Keeping the Shadows at Bay

Delenn was standing very close, just looking up at him, waiting for an answer. Sheridan's first instinct was to tell her no. Further, to have her locked up in her quarters until the crisis was over, one way or another; then he would be sure that she'd be safe. It was the fact that the thought even occurred to him that prompted him to finally give in her to request. He raised his hand to open a line on his link.

"I'll tell security to let you through."

She put her hand over his. "Thank you." He didn't want to do this. "Don't look away, Captain. All life is transitory. A dream. We all come together in the same place, at the end of time. If I don't see you again hereā€¦" Delenn brought her fingertips up to his cheek, the barest of touches. "I will see you in a little while, in the place where no shadows fall." She turned away from him then, calmly preparing to walk to her own death. The idea that this could be their last meeting was something he decided that he would not consider, not even for a moment.

"Delenn?" She spun back around, and the urge to lock her up struck him again. "When I do see you again...call me John?" She smiled, more with her eyes than her lips, and left his quarters. Sheridan stood right where he was, feeling as though he'd just been punched in the gut. He'd been ready to spend a sleepless night tossing and turning, worrying about the Markabs, feeling that familiar impotence when something was happening under his command but there was nothing for him to do. Now he knew that there'd be no point even trying to sleep. He grabbed his jacket, tugged it back on, and headed to his office.

xxx

Twenty-four hours since Delenn had left his quarters; she would have gone straight to the isolation chamber, so she would have spent nearly as long confined with the Markabs. Sheridan had tried to read up on Markab biology - more to see how similar they were to Minbari, what the odds were on a disease affecting one spreading to the other - but he just didn't have enough of a background in science and medicine to make heads or tails of what he read. He knew Stephen was working as hard as he could, that he would only distract him, so he stayed out of Medlab. That didn't keep him from pacing down that way every time he had a moment, hoping that this time Stephen would rush out, a smile on his face. I have the cure!

"Captain?" Sheridan looked up from the stack of paperwork he wasn't actually reading. Zack Allan in the doorway to his office, and there must have been something on his face because Zack took a step back. Rather than mollify him, the reaction just made Sheridan angry.

"What?"

"There's a bit of a situation down in the Zocalo. I tried to call you on the link..."

"I have it set to only accept priority messages. Whatever the situation is in the Zocalo, it's not a priority. Take care of it, Mr. Allan." He looked back down at his paperwork, the letters swimming about like they were written in an alien alphabet. After a moment, he heard Zack walk away.

Sheridan glowered down at his desk for a moment, then shoved the paperwork aside, a few pieces of paper falling down to the ground in lazy drifts. Stephen wouldn't be able to do it. He was a smart guy, but what they needed was a genius. After a few more days, they'd finally open up the isolation chamber. And they would all be dead. Sheridan would walk through the piles of bodies, looking for her. He would find her, slumped against a wall, eyes closed peacefully almost as if she were only asleep. But her body would be cold, stiff. He would help Stephen put her in a bag, zipping heavy plastic up over her face. Then she would be like all the rest - dead flesh, to be disposed of. Tossed out an airlock to drift in the vacuum of space, eventually tugged into the gravity of a planet or a star, burning up into a meaningless shower of atoms. There was nothing after this life; just a cold, empty vacuum like the one that surrounded him at all times, even now. A life spent in tin cans, a few inches of metal between him and nothingness. He would see her last as he wrapped her in her shroud.

Sheridan just made it into the head, and continued to retch long after he finished voiding the contents of his stomach. What little contents there were; he hadn't been able to eat all day. He sat down on the floor, right next to the toilet, leaning his head back against the wall. Christ, when had he started to feel like this about Delenn? He enjoyed spending time with her, sure. And there had been a few nights after their little dinner date when he'd thought about what it would be like to take her to bed. But he was starting to feel the way he'd felt when he'd gotten the call about the Icarus. As though the world he had carefully built, brick by brick, was falling apart.

xxx

The door opened too slow, but at the same time, Sheridan never wanted it to open. As long as it was closed, there was a chance she was still alive. Susan and Stephen seemed excited, hopeful, but Sheridan knew exactly what they would find. Death, nothing more.

Even though he had been expecting it, for a second he didn't know what he was looking at. Then the image resolved itself - corpses. Everywhere; all over the floor, against the walls, in pairs, in groups. Alone. Hard gooseflesh broke out all over his body. A sickly-sweet smell of rot hung in the air. Her body, already decomposing.

Movement up ahead. A few Markab survivors, hanging on. Maybe they would be able to save them. With a sharp feeling of pure spite, Sheridan hoped that they died, too. He made himself look at them. A hallucination, surely; but no, it was definitely Lennier, wet streaks of tears on his cheeks catching the light as he walked toward the door. Delenn on his arm, and she was looking right at him. Sheridan stared at her, dimly aware that someone had asked Lennier a question and that he had answered; he heard nothing, saw nothing, except for Delenn. She was in front of him, pain written on her face.

"John..." she gasped out, bringing her hand to his cheek again. Her fingertips were warm. He pulled her close, and she willingly entered his arms. A soundless wail against his shoulder. Sheridan ground his teeth; he needed to get her out of here, away from this room, away from the smell of thousands of Markabs rotting where they had fallen. Delenn was crying now, her thin body shaking; people were coming into the isolation chamber. People with body bags.

"Come on, let's go," he whispered into her ear. "Delenn. I've got you." She didn't seem to hear him, her fists bunched up in his jacket. Sheridan shifted his hold on her, an arm around her waist, and moved her out the door. By the time they walked down the corridor and to the transport tube, she had stopped crying. Docile, allowing herself to be led. "Green Two," he told the tube.

"No. Green Four." Her voice was still choked with tears.

"I want you to go to Medlab."

"No." That was all. A shadow of steel in her voice; he was glad to hear it. The tube ride didn't take long, and then they walked to her quarters. Sheridan wondered if he was seeing the work of Providence; they didn't pass another soul on the way. He knew Delenn would find it shameful to be seen like this. He hoped she didn't hold it against him later.

She typed in her access code with fingers that were mostly steady, and he took her inside, loathe to let her go. She didn't seem to mind, though, so he kept his arm around her. They stood in the nearly dark room; a light on in the kitchen, another in her bedroom, no sound but her breathing, finally leveling out.

"Can I get you something to eat?" he asked, aware for the first time of how thin she was. He hadn't noticed before, with her layers of robes, the broad shoulder caps. A brilliant idea occurred to him; he would take her home, to Earth, and his mom would cook up wonderful fattening things - fried turkey and stuffing sandwiches, cheesy lasagna that left puddles of orange grease on the plate, custard pies buckling under the weight of piles of whipped cream. He would just sit and feed her. He would tie her down first if he had to.

But she was shaking her head against him, her hair tickling his jaw. "I'm not hungry." Sheridan wanted to argue with her, but she turned her head and rested it against his shoulder. He could smell her. Death; in her clothes, in her hair. Under that, her sweat. Not particularly unpleasant on its own, but mingled with the scent of corruption it made for a pretty foul odor. Now that he noticed it, he found it nearly overpowering.

"How about a nice hot shower?" She nodded at that, and he walked her into her bedroom, to the head on the opposite side. He finally released her, taking a step back, and she spun back around to face him. Terror on her face; not just worry, or fear, but terror. Sheridan put his hands on her shoulders, squeezing. "I'll be right here. I'm not going anywhere. Okay?" Her eyes were still wide, she still looked stricken, but she nodded slowly. He brought a hand up to her face, ran his thumb over her cheekbone. "I'll be right here." He wanted to kiss her, but instead he stepped back, not looking away. She watched him closely, as though he might disappear right in front of her eyes.

Sheridan pulled her bedroom doors shut, then sat down on her couch. He slumped back into the cushions, and let out the breath he'd been holding since she'd walked out of his quarters. He hadn't realized just how much he had expected her to be dead, and the reality of her survival was just now registering as a fact. She was alive. He wanted to do more than just kiss her; he wanted to make love to her, cover her body with his own. Claim her. A part of his brain far removed from conscious thought was growling at him, telling him that he needed to march right back into that room, grab her, rip off her clothes, and fuck her until she knew that she belonged to him.

Sheridan stood, shook himself. That was the absolute last thing she needed, for him to start acting like a caveman. He paced, although everyone's quarters were just too small to get in a good pace. He stopped and listened, looking all around as though staring would help him hear better. What had he heard? Then Sheridan realized it was what he hadn't heard; the shower had never come on. No sound of water, only silence. He walked up to her bedroom doors, put his ear against them. Nothing.

"Delenn?" No answer. His heart started hammering, his hands curled into fists at his sides as adrenaline poured into his bloodstream. She had been infected. She was unconscious (or dead, she might already be dead) in the next room, lying on the floor in a heap while he'd been ten feet away, thinking about fucking her.

He flung her bedroom doors open, but she was nowhere to be seen. He was cold, he was cold all over. Walking to the head, the room a hundred feet long. He expected it to be locked, he would have to call down security, but it swung open as he stepped in front of it. All he could see was her shower ahead of him, empty and dry. Sheridan took one step forward, just inside the threshold.

Delenn stood to his left, in front of her sink. Robes puddled around her feet. She had a slip on, exposing her arms - bone white, too thin. She was staring down at her hands, and her hair obscured her face. For half a second, Sheridan was afraid of her.

"Delenn?" She turned to look at him, and he could tell that for a heartbeat she didn't even recognize him. Then she seemed to come back to herself, and she looked around, remembering where she was. Sheridan smoothed her hair back from her face, any caveman urges gone as though they'd never been there. He just wanted to take care of her. "Dim lights to ten percent," he told the room, and the lights obliged. He knelt, helped her slip off her shoes, then slid her stockings down and off her legs. Her skin was so smooth, and he ran his hands back up her calves as he stood. He lifted off her slip - there was a band of tight elastic near the top to support her breasts, and she sucked in a gasp that he couldn't quite decipher - startled? uncomfortable? - as he hooked his thumbs underneath it to pull it off. Then she was naked in front of him, except for a pair of panties that he ignored for the time being. She watched as he took off his own clothes, reaching a hand out and putting it over his heart. He finished undressing her, turned on the water, and led her into the shower with him.

Sheridan washed her hair, her body. He didn't like the way he could feel the knobs of her spine, her shoulder blades jutting out, the xylophone expanse of her ribs. But her breasts were full in his hands, there was a slight curve to her stomach that he couldn't stop running his fingers over, and he realized that she was just that slender - not starving, not sick. He finished rinsing her off, then just held her under the warm spray, running his hands up and down her back.

The light on the shower head blinked yellow. One minute of hot water left. He turned it off, groped outside for a towel. Delenn hooked her arms around his neck, whispering into his ear. "Stay. Please." He nodded.

xxx

He was never going to be able to fall asleep on this bed, but that was okay. He'd rather concentrate on holding Delenn, watching her, making sure she was safe. He'd toweled her off, brushed and dried her hair, helped her into a silky black nightgown. Now she was curled up against him, her head on his shoulder, running a hand ceaselessly up and down his chest.

"You should try and get some sleep," he murmured into her hair, squeezing her close. She didn't say anything, and Sheridan thought she hadn't heard him.

"I watched them all die," she finally said. "One after another. And there was nothing I could do." She let out a long, shuddery breath, but she didn't start crying again. Sheridan wished she would; better to let it out. He didn't want her to run it over and over again through her mind, worrying about it, wishing she could have done something else. She had already done enough.

"I'm sorry," he said, wanting to give her something other than hollow words.

"At the end, after the last had died, and we were just waiting, I became sure that no one would come for us. That the isolation had not worked. While we waited in the dark, the station died, a quarter million corpses, Lennier and I the only ones left. I was sure that you...that you..." She couldn't finish, gasping out tearless sobs against his shoulder. Sheridan rolled them to their sides, wrapped his arms around her as tight as he could.

"It's okay. It's okay, everything's okay. I've got you, honey. It's okay. It's all over." A litany of reassurance that she didn't hear. The storm was upon her, and he could do nothing but help her weather it. He didn't know how long he held her, how long she cried in his arms, but finally the last of the grief and pain and worry poured out. She rested against him, limp, and it was agony to let her go long enough to find some tissues so she could blow her nose. While she did that, he soaked a washcloth in hot water, then came back and washed the tears from her face. Sheridan lay down, gathered her back up; she was asleep in less than a minute. He meant to keep a vigil, but succumbed himself. There were no dreams.

xxx

Morning. It had been so long since he'd awakened with a warm, female body against his own that for a little bit - still wrapped in sleepy dream logic - Sheridan was sure that Anna was here, that the last three years had been a nightmare he'd finally awakened from. It wasn't the first time he'd felt like that. It was the first time he didn't feel crushed by the same old despair as he remembered that she was dead and gone. Delenn was spooned up in front of him, his body molded to hers. She was still asleep. Long, steady breaths. Was it wrong to feel a moment of gladness that all of this had happened? Otherwise he would never have had such a morning, never had the opportunity to hold her like this, listen to her breathing, feel her exquisite warmth.

Finally she stirred in his arms, and he leaned back to let her roll onto her back, blink up at him. "Hi," he said, smiling for the first time in what felt like a year. She closed her eyes, bringing a hand up to his face. She missed his cheek, got his nose and mouth. He chuckled against her palm as she said something that vaguely resembled good morning, and her hand flopped down to his chest. She burrowed closer to him, pressing her face into his shoulder. "Do you want to just stay here all day?" She nodded.

Sheridan didn't want to think about it, didn't want to think about anything other than this bed, this woman dozing in his arms, but he knew it was something he was going to have to confront sooner or later. What would happen now? Would they go back to a purely professional relationship, Captain and Ambassador? Could they in good conscience do anything else? But he wanted this, wanted to wake up beside her in the morning and go to sleep beside her at night. He wanted her.

Her Babcom chimed on, listing the messages that had come in for her during the night. Sheridan sat up, not too much trouble since he was already halfway there - at some point he'd ask her why the hell her bed was like this. Delenn sat up herself, rubbing her eyes. Sheridan couldn't quite let her go completely; he kept a hand on her back, between her shoulders. He waited for her to make the first move.

"What are you going to do today?" she asked, her accent thicker than usual. He moved her hair away from her face, gently combed his fingers through it. God, how he wanted her.

"I don't know. It's going to be a busy day. A busy couple days." She nodded, then turned to look at him.

"Thank you."

He shook his head. "You don't have to thank me." She brought her fingertips up to his face again, finally resting them over his mouth. She replaced them with her lips, and Sheridan gratefully kissed her back. He could hear his link beeping in the head, but he ignored it, concentrating instead on telling her how much she meant to him, sure she would understand what he was saying with the kiss. He finally pulled back, just enough to see her.

"I have to go," he said, and the look of disappointment on her face was almost enough to make him change his mind.

"I'll see you tonight?" He wondered how she could even ask. He kissed her in answer, then tore himself away to gather up his uniform. She was still in bed when he came out of the head, and he leaned down to kiss her again, feeling like an addict needing one more hit.

"You stay here today. Rest." She nodded, a wan smile on her face. Sheridan tucked the covers up over her shoulders and made himself walk away. It was easier than he'd thought; he knew he was going to come back to her at the end of the day.