Disclaimer: All of the usual stuff - all the characters in this piece are owned by J Michael Straczynski, Babylonian Productions™ and Warners™.
Author's Note: I first published this in 2000. It has now been revised, rewritten and generally, I hope, improved.
This story takes place after the 4th season episode Racing Mars; any reviews are gratefully received.
Dedication: To John, my exhaustive - and by now exhausted - beta reader. Many, many, many thanks.
That space was simply infinite blackness was one of the myths that had been exploded the first time he took a starship out. In truth, there was light everywhere: the stars, the nebula, even the planet glowed. Seeing this perfectly ordered chaos, it was easy to forget the dangers it contained. John Sheridan drew a deep breath. It still felt good to be out here with little between himself and the universe, just a few millimetres of metal and some wiring. It was how he had started his career; it was where he would always belong. From this position the station, usually silhouetted against the light from their local star, was invisible. Out of sight, but never quite out of mind.
Once that would have been his idea of hell. Funny how things change.
"Captain, what the hell do you think you're doing out there?" Ivanova's voice was distorted by the comm. system. Sheridan grimaced.
"Just having a little fly-time, Commander. Nothing for you to worry about." He could imagine her face, eyes flashing with fury. "And before you suggest it, I am not going to get myself a baby-sitter."
"You're crazy. Sir." Every word bitten off.
"I'm sorry, I seem to be losing you, interference on the channel. See you later." He turned it off, but not before he caught the beginnings of the eruption that was Ivanova on the other end.
He had no destination, no plan in mind. A few hours of peace and an enjoyment of that sensation. Sheridan tried to remember the last time he had been off the station for anything that wasn't related to a fight and failed.
One war was over and they were already fighting another - but for now, for one day, or at least for these hours, there was nothing. There was silence, there were the stars – there was Delenn.
There was always Delenn.
The only darkness, and the one to which his mind kept returning, was Garibaldi; they had gone from being firm friends to barely tolerating one another's presence within the space of a few weeks. There had to be a reason, but Sheridan couldn't see it. Conversations inevitably regressed into confrontations. He had been aware that the course he was following would antagonise people, that a few he had counted as allies might turn against him. He had just never thought that Michael Garibaldi would be one of them.
And it hurt more than he cared to admit.
Sheridan shrugged it off. Later, perhaps, he would try again. It might even work this time. For now, however, he was content to let his mind drift out to the stars.
The pulse of light was unexpected, blinding; the kind of light that penetrates straight to the brain and paralyses all of the functions. It engulfed his small craft. Sheridan experienced only numbness, and behind that the dim awareness that something was terribly wrong. Metal was buckling, the sound of it impossibly distant yet impossibly close. Control surfaces never meant to come into contact with one another were scraping together. The Starfury was shaking violently as if something was trying to rip it apart. It took an effort for Sheridan to close his eyes and in the ensuing darkness was able to collect something of his battered senses. He fired his manoeuvring thrusters in an attempt to shake off the grip of whatever force was holding him. It only increased the pressure. Ominously, the grinding of metal - his seemingly constant companion even though no more than a few seconds had elapsed - was abruptly silenced. His stomach sank; the silence could only mean components of his ship had finally, catastrophically failed and had been wrenched apart.
"Whatever Susan was going to say to me, I thoroughly deserved it," he thought grimly. "Every insult, every Russian curse. But how the hell am I going to get out of this?"
What was left of sensor array had overloaded, gone into safe mode and told him nothing; the comm. system was so scrambled that the only thing that he could hear was a terrible scream - a chilling sound all too familiar. With every system aboard the small ship either off-line or in the red, he did the only thing he could do – applied zero pitch and yaw and killed power completely. If nothing else, it would bring the Starfury to a dead stop – and it would have succeeded had something other than inertia not been at work. But there were other forces present. Unnatural forces. The light was still flooding all of his senses; it was all that he could to activate a distress beacon and hang on for ... for whatever it was. Armageddon, possibly, Sheridan thought; and a fine way to meet it. From somewhere unseen there were voices: not coming from the comm. system and not from inside his head, but calling out insistently nonetheless. He was sure that he could hear someone repeating his name. A sudden, agonising pain ripped through his body, leaving him gasping for breath. The brightness increased and then there was darkness.
'Love' was not a term that Commander Susan Ivanova had ever been comfortable with. It was an annoying, unwelcome sentiment and she was probably the last person in the universe to admit to feeling it. But the truth was she loved John Sheridan like a brother. Losing Ganya had been bad enough – she'd wanted to kill him for dying on her. And now Sheridan. For the second damned time, no less. The next time she saw him, she reflected as she made her way to C&C, she might just kill him for not learning his lesson the first time around.
"Oh, hell..." She turned sharply at her name and saw the slight yet determined figure of the Minbari ambassador bearing down on her. Her heart sank – she'd known that she would have to find Delenn sooner or later but she had not been looking forward to the meeting. Her face was too controlled; her eyes glittered dangerously.
"What has happened?"
Ivanova started in spite of herself. "How do you..." she tapered off. The question, she had to admit, was a redundant one. God – or some other higher being – might know how Sheridan and Delenn knew the things they did, but no-one else. And when it came to the connection between them, Ivanova would defy even a god to explain it.
Handling this situation professionally seemed the best approach, Ivanova decided. "We're not really sure." The words were clipped. "The Captain took his Starfury out and switched off his comm. system. We tried to keep him on our sensors, but there was some kind of... of... force out there. It looked like it stretched from Sector Fourteen." Delenn hissed; a sharp intake of breath that Ivanova tried to ignore. "There was a lot of interference," she continued, "and by the time our instruments came back on line, he'd gone. We're still trying to interpret his telemetry data for whatever clues it might give us."
There was silence for a moment. Delenn was staring beyond Ivanova – out into the stars as though she could somehow drag the missing craft, and its occupant, back through the rift by sheer force of will. It was a lost, empty look, one Ivanova had seen before and had hoped never to see again. And after it came the resolve, the hardening. When Delenn's eyes met Ivanova's again, she was the woman who had led armies. There would be no rest for her until Sheridan returned. If he returned.
For her part, Delenn felt as though someone had reached inside of her and stopped her heart. She had been deep in meditation when it had come; the sudden, inexplicable dread followed by the image of John, in pain, calling to her from somewhere she couldn't reach. For a man who valued the lives of others so highly he was, in her opinion, too reckless with his own. He should have told someone of his plans; he should have taken an escort. He should have done a million things he had not done. But if he had then he would not be the man she knew. The man she loved.
"I will try to contact Draal," she stated, no uncertainty in her voice. "His knowledge of everything that happens in this sector of space is far greater than our own. He might be able to help us."
"Good. That will help." It brought a kind of relief. If Delenn had a role to play it would keep her from brooding. It would be one less thing to worry about. And Draal was, potentially, a source of hope. She watched Delenn's retreat, robes billowing as she walked. Despite her show of stoicism, Ivanova could still see her distress and couldn't help but think that the only way that Delenn would be able to conceal her feelings about the captain would be to either wear a mask, or lock herself in her quarters. "In fact," she thought, warming to the idea, "perhaps we could lock both of them in together. That would keep Delenn happy and John out of trouble. We could set up a special channel for him straight to C&C so when we need him, it will be just as if he were in the room." The thought cheered her for a few seconds before the reality of their predicament intruded once more. She wondered briefly what her ancestors had ever done that was so bad that all of this trouble should perpetually fall on her.
"It's a good thing I'm Russian," she thought grumpily, "at least I can just blame it all on fate."
Sheridan stretched and repositioned his head. The pain was immediate and made him groan. He was dimly aware of a low hum - a generator, perhaps - and the sound of people moving around him.
"Captain Sheridan? John, are you awake?" A familiar voice, close to him.
Groggily, he opened his eyes, took a moment to focus before identifying Stephen Franklin looking down at him.
"Yeah." A soft croak. Swallowing, he tried again. "Yeah, I'm fine, Doc."
"You were lucky. Wish I could say the same for most of our fliers. Think you can sit up? I want to scan you."
The effort of raising himself left him unable to ask Franklin what the hell he was talking about. Franklin. Stephen Franklin was supposed to be on Mars. He couldn't be back so soon. Sheridan's vision blurred; he closed his eyes tightly, shook his head, took in his surroundings once more. It wasn't MedLab, he realised. A medical facility, yes. It had to be. He blinked against the dimness again, trying to clear his vision. It didn't help. Except for the pools of light from lamps suspended over the beds, the place was in near darkness. A door opened, brightness beyond. A surgical suite, he could see the instruments. And an orderly washing the blood from the floor. Sheridan turned away, his skull pounding. The walls, he noticed dully, were cut from bare rock with huge metal struts supporting them. Underground, he thought stupidly. They were underground and it made no sense.
Oblivious to his patient's confusion, Franklin was busy with his scanners and his readings. His scrubs were creased, faded, the look of too much hard wear. A fine spray of dried blood was caked on the cuffs of his trousers and the coverings over his shoes.
"Well you seem to be bouncing back quickly. I'd like to keep you in to watch for signs of concussion, but we need the bed and you're no stranger to concussions anyway. There's yet another meeting in a couple of hours. We can hear all about the latest disaster. As if I didn't know already." He looked exhausted and angry as he surveyed the heavily bandaged figures.
"What-what actually happened?"
"There were more of them than we expected - as usual. The only thing that saved our bacon this time was that they didn't seem to be very interested in us. But you know what it's like better than I do, you can't see them until they appear right in front of you." He paused. "I think that you ought to get some rest before the meeting. Just in case."
Sheridan didn't answer. He was looking around, his face impassive, but there was something beneath the control. With someone else, Franklin would have called it bewilderment. "John. Are you okay?"
Sheridan shook his head as though trying to clear it. "Stephen, I-" He broke off, eyes darting around the enclosed space. "I'm ... fine, I guess. A little shook up, that's all."
"Mmmm. I'm not sure." Franklin reached automatically for his instruments.
"I'm okay. Really. I still feel a little dazed. It'll wear off."
Sheridan strained to keep his gaze direct, focused. Franklin scrutinised his face. "I'm almost considering holding up some fingers, asking you how many and what year it is."
Sheridan was still. "Compromise. I'll count the fingers, you do the calendar."
The doctor let out a bark of a laugh. "Right." He held up a hand.
"Congratulations, you're in perfect health." Sheridan was staring at him expectantly. "You cannot be- Fine. Twenty-two-sixty-one. Happy now?"
Somehow, it was the answer he had been expecting. Sheridan felt the edge of hysteria rising, laughter forcing its way to his lips.
The doors burst open, a figure on a gurney that was barely recognisable as any form of sentient life was wheeled in. There was a low keening noise. And the smell of impending death.
Franklin was already turning, his body angling away from Sheridan but not yet moving.
"You should go." Sheridan's eyes flicked in the direction of the latest casualty, then back to the doctor's face.
"Yes. Seriously, take it easy, okay? And stop by later, I want to take another look at you."
Sheridan managed a ghost of a smile.
There was a jacket lying across the foot of the gurney, he picked it up. It was blue, dark blue, leather around the collar and down the front. He hadn't worn an EarthForce uniform for over a year. He pulled it on slowly – it felt both familiar and strange. It was scratchier than he remembered. More constrictive. Or perhaps that was just his imagination.
He stood up and steadied himself against the gurney as dizziness caught him like a blow. It was like the time-flash again. Nausea, disorientation... But this wasn't the past and it couldn't be the future. Not this, it was all wrong. And something Stephen had said started a very nasty warning bell ringing in his head. The walls were closing in; he needed to get out.
Sheridan looked around, moved towards the exit; he found himself in a long, ill-lit, corridor that was filled with people wearing grim expressions. Several greeted him as they passed. For a moment he could fool himself into believing he was on Babylon 5 as the passers-by were a mix of EarthForce personnel, some Minbari, the occasional Narn and the odd Centauri; except, of course, for the fact that Babylon 5 was not carved out of rock. The ache in his head increased with the effort to make sense of it. He told himself it was a hallucination; any moment he would wake up in MedLab – the real MedLab – on the receiving end of the wrath of at least one irate female and probably more.
Despite the dubious reassurance that rumination brought, Sheridan didn't feel very hopeful. Everything he saw seemed to be far too real to be mere hallucination. It was bizarre, but it lacked the surrealism of the dream-world.
Another voice came at him unexpectedly. Familiar, but not readily identifiable until he turned to face its owner.
"John, how are you feeling? We thought that we'd lost you this time; your Starfury looked as though it had been chewed up and spat out again."
Sheridan hoped that his face didn't reflect the staggering disbelief that he was feeling. His hope wasn't quite fulfilled when his interlocutor continued,
"Are you all right? Did Stephen let you out or did you sneak off while his back was turned?"
The smile was affable, nothing hidden in the depths of his eyes. Sheridan strove to keep his voice level. "Stephen- He, uh, he said I could go; he just thought I should get some rest before the, uh, war meeting." A guess that seemed to be correct. His new companion fell into step next to Sheridan and the captain experienced another wave of disbelief as he encountered the dark eyes.
"Sure. Want to grab some food before that? We need to talk about that meeting before we jump into it – we just had a message from a Minbari cruiser coming in. They weren't on the schedule and from what I could make out, they have some fairly high ranking people on board." With a nod, Sheridan allowed himself to be steered through the passageways, occasionally looking at the elegant figure next to him. He mind flashed back to the year before – or what should have been the year before, as he remembered it – and the last time he had seen Jeffrey Sinclair.
Draal – or, more accurately, the projection of Draal – was waiting for Delenn when she arrived at Epsilon 3. Steady gold gleaming against the dimness he inhabited, slowly settling into something that gave the illusion of solidity.
"You know what has happened."
She watched him expectantly. There was no question he knew; he had known her far too long not to be able to see the desperation she was trying so hard to hide. All she could hope was that he could give her the answers she wanted. That she needed.
"Yes, I know. He is a good man, your mate. A great one. But even the great ones can and do fall prey to foolishness on occasion." Looking harder at her, he added, "As you well know."
"Yes." Her expression was set. Draal knew her past and could lecture with the best, but the times he could lecture her had come and gone many cycles ago.
He seemed to understand. With a sigh, he concluded, "You wish to enter the Machine?"
Delenn was already moving past him towards the inner chamber. Did she know just how human she had become? That impetuosity, that rebelliousness had always been part of her, just beneath the surface - and it was now dominant, Draal noted.
His insubstantial image followed her as she made her way through the passages but he took care not to speak, not to break her concentration, along the way. For the next few hours she would need her ability to focus her efforts perhaps more than any other quality she possessed.
They were well matched, she and the Human she had chosen. For their love they would experience great joy. And great pain. But not today, he was certain. He was determined. Not today.
"You know, this will be about the millionth time that I'll have wished that we had listened to the Minbari the first time they approached us. Hell, I wish we'd listened to the Centauri, the Narn and everyone else who was telling us the same thing. But that would have been too difficult. After we beat the Dilgar we were on top of the galaxy and no bunch of - what was it EarthGov said? Paranoid aliens? - were going to keep us down. I guess hindsight is always twenty-twenty. When I think of the number of people we've lost since then, well, it isn't just us, is it? I mean everyone is going down fast in the middle of all of this. It's a nightmare, John."
Sinclair grimaced, pushed at the mass on his plate that was masquerading as something edible. "But I don't need to tell you that; I'm just the base CO – you're the tactical Commander. I hope that they bring their own supplies – I'd be embarrassed to give this slop to representatives of the Minbari government." He looked at Sheridan. "Don't get me wrong, I'll be glad to have them here. They seem to have been able to stop fighting among themselves for long enough to agree that we all need to be working together but everything depends on which clans and castes are contributing. And what they choose to contribute. We could do with some more of their cruisers here but we could do even more with regular transfers of technology: Earth has the manufacturing base but their weapons capability is still a lot superior to ours."
"Yeah, and they're tougher than nails, too - they don't spend hours passed out in MedLab because of a small knock on the head." It was a teasing voice and yet another one that Sheridan recognised. He looked up as Michael Garibaldi flung himself into a chair.
"Captain. Captain." He nodded at Sheridan and Sinclair in turn. "That was one helluva crunch you got out of. Full points for the survival instinct, and some extra for taking one of those sons-of-bitches down at the same time."
"Thanks. I'd like to see any footage of it – just to get some extra perspective. See what went wrong." Sheridan was barely keeping up his end of the conversation, hoping that his 'friends' were chalking his noncommittal attitude up to the aforementioned knock on the head. The truth, he knew, would land him in back in what passed for MedLab under psychiatric lockdown. His only hope, he reasoned, was to gather as much information as possible without divulging anything of his own. He had been running over everything in his mind, trying to reconstruct it all. So much was familiar and nothing was in the right place. It was like looking into a mirror that had been shattered, its pieces put back in disarray. The Jeffrey Sinclair to whom he had been talking for the last hour was definitely not the same person he had helped to steal Babylon 4. This was the Jeffrey Sinclair he remembered from the Mars riots. And as for Garibaldi... Well, this was definitely more like the Mr Garibaldi he knew of old. He had hoped for another chance to put things right. Sheridan smiled to himself grimly. The universe had a perverse sense of humour.
"You have to love this guy," Garibaldi continued, "nearly gets his head smashed in and a few hours later he's looking for ways of doing the same to them. Let me know if you figure it out." His tone became more serious. "I'll hold them down while you blow them sky-high. I'll get the footage to you."
"Great. Tell Susan to bring it round when she's got a moment."
Blank look and then Garibaldi's eyebrows rose. "Susan? New girl on the scene, John?"
"No, I meant-" Knowing smiles on both faces opposite him. "Never mind. Must've got the name wrong."
Garibaldi grinned broadly. "You've got so many women on the go you can't remember their names now?"
It took an effort to bite back the words. Sheridan forced a smile. "Y'know, I'm still feeling a bit disoriented. I guess that's what a near-death experience will do for you. I think I'll go back to my quarters." He stood. "If I can remember where they are."
Garibaldi evidently decided to take this as a sign of good humour and gave him directions to his quarters, along with a couple of others that he didn't really need.
There was silence at the table as two pairs of eyes followed the figure making its way across the canteen. And two smiles faded. "Is he all right?" Garibaldi met Sinclair's eyes. "He looks pretty shaken up."
"I'm sure he'll be fine." Sinclair felt less certain than he sounded. There had been an expression in Sheridan's eyes that unnerved him; it had been like looking into the face of a friend and seeing a stranger looking back out at him. Maybe it was just the after effects of the battle. Dropping the thought, he brought his mind back to the imminent arrival of the Minbari – and what they would feed them on when they got there.
The Machine was powerful and it loved power in return. And Delenn's mind was powerful. It responded to her. Even when he was separated from it, Draal could feel its pleasure. A mind and a soul such as hers – it would delight in them. And it would offer her bliss in return. She would know the possibilities of infinite knowledge, of impossible beauty, of terrible darkness. Those things were already part of her, even if she was unaware of them.
The Machine would bring that awareness. Its power was seductive.
Her arms were spread wide in its embrace and her face glowed. She valued knowledge.
But nothing that she could have seen, nothing that it could offer to her mattered as much as the being she sought. Sheridan, too, was powerful. Also a being of wisdom and beauty and darkness. And light. They both burned and the Machine loved them for it.
"John, can you hear me? Can you see me?"
"You must concentrate, Delenn." Draal's voice filled the chamber. "You must focus on who he is, not on your memories of him."
Her breathing was rapid, eyes turned almost black.
"Oh, Valen, please don't take him from me now – I won't be able to bear it, I will go mad this time. Let me reach him, let my mind reach out and touch his. John, come back to me..."
"Computer. Reference: Babylon Project. Search parameters: Earth Alliance, Minbar."
"Reference is unknown."
"Reference: White Star Fleet."
"Reference is unknown."
Trying to digest the truth of what was happening was about the most difficult thing that John Sheridan had ever had to do. When he was a child he had loved the old vids his grandfather had sometimes played for him. Old, twentieth century TV shows where some unsuspecting individual was forever being pulled into a parallel dimension. As a child he had always thought how much fun that would be. There was a reason why childish dreams were supposed to be set aside. The comp. panel was displaying records from the historical database. At least, the historical database of the dimension he now found himself in. So far, he'd discovered that there had never been an Earth-Minbari War – in this universe the Minbari had been the ones to initiate First Contact - consequently no Babylon project and very definitely no Babylon stations...
The permutations were starting to make his head hurt all over again. He looked up, again, at the footage from the battle that he had, apparently, just been in.
Even before the first viewing he had already known what he would see, but had hoped that his worst suspicions might be wrong. The appearance of the spiky, spider-like forms had made his heart sink to new-found depths. He didn't think that he could deal with this again, not so soon. Not ever. Unlike in his universe, the Shadows, as far as he could tell, were far more numerous here and had been launching sporadic attacks against emerging space-faring species for centuries. They would lie dormant just long enough that their existence could be dismissed as myth and then it would all start up again. But they had apparently decided that now was the time to launch their ultimate offensive. There had been attacks in numerous sectors. No-one was spared, every known race was being targeted in turn. Almost all had joined the resistance - the Narn, Humans, Minbari...
The Minbari. He could give the computer her name. It would be easy. A simple request and he would know. If Delenn were as well-known here as she was in his dimension, there might be a reference somewhere.
But this universe was a violent place and the Minbari were no safer from attacks than any other race. If anything, they seemed to live under a double threat of the Shadows and themselves. Their Federation was in the throes of a power struggle that was rapidly escalating into a civil war. Delenn had never been one to shy away from confrontation. If she lived among them there was no reason why that should be any different here.
But if it wasn't the news he wanted to hear he wasn't certain he could take it.
He paced the room. It was tiny, cluttered. For every object that he recognised, there were two he didn't. His own life and a stranger's colliding and this was the result.
Too many questions. He had to think; his mind wouldn't keep still long enough.
"Computer. Reference: Valen. Search parameters: Minbari."
A moment then that quiet, toneless voice.
"Reference is unknown."
He stopped. "Run the search again."
"Search complete. There are no records of reference 'Valen.' "
Delenn had told him she was a descendant of Valen. Sheridan's eyes were fixed but he saw nothing. That was it. He had his answer.
"Captain, the Minbari delegation has arrived. Captain Sinclair asks if you will join him in the reception area." The voice came over the comm. system. He stood for a moment, still, then moved slowly, pulling his jacket on again. He fumbled at the fastening, his fingers thick and clumsy. Despair was pointless, he told himself. This was not his world. But it was still hard to exist in one that didn't have her in it. Sheridan took a steadying breath, finally pulling his jacket into place. Each breath he took was one more than he should have had. He picked up the plan of the underground cave system. Degeba 3, one of the headquarters of the Shadow resistance force. Deep space, a good three-day's travel from anywhere even remotely hospitable and the middle of a battle-zone. He followed the route to the designated area.
"You look better," Sinclair noted.
He certainly didn't feel any better. "Mm."
Sinclair was quietly joined by Franklin, Garibaldi and a couple of other people he vaguely knew from EarthForce but couldn't name. The new arrivals made a half-hearted attempt at small talk but Sheridan was evidently in no mood for chat. His jaw was clenched, eyes fixed ahead. Steely. They looked uncharacteristically dark and Sinclair again had the feeling of estrangement.
Seeing that Sheridan was going to remain silent, Sinclair shifted to the business at hand. "From the information sent down from the Minbari cruiser it seems that at least one of the group is a government representative."
"Which government?" Garibaldi asked sardonically. "They seem to toss them out and reform them on a whim. Sometimes it amazes me that they're as advanced as they are. Hell, never mind; I guess it doesn't matter. At least they're here. Let's just hope they brought an arsenal with them."
Sinclair blew out a breath. "From your lips to God's ear." He moved away, exchanged a few words with a young Centauri.
Garibaldi's attention turned to his silent comrade. "How's the head?"
He was being tag-teamed, Sheridan was sure of it. It was a little touching and extremely maddening.
"Still on my shoulders, which seems to be the best I can hope for at the moment."
The other man grinned unrepentantly. But his eyes were wary and watchful.
There was no ceremony before the doors at the far end opened. It was a small group. Rangers, both Human and Minbari. A few Warrior Caste, the heavy studs on their battle dress glinting in the glare of harsh lighting, their faces grim. Their leader looked tiny by comparison and for a moment everything just stopped. Sheridan felt as if all of his insides were being squeezed.
"Delenn." It was involuntary, her name on his lips. Valen didn't exist. She shouldn't be here. She couldn't be here...
"Huh?" Garibaldi muttered out of the corner of his mouth.
No reply. He was too busy looking at her. She was Minbari. Full Minbari. He didn't know why that surprised him; it was no more illogical than her existing here in the first place and it was something he should have thought of. All of the things that weren't right in this universe, this was just another. Sheridan had seen pictures of Delenn from before her transformation; he knew what she had looked like. The reality of it was still a shock. The bridge of her nose was wider, flatter, her brow-ridge still delicate but more pronounced. Ears small and well-formed, low beneath the ornate bone-crest wrapped around her skull. The intricate cerulean pattern across her scalp stood in contrast to the translucent peach of her skin. And she was still beautiful: the same sensitive lines of her face, characterised by strength, the same intense, exquisite grey eyes. She was also far paler than he had ever seen her. Thinner. She held herself erect but he knew her well enough to see the signs of exhaustion in the heaviness of her limbs.
"I wonder if you would have fallen in love with me the way I was before the chrysalis?"
He'd laughed when she had asked that. He had told her she was beautiful. Not for the first time – he always told her she was beautiful. She'd been lying in his arms and she had laughed in return - a surprisingly melodious, childlike sound coming from one normally so serious. He'd dodged her question with the same one right back at her. Could she, would she, have loved him the way she had been? They'd both been laughing and then... He remembered how her hair had spread across the pillow as she pulled him down beside her. They had been entwined in sheets and each other and the whispers of lovers. He'd lost the questions and himself in her as the night claimed them and he couldn't remember whether either of them ever answered.
He should have answered. He should have told her that one simple truth. The woman making her way down the line of officers was a stranger ... but she wasn't. She was his Delenn. Even in another universe; even when a whole universe stood between- He stifled the thoughts; he would drive himself mad this way.
She was introducing herself to Sinclair.
"I am Satai Delenn of the clan Mir." Their hands met, no hesitation on her part – she was used to this ritual. At the sound of her name Garibaldi started slightly and shot Sheridan a quizzical look. Sheridan had been taking note of every aspect of her appearance, had noticed that she was wearing the Isil'zha and the cloak of Ranger One. When she was finally in front of him, he looked deeply into her eyes and bowed slightly towards her, imitating the movement he had seen her use so many times before.
Most of the phrases in Adronato he knew he had learnt from her. They were words spoken by lovers, not new acquaintances meeting for the first time. But he had studied, on the rare occasions when he had the time. A way of bringing himself closer to her. His greeting ritual was faltering at best, his accent no doubt atrocious but the intended effect was achieved: at the sound of her language and the use of her title, Anla'Shok Na, her eyes widened and she stared at him. She was the one stumbling as she returned his welcome, her gaze never quite leaving his; in the end they stood before each other, wordless.
Oblivious to the look passing between them, Sinclair intervened. "Would you like to be shown to your quarters, Satai, before we begin the briefing?"
Delenn started slightly. It took another moment before she turned but she recovered quickly. "Thank-you, Captain, but I think that we should “get down to business” as soon as possible. We were able to refresh ourselves on board."
"It's just as well we get started," Sinclair sighed. "I'm afraid that what rooms we have are very basic and the catering is not much to speak of; but I hope that you will be as comfortable as possible." They flanked her, Sinclair one side and Sheridan the other. Her retinue and the base's ranking military personnel fell into line behind them.
Her hands moved in a graceful gesture of dismissal. "We have brought some supplies including medical equipment that you may be able to use. I know how difficult the situation has become here. Even though we have our own troubles at home the Rangers have kept me informed."
They had reached the War Room, seated themselves around the large table.
"Right," Sinclair folded his hands, resting them lightly on the table top, "let's begin."
The news was as bad as any Sheridan had ever heard and all too familiar. It was a war he could have done without fighting once, let alone twice. The resistance was scattered all over the outer sectors in a desperate attempt to stop the Shadows from breaking into the centre. Theoretically, it was a good strategy: stretching the enemy's lines of communication and support while at the same time concentrating one's own. In reality it had been disastrous. The Shadows were simply too powerful for superior tactics to make much difference - and the losses among the Younger Races were horrifying. The emotional toll was visible in the expressions of everyone he saw. Exhaustion, desperation. Clinging to a strategy that they knew was slowly stripping their superior numbers away but hanging on anyway because they didn't know what else to do. But what was obvious to all was that their days were numbered. They were staring into the face of an overwhelming defeat. And there was nowhere else to go; behind them, their core systems were all that remained.
The newcomers had brought supplies - arms, food, some much-needed medicines - but little hope. Their commander, Vadiri, was powerfully built: one side of his face disfigured by scarring, the other heavily tattooed; the metal studs of his ceremonial battle dress were augmented with tiny serrated edges. Any Minbari warrior would fight to the death and beyond. A soldier such as this could, through sheer force of will, perform feats otherwise thought of as impossible.
Yet even he looked hunted, wore the look of someone who has nothing more to offer. Death soon becomes a welcome surrender of your burdens at that stage; Sheridan had seen that look too many times before.
"We were intercepted by one of their vessels." The old warrior's words were slow, strongly accented and carefully pronounced. The Human tongue was still something he was unaccustomed to using but dependency on a translator was beneath his dignity. "They did not fire on us. We took up battle formation; we were prepared. It came within range and then pulled away. It was sudden. I would have given the order to fire but it disappeared." His hands moved, imitating the motion of the ship. "To me, this makes no tactical sense. We were vulnerable; they could have destroyed us easily. Too easily," he added.
"For that we should be grateful, Alyt," Delenn commented quietly.
Vadiri inclined his head slightly; he seemed almost offended, as though the enemy's lack of interest was a slight on his honour.
"But I agree, it did not make sense," she continued for the benefit of the others assembled. "They appeared on an attack vector, began to close on us and then- Then it was as though they encountered an invisible barrier. But we had nothing; other than our fighter screen there were no other ships around, no one who could have come to our aid if they had attacked."
"Did you have telepaths on board?" All eyes turned to Sheridan's corner of the table.
Garibaldi started. "Captain, no offence, but what the hell has that got to do with-" "Telepaths affect the ships."
Garibaldi would have continued but there was something in the finality of Sheridan's words that silenced him. "To be exact, telepaths affect the pilots of the ships," he continued. "Shadow vessels use organic technology, living beings merged into their central cores; we know that much, right?"
"It is so." Vadiri assented.
One pair of grey eyes was not moving from his face. Sheridan strove to ignore the gaze. "If they get too close to a telepath," he continued, "it causes them pain. They can't stand it. And if the telepath is strong enough they can disrupt the connection between the core and the ship. It weakens them enough to let us hit them. Of course, our own capabilities don't have much effect, we need stronger weapons to maximise that advantage."
She was still looking at him. Now, he made himself look at her. "You do have telepaths in your crew, don't you, Satai?"
"Yes." Bewilderment, suspicion. "But how do you know all of this?"
"That's what I'd like to know." There was suspicion in Sinclair's face, too. He was frowning, long fingers beating rhythmically against the tabletop. In the silence it seemed deafening.
"Things fall apart..." The words echoed around Sheridan's head mockingly. He should have kept his mouth shut but he'd chimed in automatically and now it was too late. "It would take too long to explain." He always hated it when people used that same excuse to him. "What matters is that we're losing ships every day and nothing else we've tried so far has worked. What do we have to lose? We need to organise telepaths to be on every cruiser that goes out of here."
Sinclair nodded, still suspicious but at least willing to listen. It was good enough. It would have to be. 'In for a penny, in for a pound.' Sheridan grimaced inwardly: his thoughts seemed unable to move beyond the trite. Swallowing his misgivings, he stumbled on. "We're killing ourselves fighting the fight the Shadows want. We have to make them fight under conditions that we choose, bring them to where we want them to be – at the moment we've got all our ships stretched out on every front. If they ever decided it was time to end it all, they'd punch through and blow us all to kingdom come. Our only strategic advantage is superior numbers and it is time for us to exploit it. We need to concentrate all of our strength and above all we need leaders who can rely on the respect and obedience of all of our troops." He looked around the table. He certainly had everyone's attention; they all looked a little stunned.
Sinclair had the disconcerting feeling that Sheridan's last comment had been directed at him. "John, where did all of this come from – how do you suddenly know so much about the way a Shadow ship works?" He looked as though he was trying to see straight into Sheridan's head.
Sheridan returned his gaze calmly. "Let's just say that I have it on very good authority. We have to try to get their ships to a point where we can take out as many of them as possible with the minimum losses to ourselves."
"And you know how to do this, do you?" asked Garibaldi.
"I might. I need to give it some thought." The same pattern of attack was showing on the displays arrayed around them; he had seen that immediately. Easy to notice when you know what you're looking for. The most vulnerable area was sitting untouched right in the middle of the crumbling defences. An area filled with refugees. "Delenn, are there any White Stars available yet?"
An exclamation from Vadiri, silenced by a gesture from Delenn. All of the Minbari had stiffened. Out of the corner of his eye he saw one of the Ranger's hands move, automatically, for her denn'bok.
Delenn looked genuinely startled. "How do you know about the White Star fleet? We haven't..." Her words trailed off. She looked around the table, let out a long breath. "The White Star is a hybrid of Vorlon and Minbari technology-"
"Whoa." Garibaldi held up a hand. "Let's just back up here a moment, Satai. Vorlon technology? Vorlon? As in the race that no one has seen for, oh, about a thousand years and we wouldn't know one even if we did see 'em? Those Vorlons?"
Beneath the table, Delenn's hands flexed, clenched. "Yes, Commander. Those Vorlons."
Garibaldi seemed to have forgotten from whom the disclosure about these new ships had actually come, his attention now wholly on the diminutive Minbari across from him. "And just how long have your people been sitting on this juicy revelation?"
"The technology has been with us for many hundreds of years." Her voice was level but Sheridan could hear the strain beneath the control. "It is only recently that we have been able to understand how it works, how it could be put to use. The result is the White Star. It has weapons and manoeuvring capabilities that far exceed anything that either of our governments possess. We have been working to complete the first wave of the fleet and now that we have I had intended to present them to the forces here." There was now more curiosity than suspicion in her gaze, also an undoubted coolness as she turned their attention away from herself and back to the originator of the news. "Your intelligence seems to be excellent, Captain Sheridan."
It was, as always, a move well played, he thought. But he had gone too far. Sinclair, Garibaldi, all of the assembly were staring at him. Perhaps bringing up the White Stars had been premature but this situation was far more desperate than the war he had just come through and the only effective weapons that he had known were simply not in place. The sense of unease spreading in the room was tangible. It always came down to time and time was the thing that they never had enough of. He simply didn't have time to ease them into discovering for themselves the things he already knew. And there was certainly no time for complicated explanations. Not that anyone would believe him. Except, maybe... Sheridan looked at Delenn. She was still uncertain, still confused. Not exactly resentful but doubtless unnerved that her secret had been forced out so publicly. But despite all of that there was something in her gaze that said she wanted to believe. Just like the woman he had left behind.
Garibaldi broke the ensuing silence. "Maybe we should break here, everyone seems pretty beat." He pushed his chair back. It grated against the floor. He stood, placing both hands flat on the table, almost daring one of them to contradict him. He was spoiling for a fight.
"I think that's a good idea, Michael." Sinclair's voice was level. He turned to Delenn, his smile a little forced. "Satai, tomorrow might be a good time for you to introduce us to this new fleet."
Delenn bowed slightly in acknowledgement, but her eyes never left Sinclair's now-silent companion.
When she prowled the deck, her great mane of tawny hair tumbling down her back, Ivanova had always put him in mind of a lioness. Today, more then ever. A lioness whose cub had gone missing - although, Corwin was certain that neither Ivanova nor the captain would thank him for the comparison.
A cub? No. The captain was something else altogether.
A blip, a something on his screen. He stiffened. "Commander!"
She spun, eyes ferocious. "Well?"
"I-" He frowned. "I thought that I picked something up on the sensors, but it looks like it was just an echo."
"I'm not interested in echoes, Lieutenant, I want to hear when we have something concrete. Has Ambassador Delenn been in contact yet?"
Ivanova's lips tightened. "Let's just hope that she has more luck down there than we're having up here"
"John behaving eccentrically really isn't anything new, Jeff." Catherine Sinclair looked at her husband. Her smile was tolerant, indulgent; he wondered if it were meant for him or the absent Sheridan.
"I'm not talking about eccentric, Cathy, I'm talking about weird. It could have been a stranger in there. And he spoke to the Minbari representative as though he's known her for years."
"Well, maybe they do know each other." She joined him on the sofa, easing off her shoes, curling her legs beneath her.
Sinclair shook his head. The glass she had placed on the table in front of him went untouched. "How could they? We've never heard of her before. John's never been to Minbar before."
"Okay, so has she been off her homeworld before?"
"I-" Sinclair held up his hands helplessly. "I don't know. If they've somehow met, she's doing a damn good job of pretending she hasn't. She seems just as bewildered as we are."
Garibaldi, leaning back, hands behind his head, observed them through half-closed eyes. "John knows her all right. He said her name as soon as he saw her. If you ask me, he's been doing a lot of, how should I say this - investigating without us."
Sinclair didn't comment. He had known John Sheridan for over ten years: they had always been firm friends. Sheridan had been with him the night he had first met Catherine. He'd introduced them. John had always been more exuberant than him – he wasn't afflicted by the crippling doubts that periodically assailed Sinclair. When he did have periods of introspection he tended to keep them to himself and his flashes of mad genius always pulled them all through any dilemma. His self-confidence could be called arrogance, except for the fact of his unfailing modesty. Sheridan had always been charismatic, but Sinclair had felt as though he were in the presence of a force of nature in the War Room. But more than that, it was the way that Sheridan had looked at him. As though expecting something from him that Sinclair didn't understand. Wisdom? Insight?
There had been something different about Sheridan, not something that Sinclair could easily place. The good-humour a little more suppressed than usual, the thoughtfulness more noticeable. Admittedly, it was a situation that called for sobriety, but even so- It wasn't just that. It was as though, somehow, the fundamentals of his character had been subtly rearranged, leaving a man at once the same and yet different.
At his side, Catherine eased the band from her hair, dark waves cascading to her shoulders. She raked her fingers through it, caught him watching her and reached for his hand. Hers was warm, steady; he squeezed it gently.
Garibaldi, his gaze now fixed somewhere above their heads, continued at the puzzle. "I'd really like to know how he knew all that stuff about the telepaths – it sounded crazy. But I want to believe him and I don't know why. Maybe that last crack on the head has unleashed a latent second sight; maybe we'll have to start hiding him from Psi-Corps." Garibaldi grinned at the mental image of Sheridan as a Psi-Cop. But the smile didn't quite reach his eyes. As with Sinclair, he had found something unsettling in his old friend; and it worried him.
Sinclair was not smiling. "I just wonder what the Minbari made of him."
And at that moment at least one Minbari was wondering as well. Satai Delenn studied her guest with some trepidation while she poured out the tea. It gave her something to focus on, something to do with her hands. They shook only slightly, a few drops of hot liquid splashing against the table's stained surface. She wiped them away with her fingers. Captain Sheridan had knocked on her door over an hour ago and she now felt as though her brain had been assaulted. The story he had told her had sounded more than fantastical – he had said that himself before he even began. A war between her own people and his; the construction of a space station where he had first met her, another version of her; a place where she had become part Human and he was her friend. And then some sort of rift – temporal, spatial - that had brought him into this universe. The most pragmatic, logical part of her told her that she should humour him until she could safely coax him into leaving and then inform the other EarthForce officers that their colleague was, sadly, insane.
On her homeworld, lunatics were cared for by the elders of the temple. They were holy fools, their fractured minds bringing them in closer contact with the universe itself.
This man did not have the look of a lunatic or a fool. Something about him, something in his eyes... That, perhaps, was the only reason she was still listening. He had the look of someone who had seen beyond the reality of this life, as though he walked among the stars like a giant. Even at the first moment of their meeting, when he had looked into her face, it had been as if he knew all of the secrets of her soul; she had never known before that it was possible to feel a thrill at something so simple as hearing another person say her name. But when he looked at her, there was pain. It was almost tangible. He looked at her, and the very act of looking hurt him.
Delenn replaced the pot, pushed the cup towards him. He cradled it between his hands.
"Why have you told me all of this, Captain? Why not explain to your own people, your own friends?"
"Because I couldn't make them understand. Because you are the only person I could tell. Dammit, Delenn." He stood up and paced the room. "I know how all of this sounds. I know what you must be thinking." His eyes met hers and a faint, wry smile pulled at his lips. "Yeah, I've got a pretty good idea what you're thinking. Believe me, if I could produce one shred of evidence to back-up any of this, I'd go to Sinclair and try to work something out. But I can't. I-" He broke off, a hand running through his hair. "I'm not supposed to be here." Another memory, another smile. Different this time. Tender, almost wistful. "You know, I've lost count of how many times I've said that. And I always seem to be saying it to you."
His pacing brought him back to the sofa. Sheridan sat, took a mouthful of the tea and sat back against the cushions. There was a fragrance on the air: herbs from the tea and behind that, faint but recognisable, the scent that she always carried with her. The same scent, deep and woody, like tropical flowers after the rains.
"I know that nothing I have said makes any sense and there is no reason why you should believe me. But in some other universe, we have already fought the Shadows. And we won. And I don't know how I got from there to here." He picked his words with care. "If I was back home, you – she – would probably be telling me that the universe knows what it's doing. That somehow all of this is necessary. I'd like to believe that. So maybe my being here, now, just when you have arrived here for the first time- Well, maybe it isn't just a coincidence."
"You seem to attach great importance to my presence, Captain."
It was there again, the hurt.
"Yes, well... Like I said, I trust you." A slight spasm, fleeting. "Her. I trust her. We've been through a lot together, enough for three lifetimes. Back home, back where I should be, we're-" He tried to remember the word she had used. The formal term in her own language to which Delenn, his Delenn, had attached so much significance. At the last second he changed his mind, though the words he chose were still Adronato. "We're friends. We're very good friends." Another pause, then he added, "Partners."
At some of his previous revelations she been noticeably shocked but for the first time she looked genuinely surprised. Her head tilted. "Friends? Partners?" Delenn repeated the words as though they were something strange. It must be a very great friendship, she thought, if the sight of her brought him pain. Partners. An intentionally imprecise term, perhaps. She wondered if he was aware of the numerous interpretations his words afforded. He had chosen his words with care although his limited vocabulary in her language might account for any misunderstandings. Or give him something to hide behind. Partners on Minbar could be anything from simple friends and associates to companions during shared adversity to... Her eyes dropped from his, studying a patch on the floor and then looked up again. She studied his face and found him watching her with equal intensity. There was something guarded in his eyes.
So. In some other place and time he was her ... friend ... her partner ... then. And he had given her a mystery to solve.
He was the first to break their gaze. "I'm telling you this because I refuse to believe that you are so different from the person I know. And because I want to trust you; or maybe I just need to trust you, I don't know. But I do know that I can't bear to see you not knowing who we are to each other, even if you aren't my Delenn."
The possession in his voice spoke more than just his words. His. His Delenn. He spoke as though she were someone who belonged to him, whom he belonged to in return. Or did all Human males speak of their friends in such a manner? Perhaps she had interpreted his meaning wrongly; Humans could be strangely imprecise in their speech. But it had been his tone that had disturbed her more than his words. It was too much. She edged away from him, stood and walked across the room, trying to take in all that he had said and what he might be withholding. She was more than prepared to accept that there were forces and phenomena at work in the universe beyond her comprehension, but never before had one demanded her faith and understanding so insistently. If what he said was true, if she placed her belief in him, it could save them all. And if it was not, it could destroy them.
Sheridan could see the battle raging and hated himself for what he was doing. He told himself it was out of necessity; he needed help and she was the logical choice. It was out of mercy, he told himself, that he withheld the one piece of information that to him was the most important. To her it was meaningless. It would do neither of them any good and the knowledge might actually destroy any fragile threads of understanding he had been able to establish with her. And yet there was still selfishness: a need to see in her the same trust he had become so accustomed to seeing in those grey eyes; to model this woman on the one he knew; to demand of her the words and actions he relied on so completely from her counterpart.
Delenn's next words seemed to echo his thoughts. "This-" Her head shook. "This is impossible."
He forced a smile. "Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
"I do not understand."
"Neither do I..." He closed his eyes. "Nothing. A joke - a bad one. I'm sorry."
She would know, almost as well as he did, that the ships she brought were the last hope of stopping the Shadows. And he was asking her to commit everything she had on one throw of the dice, with nothing but his word to go on. And she had to decide now. The pattern he'd seen in the War Room was almost complete. They would be coming soon whether the White Stars were there or not.
Her shoulders were so slight, he thought. The wide cut of her robes always gave the illusion of her being bigger than she really was. But beneath all of that, and when her shoulders sagged as they did now, she seemed achingly fragile. Breakable. And this was what he was doing to her.
"You have not told me everything."
"I've told you everything that matters." A pause. "You don't believe me."
"I have not said that." She didn't turn to him. On the other side of the room she could have been light years away.
"There's no reason why you should." Sheridan tried to sound reasonable and despised the hardness he heard in his own voice. To expect a Minbari to accept everything without question was nothing more than their way but this was Delenn - to expect her to do so was more than arrogance. And yet her refusal to do just that brought a stab of resentment, immediately followed by one of guilt. He stood. "This was a mistake. I apologise for bothering you, Satai." When she turned to him, finally, it was with a look he didn't recognise.
He crossed the room to the door, hand hovering over the panel to open. "If I thought it would do any good, if it would convince you, I'd tell you more. But then, I don't know if any of it would be true for you. I could tell you that your mother is in a religious order and you still miss her, but would it be true here? I could mention that your closest friend is a master Teela writer but Mayan might not have even been born. I might say that your father used to carry on your shoulders to temple so you could see what was going on. And the first time he didn't was when you realised he was getting older and that one day-" He stopped himself. Her eyes had widened, she was breathing harder.
"I could tell you a lot of things about you and me in my far-off life." His voice was softer. "You knowing about it... It might make no difference to you at all. But knowing it made no difference to you ... well, that would make a world of difference to me." Sheridan keyed the door, walked out. He didn't look back.
Delenn paced the narrow space of her quarters, longing for clear air and the unbroken sky above. She was accustomed to being enclosed but tonight the walls were suffocating her. When the door chimed she expected it to be him. She would not answer; she would deny him entry. The chime sounded again, insistent. Delenn moved reluctantly; her shoulders were squared as the door opened. Vadiri this time and the sight of him brought both thankfulness and a tinge of disappointment.
The doorway was barely wide enough to allow him access. He squeezed through, his bulk filling her confined room. Sheridan had also filled it, but in a different way. The captain was a large man, tall, but it was his personality that had filled the space more than his physical presence.
Vadiri sat awkwardly on the sofa, looking in grave peril of sliding off its meagre surface. He was silent, studying Delenn closely. She was troubled, had been even before they had arrived at the base. That had increased over the hours since. There were many of the Warrior Caste – some in his own clan – who disapproved of a Religious assuming command of the Anla'Shok. On that matter specifically, Vadiri had little interest; all that concerned him was that whoever held that post fulfilled their duties. In that, he approved of Delenn.
The Satai had seemed an unlikely candidate. The assassination of her predecessor, Lenonn, had been a bloody affair. Just like so many other atrocities that were becoming all too frequent on their homeworld. A group of renegade Warrior Caste isolationists had fallen on him as a pack, like wild animals, armed with blades. It was never known which of them had actually struck the fatal blow. There had been too little left of his body to be certain. Not that it mattered - they had murdered him as one and as one they were guilty. The Rangers, with their mix of both Minbari and Human fighters, were an affront to their notions of racial superiority and purity. If racial purity resulted in creatures such as they, it was a notion best forgotten altogether. The assassins' hope had been that, with their leader gone, the Rangers would eventually disband - anyone who attempted to take Lenonn's place would meet the same fate, that much had been made clear. There were few who had attempted it; although, those attempts had amounted to little more than words and they had all faltered in the end. It was easy to speak of leadership but it took more than mere bravado and empty posturing to be Anla'shok Na and the Rangers could tell the true from the false.
There had been some words of condemnation from the temples following the murder. Too few. Those who had spoken out had been easily identified and targeted. The Chu'domo had been the most vocal until they and their allies had been forced to barricade themselves into their cloisters. But even then they had made their rage heard, calling out across the city from the spires that usually sounded the calls to prayer. The fighting had been taken into the temples themselves, monks in their blood-stained robes lying broken on the desecrated floors. Some of the Warrior Caste had stood with them, fighting alongside the monks and priests. Vadiri remembered those days all too clearly; he had stood with Branmer, Lenonn's clan-nephew, at the gates of the great temple in Tuzanor and the high priest had fought with a courage worthy of any warrior. But in the end he too had been cut down. And out of the horror of the Chu'domo massacre Delenn had taken up the challenge, abandoning the safe anonymity of the Council. She was not of the Chu'domo but she stood as the Anla'Shok Na in honour of the memory of Lenonn and Branmer and to defy any separatist who would dare strike down a Satai. She would not be cowed. It had won her the support of the Star Riders and, for a time, an uneasy peace had settled. Under her direction the Rangers were growing in strength. She had fire. She could be ferocious. She was what they needed.
Vadiri shifted again, the studded leather sitting heavily on his frame. He was getting too old and too tired. He knew that his best battles were behind him but fighting was the only thing he knew to do. It had been his calling all of his life.
He watched Delenn's progress from one side of the room to the other and back and was reminded of the only time he had visited Earth and had been taken to see somewhere they kept animals in cages for the amusement of Humans. A zoo, they called it. A terrible place.
"You are restless, Anla'Shok Na."
"Yes." Her hand moved to the back of her neck. "Yes. The people here. They- They are not what I expected."
One could often divine more from what Delenn did not say than from her words. "You mean the one they call Sheridan."
She smiled slightly at the formality of his phrasing. "Yes, Vadiri, I mean Sheridan. What did you think of him?"
Vadiri considered her question a moment. "He is a soldier."
That answer was to be expected. To call someone a "soldier" was the highest compliment a Warrior could pay to one who was not one of their own.
"His name is known to many of my caste – I believe that he has friends amongst the Star Riders." Her head tilted slightly – a sign of interest. Vadiri continued, "Some of his statements may have sounded peculiar, but I would caution against discounting them entirely; he is experienced and has acquitted himself bravely in battle many times. He has a reputation for turning tactical disadvantages into victories - a skill those stationed here have no doubt found essential to their survival." He considered his own words and found them lacking. "He is not like the others. For a Human, he is ... advanced."
Delenn's smile widened with genuine amusement. "Vadiri, you are a snob. I had not realised."
"I am Minbari. I know my place." He attempted to settle himself on the infernal piece of furniture installed in the room. It was a device the Humans used for torture, he decided. Nothing else could justify its existence.
"I wonder," Delenn continued softly, "if he is the one. The one of whom Sigalad spoke."
She saw the flash of irritation across his face.
Vadiri had a healthy respect for prophecy, but he refused to define his life by it. It was things like this that made dealing with a Religious very difficult. He shifted again, finally conceded defeat, and stood. "Perhaps. And perhaps prophesies only seem to come true because we want them to; have you considered that, Delenn?"
She looked tired. "I have considered many things."
A slight movement rippled across his shoulders. "I have heard it said that you consider too many things. You may wish to consider that." Another ripple across his shoulders. Laughter, this time: Warrior Caste humour.
Delenn smiled again. "Perhaps. You have the files?"
Vadiri passed her the data crystal. "The news from home is not good. We are fighting two wars but too few of us realise they are one and the same." He studied her again. "If we lose either we will lose both. You know this and I know it."
Her face was unreadable. Acknowledging something to yourself was one thing; hearing it from the lips of another was something else again. It made its reality less easy to ignore.
"You know it," he repeated. "Should the Shadows defeat us here the problems of our homeworld will be meaningless because they will appear there next. And none of us will be left to fight them. No-one. We are in need of allies, from wherever we can get them." A long silence followed until their ears rang with it. "I will leave you. You should rest; the news of the White Stars was not handled as we had wished and tomorrow those Humans will want to interrogate us. We have only been here a day and already they do not trust us. It will not be pleasant."
"I'm sure it will not."
He left her, marking his exit with the formal partings their ranks demanded.
The Humans would have many questions. But Delenn had far more of her own.
He had taken a wrong turn somewhere in search for his own quarters, one stony corridor looking much like another. Sheridan found himself back at the War Room. It was quiet, manned only by the skeleton night-duty staff and he automatically greeted the officer at the surveillance station. The young man looked astonished at being greeted by name.
It had been a horrible thing to do. He had asked for her trust and had abused hers in return. Things she had told him in moments of tenderness he had turned into a punishment for her counterpart. The revelations had stung her, he had seen that. And for a moment he had been angry. And for what? For not accepting his story without question? Would he have believed her, had their positions been reversed? As much as he hated to admit it, he knew the answer and silently he begged her forgiveness. Both their forgiveness.
Would the man who had not been to Z'ha'dum have done such a thing?
Sheridan would have liked to think not, but he remembered an outraged Talia Winters striking him in the face. But Talia was not Delenn.
But this Delenn was not someone he knew. Nor was she someone who knew him.
Circular logic, which he despised.
Sheridan left the crew to their task and commenced wandering the halls once more. It reminded him of Downbelow – that same atmosphere of desperation and the same stale smell of too many bodies squeezed together into too little space. The air was thin, musty. He wondered how many times it had been recycled. When Sheridan finally found his way back to his quarters he paced the floor, trying to think, futilely, of a way out. His thoughts turned to Lorien and for a wild moment he wondered if the First One would be willing to help him. If he could even find him. It was a hope that Sheridan dismissed. The one place that he knew in which to begin such a search was not somewhere he wished to return. Though it may come to that, in the end. He wanted to go home, to get away from these people he didn't quite know and this place where nothing was quite what he remembered. If he had been a drinking man, he would have crawled into a bottle and never come back out.
The door chimed.
When he opened it she was facing him, her back straight, eyes calm.
"I believe what you have told me. You said earlier that you had a plan to move against the Shadows. What do you wish me to do?"
Relief swept through him. Even now, even here, she still had the power to astound him. "Right," he said, "this is the idea."
It would be nice, Sinclair thought, if just one morning he could wake up feeling as though he had had a decent night's sleep. Just once. Just for the novelty value, to see what it was like. He rubbed his hands over his face, willed himself to liven up. John Sheridan. One more thing to add the ever-growing list of things that troubled him. And Satai Delenn. Trouble there too, he was sure of it.
"Jeff. You look like hell."
"Morning to you too, Michael."
They walked through the corridors.
"Have you heard the buzz?"
Sinclair tilted his head. "What buzz?"
"Something's afoot. Ever wondered why it's 'afoot'? How about 'ayard', or 'amile'?"
Garibaldi grinned, thrust his hands into his pockets. "Okay, okay. You know me - never happy unless I know what's going on, where it's going on, who's doing it."
A wry smile. "I had noticed."
"I hate to admit the fact I don't know exactly what is going on, but from the ten different messages that have flashed across my screen this morning, I know that something is definitely up. Ships have been in and out of the area around Melior-"
Sinclair stopped. "Melior? The refugee colony? Garibaldi, if there was an attack, why the hell wasn't I-"
"Will you get over yourself? There wasn't an attack. I don't know what there has been, but that isn't it. As I said, ships in and out all night. And you've got one guess as to whose name kept cropping up."
Moving again, negotiating the stream of beings making their way through the corridors. Sinclair groaned. "Oh God, what has he done now?"
"I don't know. But do you want to know another name that kept cropping up?"
"Don't tell me. I can guess."
Garibaldi nodded. "Satai Delenn ra'Mir, if you want to be formal about the thing. Me, I'm not that bothered; but you know what the Minbari are like. What is it with those two, anyway?"
"I don't know." Sinclair scrubbed at his face again. "At the moment I don't think I know anything." A pause. "Michael, where are we going?"
"Where are we going? I was following you. Where were you going?"
"I was following you." He would have laughed, Sinclair thought, if he had the energy. "How about we both go to the War Room and pretend that this never happened."
As they retraced some of their steps, Jeffrey Sinclair braced himself for what the meeting would bring. A data crystal giving details of the White Stars had been delivered to his quarters shortly after he got up. What he had seen had been incredibly impressive, just enough to engender some much-needed optimism. The fleet would bolster their defences, that much was obvious. But it would be enough to give them an opportunity to transition to the offence? Could they sustain any sort of advantage? That was more difficult to believe.
And there was another issue: one not so obvious as combat power but every bit as important. John Sheridan. He seemed to have his own agenda and this was supposed to be a joint command. They were supposed to be able to trust one another. They were supposed to show loyalty.
Sinclair's jaw tightened.
The furious activity that always defined the area around the War Room was in greater evidence than usual. When Sinclair and Garibaldi entered their eyes were drawn to the two figures at the centre of the storm. Delenn: inscrutable, head high; Sheridan: impassive, determined. For no reason that he could understand, Sinclair found his irritation lifting. He examined the pair and felt an odd reassurance.
"Good-morning. What's all the excitement about?" he asked.
"Delenn and I had a long talk last night. Pooling resources, you could call it. We came up with an idea and we've put it into action."
"You've put something into action? Without letting me know? John, this is..."
The Sinclair Sheridan remembered had definitely been slow to anger, but this man had been pushed to his limit and rightfully so. "Jeff," Sheridan cut him off. "I wanted to explain about yesterday. What I was talking about at the meeting. I ... befriended ... one of the Anla'Shok and she was, well, not quite as discreet about some things as she might have been."
That easy, charming smile. Sometimes Sinclair agreed with Garibaldi's assertion that Sheridan used it as an offensive weapon. And it was working, even if only because Sinclair wanted it to work. If nothing else, his friend and their mysterious new comrade had lightened the atmosphere of the War Room. He sensed hope and prayed it wasn't false. Sinclair nodded. "One of the Anla'Shok. I thought that they were meant to be one of our more secretive allies."
"So did I." The comment was offhand: there was no inflection in Delenn's voice, nothing revealed in her face.
Their discussion had lasted through most of the night. Strategy, command, logistics, tactical capabilities and what countermeasures they could expect from the enemy. And what they could present as a plausible explanation for his new-found knowledge. Sheridan had insisted that he be the one to do the talking. It would avoid her having to commit herself to a falsehood. And it was, as he pointed out, almost entirely the truth. Just not necessarily the truth in this particular universe.
"I should've told you before. She mentioned the White Stars, but I wasn't sure - I didn't want to get anyone's hopes up by shooting my mouth off. But when Delenn arrived I guess I just got a bit carried away. I'm sorry."
Yes, still the same smile, Sinclair noted. But his old friend's eyes were unnaturally bright and hard.
Delenn stayed at Sheridan's side and their intent to present a united front was obvious. Smoke and mirrors, Sinclair thought. It sounded plausible, if he chose to believe it. If. And he wanted to believe it. He wanted a simple explanation that would let him ignore all the things that there screaming, insistently, that they were lying to him. Correction: that Sheridan was lying to him. Delenn had said little and that near-silence was open to numerous interpretations.
"I'd like to meet this Ranger of yours sometime, John."
His head tilted slightly and for a second Sinclair would have sworn that the look that crossed Sheridan's face was amusement. "I'm sure you will."
More bodies crowded into the room and the expectancy was almost palpable as the full War Council arranged itself around the table. Delenn and Sheridan took up positions on either side of a viewing screen. The image that appeared was all-too familiar. Garibaldi caught Sinclair's eye and grimaced. The rendering of the pattern of Shadow attacks. Sheridan had been driving himself crazy with it - had been driving all of them crazy with it.
As the pattern repeated, Sheridan spoke. "At first glance - hell, even at the fiftieth examination - there doesn't seem to be a logical sequence or pattern behind where the Shadows choose their strike points. But there is a logic to it: the Shadows are like chess masters who think thirty, even fifty moves ahead. All their attacks, almost since the time we confirmed that our Minbari friends weren't crazy paranoids after all, have been planned to culminate in one huge offensive. Out of all the sectors that have been attacked, there is only one that hasn't."
On the screen, the graphic zoomed in and contact reports began to thin out, until only emptiness was left in the centre.
"The sector where the refugee colony is," Sinclair responded. It was like school again. He squirmed uneasily.
"Exactly. More and more ships have been going there because it's seen as somewhere safe."
Garibaldi spoke up. "Any chance you can get to the bit where you tell us something we don't know?"
Sheridan glanced over, his eyes flashing grimly. "By all means. Run the programme."
Flash-points, lines criss-crossing each other as contact reports going back over the last few years were re-added at high speed.
"Did you see it?"
"See what? Captain, it's the same thing you've been staring at everyday for a month."
"Just keep watching, Michael."
It ran in reverse this time, slower, peeling away until three points formed a triangle around Melior, the only habitable planet.
"See it now?"
Sinclair leant forward. "They've formed a ring around the sector."
Sheridan nodded. "Exactly. We've got refugees, military personnel, weapons dumps, all in one place. A perfect target, just sitting there."
"Captain Sheridan's belief, and one that I share, is that the Shadows are planning to launch an attack on the refugee colony." Delenn paused. "The losses for all of our worlds will be terrible in that event."
The image on the screen changed. "Last night we began to move the war refugees off the base on Melior," she continued. "Over the last few hours the White Stars, and any other ship that we could draft into the convoy have moved the majority of refugees into Minbari space. Melior is an arid planet, there are no indigenous life forms on it. We have planted beacons on the surface that will indicate there is still a colony down there under a standard sensor scan."
Hands clasped behind his back, Sheridan paced around the table. Necks strained following his progress. "We have purposely weakened our defence perimeter in the adjacent sectors; we are going to allow the Shadows to penetrate into the Melior system. Now, Melior has a moon. It's fairly small, unstable, and at the moment it is being wired up with enough nuclear warheads to destroy ... well, to destroy a small moon."
Over the quiet, nervous laughter around the war room Delenn picked up the thread. "The White Stars have been returning here all night from Minbar, bringing as many telepaths as possible with them. They will be standing by in Hyperspace just outside detection range until the Shadows arrive. When they drop in, the telepathic interference should be enough to disorient them."
"And that's when we detonate the moon." Sheridan's path had led him back to her. "We're also filling the area with burnt-out ship hulls, any kind of debris that we can use to carry nukes. We're gonna start a chain reaction out there that will hopefully take out most of the enemy vessels. Any enemy ships that remain should be sufficiently weakened to allow the White Stars and the destroyers to finish them."
There was a long silence. Sheridan started laying odds with himself about who would be the first to break it – and his suspicions were proved correct when Garibaldi said "That's ... that is really..." He paused, then softly, "Wow."
"We're hoping for something a little more ... permanent ... from the Shadows."
Everyone had slowly filtered back to their duties.
"It went well."
"Yes." Sheridan had been staring somewhere in the middle-distance; he shook himself, turned to her. "Thank you. Again."
A fleeting smile warmed her face. "You seem to have offered us more hope than there has been for a long time, Captain. It is you who should be thanked."
"Yeah, well, let's just see if it works, huh?"
Their voices were low, all but lost against the background hum of machinery and the constant verbal flow of information between the staff. A private conversation necessitated close proximity. Her eyes looked bruised with lack of sleep; the skin over her cheekbones was taut, stretched.
He wanted to touch her face, to smooth some of the cares he saw away but he didn't dare. As much as he didn't want to, he cared for her. But he couldn't allow himself to care too much. If events in this universe played out as they had in his this was only one step. And a small one at that. There would have to be another and he was already preparing himself mentally for it. "I owe you an apology."
A frown of confusion appeared. "Apology? Why?"
"For last night. I-" He blew out a breath. "When you- When my Delenn told me about her family it was the first time that she had ever talked to me about them. It was hard for her to explain, difficult for her to talk about certain things, especially to someone who isn't Minbari. I had no right to use that to ... blackmail you, emotionally, into- I shouldn't have done it."
"You found the most logical method to get what you needed." Her voice was cool; her head tilted. "I do not mean that as a criticism. You required my help; you did what you had to in order to get it. I do not believe that you intended to hurt me."
His face hardened. "But I did. Hurt you, I mean, didn't I?"
Delenn considered this. "Hurt... No, not hurt. I was surprised. They are not things that someone who is not close to me would know." But just how close was something that still puzzled her. He knew things that she had spoken of to few even of her own race: Mayan, her most cherished friend; Dukhat and Draal, both of whom had known her father so well. And this man, John Sheridan, was so dear to her that she would allow him close to her heart. "You were right to think that they would help to make me believe you."
"But you might have done that anyway."
She watched him and again was struck by the strange contradictions that defined Humans. An impetuous race. He would have done almost anything to convince her of his sincerity, his sanity. Now he regretted the very words that had achieved his aim.
"Perhaps. But, as you have said, we have very little time. It was worth the risk. I do not blame you for what you did."
He searched her face, smiled slightly and blew out a breath. "Thank you. But I still do."
Her expression was appraising, as though he were tool whose usefulness she was attempting to judge. "Do you always do that?"
"Blame yourself for things when no-one else does?"
"I don't-" Sheridan stopped and then smiled. "Maybe. Sometimes. I'm a soldier. It comes with the territory."
"It is a habit you should try to break."
His smile broadened into a grin. "As should you."
Her eyes smiled in the same way: grey suddenly softening, gleaming in the depths.
"Perhaps we should both, as your people say, work on it."
Garibaldi watched the pair across the room. There was intensity there and yet distance, too. Not quite strangers, not quite friends.
"What do you think?"
Garibaldi turned slightly towards Sinclair, angling himself so they were still in his sight-line. They were both oblivious to everything else, lost in their exchange.
"I don't know whether to kiss them or slap them. Maybe I'll compromise: slap him and kiss her."
Sinclair managed a sound like a laugh. "You didn't believe him either."
Garibaldi blew out a breath. "I can't think of a single damn reason why John wouldn't be telling us the truth. I can't even think of a reason why his story shouldn't be the truth, but... But I don't know."
"And Satai Delenn backed him up."
She was smiling up at him. He couldn't see Sheridan's face but there was an expression like tenderness in hers. Just for a few seconds and then it was gone. Garibaldi's gaze settled on Sinclair. "Yeah. And Minbari don't lie."
Sinclair's face rarely gave anything away. A slight twitch of the jaw, a tightening around his eyes. It made him a bastard to play poker with. There was a slight twitch of his jaw. "She's a double-negative. She didn't confirm anything he said, she just failed to not confirm it. It could be that she's not backing him up, he's backing her."
"Or covering for her. Look, there's something between those two. Maybe they have met before; maybe they're a one-night stand that went wrong, or maybe they were more than one night a while back and never got over it, who knows. Maybe he did hear some rumour he didn't think worth mentioning; maybe she confided in him and for one of those reasons that a simple Earther like me doesn't get she convinces him that the source of all this information is best not revealed. He comes up with some story to keep us happy and she keeps her mouth shut so she won't have to lie about it." Garibaldi ran a hand over his head and scratched the back of his neck ferociously. "It makes a lot more sense than the other theories I've had. You really don't want to hear those.
Sinclair leaned against a console. There were too many questions, too many things still unclear. But they had a chance; that was the only thing that really mattered now. "Can't be any worse than mine. I think when all of this is over we need to have a long talk with John Sheridan."
"You bet your ass we do."
Too busy worrying at their local enigma, neither had noticed Stephen Franklin join them. Garibaldi jerked his chin at him by way of greeting. "So what's our answer to Monty, Ike and Patton done to you?"
The doctor looked mildly quizzical. "Sheridan? He hasn't done anything, I just need to talk to him."
There it was, Garibaldi thought, the tightening around Sinclair's eyes.
Franklin looked between them. "Doesn't doctor-patient confidentiality mean anything to you people?" He saw the exchanged glance, knew that they weren't about to let it go. "Fine. It's probably nothing, okay? It's definitely nothing serious and its absolutely none of your business."
"Yeah, okay, Doc, I'll let you off. What's your take on the genius idea?"
His face brightened, losing the haggard weariness that had become ingrained. "Military strategy is not my field but anything that reduces the number of bodies on gurneys coming through MedLab is fine with me."
Franklin left them and at MedLab looked over the test results once again. They were the routine swabs and samples that he always took after every injury. Like everyone else there, Sheridan's file was full of them. It was entirely possible that there had been a glitch in the equipment, even possible that the sample had been contaminated. That had happened before. But in all his years of biology and xenobiology, Franklin had never seen anything like this: micro-organisms in the blood, unidentifiable.
It was probably nothing, just a mistake. But he wanted to run the tests again. Just to make sure. He'd need another sample.
He pinched the bridge of his nose. The fleet would be moving out in the next few hours. It would have to wait until the offensive was over.
Vadiri faced Delenn, his bulk blocking her exit from the corner of the docking bay. His voice was low but the sibilance still echoed against the rock. He had come to recognise the signs of stubborness in her – the lifting of her chin, the tightening of her mouth.
"My place is with you, Anla'Shok Na."
"Your place, Alyt, is where you can best serve your people. You are needed to command one of the squadrons of White Stars and that is where you will be." Delenn sighed heavily. "You are one of our most experienced fighters, Vadiri, and the coming battle will not be an easy one. At moments such as these we must rely on those who are most suited to lead. You are such a one."
His head tilted back; he regarded her impassively. "Do you think that I am so foolish or so uncertain of myself that I require flattery?"
The cares of the warrior-leader that had never been her birthright were clearly written in her face; they made her look older than her years. But when she smiled, even a little, she had the look of an acolyte in her first year of service. She smiled now. "No, I do not have so low an opinion of you. But my words have been the truth – we need your experience in battle to direct the squadron."
"If you insist on entering the fight you should at least board one of our cruisers."
"I have hidden from the fight for too long, my friend; I cannot ask people to risk their lives when I am not willing to do the same."
On the periphery of his vision there was movement; a glance to the side brought the figure into focus. The Human, Sheridan. The impatience was clear in his face. Delenn had also glanced in his direction but her gaze, Vadiri noted, lasted slightly longer than was necessary.
But that was no concern of his and not something of which he wanted knowledge.
"I can take it that this conversation is ended, Alyt?"
He inclined his head, his fist slamming into his open palm. "Yes, Satai."
She joined Sheridan and he watched them make their way to the shuttles. The Human's attitude towards the Satai was not something that Vadiri could quite understand. His respect for her was obvious, but there was a familiarity in the way he spoke to her that seemed out of keeping with an association that could be numbered in hours rather than cycles.
Again, something that was none of his concern.
But Delenn's safety was his concern. Degeba was supposed to have been the safer option and here they were in the middle of a battle. And one that could prove definitive in terms of the overall campaign against their ancient enemy. Shortly after her investiture as Ranger One, Vadiri had been summoned by both Draal and Dukhat himself. Delenn's stance against the renegades of the Warrior Caste had earned her enemies and while she had the courage to confront them, the Rangers, and all they represented, could not afford the loss of another of their leaders.
And neither Draal nor Dukhat could countenance the loss of the vibrant woman they had known since she was a child.
Vadiri's instructions had been very clear and very direct. Get her on the first transport leaving Minbar and keep her out of danger until the situation on their homeworld had reached some kind of equilibrium. They had spent some time at the training base on Proxima and when news had come that the White Star fleet had been completed it had seemed a good opportunity to both meet other leaders of the resistance and move Delenn to a place that was reasonably safe from both Minbari assassins and the Shadows.
And all that could possibly be undone by the presence of one John Sheridan.
They had reached the shuttle that would take them to the White Star that had been placed under the captain's command. He helped Delenn up the ramp, his gestures automatic, almost protective. It could almost reconcile Vadiri to the fact that the safety of Anla'Shok Na was now in the hands of another.
It was strange that her life seemed to be so important to this Human. Almost as strange as the fact that Satai Delenn seemed to trust him so completely.
Vadiri turned away, summoned his second-in-command and started towards his own shuttle. It was just one more thing that he was studiously not concerning himself with.
Her hands moved with their customary fluid grace. The table was littered with the accoutrements demanded by the ritual. She knelt opposite him, mixing something in a pot, her words soft, hypnotic. It was almost like a song. He couldn't stop watching her hands. She poured some of it into a cup, held it out to him. Her smile was inviting. The air was heavy with incense. It smelt like her hair. Soft, dark hair falling to her shoulders. He drank and she watched his face. She was too far away, on the other side of that small, low table. He'd break the damn thing to get to her. To have her. Prayers, meditation. They would do this her way because it was important to her and he would do anything she wanted. He would do anything for her. He had loved before, but not like this. This had started like a breeze and turned into a hurricane. It was the thing he had lived for and it was terrifying. He couldn't stop watching her hands. They moved to the front of her robe, undoing the clasp that held it in place. Dark silk against her skin. Pooling on the floor. Her skin was pale and bare and it was against his. Her kiss was electrifying. A hurricane. A firestorm. He could see the universe in her eyes. She was the universe. She was everything. And she was his. He held her close in his arms but she was slipping away – he tried to reach for her but they were already too far apart and he could feel himself falling. Falling, and there was no end, and she wasn't there.
"Yes, Captain?" A voice, steady and resonant. Her voice.
He really was falling and only just managed to stop himself from sliding all the way down the slanted bed. A Minbari woman was standing over him and he instinctively looked around for Delenn. And then remembered what had happened. And at that moment of memory he knew despair worse than the death he had already lived.
"Nothing. I- It was just a dream." Sheridan passed both hands over his face, scrubbed at his eyes. When he stood his limbs still felt cramped and stiff from too much tension and not enough sleep.
Delenn watched his every movement with curiosity. She had met many Humans over the course of many cycles: they were a highly contradictory and unpredictable species, but she felt a deep affection for them. Something she had shared with her father. They were a good people; they had potential for greatness, nobility. She had befriended many of them but there were still barriers; they were two very different cultures that did not always understand one another easily.
She wondered about her other self. Half-Human. It was a condition she attempted to picture and in which she failed. There had to be physical differences, that much she knew; but what would be the others? Would she think and feel differently? Was that the explanation for her mirror's closeness to John Sheridan? It did not explain her own emotions.
Where had it come from, this trust she placed in this stranger? Desperation was not the basis for a good decision, she had been that taught long ago - one of those portentous statements that Draal was so fond of declaiming; although, they always held a solid truth. It was not desperation, she was certain, even though their situation was desperate. She believed what he had told her, not just because she wanted to believe that he offered her hope. Offered hope to them all, however transitory.
His appeal to her had been a personal one. However, her own motives for responding were not entirely clear, even to herself. He had asked for her support, her complicity in his plan and in his secret but she had found an unexpected need to give him more than that. A need to console the aching wound that was so clearly visible when he looked at her. To give solace was dictated by her faith, demanded by her conscience, yet even without these she would have given it anyway. Perhaps because she was - in some odd way, she was sure of it - the cause.
And it was the reasons for this that she could not quite understand. Or would not understand.
There had been passion when he said her name in his sleep. She might be validating Sheridan's prediction but it was true - for her, it made no difference. Whatever her condition in that place, it was not here and was of no real importance. But for some undefined reason he was important. Uppermost in her thoughts at the moment was the way he called to her - not his voice specifically, but the timbre behind it when his mask slipped and he was unaware. Minbari Religious were trained to hear the music behind the words and his melody spoke volumes that his words would not reveal; and what surprised her most was that, though she was still unsure if he were completely sane, she did not feel so alone when he was near. She studied him again, analysing what she found.
He was a warrior there was no doubt of that. It was there, in every gesture, every word, in the way he held himself. But there was something else – a gentleness in him. Kindness, decency. His eyes were that curious shade she had only ever seen in Humans: hazel, they called it. It seemed to shift and change with the light, with his mood. He was beautiful, she thought. The admission, even if only to herself, shocked her. Even more shocking was that she had imagined, just for a second, his embrace around her.
Delenn realised, tardily and with a feeling like remorse, that she had never given any thought to the man whose place he had taken. Was he somewhere experiencing equal confusion? Was the Delenn he spoke of attempting to reconcile herself to a friend who did not know her?
Friend. Friendship was a beautiful thing, a precious thing, but it seemed an inadequate term for whatever it was that he had with the woman whose name she shared.
Sheridan turned to her, words fading as he saw her strange, disconnected expression. He touched her lightly on the arm; she started, flinching, and his hand dropped to his side.
"No, you didn't-" She shook her head. Words rose to her lips and she could not stop them. "Tell me, Captain, the person you know as Delenn..."
Sheridan's face was guarded. "Yes?"
"She- You told me that she is part Human."
Her hands moved together, fingers interlacing, dropping to her sides again. "Does she look very different?"
The answer did not come immediately. "No. I mean..." He sighed. "At first glance, probably yes, you do look very different, but that's more ... an overall impression. Your faces are practically the same. She has hair, dark hair." Delenn's hands moved to her head, touching lightly the edges of the bone. "Most of that's gone, she has a small piece left. The top part, from her temples."
"Temples." She repeated the word, puzzled.
"Yes, it's..." He raised his hands to his face; her movements mirrored his. To an observer it must look like they were involved in some strange game, Sheridan thought.
Her attempt at a smile was forced. "She must be very clumsy." His look was questioning. "I mean that she must have trouble maintaining her balance. The fluids that help us to do so are located in the lower part of the crest."
Sheridan's face cleared. "Ah, I see. Ours are in our inner ears. I'll have to ask her about that when-" The smile faded. "When I see her again."
"When" seemed an optimistic word to choose but he could not bring himself to say "if."
In that moment he looked as though he could break and Delenn felt the discomfort of witnessing something so intensely private being so publicly visible. And yet curiosity still drove her. "Did you know her before? When she was still Minbari?"
Delenn, he thought, would insist that she still was Minbari despite the changes she had undergone. He couldn't argue with her there. "No, no I hadn't met her then. I've seen pictures, but- No, we only met each other after her transformation."
"I understand." He was, perhaps, appalled by her. The physical reality of her. That was why he found it so difficult to look at her. The woman he knew, his friend, was more like one of his own race and now what he saw was someone so different, so – alien. Revulsion, she had to admit, would be an expected reaction from one of her own people under similar circumstances. Yet, he did not seem to be that sort of man. And he was looking at her now and what she saw in his face was not disgust.
Sheridan watched her helplessly. She was distressed; he recognised the signs. His instinct was to reach for her but he knew it would not be welcome.
"We should go up to the bridge," he said. Now that, he thought, was a sentence loaded with comfort and sympathy. Her eyes were raised to his momentarily and then dropped.
"I hope that you were able to sleep without too much discomfort." It was all that she was able to think of saying. His gaze could be disconcerting. As though he knew what she was thinking, what she would say, how she would be feeling. It was an unfair advantage.
His smile was rueful, amusement in his eyes.
"I've learnt a few things over the last forty-eight hours, and one of them is that no matter what universe you are in, some things will always just be," he paused and looked at the beds, "tilted."
Delenn nodded. Her expression was controlled again, remote. It had been a long time since he had seen Delenn close herself off from him. He had forgotten what it was like.
It hurt. Both at home and here.
"We have received word from the reconnaissance ships."
Sheridan nodded. "They're coming."
"Yes. They passed through the seam we left in our defences; but where they are now is something we can only surmise."
He could see the tension in her shoulders. "That's what we wanted."
"I know. But we have so many ships, so may people's lives... I do not mind risking my own life: that is my choice. It is within my control. But risking the lives of others is not something I have ever enjoyed."
"Sending young people out to die. Neither have I." He remembered the first time they had had a conversation such as this. She had gone to him then, comfort that had come from the most unexpected quarter and had succeeded where no-one else that day had been able. They had walked through the garden together, the first of so many times. And now, in this distant place, this Delenn had come to him, her need for his comforting presence warring with her desire to remain aloof. Comfort had won out and for that he was grateful. "We will get through this."
"I am not afraid to die."
Sheridan considered her for a long moment. He'd heard that phrase on so many lips so many times before. People who uttered such sentiments usually were afraid despite their words, and with good reason. Delenn, the one who was now so far away, was sometimes afraid. But being afraid was a far cry from being a coward; fear was something she could control - she had never allowed it to control her. And the woman facing him now had the same quality. "Mm. It's not that bad." It was an attempt to lighten her mood. "It's not something I would recommend, but it's not that bad."
Of all the things that he had told her and she had chosen to believe, this was the most difficult to accept. Perhaps because it seemed so unlikely that anyone who seemed so alive, more alive than any being she had ever known, could have been touched by death.
"It's not something I plan on doing again anytime soon. We're not going to die today." It was a thought he needed to believe as well. He smiled at her again. "Are you ready?"
She let out a long breath, steadied herself. "Your people have a disturbing tendency of using that phrase just before they do something massively unwise."
Around the bridge, there were a few snickers. Sheridan grinned. "Okay. I'll assume that was a 'Yes.'"
The sense of expectation on the bridge was palpable as Sheridan took the command chair. Faces were set, eyes fixed firmly on their consoles. A communications diagnostic ensured that all the ships could hear him. Sheridan sent out a message to Sinclair's vessel; the other man's face duly appeared on the view screen.
"Well, it looks like this is it, John."
"It may very well be "it' if this doesn't work."
Sinclair kept his expression controlled. "This is no time to start second-guessing yourself. This scheme of yours is the only hope that we have at the moment; we really don't have anything to lose."
"Except for the whole damn fleet," thought Sheridan grimly. He suppressed that thought. He had presented himself as their saviour; and Sinclair was right - self-doubt now would aid no-one. Almost idly, he studied the face on the view screen. It would have been nice to get to know him better. Under different circumstances they probably would have become good friends. In this universe, it seemed that they were and he was glad about that. Sinclair was a good man and it was only now that Sheridan appreciated just how much he and his own friends owed to the sacrifice he had made on Babylon 4.
"Jeff, I just wanted to say... Thanks." A strange flicker passed over Sinclair's face, but he simply nodded slightly before going off screen.
And now would come the waiting. This was part that Sheridan hated. It was always the worst. When the fighting started there was no going back; there was too much happening all at once to adjust. All he could do at that point was fight his ship and pay attention to his front, right and left. But before then the minutes and seconds slowed and there was nothing to do but repeat everything in your mind; to go over every uncorrectable flaw in your plan; to think about the friends you might lose. The churning in the gut, mouth dry as paper, nerves stretched so tight they were close to breaking point.
Delenn stood by the chair, hands gripping the edge. Her knuckles had turned white. It was odd, with everything else they'd discussed, that only now was he coming to realise that as much as she was like the woman he'd left behind, this Delenn had probably never personally experienced real combat before. His hand moved, instinctively, to cover hers. He couldn't speak to her the way he wanted to, but he could share this. A brief moment of innocent reassurance he'd give to anyone who needed it the way she did.
The lies we tell ourselves.
Delenn glanced down quickly as she felt the warmth of his fingers before resuming watching him out of the corner of her eye. His touch was gentle but his jaw was set as hard as granite, everything coiled, contained. If she had not feared the enemy so, she would almost have pitied them at this moment.
When it came, it was quiet, just the way it always had been, just the way he remembered. That slight movement as though something had shivered against space. The sensors flared into action as the huge black forms emerged.
"Hold back." Sheridan delivered the order to the whole fleet. "Do not drop until my mark."
The enemy ships circled above the planet's surface. They were obviously scanning; they would be picking up the signals from the beacons that had been planted. Their progress was slow, but when they began moving Sheridan knew that they were following a path that would lead to what ostensibly was the greatest concentration of life-forms. It was towards the side where Melior's now lethal moon was in ascendance. The formation changed: no longer simple scanning and reconnaissance, the vessels were moving on an attack vector. The huge ships were congregating in a solid mass. They were powering up for the assault. An explosion of light, sent down to the planet's surface.
"Gotcha," Sheridan muttered. Taking a deep breath he opened all the channels; it only took one word.
The fleet dropped into normal space, quickly began closing on the enemy.
A few of the smaller Shadow vessels peeled away from the main assault, moving on an intercept course. And then stopped, jerking away as if they had been hit. The main assault vessels redirected their weaponry away from the planet toward the White Stars. Unable to get too close, their sensor arrays impaired by the telepathic field, the Shadows fired haphazardly at any target, even their own ships.
Exploiting this confusion, the White Stars swooped through, vectoring against each other to confuse any sensors not otherwise telepathically impaired. A burst of fire, then fall back.
"Keep close together." Delenn might be tactically inexperienced but she was the well-trained daughter of a warrior race and her eyes didn't miss a single manoeuvre of the fleet. She took charge of tracking the fleet, her attention alternating between. It gave her captain that little extra space to breath, to concentrate on controlling their ship and keeping them alive. "We need to pull away together."
"Left flank pull back, we need to cover the rear. Follow my lead." Sheridan pivoted his squadron, began returning fire at the ships attempting to slip in behind them. The telepathic block was working; the Shadows kept breaking off before they could inflict serious damage, when the pain caused by the interference became too much. But their weapons capabilities were still phenomenal; when the edge of a blast caught Sheridan's White Star the ship spun dangerously, her crew thrown as the gravity generators strove to compensate for the violent change in orientation. The lights went down, for a few endless seconds they were dark, helpless, and then the power came back online.
"Captain, we are within range of the target." Delenn was hanging on to the side of the chair, her eyes still riveted to the view screen.
"Everyone stay in formation. Detonate now!" Sheridan watched the sensors, saw that the initial warhead had been ignited. The fleet passed over the face of the moon, as close to it as they dared go.
"Pull up. Pull up! Break away; get the hell out of it!"
The fleet broke up as they swooped upwards at a dizzying speed. They were racing into the night, the screams of the Shadow vessels ripping through their brains. And then it happened. The moon blew apart from the inside and the Shadows passing over it were caught in the fury of the blast. Sheridan felt a wave of grim satisfaction as he saw the ships stricken by a sudden paralysis and then whither like leaves in a flame. The vessels that had been following them were coming to a desperate halt, trying to avoid the trajectories of flaming debris. The brilliance caused by the nuclear explosion had nearly faded when the booby-trapped ships left by the resistance ignited, and Sheridan's predicted chain reaction began. The Shadows were firing at the empty vessels, themselves triggering the fatal cargo.
"Enemy ships, dead ahead!"
The warning came from the front squadron; some of the Shadows had succeeded in avoiding the initial explosion, were now up ahead, and the whole of the White Star fleet was racing straight at them. Strategy became chaos as firing commenced before any order could be given. Bursts of lethal energy from both sides obliterated the stars with their brilliance. Sheridan's White Star rolled, trying and failing to avoid one of their damaged escorts. The collision threw them all. Sheridan's head hit a console, searing pain blinding him momentarily. With effort he shook off the effects.
"Will someone turn off that damn alarm!" The lighting was dimmer, faces gleaming sickly green in the reflections from the monitors. Sheridan pulled himself up, helping Delenn at the same time. She was holding her head, her lips compressed. She lowered her hands. The apex of her crest was broken, jagged shards in place of the sleek point.
"Are you all right?" he asked, horrified.
She held her head erect but he could see the pain in her strained features. "Do not worry about me. I'll be fine."
Sheridan looked back at the screen. The enemy was regrouping, not many of them firing. Not yet. And he knew, unshakeably, that they could take them. Pushing his concern over Delenn aside for the moment, he reordered his thoughts and gave the necessary instructions. The fleet broke into smaller groups, with each targeting a single Shadow vessel. They began to divide the Shadow formation, stripping the smaller fighters and scouts away and peeling the capital ships off like orange segments. Sheridan led his squadron back to the desolated area of the initial explosions – there were still warheads that had not yet been detonated. He gave orders for unified, intermittent bursts of fire from all of his ships. "Find me a warhead, somewhere near!"
He soon had what he wanted, but now they were dodging flaming lumps of rock and metal as well as the pursuing Shadow vessel. He had his target in his sights, ordered the rest of his squadron to make the jump into Hyperspace. At least the distraction would buy them a few more minutes. Just a little time, it would have to be enough. He brought the ship to a halt next to a huge hunk of debris.
"On my mark, detonate the warhead and then fly like a bat out of hell." Every muscle contracted as he watched the ship close in on them. The Shadow vessel was powering up for what would be the mother of all assaults.
They pulled away at top speed, bracing themselves against the force; they could barely outrun the blast-wave, it caught them, the whole ship beginning to spin dangerously. At the consoles, their navigators battled to regain control. All around them instruments were going up in flames, every system was redlined and sounding a warning alarm. The White Star was shaking like peas in a child's rattle and Sheridan once again experienced the sensation of a ship being pulled apart around him. After a time that felt like forever but was probably only a few seconds, they began to level out and the terrible nauseating spinning came back under control. The ship slowed and they finally came to a stop. Only then could Sheridan look at the scene, and it took his breath away. It was complete desolation: what had been a moon was now a treacherous asteroid field. There were innumerable twisted black things that had once been Shadow vessels. Damaged White Stars were floating helplessly, their life pods trying to avoid the hazardous wreckage. The rest of the fleet began to move towards them to pick up the survivors.
One of the Minbari crew reported something and Delenn translated. "There are no more enemy ships on our sensors."
She was barely remaining on her feet, clinging to the side of his chair. The rest of her body was limp; she looked like a rag doll that had lost all her stuffing. Just two points of colour burned in her pale cheeks.
Despite the damage all around him, John was exuberant. "We did it, Delenn." His voice sounded strange to his own ears. Without thought, he rose and pulled her to him, holding her awkwardly, still steadying them both against the occasional shudders from their beleaguered vessel. She stiffened; he let go of her immediately.
"I'm sorry; God, I am so sorry." A momentary madness, he thought. "I forgot."
"It's all right, Captain." Her hands were shaking. She was suddenly freezing cold and she couldn't stop shaking. It was a great victory. It should be a happy time. She felt like running far away, hiding from the universe and everything in it. But there was nowhere to run; instead, she stepped towards him, resting her head against his shoulder. Nowhere to run, but there was this one place to hide. Just for a moment, she told herself; just for a moment she would draw on his strength and then she would be herself again. The pressure behind her eyes was unbearable. "In ... in this place where you and I are ... partners," her voice was husky, threatening to break, "are we close enough for this?"
"We're close enough that you never even have to ask me for something like this," Sheridan murmured. Without hesitation he closed his arms around her again; one hand automatically rested on the back of her head, fingers brushing the ridges.
Delenn turned her face into the curve of his shoulder. He smelt of soap, clean cotton and something else that she couldn't name. His Delenn. She was a fortunate woman to have found such a partner. And they were clearly so much more than that. She found herself envying her far-off sister.
Sheridan felt the moisture against his neck and gently tightened his grip. The mix of emotions was powerful and strange: relief that she was all right; pleasure that she still turned to him; inconsolable longing for his own Delenn and guilt that part of him savoured this embrace.
"In Valen's name!"
Her face was wet with perspiration, hair clinging to her neck. And the Machine sang. Zathras was crouching nearby, watching her even as he watched his master pacing the platform. When not in the heart of the Machine he seemed older, more vulnerable.
"Focus, do not break now! What are you seeing?"
Delenn's voice was hoarse; the effort of speaking was becoming too much. Her body was wracked with the effort. "It is terrible, so many voices crying out in pain. I cannot get beyond it."
"You must! Ignore the pain, do not be distracted!" He had known her as a little child, had seen her grow to her maturity, had seen the profound changes in her. There had been no children of his own but he could not imagine that he would have loved them better than he loved Delenn. He should not have agreed to this but now it was too late. "Visualise your goal, Delenn. Stay calm."
She was in the stars and they were on fire. Fire and shadow. Shadows. Always a war against the Darkness. She was in the stars and he was with her; the Shadows had come for him and he was surrounded by fire.
"Delenn. Delenn, what do you see?"
Fire against the night. A world destroyed and he was still racing the darkness. And they were waiting and he was going straight to them.
She cried out his name, her voice echoing through the corridors.
Despite the weariness and the losses that they had sustained, the personnel at Degeba 3 chose to celebrate. It was the first significant victory in living memory, the first for many years before that. It was an unaccustomed feeling and one that they enjoyed. For Sinclair and Garibaldi it was more than enough to forget the doubts of the past days.
For others, it was a time for introspection.
"I am pleased that you took my advice, Delenn."
Startled out of her reverie, Delenn straightened. Vadiri's impressive frame was unbowed despite the injuries he had suffered in the battle.
"About allies. It was good advice, yes?"
She suppressed a smile. "Yes, Vadiri. I don't know what I would have done without your wise counsel."
He bowed, turned from her. She saw one of those silent spasm ripple across his shoulders. That stern exterior concealed a generous heart and she watched his progress across the room with affection. Vadiri cut an incongruous figure in the middle of the revellers and was soon glowering at a Human female who had sidled a little too close and was showing too much overt interest for his taste. At least he was enjoying himself, she thought.
Across the room, Sheridan was sitting, watching the celebrations with eyes that seemed here yet far away. He confined himself to a quiet corner, a drink that Michael Garibaldi had pressed on him ignored on a table. Rising, Delenn skirted the crowd. When she reached Sheridan she touched his arm. He started, looked up at her. The emotions that crossed his face were too varied, too fleeting for her to name. "You are not going to join the celebrations?"
He managed a smile for her sake and shook his head. "I'm sorry. I'm not in much of a party mood at the moment." What his pain must be was not something that she could imagine: even imagining it seemed inadequate compared to what the reality must be. And yet there was still this need to try. Delenn sat near him, hands clasped loosely in her lap.
"Talk to me."
His head tilted towards her. "About what?"
"Anything. Tell me about her. What is she like?"
There was silence for a moment but he did not pretend not to understand. His shoulders moved slightly - an attempt at a shrug.
"There isn't really much I can say."
"Oh? Even about your mate?" She said the word cautiously, unsure of what his reaction would be. His head snapped around. "She-she is your mate, correct?"
Sheridan searched for the right words and gave up. "That obvious, huh?"
Delenn smiled, her head bowing momentarily. "I should have realised from the beginning. You did not speak of her as a friend does."
"We were friends for a long time." Too long, Sheridan thought. He had still called it friendship far beyond the point it had become so much more than that. He still wasn't sure when that point had been.
"Partners," Delenn added thoughtfully. "For Minbari, that word has many meanings."
"It does for Humans, too."
"So it would seem. You have more skill in my language than I had thought."
It was an observation rather than a rebuke. Sheridan closed his eyes for a moment, opened them. "There didn't seem much point in telling you all of it; it was just one more thing to make it all even more complicated. And you're not..."
"The person you love." Her voice was steady.
"It isn't that simple." His face always gave away so much of what he was thinking. "You..." He shook his head. "You're so like her. And ... not ... like."
She glanced down at herself pointedly, a slight smile at the corners of her mouth. "Obviously."
"That-" Sheridan let out a breath. "That isn't what I meant. Actually, that doesn't even come into it, it's meaningless." He had stopped thinking about her appearnce, stopped noticing it. She was not the Minbari who looked like Delenn; she just was Delenn. How could they be so alike? How could two people, divided by things that he still could not quite grasp, be so similar? Eyes were supposed to be the windows to the soul and when he looked into hers he recognised what lay behind them as surely as he recognised the woman he had left behind.
Lorien had said that Vorlons could break off little pieces of themselves, live through other people. That piece of Kosh that had been with him was supposed to be gone. It had fallen with him, made the jump and survived. He had often wondered what it was that it had held onto during that long descent. And then what had been left of Kosh had sacrificed himself. But there were still times when Sheridan wondered if he was entirely gone. Times when it seemed like a whisper, the thoughts of another, brushed across his mind. A conceit, perhaps; wishful thinking. But if there was still a tiny part with him still, was it as astounded as he at where it found itself? If it was, could it feel its living self, if Kosh were still living, in this universe?
The time in which neither spoke stretched on. Delenn was not a stranger to silence, but she felt the need to break this one. "What are you thinking about?"
When he turned to her, looked at her, it was as though he were truly seeing her, as she was, for the first time.
"I was thinking about souls."
It was not the answer she had been expecting. "Souls?"
"Yes." Sheridan paused, then, "I believe in a soul. I believe that we are more than just this." He gestured at his own body. "And I have believed, always, that there is something, some place, after we die."
"The place where no shadows fall."
Her voice was very soft. He was silent, his eyes suddenly very far away from where she was.
"Something like that. But all of this has... Well, it made me think about a lot of things. I mean, almost everyone here is someone I know. They all have a soul. In the world - hell, the universe - I come from, they still all have souls. So, are they all separate souls? Do we all end up in different places? Or is the person, the being, that you really are made up of all the different pieces of all these different lives?" He looked at her searchingly. "Does that mean that you're only really the being that you're truly meant to be when all those different pieces are united?"
"I-" Delenn felt herself floundering – an accustomed state. When posed with the most difficult of questions, her teachers had always relied on the standard refrain that the universe knew what it was doing. It was one that she had used herself on many occasions and it had always seemed to suffice. This, however, was beyond her experience. "I do not know."
There was an undoubted wryness in the expression that greeted that admission.
"This is not exactly the most common state of affairs, Captain."
His smile, this time, was genuine. "I guess not."
They were sitting together, a respectful distance between them. Sheridan laughed slightly, met her questioning look. "I'm sorry, it's just-" Another hint of laughter. "I've always thought that Delenn had a very special relationship with the universe and these sort of matters. It doesn't surprise me that I have to jump dimensions before I'll hear her ... hear you ... say the words, 'I don't know.' "
Delenn's back straightened, her chin lifting. "Given the questions, Captain, I would defy anyone to give a satisfactory answer."
"I'm not saying it wasn't satisfactory, it just wasn't much of an answer."
Her lips compressed. "Perhaps it was you who were asking the wrong questions."
He laughed then. A true laugh and she watched him, uncertain as to the cause of this new mood.
"Perhaps I was," he said after a time. His smile could light up a room, she thought. "It wouldn't be the first time."
He was a strange man. An extraordinary one. Even without the knowledge he carried, yet wore so lightly, he would still be extraordinary. That was why, she realised, that was why in some other life she belonged to him. Just for that smile alone, it would be worth it. It was the smile that gave his secret away; and the way she felt herself reacting to it...
The emotion she felt could not be called love. Not yet. But in her heart she knew that with time and care it could be. He was smiling now: something warm and tender in it and it was for her. Not for the woman he wanted her to be, but for her alone.
No. The idea that this man, this Human, could love her she found not repulsive in the least. And she could come to love him in return; she would. But that was for later.
He was speaking again, drawing her attention back to the present. "I've dumped an awful lot on you these last few days. An apology seems inadequate. But I am sorry for it."
"Again you apologise? It is good that I am not keeping a record." She returned his smile. Tentatively. "I am not sorry. We are partners, after all."
"It's meant a lot to me. More than you can know, and I do really appreciate it, Delenn. Really." His eyes wandered over her face. "I forgot to ask earlier – your head, your crest, are you all right?"
"My... Oh. Yes. It is not painful."
For a long time he had, like most Humans, believed that the Minbari head bone was simply a hard shell, like a tusk or horn. It was true that it afforded protection to the sensitive skull beneath, but the bundles of nerves and blood vessels running through it also made it extremely vulnerable. Delenn saw his sceptical gaze and raised a hand self-consciously to her damaged crest.
"If it had been further down it would have been far worse. I was fortunate." She smiled. "I have filed down the rough edge and it will grow back eventually."
A moment when they held one another's glance that seemed to stretch on infinitely. And whatever it was that either may have said was forgotten when Garibaldi decided that this was the moment to join them.
"That was about the best day I have ever had." He clapped a hand on Sheridan's shoulder, the weight almost sending the other man staggering. "Maybe just behind the night I took Linda Fullman to the prom, but apart from that it was the best. We really kicked them right up the ass!"
"But they didn't have any animals," said Delenn, looking perplexed.
"Huh?" It was Garibaldi's turn to look puzzled.
"An ass is a four-footed animal, is it not? I believe that it is also referred to as a mule. Or a donkey." She looked thoughtful and Sheridan had to stop himself from laughing – he had had this sort of conversation before and watched with some amusement as Garibaldi attempted to extricate himself from the situation.
"I just meant that we really... I mean, when I say "ass" I'm talking about, well it's a part of... Hey, whaddaya know, there's Jeff. Excuse me." He left as abruptly as he had arrived. Delenn looked thoughtful, then seemed to decide to ignore it.
Sheridan watched Garibaldi's retreat. It was almost like old times: the banter, the easy camaraderie. Garibaldi joined Sinclair who was standing with his arm around a woman. Good-looking: dark hair and bright eyes. There was something familiar about her. They were laughing together and it was the first time that he had seen Sinclair looking truly happy. Of course, he realised, it was Catherine Sakai. Garibaldi had told him a little about her, and Delenn. A surveyor and then a Ranger until she had simply disappeared. She and Sinclair were meant to have been married.
When Sheridan faced Delenn again she saw the hardness. Every line was set. For a moment, just before that, there had been a softer emotion. It was gone now. A decision had been made and Delenn wasn't certain that she wanted to know what it was.
"There is something else, isn't there?"
He nodded. "This victory is good news for the resistance, but it only gives us a little breathing room. The Shadows know we have weapons that can threaten them now. Their next attack won't just be harassment; it'll be a knockout blow and when that happens... I don't know if we'll be able to withstand it. I suppose I've known all along that there was only ever going to be the one way out of this. I never really believed in fate or destiny or some great force shaping your life for you, but I'm starting to accept the idea."
"I do not understand."
"I have to go to Z'ha'dum." Simple. A matter-of-fact statement.
There was a moment of stillness, then came the realisation and then the horror across her face.
"But if you go there you will-"
"I will die, I know. I already have, remember?" He couldn't bear the look on her face. "I don't expect you to understand. But that is what I have to do. And I think that the sooner I leave, the better."
"I do not suppose that there is any way of talking you out of this."
He smiled and shook his head.
Her shoulders were braced, hands balling at her sides. She could feel the nails digging into her palms and wished it would hurt more. It would serve as a distraction. "Very well." She nodded. "Very well. I shall accompany you."
Sheridan started, genuinely rattled. "No. Delenn, no! That is not for you."
She seemed immovable. He knew that look, knew how impossible it was to argue with her. Almost impossible.
"We are partners, you and I, are we not? Was I mistaken in my earlier assessment of our relationship?"
Delenn cut him off. "You required my help. Does this mean that you no longer require it? Am I now supposed to stand aside and watch you do this when the lives of so many, my people included, may depend on it?"
"By that reasoning I should also be taking along representatives from the Narn, the Centauri, the Drazi." Her eyes flashed mutinously. "Delenn, listen to me, please." She tried to avoid his eyes. He took hold of her shoulders; she felt rigid under his hands. "That's exactly why you should stay. You are needed here. Probably more than you realise. You are a leader and they are going to need your leadership. If I don't come back, you will have to tell them the truth about what happened here, the truth about me. All the things that I told you, you'll have to explain to them. But if you go with me and neither of us make it - it will all be lost, all of it. This," he glanced around, "this isn't my place, but it is yours. You are..." Another one of those smiles that seemed to hold a memory she could only guess at. "You are where you are supposed to be. The universe knows what it's doing. And I think that it has big plans for you."
Delenn did not reply immediately. She could not. Even something as simple as breathing was a challenge.
"I wish I had some words to send with you. I cannot think of any."
"Sometimes it's best not to say anything. Talking can be overrated."
Her head bowed and suddenly the thought of leaving her was harder than he had thought. If she had been entirely different, it would have been easy to make himself believe that she was, wholly, another person. But seeing this woman's anguish hurt just as much as seeing hers. She looked up and for a moment the face in his mind and the one before his eyes merged.
"I-I would like to believe that we shall see one another again, Captain. Somewhere."
"We will. I'm sure of it. If there's one thing I've learned about the universe from you it's that it has a sense of ... symmetry. Harmony, balance."
Fingertips brushed against his cheek; her hand fell back to her side. And Sheridan again experienced the sensation that he had the ability to fly.
The sounds of celebration, of music and voices raised in laughter and snatches of song, echoed along the stone corridors. It could be heard even in the docking bay, reverberating around the cavernous space as Delenn stood and watched him leave. In here it sounded like a party of ghosts, something from a life left far behind. She was becoming overly-fanciful, she chided herself. If he did not return it would be left to her to tell them all the truth. It was, she knew, pure selfishness to hope that the explanation would not be necessary, not ever.
Romance had not been something she had ever seriously considered. Yes, there had been opportunities. And not only from her own people - were she so inclined, such liasions were not specifically forbidden. Minbari who held to the ancient ways condemned such pairings but they were not unheard of. Amongst the Rangers it was almost common, even if rarely openly acknowledged. And in these dark times, when societies mingled more freely than before, there were many who took mates from other races. But she had never taken advantage of any of those opportunities, had never taken a mate from any race. She had always been too devoted to service of her people as an acolyte, as Satai, as Anla'Shok Na, to do little more than occasionally wonder what her life might be like were she not ... zha'len. Alone. Transitory thoughts, quickly dismissed. But now the possibility of another existence had been made very real. A life that might have been.
She stood long after he had gone, long after the sensors stopped showing his craft on the scanners. A few days. A matter of hours, that was all. So short an acquaintance. But she was not the same now, she knew that; she was not the same as she had been before she arrived. She would never be quite the same again.
The final image Sheridan had of Degeba 3 was her proud figure standing against the rock. Like a beautiful and unbreakable standing stone. Those thoughts were pointless.
Everything he had valued, that he had loved, he had lost. His own life counted for nothing. But despair did not detract from his sense of purpose.
He had promised he would never leave her and yet here he was. She had said she would catch him if he should fall but this time she would not be there. This time he might have to let go of everything. All souls would be gathered together: it was her belief and he wanted to share it. He would wait for her.
Light, brighter than everything else around him, bright enough to blot out the sky and for a moment he thought that he had reached that place, the one where there was no light, no shadow, no pain...
But this was too familiar. This was that same paralysis that had brought him here and his Starfury was shuddering around him and there was noise. A thousand voices. And then one and it called his name. He was spinning through darkness, but the voice was still calling him. He was falling. Falling and there was no end.
"John. John, can you hear me?"
He knew that voice. Her voice, calling him home.
When Sheridan's eyes flicked open, blinking painfully against the light, he knew that there was someone leaning over him. The face was blurred. She said his name again and he smiled. It was her voice. And it was that scent – tropical flowers after the rains. Her hair was tickling his face. Sheridan reached out to her, his hand not quite moving in the direction he wanted. She caught hold of it, imprisoned it between hers, turned her mouth into his palm and he felt her lips against his skin.
"I thought I had lost you." Her words were indistinct, muffled. "Again."
"I know." His mouth felt thick, words cracking as he tried to speak. "I seem to be making a habit out of it. I'm sorry."
"You should be."
He struggled to focus and he found her eyes. Her clear, sparkling eyes, bright as polished steel. If he could never see anything else clearly again, only this, it was fine by him.
Edges hardened, details sharpened. White walls, the smell of antiseptic, the BabCom insignia on the monitor mounted on the wall. They all registered in Sheridan's mind only vaguely. He studied Delenn. Her face was pale, drawn; the skin beneath her eyes was almost black. It added a strange charm to her face and spoke of too many sleepless nights.
"You've been through hell, my love, I know that. I know it's my fault. It won't happen again."
"Do not say that. You know that is a promise you cannot keep. But we do not have enough time to be able to waste it." The words were strained and he pulled her to him, her breath warm against his neck. When he put his arms around her he could feel her shaking. It was beyond her control and Delenn was not someone who lost control easily. He stroked her back, murmuring into her ear things that didn't make much sense even to him but that seemed to help. He could feel the tension easing, her body softening against his. She moved. One hand against the side of his face, her lips brushing his other cheek.
"Ambassador, I think- Oh."
Delenn straightened; his body objected to the sudden loss of her warmth. She stood beside his bed and Sheridan forced himself to sit up. Dr Lillian Hobbs was a serious-eyed young woman. Competent, brilliant even, and in Franklin's absence they relied on her greatly. But she had never quite become part of that circle at the heart of the station. She regarded Delenn with a combination of sympathy and mute apology then turned her attention to her patient. All brisk professionalism.
"You were very lucky, Captain." Her eyes flicked between him and her scanner. "Apparently your Starfury is a total write-off but there are only minor injuries. Little more than cuts and bruises and mild concussion. I'll be keeping you in for a little while longer just to make sure that that doesn't develop into something more serious."
Sheridan glared at her mutinously. "Dr Hobbs-"
"John." Delenn's hand lightly on his arm. "Please."
He sank back. "Fine." The ability of women to conspire and unite, silently and in a matter of seconds, was one thing that never ceased to astonish him.
"Well." The scanner snapped shut. "I'll, uh- I'll be back a bit later."
The doctor left them, closing the door discreetly behind her.
Delenn's hand still rested on his arm; he covered it with his. "Your fingers are cold."
"I am all right."
He brought them to his lips. The first time he had done that she had not fully understood the significance of that act. Now she felt pressure prickling behind her eyes. She ran her free hand through his hair, twisting it around her fingers.
"MedLab is not the place I would have chosen for a reunion," he informed her solemnly. Delenn laughed - the desired effect. He pulled her to sit, the bed dipping under her weight. "How's Susan?"
"She is fine. And very relieved that you are all right." Delenn paused. "Although, Zack has also informed me that she has been in need of sedation and is possibly missing great handfuls of hair."
Sheridan grimaced. "In that case do you think that there's any chance we can sell her on as a Centauri slave girl before she makes her way here?"
She was caught between amusement and reproach. Her hands were warmer, both trapped between his. "No, not even a slight one."
"I was afraid of that."
The final report from Sheridan drew muted responses from the Command staff. It was an image of a world that seemed all too possible - one they had escaped very narrowly. If it had not been for the very real memories and the knowledge that the universe was filled with mysteries that he could never hope to fathom, Sheridan would have been tempted to dismiss it as hallucinations brought on by one too many blows to the head. Denying the reality may have been a more comforting prospect but Sheridan had never been a particularly skilful liar, even to himself.
It would have been easier to forget that other-world Delenn and the restless emotions she had evoked. Easier, yes, but not possible. At first he had thought of her with gratitude and now he thought of her with guilt.
Even after Sheridan had managed to escape Dr Hobbs' efficient clutches and life on board the station returned to normal, it had still been difficult to find time to be with Delenn. Time alone with her, at least, for they were, as they always were, surrounded. It was a concerted effort on both their parts before they were able to find time away from the Council, the League, Ivanova's determined shepherding and Lennier's watchful, disturbingly calm eyes.
A simple dinner, in his quarters, just the two of them and he could finally tell her. All of it. All the things he had left out, all the things he could tell no one else.
Delenn had listened in silence and he had not tried to analyse the emotions that he had seen passing over her face.
"I'm glad that she was there." Sheridan watched her. Delenn smiled, reached across to him, fingers light against his cheek.
"Yes." In the half-light her eyes were the colour of smoke. "We are bonded, you and I. Our souls are one. That cannot change in any universe: she is part of me and I of her. And so she is part of you. Had you not confided in her, I would have been offended."
Laughter broke from his lips. Incredulous, almost uncontrollable. "You- You're astonishing, you know that?" He linked his fingers through hers. "I missed you. All of the time, every second, I missed you so much."
After he had returned from Z'ha'dum, after he had learnt - from Susan or Stephen, she was sure - of her grief for him, he had extracted from her a promise that she would never attempt such a thing again. Not now. Not in twenty years from now. The promise had been easy enough to make, but keeping it... Keeping it was harder, she had discovered. But she would have done it. She would not have fasted; she would not have maintained that ceaseless meditation. Because there were other ways her soul could follow his. Other ways to die. He had forgotten to make her promise that.
Her eyes were haunted, her face showing something he couldn't name. "Delenn."
He wasn't sure if he moved to her or she moved to him but somehow she was in his arms. He held her, his hands tangling in her hair. One thumb grazed the ridges at her temple; she murmured something. A surprisingly husky sound, throaty. Her mouth sought his and he gave into her. Her lips were soft, warm, demanding.
His body under hers was all hard planes but it yielded to her, his arms drawing her in. It was unforgiving embrace, all the air squeezed from her body. But she would breath him instead, feel him in every part of her. The sudden heat that flooded her made her skin burn.
Delenn pressed herself against him, feeling the smooth play of muscle through the fine cotton of his shirt. She remembered the feel of his hands on her body, his touch, how it was to touch him and she needed it again. And more than that. A simple craving, more important than air.
"John." No rituals, no speeches. There was an edge to her voice. "Now. I need you now."
If anyone so much as considered disturbing them now, he thought, he'd find a PPG and shoot them between the eyes. He pulled her to him.
She tasted like bitter chocolate - sweet and smoky. Her skin was warm, impossibly smooth when he pushed the silk away from her shoulders. His lips followed the line of her jaw, found the soft hollow behind her ear. Her hair played against his face. His fingers traced the ridges of her collarbones, fetishised the plane of skin above the swell of her breasts. His movements were a slow exploration, so close to the areas that demanded his caress but never quite reaching them. A deliberate torment. His thumbs brushed the soft undersides of her breasts; when he finally covered them, teasing her flesh with his fingers he won a sigh of approval.
The air in his quarters was cool, its bite a contrast to the hands roaming her body. Her fingers felt clumsy; she tried to stop them from shaking as she worked at his shirt-buttons. It was hopeless. She abandoned the effort, captured his head between her hands, turning her face to his so she could claim his mouth again. His arm around her waist was strong and steady. One hand running the length of her back, barely in contact and the breath caught in the back of her throat. She arched against him, gasping for air.
There was a sheen of moisture on her skin, one bead trickling between her breasts. He followed its path, licking it from her skin. Salty. She was all sleek muscle and soft curves, moulding herself against him. His mouth found her nipple, it tautened as he grazed it with his lips, his teeth. Her cry was breathy, wordless.
She moved over him, settling closer, still not close enough; she could feel his need for her pressing insistently between her legs and there were still too many barriers between them. She cradled his head against her chest, murmured his name as his kisses burned her, branded her. His laughter was soft when she tugged impatiently at his shirt. He lifted his arms, letting her pull it up, over his head. She ran her hands slowly back down his arms, across his shoulders. There were scars on his body. That had shocked her the first time. The marks of a soldier. A jagged line ran below his collarbone: she traced it with her fingers, lowered her head to follow the same line with her tongue and felt his chest vibrating. She smiled against his skin.
"We should move. Now."
She nodded. He touched her face lightly, ran his thumb across her lips. She opened her mouth, sucking on it, her teeth sinking into the flesh at its base.
He moved quickly, lifting her; he stumbled slightly and she wrapped herself around him.
When she was sprawled across his bed he watched her. She was exquisite. Delenn. She was the whole universe to him and she was his. She freed herself from the final confines of her clothes; her body was slender and pale. And waiting. She knelt as he approached her, her hands moving to his waistband. Her hands were strong. More so than he had expected. They looked so delicate, felt breakable in his. But she was far from fragile. He delighted in the feel of her skin under his hands. Long, steady strokes down her back, following the planes and hollows, the same path back, strands of her hair catching against rough patches of skin on his fingers.
There was an absorbed intensity in the way she looked at him, the way she worked at removing what were left of his clothes that made his heart pound. It was like she was trying to memorise him by heart. One hand under her chin, tilting her head back until her eyes met his.
"Not of if the whole universe stood between us, remember?"
Her eyes were huge, sparkling, flaring bright and hard as diamonds. "I remember. My love."
She moved away from him, settling back; she had dropped his clothes to the floor and he knelt between her legs, still watching her.
His head tilted, his smile playful and maddening. "Yes?"
Her tongue between her lips, moistening them. "I will not beg."
His movements were slow. She felt his heat before she felt his skin against hers. When he covered her, her slender thighs moved to hold his body to hers. It was torture: every touch, every moment when he wasn't with her, in her. Her back curved, an attempt to pull him closer. His eyes changed with every mood: now they were smoky green flecked with gold. Locked on hers. They could see into her soul.
He made her name sound like something sacred, something profane. He was shaking. She could feel him shaking. She cried out when his fingers slipped inside her. A relentless rhythm deep within her; she rocked against the heel of his hand.
Desire in her eyes. It radiated off her. Slick heat tightened around his fingers. She was restless beneath him, desperate for release. He withdrew from her, heard her moan of protest.
Every part of her was burning. Her skin was damp, fiery. It had gone beyond a simple need, beyond longing. Primal. When he entered her he felt punishingly hard and it brought only momentary relief.
He rotated his hips against hers, slow, shallow, finding the rhythm of her body; she braced herself against him. Her lips found the juncture of his neck and shoulder, tasting his skin, nipping it.
He was beautiful, she thought incoherently: the hard muscle, the skin both smooth and damaged, was all beautiful. And it belonged to her, all of it, all of him. His murmured words, close to her ear, were like hearing his thoughts, hearing his love for her even as she felt it. She felt his love and she wanted more of it, demanded it and he plunged deeper. Her arms tightened around him, her hips rocking higher, harder.
Rapture. Feeling him inside her, over her, surrounding her. Tenderness and roughness in equal measure. Every nerve-ending blazed. A loss of control. She could fall. She was falling. But he would be there to catch her. Her desire broke like a wave on the rocks.
He felt her contract around him, heard his name torn from her lips. A hoarse, wild sound. Violent spasms that drew him into her. Release. It flooded through him, into her, and she arched under him, her body wrapped around his, melting into him.
Her face was serene. The male slept, the female watched. But he watched her sleep. Its power lay in its simple intimacy. It was frightening to allow yourself to be so vulnerable with another person: to allow them to see the things that you might not want to admit, even to yourself. The true face. Hers was still serene. Still controlled.
"What are you doing?"
"Watching you pretend to sleep."
Delenn opened one eye, laughed at the mock-reproach on his face. "I was not pretending. I was ... dozing."
"I'm beginning to regret giving you that dictionary."
She laughed, moving closer until her head was cushioned in the hollow of his shoulder. The thought of ever moving from this precise spot seemed impossible. He was tracing patterns along her spine. "I wonder what happened to him."
"The other you. You took his place, but he did not take yours. I wonder where he went. If he got back to where he belonged."
It was the scent of incense that clung to her hair, he decided. "I'm sure he has. And when he gets back he'll find her and they'll both be fine."
Her head raised; she studied his face. "You are certain of that?"
"Of course. That's how it is meant to be, isn't it? The thing I can't figure out was how you came to be there."
"I do not understand."
Sheridan sighed. "You. There was no Valen in that universe. You're descended from Valen. How were you there?"
Delenn laughed and shook her head. "You Humans. You walk the stars like giants and yet you do not understand them. You think of the universe as a series of decisions ... a tree where each yes or no creates a new reality. Minbari believe that the universe is like a river. It flows; it has ripples and eddies and its course may be altered temporarily but it always finds a way to return to its proper path."
"Now I don't understand."
"Jeffrey Sinclair existed, did he not? If he did, then Valen existed."
"But I checked the databases."
Delenn smiled, her head resting against him again. "He existed. Perhaps he did not exist yet, but he indeed existed there. Do Humans not have a saying about chickens and eggs? Which came first? Nothing is infinite - everything has a beginning and an end."
It was Sheridan's turn to laugh. "Perhaps. Except for us." His fingers twined through her hair, twisting into the roots, moving to caress the ridges at the back of her head. She murmured something.
"What does that mean?"
Her eyes found his again. "Beloved."
She was beautiful and she was everything. And no matter how long this peace lasted – a lifetime, or only an hour – this moment would be with him always. He drew her face to his.
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