ALONG PATHWAYS OF SHADOW AND FIRE (III):

OF LIGHT AND NIGHT AND THE HALF-LIGHT

By Laura Bellamy

 

 

 

Ok, all the usual disclaimers apply. Just to remind everyone that this IS an AU story, so it’s only my version of what may have happened if things had gone differently – and all the characters know that their alter-egos are safely tucked up in their own dimension, just to confuse things! Anyway, hope you enjoy what follows.

   A HUGE thank-you to my wonderful beta readers, Shawn and Shaz, who trawled through all four drafts and made some fantastic suggestions.

 

 

 

 

*****

Sheridan blinked in the darkness, his entire body tense. He held his breath, listening. It was there. Very faint, but definitely there. An unfamiliar noise in the room. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he remembered what was happening and started to relax.

   Delenn had drawn a chair close to the bed and she had fallen fast asleep, her quiet breathing breaking the silence in the room. Their third night. Sheridan propped himself up on one elbow to watch her. She was smiling faintly and she looked, somehow, much younger. More vulnerable. Less regal. He let out a long breath. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and he couldn’t help but feel a little pleased with himself that she had returned for the two remaining nights of the ritual.

   It had taken them over two months: there was always too much to do, or not enough time, or they were simply too exhausted. But, now, they had finally made it through all three nights. Sheridan had felt a little uneasy about it to begin with. Watching another person sleep is usually a source of great amusement to the watcher – you have to care deeply for the person to feel tenderness and not derision. It was an exercise in trust on Sheridan’s part and he had soon found that he did, indeed, trust Delenn enough to expose his frailties and vulnerabilities so spectacularly, playing Endymion to her attentive Phoebe.

   However, Phoebe herself had finally succumbed to exhaustion. Delenn stirred slightly and he suddenly thought that she must be terribly uncomfortable. Cautiously, he folded back the covers and stood up. He didn’t want to wake her, but he couldn’t leave her where she was. He hovered uncertainly over her for a few moments before, finally, arriving at a firm decision. With infinite care he began to gather her up in his arms, faltering slightly when he caught the delicate scent of her perfume and felt his pulse begin to perform some very odd rhythms. Delenn’s eyes snapped open. He let go of her, stumbling over his words almost as much as he was over his own feet as he backed away.

   ‘I wasn’t…I wouldn’t want you to think,’ he swallowed hard. ‘You were asleep in the chair, and I though you’d be more comfortable…’ he gestured towards the bed. ‘I was going to take the sofa,’ he finished in a small voice, while wishing that a White Star would put him out of his misery by kindly crashing through the ceiling and down on his head. Delenn had straightened up in the chair and had kept her eyes fixed upon him. Her expression was unfathomable.

   ‘I have seen your sofa,’ she said after a few seconds that had felt like eternity and five days to Sheridan. ‘I really don’t think that you would fit on it. It is rather small.’

   Her face was still impassive, but her eyes were sparkling with suppressed laughter.

   ‘I am so sorry,’ he said, sitting down heavily. ‘I didn’t want to disturb you, but…’

   This time, Delenn laughed outright and leaned forward. ‘John, will you please stop apologising! You haven’t done anything wrong. It was a lovely thought - thank you. I shouldn’t have fallen asleep.’

   He looked up at her, and the beginnings of a smile began to play over his face. ‘Just my luck,’ he said with a sigh. ‘I meet an incredible woman and then manage to bore her even when I’m asleep!’

   ‘It wasn’t that at all…!’ Delenn began and then stopped when she realised that he was teasing her. ‘It would have served you right if I’d said yes to that!’

   ‘I suppose that I could learn to juggle with my eyes closed – that would be more impressive, I guess. Or conducting a symphony with one hand, while painting a detailed portrait of the Centauri goddess of love with the other.’

   ‘I think that watching that would tire me. Not to mention make me feel extremely dizzy,’ Delenn replied. ‘But I’m afraid that you’re a little late for all of that. There are no more nights left for watching.’

   He watched her apprehensively for a few minutes, but in the end the tension of not knowing was too much. ‘So, er, what happens now? Do I get to find out what the next stage is, or is this where you tell me that we should just be friends?’

   A puzzled frown appeared on her face. ‘I thought that we were friends already?’

   ‘Yes, of course we are,’ Sheridan wondered if it might not be easier just to sit down and make a list of Human expressions and their meanings for her to read. But he didn’t really have a choice at the moment. ‘It’s a Human way of saying that they don’t want to continue in a relationship. Sort of “You’re a wonderful person, but will you please vanish through the nearest black-hole and never come back?” It’s one of those lines that’s right up there with “You’ve got a great personality”. It sort of makes you want to shoot yourself through the head. Especially if you've been counting on seeing more of someone.’

   His hair was still tousled, and the low lamplight highlighted the muscular contours of his shoulders. His eyes were full of tenderness, and cautious hope. Delenn exercised every ounce of self-control she had to stop herself from throwing her arms around his neck.

   ‘The rituals are important to me, not because I’m unsure of you,’ she answered, trying to keep her voice steady, ‘but because I want us to continue to grow together. And this is the only way I know how. There are so many differences between us, between our cultures… And the more we learn of each other, the less those differences will matter, I think. But,’ her voice dropped to a low tone that sounded incredibly seductive to Sheridan, ‘if you are in any doubt about my feelings for you, then I have obviously not been expressing myself clearly enough.’

   Delenn stood up and took the few steps that separated them. The soft silk of her dressing gown brushed against his skin as she stood over him. She ran one hand through his hair until it reached the back of his neck, and rested the other lightly on his shoulder. Sheridan put his arms around her waist, drawing her to him as she bent down to him. She caught his lower lip between hers, gently sucking it. Then, with a sigh, Delenn's lips parted and she took his probing tongue into her mouth. Sheridan smiled into the kiss - Delenn had become very fond of this particular Human activity and she was extremely good at it. He traced the line of her jaw with his lips until he reached her small ear. Delenn turned her head slightly as he ran his tongue along the intricate contours and leaned more heavily into his arms. Sheridan tightened his embrace - he was always amazed by how tiny she was. Such a slender, tiny little thing. But she felt so strong, so wonderful in his arms. He could feel the muscles in her back beneath the thin robe she was wearing. All he had to do was take hold of one end of the belt and pull...

   'There's probably a special Belt Undoing Ceremony,' an inner voice said irritably, 'that can only be performed at the third full moon of the New Year, after you've both fasted for a decade and walked across a mile of burning coals. On your hands.'

   He kept his hands firmly where they were and closed his mouth over hers again. Without warning, Delenn pulled away and stood motionless, her eyes fixed on his face.

   'What's wrong?' he asked quickly.

   She continued to watch him and then took a deep breath. 'Nothing.'

   Very slowly, she undid the belt around her waist and the robe fell open slightly.

   Sheridan's eyes widened in disbelief. 'Delenn...' he could barely get her name out.

   'You said that you wanted to see more of me,' a slightly mischievous smile played around her mouth.

   'I didn't mean quite this literally,' his eyes ignored the instructions coming from his brain to move their gaze from the gleam of white skin that was now visible. 'But don't stop on my account...'

   Delenn slipped the robe from her shoulders. It slid slowly down her arms before falling to the floor in a heap. Sheridan stared at her, mesmerised. Her skin was very pale, with just a slight pink flush and she was completely hairless. The ribcage was higher and more pronounced than in a Human and her breasts were far smaller, with dark nipples that had a violet hue. Her hips were very slim, barely rounded at all and her waist was tiny. She looked as if she had been carved out of a perfect piece of white marble.

   Delenn watched the expression on his face with a feeling of apprehension. She knew that she had - by Minbari standards - a good figure, but she wasn’t sure how it would look to a Human. Delenn was aware of how much pleasure she derived from looking at John, but what would his reaction be to seeing her? There was a look of wonder on his face, and when he finally raised his eyes to hers, she rejoiced to see that he was smiling. Wordlessly, he held out his hands to her and she moved forward, sliding her arms around his neck and kneeling, one knee either side of him, on the bed.

   'Do you know how beautiful you are?' he asked softly, running his fingers over the flexible backbone that extended between her shoulder blades. Delenn smiled, her fingers tracing intricate patterns on his chest.

   ‘I think that you are beautiful,’ she whispered. ‘What is it?’ she asked, noticing his surprised expression.

   ‘Nothing. It’s just that…you don’t normally say that to men.’

   Delenn frowned. ‘Why not?’

   ‘Because…’ Sheridan stopped. She did it every time. Perfectly innocent, direct, questions about his own culture and he would end up thinking how ridiculous it was in the first place. ‘I don’t know why, it’s just the way things are.’ His eyes sparkled. ‘But I think that’s probably the nicest thing that anyone’s ever said to me!’

   They kissed again. Languid, passionate kisses that made every nerve in their bodies tingle.

   Delenn didn’t move from her position over him. The last few months had brought them even closer together. Ever since she had returned to Degeba from Epsilon 3, they had spent as much time as they could together. Sometimes it was only a few moments snatched out of a hectic day, but they had become the moments that she lived for. Her soul was satisfied with the knowledge that they were right for each other, but now her body was demanding the same satisfaction, with increasing intensity. He had never tried to pressure her - he had allowed her to set the pace according to her own needs and she loved him all the more for that. Delenn rested her head on his shoulder, enjoying the feel of his warm, bare skin against hers.

   He could feel her heart beating wildly and her breath, slightly uneven, falling on him. With her arms wrapped round him, he could feel every part of her.

   ‘You’re shaking,’ he whispered.

   Delenn raised her head and looked into his eyes. ‘So are you,’ she replied softly.

   It was true. No woman had ever had this sort of effect on him – part elation over the fact that she loved him, and part terror over the power of his own feelings for her.

   With infinite care, Sheridan put his arms around her waist and dislodged her from her position, rolling her until she was lying on the bed, her head in the pillows. He stroked her face and gazed into her eyes. He wanted this. He wanted to hold her, to love her - so much that the thought of it made him feel dizzy. But it had to be right for both of them.

   ‘Delenn, Honey, are you sure? We don’t have to do this now.’

   Delenn smiled up at him, her eyes sparkling. ‘Yes, I am sure. And yes, we do have to do this now!’

   She pushed herself up from the bed and rewarded him with a kiss that left him breathless. Her hands were working down his body and he let out an indistinct moan as she moved inside his shorts. She tried to ease him out of them, but it wasn’t an action that she was accustomed to. Sheridan grinned slightly at the mute appeal in her eyes and moved away from her briefly, pulling them off. He covered her again and Delenn let out a faint gasp as she felt his obvious masculinity fall against her.

   ‘Delenn…?’ anxiety clouded his face and she chided herself for causing it.

   ‘I want you, John,’ she replied softly.

   Sheridan felt his entire body melt at her words. There was so much love, so much passion and simple honesty in her voice. And in those incredible, exquisite eyes.

   ‘I don’t think,’ he tried to keep his voice from shaking, ‘I have ever told you how much I love you. I’d do anything for you, Delenn.’

   ‘I know that,’ she answered. ‘I know because I feel the same way. I love you, John.’

   He let out a satisfied sigh and recaptured her lips in his before pulling back to look at her again. Delenn saw the playful glint in his eyes and felt her heart begin to beat more rapidly as she wondered what he was going to do. Sheridan bowed his head and planted a series of light kisses down the line of her neck, his hands stroking her shoulders. His fingers played over the contours of her collarbone, fascinated by the impossible silkiness of her skin. And then he moved further down her, cupping one small breast with his hand, stroking the soft underside, and rubbing the nipple with his thumb, teasing it until it was hard. Delenn sighed his name, arching her back into his touch as he took her other breast into his mouth, licking the sensitive skin and then grazing the nipple with his teeth.

   Sheridan smiled as he felt her reaction to his attentions. It would be so easy just to take her now. Too easy. He wanted to experience every part of her. To let her understand, let her feel how deeply he cared for her. Her skin tasted sweet. He could hear her heart beating wildly in her chest; feel her body writhing involuntarily under him.

   ‘You’re perfect,’ he murmured, licking the skin between her breasts. ‘Everything about you…perfect…!’

   He felt her hands running through his hair and started to trace the lines of her body, leisurely finding his way down toward her centre.

   He was moving his hands over her body with a slowness that was as frustrating as it was arousing. Delenn felt her breathing becoming more ragged and she stopped trying to suppress the soft moans that broke from her lips. Her skin was burning - the heat increasing with his every touch - the air felt cool only against the skin dampened from his mouth. His hands wandered lazily across her belly, followed even more slowly by sensual, unbroken kisses. Then, without warning, he slipped one hand between her legs…

   For a moment, Sheridan hesitated in confusion. His fingers had encountered a deep, smooth fold and nothing more. It took a few seconds for his brain to de-fog enough for him to remember that a Minbari female’s sex was buried more deeply, and only became externalised when she was aroused. Very cautiously, he slid one finger gently into that fold… Delenn gasped, her hands suddenly gripping his shoulders harder.

   Delenn bucked under him, raising her hips to meet his probing fingers, but one strong hand on her lower abdomen held her down. His fingers circled her sensitive tip, gently at first and then more firmly, drawing a short, breathless cry from her lips. Then he slipped further inside her, drawing her warm juices over that swollen, throbbing spot. He kissed his way down towards her thighs, his tongue pressing against her firm flesh. And another strange sensation… His hair brushing against her skin. For a few seconds, Delenn revelled in the feel of it - that soft, silky texture against the smooth curves of her inner thighs. Almost ticklish, but far too arousing for that. She buried her fingers in it again, marvelling at the feel of it under her fingers. Her blood was pounding through her veins, flooding toward the area where his fingers were stroking her, teasing her.

   His fingers slipped out of her and there was a split second of excruciating anticipation before his tongue flicked against her with slow, deliberate strokes. Delenn laced her fingers behind his head and held him into her, feeling every muscle in her begin to tense as rivers of fire began to course through her. Sheridan’s firm hands caressed her thighs in languid, circular motions that reflected the movements of his tongue. And then his hands slid under her, raising her hips from the bed as his tongue slid deeply inside her, chafing against the uneven skin within her, while his teeth scraped gently over the swollen nub. Delenn thrust against him, one hand breaking away from his head and clutching convulsively at the sheets as she felt herself reaching the breaking point. His hands were massaging her buttocks and now…now he had increased the pace, his tongue thrusting more quickly inside her, while he simultaneously sucked and nipped at her. She moved wildly under him, longing for the release that had been building inside her. His hands gripped more firmly, his mouth working remorselessly against her and he sucked her even harder, sliding deeper within her.

   The waves of pleasure collided in an unbearable peak before shattering - Delenn’s whole body clenched uncontrollably and then ecstasy pulsated through her. Sheridan slipped his fingers seamlessly back into her, trailing up her body with soft kisses so that he could see her face.

   He was stroking her, penetrating her and she rocked against the heel of his palm until she tightened around him again. Delenn looked up into his eyes and then put her arms around his neck, pulling him down into a passionate kiss. His weight holding her down, his body hard against her soft skin. Delenn’s cries were lost in the bruising kiss as she came, intensely, under his probing fingers. She felt as though she were sinking into the deep, soft bedding, brilliant light exploding behind her eyes and his wonderful weight holding her down. And then perfect stillness and John’s soft breath falling on her face.

   He watched her as the aftermath subsided and her breathing returned to normal. Delenn ran her fingers lightly over his face, lingering over his lips. He kissed the tips of her fingers, and gazed intently into her eyes.

   ‘I get the feeling you needed that,’ he said, smiling slightly.

   ‘I did,’ she agreed. ‘But only from you!’

   Sheridan’s fingers wandered idly along the top of her head where her head bone met the sensitive skin. He wished that there were some words, something he could say that would express what she meant to him. But here, now, the only things that came into his head sounded trite and inconsequential. They simply didn’t do her justice. And so he gazed at her in silent adoration, not knowing that in the intensity of his gaze, Delenn found more than she had allowed herself to hope for.

   ‘I will, I think,’ she sighed softly some minutes later, ‘enjoy doing as much for you.’

   Sheridan looked longingly into her eyes and then took a deep breath. ‘Nothing in the entire Universe - I assure you - sounds more tempting than that!’ he replied. ‘But I have a feeling that at any second now…’

   As if to confirm the theory that the fates are in a constant conspiracy to thwart the satiation of sentient desires, the dim lighting in Sheridan’s room suddenly raised itself to a level that was laughingly referred to as dawn, and an irritatingly pleasant female voice informed them that it was 6:00am, Earth Standard Time. And there was a meeting in 15 minutes.

   Sheridan had buried his face despairingly in the pillow, and Delenn heard his muffled voice close to her ear. ‘One of these days,’ she was fairly certain that’s what he was saying, ‘I’ll take a PPG to that thing. And one of these days,’ he suddenly raised himself up and gazed fiercely down at her, ‘we’re gonna have some real time together. You deserve so much more than this.’

   ‘We are fortunate to have any time at all,’ Delenn answered. ‘We could have been denied everything, but we have something. The Universe has given us that much so far; now it is up to us to give that time value.’

   

   

   The young woman rubbed her tear-streaked face, trying to remove the final traces of her smeared mascara, and smiled shakily. ‘I’d better go back to my quarters and freshen up before starting my shift. I’m damned if I’m gonna walk into the War Room looking like a racoon!’

   ‘You look fine,’ Talia assured her as they walked to the door. ‘I think we should schedule another session this week, let me know when is a good time for you.’

   The door slid closed after the pilot’s retreating form, and Talia rested her head against the cool, metallic surface. Her head was burning and her limbs felt as though they had turned to lead. Time seemed to be dragging interminably and Talia vaguely wondered if they had changed the length of a day from 24 hours to 42 without telling her. She finally summoned up enough strength to move across the room and deposit herself in a chair and take a small mirror out of a desk drawer. Talia glared at her reflection. The concealer couldn’t quite hide the dark circles under her eyes, and her face looked unusually strained. She closed her eyes briefly and at once the voice sounded in her head.

   ‘Help me, Talia. Please! Help me!’

   Ever since the day she had seen Lyta Alexander again, Talia had been haunted by intermittent nightmares that were recurring with an increasing regularity. Violent, tortuous images followed by that desperate plea. It had happened again last night and she had woken to find herself screaming and fighting desperately against Michael, who had been frantically trying to wake her. He was convinced that it was a Psi-Cop trick – a mental implant designed to torment her until she gave into them. Talia almost wished that she could agree with him, but she couldn’t shake off the feeling that the images had not been meant to frighten her. Rather, they had been offered by way of explanation. Now she felt exhausted and nervy.

   Michael had sat with her, holding her, but in the end he had fallen asleep and she had stared into the darkness until her eyes were raw and burning. It was because of Lyta that Psi-Corps had found out about her telepathic ability. Because of Lyta that she had had to go on the run, and keep on running. They had been such good friends once, and Talia remembered the vibrant young woman that Lyta had been. To see her again, sitting next to Bester, her eyes so empty and lifeless…

   Talia shuddered and tried to block out the final echo of those words. Following the arrangement that she had made with Delenn, Talia had begun to receive instruction from the Minbari telepaths who were now stationed at the base. It had been only a couple of weeks, but it was already making a big difference – she could walk through the corridors without having to concentrate solely on blocking out the voices around her. Unfortunately, she still suffered from unwarranted voices coming into her head. Where it had once been the inane ramblings of someone wondering what sandwich to have for lunch (chicken substitute, or pork substitute?), it was now Lyta's agonised tones. She opened a file on her desk and began to read the case notes, but then halted.

   ‘If that’s what happened to Lyta - all that torture - then they could make her tell them anything they wanted…’

   She shook her head to clear it and turned back to her notes, but immediately stopped again.

   ‘There isn’t anyone she can turn to.’

   Talia stood up and paced aimlessly around her office. An idea that had crept into her mind some weeks before returned, demanding her attention. She wasn’t too sure what it was that she wanted to do, but she knew that she definitely needed someone else’s help. She ran over the list of her friends. Michael? Too soon. She’d need more solid arguments before she could persuade him. Sinclair or Sheridan? The same went for them, although Sheridan was probably eccentric enough…. Delenn had become a good friend, but there wasn’t really anything that she could do.

   Talia stood, lost in thought for some moments, and then her face cleared. She checked the time - there was still an hour before her next appointment and it shouldn’t - she hoped fervently - take too long. As she walked quickly through the winding passageways she rehearsed what she was going to say. This was not going to be one of the easiest conversations in the world, and it was only sheer determination that kept her placing one foot in front of another. Finally reaching her destination, she took a deep breath before entering. It was unusually quiet inside and Talia was relieved to see Dr Franklin perched on a desk, dictating his notes. She approached him hesitantly and cleared her throat. He looked up, startled, but then smiled warmly at her.

   ‘Hi! Almost perfect timing,’ he walked across to her. ‘I was gonna call you in on a psych. consult. I thought that you weren’t supposed to read people’s minds without their permission! Although,’ he added with a sigh, ‘anyone who read my mind would be sorely disappointed. My thoughts don’t seem to leave this place, even when the rest of me does.’

   ‘Sad man!’ she responded lightly, taking up his teasing tone.

   Franklin eyed her closely. ‘So, what’s it about, Talia?’

   She looked about her surroundings uneasily. ‘Can we go somewhere a little more private?’

   He turned his gaze to a nearby figure, shrouded from head to toe in a white sheet. ‘I don’t think that he’ll be telling anyone anything,’ he looked back to Talia’s pale face. ‘OK, let’s go in here.’

   He took hold of her elbow and gently steered her towards his small office.

   ‘Sorry about the mess,’ he said, as he moved a pile of flimsies, instruments and a half-eaten sandwich off a chair. He turned full circle; searching for a relatively clear surface, but in the end gave up and dumped the whole lot on the floor.

   ‘You know,’ Talia’s lips twitched slightly, ‘I always thought somehow that you’d be a lot neater than this. You give the impression of being a little…’

   ‘Anal?’

   ‘At times. In the nicest possible way, of course!’

   ‘Of course!’ Franklin agreed. ‘Now, are you going to tell me what’s going on?’

   Talia stared at her hands, clasped in her lap, before raising her head and asking abruptly: ‘Are you still involved in the Underground Railroad for rogue telepaths?’

   Franklin started visibly. A few years previously he had helped Talia to reach Degeba 3 in safety – she had stayed on after that for various reasons. But in all of that time, they had never spoken of it again. And of all the things that Franklin had thought that she might want to talk to him about, this was definitely the last. He liked Talia and they had become good friends, but she was almost impossible to read. It made her an excellent psychiatrist, but a very difficult person to deal with.

   ‘Why?’ he asked suspiciously.

   In as few words as possible, Talia explained about the message Lyta had sent her. The awful nightmares and the dark suspicion that was starting to take a very firm root in her mind.

   ‘I don’t think I want to know where you’re going with all of this,’ Franklin commented weakly, dreading what he was going to hear next. Talia fixed him with her clear, impassive eyes.

   ‘Lyta has asked for my help, and if what she showed me was even a tenth of what they’ve done to her over the years…’

   ‘Talia…’ Franklin groaned, running both hands over his face and head.

   ‘I have to know, Stephen,’ she said quietly.

   He looked at her, and began to choose his words with great care. ‘Talia, the telepaths that we help are already on the run. This Lyta Alexander is still on the inside. She’s a Psi-Cop, for God’s sake! Look, you’ve been under a lot of stress lately,’ he automatically adopted his very best ‘concerned doctor’ voice, ‘starting your training and the threat of the Corps breathing down your neck. It’s easy to get things out of proportion…’

   ‘I really don’t need the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head, Stephen.’ For a second, her eyes gleamed dangerously. ‘I know that you get messages coming out of the Corps – even out of the Cops’ headquarters,’ she smiled slightly to see Franklin’s surprised expression. ‘I wasn’t a trained telepath, remember? I couldn’t help it if I picked up things that people were bellowing at the top of their…inner voices! Anyway, that’s beside the point. Do you really mean to tell me that you can’t get messages into Psi-Corps?’

   There was a long silence in the confines of the office. Franklin’s mind whirled with the burden of information that Talia had just presented to him.

   ‘OK,’ he said finally. ‘Think of this: if Lyta really is under that degree of control, if the Corps can simply pick over her brain any time they want, then any message that we try to get to her would be picked up by them as well. It would put her in danger, as well as the…sympathisers…we have on the inside.’

   Talia nodded. ‘That’s very true. But if Lyta was able to transmit those images to me without Bester knowing – and he was standing right next to her – then there must still be some small part of her mind that is still hers. Or at least some of the conditioning is wearing off. Or…’ she gazed at him in mute appeal.

   ‘Or it could have been planned,’ he replied. ‘She could have connected with you under Bester’s instructions, to get this exact result.’

   ‘No!’ Talia shook her head vehemently. ‘It isn’t that…I…I can’t explain how I know that, I just…. No. She was asking for help. And now I’m asking you for help, Stephen. You know that I wouldn’t ask you if it weren’t important, but there isn’t anybody else I can turn to right now. Please. Even if it isn’t sending a message to Lyta, perhaps if you could just find out something about her…anything. Please.’

   Talia held his gaze determinedly. Franklin cursed himself as he felt himself weaken. If he refused point blank, Talia would still try to find a way of doing exactly what she wanted, and it would only increase the risk for her and everybody else.

   ‘Look,’ he said guardedly, ‘I’ll get in touch with some people I know…I’ll try to find out what I can for you. But you don’t go running off behind my back and doing something stupid. Deal?’

   Talia grinned happily. ‘Deal. Now, what was this psych. consult you needed me for?’

   

   

   Anxiety was not exactly conquered after her discussion with Franklin, but Talia felt considerably more relieved than she had for a few weeks. Not that the idea of being in contact with Psi-Corps actually promoted relaxation, but then life seemed to be full of these little ironies. She hurried back toward her office – she would have just enough time to scan the case notes before her next patient arrived. She returned the smiles and nods from various people she passed in the passageways and was starting to feel in a very good mood when she opened the door. Garibaldi was perched on the corner of her desk. He was tossing her paperweight up and down and staring moodily ahead.

   ‘Don’t tell me you’ve come for a consultation,’ she smiled as she approached him. ‘I don’t think that I can squeeze you in today. Maybe tonight…’

   ‘I just came to check that you’re OK,’ he replied. There was something about his calmness that she didn’t like. ‘After what happened last night I thought you might still be upset.’

   Talia felt her cheeks begin to burn slightly. She had been so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she had barely replied to anything that he had said to her that morning. And she knew that he didn’t really have the time to be sitting around in her office, waiting for her to show up.

   ‘It hasn’t been the easiest of days,’ she said and caught hold of his hand as his fingers closed around the paperweight again. ‘I’m really sorry that I wasn’t here, it’s a treat to see you in the middle of the day!’

   ‘Please don’t ask anymore questions!’ she pleaded silently

   She moved closer to him, keeping her eyes fixed on his face. She hated hiding things from him, and she hated herself for trying to distract him like this. But she couldn’t tell him everything. Not just yet. She reached out and ran her hand down the side of his face and was about to kiss him, when he pulled away from her.

   ‘I thought you’d be here. You usually are when you’re between patients.’

   Talia sighed inwardly. She should have remembered that he was suspicious to the point of paranoia. And that he knew her far too well just to be fobbed off with some vague excuse.

   ‘I was in Med Lab,’ she said lightly. There was immediate concern in his eyes and he leaned toward her.

   ‘Why? Is there something wrong? Are you sick?’

   ‘No, nothing like that,’ she smiled reassuringly. ‘Stephen needed a consult.’

   She saw his eyes narrow slightly as he looked at her; as if by sheer force of will he could wrest out of her mind the thing that she was holding back.

   ‘We were talking,’ she added reluctantly.

   ‘About what’s bothering you?’ he asked quickly.

   A brief pause.

   ‘Yes.’

   He leaned back on the desk, his body pulling away from her. ‘Oh. I see. So, you can’t talk to me, but you can talk to Franklin. Is that it?’ his voice began to rise and his enforced calm was starting to crack – anger and frustration bubbling up.

   ‘Michael…’ she started.

   ‘Don’t do that!’ he was almost shouting. ‘Don’t say ‘Michael’ in that oh-so-patient-and-long-suffering-saintly way, OK? Just don’t. If you don’t want me around and you’d rather go running off to the good doctor,’ he spat the words out, ‘then great. Fine. But just let me know!’

   Talia had backed away from him, her eyes widening in disbelief. Was that what all of this was about? It couldn’t be. He couldn’t really think that…

   ‘What is it you want to hear, Michael? That I’m having an affair with Stephen? God, I know that you have personal issues that could single-handedly floor a small army, but this is ridiculous!’ There was nothing patient in Talia’s tone as she glared back at him. ‘I’m with you, I love you. Why do you find that so hard to accept?’

   Garibaldi looked away from her briefly, suddenly feeling ashamed of himself. He knew, rationally, that nothing was going on between Talia and anyone else. But she had hit the proverbial nail squarely on its head when she had asked that final question. Maybe because deep down he still felt unworthy of her, and part of him lived in fear that one day she would wake up and realise that, and leave him. Talia’s eyes were still blazing with anger, but she was obviously very hurt by his implied allegation. He raged against himself for causing it, but – in typical Garibaldi mode – he couldn’t simply back down, even if he wanted to.

   ‘But you’d still rather talk to him?’ he sounded less aggressive, but still defensive.

   Talia took a steadying breath and picked her next words with care. ‘I do talk to you, Michael, in case you hadn’t noticed. And so what if there are things that I tell Stephen in confidence? He is a doctor, after all. And he’s as much my friend as he is yours – or would you like to call him in here and try to bully him as well?’

   He started at her words and felt the need to object, but a more logical voice told him that he was on a course to destroy the best things in his life.

   ‘I’m an idiot,’ he admitted humbly.

   ‘Yes, you are!’ she snapped back. She still stood across the room, her back against the wall, unable to stop her heart from softening when she saw his shoulders droop and little and his head lower.

   ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, before she had a chance to do anything. ‘I know all of this has been real tough on you, and I…’ he sighed in exasperation – he never had any trouble in tearing a strip off someone, but whenever he wanted to say something meaningful the words simply wouldn’t come. ‘I just don’t know what to do, Talia. And I know I should be grateful if someone else can help you, but I’m not. I want it to be me and when it isn’t I feel like I’ve let you down.’

   ‘You’ve never let me down,’ she replied resolutely

   Garibaldi raised his head and a relieved smile finally broke across his face. ‘That’s kinda hard to believe: I managed to screw up just about everything else.’

   ‘Why are you so hard on yourself?’ she asked softly. ‘No one else thinks that about you. You’re an EarthForce Commander; everyone here trusts you and relies on you. Why can’t you do the same?’

   ‘Instead of you having to bolster my ego all the time?’ he asked with a rueful grin.

   ‘Don’t start again!’ there was a warning note in Talia’s voice, but the anger had left her face. Garibaldi crossed the room and pulled her towards him, his arms circling her waist.

   ‘Maybe I should try this again. Are you OK?’

   Talia smiled at him, her hands resting lightly on his chest. ‘Yes, I’m OK. Thank-you for stopping by to find out.’

   His arms tightened around her and he inclined his head to kiss her tenderly. Talia’s arms slipped around his neck, bringing them closer together and the kiss deepened as they relaxed into the embrace.

   ‘Now, wasn’t that so much easier?’ Talia asked, as they pulled apart.

   ‘Uh-huh. And in some cases I’m a very fast learner! Now, you’ve got a patient and I’m on duty, but why don’t I cook us dinner tonight and we’ll have a nice evening in, just the two of us?’

   Talia smiled. ‘Excellent progress! At this rate I’ll be the one getting paranoid – someone else might come along and snap you up!’

   ‘No way! Not a chance in hell!’ he announced and pulled her into another passionate kiss. He sighed regretfully when he finally loosened his hold around her and walked across the room. Talia followed him with her eyes until the door closed after him and then sat back down at her desk, retrieving her mirror from the drawer once again. She raised it up to her face and froze. Lyta’s pale face and dark, dead eyes stared back at her. Talia flung the mirror back into the drawer and slammed it shut, a wave of nausea gripping her. She sat, her hands pressed hard over her mouth, making violent efforts to bring her nerves back under control, while the door-chime signalled the arrival of her next patient.

   

   

   There was a determined stillness in the small office. Every now and again a monitor would let out a faint blip and the two occupants would snap their heads up before returning to the small ocean of paperwork that littered their desks. Sinclair glanced up from the flimsy he was reading, his eye immediately arrested by the expression on his colleague’s face. A frown of furious concentration had appeared between his brows, and it was rapidly contorting into a look of horrified bemusement. Finally, Sheridan flung the offending flimsy across the room and leapt out of his chair.

   ‘What the hell kinda language are these things written in anyway? I know I’m speaking English – I recognise the sound. But that…’ he passed a hand through his hair. ‘I’m no good at this, Jeff. Sitting behind a desk trying to navigate through all that bureaucratic nonsense… It just isn’t me.’

   ‘I know,’ Sinclair stretched his arms out and stared disconsolately at a monitor. ‘But it has to be done. And as we’re what passes for the top guys around here…’ Sheridan let out a groan. ‘I don’t like it either. Y’know, I think they forget we’re fighting a war out here. Like we’ve got nothing better to do than sit around and decipher all of this,’ he gestured towards a large pile that promptly tottered and fell onto the floor. ‘Great,’ he said flatly, trying to ignore Sheridan’s laughter. ‘That’s just great.’

   ‘Look, if that’s the worst thing you have to deal with today,’ Sheridan replied, struggling to compose his features into something that resembled sobriety, ‘then you’re onto a good thing. Don’t knock it.’

   As Sinclair gathered the scattered files together, Sheridan observed him critically. Just about everyone who worked in the Resistance had the same sort of expression in their eyes - wearied, determined and a little scared. He saw it often enough looking back at him out of the bathroom mirror, right before he squashed it firmly back down into the most inaccessible corner of his mind. But there was something else in Sinclair's expression that Sheridan found worrying. There would be a flash, like a paralysing self-doubt, which was followed by a long period of haunted introspection. And it was becoming more frequent, so that Sinclair's habitual expression was fast becoming that of a man who was caged. Sheridan shifted uncomfortably. They were soldiers, leaders of an armed force against an enemy that threatened to wipe out every sentient race in the Galaxy. And yet the prospect of staring down the throat of a Shadow battle cruiser armed with nothing more than the EarthForce equivalent of a peashooter was easier than the thought of trying to find out what Sinclair's problem might be. Sinclair, for his part, had recaptured his files and sorted them methodically into a neat pile. He turned around and met Sheridan's penetrating stare.

   'What?' he frowned, unsettled.

   Sheridan roused himself and raised an enquiring eyebrow. 'Huh? Oh, nothing. It's just... No, nothing.'

   'That went well,' his sub-conscience volunteered. 'Always a very good method for helping someone: pretend nothing's happening!'

   'Really?' Sinclair watched as Sheridan hunched over the papers on his desk. 'I thought maybe you wanted to ask me something.'

   Sheridan looked up and took a deep breath. 'No. I was just miles away.'

   'Caring, compassionate friendship, zero. Schmuck-hood, two.'

   ‘Shut. Up,' he told himself angrily.

   Stillness and silence descended once again, broken only by the constant drone of the generators, and the occasional rumble from deep within the planet's core. Outside the confines of that small room, business continued as always: pilots returned from reconnaissance missions, and the next squadron went up to take their place. Maintenance crews attempted to hold the crumbling fabric of the labyrinthine complex together, while in the War Room the officers of a dozen different armies tirelessly plotted the movements of both the Resistance and the Shadow forces. Med Lab technicians tended the wounded and tried to forget the dead. Michael Garibaldi kept a watchful eye over the vast assembly of alien races and tried not to distract himself with concerns over his increasingly nervy lover. Talia Winters counselled and consoled her patients, and waited impatiently for a message from Franklin.

   ‘I've got a question for you, John,’ Sinclair said, a couple of hours after their last exchange. Sheridan looked up.

   'Since when did the Shadows decide to favour EarthForce by not firing on our ships?'

   'What are you talking about?' Sheridan stood up and walked around the desks until he could see the monitor over Sinclair’s shoulder. The screen displayed information about an encounter between a Shadow fleet and another Resistance cell on the far side of the Galaxy. There had been, as always, enormous damage inflicted on the Resistance and all of the races involved had suffered casualties. Except for EarthForce. Even though the ships had engaged the vessels, their attack, specifically, had not been reciprocated. Sheridan leaned heavily against Sinclair’s desk and stared blankly at what he had just been reading.

   ‘That doesn’t make any sense. Unless they had a huge number of telepaths on board to form a protective barrier…’

   Sinclair shook his head. ‘It doesn’t say.’

   ‘It doesn’t actually say anything much,’ Sheridan growled. He scanned the report again and then let out an impatient sigh. ‘Why haven’t we heard about this before? Something like this is an important development, not just an incidental anecdote to be filed with the routine reports.’

   Sinclair shrugged slightly. ‘Obviously the War Council didn’t think it was important enough.’

   ‘Why not?’ Sheridan was staring beyond Sinclair, beyond the confines of the office – and even though he responded to his friend’s promptings, it was obvious that he was lost in his own thoughts. ‘Everything we know about the Shadows shows that they’re methodical, systematic… In any encounter they take out each and every vessel they can, no matter what race it belongs to. So why change?’

   Sinclair was re-reading the information, trying to find something that they may have overlooked. ‘I don’t know. That’s what bothers me, too. A change in strategy on their part is important, but you’d think the Council was hoping that we’d overlook this particular item of interest. I’ll tell you something else,’ Sinclair leaned back in his chair. ‘The other races are gonna want to have some answers too, especially when they’ve lost people of their own.’

   Sheridan began to pace the floor, his chin resting in one hand. ‘I haven’t heard anyone else talking about it,’ he said slowly, ‘and this is already a few days old. None of the Drazi or Centauri representatives, and they’d be the first to come banging on our door.’

   ‘How about the Minbari?’ Sinclair enquired.

   Sheridan paused in his circuit and gave him a sharp look. ‘What? Banging on the door?’ he inquired sarcastically.

   Sinclair allowed himself a grin. ‘Obviously you have other things to discuss!’ he was rewarded with an admonishing glare from Sheridan. ‘OK, sorry. But if Delenn had heard anything about this…?’ he looked at his friend expectantly.

   The Minbari had a strange relationship with the truth: they didn’t lie, but they were past masters at bending and withholding the truth to such a degree that hours’ worth of conversation could result in the interlocutor knowing less by the end than they had in the beginning. But in this case, there was no reason for any kind of concealment.

   ‘If the Minbari knew they’d be protesting as loudly as anyone else,’ he replied and walked back to his own desk.

   ‘Maybe we’re just overreacting,’ Sinclair said, trying to inject hopefulness into his voice. ‘Some days I feel like I’ve joined the Garibaldi School of Paranoia. Still,’ he cast his eye over the display one final time and then switched the monitor off, ‘if no one else thinks it’s that important I suppose we should just worry about our own defences.’

   There was an indeterminate grunt of assent from the other side of the room. Sheridan continued with the tiresome job of reading the unending stream of paperwork, but he didn’t see a word that passed before his eyes. His mind was filled with a thousand thoughts that he couldn’t reveal, a thousand secrets that he’d sooner not know.

   There was enormous relief when the hour finally came that marked the end of their shift. A brief respite before the whole thing started all over again. Sinclair stretched out and then did up the top buttons of his jacket.

   ‘Wanna come back to ours for supper?’ he offered.

   Sheridan was still at his desk and looked up vaguely at Sinclair’s words. ‘Huh? Oh, thanks, but…er… I’ve got some other stuff I have to do.’

   ‘Hot date?’ Sinclair smiled.

   ‘Yeah, hot date with the laundrette!’ Sheridan replied, grinning.

   ‘You’re not seeing Delenn tonight, then?’ he asked curiously.

   ‘Is there a reason why everyone around here is so fascinated with my private life?’ Sheridan demanded in exasperation.

   Sinclair laughed. ‘We have so few pleasures here, John. I’ll see you later then,’ he added as he left.

   ‘Yeah, later,’ Sheridan replied. The smile rapidly faded from his face once Sinclair had gone and he turned back to the monitor, re-reading the transmission that had come through for him on a secure channel some minutes before. He was not a naturally suspicious person. And so the darker knowledges that he had – out of necessity – to keep to himself, jarred unpleasantly with his ebullient personality.

   ‘Bad things come in threes,’ he thought to himself. ‘I’ve already had two worrying pieces of news today. What the hell will be next?’

   He erased the message and tidied his desk in a meticulous, military fashion. As he walked through the corridors, passers-by catching sight of the hard set of his face averted their gaze and got out of his way.

   

   

   ‘Is this it?’ Talia asked quickly.

   ‘It’s the best we could do,’ Franklin replied. ‘Don’t forget we’re dealing with very high-ranking people here. It isn’t easy to find out anything.’

   ‘I know,’ she smiled apologetically. ‘And I’m really grateful for this, Stephen. God, I’m putting people’s lives at risk…’

   ‘Well, it’s done now,’ he answered dryly. He cast a critical eye over Talia and decided that he wasn’t happy with what he saw. Her normally luminous skin was far paler than usual, and the heavy circles under her eyes were starting to resemble bruises. ‘Are you getting any sleep?’ he asked, his tone softer.

   Talia sighed and shook her head. ‘Not much. The dreams are getting worse.’

   ‘Maybe you should try talking to your instructor…’ he broke off, friendship managing to halt his doctor’s instincts. ‘From what our people were able to find out, it looks like you were right. Lyta Alexander has been, according to rumour, subjected to conditioning and various other Psi-Corps…experiments.’

   Talia flinched, the thought of it slicing through her mind like a steel blade. ‘For a long time I was angry with her,’ she said. ‘Angry because she’d…betrayed me. Sounds a little melodramatic, doesn’t it? Betrayed? And then when I thought that the Corps might’ve literally torn it out of her mind, I wanted it to be true – because it was some kind of justification. Now…now I wish that I’d been right the first time. For her sake. What they’ve done to her, Stephen… I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.’

   Franklin took hold of her hand and squeezed it gently. ‘I understand, Talia. And I’m sorry, really. The worst part of all of this is that she isn’t the only one. God knows how many others have been through the same thing.’

   ‘I know.’ Talia met his gaze and he was struck, again, by how hollow her eyes looked. ‘And I could have been one of them,’ her voice sank until it was barely above a whisper.

   ‘Well, this is interesting,’ Sheridan’s voice cut through the stillness.

   They both stared up at the tall figure standing in the doorway of Franklin’s tiny office. His eyes were blazing and Talia felt her heart sink. She wasn’t ready for this sort of confrontation.

   ‘Now, you might have to explain this one to me, because I don’t really get it,’ he continued in a tone laden with sarcasm. It was when he had that particular expression on his face, Franklin thought glumly, that you normally wanted to take cover. ‘Why would our greatly respected doctor – who is, incidentally, known to have helped telepaths get away from Psi-Corps – and someone who has spent most of her life trying to avoid that same organization, be receiving coded transmissions from officials within, not just Psi-Corps, but the Psi-Cops?’ he looked from one to the other. Franklin had jolted in his seat at Sheridan’s final words and was staring at him in disbelief.

   ‘How do you know about that?’

   A faint grimace passed over Sheridan’s face. ‘That’s the thing about secrets, Stephen, they’re like amoebas: you start off with one and the next time you look they’ve produced a whole lot more.’

   ‘It isn’t what you’re thinking,’ Talia stated hastily.

   Sheridan didn’t reply, but simply turned his gaze upon her.

   ‘That probably wasn’t the best thing you could’ve said,’ Franklin muttered and then stood up, closing the slight distance between himself and Sheridan. ‘Look, John, I know what this looks like but I…we…can explain.’

   ‘I think you better had,’ Sheridan replied.

   Franklin felt extremely unsettled. Cloak-‘n-dagger dealings with Psi-Corps would make anyone suspicious – but how could Sheridan even know about that? And his attitude at the moment was so…Franklin couldn’t put his finger on it, but this reaction was just not the John Sheridan he knew. Talia had also risen, and was self-consciously smoothing her hair and straightening her jacket.

   ‘I’d been planning on this anyway, Stephen,’ she said and then met Sheridan’s eyes, her own taking on an extra wariness. ‘Just not quite this soon.’

   

   

   They had filed into Sinclair’s quarters. Sheridan had demanded an explanation and had been surprised when Talia had insisted on telling not only him; but Sinclair, Catherine and Garibaldi as well. The six of them were now perched around the living room and Talia could feel eyes boring into her as she began to explain how, and why, she had asked for Franklin’s help.

   ‘That’s what you were talking to him about last week!’ Garibaldi exclaimed, thunderstruck. ‘Why the hell didn’t you tell me?’

   ‘Because I knew what you’d be like!’ Talia ran her hands through her hair impatiently. ‘Look, I didn’t want anyone to know until I knew more. I had to get it straight in my own mind first – is that really so hard to understand?’

   ‘There are people working inside the Corps who don’t go along with the whole Corps ideology,’ Franklin continued the story. ‘They’ve helped us to get telepaths out of the way before, but they normally contact us and give us the names. This time I made the initial contact and the information about Lyta came through today. There are very few people who actually know about any of this – which is why I’d really like to know how you found out about it,’ there was a hint of accusation in his tone as he turned to Sheridan.

   Sheridan looked uncomfortable. He turned his gaze from Franklin to the others in the room and then back again. ‘All right,’ he said after a while. ‘This isn’t exactly easy.’

   He took a few paces around the room and then seemed to come to a conclusion. ‘About a year ago I was approached by a group of EarthForce officers who were worried about some…irregularities within EarthGov, EarthForce and Psi-Corps.’

   ‘What kind of irregularities?’ Sinclair asked.

   ‘Black projects, for want of a better phrase. The Corps conducting some deeply unpleasant experiments on both telepaths and normals. And even rumours about some EarthForce officers deliberately sabotaging strikes against the Shadows. So they formed a group to gather intelligence – find out how much was just rumour and conjecture. As a result, there are people monitoring the Corps and the transmissions that come out of there. So when one made its way to you, Stephen, a lot of people wanted to know why.’

   ‘Whoa! Just back up a minute here,’ Garibaldi was staring at Sheridan. ‘Intelligence gathering? You’ve been spying on us!’

   He jumped up from his seat and advanced on Sheridan. ‘Black projects? You think that we’re involved in that kind of…of…sickness?’

   ‘Of course not!’ Sheridan thundered back. ‘I didn’t enjoy keeping this to myself, believe me. Some of the things I’ve found out about are enough to make you physically sick. The fewer people who knew about it the better…’

   ‘Even though we’re your friends?’ Sinclair broke in. It had taken a few moments for him to take in what he was hearing and he was still having a hard time believing it. ‘We’re the people you’re meant to trust, John. I mean, for God’s sake, we work together, day after day in the same office and you couldn’t tell me what you were doing?’

   ‘You have no idea about some of the things that have been going on,’ an involuntary spasm of disgust passed over Sheridan’s face as he replied.

   ‘No, I don’t. That’s the whole damn point, John. You should have told us!’

   There was a long, unpleasant silence during which time Sheridan took a series of deep, steadying breaths. ‘I never mistrusted anyone here,’ his voice was low with the effort of self-control. ‘That’s why I was so shocked when I was told that Stephen had been contacted by Psi-Corps. And as for not telling any of you, I couldn’t. Too many people’s lives would be put at risk, including yours,’ he cut across the objection that Sinclair had been about to make. ‘Have any of you stopped to think what would happen if EarthForce found about this? The officers involved would be court-martialed, at best – and based on what we’ve found out, more probably assassinated. Now I might be prepared to run that risk myself, but Heaven forbid that I might actually have thought it better not to expose my friends to that. But, if you would rather believe that I’ve been spying on all of you, fine. Go right ahead.’

   He glanced around the room – everyone seemed to have been frozen to the spot – and then headed toward the door. Franklin shook himself and moved to intercept him.

   ‘John…’

   The door slid shut silently after him.

   

   

   A vista of unutterable beauty was spread out below him. The perfect order and symmetry of space, the tiny pinpoints of fire that were the stars. At times, space seemed like a living creature and Sheridan wondered if the ferocity and cruelty of the beings that inhabited it puzzled it. He smiled to himself – Delenn’s thoughts about the Universe were starting to rub off on him.

   As his Starfury continued its lonely voyage, Sheridan began to relax. He had been unable to sleep after the scene in Sinclair’s quarters and had spent most of the night demolishing the piles of paperwork that were still left. Then, in the early hours, he had been overcome by a huge sense of claustrophobia, and had only been able to breath freely again when he had taken a Starfury out and was soaring through that calm expanse.

   He tried to consider the situation rationally, but he kept feeling anger boiling up inside and would immediately suppress it. He didn’t want to feel that way. He checked the chronometer and then gazed back out. For a few seconds he toyed with the idea of simply taking off and not going back. Then he turned the Starfury around and headed back to the port. The descent from the port back down to the main compound was a long one, and Sheridan tried to ignore the fact that a few miles of rock were closing in over his head. Life, he reflected, was never exactly pretty where they were, but this new situation had just made it about a million times worse. He divested himself of the heavy suit that was mandatory before you set a toe inside a Starfury and flung it back into a locker.

   ‘I see that you haven’t quite finished steaming yet,’ Delenn’s voice came from behind him.

   She was leaning against the doorway and watching him with a half-amused, half-concerned expression.

   ‘I think you mean “letting off steam”,’ he replied with a slight smile, when he had worked out what she was saying. He looked ruefully at the crumpled heap that represented his flying gear. ‘No, it doesn’t look like it.’

   She advanced toward him and rested her hands lightly on his shoulders, looking anxiously into his face. ‘You should get some rest. You look tired, John’

   ‘Yeah, well…’ he answered gruffly. Delenn remained in front of him, her eyes faintly reproachful and as Sheridan looked at her, a genuine smile lit up his face. ‘I’m a lot better for seeing you, though!’

   Delenn returned his smile and by a common accord they made their way toward the main walkways. As they entered one of the many turbo-lifts, Sheridan glanced at her out of the corner of his eye.

   ‘Why do I get the feeling you were sent to find me?’ he asked eventually.

   ‘I was not sent,’ Delenn replied, with a tone that implied that no one would dare send her anywhere. ‘Captain Sinclair told me what had happened. And then Talia…’

   ‘I see…’

   ‘And then Commander Garibaldi,’ she concluded.

   Sheridan stopped and looked at her. ‘What, only three? Are you sure the flies on the wall didn’t join in?’

   Delenn stared at him, perplexed, but decided not to pursue his last question. ‘John, what is wrong? This isn’t you.’

   He sighed impatiently, running his hand through his hair and then halted the lift. ‘I don’t like scurrying around in the dark, Delenn. I like things out in the open, where everyone can have a good look at them. But I’ve kept things to myself because I’m trying to do what’s right, because I don’t want the people I care about to be hurt anymore than they have been already. And then I find out that Stephen and Talia are getting themselves mixed up in God knows what with Psi-Corps – Stephen may be involved with the underground, but he still doesn’t know half of what goes on in there, and Talia,’ he shook his head in disbelief. ‘Talia’s lucky Bester didn’t carry her off the last time, and now she’s just looking for trouble. But somehow, somehow, I’m the one who’s the bad guy in all of this. Can you explain that?’

   Delenn had not tried to interrupt him during this outpouring and now they stood facing each other. ‘Are you sure that’s not just how you feel yourself?’ she asked gently.

   ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

   ‘John, you said yourself that you dislike secrets, keeping things hidden. You don’t feel right about it. And it has shocked Sinclair and the others because it is so unexpected. You are the last person they would think would be involved in something so secretive. And I think that you have felt guilty about it for a long time.’

   Sheridan looked away from her and fiddled with the control panel.

   ‘And because you feel guilty, you expect your friends to be disgusted or angry, so that you can feel justified in defending yourself. Even though you have not done anything wrong.’

   Sheridan gazed at her thoughtfully for a few moments. ‘That isn’t fair,’ he said at last. ‘I try to create a charismatic persona and you unpick it in about five seconds flat.’

   Delenn felt relieved to hear the humorous tone in his voice. ‘They are worried about you,’ she said, pressing home her case. ‘Nothing has changed. It just took a little while for them to become accustomed to the idea, that’s all.’

   He cupped her chin in his hand, gently stroking her cheek with his thumb and then drew her into his arms and rested his head on top of hers.

   ‘It’s a good thing that one of us has some sense around here.’ He set the lift in motion again. ‘C’mon, time for me to start behaving like a grown up again!’

   The doors parted and they swept past the small group that had been waiting on the seemingly stuck lift, and so unwittingly provided the gossip for the rest of the day.

   

   

   Garibaldi turned his sardonic gaze toward the doorway as Sheridan and Delenn entered the War Room. ‘Look out,’ he remarked, ‘it’s the Mata Hari of Degeba 3. Don’t tell him what you had for breakfast – he’ll put it in a report!’

   Sheridan nodded patiently. ‘Anything else?’ he asked.

   

   ‘Yeah,’ Garibaldi leapt out of his seat and his arm conspiratorially around Sheridan’s shoulders. ‘The next time you need to convene a meeting, I’ll be the guy on the corner with a copy of Eye on Minbar under one arm and smoking two cigarettes!’

   ‘You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?’ Sheridan didn’t quite manage to look reproachful. The truth was that he had never been so glad to be on the receiving end of Garibaldi’s wit in his life. ‘Why don’t you just make a list of all the jokes you want to make and I’ll read one each morning before breakfast?’

   ‘Hey c’mon, Captain,’ Garibaldi grinned at him. ‘An opportunity to embarrass you in public is just too good to pass up! Anyway, I’ve already worked out the slogan for you: “We could tell you that we’re working in your best interests, but we’d have to kill you afterwards”. I think it’s kinda catchy.’

   Sheridan took his place at the table and noticed as he sat down that, not only was everyone else looking at him with friendly encouragement, but also the War Room was deserted. It didn’t take a genius to work out that something was going on. Delenn was now seated between Sinclair and Talia and she briefly caught Sheridan’s gaze; a questioning look in her eyes. Sheridan shrugged slightly and glanced around the table, thinking that he really should have listened to his horoscope that morning a few years back, when it had told him that a change of scenery could result in chaos. It was the same day he had been posted here.

   ‘Talia has something she wants to put before us,’ Sinclair said. ‘In confidence – which is why we’ve cleared the War Room. It’s the one place guaranteed to be absolutely private.’

   Talia was perfectly erect in her chair and she looked entirely calm and self-possessed. ‘As you’re probably all aware, I’ve been suffering from nightmares and…images…over the last couple of weeks. All of which have concerned Lyta Alexander and what she showed me when she was here. I thought that she was trying to tell me what Psi-Cops had done to her and the information that Stephen got for me confirmed it, and so did what you told us last night,’ she looked at Sheridan. ‘Lyta is the victim of one of those Black Projects you were talking about. And she asked me for help. There’s a part of her that they haven’t been able to touch, and if that’s true then there might be a chance that what they’ve done can be reversed. But even if it can’t she still deserves something better than the way she’s living now. I owe it to her to try.’

   ‘Even though she betrayed you?’ Franklin asked softly.

   Talia tossed her head defiantly. ‘That wasn’t her fault. Anyway, we’re both telepaths…’ she felt Garibaldi look at her sharply. It wasn’t a way that she normally defined herself, but it was also an inescapable fact.

   ‘Let me just make sure that I’ve got this clear,’ Sinclair said. ‘You really are proposing that we break Lyta Alexander out of Psi-Corps?’

   ‘Yes.’

   He sighed. ‘The Corps answers to EarthGov, same as us. Technically, what you’re asking of us is treason!’ Sinclair leaned across the table. ‘Look, Talia, it’s not that I’m not sympathetic, or that I don’t think that what’s happened to her is terrible, but it’s an incredible risk to take for someone.’

   ‘Talia, I know you’ve told us that these images you keep seeing are very disturbing, but what are they?’ Sheridan posed the question cautiously. ‘I mean, what exactly is that they’ve done to her? Maybe if we could understand this better we could think of a way of helping you.’

   Talia frowned. ‘It’s hard to explain,’ she said slowly. ‘I can’t quite get a grip on it myself. I…I could show you,’ she concluded a little uncertainly and glanced around the table. There was the array of shrugged shoulders and vague mutters that are traditionally taken for assent.

   ‘It’s best if you all relax…and…don’t think of anything.’

   Talia had a sense of unreality, as though she were giving a performance, and half-wondered if they expected her to pull a rabbit out of a hat as an encore. She concentrated on the pictures in her head and detached herself from them, trying to make the transmission of them easier. She reached out with her mind to the others: it was like finding points of warmth and light in the darkness. As Talia began to replay the scenes, she could almost see herself standing to one side, watching. She could feel the location of each separate psyche – Franklin, Sinclair, Sheridan… A sudden flash of red light seared through her consciousness and Talia retreated from him. She found herself reaching for Delenn and immediately the light cut through her again, but this time a green light pulsated against it and Talia felt an explosion of pain in her head. She withdrew completely and was subsumed in darkness. Coming back to reality was like breaking the surface of a cold, black sea.

   Delenn was holding her head in her hands while Sheridan was gasping for breath.

   ‘What the hell was that?’ he demanded, meeting Talia’s eyes.

   ‘I don’t know, it’s never happened before,’ her voice was shaking as she replied.

   ‘What happened?’ Sinclair asked. He was looking between the three of them, puzzled.

   ‘Didn’t you see that? Feel that?’ Sheridan asked.

   ‘It only started when I touched your mind, directly,’ Talia said to him. ‘Then when I found Delenn it was even worse.’

   ‘Will someone mind telling me what’s going on?’ Garibaldi asked loudly.

   Sheridan and Talia tried to explain what had happened; Delenn remained silent. She was staring ahead, frowning slightly, and only when they had finished talking did she speak.

   ‘Talia, will you show me the images again?’

   Talia stared at her in amazement.

   ‘I know that it is not pleasant, but I think that it may be important.’

   She held Talia’s gaze with her own, as though willing her to trust her.

   Talia yielded, fighting down the instinct to refuse.

   They looked deeply into one another’s eyes and as Talia reached out again into the darkness, she felt resistance.

   ‘You’re fighting me,’ she told Delenn. It was a natural defence against the pain that was to come.

   After a few seconds, the barrier crumbled and Talia found that area of light. Almost as soon as she had started to display the sequence again, the red light flashed behind her eyes and a terrible scream echoed through her brain. The redness seemed to be streaming out towards something and then it slammed into a green glow. Talia’s felt her whole body shuddering and was aware of Delenn’s gasps of pain, but she gritted her teeth and tried to push past both lights.

   She was seeing it all through Lyta’s eyes. Strapped down…faces hanging over her…one of them was Bester. Yes, definitely Bester! Something was lifted from a nearby table…it was black, and seemed to shimmer and shift before her eyes. They were placing it over her face. The screaming in her head grew more intense and the two sides were threatening to tear her apart. Talia extricated herself, trying not to hurt either of them any further. The lights receded and the screaming stopped.

   Franklin had wanted to get the two of them down to Meb Lab, but both Talia and Delenn insisted that they had quite recovered form the ordeal.

   ‘That’s the first time that I’ve seen anything so detailed before,’ Talia said. She hoped fervently that Delenn had seen everything she’d wanted to see and wouldn’t make a repeat request. ‘It’s strange, for some reason – I don’t know why – I think it was on Mars.’

   ‘Why Mars?’ Sheridan asked a little sharply.

   Talia sighed. ‘I don’t know, it just came into my head. But…’ She frowned, trying to remember. ‘Years ago, when I knew Lyta properly… Well, we were really good friends – best friends, I suppose. Anyway, we had planned to go on holiday together. Centauri Prime, as I recall.’ Talia smiled briefly at the memory. ‘Just before we were meant to go Lyta was called away to the Mars colony – obviously it was Psi-Corps business, but I didn’t know that then. When she came back, she wasn’t the same. It wasn’t long after that that the Corps came calling and I started running.’

   Sheridan had rested his chin in his hand and was glaring at the table.

   ‘John, what is it?’ Sinclair felt increasingly uneasy as he watched his friend.

   Sheridan glanced around at them. He didn’t reply, but leaned toward Delenn instead. ‘Why did you want to see the images again?’

   Delenn looked at him thoughtfully. ‘When Talia first showed us what she had been seeing, I caught a glimpse of something. I was not certain what it was. The second time, I saw it more clearly and I recognized it.’

   ‘That thing they put over her face?’ Talia felt a residual coldness run through her. ‘You’ve seen it before?’

   ‘Not exactly,’ Delenn replied carefully. ‘My people have been fighting the Shadows for far longer than yours. We have many more…examples…of their power than you have and many descriptions of items that were retrieved from destroyed ships or in abandoned bases. I am still not certain, but I believe that the instrument they were using came from a Shadow vessel.’

   Sheridan let out an audible groan and stood up. He started pacing the floor. There was a stunned silence in the room. Sinclair finally turned and watched Sheridan’s progress before saying, ‘Why do I get the feeling you’re about to drop another bombshell on us?’

   ‘There’ve been rumours going around for some time now,’ Sheridan said, still circling the table, ‘that the remnants of a Shadow vessel had been found on Mars and investigated, covertly, by various branches of EarthGov.’

   ‘Is it true?’ Garibaldi asked.

   ‘We’ve never been able to find out. One story is that it was an ancient ship; others say that it was shot down over Mars at the time. Either way, we don’t know if it did actually happen, but anyone who’s ever mentioned it has referred it back to roughly the time-frame you’re talking about.’ He had stopped opposite Talia.

   ‘Why would Psi-Corps want to alter their own telepaths with Shadow technology?’ Franklin looked searchingly at them. ‘I mean, their people are right up there on the front line these days, they’re fighting with us…’

   ‘And why would the Shadows suddenly not want to fire on an EarthForce ship?’ Sinclair wondered silently. ‘John,’ he said aloud, ‘yesterday you said your group had found instances of strikes against the Shadows being sabotaged by EarthForce officers. When did that begin?’

   ‘It’s been going on for a long time,’ Sheridan replied thoughtfully. ‘But it’s become more frequent over the last few months… Which would be about the same time that telepaths started being assigned to the war ships. Oh my God, why didn’t see that before?’ He ran his hand through his hair, trying to take in the implications.

   ‘About how many Psi-Corps telepaths do we have here?’ Franklin asked quietly.

   ‘Too many,’ Garibaldi replied grimly.

   ‘What would Psi-Corps gain from it?’ Sheridan sat down again. ‘They’ve already lost telepaths in this war, same as every other race.’

   ‘I’ve never heard that the Corps was that concerned about Human life – or any life, come to think of it,’ Garibaldi responded tartly. ‘But that still doesn’t explain why Talia reacted so badly to you and Delenn.’

   Sheridan met her eyes, and the same thought floated across their minds.

   ‘The Vorlons,’ Delenn said softly.

   Garibaldi leaned back in is chair and rubbed his face. ‘Ok, this is just getting too weird now!’

   ‘The Vorlons have been enemies of the Shadows for many thousands of years,’ Delenn said. ‘John and I have both been touched by them – none of us can know exactly what the consequences of that would be. But surely it is not unimaginable that those who have been touched by the Vorlon would react against those who have been touched by the Shadows?’

   ‘Which brings us back to the question,’ Franklin stated. ‘If Lyta has been altered by Psi-Corps – or even more worryingly, by Shadow tech – how has she been able to break through that and send a message to Talia when Bester was sitting right next to her?’

   ‘Was Lyta a very strong telepath?’ Sheridan asked.

   ‘I’m not sure,’ Talia sighed, shaking her head. ‘I don’t think so. Just average, I think – maybe a bit stronger than me, but not much.’

   ‘Well, she’s a helluva lot stronger now,’ Sinclair said. ‘It’s lucky neither of you are telepaths,’ he added to Sheridan and Delenn. ‘If that’s what Shadow tech did to Lyta Alexander, I hate to think what the Vorlons would have done to you!’

   Sheridan met Delenn’s eyes again.

   ‘What have they done to us already?’ He recalled the shimmering green wall that had suddenly sprung up behind his eyes, and the whole, hellish experience at the hands of the Vorlons.

   ‘I just want to run this through one more time to make sure that I’ve got it,’ Sinclair leaned heavily on the table, and began to pick off points on his fingers. ‘We have a high-ranking Psi-Cop who has been altered through Shadow tech. There’s the possibility that there are other telepaths who have been conditioned in the same way. We also have situations of strikes against the Shadows being scuppered by EarthForce officers – with the added attraction that they may have been acting under the influence of said telepaths…’

   ‘And come the day the Vorlons ever decide to actually join us out here,’ Franklin put in, ‘wouldn’t the Shadow-enhanced telepaths’ first instinct be to attack them?’

   There was a low murmur of agreement around the table.

   ‘And we know of one telepath, who is also the right hand of the man who we know was involved in these experiments in the first place, who has broken through the conditioning. Now if there are other telepaths who are working to a pro-Shadow agenda, it’s possible that it’s against their will. If Lyta has regained control over herself, would she be able to break someone else's conditioning?’

   ‘Do you really think that Psi-Corps would work against Earth?’ Talia was incredulous. She still had bad memories of her own encounter with the Shadows – why would anyone choose to work with them?

   ‘It’s starting to sound like a possibility,’ Sinclair answered.

   ‘If it is true that EarthForce could be used to disrupt defensive strikes against the Shadows,’ Delenn added, ‘then it is possible that they could go so far as to attack other Resistance ships. We could all be in danger from this.’

   Her words jolted all of them. For the past few hours they had been so wrapped up in the internal politics of the Corps and EarthGov that they had forgotten the ramifications for the rest of the forces.

   ‘Can this Underground Railroad of yours get Lyta out of Psi-Corps?’ Sheridan asked Franklin.

   ‘From what I can judge, going by the information they sent me, they’re scared to go anywhere near her. She specifically asked Talia for help – I don’t think she’ll trust anyone else.’

   Sinclair felt an overwhelming sense of being sucked into nothingness. What had started out as an exercise to stop Talia from doing something stupid and dangerous had ended up uncovering some very nasty revelations. Everything he had ever believed in was slowly being destroyed by this war. People and institutions that he had always thought of as virtually infallible were collapsing before his eyes. And their allies in all of this mess seemed to be coming from the strangest of places.

   ‘We don’t really have a choice, do we?’ he asked quietly.

   ‘How, exactly are you proposing to undertake this venture?’ Delenn asked calmly.

   It was Franklin who replied. ‘Probably by infiltrating Psi-Corps – getting someone of our own inside to bring Lyta back out again. I don’t know how many telepaths the Railroad has smuggled out from the Corps’ compound itself, but I’m sure they could tell us how to get in there.’

   ‘You could use the help of the Rangers,’ Delenn said. ‘It would be safer to use as few people as possible, and one Ranger can do the job of three of your best officers.’

   ‘The Rangers are the best people I’ve seen at covert operations,’ Sinclair agreed.

   ‘Funny you should mention the Rangers,’ Sheridan said, looking at Delenn. He looked uncomfortable. ‘Hell, I guess this is as good a time as any. The people I’m involved with…they want to know if it’s possible to work with the Rangers.’

   Delenn’s expression registered surprise, but she didn’t say anything.

   ‘As you’ve both pointed out, they’re very good at finding out information and getting into places no one else can.’

   ‘I understand,’ Delenn replied thoughtfully. ‘I would have to meet with these people face to face. I cannot consider sending any member of the Anla’shok into a position of such danger unless I know exactly what they are facing, and with whom they will be involved. Can your friends come here?’

   ‘No,’ Sheridan had started to look worried. ‘They’re not in positions to come all the way out here without some difficult questions being asked.’

   ‘They are on Earth?’ she asked.

   ‘Yes-’

   ‘Then I will go to them.’

   ‘Is that really necessary?’ Sheridan asked.

   ‘John, I am not proposing anything dangerous, I am asking you to set up a meeting between myself and some of your colleagues. I am the leader of the Rangers and it is my responsibility to offer them as much protection as possible.’

   Sheridan considered this for a moment. He knew she was right – he understood the importance of looking after subordinates as much as Delenn. ‘Very well, I’ll tell them.’

   ‘Thank you,’ Delenn replied with perfect, professional detachment. ‘But apart from the Rangers, Talia will be involved in what is being proposed here. She is now one of our telepaths, and Minbari always look after our own.’

   Talia flashed her a brief, nervous smile.

   ‘Hey, don’t look so down,’ Garibaldi looked around the table with a sarcastic smile. ‘We’re only planning on pulling a fast one on the Corps. Provided we don’t get our minds fragged, of course.’

   ‘You sound unusually optimistic,’ Franklin said to him.

   ‘Hey, Doc, I don’t wanna say my good-byes any sooner than I have to, but if I get to really piss-off Psi-Corps while I’m at it, then it’s almost worth putting a down payment on my harp and halo now!’

   ‘Really, Commander?’ Sheridan raised his eyebrows. ‘I was thinking more along the lines of horns and a tail for you.’

   Garibaldi leaned back in his chair again and spoke to no one in particular. ‘Y’know, this is starting to sound like one of those really bad jokes! I can just hear it now: “A bunch of EarthForce officers, some Rangers and a rogue teep walk into Psi-Corps…” But in all honesty, I really don’t think that “Rebo and Sheridan” has quite the same ring to it!’

   ‘How about Sinc and Gazzy?’ Franklin offered.

   ‘Nah, that just sounds like a bad pop duo!’ Garibaldi replied.

   Despite the jokes, there was no disguising the tension in the air. Or the added dismay in everyone’s eyes, behind the enforced smiles.

   

   

   The window allowed warm, slightly balmy air into the room and Delenn savoured the feel of it on her face as she stared out at the view. It was the first time that she had been on Earth and she was trying to sort out the jumble of images in her head. The port had been the usual mix of races and protocols and then it had been straight into the transports and she had been taken through a confusing mass of streets and buildings. It was all so different from Minbar.

   Instead of the softly glowing crystalline structures that she was accustomed to, the nighttime cityscape was an infinite stretch of twinkling lights in the darkness. This odd mix of brilliant light and dense shadow, and the feeling of activity that was tangible in the air. Even in her hotel room up on the twelfth floor, Delenn could hear the low rumble of the life of the city below.

   She half wished that she had made this visit in different circumstances and was able to explore the planet at will, but their only consideration at the moment had to be the missions that had brought them here. The “Rescue Team” as it had commonly become known – except for Garibaldi, who had dubbed them “The Nutcases” – were spread out in various hotels all over the city. The following morning would see their rendezvous, the finalizing of their plans, and Sheridan would arrange her meeting with his EarthForce contacts.

   Delenn’s thoughts were interrupted by the discreet chime of her door and she roused herself from her position by the window and crossed the room. She opened the door a fraction and then stood aside to let Sheridan in. He was in civilian dress but there was still that indefinable military bearing that marked out his profession. Sheridan advanced into the room and Delenn noted that he looked distracted. He glanced about and then made for the window, took a look at the view before turning to her.

   ‘So, what do you think of Earth?’ his smile was a little forced.

   ‘What I have seen so far is most intriguing,’ she replied. ‘I would like to see it properly, as a real visitor…’

   Sheridan had started to pace aimlessly around the room and Delenn watched him with growing concern.

   ‘Are you all right?’ she asked softly.

   Sheridan stopped pacing and looked at her. ‘It’s just really weird being back here like this,’ there was obvious discomfort in his voice. ‘I’ve spent the last two hours having imaginary conversations with my parents and thinking about the fact that the farm is only a short shuttle ride away, and I can’t even call them just to say “Hi”.’ He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. ‘Most of the time I don’t even think about it. I’ve spent so long in Space that what used to be home, isn’t home any more. But then you get back here and it’s just…’

   ‘Home,’ Delenn finished.

   He smiled. ‘I guess you’ve gone through the same thing quite a few times yourself?’

   Delenn nodded her assent and joined him by the window. They looked out over the city for some moments and Sheridan took a few breaths of fresh air. ‘I was almost forgetting what air tastes like when it hasn’t been recycled about a million times,’ he commented dryly. He looked back at Delenn and some of the tension left his face.

   ‘I’d love to be able to show you around. We should do that one day,’ he said, smiling. ‘I’ll you show you the sights here and you can give me the tour of Minbar. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have as a guide – on any planet.’

   ‘That would be wonderful,’ Delenn agreed with a small sigh. ‘But sometimes I feel that such a time may never come.’

   Sheridan frowned thoughtfully. ‘Y’know, I seem to remember someone telling me – not that long ago, either – that we’re lucky to have any time together at all, and that it’s our responsibility to use that time well. What happened to that lady?’

   ‘Do you memorize everything I say?’ Delenn asked.

   Sheridan grinned at her. ‘I write it on my shaving mirror. In really small letters.’

   ‘Are you trying to tell me that I talk too much, Captain?’

   ‘You’ve got a lot of things to say,’ he stretched out a hand and ran it down the side of her face. ‘I’d listen to you all day if I could.’

   Delenn turned her head and kissed the palm of his hand before leaning out of the window again.

   ‘It is quieter down there now,’ she said. ‘Must be getting late.’

   ‘Yeah. I, er, suppose I should let you get some sleep,’ Sheridan said reluctantly.

   ‘I am not tired,’ she replied. ‘Unless, of course, you need to get back to your own room.’ The warm breeze still held a slightly sweet fragrance and Delenn rested her head against the frame, watching him and feeling utter contentment.

   ‘It’s not as if I’ve got that far to go,’ his eyes were fixed on her. ‘It was considerate of Stephen to book us into the same hotel.’

   ‘Very considerate,’ she agreed. ‘But I am not sure how much sleep I would get anyway,’ her eyes travelled across the room and came to rest on the bed. ‘I might not feel entirely secure at that angle.’

   ‘I think they’re adjustable,’ Sheridan answered. ‘These places usually cater for everyone… I could fix it for you…’

   He didn’t move.

   ‘Or you could just leave it the way it is,’ Delenn replied and took a few tentative steps forward.

   A slow smile spread over Sheridan’s face.

   ‘We do have some unfinished business, don’t we?’ he slipped his arms around her waist and Delenn felt her breath catch in her throat.

   ‘And business should always be concluded satisfactorily.’

   Her last word was lost as he caught her mouth in his and she immediately slipped her arms around him. The vague thought passed through her mind that they only seemed able to find the time for intimacy under the strangest circumstances, but her ability to think was obliterated by the feeling of Sheridan’s body pressed so close to hers. Delenn let her head fall back and he kissed her exposed neck. They stumbled slightly trying to move toward the bed without breaking the embrace and Delenn felt herself blushing and laughing breathlessly when their eyes met as they steadied each other. She felt warmth rushing through her just from the intensity of his gaze and then tightened her arms around him, bringing him into another deep kiss.

   Sheridan was running his hands down the length of her back and then he slipped one hand between them to undo the clasp of her robe. She shrugged out of it and busied herself with unbuttoning his shirt, her fingers tracing the contours of his chest. His roving hands paused briefly to stroke her breasts through the thin fabric of her dress and Delenn let out a sigh of pleasure at the touch. He moved on, seeking the fastenings of her clothing. A few moments later, Sheridan pulled back, a small frown of uncertainty on his face.

   ‘Er, Delenn…’ he ventured.

   She laughed slightly and guided his fingers towards the fastenings. She had never thought before how complicated Minbari clothing could for a Human to deal with, but with a little practice…

   Their heads were bent close together as Sheridan concentrated on his task

   ‘Aha!’ There was a note of triumph in his voice. ‘I think I’ve…OW!’

   He pulled back sharply and rubbed his jaw. Delenn’s eyes widened as the realisation dawned that he had collided with her bonecrest. She hadn’t felt a thing.

   ‘Are you all right? Oh, John, I’m sorry…’

   That wonderful, warm feeling of a few moments before had vanished and Delenn felt as though someone had doused her in cold water. Even worse was the thought that she could hurt him so easily without even realising it.

   ‘This isn’t going very well, is it?’ she asked miserably.

   ‘Hey, don’t look so glum!’ he put his arms around her. ‘Just a slight mistake in the choreography – I was planning on saving the sadomasochism ‘til later, but if you want to start now…’ he was rewarded with a blank look. ‘Never mind. OK, let’s try this again.’

   He released her and walked across to the comm. panel. A few seconds later the lighting had faded to a dim glow and soft, slow music had filled the room.

   ‘Now, then,’ he pulled her towards him and started to move in time to the music. Delenn realised that it was the Human version of dancing and that it was absolutely nothing like the Minbari version.

   ‘Just relax,’ he whispered into her ear and brushed his lips against her cheek.

   She followed his steps, falteringly at first, and then with more certainty. The music calmed her and she stopped having visions of John putting his eye out on her crest. He was stroking her back and Delenn felt as though her body was slowly melting into his. She rested her head on his shoulder, carefully keeping the back of her head away from his face. Time seemed to stretch and slow as they revolved, their bodies moving in perfect synchronicity. Sheridan raised her face to his and looked into her eyes, his own were glinting.

   ‘Time to try again,’ his voice was husky.

   His fingers fumbled briefly but then her dress fell open and he slid it off her shoulders. This time was so much easier and they continued to undress each other, still swaying gently to the music until they fell onto the bed. For a moment Sheridan knelt over her, his eyes travelling over her body before lowering himself onto her. Her mouth opened to accept his deep, insistent kiss and she let out a small groan of pleasure as he trailed a hand down her neck and then cupped one breast, teasing the nipple between his fingers, before following the path his fingers had taken with his mouth.

   Delenn tried to push herself up to meet him, but he held one hand against her shoulder.

   ‘No sudden moves!’ he chided with a wicked grin.

   Delenn smiled beatifically back at him and slid her hands down his back, lingering over the firm muscle and then in one swift movement she slipped one hand around and grasped his hardening penis. He froze over her.

   ‘Did you mean that you don’t want me to move at all?’ she asked innocently, her other hand moving to lock around him, the thumbs moving lazily over the head.

   Sheridan swallowed hard.

   ‘I don’t think I’m in a position to make any demands,’ he said a little indistinctly as he shifted his position over her, placing one hand on either side of her head.

   Delenn started tracing circles on his inner thigh with one hand, while with the other she dipped a finger into the moisture at the tip, before drawing it slowly down the length. She felt a sense of pride as she saw the enjoyment on his face, the way his eyes closed involuntarily. He seemed to force them open to look at her before carefully bending his head to kiss her, his tongue stroking hers with the same slow strokes that she was using along the length of his shaft. She closed her hand firmly around him and she felt his body shudder over her. His breathing was shallow and hard as she continued to rub her closed hand along him.

   ‘Oh my God, Delenn…’ he murmured hoarsely

   As she had watched his arousal mounting under her ministrations and felt him hardening in her hands, Delenn had felt her own desire increase and was starting to feel a dull ache from the build up. Sheridan must have noticed the longing in her eyes because he suddenly stopped her hand and lowered himself down so that he was resting on one side.

   ‘It’s not fair to let me have all the fun,’ he said, releasing her hand and gently parting her legs.

   Delenn let out a long sigh of satisfaction as his fingers slid into her, his thumb circling her clitoris while his fingers firmly stretched and teased her. Her own eyes closed this time and her sighs turned into low moans that came from deep in her chest. He was stroking her, his fingers sliding deep into her so that she cried out as he rubbed against her most sensitive parts. Her own movements had become increasingly erratic as she began to lose control and the only thought in her mind was the desperate need to feel him entirely inside her.

   ‘Now, John,’ her throat was dry and her voice sounded hoarse as she tried to speak. ‘Please… I want you now!’

   He raised himself up until he was over her again and looked intently into her eyes. ‘Good,’ he murmured. ‘Then you’ll have an idea about how much I want you!’

   Gently he parted her legs further and Delenn gripped his shoulders, her eyes locked on his.

   She felt the tip of his penis press against her and the blood flooded through her body, down to where he was gently thrusting against her, getting the feel of her. Delenn tightened her arms around him, pulling his head down to catch his mouth in a hard kiss. And then he entered her completely and Delenn almost screamed with the relief of feeling his hard, hot erection driving into her, filling her completely. She could hear him saying her name in between short, shallow breaths and the sound made her want him even more.

   He ran one hand down the length of her body and caressed her thigh almost roughly, encouraging her to wrap her legs around his waist. She twined herself around him and felt him slide even deeper inside. Delenn was kissing and licking his face and neck and as his strong, deep thrusts sent currents of electricity thorough her she started nipping him, her teeth scraping against his jaw.

   Sheridan withdrew from her almost completely and Delenn tried to draw him back into her, but despite her considerable strength he resisted her. Instead he slipped his fingers down to where they were joined, stroking her while he slid into her again. Slowly, inch by inch until she had taken him up to the hilt. Delenn gripped his back, amazed to feel that his skin was damp under her hands and suddenly realised the huge effort of self-control he was making. Restraining himself in order to give her as much pleasure as possible. She felt her inner muscles contract around him violently and the spasm shook her entire body. At this rate, she thought, the pleasure might just kill her.

   ‘Let go,’ she gasped. ‘Don’t hold back… Don’t…!’

   His voice shook when he answered and his eyes shone with an almost unearthly light. ‘I love you, Delenn. You have no idea how much I love you!’

   Sheridan’s hand slipped away from her and he slid both arms around her, holding her fiercely to him. His pace increased and he angled himself over her so that his penis massaged her throbbing clit. Delenn locked her legs around him, making him thrust harder into her in rhythm with the brutal contractions that wracked her whole body.

   She could feel herself slipping over the edge. Sheridan’s body was crashing against hers, all of his strength driving into her. Delenn’s nails scored his back and she buried her face in his shoulder, sinking her teeth into his flesh. And then, with every fibre begging for release, the Universe exploded around her, inside her. She threw her head back and shouted John’s name, feeling him pulsating inside her.

   Sheridan collapsed on top of her, unable – and unwilling – to untangle himself from her. They lay in a confused mass of limbs and bedding, their breathing slowly subsiding. Eventually, Sheridan rolled onto his back, keeping his arms around Delenn so that her head was pillowed on his chest. She traced light patterns on his skin and listened to the steady beat of his heart.

   ‘You’re wonderful,’ he told her softly. ‘Actually, you’re more than wonderful.’ He cupped her chin in his hand and looked into her eyes. ‘Actually, there isn’t a word in existence that is good enough for you.’

   Delenn smiled happily. ‘I don’t need to hear a lot of words. I’ve already heard the most important ones,’ her cheeks flushed again but her beautiful eyes were burning with the strength of her emotion. ‘I love you too, John.’

   A look of pure pleasure appeared on his face and he bent his head towards her, claiming her mouth in a long, tender kiss. When they pulled apart, Delenn repositioned herself so that she could watch his face. She ran her fingers along his jaw.

   ‘When did you first know that you loved me?’ she asked, not quite believing that she was actually asking these questions.

   Sheridan laughed slightly and hugged her. ‘Well, the first time I saw you I thought “Wow!” I don’t know that it was love at first sight exactly, but there was definitely something there. But I guess the first time I really knew that I’d fallen in love with you was when I thought the Vorlon inquisitor was killing you. I remember thinking “If she dies, there’s no point. I can’t live without her”. And I can’t live without you, Delenn. I wouldn’t even want to try.’

   Delenn felt a hard lump in her throat and her eyes stinging. ‘I didn’t think that anyone could love me that much. I didn’t think that I could ever love this much.’

   The tears rolled silently down her cheeks and Sheridan kissed the salty liquid from her face until they stopped and she smiled weakly at him.

   ‘I suppose you should go soon,’ she said regretfully. ‘If you are meant to spend the night in your own room.’

   Sheridan shook his head in amazement. ‘I’ve never known anyone who can be so practical in the middle of a romantic situation as you!’ He grinned at her. ‘Anyway, I’ve already re-routed any incoming messages to here, so that won’t be a problem. So I’m afraid you won’t be getting rid of me that easily… Besides,’ he added more seriously, ‘do you really think that I could leave you here, now? After this?’

   Delenn snuggled gratefully into his arms. ‘I am very glad that you cannot!’ she answered.

   ‘Good, that’s settled. OK, now that we’ve started on the whole lovers’ tradition, it’s my turn. When did you first realise that you loved me?’

   ‘Tradition?’ Delenn looked at him expectantly. ‘Is this important?’

   ‘It’s a Human ritual!’ he replied teasingly.

   Delenn laughed softly. ‘Well, in that case! The first time…’

   

   

   ‘Ever noticed that these people like to congregate about a hundred miles below where everyone else wants to be? In places that even the rats turn their noses up at?’ Garibaldi drew his jacket around himself and shivered slightly.

   ‘Maybe that’s why they’re called the Underground, Michael,’ Sheridan suppressed an amused smile. ‘Just hazarding a guess. And as you’ve spent the last few years living in a place that’s basically a mine shaft, but without the fringe benefits, you’re not really in a position to talk.’

   ‘Yeah, yeah, don’t rub it in.’

   The meeting had been arranged to take place in what had – many years before – been a station along a system of underground transportation. Sheridan had wondered if it was an intentional display of irony on the part of Franklin’s contacts.

   Garibaldi raised an eyebrow as Sheridan tried to hide a yawn. ‘Something keeping you up last night?’ he asked.

   The look from Sheridan’s eyes would have burnt holes in lesser men. He didn’t reply, but as he shifted position his shirt chafed over the scratches and bite marks on his shoulders, bringing back vivid and passionate memories of the night before.

   Garibaldi grinned to himself, wondering exactly how far he could push Sheridan on this one before putting himself in grave physical danger. A soft noise from the murky passageway beyond brought them all to their feet, their senses on the alert. A dark shape detached itself from the surrounding gloom and Stephen Franklin softly padded into the cramped room.

   ‘Jeez, Stephen! You’re in the wrong fraggin’ line of work, y’know that?’ Garibaldi thumped himself vigorously on the chest as if trying to re-start his heart.

   ‘I’ll bear that in mind if I ever get tired of Med Lab,’ he tried not to look too pleased, but failed. It was nice, just for once, to remind them that there was more to Dr Stephen Franklin than just the conscientious, sedate head of the medical facility.

   ‘At least now we know that if you ever lose a patient it’s not due to incompetence – you just scare them to death!’

   Franklin flashed him a grin. ‘I’ll remember this conversation the next time you’re deposited in Med Lab, Michael. I hope there’re no body parts you’re too attached to?’

   ‘Think carefully before you answer that one, Commander!’ Sheridan laughed.

   ‘Can you tell us who it is we’re meeting, Stephen?’ Garibaldi tried to steer the conversation back to some level of intelligence and dignity.

   ‘Er, yeah,’ Franklin suddenly looked uncomfortable. ‘Actually it’s someone you’ve met already – at least, some of you have. He isn’t part of the Corps, but he’s an important part of our organization. Collecting and distributing information.’

   Sinclair’s eyes narrowed slightly. ‘Don’t just come straight out and tell us like this, Stephen. Beat around the bush a little.’

   Franklin took a deep breath and fixed his eyes on a point on the opposite wall. ‘His name’s Richard Morden.’

   ‘Hang on. Morden as in works for IPX? Big hair, lots of teeth, vaguely oily – that Morden?’ Garibaldi stared at him incredulously. ‘What’s an IPX guy doing working with a group involved in helping telepaths?’

   ‘IPX ships travel all over the Galaxy and they pick up a lot of strange cargo and strange people. Casual labour. It's the perfect way of smuggling people past awkward questions.’

   Sheridan’s brain had raced halfway around the known Universe and back while this conversation had been going on. ‘Are there a lot of IPX personnel involved with this?’ he asked levelly.

   ‘I don’t know how many,’ Franklin replied cautiously.

   ‘Is Anna…’

   ‘No!’ Franklin answered sharply before Sheridan could finish the question. ‘Anna has nothing to do with any of this, I promise.’

   ‘That’d be all we need,’ Garibaldi muttered under his breath.

   ‘Michael!’ Sheridan growled threateningly.

   A silence fell while the four men were lost in their separate thoughts. Franklin checked the time. ‘The others should be here soon.’

   ‘We’re already here,’ a voice said from behind, and Garibaldi was sure that his heart really had stopped this time. The speaker was a slim young woman dressed entirely in black and swathed in a dark cloak. A mischievous smile was twitching at the corners of her mouth.

   ‘I’m the advance party,’ she said gravely.

   More soft footfalls from the passageway, and Delenn entered with Talia. Delenn’s eyes swept over the frozen group and then rested reproachfully on the stranger.

   ‘You were not meant to creep up on them.’

   ‘I was practising! We are told to develop our skills at every opportunity.’

   ‘And you have developed yours very well – something I was fully aware of in the first place. Otherwise you would not have been chosen for this.’

   ‘Yes Entil’zha,’ she bowed her head and assumed a contrite expression.

   ‘This is Yuki Ogawa,’ Delenn said. ‘She is a Ranger. Believe it or not, a very good one.’

   Yuki flashed a smile at her.

   ‘I’m Captain John Sheridan,’ he held out his hand to her.

   ‘Yes, I know,’ she answered. ‘I know who all of you are,’ she glanced at them quickly, her gaze lingering briefly on Franklin and he had the feeling that she had practically x-rayed them all with her eyes.

   The feeling of uneasy expectancy had risen now that they were all assembled and they settled themselves as best they could. And waited.

   

   

   ‘Does Lyta know that we’re here?’ Talia asked.

   Morden shook his head. ‘We don’t how much she’s able to hold back from the Corps. For everyone’s sake – hers and yours – she doesn’t know a thing. It would easier if we could tell her, that way she could just walk out of there…’

   ‘Instead of us having to go in and get her,’ Sheridan finished.

   They had viewed Franklin’s contact with a combination of curiosity and wariness, but as he had started talking they had relaxed. He seemed a little nervous, which – as Sheridan thought – you couldn’t really blame him for. There was something a little too charming about him, but that was the worst you could say about him.

   ‘That’s the hard part,’ Morden agreed. ‘You’ve all seen the data crystal showing the plans of the Corps headquarters?’

   They all nodded.

   ‘It isn’t getting in that’s so much of a problem, it’s the getting out again,’ Yuki said. ‘The place is built on top of a labyrinth, more or less. Some of the tunnels are really steep and narrow so you have to take a different path out and that’s where the problems start. I’ve found two different ways out, so there’s more than one option once the group’s got Ms Alexander and is getting out of there.’

   Franklin leaned toward her across the makeshift table they had constructed. ‘Are you saying that you’ve already been in there?’

   She met his gaze and something gleamed in the chocolate-brown depths of her eyes. ‘I was right under the Corp’s central compound this morning.’

   ‘Don’t you think that was taking quite a risk?’ he asked brusquely. He surprised himself by his tone.

   Yuki raised an eyebrow slightly.

   ‘This is all a risk, Doctor. Besides, someone needed to apply this information in practice to make this whole venture run as smoothly as possible. And that is what I’m here for.’

   ‘Are you coming with us tomorrow?’ he inquired, trying to sound a little friendlier.

   ‘No. I was to perform reconnaissance and gather any extra information that might be needed. Tomorrow I will accompany Delenn and Captain Sheridan to their meeting and then I will wait with Delenn until you return with Ms Alexander. Unless, of course, the plans change and it’s necessary for me to go with you.’

   Franklin observed her thoughtfully. She had spoken calmly, almost dispassionately. It was as though she expected to take on the most dangerous and difficult parts of the mission, not with an attitude of mock-heroism or bravado, but with dignity and acceptance. He had treated injured Rangers in Med Lab, but had never had much of an opportunity to talk to one properly before. He stole a glance at Delenn and saw the same mix of serenity and determination in her features.

   ‘Our people in Psi-Corps can bring Lyta to a specific point without arousing suspicion, but we still need someone to actually go into the Corps and bring her the rest of the way,’ Morden sounded almost apologetic as he said it. ‘Which is where Miss Winters comes into it directly.’

   Garibaldi breathed deeply through his nose. This was the one part of this whole thing that he really hated. OK, there weren’t many parts of it that he DID like, but this was one was sunk about ten feet below ground level, with a tonne weight on top for good measure. The thought of Talia walking into that place… He realised that he was gripping his own hands so hard that his nails were biting into the flesh.

   Morden placed a number of data-crystals on the table. ‘This is as much information as we can safely put together about the people you’ll be liasing with. We’ve tried to organize everything so that it’s as safe as possible. There’s a lot of information here, so this will take some time…’

   

   

   ‘We’ll have to keep this short,’ Sheridan said bluntly.

   ‘I know. Is everything set?’ On the screen, Sinclair’s image looked very distorted. The signal was being routed through numerous relay stations as well as being scrambled.

   ‘We’re ready to go,’ Sheridan confirmed. ‘But first there’s Delenn’s meeting with my contacts.’

   ‘That’s all set?’

   ‘Yeah, once that’s over she’s going back to base with Yuki and the rest of us are going on to the main event. Provided everything goes well we’ll all be out of here within twenty-four hours.’

   Sinclair smiled grimly. ‘Never been so glad to leave home, huh?’

   ‘Don’t get me started!’

   ‘John, there’s something else…’

   A burst of static disrupted the signal even further and Sheridan strained his ears to catch the faint words.

   ‘…Came through from Proxima. The EarthForce ships there have been ordered to stand down and wait for further instructions.’

   ‘That’s one of our most strategic defences! That kind of order could only come from Earth Central – what do they think they’re playing at?’ Sheridan felt a leaden lump settle in the pit of his stomach.

   ‘I don’t know, but it looks like your friends were right. Something really strange is going on here, John. And it’s getting very bad, very quickly.’

   Sheridan checked the chronometer. ‘I’ll have to go.’

   ‘Ok, try not to take too many risks. I’ll see you when you get back.’

   ‘Why do I get the feeling that that will only be the beginning of our troubles?’ Sheridan asked as he terminated the transmission.

   ‘Bad things come in threes,’ he thought again. ‘And multiples thereof. I must be up to about nine in one week!’

   

   

   Talia swallowed with difficulty. Her mouth felt dry and her hands were freezing. A hard lump had settled in her chest and icy water seemed to have replaced the blood in her veins. She had been preparing herself for this for the past 24 hours. No, longer. For the last few weeks. Somewhere, deep down, she had always known that sooner or later she would find herself inside Psi-Corps. It had just never occurred to her that it would be out of her own free will and with the express intention of getting someone else out of that place.

   ‘It’s almost time,’ Morden spoke in a low voice, close to her ear. ‘You’d better get ready.’

   Their clothes had become dusty during their journey through the winding tunnels. The fact that Morden was leading them had surprised them all.

   ‘I’m used to archaeological digs,’ he had said with a broad smile. ‘I crawl down dirty tunnels for a living.’

   They had proceeded slowly, mainly in single file. But when they had found a slightly wider path and were able to move along in pairs, the sound of Garibaldi whistling The Animals Went in Two by Two had echoed weirdly along the passageway. Sheridan was keeping watch outside the confined chamber they were in, just in case anyone else had decided to take a walk underground that day. Talia pulled off the combat fatigues she had been wearing, under them she had on a close-fitting black suit. She pulled a small bundle out of a pocket of the discarded trousers. A pair of black gloves and a Psi-Corps pin. Talia felt her stomach contract as she fixed it to her jacket, every instinct she possessed was screaming at her to turn and run and never look back. She pulled the gloves on.

   ‘How do I look?’ she asked with a weak smile.

   ‘Like a Psi-Cop,’ Garibaldi replied tartly.

   ‘That’s what’s needed,’ Morden reminded him.

   Garibaldi resisted an overwhelming temptation to sock him on the jaw.

   ‘It’s not his fault,’ he told himself. ‘He’s taking a risk as well and he’s here to help. You’re just reacting like this ‘cos it’s Talia.’ He sneaked a look over at Morden. ‘Man, he does have a lot of teeth. If the lights go we can just get him to smile and we’ll follow the glare back out again.’

   He felt Talia elbow him gently in the ribs and give him a reproachful look.

   ‘Hey, you’re not supposed to go poking around in my head!’

   She smiled back. ‘I wasn’t. You shouldn’t think so loudly.’

   Their hands met and Garibaldi closed his around her cold fingers. Morden came back over to them.

   ‘It’s time.’

   With swift, practised movements, he and Garibaldi removed a grille in the wall and set it noiselessly on the floor. Then, with their help, Talia scrambled up into the opening. For a few seconds she felt Michael’s hands supporting her and then she was alone.

   ‘She’ll be OK,’ Morden said.

   ‘What, can see into the future, can you?’ Garibaldi asked gruffly. ‘Dammit, look, I’m sorry… I just…’

   ‘You care about her,’ the young man replied. In the dim light Garibaldi could see that there was a mixture of sympathy and admiration on his face. ‘There’s no need to apologise for that.’

   She was staring down a long, slanting tube that had another grille at the end of it. Cool air fanned her face and she began to pull her self down it until she was against the end grille. Her hands shook slightly as she grasped hold of it – someone had already unscrewed it. She lifted it off and with an effort was able to hold it vertically and pull it back into the tube. Talia hesitated for a few moments. She was about to start walking through a complex that contained some of the strongest telepathic minds on Earth. And some of them would quite cheerfully shatter her mind in a single blast. But if she thought about that she would be done for before she even started. She concentrated on building the mental wall that would keep out the voices that surrounded her – and prevent another from probing her mind. She made sure one last time that no one was around and then swung her legs out of the opening, inching forward until she was sitting on the edge. And then dropped softly to the floor.

   They looked like ordinary people, Talia thought to herself, as she walked through the corridors. But, then again, there was no reason why they wouldn’t be. There were slogans pinned to the wall

   

“The Corps is Mother, the Corps is Father”

   But it didn’t exactly feel like happy families. A group of people were approaching and Talia paused to read, supposedly, something that was on a notice board. That was the hardest part: trying to avoid making eye contact without looking as though she was trying to avoid it. She concentrated solely on where it was that she had to go to, tracing the route that Morden had gone over with her painstakingly. The faces of the people she would meet. Her hands were still cold, but the black gloves afforded a little warmth. It was the only good thing she had to say about them. The atmosphere of the whole place was joyless and clinical. Even during the worst encounters with the Shadows, when it seemed as though none of their own fighters would make it back in one piece, Degeba 3 had never felt like this.

   ‘You can’t think about that now!’ she told herself fiercely.

   Left, now straight down the corridor, past a set of double doors, now it’s the second right… She was almost there.

   ‘This is the moment in vids when someone stops you and asks you the way. Or a rabbit drops an anvil on your head.’ She smiled to herself. ‘I really have been watching too many vids with Michael! I’d give anything to be doing that right now. Why, in God’s name, did I get us all involved in this?’

   It didn’t happen like it does in the vids. Talia reached the door that gave onto the small room where she was to wait. She took out of her pocket the ID card that Morden had given her and passed it through the scanner.

   ‘Identify Marceau, Yvonne,’ a calm feminine voice came out of the machine. ‘Please confirm identity on the retinal scan.’

   Talia leaned forward and brought her eyes level with the sensor strip. She saw the light of the scanner pass across her face. There was a pause.

   ‘Identity confirmed. Please enter.’

   There was a faint click as the door unlocked, allowing her to slip inside. The lights came on as soon as she entered and Talia drew the first proper breath since she had left Garibaldi and Morden. A prickling sensation spread over her scalp and she was quite sure that her hair was standing on end. The room was cream with thick, caramel-coloured carpets, a few chairs and a heavy table. She sat in one of the chairs; her hands clasped tightly in her lap and her eyes fixed on the door. It wouldn’t be too long now. Almost unconsciously her hand slipped up to the unfamiliar pin on her breast and fiddled with it. She looked down at what she was doing and froze. The black gloves, the pin, her whole appearance…. This could have been her all her life. Her mind whirled. What if she had entered the Corps? Would she have ended up like Lyta, with her own personality eradicated? She dismissed the thought. In a million years, nothing would ever induce her to enter the Corps. Another faint click from the door. Talia couldn’t help the faint gasp that broke from her lips at the sound. She rose to her feet. A woman entered the room, dark hair drawn tightly back from her face and she was talking to the person behind her.

   ‘…She’ll be your new protégé, as it were, Miss Alexander.’

   The door snapped shut as Lyta Alexander entered the room. A slight spasm crossed her face as her eyes met Talia’s.

   ‘You came!’

   The words floated across Talia’s mind like a whisper.

   ‘Yes, we’ve come to get you out of here. I don’t know what we can do for you, but we’ll…’

   ‘I’m afraid there’s no time for this.’ Talia hadn’t even noticed the man who had entered behind Lyta. He was older and he looked incredibly tired. ‘Lyta, are you ready?’

   Lyta turned her head to him and then, very slowly, she nodded.

   ‘We can go with you as far as Yellow Zone, but after that you’ll have to make the rest of the way on your own,’ he continued.

   ‘It’s the only place that you can get out from and we’re too high level to go through Yellow Zone without people noticing,’ the woman added with a hint of apology.

   It was one of the ironies of the Corps, Talia thought, that most of the people who helped the Underground weren’t low-level telepaths, but those with a strong Psi ability. Maybe it was because they were aware of how much harm they could do.

   ‘But as you’re meant to be Lyta’s new assistant, it’s quite natural that she would be showing you around. Just remember, what ever happens, keep walking and don’t look like you’re worried about anything.’

   The man flashed them a brief, weary smile and then they were out of the door. Talia stayed next to Lyta, occasionally glancing at her out of the corners of her eyes. There was never a flicker of an expression on Lyta’s face: she stared directly ahead as she walked. People were stepping out of their way – whoever the man and woman were, they were obviously well known and respected. Or perhaps feared. A young man walking towards them caught a sight of Lyta and immediately lowered his eyes and stepped out of her way. One thing was for sure, most of them were scared stiff of her.

   ‘We’ll leave the two of you here.’

   Talia suddenly realised that they had come to a halt outside of another set of double doors.

   ‘I hope it works out for you and Miss Alexander,’ the woman said.

   ‘I’m sure you’ll work very well together,’ the man added.

   Talia grasped the gloved hand that was held out to her. ‘So do I. Thank-you for your help.’

   ‘Good luck,’ she added silently.

   They both passed their ID cards through the scanner and entered the Yellow Zone. Talia wasn’t sure what this place was, but it had a slightly friendlier atmosphere She heard high-pitched laughter and turned in surprise. There was a group of children playing in a corridor.

   ‘They start early,’ Lyta’s voice sounded clearly in her head. ‘It’s sort of a school. They begin training. For most of these kids the Corps is the only home they’ll ever know.’

   Lyta stood still for a moment, watching the small group. Even without scanning her, Talia could feel the desperation, the longing that was starting to leak out of her. They couldn’t afford to blow it now. Talia gently touched her elbow.

   ‘I was hoping you’d show me more of the training area,’ she said urgently.

   The steel walls in Lyta’s mind flew back into place and she turned sharply, keeping close to Talia again. Talia was running over her mental map again, just a few more turnings…

   There were people in the corridor. Standing right outside the room that they needed to get into. Talia slowed her place slightly, but kept walking. There was nothing else that she could do. She took out her card and offered up a brief prayer of thanks that her hands weren’t shaking.

   ‘I’m afraid she’s out,’ someone said to her. A young woman with a haughty manner. ‘You shouldn’t really go in there unless there’s someone on duty…’ Her words trailed off as Lyta took a step forward.

   ‘Do you know who I am?’

   ‘Yes, yes, of course. I just…’

   ‘Are you trying to impede our business here?’

   The woman’s eyes widened slightly. You didn’t get in the way of the Psi-Cops: not unless you actually enjoyed the experience of sheer terror.

   ‘No. Not at all. We’ll just… We’ll get out of your way!’

   They vanished around the corner and Talia was sure that she saw a faint smile curve Lyta’s lips. The room that they found themselves in was an office, but it wasn’t here that their journey finished. A door was set into the opposite wall. Talia took hold of the handle and breathed a sigh of relief when she found it unlocked.

   ‘I wasn’t looking forward to breaking it down!’ she said over her shoulder. ‘We’re almost at the end now. It’s still a way to go once we’re in the tunnels, but there’re a lot of friends waiting for us down there. We’ll be OK.’

   Lyta was breathing deeply, she seemed to be struggling with some huge emotion but she wasn’t letting herself break down. Not yet.

   Beyond the door there was a dark passage and a stairway. They were going down into the maintenance area. Generators, heavy machinery and hot, dry air. Lyta followed Talia closely until they stopped next to a large, rectangular grille.

   ‘We’ll have to unscrew it…’ Talia’s words died in her throat. The screws shot out of the wall and fell to the floor. Lyta’s eyes glittered weirdly in the darkness and Talia felt a shudder run through her. She would be very glad once Stephen had given Lyta a thorough examination. She shook herself.

   ‘Follow the tube until you reach an exit on the right-hand side. There’ll be someone there to help you out.’

   Lyta crawled through the hole and then along the tube. After a few feet it suddenly angled downward and she was slipping down it, like a slide. As it levelled out again, the tube grew narrower. So tightly that she couldn’t breath properly. Talia wasn’t far behind her and the sound of them struggling along echoed the length of the dull, metallic surface. And then there was a gaping hole to her right. Lyta wriggled her shoulders to propel herself forward. Her hands were stretched out in front and she grasped the rim of the opening. A pair of strong hands gripped her wrists and pulled her forwards. Her body twisted round to follow; her wrists were released and arms went around her waist, dragging her. She slithered out of the hole, almost falling to the ground, except that someone was holding her up. The warmth of another human body next to hers.

   ‘Miss Alexander, I presume? So nice to see you again!’ John Sheridan grinned down at her.

   

   

   The way out was, as Yuki had predicted, more difficult that the way in. They hadn’t wasted any time in conversation or celebration. As soon as Talia had touched the ground, they had started off. Franklin was waiting at what passed for a base, in case any medical attention was needed. And so that if anything had gone wrong, at least one person would get out and be able to report what had happened. It was a long, arduous process and they were all starting to feel as though they had been trapped there for days on end. For Franklin himself, waiting for the small group to come back was even worse than waiting for the mass of critical injuries that would come pouring into Med Lab after every battle – even when he was waiting to see which of his friends would be coming in on a gurney. But now he felt that he was in some way responsible for the danger that they were now all in. He half-wished that he had simply refused Talia’s request in the first place and told Garibaldi and the rest of them what she was doing. When Morden’s group finally made it back, the relief on both sides was huge. Franklin clapped Sheridan on the back, before pulling Talia into a hug.

   ‘Well done!’ he said.

   She rested her head gratefully on his shoulder, before he released her.

   ‘Is anyone hurt?’ he fell immediately into his professional mode.

   They all shook their heads – everyone’s attention was fixed on Lyta. She was gazing about her as though this dingy underground bunker was the most beautiful place in the world. She gazed down at her hands and then frantically pulled the gloves off, tore the Corps pin off her jacket as though it was burning her, and threw them across the room. Her breath was coming in great, heaving gasps. Franklin approached her carefully.

   ‘It’s OK. You’ll be fine. No one here is going to hurt you, we all just want to help.’

   She swallowed a few times and opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. Her face contorted with frustration and distress and she tried again. The result was a hoarse rasp. Lyta blinked furiously and her breathing became even more uneven. Franklin took hold of her by the arms.

   ‘Calm down, it’s all right. Whatever’s wrong we can fix it. Don’t worry about it now. Just breathe with me, deep breaths…’

   Lyta looked at him warily, her eyes seeking Talia’s.

   ‘He’s right, Lyta. Right now we just have to get you out of here.’

   They waited in a ground-shuttle outside the hotel, while Sheridan went inside to collect the last members of their small party. Once they had surfaced from the maze of tunnels and were topside once again, Morden had departed. The sooner they all returned to where they’d come from, the better.

   ‘If anyone ever hears me complaining that life gets a little tedious at times,’ Garibaldi said, glancing across the street to the hotel entrance, ‘just remind me about this. It’s all the excitement I need for a lifetime.’

   ‘I’ll hold you to that,’ Franklin replied.

   They exchanged weary smiles and then Garibaldi saw Sheridan emerge.

   ‘It was nice to breathe some real air for a change,’ Garibaldi said. ‘But it’s time to return to our own particular hole in the ground!’

   Sheridan entered the shuttle. His face looked strained and there was a strange glint in his eyes.

   ‘Delenn’s gone.’

   

   

   Delenn tried to open her eyes, but her eyelids felt like they’d been weighed down. Her head was spinning and she felt sick. Parts of her body seemed to have turned to lead – the rest of it felt as though it had vanished. She tried to remember where she was, and why she had been there. A strange room, they had been waiting for… Who had she been waiting for? There had been someone else there, but whom? Delenn made a valiant effort to collect herself; this was a ludicrous state for the leader of the Rangers and a former Satai to find herself in. But her body refused to co-operate and she was left floundering in an ocean of swirling darkness. A low murmur of voices penetrated her consciousness and for an instant she was able to feel her arm as something pricked it. Fire was spreading through it, followed by a horrible, numbing coldness that seeped through her entire body. The brief, painful consciousness fled from her.

   

   

   ‘Maybe she just went out for a while,’ Garibaldi said reasonably.

   ‘Oh yeah, sure!’ Sheridan returned furiously, glaring at the broken glass on the floor. ‘Delenn decided to break things up a little and then stepped out for a breath of air, even though she was waiting for us to get back. What the hell’s the matter with you?’ The cords in his neck were standing out as he battled to regain his self-control. ‘I swear to God, whoever’s done this, I’ll break every one of their necks if anything’s happened to her.’

   He sounded slightly calmer while delivering this threat, but that calmness was even more frightening than the rage. Garibaldi had felt slightly surprised at the utter desperation in Sheridan’s eyes. He had enjoyed teasing his friend about his relationship with Delenn, but he had never realised before just how strong it was or the amount of feeling there was in it.

   ‘Don’t forget there’s also the girl, Yuki,’ Franklin said softly.

   Sheridan ran his hand through his hair. ‘You’re right, I know. I’m sorry.’

   There was nothing to tell them what had happened. A broken vase on the floor was the only sign of any violence.

   

   

   Everything was still in confusion when Delenn began to wake up for the second time. She wondered vaguely how long she had been there. The world was shifting in focus like a kaleidoscope.

   ‘Delenn. Delenn? Can you hear me?’

   Delenn squinted at the hazy mass that was floating in front of her. As she started to see more clearly, she became aware that someone was gently stroking her face. Warm relief swept through her.

   ‘John…’ she whispered with a little difficulty.

   He was smiling at her. She tried to raise her hand to touch him, but she couldn’t seem to move.

   ‘Everything’s fine now, it’s all over,’ he said reassuringly. ‘What are you doing here?’

   Delenn struggled to remember what had happened. A room somewhere. Hadn’t he been with her? Not all the time, but she was sure he had been there. Or somewhere near by.

   ‘Why won’t you tell me?’ his tone was slightly reproachful.

   ‘I don’t… I can’t…’ she floundered helplessly.

   Hands tracing the lines of her face, caressing her. His face was close to hers and his voice was low.

   ‘Delenn,’ he sighed. ‘I thought you trusted me more than this.’

   ‘I do! John, I just can’t… Please help me,’ she finished helplessly.

   But he was moving away from her; she could just make out the sad, slightly hurt expression on his face.

   ‘No, don’t go. Don’t leave me here!’ She couldn’t believe what was happening. He hadn’t left her when they had both been under threat from the Vorlons, so how could he just walk away from her now? She tried to go after him, but she couldn’t move. She heard the rising note of desperation in her own voice.

   ‘John, please… I don’t understand!’

   He turned back and gestured helplessly. ‘How can I help you when you don’t even trust me?’

   And then he was gone.

   

   

   Yuki had returned to the hotel a short while after they arrived. Wild-eyed and a little disorientated, she had told her story as calmly as she could, but her voice was still shaking.

   ‘We were waiting and then a message came through. Someone in the lobby saying that they had a package for Delenn. I said that I’d go and get it. I was halfway down there when I got this really weird feeling – I just knew that there was something wrong. So I ran back to her room. I saw these people and the Enti’zha was walking with them, but it just didn’t look right. I went after them, but then something hit me…it was like getting a punch right inside my head and I don’t know what happened after that.’ Tears had started to run down her face. ‘They were Psi-Cops, I know that much. It must be over four hours ago now. Oh God…!’

   She buried her face in her hands.

   ‘It’s not your fault,’ Sheridan said quietly. His eyes were blazing, but none of the anger was directed at Yuki. ‘What happened after that? You weren’t here when we came.’

   ‘I woke up in here. I sent out the alert among the Rangers and then I thought that I had to get over to Psi-Corps…but then I realised that it was ridiculous and so I came back to wait for you here.’

   ‘Are any other Rangers heading for the Corps HQ?’ Garibaldi asked.

   ‘No, I instructed them to hold back until I’d spoken with you and we had decided what to do.’

   Garibaldi breathed a sigh of relief – the last thing they needed was Rangers swarming over the Psi-Corps complex.

   ‘Are you sure that they were Psi-Cops?’ Franklin looked searchingly at Yuki.

   ‘Yes, of course I am!’ she retorted in exasperation. ‘I’m from Earth, remember? I know a Psi-Cop when I see one!’

   Sheridan was sitting on the sofa, his mind whirling in a thousand directions at once.

   ‘There’s only way that the Corps would have known that Delenn was here,’ he said slowly. The others looked at him. ‘Someone followed us back from the meeting this morning…’

   ‘Damn!’ Garibaldi said forcefully. ‘Looks like one of your friends isn’t quite so friendly… I’m really sorry, John.’

   ‘What would they want with Delenn anyway?’ Talia felt sick at the thought of anyone in the Cops’ hands, never mind a friend…

   ‘It’s probably that whole Vorlon thing again,’ Franklin replied. ‘Think about it – it’s not exactly a secret that John and Delenn are the only two people we know of who’ve been in contact with the Vorlons. The Corps isn’t going to pass up the opportunity of examining someone like that if it gets the chance.’

   ‘But why just Delenn?’ Sheridan demanded. ‘Why not me as well?’

   ‘They probably thought you’d be with her,’ Talia answered. ‘Maybe they didn’t see you leave again.’

   ‘So now she’s stuck somewhere in that hellhole,’ his hands were clenched and a muscle in the side of his face was twitching. ‘We’ve got to get her out of there.’

   Lyta had sat apart from them. Her face didn’t register any emotion, but she was taking in everything that was going on. She remembered the petite, graceful Minbari who had been responsible for getting Talia out of Bester’s hands. She saw the shock and horror in the faces of all these people who had done all of this just to help her. And the haunted look in Captain Sheridan’s eyes. She remembered the way his arms had held her steady when she had dropped out of the shaft, and his cheerful greeting. She reached out with her mind to him, trying to offer comfort in the only way she knew. She saw his body jolt slightly and he spun round to face her. She concentrated on her message.

   ‘I think I know how to get to her.’

   Sheridan crossed the room to her. ‘We’ve just busted you out of there, are you sure that you want to go walking back in again?’

   ‘John, you can’t ask her to…’ Franklin began.

   ‘I’m not asking, she’s offering.’ He hadn’t taken his eyes off Lyta’s face. ‘How?’

   A myriad of images filled Sheridan’s mind. Landing platforms that led straight into the Psi-Cops’ annex within the Corps’ compound. Interrogation chambers that could only be accessed by high-ranking cops. Lyta had the access codes, and she also knew how to by-pass them if the access was denied. Sheridan felt as though he had been hit between the eyes. It had only taken a few seconds, but he found that he was gasping for breath.

   ‘Well, Michael,’ he commented to his friend, ‘you said you wanted to annoy the hell out of the Psi-Cops – now’s your chance!’

   

   

   Sensation was slowly coming back to her. And with it an agonising prickling all over her body. That, combined with a raging thirst and a pounding headache, made her feel even worse than when she had just felt woozy. Delenn became vaguely aware that she was in a darkened room – or at least in a darkened something. An infinity of darkness stretched around her. She tried to force herself to think straight, but every time she tried to grab hold of a thought, it eluded her. Footsteps. Slowly advancing. And then a tall figure standing just on the rim of the pool of light that illuminated the small space that Delenn was standing in. She strained her eyes to make out the features.

   ‘John?’ she ventured tentatively.

   He stepped into the light, but the relief that Delenn had momentarily felt evaporated the next second. She had tried to make a move towards him, but he had recoiled and an expression of disgust had appeared on his face. Her mind raced. What had she done? She must have done something terrible for him to behave this way towards her.

   ‘John, what have I done?’

   ‘What have I done?’ he repeated her words mockingly and then his eyes travelled over her in a way that made her shudder. ‘You should see yourself. Not the high-and-mighty Minbari…whatever the hell it is you are. Satai, was it?’

   Delenn remained silent – trying to figure this out made her head ache even more and she didn’t want to say anything that would provoke him further. He looked at her expectantly.

   ‘What? No answer? That’s not like you, you’ve always got something to say, haven’t you?’

   ‘You’ve got a lot of things to say … I’d listen to you all day if I could,’ she remembered the look in is eyes when he had said that. Now he was glaring at her with utter contempt.

   ‘But you never actually say anything that anyone wants to hear, that’s the problem. So unless you start saying something to hold my attention, you’re just gonna have to stay here. Understand? Or do you need me to repeat it again, in case it didn’t penetrate through this?’

   He stood right in front of her and sharply tapped her head crest. Pain shot through her head, leaving her gasping for air.

   ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you acting like this?’

   This time he laughed out loud. ‘Acting? I’m not acting, Delenn. This is acting.’

   He caught her face gently in his hand and gazed earnestly into her eyes. ‘I love you, Delenn. I need you.’

   His hand slipped down her neck and shoulder to cup her breast and then gripped so hard that she cried out in pain.

   ‘It makes me sick to my stomach coming anywhere near you, but you loved it, you Minbari slut.’ With the last word he struck her across the face. He still stood over her, his face menacing, his eyes empty and dead. Out of the convoluted mass that was spinning in her head, one thought suddenly stood out clearly.

   ‘You’re not John Sheridan!’ she was filled with an overwhelming hatred for this thing that her captors had placed in front of her. ‘Get away from me! Get away!’ she struggled violently and for the first time became aware of the restraints that were binding her wrists and ankles. They were biting into her flesh as she continued to fight against them. She could hear her own voice screaming every insult she knew, both Human and Minbari, and something told her to stop, that it was futile, that she should preserve her dignity. But she couldn’t when that creature was standing in front of her. Then, mercifully, he receded into the darkness and she was left, limp and breathless, sagging against the frame she was bound to.

   

   

   ‘Y’know, when I signed up for EarthForce,’ Garibaldi whispered to Sheridan, ‘I really don’t remember anything like this being in the job description.’

   ‘I didn’t think that you wanted a quiet life, Michael,’ Sheridan replied.

   ‘Hey, I didn’t say that. But there is a difference between an interesting life and having a death wish. And I’d like to point out that in the phrase “interesting life”, I am putting the emphasis on the word “life”.’

   They had avoided using the tunnels altogether, and followed Lyta on a long route that had finally brought them just inside the landing platforms. They were concealed, looking down over the compound and the array of Black Omegas that were sitting there.

   ‘Not exactly pretty, are they?’ Garibaldi commented grimly.

   ‘They remind me of those Shadow ships,’ Talia replied softly.

   Garibaldi glanced at her: he remembered that encounter very well. It was the first time that he had seen her with that mix of rage, determination and downright hatred on her face. He had known then that it wouldn’t be the last time, and over the last few months, he had seen it more and more often. For all that he had despised Psi-Corps before, he hated the whole organization even more, just for that one thing alone.

   ‘So, what’s the big plan?’ Garibaldi asked.

   ‘Getting everyone out of here in one piece,’ Sheridan replied.

   ‘Gee, that’s brilliant, Captain,’ Garibaldi threw him a sarcastic look. ‘I wish I’d thought of that one.’

   ‘There isn’t a lot we can do except brazen it out,’ Sheridan continued more seriously. ‘Lyta and Talia will be providing a sort of mental defence grid. They can block and confuse anyone who gets in the way and we’re bringing up the rear.’

   ‘Aha, so while they hold ‘em down, so to speak, we punch.’

   Sheridan nodded. ‘More or less.’

   ‘One of the most sophisticated organizations in the world, some of the most dangerous telepaths, and we’re just gonna stroll in and pick up someone they’re holding prisoner,’ Garibaldi shook his head. ‘I was hoping that when I said it out loud it wouldn’t sound as crazy as it does in my head. It didn’t work.’

   ‘We don’t have a choice,’ Yuki put in. She was gripping her denn’bok tightly in both hands and her face was rigid. All of the humour and life had drained out of her eyes. Franklin had tried to stop her from going – he was certain that she would get herself killed in an attempt to atone for allowing her leader to be caught. But in the end her insistence, combined with Sheridan’s promise that he would keep an eye on her, had won out.

   Sheridan scanned the area below them once again. ‘There’s no point in waiting any longer – we’d better get moving.’

   Lyta had retrieved her gloves and pin and put them back on again, Talia was still looking every inch a Psi-Cop. And in her black clothing, even Yuki looked like a member of the Corps. The small group elicited a few curious glances from the maintenance crews that manned the platform, but no one approached them. They navigated their way through with ease and then entered the cool, grey corridors of the Psi-cop’s annex. It didn’t take telepathic ability to pick up the bad vibes that permeated the place. Sheridan suppressed an involuntary shudder. Talia had warned him against thinking about Delenn – strong emotions were easier to pick up and much more difficult to block. But that was almost impossible, especially now that they were actually inside the place. He tried to push the thoughts down and approach the situation with detachment, but Delenn’s face kept swimming in front of his eyes.

   They were advancing down the corridors. Occasionally they would pass someone who would stare over at them, but then – Sheridan noted with interest – a vacant, slightly confused expression would appear on their faces and they would continue walking. Whatever Lyta and Talia were doing, it seemed to be working.

   ‘The interrogation cells are this way.’

   They heard Lyta’s voice in their minds and looked at the formidable looking steel door that gave access to a wide passageway. As they approached, the doors opened and a man walked through them. He looked up at them and as soon as he saw Lyta his eyes widened. It was an almost imperceptible movement, but for trained professionals, it was all the warning they needed. The two officers gripped their PPGs. But before anyone could make another move, Lyta had crossed the short space towards the man. She pulled off one glove and gripped his face, looking deeply into his eyes. Immediately, he let out a shout of pain, his face contorting. He was trying to wriggle out of Lyta’s grasp, but he was obviously in so much pain that he could hardly move.

   ‘What is she doing?’ Sheridan asked in a horrified tone.

   ‘She’s finding out what room Delenn’s being held in.’ Talia replied. The colour had gone from her face as she watched in fascination. ‘He’s resisting her, that’s why he’s in so much pain.’

   A horrible noise, almost like death rattle, was coming from the man’s mouth and then Lyta suddenly released him. Her eyes were glittering maliciously as she looked down at him, but her smile was triumphant.

   ‘I take it that means she found out,’ Garibaldi muttered.

   Lyta took out her ID card and passed through the scanner.

   ‘Identify Alexander, Lyta. Access denied.’

   The whole group froze as a siren screamed into life. Lyta looked back at the door, her eyes narrowing. The scanner at the side suddenly burst into flame and acrid smoke starting pouring out. There was a dull clang and the door started to open.

   ‘And I thought the trick with the screw was impressive!’ Talia thought. She looked around at her companion’s amazed expressions. ‘Come on!’ she urged.

   They followed Lyta through the door and were almost running down the corridor. They could hear footsteps pounding along the passage outside. There wouldn’t be much time.

   Lyta came to a halt, backing up a few paces to a door set deep into the wall.

   ‘Is this it?’ Sheridan yelled to her over the din of the sirens.

   She nodded.

   He could feel his heart pounding in his chest. One half of him burning with impatience to get inside – the other half terrified of what he would find. Lyta was concentrating on the doorway.

   A warning shout from Garibaldi made them all look up – there was a Psi-cop running down the corridor towards them. Talia flung herself into the middle of it and the approaching figure reeled slightly. Just enough to allow Yuki to run forward and deliver a series of stunning blows that soon floored her opponent.

   There were more flames as the locks on the door succumbed to Lyta’s will. She turned the fury of her mind onto the Psi-Cops who had had just turned into the passageway. Garibaldi and the others took cover in the deep alcoves where the doors into the cells were. They opened fire on the advancing party.

   ‘Go on,’ Garibaldi yelled to Sheridan. ‘We’ll hold them off!’

   Sheridan shot him a grateful smile and ducked around the twisted metal door.

   

   

   Delenn felt someone undoing the restraints around her wrists, and heard her name being repeated over and over. Her head still felt as though it had been stuffed with cotton wool, but she was more aware of her surroundings now. The lights had been turned on and she could see that she was in a cell. As the manacles gave way she staggered slightly, but someone caught her. She looked up and found herself looking into Sheridan’s eyes.

   ‘Delenn, are you all right? What did they do to you?’

   A wave of hatred surged through her and she tore herself out of his arms.

   ‘Don’t come near me!’ she spat at him viciously. They were trying to trick her again. Didn’t they realise that she knew it was a trick? Or did they just enjoy trying to drive her crazy by using the person she cared about most in the Universe against her. Memories of what had happened started to come back and she recalled her capture. They had probably got John as well. Maybe they had even killed him…and that was why they were tormenting her like this. And that mockery of a Human being was still standing in front of her. Rage constricted her chest so that she could hardly breath.

   ‘You can’t trick me again,’ her voice sounded hoarse. ‘I know what you’re trying to do and it won’t work. I have faced worse than you!’

   Of all the things that Sheridan had thought might have happened to her, this had never entered his mind. Delenn was standing a few paces from him; her beautiful eyes were blazing with loathing that was directed solely at him. But the overriding thought was that he had to get her out of there. He approached her cautiously.

   ‘Delenn, listen to me. We have to go, and we have to go now. Talia and everyone else are out there right now and we don’t have a lot of time. Please, you have to come with me.’

   He placed a hand on her arm. The next moment all the breath was knocked out of his body and he was flung halfway across the room. He saw Delenn coming toward him and managed to twist out of the way, thanking God that he had taken those lessons from Neroon. He sprang to his feet and turned around. Delenn was crouching on the floor, his PPG in her hand. She was pointing it straight at him.

   Delenn stared up at the man who was standing over her. There was bewilderment and anxiety on his features. Very slowly she stood up, keeping the weapon trained on him. She suddenly felt an overwhelming weariness.

   ‘I do not care who you are,’ she said, ‘But I know that you are not John Sheridan. You will not play these games with me any longer.’

   He looked faintly surprised and then a look of understanding came into his eyes, but he didn’t try to come near her again. Delenn felt her hand that was holding the gun begin to shake. She was getting too tired for all of this. Out of all the impostors they had paraded in front of her, this one seemed the most like the man she knew. That only made it worse. It reminded her even more keenly about what she had lost. Her arm was aching and her head was beginning to swim. He was talking now, quietly and earnestly. It was making her even more confused and she longed for all of this to be over. In her mind’s eye she started firing the caps into the man ‘Take that for what you’ve done to me, and that for John’. She couldn’t think straight anymore. His voice was washing over her and some small part of what he was saying penetrated through to her brain.

   Her hand was shaking visibly and for a split second he considered making a grab for her, but it would probably only end up hurting her. And Delenn’s reflexes were so fast that she would probably kill him before he got anywhere near her. He had to persuade her to trust him. He had to make her believe that he really was the real John Sheridan, and not some mind-bending trick of Psi-Corps’. He could hear the firing still going on outside and voices shouting confused instructions.

   His mind raced, trying to think of the magic words that would let her know that it was really him. But anything that they had experienced together the Corps would have picked from her mind, so that wouldn’t work. He looked into her eyes. Intermingled with the hatred was fear.

   ‘Delenn, I can’t say anything that’s going to make you believe me. I think I know what they’ve tried to do to you in here, but they haven’t won. If we can get out of here in one piece then you’ve beaten them. The Vorlons couldn’t break you and they’re about the most terrifying things in the whole damn Universe after the Shadows. And when one of them shows up looking like my dad and telling me that “This is what is meant to be”, I really don’t think that this is what he had in mind. You’ve been through too much, Delenn…’

   She lowered the gun and then in the next instant she raised it again. Sheridan stiffened. There was a crackling sound and he felt the heat of the discharge pass by close to his ear. He turned and saw a Psi-Cop lying on the ground near the door. Garibaldi burst in and looked down at the body.

   ‘He broke through at the last second,’ he gasped and then looked at Delenn. ‘Are you ok?’

   Delenn had dropped the PPG and was weaving slightly on her feet. Garibaldi glanced between them and then made a move toward to Delenn, but Sheridan grabbed hold of his arm.

   ‘Leave her.’ Still keeping his distance he spoke to her again. ‘Delenn, we have to go now. Will you come?’

   There was still confusion and wariness in her expression, but she didn’t flinch as she held his gaze.

   ‘Yes,’ she said after a few seconds hesitation.

   The scene that greeted them in the corridor was one of devastation. Psi-Cops lay sprawled on the floor and the air was filled with the smell of burnt fabric and flesh. Blood was running down Yuki’s face from a wound in her head. Garibaldi was nursing his shoulder, while Lyta and Talia were gazing about, gasping for breath.

   ‘Won’t be long before the reinforcements show up,’ Garibaldi stated.

   ‘Do we know where we’re going from here?’ Sheridan asked.

   ‘There’s only one way out now – back to the landing platforms and hope that we don’t get our brains scrambled in the process.’

   ‘I hate to say it, but it looks like your plan was the right one after all!’

   ‘I guess this is where we get to see if Lyta was able to scramble the scanners!’ Sheridan replied.

   It became clear that the Corps wasn’t prepared for an assault coming from within their own compound. There were people running everywhere in a state of confusion and the Psi-Cops were too busy trying to control their own people to organize a proper search for the fugitives. And so the frantic race back to the landing platforms was made slightly easier than they had anticipated. Delenn was staggering slightly, but she had allowed Sheridan to support her a little, although she still held herself away from him. As they were approaching their goal, two Psi-Cops had sprung at them. They were promptly sent crashing to the floor as Talia and Lyta concentrated their power on them. Garibaldi grimaced and then reminded himself that he had seen Talia disable an entire Shadow vessel – it shouldn’t come as a huge shock that she could do it to a Human being.

   There was a huge range of ships sitting there, and in the middle of them was a White Star shuttle. Lyta had indeed scrambled the scanners so that the vessel had penetrated the area undetected – and with the uproar inside, the ground crew hadn’t even noticed what was going on right under their noses. It was one of the most welcome sights any of them had ever seen. Sheridan heard Delenn murmur something in her native tongue and he felt her slump toward him. He drew her closer to him, half-carrying, half-dragging her up the ramp that led into the shuttle.

   Talia and Lyta hung back, watching out for any last-minute attacks. Talia let out a gasp. In the massive opening of the dock, his eyes burning into her even at that distance, was Alfred Bester. At the sight of Bester, Lyta had stood as though turned to marble. Talia heard Garibaldi and Sheridan calling to them. She turned back to Lyta, and saw a figure running toward her – Lyta was oblivious to everything. After everything that had been done, Talia couldn’t face the thought of losing Lyta to the Corps all over again. Summoning up what was left of her diminished strength she lashed out at the Cop. The woman let out a scream of pain and sank to the floor, holding her head. Darkness swirled in Talia’s head, and she felt herself falling.

   Garibaldi ran to catch her, closely followed by Yuki and Sheridan. They were out in the open, exposed. And yet another wave of Psi-Cops were heading straight for them. Four in number this time. Talia’s assault had been enough to rouse Lyta from her stasis and she turned, just in time to see the danger. She already knew what they would do; she could feel the intent building up inside of them – the power that would destroy the minds of four people. Without another thought in her head, Lyta sprang forward and caught the full force of the blast.

   

   

   Sheridan watched impatiently through the window as Yuki conferred with the Minbari physicians. He was unable to draw any conclusions from the expressions on her face, and his eyes were soon drawn back to the sleeping figure on the bed. Delenn had collapsed almost as soon as she was on board the shuttle and Sheridan had gratefully given her into the care of the White Star’s medical officers.

   ‘What did they say?’ he asked as soon as Yuki approached him.

   She smiled tiredly. ‘There is no physical damage. Delenn was heavily drugged – hallucinogenic drugs that made her think she was seeing people who weren’t really there and it will take a little time for that to work out of her system.’

   ‘What about her mind?’

   ‘The physician had her scanned by one of our telepaths, but there is no telepathic conditioning. From what they said, it would almost impossible – there’s some kind of block in her mind. Even scanning her’s quite hard – the only things you can pick up, apparently, are the strongest thoughts in her head. It’s not natural in Minbari, it’s as though someone put it in there to protect her against telepathic influence.’

   Sheridan remained silent. Was that a legacy of their encounter with the Vorlons? He shook his head, feeling far too exhausted to make any sense of it all at the moment. He looked back at Yuki who was leaning heavily against the wall.

   ‘You should go and see Franklin, get that head injury seen to,’ he told her.

   ‘That’s exactly what I was about to say,’ Franklin’s commented dryly as he emerged from another medical bay.

   ‘I’m perfectly all right,’ she stated.

   Franklin gave her scathing look and took hold of her arm, steering her towards an area where he could examine her. ‘I’m not in the mood to start arguing with patients, Ms Ogawa. If you don’t co-operate I’ll have you put in restraints.’

   Sheridan eye’s twinkled in amusement. ‘He would, as well,’ he confided to her. ‘How’s our other patient doing, Stephen?’

   ‘Lyta? It’s hard to tell at the moment. She’s recovered consciousness, but she keeps slipping back. I don’t know what Psi ranking she’s meant to have, but I really don’t know how she survived that mind blast she took.’

   He had sat Yuki down on a makeshift examination table and was manoeuvring her head under the light. ‘Did you lose consciousness at all?’ he asked sternly.

   She sighed impatiently. ‘No, it’s just a little scratch.’ She let out a gasp as Franklin gently pressed the skin around the wound.

   ‘Just a scratch, huh?’

   ‘Maybe I should leave the two of you to get on with it,’ Sheridan said, his eyes straying back towards the medical bay where Delenn was sleeping.

   ‘No!’ Yuki yelped as she eyed Franklin cagily. ‘He hasn’t finished telling you about Lyta yet.’

   Franklin glared at her as he prepared the swabs and dressings. ‘I think she’ll be ok,’ he said as he worked, ‘but it’s going to take more than just medical skill to help her. It will probably take another telepath to undo a lot of the damage.’

   ‘Is that why she can’t talk?’ Sheridan asked curiously.

   Franklin considered this thoughtfully. ‘At some stage Psi-Corps, probably Bester, programmed her, but even with that sort of conditioning removed, I don’t know if she’ll be physically able to speak.’ He caught Yuki and Sheridan’s aghast expressions. ‘It’s a bit like if you don’t use a limb for a long time, the muscle atrophies to the point where you can’t use it anymore. A combination of cords and muscles enables us to speak and if we don’t use them, they can waste away.’

   ‘Can anything be done?’ Yuki asked.

   ‘There are procedures that can stimulate the cords, but until I’ve been able to examine her properly, I won’t know what the situation is… Will you keep still!’ he snapped at his patient who was squirming. ‘I thought that Rangers were meant to be stoical in the face of pain!’

   Yuki’s eyes flashed mutinously. ‘It’s nothing to do with pain. I just don’t like being prodded and manhandled, that’s all.’

   ‘Well, I’d love to stay and chat,’ Sheridan clapped his hands together, ‘but I think I’ll just go and check on Delenn’

   ‘How’d you like a nice sedative?’ he heard Franklin’s exasperated tone.

   ‘How’d you like a punch on the nose?’

   Despite his own fears and pre-occupations over Delenn, he couldn’t help but smile slightly.

   The dark room was quite peaceful and Talia felt her eyes closing every now and again. She shook herself and leaned forward to check Lyta’s status. She was surprised to see that the dark eyes were open. Lyta blinked slightly, and when she encountered Talia’s gaze, a hint of a smile appeared at the corners of her mouth. Very carefully, Talia took hold of Lyta’s hand and gently stroked the bare skin. At that simple touch, it was as though a warm current was connecting them, running through both of them.

   ‘I didn’t think I’d ever see you again,’ Lyta said. ‘I would never have told them about you, Talia. I didn’t want to…’

   ‘I know that. Don’t think about it now. You won’t have to go back there. You’ve been rescued by a very strange group of people, but I think that you can officially call them your friends.’

   ‘Friends?’ Lyta’s eyes were still haunted, but there was a slightly softer expression in them now. ‘I think I’d like that. I’m so tired.’

   Lyta’s eyelids fluttered.

   ‘Talia,’ Lyta’s voice was becoming indistinct. ‘Don’t let them...’

   Talia felt darkness rush through her as Lyta lost consciousness again. ‘Don’t let who, what?’ she wondered as she stroked Lyta’s hair with her free hand.

   A faint sound from behind made Talia turn around and she found Garibaldi standing in the doorway.

   He had been watching the silent communion between the two women for some moments. He was used to the fact, naturally, that Talia was a telepath – it was just a little strange to see her behaving like a telepath. But now that wonderful smile had lit up her face and he crossed the room to her.

   ‘How’s things?’ he asked softly.

   ‘All right, I think.’ Talia ran over the events of the day in her mind. ‘I hope Morden will be ok – he took as big a risk in all of this as any of us.’

   Garibaldi gave a rather grudging grunt of agreement. ‘He was headed straight for the next IPX ship outta here. He was probably off Earth before any of us.

   Talia smiled. ‘Taking his teeth with him, I gather?’ she said teasingly.

   Garibaldi looked at her reproachfully. ‘You’ll be giving me a tooth-complex!’

   ‘You started it!’ she objected.

   Garibaldi looked down at Lyta – she looked quite peaceful.

   ‘Why don’t you get some rest?’ he said to Talia.

   She frowned slightly. ‘I think I’ll stay here a little while longer. I don’t like the thought of Lyta waking up on her own,’ she smiled up at him. ‘You go on, I’ll come through later.’

   ‘I’ll stay.’

   He drew up another chair close to Talia’s and put his arm around her shoulder. She leaned back into him, resting her head on his chest. Their vigil over Lyta was reflected in the medical bay next door, where Sheridan was keeping an anxious watch over Delenn.

   

   

   The chime echoed on the inside of the room and then Sheridan heard Delenn’s voice telling him to enter. He crossed the threshold and then stopped in surprise. The lights were down completely, but there were candles on every surface and on the floor, the flames guttering slightly in the currents from the air-conditioner. Delenn was standing at the other end of the room. Instead of her usual bright silks, she was wearing a dark, plain dress with no outer-robe. The expression on her face was unusually serious.

   ‘What’s going on?’ he felt a certain amount of trepidation.

   It was three days since they had returned from their mission, and Sheridan hadn’t had much of an opportunity to speak to her. As soon as she had woken up on the White Star, Delenn had been surrounded by Minbari physicians, who seemed to disapprove strongly of Sheridan’s presence. They had left messages for each other and managed the odd snatched conversation, but that was all.

   ‘Sit down,’ she gestured toward a low table that was in the middle of the room. It was laid out with various bowls, crystals and – Sheridan noted – rather worryingly, a knife. He seated himself on the floor and looked up at her. She knelt opposite him and took a deep breath.

   ‘I have made these preparations for a ritual…’ she paused, searching for words.

   Sheridan felt even more uneasy, the look in Delenn’s eyes was almost fearful and it was one of the few times he had ever seen her so unsure of herself.

   ‘In your language, I suppose you would call it a ritual for forgiveness.’

   He stared at her, bewildered. ‘Forgiveness for what? We haven’t had a fight, or anything. Unless I’ve been so busy I missed it, but I’m pretty sure I would have remembered!’

   Delenn looked away from him as she spoke. ‘It is for you to forgive me.’

   This time Sheridan was too surprised to say anything.

   ‘For what happened on Earth. I must have hurt you terribly, John.’

   ‘I think I’ll recover from a bruised elbow!’ he replied tartly.

   Delenn met his gaze again. Her back was perfectly erect and the candlelight was casting deep shadows over her face, causing her eyes to glitter. ‘When you came for me, I did not trust you. I attacked you. That is a betrayal of what we have been building together and if we are to rectify that, I need to be purified and receive your forgiveness.’

   ‘You want me to forgive you?’ he repeated slowly.

   Delenn nodded.

   ‘No.’

   She started slightly, a look of distress coming into her eyes.

   ‘What am I supposed to forgive you for?’ He wasn’t sure why he was angry, but he was. He had respected Delenn’s culture and the rituals that she insisted they perform, but this was ridiculous. ‘Forgive you for being taken prisoner? Like you really wanted that to happen! Forgive you for being drugged and beaten up? Forgive you for trying to protect yourself?’

   Her body was still rigid; her eyes fixed on him soulfully. It was one of those times, Sheridan thought, that her Minbari heritage made her a complete cipher to him.

   ‘But you are angry with me,’ she stated simply.

   Sheridan sprang to his feet, almost knocking the table over.

   ‘Yes, I’m angry, Delenn. Not because of what happened back on Earth, but because of this! Y’know, where I come from we forgive people when they’ve done something wrong. You haven’t done anything wrong and I’m not going to help you inflict some sort of guilt-trip on yourself!’

   A shudder passed through her. In her mind’s eye she saw herself standing with the PPG and recalled the awful rage that had swept through her.

   ‘I almost killed you,’ her voice was barely above a whisper. ‘I wanted to.’

   ‘Delenn,’ he tried to keep the frustration out of his voice, ‘did you know it was me?’

   ‘No.’

   ‘No, you thought it was another trick the Psi-Cops were trying to pull. That’s what you wanted to kill – not me…’

   ‘But I should have realised that it was really you,’ she said.

   Sheridan felt as though he were hitting his head against a wall. ‘You did realise! That’s the point!’

   He spread his arms out and turned around. ‘Do you see any PPG marks? Those bastards just enjoyed torturing you because they couldn’t get anything out of you. They tried to use me against you, and you saw through it – I still fail to see where the blame comes into it. So you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t go along with all of…’ he gestured around the room and then his eyes fell on the knife. He snatched it up. ‘And this! What the hell was I meant to do with this? Cut bits of you off with it?’

   He dropped the implement in disgust and sank back down onto the floor. Now that the anger had passed, Sheridan looked slightly bemused. In spite of herself, Delenn laughed. She was still unused to the rather haphazard, disorganized way in which Humans sorted their affairs, as opposed to the formal structures of her own people. But, oddly enough, this vehement refusal to follow this ritual comforted her.

   ‘I’m sorry,’ he said suddenly. ‘I shouldn’t have shouted at you like that, I just don’t see how you can blame…’

   Delenn leaned across the small table and placed a finger lightly over his lips. ‘No, you are right. You’ve followed all of my customs – perhaps it is time for me to view the world through your perspective.’

   ‘Does that mean that we can forget all of this nonsense?’ he asked hopefully.

   Delenn nodded, running the back of her fingers against his cheek. She sat up on her knees and leaned toward him. He cupped one hand at the back of her neck, holding her into him. As if by silent agreement, they moved away from the table until they were holding one another closely, their kisses becoming more insistent. Delenn sighed as they pulled apart slightly.

   ‘That night we had together, on Earth,’ she said tenderly, ‘that seems a very long time ago, now.’

   Sheridan smiled, his eyes gleaming. ‘That’s easily put right,’ his voice had a husky edge to it.

   Do you think that you are prepared for a Minbari bed?’ she asked, smiling.

   Sheridan winced. ‘Uhhhh, I don’t think so. But,’ his arms tightened around her, ‘we have cushions and candles. We might as well continue to approach things from a Human perspective tonight!’

   He pressed her down onto the floor, grabbing a couple of cushions to put under her head, Delenn gazed up at him and then twined her arms around his neck, pulling him down to her.

   ‘I think that I should try Human customs more often,’ she whispered.

   Her words mingled with the wisps of smoke from the gently flickering candles, and floated into the scented air.

   

   [THE END]

   …But more to come!



 

*****

 

 

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