorien a quizzical look. 'Why?'

   'We could walk,' Lorien said. 'The door here leads on to other tunnels and passageways which would take us to the surface. But that would take time. There is a quicker way.'

   John looked around.

   Lorien stopped to pick up the breather, and shook out the grit and dust. 'Put it on,' he said. 'Now.'

   John shrugged, checked the air-level indicator, wiped the faceplate with his elbow, and adjusted the fastenings. Lorien waited for him to finish and then clamped a hand around his forearm.

   'You will find this more comfortable if you relax,' he said. 'Close your eyes.'

   John was about to question the command, but then he realised that his eyes were closing anyway, and there was nothing he could do to stop it happening. He made a blind grab at the body in front of him that was solid to the touch and then suddenly not solid. He felt the slightest of tremors and then the world, as he understood it, seemed to implode. He thought he might have screamed, but if he had, no one heard him.

   John's eyelids came unglued around the same time that the terror began to fade and his stomach settled. His internal clock told him that only a few seconds had passed, but he wasn't sure he trusted his internal clock anymore. He guessed he'd just done the equivalent of a hyperspace jump through several billion tons of rock, and whilst it was true that any normal human being would find that unnerving, John couldn't help wondering what the universe would think of its great nexus if it could see him now.

   When his legs stopped trembling he turned to Lorien, blinking. They were indeed on the surface of the planet, as he had suspected. Lorien wasn't wearing any breathing equipment. He wasn't shaking, either.

   'Did we just..? How did...how did we do that?'

   'The transfer of energy is the key to all things.'

   John nodded, feeling like the kid at the bottom of the class-in kindergarten. 'Oh,' he said. 'Of course.'

   He looked around without having any idea of what he was looking for. He had no way of knowing which direction he was facing, and there was nothing he could navigate by, but he guessed that they were some distance from his original landing place. He scanned the landscape; there was no sign of life, no ships overhead, and no shadow creatures he could see, it all looked just as dark and forbidding as it had from the air, and the more he saw the worse he felt.

   Lorien raised both of his arms, and John watched as the star-lit backdrop of space creased and shimmered, as though someone had thrown a pebble into a cosmic pond. A ship emerged from the ripples like a fish trawling the surface. It was more Vorlon than Shadow, more precious than gold, and it was one of the most beautiful things John had ever seen, not just for what it was, but also for what it meant.

   He stood there for what seemed like an eternity, watching the colours of the ship change and shift, listening to the quiet sound of his own steady breathing and the beating of his heart, and thinking of Delenn. Three miracles all rolled into one.

   'Beautiful,' he whispered.

   'You approve?' Lorien asked.

   John gave a "would-you-believe-it" shake of his head, as an oval shaped hole appeared in the hull. It eased a little further open as he approached it, and he murmured his appreciation.

   'Oh yeah,' he said. 'This is the best damned cab I ever saw.'



   Part Two - The journey home : Sentient Class

   John stood with his hands on his hips, staring at what he assumed was the flight deck. There was no instrumentation that he could see, just a view port. He'd been standing like that for some time, ever since the ship had taken off, busying himself with thoughts and questions about the way that it might work, because every time he stopped thinking about that he started thinking about the fact that the clock was ticking.

   He reached out and touched the green-blue wall with flat, cautious fingers. The surface rippled and yielded slightly to his touch, and he felt a gentle vibration, a sort of mental purr that rolled around the back of his skull. It felt like a welcome.

   'This is amazing,' he said. 'How do you fly this thing?'

   Lorien smiled. 'I don't,' he said.

   John drew his hand away from the shimmering metal and stared at it. 'It's sentient? Like the Vorlon ships?'

   'Yes. It feels. It understands. In the way that an animal feels and understands. But it is simply a ship. It does the things that ships do, and considers the things that ships need to consider, and it takes me wherever I need to go.'

   John was still trying to get his head round the idea that there were no panels, computers, cables or switches. 'What about navigation?'

   'It knows my thoughts, and therefore my destination.'

   John swivelled to face him, and caught a fleeting glimpse of that enigmatic smile again. He figured that anyone who could smile like that in a situation like this had to know they were invulnerable, but he still asked the question. 'How about weaponry? I assume we're not defenceless here?'

   'We are not travelling in what you call 'normal space', or hyperspace. We are visible only to a few others, and it is most unlikely that we will meet any of them on our way to Babylon Five. Any that we do meet will not pose any problems.'

   'Not hyperspace...you mean we're in another...what...dimension?'

   'Precisely.'

   John nodded as if he understood, which he didn't, not even remotely, but in the end, it didn't matter how they got there, as long as they got there.

   He turned to look out of the view-port. It wasn't just dark outside, it was black; flat, and black. An old saying came into his head, "a future without hope is like a night without stars" and the thought made him shiver. There were no stars out there, wherever "there" was.

   'How long is this going to take?' he asked.

   'Time is meaningless here, my friend.' He inclined his head and made a point of catching John's eye in a direct glance. 'The journey will take as long as it needs to take. It always does.'

   John automatically straightened up a little out of his customary "at-ease" position and flexed his shoulders. It wasn't exactly what Lorien had said as the way that he'd said it. The warning bells were starting to clang again, and this time he wouldn't let himself just ignore them.

   'You know, I get the feeling I still don't have a full hand of cards here,' he said. 'There's something you're not telling me, isn't there?'

   'Forgive me, Captain. I need to rest. And so do you.'

   It was the kind of brush-off that Earthforce generals spent years trying to perfect and it was never a good sign. Ever. John felt the hairs on his neck stiffen, and he was about to comment, but then the floor started to move, and any concerns he'd had about Lorien's demeanour were quickly forgotten in the turmoil of dealing with it.

   He stared as the fabric of the ship shifted, and changed and, as he watched, a tub, a kind of latrine-shaped receptacle, and a bed appeared out of thin air. The tub was brimming with hot, soapy water.

   John looked on in stunned silence, wondering whether this was a diversion, just something to distract him from whatever it was that Lorien was having a hard time telling him.

   If it was, it was working.

   'My God! I haven't even seen an actual tub for…well for a long time!' he said, walking over to it and dipping two fingers into the water.

   'Do you have everything you need?'

   John managed a nod and a whispered, 'Thank you.'

   He couldn't drag his gaze from the tub, and a few minutes passed before he even realised that Lorien had gone. For a moment or two he wondered where he had gone and how he had gone, but then he decided that it didn't matter; he was still around here somewhere, and no doubt he'd be back, but for now he had a little privacy.

   He stripped off as quickly as his injured shoulder would allow and left his grubby uniform in a neat pile on the bed, beside the towel and razor that had been materialised on top of it. He tested the water and then gingerly stepped in, lowering himself into a sitting position. The surface beneath him seemed to mould itself to him; not completely, just enough to hold him. It was a weird sensation at first, but when got used to it, he found that it made him feel secure, and it wasn't altogether unpleasant.

   He caught some bubbles in his hand and sniffed at them. He didn't recognise the scent, but he thought he could distinguish the two very different aromas of apple and wood-smoke. Strange, but familiar. He scooped up a little more and rubbed his numb shoulder, inspecting it carefully. There was a mass of bruising from the injury he'd sustained when the shadow creature had tried to stop him, but the skin hadn't been broken. He massaged it and as he did so the pain began to ease a little, and then die away to almost nothing. He leaned back and the tub stretched with him, moulding itself upwards and backwards to support his neck and shoulders.

   The water soothed and warmed his aching muscles, and he lay back and let his thoughts drift. He was alive. That was all that mattered. And he was going home.

   For a year.

   It hurt. He'd known it would, when the euphoria wore off. But it didn't hurt as much as the thought he'd never see her again.

   He closed his eyes as the tears came, and the face that filled his heart began to fill the space behind his eyelids too. He didn't need any techno-magical tricks to conjure up that face and he never would. It was as familiar to him as his own, and much, much more beautiful. He concentrated on the deep sense of peace he always found in her eyes and put everything else away; Lorien's reticence, the problems that he knew would be waiting for him back on the station, the war, and the tick of the clock, they were things that could be dealt with later. For now, he just wanted to enjoy this little corner of paradise while it lasted. He reckoned he deserved it.

   He had no idea how long he had lain there, lost in his dreams, but he woke up to reality when the tub shifted, almost as though it was giving him a nudge. The water was still warm, and he wondered if that was because time was standing still, because what he considered to be the normal laws of physics didn't apply here, or because Lorien, or the ship, was somehow keeping it that way.

   He smiled to himself. What he did know was that if he didn't do something soon the rest of his body was going to go the way of his fingertips and he'd resemble a giant prune.

   He submersed himself all the way under the surface to take care of his hair, and then he pulled himself up out of the water and stepped out onto the metallic floor. He expected it to feel cold, but it wasn't. He also expected it to be slippery, given that he was dripping water all over the place, but it seemed to just absorb the liquid. He shrugged, and began to towel off, noticing how much easier his shoulder felt, and how much better he felt in general. When he was done, he wrapped the towel around his waist, and smoothed back his hair with his hands, using his fingers as a comb. Somehow, it already felt pretty dry. He grinned at himself, wondering why he'd expected anything else.

   It didn't take long to complete his ablutions, especially once he'd realised that he could use the reflection of the internal lights against the view-port to give himself a mirror to shave by.

   He was just in the process of rinsing out the razor when Lorien re-appeared. 'Do you feel better now?'

    John smiled. 'Like a million credits,' he said. 'Thank you.'

   'It was simply soap and water, but I thought it might please you.' He waved his hand and the tub and its contents shrank back into the fabric of the ship.

   John's voice was soft, and sincere. 'I wasn't just talking about the comforts of home,' he said. 'You saved my life. One way or another. Thank you.'

   Lorien bent his head, and the lack of eye contact made John wonder, again, what was coming next. Instead of responding to John's thanks, Lorien merely pointed to his carefully laid out clothes and said, 'You should get dressed.'

   John glanced at his uniform, which was torn and dusty, and he didn't really relish the idea of putting it back on. He was pretty certain that Lorien could provide him with a new one, or a gold lame suit with silver trimmings if he asked for it, but it didn't seem like a good time to ask. He started to dress, keeping an eye on Lorien who had taken a few paces away and turned his back. After a while he couldn't stand the silence any longer.

   'What is it, Lorien? Something's bothering you, and I get the feeling that I'm not going to get back home until it's stopped bothering you.'

   Lorien turned his head, and once again John felt as though he was under scrutiny. There was a moment more of heavy silence, the only sound the rasp of his breathing, starting to come harder and faster. Then Lorien turned fully to face him and he felt his body slowly but surely moving to stand at something approaching attention. He shifted his gaze half an inch to the left of Lorien's right ear and stared past him, out into the darkness, into the night without stars.

   Lorien still didn't say anything, and in the end it was John who broke the silence, again. 'It will…end, won't it?' he asked, at last. 'What happened at Z'ha'dum, it will make a difference? We can end the war now, can't we?'

   'I do not see all,' Lorien said. 'I do not know everything. You make the mistake of believing, from time to time, that I am some sort of an omniscient god. I am not. I believe that you can end this war, but I do not know that for certain. I feel...a resonance, if you will, echoes of what is happening in the universe. I cannot predict the future, but I believe that you will make the difference this time. You are the key.'

   John bridled at the emphasis that Lorien put on the "you", but let his words wash over him. The warning bells were ringing hard and loud now, but they were drowned out by the voice of the one whose face he could see shining through the darkness outside. The shadows are gone, my love. The strain of standing straight and tall diminished as the light from her eyes intensified. She was always there. Always. Reminding him that he wasn't alone in all of this, and never would be.

   'Not just me,' he said. 'We. Delenn has a big part to play in all of this too.'

   Lorien inclined his head to one side and looked away, but John got the feeling that it wasn't because he'd been impressed by his sudden show of confidence. There had been a challenge in his golden stare, as well as the usual doubtful hesitation.

   'What?' John said. 'Is there some kind of a problem with that?'

   For a minute, John thought the conversation was over. But then Lorien said, 'Your reliance on Delenn is disappointing. It will need to be tempered, if you are to fulfil your destiny.'

   'Listen to me, Lorien, as far as I am concerned I don't have a destiny,' John said, tugging at his uniform jacket to emphasise his next point. 'I'm just a man. A simple, flesh and blood, one step in front of the other kind of a guy. I'll go back to Babylon Five, and I will do my damnedest to put an end to this war, because that's the way it's worked out, and because it looks like I'm the best man for the job. But I'll do it my way, with Delenn standing right beside me!'

   'And if the universe decides otherwise? If the universe decides that your paths will diverge? What then?'

   'Then the universe can go to hell!'

   Lorien ignored his outburst, and simply spoke over him, with clarity and power. 'You are The One, Captain. You have a destiny. So does Delenn.'

   'You're not listening to a word I'm saying!'

   Lorien narrowed his unblinking eyes. Parental concern had given over to parental authority, and John suddenly felt as though he was back in the presence of Sebastian.

   'You are the one who must listen,' Lorien said, his voice clear and steady. 'You must listen to your destiny, to the calling of the universe. You are The One. Singular. The One, not The Trinity, not The Multitude, or The Quartet or The Pair, but The One.'

   'What are telling me?' John asked. 'What is this?'

   'You are fated to be The One, as Sinclair was, as Delenn is. Each of you has a role to play in bringing the peace, but each role is different, separate from the other. Delenn's destiny rests with Minbar, yours rests with Earth. You, and Delenn, must do what you must do, alone. That is your true destiny, and you must accept it.'

   John shook his head. 'No,' he said, hearing the quiver in his voice, and hating himself for coming over like a frightened schoolboy, but damned if he was going to just stand there and take it like one. 'That's not true,' he went on. 'Delenn...that whole thing with the chrysalis. We were meant to be together! That was...she did that to bring our two races together! That's our destiny!'

    Lorien continued to stare him down. 'No, that was Sinclair's destiny. As I said, the universe called you to act for Earth, Delenn to act for Minbar. Your paths have crossed, and that has proved…fortunate, but once the struggle between the Shadows and the Vorlons is over, you will move on to other things. Your own, separate, destinies, if you will. You must do what you must do, alone.'

   John didn't so much sit, as buckle. In his mind he saw a picture of himself standing on the ground-slopes of an Arctic mountain, watching a marine walking away from him across the ice-floe. The marine was up there on a joint services training camp, and John's squadron was providing room-service. It was a coffee-and-cake run, literally, just in time for the commander's birthday. Both John and the marine had drawn the short straw, and so they were the ones who had been forced to don the heavy-weather gear that would stop them from freezing to death, while their buddies cheered them on from the relative comfort of their bivouacked tents on the one hand, and supply plane on the other. The marine had already walked a hundred yards when it happened. It was a trip he'd probably made a dozen times before, and John never did find out why the ice gave on that particular day. It just had. The guy had put his boot down onto the packed snow and it had kept on going. Ten minutes earlier they'd been laughing and joking, sharing off-colour stories, and knocking back and forth the usual gropo-flyboy insults. And then the world had changed. One minute the landscape was white and clear and beautiful, and then it had a blue ice-speckled lake right in the middle of it. John had spun round as he heard the loud pistol-crack and then stood and watched, helpless, as the marine disappeared into the freezing water, weighted down by the forty-pound container that John had just strapped to his back. The world had changed in a minute.

      ***********************

      'You cannot do this.'

      'I do not do anything. I merely explain. It is the way. It has always been the way.'

      'This will kill him!'

      'He is already dead, and what must be, must be.'

      ***********************

   Lorien had finished speaking, and there was silence, a terrible silence that filled the air, broken only in his head by the awful repetition of the single word that tolled in his head: alone. When he finally did manage to open his mouth the voice that came out wasn't his. It wasn't even human.

   'NO!'

   Lorien's eyes hardened until John imagined that they really were made of gold. His image began to flicker and fade, and then it grew brighter, and John had to cover his eyes to shield them from the sudden brilliant light. He felt the air pressure change around him and sensed a surge of power from within, and John believed that, this time, it really was all over. The floor beneath him shuddered, the air crackled, and his world turned black.



   Part Three - In-flight emergency

   'I'm sorry if I spoke out of turn just now, son, but I couldn't just stand by and say nothing. Are you all right?'

   John threw his arms around his father's slight frame, and this time he knew for sure that he was wasn't really dreaming and that the man that he was holding wasn't really his father. Or even a man. It was easier to allow himself to believe otherwise, though, because the alternative was just too overpowering for his brain, let alone his heart, to handle.

   'Oh God, dad.'

   'It's okay, son. I'm right here.'

   The words that John needed to say were translated into an embrace so tight that, even within the dream, it hurt. He'd once read somewhere that the way to break a man was to take away everything he had, and then give it back to him, a piece at a time. Broken. That's what they were doing. They'd taken Anna, and given her back. Broken. They'd taken his life, and given him back a tiny piece of it-and he'd been grateful for that, no matter how small and insignificant it was, because it meant something-and now they were taking the meaning away. And, what hurt the most, was not knowing why.

   He clung on to his father for what felt like an hour, although he wasn't sure how long, or even if time was passing, but gradually he felt a creeping sense of calm that started somewhere deep inside and kept on going, until his equilibrium returned and he found his voice.

   'Why, dad?' he whispered. 'Why is it never enough?'

   The old man held him a little while longer and then pushed him gently away from his shoulder and looked at him with such tenderness that John felt the tears welling up in his eyes and he had to glance away, knowing that if he started down that road he wasn't ever going to stop.

   'I don't have all of the answers, John,' he said. 'I never did, I guess.'

   His father smiled that soft sad smile that John knew so well, and pulled him down to sit beside him. They sat together, knee to knee, and neither of them spoke but it didn't seem to matter very much. For now, it seemed, they had all the time in the world, and if both of them knew that wasn't quite true, they both needed to believe it, if only for a little while.

   'What does he want from me?'

   'He wants to know that you can stand on your own two feet, John. He's trying to toughen you up a little, I guess, but he's just not sure how to go about it. It's been so long since he's had someone to talk to, and as far as I can see, you're kind of a mystery to him. He doesn't understand this need that you have to...hold on to...the people that you love.'

   'So he doesn't understand it? So what? If it gets the job done what damned difference does it make?'

   His father smiled at him. 'He's taking a big risk getting involved in the war like this. I think he just needs to know that he can rely on you. You're his only hope to put an end to the fighting once and for all and, although you might think you've already proved yourself, he's still a little worried that you might let him down when the going gets really tough.'

   John snorted. 'So, what does he want me to do? Go head to head with a shadow creature in my shorts? Eat a Vorlon for breakfast? What?!'

   His father looked away for a moment, and then found whatever it was that he needed to be able to look him in the eye. 'I can help you, son. And I will. I promise you that. But you've gotta promise me something in return.'

   'I'm listening.'

   His dad had a strange expression on his face, and John suddenly had a dreadful feeling that this was all going somewhere he wasn't going to like very much.

   'It's never easy, when you've got a price to pay, is it? I taught you a long time ago that you have to deal with the consequences of your actions, and it's a rule you've always lived by, and I admire you for that, but--'

   'Dad, look, I...'

   His father cupped his neck in his hand, and said, 'Let me get this out, son. It's easier if I just talk and you listen. For now.'

   John nodded, still scared of where this was going, and the worried look in his father's eyes.

   'Lorien needs proof that you can stand on your own two feet. And...well, I'm not meant to be here. Seems like letting me go might just be the kind of proof he's looking for. Part of it, anyways.'

   John didn't understand at first, and then it hit him like a ton of bricks. He wasn't angry any more, he was white-hot, don't-give-a-damn, all-out blazing. 'Oh no,' he said. 'No! If this is another kind of screwball test…then he can shove it! They can all shove it! This is not some kind of a game! I won't do it. Not again. If he thinks that--'

   His father grabbed his upper arms and shook him. 'John, listen to me. This is not negotiable.'

   'The hell it isn't! You have got as much to do with the fact that I'm still breathing as Lorien has! If I can't make him see that then he can just take me back to Z'ha'dum and feed me to the Shadows piece by lousy fraggin' piece!'

   'Please, Johnny. Don't make this harder than it already is. I have to go. I can't stay here, anyway. Not forever. I don't want to leave you, but I have to. If I could I'd just walk away, save you from making the decision, I would. But I can't. It doesn't work that way. You're gonna have to send me away. D'you see? You have to let me go.'

   John's chest was heaving, and the pain was spreading all over his body. His father's eyes told him that he understood how hard this was, but also just how real it was.

   His father smiled then, and there was steel behind the softness in his eyes when he added, 'You did it for Sinclair. You let him go, because you knew you had to. You can do it for me. I know you can.'

   John just shook his head. No,' he said.

   His father took his hands and squeezed them tight. 'It'll help you, son. And it'll help me too. I can't explain it so well, but me being here like this, it's kinda upsettin' a few cosmic apple-carts. And, what's more important, it's the only way you're gonna have a shot at a decent future. Lorien can only keep us both ticking over for a short time. I'm pretty high maintenance, son. I'm not sure, but with me gone, I think there's a chance that he can help you some more. Give you some more time. I want that for you.'

   John pulled away. 'Well, it's not what I want!' he yelled. 'Not at that price! And, anyway, what's the point? If the rest of what he said is true then all he'd be doing anyway is prolonging the agony! I can't live without her, dad!'

   'I told you. I think I can help you can get around that part.'

   John swung round on his heel. 'But you heard what he said-all that stuff he told me about The One, about having to do this alone-don't you get it? He could give me fifty years, or a hundred, but without her, what difference would it make?!'

   His father caught his arm again, halting his pacing. 'Now, don't go getting yourself all riled up again. I know what you're saying. It took me a while to understand it myself, but I've been around you long enough to know how you feel about Delenn.'

   'But he said that this is how it's got to be! You heard him!'

   His father cut him off with a firm shake of his head. 'No, that's what got me so worked up, earlier on. That's why I had to speak out. Lorien's just telling it the way he sees it, but he's seeing it wrong.'

   John threw his hands up in exasperation. 'Oh, and I'm just supposed to tell him that? This is Lorien we're talking about here, remember? First of the First Ones?'

   'And what, are you going to tell me that you've suddenly come over all shy about arguing with your elders and betters?'

   John's gaze travelled slowly down from his father's face to the wrinkled hand that was now spread flat against his chest. He clasped his fingers hard and squeezed.

   'I don't want to lose you, dad. I'm not ready...,' he said.

   'Then get ready, John. It's the only way. And if you do it right, maybe you can help me with something else.'

   'What?'

   His father remained quiet for a while, despite John's insistent grasping of his jacket, and then his mouth twitched into a bitter smile.

   'I don't know whether you realise it or not,' he said, 'but I'm wearing a rebel uniform too. Not all of my people agreed with what I did, provoking the enemy like that. And that's why we're in this situation, when you think about it. My people didn't come to help me that night on the station because they didn't see what was coming, they stayed away because they thought I deserved it. And the one that they sent to replace me, well I guess you might say he wasn't one of my big fans. You won't have the power to take him down, son, but I've still got some of the old fight left in me.'

   John grabbed at the image that was fading in front of his eyes, trying to make sense of what he'd just heard but knowing he didn't have the time. If he didn't say it now he'd regret it for the rest of what was left of his life.

   'I'm sorry for what happened back on the station. I didn't know what I was asking. Forgive me?'

   His father pulled him into a hug, and pressed him close. 'You asked me for one favour. That's all. I've asked you for a lot more than that. You didn't have to do any of the things I asked you to, but you did. Because you cared. And because of that, you taught me how to care. You've got to know by now that there's nothing I wouldn't do for you, and if you think it's possible to love someone that much and not find it in your heart to forgive them, then you've still got a lot further to go than I thought...'

   Kosh's dream presence faded into a clear white light that was as soft as a caress, and when John woke up he was sitting on a bed in Lorien's ship. The lights were dim, he had the mother of all headaches, and he was alone again.

   But not for long.



   Part Four - Final approach

   The air quivered, and the light flickered and changed, and grew brighter, and Lorien re-appeared. He stood at the foot of the cot that John was lying on.

   'My apologies,' he said. 'I wasn't sure what was happening, at first, and my reactions were...instinctive. Are you all right?'

   John rubbed his temples. 'I guess so,' he said, 'but if you could arrange it so that I'm a million miles away the next time you and Kosh have a difference of opinion, I'd appreciate it.'

   'You understand, then,' Lorien said.

   John gave him a brooding frown and nodded, indicating that he understood just fine, but he wasn't at all happy about it. 'Yeah, I understand.'

   'Good.'

    'No, it's not good,' John said, making a metronome of his finger. He looked up at Lorien, with a solid stare that was meant to convey the threat that if he ever found out that he was being jerked around here, he would find a way to set that right.

   Lorien pursed his lips, and his expression seemed to say that any threat John might feel moved to make would have the same effect as a sparrow threatening a golden eagle, but there was no ill-will there. 'There is a little time,' he said. 'This does not have to be done immediately.'

   'Then when?' John said.

   'You will know when the time is right, and I will help you to prepare for it.'

   John pushed his fingertips together and studied his palms. 'I'm not saying I'll go along with this. But if I did, what's involved?' he asked. 'I mean, if I do...go along...how do we...I...how do I do this?'

   Lorien considered the question, and John figured he was struggling to give an answer that he would understand. 'You are carrying only the smallest amount of the Vorlon's essence. He is trapped inside of you. Only another Vorlon can carry him home. When the time comes, his essence must be transferred to another of his kind.'

   John swallowed. 'Just like that, huh?'

   'He cannot do it for himself. It will not be easy.'

   John grimaced. 'It'll kill him, won't it?'

   Lorien nodded. 'He has held on to life for as long as he could, but yes, this will be the end for him.'

   'And if I refuse to let that happen?'

   'Then you will continue to carry him for a short time. But, gradually, the strain of keeping your two personalities separate will be too great even for him to bear, especially now that some of my own life-force is mingled with yours.' Lorien paused for a moment, giving John time to take it in, and then he added, 'A human has never carried a dying Vorlon before, but I would imagine that the end would not be pleasant, for either of you.'

   John shook his head. 'There's got to be some other way,' he said. 'There always is.'

   'No, Captain. If we cannot separate you from Kosh, then you your life span will remain as it is now. Short. Even by your human standards. I don't think any of us want that.'

   John put his hands behind his head, lay back across the bed and closed his eyes. You get a problem, you solve it, he said to himself. That's all there is to it.

   The trouble was that most of his problems involved metal and plexi-gas, vectors and trajectories, enemy ships and nuclear detonators. There was nothing in his experience that could help him work this one out.

   John felt a hand on his shoulder, and Lorien's voice intruded. 'Nothing lasts forever,' he said. 'It is a hard lesson to learn, perhaps the hardest fact that any of us have to face, no matter our experience and understanding,' he said. 'But there is a little time before you must come to terms with what you know, in your heart, and to act upon it.'

   John squinted at him. 'A little less than a year, right? Max?'

    Lorien nodded, apparently content with John's response. 'But for now, you have a more urgent task.'

   John ran his fingers through his hair, and said, 'Why does that not surprise me?'

   There was an almost imperceptible lurch, as though the ship had done a side step and shimmy, and when John checked the view-port he could see the normal backdrop of space, complete with stars. Babylon Five was hanging there, a tiny elongated speck in dead centre.

   He got up and joined Lorien at the window, mesmerised by the view. As the station grew larger before his eyes, his headache began to lift, and his worries suddenly seemed a little less pressing than they had been. He'd made it. He was home. 'Now that is what we call a sight for sore eyes,' he said.

   'I could arrange to transport both of us over there in the same way that I transported us from the caves on Z'ha'dum up to the surface,' Lorien said. 'But I thought you might prefer us to arrive on your Station in a more conventional way. It thought you might find it a little less disturbing.'

   John gave a rueful grin. He had no great desire to arrive back at his command shaking like a bowl of jello and swearing a blue streak. 'Conventional is fine by me,' he said.

    Lorien nodded. 'Simply give your instructions, frequencies, and whatever pass-codes that your security systems on Babylon Five require, to the ship. It will do the rest.'

   John shook his head in mock-censure, and drew his hand along the wall, which rippled at his touch. 'It's not an it, Lorien,' he said. 'It's a she.'

   'Why does that attitude not surprise me?' Lorien murmured, smiling his enigmatic smile as he turned back to watch through the view-port as John took his first hesitant steps at flying a sentient vessel.

   John mimicked the smile as Lorien turned his back. It felt childish, but it helped. Some. He wasn't finished yet, not by a long way. He wanted to know more about what Kosh had meant about helping him out, but for now he was content to leave it alone. His main priority had to be getting back onto the station. Once he was back then maybe he'd be able to work out the rest of it. Giving up on Delenn wasn't an option, and it never had been.

   'Ship. Begin docking protocol. Transmit docking code sequence four-two-five-one-niner, approach vector seventeen decimal five by two. Identifier, Sheridan, John Jay, Captain. Code-word: obsidian. Prep bay six glide-rail transport for launch on arrival. End protocol.'

   John watched as the station's defence grid cannons slid out of their ports and pointed their way. He had no doubts that they wouldn't do any damage even if they fired, but it still wasn't a pretty sight. The ship was being tracked, that much was obvious, even without any read-outs to prove it. But John felt pretty safe. By now C and C would have picked up on the fact that his personal codes had been used, and although that was no doubt giving Ivanova a few grey hairs there wasn't going to be any firing until she was absolutely sure of her target.

   He stood transfixed as they moved closer and closer, and strained to see if there had been any damage to the hull since he'd left. It was no small comfort to him that, apart from the usual signs of wear and tear, there wasn't a mark on her. If she had been in a fight then she'd won.

   They were about a thousand metres out when the external lights came on. John smiled. At least now he knew what time it was.

   Lorien turned to him, and his eyes seemed warmer, somehow, than they had seemed just a little while ago. 'If I didn't know better,' he said, 'I would say that your fortress of light is welcoming you home.'

   John flexed his thigh muscles and stood just a little taller. Lorien might be a lot older than he was, a thousand times more powerful, and a hell of a lot more knowledgeable about the Shadows and Vorlons than he would ever be, but they were on his turf now. John smiled an enigmatic smile of his own and said, very quietly, 'Who says you know better?'

   Lorien's ship chose that moment to shape-shift into a profile that the rapidly approaching docking bay doors could actually accommodate. John, more experienced at docking Earth-force shuttles than sentient ships from ancient races, had forgotten that part. It was just as well that this was no ordinary ship, or he'd have lost the dorsal fin and probably the engine-housing. Even so, it was possible she'd need an expensive paint job. He ducked, instinctively, as the ceiling bowed by at least six feet, and stretched by several more, and winced at Lorien's smile that grew into a chuckle and then a sort of suppressed hoot.

   John cleared his throat, and willed his blush to go away. Even if Lorien had never heard the expression "nobody likes a smartass", Ivanova had, and she'd be getting all this on record.

   John listened for the sound of a hydraulic hiss and two metallic clunks as the docking-bay airlock swung into place, and then waited for the electronic whoosh of the doors cycling through. He turned towards the place he thought the door might appear in this side of the ship and waited some more. When nothing happened he raised an eyebrow at Lorien and made an "after-you" gesture with a sweep of his arm. 'This is it,' he said. 'We can go in now.'

   Lorien folded his hands in front of him and gave John another of those looks. 'Remember, Captain, you have changed. Your friends will see that. They may treat you differently from the way that they treated you before. Some will be wary of you, others will be in awe of you, and some will be sceptical. You should be prepared for that.'

   John shook his head. 'I know my Station, Lorien, and I know my people. I can tell you exactly what's going to happen when we step off the glide-rail car. There'll be a welcoming committee-fully armed and ready to blow both our heads off if they don't believe I'm who I say I am. Franklin is going to spend the next three days hounding me with medi-scanners, and putting me through a million tests. He's also going to have a million questions for you. Susan is going to go on at me for ten minutes about scaring the crap out of her-again, and then she'll probably give me a hug. Michael is going to try to run a security background check on you, which should be fun to watch-and then, presuming you're going to be around for long enough for him to get to know you a little better, he'll get you to try some popcorn and start teaching you limericks.'

   'And Delenn?'

   It was a good question, and John's jovial mood was upset for a moment as he stopped to think about the last time he'd seen her. He'd been so mad at her, for everything, but especially for loving him so much. The tears welled up in his eyes at the thought of having to leave her behind again. A year was enough for him, it was a hell of a lot more than he'd bargained for, but it wasn't enough for her, not for the other half of his soul.

   He'd never really believed in all of that soul stuff before. Life was something that happened, and death was something that put a stop to it. Simple as that. At least it had been. It had taken a dark and lonely trip to the edge of the universe to see that great empty space inside of him for what it really was, and to help him understand why she was the only one who could ever fill it.

   He smiled then. It was only a flicker at first, but then he felt it grow into something more, something that touched his heart and soul as well as his lips.

   'You'll see,' he said, blinking back the tears that surprised him. 'When you meet her, you'll find out what all this is about.'

   Lorien nodded, and if his expression said that he was going to reserve his judgement on that for a while he seemed to be satisfied.

   'Very well,' he said. Then he opened his hands, as though he were a magician setting a small bird free, and watched in amusement as John's smile turned into an amazed gawk. The ship simply dissolved around them into thin air.

   'Sometimes things are never as they seem,' he said. Then he pointed to the glide-rail car that suddenly seemed so ugly, and frighteningly primitive. 'Whenever you are ready, Captain.'



   Part Five - Arrivals

   As John had predicted, they had been greeted by the sight of half-a-dozen PPG rifle barrels, and a crew who stared at them for a full minute with a mixture of fear, relief and disbelief on their faces before letting them pass. Michael, the only one who hadn't immediately disarmed his weapon as soon as John had opened his mouth, had swiftly stepped behind him and into Lorien's path. It had been a move that had oozed hostility and, Michael's usual paranoia notwithstanding, had seemed to John to be completely over the top. It had bothered him a little, but he'd realised that it wasn't going to faze Lorien, and he hadn't wanted to make a big deal of it.

   Since then, his feet had barely touched the ground (literally, if the mutterings of the denizens of the Zocalo had been anything to go by), and the news from Susan and Lyta regarding Arcada Seven had ensured that the pressure hadn't let up for a minute. The hour between stepping off the car and asking a dumbfounded Zack "Where's Delenn?", to the point at which he'd sent everyone but Lyta and Lorien out of his office after his impromptu debriefing, had passed in a flash. Somewhere along the line he knew that he'd wowed the crowd in the Zocalo, gone back to his quarters to pick up a fresh uniform, and called for a meeting, but most of the detail had gotten lost in the excitement.

   As entrances go, it had been fast, furious and, from the look on everyone's faces, totally overwhelming for all concerned. But now, an hour later, the fun was over, and here they were again, hip deep in trouble. Susan had just broken the news about the Vorlon fleet massing in hyperspace, and Lyta had confirmed that Arcada Seven had been annihilated. The Vorlons had come out of their shell and put themselves right at the centre of his most immediate problems, and the Vorlon ambassador was right there, watching, and reporting back. John couldn't allow that, and as hard as he tried to deny it, in the back of his mind he knew that there could only be one solution. He couldn't afford to wait.

   In the end, he'd left it to Lorien to explain to Lyta what needed to be done. He'd taken refuge behind his desk, staring at the wall, while Lorien had laid it all out for her, and clarified the rest of it for him. They were going to set a Vorlon to catch a Vorlon, killing two birds, and two Vorlons with one stone. The only problem being that one of the Vorlons was Kosh.

   When John had finally been able to look at Lyta, he'd seen the reality of her heartache, and the loss in her eyes. In a surreal moment, he'd held her in his arms, and learned more about her in those fifteen minutes than he had in all the time he'd known her.

   He'd gone straight to Medlab after that, surprising Stephen with his quiet acceptance of the tests that went on for the rest of the day. Lorien had responded to a thousand questions with careful answers that neither John nor, he suspected, Stephen fully understood. And, all the while, thoughts of ticking clocks and hourglasses had continued to force their way to the surface, fighting for elbowroom with the anger and fear that kept pushing them back.

   He'd held it all together for another twelve hours, through a nerve-wrenching conversation with Delenn, a request for help from Londo, of all people, and a war council meeting at which he'd sent Michael to deliberately goad the Vorlon ambassador into action, half hoping that Michael might actually persuade him to leave, but knowing that there was little chance of that. He'd held it together and focussed on the job at hand because they all needed him to. But this was the moment of truth.

   He looked around the gloomy docking area with a heavy heart, knowing that he was surrounded by unseen security staff covered in enough Kevlar to ground a starfury, and that, if this went wrong, they'd be just as well protected by cotton candy. The anticipation in the air weighed heavy on him, as did the guilt that was so much a part of him these days he normally didn't feel it at all.

   He gave a heavy sigh and ran an unsteady hand through his hair. He'd already used Michael as bait, and now it was Lyta's turn. How many more of them was he going to have to pin on a hook before this was through?

   He took a breath and shook himself. There was no point in thinking that way, he knew that. If the ambassador stayed, he'd lose them all. All he could do now was pray that Lyta could pull this off. It wasn't going to be easy. She was going to have to lure the ambassador out into the open, and then keep a telepathic channel open between himself, Kosh and Lorien. How that was going to work, he didn't know. He didn't want to know.

   He looked across to Lorien's position. He was standing behind the packing crates that had been carefully placed beside the doorway that led through to the central docking bay area. As John caught his eye he inclined his head, a gesture of calm recognition that jarred against John's jangling nerves.

   John raised his right hand to his lips and spoke into his link. 'Garibaldi?' he said.

   'Yeah?'

   'How are we doing?'

   'First team all set, Second team…in position. Backup ready to go.'

   'All right. Stand by. And remind everyone that we're going to have a civilian caught right in the middle here. Tell your men to watch their fire. Sheridan out.'

   He crouched down behind a crate, and glanced across at Lorien again, wondering if he was in the slightest bit worried by any of this. They were going to take out a Vorlon. With another Vorlon. Shouldn't he be just a little bit worried? Should he be standing there watching it all like he was watching some kind of lab experiment?

   John's link breeped, and his frown deepened. 'Go.'

   Zack's voice was rushed and breathless. 'Sorry, Captain. I couldn't stop her. On your six. Allen out.'

   John spun around and caught sight of the blue and red of Delenn's robe. Dammit! He was about to call out to her, to tell her to keep out of sight, or better still, to take off, but it was too late; he could already hear the cycling of the doors front and left, and Lyta's voice-the ambassador was on his way.

   He dragged his attention away from Delenn and back to the job at hand. He couldn't afford to be distracted. Not now.

   He saw Lyta turn the corner and step into the ambush zone. The ambassador was following, about three feet behind her. She was encouraging him to follow her, her face creased in concentration as, he guessed, she struggled to block him. She was doing it. She was telepathically blocking a Vorlon. Come to poppa, he whispered to himself. That's it. Couple more yards. That's right. Almost there.

   He waited until Lyta was clear and he was sure that the Vorlon was right in the middle of their electrical mousetrap, and then he gave the order.

   A thousand volts arced across the metal struts in a flurry of sparks. He called to Lyta and she threw herself across the crates that he was crouching behind. He grabbed on to her, pulling her down beside him, as the security team appeared on the walkways above them, guns pulsing.

   Lyta was shaking, and John hugged her tight into his left side, covering her with his body, and shoving her behind him. His PPG was having no more effect than a peashooter on a charging elephant, but he fired it anyway.

   'You okay?' he yelled to her, before getting off another shot.

   'What kind of a question is that!' she yelled back at him.

   He squeezed her once, and then turned his attention back to the Vorlon, contacting C and C, calling for more voltage. Its arrival was announced by a loud burst of static, clearly audible over the PPG blasts. There was an acrid smell of burning and he could see the encounter suit starting to melt as the combined force of the electrical field and the PPG pulses began to finally have an effect. And then it blew. The headpiece shattered, scattering splinters of plasteel and metal all around them, and they all fired together as a searing white light emerged from it, writhing in the air above them.

   John held on tight to his packing-crate barricade as it started to wobble and fall. He felt a low rumble through the floor beneath him, and saw two of the guards go down. A third tumbled off the walkway to his right, behind the swirling Vorlon energy ball. A fourth moved in beside him, trying to fill up the gaps in the firing line. They were putting up a great fight, but they still weren't winning. Another guard, Westerman, rushed in, three feet away to his right, taking two steps before he too crashed to the floor, yelling in pain. John wiped the sweat from his eyes, and thrust his PPG into Lyta's hand. He called to Westerman to toss him his rifle, but Westerman didn't respond, and he was trying to figure out how to get over to him, take the weapon and get closer to the Vorlon when he glimpsed the unmistakeable blue sheen of Delenn's robe. He yelled to her to get back, but she didn't hear him.

   The walls moved in and the sounds of crackling fire and pulsing weapons faded to nothing. His world narrowed until it only held the two of them. Not like this. He shoved himself up and ran towards her, screaming her name. Not like this. He hadn't come home for this.

   'Delenn!'

   The jolt of energy that crashed into him carried more power and pain than anything he'd ever experienced. He went rigid as the blaze that seared his limbs fixed him in place like a marshmallow on a stick. He searched out Delenn, and then found her, standing beside Lorien. She was okay. Scared to death, same as he was, but she was safe.

   A second spasm jerked through him and then he felt a warm surge. It started low down, rushing through him, and then it stopped, for a long time, before he felt it grow again. It was the same feeling he'd had when Kosh had intervened on Lorien's ship, but this time it was fighting against a fire; the pain cranked up another notch. His throat had constricted to the size of a straw, and his chest felt crushed and tight, then tighter still.

   He heard Lyta's voice in his head, a whispered apology, and then a third wave swelled through him. He was hit by another blast from behind, and he yelled a soundless scream of pure agony.

   'Turn.' Kosh's voice boomed in his head.

   'Do...something...can't hold on.' That was Lyta, finally beginning to feel the pressure.

   John stared at Lorien, willing him to end it, but too scared to even try to move before he gave the signal. They'd gone over and over it. 'Wait for my signal,' Lorien had warned, 'no matter what. Keep Kosh and Lyta close in your mind, but you must hold on, until the time is right. If you move too soon, we will lose you as well as Kosh to the Vorlon's rage, and I will not be able to help either of you.'

   And then it came. Lorien gave the sign, and the Vorlon screeched out an unholy sound that overwhelmed everything else. Inside, it was as though some unseen hand had turned a valve. The fire that was coursing through John's veins was met and held back by a power that freed him to turn his rigid hips and shoulders.

   'Now!'

   He turned, and was lashed by a rushing wind of hot air as the screeching swirl in front of him swept in and lunged at him. Like a skydiver he felt the tug of the ripcord and the upward jolt of the up-draught as the floor fell away. Kosh was ripped out of him, and as his legs went from under him he felt Lyta's tenuous presence drop away with a shrieking sigh.

   The lights went out, and then he felt something; hands, soft hands, cradling his head. He heard Delenn's voice, then Lorien's, fainter, and managed to push himself up to take Delenn's arm. But the effort was excrutiatingly painful, and the lights went out a second time.



   Part Six - Medevac

The next time he opened his eyes the world was bright and orderly, felt scratchily starched and clean, and smelled of disinfectant. He sighed as he realised where he was, and then told himself that it was better than waking up on Z'ha'dum.

   The gentle pressure on his right hand reminded him that it was a hell of a lot better than not waking up at all.

   He turned his head to see Delenn, smiling at him through the worry in her eyes. She looked pale, but unharmed, and it was so good to see her.

   'Welcome back,' she said.

   He leaned up on his elbows, and waited for his eyes to re-focus. 'How long was I out?' he asked.

   'Long enough,' she said, through trembling lips, that trembled a little harder at his reaction to her words. 'Too long. But you are awake now. That is all that matters.'

   'Uh-huh,' he said, rubbing her hand and giving it a gentle squeeze. 'Looks like I did it again, mm?'

   'Please...try not to make a habit of it?'

   He saw the tears begin to rise in her eyes, and he squeezed her hand a little harder. 'I promise--' he said.

   She brought two fingers up to his lips and gave a slight shake of her head in gentle admonishment. He'd already made a promise to never leave her, and he'd almost broken it already. She didn't need to hear it again.

   'I do love you,' he whispered.

   She leaned towards him as though to hear him more easily, but John knew what she needed from him. A lump formed in his throat as he fought to hold back. He'd promised himself that if this was all going to be over before it had begun then everything he'd ever learned about being close to someone told him it was better to never let it get started. But how could he look into those eyes that were so full of love for him, and deny what they were asking?

   He reached out to pull her closer, and then he gave her a hesitant kiss, fighting against the passion he couldn't afford for her to see. 'I do love you,' he repeated. 'I'll always love you.'

   Delenn stroked his face, tracing the line of his jaw, and then stretched across, to answer his declaration with another kiss. The lump in his throat grew larger, but just as he felt his resolve being pushed aside by an unfathomable need to show her how he really felt, he felt her jerk away from him anyway.

   When he opened his eyes to find out why, he saw Stephen Franklin standing there.

   'You blow that heart-monitor,' Stephen said, grinning, 'you pay for it.'

   John cleared his throat and played to the gallery by shooting Stephen a glance that reminded him where the lines were drawn. He followed it up with a rueful smile, but the expression on his face had nothing to do with what was going on in his heart. He wanted to crush her against him, and hold her there forever. But he didn't have forever. Not anymore.

   'Hi, doc.'

   'How are you feeling?' Stephen asked, looking at the chart in his hand.

   'Fine,' John responded automatically, as Stephen pressed a cool hand against his forehead.

   'Headache?'

   'No.'

   Stephen rocked John's head from one side to the other, and then got out a hand-held scanner. 'Nausea?'

   'No.'

   'Chest pains?'

   'No.'

   John followed the path of the scanner over his mid-section, trying to catch the readings. His breath caught as Stephen paused, moved back a little way and then re-scanned, but there was nothing in Stephen's expression to tell him whether that meant anything or not.

   'Any shortness of breath?'

   'No.'

   'Himmelmanentasia?'

   'No.'

   'Sure about that?'

   John looked up, realising he'd been caught out, and gave Stephen a sheepish grin.

   'You want to try any of those answers again?'

   'I'm fine, doc. Really.'

   Stephen stepped over to the bed, placed a firm hand on John's chin, pushed up his eyelids, flicked a light-pen into his eyes, gave a satisfied grunt and then turned to look at the monitors at the head of the bed.

   'Well, for once, the read-outs seem to agree with you. I don't like the look of that bruising on your forehead but you'll live…not for long if you keep going like this, mind you.'

   John flinched, but he was quick to shut down his reaction to Stephen's off-hand comment. Lorien had been vague in responding to Stephen's questions about how he had brought John back from Z'ha'dum, and the prognosis, and for now John wanted it to stay that way. Stephen would figure it out sooner or later, or John would tell him, but he didn't want to think about any of that, especially not here, and definitely not yet.

   He lifted his chin towards the door. 'How's it going out there?' he asked.

   Stephen carried on flipping through charts and pushing buttons, but John got the impression that it was busywork. 'It's going,' he said, shrugging the question off.

    John let him work on for a moment, studying his face. 'How many, Stephen?'

   Stephen didn't answer him at first, he just went on removing monitor patches, but when John grabbed his arm he stopped what he was doing and finally looked at him.

   'We lost four,' he said, 'I've got another three in intensive care, and twenty-six walking wounded.'

    John lay back on the pillow and closed his eyes. 'Who?' he asked, praying that Lyta wasn't going to be on the list.

   'Kovacs, Miller, Westerman, and Dunn,' he said. 'All in the cargo bay.'

    John grimaced, and closed his hand around Delenn's reaching fingers. Four of them. Four guys who'd got out of their beds that morning fully expecting to return to them tonight. And they weren't going to, because they'd all been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because he had put them there. He gripped the sheet with his free hand, and swallowed hard, pushing back the guilt and the pain because he knew that if he didn't it would drown him.

   'How bad are the three in IC?' he asked.

   'They'll pull through,' Stephen said. 'It was touch and go with Carl Steinberg for a while, but we got him stable. He'll make it. Hamilton and Pryce are both spinal injuries. We're running tests, but I won't know much more for another twenty-four hours. Hamilton's got a chance, I think, but Pryce is not looking good.'

   John opened his eyes, hearing the catch in Stephen's breath. 'We're going to lose him too?' he asked.

   Stephen gave a grim smile. 'No, we're not going to lose him. But his spinal cord is a total mess. We'll do what we can, but I don't think he's going to be playing much baseball from here on in.'

   John gave a worried shake of his head. 'I don't get it,' he said. 'There were maybe a dozen of us in the cargo bay. Where did the other injured come from?'

   'Mostly from the aftermath,' Stephen said.

   'Wait a minute, what aftermath?'

   Delenn explained, as well as she could, whilst Stephen continued to check and re-check the readings that the vital-signs monitors had been spewing out since John had been admitted. He wasn't giving her his full attention though; his thoughts were still with Matthew Pryce. They hadn't been close; John had only met him a few times, mostly in Earhearts, or on the baseball diamond. He had an easy way with him, a great throwing arm, and a long-time girlfriend, Gina, a comms technician who was as bright as Matt was wide in the shoulders. According to Garibaldi, when she'd first come aboard, almost three years ago, half the guys on his staff had been after her, like third-rate lawyers round an ambulance, as he'd put it. But Matt was the one she'd taken a shine to, first week off the shuttle, and they'd been together ever since.

   John wondered what would happen to them now. Pryce was going to make it, which meant he'd done a lot better than Kovacs, but he'd be waking up to a life that had been turned completely around, and so would Gina.

   And so would Delenn. Assuming he ever found the guts to tell her what had really happened at Z'ha'dum.

   Delenn's quiet monologue was disrupted by the noise and bustle of a gurney being wheeled through the main reception doors, attended by three medics and Michael Garibaldi.

   Stephen stepped outside to meet them as John and Delenn watched what was happening through the plexi-glass window.

   'It's Valenti, doc. He was outside in a 'fury when the crap hit the fan. As far as I know, he ejected, but he must have got caught in the backwash when the Vorlon ship went up. We only just got him back inside. Doesn't look too bad. Broken leg. Couple of other knocks.'

   'All right, Michael,' Stephen was saying, already carrying out a cursory examination. 'We'll take care of him.'

   'His wingman's a couple of minutes behind us. Head trauma.'

   As the conversation drifted further away and the calls of the medics started coming in quick staccato bursts outside, John leaned over the edge of the bed and opened the locker.

   'What are you looking for?' Delenn asked, moving around to the other side of the bed to help him. 'Is there something you need?'

   'My uniform,' he said.

   She sighed. 'John, you should rest.'

   'I can do that in my quarters,' he said, continuing to rummage even though it was clear that the locker was bare. 'They need the space in here.'

   'It's too soon.'

    'I don't have the time or the inclination to sit around doing nothing, Delenn,' he said.

   It came out harsher than he'd intended, and he tried to qualify it with a smile, but he could see it hadn't worked.

   'John, please--'

   Franklin stepped back into the doorway, out of the way of his team who were preparing to wheel Valenti off to a side-room. He had his back to them, but he turned when he heard the conversation.

   'Back into bed, Captain. I'm not done with you yet,' he said.

   'Where are my clothes, doc?'

   'Locked away,' Stephen said. 'Standard procedure. Consider yourself lucky you've still got your shorts.'

   John snorted. 'Standard procedure? Since when?'

   Stephen grinned, but he was already distracted by the arrival of the second gurney and was on his way out again. 'Since the last time you upped and left without leaving a tip,' he said.

   John gave a frustrated sigh and then ducked down to look beneath the bed hoping to find his shoes, at least. There was nothing there, and as he came back up again he gripped the edge of the bed and screwed his eyes up to counteract the rush of blood to his head. Delenn was beside him immediately.

   'It's all right,' he said, taking her hand. 'It's all right, I just got up a little too fast there, that's all.'

   'You should lie down,' Delenn said.

   'I've done that part.'

   Everything he said was coming out wrong, and he knew it, but there was too much going on in his mind to pay attention to any of that. All he could think of was that maybe, given what had happened to Pryce, and Kovacs, and the others, just maybe, he was wrong. That maybe a year was enough. That maybe it didn't matter.

   He thought of his father's words, 'If you fight, fight without fear. If you love, love without reservation.' It was all or nothing. It had to be. He loved her. He couldn't just turn that off.

   But every time Delenn smiled at him, he changed his mind. He thought about what she'd said to him, that the only thing worse than not getting him back would be to get him back just to lose him again. He couldn't do that to her.

   But on the other hand, if Kosh had been right in what he'd said about Lorien being to help him some more, and if Lorien had been able to do it…he had to find out. One way or the other, he had to know.

   He directed his frustration at each and every unlocked cupboard he could find, finally slamming the last one. Then he tugged the top sheet off the bed and started wrapping it around himself, throwing one end over his shoulder and tucking the other into the waistband of his boxers.

   Delenn was looking at him as though he had gone insane. 'John, what are you doing?'

   'Discharging myself,' he said.

   Stephen re-appeared then, looking harassed. 'John, would you just get back into bed? I don't have time for this,' he said.

   'I know you don't, doc, which is why I'm leaving: pants, or no pants. I'm fine. I need to see Lorien.'

   'Then send for him. As far as I know, he's in your quarters.'

   Delenn nodded. 'He was tired,' she said, by way of an explanation. 'I asked Lennier to take him to your quarters. I did not think you would mind.'

   John raised himself up to his full height, not quite realising how ridiculous that might look, given his current state of dress, although Stephen's expression quickly made it obvious.

   'C'mon, doc,' he said. 'You've said it yourself, there's nothing wrong with me, so cut me loose.'

   Stephen rubbed the top of his head in frustration, thought about it for a couple of beats and then strode across the room. 'All right,' he said, unlocking one of the cupboard doors that John had tried earlier. 'Here, help yourself.'

   'Thank you!'

   Michael put his head around the door at that point, and John glanced away, losing the smile. It was Michael who had four KIA reports to fill out, after all.

   'I'm discharging you on one condition,' Stephen was saying, 'if you show any signs-headaches, vomiting, if you so much as cough-you're back in here. You got it?'

   'I hear you, doc.'

   Michael shook his head, and turned to Stephen. 'All he needs is the beard, the book and the sandals,' he said with a quiet sigh, and then, glancing up and down at John's attire, added, 'You know, if you're planning on waltzing though the Zocalo like that you should watch your back. They nailed the last guy to a cross.'

   He said it quietly, and he'd been wearing his usual sardonic expression, but the look in his eyes made it clear that the barb was intended.

   'Michael--'

   John's growl of protest fell on deaf ears because Michael was already striding away, leaving John to look to Stephen for some kind of explanation.

   Stephen made a don't-ask-me shrug, and turned to leave too, but then gave John a quick glance and turned back to speak to Delenn.

   'Ah, this may not be the best time, but a couple of the Minbari I've got back there were asking to see you,' he said. 'Oh, and Lyta called, asked if you'd drop by when you get five minutes. It sounded important.'

   Delenn looked back at John, clearly reluctant to leave his side. He reached out for her, torn between not wanting her to leave either, and needing to see Lorien alone. He took his time, making sure that this time when he spoke, it came out right.

   'Go,' he said, rubbing her arm. 'And don't worry. I'm not going anyplace except back to my quarters. I'll check in with Lorien, make some tea, and put my feet up for a while. That's all.'

   'Are you sure you're all right?' she asked him, her concern for him plain on her face.

   'I'm sure,' he said. 'I'll see you later. Okay?'

   'If you are sure…'

   He smiled a resigned smile. 'Go.'

   'All right,' Delenn said. She took his hand, and started to say something, but then the awkwardness was back and, although she looked as though she wanted to, she was evidently not about to give him a parting kiss, not after Stephen's earlier crack.

   As soon as she was out of the door, Stephen said, 'I didn't want to say anything in front of Delenn but she mentioned that Lorien had helped you, before you lost consciousness again. That the same kind of help he gave you on Z'ha'dum?'

   John paused in the task of dressing himself, to shake his head. 'I don't know, Stephen.'

   'Well, those readings I took just now were off the scale,' Stephen continued. 'The problem is, I'm still working on calibrating a scanner that will take your modified pathology into account. Right now, I have no frame of reference until I can compare them with the scans I did yesterday. And even then, I don't know whether what I'm seeing is bad, or good. If I'm going to be able to take care of you in the future, you're not the only one who needs to speak to Lorien.'

   John pulled on his undershirt and sat down to deal with his socks, and then looked up at Stephen with a sideways glance. 'You think something's changed?'

   'As far as I can tell, yeah, something's changed.'

   The hope he hadn't dared to harbour began to rise up inside him, and John almost let himself smile. Maybe. Just maybe.

   'Okay, doc,' John said. 'When I know what's going on, I'll come back and we'll sit down and talk about it.'

   He got to his feet and slipped on his shoes, and was almost ready to leave when Stephen said, 'Oh, one more thing. Before you do go...I er...don't know if you've noticed anything missing from your quarters, but...'

   John carried on fussing with his pants, adjusting his belt then readjusting it, knowing exactly what Stephen was talking about and exactly how bad he was feeling about it. 'Forget it,' he said. 'I wasn't expecting me to come back, either.'

   'Some of it was kinda personal. I'm sorry.'

   'That's why they call 'em personal effects, I guess.' John finished fastening his jacket and pulled down the cuffs then smiled a weak smile and slapped Stephen on the shoulder. 'Subject's closed, doc. Don't give it another thought.'

   Stephen gave him a grateful smile. 'Well, to be honest I hadn't, until we got the code blue from the cargo bay a couple of hours ago. Anyhow, the er...the box...is locked up in my office, when you're ready.'



   Part Seven - Back for good

   Several days passed before John remembered to ask Delenn about her conversation with Lyta. He'd had a lot of other things on his mind.

   Lorien had confirmed that his life sentence had been increased from one year to twenty, but the relief he'd felt had been pretty short-lived. After all, as he'd always known, the news had only brought him another tough decision, to tell Delenn, or to keep it quiet; to shackle himself to her for twenty years, hoping to hell that Lorien was wrong about their separate destinies, or to accept it as the truth, and walk away, saving them both the heartache further down the line.

   In the end, though, he knew that he couldn't walk away. Lorien's race might have abandoned love, but the human race hadn't. He couldn't just switch it off. But the nagging thought that maybe it'd be better to try wouldn't leave him alone.

   Confused, and restless, he'd spent an hour or two going through the box of personal effects that he'd brought back from Stephen's office. It had felt strange at first, even morbid, but he'd used the task as a distraction and had actually caught himself smiling, from time to time, at the things that Stephen had chosen to keep. There were the obvious things, like his Earthforce commission, a single stat bar out of the dozens that he'd left in various drawers around the place, his medal of valour, the best cadet trophy he'd won at the Academy, all things his family would have kept proudly on display, he reckoned, gathering dust as the years went by. Then there was the personal stuff, his logs, his music crystals, his e-books, and letters from home. And the photographs. Of Anna. Of their wedding day. And the ring. The ring he'd bought for Delenn before he'd left for Z'ha'dum. It was finding the ring that had started to finally turn him around, thanks to a little push from Lorien.

   'Humans exchange jewellery to signify their feelings?' he'd asked, with that odd mixture of curiosity and quasi-amusement to which John was gradually becoming accustomed.

   John had explained that it was a long-standing tradition. He had taken the ring out of the box and was inspecting it carefully when Lorien had asked why this particular form of jewellery was used. Why not a brooch, he'd asked, or a necklace of the type he had seen worn by some of the females on the station.

   John had smiled at the man who'd given up on love, and for the first time he felt as though he had the upper hand.

   'What is it that amuses you?' Lorien had asked him.

   John hadn't hesitated. 'You told me that nothing lasts forever,' he'd said, and then dropped the ring into Lorien's open palm and nodded at it; a perfect circle, with no beginning and no end. 'You want to think about that some more?'

   John had been paging Delenn to come over to his quarters before Lorien had closed his mouth.

   'What are you going to do?' Lorien had said. 'I thought you had decided that Delenn should be allowed to follow her own destiny.'

   'And she will,' John had told him. 'Make no mistake about that, we are going to tell her everything, and she will follow what's in her heart, because that's what she always does. I can't shut her out, Lorien. I'm in love with her, I was in love with her before I went to Z'ha'dum, before I'd even heard of Z'ha'dum, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it.'

   'And what of the risk?' Lorien had asked. 'What if she refuses your proposal?'

   John smiled to himself now as he thought about the forthright answer he had given. He hadn't been sure that she would say yes, he hadn't been sure at all, but he'd thought back to the conversation, the row, that they'd had before he'd left for Z'ha'dum. He'd been so angry with her for not telling him what she knew and let him make his own decisions. If he'd held back this time, for the sake of not hurting her, he would have been doing exactly the same thing to her, but this time, they really would have lost each other.

   Seeing her face at the moment that Lorien had explained to her that one day he'd just run out of steam and stop, had almost been enough to change his mind. But he'd stuck with it. It had been the hardest five minutes of his life, but he'd gone through with it, because he knew that if he didn't then the rest of his life would be a life of regret and loss, no matter what happened if and when the Shadow war had been won.

   Lorien's assertion that their lives were destined to take different paths troubled him. A lot. Delenn too, he knew that. But for now, they were together, she was right here in his arms, and that was all that mattered. It was time to catch up on the events of the day, and he smiled to himself now as he realised that it was this kind of time with her that he'd missed so much since they'd been apart.

   She sat down beside him and he nestled one arm around her shoulders, shoving aside a teacup with his toe as he rested his tired legs on the coffee table in front of them. The simple fact of her presence was enough to bring a calmness into his life that wasn't there without her.

   'So,' he said. 'You think Lyta's going to be okay?'

   'Yes,' she said, jostling her head against his arm to get more comfortable. 'She was absolutely exhausted and I think she had been crying but, although I am not sure that it is the right word, she seemed content. I think she has even more reason to be pleased than we do that the Vorlon ambassador has gone. She didn't explain, and I didn't want to push her too hard, but she left me with the impression that he was most unkind to her.'

   John nodded, curling the ends of Delenn's hair through his fingers, thinking about an earlier conversation he'd had with Susan. 'Uh-huh,' he said. 'Ivanova said much the same thing. I don't think she'll be too put out that he's not around anymore.'

   'She told me that the Vorlon government had not been pleased with Kosh's actions. They thought that he had grown too close to us, and that he had weakened their cause because of it. Some of them blamed you, and me but, as Lyta was acting as his aide, some of them, the new ambassador included, blamed her. I understand how they might feel that about you and I, but Lyta? That, I don't understand. It seems ridiculous.'

   John shook his head. 'Not really,' he said.

   A slight frown furrowed Delenn's brow. 'But Lyta gave herself to them, and they allowed her to serve them. She was fascinated by them, by their culture, and their homeworld…'

   John smiled a little. 'And Kosh,' he said.

   'Yes, but surely--'

   John took her hand, wanting to explain. 'When Kosh…when I carried Kosh…I told you he came to me as an image of my father.'

   'Yes,' Delenn said. 'You said that's how you knew, the night the shadows…took him.'

   He nodded, kissing her fingers, wondering whether to tell her the next part, and then deciding that he didn't want any half-truths between them. 'He did it again, when I was on my way back here.'

   Delenn's eyes widened. 'You didn't tell me that!' she said.

   John nodded, and stroked her hand, feeling the sadness of the memory welling up inside him again. 'He told me that I had to let him go,' he said. 'I argued with him, in the dream, but…anyhow, that's not the point I'm trying to make. The point is, that when Lyta carried Kosh, when he needed to communicate with her, she told me that…well, let's just say he wasn't a father-figure. They were close, Delenn. Very close.'

   He tilted his head slightly, watching her expression, waiting to see if she understood what he was trying to say. She closed her eyes, and he saw a tear forming under her eyelid. She understood.

   He put one arm around her shoulders, and then raised his other hand to her face, brushing away the tear with a gentle sweep of his thumb.

   'When the end came, finally, in the cargo bay,' he said, voicing a hurt he'd been hiding inside ever since it had happened, 'it felt as though I'd cheated her of something. She should've been the one to let him go. Not me.'

   They held each other in silence for a while, and then Delenn turned his face up towards her. 'Perhaps she was,' she said. 'Tell me, when Kosh left you, what did you feel?'

   John took her hand, turned her palm to his lips and kissed it. 'I don't know,' he said, thinking about it, trying to remember.

   She let her fingers drift along the line of his sharp haircut. He shivered, not, as she probably thought, because her question was stirring up bad memories, but because it was tickling. It was a very pleasant kind of a tickle though, and he didn't say anything.

   'It's all right,' she said, nestling back into his shoulder. 'If this is difficult, I understand.'

   'No,' he said. 'It's okay. It's just hard to describe what went on there, at the end. I was sure that Kosh would find a way to say goodbye to me. But if he did, I don't remember. I thought I'd feel him go, at least, but I didn't. There was...something...but, to be honest, I couldn't tell which part of what I was experiencing was down to Kosh, which part was Lyta, and which part was the ambassador. Once Lorien got involved, I really don't remember anything at all, but just before that...there was a kind of a wave.'

   'A wave?'

   He nodded, thinking back, trying to remember what he had felt, and then shrugged. 'Yeah, a wave,' he said, 'that's the only way I can describe it.'

   'A wave? As in the waving of a hand? Perhaps that was the goodbye?'

   John smiled at her misunderstanding, which was reasonable enough. 'No, not that kind of a wave. It was like, well it was like a faucet being turned on, and then off, and then being turned all the way open. Why?'

   Delenn glanced away. 'I just wondered,' she said.

   John looked at her face. There was something troubling her, that much was obvious, but he couldn't imagine what it might be, or why she'd be holding it back.

   He gave her a gentle prompt, softening it by whispering the question into her hair. 'Did Lyta say something about it? About what happened?'

   Eventually, she nodded. 'Yes, but it sounds so strange. Perhaps I misunderstood.'

   When it became evident that there wasn't anything more coming, he leaned closer, letting his face drift in towards her neck, and his lips make contact with her skin. 'Well, I can't help you there,' he said, 'not if you don't tell me.'

   'It doesn't matter.'

   He didn't press her, but he didn't stop kissing her either, and he wouldn't, until she told him or they both got so distracted it had ceased to be important, for the moment. Of course, she knew that as well as he did, and before long he felt her hands in his hair.

   He slid one arm around her shoulder and down to the small of her back, drawing her in as he tilted his head and closed his eyes. His lips met hers and he savoured the taste of the tea on her lips and the flowered scent of her hair, building up the pressure and letting his tongue dance along with hers until he couldn't stand the pain of knowing that he couldn't let it go any further.

   When he opened his eyes she was watching him, as though she was memorizing every line and wrinkle, and storing it away for the future.

   'What is it?' he asked. His voice was low and breathy, and he felt his heartbeat quicken a little as her cheeks reddened.

   'I cannot lose you again,' she said. 'Not even for Minbar.'

    She buried her head into his chest and from the sputtering breaths she was taking he suddenly realised she was crying.

   'Hey,' he said, holding her just a little more tightly. 'Ssh. You won't have to. We'll find a way--'

   Her body shuddered. 'I lied to him. To Sebastien. One life or a billion. It's not the same. Not when the one life belongs to you.'

   He knew what she was saying. And how hard it was for her to say it. And why she was crying. 'Sh,' he said, feeling her pain and trying to find a way to help them both to deal it with. 'Don't do this.'

   He held on to her, rocking her in his arms, waiting until her breathing began to even out a little.

   'I love you, Delenn. And what we've got, what we've faced, that's what's going to get us through this. I believe that. We won't lose each other. I swear it.'

   'But Lorien--'

   '--has forgotten how it feels,' he said, taking her face in his hands and caressing the soft skin of her cheeks. 'They all have. That's the problem. A universe that doesn't have this kind of love in it isn't worth the saving. The First Ones have forgotten too much. We won't.'

   Delenn wiped the heel of her hand across her face. 'But if they say that that is how it's meant to be, and if Lorien is correct when he says that our destinies will diverge--'

   Again, John cut her off. He wasn't entirely sure where his new-found certainty was coming from, but he was certain. 'When I was a kid,' he said. 'I used to think my father was the wisest man in the world.'

   'And?' Delenn prompted.

   'And then...I grew up.'

   He slipped one hand beneath her hair and let the other fall to caress her side, just below the curve of her breasts, and then he dipped his head to kiss her. He felt her fingers fluttering over the short hairs at the back of his neck, and let his hand creep up to cup her breast, feeling her breath catch as his lips mirrored the pressure in his seeking fingers.

   When the kiss had ended they looked at each other and continued with a wordless conversation, the way they always had. John could hardly breathe. She was so beautiful, and he loved her far too much.

   When Delenn did, finally, speak aloud, it was pretty clear that she could see the need in his heart.

   'John,' she said, 'do you want to make love to me?'

   He smiled a gentle smile for her, that was full of understanding, and pleasure, and regret. He lifted his hand to sweep away a strand of her hair from her face, and let his fingers linger there. 'More than anything else in the world,' he said. 'But not tonight.'

   Delenn's eyes filled with tears again, and her chin fell, but he raised it back up again with the pressure of one finger, and answered the question she didn't want to ask. 'Because you're Minbari,' he said. 'Because I know how important it is to you that we wait until every last ritual has been completed, and because…it doesn't matter.'

   Delenn kept his gaze, and her eyes shone with something stronger and more lasting than teardrops. It was the fire that had first attracted him, and he felt his body respond as it flared in her again, despite his desperate clawing at the higher ground.

   'Earlier, you said that you had asked me to marry you now because we may not have a tomorrow,' she said. 'You said that you were going to love me, without reservation, and without fear for what the future may hold, because tomorrow sometimes never comes. If that is true, if you truly believe that--'

   He caressed her cheek, and turned her face until he was gazing into her eyes. 'I do believe it, Delenn,' he said, 'and I will spend the next twenty years proving it to you if you'll let me. But, as much as I want to be with you, us not sleeping together-until the rituals are done, and until are you are ready-won't make any difference to the way that I feel about you.'

   'Then it won't make any difference if we...do?'

   Her hand fell to his thigh, and he felt her breath on his cheek as she left a trail of kisses along his jaw. Blindly, he sought out her lips with his own, and although he tried to be tender, his passion for her began to win out. It had been too long, and he wanted her too much for his body to join in the battle that his brain was waging, telling him to hold back, to make sure that this was what she wanted.

   The way she kissed him left him in no doubt. She wasn't offering herself to him, she wasn't trying to reward him for something, she was demanding that he give her something of himself.

   'Did I ever tell you,' he said, when she finally gave him a second to come up for breath, 'that you don't fight fair?'

   He felt her smile against his neck, 'Many times,' she said. 'Get used to it.'

   He leaned back to look at her, smiling at her choice of phrase, one of his much-used favourites. 'Yes, ma'am,' he said, burrowing into the curls at her shoulder, seeking out the flesh of her neck and leaving a gentle kiss there, and then another, and another.

   He heard the faintest of groans in her throat, and raised his head. Her eyes were closed, and she was smiling. 'Mmm,' she murmured. 'I could get very used to that.'

   He grinned, pleased that he was pleasing her, and then continued, her sighs of contentment only serving to raise his temperature further. He let his hand slide up behind her, supporting her neck as he nibbled at her soft, warm flesh, his fingers stretching to caress the bony crest on her head.

   She gave a tense sigh and gripped his shoulder, her nails digging in as he continued with his exploration.

   'John,' she whispered, gently biting her lip. 'Careful…,'

   He glanced up to look at her, wondering what she meant, but the expression on her face gave him a few clues, and he smiled to himself. Apparently, there was more to that beautiful crest than met the eye.

   And there was so much of it.

   Keeping his hand steady, he raised his head until his lips hovered over hers again, and then he moved his finger, in a slow, gentle rub against the ridge of fleshy muscle where her crest moulded into her scalp. When she opened her mouth to utter that little sigh that had been on a direct line to his groin for the last five minutes he covered her lips with his own, swallowing her moan and letting his tongue roam free inside her.

    The reaction, from both of them, was instant and unmistakable, and John recognised the signpost at the crossroads. He leaned back, making her pause for a minute, and giving them both time to recover.

   As he held her hand he thumbed the ring he had placed there, and let his eyes travel in a slow, appreciative arc, from her finger, up across her breasts, and chin, until he was looking into her eyes. 'What matters, is that we're together,' he said, carefully, giving her one more opportunity to pull out. 'We're together, heart and soul. The rest...doesn't matter.'

   She smiled at him then, her eyes shining with tears. 'It does,' she said, 'it does, to me.'

   She reached for the collar of his shirt, fumbling with the stud, and he let her, because it felt good that she was making the first move towards what they both knew was coming, and because he was enjoying the look of anticipation behind her eyes. He smiled, and he kept on smiling, because he knew that as long as she was there he always would, no matter how long that "always" lasted. In his heart he knew, he just knew, that no matter what Lorien's views on the subject, or what the universe tried to put in their way, this time it really would last forever.

   What started on the sofa ended in his bed, and left behind a trail of crumpled clothes that led them away from the past and into a present, where the future was a lifetime away.

   They lay in each other's arms for a long time when it was over, quietly happy and deeply content just to hold and be held, to touch and be touched, to sleep, and to watch, and to wake and make love all over again.

   'At this rate, I'm not going to last five years, let alone twenty,' John said, breathless and muscle-less, as she held him through the after-glow, for the third time.

   She tensed as he said it, and he responded immediately, by wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close in, apologising for the blackness of his humour by pressing his lips to her shoulder.

   'I'm sorry,' he said, meaning it. 'But sometimes…you have to shine a light in the darkness. Smile to stop yourself from crying. If you don't, it takes over, and I don't want that for us, Delenn.'

   She nodded, and brought his hand up to the space between her breasts, holding it there, letting him feel the beating of her heart beneath the warmth of her skin. He sensed that he was forgiven, but she didn't say anything, and after a while he leaned back, pulling her over with him, needing to see her face.

   'Are you okay?' he asked.

   She smiled for him then, and her arms tightened around his waist. 'Do you have to ask?' she said.

   He stretched out a finger to touch her nose, and then trailed it down to her lips, leaving it there to be kissed. 'No,' he said. 'I guess not.'

   They slept through the night in each other's arms, and for the first time since he'd got back, they both slept peacefully, untroubled by the nightmares and memories of the past.

   Eventually though, John's peace was shattered by the electronic beep of a wake-up call, and Delenn's by the sound of him swearing at it. She smiled in mild amusement at the look on his face as the stilted computerised voice of the Earthforce internal comms system began to reel off his messages.

   'Damned computers,' he muttered.

   'Are you usually this bad tempered in the mornings?' she asked, glancing sideways at him through one open eye.

   His annoyance at being so rudely woken from what had been a very pleasant dream faded in the face of her teasing smile.

   He cuddled her into his chest, and dipped down to kiss her. 'No,' he said. 'Not usually. Until now I never minded getting up. Can't imagine what's happened to change that.'

   She snuggled down beside him again, pulling the covers over her shoulder and letting her hand slide down over his chest to his hip. He tensed slightly, and wondered for a moment if that feather-light touch was going to move on, but her hand stayed where it was, comfortable and warm at his side.

   He glanced at the time, slowly ticking away on the chrono he kept beside his bed, and groaned as he suddenly realised what day it was.

   'What is it?' Delenn asked.

   'Susan is going to be here in fifteen minutes to pick up Lorien,' he said.

   Delenn was half way out of the bed by the time he got to the end of the sentence, but he caught her hand, and pulled her back down towards him.

   'Hey, it's early,' he said. 'You don't have to get up yet.'

   She looked at him in consternation. 'Susan is coming here?'

   'Yeah,' he said.

   'Then I must go.'

   She struggled away from him, but John slid his hand behind her neck, and eased her towards him for a kiss that left her in no doubt that he wanted her to stay.

   'I'm not ashamed of what happened here last night,' he said, his voice low and gravelly. 'Are you?'

   'No,' she said, reaching up to leave a re-assuring kiss on his lips. 'I am not ashamed, and there is no regret in my heart, but the Minbari…'

   He could see the confusion in her eyes, as he drew his fingers down her cheek. He'd been right. This was going to cause all sorts of problems with the religious caste, the clan, not to mention Lennier.

    'Susan's not going to say anything,' he whispered. 'I'll make sure of that. Okay? She's going to be here for ten minutes, tops, presuming Lorien shows up on time. Then she'll be gone. It's no big deal.'

    She nodded, clearly troubled that she had caused him to believe that she was ashamed of her actions.

   'Okay,' he repeated, about to tell her that anyway she wanted to play it was fine by him, but by then she was kissing him again, and it got lost in the moment.

   It was round about then that their peace was shattered once again by the pinging of the door chime, and Susan's voice filtering through the intercom.

   John groaned, and screwed his face into the pillow. 'She's never early, not at this hour of the day,' he said.

   Delenn caressed his cheek. 'Perhaps she has some news,' she said. 'From the Corianna system. And anyway, I also have business to attend to this morning. Lennier will be looking for me before too long.'

   Susan, having received no reply that she could hear the first time, was already trying again.

   'All right,' John called out, knowing that Delenn was probably correct in her assumptions, and that the station wasn't going to put its affairs on hold just because their own affair had finally gotten started. 'Grab a shower if you want,' he said, throwing back the bedclothes, 'I'll go see what's up.'

   He snatched a robe from his closet and wrapped it round his waist, tugging at the waist-tie until it pulled in tight. Then he caught Delenn's amused smile, looked down at her point of focus and loosened it again. 'What else is up,' he said, qualifying his earlier statement with an embarrassed grin and a smothered cough.

   'All right, Susan,' he called out to the closed door as he strode into the living area. 'Where's the fire? Open.'

   'I just had a call from C and C; we've got new reports coming in,' she said, stepping into the room as soon as the door started to slide away. 'I wanted to run through them with you before I take off with Lorien. Is he here?'

   'Um, no,' John said, suddenly torn between stepping behind the kitchen counter to hide the current state of his libido, and gathering up the clothes on the floor that he'd totally forgotten about. Making a snap decision he grabbed at his abandoned shirt, reached for Delenn's dress, and underwear, and clutched the bundle to his stomach.

   Susan raised her hand to cover her mouth, presumably to hide her amusement but, as far as John could see, the only way that was going to happen was if she put a bag over her head.

   He flexed his shoulders back and shot her a warning look. 'You're early,' he said.

   'Not early enough, obviously,' she said, giving him a deliciously evil grin. She nodded towards the closed bedroom door then fixed him with the famous Ivanova stare, before adding, sotto voce, 'That'd better be Delenn in there.'

   He cleared his throat. 'Well, it's not Lorien,' he said, grinning back at her. 'Now, what can I do for you.'

   Susan shook her head. 'Under the circumstances, it'll keep,' she said, finally putting him out of his misery. 'Maybe I'd better let you get dressed. I'll go find Lorien.'

   'Good idea.'

   The air shimmered and Lorien appeared in front of them. For the first time John wondered where he'd been all night, and if he'd been anywhere at all but right there. Susan laughed at him, and then coughed to cover it.

   'Ah, there you are!' she said to Lorien, all bluff and smiles. 'You ready to go play "Hunt the First One"?'

   'Whenever you are,' he said.

   She made a flourish towards the door with one arm in an after you gesture, and then winked at John. 'See you on the flip side,' she said, trying to be serious for a moment but failing to hide her smile. 'Don't do anything I wouldn't do.'

   Lorien was already at the door and halfway out into the corridor, and she turned to follow him but John's whispered, 'Susan!' called her back.

   'Do me a favor,' he said, 'and think of something to keep Lennier occupied for the next half hour?'

   Susan gave him a disbelieving snort, which turned into a chuckle as the sound of running water came from the other side of the partition wall.

   'A whole half hour?' Susan said, raising an eyebrow. 'Lucky Delenn!'

   John suddenly realised the implication of what he'd just said. He figured they could use his cheeks to griddle pancakes.

   'No! That's not what I meant, and you know it! Please,' he said, casting a furtive glance back towards the bedroom. 'Delenn's a little…well, she's a little…it's a sensitive subject. Okay?'

   'John, take it easy,' Susan said. 'I hear you.'

   He let out a quick sigh of relief. 'Thanks,' he said, giving her smile that told her he owed her one. 'If it was up to me I wouldn't care if you sang it from the forward cargo stabilisers, but some of the Minbari contingent are not going to be too happy if this gets out. So, for now, this stays between you, me and the nearest airlock.'

   Susan nodded and gave him a quick salute. 'Aye, sir.'

   'And Commander?'

   'Yeah?'

   'Be careful out there, huh?'

   Susan grinned at him as she turned away and nodded towards the open door where Lorien stood patiently waiting. 'I've got Miracle Max on my team,' she said. 'What's there to be scared of?'



   Epilogue

   Now, that first night seemed like a lifetime ago. And it was, in a way, even though less than a week had passed. The grown-ups had left the playground, and suddenly the sand-box they'd left behind seemed enormous. In just a few days the universe had turned itself upside down, and now they had the future to think of; their own personal futures, as well as the dawn of a New Age for everyone else. And, as far as their personal futures were concerned, Lyta, Delenn felt sure, held the key.

   So, here they were, on the White Star heading back from Corianna Six to Babylon Five, waiting for Lyta to join them in the observation room.

   John rose from his seat near the view-port as she came in, gesturing for her to take it. 'Please,' he said, 'sit down.'

   He waited until she looked comfortable, not that she ever seemed to look comfortable in his presence these days, he reflected, and said, 'Delenn mentioned that before he...erm...before he left us, Kosh gave you some kind of message.'

   Lyta smiled, and glanced away, almost as though she thought John had missed something. He wondered, much later, if she'd been expecting a word of thanks, but if that's what it was she never mentioned it.

   'I thought you would have heard him,' she said.

   John shook his head. 'I heard a couple of things,' he said. 'Kosh telling me to turn around, you broadcasting that you couldn't hold on, but that's all I remember. The rest of it's a total mystery.'

   Lyta gave a slight nod, and then turned to Delenn. 'It was pretty confusing,' she said. 'Even for me. I mean I was trying to keep a channel open, and Kosh was...he was trying to hold on, you know? Trying to give himself a chance to...,'

   Her words drifted off, and John's heart melted as he saw Delenn reach out to her. Lyta scared him. She was one powerful lady, made all the more powerful by the fact that she hadn't seemed to realise it yet. As much as he wanted to trust her, and as much as he was grateful for the help she'd given them, and as much as he hated himself for the prejudice he felt towards her, she frightened him. But she didn't frighten Delenn. All Delenn could see was a woman who'd lost someone she'd loved and, being Delenn, reached out a hand of comfort.

   'It's all right,' she said, 'you don't have to--'

   Lyta breathed in noisily. 'I do,' she said, nodding her head. 'I gave the first message to you, because it was meant for you. But there was another one.'

   John and Delenn exchanged a confused glance. 'A second message?' John asked.

   Lyta looked mildly embarrassed. 'I..er…I didn't know how private it was meant to be, he...Kosh... just told me that the message about the wheel and the warrior was for you, Delenn, and that the one about the betrayer and the face was for Captain Sheridan.'

   Lyta took a breath and, from her expression, John guessed she was trying to remember the phrase that Kosh had used word for word. He knew that she'd be hearing his voice, and feeling his presence as she heard it. He could only guess how painful the process was for her, but the sense of urgency that he'd been living with for the past month wouldn't let him ease up. He had to know.

   'The what and the what? he asked.

   'Heed the word of the disloyal one, and forget not the face of your father,' Lyta said. 'That's the message.'

   Delenn looked at him, expecting him to be able to add something, but he shrugged at her. He had no more idea about the second message than any of them had had about the first.

   'Doesn't any of this mean anything to you?' Lyta asked, sounding disappointed.

   John frowned. 'What was the first one again? Delenn's message?'

   Delenn began, struggling to remember the verbatim message until Lyta joined in. 'When the fiery wheel turns, place your trust in the star of the subordinate warrior.'

   John threw his arms into the air. 'Typical Kosh,' he said. 'Never just came right out and said it, did he?'

   Lyta blushed. 'Only once,' she said, quietly.

   Delenn took her hand. 'Thank you, Lyta,' she said. 'For everything you have done for us.'

   Lyta gave her a half-smile. 'May I go now?' she asked. 'I would like...I am very tired.' She didn't wait for a response, and by the time that John had managed to pull his introspective gaze back from the sight of Bablyon Five looming large in the view-port, she had gone.

   'The face of your father,' Delenn mused. 'Do you think that means your true father? Or Kosh?'

   'And who the hell is the disloyal one?' John said, suddenly feeling dejected, and fearful again of a future that had seemed so rosy only a few nights ago from the comfort of her arms. 'None of it means anything to me. I'm sorry.'

   Delenn smiled at him. 'Kosh was a man of few words,' she said. 'I've never known him to waste them before. I'm sure we will understand what he meant, in time.'

   John bit back the words I don't have time and sat down beside her, taking her hand.

   None of it made any sense. But then, John wondered, when had it ever made sense? Who would have thought that Starkiller would be getting hitched to a member of the old Grey Council. Who would have thought that Sinclair was Valen in disguise? Who would have thought he'd be staring doom in the face one minute and booting the gods out of the galaxy the next? All they could do was hope, and trust that Kosh knew something they didn't.

   He did, of course. And it all came true, just as Lorien had said it would. John and Delenn were torn in different directions: Delenn found herself in the middle of a civil war on Minbar, just as John found himself in the middle of the conflict on Earth. But, when they found themselves fighting alone instead of side by side, they remembered to listen to the song; the way John and been taught by Kosh, and the way Delenn had always known.

   The star-fire wheel and a lonely cell on Mars might have looked to some like their final, separate, destinations.

   But Delenn and John, thanks to Kosh, found a different way.



 

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

 

 

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