"I've been thinking." Marcus Cole's voice piped up from behind Susan's command chair a whole three minutes after she had started to believe he might actually shut up till the First Ones answered them.
Ten years with Delenn had taught her how horribly rude Minbari found sighing and rolling one's eyes, and the White Star was a Minbari ship, so Susan merely weighted her voice with longsuffering asperity. "Yes?"
"It must be very lonely at the top."
Susan's eyebrows crawled up her forehead. "You think the First Ones are lonely?"
"Oh—no." Marcus seemed surprised. Apparently there'd been a change in topic while he was shutting the hell up, and he'd neglected to inform her. He was back to nearly bouncing on the balls of his feet with energy. "I was thinking of Captain Sheridan. Is he seeing anyone, do you know?"
The memory of John's very enthusiastic false kiss with Musante a few hours ago rose up and played itself out across Susan's inner vision with distressing clarity. She considered You really don't want to know and I imagine he's off sex for a while after this, and settled on a very bland, "Why do you ask?"
Marcus shrugged. "At a time like this, with all the pressure the captain is under, I should think it would be good for him to have companionship. Someone to lighten his journey."
Privately, Susan figured John could stand to get laid. It was a common Earthforce affliction. He hadn't seemed interested in anyone lately, though. Stephen didn't seem to be his type; neither were little blondes. Perhaps if Delenn had been human, or single—she stopped that train of thought right in its tracks. She'd held out this long against Delenn's occasional suggestion of a sacred Minbari threesome. Like hell she was going to have one with her male best friend.
Leaving that thought aside, on a ship that had no vodka-- "What are you, an intergalactic agony aunt?"
He huffed a laugh. It was wry and smug all at once. "Coming in from outside, I perhaps bring a different point of view. Your stalwart captain is rather good at military tactics, but what of the bleak midnight hour? What of the torment of divided loyalties?" Marcus flung his arm out like a Shakespearean orator. "There should be someone at home to soothe the troubled breast."
"And you're just the man to do it?"
He grinned, and turned the outflung gesture into a bow. The man seemed utterly impervious to sarcasm. "That's terribly kind of you to say, commander. Thank you!"
Susan shut her mouth, opened it again, and that was the moment the First Ones chose to respond to their hail.
John scrubbed a hand across his face to stifle a yawn, and swiped for entrance to what ought to be the White Star's sleeping quarters. He hoped like hell he had the right room; it would be a real pain in the ass to spend the rest of the trip to Ganymede trying to find a place to pass out.
The room was dimly lit, and filled with rows of slanted platforms that looked vaguely like beds. Yeah, that seemed about right. Minbari. He stumbled over to one near the back wall, and eased himself down onto the thin but slightly springy surface.
And kept sliding down.
He ended up crouched awkwardly at the base of the "bed," feeling like an idiot. At least he was alone. Thank God none of the crew was here to make fun of him. He supposed Delenn wouldn't have laughed, but she was personally escorting Dr. Kirkish to a Minbari safehouse. Swearing under his breath, he pried himself off the floor and tried again.
This time he managed to stay upright for a minute or two by bracing his legs, but as soon as he relaxed, the inexorable slide began again.
"How the hell do they do this?" he groaned, knees up by his ears like some oversized grasshopper. Ugh. Maybe he could sleep on the floor?
There was a rustle from a patch of darker shadows in the corner of the room, and the pale, bearded face of the lone other human on board swam into view. "They say all it takes is the proper frame of mind," Marcus Cole intoned. The Ranger sat cross-legged with his hands draped casually across his knees, looking as serene and calm as John didn't.
"Shit," John said.
"Yes, I always thought it was bullshit myself." His accent clipped his t's and gave a faint undercurrent of laughter to the words, but at least he seemed to be on John's side in the skirmish against the damn beds.
John scuffled into a less-embarrassing position. No use trying to get up if his sudden companion was on the floor too. "What, you never got the hang of sleeping on these things?"
"I meditate much better when I'm awake." That hint of amusement again. Or maybe it was just the beginnings of a smile—the way his face would be almost utterly deadpan two seconds before it cracked into a grin. John was surprised to realize he could picture it quite clearly. He hadn't realized he'd paid that much attention to Marcus's facial expressions these last few weeks. It was certainly too dark to see them now.
"Hah." John leaned his shoulders back against the slanted bed behind him. "I assume you slept on Minbar. Somehow."
"Oh, of course not. Entil'zha taught us the ancient Vorlon secrets of transcending the bodily plane." His voice was airy, inviting John to join his cockeyed joke against the universe. He was leaning forward slightly now, and his eyes glinted in the low light. "Did you know the Minbari have vampire legends? They—"
"Marcus," John said. "If you don't tell me how to get some sleep, I'm going to come over there and clonk you over the head with your own fighting pike."
Now, the grin. A flash of white teeth and a toss of his head. It was theatrical, arrogant—and, like the man's dramatic robes and romance-holo facial hair, a little bit charming. Marcus was on his feet in a swirl of fabric and shadows, and leaning down to give John a hand up, before John could quite decide if he should try to stamp out the smile on his own face.
John's feet had gone numb sometime in the last ten minutes: clearly, he wasn't as flexible as these meditating Rangers. The hands that pulled him up were as wiry as the body John found himself stumbling into. Marcus was skinny as a stick, actually, but he steadied John without even seeming to notice his greater weight. Another point in favour of Ranger training...
"All right?" Marcus had somehow gotten his hands on John's biceps and was looking up at him with some concern, dark brows knitting together over wide, clear eyes. It was such an open and sincere expression after all the flippancy that John wasn't quite sure what to do with it.
"Fine." His voice came out a bit gruff. John cleared his throat and straightened his back, stoically ignoring the pins and needles in his feet. As Marcus dropped his hands and let him go, his face shuttered just a little. Which was too bad. He had such nice eyes.
John shook his head to clear it. Christ, he was tired.
Marcus flashed him another grin. There was another rustle of cloth and a short length of metal appeared in his hand from some obscure pocket in his robes. He waved it under John's nose. "Observe." He bent down and fiddled with something beneath the bed, and with a slow creak it swung free from the angle it had been stuck in. "Now give me something to jam it with. Your jacket will do."
John raised his eyebrows, but complied. The jacket disappeared under the mechanism, to further creaks and thumps and a rather ungodly grimace on Marcus's face. There was a final click, and Marcus stepped back with a flourish.
"Your boudoir, mon capitaine!"
John leaned on the end of the bed. It stayed flat, and he forgave Marcus about two thirds of his ridiculousness. With a groan, he hitched himself up onto the narrow bed and stretched out on his back. Oh, that was good. The bed stayed flat. He shut his eyes.
John cracked an eye open. Marcus was still standing over him, studying him with that unnerving seriousness again. "Here," Marcus said suddenly. He shrugged out of his long Ranger cloak and unfolded it over John's body like a blanket. "You'll need something to stay warm now I've sacrificed your coat to ad-hoc engineering."
John wriggled his shoulders. It felt nice. He hadn't even thought about blankets. "What about you?" What else could they use to rig up a second bed?
Marcus shrugged. "Can't sleep. Told you I was meditating."
"Right." If he hadn't been so damned exhausted, he would have argued the point. But he was on a flat surface with a weird-ass triangular pillow and a nice warm heavy blanket that smelled like the snarky English bastard who apparently had the knack of making him smile.
He thought about asking Marcus to tell him about Minbari vampires sometime, but he was asleep before he got the words out.
Marcus nursed his watery beer and watched a few more worried knots of stationers straggle by his vantage point off the Zocalo. It was strange: Earth had always been fairly theoretical in his own life. He was simultaneously concerned for everyone around him and feeling vaguely detached. He wasn't sure the president of Earth Alliance had ever been quite real to him in the first place; he supposed it wasn't a shock that Clark's betrayal of the constitution seemed a bit intangible and remote too.
But distress was rolling off the command staff in waves, and the Lurkers were coming up with fifteen new conspiracy theories an hour, so it didn't matter how he felt, or whether he had any feelings about it at all. He still had a job to do.
Someone sat down on the bar stool next to him. It took him half a second to recognize Captain Sheridan, out of uniform and somewhat attractively scruffy around the edges.
Stop that, Marcus told himself. This was hardly the time.
But then Sheridan leaned on the bar to order and that brown leather jacket stretched snugly across his wonderfully broad shoulders, and Marcus resigned himself to another bloody night of silent pining.
Well, it didn't have to be silent. "Sorry about your coat," he said. The White Star's bed mechanism had left an ugly gouge across the right forearm; he really should have used something else. Too late for that now.
Sheridan glanced up, saw who it was, and turned on his bar stool. He waved off Marcus's apology. "Nah. It was worth it." His smile was tired, but genuine; it reached his eyes enough to make Marcus want to bring it back full force.
It was the little things in life that made it worthwhile, after all. Like working out amorphous feelings of unease about the political situation by hitting something very hard with a denn'bok, or the light fluttery feeling under his diaphragm when he made John Sheridan's eyes crease with laughter.
"Always carry a wrench." Sheridan tapped his fingers against the bar. "New survival tip for travelling the Minbari way. I'll have to remember that."
Marcus peered into his beer to keep from mooning like an idiot. "You don't need me to teach you survival skills, captain." He could still see the Shadow ship crinkling up in Jupiter's gravity well, and feel the White Star a hair's breadth from doing the same, the very air in his lungs shuddering with the threat of implosion.
A little huff of breath and a half-smile from Sheridan. His beer arrived, and he downed half of it in one go, then waited till the bartender had moved out of earshot before speaking. "I gotta tell you, the hairs on the back of my neck haven't gone down since I heard that thing scream."
Marcus grimaced. "Me either. I've grown twenty new hairs just to shiver with." In the tail of his eye, the Nightwatch fellow two businesses down had moved on, and those two dockworkers had been joined by a third, their conversation holding steady at "restless grumbling" rather than "smash things and riot."
Looking back at Sheridan, he rather thought restlessness might have something to do with why he was down here after hours rather than safely ensconced in Blue Sector.
Sheridan caught Marcus's glance. "Susan kicked me out of C'n'C," he said. "Six hours, she says, and I have to lie down for at least a couple of them. She says—" He paused with his glass halfway to his mouth, eyes sharpening on Marcus as if truly registering his presence for the first time. Then he shook his head and took the aborted drink.
Any other day, Marcus would have made a joke about mutiny in the ranks. Instead he matched Sheridan's chug of beer, and when he set down the glass, Sheridan was still staring at him.
His eyes were very blue, and awfully intense. Marcus blinked himself back up from their depths. "Do I have beer in my moustache? Peanuts up my nose?"
Sheridan shushed him with a decisive jerk of his chin. "Susan said something to me this afternoon. 'Marcus,' she said, 'Marcus, wherever he fits in the chain of command.' And it occurs to me that you don't."
Marcus frowned. "If you're asking if the Rangers—"
"No, I—look. The thing about Minbari vampires is, they don't exist."
"Soul Hunters exist," Marcus said defensively. "All manner of—"
"I was half asleep at the time, but I distinctly recall you said Minbari vampires. Which don't exist. Complete and utter hogwash. I looked it up."
Marcus could play conversational hopscotch with the best of them, but if Sheridan was questioning his loyalty this was a funny way of going about it.
Sheridan was still giving him that look. "The thing is," he said, "I still want you to tell me about them."
"Captain," Marcus said, "I know we've slept together and all, but I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about."
It was the sort of joke he'd made a hundred times in his life, the kind that covered up his real feelings with foolish exaggeration. He didn't expect Sheridan to colour and clear his throat.
"Look, I know you're not the kind of guy who'll settle for a quick tumble in the dark. But when this is all over—or before then, this won't be over for a very long time—"
Time stretched. Marcus thought he could hear his own heart thumping, or maybe that was just the footsteps of the dockworker leaving the table behind him. "Captain Sheridan," he heard himself drawl, "are you asking me out?"
His heart was tumbling in freefall. His fingers were tingling. He was afraid he was gaping at the other man like a stunned fish.
Sheridan picked up his glass and finished off his beer. "Yeah," he said, "I guess I am."
The sharply focused look he'd been giving Marcus melted into a boyish diffidence, and that finally drove home the truth. Marcus took a deep breath. "Captain," he said, "If I'd known fixing Minbari furniture would have this kind of result, I'd have gone into the tinker business ages ago."
He thought later that the laugh that broke across Sheridan's face, bright and honest and happy, would have been worth it even if the whole conversation had been aimless banter. But when Sheridan's shoulders stopped shaking, he said, "You owe me a story, then. And I think you'd better call me John."
Marcus swept a look across the bar. Both beers empty. Bowl of peanuts not worth it. He leapt to his feet. "Lead on!"
John blinked. "Right now?"
"Well, you've still got at least three hours left, haven't you? No time like the present!" Gravity was lighter. The dented chrome in the bar fairly gleamed. The neon lights behind John lit his blonde hair a cheerful, rosy magenta.
John slid off the bar stool. "All right. But you have to make it a good one."
Marcus was already striding towards the lift to Blue Sector. He turned and walked backwards for a few paces, and he didn't care if he looked foolish. "Shall I start with the captivating vampire or the intrepid vampire hunter?"
When the lift closed behind him, he really shouldn't have been surprised that, for the first of what turned out to be quite a number of times, John Sheridan shut him up with a kiss.