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.
"You want us to hide out in a whorehouse!" exploded Susan. Delenn started to laugh, and Susan's shock turned to embarassment, then to amusement. She began to laugh as well, while the two Minbari males looked on in astonishment. It hardly seemed the time for laughter. "Not quite that, Susan! There are many arts of physical intimacy that are taught and practiced there, besides training in the mating rituals of the various castes. It was quite educational."
"God, Delenn! You have got to tell me how John reacted when you told him about it!' She continued, more seriously, "How far away is this temple, Meronn? Is there a way to get there without being observed?"
"There is a way using side streets and alleyways. I can draw you a map. I would like to offer you escort, but I am afraid I would only slow you down."
Nerell had been considering his options. His whole world view had been shaken, and while unnerving, he could not ignore it. He valued honesty and loyalty, and in his idealism, saw more of that in Delenn and Susan's behavior than that of his own caste. He also felt a debt of gratitude to them for sparing his life. "May I speak?" he asked abruptly.
"Certainly, Nerell. If you wish to know your fate, I was considering leaving you here under Meronn's guard. He would release you when he felt it was safe to do so. You will not be harmed," answered Delenn.
"I wish to provide escort and guard to you both in your journey. If we are stopped, I can provide cover. I will tell them you are two young acolytes that were outside your temple when the fighting broke out, and that I am escorting you home before re-joining the battle."
Delenn and Susan exchanged meaningful glances. Susan's clearly said 'Can we trust him?' while Delenn's was a thoughtful 'I think we can.' Delenn turned to Nerell and said, "We need your word as warrior and Star Rider that you will do this thing. You will need to swear on your honor and that of your clan. If you are foresworn in this, the dishonor will extend to you and all of your clan for generations to come. Do you understand?"
Nerell nodded solemnly, then, looking at Susan for permission, reached out for his denn'bok, took it, and laid it on the ground in front of Delenn. Crossing his arms against his chest with fists clenched, he said, "I swear myself to your service in this. I will not fail you in this. You have my promise."
Susan still looked wary, but at Delenn's gesture, picked up the denn'bok and handed it to Nerell. Speaking in a low voice, that only he could hear, she said, "I will add a human vow, Nerell. If you break your word and any harm comes to Delenn, I will kick your sorry ass from Minbar all the way to Epsilon 3, and you will spend the entire trip wishing you had never been born."
Nerell didn't understand all the human idioms Susan employed, some of which were not directly translatable into Adronato, but her tone and intent were clear. He decided a simple nod and bow would suffice as a reply. The two women got into the voluminous robes. With the deep hoods hiding their distinctive features, it seemed a reasonable disguise. There was no hiding Susan's human uniform boots, but they had no other option available, and had to hope anyone they ran into kept their eyes up. Meronn provided a simple meal, but they were too keyed up to eat. They all studied the hand-drawn map carefully. If separated, they all needed to know the way. Meronn said that he would try to make his way to Ranger headquarters to let them know where they were. At his slow walking pace, it would take him a while, but he was hopeful he would run into a Ranger patrol and alert them to their quarries' destination.
So they separated and went their separate ways; the two women with Nerell, and Meronn who stuck to the main road. His age and his limp guaranteed that he would seem no threat to the warriors, and he hoped to avoid them and find the Rangers as soon as possible.
As they walked, Delenn and Nerell began to talk softly. Susan, with her heavily accented Adronato, felt it safer to keep a silent watch. Sometimes she couldn't believe the effect Delenn had on people. This boy had attacked them, had been brought up to consider them his enemy, and now he was eating our of her hand. She could never decide whether it was a talent the Minbari exercised, or whether it arose naturally out of her simple decency and compassion. It had certainly turned John Sheridan's head. Even Garibaldi had trusted her almost immediately, and he didn't trust anyone!
"What do you plan to do once you reach home, Su'zha?" asked Nerell. He was little nervous about his clan's involvement in this rebellion.
"Well, we will try to convince the warriors involved to stop the fighting, and see if we can negotiate with them. I am not sure we can acquiesce to any of their demands, certainly not if they wish to remove all the aliens from Minbar, but perhaps there is some room for discussion."
"Will you not attempt to defeat them first? Wouldn't the negotiations be easier then?"
Delenn laughed, "Those would not be negotiations, but an imposed settlement that we would have to maintain by threat of force! No, I am well aware that force is sometimes necessary. I use it myself, as you have cause to know, but it should always be a last resort. I wish your people had come to me before starting this…"
Nerell looked a little ashamed. "I do not think they thought you were worthy of that honor. And they are not fond of diplomacy in any case."
"We will see what happens, Nerell. All may yet be very well." She spoke comfortingly, aware this young man was far from home, and in an very uncertain position as regards his clan loyalties. "Tell me of your family. Have you been away from them, training for this exercise?"
"I have. My father died a few years ago, just before I left for training. My mother is at home, with my younger sister. She is worker caste, and has few friends among the others in our village. I would like to be able to move them away, maybe into the city, but I cannot support them at present."
"Worker and warrior! That must have been a pairing! How did they meet?"
"My father was an unusual man. A fine warrior, but interested in many things. They met at a tee'la reading in a nearby city. It was a love match, and opposed by both families. But they persisted in their attachment, and eventually both clans agreed to the mating. My name reflects my mother's clan of builders. They work in constructive projects, building houses, temples, schools. My father, although a Star Rider, had no interest in leaving Minbar. He loved his home, and his family. He trained younger warriors in unarmed combat."
"I wish I had known him, and I would like to meet your mother someday." She stopped abruptly, and turned to Susan, "Did you hear something?"
Susan shook her head, and replied, "We're almost there, just around the corner ahead."
As they neared the intersection, they caught sight of a band of warriors coming up the street. The entrance to the temple was only a few yards away, so they sped up their pace. When they reached the doorway, they rang the bell to gain admittance. The group of warriors was advancing, and they each discreetly took hold of their weapons as they impatiently waited for the doorkeeper. The group of four young warriors slowed as they approached, taking in the sight of Nerell with two acolytes, female by the look of them.
One of them swaggered up to Nerell and asked, "What are you doing with these two?"
"They were caught out in the market when the fighting started. I offered to escort them to their temple—didn't want our own caught in the crossfire," answered Nerell easily.
"What kind of temple is this anyway? Why hasn't it been secured like the others?" A second warrior stepped closer, trying to read the inscription over the doorway. It was now late afternoon, and the door was in shadow. "It reads…Falmin'shan. Falmin'shan! These two are priestesses of pleasure?"
Nerell leaned over and whispered in the first warrior's ear, "They promised to take me inside if I helped them get home…just to look of course. I've heard they practice totally decadent arts inside." He was almost leering, and the other males chuckled at his enthusiasm. He continued, "I won't be long…I don't want to miss anything out here. How goes the struggle?"
"We are winning of course. The religious caste flees to their temples, and the workers hide in their homes and shops. There are been a few battles with the Rangers, but they are distracted in their search for their leaders. Imagine being led by a half-breed and an ver'kaff off-worlder! They should be glad to be rid of them!"
Just then a priestess approached the doorway, and asked of the group, "Can I help you?"
Nerell answered quickly, "I found these two students of yours wandering the streets, and helped them home. Take them and close the door behind you; these are dangerous times."
"Exciting times!" interjected one of the others.
Delenn leaned forward into the light of the open door and whispered, "In Valen's name, let us in! And ask the boy to come in as well!" As she leaned towards the woman, one curl of hair fell forward. Luckily only the priestess saw, and she quickly answered, "Get in here, you two! You are lucky you are not sent home at once for wandering the streets unescorted! You there, come in and get something to eat. We want to thank you for returning our little ones." She waved Delenn and Susan inside, and gestured to Nerell to enter as well. He looked back over his shoulder with a triumphant grin at the other warriors, who cheered and clapped him on the back. He followed the others into the temple, and the door shut behind them. The priestess led them through a courtyard into a building, then into a richly appointed waiting room.
Delenn threw back her hood, and said, "We have to get a message to the Anla'shok. The sooner we are out of here the safer you and yours will be."
"We heard you were missing. I assume this is Anla'Shok Na Ivanova? Our order is truly graced. Or cursed perhaps. And what are you doing with a warrior escort?"
"It's a long story," broke in Susan. "Are your com systems working?"
"No, they went out earlier today. But we have messengers we can send. The warriors are challenging arriving and departing travellers, but so far, they are letting Minbari who live here move through the city. They seem to want the civilian population on their side."
"Good. I'll dictate a message to my second and give you my personal code so he knows it's for real. He should be at either the Academy or Alliance Headquarters. Better not to carry anything on you. Can you hide us until someone gets here?"
"We'll send duplicate messengers by different paths to each site. And yes, we will keep you safe. It is an honor to serve you both. But what do you expect us to do with this one?" She pointed to Nerell. "I gather he is on our side in this, but a warrior in a Falmin'shan is unusual, to say the least. He can't realistically pretend to be a petitioner. Perhaps we can hide him among the male acolytes?"
Nerell shook his head violently, "I would prefer not. I should stay near to Delenn. I have vowed to see her safely back to her home."
"Very well. But you two must wear your robes at all times. I will bring one of ours for the warrior. We will hide you among the novices if we have company. I will go find the messengers and send them to you."
Meanwhile, Ranger teams were being called back to Tuzanoor to deal with the crisis, and assist in the search for Delenn and Susan. Ship-to-ship communication had been restored using an older system which had never been taken out when the flyers were updated. The personal com link system was still down. Messengers were being sent by flyer when the distance was not too far. David Sheridan was a junior member of a Ranger team training just outside Tuzanoor. He had been enjoying himself immensely, and was annoyed but obedient when his superior called them back to the flyer and announced they were returning immediately to the city. The four of them piled noisily into the flyer, and settled into their seats to try and guess what was going on. The pilot and senior member of the team was in front, coaxing maximum speed out of his vehicle, while trying to catch the scratchy voice over the old com system. "We'll be back within the hour. Any news of the President or Ranger One?"
"Negative. We're still looking. We think they're in hiding somewhere in the city. The warriors would have trumpeted their capture, and used them to get us to surrender."
"All right. What should I tell my people? I have young Sheridan out here; I don't know how he'll react to the news."
"Like the rest of us, I imagine, only more so. Tell them there's a serious situation, but leave the details until you get back. Maybe we'll have found them by the time you return. There's nothing he can do in any event."
"We'll be there as quickly as we can. This is Lindsay, over and out. We live for the One."
"We die for the One. In Valen's name, over and out."
The flyer was on the outskirts of the city when the com stuttered back on. "We need you to set down near the city center. There's a Ranger team under attack. Their flyer was disabled, and they have wounded."
"Give me the co-ordinates. We'll get them out. Over."
"Be careful. There are several warrior groups reported in that area. In Valen's name, Headquarters out."
Delenn had requested a room in which to perform some meditative rituals. The whirlwind of activity had slowed while they awaited rescue. Susan and Nerell sat in the opposite corner of the room, watching her light candles, arrange prisms and mirrors on a low table. Kneeling on the floor in front of it, she quickly fell into a deep calming trance.
"I wish I could do that. My mind is going a thousand miles a minute, trying to decide on a strategy with no information on what's going on out there," said Susan.
"It is amazing she can focus with all that has happened. Her powers of concentration must be formidable," answered Nerell with admiration.
Another conquest, thought Susan to herself. How does she do it? "She's a formidable lady. So tell me your plans once we get out of here. Have you thought about what you want to do?"
"To some extent that depends on Delenn and yourself. I am…uncertain. Many things that I thought I knew have been proven false today. I feel like my world is broken into pieces, and I cannot see the pattern clear to put it back together."
"Part of growing up. Forget the patterns, you never see them clearly until later anyway. You have to make your own future, Nerell. Don't let other people do it for you. And remember, 'that which does not kill us, makes us strong.'"
"That is one of Valen's sayings!"
Thanks a lot, Jeff. "Well it's a saying on my world too. Sometimes things that are broken never heal, other times they heal stronger than before."
Deep in conversation, they had not seen Delenn approach. "That is very true, but it is often hard to predict which events will break us beyond healing." Her voice was sad, and distant. "I thought when I broke the Grey Council, and later re-formed it, it would be stronger, better than before. Now I wonder whether I should have done something different, something that would have avoided all this trouble."
"You did what you had to do, and we wouldn't all be here today if you hadn't had the strength to do it! Stop beating yourself up for being right!"
Delenn smiled ruefully, "What would I do without a human around to pull me back from the abyss of my self-doubt?"
"I surely don't know. Luckily, you've got one here."
Nerell was unsure how to take the two women's teasing tone. The conversation veered from serious to whimsical in an instant. It made his head spin. He asked if they would like him to procure something for them to eat or drink. Both of them agreed, and he gratefully left on the search. With all that had been going on, he felt in need of some time alone.
Susan eyed her friend reflectively, "How are you holding up? It's been quite a day."
"I am fine," Delenn. She laughed at Susan's raised eyebrow. "No, really, I am doing well considering. This is our first real crisis since John left us, and here I am, stranded in a Falmin'shan, unable to contact anyone or make any decisions. I should be frantic, but I am not. I thought I would be longing for John to take over, but I am not." Susan looked surprised at this admission, and Delenn said, shaking her head, "Not that I don't miss him every moment. And I would like his advice, as always. But I feel we are…what is the phrase…'up to it'?"
Susan looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded. "You're right. Something's different. Have we changed? Are we over it?"
"You mean 'over' losing John?" She looked away, her eyes glistening with tears. "Never. Not in this lifetime. The feelings are just as strong, but not so overpowering. I know now I will survive, as I must." Unspoken but clearly heard by both was the thought, whether I want to or not.
"OK, so we're survivors. Let's see if we strategize our way out of this mess. I have a pretty good idea what the Rangers are doing in a general sense. Time to think up some contingency plans." And so they set to work.
The flyer carrying David's team landed a short distance away from the co-ordinates they had been given. They powered down the craft, leaving it on stand-by for a quick departure. They swiftly and silently moved through the empty streets looking for their wounded comrades. They spotted them, and at a silent gesture from their leader, stopped and took in the situation. There were the Rangers; two were down, unmoving, either badly wounded or dead. Two were sitting, leaning against a wall, their hands bound in front of them. The last was standing, also bound, and in the process of being knocked around and taunted by two warriors, which seemed to be their only guards. The captain of David's team gestured to two of his men, who quietly moved towards the warriors. They struck efficiently, knocking out their prey with minimal fuss. After releasing their own, they used the cords and gags on the warriors. Taking no time for conversation, two Rangers hoisted the wounded across their shoulders, and they all headed back to the flyer. Once there, the wounded were loaded into the back, and a hurried conversation was held between the David's captain and the other group leader.
"It'll be all right! We can fit everyone in, it'll just take some maneuvering."
"You know these flyers are only rated for eight passengers! There are ten of us, and it will put all at risk if we attempt it!"
"We have gear we can dump, and we can take out some of the seats…"
"Excuse me, Captain," interrupted David. "But there's an easier way. You need to get the wounded back to HQ. Leave two of us here…we can hide from the warrior patrols until you can get back to pick us up. I'll volunteer to stay behind."
"And I will stay as well," put in Fallon. The captain grimaced; these were the two youngest members of his team. They were right, though, this was the obvious solution.
"All right," he said. "But understand, your orders are to keep to the shadows. Don't draw attention to yourselves. We'll be back once we drop off the wounded, and get caught up on what's going on. Keep checking your links; HQ thinks they'll have the system back up soon. Be careful." So saying, he took his seat and looking back over his shoulder, called out quietly, "We live for the One."
David and Fallon answered, "We die for the One." They watched the flyer take off, and Fallon added, "But hopefully not today." David grinned, and said "We'd better get away from here. The noise of that take-off will draw any patrols in the area."
They moved quietly down the street, trying doors to see if there were any unlocked. Then they heard voices coming from one of the cross streets. Ducking into a doorway, partly hidden by the early evening shadows, they watched a warrior patrol pause at the intersection. They were laughing and talking loudly, and didn't seem inclined to move away anytime soon. David sighed, they couldn't move without alerting the patrol, and had to hope one of them wouldn't decide to explore the side street. They saw one of the warriors gesture at the building across from them, then the group began to move away, and they heard loud knocking and orders to 'Open up in there!'. Across from them was a side door into the same building, which seemed to be a large temple or school which took up an entire block. The door opened, and a crack of light shown through. "Hurry! Get in off the street!"
A young Minbari female in the robes of a religious caste acolyte stood outlined in the light of the partially open door. David and Fallon looked at each other, then raced across the street and into the corridor beyond the door. The Minbari closed the door, then whispered, "Come with me. They are at the front gate, and we will have to let them enter. I will take you to a safe place to hide, but you must stay silent."
David asked, "What is your name?"
"Lerriel. You do not listen well, do you? Now be quiet!" she ordered. They fell into line and followed the slim figure down a stone hallway. She stopped just short of an open archway, and opened a door to one side. She gestured them inside, and followed, ordering light on a dim setting. "You can wait here, out of sight. There is a one-way window through which you can observe the main hall..but do not attempt to interfere. Our priestess, Nashon, will get rid of the warriors." She left with a swirl of her robe, the same way they had come in.
David watched her go in open-mouthed admiration. She was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Fallon smirked, and elbowed him to attention. "Let's see if we can watch her from the window, and maybe even see what else is going on!"
They watched as a group of warriors approached an authoritative figure in the center of the room, who must be the priestess Nashon. They couldn't hear exactly what she said, but it appeared to be a challenge. The warriors blustered about a bit, apparently demanding to search the building. "What are they looking for?" wondered Fallon. "It couldn't be us, could it?"
"Maybe they suspect them of harboring their enemies. Not us specifically, perhaps the wounded Rangers we helped evacuate?" answered David.
"Look," said Fallon excitedly. "There's our rescuer! What's she doing?"
Lerriel had approached Nashon and bowed. She apparently told her, though not in so many words, where David and Fallon were hidden. The priestess cast a quick glance in the direction of their hiding place, then continued negotiating with the increasingly belligerent warriors. One of them reached forward and grabbed Lerriel by the arm, pulling her close. David bristled, but held still. Fallon looked at him worriedly; young Sheridan had a reputation for a quick temper, especially when it came to defending the innocent. Then his attention was grabbed by one of the novices coming forward. Now there was an attractive female! And what's more, she appeared from this angle to be carrying a fighting pike, hidden behind her as she approached the warrior. Her hood was far forward, so Fallon could not see her face, but from her seductive posture, he felt she was offering a trade for Lerriel. He would take her up on it himself; he preferred an experienced female. The warrior holding Lerriel threw her to her knees, and grabbed at the novice with the pike.
Then all hell broke loose. The novice's hood fell back, revealing President Delenn of all people. She swiveled to bring her pike to the front, and extended it directly into the warrior's midsection. David, meanwhile, swore in shock, and bolted out of the room, closely followed by Fallon. They threw themselves at the other warriors, and were swiftly joined by another novice, who threw off her robe to reveal Anla'Shok Na Ivanova. Fallon blessed the rigorous training that allowed him to put aside his astonishment, and continue pummeling the enemy. A male novice came forward to drag Lerriel from the fray. He appeared to be a warrior from his crest. He also appeared to be on their side. Fallon shook his head; he would worry about it later, there were other more important things to deal with.
David and Delenn ended up back to back, parrying blows from the faltering warriors. "What are you doing here, Mother?" demanded David.
"I am escaping a coup attempt. What about you? I thought you were on a training mission!"
"We were ordered back into Tuzanoor, I guess to help with the coup. Who's that with Lerriel—a warrior, in robes?"
"If Lerriel is the little novice, then it is Nerell helping her get away from this. Do not worry. He is, as your father would say, one of the 'good guys'."
"If you say so. Let's get this over with."
In a few more moments, the warriors were reduced to two standing, who looked at each other, shrugged, then raised their pikes in surrender. Temple personnel rushed in to assist the wounded, and to take those able to walk to a secure room to be guarded until help arrived. Susan had a cut over one eye, but she could see clearly mother and son's tender embrace. Nerell was helping Lerriel to her feet, and Susan couldn't help but notice that David was looking over his mother's shoulder at the young female, and looking pretty intently. Uh-oh, she thought. I've seen that look on a Sheridan's face before. Nothing but trouble. She found herself looking forward to telling David what kind of temple he had landed in. She brushed off the attentive medical attendant who was swabbing at her wound, and attempted to rise to her feet. The other Ranger reached down to give her a hand. "I am Fallon, Anla'Shok Na. It is an honor to serve you. May I ask where we are? And how you and the President came to be here?"
"I could ask the same of you, Fallon. Thank you for your timely intervention. President Delenn and I have been on the run all day. Some segment of the warrior caste has apparently decided on early elections. What about you?"
"We were on a training mission, when we received orders to return at once. Then we were diverted to rescue a group of wounded Rangers. The flyer could not hold us all, so Ranger Sheridan and I offered to stay behind. We were looking for a place to wait for the flyer's return, when that young female invited us to shelter here."
An attractive Minbari saving a Sheridan's ass? Susan grinned, this was going to be fun. History seemed to be repeating itself. "OK, Delenn, David, Fallon, Nashon…and Nerell. Over here, let's debrief and figure out what we're going to do next. Nashon, do your lookouts see any other warriors coming to see what happened to this group?"
Nashon shook her head, "I think these were after something other than you or Delenn. In times of war, the Falmin'shan often becomes a target of opportunity."
David looked up, startled. "This is a Falmin'shan?" He glanced over at Lerriel, who was helping clean up the room. Susan couldn't help but laugh at his expression. She would bet half a year's salary his father had looked exactly the same when Delenn told him about the Temples of Pleasure. From the sparkle in Delenn's eyes, she thought she was right!
"It is in fact, the same one in which I trained. Nashon and I met each other then, many years ago." Delenn said, with an impish grin. David turned to her in shock, then recovered himself enough to turn and thank Nashon for offering his mother sanctuary.
"You are welcome, young Sheridan. But how are we to proceed? You cannot stay here for much longer. I am certain you are needed elsewhere," answered Nashon, hiding her own smile.
Just then, Susan's link chirrupped. "Finally!" she said, as she began to try and answer the anxious barrage of questions streaming out of the device. At last she barked, "Stop and listen to me! Get over here with enough Rangers to ensure the safe passage of the President to Alliance HQ. I will go with her, and I expect my senior staff there to brief us both on exactly what has happened, and what is our current situation is. Keep the ambassadors out of this for now, we need to sort out the military points before addressing the political ones. We will need transport for five, and enough firepower left behind to guard the prisoners and this temple. There may be repercussions from their offer of safe harbor to the President and myself. In Valen's name, over and out!"
Fallon looked at her admiringly. "Well done, Anla'Shok Na! But who is the fifth person to accompany us? Priestess Nashon?"
"No," answered Susan briefly, "I'm sure she has plenty to deal with here. Nerell will come with us. He has acted honorably and bravely throughout this mess, at least after he got through knocking me down and duelling the President. I'm not sure he'd be safe going back to the warrior caste now."
Nerell approached. He had discarded his acolyte's robe. "May I speak, Anla'Shok Na?"
"What is it, Nerell?"
"You told me I have to make my own future. I have decided my future lies in serving the Alliance as an Anla'Shok. Can you tell me how this can be done?"
Susan was nonplussed. There had not yet been a warrior caste Minbari in the Anla'Shok. It was hard to imagine a more symbolic fence-mending gesture. "You petition the Academy for admittance to the training program," she hesitated, "But you will need a sponsor."
Delenn walked over and placed her hand on Nerell's arm, "I will sponsor him, Susan," and she added, "It will be my honor to do so. I have known the best of the warrior caste, Neroon, Branmer…I believe Nerell may someday take his place among them."
Nerell looked at her with unfeigned admiration, tinged with awe. David rolled his eyes, and caught an identical look on Susan's face. Neither completely understood the status Delenn held among the Minbari. They served her with almost religious fervour , and it was hard to reconcile that image with the complex and 'human' woman they knew as friend and mother. John had managed to see her simultaneously in both aspects, but then he was in almost the same position. The Anla'Shok at least, had come to regard him with as much reverence as they did Delenn. David suddenly, forcefully, realized what it must mean to his mother to be alone in that status now, how isolated she must feel. He put a protective arm around her, and she looked up at him gratefully, leaning into him for support. Susan raised an expressive eyebrow, but smiled at him in approval. Then they heard a knock at the rescuers had arrived. It was time to turn their collective strength and will to mending the societal bonds which had been broken, hoping to make them even stronger, ready for the next challenge.