2284 (VI): FIGHTING WITHOUT FEAR

By John Hightower

 

 

 

[Note from the JumpNow.de editor:
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*****

   Earth Year 2284

   "That fucking idiot! He popped the wrong goddamn bonehead!" Tossing his earpiece angrily to the ground the assassination team leader turned and grabbed the operative standing next to him. "We just started and things are already falling apart. Look there!" He pointed at the smoldering wreck of the gantry that had once concealed the sniper. "Ok…ok, here's what I want you to do. Don't let Delenn get off that stage. Tell our people in the crowd to open up now!" He chewed his lip for a second. "Blow the pyrotechnics, too. Let's get this crowd stirred up. That'll give the local authorities something to worry about."

   The Bureau 13 agent spoke hastily into his mike and in response, concentrated PPG fire began to pepper the dignitaries scurrying for cover to their front. Areas around the crowd began to go up in flames, causing the crowd to surge in many directions in an effort to escape. Screams and cries echoed around the facility as smoke and flame built up. Momentarily satisfied, the leader pointed above his head to the hovering White Star. "I want that ship brought down, preferably in flaming pieces. The assault ship can't get in as long as they're here, so if you want to be extracted when this is all over, get rid of that flying chicken! Have the staging base get a couple of heat-seekers in the air. That White Star is stationary, so they should be easy meat."

   The agent spoke quickly into his link. "Ok, boss, heat-seekers are up. Two minutes out."

   The team leader watched as the hovering White Star sought a place to set down. Pulling out a PPG, he turned to his companion. "Let's get up to the stage. If the freak is still up there we can take care of this whole mess now." Indicating the White Star, which was on the ground and already disgorging Rangers, he said, "Have our people lift their fires and concentrate on holding off that crew."

   Jumping up on the stage, the leader kicked around in the bodies. "Nope, she's not here and neither is her lapdog Ivanova. Here's her little friend, though…" He shoved the still figure on the stage with his boot. "Too bad, she was kind of cute for a Minbari. What a shame she wasted herself on that worthless freak." Looking to the back of the stage, he saw a door into the terminal hanging open. "Ok, grab some people. The bonehead escaped into the terminal so we'll have to go in after her. Looks like we do this the hard way."

   "How many?"

   "Two or three. We're talking about a couple of women here. I don't expect much of a fight." The underling spoke into his link and shortly, three terrorist foot soldiers came loping up to the stage. The leader surveyed them quickly. They didn't look exactly brainy, but they'd do. "They'll probably make for their ship. They don't have much of a head start." Surveying the fight on the tarmac, he could see that the remaining terrorists were slowly being pushed from the stage. Thinking quickly, he came to a decision. "We have a slight change in plans. Too many Rangers are down here now. We'll need a bargaining chip to get out of here. If you find Susan Ivanova in there, kill her. I want Delenn alive."

   "Boss, our instructions were to kill her, too."

   "We will. If it comes down to a standoff, we'll use her to get us off this rock. Once out of here, we'll simply space her. Dead is dead, in my book. Let's go."

   ***

   Gradually, Delenn recovered her equilibrium and snapped back into reality. It was pandemonium around her. People were out of their chairs and running in many directions. A few were simply standing, staring in shock at what was occurring around them. Rangers from her security detail were jumping around, attempting to position themselves between her and the crowd.

   Susan was underneath her, trying to squirm out and speaking to her. "Delenn! Can you hear me? Are you hurt!"

   "No. No, I do not think so. I am whole."

   "Come on then! We've got to get off this stage!" As if to accent Susan's point, a PPG bolt sailed by, closely followed by several others. A Ranger fell. "They're firing on us from the crowd, Delenn! We have to go now!"

   Another Ranger tumbled over, a PPG burn in his chest. Delenn could feel Susan tugging at her shoulders in an attempt to drag her to the rear. "Come, Ardenn…we are leaving." Delenn reached out for the young Minbari on top of her. Ardenn didn't react. "Come on, Ardenn. We cannot stay here." She reached out and shook Ardenn's shoulders. Her hands were sticky. Pulling them away, she stared at them in shock. They were covered with blood and pieces of bone. <No…> "Ardenn, please come on… stay with me. You cannot remain here…" Delenn became dimly aware that someone was screaming. A part of her mind realized it was she. Susan tugged hard at her shoulders. "NO!" Delenn tore out of her grip. "NO! GET UP ARDENN! GET UP! GET UP!" Her words became unintelligible as her voice dissolved into a piteous wail.

   Susan realized that Ardenn was beyond moving, and that Delenn was quickly coming apart as she began to realize it as well. Jumping up, she risked being shot herself as she reached down and grabbed Delenn around the waist, physically throwing her friend off the stage and to the ground at the rear. Jumping down quickly behind her, she seized Delenn by the back of her collar and frog-marched her towards a door leading into the terminal. Delenn fought her the whole way. "LET GO OF ME! LET GO!" Delenn struggled in Susan's grip, fighting to get back to the stage. She was sobbing. "We cannot leave her there, Susan! Let me go back and get her, please? I need to take her home…" Delenn's plea was so plaintive that it brought tears to Susan's eyes.

   "I can't! Look!" Susan grabbed Delenn's chin and forced it around so she could see the stage. "Those are your Rangers getting shot up there to buy time for you to escape! They won't take cover themselves until you're out of the way! I'm sorry about Ardenn, but she's beyond caring now. Getting you out might save a couple of their lives, though." Taking Delenn's head in her hands, she forced her to look into her eyes. Delenn's eyes were more haunted than Susan had seen them in three years. "I need you to hold it together for just a little while. Can you do that for me?"

   Delenn, realizing that she was losing control, forced herself to focus. After a moment, she closed her eyes and shook her head. She swallowed hard and asked, "What…what will I tell David? How can I tell my son…" She trailed off, unconsciously wringing her hands in agitation.

   Susan looked up at the White Star hovering overhead. They were extending their landing gear. Turning back to Delenn, she removed her hands and stroked her cheek gently. "Honey, I don't think you'll need to tell him. That's his ship. I think that by the time you see him again he'll already know." Taking Delenn's hand, Susan pulled her through the door into the terminal. "Come on…we need to hide. When those terrorists figure out that you're alive, they'll expect us to try for the ship. We're going to do just the opposite."

   ***

   David and John eyed each other beside the stage. Surprised at first, David took in his father's countenance suspiciously. "Did…did you find Mother up there?"

   "No, son. Apparently your mother got away for now. I saw a door into the terminal behind the stage. She's probably hiding in the terminal somewhere. Let's get out of here and get after her. We're wasting time…"

   "Wait. You saw something up there. What are you hiding?" David moved to step around John, who moved quickly to block him again. "What in the Hell are you doing? Is Susan up there or…" David paused, his eyes widening. "She's up there, isn't she?" David stood numbly for a second. Somewhere inside him, he could feel a scream welling up. With superhuman effort, he swallowed it back down. "Get out of the way. Now."

   John knew whom David was referring to. Reaching out, he took David by the shoulders. "Son. You don't want to go up there. Trust me."

   "GET OUT OF THE GODDAMN WAY!" David shouted, unable to hold it in any longer. Rushing his father, he attempted to force his way past. David was a large man with strength borne of desperation. Even with his augmented strength, John was having a hard time holding him back as he struggled in his grip.

   "Stop, David! STOP!" John wrapped his arms around his son in a tight bear hug. The two grappled for a moment. As he struggled, David looked over John's shoulder and saw the cloak his father had draped over Ardenn's body. One slim, limp hand poked out from underneath, the red script around the cuff identifying her beyond all doubt.

   "Oh, Valen…" David moaned the words as his struggles subsided. All of the strength seemed to go out of him, and John relaxed his grip slightly. "Dad. Let me go."

   John's voice was muffled against his shoulder. "Not if you think you're going to jump me."

   "No… not jump you." David pulled away and went down on his knees, retching. As he felt the bile rising in his throat, he sensed his father kneeling beside him. "That's it. Get it out." A hand caressed his back gently. David managed to spit out a wad of phlegm. Between coughs, he choked out words. "She was an innocent, Dad. An innocent! She lived in a temple all of her life. She knew nothing of politics or nations until she came to us. She would never hurt anybody. Why did they kill her?"

   "She just got in the way, son. That's all. She was just in the way."

   "In the way, huh? My Ardenn's light was snuffed out because she WAS IN SOMEONE'S WAY?" David shouted. Unable to hold them in any longer, tears started sliding down his cheeks and his voice became broken. Staring blankly at the ground, he continued, "What kind of race are we, Dad? To kill someone like that? She was so shy…do you know how long it took her to work up the courage to admit she had feelings for me? Years, Dad…I love her. I was starting to imagine what a life with her might be like. We could've done it; we could've made it work. Just like you and Mother."

   John took David's head between his hands and pressed his forehead against the younger man's. "We need to move on, son. I know it hurts. I know how you feel. I've been to that place where you are now. But we have to move on."

   David sobbed, then choked it back just as quickly. "No! I…I can't just leave her up there like that. Up there where those animals can come back and gloat over her body. 'Another dead bonehead, who cares? The only good one is a dead one' they'll say as they laugh over her and do Valen knows what else to her. No, I won't leave her here for that. She deserves better." David looked down and found he was fingering his denn'bok. "And as for her killers. They're DEAD. Understand? I'll kill every one of them myself…I swear it. No mercy."

   "Listen to me, son. I want them dead, too, but we have to be above revenge. We can't stoop to their level. We have to be better than they are."

   "BETTER?" David cried, "Who says we have to be better? If that were Mother lying up there, would you be preaching that to me? I doubt it. You'd be raging…ready to cave in some heads, like you did with the dummy on the ship. You're being a damn hypocrite!"

   John chewed his lip silently for a moment, pondering what his son had said. He was right, in a sense. "David, listen to me. I'm sorry about Ardenn. You have no idea how sorry I am. But we do have to be better. To act as your enemies do is to become them. Your mother taught me that. Or have you forgotten about her? She's in that terminal somewhere right now, maybe with Susan, maybe alone. She might be hurt. She might be huddled somewhere at this minute praying that you'll come find her. I'm sure that at least some of the terrorists are in there as well, hunting for her. She needs you now. I need you now. I don't need you tearing through the place looking for revenge, and neither does she."

   John reluctantly looked in the direction of the door he had seen earlier. Every fiber of his being was screaming at him to get in there, find Delenn, and get her to safety. He looked back at his son. David was frozen with indecision. He knew he had to find his mother, but his love wouldn't allow him to leave Ardenn alone. John realized that David would be no use to him if Ardenn weren't taken care of. He chose. "David, I'm your father. One of us has to start looking for your mother now. I don't want you to suffer through having to deal with Ardenn's bo…with Ardenn now and I won't force you to go with me with this hanging over your head. Uh, let me handle this. I'll…I'll stay here and take care of her for you. I'll hide her so the terrorists won't find her if they come back this way. Let your father handle this one task for you while you go find your mother. I'll follow along as soon as this is taken care of."

   David considered John's offer silently for a moment. Mentally, he cursed himself for being weak, but in his soul he wasn't sure he could look at Ardenn's lifeless body and remain sane, not after she had opened her heart to him. Under other circumstances maybe…perhaps if she had remained silent about her feelings, or he had. Perhaps if he hadn't felt his soul lurch when she looked into his eyes and touched him… <No! Don't think about that now! Forget it ever happened! Forget it! Just… forget.> "Dad?" David asked, his voice breaking, "Would you think I…I was a coward if I accepted your offer?"

   John reached out and wiped a stray tear off of his son's cheek. "No, son. Never." John looked tenderly at him. "Son, do you know what the three most powerful words in the English language are?"

   "I Love You." David replied numbly.

   "No, son. Those are second." John put his hand on David's arm and pulled him to his feet. "I Can Help. You don't have to hurt by yourself. It's OK to lean on me from time to time. There's nothing more terrifying than suffering alone."

   Presently, David nodded. Were it not for the tears in his eyes, John would have thought he was almost back to normal. "I…I appreciate it, Dad. Be gentle with her. Tell her I'll return for her as soon as I can. Tell her I love her."

   "I will, son. I'll be right behind you. When you find your mother, you tell her the same for me. Hide in the terminal. Don't try to get to her ship, that's what the terrorists will be waiting for."

   David nodded once more, and then he was gone. Sighing, John hopped back up onto the stage, reflecting that sending his upset son alone into a building potentially housing terrorists would not rate highly on his list of brilliant ideas. He could see no other way, though. David would not leave Ardenn and John wasn't about to put him through the pain of having to deal with her remains. Moving over to the shrouded body, he knelt down as he somberly considered the sad task before him.

   ***

   Susan didn't like this. She didn't like this at all. The interior of the terminal was dark and cavernous, with crates and various pieces of equipment scattered about. Apparently this section of the terminal was not yet ready for opening day. In a sense, this was good. She could see numerous places where she and Delenn could hide out. Stretching out before her, the interior of the terminal was illuminated by dim lighting, revealing many side corridors. A few seemed to lead back toward the secure area where the ship was berthed. Some led away. Turning down one of the corridors leading away from the ship, she checked quickly behind her. Under ideal circumstances, Susan would have taken Delenn and made a run for it to get back to the ship and bolt for the cruiser in orbit. Circumstances were not ideal, however. She could hear heavy PPG fire as renewed fighting broke out outside the terminal, some of it shifting in the direction of her parked ship. It was likely that some of the terrorists would be in a position to cut the two of them off if they went that way. No, she couldn't risk Delenn like that.

   Susan was worried about Delenn. Her friend was padding quietly along behind her, stopping when Susan stopped and moving when she moved, almost as if she had put her mind on automatic. To her mind, a quiet Delenn was a dangerous Delenn. For years, she had known that the gentle, peace-loving Minbari carried a lot of rage bottled tightly within her. Delenn had a dark, deadly aspect to her personality that few had seen and even fewer had survived to talk about. Now was not the time for it to manifest itself. When they were clear of here and safe, Susan would find Delenn a place where they could be alone for a while and she could release her pent-up demons without shaming herself. The poor woman had been through so much in the past two weeks, most of it as a helpless bystander. The secrecy, pulling David off his leave, finding out about John, and now an assassination attempt that had taken her aide and friend from her. John…finding out about John…

   That had been David's ship overhead. Susan recognized the call letters on the hull. If David were here, that meant that he had not gone to Minbar. That meant that John was here also. In her present state, Delenn had evidently not thought of that. Perhaps telling her would snap her back into a semblance of her old self.

   Susan quietly turned to pass her realization on to Delenn. Delenn stopped, her expression unreadable, arms hanging limply at her sides. As Susan opened her mouth to speak, an explosion with enough force to rattle the walls rocked the whole building. "Delenn! Get down!" Susan cried as she grabbed the other woman's sleeve and pulled her behind a cargo mover. Susan covered Delenn as the pressure wave from the explosion blew through the skylights at the entrance to the building, sending shattered glass flying in all directions. Flames momentarily licked through the damaged windows in the following fireball.

   After the explosion passed, Susan helped Delenn to her feet, looking her over to see if she was hurt. Looking at Delenn closely for the first time since they had leapt from the stage, she noticed that her friend was a mess. She had blood on her hands and the front of her robe from where Ardenn had fallen, and thin trickles of blood were running from cuts on her cheek. She had not said a word since her outburst behind the stage, and her eyes were gazing at something a thousand miles away. "Here, let me do something about those cuts." Susan said, pulling a cloth from her pocket and dabbing at Delenn's face. Her friend just stood there with no reaction as she wiped the blood away. Finishing with her face, Susan took the cloth and wiped as much blood off of her hands as she could. "That's better." Perhaps separating Delenn from the visual reminder of what had just occurred would help. Eyeing Delenn appraisingly, she said, "Now, let's see. Take off your outer robe." Most of Ardenn's blood had pooled there. Wordlessly, Delenn complied; unbuckling the garment and letting it slide to the floor.

   Susan picked up the robe and stuffed it hastily behind a crate, removing Delenn's denn'bok as she did so. She thought she could hear voices in the distance. They were approaching. "Come on," she hissed at Delenn. "They're looking for us and they know we're in here. We have to find a place to hide." When she didn't move, Susan grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her slightly to get her attention. "Don't you zone out on me!" she hissed, "Ardenn will have thrown her life away for nothing if they catch you! Is that what you want?" It was a low blow, she knew, but Susan needed her friend coherent and thinking. "David is here. If he's here, then John is too. If those beasts catch you, they'll never see you again. How do you think your son will handle losing both you and Ardenn in one day, huh?"

   As Susan had hoped, that brought a spark of life back into her. Indicating the denn'bok in Susan's hand, she spoke her first words since entering the building. "Give me that, Susan." Delenn whispered, looking over Susan's shoulder.

   Susan handed the device to her. "Better. Do you remember how to use one of these?"

   A hand holding a PPG appeared from around the corner. Faster than words, Delenn leapt past Susan as she snapped the denn'bok open and brought it down on the hand. Spinning, Susan turned just fast enough to hear wrist bones snap from the force of the blow. The figure around the corner groaned and stumbled forward, giving Delenn the opportunity to bring the pike up, smashing it across the terrorist's face as she did so. A quick jab to the groin finished him. He slumped to the ground, unconscious. Panting hard, Delenn raised her weapon, prepared to deliver a deathblow. In her mind's eye, she saw Ardenn slumped on the ground, lifeless. Fire raged inside her. She wanted to do it. This thing was not fit to live. He had stolen something precious from her; a life that could not be replaced. <Life…> she thought, <All life was sacred. Even this one. Ardenn would not have wanted me to kill this man…>

   Slowly, Delenn lowered the pike. He was not worth the effort it would take to kill him. Turning to Susan, she closed the weapon, still panting. "I am…a little out of practice. It will come back to me, I think." She gazed ruefully at the weapon in her hand for a second before looking back to her friend. "You are correct, Susan. I would not be honoring Ardenn's sacrifice if I allowed myself to be taken without a fight, and it would not do for my husband to hear that his wife meekly gave up at the end. Better that I should go down fighting if I am to go down."

   Despite the serious situation, Susan managed a smile. "Glad to have you back. For a while there, I thought I'd lost you. Uh…bear in mind, though, that you don't have to go postal, either." Her smile faded as she heard more footsteps coming up the corridor. "Let's go. They're close on us." With that, the two women bolted down the corridor.

   ***

   John watched his son's retreating back as he entered the terminal to search for Susan and his mother. Why had he suggested this? Delenn would never forgive him if something happened to David while he was alone in there. He was so young, though. John didn't have it in his heart to leave David to deal with the body of his would-be lover. No one should have to go through that, especially at a time like this. A minute or two…John's soul was screaming for him to find Delenn, but his son was in pain now. John could spare a minute or two for his son. There had been so many times in the past when he hadn't had the time, situations far less serious than this that had seemed serious when they were occurring. Now, stripped of everything he had been in the past he found that he couldn't deny his son the one thing he still had in his power to offer him, a small act of comfort.

   <Just a minute or two… > John glanced around as he knelt by Ardenn's covered body, looking for a place he could hide her. It was illogical to do this, he reflected. No one could harm her. The body was just a shell, after all. Hadn't Delenn told him this? Another saying popped into his mind, 'The body is the temple of the soul'. Delenn wasn't always right. If it made David feel marginally better knowing that Ardenn's 'temple' was safe then John would do what he could to protect her from prying eyes and unclean hands. Spying a small nook between the stage and the wall that seemed suitable, John turned back to collect the young Minbari's mortal remains. Drawing the cloak back, he couldn't resist quickly inspecting the damage that had ended her life.

   Fully a third of her ornate bonecrest had literally shattered from the impact of the bullet. Large cracks ran from the bullet's impact point in a spiderweb pattern that radiated up the left side of her crest. At several points, the cracks were wide enough for him to see the white layer of soft cartilage that the crest rested on. A little blood was visible, probably from the vessels embedded in the cartilage that fed the bony exterior. The nerve pathways that ran from the temple to the sensitive folds of the crest weren't visible, but were probably damaged similarly. Most humans believed that Minbari bonecrests were part of their skulls. This was not true. In reality, the bonecrest was only attached to the skull at the temples, and even there the attachment was flexible. John recalled that his jaw nearly hit the floor the first time he saw Delenn neatly lift her small bonecrest almost to the top of her head to tuck her hair through when brushing it one morning. She had laughed at his expression… 'How did you think I combed my hair, love? Did you think I tucked the hairs through one strand at a time? That would be most time consuming and inefficient.' What had followed was a quick education in the nature of Minbari bonecrests. The crest started as flexible cartilage at the temple and grew around the skull as a Minbari aged, resting on soft tissues that cushioned and protected the scalp and skull from abrasion. The fusion of the separate halves of the bonecrest took about twenty human years and marked the attainment of adulthood in Minbari society. As he gazed at Ardenn, John could see that the final fusion of her crest had occurred recently. She was young, as he had guessed from seeing holograms of her.

   Not that it mattered now. Blood leaked from underneath the crest and was trickling down around her small ear and onto her neck. A large purplish bruise spread across the left side of her scalp, threatening to obscure the cerulean patch on the top of her head. This damage was what he had not wanted David to see. John briefly pictured seeing Delenn under similar circumstances and shuddered. No, David would not see this if he could help it. Her face, at least, had escaped unscathed. She was a pretty young woman and remained so even in death, looking as if she were just sleeping.

   Sighing, John bent down, sliding his arms underneath her to pick her up and move her to her hiding place. Just as he was about to rise, her eyes snapped open. They were wide and unfocused. John let go of her in shock and surprise, jumping back about a foot. As he watched, berating himself for daydreaming instead of actually checking to see if she were dead in the first place, he heard a low, keening wail emerge from her throat. One of her legs twitched slightly, closely followed by movement in her other extremities. The twitching was becoming more pronounced as it spread, threatening to set her whole body to trembling. Her wailing continued, and John knew he had better calm her before she injured herself further. Moving back over beside her, John laid a gentle, hesitant hand on her shoulder. Speaking in Adronato, he began. "Shhh. Lie still. Do not move."

   ***

   Delenn jumped behind a ticket counter in the passenger area of the terminal, with Susan following closely behind her. Try as they might, they could not seem to lose the small group of thugs chasing them. A hail of PPG fire impacted on the wall above their heads as the huddled in the narrow space between the counter and the baggage conveyer. Pulling out her PPG, Susan removed the now-empty energy cap. Tossing it aside, she inserted another one and recharged the weapon.

   "I do not suppose…that you have another of those weapons conveniently tucked in some fold of your cloak, do you?" Delenn asked as she tried to catch her breath. "It…seems to me that we are somewhat outgunned."

   "Sorry, no. Had I been thinking, I would have grabbed one off the stage for you." As she spoke, the fighting fell into a lull as the terrorists maneuvered for a better vantage point to get at the two women. Risking a glance over the countertop, Susan added, "Besides, you've never been interested in firearms before. Why change now?"

   "I have always been against them. To be truthful, I have never used one before." Looking at the ground embarrassedly, she continued, "It occurs to me that scruples such as mine are best practiced when you are 'not in the foxhole' as John would say."

   Susan jumped up to fire a couple of rounds in the general direction of the encroaching terrorists. "Huh," she said as she fired, "Considering you're a leader of the Religious caste, it's taken an awfully long time for you to get religion…don't you think?"

   Delenn crouched on her knees so that her eyes were level with the counter. "It would seem that I am in the midst of an epiphany of sorts. But, since you have no spare weapon…" Rising up quickly, she raised her denn'bok like a club and brought it down full-force on the head of a terrorist who was also attempting to look over the counter from the other side. With a satisfying crunch and a squeal of pain, the man collapsed back, presumably not to move again anytime soon. "…I will have to make do with what I have."

   "You seem to be managing." Susan eyed her PPG ruefully. "Last energy cap. I'll be banging heads with my denn'bok soon."

   "That is not so bad. You were trained by Durhan, so you must possess some skill with the weapon."

   Even in their situation, Susan found a laugh within her. "Oh, yes," She snorted softly, "Durhan. My equal and opposite. If he had hair, he would have pulled it out when he trained me." Grinning, she continued conversationally, "You know, he did give me high marks for enthusiasm, though. I think he said I expended more effort for less accomplishment than any student he ever trained."

   Delenn looked concerned, missing Susan's attempt at humor. "You might want to stop while my confidence remains high, Susan."

   Susan leaned forward and looked at Delenn fondly. "Actually, Delenn, I'm quite good, or so he says. Please do not worry."

   At that moment, the two women heard a high mocking voice coming form a location to their front. "Oh General Ivanova? Can you hear me? Of course you can. Let's make a deal. We let you go if you send Delenn out. We have no problem with humans. It's the Minbari we want…waddaya say?"

   "Shh…they're just trying to figure out exactly where we are," Susan whispered. "They have no intention of letting either of us go."

   After a moment, the voice came again, trying a different tactic. "President Delenn, can you hear us? We have no wish for anyone else to die. Please come out."

   Delenn snorted in disgust. "They will need to be more persuasive than that."

   "Oh, Delenn?" the voice continued, "Your little Minbari friend, the one on the stage? We have her. She's bleeding to death, Delenn. We didn't want to hurt her. We can help her. If you come out, we will. All you have to do is come to us, Delenn, and we'll save her life…"

   "Well, you did ask for it." Susan muttered, her brows furrowing in anger.

   Delenn looked at Susan, eyes wide. She would have jumped up right there had Susan not physically held her down. "Ardenn's alive, Susan!" She whispered urgently. "Perhaps they can save her!"

   Susan shook her head, her anger turning to sadness. "Delenn, they're lying. Sometimes I wish you Minbari weren't as honest as you are. It's one of the oldest tricks in the book."

   "Perhaps they are telling the truth. I cannot take chances with her life." Delenn moved to rise again.

   Susan jerked her down hard. "Don't you dare stand up, Delenn!" Susan whispered angrily, "I'll tell you what you will do now! You will stop and think for a moment. You will think about whether or not you will trust the enemy over your friend. Once you've done that, you will decide correctly or my next move will be to conk you over the head with my denn'bok so I can get you out of here despite yourself!"

   "Oh, Delenn…" the voice rang out, "we've linked back to our people on the stage…they say she's crying for you, Delenn. She needs you to go to her…won't you come out so we can help her? Our medic is right beside her and is ready to render assistance as soon as we see you…"

   Delenn chewed her lip for a moment, alternately eyeing Susan and looking out towards the voice. "Delenn," Susan whispered pleadingly, "Please think. If Ardenn were alive, would it be you she would call out for? If she were in pain…dying…would she be asking for you? Are you the number one person in her life now? If you were Ardenn, who would you be crying out for?"

   Delenn thought hard. Sighing, she resignedly said, "You are right Susan. They are lying. I think she would be calling for David."

   Susan sighed in relief. "You're absofragginlutely right she'd be calling for David. Guess I don't need to conk you over the head now." Delenn gave Susan a hard look. "Not that I really would have, of course." Susan backpedaled.

   "Oh, ladies…" the voice called out again, "we've got a present for you…catch!" A small, smoking canister bounced across the countertop and landed in Delenn's lap. With a squeal, Delenn shook the thing off as if she'd been burned. The canister bounced against the wall and rolled to a halt.

   "Grenade!" Susan shouted, grabbing Delenn and scrambling away from the object as fast as she could. The canister continued to smoke but did not blow up. Susan got a whiff and immediately clamped her nose shut. "Morph Gas!" she choked out, already feeling a little woozy. Holding her breath, she clapped her hand over Delenn's mouth and nose and started dragging her down the small aisle beside the baggage conveyor. Spying a chute into the baggage area, she was just shoving Delenn through when several terrorists came across the counter behind them.

   Jumping through behind Delenn, Susan just had time to release the metal gate that closed off the baggage chute before the terrorists got to her. Wedging it shut, she reflected that it wouldn't hold off a determined effort for long. Finally able to breathe again, the two women gasped for breath as the men on the other side of the partition began beating on the thin metal of the gate.

   "That was…morph gas, Delenn." Susan gasped, "They were trying to put us to sleep."

   "I thought they wanted me dead…" Delenn wheezed. Sucking in a breath of fresh air to clear her head, she continued, "They could have just as easily tossed an explosive device and killed us both."

   "Something's changed. The Far Traveler has to know what's happened by now, and they're probably scrambling a rescue team. These guys are taking too long. Time is not on their side, and they know it." Pulling Delenn to her feet, she concluded, "They need you alive now, I think, to ensure they're able to escape."

   As she was speaking, the gate started to give under the pounding of the terrorists. "They're coming through. Let's get going..."

   ***

   John's touch seemed to calm the young woman. Ardenn's wailing tapered off into labored breathing and her trembling lessened, although it didn't stop completely. She tried to turn to the sound of his voice. John fought off the urge to touch her head to keep her from moving it. "Don't move your head. Can you understand me?"

   Ardenn blinked slowly and ran her tongue across dry lips. "Uhh…yes…" she almost breathed. Her voice was very faint. John hastily wadded up the cloak he had placed over her and very gently placed it under her head. Slowly, she settled her head on the makeshift pillow.

   John hastily glanced around to see if there was a first aid kit in the vicinity of the stage. Event planners were usually careful to have medical aid readily available for important guests. None was readily apparent. "What is your name?"

   Another long pause. "Mmm…Ar…Ardenn of Valeria."

   Her eyes were still unfocused. A severe concussion at the very least, John surmised. "What day is it?"

   Ardenn swallowed painfully before answering. "The eighteenth day of Midwinter, Cycle 4211…er…Earth st…standard calendar, November 22, 2284."

   "How old are you, Ardenn?"

   Ardenn sucked in a shaky breath. "Eighteen cycles…ah…twenty-three…" The last came out as a moan. "head…hurtsss." As if punctuating her words, tears started to run from her eyes as her body awoke to the injuries it had sustained.

   "I know it hurts, honey. Listen to me. You've been shot. You're seriously injured. You need to stay still." John moved around her so she could see him. "I'm going to get you out of here, but I need to see exactly how badly injured you are. Wiggle your fingers and toes for me." Placing a hand over the toes of Ardenn's soft boots, he was gratified to feel an answering pressure from both feet.

   Ardenn tried to focus on him. "I cannot see. My eyes will not focus."

   "I think you have a concussion, Ardenn, among other things. Hopefully, your vision will improve shortly. We need to get you medical attention. Don't talk anymore, OK?" John spied what he was looking for. A small box with a telltale red cross on the side, sitting unobtrusively under a nearby table. "You just lie here and rest. I'll be back in a second." John ran over and retrieved the first aid kit. Popping the lid open, he rifled through the contents. Most medical products suitable for humans were suitable for Minbari as well. He found some painkillers. John didn't want to administer any drugs to Ardenn, but he might have to. She was in great pain, and no medical aid had arrived at the spaceport yet.

   Darting back over to the stricken young woman, John began to treat the few injuries he could with the little he had available. As he gently cleansed the blood from her head, Ardenn looked at him more closely. Motioning for him to lean closer, she whispered softly in his ear, "David…I love you. I knew you would come for me. I knew you would not leave me here."

   John couldn't help smiling. She thought he was his son. "Ardenn, you have the right family, but the wrong generation. I'm David's father." Laying a hand on her cheek to comfort her, he continued, "It's easy to tell us apart. I'm the good-looking one."

   She looked harder, straining to focus. "You are…Delenn's husband? Delenn…" She jerked under his hands as the realization of what had occurred flooded back into her mind. "You must go to her! She is in danger!"

   "Shhh. You need to relax. We know about the danger. David is nearby, and he's not leaving without you. He's beside himself with worry about you. He's looking for his mother now, and as soon as I get you taken care of I'll go help him look."

   "I am not important." Her voice was still shaky and full of pain. She yelped as John applied an astringent to the cracks in her bonecrest. "Leave me. Go to her, she needs you far more than I." Closing her eyes, she inhaled deeply. "We should have listened to Ranger One…she said we should cancel this…Delenn…she wanted to go home so badly when she heard about you. It is all she has talked about…but she has obligations…"

   "Stop that. You are important. In your own way, you are just as important as Delenn. What kind of father would I be if I let someone as important to my son as you are lie here alone and injured? I've been looking forward to meeting you, you know. David has told me a lot about you. You're special to him, so you're special to me." Smiling down at her, John continued as he finished putting a makeshift dressing on her head. "By the way, he asked me to tell you that he loves you. Those are important words, and they should not be left unsaid."

   Even through the pain, Ardenn found the strength to smile slightly. John was heartened to see it. The sound of a PPG discharge in the distance snapped him back into reality. Looking down at Ardenn, he realized he was in a quandary. There was still fighting going on in the area and it sounded as if it might be coming nearer. He could not leave Ardenn here alone and helpless. If the terrorists found her alive, they'd probably execute her out of spite. If he moved her, however, he might injure her further, perhaps even kill her himself. There could be a serious head wound under her bonecrest. He had not found the bullet; it could have ricocheted off or it could be embedded in her skull. He stared at her a long moment, trying to decide what to do. Another, closer PPG blast decided for him.

   He looked down at the stricken Minbari. "Ardenn, listen to me. The fighting is moving back this way and I can't leave you here. You're too badly injured for me to move safely but I'm going to have to risk it and take you with me. This is something that Delenn would call 'massively unwise', but I don't see any way around it." Removing an injector from the first aid kit, he held it up in front of her. "This is a painkiller. I'm going to give you some of it. It should help dull the pain as I move you." Bending over her, he injected a small amount into her neck. "Now, you're going to get sleepy but I need you to stay awake, otherwise I won't be able to tell if I'm hurting you worse. Can you do this for me?"

   Ardenn nodded weakly. "Where are you taking me?"

   "To David, of course. His presence alone will help you far more than my meager first aid skills, I think. We'll see to it that you get to a doctor as soon as we can. Ready?" She nodded again and closed her eyes. John slid a finger gently down her cheek. "You are a brave young woman, Ardenn. I'll get you back to David and we'll find Delenn, don't you worry." With that, he bent down and slipped his arms beneath her. Ardenn tentatively brought her arms up and encircled John's neck, resting the good side of her crest carefully against his chest. "OK, here we go…" John lifted her and huffed as he started down the steps towards the door into the terminal.

   "Am I too heavy?" Ardenn murmured sleepily as John carried her.

   "No, you're no burden at all. Just a sore rib, nothing to worry about. Remember, stay awake."

   She was very light. John estimated that she weighed little more than 100 pounds. Standing, she wouldn't be more than a few inches over five feet tall. Even with her small size, she exhibited the characteristics of her race; extraordinary constitutions coupled with extremely hard heads. Between her, Susan and Delenn, fate had fortunately chosen to have the assassin's bullet strike the one person among the three most capable of surviving such a wound. He looked down into her face. Her gray eyes were sleepy but open and she was watching him closely <Probably comparing me to David… > he thought amusedly. He gave her a reassuring smile. "I need you to be quiet now. There may be danger where we're going, and I don't want anyone to hear us coming. I'll have to put you down to fight, so I want to see them before they see us." He felt Ardenn nod in acknowledgement against his shoulder.

   Fighting was worrying John. He silently prayed that they didn't bump into any bad guys. Except for his denn'bok they were defenseless, and he couldn't even use that while carrying her. Picking her up and putting her down would jostle her far more than he wanted to. Eyeing the door to the terminal with considerable trepidation, he held Ardenn to him a little more tightly and stepped inside.

   ***

   As they ran, Delenn looked back over her shoulder. "I do not think we are losing them, Susan."

   "How many are there?"

   "Three…perhaps four." Delenn panted.

   Susan could hear Delenn tiring. She had forgotten about the heat, which was quickly draining her friend. Delenn could handle the heat better than a normal Minbari, but not nearly as well as a human. Scrambling to a stop at an intersection, she let Delenn pass her. "Catch your breath," she said as she pulled out her PPG, "we're moving again in a moment." Taking aim, she waited.

   Shortly, a large man appeared, moving quickly among the scattered crates and boxes littering the corridor. Susan didn't hesitate. Bolts of plasma lanced out from her weapon and caught the man dead in the chest, sending him cartwheeling backwards onto the floor. His following companions scrambled up short and dove for cover. Almost conversationally, Susan glanced back at Delenn. "You were right. There were three. Two now."

   As Susan spoke, she heard the whine of a charging PPG behind Delenn. A strange, yet oddly familiar voice spoke. "No. I'm sorry. There were four. Only three were following you."

   Susan watched as an arm curled around Delenn's neck and a charged PPG was pressed against her temple. "Drop your weapon, now, or bony gets slagged right here." She could see Delenn tense up, ready to strike out at her assailant. The terrorist noticed it, also. Slapping Delenn lightly on the temple with his weapon, he continued, "Madame President. I wouldn't advise it. I know you can fight when you want to, but the odds are not in your favor. Think of it this way. Where there's life, there's hope. If you struggle, you're out of hope."

   Susan let her weapon clatter to the floor. She could hear the assailant's two accomplices jogging over. "What is it you want, anyway?"

   "Well, I'd think that was obvious. We want the two of you dead." The PPG nudged Delenn's temple to emphasize the point. "Unfortunately, circumstances have changed somewhat. It turns out that I need Delenn alive to get off this rock, thanks to the untimely arrival of that White Star. It's scrap now, but I find that there are too many Rangers on the ground to make a safe escape. The upshot is she gets to live a little while longer. That momentary reprieve doesn't extend to you, of course."

   "You killed Ardenn." Delenn's voice shook with rage. "She did nothing to you."

   "Was that her name? It wasn't us… well, not exactly. One of our subcontractors did the deed, and rather sloppily I might add. Feel free to fill out a complaint form at the front desk. While you're at it, ask yourself this: Did we kill her or did you? You brought her here, after all. She wasn't a target, but she decided to make herself one." Tightening his grip around Delenn's neck, he squeezed until she coughed as he continued, "You do seem to have that effect on people, Delenn. Haven't you noticed? The people around you are so willing to sacrifice themselves on your behalf." He leaned forward, and Delenn could feel hot breath on her ear as he whispered to her, "I'll bet you get a secret thrill out of it, that feeling of power and control. Is that what it was like with Sheridan all those years ago? Manipulating him into doing your will?"

   "It…it was not manipulation. I loved him. I still do."

   He chuckled in her ear. Delenn wanted to recoil, but she was held fast by the PPG pointed at her temple. The man practically radiated evil. "I don't believe you. You were a meek little priestess that your leader mistakenly allowed to get into power. Once there, you got to spill some blood in the Earth/Minbari War and you discovered you liked it. You wanted more. Your own generals got wise to you pretty fast, and you needed someone to do your fighting for you. Who better than your chief enemy? Someone who had proven he could defeat even the mighty Minbari in battle? You must have been amazed to discover that he could be bought so cheaply. You had him for the price of some false companionship, a little fortune-cookie wisdom and a pair of open legs."

   Delenn pursed her lips as she listened to the ridiculous drivel spouting from the mouth of the terrorist leader, finding it hard to believe that this 'being' and her husband were of the same species. "You are so sadly mistaken. It is clear to me that you know little and understand even less. I pity you for your ignorance, and I condemn you because it is an ignorance you have imposed upon yourself. You do not want to know the truth, and if I told you otherwise you would refuse to accept it. Your words…your belief about my motives, the lies you have told yourself…they have no substance and do not harm me. Were John here to hear them, little man, he would laugh in your face. Your stunted worldview would instantly mark you as someone beneath his notice."

   "That's another thing about you I don't like, Delenn. You never use one word where three or four will do." Stepping into view, the man waived his companions over. "We're wasting time." Indicating one of the men, he said, "You stay and take care of Ivanova. We'll find a secure place to stash freaky and contact the assault ship. We'll also let Delenn's Ranger friends in the ship above know that they'd better not do anything stupid like send in a crisis response team."

   Susan's eyes widened in surprise as she looked at the terrorist leader. "I know you. I thought I recognized your voice. Jack, isn't it? I thought you were long dead."

   Jack laughed. "Congratulations. You get the prize. No, not dead. Just transferred to another branch of the company. Does Mr. Garibaldi ever ask about me? We were close once, you know. I watched his back for him from time to time."

   "Oh, I'm sure he'd remember you, if you were worth remembering. Pray that he doesn't."

   Jack looked almost afraid for a second, but he covered it quickly. "Ok, let's go." Motioning to his accomplice, he said, "Follow us after you deal with her."

   Delenn lunged in Jack's grip as he started to drag her away. "No…Susan! No…" As she was forced around the corner, she heard Susan call out, "Stay alive, Delenn! Don't give up! We're not through yet!"

   After walking a short way, Jack paused for a second. In the distance, he heard a PPG discharge twice, then silence. Nodding to himself, he smiled and started to move on. In his arms Delenn hesitated, head bowed. "Don't cry for her, bony. It's all part of her job description. Just the price of doing business."

   Delenn was not crying. Giving Jack her most intimidating Satai stare, she looked him in the eye. "You are a dead man. Your life is being measured in minutes even as we speak. Nothing can save you now."

   Jack sighed. Quickly drawing back his hand, he struck her hard across the face, sending her tumbling to the floor. "We'll see. Bear in mind that I said I needed you alive for the moment. I didn't say I needed you in good condition. Now shut up, or I'll give you more." Smiling a little, he watched as Delenn climbed back to her feet, eyeing him warily and using her sleeve to blot away the blood dripping from the corner of her mouth. "I may do it anyway, just for the hell of it."

   ***

   "OK, chickenshit, I'm all yours." Susan glared up at the thug Jack had left to finish her off. Sitting with her back against the wall, she was determined to go out with a bang rather than a whimper. The terrorist was standing near her, a charged PPG in his hand. He had not yet moved to shoot her; instead, he seemed to be waiting for something. For her to show fear, perhaps? To cry out for help? Well, she thought, he would have a long wait ahead of him. Susan didn't want to die, but she was damned sure not afraid of it. She was more afraid for Delenn, now alone among these jackals. Susan knew that Delenn was a warrior at heart, but it would take more than heart for her to bear up. If they had time, her captors would try to break her spirit before they disposed of her. Susan harbored no illusions about what would happen. The terrorists would call the Far Traveler and threaten to kill her if they weren't allowed off-planet. The ship would have no choice but to back off. Once in space, her friend would proverbially 'walk the plank' out an airlock after her entertainment value was exhausted. Probably while still alive, just for the sport of it. No, if these cretins got Delenn onto their ship, no one would ever see her again.

   The terrorist fingered the PPG in his hand, alternately aiming it at her and then drawing it away with a mischievous grin. "Hasn't anyone told you you're too old for this sort of work, General? Why, you could have retired with full honors a few years ago. Instead, you had to go turn race traitor on us and start working for the Minbari. They're the enemy, or had you forgotten?"

   "They're not the enemy anymore. You are. Much more so than they ever were."

   The thug aimed the PPG at her and drew it away again. "C'mon General. You can tell me. I'm going to execute you anyway, so you might as well. How'd they lure you in? We've got a thick file on you…we know a lot. Attractive woman, single, never married…and now hanging out with a lonely widow. You and the bonehead got something going? The two of you doing the old bump and grind late at night?" The terrorist smiled lecherously.

   Susan looked at the man incredulously. <This pervert's about to shoot me and he wants a porno? Hmm… a porno. OK, I can do that… > Smiling coyly, Susan began. "OK, OK you got me. If hearing the details keeps me alive a few seconds longer, so be it. Where do I begin?" Sighing wistfully, she looked off into space. "I suppose it doesn't matter now, but yeah, we've been humping each other like animals in heat for about three years. She is just so…" Susan shook her head, searching for the proper word. The terrorist moved closer, listening intently. "So insatiable…she just can't get enough. That Minbari reserve everyone talks about? Nope. Forget about it, it's nonexistent. They have incredible sex drives. Get a Minbari woman in bed and she'll try just about anything. Enthusiastically, I might add."

   The goon was enthralled. Motioning the terrorist even closer, Susan whispered conspiratorially, "They…learn things in temple…about how to pleasure others. They teach a class in it, can you believe? Single partners, multiple partners…male and female…they definitely get a well-rounded education. And Delenn, whoa boy! She was so damn horny after her husband left that I didn't even need to come on to her. She came on to me…man, did she need a good, hard fucking. She was all over me that first night! Don't let a few gray hairs fool you, that little body is as tight as a drum and she knows how to work it. Some candlelight, with her licking and sucking…there's this trick she does with her tongue…I gotta tell you that I thought the top of my head was going to blow off! But, hey… I've been around for a while and I know a few tricks of my own. I gave as good as I got. I taught her a thing or two as well. It's a pride thing, you know? I had to keep humanity's end up. I had her writhing like a snake and practically begging for penetration by the time I finished licking her over."

   "Yeah? Go on…" The terrorist was almost on top of her, an erection clearly showing through his pants.

   "Well, I didn't want to disappoint the President of the Alliance, so I stuck THIS in!" Quickly bringing her hand around from her back, she snapped open the denn'bok she had originally intended to give to Ardenn and drove it hard into the terrorist's groin. Doubling over with a painful 'Oof!', he dropped his weapon to the floor. Susan followed up by sweeping the pike around and knocking his legs out from under him. As he fell to the floor, she pushed herself off the wall and lunged for his weapon.

   The terrorist retained the presence of mind to reach out and grab her leg as she scrambled after the PPG. Dragging her back, he scrambled over her to get to it first. The two wrestled for a few minutes, the only sounds they made were grunts of effort. Susan was strong, but the greater weight of her attacker was a disadvantage for her in close-quarters grappling. She was steadily being worn down. Finally with a heave, he shoved her out of the way and grabbed the pistol. Turning, he brought the weapon to bear on Susan's head. "Too bad," he wheezed, grabbing at his crotch, "I was really getting into your story."

   Susan shook her head resignedly. "Buddy, you know absolutely nothing about the Minbari. Go take a shower. That dirty little pea-sized mind of yours is really in overdrive."

   "Later. Time to die, dyke."

   The whine of another charged PPG came from behind her. "I don't think so."

   Susan's attacker turned to meet the new threat, raising his weapon. David didn't hesitate. He squeezed the trigger, firing a bolt of superheated plasma right through the terrorist's forehead. His brain was blown out the back of his head, and he slumped to the ground. Stepping over to the body, David eyed it for a minute before putting another round through it. "That's for Ardenn. She would have wanted mercy for you, but I seem to have left that quality outside lying on the ground." Turning back to Susan, he asked, "Are you all right?"

   Susan stood and dusted herself off. "Yeah, I think so. You arrived like the cavalry. Just in the nick of time. How did you find me?"

   "It's not like anyone's being particularly quiet in here. I heard PPG fire and voices, so I came to have a look."

   Although his words were calm, Susan noticed a strange look in his eye. Eyeing David curiously, she asked, "Are…you all right?"

   David looked dumbly at the PPG in his hand. "No…no, but I've set my pain aside for the moment. It'll come back to me when I least expect it, I'm sure."

   "Uh…OK." Susan looked doubtfully at him but decided not to press the issue. He would talk about it in his own time, and Aunt Susan would be there for him just as she had been for his mother. "They have your mother, David. Their leader hauled her away about five minutes ago."

   "We need to get after her, then. They could be executing her now also. Dad will just have to catch up."

   Susan started at the mention of David's father. "John? He's in here too? I had almost forgotten about him with everything else that's happened. Uh, listen, I don't think your mother's life is in immediate danger. They need her alive to bargain their way out of here. This group wasn't really prepared for the drawn-out firefight that they've gotten into, so they'll hold off on killing her, at least for the moment."

   "Where do you think… Wait!" David held up his hand. "Shhh. Someone's coming." Extending his denn'bok, he moved to the wall and pressed himself up against it, Susan closely following with her own weapon. He heard soft footfalls coming closer, slowing as they approached the corner. Hesitating, David steeled himself and leapt around, facing his potential attacker with his pike in the 'Guard' position. He found himself facing his father, who had his pike extended in a mirror image.

   John lowered his pike. "Dammit David!" He whispered, "You just scared the shit out of me."

   "Likewise, Dad." David closed his pike. "We don't have a lot of time. They've got Mother. Susan thinks they're going to use her as a hostage to get safe passage."

   "That makes sense, son. These clowns are running way behind their timetable at this point. This only gains Delenn a little time, though. You said Susan? Where is she?"

   Susan stepped around the corner. "Hi, John. Long time, no see… eh?" Throwing sensibility to the winds, she ran forward and grabbed him in a big bear hug. Pulling away from him, she looked him over appreciatively before speaking again. "You look good, John. Reincarnation is very becoming on you. I wish we had time for more, but we can't let the terrorists call in their ship. If they get Delenn on board we'll never see her again."

   Releasing Susan, John held her at arms length for a moment. The normally stoic Ranger One had tears in her eyes. "Delenn will not leave this building as anyone's prisoner, Susan. I'll see to it. How many of these creeps are we talking here and which way did they go?"

   "Two. Three maybe. Delenn beat the crap out of two of them earlier but at least one may still be around. They went around that corner, towards the cargo area."

   "OK." John scratched his chin for a moment. Finally, he reached a decision. "You and David need to head for your ship and start getting it ready for a quick liftoff. I don't think you'll run into anybody between here and there. The terrorist you left back there is gone now, probably to link up with his buddies. I'll get Delenn and bring her to you."

   "Are you crazy, Dad?" David chimed in. "We're going with you! How do you plan on taking on three terrorists by yourself!"

   "Faith manages, David." Smiling a little, he continued, "I have another task for you, son, one I don't think you'll mind doing. Follow me." Leading David and Susan back down the way he had come, he motioned his son into a dark corner. "There's someone here who needs you now, just as your mother needs me. There comes a time when you have to say 'to each his own'."

   Looking into the shadowy corner, David could just make out two blinking gray eyes looking back at him. "David?" A weak voice called out. "Love, is that you?"

   "Oh, Valen…Ardenn?" David almost sobbed. Dropping his pike, he started to rush over to her. John stuck out a hand to stop him. "Easy, son. Be very gentle. She's injured quite seriously, but she's alive. I'm sorry, David. I should have checked her more carefully before I reacted."

   David's face shone with shock and happiness at the same time. He clearly heard nothing that his father was saying, so John reiterated, "I need you to get her to the ship. She is badly in need of medical attention. Son? Are you getting all of this?"

   David didn't even bother to answer. Instead he merely nodded his head automatically. He remained fixated on the small figure huddled in the corner. "I'll take care of her, Dad," he said absently, turning his attention to the young Minbari woman again. "Ardenn, sweetheart…I'm so glad you're alive, I thought I was going to go crazy without you. Uh…I'm coming. Just hang on."

   John tried again. "Listen to me for one moment, David, please. The sniper's bullet shattered a large portion of her bonecrest. I've put things back together as best I could, but she's in a lot of pain. I've given her a heavy dose of painkillers, so she's kind of dopey and sleepy. Don't let her go to sleep. She has a concussion, so it's important for you to keep her awake. Do you understand?"

   "Yeah, got it, Dad."

   John sighed in exasperation. "OK, she's all yours."

   David almost bolted for the small woman, stopping abruptly as he reached her. Kneeling, he reached out to touch her. She met his hands with hers and caressed his fingers. Placing his hand against her heart, she said, "I love you, David." Drawing in a shaky breath, she continued, "I am sorry, I originally had something a little more intimate in mind for our reunion." Her voice was faint and weak.

   David raised her hands to his lips and kissed them. "I love you, too. We'll still have that reunion, just a little bit later than you planned." Reaching out, he started to caress her crest, stopping himself with some effort when he saw the damage. "Oh, honey…your crest. How do you feel?"

   "I am…in considerable pain, but it is manageable with the medication you father administered…at least for now." She closed her eyes and swallowed. "I feel much better now that I am with you." She reached up to touch her crest, then thought better of it and lowered her hand, in the process starting to cry. "I am afraid that I will never be as beautiful as I wanted to be for you, David. I am not sure that this much damage is repairable."

   "Those are the drugs talking, David." John whispered, "Some medicines make Minbari more emotional. Reassure her."

   "Ardenn, you are the most beautiful creature in my universe and you always will be." Leaning forward, he kissed her, his lips softly brushing against hers. He was careful not to make the kiss too intense for fear of causing her to move more than necessary. Pulling away, he continued. "I'm taking you out of here, dearest. I'm going to get you to the best doctor I can find. If I can, I'll get Stephen Franklin himself to rebuild your crest, if that's what it takes."

   Ardenn smiled painfully through her tears. She was getting drowsy again. "You always seem to know the words that touch my heart and caress my soul. But there is your mother. You need to help her also." Sighing painfully, she continued. "Leave me here. I will be all right. You can return for me after you recover Delenn."

   "David," John whispered from beside him, "We can't do that. She needs to get to the ship now." Holding up a small injector so his son could see it, he indicated the small amount of fluid remaining inside. "The only thing keeping her from screaming in pain right now is this medication. It works on Minbari, but was developed with human metabolisms in mind. It's not lasting as long with her. I've used most of it up just to get her here. When it wears off…" Lowering the injector, John placed a hand on David's shoulder. "I have no idea how bad the damage is under her crest. She can't stay here, and the ship has a small medscanner and some Minbari-specific medications on board." Looking over at Susan, he continued, "Or at least it did four years ago."

   Susan nodded. "It still does."

   "Your mother is far more important than I, David." Ardenn said quietly.

   David looked over at his father. "Dad's right, Ardenn. Mother…she has someone to take care of her now. You, dearest…you have me. To each his own."

   Susan watched all of this silently. Leaning over to John, she said, "What about me? I can go with you."

   "No, Susan. You're pretty banged up yourself, and David won't be able to fight while carrying Ardenn. I was lucky in three ways that I didn't bump into anyone bringing her here, or we'd both probably be dead. Besides that, you have all of the codes to power up your ship. Look at David," John indicated his son, softly murmuring encouragement to his paramour. "He's not going to remember the codes in the state he's in even if you told him. He'd be stuck at the hatch, possibly in the middle of a firefight. The ship will be the safest and most comfortable place for all of you right now. Nothing short of heavy weapons will penetrate that hull."

   Susan mulled it over. "If you were anyone else, I'd tell you to stuff it. But if anyone can find Delenn and bring her out, I know you can. You'd better get to it." Reaching over, she took John in another embrace. Releasing him, she stepped back. "We'll wait for you at the ship. Be sure you make it. We have a lot of catching up to do."

   John smiled at his old friend. "I will. Good Luck." With that, he was gone. <Almost like a ghost,> Susan reflected. Turning back to David, she saw that he had already picked Ardenn up, cradling her against his chest with considerable possessiveness. "Are you ready?"

   David looked down at Ardenn. "Ready?" He felt her nod slightly and pull herself a little more tightly against him. "Yep, we're ready."

   ***

   Delenn was doing everything she could think of to be a burden to her captors, and was sporting a few new bruises to show for it. The terrorists holding her had not been gentle, cuffing her several times when she slowed her steps in an effort to delay them.

   The last attempt had been the worst. The terrorist known as 'Jack' had bound her wrists together and fastened them to a long tether. When she balked at moving, he had jerked at the rope, pulling her off of her feet and hard onto the stone floor. With her wrists tied, she had been unable to catch herself and had nearly been knocked unconscious when her head slammed into the tile. That hadn't bothered Jack, who had dragged her for a while as she scrambled to regain her footing. "You're not looking so proud and haughty now, are you bonehead? You're a little 'out of sorts' I'd say."

   Delenn hadn't responded. She had said nothing since the first time he'd struck her, but it hadn't saved her from being struck several more times in the interim. Doggedly, she had climbed back to her feet and glared at him. 'Stay alive', Susan had said. 'Don't give up.' Well, she would do just that, for as long as she was able. They wanted her to break. Beg for mercy, grovel, or just go limp. Surrender. That would pleasure them. They did not know her very well. They would have a long wait.

   Still, she was hurting terribly inside. Susan was dead. Ardenn was dead. David's White Star was a smoking ruin outside. Perhaps he and John were dead, as well. <No. I would know that. In my soul, I would know. They are still alive and looking for me.>

   Time to try again. Following behind Jack, she deliberately began to slow her steps. Gradually, the rope began to grow taut around her wrists as the slack was taken out. The makeshift manacles were incredibly tight and had already cut through the skin around her slender wrists. Blood was visible. They burned intensely when the raw patches were rubbed. When the rope was tight, she gritted her teeth against the pain in her wrists and jerked as hard as she could. Unexpectedly, the rope came free from Jack's grasp. Hesitating only milliseconds, she bolted back the way they had come like all the ghosts of the Line were after her.

   "Shit! She's loose!" Jack and his accomplice took off after her. Fast as she was, her robe and her bound hands hampered her stride and it didn't take them long to run her down. Closely following her, Jack turned to his henchman with a smile, "Watch this…" Stepping hard on the trailing tether, he put all of his weight on it and laughed when Delenn's feet flew out from under her as she was jerked forcibly to the ground. Sauntering over to where the panting woman lay on the floor, he gazed at her for a moment before drawing his leg back and delivering a punishing kick to her ribs. "Don't do that, bony." He kicked her again, aiming at her head. Delenn was able to partially ward it off with her hands, but was still struck a glancing blow. "Don't run on me anymore, Delenn. I'm tiring of it." A third kick caught her in the thigh, finally drawing a yelp of pain from her.

   Delenn worked her way into a fetal position, drawing herself up in a ball with her arms protecting her head. One more kick, aimed at her midsection, took the wind out of her. Enraged and coughing, she choked out, "What does it matter! You are going to kill me anyway!"

   Jack reached down and grabbed her collar. Hauling her to her feet, he slammed her up against the wall face first. Breathing heavily into her ear from behind her, he said, "True, but there are hard and easy ways to die. We can shove you out an airlock alive or dead. I think you'd prefer dead, but if you keep fighting us it'll be alive." Turning her back the way they had come, he gave her a hard push. "Now move it!"

   Delenn stumbled, almost falling again. She could barely breathe; her ribs didn't feel broken, but they were definitely bruised. Running her tongue gingerly along her lips, she tasted blood. His kick had caught her in the nose. She tried to raise an arm to wipe the blood away, but a warning tug on the tether forestalled her. It would just have to bleed itself out, she reflected. Turning to her tormenters, she drew herself up and asked Jack, "Why do you hate me so? I remember you from Babylon 5, but I was unaware that I had ever wronged you. If I am to die, I would at least like to understand why."

   "Your whole existence wrongs me, Delenn. It wrongs the whole human race, but most of them have fallen under your spell and don't see it anymore. I remember you before your…" he sneered in disgust, "Your 'transformation'. Looking down your nose at us humans. We must have seemed so primitive and pathetic to you. And then you became like us. What an insult…you becoming like one of us. You allied yourself with that misguided foot soldier Sheridan, and even had a brat with him. You're a taint on our race, Delenn. We have the opportunity to eliminate that taint and we're taking it. If your kid is still alive, we'll get him, too. He won't have to wait long."

   Delenn lunged at him, her face suffused with rage. "You will not harm my son!"

   Jack beat her aside easily, laughing at her. "You have spirit, I'll grant you that." Leaning over, he pulled her to her feet again and wiped a finger under her nose, holding a drop of blood up for her to see. "This is just business. Don't take it personally. Still, I won't apologize for enjoying my work from time to time."

   <This man is deranged…> Delenn looked at Jack wide-eyed and backed away, truly realizing for the first time the kind of man she was a captive of. <Surely his associates can see this. He is beyond evil. His mind is defective.>

   "OK, enough fun and games. Let's go." Jack moved off again, tugging Delenn behind him. She followed without resistance, limping slightly from the pain in her ribs and the kick her leg had absorbed.

   ***

   John padded softly down the hallway Susan had indicated earlier, pausing every now and then to listen. As he walked, he searched for clues that might indicate the direction the terrorists had taken Delenn. There wasn't much to go by. Signs of a scuffle here…a piece of debris hastily knocked aside there. It appeared that Delenn was struggling as they dragged her away.

   He mulled this over. It was good that she still had some fight in her, even though she wouldn't know that anyone was left to follow her. At the same time, John knew that the men she was a captive of were desperate. They would be hard on her if she resisted. Almost in time with his thought, he spotted a small red smear on the wall. He stooped to examine it. <Blood. They're hurting her.> John's lips thinned in anger. Over their years of marriage, John had gradually allowed Delenn to step off of the pedestal he initially placed her on. She was not a goddess. She was, in fact, extremely fallible just like everyone else. Still, the thought of anyone laying hands on her made his blood boil. He quickened his pace, more sure than ever that he was on the right track.

   Were those voices up ahead? John paused, listening. Just at the edge of his hearing, he thought he could hear a man yelling at someone. He couldn't hear the response, but it had to be them. They were making little effort to be quiet, not realizing that he was following them. He listened more closely, but couldn't make out the words. They were still several corridors ahead of him, at least, but he was catching up. This was good, but he needed to hurry. He moved off again.

   As he stole down the hall, he considered what he would do when he caught up to them. Fingering the closed denn'bok in his hands, he realized that his options were extremely limited. There were at least two of them and they had Delenn. If he jumped them too soon he would find himself in the same situation as Susan had earlier: Delenn with a gun to her head and him helpless to do anything about it. Ruefully, he regretted not picking up a PPG himself along the way. One would have come in handy. <Well, sometimes you've just 'got what you've got'... > he reflected. If he wanted Delenn back, it appeared that stealth was his best option.

   The voices were closer now. Turning a corner, he almost came into full view of a terrorist moving quickly down a side hall. Throwing himself back around the corner, he watched surreptitiously as the man moved on in the same direction he was traveling. He was holding his wrist as if it had been injured. <Must be one of the ones Delenn ran into earlier.> John thought. Seeing him made John feel a little better. It meant Susan, David and his precious burden would probably encounter no one between them and Susan's ship. It also meant that John had a good idea of the locations of all the terrorists in the building, assuming no more had entered. On the bad side, it meant that there were now three of them to deal with. Allowing the terrorist a precious minute to move on ahead, he followed.

   After a few more minutes, John reached a set of double doors. He could hear echoing voices on the other side. Chewing his lip, he slowly pushed the door open a crack. The door led into a cavernous warehouse-like enclosure that was littered with literally hundreds of crates and containers. The floor was a polished black, with yellow arrows painted on it to guide the cargo handlers. Obviously, this was a shipping and storage facility. <Clever of them... > John thought. <They'll put Delenn in a crate to hide her while they take care of their other business. Even if someone knows her general location, it'll take too long to check each crate.>

   The voices continued to echo inside. The sounds were bouncing off the walls and floor so badly that John had no way of telling where in the room they were coming from. He heard echoing laughter and shouting. <Delenn...> he thought miserably. <They're tormenting her…or worse…> Another anguished thought occurred to him. <They wouldn't…no, they know they're on borrowed time. They'd save rape for later, when they're on their ship and clear of here. Just another tool to humiliate her before they dispose of her.>

   He heard a sharp crack, like metal hitting flesh, and a female voice screamed. Delenn's voice. He had only heard her scream a couple of times since he had known her, but her scream was as distinct to him as her unique voice. They were beating her. Tears of rage trickled down his cheeks. They were beating his wife, and he was powerless to stop it. By sheer willpower alone, he fought down the urge to rush in and attempt to find her tormentors right then. His hands were trembling with pent-up anger and trepidation. She had to be so afraid now. She thought Susan and Ardenn were dead. She might not even know that David and he were here. Desperately, he tried to send his thoughts to her. <Wait...wait. Just hang on a little longer, dearest. I'm here. I'm with you. I'll find you, love. You just need to hang on a little longer and they won't hurt you ever again. I swear it.>

   ***

   As they walked, David nudged Susan slightly. When she looked over, he licked his lips in embarrassment and seemed to be searching for words. "Uh…Susan? I caught part of your conversation with Mr. Hard-on back there. Did you and Mother…uh, really…?"

   "What? Play doctor? Liked my story, did you? You got your sweetie and now you want Ranger One to kiss and tell?" Susan chuckled, briefly considering stringing him along just to see his reaction. She decided against it. "No, David. I've never slept with your mother. I made all of that up. I think I read it on the Net somewhere. That kind of story seemed to be what that dirtball was looking for, though, and it got him interested enough to drop his guard. Your mother and I are close, but not close like that. It would make for an awkward working relationship, don't you think?" She chuckled again. "Besides, I'd have to get past the gate guard in your arms. None of that could happen without her knowing about it."

   David chuckled. "Yeah, it was kind of silly. They don't teach special tongue techniques in Temple, and if classes like the one you described existed, everyone would be a monk."

   Susan grew more serious. "No, David. It's not as silly as you think." Susan sighed as she continued. "Your mother is a very beautiful woman, but because of her position she has few friends. I'm fortunate to count myself among that select few and I love her like a sister. In the dark time after your father passed, you know she was very depressed. She was and is a woman not used to having to turn to others for comfort or help, and it embarrassed her greatly that she was so helpless. I helped her as much as I could in many areas. Satisfaction of physical desires was not one of them, but at the time I didn't know if she would need that sort of companionship to help her recover. As it turned out, she never asked and I never offered but I was fully prepared to give her whatever she desired. If sex was something she needed to help her heal, then I was ready to go to bed with her, no questions asked."

   "Uh…I see, I think. Mother is firmly a heterosexual, you know."

   Susan stopped and turned to the young man. "I know. I'm heterosexual, too. That doesn't mean that I haven't tested the waters, though. The idea of sleeping with your mother isn't repulsive to me in the slightest. Orientation isn't what it's about, David. It's about supporting a friend who's hurting. At the time, I decided I would willingly provide her with sexual intimacy if she needed it. The alternatives were for her to suffer alone in the dark, or worse yet, seek out the bed of some stranger who might try to use her or shame her publicly. She was very vulnerable at that time, if you remember." Susan sighed. Why was sex always such a complicated subject? "It's moot at any rate. I don't love your mother romantically, and she doesn't love me that way. Your father is both the first and last person she ever shared her bed with. I'm not sure that's necessarily a good thing."

   "I can't imagine her sleeping with another person. Minbari vows…"

   "…Are for Minbari, David! Humans aren't Minbari, and like I said to you earlier your mother is not truly a Minbari, as much as she may protest otherwise! She's gone three years without a mate. Three years in the prime of her life without someone to fill the void inside her. She's done admirably, but she has to be suffering inside. Maybe Minbari can stand that. I don't think humans can. She needs someone of her own." Indicating Ardenn, who was listening intently in his arms, she continued, "Just as you do."

   "I'm sorry Susan. I wasn't trying to imply that mother is superhuman somehow, or that she needs to suffer because of who she is. She lives as a Minbari, though, and those were the rituals she chose to undertake. She decided at the beginning that father would be her only mate, and now she's living with her decision."

   Susan spoke curtly. "Do you see a fallacy in that last statement, David? It wasn't just 'her' decision to make. It was your father's, also. Your mother withheld part of the truth from him when they joined, knowing that things might have turned out differently had he known." The young Ranger looked at her, confused. "David, among humans it is permissible for a widow or widower to seek out a new mate after the death of a spouse. Your father is a widower. Had this not been allowed, he could not have married your mother and you wouldn't be here." Susan ran her fingers through her hair, thinking about how to phrase her next statement. "When your mother insisted on following Minbari rituals in their joining, your father didn't fully understand the implications your mother was subjecting herself to. She didn't tell him that marriage was different among her people, that the bond was permanent for the lives of both parties. He assumed that she would be able to remarry after his death, and didn't find out otherwise until long after the deed was done. Had he known the truth; had he known that Delenn was committing herself irreversibly to him for the rest of her life, he might have stopped her from completing the rituals. He might not have married her, at least not using Minbari rituals."

   "You're kidding. He loves her."

   "Of course he does. He knew he only had twenty years, and he knew that your mother would probably live many decades beyond that. He assumed that she would be free to find someone else after he was gone. That was the only way he justified proceeding with the rituals to himself. Had he known that she would be alone for the majority of her life because of her love for him, he would've done things differently. Because he loves her, not in spite of it."

   David thought for a moment. "That equation has changed now. I have a father with a full lifespan running around, assuming he doesn't get himself killed. Mother doesn't have to be alone."

   "Yes." Susan said with a smile. "There is the reincarnated John, isn't there? John version two may be the answer to all of our prayers for her." Susan considered him for a moment. Stronger, more fit and with a full lifespan. "He may yet prove to be the universe's gift to your mother." Shaking her head, she motioned for them to continue walking. "We'd better get moving. The ship isn't getting any closer while we stand here reliving past history and talking dirty."

   ***

   Delenn and her captors eventually arrived in a large storage warehouse. Crates and bins, mostly empty, littered the polished obsidian floor, as yet unmarked by the passage of vehicles. Jack led her through a maze of crates, stopping to look at some before shaking his head and moving on. Finally, he seemed to find one he considered acceptable, a large, insulated shipping container suitable for bulk freight. He turned to Delenn. "It looks like we've found you a new home for now. It's not quite as nice as your place on Minbar, but it'll hold you until we can make pickup arrangements. I hope you're not afraid of the dark."

   Jack's accomplice tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to their rear. "Hey, look who the cat dragged in. Max! We're over here!"

   Delenn's hopes rose momentarily, only to be dashed when she saw another Bureau 13 operative loping up. This one had blood on his shirt and a bound up wrist. The same terrorist she had spared earlier. As he jogged over, Delenn thought quickly. If they got her into that container without resistance, it was likely that no one would find her in time, if anyone was left to look for her. She had to mark this place somehow, in a way that a potential rescuer would recognize. Looking at the new arrival, she had an idea. Unfortunately, it would require her receiving at least one more beating to make it work…

   "Well, I see you caught her…" Max said as he came to a halt beside them. Getting close to Delenn's face, he said, "Remember me, bitch? We met in the corridor earlier. You suckered me pretty good with that stick you were using. Caught me by surprise."

   Delenn drew as much dignity about her as she could muster. "I also spared your life. I did not have to."

   "Hey Max," Jack's accomplice called out. "Is this the stick she used on you?" Pulling Delenn's denn'bok out, he tossed the small cylinder to the angry man. "This skinny little bonehead thrashed you with that?" he laughed.

   Max glowered for a moment, embarrassed by the chortles of his comrade. Turning back to Delenn, he said, "How do you open this, bitch? Answer me!"

   Delenn could see where this would lead and it filled her with dread, but she had no other choice if she were to put her plan into action. "Grasp it firmly and shake it up and down." Pasting on a faint smile she did not feel as the terrorist shook the closed pike, she began goading him. "For a member of an advanced species such as yours, this should not be as difficult as you are making it appear." Cocking her head to one side, she adopted what she hoped he would consider a condescending expression and continued, "Particularly since I can see from the look of you that this activity is probably a familiar, often-performed maneuver. Have you been practicing this intricate motion alone in your spare time?" With an exaggerated sigh, she clicked her tongue in mock-disappointment. "I understand that sometimes, for human males, the assistance of a text with instructional photos is required. Interestingly, my husband never had problems extending his denn'bok. I can only attribute this to the superiority of the Minbari techniques that I introduced him to."

   If looks could kill, the terrorist's glare would have left Delenn a smoldering pile of embers. "You have a smart little mouth, bony. We'll take care of that in a moment." The terrorist continued to shake the pike, foolishly looking down at the spring-loaded end the whole time. Not unsurprisingly, it eventually snapped open right into the man's face. His comrades laughed even harder as he dropped the pike and grabbed his re-bloodied nose. "Good one, Max! Show us another trick!" Delenn did her best to appear smugly amused.

   "Wipe that smile off, bonehead!" Max released his swollen nose and retrieved the denn'bok. Holding it up in front of her face, he shook it and shouted, "You think this is funny? You think this is a joke? You hit me in the balls with this thing! I'll bet you thought that was funny, too!"

   This was it. Delenn only had to push him a little more. Relaxing her bruised body as much as she could, she prepared herself for the blow she knew was coming. Clasping her bound hands in front of her, she began to unobtrusively wiggle her fingers. At the same time she said conversationally, "Your name is…Max, yes? Well, Max, I did not actually hit you that hard. You see, I would have hit you harder, but you presented me with so…ah, how should I say this? So 'little' material to work with. I took pity on you. I did not want to damage you further in an area where you seemed so…um, under-equipped already. I have not practiced with a denn'bok in a while, and I am more proficient with larger, heftier targets."

   "Why, you…I'll show you!" Stepping around her, he drew the denn'bok back and swung it like a baseball bat, driving it full force into Delenn's legs at the back of her knees. With a scream of agony that was impossible to stifle, she crumpled to the floor, pain shooting like lightning up her legs and into her back. For an instant, she thought she was going to pass out, but she managed to barely hang on to consciousness. Falling forward onto her stomach, she continued to wriggle her fingers underneath her.

   In an instant, Max was on her, straddling her buttocks and legs. Leaning forward, he placed the denn'bok at the base of her neck and shoved her face to the floor. Delenn groaned, and he leaned into her ear. "Do you know what I've done to you? I've hobbled you. You see, the tendons behind your knees are constricting even as we speak. You won't be straightening your legs for a while. Don't worry, though. For my purposes, I don't need them straight." Bending closer, he continued in a harsh whisper, "Later, little bonehead…when I get back, I'm going to come see you and give you a demonstration of my 'equipment'."

   Delenn gritted her teeth to fight back the pain and the tears. She fought to get her words out and remain defiant. "It is…good that my life is to be short, then. You do…not appear capable of sustaining such activity for long. Perhaps…you should continue to concentrate on…solo performances for the time being."

   "Get her up, Max. You can play with her later." Jack called out. "Her ship is probably dropping teams around here already. We don't have a lot of time, and she's obviously using you to delay us. Get her into the container. We've got some calls to make."

   As they heaved her up off of the floor Delenn found that her legs were in agony, far too sore to straighten. They trembled painfully when she tried. Max had seen to it that she could not run, at least not until the pain subsided. They dragged her across the floor and unceremoniously dumped her in the container, where she could do little more than huddle in a ball with her legs drawn up near her chin. As the door closed, Jack called in, "Don't fret, now. We'll be back to get you when our ship gets here. Max can't wait to get you alone."

   All she could do was glare.

   ***

   John heard the sound of a shipping container bang shut. Afterwards, the voices of the terrorists continued to ring across the warehouse for a few moments. They were going to make contact with their extraction ship and to call the Far Traveler with their demands. Not that the demands meant anything, other than a way off the planet. They were going to kill Delenn at the first safe opportunity. Gradually, the voices receded as they moved out of the facility. John waited as patiently as he could. If he entered too soon, they would hear his echoes just as clearly as he had heard them. A door banged shut, and he crept in, easing the door shut behind him. They might have left a guard, but John heard nothing other than his own breathing.

   Moving as quickly and silently as he could, he jogged up and down the rows of crates, looking for some sign of the terrorists' passing. There were so many crates, and most were large enough to hide a person in. Despite himself, John was worried. There were rows and rows of these crates. He could already have passed her. He was running out of time. His footfalls were echoing more and more loudly through the chamber as he grew more desperate. To top it off, he was getting an uneasy feeling…a pressure at the back of his mind. Delenn was in despair. Her emotional reserves, which had always seemed so boundless to him in the past, were nearing their end. She was alone and in pain. She needed him now. He didn't know how, but he could feel her.

   All of this was running through his mind as he darted among the crates and containers. He was searching for something. <What? She can feel me, David said. She can sense my presence. On some unconscious level, she knows I'll come looking. She'll try to help me find her. How?> He didn't know, but he knew he was looking for something. <Fifteen minutes,> John thought. <I've been in here fifteen minutes. How long will the terrorists stay gone? They have to be on their way back soon. If I haven't found Delenn, I'll have to fight them. I can't let them have her again...> Even with his greater strength, he would have little chance against three armed men, he knew. He ran on, scanning crates more frantically.

   ***

   The door clanged shut. She was alone, in total darkness. Bruised and sore, every part of her body was screaming in pain. She would not allow her enemies to see how their treatment was affecting her. She would bring every mental discipline she had learned over the years to bear in order to deny them that satisfaction. When they came for her again, she would be just as uncooperative and defiant. She could feel a knot in her soul, like a spring wound too tightly. By force of will, she had kept that spring wound and maintained her composure while being beaten and humiliated. Here, though, alone in the dark, she felt the spring inside her straining to unravel. Better to release it here and cleanse herself, she thought. She would need to do so before those brutal animals returned so she could face her fate calmly. Drawing in a shaky breath, she tried to meditate.

   There were tears. She could feel them, even in the light trance she had placed herself in. Susan's face was in her mind. Jeffery Sinclair had been her first human friend, but that had come about through circumstance. Susan had been the first human to befriend her simply because she liked her. They had seen so many things together…Susan had seen her at her absolute worst, and had not turned away.

   <Good night, dear friend. We shall see each other again soon.>

   Then there was Ardenn. In her mind, the young woman swam into focus. She had trusted Delenn implicitly. Coming from an isolated, secretive order, she had never known a real family. In Delenn's she found acceptance. Later, she had found love, only to be struck down before it could be explored. Delenn cried for her.

   <Good night, Ardenn. Take heart, there are other incarnations. You will meet David again.>

   David. Her son. Delenn had no idea where he was, but she knew he would be devastated. His first love dead without a farewell, and now perhaps his mother also. His life would be harder, now. She cried for the agony he would have to face. She understood it, all too well.

   <Good night, my Son. Your Father and I have taught you well. You will survive this. There will be pain, but you will survive. Trust me.>

   And then there was John. Her husband. As she thought about him, it felt as if a tender caress washed across her mind. This was not part of the cleansing ritual. He was reaching for her. Surprised at first, she tentatively reached out for him. Alone, in the dark, she tried to project an emotion she would never acknowledge publicly.

   "John…are you out there?" She thought softly. "Please be out there, love, I really need you now." Shifting slightly on the floor, she shrieked as pain lanced through her legs. She trembled as she pulled her knees closer to her chin. "John, I know you told me not to be, but I am afraid…I am afraid and I am alone and there is darkness all around me. Light me a candle, John. Please, just one, that is all I require. Just a little light to hold off the darkness for a short while longer. John, I want to go home…I am ready to go home. Can you hear me? Please help me." Delenn felt tears trickling down her cheek as she sat with her face in her hands. "I feel you, John. I know that you are near. I have relinquished the tokens of our love. I did not want to, but everything else has been taken from me." A shudder passed through her. "I am frightened, John, but I will not show them fear. You will be proud of me in the end."

   Outside, unnoticed by the terrorists as they left to make their communications, a pair of gold bands lay gleaming on the black marble floor.

   ***

   Something crunched underneath his boot. He almost ignored it in his haste, but the floor was so smooth that the change under his foot registered on his consciousness just enough to cause him to look down. There, on the floor, were two small glittering objects. Delicate rings, once worn with love on a delicate hand. Frozen in place by the discovery, John stooped and picked them up. The first one, a small gold band with a tiny diamond mounted on it, was Delenn's engagement ring. It was a simple ring, not particularly expensive, that John had purchased in the Zocalo on Babylon 5. He remembered being embarrassed to give it to her, thinking she deserved a much better one, but it had been all that he could find at the time. To Delenn, it was priceless. She refused to give it up even when he later offered to get her a more intricate ring. 'Dearest, I am at heart a simple woman. Our love is simple and pure, as is this ring. You gave me this ring when you declared yourself for me, and that memory is now forever attached to it. Another might appear fancier, more 'appropriate' for the wife of the President, but it would not have that memory. This 'simple' ring will never leave my finger. When I join you in the place where no shadows fall, I will be wearing it.'

   The second ring was her wedding ring. It was an unadorned gold band, also of little monetary value. Its intrinsic value could not be calculated, however. This ring had been in John's family for over three hundred years. He had received it from his mother's own hand. She asked him to present it to Delenn as both a token of his love and to show her that she was loved and accepted by the Sheridan family. His soon-to-be wife had broken down and cried when he explained the significance of his mother's gesture to her. In a way, it symbolized her personal attainment of the 'bridge with humanity' that she had striven to build for a large part of her adult life. This tiny gold ring was undoubtedly his wife's most precious possession.

   "Why would they strip her of her rings? And why leave them here?" John muttered softly to himself. <Perhaps 'they' didn't...> John looked around, understanding dawning. <Oh, Dearest…They were all you had left, weren't they? Your last chance...>

   John looked off to his right. A large vacuum-sealed container, dogged shut, seemed the most likely candidate. Pocketing the rings, he went over and put his ear to the door. Nothing. That didn't mean anything, though. This container had been designed for space transport. It was almost certainly thick-hulled enough to be soundproof. Unlatching the door he swung it aside, wincing as it creaked in protest. The interior was dark, and he had no flashlight. He didn't want to call out. It would be sure to echo and might alert anyone returning. As his eyes adjusted, he thought he saw a small bundle in the corner. Were it not for the flash of color from her robe, he might not have even realized it was she. She was curled up in a fetal position against the wall, her back to him. Her outer robe was gone, and her inner robe was dirty and torn. One bare leg was visible, and John saw livid bruises running up her normally unblemished calf. The area behind her knee was nearly black, and John suspected that the damage was a denn'bok welt. The animals had evidently turned her own weapon on her, probably hobbling her in the process. She had her hands clasped behind her head, and John could see that her wrists were tightly bound. The ropes had cut into her flesh, and he could see dried blood on them. She hadn't moved when he entered, so he figured she was either asleep or had passed out. John could feel his face flushing with anger, an anger he fought down with considerable effort. Delenn didn't need him raging around seeking targets for his wrath. She needed him to get her out of here.

   Moving quietly over to her, he knelt down. Reaching out a tentative hand, he touched her shoulder gently. <The first time I've touched you in four years and it has to be under these circumstances...> He thought ruefully. <Well, if you still want me, dearest, I'll make it up to you later.> She startled under his touch. She had been trying to meditate, he realized. Gazing sightlessly at the wall, she didn't resist as he slid his hand softly up her arm. Finding the knot in the rope that he had been looking for, he started working at it, in his efforts regretting that he had no knife. Whoever had tied her up knew knots, and John could see that he was hurting her wrists in his efforts to untie her. She didn't react to his tugging. She didn't look at him, turning her head away as he fumbled with the rope. Finally working the knot loose, he gently slid first one wrist and then the other out.

   She still hadn't looked at him, which he found puzzling. In fact, she seemed to be making a great effort not to. She scooted even closer to the wall, pressing herself up against it as if to get as far from him as possible, covering her face with her freed arms as she did so. Finally, she spoke, her voice grave and muffled by her arms. "So you have returned from wherever you went and you think to extract some sort of concession from me? Having me may make you feel like more of a man, but to me you will always be less than human. In my eyes you are an inferior caricature, nothing more. I have met many great men in my life, and I have been loved by the greatest of them all. You are not he; you are not even fit to breathe the same air. Your touch will not stain my soul, and you will derive no satisfaction from possessing me. If you force yourself on me I will not feel it. I would wish you a short life, but I fear such a wish on my part would be too merciful for you. Now, LEAVE ME ALONE!"

   Her words tore through his heart, leaving thin tatters in their wake. He took his hand off of her arm and backed away as they sank in. He had always known that this meeting would hurt, and he could feel tears starting down his cheeks as his worst fear was realized. Was he that repulsive? "You…you ah, don't beat around the bush, do you?" he began when he felt he could keep his voice steady. "I…I told David that I expected a negative reaction from you, but I didn't expect your…distaste to be so strong. Delenn, I know who I'm supposed to be and what I really am. I would never, never try to force myself on you." Attempting to set her hostility aside, he moved to the business at hand. "Look, uh…I promised that I wouldn't leave you here as a prisoner. Please, just let me help you get to your ship…that's all I ask. You don't have to take me with you. You don't even have to speak to me or look at me. Just let me get you out of here and I'll…I'll go away. I'll never bother you again." Although he fought it as hard as he could, his voice cracked with emotion at the end, when he whispered, "I'm so sorry, dear…uh, Delenn. I…I didn't want to hurt or upset you with my presence. I didn't want it to be this way. I…still love you, and I always will."

   Delenn didn't respond. Did she not even want to talk to him? Finally, John saw her swallow slowly, trying to moisten her throat. "John?" It came out as a muffled croak. Jerking her arms away from her head, she tried to roll over, but the movement caused her to squeal in pain. She stared at him, blinking from the light, for several moments while her eyes adjusted. Once she could see, she spoke, her voice shaking with emotion. "John? John…love…" She abruptly realized how she must have sounded to him. "My words…Oh, Valen! Forgive me for my harsh words. They were not meant for you. Never for you, dearest. I am so sorry. I thought you were one of the vile creatures holding me. One of the…men…told me he was going to return and, and…it does not matter now. Please forget them and forgive me." Tears were in her eyes as she slowly pulled herself up into a sitting position. They slid freely down her face as she gazed at a face she thought she would never see again. She made no move to wipe them away. "I was afraid, John," she admitted, "In loneliness, I cried out for you. In fear, I prayed that you would come for me, and now my prayer is answered. I am not afraid any more, not as long as you are here." Raising a tentative hand, she reached out for him. "Please let me touch you, John. I need to feel you…so I can truly start to believe again."

   John instantly understood what had happened. Moving closer to her, he closed his eyes as she reached out and probed his face delicately. Her slim, gentle fingers roamed over his face, softly tracing every line and curve with fascination…and love. Opening his eyes, he reached out and tenderly cupped her cheek in his hand, caressing her bruised lip with his thumb. Gazing into green eyes that sparkled with relief, happiness and other, deeper emotions, he reflected that she must be seeing much the same in his. At that moment in time, he didn't care. She was his again, just as he was hers. In the dim light, however, he could see that she was battered and bruised. Anger sparked anew within him for an instant. Her captors would pay dearly for this, he reflected, but that would wait for now. He knew them, and he would not forget. Sliding closer on his knees, he slid his hands over her slender ribcage, noting as he did so that she winced slightly. "They've hurt you," he said softly.

   "The pain is nothing compared to the bliss in my heart at being beside you once more, beloved," she murmured as she slid a gentle finger down his cheek. Scooting closer, she pressed herself tightly against him "Hold me, John," she said, "I know time must be short, but hold me, if only for a moment."

   Settling her delicately across his legs, John slid an arm around her shoulders, cradling her against him. She accepted his embrace eagerly. Laying her head on his shoulder, she ran her hand up his chest to his heart, feeling it pounding strongly beneath her fingertips. His other hand was gently caressing her waist. Leaning into him, she simply was, feeling nothing but the joy and contentment of being together with her other half again. Softly, she kissed his collarbone. His hand left her waist, snaking its way up her arm to stroke her crest and hair. "I have wanted this for so long, Delenn. I was so worried that I might not get to see you or touch you again. I was afraid that you would not want me as I am now." She could feel his breath on her ear as he kissed her cheek.

   "I have missed you so much, dearest. I will always want you." she whispered huskily in reply. "I watched your message many, many times. I…I still cannot believe this is real." Abruptly, she pulled herself more desperately against him. He felt her caresses became frantic and intense. When she spoke again, her voice wavered with uncertain emotion. "This is real, is it not? I am not dreaming? Please, John, tell me you are truly here. Please tell me I will not wake up to find myself alone, as I have done so many times now."

   Pulling away from her slightly, John softly continued caressing the cartilage along her temples with his fingers. "I'm here, dearest. I'm not a phantom of your unconscious mind, and I'm yours for as long as you want me." He smiled. "If this is a dream, my love, then we're both dreamers." With that, he bent his lips to hers and kissed them tenderly, not wanting to hurt her. After a short moment, Delenn opened her mouth slightly and slid her tongue hesitantly along his lips, sliding it into his mouth as soft, contented sounds rose in her throat. Their tongues danced with each other and the kiss became harder, more desperate as Delenn reached behind John and pulled his head down to hers more tightly. Her lip hurt, but she didn't care. She needed him, she needed his mouth on hers so desperately. The contented purr in her throat became a growl. She did not want 'gentle'. She wanted fire…yes, steel and fire…she needed more, and…

   She could not understand what was happening to her. All of a sudden, she just could not get close enough. Her need to be with him, inside him, was almost frantic. She started trembling. Breaking the kiss and gasping for breath, she fought to get the trembling under control. "What is happening to me? John, I cannot stop…I do not understand…"

   John wrapped his arms more tightly around her. She was starting to hyperventilate, and he needed to slow her down and calm her before she passed out. "Shh…it's all right. It's your emotions, Delenn. So much has happened to you so quickly that you're having trouble coping. The trembling is just a physical manifestation. It will pass, just relax into me." Kissing her crest, he encouraged, "Deep, steady breaths, sweetheart. That's it. Better?"

   She nodded her head as her breathing came back under control and he loosened his grip on her. She hung her head, embarrassed that she had momentarily lost control of her reactions. "I…I apologize, John. I cannot explain what came over me. I am better now."

   Placing his finger under her chin, he lifted her head and looked in her eyes. "Delenn, I understand. For you, our separation has been for years. For me, it seems much shorter…only a few months." He eyed her speculatively before speaking again. "Now, I want you to lie down on your back for me."

   She looked at him quizzically. This was an odd request. "Uh," she began, stammering a little, "I do want to make love to you, John. I want to quite badly, in fact. But I do not think now is the time…"

   John couldn't resist a soft chuckle. "Not for that, dearest." Stealing a quick kiss as he guided her onto her back, he said, "We need to move out of here, and soon. Your captors are gone now, but they will be returning for you. I need to see if you're seriously injured so I can figure out how best to get you away from here. I need you to be quiet, now."

   Examining her face as well as he could in the dim light coming through the door, he saw that she had been hit several times. Her lower lip had split and bled down her chin, and her nose had bled a little as well. Thankfully, he at least had a handkerchief. Pulling it out, he put a corner of it in his mouth and moistened it. He began to dab at the dried blood on her lip and chin. As he did so, she raised her arm and took the dabbing hand softly in hers. Stilling him momentarily, she raised his hand to her lips and gently kissed him on the knuckle. She kissed each knuckle one by one, not saying a word, before bringing his hand up to her cheek. She pressed it there for a moment, closing her eyes and smiling slightly, before releasing him and opening her eyes. Looking into her eyes, he saw all of the spirit, fire and depth that he remembered. Gazing down at her bruised, swollen face with its dried blood, he realized that he had never seen her so beautiful as she was at that moment. John couldn't help himself. Bending closer, he planted a soft kiss on her bruised cheek before returning to the task at hand.

   Dragging himself back to his hasty examination with some effort, he continued to work his way down her body. Her arms appeared to be functional, except for the abrasions around her wrists. She grunted softly in pain as he slid his hands over her ribs and chest. The ribs were bruised, he surmised, but none felt broken. When his hand passed over her heart, she stopped him again, holding his hand there with hers for a moment. Her heart beat strongly under his fingertips. Her silent message was not lost on John. She still loved him and considered herself his. Looking at him significantly, she released him, and he continued his hasty examination. Reaching her hips and pelvis, John slowly parted the folds of her robe, letting the tattered garment fall away from her legs at the seam. Delenn took his hand and gently guided it as he moved it softly over her thighs. Even under these circumstances, John reflected, this act was very sensual. Delenn had shapely legs and, although physical attributes were generally less important to Minbari than to humans, she was privately quite proud of them. She parted her legs slightly and moved John's hand across her inner thighs, sighing as she did so. It was almost a caress. Looking back up at her, he saw an unspoken promise in her eyes. Smiling slightly, he shook his head and focused his attention back on what he was doing. Her inner thighs seemed undamaged. Most of the bruising appeared to be on the outside of the thighs and on her lower legs. When she guided his hand to the backs of her knees, she hissed as he touched the swollen black bruises there. Yes, definitely a denn'bok, he confirmed to himself as he examined them a little more closely. He took one of her legs and gently attempted to straighten it. The leg began to tremble involuntarily and she hissed again, sucking air in through her teeth. The tendons had tightened up. She would not be walking again, not until the tendons relaxed a little. As an apology, he kissed the damaged areas before pulling her robe back over them.

   Sitting back, John sighed. "I'm not a doctor, but you don't appear to be seriously injured. Most of the bruises look worse than they actually are. None of your ribs seem broken. The worst that you have are the tendons behind your knees…someone evidently didn't want you wandering off anytime soon. Even so, they aren't really damaged, just inflamed. Rest, an ice pack, some pain medication and perhaps a muscle relaxer should get you up and about fairly quickly." Snorting a little, John continued, "Or they would if we had those things here."

   Sliding himself back up so he was crouching beside her, John pulled Delenn's rings out of his pocket. He eyed them thoughtfully for a moment, idly fingering them. Looking down at Delenn, who was watching him curiously, he said, "For twenty years, you wore these as a symbol of our love. For three, you have worn them in memory of me. Delenn, you would make me the happiest man in the universe if you would wear them for…love again."

   Tears glistened in her eyes. "I have always worn them for love." Favoring him with a tender smile, she said, "John, you seem to think that you are somehow…different. That you are not who you are. I know the truth. I knew you were the man I loved the moment I saw your message and felt your words kiss my soul." Delenn reached up to caress his face. In a trembling voice, she continued. "I will always be your wife, but here, in this place, I ask that you be my husband again."

   "Always yours, dearest wife…always." John could feel his own tears running down his cheeks. "Give me your hand." When she extended it, John carefully slid the rings back onto the proper finger. "I'll have to find one for myself when we get out of this." Leaning over, he grasped her shoulders lightly and pulled her back up to a sitting position. Wrapping his arms around her, he gave her a long, soft kiss. Breaking it, he put his mouth to her ear. "By the way," he whispered, "Leaving the rings outside was very good thinking. I wouldn't have found you if you hadn't."

   "It seemed a good idea at the time, my love. I am glad you approve." Delenn sighed, wrapping her arms around his neck and gazing into his eyes. "I have your old ring, John. It was found with your other personal effects when your ship was recovered." John saw a mischievous glint in her eye. "I shall return it to you…when we conduct the na'fak'cha."

   "A ceremony?" John almost groaned.

   Delenn smiled indulgently and leaned into him, rubbing her cheek against the fabric of his shirt. "Well, I see that some things have not changed. I think, in this situation, a rebirth ceremony is entirely appropriate, do you not?"

   John was about to reply when he heard something. A door closing? They had been wasting precious time. In his joy at finding her, he had almost forgotten the situation they were in. Leaning back, John sighed and looked at Delenn, his face troubled. She would need to be carried, but his arms up under her knees would be agony for her. A fireman's carry would be no better; her bruised ribs would be equally painful. He looked into her face. She was watching him intently, her eyes growing worried as she took in his expression. She seemed to understand his dilemma. They needed to leave, now. Looking around the dim interior of the container, he saw nothing he could use to cushion her legs. Putting his mouth to her ear again, he whispered, "Don't try to talk any more. This warehouse is a big echo chamber. They're back and they'll hear us. I have an idea…"

   Reaching down to her knees again, he opened her robe partially. Pulling the silky material away from her calves, he gathered it and folded it back over the bruised tendons. Slipping his arms underneath her with one resting beneath the gathered cloth, he lifted her off of the floor of the container and began moving her to the door. Other than a small grunt, Delenn showed little discomfort although John knew that even this gentle pressure must be hurting her. She wrapped her arms around his neck and tried to rest her head against his chest. "I love you, John." she whispered almost too softly for him to hear, "I want to go home. Take me home."

   "Shh…I will, Dearest. I'll get you there, whatever it takes." He whispered. He could hear footsteps echoing in the distance as he peeked out the door. Darting out with her in his arms, he walked quickly but softly around the corner of an adjacent container. This wasn't going to work. Once the terrorists discovered Delenn was gone, they would figure out their destination and give chase. With her in his arms, they would catch up easily. He cursed himself for wasting so much time. He should have just gone in, grabbed her and taken off. There was no helping it now, he figured. He couldn't have them following the two of them, and he couldn't simply wait them out. If they went searching while he and Delenn hid somewhere they would get between the two of them and the ship, and would almost certainly ambush them somewhere along the way. Then, there was Ardenn. They needed to get her to a doctor, and every spare second the ship was on the ground was a second too many for her. No, he needed to deal with them now, but he had to hide Delenn first.

   Looking around, John didn't see many options. He steadfastly refused to hide her in another container. That would terrify her and the terrorists would hear the door in any event. Thinking furiously, he looked up. He had been thinking two-dimensionally. Most of the containers were higher than a man was tall. The roofs of the containers were out of a person's line of sight. What better place to hide someone than almost in plain sight? As long as the person laid flat on the roof, they couldn't be seen. He looked down into Delenn's eyes. "Listen to me, Dearest," he whispered, "They're too close. I can't let them follow us, so I'm going to have to fight them here. I can't do that holding you. If you hide on top of one of the containers, they won't be able to see you. If I boost you up, can you pull yourself the rest of the way?"

   Delenn considered John's proposition. "I…think so." The thought of John fighting three armed men terrified her, but she recognized the seriousness of their predicament. "Please be careful, beloved."

   Carefully, John shifted her so he could lift her up, reflecting that although she was a taller woman than Ardenn, she was not appreciably heavier. He started to boost her up the side of the container. "When you climb up," he whispered, "slide to the center of the roof, lie as flat as you can, and don't move a muscle. I'll return for you very soon."

   Delenn clambered up the side, no easy feat using just her arms. Pulling herself over the edge, she did as John instructed. Her mind was filled with worry for him. The only sounds she could hear were the footfalls and voices of the approaching terrorists. Presently, they stopped nearby, their idle banter replaced with surprise and anger as they discovered she had escaped. More footfalls and curses echoed as they scurried around looking for her. Then, she heard the sound of a denn'bok snapping open…

   The terrorists fell silent. "What was that?" one of them finally asked.

   ***

   "Susan," David asked, "Is it much further to your ship?"

   Susan furrowed her brows and considered as she walked. They were going in the correct general direction, she was sure, but they had come around the outside of the facility when she, Delenn and Ardenn had arrived. "It's hard to say. This spaceport is brand new. I've never been in here before. I think we're headed in the right direction." She stopped and looked back. "Why do you ask?"

   David looked at her, concerned. "Ardenn's pain medication is wearing off. I'm afraid that the pain will become unbearable for her soon."

   "Can she uh, meditate or something? Keep her mind off of it?"

   David sighed. "I'm not sure she's up to it. She isn't religious caste and doesn't know their deep meditation techniques. Sisters of Valeria do meditate, but with me carrying her and her injuries, I don't think she could concentrate."

   "Well, keep her mind off of the pain the old-fashioned way then."

   "The old-fashioned way? What's that?"

   Susan rolled her eyes and sighed. "You're lucky you have me around, Junior. Talk to her."

   In his arms, he could feel Ardenn starting to tremble as she fought to keep the increasing pain under control. She wasn't succeeding. After a moment, she could hold it in no long and a low, soft moan escaped her lips. David looked down at her face. She was more alert, but her eyes were locked on his and were silently pleading with him to help her. "How are you doing?" he asked softly.

   "Uhh…not…so well, David. I do not suppose there is any of that medicine left, is there?"

   "No, Dearest. I'm sorry, it's all used up. I haven't seen another first aid kit around. This facility isn't open and I guess they haven't stocked those supplies yet."

   "I…I will manage without it, then." With that, she fell silent. A few minutes, later, she moaned again. Tears were in her eyes. "David, love, I fear that I am not managing very well. Perhaps…perhaps Ranger One's suggestion might help."

   David desperately searched his mind for something to talk about. "Uhh…how about a joke? Would you like that?" He felt her nod against him. "OK," he continued, "I'll tell you a Ranger joke I heard." Taking a breath, he began. "Back during the Shadow War, before either of us was born, Susan Ivanova, Delenn, and Michael Garibaldi were all captured by the Shadows."

   Ardenn's voice was a croak. "Really?"

   David was growing very concerned. He couldn't tell if Ardenn was being injured worse, or her pain was just the effects of the painkillers wearing off. If the pain got too bad, she would pass out. Hiding his worry, he smiled at her and said, "No, not really, sweetheart. This is a joke. Anyway, the Shadows came to their cell and said 'We are going to execute all three of you in the morning, but we'll grant you one request beforehand. What do you want?" He paused for effect, then continued, "Well, Michael speaks up and says 'I'd like Bagna Cauda with fresh ingredients straight from Earth. The Shadows nodded and fresh Bagna Cauda appeared. Next, the Shadows asked Delenn. She said, 'I would like the opportunity to make a long soliloquy, filled with passion, subtlety, and wisdom.' The Shadows said, 'We'll grant your wish, but we will need to get you an audience first. You will have to wait.' Then the Shadows turned to Susan…"

   "And what did she say, dearest?"

   "Yes, David. What did 'Susan' say?" Susan chimed in warningly as she walked ahead.

   David grinned. "She said 'Please just kill me before you grant Delenn's wish." Looking down at Ardenn, he said, "Uhh…I guess it's funnier when told among Rangers. What did you think?"

   Ardenn tried to smile, but it turned to a grimace. David could feel her tears on his skin as she buried her face in his neck. "David, I could really use some of that pain medication now."

   Susan groaned as they walked, "Me too, Ardenn, me too. You inherited more than just looks from your Dad, didn't you?"

   David didn't answer. His attention was totally on the woman in his arms. "Ardenn, are you still awake?"

   Ardenn didn't trust herself to speak. Her head felt like it was about to explode. She merely nodded against his neck and clutched him more tightly.

   David started talking, saying anything he could think of to take her mind off of the pain. "So you got to meet Dad, huh? He likes you, you know. He liked you the moment he saw you. He said you were beautiful, and that's saying a lot when it's a human talking about a Minbari. I guess it's just in the blood, though, because I think you're beautiful, too." David knew he was babbling, but he didn't care as long as she listened to him. "Dearest, I've been thinking about what you said before I left Minbar. I think you wanted a trip to the mountains? You know, neither of us gets much vacation time but I've got a leave coming up and I'm sure Mother and Dad are going to want some time alone together after all this is over. Let's go somewhere, just the two of us. Anywhere you want…pick a destination. We'll go home, get your crest repaired and then take off. We can stay on Minbar, or I could take you to Earth. I have family there too, you know. They're very open-minded, and I think they'd love meeting you. Or anywhere else…wherever in the galaxy you'd like to go. Would you like that?" He felt another weak nod against his neck. <Good,> he thought, <she's still awake. > "So what'll it be?"

   Ardenn swallowed. When she spoke, it was a weak whisper. "The stars, David. Anywhere we can see the stars together."

   David looked at Susan. "We need to hurry. She's barely hanging on. I don't want her to pass out." Looking back at Ardenn, he said, "The stars it is, then. I know just the place. I've never shown it to anyone, but when I found it, you were the first person I thought of. You just hang on for me, and I'll get you to those stars." He turned his head and kissed her softly on her forehead. "I love you and I won't let you fall."

   Susan paused at a door that seemed to lead outside. Looking out the small glass windowpane fitted into the door, she saw her ship sitting under its security cover in the distance. "We're here," she said. "Now we just have to get over there."

   "Well, let's go! Ardenn can't wait." David exclaimed when Susan didn't move immediately. Ardenn was starting to wail into his shoulder. David kissed her forehead again. It was all he could do without his arms free. "Just a little longer," he murmured encouragingly as he kissed her. "I'm with you. I know it hurts. It's OK, you don't have to resist it. You can cry into me if you need to. I don't mind."

   Susan stepped aside and motioned him to the window. "She'll have to, David. Look."

   David stepped over and looked where Susan had pointed. Three men were standing between them and the ship.

   Susan spoke quietly behind him. "Two of those clowns are the men who took your mother, David. The one with the salt and pepper hair is the hit team leader. The third guy…the one with the bandaged wrist…is a goon your mother ran into earlier. That encounter, as you can see, went badly for him. They're probably contacting their getaway ship."

   "Broken wrist has a denn'bok" David noted.

   "Your mother's," Susan said angrily. "They took it from her when they caught her."

   David eyed them stonily. "Well, let's just go and take it back. While I'm at it, I'll wring her location out of their scrawny necks."

   Susan eyed him a moment. "You've forgotten something." She indicated Ardenn, who had given up on resisting the pain and was now crying softly into David's shoulder. "Kind of tough to fight and hold her at the same time, and I think that at this point she won't really appreciate being left propped in a corner while we go out and risk our lives." Seeing the disgusted look on David's face, she continued, "David, there's a time to fight and there's a time to just lay back and wait for a mistake on their part. I can see that they've made at least three already."

   "OK, Ranger One. What three mistakes have they made?"

   "First, they're all here, so unless there are more terrorists in the building than I think there are, they left Delenn unguarded. Your mother has been in tight spots before and she's very resourceful. If she has a ghost of a chance to escape, she'll take it. Second, they think they're safe. They've forgotten about you and your father. See them lounging around? Their hired help has tied up the Rangers from your ship and they think they've got all the time in the world now. If your Dad finds your mother before they get back and they've harmed her…well, they're not as safe as they think they are."

   "And the third?"

   Susan looked past the men at her ship. "They've left my ship intact and undamaged. They've left us a means of escape." As she said this, the three men laughed and reentered another part of the building. After giving them a few seconds, Susan said, "OK, David. Let's go."

   The run for the ship was uneventful, aside for the sound of PPG fire in the distance as they ran across the tarmac. Reaching the ship, Susan hastily keyed a code into the hatch cover and the door slid aside. "Get her in here, David. Lay her down." Susan said, indicating a small bed in a corner. Grabbing the medscanner, she waited as David moved the young Minbari onto the bed. Ardenn released him reluctantly, entreating him to stay beside her. David kept hold of her hand but moved out of the way so Susan could get at her.

   "OK, David. Let her go for a moment and close the hatch." Susan muttered as she began the scan. "We don't want any bad guys following us in here. And then go into that chest in the corner and find some pain medication. The Minbari kind, this time."

   David dug around in the chest. Pulling out an injector, he said, "This should do."

   Looking at the label quickly, Susan nodded. "Give it to her."

   David held the injector to Ardenn's neck. "Dearest, this will make you feel better. Hold still." As he injected the medication into her, he could see her face visibly relax. He relaxed as well as her pain eased.

   "Thank you, beloved…" Ardenn murmured. Her eyes fluttered as the drug began to take effect.

   "Uh, Susan? Is it OK for her to sleep now?"

   Susan looked at the medscanner, her face grave. Presently, she looked up. "Um, I'm no doctor but I think so. I think she'll be all right if she sleeps."

   David looked tenderly at Ardenn. "You can sleep now if you want, Dearest. I'll watch you for a while to make sure you're OK." He smiled indulgently. "Perhaps I'll get to see your true face."

   "That is…not part of the ritual, David." Ardenn said drowsily, "but you…may do so if you wish." Faintly she smiled as her eyes slid closed. "What do I get if you like what you see…" her voice trailed off as she fell fast asleep.

   "Nothing, sweetheart." David whispered softly as he squeezed her hand. "Nothing you don't already have."

   Susan watched the exchange between the two, alternately listening and reading through the medscanner results. When it was clear that Ardenn was fully asleep, Susan walked over and put her hand on David's shoulder. David looked up. "Well? How bad is it?"

   Susan frowned. "It's not good, but not as bad as it could be. What do you want to hear first, the good news or the bad?"

   David's heart filled with dread. Swallowing, he said, "Give me the bad news."

   Susan sighed and held up the scanner readout. "I've never seen a bonecrest damaged as badly as hers. I've seen crests chipped in training, and I've seen them broken open in combat, but this takes the cake. The nerves running through the bone on the left side of her head have been extensively mangled, as well as the circulatory system feeding that area. Parts of the crest are already dying, and I doubt there are any facilities other than on Minbar or maybe Earth that can repair this sort of damage. Additionally, the bullet is still in there, lodged in between her crest and her skull. The tissues surrounding that area are inflamed. That's why she's in so much pain."

   "And the good news?"

   "Her skull wasn't penetrated. She has a concussion, but there's no inflammation of the brain itself. She'll live, although we need to get her home immediately. The medlab on the ship can probably remove the bullet and stabilize her, but they can't permanently treat any of her other injuries." Looking at David's forlorn expression, Susan hastened to reassure him. "David, none of the injuries I've listed are untreatable but some of them, like regenerating the nerves, will take time. She will recover from this."

   David turned his gaze back to the sleeping Minbari. She looked peaceful, with just the faintest trace of discomfort marring her features. "She loves you, David," he heard Susan say from behind him, "but this has been a traumatic experience for her. She'll need your support later. I need it now. Come with me."

   Following Susan, David found himself in the command compartment of the small ship. Indicating the forward viewport, Susan pointed out towards the horizon. "Do you see those ships lifting off in the distance? Those are the rescue teams sent in from your mother's ship. Undoubtedly, the terrorists contacted the Far Traveler and gave the Captain an ultimatum. He, of course, is pulling the rescue teams out. He has no other choice." Turning back to David, she said, "I'm going to contact the Far Traveler, let them know we're alive, and brief them on the situation. I'll tell him to hold the rescue teams nearby rather than returning them to the ship. Once we have your mother, I'll bring the teams in and round the baddies up. For now, though, it appears that we're it. I need you to get back outside with your people on the ground. Have them break contact with the remaining terrorists and set up a protective perimeter around this area." Susan took David's hand, pressing a link into it. "Try not to worry about your mother. She'll be all right. Just do what you need to do."

   David nodded and turned to leave. He stopped long enough to stoop and kiss the sleeping Ardenn softly, then he was out the door.

   ***

   John could hear the angry outbursts of the terrorists as he maneuvered himself into a better position. Taking them all on at once would be foolhardy in the extreme. They all had PPGs, and he would simply be shot by one as he engaged another with his denn'bok. He needed them to separate. <C'mon…split up and look for her, you idiots. She couldn't go far, you know. Not after what you did to her...>

   Thinking about her bruised body helped him work up a good mad. Darting away from the container he had boosted Delenn onto to hide her, he extended his denn'bok with a flick of his wrist and closed it just as quickly.

   "What was that?" He heard one of the terrorists say. The voice was familiar to him, but he couldn't place it immediately. No matter, he thought. It would come to him eventually. Quickly, he sprinted to another container, his footfalls echoing across the chamber. Crouching behind a crate, he opened his denn'bok and closed it again.

   "OK, somebody's in here with us." The terrorist leader said, "That means the freak's probably still in here somewhere as well. Split up. Find Delenn, and kill our Ranger friend if you happen to bump into him first."

   This was what John had been waiting for. Moving again, he sprinted to a third container and opened his denn'bok, leaving it extended this time. Holding it parallel to his body, he pressed himself against the container and waited.

   He didn't have to wait long. After a moment, he heard soft footsteps approaching. He heard the door to an adjacent container opening as the man looked inside. Sneaking a peek around the corner, John watched as the terrorist looked in the container for Delenn, his back to him. Taking advantage of his opportunity, John sprinted at the man with his denn'bok in the 'attack' position.

   The man heard him coming. Turning, he attempted to raise his PPG, only to have it swatted out of his hand as John swung the denn'bok to disarm him. John quickly followed up with a backhanded blow to the man's midsection, doubling him over. The terrorist wasn't finished, however. He charged John, head down, and grabbed him around the waist. The force of the man's charge drove John to the ground on his back. From his position on top, the man rabbit-punched John right in the area where the explosive rib had been.

   John grunted in pain. The terrorist took the opportunity to leap to his feet, only to be brought down again as John scissored his denn'bok around and knocked his feet out from under him. Both men climbed to their feet, John holding a hand on his ribs while the man crouched holding his stomach. The terrorist glared at him. "You…"

   That was all he got out. John didn't allow him any more. Slashing his pike across the man's face, John drove him back into the dirt. He didn't rise again. John couldn't tell whether he was dead or not, and he didn't care. He looked down at the body and massaged his side. "Yeah, me, asshole." he said quietly as he moved off to find another target.

   ***

   Max heard a commotion near by. One of his accomplices must have bumped into a Ranger. He didn't move immediately to go to his compatriot's aid. Beating up on a defenseless woman was one thing, he reasoned. Taking on an armed opponent was another. He was a coward at heart, and didn't have the stomach for fighting unless someone was backing him up. The fighting ceased. Hesitating a moment, Max made to move off when he heard a low voice behind him. "Going somewhere?"

   He turned. He wasn't facing a Ranger. It was the Sheridan clone. He tried to get his PPG up but the damned replicant was too fast. He slapped the weapon aside with his pike and drove the point of the weapon hard into Max's sternum, shoving him to the ground on his back.

   John held the terrorist down on the ground with the end of his pike. He started to finish the man off, but something caught his eye and he paused. Conversationally, he said, "Is that a denn'bok in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?" Nudging the man's chest harder, he lowered his voice and said, "Take it out." Slowly, the man removed the closed denn'bok from his pocket. <Delenn's weapon, > he thought with mounting rage. <This is the one that beat her.> John backed off and motioned for the man to get up. Reluctantly, the man stood. John stared angrily at him. "Open it up." Shaking it, the terrorist stood dumbly as the weapon snapped open in his hand. Awkwardly, he held the weapon up.

   "I don't know how to use this weapon." Max said, with fear in his voice.

   "You used it well enough when you beat my wife with it. Of course, she was unarmed and tied up at the time. I understand that's how spiders like their prey." John said dangerously. He was wasting time again, he knew, but his anger just wouldn't allow him to let this go. "What else were you planning on doing to her, hmm? Well, now you have the opportunity to do the same to me. Take it. You might get lucky."

   Max stared at him for a second. Abruptly, he threw the weapon down and turned to run.

   "No, we can't allow that." John said. Closing his denn'bok, he chased after the man. Catching up to him, he threw himself at the man's legs, tackling him. The two grappled on the ground for a minute, with John's greater strength giving him the advantage. The other man, however, fought hard, knowing that his life depended on it. Eventually, John rolled the man over and punched him hard in the face. The blow stunned him and John punched him again. Grabbing the swooning terrorist by the collar, John jerked him up close to his face.

   "I ought to kill you for hurting Delenn, but I'm not going to." John grunted angrily. "I…have a task for you. You will deliver a message to your 'Control' for me…" He shook the dazed man to get his attention and continued, "You tell him…you tell him that bringing me back was the worst mistake he ever made, and it will be one of his last. You tell him that John Sheridan knows who he is, and that I'm coming after him soon. You tell him that if he EVER casts his eye towards Delenn or any member of my family again, I will show no mercy whatsoever. Lastly, you give him this piece of advice from me…you tell him that next time, if there is one, it would be better for him if he LET…THE…DEAD…STAY…DEAD! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"

   Weakly, Max nodded.

   "Good. Now say Good Night." Drawing his fist back, John punched him hard in the jaw, knocking the man unconscious. Climbing slowly to his feet, he went and retrieved his denn'bok. "Ah, Hell," he muttered to himself as he shook his hand and tiredly staggered off, "I'm getting too old for this sort of thing."

   John had about a millisecond of warning before he was struck hard from behind. Tumbling, he managed to pivot around just as he hit the ground. Instantly, another man was on top of him, pinning him down. John struggled, looking hard at the man as he did so. "I know you," he grunted, "I thought you sounded familiar…"

   "That's right," the other man said as he leered down at him. "How are you, Captain? I knew you wouldn't forget your old Security Sergeant. You're right, you know," he continued, almost conversationally, "You are getting too old for this sort of thing. Well, I'll take care of that. I don't think Max will have to worry too much about delivering your message to the boss. Probably just as well, he's too stupid to remember all that anyway." Jack forced John back to the ground again as he struggled to raise himself. "Oh, you're pretty strong, all right, but guess what? I'm from a heavy-gravity world, too." Jack grinned again. "I can still salvage this operation, you know. I'll kill you and then I'll have all the time in the world to find your Minbari whore. She can't have gone far, or you wouldn't be here."

   <No, she hasn't gone far,> John thought. Looking up over Jack's shoulder, he saw the tip of a bonecrest and a pair of green eyes peering over the edge of the container above him. The fight had carried him right back to her location. John saw Delenn's eyes narrow in anger. She watched for a second, then the top of her head ducked back out of sight. <No, Dearest, no...> he silently entreated her, <Stay hidden. Don't...Ah, Hell...>

   It was too late. A small bundle of fury launched itself off the top of the container, silk robe fluttering. Meanwhile, Jack laughed, not noticing that John wasn't looking directly at him. "Hell, Captain Clone, the boss may even give me a bonus for getting rid of both of…!" Delenn came down on Jack's back in a blur, sending the terrorist tumbling off to the side.

   The impact almost knocked the wind out of her, but Delenn held fast to the terrorist's back. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she yelled, "You will kill no one else today, little man! I will not allow it! My husband is not for you!"

   Jack twisted violently, shaking Delenn and elbowing her savagely in the ribs. "Husband? That thing? You're screwing clones now, freak?"

   "Not...at the moment," Delenn managed to wheeze, "I am otherwise occupied."

   Finally shaking her off, he jumped up and started to grab for her. Delenn scrambled away from him. "Bitch, if you weren't a Minbari, I'd say you were slumming."

   "She won't be as soon as we're rid of you!" John had risen while Jack was occupied with Delenn. Stepping up behind the terrorist, he spun him around. A solid punch landed in Jack's face, sending him to the floor. Scrambling to his feet, Jack found himself facing an enraged and prepared opponent. Quickly assessing the situation, he turned and ran as John started after him.

   John followed him for a few steps, then stopped as he remembered Delenn. Trotting back, he knelt beside her. She was propped up on one arm, with the other rubbing her ribs. "I am all right, John," she said as he looked at her, "My ribs are just a little sore."

   John sat down beside her and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her into his embrace. Kissing her softly, he said, "That was a very foolish, very brave thing you did a moment ago. When we get out of this, allow me to remind you that you're the President of the Alliance and you shouldn't be risking yourself like that."

   "I am also your wife, John. Despite your present circumstance, you have acknowledged me as such and I have accepted you. I will not allow my husband to come to harm when I am capable of doing something about it. I am President because it is a necessary duty. I am your wife because I love you. I know my priorities." Caressing his cheek, she gazed lovingly into his eyes. In a small voice, she continued, "I could not allow you to sacrifice yourself, John. You are mine now, and I will not let you go so easily. Deal with it." Leaning forward, she drew John's mouth to hers in a long, slow kiss. She took in his taste, his scent as she buried herself in him. After a moment, she opened her mouth and invited his tongue in. Her hands roamed over his arms and chest, moving up to his neck. Sighing into his mouth, she pressed herself tightly against him as his hands gently explored her. They held each other like that, drinking each other in, for a long time. Delenn felt complete for the first time in three years. Almost…

   "John," Delenn said, pulling away and breaking the timeless moment. "I…I have bad news. Susan…Susan is dead. I am so sorry. And Ardenn, my aide…you never met her, but you know she and David were becoming close…she was such a precious woman young woman…" Delenn turned her face away from him so he wouldn't see the tears starting again. "They both died protecting me. I am tired, John. I am tired of those close to me dying. I am tired of the Universe conspiring to keep me alone."

   John turned her face back to his and kissed her tears away. She didn't know, he realized. How could she? "Honey, unless something's happened to those two since I left them, they're not dead."

   "Not dead?" She didn't believe at first, thinking that John was mistaken. When his expression didn't change, hope sprang in Delenn's heart. "I…I saw Ardenn. She was with me on the stage…and Susan…I heard her being shot…"

   John smiled and kissed her forehead. "Ardenn is seriously injured, Dearest. She was wounded by the sniper's bullet meant for you, but she's not dead. I found her alive on the stage, rendered what aid I could, and took her to David. He's with her now. As for Susan, I think the shots you heard were David's. He surprised her captor before he could hurt her." John chewed his lip for a moment and sighed. "We do need to get moving, though. They're waiting for us at your ship and Ardenn needs medical care badly."

   Delenn felt tears coming again, only this time they were tears of joy. Turning her face up to John's her eyes sparkled. "Help me up, love. The tendons in my legs feel as if they've relaxed a little. I may be able to stand…" Coyly, she placed her hand on his heart and caressed his chest through the fabric of his shirt, "…if you will allow me to lean on you."

   John removed her hand and kissed her palm. "Always, Dearest. Now let's get out of here."

   ***

   Susan's expression was grave as she looked out of the forward viewport of the ship. They were in big trouble. Speaking into her link, she said, "David, do you see what I see?"

   Over the link, David replied, "If you're talking about a class-L ground assault ship coming this way, yeah, I see it."

   "That must be the terrorists escape ship. Somehow, I pictured something a little uh, smaller." What was approaching was an Earthforce-constructed assault lander. Wide and low-slung, the ship was heavily armed and armored. Designed for ferrying troops and supporting ground combat, they were the largest ships in known space capable of atmospheric flight. The approaching ship was twice the size of a White Star and bristled with heavy weapons. Susan could see terrorists pulling out of the firefight with David's Rangers and running across the tarmac to link up with the vessel. "David," Susan said into her link as she eyed the ship, "Collect up your people and get them under the security shield. I don't want anyone out in the open when those clowns report where we are. Hopefully, the security shield will block their fire for a short time."

   "Wilco. I'm bringing them under now. Any...any word on Mother or Dad?"

   "Negative, we're still waiting. You'll probably see them before I do."

   <Shit! Where are they?> Susan thought worriedly. As she watched, the assault ship turned towards their location. This was it, she thought. After a moment, fire lanced out from the ship's forward gunport, splattering against the shield protecting Susan's small cruiser. Small cracks appeared in the Plexisteel shield.

   "Susan! They're coming! Dad found her!" David's voice crackled across the link with excitement.

   "David, send a team out to escort them in. Move quickly!" Susan was torn between happiness and worry. The closer that ship got, the harder their escape would be. If they got too close, they'd shoot them down as they tried to lift off. Getting John and Delenn aboard might become a moot point.

   After a moment, someone keyed the door. Susan spun just as Delenn gingerly stepped inside. "Susan?" she said, her voice quivering. Susan quickly crossed the small compartment and Delenn embraced her. "Oh, Susan…I was so sure you were dead!" Stepping back, Delenn eyed her friend gratefully. "I owe you so much, old friend. I do not know how to repay you."

   Susan looked Delenn over. She was bruised and disheveled, but seemed ecstatically happy. <And why shouldn't she be?> Susan thought as John came up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. Delenn leaned into him and placed one of her hands over his. "The look on your face right now is payment enough."

   Susan's smile turned to concern. "Uh, kids? Listen, we're not out of this yet. See big ugly out there?" She pointed over her shoulder out the window, "They're moving to cut off our escape. We have to go now." As if to emphasize the point, another burst of fire rocked the shield. More panels were starting to show signs of buckling.

   John spoke up, eyeing the slowly closing ship. "Recall David's Rangers and get them aboard, Susan. They're not doing any good out there. We'll be a little heavy, but this ship's got power to spare. We'll withdraw the security shield and make a run for it as soon as they're aboard."

   Susan nodded and spoke into her link. "David, get everybody aboard. This field trip's over." Shortly, rangers began piling in. Some were wounded, but thankfully, John noted that all seemed to be accounted for.

   David came in last. "Mother?" he said as he saw Delenn. Rushing over, he embraced her gingerly. "What…what did they do to you?" he exclaimed as he looked at her.

   Delenn gazed at her son fondly. "It is all superficial, David. I am all right." She caressed the hand on her shoulder. "I am better than all right. Do not be too concerned at my appearance."

   "Everybody find a place to sit!" Susan shouted, "We're outta here!" Everyone aboard scrambled for a seat anywhere they could find it.

   Delenn took a seat next to the bed on which Ardenn slept. Gazing at the sleeping Minbari woman, she reached out and stroked her cheek. "I owe you my life, little one," she whispered, "Had I a daughter, I would have wanted her to be you. Perhaps someday, if the Universe wills it, I will address you so."

   A massive blast against the shield rocked the small ship. The lights outside dimmed and went out. Susan keyed in a sequence on her control pad and waited. Nothing happened. "Shit!" she exclaimed.

   "What is it Susan?" David asked.

   Susan slapped the arm of her chair in frustration. "I just keyed in the shield withdrawal sequence! Nothing happened! We're stuck under here!"

   "That last blast must have taken down the spaceport's power generators," John said quietly. "The retraction mechanism for the shield should have backups, though. I'm surprised they didn't kick in."

   "You're assuming the backups are active, John," Susan replied disgustedly. "This is a brand new facility. A lot of stuff isn't turned on yet."

   "Can we shoot our way out?"

   Susan considered the suggestion for an instant. "No, the blasts would just ricochet around in here. The shield would hold, just like it's holding against them."

   "There is a manual override." John said softly. He looked over at Delenn, who was sitting in the corner holding Ardenn's hand. Almost as if she could sense his thoughts, she looked back at him.

   "How do you know?" Susan asked.

   John smiled grimly. "Well, because when I was bringing Delenn out I ran by a room with a sign on the door that said 'Auxiliary Shield Control Room'."

   David looked from his father to Susan. "I see what you're thinking, Dad. No. I'll go."

   "No, son. I'm not thinking what you think I am. I'm not considering a suicide mission here. The room isn't far, and it appears to be hardened against attack. As long as the shield holds, I'll be perfectly safe."

   "Famous last words." Susan muttered under her breath.

   John glared hard at her before continuing. "I'll simply run over, unlock the shield, and run back. We'll blow by that ship before they even know what happened."

   "No, you will not, John." Delenn's voice came from behind them. Everybody turned. "You will not do this. I forbid it. I know you, John Sheridan. I know you better than you know yourself. I know your soul. It is full of sacrifice, and nobility…and self-doubt. You have always felt as if events were out of your control, so you have sought to escape them. During the war, you wanted to die because you saw pain in every direction. After you lost Anna, you wanted to die because you thought you could not love anymore. After our twenty years together, you left without looking back because seeing my face one more time would have destroyed your resolve to 'have a happy day'. Not this time, John. You will not ruin my 'happy day'. Not this time." Turning, she went back and sat down beside Ardenn. After a moment, she put her head in her hands and started to cry.

   John turned away from Delenn, unable to look at her. "Give me a link, Susan." Silently, Susan handed one over.

   "Didn't you hear Mother, Dad?" David said incredulously. "She said 'no'."

   John put a hand on David's shoulder. "Son, look at her. She knows I'm going to go anyway. Like she said, 'she knows me'." He turned to go. "I'll be back in a moment," he mumbled. Pausing beside Delenn, he brushed his fingers through her hair. "I love you, Dearest." She did not even look up. John sighed. Unsealing the hatch, he ducked out and was gone.

   ***

   After he left the ship John ran for the control room he had seen earlier. It wasn't far. Shoving the door open, he quickly found the manual lock release for the protective overhang. Cranking it back, he felt the latches roll over and the gimbals engage. Out the window, he could see the shield roof roll back perceptibly. Done. The ship could now push the overhang out of the way as it rose. "That wasn't so bad, now, was it?" he muttered to himself.

   Looking out again, he considered the assault ship. It was close. Too close, he realized. It would almost certainly shoot down Susan's ship as it lifted out. John considered his options grimly. He had an idea, but it was dangerous, both to him and to the ship. Perhaps the shield would hold…

   Another barrage against the security shield by the assault ship decided him. Perhaps the hardening of the room would be enough…

   He keyed his link. "Far Traveler, this is John Sheridan, over."

   "This is Far Traveler. We hear you. Did you say John Sheridan?"

   "Affirmative. Do you recognize my voice?"

   "Yes, Entil-zha. Mr. Garibaldi has contacted us with the details of your return. This is Captain Marsten."

   "Captain Marstan…we've met. I need a fire mission from you, over."

   "Yes, Entil-zha…uh, Fire mission, over."

   "Phase two fires, Grid uh…" John keyed off and quickly checked a map of the spaceport hanging on the wall. Finding the location he wanted, he rekeyed the link. "Grid EH46778827, over."

   "Phase two fires, grid EH46778827 over." The Captain repeated.

   "One shot, ground burst, at my command, over."

   "One shot, ground burst, at your command. Standing by." The ship fell silent, waiting for John's execution command.

   John turned to leave. A voice stopped him. "Hello again, Captain." It was Jack. "Going somewhere?" Jack stood in the door, a PPG in his hand. "Our ship will be up on that shield in a second, Captain. Once they get there, they'll just pound at it until it comes apart."

   Kicking the door shut, he motioned John away from the window. Moving over to look out, he said, "Beautiful view. This is a great place to watch the end of all this from, don't you think?"

   John stood silently.

   Jack smiled at him again. "What? Cat got your tongue? Don't you have anything to say?

   John smiled. "I sure do, Jack… FIRE!"

   Almost instantly, a beam of white fire from the orbiting Victory-class starship lanced down from the heavens, striking the assault ship and driving it into the ground. A second later, the ship disintegrated in a giant fireball that slowly billowed out as the pressure wave expanded.

   John threw himself on the floor and keyed his link. "SUSAN, YOU GET THAT GODDAMN SHIP MOVING LIKE A BAT OUT OF HELL RIGHT NOW! THIS IS YOUR ONLY CHANCE! I AM SAFE, DO YOU HEAR ME? DON'T REPLY, JUST MOVE YOUR ASS!"

   The last two things John saw before the pressure wave hit was a small blue ship lifting out at maximum velocity and Jack's body being torn in half as the window blew apart in a thousand tiny pieces…

   ***

   "Hello, John."

   Blinking his eyes, John sat up. Everything around him was smoking rubble, and he had bits of broken glass on his shirt. John dusted himself off and propped his back up on a broken piece of furniture. He looked over at his visitor. "Hello, Lorien. I expected to see you sooner or later."

   Lorien steepled his long thin fingers. He gazed at John knowingly with golden eyes. "Do you know why I am here?"

   John picked at a piece of lint on his shirt. "To tell me I'm caught between tick and tock, I suppose."

   "Why? Do you feel caught between life and death? Do you have a pulse? A heartbeat?"

   John checked, eyes widening in surprise. He checked again. "Yes…yes, I do!"

   Lorien chuckled. "Of course you do. You sustained no life-threatening injuries. You are not dead."

   John felt himself over unbelievingly. "You…you mean I actually survived one of these big explosions? Then why are you here?"

   Lorien looked at him seriously. "I am here because we need to discuss your future on this side of the Rim, John… but perhaps you should contact your friends first. They are, as you would expect, quite worried about you…"

   Hesitantly, John keyed his link. "Susan, do you hear me? I'm still alive down here…"

   To Be Continued…

 

*****

 

 

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