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Earth Year 2285
Perhaps it was indeed mere theatrics but even she could not help but feel a twinge of awe at the reverent silence of the partially-darkened chamber. Everything around her now was hushed whispers and barely audible sounds from the ship, making even the minimal challenges she had faced from the warder acolytes and Hayn’sha’ir outside seem loud, chaotic and boisterous.
They had not let her enter unopposed, of course…even if the opposition had all been part of the ritual. Every step taken during visits such as this one was choreographed. No one…not even the ‘blessed’ Delenn herself…could venture this far into the heart of the Valen’Tha without proving he or she deserved to be here. It was part of the illusion the Nine maintained…an illusion designed to trivialize and intimidate those with little resolve…and it was, she supposed, effective. Lesser persons, even Religious caste used to lock-step conformity, would have whatever pleas or arguments they prepared in advance shaken by the sheer magnitude of knowing they were to stand in the Circle and utter them. In the end, the combination of awe, fear and mere presence of Minbar’s cloaked masters served to make the petitioner want to terminate the experience as quickly as possible. The Nine liked it that way.
Those reactions, of course, applied to lesser persons. Because the patiently waiting woman had no real expectation that the greyrobes would act decisively on her behalf…as if they would act decisively on anything…she reasoned she was in effect performing little more than what the Humans called a ‘smoke and mirror’ act. Despite her opinion of the Council, however, this visit was still necessary if she was to apply the requisite pressure to her true targets. Any outcome that furthered that goal she would deem success.
Before her, pools of bluish light began to materialize on the floor; nine in a circle and a tenth in the center. Within that center circle…almost as if it had been carelessly cast aside…rested the scepter of the Minbari Federation, its Triluminary glimmering dully. Or more accurately, she snorted to herself, it was the latest staff in the series…with the original resting atop Dukhat’s remains under the ice sheet and its first replacement broken alongside the Council it represented. She had never made any direct inquiries, but she knew this third scepter had lain in its present position…the very place Delenn left it…since the reformation. If this current batch of pretender-Satai had their way, it would remain there until Valen himself returned to reclaim it.
The scepter was no matter, other than she would have to ensure she did not trip over it. About the Council or Valen the waiting woman also could not have cared any less. About Delenn…well, if she were to be truly honest with herself, she was still sorting those feelings out.
The voice…high, melodious and female…seemed to emerge from the ether around her. "The Del’saezha greets you and bids you welcome. Step into the Light and take a place among us." The tone, while not commanding, indicated no other options were available.
Sal’Sataia Irilenn ra’Valir, Mistress of the Sisters of Valeria, complied. "Summoned, I come," she intoned, a trace of irony in her voice, as the blue light washed over her. If the ritual formula made them happy, then who was she to argue? Coming to a halt with the tips of her shoes paralleling the shaft of the scepter, she watched patiently as the Nine filed into their circles around her. < Hooded, of course… > she snorted to herself. < You think I do not know who you are? We cannot have those pesky cults of personality now, can we? As if any of you have enough personality to merit a cult... >
None of her disdain made it to her face, however…she had been at this game too long to allow such a foolish slip. Clasping her hands before her, she cast her eyes down in the manner of a supplicant and, presently, one of the nine left the Circle to approach her. Pausing when he…or she, Irilenn could not immediately tell…was opposite the staff from her, the Satai intoned, "We are Grey; we stand between the Darkness and the Light."
"We are Grey," the other eight answered. "Summoned, we come."
< So a female will speak for the Nine to me, > the Mistress noted with a mental shrug. Not that the knowledge meant anything…any of the members could speak and the present Council had five female Satai…but she was in the habit of collecting information. And if the woman before her was not one of Delenn’s appointees…was one of the three elevated since her former daughter had whored herself out to the Workers and reestablished this travesty in their favor…matters might proceed even better than she expected.
"Are you The One Who is to Come?" the cloaked figure asked. Indicating the scepter, she continued, "Have you returned to take up your burden?"
She had heard they now asked that of all who came before them. Irilenn was hard-pressed to keep from hooting with laughter. < More Delenn-inspired pseudo-mythology... > "I would not presume to be the first among equals, Satai," she respectfully replied, keeping her eyes downcast. "I am but a simple woman and I do not seek power or authority. The One you seek will come in his or her own time and until then I content myself with knowing that when he…or she…does arrive our purposes will be in harmony; leadership through our service to the Minbari whole."
"A…simple…woman?" a male voice derisively interjected from the Circle, "We know you, Irilenn. You do not seek power or authority…overtly…and you are hardly simple. You prefer manipulating from the shadows, ruling without seeming to rule. It is well for Minbar that you do not try to usurp the scepter, although I would not put such an outlandish consideration beyond you. Our people would be ill-served if a Sorceress was to occupy the Center as anything other than a guest…a reluctantly-invited one."
< Sorceress... > Irilenn turned to the new voice…obviously that of Mazik, Delenn’s pet Warrior. Only one of that caste would refer to a Sister by such a derisive term. "I do not recall wronging you or the Star Riders, Satai," she rejoined, "at least, not in this incarnation. Any mistake…or manipulation…your clan might have suffered at the hands of my Order is long past and my spell-casting abilities are…well," she turned her palms up and condescendingly shook her head, "they are vastly overrated." Turning her attention to the others surrounding her, she decided to launch into her oratory before any other wooly-crests decided to use her as a target of opportunity. Raising her voice slightly, she said, "I thank you for hearing me, gathered Satai…because I do not come before you lightly. In over eight hundred cycles, no Sister of Valeria has approached this body as a supplicant…yet I take this extraordinary step out of frustration and…yes…desperation. As you well know, Minbar once again finds itself under the sword. During the unfortunate hostilities against Earth…even during the conflict against the Shadows…no enemy touched our world directly. But now, these…primitives, these Dilgar, have dared to do so..."
"A rather pathetic dare on their part…in this Council’s opinion," the Satai standing before her interjected. Slowly, she drew back her hood and the Mistress found herself facing a relatively young female. This would be Felann, she reasoned…the newest member of the Nine if her intelligence was accurate. Having the junior Satai…a Worker no less…as the intermediary between the Council and the Mistress of the Sisters of Valeria…Irilenn did not know whether to be pleased or insulted. "The damage was not serious…at least, not serious enough to merit the petition you place before us."
"It was an indicator of their capabilities, honored one," Irilenn countered, bowing respectfully. "The Humans have a saying; past performance does not guarantee future results. Yes, the attack on our world was not severe…this time. If my friend Anla’Shok Na is to be believed…and I think even our Warriors will concede she both knows her profession and is honest…the Dilgar were merely issuing us a warning. Their attention is elsewhere for now, but they will eventually turn to us and the next night stones rain down, they may be better targeted and in greater numbers. As horrible as the prospect is, I must plan against that future. Granting my petition will allow me the resources and latitude I need to best aid our people when that time comes."
"But the latitude you ask for, Sal’sataia…" a gentler male voice chimed in, "…completely abrogating the Ban of Valen…permanently…"
Irilenn stumbled imperceptibly as she turned to face the new speaker but recovered quickly. With all directions seeming the same, she was discovering that one of the Council’s most effective debating tools was spatial disorientation. If her attention wandered, she could easily lose track of where in the chamber she actually was. Fortunately, the scepter’s placement on the floor gave her a reference point. Based on the Satai’s location, she assumed she was speaking to Bhurli of the Religious Caste…the Council’s senior member and a close personal friend of her former daughter. By his tone, she could tell he was uncertain. "It is an anachronism," she responded, "and not only that; it denies the reality of our current operating environment. Minbar no longer exists in a vacuum. Our Federation is part of a greater whole…one that incorporates not only our own race but also the Humans living among us. To truly serve our people, we must be able to serve those we now call allies as well. We cannot do that on Minbar alone."
"If we allowed what you ask, not only would we be lifting the restrictions Valen placed upon you…we would be allowing you to exceed your original charter as an organization," Bhurli countered, his previously gentle voice hardening. "That charter says you serve our people, Sal’sataia! Our…Minbari…people! Your Order forgot that before, and it was precisely to protect others such as the Humans from some of your more manipulative activities…not to mention protect those you were supposed to serve…that Valen cloistered you in the first place. Are you saying he was in error when he did so? Or are you perhaps trying to co-opt this Council into helping you forget once again?"
He was baiting her. Irilenn knew the tactic... start softly and then make an outlandish statement in the hope that she would lose her temper and reveal more than she intended. "Honored caste brother," she placated, keeping her tone reasonable, "even though we admittedly chafe at those restrictions today, I have never argued that the Ban was not necessary for its time. Errors in judgment were indeed committed and Valen’s primitive ancestors rightly needed protection from those excesses, as did ours. But the end of our war with Earth marked the end of both its effectiveness and its necessity. The Humans are no longer primitive or defenseless, and its removal is long overdue. Many now inhabit our Federation permanently and we can no longer truly say we serve our people without expanding the definition of ‘our people’ to include them as well. My intent is not for the Sisterhood to return to its old ways…we are not attempting to become a shadow government within our government. Surely you and your contemporaries…the wisest among our people…cannot believe that."
"Whether we officially define Humans as ‘our people’ or not, you already have all the authority you require to serve in times of need," the other Warrior Satai…the female Moon Shield Ravell…chimed in from behind her. "Valen was wise and the Ban has exceptions for almost every circumstance. In fact, this Council has noted with great interest that you have recently employed several of them. How many Sisters have you…temporarily…released from cloister, Irilenn? One hundred? One thousand? More? Who are they and where are they now? How long do you intend to keep them among the population? How much…latitude…have you given them? And what is your intent regarding that Sister whose obligations you completely suppressed…Ardenn is her name, I believe?" Her derisive snort was almost audible. "Although this is your first time appearing before us personally, we know you keep close watch on our activities. Do you think us so befuddled and remote out here among the stars that it has never occurred to us to monitor you as well? Or to keep a protective eye on Delenn and her family?"
"You may spy on me all you wish, Satai," the Mistress retorted. "Learn about me what you will, but do not attempt to obscure one matter with another. Sister Ardenn and Delenn have nothing to do with my petition before this Council. They are a separate issue... and a personal one."
"But they are the same issue," Felann gently corrected. "They are merely two sides of the same coin." Walking in a slow circle, she indicated her fellow Satai. "Despite your words to my colleague, your daughter and your grandson’s lover have much to do with your petition. You say the Nine are the wisest of our people yet you do not truly believe it…fair enough; nor do we. But do not add ignorance of our boundaries to the list of shortcomings you secretly harbor against us; you knew before you ever set foot in here that we could not rule for or against your petition. Even if this Council were so inclined, your request is beyond our purview; there is only one alive today who can grant or deny it. In all things, Irilenn, the Nine speak with one voice…and to you we say this: The disposition of the Ban of Valen is solely between you and Entil’zha. This Council will not intervene if Sheridan decides against you. Similarly, we will not obstruct matters should he choose in your favor."
Irilenn hung her head, feigning disappointment, but secretly she was extremely pleased. Her main concern had been that the Council would declare itself in outright opposition, and for a time the obvious acrimony made that seem the inevitable outcome. With the greyrobes instead declaring themselves neutral, that left only Entil’zha himself to convince. The Satai’s words, however, also left her puzzled. "If you had already decided my request was outside your authority," she mused, "then why did you agree to see me? One of the Hayn’sha’ir could have conveyed your abeyance far more easily."
Felann stopped circling and faced her. "Why, that is our question to you, Sal’sataia," she brightly parroted, cocking her head inquisitively. "As you already knew that only Entil’zha could provide what you seek, why did you want to see us?" Stepping slightly closer, the Satai conspiratorially lowered her voice and loosely indicated her fellows. "Just between you and me, some of the more suspicious on this Council believe you came here because removal of the Ban is only part of your agenda. It also occurs to those…suspicious members…that should Entil’zha favorably consider your request he will have to declare his decision before all of Minbar. A Federation-wide event like that might have unintended consequences." Backing away, she replaced her hood…making herself anonymous once more…and tapped the scepter shaft meaningfully with her toe. "You see, this…ancient trinket…at our feet has not been permanently wielded since Dukhat’s passing, and there are a few even within this chamber who think it past time that someone did. They would prefer the blessed Delenn, of course, but…as she has twice refused…they are not completely averse to considering other options, even somewhat unorthodox ones. Were Entil’zha to speak with the voice of Valen and rescind a ban Valen himself set, some might perceive it as him picking this symbol up…even if he never set foot in here or touched it."
Irilenn could not resist smiling at that. 'Starkiller' Sheridan standing in the center circle, wielding the scepter of his former enemies? What a ludicrous thought. If such concerns were what the Council spent their time worrying about, then perhaps Satai Ravell needed to reconsider exactly how 'befuddled' and 'remote' they truly were. "I seriously doubt Entil’zha has much interest in ruling the Minbari Federation," she chuckled. "While he indeed possesses a measure of Dukhat's gravitas, he is most definitely not Dukhat. Besides being Human, my sources indicate he seems more than content just running occasional errands for the Anla’Shok and spending time with his family."
"Ah, yes... Entil’zha’s family," Felann brightly echoed. "Good of you to mention them. I think we are…what is it the Humans say? Zeroing in? Yes…finally starting to zero in on your true reason for coming here. We wholeheartedly agree with you; Sheridan has no desire to be Chosen One, but I am sure you understand that we do not want our people…confused. If he does begin actively exercising his authority as Entil’zha, he will become involved in internal Minbari affairs and…well…those suspicious members I mentioned also note that you have placed the very Sister who so arouses Satai Ravell’s curiosity close to his family…or, should we say, intimately close to a particular member of his family? Perhaps as close as she can possibly get without some sort of official sanction from this Council?"
"What are you saying?" Irilenn dubiously muttered.
Any trace of mirth rapidly faded from Felann’s voice. "You intimated Satai Ravell was obscuring one matter with another, yet we believe that is exactly what you are here to do. Valen’s Ban was only your pretense for gaining an audience. You knew this Council could not act on it without Entil’zha; yet you also mention, seemingly in passing, expanding the definition of ‘Minbari’ to include Humans. In fact, you alluded to it not once, but twice. And so we begin to wonder…might there be another restriction that stands in your way? One this Council indeed has authority over?"
"I have no idea what you are talking about."
"Of course you do. Irilenn, your true intent in appearing here personally was to maneuver us into formally pronouncing that Humans are Minbari." Leaning in, the Satai whispered, "And we believe we know why you want that particular distinction made. This Council allowed a violation of our oldest space-faring edict to pass unopposed once…eighteen cycles ago…for two very extraordinary people under very extraordinary circumstances. Now, you anticipate we will be asked to do so again in the near future…and you know David Sheridan and your Sister Ardenn will be the two standing where you are when that time comes. That, Mistress, is the true issue this Council considers important…because if we accede, it will mark the final demise of the Sum Nee’Verkaff."
Irilenn made a show of brushing the speculation off. "Your contention about my true motives is fascinating but, as you note, it is their responsibility to come before you and make that request, not mine. You may suspect whatever you like, but that is not what I have asked for."
"We never expected you to ask…not directly…but you are presently gauging our receptiveness to the idea, are you not?"
"I am indeed," the Mistress agreed, "Seeing as you have chosen to bring it up." Turning her palms up in a shrug, she looked around at the rest of the Council. "So you want me to admit I would like to see the Alien Prohibition rescinded? Very well, I admit it…after all; a grandmother wanting a little happiness for her grandchild is hardly the stuff civilizations collapse over."
"How…compassionate…of you," Mazik sarcastically sneered from the circle. "And how totally out of character."
"As you can tell, the Sum Nee’Verkaff has become a matter of much internal deliberation recently," Felann quietly commented, keeping her attention on Irilenn and ignoring her colleague. "And were it just those two…well, if there is one thing this Council can agree on, it is that we can quibble an issue to death. We would probably debate the joining briefly for appearance’s sake and then regurgitate some vague pronouncement about your grandson’s Minbari heritage making him a special case. In the end, we would quietly send the happy couple on their way with our blessing." Beneath her cowl, she smiled and shook her head. "But with your involvement, we suspect it is not just those two. Should Entil’zha also unfetter your Order in the process…that one small, compassionate act on our part may just prove to be your key to unlocking a very large, very dangerous door." With that, Felann turned, intending to return to her circle of light.
Irilenn decided to drop the pretense. "Opening that door just might save our people," she announced to the Satai’s back. "Are you willing to throw that chance away?"
The Satai spun to face her. "Have you considered the ramifications?" she snapped. "And not only the ramifications among our people…have you thought for one second about how the Humans will react? What do you suppose they will say back on Earth, Irilenn…those billions who still think us untrustworthy pseudo-allies at best and recent enemies at worst? They are an emotional people, they are far more formidable now than they were during the war and they outnumber us three to one! Knowing that, can you guarantee that making such a pronouncement would not bring about the ‘stuff civilizations collapse over’ you mentioned?"
"I cannot foretell the future," Irilenn snorted. "Unfortunately, my…sorceress abilities…do not include that particular skill."
"We can," Felann retorted. "We know, for example, that our sun will kill our world in less than a million cycles. We know that our people are fading and will disappear far sooner. And, like you, we also know that any future we have is inextricably intertwined with theirs." With that, she leaned in close and lowered her voice so only Irilenn could hear. "I will say this plainly, so you fully understand our position. We agree that for our race to have hope the Sum Nee’Verkaff must go…even Mazik and Ravell concur…but we cannot state so outside this chamber. We have known since our sister Delenn proved it could be done what path we must take…and if her son and Sister Ardenn are destined to be our first steps along that path, then so be it. What we do not know, Sal’sataia," she dangerously hissed, "is if you and your Order are the people we should entrust with leading the rest of us down it. We fear you intend to use any new…latitude…Entil’zha grants you to prematurely force something that, if left to the universe, might simply happen in its own due time."
"The future will attend to itself, Satai?" Irilenn breathed back just as dangerously. "That sounds like a familiar do-nothing Council refrain. If leaving our survival to the whims of chance is the extent of your plan then I know whose is the most viable."
"Perhaps you would care to explain your…plan…to us?" Felann lightly replied, backing away to retake her circle. "No? Then I suppose this audience is concluded. For now, we will wait and see what Entil’zha decides about your Order as a whole before exploring these other…matters…in greater depth. We shall convey your request regarding the Ban to him at the earliest opportunity, along with our reservations. Should you desire to unburden yourself further in the meantime, you know where to find us…"
And with that, all the lights except the one under which Irilenn stood went out. From the surrounding darkness, Felann concluded, "…and have no doubt…if you act outside your charter without the sanction of the Council, we certainly know where to find you."
The Light Wanderer shuddered slightly, the damage from her earlier encounter with the Dilgar making her less aerodynamic in Khon’dar’s upper atmosphere, as John found his way to David’s cabin. Although she’d acquitted herself well on her way in, the Ranger leader knew a ship’s shakedown cruise was not when one wanted to become embroiled in a protracted firefight. While initial scans seemed to indicate that the remaining Dilgar warships had departed there was only one way to tell for sure and, with a third of her firepower effectively off-line and beyond autorepair capability, he hoped there wouldn’t be any unexpected excitement on the way out.
Steadying himself against a bulkhead as another small tremor ran through the ship, he shook his head. David hadn’t even had a chance to officially sit in the center seat yet and the Light Wanderer had already earned herself at least a few weeks in the repair yards. It was just as well, he supposed. When David came out the other side of this (and he would come out…the ‘father’ in John refused to consider any other possibility) he was going to be recovering for a little while also.
The elder Sheridan sighed. Most of those aboard probably hadn’t thought this far ahead, but this was probably the last flight for this band of Rangers as a crew. Given what was happening in the Alliance right now, Susan wouldn’t have the luxury of keeping highly trained Anla’Shok sitting idle while their ship was repaired. She’d have no choice but to break them up and assign them elsewhere…and David…she’d hate herself for doing it but he’d have to go into a convalescent assignment while he recuperated. That meant temporary removal from the command list. Well, the young man might feel like he’d been put out to pasture, but he and his career would survive. He’d eventually work his way back into the rotation…and it wouldn’t be all bad. John could think of at least one person who’d be thrilled to have him close to home.
Reaching his destination, he started to key the door open and then hesitated. Delenn wouldn’t care if he walked in on her while she was changing clothes, but Ardenn was likely in there as well and she probably wouldn’t appreciate being similarly interrupted.
He needn’t have worried. Just as he was pushing the chime, the hatch opened and his wife’s former aide…fully dressed and obviously on her way out…startled as she noticed him standing there. Rather than stepping aside, she simply stared and John was momentarily at a loss until he realized why…he was still wearing nothing but the sorry excuse for a robe he’d gotten from the decontamination chamber. Reflexively he glanced down, saw what had caught her attention and tugged the garment straight. "Uh, honey? Is it okay if I come in? In case you haven’t noticed it’s pretty drafty out here without any skivvies on."
It took John’s words a moment to register. Puzzled, the young Minbari looked up at his face and cocked her head. "Skivvies?" she quizzically repeated. "Ah…I understand. You are not wearing undergarments. Yes, I noticed."
John’s eyebrows pricked up. Belatedly realizing how that sounded, Ardenn mentally bit her lip at the faux pas. "I mean…yes, I also noticed it was…um, drafty…when I walked over," she hastily appended. Bowing to cover her embarrassment, she averted her eyes and moved out of the way. "I apologize for any misunderstanding."
"It’s all right," John managed with an equally embarrassed grin, remembering how he’d once reacted when he’d accidentally walked in on Anna’s mother coming out of the shower while visiting his then-fiancée on leave. He hadn’t seen his own expression then, but he was sure Ardenn’s face was doing a passable imitation now. "You probably don’t get too many old geezers roaming around in their birthday suits where you come from," he chuckled as he edged by her. "But don’t let my example frighten you off…I’m sure Delenn’s half of David’s genetics will see to it that he holds up better than I have."
Ardenn managed a weak smile. If what she had glimpsed was any indication, the self-proclaimed ‘old geezer’ was holding up…impressively…despite his words. In late middle age by Human standards, the elder Sheridan still radiated the vitality of one much younger and it did not require a great deal of imagination on her part to see what Delenn saw; a well-formed, virile and intelligent male. She might deny any knowledge of it, but in her opinion her Va’saia had likely also left a few envious females behind her when she claimed John all those cycles ago.
And now…well, if the father was indeed the precursor of the son as the old Human adage went, she was doubly blessed. "I…I think I have a shirt, if that will help…" Still trying to look anywhere but at her barely-clothed heart-father, the Sister quickly snapped her valise open and began fishing around in it. "It is David’s but it will probably fit..."
John waved her off as she offered the carefully folded garment up, the gesture threatening to loosen his sash once more. "No…you hang onto it," he indicated as he smoothed the hem back into place and tightened the knot. "They’re tracking down some clothes for me from the ship’s stores anyway and, judging from the size of your bag, you probably need it more than I do." Deciding that the seat behind David’s desk was the best location to avoid inadvertently flashing his companion, he gingerly sat down and made himself as comfortable as his scoured backside would allow. "So..." he continued, glancing around the quarters, "Where’s Delenn?"
Ardenn waved in the general direction of the closed partition between the office and sleeping area. "She is in the washroom…rinsing decontaminant out of her hair and inspecting the damage to her skin, I believe. Both you and she need to apply some ointment and get some rest, so I thought you would appreciate some privacy." Collecting her bag once more, she turned for the door. "I was just on my way to see David…"
"He’s out cold," John pointed out, noting that he and Delenn weren’t the only ones who could do with some rest; Ardenn was putting up a good front but her eyes betrayed weariness as well. "He’s going to stay that way for a little while so you don’t need to rush over. You know…I’ve never been a big fan of sleeping at an angle anyway. If you want to go down for a couple of hours, why don’t you and Delenn take the bed? I can push some chairs together out here or get horizontal on the floor…"
Ardenn smiled, imagining how scandalized Vadenn would be if she were to hear that Entil’zha himself had offered to sleep on the floor just to give her so-called ver’kaff sibling a comfortable place to rest. Humans could be so endearing sometimes. "Thank you," she acknowledged, bowing appreciatively, "but I am familiar with the Human adage ‘two is company, three is a crowd’. Delenn made a similar offer. She was being polite, but I am fairly certain she would rather share a bed with you and I prefer to, ah…get horizontal, you said? Yes, I would prefer getting horizontal with David anyway. If the healer has no objections, I will find a place to rest in the medical bay until he is conscious again."
John barely kept from rolling his eyes at the way Ardenn managed to twist his words around. Much like Delenn, the younger woman’s attempts to mimic Human slang had a habit of resulting in sly double entendres. She always parroted them with such an innocent expression…but lately he was coming to suspect that she understood more than she let on and enjoyed playing the tease.
With a mental shrug, he let that train of thought go for the moment. "I figured that’s how you’d feel," he acceded, "but the offer stands if you change your mind." Outside, the choppiness of the atmosphere evened out and there was a muffled announcement in Adronato, shortly followed by a soft alert tone in the hallway. With a glance at the door, he added, "Well, I guess you’d better be on your way. If you don’t hurry..."
Too late. John felt a slight pressure change against his eardrums as the locking lugs on the entrance hatch swiveled into place. "…then you may as well relax and stay awhile," he concluded.
Ardenn rose and headed for the hatch. "We seem to be locked in," she muttered after keying the door unsuccessfully. "Do you suppose we are about to be attacked?"
"Unless the Dilgar have stealth technology I doubt it," the elder Sheridan theorized. "That wasn’t a general quarters alert so I assume Nashon’s decompressing the corridors and opening them to space…using the vacuum to flush out any stray spores that might have found their way on board." He shrugged. "It’s just a precaution. He’ll have to reseal them before we can jump into hyperspace, so…sorry, sweetheart. David will have to wait. You’ll just have to make do with the older model for about thirty minutes."
With a trace of impatience, the young Sister plopped back into the chair she had just vacated and set her valise down. "Thirty minutes," she huffed under her breath. "Will he be all right? Suppose something happens while the corridors are impassable? He spent so much time by himself in that horrid mine…I do not want him to be alone now."
"Don’t worry. Nashon wouldn’t have sealed the ship off if there were a chance of enemy contact and David’s being monitored. He’ll probably sleep through the whole thing." Wincing slightly, John settled back in his chair and eyed the young woman speculatively. "Look…as long as you’re stuck with me for a little while," he ventured after a moment, "there’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about." Uncomfortably, he glanced at the partition for a second before adding, "I’m not sure Delenn would consider dumping this on you appropriate right now, but given how close you and David have become…well, it’s kind of a sensitive subject and there’s no time like the present."
Anticipating what her beloved’s father was likely leading up to, Ardenn bristled slightly. "Entil’zha, I know that when Minbari become…close…as David and I have become close there are traditional procedures. Admittedly, I have not shown much diligence in observing them but that does not mean I lack self-discipline. I am not blind to his prognosis. I understand he may appear…better…once he awakens but any recovery he exhibits is temporary at best." A trace of indignation in her tone, she concluded, "I would never do anything that might aggravate his condition…physical or otherwise."
Were the situation less serious, John might have laughed. Ardenn preferred staying quiet and out of the way most of the time, but where David was concerned she was more than willing to roll her sleeves up and come out swinging. Hastily, he raised his hands in mock surrender. "Sweetheart…that’s not what I meant. Short of dragging the poor guy out of bed and forcing him to run wind sprints around the ship, I doubt there’s anything you could do that would make much of a difference at this point." With a sigh, he lowered his hands to the desktop and looked down at them. "I’ve been down this road before and three days is three days whether he lays there staring at the ceiling or…well, however the two of you decide to pass the time is between the two of you. What I really want to tell you about is…uh, I guess you could call it the family curse."
Initially irritated that John would think her such a slave to her mating urge that she needed to be warned off of her beloved, Ardenn was now puzzled. "The family…curse?" she repeated, frowning quizzically.
"Yeah, that’s what Delenn used to call it," John clarified, "at least when she thought I wasn’t around to overhear." Nibbling his lower lip, he looked over at the partition once more. "It’s also a weird kind of salvation. I suppose it depends on your point of view." Leaning in, he gazed at the young woman intently and lowered his voice. "I know that you and Delenn spent a lot of time together before I returned. The two of you must have talked about things other than Alliance business…"
The young Minbari was not sure where this was leading. "Of course. We used to sit out on the balcony after the workday was done and talk about many things…art, philosophy, literature, religion…our places in the Universe. I was her pupil as well as her aide, after all."
"Did she ever tell you the real story of what happened when I went to Z’ha’dum? How I managed to survive and the reason I…uh, eventually had to leave her and David?"
That brought her up short. "Not…directly," Ardenn uncertainly answered. Her companion’s surprise was clear on his face, so she leaned closer and lowered her voice as well. "You need to remember that the Delenn I served was not quite the same person you left behind," she quietly explained, "or the one you see now. She was alone and grieving when I met her, and she continued to mourn you even after the proscribed parting rituals were concluded. It took the better part of a cycle for us to become familiar enough with one another for casual conversation and even then such personal pain…and the history behind it...is not a subject an elder easily discusses with her subordinate. In truth, she has spoken more openly to me about her past in the last week than she ever did while I was in her service."
"Our conversations occasionally touched on the Shadow War," the young woman acknowledged, "but she usually avoided discussing the conflict itself, preferring instead to address it in the context of how it led to the formation of the Interstellar Alliance." With pursed lips, she continued, "I was also provided passwords to some of her journals from that time. She wanted to familiarize me with the reasoning behind some of her early decisions and actions so I could better serve. While she could not avoid addressing your experiences during that period, those entries were uncharacteristically vague in the specifics and how she felt about them. I suspect she extensively edited those excerpts before allowing me to study them…but that is not the question you asked." With a sigh, she sat back up and furrowed her brow ridge in thought. "I know you traveled to the homeworld of the Shadows," she began after a moment. "While battling them there, you were gravely injured. A sympathetic First One found and healed you, but not completely…and before the prolonged effects of your wounds completely overcame you, you chose to go to Sea. Between her journal entries and the little I divined from allusions she made in passing, that is all I can confirm as truth."
John grunted neutrally. Having reappeared at the tail end of the young Minbari’s service to his wife, he didn’t know much about their previous relationship. From what Ardenn was saying, he gathered that although Delenn obviously loved her she’d decided not to confide in her as she once had in Lennier. In this one area at least, she instead followed normal Minbari practice by letting her learn the bare minimum she felt she needed to know and nothing more. And when an intelligent, curious woman was left with inexplicable information gaps she would no doubt find a way to fill them in. "Okay…fair enough," he acknowledged after mulling her words over for a second. Settling back, he tapped his chin with a knuckle and eyed her thoughtfully. "Now, let’s hear the stuff you can’t confirm."
Ardenn’s gaze fell to her lap. She caught herself nervously twisting the engagement ring on her finger and stilled the gesture. "I…am not certain I understand what you mean."
One thing John had learned after being around his wife’s people for a while was that despite their reputation for being mysterious and inscrutable they still somehow managed to sport the known galaxy’s least convincing poker faces. While exceptionally good at keeping secrets, Minbari were abysmal at hiding the fact they were keeping them. Steepling his fingers, he pressed her a little. "Nice try, sweetheart, but you understand me just fine. I want the scuttlebutt that got aired around the water cooler when Delenn wasn’t listening."
Across from him, Ardenn squirmed visibly. "I could not avoid overhearing a few…rumors…in the course of my duties," she finally admitted. Clearly embarrassed to be airing myths in front of their object, her voice dropped an octave. "That you fell into a bottomless pit, died and were somehow resurrected. That when you went to Sea, you were taken by the First Ones to live with Valen beyond the Rim. That you would return one day to stand before the people and speak his will, heralding a new Age of Renewal for all of his children. I am sure there are others." Sparing a hesitant glance at the partition, the young Minbari concluded, "You realize my proximity to Delenn made many reluctant to speak of these things in my presence. I did not know you before, and some among the household staff thought this made me something of an interloper. Others feared I might inadvertently air their beliefs in front of her and upset her. But she already knew about them. I suspect she even believes some of it."
"I expect she does," John thoughtfully echoed, almost to himself. "Do you?"
Ardenn sighed. "Is your presence prophecy?" she rhetorically responded. "I am not a scholar of such things, at least not in the sense that Delenn is…yet my eyes tell me that you are indeed here, just as some foretold. In almost every religion she and I discussed, resurrection is considered a miracle…so how much should I believe? You tell me."
There it was again…the ‘miracle’ thing. It was John’s turn to look troubled. "Ardenn, I don’t consider any aspect of my presence miraculous, at least not in a divine sense. Any sufficiently advanced technology can create what seem to be miracles. And I have no clue what Valen’s so-called ‘will’ might be. Hell, the one time Delenn railroaded me into wading through his prophecies I ended up with more headache than wisdom. But I told you before that some of the stories are true…or at least based on truth. I did go to Z’ha’dum. I did battle the Shadows there, and I did…well, to this day I’m not sure I really ‘died’, but the experience was close enough. When I fell, I fell a long way…but just because I don’t remember hitting the bottom doesn’t mean there wasn’t one." Leaning forward, he lowered his voice. "As for the rest…do you remember me saying that I’d met beings so advanced they barely acknowledged our existence? Well, that sympathetic First One you mentioned was one of them; one so old and powerful that he called the Shadows and Vorlons his children. I don’t know how he did it but he caught me and held me somewhere outside of time, at least outside time as we understand it. I was trapped between ‘tick’ and ‘tock’ as he put it."
< I have heard that before! > Ardenn thought with a start. < A tick in a Universe that is tocking... > "Entil’zha? This... First One you encountered. Did he appear to you as a creature of blue energy? Conscious energy?"
"Yeah... but not initially," John replied, settling back once more. He didn’t know why, exactly, but he found himself unaccountably happy that Ardenn still retained a healthy dose of skepticism about his return. It made it easier to talk to her about these things. "He didn’t appear to me that way until he started hitting me with the questions. Most of the time, he looked like a cryptic old man…well, not exactly a man; more an amalgam of several different species…waitaminute…" he amended, gazing harder at her, "You said that Delenn didn’t tell you about this. How did you know to ask that? About the blue energy?"
< The old man…someone told her the old man was laughing at her... > "I... you will find this hard to believe, but I saw it in a dream. In it, there was a being of blue energy…and he spoke to me. I have tried, but I cannot seem to remember the details of what was said. Just odd fragments." < …the old man... the energy sphere... Wyndan believes the Artifact is the reflection of a Progenitor’s energy aspect... > Looking down once more at her hands to cover her surprise, the answer came to her. < Entil’zha was befriended by a living Progenitor! One who was here recently…one he may still have contact with! > Ardenn suddenly could think of a million questions…many of which John might be able to answer.
Four specific questions were uppermost in her mind. He had apparently been asked them just as she had…except that his inquisitor had not been a piece of castoff ancient machinery. His had been one of that machine’s creators! In that instant, her surprise and excitement turned to dismay. Wyndan had warned her; if Irilenn thought for even a second that she had a way of gaining access to one of their immortal ancestors, she would abandon the Plan. Thinking her no longer indispensable, Ardenn would likely find her continued presence held hostage to force her heart-father’s cooperation. "John," she huskily whispered, her expression suddenly guarded, "I am sorry. I truly want to hear this. There is so much I wish I could ask you, but please do not tell me any more. You may have already revealed too much."
John was puzzled. Ardenn looked as if she’d seen a ghost, and she rarely called him by his first name. "Sweetheart, what’s wrong?"
"The... the entity we are discussing. Outside of my dream, what little I have heard comes from ancient knowledge safeguarded by the Sisters. They probably do not know nearly as much as you and it is better if it remains that way. I... forgive me but I should not say more."
"I’m not telling you this so you can run back to the Sisterhood with it. I’m telling you because as a member of my family you deserve to know the truth about me…and about the man you love…"
From behind the partition a third voice interrupted. "Listen to Ardenn, John," it admonished. "Listen to what she is saying. If she asks to hear no more, respect her request." With that, the divider slid aside and Delenn padded into the office, still clad in her decontamination robe and wearing her hair in a towel. Her expression guarded and pensive, she slowly settled into the chair beside the now-skittish Sister and took her hand. "He does not understand your distress, Ier’saia," she softly murmured. "He still thinks of you as you were. With all that has happened, I have not yet explained your changed circumstances to him."
"Delenn, I believe Entil’zha was about to reveal information that some in the Sisterhood would give much to learn…but it is a revelation that would do far more harm than good. If they were to find out he trusts me enough to tell me…" Ardenn hung her head shamefully. "I think there are a few who would gladly force me to abuse that trust if the opportunity arose…and, with my presence as conditional as it is, they might succeed."
"It is all right," Delenn quietly soothed, "I fully recognize the position you could be put in. We will not allow that to happen." Turning back to her still-confused husband, she continued, "I know you mean well, John…but look at Ardenn’s robes. Can you not see the difference?"
He looked. Instead of an off-white outer robe, hers was now blood red…and the material seemed a little silkier and more translucent than those she normally wore. He’d had too many other things on his mind to pay much attention. "Her robes?" he snorted, his ego hurt at being shut down so abruptly, "What the hell do they have to do with anything? She’s a member of our family."
"She is also a full Sister of Valeria now," Delenn clarified, more sharply than she intended. "The issue is not that she might ‘run back to the Sisterhood’ and repeat what you tell her, as you say. Beloved, she IS the Sisterhood. Her robes indicate her new office and she is fully subject to the Obligation I told you of. Getting even one aspect of it suppressed so she could return to David was far more arduous a task than you yet know…and you may now be placing her integrity in jeopardy. Before you started giving away the homeworld to her, you should first have spoken to me."
"Her integrity?" John was starting to steam…feeling he was on the verge of stumbling into an argument over yet another of those trivial Minbari things he didn’t understand. "How? Sweetheart, I wasn’t going to ask her to lie about anything…just to keep what I tell her to herself. So you’re saying I’m supposed to come to you for permission before I talk to my own daughter-in-law about MY experiences?"
In the tense silence that followed, a dropping pin would have sounded across the room. "I am not explaining this very well," Delenn finally murmured, backpedaling a little as her husband’s confusion started transforming into anger. Quietly, she continued, "You know I would never presume to silence you, zha’aia…even if I could. But you need to understand before you say more that Su’Salier Ardenn neither serves me nor answers to me any longer. She is now among us at Mistress Irilenn’s sufferance and is bound by her commands alone. Had you told me your intentions beforehand, I would have revealed what transpired during my encounters with my…mother…" she nearly spat the word, "and clarified the restrictions we must now abide by to keep Ardenn with us. You might have then had a more complete understanding of what you could safely say and what was better withheld."
"Yeah, but…whatever happened to that ‘Minbari either remain silent or speak the truth’ adage?" the elder Sheridan sputtered. "You’re saying I can’t count on Ardenn to keep her mouth shut?"
"No... only that you cannot extract any promises from her to do so," Delenn clarified, glancing furtively at her former aide. She was acutely aware of how much this turn in conversation was embarrassing her but the air needed to be clear between them before things were said that could not be forgotten. "Passing personal information about our family to her superiors would not be by her choice, I am sure…but for a Sister as junior as Ardenn, the option of silence may as well not exist. If her present Mistress happens to ask her if we have revealed anything interesting, she would either have to lie to protect us or tell the truth…protecting her place beside David but compromising our trust in the process."
"Please understand that I would never willingly reveal anything you tell me in confidence," Ardenn implored, looking at her heart-father. "I love the two of you far more than I care about these robes and I will resist such demands as strongly as I am able…but Delenn is ultimately correct. They are going to be far more intrusive in my life from now on and the Mistress will undoubtedly compel me to speak if she believes I am withholding information from her."
"She can do that? She has that kind of power over you?"
Across from him, both women nodded in unison. "Ardenn deserved the honor of being Elevated," Delenn interjected, "but Irilenn’s true intent in doing so was to bind her…and through her, us…to her purposes. I am not fully cognizant of what she intends, but we must be on our guard. I am hoping that…with Ardenn’s help…we can find a discreet way of gaining some leverage over her even as she thinks she is gaining it over us."
"I know it does not seem so right now," Ardenn added, "but my continued presence may prove to be as much a burden to you as a blessing…a burden I pray you love me enough to tolerate." Shaking her head morosely, she concluded, "It is not the kind of relationship I want us to have, but the only way I can safeguard your privacy is by asking you to keep me ignorant of anything you do not want to risk the hierarchy of the Sisterhood eventually learning. Irilenn cannot force me to divulge information I do not have."
"I... guess you’re right," John acceded... noting that even if he and Delenn heavily censored future conversations when Ardenn was present, she would invariably hear things they’d rather not have spread around. He personally couldn’t care less about what Delenn’s mother knew or didn’t know…except through Ardenn, she had no influence over him…but it obviously bothered Delenn and he didn’t want his daughter-to-be feeling like a spy in their midst. At least, he acknowledged with a mental shrug, the two women sitting across from him were being honest with him and themselves about it. "It just seems to me that there are things she needs to know, sweetheart…things you’ve never told her about. I mean, Lennier always seemed up on everything…"
Delenn pursed her lips. "John, it is true that I have not told her nearly as much as he knew…but my silence was not due to a lack of trust or confidence in her. When I chose to mentor Ardenn I vowed not to repeat my previous mistakes…that, this time, I would maintain the proper separation between a priestess and her acolyte."
"Lennier," Ardenn murmured, her curiosity piqued at the name. She had always wondered what transpired between Delenn and her former aide, and this was a subject the Sisterhood would likely have little interest in. "He is the one you mentioned during our journey here. You made mistakes?"
Delenn glanced at her husband and just as quickly looked away. "Throughout my life I have made many mistakes," she said to Ardenn, "but few that cut as deeply as those I inflicted on him. Knowing the errors I committed during my previous mentoring experience might have helped you better understand me. I should have told you of him long ago." Closing her eyes at the memory of her fallen friend, she sighed wistfully. "And I will rectify that," she murmured after a contemplative moment, "But not today. Today we have other crises calling for our attention. Suffice it to say that because of my experiences with him, I sought to keep you from forming any lasting attachment to me or my family. I failed, obviously, but I celebrate my failure with you more than I do most of my successes. Because of who you represent, however, I must continue to keep you from learning things that might compromise my husband and me…but in matters pertaining to David know that I will withhold nothing." Lowering her voice a little, she turned to her husband. "With that said, before you choose to continue, bear in mind that information you and I consider nothing but little family secrets might be very valuable to people who do not have our best interests at heart. My mother…as much as it pains my soul to admit it…is one of them."
Steepling his fingers, John tapped his chin in thought. "I’m going to have to think about this," he eventually murmured, fixing his gaze on Ardenn. "I don’t like the implications. Delenn and I don’t know what information Irilenn considers important…and your obligation, I assume, keeps you from telling us."
Ardenn hesitated a moment, then nodded. "It would…if I knew enough to tell you anything to begin with. But I do not. Outside of the scant information I learned during my time with her, I cannot predict what she might ask. I may wear the robes, but she does not believe me to be a loyal Sister."
John shook his head. Ardenn was in a difficult position…stuck between a superior who didn’t trust her and a family who, despite how much they loved her, couldn’t completely afford to. "Are you loyal?"
Had the question come from anyone else, the implied insult would have been beyond offensive. Her parents…and David…they were perhaps the only ones who had a right to ask. "I am without question," Ardenn acknowledged, drawing herself up. "I choose to interpret the Obligation in the spirit it was intended and, in this incarnation, I will serve loyally for the betterment of our people." With a glance at Delenn, the young Sister relaxed and allowed herself a smile. "My heart and soul, however…they are more than a single incarnation. They are eternal…and you know who they are loyal to."
"Had you said anything else," John noted, "this conversation would be over." With a sigh, he looked over at his wife as well. "I think I can give her a sanitized version…one that’s nonspecific enough for her to have some wiggle room if the Sisterhood starts squeezing her for information about us. What do you think?"
"I think I wish there was no need to have this conversation in the first place," Delenn muttered. "But if Ardenn is willing, you may proceed." Glancing at her suddenly apprehensive former aide, she lowered her voice. "It might put our privacy at some risk, but John is correct. If you are to join our little family in more than name, it is time we trusted you with at least a general recounting of our…ah, unique history."
< As if a Chrysalis-transformed Minbari Satai marrying a Human War Leader…and having a child by him…is not ‘unique’ enough? > Her brow ridge arching quizzically, Ardenn looked at each of them uncomprehendingly before she hesitantly nodded.
"Okay then," John briskly said. Turning back to the younger woman, he began, "When I fell at Z’ha’dum I was healed by, as you said, a sympathetic First One…a lone straggler from a race that had already departed long ago. He was dismayed by the conflict the Vorlons and Shadows were encouraging and thought I was the right person to do something about it."
"But you said…you said the First One caught and held you. Why would you need to be healed if you did not strike the ground?"
John chewed his lip. "Honey... my essence…my soul was caught. That doesn’t mean my body was." Delenn shot John a warning glance and cleared her throat. "Uh…unless you want your integrity…jeopardized…let’s just gloss over that little detail and say the sudden stop at the end of a long fall left me at the brink of death, okay? That’s at least an aspect of the truth you already knew. Now, the First One found me and used advanced medical technology on me…technology that, to a limited extent, was able to substitute for my natural biological processes."
"To a... limited extent," Ardenn muttered. "It seems to me that being alive is much like being with child. Either you are or you are not; there is no in-between."
"There is no in-between…for us," John corrected. "But the First Ones don’t really operate under the same set of physical restrictions we do. They’d evolved into a more energy-based state and I suspect the…healing…I underwent was intended for their own kind. It wasn’t completely compatible with a Human body. I was whole again, but…dammit, this is kind of tough to explain without getting all surreal…" Trailing off, John looked over at his wife. Her brow ridge arched inquisitively, Delenn cocked her head and stared back at him wearing a ‘this is your problem, buddy’ expression…so no help there. "Okay, Ardenn, it’s like this," he finally huffed, placing his hands opposite one another on the desktop. "Using First One energies to resuscitate a Human is a lot like using a blowtorch to light a candle. The candle gets lit, but half the wax melts away in the process. My benefactor had to compromise; healing me just enough to make me fully functional without overdoing it and having my body incinerate in a puff of plasma. Twenty relatively stable years was the best balance between my injuries and his repair capabilities he could strike. Later, when that time ran out, I didn’t want my still-young wife helplessly watching as I... well... stopped. I think that’s why I, uh, went to Sea at the end."
John had given Susan his word that he wouldn’t mention the word 'clone' in his family’s presence. Even after several months, he still wasn’t sure whether that was a good or bad thing. "Well…that last year…it’s not like I remember it, you know…uh, at least not first-hand. A lot could have happened in the interim."
Ardenn frowned, and John could almost see the gears turning in her head. She was wondering where this was leading. "This is all fascinating but what does your healing at Z’ha’dum have to do with David?" she asked in a low voice. "The two of you had not even conceived him at the time."
John looked over at Delenn once more. She nodded imperceptibly. "Well, you see…that’s kind of the issue," he answered. "The First One’s technology, life energy, magic…whatever you want to call it…was all that kept me alive after Z’ha’dum. It was present everywhere in me, right down to my DNA, constantly fixing any damage it found. Outwardly, I appeared the same as before but at the genetic level…uh, I wasn’t quite what you’d call a normal Human. In a way, I came back just as transformed as Delenn. All of that happened before our relationship became physical and, later, when we conceived…" pausing, John cleared his throat. "Um…we discovered the First One’s alterations were inheritable. David is mostly Human, part Minbari…and a little…well, to be honest we aren’t really sure."
< ...Inheritable... > The word, with all its implications, rang in her head. Remotely, the young Minbari realized that she was squeezing her mentor’s hand so hard that she was close to crushing her fingers, but the older woman was not complaining. With tears in her voice, she muttered, "So this is the curse you speak of. Even if a cure for the poison is found, my beloved’s life will exhaust itself as a…a blowtorch rather than a candle."
"No!" Delenn whispered sharply. "No... that is not what John is saying! The... the healing energies…they are present, but they do not affect David as they did my husband. As long as he has his own life energy he does not need the essences of the First One to survive, so they are not active."
"Then why are you telling me this?" Ardenn grated out. "Why burden me with the knowledge that my beloved has something... alien... floating around inside him?"
"Don’t think of it like that because it’s not alien," John gently corrected, "at least, not to David. He was born with it, so it’s as much a part of what makes him the man you love as anything he inherited from Delenn or me. And he’s not the only one it’s been passed to." At Ardenn’s disbelieving look, he shrugged. "Delenn did carry him, after all…and if you and he have been as…close…as I think you have…"
For an instant, Ardenn found herself back in the frozen North…deep under the ice sheet. < ...did you know that you have carried the essence of an Elder One? We sensed its presence. Did one give of himself to you? > "He and I... yes, there was some form of transference when we were... intimate. Do not ask me how I know, but I do. But if not an eventual death sentence, what does it mean?"
"For you and Delenn it’s just residual. Your bodies have absorbed it, but it's not tailored to you so it can't do anything to help or hurt you."
Unnoticed, Delenn startled at that statement but managed to remain silent. Her husband had no way of knowing, but that was far from true. Her promise to Irilenn paralyzed her tongue, but she was coming to suspect that David's unique inheritance... when coupled with Ardenn’s also-unique biochemistry... had played a part in hurting them both immeasurably.
Missing the instant of discomfort that flashed across his wife’s face, John leaned forward and looked the young woman in the eye. "For David..." he continued, "…well, he’s the flesh of my flesh. He looks fully Human because my First One-enhanced genetic imprint largely overrode any visible Minbari characteristics he inherited from Delenn; it also means the First One’s healing gift is just as much a part of him as it was me. Like Delenn said, it’s inert because he’s never needed it before…but if we’re unsuccessful in finding a counteragent for the spores he’s going to get sick again. At some point, his natural life energy will fall too far…and I’m worried that if it does the legacy I left him will wake up and start trying to make repairs. If that happens, it’ll succeed. Jha’dur’s bioweapon is advanced, but it wouldn’t stand a chance."
Delenn saw hope flicker across her former protégé’s face. She hated to crush it, but it was necessary. Now that John had told her, she needed to understand the ramifications. "We cannot allow that to happen, Ier’saia ... we must do everything we can to keep the First One’s essence inactive."
"But... but how can you say such a thing?" Ardenn stammered. "You would rather David pass beyond than be healed?"
"Honey, if we let it happen David will seem to make a miraculous recovery. The gift would wipe out the spores and you’d be the happiest woman in the world…for a little while. Ten, maybe fifteen years would pass and then…you’d start to notice things. He’d get tired more easily. He’d start showing some early grey in his hair. From there it would just be a matter of time."
"But David is different," the young Minbari argued. "Even if it is suppressed, he still has more than one source to draw strength from. You know I would never advocate the superiority of one race over another…but Minbari are hardier than Humans. We are stronger, we heal faster and we live longer…perhaps…"
"I understand what you’re saying," John sighed, cutting her argument off with a raised hand, "and believe me, this is one case where I wish Minbari were superior…but from a First One perspective comparing our physiologies is like comparing black ants to red ants. One may have slight advantages over the other in certain situations, but at the end of the day both are still ants. David’s Minbari heritage will be no more capable of handling that kind of energy over the long term than it was at keeping Jha’dur’s poison away."
"Once it starts," Delenn interjected, "it does not stop…even after the damage that activated it is repaired. The best healers in known space can do nothing to turn it off. This is why it must be kept dormant." Patting the young woman’s hand, she continued, "And we do not intend to give it a chance. We are returning to Minbar…but we are not going to Tuzanor. We are going directly to the city of the Wind Swords. Should they not have a counteragent or we prove unsuccessful in obtaining it, decisions will need to be made and the three of us will not have much time to make them."
Ardenn was aghast. "The…three of us?"
"There are a few options," John stated, "but none are pleasant. The best one is potentially as risky as doing nothing and I doubt David will consent to it…unless he can be persuaded. And if it comes down to that I don’t think Delenn and I are the ones he’ll listen to."
They had obviously talked strategy, the Sister realized, probably after they sent her and David ahead. She did not know whether to be elated…her beloved’s fate was not set in stone…or enraged that something so fundamental about him had been withheld from her for so long. And now…whatever their scheme, they needed her on their side to sell it to him. She suspected it was one she was not going to like.
And, as they explained it to her, that suspicion was confirmed. She wanted to blurt out her objections the instant she realized the disastrous implications of what they were contemplating…but as they discussed it she studiously withheld comment. Unbeknownst to her two companions, their worst-case scenario would almost certainly result in David’s death if put into action…but explaining how she knew presented her with her first true ethical dilemma as a Sister.
She needed time; time to find a way to dissuade them without compromising her vows. Fortunately, the hiss of compressed air as the hatch unsealed saved her from immediately responding. With a mumbled "I will consider it", she snatched up her satchel, bowed and exited the quarters as quickly as she could.
"Well, that could have gone better," John muttered as the door slid closed behind his now-troubled heart-daughter. "I suppose you’re upset with my bean-spilling…but if she’s going to enjoy the benefits of being in our family she should also be prepared to shoulder some of the burdens."
"I completely agree," Delenn responded, "but those burdens you speak of are best shouldered gradually and the one you chose is not the one I would have started her with. She is now doubly worried about David." With a sigh she rose and moved back into the sleeping area of the quarters. "Even so," John heard her muse from the other side of the partition, "there never seems to be a good time for worrisome news. If there were, it would not be called ‘worrisome’, would it? I should have told her of his heritage when I became aware their relationship had moved beyond friendship…and I ought to tell her about Lennier as well. She has avoided asking me directly until now, but I know she has always been curious about him."
"Telling Ardenn about Lorien’s gift before now wouldn’t have made any difference," John replied, rising to follow her. "You had no way of predicting that a situation where it was pertinent would come up." Leaning against the doorframe, he watched as she toweled her hair dry in front of the mirror. Clearing his throat, he paused a second and then added, "As for Lennier, it’s natural she’d want to know why someone as important as you went so many years between aides. Should you tell her?" He shrugged. "Well, that’s a question only you can answer…I’m sure you had your reasons for avoiding it before."
The offhand way he said the last left his meaning ambiguous. Delenn was not sure if he was referring to avoiding the subject of Lennier with Ardenn now, avoiding it with him all those cycles ago or both. She decided to opt for the former. "My reasons…" she echoed with a snort. Picking up a brush, she began raking it through her hair. "I take it you found my explanation that I wanted to train her in the traditional manner somewhat…evasive?"
She was brushing too vigorously, in John’s opinion. The motion reminded him of a religious flagellant, flogging herself over her sins. "That’s not what I said," he soothed, moving up behind her and prying the brush out of her hand. Gently drawing her hair away from her neck, he took over for her. "It’s your prerogative to choose what you say, who you say it to and when…and your reasons are your reasons," he continued as he worked at her tangles. "When you cite ‘tradition’ as your justification for staying silent, though…she looked like she bought it but it didn’t sound like the Delenn I know. And I think you were a little callous when you implied your life has been a series of mistakes. I’m a part of your life and I don’t see us that way. Did you make a mistake when you chose me?"
It was both, then. The ‘…instead of him?’ ending of John’s question remained unspoken, but she heard it nonetheless. Delenn tilted her head forward slightly, partly because she enjoyed it when her husband performed her hair-grooming ritual for her and partly because she did not want to look herself in the eye…not if they were about to resurrect this particular relic of her past. "You should know not to take everything I say literally," she chided. "The truth is I never told her because I have never known how to explain it. How do I tell her that her predecessor fell in love with me? That I let it go on without dissuading him? How do I justify what happened afterwards? Allowing something like that contravened every mentorship protocol I ever ascribed to…and even had it not; I was already in love with another man. Why did I permit it to happen?"
John hummed deep in his throat as he continued to brush. "I was that other man, you know," he observed after a moment. "I was there, too. I don’t remember you doing much permitting."
"I knew," she sighed, "and that should have been enough. As his mentor, I had an obligation to establish boundaries before his affection became something more." Swallowing, she lowered her voice. "As his friend, I owed it to him to tell him that the only aspect of my love he was denied was the one I could never give to anyone other than you. I never did either…at least, not in a way he understood."
"You didn’t want to hurt him."
Reaching up, she stilled his hand and turned to face him. "But I did hurt him," she quietly admitted. "I pretended not to notice the way he looked at me. I bestowed little gestures that could easily be misinterpreted. John, I even summoned him back when he tried to separate from me. Those things hurt him far worse than any momentary pain confronting him over the issue would have caused." Her voice hardening slightly, she concluded, "Humans say hindsight is twenty-twenty. You say you were there too. You obviously have an opinion; I am asking to hear it. Why did I do those things to him?"
"You need to turn back around," John softly shushed, placing a finger over her lips. "You’re tired, you’re punchy and I haven’t reached a hundred strokes yet." She was also more worried about David than she had led Ardenn to believe, he knew. One of her coping techniques…one John didn’t care much for but had never been able to break her of…was to fixate on lesser concerns when she was powerless to deal with the greater ones. Well…the trip back to Minbar would take three days; three days during which she’d be helpless to affect her son’s predicament in any meaningful way. The truth was that Ardenn had supplanted Delenn as number one female in David’s life and if talking about Lennier kept her mind off her diminished position for a little while, then he might as well go along with it.
With a frown, Delenn complied and he took up the brush once more. "It’s interesting that you’re finally asking me," he ruminated as he brushed. "But what I find more interesting is the way you ask: Why did you permit it to happen? Why did you do those things to him?" Pausing, he leaned down to her ear and whispered, "One thing I’ve learned from bitter experience is that it takes two people to screw a relationship up, so when you ask why you did or didn’t do something the best you’ll come away with is half an answer. The other half…well, it’s beyond us now. As for my opinion…are you sure you really want to know? I warn you…you might not like what you hear."
"You still married me…so whatever your observations were at the time, they must not have been sufficiently derogatory to make you reconsider having me as your wife."
"Now, that would have taken a pretty horrible bombshell," John reassured her with a grin. Glancing at her face in the mirror, he read her thoughts from her expression, chuckled and added, "Yeah…even more horrible than the war, sweetheart. I didn’t marry you with blinders on; I knew who I was getting…and I also knew you did far more to end the war than you ever did to start it." Brushing again, he conversationally continued, "But that’s another story for another time. Now…you and Lennier…hmm…" Pausing, he made an exaggerated show of considering the subject. "First, I want you to know that in the grand scheme of things, his pining over you was almost a non-issue to me. Not that he wasn’t important…" he amended, overriding the protest forming on her lips, "…I knew how he felt and I tried to avoid seeming possessive of you when he was around, but in terms of him coming between us I was never worried." With a sigh, he continued, "I just wish you’d asked me about this a long time ago…before it was too late for me to make any sort of difference."
"I did not say anything at the time because there was nothing you could have done."
"Like hell there wasn’t," John amusedly snorted, tilting her head farther forward so he could sort out her ends. "Honey, when it comes to fumbling through complex romantic entanglements, no race in the known galaxy can hold a candle to Humans. You’re probably right about Lennier…to him I was the bad guy so he wouldn’t have listened to anything I said. I could’ve lent you a shoulder to cry on, though…if you’d had enough faith in my ability to keep from turning Neanderthal over the situation to let me in back then."
"I know you to be a civilized man, John. I did not lack faith in you…it was simply not your issue. It was a Minbari matter between me and him."
"Not my issue? Honey, I’m your husband…your issues are always my issues. And with this one, your Minbari way of dealing with it was to ignore it and hope it went away. I remember waiting for you to give me some sort of opening…to solicit some advice or at least talk about how you felt but you didn’t. You shut me out. Even after everything blew up in our faces, you downplayed it. And to top it off, you acted like I was blind to the whole thing. You think I can’t tell when I’m in a love triangle? You think I’ve never been in his position before? Or yours? C’mon…get real."
"A love triangle?" Delenn snapped, breathing hard. "Is that what you think? That I carried on simultaneous affairs with the two of you?"
"Now don’t go putting words in my mouth," John lightly drawled, hoping his bantering tone would draw her away from becoming defensive. "I said there was a triangle. That doesn’t mean I think you were two-timing me…but that’s why you’ve never talked to me about this before. It wasn’t that it was a Minbari issue; it was because you couldn’t…not without telling me the whole story first. You’ve always been worried that if you laid the entire situation out…told me why you felt responsible rather than just saying that you did and leaving me to guess the rest…you’d reveal something that might make me think less of you." Raising her bonecrest slightly, he set the brush down and began parting the hair beneath with a comb. "Whatever went on, it happened almost twenty-five years ago. We’re married. He’s gone. You know that I’ll love you no matter what and I know you love me…but sometimes I feel like you’re also a little insecure around me and I’ve never understood that. Have I ever behaved in a manner that made you think you couldn’t open up to me?"
John immediately regretted asking that. He knew what the answer would be. "Once," Delenn whispered, hanging her head. "Even though I deserved the anger you displayed."
"You didn’t," John corrected, "and I’m very sorry about that ‘once’." Setting the comb aside, he wrapped his arms around her from behind and gently eased her back against him. "You know…I don’t think my opinion is really what you’re looking for," he breathed into her hair. "Maybe it’ll be better if I just outline what I think happened and leave opinions out of it. I’ve discovered that the ‘why’ usually answers itself when the ‘how’ gets aired. You don’t have to confirm anything you don’t want to…but at least you’ll know I’m either a perceptive sonovabitch or way out in left field somewhere."
Delenn snorted in slight amusement at his characterization of himself, although she regretted bringing the subject up in the first place. But she had…and it was too late to easily back out of it now. < What is it the Humans say? >, she thought, < Be careful what you ask for, because you may just get it? How true... >. After a moment she hesitantly nodded, signaling for him to continue.
"Okay, then," he huffed briskly. Shifting position so both their faces were in the mirror, he gazed at her reflection. "Start me off with a little credit," he began. "Concede that over the years I’ve learned a thing or two about how your people interact with one another. I’m not just some yahoo talking out my ass."
"So I can at least assume that you did not arrive at this epiphany after eating Spoo?" Delenn mused with a slight smile. Cocking a crooked finger to her chin, she pursed her lips and made show of considering the matter. "Very well…conceded."
"Good," John continued. "Now, based on what I’ve observed the two of you were a lot closer than Minbari normally get…but no, I don’t believe you were romantically involved and I never have. Under normal circumstances, I think a man in Lennier’s position would, in fact, try his darndest not to fall for a woman like you. Besides all the restrictions mentors and acolytes operate under, you were Satai to boot. To someone like him that’s so high up in nosebleed territory that he’d beg your forgiveness just for entertaining the idea."
"I do not recall him ever begging me for forgiveness," Delenn pointed out, curious to see where her husband was going with this despite herself. "And, as the idea obviously was entertained, perhaps you should take your observations ‘back to the drawing board’ as you say?"
"Nah…I don’t think that’s necessary," John airily replied, "because what I just said only applies to him. Lennier could admire you, be physically and spiritually attracted to you, even fantasize about what being with you would be like…but there’s only one circumstance under which I think he’d allow himself to believe a romantic relationship with you was actually possible. He would…if he knew you believed it was possible." Sparing a glance at her face in the mirror, he asked, "How am I doing so far?"
Delenn’s expression rapidly went from bemused to discomfited, and she squirmed a little in his embrace. "Now I know I missed seeing your lips move during that last statement, so are you certain of which orifice you are speaking from, beloved? Still, for supposition’s sake, let us say you are…generally…correct and I gave him reason to believe I was contemplating that sort of relationship. Given how complex formal Minbari mating can be, what might I have done to communicate my interest?"
"I dunno," John countered with a shrug, striving to keep his tone light, "The little angel on my right shoulder likes to assume the relatively chaste affection you displayed for him in public was as far as you went…but the devil sitting on my left doesn’t think a few fond glances and gestures would be enough by themselves. Lennier knew you were wrestling with a lot of unfamiliar emotions and impulses so whatever started the snowball rolling would’ve had to be pretty specific. It would’ve had to convince him that you weren’t just being affectionate…that you were consciously crossing a line for him that he couldn’t cross on his own for you." Tightening his arms around her in what he hoped she would interpret as reassurance, he kissed her lightly on the neck. "Look…I’m not saying you blatantly tried to seduce him or anything like that, but chastity isn’t the same as innocence and even Religious caste Minbari aren’t made of stone. He wasn’t a bad guy and I’m not so arrogant that I believe you swooned the first time you saw Starkiller. Between ‘Captain and Ambassador’ and ‘Us’ you had choices. Those were some rough times we lived through and if at some point you considered becoming more serious with him…you know, in a moment of stress or weakness…hey, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I can sympathize."
"In a moment of…weakness?" Delenn dangerously echoed, no longer smiling. "How…gracious…you are; disavowing arrogance yet at the same time insinuating that I could only desire him as a female desires a male if my judgement was impaired. Why do you assume it required some form of ‘stress’ for me to cross that line you mention? For that matter, what would stop me from being blatantly seductive when I crossed it? You forget I was all but outcast after my change so perhaps, with nothing left to lose, I found ways to fully experience this body’s so-called unfamiliar emotions and impulses; ways that, if descreetly undertaken, would not irredeemably violate my Religious caste beliefs. If I so chose, do you not think it likely that I would invite the only person I completely trusted at that time to assist me? Tell me, beloved, could you…sympathize…if such was the case?"
"Sweetheart... I didn’t say that was what I thought…"
"Then you are naïve where I am concerned…just as he might have been. Has it occurred to you that you never noticed romantic involvement between us because I never intended any? Your people are perfectly capable of enjoying sexual intimacy without establishing permanent relationships, so perhaps I became curious and decided to explore that aspect of my Humanity. As one proper Religious caste Minbari who assumed he was dealing with another, I imagine helping me satisfy that curiosity would be an activity he could misinterpret easily enough…a misinterpretation I would both be responsible for and be reluctant to discuss with my husband afterwards."
John’s brows furrowed. "You and he had sex? Casual sex?" he scoffed. "That’s not the Minbari way... and dear, I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer but I’ve been around for a while. Trust me... you’re a good actress when you want to be, but faking a hymen is beyond even your capabilities. You had one."
"Intercourse... how mundane and inconsequential..." Delenn snorted under her breath. "Having been around for a while, you should know better," she sarcastically parroted, "but in the interest of clarifying matters, I will spell it out. Unlike you, Lennier could stay in my quarters for extended periods without arousing undue notice and…as he remained totally devoted even after my change…well, leading him into sating my new appetites proved astoundingly easy. He was already adept at relaxation rituals…rituals most would consider mildly erotic…and I had no difficulty subtly introducing more provocative variants. He was reluctant at first, but once I guided him to my pleasure centers and allowed him to experience the intensity of my responses his reservations dissipated like smoke in the breeze. We spent nearly every night for the next human year discovering and delighting in the nuances of each other’s sexuality; all without doing anything…permanent. Oh, and John…" she offhandedly added, "…those mildly erotic rituals? They were only ‘mild’ to me when I was a full Minbari in total control of my body. Afterwards…well, with his stamina he was easily able to perform for hours without tiring and…given my loss of physical discipline…I gave of myself repeatedly during each of those interludes. It was indeed difficult not to fully succumb to him during those moments, but I did maintain enough resolve to withhold the last little bit…that trite ‘virginity’ of mine…for you." With that, she sighed wistfully. "But of course this is all merely, ah, food for your thoughts? He is no longer with us to confirm or deny my account and I am told I can keep a secret passably well."
Her blithe comments came across as the verbal bucket of ice water she intended them to be. No man likes to hear his wife discuss sexual encounters she might have shared with others and she was counting on that to make him drop a subject she’d become extremely uncomfortable with. But in the process of trying to shock him she’d gotten carried away and gone over the top. John didn’t need much more confirmation than that to know he was on the right track so, with Herculean effort, he bit back on getting upset. "Repeatedly? During each…interlude?" he disbelievingly guffawed. "That’s a good one…I guess I’m gonna have to start eating more flarn. Honey, are you sure we’re talking about same guy? The Lennier I remember had stamina, sure…but not THAT kind of stamina. If you’d ever even put out as much as a bare leg and a wink for him he’d have blown a wad like the Elephant Man and then conked out faster than last-place finisher in a Mutai. You’ve built yourself an interesting scenario there but I don’t buy one word of that tripe for a second and you know it."
"Why not?" Delenn bitterly retorted. "The more outspoken among my people were already calling me a human whore after our first dinner together, and even those willing to grant me the benefit of a doubt no longer considered me Minbari. Under the circumstances, is it so hard to believe I might also stoop to use the only one of my people who still loved me as a tool to pleasure myself?"
"Yes... yes it is," John soothingly murmured, "Precisely because of what you just said. He did still love you." Forcing a smile, he gently rocked her. "And I know you loved him, too…just not the way he wanted. You may have been an outcast to your people, but Lennier was still accepted. No matter how badly they trashed you…or how persistent those urges of yours got…you’d never have done anything to risk having your condemnation bleed over onto him. As for me, if I thought you were the type of woman who could abuse someone’s loyalty and trust like that you wouldn’t be one I’d give the time of day to, much less fall in love with. If that’s not enough, have you forgotten our Shan’fal? If anyone had ever laid an intimate finger on you before we became a couple, you were supposed to be completely honest with me about it..."
The weapon was there…and before the warning voice inside her head had a chance to tell her she was going too far, she reflexively picked it up and used it. "Do you mean as honest as you were with me about your marriage to Elizabeth?" she spat, "Or are you saying that because I was born Minbari I am not allowed to be a... a liar…like you?"
In the silence that followed, they both stood as still as statues…John jolted into speechlessness and Delenn equally horrified at what she had just said. "I have never lied to you…ever…about anything or anyone," he stiffly muttered after a moment. "And I find it funny you could say that about me…especially after the load of unadulterated bullshit you just spouted."
"I did not mean it, beloved," she quickly breathed. "It…just slipped out…"
Shaking his head, he relaxed his grip and pulled away from her. "Yeah…uh…well, don’t lose any sleep over it," he mumbled, "I’ve been called worse." With a sigh, he combed his fingers morosely through his hair. "Look…obviously this was the wrong time for this conversation and I shouldn’t have pushed you over it. We’re both cranky and we have a lot of more important things to worry about."
He had indeed been called worse, she knew…but not by her, and it was evident in his tone that no outlandish story could have slapped him down the way that one vile epithet had. Her conduct had been nothing short of reprehensible. All he had done was encourage her to talk about something she should have talked about long ago, and in return she had lost control of her temper and gone on the attack. And to add insult to injury she was abusing the memory of a dear, departed friend to do it. When she finally spoke, the words tumbled out so quickly that they almost ran together. "John…please…I realize you have never lied to me. You did eventually tell me about her and had anything even remotely resembling the…the tripe…I just fabricated actually happened I would also have admitted it long ago and trusted you to understand…"
"That’s not the point. You might’ve bruised my ego but I wouldn’t have held any past…experience…against you as long as it stayed ‘past’ once you took up with me. You’re the only one still hanging onto it…all I wanted was for you to get him off your chest so you’d have one less ghost following you around." Glancing down, he spied the tubes of lotion on the bureau, reached around her and picked one up. "Well, all I ended up doing was getting both of us upset so…ah, hell…let’s just drop it. I’ll be in the other room. I’m going to try patching through to Susan on the Stellarcom and slap on some of this goop before what’s left of my skin catches fire…"
"I... you cannot reach your back. Please…let me help you…"
"I DON’T NEED YOUR HELP!" he almost shouted, his control finally snapping for an instant. Drawing in a shaky breath as she winced and shied away, he forced his voice down. "I was hoping I could help you…that’s the point…but you’d rather wallow in all those so-called mistakes you think you’re keeping secret from me than free yourself from them. Look, I’ll…uh…manage the ointment somehow. You get some rest. I’ll…I guess I’ll join you in a little while."
"Lennier? Your son is poisoned, the Alliance is under attack…and you managed to get into an argument with Delenn…over Lennier? John…where’s your head at? The poor guy’s been dead for years! How can you be such a putz?"
"First I’m arrogant, and then I’m a liar, now I’m a putz. How am I the putz?"
Susan sighed and tiredly massaged her temples. Here she was, likely going into combat against what looked to be a vastly superior force within the next day or two…and her two best friends were in the midst of a lover’s spat. Obviously, this was a case of misplaced priorities. "You broke Ivanova’s Relationship Rule # 1, hardhead…" she clarified. "Thou shalt not get into it with thine Significant Other over previous relationships. You know why? Because if they’d meant anything, she wouldn’t be with you…she’d still be with the putz before you. It’s ancient history, kapiche?"
"Yeah... but... I didn’t bring the subject up. She did…twice. In Delenn-speak, that usually means she wants to talk about it."
"Talking about old beaus isn’t what she wanted, dumbass. She’s lost her job, her son is sick, her mother ripped her a new asshole and the Alliance she’s poured everything into is in upheaval. She’s feeling…down in the dumps. Whatever words came out of her mouth, what you should’ve heard was ‘I need some unconditional love right now’." Raking her fingers through her hair, the Anla’Shok leader eyed the stack of message traffic littering her desk, groaned and shoved it aside. "Okay, John…I’m not a marriage counselor and I don’t have a fifty-minute hour to walk you through this gently, so you and I are going to have a little ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting."
Across seventy light-years, John looked at her dumbly for a moment. "Come to Jesus? But you’re a Jew."
"And Jesus was one helluva rabbi. Now, I know getting religion is hard for you so we’ll start with the basics. Repeat after me: Ivanova is God. C’mon…let’s hear it."
"Uhh... Ivanova is God."
"And what is God? Omniscient, right? Sees all, the Alpha and Omega, knows you’re going to Hell before you’ve done anything to earn it…you know, biblical stuff. So let’s say it with a little more conviction this time, eh?"
Sheridan managed a chuckle. "Ivanova is God. God is omniscient."
"Much better. Now, faith is Delenn’s area and having it is great…but relying on faith to manage alone is, in this God’s judgment, a recipe for disaster. So, back in the old days when you had your hands full assembling the Chosen People and leading them out of bondage, God and her trusty sidekick the Archangel Michael trailed quietly behind you and policed up the battlefield. Among other things, God dealt with pirates, barbarians and beings with very shady agendas…unrighteous people that, for obvious reasons, you couldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. God also made it a point to know who among the Apostles…those would be the diplomats…were diddling who on the side. We never knew when one of the anointed might need a little…extra…persuasion to cough up additional ships or resources. None of them avoided God’s very detailed scrutiny…and I do mean none. You reading the Holy Scripture with God so far?"
"I... think so."
"Okay. Seeing as God is both omniscient and very protective of the people she cares about, do you think for one minute that she’d let some alien floosie who was dancing a tune to some other man’s flute weasel her way into a position where she could hurt you? No matter what other mistakes she might’ve made, trust God when she says that Delenn at least had enough sense not to crap her own nest. You were her Alpha and you will be her Omega." With that, Susan’s expression softened and she sighed. "You and I have been friends almost since the first time I put on a uniform, John. I knew your heart was broken after Anna passed…you were both desirable and vulnerable and, whether you admit it or not, you needed protecting. Today, I’ve grown to love Delenn like my own sister but…back then? I respected her and thought she was good for you…but that didn’t stop me from checking her out. If I’d found anything that made me suspect she was burning her candles at more than one end, I’d have run her off you so fast it would’ve made her pretty little head spin."
Chagrined, John hung his head. "I knew all that already."
"So... we’re done with this?" she brightly chirped. "Good... because I’ve got a lot of other stuff on my plate and that means you do too." Briskly, she grabbed the stack of flimsies she’d pushed aside and dropped it back in the center of her desk with a thump. Picking up the top flimsy, she quickly scanned it. "Since you’ve been out of the net, I’ve been getting all your mail…so, how’s the Sheridan investment portfolio looking?"
On the screen, her friend’s expression went from chagrined to confused. "Huh?"
"You’ve been sued. On behalf of the Order of the Sisters of Valeria, the High Entil’chan of Yedor has entered a judgment against clan Mir in the equivalent amount of…jeezus…five million Earth Alliance credits." Glancing up, she tsked, "willful defacement of a historical monument, negligent discharge of heavy weapons within city limits and exceeding allowable load tolerances on an urban district landing pad. And that’s just the physical damages. It would seem that after I left Minbar a member of said clan…tentatively identified as Delenn ra’Mir in various witness statements…used her melodious voice, scintillating personality and a healthy dose of gunboat diplomacy to harass and intimidate the meek and peace-loving Sisters. Needless to say, the clan refused to pay and Callenn forwarded the judgement to you." With a snort, she cast it aside. "He attached a note. I won’t bother reading it to you…it isn’t exactly a ‘To My Niece with Love’ card."
"Five... million…credits?" John breathed. "I don’t have that kind of cash lying around! I’ll…the only single asset I’ve got that’s worth that kind money is my parent’s farm…"
"I understand that kidneys are hot sellers right now…and you’ve got two that are practically brand new," Susan drolly commented. Picking up the second bundle of papers without missing a beat, she continued, "And go figure…here’s one from the Mistress herself. Good news! You and Delenn are saved from hitting up Lenny the Legbreaker. Irilenn says she’s willing to drop the matter…if you’ll agree to a face-to-face meeting with her."
"Well it sounds like she gets her captive audience, then. She’s got us by the short hairs unless we want to spend our retirement years living out of a shopping cart. Delenn and I will…"
"This says a private meeting…and she’s pretty specific about the definition of private. Delenn isn’t welcome and she has nothing to say to Ardenn. You, her…and she’d also like to talk with David alone."
"What the hell does she want from David and me? We’re not even Minbari."
"Well, I’ll hazard a guess that it has to do with creating natural Hubari. The Sisterhood doesn’t see Delenn as a one-shot. They see her as a starting point for the future of their race. As for David...it may simply be that she’s his grandmother and he’s the one member of her family she hasn’t had a crack at alienating yet." Laying the message aside, the Anla’Shok leader’s previously jocularity dissipated. "John…I don’t know how much Delenn’s told you yet, but you need to be extremely careful when dealing with her. Irilenn may be Delenn’s mother but she’s more like her full Minbari twin gone bad…all the beauty, all the intelligence, all the fire and steel…but with no softer side to counterbalance it. Unless you squat on her like an obese Pak’mara in heat right from the beginning, she’ll try to squeeze you for everything she can…and she’s got a lot more in mind than manipulating two young lovers."
"Hubari... " John thoughtfully mused. "EarthMed’s been all over that for the past twenty-five years. You have any idea how many articles and studies Stephen’s quashed? Any fourth-year xenobiology student with access to a genetic decompiler and a Minbari genome map could figure out how to do the sequences. No one’s figured out how to make them combine naturally, though." Putting his head in his hands, he gently massaged his temples. "I suppose I’m as sympathetic an ear as she’ll find, but I’m not sure either of our races is ready to take that step yet…the past is still too fresh. If that’s what she’s looking for…well, she’s playing with fire. I guess I’ll tackle it when I have to, but we’ve got a war to fight first."
Tapping a console recessed into her desktop, Susan studied a schematic. "My thinking exactly. We’ll save the species matchmaking for later. Did you get a chance to look over the fleet status? The dispositions?"
John rubbed wearily at his eyes and shook his head. "I looked them over. Not that it’s my place to question where you put ships…but what the hell are you doing? Little pockets here and there…and it looks like the Minbari and Earth would rather face off against each other than the enemy? What’s that all about?"
"It’s about self-licking ice cream cones. When the Warriors got control of the Minbari fleet, they put a couple of Warcruisers on the border with the EA…just to be on the safe side. Well, the EA saw that and moved a couple of their heavies in to balance it out. You know how it goes from there…the Minbari moved a couple more, the EA followed suit…until they forgot where the real threat was and built their own Rube Goldberg contraption." Leaning back in her chair, she grunted. "And I’m out here in hyperspace barely hanging onto my job. I know it sounds like a joke, but no one’s communicating in the Alliance right now…oh, they’re all talking AT one another, but there’s no single voice. I know you’ve got a lot on your mind but I need you to go home and straighten that out for me. The last thing we need is some nervous Earthforce Captain or cocky Alyt to over-exercise their stupidity muscle. I could sure use those ships and I’d rather we not do the Dilgar’s work for them."
"And the Dilgar?"
Susan sat back up. "I stopped over at Draal’s little retirement cabana on Epsilon Three and took a spin in his washing machine. Besides getting a butt-load of his philosophy about the fluid nature of the universe…and your importance in said universe, I might add…it looks like the Dilgar might hit the Drazi Homeworld first. By the way…you might also want to keep an eye on Ardenn. One of the…scenarios…the Big Kahuna threw up at me makes me think she’s going to try transforming like Delenn…and something’s going to go wrong."
"I’ll…hell, we’ve got to get back and get David taken care of first. If we blow that, there won’t be any reason for her to try. I’ll, uh, try to sound her out about it later."
"Yeah…that’s another minor issue right now. There was more about the Dilgar. They’ve got some behemoths; city-ships that rival the First One planet killers in size. I don’t know what their capabilities are, but I believe they’re troop transports rather than fighting warships. At least I’m hoping so, because the Armada’s Penetrators will be more than enough. Judging from what I saw, I’m thinking planetary invasion."
"Have you got enough with you to stop it?"
"Two Victories, a Warlock and two White Star wings. It’s all I could sneak out from under the Interim Council’s nose." She gloomily shook her head. "John, I’ve calculated enough force ratios in my time. Even with a technological edge and that reputation for dynamic leadership I somehow got hung with, it won’t be enough. They’re going to strip the Drazi’s Sunhawks and our White Stars off with the Penetrators, drive the heavies back into the planet and we’ll be subatomic particles before the first city-ship even shows itself."
"You can’t pull some more ships from other systems near the Drazi?"
"I already tried. The Council’s hung a watchdog on me who’s rubber-stamping every change I make. They…aren’t convinced." With a flash of anger, she slapped the desktop. "John, I’ve been trying to hold everything together but it’s been a running gun battle with them the whole way! I understand that Delenn had to go get you…but dammit! It’s going to be chaos in the Alliance after this fight’s over and it’ll be every world for itself! If that happens, we’re going to lose! And there’s nothing I can do about it out here except die for the One! I know the Council thinks they’re doing the right thing but I need one of you to take the reins from them before it’s too late! Tell me what to do!"
John sat silently…weighing options while Susan ranted. When she finished, he stroked his chin thoughtfully, sighed and said, "Let the Dilgar have the planet."
Susan simply stared at him through the pickup for a long moment, not sure she’d heard correctly. "Have you lost your mind?" she finally ventured. "John…this is the Anla’Shok we’re talking about. I know you remember that Martel guy from a few years back. He was practically cashiered just for braking off a Raider pursuit! Break off with a whole fleet? They’ll be chasing us through the streets demanding our heads on a stick…"
John shrugged. "I didn’t say break off…I said let them have the planet. You’ve presented me with two scenarios…lose the fleet and lose the planet or save the fleet and lose the planet. So…the One says that the first battle’s not when he wants you and your Rangers to die for him." Leaning in towards the screen, he seemed to consider something for a moment. "There’s a political reality…the survival of the Alliance…to take into account. A single defeat can be overcome, but an unmitigated disaster will ruin everything. I don’t want you advertising this to your Anla’Shok, but these are Entil’zha’s instructions: Continue with your present course of action. I want you to fight as hard as you can…do as much damage to the Dilgar as you can…but I want your forces to have an exit strategy and I want you to exercise it when the time is right. Put up enough resistance to let our people know we fought sincerely…but don’t let yourself become decisively engaged."
"Give them a good show, eh?"
"Yeah... that’s what you’re doing. Giving them a good show. Let the Dilgar know their tenancy is temporary and then withdraw fighting. Bring your people home. As for the Interim Council and the Alliance…" Glancing up John noticed Delenn standing in the partition, her expression forlorn…and made his decision. "I’ll…I’ll take care of that part. They’ll be speaking with one voice again soon." Managing a lopsided grin that didn’t make it to his eyes, he closed with, "And don’t forget…Ivanova is God, right?"
Susan managed a rueful snort. "So…why am I not feeling particularly holy all of a sudden?" Reaching out, she mimed a Minbari farewell. "You get back home and do what you need to do for David," she admonished, "but don’t forget about us out here in the hinterlands."
"We won’t. Walk carefully in those empty places for me, Anla’Shok Na." With a parting nod, he terminated the connection and turned to face his companion…unsure about what to say to her.
"I apologize for disturbing you," Delenn quietly announced into the tense silence her presence had caused. "If you are still busy I will not bother you, but you have been in here for some time and I was a little cold by myself. It occurred to me that perhaps…perhaps you decided that remaining out here was preferable to sleeping with me."
"No... it’s not that," John grumpily harrumphed, jerking a thumb at the terminal by way of explanation. "I was talking to Susan. She’s got the world on her shoulders right now and…I guess I let the time get away from me. It sounds like she needs to be in about ten places at once. The League, the Warriors…Earth…the Dilgar…" he grunted wearily and rested his head in his hands. "It’s all starting to unravel. Apparently everything’s going to hell in a handbasket out there."
Delenn cast her eyes down at the floor. "Hell in a handbasket out there…" she echoed. "I fear I have caused much the same in here." Pausing, she licked her lips. "John, I…the subject we were discussing is an emotional one for me and I…lost control. My comments were inappropriate, hurtful to you and…untrue. I cannot allow them to remain in the air between us without trying to atone."
"Don’t worry about it," John tiredly demurred, waving a dismissive hand and glancing away. "It’s all water under the bridge. I’ve already forgotten about it."
Even though she did not deserve such a gesture, he was still trying to protect her honor. "You may have," she whispered, "but I cannot." Hesitantly, she padded over, laid an object carefully on the desk before him and knelt. "There is a formal ritual for responding to my thoughtlessness and my accusation," she softly murmured, drawing her hair away from her neck and resting her head on his knees, "but given our current circumstances I humbly request you forgo the preparatory litany and…" she swallowed "…and simply do what you must."
Curiously, John picked up the object and eyed it. "What’s this for?" he mused, turning it over in hands.
Delenn adjusted position slightly. "I wrongly named you as a liar. When Minbari err as I have erred, tradition dictates the offended party has the right to expunge the blemish on his honor…swiftly and fatally, if such is his desire." Craning her neck to better expose her jugular, she closed her eyes. "If you do so desire I will not resist," she theatrically announced. "Please…I ask only that you put me out of my misery quickly."
"And I’m supposed to do all this blemish-expunging…" John incredulously mused, "…with this? A dinky plastic butter knife? No one’s misery is getting ended quickly if this is all I’ve got."
"It was left over from my dinner. My...my last meal, should you decide the ultimate sacrifice is necessary. It was the only remotely suitable implement I could find, so it will have to do."
"Talk about the ‘death of a thousand cuts’…" he muttered under his breath, experimentally poking his thumb with the object in question. "Honey, this thing doesn’t even have a serrated edge. I might as well be sawing with a violin bow."
He couldn’t be sure, but for an instant it looked like the corners of her mouth quirked with a hint of amusement. "Would it be easier if I recovered the fork also?" she responded, totally deadpan. "I was hoping that searching through my waste bin would not be my last act in this incarnation…but I will do so if the beloved husband whose integrity I besmirched commands it."
Okay... he hadn’t been sure before, but now he knew she was jerking his chain. Bemused, John stared down at her for a long moment and then started to chuckle. Delenn could be such a piece of work sometimes. He had to give her credit though; she was sincerely ashamed of herself and had come up with a very unusual way to wiggle back into his good graces. Placing a finger under her chin, he lifted her head off his lap and gazed down into her eyes. "Well, hell…that’d look real good in Universe Today, wouldn’t it?" he grinned as his laughter subsided. "I can see the headline now: First Ex-President Nicks Second Ex-President to Death with Dull Picnic Flatware. They’d run it on the back page alongside the story about the crazy wanker who tied balloons to his lawn chair so he could float over the stadium and watch ball games for free."
That elicited a slight, uncertain smile. "I... I was hoping to amuse you…at least a little. But I do want you to understand that I truly regret everything I said. I allowed myself to become defensive and angry. You did nothing to deserve it other than knowing me well enough to see through my evasion attempts."
"I know," John breathed, kissing her softly on the forehead before resting her head back on his lap and twining his fingers in her hair. "And I hope you understand that I never set out to hide Lochley from you. It was over so quickly…I mean, I had teenage erections that held up longer than she and I did. And with us…we had so many other crises hitting back then that I forgot. By the time I realized that I’d never mentioned her I was afraid you’d have second thoughts if I sprang a failed marriage on you so late in the game." Chuckling at the memory, he continued, "As I recall, I droned on for almost two hours during our Shan’fal even without talking about her anyway. You must have been pretty bored by the time I finished. All you owned up to was a clumsy five-minute spin in the Temple broom closet with Mayan…" with an amused snort, he added, "…just to see how it felt."
"Actually, I found your recounting of previous experiences…intriguing," Delenn demurely responded, secretly relieved that her ‘butter knife’ absolution had mollified him. John had never been one to remain angry long, but they needed to be united now more than ever…and it was true; her bed was cold without him in it. "Especially when you demonstrated the talent that earned you the name ‘Swamp Rat’." Sitting back up, her tone became more formal and she lifted her chin regally. "As for Mayan and I…before you get any wild ideas we were not in a broom closet. It was the rare book room in the Temple library and the encounter was so…anticlimactic…I was not even going to mention it. After your overly lengthy and detailed dissertation, however, I felt slightly inadequate having nothing comparable to respond with." Her face reddening at the memory, she concluded, "Neither of us had any idea what to do. The kissing and fondling rituals were mastered easily enough, but everything afterwards was out of a bad comedy. As the text we had purloined neglected to mention undressing before proceeding to more complex techniques, we were far more frustrated than sated when Draal found us hopelessly tangled in each other’s robes on the floor. Fortunately, he was merciful and reported us to the Miraala as merely…ah, two foolish novices caught in the act of failing to attain enlightenment."
"Score one for Human experience; zero for Minbari higher education," John laughed, making a tic mark with his finger in the air. Reclining as his laughter tapered off, he hissed and painfully jerked as his spine made contact with the chair. "Ah…you were right about my back," he mused with a wince. "I was able to reach most everything else…"
"Most... everything else?" Delenn repeated with a slow smile. "I was able to reach…most…everything else also. I suppose we could…cooperate…over the rest?" Rising gracefully, she offered her hand. "Beloved, if you are finished saving the galaxy for the moment please join me. There is something I would like to show you."
Curiously, he twined his fingers in hers and allowed her to lead him back to the sleeping area…only to pause in surprise at the partition when he saw what she had done. To conserve space, many White Star cabin fixtures were installed on rotating platforms, so the same area could serve several different functions. In this case, spinning the mirror where they had previously been standing in one direction left an innocuous, mass-produced nature scene. If turned in the other...
...there now stood a minature Minbari prayer alcove, complete with a reddish-backlit Triad and flickering candles. On the floor in front of it, several blankets and pillows were strewn about, along with several more clusters of candles, all unlit. While to the untrained eye the items looked randomly placed, John was experienced enough to realize that there was a pattern – one he thought he’d seen before, but couldn’t immediately place. Releasing his hand, Delenn advanced into the center of the room and turned to face him. With a flourish, she indicated the arrangement. "What do you think?"
"You somehow managed to find all these candles…" John dumbly mumbled, "…in this little room, aboard this tiny ship, out in the middle of the Big Empty…and the only ritual item you could come up with to offer me was a flimsy piece of plastic?"
Delenn cocked her head and eyed him indulgently. "Well, this is a…tiny…Minbari ship after all," she murmured. "A generous candle supply is to be expected. They were in a cabinet behind the shrine." Her expression falling a little, she continued, "I meant the offer of the knife as a gesture of humility on my part; one I hoped you would find humorous enough to at least reopen our dialogue…yet a display of humility does not substitute for the atonement I mentioned. John, I know how you feel about rituals, but after wrongly subjecting you to my misplaced temper I am not sure I will sleep until I have. Atoning will be easier for me this way."
"Honey... all you did was get mad and call me a nasty name," he demurred. "If it makes you feel better, I already forgave you the moment I left the room. You didn’t have to go to all this trouble..."
Clasping her hands in front of her, she cast her eyes down. "Forgiveness is a blessing the wronged can grant, but atonement is an act only the perpetrator of a wrong can do," she cryptically responded. "If you truly wish to…to set me free, both are required. This ritual…neither forgiveness nor atonement is its purpose, but it is a good venue for both." Gesturing at a pillow facing the Triluminary sigil, she indicated he should sit.
After he settled, Delenn slipped around from behind him and positioned herself…going down on her knees directly to his front, yet with her back to him. With a sigh, she slipped her arms out of her robe and let the bodice of the garment pool around her waist. John’s brows arched curiously. "Uh…sweetheart…not that I mind the view, but it’s easier to kiss and make up if we’re facing one another."
"Easier?" Delenn chuckled. "Well, I suppose that depends on my plan for making up." Scooting herself backwards until her bottom was pressing against his shins, she gathered her hair, loosely twisted it and drew it forward over her shoulder. Much to her companion’s surprise, she then leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees. "I am ready whenever you are," she murmured in a low, amused voice. "If you need better access, you may put your hands on my hips and position me where you think best…oh, and you will need this…" Reaching behind her, she tapped his knee with a tube. "When you begin, please work it in slowly and gently, beloved. I am very sensitive right now and the friction may be more than I can tolerate if you move too quickly or press too hard."
Behind her, John was progressing through varying levels of heart failure, his gaze alternating between his wife’s very inviting posterior and the tube of gel in her waiting hand. "Uhh…honey?" he managed to weakly stammer, "Ah…look…don’t get me wrong; I like it when you’re humble every now and then…but doggy style isn’t…uh, exactly what pops into my head when you talk about atoning for something."
"Doggy... style?" Delenn echoed. "John, what are you talking…oh…" she paused mid-sentence, and then he saw her shoulders shake slightly in amusement. "Beloved, when you next cleanse your body," she archly intoned, "wash out your mind as well. It is absolutely filthy in there. My back? How can you apply lotion if you cannot see the area where you are supposed to be applying it?"
"Oh... yeah... your back... uh, right." With a snort at himself, he took the container and squeezed out a large dollop. As he smeared the ointment over his hands and let his body heat warm it, he conversationally continued, "You know, sometimes I think you get a kick out of messing with my head. You had me thinking you were offering…uh, something physical…for a minute there…"
"Then I take it you do not remember the true purpose of this ritual? It is you who provides the offering…ooohhh, In Valen’s name…much better…" As she spoke, John began applying the salve, spreading it gently over her shoulders. "…I am merely…the vessel through which the Universe receives it…" she moaned, leaning back into him as he worked the gel in. "I suppose it is understandable you would forget…it has been over fifteen Human years…" Letting the thought go, her head fell forward to give him better access as his kneaded her neck.
The two stayed like that…Delenn remaining still and silent as John’s hands played across the muscles of her shoulders and back…for some time, each lost in their own thoughts. Just as he was starting to think she might have dozed off on him, she straightened and sucked in a deep breath. "You were closer to ‘perceptive... ah, sunonthebeach?’ than you were to ‘left out in the field’, beloved," she sighed as she exhaled.
"About my relationship with Lennier. You were right about me being the one to cross the line."
John paused for an instant, and then started massaging again. "We don’t need to go back there, sweetheart. I’m not your confessor and I shouldn’t have tried to be."
"But you are, John…" she quietly replied. "You are my husband and, as you said, my problems are your problems…just as yours are mine. My actions have shown that this is a subject that can still hurt me…and make me try to hurt you…so I must put this one ghost to rest. If you wish to…to set me free from my mistakes as you say…I am willing to speak and I will try not to become defensive this time. I cannot promise I will succeed." Pausing a moment, she sighed and lowered her voice slightly. "I also cannot promise that your ego will come away completely unbruised."
"I told you I wasn’t going to hold anything against you," he softly responded, aware that they’d be right back where they started if he let that bane of alpha-males…jealousy…slip in. "If it helps you…atone…well, I’m here and I’m listening. I’ll accept whatever you tell me and if you want to stop I’ll leave it at that."
"Thank you," she acknowledged in a whisper. Falling silent once more, she gazed at the Triluminary sigil, gathering her thoughts. "As you deduced, my relationship with Lennier was never a romantic one," she began, "but after my transformation, I did encourage him to believe that such was possible. Had I not done so, he would never have contemplated being anything more than my student and friend. Nothing that passed between us was blatantly sexual, you understand…as you said, that is not the way of our people...but he perceived my actions as unmistakable signals of willingness to join with him." Pulling her gaze away from the Triluminary, her eyes fell forlornly to her lap and she lowered her voice. "I wish I could say that he misunderstood, but that would place the blame on him. I led him to misunderstand; given what I did, any Minbari male in his place would have assumed the same. When I later recognized the magnitude of my mistakes, I could see no way to extricate myself without causing even more harm to him…and I was afraid that if I approached you for help, you would start doubting the sincerity of my commitment to you. I fear I may accomplish that anyway."
"We’ve been through too much together for me to ever doubt that. I’m okay with what you’ve said so far..."
"Perhaps you are, but I am not ‘okay’ with any of it," she huskily stammered as John began working salve into the blue-tinged path that was all that remained of her spinal ridge. "Not then, and not now. My…carelessness…caused extreme emotional turmoil to a good friend and also led to an incident that nearly cost me half my soul. You and Lennier should have been like brothers after all you went through together, but you never could be because I placed myself between you. That triangle you mentioned; it existed because I created it…and it all arose from an uncertainty I should never have entertained." Drawing a shaky breath, she hung her head. "Uncertainty about us. Do you now understand why I have never before spoken of it to you?"
John pursed his lips. Her admission of uncertainty stung more than her so-called ‘food for thought’, because he could tell it was true. "What I understand is that this has been eating you up for years and it’s long past time you and I drove a stake through its heart once and for all. Please…go on. Nothing ever sounds as bad as you think it will before you say it."
"Remember that when I finish," Delenn huffed in resignation. Pausing, her brow ridge furrowed. "Do you remember our first na’fak cha?" she finally asked, "The one where I presented you with your new uniform?"
"That’s kind of a tough one to forget," John acknowledged with a nod. "You were in Medlab after being kidnapped and stabbed. And I told you that I loved you…" With a snort, he amended, "…well, I fumbled through something along those lines, anyway."
Delenn smiled faintly at the recollection. Her husband’s convoluted explanation of how important she was in his life was, to her, perhaps the most beautiful explanation of her worth as a person she had ever heard. "Yes…well…before I was seized by those filthy Nightwatch I’sildumae," she continued, "I was in the process of arranging for the proper ceremony. As I also intended to participate, I was required to fulfill the same two conditions as the other attendees. I needed to reveal a secret I had never before revealed and to surrender something of great personal value."
"I always wondered about that," John murmured. "Maybe I was being a little presumptuous, but I was half-hoping you’d share yours with me. I mean…I could tell you were happy with mine…"
"Happy?" Delenn exclaimed, privately grateful for any opportunity to digress. "Beloved, ‘happy’ is an egregious understatement. I was so excited that my heart rate set off alarms in the nurse’s station…but no matter my feelings, I could not compromise my position during the ceremony. As your Mira, I was not allowed to speak; only to listen. Had we conducted things properly, I would have explained that to everyone prior to beginning."
Having finished with her back, John gently placed his hands on her hips and pulled gently. "I figured that out eventually," he murmured as she uncrossed her legs and allowed herself to be eased fully into his lap.
Allowing her head to fall back against his chest, she closed her eyes for a moment, enjoying the vibrations his heartbeat sent through her crest. "In any event, even had I not been officiating I could not have exchanged mine with you," she continued with a sigh. "Once a secret is revealed, repeating it would be an insult to the listener initially entrusted with it. By the time you and I were alone I had already passed mine to another." At that, her face fell a little. "Or, at least…as you say; it was something along those lines."
"So I assume Lennier is the person you fulfilled that ceremonial obligation with," John mused, unable to see her changed expression. "Okay…that seems straightforward enough."
"It was anything but," Delenn countered, shaking her head ruefully and nestling closer. "Beloved…my intended secret should be no great surprise. I had known I was in love with you for a long time but I had never revealed the true depth of my feelings to anyone…and if sharing that revelation had been my only requirement I would have indeed entrusted you with it. But, as I said, I had two obligations…" For a moment her voice broke and she swallowed. "And the second…my surrender…was not one I could satisfy with you. To give my secret real meaning the surrender needed to occur first and only another Minbari could aid me in performing it. Before I uttered the words aloud, before I actively committed myself to the path my heart yearned to follow…I wanted to be absolutely sure I was right for you…and you were right for me…"
Her breathing was becoming labored. Forgetting how sensitive her skin still was, John wrapped his arms around her and leaned forward slightly, drawing a yelp from her. "Sorry…sorry," he shushed, easing up the pressure. "It’s okay…I waited before saying anything because no one had ever plunged into a relationship like ours before. I wanted to be sure, too…"
It was as if she didn’t even hear him. "My thing of value, John…" she almost hissed, "At first I was not going to give it…I had already surrendered so much…but my love for you demanded it. It was to be my last personal sacrifice. You see, even after my change I still considered myself wholly Minbari. I was wearing this partially Human body; I was in love with a Human but I still saw the person I had once been when I looked in the mirror. If I was to love you as you deserved to be loved, I knew I had to surrender the last vestige I carried of my former life…my self-image. I wanted to emerge reborn from the na’fak cha as a true Human; one who functioned as a Minbari when necessary, yet was also able to unite all the races as only a Human could. But, above even that…I wanted to be a real woman to you."
"You already were a real woman to me," John protested. "I never wanted you to give up a shred of your identity…I loved you for who you were, not who you thought I would want."
"But I did not know who I was," Delenn countered, "I knew we two were the right people for the struggle that lay ahead, but were we the right people for each other? We could be friends, we could be partners, but could we truly be One? How could I presume to profess my love when I was still not reconciled with my own identity? Before I revealed my secret, I had to know beyond doubt that the Universe meant for my soul to be Human…to join with a Human’s…and there was only one way I could see to find out. The evening before I was abducted, I summoned Lennier to my quarters. I told him that after much soul-searching I had chosen to reveal my secret to him…but I was going to withhold it for one night. When he asked why…"
"Sweetheart... what did you do?"
"I... I told him I could not reveal what was in my heart until I had seen his true face." If she could have crawled completely into his robe and hidden herself away, she would have. Her voice, when it came, was so muffled he could barely understand it. "I invited him to stay with me for the first night of sleepwatching."
His true face had been…breathtaking.
It had taken her long to admit to herself that she even wanted to see it; he was so young when they met…just out of training and not even truly an adult. Not that she was much older…their age difference was negligible as her long-lived people considered such matters…but the strict rules regarding relationships between seniors and subordinates alone should have been more than enough to keep her at bay. And for well over two cycles, they had.
She knew from their first hesitant greeting bow she had feelings for him, of course…feelings that, because of their respective positions, she would have to hide very carefully…but two people who spend so much time in close quarters often cannot help developing a relationship outside professional boundaries. And so it was with them…service eventually led to friendship, and friendship…what was it the Humans said? Love works its most succinct magic when the two people involved are fast friends first?
It was his sixteenth cycle naming anniversary, the first night she watched. The small ceremony marking his ‘official’ passage into Minbari adulthood had run long and the weary guest of honor had neglected to close his bedchamber door all the way after the festivities ended. Passing by on some meaningless diplomatic errand, her original intent had been to quietly pull it closed and continue on her way…but something in his features seemed to draw her in and she found herself approaching his bedside instead. Realizing what she was doing was forbidden and terrified of it; she nevertheless reached out, gently trailed a finger along the curve of his jaw and silently admitted that her soul was his for the asking. And then she brushed her lips against his…softly, lest she ruin the moment by inadvertently awakening him. There would be other opportunities; she would be his for two more nights…and forever afterwards…but he would never know. No one could ever know.
For her, joining her soul with his during that First Night had not taken a night. It had not taken an hour, thirty minutes or even five. For her, it had taken no more than a single instant of stolen intimacy.
Now, that stolen moment seemed so long ago…
"You are feeling it, are you not?"
"Pardon?" The voice shook Ardenn out of her daydream. Glancing away from the glass separating her from the sleeping David, she found the Light Wanderer’s healer… Hela’mer Avaan, she had since learned…standing beside her. Somewhat embarrassed at having been caught unaware and mindful of their previous interaction, she turned back to the glass and guardedly murmured, "There is something you think I should be feeling now?"
The healer made a show of fiddling with some medical odds and ends on a low table. "Your facial expression and body language are not entirely unfamiliar to me," she explained as she arranged her instruments. "I have come across a few others with your symptoms before…possessiveness, excessive watchfulness, a tendency to be overprotective…" she paused and smiled. "…not to mention the very noticeable arousal scent you are wafting about wherever you go. If I were Religious caste, I would say that you are li’ransa, but in my previous life the females in my barracks simply called it the Yearning. You feel a void deep inside you… an ache that only one person’s touch can soothe…and until he does, you will not be complete." Straightening, she turned her palms up in a shrug. "It is natural…it happens to most of us sooner or later. You and he either deal with it together, you find a quiet place to indulge yourself for a little while or…if you are truly a glutton for self-punishment…you let it fester until you become Sechli Sakarr. Personally, I believe the first option is the most satisfying, although the second will suffice in its absence."
"And you attended how many cycles of specialized training to develop such remarkable insight?" Ardenn curtly huffed. "Remind me when we return home to have my medical records transferred to you. I am sure you will find me a fascinating study."
"Defensiveness and a short temper are also symptoms," Avaan airily noted, "But as my Shok’na’s glowing descriptions of you did not include the caveat that you were difficult to get along with, my diagnosis in this case would be that your sour mood is the result of fatigue and apprehensiveness…rather than misplaced jealousy."
Ardenn shook her head. With everything that had happened…with everything she had learned…she was close to being overborne by worry and frustration. With the only person she could comfortably share her burden with unconscious, her control was failing and her tension was leaking through as antipathy towards an innocent. "I apologize," she murmured. "You are correct…I cannot deny that I am li’ransa and I am definitely tired. It is not you. I just have…many things to think about right now."
"I took no offense…I am also worried about him. Were I in your position, I would feel just as overwhelmed." Falling silent, Avaan edged closer and let her gaze follow her companion’s to the man resting in the isolation bay. "Li’ransa fel Helas’sa…" she quietly sighed under her breath. "They do not really understand it, you know…the Humans. I have become friends with many of them during my time in the Anla’Shok and, among the females especially, we compare notes. They are very much like us but they have no true analogy for our compulsion to take a specific mate. Their urges are more generalized and their society allows them to engage in sex without love as a direct corollary, so they often couple for physical pleasure alone. Most I have met are surprised when they learn we need to possess the soul of a partner before we can derive any true satisfaction from his or her body."
The young Sister had heard most of this before…and considered a lot of it drivel. "Just between us, hela’mer, it is not all about souls. Our essences reside in bodies for a reason and when we are with the right partner there is nothing wrong with enjoying lovemaking on a purely physical level. I can only speak for myself…but when I am ‘in the moment’ ensuring that my soul is being properly possessed is not particularly high on my priority list."
"I should hope not," Avaan demurred with a chuckle. "Were that the case, we truly would be as dull as some of our Human brothers and sisters think we are." Looking down, she gently took Ardenn’s forearm, turned it over and pushed her sleeve up. "A battle scar…" she digressed, critically eyeing the slightly-puckered slash marring her skin. "Even though honorably earned, you should still have brought it to my attention when you were here before."
"My attention was elsewhere at the time."
"At least it appears to be healing properly." Taking up a sterilizer, she began applying it to the wound. "May I ask you a personal question, Revered Sister?" she conversationally asked after a moment spent waving the wand. "Not as a physician…merely as someone whose good friend is in love with you?"
Ardenn had no desire to have anything personal about her bandied about among the Anla’Shok females in the communal bays, but Avaan appeared to be making an extra effort to be friendly so she might as well reciprocate. "You may ask," she responded with a nod. "Whether or not I answer…well, I suppose that depends on the nature of the question."
"When you mentioned being ‘in the moment’…were you discussing sexual climax in the abstract or have the two of you already experienced it together?"
Ardenn hesitated. The question was far more direct than she would have expected from one of her own people…but Avaan had lived among Humans for a while and her mannerisms hinted that she was originally a Warrior, so circumspection was likely not a skill she had cultivated. As someone whom she was coming to suspect had more than a passing interest in her beloved, the healer probably also knew they had not formally been a couple long enough to complete all the rituals necessary for physical intimacy. "As you can no doubt imagine, growing our relationship properly has been…difficult," she carefully began, unsure of how much she could comfortably say. "Not because of the difference in races…his humanity is one of the traits I love most about him…but because of me and all the eyes that seem to be peering over my shoulders wherever I go. You understand I was not a Sister when we revealed our hearts to one another?"
"I recall that your robes were different when you were Delenn’s aide. You were an Apprentice to the Sisters then?"
Ardenn nodded. "When I was notified of my elevation, I thought I was permanently returning to cloister. The Sisterhood does not care whether or not one is in the midst of the joining rituals when she is summoned and I was certain David and I would never see each other again. To leave without…without completely knowing each other…to go without him fully experiencing the depth of my love or my commitment…" she shook her head and lowered her voice. "I could not do it; no matter how many traditions I had to cast aside, I was not going to depart without us sharing one moment of perfect beauty." She looked the healer in the eye…daring her to comment. "And when we came together as one, I received even more than that; he somehow reached inside me and transformed my moment of perfect beauty into one of sheer ecstasy. Does that answer your question?"
The Sister sighed. "But now here we are…and once he is healed and regains his strength, we can hopefully pick up where we left off with the rituals and pretend nothing improper ever occurred…" here she gazed even harder at the healer "…as long as the few who know of our transgression care enough about our future happiness to keep that knowledge to themselves."
Avaan looked away, cleared her throat and bent back to her work. "Why?" she asked after a moment.
"Why keep silent?" Ardenn incredulously echoed. "Because if others find out, they will condemn us! If premature word of our true relationship gets to David’s clan…or, Valen forbid, the Grey Council…they will move to quash it! If that occurs, my only other recourses are to either publicly reveal that he has already bedded me and force an illegitimate joining upon them or to back down and go…" she waved her free arm uncertainly "…go…well, wherever it is that unmarried non-virgin Minbari females go."
"Speaking from experience," Avaan amusedly supplied, "I know that a few of them have succeeded in rebuilding their lives as Anla’Shok."
"Yes... well, unfortunately these damned robes rule out that option," Ardenn retorted, totally missing her companion’s intimation. "Of the two I do have, one shifts all the blame for an act I initiated onto David and shames him and the other sentences us to being apart for the rest of our lives. Neither is acceptable."
The healer smiled as she placed a thin sheet of synthi-skin on Ardenn’s forearm. "You misunderstood me. I meant why bother taking up the rituals again? As you have both already decided that you are One and have physically consummated that decision, is there anything you think a few more months spent reciting litanies and staring at candles will change? It seems to me that going backwards would be both exceedingly frustrating and unnecessarily redundant." At that, Avaan chuckled under her breath. "You would be…as the Humans say…endeavoring to secure the barn door after the sheep have flown the coop."
"The…sheep?" Ardenn mulled the idiom over for a moment, shaking her head. "I believe you are referring to either chickens or horses…but chickens do not reside in barns and horses prefer staying out of coops."
"Well…something like that. The care of domestic livestock was not my strongest area in Earth studies."
The young Sister managed a faint smile. "Nor was it mine." Sighing, she returned to the matter at hand. "We need to complete the rituals because David and I want to be more than clandestine lovers. We want to marry…and although we do not speak of it often, the Sum Nee’Verkaff still exists. Once we take our relationship public, there will no doubt be some who will seek to stop us with it. If we have successfully completed the rituals, they will have, as the Humans say, less ammunition to use against us."
"Ah! Now I do understand," Avaan brightly exclaimed. "The rituals are not for you, but for all those narrow-minded people…out there." Exaggeratedly, she stared wide-eyed as she rose and moved around the bay, looking under tables and behind the equipment. "Odd…" she murmured when her gaze fell on Ardenn once more, "…those legions of Minbari purity zealots and Human bigots you fret over do not seem to have found their way on board yet."
"You are making light of a serious concern…"
"I am trying to make a point," Avaan countered. "You say you need the rituals to legitimize your relationship to the public so continue them…in public. In private…well, no eyes are peering over your shoulders here and the only other person watching David is me." Lifting a datapad, she tapped it meaningfully in her hand and grinned. "Only to monitor his condition, I assure you." Tucking the tablet into her vest, she continued, "Now, I would not presume to dictate any courses of action to you. If such is your wish you may fritter your time away pining at his bedside, but were I in your position…" turning her palms over, she gazed down at them as if weighing options "hmm…forlorn clock-watching on the one hand…sheer ecstasy on the other…well, I know which I would choose. Every minute you get to spend alone with him is very precious right now, Revered Sister."
"How much…time…do we have?"
The healer cast her eyes down. "Two days more or less before he begins tiring again. Three before he becomes noticeably ill. In four he will either be unconscious or, more likely, delirious. By the fifth day…well, if Entil’zha’s earlier observations are any indicator, the fifth day is the last chance we may have before the pollutant penetrates his cell nuclei and begins disassembling the nucleotides that make up his DNA. You know we are going to land in Vonnore? The city of the Wind Swords?"
Ardenn hesitantly nodded. "Delenn told me."
"They may have a cure, but parleying with them will be no easy task. Even among my caste, the Vonil’bokae hold themselves apart. Their clan is in decline and their Zhaden Na, Shakiri, is an old, bitter Warrior who some whisper is no longer completely…whole. Sane or not, he has no great love for Humans, holds Anla’Shok in contempt and considers Delenn a race-traitor. She thwarted his attempt to impose Warrior rule on Minbar many cycles ago so he will have no compelling reason to aid her child now. I fear he will attempt to use David’s predicament to exact some sort of revenge against her."
"Then he will have to exact it against both of us," Ardenn declared. "I will not allow Delenn to fight a battle that is just as much mine without me at her side. I am certain Entil’zha feels the same way."
In the bed on the other side of the glass, David shifted position and groaned in his sleep.
"He appears to be quite uncomfortable," Avaan noted, seemingly changing the subject, "and that is good…it means the sedatives and painkillers I gave him are wearing off. He should awaken shortly." Sparing a glance at the chronometer, she sighed. "And more’s the pity…my shift seems to be over. I would enjoy staying to assist you with him, but I do not want to miss the evening meal. We are dining Human-style tonight and it should be quite an experience…we are eating something they characterize as defecation served on roofing material. Before I go, do you require a demonstration on how to properly apply that salve?"
"I am certain David will stop me if he ascertains I am doing something wrong."
"I heartily doubt that," Avann snorted amusedly, closing the shutters on the observation window, "But I suppose that between the two of you an agreeable technique will present itself. Just be sure he gets a thorough application before attempting any other…ah, activities." Turning back to Ardenn, her expression grew serious. "When he awakens, he may experience a few chest spasms and some difficulty speaking. There is no physical damage, but the decontamination process he underwent was very hard on his throat and lungs. Any discomfort should pass quickly, but if you need assistance…true assistance…I am on call and can be here immediately."
"I will contact you if there are problems. Go get some rest."
Avaan bowed deeply. "I normally give the same advice," she chuckled, "but in this case I find myself hoping you do not sleep much…at least not right away." Straightening, she eyed Ardenn for a moment and then lowered her voice an octave. "The two of you should share those things you need to share but do not forget that he is not cured. He will tire more quickly than you and when he sleeps again…please pull yourself away from his side long enough to seek me out. Fire Wings are not Wind Swords, but if you truly intend to enter Vonnore on David’s behalf there are things I can share that may help you prepare. Warriors are not like the other two castes…in some ways we are far different indeed and forewarned is forearmed." With a smile, she reached out and touched her companion affectionately on the arm before turning for the exit. "In the meantime, my creamed beef on toast awaits. Have a good evening, Revered Sister…a perfectly beautiful one."
"Sleepwatching?" John blustered, "So you could see his true face?" Inside, he could feel his gut starting a slow descent into his nether regions. Delenn was always extremely careful when choosing her words…minus a few spectacular screw-ups. If she were recalling her invitation more or less verbatim, he could already guess which category this one was going to fall into. "Why the hell would you do that? You’d already watched me sleep…"
"I watched you sleep…once," Delenn rejoined, rising from his lap to pull her robe back onto her shoulders, "and you were not even aware I was performing the ritual at the time. We were not yet a couple." Resettling between his knees so she was facing him, she wrapped her legs around his waist and then reached up to caress his cheek. "Please do not look so glum, beloved," she quietly admonished after studying his expression for a moment. "As I mentioned, I already knew I loved you. I had not even needed a first night to tell me that." Somewhat ashamedly, she dropped her gaze to his chest and continued, "With Lennier, I did need the ritual. I needed to see his true face because…John, my love notwithstanding, I still could have been wrong for you; wrong about us. If I were destined to remain Minbari in my soul, I had to know before we proceeded to the second night…before I started something that could not be ended without hurting you."
< One night of sleepwatching…nah, that’s not so bad is it? > John was worriedly thinking. < Yeah... nothing provocative happens during the first night. The man sleeps; the woman sits and watches. Second night? Well…before the Anna fiasco started I woke up to find her snuggling up against me wearing nothing but my robe and a smile. Third…the same smile but no robe…damn, she was beautiful. But…we were in a communal bay on a White Star that first night…anyone could’ve walked in. They were alone in her quarters…he was probably in her bed…was there a place for her to sit and watch? Dammit! I don’t remember a chair in her room... > "I…I suppose I can understand that," he stammered. "Going from ‘you and I’ to ‘us’ was a big step and you’d want to be certain it was the right one. But…why Lennier?"
"Lennier was the only male member of my birth race I felt close enough to…ah, to even remotely consider as a future mate…" she admitted. Pausing, she let that stinging pronouncement hang in the air, and then wrapped her arms around him and nestled closer. "And truly," she continued after a moment, "it was not as if I had a great multitude of suitors lining up at my door to choose from. I did not think any other Minbari would want me. I already loved him as my friend; I knew that if I were still able to feel any emotions more powerful than friendship for anyone other than you, I would feel them for him. Before I committed myself to being Human in my heart as well as my body, I needed to see if there was anything…anything at all…in his soul that called out to mine."
Something in the way she explained it made John feel empty and bereft. Sure, he’d had some big doubts early on…guilt over Anna, the cultural differences, some residual anger over her part in the war…he’d even entertained a few about her honesty and motives. And there’d been times when he’d looked over at Susan and thought about how less complicated…and quicker…everything would’ve been if he’d just fallen in love with her instead. But Delenn…she’d always seemed so certain about wanting a life with him that he’d never bothered to ask if she’d wrestled with similar misgivings. Even now, after the events were years past, hearing that she indeed had was a tough thing. With effort, he reminded himself that she hadn’t performed the ritual to choose between him and Lennier, per se; it had been to resolve a conflict between her Human and Minbari identities. "So…" he queried with forced nonchalance, "what did you see?"
"His true face was pure, innocent and free of worry. I saw his faith in me, his devotion to me…his certainty, his innocence…and hope. All the things I thought my soul lacked at the time." Looking back up at her husband, she caught his eyes with hers and managed a faint smile. "I found that my love for him was true…but…it was the same filial love I already felt for him. I was not in love with him before and what I saw of his true face did nothing to change that. His soul was indeed young and beautiful but that was no surprise…I already expected it would be. It was no different than the soul I saw when he was awake; the soul of a trusted friend." Her smile fading, she continued, "After that, my certainty about my future as your lover and eventual mate was unshakable. If I could feel nothing deeper than close friendship for Lennier, I knew the Universe meant for my soul to join with yours…but in my desire to dispel my doubts I neglected to think beyond the ritual. Lennier did not know I was surrendering my Minbari identity to him when he accepted my invitation. I never displayed any signs of inner turmoil in his presence, and a Minbari female asks to see a male’s true face because she wants to mate, not because she needs a control for some sort of experiment. That hope I saw in his face…it was there because his soul knew mine was watching. When he awoke, he would want to know what I had seen…John, what was I to tell him? That I had abused the ritual and abused him in the process? What could I say that would not shame or belittle him?"
"Oh, God, Delenn," John moaned, already suspecting what the answer would be even before he asked. "You lied to the poor guy?"
"I... I could not lie," she stammered, "although I wanted to. To do so would have protected no one’s honor; not even my own. When morning came, I committed the second of my transgressions. I revealed my secret, but I couched it in terms that made it more palatable to him and left my future intentions…ah, somewhat ambiguous."
"I don’t see how…"
"Please, John, let me finish humiliating myself before I lose my resolve. You recall that you initially fumbled your admission of love to me. I did much the same with my secret…only I did so purposely. When I revealed it, I knowingly avoided using the word ‘love’ when I spoke of my feelings. I…I told him that he had a beautiful soul, which was true. I told him I cared deeply for him…which was also true but could be interpreted any number of ways. And then came the question I dreaded…he asked if I found his true face pleasing enough for a second night…"
John found himself numb…able to do little more than shake his head. What had started as a minor derailment was fast approaching full ‘train wreck’ stage…with each half-truth she told, Delenn was ensuring the ones after would be exponentially worse. He was coming to understand how his normally self-assured wife had quibbled herself in so completely that she couldn’t see an honorable way out. "What is it the Minbari say?" he heard himself murmur, "Ner’is vas’hana ter’es…timidity causes the unexpected? A simple ‘no’ probably would’ve ended it right there…but since disasters always seem to happen in that Minbari magic number, I’m assuming you answered his question with words of more than one syllable?"
He felt Delenn nod in pitiful agreement against his chest. "He…he asked with such naiveté and trust…my resolve failed me and I committed my third error. I left him with hope. I told him that my answer was best left unspoken, as uttering it would only result in pain and regret. In the struggle ahead I was destined to join with another…with you, as prophecy foretold…but that, no matter our futures, we would always have the one between us." Her voice breaking, she concluded, "A few simple words…had I possessed the inner courage to cry out my joy that my destiny lay with you rather than dissembling about its so-called requirements, he might have scorned me for using him as I had…but he would have left my service with his bright future still intact. As it was, he left my quarters believing my secret was that he held my soul but felt enslaved by prophecy to perform a necessary physical duty for the Cause. To him, my thing of value was this body…which I was surrendering to you."
"... and if there’s one form of surrender a Minbari can understand, its surrender to duty," John disappointedly finished. "Your duty to make the sacrifice prophecy demanded of you, no matter the personal cost."
"Yes," Delenn humbly responded. "Because of my cowardice, he heard a secret I did not actually utter but one I nevertheless promoted; a series of perfectly acceptable truths that, when taken together, led to an untrue conclusion. Unfortunately, that was not the worst of it. With all that happened afterwards, I never took him aside to clarify my misstatements and…once the war began in earnest and whole worlds were being laid waste…I came to believe it would make no difference. I did not expect any of us to survive long enough for my mishandling of the matter to come back and haunt me…but, as you know, we did. The First Ones left us alive…"
John hadn’t even realized that he’d wrapped his arms around her. Sliding them down her back, he rested his head wearily atop her shoulder. "…and we weren’t married yet," he finished. "Things ended so abruptly that you hadn’t needed to complete your sacrifice. We weren’t even through with the sleepwatching, so you were off the hook with time to back out."
Delenn rested her hands lightly on his shoulders. "I believe that is what he expected I would do," she softly confirmed, "but when he received no invitation to a second night…when he learned I had instead asked you for the third…he did not understand. Later, when we met with my clan and he finally saw firsthand how manipulative I was willing to be to obtain their concurrence…he did. No doubt he went back, dissected my words and finally realized they had essentially been a series of platitudes designed to gently put him off. Things were never the same between us after that. Outwardly, he continued to support me, but…except for our dark time together on Minbar during the Civil War…he ceased speaking to me about anything other than official matters."
"He thought continuing with the marriage was a sham," John supplied. "That I had performed some sort of weird Human voodoo on you to keep you with me and your sense of duty wouldn’t permit you to break the spell."
"Not entirely," Delenn sighed, releasing her hold on her husband’s shoulders to trail her fingers lightly up and down his spine. "He did think our continued relationship was unnecessary, but I do not believe he held you responsible in any way. In his eyes, I was the dominant partner…the one controlling the pace of the joining. The fault was all mine."
With a disbelieving snort, John raised his head and pulled back slightly to look her in the eyes. "Well…I didn’t see him looking down his nose at you every time you were in a room with him so if you ask me he had a funny way of holding you responsible. To me, it seemed more like ‘I’m barely tolerating your strange fascination with this hairy primate for now, but if he kisses you again I’m going to beat him into jello’."
Delenn pursed her lips as she considered his words. "I suppose that is how a Human would perceive it," she finally replied, "but Lennier was not Human. After he fled, I read his journal. You may find this difficult to believe, but nearly every word he wrote about you was in admiration. He wanted to emulate you; so much so that he joined the Anla’Shok in the hope that I might see your qualities when I looked at him. When he wrote of his feelings for me, however, he vacillated between extremes. In some entries, I was so…deified…that Valen himself could not have touched me without defiling me. In others I was the consummate liar; one so skilled at distorting the truth that I had even deluded myself. He believed that I no longer lived in the same world as others, and that my make-believe reality was the one in which I thought I loved you. In his eyes, I used him, used you and just about everyone else I ever cared about in my efforts to make the universe conform to my fantasy. And there were a few entries in which he …" she paused and shuddered, her face reddening, "…he fantasized about mating with me. Some of the encounters were…John, I never realized he was harboring such anger at me..."
"He should’ve gotten some help. He should’ve talked to someone…"
"Someone like who? Had Marcus still been with us, he could have helped…but by then he was already in suspension. He might have confided in Vir…he was also his friend…but you know how promiscuous Centauri culture is. He would have sympathized, but he would not have understood the problem. As for other Minbari…" she ceased caressing his back and rested her forehead dejectedly against his chest. "Beloved, I understand that those of the Jewish faith on your world follow what they call the Law," she softly intoned. "The directives your deity gave the prophet Moses after he led his people out of bondage. One of those laws forbids a man from coveting another man’s wife. It is much the same among my people; desiring another’s mate is considered a grave disciplinary lapse…and, among the Religious caste especially, a morally contemptible one. He would never speak of it...unless he thought the revelation might aid in cleansing another’s soul."
John took her face between his hands, coaxing her to look up at him and caressing her cheekbones with his thumbs. Years of life together had made him fairly good at reading between her lines. "Like your soul, maybe?" he softly asked. Leaning forward, he kissed her forehead. "Go ahead…I know what you’re going to say and you want to finish this."
In the silence that followed she hesitated, chewing her lower lip for a moment and then nodded. "We were traveling aboard a White Star," she finally murmured, "on our way to meet with the Grey Council about speeding up the technology transfer between Minbar and Earth. Drakh-influenced Centauri ships intercepted us and attacked, leaving us crippled and adrift. On the bridge, Lennier and I were the only ones left; we kept the remains of our ship on beacon as long as we could but, after a time, the Centauri returned for what we assumed would be our mercy killing. He…"
"In the heat of the moment he told you he loved you."
"He... yes," Delenn whispered, no longer able to meet his eyes. "He told me. I believe he thought he was offering me one last opportunity to confess my delusion…the lie I had been living with you…so I could reenter the sea of souls with no blemishes on mine. Perhaps he hoped that at the end I would reciprocate his love…declare myself his so we could travel together to the Place No Shadows Fall. I can only guess at his true intent in revealing his heart to me, but we did not die and once the words were uttered he could not withdraw them. Speaking words of love to a married woman…I think in his mind that final act sealed his fate and made his disintegration complete. He never recovered from it."
John kept his voice as neutral as possible. "What did you say back?"
"I finally did what I should have done after watching him sleep," she responded almost mechanically. "I crushed him. Not cruelly, but my reply left him with no doubt about the person I intended to be with in the hereafter. A gentle untruth in those final moments might have eased his soul but it would have condemned mine. I could not have come to you when your time came; not with my last words a repudiation of our love for one another. And Lennier…he would have wrongly expected me to join him beyond as a lover rather than a friend. Instead of happy reunions, all three of us would have found ourselves alone."
John didn’t know whether to be relieved or…given what transpired later…dismayed. He found himself thankful she wouldn’t meet his gaze. "Afterwards, I tried to convince him that I had not heard correctly," she continued, "that my mind had been on our impending doom and I had not listened, but he knew I was lying. It only added to his shame that I would try to protect his honor that way." Taking his hands, Delenn pulled them away from her face and clasped them between hers. "As for the rest, there is not much more to tell. His shame slowly transformed into resentment…resentment at me for refusing to recant what he considered my fantasy world when he gave me the chance. Eventually, he convinced himself that I neither cared about nor sympathized with his plight. He still loved me, John, but I think in the end he taught himself to hate that love. It hurt him to be in my presence...with both of us knowing his secret…but because he was Anla’Shok he could not refuse when his Entil’zha summoned him."
"Until his resentment boiled over."
"For a moment," Delenn huskily responded. Her normally melodious accent was starting to thicken; when emotions started overtaking her, they both knew her English was always one of the first things to go. "Only for a moment…and it boiled over at me, not you. Had I any idea how broken a man he truly was…how far into shadow his soul had actually fallen…I would have moved the Universe to find him help. He had sworn himself to me. He knew things about me that even you have never known. Most dangerously, he knew my strength was also my weakness…that there was one I could lose that would force me to feel what he felt. And…beloved…if that was his intent in that instant, he succeeded." At that point, she looked up and John could clearly see tears starting down her face. "Wi’marel E’shahel sim Ah’hake’lirae, Ah’fel…" she haltingly admitted, "…Ah’aia wi’mareta shah E’fie…but he did come back. Please do not forget that he came back, my love. If you had not already freed yourself, he would have gotten you out."
Gently, John pulled his wife against him and held her. She never actually broke down and sobbed…Delenn rarely surrendered to that kind of extreme distress…but her breathing was shaky and he could tell she was wrestling with the tears. "I forgave him for what he did a long time ago," he murmured as he stroked her hair and crest. "In my eyes, he had nothing to redeem himself for…and neither do you." Looking away for a moment on thought, he then said, "As for what you did…yeah, you knowingly led him on. No matter your intent, you made things worse…but you didn’t ruin his life; he did the heavy lifting in that department on his own."
"I... after he ran away, I thought that if I could just see him face-to-face one more time…if I could explain to him why I had done what I did without shame or embarrassment…"
"It wouldn’t have made any difference," he quietly responded. "His problem was never one you could’ve solved…and shifting all the blame onto yourself wouldn’t have made him feel any better. By the time you understood, there was no way you could’ve undone anything."
She closed her eyes and lay with her head cradled in his lap for a long moment, considering his words. "I miss him, John," she finally whispered. "I miss all of them…Marcus, G’kar, Lyta, Kosh…even Londo. They are all my little candles in the Night; their flames never to flicker again in this incarnation."
Bending, John softly kissed her cheek. "They’re all still here," he murmured in her ear. "As long as we remember them, they’re not really gone."
And with that, the two fell silent…with John idly stroking Delenn’s hair and crest as each remembered their lost friends, and with both trying to avoid worrying about the son they might yet lose. < ...little candles in the night... > he idly ruminated as he held and comforted her. < ...incarnation and reincarnation…candles are extinguished and they’re relit... >
And here they were…practically nude in front of an altar surrounded by unlit candles. <…I provide the offering…she’s my intermediary with the Universe…>
It was then that he remembered the last time he’d seen this particular arrangement…over fifteen years ago, she had said. That should’ve clued him in right away. "Delenn…" he quietly breathed into her ear, "Sweetheart…your missing Lennier…and this ritual. You can’t be serious. Even if all the doctors were wrong and it was still possible…I mean…sixty-five may still be within shooting range for a full Minbari…"
"I will be sixty-six in three weeks," she quietly murmured into his robe. Pulling away slightly, she fingered the lapel of his robe. "And I…I have you safe in my arms again. You are whole again. I have started having those odd cramps again." Looking up into his eyes, she released his robe to softly trace his jaw with her knuckle. "John, such things do not happen without purpose. I hear the Universe trying to speak to us and I am willing to listen. Are you?"
The quarantine bay was tiny. There was barely enough room for the bed, a small washroom and the monitoring equipment affixed to the bulkhead. Within, David Sheridan groaned in his sleep and shifted, his brow knitting in discomfort as his scored skin rubbed against the sheet covering him.
Sitting on a stool at his bedside, Ardenn sighed and fingered the tube of ointment ensconced in a hidden pocket of her robe. Her original intent had been to wait until he awakened to apply it rather than disturbing his rest but it might be better if she did something now. Perhaps she could at least treat the exposed portions of his skin and provide him some relief without him even realizing it. After considering it a moment, she rose and pulled the inner curtain across the observation window. Although the outer shutters were already closed, her time alone with him was hers and she was jealous of it.
As gingerly as she could, she moved back to the bed and slid the stool aside. Removing the gel tube, she carefully took his sheet between her thumb and forefinger and inched it down to his waist, noting as she did so that he was wearing a robe similar to the one she had obtained in the decontamination chamber. As he moved in his sleep, it had twisted at the sash and was probably causing him more discomfort than the sheet was.
Hesitantly, the Sister reached for the knot. "Gently now…" she quietly murmured, more to herself than to him. "You will be more comfortable once I get this loosened…" As she began teasing the knot apart, however, the tube of ointment she was holding slipped from her fingers and landed square on David’s midriff with a loud ‘smack!’ before slipping out of sight into the recesses of his robe.
His skin already burning like fire, David’s reaction was instantaneous. He snapped awake, screamed in agony and nearly arched off the bed.
"Ra’ash Ta’al Quith!" the young Minbari cursed under her breath, mentally kicking herself for her clumsiness. Turning back to her now whimpering companion, she frantically whispered, "Sorry…so sorry…beloved…I did not mean to hurt you…" as she tried to calm him. Reflexively, she reached out, realizing only at the last second that her touch would likely burn him as well. Unsure about what to do, she helplessly stood by…now near tears herself. She had come to help and had only made things worse…
Pain. It was as if it had always been there…that there never had been a time when he wasn’t enduring some form of agony. As he returned to consciousness, he felt as if a giant hammer had slammed into his chest and his skin had been scalded off with a blowtorch. Sucking in a shaky breath, David’s memory of recent events started trickling back. A walk…he remembered a long walk. Ardenn had been with him, hadn’t she? He’d been pinned to the ground one minute and the next…had he really ordered his people to execute a level three decontamination on him? Several years before, he and his fellow trainees had winced and turned away just from watching the procedures performed on a mannequin.
And his parents…where were they? Were they recovered as well? He realized with a start that the low keening wail he heard was coming from his own throat. Blinking away the tears stinging his eyes, he struggled to divorce himself from the discomfort and get his breathing under control…if nothing else, at least his lungs still seemed to work.
As the pain subsided, he opened his eyes. He was lying on his back in a bed. So, it appeared that he hadn’t quite passed Beyond the Veil…at least not yet. That is, unless The Place Where No Shadows Fell looked a lot like the quarantine berth in his ship’s medical bay. < Shit... > he sardonically mused, < I guess this means a lot of Minbari are going to be disappointed... >
A little more steadily this time, he drew in another breath and lay back against the pillow. Now that he was calmer he realized that, burning skin and chest soreness aside, he did feel better than he had before. In fact, his thoughts were clearer and he felt almost normal. The only oddity was an acidic, lemony taste in his mouth – a deceptively benign sign that the Dilgar spores were still winding their way through his system, even if their effects were lessened for the moment. Unless Avaan had developed some sort of miracle cure he was still a slowly-fading Typhoid Mary…but after what he’d been through he’d take any small respite he could get, illusory or not.
Looking over, he noticed that he wasn’t alone. Beside his bed, Ardenn seemed frozen in place…her eyes wide and her hands hovering uncertainly over his turned down sheet and loosened robe. After gazing at her for a long second he felt a lump between his butt and the mattress. With some difficulty, he reached between his legs and rooted out a gel tube. Judging from her expression, she had likely dropped it…and the impact had been the catalyst for his awakening. Sparing a glance at the label, he snorted amusedly. "Uh…sweetheart?" he roughly rasped as he held it out to her, "You’re more than welcome to explore any of my pleasure centers you want but…take my word for it…that particular one is marked ‘Exit Only’ for a reason."
He sounded like he might be playing with her, but his expression was unreadable. "I did not intend…ah…this is to soothe your skin," Ardenn stammered in embarrassment, barely able to meet his eyes. Reaching out, she snatched the gel away, in the process almost fumbling it again through trembling fingers. Here she was, caught while trying to undress him in his sleep with a tube of lubricant in her hand. What must he be thinking? Recovering what little remained of her dignity, she drew herself up primly and continued, "You were not resting comfortably and I thought…well, my intentions were purely…medical."
David chuckled. He’d never admit it to her, but he loved teasing her when she retreated into her ‘haughty’ act. "Just medical, eh?" he hoarsely whispered, a playful gleam in his eye. Swallowing to moisten his throat, he haltingly continued "I’m…really going to have to look into the Sisterhood’s…accelerated training program. As I recall, you were a translator a couple of weeks ago…and it takes most normal folks years of intense study to practice medicine."
Ardenn looked quizzically at him for a moment and then, recognizing he was jesting, her face broke into a relieved smile. His eyes still reflected some weariness, but it had been so long since she had heard honest, carefree teasing from him that she knew he must be feeling better. Just as quickly, her expression fell. How long would he stay this way? Three days, the healer had said…just long enough for the poison within him to regenerate…
"By the way," David quietly added, seeing the somber cloud pass across her face and knowing what was behind it, "I’m really glad I woke up to find you here with me."
Ardenn’s breath caught for an instant. She did not understand why…her beloved had never been shy about bestowing endearments on her…but this simple statement touched her. "Well, you understand…it was becoming a little crowded in your quarters," she lamely responded, trying to cover the gentle kneading she could feel around her heart. "Your mother and father…and only one bed…" With a vague wave in the general direction of the living areas, she chuckled. "Three may indeed be a sacred combination in most things…but, as your people say, I have to draw the line somewhere."
"So they made it," David whispered, his voice slowly coming back to him. Closing his eyes, he gingerly rested his head back on the pillow. "Good. That’s one less thing for me to worry about." Another concern came to him a second later. Groaning from the exertion, he raised his head once more. "What about you?"
"What about me?"
"Have you had anything to eat? Where are you staying? You said my parents were in my quarters…and if my full crew is aboard there aren’t any others available."
< He is injured…stuck in isolation with what could be a terminal condition…and his most immediate concern is that I have food and a comfortable place to stay? > The gentle squeezing around the young Minbari’s heart jumped up a notch. "I am fine, David," she softly responded. "I am where I want to be and with the person I want to be with. I require nothing more. Now, you should refrain from talking. The healer said your throat would be sore."
"You know that’s not completely true," David murmured, ignoring her admonition. A faint smile on his lips, he continued, "You may require nothing more…but now that I think about it, the fact that you’re on this ship in the first place means someone does. I somehow doubt my grandmother has suddenly developed a soft spot for interspecies romance."
"No…she has not," the new Sister of Valeria ruefully sighed, "at least, not with our love and future happiness as her sole motivation. As she promised, your mother arranged my release but my continued presence is…conditional. Please understand that there are now, as your people say, strings? Yes, strings attached to me."
"Strings…" the young man huskily echoed, his smile now fading into a frown. "So my father was right. He said the Sisterhood was dangling you in front of me as a lure, but I didn’t want to believe it. I’d hoped he was reading too much into this whole ‘elevation’ thing, but apparently we’re now both…pawns…for other people after all. So…what’s the price for keeping you here? What do they want from us?"
Ardenn backed up a step and hung her head. "I…I cannot answer that, beloved."
David raised his head and gazed harder at her. "You…can’t?" he softly asked, "or you…won’t? Do you even know what they want?"
After a tense pause, the young Sister nodded. "Yes…I do," she breathed. "David," she entreated as he disappointedly sighed, "Please believe me, I had no part in any of this…I was used before and I am still being used! Powers greater than me have made my whole life a lie and the only truth I can offer now is that I love you!" As she spoke, her voice had risen and she fought to suppress all the frustration she had been carrying around inside her. It was not his fault and taking her misgivings out on him would make neither of them feel better. "Later," she continued more quietly, "when you have truly recovered I will tell you of my experiences…what little I understand of them…but there are some matters I am forbidden from revealing. It shames me to withhold information from you, but I still wish more than anything to be your wife and such is the price the Sisterhood demands of me for permitting it."
David digested his beloved’s words for a long moment. It hadn’t seemed important in the mines…but actually seeing her in her new robes finally brought it home. He had no idea what demands her new role would place on her, what internal conflicts might result or how her position would affect the two of them. And it sounded as if she didn’t, either. "You know I will always love you," he finally murmured, "But if we’re to continue down this path we’ve chosen, I have to know...with all that’s changed, can we still make this work?"
Calmer now, Ardenn nodded to herself. Delenn understood. John was coming to understand…but David was the most important of the three. "I cannot imagine my life without you in it, beloved," she began, fingering her lapel, "but I am a Sister of Valeria now. It cannot be undone." Stepping closer, she extended a finger and traced a loving path around his lips. "But in my heart there has never been any conflict…you are the only one residing there and that also cannot be undone. I have always been and will always be yours no matter my position…if you will still have me."
It wasn’t an unqualified ‘yes’ but it was enough. Taking her hand, David kissed her palm. "Then, I suppose I’ll just have to content myself with your telling me only what I need to know…and no more, eh?"
"I know such an arrangement goes against the inquisitive nature of humans," Ardenn replied, her voice dropping a few octaves. David’s lips had found their way up to her wrist, and she was sure he could feel her pulse quickening beneath them. Gamely, she struggled to resist the heat she could feel spreading across her chest long enough to finish her sentence. "But, I hope you will not find any…ah…Minbari evasiveness...on my part an obstacle. Please do not worry about these things now."
"That should be easy enough," the young Ranger replied, pausing in his ministrations. Pulling back slightly to look up at her, he winced as his body reminded him that he still wasn’t one hundred percent. Gesturing at their austere surroundings, he continued, "You’re safe, Mother and Dad are safe…but it looks like I still have plenty of other things…In Valen’s Name…"
He had finally allowed her close enough to notice. As he spoke, he’d reached out, placed his hand on her hip…and almost instantly withdrew it in surprise. "Sweetheart?" he breathed. "This is weird. I swear I just felt your skin. It’s like your robe wasn’t even there…"
The young Sister smiled cryptically. "This word…weird…it signifies a bad thing?" Holding out her arms, she slowly turned full circle, letting her lover admire her new attire. And, the closer he looked, the more ethereal the robes seemed. When she moved between him and the light, he realized he could…faintly…see through them to the gentle, inviting curves beneath.
When she faced him once more, she offered the hem so he could touch the material. "This is one of the…ah, ritual…garments I was given after my elevation," she explained, amusement in her voice. "Being a Sister does have a few…benefits…"
"A bunch of cloistered women hanging out together wearing Shan’fal robes?" David mused as he rubbed the material between his thumb and forefinger. "I’m almost afraid to even speculate. I guess these…rituals…they’re among those matters you’re forbidden from discussing?"
"Not…exactly," she chuckled, moving closer and leaning in…inviting him to touch her again. If he thought this through, as she knew he would, he would realize that the tactile qualities of the garment worked for her as well as him. "But your not knowing enhances the allure, do you not agree? Should you ever find out independently, however…rest assured that those particular rituals are not ones my superiors are currently requiring of me. At least not with anyone but you."
"Not with anyone but me, hmm?" the young Ranger repeated, lightly grazing his fingernails across Ardenn’s abdominal path and smiling as she shivered. "That’s good…there are some things I just don’t like to share." With considerable effort, he stilled his hand and laid his palm flat just below the clasp holding her outer robe closed. "Sweetheart, the robes are beautiful," he observed with a chuckle. Settling back on the bed, he relaxed and sighed. Eyeing her speculatively, he continued, "Now, I want you to take them off."
It was now Ardenn’s turn to hesitate. "You want me to disrobe…right here in front of you?" she ventured after a moment.
There might indeed be times when Minbari reactions were a total mystery to him, but this was one occasion when he knew exactly what she was thinking. David found himself barely able to keep a straight face. "Well, it’s not like I haven’t seen you nude before…and you are indeed a formidable example of your parents’ genetic compatibility, I might add." Arching his eyebrows innocently, he mimed unbuckling her outer robe. "You know what they say…when humans become close as we’ve become close..."
To Be Continued...
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