It was nice to be back in his own quarters – he wouldn't survive another night sleeping in his desk chair. As it was, John caught himself hunching over three times in the space of an hour, shuffling around his quarters like an arthritic old man. None of the food he already had sounded any good, and he didn't feel like making his way back down to the mess. "Shut up," he told his stomach, which growled again. He thought, not for the first time, how nice it would be if he could just swallow a pill in the morning that would keep him fed all day and leave it at that.
John plopped onto the couch, turning the Babcom on. Flipped through the channels. He'd give it five minutes, and maybe by then freeze-dried fettuccine alfredo – FETTALF in block letters on the package – would sound good. He wasn't getting his hopes up, though. There was, as usual, shit on the screen. A Centauri soap opera, some retro-engineered 4D-into-2D twenty-second century horror film, a Martian track and field competition, an adult film he watched a minute of, mostly in bemused fascination by the size of the main actress's gargantuan breasts, and then finally to ISN. Clark was settling into office, the Russian Federation was voting on something (he sort of tuned out, remembering the porn star's breasts), blah blah, and then John noticed the date.
February 14, 2259.
He turned off the screen and sat there for a minute in the near-dark. Last year he had saved up paperwork for two months and then finished it all on the fourteenth, locked in his quarters; the year before he'd been on furlough on Mars and had got shit-faced drunk at a sim-saloon. The year before that, of course, he'd been on a scouting mission and Anna had been at a conference on the other side of the galaxy. She'd sent him a message he didn't get till a week later - "there'll be other Valentine's Days," she said, laughing, looking so alive that when he found the crystal going through her things after, he'd had to throw it out.
The truth was, he'd never been huge on the holiday to begin with. Schmaltzy, designed to sell cards and candy, neither of his wives had been big on jewelry – all around, he'd much rather take the time to celebrate a birthday, or even just surprise someone with a random night out. That was, of course, before he became a widower, and suddenly there was this one day a year that seemed designed to point out his unhappiness, his tragedy.
But tonight John just didn't feel like sitting alone in the dark, and he certainly had no desire to get drunk. What he realized he wanted to do was walk down to Green Sector and ask a certain ambassador out – strictly as a way to introduce her to more human customs, of course.
He waited to feel guilty. He waited to feel like the worst person in the universe, abandoning and betraying Anna's memory. He waited, but he didn't feel anything other than impatience to see Delenn – he'd had a wonderful time the other night, damn it. It was nice to smile, to laugh, to share pleasant conversation. There was nothing wrong with wanting that. Nothing at all.
It took him no time at all to change out of his uniform, and then he was off for Green Sector.
She had eaten left-over ulabon and almara for the evening meal. It had not been very good, but Delenn did not like to waste food. However, if she had known that Captain Sheridan would arrive not half a standard hour later asking her out for dinner, she would have happily thrown the ulabon into the recycler.
"I already ate," she said, and she was both surprised and dismayed to see how much his face fell. He had arrived wearing very casual clothes, nothing like what he had worn a few nights earlier at the Fresh Air, and his request had been offered equally as casually. Her first thought was that he was simply in the general area, and that the idea of sharing a meal was a spur of the moment decision, nothing more. That was evidently not the case.
"Oh," he said, his eyes on his shoes. He scratched at his cheek, then smiled at her. Delenn was surprised to realize that she could tell that there was something inauthentic in his smile, though in truth it did not look any different from any other smile of his. But she just knew, somehow.
"Besides," she said, feeling a shiver in her stomach. She was speaking without knowing what she was going to say first, something she tried never to do anymore. "I have it on good authority that today is an important Human festival. No doubt the restaurants will be very busy. Perhaps you could just pick up a meal for yourself, and dessert for the both of us, and we could share it here?" John smiled at her, and this smile was wholly and completely genuine, without even a hint of artifice. Another shiver rolled through her, this one of an entirely different origin. It felt like walking outside on an early spring morning with bare feet, mist still clinging to the ground; it felt like that moment as the jump gate pulled and stretched at the very reality of one's being, here-not-here, the great leap into space between space; it felt like hope.
"On whose authority?" John asked, his voice low. For a moment Delenn hadn't the slightest clue to what he was referring, lost in a silly reverie. She had learned about Valentine's Day from Susan, of course, during one of their ever more frequent late-night conversations. After they had each gotten over their embarrassment of Delenn asking her about those specific problems that plagued female Humans, the ones that Dr. Franklin had singularly neglected to inform her about, they both found themselves meeting more and more often. She thought that Susan craved companionship even as she would never admit to it, and certainly Delenn had more questions than she had time to ask them. Mostly, though, she felt that everyone, and especially people with occupations like their own, needed someone in whom to confide, someone with whom they could drop those artificial constructs that were their public identities, even someone with whom, on one very late and admittedly silly night, they could giggle and laugh until their sides hurt.
"A friend," she finally said. His smile grew even wider, if that were possible, and he closed and opened one eye. A wink, she knew, a Human gesture that Londo had picked up with astonishing speed, and that to her had always carried with it an implication of scorn and condescension, but from John was transmuted into something completely endearing.
"So dinner for me, and something...chocolatey for us both?"
"No. No no no. No chocolate." The words spilled out of her in a rush. His eyes grew a little wide. "I'm sorry. I found it rather tasteless before my change, and after, it seems to, hmm. Upset my skin?" The truth was, the chocolate had tasted delicious, but within half an hour she had discovered red hives on her arms. Franklin had diagnosed it as an allergy, something she found to be quite simply unfair.
"No chocolate, then. I'll find something." And with that he was gone, having stood in her quarters for no more than two or three minutes, utterly upending her evening in the most delightfully unpredictable way.
John returned shortly, and insisted on sharing at least a few bites of the dish he had purchased for his dinner, something horribly salty and greasy and covered with far too much cheese, and Delenn did not want to admit that she greatly enjoyed it. "Captain, this is awful for you."
"That's why you need to eat some of it, too, so I don't eat it all. And call me John." Delenn had to appreciate the adroit way he had slipped in that last. He stuck his fork out, another morsel on the end of it. Delenn leaned forward and ate it, not really needing to be tempted. She would have to ask Susan later the significance of someone offering you a bite of food while they still held the utensil themselves.
While John had been gone, she had changed into a lighter house dress, something she would never wear out on official business, or even really just for a quick errand. In truth, she wasn't sure why she had ever packed it in the first place. But considering John's clothes, her more formal robes seemed far overdone, and she had no other Human dresses. Then, operating as much on instinct as anything she had ever discussed with Susan, Delenn prepared her low table for dinner, bringing over the soft cushions against which they could rest. She lit all the candles she had in her quarters, bringing in the ones from her bed chamber and the lavatory.
John came back with the food, yes, and also a bunch of flowers he almost seemed to shove at her, in an embarrassed way. He mumbled something about "flowers on Valentine's Day," and apologized for the fact that they were not real. "There weren't any real ones left, probably haven't been for days. They're still pretty, though, aren't they?" They were, and they had the slightest of scents, as well, something definitely alien yet still pleasant. She probably would not have known they were not real had he not called attention to the fact. She arranged them in a vase and set them on the shelves by the inner doors. The candlelight made them look a bit ghostly, soft white petals almost glowing as if from within.
John had pushed away the last few bites of his meal, and was looking at her now. She wasn't used to being the object of such study, at least not in such a frank, appraising way. "What is it?" Delenn finally asked, unable to bear the scrutiny anymore.
"That's not a Human dress, is it?"
"No. It is from home."
"It's very pretty." She didn't know what to say to that. She was glad that he found it attractive (found her attractive?), and yet also felt quite uncomfortable at the same time. It was an unnerving sensation. She found herself staring into her water glass, and he made a sound and cleared away his nearly-empty container.
The brief respite was necessary. Delenn took the opportunity to gaze at a candle flame for a few seconds and focus her thoughts. By the time John returned, grimacing a bit as he crouched down again to take his seat on the floor, she had reminded herself that a friendly dinner between two colleagues who needed to work well together was all that this was, and nothing more. Late night conversations with Susan or not, idle daydreams or not, nothing more was all there could be. Perhaps he sensed the strengthening of her resolve, because his tone became more professional, without that low, sonorous rumble that threatened to bring down her walls like the rush of tide eventually tears away at even the hardest of rock.
"Do Minbari have any traditions like this? Like Valentine's Day?"
"No one single day reserved, no. A linked Minbari couple would celebrate the specific days they reached various points in the courtship rituals, perhaps, though that is something that varies. My parents, I was told, only ever commemorated the occasion of their first..." Delenn trailed off, both wondering how quickly he had managed to bring her right back to the same point, and feeling that she did not know him well enough to share such a personal story.
"First kiss," she answered, eyes firmly fixed on her water. Would he make some sarcastic Human comment now? Chuckle? Come immediately back with a story of his own, in the self-centered back-and-forth the Humans seemed to think was conversation?
"Ah, that's lovely," he said instead, in a voice scarcely louder than a whisper. "I like that." Delenn could feel his eyes on her without needing to see him. A silence extended between them, and she did not know what to say to fill it.
John saved her, perhaps saved them both, by drawing up another container and setting it on the table. "So. I just got one, I thought we could share. And that way if you didn't like it, or your skin didn't like it, well, there'd be less gone to waste." She shook herself internally and made herself look at the opening of the container with interest.
Upon a bed of scarlet red liquid sat a wedge of soft white cake, topped with soft mounds of whipped cream. Small Earth fruits – berries, she thought they were called – were scattered over the cake and in the sauce. There was something about its simplicity and its presentation that reminded her of ritual Minbari foods, meant to evoke an emotional response as much as to satisfy any physical hunger.
"What is it?" she breathed. She prepared for John to feed her a bite, as he had done earlier, but instead he handed her a fork. Was the ritual then reversed for the next course? Delenn accepted that she would have to be patient and offered him the first taste – as she raised the utensil to him, she saw him lift his own. They froze in that position for a moment.
Then Delenn withdrew her fork, feeling stupid and embarrassed, just as John set down his and leaned forward to take the bite. How had this become a farce? John laughed, and she could not help but laugh as well.
"I wish you Humans would make up your minds as to who uses the forks and when," she grumbled. He was still laughing. It was cruel.
"I'm sorry. Okay. Fly her in." He opened his mouth like an infant creature. Fly what in? But she could intuit the context if nothing else, so she fed him, still feeling foolish. Had he felt this way earlier? Had he simply been waiting for her to pick up her own utensil, and when she had not, had resorted to doing it himself?
But now he speared a chunk of cake and one of the berries, dipped them through the sauce and cream, and held it out to her. Delenn resigned herself to never knowing how the ritual truly worked, and tried the dessert.
"Oh." The cake seemed to melt on her tongue, the berries were tart and sweet; she allowed herself cream in her tea as a weekly indulgence, but it was even better like this, frothed up into an almost air-like perfection. "This is very good."
"Angel food cake."
"An angel is a religious figure, yes?
"Right. In heaven. Which is light. Or something – I'm not really sure. The opposite would be devil's food, which is a dense, thick chocolate, but, well."
"I like this better anyway." She prepared another bite and lifted it to her own mouth, even as he opened his for her. She smiled at his exaggerated moue of disappointment.
It had been about an hour ago that he'd convinced her to move off the floor – mats, cushions, candles or not, the floor was the floor, and it was no more comfortable here than anywhere else on the station. Her couch was much better. Also much better was the way the night had evened out. It had started...awkwardly, once he'd returned with the food. It was though he kept saying the wrong thing, or doing the wrong thing. He wasn't sure – her reactions and expressions weren't always Human, or if they were, he couldn't be sure the meaning behind them was the same.
"But he ended up forgetting to bring me the flowers after all," Delenn finished. John smiled at the end of her story, mostly because he didn't want her to know that at some point he'd sort of zoned out, concentrating more on how pretty she looked in the candlelight, in her filmy silky dress that made her look a bit like some Grecian painting. Maybe she'd only been awkward earlier because he'd been gawking at her like he'd never seen a woman before.
Another pause, but this one wasn't awkward or uncomfortable at all. They were both tired, and it was late, and for a moment it was enough to just sit. John's vision swam in front of him for a moment, and he knew that if he were going to make the long walk back to his quarters, he'd need to start now. Delenn seemed to sense it just as he did, because she rose in one graceful movement.
She walked him to the door. All in all, he was glad he'd come down to see her. John still wasn't sure if this was going anywhere – wasn't sure it would be a good idea at all – but he was still glad. "Thank you," she said, eyes soft as she turned them up to his.
"For sharing your celebration with me."
He shrugged. "Valentine's Day was never my favorite holiday." Oh God. What had he just said? Delenn looked vaguely stunned, and he guessed that look on a Minbari translated to a Human looking as though they'd just been slapped in the face. He did his best not to blink, and reached down to take her hand. "It's a day that ends up becoming way too stressful. You try to outdo the year before, be creative, give a better gift than her friend's husband, and on and on. I think there's really only one good Valentine's Day." He paused for just a moment, enough to let her wrinkle her brow up at him, curious, though he thought he could still see vague hurt lingering in the corners of her face. "The first one," he said, and then he lifted her hand and pressed a kiss to the back of it.
He could see her swallow hard, and her eyes looked suspiciously shiny in the candlelight. John meant to release her then, but instead turned his face into the palm of her other hand as she brought it to his cheek. She leaned up as he lowered his head, and her lips were soft against his, and still tasted faintly of berries.
She was all stars and symphonies when he looked into her eyes again. There was no need to say goodnight, or to say anything at all.