Strong at the Broken Places
"The world breaks everyone, and afterwards, many are strong at the broken places." Ernest Hemingway
AU, post SiL, S&D, rated G
Standard disclaimer applies; not my characters or settings or background. But they are my words.
I hate this. I really, really hate this. Susan Ivanova, Anla'Shok Na of the Rangers, was pissed. Delenn, Madame President of the Interstellar Alliance, was on walkabout again, and Susan was acting as bodyguard and shopping companion. Although Delenn maintained these excursions were all about connecting with the people, and showing the face of the Alliance, Susan had noticed they never went home without at least one purchase. At least she didn't have to carry anything. Even Delenn admitted a bodyguard weighed down with packages was less than useful. Susan discreetly looked ahead to see where the forward team was located. Delenn also didn't know, or didn't admit to knowing, that they were accompanied by a small band of Rangers, small teams deployed in front of, behind, and to each side of the two women. She got this idea from John, thought Susan. It had been a whole lot easier watching over him back on the station, with Garibaldi to back her up with his paranoid attention to detail, than trailing along with Delenn through an open air market, in a large spaceport city, on a planet full of potential assassins. Now that was a thought almost worthy of Michael. I think I'll link in and tell him about it when we get back.
"Are you done yet?" she asked aloud. "My feet hurt. Time to head back."
Delenn looked sideways at her guardian and friend with amusement. "Perhaps you need new footwear? I believe there is a shop specializing in such items for various species just ahead."
Susan snorted, "I don't think so. Not with the pittance you people pay me. 'A life of service should be enough.' Right!" Then she added, "Alien footware? Are there enough aliens on Minbar now to justify a shoe store just for them?"
"There are more each year. The Alliance is partly here to promote commerce, after all. Is it so surprising that merchants would capitalize on the presence of so many traders and businessmen to advertise their wares?" She added thoughtfully, "It is astonishing how much Minbar has changed in the twenty odd years since we came here. You would have never seen so many different species before." She added wryly, "We did not encourage visitors."
"Well, I never got to Minbar before the Alliance moved here, but I heard from Jeff that it was pretty insular when he was Ambassador here. He must have had a rough time of it."
"He did, I believe, at first. It helped his having a Minbari soul. He adjusted to our ways quickly. It surprised many of our people how easily he fit in."
At the wistful sound in Delenn's voice, Susan reached over to squeeze her arm. "I still miss him, too. We can stay a little longer, if you like."
"No, I have been out enough. I find I do not enjoy these excursions as much as I used to. Have you noticed a difference among the Minbari in the marketplace? There are fewer each time we come, and the ones that remain seem almost fearful."
Suddenly both women stiffened as the sound of plasma gunfire was heard in the distance.
There was sudden movement all around them as shopkeepers began closing their doors, and people in the streets began hurrying to get somewhere safe, preferably inside. Susan pushed Delenn into a narrow alley of sorts between two storefronts, and stood between her charge and the open street. She punched her link, and swore when she got no response. "This is bad, Delenn. I think they've taken down the com system. This is bigger than a local disturbance. Where the hell are our Rangers?"
"Should we try to get off the street? Perhaps enter one of the shops?" asked Delenn worriedly. She was an obvious target, either for assassination or kidnapping.
Susan looked back at her and replied, "Not a bad idea. Pull up your hood and see if you can hide your hair. You're too recognizable. We'll make a run for it, and dive into the first open door we find. Do you know anyone around here we could hunker down with?"
Shouts and screams were coming from the people rushing by them. They pulled back into the shadows, trying to get an idea of what was going on. They saw a group of warrior caste Minbari, young males, chasing down a Drazi couple, hurling insults at them. Horrified, they watched as the two of the warriors beat the male Drazi senseless, while another held the female tightly, forcing her to watch. Finally, the Drazi stopped moving and it seemed the sport had gone out of the fight. The warrior holding the female flung her on top of the bloody body of her companion, and they walked on, boasting loudly to each other. Susan started to go into the street to help the Drazi, but to her surprise, Delenn caught her arm, and held her back. Signaling for silence, Delenn pulled her away from the entrance to the alleyway further back in the shadows, where the stone walls between the two buildings opened into a small courtyard. Then she whispered, "You can't go out there."
"Why, in heaven's name? I have to help those two, and we have to get out of here."
"Did you hear what they called them? Ver'kaff—alien, stranger, off-worlder. It is not meant as a compliment, Susan. These warriors are attacking aliens. You would be a target."
Susan looked at her reflectively, "This is tied up with what we've been hearing about discontent in the warrior caste, isn't it? Are they seizing the opportunity to rebel, what with us distracted by John's loss, and my being new to leading the Rangers?" She bit her lip and continued, "And if so, wouldn't you be an even bigger target than I would?"
Delenn nodded in agreement. "We must be very cautious. The whole Alliance may be at stake. I cannot believe this is a widespread revolt, but Minbari xenophobia is never far below the surface. I had hoped the presence of off-worlders would breed tolerance in my people, but since the Great War, a significant fraction of the warrior caste has isolated itself in rural compounds. They are likely behind this, but I do not know if others might not be sympathetic to their cause."
"Either one of us would make an excellent hostage…"
"Or a martyr. The Rangers will tear Tuzanoor apart looking for us. This must not be allowed to escalate!"
"I agree. But how do we get back to headquarters?"
"I think I can take us by backways to a nearby temple. We can send a messenger to the Rangers from there. The most important thing is not to be captured."
Susan turned swiftly at the words behind her, but didn't have time to raise her weapon before the denn'bok crashed against her skull. She fell to the ground, stunned by the blow. Delenn immediately stepped in front of her prostrate friend, standing between her and their enemy. She had her own denn'bok in hand, and held it ready.
"Why are you protecting this animal, Secha? Come with me, I will see you safely home. Leave the human. One of our people will be by to finish her."
In answer, Delenn threw back her hood, and extended her weapon. "I do not desert my companions, warrior. Do not insult me by suggesting I do so."
"Valen!" he gasped. "Delenn!" He glanced briefly down at Susan, then looked up smiling grimly, "And this is Anla'Shok Na Ivanova? I am fortunate indeed to have captured the both of you."
"Do not be so precipitate, young one. You have not captured anyone as of yet."
The warrior nodded and held his pike in the opening position for battle. Delenn adjusted hers as well, they both bowed slightly to one another, and the fight began. Delenn was in practice, fortunately. When she had begun her forays into town, Susan had insisted she go armed. When she had refused to carry more than her denn'bok, Susan insisted she attend weekly training sessions with the other Ranger cadets. It had been hard to get young men and women decades her junior to engage her without restraint, but eventually they did. Her skills returned rapidly, and she was able to at least hold her own against the best of them. Delenn and the young warrior traded blows slowly at first, evaluating each other's skill level and fighting style. The warrior was well-trained but not Ranger caliber; Delenn felt she would have no trouble holding him at bay. She asked him, "What are you called, and which clan claims you?"
"I am called Nerell, and I am of the Star Riders. And may I say that even though I am sworn to bring you down, I am honored to meet you. The importance of your place in our history, whether one believes it was for good or ill, is not in dispute."
Delenn tapped Nerell sharply in the ribs, then moved back out of his reach. "And why do the Star Riders desire me 'brought down' as you say? I have no quarrel with them, or any of the warrior caste clans."
"Su'zha, you elevated the worker caste above us in the Council. And you have brought many off-worlders to Minbar. Not all agree that this was desirable."
Nerell got in a glancing blow to Delenn's shoulder. She grimaced slightly, but continued to weave her pike in intricate patterns in front of her. "But why wait until now? It has been more than twenty years since I reformed the Council, and almost that long since the Alliance came to Minbar."
When Susan became aware of her surroundings once again, the first thing she heard was the clash of two Minbari fighting pikes. She opened a cautious eye, ignoring the pounding in the back of her head where she'd been struck, to see Delenn engaged in battle with a young warrior caste Minbari. She assumed this was the one who had snuck up on her; it was embarrassing to be caught out by one so young. She sat up gingerly, and picked up her weapon, holding it in readiness in case the battle went against her friend. They seemed to be having a measured discussion as to the nature of the current hostilities. She listened carefully, gathering information, while admiring how much Delenn's abilities had improved as of late. She had insisted on the training, both as a precaution and a distraction. With John gone, and David away training with his team, Delenn was all too inclined to immerse herself in work, neglecting her emotional and physical needs. Susan's attention suddenly returned to the fight, as the temper of the battle began to change; the blows becoming faster and harder. What was happening?
Nerell had been unable to answer Delenn's question for a few moments, but got his breath back enough to say, "We felt the Universe had given us a sign when Sheridan disappeared. Did he run away to rejoin his own kind? Was it all too finally too much for him? By all accounts he was aging quickly. Is that a defect of the race? Or one specific to him?"
At that, Delenn's patience broke. After all John had done for the other races, she would not stand by and hear him maligned, by a youngling who was a child when the Shadows came--a child who would have died if not for her husband's sacrifice; of his youth, his health, of years of his life. She was tired of listening to warriors prate of their courage; the same warriors who had stood aside and ignored the greatest challenge of their age. Enough is enough, she thought, as she bent herself to teach Nerell a lesson he would never forget.
Blows rained fast and furious on Nerell, as he had to move ever more quickly to avoid their force. Delenn was certainly not as weak and decadent as he had been told. And she wielded the denn'bok like a warrior born! Suddenly he felt his pike ripped from his grasp by a forceful stroke. Before he could react, the other end of the older woman's pike swooped between his legs, and he fell heavily to the ground. In an instant, she had the pike at his throat. "I could kill you now, and should, for the dishonor you have shown my family."
Nerell swallowed hard, then said in a relatively firm voice, "It is your right by conquest. My life is yours."
Delenn's hands tightened on the pike for a moment, as if she was considering dealing the death stroke, when Susan rose to intervene. Placing one hand on the weapon, she said in a low voice, "Stop this. He's no older than David."
Delenn looked in Susan's direction, her eyes unfocused in her rage. Glancing back down at the prostrate warrior, she nodded slowly, then lowered her weapon. "I need your word that you will not attempt to escape or alert others as to our presence while we decide what to do with you. Can you make that pledge?"
"I do, Su'zha. And thank you for sparing me."
"You should thank the 'animal'. Without her intervention, you would be dead." Then turning to Susan, she said in a voice grown shaky with emotion and relief, "Thank Valen you are all right! He did not harm you?"
"Just a knot on the back of my head. One more won't hurt me. What about you?" Susan was concerned by Delenn's reactions. She'd almost lost it there. Sometimes she almost forgot it had only been six months since John's passing. Although Delenn seemed to have adjusted to her loss, she hadn't dealt with all the emotional reaction yet. Dropping the pike, Delenn hid her face in her hands. Susan glanced back at Nerell, but he was sitting motionless. She had nothing with which to secure him, and had to hope his word would hold him while she dealt with her friend. She reached out and put her arms around Delenn's shaking shoulders and said "What is it? What's wrong?"
Delenn leaned away, placing her back against the rough stone wall, facing a dry fountain in the center of the small courtyard. She was crying softly, "I don't know, Susan. I was ready to kill him! He's just a boy, repeating what he's been taught. I do not think I can stand it…"
"Stand what?" Susan was trying not to sound impatient. They were going to have to move soon, but she needed Delenn strong and sober, ready to react to whatever they found as they made their way home.
"I feel like I'm losing John all over again. The Rangers are making him into a god. They speak of him in hushed voices, and want to institute a Day of Remembrance commemorating his journey 'beyond the rim.' Now the warriors seem to be downgrading him to some sort of animal, perhaps a pet I brought back from my journeys off-world, at any rate a lower form of life." She spoke rapidly, bitterness spilling out. Her tears were fading as her rage and anguish battled for dominance. "I want them to remember my John, the man I loved, my husband. I'm afraid I'll be the only one who remembers, and then, eventually, even I'll forget…then he will be truly gone." Her eyes were haunted by the thought, and she reached out and held tightly to Susan's arms.
Susan felt her throat constrict at the pain in her friend's voice. She had to break this mood, or people would be commemorating their disappearance, or worse. "Tell you what; when we get back, we'll have our own Day of Remembrance. You and me. We'll make an event of it! Invite some friends, people who knew him…say, did John ever tell you why he was called 'swamp rat'?"
Delenn laughed raggedly, "No, he never did! He always changed the subject when I teased him about the name. So you know the story?" Her voice was returning to its normal cadences, losing the rough edge of incipient hysteria.
"Do I! And I'll tell you as soon as we get back. Maybe we can get David back to base to join us!" Susan glanced back at Nerell. He hadn't moved.
"Oh yes, Susan, please! John left tapes and vids for David, but he was always so serious in them. I do not want David to forget his father's sense of humor." She stood upright, "We need to go, don't we? I am sorry for this outburst, and I thank you for your patience with me."
"You and David are family now, Delenn. The only family I'm likely to have. We take care of each other."
Tears stood in Delenn's eyes for a moment, then she nodded in agreement. "We need to make our plans. And what are we to do with our captive?"
Nerell had been watching the scene with surprise and apprehension. He had already been disabused of his knowledge that Delenn was weak and disdained traditional Minbari ways. She was more than adequate with the denn'bok, and there was no more honorable weapon. She had followed the traditional rituals of battle perfectly. He had been taught that her mating with the alien Sheridan had been politically motivated and shameful, a mock relationship with an inferior species. But both her rage at his comments and her despair at her loss put the lie to those beliefs. In fact, the human with her had proven competent and compassionate, not like a lesser life form at all. His mind was whirling; was anything he had been taught true? He'd had his doubts about this whole campaign from the beginning. He had no love for aliens, but he could not see the honor in attacking unarmed beings in the streets. Suddenly he heard a noise from the building which opened onto the courtyard. Susan heard as well, and placing herself in front of Delenn, turning swiftly to face the intruder, weapon raised and charged.
"Peace, Anla'Shok Na. I mean you no harm," came a voice from the dimly lit doorway. "I was Anla'shok once. We live for the One."
"We die for the One," replied Susan. "Who are you?"
"My name is Meronn. I was invalided out four years ago, before you took command. I served under Entil'zha Sheridan."
"Meronn, Meronn, " murmured Delenn. "Were you wounded in the battle at LaGrange Colony?"
"Yes, I was there," the Minbari's voice glowed with pride. "To be remembered by Delenn herself. It gives one heart on such a black day." He limped out into the courtyard, where they could see that he was carrying two white robes such as religious caste acolytes might wear. "I brought these. They belonged to my wife at one time. I thought they might be of use in your escape." He looked sorrowfully down at his stiff leg. "I do not think I can otherwise be of service. You see, this shop is owned by my brother. I am afraid he is sympathetic to the warriors' cause. He could return at any moment, so I cannot offer you sanctuary here."
"Then we will need to get to the nearest temple. The robes will help. Thank you, Meronn. From there we can send messengers to headquarters to let them know where we are. They will send a force to retrieve us," answered Delenn with a bow.
"Respectfully, Su'zha, that plan will not work," put in Nerell from his seat on the ground. "My people are watching the entrances and exits from the temples. It was assumed you would try to get to one for assistance."
"Damn," said Susan. "Now what? We have to get word to the Rangers that we're safe. And we have to get back to headquarters as quickly as possible."
"There is one possibility," Meronn said slowly. "There is a Falmin'shan nearby. The warrior caste might not be watching it."
"That might work," said Delenn cautiously. "I know warriors do not utilize the Falmin'shan themselves. I do not believe they consider it a temple at all."
Nerell put in, "As far as I know, there were no plans to place guards there. I never even heard it mentioned."
"All right, there are still gaps in my education! What's a Falmin'shan when it's at home?" interjected Susan.
Delenn looked at her friend with a slightly wicked smile, "Falmin'shan roughly translated means 'Temple of Pleasure'. One clan of the religious caste runs them, but we all spend some time there. It is part of our training. When I described them to John, he said it sounded like a high class, what was they word he used?" She hesitated, then added brightly, "Oh yes, 'bordello'."