Will you look at that... The sun’s rising.
* * *
“So. This is it then.”
John Sheridan found himself in a place of bright light. Brighter than the sun he’d been staring into, even. His mother’d always told him not to do that, but when the time came he found himself wondering what the hell damage it could do. He was dying anyway, right? So why the hell not. And Lorien had been with him again, at the end, as he’d always suspected he’d be, so everything must have worked out fine.
Delenn had always referred to death as the place where no shadows fell. He’d assumed she meant it in a more figurative sense, like a place with nothing bad... but there was literally no darkness here, not a shadow as far as the eye could see. And... a figure, walking toward him. Well. That made sense, he supposed - the new dead were presented with a guide of sorts, someone to lead them and advise them in their new... existence? And since Lorien wasn’t here anymore...
It seemed like as good a guess as any.
“I very much doubt it,” a deep, slightly amused voice replied.
The figure who came into focus out of the bright light was completely unfamiliar to Sheridan - rather surprising considering how many friends he’d buried over the years. But rather than an old comrade or relative, he found himself facing a Minbari male, a few good inches taller than himself even without the impressive crest of bone at the peak of the other’s skull, dressed in a loose grey robe... and eyeing Sheridan with a look of bemused frustration, such as one might use on a dog who’d gotten his lead tied around a tree for the third time in a day.
“So. Couldn’t be bothered to stay around for another few decades for her sake, hmm? She marries you, then you die on her. Just like that.”
Sheridan blinked. What the hell right did this guy have to say something like that? “I would have given anything to stay another day with Delenn and David,” he snarled. “Who the hell are you, anyway?”
“My name is Dukhat. I was Delenn’s teacher.”
“Oh.” That answered a lot of questions... and brought up a few new ones. Such as what was going to happen if the man who’d taught Delenn everything she knew about manipulation, leadership, and the application of terror, was mad at him.
“Don’t worry. I can’t hurt you here. Which is a pity - I wouldn’t mind seeing you squirm for upsetting her. The relationship between student and teacher is a sacred bond to Minbari, do you know that? It’s second only to marriage among our people. Once I took her as my aide, Delenn became my responsibility not just for the period of her training, not just for that single lifetime, but for eternity. As long as our souls can find one another, I will protect her, and guide her as best I can. This wasn’t the first time, of course - and it won’t be the last. Minbari souls always find the ones who are important to us, over and over, until this universe ends.”
Second only to marriage? So... Sheridan shook his head, trying to banish a number of strange and uncomfortable ideas about the Minbari obsession with triads and other things he couldn’t so easily put into words that were busily flitting through his mind. He knew he should have taken more time to study all those texts Delenn kept around. “Uh. Right. Okay.”
Dukhat cast him an incisive glare. “Clearly she didn’t marry you for your eloquence.”
And that one pushed it too far... “Look, if that’s how you’re going to be, you can just--”
The Minbari shook his head and raised his hand for silence. Inexplicably, Sheridan found himself complying - the man had the kind of attitude that didn’t just ask obedience, but demanded it. Or maybe that was just another factor in the nature of this place. “Forgive me. You must undestand, Delenn is precious beyond measure to me, and to the future of our people.”
“She is to me, too,” Sheridan growled.
Dukhat smiled. “If we can agree on that, perhaps there is hope yet.”
“What do you mean?”
“I told you, no Minbari soul is ever parted forever from those he or she loves. If Delenn has her way - and if you know her as you should, you’ll know that’s not exactly a question - we will be seeing a good deal more of each other in the future. I wanted to meet you, first, while you are still... wholely who and what you are now. And to assure myself that you were worthy of her, so that I could make your next life miserable if you weren’t,” Dukhat added.
In a human, Sheridan would have called that smile wolfish. He didn’t know a proper Minbari equivalent for the term, but it was sure as hell no less intimidating in this case.
“So... wait a minute. You’re telling me that you and I and Delenn are going to be together... for eternity?”
“You didn’t think you were the only one planning to wait for her, did you?”
Something else niggled at Sheridan’s mind. Oh... “Lennier, too.”
Dukhat inclined his head in agreement, and smirked. “You don’t like him very much, do you?”
“He’s never especially liked me. And he tried to kill me the last time we saw each other.”
“Love does that, sometimes.” The bastard smiled, then, like he had some kind of secret that he wasn’t going to share, just yet. “Now. Delenn is a wise soul - she doesn’t need her old teacher hovering over her in every lifetime just for nostalgia’s sake. But I won’t allow her to be alone... and I think you’ll find that neither will this Lennier of hers. I never met him in life, but Delenn has a knack for inspiring loyalty in others - her soul is a great one, and people are naturally drawn to that power. So you have a choice ahead of you.”
Somehow, Sheridan had always figured death for a place where choices didn’t matter anymore, except the ones that had already been made. He was starting to think he would’ve preferred it that way. “I do?”
“Humans, you see, don’t have to be reborn. Your species has a multitude of young souls still being born new. Maybe that will change in time, as you grow older as a species. I don’t know. But you could stay here, in peace and warmth... forever. You would always retain this identity, the self and memories of exactly this life that you just finished. Or you could wait for a while, take the rest and recovery that is your reward for a life of service, and then go back out in the cold and the chaos for another lifetime.”
Dukhat, Sheridan decided, was a man with a lifetime of experience in lecturing. He seemed not to have lost the taste for it in death. “And Delenn?”
“She’s half human, now, so she’ll have the choice, too... but I know Delenn. The body may be part alien, but her soul is Minbari - she’ll choose to be reborn. As will I. And as will her aide, choosing to be with her again, and serve her in another lifetime where he might make better choices out of what he’s given,” Dukhat added, shaking his head like a grandparent tired of a child's reckless play.
“So will I, then. If she goes, I go - I don’t want to leave her!”
“Patience, Human. Give yourself time to think. There is no guarantee that things will turn out next time the way they did in this life. Delenn’s soul will remember you, I think, but she will also remember others - Minbari souls that she has known all the long existence of her spirit. There is nothing to say that finding you again will be easy for her... or that her love for you will always be the same. What if your place was reversed with that of her student? Would you wish to live that way, loving her as you do now, but unable to touch her or be sure of her love in return? Even if she did love you, there is nothing to say that her love would be in the manner of a mate, and not a very dear friend, or that she will not have already given her love to another. Could you live like that, Human? Or would you go mad with jealousy and desperate, hopeless love? What if you two were reborn as siblings, or met again only after marrying others who you loved equally well?”
For the first time, Sheridan felt himself draw back from the moment, from his life as it was, and consider how it might have been. How when he was married to Anna, before she disappeared, and even for the first several years after, he'd never imagined falling in love with another woman. How, when he first saw Lennier and Delenn together, he’d thought they were lovers, or maybe engaged in some kind of holy marriage. Things like that happened, and they were certainly close enough. He’d seen that, and felt a tug at his heart that at the time had been mysterious to him - he’d chalked it up to missing Anna, and maybe a vague feeling of sorrow that he’d misunderstood her overtures. Thank god he’d gotten over that idea.
But what if he hadn’t? What if they really had been married, as Lennier so clearly wished they had been? Or what if Anna had never left with the Icarus and eventually came with him to Babylon 5? Could he have given up Anna - sweet, fun, beautiful Anna, the real Anna - for Delenn?
“You see the quandary,” Dukhat remarked. He sounded oddly approving, like a teacher whose very slow pupil was finally catching onto a basic concept after long instruction. “Your soul will know her when you meet again, but you won’t know why - and those feelings may take any number of forms, as may hers for you.”
“There is no certainty, John Sheridan. There is only life. And love. One way or another, Delenn will always love you. She’s too stubborn to change very much.” He paused a moment and smiled. Sheridan found himself jealous over whatever memory the other man was apparently enjoying, but Dukhat didn’t seem inclined to share his reverie. “In any case, from what little I’ve seen of you, you will always love her as well. You’d be a fool not to,” he added with a glare that told Sheridan he damned well better or else. “But in the next life... who knows? It might fall to you to love her unrequited, this time, or you may pass a lonely life without ever finding her again... and never understand the yearning that tears at your heart. Knowing these risks, are you certain of your choice?”
At that moment, Sheridan wished more than anything that the space around them wasn’t quite so bright, so empty and open - if there were just a chair, or a wall to look at, something, anything to help him avoid the immediacy of Dukhat standing before him and the decision now in his hands...
I cannot imagine a life without you in it, he’d told Delenn some twenty-four years before - his first vague, timid attempt at explaining his feelings for her. And it was still true. The idea of living without Delenn at his side... honestly, it terrified him. He’d never understood before how Lennier had stayed so long after their marriage, when it became increasingly clear to him that the other man was growing sick with love for her. But given the choice, maybe he would have done the same thing - desperately tried to stay with her, hoping that he could at least enjoy talking to her, seeing her every day, even if each time it made the pain that much harder to bear.
And if Dukhat was right, he might very well find out how that felt, in the next life.
“Is Lennier still alive?” he asked. Delenn had always been convinced that he was, but she had some funny ideas about her student... and Sheridan was half convinced that even if she secretly believed he was dead, she would never have spoken the words. She was incapable of actually giving up on him. Maybe that was another part of this sacred bond Dukhat had mentioned.
“He has not passed this way,” Dukhat answered. “I have watched for him.”
“But you said you never met him in life. How would you--”
“I hadn’t met you, either.”
“Right.” Just try not to think about it. “So he is still alive.” And that meant...
“You think he was waiting.” Dukhat circled around him, his tone and bearing reminding Sheridan of an old friend of his father’s - a retired lawyer, fond of skewering people in false reasoning and then turning their logic inside-out. At least Delenn was more subtle when she demolished people’s arguments... “You believe he’s been biding his time until your death, so he could return to Delenn’s side and take over your place unimpeded.”
“It’s what he wanted, isn’t it? He tried to kill me! And she just... she wouldn’t ever have believed it, would she? She would never have believed he did it.”
“Ah, but he didn’t.”
Delenn swore that Lennier had been on his way back before she ran into him. She insisted that he was coming back to help - that he’d had a change of heart, recovered his sanity, and would never have really let Sheridan die. Delenn had also taken four years to get around to admitting that her beloved aide felt less than the most innocent of love for her. “I won’t ever know.”
“You can always ask him, when he comes here.” Dukhat shrugged. “In any case, it’s possible - he might be there right now, with her. Another few months... maybe a year or two, and propriety might finally break down, let them slake that lust that’s been gnawing at his soul. You’ve only been dead a few hours, now, but he’s had twenty years to plan for this moment, hasn’t he? To think about it, to wonder whether she would welcome him back... Twenty years is a long time, perhaps, for a human. Less so for Minbari. Delenn has a long while yet to live, and her son is already grown, living his own life. Would you want her to spend the rest of her days with no one who cared for her?”
“Of course not, but--”
“She has friends, of course. Human friends, correct? Who will die in another thirty or forty years, and leave her alone with a grown son and a planet that no longer fully accepts her because of the sacrifice she made for them.”
“What was I supposed to do? I didn’t want to leave her, but--”
“No, no - of course not. We don’t choose our own time, do we? I didn’t want to leave her, either. The pain, the guilt I felt, leaving her half-trained among those fools in the council, worrying whether they’d get over their resentment long enough to listen to her wisdom... But we all have to die. The difference, John Sheridan, is that I left her without expectation. I might not like the fact that she married a barbarous...” Dukhat trailed off for a moment, eyeing Sheridan, then apparently decided better of whatever description he’d been aiming for. “Well. An outsider, in any event. Though I must say I approve of the facial hair - that’s something of a rarity among our people.”
That wasn’t saying much, Sheridan realized, as Dukhat himself had almost exactly the same goatee. Had his been Delenn’s idea? After twenty years of wearing the thing, Sheridan couldn’t remember anymore. He was pretty sure he’d come up with it... but he’d seen Delenn in the council chambers often enough to know that didn’t necessarily mean anything, with her. “Thanks.”
“Certainly. The point is, I may not have been happy with all her choices, but they were hers to make, and I recognize that. Every soul finds its own way, however much we try to guide it. It’s not for me - or for you - to question. Whatever happens in this life or the next, or the one after that... we can only control what we each do for ourselves. And now is the time for you to make the first choice on your next path.”
It only took an instant’s thought, a flashing of mental images - Delenn teasing him in the gardens, wearing that black dress he loved, smiling down at little David the morning he was born, staring helpless and visibly bereft as Lennier left to join the rangers, crying and hugging him as if she could keep him anchored in this life by the strength of her spirit alone... “I’ll go. There’s no heaven without her, so I might as well try my luck back in the world.” He grinned slowly. “This whole thing’s kind of hard on an atheist, you know.”
Dukhat spread his hands, wide and empty. “I know nothing of gods, John Sheridan - only the universe. But I think you’ve chosen well. Perhaps Delenn wasn’t so foolish as I thought, to choose you. Come.” He smiled and held out his hand. “Walk with me. We will wait for her together.”
The hand that Sheridan clasped was large, warm, and pleasantly callused - solid, and a living thing. Maybe this all wouldn’t be so bad after all. Whatever happened in the coming years, he’d see Delenn again soon. Let the next life handle itself - as long as he was with her, he could be happy.
He smiled back at Dukhat and walked with him into the light. There were, as promised, no shadows.