Charlie’s was crowded tonight.
Marcus Cole inspected his surroundings, noting the usual mixture of cut-throats, thieves, lower ranking Earth Force personnel, and prostitutes occupy nearly every table and dark corner. The smell was just as varied: sweat, alcohol, and the all too real desperation that clung to nearly every occupant of Down Below.
He nodded to one of his contacts, a dark-skinned man in his twenties, but made no move to join him. He wasn’t there on business.
He and Stephen had just returned from Mars. God, what a trip that had been! Four weeks cooped up on a ship with Stephen, who complained about every little thing. Couldn’t he find a better ship? Didn’t he know how bad the meal bars really tasted? All right, maybe he hadn’t been any better company, playing with his pike as he often did when he was bored or nervous, but Stephen’s complaining had to be more annoying than that. Right? He thought so.
But they had done their job without too much bother, if one didn’t count the bombing and the terrorist factions, and at least Stephen had certainly enjoyed it. At least Marcus thought so, if the silly grin on his friend’s face was any indication. Some honeymoon, he snorted.
“What’ll you have?”
The bartender’s question drew Marcus’ attention back to the present. “Beer, please.”
Seconds later, the barkeep shoved a pint toward him, and Marcus fished inside the folds of his cloak for a few credits before taking a sip. He lowered his head to keep his expression hidden. The beer wasn’t especially good, but it was wet, and it had the desired effect, a faint, pleasant buzz. He drummed his fingers restlessly on the bar, his thoughts turning to the war with Clark.
Civil wars were the nastiest evil mankind has ever come up with. Brother against brother, sister against sister, everyone going up against former comrades. And for what? He hated it, hated be a part of it. Wars were wasteful, and as far as he was concerned, no one could ever really win. So why was he here in the middle of this? He’d asked himself at least a dozen times, and the answer was always the same. For her. Because she believed in it. The usual ‘right thing for the wrong reason’ he was often accused of, but he’d never claimed to be perfect or even noble.
Sure, he’d joined the Rangers out of guilt, but he’d also wanted revenge, and because Will had asked him to. If he hadn’t, no amount of guilt would have made him do what he’d done. Marcus missed his younger brother, but he knew that his death wasn’t his fault. Not really.
Susan Ivanova crinkled her nose as she entered the seedy bar and wondered when was the last time anyone there had bathed. Why did Marcus have to hang out in places like this anyway? She was already pissed that Sheridan had ordered her to find Marcus and remind him of the briefing in the morning. Why couldn’t Marcus stay in his quarters or wear a damn comm-link like everyone else? No, that would have been too easy, and so she’d had to hunt him down, just to deliver a simple message.
Movement at the bar caught her attention and she watched as the man she was searching for raised his head. Susan made a bee-line for him, easily dodging the grasp of an over-enthusiastic lothario as he tried to way-lay her. She brought her hand down on Marcus’ shoulder.
“Kind of jumpy, aren’t you?” she asked, smirking at his surprised reaction to her approach. Then she ordered her usual drink in crisp tones. “Vodka.”
“You would be too, if you were in my line of work,” Marcus retorted. “Sneaking up on someone like me is dangerous. You’re lucky I didn’t deck you.”
“Spoiling for a fight?”
“Not exactly. But you can never be too careful.”
He stared at her and Susan wished she’d changed back into her uniform when Sheridan had called her instead of leaving her civvies on and her hair down. It didn’t make her feel uncomfortable, exactly, just warm, and well, womanly, the way he looked at her. Susan frowned and crossed her arms over her chest.
“What brings you to my office?” Marcus asked.
“Sheridan’s scheduled the briefing for 0700,” she replied.
“Ah, so it’s business. Of course.” Marcus smiled faintly. He should have known. It wasn’t like they were friends or anything. Not really. “I’ll be there.”
Susan watched him raise his mug and gulp down the drink it contained. She raised her own shot glass in salute, before sighing and tossing the contents back. It burned a little but it was just what she needed.
“Want to talk about it?” he asked.
Susan grimaced and glared at him. “Not really.”
“It’s never a good idea to hold in whatever’s bothering you. It can have bad consequences.”
“So can prying.”
“I thought we’d gotten past that.” He took another long drink of beer before reaching into the pretzel bowl just as Susan did. Their fingers brushed and an electric pulse of heat shot up his arm. One glance at her showed that she was frowning again. “I’m not the enemy, you know.”
Marcus smiled. It was nice of her to at least acknowledge that. “Well, what you need is something to take your mind off your troubles--whatever they are. How about a nice game of eight-ball? We could make a wager. Let’s see . . . if you win, I’ll stop bugging you about your problems, and if I win . . .”
“I’ll take you up on that perpetual dinner invitation.” It was the wrong thing to say and she knew it immediately by the hard, shuttered look that covered his features like a window slamming down. Susan cleared her throat and tried to think of a way to apologize, but nothing that wouldn’t reveal all her past hurts came to mind. “All right. You’re on.”
Marcus led the way to one of the two tables in the back. They each chose a cue, and Susan watched as he almost absently racked the balls atop the felt-covered table. After choosing who had which, Marcus stepped back.
It wasn’t much of a match, really. Pool had never been Susan’s thing, but obviously Marcus had played quite a bit in his previous life. She managed to sink a few before missing, and then had no choice but to watch as Marcus sank ball after ball until it was time for the last.
“Eight ball, corner pocket.”
“Nice game,” Susan said when it was over. “Where’d you learn to play so well?”
Marcus shrugged. “There isn’t much to do on downtime on a mining colony except gambling, drinking, reading, billiards, or fool around with the opposite sex. I don’t like to gamble much, or drink to excess, and well, that leaves reading and billiards.”
“Well, you won, so when would you like to go out?” she asked, trying to make light of her earlier gaffe. “I’ll even buy.”
Again that shuttered look came over his face and Susan flinched in spite of herself.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Marcus retorted. “I don’t accept charity dates. I’ll see you in the morning, Commander. Good night.”
And with that he walked out, head high and back straight, leaving Susan staring after him, knowing she’d messed up but unable to think of a way to make it right.
“Well, hell,” she muttered, and followed in his wake.
Susan glanced up as Marcus strolled into Captain Sheridan’s office. It was 0700, and he was right on time, but she scowled all the same. The man had no sense of discipline. No wonder he couldn’t hack it in Earth Force. And of course he took a seat directly across from her, even though there was an empty seat right next to Garibaldi further down. It did nothing for her foul mood.
She had tried to make a joke, make light of his constant dinner (and breakfast and lunch) invitations, giving him a perfect opening. But it had come out badly, and he had been hurt because she had said the first thing that came to her mind. Damn it, she was an officer, or had been, before this little rebellion of theirs. She should at least have some tact. Either way, sleep hadn’t come easily the night before. She’d kept seeing his face, the usual open, friendly expression turn hard before her eyes, and it was like a punch in the gut.
The briefing began, with Susan adding her input when necessary. Every now and then she looked toward Marcus, but his attention was focused on Sheridan, as if he found every word the Captain said to be fascinating. Susan frowned. She supposed she deserved his ignoring her, but it rankled, and she vowed to apologize to Marcus as soon as it was over.
Sheridan’s next words made her sit up even more. “Okay, the next order of business is the war refugees. We’ve got more and more of them now that the war’s spreading, and I can’t help but feel some responsibility toward them. Now, since you’ve been at the forefront of this particular campaign, Marcus, why don’t you continue?”
Marcus nodded once and began to speak. “As the Captain says, we’ve got a lot of civilians coming in from Proxima 3 and a few other places and we’ve been able to give them refuge on the planet below. Unfortunately, the camp is crowded, dirty, and miserable, in spite of our best efforts to keep it otherwise. It’s bad enough these people have been forced out of their homes, but to face this at the end of their journey, it’s unthinkable. I’ve proposed to Delenn that the Rangers set up other camps for them. However, I think it’s important that we observe the conditions of the present camps first-hand, in order to see what improvements we can make.”
“Marcus will be commanding a small contingent of Rangers to deliver the supplies we’ve gathered from Minbar, before continuing on to scout other possible sites for camps,” Sheridan added. “He’ll leave in the morning.”
“But we can at least look out for the refugees on Epsilon 3. How we do that if we open another camp?” Garibaldi wondered.
Susan was interested as well. It would be a difficult undertaking, considering their lack of resources.
“The sites we’ve chosen are in Minbari space,” Marcus replied. “And Delenn has the approval of the Grey Council for patrols. It may not be enough, but I don’t believe even Clark is foolish enough to take on the Minbari, even if they’re coming out of their own civil war.”
Susan nodded as she considered this. She had to admit she was impressed by the way he’d sorted it all out, at least on “paper.”
“Susan, I’d like to send you along.”
She looked at the Captain, a hundred excuses clamoring in her brain, but Sheridan held up his hand to forestall her protest. “I know you’re busy, but as the Voice of the Resistance, you can gather information to help the refugees and report your findings to the rest of the alliance.”
“With all due respect, I hardly think it’s appropriate to use someone else’s misery as propaganda.”
“Marcus is right,” Susan answered. “I’ll go along, but I don’t want to exploit these people. They’ve been through a lot.”
She met Marcus’ gaze and wondered if he was just as startled as she was. Why was she agreeing to this anyway? She had things to do and going off on a mission with Marcus was not something she wanted to add to the list. Not in a million years. But she had agreed, and now she was stuck.
“We’ll be leaving at 0600 in the morning,” Marcus said.
“I’ll be there.”
The meeting adjourned, Marcus rose to leave. He had a lot to take care of, people to meet. And he was still smarting from the night before. Bugger it all, you’d think he had the plague or something the way Susan behaved around him. What had he done to her anyway?
“Marcus, wait. I need to talk to you.”
He turned back to face the woman who kept his thoughts so preoccupied. “Yes?”
She moved closer to him, and he waited, willing himself to not say anything until she spoke, but she seemed to be having her own problems saying what she wanted to say. Part of him peevishly wondered how she was ever going to pull off being the Voice of the Resistance if she had this much trouble communicating. Or maybe it was only one-on-one that bothered her. Or maybe it was only him.
“That was a well-thought out plan you presented just now.”
“Thank you.” That was a first. Usually she had nothing but criticism to level at him.
She cleared her throat. “I didn’t know you were so interested in the refugee problem. I’ve been hearing a lot more about what they’ve been through since I started doing my broadcasts. It’s bad, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is, and it’s getting worse.”
Susan said nothing and Marcus shifted from one foot to another. “Is that all, then? I’d love to stay and chat, but I have things to do, people to beat up . . .”
“In other words, a typical day?” She smiled a little at his joke.
“Yes, just a typical day.”
She looked at the point behind his back again, and he wondered if someone was sneaking up on him. Or if a spider was dangling down from the ceiling. He glanced back just to be sure.
“About last night. . . Listen, I’m sorry. That was rude of me.”
He blinked. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Can I make it up to you tonight by buying you a drink or dinner?”
Bugger. Not tonight. “I can’t. I have an appointment this evening, but maybe when we get back?”
He watched as various emotions flickered across her beautiful face: surprise, disbelief. Disappointment? Before he could say more, she squared her shoulders and became Commander Ivanova once again, supreme goddess of the station and all souls therein.
“Some other time, then.”
“Some other time.”
But she had already turned and walked away.
Only a few tables were occupied when Marcus arrived for his appointment at the little café off the Zocalo. He’d been there a few times and couldn’t complain that Meagan had chosen it. The food was cheap and relatively tasty, for rehydrated stuff. He smiled at her as he slipped into the chair across from her.
“Marcus. Thanks for coming.”
“I said I’d be here, and I always keep my promises.” .
Meagan pushed back a strand of red hair, and her bright blue eyes clouded briefly with anxiety. “I know. I’m just worried. It’s been over a month since I heard from them. You don’t know how much this means to me. I can’t thank you enough for what you’re doing. I know Entil’Zha would offer more help if we weren’t in the middle of this war, but then, I wouldn’t need help if we weren’t.”
He nodded in sympathy. Meagan Kerr had arrived on the station just before the big push against the Shadows in Sector 83. Like him, she was a colony rat. Her parents had emigrated from old Dublin on Earth to New Dublin on Proxima when she was three years old. She’d enlisted in Earth Force, hadn’t liked it, and got out, then joined the Rangers. He found her easy to talk with, kind, and intelligent.
Just before he’d left for Mars, she told him that she’d lost contact with her family. They’d planned to leave Proxima, and that was the last she’d heard. He’d promised to do what he could to help her find them, but chances were slim that he would.
“Why don’t you come with us?” he offered. “There’s room for one more in the shuttle.”
She shook her head, “Thanks, but I don’t want to be disappointed, you know? I can’t take that again. If they’re not there . . . Oh, here. I found this.” She reached into her cloak, pulled out a worn photograph, and handed it to him. “Here’s Mum, Dad, and Nigel.”
A nice looking family. Marcus swallowed a sigh, thinking of his own. He missed them all. “I’ll do my best. I’ll ask around. Maybe someone’s seen them if they aren’t there.”
“Thank you,” Megan murmured, leaning over the table to kiss him on the cheek. “You’re wonderful!”
Heat flared to his face for just a moment, followed by pleasure. Not the pleasure that he would have felt if it were Susan kissing him, but the kind that came with helping someone and knowing that you’re appreciated. It was nice. But she was too young for him, even if he weren’t head over heels for Ivanova, and so he smiled at her in an older brother kind of way, relieved that the waiter had arrived.
Susan stood still, her heart pounding hard against the hand that tried its best to squeeze the life out of it and her lungs too. Her mouth tightened and she swallowed back the lump of anger in her throat. Well that explained why he couldn’t meet with her. He had a date. With someone else.
Well, that’s what she wanted, wasn’t it? For him to leave her alone, find another woman to bother with his stupid jokes. Yes, that’s exactly what she wanted. And if he wanted someone who looked about twenty, then by all means, let him have her. It would keep him off her back, and that suited her just fine.
Susan rolled out of bed and grimaced. It was 0500 by her chronometer, way too early in her opinion. She’d always hated that part about the military. Even if that’s the way it was, it didn’t mean she had to like it.
A few minutes later she stepped out of the shower and into her uniform. With quick, practiced movements, she pulled her hair back into the tight braid she’d taken to wearing since Talia had left. Talia. Susan’s fingers stilled in their task and she frowned at herself in the mirror. She’d forced herself not to think of the blonde telepath since the Rebirth Ceremony when she’d admitted she’d loved her. What good did it do anyway? Talia Winters was just another in a long line of lovers who had come and gone, leaving her hurt, confused, betrayed.
She couldn’t give her heart again.
But as soon as she thought it, her heart leapt, and the image of a dark-haired, green-eyed man obliterated the cool beauty of the telepath that had betrayed her.
Marcus. No. He was undisciplined, cocky, and too damned talkative. He got on her last nerve like no one else ever had.
She scowled at her reflection, finished plaiting her hair, and hurried out the door, shutting Marcus out of her mind as best she could.
Marcus ran through the pre-flight check methodically, carefully. His thoughts were still in a jumble this morning, and he didn’t relish the idea of crashing because he’d forgotten to do something he was supposed to do. Not that Susan wouldn’t ask him to go over everything on the list again anyway.
They were to take a shuttle down to Epsilon 3 before joining up with the White Stars to scout and make the final recommendation for the best site for the new refugee camp. Susan hadn’t shown up yet, but he figured she’d be there soon, ready to criticize him for something.
Pre-flight completed, he sat down and took out the small photograph of the man, woman, and young lad that he’d been given last night. Were they there, on the planet below? It would be nice to reunite them with Meagan if he could.
“Everything set? Pre-flight performed?”
Susan’s hard, clipped tones jarred him back to the docking bay. He shoved the photograph away and stood up, smiling. “Good morning to you, too. Yes, everything checked out.” He handed over the small notebook.
She waved it away. “I’ll take your word for it.”
“Are you sure? I might have forgotten something. Besides it wouldn’t be the same if you didn’t check behind me. Don’t tell me you’re actually trusting me this morning?” Marcus replied, pushing to see if he’d get a more heated reaction. Sure enough, she responded by glaring at him so hard he thought he might melt. Who needed a PPG when one had Susan’s eyes shooting darts like that?
“Marcus, it’s 0545. I’ve had exactly one cup of coffee, and I’m not in the mood for your asinine sense of humor. Let’s just get this over with, all right?”
Waiting for the go ahead from C&C, Marcus suddenly dreaded the next few days, where before he’d looked forward to them. It looked like Susan was determined to be pissed off about anything and everything.
“Look, this is going to be a long trip.” That was an understatement. “Why don’t we at least agree to get along while we’re on this mission. There are bigger issues at stake than our differences of opinion.” He’d intended to say, “Than the fact that you can’t stand me,” but the words stuck in his throat. He didn’t want them to be true, and saying them aloud would confirm them. He held out his hand, head tilted to the side. “Truce?”
Glancing at her, he saw the hesitation in her eyes. Well, fine, then. Maybe he was even more of a fool than he’d imagined, loving someone so hard and inflexible. His smile faded.
“Truce,” she says, slipping her hand into his. It was cool, soft, and delicate, and to his surprise, it trembled slightly as he close his own callused fingers around hers.
“That wasn’t so difficult, now was it?”
It wasn’t long before they began the approach for landing. Marcus re-checked the instrument panel, banked sharply to the left, then righted the small craft. I ease back slightly on the throttle.
“Check your attitude.”
“My attitude is fine. How’s yours?” He checked the instrument panel again, noted the craft perfectly set up against the horizontal line. “Our attitude is okay, Susan. I’m not going to smash us into anything. I happen to be a pretty damn good pilot, if I do say so myself. Or would you like to take over and land this craft?”
“Just be careful,” she snapped back. “It’s not like we can get a new shuttle if something happens to this one!”
“I’m fully aware of our logistical problems, Susan.” He shook his head, but a smile tugged at his lips. “You never would have survived Perdition Bridge.”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw her turn toward him. “A little land bridge that I used to do passes under with my flyer back on Arisia,” he explained “It could be rather tricky when the winds were just right. Clipped my wing once, but I managed to right her and make my rounds.”
“I should have guessed. You like to live dangerously, don’t you?”
“That’s why I love these missions with you. If they don’t kill me, there’s always the chance that you might.”
Susan stopped short at the scene before her. People seemed to be everywhere, young and old, adults and children. Many of them looked scared, lost, but some had hopeful expressions on the faces that turned toward them as they entered the camp. A fine layer of dust had settled over some of the older tents, like so many hopes and dreams, dried up and now weighing the people down.
“You haven’t been here yet, have you?”
She shook herself mentally and turned her attention back to Marcus. “No, I haven’t. I really had no idea it was this bad.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty bad. We’ve tried to keep it clean and livable, but there’s only so much that can be done.”
She looked at him then, saw his own expression of helpless outrage, but beneath it there was steely determination to make things right for these people. Susan swallowed back her own feeling of despair. It wouldn’t help any of them.
After greeting a few people, Marcus arranged for help unloading the admittedly limited supplies they’d brought with them: food, blankets, medicine. It was all that they could spare, being cut off as they were from Earth Alliance and being blockaded.
Susan set the box of meds down in the First Aid tent and turned just in time to see a blur of motion head toward Marcus. Instinct almost made her reach for her side-arm. Instead she watched as the little boy, a bundle of blond hair and dark clothes, threw himself at Marcus, who caught him in a quick hug.
“Hullo, Philip,” she heard Marcus say. “What have you been up to?”
Susan half-listened to the boy tell Marcus his adventures as she began unpacking antibiotics while a young woman sorted and set them in a small cupboard. When she glanced back, a few others had joined them. It seemed Marcus was popular with the kids, but then he would be.
She looked up when another box thumped down beside hers.
“Come on. There’s more to see.”
They spent the next few minutes walking around the camp, talking to people. Susan tried to be cheerful, optimistic, something that was hard enough for her in the best of times, but even more so now. Listening to the refugees, wanting to help but not really knowing how, was like trying to hold water in her bare hands, a helpless and hopeless feeling that grew and grew.
She knelt down to inspect one child’s bruised knee, wiping her tears away as gently as she could. A motion caught Susan’s eye, and she looked up to find Marcus watching her. His expression was unguarded, and she saw the longing on his face. The love. She lowered her eyes back to the child.
“I can’t find my dolly anywhere.”
Susan’s heart wrenched at the sadness in the little girl’s voice and looked at Marcus.
“She’s gone. I put her down, and now she’s gone. And I can’t get a new one. Mommy says so. Not here.”
The little began crying, and Susan drew her close, not knowing what else to do.
“I’m sorry, miss,” a new voice sounded. “I’m supposed to be watching her and the other small kids, but she took off.” To the girl he said, “Mary, I found your doll. You left her on the table when you ate lunch.”
“My dolly!” Mary enthusiastically grabbed her doll, hugging her tight before running off. Belatedly, she shouted, “Thanks, Nigel!”
Marcus glanced at him. Could it really be this easy? He looked more closely. There was a strong resemblance to Meagan, and he certainly looked like the boy in the picture. “Nigel? Is your name Nigel Kerr, by any chance?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Are your parents here?”
“Over there,” the boy answered. “Why?”
“I need to talk to them. It’s important,” Marcus said. “Susan, I’ll be back shortly.”
Susan watched him walk away with his long, loping strides, the boy, Nigel, running along beside him.
Marcus sighed with relief as they docked the shuttle and boarded the White Star. He’d found Meagan’s family, simply by luck. They’d been there on Epsilon almost the whole time, but they hadn’t been able to contact her. They were glad to hear that she was well, and he was glad to have good news to carry back to Babylon 5 once this mission was completed. But he also felt dispirited as well. The camp always did that to him, reminded him once again how unfair the universe could be.
Susan was even more quiet than usual. He wondered again what she was thinking as she sat quietly brooding in the command chair. She’d said little on the flight to the rendezvous point, giving mono-syllabic answers to his attempts at conversation.
“It will take us a while to get to Minbari space, if you want to go lie down,” he said, moving close.
At first she appeared not to have heard him, but then with a slight nod, she rose and made her way off the bridge.
Marcus watched her, concerned, but took the seat she’d vacated. He’d let her be for now. She had looked tired, but behind the mask something else lurked, something that she held to herself like a shield. He decided he’d wait a while, give her some time alone to deal with whatever it was.
Susan unwrapped her arms from around her knees when she heard the door whish open. It could only be Marcus. He was the only one who dared to disturb her.
“I know,” he said quietly. “It has the same effect on me every time.”
She stood up immediately, and glared at him. “It’s not what you think at all.”
“Your eyes are red.”
She blinked guiltily. “It was dusty down there.”
“Of course. That’s what I meant.” He moved closer. “Sometimes I can’t help coming away with the feeling that we’re doing more harm than good, taking on Clark.”
Her brown eyes flashed fire. “How can you even think such a thing?” she demanded. “You know we’re doing good, don’t you?”
“Are we? We’re just as responsible for the displacement of these people as Clark is. They’ve lost their homes because of this war. And sometimes, I tell you, I can’t even look them in their eyes.”
“And do you think they would have had it any easier if we hadn’t started doing something? You were there when we found out that Earthgov was involved with Psi-Corps and the Shadows. You were there with me when Clark declared martial law.” She paused and then shook her head, trying to clear away the old memories, but they pushed to the surface despite her effort. Inhaling deeply she whispered, “I know what they’re going through, and I hate it as much as you do. I know what it’s like to run, to build a new home again and again.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing. Forget it.”
She’d been so close to telling him. He would understand, she knew, but it was hard. Trust and fear warred with each other.
Slowly he nodded. “All right, Susan. I want you to know that if you ever want to talk, I’m here.”
“What worries me the most, though, is how we’re going to continue to provide supplies. I suppose we can work something out . . . And then, of course, there’s the children. They need security, especially the young ones,” he added, thinking of the little girl. “It’s been shown that in traumatic situations, the use of a ‘lovey’ can help soothe frayed nerves.”
“A lovey?” Susan smirked a bit, then a smile tugged at her lips. Before she knew it she was laughing. “You’re full of surprises, Cole. The big, tough Ranger going on about kids’ toys.”
“It’s not a bad idea. Wouldn’t you want something to hold on to? Didn’t you then?”
She flinched, her laughter dying. “All right. You have a point, there. But we have a hard enough time raising money for basic necessities. How do you propose we raise money to buy toys? Hmm?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, think about it before you come up with another wild idea.”
“I will.” He hesitated, then his eyes met hers. “I’m sorry. That was a cheap shot before.”
“It’s okay. And you’re right. I did need something to hold on to then.”
A voice echoed from the comm center. “We’re arriving at the first planet. Preparing to leave hyperspace.”
“Bugger,” Marcus muttered as Susan hurried from the chamber. “Of all the rotten timing.”
But several hours later, as I stand next to Susan, reading the data on the planet below us, he was almost not sorry for the interruption. The air, water, and soil make the small planet livable, and it’s close to Minbar, so that defense can be quickly mustered. He looked at Susan, and she looked at him.
“Perfect,” they said in unison.
It was good to be back. Rotating hunk of metal it might be, but for now it was home. Marcus exited the shuttle eagerly. What he wouldn’t give for a hot meal and a warm shower. But since he didn’t warrant one with water, he’d settle for the hot meal and a vibe shower instead. He turned to Susan.
“Would you like to get something to eat after the de-briefing?”
“Thanks. I’d actually like--”
Meagan ran toward him, throwing her arms round his neck and hugging him fiercely. “Thank you, thank you!”
He slowly peeled her arms away, aware of Susan watching them. “I didn’t do anything at all. In fact I might have missed them if it weren’t for a little girl.” He turned toward Susan to introduce the two women, but her eyes were hard, her mouth a thin line.
“I’ll see you later, Marcus,” Susan murmured.
And just like that she was gone, leaving Marcus to frown after her.
“Any ideas?” Sheridan asked, looking around the table.
It was the next morning and another meeting was in progress, this time to come up with a way to raise money for food, medical supplies, blankets, and stuffed animals for the children. Susan stared back at him blankly. She’d had little sleep, thinking of Mr. Innocent Virgin and the other woman, who, as it turned out was a Ranger. Why hadn’t she known that? She ran this station.
Garibaldi chimed in sarcastically, “Well, I think a circus is out of the question. Too smelly.”
“Besides, we need something that will bring in more money than it will cost to put on,” Marcus pointed out. Then he chuckled. “Once in university we put on a bachelor auction, raised quite a few credits.”
Susan looked up. “You know, we could do that here. We have a lot of bachelors on the station.”
“No.” Stephen shook his head.
“No,” Marcus echoed
Garibaldi is even more emphatic. “No way in hell.”
“What’s the matter, Michael? Afraid no-one will buy you?” Stephen asked.
“It’s sexist,” Franklin muttered.
Susan rolled her eyes at the excuses. Oh, sure, they would be all over a bachelorette auction, she’d be willing to bet.
“It’s humiliating.” Garibaldi stood up. “Now I’m all for doing something nice for the kids, but there’s no way I’m going to be put up for sale. No sir!”
“Oh come on, it’s not like you’re going to be in skimpy swimsuits or anything,” Susan drawled. “I don’t see anything sexist or humiliating about it.”
“That’s because you aren’t a bachelor,” Marcus pointed out.
“True. But, it could raise a lot of credits. Think of what we can do with that much money,” she countered. “Don’t you want to do something to help? Of course you do, and so do I. John . . .”
“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” Sheridan agreed, smiling. “But I’m very attached, so you can count me out.”
Susan smirked back. If the captain was for it, it was a done deal.
“In fact, Susan, why don’t you work with Marcus to organize it.”
Susan’s grin faded. She glanced over at Marcus. “I don’t think--.”
“Of course. I’ll be happy to help set things up,” Marcus interrupted.
“Good. Now that we’ve gotten the fund-raising figured out, how are we going to purchase the supplies?” Sheridan asked. “Anyone?”
“We can buy some things on Minbar, just as we’ve been doing. But finding the other things will take some time,” Marcus told him.
“There’s always the black market,” Garibaldi suggested. “Susan, you got some of the smugglers to agree to run ship parts and such. Why not get them to do this for us?”
“Well, sure, but stuffed animals?” Susan asked. “They’d never agree to that.” But her gaze slid to Marcus again and she found herself thinking of the little girl on Epsilon 3 who’d lost her doll. “I suppose it’s worth a shot.”
“Good!” Sheridan declared again, rubbing his hands together. “Let’s get this ball rolling.”
“Well, it looks as though we’re working together again, doesn’t it?” Marcus asked, falling back to wait for her as they all exited the conference room.
“It looks that way,” Susan answered. She wasn’t happy about it, but she didn’t have to be, right. It was for a good cause, and for that she could put up with spending more time with Marcus. It’s for the kids, she reminded herself yet again. “Let’s get started tonight then. Come to my quarters at 1900.”
Marcus nodded. “I’ll be there.”
“What’s this I hear about you not being in the auction?” Stephen asked when Marcus let him in. He was already dressed in civvies, and he looked irritated as hell.
It had been a hectic week and half, but they’d managed to pull it off. The auction was tonight, in less than an hour, in fact. Susan had managed to get the smugglers to pick up the goods, and now it was time to put it on the line, so to speak, to try and earn the money to pay for everything.
“I can’t do it, Stephen,” Marcus answered. “I helped organize it, but I’m not putting myself up for sale.”
“The hell you aren’t, Marcus. I’ve got half the nurses in Medlab up in arms over who’s going to outbid whom--over you. And I am not going to have a mutiny tomorrow because you didn’t show up!”
“What? You’re joking, aren’t you? Of course you are. Look, I’m just going to have a shower and show up to see how things are going, but I am not going to participate.”
Stephen’s scowl deepened. “The whole thing was practically your idea, buddy, and if I’m putting my butt on the block, you are. You are the most eligible bachelor on this entire station. So I suggest you go hop in the shower right now because I’m dragging your butt there whether you want to go or not.”
“I can’t,” Marcus gritted out, shaking his head slowly.
“Susan is going to be there.” It was a low blow, and Stephen knew it, but he wasted no time before delivering the coup de grace. “She might even bid.”
“That’s not fair.”
“Think of the children. Isn’t that what you’ve been going on about all this time? If I’m going on the block, so are you.
Marcus sighed. He had a point. Two points, really, but he wasn’t getting his hopes up about the first. “All right, you win, Stephen.”
“That’s the spirit. Now what kind of clothes do you have?”
Fifteen minutes later, Marcus stood in front of the mirror, eyeing myself critically. “Why this, Stephen?” he wondered, gesturing to the white, gathered shirt with billowy sleeves and his Ranger trousers. He didn’t even know why he’d bought the bloody shirt. Okay, yes he did. For that ever elusive date with Susan. Ha.
“Because I have it on good authority from my nurses that in the right clothing you’d look like a pirate. Now--”
“A pirate? Stephen this is ridiculous.” Marcus considered diving back into his Ranger uniform. It was comfortable and concealing, but he felt exposed in this get up. “I suppose I should wear a big hoop earring and a parrot on my shoulder, too, hmm? Got an eye patch I can borrow?”
“Sure, whatever, Marcus. Now let’s hurry. No time to change.”
He was going to kill Stephen with his bare hands. It was bad enough that he was actually taking part in this ‘meat- market,’ but for the doctor to unbutton his shirt down to the waist and shove him out there before he had a chance to fix it . . . “You don’t look enough like a pirate,” he’d said. Now he was standing on stage with half his chest and abdomen exposed.
The bidding hadn’t even begun but there were already calls and whistles from the crowd, with Sheridan egging them on. He was going to go next, Marcus decided, face heating further.
Susan looked up at him and bit her lip. So that’s what he looked like without the cloak and turtleneck. Not bad.
“Ladies,” Sheridan began “for your viewing, and buying, pleasure, I present Marcus Cole. He’s thirty-five years old, slim and trim, and very available. What do you say we start the opening bid at fifty credits?”
“Fifty!” one voice called.
Susan was torn from her wool-gathering by the voice next to her. She turned and recognized the red-head Marcus had been with from before. Lips tightening, Susan looked back up at the stage.
“Do I hear sixty?” the Captain asked.
A voice called out from one side of the gathering, “And ladies, he comes with his very own extendible pike!”
Marcus fidgeted. Part of him wanted to jump off the stage and run to his quarters, but part of him rather enjoyed the fact that bids were flying like this. It was for the children of course, but it was doing wonders for his ego, in spite of Garibaldi’s stupid pike joke.
“One-hundred!” Murmurs filled the room, and at first he wasn’t aware of who had placed the bid. Then it dawned on him. Susan?
He waited for the gavel to hit the podium. Surely the bids would go no higher.
“Two-hundred!” Meagan again.
A new voice from the back rang out. “Two-hundred fifty!”
Marcus shook his head. He hadn’t expected the bids to go so high. Garibaldi had already gone for four-hundred, and he was more popular with the ladies. Marcus tried to look nonchalant as the bids mounted, but his face grew more and more heated. Three-hundred, then four.
Susan bit her lip. The girl, Meagan, had bid four-hundred, seventy-five. She knew she could afford it. And it was almost pay-day. Aw, what the hell.
“Six-hundred and twenty credits!”
Marcus glanced at her and their eyes locked. There was no answer to his question in her gaze. Maybe this was a dream. That explained everything. He was having another one of his dreams involving Susan, and if he pinched himself, he’d wake up.
“Going once!” Sheridan warned. “Going twice! Sold, to Commander Ivanova!”
Marcus breathed a sigh of relief and buttoned his shirt. He moved to where Susan stood near Sheridan and gave her a tentative smile. “I guess I’m yours for the evening. Now what?”
“I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought about it,” she admitted softly.
“In that case, do you think you could stand to have dinner with me now?”
Susan smiled. “Yes. I’d like that. But I think I’m supposed to be asking.”
“Love to,” Marcus replied, grinning. “Would you excuse me a minute, then? There’s something I have to do.”
“Of course. I’ll just wait here.”
Marcus hurried back behind the stage to where Stephen still waited to go on. He looked surprised. “Hey, did Susan really buy you? For six-hundred credits?” he asked.
“Six-hundred, twenty credits,” he corrected smugly. “It’s about your turn to go on, isn’t it, Stephen?”
“Yeah. Hey, what are you doing? Marcus--”
Marcus reached out, grabbed his shirt, and ripped. Buttons flew everywhere, but Marcus wasn’t satisfied. He ripped again so that Stephen’s shirt hung loosely around his waist, his whole upper body exposed. “On second thought, best get rid of the thing,” he said pulling the shirt away. “It spoils the look.”
He shoved him toward the curtain, and just before he pushed him onto the stage he grinned. “Payback’s a bitch, isn’t it?”
Susan motioned Marcus inside her quarters and brushed past him. He’d been a perfect gentleman all evening, not that she’d been expecting otherwise. She began to search through her cabinets for the vodka she’d stashed away. There had to be a bottle or two left. Maybe he wasn’t interested in her. Maybe all those hints had been about someone else. Maybe . . .
“I bet you wish she’d out-bid me, don’t you?” She cringed, and heat rose to her face. She buried her head even further inside the cabinet. Damn. She wasn’t that drunk.
“Meagan. Or whatever her name is,” she answered. Aha, there it was, hidden in the back, behind the glasses. Handy. She retrieved it and a couple of glasses and had just reached to open it when Marcus closed a hand over hers.
“I can’t think of any other place I’d rather be. And I can’t think of anyone I’d rather be with. Meagan is a friend, nothing more.”
Susan caught her breath and looked into his eyes. She raised her head, shoved the voices urging her to be cautious out of her mind, and pressed her lips to his. His eyes widened when she pulled away. He was confused. Good. That made two of them. Not for long though. This time his mouth sought hers and she met him halfway, lips parted. Pleasure jolted through her at his touch, at the way his hands cradled her face, large and rough, but oh so gentle. She lost track of time as his lips moved over hers, his tongue invading, retreating, invading again. Somewhere through the fog she heard a moan. For a virgin, he sure as hell knew how to kiss.
He stopped abruptly and backed away. “I should probably go.”
She smiled at the husky, shaky timbre of his voice. “And if I ask you to stay?”
His gaze searched hers. “Is that what you want?”
She wrapped her arms around his neck, and would have smiled when she felt him shiver if she hadn’t been so busy kissing him again. Her mouth opened over his, her tongue darting out to glide against his. His hands slid around her and she pressed against him, felt his erection thick and hard between them. Susan drew his tongue into her mouth and sucked.
Marcus trembled, and his hands cupped her ass. Definitely a dream. Susan was in his arms, warm and willing, and he was suddenly even more aware of her than usual. Her perfume invaded his nostrils--the musky-citrusy scent of her fragrance and warm, clean skin. Susan pulled slightly away again and he took advantage to explore the column of her throat.
Her hands moved between them, fingers working the buttons until air touched his skin. He shrugged out of the shirt, watching, breath harsh, as Susan reached behind her. Her dress fell forward and then down, as Susan wriggled out of it.
His gaze drifted downward, taking in every curve, every freckle, every inch of her long legs. When he looked back up she smiled and crooked her finger, motioning him forward.
He didn’t have to be asked twice.
Susan stirred, but didn’t open her eyes immediately. It was too warm, too comfortable. She hadn’t slept this well in a long time, and she snuggled back into the body behind her, wanting a few more minutes before her alarm went off.
Her eyes snapped open and she leapt off the bed in one swift movement, taking the comforter with her and shielding her body from Marcus’ tender gaze.
“Oh god! Oh god! What did we do? Oh my god!”
He rose too, naked. Beautiful. Susan gritted her teeth and closed her eyes, refusing to be swayed by the body of the man she now knew oh so well.
“What did we do? Susan, love, you were there. Last night was--”
“A mistake! It shouldn’t have happened!” She glared at him from over the blanket. “And don’t call me ‘love.”
“What do you mean? We’re adults. We aren’t seeing anyone else. No one was hurt.”
No, not hurt, but . . . “How can I look at you at meetings without thinking of, of . . .”
“Last night? It was incredible.”
“Maybe for you!” She clapped her hand over her mouth and her gaze flew to his. “Oh Marcus, I didn’t mean . . .”
But he had turned away. She watched him dress, heart aching, head whispering it was the right thing to do. His voice shook her from her fugue. He had moved to stand in front of her and she met his solemn stare.
“Good-bye, Susan. If you ever figure out what you want, you know where I am.”
The corridors were mostly empty as Marcus made his way toward his own quarters. Numb, he looked around his apartment. It seemed even more spartan than before. Before last night. He raked a hand through his hair. Best forget about that. Or try to anyway.
If only he could get some distance. Do something where he wouldn’t have to see her so often. Maybe Delenn could find another assignment for him. There had to be some other unit that needed another hand. He should be out scouting anyway. Doing something. That’s what he’d signed up for.
He listened to his messages. None were important. None were from Susan. Not that he expected any of them to be. He sighed and shrugged off his clothes, leaving them where they fell, and stepped into his vibe shower. It barely cleaned him, did nothing to take away her scent. Maybe she was right. Maybe it had been a mistake. After all, he was no closer to her than he’d been the day before.
Why couldn’t he have fallen in love with someone who wasn’t afraid of her heart?
Susan swore and shoved the covers aside. She blinked at the chronometer. It was just past three a.m. Perfect. She’d been tossing and turning for hours. Might as well get up, have some coffee, go over yesterday’s briefings, prepare for today’s.
She sighed. Marcus hadn’t been at any of the recent ones. He’d been off station for the last two weeks, delivering supplies to the new camp and from there, on a scouting mission. At least there had been some good news in all of this. They’d raised enough money to set the refugees up for a while, and the children had loved their new toys.
Marcus had ignored her attempts to contact him, meanwhile, and who could blame him. She hadn’t exactly handled their night together very well. Well, maybe the night, but certainly not the next morning. She’d been in the room a couple of times when he’d briefed Sheridan or Delenn. He’d avoided her gaze, focusing solely on the other person. As if he hadn’t noticed her. But she’d noticed him. He’d looked tired. Sad.
She shook herself mentally. It was funny how she once would have avoided him, and now she couldn’t stop thinking about him. Like some lovesick girl. Well if he wanted to stay off station . . . She blinked, her heart hammering rapidly as her mouth opened in shock. Love? She loved him?
Oh, no, what had she done? She’d promised herself no more. No more relationships. No more heartbreak. And now she’d fallen in love with Marcus Cole. The man who annoyed her with his babbling. Who infuriated her with his lack of discipline. The man who . . . The man who made her smile when no one else could. The man who always seemed to be there when she needed him, even before she knew she did. He wouldn’t break her heart. And he wouldn’t leave her. Not on purpose.
But they were in the middle of a war. Either one of them could die. Was she ready to take that chance again, now, when she could lose him? But hadn’t he done that for her, loved her, risked his heart on someone who could just as easily leave him behind? Marcus was a lot of things, but he was no coward.
Her spine straightened. And neither was she. She was Susan Ivanova, soldier, commander. Woman. She was going to take this chance with both hands and hold on tight.
She glanced over at the far wall of her living area. Tucked behind a plant was something he’d given her the year before. At the time she’d thought it silly and had laughed. But an idea began to form as she looked at it, remembered his earnest expression as he’d explained it to her.
He would be back in a day or two. Just enough time . . .
Marcus had just finished getting dressed after his shower when the door chime rang. He’d only returned a little while ago from his missions and had given his briefing to Delenn. Afterwards she’d thanked him as she always did, and then refused to transfer him off station. He’d had no luck changing her mind. Now all he wanted was some sleep-preferably without dreams-and his voice was harsh as he called out.
The door swished open and his mouth nearly did likewise when he saw who it was. His heart contracted at the sight of her before thumping loudly against his chest. He gazed at her, wondering what she wanted. She smiled as she stepped through the door, carefully keeping a large piece of paper board facing toward her.
He swallowed. “Hello. Look, I’ve already briefed--.”
“Yeah, I know. She told me.”
“What do you want then?” He hated how rude he sounded as soon as the words were out, but self-preservation made him wary. He’d offered his heart, and while she hadn’t exactly trampled on it, she hadn’t thanked him for it either.
“I thought you might want to see this,” she said softly. “As I recall, I was somewhat concerned about where you fit into the great organizational scheme of things. So I went to the effort of preparing this chart.”
His heart thumped harder. “Susan--.”
“Please, let me finish, Marcus.” She cleared her throat and turned it toward him. “As I was saying, I went to the effort of preparing this chart, only this one shows where you fit into my life. Now then, here’s you, at the heart of my little world,” she pointed to a picture, “and here’s me, at your side . . . .” She raised her eyes to his. “If you’ll forgive me.”
“I said some awful things the other morning,” she said quickly. “I was scared of the way you make me feel . . . I’ve been hurt so many times before, and I’m not good relationship material, but I love you and I’d like another--.”
Marcus reached for her, crushing her close. He felt the chart hit his foot as she threw her arms around his neck. For a moment he couldn’t speak. Couldn’t breathe.
“God, I love you, Susan,” he murmured, drawing back at last and cradling her face in his hands. “I’m not much of a catch but I can offer you that.”
“And I am?” she whispered.
“So we’ll sort this out together,” he offered. “Okay?”
Susan smiled. “Okay.”
“See,” Marcus replied, nodding. “We’ve just agreed on something. I think we can make this work, don’t you. It just requires a little give and take, that’s all . . .”
“Shut up and kiss me.”
And how could he argue with that?