Shan F'al: Behind Closed Doors (Part One)

By Peej

This story is a gap filler for the episode "Racing Mars," and as such, may contain minor spoilers for that episode.

Hello, everyone. Here, finally, is part two of "Shan F'al: Behind Closed Doors. I apologize for making everyone wait so long, but the revisions I mentioned when I submitted part one turned into a major rewrite. jms has frequently said that his characters do things he hadn't intended, taking the story into unexpected directions. It seems that they do this even when they are borrowed by someone else.

Finishing this part of the story has taken even longer than I expected for many reasons. With a full time job, a husband and a couple of kids, it's always difficult to find time to write when I can be fairly sure no one (especially my 9-year-old) will wander into the room to read what's on-screen, but the last few months have been full of other events and responsibilities which have left even less time for indulging in my hobby. I won't go into detail, but suffice it to say that real life has been more than usually intrusive lately.

Okay, enough apologizing--my beta reader says I do way too much of it. I decided I'd better get chapter two into shape for submission for many reasons, including the fact that I've received several "Where the @#$&*! is part two?" e-mails lately, and they're beginning to take on a tone that makes me glad you don't know where I live! ;-)

Part 3 is basically finished, but I want to give my beta-reader one last look at it before I submit it. That should be out within a week, unless those aforementioned real-life events demand even more attention than they have so far. There will be more chapters, but I'm not sure how many. After part three, though, I can't promise that part four will be out in a hurry--there are just too many things I have to deal with.

This section immediately follows the events in part one. I hope you enjoy it. As usual, comments and feedback are appreciated.

PJ January 25, 1998

Babylon 5 and its characters are the property of J. Michael Straczynski and Warner Brothers. No copyright infringement is intended.

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Delenn tugged at John's arm as he turned to look back at the group of Minbari who were going to be part of what he'd expected to be a very private experience. He was so startled when she yanked him into the inner room that he stumbled and almost lost his balance. "Nice going, John," he thought to himself, "falling on your face is really going to make a great impression."

His expectations for the evening were rapidly changing, to say the least.

"Life would have been a lot easier if I'd fallen in love with a Human woman," he thought, "not nearly as interesting, but a hell of a lot easier!"

He had no real regrets, but he sometimes wondered whether he'd ever learn to cope with the on-going culture shock.

Still smiling mischievously--or was it triumphantly?-- Delenn released his arm and turned to bow to the Minbari waiting outside. As the translucent doors slid closed, John remembered fantasizing about being dragged into her bedroom, but he'd never expected it to happen under these circumstances. At least the room was lit only by candles, so the people in the outer room shouldn't be able to see in, but he was still having difficulty with the idea that there would be people in their immediate vicinity while they "discovered each others' centers of pleasure."

The thought suddenly occurred to him that he might have misinterpreted the entire situation, and he began to wonder exactly what she meant by that phrase. He considered the gloomy possibility that the Minbari agreed with his old anatomy professor who'd insisted that the body's true pleasure center was the brain.

After closing the door, Delenn turned back to him and slid her hands up his shoulders, looking into his eyes.

He rested his hands on her waist, but didn't pull her closer. Since doing this properly meant so much to her, he didn't want to start out on the wrong foot. Besides, he was a little disgruntled because she'd put him into such an awkward situation.

"Delenn, why didn't you tell me that there would be other people here?"

"You didn't ask," was her simple response.

He couldn't judge her expression, and wasn't sure whether she was amused, annoyed, or genuinely surprised by his shock and embarrassment.

Feeling slightly betrayed because she hadn't prepared him, he almost shot back, "Why the hell would I have thought to ask?" then forced himself to be fair, to remember that she was Minbari, and that he had to stop making assumptions based on Human customs. Chagrined, he bit back his angry words and tried to be more diplomatic.

"Delenn, I know I need to learn more about your culture, but frankly, I've had other things on my mind lately. I might have misunderstood, but when you told me that we were going to spend the night together exploring each other's pleasure centers, I thought you meant that we were going to... um...that, uh...that a lot of that exploration would take place with our clothes off."

She raised her eyebrows and he thought he saw the beginnings of a smile as she responded with a Vorlon-like "Yes?"

"Lord, she can be exasperating," he thought. Did she mean, "Yes," he was right, or "Yes," go on, what else was he thinking? "All right," he decided, "if she won't be straightforward, I will."

His hands slipped further around her waist. "Delenn, maybe I read too much into what you said, but I assumed we were going to be alone. I assumed you meant that we were going to make love. Now you tell me that we're going to have an audience, and that they're here to make sure things don't go too far? What does that mean? How far is 'too far?' What exactly are we supposed to do?"

Her fingertips brushed the nape of his neck as she answered, "As I told you, we are going to discover each others' centers of pleasure."

He closed his eyes for a second, enjoying her touch, thinking, "Well, she's already found one."

She continued, "And we do not 'have an audience.' They are in the other room, and they will not invade our privacy...unless one of us were to call for assistance."

"Call for assis--" He saw the twinkle in her eye and admonished her with a stern look.

She laughed, then grew serious. "Shan F'al is an ancient ceremony, from a...less civilized time. My people sometimes fault yours for being too easily swayed by your passions, but in our past, we were not so different.

Our ceremonies evolved to help us structure and control our own passions.

In the beginning...enforcement... was sometimes necessary." "Ah," he nodded, as he thought with some satisfaction, "So, the perfectly controlled Minbari haven't always been so perfect." Raising his eyebrows questioningly, he prompted her, "And...?"

"And, as for how far is 'too far...'" She paused for a moment.

"One purpose of the ritual is to teach us that we may surrender ourselves to passion, but we must never allow ourselves to be conquered by it. We must maintain enough control to stop before...before our final joining."

She was watching his face, and he knew she was waiting for his response. He couldn't blame her if she was afraid that he would react badly to what she had just told him. Earlier, in the garden, he'd made a big deal about being fed up with rituals, and he'd also made it obvious that he was less than happy to discover that they weren't going to be alone in her quarters.

He smiled and shrugged slightly to let her know that he wasn't devastated by the news. "Okay...I thought it was probably something like that. I won't pretend I'm not disappointed, but like I've said before, I don't want to try to rush you into anything." Silently, he reminded himself that there other ways to make love, to give each other pleasure...unless there were other restrictions she hadn't yet mentioned. Aloud, he sought further clarification, "So, what *are* we allowed to do?"

Her left hand slipped back down his neck, fingertips trailing along his throat and stopping at the opening of his collar, while the fingers of her right hand moved up into his hair, finding the sensitive spot at the base of his skull. "Anything else we both want to do," she answered softly, looking deeply into his eyes. Her pupils were dilated, her face a little flushed, her lips slightly parted, and her breathing more rapid than usual.

He could see the pulse pounding at the base of her throat and felt his own heartbeat quickening, stimulated by her obvious arousal. "I can live with that," he responded, his voice becoming husky. His arms tightened around her as he pulled her close for a kiss. She responded passionately, but after a moment, she reluctantly pulled away.

"Not yet," she told him, her fingertips stroking his lips, "I told you that this is done seriously, with prayer and meditation. First, we must put on ceremonial clothing and share food and drink."

"Why doesn't that surprise me?" he thought, trying to conceal his frustration. "Well," he said, smiling at her, "We have a saying,

'Anticipation is half the fun.' I'm not sure I completely agree with that," he continued, shaking his head slightly and looking at her longingly, "but this is your ritual. Just tell me what I'm supposed to do and I'll try to get it right."

She rewarded him with a brilliant smile and stood on her toes to kiss him softly. "All I ask is that you try. Well," she continued, as she stepped back from him and took a deep breath, "I should change." With a final smile, she disappeared into the bathroom, closing the door behind her.

John walked around the room while he waited, looking at the small personal items on display, wondering at their significance. He stopped beside the slanted Minbari bed and looked at it dubiously. "I can't even sleep on one of those things," he thought, "How the hell are we supposed to...oh, well, where there's a will, there's a way, I guess." He definitely had the will. Since their engagement, he had allowed her to set the pace of their relationship, not wanting to break some Minbari taboo, but he was more than ready to move beyond the kisses and caresses which were all that they had shared so far. Their kisses had been passionate, her body warm and responsive as they held each other close, but they had always remained fully clothed.

He hadn't wanted to push her, but he had become increasingly frustrated by their lack of physical intimacy. He'd resigned himself to waiting until they were married, but he was beginning to wonder if he'd live long enough to complete all of the Minbari premarital rituals. At least this one promised to be more enjoyable than most. He closed his eyes and imagined undressing her slowly, touching her skin, watching her face as her body awoke under his hands... He realized that he was becoming aroused by the mere thought of the night that lay ahead and admitted to himself that anticipation did have its good points.

He heard the bathroom door slide open and he turned toward it as she reentered the bedroom. His breath caught and his mouth fell open as his eyes registered what she was wearing. "Whoa," he breathed softly in appreciation, "That's, uh, some outfit." Its cut was superficially similar to the dresses she wore on the White Star; a soft, simple wrap fastened on one side of her waist. The similarity stopped there, however, and the impact was quite different. The gown she wore was sleeveless, the neckline cut wider than her White Star dresses, revealing most of her shoulders and the upper curves of her breasts. Her nipples were clearly outlined by the soft white fabric which clung to her upper body, while the skirt fit less tightly, flowing over her hips and falling in graceful folds to her bare feet. The fabric was not quite sheer enough for him to see through, but interesting shadows were formed when she moved. The overall look was distinctly un-Minbari.

Her smile seemed a little nervous as she asked, "Do you approve?"

He swallowed hard as his eyes moved over her body. "Oh, yes," he answered fervently, "I definitely approve. I'm going to have to revise my opinion of Minbari fashions. I, uh, don't think you should wear it down to the Zocalo, though."

She laughed, the tension gone from her face. He stepped toward her, but she moved aside and gestured toward the bathroom. "Your clothes are in there. We will eat and begin the meditations when you are ready."

Reluctantly, he tore his eyes away and entered the bathroom, wondering if Minbari males found this ritual as frustrating as he did. How was he supposed to concentrate on dinner; to focus his mind enough to meditate while she was near him, dressed in that gown? It seemed to have been designed specifically to make him want to unfasten it, to slide his hands inside and push it off her shoulders so he could see and touch what little it obscured.

He took a deep breath and forced himself to try to think about something else. He splashed cold water on his face, knowing it wouldn't do much good, then looked around for the clothes he was supposed to wear, almost afraid to imagine what they might look like. He saw a neatly folded white garment and picked it up. There were actually two pieces of clothing; loose fitting pants and something which reminded him of the vest-like garment he wore over his uniform on formal occasions. Aside from the general cut, however, the similarity wasn't great. Unlike the stiff, heavy, uniform vest, this one was soft and light, and seemed to be made of the same fabric as Delenn's gown...although he'd have to do a closer comparison, preferably hands-on, before he could be sure.

He undressed, hesitating before removing his shorts, then shook his head wryly and stepped out of them as he recalled that Delenn obviously wasn't wearing underwear. He dressed in the clothes she had left him, surprised by how good the fabric felt against his skin. It was nothing he recognized, soft and slightly clingy, feeling strangely sensuous as it brushed against him. "Hell," he thought with a grin, "In the state I'm in I'd probably think sackcloth felt sensuous." He looked at himself in the mirror as he tied the drawstring of the pants and shook his head at his reflection, feeling slightly ridiculous. "Oh, well," he decided, "it could have been worse...at least you can't see through it...exactly," he amended as he realized that the soft fabric outlined his body as clearly as it had Delenn's. He tried to adjust the clothes to make them less revealing, but finally gave up.

He stepped back into the bedroom and saw that she was sitting on the floor beside a low table, eyes closed, legs folded into a half-lotus, hands lying calmly in her lap. When she heard him enter, she looked up at him and smiled. He was surprised to feel himself blushing as her eyes moved over his body, and he hoped the room was too dark for her to notice. She gestured for him to sit facing her, and he lowered himself to the floor, having some difficulty arranging his larger bulk into a semblance of her graceful pose.

She repositioned herself slightly so that their knees were touching, then rested her arms on her thighs, palms up. He echoed her movements, and she reached out to clasp his hands. Squeezing them slightly, she held his eyes with hers as she told him, "Now we meditate, to cleanse our minds and bodies of the stresses of the day and to open ourselves to the lessons of the night." She searched his face a second longer, then closed her eyes and began to take slow, deep breaths.

He watched her breasts rise and fall, wishing that they could begin the lessons, rather than just meditate about them. He reminded himself that he'd promised to try to perform the ritual correctly, and sighed and closed his eyes, trying to recall what little he knew about meditation. He'd picked up a few things during his travels in the east when he'd visited the Dalai Lama, and while he was at the academy he'd learned relaxation techniques which were supposed to be a form of meditation. He tried to relax and remember what he was supposed to do...oh, yes, breathe in slowly through his nose, out through his mouth, focus on an imaginary point of light, and try to free his mind of conscious thought... He went through the routine, vowing to himself that at the very least, he wouldn't doze off as he had during the first ceremonial dinner he'd shared with Delenn. He was still offended that she and Lennier had accused him of snoring!

He tried to focus on the light, but it kept transforming itself into Delenn's face as fragments of memory played across his mind. Delenn, laughing at his story about the destructive cat, Delenn in the garden, assuring him that he was where the universe meant for him to be, Delenn, always there, always a part of his life, even before he'd realized what she meant to him...touching his face before entering the Markab isolation chamber--was that when he had begun to realize what was happening between them, when he'd felt such pain at the thought that she might not return?

Delenn, touching his hand in the garden, teasing him out of a bad mood with silly wordplay...holding his hand on the White Star as she made it rain so he could sleep; a far different Delenn, warning the attacking Earthforce ship to "Be somewhere else!" It was hard to believe she was the same woman who had smiled almost shyly as he kissed her hand after her return to the station...words, looks, touches; all leading to this moment...when had he known? When she fell into his arms, the kidnapper's knife in her back?...or was that merely when he knew he could no longer deny it, no longer keep silent?

His mind wandered, through painful memories as well as pleasant ones, until he gradually became aware that she was speaking his name. With an effort, he opened his eyes and shook his head to clear it.

She searched his face, and he had the feeling that her thoughts during meditation had been much like his. They simply looked at each other for a long moment, then she sighed deeply and broke her gaze, turning toward the table at her side. He continued to look at her, his eyes traveling over her body, wondering how much longer he would have to wait until he could touch her, slide the gown off her shoulders, find the fastener at her waist...

Trying to distract himself from those kinds of thoughts, he tore his eyes away and studied the table beside them. It was hardly large enough to merit the name; it was less a table than a large crystal tray supported by a silvery tripod. Minbari symbols were etched into its surface, and it held a delicate teapot with a matching, handleless cup. They accompanied a single plate, also of crystal, which bore an assortment of small pieces of food. He thought he recognized flarn, but nothing else looked familiar, even though they had shared several Minbari meals since they had become engaged.

Watching him, she explained, "These are ceremonial foods, seldom eaten at regular meals. Some of them are common foods prepared in special ways, but others are rare and used only in rituals or on other special occasions. Each food has a special meaning, and is a symbol of our future life together.

"This," she said, as she picked up a small brown wafer, "is made from the seeds of a plant which seems to disappear completely each winter, leaving no roots or other sign of its existence. But every spring, just as you begin to wonder whether it was ever really there, it reappears, seemingly overnight. It reminds us that we must trust and have faith in one another, even when we cannot see or understand the path the other is following." She ate half the wafer and he opened his mouth as he realized that she intended to feed the other half to him.

"Bland, but not bad," he thought as swallowed it. "Now what?" he asked her.

"Now you choose one and share it with me--but not that one," she told him as he reached for a bright red fruit which resembled a cherry tomato, "it is traditionally saved until the last."

"Okay, how about this one?" he asked, picking up what looked like a tiny purple banana.

"Fine," she approved, then waited for him to taste it before continuing, "It is very bitter at first," she said, smiling at his expression, "as I see you have discovered, but if you hold it in your mouth for a moment, there is a chemical change which makes it very sweet."

He nodded as the flavor changed. "It's actually pretty good...and it stands for...?"

"It reminds us that we cannot always make accurate judgements about an action or a situation until we have given it sufficient time to reveal itself fully; that what causes pain may, in time, prove to be of great value." She opened her mouth for her portion of the fruit and he carefully placed it between her lips.

They continued to share the contents of the plate as she explained each item. As he listened to her talk about foods symbolic of values like fidelity, understanding, humor, forgiveness, and dependability, he was pleased to learn that the Minbari and Human ideas of the requirements for a successful marriage were quite similar. There were so many cultural differences between them that it was reassuring to know that they agreed on the things which really mattered.

After they had sampled a few of the foods, she poured tea into the cup and sipped it, then offered the cup to him.

"This isn't the stuff you gave me to help me sleep, is it?" he asked as he took it from her hands.

"It is another blend entirely. In fact, this one contains a mild stimulant."

His eyes traveled over her body as he responded softly, "I don't think I'm going to have any trouble staying awake tonight." The tea tasted of flowers and something akin to cinnamon, and he could feel its heat spreading through his body almost immediately. He wasn't sure whether the slight tingle which seemed to accompany the warmth was real or existed only in his imagination, and he began to wonder exactly what the tea was supposed to stimulate.

They continued to share the food and tea, until only two items remained on the plate. He selected what seemed to be some kind of dense bread and looked to her for its meaning.

She explained, "This is made from the ground root of a particular shrub and the sap of a certain tree. Eaten alone, each is of negligible nutritional value, but if they are mixed together and allowed to ferment, then baked to destroy the alcohol, what remains contains everything required to sustain life indefinitely. It is meant to remind us that--"

He finished for her. "To remind us that, together, we are something more than either of us is alone--more than both of us are individually."

She leaned toward him to caress his cheek. "Thank you," she said softly.

He was puzzled. "For what?"

"For taking this seriously. For understanding. For...for everything."

They held each others' eyes as they shared the bread, and he sensed a subtle change in the atmosphere.

She lowered her eyes and picked up the last item on the plate, the bright red fruit he had initially selected. Upon closer examination, it was more teardrop shaped than round. It was such a vivid red that he wondered momentarily whether its color had been enhanced in some way.

Holding the fruit on her palm, she told him, "This is redfruit, which has many meanings and is used in many of our ceremonies. Because it is the color of blood, it represents death...but we are also born in blood, and so it becomes a symbol of birth and new life. Its juice is very sticky, so it symbolizes joining or binding. Among other things, it is used to seal religious vows, or marriages, or even to close some important business agreements. Sharing redfruit creates a bond which cannot be broken without great dishonor. In the Shan F'al, it stands for the death of our old lives and the birth of our new life as we are bound together, heart, body, and soul."

She slowly brought the fruit to her mouth, then bit it in half and closed her eyes while she savored it. She opened her eyes and gazed into his, then leaned across the table to offer him the other half of the fruit.

His eyes never leaving hers, he opened his mouth and she slipped her fingers between his lips, placing the fruit on his tongue. He caught her hand and closed his lips around her fingers, licking the sticky juice from them as they slowly slid out of his mouth, then he closed his eyes as she had and concentrated on the flavor of the fruit. Its center was soft, hardly more than thickened juice. It was very sweet but not cloying, and had a slight spicy undertaste. As the flavor developed in his mouth, he was reminded of a sweet liqueur, and he wondered whether the redfruit was similarly intoxicating. Something seemed to be happening; was he beginning to feel slightly lightheaded, or was he only imagining it? He opened his eyes to find her studying his face and decided that she was the intoxicant; he was getting drunk on her nearness and the sexual tension which filled the room.

As he met her gaze, her lips parted and she drew a slightly ragged breath. She blinked and looked away then closed her eyes and swallowed before turning back to him. Her voice was somewhat tremulous as she told him, "Now, we...we meditate again, to...to ponder the values symbolized by the foods, and to think of how we will apply them to our future lives together.

This time, she seemed reluctant to close her eyes, and her breathing took far longer to become even. It was more difficult for him to focus his mind on the point of light, and now it was replaced, not by memories, but by erotic images. Each time he forced himself to banish an image, it was replaced by one which was even more explicit. Finally, he gave up and opened his eyes to find her searching his face, apparently having abandoned her own meditation.

The room seemed very still as they looked at each other, until, responding to the invitation he read in her eyes, he pulled her closer and kissed her. One hand on his shoulder, the other caressing the back of his head, she welcomed his kiss, opening her mouth so that the tip of his tongue could explore the soft undersides of her lips. As his arms went around her he discovered that the back of her gown was cut in a wide, low vee, and as he caressed the bare skin of her shoulders and back he could feel himself becoming aroused by the touch of her hands, the feel of her body pressed against his, the passion with which she returned his kiss. He moved one hand to the shoulder of her gown and began to push it down. For a moment, she yielded, but then she stopped his hand with hers and pulled her mouth away, whispering, "John..."

He let her go and took a deep breath, closing his eyes and lifting his face toward the ceiling. Getting his frustration under control, he faced her again, nodding. "I know...not yet." He took another deep breath and exhaled slowly. Sounding far calmer than he felt, he went on, "Okay, what's next? Do we light candles and ring chimes? Chant prayers for a couple of hours?"

"John, please...this is...this is difficult for me, too." She looked stricken, and her voice was almost pleading.

He knew that she was aware of his annoyance, and he felt ashamed of his own impatience and the sarcasm it had produced. "I'm sorry. It's just...we've waited so long...and the way you look, the way you feel in my arms...it's just hard to keep stopping."

"I know. I'm sorry," Her fingertips stroked his cheek and lips as she continued, "Soon, I promise."

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