Delenn said the year would soon be turning to autumn, but so far Susan had seen little to indicate the change. Even at the height of summer, Minbar’s sky failed to reach that unbelievably bright blue that Susan associated with the season on Earth. More than anything else, the color of the sky on this particular morning reminded Susan more of early spring - a pale, washed-out sky and the sun shimmering in a halo of ice crystals. The height of summer hadn’t been very warm, either. All the robes and hoods that she’d seen Minbari wear back on B5 made a whole lot more sense now that she slept under a pile of blankets, and wrapped up in layers just to walk across the main square in Tuzanor to the anla’shok’s central buildings.
At her age, it should have annoyed her. All the other generals of her age cohort back at EarthDome were taking their vacations from Geneva in the mediterranean or the tropics, these days, or retiring to beach homes in places like Florida and Guatemala. They wanted to keep the cold out of their bones, they said. Whatever. Susan liked the cold. It reminded her of home, reminded her that she was on a planet again - a planet with real skies and weather, even if it didn’t have huge dark evergreens or arching chestnut trees. There was a garden outside her window, even if the flowers that grew in it were strange. The bite in the wind and the cold on her cheeks made her feel young again.
Which might have been why she felt so damned jaunty that morning. There was certainly nothing else to account for it - she woke up in the same comfortably spartan room to the same odd chimes she’d heard every morning since her arrival on Minbar eight months prior. Brushed her hair - still shot with silver, but not yet fully grey - and dressed in the same long brown robes that she was still getting used to. The odd swish of them around her feet felt more amusing than annoying today, though, and that was progress. The same young acolyte brought her coffee and breakfast, regarding her with the same mix of respect and fear that she’d come to appreciate in the younger Minbari. Back on Earth she was approaching the age where junior officers just starting their careers looked at her less with respect and more like a relic to be pandered to and then ignored, but to the Minbari she wasn’t even approaching middle-age yet, and age was to be respected anyway. She liked that idea, now that she was the one getting the respect rather than giving it.
She was halfway through the coffee, a few bites into some weird purple porridge, and halfway through the second page of a report on the current activities of the anla’shok near the area of the rim, when Delenn poked her head into the office.
“You cannot intend to waste today inside reading reports, Susan. Come outside and walk with me.”
If the president of the Interstellar Alliance was going to phrase it that way, who was Susan Ivanova to refuse?
They dressed warmly, in thick, hooded cloaks over their usual robes - shades of rust and brown for Susan, and a deep, slightly greying purple for Delenn. The color looked dull as the young acolyte who assisted them handed the cloak to her, but seemed to brighten her skin and eyes in a way that Susan couldn’t quite put a finger on.
“Where are we going?” she asked as her old friend led the way out of the compound and into a bracingly breezy morning.
“Today is ares’chotal,” Delenn told her - the last day of summer. “Tonight at sunset, winter begins.”
Delenn turned back to her, the wind bringing a rosy pink to her cheeks and a sparkle to her eyes that Susan hadn’t seen in years. “Perhaps winter is not so important a thing on Earth,” she said in that oddly lofty tone she sometimes used, talking about Humans as if they were charmingly naive little children. “But for Minbari, though we have technology now to protect us, the winters for centuries brought death on their white wings.”
Susan snorted. “John’s given you the wrong impression of Earth winters if he told yout it wasn’t the same for us. The part of Earth that I come from has some of the most blistering winters on our planet.”
“Then you understand.” Delenn smiled and held out a gloved hand to her, and Susan took it, somewhat awkwardly twining her own leather-clad fingers with her friend’s. “Today we will bid farewell to the sun, and pray for the soul of the winter to be merciful.”
“Cheery festival you’ve got there,” Susan quipped.
Delenn laughed. “But today is also our farewell to summer. We will not see it again for ten long months. We think of it as bidding goodnight to a beloved friend. It is a good time to be with those we love.”
Of course, Susan thought - this would be bringing up thoughts of John. “Delenn, I’ve been meaning to ask you... You know I don’t usually ask about this sort of thing, but if you need to talk about John--”
The Minbari woman shook her head. “I had twenty years with him, Susan. Twenty more years than we would have had if Lorien had not been willing to give us a reprieve. I had a son with him, and David is everything we had hoped for. I have, as he used to say, no regrets. I miss him, and I watch the morning for him, as I will until the day I die. But we will meet again. All who are gone from us now will look for us again in the next life. Today is not for mourning. Today is for enjoying what we still have, here, in this life.” She squeezed Susan’s gloved fingers tightly, and smiled.
“Okay. How do we do that, then?”
“However we like.” Delenn’s other hand touched Susan’s cheek, cupping it in buttery leather. An ache that, mere moments ago, Susan would have sworn she’d long forgotten and left behind twisted awake in the pit of her abdomen. She probably should have felt guilty - here was John not a year dead, and she was getting butterflies over his widow’s touch? - but there was something in the day, something in the wind, something in the calm of Delenn’s grey-green eyes and the smile that tugged at the edges of her lips, that soothed away her worry.
And it was Delenn’s decision to make. “Okay,” Susan agreed, squeezing back the fingers that wrapped around her own. “However you like, then.”
Delenn’s smile had not been even slightly dimmed by age.
* * *
They walked out into the mountains, hand in hand, helping each other to pick their way over the uneven, rocky terrain and chatting about times past and future and everything in between. They talked about David and his training and how he was growing up just like his father in so many ways, just like his mother in so many others, and unknown to both of them in strange and delightful ways that made him purely himself. They talked about their old friends and the little details of their lives - G’Kar’s latest book, the new research Stephen was doing into cross-species reproduction methods, Michael’s daughter’s high school graduation coming up too quickly for Susan’s taste, and Emperor Vir’s plans to marry his sixth wife.
“It’s hard to imagine this is the guy who, twenty years ago, wanted me to give him advice about sex with women,” Susan laughed. “He certainly got over his shyness at some point.”
“I suspect we all do,” Delenn said. “I was perhaps a bit afraid, too, my first time. It was long ago. Weren’t you?”
“Afraid? Me?” Susan teased.
“Once, yes, I believe even the great Susan Ivanova may have been afraid. But if it is a private matter you would rather not speak of--”
“If I’m afraid to talk about it now, you mean?” Susan snorted. “It was a long time ago, that’s all. I guess, looking back, that I wanted to get it over with. There was a guy, he was good-looking, we slept together while my roommate was away for the evening, we barely spoke three words to each other after that. It was all pretty unmemorable, if you want to know the truth.”
Delenn smiled up at her, the dim sun twinkling in her eyes. “I thought we were talking about sex with women.”
Ah. “That was a little different,” Susan admitted.
“In what way?”
“One of my best friends, a classmate, she was... everything I wasn’t. Quiet, thoughtful, gentle. She was a music major, I was studying history, she helped me out with my essays, I tutored her in math, we got close.”
“You’re going to have to tell me yours if you want to hear all the details of mine, you know.”
“Naturally.” Delenn smirked, and settled herself on a nearby boulder, tucking her boots up under her cloak as she sat. The sun made the grey in her hair almost glow. “Now finish your story, Susan.”
“Not a whole lot to say. She was beautiful - white-blonde hair, these eyes that... they were almost amber, with green around the edges. She always smelled like soap. I don’t know why I still remember that, but I swear to this day if I smell that kind of soap...” Susan trailed off, embarrassed by the sudden realization that she was wandering aloud in her reverie. “The first time... Yeah, I was scared. I was afraid of what would happen if I really let her in.”
“She left.” Susan looked away, watching the glacier in the distance, sparkling blue and white in the sunlight. “A few months after we got together she transferred to another school - her parents were diplomats, they got moved to an embassy on Io, she went with them to the university there. Her family was really close like that. She was really sorry, and we said we’d keep in touch, we’d always be friends, all of that. We wrote for a while, but then I went into EarthForce, and... I don’t know. Last I heard she was married, she and her wife had two kids. She’s probably got grandkids now.”
“I’m sorry, Susan.”
“You said today wasn’t for mourning. It was a long time ago, don’t worry about it.” Susan straightened. “Tell me about yours.”
“Mine, too, was a dear friend who was close to me when we were both students. Mayan is a beautiful soul - her eyes see deeper and farther than any other I have known, and she puts to words the thoughts that sing in the crystal spires and whisper in the wind. She used to sing to me late at night, when everyone else was asleep, quietly, so that only I could hear. We told each other everything, and she was the first lover I took in this life. We were young, and it was all as if we discovered it ourselves, the first in the universe to do what we did, say what we said.” Delenn smiled fondly. “It was foolish, perhaps, but it was beautiful, and I still remember it very fondly. But I would rather not speak of Mayan right now. I would rather speak of another dear friend, who is with me today.”
Susan turned back to her old friend, trying to read the message in her eyes. “What’s this about, Delenn? Really?”
“Really?” Delenn smiled. “Really, Susan... it is about the autumn. The time when one year ends and another begins, and we put aside what is past and look to the new.”
“How can you even tell it’s autumn here? There aren’t any trees.”
Delenn nodded. “I have seen pictures of trees. They are beautiful things, and something that Minbar has not seen since our most ancient days.”
“Then how do you know--”
“That it is autumn?” She smiled. “In many ways. We know by the chill that rides the wind, and the ice crystals that grow between the rocks. We see the crest around the sun” - she pointed above them, and sure enough the pale sun wore a halo of stratospheric ice crystals - “and of course the temple calendars monitor the season closely for various rituals. And there are the gleithe, too.”
“Gleithe?” In the first years that she learned Adronato, Susan had been used to running up against words she’d never heard before. Now that she had spoken and read the language for twenty years, she’d somehow assumed that she knew all there was to know of it. Stupid, considering this was the language of the Minbari religious caste - they never gave away all their secrets.
Delenn smiled. “Sit next to me, and watch.”
At first, Susan wasn’t even sure what they were looking at. The valley in front of them looked like most of the uninhabited valleys on Minbar - rough and barren, covered only in scrub and low vegetation that gave way to bare stone and earth and, on the far side of the valley, an impressive wall of glittering blue and white ice: the tal’vik glacier. She watched intently, trying to see everything at once, wondering what Delenn was talking about, what she was supposed to be seeing, until some sort of movement caught her eye deep in the valley.
“Shhhh.” Delenn squeezed her hand again, and then brought it up, pressing it to her heart. “Watch.”
At first it looked like a mirage - it had that shimmering quality, as if Susan’s eyes couldn’t quite catch what they were seeing. But as she watched it became more clear - color, a bright shade of blue, washed over the valley beneath them like paint seeping through cloth. It started in the center of the valley and crept its way up the walls, all the way to the edge of the scrub, until the whole valley was brilliantly blue.
“Gleithe,” Delenn said softly, “is a plant - a low groundcover, with leaves that release a pungent scent when crushed, and tiny hairs all over its branches. The leaves make a sweet tea if gathered in spring, but the real blessing of the geithe is in its flowering. Once a year, at the height of the sun after the first heavy frost, they all blossom together. The air is thick with the scent of their flowers, and the whir of insects and other little creatures that gather to eat their flowers, a last feast before the long winter sets in. They will last this one day only. By nightfall any flowers that have not been eaten will fall, withered, to the ground.”
“And that’s it? They blossom for one day and then they’re eaten or they die?”
“The plant itself will live. Their seeds are pollinated in the process of all the flowers being eaten, and in the spring the seeds will grow again, after the snow and ice melt away for another year.”
“But I mean...” Susan looked out over the valley at the brilliant color that seemed to burst against her eyes. “Just this one day?”
“Everywhere on Minbar, or...?”
“Wherever gleithe grows, but there are not so many places where it does, anymore. It used to be more common - our oldest songs tell of gleithe blossoming in every valley on this continent. The winters have been longer, summers shorter, and glaciers encroach ever deeper. Someday not too far off, all of Minbar will be covered in ice.”
A shiver that had nothing to do with the chill of the wind went down Susan’s spine. It was one thing to know that Minbar was a planet caught in growing ice age - another entirely to know that it would be overtaken completely. Maybe it was just Human hubris, maybe it was that she was starting to think of this little world as her home, but... “Can’t you stop it? You have technology EarthGov doesn’t even begin to understand...”
Delenn smiled sadly, her eyes still locked on the colored valley below. “Perhaps. But Minbari are not a young species like Humans. We are fewer each generation, just like the gleithe, and I think we are tired. More and more of us, I think, will go to the sea, and fewer and fewer stay out among the younger races. It seems wrong, somehow, to outlive our homeworld - I think many of us will choose to die with it, and the rest will disappear quietly out to the Rim, to see if we cannot follow those who went before.”
“That is a long time off yet.”
“It had better be longer than I’ll live,” Susan snapped. “If you start thinking about this ‘going to the sea’ crap while I’m still around--”
Delenn laughed. “I don’t intend to go yet - not for a very long time, Susan.”
“I thought for a minute...” Susan pressed her lips together, trying to swallow the thickness that threatened to turn her voice into tears. “I thought you were using this to tell me you thought it was time to go. John’s been gone almost a year now, and with all this, I was afraid--”
“No, no. Susan, no.” Delenn turned to her suddenly, cupping both her hands around Susan’s face. “I would not leave you like that. Not willingly, not ever. Do not be afraid of that. I’m sorry that I worried you.” And with that, as though it was as simple as breathing, Delenn leaned forward and kissed her.
When they parted, Delenn tugged gently on Susan’s hand, leading her down the slope of the valley until the little blue blossoms gathered at their feet. The scent was overwhelming - spicy and lightly sweet and strangely familiar. Susan’s eyes narrowed as she sought in her mind, trying to track the scent-memory down. It was something familiar, but something she hadn’t smelled in a long time, not since... not since her time on B5.
“You used to wear gleithe perfume, didn’t you?”
Delenn turned to her with a surprised smile, blue flowers framing her in Susan’s vision. “A very long time ago, yes. I’m surprised you would remember.”
Susan shrugged. “I have a good memory, and... those were good times, mostly. Since then, I’ve wished sometimes...” She trailed off for a moment. “I was never as good a friend back then as I should have been. And all the years after--”
“Are past, now,” Delenn interrupted. Her voice was low, almost blending with the buzz of the strange insects around the. “You are here, now, when I most need you. That is the greatest sign of friendship I could ask for.”
“I don’t want you think that I’m trying to replace John,” Susan blurted suddenly.
“You could never do that, and I would not want you to.”
“But if this is... If we’re...”
Delenn lifted a gloved finger and pressed it lightly to Susan’s lips. “This is not what John and I had. And it is not what you had with Talia Winters, or with Marcus Cole, or with any other. This is something different, a new thing, beautiful in and of itself. Every year is different - every winter, every summer, every day. For years, I have been a mother, a wife, Entil’zha. You have been a soldier, a captain, a general. Now you are anla’shok’na, and you keep the way. We are all different, remaking ourselves every year. And it has been a long time since I have worn the gleithe and thought of someone new to love.”
Those two things... seemed strangely connected, from the way Delenn said them. Susan thought through the words again. “You wore gleithe back on the station... when you and John were first dating. Is that significant?”
“Minbari do not have as strong a sense of smell as Humans, but... yes.” A slight pinkish blush appeared on Delenn’s cheeks, and it had been years since Susan had noticed that, too. “Perfume is something Minbari use to underline our availability to a potential partner. Gleithe is my favorite flower, and my favorite scent. It symbolizes the sweetness of brief opportunity, and the need to appreciate the small moments in our lives, however fleeting.”
“Appreciating the little moments and advertising availability, hmm?” Susan closed the gap between them - only a few steps, but the smell of gleithe blossoms burst forth at every step. Delenn’s eyes never left hers, watching, waiting. “You planned this, didn’t you?”
“’Planned’ is a strong word. I... anticipated.”
“Anticipated,” Susan repeated. “I like that.”
This time, Susan took control of the kiss. She slid her arms tightly around Delenn’s waist, pulled her close, and gasped when the other woman clung to her.
“We’re too far away from anything soft,” Susan murmured. “I’d kill for a couch or a bed, even if it’s one of those ironing-boards your people use. You didn’t anticipate that, did you?”
Delenn’s low laugh raised goosebumps on the back of Susan’s neck as she twined her leg around Susan’s and pulled her off balance, tugging them both to the ground in an undigified heap. Bugs buzzed around them, and the smell of the flowers flowed thick and heavy above their blue blossoms. Delenn leaned over Susan and kissed her hard, then pulled away, smiling brilliantly.
“I did anticipate that. Gleithe are very soft.”