A Gift of Love

By Betsy Freeth

 

   This is an alternate universe story, only loosely following canon, and contains major spoilers for the Fourth Season, and for Babylon 5 Book #9: "To Dream in the City of Sorrows" by Kathryn Drennan. The plot is a thread from the end of a story I wrote previously, "The Door Out of Darkness", hopefully soon to be published. However, this story can stand on its own.

   I wanted to see what might have happened if a third party had confronted Marcus before he could use the healing device on Susan. It seemed like such an easy way out to me. Dying got him out of facing up to being a deserter (no matter how noble the reason, the truth is he left in the midst of a campaign), dealing with his massive guilt, and finally having to tell Susan about his feelings. What if he were given a third choice? And I wanted to know more about the device itself- who made it and why, etc.

   Constructive comments are always welcome. My thanks to all of the writers here for giving me hours of enjoyment with your wonderful stories. I hope I can give a little back with this one. I trust you'll forgive me for being a hopeless romantic!

   Standard disclaimers apply. The Babylon 5 Universe and its characters belong to JMS, Warner Bros. and whoever else has a legal right to them. All of the remaining characters and places in this story are my own invention. They're just playing together.

   Warnings: [AC] Adult Content

 

 

 

 

*****

   Chapter 1

   "Massive temporal disturbance up ahead!" Marcus Cole shouted, straining to see what was distorting the space between the flyer he was piloting, and the huge mining colony platforms floating in the distance.

    "What is it?" his brother William's voice crackled in his helmet.

    "I don't know…," he started, then his voice faded as he saw them. Monstrous spider shapes; huge, shimmering black things that obscured their view of the stars. First there were two, then others began to materialize swiftly all around them.

    Beams of light, brighter than the sun that shone upon Arisia 3, spewed out of the hideous alien ships, slicing the Inhabitant's Platform, the living quarters for all the miners and their families, into fiery pieces.

    "What are you doing, you bastards!" Marcus yelled. "Those are my people!"

    "Get us out of here! Now!" Will screamed. Even without seeing his face, Marcus instinctively sensed the horror in his brother's voice.

    "We can't do anything for them," Will yelled. "All we can do is try to get away. Can this ship reach the jump gate?"

    "No, this is a short-range flyer. It doesn't carry enough fuel," Marcus said.

    At that moment, the sky around them lit up with a blinding explosion. "The refinery," he said, knowing it was hit. He thought fast. "There's an emergency shuttle in an underground hangar down on the planet surface; it'll have enough fuel to reach a jump gate if we can get to it before those ships blast us to hell!"

    "Do it, big brother," Will answered.

    Marcus was grateful they had put on pressurized suits for the tour he was going to give his brother of the mining operation on the surface of Arisia 3, an inhospitable planet. Its cold, windswept terrain, and intensely radioactive atmosphere were forbidding to life. Only the promise of large quantities of Quantium 40, the mineral that made jumpgates possible, kept humans mining its surface.

    Marcus could hear a horrible keening noise that shot painfully through his head. "What are those things, Will?" he asked as their tiny ship streaked toward the planet's upper atmosphere.

    "The Shadows," William answered. "If we're lucky, they may not have seen us yet."

    At that moment, alarms sounded in the cockpit. "There's something big on a collision course," Marcus shouted. A flash of light, and their craft shuddered violently and then began to spin out of control, entering Arisia's atmosphere too steeply. *Most likely a piece of wreckage from the destroyed mining platforms,* Marcus thought. He fought to regain control of the ship, but one of the engines was crippled. The rising heat in the cockpit from the friction of the atmosphere against the outer hull sent rivulets of sweat into his eyes, stinging mercilessly and making it difficult to see.

    "Emergency landing operation commencing," the computer droned in a monotone. "Approach vector, one-niner-five by one-two-eight, runway 2…"

    Marcus hung on to the controls, trying desperately to level out what was becoming a fall, not a landing. "Gear down. Glide controls engaged. Power insufficient for safe landing," the computer intoned calmly. "Thirty seconds…" They were coming in too fast, and their angle was still too steep, Marcus thought with a cold feeling in his veins.

    "Hang on!" he yelled into his headset. Still fighting the controls, he braced himself. The sharp impact of the landing gear on the runway turned into a jarring crash as the ship bounced several times, then skidded out of control into several maintenance buildings. Everything seemed to fly apart, accompanied by the shrieking, grating sound of tearing metal.

    Marcus Cole opened his eyes moments later in almost total darkness. Only the glow of instrument lights enabled him to see anything. He moved slowly out of the harness in his chair and looked around. The side of the cockpit where Will had been was completely gone. The 2g's on the planet surface made every limb feel heavy and useless as he struggled to get out and find his brother. He called out over the com in the pressure suit, "Will! Can you hear me? Answer me!"

    A moment later, a faint voice answered, "Marcus."

    Thank God, Marcus thought, we actually survived. "I'm coming," he said into the gloom. No answer.

    It took several painstaking minutes for Marcus to climb out of the flyer and reach the spot where William had been thrown. By the emergency lights on nearby buildings, he looked like a crumpled doll lying in the dust. Marcus leaned down and turned him over. That's when he saw the blood behind the clear visor of his brother's helmet.

    "Ah, God. William! Dammit, talk to me!"

    Marcus heard his brother groan weakly.

    "Listen to me-I can get you to the shuttle. It's just a few dozen yards. Help me get you up. Do you think you can stand?…" Marcus felt a bitter sense of powerlessness twist his gut.

    The Ranger's voice was faint in his ear, "No, Marc. You have to leave me. Get out of here…Have to warn…"

    Marcus shook his brother as hard as he could in the harsh pressure of the extra gravity. "Bloody hell! Don't give up on me, Will. Come on! We can do this," he said.

    "No!" William breathed insistently. "You have to listen…Entil'Zha…didn't think the Shadows would attack humans yet…you have to get away…to Minbar…warn them." His voice trailed off.

    "You can tell them yourself when I get you out of here," Marcus said, desperate that his brother should not die uselessly in this god-forsaken place.

    "Promise me, Marcus," Will whispered into the com. "Please…get to Minbar... promise me you'll finish the work I started…promise.." He was using the last bits of his failing strength to speak the words.

    Marcus bit back a curse, his heart sinking. "I promise," he said softly.

    His brother breathed another small sigh and said, "It'll be all right then." He closed his eyes and the suit indicators showed heartbeat, respiration, and brain activity fall inexorably to zeros.

    In the distance Marcus could hear explosions, and when he looked up he saw long energy beams lancing down from the monster black ships, destroying everything in their path, making sure, he was convinced now, that nothing would remain alive in this place. As the ships moved closer, he did the only thing he could think of. He laid down among the pieces of wreckage on the ground, then dragged his brother's body up against his own. With a miracle, he might avoid detection. The weight of the body leaning on his chest was almost unbearably heavy and it took all of his strength to take every breath. Marcus almost stopped trying. Who was alive to care? Everyone he loved was dead. Then he remembered his promise…

    In the silence that followed the Shadow's departure, Marcus sat next to his dead brother, alone in the dimness, for what seemed like forever. All he could think about was Will trying to tell him of the danger, but he wouldn't listen. He had work to do, a business to run. He'd had no time for his brother's fantastic stories of godlike alien races and their mythic sounding power. Now Will was dead- everyone was dead- and all because he didn't take the warning. Was being left alive God's way of torturing him for being a fool?

    His radiation counter was almost at maximum exposure and the alarm it started to sound was insistent. He had to go. Getting up painfully, he began the trek to the underground hangar. As he walked, he felt a part of his heart go dead…

*****

    Ranger Marcus Cole awoke with a start. He looked around in the semi-darkness, expecting for a moment to see the bleak landscape of Arisia 3. But no, that was over a year ago. He'd made good his escape and his promise to his brother. Now all that was left were the nightmares. The Ranger pushed back his long black hair and looked at the chrono. His exhausted sleep had claimed several hours. *"It's time I get back to her,"* he thought. What if she wakes up alone, or worse yet, staring up at those doctors who spoke only Minbari?

    Marcus strode out of the crew quarters on the White Star and headed quickly to the Medlab where Commander Susan Ivanova lay mortally injured. He thought again of those moments when his brother died on that cold, forbidding planet and he had been powerless to do anything about it. *Not this time*, he told himself. *The doctors say there is nothing more to be done for Susan, but that's not the end of it.* The pain of losing her pierced his heart again. He'd loved her almost from the first moment he saw her. Marcus knew she'd found him annoying at first, but they'd become close friends, though never close enough for either of them to let down their guard. It was true that the best response he'd ever gotten from Susan had been a smile now and then at something she found funny about him. But that didn't matter.

    *She can't die, * he thought desperately, *I won't let it happen. Something Lennier said... There has to be a way… *

*****

   Chapter 2

    Yavenn looked up from the electron microscope on her desk at the sound of the door chime. The work of the last three standard days had been heavy. The most seriously wounded from their recent battle with the Earthforce Shadow fleet were being treated on this ship. Immediately after the fight, she and her team had spent nearly twenty hours in surgery. Even her Minbari-born endurance was beginning to flag a bit.

    The Minbari physician's office on White Star Nine was small and cramped. She transferred some of the slides and papers off the only other chair in the room and said, "Enter."

    The door opened and a tall woman stood in the doorway. She was dressed in a floor-length gray linen dress, her six-fingered hands extending away from loose sleeves to fold carefully in front of her. Silently, the woman lifted the fine lace veil hiding her features to reveal the fiery auburn hair, dark purple eyes, and delicately pointed ears of a rarity in this part of the galaxy.

    "Elo'ria. Elo'ria D'Nos Tah," Yavenn said in recognition, a smile breaking her usually serious demeanor. She reached out to Elo'ria, touching the spot over her heart with an open palm. Elo'ria returned the gesture of close friendship, very grateful for the touch of another being.

    Yavenn pointed to the now empty chair and said, "Please, my friend, sit down. It is so good to see you. I wish I could offer you more suitable hospitality, but this is the extent of my resources, I fear." While she spoke, her trained eye was seeing the fatigue in her friend's movements, and the shadow of sadness in her eyes. Turning to a small server along the back wall, she pressed the controls that would deliver hot water for the tea she now liberated from the cupboard.

    Pouring the steaming brew into delicately painted cups, the Minbari physician sat down and smiled at her guest.

    "It truly is a pleasure to see you again, Elo'ria. It has been far too long since we have been together to talk." Yavenn was remembering the time, months before, when she had met the then Ambassador from the planet, E'las. They had been introduced at one of the gatherings at Ambassador Delenn's quarters on Babylon 5. Both were new to the Station, homesick and out of their element. They'd become close friends, sharing their work and their fascination with a Universe that seemed so open to meet them. Yavenn continued, not at all disturbed by her guest's silence, "I was told that you had returned to your homeworld after you left Babylon 5. What brings you here?"

    "It brings me happiness to see you as well, Yavenn," Eloria said slowly. "I was told you were on board this ship. Forgive me for not coming sooner to see you. The journey here was more difficult than I can say."

    Yavenn reached out to touch Elo'ria's hand. Her touch opened her feelings to the E'lasian empath; they were full of concern. "Tell me, if you can. Tell me everything," the physician said softly.

*****

    But the healer did not tell her friend everything. Yavenn knew this from the start, but said little, only asking a question here and there as she listened to Elo'ia's story. By the time her voice faded to a whisper, the Minbari physician knew that her friend had been closely involved in the rescue of Captain Sheridan from his captivity on Mars, and that she had done things that had cost her dearly, including the loss of one that was close to her.

    "What will you do now, El'?" Yavenn asked quietly.

    "The Universe does not seem such a welcoming place as it once did, Yavenn." Elo'ria sighed and looked down at her hands, then continued. "I am returning to E'las, and soon, but there is one more thing I must do before I leave."

    "Forgive me. I should have known you had business here and I have kept you from it. Please, how may I be of help?"

    "You have already been of help. Just being able to renew our friendship has been of more assistance than you can imagine." Elo'ria took her friend's hand and said, "But you are right, I do have business here. You have a patient under your care; her name is Susan Ivanova. The Captain and Entil'Zha Delenn have asked me to examine her. It is possible that there is yet something that can be done for her."

    Yavenn tried to hide her distress. Commander Ivanova had been badly crushed by falling debris on the White Star she was commanding during the Fleet's last engagement. Being carried out of the disintegrating wreckage, while life-saving, had only added to her injuries. The damage was so severe that there was little the Minbari physicians could do to prevent her inevitable death. It was a defeat Yavenn bitterly regretted; she knew the Commander and admired her courage. Now Entil'Zha had gone to someone else for help and momentarily it hurt Yavenn's pride. But when she looked at the woman before her, and the sincerity in her eyes, she could not be angry. Elo'ria D'Nos'Tah's reputation as a healer was impressive; it was even rumored that she could use her mind to visualize living body processes at the cellular level. And Elo'ria's people possessed vast knowledge, collected from every race in the galaxy, both living and extinct. If there was anyone that could help Susan Ivanova, it would be this healer.

    Yavenn smiled at Elo'ria and said, "Of course, my friend. If I had known earlier that you were on the ship, I would have sent for you myself." Ushering Elo'ria through the door into the Medlab, the Minbari physician pointed out the human Commander. After giving her a brief report, Yavenn added, "My staff are available to assist you in any way you require. Please tell me your findings as soon as you have something." She turned to go, then stopped and turned to Elo'ria again. "There is a Ranger who keeps constant watch at the Commander's bedside." As if knowing there might be a conflict, she added, "Go easy on him, El'. He has had many difficulties and the Universe is not through with him yet."

*****

    "Begin records search…" Marcus said, studying the com panel.

    "Commencing….please define search parameters," the computer voice replied.

    "Access Babylon 5 medical records. Search for any reference to treatment of fatal injuries or terminal illness."

    "Working…" The seconds ticked by slowly. Marcus was alone in the conference room. He looked around warily, anxious not to be discovered until he'd gotten the information he'd come for. Lennier had said there were some things best left alone. Well, not this time. If there was even a shred of hope…

    "Three files found," the pleasant female voice intoned.

    "Display," Marcus commanded as he switched his gaze to a large screen monitor. As he watched, Dr. Franklin's face appeared. He was making medical log entries. Marcus leaned forward intently to listen.

*****

   Chapter 3

   The medlab was silent, except for the steady swishing of the ventilator at Susan Ivanova's bedside. The Minbari staff moved about with quiet precision and did not speak to Elo'ria as she began her examination of the Human commander. She was almost relieved to see that Susan was alone; the Ranger Yavenn mentioned was nowhere in sight. This task was going to take all of her attention and she was glad of no distractions.

   The healer removed the light sheet covering Susan and looked with a trained eye at the bruised and battered human form. Taking a data crystal from her supplies, she placed it into the med com link. A three-dimensional holographic display appeared in the air above the injured commander and began to conform its image to the body it hovered over. Elo'ria then produced from her robes a wand-like instrument that began to pulsate with light as she touched the handle expertly. Starting at the head, the healer slowly passed the device over Susan Ivanova's body, a few inches above the skin. As she did so, the holographic image responded; living bone, nerves, and internal structures appeared in colors of light, while the damaged areas remained in darkness. The severity of the injuries made Elo'ria catch her breath. She began to record her findings, careful to keep her voice calm and professional, all the while moved with pity for the brave woman she had known on Babylon 5 who now lay broken before her.

*****

   Marcus Cole stopped before the door to the Medlab, arrested in his tracks by the sound of a voice speaking in Standard. He waited to hear other voices answer, but there remained only the one, a female voice, the tones soft and musical. He took a step, thinking to interrupt the lone speaker and find out what was going on. Was this someone from the ship that was to carry the wounded back to Babylon 5? When Delenn told him of the plan to send Susan back to the Station to get proper care, he'd resisted, affirming that she would want to stay close to the fighting. He wondered if they'd come to take her now. If that was so, he would have to be quick to accomplish his own plan, for he was sure he'd discovered a way to save Susan's life. And the path led back to Babylon 5.

   Marcus caught a few words and moved silently closer to hear. The privacy curtain was open just a bit where it met the wall. He could see Susan's head and the upper half of her body, a glowing hologram in the air above her. *What was happening?* he asked himself. His Ranger training won out and he waited, listening without moving, his eyes intent on his beloved Ivanova.

   "...large right temporal subdural hematoma has been evacuated; no re-bleeding is seen," the voice continued. "Crush injuries present, C-3, 4, and 5. Spinal column has been stabilized surgically, halo traction device in place. Severe spinal cord damage apparent, with retrograde edema into the brain stem. Basilar skull fracture present with slow leakage of cerebrospinal fluid into the ear canals and bleeding into the maxillary sinuses. Brain electrical activity is slow, depressed. All neurological evidence points to deep coma. Right collar bone is fractured; aligned well and stabilized. Right second, third and fourth ribs fractured. Both lungs are showing the beginning signs of a distress syndrome common to humans after traumatic shock. The Minbari treatments have held it off, but now every hour brings the commander closer to drowning in her own body fluids. There is a small accumulation of fluid around the heart, but no overt injury. Kidney function is showing signs of failure. Blood pressure is showing a steady fall over the last twenty-four hours, despite countermeasures..."

   Marcus closed his eyes, willing himself not to scream at the cruel God who would allow such things to happen to Susan. He knew all of what the voice was saying, but hearing it aloud brought it home again just how stupid he'd been when he'd moved Ivanova by himself after the ceiling on the White Star caved in over her head. He should have guessed at the damage he was going to do and waited for help…but there was no time! He balled his fist in frustration. And now time was his enemy again.

   "...the commander's injuries are severe and beyond my skills, Cam'ar. The best I can offer are a few drugs that may buy her some time, maybe as much as seventy-two standard hours, but after that, there is nothing more I can do here." The soft voice paused, as if the speaker were listening to something, then continued, "Lim'a'an doja'ri asta Cam'ar befon'al. Despe'dam. Mesla'an, me' takap."

   Marcus Cole was fluent in many languages, including all three dialects of Minbari, but this language was one he'd never heard before. What did the words mean? Another pronouncement of Susan's death sentence? To whom did the voice belong?

   "You may enter now, Ranger," the voice said in Standard, just loud enough for Marcus to hear. Had he been seen all along? No, not possible. The curtain and the door frame blocked the speaker's line of sight. He threw off any discomfort he felt at being caught eavesdropping and stepped into the cubicle.

*****

   Chapter 4

   "Shuttle pilot, identify yourself. Your departure is not authorized. I repeat, identify yourself and return to the docking bay immediately. Departure is not authorized..."

   The undersides of the giant ships floating above grew rapidly smaller as the White Star class shuttle dropped away from its docking bay. Marcus Cole reached up and switched off the audio pickup, silencing the heated objections to his leaving, then returned to the guide controls, banking the shuttle sharply right. Bringing her up level again, he punched it for every ounce of power the ship could give him. It was imperative that he reach the jumpgate that would open in another moment for the transport ship returning to Babylon 5. If he was lucky, he could hug the other ship's tail and jump with it. Marcus considered for a moment that he might be pursued, then dismissed the idea as unlikely. The fleet was poised to begin the jumps that would take it to Mars, and then to Earth. There would be no pursuit of one lone shuttle headed away from the fight, no matter who had stolen it.

   Ahead, the Ranger could see the glowing mouth of an open jump gate, the transport just disappearing into the vortex. Marcus held his breath as he nosed his ship into the collapsing hole. The shuttle rocked violently in the backwash of energy from the transport's passing. He knew he was more than a fool to try something like this, but it was the only way to do what he was sure he had to do. Alarms began to sound as the vessel shuddered and pitched hard. Fire started in the rear console controlling life support.

   "Damn!" Marcus shouted, his fingers flying over the controls to bring fire containment equipment on line. He didn't waste any time wondering about the damage. If his ship was thrown off the jump beacon, having hours of life support would only postpone the inevitable. He would die out here, lost in the dark between the stars, his life wasted, and his plan to save Susan's life destroyed. *Not bloody likely*, he thought, *not if I can help it.*

   His path was very clear to him. No one, but most especially Susan Ivanova, was going to suffer again for another of his failures. This was his chance to set things straight, to finally pay the debt he owed his brother, the people on the mining colony who had trusted him, and Susan, who would not be dying right now if he'd only been faster, more careful, or better yet, had been standing closer to protect her when their ship was hit.

   The dark-haired Ranger lowered his clear blue eyes again to the helm and struggled for control. Finally, the computer voice intoned, "Course stabilized. Locked on hyperspace beacon delta epsilon eight one zero. Destination: Babylon 5. Transit time: Eleven hours, twenty-nine minutes."

   A pause, then the disembodied voice continued, "Warning. Life support systems damaged: oxygen stores down 40 percent. On board temperature dropping."

   *Great,* Marcus thought, *just when things couldn't get better...* "Computer, how many hours of oxygen remain at current consumption level?" he asked aloud.

   "Nine hours, fifty-one minutes. Insufficient for occupant's survival to destination," the voice answered evenly.

*****

   "I do not understand, Lady Elo'ria," the Minbari physician was saying. "The Ranger said that the arrangements for the Commander were in order..."

   The healer turned blazing purple eyes away from the anxious little man and looked to her friend, Yavenn. "He knew that the only hope she had was to come to E'las for treatment. I do not understand. He claims to love her and yet he has sent her to her death. There is nothing that can be done for her condition on Babylon 5."

   Yavenn looked thoughtful for a moment, trying to answer questions and calm the situation. Commander Ivanova had been transferred at least four hours ago to a transport ship evacuating the wounded to Babylon 5. When it seemed that she would soon die, and wishing to ease her last days, Captain Sheridan and Delenn had agreed to her return to the Station. But that decision had been rescinded half a day past. It now appeared that skillful lying on the part of Marcus Cole was responsible for the current debacle.

   "Please, El'. Delay your ship a little longer until we sort this out. There must be some plausible explanation," Yavenn said finally.

   "But why, my friend? Susan Ivanova's condition was deteriorating and the medicines to extend her time are not being administered. Her death is assured, and soon," Elo'ria shot back, her eyes sweeping over the empty bedside where the remedies sat unused. "In only a short time, the Fleet will move out of this sector of space. My ship will leave for home and I must be on it." She thought a moment, then continued in a quiet voice, "I just wish I could understand why he did this. He seemed to care so much."

   A familiar voice interrupted from the far door, causing the occupants to turn in unison. "We may have the answer. If we are right," Delenn said, looking at Lennier who stood at her side, "then there is no time to lose. If we do not move quickly, a terrible tragedy may unfold..."

*****

   Marcus shivered in the growing cold and drew his cloak closer around his shoulders. Rerouting some of the heat from the engines to the cabin had prevented him from freezing thus far, but it was an inadequate solution at best. He moved into the back of the ship and punched the code with cold stiffened fingers to release the door on the emergency supplies. Wrapping himself in a couple of the blankets he found, the Ranger huddled in the pilot's chair. He closed his eyes and tried to relax, calling on all of his Ranger training to clear his thoughts. Pushing away his awareness of the painful cold, he willed his mind to begin the mental exercises he'd learned on Minbar. If he could achieve a profound meditative state, he would be able to control his oxygen consumption and extend the time he had left before the oxygen in the ship ran out.

   ---A breath, long and shallow---

   The sleeping chamber is quiet. He moves noiselessly through the semi-darkness, careful not to wake the woman who sleeps on one of the tilted Minbari beds. As he moves nearer, he thinks again about telling her of his feelings, then quickly puts the thought aside as he has done a thousand times. Even though they have become friends of a sort, she has shown no interest in him, treating his small attentions as annoyances, never letting her careful defenses down for even a moment. *Why can't I just tell her and get it over?* he asks himself. The answer is swift in coming. As long as he stays silent about being in love with her, she has no reason to force him away from her presence. Better to have this small nearness, he thinks wearily, than nothing at all.

   As his eyes fall on her face, he is reminded of something he has learned on Minbar. It is said that when one sleeps, the face one puts on for the world falls away and one's true face is revealed. It is part of the marriage ritual; the woman does the watching while the man sleeps. He smiles sadly as he tries to imagine Ivanova ever wanting to see anything about him at all. It is just as well that the moment is backwards.

   Standing very still, he watches her face. His heart contracts as he sees the things he has long suspected were there. She is beautiful, of course. He knew that. But in sleep the irritability and bitterness have melted away, and in their place there is a trace of a smile. The vulnerability he has only seen a hint of in waking hours is now revealed, along with the unmistakable stamp of pain. He reaches out to her, his hand only inches from touching the softness of her hair, wishing with all his soul to have the chance to tell her how much he loves her, and soothe away all the hurt. He passes his hand closely above her face once, and then again. "You will never know," he says mournfully aloud, his heart aching.

   He braces himself for her anger as he wakes her up, much later than she'd commanded...

   ---A heartbeat, strong and slow---

   He can see the profile of Susan's face from his position behind and to the right of the command chair. Her look is determined, her jaw set hard, face pale. She grips both arms of the chair, not in fear, but in controlled rage. As he watches in growing amazement, her lips begin to move in answer to the challenge of the Earthforce ships blocking their way. The viewscreen shows them, ugly, mutant forms, with the signature of the Shadow technology Clark's people are unscrupulous enough to use.

   "Who is this?" an arrogant voice shouts over the com.

   Her mouth curls into an angry smirk, while her voice is clear and steady: "Who am I? I am Susan Ivanova, commander, daughter of Andrei and Sophie Ivanov. I am the right hand of vengeance, and the boot that is going to kick your sorry ass all the way back to Earth, sweetheart! I am death incarnate, and the last living thing that you will ever see! God sent me!!!"

   In only seconds, the viewscreen blazes with the light of energy weapons and massive explosions. Susan pursues her prey relentlessly, letting none escape to warn others of their kind. One ship looks like it will make it away limping, but Susan orders the White Star in close to make sure of the kill. Marcus is sure that if God really has sent an emissary to this battle, it is this woman who commands with such courage. He thinks that he has never loved her more than at this moment.

   His vision dissolves with the crash of hurtling debris against the hull of their White Star and the ceiling coming down over their heads. He cries out "Susan!", but no one hears.

   ---Another heartbeat, slower still ---

   He wipes hurriedly at the blood that is trickling down his forehead and begins to claw through the debris on the command deck with mounting panic. All but the emergency lights are out and it's hard to see. He lifts a heavy piece of wreckage and then another and another, desperation making him strong beyond any expectation.

   His hands touch Susan's body. Turning her over gently, he probes for injuries. A pool of blood has formed on the floor behind her head and he feels a large lump on the right side of her skull. "Susan!" he says loudly next to her ear, but she does not respond. Blood trickles from one side of her mouth. *O God, don't let her be dead!* his mind screams. His fingers feel for the pulse at her neck; it's there, but thready and weak. At least she's alive. He doesn't allow himself a feeling of relief; there is no time. His strong arms close around her as they'd longed to do so many times and he lifts her to cradle against his chest. Her head drops to his shoulder and does not move. Her arm falls to hang flaccidly over his hand.

   *We're dead in space, and with all the floating wreckage around us, it's only a matter of a short time before we're hit again- and the next time we'll be finished off for sure,* he is thinking as he rejects the idea of waiting for help to arrive.

   The ship shudders as escape pods rocket from the drifting hull. No time left. He holds Susan's body close and makes his way over the piles of debris. As he runs through the corridors with his precious burden, he prays there will be one more escape pod left..

   ---A breath, soft, a life-giving sigh---

   The E'lasian healer stands before him as he moves to Susan's side, her purple eyes regarding him intently. He watches the brilliant holographic image shimmering in the air above Susan's body, the devastating damage plain for anyone to see. He is riveted as his eyes go from the image to the real woman lying naked on the bed. The healer must sense his reaction, because she reaches out and gently draws the sheet over Ivanova's body.

   He's heard of this healer, of course. Among the Rangers, her kind are prized for their enormous skill. He's seen this one on Babylon 5 in the aftermath of the Shadow War. Entil'Zha thinks highly of her. *That remains to be seen.*

   "What are you doing here, Lady Elo'ria?" he asks tersely.

   She ignores him and turns to pick up a hypospray from a table nearby. Holding the instrument against Ivanova's neck, she injects the contents, then watches the hologram closely for several moments. Apparently satisfied with what she sees, she turns to him again.

   "You have the advantage of me, Ranger. You know my name, and yet I do not know yours."

   "Marcus Cole... my name is Marcus Cole," he is saying. "Who asked you to come here? What are you doing to her? Hasn't she been through enough?"

   "Yes, quite enough," she answers, her eyes measuring him coolly. "But what is the Commander to you, Marcus Cole, that you ask so many questions? I have been told that the Commander is alone, without family. Have I been misinformed?"

   A wave of guilt and despair threatens to overwhelm him. Can this healer see through to his true feelings about Susan? "No, her family is dead. I...we've worked together, that's all. I was on the ship when it was hit."

   "Then you were the one who brought her out of the wreckage. You saved her life at much peril to your own. Commendable. And now you keep watch here. Why? Your work with Susan Ivanova is done; you can do nothing more for her. Has Entil'Zha nothing for you to do in the next conflict?"

   He senses that the healer is probing his defenses. He quells an angry reply and says bitterly, "You can't do anything for her either, you've said as much, and you're still here. I stay so she won't be left alone. She doesn't speak Minbari very well. I translate..." His voice trails off. Why is he explaining anything? If only Lady Elo'ria would get finished and go away so he could start implementing his own plan. "Look, just leave her alone. She'll be taken to Babylon 5 soon."

   The healer regards him steadily for several heartbeats, the intensity of her violet eyes making him uncomfortable. Then she turns and begins to set out several shimmering bottles, making no answer. The silence stretches uncomfortably as the minutes tick by.

   A Minbari physician Marcus recognizes as Yavenn enters the room, urgency in her stride. She disregards his presence and approaches Elo'ria. "There has been an answer from E'las to your message, El'."

   "Go on..,." the healer says, looking up from her work.

   "I am instructed to give you this answer: 'Yes'. Cam'ar awaits you in Zeneb."

   He listens in growing alarm as Elo'ria nods and says, "One with more skill than I has determined that there is a chance to help the Commander. She must be brought to my homeworld. I will seek permission from the Captain and Delenn. In the meantime, preparations must be made..."

   He stops listening, his mind racing. He can't permit them to take Susan away on some flimsy chance. He's found a sure way to save her life, no gambles. A small voice in the back of his mind urges him to reconsider, but he fiercely cuts it off. He finds Elo'ria's eyes on him again and he looks up to return her gaze steadily.

   "Don't do this," he says, trying to keep his voice even. "Even if you can save her, which I doubt, she'll be alone and scared. And what guarantee can you make, when I can be sure..." He stops talking, afraid that he's said way too much.

   The healer's eyes continue to measure him, then her glance softens and she replies, "I sense that your feelings for Commander Ivanova run much deeper than you have admitted, and you have admitted them to no one, is that not true?"

   She presses on, "No, there are no guarantees, Marcus Cole. Your training should have taught you that. But if she stays here, or returns to Babylon 5, she will surely die. Should it be that you care as much as it would appear, you are welcome to stay with her, if Entil'Zha approves. Love is a healing gift and the Commander will need a great deal if she is to recover. You must choose."

   But he's already made up his mind. Elo'ria is right about love, and he will give all he has, along with his life, if that's what it takes to make Susan well. There's no turning back now.

*****

   Chapter 5

   Bright lights...hard to see...a giant weight forced him into the hard floor.

   Marcus tried to move, but the weight crushed him, his limbs not obeying his commands and his breath coming in ever shorter gasps. He tried to open his eyes, but found that he could barely make slits. Even so, the light was blinding and he couldn't see who or what was holding him here. And where was here? He forced himself to calm down and turned his energy to remembering what had happened.

   It took only moments for memory to come flooding back: Susan, the trip to Babylon 5, the moments when he'd arrived in his crippled shuttle, and the hours of confinement in Medlab while he recovered from the effects of hypothermia. They had unknowingly taken him right where he wanted to be- close to where Susan was being cared for. It hadn't taken him long to palm the lock to Stephen Franklin's office and discover the password that would open the storage locker where the device he sought was kept. No one saw the theft, he was sure, nor did the staff question him as he quietly moved about the small room he occupied. Marcus felt a stab of shame when he thought about it. These people still trusted him here. Apparently they did not know about his unauthorized exit from the Fleet and his theft of a shuttle. Rangers had their honor, and were trusted by everyone. Well, he wasn't going to think about how he'd blown that. Susan Ivanova's life was the most important thing, not some vague sense of honor.

   Marcus remembered with regret overpowering the nurses taking care of Susan and bringing the device to her bedside. He could see that her vital signs were rapidly failing and he quickly attached a cable from the machine first to her arm and then the other to his own. It took several seconds to discover how to turn the device on. When he did, Marcus instantly felt the draw down of his strength, as if the threads that bound him to the energy within the core of his being were being loosed and let go. He shivered as a strange coldness gripped his body from within. Suddenly tired beyond belief, the Ranger leaned close to Ivanova and watched as the color slowly returned to her face.

   With terrible sadness he was certain that he would never see that face again. All hope of ever sharing any sort of intimacy with her had crumbled to dust. Now he just wanted her to live. If that meant his life was forfeit, he wasn't afraid. Actually he felt relieved. He had failed too many people, including Susan, and it was right that his life, in the ending, would finally have some use.

   A small sound made him turn, almost in slow motion. Marcus had no time to react before that crushing weight was on him, pushing him down on legs turned to water, blackness reaching out to overtake him.

*****

   Marcus struggled against the pressure on his body, trying with all his might to move even an inch. With each effort, the weight came down harder, especially on his chest, so that his lungs caught fire in his effort to breathe and his heart hammered painfully against his ribs. Obviously he wasn't dead, so what was going on? What was happening to Susan? Was she alive? Did his plan work? If it did, why hadn't the device taken all of his life energy? Or had he failed? He couldn't bear the thought that Susan was dead. Marcus struggled again to move until his breath came in shallow gasps.

   As if in answer to his unspoken questions, a soft voice spoke close by. "Listen closely, Marcus Cole. You are imprisoned in a stass field. Do not struggle. Doing so will only make it more difficult to breathe. Relax and focus your attention within; draw on your inner power as you have been taught."

   Marcus managed to fight his mounting panic as he fought for air, remembering the lessons he had been taught on Minbar. Conserve energy; await an opportunity to escape... In moments it was easier to breathe, although he still could not move.

   After a short span of silence, during which he was sure he was being judged, the feminine voice continued, "It is well. Against the advice of others, Ranger, I have decided to release you, relying that you will not wish to add assaulting me to your already deep dishonor." At these words, the feeling of shame returned. He had deserted his friends and comrades on the eve of their most dangerous gamble against Clarke. He couldn't imagine looking into Delenn's eyes and seeing the disappointment that would surely be there after this.

   There was movement, then a firm touch on his arm. "Reversal of stass requires an injection." He felt a fleeting sting, and in a moment voluntary movement was returning.

   Marcus sat up slowly and leaned against a nearby wall as the room spun a few times. He looked up to see the E'lasian healer standing over him, a mixture of concern and disappointment on her face. He looked around warily and saw that he was still in the Medlab. Susan was gone.

   "Be at peace. We are alone. I have sent the others away."

   "Where...?" he asked slowly, panic beginning again.

   Lady Elo'ria seemed to know his question, answering, "She is alive, Marcus, and safe. Her condition has improved somewhat, although the outlook is still grave."

   "Why?..." he swallowed hard, "Why did you stop me? The device can heal her. She doesn't have to die. Let me finish..."

   The healer's purple eyes flashed with anger as they met his. "I have no intention of stopping you, if this course is what you choose. But you must know exactly what you are choosing, for yourself and for her. Hear me out, then you may do as you wish. On my oath, I will not interfere again."

   "I don't understand," Marcus said.

   "The device you would use, the anjadir, my people call it, is well known to the healers on my world. We thought our ancestors had destroyed them all centuries ago, but it would seem we were mistaken."

   "Why would you destroy a thing that can heal, Lady?"

   "The use of the anjadir is forbidden. Its history is bathed in blood and shattered lives. Its touch taints the soul. Even if you care nothing for yourself, I have been told that you hold the Commander in tender regard and would not wish to defile her so."

   As the healer spoke, Marcus was stealthily feeling along his belt for his fighting pike. If he could overpower her without hurting her overmuch, then he could get on with his fight to save Susan.

   "Is this what you are looking for?" Elo'ria asked, as she held out the small tube in her delicate hand. "I'm afraid I had to take it from you, and it would seem I judged rightly. Must I put you in stass again so you will hear me out without violence?"

   Marcus looked down a moment in frustration, then replied, "No, that won't be necessary. It's just...will Susan be all right? How much time?"

   "Time enough, Ranger," she answered. "Now listen."

*****

   Chapter 6

   Marcus Cole sat alone, staring straight ahead as if trying with all his might to see into an uncertain future. The healer had been true to her word. After she'd finished what she came to say to him, she had left him unhindered, even returning his fighting pike. Now, as she had pointedly said, he must choose.

   Even though sick with weakness, he extended the pike and smashed some medical equipment on a nearby table, an angry cry escaping his lips in frustration. He'd been so sure that using the healing device was the only answer and that he was taking such a drastic step for the right reasons. He loved Susan, he was sure of that. But at this moment that was all he was sure of. Hell, he was just a mining engineer, right? He hadn't had much of a life apart from Arisia 3. What did he know of ancient devices and the sins of long-dead races? And why did Elo'ria insist that he look hard at himself? Hadn't he already done that? All he wanted was for Susan to have her life back. If that meant he had to trade his own life, then so be it. Why couldn't it be just that simple?

   Marcus got up and walked through the doorway in the far corner of the room, holding onto the wall when dizziness threatened to send him sprawling. Susan was lying on a Medlab bed, eyes closed, the monitoring devices ticking away the remaining moments of her life. The healing device, the anjadir Eloria had called it, was still by her side. The promise its presence silently gave drew him inexorably closer, his eyes never leaving Ivanova's face, while his heart remained firmly gripped in the talons of longing and despair.

*****

   "The name, anjadir, means 'thief'," Lady Elo'ria said as she lowered herself to the floor and sat on her heels facing Marcus. "It was an invention of the Y'cani, a race which once rose to noble heights and controlled a vast Empire a thousand centuries ago. The Y'cani had long eliminated violence and war from their homeworld, but such blessings were slower in coming to the peoples they ruled. On many worlds, crime continued to take its toll and severe measures were necessary to control it. It pained the Y'cani deeply to invoke the death penalty, but their sense of justice could see no alternative to its use in extreme cases. They searched for a way to make something good come of a punishment they were loathe to impose and so the anjadir was created."

   "So what's wrong with it, if it is used to give life?" Marcus demanded.

   "But to give life, the device must also take life," Elo'ria replied. "The Y'cani used the anjadir only rarely, and the secret of its existence was closely guarded. A hundred centuries passed, and with them passed the Y'cani interest in their Empire. They were an old race, and the time came for them to change and move on. They departed, leaving the remains of their technology behind. Younger races sought what they had left, for dreams of power and ease. The secret of the anjadir became known." The E'lasian healer paused, her face now touched with sadness.

   "As with so many things born of good intentions, what was once a benevolent means of punishment became an instrument of evil. The device was copied and used by the powerful to prey on the weak, stealing life energy to feed a desire for virtual immortality. The devices were used to heal at the expense of helpless victims, or for murder that would leave no trace to point to the guilty." Elo'ria's deep purple eyes regarded Marcus searchingly. "And there were others who used it to end their own lives, justifying a forbidden act because another benefited from it."

   "What happened to them? I mean...where are those people now?" Marcus asked, his discomfort rising.

   "Long gone, Ranger, nearly all of them faded into nothingness," she replied.

   "Nearly all?"

   "One race survived the chaos that consumed the remnants of the Y'cani Empire. They escaped and took refuge on my homeworld a hundred centuries ago. Over time, they became one with us; the color of our eyes is the last trace of them . When our ancestors once more took to the stars, they destroyed what remained of the devices. The anjadir is fouled with greed and murder, Marcus. My people believe that anyone touched by it will be followed by ill fortune the rest of his life."

   Marcus was silent for a long moment, his mind racing to find some way around what Elo'ria had said. Unwillingly he thought of Michael Garibaldi and what bad turns his life had taken since the device was used on him two years ago. Stephen Franklin had used the device and he'd fallen victim to drug addiction. The Captain had helped Stephen heal Garibaldi, and he went on to make that fatal trip to Z'ha'dum. Or was what happened to them just a coincidence? He shook his head in impatience.

   A thousand doubts threatened to defeat his purpose. If he could not use the healing device to save Susan, what was there left for him, or for her? And was he just supposed to stand by to watch her die and do nothing? What was his life worth compared to Susan's anyway? Let the bad luck, or whatever it was, fall on him. He'd be dead, and she'd be safe, a fair trade. Susan had a life, a promising military career, friends, a home. His life was over the day the mining colony was destroyed, his friends and the last of his family along with it. All he had now were the nightmares. Marcus looked intently at Elo'ria and saw something in her face that made him think she had actually heard his thoughts.

   "You carry a heavy burden, Ranger. Dying will not resolve it."

   Marcus looked away, wanting very urgently for the conversation to end. This healer was hitting way too close. "What do you know about me or my life, Lady?" he found himself saying angrily instead.

   "Only what I see. You guard your heart closely, Marcus, as closely as she does hers. You prevent others from getting too close for fear of pain. You are afraid to open your feelings to the possibility of loss and so the fullness of life is closed to you."

   Elo'ria paused, as if measuring what she would say, then continued, "You think to give your life to save Susan Ivanova. At first glance it seems a gesture beyond generosity, but in reality I believe you see the chance to die, so that you will never have to deal with how you feel about her. You perform your noble act, then leave the Commander to cope with the mess you leave behind. Am I getting warm so far?" the healer said, her words like steely daggers, transfixing his soul.

*****

   Chapter 7

   "You may go to her now, Ranger Cole."

   The attendant's voice interrupted his worried thoughts. Marcus followed hurriedly as he was led through bright hallways, the glow coming from giant skylights overhead.

   The corridors of the Institute were quiet, but then a door opened suddenly to his right. Men and women in healer's garb exited the room, paying him no notice, and rushed toward another room farther on. The sound of anxious voices and computer alarms struck him like a blow as he passed. Marcus stopped in his tracks, watching the struggle for life going on in that room, until someone sensed his presence and closed the door. He found his mouth was dry and he wiped at itchy beads of sweat on his face.

   "Please, Ranger, we must hurry," the attendant was saying as Marcus came back to himself. He nodded to the man and continued to follow, but his thoughts were traveling at breakneck speed, fear threatening to overcome his thin veneer of calm. Susan was going to be okay; she just had to be. She'd come through so much pain and heartbreak for things to go badly now.

*****

   "Your decision, Ranger. We can delay no longer. Every moment puts her at greater risk," Elo'ria said.

   "Take her," Marcus said, his voice flat, defeated. In the end he couldn't bring himself to taint her with the anjadir, and then leave her to deal with it alone. In his mind, bitter questions continued tearing him to pieces. What if his choice was wrong? What if the E'lasians were unable to fulfill their promise? How would he live in a world without Susan Ivanova?

   He heard Lady Elo'ria giving orders, and then she was back, her voice gentle. "Come with me," she was saying.

   "No," he said firmly.

   "There are Rangers on the Station who have orders to arrest you. They will not interfere if you leave with me on my ship. Your arrest will accomplish nothing, and the Commander will wake up alone on a strange world. Don't disappoint either of us by trying to be a martyr."

*****

   "What are you doing to her?" the tall, dark haired Ranger asked anxiously.

   "The Commander is being placed in 'warm' stasis. Because of her extensive neurologic injuries, cryogenic freeze is too risky. This technique will stabilize her condition for a brief time- enough to make the trip to E'las."

   Marcus watched with horror as machines drained the blood from Susan's body and replaced it with a clear fluid. *What have I done?.* he asked himself.

   Elo'ria's soft voice intruded, "You have given her the gift of love, Marcus. It is a thing many dream of and never find. Stay with her. Your presence will calm her fear."

   "Can she feel anything...like that?"

   "Both feel and hear, yes, it is possible."

   Marcus waited until he was alone with Susan. He moved close to her and took her hand tenderly between both of his. To his relief, her alabaster skin was warm. Clearing his throat now tightened with emotion, and gathering his courage in case she should somehow wake up and throttle him, he began to speak. The words came awkwardly as he told her over and over where she was and what had happened and that everything was going to be okay. After a few moments of this Marcus fell silent. This definitely wasn't going well.

   This time he was at a crossroads; the moment he'd hoped for and dreaded for so long. All of his fabled courage threatened to fail him as he struggled for the words. Marcus began to think he would prefer challenging a thousand Neroons to facing what he had to say now.

   "I...well...it's just that...ah, hell, Susan, I love you." There, he'd said it, and as the seconds ticked by, with the sound of his blood pounding in his ears, it looked like the world wasn't coming to an end.

   "I'm not asking for anything. Just stay alive and get well." Marcus slowly let out the breath he was holding and continued, wishing for once that Ivanova would get up and try to kill him. "I just want you to know...I'll be here for you. You can count on me, no matter what. You won't go through any of this alone. I promise I won't leave you until you tell me yourself to go."

*****

   "Will she live?" Marcus asked, watching the two healers moving around Susan's bed. Since coming to E'las five standard days ago, Susan Ivanova had come to only brief periods of consciousness, and then she was anxious and disoriented.

   Cam'ar, an older man with graying hair, looked up at him with serious violet eyes. "The chances are very good now, Ranger, but there will be more operations in the days ahead. Cloned nerve tissue grafts and the organic neural implants are taking well, so far. Nevertheless, the Commander will need a long time for healing. Even then, she may not regain all of her former abilities."

   "But if I'd used the device, she would be healed now, no chances to take, no pain. Isn't that true?" Marcus asked bitterly.

   "The injuries to her body, yes, those would have healed. But the injury done to her soul might never have had a remedy," Cam'ar answered.

   His voice softened and he motioned the other healer to the door. "She is close to consciousness, but she resists coming out of the shadows. You can be her bridge to the light," he said to Marcus.

   "I don't think she cares much for what I say," Marcus said, his voice following as they turned and left him alone with her.

   Marcus stood for a moment and looked about the room. It was full of medical equipment and the smell of sickness. He walked over to a large windowed door that faced a spacious balcony. He opened the door and stepped outside. The day was beautiful, the afternoon light glowing amber, the breeze soft and slightly cool. The city of Zeneb sprawled out to the horizon, its sandy colored spires reaching up into the blue sky.

   Suddenly making up his mind, he strode back to Susan and leaned down closely to whisper, "Time to get up. Reveille. Isn't that what you military types say?" She didn't move.

   "Well, in that case, I'll just have to help. The day is too grand to miss." Marcus disconnected the medical devices, no longer essential to her survival, and slid his arms under her body.

   He didn't expect a response, so it startled him when her hands moved ever so slightly, and she breathed, "NO."

   "No choice, Susan. You have to get up and start moving. If you want to kill me, you'll just have to get up and get to it," Marcus replied, trying to make his voice as light and irreverent as it had been on Babylon 5.

   He gathered her close, then carried her to the bench on the balcony he'd prepared with pillows and blankets. Susan's head rested on his shoulder as he settled her down beside him. Her eyes fluttered and again she whispered, "NO." Marcus ignored the word and began to tell her all about the panorama that lay before them. She did not try to open her eyes again.

   When he finished speaking, he looked into her unresponsive face and said, "I love you, Susan," with all his heart, gently kissing her cheek. Emboldened by the silence, he continued, "A year ago, I had nobody and not a whole lot to live for. The Ranger thing was just a way to die in one of those blazes of glory everyone talks about." Marcus paused, thinking about how much he was revealing. "But then I met you, and everything changed, Susan. I think I loved you the first moment I saw you. Now, if it means being near you, I can go on living. I'm sorry I didn't tell you before. It's just that...I was afraid. Afraid it would ruin the friendship we have, afraid you would send me away..."

   Marcus stopped speaking, surprised that he'd given so much away. It would seem the old barriers just didn't matter much anymore. He gently stroked her cheek and said, "I won't ask you for anything, Susan. I know you probably want to kick my ass right now. But I don't care, as long as you're alive and getting stronger. When you're strong enough, you can do whatever you want to me. Elo'ria says love can heal. Well, if it can, you will have all I can give, for as long as you need it."

   His heart lurched as he saw one shining tear slip down Susan's face.

*****

   "Why didn't you just let me die?!" Susan Ivanova screamed bitterly as she hurled the nearest breakable object in his direction.

   "Look, just give yourself some time, Susan. The E'lasians aren't sure whether these problems are permanent or will resolve by themselves."

   Marcus had insisted on being there when the healers gave Susan a copy of the report John Sheridan had asked for about her progress. These last three standard months, her recovery had been slow and painful, but she'd made amazing progress.

   But that didn't stop time. Captain Lochley was now in command of the Babylon 5 Station; life was moving on without her. And now they'd just finished telling her their recommendation that she not fly- reaction times too slowed- and not take a command- short term memory lapses. Marcus didn't think the healers knew about the tremors she got in her hands when she was tired; he'd watched her try to control them by sheer force of will when she thought they might see.

   "So what am I supposed to do, Marcus? My whole life's been flying and the command track. It's been all I've had since Ganya, and then my father... Now you're telling me it's over. So what do I do now? I can't stay here forever, and there's no one back on Earth. Can't go back to Babylon 5; there's no place there for me now. When John gets this report, there won't be much else he can do except let me go. Not much use out there for a pilot that can't fly, or a deck officer who can't remember what she said five minutes ago. So what's the use of this new life you say I have?" Her eyes flashed daggers at him.

   Marcus fought a wave of exhaustion. In the weeks since they'd come to E'las, Susan had undergone so many surgeries to repair her damaged nerves that he'd lost count. Added to those were the painstaking hours of rehab as Susan learned how to control her newly "rewired" body. He'd been there through it all, coaxing, encouraging, absorbing the frustrations, doing the little things that made her more comfortable. She was impatient as hell, but made up for it in courage.

   "Think about it, Susan," he said urgently. "You have an opportunity to do all those things the rest of us put off till it's too late. And there's something else. I was waiting for the right time to ask you, and I guess this is as good a time as any."

   Marcus watched as apprehension seized her eyes for just a moment, and then suspicion. *She's probably thinking I'm going to ask her to marry me,* he thought sadly. He pushed the thought away and continued, "The Interstellar Alliance government asked that you consider becoming the Ambassador here on E'las. Besides recruiting healers for the Rangers, there's a tremendous lot we can learn from these people. And they know of other races..."

   He stopped speaking when he saw the furious look on her face. He'd been afraid of this.

   "Damn it, Marcus. A desk job? And diplomacy on top? How can I possibly refuse such a brilliant offer?" she spat sarcastically. "I bet you and John cooked this up to find something for me to do. And how convenient that I'll be stuck on this backwater rock where nobody has to be reminded about how far down I've come."

   Susan continued, weeks of rage and hurt finally boiling to the surface, "You tell John that he can shove the job. I don't need to be given a lollipop like a child. I can take care of myself."

   "Look Susan," Marcus said, beginning to get angry. "No one is trying to give you anything. You have well known talents with diplomacy. The Alliance needs an Ambassador here and you fit the bill for the job. That's it. No games. Say yes or no, but do it for the right reasons. You don't have to punish the people who care about you for this one."

   She watched him coolly, but her eyes were angry. "Why don't you just stay out of my business, Marcus? Who asked you to interfere with my life? Did you think when you forced me to stay alive that I would owe you? Or maybe you thought I would just fall into your arms when I heard 'I love you'?. Well it doesn't work that way. Look at me, Marcus. Love doesn't heal and here's the proof," she said as she held her hands, now shaking noticeably, out in reproach.

   Her words struck him to the heart. Susan had been angry and discouraged before, but this time, the look on her face, he was sure she hated him. "I'm sorry, Susan. I would have given you my life to spare you this pain," he said slowly.

   "Then why didn't you?" she said resentfully. "Just get out and leave me alone, Marcus. Go be noble somewhere else. You've done enough for me."

   A hurt Marcus hadn't believed he could ever feel again struck him somewhere in his middle, making him feel like screaming in agony. Susan was sending him away, and he'd promised to go if she ever wanted him to. And what she'd said. Why in hell hadn't he used the healing device? She'd never have had to face all of this if he had. Another failure.

   Marcus turned quickly and headed for the door, his movements turned wooden and mechanical. "Good-bye, Susan," he said as the door slid open. He did not look back. If he had he would have seen Ivanova's stricken look and silent tears.

*****

   "You are leaving." The statement wasn't a question, just a statement of what Elo'ria saw.

   "Yes," Marcus replied without emotion, not looking up. He continued to haphazardly gather his few belongings.

   "Have the Rangers sent for you? I would have thought there was no command in the galaxy that could make you leave the Commander's side."

   "There is one command, Lady Elo'ria, and Susan gave it. She doesn't need me here anymore."

   "That is a lie and you know it, Marcus. You were willing to die for her once, and now you run the moment she hurts you? Don't you see what is happening? She is testing you."

   "Really. Well, I guess I fail. Just one more brilliant accomplishment to add to my list," he said bitterly. "I would have died for her, you know that. I'm so very sorry I listened to you."

   "Do you love her?"

   "You know I do. You're an empath. You can feel it."

   Elo'ria regarded Marcus gently, then said, "Marcus, love rarely demands large gestures. It is the small things that are indispensable. Love requires that you be much like a candle, to light the way for your beloved. Love is the fire, Marcus. It brings pain along with the joy of its light. It demands giving, every moment. Your candle weeps away its life as the flame devours it. In reality, you do give your life, only a little at a time."

   "You don't understand, Lady. She hates me. I saw it in her eyes. She wants me gone. So I'll go and it will be over."

   The musical voice took on an edge. "Marcus, Susan's words wounded you, but you are still alive. Is love still alive?"

   "Of course it is. I will always love her," he answered irritably.

   "I do not have to tell you that Susan has suffered dreadful losses in her life. She believes that anyone who gets close to her will leave or die. So she tests you. Will you stay, no matter what comes? Or will you be just like the others and leave her alone? You are wrong when you say she does not need you. She needs you more at this moment than at any other. Find a way back to her, Marcus."

   Moments after the healer left his quarters, Marcus found himself outside Susan's door, not quite sure what he was doing there, not knowing what he was going to say to her. His heart was pounding furiously, and he felt uncomfortably warm.

   His hand went to the doorchime. He heard her voice say irritably, "Whoever it is, go away."

   The door hissed open. *Thank God the healers don't believe in door locks,* he thought.

   "No, Susan, I don't think so," Marcus said as he strode into the room.

*****

   "This way, please," the E'lasian attendant insisted.

   Marcus barely controlled his mounting anxiety and followed the man's lead through a large door. Special clothes were laid out for him and he quickly stripped and put them on, then stepped into a waiting stall with transparent walls. He closed his eyes and waited. A greenish glow surrounded him for several seconds, and with it a slight feeling of warmth. Then it was over, and he stepped out on the other side.

   The Ranger could hear voices coming from a room that opened into the far wall. He hurried to enter, only to be stopped by a healer. It was Elo'ria, and her face was grave. Marcus felt a cold knife reach toward his heart.

   "He said I could see her, El'. She's okay, isn't she?"

   Elo'ria's purple eyes measured him for a moment, then she replied, "There was some trouble, Marcus. A seizure. It was not unexpected, considering everything she has been through. She is stable, but not out of danger yet."

   "How can I help?" he asked calmly.

   "Stay with her, Marcus. Talk to her. The stress on her body is great. If she can focus on your voice, it is possible that her pain will be less. It is too risky to give her any more sedation and she has resisted the mind control techniques."

   He nodded and strode past the healer. Susan was half sitting, half reclining on a medical bed, looking pale, her hair matted with sweat, her arms pierced with I.V. needles, medical scanners blinking in time to every breath and heartbeat. It was a familiar scene, after so many surgeries to repair her injuries. Marcus knew the drill, and he pulled up a stool close to her head.

   Marcus found her hand under the drapes and squeezed it, then leaned close to her ear and whispered, "Hello, beautiful."

   Susan Ivanova smiled at the familiar words. Then another wave of pain overtook her and she cried out, clutching Marcus's hand so tightly her fingers were like a steel vice. A healer's voice was droning calmly, "Just a little more, Commander. It will be over soon." More impassive faces, another injection, an oxygen mask sliding over her face.

   Marcus caught himself right before panic could grab him, and spoke into her ear, "Don't think about them, Susan. Just listen to my voice. Relax and let me past the barriers, like we practiced. I promise I won't hurt you. Just let me help with the pain."

   The touch, one mind to the other, was feather light. It was something they'd discovered by accident. Now they would test its use. Marcus tried to think thoughts of warmth and soothing calm; it wasn't easy when the thoughts battered against Susan's powerful experience of pain and fear.

   He felt her relax, more as each moment passed, even though he knew the pain was reaching a crescendo. He held her in mental 'arms' saying, "That's it. Just let go and I'll hold you. You won't fall."

   Susan closed her eyes and let out a low scream, then relaxed completely. Marcus reached his hand to her face, fearing that she'd lost consciousness, or worse. But her eyes shot open at the sound of a very small, very outraged voice, doing some very serious crying. She turned her head weakly to Marcus and grinned radiantly. Together they started to laugh.

   "It would seem your daughter is not pleased with her new world, Ranger Cole," one of the healers was saying. In the next moment, Marcus was being handed a tiny bundle of wiggling red arms and legs. He'd thought when Susan made it through that first surgery alive that he knew what joy was. Well, almost. A new measure had just been added and for a rare moment, he was speechless.

   "Sophia Lauren Cole," he whispered to the baby. The infant regarded her father with dark blue serious eyes, then let out another howl. Marcus handed her to Susan, who deftly put her to her breast. The crying ceased abruptly.

   "A wise child," he said, delighted. "My God, but you're beautiful," he said as he bent to kiss Susan on the mouth. The baby stirred. "Both of you," he laughed softly as he touched the velvet softness of his daughter's hair.

*****

   Chapter 8 Epilogue

   "Papa? Papa, are you coming? The flyer to the spaceport will be leaving any minute."

   A young woman of eighteen years rushed through the empty house, her footfalls echoing on the shiny floors. She was fair, with creamy skin, long dark chestnut hair and a lithe way of moving that echoed her parentage. She saw the man she was looking for, standing in the garden, looking out over the city of Tuzenor below. Walking up quietly, she slipped her arm through his.

   "It truly is beautiful here. I think I shall miss this place most of all," she said, looking up at him with clear blue eyes.

   The breeze brought with it the scent of roses. He'd pulled a lot of favors, and the Rangers had managed to bring some plants from Earth, the long stemmed red ones that were his wife's favorite. Against all odds they had taken well to the dry Minbari hillside, and now they would stay to grace the garden for the next Entil'Zha.

   The dark haired girl looked at her father with concern. "I'm sorry, Papa. I know how much this move must hurt." She paused, then whispered, "I miss her too."

   Marcus Cole turned to look at his daughter. "It's been a long time, Sophie. I guess I thought when the time came I would be able to walk away from this place, and it's memories, without regret. I'm not so sure about that now." He made a good effort at a smile for her and said, "You must be excited. Don't let me ruin your adventure."

   "You haven't, Papa, really." Her look turned pensive. She rarely spoke of her mother in front of him for fear of causing him pain. "Sometimes I can almost hear her voice. I remember a song she would sing to me when it was hard to go to sleep. If I hum it to myself, I don't feel alone in the dark."

   Reaching out to brush a stray hair into place, he said, "I'm sorry. I know I've left you alone too much. There was always a crisis somewhere or problems to solve. Now you're grown and going far away. I wish there'd been more time, just like I wish there'd been more time with your mother... "

   "Well, enough of that." He smiled and kissed her cheek. "You know how proud I am of you. Be careful, okay?"

   She smiled back at him. "I'll be fine. I've always wanted to visit Earth and studying there is even more exciting. Uncle Stephen is going to meet me when I land in New York."

   He laughed then. "And no one else? I have it on good authority that David Sheridan will be attending the same University this term."

   A very pink blush stole over her face. "It's always good to have friends when you get to a new place. David thought..."

   "I think I know what David thought. Just be careful with that heart of yours. Won't do to see you get it broken."

   "Oh, Papa, it isn't anything like that. David and I are just good friends," she said, a little too quickly. "Don't worry, I'll come to visit as soon as I can. Lady Elo'ria says I can spend summers at the Institute. There's so much I can learn. You'll take care of yourself in the meantime, won't you?

   "Of course. I'll be retired; no more trouble to get into, remember?"

   She laughed at some thought she did not share, gave him another hug and vanished into the house.

   The man followed her, his face impassive again. He did not look back.

*****

   The sleek commercial shuttle settled down precisely on the landing platform. Marcus Cole stood for a moment on stiff legs. The seventy-two hour trip from Minbar had been long and tedious. At least the shuttle ride from the orbiting transfer station had been blessedly short. He stiffened as a pain like an electric shock caught him in the chest and spread into his arms. He breathed slowly several times, standing perfectly still. It passed. Unbuttoning his collar, he tapped a small device implanted under his skin. The potion it released directly into his bloodstream would hold the pain off for another few hours.

   The little cottage on Elo'ria's family estate appeared unchanged in spite of all the intervening years. Marcus stepped out of the groundcar, walked to the door and opened it. The place was neatly furnished, the windows were open, the breeze catching the curtains.

   "Is there anyone there?" he called out. Silence.

   He threw his bag into a corner, then made a quick inspection. Nobody around. Coming back to the living area, he kicked his shoes off and sat down heavily on a large couch. He couldn't hold the memories off any longer. He closed his eyes and remembered.

   This was their first home after he'd convinced Susan she could do worse than to love him. She'd taken the job as Ambassador finally, and was surpassingly good at it. They'd brought their first child home to these comforting walls. No wars here, no plagues, no nightmares. For three standard years, they'd sheltered here on this planet of symbiotic scholars.

   He never had much formal schooling, so he used the time to make up for it, harassing the teachers at the University with his constant queries until they gave up and let him attend classes on everything from astrophysics to selected literature from a hundred other worlds.

   Of course he knew that this idyllic existence couldn't last. And one day, the summons came. 'You are needed urgently. Return to Minbar.' Delenn's summons. With Lennier gone, he could not refuse his place at her side. She never spoke to him of his desertion during the war with Earth. He would prove his loyalty by returning to her.

   It took a bit longer for Susan and Sophie to join him on Minbar. By this time Susan was heavily pregnant with their second child, a son. The healers had advised her not to try to bear another child. Her condition during Sophie's birth had been more precarious than either of them realized. This time things might not end so well. Susan didn't listen, of course. Too stubborn, and too much in love with having a family again.

   Coming to Minbar had been a mistake, but how could they have known, then? Maybe they should have, but it was so unbearable for either of them to be apart from the other. So she came with Sophie, to be with him. After the first week, events conspired to keep him away and he hardly saw Susan at all. He told himself that these were just temporary crises; things would blow over and he'd spend more time with his family.

*****

   Marcus stood up and walked to the entrance to the courtyard atrium. Here's where he usually stopped the memories, but today he let them come. It was time.

   When Susan went into labor, the healers at the Ranger compound sent a message, telling him she was calling for him. But there were other duties, always other duties. A White Star had come in with half the Rangers on it dead and no explanations. It was his responsibility to head the investigation. Susan was in good hands, wasn't she? There'd been no report of trouble.

   By the time he reached the hospital, the calls for his presence had taken on urgency. Instead of letting him see Susan, a human doctor came for him with the news that Susan had hemorrhaged badly during the birth. She was alive, barely. But their son, William Jeffrey, was dead.

   That was what started it, the slow drifting apart. They never did stop loving each other, but losing the baby stood between them like a wall neither of them could breach. She blamed herself, believing firmly that the loss of their son was her fault because she killed everyone who came close. And Marcus blamed himself for allowing her to leave the safety of E'las. They both retreated into their private pain and let go of trust. With every passing day, it grew more difficult to do anything about it.

   Susan stayed for another five years, for Sophie's sake he'd always thought. Then one day she got an offer from Earth Alliance military to sign on again. The next day she was gone. She left Sophie with him. She knew somehow that having Sophie was the only way he'd survive.

   The hurt never faded with time, but instead became the background of his life. And his work with the Anla'shok became his life. The nightmares returned.

*****

   The sun had already set and the breeze coming through the open windows had turned cool when Marcus stirred from a fitful doze. He got up slowly, careful not to make any sudden moves that would send the ever present pain over the edge of tolerance. Moving through the dimness, he waved a hand over the light panel. A soft glow suffused the room.

   It was then that he felt it. As sure as he knew he was alive, he knew that someone was there, in that house with him. "Hello? Is there anyone there?" he called in Standard, then repeated the same words in E'lasian. No answer.

   Calmly Marcus began a search of the house, the itch at the back of his brain getting stronger with each step. Although a former Entil'Zha had plenty of enemies who'd like nothing better than to exact revenge for any number of grievances, he wasn't really afraid.

   Minbari discipline had taught him a great deal about accepting one's fate and finding peace with the Universe. Now his mind struggled to find that core of serenity. He'd done the best he could to make a difference during his time with the Rangers; he would go beyond the veil with that. There was ever only one regret-in all of his experience with tactics, negotiation, and politics, he'd never found the way that would work with Susan. He'd always known where she was, and all the details about her life that his intelligence network could amass. He'd always planned to go to her, talk to her, try anything to open the way between them, but there always seemed to be other things in the way: duty, obligations, missions. Solving other people's problems. Even on the rare occasions when they'd met, the fortifications each of them had placed around their hearts seemed too daunting to breech. Time went on and suddenly there was no time left.

   Marcus stopped when he reached the balcony off the bedroom on the upper floor. He'd almost forgotten how much the E'lasians loved these high perches to look out over their beautiful world. He walked to the railing and looked out at the quiet countryside. A few tall trees sighed in the wind, and beyond, the ripple of lights from the capital city.

   "Beautiful, isn't it?"

   Marcus turned quickly to the sound of the voice. He saw a silhouette standing closeby in the dark. With one fluid motion, he lunged forward and slammed the intruder into the floor. In the back of his mind, he smiled to know he still hadn't lost all of his abilities. As he did so, pain lanced through his body, taking his breath and making him gasp.

   A familiar touch on his mind made him stop, before he delivered a blow that would send the struggling form into unconsciousness. "Who are you?" he hissed, already guessing the answer.

   "It's Susan, Marcus," she answered into the darkness, trying to catch her breath. "I heard you were on planet and I had a feeling you'd be here. I'm glad to see I wasn't wrong, at least about that." Susan was trying to keep a matter-of-fact tone in her voice, but Marcus could feel her tension, like a coiled spring beneath his hands.

   "What do you want, Susan?" Marcus sighed. He tried hard to keep the edge of agony out of his voice.

   "Only to see you. Maybe talk. It's been too long."

   "Way too long, Susan. Ten years too long." Marcus let her up off the floor and fell into a chair. In the dark he could not see her face, but he could feel her presence, like a dying man can smell water in the desert. His mouth twitched at that. *I am a dying man.* he thought. *There's no way around that. And it would have to be Lake's Syndrome. How utterly ironic that it's the same thing that was killing the doctor who found that damned healing device in the first place.* The device had conferred it's bad luck on him as Elo'ria had warned. Oh, yes, the E'lasian healers thought they could hold off the wracking pain, give him more time, maybe even find a cure in that library of theirs. Well, that didn't matter. All he'd really wanted was to come home.

   "Look, are you okay? Can I get you something?" Susan sounded worried.

   "Sure, I'm okay. Just stay here a minute."

   Marcus got up and went into the bedroom, returning with a cold light stick. He pressed it hard and a greenish light flooded a small area. He could see her now. Susan looked older, her dark brown hair shot with gray, and her eyes tired. Even so, she was still very beautiful. He watched her in silence for a moment, looking into those indigo eyes, trying to see something. Did she know about his illness? Only five people in the known galaxy were supposed to know, and she was not one of them. He couldn't stand it if she was here out of some kind of pity.

   But Marcus didn't see pity in those eyes, only pain and something else, longing perhaps. She didn't know. As his mind reached out cautiously to hers again, he knew it for sure.

   "How is Sophie?" Susan asked quietly.

   "She's fine, Susan. She misses you, you know."

   "Yes."

   "Why did you come here? Haven't we hurt each other enough? Is there really anything more to say?" he said bitterly.

   Even in the dim light, he could see tears sparkle in her eyes. "I heard you were retiring from the Rangers. It was easy to find where you'd gone. It was all rather sudden, don't you think? I was worried..." Her voice trailed off.

   "Well, you can leave without your worries. I'm fine, really. Just tired. With Sophie gone to University on Earth, I decided to come back here, take some time to write, learn some more about what makes the galaxy tick..."

   "I'm not leaving, Marcus. I quit my post with Earth Alliance. Never really had any kind of home, except here," Ivanova whispered, looking around. She swallowed hard. "I know I've been a fool, Marcus. I never meant to...to hurt you."

   "You did a pretty good imitation then," he replied acidly.

   "Marcus, please...when I heard you were coming here, I couldn't help it. It was like I was drawn here. I almost didn't have a choice. I didn't want a choice." She looked down at her lap. "I wanted you. I love you. I never stopped. If I could make the past over, reset time, I would, but I can't, Marcus. I can't." Susan was starting to sob.

   Marcus felt his heart beat faster as he watched her cry, not knowing what to say. He knew well enough that she was telling him the truth, and showing him feelings long guarded. But how could he possibly respond? He would be asking her to stay and watch him die. He couldn't make that choice for her. She would have to make it herself. But that would have to come later. At this moment, he was sure of only one thing- he loved her so much it hurt.

   "It's okay, Susan. Really." he said, as he went to her and took her in his arms. It felt like a missing piece of his soul finally slid into place. In his mind, he felt Susan's joy and wonder as he held her close. He buried his face in her hair, reveling in the familiar scent of her. Catching her chin lightly with his hand, he brought his mouth down on her soft lips. He felt her mouth open with a soft moan as he tasted her with his tongue. There was passion and desire there and it made his skin burn to her touch.

   "I love you, Marcus," she breathed raggedly as they broke the kiss.

   Marcus looked into her eyes, seeing the other part of his soul, as the Minbari would say, reflected there. "And I love you, Susan Ivanova."

   She kissed him again, a kiss filled with longing. The fire began to burn in earnest.

   "Susan, before we do what I think we both want to do, I really think you should know..."

   Susan placed a halting finger on his lips. "Later," she whispered.

   He swept her up in his arms finally, ignoring the pain, and carried her inside to the waiting four-poster bed. Elo'ria had never had the bed taken out. Had she known all along? Marcus knew the E'lasians, with their symbiotic companions, had power he barely understood. He shook his head and laid Susan on the satiny covers. There were a great many other things to think about just now.

   In the middle of the night, he woke with a start, thinking it had all been some kind of fantastic dream. He felt for her in the dark, and found the softness of her body curled in the sheets next to him. She stirred. "Shh." he said, "It's okay." He kissed her hair.

   Marcus thought again as he watched her sleep about what he must tell her. He would not be able to keep it from her for long, in any event. He'd explained the auto-infuser under his skin as a prosthesis for an old battle injury, but Susan was too smart for that to get past her for long.

   He settled down again, and drew her close from behind, spooning his body to fit them together. The warmth of her touch, her scent, the soft sound of her breathing- it was more than he'd ever hoped for, in this time before the end. He would drink it in, like that man in the desert. Tomorrow would take care of itself, as it always had. Tonight he had found his home at last.

   [THE END]

 

*****

 

 

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