Disclaimer: Babylon 5 and its characters belong to J. Michael Strazcynski. The words are my own.
Author's Notes: This opus was my excuse to hang out in Delenn's head for awhile. Inspired by another work I've read on this site—The Book of John, by NPHW, which I cannot recommend highly enough—it imagines and fleshes out pivotal events and experiences of Delenn's early life and then moves forward into B5 series time, depicting onscreen events and gapfiller scenes from Delenn's POV. I have tried to spend more time filling in gaps than piggybacking on scenes from the series, though certain of the latter are so important to Delenn's character that I felt I had to cover them. I have quoted dialogue from the series when necessary, either directly or framed as character memory, depending on the needs of the story. Where I used "onscreen" material, I've done my best to show the subtext—what the characters are thinking and feeling at particular moments, based not only on the dialogue, but on the marvelous work of the actors. (Sometimes, the emotional moments are so clear, you can practically hear the characters' thoughts—hats off to the entire cast for a terrific job.)
Chennan of Valeria, my take on Delenn's mother from "Choices and Challenges", turns up in this story as well. "What Is Built" assumes that "Choices and Challenges" takes place; it also assumes the occurrence of the Earth-Minbari War as depicted in the novel IN THE BEGINNING (a work to which Delenn makes oblique reference as if it exists in her fictional universe as well).
Reviews are welcome. And thanks to all in advance for reading.
Summary: Delenn's autobiography. What made her who she is, and how does she remember her years on Babylon Five? Covers events up through early Season Four, approximately through "Falling Toward Apotheosis".
Rating: TFrom What Is Built, Endures: an autobiography of Delenn ys Mir of Minbar Prologue
Humans have a saying that history is written by the victors. Meaning that, no matter how many sides to a story may exist, one side will always dominate. As if the tangled realities of sentient existence can be reduced to a simple narrative—thus-and-so means thus-and-so, always and only, for all time to come. Until the "victors" change, and then they rewrite the story to suit their purposes. And everyone comes to believe the new history, until the next time power shifts and the story changes. And on and on it goes.
The one thing rarely served in this process is truth. Truth is messy. Complicated. Inconvenient. Yet in the end, only truth will save us from repeating the errors of our pasts, the very errors we no longer know of because we have come to believe the legends. The received history. The simple story.
I come of a story-telling people. We are good at it, and proud of it. Like the ancient Celtic tribes of Earth, we came late to written language; for centuries we knew ourselves through story and song, passed down through memory in every clan and added to in each generation. Until there grew too much for any mind to hold, even the keen and disciplined minds of our greatest bards and sages. We began to write things down then, though we kept faith with our tradition of memory. And one thing about that tradition—we remembered everything. Not only our triumphs, but our failures. Not only our strengths, but our weaknesses. The ways in which we learned and achieved, and the ways in which we fell short. That which made us exceptional, and that which made us ordinary. Sometimes even contemptible, when we lived down to the worst in ourselves. Our aim was honesty—and though we have surely fallen short of that more than once, there is worth in the trying. For if we are, as we believe, a facet of the Universe trying to figure itself out… then what point is there in seeing ourselves as other than we are?
I am near the end, now, of a long life. Too long in many ways. All those I love are dead, save for a dozen or so great-grandchildren whose presence still cheers me and whose achievements I savor. And a few aides and Rangers in my household, who have grown to be kindred of my heart. But those I knew and loved in earlier days… they are all gone now. Even Mayan, who went to the sea these three summers past. And David, fifteen winters gone on a final mission with the Anla'shok, for which he was too old—yet he went anyway, courageous to the last. Susan, Michael, Stephen. Vir, G'Kar, Lennier. Lyta, dead long ago in the Telepath War. Sinclair, gone a thousand years back in my own people's history. Londo. Yes, even he I count among my loved ones, in spite of everything. And the one I loved most—
It is so hard to write of him. Of John. My eyes blur and my hands shake, and my voice trembles so much that even to speak for a transcriber, let alone put words to paper, is beyond me. He has been away these eighty years by human reckoning, and I have missed him fiercely every single hour of them. So much so, that at first all I wanted was to follow him into death. I had promised him I would not, but I nearly did anyway. Susan saved me then. Susan and Stephen and Michael, and Vir, and Mayan—and David when he reached home after the end of that first Ranger mission he had so reluctantly embarked on, knowing his father would die before it ended. They all set aside their grief for mine, reminded me that I had duties. Responsibilities. Promises to keep, so that what John and I and so many others had built would survive and prosper. No matter how wounded my heart, I could not break that trust. He knew that, damn him. Bless him. For twenty years, both—the source of my joy and my pain. But the joy was far greater. A gift worth the price, were I to pay it a thousand times over.
It is for him that I write this account. This… autobiography. He wrote one himself, a few years before his passing—determined that at least one honest accounting of who he was and what he did, and why, should exist to be found. I now take a leaf from his book, so to speak. Because already they are changing the story about him. Or trying to. I have heard their words—so much ignorant air. Pathological, one of them called him. Cold and ruthless, said another. I will grant her the ruthlessness—though it was rare, and only when more lives would have been lost without it. And always, always it cost him. Far more than the ignorant jabberers will ever know. But cold? Pathological—a byword for illness of mind? Power-hungry, a megalomaniac? None of those things, ever. The truth of his life shows this for any with eyes to see it.
And yet, there are those who claim otherwise. They take the truth of who he was and twist it to fit a pre-determined shape so that they may then say see, see, the story is not what you thought. It is this story instead—one that only we were wise enough to piece together, but you who accept our version may hope to be just as wise. Wiser than your neighbors, who still believe the fairy tale. And if they will do this to him, who was one of their own—a human, an undisputed hero who saved his world from darkness and brought us all into the light—then what, I wonder, will they say of me? I was, after all, once an enemy of their race. More than a century gone now, in a moment of madness born from a death that was itself born of a terrible misunderstanding—but still, an enemy for that moment. Will they resurrect that, tarnish my motives with it? Call me ruthless, pathological—make of me an evil enchantress who plotted the downfall of humanity in the guise of aiding it? Turn my atonement, even my love, into no more than a long drawn-out act of vengeance?
I will not let them. But simply telling a better story will not serve. My story must be truer… not a legend, but as it was. Good and bad, right and wrong and in-between, messy and complicated and not at all convenient. A story with its nuances intact. A Minbari kind of story. My people understand nuances. We live in them. At many times in our past, especially before Valen, they were all that kept us from killing each other.
So, then. To my autobiography, though to talk so much of myself strikes me as unseemly. An act of ego, a putting-forward of Delenn ys Mir that is far beyond what I deserve. Yet it is the best way I know to tell the truth—of Babylon Five, of John Sheridan my beloved, and of all those who were with us in the Shadow War and beyond. All those who built the Alliance, their legacy to the ignorant jabberers who do not value it as they should. My legacy, too. And the best way to understand it is to understand those who built it—myself among them.
And so I begin with a question. Who is Delenn ys Mir of Minbar?
Who, indeed.Part 1—Acquainted with Grief
Bright sun on the snow. A stand of hala bushes furred with thin red leaves, their branches curled inward against the winter chill. They looked like the clenched fists of something impossibly old, and had a sharp, spicy smell that drew me toward them. A wild gokk burst through them and dashed away across the snow. Small, brown and fluffy against the frozen white. And moving impossibly fast—but that didn't stop me from trying to catch up with it. The snow-crust was hardened and thick, easy for a small girl to run on. I had wanted to run for so long, for every hour of the past nine days' blizzard. And I wanted the gokk. I would keep it as a pet, feed it tubers and ice-berries and the sweet green kenar leaves that to me always tasted of spring. All I had to do was be quick enough to grab it.
My mother called from behind me, but I paid her no heed. I did not hear the sudden terror in her voice, or the thunder from above that should not have come from a clear sky on a day far too cold for rain. I had not yet lived three full cycles of seasons, though my third naming-day would fall soon, in the Soft Winds Moon that marked spring's slow beginning. I was too young to know danger, still less to understand what would come of that danger's being averted. I only knew I wanted a gokk to play with. And I wanted to run, which I could not do indoors. So I ran after the gokk.
My mother called again. The gokk had vanished behind a snowbank, and this time I heard her more clearly. She sounded stretched, thin. Afraid. I had never heard her sound afraid before.
I turned to look back at her and saw an impossible sight. A boulder, nearly five times my size. Hanging in the air above me, as if caught there by invisible hands.
I did not connect this amazing sight with my mother. Not then. I did not even fully grasp that the boulder, if it had fallen, would have crushed me. I knew only that Mother wanted me, and I must go to her. Which I did, still innocent of the reason why.
As I reached her, the boulder finished falling. Snow spattered our cloaks where we stood, several lengths away. Mother picked me up. She was trembling hard enough to rattle my teeth. I threw my arms around her neck, frightened now and needing comfort. She murmured in my ear: "Savaye, mai'le"—all is well, little heart—and we went inside.
The rest of that afternoon passed normally enough. Mother made us tea and fruit, and seemed to recover her strength. She was very quiet, buried in her own thoughts. I felt a wall around her, invisible but there. I did not think she was angry with me. It was unlike her, this wall, but not worrisome. Not then.
She gave me paper and ink and thin brushes, and I began to draw. I liked to draw, to cover the blank white sheets with curves and whorls and bright splashes of color. I would experiment with different colors and lines, to see which ones fit together and which didn't. And which ones fit in unexpected ways, even when it seemed they shouldn't. On most days, those were the ones I liked best. On this day, the white sheets reminded me of snow. I drew picture after picture of the gokk, the bushes, myself. My mother. The boulder, suspended in the bright air. Looking back, it is clear I knew something even then. But I was not old enough to tell myself what it was, in any way that would have made sense.
My father came home at twilight, the scroll he was working on under his arm and a pleased look on his face. He set the scroll down and lifted me up as soon as he came through our door, not even bothering to take off his cloak first. Cold air radiated from it, as if it were breathing winter at me. It tickled, and I shrieked with laughter as he swept me off my feet. Do you see how young I was, that decorum was not yet expected of me? Or of him, with me. He swung me up, swooped me around like a bird in flight, rubbed our noses together, pressed my forehead to his. "How is my little one? What have you been busy with today, mai'le?"
"Pictures," I said, as he set me back on my feet. "I made pictures. Lots and lots."
He regarded me with grave respect. I did not notice the glimmer of humor beneath. "I should like to see them."
"After supper," I said, and pulled him toward our kitchen. There was a good smell of stew from it, root vegetables and dumplings with winter herbs and dried ice-berries, and I was more concerned with food than with showing off my afternoon's labors.
We ate, and then I showed him my best picture: the gokk running out of the deep red bushes, a bright round sun huge and golden overhead. My father admired it profusely, and we spent some time with a fresh sheet of paper while he taught me how to draw shadows on the snow. My mother had gone to meditate, which was somewhat unusual this early; normally, she would talk with my father about his day's work, or closet herself in her study with the new drama she was working on. But she had said nothing of any trouble in her heart—had in fact gotten through the evening with perfect composure. That it was brittle as ice escaped my notice, and my father's as well. I think now he suspected what was coming and chose to ignore it as studiously as my mother did, for much the same reasons. But I did not ask him while he lived, and I shall never know.
Then it was time for sleeping. I did not disturb my mother, who was deep in meditation; I knew she would come with a kiss for me when she was ready, no matter how late the hour. Father came in and told me a story, a particularly absurd one involving Merann the Curious, a talking gokk and three Vorlons whose ship had crash-landed on the islands of Rizala, a colony world known for its warm oceans and exotic wildlife. Birds of every color, Father said, and took great joy in describing them. Especially the large one Merann was riding on, that kept cracking jokes in the hope she would laugh too hard and fall off. I remember us giggling together, the story was so silly—and I remember the sound that came next. An animal howl, like the mountain cats that prowled the slopes high above Tuzanor. They came down, sometimes, near the city's edge when the winter cold was deepest, crying with hunger that drew their skin against their bones. Only this howl did not come from the slopes outside, and it was not hunger. It came from the meditation room, and it was a kind of pain I had no knowledge of.
It was my mother, and it was a cry of despair.
My father fell silent at the sound. His face went—I did not know the word then, but I do now—bloodless. A phrase crossed my mind, from a tale he had often told me of Valen and the Nine: They knew their doom was upon them, and so they went out to face it. It was an odd thought to have. But I knew he was going to face something in answering that cry. And it frightened me.
He gripped my shoulders, gently but firmly. "Stay here, mai'le. I will come back." And then he left my room.
I huddled in my blankets. The downward-pointing end of my pillow poked me high in the back. I shifted around, but couldn't get comfortable. I heard my father's voice, and my mother's. Then my mother's voice alone, for a long time.
My stuffed gokk, Chazen, was no help at all. No matter how tightly I held her, she could not banish my fears. I buried my nose in her plush fur, which was already wearing thin in spots. The familiar scent and texture did nothing to ease me. I felt my breath come fast, anxious. Father had said to stay here. He had said he would come back. But it was so long, and he had not come. I did not hear his footsteps in the hallway, or any movement at all. Or, I realized abruptly, any voices. When had my mother stopped talking, and why did my father not speak?
Suddenly I was terrified. They had vanished, I thought, been swallowed up by the Winter Lord who rode the blizzard winds and sometimes ate naughty children. My parents were gone, and I was alone. Only that could explain the awful silence.
I threw off my blankets and got up, Chazen clutched to my chest as I ran from the room. My footsteps echoed as I pattered down the hall. If the Winter Lord were still here, I would confront him. I would demand my parents back. He could not have them. I needed them. I thought of the boulder, of myself chasing the wild gokk and not heeding my mother's voice. It was my fault they were gone. If I had to, I would tell the Winter Lord to take me in their place.
The door to my parents' sleeping-room was half open. I ran to it and stopped. They were inside, both of them. Perfectly safe, no Winter Lord anywhere, nor any snow or ice that might have been his footprints. Sitting on the low end of their bed, my mother curled against my father, his cheek resting on her head.
The sight should have reassured me. It did not. Because I saw a look on my mother's face that I had never seen before. An emptiness, as if some part of her had been stolen away and could never come back.
What I felt then, I can scarcely describe. I had once dreamed I was lost in the mountains, wandering in the snows until hunger hollowed out my stomach and tears froze on my cheeks. The sight of my mother's face brought those dream-feelings back, sudden and stark. I was lost and alone, and nothing would ever be right again. And she felt the same way, I realized. Mother was lost too, and Father couldn't help her find her way home. No one could.
Yet it seemed to me I had to try.
"Oma'mai," I said. I did not know I was going to speak, didn't know I could speak until I heard my own voice in that silent room. "What is wrong?"
They both started, clearly unaware of my presence until then. Mother looked at me, and the blankness in her face gave way to raw anguish. I flinched at it and wanted desperately to comfort her, both at the same time. She held out a hand, and I ran to her. Buried myself in her silk house-robe, breathed in the scent of her, felt the warmth of her body next to mine. Another warmth came then—my father's strong arms enfolding us both. Almost too tightly, as if he feared letting go.
"Have I been bad?" I whispered against my mother's ribcage. "I didn't mean it. I'm sorry."
She began to cry then. My own body shook with her sobbing. She was shaking her head, but could not answer me. So my father did. "No, mai'le," he said, his own voice none too steady. "You are a good girl. Our little heart that we love so much. You haven't done anything wrong."
"Then why is Mother crying?" We spoke in whispers, as if anything louder might shatter the air around us like glass.
"Because…" He faltered. "Because she must leave us. For a very special reason that cannot be set aside." He hugged us both closer as he went on. "Not right away, though. Not until the end of spring, at least. Maybe even summer."
In the chill of loss that surrounded me, I found one ember of warmth. My mother would be here for my naming-day. I clung to that, made of it a hearth-fire that helped hold off cold reality. Time enough for reality to sink in later, when my mother made her final farewells and went away with the Sisters of Valeria.
I cannot write about that long, slow spring, our last months together as a family. I know there were glad times in them; I cannot believe I spent all four spring moons and the first moon of summer sunk in misery. Yet even after all these years, even after Chenann of Valeria came to Babylon Five and we found each other again, so painful was the parting that it colors every happy memory from those days.
Sometimes, that happens with my memories of John. I try not to let it, because if I do, I will lose them. And then I will truly lose him—forever and ever, as the humans say. Still, it can be hard. It was hard for David too, especially in the first few cycles after John's passing. He knew how vital the mission was that took him from home when he most wanted to be there; we had discussed it, all three of us, over and over until we were sick of the subject. He knew also how vital it was that he be the one to go—and once the decision was made, he spent three whole days with his father, doing everything they could manage that they had always wanted to do together. Including a day's camping trip halfway up Grandmother Mountain, which I never understood their wanting to do, but which they thoroughly enjoyed despite the mess and discomfort. Or perhaps because of it. I put it down to their human traits and was glad for them, even though it meant a night alone for me when I did not have many nights with John left. Yet still, David blamed himself for not being here… after. Not for a whole Earth month, in his mind pushing the White Star all the way.
That there were others, friends dear as family, who pulled me back from the brink mattered little to his sense of guilt. He should have been here, he believed, from the very first word of parting. He was like me in that, my David. And like his father. Prone to take responsibility where it was not ours, because somebody had to. And because being responsible for something gives you a measure of control over it. If you are not responsible, then you are helpless. As I was, back when I was three cycles old and my mother went away.
I remember being sad for a long time afterward. Sometimes, I think I would have spent my entire childhood bowed under the weight of loss, if it had not been for one person. Not my father, though he took good care of me and made sure I knew nothing could take him from my side. But he had lost my mother too, and often it was more than he could bear. I saw him cry sometimes, when I crept out of bed late at night to find him, or when he thought I was too absorbed in play to notice. No, the other I speak of was a child. A little girl like me, some months the younger, who came to us for fostering the spring I turned four. A girl of the Wanderers, whose mother was a cousin of my father's, which gave her clan-right among the Miri.
A little girl named Mayan.