John woke up on fire, so hot he could scarcely draw a breath. Sticky with sweat, he did his best to get out from under the covers, but no matter how much he thrashed, he couldn't get free. Quickly, very quickly, he was too tired to try, and that's when he felt his gorge start to rise, the nausea overtaking him to such a degree that he panicked. Panic and fatigue were not a good combination; it was like being at the bottom of a deep well filling with water, needing to get out but having absolutely no way of doing so.
Just as he had resigned himself to throwing up right where he was, the blankets and sheets were pulled aside, and cold air hit him with such force that his muscles cramped. He needed to get to the head, needed to at least make it out of the bed. Walking was beyond him, but he managed to roll off the mattress and land on his knees. Crawling was fine. He could crawl. But strong hands helped him to his feet, supporting most of his weight, half-guiding, half-dragging him into the head. The hands helped him to the toilet, and they rubbed his back as he vomited. The hands gave him a glass of water, which was too cold and hurt his teeth, but he rinsed his mouth and spat the water back out twice, then drank the glass dry. Chills wracked his body, but the strong hands helped him up, guided him back to the bed. John loved whoever owned the hands. He thought it was his father.
The bed rose up to meet him, and the blankets covered him up. So cold, he was so cold. John was still shaking as he fell back to sleep, the hands right there, rubbing his shoulders, caressing his hair, making him feel safe.
Voices above him, alien voices. Where is he? Bile in his throat, he bats his hands at the blankets, there's not much time. A hand on the back of his neck, warm and comforting. Someone holds a bucket for him. Up it comes, relief and pain and satisfaction and that horrible weakness all mixed up together, but overriding everything else is gratitude. "Thank you," he mumbles, and his voice doesn't sound right. Someone says something to him, a woman, but he can't understand the words. A cool cloth on his forehead, gentle. Water to rinse the taste out of his mouth.
Where is he? He must be on The Lexington. Their CMO is a woman. Dr. Jonsdottir. She's taller than he is, blonde hair like a cloud around her head, a bit of a horsey face but the biggest smile in the world, John would like to see that smile so he opens his eyes.
What he sees doesn't make sense, but only for a second. Then he remembers it all, remembers it in one crashing blow worst than the first. He moans, an awful sound, he flinches from it himself. Hands on his face now, he knows whose hands they are, the Minbari's, Delenn's, she cradles his face. "Where does it hurt, Sheridan? Can you tell us where it hurts?" John squeezes his eyes shut, he will not speak to her, she did this. Before his eyes close, though, he sees another Minbari standing over his bed on the other side, bald white head and pointy bone looming over him. She speaks to the other one, using her own language, sharp, biting words.
Then Delenn's mouth is very close to his ear, but he feels no revulsion, no fear. As quickly as the blow had come it has now dispersed, no more than ripples on the surface of a lake. "Everything will be all right," she whispers, and her hands never stop stroking him, running along his cheek and down his neck, across his shoulders, fingers scratching through his hair. Hot tears roll down his face. "We will make you well, I promise."
Three other Minbari come and go, but Delenn never leaves his side.
The Human had long ago ceased to have any food in his stomach, yet he continued to retch. After the third physician she had summoned was also unable to provide any assistance or even diagnose the patient, Delenn resigned herself to a more odious task.
"Draddir, I recognize that you are very busy, but it is of the utmost importance that you go through the database and find me a Human physician." There was an ache in the ring of tissue surrounding her ears, and she discreetly rubbed the skin there as the put-upon young Worker entered commands into his tablet. There was also an ache in the small of her back, but there was little she could do about that. Moving the Human back and forth twice from the bed to the lavatory had been physically possible for her, of course, but it had not been easy. She had not been expecting his second need to purge, but after she had gone through that unpleasantness again, she had hit upon the idea of bringing the receptacle to him, rather than the other way around.
Thoughts of Sheridan drew her away from the screen, where Draddir was still tapping his stylus with an aggrieved air. Delenn ascended the staircase quickly, feeling the slightest edge of fatigue. She had not slept since escorting him to his bed in the first place, after his emotional outburst at the dinner table. At the time she had attributed his tears, which had been so surprising to her, to a delayed reaction at being removed from the Human holding facility. Now she could only surmise that the illness which had struck later that night had been dormant even then, manifesting itself first, perhaps, in his wildly vacillating mood, smiling at her one moment, sobbing the next.
He was right where she'd left him just a few minutes ago, curled up in the middle of the bed, the blankets tucked tightly around his body. As Delenn drew closer, she could see that he was still shaking, though she had raised the temperature in this section of the house twice already. Without intending to, she placed a hand on his back, feeling it move as he breathed. She hated this, hated feeling helpless, hated not knowing what was happening or how to fix it.
"Can I have some water?" he mumbled. Delenn jerked her hand back. She had thought him to be asleep. The glass of water, half-full, was on the window sill. She brought it around the bed to him, kneeling so she could bring it to his lips, which were chapped. Delenn did not know what to do for chapped Human lips. She might have guessed that one of her own unguents would work, but now she was afraid to do anything for fear that it might harm him.
Sheridan drank, slow, shallow sips. His eyes turned up to hers were filled with pain, and again she felt that sharpness under her sternum, some answering pain in her soul, the pain that had driven her to keep a watch over him. He drained the glass, though the last few drops of water dribbled down his chin. Delenn wiped them away, then used the same cloth to pat perspiration off his forehead. "Hot," he said, struggling against the covers. "I'm hot." Delenn pulled the blankets aside for him. Sweat on his face, but there were bumps on his arms, bumps she knew to be a sign of cold. His skin was shockingly hot, yet his teeth chattered.
He groaned, and Delenn lifted the receptacle for him. He gagged and she feared he would bring up the water he had just drank, but it stayed down, thankfully. He cried, still leaning over the bed, his head hanging down; sad, weak cries that produced no tears. Delenn rubbed his back between his shoulder blades. After awhile he stilled, and then he nodded, a movement that was barely perceptible. She put the receptacle back down on the floor beside the bed and helped him roll onto his back. "Jesus, freezing," he managed, and she tucked the blankets tight around him again.
She thought he might say something when she stood and walked away, she could see it for a heartbeat in his eyes, but he kept silent. By the time she returned to the screen, Draddir looked as though he wanted to climb through and throttle her. "You are not the only one who-" he started.
"Yes, yes. What have you found?"
"One has been sent to you." The Worker shut down the link with a satisfied gleam in his eye. Delenn made a note for him to be disciplined. It did not matter that he did not know she was satai; such insolence should never be tolerated.
It was nearly five hours before the Human physician arrived. A tall man, though not as tall as Sheridan, and with darker skin and hair. He was accompanied by an escort who did know she was satai. That Minbari stood in the corner, his eyes pointed at the floor. "Dr. Stephen Franklin," he said, and that was all.
A touch more fear in this Human's eyes than there had been in Sheridan's, but more curiosity as well. He carried a bag upstairs, and set it in the chair beside the bed, sitting on the edge of the bed himself. Delenn stood at the foot, unwilling to leave them alone together.
"Lieutenant Commander, how are you feeling?" the physician asked, his voice warm, comforting. In that respect he was not unlike Minbari physicians.
"Flu," Sheridan said, one hand pressing down on his stomach.
"You do not have the flu," Delenn corrected him. She had looked up the Human flu, short for influenza, the first time John had brought it up. Influenza was distinguished by coughing and respiratory difficulty, congestion, and yes, a fever as well. Most Human illnesses seemed accompanied by fever, something that struck Delenn as a poor evolutionary tactic on the part of their immune systems.
The physician took Sheridan's temperature, checked the dilation of his eyes, felt his pulse, all things the three Minbari physicians had already done. Delenn bit her tongue and tamped down her impatience. She would wait another five minutes before she prodded the Human along.
"No," Sheridan said, grunting out a sound that might have been a laugh. "Thank God."
"Sounds like the stomach flu," the physician remarked as he opened up his bag.
"He does not have influenza," Delenn said again. Why were they both being so contrary?
"You're right, of course." The physician pulled out a bottle and poured out an ounce or two into the water glass, then helped Sheridan to drink. "It's not the flu, but everyone calls it that anyway. A stomach bug. A virus. Probably the twenty-four hour variety. He's on the downswing, now."
"How would he have picked up a virus? He has been here longer than twenty-four hours."
"You'd be surprised how long those things can incubate. Stress can also depress the immune system, make someone more susceptible to picking bugs up." The physician pinched the skin on the top of Sheridan's hand, examined the mark he left. "Has any blood work been run?" Delenn indicated the tablet on top of the window seat, and the physician looked through the notes there. "Thank you for translating these into English first," he murmured, scrolling through the pages. Finally, he turned to look at her. "He's dehydrated, but not too badly. Keep giving him fluids, but keep everything clear as possible. Water at first, then diluted chicken or vegetable broth. Lukewarm, not hot. If he can keep everything down for, say, eight hours or so, some plain applesauce would be okay. Toast. Bananas if you can get them, the potassium would be good for him."
"There is potassium in his nutritional supplement."
"Not the same." The physician replaced the tablet, then set the bottle from his bag down next to it. "Give him another shot of that in twelve hours. That should see him through it. If not, he'll probably need an IV for fluids, but I doubt it will come to that. Just keep an eye on him, make sure he rests, and if the fever goes any higher than thirty-eight point five, say, then get him to a hospital." The physician stopped then, and for the first time the professional detachment left him. He was shaken, she could see, and the fingers on the handle of his bag tightened so much the knuckles turned nearly white. "Not a hospital. Call me back, I guess, or one of your own doctors. If nothing else, get him into the shower, cool water, get the fever down. But I think he'll be okay." The physician looked at Sheridan, something in his eyes that Delenn could not decipher.
"I think he'll be okay."
Delenn ran outside, sure the automobile would already be gone, but instead the Worker was helping the Human physician up. The man had fallen in the snow, and was stuffing the spilled contents of his bag back inside. "Don't touch me!" Delenn heard, a snarl so utterly unlike the calm voice he had used at Sheridan's bedside that for a moment she doubted it was the same man at all. The Worker helped him up regardless, still unruffled. She could only imagine those chosen to work with the Human captives must be possessed of extraordinary patience. It was not a job she would excel at, she thought.
The cold wind cut through her robes as though she wore none. "Dr. Franklin?" she called, and when he turned to her she saw tears frozen on his cheeks. "You are sure that his illness is viral in origin?"
For a moment she thought he would not answer her, but he finally nodded, clutching his bag to his chest.
"You are sure it was not the result of some food I gave him?" Delenn did her best to keep herself still, so he would not see her tremble in the cold, but she was not entirely successful. But there was no disdain in the physician's eyes, only a bone-deep weariness.
"It's not food poisoning. It's a stomach virus." Without waiting for her to dismiss him, he climbed into the automobile, still holding his bag as though it were a lifeline. The Worker stared fixedly at the ground, seemingly frozen.
"You may go," she told him, and he entered the automobile quickly, driving away at such a speed that Delenn was sure they would tumble off the mountainside. She remained outside, watching them, until she was assured they would not.
Back inside, Delenn pulled on a thicker outer robe, though she knew it would be some time before her body fully warmed, even with the house's environmentals set as they were. First she found some vegetable broth to take upstairs. While that warmed, she looked to the other items the physician had mentioned. Ordering bread from which to make toast took no time at all, and apples from which to make applesauce was almost as easy. "No sugar or spices," she told the Worker. "Just plain cooked apples." She did not know the effects the Human spices cinnamon and nutmeg might have on Sheridan's queasy stomach, but she thought it best not to risk it. Bananas were much more difficult to secure. Delenn made herself a note for the next meeting of the Council; how long would they sustain Human agriculture? Would they retrain the surviving Human captives to feed themselves? Would they leave that to those Minbari who arrived later to make Earth a colony of Minbar? It was something they had yet to discuss, their long-term goals for the planet. She knew she was in the minority, that most wished to eradicate the last of the Humans and start fresh. That was why she had taken Sheridan, once he had been identified. If the Starkiller of all Humans could be brought to heel, it might encourage the more recalcitrant of the Council to consider sparing what few Humans remained. They had been thoroughly broken; there was no need to punish them any more.
The bananas finally scheduled for a flight that should arrive by afternoon here, Delenn turned off the connection and the screen, then locked the door in front of it. She was exhausted, and the ache around her ears had grown. She should go to her own bed, she knew, and sleep, even if only for a few hours. Instead, she found herself climbing the stairs with the broth.
Sheridan was asleep himself, his face relaxed. The urge to touch him came over her again, as it had since he had first started crying at the dinner table. You are thinking of him as a pet, that is all. A big fluffy gokk of your very own. But that was not it, and she knew it. The thought frightened her.
"Why are you doing this?" Anna asks, or at least, he thinks she asks. John can't hear her. She's so far away, at the end of a long hallway. He thinks he should walk down to her, but suddenly he is afraid, very afraid. Afraid of Anna? But he is, he is, so instead of walking to her he turns and runs.
He's at the Academy, though the buildings are all different. He enters one, a chapel the size of Buckingham Palace. Running, running, and something's right behind him. John chances a quick peek over his shoulder.
It's not Anna. Of course not, why would Anna chase him? It's her, the Minbari, and she smiles at him. John runs, up stairs and through long, shadowy rooms, down stairs and into a kitchen crowded with pots and pans that clank and crash as he knocks them all to the ground. Running, running, why is he so fragging slow?
John woke up just as he slammed into a locked door, and for a second he had to fight the urge to run here in the real world. He hated anxiety dreams, the running ones worst of all. He stretched under the covers, and realized that he felt okay. Tired beyond the telling of it, and hungry, though he had no appetite, at least not yet. But okay. No nausea, and no chills or unbearable heat. John rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and tried to gauge the time from the quality of gray light on the ceiling. It was no use; it could have been dawn, it could have been noon, it could have been dusk. Did it make any difference anymore?
He leveraged himself up to his elbows, and that's when he saw her, asleep in the chair at the foot of his bed. John stared. He hadn't had the opportunity to really look at her, not since the moment she'd plucked him out of his cell. She had wrapped herself up in what looked like a big, thick bathrobe, and had drawn a fold of it up over her head. John realized how small she actually was. Her features were fine and delicate, and without being able to see her bald head, she looked less alien.
But she was an alien. A Minbari. He would not forget that.
He was thirsty, so he slowly twisted to the side, swinging his legs out from under the covers. The room was toasty warm and smelled nice, which surprised him. Then he saw candles, out now, but they had been burned earlier, sitting here and there – on the window sill, on top of the dresser, on the empty bookcase. They had given off a scent he didn't recognize. Something not quite floral, not quite fruity. Pleasant. There was a glass of some yellowish liquid on the table beside him. John gave it a sniff – broth of some kind, but cold now. He set it back down, lip curled. John sat there, letting his body get used to being up and down, thinking about what he'd have to do next in order to stand.
"You shouldn't be out of bed." John turned to see her looking at him, eyes wide and clear, as though she'd been awake for hours.
"I'm okay." He stood and refused to let her see how weak and shaky his legs felt. She must have known anyway, because she came to his side and walked him the six paces to the head. Her hand hovered near his back but didn't quite touch it. John wasn't about to argue with her. He'd rather she catch him, than be proud and fall on his ass if he got hit by an attack of the dizzies.
Then she followed him right into the head. He stopped and shot her a meaningful look, though it didn't seem to mean much to her, because she just kept standing there. "I need to piss," he explained, but she only blinked at him. "Urinate," he clarified. Now she got it, and with a single nod she turned to go. But not before she touched him, one quick caress between his shoulder blades. Then the door snicked shut and he was alone.
His mind was clear, yes, but not yet running at top speed. He couldn't formulate much more of a thought than that. He did piss, but only a little; he was a touch dehydrated, he guessed. Carefully bracing his hands on the sink, he leaned over and gulped up some water from the faucet. It was just as cold as he remembered. The folks who'd built this house must have sunk a pipe straight down to some Alpine aquifer or something. He got the sudden urge to bathe in it, scrub his skin clean with snow. Instead he just splashed some cold water on his face and rubbed the back of his neck.
His beard was getting long, an actual beard now and not just a face gone unshaved for too long. John had grown a beard only once before, during the year between school and the Academy. That beard had been a little patchy, but this one was pretty damned full. He stroked it as he looked at himself in the mirror. He wasn't sure if he liked it. The sweats were bad enough, but with a beard, he really didn't look like a soldier anymore.
"Sheridan? Are you all right?" John opened the door. Delenn was waiting just outside, hands folded in such a way that told him she'd just been counting the seconds he'd been out of her sight.
"Can I get a razor? I want to shave." It seemed a simple enough request, but she frowned more than he'd seen from her yet.
"The beard makes you look dignified," she finally said. Nothing more seemed forthcoming. Was that her answer?
"You can watch me shave and take it away when I'm done, if you're worried I'll do something with it," he offered. Another frown. What did she care whether he had a beard or not?
"I'll see if I can find one," she said. And then she just stood there, looking at him. John scratched awkwardly at the back of his head. His hair was getting long, too.
"Scissors?" he asked. "For the hair on my head?" She reached out and touched a lock of it, and John willed himself to stand still, to not back away.
"It is softer than I might have thought," she murmured. Then she was the one to back away, several steps at that. "I will cut it myself." It wasn't a question, but John nodded anyway. "When you are ready to come down, I will make you toast. There will be applesauce, and later, bananas." He nodded again, biting back a smile. It sounded so fucking strange to hear a word like bananas out of a Minbari's mouth.
He didn't want to say it, but he knew he needed to, and besides, it was true. "Thank you. For taking care of me while I was sick." It sounded to his ears that he was practically spitting the words out, but Delenn looked touched. More than touched. She looked as though he'd brought her a couple dozen roses. Christ, is she going to cry? Looking at her now, he could see she had dark circles around her eyes, and the blue stripe down the middle of her head was decidedly paler than it had been before. He wondered how much sleep she'd had the last day or two days or however long it had been.
"Of course," she said in a half-whisper. Then she spun away from him quickly, closing the door behind her. She didn't lock it, though. That was interesting. There wasn't much he could do about it now, but he filed it away for later. Maybe she was letting down her guard some. Good to know. Before he did anything else, even really think about an unlocked door, he had to strip the sheets off the bed. He wasn't sure exactly how long he'd been sick, but he'd been sick like that before, and knew that the fever would have left the sheets clammy and sweaty. By the time he finished (and taking off the pillowcases was a near-Herculean task), he was exhausted again, so he flopped down on the bare mattress and dozed for a bit. Not too long, though, because she didn't come get him, and he figured she'd check on him again before too long.
It would be too much trouble to put socks on, so John shuffled downstairs barefoot. Delenn was writing something, but when she saw him she stood and started slicing a big loaf of bread. John's stomach rumbled in a fairly pleasant way. There was a pot of water boiling on the stove top, flowers and herbs dancing atop the rolling bubbles. "Tea?" he asked, and pointed to the pot when she looked a question over her shoulder.
"The air here is dry. It does not bother me – this is what most of Minbar is like – but it is not good for you. I am hydrating the air." John sat down carefully. Surely she could find a humidifier somewhere, if the house didn't have one built-in to its environmentals; but if she wanted to do it old school, he supposed she could. Like the candles, it was kind of nice.
Watching her toast the bread in the oven, then warm up some applesauce, John reflected that it seemed there were a lot of things about Minbari culture he might appreciate, if they hadn't been the murdering bastards they were. It was hard to admire the careful, methodical way Delenn went through each task when he was constantly reminded of the people he had known who had done similar things, who were no longer here. Mom used to make me toast when I was sick, even if it was just the sniffles. Toast, and hot tea, and sometimes grits topped with honey and raisins. Mom's dead. Elizabeth cooked me breakfast once, in the three good months after the wedding. She had made the toast just like that, flipping the pieces over in the oven. Of course, back then, we just didn't have the space in that little apartment to have things like toasters and thermal units and even a viewscreen bigger than a postage stamp. Elizabeth's dead.
Delenn set his breakfast in front of him, plain toast and a dish of chunky applesauce. A small glass of orange juice, a small glass of milk, a large glass of water. A vitamin. She kept fussing over him, putting a napkin down, bringing him a spoon and then a fork, too; for what, he didn't know. He picked up a half-slice of toast, a perfectly-even golden brown. "Dry toast," he remarked. He'd have thought it to be spread with hand-churned butter and the perfectly golden reduction of some fancy Minbari fruit or God knew what. He nibbled on the corner of it, waiting to see if his gag reflex objected to the idea of food in his mouth, but so far he seemed a go.
Then he glanced at Delenn, seated across from him as usual. She was frowning at the toast, far more dismay on her face than there should have been for any reason. "The toast is not adequate?" she asked.
"It's fine. Tastes good." And it did taste good, this was real bread, when was the last time he'd had real bread? Most of the galleys on the ships had these weird food extrusion devices. Some basic nutritional compound would be added – carbohydrates, fat, protein in the proper ratio – and then flavored and cooked and shaped or cut or molded to look like whatever food it was supposed to represent. The "bread" was usually a dense brick of bright yellow algae loaf that squeaked when you chewed. It tasted better than the "meat," though. John used to think it might be better to just eat bowls of unprocessed tofu and the assorted other shit they got when they were far from a supply line, rather than try to recreate something that couldn't be faked. He nibbled a bit more toast. It was nice and dry and crumbly with only the slightest bit of bread sponginess in the middle, just like he liked.
"The Human physician said that I needed to be careful with what you ate for a few days. I worried that any condiment for the toast might upset your stomach."
"Delenn, it's fine. I like it. Thank you." But she didn't seem appeased, and she sipped her tea with her mouth still pursed unhappily. "Aren't you eating?" he asked. Maybe she'd eaten while he was comatose on the bed after stripping it, but he didn't think so for some reason. He just had a gut feeling something was up with her, what he didn't know, but it was strange, whatever it was. She seemed unsure, unfocused. Probably hadn't been expecting her captive to start barfing like crazy. Maybe Minbari didn't vomit at all. Maybe she'd thought he was dying.
She still hadn't answered his question, and was just gazing down into her teacup. "Delenn?"
"I was just worried about you," she finally said. Then she reached across the table and put her hand atop his, gazing at him with suspiciously shiny eyes.
Oh. Oh no. John swallowed some toast before he was completely finished chewing it and ended up coughing. She was around the table like a rocket, a hand on his back, holding up the water for him. "I'm okay," he managed, taking a drink. His mind raced – surely he was imagining all of this. Maybe it was just some temporary Florence Nightingale thing? John got his breathing back under control, taking another, slower, drink of water. Delenn was still rubbing his back.
"You should eat," he finally said. Mostly he wanted her to stop touching him, because it was making him feel funny, conflicted and guilty, wanting to be touched and not wanting it at all, the way she had made him feel the night before his stomach bug had set in. "I'm not going to finish all of this. Go ahead, eat some." He waved a hand over his plate.
Delenn walked slowly back around the table, and the intensity of her gaze was enough to make him shift in his chair. "You wish us to share a meal?" she asked, and John could tell from the tone of her voice that it was a big deal. What was the right answer? What did she want to hear?
"Well, there's no sense in letting it go to waste." She nodded, and her eyes dropped. Disappointed? Maybe – Minbari weren't as facially expressive as Humans, at least in his limited experience. "I don't mind sharing," he said, pushing the applesauce her way. Delenn looked at him, looked and looked, he hated not knowing what she was thinking, but she dipped her spoon down and drew up the tiniest, most miniscule bite. She poked her tongue out to taste it. John found himself looking away from her mouth, suddenly awkward in a way he couldn't articulate even in his own head.
"It is bland. I'm sorry, this is not acceptable." Delenn moved to take the dish away, but John grabbed up a big spoonful first. He shoved it in his mouth, and felt the faintest echo of nausea.
"No, it tastes good. Nice and sweet."
She tried another tentative lick. Goddamn it, John, get it together. He stared at her bone so he wouldn't look at her lips. He didn't know what was coming over him, except that he was tired, lonely, and it had been a goddamned long time. That's no excuse. Stop thinking about her tongue – you're disgusting. "I cannot taste anything. Maybe a little bit of something, but that is all."
"Different taste buds," he shrugged. He set to finishing the toast, full and yet not full all at the same time. God, he hated being sick, it always took forever before everything was back to normal again. Eating was a real effort, and he was so tired. He'd never been a nap person, and more than ten years in EarthForce had trained out of him any desire to sleep in late or go to bed early, but all he wanted was to curl up in that bed and sleep, sleep until he forgot everything else. He hoped that now that Delenn saw he wasn't facing imminent death, she would go to wherever she went and leave him alone for the rest of the day.
"You are not happy," she said, a question that was not a question at all. John looked up to find her looking pretty not happy herself. He laughed.
"Why would I be happy?" He waited, and she just stared at him. "Give me one reason why I should be happy."
The pause seemed to go on for an eternity. Finally she answered, though she shook her head as she spoke, as though she knew it was a lie. "You are alive."
"And if you can't understand why I'm not happy about that, you may as well put the torch to Earth right now, because keeping any of us around is never going to work." She had nothing to say to that. John shoved the plate away from him, knocking the untouched milk over. A white flood spilled over the table and down onto the floor. A sudden fit of pique came over him. He wanted to do nothing but tear the house apart, smash everything he could, destroy everything he could get his hands on. John walked away from her before he could decide to go after her, too.
Lizzie had gone through a bout of depression seven or eight years ago. She'd seen half a dozen different therapists, read probably fifty self-help books, and had sent John maybe two or three thousand messages. That was an exaggeration, of course, though it hadn't felt like it at the time. Some days there might be ten different messages from her, almost all short, though every now and then he would get an honest-to-God epistle, and John felt compelled to read them all. He never wanted her to ask him about something and find out he had no idea what she was talking about. Dr. Jenkins suggests boosting the UV output of all my lamps. I'm taking a Vitamin D supplement. And for a day or two he'd hear nothing. Then, The Vitamin D is giving me hives. I read about this meditation therapy that uses electrostatic acupuncture. He would fervently hope that she had finally found what she was looking for. It was strange, being so far away, knowing the messages were sometimes weeks old. When he had a chance to write her back, he never knew what to say. That sounds great, Lizzie. I hope it works.
The truth was, most of it sounded like so much crap to him. He'd always been pretty sound, both of mind and of body. His "year of exploration," as Mom had called it, had been less about finding out about himself and more about finding out about everyone else, learning what made them tick, discovering that the differences were almost always just superficial, skin-deep. It was knowledge that had served him well in EarthForce, and he had always known that when the time came for him to lead, he would be well-equipped. (Those days were gone now, of course, gone gone gone, and now he was thinking none of that world had ever been real, he had always lived in a house in the Alps, with a monster for a jailer.)
So even though he couldn't really understand what Lizzie was going through (and sometimes had to bite back the urge to say can't you just try to be more happy?), he still found it fascinating. Sometimes she would message him something that just sounded totally bizarre, and he would happily hunt down information on it during his free time. Herbal supplements; hands-free massage; primal scream; psi graft; on and on the list went. But there had been one thing in particular that he'd been taken with, even though Lizzie had discounted it after the usual brief time period.
She had called him, on a lucky day when he could pick up a signal through the Jovian gate. "Johnny, I've just read the most amazing book. It's about the humors and temperaments."
"The four humors?" he'd asked, doing his best to keep from frowning at her in puzzlement but knowing he wouldn't wholly succeed. She was so jazzed, though, she didn't notice.
"I'm a melancholic, see. That's all. My natural state is depressive, and I've been doing all these therapies and taking all these pills to try and fight that, when I need to accept and understand it instead. Swim with the current. It will take me somewhere, even if it's not where I originally thought I needed to go." John had nodded and smiled at the right times, and after the call was over, he'd looked up the temperaments. Lizzie a melancholic? No, it was absurd. He jotted down a quick message the next day: Liz, I think you're a choleric, actually. But she never responded, and the next time he heard from her, it was all about telepathic whisper therapy, whatever the frag that was.
In the meantime, though, John had been tickled by the whole notion of temperaments. For a week or so, he'd tried to categorize everyone on the ship. Once he started getting it squared away, suddenly the reason why Ortiz and Jansen never got along made perfect sense; why Michalski worked diligently twenty-nine days and then spent the thirtieth crying in the mess, eating nothing but synth-gravy; why Coral Beckett, the girl he'd been kinda-sorta seeing (kinda-sorta screwing, more like) would delight him one minute and drive him up the wall the next. It felt like having a skosh of psi talent, being able to see into someone's very nature, to understand what made them tick.
At first, he thought maybe he was choleric, too, but in the end, he settled on being phlegmatic. The least exciting and interesting of the temperaments, perhaps, but the most stable. Not prone to mood swings in either direction, friendly, curious, rational, affectionate – the more John thought about it, the more he liked it. A phlegmatic. It fit, and he found himself responding in difficult situations conscious of his own wildly-unscientific diagnosis. A burst of anger might make him think about yelling or even putting a fist into the wall, and he would remind himself, John, what would a phlegmatic do? and he would grit his teeth and smile instead. And at the end of the day, he would feel much better for it.
He was just a happy, straight-forward, level-headed guy. He didn't get depressed, didn't let his emotions rule him. When faced with an obstacle, he calmly evaluated all his options and chose the most advantageous. Nothing could defeat him, nothing could crush his spirits, because there was always something he could do. There was no problem that couldn't be solved, not if you worked at it long enough.
John kept trying to tell himself that as he lay in the bed, bundled up under all the covers, watching the steady dance of dust motes in the pearly gray light that came in the window. He needed to get up. He needed to do something. Anything.
But instead he just stayed in the bed, buried under blankets, just his nose and eyes poking out. He was thirsty, but he had drained his water glass, and didn't feel like walking to the head. He was hungry, but he refused to eat with her anymore; every time he did, she drove him into a tizzy, and he hated it. He was bored, but it seemed the height of absurdity to care about being bored, not with the world the way it was. He could just hear Elizabeth in his head. Oh, you're bored? Poor Johnny. I'm dead, you know, and I'd give my right arm to be bored.
That was the crux of it. Delenn was right. He should be happy to be alive, because so goddamned many weren't, and how many of them would, if given the choice, have done just about anything to be in his shoes? He was full of shit, an ungrateful bastard, he could be using this opportunity to work on the Minbari from within, do something – anything – to help the other few Humans still alive and kickin'.
Get up. Get up. Get up. He said it to himself, sometimes in his head, sometimes out loud, in varying volumes and tones. Wheedling, assertive, whispered, stentorian, monotone, irritated. It did no good.
She came in once, twice, maybe more times, just standing at the door. He could feel the burn of her gaze like something physical, a prod between his shoulder blades, burning away skin and flesh, marking him down to the bone. Each time he tensed, muscles solid bricks hidden away under the soft blankets, ready to attack, ready to flee, ready to do that something he was incapable of doing the rest of the time, but she made no move, said nothing. She just stood there and watched.
He did not.
Delenn left him alone the rest of that day. She did not attempt to make him eat dinner, and she did not try to speak to him. She did check on him once, just to make sure... Delenn did not want to think of any possibility, even if only to herself. She just wanted to see him, see that he was whole and sound.
The second day she opened the door and found him in the exact same position he had been in the last time she had seen him. "Breakfast is ready," she said, but he did not move, did not answer. Was he even awake? But she knew he was, she could tell somehow. A split-second of irrational anger broke over her. He was quite simply the most ungrateful creature of any species she had ever encountered.
She immediately felt guilty for feeling that way.
Delenn brought the breakfast up to his room, a tray bearing banana slices dribbled with sweet honey, oatmeal with fresh blueberries, toast spread with soft yellow butter, and a cup of fragrant hav'a'le tea, her own leaves. She set the meal on the little table beside his bed, and she watched him look up at it. His eyes moved slowly, as though it was all he could do to shift his gaze. He looked at the meal, and then he closed his eyes. He did not move.
Delenn checked on him again that night. As far as she could tell, he had not shifted, had not moved even a bit. The tray remained untouched.
The next morning, the meal still sat there. The bananas were brown, the oatmeal a hard lump, the blueberries shriveled. A scum lay on the surface of the tea. Sheridan had moved, though. Instead of laying on his side, he was now on his back, staring at the ceiling. He did not acknowledge her presence, not even with a blink.
Delenn shut herself into her room on the first floor. Her breath was coming quickly, and she was unable to slow it. She wanted to force the food down his throat, she wanted to send him back to the holding facility, she wanted to strike him across the face.
She wanted to hold him.
"I don't know what to do," she told the room. There was no answer forthcoming.
John was absolutely starving. He'd probably eat the cold food on the tray – all nasty and gross now – but he couldn't find the energy to move. The blankets seemed to weigh a hundred pounds. Even the air was pressing him down.
He had convinced himself that this was the noble course of action. He would not be used as a pawn against his own people. He would not humiliate himself. He would not beg. This was better. This was the only thing that he could really do.
Except he kept imagining his dad, sometimes just hearing his voice in his head, sometimes almost seeing him standing at the foot of the bed. Seems to me like you're giving up, John.
No, Dad. No, I'm not.
Then explain to me what point you're trying to prove.
This is a principled stand.
Starving to death is a principle? Gotta say, that's not making much sense.
I won't be her prisoner.
You know, in a day or two, she's just going to stick a tube down your throat and be done with it.
Be quiet. Please. Just go away.
What do you think your mother would say?
John had no answer to that. He knew exactly what his mother would say. She would tell him to stop acting like a spoiled, stubborn child. She would remind him of his oath. I will protect and defend the people of Earth no matter the risk, no matter the cost. She'd even tell him the story he'd heard a hundred times, of when Lizzie had wanted to play with his rocket ship, and instead of sharing, he had broken off the wings and buried it in the sandbox. You're used to getting your way, John, so when you don't get your way, you don't handle it very well.
He sat up, the effort required enough to make him shake by the time he swung his legs over the side of the bed. The spoon was sunk down in the oatmeal, and when John lifted it, the whole thing came up, a hard gray popsicle. He dropped it down to the tray, his stomach doing a slow roll.
John stood, legs so weak he was afraid he might fall. He wasn't used to standing; the blood left his head in a rush, and the world grew gray and dim. Back down, sitting on the edge once more. This time, he stood carefully, in stages, and once he was assured he'd stay upright, John lifted the tray and headed for the door. Not only was it unlocked, it was open. He realized it was dark in the room. Night. He wondered where she was.
Down the stairs, putting both feet down on each step, like some ancient, brittle-boned old man. The tray wobbled in his hand, since he had the other on the railing, gripping tight. He kept going nice and slow, but he still ended up slipping about halfway down. The tray went first, and for a split-second he watched it topple in the air, the bowl flying off, the banana slices shooting out like bullets, the mug of tea shattering on the steps with a joyful sound. Then he was falling, not end over end, but right down on his ass. A hard shock to his tailbone, and his teeth closed on his tongue. Down a few more stairs, and he found himself wondering how he'd had enough momentum to even be falling forward at all. His hand was still holding onto the railing, and one of his fingers snapped, he heard it over everything else, and that pain overwhelmed the fall to his ass and the bite of his tongue completely.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck!" he grunted out, coming to a stop five steps lower than he'd first started falling. He looked at his right hand – the middle finger was definitely hanging at the wrong angle. And to add insult to injury, there was a shard of porcelain mug sticking out the bottom of his foot. John laughed, something so dark and bitter he didn't even recognize it as his own. As he was carefully pulling the shard out, Delenn came around the corner, her eyes wide.
"Sheridan," she breathed, and he was still laughing, until he realized he wasn't laughing at all, he was crying. The tray was at the bottom of the stairs along with the oatmeal bowl, still in one piece. John started picking up the pieces of the mug, vision blurred, breath hitching in and out almost painfully.
"Leave it. Leave it," she said, sitting on the step beside him. John put his head down on her shoulder and let her hold him.
After that, things returned to the promise of the very first day. He ate everything put in front of him. He remained courteous and quiet. He slept only during the night. Delenn arranged for boxes and boxes of books to be sent over. She didn't know what he preferred, so she selected some of everything. Humans wrote in a dizzying number of genres, most fictional tales and yet not myths, something she found strange, but she was unwilling to begrudge him anything, as long as he did not regress.
When he came out of the lavatory, freshly bathed, Delenn was waiting for him. She knew he did not like her to enter his room unannounced, and indeed, there was a second of dismay on his face, the corners of his mouth turning down, his eyes flashing. Then it was gone, and his face smoothed into its now usual vague and indifferent apathy. "What do you want." he said, no upturn to his voice. It was not a question at all.
Delenn showed him the razor and the scissors. He grunted, a strange sound that had become a substitute for many of his words the last five days. He held out his hand, the one with five sound fingers, but she shook her head. Another grunt, and this one seemed to communicate something slightly different. She followed him into the lavatory, feeling nervous for some strange reason.
He applied warm foam to his face, and then Delenn began, using the flat of the razor to shave off the whiskers. She was afraid she might cut him, and worried he might jerk his head suddenly, but he did not. He stayed as still as stone, and Delenn took her time. Once she grew accustomed to the task, it became almost meditative. It was satisfactory, to see each patch of skin clear of bristle. When she was finished, he sat on the toilet, straddling it, facing the wall, and she cut his hair. This was even more difficult, because she had no idea what she was doing. It was quite pleasant to do these tasks for him, though she could not have said why.
He turned to face her, standing, and he looked so different, it was almost as though he were a different person. Perhaps he felt it too, because there was something ineffably changed in the set of his shoulders, the gaze that seemed to bore straight through her. Delenn felt a shiver, down low in her belly, a dangerous omen indeed. She found herself raising her hand, sliding her fingertips against his cheek. The skin was soft, smooth.
"Is that better?" she whispered, feeling on the brink of something. He was about to speak, but he closed his mouth and just nodded instead, stepping past her brusquely, leaving her in the steam-filled room, feeling quite cold.
The next night, at dinner, Delenn realized that although he held a book open in front of him, he was not reading it. He turned no pages, and the eyes pointed at the page were dull and unfocused. "Is there a specific book you would like?" she asked.
Delenn wracked her brain, trying to remember what else Humans did for entertainment and leisure. "A game? A vid?"
"What would you like?" she asked. Sheridan set the book down with a careful deliberation. He stared at her, and Delenn willed herself to sit still, to keep her chin high.
"I want to know how they died," he finally said. She bit her tongue, knowing it would be a mistake to ask him to clarify to whom he was referring. She only nodded. When she realized he wanted to know right this instant, she stood and went to the screen.
The search didn't take long. She decided to print the information out, rather than give him any access to the screen at all. Three sheets of paper. A quick glance made her heart sink, but she handed the pages to him anyway.
Sheridan read them, one after another, no visible reaction on his face. The hands that held the papers stayed steady and did not shake. The words had already been burned into her brain, and she read them along with him in her mind.
David Sheridan, age 62, believed dead in the attack on the nuclear facilities of North America.
Miranda Sheridan, age 59, believed dead in the attack on the nuclear facilities of North America.
Elizabeth Sheridan, age 27, confirmed dead following the capture of Mars colony, in the destruction of the Pavonis Mons space elevator.
He dropped the papers. One caught an air current and floated gently to the floor, the text still facing up. Sheridan stared sightlessly down at the table, not moving. Delenn waited for tears, for shouts and recriminations, but he only sat there, and when he did speak, it was with a voice rusty and low, as though he had not used it for years.
Delenn went back to the screen. She read the information on it twice. Then she closed the screen and locked it back up. "Confirmed dead when her ship was taken in orbit," Delenn said. Sheridan did not respond, and after what felt like an eternity, he stood and walked past her, back up to his room.
Delenn sat down heavily, needing to press a hand over her heart. She wondered if he had looked at her as he left, if he would have known. Tears surprised her, spilling down her cheeks, and she dashed them away with numb fingers.
Anna Keller, age 26, captured in orbit aboard the human survey ship Mirabilis. Currently held in Human containment facility Les'nath, in central Africa, #22367.
Two weeks since he recovered from his illness, eleven days since he had dropped the breakfast tray on the stairs, seeming to come to some epiphany, two days since he had read what had happened to his family. He had not come back down from his room since then, though he had eaten the food she had taken up to him. The books continued to sit untouched. He no longer bothered with the pretense of holding them.
Delenn went upstairs to retrieve his dinner dishes. She found him standing at the window, staring out at the mountain. "Perhaps you would like to go for a ride?" she said, foolishly hopeful. Sheridan only shook his head.
"There must be something you want," she pressed on. He only grunted, the sound that threatened to become a laugh, one meant to hurt, to dig deep under the skin. A wave of anger rushed through her, too many days of frustration and worry finally spilling out. "I cannot change what has happened! I would if I could, but I cannot!" she exclaimed, too loudly, her voice ringing out shrilly. Sheridan turned, and she did not imagine the faint astonishment on his face. "If you would like me to return you to the holding facility, to sit in a cell, one of many, then say it and I will do so. Otherwise, you are here, and there is no reason for you to make yourself so miserable."
He was shaking his head at her. "You're so fucking dumb," he said, but there was no anger in his voice, only grief. It cut Delenn to the bone.
"What do you want?" she begged. "What do you want?"
"I want my mom and dad! I want my sister. I want my girlfriend. I want my friends, my shipmates, I want my goddamned cat. I want to wake up in a room that's mine, filled with my own things. I want to be able to shave my own face, and watch the news. I want to eat slop and drink fake coffee, on my ship, out in the stars. I want my fucking life back!"
They stared at each other. Delenn found herself thinking again of that moment, holding Dukhat's body in her arms, being asked her vote. If only she could go back and change things! But she could not, she could not, and the knowledge continued to eat away at her soul.
"I can't give you that," she said. "I'm sorry."
Sheridan turned his back to her and resumed his watch out the window.
The next day, at breakfast, he said, "If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him." Later she looked the cryptic phrase up and discovered it was a book. A Worker found it in a local bookstore and drove it over personally. He read it for the next two days.
Then: "The Hothouse Seven and the Heist of Mars." A vid, a comedy. Even easier to find in the database. She did not sit with him as he watched, though she stayed in sight, not wanting him to have access to the screen unattended, though why she still could not say. He never laughed, but she caught him smiling once.
"The sixth game in the 2178 World Series." "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." "A strawberry pie with real whipped cream." Delenn met with the Council, arranged trade of Earth goods to other civilizations, set up meetings, worked on the official Earth surrender to the Minbari, and yet her real work seemed to be finding these little things that she hoped would make Sheridan happy.
One day she realized it had been several days since he had requested anything. She joined him in his room, and again he was at the window. Another cloud of depression hung over him, something nearly tangible. She had not touched him since the night he had dropped the tray, and she badly wanted to now, but she kept her hands stiff at her sides.
"Sheridan?" she asked. He sighed, a sound of profound weariness. "Is there anything you would like?"
"No." She saw that he was holding the papers. Assumed dead. Assumed dead. Confirmed dead.
"There must be something."
Sheridan laughed, a sound like glass breaking. She hated it. He turned and let the papers drop from his hand. "What meaningless shit would distract me for ten seconds today, you mean? How about a cigar, some scotch, and a hand job? How about that? Now leave me the frag alone." He didn't turn away but instead stepped toward her, a challenge that Delenn did not feel up to today. She was the one to turn, to give ground. She did lock the door after her, though. If he was going to be rude, he could certainly stay right where he was.
She couldn't sleep. She took up her tablet, the light bright enough she had to squint. A cigar was a tube of tobacco, to be set afire, the smoke inhaled. A barbaric, unhealthy custom, but a single one would not hurt him. She ordered a crate, already waiting at one of the air fields; the Centauri had offered to purchase every last Human tobacco product on the planet. Scotch was a type of alcohol. Most of the alcohol had already been shipped away, but Delenn managed, after a bit more work, to find some of the variety Sheridan preferred.
She looked up hand job.
John had been having a really nice dream. He was in the observation room onThe Lexington which spun at the opposite speed and direction from the rest of the ship, keeping it at zero-G, to ensure they were able to get accurate star readings. It also made it a popular place for secret assignations, because zero-G sex was pretty fantastic. He knew it was a dream. It wasn't Anna with him but Coral, he hadn't thought of her for years, but there was something special about a large-breasted woman like Coral naked in zero-G.
They were both laughing as he chased her, shoving off from the wall, drifting across the room, but she kicked off at an angle, and his fingers just closed around the ends of her hair. She giggled, twisting away, hair flying out like a cloud.
John woke up, fully erect. His first thought was that this was actually okay. He wouldn't mind jerking off, something that hadn't even crossed his mind since all of this had started. It would at least help him fall back to sleep.
Then a hand slid down his penis, a hand that was most definitely not his own. John opened his eyes to find Delenn sitting beside him, paying careful attention to what she was doing, sliding her hand back up, using the other to tug his sweat pants down a little lower, to stroke his balls.
"Jesus Christ," he croaked, and she glanced up at his face. A brief, shy smile, and she seemed to gain confidence, pumping her hand a little faster. A hundred questions crowded in his brain, the foremost of which was what in the fuck are you doing?, but he only goggled up at her, halfway certain this was just another dream. Then he saw that the robe she was wearing was thin and diaphanous, cut low in front, he could see her breasts, and that was that, the orgasm hit him so suddenly and powerfully it was almost painful.
God, it had felt good, though, so good he couldn't seem to form a conscious thought. Delenn cleaned him up, then tugged his pants up and his shirt down. She pulled the covers over him again. John thought about reaching out for her, of sliding his hands under her robe and finding her breasts, his cock jerked at the idea, but he just closed his eyes.
Delenn brushed her lips against his cheek. "Sleep well," she whispered, and then she left him.
But he found no more sleep that night.