ALONG PATHWAYS OF SHADOW AND FIRE (II): FIRST ICE, FEAR AND ITS CHILDREN
'Damn!' Garibaldi swore loudly as the pike struck him forcefully across the back, knocking the breath out of him. He spun around and fended off his opponent's attack, managing to drive him halfway across the room before raising his weapon for a final assault. But in a sudden, surprising move, the other man dived to the floor and rolled, before springing up behind him and knocking Garibaldi's feet from under him. He felt his head crack against the floor and saw a burst of stars - then his vision cleared and he saw the end of the pike hovering over his throat. He groaned.
'Are you ok, Michael?' Sheridan couldn't quite suppress a grin as he looked down at his friend.
'Oh yeah, sure. After all, how attached could I get to the back of my head?'
'You wanted to learn,' Neroon commented dryly. He had been circling them during their practise, watching them critically.
'He wanted to learn,' Garibaldi replied as Sheridan pulled him to his feet. 'I'm just the shmuck he talked into learning with him.' He glared at Sheridan who smiled back affably.
'Any activity that your Captain deems is beneficial for your combat skills should be taken up immediately, Commander.' Sheridan bent forward and poured ice-cold water over the back of his neck.
'That's your new battle plan, is it? Next time the Shadows fly over we all wave big sticks at them,' Garibaldi replied sarcastically. 'Well, it works for me!' He winced as he pulled his T-shirt off and peered over his shoulder at the vivid, red, weal between his shoulder blades. 'Where the hell did you get those moves from, anyway?'
'He practises more,' Neroon answered. 'The art of using the denn'bok takes great dedication and much work - if you wish to have any skill with it you must apply your mind, not just your body.'
'Teacher's pet!' Garibaldi said to Sheridan. 'Anyway, I know that the real reason you're doing all of this is to impress the ladies...or should I say the lady?'
'Commander,' Sheridan growled threateningly, and shot a glance at Neroon. Neroon, however, was tidying away the impedimenta they had been using in their training, and had chosen to ignore the last exchange.
Garibaldi grinned apologetically and wondered for the millionth time when - and if - he would learn to keep his mouth shut. Sheridan pulled his jacket back on and buttoned it absent-mindedly. He tried not to think about Delenn too much, but she kept intruding into his thoughts with a persistent regularity. Every time that news came in from Minbar - or Rangers arrived from that area of space - he would read the reports eagerly and then throw them aside in disappointment. He was accustomed to Garibaldi's teasing on the subject, but was unaware that what had happened between himself and Delenn was an open secret: starved of gossip and lightweight distractions, the personnel at the HQ loved nothing more than to discuss, and speculate on, the relationship between the gallant EarthForce Captain and the beautiful Minbari Satai.
'Well, thanks for the lesson Neroon,' Sheridan pulled himself out of his reverie and returned the Minbari's formal bow. Garibaldi followed suit and then the three of them turned to go, walking along the corridors together.
'I've just got time to tidy myself up before my patrol starts,' Garibaldi said. 'So, if you'll excuse me, I'll go and make myself beautiful.'
'I don't think you've got time for that, Michael!' Sheridan called after him.
'Pitiful,' Garibaldi replied. 'Reduced to childish inadequacies when he doesn't have a long pike in his hand...I'd think about that, if I were you.' He disappeared around the corner before Sheridan had time to reply.
'What speed he lacks in the practice ring, he makes up for with his tongue,' Neroon commented with a faint smile.
Sheridan gave a mock groan. 'You don't need to tell me that. If we could turn those comments of his into weapons the entire Galaxy would be annihilated!'
They fought their way through the crowds that bustled around the transport tubes and sank gratefully into the seats of a relatively empty compartment. Neroon, who was of a taciturn disposition at the best of times, seemed particularly reserved, and Sheridan scanned him out of the corner of his eyes with concern.
'You look troubled, Neroon,' he said, trying to keep his tone airy. 'Bad news?'
'Is there any other type?' Neroon replied. He sighed wearily. 'There is more fighting on my home world.'
'I've been reading the reports,' Sheridan said tentatively. 'The...tension...between the Castes is getting worse?'
'It is no longer just between the Castes, Sheridan. It is within them. Not all of the Warrior Caste wishes to follow the path of oppression that has been laid out by the current leaders. But that is now resulting in mortal combat between those factions. And the Religious Caste...'
Sheridan felt himself tense. The Religious Caste was peace loving, surely they would not fight between themselves? And if they did, where would that leave Delenn?
'The Religious Caste is beginning to withdraw from the rest. There are few of them who continue to work to resolve the situation. But I fear that when the Warrior Caste next seize power, their voices will count for very little. Even that of the Anla'shok Na will not carry much weight and then... She will, no doubt, return to be with her Rangers.' His last words had been spoken in a fairly off-hand manner, but he smiled a little to himself as he saw Sheridan start. Sheridan opened his mouth to say something, but then thought better of it. Uncertainty over how another Minbari would react to hearing of his feelings for their Satai had prevented him from speaking of her, directly, to Neroon. His friend's words were a veiled gesture of reassurance and support, and the rest was best left unsaid.
The door opened silently, allowing a faint chink of light to fall across the floor. A figure slipped in and the single beam of light vanished as the door was closed again. The room was plunged into dense blackness. She stood still, leaning against the door, while her eyes adjusted to the dark. The small holdall was slipped off her shoulder and deposited softly on the floor. After a few moments the faint light from the comm. screen allowed her to pick her way across to the door set in the wall opposite; her black-clad form barely distinguishable from her surroundings. She slid it open, pausing halfway through to listen intently for any sounds from the room beyond. There was a faint stirring, and then silence. She let out her breath and opened the door fully. With even more caution she approached the bed and then stood, staring down at its sleeping occupant. His face was half-buried in the pillow and one hand was clenched, just next to his head. A smile curled her lips and after a few more moments she bent over him, bringing her lips close to his ear.
'Well, Commander Garibaldi,' she whispered. 'I've got you now!'
He jack-knifed up and with a yell had grabbed hold of her and thrown her across the bed, pinning her wrists above her head. But she had been anticipating his reaction and had braced herself for it. As she landed softly she started laughing.
'Talia!' he stared down at her, still gripping her arms firmly.
'Nice to see that you remembered,' she said, smiling up at him and trying - unsuccessfully - to toss the hair out of her eyes. He relaxed and his hands slipped off her wrists, allowing her to sit up.
'How...when did you get back?' he asked eagerly.
Talia rolled her eyes. 'A few days ago, Michael - I've just been hiding from you! As long as it takes me to get from the port to here, that's how long I've been back. So, how have things been?'
'Pretty much the same. Sinclair worries, Sheridan bounces off the walls and drives us all nuts, and as for me...' he looked earnestly into her eyes. 'I really missed you.'
She smoothed her hair and straightened her jacket, both of which had become a little dishevelled, and then gazed at him reproachfully.
'You missed me so much that your not going to welcome me home?'
A slow grin spread over Garibaldi's face as he leant forward and cupped the back of her neck in his hands, gently running his thumbs along her jaw. He caught her lower lip between his, barely brushing her mouth.
'Glad to be back?' he asked indistinctly.
'Definitely,' she murmured.
He smiled as her mouth opened to receive his ardent kiss and her arms closed around him. She leaned back, pulling him down with her, until his full weight was on her.
'Why didn't you let me know you were on your way back? I would've met you,' he twisted a strand of her hair in his fingers and then tickled her nose with the ends.
'I wanted to surprise you.'
'Oh, you did that all right! My heart's only just kick-started again. Not telling me you're coming back and then creeping up on me in the middle of the night...what are you trying to do, kill me?'
'I don't have to scare you to death for that,' she answered. 'Haven't you ever heard that too much of a good thing can be deadly?'
He raised his eyebrows. 'I'd be willing to take my chances with that!'
A slow, seductive smile spread across her face. 'Ok, you're on!'
He kissed her again and then pulled back abruptly. 'Where's your stuff?'
'What?' she looked confused and a little disappointed.
He laughed and stroked her face. 'I'm trying to be a gentleman here. Bring your bags in, let you settle down - hey, have you eaten?' a look of concern flashed across his face.
'I ate on the shuttle. It was horrible. And my bag's by the door.'
He stood up and walked across the room, tripping over a pair of shoes he had left on the floor.
'Lights, low!' he barked irritably. Talia smiled to herself as she heard him muttering in the next room.
'Eyes like a damned cat...how the hell can anyone see in the dark...'
Now that the lights had come up he glanced anxiously around the room. It was reasonably tidy, but he hastily moved some dirty cups and plates out of sight behind the breakfast bar. He picked up the bag from the floor and, with one final look around, turned the lights out and went back into the bedroom.
'I can never get over how little...you...need...' he stopped on the threshold and gazed at her. Her clothes were folded neatly on a chair and she was propped up on the pillows, the sheet loose across her waist. The subdued light played over her luminous skin and sleek, blonde, hair. Her eyes were fixed on him, and that curious, Mona Lisa, smile was hovering on her lips. Garibaldi realised that he was holding his breath, and let it out a little shakily. No matter how many times he saw her lying there, just like that, he always felt his insides turn to water. As if he didn't have the right to touch anything so beautiful.
'Are you going to stand over there all night?' she asked when he still didn't move. 'It's much more fun with two of us.'
He finally remembered how to walk and made it over to the bed. She pulled back the cover and put her arms around his neck as soon as he was close enough to her. As she nipped playfully at his tongue he relaxed into her embrace and she began to run one hand down his back. He winced involuntarily as she pressed against his bruised skin.
'What's the matter?' she knelt up and forced him to twist around. She gasped in horror at the ugly mark: it was now a deep purple in the middle and red at the edges.
'Oh my God! Michael, what happened?'
'It's nothing,' he said airily, 'just got a little knock during training.'
Her expression cleared and she fell back on the pillows. 'Oh...your Minbari training,' she smiled sweetly. 'Sheridan's still kicking your sorry ass, is he?'
'He did not! It was a draw,' he lied. 'And since when did you use expressions like that?'
'Only since I've been with you,' she replied. 'You're a bad influence.'
He gazed at her as she lay there. Classy. It was the word that had sprung to mind the first time he had seen Talia Winters. It still amazed Garibaldi that she had even looked at him, never mind get involved with him. He would have imagined her to go for a different type of guy, someone like Sinclair or Sheridan. But she hadn't. Classy, highbrow, aloof. She looked it now - except that her eyes were glowing warmly, waiting for him.
'I love you, Talia,' he said softly, almost surprised at hearing the words slip so easily from his lips.
'I know...I hear it from you more often than you realise,' she stroked his face and gently tried to project her feelings into his mind. 'I love you, too.'
She raised herself up and kissed him softly, then more passionately as he cupped the back of her head in his hand and held her to him. Her mouth tasted slightly sweet and there was a faint, musky scent about her. He could feel her breasts rising and falling against him as her breathing quickened. One hand trailed down his body and he moaned as she slipped lithe fingers inside his shorts.
'Just how bad is your back?' she whispered.
'Back? Bad? Don't know what you mean,' his mouth closed hungrily on hers.
'You taste so good!'
'Thank-you,' she murmured indistinctly.
Garibaldi drew back, puzzled. 'Huh? I didn't say anything... Oh!' A wicked gleam crept into his eyes. 'Let's see if you can hear this...'
Talia's eyes widened. 'That is the filthiest thing I've ever heard in my life!'
He smirked. 'Yeah...just a pity we don't actually have any honey at the moment. Although, I could try the canteen and - oh God!'
He broke off as her hand tightened around him, massaging his growing erection.
'Michael,' she said calmly. 'You might be able to wait, but I don't think that I can.'
Grasping hold of the waistband, he removed the only barrier between them, and then slid his hand up the smooth curve of her inner thigh, his fingers gently exploring her. He grinned.
'I see what you mean... You're a very impatient lady.'
'I've had a long flight,' she murmured, gently biting his earlobe. 'And I have an extremely fertile imagination!'
After having been away for three weeks, Talia couldn't help but notice that the Resistance HQ was starting to look distinctly the worse for wear. A series of small tremors had struck in the past couple of months, leaving a fine network of cracks on the walls and the roof. Maintenance crews had added makeshift supports to the main tunnels and there were piles of rubble everywhere. The defence of a Drazi shipping line against a recent Shadow attack had resulted in massive casualties and there were empty gurneys in the corridors outside of Med Lab, the injured taking up all available space inside. She hummed to herself as she walked, trying to block out the frightened, wearied voices that screamed in her head every time she passed another person. Sometimes she couldn't help but hear their thoughts. She paused at the door of the canteen and took a deep breath before entering. Her eyes scanned the crowd, and she soon saw Garibaldi sitting at a table with some of their friends.
'Strange,' she thought as she moved towards them. 'After all these years, what's basically a glorified hole in the ground - light years away from anywhere - should be the closest thing that I've had to a peaceful home.'
Garibaldi turned as reached them and smiled up at her. Home. Catherine Sakai-Sinclair stood and hugged her while Jeffrey Sinclair grinned at her, his dark eyes twinkling.
'Good to have you back, Talia,' he said. 'Now Michael might cheer up and stop taking the head off everyone.'
'Has he been a grouch again?' she asked, laughing.
'Uh-huh. When he hasn't been moping,' Catherine wrinkled her nose at Garibaldi who smiled wryly back.
'Yeah, yeah, take your best shot. I don't care,' he grasped Talia's hand and squeezed it. She looked into his eyes and smiled happily. 'I've got you back, and the rest of you can go to hell!'
'It's so nice to know that he cares,' Catherine said to her husband.
Talia freed her hand and took a sip of coffee - and then wished she hadn't. 'Eeurgh! What is that?'
'Our supplies are down,' Sinclair replied flatly. 'Personally, I think it's what's been swept out of a stable. But it's anybody's guess.'
'I'm going for the gunk that was scrapped out of the air-conditioning vents,' Garibaldi took up the challenge. 'Maybe we should get Stephen to run an analysis on it - it's probably a cure for any number of diseases. We might all be immunised against everything in the known - and unknown - medical world.'
Talia and Catherine looked at each other. 'The one thing that never changes,' Catherine said, 'is that the conversation never improves. Well, not until after breakfast.'
'You expect intelligence before I've had my morning cup of poison?' Garibaldi looked horrified.
'You know, Michael,' Sinclair said. 'When I was studying with the Jesuits, we often used to do our best work at dawn. Just as the sun was coming up.'
'I knew you were going to say that,' he replied.
The canteen was slowly filling up as they sat trying to enjoy - as much as was possible - their breakfast. Sinclair was lazily scanning the crowd when he suddenly straightened up in his seat and averted his eyes from where he had been looking.
'Don't look now,' he said, 'but I think that trouble just walked in.'
Garibaldi's head promptly snapped around towards the doorway. 'Oh no,' he said. 'It's the Wicked Witch of the West.'
The woman they were watching appeared to be a fairly innocuous figure - she didn't attract any attention from the passers-by. She stood at the entrance and looked around as though she were searching for someone.
'Don't you think one of us should warn John?' Catherine asked anxiously.
'Too late,' Garibaldi replied.
Talia followed the direction of their gaze and saw that Sheridan had appeared next to the woman. He stood opposite her a little awkwardly, and even from that distance he looked as though he had been taken completely unawares.
'Who is she?' Talia asked.
'She's John's ex,' Garibaldi answered. 'This is gonna be fun.'
He hadn't noticed her standing there. In fact, he had been so lost in his own thoughts that he had almost walked straight into her and had begun to apologise profusely, before stopping and gazing at her in astonishment.
'I hope that you pay more attention when you're flying,' she rubbed her elbow ruefully. 'If you lead squadrons into combat in that state, we're all doomed!'
He continued to stare at her for a second, and then his face broke into a broad grin. 'Hi, Anna. What brings you here?'
'Oh the usual: business,' she replied airily. 'We need some assistance from the forces here. I thought that it might give us the opportunity to talk at the same time.'
Sheridan narrowed his eyes slightly as he observed her closely. 'You've never done anything yet without a reason! Ok, I've a little time now - why don't we go to the office and...'
'Can't we go to your quarters? It would be more comfortable.'
'Isn't that unusual for a business discussion?'
'Oh, what?' she raised her eyebrows challengingly. 'Afraid to let me see your bachelor pad?'
'Hardly,' he sighed resignedly. 'Fine, have it your own way. But as far as comfort goes, you might find that the office was a safer bet!'
They were perfectly relaxed and friendly as Sheridan led the way down the corridor. But the physical distance Sheridan kept between them was a little wider than necessary.
'All we need now is for Delenn to arrive and we'd have a real catfight on our hands,' Garibaldi commented. There were still four pairs of eyes locked onto the departing figures. 'Maybe we should alert Med Lab - have Stephen standing by with bandages for the winner.'
'Garibaldi, this isn't funny!' Catherine snapped at him.
There was an uncomfortable silence around the table.
'Maybe we should see if...' Catherine began a few moments later.
'I think we should stay out of it,' Sinclair said before she could get any further. 'Whatever happens, it's between the two of them.'
'Well, this is...spacious,' Anna glanced around the room. Sheridan gave her a reproachful look before offering her a seat. She settled herself on the sofa and smiled to herself. Everything neatly in its place, the same photos and knick-knacks he had been carrying around for as long as she had known him were arranged around the room. She switched her attention to the man sitting opposite her. He looked older, a little more haggard. But what bothered her was the fact that, despite his pleasant manner, he was looking at her so dispassionately.
'You look tired,' she said.
He shrugged. 'Well, this isn't a vacation spot. Everyone gets pretty beat. You look good,' he scanned her briefly. 'You cut your hair. Suits you.'
They continued to scrutinize each other with as much discretion as was possible when sitting opposite someone at close quarters. Anna had planned to say a great deal, but now that she was actually sitting opposite him all of her carefully prepared speeches deserted her. They had moved through various stages over the last few years: blistering rows followed by a period of not speaking at all, then a stilted civility and now this. A sort of friendship, which had varied levels of genuine feeling.
Sheridan waited, but she still didn't say anything. He was surprised by his own emotions: vague curiosity and mild indifference were about as good as it got at the moment. Surely she should have more of an effect on him?
'What's the business you need our help with, Anna?'
She looked at him sharply as though he had pulled her out of a daydream. She seemed a little uncertain, but then cleared her throat and met his gaze directly.
'Have you ever heard of a planet called Epsilon 3?'
He frowned thoughtfully. 'Er...large, uninhabited...about three days from Minbar?'
Anna nodded. 'One of our long-range probes has picked up some unusual signals coming from there. Now, it isn't somewhere that we've ever explored because a surface scan told us that there wasn't anything down there - no signs of life or any settlements. But, just over a month ago, we started picking up tachyon emissions coming from Epsilon 3. That shouldn't be happening. There's nothing on the planet's surface, so we think that there must be something actually inside the planet.'
Her eyes were glowing the way they always did when she talked about her work. That was where it had started. Anna's expertise in Xeno-Archaeology, and his passion for history, had brought them together, Sheridan thought nostalgically. Odd, the things that did that: Alien ruins, goks, oxygen depletion... He felt his mind going down a dangerous path and dragged himself back to the present.
'I'm part of the survey team that's been sent to find out what's going on,' she continued. We're on our way there now. It's an amazing opportunity - who knows what we could discover!'
'And this involves us, how?' he asked.
'We need an escort,' she said simply. 'Epsilon 3 is in neutral space, but if we run into a Shadow attack we can't really defend ourselves. The powers that be have already agreed to this, John,' she continued hurriedly before he could raise any objections. 'If there's anything down there that could be useful in the war effort, the Resistance will have it handed to them. And as this place is our last stop before we arrive, you get to supply the protection.'
He stood up and started pacing around the room. Anna watched him closely.
'We don't have a lot of people to spare at the moment,' he said finally. 'But you'll get the escort. I'll sort it out with Sinclair and you'll be on your way as soon as possible, ok?'
Anna winced slightly. 'Sinclair... Does that mean that all of the old crew are still around.'
'I'm afraid so.'
'It's just as well I won't be here for that long. I think that I'm their public enemy, number one.'
Sheridan grinned apologetically. 'Well, that's probably because of all the names I called you during the divorce. Sorry?'
Anna fiddled with a loose thread on her cuff. 'I probably deserved it.'
'Have you heard from Liz lately?' he asked softly.
Anna shook her head; her eyes were suspiciously moist. 'No. I don't think that she'll ever quite forgive me for what I did to her big brother.'
Sheridan felt a pang of sympathy for her. No matter what had happened between them, no matter how much pain had been inflicted, he truly didn't want to see Anna hurt. Not anymore.
'That's a pity. Just because we couldn't get on doesn't mean that you and Liz can't be friends. I mean, you were her friend before we...' he broke off. 'I'll talk to her.'
'About this expedition and the escort... I thought that maybe you would be a part of it,' she spoke slowly and carefully. Her dark eyes were locked onto his. 'I thought that we could spend some time together, John.'
Sheridan stared at her in genuine amazement. For a split second he thought that she was joking and felt laughter rising to his lips, but the entreaty in her eyes quelled it.
'She can't mean what I think she means...can she?' He felt as though someone were taking a sledgehammer to his brain and he sat down, very slowly, keeping his eyes on her.
'What do you want, Anna?'
She felt a slight relief - she had his attention now, and was more confident in saying what she had come to say.
'I...I keep thinking about us. About how good it was before it went wrong...how much we loved each other. We did, didn't we?'
He sighed. 'Yeah...yeah, we did,' his voice was gentle.
'What we had was great,' she said softly.
'What we had didn't work,' he said wearily. 'It was terrific when we were meeting up every few months, cramming everything into a couple of weeks. But we can't live together, Anna. It doesn't work.'
Anna swallowed hard and carried on. 'We've been apart for so long now and we've both changed. Older and wiser, I guess. I still love my work...but I miss you. I still want you, John. I never wanted anyone but you...'
'Anna...' there was weariness in his voice. 'Not now. Please, don't let her do this now,' he thought.
'I know I hurt you. I know that I made an awful mistake,' her voice was still calm. 'But it meant nothing!'
'I think,' he cleared his throat and tried to think of some way out of this. But his brain seemed to have quietly packed its bags and slipped out of the room. 'I think that about sums up the value of our marriage at the time, Anna. Nothing.'
She looked surprised at his words and as Sheridan sat opposite her, watching her, he had a sudden realisation. He didn't miss her anymore. He had loved her passionately, deeply, and the pain of the divorce had been terrible. Even then there had been part of him that still loved her, that wanted her back.
'I know that that last year was bad, it was more difficult than we thought it would be,' she said. 'But we had so much going for us...a love that knew no boundaries. I still love you, John!'
She buried her face in her hands and burst into tears. Sheridan stared, aghast, as the sobs racked her body. Instinctively, he looked around for a way out and felt a mild panic.
'That's not some stranger!' he told himself fiercely. 'That's Anna. You loved her! If it was Delenn sitting there...'
'Maybe we shouldn't go there right now,' another voice said warningly. He pulled himself together and moved across to her, gently putting his arms around her.
'Come on, now. Anna, don't do that...please don't cry.'
She raised her head and rubbed her tear-streaked face, her eyes were red. 'Don't you think that we could still have a chance?'
He looked into her eyes.
'I don't love you anymore, Anna,' he said softly.
He had finally said it. It had bothered him, for a long time after they had separated, that so much love and happiness could die. The residual emotion he had felt for her had slowly faded over the last few years, but disillusionment over the failed marriage had ensured that he hadn't let anyone else past his defensive shutters. Until they had shattered, the first time he looked into Delenn's eyes. Anna didn't start crying again. She sat, rigid, for a few moments and then she pulled away from him.
'I see,' she said quietly.
'I'm sorry,' he said humbly.
'You don't have anything to be sorry for, John,' she replied. 'I'm the one who's made a total idiot of myself. You didn't ask for any of this.'
Anna turned to look to look at him, her eyes scanning his face for a long time. Over the years she had seen love, joy and even something bordering on hatred in his face when he had looked at her. Now he looked uncomfortable. She started to get up, but he suddenly took hold of her hand and leaned forward.
'I'm sorry that we didn't work out. I'm sorry that I didn't try harder... I stopped talking to you. We were both to blame,' his voice was gentle and squeezed her hand slightly. 'But you're not still in love with me, Anna.'
A slight spasm crossed her face and she gazed at him, bewildered.
'What happened to that guy you were with?' he asked.
'Ah, yes, Seth. The man of many hidden shallows, as I recall.'
She laughed through her tears. 'That's not fair! Anyway, It didn't work out,' she replied. 'It wasn't the same.'
'Anna, you didn't split up because of me. Listen to me,' he cut across her objection. 'You're lonely now, probably scared. And we were happy for a long time; happier for longer than most, I think. But this isn't the answer. I'm not the answer.'
She looked into his eyes and regained something of her former spirit.
'We could try,' she said, defiantly.
'We can't live together.'
'Then maybe we could...'
'We can't go back to the way it was before!' He said quickly. 'It's over and we won't get it back. I'm sorry that it didn't work out for you and...whatsisname. But running back to me won't help.' He suddenly chuckled and a look of wry amusement crept into his eyes. 'I never thought I'd see the day when I'd be your re-bound!'
Anna laughed aloud and wiped the last of her tears from her face.
'No, neither did I. It seemed like a good idea. You can't blame a person for trying!'
Sheridan sighed and leaned back, spreading his arms along the back of the sofa. 'A while back I probably would've agreed with you.'
There was silence for a few moments, and in that time something fell into place.
'There's someone else,' she stated.
Sheridan froze. 'It's not that simple,' he said cautiously.
'It's fairly straightforward, John. Either there is someone, or there isn't. Don't tell me she's married - that would be just too ironic.'
'Yes, it would be,' he answered hurriedly, trying to get off the subject. 'And no, she isn't married. Delenn's...' he stopped.
'Delenn?' Anna frowned slightly. 'That's an unusual name.'
'Yeah, well,' he stood up. 'Why don't I treat you to breakfast at the canteen? You know how much you love re-constituted eggs. And it'll be a real experience,' he grinned. 'The staff manages to make them taste even worse than I do!'
She returned a slightly watery smile. 'How could I refuse an offer like that?' she sighed. 'It sounds like it's the best one I'll get today. Unfortunately!'
Sinclair picked up a report and scanned it briefly before tossing it back onto the desk. He was in the office that he shared with Sheridan and he scowled at the latter's empty desk. 'What is it about me?' he wondered gloomily. 'Do I have a sign on my back that says "This guy loves delivering bad news, dump on him"? I wish someone had told me about it.'
He heard voices approaching and hastily composed his features into a calm and supportive expression.
'You've got that smug look again!' Talia was saying.
Garibaldi's voice replied, 'I'm walking along with the most gorgeous lady in the place - of course I'm smug. You're all mine!'
'Possessive and overly confident. You're a little too sure of yourself, Garibaldi,' they entered the room laughing, Garibaldi's arm around her waist. The cheerful smiles faded as they saw Sinclair's face and they sat in the chairs opposite him.
'There's no easy way to say this,' he began. 'We've just had a transmission in from EarthDome,' he said, his eyes fixed on Talia's face. 'Ever since we discovered that telepaths are effective against the Shadows we've been getting more and more arriving. So far they've been mainly Minbari, Centauri and a few volunteers from the commercial teeps in Psi-Corps. But,' his expression of concern deepened, 'the Corps are sending some elite personnel to help out.'
Talia was motionless, she felt as though icy hands were slowly squeezing her insides. She dreaded hearing what was coming next.
'Because of that,' Sinclair continued, 'we're expecting the arrival of a pretty high-level operative. He's going to make sure that all codes of conduct are observed, on both sides. To be absolutely accurate, he's a Psi-Cop.'
'Oh great. That's just great,' Garibaldi said, his eyes flashing. 'Now we're gonna be overrun by Psi-Cops?' he jumped up and started pacing the room. 'Ok, they don't know about Talia. And they're not gonna know about her. Right?'
'Is it Alfred Bester?' Talia asked quietly. Sinclair looked at her in surprise.
'Yes. Do you know him?'
She took a deep breath. 'I know of him. And he knows about me.'
Garibaldi stared at her. 'WHAT?'
Talia was staring beyond them, as though she could see something beyond the room. Sinclair watched her carefully: she had an unnervingly distant look. What had started out as a merely worrying situation was fast developing into a dangerous one.
'A long time ago I had a friend...or at least I thought she was a friend,' Talia's voice was calm. 'I didn't know that she was a telepath in the Corps and after a while she found out that I was a telepath as well. As it turns out, she wasn't just in the Corps; she was a Psi-Cop. And she was Bester's assistant. She told him about me, and then they came for me. '
She took a great, shuddering breath and her eyes came back into focus. 'That's when I went on the run. The Corps doesn't like outsiders to know what they're up to, so when I'd arrive somewhere it wouldn't always show up that they were after me. In a way this war is the best thing that could've happened - they've had bigger things to worry about than an unregistered teep.'
Garibaldi had continued to pace the room and as Talia had been talking, he had felt a great wave of fury boiling in his chest. He felt like punching a hole in the wall; like bringing the whole place down around their ears.
'You know, when their ships drop out of Hyperspace we could always just blow them out of the fragging sky,' he said roughly. 'Say that our defence grid malfunctioned.'
'Michael...' Sinclair looked at him warningly.
'If they even try to do anything to her, I'll kill them!' He shouted. 'And anyone who opens their big mouth can join them...'
'MICHAEL!' Sinclair thundered. 'You're not helping!'
Garibaldi looked down at Talia who was still sitting, staring straight ahead. She hadn't moved. He rubbed his face and shook his head, trying to clear it.
'I know...you're right. I'm sorry,' he sat down in the chair next to her and reached out to take her hand. 'We'll get out of here. There're a lot of places we could go to...'
'No,' her voice was low, but firm. 'I'm not running away.'
Sinclair and Garibaldi looked at each other anxiously.
'Talia,' Sinclair leaned across the desk. 'Talia, if you stay here and Bester finds you...I don't know what we can do to help you.'
'We don't have to go for good,' Garibaldi put an arm around her shoulder. 'We'll lie low for a while and then come back.'
'I'm tired of it, Michael. I'm tired of running, of hiding...I can't do it anymore,' she turned to him and he caught his breath at the weariness in her eyes. 'You know what its been like, always on the move, never able to relax. This is the longest that I've been in one place since I left University. It's too much. I can't go back to running. Not again.'
Sinclair stood up and walked around the desk until he was standing in front of her. He crouched down, looking into her eyes.
'What are you going to do? Go on the drugs?'
She shook her head vehemently. 'No. I swore I'd never take those things.'
'Talia, if you stay here it's your only other option...'
Her eyes burned brightly. 'Did Susan ever tell you about her mother?' her voice was choked.
'Then you know, you know what they do to you. I won't take them and I won't join the Corps!'
Garibaldi's breathing had become laboured, he grasped hold of her shoulders and forced her to turn and look at him. 'Talia, please, we've got to go. It's the only way.'
'I have a life here, Michael,' tears were starting to roll down her cheeks. 'Do you realise how difficult it has been to get this far? I have work and friends...and you. If we go, I'll lose most of it. And in the end I'll have to leave you because it will be too dangerous for you to stay with me.'
'We will stay together, Talia, do you understand me? Nothing is gonna come between us!'
But she was already withdrawing from them, she wrapped her arms around herself and looked as though she were going into emotional shutdown.
Garibaldi was aware of a huge feeling of impotence. Every instinct told him to take Talia and get out of there, for her own good. But it would destroy her. Sinclair stared down at them sadly, his mind racing through countless possibilities. A noise from the doorway made him turn around and he saw Sheridan standing, watching them. He looked from the huddled, seated figures back up to Sinclair.
'What's happened?' he mouthed. Sinclair motioned him in and they stood in a corner of the room. In as few words as possible, Sinclair told him what had happened. Immediately, he crossed the room and gently placed a hand on her shoulder.
'Talia? We'll work this out, ok?' he said gently. 'But it isn't a good idea for you to be here.'
'I'm not running away,' she said, raising her head defiantly.
A slow smile spread over his face. 'Maybe you don't have to...' he wandered around the room.
'She can't stay here!' Garibaldi said to his back.
'Talia won't stay here,' came the reply. When he turned around, there was triumph in his eyes. 'I think I've got an idea.'
'He's got that look again,' Garibaldi said as the three of them looked at him hopefully.
'How'd you like to play bodyguard, Talia?'
'I'm still not quite sure about this, John,' Talia said anxiously. 'I mean, it's not as if I'm a trained telepath.'
He smiled reassuringly. 'Relax, everything will be fine. Look, the IPX ship needs an escort, that escort needs a telepath on board in case they run into any Shadow vessels - which is unlikely as there have never been any reports of attacks going on in that sector. Anyway, as I was saying, you are a telepath and it suits you to be away from here for a couple of weeks. So,' he grinned, 'everyone's happy! You just let us worry about Bester. If we run out of options, we'll use Michael's idea.'
His eyes gleamed. 'The malfunctioning defence grid!'
She couldn't help but respond to his infectious good humour and smiled back. 'But if we do run into a Shadow vessel, I don't know how much use I'll be.'
'Eyeball 'em,' he replied firmly. 'Just get them on a sightline and...do...whatever it is that you do.'
Talia laughed. 'That's incredibly helpful!'
'Hey, that's what I'm here for.'
It had taken a little time to persuade Talia that it was a plan that served everyone's best interests; and despite her friends' pleas that they needed her help, she felt as though they were humouring her. As though she were doing them a favour, instead of the other way round. Now she was at the port, waiting to board the shuttle that would take her and Garibaldi up to the White Star that was leading the escort.
'They don't look to happy,' she said suddenly.
Sheridan followed her gaze and saw Garibaldi standing with Anna. They radiated hostility.
'Oh no,' he groaned. 'If I thought trying to talk you into this was tough,' he said to her. 'The only way I could convince him was to assure him that Anna would be on a separate ship!'
Talia's eyes sparkled mischievously. 'So there's no truth to the rumour?'
'What rumour?' he asked suspiciously.
'That you and Anna are getting back together.'
Sheridan felt his jaw drop five inches through the floor. 'How the hell...? You wouldn't dare scan... No, we are not getting back together!'
'Good,' she continued innocently. 'I agree with the catering guys, you and the Satai make a cute couple.'
'The cater-,' his brain went into revolt. 'Oh, for God's sake! Is there anyone in this place who doesn't know all about my private life?'
'I think that there are a couple of new recruits in Delta squadron who don't know a thing about it,' she smiled. 'And a word of advice: if you want to keep your private life private, cut out the gratuitous kissing in the garden.'
He winced. 'I was asking for that, wasn't I?'
He smiled at her and then looked back over to Anna and Garibaldi. 'I think I'd better go and break it up,' he said. He turned to Talia and placed his hands lightly on the sides of her arms. 'Don't worry about a thing; we'll take care of it. You just look after yourself. And make sure that Garibaldi doesn't do anything stupid. Well,' he glanced over at his friend with a sly smile, 'beyond what's obviously unavoidable!'
'I'll do my best,' she replied and then her expression became more serious. 'Thanks, John.'
He shrugged and looked a little embarrassed. 'I'll see you in a couple of weeks,' his tone expressed utter confidence and Talia watched, smiling, as he strode across to where Garibaldi and Anna were glaring at each other.
'So, Anna. Long time, no see.'
Anna winced as she heard the voice behind her. She already knew the expression that would be on his face. That maddeningly superior smirk that had always driven her crazy.
'Hello, Michael,' she smiled frostily as she turned around. 'Be nice,' she told herself. 'Don't do anything that you'll end up in prison for!'
He was leaning against the wall, observing her with a sardonic glint in his eye. 'I hear you failed in your Mission of Misery. John didn't fancy spending the rest of his life with an oversized ice-cube?'
'Is that the best you can do?' she retorted. 'It might be insulting if it weren't so pathetic - you know what the saddest thing about you is, Michael?'
'You have really good friends here, and they're all too nice to have ever realised what a total asshole you really are!'
He snorted. 'Look, lady, you don't like me and I don't like you. But that's fine, because I'm not doing this for you; I'm doing it for Talia and as a favour for Sheridan. Which happens to be a favour for you as well, incidentally. So why don't we just stay out of each other's way and everything'll be fine?'
'That suits me,' Anna replied through gritted teeth.
They were still glowering when Sheridan appeared next to them.
'I hate to put an end to your fun,' he said, 'but it's about time we got moving.'
Garibaldi turned and walked away without another word.
'Thanks, John. Thanks a lot,' Anna glared at him. 'You know that there's every chance that there'll be a double murder?'
'You'll be on different ships,' Sheridan said soothingly. 'You won't have to see each other. And Michael will do a good job.'
'I suppose so,' she said grudgingly.
'Take as much time as you need at Epsilon 3 - there's no rush.'
Anna glanced over at Talia's retreating figure; she and Garibaldi were boarding their shuttle. Of all the people Sheridan could have picked for the escort, Garibaldi should have been first on the list entitled 'No Way in Hell'. But there was some reason for it, and Anna was aware that the enigmatic Talia Winters was something to do with it. After her initial objections, Anna had decided not to question John's judgement - despite their history, she still trusted him and he evidently needed her help as much as she needed his.
'Will you be stopping by when you've finished your exploration?' he asked.
'I don't know. It's probably not a very good idea,' she returned his gaze and had a sudden, strange, feeling that she would never see him again. 'Just...just be careful, John. Don't take any unnecessary risks.'
'You too,' he said gently. They held the gaze for a few moments and then hugged. He stood and watched as she boarded the shuttle. He was glad that they had talked. It was as though something that had been lurking at the corners of his mind had finally been exorcised for good. The IPX ship and its escort had disappeared from the scanners, but Sheridan remained in the port until the signal went up that new jump points were forming. He pressed his link.
'Our guests are arriving Jeff,' he said bleakly. 'Black Omegas are dropping out of Hyperspace.'
The monitors flickered gently around the bridge. The White Star crew, ever alert, hunched over their consoles and kept a vigilant watch. Talia slipped through the doors and approached Garibaldi. He was slumped in the command chair and she gently placed a hand on his arm.
'Michael,' she said softly.
He started and looked around. 'What...what's happened?'
She smiled. 'Nothing. But you need to get some proper sleep.'
'Talia,' he straightened up. 'Have you seen what passes for a bed on one of these things? Trust me, I could sleep better standing up than in one of those!'
He looked at her as she stood next to him, her eyes fixed on the huge window ahead of them. 'Are you ok?'
She didn't answer immediately, she seemed to be thinking it over. 'I think so,' she said eventually. 'I'll feel a lot better when this is all over and we're back at home.'
He took hold of her hand. 'I know. But it's gonna be fine.'
'I wish I had everyone else's confidence,' she said wistfully.
There was quiet on the bridge and Garibaldi felt his eyes closing. He forced them back open. Maybe he should take a walk around the ship to clear his head.
'We're picking something up on a long-range scan...they're going to intercept!'
Garibaldi, suddenly fully awake, spun around to face the speaker.
'What is it?'
Garibaldi breathed deeply. 'Take up defensive positions. Send a transmission to the IPX vessel - tell them to stay back. We'll do the work.'
Talia felt a cold fear descend over her. Despite all the time she had spent on Degeba 3 and her exhaustive travels through space, she had never actually seen a Shadow vessel in reality before. She didn't particularly want to start now.
'How many ships are there?' Garibaldi asked.
'Just the one. It may be a scout ship.'
'Not for much longer,' he replied grimly.
Time stopped working in the normal way. Talia felt as if she was moving underwater. Seconds had lengthened into hours. And then it went into fast-forward. She wasn't aware of the ship coming towards them. Space seemed to shiver and then it was there - looming in front of them. One look. Just one look at that glistening black hulk and Talia saw an explosion of screaming red behind her eyes. The force of it knocked her off her feet and she was only vaguely aware of a voice frantically calling her name. Millions of voices were all screaming inside her head at once and she didn't know where she was...who she was...
'Talia! TALIA!' Garibaldi grabbed hold of her and tried to pull her up, but she was a dead weight. Her eyes were panic-stricken. He shook her violently and was relieved to see a flicker of recognition. The White Star was dodging fire from the Shadow vessel, while defending the IPX ship at the same time. But at the moment Garibaldi would quite happily have let the whole thing go up in flames.
'I'm all right,' she murmured.
So this was what they faced. Michael, Sheridan, Sinclair and all of the soldiers from every planet in the Resistance. This was how so many of her friends had died. The White Star shuddered around them as they received a hit. The screaming redness was a concentrated, pulsating spot in her mind. Something ancient, and cruel and alive was invading her. She had spent her life running and this was just one more thing to run from. Talia felt an enormous rage build inside of her.
'Get me on a sight line,' she said, struggling to he feet. She braced herself.
The second time was even worse. This thing was capable of slicing up her mind, crushing her until there was nothing left. These things that could take away everything and everyone she cared about. She couldn't let it happen. It was lashing out at her, its anger concentrated on her. She felt a strange satisfaction - now it was the quarry, and she was the hunter. With every ounce of strength she possessed she began to push back. It was the mental effect of slamming bodily into a brick wall, but she didn't let go. There had to be a way through. She wasn't going to lose what she had gained. Her friends, Michael...
'We will stay together,' she heard his voice clearly in her mind. There was a red mist in front of her eyes; she couldn't see properly. Only that huge, spider-like form. She pushed harder and felt as if she were being ripped apart from the inside.
Garibaldi was frozen, staring in horror at Talia. Her lovely face was contorted by a rage he had never seen before and her breath was coming in short, hard bursts. He turned to look out of the window. The Shadow vessel was no longer firing: it was twisting and bucking as thought trying to escape from a strong current. When he faced Talia again he gasped in horror. Blood was seeping out of the corners of her eyes and starting to run down her face. He took hold of her, but she was somewhere he couldn't reach her. The enemy ship was still struggling - fighting the unseen force that assailed it.
'Open fire on my mark,' he yelled. 'Give me everything you've got!'
The second White Star drew alongside and held its position.
The brilliant light burned into his eyes and he raised a hand to shield them. Even standing in the White Star, he could hear the terrible, paralysing, scream of the Shadow as it burned and died. As the ship disintegrated, the invisible bond that had joined it and Talia was broken, and she collapsed on the floor. Garibaldi held her, stroking the hair away from her pale face.
Consciousness returned slowly, painfully. She opened her eyes, but the light seared agonisingly into her brain, and she closed them again. A few moments later she tried again - this time with more success. She was looking at the world from a very strange angle and everything was remarkably dim. Something heavy was pressing down next to her right side and it wasn't easy to move. A few more moments and she realised that she was in a Minbari bed, that the lights had been lowered, and that Garibaldi was fast asleep in a chair next to her bed, his head resting on the mattress. She shifted slightly and he raised his head, blinking at her blearily. Concern flashed across his face.
'Are you all right? How do you feel?'
Talia smiled wanly. 'Like I've just had my brain shredded by a Shadow ship. But apart from that, fine.' She winced as she spoke - there was a dull throb in her head and her body ached when she moved.
'You've been asleep for about twelve hours,' Garibaldi told her. 'Anna sent over their doctor to take a look at you...'
'The dreaded Anna?'
'Yeah, well... Maybe she isn't that bad,' he said gruffly. 'Anyway, you're gonna be just fine. You need to rest, but that's all,' he watched her cautiously. 'Do you want to talk about it?'
'Not really,' she shuddered as she remembered the blinding pain and the terrible rage. 'It's too soon.'
'Of course it is,' he said hurriedly. 'It was just in case... I'll just shut up now.'
Talia took hold of his hand. 'But you'll stay with me, won't you?'
He leaned forward and held her gaze. 'You're not getting rid of me that easily!' he replied tenderly. 'Go back to sleep. It's still a while before we reach Epsilon 3.'
He was relieved to see that her face looked as calm as ever. Whatever emotions the effort of battling the Shadows had unleashed in her had evidently subsided. It was a side of her that he had never seen before and, he suspected, that she had never experienced before. A dark foreboding told him that it wouldn't be the last time.
'We're almost there. Anna?'
She started and turned to face the young man.
'Sorry, what did you say?'
'We're almost there. It'll be about twenty minutes.'
'Right. Thanks, Morden,' she smiled vaguely at him and then turned back to the flimsies that she had meant to be studying. Out of the window she could see the White Stars riding next to them. After the Shadow attack she had felt guilty about bringing them all the way out here at the risk of their lives. She tried to remind herself that getting an escort from the Resistance had not been her idea, but she still felt responsible. Anna shook her head sharply and gathered up her papers. In a few moments they would arrive at their destination and they would begin the assignment that she had been preparing for. She made her way to the bridge with a mounting feeling of excitement. This could be the biggest breakthrough of her career.
'How're we doing?' she asked the pilot, as she entered.
'Great. Everything looks real quiet out there. You folks should have a great time poking about in the rubble.'
She smiled ruefully. 'Well, this is about the time we find out if it's been worth all of the trouble.'
'And heartache,' she added silently. Despite her best efforts, John's face - his voice when he had told her that he didn't love her anymore - kept coming back to her. Usually in the middle of night, and she would end up staring miserably at the ceiling for hours. She sighed aloud and pushed the thoughts down. There was no point in brooding over it.
'Ok, we're about to drop out of Hyperspace,' the pilot said cheerfully. 'Here we go...'
'Please, just get on with it!' she begged in her interior monologue.
She felt the ship slow down - that odd sensation, as if her stomach had been left a few hundred feet behind, before catching up with the rest of her. The view that lay before them was impressive.
'Wow!' Morden had appeared next to her and was gazing out with an awe-struck expression on his face. 'That's incredible!'
The huge, sand-coloured planet hung majestically in deep, velvety-blue, space. What looked like a nebula was in the background and the whole scene was one of utter calm. As they began their approach, the nearest star appeared and the effect was that of a golden sunrise.
'Hang on, there're some ships in orbit... I can't tell what they are. They're being shielded by the planet.'
Anna felt her stomach contract. Not again, not now!
'There's a shuttle coming up from the planet... From inside!'
The pilot turned around to face them. There were signs of panic in his face.
'They're sending us a message,' Morden was examining the communications console.
'Then put them through!' Anna said impatiently.
There was a burst of static, and then they heard a voice. It was fading in and out as the small shuttle navigated through Epsilon 3's dense atmosphere.
'Pull back. Do not approach or the planet's defence system will destroy you. For your own survival, pull back!'
'Who are you?' Anna watched as the shuttle cleared the atmosphere and headed into normal space. This time, the voice was stronger, clearer.
'I am Delenn, of the Minbari Federation.'
The wave of disbelief that hit Anna was the equivalent of having a ten-tonne weight dropped on her head. A million thoughts whirled through her mind before she was able to activate the comm. panel again.
'This is Anna Sheridan. I believe you know my ex-husband.'
The light, airy chambers with their spectacular views over the city of Tuzanor should have served as a palliative after all those weeks in the gloomy, claustrophobic tunnels on Degeba 3. But during her journey home and in the weeks that followed, Delenn had never felt quite so isolated. The disputes between the Castes took up most of her attention - but when she had a little time to herself, she found her mind straying. Like now, as she was standing out on the balcony. Delenn rested her chin on her hands and stared up at the night-sky. If she half-closed her eyes, it became a painted ceiling in a room full of plastic shrubs and she could hear his footsteps approaching. And then his arms closing around her, his voice saying her name...
She jumped and spun around, feeling as though someone had thrown a bucket of cold water over her.
'I hope that I was not disturbing your...meditation?' her interlocutor had a barely concealed amusement in his face. Delenn smiled at him.
'You could never disturb me. You know that I am always glad of your company, Draal,' she gestured to her friend to follow her back inside and they sat on a low sofa.
'So, how does it feel now that you are no longer a Satai?' he asked her.
'Not very different to when I was Satai,' she answered. 'I had hoped to be able to do more...to persuade our people to work together...' she raised her hand from her lap and let it fall back heavily. 'Is there something more that we could have done, Draal?' She turned to him, searching for the wisdom and assurance that she had found there so often before.
He shook his head sadly. 'It is not easy to say this, Delenn. But our people have become...less than we could have wished them to be. We have offered counsel, but they have refused to listen. We have tried to lead by example, but they will not see. Now...now I do not know,' he looked at her searchingly before continuing. 'Since you have returned, you have not been sure that your destiny lies here on Minbar.'
Delenn returned his gaze and then turned her eyes back toward the view that was still visible through the doorway. 'My destiny has always seemed so clear. But now I think that I have a choice between two paths, and both will require great sacrifice.'
'You survived a terrible ordeal at the hands of the Vorlons. Both you and the Human. Because of that there way be some kind of bond between you, but you should not mistake that for something deeper.'
'What if...' Delenn picked her words with care. 'What if that ordeal served to strengthen something that was already there?'
Draal took one of her small hands between both of his and gazed at her kindly. 'In a case such as that, it is best to follow the true calling of the heart.'
Delenn returned his smile gratefully and they lapsed into silence. She had delivered a detailed report of what had occurred on that assignment into Vorlon space, with only a few omissions. The vision of her father and the strange images that the Vorlon, Kosh, had implanted in her mind she had kept to herself. The only other person she could discuss it with was a week away...he might as well be another lifetime away. Even the Shadow War had receded to the back of her mind - with all of the trouble on Minbar, it may as well not even be happening. The Religious Caste had fallen, and now the leaders of the Warrior Caste were fighting each other for the supreme leadership of Minbar. Even now, the leaders of the two largest factions were preparing for their final confrontation in the Temple of Varennie.
'Even though I do not like how this situation is resolving itself,' Delenn said after some time had passed, 'I cannot help but hope that Jenniel will not fall in the circle. He is more reasonable...he knows that our struggle against the Shadows is the most important concern at the moment.
Draal smiled slightly. 'Somehow, I cannot see Shakiri making the ultimate sacrifice. Can you?'
'I suppose not. I hope you're right.'
'Right?' Draal's voice boomed around the chamber. 'Of course I am right! My reputation does not permit me to be wrong! You have been away too long, Delenn, or you would not have forgotten that.'
Delenn laughed and rested her head affectionately on his shoulder. 'Indeed, I had not forgotten that. My dear, dear friend.'
She couldn't stop her eyes from closing as they sat, and in her half-awake state she heard Sheridan's voice more clearly than ever.
'I'll go all the way to Minbar to get you... Me and the whole damned White Star fleet... And I'd like to see anyone try to stop me.' Delenn sighed and tried to suppress the part of her that wished that he would carry out his threat.
Dukhat had summoned her at an early hour the following morning. He led her onto the ramparts that overlooked the city and she had stood beside him, waiting for him to speak. She took the opportunity to study him closely. There was a strange expression in his eyes that she had first noticed upon her return and it had deepened in the last week. He maintained his aura of dignified authority, but for the first time, Delenn saw flashes of uncertainty in his face. He was a little more closed off, as though something within him was beginning to hold him in a cage. The strangest part of it was that she was sure that she had seen a similar expression on someone else's face - she just couldn't place whose, or where.
'Delenn, I must ask you to do something for me,' his tone was portentous and Delenn felt a little unsettled. 'I will enter the Dreaming in a few hours. Will you serve as my guide?'
'Of course. It is my privilege to help you in any way I can.'
He inclined his head slightly and continued to stare out over Tuzanor.
'It is important to me that you are there, Delenn. There are reasons that I cannot explain at the moment...'
'There is nothing to explain,' she replied simply. 'I will see to the preparations at once. Is there anything else that I can do for you, Master?'
He turned to her and an amused smile lit up his stern face. 'There is something, Delenn. I have told you many times before, and I hope that after this I will not need to tell you again: you no longer have to call me Master!'
Delenn returned his smile. 'True,' she answered coolly. 'But even when I became Satai you did not officially release me from your service. Now I am no longer Satai. So, technically, I am still your aide...and as I have called you 'Master' for this long, I see no reason to stop now!'
She did not give him the chance to respond, but went back inside, laughing to herself.
A shiver ran through her as the doors of the chamber closed behind them. It was like walking through clouds - there was the same cool stillness. Delenn emptied her mind of all thoughts and concentrated solely on Dukhat. She had accompanied him like this a number of times, but he seemed nervous. She had the impression that the thing he was afraid of seeing was the same thing that was making him enter the Dreaming. He seated himself and rested his hands lightly on his knees, his eyes closed. As his breathing slowed, she knew that he was entering a deep meditative state and she sat quietly beside him, waiting for it to begin. Delenn didn't how long they stayed like that, but she knew that it was taking far longer than usual. She started to feel restless, when suddenly everything around them went dark and then she could see Dukhat's sanctum.
It was as though she were standing there, but in a glass bubble where she could not be seen or heard. Dukhat, too, was there, and he was deep in conversation with another Minbari whom Delenn recognised as Shai Alyt Jenniel.
'We need to unify the Castes, Dukhat,' he was saying. 'We need to move as one.'
'I am aware of that. Unfortunately it is not a view shared by most of the Caste leaders.'
'They will listen to you,' Jenniel sounded distressed; he had begun to pace around the room. 'You hold the respect of all the leaders...'
Dukhat shook his head. 'I have spoken, Jenniel. My views are well known, but they are unheeded...'
As quickly as it had come, the vision ended and Delenn caught a glimpse of her own inauguration ceremony. The day she had become the Anla'shok Na. Surrounded by her Rangers, swearing the solemn and sacred vows.
'You have read Delenn's report?'
They were back in Dukhat's sanctum.
'I have indeed,' Draal replied. 'I suspect that there is much that she has not told us. Delenn is the only one of our kind to have entered Vorlon space and survived.'
'Yes,' Dukhat frowned. 'It is extraordinary. I would give much to know the reason why they were so fortunate. Both she and the Human, Sheridan...'
For a moment, Delenn felt her connection break. She should have realised that those two would know that she was holding back...but Dukhat seemed genuinely disturbed by the fact that she had survived. She shook herself and turned her thoughts back to Dukhat and the Dreaming. They were in darkness and her ears were filled with strange noises. It sounded like the workings of machinery, and there was a deep, low, hum that made her brain reverberate in her skull. Lights suddenly came up and she was standing on a huge bridge that spanned a massive cavern. She looked up, but all that she could see, disappearing beyond her range of vision, was the most sophisticated, beautifully wrought machinery she had ever seen in her life. The humming now sounded like gentle music and it was as though the whole place was singing to itself. Then, as if someone was showing them snapshots, the vision changed again. Another huge machine - this time in a darker, smaller chamber. In the heart of the machine, its arms spread out, stood a strange figure. Delenn felt her heart lurch painfully, and suddenly she had a flashback of her own...
John Sheridan grabbed hold of her arms and pulled her roughly to her feet. There was a haunted desperation in his eyes as he scanned her face.
'I saw you, you were looking for someone...but you looked different...'
'This should not be happening,' she thought desperately as she tried to find Dukhat's thoughts. Something white descended around her and for a moment she thought that she had found the chamber again. But instead of floating around her like mist, this substance was closing in on her. She couldn't move. She couldn't speak. A multitude of colours swam before her eyes and she started to feel numb. Her mind was separating from her body, but even her thoughts were becoming cloudy... She was dimly aware of another, blurred face staring out of that dense sea, but she couldn't tell who it was. She was losing her sense of self. She couldn't breathe... Sheridan was walking toward her, but his face was deathly pale and his burned with an unnatural brightness. On one side walked a Vorlon, and at his other was a Shadow. They were coming closer to her and then they stopped. Sheridan reached out and touched the beings on either side of him, linking them. She wanted to scream but nothing was happening, she couldn't get back, she was lost...
Delenn drew a great, ragged, breath into her lungs. The roaring in her ears began to recede and she was aware that she was lying on something hard and cold. Pins and needles ran through her body as sensation returned to her limbs. With a great effort, Delenn opened her eyes and for a moment everything was fuzzy. And then she was aware of Dukhat bending over her, fear in his face; and Draal next to him, saying something that Delenn couldn't hear. There was a small crowd gathering around them and Dukhat suddenly straightened up and shouted at them to move away.
'Get back, let her breath... Give her room!'
'It's all right,' the calmness of Draal's voice belied the anxiety in his eyes. 'She is waking up.'
She was lying on the floor outside of the chamber and despite Dukhat's warning the crowd was beginning to grow.
'This is a very undignified position to wake up in,' she said, her voice slightly tremulous. Delenn wriggled her fingers and toes experimentally and was relieved to find that she could feel them again. Sitting up took a little longer to coordinate, but she accomplished it without needing much help from the others and immediately insisted on standing. A fierce look from her soon dispersed the whispering group around them and she swept purposefully down the corridor, even though every step jarred unpleasantly in her head. Dukhat came alongside her and gently took hold of her elbow, steering her towards his chambers.
'I am sorry, Delenn,' he said humbly. 'I should not have asked you to go in there, but...'
'It was that last place,' she said. 'You have seen it before?'
Dukhat nodded and Delenn noticed that he was looking increasingly agitated. 'The last few months I have had strange dreams and they became more frequent, more intense when you returned.'
'I suggested that you enter the Dreaming with Dukhat,' Draal said and flashed her a brief smile. 'You have my apologies.'
Delenn waved her hand and turned back to Dukhat.
'After today...after what has just happened, I,' he stopped again, and that distant, closed expression returned to his face. 'I must go to this place. I will leave on the first available transport.'
'Excellent!' Draal beamed at him. 'I am very partial to space travel, and it so long since I last ventured off our world. Do you think space will have changed much?' he asked Delenn.
'Probably not. A few more stars may have come into being since you were last out,' she said teasingly.
'Thank-you, Delenn, but I would like to remind you that I am not that old and decrepit. At least, not yet,' he said with a sigh.
'You aren't in the least old...just experienced!' Delenn replied. 'Once we are up there you can tell me how it all looked in the good old days...'
'Delenn, Draal,' Dukhat interrupted them. 'There is no need for either of you to accompany me. This is my destiny and I must face it alone.'
'From my experience in the Dreaming,' Delenn replied, 'I would say that my destiny is also involved. I have every reason to go.'
'I have absolutely no reason to go,' Draal said after some moment's silence. 'But I want to, so I will!'
'I think that that is a reason,' Delenn confided to him.
Dukhat looked between them: he knew from long experience that when they had such resolute expressions, nothing would change their minds.
'Then that is settled!' Draal exclaimed. 'I must pack, and then we can go.'
A slight frown passed across Delenn's face. 'Do we actually know where it is we are going?'
'From the information that I was able to extract from the visions I received,' Dukhat answered, 'we have been able to pin-point the location as a planet three days from here.'
'But, surely we will not leave before the opening of the circle? Should we not attend?'
'That is out of our hands, Delenn. The struggle is between the Warrior Caste leaders now; we can have no influence on how it will be resolved. Perhaps there will be a little peace after this.'
'Until the next time,' Delenn said a little wearily as she stood up. 'Eventually, the Religious and the Warrior will battle each other again. It is a little like the theory of Perpetual Motion: you take a Warrior and a Religious and tie them together, back-to-back. And then you throw them off a cliff. Just before they reach the bottom, their diametrically opposed personalities will come into play. The faith and optimism of the Religous will prevent him from hitting the ground while the equally strong pessimism of the Warrior will continue his fall. But as their strength is equal, neither will win and so they will rotate, suspended in the air in perpetuity...until they both die.'
She smiled brightly and left the room, leaving her friends staring after her.
'It's your own fault,' Draal said eventually. 'You trained her.'
Dukhat shook his head. 'I blame you, you taught her!'
Draal uttered a deep, rich, laugh. 'Her father was just the same - she gets her spirit from him. I think that between the three of us we taught her very well.'
'Yes,' Dukhat sighed. 'But why do I feel as though we are losing her?'
They could feel the planet shuddering around them intermittently as tremors ran through it. Delenn tried to quash the growing apprehension as they followed a tortuous route through the dark, labyrinthine passageways. It had been an uneventful journey from Minbar to Epsilon 3 - the problems had only started when they began their descent to the planet. It had been a little cramped with the three of them in the shuttle and Delenn had wished that she wasn't responsible for flying it. Had she known of the Human custom of crossing your fingers, she would have crossed all of hers. And her toes, for good measure. The shuttle had been buffeted from all directions as they entered the atmosphere and the scanners kept triggering the alarms as increasingly unstable readings were picked up. It didn't help that she'd had to dodge random missiles that appeared to be part of the planet's defence grid. They didn't even seem to be aimed particularly at them, they just appeared. She had gritted her teeth and navigated their way towards the opening that took them inside the planet. Even the brilliant lights on the shuttle had not penetrated the darkness very far and it was only by monitoring the sensors very carefully that they had managed the mile-long descent. They had emerged from the shuttle and stood gazing about them, unsure of where to turn next and then they had heard a strange, clicking noise coming closer and closer. They had been accosted by an alien that looked like a cross between an ill formed Human and a very moth-eaten rat. Zathras.
'Very tired, is Zathras,' he had said, by way of greeting. 'Long time he has been waiting. Expected you to arrive sooner. But now you are here, you follow Zathras.'
And so they had followed. Dukhat immediately behind their strange guide, Delenn and Draal bringing up the rear, side by side. And despite the nervousness that she felt, Delenn kept hearing a mocking voice in her head.
'Three days from Minbar, three days closer to Degeba... Closer to Sheridan...' she did her best to ignore it. Once they had finished here she would think about it, but not before. The tremors were becoming more intense as they continued their passage. Small stones and copious amounts of dust fell from the ceiling and they would stop, taking refuge by flattening themselves against the walls before they were able to continue.
'What is happening here?' Dukhat asked eventually.
'The Machine is breaking down,' Zathras called over his shoulder. 'Not much time now. He told Zathras, so Zathras has waited and worried. Now we must hurry... No, no do not stop!' the creature jumped up and down in agony as Dukhat came to a halt, his head thrown back proudly as he stared down at Zathras.
'We have followed you this far. Now you should return our good faith by giving us an explanation!'
'No time!' Zathras squeaked. 'Cannot explain. He must explain!'
'Who?' Dukhat's voice had the same ring of command that had so often silenced disputes in the council chambers.
'I think, perhaps, him,' Draal sounded unusually subdued and both Delenn and Dukhat followed his gaze. Delenn let out a gasp. Ahead of them, standing in the curve of the passage, was a ghostly figure. Tall, thin and eyes that held an infinity of silent entreaty. The figure flickered slightly, swimming in and out of focus, and then vanished.
'Come, come!' Zathras scuttled in front of them and they followed wordlessly.
'You know, I am very glad that I came,' Draal confided to Delenn. 'I have not had such a marvellous adventure for years!'
Delenn smiled at him and slipped her arm through his. The low, musical hum that she heard in her vision was filling the air and growing heavier with every step. They rounded the final corner and were in a gloomy chamber. It was, undoubtedly, the heart of this place. And in the hollow, set deep within the machinery, was that tall, thin figure. But solid this time, real. Even as they were staring at him, something flickered, and the ghostly shade reappeared before them. He looked at them for a long time; he seemed to be gathering strength. And then, finally, he spoke.
'I had almost given up hope.'
Instinctively, they turned toward Zathras. He was wringing his hands and gazing at the hazy figure.
'Varn,' he said sadly, by way of explanation.
'He's dying,' Dukhat said softly.
'Long years,' Varn spoke with great effort. 'Long years I have spent here, at one with the Universe. But now my time is ending and the Machine...demands...a new...keeper.'
The image almost faded completely, but in a sudden resurgence, it grew stronger.
'There is not much time. If you do not accept, you must leave at once. I will not be able to control the defence mechanisms and they will destroy your vessel.'
'What will happen here if...if no-one takes your place?' Delenn asked.
Varn turned his cavernous eyes towards her. 'Everything that has been acquired here will be lost. All...will be destroyed. If it is weapons you seek, you will find none here. But there is much that will aid you in your struggle. In time.'
Dukhat took a few steps forward and looked deeply into the face of the dying alien, before casting his gaze over the huge machine that extended throughout the planet. He was about to speak when Draal walked across to him and took hold of his arm.
'My friend, our people need you. Return home and leave me here.'
Another tremor ripped through the place and Varn's image flickered dangerously.
'Draal,' there was urgency in Dukhat's tone, 'I once believed that I was the chosen one of our people, but I was wrong. For many years now I have known that it does not fall to me to lead them out of the darkness. There is another,' he looked around, and an expression of tranquillity crept into his eyes. 'I know that you came to prevent me from doing this, but this is right. I am home.'
Delenn approached them, unable to stop the tears that sprang to her eyes. 'Will we ever see you again?'
He smiled tenderly and placed his hands lightly on her shoulders. 'Always, Delenn.'
Then he turned and walked across to where Varn was held in the machine. Delenn, Zathras and Draal followed, and together they helped Varn to disengage himself. He felt almost weightless in their arms. Like an old, withered leaf that has finally been blown from the tree.
Dukhat hesitated for a second and then stepped in. At once, the shaking around them ceased and the humming from the machine, which had been growing increasingly discordant, settled into a strong, steady pulsation. Dukhat's eyes were closed and his expression was one of utter repose and contentment. A warm, golden, light was suddenly kindled out of nothingness and the image of Dukhat appeared before them.
'Go now. The shuttle will be safe until it has cleared the atmosphere, but after that the defences will be activated and no ship will be allowed entry unless I wish it. We will meet again...' he suddenly broke off and stared downwards. Draal had walked behind him and had passed his hand experimentally through Dukhat's back.
'You make it irresistible!' Draal chuckled. 'You are excellent at nobility, my friend. But grandeur,' he drew himself up impressively, 'grandeur you need to work on.'
Dukhat's face relaxed into a smile. 'It is time,' he said softly. 'Go.'
Delenn was cradling Varn's head in her lap and she looked up at Draal. 'We should take him back to our ship. Do what we can for him.'
Zathras crouched next to her and peered into the face of his former master. 'This, resting place of all keepers of Great Machine,' he told her. 'Varn will rest here. Zathras take care of him. Has always taken good care... Zathras...' he stopped and began to lift Varn out of Delenn's arms.
Delenn's memory of the next few minutes was always blurred - a disjointed jumble of images and emotions. She remembered Draal raising her to her feet, and then one final look over her shoulder at the figures of Varn and Zathras. And Dukhat, with the faint gold aura around him. Their hurried journey through the twisting passageways - this time unimpeded by falling debris - until they reached the shuttle.
'That was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do,' Delenn stated flatly as she gazed at the consoles. Her body felt raw and hollow. Draal patted her hand, but didn't reply. Dukhat had been his pupil, his colleague and his friend. He would feel the loss greatly. The shuttle made a slow ascent and then cleared the opening. The turbulence was not so bad this time, but their scanners were still affected by the dense atmosphere. Draal, trying to aid Delenn as best he could by monitoring the consoles, drew her attention to a ship that had just dropped out of Hyperspace.
'If they come too near or launch a shuttle they will be destroyed by the defence grid,' Delenn frowned anxiously. 'Is the comm. system working?'
'There is a lot of static,' Draal replied. 'But I think they will be able to hear us.'
Delenn activated the console and leaned forward.
'If I have to look at you for much longer, I'm gonna dislocate my jaw trying to bite my own eyes out!' Sheridan's tone was affable, but his eyes blazed with disgust.
'Captain, if you say things like that, Mr Bester will think that you don't enjoy having him here,' Sinclair responded in mock-reproach.
'I can't imagine why he'd think that, Captain,' Sheridan replied. His mood was darkened even further when Bester simply laughed lightly - the man seemed to enjoy all of the verbal abuse they threw at him.
'Don't think for a moment that I resent your deriving so much amusement at my expense, gentlemen,' Bester smiled at them. 'It always gives me enormous satisfaction to bring a little ray of sunlight to someone's day.'
Sheridan clenched his fists tightly under the table until he could feel the skin stretching over his knuckles. He had never found anyone quite so intensely annoying before in his entire life. The Psi-Cop was still smiling pleasantly at them. His assistant, Lyta Alexander, watched them out of her dark, deadened, eyes.
'What we're trying to find out, Mr Bester, is exactly when you and your sidekick...' Sinclair frowned and looked at Lyta. 'Can I just ask one thing? Does she ever actually speak?'
She didn't move. Bester looked at her with interest, waiting for her reaction, and then turned back to Sinclair wordlessly.
'Right...just thought I'd ask!'
An EarthForce officer entered and hurried over to Sheridan. Bending down, she whispered something into his ear. He turned his head sharply toward her and then stood up.
'An urgent matter has just come up. If you'll excuse me...'
'Is everything all right?' Sinclair asked, unable to determine the expression in his friend's face.
'Fine. Please, carry on.'
Sinclair watched him go and then rearranged the flimsies in front of him thoughtfully. They seemed to have been sitting opposite these two for eternity: every time they thought that Bester was going to leave, he came up with a new reason to stay. More details about the treatment of telepaths within the Resistance that had to be discussed, confirmed with EarthDome, renegotiated.... Garibaldi had contacted them that the expedition to Epsilon 3 was over, but Sheridan had told them to delay their return, as Bester was showing no signs of leaving. Sinclair watched him, wondering. Could he know? Was he just waiting for someone to let slip where Talia was? Sinclair pushed the thought out of his mind hurriedly. He wouldn't put it past Bester - or his cohort, either - to perform an illegal scan. They had taken measures to prevent that from happening - all talks had been conducted in the War Room, and Sinclair had made sure that some of the consoles were manned by telepaths from other worlds. A Centauri and two Minbari were working to block Bester and Lyta just in case. Sinclair was aware that they would know they were being blocked, but that wasn't important.
'You were about to ask me something, Captain?' Bester continued.
'I was going to ask when you and Miss Alexander will be leaving.'
'When we're satisfied that the appropriate measures to safeguard the safety of the telepaths here, are in place,' Bester shrugged. 'A reasonable request, I would have thought.'
'EarthForce has already agreed to abide by all the guidelines laid down by the Corps,' Sinclair replied stiffly. 'What more do you need before you're satisfied?'
A smile that held more than a hint of malice curled Bester's lips. 'We also want to ensure that the telepaths abide by the rules.'
'The Corps has jurisdiction over telepaths who belong to the Corps, but that's all.' Sinclair returned the gaze steadily. 'Anyone else is answerable to their own people.'
'And those who are attempting to evade the Corps also fall under our jurisdiction. And as this place is under your authority, Captain Sinclair, you are obliged to hand them over to us.'
'I think you'll find that it isn't quite that simple,' Sinclair answered. 'This place was built by the Pak'ma'ra, but was funded by the Centauri and Drazi governments. This Resistance Cell just happens to be headed by EarthForce personnel, but it's rapidly turning into a joint command with the Minbari. So, I don't know exactly who has the final authority here.'
He allowed himself a smile.
'If you have a problem that falls outside of the combat guidelines, I suggest that you take it up with the General War Council. And I don't know how long that will take.'
Sinclair felt almost triumphant when he saw a gleam in Bester's eye that was akin to hatred. 'Don't like that all, do you?'
'So, there are no rogue telepaths here?' he asked a few minutes later.
'None,' Sinclair stated firmly.
'It's very interesting to hear you say that, Captain,' Bester said softly. He was looking over Sinclair's head at the doorway behind. Sinclair turned and felt his heart plummet into his boots when Talia and Garibaldi walked in.
'Miss Winters, of my discontent!' Bester's eyes flashed. 'I've been waiting for this for a long time.'
Talia ignored him. She was staring at the young woman sitting next to him. 'Hello, Lyta,' she said quietly.
A muscle twitched in the side of Lyta's face, but she still didn't utter a word.
Sheridan was immediately behind Talia and Garibaldi and - Sinclair was amazed to note - Delenn was with him. She looked as inscrutable as ever, but Sheridan had an expression of suppressed excitement. Talia sat at the table, Garibaldi stood behind her, his hands on her shoulders. She looked pale, but resolute.
'This does pose an interesting dilemma,' Bester said. 'Miss Winters is a rogue telepath. As I am sure you are all aware, considering the lengths you have gone to, to keep her away from me. As you said, Captain, the authority here is somewhat dubious. However, as she is an unregistered telepath during a state of War, the Psi-Cops have the right to exercise discretionary powers and place her under arrest. Until we can determine whether or not she poses a threat.'
Bester leaned back in his chair, enjoying the frozen, shocked, expression on Sinclair's face. However smart these Mundanes might think they were, he would always be one step ahead of them.
'Except that Miss Winters is not an unregistered telepath,' Delenn's calm voice cut through the silence.
'What?' Bester, jolted out of his smug triumph, stared at her.
Delenn took a few steps forward and returned his gaze unflinchingly. 'Miss Winters is registered with the Minbari. She has agreed to provide us with her services, in exchange for our training and protection. She has agreed to follow the Minbari code of conduct for telepaths,' Sinclair could hardly believe what he was hearing. He glanced over at Sheridan: his eyes were glued to Delenn, undisguised admiration on his face. 'Anyone attempting to harm her is answerable to the Minbari authorities. And we always defend our own.'
Bester looked as though someone had just yanked the rug out from under him. Delenn was still watching him calmly. It was, Sinclair thought, the closest he had ever seen a Minbari come to smirking.
'Well,' Sheridan clapped his hands together jovially, 'I think that about wraps everything up. Mr Bester, will you be staying for our little celebration? No?'
Bester rose to his feet and tried to force his features into a smile. The result was an unappealing grimace.
'You may have won this particular battle,' he said. 'But let me give you a little piece of advice. Don't attempt to cross the Corps again.'
'I assure you that we try to go out of way to avoid the Corps,' Sheridan replied. 'It's you who keeps bothering us!'
Talia felt Garibaldi's hands grip her shoulders a little more tightly and felt relief sweeping through her. The tension on her nerves began to relax and she was aware of a sudden desire to laugh. The Psi-Cops were gathering their various files and flimsies together, when Lyta raised her head and looked directly into Talia's eyes. Talia felt a sudden blinding pain, and a series of violent images burst into her head. Strangely distorted faces hovering over her, lights in her eyes, injections, hours of conditioning... And then a frightened voice, full of desperate pleading.
'Help me, Talia. Please! Help me!'
Talia's body jolted and she stared at Lyta, horrified. In the depths of Lyta's eyes, faint embers flickered. And then they regained their former, lifeless, expression. Bester's voice summoned her sharply and she straightened up, ready to follow him.
'As you pointed out, our business is finished here. There is no longer any need for us to stay. Lyta!'
As they headed for the door, Sheridan stepped in to escort them back to their vessels.
'Make sure they really get on them!' he thought to himself.
The footsteps died away before Garibaldi slumped into a chair beside Talia. 'Man, I thought they'd never leave!'
Sinclair was shaking his head incredulously. He looked around at Delenn, who was still standing apart from them. 'How did you get involved in all of this? Nice to see you again by the way,' he added.
'I met Commander Garibaldi and Miss Winters near Epsilon 3,' she said. Sinclair opened his mouth and then closed it again. He knew that any questions he might ask - however innocuous - would result in a very, very, long story. 'They explained their predicament and I was able to offer a solution.'
'You're actually registered as a Minbari telepath?'
Talia looked at him vaguely and then shook herself. 'Pardon? Oh, yes...yes, I am,' she smiled gratefully at Delenn. 'The Minbari will teach me how to control my abilities and how to block out things I don't want to hear. When the time comes and they need my help, I'll do it. But I'm free to carry on my life here as normal.'
'With the number of Minbari telepaths arriving here,' Delenn explained, 'we believe it is necessary that some of their teachers and mentors should come in order to give advice and support. Amongst them will be those able to give Miss Winters the help she needs.'
'Well, I can see that all the action's been where you guys were!' Sinclair looked around at them. 'So, tell me! What happened with the expedition? We didn't think you'd be back for days!'
A look of pure enjoyment came over Garibaldi's face.
'Yeah, well, while you lot were sitting around enjoying yourselves, some of us were dodging shadows, encountering strange, new worlds...'
Sinclair turned to Talia. 'Can I just have the sensible version?'
He listened as they told him what had happened during their trip and when the details of what had happened down on Epsilon 3 became confused, Sinclair looked around for Delenn. She had gone. A second later he realised that Sheridan hadn't returned from escorting Bester and Lyta to their ship.
'I know that this is probably a stupid question,' he said with a sigh. 'But do you think we'll see either of them again this evening?'
Talai and Garibaldi shook their heads.
'No. Neither do I!'
Sheridan fidgeted restlessly. He was comfortable for about five seconds and then had to move again. Stillness for a split second, and then he sat up.
An exasperated sigh answered him from out a shadowy corner. 'I know that I translated it correctly! What part of the phrase "Sleep Watching" do you not understand?' she asked plaintively.
He squinted into the darkness. He could barely make her out in the gloom. 'How am I supposed to sleep when I know that you're watching me?' his voice dropped slightly. 'How am I supposed to sleep when you're in the same room as me, but definitely too far away for my liking?'
'You should not be thinking of that now,' her tone was slightly reproachful.
'Excuse me? This from the woman who insisted I leave my T-shirt off? What exactly were you thinking about?' He responded, teasingly.
'John Sheridan! Lie down and go to sleep!' the command rang out from Delenn's corner. She was glad the darkness hid her guilty expression. While the ritual was meant to see if the female was pleased by the male, Delenn experienced a pleasure from allowing her eyes to travel over his broad shoulders that had nothing to do with what was dictated by Minbari tradition.
'You sound just like my mother!' he grinned. 'It never used to work for her either. Ok, I promise not to try anything. But I just want to see you. There's something I need to ask.'
Delenn hesitated and then stepped into the light cast from the lamp next to his bed. A tender smile spread over his face and Delenn had to start making a few silent promises of her own. He patted the bed for her to sit down and then held his hands up in the air. 'Look, no hands! I won't bite!'
She smiled and sat down. In the low light, her head bone had a luminous, silvery, quality and there was a faint flush in her cheeks. He couldn't believe that she was really here. When he had seen her step out of the White Star shuttle with the others, he had experienced enormous happiness - and gnawing anxiety. Anxiety that she may not still feel the same way. It had lasted until he had made sure the Black Omegas had jumped and turned around to find her standing there.
Sheridan approached her cautiously. 'I wasn't sure... I thought I might not see you again.'
He looked searchingly into her eyes, but he felt too nervous to name the expression he saw in their depths. Delenn had felt her heart quicken as she looked at him.
'I thought,' she replied softly, 'that as you were not going to come to Minbar to get me, I should come back to you.'
'I was just about to get the fleet together!'
Delenn put her arms around his neck and kissed him with a passion that exceeded even his fondest fantasies about their reunion. When they finally broke apart he traced the line of her jaw with his fingers.
'Have you been practising?' he asked, raising his eyebrows.
'No!' Delenn took his face in her hands. 'I just had a very good teacher!'
Delenn waited expectantly. Sheridan ran his hand through his hair and cleared his throat. She was wearing a thin silk dressing gown and the collar was open just enough to reveal the hollow at the base of her throat and a small patch of skin beneath it. It was more of her than he had ever seen.
She smiled wryly. 'Firstly? I thought that you only wanted to ask me one thing.'
He sighed. 'A couple of things, then. You're...fine...meeting Anna? I mean, I know that I'd already told you about her... Well, kinda. And I know that nothing's really happened between us yet. Not that what has happened isn't important, I just mean...Well, obviously what has happened has great meaning. But it isn't as if we've...'
Delenn's eyes widened slightly. All of the calm self-assurance that he displayed throughout the day had vanished and he was babbling. Of all the things that had attracted her to him in the first place, this was suddenly the most endearing.
Sheridan stopped himself. 'Are you trying to get her to walk out of here?' a voice asked irritably.
'I just wanted to make sure that there aren't any problems that arose out of meeting her,' he said calmly.
'What you actually mean is "What did she say about me?" Don't ask that.'
'What did she say about me?' he asked before he could stop himself.
'That's it. I quit!'
She could have teased him mercilessly about it. But there was such concern, such uncertainty in his expression...
Had Garibaldi really wanted to see a catfight, he would have been extremely disappointed. Anna and Delenn sat opposite each other and discussed the situation on Epsilon 3 in the most professional manner imaginable.
'So that's it?' Morden asked in disgust. 'The Minbari get all of the information, all of the technology and weapons that are down there, and we just have to wait?'
Anna regarded him severely. 'I don't think that any one is going to benefit from what's down there. At least, not in the way that we think. Correct?'
Delenn nodded. She had watched Anna all through this interview and was aware that she was being scrutinized equally closely.
'Well, the corporation isn't going to like it, but they'll like having their ships shot down even less. No one from IPX will come here. Your friend will be left in peace.'
They hadn't mentioned Sheridan at all after Anna's initial statement over the comm. Only when she had been about to board the shuttle that would take her from the Minbari cruiser back to her own ship did Anna say...
'She said that you would never let me down,' Delenn told him.
'I... Oh!' Sheridan was too surprised to reply.
'If that is the opinion of your former wife,' Delenn answered, 'I am hardly in a position to argue. Does that set your mind at rest?'
'A little,' he replied with a fleeting smile. She had moved slightly and the collar of her robe had fallen a little wider, and in the opening he could see part of a soft curve. He dragged his eyes back to her face. It was almost as bad. Her eyes were glowing and her lips were slightly parted. He swallowed hard.
'The other thing,' Sheridan took a deep breath. 'When you first met me, it wasn't really me. Not this me, anyway. But you obviously liked him and he must have been pretty impressive...had all the answers. I just wondered if,' he faltered. 'I just wondered if you would still have been interested if I was all there had ever been.'
Delenn didn't trust herself to speak. It was true that she had been deeply affected by the man she had first met. She had even envied, in part, the parallel woman who was the recipient of so much love. But nothing had approached the intensity of the emotions that she experienced when this man was near her.
'You are all there has ever been,' she answered at last.
Sheridan felt his breath catch in his chest. He leaned forward slowly and took hold of her hands, pulling her towards him. Delenn didn't resist, but closed her eyes as they drew closer. A thrill ran through her as their lips touched. She was aware of his hands running over the hard ridges of her crest and her own heart beating wildly in her chest. His tongue pressed insistently against her lips and she opened her mouth, moaning slightly as he gently drew her tongue inside his mouth with his teeth. They drew apart and Delenn summoned up every ounce of her rapidly disappearing self-control.
'You should really,' she gasped, her breathing not quite what it should be, 'go to sleep now.'
For a second he looked as though he would object, but then he smiled. 'It's important to you. So we'll do this right.' He kissed again before releasing her and then lay down obediently. Delenn stood up and retreated to a darker part of the room. After their talk, Sheridan relaxed. He hoped fervently that he wouldn't do anything spectacularly embarrassing in his sleep. Like drool.
As the tension and control faded from his face, Delenn moved closer. His slow breathing told her that he had drifted into sleep. She bent over him slightly and a soft smile began to spread over her face.
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