THE BABYLON PROJECT: THE ONE AND THE NEXUS (II)
This is, primarily, a J&D story. However, for the purposes of making it not suck, there is plot - yes, I said plot - along the way. What that is, you'll have to find yourself. However, some scenes may be short and others very long - I suppose I could say I was trying to do it movie-style, but then I guess God doesn't look well on out-and-out liars. Truth is, it worked out that way. It should be enjoyable anyway.
Now settle down, grab yourself some popcorn and enjoy the romantically edited version of the first Babylonian encounter.
'You are a nexus. You turn one way and the whole galaxy has a tendency to follow.' - Justin to Sheridan
The atmosphere shuttle from Geneva to South Dakota was long, boring and tiresome. His belongings - what little he had, being an Earthforce officer - had been transferred back to the farm, where he was headed. It had been two months since building had begun on the Minbari Embassy, most of which had involved heavy debates between Minbari and Human architects and a *lot* of paperwork to get diplomatic relations off the ground. Most of that was finally done - and John Sheridan, now on official leave of absence and attached to the Minbari Government as Earth liaison (Delenn called it Ambassador, but it was the same thing), was at a loss. For the first time in over nine months, he was going home. It struck him as ironic that for most of that time he had heartily wished to go back and yet now, he wasn't sure it was a good idea.
His shuttle touched down in a remote area just a mile or so from the farm. It was a private craft - Delenn had offered the use of a flyer, but the Earth government had bucked up its heels soon after that and provided him with a state-of-the-art shuttle. He hadn't wanted to land at a spaceport, having become something of a celebrity in the past few months, but he still hadn't counted on the amount of people who were waiting to greet him once he reached his parents' farmhouse.
Liz was the first to run out and greet him, bowling him over in a huge bear hug. His pilot - he could have flown the shuttle himself, but it had been insisted upon - waited politely until he had air enough in his lungs to speak again.
"Will you still need the shuttle, Ambassador?" The young woman, an idealistic officer who had joined Earthforce just in time to see the peace initiative arrive, stood straight to attention. She had short, dark hair and quite a pretty face - Russian, Sheridan guessed. He smiled at her, hoping she'd loosen up a little.
"No, thanks. Go back to the Embassy and have a rest. Things must have been pretty hectic lately."
"It's fine, sir."
He paused uneasily. "Oh. Well. Then, uh, report back to your superiors." He gave her a wry glance. "Any idea where you're being posted next?"
"Io, sir." Even through her serious exterior, he saw the glint of excitement in her eyes.
"Good assignment." He paused, looking at her, and it struck him that she was probably still alive because of him. It was a humbling, and an inspiring, thought. "Dismissed, pilot."
"Aye, sir." She saluted, which made him a little uncomfortable as he forced himself not to return it, and strode purposefully back to her shuttle. A few minutes later it took off, and he was alone among his family.
"John!" His father, waiting on the porch, took the steps as fast as possible and grabbed his son, crushing all the ribs Liz had left intact.
Sheridan grinned, emotion welling in his throat, and hugged the old man back even harder. "Hi, Dad. I missed you." His family gathered around him then, and it was a good half hour before they reached the house.
It was exactly as he'd left it. His room, especially, looked no different to the day he'd left it, other than the box of possessions on his - flat! - bed. His family, recognising perhaps his need to reacquaint himself, left him to himself as he opened the container. He smiled as he drew out a collection of pictures; from baby photos that his mother had given him to his graduation pictures, and those of his Earthforce passing-out. It had been a wonderful day: he'd been proud to be going into service for his world, his people...
"Didn't bet I'd be doing it this way," he muttered wryly to himself. He put the pictures aside and reached deeper into the box. Inside were his Earthforce medals - the silver star for valour, especially, and two that he didn't recognise as being there before. He read the certificate with them.
*Awarded posthumously to Lieutenant John J. Sheridan; the Earthforce gold star for courage and initiative in battle. Also the Presidential Award for exceptional devotion to Earth.*
"Posthumously," he murmured. "Bit forward of them, wouldn't you think?"
He hadn't realised there was someone in the doorway, and for a second as he looked up he expected to see Delenn. It was Anna.
"Hi," he said with a smile. She returned it, but it was confused and a little uncertain.
"Hi." She hesitated and then entered the room. "I-"
"I missed you," he said impulsively, more to convince himself than her. In truth he had missed her, but it had been far less overwhelming than he thought it should have been.
Anna smiled wider. "I missed you too, John. We all did. We thought-" she stopped, and tears came to her eyes. He reached out and held her, and her tears wet his now civilian clothing. He turned his head to comfort her, holding her tighter. He loved Anna; he could forget Delenn now, it was nothing, he didn't really feel anything for her... It was easy to convince himself, and he was satisfied. He closed his eyes.
And he was back on the Valen'tha, holding Delenn of the Minbari in his arms.
He jerked away, confused and angry. Anna, suddenly no longer next to him, looked up as he backed across the room. "John? What- what's wrong?"
He shook his head. "Nothing. It's nothing." He took a deep breath. "I-I'm just tired. I'm tired." He began to clear the bed. "I think I'll sleep for a while. It's been a long day."
"Okay." She stood up and watched him, confusion in her face. "Okay, if that's what you want..."
"Yeah." He turned his back on her to hide his face. What was happening to him? How could he be so infatuated with Delenn? She was an alien, and he was spoken for! There couldn't be anything between them! There *couldn't* be...
He dropped onto his back on the bed, feeling more tired from the last five minutes than from the entirety of the day. He'd thought being reunited with Anna would be a happy experience - he loved her, after all. Didn't he? He thought so. But he couldn't help how he felt for Delenn, and when he compared them both there was no question. He could not marry Anna while Delenn was still in his life.
He wondered when it had happened. *When* had he actually grown to like the woman who should have been his sworn enemy - when had he gotten to *more* than like her? When had he-
"I don't love her. I love Anna." The words sounded hollow in the silence. "I love Anna." It didn't get any better the second time. Angry, he rolled off the bed and launched at his desk, clearing it with a swipe of his arm. "I love *Anna*!"
He picked up the lightweight desk and threw it across the room. It fell with a muffled thud onto the plush blue carpet. Annoyed that it didn't sound more - more *angry,* Sheridan whirled around to the window and almost put his fist through it. The plasglas vibrated with the punch, but it was almost impossible to break which only made him even more desperate. He flipped the catch and slammed the window wide open, staring with fierce intent at the vanishing sunset outside. If he tried hard enough, maybe, he could make it come back again, make the day replay itself the way it *should* have been...
It came to him that he was staring towards Geneva. There was no guarantee, of course, that she was actually in the city, but it didn't help his mood.
"*HELL!*" Infuriated, he left the room with a burning desire to break the house apart piece by piece - which he made a good start on by nearly rattling his door off its hinges. His family was gathered in the living room, but he had no intention of being around anyone at that moment. He all but ran out of the house, ignored the falling night and went to the stable, his forced stride barely holding in his anger. It took him only a few minutes to saddle a horse; in the dim light he didn't know which one, and didn't care. He heard someone calling his name, but it was distant, muted by the rushing blood in his ears. He swung onto the horse's back and kicked hard, pushing a gallop before he even left the stableyard. He saw someone, he thought it was his father, standing on the porch. Settling over the animal's neck, he pushed on. The horse, like all of the Sheridan's stock, was fit and ran for a long while before he began to reign it in and finally stop. The fury spent, he dropped to the ground and tied the reigns to the nearby fence. The night was warm, but it was pitch black around him and he had no idea where he was. Very likely he had reached the edge of his father's land in the hour or so he had been riding.
Loosening his mount's saddle, he sank to the ground and drew his knees up in front of him. Emotions whirled in his head: resentment, confusion, bewilderment. Desperation was high on the list. Being alone had seemed like a good idea an hour or so ago, but now he found he wanted company. He shied away from the thought of just who he wanted to see, leaning back and resting his head against the fence. "Oh, God. How did this happen?" He closed his eyes, but her face floated in his mind. When he opened them, he was staring straight up into the night sky, pricked with tiny stars that sparkled in the velvet darkness. One star moved: he frowned and concentrated on it. It was nearer than the rest... a starship. He laughed, without humour. It had a desperate sound to it.
"I'm not going to get away from you, am I?"
It was his imagination, but the star seemed to twinkle in response. With a mirthless chuckle, he put his head in his hands and ran his fingers through his hair. It wasn't *right!* He didn't deserve this kind of thing. He hadn't asked to be the liaison. It could just as easily have been Franklin - five minutes later and there would never have been one at all.
"And then we'd all be dead. Great." He sighed heavily. "How do I win?" He cast the question out into the night, at the Universe that had put him in this situation. "How, huh? What do you want me to *do*?"
There was no reply.
"Uh-huh? Figures. You don't know either." He shivered and grunted. "And now you had to go get cold. Nice." Grabbing the fence, he pulled himself up and tightened the horse's girth. He clambered into the saddle again and picked up the reigns, touching his heels to the animal's sides. It moved into a slow walk, and he let the rolling movement soothe his mind.
It was well into the night when he got back to the farmhouse. He considered calling for a shuttle back to the Embassy, but he wasn't sure he could handle being back there so soon yet. Besides, he told himself, it wasn't fair on his family if he left so quickly. He'd been missing... dead... for almost nine months, and this was the first chance they'd had to see him in person. He couldn't just disappear without staying with them at least a full day. That didn't stop him, however from spending longer than usual in the stable, rubbing down his obliging mount. His mind began to wander, and when he blinked and looked properly he'd been brushing the same spot for nearly five minutes.
"Sorry," he murmured apologetically. The horse didn't make a reply, and a smile touched his lips. "I'm talking to a horse. I must be having problems." The bay horse turned its head enquiringly at the sound of his voice. He sighed ruefully. "I wonder if this is meant to happen. The Minbari believe in fate - maybe it's 'meant to be.'" He chuckled, but he didn't find it funny. "Doesn't tell me what to do about it, though, does it?"
The horse only whickered.
"Yeah, I guess you don't care." Finished, he dropped the brush and leaned back against the wall of the stable, suddenly very tired. "I wish I didn't. God, I wish I didn't."
The house was quiet when he finally went in, and he dared hope no one had waited up for him. Then his mother's voice came out of the living room as he walked past.
He sighed and closed his eyes for a few seconds, preparing himself. He turned back and went into the room. No one else was around. His mother sat in a chair facing the door, wearing a concerned expression. "John, why did you run off like that? Your father's very worried about you."
"What's new?" At her reprimanding glare, he shook his head. "Sorry. I just... needed some time to think." He tried to lighten the atmosphere with a slight smile. "I haven't really had much of that lately." *I haven't wanted it,* he thought but didn't say. His mother smiled sympathetically.
"You must be very busy now," she said. The gentle tone in her voice reminded him of-
"There's a lot that needs doing," he agreed. "It... gets a bit much." There was a pause, neither really knowing what to say. The idea of her having mourned him was strange, and he didn't want to dwell on it. At the same time, she didn't want to push him for information about his captivity. All in all, the silence was uncomfortable and lasted longer than it should have.
"Did Anna upset you?" The question wasn't entirely unexpected, but he had expected it to be couched in something a little more subtle.
"No. Not really." He shook his head. "I just..." Unable to find the words, he tried to make something up. "I don't think it's fair on her, that's all." *Please don't ask for anything else.*
"What isn't fair on her?" Nancy Sheridan leaned forward and put a hand gently on her son's knee. "John, she loves you. She's still willing to-"
"I don't think *I'm* willing." He couldn't say it above a whisper. Even though he hadn't mentioned Delenn, privately he knew that she was what he meant. She was the reason he didn't want Anna to be willing to take him in his new position. He wanted her to tell him it was over, that she couldn't deal with what had happened to him and what he had become. *But she doesn't know what I've become,* he realised. *She doesn't know what happened to me. None of them do. Only Delenn...*
His mother sat back, and he waited for her response. She gave him a flicker of a smile, and it was sad but accepting. "I understand," she said gently. He knew she didn't, not really, but he couldn't tell her the truth. He couldn't even tell himself.
"I'm sorry," he started, but she shook her head.
"It isn't your fault. These things happen, especially to people like you." When he made it clear he didn't understand, she only smiled. "You're a soldier, John. You're an explorer. Duty comes first, hmm?"
He stayed silent.
"It must have been hard on you." He realised she meant being among the Minbari.
"Only that I wasn't helping. I..." He paused. "I guess I'm less of a soldier at heart than you think."
"Fighting for peace is harder than fighting for war," she said chidingly.
"That sounds-" He broke off. *That sounds like something Delenn would say.*
She let it pass. "You father and I are very proud of what you've done, John," she told him. He smiled tightly and nodded. "You have a lot of responsibilities now. You can't be blamed for putting personal feeling on the backburner. But," she said before he could protest, "you can't be all duty all of the time. Try and remember that."
Sheridan opened his mouth, wanting to say something, anything, to tell her she was wrong, but he couldn't do it. Eventually he just nodded.
"Okay. Now you go off to bed. We can discuss things again tomorrow."
"Okay." His voice was quiet; it didn't sound like his own. "Goodnight."
He was numb as he walked up the stairs. He went through his nightly ritual without noticing; only when he went into his room did he remember what he had done earlier. He ignored it, telling himself he'd tidy it tomorrow. He climbed into bed heavily, the weight of his mother's words on his shoulders. He hadn't been able to tell the the truth: that he'd fallen for the Minbari leader who'd captured him over the woman who wanted to marry him. He *certainly* couldn't tell Anna.
It was impossible anyway, he thought tiredly. The turmoil in his mind kept him awake. He couldn't have a relationship with Delenn - for physical reasons. For political reasons. If it came to light that he felt this way about her, the implications would be that she had swayed his judgement in the Babylon Treaty, as it was now called. On the Minbari side, a lot of them would probably feel the opposite: that he had given her unfair advice on what to grant the Humans, that they had gotten more than they deserved. Even - *oh, dear God!* - that she had granted them peace solely because of him.
He slept fitfully that night.
* * * * *
When morning came, he was awake before anyone else. He went downstairs, taking in the familiar surroundings of home. It was as it had been when he arrived: exactly as he had left it. But something was different, and all he could think of was that it was him.
He got breakfast quietly, trying not to wake anyone else just yet. He wanted the time to himself, to think. He'd realised that he'd had a lot of time to do that, really; he just hadn't used it. He hadn't wanted to use it. He'd hoped, foolishly, that if he ignored it everything might go back to how it had been. Now, he knew it was a child's dream. Nothing was going to happen that he didn't bring about himself. It was worrying, even a little frightening, to think of the decision he had to make. If he and Delenn remained friends, even if nothing happened between them, he might still have to choose between her and Anna and his family.
And it frightened him, because he knew who would win.
The confrontation with Anna herself was a subdued one, and over quite quickly. It was Liz who, as soon as her friend was gone, caused the uproar.
"How *could* you?!" Hurt seeped into her tone and he winced.
"I had to," he told her. "It had to happen. I really care about her, Liz. It wasn't fair on her."
"She wanted to be with you, John!"
He was perched on the edge of a chair, his hands clasped in front of him, head bowed. Now he looked up at her, willing her to understand.
"It wasn't right, Liz. It just..." He spread his hands helplessly. "It just wasn't right."
His sister sank into the opposite chair, pleading with him. "Don't you love her, John?"
He ran his fingers through his hair. It had grown since his last visit home. "I don't know anymore. I think so, but... If I'm not sure, what kind of a basis is that for a meaningful relationship?" He reached over and took her hands. "I didn't do this easily, Lizzie, believe me. I really think it's for the best."
She seemed to want to say something else, but the look in his eyes made her pause. She smiled sadly and reached across to hug him. "I'm sorry, Johnny. Really." She looked at him. "I think you would have made a great couple."
He nodded admittedly. "Yeah, maybe. Maybe we will, sometime in the future." She knew he didn't really believe that, and so did he.
"But not now?" she tried once more. He smiled at her dogged determination and shook his head.
"Not now. Not while everything's so confused and hectic. I need time to sort myself out... and I can't do that with Anna." It wasn't until he said it that he realised what he was inferring. Liz's eyes narrowed, but before she could begin to question him his mother came into the room.
"Your shuttle's here, John." He nodded and stood, embracing his sister once more in farewell.
She hugged him back, and held on to him for an instant longer than he wanted her to. "Are you sure you have to go?"
"It's better," he said gently. "After what's happened. I'll be back soon, though, I promise. And you can come visit me in Geneva, remember." With a flash of a grin, he took her arms from around his neck and went to his mother. She hugged him tightly, but she was silent: there was nothing left to be said. Dan and his father had helped load his belongings onto the shuttle and were waiting outside. He gave his brother-in-law a quick hug, and then came to his father. David Sheridan hadn't pretended to understand his son's decision, but he had at least accepted it.
"Come back soon, okay?" he whispered. Sheridan nodded.
"I will, Dad. Promise." He embraced him hard, then quickly let go before he decided not to leave so fast. "You come and visit, okay?" He grinned. "Come see the new Ambassador Sheridan in action."
David grinned back. "We will, son. Now go on." He nodded toward the shuttle. "Your pilot's waiting."
Sheridan nodded, smiled, and without looking back walked up the ramp into the small craft. He waved quickly to them, but soon the shuttle was skimming over the landscape towards the coast. Despite his regret at leaving his family again, he couldn't help feeling easier than when he'd arrived. He hadn't decided on a lot, but he had at least begun to sort out his dramatically altered life. It took a few hours to reach Geneva, and somewhere over the Atlantic he succumbed to the sleep that had eluded him during the night.
When he reached the Embassy, he got a small but welcome surprise: building work had continued and the shuttlepad was in place. He landed atop the spacious building, and when he went inside he was even more impressed. When he had left, the corridors had been spare and uninviting; now the main areas were decorated in Minbari style and bustled with activity. He greeted a number of people, Human and Minbari, with a nod - or in the Minbari case, a bow - before reaching his own finished offices. As liaison, he had been given an office in the Minbari Embassy rather than Earthdome, and he was really quite glad. Despite his new role, he really did find politics - and politicians - boring.
Having stopped off briefly in his office, he left the almost completed building and crossed the courtyard. It was short walk to the Embassy accomodation, which was shrouded in heavy security even though he was sure no one would be stupid enough to attack him or the Minbari delegates. Delenn had taken the position of Minbari Ambassador permanently, and he saw now the wisdom in not revealing her title from the start. Being the Minbari leader, or at least one of them, on Earth during such an uncertain period would have invited trouble. There had been no threats since the attempt on her life during the peace talks, and Sheridan had been assured that that had been sufficiently dealt with.
The guard recognised him immediately, but still checked his identicard before allowing him into the building. Once inside, there were security systems everywhere; even in his apartment, although - *thank God,* he thought wryly - not in the bathroom or bedroom. He made use of both of those on his return, enjoying a long hot water shower before unpacking and stretching out on his bed. He was there only a few minutes when the door chimed. He sighed and sat up.
He didn't really consider who it might be, so he was pleasantly surprised and a little embarrassed when it turned out to be Delenn. She, however, took in his attire - a dark blue bathrobe and damp, spiky hair - with a curious smile touching her lips. He had always taken care to be presentable when he knew she would visit, and Delenn wasn't in the habit of dropping in unannounced.
"Uh.. hi," he managed uncomfortably. "Something I can do for you?"
Delenn looked at him again, and for the first time seemed vaguely embarrassed herself. *She's figured out why I'm dressed like this,* he realised.
"I, um..." She put one hand to the back of her neck, a gesture he had come to recognise as uncertainty in her. "Should I return later?"
He cast a wry glance over his robe and shrugged. "No, it's all right. Come in." He gestured to the couch. "Have a seat. I'll, uh, I'll go get dressed. Help yourself to a drink." There was, as always, a carafe of water on the coffee table. It had become something of a running joke.
"You do not have to," she called after him. When he looked back at her, she seemed to have realised what she had said and smiled self-consciously. "I'm sorry - I did not mean-"
"Would you rather I didn't?" He intended it as a joke, but inwardly he wondered what her answer would be. She coloured and looked away, and he grinned at the reaction. "I'll be out in a minute."
As he closed the door to his sleeping chamber, Delenn clasped her hands in front of her and struggled to correct her composure. What had possessed her to say that? He was Human, in Valen's name! They may not be enemies any more, but that didn't mean he felt anything for her. He could still resent her for what she had done - and what would the rest of his people think? That was assuming he even found her attractive. She was alien, after all, and if he even *had* feelings for her he'd never made any attempt to show them. He'd actively discouraged her, if anything. She had begun to suspect that she was deluding herself, but there was something about him...
He came out of his bed chamber while she was thinking, and she looked up quickly, embarrassed by her thoughts. His warm expression put her at ease, and to her relief he sat down at the other end of the couch rather than right beside her. He poured himself a drink, and her as well when she asked. Sitting back, he frowned slightly as he saw he studying him.
As if she had been caught doing something she shouldn't, Delenn flicked her eyes down to her drink. "Nothing."
He smiled *that* smile, the one that told her he was interested now. "No, go on. You were looking at me."
"I-" She paused, then said curiously, "Your 'hair'. It is... different. I don't... I have never seen it that way before." She smiled in embarrassment and looked away. He laughed.
"It's wet, that's all. Humans use water as a cleanser, I told you that." He'd had to, although she had found it exceptionally strange, after about three days on her ship. She had gotten used to his unfathomable customs during that period, and they only made him more interesting to her.
"It has never been wet before," she pointed out. He grinned.
"You mean you've never *seen* it wet before. It's been wet plenty of times."
Delenn considered that. "Humans have a lot of strange customs."
"We're a strange people," Sheridan returned. Now Delenn laughed.
"Yes, you are."
There was a short silence, both of them trying to find something to say.
"Was there something you came here for?" He hoped he didn't sound as if she were intruding. "It's just that you don't usually call in unless there's a reason."
"I heard that you had returned from your family. I thought you were going to be away for longer." She realised how that sounded and tried to correct it, but she stumbled over the words and eventually just smiled apologetically. "I thought you might wish to talk." She didn't mention that the news of his return had drawn her immediately to his apartment, before she had even considered that something might have been wrong.
He smiled at her offer, genuinely pleased and more than a little comforted. "It wasn't much. I just - thought I should be back here. There's so much to do, and-"
"Don't you trust me?" It was her way of telling him she saw through the lie. He sighed.
"I trust you. I just... it's hard to talk about. I don't know that I'm ready."
Delenn, to his surprise, just nodded. "I was that way when Dukhat died." She looked at him pointedly, and he realised what she meant.
"I'm hardly going to start a war over a little break-up, Delenn," he protested. She didn't answer. "Okay, okay. I get it. I should talk about this kind of thing." He suddenly tilted his head, and to her surprise smiled almost tenderly. "You know, even my sister couldn't get me to talk about it? I feel like I've known you for years, not just a few months."
"It is almost a year," she pointed out, although her face betrayed her delight and she blushed slightly. "By your calendar, at least."
"I guess so." He seemed embarrassed to have mentioned it now, she thought. She wanted to make him more comfortable, but she didn't know how. She wished they had known each other for years; then perhaps she would know him better. There were still so many things that were strange about him - his compulsion to wash in water, for instance.
Sheridan wished he hadn't said anything. Delenn looked as embarrassed as he felt, and he *felt* like sinking through the floor. *Idiot, idiot, idiot!*
"Perhaps I should go." She stood to leave, but he didn't want her to go.
"No! It's all right. Please." He paused and sighed, defeated. "I want to talk about it."
Delenn smiled, and he considered that she had set him up for that. With her, he could never be sure. She sat down again, a little nearer this time. He tried not to show his reaction to that.
"What did you wish to talk about?" she picked up her glass again and sat straight on the couch, waiting patiently. He had noticed that she always sat with perfect posture even when she looked relaxed. It was a talent he wished he had.
"A lot of things. Me, mostly. Family. Work. Relationships." He gave her a rueful grin. "I guess you figured that, huh?"
"I - had some idea," she admitted.
"Yeah, well. You might as well hear it first hand." He looked at the table, her glass, the wall, anything that meant he wasn't looking at her. "I was with someone before the war. Anna, her name is. My sister's friend."
"Anna." She smiled. "It is a nice name."
"She's a nice person. But..." He searched for what to say. He couldn't tell her why he'd left Anna, but he couldn't lie to her either. "We split up. I stopped it, actually."
Delenn said nothing for a time. Then, so quietly that he barely heard her, she spoke. "May I ask why?"
*I was hoping you wouldn't.* "A lot of reasons. I'm not the person I was before all this started. Things have changed - I've changed."
"Then it is my fault." She looked distressed. "I am sorry."
"It's not - it's not your fault. Really. It's no one's fault." He smiled, although it wasn't in his eyes, and shrugged. "It just wasn't right anymore."
"Was that her choice as well?" It suddenly seemed very important to know that. He paused.
"Not at first. But she understood, and I think maybe she was kind of relieved. I mean, she's mourned me and everything. It would be weird to go back to normal, even assuming I could." He shook his head. "I don't think it would have worked, to be honest. Especially with everything that's going on at the moment. Unless it was someone here, I don't think I'd have time for a relationship right now." He looked up at her without realising; seeing her face, he rushed on. "Anna isn't ready to give up her life, or her chance at a career. We're too different for it to work, the way things are." He shrugged. "Maybe, one day..."
"Maybe," she echoed, trying to sound supportive. His words confused her: he seemed willing enough to involve himself with someone close by, but he also held out the hope that he and Anna might become a couple again. *Why can you not just say what you mean? It would be so much easier...* She realised that she had hardly been direct with him either, but she chose to ignore that. She had been much more forward than he had.
Sheridan, desperate to get out of the silence that had once again descended, looked at the time. To his relief, it was growing late in the evening. "It's getting toward dinnertime," he told her. Minbari mealtimes were surprisingly similar to Humans. "Would you like something to eat?"
"I-" She was about to say that she would leave, but something stopped her. She smiled warmly. "I would like that."
* * * * *
Dinner with Delenn, either in his apartment or her own, became a regular feature of the week very quickly. By the time the next year was up, it was unusual for them to miss an evening together. With the Embassy now fully operational, business was a staple discussion point and allowed them to spend their time together without touching on more personal matters. Sheridan had become quite proficient at cooking Minbari food, as it generally required less preparation that Earth cuisine and involved long periods - supposedly for mediation - between each step, which allowed him to consider everything very carefully. Therefore, from the time that Delenn began to teach him how to cook Minbari-style, there were little more than three fire alarms in their apartment building.
He hadn't heard from Anna since their break-up, but Liz had given him various pieces of news she considered it important that he know. Anna had gone into archaeology as a profession and was currently on Mars, excavating a dig near Marsdome One. He was quite glad, really, that she was away and getting on with her life, for he held no real hope that they would ever get back together. Spending most of his time with Delenn, or her associates at the Embassy, it had dawned on him just how different he had become during his time away. His fascination with the Minbari, and a certain one of their number in particular, had not diminished: if anything, it had grown. He spent as much time as he could with her, and she seemed to welcome it; there seemed to be a subconscious bond between them that drew them together in the most unlikely places. There had definitely been developments in their relationship, but all of the friendly kind: although they had never discussed it outright, they both knew their positions. The political and cultural ramifications of a relationship held them on the verge of attachment but never quite close enough for it. Neither could imagine life without the other, but a relationship that passed the bounds of close friendship was out of the question.
The Babylon Project, Delenn's ambitious plan that had been unveiled at the signing of the Babylon Treaty, was well into its theoretical completion by the Embassy's third month of operation. The mainframe of a gigantic space station had been designed that would be the embodiment of that treaty. Much of the reparation which had been agreed for Earth was poured into the funds for the project.
The Babylon Station began assembly on April tenth twenty-two forty-nine, two months after the election of Earth President Luis Santiago, near the L-5 point around Epsilon Three. The station was a heavy topic of discussion on every world, for after much debate it had been decided that it was to house people from every race and to be open to everyone. That had gone up against some opposition on the Council, but Delenn had brought out one of her speeches. They had soon agreed.
It was over two years since they had met, twelve months since the peace treaty had been signed, when it happened. It had been a long time coming, and Delenn hadn't honestly thought it would take so long, but it was here. She stared at the packages in front of her, hopelessly lost in their intricacy. They had not been used for a thousand years, but she knew they still worked as well as before. She had had them for a week now, stored away where John would not see them, but now the crystal containers filled her living room. He was due for their usual meeting any time now; she smiled as the door chimed.
"Come in." Rising from her knees, she straightened her clothing and turned to meet him. He took in the disorganised room with an amused grin.
She blinked. "I'm sorry?"
"You look like you're moving." He wandered easily toward the kitchen, the only area with any clear space. "I hope you were going to tell me."
"You are joking with me," she accused him. It was one of the subtleties of Human language that she had been unable to master. He grinned.
"See, you do get it. What's for dinner?" John, she had learned, was always hungry.
"I do not know. It is your turn to prepare the meal." She moved several small boxes from the dining table and set them precariously atop a larger container beside the couch.
Sheridan looked suitably chastened at having forgotten the arrangement, and began to hunt through her kitchen for something to make a decent meal. It had been a long day, and he was definitely in the mood for something substantial. "What's all this for, anyhow?" He waved a kitchen utensil at her new aquisitions.
"It is..." She stopped, unsure how he would take what she had to say. She decided to 'break it to him gently,' as his people put it. "The nearest translation is a 'butterfly machine'."
He stopped excavating her kitchen, and looked at her as if she had gone crazy. "A *butterfly* machine?"
"I think so." She grew a little defensive. "I have never had to know that word before. How can *I* be sure? They are small things, and they move..." she made an exaggerated gesture with her hand. Sheridan gave her a sceptical raised eyebrow.
"A caterpillar machine? That makes even less sense. Besides, it doesn't look much like a machine from where I'm standing."
Delenn frowned, then moved around to where he was standing. He coughed politely, moving out of the way as she drew close to him. They tried to keep a respectful distance between them, but they were both inclined to be forgetful.
"Uh, Delenn? Could you not do that?"
She turned to him, frowning. "There is no difference to looking at it from here than over there." She pointed to where she had been standing. "Apart from the angle, it looks the same."
He had to laugh, although it usually annoyed her. "It's a figure of speech. It's supposed to be sarcastic." He could see he wasn't getting anywhere. "What I meant was, it's all in boxes. It's not very machine-like."
Delenn gave him a condescending sigh. "It must be constructed," she told him patiently.
She tried not to look uncomfortable. "Here?"
"Here?" He frowned, trying to picture it. "How big is it?"
She made a rough estimation with her hands.
"Won't it get in the way?"
She sighed. "No. It will be over there." She pointed at the space between the couch and the table.
"There?" He looked where she pointed, then back at her. "That will definitely be in the way. Won't it get annoying? How long has it got to be here?"
He stood back a little to look at her. "Is this a permanent decoration?"
"No." She paced the room, wondering how to tell him. Eventually, she started to move boxes around to avoid looking at his face. It was easier to talk that way. "As soon as it has completed its - its function, someone will come to dismantle it and take it back to Minbar."
"Its *function*? What does it do? And why will someone *else* come to take it away? Delenn, what the hell is going on here?"
//It is the Vale'zha'li!// In her desperation, she reverted to her own tongue rather than the English she used as a matter of course.
"The what?" He abandoned his preparations and went over to her, gesturing helplessly with his hands. "Delenn, I don't understand."
"It - it is Valen's machine." She sank onto the couch, her voice sounding childlike in its uncertainty. "It... I do not know what it will do. But I do know that I must use it."
Sheridan grimaced. "Helpful."
"I am trying," she snapped back.
"Very," he teased. She didn't get the joke. "Never mind." He sat back on the couch and reached out for her hand. It was an unspoken rule between them, brought about by their immensely confused personal relationship, that physical contact was out of bounds. By the way she was acting, he figured he could break it this time.
"Delenn? This is obviously bothering you a whole lot. Do you want to talk about it?"
He shrugged and withdrew his hand. "Fair enough. I tried. God knows I owe you enough times over, but if you think you can handle it, then..." He shrugged melodramatically and went back into the kitchen.
Delenn looked up in surprise. "What are you doing?"
He looked briefly up from the various pots and jars that adorned her work surface. "Making dinner. Why?"
She looked at him for only an instant before she realised what he was doing. A flicker of a smile crossed her face. "You have made your point. Perhaps not as well as you could have done, but I understand." She smiled apologetically. "Please come back."
He shrugged as if it didn't matter, but he did come back to the couch. Her expression wavered but held when he smiled gently. "Now do you want to talk about it?"
"Yes." She looked down, trying to find a place to start. "I-I'm not sure what to say."
"If it's easier in Adronato," he suggested. Delenn shook her head.
"It isn't the words - I just cannot..." She turned away from him, and he wished devoutly that he could hold her in his arms. "I do not want to tell you," she said at last.
"Why not?" Horror drew over him like a cloud. "Is something going to happen to you? Are you going somewhere? Is that why-"
"I am not leaving. I-" She went silent, and he let her take her time. When she did speak, it was so quietly that it blended with the silence and he could barely hear. "I am... changing."
"Changing?" He frowned, confused. "I don't get it."
"I. Am. Changing." She turned suddenly and looked him full in the face. "This, all of this," with a wide sweep of her arms she indicated the machine, "is going to change me."
He stared at her, not knowing what to say. "*Why?*"
"Because," she said bluntly.
"That's not an answer, Delenn."
"I don't *have* one!" She stood and paced the room, what little she could. "I - I don't understand it myself. All I know is that I have to do it. It is..." She searched for the word. "Necessary."
"It's not necessary, Delenn!" He stood and reached out for her, ignoring their self-imposed boundaries to grab her by the shoulders. "How can it be necessary? You don't need to change. You're fine as you are!" It sounded lame, but she knew what he meant. She smiled sadly and gently put her hands on his forearms.
"John, please. This is hard already. Please do not make it any more difficult for me."
"*Why?*" he said again, struggling to cope with what she was suggesting. "Why do you have to do this? What is it going to do? It's not going to serve any purpose!"
"It will bring us closer together," she said nobly.
His voice was a gentle whisper. "How can we be any closer, Delenn?"
She smiled tenderly. "I did not mean-" For a moment she seemed somewhere else, as if something momentous had just occurred to her. She shook it off and looked up at him. "I did not mean the two of us. I meant us, our peoples. I will be a bridge between Human and Minbari, to further relations once the station is built. I will be a... a merging... of both our peoples."
He raised his eyebrows. "You don't really mean that, do you?" It was too fantastic for words!
Delenn frowned at him. "It is true, John. I have already told you, the machine will change me."
"Yeah, but..." He seemed to grasp what she was getting at. "*Physically*?" When she didn't contradict him, he stared. "Oh, God, Delenn..."
"It will not be painful." She tried not to show that she didn't believe her own words, but he saw through it. "So I am told," she admitted.
"Delenn..." He couldn't think of anything to say. Nothing really compared with what she had just told him, or at least implied. He pulled her into his arms, and when he felt her crown against his cheek he only held her tighter. "Please don't do this, Delenn."
She held him equally close, burying her head in his chest. "I have to. I can't explain it." She lifted her head, and he saw tears welling in her eyes. "Will you accept that? It is my choice, and," she took a deep breath to steady herself, "I do not think I can do this if you say no."
He saw how serious she was, and he was awed by what his opinion meant to her. He nodded: reluctantly, but he did so. "If it's your choice."
She smiled very slightly. "It is." She blinked back the tears. "John, I'm frightened. I don't know if I can go through with this."
He led her over to the couch and sat down, holding her hands in his. "Why is it so important? It must be more than just bridging the culture gap."
"I figured as much."
She smiled. "Valen was Human, John."
He gaped, then seemed to remember what they were discussing and shook off his amazement. "Well, it's a revelation, but I don't really see why... Wait. You said this, all this stuff, was Valen's machine."
"Yes." She was much more comfortable discussing history than the present right now. "This machine altered Valen from the Human he was to a Minbari, as I am."
"And now it's going to change you the other way." He understood now. "What, completely? It's going to make you Human?"
"I do not know." She looked away from his pained expression. "I only know what it is capable of doing, not what it will do. It may be that I will be completely Human when I emerge, or that I will be a - a mixture. Or..." She didn't continue, but he heard the words as if she had shouted them. *Or I may not emerge at all.*
"Did you do this on purpose?"
She was confused. "What?"
"Make me promise not to stop you before you told me how dangerous it was."
"It is not dangerous," she protested.
"Minbari shouldn't lie," he chided her. She reddened.
"Yes, it is dangerous. But there is more chance of it being successful than failing."
He winced. "I don't think I want to know the odds on that."
Delenn looked sheepish. "There are no 'odds,' as you call them. It has only been used once."
"Oh, great." He threw up his hands in despair. "You're telling me that a thousand-year-old machine that's been packed away in some vault somewhere is going to turn you from a Minbari into a Human, and you don't know exactly what you're going to be when it's done?!"
He sighed and ran a hand desperately through his hair. "I suppose it's too much to ask that you get it serviced first."
"John," she reprimanded gently. He looked at her, and then sighed and collapsed against the couch.
"I'm sorry. It's just a bit of a shock, that's all. I mean, it's not really the kind of thing that happens every day, is it?"
"I have just told you that it has not been done for a thousand years," she reminded him in answer. Despite himself, he laughed.
"Yeah, you have. Forgive me for being a little forgetful right now."
"You are forgiven," she said with a smile, covering his hand with hers. The touch brought silence; he looked down at her hand, a profound sense of warmth and intimacy washing over him. He'd come to terms with the fact that he was attracted to her, but he knew now it was more than that. The prospect of her changing, becoming more Human, wasn't one he was interested in. He wanted her to be who she was, to stay as the warm, curious, lively person she was now. The *Minbari* she was now.
She looked up at him, and their eyes met. He saw the gentle astonishment in hers as she read the emotions surging through his own, and she let out a soft gasp. She drew back, but he caught her hand and held it.
"Delenn," he said softly, reassuringly. "It's okay. Please." He took her other hand and moved closer to her. "Take it easy." She looked upset, almost afraid, and he thought maybe he'd made his attraction to her a little too obvious. Since they'd started spending so much time together their interaction on that score had been playful, never serious, and only ever in private. He wondered if he'd made a mistake, if she wasn't as interested as he thought.
"I'm sorry." He let her go, trying to look repentant. "If I did something wrong-" She shook her head, looking down. He frowned, confused. "Then what? I would never hurt you, Delenn."
"It isn't that." She gave a watery laugh. "It's so strange, but I should have come to expect that from you. I don't understand you at all."
"Thanks," he said dryly. "It's always nice to know someone's true opinion of you."
"It is, isn't it?" She lifted her head and he saw the tears that had welled up before, spilling over her face. "Why do you have to like me, John? *Why*?" She tried not to sob. "I didn't want you to. It would be so much easier if you didn't..."
He realised then why she had reacted so apprehensively to his feelings for her, and why for almost two years she had never allowed them to go any further than light-hearted banter. She had known, she had known *all this time* that she would have to do this, and she had been afraid that if he grew too close to her as she was now it would not last when she emerged from her.. her *chrysalis*.
"I wish I could say I'm sorry," he told her. "But I'm not, Delenn. I can't be sorry for caring about you. My heart doesn't work that way." He reached out to wipe away her tears, but she backed away from him. He was reminded, insanely, of the way he had acted towards her when they had first met. He wondered if his rejection had hurt her as much then.
"Delenn, I don't want this to be different. I don't want to have gone through two years of knowing you without feeling something for you. And I don't want to go through the next two years, the next twenty years, without feeling the same way." He took her hands in his and smiled knowingly, looking into her eyes. "Don't you trust me?"
"I..." She couldn't answer him in words, but she didn't have to. She pulled him close to her, giving in to the sobs that racked her small frame. He cradled her tightly, holding her with more tenderness than he had ever done.
"Shh, it's all right. Don't cry, Delenn. You'll be all right, I know you will. Everything'll work out great. I promise."
She looked up tearfully. "I suppose you have that in writing."
He grinned. "You bet."
She smiled slightly then buried her face in his shoulder. "I'm afraid, John. I don't know if I want to be Human."
Sheridan held her closer. "I don't suppose there's some get-out clause?" he asked half-seriously. "You can't change back if you don't like it?"
"It doesn't work like that." Delenn tried to wipe away the tears on her face, but they kept coming. "I wouldn't survive a second time."
He gave her a pained look. "*Please* don't say that."
She smiled shakily. "I'm not afraid of what will happen if it doesn't work. Not really. I've thought about it. I'm just afraid of what will happen if it *does* work." The terror leapt out of her eyes as she looked up at him. "What happens if I don't like it? If I'm trapped that way, and I'm not Human and I'm not Minbari..." Her voice was rising in true fear now.
"That won't happen," he assured her. "I mean, if there's some huge spiritual reason for this happening, it stands to reason there's a purpose to it - something more than just bringing our peoples closer together."
"I can still do it if I'm not attractive," she pointed out. There, simply and without realising, she had reached the heart of her fear and he knew it.
"You, he accused gently, "are afraid that I won't be interested in you when you're Human. Or half-Human. Or whatever." Despite wanting to console her, he couldn't help a little bitterness. "I thought you knew me better than that."
"I don't know!" She looked up at him, trying to make him understand what no language could ever translate. "I didn't think you'd want me the way I am. I thought it would be easier for - for us if - I waited until it was over, if I was nearer to what you were used to. More Human. More - more normal for you. I didn't want..." Her voice broke. "I didn't want you to look at me and see an alien."
"Oh, Delenn." He stroked her face tenderly. "I haven't done that in so long I don't remember." Gently, he wiped her tears away with his thumb. "I wish I'd told you. If I'd known..."
"I didn't want you to know," she insisted. "I didn't want to be close to you, until..." She took a breath. "Until I could be what you wanted."
He almost laughed at her stubbornness. "Delenn, you *are* what I want!"
It was what she had wanted to hear, so it struck her as ironic that it only made her feel more uncertain. When she had first developed feelings for him, she would have given anything to have him tell her that; but now, in this situation, it was the only thing that could make her feel worse.
John, of course, recognised that almost immediately he'd spoken. "Delenn, I'm sorry. I don't know what to say." He gave a wry smile. "I really haven't had a lot of experience in this kind of thing."
She managed to smile back. "Then we are very similar."
Sheridan raised an eyebrow and looked down at her. Minbari or not, she was beautiful. "Yeah, I guess we are." Composing himself, he sat back a little and took her hands. "Delenn," he said seriously. She looked at him, curious.
"If I asked you to go to dinner with me, would you say yes?"
She smiled teasingly. "I have been to dinner with you nearly every night for over a year," she reminded him. He sighed inwardly and gave her a playful scowl.
"I didn't mean that. I meant..." *How do you explain something like this to a Minbari?* "I meant would you go out to dinner with me."
"Out?" She smiled curiously. "Why?"
He tried not to look uncomfortable, which wasn't difficult when her smile was so damned disarming. "If I said it was my ego, and I wanted to be able to say I'd dated a Minbari, would you believe me?"
She smiled in amusement. "No."
He grinned sheepishly. "I guess I won't bother then."
"I would appreciate that." Her smile now was tinged with pleasure, but she looked suddenly self-conscious. Shyly, she added, "I would say yes, John."
He grinned, relieved, and rushed on before his nerve broke. "When?"
Reality crashed down, and Delenn turned away briefly. "I don't know. Soon. Unless..."
He frowned in concern, gently turning her to face him. "Unless what?"
"Unless you wish to wait until-"
"No." He knew what she was going to say, and he didn't want to hear it. "I want it to be before." Taking a deep breath, he asked, "How long is it?"
She didn't answer for a while. It was a hard thing to say. "A few days. A week, perhaps. No more." She moved closer to him, urgently. "The Council is divided over this. They know it must be done, but for some that is not enough. They deceive themselves into thinking that we can wait longer. We cannot."
He couldn't help asking. "Why not?"
Delenn shook her head. "You would not understand. *I* do not understand. All I know is that it must be done quickly, before the Council can move against my decision." A little shamefully, she admitted, "Before I no longer have the will to do it."
He didn't know what to say. There wasn't much he could say. Instead he drew her to him, holding her in his arms, wishing the world away. It seemed to be what she wanted. She wrapped her arms around him, burying her face in his chest.
"Will you come to my place tomorrow?" His voice was a murmur against her crown. She nodded silently. "I'll take you somewhere. I don't know where... I'll think of something." Forcing a smile, he asked, "Is there anywhere you want to go?"
"Anywhere?" She tried to think. "I don't know. I don't know much about Earth outside Geneva."
"Away from Geneva, then. I'll grab us a shuttle to someplace quiet. Somewhere we won't be disturbed." Delenn smiled shyly.
"That would be nice." They were often interrupted during a typical evening, their work being what it was. "Do not tell me where. I would like it to be a surprise."
"Okay." There was a pause and he found himself looking at her without realising. It made him very... it was indefinable, but it had something to do with an emotion he wasn't sure he could admit to yet. Delenn gave him a timid smile, as if she knew what was going through his mind, and nestled back into his embrace.
"Tomorrow," she promised.
"Tomorrow," he assured her.
* * * * *
Everything was ready, or at least he couldn't think of anything that wasn't. He had been rushing around madly since finishing work - early, he admitted with only a hint of embarrassment - and he seemed to have covered everything. All he had to do now was wait for Delenn to arrive.
He sank onto the couch, grabbing a few minutes' rest while he waited. He'd managed to commandeer a shuttle, and had scraped up a pilot - the young Russian woman who had flown him about when he had first arrived, as it turned out. She was on leave from Io and happy to do the Minbari liaison a favour... and she was military enough not to spread her assignment around, he'd made sure of that. He still wasn't sure what the political or cultural fallout would be from his relationship with Delenn, but he'd put that aside for the night. If he only had a few more days with her before she spent however long in her chrysalis, he was going to make the most of it.
The door chimed, and he stood up to greet her. "Come in."
Delenn was dressed in the usual flowing white robes of the religious caste, but there was something a little more... Earthly... about the way she looked tonight compared with when he usually saw her. Her smile was the same, though, and it lit up his dimmed quarters like a gentle sun.
"Ready?" he asked. She nodded confidently, every trace of uncertainty left behind her. He made a final check around his apartment and then stepped up to her and offered his arm. "Shall we go, then?"
Delenn smiled, and hesitantly put her hand on his arm. "Yes."
He led her out of the building, security on which had been decreased somewhat even if they did still have to prove their identities to leave. Sheridan had the sneaking suspicion that the guards would very soon be talking about them, but he ignored it. It took only a few minutes to get the Embassy, where their shuttle was waiting on the rooftop pad. The pilot was already inside; she saluted Sheridan as he came aboard, and greeted Delenn with a bow which she returned.
"Lieutenant Susan Ivanova, awaiting instructions, sir." She stood at attention, but that spark of pride and excitement she had always had had not diminished.
"At ease, lieutenant," Sheridan said with a nonchalant smile. "I chose you because you were the best pilot, not because you have a rod up your butt. Don't disappoint me."
"Yes sir." She relaxed somewhat in response to his words. "May I have your destination, sir?"
It was early evening; they couldn't go too far out of the way. "Somewhere warm, lieutenant. Not too far out, we don't want to be exceptionally late back." He tried to think of a place Delenn had never been. "Somewhere along the coast."
"Aye, sir." She swung effortlessly into the pilot's seat, but turned around to make sure. "Nothing more specific, sir?"
He shrugged. "Make it south a little way. It's warmer there this time of year."
She gave a curt nod. "Aye sir. South." She bent over the controls with a dry murmur. "Somewhere."
Sheridan grinned: she didn't think he'd heard her. He had the feeling he was going to like Susan Ivanova, and made a mental note to request her permanent assignment to him when he had the chance.
He went back to the passenger area where Delenn was waiting. She was sitting by the window looking out and as the small craft took off, for an instant her face shone in the light. She turned as he sat down beside her, and smiled lightly.
"It is beautiful," she said softly. He looked out of the window himself and nodded. The city below was well lit by night, and various buildings were covered in not only the usual yellow and orange but green, blue and red as well.
"Yeah, it is. I always loved atmospheric flying. Seeing your planet from this high up, it kind of makes you feel... I don't know, humble somehow. Like everything else is so much bigger than you."
"I know." She turned to watch as the shuttle rose up and the city disappeared among the rest of Switzerland. "I have felt that way on Minbar, when I was flying there." She frowned, amused. "Is it difficult to imagine that I can pilot a flyer?"
He shrugged, admonished. "No - I mean, not really. I just never knew you could. Is it much different to a shuttle?"
Delenn laughed softly. "I do not know. I have never flown a Human craft."
He grinned. "Well, that gives me something else to teach you."
"I do not know whether your government would approve," she pointed out with a smile.
"To Hell with the government!" His eyes shone with determination. "If I want to do it, then I will."
"In that case, I will teach you how to fly a Minbari craft." His eyes lit up when she said it and she laughed gently. "That appeals to you, does it not?"
"If you're doing the teaching," he replied. His voice sounded strange, but she liked it even as she blushed slightly. She wasn't sure how to reply, so instead she put her head on his shoulder and watched the sparkling planet fly past.
Sheridan was a little surprised when she settled against him, but he couldn't say he didn't like it. They were out over the Mediterranean by the time he got up the courage to do anything else, however. He didn't want to push her, and he was woefully ignorant of Minbari custom in that area. She didn't seem to mind when he put his arm around her shoulders, though, and he smiled, partly in relief and partly that unmentionable feeling, when she nestled closer.
"Delenn?" he said quietly. There was no one else there but for the pilot, who was sealed in the cockpit and wouldn't hear him; nonetheless, he kept his voice low.
"Yes?" She didn't move, but she was listening.
"I was just wondering..."
She sounded amused. "Yes?"
"What would you do now?"
"Now?" She looked up at the chronometer; they'd been in the shuttle almost
half an hour. "Usually, I would eat now. You should know," she added innocently.
He looked uncomfortable. "I didn't mean that. I meant... as a Minbari. What would you do n- in this situation." He gestured to the shuttle, and more vaguely to the two of them. "If you were on Minbar, say."
"If I were on Minbar," she said, "I could not be in this situation, could I?"
He scowled at her. "Are you deliberately making this difficult for me?"
She smiled gently. "No, John. *You* are making it difficult for you."
Sheridan frowned. "How do you figure that?" Delenn sighed and gave him a light, innocent expression.
"If I were in this situation, I would do what I am doing, because I *am* in this situation now. Correct me if I have forgotten, but I am still a Minbari. I act the way a Minbari does, and I *re*act the way a Minbari does." She laughed teasingly. "You worry far too much, John."
He had to admit that was true. "Still," he protested, "the way Minbari do these things can't possibly be exactly the way Humans do. There has to be differences."
"What 'things' would you mean?" When he scowled, she laughed again. "John, you have an amazing number of ways to step around what you want to say. If you wish to ask me how Minbari courtship is performed, why do you not just ask me?"
He looked embarrassed to have her say it so bluntly, but he battled through it admirably. "Well, then, tell me."
Now it was Delenn's turn to look disconcerted. "Minbari courtship is... very long. It involves a large amount of ritual."
"I should have guessed," he sighed. Delenn looked up at him, slightly hurt.
"It is the way we do things," she told him sharply. He realised she'd taken his comment seriously and smiled contritely.
"I didn't mean - I'm sorry. It's probably better than the way we do it, really." He thought about Anna. *That wouldn't have happened, for one.*
Delenn accepted the apology with a smile - she hadn't wanted to be angry with him. "It's all right. We are different; that is the way things are."
"Well, that's an optomistic sentiment," he teased her. "I hope we're not too different."
Her expression reassured him then. "We are good at compromising, are we not?"
"Yes." He smiled and she felt the colour rise in her face. "You especially."
"I will not pretend that I do not like to be flattered," she told him with bemusement, "but you should not lie to do so."
"You always say that," he pouted playfully. "I don't care what you think, it's true. You are a better diplomat than I am."
"If that is true," Delenn said pointedly, "then why are you so concerned?"
He realised with a flash of clarity that she'd set him up, and skilfully at that. "Okay, you win. I won't worry about it any more."
"I am glad." Looking out of the window, she saw the shadows of late evening bringing them closer to the surface. "We are landing, I think."
Sheridan looked over her shoulder at the view. Below them was a moonlit coast, the water calm and quiet - if it was possible, the night even looked warm. Ivanova brought the shuttle down smoothly a few hundred yards from the beach and turned to Sheridan, although she addressed them both.
"Should I wait for you, Ambassadors?"
Delenn obviously deferred the question, and Sheridan shook his head.
"No." He tried to find some way of saying what he wanted without making it obvious what was happening. "Feel free to, uh..."
"Would twenty-three-hundred be acceptable?" Her voice betrayed no hint of curiosity, and even those expressive brown eyes were totally professional.
"Uh, yes." He let out a breath and smiled gratefully. "Thank you, lieutenant."
Ivanova shrugged as they left the shuttle. "My pleasure, sir." She allowed a slight, knowing smile to marr her professional features. "I hope it's yours."
Sheridan drew his companion to one side as the shuttle took off; only then did she notice the bag he was carrying.
"Dinner," he grinned. "I think of everything."
"I hope I am part of 'everything,'" Delenn teased. She looked around. "Where should we go? I've never seen this place before."
"It's on the coast of Africa, in a place called Tunisia. I told the pilot to come south, but there's no time lag so we shouldn't have any problems." He surveyed the area and then took her hand. She smiled. "This way." He started over the landing site, leading her towards the beach.
The night was warm, and there was only a light breeze coming in over the water. The beach was sandy, but further up near the edge there was a flat, clear area where they could sit and eat. Sheridan led Delenn over to it and set the food down before turning to her.
"Do you want to eat now?"
She smiled and nodded, and they sat down. "It's beautiful," she breathed as she looked out over the water. "We have no oceans on Minbar. It's too cold."
"It isn't really an ocean," he explained as he laid out the simple meal he'd brought for them. "This is the Mediterranean Sea. It's small compared with the oceans."
Delenn blinked disbelievingly at him. He nodded seriously and she looked back out at the sea. "This is small? But..."
"I guess Minbar's a lot different to Earth."
She turned back to him and nodded. "Very different. It's colder, even in the summer, and the northern ice cap covers nearly a quarter of the surface. Most of the water is held there, which is why we don't have any places like this." She gestured to the seemingly endless expanse.
He sat back, intrigued. "Tell me some more about your planet."
Delenn smiled, accepting the meal he handed her. "What do you want to know?"
"Anything." He spread his hands. "Everything. And I want to go there, too."
"Not tonight," she chided playfully. He chuckled.
"Maybe tomorrow, then."
Knowing he was joking, she laughed. "Perhaps. I will take you there one day, but for now you will have to content with my memories." She paused and moved around until they were sitting closer together, looking out over the beach. "Our cities are very different to yours. They are much less... artificial. Most are cut from crystal-"
"Entirely out of crystal?"
She nodded. "Minbar is rich in minerals and crystals. The largest cities are cut directly from crystal deposits, and smaller places use other building materials mixed with crystal. We have much more nature in our settlements as well. I have noticed that Earth has very few cities that contain parks. You use much more of the surface than we do."
"The population's bigger here," he guessed. "And most of our cities are just rebuilt from when everyone lived on Earth. There's not much reclaimed from back then. Whereas you," he motioned to her, "have been in space for centuries."
"Millenia," Delenn corrected him. His eyes widened.
"Honestly?" She nodded. "Well, I guess that would explain the technology gap." He whistled. "Wow. We haven't even been *civilised* for millenia."
Delenn smiled. "You should not dwell on it. It is what we do now that matters." Her expression became timid, almost shy. "When I am... changed..." she didn't look at his face, "I will take you to my homeworld. My words cannot do justice to its beauty."
"I could say that about something else," he said gently. Delenn blushed. Seeing her reaction, he pushed himself up from the ground and extended a hand. "Let's go for a walk. No one's going to find this lot while we're gone."
Delenn took his hand lightly, tighting her grip as he helped her up. He led her onto the beach, and the unfamiliar feeling of sand under her feet made her stumble slightly. Sheridan caught her, his arm around her waist, and she didn't protest when he kept it there as they walked slowly along the beach. It seemed to go on forever: if it did, she could easily have walked that long with Sheridan at her side.
"I see why Humans consider this so restful," she murmured absently. He grinned sheepishly.
"It is kind of a cliche, but I thought you'd like it."
Delenn smiled up at him and settled into his embrace. "I do like it. The company helps, of course." Sheridan smiled; here, he didn't seem embarrassed by her words.
"I know what you mean," he said quietly. The immensity of the place, an empty beach under a moonlit sky filled with stars - one of which was Minbar, he remembered - seemed to command a respectful silence. It seemed like sacrilege to disturb such a peaceful night.
Delenn slipped her hand into his again, watching the silent waves lapping at the shore. Intrigued, she glanced up at him and went toward the sea, hesitantly making her way to the waterline.
"I guess Minbar doesn't have waves, either," he said as he watched her expression. She shook her head in wonder.
"No... this is so different. Why do they move that way?"
Sheridan smiled at the innocent tone in her voice. "The wind, the pull of the moon's gravity. It's complicated." He took her other hand, afraid she might fall on the wet sand. "Sometimes, when it's winter and there's bad weather, they get up to four or five feet. This," he extended a hand to indicate the calm water barely a metre or so from their feet, "this is beautiful, but in rough weather it's really something to see."
Delenn turned to look out at the scene, trying to imagine his words as reality. She started as he moved to stand behind her and she felt his body behind hers, strong and warmer than the gentle breeze on her face. Confusion surged through her; what did he expect her to do?
"John," she said softly, unable to keep her voice from wavering, "you asked me earlier what I would do now." She lifted her head and looked out into the night. "What would you do?"
His hands slipped out of hers, and she felt them come to rest on her shoulders. He turned her carefully to face him, and his blue eyes shone in the darkness as he gazed down at her. He put his arms around her; she tried not to react as he reached up and stroked her face, his expression tender as his fingertips traced her full crown - the reminder that she was still so different to him, and yet he accepted it as if there were nothing wrong with the thought. Her pulse was racing: she'd never felt like this with John, with *anyone* before. He caressed her face gently, trailing his fingertips from her crown across her cheek and then touched her chin, tilting her head up to look him in the eyes as he leaned slowly over her...
Their lips met, and Delenn was suddenly enveloped in a wave of emotions, only a few of which she fully understood. She instinctively wrapped her arms around his neck, leaning into him, and he pulled her closer in response. She had wondered, innocently, why Humans kissed each other: now it seemed the explanation was as obvious as her love for this man, this Human, who held her in his arms in the hazy light of his planet's sole moon. He meant everything to her, and in that moment at least she knew he felt the same.
He drew back a little, not wanting to frighten her and unsure of what she would accept. Her face told him he needn't have worried.
"I think," he said in a voice thick with ardent affection, "that you are going to make a *very* good Human."
She smiled tenderly and, without a word, drew him down to her again.
* * * * *
It was time.
A week exactly after their trip to the coast, word came that Rathenn was sending an attache to take over Delenn's work while she was 'gone'. He would also be the one to take the chrysalis machine back the Minbar, where it would be stored again for whoever knew how many more years. Delenn had taken the news quietly, accepting of her fate. Sheridan was having trouble dealing with what was happening, but he had sworn to her that he would not interfere.
Watching her prepare, however, he was sorely tempted to break that promise.
He sat in her apartment, his heart breaking as she knelt on the floor beside him and assembled the machine that would weave her chrysalis and change her forever.
"Delenn," he started, but he couldn't finish. She looked up at him and smiled, then went back to work. He had noticed that with her, silence could say far more than any words.
"Are you going to stay here?" she asked absently, as if she were doing no more than going home for a month or two. "I do not known the one they are sending. It may be difficult for you to work with him."
"He won't be you." He may have promised not to stop her, but he could make her see how much this was hurting him. "That will make it hard enough. But yes, I'll stay. If only to be here when you... emerge."
She smiled sadly. She put down the crystal shards she was manipulating and sat up on the couch beside him. "John, please don't make this any harder than it has to be. You know," she touched his face tenderly, "I have to do this now. It cannot be stopped. I wish..." She sighed and smiled warmly at him. "I was about to say that I wish it could, but I don't. This is something that has to happen, for my people. I am still Satai," she reminded him. "I have a purpose, a - what do you call it?"
"A destiny." He almost choked on the word. "I know. I won't stop you: it's your choice, and you know I understand." He took her hand and held it to his face. "It doesn't make it any easier."
"I know," she whispered. "If you wish to go-"
"No." He moved closer to her and drew her to him. "I want to be here when it happens. I want to be able to help, if you need me."
His devotion touched her, and although it made it harder to go on she welcomed it nonetheless. She smiled, a little teasingly.
"I would like a drink, if you truly wish to help."
He gave her a mock-serious scowl and got up from the couch. When he returned with two glasses of water - Delenn had been warned not to have anything else - she was hard at work on the structure again. It was almost as tall as she was and complete all but for the final layer. He knew it would be today.
The door chimed, and she looked up at him. He sighed and nodded. "Come in."
Rathenn stood in the entrance, a bundle in his hands. Delenn looked up briefly and saw him, gesturing for him to enter. He was a frequent visitor to her on Earth, and it wasn't unusual to see him; however, the hooded figure behind him was new to Sheridan.
Delenn rose up from the floor and bowed formally to them both, which they returned. Sheridan had never been able to understand how Minbari saw through their thick hoods.
"Rathenn," she said in greeting, approaching him. He held out his hands and offered her the package. She unwrapped it and nodded gravely before covering it again. She walked away and placed it on the table, then turned back to her visitors.
"Delenn," Rathenn said formally. His tone was sad, but resigned and even hopeful. "Everything is in readiness?"
"Yes." They spoke in English out of deference to Sheridan, and he appreciated it. He wanted to know everything that went on, especially now. "It will be today. Within a few hours." She stepped aside to reveal the device. "It will be complete very soon."
Rathenn nodded. "Then it is time to introduce your... replacement." The hooded figure stepped forward on cue and flipped back his hood. "This is Alyt Lovell, of the Star Riders Clan."
Lovell bowed deeply to Delenn, and after a moment to Sheridan as well. He looked about her age, perhaps a few years younger, and fiercely eager.
"It is an honour to serve, Satai Delenn," he said with his eyes downcast.
"You honour me with your service, Alyt Lovell," Delenn replied. "How do you come to be here on Earth? As a warrior, I would not think you interested in the intricacies of diplomacy."
"My Shai Alyt was killed during the war with the Earthers, Satai," he replied. There was deep regret in his voice. "He was a great supporter of your choice for peace, Satai. I wish to continue his work," Lovell said earnestly. "I requested to be assigned here."
Rathenn nodded. "It just so happened that he expressed his desire at the correct moment. He is highly skilled, and will serve well in your stead."
Delenn bowed her head in deference. "Very well. Alyt Lovell, this is John Sheridan, our liaison to the Humans. He, also, is a warrior." She turned to Sheridan and smiled. "He chose to fight for peace as well, and he is skilled in the task." She looked sternly at Lovell. "You will treat him with the respect he is due."
"Yes, Satai." Lovell looked all right, Sheridan thought. There didn't seem to be any need for the warning, but he appreciated it all the same.
"Then everything is settled." She lifted the bundle Rathenn had brought and opened it. Inside was a triangular case, and embedded in the centre was a triluminary. Delenn pressed a hidden catch and the case opened: she carefully lifted the relic out and studied it before briefly setting it back in the case. She went to the chrysalis machine, and the others waited in reverential silence as she completed the final layer. Rathenn and Lovell waited with downcast eyes out of respect, but Sheridan watched every step, every movement, with painful attention. When she was finished she looked up at him, but there was no trace of emotion in her face as she turned to the two Minbari.
"Sheridan will attend me now." She bowed formally, and stepped close to Rathenn. Her hand reached out at arms' length to rest over his heart, and he did the same as they bowed in the manner of old friends.
//Farewell, Delenn,// he said in their own language. //May your choice be successful and inspire us all.//
She smiled at his words. //Farewell, Rathenn.//
The other Satai turned and left, and Lovell with him, leaving Sheridan alone with her. Only then did she allow her tears to show.
"It's almost time." She turned quickly, on impulse. "I have to... prepare. It is traditional that... at times such as these... that an attendant be present."
He nodded and tried to smile. "Sure. If that's what you want."
Delenn also tried, and failed. "Thank you." That done, she went silently to the altar set into her wall and placed one hand in front of its centre, bowing her head. He realised he'd never seen her pray before.
She was there for a long while, then raised her head and went to her bedroom. She left the door open as she stepped inside, indicating he should follow: he did so, although he'd never been into her bedroom. He wasn't sure what to expect, but it was similar to his own - all but the sloping bed and plentitude of triangles. Delenn was standing by the bed, facing the wall, and as he came to stand behind her she turned around.
"It is necessary," she said at length, "for me to enter the chrysalis in," she motioned to her robe, "in different clothing." She blushed at the implication, and he quickly broke in before she spoke again.
"It's okay. If you want me to wait outside..."
She shook her head. "It is the last time you will... be able to... to see me." She looked up. "I don't want to keep that from you."
"If you're going to be uncomfortable..." he insisted, but she only smiled tearfully.
"It may be the last time I *am* comfortable, John."
She seemed so small and lost, he reached out and pulled her against him; she tilted her head and he kissed her tenderly, desperately. It took a long time, and he didn't want to let her go. He knew it was the last time he might ever hold her, and he knew the memory wasn't going to be enough. He wanted *Delenn,* he wanted to keep her there in his arms for always...
She pushed him away, and her face was wet with tears. "Please - please don't." She took a deep, unsteady breath. He looked so hurt, but she couldn't help it. Hesitantly, she took his hand and pressed it to her lips. "I can't - not now. I'm not strong enough."
He turned his hand in her grasp and used it to wipe away her tears. "Yes you are, Delenn. You're stronger than anyone." He took her briefly by the shoulders and kissed her forehead. "You'll be okay, I promise. And I'm sorry for just then. I guess *I'm* just not as strong as I should be."
"Do not lie," she said, falling back on her usual admonition. A flicker of a smile passed his lips.
"If you're going to do this, you'd better get ready."
She nodded and he moved to give her some room. She wasn't really wearing all that much; it was a typical ceremonial gown, much like the one she had worn on their first date, and it was all in one piece. It was elaborate, however, he spent the awkward few minutes of her removing it in finding her Grey Council garb. It was a simple robe that drew around her and fastened just once: he found it odd that the Minbari, whose society revolved around ritual, had so little of it in their ruling body.
He turned to her with a purposefully blank expression, prepared for whatever she was going to look like. Information on Minbari biology was sparse at best, and Delenn hadn't been very forthcoming, but he was determined that he wasn't going to react badly. He didn't honestly think he could; he cared too much for Delenn to do that.
What he saw wasn't overly bizarre, and he had the feeling he would look far more terrifying to her in the same situation. She was slim, pale, and there was no hair anywhere on her body. The blaze of sky blue that marked her skull also ran down her back and across her collar-bone, which was more pronounced than in a Human woman. Her bone structure in general, however, seemed less visible with the exception of the crown behind her head and her spine, which was completely covered with a web of blue strands. He had considered that her crown might not be the only place protected in that way, but he could see no sign of it. Her breasts were small and barely formed and it came to him with a flash of shame that, in that respect at least, she might not be as old as she seemed. To his surprise - *probably because you're so hung up on it, idiot,* he told himself - there was no other evidence of anything passing for sexual organs: right now, however, he wasn't about to ask her.
He smiled reassuringly at her uncertain features. "You look wonderful," he asserted. "I wasn't really sure what to expect, never having done this before, but..." He tried to find something intelligent to say. Considering her distinct lack of provocative behaviour, it was surprisingly hard. "If I say anything, it's going to be wrong, isn't it?" he said ruefully after a few moments.
Delenn smiled and took her Council robe from his hand. "In one way or the other." She drew the robe around her and settled the hood around her shoulders. Unable to find anything to make the moment any easier, she simply took his hand and led him back into the living room. He hoped, for a instant, that the machine wouldn't be there: that it would all be a bad dream. But it was there, complete, needing only to be activated.
Delenn had the triluminary in her hands when she turned to him and her features wore no expression other than haste.
"When it's done, wait until the machine stops glowing. Then remove the triluminary and call Rathenn; he'll be at the Embassy. He knows everything that needs to be done." With a deep breath, she turned to the chrysalis machine and lifted the triluminary. As she lowered it into place, she felt his hands on her shoulders and smiled, a tear trickling down her face. He was letting her go, giving her the choice, no matter what it did to him.
She loved him for that more than anything.
The small, powerful relic took its place exactly, and a ripple of light rushed over the machine. It seemed to come to life, and a beam of what looked like living energy was thrown from the centre of the triluminary. It solidified against the wall, and the first strand of the chrysalis was in place.
Delenn watched with fascination, almost wonder. Only when she felt John's hands move from her shoulders did she remember he was behind her. She couldn't turn; couldn't look at him. The machine was moving faster now. Her cocoon was forming.
She stepped towards it and didn't look back. She was only a step away when her courage faltered and she whirled around.
"Promise me you'll wait for me." He didn't have to ask what she meant: he would have asked the same of her. His voice choked as he answered.
"I promise. Delenn, do you have to do this?"
"Yes." She smiled once more - that full, dazzling, soul-filled expression that had captured his heart, and stepped back. The cocoon began to surround her and he wanted to reach in and pull her out, to stop her, to keep her with him. But he made no move, for he knew if he did he would break his promise to her and he could not do that.
"I love you," he whispered as the final strand covered her face.
From inside the chrysalis, there was no reply.
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