Marcus could hear the voices of his friends and colleagues just outside the medbay.
The security chief, Garibaldi muttered gruffly, “If you ask me he’s lucky to have quarters at all. I’d like to throw him out the nearest airlock.”
The station’s captain,Sheridan spoke next,voice strained. “Noone is getting thrown out any airlock. The last thing i need is another diplomatic nightmare. No..we’ll reassign him quarters far away from Delenn’s.”
Although he could only see their backs from his hospital bed, Marcus could tell there was a heated debate and he had an idea who was at the center of it. Dr. Franklin suddenly stepped up to check his blood pressure readings, blocking his view.
“Didn't anybody ever tell you it’s rude to eavesdrop?” His friend smiled, though he looked weary, heavy bags under his eyes from far too many sleepless nights of overnight shifts.
“Yes, a few times. Never stopped me before. Tell them he can share my quarters.” Marcus had no idea what possessed him to volunteer to harbor the man who had nearly killed him.
“I think i’d better run another scan. I think you might be running a fever. A high one,” Franklin quipped as he checked his vitals.
“Well...he’s already tried to kill me so our relationship can only improve from there,” chuckled Marcus.
“He came back to visit you again, sat by your bedside while you were sleeping.”
Marcus grinned up at Dr. Franklin. “How do you know I wasn’t just pretending? He makes such lovely speeches when he thinks noone is listening.”
After a moment, the doctor glanced up from his scan and replied. “You know...maybe it isn't such a bad idea after all. Maybe you'll have a positive influence on him. If nothing else, you can watch him and make sure he isn't a threat. I’ll run it by Sheridan.”
In a few hours, Marcus stubbornly refused to use the cane the doctor prescribed, insisting instead that he walk in the presence of his fellow warrior. Once they reached his quarters on one of the seedy lower levels, the Ranger slumped against the wall.
The large Minbari steadied him, placing a gloved hand on his forearm. “You can give up the charade, human. You’re allowed to ask for help. It’s obvious you’re in pain.”
Hitting the access panel that closed the door to his quarters, Marcus scoffed, “Nonsense. I feel good enough to dance or perhaps you’d like a rematch?”
If Minbari typically rolled their eyes, Marcus could tell, Neroon would have done just that. “Very funny. Don't you think you should do as the doctor prescribed and rest? The last thing I need right now is to be blamed for you having a prolonged recovery.”
“Perhaps you’re right. Ah...this…” the dark-haired man gestured around his quarters that aside from a few photographs and basic furniture were spartan. “This is home….it isn’t much.”
“Yet somehow befitting a student of Durhan.” The Minbari smiled sadly, Marcus thought, probably remembering the great master’s lessons. “It will suffice.”
Groaning quietly as he attempted to remove his outer cloak, Marcus quickly found Neroon at his back, assisting him, and for the moment, he was still too weary to protest.
Neroon’s strong fingers worked carefully at the knots in Marcus’ neck and shoulders, the pressure just barely tolerable as the large Minbari explained in his smooth, baritone voice,”You’ve strained your deltoids trying to compensate for the damage to your ribs and the intercostal muscles.”
“Well...I wonder how that happened?” Marcus quipped, recalling the fight where Neroon had spared him rather than follow tradition and continue Denn’Shar to the death. Marcus had been beaten, faced his end, watched as Neroon held his Denn’bok staff ready to deliver the killing blow, then slipped into unconsciousness. The Alyt had seen honor and bravery in him and was moved by the young Ranger’s willingness to sacrifice himself to protect a Minbari his own pride and lust for power had made him prepared to kill. Marcus still remembered the hospital visit, the words softly spoken at his bedside, and the entirely unexpected sound of the man’s laughter, rich and pleasant, a sound he would like to hear again.
“Not so hard. I thought you were trying to help me...not send me back to the medbay,” Though his words are teasing, he could tell by the way the hands withdraw and the softly intoned apology that he had wounded Neroon.
“Forgive me. Tasks like this are better performed by the Religious Caste. I will leave you to your rest.” The tall man started to stand up, but Marcus caught his arm despite the exertion that caused pain to shoot through his chest.
“Neroon...I only meant that….you have strong hands. I don't think you always realize exactly how strong they are.” Studying him intently, the Ranger replied, “Would you allow me to demonstrate?”
Frowning, the large man replied. “I suppose. Just be careful your hands don't wander.” Marcus had learned that the warrior was uncomfortable with touch, especially when he did not know the intention behind it. Most of the touches exchanged by those in the warrior caste involved sparring matches, corrections made by fighting masters, or rarely, those necessary for the healing of injuries.
Carefully sitting up, the younger man motioned for Neroon to sit down in front of him on the side of the bed. Studying the elaborate crest on the back of his head, he appreciated the details and intricate patterns carved over years into the bone that ringed his head like an organic crown, the spikes befitting the fierce warrior that he was but still managing to look elegant. Slowly and cautiously, he placed his hands on Neroon’s shoulders, feeling the tension in the tight muscles, so strong from years of training. The Ranger could tell this was a show of great trust for Neroon to submit to the touch of another, especially a human, since their races had once been at war. Kneading the muscles, and using what he knew of Minbari anatomy, he soon felt the man’s shoulders begin to relax, though his response suggested otherwise. “What is the point of this? It is not helping to break down scar tissue or adhesions.”
“It’s meant to feel pleasant,” Marcus answered with a soft chuckle. In the time they had shared a living space, the human had learned to read Neroon carefully. Though Minbari considered lying a mortal sin, Neroon would never admit outright how much he enjoyed the way Marcus’ slender fingers traced the muscles along his spine or the way his thumbs dug into the sensitive tissue behind his shoulder blades. Still, his eyelids fluttered and he leaned just a little more into the touches.
“Your touch is too soft, human. Here...let me attempt to do this for you again before you exert yourself.” Marcus switched positions with him once more and smiled, as Neroon’s hands became more gentle now, almost to the point he felt drowsy.
“Maybe your not so bad at this afterall…” His head lolled forward, and his eyes were heavy-lidded.
“I studied your anatomy extensively.” At those words , Marcus sat up straighter.
“I imagine it made you more effective at killing us.” There was a touch of irony going beyond his usual teasing manner that made the Alyt’s hands still. For a moment, the tall Minbari’s expression wavered between anger and sadness, yet his honor would not allow him to lie.
He stood, arranged Marcus’s limbs more comfortably on his bed, and replied, “Yes, it did.”
“Neroon--” The warrior had already turned to leave the room and didn't hear the Ranger’s whispered apology.
Marcus still slept far too much for his liking, and it was only the smell of pungent Minbari cooking that roused him. Getting up and using the wall for support, he managed to get into the room and half fall into a chair. “Is that Ulabon and Almara I smell?”
Turning from the pan full of the fish and grains he was stirring, Neroon replied. “Indeed it is. I have altered the recipe to make it a bit milder for your palate.”
“Where’s the fun in that. I prefer authentic Minbari cuisine. Do you have any spices?” Neroon set their plates on the table and quipped, “Are you certain this is a good idea. I would hate to see you in the medbay again.” Still, he pointedly set the spices on the table after adding a generous amount to his plate and sliding it over to Marcus.
Grinning in his infuriatingly smug manner, Marcus took a bite with a blank expression then replied. “Very good but just a bit bland.”
The Ranger reached forward and added just a little more spice to his plate. Recognizing this was a sort of competition, Neroon tasted the food and agreed. “You know. You’re absolutely right,” before adding a second portion.
Though his eyes were watering, Marcus added a third portion, reaching for his water glass. Watching him struggle to maintain his composure, Neroon chuckled. “What’s the matter? Not to your taste? Minbari tolerance for spices is a bit higher.”
Taking another bite and immediately feeling his throat close up, Marcus wheezed,”I’m quite accustomed to spicy food and this is nowhere near my tolerance.”
Neroon finished his plate and carried it to the cleaning unit with barely concealed smugness, though, he also spared the human’s honor this way, allowing him to end this petty competition if he wished. As soon as his back was turned, Marcus immediately drank the entire pitcher of water.
Tactfully, Neroon pretended not to notice and suppressed a laugh. “Marcus...why do you choose to live here?” The Minbari gestured absently with a frown.
“You mean in Down Below? It has a certain charm once you get used to it.” Marcus shrugged. “Besides I grew up on a mining colony. I don't need much.”
“Yes but surely you should be with the rest of the crew-not with the vagabonds and criminals and lost men.” Neroon seemed genuinely concerned despite the contempt Marcus heard on the surface.
Taking a deep breath, the Ranger explained,”I help monitor the lower levels, report any suspicious activity Sheridan. I also help Dr. Franklin tend to the sick on the lower levels. It’s quite satisfying work really. Perhaps when I’m healed you should come with me?” Smiling, Marcus sat back in his chair, regarding Neroon with a friendly, open gaze.
Neroon gripped the countertop tightly. “I imagine I would not be welcomed.”
“Don’t be surprised. Many of these people are outcasts, refugees who have nothing.”
“Perhaps one day. Though I will only stay until you're well,” Neroon answered. “I’m going to train. I’ll help you get into bed. Just tell me if you need anything.”
There was much arguing about whether the forty-five degree angle of Minbari beds was good for Marcus’ healing, but at last, his stubbornness won out, and Neroon gave up trying to convince him to sleep flat.
“Is there anything else you need?” Neroon asked, helping him lie back.
“What--no bedtime story or goodnight kiss?” Marcus quipped with a cheeky grin.
The answering glare was enough for Marcus to assure him he was only joking and feign exhaustion. After a few minutes of trying to.sleep, he managed to sneak into his living room and watch Neroon. He willed himself not to move, not to breathe too hard as he witnessed something both majestic and terrifying. The warrior had stripped down to his black trousers, the armor and tunic discarded on a chair, and the muscles of his back and shoulders rippled under the pale skin as he spun the denn bok, angled it behind his back, swept it over his head and around to face an invisible assailant. The loss of his armor should have made him appear weaker, yet it only served to make him look lethal….and...beautiful. Even the scars from countless battles that marred his smooth skin did not detract from the moment that seemed to last forever, leaving Marcus’s throat dry and his heart racing. The younger man stood at the threshold, guilty as though he were witnessing something intimate that no one else would ever see, torn between continuing to watch Neroon in silence or to.reveal his presence.
“Durhan never taught me that move….” The words spilled from his lips before he knew what had happened. Marcus closed his eyes, kicking himself internally for his failure. Well..at least he’ll kill me quickly.
After a moment of surprise, Neroon merely set aside the staff and slipped his tunic back on. “Are you alright?”
“Yes….ah...couldn’t sleep...just feeling a bit restless…”
“Ah...are you in pain? Should I call Dr. Franklin?”
“No…Perhaps you could teach me that move...when I’m healed.?” Marcus was still in awe and felt a bit like he was back in the first days of ranger training.
“I suppose….but only when it is safe.”
“Fair enough. What about some pointers now?” Marcus grinned and crossed his arms.
“You have courage and some skill...but...you constantly leave your body open to attacks. You don't properly guard your left side and you need to evenly balance your weight or a larger and stronger opponent can easily knock you over.” Taking up his staff, Neroon demonstrated. “Like this.” Though he was a tall, muscular Minbari that towered over Marcus, the warrior effortlessly combined grace with power and the effect was something like watching ocean waves crash against a bluff. When he was finished, Marcus stood gaping, wide-eyed, all trace of his sharp wit and bravado gone.
“I see…” Why had his throat suddenly gone dry and his skin become clammy? “Thank you for the demonstration.”
“Are you quite alright?” Neroon guided Marcus to a chair. Then, sitting uncomfortably close, wrinkled his nose. “I think perhaps it is time for you to bathe. Forgive me..since Minbari don't require these ablutions, I had forgotten.”
“Ah...i suppose you're right.” The idea of stripping down and letting his enemy see him at his most vulnerable held little appeal, but Marcus couldn’t deny that he was in desperate need of a shower, cold or otherwise. Due to recent stationwide restrictions on energy and water consumption , he wasn't optimistic.
Neroon took his arm and led him into the bathroom, turned on the tap, and proceeded to help Marcus remove the cloak and shirt. The taller man forced himself not to laugh at how shy Marcus seemed to be, his arms folding over his lean frame. When he saw the fading bruises, his face became serious.
“That’s quite enough. I can handle the rest.” Marcus swatted his hands away, waiting until the warrior was outside the door to remove his trousers and underclothes. He was pleased to find he had actual hot water. Neroon must have arranged for it as Marcus would never ask for himself.
“I am the very model of a modern major general…” Marcus sang out loudly, not caring or just oblivious to the fact that Neroon still stood outside.
“He sings...of course he does.” Sighing, the warrior decided after a few minutes that his voice actually had a pleasant tone once you got accustomed to it.