This is the second time in as many days that one of Delenn’s adoring followers has blocked his way to her. The human Ranger had caused him enough trouble; this one, he can’t even threaten. “Go away,” he tries.
Lennier does not go away. “If you think I would let you near her alone after what you have proven yourself capable of, then you should reconsider.”
Well. He’s been doing plenty of reconsidering as it is. “I don’t wish her any harm. I only need to speak with her.”
“You can make an appointment, then.”
“She is very busy.”
Enough. “Do you really think you could stop me if I wanted you out of the way?” he snaps.
Lennier regards him coolly. “No. But you would have to beat me unconscious to get past. If you have come to threaten her again, that is a price I will gladly pay. And if you do only wish to speak with her, then you will not find her a very welcoming audience with my blood on your hands.”
A reasonable point, he has to admit. “At least go and ask her, then. Let the decision be hers.”
Lennier does not move, but his stance falters just slightly for a moment and Neroon pounces on the weakness. “That’s not very obedient. Are you meant to be making her decisions for her? Do you think you know better than she does?”
Lennier glares at him. “On this matter I do. She would not believe you meant to harm her at all.”
He tries not to wince too obviously at that. “Listen, little acolyte. I need to apologise to her. I guarantee that nothing you say to me could make me feel any more ashamed of myself than I do now. And - I have known her a long time, and she is the only person left who can tell me exactly what Shai Alyt Branmer would have said to me about my conduct. I have little desire to hear it” - a considerable understatement, he’d have gladly crawled through broken glass before facing Branmer’s views on this business - “but I suspect I need to. If you want to spare me that, then by all means turn me away again. Otherwise, let me see her.”
And Lennier nods, eventually, and shows him in.
He has interrupted Delenn reading, which is never a good start. And the look in her eyes is fire as she crosses her small living space to confront him; even Lennier takes a careful step back. “What are you still doing on this station?”
So that’s how this will be, then. No calm sad-eyed my only sorrow is that you fail to see the truth for him today. “Apologising,” he says, having learned from watching Branmer how to fight the Religious caste. Dodge. Sidestep. Deflect.
“I do not need your apologies, Neroon. I need Rangers. And one of my best is now badly injured thanks to your actions.”
“And would I have done, if you had reached me first?”
He doesn’t answer.
“In truth, Delenn, I don’t know.”
“This is a poor excuse of an apology.”
“It is, yes.” He should not have come, this is only making things worse. They both should have done as they had before, retreated like injured animals back into their own territories to lick their wounds and nurse their pride.
Under the force of her glare he feels his head bow, his own gaze drop to her feet. It still isn’t much of an apology, but what else does he have? Telling her that he was wrong to oppose her would be a lie; telling her that he was wrong to threaten her, to plan on harming her, would be pathetically inadequate.
She is silent for a small eternity. Just as he is about to bring an end to it she says “Lennier, go.”
Lennier objects, but after a short hushed conversation he finally bows to her (and only to her) and leaves. “Should I be worried you’re sending away witnesses?” Neroon says.
She ignores him and returns to her seat. “You know that one of the humans here tried to kill me several weeks ago,” she says. “I found myself wishing for Warriors here then. For Branmer and for you.”
He did know that, and the thought does not sit well with him. He’s about to tell her so (in anger? defensiveness? concern? he barely recognises himself any more) when she interrupts as though a thought had only just occurred to her. “Do you remember the last time you were here? After he died.”
“Of course I do.” And of course he’d expected her to bring that up, too, why wouldn’t she take such an easy strike. What does surprise him is that there’s no anger in it, only a distant nostalgia. She could as easily be discussing any of the better times, a meal the three of them had shared, an old joke from the past. “You threatened to destroy my clan if I spoke out against you,” he reminds her.
“I did.” Not a flicker of regret. Well, perhaps for her that’s a fond memory in itself.
Or perhaps that’s exactly the point. He forces his voice into calmness. “I don’t have any right to ask this of you, Delenn. But my actions here have been mine alone. The Star Riders would never have sent me here for this, they don’t know and they would not have agreed. Whatever redress you ask for, ask it of me, not them.”
She considers this, looking as regal and proud as she ever had. So much for stopping her; she still has that old arrogant certainty, she still has the Rangers, and now she has him begging at her feet as well. He wants to walk out and keep going and leave her and this and everything else behind, take a flyer and disappear.
“Remind me,” she says. “In your traditions. If you injure another Warrior while sparring, your atonement is to dress the other’s injuries. Is this correct?”
“It is,” he says cautiously. “You don’t have any injuries.”
“Not from you,” she says. “But from the other, the human. It has not healed well, and I think the human physicians here do not know how to treat Minbari.”
You’re not Minbari, he doesn’t say. “I’ll try.”
She shrugs off the outer layer of her robes to reveal the healing knife wound on her back. The red-edged wound itself is healing well, but the skin around it is raised and pale. And the rest of her - it seems her spinal plates have been lost along with the transformation, and the blue curls that would have flared out from them are faint echoes of what they must have been. He hesitates for a moment before removing his gloves and putting his fingertips to her alien skin. “Can you feel this?”
He tests the texture of the stiffened, damaged surface, feels carefully around it to establish the boundaries of the raised area. He reaches too far on one edge and the quick reflexes in her undamaged skin jump and shiver beneath his hand. “You should have had this seen to weeks ago,” he mutters. “By Minbari physicians.”
“We have no Minbari physicians here now.”
Her body is trying to form new bone to plate over the injury, as Minbari skin sometimes does with deep, disruptive wounds. It has gone far but not far enough that it’s beyond his well-practiced hands to mend. He begins pressing hard into the stiffened skin with his fingertips, switching to massaging with his knuckles every time another piece starts to break away under the surface.
There is something calming about the work, the repetition of it, the knowledge that at least in this there is something he can do. Even the strangeness of her changed body seems to fade after a while. When the muscles in his hand begin to protest he stretches out his fingers and rests one palm for a moment on her shoulder, feeling her pulse flickering beneath. She is alive; she is safe; whatever else either of them has done, at least this remains true.
When his hands return to the injury she shifts and flexes against his touch. “Stay still,” he mutters, distracted, and feels her settle under his palm.
It takes time to do this properly, and through all that time the thin, angry red line of the knife wound troubles him more and more. There is a disturbing reality to it, a harshness that he can’t dismiss or push aside. After a while he closes his eyes. His hands have done this a hundred times before, there’s no need for sight.
“If you’re going to be Ranger One,” he says, “you need Minbari physicians here. So long as you still have Minbari Rangers, at any rate.”
“And Warrior caste Rangers?” she asks, making it sound more like idle curiosity than the demand he knows it to be.
“The Warrior caste have our own battles to fight.”
“So I am learning,” she says pointedly.
He sighs, feeling the shame lurch in his chest. “You can have any Star Riders who wish to join you, with my blessing. I can’t speak for the other clans.”
“Thank you.” Her tone is almost gracious.
“Now stay still. How can I mend this if you keep moving?” But then, how would she know? This is more battlefield care than medical treatment. He wouldn’t have expected the Religious caste ever to be injured so far from home that they’d need it. He curls an arm around her waist and holds her firmly, his fingers splayed out over her stomach. There, that should be easier; already his other hand can get much more purchase on the hardened scar on her back.
And yet it’s not easier, in a way that’s becoming increasingly hard to ignore.
This is ridiculous, he chides himself. You have done this a hundred times. She’s nothing to you, she’s not even Minbari. But as her breathing slows and deepens as he kneads her skin, as he can feel the relief in her body, it’s hard to recall that. Oh, this was easier when she was angry; now he doesn’t know where he stands with her, where he should stand, where he wants to stand.
“This feels better,” she says.
“Good.” He’s nearly finished, thankfully. His own hands will ache from this tomorrow. “Get this seen to soon. Don’t let humans near it.”
“They are not so bad, Neroon.” He expects anger but her voice is light, almost laughing. It’s disarming. “They do not always understand us, that is all.”
“And yet I hear that you have begun the pairing rituals with one of them, all the same,” he says, keen for the familiarity of her anger.
It does not come. Worse, she tips back her head to rest it against his shoulder. “Not yet,” she says. “Are you telling me you have spies here?” He can hear the smirk in her voice.
“I am telling you no such thing.”
“I do hope you have given some thought to their future vocations, now you have no more need to watch me?”
Too far. “Careful, Delenn. I regret threatening you, I don’t regret challenging you. I will not be sending you Rangers.”
“You will,” she says, her voice like steel. “As Branmer would have done.”
He does not want to think about what Branmer would have done. Branmer who never shied away from challenging her, who still gave her surrender order to the fleet at the battle of the Line without hesitation. Branmer, who had always warned him about his quickness to anger. Branmer, who despite being born Religious was worth a hundred of the glory-seeking idiots that were gaining far too much power in his own caste lately.
“He would have had me exiled for this,” he says quietly. “He would have said I had no right to call myself Minbari.”
“As you did to me.”
“As I did to you.”
The soft fibres of her alien hair are cool against his face. She puts a hand over his own, and he wants to snarl at her that he doesn’t want forgiveness, not from her... but he is no longer so sure. He rests his forehead against her bare shoulder and is silent.
“You will not send yourself into exile over this,” she says.
“No, Sat-“ He catches himself just too late. “Delenn.”
She takes his hand and presses it to her heart the way the Religious caste do. “We have lost so many,” she says, so quietly he can barely hear her. “Branmer is gone, Dukhat is gone.” And then she holds his fingertips to her lips and breathes some kind of chant, words he can’t make out.
It is too much. All of this is too much. “Delenn,” he says, no longer even sure of what he’s asking.
She twists around in his arms, presses her forehead against his. “What would Branmer have said to me?”
“I don’t know. That you should come home, probably. That you’re wrong about everything and you should have been born a Warrior.”
She laughs, and he smiles, and for a moment it’s easy to forget what she’s become since the Delenn he first saw standing beside Branmer on the bridge of a warship. Beautiful, in that moment, but then she always had been. Beautiful and dangerous and wrong.
He pulls back from the look in her eyes. “I will not have your pity, Delenn.”
“I would not give it.”
“Then what is this? What do you want from me?”
She sags comfortably back against him, her head turned into his shoulder. “Call me Satai again.”
“Keep touching me.”
“It’s done, I was finished.”
He runs one hand softly down her bare back, past the injury this time, following the curve of her hip around to the edge of the silk robe. His hands are always more sensitive after days in gloves. He can feel each tiny shiver of her skin, the very slight changes in texture marking where once there would have been cerulean curls and flames of blue. (And are still, he notices with an effort at detachment; below her shoulder blades the faint edges of blue are darkening beneath her new skin.) “Like this?” he says, stroking his thumb over one of the patches on her lower back, and she makes a small, pleased sound and shifts against him. “More?”
“More,” she says, lacing the fingers of his other hand through her own.
And so he does. He’s surprised himself by how much he wants this, by how good it feels to explore her body, hold it tight against his and trail kisses down her neck. She sighs the same blissful, relaxed sigh she did when he treated her injured back, she raises the hand she’s holding to her lips and kisses each fingertip in turn. She’s not so alien, surely, not really.
He caresses the soft skin of her stomach one last time, then moves his hand down between her legs. Her breath catches in her throat and comes out as a whimper. She’s changed, here, but not so much that he can’t easily work out how to get her to keep making those wonderful sounds, and not so much that he isn’t getting a great deal of pleasure from exploring her himself.
She gasps and arches her back when he slips the barest tips of his fingers inside her. He wants to take his time but she’s always been impatient, and it’s not long before she takes his hand and guides him, further and more, and whatever else this is he certainly can’t imagine a more enjoyable way this meeting could have gone.
But she lets go, breaks away with an annoyed sound. He stops. “No?”
“Yes,” she says, “very much yes. It’s just...” She shakes her head, irritated. “This body is still strange to me. I don’t know what will work any more.”
But he’s seen the darkening blue across her back, silvered and dull under her new skin though it is, and he isn’t so sure she’s all that different. “Does it feel good?” he says, going back to stroking her in the soft circles she showed him.
“It does.” She leans back into him and closes her eyes.
“Then let that be enough for now,” he says, determined that it won’t be. “Let me do this for you.” And indeed, it doesn’t take long and it doesn’t take much - kissing her own hand in the way she had his, softly biting her neck in a way that it turns out she likes a great deal - before there’s no doubt left for either of them. As her breathing starts to tear itself into ragged gasps he presses the flat of his hand down firm, and she comes hard against him, crying out in bliss.
“You’re not so alien,” he murmurs into her neck as she drifts back to her senses.
She twists around again to hold him and bury her face in his shoulder. He realises with a jolt that she’s crying. Lost for what to say, he kisses the edge of her crest and stays silent.
After a while (seconds? days?) she pulls back to look at him. There’s a moment, a turning point, when this could all seem like insanity; when one of them could push the other away, let anger take them both. And as she looks at him in unreadable silence, he wonders if she is thinking the same. Instead, she says “Let me see you,” and her quick fingers begin to loosen the cords on his surcoat.
“As you wish it, then.” He’s tempted to help just to speed things up, but she knows what she’s doing and the feel of her touch is pleasure in itself. Her hands slide under the armour on his shoulders to the soft undershirt beneath, undressing him with ease. She reveals the livid bruise on his shoulder and pauses for a moment. “What happened?”
“And here?” Her fingers trace an older scar, a rope-like line curving down from his neck.
“Training accident, a long time ago.”
That mocking smile again, teasing at the corners of her lips. “What were you training in?”
“The importance of being more careful.”
She kisses both injuries softly, old and new, and continues undressing him. She traces her eyes and hands over his body, following the contours of muscle and bone. She is gentle with the wounds from his fight yesterday; gentler than she could be, considering how he got them. She asks about each of his older scars (the war, a fall, a flyer crash, the war again), blessing them with her hands and lips.
Pleasant though all this is there’s something detached and studious about it, as if his body, not hers, is the strange one. He doesn’t follow it at all until she finds another scar: a tiny circular mark, a vaccination against a fast-spreading illness that raced over the southern continents when he was young. She smiles. “I had one the same,” she says, turning her own forearm to show him the smooth, scarless skin.
He begins to understand, a little.
He reaches up to touch her face, strokes her temple where the skin now laps over the edges of her crest as if trying to drown what’s left of her Minbari self. “Why did you do this to yourself?”
In a heartbeat all her softness is gone. She strikes his hand away and snaps “I will not have your pity, either.”
“No.” She kisses him hard, her hands and mouth and body against him fast and hungry, pushes him back and straddles his lap and says “If this is not what you want, tell me now.”
Never mind, then. “This is very much what I want,” he says. And it is, every breath of him, every cell of his body.
This is faster, wilder, nothing at all like the languid sighs of her in his arms before. Her choice, not his; he’d have been happy enough to continue from there. She doesn’t want that, though, that much at least is clear, and what she does want is fine too. More than fine.
It feels so, so good to move inside her, so much better than he’d even imagined it would be. He runs a finger and thumb down her back, guessing at where the edges of her spine plates would have been, and knows from her low groan that he’s guessed correctly. Kisses her fiercely, runs his hands across what’s left of her headcrest and seizes its edge between his teeth. “How would a human know how to touch you, anyway?” he growls into it, feeling the vibrations of his voice running through her. There’s a desperation to both of them at first, and then a harmony, and then at last a deep and ecstatic fulfilment.
He gazes at their clasped hands afterwards, as his breath comes back to him and her racing heart slowly calms against his chest. Their fingers twined together (when did that happen?) look both wrenchingly, horrendously wrong and somehow right at the same time.
She lays her head on his chest. The part of him that’s still furious with her, that still sees the arrogant, dangerous Delenn who is a greater threat to Minbar than the Shadows she talks about, turns its back on him in disgust. And after all there’s a part of him too that would send her Rangers, send her warships, bring her home away from this place, fight at her side and work at her side and rebuild the Grey Council together, live a long and wonderful life filled with arguments and laughter and sex and old stories and new children and -
No. This is madness.
He should leave, now, before she has a chance to change her mind about punishing his clan. He should return to the ship waiting for him in hyperspace and decide what he’s going to say to Shakiri (Shakiri, who after all never said kill her, he only said stop her and she’s chosen not to be Minbari and surely you regret letting a human lead the Rangers now, don’t you, Neroon? and left the conclusions undrawn.) He should say mourning prayers for Branmer, it’s been far too long. He should tell her this changes nothing, they’re still enemies, she’s still just as dangerous as she ever was.
Instead he looks at their joined hands, Warrior and Religious, and knows only that something in the universe has changed.