SELLING OUT (V)

By Castor

 

 

 

*****

   Delenn walked a fine line between pure honesty and an increasingly economical interpretation of the truth during the press conference. She started by assuring them that Sheridan was still alive, but insisted a question still remained as to whether or not he would survive. She admitted the cause was due to the activities of enemies of the Alliance but didn't say what they had done or how or even who they were. Ivanova and Lochley's reaction was passed off as a response to a panic when Sheridan's life signs dropped dangerously low. Her own serendipitous arrival at the station was put down to precisely that -- sheer chance that she happened to be in the right place at the right time. As for whether the perpetrators had been captured, she was vague on the matter, insisting that investigations were still in process. There was no need to alert those still being sought by the Anla'shok that the game was up.

   While the reporters' incessant questions gave the Medlab crew the time to move their patient in peace, she was relieved when a slight nod from Lochley informed her that he was safely aboard and it was safe for her to draw the conference to a close. She was beginning to get a genuine sense of what Sheridan was going through when conscious. If this was even a fraction of the confused noise he was trying to live with it was no wonder he begged for peace.

   "I am sorry," she said, raising her voice and her hands to still the demanding voices, "but I cannot tell you any more. There will be another bulletin as soon as information becomes available. For now I can only assure you that everyone is working hard to save my husband's life. He has sacrificed a great deal to the service of the Alliance worlds, and I'm sure you all join with me in praying for his recovery. Those responsible will be brought to justice. They are the enemies of every honest and hard-working member of every world, and the Anla'shok will not rest until they are found. I ask every government to open its doors and help us in our search since it is in all our interests that these people be found. If they feel free to threaten the President himself then surely they will not hesitate to attack any who stand in their way on any world." She paused long enough that every camera could see the angry determination etched onto her face and then swept out of the room. When the reporters tried to follow her they found their way blocked by security who insisted they would only hold them long enough to ensure First Lady Delenn was not hindered from returning to the President's side. They neatly side-stepped the fact that he was no longer in Medlab and the continuing twenty-four hour guard maintained the illusion they were still aboard the station.

   When Delenn arrived at the shuttle she was surprised to find Ivanova already there and strapped in.

   "Susan? What are you doing?"

   "Coming with you," she stated flatly. "Please don't argue the point. I know the White Stars better than most humans and I know John. I've got enough knowledge of telepath tricks to block my thoughts from him and you need someone who can operate weapons if things get rough. Besides, if anything goes wrong I want to be there." When Delenn went to argue the point Ivanova played her trump card. "He's my friend, Delenn. I've known him even longer than you. He's the closest thing to a brother I have left and he's stood by me when no one else would. If this is the end, I want to be there. I owe him that much."

   Delenn smiled a little sadly and nodded. It would be good to have Susan there if... She dismissed the thought. This would work and that was all there was to it. She sat down next to Susan and strapped herself in. Glancing over her shoulder she could see the Minbari healer, Varlenn, seated beside her husband who was strapped onto a gurney. She closed her eyes and uttered a short prayer that from now on the only time she would see her husband unconscious was in the natural process of sleeping. She had seen enough medical equipment around him to last several lifetimes.

   Ivanova leaned over. "Captain Lochley suggested somewhere we could take him. It's a good few hour's journey and he'll be awake before we get there, but I guess we just have to hope hyperspace is fairly quiet right now." The pilot got the all clear and the shuttle departed the station smoothly as Ivanova continued to explain. "I had considered giving Draal a call but then I thought..."

   "Zathras," Delenn provided.

   "Exactly. There are nine of them down there and I can't cope with them one at a time. They might be able to shield their thoughts, but given the endless crap they spout in ordinary conversation I didn't want to risk it. Oh, Lochley told me to tell you the crew of the White Star are all aboard the station. I think she's using them to bolster security. Adds to the illusion we're all still there."

   Delenn nodded, her mind only half on Ivanova's words. They entered the White Star's docking bay, offloaded their patient and took him to the ship's own medical facilities while the shuttle pilot made his way back to the station. Once Sheridan was settled, Ivanova quietly dismissed herself and made her way up to the command deck. She logged in the coordinates, settled into the Captain's chair and sent the ship through the jumpgate. As the swirling red engulfed the White Star she leaned back and allowed herself a small smile. It had been far too long since she sat in that chair, and while it held some unpleasant memories, no Captain could ask for a more responsive or eager ship.

   *****

   The journey was uneventful until two hours before they arrived at their destination. Ivanova maintained a quiet and efficient vigil on the Bridge while Delenn and Varlenn mirrored her behaviour with their patient.

   Delenn was sitting on a chair, her head resting on her fist, when a change in the audible feedback from the monitoring equipment warned that Sheridan was regaining consciousness. Its agitated tone was enough to tell them that his return would not be an easy one. Delenn and Varlenn exchanged glances and, in an instant, she was by his side.

   "John? It's all right. I'm here." She concentrated on images of home, peaceful walks in the gardens, quiet evenings curled up with a book -- anything that didn't involve large numbers of people, panic or noise. He calmed slightly but not as much as she had hoped and she frowned at Varlenn. His expression indicated he had no idea of the cause of Sheridan's distress but he quietly excused himself and contacted Ivanova. She had been remembering past times aboard the White Stars, unaware John was waking, and promptly shut down her thoughts. He quieted slightly but the EEG readout was still that of someone in rather more stressful surroundings.

   "John, listen to me. You're on the White Star. We've left the station and are headed towards an unoccupied area of space."

   "Sure is noisy for an unoccupied area," he muttered and opened his eyes. He glanced around the room, blinked a few times and then smiled. "But a lot quieter than the station. Where are we?"

   "Captain Lochley gave Susan the coordinates. We're in hyperspace now."

   He struggled to sit up and Varlenn and Delenn helped him. "Any chance of a drink?"

   Varlenn had been waiting for that request and instantly produced a glass of ice water. "Sip it slowly, Mr President. You have been sedated for some time. It will take your system time to adjust."

   "Tell me about it!" he groaned, taking a sip and swilling it around his mouth. He took a moment to hold the water against his parched lips, sipped some more and then rested the glass on his lap. For a moment he cocked his head and then frowned. "Busy space lane. How far away's the nearest ship?"

   Delenn contacted Ivanova using the comlink in the sick bay. Now she had calmed her thoughts her image was unlikely to cause any problems, and John's talent seemed equally potent regardless of whether he could actually see those he was hearing telepathically. She asked John's question and the reply was stunned silence for a moment before Susan gathered herself enough to speak.

   "John, what exactly are you picking up?"

   He listened again. "It's a bit garbled. The loudest I know but I can't place, but I'm getting Narn and Centauri as well. Who's out there?"

   On the link Ivanova blanched and swallowed hard. "How many voices are you hearing?" she asked slowly. Delenn caught the tone of her question and wondered at it. It took a lot to rattle Susan, but this had succeeded.

   "A lot," he replied ruefully, oblivious to Ivanova's shock, "but fairly muted. The ships must be a good distance away."

   Another pause. "Delenn. I think you need to come up here."

   Sheridan frowned. "Whatever it is, I think you can say it to both of us. How far away are the ships?"

   She shook her head. "There are none. None that our scanners are picking up, anyway, and I've got them stretched to the full. The nearest sources for large groups of Centauri and Narn are the Narn homeworld and Quadrant 14. You're not picking up anything from Sin'Taleth are you?"

   The colour had drained from both Sheridan and Delenn's faces as they took in the import of Ivanova's words and Delenn's hand gripped her husband's tightly. He covered it with his own, took a deep breath and nodded. "Uh huh. That's the one I couldn't remember." He paused and then said, "Let me check something."

   As Delenn and Varlenn watched he pulled away from Delenn, closed his eyes and concentrated. His heart monitor started to race and Delenn moved back but he waved her away. After a while he opened his eyes.

   "How long until this stuff is out of my system?" he asked coldly.

   "About six hours Mr President," Varlenn replied.

   "And how long 'til I'm past the peak?"

   Varlenn looked at the chronometer. "Another two hours."

   "Two hours," he mused quietly. After another pause he looked up. "In answer to your questions, I can hear human, Narn, Centauri and Sin'Taleth right now. It might change once we get out of hyperspace. And Susan, it would help if you weren't shouting." He grinned to take the sting out of his words but she nodded sharply and quickly erected blocks. "Better."

   She shook her head. "I couldn't even sense you. What kind of telepathy is this?!"

   "The kind I'll be very happy to lose," he replied and then flung back the sheet. "Can you get me unplugged?" he asked Varlenn. "I'm tired of being hooked up to monitors and lying in that bed. It's about time I got some exercise."

   "Mr President..."

   "I know, I know, but I think if things go downhill you won't need monitors to tell you. Besides, there's too much noise anyway without that beeping in the background."

   "We can mute the monitors," Varlenn suggested.

   Sheridan shook his head. "Delenn, have I got some clothes?" When she also hesitated he vented some of his pent up frustration. "I'm not going anywhere! You can all watch me like some freak in a cage..." He instantly regretted the remark and bit off the rest of his tirade. "I'm sorry. Look, if things start getting out of hand I promise you I'll come straight back here and you can plug me back in, but in all honesty..." He raised his hands and let them drop back onto the bed. "If this doesn't work then I've got two choices: I can walk out of an airlock or I can spend the rest of my life unconscious, because there's no way I can cope with listening to every planet in the Alliance twenty-four hours a day." He turned to Delenn, taking her hand in his. "Please?"

   She leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead. He closed his eyes, savouring the emotions behind the act that rushed through him and then smiled when he heard her order to Varlenn before she even uttered it. "I will watch over him, Varlenn. Whatever happens it is time to switch off the monitors."

   Varlenn nodded and helped Sheridan remove the various sensors that covered his chest, arm and head while Delenn fetched some clothes. Varlenn excused himself to give Sheridan privacy in which to get dressed and then reappeared when his patient was ready to leave.

   "I appreciate your coming, Varlenn," Sheridan told him. "You're not wasting your time, whatever you may think."

   The doctor went to contradict him and then closed his mouth when Sheridan raised an eyebrow. "Thank you," he said, giving Sheridan a formal bow.

   Delenn chuckled as she and Sheridan left the medical facility arm in arm. "Our much-vaunted Minbari reserve is of little use against you right now."

   "It's quite amazing how much goes on under that cool exterior," he replied. "I've got an entirely new perspective on quite a number of races."

   "Will it be of use?" she asked as they turned a corner. Sheridan hesitated a second and then took the route that led to the Bridge.

   "Um hmm. They say you shouldn't pass comment on anyone until you've walked a mile in their moccasins. I think this experience is worth twenty in anyone's shoes. The next time the Centauri tell me I don't understand them, I'll be able to give them quite a shock."

   She stopped and turned to face him. "John. What you said earlier..."

   "Let's face that when we come to it, huh?" Her fears were not so easily cast away and he pulled her into his arms. "I'm not going without a fight, Delenn. I fought too hard to be here in the first place. Besides," he added, pulling back, "how could I walk away when I know exactly how everyone feels about me? Particularly you."

   She smiled. "You knew that already."

   "True, but it never hurts to have solid evidence," he chuckled. "And what I get from you is about as solid as it gets."

   "Always," she assured him.

   "When this is over I plan to celebrate that fact." He went to kiss her and then sighed. "Susan, hiding around corners doesn't actually help the situation."

   Sheepishly, Susan came into view. "You can't blame a girl for trying. I see my timing is as bad as ever."

   Sheridan chuckled, shaking his head. Then the laughter stalled and he winced, pulling away from Delenn to lean against the wall.

   Delenn and Susan exchanged a worried glance.

   "John? What's wrong?" Delenn reached out to touch him but he shied away.

   "Wait! Give me a moment here." Sweat was beading on his forehead and he reached up to wipe it away when something seemed to strike him and he doubled over with a grunt of pain.

   "We need to get him back to the sick bay," Susan urged and went to support him.

   "Don't touch me!" His order was desperate and Susan stalled in confusion. "Makes it worse. Just wait a minute."

   Slowly, while Susan and Delenn watched at a loss as to how to help him, he pulled himself together. He drew himself up, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his face, then ran a hand through his hair, straightening it. Finally he put the handkerchief away and looked at them.

   "Susan, what's the next nearest planet to our present position?"

   "Mentab on one side, N'Chak'fah on the other."

   "The homeworld of the Gaim Intelligence," Delenn murmured.

   Sheridan nodded. "I'm picking them up," he said. His voice had an odd quality. Half resignation, half terror. "I've got roughly an hour and forty minutes before I reach the peak..."

   "And you're already picking up the Narn, the Centauri, the Earth Alliance and the Gaim," Susan supplied. "In another hour..."

   "This is impossible," Delenn interrupted. "No telepath can reach so far."

   "You're combining a lethal overdose of a telepathic drug with the power of the First Ones," Susan replied. "Who knows what can happen?"

   "Give it another hour and we'll find out," Sheridan said. "Assuming I can hold on that long."

   "The corridor is not the place for this," Delenn observed. "At least let us go somewhere you can rest."

   Sheridan nodded and then turned to Ivanova. "How long until we're out of hyperspace?"

   "In theory, about as long as it'll take you to reach the peak. Do you want me to drop out sooner?"

   He nodded. "I'm told hyperspace can increase the reach of telepathy. I think now would be a good time to test that theory. So long as we're not close to any Deep Space stations I should be fine."

   "Nothing for light years, that's why we chose this area. I'll drop us into normal space. We're a little closer to Epsilon Eridani than I'd intended, but there's only one small colony there..."

   "I know," he said, his tone indicating there was nothing she could tell him about the star's only inhabitable planet that he wasn't already intimately aware of. "Susan, you'd best go back to the Bridge. I was hoping to join you up there but it's probably better if I stay away from any critical systems, just in case."

   Delenn was confused. "How...?"

   "I can hear them all, but it's muffled. If I concentrate I can pick them out and identify them and they are getting louder, but for the time being I can cope."

   It was disconcerting having him answer the question before she'd really spoken it and she fell to wondering what she could possibly do to help him through the coming hours.

   "What were you thinking about before?" he asked. "When I first came to... it was a beautiful place."

   She frowned, wondering what his point was. "A garden. It was somewhere I used to go as a child. I have not been there in many years but I still remember it."

   "Vividly," he confirmed. "I saw it too."

   "I had many happy hours there." Her tone was slightly wistful and he smiled indulgently.

   "Then concentrate on that and take me through it. Your voice and that of Susan are the loudest. I can hear Varlenn as well, of course, but he's shielding himself well and I think he's putting himself into meditation. I'm picking up less and less from him; just the image of a candle."

   Delenn nodded. "He is probably trying to spare you as much as possible."

   "It's appreciated." He looked up sharply. "No, Susan. It's all right. Keep concentrating on those views of St Petersburg. If I get tired of the garden I can always take a stroll through Russia." He went to give her a reassuring touch on the arm and then thought better of it, pulling away with an embarrassed smile. "We needed someone on the Bridge who can handle themselves. I can't think of anyone I'd rather have up there. You were right to come. Thank you."

   She nodded and turned away, ruthlessly crushing a thought that had leapt unbidden to the forefront of her mind. Even so Sheridan turned suddenly to look at her and then smiled. "Susan," he called. She paused but didn't turn around. "It's mutual."

   Tears prickling her eyes, Ivanova continued towards the Bridge, but in her mind she thanked him.

   As they made their way to the Captain's quarters Delenn looked at him. She knew the strength of affection shared by her husband and Susan and knew that therein lay no threat to her position. She smiled.

   "One of the few good things about this," he said as they stepped inside the small cabin. "You'll never have any doubts."

   "It was never an issue."

   "I know," he replied, turning her to face him. "Now, where were we?"

   She put her hand around his neck, caressing the short hair there. "Somewhere around here, I believe."

   Their lips and minds met, sharing in an intimacy that went far beyond the bedroom. At last they pulled apart.

   "Wow!" he breathed. "I'm beginning to get where the telepaths are coming from."

   "On Minbar we have a plant that allows lovers who are not telepaths to share much the same experience. Unfortunately, I believe it is poisonous to humans."

   "There's always something, isn't there?" he grinned. "Perhaps we should make the most of it while..." he stopped suddenly.

   "John?"

   "It's starting again." He closed his eyes, staggering slightly. Delenn guided him to the couch and he sat down heavily. He leaned forward, his head in his hands. "Oh God, this is a noisy universe," he muttered, squeezing his eyes tight shut against the crescendo of confused clamour.

   The attacks seemed to be coming in waves. Each added to the one before with a deafening rush of sound, but as he concentrated on building his mental walls it subsided to more tolerable levels. Even so, he knew the volume was increasing. It wouldn't be too long before it was as loud as it had been on the station, and once it reached that stage he doubted he'd be able to tolerate it.

   "Is it another race?" Delenn asked, mentally reviewing their position in space and the planets he had already encountered.

   He shook his head. "More of the same. There might be a new language in there but there's not enough speaking it for me to make it out." He sighed and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. "It's too confused now anyway. It'd need more than a small colony to be distinguishable from the rest."

   "If this goes on much longer you will start to hear Minbari."

   He nodded. "I know. I'm hoping it stops before that. The noise is bad enough but I've got a headache worth twenty hangovers."

   "Would you like something? I could ask Varlenn..."

   "No. If I take something it might send me back to square one. I've got to see this one out alone."

   She took his hand in hers and gently swept his hair back. Her thoughts swept over him, their nearness providing a haven of sorts as he mentally bathed in the stillness of a Minbari summer night under trees whose leaves rustled with a warm, gentle breeze. "No," she said. "Not alone. I am with you still."

   As he lost himself, taking refuge in her memory, she built up her own mental walls around him, fighting to keep out an avalanche of confusion that he alone could hear.

   "Hmm," he groaned, turning his face slightly as she stroked and cupped his cheek. Although she couldn't shut out all the noise, when she sheltered him it was as though he'd left a thunderous party to stand outside in the cool night. He could still hear it going on behind him, but at least the pounding in his skull lessened. It gave him the chance to regroup his mental resources and rebuild his walls before facing the onslaught once more.

   Slightly askew on the couch she concentrated on the garden, but after a while a small thought of discomfort seeped through and she couldn't stop it. Before he had the chance to comment she offered a solution. "I can fetch the meditation mat."

   "It's hard to stay comfortable for any length of time sitting cross-legged on the floor," he replied. "Well, it might be easy for you; I'm getting too old for that stuff." He straightened and pulled her against him, one arm wrapped around her shoulders as she rested her head against him. "That's better. It's a shame this thing seems to be set on receive only. I'd like to lose myself in that garden of yours without spoiling it every time I open my mouth."

   "When this is over I will take you there. It was not affected by our Civil War." For a moment the thought of that terrible conflict arose in her head and he winced, the garden seeming to flicker and alternate with images of shattered crystal. She drew a deep breath and brought her mind back into focus.

   "It is hard," she murmured. "If I were in deep meditation it would be easy to maintain the image, but then..."

   He grunted. If she did that the image would be clear, but she wouldn't be able to respond so quickly to anything he suffered in the outside world. Right now it was a compromise and it would have to do. He longed to spare her the effort but he wasn't blind to his own need. If they could just hold out he would make it up to her. Until then...

   He groaned suddenly, pulled away and rocked in his seat, both hands cradling his head. "How long?" he ground out, his eyes closed as he fought the rush.

   She glanced at the chronometer. "Another hour and five minutes."

   They'd been in the garden longer than he'd realised. He nodded, lightning bolts of pain shooting through his brain to explode behind his eyes. Irrationally, he wanted to tear his own ears off, but he knew that would make no difference. Another hour. If he could just hold out for another hour the worst would be over, but already it was like having a dentist drilling a nerve without the benefit of anaesthetic. He'd never known pain like it and he doubted he'd remain conscious if it got any worse.

   Delenn's thoughts suddenly rushed in, demanding his attention. //Fight it, John! Listen to my voice. Concentrate on it. You must concentrate!//

   "I'm trying!" Anger flared up in him. Couldn't she see he was doing his best? His jaw ached as he ground his teeth in fury, trying not to lash out.

   //See what I've made for you.//

   Her voice was softer and he had to listen carefully to make her out in the cacophony. He followed her gentle encouragement to its source and found a bare and blasted plain. For a moment he was confused until he saw what she was doing. In the distance he could see her, beckoning him. Staggering, even in his imagination, the sound represented in his mind by a fierce and rushing wind that tried to bowl him over, he made his way to her. There in front of her were blocks of stone, thick and strong. Quickly he seized on the image and used it to shore up his own weakening walls. She had imbued her creations with such solidity that even when transferred to his own mind they retained their integrity while his own blocks crumbled. Before long he had recreated his haven, like an igloo of stone. He did not think about the unreal nature of the world he presently inhabited. It was real enough to hurt him and that was all that mattered. He took the last block from her mind and sealed the entrance to his sanctuary, shutting himself off completely. The wind still roared outside but for now he was safe.

   Delenn, meanwhile, was frightened. When she realised he was losing his fight she had hit upon the image of the stones. As each vanished from her mind she created another and another until at last they remained and she knew he had all he needed. What little telepathic ability she possessed as a result of her Minbari heritage was enough to tell her he had shut himself away. He was totally alone and there was nothing more she could do to help him except make his body comfortable.

   As he concentrated all his energies on his mental focus she knew he would grow cold, and so she fetched a cover that she draped around him. He was still hunched over and she gently pushed him back against the couch, eased his arms down until they rested at his sides and straightened his legs. He was oblivious to her ministrations, his eyes still tightly shut, tension radiating from every muscle. She shook her head, a small smile crossing her face. He was still under the mistaken illusion, so common in new and especially young recruits to the Anla'shok, that mental struggles had to be reflected in the body. His efforts would be more efficiently directed if half his energy wasn't being expended needlessly on the tension of his muscles. But now was not the time to try and instruct him in meditation techniques.

   With a rustle of her skirts she turned to the com-unit and called Varlenn. There was a long pause before he answered the com and she tapped her foot irritably, even knowing he was pulling himself out of deep meditation in response to her call.

   "Entil'zha," he said, bowing to the image. "How may I serve you?"

   "John has been forced to shut himself off. I need you here to monitor his physical status until the crisis is passed."

   "I am on my way."

   When the link closed she turned and gazed at her husband. "Who are you hearing, John?" she murmured. "How far have you gone?"

   *****

   The Minbari Federation seethed inside his mind, their carefully controlled emotions boiling within. Outposts dominated by the Warrior Caste were not, oddly, the worst, for they expressed themselves physically or verbally before many of the thoughts had time to fester. Besides, discipline was their watchword and their aim of total control over both mind and body afforded him considerable relief. No, it was the Worker Caste that tested his abilities. With no means to relieve their worries except through their careful and often tedious work, and no formal training to guide their mental control, every minor concern was internally voiced. Religious Caste temples were something of an oasis in the storm, but even there powerful emotions roiled, especially among the still raw noviciates. The walls of his sanctuary were buffeted by the tornado of thoughts but stood firm. Even so, a steady roar penetrated. Relying on the integrity of Delenn's stones, he imagined a further layer of sealant within that reduced the sound levels. Still, maintaining the image of all in his head used up every ounce of concentration. He could not experience the real world again until this was over. In his mind he sat cross-legged within the walls of his defence and hoped Delenn would watch over his real body outside.

   He'd never felt so helpless in his life.

   *****

   Varlenn arrived with a case that contained mobile monitoring equipment. With a short bow to Delenn he immediately went to Sheridan's side, opened the box and began attaching various sensors to the President's forehead, chest and arm. When all was in place he switched on the machine and considered the readouts. For a second he thought the machine might be faulty, but when he adjusted the EEG to compensate for the load it was clear everything was performing exactly as it should.

   "How is he?" Delenn asked, trying to keep the worry from her voice.

   "The strain is significant," the doctor replied, his comment earning him Delenn's personal award for understatement of the cycle. He made some more adjustments and then shook his head lightly before standing up. "As you can see," he continued, motioning towards the equipment, "his brain activity is... excessive. I have adjusted the monitor to accommodate but if this continues he will soon reach a level beyond the machine's capacity. His heart rate is returning to normal and that is good. The muscle cannot sustain such activity for too long. His blood pressure, too, is adjusting." He gazed at the readouts for a few seconds and then turned to Delenn. "What do you want me to do if his body cannot cope? I have a sedative here as well as a stimulant that should help him maintain a higher than normal level of activity, but only for a short period of time."

   "How long?"

   The doctor considered the machine again. "At his present rate I would say ten minutes. No more than that."

   "And after that?"

   "His system will collapse. The human body is not designed to deal with stress levels of this magnitude."

   "And if you sedate him he will have to start all over again."

   "We do not know that. It is possible that much of the drug will have been cleared from his system. However, I admit I do not understand how the First One's gift to him works." He observed Delenn as she gazed at her husband. "What do you want me to do?" he repeated.

   "We will wait," she said at last. "You say he is stable for the moment?" The healer nodded. "Then we do nothing until we are left with no choice." She sat down heavily and looked up at Varlenn. "I love my husband and I do not wish to lose him, but nor do I wish for him to suffer." She turned back to Sheridan. "He is strong. Stronger than he knows. With the help of Lorien he will recover." Her voice dropped. "He has to."

   *****

   Time didn't pass within the confines of his mind. He had no means of measuring its passage at all except by registering as each new planet joined the roar outside, and he was trying not to concentrate on that for fear he would break down the walls from the inside. Outside, Drazi, Gaim, Narns, Centauri, Humans, Minbari and a number of smaller worlds vied for his attention. Inside, now accustomed to the image of his self-imposed cell, he permitted his mind to wander slightly to pass the time. Old songs he'd learned at the academy, many of them too lewd for Delenn's ears, helped relieve the monotony and keep his mind off the pain. When those were exhausted he moved to his memories of past events but abandoned that ploy when those images threatened the integrity of his cell. He tried to imagine a chronometer, but with nothing on which to base the movement the numbers flickered erratically, jumping ahead too fast or not moving at all. This made for an interesting period while he imagined an old analogue clock, its hands spinning like a fan at one moment, then still as stone and covered with cobwebs the next. Directed dreaming had never been his forte and a talent in that area seemed to be what was required.

   Had the ever-present pain not prevented him, he might have been able to enjoy this new world, for within it he could conjure anything and it would be as real as he was. Delenn was an obvious first choice but, again, he found that as soon as he tried he began to lose concentration on the walls. And so he endured as best he could, wishing there was some means to judge how much longer his solitary confinement must continue.

   Another wash of sound declared the arrival of the Llort and an outer colony of the Brakiri. If only he could find some way of narrowing the focus he might gain some benefit from the experience, but he appeared to have no control over the power of the signals, no matter how hard he tried. Indeed, the more he struggled to single them out, the worse it became. And so he concentrated solely on the walls around him and prayed for the storm to end.

   *****

   "Another attack," Varlenn declared in a professional tone devoid of emotion as Sheridan's body shuddered and jerked.

   Delenn glanced at the chronometer. "Just under forty minutes. Is there any way to measure the speed with which his telepathy is expanding?"

   The healer consulted a map of the galaxy he had called up on his data-pad and shook his head. "It seems to stall and then surge outwards, and there is no means of judging how far he will expand."

   "How far do you think he has gone?"

   "There is no means of telling without his word, but based on the pattern so far I would estimate he has reached the outer colonies of the Minbari Federation. Possibly the Llort and Brakiri as well." He drew a series of concentric circles, marking the stages of Sheridan's reach and nodded. "If this continues his next encounter will be with the Vree, then the Pak'ma'ra and then..."

   "Yes?" she encouraged as his voice trailed off.

   "The Vorlons," he ended, raising his head to return her look.

   So far there was no evidence that anyone was aware of Sheridan's telepathic scan, but the Vorlons were the most ancient of beings with telepathic abilities beyond the understanding of any of the younger races. It was quite possible that they, or whatever they had left behind to guard their Empire, would detect his arrival.

   "Let us hope he passes the crises point before he reaches so far," Delenn replied. "Whatever lies within their boundaries is fiercely defended, as many have learned to their cost."

   "His scan appears to be completely passive," Varlenn reminded her. "We have not detected it and we are being scanned even as we speak. They may not notice."

   She decided not to voice her opinions on the matter, returning instead to a more personal concern. "I wish there was something I could do to help him, Varlenn. I feel so helpless."

   "You have done all that you could."

   "I just wish I knew if it was enough."

   *****

   It was strange. The walls were entirely solid and yet he could still see through them and know how they were weathering the storm. What had been smooth was becoming increasingly pockmarked as a billion tiny meteorites of sound struck the surface. There was no question of his stepping outside now. He would be flayed apart within seconds, his real body following his mental demise. He had an irrational urge to yell at the universe to shut up, if only for a few minutes, but his voice could not reach beyond his defences. Besides, he'd not been able to send before, so why should that have changed? An odd kind of telepathy this. A cheat at best. Every telepath he'd ever met could send, even into the mind of a mundane. Indeed, that was the speciality of the Psi Corps when they wanted to influence events without anyone knowing. They inserted an idea into the mind of someone with the power to effect change, encouraged it and then watched the outcome. He could hear all, distinguish nothing and influence no one. All in all, a useless combination.

   As he observed he noticed that some sections of his defences were under heavier attack than others. Undoubtedly those were areas where the concentration of inhabited planets was greatest. He imagined his walls rotating slightly about him, presenting less damaged surfaces to the onslaught. It was a temporary solution at best, but where his time was being measured in minutes it might be enough. He also added another internal layer and then another to deaden the roar. He tried to imagine more blocks outside, but each was whisked away by the wind before he had the chance to put it in place. It was quite possible that if he had imagined a square building he would already have been crushed. It was interesting that his mind converted the physical strength of arches in the real world into an equally strong mental protection. Indeed, he couldn't think of them as anything but strong, for which he was becoming increasingly grateful.

   As for what was going on in the real world, he had no idea. He trusted Delenn to watch over him until this was over and left the rest in the hands of fate. Provided they were not attacked by raiders while he was incapacitated all should be fine, and even if they were, he had the best person possible at the helm. The real world was no longer his concern.

   *****

   "What is happening to him?" Delenn had sat down beside Sheridan and risked touching his hand only to find he was totally unresponsive and cold.

   "He is deep within a world of his own creating. He has found a way to protect himself and dares not step outside."

   She ran her fingers over his cheek, finding his skin clammy to the touch. "Will he be all right?"

   "That depends on how long he stays within his protection. If he does not come out when he is past the crisis then we must find a way to bring him back. You know the risks, Delenn."

   "But he does not! He has never had any training." She gripped Sheridan's hand, pressing his insensible fingers to her lips. "Do not go too far, my love. Not too far."

   Varlenn checked the time. Fifteen minutes left until the crises point was past, assuming Sheridan remained on track. For the last twenty minutes, even though he must have encountered new planets and colonies, there had been no outward physical manifestation of the change. His brain activity too had dropped in every band except the one normally associated with telepathic activity. That was now off the scale, but nothing was responding to it. Indeed, the other readings were starting to drop dangerously low. The healer watched Delenn who was now pressing her forehead to Sheridan's own and whispering words of encouragement. There was no indication either direct or through the monitors that the President was even aware of her presence. He quietly prepared the stimulant and watched the readings.

   *****

   He had no idea how long he'd been inside his cocoon. Long enough to build several layers within the walls until there was barely any room left for himself. For the first time in what seemed like his whole life, his world was relatively peaceful. So peaceful, in fact, that he began to notice his own exhaustion. He didn't dare give in to it for fear his walls would instantly crumble, but it was tempting.

   He'd stopped noticing the additions when he'd encountered the Pak'ma'ra, and even that had been merely another muted roar. Were his walls still secure? He had no idea. Layer upon layer of the imaginary substance his mind had invented lay between him and the inner surface of Delenn's blocks. He was safe. He was secure. He could afford a few moments of rest.

   In his mind he closed his eyes.

   *****

   "Delenn!" Varlenn stepped forward as the alarm went off on the monitors but Delenn herself had detected the change even before the machines had.

   "John! Do not leave me! You have gone too far. John!" She shook him, trying to elicit some response but there was none. His head lolled on his shoulders and his breathing had become shallow.

   Varlenn quickly administered the stimulant and then retreated to watch his monitors while Delenn continued to try and evoke some response.

   "Stay with me, my love," she whispered. "I cannot do this alone." As she kissed his forehead a tear slipped down her face and dripped onto his cheek.

   *****

   Raining? How could it be raining? His mental self touch his cheek and found it wet, but when he pressed his fingers to his lips he tasted the salt of tears. He wasn't crying as far as he was aware. Confused, he rubbed his eyes. No, no tears, so where had that come from? He looked about him and noticed that the outer walls had nearly been worn through. Now it was only his inner ones that protected him and through their semi-transparent layers he became aware of a change. There seemed to be less noise around him. Had he passed the peak? Was it safe to come out now? He decided to observe for a while longer before risking the abandonment of his refuge and he was just preparing to shrug off the layers when he saw it.

   "What the...? Oh my god!" Frantically he tried to visualise Delenn's blocks around him once more.

   *****

   "What's happening?!" Delenn cried as Sheridan jerked in her arms. "Varlenn! What's happening?!"

   The healer was furiously trying to adjust his machine when it suddenly went completely dead. He looked up in despair. "I do not know. The stimulant could not be responsible for this reaction." He indicated the silent equipment. "His brain activity has exceeded the capacity of the machine. It will reset but until then I cannot give you anything more than an educated guess."

   "And that is?" she replied, fighting to control Sheridan's struggles.

   "He has encountered the Vorlon Empire."

   *****

   At first it had looked like a storm front. A black cloud rushing towards him that darkened everything in its path. He had thought that the encroaching blackness meant his body had finally shut down, but he felt very awake so either life after death was exactly the same as life before death (which seemed pointless) or this was not death at all. As he'd watched he'd seen the ground beneath the storm being ripped up and destroyed. A tornado of telepathic power rushing towards him and annihilating everything in its path. And then, suddenly, he'd known without question what it was. It was familiar, it was terrifying, and it was coming right at him.

   His first attempts to recreate Delenn's stones had crumbled to dust even as he'd visualised them, his panic leaving them without integrity. He tried again, this time spending the few extra seconds needed to visualise them properly. The process seemed interminably slow but still he persisted. He'd just slotted the last one into place when the outer edge reached him. His world was shaken, his mental self thrown to the ground as though caught in a massive earthquake. He instinctively covered his head and concentrated on trying to repair the stones even as their surface was ripped away. He sheltered behind what was left of one wall, putting every ounce of his will into shoring that up and the layers of protective cocoon around him, but still the barrage continued, ripping away his protection in a relentless assault of diamond-edged sound. The Vorlons themselves might have gone, but what they had left behind was more powerful than he could possibly have imagined and every ounce of that defensive system appeared to be directed at him.

   Layer after layer was being stripped from him as fast as he could reinforce them. A sudden lull made him gasp and he dared to raise his head. He wished he hadn't. Coming from the other direction was every voice from every planet in the known galaxy. It was as if the universe were homing in on him and all he could do was pray the end would be swift, for surely he would not survive this?

   *****

   "How much longer?" Tears streaked Delenn's face as Sheridan's body continued to shake. She could feel his heart beating so fast it threatened to leap from his chest and sweat poured out of him.

   "Less than a minute," the healer replied. He'd managed to reset the machine with as much buffering as it would allow and now reconnected it to Sheridan's sensors. Immediately it lit up like a firework display, every reading so high that no man should have been able to withstand it. Yet still Sheridan fought. Varlenn tilted the machine so that he could see the readouts from the couch and then grabbed the sedative. Delenn moved aside to give him room and his hand hovered by Sheridan's neck, ready to administer the dose.

   "Give it to him now!" Delenn demanded as Sheridan's body convulsed once more.

   "A few more seconds," Varlenn insisted.

   "You do not know that. He cannot survive."

   "He cannot survive going through this again, Delenn," he snapped back, his concern for his patient over-riding his respect for her position. "He is nearly there. Let Lorien's gift run its course."

   *****

   His last layer of defence was torn from him and the needles of sound began to tear at his virtual flesh, driving into his mind. He cried out in pain, his voice lost in the maelstrom. His hands turned bloody as the skin was flayed away, exposing tissue and then bone. He curled into a ball, trying to protect himself and felt his back grow slick with blood.

   "It's not real!" He kept repeating the mantra over and over; imagined new flesh and bone replacing that which was being torn away. Soon there would be nothing left. His skull was stripped bare and the sound ripped at the bone, trying to expose his brain.

   *****

   "Varlenn, you must!"

   In answer the healer counted down the final seconds. "Ten, nine, eight..."

   *****

   It was almost through to his brain and he knew, without doubt, that at that instant he would die. "I'm sorry, Delenn," he whispered and rolled over to face his end.

   *****

   "Seven, six, five..."

   *****

   The barrage stopped. He tried to blink and then realised he no longer had eyes left with which to see. He envisaged his body whole once more and so it was. Staring up he could see the storm rising above him. He stood carefully and gazed in wonder as the storm reshaped itself before him. He could still hear every voice but it was no longer a confusing roar. Instead it had become music. The most beautiful music he had ever heard. He turned around and saw lights. Each was a planet illuminated not by suns but by thoughts and each marked out a path that entwined with others in a Great Dance.

   He felt a sting in his neck as the music became a voice.

   *****

   "Two, one!" Varlenn plunged the sedative into Sheridan's neck just as his convulsions ceased and a look of peace and astonishment crossed his face.

   *****

   He could almost understand it. The voice of the Universe expressed through a billion, trillion sentient creatures that were no longer working against each other but instead working together towards a common goal. He struggled against the lethargy that crept through his body, fighting to hear the One Voice.

   *****

   "All readings are returning to normal," Varlenn declared, watching the machine as it dropped down steadily. He removed the buffers as Sheridan's readings reached more normal levels and watched them steadily drop to what would soon be a sleeping pattern.

   Delenn wiped the sweat from her husband's head and kissed him gently. "Rest now, my love. It's over. You are free."

   Sheridan frowned and his lips moved. Delenn leaned closer but could not make out what he was saying. She turned to Varlenn who gave the Minbari equivalent of a shrug.

   "The last effects of the drug leaving his system, I suspect."

   *****

   "No! Not now!" He fought to remain conscious. He almost had it. Everything was starting to make sense. If he could just hold out a little longer...

   But it was too late. He sank to the ground, fighting to keep his eyes focused on the awesome spectacle. A sob welled up inside him.

   *****

   "He will sleep better in his quarters," Varlenn suggested as he removed the last of the sensors. "I will fetch a pallet so that we can move him."

   "No need," Ivanova said from the doorway. Both Varlenn and Delenn turned at the sound of her voice. "We can do it between us."

   "How long have you been standing there?" Delenn asked.

   "Long enough. I had to come in case..." She didn't need to finish the thought. She took a breath and carried on. "Is he going to be all right?"

   Varlenn nodded. "I believe so. His body needs rest now, but the sensors indicate there is no trace left of the SD2. His system is clear. It appears that final assault removed the last of it."

   "Thank Valen," Delenn whispered. She leaned down to press a kiss to Sheridan's lips and then pulled back in confusion. "Varlenn?" she said, her voice barely above a whisper. The healer turned and she indicated Sheridan's face. "Why is he crying?"

   "I suspect it is relief, Delenn. He has fought a hard battle and he has won. He will never have to go through that again. Would you not be relieved?" He smiled and hoisted Sheridan's prone body in his arms as Ivanova grabbed one leg.

   "I know I am," Susan smiled. "Come on, Delenn. He's heavy!"

   Still uncertain, but in the absence of clear evidence to the contrary, Delenn accepted Varlenn's explanation and helped them manhandle Sheridan onto the bed. Susan quietly excused herself so they could make him comfortable and was waiting outside when they emerged.

   Varlenn came out first and immediately began packing the monitor back in its case. Then Delenn emerged and lowered herself into a chair, her body radiating both relief and that peculiar type of exhaustion that comes when you have been running on fear and adrenaline for far too long. Muscles shook, bones ached and her brain seemed to be trying to connect to the real world through a thick wadding of cotton wool. She looked up at Varlenn and nodded in response to his questioning look.

   "Now John is safe I can rest. I will be fine," she assured him.

   In the silence that followed Ivanova felt it incumbent upon her to take over the more mundane affairs. "So... Do you want to go straight back to the station, or give yourselves a chance to get back on your feet first?"

   Varlenn snapped the locks shut on the case. "He will only be sedated for a short while. I did not want to give him too much after all he has been through, and now the drug is out of his system his normal sleep patterns should be undisturbed. I think we can rely on nature to do the rest. My advice would be to leave him until he awakens naturally, but I suspect that may not be possible."

   "Unfortunately we need to show that he is alive and well as soon as possible," Delenn agreed wearily. "However," she added before Ivanova could finish drawing breath to disagree, "I do not think any of us should face those reporters without at least a few hours' rest. Do you agree, Captain?"

   "Absolutely. You get some rest and I'll look after the ship."

   "Actually, Captain Ivanova, I think you should rest as well," Varlenn replied smoothly. "I am a Ranger as well as a healer and perfectly capable of monitoring our status. If there are any emergencies I will call you."

   "What about John?"

   "I have placed a small monitor on him. It is tuned to the medical facility and will alert me if I am needed. I assure you that both the ship and the President are safe in my hands." When Ivanova still hesitated the healer tilted his head in a way Ivanova had learned to interpret as tolerant and slightly preachy. "Captain, while you were commanding the ship earlier I was in deep meditation. I am well rested. You, on the other hand, are not and are therefore more prone to error. Given that, would it not be better if I remained in charge of the ship for the next six hours?"

   "Two," she responded instantly, rising to his perceived challenge. "Just two hours. I'm experienced, not ancient, and I'm perfectly capable of doing the rest of the shift. I've already had a Ranger take it upon himself to decide what's best for me and I won't make that mistake again. No offence."

   "None taken. You will take two hours' rest while I remain in charge of the Bridge. It is, as you humans put it, a deal."

   "Good," she replied, not entirely sure when she'd given in. She paused for a moment, gave Varlenn a hard stare and then shook her head. "Two hours."

   "Two hours," he confirmed. As Ivanova left he turned to Delenn.

   "I would not advise crossing her, Varlenn," Delenn added. "Even John is wary of Susan."

   "I do not doubt it. She is a formidable human." Delenn hummed in agreement and lowered her gaze, lost in thought as she contemplated the events of the past few days, but Varlenn continued to watch her until she raised her head once more. "He will be safe," he assured her, "and you must rest. The return to the station will be stressful for both of you. If not for yourself then for the sake of the President you must be alert when you arrive. He will not be as quick to negotiate the minefield of questions he will face and he will need you beside him."

   The weary nod of acknowledgement was all that broke the silence for some time. At last Delenn said, "I will rest, Varlenn. I simply need to centre myself."

   "Of course," he agreed, not moving an inch.

   Delenn closed her eyes, a small smile curling the edges of her mouth. "And you will not leave until I have done so and gone to bed, am I correct?"

   "You are."

   "And what if a Raider ship suddenly appears while you stand guard so carefully?"

   He clasped his hands in front of him. "Captain Ivanova would not have left the Bridge unattended without activating the automatic systems. The ship will alert me should there be a problem," he responded calmly.

   "Which will put out a ship-wide alert that will awaken Susan as well as inform us," she responded, eyeing him coolly.

   "Then it is in her interest as well as yours that you go to bed as soon as possible so that I can take up my position and mute the alarms, do you not agree?" If he'd had eyebrows, one of them would have been raised. As it was, he merely put his head on one side, a small smile of triumph on his face.

   Defeated at every turn, and too tired to argue any longer, Delenn rose, bowed, gave Varlenn her own equivalent of Ivanova's hard stare and went back into the sleeping quarters. When the low light dimmed Varlenn gave a satisfied grunt and quietly left, plunging the rest of the quarters into darkness.

   *****

   Unyielding darkness. No sense of time or place or direction. He fought against it, trying to force himself through to the light he'd glimpsed so fleetingly before. Perhaps it wasn't too late? If he could just break free of the lethargy that dragged at his body and mind...

   He struggled to try and recapture or even recreate the sensation that had filled his mind at that moment. He could get so close but one vital point seemed to be missing, and though he tried again and again, every effort proved futile. He'd been on the verge of understanding on a scale he'd never realised was possible and it had been snatched from him by well-meaning ignorance. His mind seethed with frustration and anger. Just a few more seconds! Couldn't they have waited?

   <No.>

   The voice was clear but he didn't hear it with his ears. Confused, he opened his eyes in the darkened room and tried to find who had spoken to him. Delenn was asleep at his side, her even breathing a counterpoint to his ragged breaths as he struggled to control his emotions.

   <I am here.>

   "Where?" he said into the empty room. Delenn stirred but didn't wake.

   <Here.>

   A blinding light filled his mind and he clamped his eyes shut only to realise it didn't come from outside.

   <Who...?> he thought. Whoever it was, they weren't communicating verbally. A surge of hope filled him. If he could still hear someone in his mind perhaps he hadn't lost it all. Perhaps there was a chance. If he pushed just a little harder...

   <No. Now is not the time.>

   <Who is that?>

   <You forget me so easily? I ought to be insulted, but I'm too old for that kind of thing now.>

   Now he recognised the voice, the timbre, the resonance of millions of years.

   <Ah, so I have not been entirely forgotten. That is good to know.>

   <I was so close. They stopped me...>

   <They stopped you from dying. You only caught a glimpse and that was almost too much. Had they not intervened you would have understood, but at the cost of your life. Will you squander so easily the years I gave you?>

   <Why couldn't I?>

   <So much cannot be contained within so small a space. Even with my help it would overwhelm you in your present form. Be thankful that those who love you prevented that.>

   But to lose so much. It was a tantalising glimpse of what might be. Did this mean...?

   <Will I ever see it again?>

   <When this journey is ended, another begins. It will still be there. But in order to understand it all you must surrender as you did at Z'ha'dum. And this time there will be no return. Are you so eager to leave those you love and who love you?>

   Delenn turned and moaned softly in her sleep. Her hand reached across the covers and did not stop until she found him. Then she pulled herself closer and settled against his chest. She couldn't have heard the conversation going on in his mind, but perhaps she sensed a part of it? Whatever the reason, it was a timely reminder.

   <No.> he said, holding Delenn tightly against his side. <Can I help it if I'm greedy and want both?>

   <No. If you didn't you wouldn't be who you are. But the universe does not grant that much happiness to anyone in one lifetime. Yet you are still fortunate. You love and are loved, and you know what awaits you at the end of your journey. Not many are granted both. Most have to make do with hope. But you already know that.>

   <I do. Thank you.>

   The light faded until all he could see when he opened his eyes was the dull night light that marked the door in case of an emergency. After all he'd been through that seemed to sum up how pathetic his life now appeared. With a groan he closed his eyes.

   "John?"

   Her hand roved across his chest and he smiled. OK, so maybe not that pathetic. He hugged her tightly. "I'm here."

   "I was so worried about you."

   "I know. But it's all right. I'm fine." He kissed the top of her head. "Go back to sleep. We've got a lot of work when we get back."

   She nodded and reached up briefly to kiss his throat before snuggling down again. After a short pause she spoke again. "John?"

   "Hmm?"

   "Do you remember what happened?"

   "Hmm."

   "Why were you crying?"

   His heart thudded painfully in his chest. He'd had no idea he'd revealed his loss. "Was I?"

   Delenn frowned and pulled herself up on her elbows. "I know that tone."

   "What tone?" He wasn't winning this one, but he could try.

   That made her determined. "You know what I'm talking about. What made you cry?"

   He sighed. "It's a long story. I'll tell you when I'm up to it." 'And when I've figured out how to put it without making anyone feel guilty,' he added to himself.

   She frowned and then nodded. The discussion was tabled for now and she was too tired to argue the point. Past experience had taught her that when he used that tone he would not give in until he was ready to. She settled down again.

   John stared into the darkness as Delenn's breathing evened out again. The emergency night light wasn't so bad, he decided at last. It proved he was still alive and that was definitely something to be grateful for. The scent of Delenn's hair filled his nostrils and he smiled. Yes, definitely something to be grateful for.

   *****

   Varlenn kept his word (somewhat to Ivanova's astonishment) and she resumed command two hours later. Some time after that Delenn contacted the bridge to tell them that John was recovered and they could make their way back to the station. The course was duly logged in and, after an uneventful trip they arrived at the Babylon 5 jumpgate.

   Sheridan was standing on the bridge. He was dressed in the now cleaned suit he was wearing when he was first taken to Medlab, but minus his jacket. He eyed the station thoughtfully. "Smuggling me back in is going to be almost as hard as smuggling me out," he mused.

   "Not at all," Varlenn assured him. He produced a religious caste cloak. "It is far easier to hide someone when they are able to walk."

   Sheridan put it on and pulled the hood low down over his face. "How do I look?"

   "Like a Minbari," Ivanova assured him. "I'll let Lochley know to meet us at customs."

   A relived Captain Lochley acknowledged Ivanova's request and was duly waiting for them as they entered the station. The guard passed them through without question, as he was ordered, and Lochley led the way. Delenn, also in a travelling cloak since no one had seen her leave the station either, nudged her husband.

   "Put your hands inside the sleeves of your cloak," she muttered.

   "Why?"

   "Because Minbari do not wear wedding rings," she replied.

   Startled, Sheridan looked down to see the familiar glint of his ring. As swiftly as he could without drawing attention to himself, he mirrored his wife's posture and the party made their way to the transport tube that would take them to Medlab. Inside the tube Sheridan contemplated the floor until they reached their level and then followed Lochley's lead to Medlab. Once inside he threw back the hood and smiled.

   "I'll tell you something else Minbari don't wear," he said.

   "What?"

   "Earthforce issue black shoes." He nodded towards his feet that could be seen just under the hem of his cloak.

   "Then let's just hope no eagle-eyed reporters were staring at the floor out there," Ivanova, pragmatic as always, uttered what they were all thinking. "So, how are we playing this?"

   Sheridan removed the cloak and handed it to Varlenn who collected Delenn's and quietly withdrew. One of the nurses handed him his jacket. With a nod he thanked her, dusted it off and put it on. "Miraculous recovery would seem to be the order of the day, wouldn't you say?" he offered. "Assuming all the arrests have been completed?"

   "Everyone but the guy in charge," Ivanova nodded. "They're still looking for him."

   "Actually, no we're not," Lochley replied. Every eye turned to her. "A few hours after you left, a passenger liner picked up an emergency beacon in hyperspace. It was a good way off the standard route and very faint. Another hour or so and we'd've missed it altogether. As it was we sent out some Starfuries and they brought it back in."

   "And it's our man?" Sheridan's eyes glinted. While he'd actually benefited from the experience, most simply died. He had a few thousand words he wanted to share with this man.

   "No. It's the Captain of the ship he escaped in. He's not talking much sense, but from what I can piece together it turns out Farlow had Shadow tech as part of the navigation system."

   Delenn shuddered. "I hoped we had seen that last of that. How did he get it?"

   "The Captain's not sure. Anyway, the men were scared of it and Farlow decided to prove a point by going into the navigational control centre and..."

   "It turned on him," Sheridan finished.

   "Exactly. The Captain made a dash for the life pod and got out just in time. Says the ship went crazy and then blew up. Oh, he also said something about it screaming, but that doesn't make sense given there's a vacuum in hyperspace the same as in normal space."

   "You never fought the Shadows, did you Captain?" Sheridan asked.

   "No sir."

   "Believe me, it makes perfect sense. Where's the Captain?"

   "In the brig. To be honest, though, there isn't much we can hold him on apart from being employed by a power-mad murdering lunatic, but if that were illegal I suspect the jails would be full to bursting. Right now he's on charges of abandoning his command and endangering the space lanes. It's pretty thin, though. I doubt we can hold him for long."

   "Check around. If he's ever carried any of this stuff in his ship we could probably get him on conspiracy and carrying illegal substances. We can let the lawyers sort that one out. In the meantime, where are the reporters?"

   "Step outside and they'll find you, trust me," Ivanova muttered.

   "Agreed. But I think we would prefer to debrief them in more formal surrounds," Delenn suggested.

   "Very formal," Sheridan agreed. "I'm gonna enjoy this one just so long as I don't get crushed to death."

   "Security will be there, sir. They won't let the reporters get too close. However..."

   Sheridan groaned. "I know that sound, Captain. What have you done?"

   "You remember Tracey Satchell?"

   "Given she helped crack this one, how could I forget?"

   "I promised her an exclusive in return for helping to get you off the station unobserved and keeping the press off the scent."

   He grunted. "A fair exchange. She's earned this one. Where is she? It'll be good practice for the mob."

   *****

   In the relative peace of Medlab, Sheridan and Delenn sat with Satchell and filled her in on the rest of the story, answering every question she produced as far as diplomatic and security concerns would allow. At the end she nodded and made a note on her pad before looking up.

   "One thing, though, and off the record... You haven't told me how they got the stuff into your food. I mean, you've had security all the time you've been here. How did they do it?"

   Sheridan nodded. "I understand your curiosity. I hope you'll understand why we can't give you that bit, on or off the record." He smiled to take the sting out his words. "It's a security hole we've now plugged, but we don't want to give people ideas or risk anyone finding out. The best way to keep a secret is not to tell anyone, wouldn't you agree?" Satchell gave a half nod before cocking her head to one side and Sheridan realised he needed to give her more before she'd back off. He sighed. "The fact is, if someone's determined enough, a wall of security personnel and two metre thick lead won't stop them. They'll always find a way. All we can do is try to anticipate and protect ourselves as best we can without becoming so insulated from the universe we can no longer do our jobs. Still," he added, trying to draw the matter to a close, "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and this has certainly done that." In how many ways he didn't bother to elaborate.

   "So there was someone on the inside," she pressed. Not a question, merely a statement of clear fact.

   He smiled. "In every war -- and make no mistake, this is a war -- there are sides, and where there are sides there are always those on the inside. The question is, where information crosses the lines, do those on the inside who release that information realise what they're doing? Is the action committed with intent to harm or intent to do good or with no intention at all? Malicious or innocent?"

   "Nice platitude," Satchell muttered. "You're sounding like a politician again." She said the latter in a long-suffering tone, as though resigned to disappointment.

   "The best you'll get, I'm afraid. And it has the merit of being the truth. All I can tell you is that no one intended harm. That harm was done was in the hands of those who used the information. They are solely to blame and they have paid the price. Now," he said, rising to indicate the meeting was over, "you have an hour before I go out and talk to the rest of the reporters. I can't hold them off any longer than that. I trust that's acceptable?"

   "It is. You kept your promise and that of Captain Lochley. It's appreciated, Mr President. Believe it or not, you've helped restore my faith in politicians as well. Somewhat, anyway." Sheridan raised an eyebrow and gave a half bow. Satchell grinned. "Quite. Well, if there's any way I can help you again..."

   Sheridan nodded. "I know who to ask, yes. Forgive me if I say I hope I won't be in need of such services any time soon!"

   "Amen," muttered Ivanova who'd just walked in and caught the end of the conversation.

   "Susan," Sheridan acknowledged. "What's it like out there?"

   "Seething. This miraculous recovery had better happen soon. They've already written your obituary and are looking to see who's going to be saying the eulogy."

   "I take it you have been nominated?" Delenn asked, eyeing Ivanova's exhausted stance.

   "And you, so don't relax just yet. And we're just the top of a very long list. By the way, John, I've seen some of the prepared obits. You should be impressed. So far I'd say you've come off pretty well."

   "Hmm. And that will last...?"

   "About as long as it takes them to realise you're still a viable target on the firing range, I suspect," Susan supplied.

   "Typical," he groaned. "I wonder if we can have seasons for this. I sometimes think ducks have it good. At least they know there are certain months of the year when they won't be shot at."

   "You'll get a honeymoon of sorts for a while, Mr President," Satchell assured him. "Probably no more than a couple of weeks, a month at best, but right now you're a hero who delivered as promised. SD2 is back under control, the drug cartels have been largely destroyed and until someone new steps up to the plate there'll be fewer in the morgues. That has to count for something."

   He nodded. "I'm glad it's over, for a little while at least. I just wish we could have got it sooner and knew we'd stopped it for good. I get very tired of this war of attrition and I honestly cannot see an end in sight. If it's not SD2 it'll be some other drug that's twice as addictive and just as deadly."

   "The nature of the universe, I think," Satchel offered. "So long as the good guys either match or outnumber the bad guys we should be OK, but I'm naturally pessimistic. That's what I meant earlier when I said you'd restored my faith a bit. It helps when one of the good guys is in a position to make a real difference. The universe usually leaves them languishing in little places where they can help only a few."

   "Yet lots of little things..." Delenn replied.

   "I know, it all adds up. Even so I'd say the universe was a mess. A little order in the chaos is nice to see from time to time." She collected her things and then held out her hand. Sheridan took it, his smile genuine but obviously rooted in more than gratitude for her actions or thankfulness that the interview was over. Satchell raised an eyebrow and gave him a quizzical look but he shook it off. She shrugged. Another time, perhaps. "Thank you, once again, Mr President." She turned to Delenn, went to offer the same human courtesy and then realised her error and offered a small and slightly awkward bow instead. Delenn returned it in full. "Madam President. It's been a pleasure." She left Medlab, her boots clicking quickly along the corridor as she hurried to send in her scoop before the other media outlets could catch up.

   Delenn looked at John who was still smiling, his eyes focussed somewhere else. "What are you thinking about?" she asked.

   He took her hand, raised it to his lips and kissed it gently. "That the universe isn't as chaotic as Ms. Satchell imagines." When Delenn frowned he added, "After all, it brought us together, didn't it?"

   She knew that wasn't the end of it, but the glint in his eyes told her this was something he was saving for later. Much later.

   Ivanova looked from one to the other. "You know, you two don't need telepathy. At least not the chemically enhanced kind. You've been reading each other's mind since the first time I saw you together."

   Sheridan grinned and Delenn rubbed the back of her neck in embarrassment.

   "It's a good thing you're an old and trusted friend, Susan," Sheridan said, wrapping his arm around his wife. "Otherwise I might suspect you of discovering state secrets." Ivanova gave him a look and he cleared his throat. "Where are we having this Lazarus moment, then?"

   "We're going to get the reporters together in the Sanctuary. We thought having you photographed against the stars rather than some station sign directing people to the reactor or the head would work better."

   "Thanks for that," he replied, his tone dripping with sarcasm. "Are the releases prepared?"

   Ivanova nodded. "All ready and waiting for distribution. We won't spoil the surprise, though. They can pick them up at the end. Wouldn't want to steal your thunder. Amazingly we seem to have been successful in covering our tracks. They think we're going to announce... well..." She looked down.

   "Hmm, if I cultivate a reputation for being indestructible do you think the bad guys'll give up and go home?" Another look, this time from both Ivanova and his wife. He gave them both an engaging smile and shrugged. "You're probably right. OK, let me know when you're ready."

   "Captain Lochley's already arranged for Zack to come and collect you," Ivanova returned. "I'll see you there." She nodded to both with that easy respect that comes from a good friend who still recognises differences of rank, then left.

   Sheridan and Delenn were alone. He looked around for a moment and then raised his hands. "So, what do we do while we're waiting for me to make the headlines?" His flippancy stalled as his wife turned away. "Delenn? What's wrong." He walked over and placed his hands on her upper arms. She was shaking. "Delenn?"

   She shook her head and pulled away. "Not now." Her voice was unsteady.

   He glanced at the chronometer and then renewed his attempt. "Why not now? We've got over half an hour. At least tell me what I've done." He was utterly bewildered. She shook her head and waved her hand, indicating she wanted him to drop the subject, but he persisted. "Delenn, tell me what's wrong. I don't understand."

   She turned around and the look in her eyes made him take a step backwards. "Ivanova said that we can read each other's mind, yet you do not know why I am upset?"

   "I..." He was at a complete loss.

   "You think this is funny? You make jokes and you talk about performing another miracle resurrection. Let's see how many times you can come back from the dead?" She gestured to the mercifully empty Medlab facilities. "How many times do I have to see you in here or in facilities the same as this? How many times will I wonder if I will still have a husband in the morning? Have you any idea," she stepped towards him and he backed away in the face of her wrath, "any clue what this does to me every single time you take risks without telling me? You think this is one big joke?!"

   He'd reached the table and there was no where left for him to run so he braced himself against the cold surface. This wouldn't last long, he knew that. Anger like this couldn't be maintained indefinitely and certainly not when the cause was fear for him. She drew breath and he seized the moment.

   "I can't change what has happened nor," he added, raising his hand to forestall the interruption he saw hovering on her lips, "can I change what will happen because of it. That leaves me two choices: either I can go around moping all day, depressed and generally miserable, wasting my life in regret; or I can make fun of it and worry about it when I've nothing else left to worry about."

   He reached out and she turned away once more, but he wouldn't be dissuaded. Gently he urged her back to look at him. "Delenn, I know you think my joking means I don't care or I don't value my life. I do. But I value it for one reason only." He stroked back her hair and wiped a tear from her eye with his thumb. His voice dropped. "I value it because you're in it. So long as that's true I won't be afraid, I won't be depressed and I won't let the future ruin the present. Yes, I make light of it. Of course I do. That's how humans cope with the things that scare them. If you can't stop it, you can't change it, you might as well make fun of it."

   He urged her to some chairs so that they could sit and face each other. "I remember reading a story once about a little girl who had cancer. This was in the days before we'd found ways to inhibit the disease using genetics, and her form was fatal. She was only a teenager, maybe 15 or so, her whole life ahead of her and then she got a tumour in her brain and there was nothing the doctors could do. She knew she was dying and she kept a diary. At one point she said she'd decided to call the tumour Cecil because how could anyone possibly be afraid of something called Cecil? She turned moments when the tumour made her life hell into jokes and laughter. Cecil killed her in the end, as she knew it would, but all the while up to that moment she filled her life with love and good humour so that what her family and friends would remember was not someone lying in bed cursing fate, but someone laughing and living every moment to the full."

   He leaned forward, taking both her hands in his. "I can't change what will be. I couldn't predict what would happen this time and I certainly had no idea how far it would go. Like it or not, the President is a pretty big target and nothing I could have done, short of locking myself away and starving to death, could have prevented this one. I do take precautions and I'm not a martyr looking for a cause, whatever you might think. But things happen. Because of who and what we are we tend to attract events to us. Justin told me I was a nexus and, frankly, I don't think I'm the only one around here. You've had more than your fair share of monumental events, right?" She gave a small nod. "The Starfire Wheel for example?"

   She drew a sharp breath. "How did you...?"

   "It was broadcast over most of Minbar. You think no one recorded it? You think the Rangers wouldn't report back to me when I was clearly going out of my mind, not knowing what was happening?"

   "I didn't want to worry you."

   Her voice was so soft he barely made it out. He chuckled. "Sound familiar?"

   She had the grace to look slightly sheepish but then she came back, her jaw set firm. "Once. I did that once. You, on the other hand!" She stood up, pulling her hands from his and raising them above her head as she encompassed the medical facilities again. "How many times do I have to see you in here?" she repeated. "We might as well move in!"

   He rubbed his hand through his hair. "I admit I do seem to be a little accident prone," he ventured.

   "A little?! You're knifed by a Narn, nearly blown up in the core shuttle, torturned by Sebastian, die on Z'ha'dum, die *again* getting rid of the second Kosh, get kidnapped and nearly die in the hands of Clark's torturers, try to ram a platform with your starship, get shot at as you're sworn in as President and threatened again with a Starfury when we try to finish the swearing in, and you barely escape getting blown up when Byron and his followers decided to kill themselves rather than surrender to Bester. Oh, and I forgot, you were nearly blown up by a mad bomber and shot by one of my own people. And those are just the events while we were here on this station! Since then..."

   He raised his hands. "I know, believe me I know!" He stood up. "But I'm still here, aren't I? A little bruised and battered, maybe, but still here." He placed his hands on her shoulders, leaned forward and planted a kiss on her forehead. "And I plan to remain right by your side until I'm forced away from it. As one of our Earth poets once said, "Do not go gentle into that goodnight. Rage, rage against the dying of the light." I assure you, Delenn, I'm raging just as loud as I know how, I just choose to express it in different ways. And one of the ways is to get past what's done and joke about those things I cannot change, especially the one that scares me most." He paused to make certain she was listening. "The one that'll take me away from you. I don't want that to happen one second earlier than it has to... for whatever reason." She looked into his eyes for a moment and then nodded, letting him pull her against his chest and wrap his arms around her. "I know you're scared and so am I, but let's not let it take anything more from us, huh? Not a second more." He held her tightly and felt her respond. There was a great deal of strength in her petit frame and for a moment the couple seemed almost to be vying with each other to see who could hold on tightest. If it was a matter of brute force he had no doubt Delenn could make Death itself run away and hide.

   "Mr President? Sorry to bother you..."

   Still holding his wife tightly Sheridan looked up to see Zack waiting in the doorway. "Zack," he acknowledged with a short nod. "Are they ready?"

   "Whenever you are, sir. I've got a route cleared to the Sanctuary. You'll make quite an entrance." Zack was grinning broadly. He was looking forward to seeing the looks on the reporters' faces when the man they thought they were meeting to formally bury walked into the room alive and well.

   "Thanks. We'll be along in a minute."

   "Sir." He left quietly and waited outside.

   Sheridan planted a kiss on the top of Delenn's head and then pulled back slightly. She looked up and took a steadying breath.

   "I'm ready," she assured him.

   He cocked his head to one side. "Maybe you want to tell your face that. I don't think it heard you." He indicated a bathroom facility. "Why don't you go freshen up a bit? The reporters can wait a few minutes longer."

   Delenn nodded, straightened and walked into the bathroom. A few minutes later she re-emerged, the picture of decorum.

   He grinned. "Now you make me look a mess!"

   "You look wonderful," she assured him, reaching up to push a stray lock of hair back into place.

   He offered her his arm and she took it. "Do I detect a hint of bias there?"

   "Where you are concerned? Always."

   *****

   The effect of Sheridan's entrance on the reporters was, predictably, stunning. Up until the moment he turned the corner they had been badgering an increasingly harried-looking Lochley with questions about why they'd been summoned and demanding that if it was to tell them Sheridan had finally died then they should be released immediately to report back the news. Guards blocked the exits and Lochley refused to budge except to say there would be an important announcement shortly and they should all just be patient. Ivanova, who'd been standing outside, saw Sheridan and Delenn walking up the corridor and quietly ducked into the meeting to stand beside Lochley. Now the baying of the reporters was incessant.

   "Thanks," Lochley muttered. "Nice to have some back-up."

   "I bring more than that," Ivanova returned under her breath. "He's here."

   Lochley rolled her eyes. "At last!" She cleared her throat as Zack signalled her from the doorway. "Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your patience. I am pleased to hand you over to the President of the Interstellar Alliance."

   In the hush that descended over the room as Sheridan entered and mounted the small dais you could have heard a pin drop. All stared at him in disbelief. The last they knew he was at Death's door. Some had even had fairly solid tips that his body was already in the morgue and awaiting its flight to Minbar (or Earth, or somewhere else unspecified. The sources were somewhat vague on that details). Now he stood before them, large as life and twice as healthy. Whatever had brought him down had left no discernible mark on his face or, so far as anyone could tell, on his physique, although he kept his jacket buttoned as he always did on such occasions, so it was difficult to know for certain.

   Standing behind the lectern Sheridan nodded to one and all and then opened his mouth. "Ladies and gentlemen..."

   That was as far as he got. His voice was, apparently, the cue for every reporter to start asking questions at once. As they practically fell over each other trying to shout the loudest, Sheridan found himself chuckling. Before he would have considered this racket intolerable and would have done everything shy of firing a PPG to quiet them. But against what he'd encountered over the past few days it was almost a gentle susurration and he was quite happy to stand there and let them shout themselves hoarse for as long as they liked until they finally realised he wasn't going to talk until they shut up. Lochley went to stop the clamour but Sheridan shook his head.

   "Let them shout themselves out. I'm in no hurry and eventually they'll get that I'm not going to answer until I can do so without yelling at the top of my lungs."

   Some of the reporters closest to the platform heard the comment and shushed those around them who shushed those around them until the room was filled with a 'shushing' noise that was almost as loud as the questions that had preceded it. Still patient, Sheridan waited until that piece of childishness was over and then began.

   "I know you have a thousand and one questions to ask me. The full story of what happened is going to be handed out to you now." He indicated the guards inside the room who promptly withdrew datacrystals from pouches on their belts and distributed them to the reporters. The latter eagerly inserted the crystals into their databanks and electronic notepads to check the content and then put it on pause. Why read the stuff when the source was standing in front of you? "I'll answer ten questions now, then you'll have fifteen minutes to read through the report précis. After that I'll answer as many questions as you can fit into half an hour, 'though I suspect much of what you want to know is already there for you. To get to the main section and save you some questions in advance... As you can see, reports of my death were somewhat exaggerated." A polite laugh rippled through the audience at this oblique reference to Mark Twain's famous response to his own early obituary. Few got to use the phrase and he was glad Satchell had reminded him of it. "I am fully recovered from what was, in fact, an attempt on my life. The people responsible are either in custody awaiting trial, or dead. The entire network of SD2 dealers and manufacturers presently in operation has fallen into our hands and even as I speak the stocks and factories are being destroyed."

   At that point Lochley was summoned to the door by Zack who handed her a note. She perused it, nodded to him, quietly slipped back to the dais and handed the note to Sheridan. He opened it on his desk and smiled. "I can also tell you that Dr Franklin back at Earthforce medical is working on some new drugs with the help of Dr Hobbs here on Babylon 5 and Edgars-Garibaldi Industries. This research, which the IA will fund," he added, already imagining the flushed faces of Earth politicians who'd funded it to date, "should end once and for all the threat of SD2." He didn't admit that the reason was because they were trying to save his life. Satchell had managed to persuade her editor the whole claim was a con (which, strictly speaking, it was) and the drugs that had been put in Sheridan's food and drink were cited as poisons. To say he'd been the victim of SD2 would not only throw into question the stability of the President of the IA and, by extension, the IA itself, but would also force questions on why a cure had only been found once he was a victim. He could not and would not explain his own unique position as a consequence of Lorien's gift (no one would believe it anyway) and he didn't care to admit that all the tests using him as a model had proved terminal. The drug would be tested in the usual manner and, if it worked, the problem would be solved.

   "This is another example of how the IA, working together, can find solutions to the problems that beset us," he added, unable to resist the opportunity to advertise the fundamental success of the organisation. Besides, it would help get Garibaldi off the hook with Earth. Now they could claim they had funded the initial research privately not because they were anticipating huge returns on the final patent, but because they wanted to surprise the galaxy with a philanthropic act of substantial proportions. It was a political coup few could resist and certainly would go a long way to ensuring the present incumbent of Earth's presidency would probably win the next election. That played nicely into Sheridan's hands as well since he found the woman intelligent and relatively easy to work with. All in all, a very satisfying end to the whole, sorry affair.

   He smiled from the podium, the proud and very alive leader of a successful peacetime organisation. Life, for a change, was good at the top of the heap. "All right, questions." He pointed to one of the reporters. "Clare, isn't it?" The woman nodded, delighted she'd been remembered, and then plunged in. He went through the first ten questions fairly quickly, stepped out of the room to remove temptation from the reporters' way while they read the reports, had Zack and Lochley liase with Franklin, Garibaldi and Hobbs to produce an outline of the results of their research to date (which was almost complete, much to his delight) and run off copies for the reporters, and then went back inside to endure the half hour free for all that marked the end of the session.

   At the end he raised his hands to bring some silence, then he turned and Delenn was swiftly by his side, her hand in his. "Delenn and I thank you for your concern. Now the business of the Alliance goes on and I've been out of the picture for too long. As I'm sure you can imagine my desk is overflowing with paperwork and I need to get back to it."

   Desperate to post their stories as soon as possible, the reporters chorused their thanks and then waited in barely concealed agitation for the First Couple to get far enough away so that they would be allowed to leave and get to the communication channels. Sheridan and Delenn were happy to oblige them by exiting as fast as decorum permitted. Captain Lochley accompanied them as far as the transport tube and then turned to go.

   "Captain?"

   Lochley turned. "Sir?"

   "Thanks. I appreciate all you've done."

   "You're welcome. I only wish it hadn't been necessary."

   "You and me both. Still, those new drugs may make it all worthwhile." He glanced down the corridor in time to see the reporters bolting from the Sanctuary. "I take it the station's communication channels are up to that?" he asked, nodding at the hurrying mass.

   She glanced over her shoulder. "Ours are. Whether the relay stations can cope is another matter." She turned back. "I got Corwin to open bypass routes so we can filter off any excess before they overwhelm the system. Face it, Mr President, the fact you've survived is big news."

   Sheridan felt Delenn squeeze his hand gently and he returned the message. "I wish it didn't take so much to get them to pay attention. Still, as Satchell pointed out, we will have a honeymoon of sorts for a while. I think I'll use it to try and get some upfront coverage on a few of the new trade agreements."

   "That should kill interest pretty fast," Lochley returned dourly.

   "The work of the Alliance lies in more than just dealing with criminal justice, Captain," he returned, surprised at her tone. "Social justice and creating a long lasting mutual support and trading system is at least as important, if not more so. I can run around like the Galaxy's chief Marshall all I like, but if we don't get the planets to work together..."

   Lochley interrupted. "Mr President, I'm not a reporter. You're preaching to the choir. But, with all due respect, trade agreements aren't exactly exciting, are they?"

   "Speaking for myself, I could do with a lot less excitement in my life right now," Delenn offered, her voice quiet and showing the strain of recent experience.

   "I've had enough to last several lifetimes," Sheridan agreed, locking eyes with his wife to reinforce his assurance before turning back to Lochley. "Well, I can only do my best. We'll see how long the honeymoon lasts and use it."

   "Makes sense. When do you return to Minbar?"

   "Tomorrow. If I stay around here I'll be hounded by reporters and there's a lot of catching up to do. Besides, I missed David's birthday, again!" he added before Delenn could say anything. "If I don't get back and make amends my life will be miserable for months."

   The Captain nodded. "Captain Ivanova and I were planning on celebrating the successful conclusion of your latest escapade by having dinner together tonight. Her ship's been refitted and she leaves in the morning. Would you care to join us?"

   He glanced at Delenn and then shook his head. "Thanks, but no. I've got a mountain of paperwork I really need to catch up on and I can't afford any more time off."

   "You need to eat..." Lochley cautioned.

   "We'll order in. It'll be nice to spend some time in peace and quiet for a while anyway. Haven't had near enough of that lately."

   "Besides," Delenn added, slipping her arm around his waist, "I would like some time alone with my husband when he is not hooked up to machinery and unconscious."

   Lochley gave a small smile. She always found it slightly awkward to be reminded her ex had a healthy sex life. A memory leapt, unbidden, to the forefront of her mind and she suppressed it ruthlessly. "Understood. Well, I'll send your regrets. I'm sure I'll see you before you go. Would you like me to blank calls to your quarters?"

   Sheridan felt heat rising on his face as Lochley's tinged pink and then faded to her usual complexion. He knew exactly what she was thinking about. He cleared his throat to answer her but Delenn stepped into the breach. "Unless it's an emergency, yes, that would be appreciated."

   "Right." She glanced at Sheridan who was concentrating on a point past her left ear. He refocused, gave her a look that said he understood how she felt, but that was the way things were and she might as well get used to it, and put his arm across Delenn's shoulders, pulling her against him. It was time to go and Lochley wasn't slow to take the hint. She turned on her heel and then paused. "Oh, I've also left a couple of guards for you."

   Sheridan opened his mouth but Delenn stopped his protest. "I asked Captain Lochley to leave them there. Humour me, John, at least until we get back to Minbar. This has been a trying time and I do not care for any more surprises."

   He sagged. "All right, all right, but I don't have to like it. Tell me they're not right outside the door?"

   "Stationed at the end of the corridor on either side, Mr President."

   He turned and considered the transport tube. "But none to escort us to our floor? I'm surprised at you, Captain!"

   His mock barb withered in the face of Lochley's efficiency. "The transport tube is set to take you straight to your section, no stops. I also took the precaution of posting guards on every level in between, just in case."

   "Right," he responded slowly as he took in the smug smile Lochley was trying to smother. 'Touché,' he thought.

   "John, I believe that is our cue to leave," Delenn said as she took his arm and gently guided him into the transport tube. Turning to face the doors she added, "Thank you, Captain. Enjoy your dinner with Captain Ivanova and tell her we will see her in the morning before she leaves."

   "I'll do that."

   The doors closed.

   Sheridan rocked slowly on his heels listening to the soft hum of machinery. "You know," he said at last, "I've half a mind to over-ride the system just to see if she really has posted someone on every floor."

   "Don't," Delenn responded, her expression firm, her eyes riveted to the doors.

   "No?"

   "Definitely not."

   "Uh huh." He considered the floor for a moment. "What about...?"

   "No."

   "You don't even..."

   "I don't care."

   "Uh huh." There was another pause and then he drew breath.

   "No," Delenn interrupted before he even voiced it.

   He raised his eyebrows and gazed at her standing by his side, taking in every detail of her body and stance. A gentle and affectionate smile spread over his face and he leaned down just enough to caress the inner edge of her bonecrest with his lips. She shuddered and looked up at him.

   "How much catching up do I have to do before I can catch up with the things I want to do?" he asked, his voice low.

   "Some, but I will help you," she returned, leaning towards him, her face turned to meet his lips.

   "I was counting on it," he murmured.

   "Mr President?"

   He closed his eyes, sighed and pulled back. Typical. Just when things were getting interesting again they reached their level. It was Petrov who greeted them, his face firmly controlled but his eyes reflecting his amusement.

   "Jan," Sheridan acknowledged. "You drew the short straw again, I see." He allowed Delenn to exit first and then returned his arm to her shoulders, his other hand in his pocket.

   "I volunteered, sir," Jan replied as he led the way down the corridor. "After all the excitement I figured tonight would be an easy duty."

   Delenn quietly slid her arm under her husband's jacket to press her hand against the warmth of his thin shirt. "How are you feeling?" she asked Jan solicitously.

   Her movement didn't go unnoticed by the Ranger, but the affection Sheridan and Delenn showed each other in public was well known. It was just nice to see it wasn't only for the cameras. "A little stiff but I'll be fine. And you, Mr President, if you don't mind my asking?"

   "Very well, thank you, Jan. The SD2's out of my system and off my mind so I think I'll sleep well tonight." He lowered his voice, his next word for Delenn's ears only. "Eventually."

   "We'll keep the area quiet for you, Sir," the Ranger returned, not so much as a blink revealing that his hearing was easily sharp enough to catch Sheridan's coda. He stopped and turned, positioning himself at least ten feet from the door. "We've already checked your room Mr President, Entil'zha. Have a pleasant evening."

   Inside their quarters Sheridan shrugged out of his jacket and laid it across the back of a chair. He rolled up his sleeves. "All right," he said, hands on hips, back straight and shoulders thrown back, "Bring it on!" Delenn indicated three stacks of reports, papers, flims and data crystals on the table. Sheridan's shoulders buckled slightly. "How much of that has to be done by tomorrow?" She patted one of the stacks that was no larger or smaller than its companions. "Right," he said, nodding his head slowly. He stepped up to the desk, his eyes roving across the mountain of paperwork. "You ever heard of the paperless society?"

   "Yes."

   "This isn't it, is it?" He pulled out a chair and sat down, clearing a space to work. One of the datacrystals rolled from its perch onto the floor. Delenn picked it up, set it back on the table and then leaned down to plant a kiss in his hair.

   "When I have finished mine I will help you," she assured him.

   "Where's yours?" he asked warily. She pointed to a slim sheaf of flims on the coffee table. "How come yours is so small? We're in this together, you know."

   She indicated his table. "All of those require Presidential approval. These," she continued, pointing to her own table, "are solely the concern of Entil'zha. I have read your papers and I already have some suggestions noted down, so they should not take too long."

   "When did you...? Never mind." All the time he'd spent in Medlab had been put to good use. Delenn had a tendency to get frustrated when all she was supposed to do was sit and wait, and her solution was often to bury herself in work. He could appreciate that. He had a tendency to do the same, although he never knew when to quit and she did. As she settled down on the couch he drew a deep breath, picked up the first paper and began to read.

   *****

   Somewhere around ten they'd eaten, but the only indication Sheridan had of the experience was a full stomach and a stain on the back of a folder where he'd been concentrating so hard on the torturous wording of a proposed change to some mineral rights that he hadn't noticed his fork was tilting.

   As she'd promised, Delenn joined him as soon as her own work was completed. She waited until he'd finished the paper he was reading and then pulled some from the bottom of the mountain. For each she'd made thorough notes with suggested courses of action. He found he agreed with all but one and that only needed minor modifications to satisfy both of them. Within an hour the mountain, if not exactly a molehill, had nevertheless been considerably reduced. Still it was not until gone midnight that it was cleared.

   Sheridan leaned back in his chair, stretching the cramps from his back. His joints cracked audibly as he squeezed every yawn from his body and then rubbed an eye with the heel of his hand. "Is that everything for tonight?"

   She smiled. "That's everything, yes."

   He ran both hands through his hair, scratching as he went and then absently smoothed it again. Still it hung slightly rakishly across his forehead. "Good. My brain feels like its been through a blender." He pushed back from the table, stretched again and then let his hands fall into his lap. "So," he drawled, squinting at the chronometer, "what do you want to do in the fifteen minutes before we fall asleep in our chairs?"

   "Get changed and go to bed," she replied pragmatically.

   Sheridan slumped in his chair, convinced his limbs were too heavy to be lifted any further than required to make sleeping a feasible proposition. Shaking her head Delenn got up from her chair, took hold of one of his wrists and dragged him upright. As soon as she released him he playfully fell back again, eyes stubbornly closed.

   "I am too tired to carry you, John. So either you get up or I leave you out here for tonight."

   "Can you bring me a blanket?" he asked, opening one eye to peer at her hopefully.

   She shook her head. "I believe the phrase is 'you snooze, you lose'." She eyed him for a moment. "And I suspect that if you snooze in that position you will lose the use of your back." She made her way to the partition that separated the bedroom from the living area.

   "My front's in full working order, though," he replied, tossing the comment over his shoulder in the hopes of getting a reaction. He yawned again. "Or will be by the morning, anyway," he added, resigning himself to the dictates of fatigue.

   "Well, if you intend to give me proof of that it would help if we were in the same room together, don't you think?"

   He blinked and turned bleary eyes on her, just in time to see her give him a 'come hither' look as loud as a foghorn. Energy flowed back into him. "Now how can a man resist an offer like that?" he muttered rhetorically and then took a deep breath and pushed himself upright. "Argh. Then again, a few hours' rest first would probably be a better idea." With leaden feet he stumbled to the partition, ordered the lights in the living area off and pulled the doors closed.

   *****

   "Urrhhh. What time is it?" he groaned as Delenn shook his shoulder with increasing roughness.

   "Time to get dressed. Captain Ivanova will be leaving in an hour and we promised to say goodbye."

   He shook his head and rolled over, pulling the sheet back over himself. "She's not due to leave until 11.30," he muttered, luxuriating in the warm comfort of the bed.

   Delenn cocked her head at him, hands on hips. "Exactly. And it's 10.30 now."

   It was quite amusing to see the way his eyes shot open. He stared at her, blinking to refocus as his body adjusted to the shock. "You're kidding me?" She shook her head, an impish grin on her face. "How long have you been awake?"

   "Since seven thirty. The Rangers have taken our bags over to the White Star. I kept one hold-all and a change of clothes for you, but you were sleeping so soundly we decided that if the noise of people moving heavy bags could not wake you, it was probably best to let you sleep." As she finished her sentence Sheridan threw back the bedclothes and made his way to the bathroom. "I've got some breakfast for you," she called over the sound of the shower.

   "Thanks!"

   "It's in the thermal unit."

   "Fine."

   "And Susan will be here in... ten minutes I believe."

   There was a brief sound of sputtering. "What?!"

   "Well, since I didn't think you'd make it to the departure lounge in time..."

   The shower was switched off and Sheridan emerged, dripping wet, a towel around his waist and another across his shoulders. "You invited her here?" Delenn nodded. "And you waited until ten minutes before she arrived to wake me up?" His tone was accusatory.

   Another nod. "I'd put your skis on if I were you," she said as she left the bedroom.

   Sheridan was left staring after her. "Skis?" rubbing the towel over his head slowly he deciphered her meaning, chuckled briefly and set about getting dressed as fast as humanly possible.

   By the time Ivanova arrived he was just running a brush through his hair. Susan rapped lightly on the partition.

   "Mr President? Are you decent?"

   "Come right in, Susan," he replied, shrugging into his jacket. He turned to her. "Sorry you had to come all the way over here. I'm ashamed to admit I overslept."

   "I know. You look kinda cute when you're asleep."

   "When...?"

   "How you managed to sleep through all of us having breakfast out here earlier I have no idea. And you still snore like a hull breach."

   "I do not snore!" he replied stiffly as he made a great show of straightening his cuffs to cover his embarrassment.

   Ivanova grinned. "Yeah, right. Anyway, your breakfast's getting cold." She nodded towards the living room and Sheridan followed her.

   "Is this some kind of conspiracy?" he asked, not entirely sure he was joking.

   Delenn handed Ivanova a coffee mug and joined her at the table as Sheridan began to shovel food into his mouth. "What do you mean?" she asked.

   "How many people were witness to my oversleeping this morning? Am I going to see photos of my face, mashed and drooling into a pillow, splashed all over the newspapers?"

   "You don't drool," Delenn assured him.

   "Though you do, definitely, snore," Ivanova repeated.

   This time he refused to rise to the bait and took a gulp of coffee.

   "It's amazing he didn't wake up to the flash camera, though," Susan mused, waiting until the perfect moment to deliver the line.

   He spluttered, his napkin barely preserving his clean shirt. "You did that on purpose!" he growled, wiping his mouth. Susan smiled innocently. Sheridan looked to Delenn for some support, but his wife appeared utterly absorbed in her mug and refused to look up. "I'll get you two back for this," he promised.

   "Oh no," Delenn replied, looking up at last. "This is merely our revenge for..."

   "For you scaring the hell out of us these last few days," Ivanova finished. "Sorry, Delenn, didn't mean to interrupt."

   "Not at all. You expressed my feelings perfectly."

   "But they didn't, actually....?"

   "They didn't, no."

   "They were tempted, though," Susan mused.

   Sheridan grunted and finished his plate. "So," he said, determined to change the subject, "Where's your next assignment?"

   "Earthforce are sending me out to patrol Narn space for a bit. A few troublemakers taking advantage while the Khari are trying to rebuild, then out to the rim so we can stretch our legs. A little support for your old friend Captain Maynard."

   Sheridan raised an eyebrow. "Really? Give him my regards."

   "I'll tell him Swamp Rat sends his best."

   Sheridan chuckled and Delenn looked from one to the other of the two friends in confusion before deciding this was probably something she didn't want to investigate in too much detail.

   Susan's comlink bleeped. "Ivanova here, go."

   "Shuttle awaiting you in docking bay four, Captain."

   "On my way." She tapped the link off and sighed. "I'd better be going." She stood and Sheridan followed her to the door. "I'd say it's been fun, but that wouldn't be entirely true. Nerve-wracking might be a better description." Her tone softened. "I'm glad you're OK."

   "Me too. Take care of yourself, Susan. Next time you're near Minbar you know where we are."

   "Uh huh. I'll just follow the trail of haunted and exhausted faces."

   "You're not going to let me live this one down, are you?"

   "I wasn't planning on it, no."

   He laughed and pulled her into a tight hug. "I'll miss you, Susan. Don't leave it so long next time, huh?"

   "You ever need me, you know how to find me. I'll be right there." Her voice caught a little and Sheridan tightened his grip. In many ways Susan was his other little sister and he loved her just as dearly. When he relaxed his grip and pulled back Delenn took his place.

   "I miss you too, Susan, so please visit whenever you can."

   "I will, I promise," Ivanova replied, nodding her head on Delenn's shoulder. After a moment she stepped away. "I'm gonna go before this gets too maudlin. Take care of yourselves, you two. Especially you, Mr President. Looking after you is a full time job." She turned to go. "Oh, by the way..." She reached into her uniform jacket and pulled out a picture. "We said *they* didn't. Didn't say anything about me." She winked and stepped through the doorway. Sheridan glanced down at the picture and then stared as the implications sank in, but before he could remonstrate with his ex-EO Delenn pulled at his arm.

   "It's time for us to leave too, John. David misses you."

   Sheridan pocketed the photograph. "Did you speak to him?"

   "This morning. He wants to know 'everything'."

   "Hmm. That could take a while. I'll call him from the White Star once we get underway." He went into the bedroom and collected his hold-all. "I think that's everything. Shall we go?"

   Delenn nodded and stepped through the door. A Ranger relieved Sheridan of his bag and the couple made their way to the docking bay unencumbered. Lochley awaited them there.

   "Captain," Sheridan nodded.

   "Safe journey, sir," Lochley replied, standing to attention.

   "Relax, Captain. You're rid of me for a while, at least."

   "You're always welcome on Babylon 5, sir."

   Sheridan raised an eyebrow but Lochley remained stoic. "Thank you, Captain. I'll be sure and take you up on that." He noted the slight swallow in the Captain's throat and turned, satisfied he'd had the desired effect. Arm in arm, he and Delenn made their way to the shuttle that would take them to the White Star and then home to Minbar.

   *****

   Cracking his knuckles against the cramp that lurked in every joint, Sheridan sat back in his chair and gazed across the table at his wife. "For the next two hours I guess that's it."

   She nodded. "I have been monitoring incoming calls while you worked. Unless someone declares war in the interim there shouldn't be anything substantial in the next update."

   He stretched his arms high above his head, easing the kinks from his shoulders. "Why the hell did I volunteer to do this?" he said through a yawn. "I must have been crazy."

   "Because you had a dream," she replied gently, sliding out of her chair to stand behind him with her hands resting on his shoulders. "And because you know if you want something done properly..."

   "...I get you or Ivanova to do it," he ended mischievously. She swatted his arm and then rested her hands on his shoulders, gently pressing into the hardened muscle. He hummed his approval and, for a little while, there was silence between them. Eventually Sheridan began to detect this was not the silence of ease but that which tends to precede a question the other person doesn't quite know how to ask. He reached up and stilled her with a touch, and then pulled her fingers to his lips. "What are you thinking about?" he asked softly.

   "The past few days."

   He pulled her around and onto his lap. "And? I know you too well, Delenn. What did you want to know?" He knew the answer, he just somehow needed her to ask.

   She knew the game as well as he did and simply cocked her head on one side, giving him the sort of hard look that shrivelled minor ambassadors.

   For all his often-feigned appearance of terror in the face of her wrath, Sheridan was immune. He took a while to compose his thoughts into something that would make sense. At last he drew breath, still gazing into the middle distance. "You remember how you once told me we're all starstuff?" She nodded. "So much difference and yet all, fundamentally, the same." He paused and his next words were more to himself than to her. "So many variations on a theme." A small smile crossed his lips and he looked up at her. "If stars could sing... if we could understand the song, what do you think they'd sound like?"

   She took time to consider her response. "The ultimate Ti'lar, perhaps?"

   He squinted, analysing her answer. A song that brought memories, evoked emotions and inspired new ideas. He'd heard some of Shaal Mayan's Ti'lar and had been mesmerised by the sound even before he'd learned to understand the words. He grunted his approval. "Imagine if every molecule was singing a slightly different song as loud as it can. Then multiply that by billions and imagine you've been hit by it full force without any idea what you're listening to." She nodded her understanding. He gripped her hand and turned to gaze straight into her eyes. "Now imagine that just before you're stripped bare by the force of that noise, you realise it's not a din but a symphony, and as you listen to the song you start to make sense of every move of every molecule. Everything."

   She held his gaze for a moment as the significance sank in, then dropped her eyes. "I'm sorry," she murmured.

   He frowned, confused at the apparent non sequitur. "What do you mean?"

   "On the White Star, before... We were waiting until the last possible moment. We wanted to make sure the drug was completely out of your system, but the strain was too much. We were afraid... I was afraid it would kill you. Just as Varlenn sedated you again I saw your face. I knew something had changed but it was too late." She looked up. "And then you cried." She glanced away, embarrassed to look him in the eye. "Varlenn thought it was relief that the nightmare was over..."

   Sheridan gently gripped her chin between his fingers and turned her back. "Hey. Look at me," he said, sliding his hand to cup her cheek, his thumb moving rhythmically against her. When she met his eyes he smiled. "You did what you had to do. If you hadn't, I wouldn't be here right now."

   "But to lose so much..."

   "I haven't lost it. It's out there and the memory's in here," he said, tapping his temple. "I'll hear it again, one day. In the meantime..." He leaned forward, brushing his lips against hers. "I wouldn't swap this for anything." He didn't mention his conversation in the dark. The reminder of the First One whose presence was associated intimately with his own mortality was not something Delenn would want to hear right now. It had given him the understanding and peace he required and that was enough. Instead he held her gaze, nodding to reinforce his words until finally she seemed to accept his assurance.

   "We Minbari have believed in The Song for as long as there have been records. Some have even claimed to have heard pieces of it, although the circumstances under which they did so didn't always lend credibility to their claims. Not that they would lie," she added hastily. "One just wonders whether their perception of the truth..."

   "Well, if they heard anything even close to what I heard, I'd say you can put their claims on the side of the angels. I'll have to take a look at the records some day."

   She cocked her head at him, curious. "Can you describe it?"

   Now that was a question he'd been dreading. "Ahh, well, I'm no musician. Singing in the shower is about the extent of my musical abilities, as you well know." The corners of her mouth twitched. He had a good, bass voice and he could hold a tune, but he certainly wouldn't win any awards. He grinned, "Exactly. Let's see... Take Mozart, blend him with Bach and then throw in some Minbari percussion with occasional flashes of Wagner." She blinked. The combination was cacophonous at best. "I know, I know, but I don't know how else to describe it. Maybe every great composer manages to tap into it a little bit." He shrugged. "If I ever hear anything close, I'll let you know."

   "I look forward to it."

   Now it was his turn to cock his head. She smiled reassurance, apparently now satisfied, and undid two buttons on his shirt, exposing his upper chest to her gentle touch. He observed her movements for a moment, his expression taking on a different cast -- one Delenn knew well. He stroked her hair, letting his hand rest along the side of her face. "It's been too long, hasn't it?"

   She nodded and rose gracefully, offering him her hand. "Far too long," she agreed.

   He allowed her to pull him to his feet. "I could have forgotten how to do it by now," he joked, holding his arms loosely about her waist. He pulled her into an awkward embrace. "Something like this, wasn't it?" he said playfully.

   She pressed her hips against him and felt a solid and immediate response. "You may have forgotten, but your body hasn't," she assured him, her own hands roving across the front of his shirt.

   "Apparently not," he murmured, dropping his hands to hold her tighter against his growing response. "How about you?" His voice was barely above a whisper, but its rough silk tone sent a shudder through her that he felt as his lips made their way down her throat to settle in the curve of her shoulder. He nuzzled gently and smiled to himself as a small moan of pleasure escaped her.

   "I think I would benefit... from a refresher course." Her voice caught as a rush of heat burned through her. His right hand, which had been roving across her back, had slipped around the front of her waist, followed the line of her dress and slid between the folds to caress her breast. His lips still caressing her neck he tried to find her belt fastenings with his left, blindly fumbling. After a few seconds of struggling she stopped him and released the catch herself, dropping the belt to the floor.

   "Thank you," he muttered, his voice muffled against her skin.

   "You're welcome," she replied, turning her head to allow him maximum access. It felt so good to be the object of one man's single-minded attention and passion. Still, the bedroom might be a more appropriate venue. "John..."

   "Hmm?" He wasn't about to be distracted.

   "The bedroom?" she suggested.

   "What about it?" He moved around the base of her throat to lavish attention on the other side.

   "Might that not be more appropriate?" It was getting harder to concentrate.

   "Probably," he agreed. "You lead the way, I'll just follow. I'm busy here." She chuckled and, shaking her head, pushed him away. "Hey! I was enjoying that!" he groused.

   "So was I, and the sooner we get to the bedroom, the faster we can go back to it." She led the way towards partition.

   "If only Alliance agreements were so easily arranged," he muttered, undoing his cuffs as he followed.

   "I'm not sure I wanted the image of trying to solve a dispute with the Pak'Ma'Ra in this manner," she choked, turning at the bed.

   "To hell with the Pak'Ma'Ra," he growled and, uttering a silent thank-you to whoever had finally twigged that the President of the Interstellar Alliance wasn't wild about Minbari beds, pushed Delenn backwards onto the flat human-style bed that had been provided. She bounced briefly and he covered her, quickly resuming where he had left off.

   After about a minute he settled back on his elbow, looking down at her. "This is a lot easier when you aren't wearing so many clothes," he pointed out.

   "That goes both ways," she reminded him.

   He looked down. Thanks to his wife his shirt was now completely undone and hanging, half in and half out of his trousers. Delenn's dress was still held together by one fastening, but the top had been pulled aside to expose one breast on which he had lavished considerable attention. He chuckled. "We look like a couple of teenagers trying to make out before our parents walk in and catch us!" He rolled aside, languishing for a moment in the sheer pleasure of knowing there was no hurry, and then sat up to pull off his shirt.

   Delenn, meanwhile, released the last fastening on her dress and waited. John kicked off his shoes and socks, stood to undo his trousers and then paused, gazing down at her. He leaned forward, supporting himself with one hand while the other stroked the skin edged by her dress and then pulled the material aside, as though unwrapping a precious gift. His eyes followed every movement, took in every exposed centimetre of flesh as he spread the dress wide and allowed his gaze to wander.

   "You know," he said at last, his hand dropping to caress and squeeze her thigh, "I don't know where you got the idea that stockings and suspenders were still commonly worn... but whoever it was told you that, I need to give them a medal."

   She grinned as he dropped to his knees, his fingers sliding smoothly over her belly, across the delicate material of her pants and down to the exposed flesh of her upper thighs where the elastic lightly barred the way to further exploration.

   "We Minbari believe old things should be maintained, especially when they still work very well."

   He snorted his amusement and looked down, his own arousal plain as his trousers struggled to accommodate. "Well, in this case there's no question it still works. It ought to scare me that you can affect me so easily, but instead it just turns me on even more."

   Still lying back, Delenn raised her stockinged foot and ran her toes along the seam of his trousers to the growing bulge, causing him to inhale sharply and close his eyes to savour the sensation. Blindly, he stroked along her calf and up to the black elastic as her toes teased him. With practiced ease he released the catches and rolled down the stocking, only opening his eyes again when it came time to slide the material over her foot.

   "You have way too much power over me," he murmured, shaking his head before tossing the stocking over his shoulder. He kissed his way along her leg, pausing at the top to slip his fingers inside her pants. She matched his earlier reaction, arching slightly as he stroked across her clitoris.

   "And you over me," she gasped, gripping the bed sheets until her knuckles turned white.

   "That makes me feel safer," he grinned, continuing his caress with one hand, while the other attacked the remaining clasps.

   "I always feel safe with you, no matter what happens." Through half-closed lids she watched him remove the other stocking, sending it to join its mate on the floor.

   "Ahh, but you never know what I might do," he returned. He hooked his thumbs into her pants and pulled them down and off. Then he ran both hands up the inside of her legs and gently parted them, exposing her to his sight. He shuffled forward and then winced as the restricting material of his trousers made its presence known. He quickly released the zip, freeing himself and then, ignoring the guidelines that said he should remove his trousers completely at this point, began to lavish wet kisses across her stomach and belly. He felt her hands on his head, running through his hair and gently encouraging him to the goal upon which he had long since decided. He teased her, kissing above and to the sides but always avoiding the one point he knew her body ached for him to touch.

   "John, please..."

   Still he teased, pushing her, forcing her to make the demand.

   "John..."

   "Hmm?" Just a little more. He knew exactly what she needed, he just wanted to hear her say it. Not that she was very forthcoming when it came to talking dirty, but he knew if he could keep up the pressure long enough...

   "Suck it, please!"

   Bingo! He instantly redirected his attention, his tongue flicking, stroking and massaging her clitoris. Her hand flew from his head and down onto the mattress, thumping into it and then frantically grabbing for anything to support her as she writhed under his touch. He reached out and caught the flailing limb, gripping her hard as he worked. Her nails dug into his arm as her other hand also sought purchase. His attention apparently exclusively trained on her clitoris -- eyes closed, lips and tongue working together to arouse her -- he nevertheless managed to reach out and snag her other hand, holding her down. Her back arched and he increased the pressure, holding her tightly. It had been too long for both of them, but since, as ever, he'd been the one out of commission he was determined that he would satisfy her first by way of apology. Besides, with the moans and whimpers escaping her for encouragement, he could keep this up for as long as it took.

   She began to thrash wildly, her legs hooking around his neck. He could feel her pulse throbbing under his lips, the heat rising as blood rushed to flush and engorge her labia. His own erection jerked in sympathy and he concentrated on calming himself while inflaming her. Her unique flavour filled his mouth, her own juices adding to the slick wetness he was encouraging. His mind filled with the image of himself plunging into her, her body closing around him, welcoming and enveloping. He began to wonder if he'd be able to hold out after all and, releasing her briefly, he quickly undid the button on his trousers and awkwardly pushed them and his boxers down to his knees before catching her again.

   "Don't stop. Oh Valen, please don't stop!" she begged. He had no intention of doing so, but there was no way he was going to be able to hold on now.

   "Roll over!" he commanded, rising to push himself free of the restricting clothing. With some help from him she did as ordered, leaving her dress on the bed as she knelt above it. He pulled her up until her hips were on a level with his, positioned himself and then reached around and between her legs to continue rubbing her with quickly slickened fingers.

   The brief pause and change of position calmed her slightly, but he was having none of it. Gripping himself he rubbed the head of his penis over her, probing but not quite breaching the entrance, while his other hand continued to work. The position was uncomfortable but the base, animal element appealed to his aroused mind. Settling his penis once more against but not inside her, he leaned on the mattress, his breath hot against her neck. "Let it go, Delenn. I'm not going to stop until you come." He nipped around the base of her neck and then stretched to nuzzle her, his penis pressing against her. He interspersed his kisses with words designed to send her over the edge. "You're hot and soaking wet and I can feel you trying to pull me inside, but you have to come for me first." He moved to the other side, his voice a low rumble. "Feel how stiff you've made me."

   Resting her weight on one forearm she reached between her legs and found the silk hardness that she longed to feel inside her. She tried to force the issue, gripping him and pushing backwards, but he pulled away, denying her the prize while his fingers rubbed, stroked and caressed her by turns.

   "Not yet. Not until you're ready. If you want me inside you, you have to come. All that power you have over me... now it's my turn. Let it go, Delenn. Lose control. I've got you and I'll keep you safe. Let yourself go." He was panting now, the tension clear in his voice.

   They were rushing headlong towards a cliff and as his finger urgently rubbed her the last rein of control was released and she felt the burning that marked the beginning of the end. "Close, John. Almost..."

   "That's it," he encouraged, and he allowed the head of his penis to stretch her. The control he was exercising was excruciating, but he wouldn't give in. Not until she was ready.

   The burning reached incandescence and still he wouldn't stop. She could feel the cramp starting in her belly, her vagina opening to welcome him, and him struggling not to accept the offer. Then, suddenly, every part of her opened and flooded with a rushing charge of sensation. She cried out.

   "John!"

   He plunged into her, finally giving into the demands. Her body clenched and throbbed around him, and he could feel the walls closing and squeezing, trying to force him out and yet urging him to keep going. He leaned over her, bracing himself on the mattress either side of her waist, driving himself as deep as possible into her depths. Gasping, she reached down once more, pressing and rubbing at the slick wetness at the base of his penis, adding the final touch he needed. The orgasm began in his groin, shot up his body and exploded in his mind, making him insensate to everything but the feel of her around him. He expelled a cry of relief, less articulate than hers but just as overwhelming, his movements slowing as the orgasm passed.

   She lowered herself to the bed and he followed her down, still buried within her, murmuring his thanks against her neck. After a minute in which the only sound in the room was that of heavy breathing, he eased himself up, his back bent in an effort to stay within her that little bit longer.

   "As much as I like falling asleep still inside you," he said, blinking against the sweat that was falling into his eyes, "I don't think that's going to be possible tonight." Still he was reluctant to withdraw.

   She laughed and, in a feat of remarkable determination and agility, pulled up one leg and slowly rolled onto her back, maintaining the contact. Her toes pressed against his stomach as she turned and he lifted one arm to give her room to settle down with her legs either side of him. Then she pulled herself slowly up the bed, him following in amused astonishment until they were both fully on the mattress.

   Resting on his elbows above her, he shook his head. "I didn't think that was possible!"

   She reached up and brushed his sweat-damp hair from his face. "Anything is possible, if one is determined enough."

   "So I see." He leaned down and kissed her forehead, her eyes and then fastened on her mouth, his tongue running across her lips and then pressing forward to meet hers. For a while they indulged in the kiss, their tongues stroking together just as their bodies were still joined below. Finally he pulled back and rested with his head buried in the curve of her shoulder. Her body still occasionally clenched around him and he hummed in his throat, expressing deep satisfaction. Suddenly, she clenched harder and longer. He chuckled. "Now that was you," he said.

   "Just a reminder."

   He kissed the side of her neck lazily. "Of what?"

   "That I love you very much and I love having you like this." She kissed his shoulder and wrapped her arms around him, holding him to her.

   "Hmm. The feeling's mutual."

   She clenched again, the sensation longer and harder than the automatic spasms of muscle that followed orgasm.

   "If you're hoping for another go already, I'm afraid I'm going to have to disappoint you," he muttered. "I'm sidelined for at least an hour."

   "No," she replied, repeating the action. "I just like to do it."

   He lifted himself slightly and pushed into her to counteract her movements. "Something you learned in temple?" he asked mischievously.

   She swatted him and he laughed. "You're always so happy after we make love," she observed.

   "Of course! Why wouldn't I be? I've got a beautiful woman in my arms who just happens to be my wife, and I just got a free trip with her to the rim without the hassles. Life doesn't get any better than this." He sighed contentedly and rolled onto his back, pulling her with him.

   She rested on his chest, her hair splayed across his skin. He pressed into her one last time and the physical connection was finally lost.

   "Ah well. I suppose you'll just have to be happy falling asleep in my arms," he said through a yawn.

   She hooked her leg around his and kissed his throat before settling down with her arm across his chest, rising and falling with each breath he took. "You're here and safe and we're on our way home. I'm happy."

   He nodded, his eyes already closed, and squeezed her against him. "Good. Computer, lights off."

   The lovers slept curled together as the White Star flew through the swirling red mists of hyperspace, taking them home.

 

*****

 

 

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