WHAT GOES AROUND (III)

By Castor

 

 

 

Chapter 16

 

 

   Somewhere in the early hours of the morning he rolled over and was startled awake. Automatically his hand had found her and he'd curled against her back. What had startled him was the fact that he only now realised she wasn't wearing her usual night clothes. In fact, she wasn't wearing anything at all.

   He pulled away, ashamed of himself. For a moment he reconsidered the couch, but he was warm and comfortable and he didn't want to wake his wife with his restless movements. Instead, he stared into the darkness, remembering what Henshaw had said. Did he dare? If he did he couldn't stop once he'd started. She'd never forgive him if he left her on the edge. He looked over at his wife and shook his head. No, she needed her sleep. Now was not the time to try and satisfy his own selfish need to touch her, to please her.

   Delenn, for her part, was wide awake. She'd felt his hand caress her in his sleep and then registered the way he'd abruptly pulled back. She stifled her frustration and rolled onto her back, apparently still asleep. Her movement caused the sheet to fall, exposing her breasts. She waited to see if he would respond. If he would at least stay in the bed with her it would be a start.

   The dim light cast faint shadows about her exposed flesh and his eyes were drawn. He'd meant what he'd said earlier about missing her, but his mind was still confused.

   'She's your wife!' he thought to himself. 'You're allowed to touch unless she says otherwise, and she's made it pretty plain she wants you to!'

   He reached out to caress her shoulder.

   'But not when she's asleep,' another voice returned. 'And look at her. How can you touch anything as perfect as that? You don't have the right. Not after what they did. She doesn't really want you. She just feels duty bound because you're married. If she'd known ahead of time what you were, what you became, do you think she'd've married you? Get real!'

   His hand dropped and he fell back into the bed. Deciding she needed to press matters a little Delenn rolled on her side, letting her arm fall across his chest. She hated manipulating him like this, effectively lying to him by not admitting she was awake and very well aware of his hesitant movements, but she couldn't see a way around it.

   Sheridan stiffened as her arm touched him. He felt his whole body prepare to leap out of the bed as fast as was humanly possible. Squeezing his eyes shut he fought the urge.

   'You're unclean!' the second voice told him. 'You can't stay here!'

   'You scrubbed until you made yourself sore,' the first voice returned. 'You've every right to stay where you are!'

   He struggled with his inner voices, trying to believe the one that told him he wasn't the disgusting animal the other voice insisted he was. Yes, he'd been left in his own filth in that cell, but not by choice. If he hadn't been strapped in place he'd have been as clean as his interrogators... perhaps more so. Yes, they hurt and abused him, but he hadn't asked for it, hadn't sought it. No one, not even a depraved masochist, could want what they'd done to him.

   'You knew there was a risk when you went to meet Garibaldi,' the second voice insisted, 'but you walked in anyway. You had something to prove, didn't you? You wanted to show people you could take the risks, do it all. Admit it, you wanted them to capture you just so you could spit in the face of the interrogators and prove to them how strong you are. But you weren't, were you? You weren't strong enough, you weren't good enough, any more than you're good enough now!'

   'You wanted to save your father,' the other voice insisted. 'Being prepared to risk everything to save someone you love, and actually looking for trouble aren't the same thing. You were good enough. You didn't crack. You held out until they came to rescue you. Give yourself a break!'

   He groaned and put his hands to his head, trying to shut out the argument. Delenn saw the way he ground his fists into his temples, felt how his body was starting to shake. She decided to intervene.

   She shifted against him. "John?" she whispered, looking up. "Are you all right?"

   The voices were still arguing in his head and he could barely hear her. "Shut up!" he said, pressing his hands harder against his skull. "For God's sake shut up!"

   Not realising what was going on she pulled away. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean...."

   "Get out of my head!" he yelled, pulling himself into a sitting position, his knees drawn up.

   He wasn't yelling at her! He was going through another flashback... another one when she'd thought they'd put those behind them. She sat up beside him, the covers falling away. "John? John!" She gripped his wrists, shaking him. "John, what's happening?"

   All he heard was the edge of alarm in yet another voice that added to the crescendo of the internal argument. He curled up tighter, trying to shut out the din that threatened to deafen him. He was in full-blown panic mode and the arguments of his own tormentors mixed with those of his interrogators. His own voice was lost in the cacophony of questions, accusations and demands. He couldn't hear Delenn... was barely aware of her. His world extended only so far as the sounds in his head.

   "John! John, hear my voice!" She shook him harder, pulling his hands away from his head as he rocked himself. He fought her, his mind flashing back to the cell, the restraints....

   She slapped him, hard, right across the cheek. He was stunned and the voices abruptly went silent. He opened his eyes to see her kneeling beside him, her face filled with worry. His cheek was smarting from the blow but it was her expression -- fear combined with contrite apology for what she'd been forced to do -- that pinned his attention.

   "I'm sorry. I didn't want to hit you, but you would not come back to me."  She reached out to softly stroke his cheek and he flinched, his expression reminding her of a narl cornered by a gok. "Please don't be afraid of me. I do not think I could bear that..." She let her hand fall to his chest, her gaze following it. "Please forgive me. Please.... I don't want to lose you."

   He saw the tears welling up in her eyes and the second voice, the one that even now was telling him she didn't really want him -- *couldn't* want him -- was silenced. He reached out and gently wiped the tears away, letting his hand slowly move down her cheek and thence to her throat, his expression one of wonder, as though he'd never seen her before and was dazzled by what he beheld. Suddenly, without warning, he pulled her into his arms, holding her desperately. The need to hold her, to feel her near and reassure her, overrode everything else.

   "I didn't mean to frighten you," he whispered. "I don't know what to do.... Tell me what to do! Everything seemed to be making sense again and now...?" He pulled back and she could see his own eyes were wet with tears. He touched her hair, stroking his fingers through the strands. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.

   It broke her heart to see him like this. "John, what do you want to do?"

   He shook his head, still stroking her hair as though he hadn't realised he was already doing something he very much wanted to continue. "I guess... I just want to be who I was.... To be able to...." He dropped his hand, suddenly realising what he was doing... what he was thinking of doing. Gently, slowly, she raised it to her cheek and held it there. He smiled as she kissed his fingers, and then shuddered as she slowly guided his hand down her throat to her chest. He went to pull away but she gently held him in place.

   "Yes," she nodded. "I want you to do this. I love the way you touch me." She moved his hand down until it was cupped over her breast. "Touch me," she whispered.

   For a moment he was paralysed. Surely she couldn't mean it? Yet the way she looked at him, the way she held him to her, everything about her said she meant every word. Slowly he felt sensation creep along his arm until he realised he was gently stroking his thumb across the smooth skin of her breast. For a while he did nothing more than that, too afraid she would reject him to risk anything further. She smiled and, still holding his hand to her, uncurled her legs and lay back against the pillows. Her whole body was exposed to him yet still he would not permit his eyes to stray.

   "Yes," she nodded, encouraging him. "Look at me."

   Nervously, ready to back away the second he detected any hesitancy in her, he let his eyes wander, taking in every feature of her body. He knew each millimetre in intimate detail and yet now it was as though he were seeing her for the first time. As he gazed across her smooth skin he saw himself, remembering how he had kissed her, stroked her, aroused her. He remembered how she moved under him, how she felt pressed against him. He leaned down and then paused. She reached out and ran her fingers over the back of his neck, applying a gentle pressure.

   "Kiss me."

   He allowed himself to be drawn down to her breast, pressing his lips to the smooth skin. She released a sigh of pleasure and he grew more bold, moving across her until he felt her nipple grazing his cheek. He opened his mouth and drew it in, his tongue circling and teasing her. She arched slightly and he responded, gently scraping his teeth across the stiffening flesh. Emboldened by her response he reached out with his hand and stroked across her stomach, rising to the curve of her other breast. He felt her move and went still, waiting to see what would happen. She kissed the top of his head lightly.

   "That feels wonderful, John," she murmured. Her mind was churning with the fear of what would happen if anything went wrong. If she couldn't respond to him because she was too tense, too worried about him, he would sense it, perceive it as his failure and be driven even further away. This had to work, and she would guide him so it *would* work.

   As she lay back his mind was flooded with memories of  how it had once been between them. He remembered all he had ever done to arouse her and he moved his hand down to her side as his lips crossed the valley between her breasts and ascended the other side. Stroking her waist he ran his tongue across her breast, circling and then sucking on the nipple as he had done before. His hand dropped lower to her hip and then over her thigh. He felt her shift slightly under him, parting her legs to permit him access. He trailed kisses down to her stomach as his hand stroked the sensitive skin on the inside of her thighs.

   She could feel him shaking. Her hand, now resting lightly on his shoulder, moved to the shudder of his heartbeat. The tendons were standing out on his neck and shoulder as his confidence grew and he pressed more and more kisses to her flesh. He moved down to her stomach, while his fingers continued to circle her inner thighs, crossing from one to the other, running down to her knees and then back up but always avoiding her centre. She reached down and caught his hand, guiding it to her, pressing his fingers between the folds of skin. She gasped as he touched her and then moaned as he took over and slowly drew his fingers across her stiffening clitoris. As he continued his ministrations she felt herself relaxing, her body responding as it always did to his firm but gentle touch.

   He continued to stroke and circle with his fingers, reaching down to draw up the moisture her body created in response and using it to smooth his path. He could feel the heat building, feel her flesh around his fingers become swollen as she became more and more aroused. He soothed her with her own juices, his fingers becoming slick as he slowly stroked, circled and rubbed her, lovingly caressing the delicate, sensitised nerves. He kissed his way back up to her breasts and then continued his path to her neck, nuzzling her. Her breaths were becoming shorter and he licked her throat, repeating the act around her neck as she released small cries of pleasure.

   This time her words of encouragement came without thought, a natural response to what he was doing to her. "Yes," she whispered. "Don't stop. Please don't stop."

   He rose to her mouth. "I won't," he murmured and then pressed his lips to hers, probing with his tongue as he increased the speed and pressure of his fingers.

   She moaned into his mouth, drawing his tongue deeper. She could feel the tension building and knew she would not be able to hold on much longer. She ached to hold him and moved to do so but then pulled back, afraid he would misinterpret, shy away. Even so he suddenly stopped stroking her and she almost cried out in frustration. Then her heart leapt as he gripped her forearm and raised it over his back, encouraging her to hold him. Gladly she did as he asked and he returned to his task, quickly finding the rhythm once more.

   Again he upped the tempo and his kiss became more intense, almost smothering her as her mind and body neared the crescendo of passion and she fought to drag more air into her starved lungs. At last he released her, watching her gasp and arch beneath his fingers. Seeing her growing close, he increased the pressure and speed once more, his touch a relentless, agitated friction, forcing her closer to the edge.

   "Let it go," he whispered. "You can't stop it now. I won't let you stop it. Come for me, Delenn. Come."

   His voice was the last ingredient. The white hot fire ignited and swept over her, a blazing heat of orgasm roaring through her body and exploding in her mind. Her back arched and she cried out as he continued to rub her, feeding her pleasure. As her body relaxed he slowed, ready to stop before he made her sore but she shook her head, her nails digging into his shoulders.

   "Don't stop, please!" she begged. She could feel the flame already building to a second orgasm, one that would be as intense as the last if only he could maintain the pace.

   Amazed and delighted he continued, watching as the flush on her breasts paled and then bloomed again. She cried out, even louder than before, pulling his mouth down to hers to kiss him with a passionate intensity filled with joy, relief, gratitude and a searing, almost painful love. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her shaking, gasping body as the tremors died away.

   "Shh. It's all right. I've got you. Shh." The old words, words he thought he'd forgotten. He gentled her, pressing her tightly against himself. His mind was filled with happiness that he'd given her so much pleasure. He couldn't control the broad smile that lit up his face as he looked down and saw her answering laughter.
   "Oh Valen!" she gasped at last. "That was wonderful!"

   He released her long enough to grab the sheets and pull them around her, shielding her from the chill he knew always assailed her afterwards. She pressed herself against him, drawing warmth and comfort from his body.

   "Thank you!" she managed, still slightly awed by the experience. One orgasm of that scale after so long was amazing, but two left her stunned.

   "No, thank *you*," he insisted. "I've wanted to do that for so long. It looked pretty incredible from this side."

   "Oh yes," she replied, still panting slightly. "It was, as you would say, worth waiting for!"

   He laughed and hugged her again, words inadequate to the relief and happiness that filled him. It was a start, and a solid one at that. The rest would happen in its own good time. She snuggled into his shoulder, her hand resting on his chest and tracing small circles thereon. She didn't push; didn't try to return his gift. She knew now was not the time. Later, when he felt more comfortable with accepting pleasure as well as bestowing it, but not tonight. She drifted off to sleep in his arms and he watched her for a while before surrendering himself.

   It was a new beginning.

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

   The door signal woke Henshaw from a deep sleep. As ever she'd found it hard trying to switch off her concerns about her patients (she had reached the conclusion that Delenn was as much a 'patient' in this case as Sheridan) and had been tossing and turning for several hours. She peered blearily at the door.

   "Computer, what time is it?"

   "Oh seven hundred hours."

   Henshaw released a groan. Four hours. All night all she'd managed to get was four hours of sleep. "Who is it?" she called out, praying it wasn't either Sheridan or Delenn needing her assistance. Not that she wouldn't give it, and not that she didn't want them to feel free to call on her, but it was hard to sound compassionate and patient when your brain felt like someone had dipped it in molasses while kicking your body to pieces.

   "Michael Garibaldi. Uh... sorry to call so early...."

   Garibaldi? This ought to be interesting. "Hang on a minute!" She threw back the covers, changed into her clothes and ran a brush through her hair. A quick glance in the mirror confirmed she could get away without a wash and cleaning her teeth for now. This was important. "Come in," she called.

   The door opened and a bald, tall man in civilian clothes walked in, his hands in his pockets. "Uh, look, I'm sorry I woke you...."

   "Not a problem. I have some things I need to do before I meet with President Sheridan today anyway. Take a seat. Would you like some coffee? Tea?"

   He looked around nervously, his eyes alighting on the bottle of scotch sitting on the table. She noticed the way he paused and then passed by. "No, that's fine. Just had breakfast."

   "Do you mind if I do? I find I can't think straight until I get my caffeine levels back up to full strength."

   "Sure."

   Henshaw set about making her coffee (brought from Earth just in case), one eye watching Garibaldi. He didn't sit down, apparently too nervous to make himself comfortable. Instead he took in her quarters, absorbing every detail. She knew he'd been a good Head of Security on Babylon 5 before he'd resigned and she suspected he was sizing her up from the state of her quarters. She glanced around.

   "It's a mess, I know. I wasn't expecting callers." Henshaw was one of those who expanded to fill the space available. Papers, folders, even some clothes were scattered around the room, making it look like she'd been there for months instead of days. "Just throw my stuff on the floor and grab a chair," she said, returning with her coffee.

   He picked up her jacket, placing it carefully over the back of the chair and sat down. Her own notes on Sheridan were open on the table and she closed them as she sat. He opened his mouth but she raised a hand, winked, and downed a good mouthful of coffee.

   "Hmm. That hit the spot. I can see again!" He grinned in spite of himself. "Now, what can I do for you?"

   "I... er. Look, I know you're here to see the President..."

   "...But you were wondering if I could help you along at the same time?"

   He frowned. "You're a teep?"

   "No, but I can read body language and I can read files. Frankly, I'm rather surprised you haven't been around to see me before." She took another mouthful, watching him over the rim of the mug.

   "I reckoned you had your hands full."

   "But you know you're part of that, don't you?"

   He looked away. "Yeah."

   "So, what did you want to talk to me about?"

   "How is he?"

   There was genuine concern in Garibaldi's question and Henshaw felt herself warming to the man. She knew the background of what had happened to him, and while it wasn't as brutal physically as that to which Sheridan had been subjected, in its own way it was as severe a violation. The guilt Garibaldi bore for what he had done, even though it was beyond his control, was plain. "Improving," she returned carefully. "He'll get there in the end."

   "Is that your professional opinion, or just a naturally optimistic bent?"

   "A little of both, but my optimism is founded in experience." She put down her mug. "You didn't come here just to find out how John was doing. You could have got that from Dr. Franklin."

   He rubbed his jaw, considering how to put his next question. Henshaw had a pretty good idea what it would be, but she didn't want to make him uncomfortable by telling him. She waited.

   "Did he tell you what happened?" he asked at last, his face wary.

   "He did. And he knows, rationally, it wasn't your fault."

   "But?"

   "But it's taking a while to seep through to his subconscious. On the emotional level there's still a strong sense of betrayal."

   Garibaldi's expression was bleak. "Yeah," he said, quietly.

   "He wouldn't have made you Head of Covert Operations for the Interstellar Alliance if he didn't believe in you. That was his way of telling you he understood. And he misses your friendship...." He looked up sharply, eyes narrowed distrustfully. "Of course, if you don't want to rekindle that friendship...."

   "Are you kidding me?" he interrupted. "Until Sheridan came along Jeff Sinclair was the only man who'd ever trusted me. When he went and I got shot in the back by my own man I didn't want to trust anyone any more. John had to work hard to make me believe in him. Hell, to make me believe in myself again! And he did it, you know? He's that kind of guy. There's somethin' about him that makes you believe you can win, even when your back's against the wall and all you've got are your fists and a pea shooter against an entire fleet. If he's standin' beside you, somehow you know you'll get out of there. Okay, there were times I thought he'd lost it, even before Bester mind-fragged me, but I always trusted him, and he trusted me." His voice dropped. "He trusted me so much he let me sell him out."

   "Are you afraid if he trusts you again you'll fail him again?"

   "He's given me a second chance, and I don't aim to blow it this time. I've got a point to make."

   "Then don't blow it."

   "Thanks for the great advice," he returned sarcastically.

   "Mr. Garibaldi, the only person who can do this is you. You know what happened to you, you know it wasn't your fault. You know no one could have acted any differently given what was done to you...."

   He shook his head. "Bester used me. He knew what I was like. He just took all those doubts that keep nagging at me and turned on the screws."

   "Everyone has doubts. If you don't you either don't know what's going on, or you're God, and I'm not even sure the Almighty knew what He was doing when He started this universe. The fact that you question is what makes you good at what you do. The fact that you're an alcoholic...." Garibaldi started but she waved it aside. "It's in the reports. Besides, Sheridan told me." He nodded and said nothing. "Anyway, alcoholics are always full of doubt. What you have to do is decide whether you're going to rule your doubts, or let them rule you." She sat forward, hands clasped together, her elbows resting on her knees. "How we deal with our doubts -- about ourselves and those around us -- is part of what determines who we are and what we get out of our lives. It's hard to strike a balance. This isn't the sort of universe where we can go sailing blindly through trusting to luck, 'cos sooner or later some asshole'll come along and trip you up, then kick you while you're down. In your job you're gonna come across that type far more than the rest of us. That means you have to have a higher level of paranoia than most. It's your strength, but it can also be your undoing. Sheridan knows that. He knows that the best person to put in a job like this is someone who's always questioning, always doubting, but he also knows there comes a point where you have to stop questioning and have a little faith. It's risky, and after what you've been through you're going to find it harder than most. The best thing you can do is your job. That means telling him the facts, all of them. Let him be the one to decide, to make the leap of faith."

   "And if he jumps the wrong way because I didn't do my job well enough and missed something important?" His face was hard. He knew the cost if he screwed up again.

   "Do you intend to screw up on purpose?"

   "No!"

   "Then do the best you can and accept you're not omniscient."

   He stood up angrily. "And what if my best ain't good enough, huh? I can't know everything!"

   "Exactly," she returned firmly. "No one can. You set your sights too high, Mr. Garibaldi. If you do that you're bound to fail because no one can do what you demand of them."

   "But I *have* to!" he replied, his finger stabbing the air for emphasis.

   "What do you want from me? To tell you you're superman? Sorry, but from where I'm sitting I can't see a cape. What I *do* see is a fundamentally decent man who's trying his damnedest to do his job to the best of his ability. I see someone who wants to believe, but who'll never have the self-assurance he wants. And I see someone who is exactly the sort of man Sheridan needs on his side." At that last Garibaldi spun around. "Oh yes, you can believe that. John Sheridan has dreams -- great, soaring visions of what could be. He trusts the universe enough to believe that if he remains true, things will work out. We all need dreamers -- visionaries who light the way for the rest of us -- but we need practical people as well: people who can tether us to reality and remind us that the universe can be capricious, even vicious and downright twisted sometimes. He needs someone like you at his back to remind him there'll always be those who want to shoot him down. Someone to protect him so he can make his dream a reality for the rest of us. You'll never have his faith in the universe -- very few have -- but you, just as you are, are exactly what he needs. If you want to be what he needs you to be, then be yourself, with all your doubts, fears and distrust. To take a rather cruel literary parallel, if he's Don Quixote, you're Sancho Panza. Use your friendship to tell him when he's tilting at windmills."

   "I'm not sure I can spot the windmills any more," he returned softly.

   "Then be his friend and be ready to pick him up when his lance gets caught in the sails."

   He nodded, her words sinking in. "I'd better go," he said at last, "I've got work to do." He headed for the door.

   "You're a good man, Mr. Garibaldi. I know you don't believe that sometimes, but I can assure you..."

   "Talking from experience again?" he replied, a slight grin tugging at his lips.

   "Uh huh."

   "Thanks."

   "Before you leave..." He paused and turned back. "At some point you and John are going to have to talk out your problems together. Would you be willing to do that?"

   "Would it help John?"

   A nod. "And you," she added.

   "If it helps him, I'm there. Just give me the word, Doc."

   "And what about you?"

   "Like you said, I'm always gonna have doubts. I reckon John's got enough faith for both of us." Before she had the chance to respond he was gone.

   Henshaw contemplated the closed door. Now there was a man who needed a help, but right now he'd never accept it. She hoped he'd talk to someone before it was too late, but she couldn't push it. It was up to him.

   She rose from the chair and picked up her coffee cup, refilling it. Downing it while leaning on the counter she then went to the bathroom and finished her morning ablutions. When she returned she checked the time. She had just over an hour before she had to see Sheridan. She hoped he'd had a better night than she had, or this was going to be a very long day.

 

 

 

Chapter 17

 

 

   Delenn woke first, opening her eyes to see her husband lying quietly beside her. He'd thrown the sheet off in the night and now his left hand lay on his stomach, his right resting on the pillow by his head. She edged up onto one elbow and studied him. He looked relaxed, his face showing none of the signs of the deep-seated fear and doubt she'd grown accustomed to of late. The success of the previous night's activity (she smiled at the memory) seemed to have given him a restful night at the very least. She hoped it marked the beginning of an overall change.

   She leaned down and planted a gentle kiss on his chest. When he didn't react she risked a second, lingering longer. He groaned in his sleep and his left hand sought her, the back of it touching her stomach and then pulling her to him.

   "Good morning," she whispered.

   "Hmm." She wasn't sure if he was agreeing with her or just making noises in his sleep. The grip tightened and she lowered herself to the bed, resting her head against his chest and allowing him to hold her tightly.

   "It is now," he murmured, not opening his eyes.

   She laughed, a low, musical sound as her hand strayed across his chest, mapping out the familiar contours. "Thank you, for last night," she whispered.

   He wrapped his other arm around her and she revelled in the relaxed nature of his actions. No hesitation, no question as to whether or not she would want it. This was the old John, and he delighted her.

   "How're you feeling?" he murmured, still with his eyes shut.

   "Hungry," she said simply.

   He burst out laughing and turned to look at her in his arms. "I'm not surprised!" he returned and then he paused, his eyes searching her face for something, she knew not what. Finally he said, "You really enjoyed it? Even though I..."

   She covered his lips with her finger. "It was wonderful. You made me feel loved and wanted. What more is there?"

   His face softened, his eyes taking in every detail of the woman in his arms. He reached up and lightly stroked her cheek with the back of his fingers. "Nothing," he whispered before kissing her long and deeply.

   They lay there for a while, merely enjoying each other's presence, then Sheridan released a groan. "Better get up," he said, placing a light kiss on her forehead before releasing her. He padded into the bathroom while Delenn went to heat the water for their morning tea and prepare some breakfast.

   He came out shaved and showered, accepting the mug she offered. "I'll be right back. The breakfast should be ready in about ten minutes. There are some oranges in the cooler." She disappeared into the bathroom.

   Sheridan switched on ISN and sat at the table, tearing into an orange while listening to the headlines. By the time Delenn returned the breakfast was ready and on the table. He'd put through a call to Lochley to see if there was anything he ought to be aware of, and she was clearly pleased to see him once again showing interest, albeit moderately surprised. His recovery, she claimed, was far faster than she'd contemplated.

   That thought both pleased and worried him. It was something he decided he'd have to raise with Henshaw when she arrived, together with one or two others. Still, he thought, smiling at Delenn as she devoured her breakfast with greater than usual enthusiasm, at least some things were starting to go right.

   "So, what are you going to deal with today?" Delenn asked as she sipped her tea.

   "Well, I need to get my signature sorted out properly. Signing at the bottom and all that. After that..." He let out a sigh. "I don't know where to start. Bright lights, loud noises, foods... I wonder if it's actually necessary to deal with all of them. It's not like I'm likely to encounter corned beef sandwiches again, and I think I could survive for the rest of my life without eating one."

   She nodded, keeping her thoughts to herself. They'd overcome a massive hurdle last night and she didn't want him to think she was pushing him. Still, as wonderful as it had been -- she smiled at the memory -- it would be nice to go back to the old days when they shared the pleasure equally.

   He saw the way she was lost in happy thoughts. "What are you thinking about?"

   "Last night," she returned, knowing her expression had been positive.

   "My pleasure."

   "I look forward to when I can return it," she added carefully.

   She saw his eyes drop slightly and then he took a deep breath and nodded. "And that's something else I have to work on." He looked up again and reached across the table, taking her hand in his own. "I will get there, I promise."

   "I know," she replied, covering his hand with her own. She took in his expression. There was an almost virginal embarrassment to him and she found it endearing, if slightly frustrating given he was more than skilled in that department. She contemplated the implications.

   "What?" he asked curiously.

   "I was just thinking... when you and I first became one, I had no experience and you became my teacher. Now it seems the situation is reversed." She reached across to stroke his cheek. "I think I would like to teach you," she finished, smiling.

   He leaned his face into her touch. "I suppose it is a bit like that." He caught her hand and kissed it. "If all my teachers at school had been like you, I might have studied harder!" His face fell a little as he was lost in thought and he lowered her hand to the table, covering it. "Just... be patient with me. It's not because I don't want to, but every time I think about it..." He stopped and shook his head.

   "Tell me," she urged softly. He sighed but refused to go on. "Please?"

   He took a deep breath. "You know what they did. I keep telling myself it wasn't my fault, that I couldn't control any of it... And all their laughter and the rest... They thought it was funny." His voice dropped and he stared at the table. "They made me ashamed of being a man..."

   "They are the ones who should be ashamed, not you."

   "I know. Up here," he tapped his temple, "I know. I just don't seem to be able to convince the rest of me."

   The door chime interrupted Delenn's response. She stood up and went to him, resting her hands on his shoulders and bending to place a gentle kiss on his cheek.

   "I love you, and I will never stop loving you," she whispered close to his ear. "And I do not have to save anyone's honour or hide anything when I say that," she added, knowing the Minbari reputation for being economical with the truth. "I mean every word. Remember that whenever you have doubts. I do not want anyone else but you."

   He nodded slowly and then turned and smiled. "I'll remember."

   She straightened. "Come in."

   Henshaw stepped through the door. "Morning all!" she said cheerfully. Sheridan groaned.

   "She's one of those morning people," he muttered.

   Henshaw raised an eyebrow. "Hardly, but I've had my caffeine fix for the next two hours so I'm awake. Besides, you two look better this morning."

   Delenn nodded, giving John's shoulder a squeeze. "Things have improved," she said.
   "Not one hundred percent yet," Sheridan quickly qualified, "but we're getting there."

   Henshaw nodded. "Slow and steady always does it in the end."

   Delenn leaned down to whisper in Sheridan's ear, "It certainly worked last night!"

   He smothered a laugh and Henshaw grinned, not needing to have heard Delenn's comment to know the gist of what had been said. "So, what do you want to deal with today?"

   "Do you need me to stay?" Delenn asked. "Only I have some papers I would like to deal with and a meeting. I can postpone if..."

   "No, no, that's fine. John?"

   "You'd better go. If you leave two diplomatic papers together in a dark room for longer than five hours they breed." She hesitated for a moment. "I'll be fine," he nodded, "Go on."

   "I will be in my quarters if you need me," she assured them.

   Sheridan stood up. "See you for lunch?"

   "Of course." They shared a brief kiss and then Delenn left.

   Henshaw gazed after her for a minute and then turned back. "Can I ask you a question?"

   "Sure."

   "Why have you got separate quarters?"

   "Practical necessity," he returned, moving to the couch and indicating she should sit down. "We both have too much stuff for one room, there aren't any bigger quarters on the station, and there are times Delenn needs to hold diplomatic meetings as the representative of Minbar. Doesn't work so well when you're surrounded by reminders of Earth." Henshaw nodded as she sat down. "But we used to take it in turns. One night in her quarters, one night in mine. When we get to Tuzanor we'll have one bedroom."

   "Um, don't the Minbari sleep on some kind of angled bed or something?" She took it the Minbari had mastered the art of sleeping in such an apparently bizarre manner, but she had visions of Sheridan ending up in a heap at the foot of the thing.

   He laughed. "Uh huh. Took me a while to get the hang of it, and I still sleep better in my own bed. Delenn just uses more pillows on her side when we're using my room. They believe sleeping in the horizontal is tempting death."

   "Interesting. What if they're ill?"

   "Depends on the circumstances. To be honest with you I don't understand it, but she's used to it and we've adapted."

   "You two seem to have adapted incredibly well to each other. It can't have been easy." It wasn't just general interest that spurred her questions. The relationship between Sheridan and Delenn was the key to pulling him through. Anything that marred that relationship she wanted to know about.

   He snorted. "Frustrating would be a better description! You know they have fifty rituals you have to go through before you can get married?"

   "Fifty?! You must have been going up the walls!"

   "Pretty much, 'though Shon Fal helped." Henshaw raised an eyebrow. "Uh... it's a pleasure ritual," he responded sheepishly.

   "They even have a ritual for that?!" she replied with amazement.

   "They have a ritual for everything," he assured her. "Actually, it's not as bad as it sounds. We all have rituals, it's just that most of the time we don't actually bother to label them... or explain them. You know where you stand with the Minbari. They even have a ritual for when you screw up a ritual!" Henshaw laughed and Sheridan joined her, nodding. "I know. It sounds weird, but it works."

   "How does she cope with the lack of rituals from your side?"

   "Like I said, we do have them, we just don't label them and they're not as strictly enforced. She solved the problem by giving them labels. And being half human she's developed some spontaneity of her own. Sometimes I find her interpretations frustrating, other times they give me a new perspective on my own culture. Like seeing it through someone else's eyes, you know?"

   Henshaw nodded. "Enlightening experience, I'd imagine."

   "Very," he agreed. There was a pause and then, "Anyway, you asked what I wanted to do today." She sat back and nodded, waiting to hear his suggestions. "First, I was wondering something."

   "Fire away."

   "Captain Lochley said she was surprised I was coming around so fast. It made me wonder..."

   "There's no hard and fast rule about these things. You're certainly coming along in leaps and bounds but I don't think you need worry about it. You've had a whole load of experiences prior to this most people would never have. They've given you an added strength to deal with things."

   He grunted. "I could've done without some of those experiences, to be honest!"

   "I'm sure, but at least *some* good's come of them." He said nothing so she carried on. "So, like I said, what did you want to do?"

   "Ahh, well... Finish that signature hassle for a start. I think I'm almost there. After that... I don't know. There are some things I'm unlikely to encounter again. I wonder if it's worth your time going through them all."

   She nodded and reached into her bag, pulling out a sandwich. "You mean things like this?"

   He blanched, his mouth suddenly dry.

   "Look at it, John. You don't even know what's in it. It's just a sandwich." She put it on the table in front of him. "Now, analyse what's going through your head. Use what you've already learned. You know I'm not about to poison you. You know not all sandwiches are poisonous. In fact, barring that one you were given in the cell I doubt you'll ever encounter another one like it for the rest of your life." She watched him carefully. He was swallowing convulsively, as though fighting a surge of bile. "Think! Work your way through it. Bring the fear out of your subconscious and into your conscious and look at it coldly."

   He took a deep breath and nodded, still fighting his insistently queasy stomach. 'Look at it, John!' he told himself. 'It's not going to leap off the table and down your throat. You're in control here. You can turn it down, you can pick it up, you can do whatever you want to do. You're not in the cell, you're not starving, you don't need it if you don't want it. It's just a sandwich.' For several minutes he just sat there, staring at it, the internal struggle showing on his face. After a while his colour started to return and he reached out.

   "Remember," Henshaw quickly interjected, "if it makes you feel queasy again, pull back."

   He nodded and touched it. It was definitely a sandwich. If it turned out to be corned beef and mustard he wasn't sure he'd be able to hold on, but he took another deep breath and unwrapped it.

   He expelled the air he'd been unconsciously holding and looked up. "Cheese?"

   Henshaw grinned. "Uh huh. My breakfast, actually. I was interrupted this morning and never got a chance to get something in the Zocalo."

   "You should have said something! We've got enough here to feed a battalion! Would you like something?"

   "Nope," she responded simply, picking up the sandwich and taking a healthy bite. "This'll do just fine," she continued, her voice slightly muffled by the food. She swallowed. "Well, some tea to go with it would be nice."

   Relieved the test was over he stood up and went to the kitchen to fix the tea, bringing back two mugs. Henshaw accepted hers gratefully, finishing off the last of the sandwich before taking a swallow. "You know," she said, holding out the mug, "I'm going to miss this stuff when I get to Earth. I like it."

   "I'll get Delenn to give you some. It's not like we're short of the stuff."

   "Thanks. How are you feeling?"

   "To be honest?" She nodded. "Silly. I'm over-reacting."

   "No, you're not. Remember what I told you. Your body is reacting to a perceived threat, even though there is no threat. It's a perfectly rational response given what you've been through. You just have to train it to differentiate between the real dangers and the remembered ones."

   "Well, it was a start." He suddenly remembered what she'd said before. "Who interrupted you this morning?"

   "Hmm? Oh, Mr. Garibaldi."

   There was a short pause before Sheridan responded. "What did he want?"

   She noted his reaction and filed it away. "Several things. To find out how you were doing, to see if I could help him..."

   "Can you?"

   She smiled. That Sheridan cared was a good sign. As welcome as Garibaldi's genuine concern for Sheridan himself. The two men had once been good friends, of that there was no question, and it seemed both wanted to rekindle that relationship. "He's got more demons than I can sort out right now, and he doesn't really want to deal with them anyway." Sheridan frowned and she sighed. "Michael's an alcoholic. As such he's riddled with self-doubt. It goes with the territory. His job means he's suspicious of everyone else, and his experiences have made him suspicious of himself. He needs people to believe in him even though he can't believe in himself most of the time."

   He grinned. "You know, if you saw us side by side when we're both on top form, you'd probably think he was the stronger of the two."

   "Physically, maybe, 'though I couldn't be sure. Mentally? No. I remember seeing him three years ago when ISN did a special on this place. Even then I thought you came across as more self assured. Except..."

   "What?"

   "Except when you got tripped up, talking about the E-M war. You made it sound like we lost."

   "In a very real way we did. We certainly didn't win. The Minbari surrendered, that's not the same thing. If they'd wanted to finish the job they could have wiped us out. They changed their minds."

   "Why?" Now she was just curious.

   "You'd better ask Delenn about that. It's a really weird story and I'm not sure I believe it myself even now. Still, whatever works..." He paused for a moment. "I'm going to have to deal with Michael at some point, aren't I?"

   "Well, he's your Head of Covert Operations. It's going to be hard working with him if you can't trust him."

   "Oh, I trust him." Henshaw gave him a look and he snorted. "Okay, I know. But I think... I think I really do trust him. I know what Bester did. I keep reminding myself it wasn't his fault. I guess when I made him HCO it was to prove something to both of us."

   "He realises that."

   He looked up. "Does he? Good. Still... maybe he and I should have a talk."

   "I can set it up, and I think I should be there."

   "As referee?" His expression made it clear he knew the interview would not be an easy one.

   "Perhaps. Filter might be a better way of putting it. And guide, of course."

   "Hmm. Don't you ever get tired of this job?"

   "What, helping people? Not really. Paperwork, now *that* tires me, but this side of it? No, I like to see people get control of themselves again. Gives you a sense of achievement."

   "And when they don't?"

   "It happens. It's hard to remind yourself you can't always work miracles, but every one I help is worth their weight in Quantium Forty."

   "Never thought of myself as jump-gate material before," he quipped. She chuckled and he realised it wasn't the joke she was laughing at. "What?"

   "You're seeing yourself as a success. About time!"

   He considered what he'd said. "I guess I am at that. Something must be going right around here."

   "Speaking of which, I gather you and Delenn..." She left the sentence hanging.

   "Halfway. I still can't... well, I can't, but I took your advice. I think she enjoyed it."

   "Think, nothing! Looked like a resounding success to me."

   A soft smile spread over his face and Henshaw found herself envying Delenn for a moment. She shrugged internally. They'd got problems and to spare. That they found happiness with each other was one of the few things they had going for them right now. They'd deserved it. She frowned for a moment, wondering how he'd react to her next question, and then decided to plunge in. "I'm going to ask you a very personal question, but I'd like you to answer it, if you can."

   Snapped out of his reverie he refocused. "Oh?"

   "I assume since this whole thing started you haven't had any wet dreams." It was a statement rather than a question and he baulked slightly, but he didn't deny it. "And I was wondering, when you're in the shower or alone..."

   "No," he answered quickly.

   "Why not?"

   He was momentarily stunned that she'd asked. "Is it necessary?"

   "The question or the activity?"

   "Both."

   "The question, yes. It tells me how deep rooted the problem is. As for the activity, it's not required but it is quite common. And you reacted pretty sharply."

   He stiffened, looking at her through narrowed eyes. "I'm not sure I want to continue this conversation."

   "Do you want to be able to make love to your wife?"

   "Yes!"

   "Then we'd better carry on," she responded simply. He shifted, still unwilling to continue, but he didn't actually leave. Henshaw took that as a good sign. "Given what they did to you, I'd guess you're pretty obsessive about cleanliness, especially there, right?" She was trying to be delicate to save his blushes, although a part of her was tempted to come right out and state everything in far more blunt terms.

   "I've always been clean," he returned brusquely.

   "Except when you were in that cell." He frowned but nodded. "It's quite normal for people who've been through this experience to spend hours in the shower, several times a day. I've seen men scrub themselves raw and need a doctor to fix the damage they've inflicted on themselves trying to wash away the memory of what's been done to them."

   Sheridan paled, remembering his own behaviour less than a week earlier. He wasn't quite so bad now, but he had made himself sore the other day. He nodded and the tension left him as he admitted experiencing what she was describing.

   "You know, rationally, you're clean. Now you need to prove to yourself you can get an erection and ejaculate before you try and do it with Delenn. There's too much pressure on you when you're with her. Plus, when you're in the shower you can wash everything away instead of reminding yourself of what happened in the cell."

   A thought struck him. "I wasn't bothered when I was with Delenn last night. I didn't have to dash to the sink to wash my hands when we finished."

   "Because she's not dirty in your mind. It's your own body fluids you're having trouble with, not hers." He nodded. It made sense, in a twisted way, but then his mind was pretty twisted at the moment anyway. "You've got to learn that having an orgasm is nothing to be ashamed of, and you're allowed to give yourself pleasure if you want to. Actually, I'd mandate it before you try and make love to Delenn fully."

   "Whenever I shower," he said quietly, "every time I touch myself I remember what they did. I can't get those images out of my mind."

   "All right, I tell you what. Shower normally -- but try not to hurt yourself," she added, knowing from his reactions what he'd done. "And then just stand under the water and think about whatever turns you on. Don't force it, just let it go. If you get a reaction, great. If you don't, don't worry about it. It *will* come back in time. There's no neural or physical damage, despite what they did. You need to exorcise the demons from your head." He looked at her and the pain in his eyes made her stomach lurch. "Look, you know you'll never forget what happened. You'll carry those memories for the rest of your life."

   "Yeah," he said quietly, his lips tight.

   "But you will learn to control them. They'll no longer occupy your every waking thought. And remember, I'm speaking from experience, here."

   "How long did it take you?"

   "To beat off the worst of them? About a year. To get to the point where I could dismiss them when they were intruding? Longer. But remember, I was only a child when it happened to me. The younger you are when the impression is made, the more it sticks."

   "How long for someone like me?"

   "There *is* no one like you. You're unique, so how long depends on you. I can't give you a time estimate."

   "Can't... or won't?"

   "If I give you a definite time period I won't do you any favours. If it's too long it's depressing. If it's too short and you're not free of them by then, it's equally demoralising. It'll take as long as it takes. I'm afraid you're just going to have to accept that."

   "Six months? A year?" he pressed, refusing to be put off.

   She worked her jaw, reluctant to commit herself but aware he was simply not going to let it drop. "Longer than that. You've made remarkable progress, but even the very best and most responsive patients I've had were still having some trouble up to five years later." He looked down, staring at the floor.  "See? I told you it'd do you no favours. But however long it takes, you'll get there eventually, of that I've no doubt. And five years sounds like a long time, but it isn't when you come to think of it." She smiled, remembering how long five years had seemed when she started medical school... and how fast the final exams had crept up on her.

   He shook his head. "It is. I haven't got that time to waste."

   There was something about the way he said it. A stoically resigned tone that reminded her of patients who'd been told they had a terminal disease. Yet there was no indication in Franklin's reports that there was anything wrong with him. Apart from the mental scars, he'd fully recovered from his ordeal. And then he slowly raised his head and looked at her, holding her eyes in such a way she felt like a rabbit caught in the headlights. And she realised he knew something she didn't. Something that was nothing to do with Clark or his henchmen. Something that had happened before all this started and that had marked him in a way nothing could cure. She'd seen that look before, but never in someone who was so healthy and alive. She shuddered involuntarily and he smiled sadly.

   "It's time to end this," he stated flatly. "I won't waste what I've been given." The last was uttered more to himself. His demeanour altered almost imperceptibly, but she was left with the impression a monumental change had taken place, one determined by will alone. He took a breath and stood up. "Let's get on with this signature. After that, I'll contact Michael. It's time I stopped wallowing in self pity and get on with my life."

   "Whoa! You know what I said about trying to move too fast. You could wreck everything we've achieved so far..."

   "No, I won't. I know that now."

   She shook her head, frightened he was about to make a potentially fatal mistake. "You don't have to do it all at once, you know. I know you're the President, but you're still a human being. You can't push too hard. The human mind doesn't work like that..." she insisted, trying to dissuade him.

   His jaw was set, his eyes steady, revealing not the first suggestion of doubt. "I've got no choice. You were right about my experiences helping me deal with what happened. It's time to use them. I've been so caught up in this I've allowed Clark's men to take another week from me. I'm not going to let them steal any more." With a determined stride he went to the table and sat down. "Let's get that signature settled."

   "John, you're making a mistake. I know what I'm talking about."

   "So do I." He turned, his expression unrelenting. "Trust me," he insisted.

   She wasn't happy, but there was no arguing with him. She hoped whatever it was that would call a halt to his ill-considered haste would be minor enough to fix. Perhaps then he'd listen to her. For now she had to let him learn his own lesson. She picked up her bag and retrieved some papers, all awaiting a signature, but none of any value except as tests. He took the first, picked up a pen and signed, without hesitation, on the bottom. Surprised she offered him another but he shook his head. Using the Babcom he contacted Delenn and asked her if there were any papers requiring his signature. Delenn asserted that yes, there were. He asked her to send Lennier over with them. He was about to shut off the connection when Delenn stopped him.

   "John? What's happened?"

   "A reminder... from Z'ha'dum."

   Henshaw saw Delenn go pale and then nod. Sheridan smiled tightly, telling her he'd meet her for lunch later. Then, taking in her expression, he added, "I love you."

   Delenn nodded. "I know. I love you, too." They gazed at each other until Lennier's arrival with the papers curtailed whatever they might have shared. Nevertheless, Henshaw got the impression more was being said without words than would fill a library.

   Sheridan asked Lennier to wait, sat down and promptly read through and signed each of the papers without pause. At the end he shuffled them together and handed them over to the attaché who bowed and retreated back to Delenn's quarters. Henshaw sat in the armchair watching the proceedings in stunned silence. She'd never seen anything like it. She resolved then and there to ask Franklin to fill her in if the afternoon didn't reveal the truth.

   He turned to her. "Right, let's see if Michael's available."

 

 

 

Chapter 18

 

 

   Garibaldi stared at the Babcom logo, Sheridan having shut down the connection. A part of him was eager to resolve the issues between them. The other part was terrified. At least if they never talked about it there was no danger of him screwing up. Now he had to face it, head on, and he wasn't sure he could handle it. What if he said the wrong thing? What if Sheridan realised Bester hadn't programmed him so much as enhanced what was already there.

   "What if he realises I doubted him anyway?" he muttered to the empty room. Henshaw would be there, perhaps she could stop him from making the wrong move? He grabbed his jacket and tugged it on, doing up the buttons and straightening it with a sharp tug. He felt like he was going into battle and his armour was wholly inadequate to the task. Still, Sheridan had asked, and he'd told Henshaw before if it would help John he'd do it.

   He left his office and made his way towards Sheridan's quarters, mentally rehearsing scenarios. By the time he arrived none of them had worked out well and he'd instead decided on a short speech explaining why it might be better if Sheridan found someone else to be HCO. When the door opened he found Henshaw standing in front of him and the speech was stalled.

   "Uh, I was asked to..."

   "I know. No need to look so nervous, this isn't the inquisition. Come in." She stepped aside and he ducked his head as he crossed the threshold. Sheridan was sitting on the couch. He stood up as Michael walked in and nodded.

   "Michael. Take a seat."

   He looked from Sheridan to Henshaw and back again, and then stuck his hands in his pockets. "If you don't mind, I think I'd rather stand."

   "This isn't a court martial. I want to talk to you, not tear you a new one. We were friends. If we can, I'd like us to be friends again." He indicated the armchair. "Come on, if you don't sit down I'm gonna have to stand, and this could take a while."

   In the face of Sheridan's insistence, and relieved to hear their friendship wasn't automatically headed for the reef, Michael sat down, undoing his jacket. He shifted uncomfortably for a moment and then settled on the edge of the armchair, leaning on his knees.

   Henshaw shook her head and pulled up another chair. Garibaldi looked at her quizzically and she raised a hand. "Before you ask, my job here is to make sure you both say what has to be said. If you want to clear the air between you, you're both going to have to be honest with each other. John, that means no pretending what Michael did was 'nothing'. Michael..." She paused to see if he objected to her using his first name. He shrugged. "For you it means telling John how you feel now and what you want. And you'll listen to each other. No interruptions, nothing until each has had their say. All right?"

   The two men nodded but neither seemed inclined to open up first. She sighed and turned to Sheridan. "Since it was your idea, maybe you'd better go first."

   "Where do I start?" Henshaw opened her mouth but he shook his head. "No, let's start with what I want to say the most. Michael, I'm sorry."

   Garibaldi stared. "You're...?" Henshaw frowned at him and he closed his mouth, but his expression was still one of shock.

   "I mean it. I didn't realise what was going on. I couldn't understand why you'd changed so much but I never bothered to investigate. I tried talking to you but you shut me out every time. Hell, you even landed me one on the jaw in the Zocalo. I kept trying to get answers but every time I got angry because I couldn't get through. With the end of the Shadow War and then the war with Earth I didn't have time... no, I didn't *make* time to figure out what was with you. I figured I'd honked you off somehow, but I didn't know how. And then, when I saw that interview with you on ISN I just shut down. I didn't care any more. I wanted you out of my sight so I could get on with what I wanted to do. What I *had* to do.  Maybe I shouldn't have sent Zack to collect your PPGs and your security cards, but I knew if I tried we'd just end up in a brawl... and you'd made me angry, Michael. Sometimes I wanted to shake you, beat you up and throw you in a cell for the duration until I had time to deal with you." His voice was rising as he remembered his frustrations. Garibaldi stiffened but Henshaw raised a hand, indicating he should hold his peace for a few minutes longer. "When you... when you betrayed me I couldn't believe it. I had to get away from you before I did something I wasn't going to regret. But then Clark's men were waiting and you just sat there. I kept thinking you'd change your mind, get up and help me out but you didn't move. I wanted to yell at you, get you to help me. I just couldn't believe you'd sell me out like that."

   Henshaw braced herself, ready to step in and calm him down again if the memories became too strong. His knuckles were white, his body tense, but he still had control.

   "And then there you were, coming to get me out of that damned cell and I thought 'this has to be a trap. Another of their drug-induced fantasies. It can't be real.' When I got that PPG and there was the security guard trying to fire at me I saw you again, sitting there, letting them take me down, and I kept my finger on the trigger 'til there was nothing left. Somehow it made me feel a little better, and I *knew* you knew how I was feeling. There wasn't time to work out what the hell was going on, but I figured you were with Stephen and Lyta so something must've changed. When Stephen was going over me in the Resistance HQ he told me what'd happened, and Lyta backed it up. I even made her show me what she showed Number One. Without that I don't think I could've ever believed you, ever trusted you again, but after that... everything made sense. That's why I knew I could trust you on Mars, and that's why I made you Head of Covert Operations." He went silent but Henshaw prodded him.

   "That's not all, John," she said, gently. "What about your reactions lately? Explain it to him."

   He shook his head, rubbing at suddenly tired eyes. "It's hard... I... Michael, look, I still had all that inside me. The anger, the hurt... I blamed you for all of it. Even knowing it wasn't your fault I couldn't forget how you turned your back on me. How you put the tranq on me so I couldn't win no matter how hard I tried. How you used my father to get at me. I've let that image haunt me for far too long but it's hard to turn it off. There's a part of me that's still pissed at you; a part of me that still wants revenge, even though I know it wasn't your fault. I knew... I guess I always knew you had your doubts, but you'd never let them get in the way of what we were trying to do."

   Garibaldi's head dropped. Sheridan knew. That was it, then. There was no turning back. But Sheridan hadn't finished.

   "I couldn't believe you'd let Clark win just because you were pissed at me. You let me down... and if it hadn't been for Susan and the others, there'd still be people on Earth going through what I went through." He paused and waited until Garibaldi raised his head, and then he looked him straight in the eye. "I'm not ever going to forgive you, Michael, so don't ask me to." Garibaldi swallowed and nodded, accepting the words at face value. "I'm not going to forgive you because I know you didn't do it. You *couldn't* do it. If I told you I'd forgiven you I'd be saying it was your fault. I'm not going to put that on you. I'm still pissed, but not at you. And I'm not gonna forgive Bester for as long as I live, but I reckon you've got enough hate for the both of us there." He grinned as he saw his words sink in and Garibaldi's eyes widen with understanding.

   Henshaw nodded approvingly and turned to Garibaldi. She noticed his eyes were wet with unshed tears and he rubbed at them with a shaking hand, trying to cover his weakness. "Michael?"

   "I..." He shook his head, clearing his throat. "Thanks," he said at last. "I dunno what else I can say. When Bester let me get control again and I saw what I'd done, I didn't know what to do. At first I just wanted to kill myself. Then I realised if I did that no one would be able to get you out of there, and I had to fix it somehow. If I had to die I wanted to make sure someone knew the truth. I couldn't stand the thought you'd spend the rest of your life thinkin' I'd betrayed you. I had to get you out of there... prove to you it wasn't my fault."

   "And?" Henshaw encouraged softly.

   "You're right. I did have my doubts. I'll always have 'em, but if it hadn't been for Bester... Yeah, that whole messianic thing got me scared, but if I'd been thinkin' clearly..." He shook his head, his throat suddenly thick and his chest tight. "Jeez, I don't know any more! It was still me. Me without the filters. I told Delenn once I was scared what would happen if I ever let go, and Bester showed me what would happen. I'd sell a man I considered my friend to his worst enemy."

   "No, Michael." It was said softly but with a firmness that made the words fill the room. Henshaw went to stop him, to let Michael finish what he had to say but John couldn't stand to see his friend tear himself apart. "You didn't let go. You had no choice. You know what that bastard's like. He'd be cheering to hear you take responsibility for what he did. That's exactly what he wants."

   "You don't understand. He didn't tell me what to do. He just programmed me to work my way into one of the big corporations, but how I did it didn't bother him. I wasn't forced to resign, that was my choice. I wasn't ordered to sell you out: it was the only way to get Edgars to tell me about the telepath virus. Bester didn't tell me to find your father and use him as bait. That was me." He looked up, the tears now flowing freely down his face. "It was all me, don't you understand?!"

   "Better than you, I think," Sheridan assured him. "He gave you an objective that overrode everything else. You used every trick you had to meet that objective, just like you always did for me."

   "But I sold out your dad, John!"

   "Was there any other way to get at me? Was there any other way to get Edgars to give you the information Bester wanted?" He leaned forward. "Think hard, Michael. Was there any. other. way?"

   This was the crunch question and the air lay tense between them as Michael's eyes flickered around the room, his brain seething as he sought an answer. He went over scenarios in his head but all of them were as bad if not worse, and they always ended up the same way: Sheridan in chains at the mercy of Clark's interrogators.

   "No," he said at last. "Edgars wouldn't accept anything else. I had to give you to Clark, and the only way to do that was to capture someone you cared about enough to try and rescue them. Your dad was still on Earth; that made him the easiest target."

   Sheridan nodded. "Like I said, there was no other way. He chose you because you know me."

   Garibaldi groaned. "Which makes me the weak link, can't you see? You can't afford to have someone like me around you, John. They know how to get to me... how to get to you. This Alliance is too important for me to screw it up."

   "The Alliance is too important for me *not* to have you. I need someone like you by my side."

   "Why?!" Garibaldi returned, unable to comprehend Sheridan's reasoning.

   "Because you've already been tested. Because you know how these things work and you'll be able to spot when we're being taken for a ride. You've always been a pain in the ass, Michael, but your instincts are sound." He grinned to take the sting from his words. "You're paranoid and suspicious of just about everyone, but given what we're up against that's the right approach to take. I can't keep up those levels of suspicion the way you can. I don't always see what's right in front of me, and you know what Delenn's like; she always sees the good in everyone. If we're gonna make this work I need someone to ground me. Ivanova's not here any more and Stephen's never had your suspicious nature. You find things out, you've got the contacts I need and you know how to use them. To be honest, I don't think we can do this without you. And..." He paused to make sure Michael was listening, "...I need a friend. Someone who understands what I'm trying to do here but won't let friendship blind him to the facts, or let me ride roughshod over him. Someone who can stand up to me and tell me when I'm screwing up without losing sight of the goal." He released a breath and sat back. "I'm not gonna force you. It's up to you whether you stick with it, but it'll make my job a whole lot harder if you say no."

   Garibaldi released a snort of laughter, wiping tears from his cheek. "So what you're saying is you need a paranoid, suspicious pain-in-the-ass to bad mouth your ideas to your face, and who won't piss off even if you ask him to?"

   "Pretty much," he agreed.

   Garibaldi shook his head. Bemused, surprised, delighted and amazed that, true to Sheridan's maxim, things did work out, he stared at his friend for a while before a grin spread across his face. "I guess I can do that."

   Sheridan laughed and stood up, Garibaldi rising to join him. As their hands met in a firm grip of friendship and reconciliation Sheridan tugged Garibaldi towards him, patting him hard on the back. "Welcome back, Michael," he said, his voice roughened with emotion. "I missed you."

   Unable to come up with an adequate response Garibaldi merely hugged his friend tighter, the smile on his face broad enough to make Henshaw chuckle as she watched the friends finally put aside their differences.

   As they parted Garibaldi said, "So, does this mean you're comin' back to work?"

   "Uh huh. I've been out of this for too long. It's time to get back in the saddle."

   "About time. I never did approve of bosses who take paid vacations!" He grinned and Sheridan returned it.

   "I'll see you at the meeting tomorrow. Let everyone know we're back on track, will you?"

   "Sure thing."

   "Oh, and Michael," he added as Garibaldi turned to go.

   "Yeah?"

   "I gave my coffee away. Do you know where I can get some at short notice? Those meetings send me to sleep!"

   "Well, you know hydroponics never did approve of those plants of Ivanova's," he paused theatrically, "...buuuuuut, now Lochley's got 'em..." He winked and followed it with a conspiratorial shrug. "I reckon I can persuade her to give me some."

   "I'll bet. See you tomorrow."

   Garibaldi turned to Henshaw. "I forgot to say thanks."

   "Don't mention it. It's not like I did much."

   He turned to look at Sheridan for a moment and then gave her a look that made his opinion of her hard work abundantly clear. "Next time you're around look me up. I'll introduce you to my second favourite thing in the universe." With a jaunty wink and feeling as though a ten-ton weight had been lifted from his shoulders Garibaldi left.

   "His second favourite thing?" she asked, turning a confused eye on Sheridan.

   "Don't ask. Delenn's still trying to pick the popcorn out of her teeth!" He took a deep breath. "I guess you'd better get back to Earth."

   "Now hold on a minute. I still can't figure out what's going on here. I've never seen anyone turn around so fast and I'm not convinced it's going to last. I think I should hang around for a while just in case."

   "You're welcome to stay as long as you want, but I'll warn you now things get pretty hectic around here once the wheels start grinding again. This place on a roll makes the last week look like a piece of cake."

   "There's still that one matter you haven't resolved," she reminded him.

   "I know. But that's gonna change too."

   "Just like that, huh?" She frowned, thinking he was pushing too hard.

   "No, not just like that. It'll take a little while longer, but before the end of next week these past days'll be nothing but a bad dream."

   "John, I don't want to put a damper on your enthusiasm..."

   "Then don't. Trust me on this. I know what I'm doing... really. Look, why don't you come around for dinner on Thursday? I'd suggest earlier but the first day back on the job is going to leave me pretty busy for a while, catching up and all that. If you see any sign I'm regressing you can call a halt, okay?"

   Still not happy, but seeing no way to prevent him from carrying out his plans, Henshaw nodded. "All right, next Thursday it is. And I'm holding you to that promise."

   "I'd expect nothing less. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a lot of paperwork to catch up on and I need to get to my office. Why don't you take a look around the station? I doubt you've seen much of it in the last few days. Or would you like me to contact the Hel Fi and see if they'll let you take a look at a Minbari ship?"

   She couldn't suppress the thrill that went through her. No one she knew back on Earth had ever been inside of one of those 'Angel fish' ships as she called them. If there was a way to get aboard one she wasn't about to turn it down.

   He grinned. "Hang on a minute." He turned to the Babcom, called up C&C and got them to patch him through to the Hel Fi. A few moments later everything had been arranged, Survaal having been designated her guide.

   "It would be our pleasure, Mr. President," the Minbari Captain assured him. "It's the least we can do to thank Dr. Henshaw for her hard work of the past few days. We'll send a shuttle over to collect her. Would an hour be sufficient time?"

   Sheridan looked at Henshaw who nodded, still not quite believing it was happening. "That'll be fine, Captain. She'll be waiting for you. Sheridan out." He turned back and grinned. "Has to be some benefit of being the President. You'd better get yourself ready and down to the gate. I'll see you on Thursday."

   "Just remember, if anything happens I can be back here in minutes," she reminded him.

   "I know. Now go on."

   Still not sure this was such a good idea, but unable to refuse Sheridan's gentle but insistent hand on her shoulder, guiding her to the door, she acquiesced. She really wouldn't be that far away, and there was no point in hanging around her quarters waiting for the bubble to burst. It was a pleasant way to pass the time until she was needed again and, truth to tell, she *did* want to see inside that ship.

   As the door closed behind her Sheridan turned back to the empty room and took a deep breath. For the first time in a week he could see the way ahead clearly again. The little nagging voice of doubt whispered in his mind. A last, dying gasp before it surrendered to the overwhelming roar of renewed confidence. Yes, there *was* that last matter, but he wasn't going to let anything stand in his way now. He'd deal with it once he'd got the worst of the backlog sorted out. It was just as important as everything else he'd deal with today, but work had to come first.

   He went into his room, changed, returned to the Babcom to contact Lochley and ask her to meet him in his office, and then called Delenn. He had just over an hour before lunch and he wanted to work through the break to catch up. He suggested they eat in his office.

   "What would you like? I can collect something from one of the cafes," she said.

   "Oh, anything. Something quick." He thought for a second and then added, "Uh, but let's not push it too far. If all they've got are corned beef sandwiches, forget it!"

   She smiled and nodded. "I understand. I will see you then. Good luck, John."

   "Thanks."

   He took the transport tube and walked to his office. As he passed crewmembers many nodded and smiled to see him up and about once more. As he was about to turn the corner he heard a familiar voice and groaned.

   "Mr. President! Mr. President!"

   He turned to see the short, sweating man breathlessly trying to catch up with him. "Mr. Clarke," he smiled ingratiatingly. "What can I do for you?"

   "Do you know what happened to me before?" Clarke wheezed, trying to catch his breath. "Those goons threw me in the brig!"

   He raised an eyebrow. "Really? On what charge?"

   "Harassment. I wasn't harassing you! I just wanted an autograph!"

   "As I recall you were rather insistent in the face of several people trying to point out to you I wasn't well," he responded coolly.

   "With all due respect," Clarke replied in a tone that implied the exact opposite, "if you weren't feeling well what were you doing wandering around here?"

   He drew himself up to his full height, making Clarke suddenly feel rather insignificant. "This is the main station corridor, Mr. Clarke. If I want to get from one part of the station to the other I have very little choice shy of using an EVA suit or risking Downbelow. And while I've no doubt the security guards on this station could protect me from those who might consider the President a welcome target, they have better things to do than baby-sit me. Now, did you want something?" His tone was cool, crisp and defied Clarke to argue with him. This wasn't the shaking man Clarke had encountered a few days before. Suddenly the souvenir hunter remembered who he was dealing with.

   "Uh, well, it was that... um, autograph...?"

   As the man rummaged in his pockets to pull out the book Sheridan saw Garibaldi wander up behind him and grin, shaking his head. Sheridan raised an eyebrow and Garibaldi pointed at Clarke's back, put his hand palm flat above the floor to indicate a child and then waved it aside. Sheridan nodded his understanding as Clarke produced his book and a pen.

   "Amelia, wasn't it?" Sheridan asked, flicking open the book. He paused, pen poised. "Or was it Amanda? Or maybe Angela?"

   "She won't mind if it's not personalised," the man insisted.

   "Oh yes, I remember, Angelica. The daughter you haven't got." He waited as the man froze and then looked up slowly. Garibaldi wandered over, placing a heavy hand on Clarke's shoulder.

   "Now you wouldn't be tryin' to scam the President, would you Clarke?" he asked in a deceptively friendly tone. "Not getting another autograph you can sell to the highest bidder?" He leaned closer as Sheridan closed the book and clicked the pen shut. "You know, I've been doing a little digging since your last stay in our facilities. You get one of every autograph, but you sell two hundred, and all of them 'authentic'. Does the word fraud ring a bell?" To be sure, it was a minor crime, and a miracle Clark made a living at all with his souvenir business if that was all it involved. But Clarke knew, and Garibaldi knew, autographs were a minor (if easy) side to his business. The man specialised in counterfeits of every description, be it something as simple as an autograph to as complicated as credit chits, security passes or rare antiques.

   The colour drained from Clarke's face and Sheridan held out the pen and book. "You might need these. I'm sure you can find a use for them. Now if you'll excuse me, I have work to do." He winked at Garibaldi and left, making it the rest of the way to his office without interruption. People nodded, some even bowed, which he found distasteful, but suddenly everyone seemed to realise this was not a man you bothered on a whim. He smiled to himself. Just as it should be.

 

 

 

Chapter 19

 

 

   He worked until Delenn arrived. She had a folder of reports under one arm and a bag in the other. The contents of the latter were revealed to be a selection of Minbari snacks. Sheridan chuckled at her choice and took a bite out of one of them before returning to his paperwork. They discussed some matters to do with the deployment of the Rangers and she left the appropriate orders on his desk for him to sign.

   "My quarters tonight?" she asked as she prepared to leave.

   "Uh, no. I need to finish catching up and then a good night's sleep. I still haven't quite mastered those beds of yours." He gave her an apologetic grin. "Maybe tomorrow night?" She nodded, pleased to see him back in control. The rest could wait. "Oh, and I invited Janet to dinner on Thursday. Just a thank you before she goes back to Earth. I hope that's okay?"

   "Of course. It's the least we can do. Where is she, anyway?"

   "On the Hel Fi. Survaal's giving her the guided tour. You should have seen her eyes light up when I suggested it." He chuckled. "She'll have a rare time telling everyone back home she's been on a Minbari War Cruiser."

   "It is not an honour bestowed on many non-Minbaris, but I think she appreciates its value."

   "I'm sure of it."

   She hesitated and he frowned. "What's the matter?"

   "I was wondering... Do you wish that I stay in my own room tonight, or..."

   He smiled and stood up, stepping around his desk to put his arms about her waist. "I said I needed a good night's sleep. Now how am I supposed to do that in an empty bed, hmm?" He leaned down and placed a light kiss on her lips. "It's the angle that's defeating me, not the company."

   "I will have to teach you the meditations," she smiled.

   "Um hmm. Just not this week, huh? I'll get the hang of it, I promise you."

   A sound outside warned them of someone's approach and they pulled apart. Captain Lochley arrived with a large folder and Sheridan groaned. "Are those the updates I asked for?"

   "Yes sir, every one of them." She put it on the table.

   Sheridan eyed it for a moment and then turned back to Delenn. "I may be a little late tonight."

   She chuckled. "I'll be waiting. Do not overtax yourself," she pressed, tapping his chest lightly. She nodded to Lochley and left.

   When she was gone he returned to his chair. "What about the rest of it?" he asked, flipping open the folder.
"That's the lot."

   He frowned. "There has to be more than this. What about the stuff from Mars and Earth? I know President Luchenko wanted to go over the independence ratification after the ballot."

   "That's *next* week," she reminded him.

   He closed his eyes and uttered a general thank you to the universe as a whole. Lochley grinned, appreciating his relief.

   "Will there be anything else, Mr. President?"

   He was already glancing over the first report and didn't look up. "No, thank you Captain. That'll be all."

   She contemplated his expression. No signs of stress or worry beyond what was perfectly normal in the job; whatever Henshaw had done she'd earned her reputation. "It's good to see you back, sir."

   He paused and looked up. "Thank you, Captain. It's good to *be* back."

   She turned smartly and left as Sheridan nodded to himself and moved on to the next page.

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

   He'd been working for three hours when the silence was shattered by screaming sirens and flashing lights. He jumped, the stylus making a scrawl across the page as his hand shook violently. "What the...?!" He was about to tap his link when Garibaldi came hurtling around the corner.

   "Mr. President, are you okay?" he shouted, breathless from his dash.

   "I'm fine," Sheridan yelled over the din. "What the hell's going on around here?!"

   Garibaldi went to reply but his voice was drowned out by the siren. He shook his head and yelled out "TEST!" at the top of his lungs. Sheridan frowned and then stuck his fingers in his ears, motioning for Garibaldi to do the same. If it was just a test it would go off again in a minute or so, and there was no point in trying to shout explanations to each other. He went back to his chair and sat down, risking the deafening of one ear so that he could retrieve the stylus, but his hand hesitated over the page. Garibaldi walked to the desk and saw the wrecked signature. A hole opened in his stomach as he envisioned a return to Sheridan's previous state. After all that hard work, to have it destroyed by a piece of bad timing seemed the ultimate cruelty.

   Delenn appeared in the doorway and crossed the room with quick steps. Sheridan had put down the stylus once more, covering his ears and closing his eyes. As she reached the table and witnessed what Garibaldi already feared the alarms went silent and the room was restored to its usual illumination.

   "John?" she cried as Sheridan maintained his position. She moved around the table. "John!" she repeated, reaching for him.

   He shook his head quickly. "Wait!" he insisted.

   She was about to force him to uncover his ears and listen to her when the sirens suddenly started up again. The effect lasted less than five seconds before it shut down once more. Now Sheridan lowered his hands and opened his eyes, grinning up at her.

   "That system always insists on having the last word when you switch it off the test mode," he explained.

   Delenn was so relieved she burst out laughing, Garibaldi joining her with a chuckle. "I'd forgotten about that," he admitted.

   "But why?" she asked, resting her hand lightly on Sheridan's shoulder.

   "Some kind of bug in the software we never could figure out," he explained, covering her hand and giving it a squeeze. "I'm fine," he added, reassuring her. "What are you doing here?"

   "I called her," Garibaldi explained. "I had nothing else to do and was looking over the schedule changes when I saw they were going to do the final test this afternoon. No one expected you to be back so soon and it took a while for maintenance to fix all the glitches. When I realised what was going to happen I tried to contact you but you weren't accepting any calls." Sheridan nodded. He'd put the Babcom into diagnostic mode while he finished up the papers. "So I thought I'd better get Delenn down here just in case..." He indicated the spoiled signature.

   Sheridan looked down. "Well you'd jump too if several hundred decibels went off in your left ear when you weren't expecting it!" he returned, activating the personal key code to set the pen to erase before resigning the document.

   Lochley and Franklin appeared in the doorway within a hair's breadth of each other. "Everyone all right here?" Franklin asked, his attention solidly rooted on Sheridan.

   He sighed, shaking his head. "Yes, I'm fine. We're all fine. I think my heart's beating about ten times faster than it should be, and I've probably got a few more grey hairs from the shock, but apart from that..." He let his eyes move across the concerned faces of his friends. "I'm genuinely flattered that you all came rushing to check up on me, but really and truly, I am fine. And once I finish this lot..." he tapped the thin sheaf of flimsies, "I'll be even better. So if you don't mind...?"

   Garibaldi grinned. "Yep, he's back to normal. Well in that case, I'll see you later." He turned and left, Lochley nodding and following him out. Franklin paused and Sheridan raised an eyebrow. The doctor shrugged, making a mental note to arrange dinner with Henshaw so he could find out how she'd managed to stabilise him so quickly and so thoroughly.

   Delenn did not leave. Instead she pulled up a chair and sat opposite him, waiting for him to finish. He checked two more papers before he released a groan and looked up. "Delenn..."

   "Why?" she said softly.

   He stopped, confused. "Why what?"

   "Why did it take a week to remember what you already knew?"

   He put the stylus down thoughtfully and placed his hands together on the desk. "It's not that easy," he said at last. "All this had been building up until something had to give. I had to go through that to get it out of my system. Like a reactor that isn't given a vent. Sooner or later it blows, and you can't just cap it when it does. You have to let it go, then fix the pressure regulator so it doesn't build up like that again." He released a sigh and looked up. "I forgot to let it go before. Thought I could keep the lid on it while I was dealing with everything else, but it doesn't work like that. I've released the pressure now, and I know the signs that it's time to take a break. But the regulator is Lorien's gift; the reminder that I can't afford to waste my time. Not here..." and he indicated the trappings of his presidential office before standing up and walking around the desk to her, "...and not with you." He smiled and pulled her to her feet, embracing her tightly. "I'm sorry we had to go through that," he whispered, tucking her head under his chin, "but maybe, in some strange way, it's a good thing. I was shutting you out. I shouldn't have done that, and we both paid the price." He nuzzled his cheek against her hair. "I won't let it happen again. You're too important to me." He pressed his lips to her head, inhaling her perfume as he kissed her before pulling back and holding her eyes with his own. "And I love you too much to risk losing you."

   She put her hands around his neck as he pulled her to him, losing themselves in a kiss that was long and deep. For a little while nothing else mattered except each other; two souls standing brightly side by side against the darkness that lay ahead.

   At last they pulled apart and he gave her a small smile, nodding towards his desk. "I have to finish that. See you later?"

   "Of course," she replied, placing her palm against his cheek. Words weren't necessary to express her feelings. He could see them all in her eyes. He nodded in silent understanding and released her. She walked to the door, turning to look at him before leaving. "Later," she mouthed, and was gone.

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

   When he arrived in his quarters several hours later they were empty. A message from Lennier informed him Delenn had been requested to handle a border dispute at the last minute and would return as soon as the meeting was finished. He grimaced but accepted the necessities of her post, just as she had accepted his. He undid his jacket and walked into the bedroom, hanging it up in the wardrobe and then undoing his cuffs. He sat on the edge of the bed thinking about all that had happened as he rolled back his sleeves and loosened his collar. It had been a trying time for everyone, but his friends had rallied around to see him through. He was grateful for that. He smiled, remembering the incidents of the afternoon. They were good people, and better friends a man couldn't ask for.

   He rubbed his eyes. Had it only been this morning he'd finally found the key to unlocking the manacles Clark's people had snapped on his mind? It seemed a lifetime ago. And there was still that last matter that had yet to be resolved. His gaze shifted to the bathroom. Lennier's call had been sent less than forty minutes ago and meetings on border disputes could go on for hours. He shifted and looked at the bed. Last night had been good, for both of them, but it could be better he knew. He closed his eyes and let his mind savour the memory of her reactions. He concentrated on it and then cast further back -- Shon Fal, their first time together as husband and wife... He felt a vague stirring from his groin and made up his mind. It was time to see if his libido recognised the urgency of living that the rest of his body and mind now accepted. Besides, it had been a long day and a shower would do him good.

   He stripped off, dropping his clothes in the recycler, and padded his way to the bathroom. As the hot water cascaded over tired muscles he felt himself relax. He washed his hair and then lathered the soap, working across his body in a manner that had become ingrained over the years. All the time he thought of Delenn... and then he chuckled, remembering Henshaw's offer of magazines if he needed any help. When you had someone like Delenn as a partner, the magazines paled into insignificance. Besides, no magazine he knew of covered Shon Fal.

   He felt the blood fill and swell his penis as he recalled that night. He'd learned a lot about himself as well as her in the course of that ritual, and all of it was substance for his present daydreaming. He reached down to stroke himself, releasing a groan of pleasure as he did so. His flesh hardened under his touch and he smiled. Maybe this, too, would be resolved before the end of the day.

   He leaned against the back wall of the shower, the water running down his chest and across his hand as he rubbed harder, images of his wife surging through his mind. 'Lucky man,' he thought idly, 'to have your wife as your favourite pin up and erotic fantasy!' A low growl escaped him as he neared the point of no return and then, suddenly, just when everything seemed to be perfect, white hot pain shot through him like a knife and he cried out, staggering. He released himself as though he'd been burned, bracing his hands on the wet tiles against the pain. His erection forgotten and rapidly failing, he squeezed his eyes shut against tears that sprang unbidden to the fore. Slowly he slid down the tiles until he sat on the floor of the shower, his tears mixing with the water that still flowed from above.

   Everything had been going so well. How could it have gone so wrong now, and on a matter that was just as important, if not more so, than all the others? He searched his mind for an answer but was rewarded by silence. The voice that had taunted him before was mute and none offered to take its place, so why?

   Perhaps it was a glitch? He hadn't tried anything like this since his system had overloaded and forced him to deal with his problems. Well, apart from that disastrous night with Delenn, but then he hadn't even been able to get hard, let alone climax. Nervously, but with growing determination he touched himself again, slowly regaining his erection and encouraging it. He called on an old but well-established fantasy. No names or faces, just sounds and feelings, slick wetness and throbbing heat. With steady strokes he brought himself to the edge, a drop of semen welling up to be washed away by the shower. It was going to work, he'd be able to make love to Delenn...

   The pain tore through him again, doubling him over. He clutched his groin as another wave of fire burned him, leaving him gasping and afraid. It had been fine until he fastened once more on the thought of Delenn. Surely it wasn't her? It couldn't be her!

   "What's wrong with me?" he whispered, then cried out, "What the hell's wrong with me!?" slamming his body against the tiles in anger and frustration.

   The door to the bathroom opened and Delenn was there. She opened the shower door and turned off the water. Ignoring the damage it would cause to her dress she knelt down beside him. She'd heard his cry and entered, wondering what had gone wrong. Now she found him curled on the floor, shaking his head as his body shook with barely controlled sobs.

   "What is it? What happened?" she asked, doing her best in the cramped conditions to hold him.

   "I tried," he choked out through gritted teeth. "I wanted us to be together tonight... like it used to be. But I..." He shook his head and tried to stand up. She helped him, reaching for a towel he could wrap around himself as he stepped out of the small shower stall and make his way to the bedroom. He sat down heavily on the edge of the bed, his head cradled in his hands. She removed her now soaked dress and slipped into the simple brown one she used on the White Star, watching him as he struggled to fathom what had happened.

   "I can't work it out," he said as she sat down beside him and wrapped her arm around his shoulders. "All the stuff that was stopping me before... the voices... they've all gone. But when I thought about making love to you." He shuddered and she held him tighter. "Oh God, the pain!"

   She frowned. "I'm going to call Stephen. Perhaps Clark's men did something..."

   He shook his head. "No, it's not that. And he's examined me out a dozen times... more!" He turned to her. "Janet suggested I check myself out. See if I could still do it before I tried to make love to you. Everything was fine until I was about to come and then..."

   She searched for an answer. "What were you thinking about... just at that moment. Was there anything...?"

   "No! I was thinking about you... about how good it would feel to make love to you again... and the next thing I knew... It was like a white-hot poker. I don't understand it... there was nothing!" His eyes were wide with remembered pain and utter confusion.

   "I will call Janet. If it is not biological it has to be mental."

   "But there was nothing!" he insisted. "No images, no flashbacks, no voices, nothing!"

   "She may know what is going on. I will only be a moment." He nodded and she left him, using the terminal in the living room to give him time to dress.

   When Henshaw received the call she was still on a high from her trip around the Minbari ship. Her face fell as Delenn invoked secure mode and then explained what had happened, inasmuch as she was able.

   "I'll be right there." Henshaw snapped off the connection and grabbed up Sheridan's session notes from his incarceration. Was there anything that might be a clue? She'd read them a hundred times already but could she have missed something? She tucked them under her arm and made her way to his quarters. Delenn was waiting for her and the door opened quickly.

   "Where is he?" Henshaw asked without preamble, dropping the notes on the table.

   "In the bedroom," Delenn replied, walking with Henshaw to the partition.

   Sheridan was still sitting on the side of the bed, head down, but he'd shrugged into his dressing gown to maintain some semblance of decorum. Henshaw knelt down in front of him as Delenn sat beside him. He quickly sought his wife's hand, holding it tightly in his own.

   "You remember nothing?" Henshaw asked gently.

   He shook his head. "Nothing. If there were some association, something I could nail down I'd be able to handle it, but this? It's like there's a blank wall. Everything's suddenly blocked and then there's pain."

   "A block? Think back, John. Try to remember. We know they used electrodes on you. Could it have something to do with that? Is it the same pain?"

   "I don't know. I remember them putting them there... but it's vague. And I don't remember them using them. On my neck and while I was in the chair... they used shocks then, but not..." He frowned, his face screwed up in intense concentration as he tried to push past the silence to find an answer. "No," he finally said, expelling a rush of air. "I can't remember."

   "It's blocked somehow," Henshaw said, watching him. "They did something to him that's not in the reports and it's been blocked. Whether by him, because it's too painful to remember, or by a telepath, I don't know." She sat back on her haunches, thinking out loud. "You've got everything else under control. I don't know how but you've done it. If the alarm this afternoon couldn't faze you I don't think anything else will." Garibaldi had contacted her at the same time he'd called the others, preparing her for the worst. When he'd called back a few minutes later to tell her everything was fine she'd been amazed. She'd felt sure this would be the catalyst for a major relapse, but instead he'd not only flown through with flying colours, he'd even managed to remember a detail no one else had. "So whatever this is, it's specific. A piece of mental programming that's buried deep, that's completely independent of everything else."

   He looked up slowly. "It was Delenn," he said quietly.

   "What?" Henshaw asked as Delenn turned shocked eyes on him.

   "I tried again... after it happened the first time," he explained. "I wanted to get things going again fast so I fell back on an old fantasy, from before we met." He turned to her, slightly ashamed of admitting having any other fantasy but her. "It's always worked before. Nothing specific, no names or faces, just general images. Everything was fine and then I switched to thinking of you. I wanted you in my mind when... when I..." He shook his head, embarrassed to be talking about it. "That's when the pain hit," he finished in a quiet and confused tone.

   Henshaw clicked her teeth and then stood up. "Have you got a good telepath aboard? Someone you can trust? Have to be a pretty high rating too. This nut's not going to be easy to crack."

   Delenn turned to him. "Lyta?" she suggested.

   He shook his head. "Not this. I don't want anyone else involved. It's too damn personal."

   "Well, I can't do anything. Short of injecting you with hypnotic drugs and trying to get it out that way." He looked up sharply. "Exactly. I don't want to do that, but I don't think we've got much choice. It's up to you, John. Do you trust this Lyta enough?" She paused, rolling the name around in her head. "Is this the same Lyta who busted you out of that cell?" He resumed his contemplation of the floor and nodded slowly. "Well, if she's strong enough I'd say she's your best bet."

   "She's a P5," he said softly.

   "Officially," Delenn reminded him. "We both know she can stop Bester."

   "Bester? The Psi cop?" Delenn nodded. "In that case she's got the talent and the attitude for the job."

   "She knows you, John. She has helped us before. If it must be a telepath, Lyta is the only one."

   "I know... I know, damn it!  I just... I don't want anyone else to see what they did to me in there. And not this... whatever it is."

   "Even as an official P5 she's been trained for this kind of thing. Clinical work is part of a P5's standard fare. If she didn't actually work in any of the psychiatric hospitals she'd still have been taught what to expect and how to deal with it. She knows what to do and she'd respect your privacy. Psi Corps rules..."

   "She's a rogue. Psi Corps rules don't apply to her any more," he responded.

   Henshaw was starting to get annoyed. "Well, I told you what the choices are. Now it's up to you. Either you let her get inside your head and find out what's causing the problem, or we use drugs and go in that way, or you put up with it. There aren't any other options."

   He nodded. "I know. The drugs... would they work?"

   "Not as well as a telepath, and they may cause some residual effects for a week or so. More vivid dreams, perhaps a waking flashback..." He shuddered. "It depends how much we have to use to break through, and I won't know that until we start. Given how firmly you seem to be locking it away I think the dosage would be quite high. And if it was a Psi Corps planted block it won't matter how much we use, it won't get through."

   "John," Delenn said quietly. "It *is* up to you. I want to be with you fully, but if it causes you pain I will not. You do not have to put yourself through this if you don't want to."

   He shook his head. "No. This has to be dealt with, same as the rest. And there's something... I don't know... malicious about this one. The rest was general but this is specific, and it's about you. I have to deal with it." He took a deep breath and pulled himself upright. He had no choice. "Call Lyta, see if she'll do it. We'll pay her, of course. I wouldn't put it past Psi Corps to do something to keep me away from you, especially under Clark's orders. Might as well go for the big guns right from the start."

   "It's late. Perhaps it would be better to deal with this in the morning?"

   Henshaw nodded. "I know you want to get it all done and over with, but this is going to be tough even for a powerful telepath. It's exhausting and she'll need to prepare. Call her, by all means, but deal with it in the morning when you're both fresh. It's better all round."

   Sheridan growled but nodded. "All right, but first thing. I've got work to do tomorrow."

   Henshaw sighed at his stubbornness but acquiesced as Delenn went to make the call.

 

 

 

Chapter 20

 

 

   Henshaw had left, reluctantly, after the arrangements had been made, asking Delenn to call her if there was any suggestion of a problem during the night. After she'd gone the couple had eaten a light dinner, both lost in their own thoughts.

   "You're sure she'll do it?" he asked as they cleared away. He was vaguely uneasy with the idea. Not just because of the usual 'normals' objection to having someone privvy without restriction to one's most private and intimate thoughts and feelings, though that was bad enough. No, there was something else on the edge of his perception that he couldn't quite put his finger on.

   Delenn nodded. "She will be here at oh six hundred hours. It was the earliest she was prepared to do." Noticing his discomfort she placed her hand on his chest. "John, perhaps you should cancel your meetings for tomorrow..."

   He shook his head. "No. I've told everyone we're back on schedule. If I pull out now it'll send the wrong message to the Alliance members. You know what they're like. One sniff of doubt and they all fall apart."

   She grimaced. "I know, but still..."

   He covered her hand. "I'll be all right, I promise. I've got control of everything else. Once this one's out in the open..." He frowned. "I'm still not happy about having Lyta rummaging around in here," he added, tapping his head. "I wish there was another way. Well... another way that would work as fast."

   "But you know there isn't." She dropped her head and he placed a finger under her chin, forcing her to look up.

   "What's wrong?"

   "I wish you were not in such a hurry."

   "You don't want us to get back together?"

   "Of course I do! I'm just... worried."

   "About Lyta?"

   "No, not that. As Janet said, she is a trained professional. Lyta knows what she is doing."

   "What then?"

   She turned away. "I don't know. Everything else... this feels different. I don't like it."

   "Imagine what it feels like from this side!" He rested his hands on her shoulders and kissed the top of her head. "That's why I have to do this. I have to know what they've done. If there's anything else in there... I have to know, Delenn." He slipped his hands down her arms and wrapped them around her waist, nuzzling her neck. "Just be there for me, huh?"

   She turned in his arms. "Always," she assured him.

   He smiled. "Come on," he murmured, nodding towards the partition. "Let's get some sleep. I think I'm going to need it."

   *******************************

   He was in a corridor somewhere. He wasn't sure where. Delenn was standing in front of him. She drew him down, her lips fastening on his. It was a passionate, fevered kiss, but he couldn't work out why. He held her tightly, his hands pressing her against his body as he moved across her cheek and down her neck. As he reached her shoulder he suddenly realised he was no longer holding a woman, but instead a cardboard cut-out. He reared back and the cut-out fell to the floor.

   He looked up and realised he wasn't in a corridor any more. Fog swirled at his feet and in every direction there was darkness.

   "Delenn?" he called out. Silence. "Delenn, where are you?" He turned around slowly trying to find out where she was and what was going on.

   "John!"

   He turned back to see her standing in a single beam of light. He hurried towards her. "I'm coming. Delenn, what's wrong?" She didn't move, just stood there in the light calling to him. As he reached her, steel bars appeared between them, blocking his way. He looked to the left and right but there was no end to them. He looked up and they disappeared into the darkness above. He gripped them in both hands, trying to force his way through but they would not give. He reached through them to touch her, but even though she wasn't walking she was moving farther away.

   "Don't leave! I need you. Delenn, come back. I love you."

   "You cannot love me. It's not right."

   "It *is* right. Come back." He pushed harder and the bars vanished and she was in front of him again.

   "Don't touch me. I cannot be trusted. I lied to you. I will hurt you. Stay away from me, John."

   "What kind of nonsense is that? You wouldn't hurt me. We love each other." She turned away and he caught her arm, pulling her back to him. "Delenn, what are you doing?"

   "I will hurt you. Stay away." She struggled in his arms but he pulled her tighter, forcing his mouth against hers. She smelled wrong, clinical, but it didn't matter. He felt himself harden as she struggled against him and he pressed his tongue between her lips. Still she fought but he would not let her go. He knew if he did she would never come back. He had to get through to her, become one with her... if that meant he would force himself on her then so be it.

   He stopped, stunned by the thought. Rape her? He would never do that. He couldn't do that. But now she was encouraging him, stroking him, her hand pressed against his groin, her tongue deep in his mouth. He surrendered to her touch willingly, his body responding without thought.

   Pain! Agonising, burning pain. He stepped back and stared down. There was blood pouring from his stomach and she held a knife in her dripping hands. "I told you I would hurt you," she said calmly, walking away.

   He fell to his knees, clutching his stomach. "Delenn, what's happening?" he pleaded, confused and shocked. No matter how he tried to staunch the flow it grew, covering his hands in a rich crimson as his life spurted from the wound and pooled on the floor. Suddenly she was standing there again, a Denn'bok in her hands.

   "I told you," she smiled, "You cannot trust me. I am an alien. Humans and aliens do not belong together." As she raised the pike she was no longer the Delenn he knew. She was as she had been before the chrysalis. "You must stay away from aliens, Sheridan. They will kill you." She brought the pike crashing down.

   *******************************

   He woke, crying out her name, his hands clutched over the pain that still burned inside.

   "Lights!"

   He blinked in the sudden brightness to see Delenn, his Delenn, in her nightdress sitting up beside him. It was she who had ordered the lights to snap him out of his nightmare, she who now wiped the sweat from his forehead with gentle but worried hands. "It was a nightmare, John. You're safe. I wouldn't hurt you, I would never hurt you. Shh. It was a nightmare."

   The pain was fading and he risked removing his hands. No blood, no mark, he was whole and unharmed. He groaned and pulled her to him, inhaling the scent of her perfume and burying his face in her hair.

   "Oh my God, what have they done to me?" he moaned as she rocked him gently, trying to calm the headlong rush of his racing heart.

   "Shh. We will find out. I am here and I will not harm you. Shh." She had been disturbed by his cries as he slept and had tried to wake him, but to no avail. She couldn't work out why he would think she would harm him, but now she found her resolve hardening. Whatever it was, they would have their answer in the morning. Whatever Clark had planned for his final assault she would not let him win. She continued to rock and gentle her husband until he fell into a fitful sleep while she watched over him.

   ********************************

   "Mr. President." Lyta nodded and stepped inside. Dr. Henshaw was already there, talking to Delenn. Sheridan himself looked distracted and tired. Apparently, he'd had a disturbed night.

   "Thank you for coming. I'm... sorry I had to ask you, but..."

   She raised her hand. "That's fine. I understand. Besides," she forced a smile, "you're paying. Right now I can certainly use the work."

   He grunted and looked around. "I've never done anything like this before, 'though I've seen it done of course. And I heard what you did for Michael."

   "Then you know it can be painful."

   "So I gather. Uh, should I sit at the table or...?"

   "Mr. President," she interrupted. "First of all I want you to know that whatever I find will not go beyond these walls."

   "Thanks for that."

   "Secondly, there are rather a lot of people in here. You might want this to be private?"

   "Dr. Henshaw has been helping me deal with Clark's legacy since all this started. As for Delenn, it concerns her directly. She should be here."

   "All right," she nodded. It was his decision and if he was happy with an audience then so be it. "As long as you understand telepathic scans of this nature often reveal things you don't want to hear. They can be pretty devastating."

   He hesitated and Henshaw stood up. "She's right, John. As much as I want to know what they did, it's your call. Don't feel obliged to include me. Given the subject I'll quite understand if you'd rather I wasn't here."

   He considered for a moment, his eyes flicking between Henshaw and Delenn. It was the latter who solved the problem. "Janet and I will be in my quarters, John. If you need us you only have to call." She stood up.

   "No, wait." He raised his hand and they paused. He looked from Lyta to the others and back again, then he released a breath and nodded. "You're right, of course." He snorted. "Guess I'm a little nervous. I'll, uh, I'll call you... when it's over." He looked questioningly at Delenn.

   "I won't be far away," she told him. "You will be all right."

   "Yeah." He didn't sound convinced but he made no further move to arrest their departure. When they were gone and the door closed he engaged the lock and put the Babcom unit into a self test routine to prevent interruptions. Lyta watched all this silently, waiting for him to finish. "What... ah. What do I do, here? I mean... what do you..."

   "My aim is to break down the barrier so you can see what's causing the problem for yourself," she explained, correctly interpreting his meaning.

   He nodded, his eyes flicking back to the door. "Right. " Lyta unnerved him, and so did this final mystery buried deep in his psyche that she was preparing to release. If he had to lose it -- and he very much feared he would -- he'd rather do so in the company of those who could pull him back from the brink. 'But they're not far away,' he reminded himself. "All right. I'm ready."

   "Very well," Lyta returned, her tone businesslike and formal. "Now, it's easier on both of us if you're relaxed. Where do you feel most comfortable?"

   He went to the couch. "Would it be easier if I lay down?"

   "It's not necessary. Do whatever you think will help you to relax."

   "Under the circumstances I'm not sure anything would work." He contemplated the couch. He'd had reason to sleep on it in the past and knew it wasn't long enough to accommodate his tall frame. He opted to sit.

   Lyta pulled up a chair and sat in front of him, taking a deep breath and trying to find that centre of self she would need as a refuge if things got bad. After all, this wasn't just anyone she was dealing with. John Sheridan had carried a piece of Kosh around in him for some time, then a part of the first of the First Ones, and there were still features of that last encounter she didn't understand. He'd been through things no one survived, and yet here he was. She seriously doubted his mind would be normal... by anyone's standards.

   He was watching her carefully. She gave him a slight half smile and then nodded. "Okay, do your best not to fight it. The more you try and resist the harder it will be."

   "That sounds disturbingly familiar," he muttered.

   "I know. I'm sorry," she admitted, ducking her head in apology. "Are you ready?"

   He squared his shoulders. "As I'll ever be."

   She concentrated, reaching out with her mind to touch his. She searched for him and found... nothing. If she closed her eyes and reached out there was a blank space where there should have been the confused mass of thoughts that indicated a telepathically untrained human mind. To all intents and purpose, he didn't exist.

   "Mr. President... I think you're blocking me." This was not something any normal human should be able to do, and certainly not to her. Worse, the way it was working wasn't even like a telepathic block. She could see him, was close enough to touch him, but to her telepathic senses he simply wasn't there.

   "I'm not doing anything," he replied gruffly. "Try again."

   She bit her lower lip and then leaned forward, placing her hand on his shoulder as she reached out once more.

   The shock of contact rocked her. Whatever the problem before, it was swept aside and images flashed through her mind with searing brightness. She gripped his shoulder tighter, fighting to regain control. His eyes widened as he sensed her presence.

   "Think of it," she said through gritted teeth. "Think of the pain. Show me the way."

   He closed his eyes, thinking of Delenn, of his feelings for her, of his need to be with her both generally and specifically as lovers.

   The pattern of his thoughts sent her rushing down pathways that glowed around her in ways she'd never encountered before. It was as though she was in a city always on the verge of collapse, but held in place by sudden flashes of light. She saw a neural connection begin to degenerate and then a tiny star exploded and the connection was whole. Again and again the pattern repeated. Collapse and decay, failings that would kill any man within days if left unchecked, failings that the human body could not repair, here were fixed in an instant. Then, her mind still reeling from her discovery of what she guessed was Lorien's gift, she found herself in front of the block. It looked like a black box squatting menacingly in his mind. The fires flashed around it, forming a web of light with a black heart, but they did not penetrate. She pressed her will against it but it remained obstinately firm.

   "Concentrate," she murmured, watching for any breach in the defences. "Take yourself there."

   He knew what she was asking, knew it was necessary, but still he hesitated. "Just... break it down," he returned, unwilling to expose himself any more than he had already.

   "I don't want to hurt you."

   "Do it!" he snarled. She baulked at his tone and he retreated. "I'm sorry. I'm a little on edge here. Look, there's nothing you can do that can be any worse that what's going on already. I'll live. Go on."

   She took a steadying breath and examined the box, pressing against the surrounding fibres with her mind. As soon as she broke down the tiniest section it repaired itself immediately, closing around her like water, shutting out light and sound. She caught glimpses of what lay within, enough to recognise it, before she was forced away. She pulled back. "I can't. Not alone. You've got to trigger it. This is partly a P-12 block, partly something that's a piece of you. Your own system is trying to protect you from what's inside -- sealing it off. It's doing a damned good job of it, too. I can get through the Psi Corps block but I can't get to it."

   "If I've blocked it off so well, then why is it affecting me?"

   She examined the sparkling case in more detail. Everything looked solid, the flashes coruscating randomly across the surface as whatever lay within struggled against its shackles. No! Not entirely random. Here. If you watched it closely you could see a line of light, slightly brighter than the rest. Each time the brightness faded, indicating the repair was complete, something black flicked out from within. A great deal of energy was being expended trying to keep that menacing tongue contained. Lyta moved closer and allowed the tendril to touch her. Fear and hatred assailed her mind. Fear of aliens... of one alien in particular. Of Delenn. The tongue never escaped its prison far enough to touch the rest of his mind, but it continued to try. That was the weak link. That had to be the back door from whence everything else escaped when all his barriers were down. She looked at the edges of the strange scar. They were raw, weeping from constant violation. Whatever it was that lay within had been growing in strength, pressing more and more urgently against the fetters his mind had placed upon it. Once they had been true. Once he could have acted without the slightest inkling that there was anything wrong. Indeed, from the freshness of the scar, Lyta was willing to bet the breakdown had only occurred in the last few days. It was stress and the passage of time that had proved his undoing. The defences were slowly crumbling from within as the Trojan Horse struggled to release its chaos. If left it would get worse, until he would not be able to stop even the mildest of attacks.

   "It's growing," she murmured. "It's... like a cancer -- building all the time. So much hate and fear."

   "Of what?"

   "Aliens. Those who are not like you. Delenn in particular. Something... I don't know, I've never seen anything quite like it, but it reminds me a little of Kosh, only much stronger. I'd guess this is Lorien's work." He grunted, not entirely surprised to discover another feature of the First of the First Ones' gift. She carried on. "Anyway, that's been protecting you from this ever since it was placed here, but the power's weakening."

   "Then I've got to deal with it, before it's too late." He concentrated, trying to see or feel what Lyta saw. She sensed his search and guided his thoughts until, in his mind, he was standing beside her, watching the paw of the beast lash out from between the bars, its razor sharp claws of loathing moving ever closer to the bastion of his own thoughts.

   "So that's it, is it?"

   She nodded. "That's it."

   He moved forward to touch it but she intercepted him, indicating he should be wary. He pressed against the sparkling cover, well away from the scar, and watched it give slightly under his touch. He turned, curious.

   "I think... it's because it's you." He raised an eyebrow and she gave a rueful half smile. "Well, it is now, anyway. It recognises your touch. Now you can see it, feel it, you might be able to break it down."

   He nodded and pressed harder, the curtain slowly surrendering. Then he paused, warily, and the curtain rebuilt itself. "If I release this... whatever it is... isn't that thing," he pointed to the blackness, "going to reach me?"

   She nodded. "You'll just have to brace yourself. Assuming you want to go on with this, that is."

   His expression left her in no doubt as to his answer. He concentrated, reaffirming his beliefs, desires, sense of self. He took in every detail of the block, reminding himself that whatever came out would not be him. The block seemed to grow smaller, or he grew taller. While he could not eradicate it, he could reduce its power. Then, in the real world and in the world of his mind, he took a deep breath and pressed against the shimmering curtain of his own protection. Slowly, piece by piece, it gave away until a whole side of the block was exposed to Lyta's view. She stepped forward boldly and concentrated. A stream of light poured from her fingers, her eyes, her mouth, burning through like a welder's torch. The blackness writhed like some obscene animal, trying to escape her onslaught, but it was held firm by its own design.

   While Lyta worked, Sheridan contemplated the glowing wraps his mind had placed upon the intruder. If he could widen them, seal them behind him... He had no idea what he was doing, but it was worth a shot. He willed his desire, the whole a lot easier in the strange world he now occupied. He didn't really understand how he could see himself standing inside his own head, and he was afraid if he thought about it too hard the universe would catch on to the existence of impossibility and throw him out again, but as he thought about widening the protection so it moved. Reluctantly at first, it soon gathered speed and swept around Lyta and his own presence before forming a sparkling backdrop to their activities, behind, above and below. He could see nothing beyond it. Good. It might well be enough to hold the beast while he fought with it.

   It struck him once again that the entire situation was bizarre. Here he was, standing inside his own mind, watching Lyta share that space. It wasn't real, of course. It had to be a representation -- an interpretation of what was happening. His brain trying to understand his experiences and interpret them in ways that made sense to him. Even so...

   He watched as Lyta continued her efforts on the block, the walls of the whole becoming visibly thinner. He backed away. Any minute now...

   Lyta braced herself, sensing the walls were about to fall. She'd been warned of the pain that would accompany it and she prepared her shields to ward off the worst of the blow. Even so, she would share some of what he went through. The thought did not please her, but it was too late to pull back. She applied the final touch.

   The walls crumbled, the black expanded in an instant to fill the area, held in place only by the coruscating walls around them. The darkness cleared and they saw...

 

 

 

Chapter 21

 

 

   A room. Cold, stark and grey. A desk, a door, blurry movements in the shadows, voices.

   "It's not enough. We don't want him just reprogrammed, we need conversion."

   "And you'll get it... in time. But what happens when he goes back to that alien whore, hmm? There he is, telling everyone it was the alien influence that drove him -- an influence he says he rejects -- and then he sees that freak and everything's for nothing. His claims aren't going to be very convincing if he's bedding it. And suppose he manages to get it pregnant, eh? Who's going to believe he's broken with the aliens then?"

   "That thing can't get pregnant. It's a freak."

   "I've seen the reports. It's not impossible."

   "We could call it rape."

   "Somehow I don't think she'd play along. Annoying, but there you go."

   "So what do you propose?"

   The man that was Sheridan in this place blinked, clearing his sight, and the images became sharper. The two men in severe grey suits were circling him, while a third sat silently behind a desk, observing with cold eyes. One put down a black case and opened it, retrieving a silver band with wires attached and placing it on Sheridan's head. With his wrists and ankles shackled to the chair and drugs rendering resistance impossible, he feebly moved his head aside, only to have it held still as the metal was tightened and moved so that it touched his temples.

   "A virtual reality net? What difference will that make?" the other man said, watching the operation.

   The first man now pulled out a bunch of wires with electrodes on the end. Considering Sheridan's soiled trousers, he fastidiously pulled on rubber gloves before undoing the trousers and none-too-carefully exposing his genitals. He fixed the electrodes in place with care, removing one and realigning it before plugging the wires into a small socket in the chair.

   "Aversion therapy," he explained as he checked the connections. "We'll make it so he can't bear to be near her. Every time he even thinks about her he'll remember pain." The other man nodded in understanding and leaned against the interrogator's desk, arms folded, to watch the events. The interrogator stood up.

   "You don't need me for this," he said, making his way to the door.

   "'When the going gets tough...'" the man with the briefcase sneered.

   "It's not how I do things. You enjoy it too much. Call me when you're finished." He walked out.

   "To each their own. I must admit, I'm surprised to find him the squeamish type."

   "He's right, you do enjoy it too much. Now get on with it. I want this done as quickly as possible," the other snapped.

   The first shrugged and turned on the virtual reality net. Suddenly the two silent witness were surrounded by images that finally settled on Delenn. The images shifted through the stages in their courtship and then settled on a more erotic fantasy.

   The observer that was Sheridan in the real world grimaced. He didn't want Lyta sharing this thought. He looked across at her and saw she was observing with almost clinical detachment. She was waiting for something.

   It wasn't long before he learned what was preoccupying her. As events developed to their natural conclusion there was a short pause and then their world was flooded with a light that could burn and a noise that tried to eviscerate.

   In the world outside, Sheridan's body convulsed as pain tore through him. Not as fierce as before, to be sure -- the walls he'd built had protected him from that -- but enough to make him gasp and grit his teeth against it. Lyta's head was thrown back by the force. She narrowed her eyes, rebuilding her shields. Inside, she fought to get past the images created by the VR net and reveal the truth. Slowly the world came back into focus and they were once again inside the cell, the torturer watching Sheridan's physical reactions to the images he was encouraging and then shocking him with a light touch on the desk console. The man seemed to find the whole thing vaguely amusing.

   "Delenn will hurt you, Sheridan. She's just like all the aliens out there. She can't be trusted. Touch her and she'll hurt you. Aliens can't be trusted. See what happens when you turn you back on your own species to take another?" He sent another shock through his system. "It works every time. You trust her, you lie with her, and this is how she'll repay you. It's how all aliens will repay you. The only ones you can trust are your own kind..." The man's clothes and position changed, marking a different day of 'therapy', but the words were the same.

   "What about the rest of it?" The senior man had returned. "He's hardly going to try and fuck her in front of everyone."

   "You can't hurry these things," the torturer assured him. "You have to build up the aversion. You didn't want to run the risk of there being a pregnancy. I can assure you, that won't happen... now." He nodded to himself. "Tomorrow we can work on making him react merely to the sight of her."

   "Why didn't you start with that? Wouldn't it have been quicker?"

   Another man came into view, sporting the uniform of a Psi Cop. "It's not that easy. I've been scanning him. Her image is what's holding him together. It's very deeply entrenched. You'd never be able to attack it directly... unless you want me to..." He motioned with his hand.

   "No. No, a telepathic scan would reveal what you've done."

   He shrugged. "Then you have to take a more circuitous route. When a man is aroused he's at his most vulnerable. Attack him at the point of climax and there's nothing his brain can do to stop you. It's too distracted. Once we've got that in place we can move on to the more general programming, falling back on this one whenever he resists. It takes time, but it's the only way if you don't want us to take a more direct approach." He turned back to Sheridan thoughtfully, as those sizing him up as a potential meal. "You do realise we have to block this memory? If he ever manages to find the source..."

   "Hmm. I was wondering about that. Is it necessary?"

   The Psi Cop shrugged. He seemed to do that a lot, as though most things were beneath him and he was merely here because he had nothing better to do. "It depends. Probably not, but if he happens to find a good therapist they might be able to help him overcome it. If we block it there's nothing anyone can do."

   "Will it be detectable?"

   "Only on a very deep scan, but I can heighten his aversion to telepaths. He won't want anyone nosing around in his head after I've finished with him. A light scan won't show it up. He'll need a P12 to break it down, and all the P12's work for us. I can assure you, he won't find anyone to help him here."

   Lyta snorted at that claim, but held her peace. Sheridan grunted his agreement while the alter ego of his memories merely sat, slack jawed, spittle dribbling from the corner of his mouth, observing silently through bloodshot eyes.

   "How long will that take?"

   "The block? I can do it now. The aversion takes a little longer if you don't want to leave any signs. A few days at most. We can begin tomorrow."

   "All right. I didn't want to do this, but he's proving difficult, and President Clark is getting irritated after a week without results. He wants to parade the new, improved Sheridan to the masses as soon as possible." He went to the door. "Just get on with it."

   The Psi Cop reached out, touched his face, and the shutters went down.

   Out in the real world, tears were now flowing freely down Sheridan's cheeks as he saw what they'd done. Exposed, taunted, laughed at and submitted to electric shocks every time he remembered his fiancée with passion, it was no wonder he'd had such trouble before. All his other interrogators had been horribly normal. The sort of people you could imagine going home to their wives and families every night as though they were doing a regular, nine-to-five office job. But these men actually seemed to enjoy their task. Sheridan wasn't sure which was worse: sadistic pleasure or mundane acceptance. Probably the latter. At least you could maintain his latest torturers were sick. That almost made it easier to cope....

   Almost.

   He watched, over and over again, repeating the images and divesting them of their power by dint of sheer habituation. Everything now made sense. He drew himself up, straightening both in the real world and that of his mind, and called down every force within him, obliterating the source of both his shame and the agony he'd been subjected to. He couldn't destroy it, he knew that. The memories would be with him for the rest of his life (such as it was), but he could render them impotent. Lorien's gift and his own understanding gave him the power, and he used both to full effect.

   As the sparks flew Lyta released his shoulder and leaned back, gasping from the effort of her scan. She rubbed her eyes, knowing the power she'd had to summon would have changed them. Sheridan remained where he was, shaking, his eyes still closed as he concentrated on the memories, pulling them apart and exacting his revenge.

   Lyta watched him for a moment, wondering if she should help him. While she was inside in his mind she'd seen him move Lorien's protection aside to allow them room to manoeuvre. It was an act a trained telepath could have proclaimed proudly, and she wondered again at the changes that had been wrought in him. No normal human should have been able to do what he had done. No normal human should have been able to overcome what he had gone through so fast. But then, no normal human survived Z'ha'dum, yet he had.

   As she watched she saw that despite the towering rage that consumed him as he concentrated on his task, tears of pain still fell from his eyes. When this was over he'd need someone with him, and that person was not Lyta.

   "Perhaps I should call for Delenn and Dr. Henshaw," she said, rising.

   "No!" His eyes flew open and he fixed Lyta with a glare. "This goes no further, do you understand?" She nodded, mutely. "Do you understand?!" he repeated.

   "I understand, Mr. President. I'll never tell anyone what I saw. I told you that when I came in."

   He was grinding his teeth, his jaw muscles tensing beneath the flesh as he considered what had happened, nodding to himself. "I'll look through the files. I want to make sure those... 'people' have been dealt with."

   She nodded, understanding his need, but said nothing. He closed his eyes, drew a few steadying breaths and stood up.

   "Thank you... for all your help. I know that can't have been easy."

   She shrugged. "Easier for me than for you, Mr. President." But inside she uttered the mental coda, 'barely'. Those images would not leave her quickly either, if ever.

   Sheridan narrowed his eyes, guessing from her body language what was going through her mind. Too much. She knew far too much and there was nothing he could do to make her forget. Lyta had always been outside the boundaries since she went to the Vorlon home-world, and no one knew the full extent of her powers. With knowledge like this, how much more dangerous would she be? Could she be trusted? Could anyone with that much power be trusted? She was one of the last direct links to the Vorlons, and even Kosh Naranek had manipulated him. For his own good, as it turned out, but still....

   He turned to her. "I'm sorry. I need a little time. If you would excuse me?" His tone was clipped and he stood up without another word and headed for the door, standing beside it as it opened. The message was clear.

   "Of course." Tired and desperately in need of rest, she was quite happy to leave him to his own devices. As she reached the door he stopped her.

   "Lyta." She looked up. "I'll make sure the payment is deposited in your account. Thank you, again, for your help. I hope you'll understand when I tell you I don't want to discuss this... ever." His tone was harsher than he'd intended and he saw the look of pain and acceptance in her eyes. His tone softened. "I'm... sorry. I know you're a woman of your word. I wouldn't have agreed to this if I doubted that. I appreciate what you've done, but... given what happened there... well... I'm sure you understand. "

   She nodded. "I do. Thank you, Mr. President." Their relationship had always been strained, now it was creaking like a hawser in a gale. It wouldn't take much more to make it snap with a gunshot report and whip back, flooring one or both of them. She knew, beyond a doubt, that he'd never feel comfortable with her again. Silently, she vowed the morning's events would never be revealed to anyone and she buried the memory deep inside, working on the barriers even as she passed through the door.

   Sheridan followed her with his eyes, his jaw muscles clenching. She had turned the corner and disappeared from sight before he turned and stepped back into this quarters, closing the door on the outside world.

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

   Sheridan had a meeting in less than an hour and still Delenn had not heard from him. Loath to interrupt, but concerned as to the cause for the delay, she moved hesitantly to the Babcom. Henshaw watched her silently from the couch.

   "If he is going to miss the meeting, someone has to alert them," Delenn reasoned, more to herself than for Henshaw's benefit. "The ISA ambassadors do not take kindly to being kept waiting."

   "So why not cancel the meeting?"

   Delenn turned. "He said he would go. I cannot cancel unless I know he will not make it."

   "You think he'll be mad at you?"

   She frowned, her mind not entirely on the conversation. She glanced again at the Babcom as she responded. "Angry? No. John is not like that, but he would be upset. He would think I do not trust him." Her voice was soft as she uttered the words, and Henshaw sensed a deep-seated pain.

   "It's happened before, hasn't it?"

   Delenn didn't answer immediately and Henshaw was about to repeat the question when the Babcom blinked. Instantly accepting the call, Delenn's relief was palpable when Sheridan's face appeared on the screen.

   "Delenn, look, I have to get to this meeting so I can't talk now. See you for lunch?"

   His matter-of-fact approach left her stunned. "Of course," she returned dazedly. He nodded and was about to shut down the connection when she halted him. "John? What...?"

   "We found the problem. I've dealt with it. Now I'd better go or the Drazi'll start complaining, and you know what he's like. I'll see you later." He snapped off the connection.

   Delenn turned, visibly shaken, and sat down heavily, rubbing the back of her neck in a gesture Henshaw had learned meant she was confused and unsure of the situation.

   "Delenn," she whispered softly, "you're going to have to accept that."

   She looked up, clearly distracted. "I'm sorry, what?"

   "What I'm trying to tell you is that there're certain things he's not going to share... ever."

   "But he told me everything else, surely this...."

   "Is the one thing I think you're going to find off-limits. I may be wrong, but I don't think so. So do yourself and him a favour, and don't ask."

   "I don't understand."

   Henshaw gave a half-smile. "John is a proud man. Not in a negative sense -- he's got a lot to be proud of -- but there are some things that cut too close to the bone. They attack at points that are too vulnerable for him to admit. I don't know what those people did to him, but I can make some educated guesses based on the physical evidence and his behaviour just now. If he told you what they'd done, he'd feel... ahh...." She struggled for the right word. "Unmanned?"

   "But I'm his wife."

   "Which is precisely why he'll never tell you. Please, Delenn, trust me on this one. Accept whatever explanation he gives you and don't ask for any more, otherwise you'll put him in an untenable position. If he tells you, he'll never feel comfortable with you again. If he lies to you, he'll feel guilty. There are some things men can't share with women, especially their wives."

   "What about Lyta?"

   "That, I'm afraid, is going to be a problem. I don't envy that woman her position at all." She shook her head and stood up. "If you need me you know where I am." She moved to the door and then stopped. "Ah, don't expect him to be able to return to normal sexual relations immediately. He's got rid of the problem, but it's going to take him a while to reorientate himself. He's got to adjust his perception of his own identity. For the next few days you may find him a little cool, or willing to go so far and no further. You'll probably feel you're being shut out. Give him time. He has to build up his own barriers a bit, but once he's done that he'll come back to you."

   Delenn's shoulders dropped. "How long?"

   Henshaw shrugged. "I can't answer that. Days, weeks, maybe even a month or two. Probably not longer, given how he overcame everything else. Whatever applied there will apply here, too." Delenn nodded slowly. "When he's ready, you'll know, I promise you." Now the smile was genuine. Delenn looked up and, hesitantly, returned the look. Henshaw suddenly smothered a yawn.

   "You're tired. You should rest."

   Henshaw grinned. That was Delenn. Even when she felt at her worst she was concerned about others. "Normally, I'd tell you I'm fine, but right now, I think I could sleep for a week. It's a hell of a roller-coaster we've been through these past few days. Normally this sort of thing would take months or even years of therapy. I don't pretend to understand how he sorted himself out so fast, and I get the feeling whatever it was, it's pretty unique to him, right?" Delenn nodded but didn't elaborate. Henshaw sighed. So much for the subtle attempt to get an answer. "Right. Thought so. Anyway, if you want my professional opinion, I'd say he's going to be just fine. I can't see anything else that'll stop him... well, not related to this matter anyway. And I'd say if he's all right, you'll be all right, hmm?" Delenn smiled -- the first genuine and full smile Henshaw had seen since this latest development in the saga of Clark's legacy to her husband. "So, if you don't need me, *I* am going to go back to my room, curl up under the covers, and sleep myself out. That doesn't mean I can't be called if there's a problem, but I really don't think there will be any."

   Delenn stood up and crossed the room to stand in front of Henshaw. "Thank you. I hope, now this is nearly over, we will not lose touch with you. I hope you will consider yourself a friend. I would like that, and I believe John would like it as well."

   Henshaw snorted. "Hmm. We'll see. Are we still on for Thursday?"

   "Of course."

   "Great. I should be awake by then! Take care of yourself, and that husband of yours. He's a rare catch."

   "I know."

   Delenn watched Henshaw make her way back to her quarters, re-entering her room as the doctor disappeared from view. She contemplated the Babcom for a moment, considering Henshaw's words. Should she investigate? Try to find out what had happened? After considerable thought she shook her head. No. For once she would not interfere. She had enough secrets of her own -- things about her participation in the Earth-Minbari war she never wanted to explain to him. John had a right to his own secrets, too. She uttered a quiet vow that she would never enquire into this matter, gathered up her papers and made her way to her first meeting of the day.

   *****************************

   Dinner on Thursday was a pleasant if somewhat odd occasion. Henshaw surreptitiously watched Sheridan throughout the meal, her natural care for her patients, present or past, making it impossible to do otherwise. He was good humoured, charming, but still, in her opinion, a little closed off. He caught her gaze on more than one occasion, but merely smiled. At no point did he give her an opening. It wasn't even as if the events of the past week or so were being avoided as a subject. If they were, Henshaw would have had something to latch on to. Instead, he was quite happy to talk about anything except the final matter, which he dismissed with an honest comment.

   "Ahh, it'll take a while, but at least now I know the face of the enemy. The rest'll come in time. It's not something I want to talk about, though. I have to deal with this one on my own."

   "Have to, or just want to?" Henshaw pressed.

   "Both." It came out as a simple statement of fact. He picked up his napkin and dropped it on the table. "Anyone want coffee?"

   That was it. Subject closed. No hesitation, no suggestion of any doubt in his mind. Politely but firmly he'd made it clear on this he would not be swayed. Henshaw and Delenn both nodded their acceptance on both counts and he stood up, collecting the plates and refusing all offers to help. "I may not be able to cook, but Earthforce taught me how to clean up. It won't take long," he assured them.

   As he busied himself in the kitchenette, Henshaw turned to Delenn, raising a questioning eyebrow. The latter merely smiled and nodded, unwavering under Henshaw's gentle prodding. Apparently, she was happy with Sheridan's decision as well. Janet had suspected this would be John's reaction, but she was happy if these two were happy.

   The rest of the evening was spent in general conversation, mostly centring around Sheridan's hopes for the future of the Alliance. When it came time for Henshaw to leave, Sheridan grasped her hand firmly.

   "Thank you. I know I haven't been the easiest patient you've dealt with..."

   "Actually, barring the usual back-tracking I expect in cases like this, you've been a breeze compared to most. When I came here I expected to get you through the worst of it, teach you how to deal with the rest, and give you the names of some good psychiatrists who could take my place over the next few years." She paused, cocking her head. "I hope, one day, I'll find out how you did that."

   He gave a rueful shrug. "It's not classified. Ask Stephen."

   "Thanks, I will."

   Delenn stepped up beside her husband and bowed. "I would like to thank you, too." She smiled up at Sheridan and he returned it, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. "It's good to have my husband back."

   "He did it. I'm just the guide." She glanced at the chronometer. "Well, my ship leaves in about two hours. I'd better get going."

   "You're taking the evening transport?" Sheridan asked, slightly surprised by her haste.

   "Seemed like a good move. I've got cases piling up back home and you've given me enough good food to last the bulk of the journey." She chuckled. "Anything but the cardboard they serve on those things."

   Sheridan laughed and then looked at her seriously. "I'll never be able to thank you properly for all you've done, but you know it's appreciated..." he looked to Delenn, "...by both of us," he added as Delenn nodded agreement. "Take care of yourself."

   "I will. You too. Oh, and give my regards to Survaal when you see him." After an exchange of hand shakes and bows, Henshaw departed, leaving Sheridan and Delenn alone.

   "Well, I guess this is where we start again," he said, wrapping his arms loosely around her.

   She smiled and nodded, tracing the edge of his jacket with her fingers. As she touched his chest through his shirt he stiffened and released her, running a nervous hand through his hair.

   "Ahh, maybe we should get some sleep. We've got another long day ahead of us." He gave an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry. I'm still a little edgy. It's silly, I know..."

   "No, it's not," she assured him softly. "I do understand."

   "Hmm. Maybe you should let your face know."

   She lowered her eyes, painfully aware that she was not as good at covering her emotions with him as she would wish. With infinite tenderness he placed his hands on her shoulders, stroking her upper arms before placing the fingers of one hand under her chin and raising her eyes to his.

   "Why don't you go on?" he suggested, nodding towards the bedroom. "I want to finish up a few things. I'll be along later."

   She gave a half smile and nodded, accepting the chaste kiss be bestowed on her forehead before turning away. At the partition she paused and looked back.

   "Go on," he repeated gently.

   She rubbed the back of her neck and looked to the floor before entering the bedroom. He released a sigh and wandered back to the Babcom, downloading some files onto his datapad.

   He worked steadily for over an hour, steadfastly forcing his brain to wrestle with the mundane paperwork. At last he uploaded the finished files. He could print them out and sign them tomorrow. One advantage of his present predicament, at least: he was bang up to date on every single task demanded by his office.

   He sat back on the couch, stretching the cramped muscles in his back and arms before rubbing tired eyes. He looked over his shoulder towards the bedroom. The lights were low and he could just make out the figure of his wife, outlined under the sheets. He stood up and walked to the partition, gazing at her from the doorway. Inside his head he could still hear the voice of the torturer, warning him not to sleep with her. It gave him some small satisfaction to know that man had paid the price. There'd been wanted posters and adverts posted shortly after Clark's suicide, listing those the authorities particularly wanted on charges of war crimes. His torturer's face had been recognised and the next day a message was sent to the local police. They'd found him in his apartment. No one knew who was responsible for his death and, Sheridan suspected, no one really cared. His end had been eminently appropriate, given his modus operandi. A grim smile passed over Sheridan's face. Yes, very appropriate indeed.

   The man had no hold over him now, yet still he could not find within himself a desire to make love to his wife. He shook his head and turned away. He wasn't as tired as he'd thought, but there was nothing left for him to do. A walk in the gardens would probably help. Silently, he drew the partition doors closed, dimmed the lights in their quarters and left.

   As Delenn heard the outside door cycle close she rolled over and stared into the darkness. He would be all right, she assured herself. Sooner or later, things would return to normal between them. All she could do now was wait for him. She reached over and stroked her hand over his pillow, drawing it to her and inhaling his scent. As she wrapped her arms tightly around the only piece of him she had available, a tear rolled down her cheek.

   ***********************

   When Sheridan returned two hours later he found her there, still hugging his pillow. His heart thumped painfully in his chest. Was this what he'd reduced her to? Quietly, so as not to disturb her, he hung up his suit, laid out clean clothes for the next day, pulled on his shorts and t-shirt and slipped into bed beside her.

   "Hey," he whispered. "Can I have my pillow back?" He tugged it gently out of her grasp, his eyes reflecting the pain he felt when, even in sleep, she fought against him. This had to stop. He swallowed against the lump in his throat, arranged the pillow behind his head and then tenderly wrapped his arms around her. Her disturbed movements stilled instantly and she relaxed into his embrace. "Soon," he murmured, "I promise you." She made a soft sound and snuggled against him.

   Yes, soon.

 

 

 

Chapter 22

 

 

   The next few weeks followed the same pattern. He would work until long after she'd gone to bed and then go for a walk. Sometimes he sat in the Zen Garden, contemplating the patterns in the sand. Other times he would stand in C & C, gazing out into the void, the background hum of the computers his only company. At no point did Delenn express the pain she was feeling at his emotional absence. They still kissed and held each other from time to time, sharing the same bed each night when he finally returned, but that was as far as it went. He thought about it, even going so far as to reach out to touch her while she slept beside him, but he pulled back before she woke. He was still too angry, had too many emotions demanding release. If he gave in to one he was afraid the others would pour out in an uncontrollable rush, smothering him and endangering her. He couldn't risk that, not after all they'd gone through. He sternly reined in his desires, sexual frustration being added to the festering midden of pent up emotions.

   Franklin finally removed Delenn's cast, satisfied all was healed. While the memory of it still haunted him, Sheridan was relieved to see her finally free of that obvious physical reminder. Delenn, too, was happier, not least because the thing had started to itch.

   When it wasn't mysterious attacks on Alliance shipping, Lennier's abrupt departure (which Sheridan could understand, even if Delenn refused to), the struggles with the fledgling Alliance (a small victory he savoured to the full) or G'kar's muse, the telepaths were occupying their days, the group proving an ever more potent powder keg. He wondered, as he stared once more at the stars in the empty heart of the station, how long before a spark would ignite the lot. He was beginning to think that allowing that group on board was the biggest mistake he'd ever made. He sighed, turned, and made his way back to his quarters.

   Soon.

   ****************************

   No one knew where the strange attackers came from. Sent by the Drakh, perhaps, or merely another galactic wildcard, thinking Babylon 5 an easy target? Whoever they were, after so long behind a desk, fighting with ambassadors who seemed to resent on principle the whole notion of working together, the thrill of battle now filled him. Lochley, predictably, wanted him out of the way. He could understand her reasoning, but he didn't have to like it. Laying the foundations for a future he would never see was one thing, but here, at last, he could do something immediate; something tangible. But this was not like old times. Then, the only person he had to worry about was himself. Yes, he was responsible for everyone aboard the station, but he had no single person whose life mattered more than his own. Even Ivanova, whom he loved like a sister, was another soldier, aware of the risks of the job and prepared to take them all. Now it was different.

   When the announcement of the breaching pod came over the comm system, he made up his mind.

   "Delenn, listen to me."

   She turned away, refusing to accept his reasoning. "No."

   "You have to get to the life pods."

   "I refuse to leave."

   "That's what I said to Lochley, and I was wrong. Now this isn't going well, Delenn. I need to know that you are safe."

   The maintenance men walked past, minding their own business.

   "John, I..."

   He looked up. "You two." The men paused and turned, looking for all the world as though they'd been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. "Do you know where the life pods are?"

   The smaller one nodded nervously. "Yes sir."

   "Escort Ambassador Delenn there at once," he commanded.

   "But sir, we were told...."

   "Doesn't matter. I need everyone in security on the firing line and that leaves you. See to it she gets there safely, and gets on the first available pod."

   Before the shorter one could respond, the taller, dark man gave his firm assurance. "Yes sir."

   Sheridan turned back to her. "Now go on." She didn't look at all happy and he gripped her arms. "Hey look, with any luck the rest of the White Stars will get here on time and we won't even need the pods."

   Concern washed over her features. "What if we do? What if the station falls?"

   "Then as you said to me once..." his face took on a sombre expression, "I'll see you again in the place where no shadows fall."

   The import of those words hit her. If things went badly, they would never see each other again. He was telling her how much he loved her, how much he needed her, even if he hadn't been able to show her physically of late. She reached up and caressed his cheek, raising her mouth to his. Ignoring the maintenance men, he pulled her against him, savouring the touch of her lips. The kiss was intense, filled with all the passion he'd kept locked away for so long. He felt her arm come around his shoulder and held her even tighter. Her fingers stroked his neck and, as they pulled apart, he held her eyes once more.

   "Now go on," he urged. Not waiting for her reply, afraid if he remained any longer he would not be able to leave, he stepped away and ran quickly back up the corridor towards the fighting. Lochley would have his head on a platter for what he was about to do, but he wasn't going to stand by and let the aliens make their way to the life pods. He hadn't been much of a husband the past few weeks, but he knew how to protect his wife, and he wouldn't shirk that responsibility.

   He accessed a weapons locker and withdrew a rifle, a PPG and a handful of spare caps. Stuffing the caps in his pocket he checked the charge on the PPG and then shoved it into the waistband of his trousers. The rifle he also checked before wrapping the strap around one forearm.

   The distant sounds of firing reached his ears. He raised his head, frowning as he tried to judge which direction he should take. Finally locating the source, he headed off at a jog.

   The security team was penned in, hiding behind boxes as they loosed fire upon the invaders. At first they were shocked to find the President joining their ranks, but they didn't let that interrupt them. An extra weapon in a well-trained hand was more than welcome, and any suggestion he should get himself to safety died on their lips as they saw the grimly determined expression on his face. This was his station, his home; a place he'd protected and defended with everything he had for three years. He was going to keep that station and the dreams she nurtured safe... or die trying.

   The aliens were pressing forward, more appearing to replace those who fell. Their red helmets made it impossible to differentiate one from another. They were merely an enemy that had to be destroyed; a never-ending stream of faceless, nameless targets for his increasing wrath.

   A security officer fell to his right and another swiftly took the man's place, edging closer to Sheridan.

   "Mr. President, get out of here!" he yelled over the barrage of weapons fire.

   Sheridan maintained his steady firing, ignoring the man's request. Not now. Not after all he'd gone through, all he'd suffered to bring his dream to life. He wouldn't let it die at the hands of an unknown enemy. His rifle overheated and he switched to his PPG.

   "Mr. President, I know how you feel, but if you get killed all of this will've been for nothing. You have to get out of here!"

   He could hear someone screaming into his link for back-up, and the crackling response, distorted by the energy flying around, informing them that help was on the way. "I'll stay until the relief arrives. If we don't stop this lot..." His response was drowned out by another cry.

   "Christ, they've got behind us. Look out!"

   Intuitively, Sheridan ducked as a blast sent white heat over his head, killing the man he'd been talking to. Still crouching, he spun on his heel and let loose a salvo. The alien staggered forward, propelled by his own momentum and unable to stop his fall. He collapsed on top of Sheridan and two others appeared behind him. As the security teams split themselves between the two sources of attack, Sheridan managed to pull the dead creature aside enough to fire at one alien, the other hitting his erstwhile attacker who acted as an unwitting shield. Sheridan felt the blast heat, but the alien's armour protected him. As the other was brought down he rolled his 'shield' aside and lay, panting for a moment.

   A thought occurred to him. "Delenn!" he yelled, before setting off at a run, heedless of the energy bolts that missed him by inches.

   Another alien blocked his way. Desperate to ensure his wife's safety he fired even as he ran. His aim was slightly off, but he succeeded in knocking the alien's rifle from his grip. He swung a punch with his PPG, making the creature stagger. The armour was designed to deflect energy bolts, not the kinetic energy of a frantic man. The alien was stunned, but raised his arm to block a second punch, the jarring knocking the PPG from Sheridan's hand. As Sheridan ducked and drew back to deliver another blow he heard a blast from behind him and the alien fell backwards, his helmet forced into his face by the direct hit. Sheridan looked over his shoulder to see a security officer.

   "Go on!" she shouted. "Save her!"

   He needed no further urging. With a brief nod of thanks he charged towards the evacuation area.

   As he rounded the corner his worst nightmare presented itself. As he'd feared, his wife had not got into a life pod. Instead, she'd apparently reversed her course, perhaps with the intention of arming herself and coming to the station's defence. She'd been cut off before she'd made it to an armoury and, caught without a weapon, faced her imminent death with remarkable equanimity... far more than Sheridan possessed.

   With no weapon of his own that he could bring to bear, he released a roar of pain, fear and anger, hurling himself at the alien who whirled around, surprised. His rifle was still raised but Sheridan had already closed the distance, getting inside the alien's defences.

   "Delenn, get away from here!" he cried as they fought over the weapon, the end jerking to and fro. Heat blazed near Sheridan's face as the alien pressed the trigger. Another blast barely missed Delenn who, realising her presence threatened her husband's life as well, was running for cover.

   The last over-strained grip he had maintained on his sanity snapped as he saw the near miss. All the pain, frustration and fury of the past few weeks erupted in his mind, the red of the alien's uniform becoming all he could see. He fought like a man possessed, raining blows upon his victim, all the while seeing the faces of those who had sought to destroy him. That blow was for his torturer, another for the Psi Cop, another for the interrogators. Over and over his fists slammed into the creature, sending it staggering. As it fell backwards Sheridan grabbed the edge of the armour, pulling the creature upright so he could deliver another blow and another. He continued long after the alien had ceased to put up any resistance, pounding at its helmet, throat and body.

   "Mr. President!"

   He paused, the alien hanging limply from his clenched fist. The security woman who'd saved him before stood behind him.

   "I think it's dead, sir."

   Sheridan turned and contemplated the body in his hand. With one final blow he released his grip, the alien collapsing in a boneless heap to the floor. He straightened, breathing hard, his fists smarting.

   "We've cleared this area," she continued, eyeing Sheridan's victim, "and I've had a report the White Stars have arrived. We're just mopping up. It's all over, sir."

   Delenn slowly rose from behind the crate where she'd taken refuge. In a few long strides Sheridan had crossed the distance between them and pulled her into desperate hug. The security officer smiled and then turned, nodding to the others who had come to drag the body away.

   "Why didn't you do as I told you?" Sheridan asked, trying to press her into his own body.

   "I couldn't leave you... or this place. It means too much... to both of us."

   He shook his head, anger warring with relief and understanding. After all, he knew when Lochley found out what he'd done she'd tear him a new one, but he'd face that when he came to it. For now he revelled in the feel of her in his arms and the knowledge they'd come through alive.

   Delenn pulled back and he saw blood on her face. Panic filled him.

   "Delenn?!"

   Confused at his tone she reached up, rubbing the blood away. She considered it for a moment and then touched his jacket. Following the path of her hand he saw his lapel and shirt were both soaked in blood.

   She looked up, fear now filling her eyes instead. "Is this...?"

   "No. It's not me," he assured her. "One of the aliens. He fell on me after I shot him." He considered the stain with a rueful frown. "Come on. I'd better get changed before some idiot in the Alliance tells everyone I've died again!"

 

 

 

Chapter 23

 

 

   With everyone in the shelters, the corridors were deserted and they made their way back to his quarters without incident. As Delenn opened the door he shrugged out of his jacket. Putting it over his arm, he made his way into the bedroom, undoing his shirt. He was sitting on the bed undoing his shoes when she came in, a basin in her hands.

   "What's that?" he asked.

   "Some ice. For your hands," she added, nodding towards his clearly bruised knuckles.

   Still buoyed with the adrenaline rush of battle, he hadn't even noticed the bruising until she mentioned it. Now he flexed the joints painfully, sighing as she put the basin on his knees and he plunged his hands into the cold water. After a minute or so he stretched his fingers, nodding to himself as he did so.

   "Well, nothing's broken... amazingly enough."

   "I thought you would never stop hitting him," she whispered, sitting down beside him.

   "Yeah, I know. But when I saw him threatening you..."

   She stared at his fists. "This is the second time you have attacked someone who threatened me."

   He wasn't sure how to react. Delenn had always played the pacifist, but he knew she had it in her to attack when the situation demanded. "Do you mind?"

   She looked up. "I think I would mind a great deal more if you did not," she smiled.

   He breathed a sigh of relief. Not that he was ashamed of protecting her, but he didn't want her to see him as some kind of Neanderthal, bullying anyone who so much as looked at his wife in the wrong way. Besides, in most situations (as he'd learned), Delenn was quite capable of looking after herself.

   She stood up and fetched a towel and a small tube from the bathroom. "How do they feel?"

   "Cold," he chuckled, "but I can move them. Just don't ask me to play the piano."

   She laughed and took the basin from his lap, setting it down on the floor. "You couldn't play it before!"

   "True." He picked up the towel as best he could and squeezed it against the back of each hand in turn. "Mmmm," he groaned, closing his eyes and screwing up his face. "I hadn't realised what I was doing."

   She took the towel from him and gently dabbed over his knuckles. "Working out some frustrations from what I could see."

   He opened his eyes. "You noticed that, huh?" He sighed. "I know I shouldn't have, but when that thing came so close to killing you, something snapped."

   "I understand," she nodded, still drying him. There was no censure in her voice. She meant what she said and he smiled.

   Reaching to the side she picked up the tube and unscrewed the top. It was a simple salve with antiseptic and healing properties, plus a side order of anaesthetic. Just what he needed. He relaxed as she gently smeared it over his knuckles, coaxing it into the flesh with small, tender circles of her fingers.

   He felt the anaesthetic begin to take effect and sighed in relief as the throbbing abated. When she was done, she placed a soft kiss on the back of each hand and then put the top back on the tube, collecting the basin and towel and carrying the lot to the bathroom. He stood up and tried to undo his belt buckle, but his fingers wouldn't cooperate. She came out to see him still struggling.

   "Here, let me," she said, taking over and quickly finishing the job. She moved to the waistband of his trousers and then hesitated, raising her eyes questioningly. He smiled and nodded.

   "I certainly can't manage it right now," he murmured.

   As she let the trousers fall to the floor she looked at his body. There were several bruises starting to show and she brushed her fingers over one on his side. His stomach muscles clenched involuntarily and he took a sharp breath.

   "I'm sorry," she muttered quickly. "I didn't mean to hurt you."

   He rested his wrists on her shoulders. "You didn't," he assured her. "I guess my body's forgotten what it feels like to have you touch me." When she didn't respond he bent down to whisper in her ear, "How's yours holding up?"

   She shivered at his tone, afraid to believe it meant what it seemed to mean. He pulled back and contemplated her downcast head. "Why don't you help me get cleaned up?" he suggested. "I'm not really in a position to get to grips with the soap right now."

   She looked up and saw the glint in his eyes. He was back! A little the worse for wear, it was true, but he was back, heart, body and soul. She felt her heart begin to beat a little faster and she smiled. "Be happy to," she whispered.

   He went to the bathroom and turned on the shower. Divesting himself of his shorts proved slightly harder than he'd imagined, but he managed it at last and stepped into the cubicle, sighing with relief as the hot water cascaded over his body. He turned into the flow, closing his eyes to let the water stream over his face. A few seconds later there was a cool draught as the cubicle door was opened briefly and he felt her hand caress his back.

   She felt strangely nervous, afraid she would overstep some invisible limit he might have placed on their activities. Yet as she soaped his back she did not feel him tense. Quite the reverse, in fact. He relaxed into her touch, a hum of pleasure escaping him. Thus emboldened she moved down over his buttocks, thighs and calves. He leaned forward, lifting first one foot and then the other to allow her to finish the job. When she was done he turned around, wiping water from his eyes so he could see her properly.

   "You look beautiful," he breathed, his gaze sweeping over her.

   She blushed, covering her sudden nervousness by working up a lather and then pressing her hands to his chest.

   He watched her intently as she concentrated on her allotted task. Her hands wandered lower and he caught his breath, feeling his body start to react to her touch. She hesitated and then bent down, soaping his shins and knees before letting her hands rise to his thighs. She tried to keep her movements businesslike, still wary of allowing herself to hope the nightmare had finally come to an end, but as she looked up into his eyes and saw his love and desire for her burning in that intense gaze, she felt her movements slow and become more sensual.

   Her hands moved between his thighs and he closed his eyes, raising his head and exposing his throat. Still caressing him, she leaned forward, kissing under his chin and then slowly moving down to his chest. In the cramped shower stall she could feel him becoming aroused, his penis jerking against her hip as it rose. She continued to kiss and lick his chest, her hands circling his inner thighs until he reached down and guided her to his arousal. There was no longer any question how far he wanted to go. She washed him carefully, teasing the end with her fingertips.

   "Hmmm. This has to be the most erotic shower I've ever had," he murmured, lowering his head to look at her once more. "But I think we should continue this in the bedroom, don't you?"

   She dragged her finger from the base of his shaft to the tip, tenderly circling the sensitive flesh just behind the head. "Wherever you want," she whispered, gripping him and slowly moving her hand up and down. She pressed her body against him so her hand with its throbbing content was pressed between them, then flicked her tongue across his chest, catching the water that cascaded over his shoulders.

   "Oh God," he moaned, wrapping his arms around her. It had been too long and he couldn't control his reactions. She quickened her movements, sensing he was moving beyond the point of no return. As her touch became more urgent he leaned down, seeking her mouth, his tongue quickly pressing between her lips to taste her. His body tensed and she responded, rubbing him faster until, with a gasp, he pulled back from her mouth, gripping her tightly as he came. She felt the warmth of his orgasm bathe them both and she slowed her movements, wrapping both arms around his neck to pull him into another deep kiss.

   When at last they parted he looked down to see the water stream between them, washing away the evidence of his release. He laughed -- a happy, relaxed sound that brought a smile to her own lips.

   "A little sudden," he admitted at last, still chuckling, "but at least we know everything works. Now," he added, loosely holding her, "why don't we clean up and then move to the bedroom, as I suggested?"

   She shook her head in mock resignation. "I will have to wash you all over again," she said, pausing to add a theatrical sigh.

   "Oh no. If you do that we'll never get out of here." He reached for the soap and clumsily held it in his uncooperative fingers.

   "Let me," she said, taking it from him.

   "Delenn," he warned.

   "It's all right, John. I promise not to go too far this time. In any case," she added, soaping his stomach, "you will need time to recover."

   As she moved back down she felt his penis stir under her fingers.

   "Not that long," he assured her. "I've got some catching up to do."

   "So I see," she smiled, finishing as swiftly as she could. Moving back as far as the stall would allow she washed herself, Sheridan watching her every movement. Never had the simple act of cleaning been such a turn on. Her hands moved over her breasts and he groaned.

   "I'd better get out of here, before it's too late." He opened the shower door and stepped outside, closing it swiftly. While she finished, he struggled with a towel. The water had washed away a lot of the lotion she'd put on his knuckles and they were smarting once more. He rescued the tube from the cabinet and, unable to get a tight enough grip with his fingers, held the cap in his teeth, turning the tube with both hands to undo it. When she shut down the water and emerged from the shower a few minutes later, he was still fighting with it.

   Taking the salve from him she repeated her earlier actions. "You know," she said, tightening the cap and putting the tube away, "if the swelling has not gone down by tomorrow I think you should speak to Stephen. You may have cracked something."

   "Oh, I know I have," he returned with a grin, placing a warm towel across her shoulders. "But not in my hands."

   Squeezing her hair dry she returned his look, her eyes sparkling. They stood there in companionable silence while she finished towelling her body, Sheridan gazing at her with undisguised pleasure. When she seemed to be taking overly long to complete the procedure he shook his head, pushing her gently from the bathroom.

   "Come on," he murmured, guiding her towards the bed, "I prefer you a little wet anyway."

   The double entendre wasn't lost on her and she felt her body respond. He tried to push her back but she shook her head.

   "You cannot do this with your hands like that," she insisted.

   "Watch me," he replied, using the heels of his hands to press her down onto the bed.

   "No," she insisted as he lay down beside her. "You did all the work last time. This time it's my turn."

   "We'll share it," he returned, rolling on top of her and leaning on his forearms as he trailed kisses down her throat and across one breast. "Me first," he breathed as he pulled the nipple into his mouth and suckled her.

   She wanted to remonstrate with him, but all her resolve vanished as he moved across her body, stimulating her senses in the time-honoured fashion with lips and tongue. She struggled to maintain control, pulling herself up on her elbows as his mouth moved across her stomach and belly.

   "Shh," he murmured, gently applying pressure to her shoulder. "Lie back and let me love you. It's been far too long."

   She couldn't argue with that, and while she still felt a certain duty to lead the way this time, she relaxed into his touch, releasing a small sigh of contentment as he moved down her thigh.

   Still holding his hands up to protect them, he nudged at her with his elbow. "Open your legs," he whispered, smiling as she obliged him. With deliberate slowness he licked, kissed and nipped his way up the inside of one thigh and then bent to repeat the process on the other. She squirmed under his ministrations, releasing a musical moan as he neared the top.

   He paused, watching her. Her head was thrown back, her eyes closed, her mouth slightly open as she drew short breaths, releasing with a shudder as he drew a flat, relaxed tongue up between her legs. Reaching down he repeated the procedure, this time pressing the tip between her folds, moving from side to side and exploring every crevice. Another pause and then he kissed her mound lightly, his now stiffened tongue slowly extending down until it reached her clitoris. A stroke to one side and then the other prepared her, then he flicked across the exposed nerves. She arched beneath him, little "ohs" of pleasure escaping her as he teased, stroked and explored. Her fists gasped handfuls of the sheet beneath her as her legs spread wider, encouraging him. He smiled to himself at the image they presented: the often formal and staid Minbari Ambassador and Entil'zha of the Anla'Shok, inarticulate and writhing under the merciless sexual onslaught of the President of the Interstellar Alliance, his face buried between her legs.

   He slipped his forearms under her thighs and lifted her, angling her body to allow him maximum access and penetration. Tracing a path from her clitoris to her vagina, he then worked his way inside, pressing as deeply as he could, stroking and probing the roughened, wet and throbbing walls. He wanted to push his fingers into her, to stretch and tease her further, but he knew the bruising he'd taken rendered that impracticable. Still, he wanted to bring her as close to the edge as possible before he entered her, and that was impossible when he could only deal with one area at a time. Still licking, he reached over and gently encouraged her to relax her grip on the bed sheets, then he moved her fingers to her clitoris. Surprised, she looked down at him. He held her eyes, showing her what he wanted by guiding her fingers under his own. Still, when he released his grip she hesitated. It felt strange and exposed to pleasure herself in front of him; even to admit she knew how felt odd.

   "Show me how you do it," he said, his voice a low, throaty whisper. "I want to watch you." To ease her embarrassment, odd though that sensation seemed even to her, he angled his body, curling around to the side so she could see him properly, then, gritting his teeth against the discomfort in his hand, he began to caress himself, watching her eyes widen as she watched him. "It's a turn on, isn't it?" he smiled. "There's nothing," he leaned down and kissed her, "more," another kiss, "intimate," a lazy, wet circle around her clitoris, "than this." He stroked his thumb over the tip of his penis and it jerked in his hand. "Share it with me."

   Amazed at how vulnerable she felt under his watchful gaze she began to move, an almost painful ache building between her legs, which he soothed with steady strokes of his probing tongue. As she circled, rubbed and stroked herself she watched him, her eyes flicking from the hand between his legs to his hazel eyes. The latter were half closed as the combination of watching her and his own steady masturbation pushed him closer to the edge. Like reflecting mirrors they reinforced each other's responses, building on their mounting passions. He stroked himself faster, his penis now pressed against his stomach, and she responded, rubbing herself harder, feeling his tongue dip inside and then rise up slowly to wet her further.

   He increased his speed, his breath coming in shorter gasps. Groaning, he stopped, pushed her calf off his hip and moved to kneel between her legs, closing his eyes for a moment as he worked his way back to the precipice he'd attained before he'd been forced to pause and reposition himself. She, too, was nearing the edge and she rubbed more urgently. Her legs jerked involuntarily as she moved closer, her eyes rolling back in her head.

   He bent down, slowly stretching his body atop hers and easing himself into position. At the last moment he lowered his hips, effectively trapping her hand against her.

   "My turn," he murmured, reaching between them to grasp himself firmly.

   She pulled her hand away and felt him rub the head of his penis against her, pushing her to the limit.

   "John... please. I need..."

   "I know." With that he drove his hips forward. A gasp of exquisite pleasure escaped her lips and she wrapped her legs around him, her arms following suit.

   He pulled back, pausing for a moment before slowly sheathing himself once more. They were both so close he knew this wouldn't last long... and he didn't care. This was right; it was as it should be. The adrenaline rush of the battle had given him back his self-assurance, permitting him to suggest the variation in their foreplay. Now, the long drought the battle had finally ended sought immediate relief and he gave up any pretence of control. It was a frenzied coming together. Had she not been such a willing participant it would have fallen just shy of brutal. As it was, they complemented each other perfectly -- thoughts, feelings and needs escalating in power as each felt them reflected and reinforced by the other.

   His mouth was on hers, his hands holding her shoulders as he drove deeper, the pain of his grip merely another note in the symphony of sensations that washed over him. Her fingers pressed into his back, the nails scoring him... and he didn't care. They could be gentle with each other later. For now, this was what they both wanted and needed.

   "Yes... oh...." Her voice trailed off into a stream of Minbari he neither understood nor cared to translate. He knew the import without having it explained to him. He shifted slightly, making sure he stroked over her clitoris on each thrust and felt her contract around him. Her hands on his shoulders pushed him back, allowing her room to breathe. He watched as her face contorted under the pressure and then snapped into a triumphant, wide-eyed release, her voice matching her expression. It pushed him over the edge. White light exploded in his groin, racing up his spine and into his mind. Had the rooms not been sound-proofed, his exultant shout would have been evidence enough to the entire station that he was once more whole, gloriously happy and very much in love with the woman in his arms.

   As the orgasm faded he lowered himself to her chest. His heart was pounding, shaking his entire body with every powerful beat. Drawing ragged breaths into starved lungs he swallowed convulsively, struggling to restore his equilibrium.

   Delenn wrapped her arms around him, holding him tightly against her while her face ached from a huge smile of delight.

   "Thank you, thank you," she repeated. He nodded and smiled, unable, as yet, to form anything more coherent in response. He knew exactly how she felt.

   At last, his breathing now under control, he raised himself on his elbows, playfully pressing into her one last time as his body relaxed. Sweat had dampened the hair at the back of his neck and a drop slipped down his glistening forehead to run over his temple. Dishevelled, hot, exhausted and very, very happy he grinned down at her.

   "Better?" he chuckled.

   "Much," she returned, sweeping his hair back from his face.

   "Oh God, that feels good!" He laughed -- a carefree sound of sheer delight that made her heart soar.

   She brushed her fingers across his forehead and then cupped his face in her hands. "No more nightmares?"

   "Not any more," he assured her. "It's over."

   She nodded and they shared a languorous kiss, savouring the touch. When it was over he rolled to one side, pulling himself up on the bed. Extending his arm he pulled her to him and she rested her head on his chest, one arm draped across his stomach. He kissed the top of her head, hugging her tightly for a moment before releasing her and settling back.

   "Thanks... for everything. For not giving up on me; for being there when I needed you even when I tried to drive you away..."

   She shook her head. "You know better than to think I would leave you," she replied with mock sternness. "We Minbari are made of stronger stuff. You will have to do better than that if you want to drive me away."

   "Never," he returned, accompanying the word with another tight hug. "If I ever try any of this crap again, just give me a good, hard kick up the butt."

   "I will hold you to that," she grinned.

   He laughed. "I believe you would!" The euphoria still filled his mind and body, but it was slowly surrendering to physical exhaustion. "You know, before our first meetings tomorrow I plan on giving you a refresher course on how much I love you. In the meantime..." He reached down, releasing her briefly while he snagged the duvet, "I just want to hold you," she snuggled back into his embrace as he arranged the covers over them, "and go to sleep knowing you're beside me."

   "Sounds perfect," she sighed, fidgeting until she found the ideal position. Her hair splayed out over his chest and shoulder and she pushed a lock of it behind her ear, exhaling a breath that danced across his skin. "I love you."

   "I know. I love you, too." He cleared his throat. "Computer, set alarm for zero-five-thirty hours." The computer emitted the little musical note that indicated the order had been received and understood. "Lights out." The room was plunged into darkness. After a short pause he chuckled.

   "What's so funny?" she asked, her voice already thick with the beginnings of sleep.

   "I was just thinking... I'm going to make that anniversary after all."

   She hummed in appreciation as they shared another, brief hug, and then he rested his cheek against her hair. "Who'd've thought it?" he murmured, surrendering to a peaceful sleep.

 

End

*****

 

 

Notes:

The name of the Minbari Warcruiser means "Fire Star" (Ah hell meaning continuous fire in Minbari (according to Lorien talking to Ivanova), and Drala Fi meaning Black Star).

Milgram experiments. I'm not joking here. If you want to investigate further, go to: http://muskingum.edu/~psychology/psycweb/history/milgram.htm

Many thanks to myriad beta readers, who I'll not name to protect the guilty <G>. Any errors you still manage to find, PLEASE let me know. I take full responsibility for them.

 

*****

 

 

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