Part One: A Study in Scarlet

Captain John Sheridan walked slowly down the corridor towards his quarters. It had been another insanely long day, lasting long into the night. There was always so much left to do; the minutiae of running the station, commanding the Rangers, keeping the League in line, and the war. The damn war, which was like no other war he'd ever fought or studied or heard of. He had ideas, sure he did. But what did it matter when he couldn't understand what lay behind the whole thing? What did the Shadows want? And how could he fight them if he couldn't figure that out?

He rubbed the back of his neck as he walked; the stress was getting to him. He really needed to get down to the gym. Right now he was just looking forward to a few hours of down-time. His walk slowed almost to a stop when he saw the package outside his door. It was a basket of some kind, small, the size of two cupped hands, wreathed in red silk, and tied at the top with a silver string. Briefly he wondered if he should call Security, but finally he just walked up the door, leaned over, and picked it up. The last thing he wanted was a bunch of Garibaldi's men keeping him up with questions. If it was a bomb, let it blow. He was too tired to care.

Inside his quarters he set his care package on the kitchen counter without opening it, and headed for the shower. Some hot water sluicing down his back might loosen up his muscles and maybe also his thought processes. Afterwards, while towelling his hair dry, he paused to examine his face in the mirror. Eyes blood-shot from lack of sleep looked back at him, situated above an unprofessional amount of stubble dotting cheeks and chin. He'd shave tomorrow. His hair was getting shaggy too; it hadn't been this long since his pre-Academy days.

Coming out of the bathroom, now wearing grey sweats and pulling a loosely fitting black sweater made of soft wool over his head, he heard the com-unit beeping the C&C signal. John poured a glass of water, and eyed his mysterious gift. 'Play message', he said as he untied the string. A recorded Ivanova, grimly professional, appeared on the monitor, asking him to call in to C&C as soon as he got the message. Pausing in the opening of his gift, he touched the command center's direct call sigil on the screen and heard the computer reply 'Connecting...'

As he awaited to hear whatever problem had come up, he got the basket loose from its scarlet wrapping. It was white, formed from woven grasses or reeds of some kind, and filled with red berries, shiny and dark like pomegranate seeds, but a little larger. "What the hell?" he said, just as Ivanova appeared on the screen.

"Captain, we've got a serious maintenance problem in Bays 7 thru 15. Parts are completely unavailable and we won't be able to dock ships there until..." her voice broke off. "What is that?" she said, her voice quavering a bit with what might have been laughter or surprise John wasn't sure which.

"I found it outside my door," he answered absently, looking all around the basket for a note. He looked up at Ivanova, but her lips were clamped shut. "You think they're poisonous?" he said, deliberately popping one in his mouth.

She shook her head. "Probably not. Definitely not," she went on, "since you're not throwing up or writhing in pain." Cocking her head, she added, "Could be a slow-acting poison of course. What do you want to do about the repairs?"

"See what you can get on the black market and patch up the rest," he said. "Cannibalize the other bays if you have to to get the maximum number of them operational. What did you expect me to say?" he grumbled. "These are pretty good," he remarked as he picked up another handful, tossing them one a time and catching them in mid-air.

Ivanova started to say something, then stopped with a choking sound like suppressed laughter. Clearing her throat, she finally said, "Do you have a secret admirer?"

John shook his head. "Not a chance. Just somebody thanking me for something I guess. Whatever. Makes a change from the usual brickbats and abuse."

"I'll get to work on the bays," Susan replied. "Get some sleep," she added sternly.

"Will do," replied John, signing off.

The next few days were punctuated with more strange gifts of uncertain origin. Before a council meeting he found a set of twined red plaits arranged on the seat of his chair. Londo, resplendent in his black dress uniform, had been in the room, glowering at him as he made his usual litany of demands. The Centauri had stopped short his tirade as he eyed the silky ropes John had held up in surprise. "Someone likes you, Captain!" he announced, suddenly jovial. "Those are Centauri love braids. A serious gift, meant for a lover!" He leaned over towards John, leering in his face, "Who is the lucky female?"

John kept his temper, although he was not sure how. Sweeping up the ribbons he stuffed them in the pants pocket of his uniform. "A joke of some kind," he muttered, but his mind was racing. When Delenn entered the room, he couldn't help flushing at the sudden hope that rose in his mind. But her reactions were the same as usual, friendly, more than friendly, but diplomatically subtle. She looked him in the eye without hesitance, eyes wide and innocent, without any sign of guilt or question, even when he noticed the scarlet fringe peeking out of his pocket and quickly jammed it back down.

Later that same evening, he stopped at a bar in the Zocalo for a drink. Non-alcoholic unfortunately, but he couldn't afford the blur of inebriation with more work yet to finish. The bartender put a tall flute in front of him, filled to the top with a deep red liquid topped with golden foam, and left to attend another customer. "I didn't order this," he said in annoyance, while trying to flag down the man and return the drink.

G'Kar was sitting a few stools down and rose to move over and join him. "That is sorl," he pronounced after sniffing the foam. "Excellent! Who is to enjoy the mating ritual with you tonight?" he asked, eyes twinkling.

"What?" said John in confusion, looking from G'Kar to the bartender to the drink in rapid sequence.

"It is tradition! On Narn, sorl is an aphrodisiac. Favored by females for its...invigorating effect on the male." G'Kar explained with a smile.

Lately G'Kar had been so solemn. John thought it was nice to see him smile, even if the sharp teeth exposed in the facial gesture looked slightly predatory.

Two women who looked like off-duty exotic dancers walked by. John wondered where in DownBelow they worked. Maybe he should have that investigated. Maybe he should investigate it himself. One of them stared pointedly at G'Kar, and then she touched her friend's arm and they stopped to look in a shop window, glancing back over their shoulders.

G'Kar's smile widened. "All work and no play..." He looked at the Captain, and said, "If you're not going to need that..."

John sputtered and said, "I don't need...it's not like that...oh hell. Take it," he said gloomily. "Might as well put it to use."

G'Kar nodded pleasantly and downed the sorl in one gulp. "Ah," he said. "If you'll excuse me?" Then he strode off into the crowd. The women fell into step with him, one on each side, snaking their arms through his.

John watched him go with some frustration. He wished he did have a use for the stuff. Who was arranging all this? He gestured towards the bartender and ordered his orange juice, again. The man when questioned would only say 'some kind of nun' had bought the drink and asked it be delivered to the Captain. John shook his head. The mystery was only getting deeper. Draining his juice in one swallow, he paid the bill and left the bar, whistling slightly under his breath as he tried to work out the puzzle.