Even after years working with deep-space construction and engineering, it still felt odd to stand on the inside skin of something and look up at the core. A few feet below Susan's feet lay hard vacuum, while the a quarter of a billion tons of metal and machinery rotated above her. The port itself looked across the line of cobra bays that would house the lead squadron of Starfuries, then up to the curve of the docking section.
Susan had planned to be long gone before anyone used the observation deck under Babylon 5's traffic proximity arrays. She'd meant it to be a way to get eyes on the cobra bays in case of instrumentation failure, and it didn't have half the view of the observation dome and its endless stars. The first batch of Starfuries weren't due for weeks after the station went online, and Earthforce usually moved her on pretty quickly. When the delivery date came, and she was inexplicably still there, Susan had wandered down to take a look. It was partly make-work, and mostly because vicarious flying was the best she could do most days.
Commander Sinclair was already there, of course, standing at ease with his hands clasped behind his back. Susan had run into him absolutely everywhere in the three weeks since he'd taken command. She didn't really believe in the curse, but had been happy to pass off responsibility for the station just in case it followed its predecessors and collapsed, exploded or disappeared into the void. That didn't keep the new commander from vexing her professional pride every time she came around a corner and found him peering into maintenance corridors and under deck plates. The least he could do was wait for Earthforce to reassign her, if they ever did, before he started checking the station's teeth. Here he was again, having found the best view on the station, right when she wanted to be there.
The EAS Nanhai drifted in a synchronous orbit about the bays, about a twenty degree down angle from the port. Susan could see the lights of the little fighters as they crossed the gulf between the old heavy cruiser and her station. Beside her, Sinclair bounced a little on the balls of his feet, unable to suppress his enthusiasm.
"Looking forward to logging some time in the cockpit, Commander?" Susan asked, struggling to be polite.
"I've got to keep my flight pay," he said and grinned at her. He'd always struck her as serious to the point of tedium, but the smile took years off his face.
She tried not to glare back. A sweep of landing lights cut across the observation section, glinting off his pilot's wings, and sending a rabbit punch of jealousy straight to Susan's gut. It took her a moment before she could say, "Watch out for the vectoring baffles on this model. They have a real kick on them." Outside, one of the ferrying pilots figured out exactly that, and had to compensate with her manoeuvring thrusters to realign with her bay. The other Starfuries hung back to avoid collision.
Sinclair waited for the lead ship to straighten out before he turned away from the window, eyebrows raised. "I didn't know you were a pilot, Major." She couldn't miss how he glanced down at her right shoulder, just in case a flight patch had spontaneously appeared. It hadn't, and no number of cadged, stolen and blackmailed hours in the cockpit could make it do so.
That's right, she thought, still Major Ivanova, just another stiff from the engineering and logistics division. Nothing to see here. "I did a year of flight school, before I was transferred into engineering," she ground out. "I try to keep up."
"So I see." He gave her the same sympathetic look that fighter jocks had been giving ground crews for the last two hundred and fifty years.
Susan bit the inside of her cheek and considered resigning her commission and taking up piracy.
"Have you run into any of the ambassadorial staffs?" he asked.
If Sinclair was trying to pick a less loaded topic, he could hardly have chosen worse. "Not so far. With any luck, I'll be a hundred light years from here before most of them show up."
"With any luck," Sinclair repeated. He turned back to the window to watch the last of the Starfuries disappear into its launch bay.
Susan stared at his profile, trying to tell what the hell he meant by that.
The next day, Susan had to wonder if Sinclair had been trying to warn her. Why would he, though? He'd shown no indication that he recognised her as anything other than than an engineer, and they did rightly expect Susan to be gone before the diplomatic side of things kicked off. The Minbari delegation showed up two days ahead of schedule. Susan suspected that they'd planned that specifically to ambush her.
If they had, it didn't work. She'd tapped into the comm chatter, and heard them come out of the jumpgate. By the time an ambassadorial aide showed up at her door, she knew what was coming, and had worked up a good mad for the occasion. Pacing helped.
"Ambassador Delenn requests the honour of your presence in her quarters." The aide looked far too young, though she was probably as old as Susan had been the first time she'd met Delenn. "At your convenience," she added when Susan said nothing.
"Which'll be about when hell freezes over," Susan snapped. The Minbari didn't seem to pick up on the reference, possibly deliberately. Delenn had been good at pretending not to understand things she didn't want to hear. Susan sighed and tried one-handed to gather her hair back into a rough ponytail. She hadn't even been off duty long enough to do more than take down her hair and undo the collar of her jacket. Goddam Minbari. The aide hadn't moved, and Susan knew from experience that she wasn't going to until Delenn got her way. Besides, she was curious. "Fine. Let's get this over with. Tell her highness that I'll be there in half an hour. "
She took the time to wash the makeup off her face and scrape her hair back into a combat-ready braid. Then she started the walk to Green Sector. She'd thought walking rather than taking the shuttle would give her a chance to clear her head. She liked seeing her work completed, the miles of curving corridors still smelling like fresh paint. She should have found it centring, calming. Instead, she spent every step with that last argument cavitating though her head. For the thousandth time, she ran through everything she could have said that might have been cutting enough to actually hurt Delenn, or every honest expression that would have made her finally understand what Susan was feeling. It didn't do her any more good than the last nine hundred and ninety-nine times.
The same aide opened Delenn's door exactly thirty minutes after Susan had closed hers.
Delenn herself stood in the centre of a whirlwind of support staff, packing crates and transformation. They hadn't been here more than two hours and already the grey, utilitarian standard quarters looked two-thirds Minbari. Then, any room in which Delenn stood seemed to look more like Minbar than Earth, whether or not she redecorated.
"Hello, Delenn," Susan said. Her voice sounded small and hollow. She lifted her chin and pushed her shoulders back. Earthforce had gotten her into this; it could get her out.
"Susan." Delenn smiled and held out both hands. Her blue and purple robes shimmered as she moved. Susan had a damnably clear image of Delenn pressed against a wall, her clothes rucked up above her hips, her mouth spread wide in orgasm. If this Delenn noticed the colour in Susan's cheeks, she didn't comment. She took Susan's left hand in both of hers and continued, "I am sorry my chambers are not in better order, but I did not want to wait. It's been so long since I've seen you."
"Seven years," Susan said. Delenn's hand felt cool against hers.
"You look well." She didn't let go, and Susan wasn't going to make a point of pulling away. The Minbari staff continued working as if they weren't there. "Your hair has grown. It suits you."
"You look exactly the same." She'd once asked Delenn how old she was and gotten an answer in Minbari cycles. It had worked out to three decades Susan's senior, give or take. She'd been too young at the time to think that might be taking advantage, but now she wondered. It was also possible that the age gap had been the least of their problems. She wished she knew how to lead into saying that, but she'd run out of small talk, and the silence stretched between them. Susan pulled her hand free and folded her arms under her breasts.
"I have always regretted that we parted on so poor terms." Delenn, also done with preliminaries, was going straight for the throat. Susan said nothing, waiting for the rest of the damage. "It was too soon after the war for us both, and I did not understand the ways of your planet."
Every aide in the room froze. Delenn's smile became fixed. "In what way is it 'bull shit'?" Her accent made the profanity sound farcical.
"Because I'm the one who wasn't over the war, and I'm the one who quite frankly didn't give a damn about your planet or any of your five hundred goddamn daily rituals, and we both knew it." She balled her firsts until they hurt and kept her arms folded. Breaking something would only make her look like more of a barbarian. "If you honestly want to dissect why that sham marriage didn't work the way you wanted it to, start with your problems, not mine."
As she marched out of the Minbari diplomatic quarters, Susan realised that she hadn't said one thing that had been running through her head on the way over. She'd only added to the cacophony of misjudged and ill-spoken arguments that neither of them ever won.
Susan decided to go for another walk. She knew if she got as far as Red Sector, she'd have a drink, then two, and then she'd start hitting people, so she turned back the way she had come.
She ended up in the cobra bays, watching the ground crew fuss over the new Starfuries. With the bay doors sealed, the crews had easy access to the whole launch area without needing to suit up. She recognised a few workers who'd stayed on from the construction crews, now under someone else's command and scrambling ant-like over the docked Starfuries.
Commander Sinclair presided, but didn't seem to mind Susan looking over his shoulder. "Are you here to make sure they don't blow up and kill us all, Major?"
"We did run out of money before we could finish the place," Susan said. She was trying to turn her brain around into having a conversation that didn't involve yelling and stomping out like an eighteen-year-old.
Sinclair smiled. "I doubt weapons capabilities are where Earthforce shorted us."
No, that would be civilian living quarters and manufacturing, some of the commercial sectors. Damn, it galled Susan to hand over something only four-fifths finished. "Just trying to be thorough."
"Meaning you don't have anything better to do." Amusement deepened his voice and made it warm. It didn't entirely take the sting out of his assessment, but she smile thinly to acknowledge the point.
Susan started when Sinclair clapped her on the shoulder. "The crews are almost finished; I was just about to take one of our new babies out on a test flight. Make sure the launch mechanisms are in working order. Want to come?"
"You said you liked to be thorough."
"I'm not qualified," Susan protested. Now he was teasing her, damn him. He'd picked the absolute worst time to bare a cruel streak.
"I had Garibaldi check up on you after yesterday. Seems you've managed to get in more hours than some line pilots, Major. Nothing under your own name, but it shows up in maintenance logs. Word gets around."
"But..." She'd thought she'd done a decent job of covering her tracks. Either that jerkoff security chief was better than she'd thought, or she was getting sloppy.
"You have a non-combat ticket, don't you? Until I clear these as flight-ready, technically they can't be deployed." Sinclair was already walking past her, towards the pilots' locker rooms. "You coming or not?"
"Sure," she said, jogging to catch up. "Why not?"
Part of her wondered if this was some kind of pity, but most of her didn't care.
Maybe Sinclair was cruel after all. He'd told Susan stick to his wing, then rolled into the most stomach-dropping series of turns and loops that she'd ever seen. She'd lost him in half of them, and that was before he'd started skimming the station's hull.
She'd seen the station from the outside thousands of times, seen it from its skeleton up, but nothing compared to this. Somehow Sinclair's ludicrous acceleration only made the hull seem more massive. As fast as they were going, it still seemed to take an age to cross those five miles. Along the way she saw every rivet and weld scar to which she'd dedicated the last eighteen months of her life.
Susan felt her heart glow with pride. She'd built this place. No one else had been able to do it, but she had.
Sinclair spun port and shot up along heat exchange arrays. For a moment the sun caught his Starfury perfectly, and a reflected fighter that ran along the solar cells underneath. As she struggled to keep up with the commander and his perfect, illusionary wingman, jealousy clawed at her stomach.
She realised again that she could built a dozen Babylon stations, and it would never match this.
By the time they landed, it was more than g-force making her feel sick.
"I think they check out," Sinclair said as soon as they popped the hatches. He had a schoolboy grin plastered across his face, and his hair was damp with perspiration. "How about you, Major?"
"They should do just fine." Susan's boots thudded as she hit the deck; she had to steady herself against the side of the cockpit. Has the gravity always been off in this section? she wondered. "Thank you, Commander."
"Any time," Sinclair said, and he sounded like he meant it.
Susan decided to shower in her quarters. It wasn't much of a walk, and the pilots' lounge still felt like foreign soil. She folded her uniform across her arm, and started back in the shorts and t-shirt she'd worn under the flight suit. Her hair felt sticky and full of sweat, and she was mostly thinking about the water shower she'd assigned herself the moment they'd been installed. That and how she'd almost felt like a real officer when she was in a Starfury, and how that was all Ganya had ever wanted to do. He would have loved playing space tag with Sinclair. Maybe they even had during the War.
When she got to her quarters, Delenn was standing outside her door. She looked like a perfect porcelain doll. Susan felt like a yeti.
"I'm too tired for this," Susan said, but keyed the lock and gestured her inside anyway. Lord knew what she'd do if Susan didn't let her in. "What do you want?"
Delenn stepped just far enough inside to allow the hatch to close, then stood, hands folded in front of her. "I wanted to apologise."
Susan dumped her uniform on the couch and turned to face her. Her stomach was still in knots, and she didn't want to deal with this shit. "You just tried that; didn't go well."
"I remember." Delenn paused, then dipped her head as though she were trying to be demure. "I am sorry for that as well. I do not wish us to be enemies, Susan."
"We're not enemies," Susan snapped. How did the woman always manage to cast everything in the worst light? Like it was Susan's fault that things had ended badly. "We're just... exes."
Delenn nodded, though her tone demonstrated a complete lack of understanding. "And on Earth that means we must shout at each other?"
"Something like that."
"I'm sorry, but I do not think I care for that tradition."
Susan's eyes slid towards the bathroom and escape. "We have one called 'the amicable lesbian break-up,' but we'd need a cat."
Delenn's head tilted in amusement, the slight gesture telegraphing a world of feeling. "By precise definition, I am not a lesbian, and we are not 'exes.'"
"That too," Susan acknowledged. Weird alien arranged marriages were notoriously difficult to annul. No wonder the Earthforce Officers' Inter-cultural Handbook advised against them, which struck Susan as more than a little hypocritical given the circumstances of her wedding. "I'll try to shout less, but I promise nothing. I probably won't be here much longer anyway."
"That is unfortunate. It's been so long, and I had hoped that this would provide us with an opportunity to reconcile."
She'd taken a step farther into Susan's quarters, and looked perfectly sincere. Susan narrowed her eyes, and asked what she'd been wondering since the aide showed up at her door. "Did you create that opportunity? Sinclair took over weeks ago, and my orders say, 'sit there and twiddle your thumbs.' I've been caught in bureaucratic hangups before, but this is ridiculous even for Earthdome."
"When I learned you were on Babylon 5, I accelerated our schedule and hoped I would arrive in time to see you." Delenn held up her hand, and Susan swallowed the comment she was about to make. "But I did not have any communication with your government regarding you."
Delenn nodded. "This time, then."
"I need a shower." Susan turned away. For a moment, she'd let the memories had overwhelm her again, and it hurt too much to look at Delenn. Why does she have to be so damn gorgeous? Breaking up with a Narn would have been so much easier.
"As you wish." Before the hatch closed behind her, Delenn repeated, "It is good to see you again, Susan."
Sinclair was one of those people who actually seemed to like manufactured space mornings, and Susan usually tried to avoid him before 1200Z. The day after he took her flying, however, he tracked her down in the back corner of the officer's mess. He was a big man and found a way to casually sit across from her that completely boxed her in behind the table.
Sinclair smiled at her, and Susan said, "Just so you know, I hate mornings and everything in them."
"I gathered that."
Susan took a long swig of her coffee and asked what she could do for him.
"I was wondering if you had any word on your next assignment."
"Am I wearing out my welcome already? I thought everyone loved people looking over their shoulders and tying up computer time with redundant systems checks." She tried to turn it into a joke, but knew that a manager with nothing to manage had to be getting on everyone's nerves. She was starting to wonder if the the brass were hoping that if they stranded her long enough, this station would evaporate with the rest, and take a certain political embarrassment with it.
"Just curious, Major."
"Then, no, I haven't." She glanced down at his hands, perfectly folded in front of him and giving nothing away. Man should have been a Minbari. "To be honest, it's starting to worry me."
"You probably got lost in some kind of bureaucratic shuffle," Sinclair offered. "It will sort itself out soon enough."
"I keep telling myself that." Susan felt a little better after Delenn's assurances that she at least wasn't meddling again. Minbari enthusiastically embraced obfuscation, but she'd never known them to lie outright.
"You're looking forward to moving on?" His voice lifted into a question, but she could hear the underlying doubt.
"If it's a challenge like this was, sure." She couldn't help feeling a little defensive. Even if she'd rather be in a Starfury most of the time, didn't mean that managing deep space construction projects was either easy or boring. "If it's another communications relay post practically on top of the colonies..." She shrugged. "You take what comes and hope for something better next time."
He nodded sympathetically and glanced down at his hands before saying, "So I hear Ambassador Delenn was in your quarters last night."
Susan choked on her coffee and had to cough violently before she could ask, "Who told you that?"
"You're next to Takashima." He nodded toward the lieutenant commander ploughing through synthetic eggs on the far side of the mess. "She saw Delenn leaving."
That had gotten out faster than she'd expected. "I didn't realise you were a gossip, Commander."
Sinclair shrugged, unrepentant. "Only when the gossip's good."
Silence could work, but if he didn't get answers here, he'd probably just ask Garibaldi for them. The man had dug through Susan's records enough. "Fine, but this doesn't go beyond this table." Until it did, but hopefully she'd be long gone by then. She waited for Sinclair to nod in agreement before she explained. "Delenn and I have known each other for a long time. As she's happy to remind me, we're still legally married."
"Married?" If he hadn't been forcing himself to keep his voice level, she though Sinclair would have shouted. "When was this?"
"About a month after the Minbari surrender at the Line." She watched him carefully, waiting for the narrowing eyes, the slight grimace, that subtle shift in expression that told her exactly what he thought of Human-Minbari "relations," especially that close to the war. She knew Sinclair had served, and though she didn't know where, no one had been left loving Delenn's people. She saw nothing. Whatever was going on in Sinclair's head, his face showed nothing. "And believe me," she added, covering her bases, "it wasn't my idea."
"Whose idea was it?" he prodded. It sounded more like some kind of active listening nonsense than an interrogation.
Susan sighed and wrapped her hands around her empty mug. "Whose idea do you think it was?"
He raised his eyebrows and asked, "The Minbari's?"
"Got it in one." It was easy, after that, to tell her story. Talking to Sinclair, it was just another space story between soldiers, not some treasonous atrocity that had ruined her career and taken most of her life with it. She told him how, while the Minbari surrender had been unconditional, it had come with rituals and traditions that had to be observed for it to be formalised by their people. This had included a woman from the "winning" side marrying a warrior from among the side that had taken the most damage. They called it a "gift of life." Earth hadn't felt like they could refuse, not so soon after near-annihilation, but no one wanted to literally get in bed with the enemy either. The woman hadn't stated a gender preference, and they'd given her to someone who didn't have enough political clout to hand off the hot potato before the music stopped. Namely Cadet Susan Ivanova.
"Didn't you get a choice?" Sinclair asked.
"Sure, but then they told me if I said 'no' that they didn't know what they Minbari would do." Susan had seen choices like that before, and remembered too well what came of them. "It was a nice wedding. We ate red fruit under a chuppah, and someone from Security Division swore the Rabbi to secrecy. I took an assignment on Io right after I graduated, and she decided to go back to Minbar. This is the first time I've seen her in over seven years."
From the sympathy that crept into Sinclair's warm brown eyes, Susan suspect that he was reading between the lines pretty well. "That's quite the story," he said.
Susan leaned back in her seat then arched her back in a stretch. "Yet another reason why I'm looking forward to my next assignment."
"You don't want to try patching things up?" he asked. "You're not a cadet any more."
"It doesn't seem likely." Susan grimaced and hoped that he'd let it rest.
He did. "I'm on duty in a few minutes." He started to rise, but before he stood he reached across the table and laid a warm hand on hers. "It was good talking to you, Major."
Susan watched him go and wondered what he'd been after. It was more than gossip, that was for sure.
Someone else landed the deep space refuelling station construction assignment that Susan had had her eye on for six months. Everyone in her department had known it was coming down the line, and most of her cohort had wanted it. Susan had figured that with the first successful Babylon project behind her, she'd be a shoe-in for whatever job she liked, and possibly a promotion as well. She'd made sure to express her interest to command on several occasions. That afternoon she found a notice in Engineering and Logistics' newsletter, saying the assignment had gone to Major Vo Anh.
They hadn't had the grace to call her, and they certainly weren't returning her calls now. She finally got hold of some general's staff officer who informed her that if she'd been told to stay there and await orders, that was what she should do. Then he hung up.
Susan stared at the BabCom logo for a full minute. Then she swore, considered pitching something at the screen, and swore again.
If it wasn't the Minbari that were keeping her here, it had to be someone in Earthdome doing it because of the Minbari. It was too much of a co-incidence, otherwise. Of all the places in the galaxy, she'd been stranded here, with nothing to do and no explanation, at the exact same time as her politically-arranged wife showed up. A wife who, as far as Susan knew, had not been in contact with any humans since she'd left Earth seven years ago.
The heat of her rage surprised her. A kind of easy cynicism had settled over her since the War, and she hadn't known that she could still care this much about what Earthforce did to her. Earthgov had betrayed her mother; they'd sent Ganya to die, and then they'd actually sold her at a marriage market. She'd stayed for work at which she excelled, and even loved sometimes, and now they were talking that away too. If there had been a general in front of her, she would have strangled him without hesitation.
There wasn't, and it wouldn't have helped anyway. She needed to come up with a better plan.
Delenn hadn't contacted her all day, possibly trying to give her space. It had been a tactic she'd used a lot when they'd lived together, and Susan had never been able to outlast her. The urge to go and push buttons until she got a reaction had always been too strong. Plus the sex had been fantastic.
This time, as Susan made the now-familiar walk to Delenn's quarters, she wondered into how many other old habits she'd fall. With the distance of years, she wasn't sure she liked all of her younger self's behaviour. Certainly there'd been more sulking then she cared to think about. However, even with better perspective, just thinking about Delenn made her muscles tense and her heart rate pick up. The woman had an unparalleled ability to bring all Susan's emotions to the surface, and usually not for the better.
It was easy to see them sliding right back into their old push and pull, and Susan couldn't afford that right now. She paused to draw three long, slow breaths, then rounded the last corner.
Her fingers raised to press the chime when it occurred to her that Delenn might not be there, or if she were, she might not see Susan. She'd worked mostly from home before, and Susan's memory had her as unavoidably in those cramped family quarters next to the Academy grounds.
Here, Delenn would have ambassadorial duties, and might spend a good deal of time both with her own people and the other diplomats. Susan couldn't expect to find her whenever she wanted her.
Indeed, Delenn's aide showed Susan into an ante-chamber and fed her bitter Minbari tea for twenty minutes before Delenn had time to see her. Silk and crystal overwhelmed the room with Delenn's colours, even when she wasn't there. When she did arrive, Susan was almost surprised she didn't blend in entirely. Of course, she did not. Delenn had never allowed herself to be less than outstanding.
"I'm sorry," she said as she perched on the couch across from Susan. "I instructed my people to call me as soon as you wanted to see me." She didn't explain why they had not, but poured tea for herself and held the delicate cup in both hands.
Susan watched as she completed the ritual. Even Delenn's smallest movements held both strength of purpose and the grace of a dance. A younger Susan had envied and despised that confidence. Now she waited for Delenn to take a sip, then rest her hands in her lap, still holding the cup.
"I need a small favour." The words came out in a burst; if she didn't say them quickly, she'd never ask at all.
Delenn nodded for her to continue but said nothing.
"I wouldn't ask," Susan told her, while assuring herself that this was a tactical move: she wasn't showing real weakness. She'd done her best never to appear vulnerable in front of Delenn. "But I don't have a lot of other places to turn right now, and you may be the only one who can do it anyhow."
"If it is within my power, I will help you." Susan had seen carved marble that seemed more alive, and it struck her that Delenn wasn't even breathing. Was she holding her breath? Susan couldn't tell.
She licked her lips. "I'd like you to call my government and ask them what my status is."
In letting out a small sigh, Delenn seemed to relax a little and looked vivid again. "Why would they tell me, if they will not tell you?"
"They won't, but..." Susan hesitated, realising all at once how much of herself she could have to offer to get what she wanted. She'd try staying to a minimum at first. "But if you imply that you're happy to be sharing a station with me, and we're getting along like a house on fire... I want to see what they'll do if we both poke them at once."
Delenn studied Susan's face for so long that Susan wondered what it was she was seeing. She'd always seemed able to look right through anyone, but obviously that hadn't been true. If it had, she wouldn't have thought Susan was bluffing was back on Earth. At last, she finished her examination and conceded, "I do not completely understand, but I will do as you ask."
"I'm glad that you felt you could come to me, Susan," Delenn said after another sip of tea.
Susan paused to consider her words, then gave a little more. "Someone just cost me an assignment I've been after for months. If it's not you, then I want to know who it is. Maybe then I can do something about it."
"You career is very important to you."
"That's right," Susan snapped, then took a breath before she broke her no shouting promise, or re-covered too much old ground. "I've worked too hard to let some damn bathtub admiral throw it away, not for this."
Delenn set her teacup on a side table and leaned forward. "What do you mean by 'this'?" she asked. He tone had deepened and the intensity in her eyes made something catch in Susan's throat.
"I won't be used to... to..." Susan could feel herself flushing to the roots of her hair, and she flung her hands out. Tea splashed across the the rug. Lowering her voice, she started again, "I won't be used to humiliate you again. It's not fair to either of us."
For a long time Delenn didn't say anything, and when she spoke, her voice was almost too soft for Susan to hear. "I didn't know that you understood that."
"I was young, not stupid." It didn't take a genius to realise that pawning some kind of princess off on a cadet wasn't a compliment. That Susan had been so righteously pissed off at the effects on her didn't keep her from seeing what was happening. It just kept her from caring. Maybe that had changed now, a little anyway. "Besides, it's my career on the line. I want to get out of here someday."
"It would be better if I did not call right away," Delenn announced, seeming to close the subject. "We would not want it to seem as though we are..." she paused to search for an appropriate English word, "in cahoots."
Susan stood when Delenn did, and let her lead her to the door. As she stood in the corridor, the hatch still open between them, something welled up inside her. She couldn't name it; maybe it was a desire to say something that she didn't have the words for, or a need to hear words Delenn had never, and would never, say. She wanted to kiss her, too.
Then the moment passed and she turned away without even saying "Thank you."
Halfway back to her quarters, she realised this was the first time she'd ever wanted to thank Delenn for anything. Typical that she hadn't managed to do it.
The next day Susan received a brief note from Delenn saying that she'd done as Susan had asked. Three hours after that, she got new marching orders from Earthforce. It was even a decent posting.
The timing reinforced Susan's theories. The fact that she'd basically thrown a screaming tantrum and stomped out of her marriage was well known in some political circles, as was the knowledge that that had sent Delenn skittering back to Minbar. It seemed that someone in the chain of command had wanted to stick the two of them back together to see if they could recreate that explosion. When their interference seemed to have the opposite effect, Susan received orders to move along.
It was depressing how unsurprised she was. Mostly she just felt angry. She'd successfully supervised the construction of a goddamn Babylon station, the only person ever to do so, and this was what they thought her career was worth? Petty political games with the Minbari. She could see spending a cadet on that nonsense, but a major?
It would serve them right if she moved into Delenn's quarters and started adopting babies.
She was just contemplating the look on certain generals' faces when her door chimed. Commander Sinclair stood outside; he'd undone the collar of his uniform jacket, but his eyes said he was here on business.
Susan made him sit on her couch and take a drink, and dropped into the chair across from him before she asked what he wanted.
"I was wondering what you plan to do next," he asked, then started when Susan laughed.
"I was just thinking about exactly that."
Susan got up and paced to the far side of her quarters. "Oh, I'm set. I just got a new assignment, should be shipping out in the next day or so."
"You don't sound too happy about it, Major." He leaned forward, elbows braced on his knees, dark eyes watching her intently.
"I..." she stopped. She had no desire to drag the commander into her personal and political three-ring circus. "The posting is fine, better than a communications relay for sure. I can't say I'm happy about how or why I got it, but I also can't complain. Even if I did, what good would it do? I don't have a lot of options. Not unless your ladyfriend is still looking for someone to go partners with her in her freight hauling business."
"You'd resign your commission?"
"No." Susan shook her head. "I don't know, maybe. I'm tired of this." There were only so many solutions for a career military officer whose response to an order to jump was no longer "how high."
"What about transferring to a different division? Like command?"
The bark of Susan's laughter seemed too loud for such a sombre man, but he didn't jump this time. "I've got seven years' experience herding contractors and construction workers, and absolutely zero time in any kind of combat situation. Who in their right mind would want me on their command staff?"
Sinclair stood and stepped in to close the space between them. She had to tip her head back to meet his eyes. "I'm serious. I need a second officer. The man I was assigned quit and moved to Proxima III; he probably thought it was safer. You're smart; you're good with people, and with a little time you'll be a damn fine pilot. Knowing every hull plate on the station doesn't hurt either."
"I..." She took a breath, trying to give her mind a chance to catch up with the possibilities. Sinclair's offer seemed to be everything she'd ever wanted wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string. "It would be a step down. I'm used to running my own show." She realised she was equivocating, and shut her mouth. He needed an answer, not the proof behind it. "I'll need time to think about it."
"I thought you might. There is one thing, it's not a condition exactly, but..." His hesitation gave the topic away, and Susan grimaced. Delenn again. Does everything have to be about her? she wondered. "Normally I don't interfere in my officers' personal lives, but I need to know if–"
Susan folded her arms. "If I'm going to cause an interstellar incident by not being able to work with my ex-wife."
"Something like that." He looked mildly embarrassed, but didn't back off.
"I'm a big girl now, Commander," she told him. "I can behave myself."
Sinclair nodded and stepped away. "Let me know what you decide," he said on the way to the door. "I have the paperwork started."
When he was gone, Susan folded back into her chair and tried to objectively consider her options. The problem was that she didn't know if that last promise was true. Chances were, she and Delenn would go down in flames, and when they did they'd take this last of the Babylon stations with them.
This time Delenn saw her immediately. Her white nightdress showed a lot more of her figure than her multi-layered diplomatic robes had.
Susan declined tea. She felt too keyed up to drink, too much like she was balancing on a knife edge. "I wanted to thank you for calling Earthdome. I think it worked. They have me rebuilding the defence net around the jump point at Io. Of all places, right?" She laughed. Delenn did not.
"I'm pleased that I was able to assist you," she said. "You know that I would do anything that I could to make you happy." Her voice was low and intense and sent a shiver down Susan's spine.
This was not going the way Susan wanted it to: Delenn was supposed to either stonewall or throw up a fuss, either way proving that it wouldn't work. Susan squared her shoulders, and said loudly enough to break the mood, "I guess this is goodbye, again, unless you want to see me off tomorrow."
Delenn's lips parted in surprise. "I didn't realise that you'd be gone so soon; I thought I'd have a chance to–" She broke off, shaking her head. "I may be sorry that I acted on your behalf."
"Don't be," Susan snapped. "You owed me." If this was what Delenn meant by reconciling, she wanted no part of power games and playing favours.
"Yes." Delenn ducked her head. "I did. Still, I hoped that you might stay, now that we'd settled our debts. I believe you humans call it, 'starting over.'"
Susan moved sharply, reaching out to wrap her hands around Delenn's wrists. She gave them a little shake before saying, "That's what I don't get. Why the hell would you want to do that? Didn't it make us miserable enough the first time?"
"You are still my wife," Delenn told her. She pulled back, drawing Susan with her, so that she could stand straight and hold her head high. "I will not marry again while you live."
Susan remembered her no shouting pledge just in time to keep from suggesting where exactly Delenn could shove their marriage. They'd both been coerced into it anyway, so it wasn't like it really counted. "Then don't," she snapped. "Screw around on me, for all I care. It's not like I'll be here. It's not like I've been celibate for seven years."
"I do not wish to take a lover," Delenn insisted. She stood perfectly motionless, but the raw emotion in her voice seemed to fill the room. "I do not wish for you to care nothing for me, and I do not wish for you to leave me." Susan saw an image of Delenn from all those years ago, standing like a pillar of light as a so much younger Susan told her she was leaving for Io. Back then, she hadn't said a word. She'd stood in silence as Susan stormed out. Susan had hated her calm, but seeing it with adult eyes, she wondered if it wasn't just a veneer covering a deeper core of pain.
"Then what do you want?" Susan demanded. "All that time together, and I never had a clue. I had no idea how to live with you. What would have made you happy?"
Instead of retorting, Delenn paused in thought. At last, she said, "We bound our lives together eight years ago as of tomorrow. The war between our people had barely been over for two of your months, and I had just laid my father to rest. You were so very young, even for a human, and incredibly angry at my people. You went for weeks without speaking to me, and when you did, it was often only as a prelude to sexual encounters. Your emotions and customs were strange to me. Your planet's air was too thick. I was, to my knowledge, the only member of my species in your solar system."
"You were lonely," Susan said, trying to imagine it. So lonely that she'd somehow bullied Earthforce into switching Susan's career track from fighter command to engineering, which didn't have danger or the long off world training missions. Susan had felt so overwhelmed by an urge to act violently that she'd stayed in a hotel for a week. When she'd returned, she'd alternated yelling, unarticulated rage and total avoidance.
"For almost a year, I served alone and in silence as a penance for what my people had done to yours, and for what our war had done to my father. His heart broke because of it. Our marriage was meant to be a gift of life, a symbol of healing for both our peoples. It was not."
Susan thought back to silent evening after silent evening. Delenn had meditated most of the time, toward the end, and Susan had done her best to avoid her, staying out late or locking herself away to study. She'd found the stillness more oppressive than anything Delenn could have said. Finally, she hadn't been able to take it anymore, and thus followed storming out, and a position with no room for married quarters. "And you want to go another round?"
Slippery as a fish, Delenn twisted her wrists out of Susan's hold, turning until their palms lay flat together. "I think with all our wars behind us, we might finally have a chance. You've grown up to be wise and strong. Look at this place you built for us, a triumph out of a bed of ashes. It would be an honour to court the woman you've become, if you'd let me."
"I promised to follow you into fire and into death, Susan, and I could not. Allow me another chance to try. Let us both try."
Susan didn't answer. She thought of Sinclair's offer. Second officer would be a step down, but also possibly one in the right direction. She certainly wasn't going to end up in command of a starship the way she was going. Not like she and Ganya had promised each other they would. If she went to Io, they'd never let her fly more than an inspection shuttle.
In front of her stood an unyielding, infuriating and infinitely loyal woman who was promising to stick with her until she died. Not, this time, out of penance, but because she admired Susan enough to fold her life around her.
Susan had an overwhelming feeling that if she turned away now, she'd regret it. It matched the premonition that if she stayed, she really would be sorry. All told, she had a chance to be sorry in good company here.
"How about," Susan said carefully, "I stay, and we both try not to crash and burn. We could work on that starting over thing."
Delenn smiled. "That sounds like a very good idea."