Author's Notes: This fic was inspired by a song. It's not a song fic -- no lyrics appear herein -- but the song was the spark that ignited the muse. Personally, I think the story benefits from reading the song first. The title of it is "Arms Around My Life" and it's by Janis Ian. Unfortunately, it's only available on a collection of her unreleased songs which is very difficult to find. But you can get the lyrics here: http://www.janisian.com/lyrics/Arms%20Around%20My%20Life.pdf
Thanks to Kim for an after-the-post beta. All mistakes remain firmly mine -- I exerted authorial priviledge and only took about half her advice.
I don't know what I expected to feel when I stepped out of the shadows and saw him, but it certainly wasn't recognition.
I'd never seen him before in my life, but I knew him. I'd have known him even without Lennier's intervention. "You must be Neroon," I said. I could hear the shakiness in my own voice and knew he would take it for fear. I regretted that, actually. I wanted to be a warrior for him.
Besides which, it wasn't fear that sucked the steadiness out of me, it was despair. I had been waiting my whole life to meet this man, this Minbari, and now that I had, I was going to die. Oh, I could have walked away, but that would have killed me just as surely as the challenge I was about to make. Walking away would mean breaking promises to Lennier, to Delenn, to my brother, and to myself. Walking away would mean nothing but disdain from him.
The thought of leaving may have passed through my mind, but it didn't stop to be considered.
I remember thinking that someone had granted me one small blessing, for there was no recognition in Neroon's eyes. Up until this very moment I had desperately hoped that when I found him...my mate...our eyes would meet and there would be this great moment of realization and we'd fall into each other's arms like something out of a trashy romance... But now I felt only overwhelming relief that he didn't know me as I knew him. At least he wouldn't know who he was killing.
On the other hand, maybe I really was nothing to him. No one promised me that my soulmate would feel the same. But it didn't matter anymore.
Neroon's eyes were hard and cold. "You shouldn't get involved in things that don't concern you," he said. "My quarrel is with Delenn."
"Then your quarrel is with me," I responded, feeling myself on more familiar ground. The shock of recognition had passed. We had passed now into the dialogue of challenge and response.
"Do you have any idea who I am?" he said, almost incredulously. Probably wondering how a scrawny Human like me could possibly think to stand between him and his goal. If I have nothing else from you, I cried silently, I will have respect!
"I do," I said firmly. "But the only way you will get to her is through me. I invoke Denn'Sha."
"To the death," he breathed. There was a strange satisfaction in his tone. We exchanged a salute of pikes before each sinking into a fighter's crouch. My heart seized that salute as though it were a lover's kiss. Perhaps it was only a habitual acknowledgement, but I felt I would take anything I could get. I had, after all, only minutes to live.
"During the war I killed 50,000 of you," Neroon said, dripping with contempt. "What's one more?" Nothing at all, I thought, a chill encompassing me from within. Nothing, and let it remain that way. I have to die here. You don't.
It was all I could to meet the first exchange of blows. It was harder than I had expected to aim a strike against this man. "Not bad...for a beginner," he said arrogantly. That, at last, fired my anger. I struck out more confidently in our next exchange.
"Last chance," Neroon offered. "I was taught the pike by Durhann himself." Why do you want me to back down so badly? I wondered. If my life means so little to you, why offer me chance after chance to leave? Doing so only delays you from your goal.
"Really?" I said, feeling a ridiculous moment of connection. "So was I."
After that the fight heated up, thank Valen. My mind focused on the exchange of blows, the movements ingrained into my muscles by hours of training. For a while I could push my vivid awareness of Neroon to the back of my mind. Then, incredibly, he offered me another chance to leave this. To live.
Instead of yelling, Why don't you know me? I yelled: "I am a Ranger."
Instead of, How can you think me so cowardly?, I shouted: "We walk in the dark places no others will enter. We stand on the bridge and no one may pass."
Instead of, I love you, I cried: "We live for the one, we die for the one!" And I attacked with the last remains of my energy.
Neroon broke my ribs with deliberation. The crack of bone hurt nearly as much as the purposeful cruelty with which he broke them. I knew even before I collapsed that the moment had come. As I lay there, panting for every agonizing breath, I couldn't help thinking, They call orgasm the little death. Well, I never could do anything by half measures.
I looked up at the bloodied pike raised over me and wondered, Why do you wait? If I must die, I'm glad it's at your hands. There is intimacy in death.
"Why?" he demanded. "Why all of this? Pride? Duty? You've been trained well, but you must have known you couldn't win. So why do it?"
What could I say? Which reason could I give that would not leave him lying awake at night? I chose to voice the reason that had brought me into these tunnels in the first place. The reason that would have been true regardless of who it was I had met. "For her. We live for the one. We die for the one. Isil'Zha veni. In Valen's name." I closed my eyes.
And I waited for a blow that never came.
After a moment I opened my eyes and looked into his, confused. And I saw recognition there at last. He knew me now. Pained denial tainted his gaze. It's okay, I tried to project silently. I understand. I'm ready.
When he turned and left me there, alive, I ached for a moment with desperate regret. It would be so much harder for him this way. The taint on his honor would be permanent and inescapable. He would lose the trust of many of his own people. They would wonder what had happened that he would break Denn'Sha for me.
But the regret was quickly chased away by a joy so fierce it was painful. He had known me. Known me and felt the connection so deeply he had accepted that taint rather than kill me. The joy was so intense that unconsciousness was a relief.