Ivanova required very few things. Food. It didn't have to be good, it just had to be there. Somewhere to sleep. It didn't have to be comfortable, it just had to be there. A job. It didn't have to be interesting, it just had to be there. That's what she required. What she preferred was a different story. Normally she didn't think much about what she ate, but every now and then she'd find herself missing some Earth food seemingly out of the blue; today she couldn't stop thinking about the apple walnut strudel she used to buy from a street vendor in Prague during one of her summers there. The lumpy porridge she’d eaten in the mess this morning was truly dreadful, especially since she was thinking of flaky pastry and warm gooey filling and perfect crunchy nuts, and watching Sheridan happily gobble the porridge down with a smile on his face hadn’t helped.
Normally, Ivanova preferred her CO to be happy. Relaxed. Getting along with the crew, doing his job, everything nice and easy. She preferred that to pretty much every alternative, maybe even more than she preferred her subordinates doing what she asked before she had the chance to ask. But today...they were both in C and C, dealing with some truly spectacular docking bay snafu, and she would have been annoyed anyway. But to see Sheridan standing beside her, smiling out at the universe like some benevolent minor god, a sign above his head flashing “got some!” It was just too much. It was enough to make your teeth ache.
“So? You gonna spill?”
“Spill what?” he asked, and she was surprised the grin didn’t wrap around his whole head. She cocked her head at him, glared her very best glare, but it just bounced off that smile.
“Yesterday I was afraid you were going to march down to the Zocolo and just start shooting. Today I’m afraid you’re going to march down to the Zocolo and just start hugging. Also, you gave me the code. That code is never to be used except in the utmost of need. Using my keen deductive reasoning, I conclude that you solved your girl problem last night. So. You gonna spill?”
Sheridan turned back to the console, ordered a Drazi ship to back off, then just sighed. Ivanova had never heard a more girly sound in her entire life.
“Oh, come on!”
They were on their way up to Medlab. There’d been a minor scuffle in Brown Sector, a security guard had been roughed up, and Sheridan wanted to check on him. Ivanova wracked her brain trying to figure out who his new conquest was. What women had she seen the Captain around lately? There was Jensen, whose communications console was close to the Captain’s console in C and C. But no, he’d walked right by her several times this morning and hadn’t once glanced her way. One of the pilots? But the more she thought about it, the more she just couldn’t picture him sleeping with an officer, someone under his command. A civvie? She didn’t think this was a one-night stand kind of thing; he’d been stewing and fretting over whoever she was for a couple days, and Ivanova couldn’t even imagine when he’d have had time recently to meet and then worry about a civilian.
Then they’d passed Ambassador Delenn in the corridor, and Sheridan’s head had swung around like it was a magnet and the Minbari was the North Pole. Delenn had looked at him with coquettish eyes, and Ivanova was sure she’d seen tiny pink hearts appear in the air between the two of them.
Shit shit shit. This was the last thing she needed to deal with. If ISN found out, it would be the biggest story since Santiago’s assassination. Starkiller, making time with Minbar’s ambassador to Babylon 5. The hell was he thinking?
She sulked her way into security, still trying to figure out what to do about Sheridan and Delenn. Ivanova knew it would end up on her desk, whatever the fall-out turned out to be, and that there would be fall-out she had no doubt. Garibaldi was lounging behind his desk, reading reports. He glanced up at her, then he was on his feet, eyes wide.
“So? Did you find out? Who is it?”
“Damn. I actually spent half an hour watching him on secure cam today; he was walking on a mission somewhere, and I thought, this is it, but he ended up just going to Green Sector.”
“I think we should just let him be,” Ivanova said, studying her nails. “Let him have some privacy.”
Garibaldi got very quiet then, and Ivanova cursed herself. The Chief got up in her face, nodding slowly, then held up a finger. Pointed it at her. Damn it. “You know. You know who it is.”
“I don’t know who it is!”
“You know. Tell me. Tell me!”
“Tell him what?” They both spun around, and Sheridan was leaning against the door as casual as could be.
“Michael’s in a fever to figure out what I got him for his birthday,” Ivanova lied smoothly, not a pause or a single tell. She could see that Sheridan had completely forgotten about Garibaldi’s birthday next week, and that in his embarrassment his own suspicions about what they’d been discussing would be forgotten. Why hadn’t she roped him into a poker game yet? He was an open book, and she could clean him out.
“Right. Yeah, I’ve picked out something pretty special, too. Anyway, just thought I’d check in before I turned in for the night.” They both shook their heads, and Sheridan smiled again, turned and left. Ivanova wanted to punch him right in the throat. Smug happy bastard.
“If he’s going back to his own quarters alone then I’ve got a full head of hair,” Garibaldi said, sitting down in front of the secure cam screens, hitting buttons until Sheridan came up, striding through the station.
“Michael, just let him be.”
“Look, there’s always the possibility that someone’s going to go after him, some crazy. If he’s seeing someone, she could be a target. I should know who she is, just in case.”
Ivanova leaned over Garibaldi’s chair, watching Sheridan steadily make his way toward Green Sector. “That’s not the reason you want to know, and you know it.”
“You’re right. I have just got to find out who's responsible for the shit-eating grin he’s had on his face all day. Huh. I didn’t see him answer his link. He’s going back to Green Sector.” Ivanova waited. One thousand one, one thousand two. “Green Sector. He’s going...to Green Sector.” Then they watched Sheridan ring for entry, rocking back on his heels. Watched the door open, Delenn right behind it. Watched Sheridan check both ways down the corridor, then lean in for a kiss. Watched Delenn laugh, draw him inside.
A long beat of silence.
“Well,” Garibaldi said, “I’ll be a son of a bitch.”
Tonight Sheridan was going to be a good boy. He was going to sleep, and let Delenn watch him sleep, and he wasn’t going to do anything to mess that up. She had bought salads for the two of them, some kind of Minbari pod thing that wasn’t half-bad, though he wouldn’t want a steady diet of it. They ate at her little table, talked about their day. So utterly domestic. Tonight the thought of her just sitting beside the bed and watching him didn’t fill him with any sense of dread; he found himself almost looking forward to it. He could tell it was important to her, and so it had become important to him.
He knew Ivanova had figured it out. He’d been helpless not to stare at Delenn when they passed in the corridor, and Ivanova was sharp as a tack. If she knew, it was only a matter of time before Garibaldi knew. And Franklin would end up batting his big brown eyes and one of the two of them would surrender. That was okay. He didn’t mind the three of them knowing; they’d keep it to themselves. Sheridan had kind of wanted to keep it a secret for awhile, something for just him and Delenn to share, but it obviously wasn’t meant to be.
They had finished eating, and he was washing the dishes. Delenn came up behind him, put her arms around his waist, and rested her head between his shoulder blades. The slight pressure of her bone crest was surprisingly comforting.
“I’m very happy,” she said, and he could feel her warm breath through his white shirt.
“Me, too. I think I’m probably more happy.” He could feel her head shaking against his back, telling him no. His face hurt from smiling. He’d only felt this way twice before, and both those memories were unavoidably clouded by what had happened afterward; this memory was going to stay perfect. He would remember these first days with her when he was an old man, and wonder that he had been so lucky.
Sheridan dried off the last dish, and turned in the circle of her arms. He drew his fingers through her hair, pulling all of it forward to hang in front of her shoulders, traced the soft curls.
“I am told that human men find hair attractive.”
“Yes,” he breathed, running his finger along the bottom of her crest, feeling the hairs growing out from it, smiling at the shiver he watched course through her body.
“Why?” He realized that she’d managed to tug his shirt free from his trousers, and now her hands made their way over the bare skin of his lower back. She was drawing little circles with her index fingers, and he had to close his eyes for a second.
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s just hard-wired in. Same way we...” He hadn’t managed to stop himself in time. She looked up at him through her lashes.
“Same way we what? What else do human men find attractive?”
“Breasts. They are masses of tissue used to produce milk and feed infants. What is attractive about them?” He shrugged. How could he explain to an alien why human males liked tits? Delenn glanced down at her own chest. “I’m afraid I don’t have much to offer in that respect.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“It’s only the truth.”
“It just so happens I prefer quality over quantity, although you shouldn’t worry about that, either. Your breasts are perfect.” Hmm. Maybe that hadn’t been the right way to answer that. She was making eyes at him. “Not that I’ve been staring. Looking. Not that I’ve been looking.”
“You were quite interested in the hole in my dress during our dinner.”
“So,” she said, and her fingers were making lazy passes up and down his spine. “What else?”
“Legs.” She nodded at that, apparently fully aware that her legs were outstanding. She kept looking at him, waiting for more. “The ass.”
“You find...no, I know that word. Wait. You find donkeys attractive?” Sheridan slid one hand down, as little pressure as he could, and rested it gently on the rise of her ass. A light tap. She looked at him with a mixture of confusion and amusement. “That? Why?”
He shrugged again, starting to laugh. “The mere fact of its existence, I guess. So what body parts do Minbari find attractive?”
“We do not concern ourselves much with physical appearance. We find intellect attractive, and spirit, and courage.” He nodded. Any discussion about the differences between their two cultures usually made him feel like a bit of dolt, although he wondered how much of what she said was totally true, and how much of it was part of the image they wanted everyone to buy into. The Minbari definitely enjoyed thinking of themselves as the most noble of the races.
“But,” she said, and tilted her face up to kiss his chin. He smiled, and she drew one hand out of his shirt and placed a finger in his dimple. “I like this.” She traced that finger down the bridge of his nose. “And this.” His Adam’s apple. “And this.” Both hands ran along his shoulders. “And these.” She took his hands in hers. “And these.” He kissed her then, their hands clasped together. Yes. He would carry this memory with him till the day he died.
Sheridan had smuggled a robe down earlier, folded between stacks of papers and folders. He held it now, and waited for Delenn to emerge from her bedroom so he could change out of his uniform and toss it in the thermal unit. They’d have to stow changes of clothes in each other’s quarters; it would make things easier.
She opened her frosted panels, in one of her pretty silk nightgowns, and in the candlelight Delenn looked like some elven princess before him. Less than a week ago he had tossed and turned on the couch he was now sitting on, had been willing to give anything just for the chance to walk through those doors and enter her bedroom. Now he was going to, even if it was for a reason he never would have guessed before last night. Still, he’d like to travel back in time to less-than-a-week-ago Sheridan and give him a slap on the back, tell him just to be patient a little while longer.
“Come in,” she said, and he’d never heard anything sweeter in his life. Sheridan walked toward her, and could feel that this was a magical night, could see in her eyes that this was something truly momentous.
Then he saw her bed.
And he tried, he really tried, but he found himself chuckling, then laughing, then guffawing. Finally he leaned over, hands braced on his knees, and hoped he wouldn’t suffocate to death here in her bedroom, unable to suck in his next breath. He made himself stand straight, wiped the tears from his cheeks, and got his breathing under control. God almighty.
“What the fuck is that?” he couldn’t help but ask, still giggling, and he didn’t think he’d ever giggled before in his life, but Christ, was that actually her bed? Then he looked at her, and the mirth drained away so quickly it was as though it hadn’t been there at all. She looked devastated.
“This is my bed. You don’t want to sleep on it.” It wasn’t a question.
“I’m sorry. God, Delenn, I’m sorry. Of course I want to sleep on it. I just didn’t expect it. It’s...it’s very...”
“Minbari believe that to sleep in the horizontal tempts death.” Her voice was tight. Sheridan always tried to respect alien cultures, and usually felt he didn’t betray the times when something was just too weird, but he knew he’d fucked this up. “You should undress,” she said, going to the corner, pulling a chair over to her bed.
“Let me help you with that.”
“I’m fine.” She wasn’t looking his way, and with a leaden heart, Sheridan turned away.
Inside the head, he stared at himself in the mirror. For whatever reason she was going to continue with the ritual, but he didn’t know why. She’d already seen his true face. It was a face that laughed at her, at her customs, at her identity. She wouldn’t want to have anything to do with him after this. Numbly, Sheridan took off his rank, his EarthForce insignia, set them down on the little oddments table by the sink. Stripped off each article of clothing and put them in the thermal unit. Pulled on his robe. He leaned over the sink, eyes closed, finding it difficult to summon the courage to go back out there. The metal edge of the sink bit into the palms of his hands. He squeezed as hard as he could, welcoming the pain. He couldn’t hide in here forever, but it would be nice to hide just a little longer.
With a sigh, he opened the door. He walked into Delenn’s bedroom, eyes toward the chair beside the bed, but it was empty. He turned in a circle, looking. The entire room was empty.
“Delenn?” He stepped out into the front room of her quarters. Empty. Oh, God.
Sheridan stumbled back into her bedroom, sat down heavily in the chair. What had he done? How could he have been such a monumental idiot? He buried his face in his hands, wished a hole would open up in the floor beneath him and swallow him whole.
He heard her door open. She was back from wherever she’d gone. And now she was going to ask him to leave, tell him that she did not wish to ‘continue to explore their relationship,’ and he would have to walk back to his own quarters knowing that in just a few minutes he had managed to destroy what had swiftly become the most precious thing in the world to him.
She was standing right in front of him. He couldn’t make himself look up, couldn’t face her. One hand gently pressed his left shoulder, making him sit back in the chair. Sheridan opened his eyes. Her face was veiled in shadow, and he couldn’t tell what she was thinking. Then she hiked up her nightgown and robe, put a knee on either side of his legs, and climbed up onto his lap. She put her arms around his neck and just looked at him.
“Where did you go?” he asked, still unsure of what was going on.
“There is a storage room just down the hall. I went to see if it held any cots.” It was too much, and he turned away from her, tried to hide his face against the chair. He was afraid he was going to cry right in front of her, because he didn’t deserve her, he didn’t deserve even a single minute with her. Delenn kissed his eyelids, his cheeks, his lips, his forehead. Then she just held him, while he clutched at her.
“I would sleep hanging upside down from the ceiling by my ankles for you,” he finally said, face buried against her neck. She stroked the back of his head, his shoulder blade. “I would sleep on a bed of nails, in a hole in the ground. On the floor of the pak'ma'ra head. Naked in a pile of broken glass.”
“Shhh.” She scraped her nails along his scalp, kissed his temple. “I know.” She stood, put out a hand and helped him up, then untied his robe, slid it off his shoulders. Looked his body up and down, one hand running down his flank. “You’re beautiful,” she said. Delenn turned, pulled aside the sheets, and he climbed on. The angle wasn't as steep as it had seemed before. There was a moment when it felt like he was going to slide down, but he braced his feet against the bottom, knees slightly raised, and vowed he would not fall off.
"Lips," Sheridan said, and turned to look at Delenn. She was halfway to sitting down, her hands hovering above the armrests, and she paused.
"Human males also find lips attractive. You have lovely lips." She smiled at that, stood back up. Her head cocked a little to the side.
"And the waist. Especially where it curves into the hips." She joined him on the bed, a matter of leaning over and propping herself up on one elbow. He rolled over himself, rested his hand on her waist to demonstrate. Lying on her side was doing wonderful things to her cleavage. She let him look, that little smile on her face he loved. "And knees."
"Knees are not attractive," she laughed.
"They most certainly are. Especially if they’re your knees. And your feet, and toes, and ankles. Your elbows. The tip of your nose. The top of your nose." She was giggling now, an intoxicating sound. He felt like he was getting drunk off her, off the heady feeling of relief. "Your ears."
"Ears," she scoffed. He ran his finger along the curves of her ear, cupped her cheek in his hand.
"Your eyes. You have the most beautiful eyes. Your neck, your throat." She was leaning in for a kiss. Closer, closer... "Your knuckles." She drew back then, laughing, and put her fingers over his mouth.
"Stop being silly and go to sleep." Then he got his kiss, and she settled back down in her chair, hugged her knees to her chest.
Sheridan closed his eyes, let himself sink into the embrace of the universe, and hoped that maybe, just maybe, he was cherished.