The Cruelest Month

Minbar 2273

"April is the cruellest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain."

T. S. Eliot, The WasteLand

The news came in the first flush of the Minbari spring, when the pullar trees glowed pink in the light of the morning sun as it touched the far western hills. John Sheridan paced through the halls of the Interstellar Alliance headquarters, proceeding deliberately on his way to a meeting with the heads of the three main Anla'Shok training facilities on Minbar. The silken robes of Valen rustled against the sober suit he wore underneath them. The fabric was a shifting melange of browns and golds, reminiscent of a Vorlon encounter suit. He paused in front of a crystal window that ran floor to ceiling along the walkway connecting the residential area of the main IA building with the Anla'Shok annex. The sun was already high in the eastern sky and the golden rays touched the crystal, lighting up the hallway with a ribbon of sunshine. He could feel the warmth even through the thick pane, and stood for a moment soaking it in. Minbar was colder overall than Earth except for a thin line of tropical forests that girdled the equator. Even the deserts of the West were cold, more like the steppes of Mongolia than the Sahara or the NorthAmerican Southwest of his old homeworld. He was looking forward to the return of Spring.

He felt the cold more these days, to the point where donning the robes over his clothes was not torment but the added comfort of extra warmth. Pushing his hands into the long wide sleeves, he grasped his elbows and stood contemplating the city which had been his home now for almost a decade. People were moving about the city, tiny from this height, but determined and deliberate in their various paths. It bothered him that he knew so little of the Minbari after all this time, but they were a private and complicated people. Hell, there were times he saw the alien staring back from the eyes of his own wife. He was sure the same was true for her. Did anyone ever really know anyone else? Sighing, he started to return to his journey when he heard a rustle and quick light tread of booted feet approaching him from behind.

"Entil'zha? May I speak with you?"

John turned and saw a Minbari unknown to him, religious caste from his robe and the shape of his bonecrest. The man was bowing deeply, and John returned the greeting with a slightly lesser incline reflecting their relative status. "How may I be of service?" he rumbled in the traditional response.

The younger man's hands were now clasped in front of his waist, twisting subtly with nervous tension. "There is news from your home system," he began, voice almost squeaking with apprehension.

John tensed. The current situation was explosive, both on Earth and Mars. The long-anticipated revolt of the human telepaths had finally begun. Other races had previously seen their own psionically-gifted members join the ranks of the rebels. Mostly the movement had remained peaceful, with telepaths insisting on and largely being granted their requested rights. A homeworld on the far border of Narn space had been established years before and finally recognized by the Alliance a few months ago. But EarthGov and PsiCorp weren't giving up so easily. The movement there had swiftly turned violent, with terrorist acts committed by the telepaths and terrible reprisals from the authorities. As far as he was concerned, neither side had clean hands. Which was often the way in civil wars.

"A battle took place on Mars. An installation belonging to your PsiCorp was destroyed by rebel telepaths. In the ensuring firefight many were killed." The young man hesitated and added slowly. "A Minbari was among the dead. Our ambassador on Earth put in the call to the Council, and they sent me to notify President Delenn."

John felt a cold fist settle in his stomach. "Why tell me?" he asked calmly, wondering why he felt as if he didn't want to hear the answer.

"The dead man was known to Delenn," replied the messenger. "It was Lennier, of the Third Fane of Chu'domo. There are orders, orders of long-standing, that Delenn was to be notified of any news concerning him." The man stuttered over the words. "I thought, perhaps it would be best, that you might want..."

"To tell her myself," concluded John. He had one fleeting wish that he could dodge the unwelcome task but outwardly he spoke out firmly, "Thank you. I will attend to it." The Minbari bowed and began to turn away when John added quickly, "Is there any information as to how it happened?"

The Minbari looked even more nervous and coughed slightly before answering. "A building collapse was all we heard. It seems to have been a quick death, a death with honor, fighting for a cause not his own." He cleared his throat again and confided, "He was found with a woman, a human female."

John experienced a flash of disbelief, then realized it must have been someone in the movement, another soldier in the war. "Do we have an ID on the woman yet?"

"They say it was Lyta Alexander herself!" the other man said with a sudden flush of warm interest lighting his thin face. "But no, Entil'zha, there is nothing definite yet, not about the others. Only Lennier." He looked down at the floor, awaiting further questions or dismissal.

"Very well," replied John absently. The Minbari had already repeated his bow and was scuttling off down the corridor, relieved of his burden. John turned back towards the residence, hoping that he would arrive before the news. Delenn was holding a meeting in the small conference room adjacent to their quarters, so he knew he would catch her there or possibly still at home.

Inside the conference room, the assembled Alliance members were shuffling papers together and talking quietly as they prepared to leave. It was obvious the meeting had been called off and he walked quickly by the open door and stopped in front of his own. There were two Anla'Shok guards stationed outside the door to their apartments and he nodded briefly to them as he laid his palm on the door lock. Inside he heard voices, and he hastened into the living area where a group of religious caste Minbari, in the blue and white robes of mourning, were assembled. Two of them were lighting candles on the low table in front of the couch. One was seated on a chair at the end of that table, reciting words in a low musical chant. It was a solemn sound, like the distant echo of the sea from inside a curve of shell.

The others looked up at John as he asked, "Where's Delenn?" Feeling the abruptness of his words, he added, "I need to speak with her before the ceremony begins."

"In there," replied one, pointing to the door to the study. He returned to what appeared to be a silent meditation, slowly surrounded by the others settling on the floor around him like a flock of seagulls, white robes flickering bright against under-tunics of a deep sea-blue.

John paused in front of the closed door, marshaling his thoughts, prepared for either storm or calm. You never knew with his wife. Calm she would project in front of the others, but deeper emotions were allowed to surface in his presence. He knocked gently, then pushed open the sliding door.

Delenn was standing in front of a floor to ceiling window, the noonday sun outlining her still slim figure, a statue in white and gold. Her hair was pulled up, fastened behind the remnant of her bonecrest, a heavy coil of chestnut streaked with gray nestling against the curve of her neck.

John came forward and placed his hands on either shoulder, moving them down in a caress that ended in his pulling her gently back against his chest in a light embrace. He whispered in her ear, "I'm so sorry about Lennier. I know how much you hoped to see him again. Are you all right?"

She leaned back, turning her head to rest it against his shoulder. Her right hand reached for his, while her left stayed tightly wrapped around her waist as if to hold in emotions inexorably rising in a choking flood. "It was a shock, but I am fine." Delenn's voice quavered, steadying as her hand gripped his. "There will be an initial ceremony of release, that is why his clan has come. They wish me to lead the ritual. Later I will attend the Remembrance, and speak." Twisting in his embrace, she faced him, and laid one hand along his cheek. "Your presence is not required at either."

He hugged her hard. "Of course I'll be there. Lennier was important to you. He was your friend as well as your aide. He worked hard to fight the Shadows and to help form the Alliance, and saved your many times? And Susan's life; hell, he even saved Emperor Mollari! Though I'm not sure he would want that brought up now," he added with a hint of amusement.

Delenn examined him closely, pain filling her voice. "He once threatened your life."

John shook his head, feeling the tremble that raced through her body at this statement. They never talked about that day aboard the White Star, and Lennier's momentary abdication of a life of service. He replied gently, "Everyone's allowed one massive screw-up. Lennier survived his, and probably learned from it. Given the place and nature of his death, he was back to serving a cause he felt just." She had buried her face in his chest, and he whispered into her hair. "I've made so many mistakes of my own; how can I not forgive him that one?"

Delenn looked up. Tears wavered in her eyes, but they receded like an ebbing tide under the warmth of his half-smile and concerned expression. With some effort, she spoke with her customary calm. "I must go back. This part will not take long. Wait here and we can walk to the temple together afterward. The Remembrance ceremony will last until sunset. Then there will be the usual prayers and meditations through the night, and then for the next two nights from sunset to sunrise. Those are normally for clan members only, though I may attend some portion of them by permission."

John nodded, and took a seat behind his own desk as she left the room. After the door had closed, he discreetly called his own aide and let him know that he would be unavailable for the rest of the day, but would check in at intervals. He assumed Delenn had already taken care of her calendar. Restless, he shuffled papers in an attempt to organize his work if not his thoughts. The sonorous chanting continued, punctuated by softly rhythmic replies, forming a backdrop to his jumbled emotions.

He didn't how he felt about Lennier. He never had. John was now about the same age Lennier had been when he had first come to Babylon 5. The Minbari's intense devotion to Delenn, and Delenn's treating him almost as an acolyte had made him seem younger. It was curious how little John knew of him even now. Frankly, when Lennier had left the station it had been a relief. Between nurturing the new Alliance and a new marriage, there had been times when Lennier's helpful presence had grated on him. Three's a crowd, he had told Delenn, after giving them privacy for their private farewells. To Minbari, three is sacred had been her astonishing reply. Lennier's later actions aboard the White Star, his flight with a stolen ship, and the entries in his abandoned journal had revealed an unspoken animosity toward John and to his marriage with Delenn that had both broken Delenn's heart and shaken all her assumptions about her friend.

After his resignation as President and his assumption of the mantle of Entil'zha, John had taken a look at Lennier's record in the Anla'Shok. It was exemplary, as he'd expected, the only black mark being a tendency to overwork veering on being self-destructive, and a notation that the trainee had disobeyed a direct order from a superior. But there had been an addition in Delenn's hand-writing explaining that Lennier had been following her own secret directives at the time. He didn't know why he'd looked at the file; concern certainly, but also curiosity. It had been over ten years, but Delenn had never forgotten her friend, and never given up hope of his eventually returning home.

John had participated in Remembrance ceremonies for Anla'Shok lost in the course of their duties. Tapping a stylus against the smooth black surface of the desk he wondered whether he should speak to Lennier's memory, perhaps as his commander in the Army of Light, or as his superior in the Rangers. Minbari Remembrance ceremonies did not omit the negative aspects of a person's history, considering it important that the entirety of a life be remembered. John dropped the stylus with an impatient clatter and leaned back in the chair. Rather than speak, he wanted to hear. He wanted to understand the blasted man who remained so important, so dear, to Delenn. Though that in itself spoke more to Lennier's character than any number of details in a file or words in a ceremony.

Rising from his chair, John began to pace the length and width of the room, quartering the center area, where the cold tile of the floor was softened by a thick rug of grey and black blocks arranged in a geometric pattern. Hands behind his back, he walked, as the interweaving voices, now equal in tone and intensity flowed through his mind. A door on the far right hand side of the room opened, and a tall, willowy Minbari woman entered, carrying a tray with a steaming pot of tea and a single bone-white cup. She started when she saw him and bobbled the tray. John rushed over to steady her and help guide it to a safe landing on the desk.

Once the tray was settled, she bowed her head and said without looking up. "Pardon my intrusion. It was thought that President Delenn might appreciate some refreshment after the completion of the ritual. Your presence was not known to the staff."

"That's all right. I came as soon as I heard, to be here," John replied. Sighing, he asked, "And what is your name again? I know it's something like Nissen...Nessor? You haven't been here long, have you?"

"It is Nessen," replied the young woman. She darted a glance up towards his face, then lifted her chin slowly until she was almost looking straight at him. A smile crept across her face. "I have been here four months now." Looking down at the tray, she asked quickly, "Shall I bring another cup?"

"Yes," answered John absently. There had been a pause in the voices from the next room, but they had started up again in the statement and reply mode. "They must be getting close to done," he murmured as he picked up the pot and poured a stream of golden liquid into the cup. "Lennier's spirit will have been released to the Universe."

Nessen had made an abortive gesture, as if she meant to try to serve the tea herself. She stopped short of wrestling him for the teapot. Flustered, she said without thinking, "It is more than he deserves."

John looked startled and said, "Did you know Lennier?" The tea sloshed in the cup as he grasped it.

"Not personally, no," replied Nessen. "But I have heard of him. My saliera'aia was Anla'Shok. Lennier's actions were not that long ago, not long enough for the sting of his betrayal to fade."

"Is that how you see it?" John answered, almost to himself. He set the cup down on the desktop, then leaned back against the edge. Crossing his arms, he addressed Nessen. "It was a little more complicated than that."

Nessen stiffened, as if suddenly aware of who she was arguing with, and lowered her eyes, "Of course. Forgive me."

John sighed and said, "You're entitled to your opinion." He rubbed the back of his neck and added, "Lennier was more complicated than that. I didn't even know him that well."

Nessen examined him with narrowed eyes. "He did try to kill you, Entil'zha. That is what my salier'aia told me, you and another of their brothers. That is the ultimate betrayal of his oath."

"It was a mistake," John shook his head slowly.

"The action or the thoughts that prompted it?" asked Nessen.

"Both," replied John. He smiled ruefully. "Haven't you ever been terribly, horribly mistaken about something? Haven't you ever done something stupid, something you've never stopped regretting?"

Nessen smiled back briefly, then sobered, a memory shifting behind her eyes.

John nodded at the tea tray. "She'll be back soon. Better get that second cup." Nessen bowed and began to turn toward the door. John called after her, "You might think about coming to the Remembrance. It's open to all."

"I will consider it," replied Nessen thoughtfully. She bowed once more as she left the room.

John resumed his pacing, wondering at the way people were remembered, in whole and in part, in memory and in history. History takes care of itself, he'd once been told. Memory was what the Remembrance was all about. Delenn always said her people had a ritual for everything. Stopping in front of the window, he paused to look out onto a courtyard of dull green grass, long blades moving in the sharp chill wind like waves lapping a shore of low stone walls. Concrete walkways studded with moss were lined with barren trees, their sharp branches lightly blurred by the haze of new leaves. As cold and bleak as the landscape appeared, it was unmistakably Spring. The world was awakening to its annual second chance. Abruptly he made up his mind. He would speak, honoring what he had known of the man, both bad and good. He would listen, and learn who Lennier had been, and perhaps who he had become. The worst part of death was its finality; a unique person gone forever from the world. It spoke of lost opportunities that could never be regained. Each death diminishes us; each death is an individual loss.

The voices had ceased, and the door opened to reveal his wife, standing in the doorway with one hand outstretched to him. John crossed the room and took her hand in his, giving it a short sharp squeeze. Suddenly he wished fervently that Lennier was still alive. Delenn would need all her friends when it came John's turn to be remembered. "Let's go," he said, prepared to stand beside her as long as he could, as long as she needed him, as long as she mourned the loss of her friend.

In this timeline: The Telepath War began in 2265 when the telepath's long-desired homeworld was established on the edge of Narn space (a condition for Lyta's genetic contribution to the re-establishment of telepathy among the Narns), and continued on and off for years as the quest for freedom spread slowly across the galaxy, ending in 2273. Lyta and Lennier's death happened near the end of the struggle. Earth was late to the battle due to the plague and quarantine which shut them off from the rest of the galaxy until 2271. Afterwards, PsiCorp was disbanded as a governmental agency, remaining as a privately funded, and relatively powerless, educational and advocacy organization.