"The ground is too hard to dig," John groused, looking over his shoulder at Delenn, who had what could only be called a shit-eating grin on her face. Well, what you'd call it if you were a foul-mouthed Earther, that is; Delenn would probably just say she was 'attune with the mystical joy of the universe' or something.
"Shall I fetch a Worker?" she asked, rubbing an unconscious hand over the bump that still just barely stuck out through her thick winter robes. John glared at her and kept digging.
It was odd, after all these years, having a house. A house that wasn't his parents' house, that wasn't a prefab module on the main Mars base. His house, his very own house. That it was sitting on Minbar somehow wasn't as strange as the fact that it existed at all. There was an open porch in the back that overlooked the city, and to one side a small plot of untouched ground. John was half an hour into digging a hole in the center of that plot, and the rock-hard frozen dirt was not cooperating.
"When did you say it was going to warm up? Like in a hundred years or so?" he asked, thrusting the shovel down again, putting his back in it. Delenn did not acknowledge his sarcasm.
"This ritual should have been completed a moon cycle ago," she said smoothly.
"Well, we were kinda busy."
For some reason, John had thought that when he'd finally put a ring on it, he was going to be done with the rituals. Somewhere, a mean-spirited minor deity was still laughing. This particular ritual had to do with the life cycle of Minbar the planet and with Minbari the species, all tied up together. Delenn hadn't gone into it much more than that, just handing him a shovel, a nut kind of like an acorn, and dragging him to the proper spot to dig.
He hated Minbar dirt. It sucked. At this point, he actually thought he was just digging through rock, full stop.
"That's deep enough," Delenn said, and John stepped back, trying not to wheeze. She came forward, holding a delicate pair of scissors. Like everything made on Minbar, they served their practical function, but were essentially a work of art besides – filagree inset into the handle, curving blades, even the screw that held the halves together was a prettily carved gem. (No wonder they tend to think they're better than all the other species, John thought. Because they mostly are, the bastards.)
John set the acorn-thing down into the hole, the sides of which were already covered with frost. Delenn reached up and clipped a lock of his hair, which she placed next to the acorn-thing; John returned the favor. "But Minbari don't usually have hair," he said. The thought had just now occurred to him.
"Shall we shave a sliver of your bone crest into the hole?" she asked, a bit archly.
Together they knelt and pushed the earth (or...what would they call it? minbar, little m?) back into the hole, patting it down with their bare palms.
"I'm going to lose my hands to frostbite," he whined, though it wasn't of course a real whine. They'd worked out the mechanics of this particular game over the past year.
Delenn kissed his cheek, then slid her tongue over to his earlobe. "Come inside," she murmured. "I'll warm you up."
"David, put down that bird and come here right now," Delenn said, trying to keep her voice level and calm. Unfortunately, 'level' and 'calm' didn't usually work with David, whom Delenn was coming to believe was Mischief Incarnate, for all that she loved him. At the moment, he was perched on the balcony's ledge, where he had finally stalked down one of the tame, fat endas who often congregated outside their house in the morning. He had it clutched in his hands – gently, she hoped – and was cooing at it in his odd little English-Adronato pidgin.
"Hello, enda, little bird'nha, don't be dum'e, I won't hurt you, ni, ni."
"David. That is one." The traditional forms of Minbari discipline didn't seem to work on David, so John had downloaded her an Earth parenting manual. One of the major precepts had to do with counting. Delenn had finished reading the book last night, and was doubtful the method would work. And indeed, David glanced her way, then turned back to the bird in his hands.
She watched as David stuck a grubby hand into the front pouch on his day-tunic, pulling out a handful of seed. The enda pecked up some seed, then trilled its pretty song up to David, nuzzling its fat head into his chest. "Nusental, bird'nha."
"David. That is two." Delenn switched the watering can from one hand to the other. It hadn't seemed heavy when she'd brought it outside...
Her four-year-old son glanced her way again, a longer glance this time. She had explained the rules to him this morning, after breakfast. When I ask you to do something, or when I ask you to stop doing something, I expect you to obey me. If you do not, I will count to three. If I reach the number three, you will sit by yourself in the corner chair in your father's study for ten minutes. Do you understand? David had nodded his head, those big owlish eyes, so much like John's, staring at her guilelessly. I always do what you say, ama, he had said. A most incredible lie.
David petted the bird's head, as it was now willingly sitting in his lap, eating methodically away at the seed. Delenn did not like endas - they were careless with their waste, they pecked away at flowers and fruit, and they began their pretty little songs quite early in the morning. Since she did not like them, David adored them; this seemed to be the way of things.
"David. That is three." She drew in a breath to continue speaking, to tell him that it was time for his time-outside in John's study, a predictable English oxymoron of sorts. But David promptly set the bird aside, brushed the rest of the seed off his lap, stood, and marched over to her side. His upturned face was the picture of innocence.
Delenn thought about scolding him, but the manual was quite explicit that she was to say nothing more. So she only knelt down so that David could put his hand over hers on the watering can's handle.
In the center of their garden plot stood one single green shoot. John said that it reminded him of bamboo, an Earth tree. "Doesn't the rain land here too?" David asked as they watered the shoot.
"It does, but this summer has been hot, so all the plants need extra water to drink."
"Like I need to eat extra hylax so I can grow tall like Dad?"
The watering finished, Delenn set the can down, then took a seat on the bench. David joined her. For the time being, he sat primly by her side; she knew that he would eventually try to wriggle his way onto her lap. And she would let him - even though he was still so young, Delenn already knew she would grieve the day he was too old to sit in her lap, so she treasured every moment.
"When you are old enough, you may water your tree yourself," she told him.
"What tree? Where's my tree?" David craned his neck this way and that, looking.
"We just watered it."
"That's not a tree, that's a plant."
"One day it will be a tree, just as one day you will no longer be a little boy, but a man."
David thought about that. As he thought, he nonchalantly clambered up into her lap, resting his head contemplatively under her chin. "When I'm a man, do I still have to eat glomo?"
Delenn smiled down at the top of his head. "Yes."
They were eating dinner inside, but the house seemed suddenly stuffy, and Susan didn't have any appetite anyway. She made her way to the porch, and leaned over the edge, drawing in deep breaths of the cool Minbari air.
John was dead. She still couldn't quite believe that it was real. Last night he'd been at the table with the rest of them, laughing, telling stories, as bright and magnetic as he had ever been. Now he was gone. Susan was surprised by how much that thought hurt. She had just seen him, talked to him, hugged him – he was fine! How could he be gone?
A storm was coming down from the mountains – a gust of wind hit her full in the face, carrying a smattering of raindrops in its wake. Susan retreated to the shelter of a tree, standing in the middle of a small garden to the side of the balcony. The trunk was slender, but it stood tall in the wind, swaying only a little side to side.
Susan wished she could cry, but she'd never been good at that. Instead, the emotions just bottled up inside, until it felt like she was going to choke. She sat right down on the ground and put her back to the tree-trunk, hugging her knees.
Delenn found her there. "We thought maybe you had left, but your things were still in your room," she said quietly. It didn't sound like Delenn's voice, but Susan couldn't put her finger on why. "You should come inside, Susan. It is supposed to start raining soon. This tree will provide little cover then."
"No wake. No funeral." An adventurous raindrop made it past the leaves and struck Susan just under the eye. The wind was picking up, howling through the valley, sounding like a grieving moan. Delenn sighed, the sound somehow audible over the approaching storm. She sat down beside Susan, her head bowed. A wave of sympathy rolled over Susan, so strong it felt like a punch to the gut – so strong because it was cut with guilt. How presumptuous, to think about how much she would miss John, when she hadn't even seen him in years, while sitting here next to his wife.
"He didn't want those things," Delenn said, and she slipped her hand into Susan's. "A last good meal with friends, that's what he wanted."
"Will you put a marker up anywhere? A headstone?" Susan didn't know if Minbari did anything like that, if Delenn would even know what she was talking about. But Delenn just shook her head, and in the flickering light coming from the torches set around the balcony's edge, Susan could see a hint of that classically enigmatic Delenn smile.
"You are leaning up against it," Delenn said, and Susan looked up at the tree, now swaying further to the side as the wind pummeled its way through the valley. She could feel a sort of coiled energy in the trunk against her back.
"Did you just plant this?"
"We planted it when we first moved to Minbar together, when I was still pregnant with David. I...let him believe it was a traditional ritual for expectant parents." Now Delenn looked down at her hands; even lies of omission sometimes strayed too close to actual lies for her comfort, Susan knew.
"But it isn't."
"Oh, many Minbari plant trees as a sign of new beginnings, or as laying claim to the land in the only way we really can – through cultivation, through stewardship. But it wasn't a real ritual, not in the way John always thought of them." Delenn paused, and when she spoke again, Susan heard what had been lacking in her voice before: passion, intensity. Aspects of Delenn so integral to her being that to hear them absent was heartrending. Susan squeezed Delenn's hand, glad to hear that steel again, even as the tears rolled down Delenn's cheeks.
"I wanted something, something...tangible. Something that will remain. The de'sher ahael tree thrusts its roots deep into the rock, and lives for millennia. It is funny, you know, that we sit here tonight." Here Delenn smiled at Susan, that warm smile that for an instant made Susan feel as if she were at the center of the universe. "As the wind rocks the tree back and forth, the trunk grows stronger, just as physical exertion tears muscle fibers, only to knit them back together even thicker. A great storm will tear down lesser trees, while the de'sher ahael only becomes greater. I feel that is a lesson I learned from John."
The storm whipped down the mountain, and the winds blew so fiercely that they huddled together. Susan wished she could say something to take away Delenn's grief, but there were no words, so she just held her friend, and sat shiva under John's tree.
He'd been a coward. As the date approached, David signed up for every Ranger training exercise that was offered, hoping to find himself on the other side of the galaxy. He just couldn't do it. He didn't know what would happen, in his father's last days, but he had visions of Dad losing his sight, his balance, his memory. The thought of seeing Dad grow weak and old before his eyes was unfathomable; Dad had always been the strongest man he'd ever known. That's the image he wanted to remember. That's what he wanted to hang onto.
But he'd been selfish, too. He'd left Ama to deal with it all by herself. The day that Dad left, she'd sent out a message to him, bouncing from gate to gate. Not a video, not even her voice; just one line of text. He is gone now.
Six months later, David came home to find his mother absolutely suffocated by work; she was literally in the middle of three meetings on three different planets when he walked through the door. There was a strain on her face he'd never seen before, something indefinable at the corners of her eyes, but when she looked up and saw him, the wear and grief fled so swiftly that David lost his breath.
"A moment," she said to the screens, and she hurried to him, arms out. He wrapped his arms around her, hugging her tightly, feeling eight years old again. "David. Oh, David, I didn't know you were coming."
"I'm sorry, Ama," he whispered into her hair. Was she shorter than she used to be? He didn't remember being this much taller.
She pulled back, smiling up at him, smoothing back his hair. "No, no, it's a wonderful surprise!"
When David had read her message, he had felt very little. A sense of completion, of finality. Relief, in some strange way, that he'd been successful in avoiding the entire thing. Then he'd thrown himself into training and done his best to not think of it at all. But now, seeing his mother's face, being home again, it hit him all at once - his father was dead. David found himself sobbing.
"I'm sorry. I should have been here," he gasped out, and Ama pulled his head down to her shoulder, one hand firm on the back of his neck, the other rubbing his back, the way she had always done when he'd been sick as a little kid. He tried to apologize again but she shushed him, and so he gave in and let his mother hold him.
Later, after she rescheduled the meetings and he'd tossed his duffel into his old room, they went out to the garden. Ama shooed away all the aides and attendants and made up a picnic lunch for the two of them. David spread out a blanket under his tree, and they dug into their meal. Now he felt foolish; seventeen years old, a Ranger-in-training, and he ended up bawling like a baby. But Ama didn't say anything, and slowly the embarrassment faded away.
When he'd finished his share and started stealing hers, Ama looked at him with her patented look. It was the look she used to give him when she counted (he was pretty sure he'd been fourteen the last time he'd heard David, that is one), the look he'd seen when he'd shaved his head trying to find his bone crest, the look he got any time he'd ever taken Dad's side in a disagreement over hers. It was similar to the look Dad always got, but not identical. But now the look was tempered with something else. A closeness, a warmth. Because things were different now. It was just the two of them.
"Look up," she said, and David looked out over the city. "No, up." He leaned back and looked straight up at the sky, which he could only see in bits and pieces through the feathery leaves of his ahael tree. But there was something else up there, too. Small red globes hanging above his head, peeking out through the leaves. For the first time in months and months, David found himself smiling. Really smiling.
"It's put on fruit?" The ahael tree had never had fruit on it, not even any blossoms. He had known the trees were capable, but it was rare; they had to have just the right amount of moisture, just the right mixture of minerals and nutrients from the ground, just the right amount of sunlight the year prior. David stood to examine the fruit more closely.
"Three days after your father..." She trailed off, and David felt a stab of guilt for bringing anything up that made her think of Dad. But she just took a drink of water and continued. "After he left, I came out in the morning to watch the sunrise. I happened to glance over this way when I went back inside the house, and saw that the tree was covered with buds. A week later, the buds had turned into pretty pink blossoms. And just a few days ago, those fruit were still mostly green."
Ama stood up, too, and put a hand on David's arm. In the sunlight he could see the lightest frosting of gray in her hair, and there were a few little lines around her eyes, but as far as he was concerned, she was still the loveliest woman in the galaxy. "You came home at just the right time," she said, and the weight he hadn't known he'd been carrying around melted away.
David stretched up and plucked one of the lowest-hanging fruits. It felt warm in the palm of his hand. He offered it to Ama, who shook her head, so he grinned and opened his mouth to take a bite.
"David, no!" She actually grabbed his wrist to keep him from biting.
"You can't eat it?"
"Do you not remember my story about ahael gal'sha when you were a child?"
Ahael gal'sha - fire-fruit. One of his favorite stories when he'd been about five or six had been the tale of the Wicked Warrior. Through both craft and cunning, the Wicked Warrior had risen to be the chief of his caste. In the days before Valen, there was no Council, and the three chiefs of the three castes ruled all of Minbar. But the Wicked Warrior had supplanted the other two chiefs and had declared himself sole ruler of Minbar.
At his ascendancy feast, those Minbari who had been "invited" to attend, mostly the leaders of the noble clans, quaked with fear. No one knew what the Wicked Warrior would do next, and they all feared his wrath. But Dominir, the youngest daughter of the exiled Religious chief, spent three nights praying, until she had banished all terror from her heart. She came to the feast and graciously offered the Wicked Warrior a platter of ahael gal'sha. He did not recognize the fruit because of its scarcity, and meaning to demonstrate that he would no longer be bound by the common dictates of propriety, the Wicked Warrior gluttonously ate every single fruit right in front of her, without giving thanks or offering Dominir a share.
"Yeah, I remember," David said, frowning down at his mother. "The Wicked Warrior ate all the ahael gal'sha, and they caught fire in his belly. He burned to death in front of everyone at the feast, from the stomach out. It was one of my favorite fairy tales."
"Oh, David. It was not a tale." David looked down at the fire-fruit in his hand. And, now that he thought about it, it did seem to still be quite warm...
Ama took the fruit from him and held it in both her hands, well away from her body. She twisted her hands in opposite directions, breaking the skin in a line that went all around the fruit, dividing it into halves. Then, with one quick movement, she pulled the halves apart. As soon as the inner fruit met the air, it burst into cherry-red flames. David jumped back despite himself. For nearly a full minute, he watched as the fires burned.
"Here," his mother said, offering him one half of the fire-fruit, now that the flames had died out to nothing. David took it, waiting until she took a bite before he followed suit. It was tart, a bit like an orange, and very juicy. Where the fire had burned on top, the sugars in the fruit had caramelized. He didn't think he had ever tasted anything sweeter.
Despite himself, David was on the verge of tears again. "I can't..." he started, and then he had to take a deep breath. "I just can't believe he's gone. I keep waiting for him to walk through the door and join us. It's not right. It's...it's not fair!" Maybe he sounded like a kid having a tantrum, but it was the truth, the only truth he knew. It simply wasn't fair that Dad was gone. Ama put her hand on his arm, and he waited for her to tell him about the will of the universe and fate and acceptance and whatever else. Instead, she agreed with him.
"You're right, it isn't fair. I would do anything to have him back." Now she looked away, out over the city, her eyes shiny. "But your father would want us to be happy, not sit around pining for him, being miserable."
She was right, though David just turned away, rubbing sullenly at his eyes. Dad, who used to walk through the streets of the city with David on his shoulders, who used to let him sit in his lap and sign Dad's name to paperwork, who made him watch weird Earth vids until they both were howling with laughter, who smuggled all kinds of candy into the house under Ama's nose for every holiday he could think of, who taught David how to play catch. Dad, who would have loved to eat a fruit that caught on fire all by itself. Yeah, he would have wanted them to be happy. So David snagged another fire-fruit and sat down under his tree. He twisted and pulled, and watched the flames.
Ama sat down beside him, not saying a word. He handed her half. They ate.