2285/II: ASSIGNMENTS, DETAILS, AND TRANSFERS

By John Hightower

 

 

 

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*****

   Earth Year 2285

   "OK, Dad," David Sheridan murmured. "Lie to me. Tell me she isn't the most beautiful creature you've ever seen."

   John gazed at the beauty that had captured his son's fancy and chuckled in satisfied appreciation. David's new lady had finally emerged from her shell, and she was a looker. Her shapely curves were accented by soft-looking porcelain skin…with just a hint of blue in all of the right places. Her features were delicate, almost child-like. But she wasn't a child, and she was totally exposed to the two admiring men for the first time. "She certainly is, David." John murmured, finding that he heartily agreed with the excited young man beside him. "I've got to tell you, son…you're one lucky man. She's small, but perfectly proportioned and really well built. I could tell she was even when she was all covered up."

   "I can't wait to get her out of here and see what she can do. She looks ready to jump just lying there. Damn! I'm impatient. Mother would be disappointed in me if she were here. She wants a ceremony first, but I'm not sure either of us can wait that long. I'm ready to get to it right now."

   Turning to face his son, John put his arm on the young man's shoulder. Grinning, he said, "Let me give you some fatherly advice. I've been checking her out for two months now. The first time I saw her, I knew that she had your name written all over her. I have a sixth sense about things like this, David, and I tell you that she wants you in there just as badly as you want to get in. I warn you though, there's a lot more to this one than meets the eye, and what's meeting the eye is quite a bit. She may not have been around for long, but she's going to spin you three ways from Sunday when you open her up for the first time. I have the feeling she's going to teach you a thing or two about riding fire before you break her in."

   "Maybe so, Dad…she may have a few lessons in store for me, but I guarantee that I'll be grinning the whole time I'm learning them."

   "Yeah, she's spirited, that's for sure. You and she are a good match." Shaking his head, he playfully remarked, "Son…now that I think about it, she may be a little wild for you at first. You know…it's the subdued Minbari ones that sneak up on you and give you more than you bargained for. Trust me, I know from experience. The ones from Earth…they're a little flashier, but hey…it doesn't hurt my human pride to admit that they just don't handle quite the same. They aren't as…firm. They don't push back when you thrust like the Minbari ones do. I've had both and I guess it's a matter of personal preference more than anything else is. Look, if you don't feel ready yet, I'd be happy to try her out a couple of times before you have a go at her…just so we can figure out what her limits are."

   "Sorry, Dad…she's a one-man girl, and I'm the one man. You're getting gray, anyway. You'll be better off sticking to the older model. The one you've got is a solid performer. She's been mothballed since you've been gone, but nothing's really changed. Tweak her right and she'll respond with as much energy as you can handle."

   "Yeah, son…I guess you're right. I've already taken her on a few check rides. She's got plenty of power, and she's still responsive, too. That kind of surprised me, given how long she's been out of action. My old lady's still got a lot of life left in her." Looking out again, John murmured, "But your young lady…she is beautiful. I'm happy with what I've got, but still…I am envious."

   David turned to follow his father's admiring gaze. "Look at her skin, Dad," he murmured longingly, "Flawless…not a mark on her. She's never been touched. I'll be the first." Sighing, David turned away, shrugging out of his cloak. "Well, I guess I'd better have at it…she's as ready as she'll ever be." As he got down on his knees, he began unbuttoning his tunic. "Dad…I know that I haven't done this before, but she's mine so I think I should handle this. I know that you want a turn, so if I start getting tired, I'll let you know so you can take over for a while. Still, if you see me doing something that you think will damage her, I'd appreciate it if you let me know."

   "No problem, David. I like watching almost as much as doing it myself, as long as it's done right. Just remember to be gentle. They're always pretty delicate that first time, but they get used to it and toughen up after a while." John counseled. "You know, I banged your mother's pretty hard the first time we did this together," he chuckled, "but a few minor repairs fixed it right up and your mother wasn't too angry…at least she said I was better at it than Susan. I've got a couple of instruments stored away that can help if you have trouble performing this manually."

   David nodded in acknowledgement, placing his feet in the stirrups and leaning forward. "OK, I'm ready to start." The porcelain beauty before him seemed to tremble. "I've got everything positioned correctly. I'm going to ease it in…"

   "OK, son, slowly…that's a Human rod you're trying to fit into a Minbari receptacle. They're designed the same, but ours are larger. It's going to be tight…" John bent closer so he could watch his son's progress more clearly. "You're doing fine, David. She's going to be able to handle the whole thing I believe…see? She's taking it…how does it feel?

   "It's pretty snug, Dad," David grunted, repositioning himself, "but she seems to be adjusting…OK, It's all in, I think. That lubricating gel you suggested was a good idea. Should I move it yet?"

   "No…just hold it there. Let the inner walls get a firm grip. If you do this right, you might not have to move at all…she'll do all of the work. You'll know if she needs it in further."

   "Right…" David rocked in the stirrups a little as he tried to shake some tension out of his arms. Looking down again, he said, "OK, she's giving me the green light. Do I need to push now?"

   "No…no, I don't think so, David. You've hit the spot…she's lighting up like a Roman Candle. She took the whole thing like a trooper. I don't think you need to do anything else. You can release now."

   "Phew!" David exclaimed as he sat back up, wiping perspiration from his face. "That was great! She lurched for a moment there. I was ready to pull out a little…I thought I was in too far."

   "No, you were just touching her back wall as she was sealing up. The penetration was airtight. That's a good fit."

   "Thanks for watching, Dad. I couldn't have done it without you." David said, smiling. Almost regretfully, he added, "It's a shame that I have to shoot her now."

   "I know, but it has to be done, son." John said, putting a comforting hand on David's shoulder as the younger man rose and collected his tunic.

   The two men stood and looked amusedly at each other for a long second. David's face slowly broke into a wide grin. "Dad, we're sick. You know that don't you?"

   "Yeah, but it is a fun illness, isn't it?" John laughingly agreed. Looking down at the controls for the robotic manipulator arms that David had just vacated, John keyed the 'disengage' switch and, in response, the manipulators retracted into their idle position. Indicating David's new warship through the viewpoint of the maintenance bay where the two stood, John pointed at the power rod David had just mechanically inserted in the hull receptacle. "You did a fine job with that power rod. " he began. Even as they spoke, the porcelain hull was sealing seamlessly around it. "Earth and Minbar use the same design, but the Minbari rods are slightly more efficient. The designers on Earth compensate by making theirs a little larger and more rugged. That's why I recommended a Human one, even though this ship came out of the Minbari shipyard. The fit's a little tight, but they're interchangeable and I've always thought that the Earth rods had the edge in survivability. Now that your ship has power, we can begin training the hull to repel energy weapons."

   "I guess you're right," David murmured thoughtfully. "But the skin won't be white after we're done."

   "OK, and this is an issue…why, exactly?"

   "It isn't really what I'd call an issue…more like an observation. It just strikes me as funny to call a ship a 'White Star' when white is not the color you actually want."

   "You can blame your mother for that one, David. She named this ship class back during the Shadow War and it has nothing to do with the color. It's a metaphor indicating that these ships serve the side of Light and will not tolerate the Darkness." John rubbed his chin thoughtfully, then jokingly added, "She's always been one for symbolism. I also believe that she chose the name with my past history in mind. Sometimes, her sense of irony is uncanny." Sighing, he dropped his hand and pointed to the ship again. "Anyway, the organic armor is white right now because it's new. It has no memory. As it's trained to absorb different energy types, it will slowly turn bluish as the ship's hull learns." David still looked dubious, and John cheerfully consoled him. "Look, son…this is your first brand-new White Star. You get the honor of training her, and we'll only use low power bursts. They won't hurt the ship. Do this right and when you're in a firefight out in the Big Empty, there won't be any surprises coming from marauders. A couple of weeks, and this ship will be ready for commissioning."

   "Two more weeks," David huffed. "I hope I can wait that long."

   "Trust me, she's worth the wait, son. It's important that you run the full weapons series before going operational. Your crew still needs the time to go over the new systems anyway." Pointing to an older but similarly-designed White Star in the next bay, John said, "Take a look at mine, White Star 2. She was the second one off the line. She's not as fast or as advanced as these new White Stars, but notice how blue her skin is? That's one tough hide there. It's fended off not only current weapons, but Shadow stuff too. There aren't many ships still in the fleet that have that distinction."

   "What about missiles?"

   John grunted neutrally and replied, "Missiles, rail guns and slug throwers are the bane of a White Star's existence, David…as you no doubt noticed recently." John saw his son nod as he recalled the destruction of his previous ship by Bureau 13 heat-seeking missiles. His son's White Star hadn't had a chance. "Kinetic energy weapons," he continued, "are highly effective against White Star-class vessels because all of their energy is transmitted into the ship through physical impact or explosive force. Unfortunately, there's no way to toughen the skin of a White Star against impact weapons. You have to rely on your ability to evade. When I took the White Star fleet into combat during the Earth Rebellion, we had a high casualty rate because Earth still relied heavily on weapons of that type. Other adversaries, enemies with more advanced energy weaponry, were actually less successful. Believe it or not, an Omega Destroyer has a better chance of shooting down a White Star than a Minbari Warcruiser does."

   "But Dad, this is technology from the older races…the Vorlons." David noted, moving to the control station of the maintenance gantry. As he spoke, he began keying in commands to back the platform away from his new ship. "Why would they leave in this vulnerability?" he asked.

   John mulled David's question over for a minute. During the Earth Rebellion, he had given this a lot of thought as he looked for an explanation for the high number of White Stars reporting damage after each engagement. "Call it the 'Bow and Arrow' theory, David," he finally replied.

   "The 'Bow and Arrow' theory?" David quizzically repeated, raising an eyebrow. "You're pulling my leg, right?"

   John shook his head and said, "No, David, I'm not. You see, as races advance, their weapons advance…from bare hands, to rocks and clubs, to the bow and arrow, to guns, to missiles, atomics, directed energy weapons…and so on. As those advances occur, defenses to each are developed shortly thereafter."

   "OK, I follow you so far. Action and counteraction."

   John nodded. He hadn't meant to begin a lecture, but he was warming to his subject and David seemed truly interested. In his efforts to reconnect with a son he had left as a confused teen and returned to find a grown man, he would take any opportunity he could get. "Now," he continued, "in theory, each development should build on the ones that came before. What happens in reality, however, is that some of the more primitive weapons fade from memory. People simply discount them."

   "I don't get it. I know a club can injure. Even the Minbari still use denn'boks."

   "It's a little more complicated than that. Perhaps 'forget' was a bad term to use. It's probably better to say that people become so wrapped up in advanced technology that they begin to feel impervious to simpler weapons." John replied. "They fail to realize that the most vital component of any weapon or defense is the person operating it and biological evolution advances far more slowly than its technological counterpart. People are still basically the same bags of water and protoplasm that their ancestors of 100,000 years ago were. They are no tougher, faster or smarter than those primitives who were fighting with clubs and leather shields."

   "OK, I'm still with you even if I'm just a bag of protoplasm." David amusedly said.

   "No…I'm a bag of protoplasm. You were too, until Ardenn got hold of you. Now you're just a puddle of lovesick goo." John laughed. "Anyway, carry that analogy forward and think about the Vorlons, a race tens of thousands of years more advanced than even your mother's people. They were so advanced that they were able to create this incredible organic armor. The manipulation of matter at the subatomic level was routine for them and they built to defend against enemies with similar capabilities. They didn't think that races that didn't have weapons that complex could harm them. They no longer worried about rail guns and missiles…weapons so primitive to them that they were no longer considered a threat. But they still had bodies…part energy, to be sure but partially still physical as well. They failed to remember that the physical part was still vulnerable to the bow and arrow. They confused technological evolution with biological evolution and configured the armor of a White Star to resist dissolution at the subatomic level, because energy weapons work by agitating and separating atoms…a vulnerability that beings more concerned with protection of their non-physical aspect would think of. Kinetic weapons, such as those used by humanity, are far simpler. They destroy their targets by separating them at the molecular level through physical impact. The molecular bond is far weaker than the atomic bond, as any physicist will tell you. Get it?"

   "I understand. Fascinating…" David murmured, listening as he maneuvered the maintenance platform over the top of his White Star and keyed in another command. In response, the robot arms he had manipulated to insert the ship's power core rotated back into their storage position and a snub-nosed energy discharger shifted into its place. Looking up from the controls, David asked, "So…did you ever get an opportunity to validate this theory?"

   John sighed, remembering wars long past and events that he and Delenn didn't discuss often. "Yeah, several times…against the Shadows and Vorlons…and your mother's people," he finally answered. "During the Earth-Minbari War, it was how I destroyed the Black Star, although I didn't realize it at the time."

   David paused in what he was doing. His parents rarely discussed the war…it was one of the few subjects they, his mother especially, tended to avoid. He sensed a real opportunity to get some questions answered if he played his cards right. With feigned offhandedness, he said, "Oh? How?"

   "Minbari ships had hulls so dense that our comparatively simple energy weapons had trouble penetrating them. But our atomic weapons, weapons we were actually beginning to phase out as obsolete after over three hundred years of possessing them, were extremely effective. The Minbari were roughly one thousand years more advanced than us and used gravitic power, a technology that was in its infancy on Earth. They hadn't used atomic power nor had atomic weapons for so long that they had forgotten about them." Turning back to face the viewport, he softly added, "I reminded them…rudely."

   "You know, Dad…you and Mother don't talk about the war much. I'm fairly read up on what you did then, it's in all of the histories. Your life is like an open book, if you don't mind me saying so."

   "Yeah…the histories," John chuckled. "You know something, son? It's easy to tell when a Minbari history book was written. Anything prior to 2260 and I'm the biggest scumbag to ever have drawn a breath. Anything afterwards and my feet don't touch the floor when I walk. In some Earth history books, it's just the opposite." He shook his head. "It goes to show you how malleable history really is."

   "Mother, though, there's zilch. And it's not just the war…it's everything. It's almost like she didn't exist before Babylon 5. She never talks about her life prior to meeting you."

   John fell silent and looked over at his son, his expression troubled. David was right. Very little was publicly known about his wife's past prior to Babylon 5, and for good reason. Delenn was by nature a very private person and she didn't really discuss her past or the war…not with him and certainly not with David. While it was natural for his son to be curious, he was talking to the wrong person. It wasn't his place to discuss Delenn's past or her role in the war, what he knew of it…it was hers. At the same time, to pretend that their son hadn't asked would only fuel the young man's curiosity further.

   Watching his father's face, David could see that he was torn. He was immediately sorry he'd put him in this position. "Dad, it's all right. I've placed you in a bad spot and I shouldn't have."

   "No, son. I'd much rather you place me on the spot about this than ask your mother about it," John replied, scratching his chin and trying to figure out how to phrase his explanation. "It's understandable that you'd be curious, but I think that you're reading more into her silence than there is. You have to realize that your mother's a Minbari and they look at history a little differently than humans do. Quite frankly, she wasn't always important. She grew up pretty much like any other Minbari…she was a kid, she played, she went to Temple, and so on. As a teenager, she was apprenticed out to a scholar named Drall who taught her the rudiments of diplomacy, philosophy and government administration. After that, she was an Acolyte…one of thousands, except that she was fortunate enough to serve under Dukhat. He saw something in her and mentored her along, much like your mother is doing with Ardenn now. There's nothing particularly special about that and there wouldn't be any real reason for any of it to be in a history book. As for the war…" John glanced away for a moment, and then looked back at his son. Sighing, he said, "Suffice it to say that she was and is a peaceful woman who found herself in a situation that…well, that demanded actions from her that went against her nature."

   "So you do know what she did during the war," David observed. "I've always wondered if anybody knew."

   "Yeah, I know some of it." John replied. "She doesn't like to talk about it, David. Few Minbari other than the Warriors do, really. Not so much because it's some great secret, but because…well, because they're ashamed, I guess. Your mother's people thought they were above such negative emotions as hate and vengeance…and then they found that they were far less developed in that area than they thought. I'd imagine that was very humbling for them. Plus, your mother is surrounded by humans…you, Susan, others and me especially…so who would she talk to about it? What would she say? What purpose would bringing up that divisive past serve other than to antagonize the very people that she's come to love?"

   "It's not that big a deal, Dad. The war was so long ago…"

   "You're wrong, David. To people your age it seems like ancient history, but it was less than forty years ago. That's not an especially long time even for a human. Most of the people who fought in the war are still alive, particularly among the Minbari, and they still remember. Dukhat's shadow is long…even today, he still influences Minbari society. And we killed him. I'm a human and I was…I was the enemy, son. I was your mother's enemy then. That's something your mother doesn't like to remember, much less talk about."

   "Dad, you dodged that question really well, but I know that there's more to it than that."

   John shrugged and rubbed his hands together. "David…I won't insult your intelligence. Yes, there's a lot more to it than that. To be honest, there are a few things about your mother that she doesn't know that I know, and I'd like to keep it that way. She has her secrets, I have mine…it's kind of a status quo."

   "Secrets…she has secrets, you have secrets…" David muttered. "Has it ever struck you that ninety percent of the stuff that we call 'secret' is crap and isn't really secret at all?"

   "Sure, and those so-called secrets I forgot a long time ago," John said seriously. "But remember this," he added after a second, "That other ten percent of those things that are secret have the potential to really damage people if they get out, even after all this time. What few secrets I know I keep because I took an oath to my old government not to reveal them, an oath I still respect even though I'm no longer in Earthforce. Mainly, though, I remain silent because I love your mother and I'll do anything and everything in my power to keep her reputation, her honor and her dignity intact and unblemished." John sighed and added, "David, you can ask me anything you want to know about my military service for Earth…including the Earth/Minbari War. I'll keep no secrets from you that I haven't sworn to keep. As for your mother, it's really her place to tell you what she will, not mine…but I ask that you not question her about it. If she wants you to know, you'll know."

   David nodded and decided to table the issue. "Fair enough." Glancing at one of the readouts on his control board, he said, "OK, what's up first, Dad?"

   "Narn Disruptors. Series One is the most common weapons systems." Glancing at the chronometer on the wall, he noted that it was already mid-afternoon. "I hadn't realized that it was getting so late. If we get on with it, I figure we can get in the Disruptors, the Earthforce Pulsed Plasma Array, Minbari Cutting Beam and Drazi Energy Torpedo today. You can have Nashon come up tomorrow to run the second series. That'll give you some time to spend with your other young lady, assuming that you haven't thrown her over for this one."

   David laughed, "Hardly. This ship is beautiful, but she doesn't hold a candle to the one waiting at home." Still chuckling, David keyed in a command. In response, the energy discharger began to hum and a crosshair appeared on the viewscreen. "OK, Dad…we're up and hot. What's the discharge frequency for a Narn disruptor?"

   "Two-fifteen point three. Remember, David…low power."

   "Got it." David toggled the frequency into the computer and said, "Here goes," as he punched the 'Execute' button. In response, a faint red beam began emitting from the energy discharger. When the beam struck the White Star, the hull began to glow dully. "Now, we wait. In about thirty minutes, we can switch over."

   John looked at his son proudly. He was such a fine man, he thought. His impetuous teenager, now grown into a still occasionally impetuous adult. He had responsibilities now, and was shouldering them well. Being responsible for a ship was one thing, though. Being responsible for another life was something else. Motioning his son over to a pair of seats set up in a corner of the maintenance pod, John waited until he and David were sitting comfortably before saying, "So…it looks like we have a little time to kill, David. How are things between you and Ardenn coming along, if you don't mind me asking? The two of you have been awfully secretive lately. You aren't doing anything your mother would find, uh…distressing, are you?"

   "You know, Dad, it's just you and me here," David snorted amusedly. "I think we're both mature enough that we don't have to talk around whether or not Ardenn and I are sleeping together."

   "Oh, really?" John replied with a smile. "And I suppose that if I were your mother and I asked that, you'd be just as direct and forthcoming?"

   "Uh…OK, point taken."

   John leaned back and put his arm across the bench's backrest and laughed lightly at David's admission. Not that the situation would ever arise, of course. John knew that Delenn was far too circumspect to ever ask her son about such a personal matter, at least not directly. Asking Ardenn, though…that might be a different story. "I was just trying not to be too blunt, son," John continued. "If my father had asked me that when I was your age, I probably would have told him it was none of his business."

   "Well, I'm not going to say that…Ardenn wants to do this the Minbari way and since you and Mother are a necessary part of that process, it is your business to a certain extent," David replied. "Anyway, the answer is 'no'. Chuckling, he added, "That's not to say that the thought hasn't crossed my mind occasionally…well, OK, more than occasionally. Often…really often…like all the time." Sighing, David leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees and rubbed his temples. "Ardenn can be…uh, really focused when she wants to be. The ritual texts say 'no inappropriate contact' prior to the Shan'fal and she's following them to the letter. Frankly, Dad, I don't know how she stands it…all of this 'just so far and no farther' stuff and the little sexual innuendoes she comes up with. 'Just keeping you interested.' she says. Yeah, right…interested. She's playing with me, I tell you. Hell, I can't even look at her without having to take a shower. If the old wives tales were true, I'd be blind and devolving by now."

   "I guess it's good that you've moved over to the Ranger compound, then," John laughed. "If you were still staying in your room at the residence, you'd be the cleanest person on the planet."

   "Oh, sure…the Ranger compound. That place is a big help," David muttered sarcastically, rolling his eyes. "It's really easy not to think about Ardenn there, especially when the guy in the quarters next to mine is busy banging half the women in the White Star fleet…loudly."

   "Well, son…life sucks when you're twenty-two and in a committed relationship with a 'nice girl', doesn't it?" John commiserated amusedly. Conspiratorially, he leaned over and winked, then said, "If it makes you feel any better, your other half isn't really handling herself as well as she wants you to believe, either…or so your mother says. According to her, Ardenn puts up a good front but her mating urge is in full swing and she's wound up tighter than a drum. I think your mother's getting a little impatient for your intended to get this petitioning over with just so you can take the poor woman away somewhere and finally provide her some relief."

   "Honestly, Dad, I didn't think it would take this long!" David exclaimed. Gesturing exasperatingly, he said, "Ardenn…Valen, I love her but she…she's a Minbari. She 'fixates' on things sometimes. When something captures her attention, she won't let go until she's rung it dry. Like this petition…she's determined that it will be 'perfect'. Nothing less will do. She knows that you and Mother will accept her, but there's still this little kernel of doubt buried deep in her brain that won't shake loose."

   "So your mother has noticed."

   "Yeah…she would naturally be the first to pick up on it," David grunted. Shaking his head in frustration, he continued, "Dad, you have to understand where Ardenn's coming from. She's not very forthcoming about what her life was like in the Order, but I get the impression that she wasn't treated very well. Until she came to live with us, I don't think anyone ever told her that she was worth anything…that she was loved. She is smart, funny, competent and beautiful…but at the same time she's shy and unsure of herself. Put her in a situation where she has to function outside of traditional frameworks and she develops a confidence problem, even when she's around people that she's familiar with."

   "I figured that it was something like that. That's what I told your mother when she mentioned that Ardenn was following her around and taking notes. Ardenn's trying too hard, David. Everyone would be a lot less edgy if she'd relax a little. Just between you and me, she has no reason to worry…at least not about us. She could have your Aunt Susan come over and sing Narn opera for this petition and your mother would still accept her."

   David nodded in affirmation. "I know that, you know that and I've tried to tell Ardenn that…but she doesn't look at Mother the way you and I do. Mother isn't simply a 'person' to her. She's 'Delenn' and she's in a higher league than ordinary folk. She's so afraid to make a mistake in Mother's presence that she writes those little notes to herself about everything Mother likes and doesn't like. That's what you're seeing now. She is trying so hard to show Mother what a 'perfect' mate and daughter she will be that she's forgotten that Mother's only real requirement of her is that she love me. And Ranger One…she's showing the patience of a saint, for now. But you know Aunt Susan…there's no way in Hell that'll last much longer." David sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. Muttering quietly to himself, he looked at the ceiling and said, "Maybe I should give her the ring before the petitioning, after all. Actually having it on her finger might relax her a little."

   "You have one already?" John asked, surprised.

   "Hmm?" Realizing that he had voiced his thought aloud, David glanced back down at his father. "Oh…I haven't shown it to you yet, have I? Yeah, Dad, I've got it. I called Uncle Mike about a month ago. Mars has some really good goldsmiths and he said he could get me a good deal if I wanted something specially made. I already had some ideas, so I drew up a design and sent it to him. In fact…" David trailed off, feeling around in his cloak, muttering "where is that thing?" under his breath. Eventually, his eyes lit up and he produced a small brown box from the folds. "Here it is. I've been carrying it with me. If I leave it at home or in my quarters, I'll probably forget and leave it out for Ardenn to find. If that happened, I'd have a hell of a time getting it back from her, assuming I could." Extending the box to his father, David said, "Have a look."

   John took the box and popped it open, nodding in satisfaction as he examined the contents. What he saw was a very simple, yet unique engagement ring. The band was unadorned, but rather than being merely of gold as Delenn's was, David had specified gold intertwined with platinum. A small yet flawless and perfectly cut diamond held in place by four prongs, two of gold and two of platinum capped the ring. The design reminded John a little of a stylized miniature Ranger pin.

   "Well, what do you think? Do you like it?"

   "It's beautiful, David," John answered as he handed the box back. "The question is, will Ardenn like it?"

   "I think so," David replied, closing the box and tucking it away. "I have a fairly good idea of what she likes. She likes Mother's rings and hers are simple. They make a statement about the relationship you and she have…the two of you are complex people, but your love is devoid of complexity. Ardenn wants a similar relationship for us, I think." David paused, thinking. After a moment, he added, "At the same time, though, I wanted her ring to be representative of what we have…something unique. Hence, both the platinum and gold. They are different…yellow and white, human and Minbari…but intertwined together."

   "And you were going to give it to her after the Petitioning was complete?" John asked.

   "Yes. I thought Mother would think that any time before that would be premature. I figured she'd appreciate my observing the Minbari tradition before jumping into a Human one."

   John grunted in agreement. David had gotten pretty good at reading his mother over the years. In many ways, he was better at it than his Dad. "That's all well and good, David, but don't lose sight of the fact that this isn't about your mother and I…it's about you and Ardenn. You give that to her when you feel ready; don't worry about whether or not your mother and I have approved the timing." John paused, considering Delenn's probable reaction to that piece of advice. "Uh, with that said," he amended, "if you are thinking about giving the ring to her beforehand, do it openly. Don't let your mother be the last to find out. She hates to be the last to know."

   "We're not trying to hide anything from you two…I'm sorry if we're giving you that impression." David said earnestly. "It's just that Ardenn and I both agreed that as much as we love and respect you, the two of you don't need to know every detail about our activities…uh, no offense."

   "None taken, David. For what it's worth, I agree with you to an extent." John replied. "Your mother, though…she's a little more protective of you than I am," he added. "It probably wouldn't hurt if either you or Ardenn spun her up on how things are going between the two of you from time to time. Ardenn doesn't talk much about what the two of you are up to, and that has your mother curious. You don't have to tell her everything, just enough to keep her satisfied."

   "She doesn't need to worry, Dad. We're following the rituals. I personally couldn't care less about them, except that they're important to Ardenn…and the only reason they're important to her is because she needs them to establish her legitimacy as my wife. I mean…look, Dad, how important is a ritual like the Shan'fal, anyway? Hell, humans are usually 'Shan'fal-ing' by the second date. Ardenn loves me, I love her…and that should be enough."

   "David…son, I know how you feel. Back when your mother and I were becoming serious about each other, I thought 'Shan'fal' meant we were finally going to get to sleep together when she brought it up to me. When she told me what it really was, I thought 'You're kidding…we're going to feel each other up? That's all?' just like you do now. But it's not ridiculous…it's important, and when you go through it you'll understand. When you and Ardenn reach that point, don't rush the ritual once it starts. I don't doubt that both you and she will be anxious to get it over with so you can, um…be together, but it's important that the two of you become familiar with each other first. Sex between a human and a Minbari is the same, but it's different." John paused and chuckled at himself. "I'm not explaining this very well, am I?"

   "Didn't we already do the 'birds and the bees' conversation, Dad? You know…knob 'A' goes in hole 'B' and all of that stuff about the agitator on the washing machine?" David laughed at his father's embarrassed expression and said, "Dad, I'm kidding. Neither Ardenn nor I are great authorities on sex, but I'm not completely inexperienced and Ardenn has studied up on Human anatomy. We both know that there are physiological differences between us."

   "Yeah…but there's a lot more to knowing your partner than just understanding where all the parts fit. You and she need to take things slowly and be gentle, David. I want you to be realistic about this. Odds are that she'll at least be uncomfortable the first time the two of you make love, and you might even be painful for her. If this is going to work, you're going to have to be patient and help her. The knowledge you gain about both her body and her emotional responses during the Shan'fal will allow you to provide that help."

   "We've uh, discussed this…a little. It's kind of tough to talk about it in detail when neither of us is really sure exactly…how it will be, Dad. I've never been with a Minbari and she's never been with anybody. I don't want to hurt her…and I'd hate myself if I did."

   "Of course you don't, and you won't. That's part of the reason for the Shan'fal. It's not all physical…a large part of the ritual is simply talking, David. About yourselves, what you want, what you like and don't like, your secret fantasies about each other, and the realities about what you can and can't do. No one knows her pleasure centers better than she does, and no one knows yours better than you do. During the Shan'fal, the two of you will share those with each other and, in a way, that knowledge is even more intimate and personal than intercourse itself. Think about it, son. Anybody can have sex with anybody, except maybe the Centauri, and everybody knows how. Those pleasure centers are instinctual…they don't have to be learned. To be honest, things are over with pretty quickly once you reach that point anyway, because any self-proclaimed stud who says that he can screw all night is either sick or a goddamn liar. But knowing how to touch your lover and draw from her the exact emotional and physical response you desire…and knowing how to make her hold that response for as long as you wish it…now, that's very powerful stuff. So, pick your pleasure…five minutes of intense effort for you that leaves her bruised and wondering what happened, or five hours of passionate emotional and physical exploration that leaves you both feeling closer to each other than you ever have before."

   "I…I never quite thought about it like that, Dad…I kind of wish Ardenn were here and had heard that, too. I doubt that anyone's described it to her that way."

   "I doubt that it would mean as much to her coming from me. Your mother would willingly tell her the same and more if Ardenn weren't so close-mouthed about your activities and would simply ask her. We know the two of you want each other, son. There's a lot we can tell you, and neither your mother nor I are shy about sharing that knowledge with you. Keeping everything secret isn't really hiding that from us."

   "There's really no big secret, Dad." David replied. "I've been taking Ardenn out…showing her different places. She really hasn't been out much before now. Life with Mother is a lot more open than life in cloister, but it's still sheltered. She actually knows less about daily life on Minbar than many off-worlders do, believe it or not, and I'm trying to rectify that. I've also been introducing her around, letting her meet my friends. Uh, I guess that I'm trying to get them used to seeing us as a couple. The word on our relationship is pretty much out among the Rangers, so I figured that the more of them that got to meet her, the better off we would be. That way, if there are going to be problems, we'll see them coming."

   "You're anticipating problems? I don't think the Rangers will be a problem, not with Ranger One fostering Ardenn personally." Hesitantly, David nodded in acknowledgement of John's observation, but his face was troubled. John noted it. "Son," he ventured after a moment, "there's something else bothering you, isn't there? You're not getting cold feet, are you?"

   David turned to face him, and John saw uncertainty in his green eyes. "No! It's not that at all…I…Dad, I love Ardenn more than my own life, but…"

   "But what?"

   "But…lately, I've been getting the feeling that…that someone is watching us, the two of us when we're out together…and I'm not just talking about the curious. I can't explain it…just kind of an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach."

   John observed David silently for a moment. "What else?" he finally asked.

   David chuckled, a little nervously in John's opinion. "Ardenn…you know, Dad, she doesn't know that humans have much better peripheral vision than Minbari, and I haven't told her. I can look at her and she doesn't even know I'm watching. Every now and then, I'll catch her looking at me and she looks so sad…for no reason, no reason at all…something just comes over her. Dad, she…I get the feeling that she's holding something back…that she knows something she's not telling me."

   As he searched for the words to reassure his suddenly uncertain son, John's link chirped…

*****

   Delenn leaned back in her chair, tapping her stylus against her chin in thought. Her expression, serious at first, softened and she chuckled ruefully at herself. She was not deep in thought, as she wanted to make herself believe. The flimsies scattered across her normally neat desk were in the same positions that they had been two hours previously. She was daydreaming. Daydreaming…she had not allowed herself the luxury in so long that it felt…alien to her. Alien, but welcome…much as her reunion with her husband felt. More than welcome.

   <Her husband…> Delenn smiled as he crept into her thoughts. She had not been daydreaming that morning, when he carried her back to bed. Her 'boisterousness'…that had been no daydream. Her fingers tangled in his hair, the words and sounds he had ripped from her as her body responded to him…she had asked him to serve her in a very intimate ritual and he had not even blinked. He had left her satisfied…no, not merely satisfied…sated, with her skin still warm and tingling. Sighing, she absently slid a hand over her abdomen as she recalled the way he had touched her, idly thinking about what ritual she would request of him that evening. In fairness, she thought, it should be one where she was the subordinate participant and he the dominant one. A smile crept to her lips as a few possibilities came to mind…perhaps one where they both were dominant…

   Shaking her head, Delenn chided herself for her lack of attention. Picking up her stylus again, she bent over the small mountain of paperwork that she had been neglecting and attempted to temporarily drive John from her thoughts. He was with David, working on his new ship and performing that strange human 'male bonding' ritual. Involuntarily, Delenn smiled again and tossed the stylus back down in amused frustration. She would accomplish little this day. Watching John and David together as adults brought her almost as much pleasure as her renewed physical relationship with her husband. John and David's previous relationship, when David was growing up…the love had been undeniable between them, but there had been difficult moments. Now, they were essentially equals and each had found that they liked the other, as well as loved each other. In Delenn's opinion, this was a welcome development, especially since another person was slowly entering their small circle.

   That other person, Ardenn, was currently out…'putting Susan through the wringer', as John would say. Delenn almost laughed. Ardenn was taking everything so seriously, and Susan was showing admirable restraint…much like an old, experienced gok in a room full of children. Her claws were sheathed, for now…at least until her spinal crest was stroked the wrong way. Among the papers on Delenn's desk were three handwritten pages Ardenn had no doubt prepared for her 'mother', pages tightly packed with the procedures for various rituals. The idea that Susan would sit still for all of them made Delenn shake her head in sympathy for her friend, and she made yet another mental note to discreetly inform her 'daughter-to-be' that most of them were unnecessary. One or two moderately short ones would be more than sufficient.

   "Today is a good day, Delenn," she murmured to herself. Now, if the nightmares would just leave her alone…

   She was just rising to get herself a glass of water when her comm panel chimed. Keying the unit's response button, she acknowledged the caller, a human Ranger from the compound's security detail. "Yes, Ranger Jacobs, what is it?"

   "Madam President," the Ranger replied, "We have a visitor at the gate to see Ardenn. According to the schedule your aide has no appointments for today, other than a meeting with Ranger One."

   Delenn thought a moment. It was unusual for Ardenn to receive visitors. Outside of the small circle of Delenn's family and the household Rangers, she knew few other people. "Ardenn is not here. Perhaps the visitor should call again at some other time. If you will ascertain the person's identity, I will inform Ardenn when she returns."

   "Madame President, the visitor states that her name is Vadenn and she is a Sister of Valeria. She states that she is here in an official capacity, and that she would like to speak to you if you have the time."

   Delenn felt her heart sink. Sisters did not leave cloister, not without compelling reason. Somehow, she felt that her 'good day' was about to become a trying one. "Very well, allow her entry and escort her to my quarters. Tell her that I will be waiting."

   After she terminated the transmission, Delenn contacted Susan's aide, requesting that he inform Ardenn that she needed to return. As she ended that communication, her door chime sounded. Walking to the door, Delenn admitted to herself that she was expecting bad news. It was long past time for Ardenn to be recalled. In the euphoria she felt surrounding her husband's return, she and everybody else had let that little fact slip their minds. <But surely, > she reasoned, <Irilenn would have contacted me if she were about to make such a move…she would not take Ardenn with no warning. Unless… > A number of possibilities sprang to mind, none of them good. Sighing, Delenn schooled her features into a pleasant expression to mask her uncertainty as she reached the door and keyed the lock.

   The door opened and Delenn found herself face to face with a Sister of Valeria. Quickly taking in her appearance, Delenn noted that she was garbed similarly to her aide, with the exception that her outer robe was a deep red in contrast to Ardenn's off-white. She was slightly taller than Delenn, with sharp features and serious brown eyes. She was young, but slightly older looking than Ardenn, and…she looked familiar. It took Delenn a second to place her. She had been one of the candidates for the position that she had chosen Ardenn to fill. Overall, she did not look particularly threatening…but something in her eyes made Delenn uneasy. Perhaps the eyes themselves…they were cold, calculating and brown. Brown eyes were rare among Minbari, but common enough in humans. Perhaps seeing them in a Minbari was it. Not wanting to rush to judgment, Delenn covered her unease with a warm smile and said, "Welcome, Sister. I am Delenn of Mir."

   The Sister bowed in response, far enough to show respect, but not so far as to indicate a subordinate position…a socially 'neutral' bow. She replied, "I am Sister Vadenn of Valeria, Madame President. I have come on behalf of the Mistress but I am honored to meet you, all the same."

   Delenn bowed in return, slightly less so than Vadenn…again, a socially neutral bow, but one that indicated that her visitor was a guest in her home and would do well to remember it. "Please enter, then. If you will follow me, we will sit on the balcony and you can tell me about the business that brings you here."

   As Delenn led Vadenn through her quarters, Vadenn could not resist looking around as they walked. Delenn noted it. "Is something the matter, Sister?"

   "Oh, no, Madame President…please forgive my curiosity. It is rude, I know…but I have not been out of cloister in many cycles, and everything seems so…open. It is an adjustment for me."

   As the two women reached the balcony, Delenn replied, "Yes, I imagine that this must all seem unusual to you. You may look around as you will, but please sit with me first." Delenn sat on the bench and indicated that Vadenn was to sit beside her. As Vadenn seated herself, Delenn continued, "Would you care for some refreshment? I can have something brought, if you wish."

   "Thank you, Madame President. That will not be necessary." Looking out over the landscape spread before her, Vadenn murmured, "It is…very beautiful here. I imagine that my younger sibling thinks so as well."

   "She does," Delenn agreed, following the Sister's gaze. Turning back to Vadenn, she said, "You said that you are here on behalf of the Mistress. How is Mistress Irilenn? I have not heard from her in some time."

   "She is well, Madame President. She sends her greetings." Vadenn looked more closely at Delenn. She had only seen the Minbari/human hybrid once before in person, and had only seen the Mistress on a few occasions. "Madame President, forgive me for seeming to stare, but you and the Mistress bear a strong resemblance to one another. If I may ask, are you and she related?"

   "She is a Sister of Valeria," Delenn replied neutrally. "Those of your Order have no outside relationships, as you know."

   "Yes, of course. Forgive me for asking." Vadenn backpedaled. <They are related… > she thought. Mentally, she stored the information away…perhaps it would prove useful later. Focusing her attention back on more immediate concerns, she said, "I suppose that you are wondering why I am here."

   "The question had crossed my mind. It is unusual to see a full Sister outside a Chapter house or Temple, so I assume that your business with my aide is of some importance."

   "It is. The Mistress is concerned about my younger sibling, concerned enough that she has dispatched me to ascertain why you are holding her here. She is no longer your aide, yet she remains. Why have you not released her?"

   "I do not understand, Sister. I do not hold Ardenn here against her will, and I have received no notification that her service to me has ended. What are you speaking of?"

   Vadenn did her best to appear dismayed. Looking forlornly down at her lap, she sadly said, "It is…as the Mistress feared, then. I humbly apologize, Madame President. I see now that my younger sibling has…shamefully deceived you. I was afraid of this…I believed that life outside cloister might influence her to an extent, but I never thought that she was capable of such…deliberate subterfuge. She was recalled over forty turns ago, but she did not acknowledge the notification. We assumed that you were keeping her from replying. Forgive us."

   <Forty turns ago? > Even with her years of practice, Delenn's countenance almost failed her. Almost. <She said nothing…she hid this from me… > "I see. I have not known Ardenn to deliberately deceive anyone. Perhaps she simply did not recognize the message for what it was. I am certain that she would have informed me had she received a message directing her to return."

   "I agree, Madame President. At my urging, the Mistress considered that possibility as well. This is why she has not been expelled, and why I am here instead," Vadenn murmured sadly. "Ardenn has always been well-meaning but she is impressionable, as you no doubt have noticed. It is obvious that her life here is comfortable when compared with the necessary but rewarding rigors of serving our people. It is not your fault, nor is it hers…she was not prepared for this complex life, she has been seduced by it and were she to remain here much longer, she might even become lost to us. I am certain that you care about her and do not desire this, as I do not." Pulling Irilenn's letter from the folds of her outer robe, Vadenn held it out to Delenn. "The Mistress cares about her as well, and is concerned for her well-being. To this end, she commands that Ardenn appear before her." As Delenn took the sealed envelope and turned it over in her hands, Vadenn quietly added, "Madame President, I must point out that this is a summons from Irilenn herself, and my younger sibling does not have the option of refusal."

   Delenn eyed the envelope, noting Ardenn's name embossed in gold on the front in the Naming Tongue. "Light Wanderer," she murmured to herself. Something about the letter jogged a memory from Delenn's childhood. Her mother had received a similar envelope when Delenn was barely five cycles old. Shortly afterwards, her mother left…never to return. Delenn's father had cried…the only time she could remember seeing her father cry. He sat Delenn on his knee and told her what a great honor the Sisters had bestowed on her mother even as the tears rolled down his cheeks. Delenn recalled that she had wondered then what sort of dubious honor would cause her father to cry so…and when was mother coming back?" Shaking herself out of the memory, Delenn said, "So, she is to be punished, then? I have come to love her almost as a daughter and I would plead mercy for her if that is the case."

   "No, Madame President." Vadenn replied smoothly. "She has transgressed, but she has also brought great honor to the Order by preserving your life." Indicating the envelope in Delenn's hands, she added, "What you are holding is not a recall notice. It is Ardenn's invitation to join the Sisters of Valeria. She is to be elevated…in truth, she already has been in absentia. Irilenn commands Ardenn to appear before her in Yedor at the Shrine of the Mistress in a day's time to accept the Obligation." Smiling sweetly, Vadenn concluded, "It is a great honor that is offered to her."

   "A great honor…" Delenn echoed, barely keeping her voice steady. "And if she does not desire to be so honored?"

   "For a young woman in her position…refusing the honor would be tantamount to spurning the Order. She cannot remain an Apprentice once she is offered Elevation." With mock-sadness, Vadenn added, "You are aware, I am sure, that Ardenn has no place outside of the Order. I was present when she was found after the Civil War. Mistress Irilenn herself removed Ardenn from her dead mother's arms and told me that her family was unknown. She has no place to go."

   "Irilenn herself removed Ardenn from her dead mother's arms…that is so sad, Vadenn." Delenn murmured absently. Despite her calm demeanor, Delenn was highly upset…so much so that it took her a moment to register Vadenn's words. <Irilenn had seen Ardenn's mother…and yet she remained unidentified? > Upset as she was, that little tidbit of information was a jolt. Was it important? She was not sure. She and Irilenn conversed from time to time…not often, and their relationship was nothing approaching mother and daughter, but enough so that they were politely sociable. It was far more than they had prior to Delenn's return from Babylon 5. In truth, the two of them discussed David far more than they did their own activities, and Delenn suspected that Irilenn and her 'grandson' spoke more often than Irilenn did with her.

   Filing Vadenn's information away for future study, Delenn decided that the best course of action at this point was to at least feign acceptance of the inevitable and get Vadenn out of her presence as quickly as possible. She was upset, Vadenn made her uneasy, and she was, Delenn admitted to herself, angry with Ardenn. She needed time to calm down and think…to examine this conversation in more detail and consider her options. And she needed to talk to her aide about secretiveness. Ardenn, she admitted forlornly to herself, might be beyond help and the implications for both her and David…Delenn shuddered. Best not to consider that now. "You are correct, Vadenn. I love Ardenn and I do not wish to see her life torn asunder." Sighing, she added, "Still, it will be hard to let her go. She has made friends here and has become close to my little family…as well as valuable to me in conducting the work of the Alliance. But…it is, as you say, a great honor that is offered to her."

   "Madame President?" Vadenn ventured, sensing that the conversation was at an end, "The Mistress also said that she believes that both the Sisterhood and you have benefited from our association and that she looks forward to continuing it. There are others among us who would be honored to…to serve, if you would but request it. The Mistress has other duties for Sister Ardenn, but…should you desire someone to fill her position, please remember that I raised and trained her…and I love her as much as you do."

   Delenn rose and smoothed the front of her robe, stilling her trembling hands with some effort. "I…will consider it, Sister Vadenn," she murmured as the Sister stood beside her. In the distance, Delenn could hear a flyer approaching. "That is probably Ardenn returning," Delenn indicated. Turning to her companion, she continued, "I sent for her when you arrived. I realize that you probably want to meet with her, but I would appreciate being allowed to speak to her privately before you do. Is that acceptable?"

   "Of course, Madame President. Is there a place where I can wait?"

   "As you and she are not due in Yedor until tomorrow, I would be honored if you would stay as our guest tonight. I will have one of the staff show you to the guest quarters. After I have spoken to Ardenn, I will have her contact you." Looking down, Delenn noticed that she had nervously twined the front of her robe in her fingers. Releasing her hold, she softly added, "I imagine that the two of you will have much to talk about."

   "Yes," Vadenn agreed, hiding a smirk, "We do have much to discuss. It has been a long time since my younger sibling and I have conversed. I am sure she has missed me as much as I have missed her."

*****

   Timidly, Ardenn stood in the doorway to Delenn's office. The interior of the room was dark, lit only by the glow of a single flickering candle. Delenn sat in front of it, her hair unbound and her back to the door. She was meditating, and Ardenn briefly considered backing out and leaving her mentor in solitude. As she turned away, however, Delenn called to her.

   "I know that you are there, Ardenn, I hear your breathing." Delenn did not look at her, did not take her eyes off of the candle flame, but raised a hand from her lap and indicated a bare space on the floor beside her. "I have been expecting you. Please come in and sit with me a moment."

   Reluctantly, Ardenn padded over and knelt, briefly glancing at her mentor's face and trying to gauge her mood. Delenn still did not look at her, and Ardenn noted that her expression was not angry or sad…it was studiously devoid of expression. Her hands were folded in her lap, and beneath them, she saw the edges of what appeared to be an envelope. Learning nothing significant from the older woman's face, Ardenn turned her attention to the candle. Meditation had never been one of her strengths. She studied the flame intently…but all she saw was a flickering candle. It was always this way for her. Others saw different things in the candlelight, visions with great meaning for them. Ardenn could do everything others did when they meditated. She could sit, she could stare, and she could perform the breathing exercises but try as she might, all she ever saw was a stick of wax with a flame on top.

   The two of them sat in silence for what seemed hours to Ardenn, although it was just a few minutes. Just as the young Apprentice felt the silence was about to become unbearable, Delenn finally spoke. Softly, she said, "Do you know why I am meditating right now, Ardenn?"

   "To cleanse your spirit and center yourself?"

   "No. I am meditating because I have received some information that disturbs me greatly about a person for whom I care deeply. I meditate because I am troubled, Ardenn…no, that is not true," she amended. "I am not troubled. I am angry, and I do not like to be so. One of the many lessons that I have learned over the cycles is that angry people tend to make poor decisions and say things that they later regret. I have been guilty of that in the past and I do not wish to do that now." Delenn glanced over at her aide, who was sitting as still as a statue and studying the candle, although Delenn could tell that her thoughts had nothing to do with meditation. She avoided looking Delenn in the eye. Instead, she kept her eyes downcast in the traditional manner of a subordinate, an acknowledgement of Delenn's superior position that the older woman had never required of her aides. It was fitting now, Delenn supposed, although it pained her to admit it. The younger woman knew why she was here. "Ardenn, someone very dear to me has made an error in judgment that will almost surely result in considerable pain within my family. My family has endured more than its share of pain over the cycles, and I would spare both them and myself if I could. In this case, I do not think that will be possible."

   "Delenn…I know that I have displeased you…"

   "Be silent, young one!" Delenn snapped, "You know nothing of my displeasure…yet. Do not interrupt me." Delenn saw the young woman flinch…she was already emotionally on-edge, although she was making a noble effort to hide it. Even through her anger, Delenn felt sorry for her. This conversation would satisfy no one, Ardenn least of all. Licking her lips, Delenn continued, "I have a friend that I would like to tell you about, Ardenn, if you are willing."

   It took Ardenn a second to realize that her mentor was waiting for a response. "Yes…uh, yes, Delenn. You have…many friends," she stammered.

   "This particular friend is a human," Delenn continued. Chuckling without mirth, she added, "Funny. Almost all of my friends are human. I actually have very few Minbari friends. Those that I do have, I cherish."

   "I…I hope that you count me among those, Delenn," Ardenn replied uncertainly. "Insofar as you can, given our positions."

   "Yes, given our positions." Delenn echoed nebulously. "Now, I was telling you about my friend, Ardenn. His name is Michael Garibaldi. You have not met him, but I am sure that you have heard his name from time to time. He is a most suspicious man, my friend Michael. I have known him even longer than I have known Susan and, although we are not as close as we once were, John and I still stay in contact with him."

   "I do not understand, Delenn," Ardenn hesitatingly ventured. "This friend of yours…Michael Garibaldi…he is important to me somehow?"

   "No…not especially," Delenn replied. "I mention him because he has a unique and interesting outlook on friendship. You see, he believes in having friends and, as he is one of the wealthiest people in known space, he has many that purport to be friends of his. But he also believes in leaving those friends room enough to…to disappoint him. It is a kind of informal test he gives them, I believe." Delenn sighed. "My friend Michael…I always thought his belief flawed, as if expecting his friends to fail him was somehow…belittling them, lessening their importance in his life. It was a product of his upbringing, I suppose. His outlook reflected his desire to protect himself emotionally. His life was hard and filled with many disappointments before he finally rediscovered himself. What do you think about Michael's belief?"

   Ardenn knew she was walking into a trap by answering, but she had no choice. She had to be truthful, even if the words were to be thrown back in her face. "I believe you are right, Delenn," she slowly said. "If one accepts the premise that one's friends will be found lacking in the end, why have friends at all? His outlook is flawed."

   Delenn turned and looked at the young woman intensely. "Is it, Ardenn? Is it truly?" she said sharply. The young woman was staring intently at her hands in her lap…there was no misunderstanding Delenn's message to her about friendship. "I once thought so," Delenn continued, "but now, I am not so sure. I am demanding on those that I allow close enough to me to be called 'friend', Ardenn. I expect much from them, and my friends have every right to demand just as much from me. And when I find that one of my friends thinks so little of my capabilities or…or doubts my promise to her so much that she turns away from me, I begin to think that perhaps Michael is right. Perhaps if I shared his belief, I would not be so hurt when she…when my friend chooses not to trust me. Perhaps I should begin allowing myself some room for disappointment. Do you agree?" Turning back to the candle, Delenn allowed a pregnant silence to develop while waiting for her words to sink in. After a moment, she quietly whispered, "Did you receive a letter from the Sisters of Valeria about forty turns ago?"

   "Yes," Ardenn breathed, her stomach sinking.

   "Was it a letter recalling you to the Sisterhood?"

   "Yes." Ardenn briefly considered trying to explain, but discarded the idea. Explanations at this point would only serve to weaken her position further…and she already felt miserable enough. Instead, she tried to concentrate on maintaining her composure. It was a battle she could feel herself losing even as Delenn continued to question her.

   "And did you recognize it as such when you received it? And did you not answer it? And did you knowingly not inform me about it? And did you hide this information from everyone, including David?" Delenn shot at her rapidly, her voice rising at each question.

   "Yes…yes…yes!" Ardenn wailed, beginning to fall apart under Delenn's angry glare. "Please stop, Delenn…" she stammered, "I know that I made a mistake…I am so sorry…"

   "More than a mistake, Ardenn. You have made more than a mistake." Delenn replied gravely. "By omission, you have made a life-changing decision…one that will affect more lives than just yours." Delenn looked down at her hands, no longer able to look her now-crying protégé in the face. "All you had to do was ask me for help, Ardenn," Delenn murmured sadly. "When the letter came, all that you had to do was ask…yet, even after everything we have been through, you thought so little of me that you hid this. I should have left you room to disappoint me," she concluded. "I should have, but I did not."

   "I…I…you are angry with me, I know. But you are still my friend, even if you no longer consider me yours. I still love you."

   Delenn softened her tone and said, "But you did not trust me, Ardenn. How can you say that I am your friend if you do not trust me? I trusted you…so much so that my only child, the one precious life my beloved husband and I were able to create together was yours. All I required of you was that you formally ask for him, and that he want you as well. You only had one obstacle to overcome, and I told you…I promised you, Ardenn! I promised you that I would help you with that obstacle. But when the time came for me to supply that help, you did not trust me enough to ask for it. Instead, you remained silent and now that obstacle has become far, far more formidable." Delenn lapsed into silence, staring into the flame again. She did not cry, although she wanted to as she saw the effect her words were having on the young woman beside her.

   Ardenn was sobbing openly as Delenn's words rolled across her. Everything she had hoped for was slipping through her fingers like sand. She did not know what to say. She could no longer see clearly, and the candle she was staring at was no more than a blurred glow. Fighting to steady her voice, she choked out, "I am so sorry, Delenn. What…what are you going to do with me now? Send…me away?"

   "I am extremely upset with you, Ardenn. If I did not think as highly of you as I do…if I did not already consider you the…the Daughter of my Heart, you would not be here now. This conversation is hurting me as much as it does you, and if you were not a member of my family…in my heart if not in fact…I would have spared myself the pain of it. I would not have even allowed you to return here today." A sob almost passed Delenn's lips, but she choked it back down with some effort and continued. "But I do love you so much, Ardenn…even now. I made you a promise and I intend to keep it, despite your disastrous mishandling of this and your lack of…of faith in me. As I said, however, the problem has become exponentially worse and finding an acceptable solution will be far more difficult, perhaps even…impossible," Delenn whispered. Reaching into her lap, she retrieved the envelope and held it out. "Ardenn, you have been commanded by the Mistress to present yourself before her in Yedor tomorrow. You are to be elevated as a full Sister of Valeria." As Ardenn hesitantly took the envelope, Delenn added, "It is…it is a great honor…to be invited to join. At least most would consider it so."

   "What?" Ardenn stammered, taking the envelope. With trembling fingers, she opened it and withdrew the contents, holding the aged parchment as if it was burning her. Reading it quickly, she pitifully murmured, "No…no, this cannot be happening…this must be an error…" Casting the invitation and envelope violently aside, she looked over at the older woman, breathing heavily. "You know that I…do not want this, Delenn…I DO NOT WANT THIS!" she cried. Burying her face in her hands, she sobbed, "I want the robes of the Sisterhood taken off of me, not more binding ones added! I want to stay here!"

   "You cannot," Delenn murmured sadly. "You have left me with no time to find a solution while you are with me. As promised, I will do everything in my power to help you…but I cannot allow you to ruin your life. While I seek a solution, you will return to the Order and accept the Obligation. You do not have a choice."

   "My life…I have already ruined my life…the one I dreamed for myself, the one that I wanted. They will cloister me, Delenn! Do you not understand? The vows…I will have to forswear all of you! And David…oh, Valen! Delenn, even if you are successful and I can return I will be a full Sister! The joining rituals…they will be forbidden to me. I will even be forbidden from telling David that I still love him. I am so sorry! It was a mistake…I was afraid…I was afraid and I just made a mistake…just one…"

   "Sometimes one is all it takes, Ardenn. When I was your age I, too, was elevated into a powerful position. While in that position, I made just one mistake…just a few simple words spoken in anger and pain…and millions of lives changed. Even in my anger and dismay, I understand, Ardenn…I love you and I forgive you. I want you to know that." Reaching out, Delenn brushed her hand over Ardenn's crest, gazing at the faint tracery of jagged lines that were obvious only when one looked closely…a reminder of Ardenn's dedication to her. "But I also want you to be…realistic, as John would say. Understand that there is a significant possibility that I will not be successful in helping you. I may not be able to get the Mistress to release you back into my service. You must be prepared to accept that, if it should occur. Also understand this: even if I am successful, renouncing the Sisterhood is no longer possible for you."

   "And…David?" Ardenn sobbed.

   Delenn hesitated in answering, unsure if she should say anything regarding Ardenn and David's relationship. To do so would only cause Ardenn more pain, and the young Minbari already knew the answer in her heart anyway. In fact, she ruefully admitted to herself, successfully recovering 'Sister' Ardenn might be more painful for everyone involved than leaving her with the Order. Once she donned the robe of a Sister, marriage for her was literally out of the question and having her and David in regular contact afterwards…the tension and regret might be unbearable for both of them. Delenn decided to dodge the question for the moment, saying, "One of the many lessons I have learned from my long association with humans is that one should address problems sequentially. We will first address obtaining your release from cloister. If we can resolve that, then there will be time enough to worry about…other matters. For now, there is a Sister Vadenn awaiting you. You will need to meet with her. You may go. We will speak again afterwards and from there, we shall see what we shall see."

   Ardenn stumbled to her feet and would have flown from the room, had not a shadowy figure just inside the doorway reached out and stopped her. Ardenn felt herself pulled to the side and into the figure's embrace. "Shh…calm down, sweetheart," Susan whispered. "I was standing behind you the whole time, and I heard everything. You weren't alone. Get your breathing under control and relax."

   Ardenn fought to comply, closing her eyes and concentrating on stopping the sobs. After a short moment, she felt her breathing returning to something approaching normal. "Better?" the voice asked.

   "Yes, Susan."

   "Listen to me. Before you call that Sister up here, I want you to go to your room and get out a piece of paper. I want you to put that Minbari memory of yours to work and write down everything…and I mean every damn word…of the original recall message that you received."

   "Why? That letter is immaterial now. A summons from the Mistress far supercedes a recall."

   "Because something about this smells like a rat, and I want to know what it is and why before I allow Delenn to walk into it."

   "I do not understand. These 'rats' and their scent…have something to do with my return to the Sisters?"

   "Yeah, honey…they do. I'll explain later. OK, go somewhere and collect yourself, write out that message for me and then go see the Sister. Keep your composure, listen to what she has to say and then come find me. I want to know everything she says…understand?"

*****

   "I knew you were back there, Susan," Delenn murmured as her friend sent Ardenn on her way.

   "I figured you did," Susan sighed as she moved up beside Delenn and seated herself in the spot Ardenn had vacated a few minutes prior. "Ardenn knew what had happened as soon as she heard that your visitor was a Sister. She spilled the whole story to me." Pensively, Susan ran her fingers through her hair and said, "I have to admit that my knowledge of the Sisters of Valeria is limited, Delenn. Ardenn told me a little on the way over…enough to convince me that her life here is far better than it was there. How bad is this?"

   "For most Minbari females, particularly those of the Worker and Religious castes, an invitation to join the Order is perhaps the highest honor that can be bestowed…if service to all of Minbar is the calling of the heart. For Ardenn, it is not…at least as a Sister. I think that she wants to serve in the same manner as I, perhaps as a diplomat or an administrator in the government. In short, she wants a personal life as well as a life of service. For her, this summons is…very bad."

   "You were too hard on her. She's barely holding herself together and now she has to go face that Sister. This Sister Vadenn may have raised Ardenn, but I gather that she and Ardenn do not like one another. I would have preferred that Ardenn face her knowing that you fully supported her."

   Delenn sighed tiredly. "I handled that badly, I know. I will seek Ardenn out shortly and ask her forgiveness for my treatment of her." Looking over at her friend, she continued, "The truth is that both Ardenn and I share blame in this. Her time in my service actually ended over six of your months ago. I knew that she loved David, but I did not know that David returned her feelings and so I waited until…I should have contacted Irilenn when I first realized that Ardenn and David wanted to be a couple…but I…that realization coincided with John's return and I…"

   "…became so caught up in your own joy at the reunion that you put it off? You forgot about it?"

   "Yes. I promised to help her and then I failed to do so. I am angrier with myself than I am at her, and I suppose that I took that anger out on her just now. Her handling of this matter has disappointed me, but my own has disappointed me just as much. I will keep my promise to her, Susan…but I am just not sure how much I can do or what help I can offer. I have no hold over the Sisters of Valeria…they do not answer to me nor do they owe me any special consideration. When I set foot in their Temple, I am not the President of the Alliance, a leader of the Religious caste or a former Satai. I am just another Minbari female visiting them."

   "That isn't quite true, Delenn. Your mother is the head of the Order. If you were just another Minbari female, they wouldn't have provided Ardenn to you in the first place. If I understand correctly, they bent their own policies to do this."

   Another voice, deep and familiar came from the doorway. "You understand correctly, Susan." John chimed in. Moving into the room, he knelt and sat on the opposite side of Delenn, crossing his legs with a grunt. Gazing concernedly at his wife, he murmured, "Are you OK?"

   "No, John. I am…not OK. I am very much in need of your companionship right now, but we need to discuss this first." Delenn turned and met his gaze. "David…he did not come with you, did he?"

   "No. When Susan called and told me what the situation was, I thought it would be better if he stayed with his ship. He promised that he would go back to his quarters once his work there was done."

   "Does he…does he know what has happened?"

   "He knows that a Sister of Valeria is here to see Ardenn." Indicating Susan, he continued, "That's all that you knew when you called me." Turning back to his wife, he added, "He's a smart man, Delenn…just as smart as you or I. He can read between the lines. He told me that Ardenn had been acting strangely around him for a while, and when he heard about the Sister, he pretty much understood what that meant."

   "Yet he stayed away. Thank you, John…for convincing him to do so. I do not think Ardenn would even be able to function if he were here right now."

   "He didn't want to stay away, but he understood that his presence would only make the situation more tense." John replied. "I told him that Ardenn would undoubtedly be upset enough without having him here for her to worry about as well. He accepted that, grudgingly." Sighing, he added, "I'm sure he's wearing holes in the deck of the maintenance pod right now, and he'll do the same to his carpet when he goes home. He'll stay out of the way for a while…but not forever. I'll need to be able to tell him something when his patience runs out."

   Delenn echoed John's sigh. "I need to be able to give Ardenn some information as well. I do not want her leaving tomorrow with no hope at all. I want her to know that I am doing all that I can."

   "Well, first things first, then." Susan said briskly, "Have you contacted Irilenn?"

   "That was my first act after Sister Vadenn was shown to the guest quarters. She was 'indisposed'. Oddly, I get the feeling that she will be 'indisposed' until Ardenn is back under their control."

   "So, what is this 'summoning'?" John asked. "I came over here expecting Ardenn to receive her recall notice, but this sounds like something different."

   "It is. If the Sisters merely wanted Ardenn to return as an Apprentice, they would have simply informed her of the time and date that she was expected to present herself at the local Chapter house. Apparently, this is what they did approximately one of your months ago. I could have delayed that…perhaps long enough for Ardenn and David to join." Getting up, Delenn crossed the room and retrieved the letter Ardenn had cast aside earlier and brought it back, handing it to John as she resumed her position on the floor. "This is not a recall. This is a Summoning. They are given to females deemed worthy of membership in the Sisters of Valeria…people who have demonstrated exceptional dedication to preserving our society and its people. For a Minbari, refusal to appear before the Mistress is not an option. She will stand before the Mistress and be offered the Obligation. She may accept it or refuse. If she refuses, she may leave and return to her family…but Ardenn does not have that option. She would walk out with no place to return to."

   "Where do people in that situation go, Delenn?" John asked slowly.

   "There are charitable organizations, of course…but…John, in our society, Minbari without purpose or place…they generally do not survive for long."

   "And what exactly is the…Obligation?" asked Susan.

   "The Obligation is the series of vows one undertakes upon attaining the Sisterhood. The selectee swears to place the welfare of our people above her personal desires, to aid the sick and downtrodden in times of need, to keep Minbari culture and history vibrant and alive and to safeguard the various secrets specific to the Order." Delenn sighed. "It is my understanding that the last Obligation is the requirement to set aside one's past life outside the Order, so she may focus on the betterment of our race as a whole without distraction. It is not unlike the vow I took upon becoming a member of the Grey Council, although once I was…invited to serve elsewhere…I was released from it. Had I not been, John and I could not have married. Obviously, it is that last portion of the Obligation that Ardenn wishes to avoid."

   "I can't even read this." John noted, turning the letter and envelope over in his hands. "I don't recognize any of the words."

   "The letter is written in 'Adrihi'e', beloved," Delenn explained. "It is the root language from which our three modern languages are derived. It is somewhat akin to your Latin and is used for formal communications by the older clans, as well as older organizations such as the Sisterhood. Ardenn is quite fluent in it and I can read it…barely."

   John passed the invitation to Delenn and said, "Read it to me, please."

   Delenn scanned the letter intently, her brow ridge furrowed. "Very well…forgive my stumbling, this is my first time reading it in detail as well.

   Greetings, Revered Sister Ardenn of Valeria.

   Your old life has ended, and a new one begins. The Most Revered Mistress Irilenn of the Sisters of Valeria has looked favorably upon you and found you worthy of serving with your life and your heart. We of the Sisters of Valeria invite you to commit yourself to our World and our People, the highest calling one can have. You have been selected to become One with us and we now offer you an Obligation, one that you are required to accept of your own free will. The Mistress Irilenn of the Sisters of Valeria commands you to present yourself before her in the Shrine of the Mistress on the Seventh Turn of Pre-Spring so you may formally set aside your worldly concerns and enter upon the new Path the Universe has ordained for you. We await you, Revered Sister.

   Your Service in the Light, Most Revered Sister Rakell of Valeria Enlightened One

   "The letter seems straightforward enough," John remarked, "but something about this bothers me."

   "I agree," Susan added as she shook her head. "I told Ardenn the same thing. It bothers me, too…but why?"

   "I am also troubled, but I cannot think of anything specific regarding this situation that makes me feel so," Delenn observed. "As you say, it is straightforward. Ardenn did save my life. Irilenn's reasoning in elevating Ardenn is logical."

   "Love…taken as a single event, this letter makes perfect sense. Ardenn deserves the honor, insofar as I understand it," John replied. "But…they tried to recall her…when? A month ago? That wasn't an elevation. Ardenn ignored that recall, and now, a month after she essentially defied them…they reward her? They even dispatch a full Sister to ensure that she returns? That puzzles me. Is that normal?"

   Delenn shook her head. "The elevation is deserved, but you are correct. I would think it unusual to offer elevation under these circumstance. My knowledge of the Order's practices is not much greater than yours, but I would think a censure more appropriate, if not expulsion."

   "So there's more going on here than meets the eye," Susan observed. "Delenn, I want you to be careful. The Sisters have to know that you'll check this out. They obviously know that Ardenn doesn't want to return and they're taking what appear to be unusual steps to see that she has to. It occurs to me that they may want you to get involved."

   "If you are correct, then it would appear that the 'ball is in their court' for now, although I fail to see what the Sisterhood would gain from arousing my suspicions in such an overt manner." Sighing, Delenn reached up and scratched the nape of her neck. "In the meantime, there is still the aid I promised Ardenn to consider. I need to decide how best to do so."

   "Uh…while you do that…do you mind if I borrow your husband for a little while?" Turning to John, Susan added, "We need to talk. Something else has come up."

   "Do you need me as well, Susan?" Delenn asked. "I would like to try contacting the Sisterhood again, if you do not."

   "No, Delenn," Susan replied as she stood. "You do what you need to do. It's just Ranger business anyway…we can handle it." To John, she said, "The balcony OK?"

   "Sure, I'll be right out," Standing, John stooped over his wife and gave her a kiss on the forehead. "Holler if you need me. I'll be back in a few minutes."

*****

   As the three discussed their suspicions, Ardenn did as Susan instructed, sitting at the small desk in her room and writing out the text of her first recall message from the Sisterhood. Not that it said much…It merely stated that her time in Delenn's service had ended and that she should contact her Chapter to arrange her return. Forty turns…a human month…she had remained in her mentor's home although she knew she was no longer her aide.

   False pretenses...she was here under false pretenses. She had wanted to stay, so she stayed...it was as simple as that. No one had even thought to question her presence. And the Sisterhood had tolerated her indiscretion, for a time. But they were here now. Vadenn was here.

   As Ardenn finished scribing out the note, a voice from her past spoke behind her, sending a chill up her spine. "Greetings, younger sibling."

   Dropping her stylus, Ardenn jumped out of her chair and bowed…the obedient bow of an Apprentice to a full Sister. "Uh…greetings, revered elder sibling. It pleases me to see you once again."

   Vadenn smiled at the pleasant exchange. It was a smile without warmth or mirth. "I am certain it does," she murmured. Slipping up beside Ardenn, she rested a gentle hand on her shoulder. "I look forward to having you among us again almost as much as you look forward to returning."

   "It is good that we understand each other then, revered Sister. Were you to leave, I would still be here and you would still be there. We would both be happy then, yes?"

   "Perhaps. The Mistress commands, and we obey, however. I have my task, and you have your summons. You will obey." Sighing, Vadenn looked around Ardenn's little room appraisingly. Her younger sibling had a dresser, a small desk with a computer terminal, a soft-looking bed of moderate size, a bedside table and a closet. She even had her own washroom. A large window looked out over the Gardens below. It was decadent, in the older Sister's opinion…far more comfortable than even a full Sister's quarters. "Very nice…" she murmured. A small rack on Ardenn's dresser caught her eye. Moving to examine it, she saw that it was a crystal holder. The small pockets held data crystals, each carefully inscribed with names and dates. Curiously, Vadenn pulled one out. Its label read 'David 11-21-84', and the older Sister snickered at the pathos of her younger sibling. In her mind's eye, she pictured the young woman sitting under a glow lamp late at night labeling messages from her human and fantasizing about him bedding her. Vadenn herself, she noted, would have already taken what she wanted from the Sheridan hybrid long ago, rather than pining away as Ardenn did. From what she had heard about human males, it might be interesting to see if one could stand up to her.

   Tuning to Ardenn's data crystal reader, Vadenn was about to insert the crystal when Ardenn reached out and stopped her. "No. Those are my personal correspondences, revered Sister, and the one you have selected is…very personal. Mistress Delenn herself respects me enough not view them, and I would appreciate it if you would not."

   Ardenn had not changed, Vadenn thought sourly. "Remove your hand, child." She still did not understand her place. "You have nothing personal, ver'kaff. Have you not yet figured out that the Sisterhood owns you? That we own everything that you think you own? Perhaps I should confiscate all of these messages. Perhaps the Mistress and the Enlightened One would find viewing them…amusing."

   "You…have that right of course, revered Sister. I would remind you though, that the messages are David Sheridan's as well as mine. My personal messages, of course, would concern no one…but Mistress Delenn might take a dim view of her son's correspondence being confiscated. I recommend you consider that before making such a bold move."

   "Of course. Upsetting 'Mistress' Delenn would not do, would it? And the scandal…" Vadenn smiled dangerously, "The son of Delenn carrying on a secret affair with an underling? Shameful."

   "Of…of what do you speak?" Ardenn stammered.

   "Please, ver'kaff, do not pretend that there is nothing between you?" Replacing the data crystal in its pocket, Vadenn rounded Ardenn's bed and picked up a picture off of her bedside table. "Bold, indeed, as you say," she laughed as she examined the photo. It was one of her younger sibling and the young Sheridan. Both had their arms around each other and were gazing unabashedly into the other's eyes. Switching to the Ancient Tongue, Vadenn continued, "Out in the open you are…I suppose your Mistress Delenn cares not that her son consorts with the lowborn. I find that difficult to believe. I should pass this on to her…perhaps she would not approve of her aide paying inappropriate attention to her son."

   "As my Mistress Delenn is the one who took this photo, I doubt her opinion of me would be lessened." <Any more than it already has been…> Ardenn added silently.

   "I suppose 'consort' was too respectable a term, then. Perhaps 'concubine' would be a more apt one. I would imagine that you were only too willing to take a place in his bed." Looking into the downcast face of her former Apprentice, Vadenn goaded her harder. "Tell me, ver'kaff, how long did it take after you arrived here for you to lure him in with your open legs? Did he break your seal on the first night, or did you have to work for it? Or perhaps you crept into his bed and presented him with your maidenhood when he awoke?" With a malicious smile, she added, "I have heard that human males are sizable. Is it true? I would imagine that a little piece of fluff like you bled like a gored foodbeast that first time…but I suppose that you are used to him by now." Eyeing the woman, Vadenn saw that her words were having their intended effect.

   Ardenn could barely speak. She was trembling with a mixture of shock, shame and rage…staring so hard at the floor that she thought her eyes would bore a hole to the level below. Forcing herself to look back up at the older woman, she said, "You besmirch the reputation of a man you do not even know…and were he here, I doubt that you would continue to be welcome in this place. He cares about me and I care about him. Our activities are our own. That is all…that is more than you need to know."

   <Willful…> Vadenn thought. The Mistress was correct. Ardenn had been outside of cloister for far too long. It would be necessary to put the stupid girl back in the proper frame of mind. In her opinion, the Sisterhood had little need for…individuals…within its ranks, and Ardenn had become an individual. Vadenn sighed and looked at the young Minbari before shaking her head in disappointment and saying, "No…I gave you too much credit. You have not the necessary boldness to have done as I hypothesized. I know you, ver'kaff. You have parted your legs not at all, unless it was to pleasure yourself, and now…it appears that your opportunity is gone." Looking down again at the photograph, she eyed David appraisingly and added, "He does seem to truly care about you, judging from his expression. I am certain that your leaving will be distressing for him. But…do not worry, little one. The Mistress has informed me that I will likely replace you here…and I will ensure that he does not miss you for very long. Perhaps…perhaps I will send you a message describing how I accomplished what you could not while you are being reeducated in the North. Would you like that?"

   Darting around the bed, Ardenn snatched the frame away from her elder sibling. "He is not for you, Vadenn. You may say as you wish about me, but you will never have him. Never."

   "Both willful and possessive…" Vadenn chortled at her red-faced subordinate. "I think your time in the North will be long indeed. You will need much reeducation. Did you not say yourself that he was not displeasing to the eye before you came here? Well, at least your taste in males is acceptable. I will be here with him…and you will not be in a position to stop me. You will be busy relearning all of the things you should have learned from me in the first place. Wearing the robe of a Sister…if your elevation were not providing me the opportunity that you stole from me three cycles ago, the mere thought of you wearing crimson would make me retch. But I am flexible. I knew that if I was patient my time come…as would yours." Gesturing at the room, Vadenn concluded, "Comfortable this is…I think I will find that I can live with this for a while."

   Ardenn looked down at the picture of her and David and shuddered as she thought of Vadenn trying to worm her way into his arms. "What makes you think…what makes you think that you will get to serve here, revered Sister?"

   "The Mistress herself expressed concern that this lifestyle was overly influencing on a child such as you. She has determined that your replacement should be someone…more mature and less…impressionable."

   "Forgive me, revered Sister. You misunderstand me. What makes you think that I will allow you to serve here?" Ardenn bowed respectfully and then straightened to look Vadenn in the eye. "You blithely speak of staying here as if it were inevitable. It is not. As you said of me, now I repeat…I know you, revered Sister. You have forgotten something."

   "What?"

   "You have forgotten that you 'are on my turf' here, as the humans say." Ardenn angrily pointed out. "This room you are standing in is my room. This home is my home. These people you once spoke of meeting…names that are legends, I think you called them…they call me 'friend'. You think that you insult me by insinuating that I sleep with David. Your words are crude, but sleeping with him would not insult me in the least. Having you near him…that would insult me, and I find that I cannot allow it. Do you not think Delenn will come to me and ask me what I think about your replacing me here? What do you think I will say?

   "What?"

   "I can either speak the truth about you or say nothing. I will say…nothing. And my silence, revered Sister…my silence will speak volumes. Delenn and Entil'zha John will understand. That is called 'credibility' by the humans…I have it here, and you do not."

   "Your life…after tomorrow, your life in the Sisterhood will be nothing but misery, Ardenn! I will see to it! You think you will return to the Chapter here in Tuzanor? There are places you can go that would make you weep just to picture them! And I will see to it that you find them all!"

   "My life with you was nothing but misery! There is something wrong with you, Vadenn, and I do not know why the other Sisters have never noticed it! You need help!"

   "It is you who will need help, little ver'kaff!" Moving in on the young Minbari, Vadenn used her greater size to back Ardenn into a corner. "I came up here not to bandy words with you, insolent one. I came up here for answers, and you will give them to me!" In a harsh whisper, Vadenn continued, "I want to know why you are being elevated! I want to know why the Mistress did not cast you out! I want to know why you were sent here over me! Why are you special, Ardenn! Tell me now!"

   Vadenn had never struck her…that would be an unthinkable act for a Sister of Valeria, but Ardenn was starting to realize that her elder sibling was not entirely sane. Terrified, she bolted around the other woman. "Get away from me!" Enraged and fearful, she turned at the door. "One thing Vadenn…one thing I am grateful for in all of this misfortune. Tomorrow I will be a Sister just as you are! You will no longer have any authority over me! And after tomorrow, pray that you and I do not cross paths!" With that, Ardenn spun and ran out the door.

*****

   After they finished with Delenn, Susan and John made their way down the corridor towards the balcony. There was still the matter of the missing Warcruiser to deal with, and somehow, she didn't think that John would want Delenn privy to this…especially given how Susan had come to know about the secrets hidden away on Flynn's World. As far as she knew, John had never discussed his long-ago mission with anyone other than her.

   Rounding the corner, both paused at the sound of angry words coming from the direction of Ardenn's room. Both stopped to listen, but the words were in a language neither understood. Susan started to go down the hallway, but John reached out and stopped her. "Let Ardenn fight that fight," he murmured quietly. "If you barge in, that Sister will just wait until later to jump on her. Better to get it over with now."

   "She's going to come out of that really upset. Should I call David? I told her I'd wait until she was ready before I did."

   "Yeah, I'd go ahead and do it. She'll definitely be ready when that's over." Patting Susan on the back, he added, "I'll be waiting outside."

   Susan went back to the comm unit and made the call, quickly explaining the situation to an anxious David. Terminating the call, she emerged on the balcony to find John waiting for her just as he had said. He was near the railing, looking out over the Gardens at the city and the mountains beyond. Stepping up quietly beside him, she murmured, "He's on his way." John didn't react immediately, so Susan queried, "Penny for your thoughts?"

   John turned to face her, snapping back to reality from wherever his thoughts had been wandering. "Hmm? Oh, good…good. She'll need some moral support." Chuckling at himself a little, he continued, "I was just thinking about Ardenn and her situation. I think we're right, there's more going on here than an Elevation. There are too many inconsistencies…but I'll be damned if I can put my finger on anything. I just don't know enough about Ardenn, Irilenn or the Sisters themselves to figure it out."

   "Delenn will figure it out. She's better at prying secrets out of people than you and I put together."

   "Yeah, I know…and that bothers me. Surely, Irilenn knows that Delenn will be suspicious of this move…and will investigate. Like you said, suppose she wants Delenn to investigate? Irilenn might be using Ardenn to set my wife up for something."

   "Like what?"

   "That's just it. I don't know. I know that Delenn can handle herself, but at the same time I don't want her walking into a meeting with Irilenn thinking that she's there to help Ardenn, only to be blindsided by something else. David told me that he felt like he and Ardenn were being watched when they were out together, and I've got a strong gut feeling that he was right and it was the Sisterhood doing the watching. If that's true, then the Sisters know about their relationship…but is that important? Did it trigger this, or was it something else? I'd think that if they objected, they would have simply informed Delenn rather than pulling that poor girl out in this underhanded way. I just don't get it." John snorted and shook his head, concluding, "But that's not why you asked to see me alone out here…we could have discussed this in front of Delenn. What's on your mind?"

   "The timing of this is incredibly bad, John…and I apologize, but I need you to make a trip for me."

   "Leave now?" John exclaimed. Lowering his voice, he added, "It's a good thing Delenn isn't out here…she'd be heating up the pokers for you."

   "I can't help it, John. A Warrior caste ship is missing, and I need you to find it."

   "A missing ship? Susan…look, just between you and me, Delenn isn't quite ready for me to be gone very long yet. She's having trouble sleeping and now, with this 'Ardenn' situation…"

   "John, we think we know where the ship is, and that's why I need you to go. We think it went to Flynn's World."

   "Flynn's World? Jesus…" John shook his head in shock. "I haven't heard that name in thirty-six years…and hearing it now is too soon." Looking at his friend, he quietly added, "I swore I'd never go back there, Susan. You have no idea how bad it is. Only a few people are left alive that do…the few old fossils like me that are left over from the damage assessment team. If it hadn't been for that night on Io, even you wouldn't know."

   Susan thought back to a night spent drinking with a handsome war hero thirty years prior. "Yeah…I remember. One more Vodka and we would have been shacking up together that night."

   "Or one less Jovian Sunspot," John added thoughtfully. "I think they poured me into bed. You know, I could have been court-martialed for telling you about that mission."

   Looking at John seriously, Susan said, "One other person knows…Delenn."

   "Yeah, but she doesn't know that I know. She knows what the Wind Swords did, but I doubt she knows what they left behind. I want it to stay that way."

   "And that's why you have to go, John," Susan hissed. "I can't send a White Star! I can't send a scout! Don't you understand? There's evidence down there that might implicate your wife in a war crime…and you know it!" Exasperatedly, Susan ran her fingers through her graying hair. "Look, if I send a Ranger ship and they have to land for some reason…not only will 'Satai' Delenn be implicated, but you would as well! The Minbari committed the crime, but Earthgov, through you, covered it up!"

   "What could I do!" John hissed back at her. "The war had just ended…we were in no position to make any demands! If our people had found out what the Minbari did, they would have demanded that the government do something…and we couldn't! We were beaten! The fleet was a shambles…we were lucky to survive the Line! Better that they didn't know!"

   "And what would happen now, John?" Susan retorted. "What would happen if a Ranger came back and reported what was down there? Would people just shrug it off? Hell, no…Earth would demand an investigation, and they'd get it! How much ugly shit do you suppose would come out of that? Earth and Minbar are the major powers in the Alliance today…do you think the Alliance would survive the scandal? Would you? Would Delenn?" Susan shook her head wearily. "Do you want to run the risk of her past being blown totally out in the open?" Flopping down on the balcony's bench, she added, "John…your wife knows that you are aware she was a Satai during the war. She doesn't know the full extent of your knowledge. Anything that came out of this would catch her totally by surprise. You have to go."

   John hung his head in resignation, knowing that his friend was right but dreading the outcome all the same. "When do you need me to leave?"

   Susan started to reply, but the sound of running feet forestalled her. Looking over at the entranceway, she and John caught a glimpse of a white-robed figure darting by. Ardenn's conversation with the Sister appeared to be over. Turning back to John, she said, "Soon. Like yesterday."

*****

   Ardenn was right where David thought he would find her…the Gardens.

   Although David knew that Ardenn was lousy at meditation by her own admission, she went to the Gardens from time to time when she wanted solitude. From what Ranger One and his parents had told him when he arrived, Ardenn was despondent and had retreated from the quarters after what had apparently been a confrontational conversation with the Sister sent to meet with her. None knew what was said…Ardenn and the Sister had spoken in the Ancient Tongue, and neither Susan nor his father could understand it. The tone of the conversation had been unmistakable, however. Both his father and Susan could tell that it was unpleasant. Ardenn had emerged from her room and bolted out the door shortly after Susan keyed him up on the comm panel. Since she had not left the compound, this was the likely spot where he would find her.

   When Ranger One finally contacted him, he had been cooling his heels in his quarters at the Ranger compound, his imagination inventing all sorts of worst-case scenarios. The one he had finally settled on was a recall to the Sisterhood. After his conversation with Ranger One, his father hadn't been specific about what had happened…he had simply said that a Sister of Valeria had come to see Ardenn, and that she might have a problem on her hands. David had immediately started the shutdown process on the energy emitter in the maintenance pod, but his father stopped him, saying, "We don't know anything, David. It may be nothing to get worked up about, but if it is something serious…don't you think that having you underfoot might make things harder for her? Your mother will be able to provide far more help to her than you can."

   David had been prepared to argue. If Ardenn had a problem, then it was his problem. But he had paused to think. A problem with the Sisterhood wouldn't be one he could help much with, and he certainly didn't want to advertise his and Ardenn's relationship in front of a Sister. His father had a point…Mother was in a far better position to address a problem of that nature than he, even if Irilenn was his 'sort-of' Grandmother. Grudgingly, he stayed after his father left and completed the weapons series on his new White Star, his mind barely on the task. Then he had gone home to wait. To wait and to worry.

   Her back was to him and, as David quietly approached her, he could tell from the set of her shoulders that she was extremely upset. Stepping up behind her, he gently slipped his hands onto her shoulders and gave them a soft, reassuring squeeze, simultaneously planting a kiss on the cerulean patch near the apex of her bonecrest. "Hi, sweetheart. I've missed you today."

   Ardenn startled a little at his touch, nearly spearing him with her crest's bony point. She settled almost immediately once she realized that it was he, but she didn't acknowledge him. <She is 'really' upset… > he thought as he released her and stepped around the bench to stand beside her. He began to have a sinking feeling…but he refused to become depressed. If things were as bad as he suspected, his beloved would gain nothing from having an equally upset companion. She looked as if she could really use a shoulder right now…someone to comfort her, not someone to feel as miserable as she obviously did.

   David made a show of looking around at the foliage, a mixture of Earth and Minbari plant life arranged by his mother so she and his father had a place to relax away from the demands of running the Alliance. At the foot of the bench was a small Japanese stone garden, not unlike the one he was told had once existed on Babylon 5 before the station's demolition four years previously. Ardenn was staring intently at the carefully manicured sand, studiously avoiding looking in his direction.

   Indicating the position beside Ardenn on the bench, David said, "Do you mind if I sit with you? It looks like you probably want some space right now, but I've been standing in a cramped maintenance pod all day and my back is a little sore." Ardenn said nothing and didn't look up, but she scooted over a few inches. David took that as an affirmative and plopped down beside her. "Ah, much better," he sighed. He sat quietly for a moment, simply looking at his beloved's profile. He wanted to reach out and touch her, to take her in his arms and hold her, but he resisted the temptation. From her expression alone, he knew that doing so would probably set off a crying bout, and he didn't want tears from her. If she had been recalled, as he suspected, tears would come. He'd be ready for them, but he wanted a smile from her first.

   "You must be meditating. Meditation is good for the spirit…or so I'm told." David began. Ardenn glanced at him, and then looked quickly away, back at the garden. That one glance told David all he need to know. He knew that his mother had come down hard on her and Valen only knew what that damned Sister had said to her privately. Now, she had no idea what to expect from him. If she were expecting his condemnation, he reasoned, she was going to be surprised. Conversationally, he continued, "Well, you've picked a good spot for it, at least. I used to play here all the time as a child. That stone garden that you're so intently staring at was my sandbox."

   "A sand…box?" Ardenn murmured softly. "Of what utility is a box of sand to a child?"

   "Are you kidding? A kid can do lots of things in a sandbox," David replied, heartened that she was at least speaking even if she refused to look at him. "A child can create whole worlds…cities, roads, towers…anything you can imagine." Forcing a chuckle, he pointed at the stone garden and said, "Dad thought using the stone garden as a sandbox was great; he was never one for seeking hidden meanings in…well, in 'dirt' for lack of a better way of putting it. Mother though…Minbari children don't play in sandboxes and it annoyed her to no end that I did. She would come down here to meditate at the end of the day but would always end up fishing out my toys instead. I'd leave all of my crashed spaceships half-buried in the sand and my miniature GROPOS hiding out in the bushes, ready to ambush the evil Drakh if they dared to appear. I'd take the rocks and move them around to make mountains. Handprints and footprints would be everywhere, and my clothes…" David snorted, "My clothes always had sand in them. I'd leave sand all over the house. One day she even caught me trying to make a lake in there…that in itself wasn't so bad, but my method of filling it was creative, to say the least. I think that episode finally ended the usefulness of this area as a meditation site for her. 'Delenn the Wise' could never sit here again and reflect on whatever arcane mysteries she thought could be answered in the patterns without remembering that her son had whizzed in her personal meditation spot." David laughed at the memory, adding, "I remember that so well, even though I was only five years old. 'The power of one appendage to change the Universe' was how she referred to it as she was frog-marching me up to see Dad."

   Despite her personal troubles, Ardenn managed a faint smile at the thought of David being caught by Delenn as he urinated into the stone garden. So many stories she and her beloved could have shared, and now it would never happen.

   "Hey…you smiled," David said as cheerfully as he could. "Don't try to smother it…it's too late. I saw the corners of your mouth move." As her smile faded, he added, "Penny for your thoughts?"

   "I was remembering that I…once did much the same. My elder sibling, Vadenn, was trying to teach me to meditate. I could not have been more than three or four cycles old, and I was not an especially attentive pupil. Vadenn became frustrated after a time, as she usually did where I was concerned. She told me that I was not to move until the meditation candle burned down, and then she left to run some other errands. It was a long candle, and after a time I needed to relieve myself…but she had threatened punishment if I disobeyed. I continued to sit and I restrained myself for as long as I could, but my control finally slipped and I…defaced her favorite mat." She did not add that Vadenn had later punished her by making her use that mat when she demonstrated her lackluster meditation skills before the Sisters. The odor had been horrible and she had been extremely embarrassed.

   "We have a lot in common, Ardenn, despite our different upbringings," David murmured after reflecting on her anecdote. "I guess that's one of the reasons I love you."

   "Yes, we have much in common," Ardenn agreed, a tear finding its way down her cheek in response to his declaration of love for her. She unclasped her hands from her lap and wiped the tear away before continuing. David was watching her, and she waved her hand at the stone garden to direct his attention away from her face. "If…we could have children, David…if it were possible, do you suppose that they would want to play in these boxes of sand?"

   "Abso-fraggin-lutely," David replied, sliding closer to Ardenn and slipping an arm across the back of the bench behind her. "I can't imagine any child of ours turning away from the opportunity. Why, if we could have children, Ardenn…" he said wistfully, "our children would be the happiest, most playful children in the world. How could they be anything else? They would have the best, most loving mother watching over them."

   "I know it is…not possible, David," Ardenn said as her tears began falling in earnest, "but in my dreams I envisioned giving you…many children." She had tried to steel herself against this, but she found that she could no more resist crying than she could resist the sun rising. "I…I would be a good, dutiful and worthy mother," she continued, her voice quivering. "In my dreams, I saw a little home for us…a place of our own where I would care for them, David…the little lives we would create together." Ardenn paused, trying unsuccessfully to stifle the sob forcing its way up her throat. With a gasp, she turned and buried her face in David's cloak as more sobs followed the first. Between the sobs, she tried to continue. "I would… I would watch over our children as they played in the sand…and perhaps…perhaps I would even play with them there…and when you would return home…you would find all of us dirty…but you would be so proud of us…"

   "You have a beautiful dream, and I'm honored to be included in it." David murmured, putting his arms around Ardenn as she cried and pulling her more snugly into his shoulder. Kissing the top of her head lightly, he began stroking the folds of her crest as he whispered consolingly, "Shh, it's all right…I understand…I'm here and I love you. I'm so proud of you now, sweetheart…I'll always be proud of you."

   "Please…I pray that…it is so," Ardenn haltingly choked out. Desperately, she tried to force the heaving in her chest to stop…tried to still the sobs wracking her small frame. Taking a deep breath, Ardenn turned her face up to David and tried to look him in the eye. She found that she was only able to glance at him for a second before her eyes fell to his shoulder. She needed to say what she had to say before she lost all ability to speak coherently. "I…David…I know that you are…are wondering why I waited to send for you. I needed to…to see if there was any hope…before I spoke to you."

   "Hope? Hope for what?" David asked concernedly, "I figured that you'd been recalled, but I don't…"

   "Please, let me finish…If I do not say this now, I will not…be capable of saying the words. I have…not been recalled, David. I have been summoned for Elevation. I am to become a full Sister of Valeria tomorrow." Burying her face in his cloak, she sobbed once before adding, "It is possible that we will…never see each other again."

   "I…I don't believe it…" David breathed. His hand, which had idly been stroking her crest, paused and Ardenn rubbed her head against his palm, indicating that she wanted him to continue. As he began stroking again, he speculated, "Surely Mother will help…there must be a loophole somewhere…"

   "Your mother is…going to help," Ardenn murmured, her breathing finally coming back under some semblance of control for the moment. It would not last, she knew. "But I…I miscalculated badly. Through my own inaction, I have left her no time to help me while I remain here. I must return to the Order. A summons from the Mistress cannot be ignored or postponed…and as you humans say, 'possession is nine-tenths of the law'. The Sisters will have me…I will in fact be one of them. This makes matters much harder."

   "And us?" David asked, dreading the answer.

   "That is the other reason…why I have…called you, beloved." Ardenn replied, feeling her chest starting to quiver again. "I have called you to…to release you, David. To release you from your…attachment to me."

   "What? You can't be serious…don't do this Ardenn. Don't give up on us. We can beat this thing as long as we stand together…"

   "Oh, Valen! David…I want to be your mate…your wife so badly…but that is no longer possible. I release you, David…I release you, and someday…please find it in your heart to forgive me for what I have done to you. I will pray every night that you will find someone…someone else to share your life with. Someone who can love you without all of the encumbrances that I have."

   "No. I accepted your offer to participate in the joining rituals. I accepted…"

   "David…do you not understand? I cannot hold you to your promise. When I accept the Obligation, I will have to forswear you. You will be held prisoner to a promise that cannot be kept! We cannot join! You must be free to find someone else!"

   "No, Ardenn! It's you that don't understand! You have everything backwards, love! You asked me to accept you as my mate…MY mate, and I did so. When you said those words, you swore yourself to me…to me, Ardenn! Not the other way around!" David released his hold on Ardenn and stopped stroking her crest. Gently, he pushed her back up so she was facing him and exasperatedly ran his fingers through his hair. Sighing, he continued, "Don't you get it, sweetheart? You can't release me because you have no hold over me. All you did was ask that I accept you…I made the decision to accept, so I'm the one holding you. It's my prerogative to release you." Extending a finger, he poked her in the chest lightly. "And I choose not to."

   Reaching out, Ardenn took his hand. "You are…playing with semantics, David," she murmured sadly, "Do not do this…do not make this any harder than it is."

   "Semantics?" David replied, pulling his hand away. "Was your request that I take you as my mate made so lightly? Do your words mean so little that you can rearrange them to suit your mood? In my experience, Minbari always choose their words very carefully, and you chose yours in such a way that it was my decision about whether or not our joining moved forward. Did you not intend that?" David was angry now. Ardenn was fixating again, so wrapped up in her own misery that she'd forgotten that the goal she was now striving for, his release, was something neither of them wanted. David sighed…and decided to call her out completely. "Do you really want to be released from me, Ardenn? OK, fine…I'll make this very easy for you, since it seems that's what you're aiming for. Say the words. Honestly say a few simple words, and I'll release you."

   "What…what words do you require of me?"

   "Look at me. Look me in the eye and tell me that you no longer love me. Tell me that you won't love me tomorrow when you stand before the Mistress. Look up at me, Ardenn, and say these words…and I will let you go."

   Ardenn balled up her fists in frustration. "Valen…damn you, David!" she cried, "I…I cannot say those words…I would be lying, and you know this! I love you and I always will no matter how many vows I take that say otherwise!"

   "Oh, so putting on that crimson robe doesn't automatically turn your emotions off? You'll still love me after the Sisterhood puts their stamp of approval on you? If that's true then how can you seriously expect me to be any better at turning off my love than you are? I…Love…You…Ardenn. How much plainer can I say it?" Plucking at her outer robe, David added, "I'll still love you whether you're wearing this robe or a red one."

   "But…David? Even if I return…even if your mother is successful in helping me, I will return as a full Sister of Valeria. I will be subject to the Obligation. We can never be husband and wife."

   "We'll face that when it's time to face it, beloved, and we'll decide what to do when we better know the options we have." David earnestly said. "Look," he continued, "I'm not totally ignorant…I grew up here. My mother is Minbari and although I rarely acknowledge it, I am too. I know as much about the ways of 'our' people as most full Minbari do. I understand that it may come to pass that you cannot return. It may also come to pass that you return, but that we can't be together the way we want to be. I'm not living in a fantasy world. I acknowledge that these are possibilities, but this game isn't over. I haven't given up and I don't want you to give up, either." Reaching into his cloak, David retrieved the small box he had carried with him for a month. "As for now, this, I believe, is yours...but only if you agree not to surrender. I want to hear you say it."

   Ardenn sighed. David would come to find that options were nonexistent, she knew, but he was brooking no argument at the moment and she decided not to force the issue. That, and her misery was momentarily pushed aside by puzzlement regarding the tiny box in his hand. "I will not give up on us, beloved."

   "Good. As long as I know that you haven't given up, I won't lose hope." David said as he extended the box. "Perhaps having this will remind you about hope in the days to come, as well."

   Ardenn reached out and took the box, turning it over in her hand and looking at it curiously. "It is a beautiful little box, David. It does not appear to be large enough to hold much sand, but I thank you anyway."

   Even given all that was swirling around them, David managed a laugh. "You're a funny Minbari, Ardenn. Have I ever told you that?" Nodding at her, he said, "Go ahead…open it."

   Ardenn examined the box more closely, her brow ridge furrowing as she looked for the secret of opening it. "How do I…" she began just as her eye caught the seam that ran around the middle. "Oh, never mind…" she finished as she popped the box open, "I have found the…release…oh, beloved…In Valen's Name…"

   Over the past month, David had speculated considerably about what his intended's reaction to receiving her engagement ring would be. Now, he watched as her eyes became as large as saucers and her hands began to tremble. Her expression alternated between happiness and tears. Thinking about what was to come for her as he watched her struggling to control her emotions, he felt his own expression becoming somber. Fighting it off, he said, "I'm assuming from your expression that it's adequate."

   "David, is this what I believe it to be?" Ardenn began, but trailed off as tears began to trace their way down her cheeks…this time tears of joy. "It's so beautiful, David…"

    "Yes, precious one, it's your engagement ring…the one I promised you. It was created for you alone, and there's no other ring quite like it, just as there's no other person quite like you. It's yours for the rest of your life, whatever the future holds for us."

    Her fingers trembling, Ardenn shakily set the box down on the bench between them for fear that she would drop it. "Silver and Gold…and a crystal. I am certain that there must be symbolic meaning behind this."

   "Platinum and Gold," David corrected. "A new metal and an old, two fused into one…just as you and I are. Each separate and different, yet joined and intertwined."

   "And the crystal?" Ardenn murmured, wiping tears from her cheeks.

   "It's not a crystal…not a Minbari one, anyway. It's called a 'diamond' and it's a mineral native to Earth." David explained. "Diamonds take millions of years to form and are very rare and precious. Until about 300 years ago, they were the hardest substances known to man and they were highly prized as jewelry for thousands of years prior to that. A diamond in an engagement ring symbolizes unity, the beauty of it's owner and the strength of the love bond."

   Ardenn tentatively extended a finger and touched the ring, tracing the band with her fingertip before looking meaningfully back at her beloved and David almost laughed as he watched her eyes flit from him to the ring. Her signal was clear. She wanted it on her finger, but she wasn't sure about what to do. She was trying to figure out whether or not she should simply put it on herself or whether there was a ceremony involved. "Yes, sweetheart…there is a short ritual that goes along with this," he answered in response to her unspoken question. "Many couples dispense with it nowadays, but it's up to you."

   "I want the ritual, David," Ardenn directed primly, sitting up straight and folding her hands in her lap. "I want it now." Raising her chin, she gazed at David, presenting herself as the very symbol of propriety. "You may proceed."

   "Uh, yeah…right. OK, then…" David rose from the bench…doing so a little shakily, he admitted to himself. Scooping up the box, he removed the ring and said, "Let's see…um, you'll need to stand, if we're going to do this right."

   Smiling, Ardenn wordlessly stood and smoothed her robe, the tip of her crest barely reaching his shoulder. Her amusement turned to surprise and she gasped as David went down on his knees before her. Glancing around quickly to ensure no one was watching, she tugged at David's shoulders and hissed, "David…beloved…get up! It is improper for you to kneel for me! Your position is far above mine…I cannot require this of you! Hurry, before someone sees you!"

   David chuckled. He did feel kind of ridiculous, especially since he found himself staring at Ardenn's very petite and attractive waistline. Amusedly, he pushed the thought aside and replied, "This is a Human ritual, sweetheart. The man is supposed to kneel before his beloved. By the way, during this ritual and forever afterwards, we are equals."

   "Oh. Well, David, if that is the case…" Ardenn gathered her inner and outer robes and went down on her knees as well, pillowing the fabric in her hands under her knees so she was closer to eye-level with her beloved. "If we are to be equals, then it is more logical that we both kneel, yes?"

   "OK, have it your way." David made a show of rolling his eyes. "We humans are flexible…I can adjust."

   "Your flexibility remains yet to be ascertained," Ardenn murmured with a gleam in her eye. "But we digress. What is next in this ritual?"

   "Uh, you give me your hands," Ardenn held up her hands uncertainly, and David slipped the ring onto his little finger and took her delicate fingers in his, caressing her knuckles reassuringly. "Ardenn…today, the Universe has not been kind to you, and tomorrow will be harder still. I suppose that I could come up with a thousand words that describe how important a part of my life you are, had we the time. But we don't have that time, so I will say just this…you are my life."

   Ardenn had not expected David to speak. She had expected him to mumble some tired human litany and give her the ring. As his words washed over her, she felt herself beginning to tear up again. Eyes glistening, she fought to keep her head up and maintain eye contact.

   "No matter where you are, that's where I'll be and no matter where I go, you'll be with me in my heart. I don't know what will happen to us, beloved…but I do know that my Universe would be so much smaller without you in it. And so, Ardenn of Valeria, I ask you to become my wife. Will you come see the stars with me?"

   "David?" Ardenn breathed, "We…the Sisters…"

   "It may not happen today, sweetheart," David whispered, "It may not happen for a long time. It may not be our time until we meet at the Place where No Shadows Fall…but I want to know that today, you consented to marry me. Don't worry about tomorrow, or the Sisters. You will face whatever you need to face and I will be with you. These troubles will pass someday, and we will see the stars together…trust me. Just say 'Yes'."

   "Yes…yes, David, I will marry you." Screwing up her face in puzzlement, Ardenn added, "But did we not perform a similar ritual when I asked for your consent to become your mate?"

   "A mere formality…you asked, but it wasn't really a ritual." David replied with a smile. "I guess you could say that we're sworn to each other now. We're tied together both ways."

   Ardenn removed her hands from David's and placed them on his chest, feeling his heartbeat through the fabric of his tunic. Leaning closer, she nestled up against him. "I find…I find that I like this human ritual. I could become used to it."

   Slipping his arms around her, David held Ardenn and kissed her temple, chuckling when the kiss drew a tremor from her. He had found a pleasure center, he noted. "Don't get too fond of this ritual, sweetheart. You only go through it once."

   "Oh. I see. And it is not yet over." Ardenn noted, nodding against him.

   "It's not?"

   Pulling away slightly, Ardenn looked at David purposefully and held out her hand. "Ahem…Gimme."

   "Gimme? Is that a word?" David said, laughing deeply. Looking at her hand, he realized what she meant. "Oh, Hell, I almost forgot that part, didn't I? Now I'll have to go pray and fast for two days."

   Ardenn's eyes widened. "David? No…"

   "Just kidding," David backpedaled as Ardenn gave him a dirty look. "Err…I need your other hand, sweetheart."

   Ardenn raised her left hand David slid the ring onto the proper finger. Once it was on, she stared at her hand for a long moment wordlessly as David slid his arms around her waist. The crystal…no, the 'diamond', she amended, reflected the light of the sun, separating the colors into tiny rainbows if the angle was right. Looking from the ring up into David's eyes, she said, "Tomorrow…tomorrow I will go and stand before the Sisterhood. They will force me to accept the Obligation…but I want you to know this, beloved." Reaching up, she cupped his cheek, "When the time comes for me to forswear you, I will say the words but they will not be in my heart. There is only room in my heart for you, and nothing can ever take your place there. The words…I will utter them, but they will not be true."

   Gazing tenderly into Ardenn's eyes, David reached out and cupped her cheek, tracing her lips gently with his thumb. "Ardenn…we will see each other again. If we meet again as lovers, I will be the happiest man in the universe. If the most we can be is friends, I will accept it. But we will be together. Always."

   "Always…" Ardenn echoed, closing her eyes and pressing herself against him. Craning her neck, she straightened and sought his lips with hers. David lowered his head to meet her and she felt his mouth cover hers as his hands gently traced their way up the ridge of sensitive cartilage covering her spine. As the kiss deepened, she slipped her hands beneath his cloak and gently massaged the muscles of his shoulders and back. Growling softly in her throat, she tightened her grip and tentatively parted her lips, her tongue seeking entry into his mouth. David parted his lips and drew her into him, gently teasing her tongue with his in a practice known to her people as Aiva'cha. The Humans, Ardenn knew, had a different name for the ritual joining of tongues. She did not know what it was, and she did not care. All she cared about in that moment was that she was with the person who loved her above all others, the symbol of his proclamation on her finger, his mouth on hers and his body pressed against her…

   The light glimmering off her ring caught her eye again as she buried her hand in David's hair. His taste was in her mouth, and she wanted more of it. Pulling his head down so she could thrust her tongue more deeply into him, Ardenn found that she did not want her lover to be patient and understanding any longer…and that she did not want to spend her last night alone.

   As her beloved continued to kiss and caress her, Ardenn began to plan. Her honor might be an issue no longer, but David's was. She had to ensure that he was protected…that all of the blame fell on her if anyone found out. David had told her that they were now equals, but they could not be…for this. She would have to gain authority over him…sufficient authority so that he could not refuse her, but at the same time could not be held responsible for obeying.

   Mentally, she begged her beloved's forgiveness for the breach of his trust she was about to commit, and then she broke the kiss. Reluctantly pulling away from him, she eyed him demurely and said, "When…you kiss me like that, love, what are you thinking about?"

   "You don't want to know," David replied, an embarrassed grin splitting his face. "My thoughts are purely improper and very un-Minbari, I assure you."

   "Un-Minbari? And what, exactly, constitutes 'Minbari' thought? Must our thoughts be always proper?" Ardenn whispered. "Were that the case, love, I doubt that any of us would exist." Reaching out to him, Ardenn began tracing his cheek with the crook of her finger. She knew from watching her mentor that Entil'zha John found this gesture arousing. What was true for the father was probably true for the son. "When we kiss…when we touch each other…do you visualize yourself making love to me?"

   "Uh…" David answered, a little uncomfortably, "I'll put it like this. While I was kissing you just now, precious one, I was reciting the Alliance Declaration of Principles in my head. Kissing you gets me as horny as hell. Even as we speak, I'm…uh, waiting for the swelling to go down so I can stand up without looking like the neighborhood pervert."

   "I will interpret that as a 'yes', then." Ardenn replied. Sighing, she continued, "And it embarrasses you to admit that your thoughts about me are…are 'un-Minbari', as you say, on occasion?"

   "No, sweetheart, it embarrasses me to admit that I'm less patient than you are. It embarrasses me to admit that I sometimes have trouble…controlling my desires when I'm with you."

   "David, I want you to understand something…and it is very important to me that you do," Ardenn began, sitting back on her heels. She paused to admire her ring briefly before folding her hands in her lap. "I want you to pretend for a moment that you are…me. I want you to look at yourself through my eyes. Can you visualize that?"

   "I can try, sweetheart."

   "Good enough. Please do so." Ardenn paused for a moment, and then murmured, "You are now me, David. Today has become one of the most horrible days of your life. Everyone is displeased and disappointed in you, even those who love you. You have cried…oh, Valen, you have cried today more than you ever have before…and you know that you still have to face the one person who has the power to truly destroy you, the one who holds your heart in his hands. And you know that he has more reason…more right to be disgusted with you than any of the others, because he opened himself to you and you failed him miserably in return. And then he comes but, rather than berating or chastising you as you expected…as you deserved, he tries to make you smile. He listens to you. He cradles you when you cry again…and tells you that he wants to spend his life with you. He gives you strength when you have none of your own left. He gives you exactly what you need to carry on. He has given you so much…and then he reluctantly admits that he wants to be inside you now…violating many of our most important rituals in the process…and that he takes pleasure in the idea. It sexually arouses him, in fact. How are you supposed to react to that? Remember, David, you are 'me' right now."

   "I…think that I would still love him…but I would be a little disappointed. I might question his motivation for being so kind to me. Is it because he truly cares about me? Or is it because he's young, horny and the thought of screwing me turns him on?"

   "I see," Ardenn noted neutrally. Sighing briskly, she continued, "Now that was enlightening, was it not? David, I think I understand your thought process better now that you have said this. This was a valuable exercise for both of us." Swallowing, she reached out and stroked his cheek. "Do not be embarrassed, beloved. I know that admission was hard for you."

   "It's not true, though," David hastened to explain. "I admit that I want to sleep with you, Ardenn. I admit that I find you physically attractive and that's part of it. But not all of it…I'm not just some horny guy looking for sex. Frankly, if I was, there are far easier targets than you." Sighing, he added, "Even if I didn't love you romantically…if we had never connected…I would still care about you. I'd still be sitting here and I'd still be your friend."

   I know that, David." Ardenn admonished. "Do not worry about it. I was just curious about how you think I view you." Licking her lips and glancing away hesitantly, the young Minbari fell silent and David got the impression that she was considering something…some decision she was weighing. After a moment, she looked at him again and said, "David. I have a request of you. It is…improper and much to ask…and if you think it presumptuous, I…I understand…"

   "Sweetheart," David sighed, "Stop stalling and just ask me."

   "I would like for you to…to perform the last Joining ritual, the ritual of Declaration, with me."

   "Love, you know that there are a whole bunch of ceremonies and rituals between where we are now and that one." David murmured seriously. "No Minbari would recognize my words as legitimate."

   "I am aware of this, love…the Elders of your mother's clan would strike them down immediately as illegitimate, but had we completed the rituals, would you have taken me before the Mir leaders and uttered them?"

   "I promised you that I would, Ardenn. I still will…but why are you asking for this now?"

   The sun was beginning to set, and she trembled as the air began to grow chill. Closing her eyes, Ardenn shifted and reached around David, pulling the hems of his cloak around her for warmth. "I have no clan to present you to and call you 'husband'…yet I have whispered the words of declaration to you many times, beloved. I whisper them to you every time you tell me you love me. You do not hear them, but they are there. They are a part of my most personal…fantasy about us, and I am requesting that you help me fulfill it. I must go tomorrow, at least for a time, but I want to hear you call me…wife…before I do. Please…indulge me."

   David hesitated, and for a moment Ardenn disappointedly thought that he would refuse. He had every right to. What she had asked him for was a serious breach of tradition, and she could feel an embarrassed flush mounting in her cheeks as he hesitated. As she started to formulate an appropriate apology, she felt David pull her firmly against his chest. Cradling her in his arms, he put his mouth to her ear and whispered,"A' David ra Sheridan wi'mar durah'e fel mi'lir te E', Ardenn ra Valir. A' fornor retaf A' velo mi'lirla Sala'sa'Fela. Ardenn, A' fel E'… Eh' med'aia, Ah' med'aia, Eh' los, Ah' los…uh, Ardenn? Do you want the next part? You know what it means?"

   Ardenn lifted her head and looked at David, her iron-gray eyes boring straight into his. "Say them, beloved," she whispered demandingly. "I know what they mean, and…in my fantasy…you say all of them."

   "OK, uh…sa Eh' helas, Ah' helas. A' de'rahan'e E' ah' Darsam ri sum'zha. Ma're E' Ah' Mala."

   Ardenn answered David's declaration, words that under formal circumstances were spoken in front of many witnesses…words that would bind her to David for life, were the joining a true one. In her heart she made them true. In a low, trembling voice, she murmured, "I, Ardenn of Valeria have come to cherish you, David Sheridan. I publicly declare that I consider you to be my Husband and Lover. David, I love you…your heart is my heart, your blood, my blood…and your body, my body. I request that you accept the Joining obligation and become one with me. Acknowledge me as your wife."

   "A' de'rahan E', Ardenn. A' de'rahan y Darsam ri. A' sum'zha E' helas'sa'id, de'Sher…Ah' Sala."

   "I accept you, David. I accept the Joining obligation. I will be one with you in body and soul, forever…my Husband."

   "A' vas E' Ardenn ra Valir ra Sheridan."

   "I accept your name…beloved. I am Ardenn Sheridan."

   David held her head against his chest silently for a moment, idly stroking her crest and gazing off into the distance. Finally, he snorted amusedly at himself and looked down, kissing her cerulean patch affectionately. "Well, that's got to be the shortest engagement on record, considering I just gave you your ring. It's kind of weird to hear you call yourself Ardenn Sheridan, but I could get used to it when the time comes. Why did you want the Declaration, sweetheart? It wasn't public and we haven't completed the rituals."

   "I will tell you…but first, answer me this. Were the words…the truth of your heart? Even if no Elder would accept them?"

   "Yes. I want you to be my wife, I've asked you to be my wife, and I've given you an engagement ring. I wouldn't have done those things if I didn't want them to be true."

   "I asked you to say the words…husband…because of what you said earlier. Because of what you perceive my opinion of you to be. I asked you to look at today through my eyes…to look at yourself through my eyes. I asked you to tell me how you believe I view you…and when you replied, you could not have been more…wrong."

   "What do you mean? How?"

   "You said that I would still love you, but that I would be a little disappointed because you desired to cast aside the rituals and make love to me immediately. You said that I would question your motives for being kind to me. You said that I might think your kindness nothing more than a manifestation of your desire to have sex with me." Ardenn sighed and continued, "David, you have placed me on a pedestal. You think that you need to protect me from…from yourself. You think that I am fragile and innocent, and that seeing the side of you that is instinct rather than reason would disappoint me. Understand this, David…it does not. I do not need protection from you…from any part of you. Your motives regarding me I would never question…not now, not when you are inside me and not afterwards. My inexperience I freely admit, but do not mistake that inexperience for innocence. I am a mature Minbari female and I am in love with you, David. My own motives will sometimes be extremely selfish, and my thoughts about you…my fantasies…they are far more intimate than sitting on a bench with you and staring at sand. My needs are far more physical than holding and kissing, and every time we are together those needs become more demanding and harder to control. You honor me by thinking me so pure…but it is not the truth. I am a sexual creature just as you are and I want off of your pedestal…I cannot stay there and do what I want to do."

   "I'll…OK, I'll…uh, let my thoughts about you roam freely through the gutter, then." David grinned and squinted at her appraisingly for a moment. "Sorry…no matter how hard I look, I still don't see 'bad girl' written on you, even with the pedestal gone."

   "Perhaps it is…how do you say? Inscribed underneath my robes? You are more than welcome to search…later, in a more private venue," Ardenn murmured with a gleam in her eye. Sitting back on her heels, she folded her hands and her lap and turned more serious. "David, I asked you for the Declaration for a reason. You said the words thinking that no Minbari would consider them legitimate."

   "Well, it's true. Any clan or caste elder would instantly annul them…you know this." David stated. Sensing that she was hiding something, he looked down at her seriously. "Ardenn, what have you done?"

   "Beloved…I have an admission to make. You are mistaken …there is one Minbari who considers your Declaration legitimate. The one who loves you…the one who…who wants the company of her husband tonight."

   "But…why like this? You could have…I mean, I wouldn't say 'no'!"

   "Yes, David, I know that I could have simply asked you and you would not have refused. But in granting my request, you might have damaged your position in the eyes of your family. Beloved…as your intended, as a 'fiancée', we are not equals despite your beautiful words. I am still a subordinate in the eyes of our people. Intercourse between us without the rituals, even if consensual, would be seen by some as either a coercive seduction by me or an improper assertion of dominance over an unempowered female by you. We would both be shamed. By declaring me your wife, however, you made me an equal…and you granted me certain rights when you accepted the Joining Obligations. I am now free to exercise those rights."

   "You…you manipulated me, Ardenn? But the Declaration still isn't proper…"

   "Exactly. It is not proper, beloved, but you said the words were the truth of your heart, so I can hold you to them…at least until you find a clan Elder to perform an annulment. But you will not need to do that, David. The vows I take tomorrow will supercede your Declaration. Your words will be undone."

   "I should be very angry with you for this, Ardenn. You're taking something through subterfuge that I would have given you freely had you just asked."

   "Please do not be angry, David. I do this only to protect you…from me. Do you not understand? I deceived you. I tricked you into saying words now that you would otherwise not have spoken until later. I used your love for me to coax you into declaring me your wife prematurely. In the eyes of our people, I am now the 'coercive seductress' I spoke of. I am using your sincerity to force you to either obey me or break the Declaration you just acknowledged as the truth of your heart. By doing this to you, all of the shame will be mine…none will be yours."

   David finally realized what she was up to. She had maneuvered herself into a position from which she could be solely responsible for anything improper that occurred between them in the only way she could…by having him voluntarily accede that authority to her. "Ardenn, I will not allow you to smear yourself this way. You don't have to do this for me."

   "Who said that I was doing this for you?" the young Minbari replied archly. "I told you that my motives can be selfish. This is exactly what I mean, David…you hold me, you kiss me, and you tell me you love me. You make me the center of your Universe. You claimed me with your human ritual and gave me a beautiful symbol that publicly declares your love for me. Beloved, do you honestly believe that my reaction to this is purely intellectual? If so, then you are the innocent one. Has it not occurred to you that I might be as…as…uh, what was that word you used? Oh, yes, 'horny'…I might be as 'horny' as you are? Perhaps even more so?" Sighing, Ardenn cast about for the proper words. "David, just so there is no misunderstanding between us, let me make my position clear. I want to be in your bed tonight…I want to make love to you and I have used subterfuge to make that happen. I have forced you to surrender the dominant position to me and this is improper in the eyes of our people. Were I not returning to the Sisterhood tomorrow, I would never have resorted to this. I know that you are worried about my honor, beloved, but there is no need…there will be no repercussions for either of us. Whether I stay by myself tonight or with you, I will still accept the Obligation, at least in word and you…tonight we can be together with no restrictions. David, I do not want to control my instincts any longer and I do not want you to, either. I do not want to leave you without knowing you completely and I ask that you…'go with me on this one'…as your people say."

   "OK," David mused, "I'm…a little confused, but I'll follow your lead for now. I hope you know what you're doing." Sitting back, David looked at Ardenn attentively. "What do you require of me, beloved wife?"

   "Well…I am gratified that you finally asked, husband." Ardenn replied in her best 'Delenn' voice, raising her chin and looking at him with mock-haughtiness. "Already you learn your place. I always suspected that you would prove at least marginally trainable as a marriage partner."

   "OK…" David grinned. "You've had your fun. Get on with it."

   With a demure smile, Ardenn assumed an official tone and said, "David Sheridan, you have declared me to be your wife, and I acknowledged that this relationship exists between us. I now require that you fulfill the Joining obligation and grant me my rights under your Declaration. The traditions of our people dictate that I have a right to share your bed, and I demand that you summon me to take my place there tonight. Will you comply?"

   "I still think that you could have just said 'David, will you sleep with me?' without all this bother, but yes…consider yourself summoned. Uh…sleeping mostly horizontal doesn't bother you?"

   "We will be getting little sleep…but no, as long as we share the bed, it will not bother me." Ardenn murmured. "Now, let me finish. Ahem…The traditions of our people require that you claim me physically, therefore I demand that you consummate our relationship. Will you do so?"

   "Yes, but how will you get out?"

   "I will walk out to a flyer and board it. I believe that is the approved method for going somewhere," Ardenn replied with a smile. "Beloved, as long as I am back at the compound in time to leave tomorrow, no one here has any hold over me any longer…no one but you." Assuming her formal tone again, Ardenn announced, "The traditions of our people require that I be the only mate you take…" Ardenn's smile faded momentarily and she whispered, "I defer that demand, beloved."

   "You don't have to," David replied, reaching out to stroke her cheek gently. "You can make that demand if you wish. I'll accept it."

   "My fantasy, David…this is my fantasy," the young Minbari replied huskily, leaning into his palm and kissing it. "Tomorrow, when I am gone…well, we shall see what our futures hold, as you say. I already am a little embarrassed at what I am doing."

   "Why? I'm just getting interested in your fantasy. It seems fairly tame, so far."

   "Tame?" Ardenn repeated. Reaching out, she ran her hand up David's leg and softly stroked him through his trousers, delighting in the hardness she could feel her touch creating there. Smiling innocently at David's surprised expression, she added, "I have had three cycles to refine this. I think that tonight, when I come to your bed, you will find that neither I nor my fantasy are…as you say…'fairly tame', beloved husband." Drawing away, she smiled, rose to her feet and gave David a slow, seductive kiss before moving off. As she stepped on the pathway leading back to the residence, she looked back over her shoulder at her bemused 'husband' and said, "Am I considered a 'bad girl' yet?"

   "You're getting there." David murmured with a smile.

   "Good."

   Neither of the lovers saw the bushes rustle as an unseen observer departed.

   To Be Continued…

 

*****

 

 

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