Disclaimer: Babylon 5 and all its characters are property of the almighty JMS. I'm just letting them out to play, and when they are done, I will put them back where I found them. Promise.
Author's Note: This story is set immediately at the end of Lines of Communication. I started it as a simple, slightly steamy gapfiller. However, it gained a deeper meaning as I realized that John and Delenn spend the better part of Season 4 apart. She leaves for Minbar at the end of Lines of Communication (quoted below as context for the story) – which is halfway through the season. They are not reunited until the very end of Between the Darkness and the Light (episode 19.) Some pretty heavy stuff happens to both of them in between. This evening before Delenn leaves for Minbar is really the last quiet moment they have together until the very end of the season when they are… *ahem*… celebrating onboard the White Star in the final scenes of Rising Star. Once I picked up on that, the title wrote itself and the story fell much better into place.
Also, P.S: I started watching Scarecrow and Mrs. King while I was writing this, and I think without meaning to, John Sheridan channels Lee Stetson's sex drive a teensy bit. For those of you who might pick up on that: Sorry!
"Well, when do you have to leave?"
End of Lines of Communication as Sheridan and Delenn walk arm in arm out of the newly redecorated War Room.
Before the Storm
From the very beginning, there had been rules about their dinner dates – they talked about anything and everything except work and politics. It had begun that way two years ago in order to function as a cultural exchange of information; two ambassadors from formerly warring factions meeting to discuss things like household pets and childhood memories. As their relationship developed and they talked about those things outside of the Fresh Air Restaurant in casual conversations in each other's quarters with increasing regularity, it became more difficult to keep the deal. But it was tradition, and it was important. It made them feel like a real couple rather than a couple of war leaders. It made them forget about death and destiny and allowed them to simply be in love.
Tonight, as John Sheridan quickly changed out of his uniform and dressed in his civvies, he wondered if the tradition might be broken. Delenn would leave tomorrow for Minbar to try to piece the caste system back together, rebuild the Grey Council and save her world from civil war; he was up to his ears in building the resistance to President Clark's regime. Work and politics had consumed both of their lives, and he wondered if there would be anything else to talk about. And he couldn't lie – he was worried about her trip. The caste system was falling apart, and Minbar had quickly become a very dangerous place. He loved her fire, admired her strength and courage… but he worried about her safety.
She had to go, though, and they both knew it. She had to go, because she had been the one to break the Grey Council – she'd told him all about that in the aftermath, after she'd done it and he'd declared Babylon 5 an independent state… what a day that had been. It seemed a lifetime ago now, back when their relationship was just beginning to blossom into something more than friendship; back before his fall at Z'ha'dum; before they were engaged; before they put an end to the Shadow War; and before… the events of last week.
The Shan'Fal, she'd called it. A ritual specifically designed to allow a courting couple to explore one another's bodies, despite the Religious Caste's misgivings about premarital sex. They hadn't been able to fully consummate their relationship as he would have liked to, but he had nonetheless left her quarters the next morning feeling more sexually satisfied than he had been in a very long time. It had given him a new perspective on the giving and receiving of pleasure… and exactly what did and did not need to come about in order to do so.
Not that I wouldn't love to take it all the way, John mused as he smoothed the front of his shirt and then left his quarters, headed for Delenn's. On the contrary. Once she opens that door, I'm ready to leap through it. And I really do hope she opens it soon.
He pushed her door chime and smiled a moment later as the door opened, revealing his beautiful fiancé – dressed in a sleek floor-length black dress with a very un-Minbari neckline and a slit up the side, a wrap draped around her midsection and a smile lighting her face. She stepped into the hall wordlessly and greeted him with a gentle kiss. He smiled back and took her arm as he had earlier.
"New dress?" He asked.
Delenn leaned into him and nodded affirmatively. "Do you like it?"
"That's one way of putting it."
"And what would be another way of putting it?" She asked. She was smiling, and he couldn't tell for sure, but he thought maybe she was teasing him – and that maybe she knew exactly what he was thinking. They stepped into an empty transport tube and Delenn ordered their destination.
"That's not… um…" He shook his head and laughed uneasily. "All right. Yes, I like it." He slid his arm around her waist and pulled her body tight against his as he whispered against her ear, "But I would like it better on the floor."
The tube doors opened and they stepped into the crowded Zocalo. John's grin widened and he felt pleased with himself as Delenn looked up at him with a furrowed brow. He knew she was turning his statement over in her head, trying to figure out what he meant. It was cute. He loved when she did that, and if he was honest with himself, he would admit that he sometimes used human expressions like this one just to get this exact reaction.
Besides, he thought as they reached the Fresh Air restaurant. She was teasing me, and it serves her right.
"Captain. Ambassador." The maitre d' greeted them warmly. "Dining in tonight?"
"Yes," John nodded at the man. "Something quiet and near the back, if it's not too much trouble."
"For the two of you, it's no trouble at all." A waiter appeared and showed them to a table against the far wall, slightly secluded and lit with a single candle. He moved to pull out Delenn's chair, but John beat him to it, and Delenn smiled at both men as she sat. The waiter nodded and left them to their menus.
"If my dress were on the floor," Delenn mused aloud once the waiter had departed, just loud enough for John to hear her, "Then I would be…" she looked down at herself, brow still furrowed, and John folded his hands on the table in front of him and waited patiently for her to work it through the rest of the way. "Well, I would be wearing something else entirely, I suppose." And she flashed him a mischievous grin and a barely noticeable wink.
John gave her a tight-lipped smile and waved a finger at her as he shook his head. "Fine. You'd be wearing something else that I'd also like to see on the floor. I'm having the chicken marsala," he said without missing a beat as he set his menu back down.
She shook her head at him. The waiter reappeared and set water glasses down for both of them and took their orders.
When he had again departed and the couple was alone, Delenn sipped her water, making eye contact with John over the rim of the glass. "I have been meaning to ask you," she said, and John picked up on the change of subject, "About human engagement rituals."
"Human… engagement rituals?" He also sipped from his glass.
"Yes. You have given me this ring, and now I am wearing it, and we are proceeding through a series of Minbari rituals to prepare us for our final union. But… once a human woman is wearing her ring… what does she do? How do human couples prepare for their… err… wedding?"
John laughed. He reached across the table and took her left hand in both of his, his thumb running briefly over the solitary diamond. "Well," he said quietly, meeting her eyes. He did love the way they sparkled when he taught her about Earth customs, and he wondered if he showed the same eagerness when she was speaking to him about the Minbari way of life. He hoped so. "First, she'll show it off to all her friends."
"Yes, and then sometimes there's a party… an engagement party, with family and friends… sometimes not, though. It really depends on the couple. And then they will choose a date on which they will marry, and they start to make plans."
"For the wedding," he clarified. "See… Earth weddings can be done in a whole variety of different ways, depending on the couple's preferences, financial situation, length of engagement, religion, family and so on and so forth."
"Our caste system is the same," Delenn said now, nodding slowly. "Religious Caste coupling rituals differ greatly from those of the Warrior Caste. There are similarities, of course."
"And there are similarities on Earth," John agreed with an enthusiastic nod of his own. "Nearly all brides-to-be will spend an enormous amount of time obsessing over the perfect dress, the prefect shoes… flowers…"
Delenn laughed. "Flowers?"
"Oh yeah. Flowers are almost always a big part of Earth weddings. The women all carry them, the men wear them on their lapels, and there are usually some for decoration as well."
"It seems your people view flowers in the same way the Minbari view the candle," she mused. "As a symbol of life… and promise."
"I guess you could say that." John nodded again in agreement. "And… both the man and the woman will each ask a few close friends or family to stand beside them on their wedding day as witnesses." At this, Delenn began to laugh. "What?"
"It's just… it's just that," she laughed again, then covered her mouth and took a moment to compose herself before continuing. "The look on your face… when you saw my clan assembled for the Shan'Fal… when it seems that your people do not regard their ceremonies much differently. Friends and family are asked to bear witness," she explained in a more composed tone, but the corners of her mouth were still turned up in a smile. "You see, John? We are not so different after all."
John would have argued that the intimacy of the Shan'Fal was a far cry from the celebratory atmosphere of a human wedding, but he kept his mouth shut. "And then after the wedding," he said instead, his voice taking on a husky tone as he turned her left hand over and began to draw light circles on her palm with his thumb, "There is usually a party… and then after the party… the couple retreats to solitude." He lifted her hand and kissed her fingers gently. "At which time…" He kissed her hand again, this time in the center of her palm, "The man and his wife…" Now a kiss on her wrist, "Will spend the night – and usually several days afterward – exploring… and re-exploring… one another's centers… of pleasure." He concluded his statement, his tone quiet and considerably more seductive than when he'd begun speaking, and sucked her pointer finger into his mouth. He was pleased to feel her shudder as he released the finger and blew cold air on the wetness left behind. "No witnesses," he added quickly. "As a matter of fact, the couple usually takes a trip to somewhere far away, just so that they can be assured of some time alone."
"I think I would like to take such a trip with you." She was slightly breathless, and John now recognized the dark look in her eyes as arousal. He'd seen that look before the Shan'Fal, and it had been quite an enlightening moment of meditation during the ritual when he'd realized what the look meant.
A throat was cleared behind John, and the couple looked up to see their waiter standing by with their meal. They leaned back in their chairs and the moment dissipated.
"While the female is picking out her attire and the flowers," Delenn began again after a few minutes of eating in silence, "What does the male do?"
"Drinks a glass of whiskey and makes sure he knows when and where to show up for the ceremony," John responded with a smile as he stuffed a bite of chicken into his mouth. The comment was worth it for Delenn's horrified facial expression. He shook his head and laughed. "No, not really. It… depends. Sometimes the man is just as involved in the wedding planning as the woman. Sometimes not."
Her brow remained furrowed as she chewed this over with a bite of her dinner. "How involved… were you?" she asked quietly.
John suddenly became very interested in finding out what his dinner looked like. He really didn't like to talk about his life with Anna at all, and especially when he was with Delenn. What was past, was past. But when he cautiously lifted his eyes again, he noticed she had him pinned with a Look that said she would wait him out for as long as it took him to answer, and finally he offered a response. "Remember… how I said that it really depends a lot on the couple?"
"When… when Anna and I got married, I was in the military. I really wasn't able to get away to help with as many of the details as I would have liked, so… she took care of most of it, and Earthforce took care of the rest."
"You were married in the tradition of your Warrior Caste," she summarized. She cupped his cheek and the warmth of her palm brought a smile back to his face. "John. I do not ask you these things so that I can judge you or your people. I ask so that I can learn. I know it is the same when you ask me about my world, about my past."
He blushed and averted his eyes for a moment. "OK," he said finally, and she pulled her hand away and resumed eating her dinner.
The meal progressed, dishes were cleared away, and they ordered a dessert to share. "My turn," he said after they'd put in their dessert order.
"You said last week that there were… as many as 50 rituals to be completed in a traditional Minbari courtship. So… where are we, how many do we have left, and what comes next?"
She gave a moment's pause before responding. "As you may have already figured out, Minbari courting and mating is heavily driven by the female in the partnership," she began, her voice low and her eyes sparkling in that way John loved – it wasn't the look of arousal he'd seen earlier, but it was definitely joyous; she loved that he had asked this question. He banked it away as points scored this evening. "The woman watches the male sleep, but the ritual is never reversed; likewise, any children born into a partnership belong to their mother's caste and clan. And it was no accident that it was I who approached you for the Shan'Fal or that it was my clan that was asked to bear witness. She holds the power in deciding when, and how, their relationship should progress. She also holds much of the responsibility for any necessary rituals."
John cocked his head and mulled her words as he thought back over their journey thus far. "You were pretty insistent that we finish that sleeping ritual when we did," he said slowly, remembering. "There was something you were supposed to do, some courting ritual, when you went home to Minbar, wasn't there? I knew you were up to something."
Delenn ducked her head and fought away the blush she felt rising. She did not wish to remember The Dreaming, not at all. After a moment, she began speaking as though he had not interrupted. "As such, we have come farther than you may have realized. I have been making offerings to temple in my recent visits home. I have performed several rituals in private which are required of me as a member of the Religious Caste. With the completion of the Shan'Fal, we now stand at a crossroads. We can choose to continue the courtship rituals and remain committed – 'engaged', as you say – for a length of time up to two Minbari cycles. In this case, rituals and temple offerings will be required of each of us roughly every 30 days as a gesture of continued faithfulness and commitment. Or," she went on, reaching for John's hand and knitting her fingers through his, "We can make a mutual decision to move from courtship rituals… to mating rituals." He had been taking a sip of his water, and now it nearly came out his nose. He sputtered and coughed, and she bit back laughter but let go of his hand to allow him to pull himself together. He drew the attention of several nearby diners and by the time he had composed himself, his face was flushed deep red with embarrassment.
"M-Mating rituals," he repeated, his eyes wide.
She laughed now, not at the redness of his face, but at his expression. She had seen this look of pure disbelief and excitement only twice before – when he had first stepped onto the command deck of the original White Star; and when she had given him the go-ahead the night of the Shan'Fal to touch her naked body for the very first time. She could only liken it unto the face of a child who has just been told he is getting the one and only gift he has ever wanted for his birthday. "Yes, John."
"I think, um. I think that's…" He paused as the waiter set their dessert down between them. He looked at the food and at the other man as though he wasn't sure why either of them was there, then shook his head to clear it. He cleared his throat nervously. "When can we… um…?" He made a motion with his hand to indicate… well, he wasn't sure to indicate what. Then he paused, and after a moment, waved an accusing pointer finger at her. "You know, if I didn't know better, I'd think you do this kind of thing on purpose. I think you like seeing me at a loss for words."
"Only in the same way that you use certain human expressions to get such a reaction from me," she retorted. "Now. Are we going to eat this?"
"I have a better idea." John stood from his chair and walked around to stand behind her. She squirmed as he planted tiny kisses behind her right ear and pulled back her chair, allowing her to stand. The waiter came by, and he indicated for the meal to be billed to his account. The waiter nodded acknowledgement and John mouthed a silent "thank you" as he took Delenn's arm and led her back through the Zocalo wordlessly. Only when they reached the transport tube and he ordered for it to take them to Blue Sector, to his quarters, did he speak again. "I think I would much rather have you for dessert," he spoke into her ear as he held her around her waist from behind.
She playfully pulled away from him, but allowed him to keep hold of her hand as the tube doors opened and they navigated the halls to his quarters. He punched in the code for entry. The moment the door closed behind them, he pulled her into a hungry kiss. "You were saying something before," he said when they parted just enough to break the kiss. His words vibrated against her lips. "Something about mating rituals. I think I'd like to hear more about that." He pulled her in for another kiss, slow at first, then deeper as sat down on the couch and settled her into his lap. When they parted for breath, he looked at her expectantly through hooded eyes.
"History awaits," she teased, touching a finger to his lips.
He shook his head vehemently. "Nuh-uh. Not tonight. Tonight, if there's history to be made, it's happening right here." He kissed her again, longer, deeper, his hands coming around to work the clasp and zipper at the back of her dress. She tried to pull away but he held her fast, trying to put all of his feelings into the kiss – all of his love, all of his worry for her upcoming trip… all of his passion and need for her. He was pleased to feel her relax and return it in kind. When they parted again, he was smiling. "That's better."
She returned his smile, and he saw again in her eyes the dark look of arousal as she spoke. "I need a moment to prepare," she told him as she stood. On reflex, he also rose to his feet. "If you wish, you may meditate in my absence… it is not required of you, but you may find that it helps you to center your thoughts."
"How will I know when you're ready?"
"You will know." She stepped through the doors to his bedroom and pulled them closed behind her.
Alone, John turned away from the bedroom doors and exhaled slowly. He clasped and unclasped his hands, feeling restless. "You'll know," he repeated to himself as he began to pace. He paced slowly to the kitchen, then back to the couch… then activated his link. "C and C, this is Sheridan."
"C and C online."
"Status report?" He requested.
"It's a quiet night, Captain. Nothing to report."
John nodded at his raised fist. "Sheridan out." He paced again to the kitchen… picked up an orange… tossed it in the air once, twice… set the orange back down and paced back to the couch. What is she doing in there? He plopped down on the couch and again activated his link.
"Ivanova, go," came the Commander's voice a moment later.
"Commander, it's a hella quiet night," John stated.
There was a pause and John knew, he knew his second so well he could picture it, that Ivanova was making her 'I'm going to kill him' face and shaking her head at him from two levels up. "Yes, Captain. If you're about to change that again, please do so now, while I'm still somewhat presentable."
There was a lengthy pause. Finally, from the back of his hand came Ivanova's voice once again. "John, if you called me just to shoot the breeze, you should know you're on an open channel and you're filling up valuable link time with static. You're boring security."
John lifted his eyes as the doors to his bedchamber opened and Delenn stood between them wearing… well. His eyes went wide and he drank in her nude form from head to toe.
He cleared his throat. "Commander Ivanova. Please be advised that… barring an emergency…" His eyes again raked over Delenn's body. "I am relieving myself of command until 0700 tomorrow morning."
"What? John, you ca—"
"Sheridan out." He deactivated his link and then pulled it from his hand and set it down on an end table on his way to join Delenn in the bedroom doorway. "I'll know," he said quietly as he circled his arms around her waist and latched his mouth to hers.
"You once said to me… 'Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die'." She took his hand and led him further into the bedroom, where she began to loosen his shirt buttons one by one. "I believe… if your race is correct… this would be the 'merry' part." Now she leaned up and her lips captured his unexpectedly as she pulled the shirt away.
John looked around quickly. "No witnesses?"
"I love you, Delenn."
She possessed his mouth again. He parted his lips in surrender to her probing tongue and closed his eyes, losing himself in the feel of her body and the passion of her kiss.
For tomorrow we die, a tiny voice that sounded vaguely Vorlon reminded him from a deep, dark corner of his mind as Delenn's hands found the ridge of his pants and began to work the clasp and zipper open.
He felt his pants fall to the floor and pushed back against the unwelcome voice. Heck of a way to go out, he retorted, and pushed the threat of foreshadowing further back in his consciousness with a hefty mental shove. And then his mind was quiet, devoid of darkness, and his only thoughts of the future had to do with the woman in his arms.