Delenn had ridden in Human automobiles before, though she preferred transport shuttles and the magnetic trains; this was an entirely new experience, though. The Human adolescent - John - operated his vehicle in an entirely irresponsible way. He exceeded the posted speed limits by a considerable degree, he did not come to complete stops at the signs instructing him to do so, and he took turns in such a way that her body jerked from side to side, even though she was restrained. Most troubling, however, was his tendency to look at her rather than the road.
"So what other classes do you have?" he asked, smiling at her even as he changed lanes. Delenn discreetly took a firm grip on the hand-hold on her door.
"English, Composition, Psychology - which I find most interesting - Study Hall, Calculus, and Physics."
"Calc and Physics? Shit."
"I do not understand the purpose of Study Hall. It would make more sense to use that time for further instruction."
"That's when you do your homework." He took a sharp turn, and Delenn had to close her eyes. She did not wish to die, though she of course knew that eventually her time in this body would end and her soul would wait to be reborn. But she hoped that day was a long way off. She did not wish to die today.
"Should one not do homework at home?" John just laughed at that, looking at her with what seemed was great affection on his face. Humans were more ebullient and outgoing than Minbari, but John was exceedingly cheerful even for a Human. He did not answer her question, which she continued to ponder; he seemed to take a very lackadaisical approach to his education. She was fairly sure at lunch he had offered to give her answers, which would be cheating. The very idea was scandalous.
The vehicle came to a stop, and John turned the engine off. By the time she disengaged her restraint, he had already come to the other side of the vehicle and opened her door for her. He took her hand and helped her climb down; his hand was very warm around hers, and he did not let go even after he had closed her door and locked the car. He linked his fingers through hers and led her toward the collection of buildings in front of them. Shops, they looked like.
"Where are we going?"
People were looking her way, as they always did when she went out in public on Earth. A lot of silly faces, as though they had never seen a Minbari before. Some kind smiles. A few angry looks, dark hairy eyebrows drawn together in a threatening way. Usually the angry looks disturbed her no matter how much she tried to ignore them - how could she make someone so upset simply by existing? - but today she found she could ignore them quite easily. Walking beside this tall, handsome Human male, his hand holding hers, his thumb rubbing absently along the top of her hand - how could she feel any anxiety at all?
They entered one of the buildings. It was very dark inside, with strangely colored lights and very loud music. There were large boxy mechanisms here and there, flashing and beeping; VR pods along the far wall; vid screens positioned all over. John was sliding his credit chit through a machine, and gathering up brightly colored metallic discs. He shoved them into the pockets of his rather tight blue trousers, and Delenn made herself look somewhere else. Heat as blood rushed to her face - how many times had she felt that sensation already today?
"What is this place, John?"
"It's an arcade. You play games here." He turned to face her. "What do you want to..." He trailed off. He wasn't looking at her eyes, but at the top of her head.
"What is it?" He drew one of his fingers down the center of her head, starting at her bone crest. She couldn't help but shiver at his light touch.
"The blue on the top of your head. It is, like, glowing. It looks really fantastic." He grinned down at her, that smile that made something in her stomach flutter madly. His teeth looked incredibly white under the strange lights. "Have you ever flown in a Starfury before?" She shook her head, feeling so utterly out of place that she was having a hard time remembering how to speak English. He grabbed her hand again, dragged her over to one of the corners. It was darker here, the games arranged in such a way to make it feel quite private.
A large box, like the center of one of the Human fighting ships. John opened a door and pulled her inside along with him. A simulation game; the interior of the box looked like the pictures she had seen of Starfury control panels. Lights, buttons, switches, levers. It was a very tight space, not designed for two people. He stood at the back, positioned her in front of him. She had no choice but to be pressed against him, his chest against her back. He put his arms on either side of her, feeding some of those metallic discs into a slot. Delenn felt nervous and excited and happy and terrified all at once.
John was explaining the controls to her - weapons and power and pitch and yaw - but she was having a hard time concentrating, focusing instead on his warm breath on the top of her head as he spoke, his hand resting on her hip. "Are you ready?" he asked, and she nodded, unwilling to ask him to repeat everything he had just said. He would likely take offense if he knew she had not paid very close attention.
Then the simulation began, and even though she knew it was not real, she still found her heart beating faster as she tried to guide the ship through a defensive perimeter while shooting at enemies. Once John grabbed her hand and put it on the proper control, but other than that he let her be. The first game ended rather quickly when she forgot to check behind her and an enemy ship shot out her engines; John loaded a few more discs and she played again, doing better this time.
"You're a natural," he said, and it was just a silly game, but his praise still warmed her inside.
"Do you enjoy this game?"
"This is my favorite game. I'm gonna be a pilot in EarthForce."
"I would like to watch you fly." Delenn didn't need to see his face to know that he was smiling. She thought she would have to find a way to squeeze herself beside him, but he seemed perfectly happy to play with her still pressed against his front. She couldn't see that the awkwardness affected him at all; it was fascinating to watch him fly. He had an almost intuitive control over the machine, making his moves at practically the same time the obstacle presented itself. Delenn was so enthralled she nearly forgot about their proximity to one another until he reached across her body to slap at a control and his arm brushed against her breast. She tensed her muscles to keep from shivering against him, and swallowed the sound she felt herself almost make involuntarily.
The simulation grew more and more difficult, and he finally lost, losing control of his Starfury and slamming into the side of another ship. "Fuck!"
Delenn couldn't help it. She giggled.
"You think it's funny that I lost?" His words were combative, but his tone was amused, playful. She shook her head, and then he was squeezing his arms around her, growling into her ear. "You do, don't you? You think it's hilarious that I just blew my ship up. You were just waiting to laugh at my failure."
"No, John!" Then a series of numbers and letters appeared on the main view screen, and he tapped at the top set. The number one, then JJS, then a very long number. Four hundred million and more.
"Look at that."
"What is JJS?"
"John J. Sheridan. That's me. I've got the top score." His initials also stood beside the numbers three, seven and eight.
"This is very impressive."
"Damned straight." He turned her in the circle of his arms, and it was almost too much, looking at his face when they were this close. "So what were you laughing at?"
"I ought not have laughed. I apologize."
"I'm not mad, Delenn. I just want to know." She shook her head again, and he squeezed her even closer. "Tell me." Shaking her head, laughing. He put his forehead against hers, shaking her gently back and forth. "Tell me tell me tell me."
"All right!" He pulled back, triumphant. "I cannot help but find that word humorous."
"What word? 'Fuck?'" She giggled again. "That's a very naughty word," he explained.
"To Humans, yes."
"Does it mean something else to a Minbari?"
"The fokk is a type of flower that grows in the lowlands, near Minbar's equator. A very pretty, highly fragrant flower." He was laughing, all bright eyes and dimples and white teeth. Delenn felt absolutely overcome with happiness. She was surprised she could remember to breathe. "Humans use that word when they are angry, and they shout it very forcefully, their hairy eyebrows squeezed together, their faces twisted. Fokk! You might as well shout roses!" John was laughing so hard his eyes were squeezed shut, and he collapsed against her, put his head on her shoulder. His arms came up tight around her back. Delenn let herself slide her own arms up around his shoulders, one hand to the back of his head. She tentatively ran the tips of her fingers through his blond hair, surprised at the softness of the texture.
He was still gasping out laughter against her neck. Delenn was surprised; she had not expected him to also find the humor in the play on words. Unless he thought that by pointing this out, she was...how had he put it? Making fun of herself?
Now John pulled himself back upright, wiping wetness away from his face. "Oh my God. Roses." He put his hands on either side of her head, right on the bone, and then pressed his lips hard against her forehead. Delenn was positive she felt her heart stop. He leaned back, his hands sliding down to her face. "Mark my words. By the end of this week, I'll have every kid in that school shouting roses! when they get pissed. It's going to be completely amazing."
Delenn's face hurt, and she realized she had never smiled this much in her entire life. John grabbed her hand, flung open the door to the Starfury, and pulled her back out into the arcade.
They played every game in the arcade. Delenn was particularly good at the memory game, which required you to tap out a sequence of lights and colors in order. They climbed into a VR pod together and flew over the Amazon rainforest in a hang glider. John did extremely well on the sports simulations, and she watched appreciatively as he threw and caught and hit differently shaped balls. His whole demeanor changed then; he grew more serious, the lines of his face settling into an almost-there image that made Delenn wonder what he would look like in another ten years. Would he look more like this focused and disciplined man than the otherwise playful and rambunctious boy he was now?
At many of the games, they had collected slips of paper with numbers printed on them. Now John took her to a counter in the back and they turned the papers over. A machine counted them.
"Six hundred forty-three," the adolescent Human girl behind the counter said, her voice so bored that Delenn had a hard time understanding her. It didn’t help that she would not face them directly, would not even lift her head from the lectern in her lap.
"So we've got six hundred tickets. You can pick out anything six hundred or less, or a combination that adds up to that."
"Pick out what?"
"See all the prizes?" She had thought this to be another game. There were shelves and displays filled with odd objects. Most of them were so strange, Delenn could not even begin to guess what their purpose might be.
"You won most of the games. You should have the prize," she said, feeling unreasonably shy again.
"No. You pick." She scanned the prizes, and she hated moments like this, when she was confronted with something so utterly Earther in origin that she had no frame of reference. That large object shaped like a hand but made out of some kind of soft material - for what reason might one need such a thing?
"I don't know, John. You choose. You choose something you think I would like." He made a humming noise at that, pacing up and down in front of the counter. She was preparing to tell him that it was really not important when he pointed to one of the highest shelves.
"There. I'll take the blue bear." The Human girl sighed loudly and pulled over a very short platform upon which to stand, and retrieved the object. It was an animal? Surely that could not be right. John grabbed it out of the girl's hands and turned to Delenn, grinning wildly again. He made a strange sound. "Rawr."
"What is it?" Now that it was closer, she could see it was not alive, but was instead a soft fabric filled with some kind of stuffing. Its face bore a sweet smile, and its eyes were hard and shiny.
"It's a teddy bear." John held it close, bussed its nose against hers. She giggled, rubbing at her nose. He handed the stuffed creature to her. "It's for you." It was rare for Minbari to give gifts - to receive one was a great honor. She clutched the bear to her chest, biting her lip even though she knew it was doing no good. She could feel tears coming to her eyes.
"Thank you," she whispered. John's smile died away, and he looked at her with the same focus he'd worn on his face when he had played the sports simulations. He brought a hand to her face, thumb wiping away the single tear that had escaped. He moved closer to her, his head tilting to one side.
Then the doors to the arcade flew open with a great clamor, and three young men loudly entered. Two she did not recognize, but the one in front was the spotted-faced adolescent from Earth History. The one who had "made fun" of her and the textbook.
"Well, if it isn't John Sheridan," he said now in a tone of voice that Delenn could only think of as slimy. "And here I am, showing up to knock off that top score of yours."
"You keep telling yourself that, George," John replied, his tone light, but he moved to stand in front of her, and she could see his hands clenched into fists.
"Is that the little Minbari girl? How adorable." The disdain in his voice made her stomach turn, and she wanted to place a hand on John's back; she wanted that comfort. Instead she just clasped her hands tightly together and stared at the floor. "You didn't waste any time, Sheridan."
"I don't know what the fuck you're talking about." Nothing about that word was funny now. A very angry energy was in the air, and Delenn wanted to take John's hand and pull him out of this place, back out into the sunshine and fresh air.
"Hey, bony! Did he tell you why he brought you here?"
John stepped forward, his voice a rough growl. "You ever call her that again, I swear to God..."
"So chivalrous, such a gentleman. That's your big weapon, right? That and your big smile. Makes all the girls just go wild. He's just trying to get you into bed, bony. John Sheridan, the school slut. You're just another notch on his bedpost. It's funny, though. I thought he'd wait at least a day or two before making his move." Then the spotted boy wasn't speaking any more, because John strode forward and punched him in the face.
The other two boys jumped in, and it was hard to tell exactly what was going on in the dim light. Delenn looked over the counter for something she could use; the bored Human girl was speaking into the com unit on the wall. There, a heavy sphere of glass, objects trapped inside; Judith had one on her desk to hold down her papers. Delenn picked it up, and went to the cluster of fighting adolescents. John had the spotted boy down on the floor, and hit him again in the face as she approached. One of the companions was behind John, his arm around his throat; the other came up and kicked John hard in the back.
Delenn grabbed that one’s shoulder, and brought the glass sphere down on the back of his head. She angled it at the last moment so that it would glance off his skull; otherwise, she knew she would have crushed it. The boy fell to the floor, limp, unconscious. The second boy released John's throat, scrambling back with fear in his eyes. She grabbed the back of John’s shirt and dragged him back with all her strength, which was considerable. He nearly flew to his feet.
“Enough!” she shouted, and there was a beat of stunned silence from everyone; the boys who had just been fighting, the dozen spectators who had clustered around. Delenn could see everyone waiting for her to say something else, but she was suddenly very tired. She walked back to the counter and set the glass sphere back down upon it. The Human girl was staring at her with hostility, not even bothering to try to conceal it.
“I just called security,” she said, lip actually curling up. “I told them we should just ban you boneheads from the whole mall.”
Movement in her peripheral vision. John was kneeling, picking up the blue bear from the floor. He held it out to her. She pretended she didn’t see the gesture and walked to the arcade’s entrance. After a moment, she heard John follow.
Driving. Now John’s hands were firmly on the wheel, his eyes firmly on the road. There was blood drying on the corner of his mouth, blood on his knuckles. Delenn wouldn’t let herself look at it. Neither would she allow herself to even glance at the blue bear sitting up next to the front glass. She knew it was there, though, its hard and shiny eyes looking her way. She had thought it to be a true gift, something given out of affection and kindness. Instead it was just part of the game, part of John’s game.
That was why he had grown so very angry, why he had been willing to physically spar with the spotted boy. The boy had revealed the truth. There was no other reason why he had sat with her at lunch, had hugged her in the hallway, had brought her to that place. She had been so naive. She had seen the way the orange-haired girl had looked at him at lunch, the looks he’d garnered from other females as they’d walked to the arcade; he could have any girl he wanted. He would not want her.
She had her lectern out, and entered in the words the spotted boy had said. She didn’t struggle to remember them; it was quite easy.
To get someone into bed - a slang term for seduction. Seduction - to entice another to engage in sexual activity.
Slut - someone who is sexually promiscuous.
Notches on the bedpost - slang for having a great number of sexual partners.
Delenn slipped her lectern back into her robes with numb fingers. “It’s not true,” John said, his voice slightly hoarse. “What he said. It’s not true.” She nodded absently. At least he did not find her so unattractive that he would be unwilling to consider her as a sexual partner. That was not much comfort, but she would take what little comfort she could.
John turned onto her street, and there was the house up ahead. Judith was sitting on the front porch, mobile to her ear, and even from this distance Delenn could see that she had been crying. Had something happened to Livia? She didn’t wait until John had finished parking his vehicle; she tugged off her restraint and flung open her door.
Judith saw her, relief on her face. “Liv, she’s here,” she said, then closed her mobile and ran down the path toward her. “Delenn, thank God.” Judith crushed her close in a hug. “I was so worried about you.”
For a second, Delenn wondered why Judith would have been worried about her. Then she noticed the quality of light - it was quite late, nearly sunset. It must have been...she had to think; converting time still took her a moment of concentration. At least four hours since she would have arrived at the house after school ended. Three hours since Judith returned from work. Now she was holding Delenn out at arm’s length, searching her face.
“I thought maybe you’d stayed late, but when you didn’t come home, I called the school, and no one could find you. And there were no messages. Delenn, you can’t do that.” She could not stand to see the worry and anger on Judith’s face, and found herself crying (how many times will you cry today, Delenn?), her stomach twisting into knots. “You have to call. I had no idea where you were.”
“It was my fault.” John’s voice, behind her. “I took her to the arcade after school. I should have remembered to call, and I didn’t. It was my fault.” She didn’t want to, but she turned around. Delenn looked fully at his face for the first time since leaving the arcade. Not only was there blood on the corner of his mouth, his bottom lip was swollen and split, and the skin around his left eye was growing dark.
“And who are you?” Judith asked, not sounding very friendly.
“This is John. He’s in my History class.” Judith looked at him very closely, then put an arm around Delenn’s shoulders and drew her toward the house.
“Come inside, John.”
“Come inside the house.” Judith didn’t bother turning around, or waiting to see if he followed her directions. She swept Delenn inside, and as she crossed the threshold Delenn could not decide whether she wanted him to follow or not.
Delenn scooped ice into a dishtowel, then handed it to Judith, who arranged it over John’s dark eye. He winced.
“When did you get in a fight, John?” Judith sounded like a warrior, someone used to delivering orders and expecting those commands to be followed. Delenn wondered if John would look quite so subdued and nervous if he knew that Judith was a primary school teacher.
“At the arcade, ma’am.”
John hesitated. She did not want him to tell Judith the truth; she did not want to be embarrassed in front of her, did not want to listen to another lecture on interacting with Humans her own age. “Some adolescent males were in the arcade. They said cruel things to me. They called me names. John felt compelled to defend my honor.” She hadn’t meant for that last sentence to sound so sarcastic, but it did, and she saw John recognize it. His uncovered eye dropped to the floor, and Delenn was stung by the look of sadness on his face.
“I see.” Delenn had only been living with Judith for five days, and had already heard I see at least one hundred times. “Are you staying for dinner, John?” He looked at Delenn, eye wary. She didn’t know what was on her own face. Evidently it was not welcoming, because John shook his head lightly. She wondered that she already knew him so well, that she could tell his light tone was not really all that light.
“I figure Delenn’s seen enough of me. Probably had enough fun for one day.” He stood, and the kick had obviously hurt his back. No matter that his motives might not have been pure in spending time with her today; no matter that in a few days he would likely turn to a new target. She had experienced a great deal of pleasure in his company today, and he had attempted to defend her honor at risk to his own physical safety.
“I would like you to stay for dinner. That is, if you would like to stay.” He looked up at her, surprised at first, and then a slow smile spread over his face. Before it grew wide enough to expose the divots in his cheeks on either side of his mouth, though, he winced and put his fingers to his bottom lip.
“I don’t want you two under foot while I’m trying to cook. Delenn, why don’t you show John your room.” Judith switched to Adronato. “Unless there is any reason this adolescent male should not have admittance to your bedroom?”
Delenn couldn’t help the first thought that popped into her mind. There is a reason, Judith. He is apparently a slut. He will attempt to notch me to his bedpost. Instead she just smiled and shook her head.
“John, call your parents first.”
They went down the stairs to the bottom level of the house, the one mostly underground, John behind her and speaking into his mobile. "Yes, Mom. I know when my curfew is, okay? Fine." He snapped the device shut with a sigh. Delenn wished she could return to a few minutes earlier. She wished she would have kept her mouth shut, and let John return home. The next hour at least would be very awkward. She no longer knew how to interact with him, how to talk to him. How could she trust anything he said or did in the future? She could still be nice to him, but her hopes that he would become her first friend her own age here on Earth had been shattered.
They entered her room. Delenn did not expect John to look around with such a dumbfounded expression on his face. It was though he had never seen a bedroom before. She watched him wander over to one side, where her candles and mat were set up for meditation. He looked down at everything for a moment, then lowered himself with a wince to the floor.
"I've been trying to learn how to meditate," he said. Was this part of the game? Delenn hated that she didn't know. She sat down beside him.
"I've been getting into Buddhism lately. It really helps me a lot, you know, with school and stuff. To concentrate, to not freak out and get stressed when I have a lot of homework or practice isn't going well. But I'm still not very good at the meditation thing." Delenn would never have guessed this particular Human to be interested in meditation, but his words had the ring of truth. She lit a few candles, and against her better judgment dimmed the main lights. They sat in silence for several long minutes, and Delenn found herself slipping into the first stages of a light meditative state as she watched the flickering candle lights. So it was that when John slid his hand over to grasp hers she didn't jerk her hand away but instead curled her fingers around his, squeezing gently.
"I'm sorry," he said. "George is a complete pus-head and he's hated me since junior high, but I still shouldn't have let him get me that mad. But I'm not a slut. It probably seems that I am because I haven't had a steady girlfriend in over a year, and I hang out with a lot of different girls, but...God, this is embarrassing. I've only slept with one girl, my last girlfriend, and it was kind of fucked up. So yeah, I fool around, but I don't just try to get a bunch of girls into bed." A pause, and Delenn wanted to believe him, but George's version made more sense to her. She'd been too surprised and delighted to wonder why this Human male would want to hold her hand and hug her close and spend so much time with her. That she was simply a conquest was easier to understand than any possible alternative.
"But I can't lie to you," he went on. "I can't say that I wasn't thinking about kissing you, that I hadn't thought about...anything else. But if I ask you out on another date, or ask if I can kiss you goodnight, you'll probably just think it's me trying to get into your pants. And I don't want you to think that. But can we still be friends? I'd really like to be your friend."
She nodded, squeezing his hand again. And for a moment it didn't matter to her why he wanted to kiss her - he wanted to kiss her, and she wanted him to kiss her, too. "I want to be friends."
He sighed at that. They sat in front of the candles for another half an hour, and Delenn expected to feel too distracted to meditate properly, too aware of his presence, his hand around hers. But instead everything felt perfectly natural, as though they had sat like this together a hundred times before. Distantly she heard Judith calling them upstairs to eat. John stirred first, and helped her to her feet. Delenn ignored the voice in her head that usually urged caution and restraint, and leaned up to place a light kiss on his jaw.
"Thank you. Today was wonderful."
"I screwed it up."
"No." There was no guile in his eyes as he looked down at her, nothing but warmth and affection and a sheen of relief. Delenn knew in that moment that she could trust him. She took his hand, and led him to the stairs.
Chapter Three - Choices