A Ritual Farewell
"Would you like to come in for some tea?" The Minbari ambassador was leaning against the door to her quarters, her expression completely innocent, and Sheridan had to remind himself that even though she looked more human, she came from a completely different culture. One that presumably didn't mean anything other than would you like to come in for some tea? when asking if he wanted to come in for some tea.
"I would love to," and he sighed, because he really did, "but I have to make an early start in the morning." She looked disappointed. "I had a lovely evening. A great evening. The best evening I've had since I've been on the station."
Her face lit up. "Me, too."
"The next time we both have an evening free, the same evening, we should do this again." Christ, how many times could he say 'evening' in thirty seconds?
"I'd like that." She was looking up at him with those big gray eyes, and he thought about telling her that, since she wanted to know more about humans, they always said goodbye with a kiss. That it was practically required. But the last thing he needed was an interstellar incident, so he made himself turn and walk away.
Had he even said good night to her? He hadn't had a brain meltdown like this since his second or third date with Anna, when he'd gotten over the awkwardness of being set up by his sister and actually let himself talk to her. Sheridan turned around, and there she was, still watching him, in that tight black dress, and by God, he was going to find the shopkeeper who had sold that to her and he was going to kiss her, if nothing else.
She took a step forward, hands clasped in front of her. "Captain, since you have already taught me so much about humor, perhaps we should decide what we will discuss the next time we have dinner, so that I may come prepared." Sheridan knew he was a smiley kind of guy; he'd gotten plenty of shit for it at the Academy. But he found himself just grinning at her nearly every time she spoke. He was lucky she didn't think he was soft in the head.
"I think that's a very good idea."
Delenn was making tea in her little kitchenette, and Sheridan took the opportunity to look around her quarters. He'd never really been in a Minbari space before. They were quite a bit more austere than he would have expected, especially for an ambassador. He'd once had a glimpse inside Londo's quarters, and it had looked like Louis XVI's court had thrown up in there.
Lots of crystals. He supposed that in some ways, girls were probably the same the universe over.
"Do you like your tea sweet?" she asked, and he turned from his examination of what looked like a child's building kit made out of colorful plastic. He wondered what it was for. Probably some esoteric religious ritual.
"No, but I don't like it bitter, either." She made a soft sound that he now recognized as the prelude to a laugh, and he joined her on the little couch in the corner. He told himself that he had not intentionally sat closer to the middle so that their legs might brush against each other. She handed him a cup and saucer.
"This is sha'chai. It is very mild, and particularly good for digestion." Sheridan sipped. It reminded him a bit of pungent green tea.
"It's good. I'm usually a coffee drinker, but I like this." It's not completely awful is what he meant. But he was willing to drink just about anything for another few moments with her, so he made himself savor the hot liquid, really hold it in his mouth so she'd see he wasn't just gulping it down. It seemed to do the trick - she was smiling up at him again, that barely-there smile. "You know, when I was a kid, I did a foreign exchange program one summer. In Paris. And I was really worried about not knowing the language, and the culture, so my dad - he used to be a diplomat, he knew all about this kind of thing - he got me a bunch of French vids, and I spent weeks watching them. That could be another way you could learn more about humans."
"I enjoyed the vid we watched together. I do not know how well something like that would help me learn about humans, though. There were many aspects of the story I did not understand."
"Well, you can't treat it like a classroom. You just have to…absorb it. Immersion, like you said."
"Perhaps." Anyone else, that would have been a brush-off, but she said the word like she actually meant it, like she was really thinking about it.
"Maybe next time we have that shared evening free, we could catch a vid in my quarters? And that way, if you had any questions, you could just ask and not have to worry about anyone else." Slick, Sheridan. Second date, get her alone in your quarters, watching a vid in the dark . There was something to be said for a woman who didn't know all the exhaustive ins-and-outs of the human dating scene.
"I would like that." And he was doing it again, fugueing out while he stared at her like a barely-socialized pervert. He went to take another drink of his tea only to find the cup empty.
"Would you like some more?" she asked. The link on his hand beeped, sparing him from answering.
"Captain?" Ivanova's voice. Half of him welcomed the interruption, and half of him was ready to put her on latrine duty for a week. Pak'ma'ra latrine duty.
Sheridan raised his hand, spoke into the damned thing. "Yes?"
"I thought I'd let you know, save you a trip if I could. Our quarters are sealed." For a moment he forgot about Delenn and stood up, paced around her quarters like they were his own.
"And they stay sealed until we fork over the extra rent."
"Did you try to jimmy them open?"
"Didn't work. I'm on my way to rent a room for the night." If he'd been speaking to her in person, he would have told her in no uncertain terms that she would do nothing of the sort, but if you couldn't argue with Ivanova face to face you might as well not even try. Not that face to face always worked, either.
"Yeah." He cut the connection, and knew he was unreasonably angry over this whole thing, but it just pissed him off so much he could hardly see straight. Soldiers didn't have much out in the black, but they had their little bit of space that was their own, and to try and screw around with that...
"You won't be able to enter your own quarters?" He remembered Delenn's presence, and sat down beside her again, suddenly feeling old.
"So where will you sleep tonight?"
"Well, I won't rent a room. That's still putting money in EarthCentral's hands, and I won't do it. I guess I'll sleep in my office." She turned toward him a little, face serious, and he wondered what she was going to say to try and make him feel better. He still found himself thinking about star stuff all the time.
"You could stay here," she said, with that same guileless voice, the same way she'd asked him in for tea. Had she just invited him to stay the night? He stared at her, tried not to look like the idiot bug-eyed fool he knew he did. She looked like she regretted asking, and it felt like a knife in his guts, seeing her deflate like that.
"You...you want me to stay here. Tonight. With you?"
"If you do not want to-"
"I didn't say that."
"It's just that your office is not private, and it is a long walk away. And a couch is a couch, correct?" Ah...now the knife in his guts felt like a punch. It was his own damn fault for assuming, but for one single, perfect moment, he'd thought he was going to get lucky. And how.
"No, you're right. I just don't want to put you out."
"It's no trouble at all. Besides, this way we can continue to talk without worrying about making sure you are awake enough to traverse the station when we are done." She had a point.
Delenn finally got up to retrieve some sheets the third time Sheridan had succumbed to a face-splitting yawn. He'd unfortunately bitched some more about EarthCentral and his quarters and rent, and then they'd talked about a few of his favorite vids, and some kind of Minbari theatrical presentation-slash-ritual that she assured him he would love if he ever saw it, and finally anecdotes about the Council and the command staff. He felt like they could talk about anything. Ships and shoes and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings, he thought, wondering what stories she had read as a child. They had ended up facing each other, heads resting against the back of the couch, her knees drawn up against her chest. Sheridan had worked hard to resist the urge to stare at her bare feet, toes peeking out from under the edge of her dress, and had mostly succeeded.
Now she was back with sheets, and helped him dress the couch.
"Will it be long enough for you?"
"I've slept on shorter. And narrower." She kept glaring down at the couch, arms crossed.
"I don't want you to be uncomfortable," she said, and he reached out to touch her elbow. She looked up at him, and he gave her what he knew was his most winning smile. The one Anna had called his Rocket Launcher Smile.
"It'll be just fine."
Then she looked deliciously shy, one hand up at the nape of her neck. "I'm going to change." She retreated into her bedroom, pulled the frosted panels shut. And Sheridan was helpless not to imagine her undressing, not ten feet away from him. He violently arranged the pillows.
The panels opened again. That was quick. He looked up and she was still draped in slinky black silk. She was staring at the floor, and her cheeks were pink. What on Earth...
"Captain? I'm sorry. I need your help." Delenn turned, presented her back to him. It took him a moment, and then he walked over to her. She glanced back over her shoulder at him; he hadn't seen her from that angle before, and he felt his heart skip a beat. "It is a most...irrational garment. I could not get into it without assistance, either."
Sheridan reached up and grabbed the tab of the zipper, placed his other hand at the base of her neck to hold the dress still. He slowly drew the zipper down, revealing creamy white skin, smooth shoulder blades, the black lace of a bra (and he'd been doing such a good job the last couple hours not thinking about her breasts), the curve of her back. Do not be a dick, Sheridan. She's embarrassed, and this is a first date, if it even is a date to her, so do not be a dick. That goes for you too, dick. Still, he couldn't help running his thumb along her spine the last few inches, and both saw and felt her shiver.
She didn't move, and he wasn't sure if she was waiting for him to say something. Instead he found himself reaching up to her hair, finding the pins, carefully pulling them out. He set them on a little table next to the panels, then let her hair down. It was soft, falling in gentle curls, and he couldn't help combing through it with his fingers. He heard her draw in a slow breath, and he was so close to leaning in, pushing his face into her hair, nuzzling her neck, breathing her in, that it took every single last ounce of his self-control to lower his hands and step back.
"There you go," he said, and knew that if he could hear the tremor in his voice, so could she. Still she didn't move, and he wondered if he'd completely ruined everything.
"Thank you," she breathed, and stepped forward. Sheridan slid the panels shut behind her, then wandered back toward the couch. He sat for a second, feeling like he'd been hit over the head with something heavy. He'd already taken off his jacket and shoes, unbuttoned his collar and cuffs; now he took off his belt, finished unbuttoning his dress shirt, stacked it neatly with the rest of his things. He didn't think she'd be scandalized by his t-shirt, but he couldn't imagine what was going through her head at this moment.
Sheridan thought about how often that was the case in his interactions with the ambassador. There was something imperturbable about her, some preternatural calm, that defied his understanding. He had never known anyone so self-assured, and it lent a gravity to everything she said. He wondered why she'd wanted to spend an evening with him, of all the humans in the station; he always felt like more of a lughead than usual in her presence, as though there was never enough O2 in the room.
Delenn opened the panels a few inches, stood there looking at him. She was wearing a robe, but it wasn't tied, and he could see that she was wearing a long, silky nightgown underneath. He was going to die. He was going to have to try and sleep out here, knowing she was just on the other side of that partition, and he wasn't going to be able to, and he was going to die.
"Is there anything else I can get you?" she asked, her voice soft. Sheridan wondered when he'd gone from finding her attractive, as most of the red-blooded males of any species on the station undoubtedly did, to wanting her as much as he'd ever wanted anyone in his life. He couldn't remember. Higher brain functions had shut down, blood shunted off to more immediately necessary areas.
"No, I'm good. Thanks."
"Good night, Captain."
"Good night, Ambassador."
Then she stepped back, into the shadows of her bedroom, and left the frosted panels open those few inches. He heard the quiet sound of her robe sliding off, heard her pull her sheets aside, heard her climb into bed. Sheridan laid down on the couch himself, facing the back. He imagined walking up to those frosted panels, pulling them open enough to step through, pulling them closed behind him. He imagined lifting her sheets, climbing in beside her. He imagined that dark hair falling around his face as she moved above him, his hands on her hips.
No. No, no, no. No. He was not going to try and deal with an erection in the Minbari ambassador's quarters. He thought back to the World Series last year, game six, top of the seventh, when the Royals had brought in Hernandez after the Olympians had scored three runs the inning before, and played the rest of the game out in his head.
Delenn must have set her lights to slowly brighten as standard morning approached, because when Sheridan awoke, he found himself surrounded by rosy pink light. For a moment, he felt at peace. Then he rolled over, and his back and neck shrieked out in protest. His right arm was dead below the elbow; he must have slept on it all night. He tried to sit up, but the sheet was all tangled around him, and he finally fell to the floor with a thump.
"I would ask how your night was, but no matter how well you slept, it seems it has been negated by your rising." Sheridan turned, and she was sitting at the tall kitchen table, robe tied around her, holding a cup of tea that wafted steam around her face. She was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. He could feel his ears on fire, knew they were bright red, and carefully untangled himself from the sheet. He lifted himself back up to the couch, sat down on the edge; he couldn't help but put a hand to the small of his back, couldn't help the groan that escaped his lips.
"You hurt yourself falling," she said, standing and coming his way.
She sat beside him, brow furrowed. "I knew the couch was too small."
"It was fine. No one gets a good night's sleep on a couch." He smiled at her, but it didn't do the trick this time. She was still scrutinizing him. Sheridan tried to act casual, but turning his head away from her sent a bolt of lightning through his neck, and he was pretty sure he whimpered.
"You should see a physician."
"I'm fine. It'll loosen up." She didn't look convinced, but stood and returned to the table.
"I made breakfast. It isn't much, just some bread and Earth honey. I actually ate it even before my change." He followed her, shaking his arm out, wincing at the pins and needles, and gingerly sat down. She set a second cup down on the counter. "Would you like some juice? It's from Minbari fruits, but I think you would like it. I know you did not like the tea."
"I did, too."
"I may not know everything about humans, but I know some things. The face you were making is not one that someone makes when they like what is in their mouth." She set the juice in front of him, sat down. Looked at him, and he knew he was smiling away, but he didn't care. He was infatuated with her, and surely she knew that by now, so there was really no point in trying to hide it. He didn't know how she felt about him, but she hadn't kicked him out yet, so that was a start.
They ate their breakfast, no conversation. It felt like this was how they started every day, like this was how it always was. Delenn ate in perfect tiny bites, and Sheridan felt like an ape, his bread reduced to a few crumbs in no more than a minute. So he sipped his juice slowly, and it was good, sweet and tangy, like smoother, more syrupy grapefruit juice. As long as he didn't move his head at all, he didn't hurt too much. The walk back to his office was going to be agony, and he'd feel it all day and probably tomorrow, too. But it was worth it, to be sitting across from her, eating breakfast. It was worth it to start his day like this.
"Promise me that you will take some kind of medication for your neck," Delenn said, looking over her cup at him.
"It's fine, really."
"You are holding your head like this." She demonstrated, lowering her head down, and he realized that he was nursing his neck, which would just make it worse in the long run. He made himself sit up straight, and the muscles complained and wailed. It was like razor blades digging through his flesh, and if EarthCentral had held any illusions about being paid before...
Delenn slipped out of her chair, came up behind him. She gently laid her warm hands against his neck. "Hold still," she ordered him, and then began to knead the muscles in his neck and shoulders. Carefully at first, using just the tips of her fingers, then as the knots began to loosen she bore down more, pressing her palms down hard. At first he thrilled at her touch, but as the massage went on he found himself lost in the sensation. She pushed his shoulders forward, and he leaned over the table. She worked on the muscles in his back, sliding her hands under his t-shirt. He couldn't imagine anything feeling better than this.
His link beeped, on the other side of the room. He'd taken it off and set it on top of his clothes. Ivanova's voice: "Captain?" Sheridan tried to sit up, but Delenn was already retrieving his link and bringing it back to him. He answered, feeling vaguely drunk.
"Sheridan here, go ahead."
"I need you up in C and C, as soon as you can get here."
"I'm on my way." He slapped the link on the back of his hand, then rubbed his face. He would give anything, anything, for just one day off. "I have to go."
"Another day begins," she said, and there was a sigh in her voice that made him look at her. But she just shook her head, gathered up their plates and cups. He walked back to the couch, pulled on his shirt, his belt, his shoes. Hopefully word had gotten around about his quarters being sealed, so it wouldn't look like he was doing a Walk of Shame this morning.
He was trying to decide whether he wanted to carry his jacket or put it on when he glanced back toward the kitchen. Delenn was leaning against the counter, just looking at him. Watching him dress. She didn't look away from him; no shame in her eyes. He tossed his jacket down, walked over to her. Waited for the moment when she signaled that he had come close enough. But the moment never came, and he found himself inches away, her head tilted up toward him.
"Goodbye," he said, not wanting to. She smiled up at him.
"Minbari do not have a word for goodbye. Every word includes the promise of another meeting."
"Oh, I promise. There will be another meeting." He couldn't make himself walk away. Ivanova would probably have his ass on a pike, but that was in the future. Right now, he was just going to soak Delenn up.
"Is there a human ritual," she asked, and there was something in her eyes that told him she was hoping for a specific answer, "for saying farewell after the kind of night we shared?" Sheridan nodded, and brought his fingers to her face, traced her cheekbone, the line of her jaw. He watched her eyes drop to his mouth. They slid shut as he finally kissed her, softly at first, just feeling the gentle pressure of her lips against his. He put his hand to the back of her head, tangling his fingers in her hair, and slid an arm around her waist. Drew her close, her body flush against his.
Her mouth was warm and wet and sweet, and he could feel one of her hands against his chest, the other sliding up around his neck. If he'd ever thought he could keep his feelings in check, keep their relationship professional, that was definitely out the window now. He didn't care. She made a low sound in her throat, and Sheridan knew that he was fast approaching the point of no return, that if he didn't stop now he wouldn't be able to. He made himself end the kiss, but couldn't make himself let her completely go, kept his hands on either side of her ribcage.
Delenn's hands were still on his chest, his neck, and she looked up at him, eyes dark, lips swollen and pink. "That is a good ritual."
He nodded. "What's the Minbari ritual?" She laughed then, stepped out of his grasp. Put out one hand and placed it over his heart, then bowed forward.
"That's it?" She smiled, impish. "I like ours better." One last lingering kiss, then he grabbed his jacket, went to the door. Stopped there, looking back at her.
Another day began.