Specs: Babylon 5, John/Delenn, 12150 words
Previous Chapters: One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight
Author's Note: So it's been a solid year since the last time I updated this. Sorry about that. I'm so glad I finally came back to it, though; I'm very happy with this chapter, and I hope you enjoy it as well.
“So there we are, bottom of the ninth, down one, one out. McCarty’s on second. I’m walking up from the on-deck circle – it’s the place you wait and kinda warm up your swing before you bat – and I’m thinking, this is it. This is the moment every ball player waits for. Not just the game-winning hit – I’ve had those before – but a game-winning hit in a game that really means something. We win, we go on to the regional championship. We lose, we go home.”
John paused, leaning forward, elbows on his knees. He didn’t want to lay it on too thick, but he did want to draw the story out just a little bit.
“Now I know the pitcher. He’s a real son of a bitch. One of those guys who’ll aim right for your head if he thinks you’re trying to crowd the zone. Normally I’d try to provoke someone like that, get them to pitch wild, but I didn’t just want to get on base. I didn’t even just want to advance the runner. I wanted to win the whole damned thing.
“First pitch goes right down the middle. I want to swing, but we’re under strict orders to not swing on the first pitch. Next pitch is just a little high. Third pitch a little higher still. I make eye contact with McCarty on second. We’re having a conversation, just with our eyes. He’s saying, you don’t want to walk, Johnny. Hit the next pitch. I’m saying, let me worry about me – you just make sure you run all the way home. It was like a vid or something. Anyway, here comes the next pitch, and I’ve got a read on this guy. I can tell by the way he looks over at his coach that he’s going to try something. So just before he throws, I sort of straighten up a bit, turn my right shoulder in, and he ends up waffling the change-up he was going for. And holy shit do I hit that ball. When you hit a ball just right, you can feel it in the bat, all the energy transferring in just the right way. I know this ball is gone.
“But it goes foul. Of course it goes foul. The next pitch is way inside – I have to jump back a little bit. So now it’s a full count. And normally I would be getting nervous. I don’t want to strike out, or foul out, or get a lousy walk. And then, hmm. It’s hard to describe. It’s almost like things start to happen in slow motion. As soon as the ball leaves his hand, I know I’m going to hit it, and I know just where it’s going to go. I swing, and I’m already looking over to left field, and it’s going to be fair. I start running, and I feel good for the first time since you left.”
John stopped, that admission more than he’d been planning on making. He’d been pretending that he wasn’t depressed, that he was sleeping just fine, that he didn’t sometimes skip meals. Suddenly he wasn’t having quite as much fun telling this story, and decided to wrap it up.
“The ball ends up being about ten feet shy of making it out of the park. The left-fielder hauls it down – I’ve gotta give the guy credit, it’s a great catch. McCarty tags up and makes it to third, and the next batter up, Jonas, you remember him, he was the guy who threw up lasagna all over Mrs. Chu that one day, gets him home on a grounder that squeaks through into right. Jonas runs like the fragging devil’s on his ass and manages to turn that sad little grounder into a triple. Then Clifford gets him home on a bunt. A bunt! The game-winning hit was a bunt! It went all of three feet. But we won, and we’re going to regional champs.”
John shrugged. He figured he should be more excited, or at least make her think that he was more excited, but he felt too tired to even try. “Anyway, that’s it. I love you and I miss you.” He ended the message as he had ended every single one previous. “See you soon.”
John ended the recording, then quickly made sure it copied to the data crystal correctly before he erased it from his drive. He’d record one, maybe two more messages before he sent it off. Direct communication with Minbar and her colonies had been banned a month ago, even if he’d been able to afford it; the crystal would be sent to a friend of his father’s on Centauri Prime, who would then forward it on to Minbar. Delenn’s messages came the same way in reverse.
Or, at least, they had been. He didn’t get a crystal from her last week, and he was trying to not get upset about it. Maybe she was busy. Maybe she was off-world, and didn’t know she was going to be off-world until after she’d sent her last batch of messages to him. Maybe she just didn’t know how important it was for him to be able to see her, to hear her voice, to know what she was doing. Maybe she didn’t look forward to his messages like he looked forward to hers. He wasn’t going to get mad at her. He was just going to hope that a crystal was coming his way even now.
“John. Did you sleep at all?” John looked up from his oatmeal to see his mother peering down at him. She didn’t have much room to talk - there were dark circles under her eyes, and for the first time he noticed the network of fine lines that criss-crossed her face.
“I slept,” he lied, shoveling the oatmeal in. Bland, because he didn’t add any sugar. For awhile he’d been trying to use sugar and caffeine to keep him up, but he didn’t like the way it made him feel. And he'd found just a little bit of sugar made him want it all the more. It was easier to just cut it entirely. Better to be tired, eat bland food, and just power through.
“There’s no reason you can’t take a year off. That was the plan.” She poured herself a cup of coffee, and it smelled so good that John had to close his eyes. You don’t need it.
“I don’t want to take a year off. We’ve discussed this.”
“Just because Delenn—”
“No,” he cut her off, voice flat. “I’m ready to start the Academy in the fall. That’s it.” Which of course was another lie. It had everything to do with Delenn, and they both knew it. Sometimes it was easier to ignore what you both knew, though.
“If you don’t pass, you’ll have an even harder time trying to get in next year.”
“You’ve only been studying for two months.”
John stood up, dumped his bowl in the sink with a loud clatter. “I’ll pass.” He grabbed his bag and left, not looking at his mother, not seeing the disappointment and worry on her face.
Miss Van Houton uploaded everyone’s homework to their lecterns. They had five minutes left in class. Most everyone else sat around talking, chattering about this and that: who was dating whom, who was cheating on whom, who just broke up with whom. John blocked it all out and started on his homework. He was going to try and get it done before his next class started; five minutes now, and once he hurried to Intro to Art, four minutes of passing period. Intro to Art was basically a study hall these days, so he'd take five minutes to dash off whatever the assignment there was, and then he'd have fifty solid minutes to study. He was working on Military Tactics right now, which he’d read before, but it was different when you knew you were going to get tested on it.
He had his nose in his lectern walking through the hallways, which was why he ended up running right into Lindsay. She didn’t look at all surprised, though, smiling up at him in a way she hadn’t done in months and months.
“Sorry,” he muttered, and tried to walk around her. But she slid over to stand in front of him again, blocking his path in the busy hallway.
“I haven't talked to you in a long time, Johnny,” she said, toying with one of her locks of auburn hair. She might as well have been playing with a piece of yarn for all that he cared. He was so tired. Had he ever felt tired after missing just one night's sleep? Had such a time ever really existed? He hardly remembered a time when he wasn't tired.
“Yeah, busy,” he said, trying to dodge around her again. But he was pretty slow these days, and she was deceptively quick, and before he knew it she was pressed up against him, her breasts soft and full and managing to brush his chest and both his arms at the same time. He remembered, dimly, across the gulf between adolescence and adulthood, that once such a sensation would have been enough to reduce him to a twitchy mass of fully-charged nerve endings. No more.
“Who are you and what have you done with John Sheridan?” she asked coyly.
“I've got to get to class,” John said, closing his eyes for a second, hoping that when he opened them she would be gone.
“Art class, John,” she snitted, and he opened his eyes with a sigh. Not only was Lindsay still staring up at him, mean good humor sparkling in her eyes, but other people had started to watch. He wasn't sure what kind of show they were expecting, but if he could feel the tension in the air, he supposed others could, too. “It's not as though you can't be a few minutes late to art class.”
“What do you want?” Her eyes got a little wide at that, mock surprise that just made him angry.
“I just want to talk. Just a couple minutes, huh?” What he really wanted to do was shove her aside and keep moving, but too many people were watching now, and they'd all want to know why John Sheridan had been so mean to nice, sweet Lindsay. So he sighed and let her lead him down the hall to one of the language conversation labs, empty this hour. When the door snicked closed behind him, John realized he felt like a trapped animal. And here came the zookeeper, wearing a tight, short green dress that left little to the imagination. The brief craze of Minbari fashion had long-ago departed, and the girls were back to as teeny and tiny as they could get away with. He could see long, long legs and the tops of her soft, white breasts. A different part of John's brain, a part that sometimes thought about how nice it would be to run a deer down and kill it with his bare hands, perked up a little. John crossed his arms over his chest and resolutely shoved that part of his brain back down where it belonged.
“All right. I'm here, so start talking.”
Lindsay glared at him before she could stop herself, then plastered a sickeningly-sweet smile on her face. “Prom's in three weeks.”
“Oh my God,” he droned out. Was she serious? Prom?
“Johnny, just hear me out. I know you're not interested in me like that. I get it. You're still hung up on your mystical alien princess.”
“Hey, that's enough of that.”
“What I'm saying is that I get it. But it's senior prom, John, and I don't want to miss it. And I don't think you want to miss it, either. It's important.”
The truth was, John couldn't think of anything less important in the whole world. After everything that had happened this school year - and as much as he loved her, not even Delenn held that list all by herself - he could not imagine anyone thinking a school dance mattered at all. But Lindsay was the obvious exception that proved the rule. He couldn't detect any of the usual sarcasm and disdain on her face. Instead, she was gazing up at him with bright and pleading eyes.
“Even if I wanted to go to prom,” he allowed, “the Academy entrance exam is the next Sunday after the dance. I'll be cramming that last week like nobody's business.”
Lindsay saw her opening and pounced. “And that's all the more reason to go! You'll need a break by then. Three hours.” She saw the look on his face. “Two hours! You don't even have to pick me up, we can just meet there. A couple dances, pictures, and then you can go home and read all about space battles and boring old treaties. And in thirty years, you can tell your kids you went to your senior prom.”
John wanted to say no, he wanted to just tell her no and be done with it. The bell for the next class rang. The truth was, though, even though he didn't want to go, he knew it would mean a lot to his mom. She still went on about how Dad hadn't asked her to go – he'd been planning to go off-world that summer, and had barely managed to graduate, to hear her tell the story. John knew that Mom would really go into overdrive when it was Liz's turn, when she had the chance to pick out dresses and shoes and all of that nonsense. But she'd still care about him going, and the thought of walking downstairs in a tux and seeing her at the foot holding up a camera was enough to make him slowly nod his head.
Lindsay jumped up and down, barely stifling a gleeful shriek. John held up a finger. “I reserve the right to bail out if things get too hairy. This is a conditional acceptance.”
“Oh, thank you, John! I just couldn't imagine going with anyone else at this school, they're all just awful, a bunch of apes. You'll have fun, I promise you will.” She thought about grabbing him, he could see it in her eyes, but she kept herself under control, only reaching out to squeeze his bicep. Then she spun away in a cloud of red hair.
John, you sappy soft touch. For all he said about ducking out if he needed to, he knew he'd end up going, because if he didn't now that he said he would, she'd be crushed. Maybe Lindsay was an evil teenage robot most of the time, but she had a heart in there somewhere, and John did not want breaking it to be on his conscience.
Dad wasn't home much, and when he was home, he was on the phone or in front of his vid screen most of the time. He was still trying to keep all of his work secret, probably because of some serious confidentiality agreement or something. So John had become quite adept at eavesdropping. Right now, Dad was in his office, in front of the secure-line screen. John was on his stomach in the upstairs bathroom, head resting against the air register on the ground, slowing his breathing down so it didn't fill his ears. He could just make out Dad's voice drifting up his way, one of the individual flukes of acoustics this house possessed that John had worked out long ago.
“I'm starting to think Nsedu wants a war,” Dad was saying now. John couldn't hear whoever Dad was talking to, but he guessed it was Raul; he kept waiting for Mom to accuse them of having an affair, they spent so much time together. “Our hands are tied, though.”
A cramp wormed its way into his thigh, but John refused to acknowledge it. Something in his dad's voice told him this was more than just idle talk. The hairs on his arms slowly rose, and his stomach felt funny.
“You would really go to Petrovich?” Dad's voice was low, so low that John could barely make it out. He pressed his ear more firmly into the vent. “Raul, that's...that's treason.”
Treason. But Petrovich, the head of the Russian Federation, ultimately answered to President Nsedu, so he wasn't sure that it was treason so much as undermining the chain of authority. If the assassination hadn't happened, if the newly-installed North American governor weren't so weak, Harrison and Petrovich could have stood against Nsedu together. But Jennings was a spineless twerp, the perfect Lieutenant Governor, and he parroted back every single thing Nsedu said with a twinkle in his eye. China and the rest of East Asia were staunch Nsedu supporters, as well. The Middle East was still rebuilding, Africa and Australia had adopted a strict philosophy of neutrality. As long as the President was determined to provoke the Minbari, there seemed little to be done by anyone.
Dad clicked the connection off, and John could hear him somehow, even though he was just silently sitting in his office, no doubt with a long-forgotten cigar smoldering down to ash beside him. He would be thinking, his face taking on that far-off look that as a boy John had recognized as an intelligence so great that it was nearly impossible to measure. David Sheridan was a successful diplomat in part because most people didn't guess that that kind of intelligence existed inside his amiable, how-ya-doin' exterior. It was something that John wished he could emulate better.
John hobbled to his room, the cramp having decided to set up camp. What could Petrovich possibly do? Call for Nsedu's impeachment, which seemed unlikely, though if she kept Earth and her colonies hurtling down the path of war...
He sat at his desk, textbooks open in front of him, but he wasn't able to focus anymore that night.
“I miss hearing your voice, Delenn, and I miss seeing you. I hope everything's okay. You know, you can tell me anything. Anything at all.”
John paused, and just thinking what he was thinking was enough to make his throat clench up, make his heart thud in his chest. A sudden superstition gripped him. If he said it, then it would be true, just because he said it. He knew the pause was stretching out, eating up valuable data space, but still he couldn't bring himself to speak.
But it was Delenn, and above all else, he wanted her to be happy. And he needed to know that she was okay, just needed to see her.
“If you've met someone else, I...I understand. You can tell me. I won't be angry. If that's why you haven't sent me a message in two weeks, I just...”
He trailed off again, rubbing his palm on his jeans so violently that it hurt. He felt sweaty and gross all of a sudden, like he'd just run a marathon.
“I just want you to know I'll wait for you, though. None of the other girls hold a candle to you, not at all. I'm not saying this because I want you to meet someone else to make me feel better for moving on, because I'm not going to move on. But if you do, it's okay. Because I love you, and I want you to be happy.”
He sounded like a fucking greeting card.
“Just send me a message, please. Just one word. Just say hi, please.”
John clicked the recorder off before he sounded any more desperate.
Each day ran into the next, each broken up into chunks of time he had to fight through. The alarm went off at 5:00 am. John was showered and dressed by 5:08, bed made, bag for school prepared. He studied for an hour and a half, and set himself an unrealistic goal each day, trying to push himself harder. He would read five chapters and take ten pages of notes; he would take a practice exam on his lectern and score an 18; he would set up a sim program to spit out a scenario and he would solve it with maximum efficiency and minimum loss of life.
He struggled through three chapters and came away with seven pages of notes; he scored a 15; he killed everyone on his ship and the refugees besides.
From 6:45 to 7:00 he would try to meditate. He lit a candle and sat on a mat and pretended that Delenn sat beside him. Every so often he would achieve a few moments of calm, but he was so aware of the tiny victory that he destroyed it just by thinking about it. He could not for the life of him reach that place of unthinking, of unknowing. There was an itch under his ear; a breeze on the back of his neck; a tickle in his nose; a cough in his throat; a buzz somewhere he couldn't stop listening to. He usually stood and blew out the candle some time around 6:55, then spent the next five minutes berating himself.
At 7:00 he forced himself to eat. He finished whatever homework he still had left. Why had he ever struggled with any of it? It was easy, easy and stupid and mostly useless, and he just had to think for ten seconds to dash off meaningless answers that would satisfy his teachers. He used to be so stupid, and he just hoped it wouldn't come back to bite him in the ass.
School. Lectures, assignments, projects, speeches. John was present for them, did everything well if not creatively, an object study in mediocrity that somehow looked like excellence in comparison to everyone else. Tactics and strategy and history on his lectern, and his other project besides, the project he had never told Delenn about. She would have poked holes in it, and she would have been right to do so, but still, it was something he had come to love, his stupid silly dream. It would never work, but it was nice to think about, on days like today, when the Senior English substitute gave up trying to teach and they all just watched ISN like a bunch of mute sheep.
“Satellite imagery confirms that some sort of development is taking place on the far-Northern tip of the archipelago Soo-yun, though the thick vegetation is making it difficult to determine just what that development is. Earth colony officials at New Corning tell ISN that the structures visible are not theirs, and a Minbari spokesperson could not be reached.” The ISN reporter looked grave, and she turned to one of the so-called “experts,” who opined in a thick Australian accent that the structures were likely “Minbari installations of a military nature.”
No one in the classroom said anything, but there was an undercurrent of tension running through the air. The goodwill toward Minbari that had drawn the school together after the news of Harrison's assassination and the attack on Delenn had mostly dissipated, and though most people kept quiet – whether out of respect for John or because the teachers had been fairly ruthless about writing up anyone who acted out – he knew that a lot of people had swung around to the other side of the compass. Even now he could hear two people talking to each other in low voices in the back. “...sneak attack...” “...first strike...”
John grabbed the edges of his desk. Don't turn around. Just stay out of it. But then one of the two laughed, something low and dark and full of hatred, and as though he were hanging on puppet strings, no longer under his own control, John swung out of his seat and stood in one fluid motion.
“What was it you wanted to say, George?” He should have known from the start it was that sniveling little shit. George had slung his legs up over his desk, leaning back with arms crossed behind his head. John wanted to punch him forever.
“Everyone knows the Minbari are a bunch of cowards, hiding behind a bunch of doofs in gray robes, like it's Halloween or something. They keep trying to provoke us--”
“They're not the ones provoking anyone.”
“--hoping to get us to take the first shot, and then get galactic opinion on their side.”
John shook his head, overwhelmed by the stupidity. Distantly he heard the substitute asking him to sit down, but all he could see were the faces turned his way. Flat eyes, pursed mouths. Most of them agreed with George.
John waved his hand at the vid screen. “You all just think what they want you to think.”
“It's our continent!” Missy Rogers bit out, her face as red as a brick. “They don't have any right!”
“That's not a Minbari installation there!”
“The New Corning officials said it wasn't theirs.” That was from the substitute, who had taken one tiny step out from behind the desk, her shoulders hunched up as though she were expecting a blow.
“And you just believe them? Just like that?” John looked around the room. He saw the truth – they all did. They believed it just because the person on the screen said it. “The Minbari did not build those structures, I guarantee you that.”
“Yeah, because you know so much about the Minbari,” George sneered. “Just because you used to bang one.” Gasps and whispers, and John was pretty sure the substitute shrieked like she'd just seen a mouse. He wasn't completely sure because he was shoving his way to the back of the room, ready to tear George out of the desk and beat him senseless.
John winced. “Hold still,” his mom commanded, putting another butterfly bandage on the cut over his eye, the one blow George had managed before the other students in the classroom had pulled the two of them apart. He'd refused to see the nurse, and since it was his second incident this year, Sumalong's hands were tied: out-of-school suspension this time. John thought that sounded just fine. What was another incident on his record? “Won't you look good for tonight,” Miranda went on.
“What's tonight?” he asked, taking the ice pack she handed him and pressing it against the side of his face.
“John,” she said, giving him her very best Mom Look. “Your presentation? At the station?”
“Shit!” He'd completely forgotten about it. He hadn't even thought about it in weeks. “Shit. There's no way I can do it.”
“No, sir. You will not back out now. You made a commitment, and you will follow through.”
“But I don't have anything prepared!”
“I'm sure you'll manage.”
It was with leaden feet that John trudged up to his room, and he checked the calendar on his lectern. It was right there, in bold print: 7:00 pm, Students For Peace. He had signed up months ago, agreeing to make a short (10-15 minute) speech (visual aids appreciated) about the need to find a peaceful resolution to the Minbari-Earth conflict (professional dress, please come prepared).
And he had nothing. Every time he wracked his brain trying to think of a peaceful solution, it mostly came down to sending President Nsedu a letter that said please stop being a dick. He certainly didn't have any visual aids.
Dad was off-world and couldn't be reached, and Mom ignored all his protests and drove him over to the local vid station, where he would sit in front of a camera and record his portion – live. There were a couple monitors in front of him showing the other students sitting down and getting ready. The entire thing would be assembled as though they were all sitting in the same room together, having a discussion about the issues. He knew a few of their names, having had conversations with some of them, most of those a few months in the past; it had been awhile since he'd pretty much given up on the idea that he personally could do a thing. Rhea Sims, Park Jae-Sun, Jeff Sinclair, Lisbeth Reynolds, Dustin McCloud, Grant Budjmilia – bright, dedicated young men and women who still believed they could make a difference.
Sinclair went first, the youngest of the group as a high school freshman. John decided that the kid probably got beat up on a daily basis – he was without a doubt the nerdiest looking creature he had ever seen. He wasn't that great at public speaking, either, but he was smart as hell and knew what he was talking about. “EarthGov is too stubborn to admit that the bulk of the problem results from our planet's imperialistic history, an impulse to own at any cost, an impulse that we have yet to cull from our culture.” The kid spoke in a monotone that told John he had written the speech out and then memorized it word for word.
The others followed, and though their presentations on the face of it seemed different – this one had uploaded an old-school slide show to be played alongside her speech, that one did some kind of magic trick as a way to demonstrate...something – the actual points of their speeches were all the same. Earth needed to chill out. Earth needed to give ground. Earth needed to give in.
John had hoped by switching with Reynolds to go last that he would have enough time to come up with something, but when the light on his camera turned green he still didn't have a clue what he was going to say. He just knew it had to be something different.
He smiled at the camera, introducing himself, buying time. He could see everyone's faces in the monitors around him, studying him: expectant, waiting. A moment of panic beat inside his chest. John let himself pretend that Delenn was standing just beyond the camera, hidden in the glare of the lights. She was proud of him, and no matter what he said, it would be something, some small flame fighting against the encroaching dark.
“It's all well and good to say that Earth should do this, Minbar should do that. I don't think we've moved past the point of no return yet, but it should have never come to this in the first place.” John thought of his project, the dumb thing he'd been working on since before Delenn had even been deported. It was just an idea, but at least it was something, something practical and not just more high-minded rhetoric.
“The problems we face stay the same. Fights over land, over resources. Not out of any sense of need, but because I think it's the nature of more than just humans to see something and want it, and think that because you saw it first it somehow belongs to you. How can we resolve these problems? Besides evolve into better people? I don't know. What I do know is that we need a better method, so that maybe things won't get this bad in the future.
“We need a place. Somewhere that representatives from different species can meet, somewhere neutral. A space station, maybe, a place where we can work this...sorry, there's no other way to put it, but a place where we can work this shit out before people get hurt.”
Shock on the faces on the monitor. Poor Jeff Sinclair looked like he was going to have an embolism. “Maybe that's what we can do with Orion 7. Isn't that what we're fighting about? Those stupid mines around the equator? Instead of processing the ore for vid screens and lectern parts, let's use it for something that would really benefit all of us. And if we had to work together to build something, then maybe we'd learn more about each other.” A thousand ideas suddenly showed up, all scrambling around in his head, but John knew if he kept going he'd just start rambling and what-ifing. As it was, he had no idea how long he'd been talking, but the camera light was still green.
“We should do something, whatever it is. Otherwise we're going to start killing each other, and it won't just be hundreds or thousands, not like wars in the past. It'll be millions. Billions, maybe. Billions, and for what? For some land. Is it really worth it? I don't think so.”
He remembered Delenn, that last real sight of her, as she turned and headed into the spaceport, almost four months in the past. And now it had been almost three weeks since the last time he had heard from her. John shook his head, staring at his hands.
“I don't think so.”
The best he had been able to manage on any of his Academy practice exams was a 16. The minimum score for acceptance was 14, and 18 was recommended. 22 was perfect, which he knew he'd never get close to, but 16? Was 16 really the best he could do?
Suddenly, though, it seemed as though he didn't have the time to worry about the Academy entrance exam anymore. It turned out that more people had been watching the broadcast that night than he would have guessed. The local news station, which had spent an embarrassing three nights reporting on “his great loss” after Delenn had been deported, having been very sympathetic to the both of them ever since Maria Delgado, née Maria Something, had interviewed the two of them on the football field on the day of Harrison's assassination, suddenly remembered their resident hometown hero of sorts. The fight with George turned out to be a good thing after all - John thanked all the deities mankind had ever worshiped that he had three days away from school. Hopefully the media coverage of “high school student John Sheridan's bold vision of a peaceful future” would blow over by the time he returned. He'd also been contacted by a dozen different organizations in the week since the Students for Peace broadcast. A couple he dismissed immediately as cranks, three people in a basement who made up a name and a link and pretended they were something special. A few were willing to take his idea and all the credit and give him nothing in return. The rest voiced their support and invited him to take part in various conferences scheduled over the next few months. As much as he wanted to decline every invitation, because he needed to study, he needed to get into the Academy, hell, he'd like five minutes here or there to play some baseball, he just couldn't say no. He kept thinking of the imaginary Delenn he'd conjured, standing behind the cameras, smiling at him with pride. He couldn't let her down.
One of the organizations, Friends of the Minbari, was actually based here in town, and on the last day of his suspension John drove over to their headquarters. He didn't have an eidetic memory or anything close, or he'd be scoring a 21 on the entrance exam no problem, but something about the street address seemed very familiar. When he entered the used bookstore, a pretty sloe-eyed girl directed him to stairs in the back, closed off from the shop by a red curtain. Déjà vu gripped him tightly, and though he knew he had never been in this bookstore before, and certainly had never walked down these stairs, for some reason he knew exactly what he would find at the bottom.
The basement room was far larger than the shop upstairs, likely taking up the space beneath the whole row of stores this side of the block. There was a pretty sophisticated data crystal loader – maybe an industrial cast-off. Two young women, not much older than he was, were loading blanks into the rows and rows of slots. He wondered what message they were recording, and to whom they'd be shipping off all those crystals. Off-world? Through back channels to Minbar? The young women turned at his approach and smiled, though they didn't pause in their task long enough to wave.
Aside from the loader, there were tables set up in rows, a small recording studio in the back, and shelves of real books. Since no one else seemed around to welcome him, John wandered over and perused. None of the titles seemed familiar. Quite a few of them looked like religious texts, but there were just as many that dealt with secular philosophy. Boring, most like, but he could see how they'd appeal to the kind of person likely to join the Friends of the Minbari.
He heard footsteps coming up behind him. “Ah, young master Sheridan.” John turned - an elderly woman with brilliant silver hair stood with clasped hands, smiling at him with a look he could only describe as beneficent. Suddenly everything clicked into place.
“The French restaurant,” he said.
“Yes. They refused to serve your lovely young paramour, and you implored all of us diners to leave, lest we implicitly support the establishment's bigotry.”
“This was the address you gave us.” He wondered where that slip of paper had went to. By the end of that night – the simulated flight through the galaxy, giving Delenn the class ring brooch, and finally her return to his house, when she introduced him to the shan'fal - he had completely forgotten about the incident at the French restaurant. “You were all here, even back then?”
“We were. The pot may have boiled over after the assassination, but it had been simmering for longer than perhaps you realize. It's good to finally see you. Your impromptu speech that night at the restaurant made quite an impression on my husband and me.”
For some reason the praise embarrassed John, even as he felt guilty for having never responded to the couple's invitation. At least he was here now.
Half an hour later he was sitting at one of the long tables with the woman, Marguerite, her husband Luis, and a dozen other members of the group. One of the young women, the one who was nearly as tall as he was, whose name was Esme, had run out and picked up sandwiches and lemonades from the bistro down the street. “I picked you up an extra sandwich, Mr. Sher-- um, I mean...um. John.” Esme was staring at the ground and presumably through the Earth straight through to China. Her cheeks were so bright red they looked irradiated. John was no stranger to crushes, so he kept his voice level and smiled warmly but impersonally. “Thanks.”
“You recognized the crystal loader?” Luis asked, though it wasn't really a question.
“Yeah. Quite the operation you've got going on here.”
“Everything's licensed,” Luis said, as though John had implied otherwise. “It has to be. We've had EF thugs nosing around half a dozen times since the assassination. They would burn all of this to the ground if they had the chance.”
“So what messages are you sending out?” John started in on his second sandwich. He hadn't realized how long it had been since he'd eaten anything decent, since he'd even had the appetite.
“Propaganda,” Marguerite replied shortly. She must have felt it to be self-evident. “Requests for donations from philanthropists and organizations known or believed to be sympathetic. Messages to those deported Minbari from the loved ones left behind.” John must have made a face, because Marguerite shook her head at him, almost derisively. “Did you think you were the only Human to meet and fall in love with a Minbari? Most don't have your diplomatic ties – or, I should say, your father's diplomatic ties – to get their messages past the EF info-cordon.” Again John felt embarrassed, as though he were somehow a big cheater and they were all onto him.
“We saw your speech,” Esme blurted out, but this time she managed to look him in the eye. She had the most remarkable bright-blue eyes, and John noticed for the first time how pretty she was. “And we thought--” She cut herself off, glancing up at Marguerite like an unruly child who had spoken out of turn.
“We had hoped to send that recording out with our next batch of messages. With your permission, of course.”
John blinked. “Of course.”
Now Luis leaned forward, eyes intensely focused on John in a way that made him want to squirm. “The Grey Council wants a solution to this problem.” His tone left no doubt in John's mind that Luis wasn't guessing. He knew exactly what he was talking about, and knew it for a fact. “At the same time, they are a stubborn group. The Minbari are one of the older races. The idea that they should be expected to reach an accord with the Humans by giving more ground than Earth is insulting to the Council. Nsedu has dug in her heels – she will not budge. The Council likewise will not simply turn over Orion 7 to her in full, which is of course her main goal. If push comes to shove, they will go to war. To do otherwise would open the door for the Centauri, the Narn, the Gaim, and any other species looking to expand to think they could do so right into Minbari space.” Luis paused, more for effect than for a need to breathe. “And if the Minbari go to war, Earth will lose far more than just her colony on Orion 7...”
John swallowed hard, feeling cold. A dead silence fell over the room. “But they want a solution,” he finally said.
John shook his head, pushed the rest of the sandwich away, feeling ill. The solution wasn't going to be some stupid space station. They were all making fun of him, they had to be. It's not like he was the first person to ever think of a space station. Maybe as a project that multiple species all worked together on, okay, but still. He wasn't discovering hyperspace here.
Still, they were all looking at him with expectant eyes, the way his classmates had looked at him that day on the football field. Everyone waiting for John to tell them what to do. “We will want to send out a message close on the heels of the first, with more details. Practical considerations, rather than just a big idea. Will you be the face of this, John?”
What else could he say?
“John, wait!” He turned – Esme had followed him outside, and ran to catch up. John knew what was coming, and steeled himself against it. “Can I walk you to your car?”
“I kind of wanted some time to think,” he said, trying to say it gently.
“I'm great to bounce ideas off of!” The face turned to his was bright, interested, and wholly focused on his own. For a second or two, John let himself admire those bright-blue eyes, the thick, black eyebrows, the pink rosebud mouth. He let himself think how nice it would be to walk arm in arm with this pretty girl. No one would even look at them, except to say to themselves, what a handsome couple. They wouldn't be turned away at restaurants. They would never hear snide comments muttered in their direction as they passed by. And she would be here, of course, and not countless light years away.
Esme's smile faded as he studied her. She didn't know what he was thinking, that much was obvious. Had he thought her pretty? She was beautiful. John felt a dull ache somewhere under his sternum. It would be so easy to grin at her now, to see an answering light in her eyes. So easy to nod and start talking, and halfway down the block reach down to take her hand. So easy.
“Not today,” he said, his voice flat. Her eyes flashed - with hurt or anger, he couldn't tell. "I'm sorry," he amended quickly, meaning it. "Today's just...not a good day."
He left her then, hurrying back to his car. By the time he sat behind the wheel, his palms were sweating.