Specs: Babylon 5, John/Delenn, 5671 words
Previous Chapters: One, Two, Three, Four
Two hours after the first ship had come through, a second had joined it. They were stationed on the other side of the moon, in a mirror of the holding pattern their own ship was currently engaged in. One of the ships was nearly twice the size of the other, but even the smaller far outweighed their little Brakiri smuggling ship. John still couldn't tell just what kind of ships they were. To keep the size of the sensor relays as small as possible, so another ship wouldn't spot them and use them like a trail of breadcrumbs, an arrow pointing right to their location, they were simply unable to collect much data beyond the basics: size and location.
He was fairly certain that one of the ships, the big one, was Centauri. The thought filled him with a cold dread. If the Centauri knew they were coming, even if they managed to get out of here, no doubt the planetary defenses would be ready and assembled, just waiting to snatch them up the minute the jumped clean of the gate. In that case, there was no hope. No hope at all.
John glanced over at Delenn. It didn't seem as though she were even blinking. Her eyes were fixed on the screens. He didn't like the color of her face, pallid and ashy; he didn't like the thin press of her lips together; he didn't like the way her fingers twisted at each other and the fabric of her dress. John reached over, brushed her hair away from her face, letting his fingers linger against her cheek.
“What are they waiting for?” she whispered. John didn't know, and he couldn't think of an answer. If it were only one ship, he could understand the hesitation. What their little smuggling ship lacked in size and weaponry, it made up for in speed. He thought he'd be able to out-fly either of those ships if he'd been up against one or the other, but both? They could come at him from two sides, box him in, keep him pressed up against the gas giant, maybe drive him right down into its depths and let the pressure do the work. He didn't know why they were waiting.
He finished programming the last of the three drones. In fifteen minutes, he would send the first one off. It wasn't much bigger than his own body, about two meters long, but it would send out signals to make it look like the twin of their own ship. They would have to be nearly in visual range before they'd be able to see it was just a fake. John hoped that they'd take the bait and chase after it, looping around the gas giant and away from the gate. If they didn't, he had the other two drones programmed to mimic larger ships, make it look like they weren't alone.
If they didn't go for that, he would have to switch to Plan B. He just hadn't figured out what Plan B was.
“I wish I hadn't been angry with you today,” Delenn said, and John looked over to see that her eyes were shiny with tears, though she still stared at the screens.
“It's okay.” She hadn't even really been that mad at him, at least that he could see, just sort of sulky and standoffish. But she shook her head, biting her lip. “Delenn, it's okay.”
“I wish I'd invited you to my bed. I wish I'd known you.” She drew in a shaky breath then, and the sound tore through John's gut like a bullet.
“This isn't over yet.” She shook her head again, and it hurt like hell to see the defeat in her eyes.
“You said you'd throw me out the airlock and save everyone else the trouble. Did you mean it?”
“What are you talking about?”
She looked at him, her face waxy and pale, her lips a bloodless slash. There was a fine sheen of sweat on her brow. John had never seen her look like this, not even that first night in the rented room. “When they come for us, don't let them take me. Don't let them take me away. The time for a quick death is over. John, don't let them take me.”
Now it was his turn to shake his head. He wasn't going to listen to her say this, he wasn't even going to acknowledge it, but she pressed on. “You said you wouldn't let them hurt me. You promised. Promise me again, right now.”
He couldn't, he couldn't say it. She wanted him to promise to kill her, and he wouldn't say those words. He would do it, though. Even as he stood and turned away from her, he knew he would do it, in the end. If the drones didn't work, if he couldn't slip away, if everything failed and the ships came for them, he would end her life rather than let her be taken, to be subjected to God knew what. He wasn't going to put a gun to her head, though, or shove her out into the cold vacuum of space. The airlock. If he sucked in the air slowly enough, she wouldn't even know it was happening. She would just fall asleep, aware one moment, unconscious the next, as quiet and peaceful as he could make it.
The mere thought was enough to start a clatter in his brain, to make his gut twist and seize, the knot under his sternum somehow growing even larger. God, please, don't let it come to that.
He watched the ships drift closer to each other, until their signatures merged and the sensors only sent back one image. There was something there he was missing, but he couldn't see it. It was like having a name on the tip of your tongue, but worse. Delenn's eyes darted to the clock on the far right-hand screen, the one keeping track of how much time remained before the first drone was launched – five minutes. She stood then, arms hugging her own waist. John wanted to hold her, but he couldn't now, so he contented himself with putting a hand on her back for a second. She didn't seem to notice.
Why were the ships practically on top of one another? They should have been moving into position, one to the north and one to the south, or east and west, or in-system and out-system. If nothing else, one should have taken up a guarding position just outside the gate, to interdict them should he try and flee. Instead, they hung together, the distance between them probably able to be counted in the tens of meters. It made no sense.
Delenn sucked in a breath, and John saw that one of the ships was moving. Its signature grew smaller – it was moving away, and toward the gate at that. He laughed, the tension in his gut gone as though it had never been there. He saw Delenn turn to stare, and he jumped up and grabbed her, hugging her tight and swinging her around once.
“They're not here for us! They don't even know we're here!” She didn't understand, and was in fact staring at him as though he had gone mad. John canceled the drone command with less than thirty seconds to spare, then hugged her again, more solidly this time.
“The other ship...” she said, but he just shook his head.
“It'll be going soon, too.” They turned back to the screens. “If you were going to do something illegal, where would you go?” he asked, keeping an arm around her waist. Her answer came slowly, as though she wasn't yet sure they were in the clear. “Where no one else was looking.”
“In an abandoned system, perhaps? Delenn, I think they're smuggling ships, just like ours. They rendezvoused here, drew up side by side, and transferred cargo. Now they're heading back.” Indeed, the second ship was heading for the gate now, leaving them alone and unmolested.
Delenn's knees buckled slightly, and she put a hand on the console for support. John pulled her close and kissed her temple. “It was different before, wasn't it? This time, you had time to think about it.” She nodded, her fingers hooked into his shirt front and back. He held her until her breathing slowed and she relaxed in his arms.
He walked her back to the sleeping berths, and she leaned against him almost drunkenly. He'd set alarms to high should anything pop up on the sensors at all; he needed sleep, too, or he'd be worthless soon. Stims could only do so much. Delenn sat down heavily on the bed, and John knelt to slip off her shoes. “Do you want me to get you a nightgown?” he asked, and she shook her head, laying down, her eyes closed. John turned to head back to his own room, but Delenn grabbed his hand, her grip tight.
“Don't go,” she said. He stood there for a moment, wondering what exactly she meant. She cracked open one eye to look at him, then tugged on his hand. John murmured something indistinct, more of a hum than a word, and kicked off his own shoes. The only way there'd be room for the both of them on the pallet was if he spooned her, so he did. She fit against him perfectly, and he let out a sigh as he draped an arm around her waist. John wanted to stay awake, to revel in the feel of her, to listen to her breathe and know she was safe, but sleep claimed him almost immediately.
The one thing he hated about living on ships is that he never knew the time until he looked at the clock. When John woke up, his body was telling him it was about eighteen hundred hours, for all that meant. If his body was accurate, that would mean he'd been sleeping for almost twelve hours. He stretched a little – it certainly felt like more sleep than he'd had in a month of Sundays.
Stretching pressed him up against Delenn, still curled in front of him, her body lovely and warm and pliant against his. It had been a damned long time since he'd woke up with a woman in his bed, and John let himself bask in it for just a little bit. Only a little bit, though – his stomach was growling, for starters, and even though he was positive the alarms would have roused him if they'd sounded, he wanted to check and make sure everything was kosher, just in case.
Delenn's breathing was so slow he found himself counting between the exhale and the inhale. He could get almost to five, which just seemed too long to him. Every now and then, he had to remind himself that she was still part-alien; maybe Minbari just had a different breathing pattern. In any event, it was relaxing to listen to, and he felt himself being lulled back to sleep.
He was halfway there when she jerked in his arms, and he wondered if she'd just fallen in her dream, or maybe opened a door onto something scary. She certainly had enough floating around in her brain recently to warrant a good old-fashioned nightmare. “Delenn?” For a second he was sure that she was going to freak out and tell him to get out of her bed, but she only sighed.
“You're very warm,” she murmured, her hand finding his. “What is your body temperature?”
“Ninety-eight point six.”
“On what scale?”
“Fahrenheit,” he answered, smiling into her hair. She made a disgusted sound, then shifted so that his arm was more firmly around her body. She said nothing else, and they laid there for long enough that he began to wonder if she had fallen back asleep.
I wish I'd invited you to my bed. She'd said that last night, when they both thought that they were trapped, and she thought the end was nigh. How had she meant it? Maybe she just meant like this, to hold and be held, to be close, rather than to make love. John would certainly prefer the latter, but he didn't know of any way to ask her without making it seem like he was being pushy about it. If, now that the danger was no longer imminent, she decided that this was all she wanted, he could live with that. Pressing his nose into her hair, John figured he could do a lot worse.
Some time later, how much later he didn't know, the alarms sounded. His first thought was that the sensors had detected an asteroid headed their way, or perhaps a radiation flare from the gas giant. John climbed off the bed and stumbled down to the cabin, hearing Delenn follow behind him a few seconds later. “What is it?” she called out, an edge of fear in her voice.
“Probably nothing. I forgot to set any kind of differentiation on the alarm settings.” John leaned over the instrument panel, scanning the screens, and it took a second for the various bits and pieces of data to resolve into one clear picture.
Another ship had joined them in the abandoned Dilgar system, and it was no little smuggling ship. Delenn recognized it before he did, and she sat down heavily in her chair.
“It's a Minbari warship, isn't it?” he asked, his voice sounding leaden to his own ears. He didn't need to see Delenn's nod to know he'd guessed right.
There was no time to do or say anything to her; he only hoped he'd have a chance later. John sat down and leaned close to the screens, hands splayed over the buttons, knobs, sliders and controls. The warship immediately took up an angle at negative twenty percent of the elliptic, to start following a sine wave flying pattern, the fastest and most thorough searching grid there was. The Minbari would find them, there was no doubt of that. He'd seen it too many times himself, and this time, he didn't have any nukes up his sleeve.
They had one shot, and one shot only, and it relied almost entirely on the element of surprise. John readied the drones, to shoot out at max speed in three different directions, while he took the smuggling ship in a fourth, right for the gate.
Before he could launch them, the sensors picked up a broadcast, coming from the warship. John hesitated a moment, then switched it on. The speakers blared out a Minbari voice, the language utter gibberish to his ears, so he just watched Delenn's face. Surprise first, then dismay, then suspicion.
“What are they saying?”
“'To Delenn of Mir, former Satai of the Council, we offer you asylum. Reveal yourself, and we will protect you, until such time as the truth may be known.'”
“Is it a trap, do you think?” He had a finger on the button that would launch the drones. The time for such a gambit was rapidly dwindling.
“Minbari do not practice deceit, do not believe in 'traps,' not as you do.” John could have smiled in other circumstances. “To offer me protection as a means to draw me out, only to mean me harm, would be a lie, and most dishonorable.”
“Do you want to turn yourself in, then?” This was her call, and he wasn't going to make it for her. She thought about it for five seconds, her eyes closed, her face a peaceful mask.
John launched the drones.
Little ships like this had artificial grav systems, in lieu of rotating sections. Most of the time, they worked just fine, and the sensation was hardly distinguishable from real gravity. As John zipped around the moon so close that he could see a shimmer of fire around the cockpit from the meager atmosphere they ripped through, the sudden change in velocity was enough to scramble the grav systems for a few seconds. He stuck his feet through the foot rest on the chair by habit, and found himself standing. Delenn was not so lucky, and he watched her fly straight up. She almost looked graceful, and was able to get a hand up to keep her head from smacking into the ceiling. Then the systems rebooted, and gravity reasserted itself. Delenn came down, and he hoped she hadn't broken an ankle or worse; he didn't have time to check on her.
Coming around the moon, the warship wasn't quite in visual range, but he knew where to look. There was a glint in space, off to his right. He thought it had gone after one of the drones. “Delenn, hold on!” He gave her three seconds to grab something, then punched the engines hard.
It was going to be touch and go, whether he would make it to the gate before the warship knew which signature was real and came after them. He also hoped he wasn't burning too much fuel. It would do no good to escape only to end up stranded in hyperspace.
John hooted out a laugh. Time to turn off that part of his brain and just fly. He was John Sheridan, he was Starkiller, he went up against Minbari warships and won, by God, and he was going to do it again today.
The time seemed to crawl by, but slowly, the gate grew closer. The warship had finally honed in on them and was in pursuit, the distance between them shrinking at a prodigious rate. Delenn shook her head, staring at the screens. “They could shoot us any time they wanted.”
“Maybe their offer was sincere?” John said, watching her prod her ankle again. She swore it didn't hurt, but she kept looking at it. If the worst they came away with was a sprained ankle, he'd count them lucky as hell.
“Sincere or not, I do not trust it. I do not know who leads that vessel, whose decision it was to offer asylum, if they can back up their words with action. There are too many unknowns for me, John.”
It was a solid tactical analysis. A glance at the clock told him that they'd been running for forty-five minutes, and there were only a few more to go. It looked like they would beat the Minbari warship to the gate, but only by a minute or two. He flicked a button on his arm rest and set the controls.
“What are you doing?”
“As we fly through the gate, I'm gonna lay down a line of chaff. It should spread out to fill the gate before they get to it.”
He turned to grin at her, but was surprised to see her expression, aghast and horrified.
“John, you can't! We don't know the nature of their pursuit, you can't just...”
“I won't. They can either slow down and clear it out, or run through it. Nothing would be big enough to really damage their ship, but it'll scramble their sensors, maybe take out some auxiliary systems. Either way, it buys us some time.”
She didn't like it, he could tell, but she withdrew her protest. John entered the commands into the computer, then took them back through the gate. “Chaff's away.” The gate stayed open for a few minutes, and he kept an eye on the screen, waiting to see the warship join them. It didn't, and just as they were leaving range he saw that the gate closed.
A minute to breathe, and John ended up having to put his head in his hands. It felt like he'd been bathing in adrenaline, and realized how jumpy he felt, his eyes nearly crossing with the strain they'd been under. Delenn came to him, sitting down on his lap and putting her arms around his shoulders. John held her close, resting his head against hers, wrapping his arms around her tightly. “Thank you,” she breathed, her lips against his jaw. John moved only to tell the ship to head for Centauri Prime; then he concentrated on holding her.
Most of the next three days they spent together in the cabin, watching the screens. Waiting. But nothing else showed up. They took turns at first going back to the sleeping berths, but after the first day it was easier to just sleep in the chair. Earlier this morning, Delenn had dragged the thin mattress off her bed down to the cabin, and had set it on the floor right behind the chairs. John turned to look at her sleeping, her hair in disarray, shadows under her eyes. He thought she looked thinner than usual, but it might have just been the effect of seeing her out of her formal robes, without the shoulder caps that made her so...majestic. Powerful. John reluctantly gave up his watch over her, and finished imputing the directives to the computer.
There was a gate coming up ahead, the last gate. The shuttle was far too small to generate its own jump point, but they didn't have near enough fuel to leave hyperspace at the next-nearest jump gate and finish the journey in regular space, not after the long burn in the Dilgar system.. There was only one way in, and John dreaded it.
He knelt beside Delenn, rubbing her arm gently. She was slow to wake, and he wondered if she'd have enough strength for what was to come. “We're almost to the gate. Are you ready?” She nodded, and he helped her stand. The little satchel she had packed was already stowed away in a compartment under one of the chairs; now it was time to stow Delenn. The best way to enter any system carrying something you didn't want anyone to find was to come in like a smuggler, and thankfully he was in the right ship for it. Delenn crawled into the space under the instrument panel. John tried to help her, but she was a flexible little thing, and before he could manage to get himself facing the right direction, she was already inside.
“Delenn,” he said, putting a careful hand on her arm. He wanted to tell her that he'd keep her safe, that he'd die before he let anyone find her here, but he couldn't make himself say it. She wouldn't want him to lie to her. A quick nod, and he slid the panel back into place, hiding her.
John put his hand on the stick, cast up a silent prayer to no one in particular, and guided the shuttle toward the gate.
This whole thing had been fubar pretty much from the moment he'd first asked Delenn out to dinner, so he expected nothing different upon entering the Centauri system. Another Minbari warship ready and waiting, perhaps, or a diplomatic convoy drawn up, ready to escort the shuttle down to the planet's surface. At any moment, a voice would ring out over the shuttle's com system, demanding that he turn Delenn over. In times like these, John always felt himself almost split in two. A part of him was standing outside himself, watching, apprehensive, worried, fretful. The rest of him, free of that nuisance, would do what he needed to do and get through the situation. He felt like that now – drawn and coiled tight, yet relaxed, patient, responsive.
No voices on the speakers, no ships waiting, just open space covering most of the distance between the gate and Centauri Prime. There was a ship coming his way, but it was a big, lumbering ore refinery, probably heading to the distant comet cloud to resume mining operations; no threat there. The planet's air patrol was on its rounds, a dozen little ships at least twenty or thirty thousand klicks away, just bright swift-moving stars at this distance.
John knocked on the top of the panel, three quick raps. So far, so good. He didn't give Delenn the signal to come out, though; he wasn't ready to trust in anything just yet. The mandatory check-point was twenty-two degrees north of the equator, nearly on the other side of the planet from where he was. He set in a command to the flight computer to bring the shuttle down around the south pole, enough to aerobrake them to standard orbiting velocity by the time they came up the other side. It took the flight computer about twenty seconds to calculate the necessary angles, and he heard and felt the engines burn just about as long to bring them around and into position. After that, it was just a matter of keeping one hand near the auto-pilot shut-off, watching the displays, and waiting.
Not quite ninety minutes later, he pulled the shuttle in to the check-point, a station in geosynchronous orbit above Centauri Prime's third-largest city. There was an elevator down to the planet's surface, but it was an older system, really only suited to travelers and small cargoes. After presenting his falsified manifest and submitting to a cursory examination, he was given clearance to fly down to the surface.
He programmed in a single twenty-two minute orbit, then unscrewed the panel to let Delenn out. When the light hit her face, John felt his heart stop. Her skin was pale, almost waxy; her eyes were closed; he couldn't see that she was breathing at all. He had checked, he had checked half a dozen times – there was an air feed into that compartment, and a CO2 filter. John put out a shaky hand to her face; there was no response, and her head sagged to the side.
“Oh Jesus. Jesus.” He wasn't aware that he spoke. No movement, no breathing; he put a finger to her throat, not breathing himself. No heartbeat.
John grabbed her, pulled her body out of the compartment. She was limp, her head lolling against his shoulder. She's not cold, she's not cold, it's not too late. He dropped her to the floor too quickly, and the sound her head made as it banged against the metal plate made him wince, but he couldn't worry about that now. He drew her chin up to make sure her airway was clear, and that he wasn't going to push air down into her stomach, and then he opened up her mouth. Before he could cover her mouth with his own, though, her eyes slid open, staring up at him unseeing.
John stared right back, one of his fingers still in her mouth. He wondered if it was some kind of random signal firing in her brain, a last violent pulse through the nervous system as everything shut down. He leaned forward to start CPR.
Delenn gasped in a sharp breath first, her hands coming up to bat him away. John watched the color return to her cheeks, put a hand on her chest and felt her heart beat under his palm, slowly speeding up until it felt nearly normal. “Delenn? Delenn?” He kept repeating her name over and over, one hand on her face, the other still pressed over her heart.
“John,” she whispered, and he crushed his mouth down on hers. There was no coherent thought behind the kiss, just the need to feel her, to be close to her. For a few perfect seconds, she kissed him back, one of her hands stealing up to tangle in his hair. Then she pushed him away, leaning over to cough. Once she caught her breath, he watched her grab one of the chairs to pull herself to a sitting position. Still wanting her, he balled his hands up into fists to keep from reaching out for her again.
“I'm sorry,” he said. “I thought you'd be okay in there, I checked, I'm sorry, Delenn.”
“No, no. I slowed down my metabolic rate, let my heartbeat and respiration drop.” She said it so calmly, as though people did that kind of thing every day. Her face was flushed, though, and he could see that she was trembling just a little. Had she ever done that before? Could that even be safe? “It was more comfortable that way. I didn't know how long I would be inside, or if we would be boarded. Likely they would suspect a smuggler's ship, and would scan with heat sensors.” John nodded even as he wondered why she hadn't let him in on it. But he didn't want to ask her questions. He just wanted to hold her and kiss her again. She was staring at him, her lips soft and pink, and when he reached out for her hand she met him halfway. He drew her into his lap, and she came willingly. This time, though, she was the one to kiss him, light, tentative kisses. Her fingertips were brushing over his cheeks, his temples, his eyebrows, as though she were learning his face.
John licked her lower lip, gently, wanting to taste her but not wanting to scare her off. She opened her mouth for him, and for one glorious heartbeat the kiss was as deep and rich as anything he'd ever wanted. Then a loud, strident alarm rang out – one minute left in orbit. Delenn broke off the kiss but pressed her forehead against his. “I'm glad you're here” she whispered.
“Me too,” he said, and he tried to kiss her again. Thankfully Delenn remembered where they were and what they were doing, and she stood, helping him up to his feet. Her face, tilted up to his, was bright and shining; she was so goddamned beautiful he thought he might lose his mind.
“Are you ready?” he asked, and she nodded. Then she bent to retrieve her little bag, while he sat down to bring the shuttle down to the surface. He could hear her doing something behind him. They hadn't really talked about the plan once they made it to the planet, though she had curtly told him two days ago that she would be able to blend in. He really wanted to turn around and see what she was doing, but decided to give her some privacy, just in case she was changing or something.
Centauri Prime was a very pretty planet, with lots of forests and golden plains, crystal-clear rivers and towering mountains. Villas dotted the landscape here and there, and the cities were clean and well-organized, laid out on grids as precise as if they'd been marked out with a ruler. John had picked out a small town about ten miles from their primary destination; he wanted to get an idea of the lay of the land first. It had been a long time since he'd been here - before the war, at any rate.
Delenn sat down in the chair beside him, and he could tell by the way her fingers gripped the arm rests that she was nervous. He looked at her – she was wearing a pretty robe, though it was bigger and looser than her usual choices. A scarf covered her head, though a tiny bit of her dark hair peeked out at the bottom. She turned to him, anxiety all over her face. There was something else, too, but he couldn't figure out what it was.
“Do they look all right?” she asked. John stared at her blankly. His first instinct was to check out her boobs, but that was (probably) not what she was asking. Her robe looked fine, the scarf looked fine. He was at a loss.
“Yes? I don't know. Do what look all right?” She pointed to her forehead. He looked. What the fuck was she talking about? And then he finally noticed.
She had drawn on eyebrows, probably with one of those girly makeup pencils. They were curved, thin, and quite pretty. He hadn't noticed before because they looked just right; what Delenn would look like if she were fully Human and not just half.
“I think you've got your answer.” Delenn smiled, then looked at her lap. He turned away to finish landing the shuttle.
“I spent a few days researching how I could blend in,” she said quietly. “A half-Minbari, half-Human is very recognizable, even to someone not hunting for me. I needed to cover up my bone crest, but that can be suspicious as well. But there is an Earth religion where the women cover their heads. Islam, yes? You cannot see the shape of my bone crest, can you?”
John checked. Maybe, if someone were really looking for it, they could just a bit, but for the most part she looked exactly like what she'd intended – a Human woman with a head covering, an observant Muslim. Centauri weren't usually very interested in anyone's beliefs or culture beside their own, but if they were questioned, the reasoning behind her disguise was sound.
“You look fine. No one will notice.”
The town below was pretty as a picture, nestled at the foot of some mountains beside a small inland sea. It reminded him a bit of an Earth village on the Mediterranean, all whitewashed walls and colorful tile roofs. John brought the shuttle down at the modest little shipyard on the outskirts, flying over a field of what looked just like Earth cattle as he did so. The landing was easy as pie (the pilot inside took a moment to swagger and bow), and they sat there for a moment in silence.
Finally Delenn nodded as though answering a question spoken out loud. She put her hand on his arm. “Let's go.” Then she was up, grabbing her bag from the compartment, and walking to the back of the shuttle. John followed, grabbing his own suitcase from his room. They left the shuttle, walking down the ramp, and then they stood on the surface of Centauri Prime. Delenn reached over and took his hand.