2284 (VII): AFTERGLOW

By John Hightower

 

 

 

[Note from the JumpNow.de editor:
Please send all feedback for the author to fanfiction@jumpnow.de . We will forward it to him.]

 

 

 

 

*****

   Earth Year 2284

   Susan snatched up another link and an earpiece as John closed the hatch on his way out. Making her way back forward, she passed a silent, brooding Delenn and an angry David.

   "What in the Hell does he think he's doing?" David exclaimed angrily. "Does he want to die or something? Does he enjoy putting his neck on the line? I don't understand…"

   "Stop it, David!" Susan growled. "You're upsetting your mother. He went because he didn't want you to go. He loves you, and someone had to go." Indicating the tired Rangers around her, she said, "Who would you have selected? I would have gone. You would have gone. Any one of your Rangers would have gone. But John wouldn't allow it, not even if the price was to be separated from her." Susan indicated Delenn, who was still sitting silently, head bowed. "You see, David, your father has never felt worthy of the faith others place in him, worthy of the faith your mother places in him. He's never recognized his own…nobility. He doesn't want to risk his life, it's just that he considers your lives far more important." Susan calmed just as quickly as she had blown up. "David," she continued more quietly, "Think about it. You're just starting out in life. You have a whole new universe waiting for you. You have people who depend on you now. You have a responsibility to these Rangers, and you definitely have a responsibility to your mother and Ardenn, to stay alive. You're not expendable, at least in your father's eyes."

   David sighed angrily and ran a hand through his hair as he listened. "I still don't like it, but I guess I don't have to, do I? It's done."

   "No, you don't have to like it. I don't like it, either." Susan replied as she strode to the viewport and looked out. After glancing out a moment, she turned back to the young Ranger. "OK, David, get everybody situated. He must have released the manual locks. I just saw the overhang move. We can push it out of the way as we launch." Moving to the Captain's chair, she keyed in the lifters and ran up the engines.

   David looked out as he secured some of his wounded Rangers. "Uh, Susan? That assault ship is getting awfully close. Dad had better hurry his ass back here." As he was speaking, the assault ship cut loose with another heavy weapons discharge against the shield. Several plasteel panels buckled completely. The shield was failing. "Dammit!" David exclaimed, "He'd better run like the wind! Have you still got him on the link?"

   "Yeah, got him, but he's not talking to us…" Susan trailed off as she put her hand to her earpiece so she could hear more clearly. "He's talking to Captain Marsten on the Far Traveler…" Listening further, her eyes widened. "Shit! That damn sonuvabitch! David, lock down the hatch NOW!"

   Reacting instantly, David ran and keyed the door, clamping the locking lugs down. Turning back to Susan when the task was complete, he saw that she had gone white listening to the link. "Susan what's wrong? Dad can't get back in with the hatch locked."

   "David, the assault ship's gotten too close. He won't make it back, and we can't launch with that ship there anyway. Since they're just hanging around waiting to shoot us down, your dad is going to turn the tables on them. He's calling in an orbital bombardment mission from the Far Traveler. He's going to slag that assault ship with a Level Two shot." Cursing at John and at herself the whole time, Susan keyed the lifters to active and the main engines to standby. The ship lifted off the ground. "He's planning on riding out the blast down here," she concluded disgustedly.

   David would have replied, but a low keening wail distracted him. It was Delenn. Her face was back in her hands. She had been trying her best to stay quiet and out of the way, but could swallow her despair no longer. "Mother?" Forgetting Susan for the moment, David ran to Delenn's side. "It's OK, Mother. He'll be all right. He said the control room was hardened and he's still under the shield. He'll make it. I know he will." David sat and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her into his shoulder.

   Delenn accepted David's comfort without resistance, leaning into her son's shoulder. "He said he loved me, David. And I was so angry with him for…for being himself. I did not reply. I did not acknowledge his love, and I should have replied. I had forgotten…I had forgotten that one of the things about him that brings me joy is also a part of him that brings me pain. I should have said the words…once more." Abruptly, she pulled away from him and began to stand. "Perhaps…perhaps there is still time…"

   A blinding light glared through the viewport for an instant, followed by a bone-shattering detonation that rattled the walls of the ship. David forcefully pulled Delenn back into her seat while simultaneously reaching over her to hold Ardenn as still as possible. Susan grimly listened to her link for an instant as she watched the encroaching pressure wave and fireball that was all that remained of the Bureau 13 ship. Nodding as if to herself, her fingers flew across the controls and the ship ascended rapidly, shoving the protective overhang aside in the process.

   Once free, Susan keyed the main engines to full power and the ship surged forward and away from the spaceport, vibrating with the strain. The rate of their ascent overrode the gravity generators, shoving everyone aboard back hard. No movement was possible. Susan, her teeth rattling, called out as best she could, "HHHold ooon! PPPresssure waaave!" An instant later, the ship was tossed like a cork on the sea as the mass of expanding gases passed around them. The buffeting was over almost as quickly as it began. After the wave passed, calm descended on a ship silent except for the groans of the injured.

   David left his seat and moved up quietly beside Susan. "I'm not sure I want to see this, Ranger One, but let's have a look." Susan didn't reply, numb as she was from their narrow escape. Silently, she manipulated the control board to bring the ship around in a high arc over the spaceport.

   Fully a quarter of the spaceport was devastated. Of the five spoked arms of the terminal, one was completely leveled and another heavily damaged. The still-smoldering wrecks of the main loading gantry and David's White Star were visible, along with a burning crater in the tarmac where the Bureau 13 ship had once been. There was no sign of the security shield; it had been adjacent to the arm of the terminal which had sustained the most damage. It was difficult to tell where it had even been. Nothing but smoking debris was visible in the area. Susan turned forlornly from the viewport and looked at David.

   "Do you think he could have survived down there?" David asked hesitantly, dreading the answer.

   Susan keyed her link. "John Sheridan, this is the Isil-zha, over." Her only answer was static. Rekeying the link, she tried again with the same result. Looking at David again, she shook her head slightly.

   Susan felt another person beside her. Delenn moved up to the viewport, her expression blank. She stared out at the destruction for a long minute as the ship slowly banked around the area, her eyes not leaving the scene below. "Susan," she murmured woodenly, "when we get back to Minbar, we will need to put together an aid package for the colony…to repair the damage. I will need your support to push it through the Advisory Council." Clasping her hands in front of her, she quietly continued, "Also, it appears that Ardenn may be recuperating for some time. As I find myself temporarily without an aide, I would appreciate it if you would loan me someone from your staff to…to assist me…" Bowing her head, she tried to choke back a sob, "…to help me…put the proposal together…" She trailed off, collecting herself with some effort before continuing. "I…I am going back to the aft cabin now. Ardenn…could probably use some company." Holding her chin high, she turned from the viewport and walked to the ship's sleeping compartment, tears glistening on her cheeks. The door hissed closed behind her.

   Susan recognized Delenn's veiled appeal for help in the words she had chosen. Watching her depart, she turned to David after the door closed. "Take command of the ship. I'll see to your mother."

   "Orders, Ranger One?" David's face was impassive. He was swallowing his pain. Perhaps once he got Ardenn to a doctor, he thought, he'd find some place alone to vent his sorrow and frustration. Not here, he thought determinedly, not in front of his people.

   Susan sighed. "The ship, David. We've seen enough here. Set course for the ship. Contact them…tell them to have medical teams standing by. Tell them…tell them to stand down their main gun. The target was destroyed." Getting up out of her chair, she trailed after her friend.

   

***

   

   Susan found Delenn lying on the small couch next to Ardenn's bed on her back, staring blankly at the ceiling. Tear tracks ran from her eyes and down her temples. She was crying, quietly so as not to disturb the young woman beside her. She didn't acknowledge Susan's entrance.

   Susan moved to her and sat down on the floor, resting her back against the couch and drawing her knees up to her chin. She did not look at Delenn, but she reached out and took her hand and held it. She said nothing, instead waiting patiently for her friend to speak. She knew she would, when she felt like it. Susan did not have to wait long. Sniffling slightly, Delenn drew in a shaky breath and began to talk.

   "He said…he said he would get me home, whatever it took." Delenn paused, her throat seizing up as a moan fought to surface. Swallowing it back down, she continued, "Why, Susan?" she asked in a small voice, "Why did he not listen to me?"

   Susan knew that she didn't expect an answer. Giving Delenn's hand a supportive squeeze, she waited for her to continue.

   "I…I thought I was past all of this, Susan. I thought I was over it. There was pain still, of course…I knew that there always would be. I accepted that. I had known pain before, and it did not frighten me. I would know him, I would love him and I would ignore the twenty year curse. I had to ignore it…otherwise it would have gnawed at my soul. I could not love like that. John deserved better than that from me. Oh, I went through the motions…you were there, you knew. In my heart, though, I ignored it right up until the end, right up until I felt…the void…the void in my soul where John had always been before." As she spoke, her voice started to break up as her emotional control began to collapse. She started to sob. "Pain…in my arrogance I thought I knew pain. I knew nothing! I did…not…expect this, Susan," she managed to choke out, "I did not expect to ever feel this way again…I had twenty years to prepare myself before, even though I pretended then that the curse did not exist. And now I feel him again, like a dream. Susan, if this is a dream, I fear I am waking from it and when I do, the void will be waiting for me. I cannot face it after having felt John touch my soul again…I am not ready now…" Shivering, she released Susan's hand curled herself in a ball with her back to her friend. "Oh, Valen!" she cried, "…Please…help me, Susan," she sobbed, "I cannot survive this again…please help."

   Susan turned and took Delenn by the shoulders. Rolling her over, she silently put her arms around her and hugged her. Delenn continued to cry into her, although no sound emerged. The only sign she was in distress was the uneven heaving of her chest as she leaned into her friend and hid her face.

   Dimly, Susan heard the soft tone of the intercom bell as she comforted her friend. "Susan?" David called.

   Susan sighed and looked up, imploring the Almighty for patience before replying. "Not now, David."

   "Susan, this is important! Wait a second! Listen!" Back on the bridge, David hastily keyed the link to the speaker.

   Susan heard John's voice ring across the depressed silence of the ship. He said "Susan ,<static >…hear me? <static >…alive down here…"

   "John?" Susan shouted. Reaching down, she shook Delenn's arm excitedly. "He's still alive down there, Delenn! Listen!"

   <static >…hear me? Susan <static >…think my link <static >…damaged in the <static >…I'm OK, I'm not injured.

   Delenn sat up slowly, wiping at her face and taking a moment to absorb the voice she was hearing. Hesitantly, she stood. "Can you hear me, John?" she asked shakily, not believing her own ears.

   "Yes, Dear…<static >…I'm not hurt. Don't worry about <static >. This place is a mess, though. <static >…love you."

   Delenn suddenly became angry at his words, angry at the emotional roller coaster she had been forced to ride for the past days, weeks…and years. She clenched her fists until her knuckles were white and in her most imposing tone of voice, she said, "Do not worry, you say? DO NOT WORRY? You are so…so disgustingly HUMAN sometimes! Do you have any conception whatsoever of what you are putting me through up here? John, you…you will NEVER do this to me again. Do you understand? NEVER!" Glancing around, she noticed Ardenn stirring. Lowering her voice, she forced herself to calm before continuing. "I cannot live like this any more, John. I will not allow you to throw away what the universe has given us. You are mine now and always and I love you. I need you. I need you here and I need you alive. Do you understand that? I refuse to go back to the misery of being alone. The next time you get it into your mind to risk your life, tell me beforehand so I may stick my foot up your BUTT as a reminder of what I have said this day." Sighing, Delenn allowed herself a slow smile. "Now that I have 'gotten that off my chest' as you say, I want you to know that I am glad you are alive. We shall be down shortly to retrieve you."

   "Uh, negative. <static >…to Far Traveler first. <static >…Ardenn to a doctor now. Susan? Are you there?"

   Susan spoke up. "I'm here, John. I'm echoing Delenn's comments, just so you know."

   "OK, OK! I get <static >…damn picture already! Ganging up on me. <static >…Delenn is <static >…worse than she's letting on. She <static >… doctor, too. Make sure she <static >…checked out and she rests.

   Susan looked over at Delenn suspiciously. "You're injured after all, huh? I thought I noticed you were walking kind of gingerly before."

   Delenn glanced down in embarrassment. "It is nothing, really," she murmured in a low voice. "I did not want you or David to worry. I will be fine with a little rest and some pain medication."

   "We'll let a doctor decide how 'fine' you are." Turning from Delenn, she addressed John. "I can call ahead to the Far Traveler and send another ship down for you John. It'll take about twenty minutes to reach you."

   "Wait a minute…<static >…OK, that's got it. I adjusted my link. Can you hear me better now?"

   "Much better."

   "Anyway, Susan…just alert another pilot and turn your ship around for me after you get to the Far Traveler. You and David get some rest, too, and see to David's people. Make sure he actually rests and doesn't sit up brooding over Ardenn. She'll be all right. There's someone I need to talk to here. This…this may take a little while. I'll see you all soon…I hope. I love all of you. Sheridan out."

   Susan looked at Delenn. "Who would he need to talk to down there?" she asked.

   "I…I do not know."

   

***

   

   'Organized chaos' probably best described the situation in the docking bay of the Far Traveler as Susan eased her small ship into its magnetic grapples. Maintenance personnel rushed to inspect the ship as medical teams wheeled gurneys quickly towards the hatch. Through the viewport, Susan could see fighters readying for launch in support of the response teams she had ordered to stay near the spaceport. The glaring red of the Far Traveler's alert beacon flashed in her eyes. "Well, we're in. Pop the hatch, David. Let's get Ardenn and the other injured out of here and to Medlab, pronto. Seriously injured first."

   David opened the hatch, and medical personnel immediately entered. The medtechs quickly went through the ship, assessing the injured. "She goes first." one of the technicians said, indicating Ardenn. Moving to her side as the technicians unstrapped her from the bed, David noticed that she was awake. She seemed to be groggily surveying her surroundings.

   "Mmm…David? Where…where are you?" she called urgently as she looked for him through heavy lids.

   "I'm right here, Dearest." David moved closer to her so she could see him. "Better?"

   "Yes," Ardenn sighed, slowly extending a hand. "Where…are we?"

   David took the extended hand, kneeling and pressing it against his cheek to reassure her of his presence. She started to turn her head towards him, but he forestalled her. "Don't move your head, Dearest. We're back aboard your ship. You're safe now. These people are taking you to Medlab so the doctors can take care of you." David moved aside momentarily as the medical technicians gently lifted Ardenn onto a stretcher. As they began carrying her off the ship, he rose and walked beside them, still holding her hand. "How are you feeling now? Are you still in pain?"

   Surprisingly, Ardenn looked up at him and giggled. For the first time, David noticed exactly how unfocused her eyes were. Her speech was also a little slurred. "Pain?" she said, giggling again, "No…right now I am feeling no pain. No pain at all." Motioning David to bend closer to her, she reached up with her free hand and started running her fingers through his hair. "David…" she whispered into his ear huskily, "You know I want to be with you, do you not?"

   "Well, you're with me now, sweetheart." David replied, a little uncertainly. "I'm not leaving you."

   Chuckling at his response, Ardenn tried to shake her head, which she found to be immobilized. Rather loudly, she said, "I think you are a funny human, David Sheridan. You pretend not to understand my heart or my words, but I know you do. I mean mate with you physically. Have you inside me." Ardenn paused and giggled again. "Oh, dear…Susan warned me to be discreet. Perhaps I should not have said that in front of the other humans. Do you suppose I have rubbed their noses?"

   David heard one of the medical people snicker as the tech tried not to listen and failed. Glaring at the man for an instant, he turned back to find a woman who was gazing at him with more than mere affection in her eyes. "Uh…rubbed their noses?" David asked, at a loss. "Well…uh, yeah, sweetheart, it probably wouldn't have hurt for you to keep uh…your desires to yourself, at least until we were alone."

   "I am sorry, Dearest. I do not understand…something inside me is making me say these things. I cannot seem to restrain myself. I think it, and it comes out of my mouth." Ardenn looked serious for a moment, but couldn't hold the expression. Bringing her free hand to her mouth, she tried to stifle another giggle.

   David's embarrassment faded, to be replaced with concern. Turning to the lead medtech, he asked, "Uh…is she all right? I mean…she might have been jostled wrong in the flight or something. These sentiments she's expressing are not normally something an unbonded female would discuss, at least not around others."

   "Maybe," the technician said, smiling as he watched the injured Minbari woman snake her free hand up David's leg with a decidedly predatory look on her face. "That depends on what you've been…uh, injecting into her up until now, Ranger. Whatever it is, she's evidently enjoying it."

   "Listen, I know how she sounds, but she and I…we're not…well, we are, but…I mean, she and I haven't…" David stammered, trying to protect Ardenn's reputation.

   The tech laughed, holding up his hands in mock-defense, "Look, buddy, I meant no offense. I've been around the Rangers for twenty years and hey, it happens. No one talks about it much, humans and Minbari together and all, but it happens." He turned serious. "You're Sheridan's son, aren't you?" At David's nod, he continued. "Well, you've been wearing the brooch long enough to know, I guess. It's time you came up for air and took a good, hard look around. Look over there." The tech indicated a male human Ranger talking to a female Minbari one.

   David watched the two for a moment. They looked busy, going over information on datapads together as people bustled around them. Nothing unusual in that, he thought. As the two concluded their conversation and parted, though, there was the slightest hesitation. A look between them, a tentative brush of hands before they went their separate ways. No one not looking for it would have even noticed.

   "That's our chief engineer and our navigator. They've been a couple for years. Everybody knows, of course, but we say nothing. They understand discretion, and so do we." The tech looked understandingly at a wide-eyed David and smiled. "I thought you'd be surprised. There are others. Like I said, it happens." Looking down at Ardenn, he continued. "Anyway, I meant medications. Sorry for the joke. You look so serious that I thought you could use some humor. Have you given her any drugs?"

   "Oh, uh…yeah. Drugs. I guess you'd need to know about that, wouldn't you?" Pulling the injector that contained the Minbari pain medication out of his pocket, he handed it over. The tech looked at it critically, then back at David. "Is this it? Anything else?"

   "No…wait. Yeah...there's some human stuff we gave her, too." David reached into his other pocket and searched around for the empty injector he had gotten from his father. As he did, he noticed that Ardenn was now caressing his hip appreciatively. Other people in the bay were starting to glance curiously in their direction, and she was making it very hard for him to concentrate. "Uh, OK…here it is," he mumbled a little uncomfortably as he handed it over.

   The tech held up the two injectors side by side, reading the labels. He looked from them to Ardenn and then back at David. "You mixed these?"

   David shrugged. "It was all we had." Growing worried, he said, "I didn't make her sick, did I? Oh, shit…that's all she needs now."

   The technician furrowed his brows in thought. Finally, he said, "No, Ranger. I don't think she's sick." He showed the injectors to another tech, who smiled and nodded in confirmation. Turning back to David, he said, "She's…well…she's drunk. I guess that's the best way of putting it. No wonder she's feeling no pain." All of the technicians were smiling now. "You did the Minbari equivalent of 'slipping her a Mickey' when both of these mixed in her bloodstream. You knocked her out for a while, but now she's awake with these two drugs mixed inside her. Her inhibitions are down." The lead medic chuckled again and said, "Has she got any deep, dark secrets you want to know about? Now's a good time to ask."

   David could feel his face going red with embarrassment as the technician continued, "Don't worry, Ranger. The effect will wear off when the drugs wear off. An hour or two maybe." Looking at David, he raised an eyebrow. "Still, if you ask me, she must want you pretty badly to be saying those things. You might want to look into her proposition." He hesitated a moment, then quietly said, "You know, someone as high-profile as you…and your friend here, uh, getting together openly might help some of the other good people like the two you just saw. They don't want to hide, and they'd probably marry if someone would conduct the ceremony, but they're afraid. The only place they can relax a little is on the ship. They can't go anywhere else together in public, and they can't ask to be assigned together as a married couple. Sooner or later, one or the other will get reassigned…and they love each other. It's a shame, a damn shame."

   The tech's words saddened David. It was a shame that they had to hide even among the Rangers. Even after his parents had shown that it could be done. At least the Ranger couple was together now, he thought. Ardenn wasn't a Ranger, and never could be one. She had to live in a society that this couple could at least avoid when they were on the ship. A vision of other Minbari shunning Ardenn as she walked through the streets danced through his head. He wouldn't see it…he'd be on a mission somewhere, blissfully unaware of the contempt she'd be putting up with. She'd never say anything about it to him, either. He thought about his parents. They were the leaders of their societies, and had still put up with their share of grief. They had been in positions high enough that they could overcome that sort of prejudice. Despite his famous name, David realized that he was not a great commander of an army of light, merely the inexperienced captain of a small Ranger ship, now destroyed. Ardenn was no former Satai, she was a young apprentice who was on borrowed time from her Order in any event. In and of themselves, he and Ardenn were not powerful, influential people. But they loved each other. That had to count for something.

   David felt a gentle squeeze of his hand. Ardenn had picked up on his uncertain thoughts. Quiet for the moment, she was gazing at him with questions in her eyes…trying to gauge his mood. Burying his dark thoughts, he smiled down at her reassuringly and clasped her hand between his. It would work out, he told himself. How could he look into her eyes and believe otherwise? He…they…would make it work out…somehow.

   As David somberly considered the situation between him and Ardenn, the medtechs started moving again. As the lead medtech walked, he continued talking, saying, "She's telling the truth, you know. I said she was drunk. I didn't say she was drunk and lying. She's still a Minbari, after all, and you know that Minbari don't lie except to protect another's honor." Clapping David on the shoulder, he motioned for David to stay in the bay as they summoned the lift. As they waited, the medtech said, "Think about what you saw, Ranger Sheridan. You know, depending on who heard what she said, that could be construed as her public declaration for you, although under the circumstances I doubt that anyone would hold her to it. At any rate, if you're going to have a Minbari proposition you, she may as well be a good-looking one. Consider it a compliment…you could do a lot worse."

   Ignoring the medtech's comments for the moment, David removed Ardenn's hand from his and placed it on her stomach, David knelt and kissed her softly, caressing the uninjured side of her crest. "I have to go and see to my Rangers now, Ardenn. These men are going to take good care of you. As soon as my people are taken care of, I'll be right down. Will you be all right?"

   Ardenn momentarily stopped giggling. She seemed to be phasing in and out of lucidity at random. "I will be fine, David. I just feel a little woozy now. Come when you are able." Snickering again, Ardenn caught her own double entendre. "Come when you are able…ha! I am a funny Minbari…"

   "And a beautiful one. I'll see you soon."

   As the lift doors opened and she was carried in, she called out, "I have embarrassed you, David. I am sorry, but I have to say what is in my heart. I do love you."

   David smiled and replied, "You could never embarrass me. I love you, too." Looking around, he gestured at the people who had stopped what they were doing to watch him kiss a Minbari female. "Yeah, that's right, I kissed her. Was that public enough for you? I'm not hiding. Anyone here got a problem with that?" No one took up his challenge. As people went back to what they were doing, David stared at the closed lift doors for a long moment, thinking about the two of them as a couple. Sighing to himself, he turned to go back to the ship.

   A gentle tug at his cloak stopped him. David turned to see The Far Traveler's navigator, the female Minbari the tech pointed out to him earlier. From her crest, David could tell she had been Worker caste before joining the Rangers and she appeared to be about ten years older that David or Ardenn. Smiling slightly, she bowed. As she straightened, she said, "I am Nareel of Varnya. Thank you, Anla Shok Sheridan, for what you just did. Your do not realize it, but your words and actions have touched my heart." She paused and glanced around nervously before continuing quietly, "There are…more of us, more Humans and Minbari who have created lives together. We stay in the shadows mostly and do not advertise ourselves, but I wanted you to know that you and your mate are not alone. Here, you are safe. No one on this ship will speak against what you or she have done, but all will watch you now." Nareel looked thoughtful for a moment. "Your mate is of the Sisters and without caste. This makes her vulnerable in our society, as she has no family to shield her from the condemnation that some would heap upon her for falling in love with a human, even one as prominent as you. She must care for you deeply to speak words of love to you in public under those circumstances. Your relationship is not without risk, but some of us understand. Perhaps someday more will." Reaching out, she touched his arm fondly and said, "My mate and I shall pray for your Ardenn tonight when we meditate." With that, she bowed again, turned and headed back into the bustle.

   His mate. Ardenn as his mate. Funny, David thought, that despite all of his misgivings, the reference sounded 'right' to him. <And why shouldn't it? > He reasoned, <It's not as if we just met…I've known Ardenn longer than my own parents knew each other before they married… > Still, he reasoned, if Nareel's assumption about their relationship ever came to pass, he would have to find a way to protect her. Without the protective mantle of the Sisterhood, Ardenn would be extremely vulnerable to the dark underbellies of Minbari society, racism and exclusion. Perhaps his mother would have some ideas. He would worry about this later, he decided. <'Mate', though… > David smiled to himself, finding that the more he thought about it, the more he liked the sound of it. Despite the complications, as he walked back to the ship he was surprised to find that his mood was considerably lightened.

   

***

   

   "Delenn, the medtechs are waiting for you. What are you doing…oh, sorry!" Susan winced at her bad timing as she entered the aft compartment of the ship. Delenn was naked and in the midst of changing clothes.

   "It is all right, Susan. You may enter," Delenn smiled at her friend's distress. "If you should see anything you have not seen before, please inform me so I may have it tracked down for further study."

   Embarrassed, Susan smiled at Delenn's joke. Still, as she entered the compartment, she couldn't help looking appreciatively at her. Despite having been the one who introduced Delenn to caring for herself as a human, she had never seen her fully unclothed. Not surprisingly, Delenn was built almost exactly like a normal human woman. She was slim figured, with small but firm breasts, a narrow waspish waist and attractive, shapely legs that tapered to slender ankles. She carried not an ounce of fat on her body that Susan could see, but she did not appear emaciated. Surprisingly, Susan noted that she had not been too far off with her comment about Delenn being tight as a drum. She had the body of a woman half her age. Her one throwback to her Minbari origins, Susan noticed, was her reproductive area. Delenn had no pubic hair. In its place, delicate ridges of skin, resembling an intricate oriental fan, ran from the top of her pelvic bone and descended, ladder fashion, towards her vagina.

   Delenn noted Susan's curious expression. Looking down, she commented, "Well, yes…there is that…" Suddenly self-conscious, she continued, "My reproductive system is still partially Minbari. The…folds, which we call oth'la, are sensitive to the touch of a mate. It is really little different from the human fashion. They stiffen and secrete lubricating fluids when stimulated…"

   "No. That's not what I'm concerned with." Susan shook her head when it appeared her misunderstanding friend was about to go into detail. "My God, Delenn…Your legs! Your ribs!" Susan moved closer, bending to inspect the livid brownish-black bruises that ran up her friend's calves and thighs. Moving up, she eyed the large bruise on her ribcage. "What the hell did they do to you? Why didn't you say anything? I don't know how you're even standing and you're in here changing your clothes like you're going to a…a dinner social or something!" Straightening, Susan eyed Delenn almost angrily. "You, old friend, are going out of here on a stretcher. I have half a mind to get the medics in here now and have them take you away just as you are."

   "No! Absolutely not, Susan. I am the President of the Alliance and I will appear in public as such." When it appeared that Susan might follow through with her threat anyway, Delenn became annoyed. "I will not be wheeled out of here on a gurney like a cripple in tattered clothes! I am fine!" Huffily, she finished pulling on her robe, not meeting Susan's eyes. "They are just bruises, Susan," she muttered under her breath, "They look worse than they are."

   "Really? Then why are you leaning against the bulkhead? You look a little wobbly to me." Susan looked at Delenn critically. "When we were down on the planet, how did you get back to the ship?" Delenn didn't answer. Looking up, she just glared angrily at her friend. "Uh huh," Susan continued, "I thought so. I'll bet John carried you most of the way and put you down when you reached a point where others could see you. Go ahead. Call me a liar, Delenn. Just try it."

   "It is of no importance." Delenn said frostily, "Besides, I have not been held by my husband in a long while. It comforted me, pleasured him and I was not going to argue." Straightening up with a visible effort, Delenn concluded, "I have made my decision. I am walking out of here under my own power. I will go to my quarters to await my husband."

   "And what will you do when he arrives, Mrs. Sheridan? Moan seductively for him while he rubs liniment on you? I know what you want, and I guarantee that will be about the extent of your activities in that area the way you are now. But, you are the President. If you insist…" Susan moved aside with a flourish, gesturing towards the door. "Have at it."

   Squaring her shoulders, Delenn strode out the door and through the hatch, Susan following closely. As they walked, Delenn noticed David beside Ardenn's stretcher, talking to the medics. Not unexpected, but what was unexpected was Ardenn's hand firmly on his buttocks. Susan leaned over to Delenn with a Cheshire grin, her disagreement with the Minbari forgotten. "Looks like your aide is putting the move on her Ranger."

   Delenn eyed the two critically for a moment. "Perhaps I should go over and…uh, disengage the two of them," she said uncertainly. "I recommended to Ardenn that she be discreet. It appears that she is not heeding my advice." Watching further, she saw David bend, kiss her, and caress her crest. "Nor is David exercising the best of judgment." she concluded.

   "You will do no such thing, Delenn. I told her the same thing, but young people…sometimes they just have to learn for themselves. See that Minbari Ranger talking to him there? She's probably giving him a good shellacking now. That ought to knock a little discretion into his head. Let it go. Poor Ardenn's all doped up anyway. She probably doesn't even realize what she did."

   "Very well, then." Delenn began walking again, a little stiffly in Susan's opinion. "Funny. David does not look particularly chastised."

   Susan continued walking in silence for a moment before musing aloud, "Delenn, have you ever wondered…?"

   "Wondered what?"

   "Well, I didn't even know full Minbari and humans could uh…join until David told me it was possible. I hadn't even given it a whole lot of thought. Now, though, watching the two of them, I wonder…do you suppose there are any others out there?"

   Delenn put a finger to her lips, considering. "It is possible there are. I heard rumors of such when I was Ranger One. If so, it would occur among the Rangers long before it spread into the general population. If it is occurring, the people involved are being very discreet, and rightly so." Turning to Susan, she asked, "Are you considering looking into this?"

   "Nah. What would be the point? I'd just as soon legitimize them as tell them to stop. Imagine how that'd go over with Earth and Minbar. Rather than open that can of worms I'll just turn a blind eye." Susan pondered the idea for a moment. Out loud, she said, "Still, a blind eye might be a little extreme. Even among the Rangers, things would be hard for couples like that. Perhaps a discreet message to commanders to 'gently assist' in such situations would be in order. You know, for assignments and such. I could acknowledge that the situation is a possibility without officially acknowledging it exists."

   "Perhaps that is not…a bad idea." Delenn grunted out the last part of her sentence as her knees started to protest. Reaching the lift, she stood with obvious discomfort waiting for the doors to open. When they finally did, she stepped in and remained erect just long enough for the doors to close again, practically lunging against the railing when her knees finally buckled from the strain of walking. Beside her, Susan watched with an 'I told you so' look on her face. Grudgingly, Delenn conceded to her body's warning signals. "All right, Susan," she groaned, "Change one to the schedule. First we go to Medlab for a moment, then I go to my quarters to await John. Now, If you would kindly assist me in getting up…"

   "No problem." Susan replied neutrally as she stooped to assist. She knew better than to say anything more. The two stood in silence for a moment as the lift started. Searching for something other than Delenn's discomfort to talk about, Susan said, "So, you say the, uh, oth'las stiffen and secrete lubricating fluids when stimulated by touch, eh?"

   "Yes." Delenn stood in silence for a moment, then said, "There is, you know, a ritual for stimulating the area, believe it or not."

   Looking straight ahead, Susan said with a totally straight face, "Now that you mention it, I think I know that ritual."

   Delenn paused for a heartbeat, then with an equally straight face said, "John is…not one for rituals, but he does have some that he, ah, prefers over others…as do I. I am looking forward to having him back."

   "I'll bet you are."

   Delenn cleared her throat. "It is, I have discovered, not nearly as satisfying a ritual when performed alone."

   Susan couldn't resist a chuckle. "I know what you mean, Sister. Believe me, I know what you mean."

   

***

   

   If the flight deck of the Far Traveler was 'organized chaos', then the ship had saved the real chaos for the Medlab. Wounded Rangers and medical personnel were everywhere, and discarded supplies and equipment littered the area. Ardenn's stretcher arrived seconds before the lift door hissed open for Susan and Delenn. The young Minbari had been moved into a glassed off enclosure apart from the hustle and bustle, and a team of human and Minbari doctors and technicians were already working hurriedly to prep her for surgery.

   Delenn moved like an island of stability through the throng. People saw her and got out of the way. Susan stayed right beside her, holding her arm and trying hard to make it appear that she was not supporting her. "Delenn," Susan entreated, "Let me get you a doctor. Please."

   "No, Susan, I will see to Ardenn first. David will worry about her, but he needs to take care of his people. I will make sure she is taken care of for him." Moving to the glass, she tapped it until she got a doctor's attention. The doctor, a human, activated the intercom.

   "Yes, Madame President?"

   "The female in there. She is very important to me. You will take good care of her." It was a statement, not a question or a plea.

   The doctor bristled slightly. "Madame President, begging your pardon, but we would take good care of her if she were a nobody coming in hurt off the street. She is in the best of hands."

   Feeling a little chastened, Delenn responded, "I apologize for my tone, doctor. I do not doubt your skills…I am simply worried for her. Will there be…permanent damage?"

   The doctor sighed. "It's impossible to tell now, we're just doing the preliminary scans. We can get the bullet out, but a living part of her bonecrest will have to be cut away to get at it. The rest of the left side of her bonecrest, though…is severely damaged. I just don't know. It all depends on how much of the bone and underlying cartilage can be saved. We will do the best we can, but she may be looking at several years' worth of bone, tissue and nerve regeneration. One good thing, though. Whoever performed first aid on her knew what they were doing and gave a damn about whether or not she kept her crest. He or she made sure there was something left here for us to work with. Otherwise, we'd just be cutting dead bone away." He looked back at a Minbari tech that was signaling for him. "I need to get back, Madame President. Getting the bullet out will go quickly, but the rest…well, she will be in surgery for a while."

   Delenn was too tired and sore to be as polite as she would have normally been. "I expect updates. Regularly."

   "I'll see that they keep you apprised, Delenn." Susan interjected, nodding thanks as the doctor returned to his task, "Right now, though, I hear an examination table calling you." Guiding her friend back into the throng, they made their way over to an empty examination room.

   "Susan, this is unnecessary. Let us just find a pharmacist, get me some pain medication and muscle relaxers, and I can go to my quarters. I need to prepare for John's arrival and there are others that need a doctor far more than me. You need rest as well."

   "I'm sorry, Delenn. I couldn't hear you. I was too busy listening to someone who was being pig-headed. I almost thought it was your husband's voice, but then I noticed the accent and the bone. Now…" Susan reached out and grabbed a passing doctor, "Hello. What's up, doc? I have a patient for you. I've already done a preliminary workup, and she seems to be rather bruised and sore, not to mention grouchy and cranky. She's also the President of the Alliance, but don't let that pressure you any."

   "Well, uh…" the doctor began. Seeing Susan's unspoken warning he turned to Delenn who, thinking no one was watching her, had closed her eyes tiredly. She snapped them back open when the doctor addressed her. "Madame President, I'm honored. Let's have a look, shall we?" Pulling the door shut, he indicated that Delenn should remove her robe and lie back. After taking her vitals, he examined her bruises, muttering comments to himself as he checked her ribs and legs. When he got to her knees, he felt at the joints, eliciting a yelp of pain from her. Stepping back from the table, he put his hand to his chin and regarded her silently for a moment. "Uh, Madame President? You can dress now. I'm finished."

   "Well, doc? Will she live?" Susan asked.

   "Can I see you outside for a moment, Ranger One?" the doctor replied. Leading her away from a puzzled Delenn, the doctor said, "Most of the bruises are superficial. We'll give her a topical salve for those that will clear them up within a day or so. The tendons behind her knees appear intact. They were constricted but appear to have loosened. The swelling will go down in time as long as she stays off of her feet. Still, those tendons are pretty banged up and are probably bothering her considerably. I'm not sure how she's walking. She really ought to stay here for a few hours so we can observe her."

   "Is that it?"

   "Well, no. Her pulse, heart rate, and blood pressure are elevated, she's very tense and physically, she's exhausted. She needs at least ten to twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep."

   "OK…she won't agree to stay here, and something tells me that she won't get much sleep in her quarters, so knock her out."

   "Uh…I can't 'do' that. She's the President of the Alliance. She won't like just being 'knocked out', Ranger One."

   Susan sighed. "Then don't tell her. Just do it." The doctor looked unsure, so Susan elaborated. "Look, she may get pissed afterwards, but all she'll do is complain. I, however, will get pissed now and I won't just complain. I'll rip you head off and shit in the bloody stump. So, doctor," Susan said, smiling dangerously, "pick your poison."

   The doctor swallowed, turned and led Susan back to the examining room. Filling a hypo, he said, "Madame President, this is a combination pain killer and muscle relaxer. It will help take the swelling in the knee tendons down." Bending, he injected it into her neck. "Now, if you'll lie here a minute while it's absorbed, we'll get you on your way."

   As Delenn waited impatiently, she began to feel a little detached. "Uh…Susan? I feel sleepy all of a sudden."

   Susan patted her hand. "It's just the tension you've been under, Delenn. Why don't you take a quick nap?"

   Delenn started to struggle sluggishly. "No! I…can not go to sleep. Do not let me sleep, Susan."

   "Why not? You're exhausted, Delenn. Don't fight it. Just sleep for a while."

   Delenn's eyelids were getting heavier. She started to give in. "Not a dream…Tell me this is not a dream, Susan. Afraid to…sleep. John will be here…when I awaken?

   Susan took Delenn's hand. "You are not dreaming, sweetheart. I still have to go back and get John…It'll be at least another hour before I can get him up here. You'll feel a lot better after you've rested. When you awaken, he will be on board with us. I promise."

   "I can rest…in my quarters. I want to be there when…he…arrives." Delenn's speech was slurred. She was almost asleep.

   Susan motioned towards the door. "Well, OK. Hop up and we'll be on our way. You know they do have beds here too. You can use one of those…"

   "No…I…John…my quarters." Delenn tried to rise, but slumped back to the exam table. "Uh…Susan? Change…two to the schedule. I will…rest here for a few minutes…while you go get John. Then I will…meet him…quarters."

   "Why…Delenn? I think that's a wonderful idea." Susan hopped up happily. "Is there anything you need before I go?"

   "Yes…" Delenn murmured quietly as her eyes slid closed. Tiredly motioning for Susan to approach, she whispered, "John will need…some clothes. In my quarters…keepsake box…something for him…"

   Susan leaned in and Delenn whispered something to her. "You carry that around with you?" Susan replied, surprised. Delenn nodded and smiled. "Well, it is appropriate for him. I'll get it before I go. Anything else?"

   Delenn nodded again, her smile fading. Her expression became sad as she whispered again. She was barely keeping her eyes open.

   "Yes, honey, I remember how bad it was, but you survived. He'll love you just as much whether he knows or not."

   In response, Delenn shook her head emphatically. "No…please." Those were the last words she uttered. Eyelids fluttering, she finally drifted away into sleep.

   Susan straightened as Delenn slid off into unconsciousness. She looked tenderly at the sleeping woman for a moment. "I'm so sorry, sweetheart. I can't do everything you asked. He has a right to know." Susan muttered to herself. Turning to the doctor, she said, "How long will she be like this?"

   "The sedative will wear off in about six hours, but she'll stay asleep naturally after that if she's not awakened. We'll get some of that salve applied to her bruises while she's sleeping. They'll have faded a little by the time she awakens. If you'll help me with her, we've got a bed in here." As they moved her, the doctor said, "They'll probably put the other Minbari in the same room when they're done with her in surgery. Do you think the President will mind?"

   "No. That'll be fine. She won't mind at all. In fact, I think she'd prefer it that way."

   As Susan was leaving, she bumped into David on his way in. "Ranger One, have you seen Ardenn or my mother?"

   "They're both here David. Relax. Your mother is sleeping. Don't bother her…she really needs it. The surgical staff has Ardenn. She's in surgery." David blanched, and Susan hastily added, "The surgeon says that your Dad did a wonderful first aid job on her, David. The slug will come out with no problem, but she's going to be in surgery for a while. They're trying to save as much of the damaged side of her crest as they can." Susan looked more closely at the young Ranger. "She'll be all right. How about you? When was the last time you slept or ate?"

   "I don't remember. It isn't important right now."

   "Bullshit, David. Look, I'm going to get your Dad, but I have a couple of errands to run first. I want you to go get something to eat, and then you go find some place to get cleaned up. When Ardenn comes out, the last thing I want near her is a sleepy, smelly Ranger in dirty clothes. Get some sleep. Got it?"

   "Uh…yeah, sure. I'll…I'll look in on Mother quickly and then go find some food."

   Susan eyed him suspiciously as she turned to leave. As she entered the lift, she muttered, "The hell you will. I'll lay money that you're still here when I get back." Talking into her link, she ordered her ship to be turned around for launch. She was tired, too, she reflected. A quick trip to the surface and back, then perhaps she could grab a little nap herself. First, though, there were some things in Delenn's quarters that she needed to do…

   

***

   John terminated the link to Susan's ship and sighed. He hesitated to think about what Delenn's true reaction to his staying behind had been. Not positive, he could tell. She was as angry as he'd ever heard her. Even at that, there had been an undertone of fear in her voice. Angry, tired, hurt and afraid…not exactly good foundations for rekindling a relationship, he thought. She was right, he reflected resignedly. The time of his life where he could risk himself indiscriminately had ended. They were interdependent, the two of them. Over the years, their lives had intertwined to the point where neither was 'whole' without the other and the extent of their dependence on each other was obvious. Without him, Delenn had suffered for three years. She had continued to exist, but had stopped living. If he could help it, she would never suffer through a separation from him again. Glancing back at his patiently waiting visitor, it occurred to him that influencing that situation might be quite beyond his control.

   Lorien chuckled as he considered Delenn's one-way conversation. "Your mate did not sound particularly pleased with your choice of courses of action, John. Understandable, from her point of view. Twice before, she has offered you her soul only to have you taken from her. The Universe has not treated her kindly."

   John grunted. "Well, at least she knows I'm alive and safe. They'll eventually return for me." He glanced at the ground in trepidation before looking Lorien in the eye. "Will I be here when they return?"

   Lorien looked thoughtful for a moment before replying. "That would depend, I think, on you. Are you planning on wandering off between now and then?" He shook his head amusedly as John failed to respond. To put the human's mind at ease, he said, "I am not here to take you anywhere you do not want to go, John, just as I did not take you three of your years ago."

   John's eyes narrowed. "I don't understand. I had twenty years. You said so. From what I've discovered, events three years ago happened as you indicated they would happen, but I'm here. That seems to be a contradiction, and I've thought for a while now that you would eventually arrive to correct it."

   "Up to a point…yes, I suppose it is a contradiction. It all depends on your frame of reference. You are the word. Your previous self was the thought that came before the word. Or is it the other way around? You are different from that former self, and yet you are the same. Does that constitute a contradiction or not?" Sighing, Lorien looked over at John indulgently. "You understand that your twenty-year lifespan was not my choice, do you not? It was a product of your own physical limitations. I could only breathe so much on the embers of your life. I told you that no magic was involved, merely advanced technologies. The…life energies I imparted to you were not completely compatible with your body. I passed on as much as I could to you without killing you instantly. Twenty years' worth was all you could sustain." For a moment, Lorien looked almost apologetic. "I would have given you more if I could have. It was never my intention to make you or your mate suffer, but you did…and she still does." Steepling his fingers, Lorien paused to collect his thoughts. "You suffered because the two of you had overcome your fear of death, but you never lost your fear of separation. At the end, you resisted me because of it. Do you remember?"

   John nodded as comprehension dawned. "The...the farmhouse? I do remember! I didn't want to go for a Sunday drive."

   Lorien inclined his head. "Yes…you do remember, I see. At least some. Do you remember why you did not want to leave? You did not want to leave a little girl alone there. You would not be separated from her."

   "Delenn?" John breathed.

   "Yes, Delenn. She was present because your bond with her was so strong that you pulled her partially into the realm 'in between' with you as you separated from this existence. As before on Zha'dum, you were able to let all but her go at the end. When you pulled her along, she was not yet ready and the attachment between the two of you placed a great strain on her soul. The…link between the two of you snapped rather than gradually relaxing and she absorbed the effects. It is fortunate that her psyche is a strong one. A lesser person might have been driven to insanity by the experience. Even so, her recovery was difficult. Fortunately, she has friends who love her and were there to help her." Lorien looked kindly at a suddenly downcast John. "Do not feel guilty, John. You did not consciously set out to hurt her, and she also refused to release her ties to you, thus contributing to the problem. That is in the past now. She did recover, after a fashion."

   When John looked back up, the enigmatic alien continued his story. "Delenn's presence aside, the farmhouse, of course, was simply imagery that your transitioning mind supplied as a frame of reference. You supplied it and I used it, since the true nature of the encounter was beyond your ability to comprehend. Suffice it to say I wanted you to come, you resisted because you would not leave your mate behind, and I relented. As I said, I had no intention of taking you against your will." Lorien looked thoughtfully at him. "This posed a problem, however. Your body was no longer capable of sustaining you and you had already separated from it."

   John stared into the distance, his gaze years away as more memories of his own last moments flooded back to him. "You…you said I could not return…When you came for me at Corianna Six you said I could not return!"

   Lorien nodded and gave John a small smile. "True. I said you could not return. I can, however, and I can stay for a short while if I choose to. I held you here, John. I did not take you beyond the Rim. What are a few years to me? A second…a fraction of a second. Less, perhaps. I was going to hold your essence…your soul…on this side of the Rim until I could reunite you with your other half. Love is an illusion, but it is a grand, powerful one and is not easily dispelled. She is a part of what makes you who you are…a part of your essence, just as you are part of hers. I would have carried you across together, had you allowed me to."

   "I didn't understand. If I had, I probably wouldn't have resisted."

   "Communication while undergoing the transition is…difficult. Had we completed it, you would have understood. It was, in human terms, a 'Catch-22' for you. You could not understand until you were finished, yet you would not let me finish the process because you did not understand."

   Abruptly changing the subject, Lorien stood and looked around at the devastated spaceport sadly. "Much destruction has occurred here. Lives have been ended. John, what do you suppose would have happened here had you not been present?"

   John sighed. Temporal physics. He hated temporal physics. "I don't know. Much the same, I guess."

   Lorien looked at him. This time, his face was grave. "No, John. Not the same." He sighed. "Had you not returned, Delenn would have still come here. The little one, Ardenn, and David would have accompanied her while Susan Ivanova stayed behind. They would not have been aware of any danger." Lorien looked meaningfully at John, who continued to stare blankly at him. "So many things you do not understand. I tried to tell you when you first resisted me that your separation would be short, to you but the blink of an eye, but you did not listen. You struggled. You fought, I relented and I held you here and watched. As I watched I saw that a suitable receptacle was being prepared so I deposited your essence in it. And here you are, more whole than you have been since before you first encountered me. You are so much more than a piece of living technology. So much more..."

   Something Lorien said struck John. He stopped the old alien before he could ramble off in another direction. "Our separation would have been short? How…short?"

   "Well, you asked why I was here, if not to take you." He looked knowingly at John, whose eyes were widening as realization dawned. "Yes, John, you are closer to understanding now, I see. I came here not for you, but for Delenn. Your mate was not destined to remain on this side of the Rim beyond this point."

   John sat staring at his hands, dumbstruck. "Why…why didn't you tell me?"

   Lorien sighed, replying, "I tried to tell you, but as I said, communication is difficult during the transition. I told you she had tasks to complete - 'chores' left for her to finish. On her journey here she completed the last of them, setting into motion the first chapter of the next great story, the one that you began the prologue to with your previous self's disappearance. Having done that, I suspected that this was her most probable fate. When I breathed your essence into its current vessel, I feared you had returned only to become separated from her again in a reversal of your positions. Had you remained with me, she would have come to you and within me you would have been reunited for your journey. The task of leading your two peoples to their shared destiny would have fallen to your son and his mate, and their children after them. But now your presence has altered that destiny. Delenn still lives on this side of the Rim, as do you." Lorien waved a long-fingered hand at the destruction around him. "I told you in the beginning that your return might be an opportunity or a curse. By your actions, you may have brought a variation of the curse to pass. Or the opportunity, perhaps. I can no longer tell. I am not a god, but I do know that neither of you should be here now and the threads of the universe are altered."

   John stared at Lorien in shock for a long moment. "How?"

   "All possible futures branch out from individuals like an infinite number of threads, John. Some of these threads are major, and some are minor. An individual through whom many major threads pass is called a Nexus. I believe my children at one time referred to you as such a one." John nodded, recalling the Shadows identifying him as such, and Lorien continued. "Every action and decision terminates some threads and creates others. In one possible thread, you never were reincarnated and Delenn lived alone for eighty more years, slowly fading over time without your presence to comfort her. She would have rejoined you eventually, of course. In that thread, you accepted your fate and went with me beyond the Rim…"

   "But that 'thread' didn't happen," John interjected. "I'm here. She's here. What about now?"

   Lorien sighed. So impatient, these new budding First Ones were… "Once you returned, many threads terminated, but many more new threads, new possibilities, came into existence. Out of that multitude, four major threads were created that branched from this event regarding the two of you. In one thread, the two of you joined me here and I would have taken you beyond together. That was, in a sense, the opportunity I told you of. As was my original intention, you would have journeyed together. In a second thread, you passed beyond here and she survived." Lorien paused, looking at John gravely before continuing. "John, that thread very nearly came to pass just now and as I watched I hoped that it would not. Since Delenn now knows of your existence, she has already reopened herself to you. As strong as her spirit is, it is very unlikely at this point that she would have withstood losing you again with her sanity completely intact. She is very powerful, a Nexus in her own right, and she does have a dark side. Had you passed again just now, her bitterness and bereavement would have caused that darkness to emerge. The consequences for her race, yours and the others could have been devastating."

   The thought of what a lonely, bitter and unbalanced Delenn might be capable of sent a shudder through John. She had gone temporarily mad once before, along with the rest of her race. The effect on Humanity had nearly been terminal. "And the others?" he asked.

   "The third thread was the one I deemed most likely. It is why I am here now. In this thread, you survived and she left with me. Less damaging for your Alliance perhaps, because your absence has lessened your influence, but personally it would have effectively destroyed your will to live. You would have spent the rest of your days wandering from world to world without purpose." Lorien looked fondly at John. "I did not want that fate for you. It is why I tried to warn you against returning. Better that she endure the relatively few years of separation and then rejoin you."

   John tried to drive Lorien to get to his point with single-minded determination. "But that has not happened, either."

   Quizzically raising a finger to his lips, Lorien looked into the distant sky. "Yes, now we enter the great unknown. The least likely thread proved to be the path taken. Both of you survived. You are together where you should not be. John, please understand. The universe is flexible but there will be consequences arising from this like ripples on a pond. I cannot predict them. Some may be harmful. The two of you move through this existence as singularities move through space. Wherever you go you draw events, unusual events, to you. You and she are both focal points and when you are together, future events become less about chance and more about your choices. It is all part of creating the future."

   John's attention was torn from Lorien's words as he looked up. In the distance he could hear the engine whine of an approaching ship. His rescue ship.

   Looking over John's shoulder, Lorien nodded knowingly as John's gaze returned to him. "I must go now, John. The others are waiting for me, as they are for the two of you. They will be disappointed that I am returning alone, but they are patient. I leave you with this advice. Watch your children, John. Watch them closely. They are already beginning the process of creating your people's destiny. Allow what is to come, to come." Reaching out, Lorien touched John lightly on the forehead, briefly suffusing his face with a soft light.

   Mesmerized momentarily, John jerked away slightly as Lorien removed his thin fingers. "What…what did you just do?"

   "I have given you a small gift, John. A final act of comfort, much like you gave your son when he needed it. I give it because I care about you and your mate." Lorien noticed John's shocked expression and chuckled amusedly, "No, not like before. My gift this time has nothing to do with your lifespan, although you may want to do as Delenn desires and give some consideration to changing your lifestyle if you want to remain here for any great length of time. No, barring accident or injury, you will live a long, full life." Growing serious again, Lorien continued, "Understand, though, John…even at that, your mate will live longer still. This is not my doing...it is simply in keeping with the nature of her people. Remember this, John. Carry my words with you for the future. When the Long Dark comes for you again, your mate must be with you at the end. You must not pass in solitude, as you did before. If Delenn still lives, she must be with you."

   Lorien's touch left his mind momentarily disoriented. John shook his head, trying to clear it. "I…I don't understand."

   Lorien smiled and began to move away from him, suffused in a blue light. "That is as it should be, for now. When the time comes, you will know what to do." John looked at Lorien for a long second before nodding uncertainly. Turning away, he watched as the ship, Susan's ship, extended its landing skids. From behind him, he heard Lorien say, "Farewell, John. We will see each other once more on this side of the Rim. Be at Peace." When John turned to acknowledge the farewell, Lorien had vanished.

   Staring after the departed First One for a second, John shook his head and started for the ship. As the hatch opened, he turned back once more. Lorien had given him much to think about. He would consider most of those things later. For now, there was Delenn and the reaffirmation of their bond with one another. Returning his thoughts to matters at hand, he entered the ship and keyed the hatch behind him.

   

***

   

   Moving forward to the command compartment as the ship lifted out, John found a tired-looking Susan Ivanova at the controls. "Susan? You didn't have to come back. Any pilot would have done just as well."

   "Probably so, but things are pretty chaotic on the Far Traveler right now and my presence was just keying up the crew even more. Having Ranger One looking over their shoulders during a crisis wasn't adding any value to their efforts." Looking over at him, she smiled wearily. "You know the deal. There's nothing like having the brass around when everything's going wrong."

   John chuckled tiredly, "Yeah, I know the feeling." Rubbing his eyes and shaking his head, he said, "Damn, I'm tired all of a sudden. I guess now that the crisis is passing, I'm starting to feel the adrenaline burn-off a little. So, is Delenn all right? Are David and Ardenn OK?"

   "They're managing. Ardenn's in surgery now. By the way, you did a good first aid job on her crest. You probably saved at least part of it, and I imagine she'll be very grateful when she sees you again. We're still waiting to hear for sure. David, of course, isn't far away from her. I was originally going to send him back down to get you, but I think he's where he wants to be right now, no offense to you."

   "I know how he feels. When Delenn was stabbed during that Nightwatch incident on Babylon 5, I must have sat up for two days even though Stephen told be she would be all right. I needed to see her awake before I could rest." John lapsed into a pleasant memory and smiled slightly. "That was the first time I told Delenn that I loved her, although I was so worried about scaring her off that I double-talked my way around the 'L' word. In retrospect, I think she was amused." Chuckling, he said, "And now my son has gone and found a Minbari woman of his own. A real eye-catcher, too. Go figure. It must run in the family."

   "Yep. Their relationship is heating up pretty quickly. If I were you, I'd expect a formal visit from her or a representative real soon. They aren't just two kids having a fling. She's serious…you know how hard a Minbari can fall when they do, and David…he's needed someone of his own for too long, in my opinion. An equal, not a parent." Pausing, she sighed. "I know you don't know much about her, but she is good people and has a good head on her shoulders, a lot like Lennier before…well, before things fell apart. She loves David for all the right reasons and balances out his personality really well. I don't think he'll find any better, and he could sure do a hell of a lot worse." John grunted neutrally at the reference to Delenn's former aide and Susan decided that it was time to conclude this discussion. "He really ought to get some rest, though, but I doubt he will, at least not until he knows she'll be all right. Another Sheridan trait he inherited…"

   "Are you sure you're not this girl's mother, Susan?" John laughed, shaking off the reminder of Lennier's betrayal. He had long since forgiven the now-deceased Minbari, even thought his wife's old aide had never forgiven himself. "You don't need to 'sell' Ardenn to me. I like her and if David wants her, I won't stand in the way. He's a man now and can make his own decisions about his love life. Delenn, though…she will expect the traditional ways. Despite marrying a Human, she's still very conservative when it comes to tradition and ritual. I hope Ardenn and David understand that if they intend to explore a more permanent relationship. As for the present, I'll look in on David when we arrive. Maybe I can convince him to relax a little." Setting the relationship between Ardenn and David aside, John turned his attention to the person uppermost in his thoughts. "How about Delenn? How's she holding up?"

   Looking at John sitting there happily reminded Susan of how distraught Delenn had been when he stayed behind. A little angrily, she turned on him and jabbed a finger at his chest. "So, you worry about how she's holding up now that you've had your 'hero' moment, eh? Well, she's a lot better now that she knows you're still alive. She nearly blew a gasket when you stayed behind. By the way, don't ever do that to her, or me, again. I know it had to be done, but she's far more fragile that you think where you're concerned, and when Delenn's hurting, I'm looking for heads to lop off." Staring at John pointedly, she said, "Look at me. In case you haven't noticed, I'm wearing Valen's old coat now and I'll make the decisions about who's next up for an act of self sacrifice, not you. Just so you know, in the great scheme of things in the Alliance, I'm the 'bad cop' to Delenn's 'good cop'. I go in when your wife runs out of patience. ISN calls me the 'Grand Executioner' on their tabloid shows, and I do not find the nickname entirely dissatisfying. Do not buck me on this, Mr. Entil'zha. Do not hurt your wife any more, well meaning or not. For you, old friend, those days are over."

   "OK, OK! Sorry! If I hadn't gone, you or David would have, and you would have done the same as I did." Chastised, John laughed ruefully at his oldest living friend. "Call it a force of habit. You know the old saying, 'fools rush in where angels dare not tread'? It might as well have my name across it. Anyway, you're right. I'm getting too old. I guess it's up to David to go jumping in with both feet now."

   Susan stood down, seeing that her point was taken, although her old commander didn't look particularly intimidated. "All right. You're forgiven for now. But no more crazy stunts unless Ranger One authorizes them." Susan grunted. She found it hard to remain annoyed with John, particularly when he was smiling. "OK, you asked about Delenn, as I recall. For now, she's asleep. Against her wishes, I might add. I had a doctor look her over. Her injuries aren't serious, just bruises really, but she's totally exhausted. I had the doctor slip her a sedative without her knowing it. If left undisturbed, she should sleep for about another ten hours or so." Susan stopped talking as she transitioned the ship over for non-atmospheric flight. Once complete, she turned to John again. "Look, I know you'll probably want to go to her immediately, but she really needs the rest. Let her be for a while."

   "I don't think she's too happy with me at the moment, anyway. It's probably just as well she's asleep. I might use the opportunity to catch some sleep myself. I will at least check on her, if Ranger One doesn't mind." Rubbing the stubble on his chin, he chuckled and added, "And get a shave…and a shower…and something to eat. Now that I think about it, I am pretty nasty at the moment. If I were her, I wouldn't jump into my arms right now either."

   Surprisingly, Susan keyed the engines to full stop, allowing the ship to coast in orbit. "Uh, John? That's another reason I came to get you personally. We need to talk about you and Delenn before the two of you are alone together."

   "What? Is something wrong I should know about? I know she's angry about my staying behind, but she seemed glad enough to see me when I freed her from the terrorists…" John looked hard at Susan, suddenly concerned. "She seemed to be fine…maybe a little upset and emotional, but who wouldn't be after being beaten and then confronted with someone she thought was dead? Delenn is a master at hiding her true feelings when she wants to."

   "No, John. That's not it." Susan got out of her chair and sat down beside him, taking his hand. This would be hard to talk about, so she chose her words carefully. She didn't want to worry him any more than necessary, but he needed to understand. "You've been gone for three years. In that time, she's gone through a lot. I know David filled you in on some of it, so some of what I'm going to say will probably not surprise you."

   John's face went from joviality to seriousness with amazing speed. Susan's demeanor did not bode well. "Go ahead. I'm listening."

   "John, I don't really know how to sugarcoat this, so I'll give it to you straight. Delenn basically disintegrated emotionally after you left. It wasn't quite a nervous breakdown, she's far too well grounded for that…but it was close and it was very ugly to watch. Minbari don't handle change very well and as strong as she is, she's still a product of the society that raised her."

   "I…I figured as much from what David told me. Lorien hinted at it as well. He said I unconsciously pulled part of her along with me when I started to pass and that it put a strain on her. But he said that she was recovered."

   "Lorien? That's who you were talking to down there?" Surprised, Susan momentarily lost her train of thought. "Did he say anything you think I should know about?" Her surprise suddenly turned to dread. "He didn't give you another twenty year limit, did he?"

   "No, nothing like that. It looks like I'm here for the long haul." John shifted uncomfortably, avoiding Susan's eyes. "But he did tell me some things that may effect how I look at the future. He told me how I came to be here, among other things. Uh, look, I really don't want to go into detail about it now and I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't mention to Delenn that I talked to him, OK? I'll tell all of you what he said after this situation has settled a little." Susan hesitated, but finally nodded uncertainly. "So," John continued, "you were saying?"

   "OK…anyway, yes. She's mostly recovered. I say 'mostly' with emphasis. She's been terribly lonely with David away most of the time and you gone. I've been there for her as much as I could, but I'm not a good substitute for you. Ardenn has been a godsend, for her and especially for David. I can't imagine what things would have been like if she'd had no one to go home to. But, as I was saying, Minbari don't handle change very well, and your return into her life is a change, just like your departure was." Susan wearily ran her fingers through her hair. "Delenn…she doesn't want you to know how hard things have really been for her since you left. She knows that you're aware of some of it, but she will almost certainly attempt to downplay how bad it actually was if she mentions it at all. In saying this much, I'm violating a promise I made to her before I left. I promised her I wouldn't mention any of this to you. For anything else, I probably wouldn't. But you need to know, so I'm breaking faith with her in this instance."

   "Thank you, Susan." John said. Promises were important, especially to the Minbari, but sometimes promises did more harm than good. Susan knew the difference between a good one and a bad one. "You're doing the right thing, and I certainly won't mention that you told me any of this. Still, it wouldn't hurt if I could draw some of it out of her. She used to feel better after she talked out her problems. It takes a lot of effort to get her to do that, though."

   "There's more. She's only truly known about your existence for three days. Just three days, John. A lot has happened to her in the past three days. I'm talking about stress. Stress can be both positive and negative, and she's gotten a lion's share of both piled on her very abruptly."

   "Your point being?"

   "My point is that the fact of your existence has not really taken hold with her yet. I think…that she feels like she's in a waking dream right now. Oh, intellectually she knows about you. She's talked to you, touched you, kissed you…you rescued her, after all. But she hasn't truly been alone with you in a non-hostile environment. She hasn't had time to think 'you' through or plan how she will handle this. She hasn't considered how her life has changed now and her other responsibilities…they haven't gone away. She's still the President." Susan looked down at her feet rather ashamedly. "One of the reasons I had the doctor put her to sleep for awhile is because I didn't want her to face you alone while she was so drained. She will come to you, John. There's no way I would be able to stop her, and I don't want to anyway. I…I just want her to at least be rested when she does. John…when you do get her alone, I hope it's passionate and romantic. She's gone without passion and romance for a long time, and she needs them badly. But I want you to know that…I don't think that's all you're going to get, at least not initially. I think…I think that at some point in the next couple of days she's going to…uh, 'depressurize' on you, for lack of a better term. At some point, she will truly realize that 'you' are not a dream, you're real and that you're not going away. When she does, a lot of repressed emotion is going to surface. It may not be pleasant. If she becomes a little, uh…irrational, please be understanding and please, please be gentle with her. If she gets really bad, call me."

   "Do you really think it will be that bad?"

   "You weren't there. You didn't see what I saw, John, and neither did David." Susan said quietly, her expression growing wistful and sad as painful memories returned. Haltingly, she began to explain. "Finally, after twenty years, that last night came. The last night you would be with us. That was the night Delenn asked me to be Ranger One. We talked that night. I was all teary and wiped out, and I told her I didn't know how she was able to stand it. She was all composed, and she told me that she'd been preparing for this for twenty years and she'd be all right. She said she would miss you terribly. But I looked in her eyes, John, and I could see it. I could see it and I became very afraid for her, because I could see that she was acting…she was lying to herself."

   "Delenn lying? I'm sorry Susan, but I don't see it. Delenn can twist the truth, or say nothing, but she doesn't lie."

   Susan saw that her friend was missing the point. She exclaimed, "John…don't you understand? She didn't believe it! Any of it! She kept saying that she had been preparing for twenty years when she hadn't really prepared at all! She was all calm and composed because she was patiently waiting for the miracle she knew would come…for Lorien or the First Ones to come swooping in at the last second and restore you again! At that moment, I realized that in all that time she never truly believed that you would leave her, never really believed that twenty years was all you had and that it was over. Oh, she said the right words…she played her part, but it was never in her heart. I saw her weakness, John, after all those years. She was a Satai, she was President, she had banished the First Ones, had founded an Alliance, was married to a man she loved more than life itself and was the mother of a handsome son. And nothing was going to happen to her beloved husband because she had prayed and she was good and strong and she willed it not to. The 'Universe' was not going to take her John away…and over the years she told herself this lie so many times that she made herself believe it." Susan paused, feeling her own emotions welling up inside her as she recounted her hauntingly sad story. Fighting back a shiver, she continued. "After you left, and she finally realized there wasn't going to be another miracle… It was so sad, John, so sad to stand there helpless and watch her face as she struggled to hold on to you, and then listen to her wail as she felt your touch slipping from her mind for the last time." Susan almost dissolved into tears, leaning into John for a moment. "I have seen many things, John. I have seen death. I have seen destruction. But out of all those things, that was the worst. Watching Delenn come apart when she realized that her love wasn't strong enough to hold you here...when it finally dawned on her that her twenty years of happiness were truly over. I never want to see anything like that again." Fighting to regain her composure, she concluded, "Well, I couldn't leave her alone like that, so I stayed. She is strong, though. Eventually, she accepted the truth. And then the impossible happened. Four months ago, she felt you caress her soul again. Now here you are…and the truth she worked so hard to accept has become another lie."

   Leaning back in his seat, John sighed, his face troubled. He didn't trust himself to speak, and had no idea what he would say even if he could maintain his composure. He was tired, and desperately wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else.

   Reading his expression, Susan silently berated herself for saying too much. He hadn't needed to hear all of this. There was nothing he could do to change the past. It wasn't his fault that Delenn had refused to believe what she knew in her heart to be true. And it wasn't his fault that the truth had become a lie. "Now I've gone and made you worried about this. John, that wasn't my intent. It's all in the past now and can't be undone. She will adapt. She wants to be with you…has to be with you. She may not even have any trouble…those Minbari noggins are extremely resilient. But if she does it won't be the end of the world; just a storm I think you'll have to weather. I wanted you going in with some forewarning, just in case."

   "No, that's not what I was worrying about…well, it was, but I'm not going to hide from it. I may even force the issue on her if I think the memories are hurting her. There's nothing she could say that would change my feelings for her." Slipping his arm around Susan, he continued, "I was also thinking about you…about how to say 'Thank You' for what you've done…what you've been for Delenn and David over the past few years. You took my little family under your wing when they needed a champion and made them yours, in a sense. I really don't know what I did for you to generate that kind of loyalty, but I'm glad you're here now. I wouldn't want it any other way. As for the friend you've been to Delenn…I just don't have the words. None that would be adequate, anyway."

   "It's been a two-way street, John. Delenn and David have given me just as much as I gave them. They became the family I never had, and never will." Chuckling, Susan continued, "There aren't a lot of suitors searching for an old war-horse, you know, and my child-bearing years are long past. I did for them what I thought you would have done if you had been there. As for Delenn personally…well, when you left, I…I tried to treat her the way I would've wanted to be treated uh, if… I were her."

   The two friends fell into silence for a long moment, both searching for something to say. "John," Susan eventually ventured, "there is one thing you can do, you know, to thank me."

   "What is that?"

   "I know that you're a clone. Delenn knows, too. As do David and Ardenn and the others on the ship. I know that you know it, too."

   "Oh, yeah, I know all right. I've been wrestling with that fact since I woke up with green goo burbling out of my throat. It's one of the reasons I was reluctant about returning to you all."

   "I know that as well. That's why I'm saying this now." Susan sighed, and then said, "John, when we step off this ship, I don't want you to be a clone anymore. If you want to thank me, you will step off this ship as John Sheridan, not a copy. Like Jeff Sinclair once said, I want you to be like 'the arrow that springs from the bow.' No hesitation, no doubts." She looked hard at John as she drummed her point in. "You are Delenn's husband. You are David's father. They have both acknowledged that to you. You are Entil'zha, one of the founders of the Alliance. David's Rangers acknowledged that, and I do as well. The only person that has yet to acknowledge 'you' is 'you'. Frankly, I don't care if you came out of a test tube or the ass-end of a water buffalo. Once you step off this ship, the word 'clone' no longer exists in you vocabulary. Can you do this for me? Can you be the person your family needs you to be?"

   Pausing at Susan's request, John thought for a moment. "You're wrong, Susan. I knew who I was the moment Delenn touched me, the moment I looked into her eyes and felt myself flying again. If the Alliance still has use for a John Sheridan, then that's who I'll be."

   "Good. We do need you." With mock severity, she continued, "Just don't go sniffing around the Ranger One job. It's mine, unless Delenn fires me."

   "What? Rob a youngster like you of your livelihood?" John said with a chuckle. "Not a chance. I'm a little older and slower than I was in my galaxy-saving days. I am pushing seventy, you know."

   Susan looked him over appreciatively. "A very vigorous and youthful looking almost-seventy, if I may say. And still a virgin…go figure." Susan retorted, then grinned. "I don't think that particular condition will last very long. By the way, you are uh, functional, aren't you?"

   "God, Susan! Have you no shame?" John laughed. "I really would have stayed away if the plumbing was out of whack."

   Reddening slightly, Susan hastened to change the subject. Hopping up briskly, she rubbed her hands together and said, "Well! Enough traveling down Memory Lane. Don't worry, John. You and Delenn will be OK. If she goes all weird on you, I'll knock some sense into her. I've gotten quite good at that over the past few years. She's smarter, but I'm bigger and meaner." Moving back to the pilot's station, she checked their position. "Well go figure. We've coasted further away from the ship. It'll take about thirty minutes to get back. Just enough time for you to do that showering and shaving you were talking about."

   "It doesn't do much good to shower when you're just putting dirty clothes back on."

   "Oh, Delenn already thought of that." Susan said with a smile and a gesture towards the aft compartment of the ship. "She asked me to bring some things down for you before she drifted off into dreamland. There's a shaving kit back there and some clothes. Go clean up. I imagine you'll be in for a reception when we reach the ship. We can't have you arriving looking like something the cat dragged in. You're Entil'zha, after all." Turning serious again for a moment, she said, "John, just so you know…you've become almost a mythic figure since you left, particularly to the newer Rangers. I don't think you're going to find a lot of peace and quiet on the ship. Your presence will not go unnoticed."

   As Susan said this, John was rummaging around in the ship's small sleeping area. After a minute of searching, he found the bag with his clothes and a small standard-issue shaving kit. Looking back over his shoulder, he remarked, "It was good of Delenn to remember that I had no clothes. What few things I had were on David's…ah, ship..." He trailed off when he got a look at the clothes Susan had brought for him. Holding up a Ranger brooch, he said, "Susan…are you sure you want me to do this?"

   "Why not? You're still a Ranger, after all. Delenn wants you to wear the brooch. It's your original. She's carried it with her everywhere she's gone for three years." Quietly, she added, "She said she would carry it until it shed tears for you, John. It never has. I think you'll find that she is very possessive of objects that once belonged to you. She's gotten kind of quirky about that."

   "And the clothes?"

   Susan smiled. "Those were my idea. Delenn just said 'clothes'. I think she would have thought of it herself, had she not been half-asleep at the time." Growing serious, she said, "John, I care for Delenn like she was my own sister. I want my sister to be happy. The first time she sees you, truth be told, I want her breath taken away. I want her to know in her heart that she's not alone anymore. A sport coat and loafers won't cut it. All those years you were President, you looked goofy as hell in civilian clothes anyway…out of your element. Oh, and I'm glad you lost that hideous goatee as well. You were starting to look like Ulysses S. Grant towards the end."

   John held up his hands in mirth. "OK, got it. I prefer the way I am now, anyway. I'm hitting the shower now." As she listened to him splashing around, Susan heard him say, "The goatee, though…it did have its uses. Nah, you're right. It looked horrible." She couldn't resist laughing when he added, "Right up there with the orange hair. That's what I got for convincing Delenn to try some of that stuff on me that supposedly takes the gray out. God! I'd never seen her so shamefaced in my life…"

   When John emerged, he was wearing the uniform of Ranger One, virtually identical to the one Susan wore. His graying blonde hair was combed, and he was clean shaven. He cut a handsome, impressive figure and vigorous energy seemed to radiate from him. Susan whistled in appreciation. "That good, huh?" John asked, turning full circle so Susan could look him over. "You don't think this'll cause a schism aboard the ship, do you? Two Ranger Ones walking around?"

   "Nah. Trust me, they know where their bread is buttered. Your cloak is just a spare from my closet that hasn't been taken in by a tailor yet. I usually use it as a blanket when I catnap on the couch." Grabbing the tail end of her cloak, she waved it at John amusedly. "As long as you remember who's wearing Valen's original, there won't be a problem."

   "Well, thanks. I feel a lot more comfortable in this than I have since…well, since the last time I wore it."

   "You clean up nice, John. I'm envious. Delenn is one lucky woman, doubly so now. If she ever has an attack of the stupids and throws you out, feel free to mosy on over. Like I said, no one's beating my door down right now."

   "There was Marcus, among others. You're in a lonely profession, Susan."

   John was one of the few people who could mention Marcus without Susan becoming upset. "Yeah…Marcus. I kind of let him slip by, didn't I? One of many regrets I will take to my grave. One of many." Susan could feel herself slipping into melancholy as she thought about opportunities missed. To stave it off, she turned back to her piloting. In front of her, the docking bay of the Far Traveler drew closer.

   

***

   

   As Susan's ship slid into the hangar, John quickly realized that she hadn't been kidding about a reception. Out of the viewport, he could see the bay was packed with Rangers. It looked as if the whole crew had turned out in anticipation of his arrival. Glancing over at Susan, he said, "I hope someone stayed back on the bridge to make sure the ship's orbit doesn't disintegrate. I'd hate to have gone through all we've been through just to burn up in the atmosphere because there was no driver at the wheel."

   Susan chuckled. "I'm sure Captain Marsten made a few sorry souls stay behind." Pointing to a tall, slightly gray-haired Ranger standing at the front of the crowd, she said, "There he is now. You indicated that you've met him before?"

   "Yeah. I met him about two years ago…Sorry, about six years ago…when I was installed in your job. I think he had just taken command of this ship. Looks like he's taken good care of her."

   "He has a good crew, and he takes care of them like his own children. He was one of our Earthforce transplants. He came over late, from commanding an Omega destroyer to commanding a White Star wing, and then here." Susan sighed. "That's one of my running gun battles with Earth right now. Earth is concerned about the 'brain drain' of experienced Earthforce personnel into the Anla Shok."

   "I fought that fight, too. If it's any help, I took the position that it was a personal decision. If an Earthforce member felt called to serve in the Rangers, I wasn't going to stand in their way just because Earth had a problem with it."

   "I've pretty much mirrored your position." Turning her attention back to the controls, Susan set the ship down on it's docking clamps. The Isil'zha settled on it's skids with an audible 'thunk' as the clamps locked the ship down. Rising from the command chair, Susan motioned for John to follow. Grabbing the small bag that contained his dirty clothes, John joined her at the hatch. Grinning at him, she said, "Are you ready for your coming out party?"

   "They aren't expecting a speech, are they?"

   Susan laughed. "No, they understand that you're tired. Like I said, though, you've become larger than life. This, believe it or not, is a historic moment and they want to be here for it." With that, she keyed the hatch open and stepped out, John following.

   John found himself facing dead silence. He was puzzled at first, thinking his appearance might have shocked them. Captain Marstan stepped forward and spoke. "Entil'zha, this has been a trying day for all of us, but, in the final analysis it is a great day because President Delenn was not taken from us and you have returned. This will be a day long remembered. Welcome aboard." As the captain finished speaking, people began to clap. The clapping soon rose to a thunderous roar as people began calling to him and pressing in. John realized that the crew had remained silent only to allow their captain to speak first.

   As the clapping died down, John called out to the gathered Rangers, "It's great to be back. I have missed all of you. More than you will ever know." At that, John began wading through the throng towards the lift, shaking hands, offering words of encouragement and thanks and clapping people on the shoulder as he went. As much as he would have liked to stay and reacquaint himself with the assembled Rangers, he wanted desperately to get to Medlab, where he knew his wife and son were. He would attempt to get around the ship later and see people in their work areas, he reasoned. The trip back to Minbar would take three days, plenty of time to see everyone and thank them for their efforts on his wife's behalf.

   Susan was off to one side conferring with Captain Marstan. Changing course from his original destination, John walked over to them. Susan turned at his approach and said, "John, if you don't mind, I'm going to leave you with Captain Marstan. I'd like to get cleaned up and rest for a while myself. I know you want to go to Medlab, but you need some rest, too. Don't stay there too long."

   "Yeah, I won't." John said, stifling a yawn. Turning to the captain, he said, "Speaking of sleeping, I guess I'll need quarters, if you've got a set available. They don't have to be fancy…a bed in a communal bay will do."

   "Already taken care of, John." Susan said, slipping a keycard into his hand. John glanced down at the card, thus missing the knowing smile that flitted briefly across Susan's features. She erased the smile as he looked back up. "Well, I'm headed for my quarters, if you need me." Reaching out, she embraced John in parting. "It is good to have you back, John," she whispered. "I've missed you almost as much as Delenn has. Remember, don't feel like you have to stay in Medlab. When I've rested a little, I'll look in on Delenn and Ardenn. Call me if you need to." Releasing John, she nodded a polite farewell to Captain Marstan and walked off towards the lift.

   "The cabin number is on the card, Entil'zha." Captain Marstan added. "I can have someone escort you, if you need directions."

   "Thanks for the offer, but I'm sure I can find it. Unless the layout of these ships has changed since the last time I was aboard one." At Marstan's negative nod, John said, "Captain, I'd really like to get to your Medlab and see to my family. If it's not a problem, I want to get with you later and work out a time for me to tour the ship and thank your crew. Oh, and please call me John. Entil'zha is a formal title that has its uses, but I'm just another Ranger now.

   "Very well, John. It's Philip, by the way." Captain Marstan extended his hand, and John shook it. "I think the crew would be honored to have you come around. I'll take a look at the schedule and see when we can do a tour. I won't…uh, schedule it for today or tomorrow, though. We'll give you a couple of days to get your sea legs first." Motioning John towards the lift, he said, "Now, you wanted to go to Medlab. I won't make you wait. If you'll come this way…"

   As the walked, John slung his bag over his shoulder and started out conversationally, "So, Philip, Ranger One tells me you were an Omega driver at one time..."

   

***

   

   "Here we are," Captain Marstan indicated as he and John stepped out of the lift in the ship's Medlab. The facility had cleared out considerably after the lightly wounded had been treated, and some order had been restored. Many of the medical personnel stopped and did double takes as the saw their new visitor, but a warning glance from Captain Marstan set them back to their tasks. The captain turned to John and said, "The President's aide is still in surgery. I believe they've put the President herself in one of the rooms down the hall so she could sleep in relative peace."

   John wanted to start looking for Delenn immediately, but he had promised Susan he would check on David. He knew where to look for him. "Where are they operating on Ardenn? I'd better go there first."

   Marstan indicated a room at the end of an adjacent corridor. As he was doing so, his link chirped. He listened for a moment to the voice at the other end, and then said, "All right. I'm on my way up." Turning back to John, he said, "I'm sorry, but I need to get to the bridge. The teams on the surface are finished and I want to get them back aboard. Will you be all right if I leave you here?"

   John nodded. He understood that the captain had other duties. "I'm fine, don't let me keep you. Thanks for bringing me down."

   Marstan shook John's hand again. "Until later, then. Again, it's good to have you aboard. Let us know if you need anything." Releasing John's hand, he went off to see to his people.

   Walking to the end of the corridor, John found himself confronted with a sign on the door that said 'Authorized Personnel Only'. Standing watch over the door was a nurse. Like the others aboard the ship, she did a double take. "You're…"

   "Yes, I am," John said with a smile. Glancing over the nurse's shoulder through the small pane of glass set into the door, he could see the back of David's head. "I am John Sheridan and I need to get in there. If you'll excuse me…"

   Recovering herself quickly, the nurse adopted the universal tone of nurses since the profession began. "Wait! You can't go in there! Family members only."

   John pointed to David through the glass. "How'd he get in there, then?"

   "They're operating on his mate."

   <Mate? > John thought. <I'm definitely going to have to have a talk with him… > "Uh, OK. Since the guy in there is my son, I guess that makes the patient my daughter." John said, eyeing the nurse down. "Last time I checked, that makes me a family member." Lightening up on her a little, he asked, "Has he come out of there at all since the surgery started?"

   "No, and it's high time he did," the nurse observed. "The poor guy looks exhausted."

   "He is." John replied. "Look, I'm sorry I was hard on you. Let me go in for a few minutes and I'll see if I can pry him out of there, at least for long enough to get him cleaned up and fed."

   The nurse considered it. "All right, since you're Entil'zha, you can have a few minutes…" Shyly, she extended a pad and pen. "In exchange for an autograph."

   John chuckled to himself. Scrawling his signature across the paper, he nodded his thanks and pushed through the door. David didn't even look up when he entered, his eyes glued on the procedure occurring on the other side of a Plexiglas shield. Eyeing him quietly for a moment, John felt for him. The young man looked totally wiped out. His uniform was soiled with the grime from the planet below, his hair was unkempt, and he had a day's worth of stubble on his chin. His green eyes were wide open and staring at the doctors as they worked on 'his' Ardenn. Sighing to himself, John sat down in the chair next to David's and slipped his arm across the back of his son's chair. "Son, if you get any closer to that glass, your forehead's going to permanently adhere to it."

   David, as fixated as he was on the surgery, didn't even turn to look at him. "Hello, Dad. Welcome back. We almost gave you up for dead, but I guess that's pretty much 'situation normal' for you." Prying his eyes away from Ardenn to look at his father, he continued, "You freaked Mother out, though. When she asks Susan for emotional help, I start to worry. It brings back unpleasant memories from three years ago. I'd say 'don't do that again', but I'm sure you've heard that by now already." Taking in the uniform, he tiredly said. "You look good. I always thought the Ranger One uniform suited you when I was a teenager. I'm sure Mother will love it." Slowly, he swung his eyes back to the front, watching as the doctors continued their work on Ardenn. David shook his head to clear it of cobwebs. "How did you get past the gatekeeper out front, anyway?"

   John chuckled a little, saying, "I pointed out that my son's 'Mate' was in surgery, and she let me in for the price of an autograph. That does make me her father, after all."

   David hung his head, both from weariness and shame. "Told you about my little lie, did she? You'd be amazed at how many doors that word opens."

   "It does, but it's not a word to be thrown around lightly, especially among the Minbari. They take the mating bond very seriously, and you can do a lot of damage implying a relationship that doesn't exist. Son, I caution you. Don't refer to Ardenn as your mate unless you truly intend for her to be. She will hear about it and, next thing you know, she'll either be picking out china patterns or she'll be insulted at your presumption and you'll have damaged the relationship you already have with her."

   "I know. I won't do it again, but I had to see her. I had to be here for her and it was the only way they would let me in." David put his face in his hands, secretly relieved that someone had come along that he could show his true emotional state in front of. It took John a moment to realize that his son was crying. "So much has happened today, Dad." David muttered through his palms as he rubbed at his eyes, "The woman I love has been shot and perhaps permanently scarred, my first command is a smoking wreck, the Rangers I'm responsible for are a mess, my mother's been beaten and almost killed…and my freshly rediscovered father has remembered that he has a self-sacrificial streak." Pulling his head out of his hands, he looked at John, both tearful and angry. "I'm not having a particularly good day, am I?"

   John slid his arm off the back of David's chair and put it around his slumped shoulders. "No, not a really good day, David. Some days it's tough to be a Ranger. But your day wasn't nearly as bad as it could've been." Holding up his free hand, he began ticking points off on his fingers. "Look at it like this. All of your Rangers are alive thanks to your efforts, your Mother is alive and not badly hurt, your ship was destroyed in action against a determined and well-armed enemy, not through any dereliction on your part, so you and your crew will get another one." John smiled gently as he said, "Oh, and your father is still alive…despite his own ill-advised and questionable heroics." John gave David's shoulder a gentle squeeze. "And Ardenn will recover…again, thanks in no small measure to your efforts. As for her being scarred or disfigured, you don't know that yet so don't tear yourself up over it. If you truly love her it won't matter anyway."

   David managed a small smile at John's efforts to cheer him up. Turning back to the scene before him, his smile faded. After a moment of silence, he waved a hand towards the unconscious Minbari woman and said, almost in a child's voice, "I never realized how…tiny she is, Dad. I mean, I knew she was small, but she has a presence…a grace when she walks that makes her seem larger." He hung his head again, and John could see that tears were still trickling. "When they brought her in and cut her clothes off of her…that was the first time I've ever seen Ardenn nude. Dad, I always thought that the first time…I saw her like that would be a special, tender, and intimate moment just between the two of us. Now, it's on a table with strangers taking bone saws to her head. I expected to be aroused that first time, Instead, I found myself praying that they wouldn't hurt her…she looked so fragile. I cried for her when they started cutting."

   "Son, nobody looks good on an operating table, and if that 'intimate' moment is meant to come, it will still come. She may look fragile, but with Minbari, looks are deceiving. Physically, they're a lot hardier than we are. You know this. That sniper's bullet was designed to kill a human, not a Minbari. Had your mother or Susan been shot instead, they'd be dead now." John sighed and leaned forward so his face was near David's. "Look, son, you're emotionally exhausted and physically, you're worn out. You need food and you need to clean up. You've seen enough of this. Go take a break. Get something to eat. Get a shower. Ardenn knows that you're with her, whether you're sitting in here or not. Minbari can sense the presence of a loved one when they are near. It's a talent they have that I've never understood."

   "I keep telling myself to get up, but my body doesn't answer. I can't force myself to leave."

   "Let me help you then." John said. Shocking David, his tone became commanding. "Out! Now! You get your tired, dirty, sorry ass out of here and don't come back until you're clean, fed and rested! If the staff here is feeling kind, maybe they'll bring in a cot so you can sleep next to her bed, but they certainly won't do it in the bedraggled condition you're in. Now move out, son!"

   David jumped up like a fire was burning under his butt. He glared angrily at John for a moment, a retort already forming, then softened as he saw his father smiling at him. "Well, that got you out of your seat, didn't it? Now that you're up, you might as well go get some food and a shower. If you'll do that, maybe I can trade a couple more autographs for a cot in the recovery ward for you." Standing, John started steering David towards the door, saying, "Son, I'll stay here in Medlab until you get back. Ardenn can tolerate my company for a little while, I think. I need to look in on your mother anyway."

   "I won't be gone long."

   "Just get cleaned up and eat something." John's attention was drawn to his own gurgling stomach, so he added, "And bring a couple of sandwiches back with you, if you don't mind. When you get back, I'm going to get some sleep. I recommend that you do the same." Gently pushing a still reluctant David out the door, John watched through the glass long enough to ensure that his son was, in fact, leaving. Once that was confirmed, he turned around and watched for a while as the surgeons continued their efforts to repair the injury inflicted on Ardenn by the assassin's bullet. John was no surgeon, but it appeared to him that the surgical team was finishing up. A few moments later, his suspicions were confirmed as the lead surgeon stepped away from the table and turned to the glass, saying, "The procedure is completed…er, Entil'zha? I…uh, apologize…We heard that you had returned to us but I expected Ranger Sheridan…"

   John clasped his hands in front of him and forced a slight smile to put the surgeon at ease. "It's all right, Doctor. I am Ranger Sheridan…just not the one you expected. My son needed a break, so you get me instead. It's just as well. He'd have been trying to claw through the glass by now." Indicating the team finishing up on the unconscious Minbari behind the doctor, he said, "So, how'd the surgery go?"

   "We've done as much as we can without the facilities available on Minbar or Earth. Fortunately, 'as much as we can' turned out to be quite a bit." Holding up a small bronze-colored lump of metal, he continued, "This is the bullet we removed. A very small piece of the patient's crest had to be cut away to get at it. That incision has been filled and it will heal in time." The surgeon lowered his hand and motioned towards a screen off to the side. Looking at it, John saw that a three-dimensional representation of a bonecrest was projected. "As for the injuries sustained by the patient as a result of the projectile's passage through the primary crest and the cartilage bed, we have succeeded in saving the majority of the damaged area." Across the left side of the image, a white tracery of jagged lines and patches was displayed. To John, the pattern vaguely resembled a sizable spiderweb. The doctor hastened to explain. "Entil'zha, the pattern you see indicates the areas in which we had to use an organic filler material. It seals the breaks. We had to graft portions of the underlying tissue, but those grafts will heal very quickly. The bony exterior will take longer to heal, perhaps even as long as a year. The filler material we used, however, is every bit as durable and functional as the original bone, and will be absorbed as the bonecrest knits itself. I know that the repair appears obvious and extensive on the screen, but the damage will not be noticeable to someone that doesn't know about it. One of my assistants is already carving the patches to match the adjacent natural bone and applying a colorized sealant to blend the shade."

   "That's good. So she'll make a full recovery, then?"

   A disappointed look flashed across the doctor's features. He said, "Not…necessarily, Entil'zha. We hope and pray for that, of course, but I cannot say for sure. We repaired the tissue and bone damage, but as you know a major nerve network runs from the left temple that services that side of the crest. She still has at least minimal sensation in most of the left lobe, but there are several large patches where there is no sensation at all. We can do little about repairing that damage here. There are nerve regeneration treatments on Minbar that may restore part or all of the sensation, but those treatments are lengthy and rather uncomfortable. Despite everything, there are areas that may always feel a little numb. That may not sound important to a human, but for a Minbari, particularly a young female, it is significant. When she awakens, she will notice the loss of sensation almost immediately. On the bright side, the right lobe of her crest is fully sensitized." The doctor ran a tired hand through his hair. "This could have gone a lot worse."

   John considered the young woman as the doctor's surgical team prepared her for movement to the recovery room. "I'll talk to my son when he returns and let him know what the prognosis is. You and your people did a good job. How long before we can talk to her?"

   "A few hours. Maybe less. Anesthesia is less effective on Minbari, so she should come around fairly quickly. She will be a little sore, but she should be able to carry on a conversation."

    "Thank you." John turned and left the observation ward. He was glad Ardenn would recover, but at the same time was a little concerned. The doctor had left unspoken the obvious effect of nerve damage to a bonecrest. It was a major 'pleasure center', for lack of a better term. He would explain it to David and he was sure the two young people would adapt somehow if they were determined to be together. John had no doubts that Ardenn's injuries would not deter his son in the slightest, but they might have an effect on how Ardenn viewed herself. There was a possibility that she might feel inadequate without full sensation in that area. John sighed. They would find a way.

   Making his way back to the central waiting area, his spirits lifted as he thought about seeing his own mate again. Delenn was in here somewhere, and he was determined to at least check on her before he trundled off to find his own place to sleep. Moving to the reception desk, he looked over and asked the medtech on duty, "Which room is President Delenn in? I'd like to at least look in on her. I won't stay long and I won't disturb her."

   The tech didn't look up at first. "Sir, people don't just 'look in' on the President. You can catch her on the vid like…Oh." Finally looking up, the young Ranger saw who her visitor was. He stammered, "I'm…sorry, Entil'zha…we were told that you'd be down here but…well…"

   John held up his hands to slow the tech down. He had already figured out that most people were going to react to him with a certain amount of disbelief for a while, and he was determined to be patient. "It's OK. I'm glad you're making sure everybody's not piling in on her. I do need to see my wife, though. I won't be able to sleep myself until I do."

   "Of course, Entil'zha. Uh, Room 7B. The other Minbari, Ardenn, is going to be moved in there in a few minutes. Uh, Ranger One said that was acceptable. If you'd prefer that her room remain private, though…"

   "No, that's fine. She'll want Ardenn near her. Room 7B, then." Spying a large rack of assorted flowers on a shelf behind the medtech, John asked, "What would it take to get two of those? I haven't seen a rose in a long time."

   "They're genetically engineered synthetics I'm afraid, Entil'zha, not the real thing. But you are more than welcome to a couple." Turning, the medtech took two down and handed them to John, who nodded gratefully.

   John started to walk off, then remembered about David. Turning back, he said, "My son will be returning soon. Ardenn is a very close friend of his and I think he would like to stay with her. Is it possible to have a cot or gurney set aside in his mother's room so he can get some rest? I don't think he'll leave you alone otherwise."

   "It's against regulations, but I'll see what I can do."

   Nodding his thanks, John moved off, checking door numbers as he went. <Ah. 7B. Here we are… > The room was dim, the lights having been lowered to help Delenn rest. Standing in the door, John let his eyes adjust as he gazed into the room. There were two beds, the far one occupied by what appeared to be a small, huddled figure. Quietly moving into the room, John stopped at the foot of the bed and simply looked at his beloved wife. She was curled up in a ball on her side, and didn't look entirely comfortable. From the sheet that covered her, one bare leg was exposed. Looking at it, John was gratified to notice that the bruises had already started to fade slightly, the skin turning yellow around the edges. Reaching out, he gently plucked the sheet back into place.

   She was asleep, of course, but it was not a natural sleep. As John gazed at her, he noticed that her eyes were not completely shut. The light from the doorway reflected slightly from the slits in her eyelids. <From the sleeping medication, > John reasoned. Slight movements in the reflection indicated that she was dreaming. From her face, John could tell that it wasn't necessarily a bad dream, but probably not a pleasant one either. Delenn looked troubled. <She has been through so much in the past few hours, > John thought, <I can't blame her for having a troubling dream… >

   Slowly, he moved up beside her. Her head was to the side and her graying brown hair fanned out on the pillow behind her head. John couldn't erase what had happened to her, neither the past few hours nor the past few years, but he knew from long practice how to turn her troubling dream into a pleasant one. Delenn had always been prone to nightmares, and he had found much to his surprise that he had a talent for banishing them. Reaching out, he lightly smoothed a lock of hair away from one of her minor pleasure centers. Running his fingertip gently along the edge of Delenn's ear, he reached over with his other hand and softly caressed her crest. In response, Delenn murmured something unintelligible - his name, perhaps? - and turned into his hand so that her cheek was pressed against his palm, simultaneously uncurling and straightening into a more natural, comfortable sleeping position. He held her cheek like that until her features smoothed as the dream slowly changed.

   John withdrew his palm. Even in her sleep, Delenn noticed its absence. She moved her head slightly, seeking renewed contact with him. On impulse, John gently placed his hand over her heart. Her heartbeat was a slow, steady throb through his fingertips. In response, she sighed and settled again. As John regarded her, he thought about how soft, warm and vulnerable she looked in her sleep. When awake and in full Satai mode, Delenn could be formidable, even intimidating. Few other than he got the opportunity to see her like this, with her guard completely down. He found himself wishing he could just curl up beside her. John sighed wistfully. Her mouth was slightly open and her lips were full and moist, almost inviting his kiss. He knew he shouldn't disturb her, but he couldn't resist at least one. Bending over her, he hesitated a moment, then ever so softly pressed his lips against hers. She tasted so good and sweet as she breathed into him, he thought as he increased the pressure, especially since they had both gone without intimate contact for so long. Deepening the kiss, he felt her respond, opening her mouth slightly to draw him more deeply into her. Rather than accept he pulled away, fearful that he'd awakened her.

   "John?" she breathed. Her eyes were still closed and her words were so soft, he barely heard them. He could have kicked himself in that moment. "You have…come for me?"

   She was still partially in her dream, he realized as he looked at her. Not really awake, but somewhat aware of her surroundings. Thinking about how he must look to her, a towering cloaked shadow in a darkened room, she must be reasoning that he was some Minbari version of the Grim Reaper. Stroking her cheek softly, he whispered, "No, Dearest. I'm here with you. I haven't come for you, not the way you're imagining. You are asleep, but this isn't a part of your dream. Go back to sleep, Dearest. I love you, and I'll see you when you awaken."

   "Take me with you, John. Please don't leave me here alone." Delenn murmured as she started to drift off again.

    "There's no need for me to take you anywhere, Dearest. I'm in your waking world now, and I'm not leaving. Go back to sleep."

   "I love you. Good night." She whispered. Licking her lips, she smiled and dozed off again, never having been completely awake.

   John bent and kissed her forehead, gently comforting her by caressing her hair and crest until he was sure she had fallen into a deep asleep again. Taking one of the roses he was holding, he laid it on the pillow next to her head. "This is so you'll know I was really here, Dearest. I'll see you soon, but I need some sleep myself now." Straightening, he stared at his beloved a moment longer before turning for the door. "No more good nights, my love, not for us…but sleep well."

   As he exited, he passed orderlies wheeling the gurney with the sleeping Ardenn on it. A clean, better-spirited David was firmly in tow. As they linked up in the hall, David held up a paper sack. "Ham and cheese on Rye?" he said.

   "Good enough." John answered, taking the sandwiches. Pulling David over to a nearby table, he filled his son in on Ardenn as he wolfed the sandwiches down. The young man was pleased that the surgery had gone so well, but became pensive when told of the nerve damage.

   "Dad…she will think that she's less desirable to me because she's less sensitive. That's not true, of course, but once Ardenn gets an idea in that hard Minbari skull it's tough to shake loose. What do I do?"

   "You say all of the things to her that women like to hear, son. You tell her what's in your heart. You offer her strength when hers is exhausted. You tell her she's beautiful when she says she's ugly. You hold her when she tries to push you away." John held up the other red rose. "And one of these for your lady never hurts, either. Here, take it. You're lucky your old man was looking out for you."

   "She won't know what this means."

   "Then tell her. Explain the significance of the colors. Tell her it's a human romantic tradition. Minbari love tradition." John sighed and said, "The important thing is to make clear to her two things; that she will heal and that you will care for her just as much no matter the circumstances. If you can make her believe that, then the two of you will be OK."

   David looked at his father with respect and said, "Did Earthforce send you to some special school for this stuff? Romance for Soldiers 101, perhaps?"

   "Son, after two successful marriages <and one failed one >" he thought, "you pick up a few things here and there about the females of both species. They actually have a lot in common. You'll manage. She loves you, David. When I discovered that she was still alive on that stage, one of the first things she said, through all that pain, was how much she loved you. That hasn't changed. Now, if it's necessary, you'll have to help her love herself. You can do it…it's in your genes." John yawned. Clapping his son on the shoulder, he said "Now, I've checked on your sleeping mother, and she's all right. I'm going to find a bed. My link's on, so holler if you need me."

   "Will do, Dad," David said to John's retreating back. "Pleasant dreams."

   

***

   

   It hadn't taken John long as he looked for his quarters to determine that Susan and Captain Marstan had assigned him something far fancier than a small cabin in a communal bay. He was up in nosebleed country. When he realized this, he thought about calling Marstan and requesting something a little less ostentatious, but decided he was too tired to argue about the accommodations. He just needed a quiet place where he could sleep for a few hours. He arrived at the quarters indicated on the keycard and slid the card into the appropriate slot. The door obediently slid aside to reveal a darkened room. "Lights low," he called out, and as the lights came up he abruptly realized why he was in such fancy quarters…he was in Delenn's suite.

   "Why that little Russian..." John muttered under his breath. Susan wasn't content to let nature take its course. She was going to add some fertilizer. John's plan had been to gradually reintroduce himself to Delenn, give her time to become reacquainted with him before...<well, > he thought, eyeing his bag of dirty laundry, <before becoming 'domestic' again... >

   Stepping in, he allowed the door to slide closed behind him as he looked around. The quarters were comfortable, but not luxurious. He was standing in the central living area, a room that contained a sofa, a few chairs, a work table and the tell-tale crystal knick-knacks and chimes scattered about that had initially tipped him off to the suite's occupant in the first place. Off to his right, there was a small kitchenette with a cold storage unit, a few cabinets, a stove and a dining table. Looking in the room to his left, John saw that it had been set up as a meditation area. There was no furniture, but a long candleholder and box of candles sat in the center of the room, surrounded by several large pillows. John didn't immediately see a washroom, and he surmised that it was adjacent to the sleeping area...undoubtedly the room directly to his front.

   John approached the bedroom rather uneasily. He knew Delenn wasn't in the quarters, of course, but the room had her scent. If he concentrated, he could pick up the faint tang of the perfume she wore in the air. Oddly, the scent contributed to his unease more than allaying it. Being in here without her present made him feel a little like an interloper...as if he were prying into the private life of a person who was no longer completely part of him. Entering the bedroom, nothing struck him as unusual or out of place. Everything was neat and spotlessly clean. There was a Minbari slanted bed with a bathrobe laying across it, a chair, a small makeup table with a mirror, a dresser, a closet and a door leading to the washroom. It could have been any bedroom on the ship. Again, though, John could sense Delenn's presence here. Opening the closet, he found several of Delenn's robes hanging there, along with her bathrobe and a few pairs of shoes. Closing the closet, John turned to examine the rest of the room. The makeup table held a supply of the makeup Delenn wore and the brushes for applying it, along with a hairbrush. John didn't open the dresser...he was sure it contained Delenn's undergarments. On the dresser, however, was a small box, which John recognized instantly. Minbari, even influential ones like Delenn, had few personal possessions since most property belonged to the clan. The few small items that his wife actually owned that meant anything to her were in that box. John was willing to bet that box was where Susan had found his Ranger brooch.

   Something struck John as odd. Delenn's bathrobe was in the closet, so whose bathrobe was on the bed? John's heart almost stopped. <She's with somebody...this is Susan's discreet way of letting me know. > He thought forlornly. Why hadn't it occurred to him before? She must have come to her senses some time in the past three years and taken a lover after all. Moving to the bed, he picked up the robe, obviously a man's, and held it for a moment. He sniffed it. It smelled of Delenn and, much more faintly, of someone else. Susan had evidently left him a piece of the evidence to find when she came up for the keycard and the brooch. In his previous life, he had secretly hoped that Delenn would find somebody to keep her company after he was gone, but now, faced with the reality of it, he was unable to fight off a pang of jealousy. As he began to grow despondent, another thought occurred to him. <No. That's not it. > He reasoned. <If that were truly the case, then why had Susan given me that long spiel about how lonely Delenn was? We were alone. She could have told me then. > Holding the garment up, John looked at it more closely. After a moment, comprehension dawned on him. This wasn't some other man's robe...it was his. In the soft light of the room, he hadn't recognized it immediately. The scent on the robe was his. Delenn was lugging his robe around with her after three years, and Susan had fished it out of her closet for him to find. Delenn had not known about him when she packed for this journey, but she had brought the robe anyway. Perhaps, she carried it with her everywhere. John slowly laid the robe back on the bed, certain that Susan had intended it's presence as a message for him but uncertain what the message was supposed to be.

   Perhaps if he weren't so tired, he reasoned, he'd understand his friend's intent. Some sort of demonstration of Delenn's dedication to his memory? He'd already had ample evidence of that. Perhaps Susan simply wanted him to wear it for her. He'd figure it out later. Sighing, John picked up his clothing bag. It seemed a shame to dump out his dirty laundry in Delenn's spotlessly clean quarters, but he didn't want to leave a sack of smelly clothes laying around. That was more of a reintroduction to his presence that he was willing to inflict on her at this point. At the same time, he didn't want to get rid of the clothes, since they were all he had other than his Ranger One uniform. Fishing around in the bag, he pulled out his socks and looked at them critically. <Well, > he thought, <At least I can take care of these... >. Leaving the rest of the sack beside Delenn's dresser, he took the socks into the washroom and ran some hot water in the sink. He immersed the socks in the hot water and groaned to himself as the accumulated dirt from the planet below floated out. <ugh...glad Delenn's not here to see this... >. He squirted a little soap in the sink and started wringing the socks out. Glancing in the mirror, he had to laugh at himself. Here he was, Entil'zha and hero of the Shadow War, standing in full Ranger uniform washing his socks in the sink. Chuckling to himself and shaking his head ruefully, he rinsed the socks and gave them a final ring. Looking around, he spied an empty towel rack on the wall and hung the socks on it. He'd have to be sure to take them down before Delenn returned. She had never cared much for what she called his 'soiled hosiery ritual'.

   With the socks at least taken care of, John grabbed the rest of the laundry and placed the bag by the front door. He'd catch a few hours sleep and then find a laundry for the rest. According to Susan, Delenn would probably sleep in Medlab for about eight more hours before awakening, and John had every intention of being there when she did. He'd allow enough time to do his laundry before going to pick her up, but he needed to grab a few hours sleep. Slipping his cloak off, he laid it across one of the chairs in the central room. Moving back to the bedroom, he hesitated as he looked at the bed. No, he decided, he wouldn't sleep in Delenn's bed without her. It just didn't 'feel' right to him. She wanted a na'fak'cha…a rebirth between them. He would wait for that before allowing himself the pleasure of her bed. Turning the lights out, he went instead to the meditation room. The carpet was soft and there were plenty of pillows there. Grabbing a couple of pillows, he lay down on the floor and made himself comfortable, at the same time telling the computer to wake him in six hours. It wasn't long before the combination of exhaustion and the scent of his beloved wafted him off to sleep, with the quiet of the room broken by an occasional snore.

   

***

   

   She stood on a beach, gazing out at the ocean. Earth. Delenn recognized the scene as being from Earth even though she had stood on an Earth beach only once in her life. The hot sand had burned her feet then, but she was not uncomfortable now. Still, a vague sense of unease permeated the area. Wind gusted around her, a warm, salty breeze blown in from dark clouds visible in the distance. The wind billowed her robes out behind her, her Joining robes, she realized, looking down at herself. John would have called it her wedding gown.

   She wasn't alone. Looking up from examining her robes, she saw that two others stood near her. On her right stood her beloved husband. He wore the cloak and garb of Ranger One, the clothing he always wore in her mental picture of him. Turning to her, he reached out and touched her in the particular way he used when he banished her troubling dreams. She never understood how he did it, but it always seemed to work. Even as she thought about it, the dark clouds on the horizon vanished to be replaced by sunlight and her sense of unease evaporated. As he lightly brushed her ear and stroked her crest, Delenn turned affectionately into his palm, wondering if he knew he had this kind of awesome power over her. Surprisingly, he looked at her as if he could see through to her naked soul and then he kissed her, a long sensual kiss. Fueled by years of yearning, she responded to his touch on her lips, parting hers in unspoken invitation to his probing tongue - a symbolic representation of her desire to have him inside her sexually. As he broke the kiss, she asked the question she always asked of him when he appeared in her dreams, "John? You have come for me?"

   Stroking her cheek softly, he whispered, "No, Dearest. I'm here with you. I haven't come for you, not the way you're imagining. You are asleep, but this isn't a part of your dream. Go back to sleep, Dearest. I love you, and I'll see you when you awaken."

   "Take me with you, John. Please don't leave me here alone." Delenn murmured, pressing herself more tightly against him as she sensed his presence already starting to fade.

   "There's no need for me to take you anywhere, Dearest. I'm in your waking world now, and I'm not leaving. Go back to sleep."

   "I love you. Good night." She murmured as his image faded from view.

   "No more Good Nights, Dearest…not for us…" With that, he was gone.

   With John gone for now, Delenn turned to her other companion, a presence she assumed to be an older version of herself. The woman stood apart from her, also gazing out at the sea. She wore an eggshell-white robe that billowed in the wind much as Delenn's did, but instead of graying brown hair, this woman's appeared so light as to be almost white. Steeling herself, Delenn walked purposefully towards the lonely figure. This would not be the first time she had visited this old, lonely 'Delenn' in her dreams. In the past, conversing with her forlorn future 'self' had never failed to sadden and upset her. Now that John was back she intended to send this solitary woman away to the realm of unrealized possibilities for once and for all.

   As Delenn approached her, she slowed. Something was odd about her companion. She did not appear nearly as old as she first seemed…she was quite young, in fact. Her back was straight, not stooped with age, and her hair, which had on first examination appeared to be white from the passing years, now revealed itself to be a very light shade of golden blonde. The bonecrest…Delenn hesitated in surprise…the bonecrest that emerged from the flowing hair was not hers…it was carved in a different pattern.

   Delenn stopped behind the other hybrid. "Who are you, and why are you in my dream?" she asked.

   The other woman turned after one last look at the sea. Delenn recognized her face instantly. It was Ardenn…a post-chrysalis Ardenn. "I might ask you the same question, Mother of my Heart. Why are you in my dream? Who should answer first, if there is a good answer to be had?"

   Delenn gazed at the young woman. Ardenn was delicate and beautiful as a human, just as she was as a Minbari. "This is not you, Ardenn. I have projected myself onto you, somehow. That is often the nature of dreams, after all."

   Ardenn moved closer. She was older, Delenn noticed, although not appreciably so. It was her eyes. They carried a deeper, more mature wisdom than the eyes of the Ardenn she knew. Stopping in front of her, Ardenn said, "No, I am not a projection…at least not as you envision me to be. You see my soul-image, Delenn, the person I want to see when I look in the mirror...the person I want David to see when he looks at me. I am 'your' Ardenn's secret self, the one that you are already aware of in your heart."

   "I am not aware that I have ever thought of you in this way. How can I be? This is obviously a vision of the future, yet I have no special gifts regarding premonition or prophecy."

   "You are a visionary among our people. A gift for prophecy is not required, as prophecy itself is merely the ability to extrapolate probable futures based on knowledge of the present. Was Valen less of a prophet because he had already lived the future in the 'present' of one thousand years ago? No, he merely had a better grasp of the 'probable' future than those around him, enough of a grasp to steer events in his present to ensure that his 'future' came to pass. He was a prophet, yet he also had no special gift for prophecy." Indicating herself, Ardenn laughed lightly and said, "As for me, is it so difficult for you to believe that another could look at you and see the person she wants to be someday? That another could so admire the beauty of who you are and what you have with your husband that she would want it for herself? That another would take the opportunity to become more than she is for her love and our people? This is not prophecy. You are aware of me hiding in the shadows on an unconscious level every time you see 'your' Ardenn. Why else would you have tested me with the Triluminary? I am Ardenn's answer to what you called the 'Shadow Question', Delenn. You are not the only person who knows what she wants. I know what I want, also, although 'your' Ardenn has not yet the courage to show you this part of herself willingly."

   "You are beautiful."

   "Because you are, Delenn. Much of who I am is drawn for those qualities in you that I wish to emulate. You once asked me to look at you and tell you what I saw. You thought yourself a thin, pale reflection of what you had once been. You were unkind to yourself that day, and you are now finding that a love reborn is dispelling that untrue image you carried. I am glad for that, because I love you as a mother and it hurt me to see you in pain...to see your vision so clear and purposeful in everything except how you see yourself. As you once asked me, I now ask you. Look at me closely, Mother of my Heart. What do you see?"

   Delenn had no immediate reply. Ardenn's robes, which Delenn had assumed were merely white from a distance, now carried the markings of a full Sister of Valeria. And there was something else...something she could not immediately identify. Delenn decided to state the obvious. "You are like me. You have undergone the chrysalis, I see that clearly, but I have not yet told you that this event is possible…"

   Ardenn smiled and said, "I dreamt of being this woman long before I touched the Triluminary, Delenn. I fantasized this image for myself the day I first realized that my heart belonged to David. I am not slow on the uptake, Mother of my Heart. You hinted to me that you saw options for the future within me. What you see before you now is a vision of that option realized, an option that you have the ability to make reality should you choose to. I can be like you, but I am different. More different than you know." The dream Ardenn unclasped her robes, letting them fall open to expose her bare skin. "Give me your hand."

   Delenn hesitantly extended her hand. Ardenn grasped her lightly by the wrist and pressed her hand softly against her abdomen, sliding her hand atop Delenn's when it was in place. "I carry a child within me…David's child, your grandchild. The first of many."

   Delenn held her hand against Ardenn in wonder. She felt nothing…Ardenn could not be very far along, not even showing yet, but Delenn could sense the truth of her words. "How…how can this be? Even with the chrysalis I was only able to conceive once, and even that conception should not have been able to occur. It took the most advanced Minbari and Human medical skill for me to carry even one child to term, and I have not been able to since. Yet you say the first of many…"

   Ardenn smiled again, releasing Delenn's hand and refastening her robe. "You have forgotten something, Mother of my Heart…" she said cryptically.

   "Tell me."

   Ardenn looked over Delenn's shoulder, as if anticipating something. "You already have a part of the answer, you merely need to realize it. There is a critical difference between your husband and mine, which you know but have forgotten, and there is a difference between you and I, which you do not yet know."

   A secret, then. Delenn was good at ferreting out secrets. "What is the difference between you and I, Ardenn? We are both Children of Valen. This much is known to me."

   "I cannot say, Delenn. This is a dream being generated inside your mind, after all. You are essentially talking to yourself…in that sense, at least, I am a projection of you. Everything we have said so far is based on knowledge you already possess, either consciously or unconsciously. Now you are entering the realm of suspicions. Whatever your as yet unformed suspicion is, it is sufficiently important that you believe the Sisters will bend two thousand human years of tradition to allow me to remain among our people rather than cloistering me again upon my elevation. Otherwise, you would not see me this way." Ardenn paused a second as Delenn looked curiously at her, then, smiling indulgently, she added, "Certainly you have noticed by now that I am a full Sister in this vision you have of me? Yet I am with child, so obviously I am not cloistered." She held up her left hand. Her ring finger bore two gold bands, virtually identical to Delenn's. "And I am still allowed my outside relationships and associations." Becoming serious again, Ardenn said, "You are an important and pivotal person, Delenn, and the Sisterhood is not above politics. They gain greatly in influence among our people through my fosterage to you. Would they have not gained greater still by assigning you, the President of the Alliance, a more experienced aide, or even a full Sister? Yet they assign to the greatest of the Minbari a shy, inexperienced young girl barely entered into adulthood…as unimportant a Minbari as they could find within our Order. Why would they do that? I do not believe that the Ardenn in the world of reality knows the answer, either. You know far more about 'me' than I do at this point."

   "I chose you, Ardenn. Your superiors did not want me to take you. They did not even present you to me for consideration when I arrived to make my selection. Had you not caught my eye as I was viewing the intended prospects, you would be cloistered still."

   "Did I catch your eye… or did the Sisters want you to find me? Like I said, Mother of my Heart, this is all inside your mind. If you were not already suspicious on some level, I could not have voiced the possibility to you. There is more going on here than meets the eye, as the humans say. I think more than chance or fate brought me into your home. Whatever the reason, I am glad of it. I would not have found the other half of my soul, otherwise." Abruptly, the seascape behind Ardenn began to fade into mist. The dream Ardenn bowed to Delenn in the fashion of a junior family member to a respected elder. "Farewell for now, Mother of my dear husband. You are awakening, I think." Out of nowhere, a red Earth rose appeared in her hand as Ardenn's image began to disappear. " Your beloved husband is not far from you, just as my heart is not far from me."

   "Will I see you again? I would like to, if it is possible."

   "Perhaps…If the Universe wills it. I may be the woman who calls you Mother some day. I want to be desperately."

   

***

   

   "Ardenn…do not go…" Delenn sat up quickly on her bed in the Medlab as she snapped into wakefulness. Glancing around confusedly for a moment as she tried to regain her bearings, she realized that she was not where she expected to be. It was night cycle in the bay, and she could see nothing clearly.

   "Do not go where, Delenn?" A small voice came from her right. Looking over, Delenn saw Ardenn. The young Minbari had her full bonecrest again and was propped up in bed under the soft pool of light cast by a small lamp attached to her headboard.

   "Nothing…nowhere. Just a dream that you were present in. I apologize for disturbing you." Stretching, Delenn slowly got out of the bed and walked over to her protégé's. Her legs felt much better, she noticed. Almost normal. Bending over slightly, she examined the young woman's bonecrest. What she saw made her intensely happy. "Ardenn, they have repaired your crest!" she exclaimed. "Is this not wonderful? Why, I can hardly see any irregularities at all…if I did not know about the injury, I would not be able to tell!"

   Ardenn was idly examining something. Looking at the object for the first time, Delenn almost gasped. A red Earth rose. Looking up from the delicate flower, Ardenn said, "Yes. The visible damage is repaired. I am extremely grateful to the doctors, as well as David and your mate. Were it not for them, the best I could have hoped for is a prosthetic. At worst, I would be dead."

   Ardenn was not smiling, Delenn noticed. She should be happy. "Ardenn, do you know that you saved my life? You were very brave at a moment when you could have just as easily stayed out of the way. No one would have faulted you for that. I do not know how to repay you for what you have done for me. For now, I will simply say 'Thank You'."

   Ardenn let the rose fall on the coverlet snuggled around her waist. "Please do not thank me Delenn. I was not motivated by bravery. I am not brave. I have spent most of the time since we arrived at this horrid place frightened and in pain. I did not even know what was happening. Ranger One got up and ran towards you, so I followed. The projectile struck me by accident, not from any design of mine. You owe me no thanks." Staring at the rose in her lap, she sobbed suddenly.

   "Ardenn?" Delenn sat on the edge of the bed. Stroking the young woman's cheek, she repeated, "Ardenn? What is wrong? Tell me…"

   Ardenn took Delenn's hand and guided it to the left side of her bonecrest. Rubbing it against the rough edges, she sobbed, "I cannot…feel, Delenn…there is no sensation! No warmth!' Dropping Delenn's hand, she looked over on the other side of the bed. Following her gaze, Delenn saw David huddled on a gurney, wrapped in his cloak and fast asleep. The sight of David made Ardenn sob again. "When he…touches me there, I will not feel it. His warmth will be…cold to me now. I do not think he will remain interested in a female who cannot fully respond to him."

   "Surely you do not believe that. In case you have not noticed, I have functioned more than adequately with a crest one-third the size of yours and the humans do so with no crest at all. I assure you that they are 'fully responsive' even without one, as you will be." Delenn took the distraught woman's hand. "If you are worried about how this will affect your life, do not be. There are treatments, I am sure. You are not the first Minbari to ever sustain a bonecrest injury. Perhaps it will be an inconvenience for you, but in time you will adjust to it. When David awakens, I recommend you tell him of your troubles. I think that you will find that his feelings for you will not have changed in the least." Indicating the rose lying on Ardenn's coverlet, she added, "Otherwise, he would not have left you such a pretty flower."

   Wiping tears from her eyes, Ardenn regained some composure. After a moment, she picked the flower back up, turning it over in her hand. "Yes, it is pretty, isn't it? Very thoughtful of him."

   "It is called a Rose. In Earth culture, they are given both for their beauty and as messages." Delenn searched her memory for a moment. "Roses come in many colors, a result of careful breeding over the centuries. I forget what all the colors symbolize, but I do remember John telling me that a yellow rose represents friendship and a red one represents love." Delenn chuckled knowingly and continued, "You will note that yours is red. A significant message to you from David, I would surmise." Sighing, Delenn concluded, "The flowers do not stand up to space travel very well, so it is doubly special to receive one under these circumstances."

   "David has sent you a message as well, Delenn. You received one, also." Ardenn pointed back at Delenn's bed, where a second red rose lay on the pillow.

   Walking over, Delenn picked her flower up and gave it a tentative sniff. "The love red roses symbolize is a romantic love, Ardenn. Although not unheard of, it is unusual for a parent to receive a red one from her offspring." <I am in your waking world, Dearest… > "John." she breathed softly to herself. Turning back, Delenn asked, "Ardenn, how long have I been here?"

   "Approximately sixty-five human years, Delenn, although I am told that to a human you look much younger."

   "Very funny. I can see David's influence over you already. How long have I been asleep?"

   "I do not know. I only awakened a few moments before you. It is night cycle now, and it was day when we arrived on the ship, as I recall. I would estimate at least several hours, perhaps more."

   "Susan…" Delenn pursed her lips angrily. Moving around the bed, she grabbed her robes off of a hangar on the wall. As she hastily began to dress, she muttered a few human epithets and then said, "Ranger One seems to believe that she is my mother on occasion, despite the fact that she is ten years younger than I. She seems to think me incapable of caring for myself. I told her I would rest here until she returned with John…and she then knowingly left me here to sleep the day away. John is here, Ardenn. John is here and he came to see me. He left me this single rose so I would know he still loves me. Susan was supposed to let me know when he arrived, and she did not. I will have some choice words for her when I see her again."

   "Susan loves you. I have never seen her act against your best interests, even when her actions have seemed displeasing at the time. Do not be too hard on her." As Delenn dressed, Ardenn watched her. She finally asked, "Delenn? When you awoke…you called my name. I was in your dream. It was not…another nightmare, was it?"

   Delenn paused, half-dressed. "No, Ardenn, not a nightmare." Her face took on a puzzled look. "Have you ever had one of those dreams where you are aware that it is a dream even while you are in it?"

   Ardenn nodded. "On occasion. I generally do not remember dreams for very long after I awaken but those types tend to be vivid, so they stay with me."

   "That is what this dream was. A dream about the future. In this dream, you had matured into quite an interesting person. An equal to me, not a subordinate." Shaking her head, Delenn began dressing again. Seemingly offhandedly, she asked "Ardenn, do you remember when I selected you to be my aide? Do you recall anything unusual about it?"

   Ardenn thought a moment. The idea that there could come a time when Delenn looked upon her as an equal was almost unbelievable to her. "I was not one of the candidates, if that is what you mean. I was attending one of the Sisters meeting with you. The only unusual thing I can think of is that it was not my day to attend. The normal attendant was sent on an errand and I was selected at the last moment." Ardenn smiled at the memory. "When you met with the Sisters, I was so terrified of the Great Lady of the Starfire Wheel that I tried to will myself into invisibility. I nearly fainted when you pointed to me."

   Delenn chuckled, her anger at Susan almost forgotten. "I remember. I must have seemed very cold and distant to you then. I had just lost my husband, and I was not really coping very well at the time. My husband…" The thought of John waiting for her spurred her back into action. Delenn started fastening her robe hurriedly, as her reverie was broken.

   "Delenn, please slow down. Your husband is in a closed environment here. He is going nowhere unless you let him. Now you have fastened your garment unevenly." Ardenn pointed out.

   Delenn looked down at herself. Her inner robe was cockeyed. "Oh, yes. So I have." Undoing the fasteners, she began again, this time more carefully. "Was there anything about your childhood that seemed unusual to you? Were you singled out by the Sisters for any reason?"

   "Not that I can recall. One of the older females told me that there were many of us from Yedor orphaned during the civil war. She said that I had just been born when the hospital was destroyed by the Warrior Caste, presumably killing my parents. Do you know that Ardenn is not even my real name? The Sisters gave it to me. I have no idea what my real name is." Ardenn paused, a brief expression of regret crossing her features, before continuing. "Most of the other infants whose families could not be identified were adopted out as the clans rebuilt. I was part of a small group of unidentified newborns withheld from adoption. We discovered as we matured that there was nothing particularly special about this. The Sisters needed a certain number of apprentices and attendants and we could serve our people just as well in the Order as elsewhere, plus we had the promise that we would be considered for elevation into the Sisterhood if we served faithfully." Ardenn sighed and said, "For the longest time, that was enough for me. I served faithfully. Not having a caste of my own did not bother me, because I never left the Temple or interacted directly with our society. But things change, of course…" Ardenn slid her hand off the coverlet and reached down, running her fingers softly through David's hair. "Things change, hearts find new reasons for being…and new options are explored." Glancing back up at Delenn, she said, "And your dream has something to do with these questions?"

   Delenn smiled. "As I said, it was a dream of a possible future. I am not a prophet. I have always considered myself more a tool of prophecy - in my more arrogant moments. I will say this though. The Ardenn I glimpsed in that possible future was beautiful, wise and happy. She was a lover and was loved, and she brought honor to her family." Delenn laid a hand softly on Ardenn's coverlet over her abdomen and murmured, "Not a bad dream at all, a very good one."

   Ardenn covered Delenn's hand with hers, unknowingly mimicking the 'Ardenn' of Delenn's dream. "You should go now, Delenn. Another awaits you. I shall be fine, and I will endeavor to convince David to find a better resting place than a gurney when he awakens." Smiling slightly, she said, "Although, I do find his presence comforting. Perhaps I will indulge myself by allowing him to stay for a while."

   Delenn chuckled. Giving Ardenn's hand a gentle squeeze, she said, "I am returning to my quarters for now, but I will come again and check on you later. If you or David need anything…call Ranger One or Captain Marstan." Indicating David, she added, "Do not wear him out. He is only human, after all." Releasing Ardenn's hand, she turned and strode rather quickly from the room.

   Gazing lovingly down at David after Delenn left, Ardenn stroked his hair again and murmured. "Human, yes…but not only human. You have a small part of my race in you as well."

   

***

   

   Striding determinedly up to the Medlab reception area, Delenn tapped impatiently on the counter to get the duty officer's attention. The young medtech jumped up when he saw who his visitor was. "Yes…yes, Madame President. What can I do for you?"

   "I am leaving. I intend to go to my quarters. How long have I been in here?"

   The medtech hastily flipped through his logbook. "Uh…you have been asleep for eight hours, Madame President. There's a note in here stating that Ranger One wants us to ensure that you get at least ten hours of uninterrupted sleep. You should really try to lay down for a couple more hours."

   "No. I feel much improved and I have been in here for too long already. Ranger One is a good person, but she is showing a disturbing tendency to forget who works for whom where I am concerned." Looking meaningfully at the young medic, she said, "However, you appear to be a perceptive fellow. I assume that the proper chain of command is clear to you, is it not?"

   The medtech paled slightly. "Uh, yes Ma'am." Placing a datapad on the counter, he continued, "Just initial here that you are signing yourself out. I'll take care of the rest."

   Having gotten what she wanted, Delenn smiled sweetly at the nervous medtech as she scrawled her initials. "Thank you. Should Ranger One return and chastise you about this, you can simply tell her I threatened you with extreme bodily harm if I did not get my way. She will understand." Handing the datapad back to the medic, she turned and boarded the lift.

   Arriving on her deck, Delenn exited the lift and started for her quarters. As she drew closer, she could feel nervous excitement bubbling to the surface inside her. <I have butterflies… > she realized. A slight twinge in her knees brought to her attention that she was also unconsciously hurrying her steps as she moved down the corridor. Slowing herself with some effort, she began mentally running through meeting scenarios. < Should I greet him formally or should I just jump into his arms? Should I use the buzzer on the door? No, that is silly. They are my quarters, after all… > Another twinge in her knees reminded her that jumping into his arms, however appealing the idea might be, was probably out of the question. <Should I simply pretend that no time has passed? No. I cannot do that. That would be lying to myself, just as I did three years ago…stop it, Delenn! Stay away from there. That unpleasant episode has been rendered meaningless now… >

   Delenn was so immersed in thought that she almost walked past her own door. Turning around and chiding herself for her lack of attention, she made her decision. <A formal greeting, then, as if he were an old friend long absent…tea, conversation and a renewal of our partnership. Yes, that would do for a start. > Standing in front of the door, she nervously hesitated, fingering the back of her neck. Her palms were cold, she noticed. Dropping her hands, she rubbed them absently against the front of her robe to generate some warmth. "Just do it, Delenn," she muttered to herself. "Just go in. There is nothing to fear, only that which you bring with you." Removing her keycard, she licked her lips and slid it into the slot with shaking fingers. The door obediently slid aside, only to reveal an empty room with the lights on low. Hesitantly, Delenn stepped in, the door closing silently behind her. "John?" She called out softly, looking around. Nothing in the living area of the quarters appeared out of place. Everything was as she had left it before going to the spaceport. Slowly, she headed for the bedroom. He might be asleep. Briefly, she considered simply disrobing and climbing into bed with him, a thought she dispelled when she saw that her bed was empty and apparently unused. John's robe still lay across it just as she had asked Susan to leave it…her signal to John that this private part of her life was still his and his only. Picking up the robe, she held it to her face and sniffed it. It had not been worn. Clutching the robe, Delenn briefly scanned the other rooms. Everything was in perfect order. There was no sign that John had even been here. Searching for a reason, she mentally reviewed her interaction with him over the past hours. What she found caused her to first to hesitate, then hang her head in dismay.

   Her first words to her husband had been ugly and hurtful. They had not been meant for him and she had apologized instantly, but she knew her words had stung him. Presumptuously, she had forced him to agree to a na'fak'cha before returning his ring to him, when he had instantly returned hers without question or hesitation. She also had refused to acknowledge his expression of love to her on Susan's ship before he risked his life for her, then, after the fact, she berated him angrily rather than thanking him. <'I am glad that you are alive'…were those the only words expressing my sentiments I could have said to him in that moment? Have I truly become so unfeeling as that? > Finally, as a further insult, she had the audacity to have Susan give him the key to her quarters, in essence propositioning him as if he were some piece of meat that had caught her eye in a Downbelow drinking establishment. She had once broken a man's fingers for doing essentially the same to her.

   She had been very arrogant, Delenn thought, and this must have created doubt within him. Doubts about her. And so John had taken quarters elsewhere. She had made such a mess of this, she reflected despondently. Perhaps it had been David who gave her the rose, after all. Hopefully, she thought, her poor behavior was not irredeemable. She would make herself presentable and then go find him. When she did, she would approach him with far more humility. She would remember respect this time, and leave him with no doubts about her joy at having him back again.

   Moving to the washroom, Delenn turned on the shower and left it running. Going back out to her bedroom, she stripped out of her robes and reached for her bathrobe in her closet. After a moment's hesitation, she replaced her robe and instead donned her husband's, needing to feel him near her now. Rolling up the sleeves, she then proceeded to comb through her closet, eventually selecting a set of simple robes that she hoped he would judge appropriately humble. Returning to the washroom, she let the robe fall to the floor and stepped under the warm stream of water, hoping it would wash her worries away along with the dust from the planet. As she bathed, performing the cleansing procedure she had developed for herself long ago, she tried to remember which ritual was appropriate for asking forgiveness of a loved one.

   Delenn retrieved John's robe as she stepped out of the shower. Wrapping the oversize garment around herself, she examined her own face in the mirror. Her 'Dream Ardenn' had told her she was beautiful. Delenn did not see it at the moment. Her face still had fading bruises, her hair was going gray and her eyes looked red and puffy. <Perhaps another two hours of sleep would have helped after all, > she mused. Fishing her toothbrush out of its holder, she applied some toothpaste and continued examining herself in the mirror as she brushed. <Socks…> She noted absently, glancing down at the lower towel rack as she rinsed her mouth. <John knows I do not care for his 'ritual', but he insists on doing it anyway… > Putting her toothbrush away, she dried her face and went to dress. Two seconds later, she ran back into the washroom, robe flying. Snatching the two unassuming pieces of hosiery off of the rack, she stared at them in disbelief. <Socks! > She thought to herself excitedly. Had anyone seen Delenn in that moment, they would have probably questioned her sanity. She did not care. Her John had come to her after all. Carrying the socks as if they were her most precious possession, she walked out of her bedroom. She was still gazing at the socks when her door slid open.

   

***

   

   "Damn it!" John muttered angrily to himself as he rushed back towards Delenn's quarters. "I knew I shouldn't have slept as long as I did! Not only am I not there when she checks out, but now she's beaten me to her cabin on top of it all!"

   Slinging his freshly washed clothes over his shoulder, he stopped at the lift and waited impatiently for it to arrive, still cursing his own bad timing. A few minutes earlier, he had linked in to the Medlab to check on her. He figured he had at least another hour…plenty of time to drop his clean clothes off in her cabin and then head to the medical bay to pick her up. She had been gone for thirty minutes when he called.

   As he boarded the lift, he berated himself further. Three years of separation and she was going to think he didn't give a damn. <Shit! > He thought, <It'll take more than a rose to un-fuck this situation. >

   Scrambling up in front of her door, he quickly straightened his cloak and tried to calm himself. <Don't go in looking angry, John… > he pleaded to himself. Clearing his throat nervously, he slid his keycard into the slot and stepped in when the door opened.

   John almost froze up as soon as the door slid closed behind him. The most beautiful creature in his universe was standing three feet from him, naked except for his bathrobe and looking almost as surprised as he felt. Dumbly, he noted that she was holding his socks.

   Both stared at each other for a long few seconds. Neither could think of anything to say. Delenn's mind went almost completely blank the moment John came through the door, all of her plans for a formal greeting forgotten. He looked exquisite. She had only vaguely noticed how much better he looked when they had been on the planet. Now, he stood before her, clean and groomed, in the uniform of Ranger One…just as she had dreamt him every night for the past three years. Better than she had dreamt him. Her heart was in her throat, along with her breath. He radiated a sense health and vigor that had gradually faded in the original John, while in his eyes she could see the patience and wisdom he had gained in his final years. The man he should have been, had he lived. But he did live, and he was with her right now. <Say something! > The small corner of her mind that was still functioning screamed at her, <Say anything! >

   Hesitantly, Delenn extended the socks to him. "Ah…socks. I…you left these…in the washroom." Inwardly, she groaned at herself as soon as the words were out. Of all the eloquent and meaningful things she could have said in that moment, her misfiring brain had plucked out 'socks'. If she had possessed an extra foot, she was sure it would be firmly wedged between her teeth.

   John's eyes were glued to the vision before him. As he gazed at her, he could feel his soul lifting off and trying to fly all over again. She was perhaps a little grayer in her hair, but she retained the ageless soul, face and figure he had fallen in love with almost a quarter-century before. His robe seemed large enough to swallow her, but he could see the gentle curves of her body through the thin material. They were together, they were alone and no one was trying to kill them. That realization kept thudding through his brain. He tried to reach out for the socks, and noticed stupidly that he was still holding his clothes. Embarrassed at how ridiculous he must look to her, he glanced down and laughed at himself, as his face grew red. "Uh…laundry. I, uh…I didn't want to show up at your door with a sack of dirty laundry." He looked back up at her, smiling, his eyes sparkling with mirth. "Socks and laundry. Not particularly romantic for three years apart, eh?"

   Delenn could feel her heart melting. It was him. She would never mistake his smile or his laugh or his eyes for anyone else's. He was here, and he was hers. All of her plans for a formal greeting, a na'fak'cha, a dinner…were instantly discarded, or at least put on hold.

   Almost simultaneously, each tossed their burdens to the floor. Stifling a cry, Delenn lunged across the short distance between them. She wanted him to hold her…needed to feel his arms around her, almost as if it was a primal urge. She almost tripped over his laundry in her effort to get to him, but he caught her and pulled her into him, wrapping his arms around her and holding her tightly. He could feel her trembling with emotion. "Beloved," she managed to stammer, "Just to hear your voice…after all this time apart…in a place where we are safe and together…you could read an eye chart and I would find it romantic." Burying her face against his chest, she started to cry, any further words rendered unintelligible through the tears.

   John didn't try to quiet her. He could feel himself shaking as his own tears bubbled up. Pressing his face into her hair as he held her, he murmured, "It's all right, Dearest. Go ahead…let it out. I feel exactly the same way you do and I'm crying, too. I've longed for you so much."

   Delenn leaned even harder into him as she listened to his words. The strength seemed to go out of her legs and she clutched more tightly at him, allowing him to support her weight. In response, John maneuvered them over to the nearby couch, his own legs feeling a little wobbly. Sitting down, he pulled Delenn into his lap and cradled her, with her head against his shoulder and her face buried in his neck. Her breathing was ragged as he felt her warm tears trickle against his skin, and John encouraged her to fully release her emotions, running his hand lightly up and down the length of her spine and massaging her neck through the thin material of her robe. "I've missed you, Starstuff. You have no idea how much I've missed you…" he murmured into her hair as she pulled her face away from his neck and settled her head on his chest. She was shuddering as she fought to bring her breathing back under control, and he loosened his grip on her to allow her to settle into a more comfortable position against him. As she gradually quieted, he lightly caressed her on the leg as he continued, "I know that this has been much longer in coming for you than it has for me, Dearest. I can't imagine what you've gone through…thinking I was lost to you until we met again in the place where no shadows fall. I know it hurt…it must have hurt terribly, but I'm here now…I've come for you."

   Once her breathing was under control, Delenn lay against him quietly, luxuriating in the sensual vibrations she could feel through her crest as his voice echoed in his chest. Placing a hand over his heart, she shakily whispered, "It has been…hard, John, very hard. The nights were the worst. During the day, I could pretend that you were just away…on a diplomatic trip, on a visit to a base somewhere. But at night, I would lay in a cold bed, unable to hide from reality. And dreams, John…you would come to me sometimes in my dreams and offer to make love to me, but I would always awaken before…" She swallowed, feeling a stinging in her eyes that signaled the onset of more tears. Haltingly, she continued, "I would summon my memories of your touch then, John, for what small comfort they might offer…but those hollow, empty orgasms brought none of the joy our coupling gave me, only loneliness, tears and shame at what I was reduced to without you."

   "Oh, sweetheart…" John planted a soft butterfly kiss in Delenn's hair and enfolded her head and shoulders in his arms, rocking her as the tears came for both of them again. "Don't be ashamed. Don't ever be ashamed because you have needs." He sighed shakily into her hair and kissed her again. "Never again. I promise you, Dearest. We may not be together every night, no couple ever is…but you will never have to suffer because you're alone again, not for as long as I live and can touch you. I told you that I cannot erase the pain you've experienced. It's a part of who you are now. But the future…our future…has been born in your pain." Relaxing his hold on her, he dropped the hand that was stroking her hair and placed a finger under her chin, tilting her tear-streaked face up to his. "We have a future now. If you wish it, beloved, I'd like to spend that future with you." Lowering his head, he pressed his lips against hers, drawing her up against him fully as she responded…her assent to his overture. Delenn opened her mouth, her tongue probing at his lips, seeking entry. He let her in, his tongue finding hers as he released her so she could shift position and straddle him.

   Without breaking the kiss, Delenn released her hold on John long enough to cast the folds of her robe off, baring her legs as she settled herself in his lap. She could feel him hardening against her leg and she moaned softly into him. Inside her, a part of her mind couldn't believe this was happening…that the touches and caresses she was feeling through her robe on her body were real, not the tired fantasies she had replayed to herself over so many lonely nights. As she had on the planet below, when John had come for her and held her, she began to feel her control slip under his mouth and hands. She intensified the pressure of her kiss, willing John to sense what she desired and fulfill it.

   John sensed her control slipping as well. He pulled away for an instant. "Don't hold back," she heard him whisper to her, "You don't have to hold back."

   "I do not think I can, nor do I want to." Delenn replied as she closed her eyes and lowered her tingling lips back on to his. Bringing her hands up to his neck, she started pushing at his cloak, trying to peel it off of his shoulders. John cooperated, releasing her and maneuvering his arms so she could slide the garment off behind him. His shirt, a gray turtleneck, came next. Working her hands down his chest and ribs to his waist, she gently tugged the tails out of his belt and pulled up, freeing the shirt. Reluctantly, she broke the kiss long enough to pull the shirt up over his head and cast it off onto the floor.

   Pausing to catch her breath, Delenn gazed down at her love, bare now from the waist up. He was extremely well muscled, she noted remotely through the haze of desire that had settled over her mind…more compact than before. Other than a small scar along the lower part of his ribcage, he was unmarred by any irregularity. "Perfect…" she murmured dreamily as she began softly sliding her hands across his naked chest. Reveling in the feel of his bare skin beneath her fingers, she smiled when he twitched as she brushed a nipple, one of his pleasure centers. Lowering her head, she closed her eyes and kissed the sensitive area, nuzzling it with her lips and tongue as she listened to John release a groan of pleasure beneath her. Images of steel and fire were dancing within her now, as they had before, only this time they were not being hunted. No one was trying to kill her. John was here, and she now had his taste in her mouth. Suppressing the urges she had hidden for so long was no longer necessary, and so she did not. As she kissed her way up John's chest towards his collarbone, she felt one of John's hands glide slowly across her bare leg to lightly grasp her hip, while the other began rhythmically stroking her bonecrest. Sighing, she paused for a heartbeat as his gentle stroking sent a soft wave of pleasure resonating through her before she returned to her own ministrations.

   John initially considered stopping Delenn when she began removing his cloak, concerned that things might be moving too fast between them. Susan's earlier-voiced concerns about Delenn's reaction to his presence were worth consideration. When he had looked in Delenn's eyes, however, he had seen how badly she needed this. He harbored no illusions about what would happen - this would not be an incredibly long lovemaking session. Neither of them had been active for a long time, Delenn was still not fully recovered, despite the energy she was displaying at the moment, and, frankly, although he and Delenn had made love many times, the body he was in now had not. Once he was inside her, he doubted either of them would hold out for long.

   Rationality began to depart for him shortly after he realized this. As he felt Delenn kiss and nuzzle his nipple, he groaned in pleasure, leaning back and pressing his hips against her more firmly. She was so good at this, he reflected. Even after three years, she remembered precisely where and how to touch him. Sliding a hand up her bare leg to her thigh, he simultaneously began running the fingers of his other hand lightly across the sensitive folds of her crest. He felt her body shudder as she paused and sighed for an instant, the first gentle wave of pleasure washing through her. She continued kissing his chest and collarbone while her hands caressed his ribs and back. Another caress across her bonecrest pulled a more urgent and demanding moan from her. Pulling his hands away, he grasped her lightly by the shoulders and drew her away from his chest. The faintly disappointed look she gave him was replaced with a contented one as he slid his robe off of her shoulders, the garment pooling around her waist and exposing her slender, shapely upper body. Her breasts were small, pale and firm, her nipples purplish and erect because of her own arousal. Starting at her bare hips, John began lightly trailing his hands up Delenn's body. As his hands moved, Delenn covered them with her own, guiding them to the places she wanted him to touch. As his fingertips lightly brushed her nipples, she stopped his hands as she gasped and arched her back, her breathing becoming increasingly labored as he continued to probe and trace the darkened circles.

   Placing his hands in the small of her back, he pulled her against him, taking one of her small nipples in his mouth. As he licked and dragged his teeth lightly across the tender area, he heard her sigh "yes…" a sigh that became another moan as he sucked a little harder. Her hands were in his hair as she held him against her, and he could hear her breathing becoming ragged and uneven as her body prepared itself for him. Small noises were emanating from her throat as she gave herself over to the feelings he was creating inside her. After a moment, he felt her shudder again as she pulled away and offered him the other nipple. Still suckling her, he removed his hands from her back and slid them to her waist, untying the robe. He cast the garment away, leaving his mate totally bare. Hesitantly, he slid the tips of his fingers across Delenn's sensitive pubic area, eliciting a needy cry from her as she involuntarily ground her hips against him in response. Trying to hold her steady, he made no further attempt to touch her there. She was already close, and he didn't want her to climax too early. While pleasurable, that wasn't the way she wanted it.

   She was ready. A little embarrassed at how quickly his touch had brought her nearly to climax, Delenn pulled away and stood, taking John's hand and pulling him up beside her. Quickly and quietly, she unfastened his belt and pants and assisted him in removing the remainder of his clothing, hungrily noting his own extreme arousal as she did so. It took all of the little self-control that remained to her to keep from reaching out and touching him, but that was not how she wanted him this time. There would be time for slow exploration and rediscovery of each other's bodies later. He was beautiful, he was everything she could have fantasized and she needed to claim him now. He was looking at her as well, and she prayed that he liked what he saw. She was still extremely bruised, and she knew her skin was blotchy. "John…they will heal," she said softly, realizing how she must look. "In a few days, they will be gone. Please…please do not worry about hurting me, beloved. You will not. I know you, John Sheridan…you are my husband and my life. You could never hurt me as long as you are with me."

   John reached out and took Delenn in his arms. "I'm not worried about hurting you, Dearest. I was thinking that you wanted a rebirth ceremony before we took this step. Dearest, you know that we can satisfy each other without…"

   "No. John, we do not need the ceremony before this. Before birth, there is conception…and we are mated anyway. The ceremony can wait." Delenn looked up at him and pressed herself more closely against him. "I need this, John. I need this badly. I have been too long without you."

   She was right, John realized. He also realized that he needed her, too. Picking her up, he carried her back to the bedroom, laying her softly on her bed. She was already well prepared for him and he didn't think he could wait much longer, anyway. Gazing into his hazel eyes with her large, green ones, Delenn reached out and pulled him onto her, opening her legs and her warm center as she did so. She did not want him to wait and John realized it. He did not hesitate, sliding slowly into her and feeling her shudder as she began to clasp him. She gasped as she accepted him inside her, but it was a gasp of pleasure and he felt only a little resistance as her inner muscles adjusted instinctively to accommodate him. Moaning, she arched her back and pressed against him as he began to move. John could feel her hands on his buttocks, drawing him more deeply into her as she quickly relearned his rhythm and responded to it. She felt wonderful, and as he gazed down at her and listened to her soft cries of pleasure, he could tell from the look on her face that she would climax quickly…and he did not try to hold back. She did not want him to. A few short moments of very intense effort was all it took, and looking down at her sweet face when that moment came, he saw no bruises, no lines, no gray, and no sorrows. Just a gentle, knowing smile, passion-filled green eyes and a head topped by waves of dark, chestnut hair. The Delenn he had always seen when he looked at her…The other half of his soul. Then the moment he was waiting for came. His beloved's moment of serenity was replaced with pure passion as she thrust herself against him and locked her arms and legs around him. Throwing her head back, she screamed his name as the orgasm took her. That was all he needed. Burying himself deeply within her, he grasped her roughly and braced her against his chest as he followed her into the fire, her name on his lips almost like a prayer.

   Delenn had almost climaxed immediately when her husband penetrated her, brushing against the moist, sensitive folds of her pubic area as he settled his weight on her pelvis. She could already tell from the heat spreading inside as he opened her that she would not last long. She did not want to, even if she could have…he was very aroused and she wanted the two of them to climax together. Sighing musically, she picked up John's pace and matched it with her own as she felt him beginning to move atop her. This felt so right…feeling him inside her again. She did not want it to end, even as her body sent urgent signals that she was close. The void that had existed inside her had vanished the moment he had filled her, and she was not about to let it return to haunt her. <No more. > She thought as John's determined movements created ever-greater waves of pleasure that broke against her soul. <No more frustrated crying in the middle of the night. No more being ashamed to look at myself in the mirror the next morning. No more wondering if Ardenn had heard…NO MORE! > John's pace inside her was faster now, and she welcomed it, hearing the wonderful hum in her ears she got when…the soft inner calm descended on her. The lone candle flame, flickering in the night. She reached out towards it for a short second, recognizing it for what it was…her one moment of perfect beauty, the moment that she had missed so deeply, the place only one man could ever bring her to. Then the small flame became an inferno…and she felt her inner fire rage through her as she climaxed, wrapping her arms and legs tightly around her beloved husband and holding him inside her as she threw her head back and screamed his name at the Universe. So long, so long, so long…

   Dimly, she was aware of John seizing her and burying himself inside her as he echoed her name and came deeply within her. Smiling, she gazed up at him as his eyes bored straight through her…and in the calm, quiet afterglow the two lovers once again began the slow, delicious process of binding souls together that had been too long apart.

   

***

   

   David groaned as he sat up and wiped the sleep from his eyes. Shaking his head and glancing around, it took him a moment to regain his bearings. He was in Medlab.

   Standing, he moved the gurney to one side and looked down on the young female in the bed next to him. Ardenn was asleep. She had been sedated when they brought her in, but her sleep now looked natural. David smiled faintly, admiring her. In her sleep, she looked both beautiful and vulnerable. The injuries she had sustained had been all but erased, at least visibly. Inspecting her crest, all he could see was a faint tracery of lines that marked the points where surgeons had used an organic compound to fuse the bone, and even that would disappear as her crest knit naturally. She wasn't completely healed, of course. The nerve network servicing that side of her crest was a shambles and would require further treatment on Minbar, if it could be healed at all.

   Idly, he wondered what it would be like to wake up each morning to see her sleeping next to him like that, her head resting on his shoulder, perhaps. <Well, that would leave one hell of a crest-print on me… > David thought amusedly. As a kid, many times he had seen his father show up for breakfast with a perfect print of his mother's crest firmly embedded on his skin. Sometimes, they took a long time to fade. It got to the point where he could tell what position they had slept in the night before based on where the print was. On his chest or shoulder…she had used him as a pillow. On his neck…she had been draped across him. On his cheek…David chuckled. <Well, > he thought, <the man didn't always get to be on top… > Chuckling again as he noticed his mother's empty bed, he wondered where the print would be the next time that he saw him.

   Turning his attention back to Ardenn, he realized that she must have been awake at some point while he slept. There was a half-eaten bowl of orange slices on a tray next to her bed, the rose he had given her lay on the coverlet across her along with a bookpad, and she was holding a lidded cup with a straw poking out of the top. Gently, he removed the cup from her hand before it could spill and placed it on the tray with the orange slices. Removing the bookpad from her lap, he glanced at the title and almost laughed. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy…one of the classics. If she didn't have a screwed up picture of Humanity before, he reasoned she surely would after reading this. Setting the bookpad aside, he slid the rose back into her hand, bent over her and kissed her softly on the forehead. "I love you", he whispered to her. Stepping away, he pulled the privacy screen partially around her bed and left to freshen up and find some food.

   Returning about a half-hour later, David walked in and found Ardenn awake and trying to get out of bed. She looked woozy. "What do you think you're doing?" he said, moving quickly to her side and taking her arm, "You're not supposed to be moving around."

   "If you must know, David, I need to relieve myself." Ardenn replied archly, "I cannot even remember the last time I used the restroom, and I refuse to use that little pan they left me. I still have some dignity, no thanks to you." Standing, she tried to take a step and immediately stumbled. Shocked at her attitude towards him, David reached out and caught her before she could fall.

   "I can help. At least let me help." David said, slipping an arm around her waist. Unexpectedly, she pulled away from him.

   "No. I can do it." She snapped harshly. Leaning against the wall, she worked her way around the room until she reached the restroom. Confused, David flopped despondently into a chair.

   After a moment, Ardenn reemerged from the washroom. David rose to help her, but she waved him off with a dirty look and staggered back over to her bed, gloomily settling back against the pillows. After a moment, she said, "You should not have done it, David."

   David looked at her quizzically. "I should not have done what? What is wrong with you?"

   "You told those doctors that you were my mate." Ardenn snapped. "David, you should not have said that. It is not true, whether we want it to be or not. There are many more rituals that have to be performed before we can use that term to refer to each other, and we have not even discussed if or how we will proceed with them."

   David felt like crawling up in the corner and dying as Ardenn continued. "When the attendant brought me the oranges, he asked if my mate would be hungry when he woke up. What was I supposed to say, David? You put me in a situation where I would either have to expose your untruth or cover it with one of my own. I chose the latter, and said that my mate would probably go eat with his Rangers. I had to lie to cover your lie."

   David looked at the floor ashamedly. He could feel his tentative thoughts about a future with her gurgling down the drain. She had lied to cover his lie…to protect his honor. But she wouldn't join with a liar. The two sat in silence for a moment, David becoming increasingly uncomfortable as the quiet closed in on him. Finally, he could take it no longer. He rose and said, "Well, you still need to rest and I need to talk to my people. I spoke to Ranger One while you were asleep. She's convening an inquiry into the loss of my ship. Uh…no big surprise there. I left several billion credit's worth of Alliance hardware smoking on the ground. I guess I'd better check my bank balance while I'm at it." David walked to the door. He turned to her and said, "I'll make sure your honor is redeemed…I'll talk to the people out front and make sure they understand our true relationship, along with anyone else who might have gotten the wrong impression. I guess…well, I'll see you later."

   "I still love you, David! Do not walk out on me!" Ardenn exclaimed, sensing a tone of finality in David's words. When he turned to go, she tried to scramble out of her bed to go after him and immediately toppled to the floor.

   David was back over in a flash, grasping her by the shoulders and pulling her up into his arms. "In Valen's Name! Be careful, Ardenn! Are you hurt?"

   "No…no." She murmured with tears in her voice as she buried her face in his cloak. "I am angry with you, David. That does not mean that I want you to leave me." Sitting up, she fought back a sob. Chest heaving, she said, "I am angry because it is not true, and I want it to be. Not because I was insulted…I was honored that you weren't afraid to call me that. I have waited so long for you to notice me…I will not let you leave like this. Stay, please."

   "Hold on." Jumping up, David ran to the door and closed it. He didn't want curious strangers seeing Ardenn upset. Moving back to her, he knelt and pulled her head gently against his chest. "Of course I'll stay. I'll stay or go…whatever you want. All that you ever have to do is tell me and I'll do it." Looking down at her, he held his hand over the repaired portion of her crest, then hesitantly touched the bone and started stroking it. In response, Ardenn sobbed into him. "This is part of the problem, isn't it?" He murmured softly. After a moment's hesitation, he felt Ardenn nod. "Well, Dearest, we can't fix this now…but it doesn't change the way I feel about you." Gathering her in his arms, he lifted her and sat her back on the bed, turning her so she was facing the opposite direction before pulling her head back against him. He began caressing again, this time on the undamaged side. He felt some of the tension begin to flow out of her as she gradually relaxed into him. As he caressed her, he murmured, "You're right. It was wrong for me to lie. My father already pointed that out to me. The only reason I did was because I wanted to be near you while they were operating, and only family members were allowed in. I didn't want you going through that without someone who loves you watching over you. I didn't want you to be alone…and I didn't want to be alone, either. I didn't have anyplace else to go or anything else to do." He chuckled amusedly at himself as he absently continued rubbing, "I guess I'm a lot like my Dad in that respect. I have to be doing something. I can't just sit around. Speaking of Dad, I wonder what he's doing right now?"

   "He's with your mother, I assume." Ardenn murmured. "She left here several hours ago."

   David snorted at himself amusedly. <What a dumb question. > He thought. <I wonder what he's doing right now…duh. > "Well, then…I guess he's doing what I wouldn't mind doing right now."

   "You wish to sleep with your mother? I do not think that is acceptable even in Human culture." Ardenn smiled as she felt him hesitate while her clever wordplay sank in. "I am a funny Minbari…" she murmured when he began stroking again.

   "Interesting sense of humor you've got there, Ardenn." He found what he believed to be a particularly delicate fold and teased at it, drawing a soft moan out of her. "No, I actually had another person in mind. Someone a lot closer."

   She sighed, feeling a warm glow gradually expanding in her belly in response to his touches. A few more seconds of his stroking and she would lose the ability to resist. "You know, David, if you continue to do that…"

   David hesitated. "Do you want me to stop?"

   "No…but perhaps you…had better." Ardenn felt David sigh disappointedly as he lifted his hand off of her crest. "David…I know. I know that this is hard. It is for both of us. Do you remember what I said in the bay? I have not forgotten, and I was telling the truth. I want to make love to you and if my love were a little weaker and my urges a little stronger, I would allow you to take me right here on this bed. I would ask for it, even. But my love is stronger, David. I cannot allow myself to take advantage of you that way. If I were to allow my passions to rule my heart in this, others would say that I seduced you because of your name, and that you were foolish to be lured in by me."

   "I'm smarter than that, Ardenn. I understand the ramifications of what is happening between us. I do what I do because it is right. I know that you are right for me, and I don't need a bunch of rituals to prove it."

   "Neither of us needs the rituals, David. They are only a formality for me…a nuisance to satisfy my society. I already know that I will join physically with you, because I have seen your true face and it is the one I wish to see each morning for the rest of my life." Leaning forward, she kissed his neck and looked up at him. "I love you, David. Just be patient with me. That joining will be soon…very soon, I promise. The rituals, though…they are more than a formality to many, including some who could make our life together very difficult. For that reason, we have to honor them."

   David wrapped his arms more tightly around her. "You are worth the wait. I wouldn't have made love to you here anyway, Dearest. I do want you, but I want our first joining to be special. It would be special anywhere, of course, but I want it to be worthy of you, not some hurried coupling in a hospital bed." He smiled down at her and kissed her cerulean patch. "In fact, would it surprise you to know that I have already picked out the place?"

   "Where?"

   "If I told you that then it wouldn't be a surprise now, would it?" David laughed at the impatient expression that flashed across her face before she could smother it. "Oh, you've got a temper…I know that much by now, Ardenn. Let's just say that it's the one place I know that I consider…almost worthy of you."

   "First you tell others that you are my mate, now you are teasing me."

   David looked down at her seriously. "I am yours, Ardenn. I will not have any other. In that respect, I didn't lie, I merely 'prophesized' a little. And yes, I am teasing you a little bit, but only because I know that you will agree with me when you see the place I've picked out." Releasing her, David lightly grasped Ardenn around the waist and laid her back on her pillows. Taking her hand, he said, "Now, let's talk about rituals. I think you noted that we need to and you're absolutely right. First, I need to know what you've already done." He laughed at her abashed look, saying, "Surely you didn't think I knew nothing about what you've been up to? Remember who my mother is? I know crafty when I see it."

   Ardenn looked down into her lap for a moment, embarrassed that she had been so obvious when she thought she was being discreet. Looking back up, she hesitated, then said, "I have performed all of the preparatory rituals…the ones that can be performed without the participation of both parties."

   "Well, I suppose that puts me a little behind. It would seem that I have some catching up to do."

   "No, David. I have done all that is necessary up until now. You see, you may not agree but you and I are not equals…by default, you are considered very high in the Religious Caste while I am almost a non-entity." Seeing that he was about to protest, she held up a hand to forestall him. "Yes, I know that you're a human, but you cannot escape your heritage, or mine. It is not an issue between the two of us, but it becomes one when we begin talking about presenting ourselves as a couple in public."

   "This is the reason I consider myself a human in the first place, Ardenn. To be quite honest, I find the caste system and the clan hierarchies in Minbari society extremely unfair."

   Ardenn looked at David fondly and reached up to run her hand through his hair. It was soft and flowed like water between her fingers, a sensation she secretly found quite arousing. "It is rumored that Valen himself felt much as you do, David. But every society needs some sort of structure to survive and, unfair as it is, this is the one we have to work with." Sighing, Ardenn lowered her hand. "As I was saying, you are far enough above me that I get to 'do all of the leg work' as a human would say, to make our relationship viable. In essence, by courting you I am applying to become a member of a family with far more status than my own. As such, I have to petition your parents for permission to continue. I have to justify myself to them, your mother particularly."

   "I was under the impression that you had already spoken of this with my mother. Do you really think this will be that hard?"

   Ardenn looked thoughtful for a moment. "I have spoken to her, but that was informal and did not truly fulfill the requirement. She merely indicated that she had no objections to our continuing to see one another socially. As for difficulty…no, David. I think that if we both want this, they will not disapprove. At the same time, however, I am certain that Delenn expects me to follow procedures acceptable to our society."

   "Oh." David mulled this information over, then said, "OK, then I assume all of the rituals from here on out require both of us. What can I do to keep the process moving?"

   "The next ritual is not really a ritual. It is the formal petition. For that, I require two things. First, I need you to answer a few simple but important questions."

   David laughed. "Simple questions. Good, I like simple. What are they?"

   Ardenn gazed up at him, hope in her eyes. "Do you agree that the rituals should continue? Can my representative state to your parents that we both wish this? And…if we complete the rituals…will you accept me as your mate?"

   David was dumbstruck. "Uh…are you proposing to me, Ardenn?"

   "I think that would be the human way of putting it." When David did not answer immediately, Ardenn started becoming uncomfortable. "David…say something. You are frightening me. Is this not what you want?" She started tangling her fingers in her coverlet in sudden nervousness. "Perhaps…perhaps I have been hasty in addressing this now. If you need time to consider…"

   "What? Oh, I'm sorry…no, I mean yes. I mean no, uh…I don't need any more time and yes to all three of your questions." David laughed again, embarrassed. "You just surprised me a little. I was expecting to have to make the proposal, and I was trying to figure out where I can find an engagement ring out here. If we're going to take this step, it wouldn't do for all of the other humans to think that you're unattached."

   "I receive a ring? Like your mother's?" Ardenn could not keep a note of excitement out of her voice. She had not expected this.

   "Oh, you like that custom, huh?" David grinned at her. "Yes, you get a ring, Dearest...or you do as soon as I can come up with one. In some human cultures, the female receives a ring when she and her male state their intentions to marry. That's called becoming engaged. The ring is…kind of a signal to other males that the female is no longer available. I guess that to you it would indicate that we are in the midst of the joining rituals. You proposed to me and I accepted, so we are now engaged."

   Ardenn was thrilled. A commitment. She was getting a commitment from him. Still, she was puzzled. "But your mother has two." She noted.

   "The second ring is given during the marriage ceremony. It's called a wedding ring and we both receive one. Those, of course, indicate that we've completed all of the rituals and are joined."

   Ardenn smiled and said, "And they say that humans have no rituals. Go figure."

   David returned her smile and leaned closer. "We don't have as many, but we do have all of the right ones." Reaching out, he cupped her cheek and said, "Right now, though, I think the 'kissing your intended' ritual would be more than appropriate."

   "More than appropriate…" Ardenn echoed, pushing herself up to meet him. Their lips met, and David got an abrupt reminder that Ardenn was stronger than she looked. She pulled herself into him, slipping her arms behind his back and neck and held him there. Breaking the kiss for a second, she gazed into his eyes and breathed, "My intended…" before pulling his lips down to hers again and opening her mouth to begin an exquisite exploration of his. They stayed like that a long time, and Ardenn found that his roving hands were arousing her all over again. <Soon. Yes…it will have to be soon, my love. > She thought hazily.

   Eventually, they broke away, each endeavoring to catch their breath. "You…said that you required two things for your formal petition, Dearest." David almost gasped. "What is the other one?"

   Ardenn paused. This was actually the hardest part to fulfill, as it would require a third person, and the cooperation of David's parents. She said, "I require an…advocate, David. Someone to speak on my behalf…to explain the qualities that I would bring into your family to your parents. Someone to formally request that they accept me as their daughter." Pulling back a little, Ardenn loosened her hold on David but did not release him. "Were you any other male, I would ask your mother to speak on my behalf. She indicated at one time that she would if I requested it. Obviously, that will not work in this situation." She hesitated, then looked meaningfully at him. "In short, David, I need a mother."

   

***

   

   "YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT?" Crewmembers later said that you could hear the curses throughout the ship when David approached Ranger One with his request.

   David put on his best 'meek and penitent' face. "Uh…adopt Ardenn. Well, maybe 'adopt' is kind of a strong word. Perhaps…uh, 'godchild' would be better…er, maybe make her a…a niece or…something?"

   "Make her my daughter so I can sing her praises to your parents while you two kids go play 'hide the salami', huh?" Susan slumped back behind her desk as the initial surprise wore off. "I should've seen this coming…I should have." She muttered to herself. Looking back up at David, she said, "Why me?"

   "First, because Ardenn trusts you and likes you. Second, having you as her 'mother' gives her a lot more status than she would otherwise have…still not quite an 'equal', but close enough to satisfy the Minbari snobs who'll question this. Most of all, because she doesn't have anybody else." Seeing the skeptical look on Susan's face, David's hopes fell. "Look, if you don't want to do it that's OK. We'll find another way. I'm sorry I bothered you." He turned to leave.

   Susan ran a hand through her hair. "Stop, David. Turn around and wipe that disappointed look off of your face." Indicating a chair in front of her desk, she said, "Sit down."

   David sat and looked at her expectantly.

   "Look, do you fully understand what you're asking me to do? As your Aunt Susan, you know I'll bend over backwards to help the two of you. But you're asking Ranger One to make a quasi-official statement sanctioning this. Your Aunt Susan has no problem speaking on Ardenn's behalf, but Ranger One's possibly going to open a big can of worms with this."

   "I thought you would be honored. You said that you hoped she would be the one for me, and she is. Now you won't help us?"

   "I will help you, David! God! You just don't get it, do you? It's politics, pure and simple. Look, when your parents came out and said they were marrying, Earth accused your mother of trying to remake humanity in her image. There are still humans who believe that, just as there are Minbari who have never approved of your mother marrying a human, some within her own clan. Why do you suppose that your mother has never come out with a statement endorsing interspecies mating? Why didn't your father before her?" Susan sighed. "I will help you, OK? I just have to think this through…I have to look at the bigger picture. Let me think a moment."

   David sighed. "I guess I never thought of it that way. I was just thinking of the two of us."

   Susan almost didn't hear the young man. An idea was coagulating in her brain. "Wait, David…I'm thinking." <Politics…hmmm. Politics and subtlety… > Abruptly, Susan looked hard at David. "David…answer me this question as a Ranger in the field. Are there others?"

   "Other what?"

   "Human/Minbari couples. Are there others among the Rangers?"

   David resisted answering the question for a moment. <What is she getting at? Other couples? Oh, she doesn't know… > "Yes, Ranger One. I don't know the details, but I know there are others. Quite a few, if my understanding is correct. Please don't ask me for names. They aren't out in the open, obviously, and I won't betray their confidence. I don't see what that has to do with us, though."

   Susan smiled. "A can of worms…uh, I think you've given me a way to kill two birds with one stone, David." David looked confused, so Susan said, "Your mother and I speculated that there might be other couples out there. As I explained, present political circumstances make it hard for us to sanction public relationships of that nature, but at the same time I want those couples to know that Ranger One is not against them. Perhaps if I make an 'unofficial' gesture, such as fostering Ardenn for you, I can make a statement without 'making a statement'…one that our Rangers will understand even if it doesn't set policy."

   Bemused, David scratched his head and said, "Uh…I'm not sure what you're getting at, but does this mean that you'll represent Ardenn?"

   Susan stood. "Yep. Tell your sweetie that she's now an Ivanova. I hope she speaks Russian." In mock seriousness, she turned to David and said, "I've never had a child of my own before. You don't think she'll want to breast feed, do you?"

   "I think you're safe on that count."

   Susan laughed. "OK, good. That makes me feel a little better. Tell Ardenn that her 'mom' will be down to see her later. I need to know exactly what she needs me to do…"

   

***

   

   Delenn gazed into the flickering light of the lone candle, watching it intently as the flame danced. As intently as she watched, however, she found that it did not hold her concentration. The man sitting across from her did. They had sought each other, found each other…made love to each other. She still tingled from it, that warm tingling in her body that she felt when she was satisfied. The fire of their first hasty coupling had led to the warm coals of a longer, slower session. They had leisurely explored one another, relearning pleasurable pathways and intimate secrets that each had forgotten about the other. John had taken her to the edge again and held her there as she cried out her fulfillment to the Universe, and then she had held him as his own joy exploded within her.

   Now, their physical desires momentarily sated, they sat in front of the flame that would remake them in spirit as well as body. Delenn now wore her own robe, having returned John's to him - with the concession that she could still wear it occasionally. Before her sat a bowl of red berries and John's wedding ring.

   The na'fak'cha…Delenn had performed this ceremony a thousand times, but for some reason, she was troubled. Even as she said the words, something felt…wrong…out of place. Shaking the feeling off, she continued.

   "And Valen said, 'Will you follow me into fire? And the nine said…the nine said…" Delenn paused and shook her head, puzzled. "John?"

   "Yes, Dearest?" John queried from the other side of the flame.

   "Where were you?"

   <That's an unusual question. > John thought. "Where was I? Um…I was on the colony world where this body was created for a few months, then I traveled to Narn, then to Michael on Mars…"

   Delenn shook her head. "No. I mean where were you for the past three years? Beyond the Rim?"

   John looked at her quizzically. "Uh…no. Had I gone beyond, I couldn't have returned to you." Indicating the candle, he said, "This isn't a part of the ceremony, Dearest. Do you want to do this now? We can stop and talk, if you like."

   "Of course, you are correct. It is not. I am sorry, John, we can continue." Turning back to the candle, Delenn began again, "And Valen said, 'Will you…" She paused again. Looking up from the candle, she said, "John, if you did not go beyond the Rim to the Place where no Shadows Fall, then where were you?"

   John began to get uneasy. It was very unlike Delenn to break off in the middle of a ceremony, and she had done it twice now. "I was held on this side of the Rim." His gaze became a little concerned.

   "Oh. And you remember this?" Delenn was looking intently at John now. His eyes were unreadable and for some reason, she was starting to feel slightly detached. This…strange…sensation inside her was beginning to frighten her a little.

   "No. I don't remember it. Time passes…differently. I guess the best term for it is 'suspended animation'." Delenn was getting an odd expression on her face. John couldn't recall ever seeing one quite like it before. Almost as if her mind and body were divorcing from one another.

   "Then how do you know if you do not remember?" Her hands were beginning to shake. Delenn fought to still them. It was as if her body couldn't understand the commands her mind was sending it any longer.

   "Well…Lorien told me." John started to move towards her. Delenn was starting to tremble, and the oddest thing was that she appeared just as confused about the shaking as he did.

   "Lorien…that was who you were talking to down there…on the planet? Lorien?" Something was inside her and trying to get out. She did not know what it was…only that it was starting to tear her apart. "John…something is wrong with me…"

   "Dearest, what's wrong? Delenn, talk to me! Are you sick?"

   "I do not know!" She was shaking like a leaf and starting to sob in fear. Her body had completely abandoned conscious control. She cried, "I do not know! Help me, John!"

   <Oh, God…Susan was right…she warned me, and I had almost forgotten… > John abruptly realized what was happening to her. The meditation of the Rebirth Ceremony had caused her to look inward on herself, triggering the stress reaction Susan had warned him about. Crawling quickly around the candle, he took the shaking Delenn in his arms and laid her down on her back across the pillows. He then straddled her, resting his weight on his knees so she had a little room to move. He bent forward over her and whispered, "Wrap you arms around me, beloved, if you can."

   Delenn was frightened. Her body was operating independently of her and she struggled to comply. John helped her get her arms up around him and then he settled on top of her, his weight softly pressing her back into the pillows, enfolding her like a human blanket. She felt him wrap his arms around her back and hold her gently. "John? What is happening to me?" She asked shakily. "I…I felt fine and then all of a sudden…"

   "I'm here, I'm here. It's all right, Dearest. You are coming back into yourself after a long absence, beloved. You called out to the Universe, and it's answering you." John settled a little more firmly on her. "I know that you're confused. The feelings that you are having will pass. Don't resist…just relax and let your body do what it wants to do. I'm holding you, and I'll catch you if you fall."

   Delenn listened to her husband, trusting him more than she trusted herself. She complied. A long, low wail rose in her throat, as her trembling became frantic thrashing. She seemed to back away from herself, her rational mind more an observer than a participant. She said things, then. She cried about how the Universe had abandoned her after it was done with her. She raged about how John had left her without even a backward glance. She wallowed in self-pity about living in a world that had only taken from her, never given. Through it all, John held her just tightly enough to keep her from hurting herself.

   Gradually, Delenn felt herself returning. Her thrashing became trembling again, and then even that began to subside. After it stopped she simply lay there, drained, as John…her John…continued to hold her. When she felt she could speak again, she said, "John? I…I think I am ready to share my secret with you now."

   John slowly rolled off of her and propped himself up beside he on his elbow. Smiling down at her, he extended a finger and began idly tracing the contours of her face, pretending that nothing had even happened. "Go ahead."

   Delenn looked away and swallowed then looked back up into John's eyes. Hesitantly, she began, "I…I have not coped with your passing very well. When you passed…I was not ready for you to go, and I had lied to everybody and myself by saying I was. I did not let you go when it was time. I tried to hold you…Valen! How I tried! But I could not. I am sorry, John…I thought our love was stronger than the curse itself, but when I saw your fate in my mind's eye…when I saw the light beckoning you and felt you struggling to hold onto the link to me…John, I turned away. You were fighting to come back to me and I turned away because I was…I was afraid. In the end, the love for you which I thought was so strong was not as strong as my fear." She sniffled as the tears started. "And I…have wondered…for the past three years…what would have happened if…I had possessed the inner strength to hold on just a little bit longer…"

   John said nothing, he just bent down and kissed her closed eyes gently and caressed her face. He wasn't allowed to say anything now, but later, in the privacy of their bed, he would tell her. She felt guilty for being weak, but had she held on any longer she might have been driven mad. The forces that she had been engaged in a tug of war with were far stronger than she. His Delenn was strong, but she could never have won.

   "I guess it's time to share my secret." John said after a moment. "Delenn, as I said before, Lorien visited me on the planet after you left." He saw Delenn open her eyes. She gazed at him her gaze becoming a look of shock as the inevitable thought occurred to her. She could not speak, but she mouthed at him 'How long?' John chuckled. "Don't worry. His visit had nothing to do with my lifespan. Barring accident or injury, I will live a long life. Hell, I may have even gained a few extra years as a result of this." Delenn's face settled into a joyful smile as her concerns abated. She encouraged him to continue. "Anyway, you and I are not supposed to be here." He looked at her meaningfully. "I have upset the balance in the Universe by returning, so all bets are off regarding probable futures. Lorien told me one other thing. He told me to watch our children, because they were the future of our races. I'm still not certain what that meant."

   Delenn thought she knew, remembering how her hand had rested on the Dream Ardenn's smooth belly. She said nothing, though. She was not allowed, and what would be would be. The future would attend to itself. Secrets shared, she held out an arm for John to assist her in rising. Sliding back over to her spot in front of the candle, she turned to John and extended his ring to him. "I am returning something to you that means a great deal to me. Wear it, my husband. Wear it and become a part of me again, just as you have always been."

   John extended his hand and allowed Delenn to slip the ring back onto the proper finger. Once it was on, he clasped her hand and held it there. "Dearest, I have very little that means anything to me to give you, so I decided to get you this." Reaching behind him, he pulled out two Roses, intertwined. One was red, the other white. He had slipped out and gone back to Medlab while she slept to get them.

   Delenn cooed softly as she received the delicate flowers. "Red I know means passion, Dearest. What does the white one represent?"

   "White represents purity, love. Love of the soul as well as the body. Together, they represent Unity, the union of our hearts and our blood. Those two roses represent what we have together, beloved. Just like you and I, the two are far stronger and more meaningful together than each is separately. Unity means something to me, and I want to share it with you."

   Delenn laid the flowers tenderly on the floor between her knees and the candle. Gazing at them, she softly said, "I love you, John."

   "I love you, too."

   Taking a breath, Delenn started to begin the litany to terminate the ritual. She opened her mouth to speak…and then closed it. Shaking her head ruefully, she chuckled and said, "That is indeed strange. This has never happened to me before…"

   "What is it, Dearest?"

   Delenn looked back up at him, embarrassed. "I…uh…I seem to have forgotten the words."

   John smiled at her. "I'll do it, then, but not with the formal words. Perhaps you will remember a very wise person once using them…" With that, John began to speak.

   "We are all born as molecules in the hearts of a billion stars, molecules that do not understand politics, policies and differences. In a billion years we, foolish molecules forget who we are and where we came from. In desperate acts of ego, we give ourselves names, fight over lines on maps, and pretend our light is better than everyone else's. The flame reminds us of the piece of those stars that live inside us. A spark that tells us: you should know better. The flame also reminds us that life is precious, as each flame is unique. When it goes out, it's gone forever. And there will never be another quite like it."

   When John finished a magic silence seemed to permeate the room. After basking in it a moment, he turned to his beloved. "Those are your words. Do you remember them? They've always been burned into my mind because they define you for me, Delenn. The day you uttered them was the first day I thought I understood you, at least in part. Those word have great meaning for me, and I have always carried them in my heart."

   Delenn sat in silence for a moment. Reaching down, she hurriedly slid the bowl of red berries across the floor to John. "Eat the fruit. Eat the fruit now, John."

   John took one of the berries and popped it into his mouth. "Why the rush?"

   Delenn could feel passionate heat radiating all over her. "Because I am about to climb all over you, beloved."

   John barely had time to see the fire in her eyes as she pushed the candle aside and came across the floor for him. Reaching him, she pushed him onto his back and cast his robe aside, exposing his rapidly growing manhood. Pausing only long enough to knead it to full hardness, she straddled him and took him inside her in one smooth motion. John barely noticed that in one hand she held the roses he had given her. "Unity…" she sighed as settled herself completely around him.

   They made love slowly and quietly, neither saying a word…the only sounds being the small soft noises two lovers make as their movements create ecstasy within each other, the only light the flickering of the candle…their life candle. Delenn led, her motion guided but not controlled by John's hands on her hips. Every so often she would lower herself to allow John to suckle a hard nipple, the nips of his teeth accenting the rolling waves of heat surging through her. She controlled the pace of their lovemaking this time, and when she finally felt him tensing beneath her, she lowered her head so he could deliver the final touches that would push her over the edge.

   Taking a nipple in his mouth, he licked and nibbled as he slid a hand into her hair and found her crest. Running a finger along the edge was all she needed. Her orgasm this time was not the hard knife-edge that their first lovemaking had produced. It was a slow wave of intense heat that radiated out from her center to her extremities. It went for a long time and she was aware of a low moan being pulled from her that seemed to go on and on as her lover held himself firmly within her. Almost immediately afterwards, she felt John buck against her from underneath, muscles tense, writhing in the grips of his own climax.

   After the two lovers were spent, they lay there like that, Delenn atop her husband. She settled her head softly on her chest, her crest pressed against his cheek, and held him inside her. Both of them gazed at the dancing flame and thought hopefully about their future together before they drifted off to sleep.

   

***

   

   Epilogue

   "They're not expecting a speech, are they?" John asked a little amusedly as he stared out the forward viewscreen of the Isil-zha. The ship was beginning its approach to Tuzanor. He, Delenn, David, and Ardenn had said their farewells to Captain Marstan and the crew of the Far Traveler a short time ago and were being flown by Susan back home. Home for a much needed break.

   Delenn quietly approached behind him. Slipping her hand into his, she leaned against him and rested her head against his shoulder. "No, John. No speeches…but there will be a crowd. We are making history today." Looking up at him, she took his chin and turned his face down to hers. "Word is spreading about your return, love. There was no way to keep it a secret forever, and we should not in any event. Our people need to see you. It will strengthen their belief in what we are doing." Nudging him to indicate she would welcome an arm around her, she continued as he complied. "John, the political reality is…the Alliance is starting to fracture. We have grown too fast and taken on too many new projects. Upon reflection, I am sure that is one of the reasons you are here. Bureau 13 sensed an opportunity to take advantage of our growing pains to attack me at a time when I was vulnerable. Fortunately, you were able to circumvent it."

   "I'm not sure I understand. The Alliance is fracturing?"

   "It is not about to descend into Civil War…nothing as serious as that. When cultures mix, some become dominant and gradually undermine the weaker ones. This is happening in the Alliance now on several worlds. The aggressive cultures of the Alliance are gradually absorbing the more placid ones, including some that might surprise you. Naturally, it is survival of the fittest…ironically the Shadows philosophy…that is demonstrating itself." Delenn fell silent, gazing wistfully out of the viewport at her homeworld.

   "Is Minbar one of the placid societies gradually being absorbed?"

   Delenn hesitated a moment, then nodded her head. "Yes. Ever so slowly. It is much like your Japan and China many hundreds of years ago. They were far more advanced in many things than your European culture was, but their society was too inflexible to adjust and survive the more expansionist nature of that culture when they met it. I fear I am watching the same now as my homeworld and yours become more closely tied. Human ways are beginning to permeate my society." She looked at him and smiled sadly. "It is not necessarily a bad thing, beloved, but for me it is a little sad. In a few hundred years, will there be much difference between my world and yours? I think not. It is a little like watching the First Ones leave. It was time for them to go, but when they left some of the magic went with them."

   "And this is creating a backlash among many of these less adaptable cultures." Susan chimed in. "They're struggling to retain their identity." She eyed John for a moment, then said, "John? What are your plans now? What do you intend to do with yourself?"

   John mulled it over. "Actually, I hadn't gotten much farther than sitting on a beach and trying to unravel knots in a rope." He shrugged and said, "I'm available."

   Delenn pulled John a little more tightly against her and gave Susan a warning glance. She said, "Up to a point, Dearest."

   John hastily cleared his throat. "Umm…yes. Up to a point."

   "Would it bother you to work for me from time to time, John?" Susan asked, cheerfully shaking off the daggers Delenn was looking at her. "Delenn…I'm not letting you lock him up in a glass case in Tuzanor. You know the Alliance could really use John Sheridan right now."

   John ignored Delenn just as cheerfully. With a disgruntled snort, his wife said "I am going back to talk to David and Ardenn while the two of you divide up the galaxy amongst yourselves."

   Before she could get away, John pulled her in and kissed her. "Don't worry, Dearest. We'll leave you a piece." Delenn tried to keep a straight face, but her eyes were laughing. She danced out of his grip reluctantly and headed for the aft compartment of the ship. Turning back to Susan, he said, "What did you have in mind? You've gotten me interested…"

   

***

   

   Delenn found David and Ardenn on the couch. He was fast asleep, his head in her lap. Ardenn was gazing down at him and idly running her fingers through his hair. She looked to Delenn as if she were enjoying this activity immensely.

   "You might want to exercise caution, Ardenn." Delenn said quietly. "He is like his father. He drools."

   Ardenn looked up at her and smiled as her mentor pulled up a stool and sat down. "I have noticed, Delenn. I think I can live with it."

   "Ardenn, I have spoken with you very little since we returned to the ship. I apologize."

   Ardenn looked back down at David. "Do not trouble yourself over it. You have been…occupied. I understand. Seeing you as you are now is apology enough."

   "As I am now? I do not understand."

   Ardenn gazed at her. "The Delenn in the photograph. I see her now in you, and not only when you smile. I see her in you all the time. You are you again, and this make my heart glad."

   Delenn watched as Ardenn shook her head amusedly, blond hair falling in circlets around her face. "You are 'whole' again, Delenn. You have relocated your soul-image and brought her back out." Delenn stared disbelievingly. No. Ardenn was back to normal. For an instant, she though someone else had been there…

   "Delenn? Is something wrong?"

   "Oh, no." Delenn smiled. "Just a bit of memory. Ardenn…have I ever told you what a beautiful person I see inside you? I would like to see more of her, if you trust me enough to let me meet her."

   Ardenn glanced away embarrassedly. "You will, Delenn. She is never far from the surface. And…I am glad that you find her beautiful. I hope David will."

   Delenn looked down at her son, still sleeping peacefully. "He finds the 'you' that we all see beautiful. He will find the inner 'you' beautiful as well. The two of you have…talked? About the future?"

   "Yes."

   "Should I be expecting a visitor anytime soon?"

   Ardenn's hands trembled a little. "Yes, Delenn. Someone will be coming to see you shortly."

   Delenn looked at her intently. "Do you truly love him, Ardenn? Are you prepared to travel the difficult road John and I have traveled?"

   "I do love him…but somehow I think our road will be different from yours. I am not you, and David is not your husband. The future will do as it will do, Delenn. We will prepare for it as we can."

   Delenn smiled at the young woman who would be her daughter. "Your love for him is all I require of you, Ardenn. You have much wisdom in you. I suspect your representative will not have a hard time with John and I. We do love you and we will welcome you when the time comes." Taking on a tone of mock-seriousness, she said, "That is, unless you've fostered yourself to Ranger One. Her…I will rake over the coals." Delenn laughed aloud as Ardenn looked up at her with big, frightened eyes. "In Valen's Name! It is Ranger One, is it not? I am only joking with you, little one. Someday, you must tell me how you convinced the First Warrior of the Alliance to adopt a child who is forbidden to touch a weapon…" Delenn laughed again as the first bumps of atmospheric reentry bounced the ship. "Well, it seems that we will be landing soon." She rose to rejoin her husband. "I shall talk to you later…about how we will handle the Sisters."

   

***

   

   The crowds cheered wildly, or at least what among the stoic Minbari would be taken as wildly, as the small ship released its passengers. This was a great day for the Alliance. John Sheridan, one of the founders, had returned. Celebrations were planned in Tuzanor for the next week, and the sky was ablaze with fireworks. The people were happy. The priests of the Religious Caste were proven correct, even if John's return could be explained with science.

   As the crowd celebrated, a trio of cloaked figures stood silently, watching as the four people made their way to a waiting groundcar.

   "So…the rumors are true." One of the cloaked ones said, "It is as our friends have told us. They are together. See how he holds her?"

   "Yes." The second one replied. "An abomination…but a necessary one if the plan of the Mistress is to come to fruition."

   "I still do not agree with this course of action. There are other ways…"

   "No!" The third cloaked one spoke. "The Mistress has spoken. We obey. Personal feelings have no place here if the plan is to succeed." The third person looked on as the first two nodded their assent. "We have seen enough here. It is time to force Delenn's hand."

   "What are your orders, Enlightened One?"

   "We shall return to the Temple and report to the Mistress. All is going as she predicted. We shall recall Ardenn."

   "She may refuse to come."

   "We will 'make her an offer she cannot refuse' as the Humans say. We shall elevate her." The cloaked Sister of Valeria smiled. "She did demonstrate the Third Principle of Sentient Life quite succinctly, after all. She saved President Delenn's life. She is more than deserving of the honor."

   "And this will bring Delenn running?"

   "How can it not? She will not want her son or Ardenn to suffer. She will come. Come now, we need to begin preparing the recall notification."

   With that, the three slipped quietly away from the crowd.

   

***

   

   A slightly portly balding man stood in the remainder of once had been a laboratory, gazing fixedly at a small crystal object in his hand. A slightly smaller black man stood beside him. In the distance, they could hear Earthforce GROPOS mopping up the remainder of the Bureau 13 personnel manning this facility.

   "So that's him, huh?" Stephen Franklin noted. "That's John Sheridan."

   "Yeah, it's all that's left…other than the living one, of course." Michael Garibaldi replied, fingering the data crystal. "Everything he was, but not everything he is."

   "Well, there's this also," Stephen indicated the tank, a new tissue sample already inside. "Can you imagine? Those bastards were going to try again." Looking at the tissue sample that would have been a third John, he turned back to Michael. "What do we do about this? Delenn told Susan the personality matrix was to be destroyed, but she didn't say anything about embryos."

   "We…" Michael said, indicating the two of them, "We don't do anything. You need to go. I'll handle it from here."

   "Michael…no. You don't need to carry this yourself."

   "Yes I do, Stephen. You're a doctor, and I don't want this on your conscience. I'll do what needs to be done."

   "But…"

   "No 'buts'! Get out Stephen." Michael put his hand on Stephen's shoulder. "I've got this one."

   Hesitantly, Stephen turned to leave, then turned back. "Listen... if you want to talk about this afterwards, just come find me, OK?"

   Michael sucked in a breath and turned away. "Yeah…yeah, sure. I'll see you in a few minutes."

   Once Stephen left, Michael looked for a long second at the crystal in his hand. Placing it on the table, he went to a nearby fire cabinet and removed a crowbar. Slowly he walked to the tank and peered into the murk. Sighing sadly, he murmured, "I'm sorry, old friend. I always seem to end up the bad guy when I enter your life. But there's only room for one of you in this universe." Raising the crowbar, he slammed it through the glass, stepping back as the nourishing fluid drained onto the floor, killing a small piece of organic matter that carried the imprint of an old comrade.

   One ugly task down…

   Turning back to the table, he hesitated as he raised the bar to deliver a shattering blow. The crystal sparkled like a diamond. For a brief second, he considered keeping it. <Backup, > he thought. <Never go in without a backup... >. Realizing that his resolve was weakening, he hurriedly brought the crowbar down, shattering the crystal and sending shards flying across the room.

   Dropping the crowbar on the table, Michael surveyed his handiwork. "Well, John," he muttered, "You're back to life. No backups. I guess now you get to take your chances with the rest of us. Farewell, old friend…and hello."

   Dusting himself off, he turned and followed Stephen out.

   See You In 2285...

 

*****

 

 

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