After the Inquisition
Sheridan hadn't had any action in a long time. He was trying to do the math on just how long it had been - he wasn't sure if that drunken handjob he'd got on shore leave a year and a half ago counted, since she passed out halfway through and he had to finish. Even if it did count, it had still been a long time.
"What are you so fucking happy about?" Ivanova demanded. Sheridan didn't know what she was talking about; he was just supervising the morning docking crunch, and that was never fun. He decided to ignore her, knowing that her curiosity would just build and build until she exploded - and that was fun. He had three ships in a line, nice and neat, so Sheridan let his eyes glaze over a bit and played a Greatest Hits of the night's activities in his head. More than anything else, he remembered the sight of Delenn asleep in his bed, a sight he'd seen plenty of this last month. But last night had been so different. Sheridan hadn't had a home in a long time, just one billet after another; Delenn felt like home.
"I had to break up a fight between a pak'ma'ra and a Drazi at oh-six-hundred," Ivanova went on, timing her mutters to coincide with her walks back and forth behind him; she kept up her one-sided conversation between barking orders at the rest of C and C, barking orders at the ships' captains waiting to dock, and occasionally barking orders at him, even if several minutes passed between one pass and the next. "It was disgusting." Sheridan rubbed his jaw with a grimace; scratchy - he hadn't had the chance to shave this morning. He couldn't remember the last time he'd slept in late.
"You have no idea how disgusting it was." He continued to ignore what Ivanova said, but he couldn't ignore the looks she was giving him. She thought she was pretty bad-ass, and had most everyone thinking the same thing. He wondered what she'd think if he told her that sometimes she reminded him of his little sister, and that his response to her bitching when they were kids was to drop ice cubes down the back of her shirt, or hide bugs in her bed.
"You, of course, weren't answering your link this morning." Ivanova stopped this time, and Sheridan knew he wouldn't be able to ignore her anymore. She would want an explanation. She would be hell to deal with until she got an explanation.
"I had a late night," he allowed.
"Doing what?" Eyes narrowed, hands on her hips. Forget little sister; now she was channeling his mom. He thought about filling her in on the barest of details, but now Corwin was listening. If anyone else overheard, by the end of the day the entire station would know that the Captain had a girlfriend, and then he and Delenn could kiss any chance of privacy goodbye.
"I'll fill you in at the next meeting," he said, voice low, making his eyes look both meaningful and mysterious. Ivanova got an aha! look on her face and nodded that single, curt nod that he decided he liked best about her. She'd think it was some super top secret conspiracy thing, which worked out fine. And, to be honest, he would have to tell at least the command staff about his relationship with Delenn at some point. The next meeting, when they could be assured of privacy, was as good a time as any.
Four new ships came through the gate; Sheridan shook his head, focused again on the task at hand. A moment to note that he had yet to meet Delenn's guest, to wonder if he was in one of these approaching ships, and then he was checking vectors and delta Vs and every other thought slid clean away.
1888. That's what the man had said. Sebastian. The Inquisitor. Sheridan couldn't quite shake off the goosebumps as he headed for the nearest Babcom. Part of him wanted to laugh about it. Obviously the man was touched in the head, what with that get-up, that slimy accent. But there was something about his bearing, the way he walked, his posture, a few of his word choices, not to mention the fact that he came in on a Vorlon ship, had apparently lived on the Vorlon homeworld, that made Sheridan think that maybe, just maybe, the man was telling the truth.
14B Harrisford Lane, London. He needed to remember that address.
There was a Babcom. He just wanted to talk to her, see her. Something about all of this didn't feel right. He called her quarters, and was both surprised and not at all surprised to see how drawn her face looked, how wary.
"I escorted your guest aboard." He couldn't bring himself to say "Inquisitor." The word sounded ugly, sounded threatening.
"Thank you, John." She smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes.
"You don't have to go through with this," he blurted. She lifted her chin a tiny bit, a show of defiance, and he hated to see it and loved her for it at the same time.
"This is something I must do."
He nodded, still worried about this whole scenario, but it wasn't his place to interfere. "It took me awhile, but I found you a place that met his specifications. Somewhere private. Grey 19." She just looked at him, gratitude in her eyes.
"I love you."
"Me too," he answered, and ended the call. Stood there for a second, feeling like something was going to happen one way or the other, not knowing what.
Sheridan left his office at the end of the day feeling a bit worried, but really only in an intellectual way. He'd thrown himself into work, and that little niggle of anxiety melted away. By the time he was ready to call it quits, he remembered Sebastian only as a strange man over-inflated with his own importance. Delenn was probably back in his quarters by now, maybe making dinner, and he would kiss her and she would tell him how it had went, and that would be that. As he headed down the corridor he felt a curious buoyancy. He hadn't felt like this - happy, contented - in years, in years. Truth be told, he hadn't felt like this for longer than he'd been a widower. The last few months with Anna hadn't actually been with Anna; he'd been here and she'd been there, and then she'd been here and he'd been there.
Sometimes he couldn't remember what she looked like. Not really. Not the specific way her nose had wrinkled when she laughed, how her hair had curled over her shoulders, that look she would give him when he'd said something both of them knew was a blatant lie. He had loved that look. He thought that maybe he had fallen in love with her the first time he'd seen that look, on maybe their third or fourth date (and he should remember which date it was, he should remember everything, could there be a worse betrayal than to forget?), when he'd assured her that no, he couldn't see the stain on her shirt at all, not even when she pointed it out to him. Over dessert, he would tell her to turn a light on when she got dressed, and she would laugh and tell him it was his fault for showing up early, she had been drinking a glass of wine to calm down her nerves and he'd startled her and she'd dribbled it down her front, and the thought that she was still nervous three (or four) dates in made him grin the rest of the date, and when he'd kissed her good night (still grinning) he'd decided that he'd found the woman he was going to have kids with, lots and lots of fat little kids, because God did he love that look.
Later, holding Delenn in their bed, smoothing his hand up and down her back, needing to feel her ribs move against him as she breathed, needing to know she was alive, Sheridan would wonder why he'd thought about Anna as he left his office, as he'd been thinking about how nice it felt to feel nice. He would wonder if it had been a premonition.
"Captain! Captain!" Sheridan turned, and later he would think that he should have connected the urgency and fear in Lennier's voice with what he knew, that he should have immediately felt a stab of terror, but he just wondered what could have happened that would make Lennier, calm, stoic Lennier, sound like that.
"You have to find Delenn. You have to defy him, defy Kosh."
"What's going on? What is it, Lennier?"
"He's going to kill her."
And then he was running. Not frantic, not in a panic. Mind a blank. Back to his office to get his PPG. Jacket off; he wouldn't need it. Down to the tube, down to Grey Sector, down the hallways all the same. Not worried, not upset. Just feeling like he should have known, that maybe he had known and had chosen to ignore it. Later, in the shower, he would start shaking without realizing it, and Delenn would wrap her arms around him tight, and he would think about how close he'd come to falling off the edge of the abyss again.
The hatch was open. Inviting. The light peeking out into the corridor seemed warm, pleasant even. Sheridan felt, as he stepped over the threshold, that he had been meant to come. That all of this had been orchestrated, from the moment Kosh had told Delenn she would be tested, till this moment right now, entering the room with his PPG extended.
They froze for a moment, Delenn and the man who stood before her. A tableau that differed from oil paintings of persecution and from woodcuts of witch trials only in the details. Delenn's hands bound in front of her. Pain on her face, in the line of her back, in the way she turned her eyes to him; only her eyes, not her head, she always turned to face him straight on, and that's what finally got through to him that this was real.
All he could see of Sebastian was the back of his head, his long, dark coat, and those incongruously shiny shoes. Sheridan pointed his PPG at the back of the head – dark hair, that odd hair-cut, wouldn't matter soon because it would be blown away, burned into nothingness – and spoke. "Let her go."
Sebastian turned his head just a fraction, just enough to let a stray beam of light (how could he have ever thought this light was pleasant; this was what the light looked like in hell) hit the side of his face. An arc of cheek, sideburns like he'd only seen in books, the glint of an eye. Here was evil; Sheridan could see that. Why had he not seen it before?
"And what is she to you?"
Later, when he pieced together the clues, when he'd fed the data into the computer, when he'd read about shouts in the night and women found in dark alleyways, their flesh ripped and torn, Sheridan would remember his answer with a shiver. Even as he said it then, the blankness melting away, replaced by a fury he'd last felt when he'd been staring at Morden over an interrogation table, he knew it was the wrong thing to say. Even as the word passed over his lips he knew that it would be fuel for the fire, that it could only make things worse. And yet he couldn't lie.
Sebastian turned, revealing more and more of his face, until finally he was looking right at Sheridan. Something about the light, maybe, made him look completely different from the man he'd escorted out of Bay 25. For one second, Sheridan found himself struck by a stray thought. I'm not afraid of this man. How could I be? What a pleasant face. It was wrong to call it pleasant, though; it was just banal. Ordinary. Anyone who saw this face would forget it within five minutes.
"Everything? How interesting." Sebastian's voice was cloying, and Sheridan aimed the PPG right between his eyes. He didn't like the man's eyes. They seemed to penetrate right through him, see every flaw and weakness, take his measure at a glance and find him wanting.
"Get out of here, John." Delenn's voice, thick. With tears? Anger? Pain? He couldn't tell. The Inquisitor smiled then, a twist of his lips somehow serpentine and utterly horrible. Sheridan felt with dawning horror the certainty that he would die in this room.
"And what is he to you?" the Inquisitor asked, never taking his eyes off Sheridan, his smile growing wider and wider. Sheridan remembered a summer when he was eight or nine, on his Granddad's little farm (glorified garden, really), exploring the fields and creeks and woods. There'd been a shack buried deep in a thick copse of trees, long abandoned. He had snuck up to it, feeling cold even in the bright sunlight. Peering in through the windows, the glass broken long ago, he had seen that the floor had rotted clean away, exposing an empty dark pit. He'd stared and stared, trying to make out something, anything, hanging off the bottom of the window sill. Was there something there in the corner? A shadow darker than the other shadows, a shape; John became more and more convinced that there was something down there, something with a face, and it was staring back at him just as he was staring down at it.
When the dog had growled behind him, he'd nearly jumped out of his skin. Turning, he saw a mutt, long feral, no more than ten feet away. Thin flanks covered with burrs, scars cutting through its matted fur; it was the most pitiful creature John had ever seen, but whatever natural sympathy he might have felt was overshadowed by the fear, coiling up in his belly. The dog growled again, moving one step closer, a line of drool hanging from its dark, broken fangs. It smiled at him, not a funny dog smile but something intelligent, something malevolent. The smile said, I am going to kill you, little boy, I am going to kill you and eat you up, and only you and I will know that I'm not really a dog at all, and then John managed a quivery, high-pitched shout. The dog spooked, turned and ran back into the woods, one last baleful look over its shoulder. John waited a few seconds – one thousand one, one thousand two – and then bolted in the opposite direction, not bothering with the path, heedless of the branches that scraped his face and arms and legs. Straight back to Granddad's, ignoring the stitch in his side, down to the root cellar. John lay down between the rows of jarred preserves, right down on the cool dirt, feeling like the rabbit the hawk had flown over but had not snatched away.
The Inquisitor's question hung in the air, the man still smiling. Sheridan remembered that day in the woods, remembered the dog's smile, because he saw it again on the Inquisitor's face.
"He is the other half of my soul," Delenn answered, and Sheridan could hear the strain in her voice, how hard she fought to keep it steady. Defiance, too, and pride.
The Inquisitor made a sound – tsk tsk – and lifted his walking stick a few inches from the floor. Sheridan felt his finger slide down to the trigger, felt himself start to squeeze, but when the stick came down there was a sound like thunder, and a feeling of weightlessness, and the world flashed into a brilliant white light and then disappeared.
First there was pain. The back of his head, his shoulders. Then there was the strange sensation of being upright. He didn't feel as though he was standing up, didn't actually feel the floor under his feet, but his inner ear didn't usually lie; the quirks of being a pilot. It was dark. But no, he just had his eyes closed.
Sheridan opened his eyes. His arms were stretched out to the side, and he tried to move them, only to realize he was restrained. Something on his wrists, something cold. He flexed, but there was no give.
There was no sign of the Inquisitor. Delenn was across from him, against the wall, huddled in a ball down on the floor. He couldn't see her face. He couldn't see her move, couldn't tell if she was breathing. His own breath seemed stolen away.
She looked up at him, her chin on her knees. A shadow fell across her face; he couldn't see her eyes. For a half-second he was sure that she was just an illusion, a trick; he didn't know what was looking at him, but it wasn't Delenn. Then she lifted her head a little more, something soft coming over her face, and relief hit him so hard that if he hadn't been chained to the wall he might have fallen to his knees.
Sheridan opened his mouth to speak when a sound rang out in the big open room. A crisp sound, and it seemed to have no echo. Footsteps. Click-clack, click-clack, either to his left or his right; Sheridan straightened his back, determined to remember that there was really nothing to fear. The man had just taken him off-guard; that was all. Kosh had set this whole process in motion; Kosh wouldn't allow any harm to come to either of them. This was just a test.
This was just a test.
"Tell me, Captain," the Inquisitor's voice called, rich and deep. "If I gave you the choice right now, to save this woman's life, or to save the lives of every other soul on this station, what would you choose?"
Sheridan felt his mouth go dry. He understood now, understood this little game entirely. And he feared that this was not a hypothetical question.
"Captain!" The Inquisitor was suddenly beside him, looking at him with furrowed brow and pursed lips. "You are a solider, are you not? Your first and only duty should be to those whom you have taken an oath to protect. And yet you hesitate."
Sheridan felt his brain lock up, felt himself become unable to speak, to even think. The Inquisitor was right. This shouldn't even be a question, shouldn't even be something he needed to consider. If it came down to the quarter of a million people on this station and Delenn, he would obviously have to choose the station. He knew that, could mount no objection to that. Still, he could not speak.
The Inquisitor came to stand before him, something mean and triumphant on his face. Sheridan saw Delenn struggle to her feet behind him. What had this man done to her? What was he still planning to do?
"Is this how you lead, then? When a problem arises, when you are confronted with a veritable dilemma, do you simply freeze and hope that that situation will somehow resolve itself?" Sheridan shook his head, but still could not bring himself to admit out loud that he would sacrifice Delenn, for any reason. "I'm disappointed with you, Captain. I find it hard to believe you could adequately command this station, let alone in the conflict which looms before you."
The Inquisitor turned to the side with a flourish, his long coat whipping out to one side. It seemed such a theatrical gesture, something a villain would do on the stage, and Sheridan felt an unlikely laugh just behind his lips. The laugh vanished as the Inquisitor tapped his walking stick down on the floor, and a long, thin tendril of blue lightning snaked its way across the floor to Delenn. The lightning bloomed into a cloud that enveloped her, crackling and snapping. Sheridan saw her hands clench, her muscles go taut; a grimace on her face, a scream he could not hear.
"I'll kill you," he said, voice low but it echoed throughout the chamber. "I don't care who sent you, I'll kill you."
"Let's not be barbaric. I'm asking you a very simple question and you refuse to answer." The Inquisitor tapped his stick on the floor again. The lightning around Delenn grew brighter, the tendrils thicker; she began to shake ever so slightly. "Admit it! Admit that you would throw everyone else to the wolves, ignore your duties and responsibilities, do whatever you had to do in order to keep her safe."
"Yes. If it were only up to me, then yes." The Inquisitor smiled, a gleam in his eye. "But Delenn wouldn't want that. She's a better person than I am. More noble, more generous. She would sacrifice herself for anyone on this station – not just all of them, not even most of them, but any single person – in a heartbeat. If it came down to it, if I chose her, she would be so disappointed. You're wrong. It's not a simple question. But it is a simple answer."
A look from the Inquisitor then, something he couldn't quite interpret. Surprise, he thought, and respect, and maybe even a hint of pride. Then Sheridan blinked, and the man was gone. The lightning around Delenn was gone. She stood before him, her hands free, and he realized that he could bring his own arms down as well. They stared at each other.
"John…" They met each other halfway, and he wrapped his arms around her, sure he wasn't ever going to let her go.
"What happened?" he whispered into her hair, feeling her tremble slightly against him.
"I don't know." Her hands were on his face, gently sliding down his cheeks; she pulled back and stared at him as though she wasn't entirely sure he was real. "Let's leave this place." He nodded, keeping one arm around her back, the other grabbing her opposite hand, and they slowly made their way to the door. She was walking fairly easy, which surprised him; he was going to take her to Medlab anyway, even if he had to throw her over his shoulder. Before he could ask her how she felt, the click-clack of footsteps sounded outside the chamber, and the Inquisitor met them at the hatch.
"You may go," the man said. "You've passed."
"Passed what?" Delenn asked, her hand pressed over his heart. Passed the test, of course, Sheridan thought, and wondered suddenly if the test had been for her at all.
"It is quite easy to sacrifice oneself for another. Easier still to sacrifice oneself for a cause. But to sacrifice someone else? To hold her life in your hands and let it go – that is not easy at all. Sending soldiers out to die while hiding inside a war room is no great trick; anyone can do that. Turning off one's emotions to coldly do what needs to be done is hardly better. But to love, to give oneself over to that most frail and limiting of human emotions, to still be able to make the right choice, to even use that love as the deciding factor, that is rare indeed. I have been searching for both of you for a very long time. At last, my search is over."
He bowed his head shallowly, and then the Inquisitor turned and walked away. They stood, listening, and when his footsteps ceased to be heard it was not because they faded away but because they simply stopped. Sheridan moved them forward, through the open hatch, and they turned to look – the corridor was empty.
"No." That's all she said, resting her head against his chest in the transport tube. He'd just suggested taking her to Medlab, sounding weak even to his own ears; in truth, he decided he really just wanted to take her back to his quarters and hold her. He couldn't really argue with her, not that he'd ever been able to. So they made their way up to Blue Sector, locked the door behind them. Took a hot shower, climbed into bed.
But he wasn't holding her. She was lying flat on her back, looking at the ceiling, her hands clasped between her breasts. "Does anything hurt still?" he asked, keeping his voice light. She shook her head. "Do you want to talk about it?" For a second he thought she wouldn't answer, or that she would shake her head again. Finally, she turned to look at him.
"I could hear you. Hear your answer." He waited, but she didn't say anything else.
"Was it the wrong answer?" Delenn didn't say anything, looked back at the ceiling. Sheridan watched her, and realized suddenly that she was fighting back tears. "Delenn, what is it?"
"That is not the question that I was asked." What had she been asked, then? "But if Sebastian had, if he had made me choose between you and anyone else, no matter how many, I do not believe I could have answered the same."
"Damn right. I want to live." His attempt to lighten the mood fell completely flat, and he couldn't even muster a smile.
"When you were interrogating Morden, when Kosh and I told you about the Shadows, I was not thinking about your importance in the coming war. I did not stress the absolute danger of any voyage to Z'ha'dum because we would need you as a leader and could not risk your death. I did so because I am selfish, because I could not bear to lose you. Sebastian called love something frail and limiting; for me, I think that to be true. Love makes you stronger. The same cannot be said about me."
Sheridan rolled over, pulled her close. He felt like shit. Not only had she heard him say that he would let her die if enough lives were on the line, when she wouldn't do the same, now she thought she was weak because of it. He was the weak one, he was the one likely to blow up or do something stupid; she was the strong one, the smart one. How could she think anything else?
"If I ever had to make that choice, Delenn, if I actually did it, if I actually chose the station or the battle or the war over you, maybe it would be the right choice. Maybe that's the choice a soldier always has to make. But you need to know that it would be the last choice I would make. There's nothing for me without you."
"Sebastian was wrong. Love isn't weak, and neither are you." She shook her head against him. "I love you, and that does nothing but make me stronger." Sheridan listened to her breathe for a minute, and then she was tugging him close, kissing him, clutching at him. He wanted to talk to her more - What did Sebastian ask you? What was all of this about? - but right now it seemed more important to make her feel good. He only had one night of exploring under his belt, but based on the slightly-frantic way she was tugging his t-shirt over his head, he thought he would acquit himself pretty well. It didn't seem to matter where he touched her or how - she responded quickly, eagerly.
"Hey, it's okay. There's no rush." He tried to pull back a little, slow things down, but he recognized the look in her eyes, the way she was running her hands over his body. She wanted some "thank God I'm still alive" sex, with which anyone who actively served in EarthForce became acquainted at one point or another. Though she wasn't wanting actual sex, he reminded himself; that was essentially a Minbari wedding, or something along those lines. So when she slipped her hands under his shorts and grabbed his ass, he decided to go along with it; he pulled her nightgown off none-too-gently and flung it aside, then climbed on top of her. She drew in a sharp breath (he hoped it was because she was really turned on, and not because he'd inadvertently knocked the wind out of her), and he devoted himself to kissing her like she'd never dreamed she could be kissed.
But she wasn't content with kissing. She slapped him away, hands on his shoulders. "John. John, please." He reached down to push her legs apart even as he moved down her body, but she was stopping him, actually grabbing a handful of his hair. "No." Okay, she wanted his face up by hers, wanted him close. He moved to the side, slid his hand up the inside of her thigh. She shook her head, hands on his arms, pulling him atop her again.
"Delenn, what is it?"
"I want you inside. Make love to me."
"But you said…"
"I know what I said." He looked down at her, ready to tell her that they should talk about this first, that maybe she didn't want to ignore her culture's traditions, when he got a good look at her eyes, and realized she intended to do nothing of the sort. "You said there was nothing for you without me," she breathed, a trembling hand on his cheek. "Don't you believe the same is true for me?"
Sheridan touched her brow, her cheek, her lips. He wanted to memorize this moment; this night, this right here, he would never forget. He kissed her, a promise, and then slowly, carefully entered her. He could tell it hurt her a bit, and he stopped once to let her get her bearings; she never stopped looking into his eyes, though, never betrayed an instant of regret. He waited, waited, and then began to move inside her, slow, shallow thrusts. After a little bit, she began to move with him, a tear sliding down her cheek.
It didn't last long, though he tried his best. She didn't orgasm, and when he pulled out and moved to help her along with his hand, she just wrapped her arms around his shoulders and pulled him back down against her.
"Be quiet." So he did, and she buried her face in his neck and breathed him in. He let her hold him, and when she cried it was only for a little while, and the tears passed quickly. "Now we belong to each other," she said, letting him go, though he didn't stray far.
"I could have told you that the first day I saw you."
"Do humans find it romantic to lie about such things?" But he could hear the smile in her words, and hugged her close, as close as he could without breaking her ribs. He was well on his way to dozing when she stirred a little, and it took him a second to realize what she was saying.
"Sebastian asked me if I would sacrifice myself, if it came down to it, if that is what it would take to ensure we won the war. If I would be willing to die for the cause, or if I believed myself to be so important that the war could not be won without me." Sheridan thought, not liking the shiver that started at the small of his back. "And he asked you if you would sacrifice me, if you would let me die in order to save everyone else. John. Do you think…"
He didn't want her to continue, didn't want her to finish the question, even though he already knew what it was.
"Do you think Kosh knows something about how the war will play out? Do you think he already knows what my part will be?"
"No. The Inquisitor was called for you. Kosh wanted to make sure that you were willing to do whatever it takes to win, that's all. That son of a bitch just decided to fuck with me when I showed up and interfered in his little game. That's all, Delenn." He didn't believe a word of it, not a single word, but he wasn't going to tell her that.
He didn't think she believed him either, and he could feel the tension in her limbs as he settled onto his back, holding her against his chest. It was a long time before either of them fell asleep, and Sheridan spent the hours thinking about the war to come. Kosh had made sure to intervene, lest Sheridan tip their hand to the Shadows; the Vorlon and Delenn had also made sure he wouldn't head off to Z'ha'dum. The implication, at least to his mind, was that he was indispensible. And yet Kosh seemed to be prepared to use Delenn as some kind of pawn – and the Inquisition's purpose had been to make sure that both of them would go along with it, believing it to be the right thing to do.
Sheridan thought she might have gone to sleep. Her breathing had evened out, at any rate. He absently smoothed his hand over her hair, still a little damp, trying to remember his schedule for tomorrow. He'd cancel a meeting or two if he needed to; he and Kosh were going to have a nice little chat.
Because he'd changed his mind. He wouldn't give Delenn up, not for any war, not even if the whole universe stood on the brink. Let them all rot.