Author's Notes: I was rereading some of my favorite Marcus/Neroon moments the other day, and it occurred to me that a lot of the time people write about how Marcus comes to love Neroon, but not vice versa. For Neroon's part, there is frequently a vague paragraph or so about the Denn'Sha, and that's it. I figured he must have had to do a lot of soul searching after a revelation like that. I decided I wanted to explore that, and this fic was the result.
Thanks go out to my betas, Kit and Monica.
DEDICATION: To Beth, who will never read this because she isn't a B5 fan, but who made me finish. Of course, all she wanted was the next story in my queue, but I still might never have finished without her!
Standing silent in the corridor, Neroon listened to Sheridan and Delenn as they approached his position. Senses alert, he prepared to move back if they came too close. But the Human's communications device sounded an alert, and their footsteps ceased mere strides from where he stood.
The warrior's stomach twisted to hear the Human congratulate Delenn. He had not known that they were so familiar. She obviously had much influence over this man. //Having tasted power, she must desire more.// Neroon restrained himself until the other left, but when he stepped around the corner he could not keep the sarcasm from his voice. "Congratulations, Delenn. Power beckons, and who among us is strong enough to ignore its siren song?"
//Certainly not one of the religious caste//, he thought, raking his eyes over her slender form. What strength was there in her? She'd never wielded a pike, never bled for their people. She led them now into war, but did she know their names? Would she take their bodies home? No. She knew nothing of the traditions of war.
At his words, she looked up, startled. "Neroon..." Her voice was soft, surprised. Caught out.
"A brilliant strategy, Delenn," he said, contempt flavoring his tone. "I had not thought you capable of such ambition, but clearly, I was mistaken."
Her eyes narrowed. "What are you talking about?"
Neroon resisted the urge to laugh. After all she had done, she still pretended innocence? He would not allow her to keep up this charade. He was a warrior. She would get no evasions from him, no half-truths. He would be plain, he would crush her rationalizations under his own strength. "The Rangers are commissioned after a thousand years of silence," he said. "The Religious Caste begins constructing new warships without the knowledge or consent of the Warrior Caste."
Delenn raised her chin, set her jaw. "You chose not to act. Someone had to."
//How could we act, not knowing all that we must lead our people into?// Neroon asked silently. //Not trusting your own people, there was much that you withheld from us. How could we lead our families into death without certainty of the cause? Do you think us utterly without compassion? Maybe here it all seems obvious, but Minbar is far away. There is much I have learned only since my arrival.// Neroon set his doubts aside. He was here to restore balance, and to make a sacrifice. The Religious Caste had grown far too strong.
"Perhaps," the warrior allowed. "Which is why we let you have them in the beginning. Even allowed Sinclair to train them, even though it meant diluting their purity by allowing Humans to join alongside our own people," his anger began to build, slowly. Delenn obviously cared nothing for a thousand years of tradition. How many civilizations survived that long? "We were quite tolerant of your activities," he continued. "But now their training is complete they require new leadership. By right of tradition the Warrior Caste should be given command of the Rangers. That was the law, as set down by Valen. Three Castes. Worker. Religious. Warrior. They build. You pray. We fight." Neroon heard the fierce pride in his voice and knew at once that Delenn would not understand it. How could she, she who so easily cast aside her own people?
Delenn spoke, but her voice was not defensive. Only certain. "You violated that law when the Warrior Caste became dominant in the Grey Council."
Neroon's heart burned at once with anger and with shame. How dare she invoke the name of the Grey Council? That body, called together by Valen himself, responsible for a thousand years of peace among their people, which she had broken. He had been so proud to be called to serve, to be given the title Satai. How could he have refused? They had asked for his voice, for his strength. Three Warrior Satai could not have called him alone. At least two others had also seen him worthy.
"But the Grey Council no longer exists," he challenged. Here, he knew who had acted wrongly. "You disbanded it. So what do we have now, Delenn? You have undergone the transformation promised by Valen, broken the Council and created a vacuum of power. And now, as an eminent leader in the Religious Caste, you plan to take command of a military force and fill that vacuum yourself." Neroon could not help his accusatory tone. It was so clear now, how she had maneuvered them all.
Still, she denied him. "I have no desire to rule our people."
"I wish I could believe you, Delenn" And he did. It hurt, to see her act so selfishly. Neroon's tone hardened. "But I don't. A religious zealot propelled by prophecy into a position of military and political power...always a bad idea." He could not help the amusement that crept into his tone. Surely she must see that? Such things were a thousand years in their history, but they were still studied...at least by the Warrior Caste. Could she truly not know the mistakes of their past?
"Out of respect," he said, determined to act with honor one last time, "I give you this opportunity to walk away from the path you have taken, refuse the position of Ranger One and turn control of the rangers over to the Warrior Caste...where it belongs."
Delenn's spine stiffened at this ultimatum. Pride. "Or?"
"I have sworn to stop you, Delenn, by any and all means necessary." She looked stunned, her eyes fixed upon him. And why not? He'd made the threat clear in his voice.
Someone called her name, and she turned away. Neroon took the opportunity to vanish. He had said what he needed to say, given her the chance to abandon this course of action. She clearly believed in what she was doing, with all the force of her faith. Neroon had to respect that, even if he did not like it.
//I know what must be done, he told himself. //The Warrior Caste dominated the Grey Council, she said. But though there were four of us instead of three, still we were four among nine. Breaking us did not restore balance, it only destroyed unity. Now she takes upon herself both Religious and Warrior power. I must correct this imbalance...whatever the cost.//
Neroon returned to his hiding place in a deserted corner of the squalor the Humans called Down Below. It was time to wait, to give Delenn a chance to think, and himself a chance to prepare. The Warrior Caste did not practice the lengthy rituals of the Religious Caste. In battle there was no time for these things, but that did not mean they were without ceremony, or without respect.
//I am about to break a thousand year covenant of peace.// Neroon told himself harshly. //I am going to kill one of my own. If I must sacrifice my honor, I must prepare my soul.//
Neroon moved swiftly through the darkened corridor. The ceremony would already be starting. He didn't have long, but he had wanted to give Delenn - and his own honor - every chance. Now...there was no more time.
A voice rang out, even more strangely inflected than most Humans'. "So, you must be Neroon."
A Human stepped into the meager light. Neroon took in his form at a glance. They were of more or less the same height, but the Human was narrowly built. How much power could there be in that frame? "You shouldn't get involved in things that don't concern you," Neroon said contemptuously. "My quarrel is with Delenn."
The Ranger - for Ranger he must be, in that uniform - simply lifted his chin and met Neroon's gaze. "Then your quarrel is with me," he said, and extended, of all things, a Minbari fighting pike.
Neroon could only react with incredulity. "Do you have any idea who I am?" Surely he could not. He would not challenge a warrior, an Alit, a former Satai!
But the Human's gaze was steady, his voice nervous but determined. "I do. But the only way you will get to her is through me," he took a breath. "I invoke Denn'Sha."
Neroon tiled his head slightly. "To the death," he said, impressed despite himself, and extended his own pike. "During the war I killed 50,000 of you," his voice cold. Perhaps he could scare this Human off. He could not afford even the moments it would take to strike him down. "What's one more?"
The Human moved and they exchanged a few simple blows, testing each other's speed and alertness. "Not bad," Neroon smiled, "for a beginner." More brief strikes. There was unexpected strength in the Ranger's movements. "Last chance," Neroon offered. "I was taught the pike by Durhann himself."
The Human smiled. Could he not know of Master Durhann? "Really?" he seemed almost smug. "So was I."
//This one?// Neroon could only channel his emotions into the fight, the exchange of blows. Durhann was Warrior Caste. Honorable. Durhann had been a mentor. //How could this be possible?// Neroon asked himself. Yet he saw the Master's influence in the Ranger's moves.
"You're a fool," Neroon spat. The Human may have been taught by Durhann, he may even be faster and more nimble than Neroon himself, but Neroon had the advantage of strength and experience. He had trained his whole life for battle. The Ranger would lose. "But if this is what you wish, then Denn'Sha it will be," he acknowledged.
Neroon stepped up the pace of the battle. He had been delayed enough, distracted from his purpose. Time to end this. But somehow the Human evaded the crushing blows Neroon directed at him. He rolled and spun out of striking distance, then darted back in for strikes of his own. Again and again the Warrior found his pike meeting the Ranger's.
The battle stretched on far longer than Neroon had expected. He began to land blows, felt the Human tremble under his strength, and though bare minutes had passed, it was far longer than he had expected. Neroon searched his heart for triumph as the Human faltered again and again...and found none.
"This isn't funny!" he shouted. "A waste of material." The Ranger was a good fighter. There was fire in his eyes and loyalty in his words. Such were not to be spent lightly. But he was not a true Warrior. What honor could he lose in stepping aside? "Once Denn'Sha is invoked I cannot surrender," Neroon told his opponent. "But you... You are not Minbari. Step aside and I will pretend that you ran away," his lip curled at the words. "Changed your mind. No one will know." He waited for the Human to scurry off.
Instead, he was startled by a vehement response. "I am a Ranger," the Human yelled. "We walk in the dark places no others will enter," he stumbled, obviously injured, but would not back away. "We stand on the bridge and no one may pass. We live for the one, we die for the one!" With that cry the Ranger threw himself once again into battle.
Neroon blocked his blows easily now, but he looked into those wild eyes and saw honor there. Honor and death. The Ranger had come here knowing he would find only death at Neroon's hands. He had taken his life in both hands and laid it at the feet of honor.
Neroon had known only a few Minbari with that dedication. All of them Warriors.
He lashed out with deliberate cruelty and heard the crunch of bone. "I've just broken two of your ribs." Again. //Don't make me kill you!// His heart cried out, and he dealt that pain forth. "Sorry. Make that three."
But the Ranger would not surrender. Did not even give in to unconsciousness. He stumbled and collapsed against a set of shallow steps. Neroon towered over him, raised his pike. "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?"
Gasping for breath, the pain of his injuries in his voice, the Ranger answered with death staring him down. "For her," he said, swallowing. "We live for the one. We die for the one. Isil'Zha veni. In Valen's name."
And he waited. Waited for that final blow. No begging. No fear. Simply that. //In Valen's name.//
Neroon hesitated. //He is skilled and fast, but he is also intelligent,// the warrior thought. //Such a one does not follow blindly where he is led. Such a one would not lay down his life for an unworthy leader. I questioned Delenn's vision, but never my own.//
He saw now, at his feet, a Human. A Ranger. A true Warrior. A soul akin to his own.
Slowly, Neroon lowered his pike. Minbari did not kill Minbari. He had been ready to break that covenant with Delenn's blood, but not with that of the man at his feet.
Neroon had come ready to sacrifice his honor, and he had done so. But not in the manner he had expected. Here, in the dark, he would break Denn'Sha. His honor would be tainted. But this warrior, he would live.
The Minbari turned and stalked out of the place where they had battled, bloodied pike in hand. He would not vanish like a coward. He would not let them believe Delenn had taken command of the Rangers unchallenged. He could not let the Ranger's skill and honor go unacknowledged.
Beings stared as he emerged into the light. No doubt it was the weapon he held. Or perhaps they simply had never seen a Warrior before. Neroon ignored their curious glances. He strode into the hall where the ceremony was in process and saw that it was, in fact, just finishing.
The priest conducting it fell silent at Neroon's appearance. Everyone stared. Neroon threw back his hood so that all could see who and what he was, and lifted the bloodied pike. Seeing their eyes upon it, he cast it down.
"There is now blood between us," he acknowledged. "And there is blood between the Warrior Caste and the Humans. I do not think they would die for me. But they would die...for you. Entil'Zha." With that, he left, pride and honor both bleeding.
Hours had passed before Neroon realized that not only had he left a warrior on the field of battle, he had never learned the honored enemy's name. Delenn, he knew, would have made sure he was found and cared for. She was not a warrior, but she valued life. Still, it was right that he should learn the man's name. And the Ranger should know, from Neroon's own lips, that in the end, it had been the Human who had won that battle.
Nodding absently, he read over the message he had composed one last time before sending it after the others. There was much to be done.
He consulted the station map and found the medical facility. Upon entering, he intercepted many hostile looks. //They know who I am.// Neroon could see Delenn and Lennier standing together in the Ranger's room. They were speaking softly.
The Warrior made no effort to eavesdrop. Instead he pinned one of the medical staff with a look. "His name," Neroon demanded, nodding at the glass which separated him from the wounded man.
For a moment, he thought the nurse would not answer. But after a moment she glanced over and back, then said, "Marcus Cole."
//Marcus Cole.// Neroon pondered the strange name, rolled it through his mind. Yes, it suited the Ranger. Suited him well. Nodding sharply, the Minbari released the nurse and stepped up to the door of the recovery room.
Delenn and Lennier looked at him sharply. "Have you come to finish what you started?" she asked, anger in her tone.
Foolish Religious Caste. "If I had wished him dead, he would be dead." Neroon answered evenly.
"Then why did you stop short?" her aide asked curiously.
"That is between the two of us," Neroon said shortly. That moment, in the dark...he did not want to share that. "I would speak to him alone. One warrior to another. Then I will go."
"He will not hear you," Delenn said, accusatory.
Neroon was unruffled. "Then I will speak briefly."
Hesitantly, the two Religious Caste left. Neroon moved further into the room, coming to stand at the head of the bed. He looked down at the Ranger for a moment. "Denn'Sha, you said. To the death. And death there was. The death was mine. To see a Human invoke the name of Valen, to be willing to die for one of my kind, when I was intent on killing one of my own. The rightness of my cause disappeared. Strange, that a Human in his last moments should be more of a Minbari than I. Perhaps it is true, what Delenn said. That we are not of the same blood, but we are of the same heart."
Neroon paused a moment, hoping for an answer, but there was none. He turned to go.
"Next time..." A rough, weak voice called out. Neroon turned and stepped close again. "The next time..." Marcus was obviously struggling to speak. Neroon leaned closer. "You want a revelation..." the Ranger went on. "Could you possibly find a way...that isn't quite so...uncomfortable?"
For a moment Neroon could only stare. Then the Human smiled slightly, and the Warrior felt mirth bubbling up inside him. He released it, laughing fully and deeply. Uncomfortable! Cut, bruised, bleeding, bearing three broken ribs and doubtless other fractures, and he called the experience uncomfortable!
"I am not given to meditation," he said when the laughter died away. "How would you suggest I go about my revelations?"
"I don't know," the Ranger breathed shallowly. "Never had one, myself."
Any response Neroon might have made was cut off as medical staff hurried into the room. As he backed out of their way, Neroon caught Marcus' eye just in time to catch the Human rolling it. The Minbari chuckled again, and turned to find himself meeting Delenn and Lennier's startled gazes. For a moment he could not understand why, but slowly it occurred to him that they did not expect to see him laughing.
"I must speak with...Sheridan," he said. Now was not the moment to antagonize Delenn with the name Starkiller.
"Why?" she asked, still suspicious.
"Business," Neroon said shortly.
"If it is Minbari business," Delenn countered coolly, "then it must go through me.
"If you insist, then come along," Neroon said, attempting to keep the irritation out of his tone. "But I will not repeat myself."
The Ambassador inclined her head slightly, and after a brief call, Neroon found himself following her to the Captain's office. Her aide, Lennier, she had called him, repeatedly cast curious glances at Neroon. The Warrior ignored him. Had he no self-control?
Sheridan was sitting at his desk, reading a plastic flimsy, when the three of them entered. Neroon moved squarely across the desk from the man and did not wait to be recognized. "I must stay on this station," he said flatly. "I assume there are arrangements you must make."
Sheridan went utterly still, then laid the flimsy down with deliberate slowness. He raised his eyes first, then stood. "You assaulted one of my people," he said, fire in his eyes. "Threatened Delenn's life, and brought blood into an important ceremony. If Marcus weren't so damned stubborn you'd be in the brig instead of my office!" The captain leaned forward aggressively. "So would you care to explain why I shouldn't kick you out the nearest airlock, never mind make arrangements for you to stay?"
"Because I have dishonored myself," Neroon said unflinchingly. "And if you know anything of honor," his tone clearly implied Sheridan did not, "then you will...allow me the opportunity to redress that."
"Don't you have better things to do?"
"No." Neroon could see that he had surprised Sheridan with that.
"Your ship?" the Captain asked.
"Has been officially turned over to my second in command until my return, whenever that may be."
"Is safe in the hands of my advisors and my brother, who began training for this role more than a year ago." Neroon left out that they would undoubtedly contact him regularly for assistance. Sheridan would base much of his decision on Neroon's commitment to this course of action. Indeed, even now the Captain had an odd look in his eyes. A mixture, Neroon supposed, of anger and confusion.
//Perhaps,// Neroon thought suddenly, //it was a mistake to allow the Religious Caste to handle outsiders. In protecting our culture we have allowed other races to judge all Minbari by the actions of a single Caste.//
"Babylon 5 is meant to be a free port," Sheridan said at last. "No charges have been laid against you, so technically, I can't make you leave. But," he glared, "I'm going to check with one more person, and if he says you go, you go. Clear?"
Neroon inclined his head slightly, wondering who Sheridan would give final say in this matter. His head of security?
Instead, Sheridan called MedLab. "Dr. Hobbs," he said into the link, his eyes on Neroon. "I need to speak to Marcus." Neroon suppressed a smile. If anyone on this station understood why he must stay, it would be the Ranger.
"Captain, he should be resting-"
"I just want to ask him a question." There was a pause on the other end of the link. "One question. He can handle it."
"All right," the doctor said grudgingly. "But make it quick."
"Captain?" The Ranger's voice came quietly through the link. There was still strain evident in his tone, but definitely stronger than his first words had been.
"Marcus," Sheridan sounded inordinately relieved. //He has not been to MedLab yet,// Neroon realized. The Captain went on, eyes fixed on Neroon even as he spoke, "The Minbari who attacked you is standing in my office right now, asking to stay on B5 for an indefinite length of time. You say the word and I'll have him out of here so fast it'll make his head spin."
"He can stay," Marcus' answer was immediate. "And Captain?"
"What's his name?"
"Neroon," Sheridan answered. "Of the Star Riders clan, if I remember correctly." Neroon nodded slightly, somewhat surprised that Sheridan was aware of his affiliations. //He must have checked after my...appearance at the ceremony.//
"I'll have...to remember that..." Marcus trailed off.
A moment later the doctor's voice was back on the line. "That's it, Captain. I hope you got the answer to your question."
"I did," Sheridan said briskly. "Thank you, doctor." He signed off, his gaze becoming distinctly evaluating. "Well, Alit, you get to stay. But I'm warning you, you give me one excuse to get rid of you and that's it, you're gone. This is your second chance."
"Then I shall give you no excuses," Neroon said, and left. He had what he had come for, and abruptness did not count as an excuse.
Neroon looked about his quarters critically. They were tiny and slightly oddly shaped, as though an extra room had been tucked away into a spot not truly meant for it. The Warrior strongly suspected Sheridan - or his second - had assigned him the most inconvenient rooms possible. The nature of the area was of little concern. Neroon's...neighbors...had taken one look at him and promptly backed off. However, brown sector was as far as it was possible to get from his purpose for remaining here.
//Not,// Neroon thought, //that I will be spending much time in these rooms. Or, rather, room.// He had traveled light when coming to Babylon 5, bringing with him nothing but his denn'bok and a credit chip. He had arranged for a few other things to be sent, but they would not arrive for some days. In the meantime, Neroon's room held nothing but a mattress - a horizontal mattress - and himself.
Experimentally, he extended his fighting pike. Only quick reflexes saved one end from striking the wall. With care, he could move it about in the room, but to put true power into the exercise required more space. Sighing, the Warrior collapsed the weapon.
There was, it seemed, little to do but meditate.
Neroon had to laugh, thinking of his comment to the Ranger in MedLab. He was not much given to meditation, but he could wait. There were many long waits in war and he had found that the mind, when unoccupied, tended to turn to those things which the soul most needs resolved. It was not a clearing away of thoughts, nor was it a focusing of them, but it served its purpose well enough.
Neroon sat on the bare floor, carefully extended his pike, and laid it across his lap. Eyes closed, he composed himself to wait. There was nothing else he could do, not even sleep. To sleep horizontal was to tempt death in the best of circumstances. To lay oneself down mere hours after Denn'Sha was broken... No, he would have no sleep tonight.
Instead, he cast his mind back to the Denn'Sha itself, running every moment through his mind again, searching for another path. There were always choices. Always. //I see only three,// he admitted at last. //Kill the Ranger, and destroy a warrior, a Minbari soul, and my own honor in one stroke. Die myself, and thus destroy my honor through my surrender and the honor of my clan through my intentions. Or break the Denn'Sha, and stain my honor forever.//
//How did I come to this?// His hands tightened on the shaft of the pike, knuckles aching from the grip. //I thought my choices had led me truly when I took my place as Satai and now, little more than a year later, the Council is broken, my honor tarnished, the only kindred soul in lightyears...a Human.//
Alone, in the dark, Neroon felt dampness on his cheeks...and left it there. For now.
"Mr. Cole, you will lay down right now!"
Neroon stepped into MedLab to find Dr. Hobbs glaring down at her patient, hands fisted on her hips. "You feel fine," she was saying, "because I have given you some very good painkillers. Those ribs are not ready for the strain you're putting on them!"
The Ranger spotted Neroon over the doctor's shoulder. "Neroon," he said, more brightly than the Warrior had expected. "Please tell the good doctor here that I'm good to go."
//Ah,// Neroon thought, examining the patient critically, //he is looking for an ally.// "Anla'shoc Cole," Neroon said, "I am...quite familiar with your injuries. The doctor is right. You should not be moving."
Cole sighed dramatically and relaxed back into the bed. "You're no help at all," he said, with no evidence of resentment. "I'm sick of this place," the Ranger went on conversationally. "There's only so much time you can spend counting ceiling tiles before you get bored of the exercise." Dr. Hobbs finished checking the monitors and left the recovery room, casting a wary glance at Neroon as she left.
"Counting ceiling tiles?" he inquired.
"Yeah," the Ranger gestured upward with one hand. "Six across, ten down makes sixty. I tried counting them individually, just in case, but there were still sixty of them. At least," he squinted at the ceiling, "there were the last time I checked. Maybe I'd better try again."
"They have given you nothing to occupy your mind?" Neroon asked, surprised. He had waited a day before making another visit, not wanting to either overstay his uncertain welcome or interrupt the gestures of honor he was sure would be dealt to the Human in recognition of his sacrifice.
"I didn't have anything on me when they brought me in," Cole answered wryly. "And there's not a whole lot in my quarters that anyone could bring me, assuming someone offered."
Looking around, Neroon found a stool and seated himself upon it. "Then I shall stay," he announced, "and divert your attention from your injuries."
"Surely you've got more interesting things to do than listen to me whine and complain."
Neroon lifted his brow. "If I wished to be elsewhere," he said, "I would leave."
Marcus studied him for a long moment. "I think I like that," he said at last.
"Your answer," the Ranger clarified. "It hasn't got any other meaning than the words themselves imply."
"Which response would you have expected?" Neroon asked curiously.
"Oh, you know. You could have said, `Oh, no, Marcus, I don't mind,' which really means `The last thing I want to do is sit here and listen to you, but if I leave I'll feel guilty.' Or there's always, `You're my friend. I want to make sure you're okay,' which actually means `I have a thousand other things to do, but our friendship obliges me to at least express concern.'"
"I had not put that much thought into my answer," Neroon said, amused.
"And I like that too," Cole said, eyes twinkling. "Incidentally, I don't believe we were ever properly introduced. My name is Marcus Cole. Well, really, Marcus Alan Cole, but I generally leave the middle part out." He paused for a moment. "Come to think of it, I generally leave the end off, too."
"I understood that Humans addressed each other by the final portion of their name," Neroon said. "Unless they are particularly familiar with each other."
"We usually do. Sheridan, Ivanova, Garibaldi. But not me, apparently. Everyone just calls me Marcus."
"Marcus," Neroon said slowly, as if tasting the name.
The Ranger gave him an odd look. "I like how you say it," he said after a moment. "I always thought my mother was being a bit silly, calling me Marcus, like some Roman emperor, instead of just Mark. But I like how you say it."
"Do you always talk like this?" Neroon asked. The Ranger...Marcus...had spoken little during their battle.
"I suppose I do. Why? Does it bother you?"
"No," Neroon's lips curved into a smile, "but it gives me little to do. You provide all your own responses."
Marcus laughed at that, then caught his breath. "Apparently the painkillers aren't that good," he said weakly. "Perhaps I ought to give my ribs a rest - and you something to do. Talk to me."
"I am talking to you."
Marcus rolled his eyes. "I mean tell me something. Something I don't know."
"About what?" Neroon asked, at something of a loss.
"Anything. Yourself. Tell me the story of your life."
"The story of my life." //I sound foolish,// Neroon berated himself.
Marcus didn't seem to mind providing them, in any case. "Yes, the story of your life. I was born, I lived, I died at the bedside of an annoying Human who couldn't shut up. That sort of thing."
//At least he has given me somewhere to begin.// "I was born in Alaanor, a city on the southern continent of Minbar. Both my parents were Warrior Caste. I began my training when I reached the age of eight cycles." He paused to convert that. "Approximately twelve of your years. My first ship was the Loren, my first command, the Ingata. I command that ship still. I rose to the position of clan leader some years later, and to the position of Satai more than a year ago." He paused thoughtfully. "Almost precisely one year after attaining that position, Delenn broke the Grey Council and I returned to my former status. And now, I am here."
"Well, that'll do for a brief summary of your military record," Marcus said. "Now tell me the story of your life."
Neroon stared for a moment. Then, he began again.
Ivanova entered MedLab and was greeted by the sound of Marcus' laughter. Startled, she caught Dr. Hobbs' eye. "How high a dose of painkillers did you give him?"
"Not that high," the doctor said dryly. "They've been at it all day."
"They?" Ivanova took a step to change her angle and spotted a Minbari in a Warrior's uniform. She frowned. "Neroon. What's he doing here?"
"He's been here all day every day for four days straight now," Hobbs said, turning the majority of her attention to the analysis she was running. "Up until this morning, I'm pretty sure they were trading life stories."
"Now?" Hobbs gave the commander a long suffering look. "Now, knock-knock jokes."
"Knock-knock jokes?" Ivanova could only stare. A rich chord of laughter rang out. "You're telling me that a Minbari Warrior is laughing at knock-knock jokes?"
"Not at first," Hobbs shook her head, "but he seems to have gotten the hang of them."
"Wait. Not at first? How long has this been going on?"
"All. Day. If I wasn't planning to release Mr. Cole today already, this would have decided me."
"Hang on a minute," Marcus called out, cutting off any comment Susan might have made. He appeared in the doorway of his room, still festooned with IV's. "Did I hear the words `release' and `today' in the same sentence?"
"You did!" The doctor said briskly. "Now get back into bed so I can unhook you properly."
"Yes, Ma'am," he said. His eyes landed on Ivanova. "Oh, hello Susan. Come to see me liberated?"
"Actually, I came to relieve the tedium," she said, a little off balance. Neroon appeared behind Marcus. Ivanova tried to picture him laughing and couldn't. She shook her head. "But that seems to be taken care of."
"Oh. Well, Neroon's gotten himself into a bit of a sticky situation by letting me live," Marcus said with no sign of ill humor, "and I've rather inconvenienced myself in the process of not dying. Seems only right we should keep each other company while we find our way out of our respective positions."
"Do you need any help getting back to your quarters?"
Marcus twitched, almost as if he was resisting the urge to look over his shoulder. "I've not got much to take back with me," he said, "but thanks for the offer."
"Right then." Ivanova nodded sharply. "Feel better." She turned and left, but could resist casting a glance over her shoulder. There was nothing to be seen but Dr. Hobbs, ushering Marcus back to bed so that he could be `liberated.' Susan shook her head.
"I can't tell you how glad I am to be out of there," Marcus said, moving slowly but steadily.
"I'm not certain she should have released you," Neroon responded, watching closely.
"Humans heal more slowly than Minbari, Neroon," Marcus said. "If I spent all the time needed to heal in MedLab, I'd never get anything done."
"How long will this injury trouble you?"
"Doctors these days have all sorts of medications and contraptions to speed things up," the Ranger said, "but it's still going to take another 2 and a half weeks before I can breathe without being reminded of it. Probably a two months after that to heal completely."
//Three months?// "You will be barred from duty for that long?" the Warrior asked, disturbed.
"Oh, no," Marcus paused a moment. They stood on one of the walkways that crossed over the Zocalo. "Delenn will have me off active duty for two weeks, I expect. Then light duty for another two or three, depending on how successful I am at persuading her to let me get back to work."
"I had not realized it would be that long."
"Yes, well, ribs are like that," Marcus sighed. He looked over the edge of the walkway. "I wonder sometimes," he said, nodding downward, "what other people see when they look at all of that."
Neroon followed his gaze down to the crowd of people jostling through the Zocalo. "Chaos," he said, with no little contempt.
Marcus glanced at him, surprise plain on his face. "Really? I see patterns."
Neroon frowned, looked again. "Patterns?"
"Patterns. See how people move faster in the center and slower on the edges? Like a river. And everyone close to the shops slows down or stops for a moment...stones in the flow. And that's just the big picture," Marcus leaned on the rail a little, intent on his subject. "You can tell who's bargaining. See that shopkeeper and his Drazi customer? One steps forward, the other backward. Then reversed. Another step forward." He grinned and glanced over at Neroon. "The pattern of negotiation. Or there," he pointed, "that cluster of Centauri, they must be headed for the casino."
"How can you tell?"
Marcus laughed shallowly. "Because Centauri are always headed for the casino," he confided. "If you watch long enough, you realize that every one of them is either coming or going from that one place."
Neroon frowned. "That is a generalization."
"Yes," Marcus admitted, "but when there are exceptions, it's always worth tagging along to see what's going on."
"You are applying Human standards of behavior to dozens of different races," Neroon challenged, waving a hand down at the crowd, "each of which has its own culture and beliefs and codes of conduct. You can't expect them to act, or react, react as Humans would."
"We do trip over our own assumptions sometimes," Marcus said, turning away from the sight and continuing the slow trek to the core shuttle, "but if I were to try to see things from each race's own perspective, I'd spend my life doing little else. I'm not a xenosociologist, or whatever that particular specialization has called itself. I'm a Ranger - all I need is a framework to work from." He shrugged, "Besides, Humanity is hardly a homogeneous bunch in itself."
Neroon turned that concept over in his mind as they walked. //Was I not thinking, days ago, that the Religious Caste had been given too complete authority over alien contact?// "It has not been the role of the Warrior Caste," he said at length, "to seek to understand other races beyond a familiarity with their tactics."
"Really? That surprises me."
Marcus tilted his head and was silent for a moment in thought. "'Know your enemy and know yourself,'" he began, "'in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are sure to be defeated in every battle.' Sun Tzu, a Chinese philosopher from Earth, said that. I thought it would have been standard fare for the Warrior Caste."
Neroon shook his head. "We have worked very hard to maintain our," suddenly 'purity' seemed a very inappropriate word, "traditions."
The look Marcus cast him implied he knew what Neroon had originally planned to say. "It must really have pissed you off when Humans started becoming Anla'shoc, then."
"It was one of the offenses," Neroon said evenly, "which set my heart against Delenn."
Marcus shot Neroon a sidelong glance as they came to a stop at the core shuttle station. "If you're expecting me to throw up my hands in horror," he said, "and storm off in a fit of uncontrollable anger, relax." The shuttle arrived and the two of them carefully boarded, hands never leaving the rails. "I believe in Delenn," the Ranger continued. "I'd lay down my life for her. But I don't expect everyone to feel the same as I do, and you've certainly made no secret of your dislike for her. If I was going to take offense, I'd have done it days ago."
"That was not the response I expected," Neroon admitted. "The very mention of her name tends to provoke extreme reactions."
"I am curious, though, what the other offenses were."
"I am curious," Neroon countered, "as to why you do not object to the implication that it is an offense for Humans to become Rangers." //And how is that a safer topic than Delenn's transgressions? This conversation has become a minefield.// Neroon almost missed their shuttle stop with the realization that he was putting effort into avoiding offending Marcus. The doors closed much closer behind him than he would ever admit, but the Ranger didn't seem to notice.
Nor did he seem to take offense. "Anything that contradicts a thousand years of tradition is going to be seen as an offense," he said philosophically. "For example, the Denn'Sha. Which of us was truly acting against honor - you, for breaking Denn'Sha, or me, for invoking it after it had been banned for a thousand years?"
As they moved deeper into brown sector, Neroon noticed that Marcus had ceased breathing shallowly. Indeed, even his stride was longer, brisker now. Yet the tightness around his eyes and in his jaw clearly spoke of pain. Something had changed. The Warrior put a little more attention into his surroundings, truly seeing them instead of half- consciously tracking potential threats.
They were on the outskirts of the truly harsh areas, but there were still a few sharp-eyed lurkers about. //Predators,// Neroon recognized. Their gazes slid off of him at once, if they touched him at all, but after a moment the Minbari saw how those keen eyes fixed for a moment on Marcus before moving on. //He must show them that he is not a target. Weakness would be exploited here.//
Marcus stopped before a door and keyed a code into it. He stepped inside and Neroon, rather than force him to maintain the facade of strength, entered and let the door close behind him. The Ranger's rooms were almost as bare as his own, though a bit larger.
"I would have thought," Neroon commented, "that your Captain could acquire better quarters for his people."
"He might," Marcus said, easing himself down to sit on a low table which, apparently, doubled as a chair, "if I asked him, but I wouldn't do much good up in blue sector. A lot of what Rangers do is gather and carry information, and the people who know things are the people that no one notices. Around here, that's the lurkers."
"The people who live in Down Below," Marcus said absently, looking around his rooms as though he'd never seen them before. "Good grief, but there's nothing to do here," he sighed. "I'm actually going to have to go to the Zocalo and use my credits for something other than bribes."
//Bribes?// Neroon paused before speaking. "Whom do you bribe?" he asked after a moment.
"The lurkers." Marcus cast him a wry glance. "You don't think they part with their information for free?" His eyes landed on a data crystal in a small black case by his hip. He picked it up. "Huh. Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War'. You should borrow that," he tossed it to Neroon almost carelessly.
The Minbari caught it and fingered the case for a moment before tucking it into a pocket. They were silent for a moment. "I suppose you have other things to do," Marcus said at length.
"Really." The Ranger's gaze sharpened. "You never did tell me why you're still on Babylon 5," he observed. "I rather assumed you were waiting for your ship to come and fetch you, but it's been more than a week. So if you're not waiting for a ride and you've spent all your time in my charming company, what are you doing on B5?"
Neroon pressed his lips into a thin line. "I am not worthy to return to my ship or my clan until I have removed the stain on my honor," he said. "And I cannot do that until I have resolved the troubles preying on my mind."
Fire sparked in Marcus' eyes. "So I'm an obligation, is that it?" he asked abruptly. "Something you've got to deal with before you can go home, an obstacle to your...redemption?"
Neroon's brow shot up in startlement. "No," he said. "You are a kindred spirit, Marcus. And it is from that fact that my troubles spring."
Abruptly the Ranger was all twinkling eyes and laughter again. "Well, everyone here is always telling me I'm a pain in the ass."
//Pain in the ass?// Neroon let the comment go rather than inquire as to its meaning. Humans peppered their speech with the most bizarre phrases. "I must leave," he said abruptly, and did not miss the flash of disappointment on Marcus' face. "You have given me much to think about."
"Practicing your mediation?" The Ranger smiled.
"With great reluctance," Neroon said, his own lips curving. He paused at the door, then turned. "I will return tomorrow." The Minbari had never mentioned a forthcoming visit before, and half wondered if Marcus would discourage it. Perhaps by mentioning his intended visit to the Zocalo.
Neroon nodded assent, pleased, and forced himself to step through the door, despite a sudden urge to linger. There was no reason to remain, except to exchange inanities. Choosing to walk rather than use the transport tubes, the Warrior sank deep into his own thoughts.
//Patterns.// He shook his head. //How can anyone see coherent patterns in a collection of more than a dozen races? These Humans, they see themselves everywhere, as if they were the template from which all life was drawn. The Minbari have been a space faring people for longer than Humans have had electricity!//
//And yet we have never attempted such a dream as this Babylon 5. Minbari dream of our own people. Our greatest achievement in a thousand years was unity between the Castes. Humans are a fractured people, yet they reach out always to bring others into their world.//
//No other race has ever built a place such as this, a place specifically intended to bring together a dozen races. Humans choose to live here, among those that any other race would see only as outsiders at best, intruders more likely. Humans make their homes here and invite all others to do the same, and every visitor becomes a part of this place for a time.//
//Part of a pattern.//
//Am I a part of that pattern as well?// Neroon furrowed his brow at the thought. Suddenly he remembered Doctor Hobbs looking up from her work one day to tell him that Marcus was sleeping, but that she'd be waking him for a check up shortly, if he'd wait; a woman in a security uniform nodding politely at him as he passed her one afternoon; a shopkeeper stepping out in front of his establishment to tell him that it hadn't been easy, but he had found an "honest to God Minbari bed"; Marcus setting a time for them to meet the next morning.
Neroon had wondered once how Humans connected without the support of a clan. //Wherever they go,// he realized now, //they build a new clan where there had been none before.//
//Humans see themselves everywhere, in every kind of being, and so they seek to go everywhere, to meet every kind of being. They are a people for whom purity of culture is a choice, a possibility, and not a racial mandate.//
It was a long time that night before Neroon slept.
The rail of the walkway pressed hard into Neroon's wrists where he leaned upon it. He had given up wearing the gauntlets and plating of his full Warrior Caste uniform days ago, when the truth of his position began to sink in. He had no subordinates here. Indeed, few of the station inhabitants were even aware of the meaning of the uniform, never mind its history and significance. Instead he wore plain black robes, his denn'bok always at his side.
Footsteps rang against the stair leading up to the walkway and Neroon glanced over, half expecting Marcus. Instead he found himself meeting the eyes of the station's head of security. Garibaldi.
"Alit Neroon," the man greeted him, respectful, if not friendly.
"Mister Garibaldi," Neroon nodded, then turned his gaze back to the milling people below.
"Mind if I ask what you're doing?"
Neroon refrained from pointing out that, regardless of whether or not he minded, Garibaldi had asked. "Am I doing something I should not be?" he inquired, remembering Sheridan's unsubtle warning.
"No, no," the Human said, turning to follow Neroon's gaze. "It's just that, in the past three hours I've gotten eight concerned messages asking me why there's a Minbari glaring down at them from this walkway." Garibaldi stilled a comment with an uplifted hand. "Now, normally," he said, "I'd say, 'Damned if I know, but there's nothing going on, so you let us handle it.'"
"But I've been saying that for three days now," Garibaldi said with some exasperation. "Now I'm beginning to wonder if there's something going on. So, rather than mention this to the Captain, who already has more things to deal with than anyone should have to, I thought I'd drop by and have a word."
Neroon nodded slightly, a concession to the security chief's reasoning.
"So," Garibaldi started again, "Mind telling me what you're doing up here?"
"Looking for patterns," Neroon answered.
Michael stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. "Looking for patterns, he says," he muttered to himself. "The man is looking for patterns." He shook his head. "Find any?"
Neroon paused, considering. "Yes," he said at last. "Several."
"All right then." Garibaldi started to move off, then stopped and turned back for a moment. "I'm just going to tell anyone who asks that you're meditating," he informed the Warrior. "Looking for patterns, they won't get. Meditating, that they'll understand. Particularly from a Minbari."
"It is close enough to the truth," Neroon allowed. Then a slight smirk touched his lips. "And if they do not believe you, well, when does a Minbari speak except in half truths?"
Garibaldi looked startled for a moment, then broke into a grin. "So they say."
Neroon stood watching awhile longer, but eventually glanced at one of the station clocks and straightened from his pose. It was almost time to meet Marcus for the midday meal.
Ten days after his injury - since Neroon had dealt those injuries - and still the Ranger would wince when he took a deep breath or laughed or coughed. But though his body was still recovering, Marcus' spirit was impatient, chafing at the doctor's restrictions. He left his quarters whenever he could, most often with Neroon as company.
The Warrior supposed it was at least partially because Marcus' friends still had duties to perform. Even when they were not on duty, the command staff were frequently too weary to indulge the Ranger's restless spirit. Still, Neroon found himself glad for the Human's company, regardless of the reason his was accepted.
Arriving at the restaurant they had agreed upon, Neroon found Marcus waiting for him. The Human was also out of uniform, wearing black pants and a dark gray turtleneck, but he still wore his Ranger pin and, like Neroon, his denn'bok.
"Am I late?" The Minbari asked, slowing to stop next to Marcus.
"No, I'm early," Marcus said, and turned to speak to the host hovering at his elbow. "Two, please." The host gestured for them to follow him and led them to a table. "I'm really beginning to hate my quarters," he said as they were seated. "In my eagerness to escape, I rather overestimated the amount of time it would take to get here."
"Overestimated by how much?" Neroon asked shrewdly, glancing at his menu. He regarded the Minbari dishes with skepticism. Of course, there were Worker Caste on Babylon 5...
"Half an hour," Marcus admitted sheepishly. "I know my ribs need time to heal. They remind me every time I take a deep breath. I know it'll only make things worse if I push myself too hard. But knowing all of that doesn't change how I feel." He grimaced. "Useless. Frustrated. Impotent." Neroon regarded his companion thoughtfully. "Most of all I feel foolish."
Marcus shrugged and looked down at the menu as he answered. "For wanting so badly to go back on duty when I physically can't. It's like throwing myself repeatedly against a brick wall. I'm not going to get through the wall that way, but I can't seem stop doing it."
They were interrupted briefly by the waiter who took their orders. "There is nothing foolish," Neroon said when the man had gone, "about aalin."
"Aalin?" Marcus asked carefully, his pronunciation perfect, if hesitant.
"It is a Warrior Caste word," Neroon explained. "There is no direct translation, but it is the word for what you are feeling now. It describes the combination of lesser emotions that rise when a warrior is barred from their calling by something which they cannot fight, or persuade, or redirect, or accept. It is part frustration, part passion, part grief, part guilt..." Neroon shook his head. "It is difficult to describe in your language, but I do not think I need to further clarify the meaning for you."
Marcus shook his head and said, under his breath, "Aalin... Do you have a word," he asked after a while, "for a fight which was always hopeless, but which you can't help believing you should have won?"
"The word is not for the battle," Neroon said softly, "but for the feelings. Shil'yte. The futile wish of a commander to go back and remake the decisions of an earlier battle. To save those who could not be saved, to protect those who were struck down, to in wait for sleep and see fewer faces in the dark. That is shil'yte."
Marcus seemed to be lost in thought, so Neroon sat quietly. Their food arrived in the meantime. The Ranger picked up his fork and speared a bit of his dish with it, but paused before lifting it to his mouth. "I'd like to learn your language," he said. "The Warrior Caste language, Vik."
"Why?" Neroon asked, startled. "You are already fluent in Adronado. That is enough to communicate with almost any Minbari."
The Ranger took a moment to consume the bite of food he'd forked. After swallowing, he said, "Because I speak six languages, two of them well enough to think in, and I've never heard a word to describe those two things before."
//My mentor once told me,// Neroon remembered, //"When a Warrior is caught up in aalin, there are no words that will make it easier to bear, no action that can be taken to relieve the situation. That is why it is aalin. Sometimes time is all that is needed. Sometimes the universe moves and the situation changes. Sometimes the Warrior changes, and sometimes they die in the attempt. Regardless of which of these comes to pass, it is a most honorable service to ensure that such a Warrior is not feeling both aalin and loneliness."//
//I did not know a human was capable of experiencing aalin.//
"I will teach you Vik," he said, "if you will teach me about Humans."
Marcus looked surprised. "What about us? Language? History? Art?"
Neroon shook his head. "About who you are. Why you built such a place as Babylon 5. About how you live, and love, and die."
"Neroon," Marcus said, "There are nearly as many answers to those questions as there are people to ask them."
The Minbari only smiled. "Already you have told me something I did not know before."
Marcus shook his head and laughed and set about eating more intently. Neroon followed suit, aware that the bargain had been accepted.
"You don't have a word for husband?"
"Nor for wife," Neroon confirmed.
Marcus looked more curious than confused, the Minbari noted. "Why not?"
"Because the terms are gender specific," Neroon answered. "And because, as I understand your explanation, they have a great deal of social, religious and legal implications for which Minbari have no real equivalent."
"Do you have a word for 'lover'?" Marcus asked, leaning back against Neroon's sleeping platform. The Warrior had little in the way of furniture, so they sat on the floor. Neroon was surprisingly relaxed, his back braced against the wall, one leg stretched out before him, the other crooked comfortably to brace his arm.
He took a sip from his drink before answering. "Yes, but for Warriors the distinction between the relationship of lovers and the relationship of...spouses, for lack of a better word, is not a legal one." Neroon considered his words for a long moment. Teaching Marcus Vik, he had discovered, was also an exercise in creativity for his own grasp of the Human Standard language.
"'Laramenn,'" he said at last, "can be roughly translated as 'lover', but its true meaning is somewhat more complicated than that. It is the Warrior word for a companion with whom you share the pleasures of the body, but who you don't expect to spend any significant portion of your life. A laramenn has no real claim to one's soul or loyalty." He paused, then added, "A Warrior may or may not feel affection for their laramenn. It may be a pairing of convenience, or a friendship lasting many years, but both involved are always aware that the other is still seeking their true mate."
"I assume," Marcus said softly, as if afraid to interrupt, "that there is a Vik word for a 'true mate'?"
"Yes." Neroon felt a sudden wave of longing. It hardly startled him. Not anymore. "'Nirahn.' I suppose," he turned his attention to the pale blue liquid that filled his glass, "that the closest human translation would be 'lifemate.'"
"But it's true meaning is somewhat more complicated," Marcus said, gentle humor in his words.
Neroon looked up at his companion and found himself smiling a little. "Of course. Vik is thousands of years older than any Human language. It has had considerably more time to grow complex."
"Well," Marcus prompted, "what's the true meaning?"
"A nirahn is someone who calls to body and mind, heart and soul," Neroon explained, ignoring the weight in his own heart. "When two Warriors claim each other as nirahn, they promise all that they are to one another. A nirahn is one of the few things that can challenge loyalty to clan and Caste." Neroon found his throat had closed and took a long drink in an attempt to open it again. He drained the glass and set it down rather harder than it deserved.
"You do not have a nirahn," Marcus said. Neroon looked up to find keen eyes studying him.
"No," he answered shortly. "If I did, I would not be here."
"I was prepared to sacrifice my honor to prevent Delenn from taking the position she now holds," Neroon said, his voice going cold. "A nirahn's honor would be inextricably bound to my own. To bring dishonor onto myself would be to bring dishonor onto one with whom I would have shared something greater than loyalty. I would not have done that to my nirahn," he said. Then, bitterly, "But I do not have one. And it is just as well, for dishonor seems to be my destiny."
"Neroon," Marcus said. The Warrior looked up and found his companion raising his own glass. "You are the most honorable man I have ever had the good fortune to meet, and I include Captain Sheridan in that assessment."
After a moment Neroon nodded his acknowledgement, since his own glass was empty. Marcus smiled and drank the toast alone.
"And yourself?" Neroon asked after a quiet moment.
"What about me?"
"Have you a lover? I know you do not have a life mate." To the Minbari's complete surprise, Marcus blushed. Even his ears grew pink with the rush of blood. "Marcus?"
"I, ah, don't have a lover," the Human answered, growing even pinker. "I've actually, ah, never had a lover. Of any description."
"This embarrasses you?" Neroon asked, watching with fascination as Marcus actually began to turn red. //How...unusual.// "Why?"
"Well," Marcus took a deep breath, apparently trying to calm his reaction. With little success. "Well," he said again, "Human males tend to take a great deal of pride in their, ah, sexual, ah, expertise. The number of lovers one's had, or the degree to which those lovers were satisfied, both contribute to a kind of...prestige." The blush, Neroon noted with interest, was beginning to recede. Marcus pushed onward with his explanation. "Not that all men feel that way, not at all, but it is very unusual for a man my age to not have had any lovers at all."
Marcus dropped his eyes. "I've, ah, never known any one else. Not at this age."
//He seems almost...afraid,// Neroon realized. //Of what?// "Marcus," Neroon said, hoping to dispel that strange fear, "among the Warrior Caste, one who chooses to remain untouched is called 'tharenn'. It is not a word used to describe inexperience. It is a title of great respect for one who knows their own heart and is strong enough to remain true to the heart's voice, even in the face of the body's hungers."
The Ranger was looking up at him again, Neroon noted with pleasure. It was his reaction Marcus had feared. "A lot of people think I'm being arrogant by waiting," Marcus said. "As though most people weren't good enough for me."
Neroon snorted derisively. "By that logic," he said, "it is equally arrogant to believe that one is doing others a great favor by making themselves available."
Marcus stared for a moment, then broke down laughing. Neroon joined him, laughing a relaxed, full laugh much like the one they had shared in MedLab more than two weeks ago. The Warrior noted with a little relief that the Ranger did not so much as wince. //Soon,// Neroon judged, //the doctors will allow him light duty. And then...I shall have a great deal more time to myself.//
Neroon found himself toying with his glass, wishing he had not drained it quite so quickly.
Neroon had not been shy about making use of Babylon 5's exercise facilities. He had known that his stay would be extended and he was not prepared to let the absence of other Minbari Warriors prevent him from maintaining his conditioning. A brief set of inquiries to the computer had helped him select an appropriate gym from those available. The variety was a little startling, but made sense when one considered the many races that passed through Babylon 5.
After some experimentation, Neroon had found a routine that satisfied his requirements. The Rangers on the station were not inclined to help him practice his pike techniques, but there was a small group of humans who practiced with a similar weapon, which they called a staff. The staves tended to be lighter than his pike, but he did find one heavy enough to suit his needs.
When approached, the humans seemed to appreciate the challenge presented by an unfamiliar opponent. Neroon discovered, in turn, that the unusual style they used challenged his own skills. He won their bouts perhaps seventy percent of the time. A testament to the skill of his opponents.
To maintain his strength, Neroon was forced to rely on the weight machines that his chosen facility provided. Designed to accommodate many different races, they could be raised to weights much greater than any Human could handle. The weights were marked with the standard limits for a number of races. To his surprise, Neroon had found that his own maintenance weight was just within the upper human limit. He supposed that humans must have to train very hard to reach such levels - certainly none of those he had encountered had reached them.
Today, as he entered, Neroon was startled to find Marcus running on the treadmill in the main area, his hair bound back at the nape of his neck. The Ranger did not notice him, absorbed in his own workout. Sweat running down his neck and staining his shirt showed that he'd been at it for some time.
//He looks strange with his hair bound back,// Neroon thought. //All that ridiculous fur suits him, somehow.// Pushing Marcus out of his thoughts, Neroon made his way over to the mats where a few of the staff wielders were warming up.
Later, the pleasant warmth of exercise suffusing his limbs, Neroon bowed to his opponent and turned to find Marcus watching him. "Neroon," the Ranger greeted him, "I should have known better than to think you'd let yourself get out of shape just because there was no one to practice the pike with."
"I am surprised to find you here," Neroon said, placing the practice staff into a rack on the wall.
"Doctor Hobbs cleared me for light duty this morning," Marcus said. "No pike training yet, but at least I can start getting my conditioning back."
"Have you spoken to...Entil'Zha yet?" Neroon said, and frowned at his own hesitation. //I ought to be resigned to this outcome by now.//
"Almost before I got out of MedLab."
"And your duties?"
There was genuine amusement in Marcus' voice when he spoke. "Believe it or not, she wants me to, and I quote, continue to keep an eye on you. I don't believe our leader trusts you, Neroon."
"I am not surprised. There is too much history between us for trust to come easily." Neroon frowned.
"Trouble?" Marcus asked, concerned. "No one's been giving you a hard time, have they? I told them I got myself into this."
Neroon negated the suggestion with a sharp gesture. "No, no trouble. It is only that I find myself in need of advice. Discussion, rather, on a subject which would normally prompt me to seek out the Religious Caste. With tensions as they are now," he shook his head. "I cannot go to Delenn with my questions, but there is no one else who may have the answers."
"Delenn wouldn't refuse to speak with you, you know," Marcus said gently. "She would put aside any personal conflicts for something like this."
"Perhaps," Neroon allowed, lips thinning, "but I know I would not listen to her as I must."
Marcus was silent for a moment. "Well, you could trying speaking with Lennier."
"Lennier?" Neroon asked.
"Her aide," Marcus explained. "As I understand it, he spent most of his life studying in a temple. And he's very close to Delenn. I don't think there's anything she's privy to that he is not aware of as well. In fact," Marcus said thoughtfully, "I believe there are several things he has dealt with that she is not aware of."
"You think he will speak with me?"
Marcus shrugged. "I can't be sure, but I think he would."
Several hours later, when he was sure that Delenn was otherwise occupied, Neroon found a public comm unit in Green sector and called her quarters. The Minbari who answered the phone was somewhat familiar. Lennier, then. "Neroon!" he exclaimed, then visibly settled himself. "Entil'Zha Delenn is otherwise occupied. Perhaps-"
"I wish to speak with you," Neroon interrupted.
"Yes," the Warrior confirmed.
Lennier paused. "You understand," he said after a moment, "that, if I choose to speak with you, I will report our conversation to Delenn."
"I would expect nothing else," Neroon said neutrally.
"Very well, then," the younger Minbari said after a moment. "Where shall I meet you?"
"I am close by. I will come to you."
Lennier looked slightly displeased, as if reluctant to allow Neroon into Delenn's quarters, but he agreed.
Neroon refused to allow himself to hesitate outside Delenn's quarters. He immediately stabbed the door chime and was forced to conceal his surprise when it opened immediately. Lennier stood on the threshold, almost as if to bear the Warrior from entering. The aide bowed respectfully, if a bit stiffly. Neroon bowed in return, managing, with effort, not to make it perfunctory.
"I need for you to understand," he said suddenly, "that it was not easy for me to come here. However, I find myself troubled by questions to which I do not know the answers." Lennier said nothing, simply stepped back from the doorway. Neroon stepped inside, then went and seated himself.
"Why," Lennier asked, seating himself across from Neroon, "have you come to me?"
"When I said I could not speak comfortably with Delenn," Neroon answered, "Marcus suggested you might be an acceptable alternative."
Lennier bowed his head for a moment. "Anla'shoc Cole..." he said thoughtfully. "You have been spending a great deal of time with him."
"Yes," Neroon said shortly, but refused to elaborate. //This is not why I am here.//
"You have questions," Lennier prompted. "What are they?"
Neroon paused, ordering his thoughts before answering. "When I became Satai," he began, "I was told the reason we surrendered at the battle which the humans call the Battle of the Line. That Minbari souls were being born into Humans. At the time my first reaction was disbelief; my second, that our souls had been stolen somehow." He glanced away from Lennier for a moment, feeling vaguely ashamed of those reactions. "As the Denn'Sha came to an end, I stopped to ask Marcus why he had challenged me, knowing he would die. When he answered me I saw something in him...something familiar."
"A Minbari soul?"
"I don't know," Neroon said, uncertain. "I know I recognized a soul akin to my own. But a Minbari soul? One of my own kind, reborn?" He shook his head. "I do not know. If it is true... How could such a thing be possible? What opened that door? Do all Human have Minbari souls, at least in part?"
Lennier was watching Neroon with a very strange look on his face. At length, he said, "I am going to tell you something now that I had not thought I would ever tell anyone. I am going to tell you because you were Satai, and because I think this story will answer many of your questions. But I must ask you for your word that you will not mention it to anyone save Captain Sheridan, Delenn, Commander Ivanova, Marcus, or myself. Not without consulting Delenn first."
Neroon leaned forward, bracing his forearms on his knees. "I give you my word. On my honor."
Satisfied, Lennier began. "Entil'Zha Sinclair was not simply a Minbari soul reborn," he began, then stopped. He frowned, apparently reordering his thoughts, and began again. "Several weeks ago Delenn received a letter which had been written a thousand years ago by Valen. Specific instructions had been left with the Religious Caste as to when it was to be delivered and read. Delenn opened it at the appointed time and found instructions to go to a part of space near the station called Sector 14."
"Sector 14 was once the location of this station's predecessor, Babylon 4. Currently it hosts an unusual and dangerous anomaly. This anomaly has unpredictable effects on the flow of time, and for this reason it had been quarantined. Acting on Valen's instructions, Delenn revealed to Sheridan, Ivanova, and Marcus that Babylon 4 was needed to provide a base of operations for the forces of light in a battle a thousand years in the past. They were skeptical, but upon arriving in Sector 14 the appearance of Babylon 4 as it drifted in time convinced them.
"It was our task to stabilize the station, temporally, and to send it back in time a thousand years." Lennier paused. "There were...complications, but they are not important at the moment. As our task neared completion, Sinclair revealed that the station could not travel unoccupied. Someone had to go with it into the past. Marcus volunteered." Neroon caught his breath, then released it silently. Lennier went on, "But Entil'Zha Sinclair refused. He said that he had always known that it must be he who traveled backwards through time with Babylon 4. It was in the letter that Valen had written for him."
Neroon felt an odd twist in his gut, and Lennier's next words only worsened it. "The letter than he had written to himself. You see, he knew that the Minbari of one thousand years ago would never accept the station if it arrived with a human on board. So he used the triluminary, designed specifically for him by those living on Epsilon 3, to transform himself into a Minbari.
"When he arrived in the past, with the station, he gave himself the name Valen." Neroon stared, but his denials died unspoken at the certainly in Lennier's eyes. "It was Valen who opened this door between our people and the Humans," the aide said. "Minbari souls are being reborn as Humans.
"Delenn's transformation has closed the circle. I do not know what will happen to our peoples after this time, but I do know that in this time, in this age, Minbari and Humans are bound more closely than most can imagine."
Neroon leaned back into his seat, head spinning with the revelations. //Valen. Born Human. Jeffrey Sinclair. A Minbari not born of Minbari...and I never stopped to wonder. Valen! And I met him once...struck him and was struck by him. What did I say then? "You talk like a Minbari." Hah! Like a Minbari indeed. Valen, I have been so foolish!//
The Warrior laughed mirthlessly. "I swear in his name," he said, and knew at once that the comment was a ridiculous response to all that he had learned, but at that moment it was the only thought he had.
"I understand," Lennier said, and his voice was neither pitying nor gentle. Neroon was grateful for that. "You must accept that Sinclair was always Valen, and that Valen was always Sinclair. Nothing has changed."
"Nothing but the entire foundation of my world."
Lennier shook his head. "No, Neroon, that has not changed. The things Valen taught our people are no less and no more than they were before. His influence has lasted a thousand years because his ideas worked and his philosophies spoke to us. One man, no matter how charismatic or how wise, cannot shape an entire people unless he appeals to something already within those people."
"I struck him once," Neroon said, almost absently, "and he bled."
"He struck back," Lennier said with a slight smile, "and he felled you."
Neroon looked up at the aide and felt a small smile curve his own lips in response. "That is true." After a moment he stood. "I asked for answers, and you have given them to me. Thank you, Lennier."
"Neroon," Lennier stopped him before he could turn to go. "I would not have you leave with so unsettled a mind."
The Warrior smiled grimly. "My mind has been unsettled for some weeks. I have only just begun to bring tranquility to it again."
"Still," Lennier insisted, "I feel that I can help you. Please, stay."
Slowly, Neroon retook his seat. "And if Delenn should return?"
"Then she will join our discussion," Lennier said calmly.
Neroon's grip on the pike was firm but relaxed, his attention completely focused on the pattern of the exercise. Silently, he counted tempo. It was a crutch he did not need at full speed, but working at one-quarter full speed and strength, it helped him not to move too quickly.
The strikes of his pike were met and turned aside by Marcus' own weapon. They moved together in one of the more difficult intermediate patterns. There were no advanced patterns, for at that level it was up to the individual Warrior to evaluate their opponent and choose their own movements. At that level, new techniques were often developed.
Human and Minbari reached the end of the exercise together, grounding their pikes in one movement. Marcus, Neroon noted, was slightly winded. //I can hardly fault him,// the Warrior thought. //This is the first time he has lifted his pike in more than a month, and he has been regaining his conditioning for only ten days. In these things, the body responds much more slowly than the mind.//
"I really think we could step things up to half speed," Marcus said.
"We must first remind your body of the movements, the rhythm of the pike," Neroon insisted.
"It remembers!" Marcus protested. "It's just that it remembers these movement at four times the speed we're working at now."
Neroon laughed. "It is easier to gloss over small mistakes when working at greater speed," he persisted. "You must be flawless, even at one-quarter speed."
"Yeah, yeah," Marcus muttered good-naturedly, and lifted his pike into the ready position again. "You're just putting off facing me at the advanced levels."
Lifting his own pike, Neroon recognized the tease for what it was and responded in kind. "I have faced you at the advanced levels, and I am not the one favoring broken ribs."
"I'm not favoring them!" Marcus raised his voice a little to be heard over the clash of pikes as they began the next of the intermediate exercises. "It's the doctors, I tell you. I feel fine, truly, but they keep insisting I've got another six weeks of healing left to do."
"If you feel fine," Neroon shot back, "then why are your elbows drooping?"
The aforementioned elbows snapped abruptly back into the appropriate positions. "They aren't!"
"They aren't now," Neroon laughed. Marcus glared at him briefly before turning his full attention back to the exercise. The intermediate patterns tended to be very long, insisting that the Warrior be accurate and fast even when feeling weariness and muscle strain creep up. Occasionally Neroon called a correction to his partner, noting with approval that the same mistake rarely appeared twice. Every now and then, Marcus would call a correction back. Neroon had thought, when they began, that the Ranger was being petulant, but after the second he turned a little more attention to his own form and found that it had, in fact, deteriorated somewhat.
//My subordinates,// he thought, with some irritation, //must feel uncomfortable correcting me.//
At last they came to the end of the pattern. Grounding his pike, Neroon looked Marcus over critically. He was breathing harder now, and rivulets of sweat stained his shirt. "We will do that exercise again," the Warrior announced. "Then we will be done for today."
"Bloody hell," Marcus muttered, almost leaning on his pike. "I'm tired, Neroon."
"Are you in pain?"
"No," the Human admitted.
"Then you are well enough to continue."
Marcus shook his head, damp hair flying, and settled into the ready position again. "You are a hard taskmaster, my friend."
"I must be," Neroon said, beginning the exercise. "My Warriors' lives depend on their training." Marcus, channeling his energy into the exercise, made no response. Neroon watched the Ranger closely, ensuring that he was not, in fact, pushing too hard. At one point, moments after faltering just slightly - not quite enough for a rebuke - Marcus' breathing suddenly steadied. His eyes seemed slightly glazed. //He's put himself in a trance,// Neroon realized. //Ah, well. These exercises really are more for the benefit of his muscle memory than his mind. There is no harm in it...this time.//
They came to the end of the pattern and Marcus broke smoothly out of his trance, eyes clear and alert again the moment he grounded his pike. "Acceptable?" The Ranger asked, with a hint of amusement.
"Yes," Neroon hesitated just long enough to allow his companion to become smug. Then, "But it would have been better if you had not done the last half of it in a trance."
Marcus cursed, then chuckled. "Okay, so I cheated a little bit," he admitted. "That trick has gotten me through a couple of tight spots."
Neroon frowned and collapsed his pike. "The trance state is good for beginners when they are learning," he said, "but it is not meant to be relied upon during combat. It is a crutch."
"The teachers at the Ranger facility on Minbar didn't think so."
"And what did Master Durhann think?" Neroon asked sharply. Marcus said nothing. Neroon nodded to himself, but did not press the point. He was not Marcus' teacher. Warriors varied in skill and in experience, but once they reached the advanced level and went into combat there were no teachers and students. Only companions learning from each other's strengths...and weaknesses.
Marcus collapsed his pike and turned towards the changing area. Neroon clipped his own weapon to his belt and followed. //Perhaps I was lecturing a bit much,// he thought, casting a glance at Marcus.
The Human paused at the entrance to the showers. "Thanks for the workout, Neroon," he said simply.
"You may not thank me tomorrow," the Warrior warned, "when your muscles ache."
Marcus smiled. "Then I will expect you to help me work the stiffness out of them."
"Of course," Neroon answered, and wondered for a moment if he'd missed something when Marcus ducked quickly into the shower area. //Vik may be a more complex language,// he mused, //but Human standard is layered with a bewildering number of alternate meanings.// Shaking his head, he turned to retrieve the heavier robes he had left here earlier in favor of the light tunic and trousers he wore now. Neroon felt no need for a shower, since Minbari did not sweat.
As he left, his mind turning towards the pattern they had worked through, an idea began to creep into his thoughts. Neroon had not made much of an effort to makes friends during his stay. Aside from the staff wielders he had become familiar with he had managed only a nodding acquaintance with Mr. Garibaldi and an awkward formality with Delenn's aide, Lennier. This lack had not particularly bothered the Warrior, but it now became an inconvenience.
He and Marcus had no mutual friends.
//You are being foolish,// Neroon chided himself. //What does it matter how he behaves with others? So long as you are comfortable with how he behaves with you, others are irrelevant.//
Still, there was at least one acquaintance that they had in common.
In his quarters, Neroon used the StellarCom to place a connection to Minbar. //Perhaps he is not available,// he thought as he waited for the call to go through. //Perhaps he is not accepting low priority calls...//
Master Durhann's face appeared on the screen. "Neroon!" He smiled, patently surprised. "It has been too long, my old student." //Warriors might not be teacher and student to each other,// Neroon mused, //but everyone is a student to a Master.//
He nodded deeply to the screen, since a bow would not be perceptible. "Master Durhann. It is good to see you well."
Durhann snorted. "I am always well," he said dismissively. "But you, Neroon. What are you up to? I can see that this is a long distance call. Where are you?"
//Long distance, indeed.// "Babylon 5," he answered aloud.
Durhann's eyes narrowed. "Babylon 5, hmmm? You're the last person I expected to find in that place. Have you gotten yourself into trouble again?"
Neroon waved dismissively. "The trouble is past," he said. "However, resolving the fallout has kept me here awhile."
"And prompted your call?"
"No," Neroon frowned thoughtfully. //This is foolish.// But it was too late. He'd placed the call and failed to take advantage of a number of other excuses unwittingly provided by Durhann. There was nothing to do but push forwards. "I was calling because I had heard you have been training some of the Anla'shoc-"
Durhann's face darkened and he cut Neroon off sharply. "I don't need this from you, too, Neroon. I will train anyone I choose to train."
"Stop!" Neroon interrupted with wide eyes. //A Master has been confronted with these tensions?// "It was not my intent to criticize. I merely wanted to inquire after one of your students."
The anger on Durhann's face softened to curiosity. "Which student?"
Durhann smiled, though his curiosity still shone through plainly. "Ahh, Marcus. He is one of the best Anla'shoc I have trained, Human or Minbari. But I am surprised that you should ask after him, Neroon. You have not had a particularly high opinion of Humans in the past. Certainly not enough to justify a call from Babylon 5 to Minbar."
"My opinions have changed recently," Neroon said slowly. "Marcus has forced me to adjust much of my perception of his people. And ours."
"Forced you, hmmm? Have you faced him in battle, then?"
Neroon watched Durhann's face closely as he spoke. "He challenged me to Denn'Sha almost six weeks ago."
The dismay in Durhann's expression was unmistakable, and tinged with a little anger. "No one has contacted me to inform me of his passing... Is that your purpose, then?"
"No. Marcus has not passed. I did not kill him."
Durhann's eyes widened visibly. After a long, silent moment, he said, "The fallout you spoke of...you are working to restore your honor?"
"You surprise me, Neroon," Durhann said thoughtfully. "I never had a student more devoted to the honor of Caste, clan, and person. That you should accept a stain on that when the cost of preserving it would have been a mere Human life-"
"Marcus' life," Neroon interrupted. "The cost would have been Marcus' life, and that was too much." Neroon's gaze unfocused as he lost himself in thought. "We fought for more than ten minutes, Durhann. I could see your teachings in his movements; he honored you with his skill. And as I prepared for the final strike, I had to ask why. Why would such a warrior issue such a challenge, knowing he would lose? And he did know. I could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice from the moment he spoke me.
"As he answered, I looked down my pike at him and I recognized something. A kindred soul. And I knew I could not kill him. It would have been a greater dishonor to strike him down."
"Neroon," Durhann said after a moment, and the Warrior was startled to hear amusement in the older Minbari's voice, "Have you finally found the lifemate for whom you have wished so long?"
For a moment Neroon was certain he understood how Marcus had felt when discussing his sexual history. //I confessed that desire in a moment of weakness, and he has never let me forget it,// Neroon thought sourly. //I will always be a foolish young romantic to him and he will always be amused by it.//
Durhann was, in fact, filling Neroon's silence with undampened chuckles. "Ah, Neroon, surely you see the poetry in the situation? All your life you long for a lifemate, and when you finally meet the man you very nearly kill him."
"I did not say he was my lifemate," Neroon shot back. "I accepted long ago that that desire would never be granted." //Is it so unusual a dream? There are others who feel the same. Marcus, for one...// "Besides," he went on aloud, "is a lifemate not supposed to call to all parts of the self?"
"A part is missing?" Durhann's brow rose. "Which part? His soul calls to you, or you would not have spared him during the Denn'Sha. His mind calls to you, or you would have come home to settle your thoughts. And his heart calls to you, or you would not have called me." A sly smile curved Durhann's lips. "So it must be the body that lags behind."
Neroon said, nothing, could not even meet his teacher's eyes. The older Minbari laughed and the sound sparked anger in Neroon; gave him the will to look up. "Neroon," Durhann chided, "he's of another species! And one that you had a low regard of, not too long ago. Give your body a chance to catch up with that quick mind."
"You speak as though I were looking for reassurance," Neroon snapped.
Durhann was not deterred. "Aren't you? You'll see, my friend. It'll get you right between the eyes when you least expect it. Probably in the middle of a fight."
Neroon shook his head. "Even if it does," he said after a moment, "love is not made of respect and desire. It is something else, and it is something I do not feel."
"What do you know of love?" Neroon's eyes snapped up to the screen to find his teacher watching him tolerantly. "You've never been in love before, Neroon. Call me again when you understand."
"This is not why I called."
"No," Durhann said, amusement creeping back into his tone. "You called to talk about Marcus." Neroon glared at the screen but didn't say anything. The older Minbari sighed. "What can I tell you about Marcus? I know that when he joined the Rangers they found a dark place in his soul that hasn't yet been entirely brought to light. I know he hides pain and guilt and uncertainty in that place."
//Shil'yte,// Neroon thought. //Whatever battle prompted him to ask about shil'yte, it is the source of this dark place.//
Durhann was still speaking. "I know that a number of Rangers approached him as lovers might, and that he turned them all away. He pours out joy easily but holds onto pain. He used to hold onto anger as well, but the Rangers helped with that." Durhann smiled slightly, remembering, "What patience he has is learned - it's not in his nature. He's like you that way, Neroon."
"I am patient," Neroon protested.
"No, you are passionate. And so is Marcus. He feels deeply, with all of himself, or he feels not at all. Don't let his sense of humor obscure that, or you will hurt him."
"I am not in love with him."
"Of course not."
Master Durhann sat back from the monitor on which he'd taken Neroon's call and shook his head, smiling.
"What is so amusing?" his mate, Elaan, asked as she came up behind him.
Durhann smiled up at her and took her hand in both of his for a moment. "I just finished speaking with Neroon."
"Ah, the stoic Warrior with the lonely heart," she leaned down and murmured in his ear, "sounds familiar."
Durhann turned to kiss her briefly. "He is lonely no longer, unless I am mistaken," he said, and could not stifle another round of soft laughter. "Neroon has gone and fallen in love with a Human Anla'shoc."
"Well, there's proof," Elaan said, eyes glittering. "The universe does have a sense of humor!" Any reply Durhann might have made was cut off by the beep of the comm system. "You're popular today," Elaan commented, and moved out of range of the visual pick up.
Durhann accepted the call and the face of Marcus Cole flickered to life on his monitor. "Marcus," Durhann greeted him, rather less surprised than he had been to receive Neroon's call.
"Master Durhann," the Ranger answered, and hesitated. "I wonder if I might ask after one of your students?"
"Let me guess," Durhann said dryly. " Neroon."
"Yes," Marcus confirmed, startled. "How did you know?"
The Master Minbari couldn't help it. He burst into peals of unrestrained laughter, and every time he began to calm down he had only to look at Marcus' bewildered expression to be set off into another fit.
Neroon waited patiently for Marcus to emerge from the showers. The Human had offered to wait until later to clean up properly, but Neroon knew from experience that he would be uncomfortable if he did.
"You're lucky you don't sweat," Marcus had muttered one evening after skipping his shower. He alternated between scratching surreptitiously and attempting to run his fingers through his hair. "It's damned inconvenient."
"Minbari have our own inconveniences," Neroon had commented, remembering one occasion on which he'd spoiled a particularly important introduction by catching the hood of his cloak on his bonecrest. Not that he was about to mention that incident to Marcus.
That one lecture on the evils of sweat had convinced Neroon never to let Marcus skip his shower again.
The Ranger emerged at last from the facility. Neroon ran a critical eye over him and noted with satisfaction that he'd regained most of his former conditioning and all of the ease of movement that the Minbari remembered from their battle. The early part, in any case.
"You'd think," Marcus said as they made their way back to their quarters, "that after two months the doctors would okay me for regular workouts. These patterned exercises are getting very boring. Besides, I feel like I could do cartwheels."
"The doctors know more about your readiness than you do," Neroon responded. "A broken bone is almost always much weaker than it was before the break. That your healers can restore it completely is a testament to their skill."
"They love you, too," Marcus snorted. "You know what they tell me when I try and argue with them? 'Don't even try. I've already spoken to Neroon about this.'"
Neroon laughed. "I'm a Warrior," he said. "I know when an injury can - and must - be ignored or pushed and when one must take the opportunity to regain strength and health."
"Yeah," Marcus muttered with ill grace, "and that's why I listen to you."
They had just reached the outskirts of Brown sector when a familiar figure, cloaked but recognizable to two who knew her, hurried past. //Delenn. On her way to meet with a Ranger, no doubt,// Neroon thought sourly.
"Do you really believe you would do better?" Marcus asked. Neroon glanced over at him sharply, but he only smiled slightly. "It was written all over your face, Neroon."
Neroon cast one last glance after the Entil'Zha. "Why do you ask?"
Even as he spoke they reached Neroon's quarters. Marcus keyed in the code and ducked inside ahead of his companion. "Because you wanted to lead them."
"I did not," Neroon contradicted, settling himself on a small bench as Marcus went to the tiny cooking area for drinks. "What makes you believe I wished to be Entil'Zha?"
"Three broken ribs," Marcus said dryly. "And something Lennier told me. He said when you showed up at the ceremony, one of the things you said was: 'I do not think they would die for me. But they would die...for you.' For me, you said. I don't see that there's any other way to interpret it."
"I could not have said that," Neroon murmured, disturbed, not even seeing the glass Marcus held out to him. The Ranger placed it on a low table instead. "I could not have."
"Lennier was quite certain," Marcus said, sitting on the bench next to the Warrior. "He said it was a moment he didn't think he'd ever forget. Not a single detail."
Neroon turned to look into Marcus' eyes. "I knew when I set out on that path that I would bring dishonor on myself," he said intensely. "Regardless of the reason, I would be breaking a covenant made by Valen. No matter the reason, I would always be tainted by the knowledge that I had killed another Minbari. Although," his lips twisted, self- mocking, "I had my doubts about her nature, at the time. After committing such an act, I could never have been elevated to Entil'Zha. I could not have expected it."
"'I do not think they would die for me'." Marcus quoted insistently.
//Power beckons, and who among us is strong enough to ignore its siren song?// Neroon remembered his own words, remembered seeing that weakness in Delenn. He had believed her corrupted once, by the alien influence of the Humans, but the shattering knowledge that Valen had undergone the same transformation had taken that belief with it. Without that certainty, her chrysalis became not a manipulative ploy, but an act of courage, for her own Caste had stood against her.
//I saw weakness where there was none.// "No," Neroon said softly.
"'For me'," Marcus pushed.
The Warrior remembered his smugness, remembered...//He would be plain, he would crush her rationalizations under his own strength.//
Remembered...//We fight.// Remembered the pride. //Pride, or possessiveness?// Remembered seeing pride in Delenn, and wondered now if she had lifted her chin out of arrogance or out of offense. He had issued an ultimatum... //Her pride, or my own?//
"I acted for the Warrior Caste," he murmured, almost unconsciously.
"'For me', Neroon." Marcus' voice broke through at last and Neroon flashed on a vivid memory.
//During the war I killed 50,000 of you. What's one more?//
Had he truly had such a void of respect for his enemy? Had he taken so many lives that they'd ceased to have any meaning at all?
Had he become so inured to death that he could take the life of one of his own and expect to be rewarded for it?
//Why not?// Neroon told himself bitterly. //I had already acted against Valen's teachings. Four Warriors on the Grey Council. Such arrogance, to not only believe myself worthy of the title Satai, but also to cast aside a system that had worked for a thousand years. Delenn changed only herself. I changed our people.// He lowered his face into his hands, head bowed under the weight of realizations that crashed into him like the tide. He felt as though the very foundation of his soul were being eroded. Surely, in a moment, he would collapse in on himself, as if he had never been.
A warm hand settled at the back of his neck, startlingly real. "You have a true soul," Marcus' voice reached his ears, as warm as his touch. //How can you say that?// Neroon asked silently. Marcus went on as if he had heard. "It's just that you have such complete faith in your own judgement that you forget to take a step back sometimes and have a good hard look at your own heart."
Slowly, Neroon lowered his hands. "How can you know that?"
Marcus' hand drew away. "Because I saw you at the moment when you were most blind," he said simply, "and because I saw you open your eyes and listen to your heart at just the right moment."
Neroon caught Marcus gaze and held it. "This could have broken me," he said candidly.
Marcus only laughed. "You were never in danger of breaking, Neroon," he said, smiling. "You only ever grew stronger and more certain. You took a moment that could have shattered your every belief and used it to find understanding and answer mysteries."
"It does not seem that way from within."
"A mystery is always most confusing in the moment before it's solved," Marcus replied with a shrug. "Do you want your drink now?"
Neroon blinked. "What?"
"Do you want your drink now?" Marcus picked up the glass and held it out to him.
After a moment Neroon reached out and accepted it. "Thank you."
Marcus smiled. "Any time."
Neroon watched, arms folded across his chest, as Doctor Hobbs ran the scanner over a fidgeting Marcus. The Ranger glanced over her shoulder at him and rolled his eyes. "You know," Marcus said to Neroon, "people wouldn't be so nervous around you if you didn't scowl quite so often."
"People are meant to be nervous around me," Neroon answered dryly.
Marcus laughed and shifted impatiently. "Come on, Doctor," he said at last. "Am I to be freed from these glorious check ups so that I may return to duty?"
Doctor Hobbs looked up at him tolerantly. "Your ribs could probably use another week..." Marcus gave an unabashed moan of dismay. "But," Hobbs went on, "you are knitted up thoroughly enough for full duties."
"Ah!" Marcus brightened immediate and hopped off the bed. "That does include sparring, right?"
"Feel free to batter each other," Hobbs snorted, "but if you break another rib I'm keeping you on light duty for the full twelve weeks. You're getting off easy on eleven."
"If ever there was an incentive to be cautious, that's it," Marcus said cheerily. "Come on, Neroon. You and I have a date with a sparring match. A real one this time. I'm sick of those bloody patterns."
"I have been looking forward to this as well," Neroon commented. He lengthened his stride to bring him even with Marcus, whose eagerness to leave MedLab had left him a step behind. "There has been little opportunity to spar properly since I arrived here."
Marcus frowned. "The other Rangers are all trained with the pike," he said, "even if it isn't their weapon of choice."
"The other Rangers resent me for my...attitude towards Delenn. And they are angry at me for what I did to you."
"I brought that on myself!" Marcus protested. "You were honor bound to accept the challenge."
Neroon shook his head. "There are many who do not feel that way."
"I can talk to them-"
"No. Understanding and acceptance will come only with time, if they come at all." He shrugged. "I feel no particular need for their forgiveness." //Only for yours.//
"Well," Marcus said as they passed into the gym. "You have both my forgiveness and my friendship, if that means anything." Neroon smiled and inclined his head slightly.
All the sparring circles in the gym were in use when they arrived, so they two of them took a moment to change and warm up while they waited for a space to clear. After a few minutes a pair of Rangers - wearing their pins but not their uniforms - finished up and vacated their ring. They nodded to Marcus as they passed, but ignored Neroon.
The Warrior ignored them in return and followed Marcus into the ring. There they extended their pikes and crossed them for a moment, eyes meeting through the vee of the weapons. They said nothing, but Marcus suddenly grinned broadly and danced back from the salute. Neroon grounded himself and waited, allowing Marcus to set the tone of the match.
The Ranger came at him full strength. //I should have known,// Neroon thought, grinning. //He has been holding himself back for too long already.//
Then his thoughts dissolved into a flurry of strikes and blocks, the whirl and thrust of the pike, the movements of his opponent's body and of his own. Neroon's muscles warmed and loosened and a fierce joy coursed through his veins. He was strong and healthy, his pike rested solidly in his hands, and he faced a worthy and honorable opponent.
Half a dozen moments came when one or the other of them would slip a blow through the other's guard. Any one of these could have signaled the end of the match, if either of them had wished it to end. By unspoken consent they pulled the blows instead and fought onward.
Suddenly, without warning, Marcus stepped inside Neroon's guard. He hooked a foot around the Minbari's calf and shoved hard with the point of his hip in an attempt to unbalance the Warrior. For a timeless instant the only thing Neroon was aware of was the line of heat and pressure that stretched from ankle to calf, calf to thigh, thigh to hip. The lean strength of Marcus' body pressed hard into his filled his senses. Neroon had a moment to meet Marcus' smiling eyes.
Desire roared through Neroon. It surged to life as though it had been waiting somewhere in his soul, waiting to be set free. It licked along his veins like fire, twining with the joy of combat as if the two had always been one. Neroon felt saturated by want, possessed by it.
The need so overwhelmed his thoughts that the move, which should only have unbalanced him, caused him to stumble at best, instead tipped him over completely. Reflex allowed Neroon to break his fall, but not to abort it completely. Hands still stinging with the force of impact, Neroon sat on the floor feeling stunned.
Gathering his thoughts, the Warrior clamped down on his abrupt awareness with iron control and rose smoothly to my feet.
"Are you okay?" Marcus asked, concerned. "I hadn't expected to tip you over like that."
"I am fine," Neroon said briskly. "I was momentarily distracted."
"Distracted? By what?"
//By you. By the heat of your body, by the scent of your skin, by the smile in your eyes, by the laugh on your lips. By you.// "I would prefer not to say. If you will excuse me, Marcus," he bowed, "I believe I need to...center myself."
It was all he could do not to run from the room.
Marcus stared after Neroon, puzzled. //I could have sworn I saw something in his eyes just before he fell,// he thought. //And the way he looked up at me... Like he'd never see me before. But that first look... No one has ever looked at me like that before. There was heat in his eyes. Maybe even...desire?// Marcus snorted to himself and collapsed his pike. //Wishful thinking. Or me projecting, more likely. If Neroon was going to take an interest, it would have happened weeks ago. Months, even.//
In the changing room Marcus decided to forego his shower. They'd hardly been at it long enough to work up a sweat.
//It's not like Neroon to walk out like that,// Marcus couldn't help thinking as he slipped on his boots. //He'd been looking forward to this as long as I have. I'd expected we'd go a few more rounds. Whatever distracted him, it must really have upset his thoughts.
//What was there to distract him?// Marcus froze at the thought. //Nothing unusual happened. The only sounds and sights were of others sparring - something a Warrior should have filtered out automatically. Nothing happened...except for me stepping into a clinch.//
Marcus suppressed a blush at that thought. He hadn't been able to resist the opportunity to press up against Neroon for a moment. It was a perfectly reasonable fighting tactic. It was also the first time Marcus had done anything like that.
//Still, there wasn't anything else to distract him,// a hopeful corner of the Ranger's mind murmured. //Maybe he just hadn't thought about it before.//
//Yeah, right,// Marcus told himself contemptuously. //One good clinch and suddenly he goes head over heels.// He shook his head and strode briskly over to the changing rooms. //I can't believe I'm doing this to myself again. First Susan and now Neroon. I'm a fool.//
//Oh, come on,// another part of him argued. //Things with Neroon have been a lot better than with Susan. Neroon enjoys your company, even seeks you out to spend more time with you. He's shared moments with you that you know he's never shared with anyone else. There's a lot more depth there than there ever was with Susan.//
//Granted, but there's still something missing. Damn it, I don't just want him to like me. I want him to want me. And he doesn't.// For a moment the memory of Neroon's eyes at that instant of contact flashed through Marcus' mind. //At least, I don't think he does.//
Marcus tried not to let that uncertainty spark hope. And failed.
Neroon hurried back to his quarters with a total disregard for his surroundings. The lurkers he passed were not even remotely tempted to take advantage of his distraction. His expression was turned so intensely inward, his stride so completely aggressive, that they scurried out of his way for fear anyone who interrupted him would be summarily dispatched.
Neroon was fired not by anger or denial, but by lust. Once awakened, he could not seem to turn it off. //Have I always felt this way?// he asked himself. //Surely a feeling this intense can't be sparked in moment, born in a single instant of contact.// Memory, prompted by thought, washed through him. In his mind's eye the moment during which their bodies had pressed together drew on and on, time dilated by his own desires.
And then memory shifted, changed, and he imagined himself casting aside his pike, his hands settling on Marcus' hips, pulling the man closer. Neroon saw himself tilting his head forward to capture Marcus' lips, wondered what he would taste like, what his facial hair would feel like against lips and cheeks, wondered if Marcus would try to control the caress or if he would surrender to it, and found that he didn't care, so long as they were in each others' arms.
Neroon almost ran into the door of his quarters. The shock of his arrival snapped him out of the fantasy. He punched his access code into the keypad and ducked into his quarters before the door had even opened all the way. He felt raw, exposed.
//Have I always wanted this?// he asked again. //Did I want it even during the Denn'Sha? Did I stop short for honor, or for desire?// Neroon retained enough presence of mind to lock his door before folding himself into a sitting position on the floor. //No. It was honor that drove me. I know that. Marcus saw that. Durhann saw it.//
//Of course, Durhann also saw that this desire would come upon me. He even guessed it would strike me during a fight.//
Memory returned again. Sweet pressure...//Did Marcus feel the rush of it?// Neroon remembered looking into the Ranger's eyes, but he had been overtaken by heat too quickly to read anything there. Even now he could hardly order his thoughts. Everything seemed to lead him back to that moment of awareness.
The words of an old lover came back to Neroon as he trembled with the effort of restraint. //"Glory in the passion that life deals you," he said. "We Warriors deal in death and pain so often...it is only right that we should balance that with pleasure and joy at every opportunity."//
Neroon let out a quiet, shuddering breath, tipped his head back, and surrendered to the boil of want beneath his skin. His skin tingled with the rush of it, his heart sped up, and the rolling surge of desire settled in his groin, throbbed there. Neroon felt himself harden in response, but he refused to satisfy the demands of his body.
Instead he let himself marinate in the feeling. Slowly it settled, the intensity of it easing to the point that Neroon could think clearly again. He took a moment to steady his breath. //Ah, Marcus,// Neroon thought, //I believed I'd quieted this part of me, perhaps even killed it. I resolved myself to loneliness and found satisfaction in that. When you upended my life, could you not have left this one part untouched?// After a moment Neroon smiled to himself. //There's only one thing to do.//
//I'm going to have to seduce you.//
That resolution proved easier to make than to carry out. Neroon had learned enough of Human culture and Marcus in particular to know that the methods he might use on one of his own people, male or female, would not be either understood or appreciated by Marcus. On the other hand, what Human mating rituals he could identify seemed trite at best and demeaning at worst, all of them entirely unsuited to either himself or Marcus.
Indeed, Humans themselves seemed to recognize this and had a tendency to...improvise. There were as many tactics as there were Humans to carry them out. More, even, for the method of seduction seemed to depend as much on the intended mate as on the seducer.
//The problem with improvising,// Neroon mused one night, watching Marcus over a drink, //is that Marcus and I already share all of the casual intimacies. We have long since become comfortable with shared meals and long conversations. We exercise together almost daily. Neither of us enjoy the confinement of our quarters, and so long walks have become a staple.//
//I have shared thoughts with Marcus that I have never spoken to another, and never will. There seems to be no step between the relationship we share and the relationship I desire.// For a moment Neroon longed for the ritual steps of a Minbari courtship. Such a progression had always seemed stilted and unnatural to him, but at this moment he would gladly have accepted them purely out of a need for direction.
For the time being the only thing Neroon could think of to do was to touch Marcus more frequently. Little touches, the kind that would be casual among Humans but that the Minbari typically didn't share. Of course, he ran the risk that Marcus would overlook them simply because they were casual among Humans, but Neroon was certain that Marcus was familiar enough with Minbari that such gestures would be noticed.
His first attempts in this direction met with a surprising degree of success. A fleeting touch on Marcus' elbow had drawn a covert, curious glance, but he had not pulled away. After Marcus fell during a sparring match Neroon had offered his hand, and the Ranger had taken it, thought he certainly did not need to. Even after he'd regained his feet, Neroon had held on a little longer, and instead of drawing away Marcus' fingers had seemed to tightened on his for a moment.
Encouraged, Neroon had escalated his campaign to a guiding hand in the small of the back, a steadying touch on Marcus' hip, a comforting clasp of the shoulder. Neroon had half-expected Marcus to make a joke about the continual touches. Perhaps, "Getting a little familiar, Neroon?" or something along those lines.
But no such comment was forthcoming. In fact, Marcus had started returning the little gestures. Neroon vividly remembered a moment when, as Marcus taught him one of his own pike maneuvers, the Ranger had adjusted his grip with his hands instead of his voice. There was strength in those long fingers.
The Warrior looked up, startled out of his thoughts. "Yes?"
Marcus seemed to be restraining a chuckle. "You've been halfway to sipping that drink for a couple of minutes now. Changed your mind?"
Neroon looked down at the glass he held and shook his head. "No," he said, but set it aside anyway. Marcus did laugh then, even as he absently tangled his fingers in a lock of hair just behind his ear. "You have been playing with that all night," Neroon commented.
"Hmmm?" Marcus paused and registered what he was doing. "Sorry," he said, letting the bit of hair go. "I forgot to take my hairbrush to the gym with me this afternoon," he explained. "Now it's dried all in knots."
"Like this." Marcus separated out a tuft of hair and tried to split it, without success. "See how the strands are all tangled around each other?"
"It's not supposed to do that?" Neroon asked curiously.
"No," Marcus sighed, staring at the knot in irritation. "It's supposed to all be straight. I should be able to run my fingers through it without a pause. At the moment," he attempted to do as he had said, but his hand caught after just a centimeter or two, "no success."
"And it will get worse the longer you leave it?"
"Then you should take care of it now," Neroon said reasonably. Marcus shifted a little. "Is something wrong?"
"No," the Ranger said. "It's just...I always feel a little foolish grooming in front of Minbari."
Neroon raised an eyebrow. "Why?"
"It just that you're so clean," Marcus said. "You don't have hair, you don't sweat... It's so much easier for a Human to look disheveled. I'm telling you, during Ranger training I actually carried a brush with me so I wouldn't look unprofessional next to all those spit polished Minbari."
Neroon had to laugh. "It takes more effort than you imagine to maintain the 'spit polished' look," he confided. "Our crests may not get disheveled, but the more elaborate ones do have tendency to pick up things." Marcus tilted his head inquiringly. "Threads from our cloaks," Neroon said by way of example, "leaves, bits of plastic caught in the wind," by now Marcus was chuckling, "bugs. Once, during my training," Neroon paused, eyes twinkling, "A very small bird perched on my teacher's crest in the midst of an important lecture."
"You're making that up!" Marcus laughed.
Neroon shook his head. "It's true! Every species has its inconveniences, Marcus. At least yours is easy to remedy."
"I get the point," Marcus said dryly, and went to get his brush.
Marcus was halfway finished when he stopped and met Neroon's gaze. "Neroon. You're staring."
"I apologize," Neroon said at once, feeling a little foolish. "It's just that I've never seen it done before." He paused, noting how often Marcus had carefully held the hair just above the knot he was working out. "Does it hurt?"
"Not usually," Marcus answered, returning to the task. "I've just left it too long this time. When I hit a knot it tugs on the scalp pretty sharply, and my scalp is relatively sensitive. If I can avoid abusing it, I do." He finished even as he spoke, pulling the brush smoothly through the last portion. Marcus paused before setting the brush aside, then offered, "Would you like to try?" with a gesture towards his own locks.
"You have finished," Neroon responded, almost regretfully. //I wonder what it feels like. What would it be like to feel his hair sweeping across my skin?//
"It's all right," Marcus shrugged. "It's actually kind of relaxing to have your hair brushed when there're no knots in it. And you won't have to worry about snagging one of them." He offered Neroon the brush, handle first.
Neroon accepted slowly. He'd hardly wrapped his fingers around the handle when Marcus moved to the floor, turned his back and scooted up close to Neroon, sitting practically between his feet. //Of course. So that I can reach his hair.// Tentatively he turned the brushed and pressed it against Marcus' scalp, then drew it down, feeling the slight resistance of the hair passing through the bristles.
"You can press harder than that," Marcus said softly.
Accordingly, Neroon attempted another, heavier stroke. When no correction was forthcoming, he continued. After a little while he gathered some of the soft, smooth strands in his other hand and drew the brush down across his palm. The bristles rasped gently against his flesh. Neroon watched his own hands, entranced, as he wove his fingers in and out of the dark mass of hair, superficially guiding the brush, really luxuriating in the almost-cool slide of Marcus' mane across his fingers.
Eventually he set the brush aside and laid his hands on Marcus' shoulders, heart pounding inexplicably. He'd hardly settled his grip when Marcus tilted his head back and looked up at Neroon with wide eyes, his lips parted as if to catch his breath.
Heart still hammering in his chest, Neroon bent his head and brought his mouth to meet Marcus'. After a fleeting caress he took Marcus' full lower lip between his own and suckled on it for a moment, eyes half closed, lost in the taste, tongue running gently over the soft flesh. Neroon released Marcus' lower lip then and pressed their mouths full together, the kiss made all the more sensual by the press of upper lip against lower, lower against upper. Fingertips ghosted over Neroon's cheek as Marcus returned returned the kiss, a soft exhalation of breath and then, mouths sealed together, Marcus seemed to draw Neroon's breath into his own lungs.
They parted slowly, each trembling, and then Marcus was pulling away, not to leave but to turn, to rise onto his knees, to place his hands on Neroon's powerful thighs and to lean in and to kiss again, harder this time, hungrier. Neroon's hands went to Marcus' flanks, slid around to lay flat in the small of his back, and pressed him closer. Marcus followed easily, body swaying forward, hands pressing down deeper as he sought balance.
Neroon broke this kiss, this second kiss, only long enough to cover Marcus' lips with his own that he might sink deeper into the man, tongue stroking sensually over tongue and cheek and palate. Soft sounds of need rose from both of them, muffled but not silenced by their kisses.
At last they drew away from each other, lips clinging for just a moment. Neroon looked into Marcus' eyes and felt compelled to speak, though quietly. "I did not plan for this to happen tonight."
Marcus lips curved and his eyes twinkled. "I did."
Neroon couldn't help it. He started laughing, and when Marcus joined him he gathered the man close and felt their mirth vibrate between their bodies until they trailed off into breathless chuckles. "So what now?" Neroon asked after they were done.
"I thought that was my line," Marcus said, still smiling.
"We're not following a script, Marcus," Neroon said, lifting a hand from Marcus' lower back to brush a lock of hair behind the Human's ear.
"I almost wish we were." Marcus rose awkwardly from his knees and moved to sit next to Neroon on the bench. Neroon turned to face him more fully and watched with hidden amusement as Marcus slid closer, as if to reassure Neroon - or himself - that his changed position was no rejection.
"Why?" Neroon asked, recalling Marcus' comment.
"Because then at least I'd have some idea what to do next," the Ranger admitted, not meeting Neroon's eyes.
//Is even this new to you?// Neroon wondered. //It is one thing to remain untouched, and quite another to isolate yourself so thoroughly.// But all he said aloud was, "I admit, I have a new appreciation for some Minbari rituals I had long believed excessive."
"Minbari rituals, excessive?" Marcus' eyes twinkled. "I rather got the impression you were a stickler for the proper traditions."
"For the most part, I am," Neroon replied. "But in this..." he reached out and took Marcus' hand, placed the palm over his heart and held it there. "For those whose lives center, however nobly, around death and pain and fear, passion and life must be all the more valuable. What value is there, then, in denying oneself merely because certain words have not been spoken, certain actions not taken?"
"There's value," Marcus said, lifting his eyes to meet Neroon's, "in taking the time to be certain that desire is pursued for the right reasons, and to learn if those desires are compatible."
Stung, the Minbari dropped Marcus' hand and pulled back a little.
Marcus frowned. "That wasn't meant as a rebuke, Neroon," he said. "I only meant that after all this waiting I'm not about to rush into a relationship."
//Three months is rushing?// Neroon thought. Except he hadn't been courting Marcus all these months. //Have I? I wanted to understand how his people and mine could be so closely linked... I needed to see what is was in him that reached out to me, that stilled my hand.//
"Neroon?" Marcus' voice broke through the murmuring of the Minbari's troubled heart.
"Yes," Neroon answered, a little unnerved. //I thought I had settled my soul's uneasiness. Apparently I have not.//
Marcus hesitated, then pushed forward. "What would be the next step in Minbari Warrior ritual if we'd come to this point the formal way?"
Neroon studied the Ranger closely, searching for any sign that this question was offered as a salve to his pride, but found only nervousness. Well hidden nervousness. "We have passed over the majority of the rituals," he said after a while. "The next would be to sleep a night in each other's arms."
"Like the three nights of observance the Religious Caste practice?"
"No," Neroon shook his head. "The Religious Caste watches as their potential mate sleeps because they believe the true face of their beloved will be revealed. A Warrior's defenses are all too often stripped away by the loss of comrades or the joy of victory. And when those defenses are rebuilt, they are often built too strong to be lowered, even in sleep." Neroon fell quiet for a moment, remembering. He'd had fewer lovers than most, and with those few he'd only ever shared his body. Never his sleep.
"Then why do Warriors spend the night together?" Marcus asked, quietly.
"It's a symbol of trust," Neroon said. He looked up to find Marcus watching him intently, even leaning forward a little. "To lie together unclothed, unarmed, as the mind seeks and finds oblivion is no small thing. And it is a test, set to reveal how comfortable the two are with each other, and whether their bodies are well suited."
Marcus' hand twitched, as if to reach out, but he stilled the gesture. "Have you ever shared such a night before?"
"No." Neroon stood and took two steps away from the couch before he'd even realized what he'd done. //And why not? Always I told myself that these rituals were empty, that trusting a Warrior at your back in battle meant more than sleeping at their side. But there were two who asked, and I refused them both.// He calmed his expression through force of will and turned back to the man on the couch, every line in his body proclaiming loudly that he'd risen to his feet to claim a more dominant position. Every line in his body lying.
Marcus was watching him with growing curiosity. "I know you've had lovers," he said, his tone slightly challenging, "and I know you've a great deal of respect for Minbari tradition. So why not this one?"
Neroon resisted the urge to shift his weight, despite his growing tension. "Respect for tradition?" he scoffed instead. "I broke the Denn'Sha! What kind of respect is that?"
"I am neither stupid nor ignorant, Neroon," Marcus said. "Nor am I so foolish as to go into battle unprepared. Did you think they taught the Denn'Sha to Rangers as a matter of course? I had to comb through a good bit of Warrior lore to find something you couldn't just walk away from. I skimmed most of it, looking for what I needed, but there was one file that caught my attention." Marcus paused, his gaze turning inward for a moment, but he push onward before Neroon could question him. "It talked about atonement for lost honor and the chance, just the chance, to win it back again."
//Of course,// Neroon thought. The reason for Marcus' original distraction from his research became clear. The battle from which springs his pain...his shil'yte.//
"You're carrying out rea'aik," Marcus said, fracturing Neroon's thoughts. "A very old, very traditional method of earning back honor. There were other methods you could have chosen, all of them faster than the careful introspection required by the rea'aik, few of them requiring the sacrifice of duty you've made for the duration."
"It was a very old and traditional challenge that I broke," Neroon replied calmly. //At least he is not longer pressing the subject of the night ritual.//
Marcus smiled suddenly. "As I said, you have a great respect for tradition. So why have you never practiced this night of sleep?"
Neroon scowled. "You are making more of the point than it warrants."
"You are avoiding the question."
Neroon crossed his arms over his chest. "All of my liaisons were begun with the explicit understanding that we would be lovers only. Nothing more."
Marcus tiled his head. "And this?" he asked, motioning between them.
Neroon faltered, shook his head, sat down again. "I do not know," he said at last. "I did not intend for things to progress as they have." //I have settled my soul and...unsettled my heart.//
"Well then," Marcus said in the tone of one being eminently reasonable, "all the more reason for us to share this night of sleep. You said it was a test."
At the thought of laying skin to skin with Marcus through the night, of putting his arms around the Ranger as he slept, Neroon was struck with a warm rush of desire so strong and so unexpected that he felt himself stir in response. He clamped down on the feeling so viciously he had to catch a gasp behind his teeth.
"Neroon?" The Minbari turned his attention outward again and found Marcus watching him, brow wrinkled with ill- concealed anxiety. "If you don't want..."
//You wanted to seduce him,// Neroon told himself firmly. //This is a step along the way.// He made a gesture that stilled Marcus' words. "I would be honored to share such a night with you." The moment that the words passed Neroon's lips he knew that they were not spoken merely to placate Marcus. The words had risen from his throat easily, fallen from his lips smoothly, and lay between them comfortably before he even knew that they were true.
//What is happening to me?//
Neroon had always woken suddenly, thoroughly, and completely. If there was ever a time he had not gone from slumber to wakefulness immediately, it was far enough back in the mists of memory that he couldn't consciously recall it. Many of his friends had described to him the pleasures of waking slowly and in complete comfort, but Neroon had never understood how there could be an interim between waking and sleeping, much less how one could enjoy it.
This morning he understood. First, he was aware only of warmth and pressure. Slowly, more subtle sensations crept in. The relaxed weight of his own muscles. The pace of his breathing. The slight pull of the station's gravity, seeking to draw him down the slope of his sleeping platform. And, slowly, the gentle knowledge that the warmth and pressure that had eased him into consciousness had their source not in his robes or his quarters, but in another person. Neroon blinked his eyes open.
When he and Marcus had gone to sleep the night before there had been no small amount of awkwardness. This night was normally spent naked, but Marcus had been uncomfortable removing his underclothes. Neroon hadn't made an issue of it. They'd climbed onto the platform from opposite sides and lain shoulder to shoulder, most of their attention on not falling off the too-close edges. The platform was wide, but it had never been intended for two people.
As they slept, it seemed they had resolved the problem. Neroon lay on his back comfortably far from the edge. Marcus had rolled onto his side and curled himself around and over Neroon's left side. His beard was rough against the Minbari's shoulder, his hair tickled Neroon's ear, and he'd hooked one leg over Neroon's, as if to anchor himself against the dangers of the platform edge. One of Marcus' hands lay in the center of Neroon's chest. The other he could feel tucked between their bodies at his hip.
//Not,// Neroon thought to himself as he observed their position, //that he is the only one who moved.// Indeed, they lay significantly closer to his edge of the platform, as though he'd pulled the Human closer during the night. Perhaps he had - one of his arms firmly encircled Marcus' waist, while the other rested low enough on Marcus' hip to have twisted the fabric of his shorts.
Unfortunately, once awake and aware, it's almost impossible to remain relaxed for any significant length of time. Neroon could feel his muscles gathering tension. //Well, I might as well make use of it,// he thought, and prepared to begin untangling himself from his companion.
"Neroon?" Marcus' voice was slightly rough, as voices usually are upon waking, but not the least bit fuzzy or slurred with sleep. //How did I not notice him wake up?// Neroon wondered. //Valen...did he wake up before me?// Marcus was still speaking. "Could you not move for a while?" he said. "I am very comfortable at the moment."
Neroon didn't answer, but neither did he move. //He must have woken before me. And yet I did not wake. Nor did I realize he was awake when my own awareness returned.// The thought was more than a little disturbing. //Are my defenses so worn?// No, that wasn't right - he'd woken to the sound of unusually heavy footsteps going by his door two nights ago. He had, in fact, come awake so quickly that he'd actually consciously heard the sounds retreating.
"I can feel you thinking," Marcus murmured against his shoulder. "What's wrong? I'd say we passed this test with flying colors."
"I didn't expect you to wake up before me," Neroon answered after a moment.
"Is that a problem?"
//Is it?// Neroon asked himself. //It's not as though I was under threat. I wasn't even undefended. Marcus' pike is as close at hand as my own. He could reach it even more quickly than I, and I know that he could hold off the most difficult opponent long enough for me to join him. And I knew all of this when I went to bed last night.// "No," he answered at last. "I simply didn't expect it."
"Mmmmmm." Marcus sighed softly. "I could get used to waking up like this."
Neroon lifted the hand curled up on Marcus' hip and drew it slowly up the curve of Marcus' back...and down again. Marcus' back was arched far more than a Minbari's, even in repose. Perhaps it was the lower density of Human muscle. //Whatever the reason,// Neroon thought, a little amused at himself, //it is an...attractive feature.//
"We should rise," he said after awhile. "The morning will not last forever."
Marcus sighed and rolled most of the way off of Neroon. Considering their shifted position, this left him with one hip and one shoulder hanging off the edge of the platform. "What time is it?" he asked reluctantly.
Neroon queried the computer. "0921," came the response.
"Oh, bugger," Marcus shouted, and all but fell off the platform in his hurry to reach the clothes carefully piled nearby. "I forgot that my alarm wouldn't sound in your quarters," he said sheepishly in response to an inquiring glance. "I've got a meeting with Captain Sheridan and Entil'Zha at 0930. I don't think I've even got time to change into new clothes. Damn thing's being held pretty much as far from here as possible."
"At least," Neroon said dryly, propping himself up on one elbow, "your robes don't wrinkle very much."
Marcus mock glared and snapped his pike onto his belt. "You watch out," he said as he keyed the door open. "The next thing you know I'll be keeping clothes here."
Neroon opened his mouth to respond, but Marcus had already ducked out. Instead, the Minbari shook his head and rose at a more leisurely pace. Oddly, he found he wasn't disappointed in Marcus' speedy departure. //I need to settle myself. And that is...difficult, when within the sphere of Marcus' influence.//
Neroon laughed at the irony of it. The whole point of remaining on Babylon 5 had been to resolve the challenges he'd found within his own soul. He had known he needed Marcus to do that. But Marcus stirred up questions constantly. It seemed that the longer Neroon stayed on the station, the longer he needed to stay.
//What did I expect?// Neroon asked himself sourly, and did his best not to glare across the table at Marcus. The Ranger was merely picking at the food in front of him, obviously distracted. His brow was carved with wrinkles. Neroon had hoped that a private meal, here in his quarters, might escape the tension that had afflicted all their more public meetings recently. //What is it that humans say? No such luck.//
//Well,// Neroon told himself firmly, //I have put up with this for long enough.// He set his fork down so firmly that it made a harsh clacking sound on the low table top. He was kneeling, and so he planted his hands on his thighs instead of on the table. "If either the food or the company is not to your liking," the Warrior said aloud, "you are free to leave."
Marcus looked up, startled, his own fork dangling from his fingers. "I don't...is something wrong?"
"Not with me," Neroon pressed his lips together. "You, apparently, are in the midst of some difficulties."
Marcus flushed dark with anger. "My, haven't we acquired impressive tact," he snapped.
"If I thought tact would be successful, I would employ it," Neroon said evenly. "But you are a stubborn man, and so I take the more direct route. You have been irritable and withdrawn for several days. I have given you time to approach the subject on your own terms, and you have not. If you didn't want to talk about it, you would talk of something else, but instead you say nothing at all. Obviously there is nothing else on your mind. Here is your opportunity to unburden yourself."
"I didn't want to unload my problems onto your shoulders," Marcus said, shifting in his seat.
"You have been my sounding board for the past several months," Neroon said wryly. "I think some reciprocation is in order."
Marcus flashed him a brief grin. "Perhaps it is, at that." Despite this, he fell silent again. Neroon waited, hoping that the Ranger was only gathering his thoughts. At last Marcus began again. "You remember the briefing I was almost late for? It was about a week ago."
//Of course. The morning after our night together.// "Yes."
"It wasn't anything important in the immediate sense. Delenn and Captain Sheridan have been keeping me up to date on matters that specifically involve the Rangers, since I so frequently act as their go between." Marcus paused, looked down, lifted his fork and set it down again. "That morning they reported that a colony had been attacked. It...reminded me a lot of Arisia. And then I realized that in just a couple of days it'll be two years since my brother died." He smiled suddenly, but it was harsh, forced. "I'd forgotten, you see."
//Such guilt...// "Marcus," Neroon said quietly but firmly. "These are unsettled times. Everything is changing, and in more ways than we can see. With so much happening in the present and so much to come in the future, there is no shame in losing sight of the past for a time. Our attention must be on the lives we will shape with our actions in the now."
"But the past shapes our now," Marcus argued, unsmiling. "This," he gestures vaguely, "none of this would be quite the same if it hadn't been for Arisia. My brother was a Ranger, you know. He tried to warn us." Marcus abruptly raised his drink and took a long pull of it. Setting the glass down, he looked into its empty depths, lips pursed as though it had been bitter. "I ignored him. I was just in time to hold him as he was dying, trying to protect people I was responsible for. I promised him I'd finish what he started."
"There is a time and a place for every battle, Marcus," Neroon said, but he could see that the Ranger was no longer listening.
//Such pain... How is it that no one has sought to ease it?// Neroon studied his distracted companion with keen eyes. It had been hard, at first, to read expressions on a face so obscured by hair. He had wondered, once, how Humans managed it. Now the Warrior read the lines in Marcus' forehead, the tension about his eyes, the set of his jaw easily. //It is from this that his shil'yte stems.//
Something in Neroon twisted at the thought that Marcus had been left alone with such a burden for two full years. //Delenn does not deserve the devotion she gathers in so extravagantly,// he thought savagely. //She is not so blind as to miss an emotion as deep as shil'yte, but she has done nothing for him.//
Neroon fought down his outrage, grateful for the moment that Marcus was too distracted to notice the Warrior's anger. Marcus would only argue, defend Delenn, and heap more guilt and more responsibility on himself. //Perhaps no one here understood why it is so difficult for Marcus to let go of this. Perhaps they don't know how to help him.//
//I know. I will help him.//
With this resolution, something sharp edged and ill fitting in Neroon's soul eased and fell into place. There was a moment in which he might have sighed, if he'd been alone. And he finally understood what it meant when people said, "You know you love someone when their well being is essential to your own."
Neroon lifted his glass to cover a sudden smile.
Delenn could hear the clash of denn'bok on denn'bok even as she approached the gym where Marcus and Neroon commonly took their exercise. It was not their regular hour, but she had tried each of their quarters, to no avail.
Judging by the rhythm of the blows, it was them practicing. None of the Rangers currently working on Babylon 5 were capable of matching the pace Delenn heard now. In fact...she paused just before stepping out where she could be seen by those in the sparring rings, and frowned. This pace was rather quick even for them.
Instead of striding into the hall as she had intended, Delenn found herself easing around the corner, hiding herself in an uncommonly deep shadow.
"Yes!" Marcus shouted, a catch in his voice. Delenn wondered what the question had been.
"And you refused to listen," Neroon said grimly, and struck, so swiftly that Marcus was almost unable to block the blow.
"Yes," the catch in Marcus' voice was bordering on a sob, but at the moment when Delenn might have stepped forward to stop this, the Ranger faltered...and Neroon failed to take advantage of the error. She paused. All was not as it seemed here.
"And he died," Neroon pushed, swinging his pike around, sweeping it towards Marcus' feet as if to unbalance him. But Delenn could see the watchfulness in the Warrior's eyes. He was ready to pull the blow.
He didn't need to. Marcus' eyes flashed with anger. He jumped over Neroon's pike, but despite the flashing in his eyes, his answer to the question was still, "Yes!"
"They all died."
"Yes!" Marcus spat, and struck wildly. Neroon blocked the blow, but the force of anger behind it sent Marcus' pike skidding down the length of Neroon's, barking his fingers and sliding off the end to thwack the Minbari hard in the thigh. The Warrior made no sound, gave no hint that he'd been struck, and Marcus didn't seem to notice.
"Because you were arrogant." Neroon said grimly, and struck.
Marcus parried. "No!"
"Because you didn't listen." And struck.
A step back. "Yes."
Neroon pursued him, keeping up the rain of blows, punctuating his words with them. "If you'd listened, you could have been ready for them."
"Yes!" Marcus counted with his denn'bok, sweat running down his cheeks, his tunic dark with it.
"You could have stood against the Shadows, all alone. You were that strong, were you?" A sneer had snuck into Neroon's tone, a hard and condescending edge that Delenn had not heard from him in months.
"No..." Marcus struck hard, hard enough to make Neroon's arms shiver, though the Minbari held fast. "But we could have run. We could have," the Ranger struck again, and there was agony in his voice, "lived."
"Could have, should have, would have," Neroon actually lifted his chin in contempt and drove Marcus back with a flurry of blows, as if to underscore the scorn. "Would you have run?" he asked harshly. "If someone had told you that the darkest corners of your nightmares were going to descend from the heavens and destroy everything you'd built, would that have been enough to abandon everything?"
Marcus fought back, struggling to rise to Neroon's level of endurance. "Someone," a jab, "did," a sweep, "tell me!" He finished with an over hand stroke that collided with Neroon's pike so hard it actually rebounded and threw Marcus back a step.
"And you didn't believe him?" Neroon's pike flickered, tapping Marcus on the ribs, as if playing.
Marcus grimaced. "Right!"
"But the others," another flickering blow, though Marcus slid out of the way of this one, "they would have believed him?" Again. "Believed him and run, left all the worthless junk-"
Delenn winced and, for a moment, almost stepped forward to explain, to defend Marcus. But something, some instinct, held her back, and the moment passed.
Marcus cried out in his own defense, "It wasn't worthless. It was our home!" She could hear the rawness in his voice. He sounded exposed in a way Delenn had never seen before. By the time Marcus had found the Rangers he'd already covered over the pain of his brother's loss, hidden it behind walls that all the kindness and patience in her heart had been unable to breach.
"Places, things - these aren't worth a single soul!" Neroon snapped, and brought his pike around fast enough to slip through Marcus' guard. It struck his leg and the Ranger stumbled, but quickly recovered and returned the blow.
//Walls,// Delenn thought, //that Neroon has stripped away with cruelty//
"Arisia was a colony world," Marcus grunted through the effort of the fight. "We put our souls into building it. I lost," his voice caught, but he only struck out more fiercely, "a part of my soul when the Shadows came. They came..." Neroon was falling back now, though Marcus' blows were wild, his defense abandoned. "They came and they took it away from us!"
"But you could have stopped them," Neroon said, the hardness gone out of his voice. Marcus didn't seem to notice, though he obviously exhausted. "You could have stood against them. If you'd been there, things would have been different," the Warrior went on. The look on Marcus' face told Delenn that Neroon was only voicing the Ranger's own thoughts.
With a harsh clatter, Marcus dropped his pike. He bowed his head, and the strength seemed to go out of him. Neroon caught him even as he started to fall, his own pike tossed aside, forgotten. Delenn watched, wide-eyed, as Marcus turned into the embrace instead of away from it. "No..." he half-sobbed, just barely loud enough for her to hear. "No..."
Delenn stood frozen, afraid to move lest she be noticed intruding on this so private moment. Neroon lifted a hand to stroke Marcus' hair. As he did so, he lifted his eyes and met Delenn's gaze squarely. //He knew I was here,// she realized. //He's known since I came in.//
The look in Neroon's eyes was at odds with his gentle, protective embrace. //You wouldn't give him what he needed,// those eyes said. //You wouldn't, or you couldn't. But I can. I have.// And also, in the moment before Neroon turned his focus back to Marcus, in the instant before he looked away, they also said,
Delenn drew back slowly and left the gym. She couldn't deny Neroon's unvoiced claim. It was there in the embrace that Marcus had accepted from no one else, in release of grief no one else had managed. Marcus had given himself over before Neroon ever made the claim.
Somehow, Delenn could not regret that. //It seems we all find our partners in unexpected places.//
When Marcus finally calmed he was patently exhausted, both physically and emotionally. His uniform was soaked with sweat, his eyes swollen from crying. He bent like an old man to retrieve his denn'bok and walked home stripped of his usual aura of strength and danger. But it was all right. Just this once, Neroon would be strong for him. Their less reputable neighbors, those who might have taken advantage of Marcus in this state, took one look at the Warrior by his side and shied away.
After the door to his quarters had closed behind them, Marcus sat heavily on the bench pushed up against one of the walls. "Sit," he told Neroon, motioning to his side. "I didn't actually land any hits on you, did I?"
Neroon smiled slightly and took the offered seat. "One or two, but only bruises."
"We'll have to have a rematch sometime. I wasn't exactly in top form for most of that encounter."
"You were not supposed to be," Neroon commented mildly."
Marcus laughed. "I sense a set up."
"Perhaps." Neroon touched him gently on the shoulder. "You should sleep, Marcus."
"It's barely past six!"
"You're exhausted," the Warrior said. "Your body and your spirit have both had their strength and endurance tested. You must give them both time to recover."
Marcus looked over at him, ready to argue, but there must have been something in Neroon's expression that spoke of the determination he felt. In the end Marcus grumbled but rose and made his way over to his sleeping area. "And where will you be?" he asked, stripping off his damp tunic.
"Standing guard," Neroon answered, rising.
Marcus just stared for a moment, then shook his head and laughed. "Another Warrior ritual?" he asked, quirking an eyebrow. Neroon simply tilted his head.
But after Marcus had closed the door between them, he said, "Yes. The last."
Then he turned and sat, resting his back against the door, his denn'bok extended and laid across his lap. //I will guard you as you sleep, Marcus. I will help you through your time of weakness, as you helped me through mine. And in the morning, when your heart has settled and your body has restored itself, I hope you will see that your place is at my side, as mine is at yours.//
His hand tightened for a moment on the smooth metal of the pike. //Valen help me if you do not.//
The next morning Neroon rose out of a light trance at the light tough of fingers to his shoulder. He looked up and, seeing Marcus standing in the open door behind him, rose smoothly to his feet despite hours of immobility. "Have you been up all night?" Marcus asked, his eyes a little wide.
"I told you I would be standing guard," Neroon answered mildly.
"I didn't..." Marcus stopped himself and shook his head. After a moment, he met Neroon's eyes. "Thank you."
The Warrior simply smiled. "No thanks are necessary, Marcus. I acted selfishly yesterday."
"Selfishly?" Marcus asked, startled.
"Yes," Neroon said. "To see you in pain is to be in pain myself. How could I not act?"
Marcus smiled a little mischievously. "I know people who consider that the very definition of love," he said, but the lightness in his tone was subtly forced, and so when Neroon answered, he spoke in all seriousness, instead of responding with the teasing Marcus no doubt expected.
"I'm one of them."
Marcus' eyes went wide. "Oh," he breathed.
"Is that all?" Neroon was teasing now. "No great exclamations of surprise? No stuttering denials? No tears of joy or of pain?"
Marcus found his voice at last. "Have you been reading romance novels?" Neroon grinned, and for a moment they laughed together.
After their mirth had calmed, Neroon took Marcus' hand in his and turned it to lay the Human's palm against his chest. "You've haven't answered me." He reminded Marcus.
"You have to ask?"
"I have to know."
Marcus smiled. "Yes, Neroon. I love you."
Neroon drew his mate close and kissed him, a long, slow kiss that spoke of promises made and of many nights to come. "Then all is well, my nirahn. Everything else will follow."