When three humans brought three bottles of wine to play poker with two Minbari, what happened was that the humans wound up half-drunk and the Minbari took to openly looking at you as if you'd come from another planet. Never mind that you had, Ivanova thought, or that anyone who voluntarily dulled their wits during what was essentially a competition deserved everything they got. When you showed up with a bottle of wine (or three) to be polite, and resorted to drinking it (them) when the social awkwardness got to be too much, these things happened, and you had to make the best of it.
Just for the hell of it, Ivanova tilted the bottle of wine she was holding at Delenn. The Ambassador declined with a shake of her head, so Ivanova topped up her own glass. Here's to only remembering that your host isn't a big drinker after you've landed on her doorstep with booze, she said to herself, and took a drink. A gulp, if she wanted to be precise. And being half-drunk was all about cultivated precision. Only when you were half-drunk did you care quite so much about making it look as if you weren't drunk at all.
Take Catherine Sakai, seated to Ivanova's right. She finished dealing a new round with an exaggerated carefulness that wouldn't have fooled a blind man, let alone one of the most advanced races humanity had ever encountered. Sure enough, Ivanova caught Delenn and Lennier exchanging glances. She ignored them and thumbed the edges of her cards off the table so she could see what kind of crap Ms. Sakai was dealing this time. She tossed a couple of chips in the center of the table.
To her left, Talia Winters was massaging her temple with her fingertips. When Ivanova cleared her throat, she picked up two chips and placed them in the pot.
"Aren't you going to look at your cards first?" Ivanova asked.
"Your cards. You haven't looked at them."
Ms. Winters arranged her hand fan-like in front of her face. "I'm still in." She glanced up and noticed that Ivanova was watching her. "I don't have X-ray vision. You can't accuse me of cheating. Not with these results." She waved a gloved hand at the small stack of chips in front of her.
"You can't be accused of paying attention, either," Ivanova muttered. She felt a sharp kick to her right ankle, but Ms. Sakai's face was as blank as it had been all game. No one could accuse her of not paying attention; she'd collected more chips than anyone, even Delenn.
"She could be trying to lull us into a false sense of…security." Lennier looked pleased with himself.
Talia laughed. "I don't think so." She reached for her glass of wine, knocking over her chips as she did so. They fell to the floor with a pretty, tinkling sound, like the wind chimes on Ivanova's neighbor's porch when she was little. It must be the alcohol, she thought. The chips were plastic; the floor was carpeted. They shouldn't have made any noise at all.
She glanced around. Oh, okay. The Ambassador was pouring herself a glass of water, and the elongated teardrops by her elbow were swinging gently. The chimes suited the Minbari to a tee, thought Ivanova. Inscrutable, like the material they were made of, yet capable of producing great beauty. They could move like the wind that you never saw until it was too late. She watched Lennier and Talia collect the fallen chips. "They fall so far," she said. "So far…"
She shook her head. "You'll have to excuse me," she said. "I'm Russian. We get drunk and get maudlin. Sometimes in that order."
"I used to get philosophical," said Ms. Sakai. "When I was much younger, of course."
Ivanova nodded. She was going to have to stop doing that; it made the room spin, and turned Ms. Winters' black gloves into life-like creatures. "Who are we, what do we want," she said. "Why are we here." She spread her fingers over her chest. "Me, I'm here because Cmdr. Sinclair as good as ordered me to attend. Diplomatic relations and all that. Best assignment of my life," she confided.
Ivanova took a slug of wine and felt Ms. Sakai kick her again. Oops. "Not that I wasn't planning on attending anyway, of course. What about you?" she said to Delenn.
Delenn looked upset, almost as if she'd just had bad news. She took a sip of water. "What am I doing here?"
Yes. Why are any of us here playing this game that you're taking far too seriously? "Why this?" – she waved her hand at the table – "Why us? Why tonight?"
"You want me to do what?" Mr. Garibaldi asked. "Wait, hold on a minute, will ya?" He turned to scan a Pak'ma'ra's IdentiCard.
"Absolutely no singing," he warned. "The last time you passed through the station, the music halls complained you were taking away all their business. And if I have to explain to one more tourist from Brown Sector why they can't have your autograph, I'm gonna have to take to forging your signature, and then I'm gonna have to arrest myself, and that's not gonna look good for me, is it?" Garibaldi waved the Pak'ma'ra through customs. "So put a sock in it while you're enjoying your stay here on Babylon 5, okay?"
The departing visitor didn't deign to acknowledge the Security Chief's rant. "Hey Jake, cover for me for a minute," Garibaldi said over his shoulder as he guided Delenn and Lennier into what he called a quiet corner. Not that she'd call anywhere in Customs quiet, Delenn thought. The most she could say about the corner was that they were less likely to be trampled.
"It is as I said a moment ago, Mr. Garibaldi. I am inviting you to join Lennier and myself and a few others to participate in your eleventh favorite thing in the universe," Delenn said.
"Hey, hey hey, not so loud," Garibaldi cautioned. He leaned toward Delenn. "Uh, remind me which one that is again, will you? I think I may have done a re-ranking recently."
"Whew, that was a close one, wasn't it?" Garibaldi jabbed Delenn in the ribs with his elbow, and she took a step back. Garibaldi sobered. "Wait – poker? Nope, sorry, no can do. I've got a, a—" He ran his hand over his hair. "A haircut! I've got a barber's chair waiting for me that night. I'm sorry, folks." He slapped Lennier on the back and hurried away. "Good luck getting that game together," he called.
Delenn and Lennier picked their way through the crowded customs area. "I do not understand, Lennier. Mr. Garibaldi taught me to play poker when I first arrived on the station. He said that he was having difficulty finding enough players to make up games. I would have thought he would be eager to participate."
She stopped in her tracks. "I did not even tell him which night we are playing," she said. "I wonder if I will ever understand these humans, Lennier. Perhaps this game will bring our two races closer together. We are running out of time. We must put our plan into action now, before it is too late."
Lennier cleared his throat. "We?"
"Yes, Lennier, you and I," Delenn said impatiently.
"Delenn, I do not know what our plan is. One moment we were discussing the results of my visit with Ambassador Kosh, and the next—"
"And the next I was telling you that we must find Mr. Garibaldi at once," said Delenn. "I believe that when Ambassador Kosh alluded to your recent poker game with Ambassador Londo, he was trying to send us a message." She sighed. "I question the wisdom of instructions couched in riddles and secrecy."
"You think that when the Ambassador said that understanding is a game, he wanted us to play poker with the humans?" Lennier sounded skeptical.
"I do not know. I only know that we must do what we can. And we must find Cmdr. Sinclair. Come, Lennier. We have much to prepare."
"I am here to play poker, of course," said Delenn. She slid four chips to the center of the table. "I will see your ten and raise you ten."
Talia saw Lt. Cmdr. Ivanova raise her eyebrows. She doubted it was due to Delenn's wager. On the surface, they had no reason to doubt her. Delenn had invited them to play poker. They were playing poker. Her story checked out. The stakes weren't very high, and everyone had all their clothes on. Nothing to worry about. Talia was determined to enjoy a rare evening of company, and if that meant not thinking too hard about what was really going on, so be it. If anything was, in fact, going on. She should probably apply what concentration being half-drunk afforded her to the game, anyway.
It was true, though, that the Ambassador was acting oddly tonight. Delenn's reputation held her to be aloof and unfriendly, but Talia had attended enough social functions with the Ambassador to know that she was always courteous, and to those who took the time to get to know her, even kind. She had an excellent sense of humor. Tonight, it was as if all of Delenn's whimsy had disappeared: she was very quiet and intent, as serious as if the stakes were deadly ones. Well, some people had a competitive streak that wasn't initially evident. That was probably all there was to it.
"Ms. Winters?" Ms. Sakai was waving the deck of cards in front of Talia's face.
Everyone exchanged some or none or all or their cards, or folded. Ivanova started another round of betting. Talia sipped thoughtful at her wine. As a play-by-play of events, that wasn't entirely accurate. What happened was that Ivanova's chips overshot the table and hit a delicate, pyramid-like structure nearby. It swayed precariously but stayed intact.
Delenn had been half off her feet with alarm, but sat down when it was clear no damage had been done. "Perhaps we could all try to be more careful," she said primly.
"Sorry." Ivanova produced a new bottle of wine. "Refills, anyone?"
Delenn closed her eyes. Talia hid a smile and covered her glass with her hand. "Maybe later."
She folded, and it only then occurred to her that Ivanova had dropped her line of questioning. She wondered why she had been so concerned with Delenn's motives, and what Ivanova's might be. Surely when she'd said the Commander had ordered her to attend, it had been a joke.
In the end, it had been easy for Ivanova to agree to Delenn's proposition. Sinclair had thought it politic that one of them attend. He'd also said that it sure as hell wasn't going to be him. It didn't leave a lot of room for a no. She was just relieved Delenn hadn't issued an invitation to attend another cryptic Minbari ceremony – or a tedious human one. Poker was fine. Poker was more than fine, in fact.
She accepted an appetizer from the plate Delenn offered. Some sort of spoo concoction, she decided after nibbling at it. "So who else is playing?" she said. Delenn looked at her without answering. Trust the Minbari not to offer up information, Ivanova thought.
"Always know who you're up against," she said. "When we were in training, no one would ever play with Jennie Bassett because she always found a convenient reason to take off every time she won big. Has her own command now, so I guess it didn't hurt her any." Ivanova laughed at her own joke, trailing off as she saw Delenn waiting politely for her to finish.
"Myself," Delenn said. "Lennier, Ms. Sakai, Ms. Winters—"
"But she's a telepath."
"The Minbari believe that if a Minbari telepath says that he or she will play according to the rules of fair play, he or she will be taken at their word. I think it is only fair that we extend the same courtesy to Ms. Winters. We will play here, in my quarters."
Ok-ay. "Sounds good." Ivanova smiled brightly. "Thank you for the snack, Ambassador."
Lennier was coming in the door as she was going out, and she gave him a distracted nod. When is a game not a game, she wondered. When your C.O. treats it like it's a diplomatic function, and your host does nothing to dissuade you of the notion. This was going to be interesting.
"Poker chips and playing cards." Lennier handed Delenn a plain blue box. "I believe I was overcharged."
"Thank you, Lennier. You may go."
Delenn moved to return the plate she and Ivanova had shared to the kitchen, when her project of the past several months caught her eye. It needed something… She placed a small green piece onto the object she was constructing. Yes.
When she looked up, she noticed Lennier still standing in the middle of her living quarters. She smiled. "The humans have a saying, Lennier: Curiosity killed the cat."
"They are a violent people."
"No more so than we have been, Lennier," Delenn said sharply. "We all share the blame." She indicated that Lennier should join her in the living area.
"I do not know if you are familiar with the ancient prophecy that tells us humans and Minbari will one day unite in the struggle against our common enemy, but it is past time you acquaint yourself with it. Do not look so surprised. I have good reason to suspect this dark time will soon be upon us."
"Ah. The question you had me ask Ambassador Kosh. These Shadows...they are that enemy?"
"Sooner or later, Kosh will say yes. The Shadows will return to Z'ha'dum, and when they do, we must be ready for them. To work effectively with someone requires one to know their strengths and their weaknesses; to know how they, as the humans say, operate."
"So that is our plan."
"That is our plan."
"I believe the first order of business is exchanging credit for chips." Delenn nodded at the box in the middle of the table. "Ms. Winters, if you will do us the honor?"
Talia removed the plastic wrap from the box and lifted the lid. "Oh," she said, half to herself. Everyone was rummaging for his or her credit chits, and no one appeared to have heard her. Oh, dear. Did the Minbari not realize…?
"I'll start with fifty credits." Ivanova handed Talia her chit and looked at her expectantly. Reluctantly, Talia counted out fifty credits worth of chips.
"Thank—" Ivanova broke off as she noticed the design on the tokens. Well, it wasn't as if you could miss it, Talia thought. To Commemorate the 10th Anniversary, each token read. The Battle of the Line. Ivanova turned her puzzled face to Talia, who shrugged, embarrassed. Ivanova glanced at Delenn, who was pouring water, and returned Talia's shrug.
Almost immediately, the others reacted. To his credit, Lennier looked stricken. Catherine Sakai jerked her head up, eyes flashing. "Ambassador Delenn—" they said in unison, one voice tentative; the other, angry.
And Delenn, finally noticing, dropped the carafe of water on the floor, where it smashed into pieces. "Oh," she said. Her hand flew to her mouth and she sat down heavily. "I apologize," she said after a moment of stunned silence. "I had no idea. You must believe me, I had no idea."
Ms. Sakai whipped around to face Talia, who nodded.
"The vendor must have made a mistake." Lennier sounded stunned. After several moments he picked up the pieces of glass on the floor and mopped the floor with a piece of cloth. No one said anything while Talia distributed the water.
"Well, we won the war." Ivanova finally broke the silence. "No harm done."
There were tentative nods all around. Delenn looked relieved.
"A toast," Talia raised her water glass. "To tonight."
"Tonight," they echoed, touching glasses.
Talia downed her glass of water. To tonight.
Talia finished pouring the last bottle of alcohol, took a long swallow, and let her eyes wander around the room. Her current strategy, which she'd devised after half the players had switched from water to wine, was to appear indifferent and inattentive to the game.
In reality, she knew exactly what was going on. Ms. Sakai and Lt. Commander Ivanova both had higher than-average mental discipline for humans, but when they drank, it became hard for them to control their thoughts, and subsequently, for Talia to block them. It was impossible for her not to know, in general, what kinds of hands they were dealt, impossible for her to use this knowledge to her advantage, and impossible for her to play any sort of straightforward game at all. It was, however, possible for her to blur all this knowledge by taking to the bottle herself.
It was a vicious circle.
When the second round of bidding started, Talia folded on cue. Unsurprisingly, this attracted the Minbari ambassador's attention. Talia was starting to get the distinct impression the Minbari had been studying them all night.
"It is a most curious strategy. And yet, it does not seem to be to your advantage." Delenn looked at Talia's chips.
"Ambassador Delenn, it is not considered polite to force your opponents to reveal their method of play," Ivanova said. Talia smiled gratefully at her, but she was reorganizing her cards and didn't notice.
"It is interesting," Delenn persisted, "that there are so many different methods of play. Winning or losing does not depend so much on the luck of the draw as one might think."
Ivanova slapped her cards facedown on the table. "All right," she said. "I'm too reckless, Ms. Winters is too timid, and Ms. Sakai is clearly stacking the deck. Is that what you're getting at, Ambassador?
"That's bullshit," said Ms. Sakai heatedly.
"So was that story you told half an hour ago about giant space creatures stalking Sigma 957. So what?"
Ms. Sakai scrambled to her feet. Talia tensed, but all Ivanova did was start laughing. Uncontrollably.
Ms. Sakai shook her head in disgust and sat down.
"Sorry," Ivanova finally managed.
Ms. Sakai added a stack of chips to the pot. "Your ten plus twenty more." She ignored Ivanova's apology.
There was a flurry of activity as everyone except Talia folded or matched the bet. "It looks like it's just you and me, Ambassador," said Ms. Sakai easily. She spread her hand on the table, face-up. "Let's see what you've got."
Delenn revealed her cards. "What—" sputtered Ms. Sakai.
"There is always the possibility that four aces will beat four kings," Lennier said. "I do not see that it should—"
"Lennier, I've been wondering all night – what is that thing?" interrupted Talia. She pointed to the pastel pyramid that Ivanova had almost knocked down earlier.
"I have no idea," said Lennier. "Ambassador Delenn?"
Delenn collected the pot and started stacking her new chips. "All methods of play have their good points, do they not? For instance, you have an admirable sense of curiosity, Lt. Commander Ivanova. You always wish to see what will happen next – in this case, which cards will be revealed – so you often stay in the hand longer than advisable. However, sometimes tenacity is exactly what is required. Sometimes wonderful things come of it.
"If anyone would know, it's you, Ambassador. You've seem to made quite a study out of tonight," Ivanova said.
"I learned to play poker very recently. I am trying to learn all that I can."
"If you want some advice, you should consider drawing more often. You don't have to keep every card you're dealt. And you could probably stop looking wounded whenever anyone folds," Ivanova said. "Though I wasn't actually talking about the game."
Delenn placed her hand on Talia's arm. "It is all right, Ms. Winters. I would like to hear what Lt. Commander Ivanova has to say."
"I was going to say that the converse – I mean, the reverse, isn't true." She hiccuped.
Delenn appeared puzzled by Ivanova's non sequitur.
"I mean that we don't feel like we've gotten to know you the way you've gotten to know us." Ivanova looked around for confirmation. Ms. Sakai leaned back in her chair and nodded.
"And what do you propose to do about this, Lt. Commander?" Delenn asked. "I chose a poker game. What do you choose?"
Ivanova downed her glass of wine. "I was thinking of buying you two a drink," she said cheerfully.
Talia sighed with relief.
"I am afraid we must decline," Delenn said. "Minbari react poorly to alcohol, as you know."
"That's okay. We'll skip the drinks and cut straight to the bar brawl."
Ms. Sakai spat out her drink. "That's one way to do it."
"We'll leave the game here, in consideration of Ms. Winters." Ivanova bowed sloppily in Talia's direction. "And they don't have to be alcoholic drinks. What do you say you introduce us to some Minbari specialties?"
Babylon 5 was everything the people who campaigned for station funding claimed: a center for diplomacy, a port of call, a place where humans and Aliens could live together in peace. (Ivanova often thought this held true only if one had a broad definition of what constituted peace.) The station was essential, some said, for the future of humanity.
It was also the biggest shopping destination in five sectors. Even at this hour of the night, the Zo'co'lo was lit up like the entrance to a jump gate. Ivanova and the rest of Delenn's party were passing through on their way to a hole-in-the-wall bar Ms. Sakai had raved about, when Lennier came to a halt.
"Delenn," he whispered. "Ambassador Delenn. Just over there is the establishment where I purchased the supplies for tonight's game."
"Is it," said Delenn. The group agreed to wait for a few minutes while she and Lennier talked to the vendors.
Ivanova and the other women wandered another twenty or so meters, window-shopping, before deciding to wait by some conveniently located pillars. They practically collapsed against them, and even so, when Ms. Winters made to cover her mouth with one black-gloved fist, she almost fell over. Ms. Sakai yawned, setting off a round of whole round of yawns. Everyone looked as tired as Ivanova felt. She boggled a bit at her lack of staying power. Threat to the station? Ha! Twenty hours on her feet felt like twenty minutes. A social event? Forget it.
"Look, I'm leaving for a job out in the Aries Sector tomorrow morning," said Ms. Sakai. "I'm going to turn in. I'll see you next week," she said to Ms. Winters, and left.
"In Ms. Sakai's line of work, she often needs to hire a licensed registered telepath," said Ms. Winters.
"Ah." They watched as Ms. Sakai stopped to say something to Delenn and Lennier, who were still waiting to be served.
After Ms. Sakai had vanished, Ivanova had crossed and uncrossed her arms several times, and Ms. Winters had picked several imaginary threads off her tailored suit, Ivanova cleared her throat. "So," she said. "How does a telepath raised by the PsiCorps learn to play poker, anyway? Don't tell me the Corps taught you."
Ms. Winters smiled. "They did, actually."
Ivanova snorted. "I wouldn't put it past them to be buying up the galaxy one poker pot at a time."
"It wasn't like that."
"When I was in school, our teachers taught us to play. The object was to see if we could tell when our opponents were bluffing. We tested our psi capabilities that way."
"Sounds like fun."
"Actually, it was." Ms. Winters sounded wistful. "It was one of the only times I saw many of my so-called classmates, and—"
She broke off at the sound of raised voices. Ivanova turned to see two men shouting and gesturing at Delenn and Lennier. The Minbari, looking upset, were talking in low tones, while the men – Ivanova assumed they were the vendors – were getting louder and louder. The taller of the men took a swing at Lennier, who saw it coming and ducked. He tried a second time to knock the young Minbari down, but Delenn struck him in the face before he could do so. A surly crowd was starting to form around the shop.
"This doesn't look good," said Ivanova. She pushed off the pillar and ran for the shop. Beside her, Ms. Winters struggled to keep up.
"I don't know if I've had enough to drink for this," she said. "Or maybe I've had too much, I don't know."
Another classic dilemma of the half-drunk. It wasn't something they had time for. Ivanova looked at Ms. Winters' feet. "You might want to lose the shoes," she said. "It's harder to fight in heels."
"What if I hold them like this," – she demonstrated – "and use them as weapons?"
"Fine," Ivanova said. "That's fine. Or you could just do this." She hauled off and punched one of the vendors in the face. He fell to the ground, gibbering. "Works every time."
Ivanova held up her hand. "Before you say anything, I'd like to point out a few things." She started pacing Sinclair's office.
"One, we've probably set Earth-Alien relations ahead for once, instead of the other way around. Two," she ticked off with her fingers, "we managed to keep your girlfriend out of it; and three, you're going to find that those shopkeepers turn out to be guilty of hate crimes."
Sinclair straightened up. "Catherine was there?"
"She got tired and left before the good—before the fight in the Zo'co'lo," Ivanova admitted.
"I see." Sinclair got up and walked around to the front of his desk. He leaned on the edge and crossed his arms. "All of those things don't excuse what you did," he said mildly.
"Point taken, sir." She looked up. "These things just happen?" she tried.
Sinclair shook his head, but Ivanova could see he was hiding a smile. She threw herself into the seat across from his desk. "Listen, Jeff, you know how you've always said the best way to understand someone is to fight him, make him angry? That that's when you see the real person?"
"That's what this was about? How fast Delenn could get some jerk in a headlock?"
"I notice you automatically jump to the conclusion it's the Minbari we don't understand. No, I think that's what they were trying to do to us, at the poker game." She went over Delenn's unusual behavior. "I think they're up to something, Jeff."
Sinclair sighed. "The Minbari are always up to something, Susan. The question is what? Keep an eye on things, Lt. Commander. You can co-ordinate with Mr. Garibaldi. I trust your judgment – most of the time."
"You want me to spy on Ambassador Delenn?"
"You're not a goddamn double agent," Sinclair snapped. "Delenn is my friend, too. It's just—well, these things happen."
Ivanova bit down on a smirk. Sinclair rolled his eyes. His link chirped. "We'll continue this discussion later."
"If I have to play poker again, Earth Force is covering my bets," Ivanova warned. "And I'm telling you – next time I'm going to win big."