There were three hundred cell blocks, thirty cells to a block, and three men to a cell. John shared his with a Marine named Jessica and a man who no longer seemed capable of speech, so he couldn't tell them his name. He just cried, cried day and night, until John was ready to shoot him. "Shut the fuck up, man," Jessica snarled. It did no good. The man just cried harder.
They were treated well. Two squares a day, blankets and clean water and a toilet that flushed. No beatings. But they knew what had happened to everyone else, and John would have happily taken a beating every day for the rest of his life if it had meant that his mom and dad were still alive, and his sister, and Anna, and his shipmates, and his friends from the Academy, and Elizabeth, and everyone else. They were all dead, though, murdered when the Minbari swept through the Line and took Earth for their own. There were just a few of them left, but they were not a happy few, and that was for certain.
One of the boneheads had come to him yesterday, and taken him out of his cell and out of the cell block, across a yard that John now recognized as the quad of some university, to a building that had once been a library. There were two meek Minbari cataloging the books and carting them out. Maybe to burn. Why the fuck not? John sat at a mahogany table that would have cost him half a year's salary before the war, and they poured him a whole goddamned tumbler of vodka.
"We do not drink your spirits. Soon the bottles and barrels left will be sent off to other worlds, and we will likely use the profits to care for what Humans remain." The bonehead somehow managed to make this sound as though the Minbari were doing them a favor. "In the meantime, please enjoy." John didn't touch the glass, didn't even look at it. He just sat there, doing his best to ignore the itch in his scalp and the fuzz on his teeth, and he imagined beating the Minbari across from him to a bloody pulp. His fingers twitched, and he ground his teeth together.
"Your name is not John Sinclair. There is no pilot listed with that name. And the number you gave us did not come up in the system. There was a Jeffrey Sinclair, however. Why did you borrow his identity?" John didn't answer. He wondered if Minbari skulls were thicker. How many times would he have to slam his head into the table before he broke it open? "Was Jeffrey Sinclair a friend of yours?"
"Kid I went to the Academy with." Even that seemed like too much information, but what the hell. They were going to figure it out eventually. And what was the point any more?
"Ah. I regret to inform you that Jeffrey Sinclair is deceased. He was one of the pilots who flew as part of Earth's last stand. A tragic loss."
"What?" John growled it out, and the bonehead hadn't been expecting the question or the tone. "What do you mean, a 'tragic loss'?"
The bonehead didn't have an answer for that. He turned off his tablet and rose, looking down his nose at John with haughty disdain. "You will wait here."
John waited. After three or four hours – he'd once been able to gauge time more accurately, but the weeks stuck in his cell had fucked up his internal clock – a different bonehead came along and took him back to the block. He missed the evening meal. Too bad. The man was crying, and John barely stifled the urge to kick him, instead slamming his fist into the wall.
Bloody knuckles. Why not? Why not.
She came for him three days later. She was small for a Minbari, and the bone around her head was smooth. She was a priestess or something. John was led out of his cell, and somehow he knew he wouldn't be coming back. He gave Jessica a hug, and he kissed the crying man on the cheek. "It's not over," he whispered fiercely. "You can do this." But whether he truly could or not, John would never know. He never saw him again.
The female Minbari didn't take him back to the library, or to the infirmary, or to an execution chamber, which is really what John had been expecting. Instead, he was put on a shuttle, and they flew for long enough that John started to feel antsy when she still didn't say a word to him. "What's your name?" he asked, but she was reading something on her tablet, taking notes. He wasn't sure she even heard him.
They landed someplace cold, in the mountains. He had enough of a view on the way from the shuttle to a train station to guess they were in the Alps. Switzerland, probably. Geneva. Figured they would take it over for their own. Probably dragged down all the EA flags, knocked over the statues, set the treaties on fire. If he charged the female now, if he knocked her down and made as if to kill her, would guards appear to put him down? John wanted to, he wanted to so much he could taste it. It could end, and he could see his loved ones again or be born again or just fucking stop, it didn't really matter which. Anything would be better than this slow impersonal death.
They rode the train higher up the mountain, in a big first-class car, completely empty save for the two of them. She watched him now, a studious and interested look on her face. Like he was a neat bug she'd found under a rock. John made himself stare back. She'd be halfway pretty if she wasn't bald, if her brow wasn't so deep and wrinkled. He wondered how many Humans were dead by her orders or by her prayers. Did she ever see the blood on her hands? Probably not. You didn't stress if you stepped on a bug.
From the train they climbed the mountain in a car. They took a narrow road that hugged the side of a peak, steep drop-offs to the side. She made him get out, then had a conversation with the driver. It was snowing, and for a moment John let himself close his eyes and pretend that everything was going to be okay. He would open his eyes and it would be three years ago, Christmas at home, he and Lizzie were making snowmen and Mom was yelling at them to stop horsing around and get inside for pie. She had made a pecan pie and a pumpkin pie and a gooseberry pie, and he told her gooseberry pie tasted like snot, like he did every year, because the first year he'd said it when he was eleven he'd made his dad laugh so hard he'd snorted coffee out his nose.
John opened his eyes, and she was stepping out of the car. She gestured for him to walk up a winding stone staircase to a house that seemed lodged in a crack in the mountain. Thick stone, small windows. It had been built before they'd developed total weather seals. And, as he stepped inside, it had never been retrofitted, either. He could see his breath. It had been refurnished, though. No Humans had ever owned this furniture. These were Minbari things. There was a crystal wind chime thing hanging a few feet away, and John was halfway to deciding he was going to knock it down and stomp every crystal to bits when she finally spoke.
"John Sheridan. The Starkiller." The jig was up. John turned to her and bowed deeply, like an actor taking a curtain call.
"At your service."
"'You are proud of your epithet?" Her voice was melodious, haunting. He just couldn't figure out why she'd brought him all this way to interrogate him, since that was obviously what was going on.
"Am I proud I managed to blow some of you straight to hell? You're damn right I'm proud." He raised his chin and stared at her, defiant. He wasn't going to snivel and beg. He owed that much to the ones who had fallen, to the men and women of the Line, to the unsung grunts who'd bled and died for Earth. For nothing, as it turned out.
She didn't seem angry, though. She only smiled. "Your room is upstairs," she said, and she gestured again, making him lead the way.
The room was bigger than any he'd ever had before. There was a dresser, and he opened a drawer to reveal five or six identical pairs of sweatpants. The drawer beneath held t-shirts. Socks under that. There was a plastic bag on top of the dresser filled with toiletries, though a cursory glance revealed no razors. A bed and chair completed the furnishings. John turned to see her standing in the doorway, the bug-studying look back on her face.
"This meets with your approval?" she asked. John was too tired to be curious. It didn't seem as though she was planning to kill him or torture him any time soon, so he wasn't going to worry about it.
"I'm cold." No reason not to be honest. Worst case scenario, she wouldn't give a shit. But she only nodded and left. He heard the distinct sound of a lock turning, and then her quiet footsteps descending. There was a window by the bed, and John went to it, looking out over the mountains, all clad in white. The sky was white, too, and the snow was coming down even harder. Might be a white-out soon. It would be as though the rest of the world had disappeared, erased from existence.
How long John stood at the window, he didn't know. At some point he realized he wasn't shivering any more, and he walked over to the old-fashioned vent and felt warm air pouring out. He sat down on the floor beside it and let the heat sink into his bones. He thought she might bring him a meal at some point, but she didn't. John got tired of waiting, and the white sky gave way to black, and his eyes grew heavy. He pulled off his dirty flight suit and pulled on sweats and a t-shirt. The bed was covered with a down comforter, and he found a quilt tucked underneath. He threw that on top. He never liked sleeping with socks on, though, so he climbed under the covers without. It took a bit for his body heat to warm up the bed, but once it did, he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
He never heard her unlock the door, and he didn't know that she came in and stood beside the bed, watching him.
John woke up feeling as though he'd slept for a thousand years. His tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth and he couldn't get his eyes to open, but he still felt amazing. For a moment, for just a single moment, he forgot where he was and what had happened. Instead, he just luxuriated in bed, mattress soft beneath him, enveloped in warmth.
Someone was cooking bacon. He sat up, interested.
Then he got a good look at the room in daylight, the spartan plainness of it. A bed, a chair, some clothes. Shampoo, toothbrush. Maybe everything was a little bit nicer, but it was still a prison cell. The bedroom door was open, and the smell of bacon wafted up from below. John ignored the angry rumble in his stomach and gathered up his toiletries, stepping into the tiny bathroom adjoining his room. It reminded him of the head on the Lexington, just barely big enough for him to fit inside. He brushed his teeth, then brushed them again. He took as hot a shower as he could stand, and once he started washing his body it was as though he couldn't get it clean. The loofah he used was rough, and the soap was standard stuff, not chock full of moisturizers and aloes and shit. He knew he was bearing down too hard, that he was probably scrubbing himself raw, but he couldn't stop.
For the first time, he wondered if he was going crazy.
That was enough of a jolt that he dropped the loofah and shut the water off. He stood there, dripping, letting the water evaporate off his skin until he shook and shivered. When he couldn't stand it anymore, he turned to reach for a towel. He decided he wasn't hungry anymore. He was going to dry off then climb right back into bed. Let her drag him out if she wanted. Otherwise, he was not ready to deal with all of this.
He slid open the door to grab his towel, and she was standing there, just inside the doorway, eyes roaming over his naked body.
"Jesus, what the fuck?" he said, unnerved. His first instinct was to wrap the towel around his waist, to hide himself, but he made himself stand still. Don't reveal any weaknesses. Don't let her know what to use against you. He shook his head, trying to take away the sting of his words, hell, she probably thought that's just the way Humans talked.
"A breakfast has been prepared for you." She just kept standing there, looking at him and not trying to hide it. Maybe nudity wasn't a big deal for Minbari. Maybe she had never seen a naked Human before.
John just shrugged and turned his back on her, casually drying his hair. He was keenly aware of her presence, a tickle between his shoulder blades. He counted, one thousand one, one thousand two. He made it to one thousand six before he finally heard her walk away, and by then his heart was pounding like a jackhammer, and he felt as though he were soaked in sweat.
Throwing on clean sweats, and tugging on some socks now that he had to walk around on the cold stone and hardwood floors, John walked downstairs. She hadn't exactly given him the grand tour the night before, so he followed his nose to the dining room, more of a nook adjoining the kitchen. Scrambled eggs, bacon, toast with butter and jam, orange juice, coffee. It was a fragging feast. She sat at the other end of the table, idly stirring some hot tea. John took his seat, hoping he didn't drool all over his plate. He was sure she heard his stomach growl as he took a small bite of toast.
Nothing had ever tasted so good, and he hated her for it, hated her for making him appreciate a piece of toast made by a Minbari, hated her more for that than he hated her whole species for nearly killing them off. He put the toast down, afraid he might vomit.
"My name is Delenn," she said. "I am a member of the Religious Caste. Do you know what that means?"
"I know I don't give a shit," he answered. He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in the chair.
"It means that I am not interested in perpetuating a war between our species. It means that I wish to find a peaceful accord." Her voice was so young, so earnest. John grabbed the glass of orange juice, meaning to throw it in her face, but he just barely kept himself from doing so. "When we discovered who you were, John Sheridan, many wished to kill you. I did not want that to happen."
"Why?" He had to ask the question, even though he knew the answer would be dreadful. But she only leaned forward, chin on her hand, looking for all the world like a bright graduate student.
"You managed to harm us when no other member of your people could. How did you do such a thing? What made you different? It could be very useful for us to learn this information."
"You want me to show you a way to make the Minbari even more invincible?" John laughed a sharp, bitter laugh. "No fucking way. Do you hear me? I'm not telling you a thing. You can torture me, you can do whatever you want."
"I am not going to torture you, Lieutenant Commander Sheridan. I have no interest in torture. I find it interesting that your species does, though." Oh, wonderful. A lecture on morality. "Your warfare has no honor. You personally managed to strike a real blow because you fought without honor."
"Destroying an entire species is fighting with honor? Genocide is honorable?" Delenn's cool, calm facade cracked just a little at that, but only a little, and she covered it up well. So someone wasn't one hundred percent happy with the annihilation of the Human race? Good to know. John pressed his advantage before she had a chance to recover. "Maybe a sneak attack is dishonorable to you, but when you're a weak, technologically disadvantaged society fighting for its very existence, dishonor is a better price to pay than death. Why should all eleven billion of us have just rolled over and let you murder us because of one man's mistake?"
Wrong thing to say. Her eyes went cold and flinty, and he could hear frost in her voice. "One man's mistake? You make it sound like a trifle, as though he dropped a glass. He murdered many fine Minbari, including our leader. I held him while he died, a man better than any Human who ever lived or will ever exist."
John couldn't think of anything to say to that. Her fingers were trembling just slightly, and he filed away that little nugget of information for future reference. Delenn had been very close to the former Minbari leader, who had died in the initial attack. A personal relationship, which meant she was powerful, in one way or another. And she had taken him away to do with as she wished, to experiment on or God knew what else.
He would need to be strong for whatever lay ahead. Swallowing the lump in his throat, and never taking his eyes off her face, John ate his breakfast.
After he finished eating, she locked him up in his upstairs room, like he was Rapunzel or something. The angle of the window meant he couldn't see her leave, but he heard her. More than that, though, he felt alone. Maybe if this dragged on too long before she finally got tired of her little experiment and killed him he'd end up hating being alone, feeling sure he was the only Human left, but for the time being, alone was just peachy. He climbed back into the bed and under all the covers. It was always cold in space, no matter the ship and its environmentals. When was the last time he'd been nice and warm? Probably that Christmas three years ago. Then most of the heat had come from a fire. Dad was still in his farmer phase, having planted an acre of corn and an acre of soybeans, fixing up an old farmhouse he'd bought for a song. There was something about real heat that warmed the spirit as it warmed the body. Thermal units just didn't compare. There was a fireplace in this room, cold and dark, probably hadn't been lit in a hundred years. John decided he'd ask the Minbari to bring him wood. A fire sounded nice.
In the meantime, he lay under the covers, staring at the ceiling. A soft, pearly gray light flooded in the window, but it was dim enough that he could close his eyes and it felt like night. John dozed, slipping in and out of a sleep so shallow he didn't really dream, though at one point he was sure he heard the Minbari return to the house, come up to his room and stand beside the bed. When he opened his eyes, though, he was alone, and the door was locked.
Some time later, how much later he couldn't say, John explored the room. There wasn't much to explore. The cushion in the window seat flipped up to reveal some storage space, but it held nothing but dust and rotted cobwebs. Under the bed he found a chess set. Wooden pieces, though not hand-carved. Dark brown and light brown. John put the chess set under the window seat.
There were three books on the bookcase. One was a study of the migration patterns of European birds. One was a pulp mystery with a naked woman on the faded and bent cover. And one was a collection of Centauri poetry, of all things. John tried to picture the person who had once lived in this house, who had owned these three books. A short man, probably. Balding. He could have easily afforded eye surgery but wore glasses out of some anachronistic eccentricity. His nails would be well-manicured, and some might have suspected him to be a homosexual at first glance, but he was as straight as they came. He had a fetish, John decided, cracking open the mystery. He liked to bite.
He finished the mystery and tossed it back on the shelf. The other two books he put with the chess set.
His cell, which now seemed twenty years in the past, had measured six paces by eight paces. This room measured fourteen paces by sixteen paces. And, of course, there was the bathroom, too, which was three paces by probably four or five paces, though the shower got in the way.
Every cadet who went through the Academy took a unit on enemy capture. What to do if you ended up in a POW camp; what to do if you were interrogated; what to do if you were tortured; what to do if they had you record a message, sent home on a crystal in hopes of securing a ransom or changing some EarthForce policy; what to do in just about any situation imaginable.
What to do if some Minbari snatched you up as her personal...something? John had missed that class, so he was going to treat this as a standard POW situation. He was the only prisoner in the camp. He had one jailer. A bit unique, but nothing to short out his circuits.
Stay alert. Stay sane. Don't give up hope. Look for opportunities to escape, but only take those opportunities if they are either totally perfect with no chance of being caught, or if the conditions have degraded to such an extent that you feel you must either make the attempt or die trying.
There were no opportunities to escape. She had him in a fucking cottage in the fucking Alps, for Christ's sake. The door knob and window had been recently replaced. He wasn't going to be able to mickey the door open or break the window. He was stuck inside for as long as she wanted him stuck inside.
John thought quite seriously, for about ten seconds, about suicide. He looked here and there. Sheets. Tied into a noose. Looped around the bed post. Kneel on the floor, lean forward, no leverage. Pressure on the windpipe. Two, three minutes – unconsciousness. It was good to have a plan, good to know that option was there should he decide to take it, but for the time being, John just filed it away. It's not over. You can do this.
Stay alert. Stay sane. John stripped down to his boxers, shoved the bed over into the corner. Running in place; push-ups; sit-ups; running in place; running in place. Running in place. After God knew how long – hours, maybe, the quality of light seemed unchanging, that dim gray glow – he realized he was no longer running, not even really walking, just standing there, shifting his weight from side to side, barely drawing his heels off the floor. Soaked in sweat, he stumbled into the shower, not bothering to shut the door behind him. He turned the water on as hot as possible. His muscles were already screaming. No doubt tomorrow he'd be nearly hobbled. Stay sane. Yeah, that's the ticket. A sound surprised him, a hoarse bark that reverberated off the tile. John realized it was a laugh, and that it had come from his own throat.
When he finally emerged from the shower, the pearly gray light seemed a trifle dimmer. Was the day already gone? A tiny shiver of panic bubbled up from his stomach, but before it could claw at his chest, he shoved it back down. Time is relative. If she's going to leave you like this, you're just going to need to break up your day. Be in control. Manage every part of your life that she lets you. John undertook each task with an almost manic concentration, drying his body, his hair, applying the thoughtfully-provided lotion, then toweling up the water he'd slopped all over the floor. John leaned over the sink and stared at himself in the mirror for a minute, reminding himself that he was who he knew he was, that the essential part of his being had not changed.
At some point, gripping the cool marble of the counter, staring into the reflection of his own eyes so intently that he could no longer recognize them as eyes, like saying a word so many times it became nonsense, John became convinced that the Minbari woman was just outside the bathroom, watching him. She was studying his naked body, just like she had before. Gooseflesh prickled up and down his spine, and his testicles tried to creep back up into his body. He felt frozen, unable to move, even to shift his eyes to see her. But he didn't want to end up crying in the corner like the man whose name he never learned, a broken shell, so he gave himself a good, resounding mental slap and stood up straight, turning to the open doorway.
No one was there.
John walked back out into the main room, still sure that someone had been there. And indeed, the door was unlocked and open. She had been here, at least to the door. Had it been while he'd stared at himself in the mirror? While he was crouched like some deranged caveman, mopping up water from the floor? While he had been in the shower? Or had she even seen him running, like an automaton with a loose wire, seeing nothing, mind blessedly blank? He pulled on his gray sweats – gray like the light, gray like the stone, gray like the carpet, gray like the shower tiles, gray gray gray – and went downstairs, feeling like a man walking to the gibbet.
Delenn was eating a salad, reading a tablet. She didn't even look up when he entered the dining room. Suddenly nothing sounded better than fresh crisp greens, juicy tomato wedges, thin shaved slices of some hard cheese, vinegar and oil. John looked down at his plate with a frown.
"I don't get a salad?" The steak and baked potato in front of him looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, but damn it, he wanted something raw and real, something he knew had never so much as breathed the air from a cryo-system.
She smiled at him, setting her tablet aside. The smile was tight, but it brightened her face nonetheless, like a tart glass of lemonade you wouldn't want to drink, but was pretty to look at. "What is the human saying? You are pushing your luck?"
"Pressing it. A salad would be good for me, though. You wouldn't want me to get scurvy."
"You are taking a nutritional supplement." John dry-swallowed the vitamin next to his plate with a grimace. "But," she continued, "I will see what I can do."
Before he could help himself, John smiled back at her. It felt strange and foreign on his face, but it also felt good. He liked smiling. He especially liked smiling at girls, though he wasn't sure he could describe Delenn as a girl, not really. He imagined her popping full-grown out of an egg. For all he knew, maybe she had. The thought made him smile even wider, showing teeth, there was a creak in his cheek and he wondered if some icy shell was breaking off. He didn't want to smile, she didn't deserve a smile, but it was just easier to smile. This wasn't Stockholm Syndrome, it wasn't. But if he wanted salads and books and something other than running until he dropped of exhaustion, he guessed he could smile.
John finally sat with a wince and a moan, picking up his knife and fork. (Could he pocket the knife without her seeing it? If he ate slowly enough, if she got up to do something with her plate, he could slide it right up the sleeve of his sweatshirt.) John glanced up at her, only to find her looking at him with what could only be concern. "You are injured?" she asked.
"No, no. I just..." John shook his head, not wanting to tell her what he'd done, but his mind was blank. He couldn't think of a lie quickly enough.
She stood in one graceful movement, coming around behind him, running light fingertips across his shoulders. "Where did you injure yourself?" she murmured, and she touched the hair on the back of his head, one quick light touch, as though she was afraid it might burn her or something. Just that was enough to send a shiver of pleasure through his body. How long had it been since he'd been touched with anything remotely approaching tenderness, gentleness? He had no idea.
"I was just running in place in my room," he blurted out. "I was bored." Stop touching me, stop touching me. He didn't want to feel good, he didn't want her to touch him in any way, shape or form. It was grotesque. John hunched his shoulders forward, wanting to run away, back to safety. Already the upstairs room had assumed the specter of home, and realizing that brought tears to his eyes. How fucking awful, that he should think of that cold, dead space as home. His home was an Illinois farmhouse, it was his berth on the Lexington, it was the hotel room on Olympus Mons where he'd been with Anna for the last time.
John didn't realize a tear had escaped until the Minbari reached out a finger and touched it as it slid down his cheek. He jerked away from her, picked up his fork and shoved a hunk of steak in his mouth. It was cold, and tough as shit, but he chewed it just enough to be able to get it down his throat. She was still watching him, he could feel it like a line of ants marching up and down his back, but he refused to look her way again. After an eternity, she returned to her salad. A few bites and she was done, leaving him there at the table, chewing on a piece of meat until he thought his jaw would fall off, it was like when Mom had made him finish his dinner when he was a kid, Swiss steak, that was the worst, he could chew and chew and never manage to get it down, and he was fucking crying again, spitting out the food in his mouth so he wouldn't choke on it, he didn't want her to see, he tried to cover his face but his arms were so tired, and was she still even here, could she even see him? And that was enough to jolt his brain back on track. He stopped, only then realizing that he had been hyperventilating.
Johnny, you are doing a fucking fantastic job of staying sane.
He wiped the snot off his face, trying to get his breathing back under control. Hands slid back and forth over his shoulders and down his biceps. Delenn. She had been standing behind him, probably the whole time he'd sat there and cried like a baby. "Come now," she said gently, and this time when she touched his hair her fingers lingered. "Come upstairs."
He nodded and docilely let her help him to his feet. Easier to smile, easier to let her guide him up the stairs, easier to just let her do whatever she wanted.
"Do you wish me to bring you something for entertainment?" she asked.
"I'm tired," John answered in a flat, hoarse voice. "I want to go to sleep."
Now he shook off her arm and headed straight for the bed. Sitting was even harder now, after the climb up the stairs. He half-collapsed onto the mattress, forgetting to move aside the covers first. It would be too much work to try and sit up now, slide them from under his body, so John resigned himself to just laying on top. He would be cold, but only for a little while. Then he would fall asleep, and everything would go away. He would dream of everyone he had once known, all those people who were dead, whom he would never see again. Yes, far better to dream.
But he wouldn't be cold. She drew the covers from the other side of the bed over him, folding him up like a taco. Tears threatened again, his throat grew thick, but John couldn't find the strength to cover his face. His hands shook under the blankets. He felt Delenn's fingertips on his face, just sketching along the skin so gently it was like a butterfly kiss, ghostly and delicate. A pat on his shoulder, her hand on his chest for a heartbeat. "Sleep now," she said, and then she whispered something in her own tongue, something haunting, an incantation of sorts. He waited for her to leave, but instead the mattress moved as she sat beside him.
John fell asleep to the feel of her fingertips brushing through his hair.