aftermath.html Aftermath
By: DsignG4

Thanks to my beta readers, Sylvia, Avril, Terri and Barbara. Your comments really enforced that these kind of stories can work out and not be sappy. You guys are great.

Disclaimer: I am just playing here and ain't hurtin' nuthin', so I'll get out of the Great Makers sandbox when I'm good and ready. Can I have a popsicle?

[STORY NOTES: nothing spoilable past present US showings, no slash, nothing tawdry, nothing to offend. HANKIE WARNING, great emotional turmoil, or so I have been told. g>

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It was going to be one hell of a long night.
The Brakiri had purchased part the station to celebrate some sort of Halloween from what she could tell. Susan hadn't known what the big deal was. Of course, they were welcome to whatever they needed for the ceremony, as any race were. But the Brakiri Ambassador insisted they own it, even if only for one night. Some races were just too anal for their own good, and the Brakiri, she found, were one of the most retentive races she'd dealt with. She didn't like the 'buying' option. It seemed like contractually they could walk off with the whole station if she wasn't careful. She had made sure every loophole was covered in five ways and there was no way they retained any ownership after the allotted hour. The Station's legal officer said it was the most solid contract he'd ever made. She at least felt better about it, but she still had an overwhelming feeling that something was gonna blow in her face over all this.

She was told people could stay in their quarters, but only if they arrived before the curfew that hailed the beginning of the ceremony. After it started no one would be able to enter or leave until it was over, hours later. They said, out of religious frenzy people not of their race might not be safe. She agreed before she realized that staff quarters, hers included, would be involved.

When she tried to re-negotiate the Brakiri said it was too late. Preparations had begun, and ending them would cause a great upheaval and much distress. She decided not to pursue it, not to start the inevitable all-out religious war.

She got off work on time and made it to her quarters fast enough that she wouldn't have to find a room elsewhere. She was thankful. She needed to sleep in her own bed.

With the war ending, her thwarted death leading to Marcus', Sheridan gaining the new Alliance Presidency, herself becoming Captain of the station, her life was as close to spontaneous combustion as she had ever remembered. It was all a bit too much to deal with at times, but here in her own quarters, everything was the same -- the furnishings, the smells, the people. Her. Just her. Like always. It was the only a constant she had. Not that she had much else.

She was sleeping less, working more, drinking more. Lots more. Doing whatever it took to NOT think.

She pulled her body to the shower and let the hot water wash away any thinking she tried to do. She'd done far too much recently. She wished for all the world to undo many things in recent weeks.

So many things. And, one particular thing. If she hadn't been so close to the front of the command bridge, if she had just listened to him and not charged blindly through the battle zone, then they'd both still be alive. But now she was the one who was dead inside. If she thought she tucked her feelings away before, they were locked up inside a tomb now. She didn't want to feel anything ever again. She'd felt too much, too late. And the thought of ever feeling anything again was not appealing anymore.

If she tried to think about it she got too unstable and she took it out on everyone else. So she tried not to.

The others knew what happened, and saw how different she was. They left her alone. Corwin in particular took extreme care to spare her any aggravation. It was mainly for his own self-preservation as he usually ended up taking to brunt of it. He was a nice kid.

She really appreciated him, even though sh'ed never publically tell him so, she thought maybe a commendation or two was overdue her young Executive Officer. He really wasn't that bad, just young, and as she thought of it not even that now, he had been here five years now.

She let the water roll over her face and tried to go down the drain with it, trying to lose herself in the soothing warmth.

She got out, dried her hair, brushing it thoroughly and plaiting it in a tight braid so it would be curly tomorrow. The lights flickered once or twice. She thought she'd better call C&C and see what the matter was.

She sighed, not wanting to go back to work. It was bound to be something stupid and immediate. She tied her robe around her and padded to the living room yawning, the shower having relaxed her significantly.

As she passed through the darkened room, she stopped. Something caught her attention. Her heart stopped as she saw a figure standing by the end of the couch, just out of the corner of her eye. She turned and flew at the dark stranger, fist flying, her left hand connecting with a jawbone. The stranger fell to the shadows of the floor with a hard thud.

"Ow!" An English voice yelped out from the floor. "Now, I didn't exactly think you'd be thrilled to see me, but I didn't think you'd do that!"

She went pale as the figure became clear. The eyes were unmistakable.

"Oh my God," she said slowly, feeling the room around go into slow motion. "You're dead. YOU'RE DEAD!" She jumped backwards, watching Marcus Cole get back to his feet looking quite sheepish.

"Computer, Ivanova to Security!" she said racing to the companel. Nothing. No one was answering. It was dead. The door only opened a few inches, a red light lit the room from the crack. She began trying to pull it open with her bare fingers, screaming at the top of her lungs for security. Her voice echoed once and was lost. She turned to her guest, the dead man.

"I don't think that's going to do much," he said touching his jaw gingerly with a wince. It had been a good shot. "I just have this feeling. I think we're stuck here until this is over."

The doors finally opened a few inches, enough for her to see out. Red, all she could see was red. Like she was in a hyperspace field. A swirling red hot looking mass of reds and blacks.

She took a step back shocked. She had'nt expected to see that.

"Who's out there?" She asked accusingly to her guest.

"What's out there more like it, and you really don't want to know."

"Yes I do!" She growled turning back the door trying to pry it open more, she didn't like to think who she might be talking to.

"No!" he said raceing across and blocked her view, his arms out stretched. "No. You don't."

"Why not?!" she said about ready to punch him again, her fist balled up in rage and fear.

"What is out there is for no one's eyes. No one alive anyway. For once you have to trust me on this."

Deciding that there was no way she'd get out or anyone would get in, she turned to face her visitor. "Trust who?" she seethed, "You can't be here, your body is in cryo in medlab," she said, trying to look at him without letting her reserve go out the window. Her mind was filled with a cacophony of her own voice saying, 'this is not happening, this is not happening, this is not happening, this is not happening'.

"Right address, knock all day -- nobody's home!" He grinned widely. He was trying to reassure her with his humor again, just like he used to. Used to, she thought. She realized she'd missed it. She'd missed the good-natured twinkle in his eyes when he was trying to reach her in her fortresses.

But there was just no explanation for this. It made no sense. Her mind whirled. He nodded, seeing the doubt in her eyes. He leaned forward slowly.

"Think of where you are for just a minute," he said calmly pointing outside the doors to the red swirling field. "Odder things have happened here, if you recall. This place is like a gateway to the Twilight Zone," He grinned. "Did you honestly think we'd slip through the cracks?"

"This isn't happening," she said shaking her head quickly to clear it. going to the kitchen.

"Do I need to convince you? Is that it?"

She looked over her shoulder at him, afraid of what he would say next. "Yes, " she said nervously. "Yes you do."

He smiled, "Remember what I told you on the Whitestar? Remember?" His smile was warm and his eyes seemed to almost glow in the dim light of the room.

"No," she lied, badly.

"You don't? Nu 'sahn felani ah'nes me'drohn? You went to all the trouble to translate it. I'd thought you'd remember it," he said gently, his eyes softening to the ones she remembered when he was tormenting her needlessly.

She felt her face go slack and her jaw slowly drop. Her hand faltered and fell to her side. She gasped unbelieving. "No no no," She began to feel a hot burning at the corners of her eyes. She shook her head side to side while backing up.

"See? You never did trust me," he smiled softly.

"But you're dead," she breathed.

"And you are a broken record, dear," he smiled."We were all there, it's ancient history now..." His tone was light and friendly, it somehow made her almost sick to her stomach.

She nodded blankly, her eyes beginning to feeling watery from the shock of what was happening. "It's Day of the Dead. That's it!" she said, realizing finally, feeling like maybe she wasn't actually losing her mind and there was an actual reason behind this. "I didn't think it was literal. Oh hell, I'm going to kill the Brakiri Ambassador for this. I'm going to hang him from the Zocolo's rafters and then get --!"

"There! Now you're sounding back to normal!" he said with a chipper smile, interrupting her. "I was getting worried."

"Is this real? I mean, this can't be real..."

He smiled a sinister grin and pinched her arm.

"Ow!" she yelped rubbing it. It hurt, alot.

"It's real," he nodded. "Sorry to say."

"Why you? I have a stable full of dead relatives," she asked slowly, feeling a little overwhelmed.

"Oh, thank you very much!" he cried out, sounding hurt. "What's a bloke got to do to earn a little respect around here?" he snapped, raising his arms in surrender.

"Aw, hell, how do I manage to do that all the time?" she sighed apologetically, rubbing her forehead. "I mean... why not Momma or Ganya, or Father? Why you?" she asked exasperated. "I haven't seen them in years."

"I don't know. All I knew was that I was there, then I was nowhere, then I was here," he said.. "Uhm, how long have I been... gone?"

Gone, gone, the words hung heavily around her head. "Five months." she choked out feeling like she was beginning to drown in her own thoughts, the swirled around her

He looked surprised. "Really? Five months? Wow, amazing how time flies, eh?"

She couldn't stop staring at him. She wanted to touch him, to prove to herself he was a figment of her imagination, to prove anything other than what this appeared to be. The pinch could have been a trick. She had to know. She slowly reached toward him, hoping to see her hand pass through to find him a phantom, but when her fingers hit solid soft warm flesh she yanked them back as if they were on fire. She rubbed the fingertips vigorously to remove the offending sensation. She felt ready to hyperventilate.

She was unable to look at him any longer, her chest beginning to heave. She turned suddenly, going back to the bar to pour a large glass of vodka and drink it in one long gulp. She looked to her visitor over her shoulder, embarrassedly wiping her mouth with the back of her hand as she poured a second.

"I was rather hoping YOU could tell me why I'm here," he said with a challenging grin. "The boys upstairs don't tell us a thing." He was joking. She looked up long enough to catch that clearly in his eyes.

"Why did you do it? Why save me? I made your life hell."

His expression softened but he turned his back, folding his arms in front of him.

"Not hell, interesting," he sighed. "I couldn't be there without doing something, Susan. I refused to sit idly and watch you go like the rest I --" his voice was confident, not apologetic or whatever she was wanting to hear.

" 'Something' is sending flowers. 'Something' is not... killing yourself." She rubbed her scalp and spun back to face him. "Do you know what I have been going through -- knowing what you did!? How am I supposed to deal with that? It's like a damned cloud over my head! I can't get out from under it. No matter how fast I run, it's there. I can't see anything else, hear anything else... every breath I take is a reminder of you... it's too much!"

"I'm sorry," he said simply, but did not look remorseful. "But I didn't take my life, I gave it. There's a difference. A big one."

"I never, ever would have asked." she snapped fiercely.

"Of course not, and that's why I didn't as well. It's what I joined the rangers to do."

"To die? You joined the rangers to die?" She couldn't believe her ears.

"Yes," he said matter-of-factly. "You certainly don't join to learn farming."

"Always with the damn jokes..." she lashed back.

"Just because I'm dead doesn't change who I am." he said, the humorous glint back in his eye. This enraged her once again, just like before. He knew all the strings to pull. It was like he'd never left, and all the old feelings came roaring back.

"Just who the hell were you to play god?" she growled. "Hmm?"

"No one else would!" he roared back, his temper now at max from her attack. "Does that make my hearing the answer easier? No one so much as lifted a finger! They used the machine on Garibaldi for less. They knew it existed, and yet they all were perfectly willing to let you die! Even your precious Sheridan! My God, they disassembled the bloody thing and coded all the records six ways from Sunday. Took me a half hour to get it back together." He sighed deeply running his hands through his hair to push it pack I place. "I had to keep knocking people out the whole time. I hope I didn't do anyone any permanent damage." He laughed softly, his initial anger now subsided. "Susan, everyone I know here has had a miracle of biblical proportions happen to them -- everyone but you. They wouldn't allow it. They even sent Stephen to stop me. They played god, not me. I was the only one willing to do something -- to do anything."

The words stung her. They were true. She'd reviewed the records herself. They'd all but written their eulogies for her. It took her two weeks after reading the reports to be able to talk to Stephen without wanting to rip his arms off. He was the one she harboured the greatest amount of blame against, he and John, but Franklin let the thing stay on the station. He should have blasted it out into space once he knew what it could do. What it was capable of. And John... suddenly she felt angry at her self, she wasn't even sure who she was angry at anymore.

"Did you ever think that maybe it would have been better to let nature run its course?! "

"Better that I let you die? Don't ask me that now." He smiled sadly.

He quickly raised a hand and stroked a stray lock that had worked it way loose from her face in the fight with the door and smiled. "I always wanted to do this," he whispered studying her face with soft blue eyes. "Never had the chance. Can't kill me if I do it now, now can you?" He smiled to tell her it was a joke.

She choked back a gasp as his hand moved to her cheek, triggering a flood of emotions she'd buried all these months to suddenly burst out of their holds.

After the first few days she'd begun not to mourn what he did, but WHY he did it. Because he had felt lost, or spurned, or unable to voice what he felt because of her behavior, her selfishness. She couldn't bear his death on her conscience, especially at the saving of her own life.

Sure, she'd toyed with the idea of killing him for annoying her here and there, she never wanted to cause him harm knowing he meant well. Sensing his feelings, the last thing she wanted to do was hurt him for something that was her problem, not his. And, because she'd felt herself starting to lean the same way, wondering if she shouldn't just let down her guard just once more.

When the thought had entered her head that the energy transfer process could have been painful, she immediately refused to think more on it. She couldn't think how much pain she'd caused him both mentally and bodily.

"Did it hurt?" she breathed, the words choking up in her throat, her eyes wide and moist. She had to know now.

"Pain is meaningless," he said softly looking into her eyes, then diverting them, answering it in true Minbari style. Not answering it at all. They'd taught him well. If it did, he'd never admit it.

"Tell the truth, damn it," she ordered, trying to sound tough, and not the crumbling shell she was becoming. "Please. I think I deserve to know."

He frowned, wiping away her tears, smoothing his moist fingertips across her cheeks. "Only in that I knew I was leaving behind what I loved most. No physical pain. It was like falling asleep."

She closed her eyes thankfully, drawing in a ragged breath. At least he didn't suffer, suddenly she felt the urge to ask what she had herself come to need to know since her return.

"Who was right? About the other side I mean... Which culture, which religion...?" she asked hurriedly.

"Does it matter?" He smiled, cocking his head as if examining her sudden shift in behaviour.

"Yes. To me it does." she nodded.

His eyes crinkled up at her statement. "All I can say is, all of them are right and yet none are correct."

"Geez, you really did spend too much time on Minbar," she cracked, breaking into a smile despite herself.

He smiled at her chiding. "It's all I can say, I'm afraid." He looked her up and down uncomfortably then turned away to sit down on the couch. "And I'm not sure you'd believe it anyway even if I could," he sighed.

She suddenly realized she didn't have a whole lot of time. This holiday only lasted a few more hours. Such a short time, so much to tell him.

There was so much she had wanted to say to him the day after. Now she had that chance. Her last chance to say what she'd never thought she would be able to.

"Would you have done it for Delenn?" she asked wlking around the living room.

"No," he said quickly, then almost silently added, "I wouldn't have had the opportunity."

"What about all that I live and die for 'the one' crap?"

"It's a good battle cry." He smiled weakly. "What scares you more? 'I live for the one, I die for the one' or 'Not in the face you big fat meanie' ?"

She tried not to smile at that, but she'd always loved his sense of humor. It was nice to hear it again. Too nice.

She sank to the floor on her knees in front of him. She studied his face, every line, every shape. It was him. It really was.

"I'm sorry I was such a shit to you. I just refused to see it. When I did, it was too late. I'm so sorry," she apologized, touching his jaw where she'd punched him. There was no bruising or swelling yet.

"Don't be," he said, pleading. He snatched her hand from his face and held it a painful second to his lips before releasing it.

The neckline of her robe had fallen open just enough to reveal the top slope of one breast. She didn't care anymore.

"I heard you," she breathed nervously, her hands clasped in front of her face to hide the fact she was about to cry. "When you said....what you did in medlab, before you... I heard." She looked up to see the look of shock in his eyes.

"Did you?" he said, the first time she'd ever seen him looking very embarrassed.

She nodded. "All the stupid stuff you said over time, it was really, really sweet. I did notice. I even ... liked it. Damn." She struggled to maintain her composure and shakily put her hand on his. She felt her breath come in ragged pieces as his fingers slowly wound around hers. So warm, so alive, so real.

"When I was... dying... I knew it was you, right at my side the whole time. It was nice... I didn't know what to say to you. I knew, I couldn't say anything..." she said, starting to ramble.

"You don't have to do this," he said looking uncomfortable, a tear rolling down his cheek as he cupped her chin gently in a supportive gesture.

"Yes I do. If I can't tell you I can't tell anyone. Hell, I told Stephen... I should tell you, while I have the chance. I'll never forgive myself if I don't."

She looked up into his eyes, his face, his lips. "I did, I mean I do... I know I never said it... but I do." she rambled quickly, fully aware she was blathering and not making sense. She was in a panic.

"Susan..."

"I knew it for a long time. I ignored it, I didn't want to. I thought, maybe when the war was over, maybe... I'd give it a shot . Then it was too late...Oh damn! This is all my fault!" she said, starting to cry uncontrollably. He slid down from the couch to the floor, sweeping her into his arms.

"Shhhh!" he soothed pressing his lips to her forehead. "None of this is your fault," he said rocking her. "Don't, don't..."

"If I hadn't ordered the ship to blast through, if I hadn't been standing where I was..." she sobbed into his shoulder. "If I hadn't been so damned stupid!" She hadn't known how soft the Ranger uniform was until then. It felt like a suede-finish silk. It only made her lean closer, press herself deeper in his arms. It felt good too good. She'd shunned contact for so long, but it was this she missed, the closeness, the touch of another person.

"It happened. Nothing can change that now. And you are stubborn, not stupid," he said, his voice warm and caring.

She sat on the floor with him a few minutes as her chest pounded, thoughts of the last months spinning in her head and drawing her down again back into the darkness of that time.

"How much longer do you have? I mean, you're not here forever. Are you?" she asked looking up to his caring face, hoping that somehow he was back for good. That the past was the past and the present was forever. She noticed her robe was a little more open than she liked and pulled at it and cinched it closed nervously, catching his gaze move from there to her eyes. A shiver ran up her spine knowing he had noticed. There was a man in there after all, she mused to herself. "How long?"

He looked around the ceiling as if trying to deduce the answer. "No, only a few hours more, I think. Not sure." He looked back at her and she found herself just staring into his clear eyes.

She saw his soul laid wide open -- pain, loss, a spirit that seemed to find the will to strive forward and an ability for such great love. And he truly loved her, in every way a person could, in a way that made her legs weak if she thought too much about it. She found herself lost in them, tumbling further and further away from her senses. Her whole body seemed to flush and a warm tingle soon spread.

Her emotions began to boil. How could she not have seen? How could she have been so blind? It was there all along. She'd felt this way the whole time. Why hadn't she looked here before?

She'd always angrily yanked her gaze away when he tried to make contact. Was it what she was seeing now that she was so afraid of? That she'd have found out she was human still after all her failures, or that she still had any feelings at all?

She gathered her strength, leaning forward to kiss him softly. At first her lips barely touched his, feeling their hot breath mingle, she shuddered. Then he leaned inward and completed the connection. Her hands frantically sought out the warm hollow of the back of his neck to pull him closer. His lips were hesitant at first. She could tell he was trying to decide what to do next. Slowly his hands went to her face, cupping her jaw in his palms, caressing her cheeks as his lips burned her mouth. Her mouth opened and gratefully welcomed his tongue when it was tentatively offered. Her mind raced. This wasn't happening, but it sure the hell felt like it was. He was really here. And it felt so right, so right.

Rage, remorse, longing, fear, sorrow, love raced through her and she soon found she was spinning uncontrollably away, then she was yanked back as he pulled away.

He began to laugh, shaking his head to regain his bearings, burying his face in his hands with a wide sheepish grin.

"Marcus," she said softly, trying to build the courage within her. "I don't need another regret. Not with you..." she said, moving her hands shakily and slowly to his shoulders.

"What are you --?"

She bit her lip, watching his face as she as she slowly pushed his overcloak off his shoulders. She was determined now. He wasn't winning this fight.

"Susan, don't -" he pleaded as he tried to pat her hands away. "I don't think-"

She stopped his protests by leaning in to kiss him again, harder this time, rising to her knees to pin him to the couch with her body. He didn't fight.

She kissed him deeply and slowly pulled away. "I never asked you for anything, Marcus, but I'm asking for this," she said, holding his gaze.

He shook his head. "I dunno, it seems, well, all right, wrong. Me being dead and all," he protested with a shy smile. "Reeks of a bad novel actually, if I may so."

"I know," she scowled. "How about I order you not to, and you disobey it -- just like the old days. Would that work for you? Hmmm?" she said, raising an eyebrow as she finally freed him of his cloak, throwing it behind her. It landed in a plant.

She took one hand from her waist, placing it at her shoulder, leading it to slide open the neckline of her robe.

He slowly began to nudge the silken edge back to reveal more skin. His eyes were dark and did not leave hers as his fingertips skimmed along her chest incredibly slowly shaking a little. It was a startling feeling. A man quaking at her touch. It'd been so long.

When his fingers moved down between her breasts she shuddered as they flicked the surface. She kissed him hard, stealing his lips like a prize and exploring his mouth once more.

He shifted quickly and suddenly she was on her back on the floor and his lips were running over neck, pushing wide the robe. She fought past the blind emotion to think enough to try to ease him out of his shirt.

Suddenly, he pulled her to her feet and led her to the bed without saying a word. He sat her down on its edge and knelt at her bare legs. With a finger lightly at her jaw he turned her head and laid a single hot kiss to the base of her throat. Then his hands went to her long braid.

Nimbly his fingers undid the tie she wore around the end, and dove into the thick sections, freeing them into perfect curls.

She groaned deeply her head falling backwards towards his touch, and closed her eyes remembering how nice it was to have someone do this again, not since her mother... since Talia...

When he was done he ran his fingers through her now flowing tresses and with great concentration he arranged it just so.

Smiling a far-off little smile, he leaned over and laid the side of his face to her still draped chest and wrapped his arms around her waist tightly. She could feel his hot breath on her exposed cool skin. Just holding her.

Goosebumps fired up along her skin where his breath touched it. She clutched at him in return, stroking his temple. How could she have overlooked this man? Worse, she'd dismissed him like an insolent child. How could she not have seen? No, she'd seen it all along. It had scared the living hell out of her. She'd run like the coward she really was.

"Marcus," she said slowly looking down to try to see his face.

"My God..." he breathed lost in thought. "I can hear your heart beat. That's me." his voice beginning to crack. "That's really me in there."

His expression quickly changed and he pulled away, slowly sinking to his knees on the floor at her feet. His hand crept to the side of his neck.

He shakily pressed his fingers into the hollow of his jawline. She watched in stunned silence as his eyes closed in realization.

"Marcus?" she asked, unsure what to say next. When he didn't react or even move she slid to the floor to his side and touched his shoulder. He jumped at her touch.

He raised his eyes to meet hers and rubbed his neck near where he had checked a minute ago.

"No pulse," he smirked, blotting a single tear from the corner of his eye with his palm. "Stephen said I'd be dead before I had a shot with you. Who knew he was right?" He smiled weakly. "Let him know, will you?"

"Are you all right?" She said, regretting using those words.

He nodded. "As good as a corpse can be I suppose," he said, waving off the comment. He cleared his throat and rose to his feet. "My current vital situation suddenly hit a little close to home, that's all."

He paced around a bit, keeping his bare back to her, seeming afraid to face her. She studied his form closely, almost adoringly. He had a few scars on his back, a PPG burn or two. She watched him a few minutes then decided they could wait no more.

She slowly rose and untied the remainder of her robe and let it fall to the floor. She wanted to give him this, she wanted it herself. She was nervous feeling the cool sterile air chill her for a moment then called out to him.

"Marcus," she said in a soft commanding voice making sure it sounded confident, although it was the furthest thing she was feeling. She wanted to run away and hide from the rush of emotions she was suddenly feeling.

He turned and his jaw dropped. He did not fail to look, however, his eyes tracing her in a way she felt ripple up and down her body. She sighed and wished that this was all it would take to make the past go away. It wouldn't, but she would have at least made amends to herself. And to him finally.

"Why are you doing this?" he asked looking intrigued and scared out of his wits at the same time, and she even found that alluring. God damn him.

"I know it's a little late. My timing has always sucked. I have thought of nothing the last five months other than how I screwed this one up. What I didn't do, what I didn't say... I'm not accepting failure this time. If this is all we can have... Goddamn it, let's make it something to remember. What do ya' say?"

Without another word he was flying from across the room and she struggled to actually make it to the bed.

===========================

He might have been dead, but he certainly wasn't lifeless. She found herself smiling to herself afterwards. Far from it. It had been so beyond what she was expecting. Well, being alive was that alone, but it was more, so much more. He was everything she was afraid he would be. She felt so guilty for it having to happen this way. Perhaps had she been more approachable, or even said yes just once to his social invitations, maybe he wouldn't have been so heartbroken as to take such a measure.

Maybe if she hadn't been so scared of what he represented that she ignored him to the point of total disregard whenever they met. That disregard cost her the precious seconds she would have needed to dodge out of the way of the debris -- the one thing that caused all of this pain.

She dozed off for a few minutes, questioning every move she'd ever made in her life and awoke to find him gone and herself cold, huddling under the covers.

She bolted upright, calling out his name, fearing he was already vanished to where he'd come from. She was relieved to see him as he returned quickly from the outer room looking concerned. He smiled sadly, standing by the door frame. He had redressed.

"It's time isn't it?" she asked softly, knowing by the look on his face it was true.

He nodded sadly, coming to her side at the bed and sat next to her, looking deeply into her eyes. He raised a hand and lovingly stroked her cheek. "Yes. It's close now."

She let out a hard sigh and burrowed her face in his palm. "I've missed you. Every time I got on a Whitestar I half expected you to be there, and when you weren't..." she said, her voice cracking, gripping his hand tightly. "I don't want this to end."

"I don't want it to either. But I don't think I have a choice in this." He smiled, his eyes full of tears waiting to roll. "How often does this holiday happen, again?" he asked, caressing her cheek.

"Every two hundred years," she said, closing her eyes. She tried to retain her reserve but feeling the fire his touch left hindered it.

"Damn." He said, shaking his head. "Ever feel as if the universe were out against you?" he asked with a sad smile, softly rolling his thumb across her lips.

She nodded. "Every day I've been alive." she said. It wasn't fair, one break, the gods couldn't even cut her one break. They were doing this to make her suffer.

He laid his head heavily on her chest, listening to her heart one more time, and his arms curled lovingly around her waist. It was going to hurt more than having him gone the first time.

She knew what she was losing this time around.

"It's time," he said simply, biting his lip. He was quiet a moment just searching her face deeply for the last time. "I love you Susan," he said "Always remember that."

"I will," she said a tear rolling down her cheek, knowing he was leaving her again. It hurt more to know that this had been here all along and she had shoved it aside because of her damned pride. "See you on the flip side," she whispered. "I love you too." Finally, she spoke it, and it hurt more than anything she'd ever said or done to this point so far.

He began to fade, and where his body touched hers a cold tingle replaced it. She watched as he faded to nothingness, a sly smile on his face. Then he was gone. Again.

Then suddenly the lights came up in the room and her morning wake up system activated, and the door closed, all at once.

"System Reboot. System on-line. Time is 0400 hours. You have 4 messages. One from Lt. Corwin, one from President Sheridan, one ..." the machine droned suddenly, breaking the spell that had been cast. It was a noisy and unwelcome mental intrusion and she immediately blocked it out.

Susan was still lost in thought, staring at the walls. She had trouble even thinking of anything. All she could see was him fading away again.

If not for the warm still throbbing reminder between her legs she would have thought it was a dream. It was too real, too much to sort out into parcels small enough to digest.

She didn't fall asleep, she tried to lie there and get at least an hour, but it never came. She was afraid that if she did she'd forget, or wake up to find it was all a dream after all.

The computer stirred her again. She barely blinked at the jarring noise. She hadn't moved in hours. She was living in a vid-reel, replaying last night over and over, remembering every nuance, every word, every crooked grin, every touch. She didn't want to forget.

Beep beep beep. "Good morning. The time is 0800. You have one meeting scheduled at 0900 hours with, Ambassador Londo Mollari. You have 4 messages--"
"Shutup," she said dully. The computer played a soft beep and was silenced. "Just shutup."

====================================================

She wandered through the next day like a corpse. She didn't talk, didn't react. She went through the motions. She'd done them so long that thinking wasn't required. But she knew they could tell something was up. She could feel the concerned looks, hear the whispers.

The talk of what happened last night to those trapped in their quarters was circulating quickly. Everyone was acting like they were on air. All but her.

When they asked if anything had happened to her, since her quarters we in the zone, she merely grunted that she didn't believe in ghosts, and walked the other way. It wasn't exactly answering their questions, but they didn't ask further. She didn't know what she'd do if they did. She didn't think she could.

Her second chance with Marcus was just another lesson in "How Stupid Susan Ivanova is with romance." Another bit of proof that she was dangerous to know. Sorrow only followed where she trod.

Where would she be now if she'd just said yes to his invitation to dinner his first week on the station? Or the second? Or the third? She'd really wanted to. He was a nice enough guy, she knew, but she had seen his intentions even then and thought avoiding him all together was enough to keep herself from thinking the forbidden thought again. Maybe if she had they would have broken up long ago and he wouldn't have been so heart broken. Maybe he wouldn't have cared so much.

It was just his persona, she'd deduced at first. The dark mystery man with the dashing good looks and a dangerous occupation. He was a natural chick magnet. She was not a chick. She refused to be a chick. She would just hold out. He'd be gone in a week and then she'd forget was ever here.

But then he didn't leave. He was assigned there. And he didn't give up.

She had made a conscious decision that it was too soon after Talia. That pain was still too fresh. She pushed away, hoping he got the message. He seemed to take it as a challenge. He fed on it, it seemed.

He pursued her casually, never in public, only with a cocky warm smile and a offhanded joke, and she'd enjoyed the odd sensation of it.

Whether or not you were looking for it, the thought that someone had a crush on you made you warm all over when they were near. You became aware of where you were, and where they were... You began to read things in the words when they spoke. You began to examine them.

She pushed away harder, and he was even nicer. His sense of humor made her grin, and that angered her more.

After a while she found herself in a mood, one that could only be described as horny, thinking to herself of inviting him over, and that only angered her even more. He was winning.

Then the roses. Along with the breakfast he'd acquired, it was too much. It was like a sick puppy dog thing. It was no longer cute, even though she inwardly thought it was terribly sweet.

It wouldn't have been so bad except as she was eating the eggs and bacon that Garibaldi was teasing her. Saying she should 'put out' and see if he could deliver on barbecue spare ribs and coleslaw. God Damn them both.

She had fumed and had run back and grabbed the lovely roses. It took her a hour and a half to find him, but she did and she let him have in true Ivanova style. He'd looked rather pleased at the returned gift.

She warmed up to him eventually again, accepting him as a friend even though secretly he'd already worked in her mind like a parasite. She felt the way he looked at her, watching her, and sometimes she wanted to just rip his clothes off in the hallway and go at it like crazed weasels.

That made her even madder. She didn't want anyone to have that effect on her. She was above such mortal emotions. She didn't like being weak with them again. But she was.

Then when he finally spoke what she'd secretly known was the fact for so long, it was too late. He was gone.

It was too much to accept.

She did her twelve hour shift as if in a dream state, all of these thought swirling in her head like a fog, and walked home with her legs feeling like they were weighted with concrete due to exhaustion. She hadn't slept. She hadn't eaten. She'd tried, but she wasn't up to it.

Luckily, for a change there were no incidents that kept her longer. She only hoped she could get a decent night of sleep without seeing those eyes of his. No such luck.

==========================================================

The persistent beeping of the com alarm failed to stir her fully. She rolled over and buried her head under a couple of pillows and tried to block out the damned pinging. She finally lost her cool and threw the pillows at the panel.

"I'm up, damn you!" she barked, sitting upright. She certainly didn't feel up. She could have easily have slept another 18 hours.

"The time is 0500. You have 5 messages --"

"Play messages in order," she sighed, falling back into the bed. She hadn't picked them up yesterday and she'd better listen to them before war broke out over something stupid like the expiration date on the spoo in the Zocolo.

She lay in her bed, half-awake, listening to the messages from Zack, John and Londo from two days ago. Nothing of real importance.

Then her heart stopped as the computer gave the sender of the next message.

"From... Captain Susan Ivanova... date... Wednesday... 2200 hours."

2200 hours? That was during the holiday's mystery blackout. She jumped out of bed, almost getting tangled in the sheets and falling over, and flew to the terminal.

His face came up onscreen. She gasped.

"Hi again. You're asleep in the other room," he started with smile but looked very sad. This was why he'd been in the living room when she had dozed off, she realized. She stared, her mouth agape.

"So, beautiful." He took a deep breath looking like he was collecting his thoughts. "Not much I haven't said already but I wanted to leave you with something. I don't know if this will even work, may just be static, so here goes." He looked down at the floor. "I wanted to say goodbye properly this time. Not leave you without a word like I did before. There wasn't time then to do anything differently, and I'm sorry about that. It's just the way it was.

"I lied to you before, I do know what I was here. I was supposed to bring a message. I just couldn't look in your face and say it." He closed his eyes and just began to let it flow out . "There will be another soon. That's what I was sent to say. Honor me by letting yourself love one more time. It's my heart, remember?" He grinned sadly. "It doesn't obey orders particularly well, in case you haven't noticed. So, you really don't have a choice in the matter I'm afraid." He smiled widely but still looked distraught. She watched on in near horror.

"You will be happy with them, you really will. You have a wonderful life ahead of you, if you'll only let yourself live it. Live your life for no one but you, not me, not John, just you -- you deserve that much, and so much more..." His voice wavered "Shadows, Vorlons, Minbari... Earth... it's all meaningless in comparison to love. I've found not much else matters in the long run. I wish I could tell you all I see and know now, but I can't. Somehow the words just don't come to my tongue. I think that's how this phantom thing works. All the knowledge in the universe, none of the language skills." He smiled.

Susan found herself weeping while she watched the display. Did he honestly expect her to be able to go through this again? She couldn't. Never again. No one but him.

Inside she heard his voice say 'honor me, once more' and she resolved that if it happened she'd at least think about it this time.

"I want you to do me one little favor when you see Delenn next. Put your hand like this," he put his hand over his heart, "and say, 'Chompra venis ba'dhum fen'kel dem fazool.'

"It's very important that you do this. I can't exactly do it myself. It's the only thing I have ever asked of you," he said. Suddenly his eyes went glassy and looked as if he was going to cry again. "I better go now. It's towards that time. Never forget what love can do. It can change the universe, or just your part of it. You don't have to look farther than the people you know on this station to see that." He held out his hand to the screen palm side out and straightened his back to salute properly. "I will see you again. Goodbye my love...My heart." He smiled and the message ended in a white blip. It was his heart. He was right, it beat only because of him. Because of what he'd given her.

Before she knew it she was at Delenn's quarters in green sector. She had watched the message eight or ten times and the words were burned in her brain as she sped there like she was possessed.

When Lennier opened the door he looked startled to see the normally unflappable Ivanova with tear-streaked cheeks and puffy eyes dressed in rumpled sweats looking as if she'd just run from the next sector. She held her head high and asked to see Delenn ignoring the flustered aide's concerned look. He apologized, saying she was unavailable. Ivanova said she had a message for her, from a friend.

"Tell me and I will convey it for you, of course," he asked primly.

She sighed, she should come back, but all she could hear was his word sin her head, maybe if she spoke it it wold go away. She put her hand to her chest as Marcus had instructed. "Chompra venis ba'dhum fen'kel dem fazool," She managed to complete it without breaking up, hearing him say it in her mind.

Lennier's face whitened and his jaw went slack. He took on a sudden twitch. "I - I will get Delenn," he stammered quickly, double stepping to the inner office.

A few minutes later Delenn emerged with a confused, look closing the sliding doors to the inner room behind her to leave Lennier inside.

"Lennier says you have come with a message?" she said looking a little bewildered.

Susan nodded and nervously did the procedure again. Delenn's face took on a serene expression.

"In Valen's name... that night... he came to you. Didn't he?" She said as if affirmatively, her hands rising to cover her mouth in shock. Her eyes were wide and glowing in a hidden realization.

Susan nodded slowly. Delenn gathered herself and bowed her head solemnly with her fingers in a triangular formation Susan had seen many Minbari do. She said something in Minbari, and left for a second to the back room.

She returned with a shoebox-sized chest. It was covered in rich-looking fabric in reds and greens. Its high domed lid bore a silver engraved plate with Minbari writing Susan did not recognize.

Susan slowly took it as Delenn handed it to her. It was heavier than it looked. Very heavy for its size anyway.

"What is this?"

"The things you asked for. Marcus' dearest and only possessions. They are yours now." Her voice was thick with a magical tone she took on whenever her religion was involved.

"Oh," Susan said, knowing she was expected to open it now. But she did not want to. "W-W-What did I say?"

"You spoke the 'Chak'nah.' It is the claim of a lover for their beloved's possessions so the healing process may begin," Delenn said softly.

Susan nodded numbly, trying to wrap her mind around the word 'beloved'.

"May I take this with me?" she asked, staring the mystery chest.

"Of course. It is yours now." Delenn smiled, placing her hand on Susan's shoulder. "Ahm, would you like me to sit with you? It would be my honor to do so, and as I friend I would feel more useful."

"No, no, I'll be fine," Susan said, throwing off the offer as if it were an insult to her mental state. She looked to Delenn and saw the unabashed care in the tiny woman's eyes. Delenn was only trying to help. She realized she did want someone there, and Delenn was Marcus' friend, her friend.

"Yes," she nodded. "Yes, I would, but in my quarters. If that's OK. I don't feel up to a public exhibition," she said, shooting an embarrassed look at Lennier who was emerging from the rear room.

"Of course," Delenn nodded patiently.

The walk back was almost intolerable. Susan wanted to open it, but somehow she felt the fewer people around the better. It had been the roughest 24 hours she'd ever had.

She opened the door and Delenn followed her in, taking a seat a polite distance away.

She stared at the trunk on her lap. She had to open it.

"Let's get it over with," She sighed, taking a deep breath, closed her eyes and opened the box. A smaller square box sat atop the meager contents. This was all he had? A box of trinkets? Not even a large one at that. She suddenly felt very sad for how he'd lived. She looked hesitantly over to Delenn, who beamed with quiet support, and lifted out the small case.

She flipped up the lid the reveal his ranger pin. It shone bright in the dim light. She felt tears burning at the corners of her eyes. She forced herself to be cooperative and touched the golden human figure to the right of the stone, running down it's smooth polished finish.

The watery blue-green stone looked almost depthless and she found herself gaping at it before she knew what was happening. So close to the color of his eyes, she thought.

She'd heard the rumors from Marcus about its bleeding at the death of the ranger who owned it. She wondered it were true. She wondered if it truly had. She hoped it did. Marcus himself had said he didn't believe it, but she was not so sure. There were a lot of things she believed in now suddenly. So many, many things.

She quickly snapped the lid shut, placed the badge back inside, and set the chest on the table in front of her.

"I can't do this." she said softly, crossing her hands on her lap, feeling almost nauseated, as her heart beat so quickly she had trouble speaking.

"Susan, he wanted you to have them," Delenn smiled. "Or he would not have told you to ask."

Susan cocked her head, resisting, and slowly placed the box back on her lap.

She set the badge to one side of her on the couch and dove into the pile beneath. She found the Identacard she'd helped him get early on, the one that had gotten her real bacon and eggs. She smiled at his stern look in the picture.

She found five or six data crystals.

"Personal logs, literature, and music," Delenn gently submitted. "Earth music. A very, uhm... 'eclectic' is the word I believe, selection," she said trying to be polite. Susan knew that earth music was not the Minbari's cup of tea exactly. So much 'chaos in the tones.'

"But then, was he not the same? Music is the voice in which the soul sings, and we know that Marcus had a most unusual soul," Delenn smiled.

"Knowing him, his soul probably had multiple personalities," Susan cracked, feeling guilty for making fun of him as she ransacked his only possessions, but knowing he would have at least laughed at it. Delenn only raised her chin trying to fathom her meaning.

She fingered one crystal. She'd listen to the music ones later when she was good and drunk. She'd have to be to handle any more this week. Maybe she needed a few days off, it might take her that long to sober back up.

She caught sight of the corners of a couple of photos on the bottom. She pulled them out to reveal first the photo of his parents he had placed on that absurd chart of his, early on in their friendship. And one of two young raven-haired boys on an alien-looking beach. It looked to be a holiday picture.

They were maybe as old as 11 or 12. The older one was trying to pull the younger boy upside down over his shoulder and they were laughing. Evidently the photographer had called out to them as he or she snapped the photo as were both looking up. The smile on the older one was unmistakable. A wide grin that threatened to break the face in two, and a pair of eyes the color of the sea. It was Marcus.

The younger, who looked almost identical but with a longer face, must have been the one he mentioned who asked that he carry on the torch, the one who died. Will, was it?

She smiled. He'd had a irritatingly normal life it looked like, almost storybook normal, she cracked to herself. Until the shadows came, at least, and ruined the last of that. Susan felt a smile creep up her face. It was such a great scene.

"I was told Marcus left his home badly injured, with nothing more than the clothes on his back," Delenn satrted. "When he arrived on Minbar, this was in his brother's room. It was said he cried inconsolably for two days when it was given to him. He had not had a chance to fully mourn until that moment. He never went anywhere without it. He said it was his 'lucky charm'? Humans are so peculiar in their superstitions." Delenn's voice was calming, and counteracted Susan's uncomfortable urge to lighten the mood by doing her usual of saying something stupid or sarcastic to make it go down easier.

Susan ran her finger over the face and sat it quickly aside before losing it totally.

The next picture behind it shocked her. It was small one of her in a thin transparent compact frame. No larger than her palm.

She gasped. It was a Babcom screenshot she realized, seeing the tiny data coding at the bottom of the frame, printed evidently from one of her messages to him. Her hair was down, not tied up as was her habit more recently and she looked to be speaking mid-sentence. She was in her Earthforce uniform. He had made this that long ago? She could see him sitting in some rancid little cargo hold on voyage to god knows where to do who knows what, looking at this. Pining for her in a way she'd never understand fully. She clamped her lips shut and set it too aside.

There were several other items, a green pebble Delenn said was a Minbari rock, a few slips of paper with Minbari writing, his fighting pike, and a book. 'The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.'

She opened the cover to see it inscribed to Marcus by Sinclair. It read, "This book will not teach you anything you do not already know, but it will make you think as you never have before. Till next time, Jeffrey Sinclair."

He pushed the stuff on everyone, it seemed. She smiled. She wasn't aware that Marcus had known Jeff that well.

She sniffled and slowly replaced the items.

"Thank you," she said simply. Staring at the case on her lap, she ran her hand over the rich fabric. Her thoughts briefly flashed onto his rough tunic against her bare skin.

"Susan, there is a ceremony, the 'Cha'prak'. It is a celebration of life, not a dwelling on death. It is very similar to your own religions ceremony called the Shi'va. I know this may not your way, but if you wish... I will perform either with you," Delenn offered gently. "Is that not what friends are for?"

She was going to say no, she hated ceremonies, but then she realized that when he died they had done nothing more than empty his quarters for re-occupation and cancel his Identacard. He deserved something. Definitely more than what he got. They'd wronged him greatly. She'd just wanted to make it all go away as quickly as possible.

"Yes, I think I would. We never even gave him a funeral. I owe him that much I think, for all he gave me, for everything," she said, breaking into tears and gripping the box tightly in her arms.

Delenn scooted closer and swept Susan into her arms, holding her tight, rocking her, smoothing her hands down her back until Delenn's shoulder was soaked.

"Tomorrow?" Delenn cooed softly.

She nodded, sitting up. "Tomorrow. We'll do yours. It only seems right," she said resolutely. She snuffled as she sat back, knowing she looked like hell. She didn't feel embarrassed with Delenn. They'd been through a lot of girly stuff in the past four years. If it had been anyone else she would have maintained her composure, but she couldn't with Delenn, who knew so much about her. As she knew much about Delenn these last few years.

Delenn was perhaps the one female friend she had, and more importantly now she was Marcus' friend as well. That fact made it even more important that she do this.

Delenn held Susan's hand in support and smiled comfortingly. "I will have Lennier ready the temple. We will talk now. About Marcus. Remember, he is not gone." she touched Susan's forehead. "He is there. And will always be."

Susan almost felt again as if she was with her mother. She had done that too. Now she felt doubly a wash in emotion.

Then Delenn called Lennier to deliver some tea and then move to the temple to begin the amazing 16 hours of preparations for the ceremony. It would be a impromptu one, she explained to Susan, saying she would, " 'skip all the 'boring crap', as John says,' " so Susan would not unhappy and bored by it and would just 'get to good stuff.' Susan laughed, appreciating Delenn's understanding and good humor and liking that John had managed to rub off on her a little.

She took Susan's hand and removed her link. "You are not on duty any longer." she said firmly, "You are Susan now." She placed the link in a drawer and closed it. "And you will be until tomorrow evening."

After Delenn poured her a cup of tea, she smiled, patting Susan's hand. "Now, tell me all about last night," she asked, her eyes sparkling. "I wish I could have seen it for myself. I know I would have found it most enlightening."

=========================================================

Delenn had called John and told him Ivanova would not be returning to duty and he should notify Corwin to take her place for a few days. She didn't know whether Delenn had informed him of why, but she guessed she did. And she knew he'd respect her privacy and speak nothing of it unless she did.

After Delenn left for the night, Susan sat alone she was supposed to be 'meditating' to the candles that Delenn had lit but she instead was rolling the data crystals in one hand while drinking with the other - thinking. She was trying to build up the courage to go through them. Finally she stood and walked to the com panel and popped one in at random.

She wanted to rip it back out when it came up and said, "Personal log."

She took the remote control and settled in on the couch. She hit play with a heavy sigh. He had asked her to do this, and she would.

The crystal had about 40 entries, some three or four months apart, some merely days. The first ones were text only and about his days on the Drazi homeworld before his arrival to the station. She read through them quickly and found them puzzling, full of codewords, and observations, but little personal info. She went to the first vid log.

March 17, 2260. He looked to be playing with the com system, rather unsatisfactorily it looked like. His nose was turned up and his brow was furrowed in concentration. Having reached some setting he liked, he settled back in his chair.

"I can't sleep here, I think it's the beds. I guess I'm just used to those Minbari slides after all this time. Two years of dreaming for a flat bed again and when I finally get one - I get insomnia. Just my luck."

She grinned. The damned bastard had hated them too. All his talk was bullshit.

"So I thought I'd make good abuse of the facilities since the good commander so kindly offered to arrange them. Very nice of her actually since I never asked. Although I was getting tired of holing up in the Whitestar shuttle in bay 14. Rangers never whine." He grinned distantly.

She sat there for over two hours, listening to his every innermost thought in his series of short messages about the universe, the rangers, the lurkers, the station staff, and her in general. All of it. He seemed to have no problem talking about his feelings for her when she wasn't around. She wished he'd just blurted it out once so she would have had to face it.

She also learned of another before he joined the rangers, one named Hasina from his colony, who he felt nearly positive he loved, or at least really liked, and didn't realize it until it was too late. All too ironic if you asked her. But tragically true.

They'd even had a date the night it happened. Instead he took Will, his brother, on a tour of the colony facilities and subsequently lost them both in the Shadow's attack almost as soon as they arrived there, something he blamed himself for. Being the only survivor haunted him, it seemed.

It was why he joined the rangers: not only because his brother asked him to, but because he just hoped to find a way to meet the fate he was spared. If joining the rangers both fought the shadows and evened up the score with fate, and the Shadows, so be it.

She finally knew why he'd done what he had.

Her heart felt ripped to shreds by the time Delenn and Lennier showed up to lead her to the ceremony.

Delenn smiled and nodded her greeting. "Are you ready?"

Susan drew a deep breath in through her nose, forcing a tight smile to her lips, shaking her head yes. Inside she was screaming no. "I think so."

Delenn motioned to the hallway in front of her and Susan led the way to the lift. Once they filed on, She then noticed that they both wore white Minbari robes of some sort. "Uhm, I don't have to wear one of those, do I?"

They turned and politely smiled and turned back to face the lift doors.

"Well, do I?"

She fumed as she heard Lennier let out a muffled snigger and tried to put on a expression of calm. She thought inwardly that Marcus as well, somewhere was having a good laugh at her expense. She'd get him back, someday. She sighed and leaned against the wall of the lift. She had a feeling it was going to be another long night.

The End