John laughed and shook his head against the offer of another drink."No, thank you. I don't want to spend Christmas day with a hangover, thanks all the same."
"Captain, you're not leaving this early are you? It's getting into full swing now." Susan took another glass, while seizing John's other arm.
"After all that's happened, Susan, I was lucky to drag myself here at all." John scowled at the memory.
"Not the party mood?" Susan looked concerned.
"No --" The protest came out rather rushed. John shook his head. "I'm just exhausted. It is nice to see the garden from the correct height though, let me tell you."
"At least they forgot about the apology." Susan pointed out.
"Who says Christmas wishes don't come true." John gave her a one armed hug. "Goodnight, Susan. Happy Hanukkah."
"Merry Christmas." Susan looked after him as he slipped away. The singing group from the dock workers started another set of carols. The notes seemed to wave around him, leading him away. Susan wished he'd stayed. John needed to lighten up and have fun more often. "You better watch that sauce, Ivanova, I don't want to have to yank you out from under the bushes in the morning!" Michael laid a friendly hand on her back.
"I'll have you know, Mister Garibaldi, I never drink so much that I can't find my way to my own door."
"Let's just make sure you can find your way inside your own door."
John turned from the doorway, the sounds of revelry fading, but the music still strong. It had been fun, but he wanted to be alone. Holidays were so damn hard. A hundred more things to remind him of Anna. They had always been together for Christmas and New Years -- no matter where they were -- Their third Christmas after they married he'd been afraid she hadn't gotten the rendezvous information in time only to find her covered with ribbons and bows laying on his bed in his quarters. A few months after learning of her death he'd found a present he'd planned to give her, wrapped and hidden away. He'd sat on his floor, held it, wept, got drunk and finally threw it away, unopened.
Lizzie had already called, fussing about him. "You shouldn't be alone on Christmas, John." She had wanted to come with the boys for the holidays, but it had fallen through.
"I'll be all right, Lizzie. So much has been happening, I won't even notice it."
He'd lied. A flash of color at the turn of the corridor broke through his melancholy.
Is that Delenn? He wondered. What on earth is she doing here?
The Minbari Ambassador was leaning back against the side of the corridor, eyes closed. Her hands were folded on her chest. She was just standing there. A faint smile was on her serene face.
She's listening -- she's listening to the singing -- she probably doesn't want to intrude. John smiled. She looked all the world like a little kid hiding at the top of the stars to peek at the grownup's party after having been banished to bed.
"Ambassador?" He said, softly.
She jumped, eyes flying open. "Captain Sheridan."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. Can I help you?"
Her embarrassed flush was charming. Her hand touched her neck nervously.
"No, no. I was just listening. I was -- passing and I heard the singing, so I stopped to listen." She looked abashed. "I hope you are not offended."
"No, no, of course not." John hoped his grin wasn't too foolish. "How did you like it? The music?"
"I liked it very much." Delenn regained her composure.
"The singers are mostly dockers. They've practiced for weeks. They've really gotten good." John went on. "I'd tell you to go down and hear them, but the party's going strong and everyone's a bit to the wind by now."
"A bit to the wind?" Delenn looked puzzled.
"Oh. Is this customary for a religious holiday?"
"No. But Christmas has been celebrated as a secular holiday as well for thousands of years. In fact, it used to be traditional to have warmed wine for guests as a symbol of welcoming at Christmas."
"I have been told that Christmas is very important to your people."
"Yes. Its a holiday for all of our best qualities and sharing them with your loved ones." John felt rather than heard his voice trail off.
"Captain, are you all right?" Delenn looked concerned.
"Yes. It's just hard sometimes, with my family so far away. I miss them, this time of year." John looked at her face, and suddenly wasn't as tired as he was a few minutes before. "I was just -- on my way to my office to look down at the lights. They look very pretty from the window up there. Would you like to see them?"
She smiled. "Yes, I would like that."
They walked slowly together, comfortable friends. John felt again the rush of warm pleasure that her company brought him. Who would have thought it? His mind turned the puzzle over. She and I, friends. I was surprised, all the rest of the Minbari couldn't stand the sight of me -- though, Lennier cut me a little slack -- but Delenn, well, she was kind. When she heard about the Cortez, she came to see me -- starstuff? He shook his head in wonder. And when that Minbari was killed, she didn't believe the worst of me. God, she was so brave to go help the Markab -- and stubborn! The image of that meeting between them resurfaced in his memory. She had been so, so resolute -- and so beautiful --
John looked down at the woman walking beside him. Delenn met his gaze and smiled.
It was at that moment that he'd realized how beautiful she was. Not just looks, no, that had happened in the Fresh Aire when she'd walked in the black dress and apologized for being late. She'd taken his breath away then. No -- when she touched his hand, his face and told him not to look away -- that he'd realized how beautiful she was -- to him. And then afterwards, with Sebastian --
Stop woolgathering, John!
"When I was a kid my dad was a diplomat, so we were traveling a lot." He began as they stepped into the lift. She looked up at him, listening. "Blue Four. So I got to see Christmas from all over the place. One year Dad had to go to the Mars Colony for a series of peace talks, and Lizzie, my sister, she was really little -- Anyway, she figured Santa Claus couldn't find us because we were in route home for Christmas. Oh, do you know about Santa Claus?"
"The Good Giver of Gifts to children? He's associated with a sleigh and deer?" she asked, hesitantly.
"Yes, that's right." The lift doors opened and they stepped out.
"We have a similar custom on Minbar."
"You do? We have more in common every time we talk together, it seems. So, we got back and while everybody else went to bed I stayed up all night putting together a mouse village for Lizzie so she would think Santa had come late just for her." Sheridan smiled at the memory. "God, that thing took hours to put together! And I was working in next to no light so I wouldn't wake anybody -- every sound seemed ten times louder. But it was cute, with little mice homes, and a little church, and a train. It was that train that took the longest. I was putting all the toy mice in place when I heard a noise out in the front of the house. And for a moment, just a moment, I thought it might be the real Santa Claus."
"What was it?" Delenn asked, curious.
"I went to the window and peeked out from behind the edge of the drape. Standing in the yard in front of the house was an elk. That's a type of deer, only much bigger with this large ruff of fur and big, big antlers. It just stood in the moonlight, staring at the house. I really felt like it saw me. I couldn't move, I just stood there, staring at it. It was snowing, and it was so quiet. God, it was beautiful. I've never forgotten it. I like to think that Santa Claus visited me after all."
"Perhaps he did. Did your sister like the -- Mouse Village?" She paused a bit over the unfamiliar phrase.
"Oh yeah, she loved it. She still has the silly thing. She and the boys set it up under the tree every year." He smiled fondly at the thought.
Funny, he hadn't thought about that story in years. Yet, while telling Delenn it came warmly back, comforting him. Seeing the elk had been one of the most beautiful moments of his life.
They turned the corner into his office and stopped short. John's jaw dropped, and Delenn gave a small gasp of delight.
His office had been decorated.
"A mad pack of Christmas elves have overrun my office," Sheridan remarked, cheerfully. "And I have a suspicion that one of their names is Susan, another is Michael with a good dose of Stephen thrown in."
Swags of greenery were over his desk and the windows, winking with fairy lights. Ornaments hid in the green folds while silk ribbons made lazy trails through the boughs.
Good God, they'd even flocked the edges of the windows. Sheridan shook his head in amazement as he stepped farther in. Unlit votives in glass were on his desk, as well as a tray of cookies and a large card.
John picked up the card. A large Santa dressed in green and white walked through the snow surrounded by friendly polar bears. He opened it.
It said: John Sheridan, it's Christmas Day. Go Home and Rest!! It was signed by Susan, Michael, Stephen, and the rest of C&C.
John closed the card with a chuckle. Three bottles were by the tray. One of mock cider, one of spiced wassail (just warm, drink and make no decisions requiring depth perception- the label warned), and a bottle of twenty year old Irish whiskey. A small silver box of real chocolate in the shape of leaves was to the other side. The cookies were dark, with powdered sugar in lace designs on the top. Their spicy, dark smell rose pleasantly. Michael's handiwork, John knew. Garibaldi had made Susan a batch in star of David shapes decorated with bright blue sugar crystals. A pound of REAL coffee with a big silk bow.
John was so touched for a moment he couldn't speak.
"Perhaps they knew you would be missing your family." Delenn's voice was soft.
"Yeah. I guess you're right. They're such good people. I don't know how I'm going to thank them." John looked over the gifts, fingertips lightly touching one of the silk ribbons.
"You may have thanked them already."
"By being their friend." Delenn reached out and touched his hand. "You're a good friend, John. Is it so uncommon for that to be remembered?"
John looked at her gentle face and felt the warmth of her and. "No -- not by friends like these." Taking up her hand, he led her to the window. "Let's look at the lights and see if anyone is still standing." Rather than standing, John guided her to the sofa so they could look over the back. It was a little more comfortable, he supposed.
The garden looked magical. The little trees, the hedges, the shrubs and doorways all sparkled with white fairy lights. Throughout the maze, small red lamps glowed warmly. Ornaments, mirror, crystals and garlands reflected the light with tiny rainbows. The party's Christmas tree looked stately in center of it all.
The party was still in full swing. People were laughing and talking together in small clusters. A few people were exchanging small gifts. The Carolers were still singing, and a few others were accompanying them. John noticed that some couples were dancing near the entrance to the maze. Anna had loved to dance. The first words out of her mouth whenever they had been invited to a holiday function was, "Will there be dancing?" Sometimes he'd felt so clumsy and awkward next to her. She was always so graceful, so light, and she could go on and on --
"Why do they kiss?" Delenn's voice startled him out of his reverie.
He turned to her, thinking he'd misheard. "What?"
"Why do they kiss?" Delenn asked again.
John looked to where she was pointing. Over one of the benches by the Zen garden someone had hung some artificial mistletoe. It was creating a case of sitter beware. Ivanova had just been caught by Michael who gave her a friendly kiss on the mouth and a warm bear hug. A few others standing near by were smiling, having been caught themselves.
John felt the back of his neck flush.
"Uh, It's a uh, well, It's an old Christmas custom." He paused, rubbing his blushing neck. Get a grip, John. "Well, you see that bit of greenery over the bench?"
"Yes, I see it now." She leaned forward to get a better look. Her fragrance lightly caressed him. John felt very warm. Her lips were soft and red.
"It's called mistletoe. You hang it around at Christmas time, usually over a seat or a doorway. If you get caught under it, someone can give you a kiss." John hoped he didn't sound too embarrassed. He gave a furtive glance around the office to see if there was any. No, none seemed in evidence.
Good, let's not risk a diplomatic incident. John glanced back at her, as she gazed out. She turned and met his eyes, still trying to understand. Her green eyes took his breath away. Then again, the risk might be worth it. Stop it, John! She might be your friend, but she's still the ambassador from Minbar!
"Is it a very old custom?" Delenn asked, still curious.
"Very. It predates Christianity, if I remember right. It used to be a... fertility charm. When Christianity absorbed the Winter holiday, it became a variation on the Kiss of Peace." She was so close to him now, all he had to do was lean forward and his lips would be touching hers, feeling their warmth. He'd lose himself in that redness, that softness, that beauty. Just one gentle touch to chase away the dark...
"So this was not always a Christian holiday?" She looked confused.
John pulled back a bit. What the hell am I doing? "Uh, no. All human cultures had a Winter holiday of some sort that was a sort of thumbing your nose at the Darkness."
"A triumph of Light?" She smiled, pleased.
"Yes. Now Christmas basically stands for them all, except Hanukkah which is on a separate calendar." John got to his feet with a grin. "We can see everything, but now we can't hear the music. But, I think I can find something."
John looked around his desk and searched through his crystals. He'd listened to Holiday music in his office earlier that day. It hadn't lifted his spirits very much at the time, but now he was glad he had it. Found it!
He slid it into the player and music from arcane instruments began to play.
She smiled, charmed by the sound.
"Would you?" he began, hesitating. Delenn looked lovely, the colors in her robes shimmering in the lights. "Would you dance with me?"
Uncertain, she rose to her feet. "I am not familiar with Human dances, some seem quite complex," she started, moving forward towards him.
He moved to her and took her hand. "I'll show you how. Here," he slowly put an arm around her waist. Delenn moved her arm to his waist, mirroring him. "No, wait. Put your hand on my arm, yes, like that, and I hold your hand like this." He gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile, but having her that close to him made his breath a little quick. "Okay, while I step forward, you take a step back -- no wait -- the other foot, yes, then we step to the side, yeah, then I step back and you forward, and then to the side again. Okay, now that's the basic box step." He waited for the next song to start. "Now, wait for the music and just flow into it."
The first notes of the Carol of the Bells started. After a moment of clumsiness from gazing at her feet and getting them backward, Delenn found the motion. She smiled happily as she got the hang of it. They stumbled a little as the sweeping music caught up, and laughed together. When the first song ended, they didn't move away from each other. They moved together into the next song, and the next...
O Come Emanuel went into a piccolo trumpet solo; they stopped, held in the spell of the beautiful notes. John noticed for the first time how close they had drawn together while they were dancing. If he moved a hairsbreadth forward, he would be able to feel her heartbeat, hear her breathe. All it would take was a step and she would be in his embrace. Just a step, and she would be close enough to kiss.
He took a step back, letting his arms slip away from her as the last notes died away.
Delenn looked at him, her eyes alight. "Thank you, John. That was wonderful."
John smiled at her. His hand ached to reach out and touch her hair. "I'm glad you liked it. Would you like a drink?"
"Is there something without alcohol?"
"Yes, I think so." John went to his desk, found two mugs and said a silent thanks that they were both clean. He opened the mock cider and poured into both cups. He peeled the wrapping back from the cookies and their spicy scent filled the office. Delenn sat in one of the chairs and took one of the cups and drank gratefully. John ate a couple of the cookies with pleasure.
She took one and nibbled it slowly, savoring it. Delenn leaned forward and picked up something small and green.
Uh oh. John thought. She found those silly reindeer. Reaching over she found something red in the greenery. Yep, there's the other one. John grinned ruefully. She held them up with a soft sound of pleasure. Usual reaction, John grinned wider.
They were two tiny wooden reindeer, one red and one green. They were small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. They were handmade and even John had to admit that they were mighty cute. His nephews had given them to him one Christmas a few years ago when they were instructed to "Give Uncle Johnny something small that he can take on the ship with him." The greatest charm of the deer were that they fit together like puzzle pieces. This always caused his nephews to scream, "Look! Look! They're kissing!!" And everyone else who saw it remark on how 'sweet' it was. So Sheridan made a habit of keeping them as far apart as possible when he had them out.
Delenn turned them over in her hands, clearly enchanted with them. After studying them for a moment, she put them together.
"Oh no, now I've got kissing deer in my office. That's what my nephews always say when you put them together. That they're kissing."
She looked at him with dancing eyes. "But we have no mistletoe for them."
"I'll have to get some for them, then." John smiled and said deliberately "Maybe they're just very fond of each other."
Delenn set them down in the greenery with care, still joined together. "That way they won't get lost." She shyly glanced at him.
John's heart sped up. Good grief, John!! You're going to be stammering like a kid with his first crush in a minute. "No, we can't let that happen. They need each other." He said, softly.
Suddenly, self-consciously, she touched the back of her neck with one hand.
John stifled a grin. She'd done that before, that time in the garden.
"On Minbar," she smiled at him. "Our holiday is called S'mar'farr. It too is a celebration of Light. The custom is that the spirits of Kailraie walk through the night going from home to home and leave presents for children. Novices from the temple will dress in pale robes and veil themselves and will carry out the task." Her smile grew merrier. "Sometimes, if a home has no children, a small surprise for the household pet will be given."
"Oh, yeah? When I was a kid, if Santa didn't leave a present for my dog Bonky, I would've raised the roof." He laughed at the memory. Sometimes Bonky's Christmas list was as long as his own.
"The elders of the house would bring out gifts to be added and given to those of service; telepaths, and people of the temple. They will bring warm drinks to those walking from home to home."
"Did you take part?" John asked, fascinated.
"Oh, yes. Many times. It is very -- joyful to take part." She looked far way for a moment.
"I think you may be missing your family, too." Reaching out, he laid his hand on hers.
"Yes." Shifting her hand, she laced her fingers around his. "I haven't been home for a long time."
He held her hand quietly, listening to the music. The silence was comfortable, there was no need to force conversation. Finally, their hands slid apart, and closed around their mugs. John refilled them, and offered the cookies again. She took another graciously, and ate it in small careful bites.
"Delenn," he started, then stopped.
She met his eyes.
"Delenn, I want to tell you," his voice rolled out slowly, hesitant. "How much your friendship has meant to me over the past year." Her lips parted, as if to speak, but no sound came. They trembled, and formed a faint smile. "I know how most Minbari feel about me, hell, I can even understand why. But you reached out to me, and you were always...good to me, even when," he stopped, meeting her soft eyes, "it wasn't always advisable. I know we might have a long, hard road ahead of us, but I'm proud to share it with you."
Her eyes were very bright, and she looked down suddenly. She closed her eyes for a moment, then looked back up at him. "I am honored to have you for my friend." Her hand closed over his again. "Your kindness has been a greater gift to me than I can express. Thank you, John."
John held her hand. Words were inadequate for the emotions running through him. Before he realized it, before he could stop it, he reached out with his other hand and touched her face. Her cheek was softer than he imagined. He ran his fingertips up it slowly, his heartbeat loud in his ears. He felt the change in her skin as he touched the edge of her crest. Her dark hair was unbelievably soft and slid through his fingers like water. Delenn smiled at him as the fingertips brushed back down to her jaw before pulling away. His mouth opened to speak...
John's clock beeped the hour. He glanced at it, startled.
It was past midnight. Long past. John stared at it, bewildered. Where had the time gone? It was so strange; it was if they had just gotten here, but he couldn't really remember the evening before he found her. It was if it had happen years before.
She followed his eyes and rose to her feet. "I should go."
"I'll walk you back to quarters."
At the door, he offered her his arm. She took it.
"I can't thank you enough for letting me in, Mrs. Berrera." Sheridan said, looking around the little shop.
"Call me Peggy. It isn't a problem, Captain. I was already here wrapping up some gifts of mine." The middle-aged lady dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "You aren't the first one knocking this morning."
"That makes me feel a lot better." Sheridan grinned.
"You just look around and see if anything strikes you. Pickings are a bit slim, but might find something nice. I'll be over here doing my giftwrap."
John walked around the little shop, hoping something would jump out at him.
There were some crystal pieces, shuffled in untidy herds by last minute shoppers. They were pretty, but she had so many pieces already. He probably get her something she already had.
Jewelry? He'd never really seen her wear any. There were a couple of niobium pieces, that shifted colors in the light like so many of her robes. That might be worth considering.
Peggy had been right, the regular Christmas shoppers hadn't left too much to choose from. John started to wonder whether this was a bad idea. For all he knew, he might be violating some rule of etiquette somewhere. What if he found something she hated?
Mother, his brain said.
John stood still. Where had that come from?
Then he realized that he smelled lavender. His mother had loved the smell of lavender, and always carried bags of dried flowers whenever she traveled to be reminded of home. In the old house she'd had shrubs of it growing by the doors so she could touch the leaves when she passed in and out of the door. The smell always brought a sense of calm to her. He had found it very comforting.
He searched for the source of the smell. They were small pillows, bolster shaped, made of velvet. He turned it over in his hands. It wasn't stuffed with ticking, but something else. "Peggy?"
"What's this?" He held the thing up.
"That's a comfort pillow. They're wonderful. I actually ordered them in from Earth because I wanted one myself. They're not cheap because they have organic materials in them. I had to pay extra duty on them. It's stuffed with buckwheat hulls and dried lavender so it's good support for your neck and the smell relaxes you. I love mine. The case is velvet and it unbuttons here so you can take it off to wash it."
"Would someone who meditates a lot like it?"
"I'm sure. People who meditate often need a lot of cushions. But listen, if they don't like it, tell 'em to bring it back. That's no problem."
He handed her his credit chit. "Could I get a bow?"
John turned the corner to green sector too fast and ran smack into someone.
He dropped his package and reached out with both hands to steady whoever he'd hit. Then he realized that he had Delenn in his arms.
"Captain," she started.
"Delenn," he gasped out. "I was looking for you," They said simultaneously, and then laughed. "I'm sorry, Delenn. I wasn't looking where I was going. Are you okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine. You dropped something."
"Oh, can't lose that." John bent over and scooped the pillow up. His fingers played with the bow nervously. Finally, he just held it out to her.
"Merry Christmas, Delenn. I got this for you."
Her face lit with surprise. She took the pillow and stroked its soft surface. She moved it between her hands, feeling the shifting of the buckwheat.
"Smell it." John told her.
Delenn lifted it, and smelled the clean lavender scent.
"It's a comfort pillow. You can use it as a support cushion... when you meditate... or sleep or whatever..."
She smiled with pleasure and hugged the gift to her chest. "Thank you, John. I shall treasure this."
John was practically off the ground with delight. She liked it. She really liked it. She smiled wider. "I was looking for you, John, to give you this." She reached in a pocket of her robe and pulled out a small bundle wrapped in red tissue. An extremely similar ribbon was tied in a bow across the top.
She put it in his hand. "Merry Christmas."
"Oh, Delenn, you didn't have to do this -- Thank you. Thank you very much." John stared at the little red bundle, touched.
"Would you like to open it now?" Delenn asked, hesitant.
"Sure, of course." He stripped the ribbon away and stuffed it in a pocket. He pulled the outer layer of tissue away to reveal two small wrapped things one larger than the other. He delicately tore the tissue away from the larger one. It was a small crystal deer. It was hand-cut, delicately done. As John looked closer at it, he noticed that the artist had lightly frosted the neck of the deer in a distinctive ruff and shaded its large antlers. Then it hit him. It wasn't simply a deer, it was an elk.
She had brought him an elk.
"Oh, Delenn. It's beautiful. Thank you." He smiled so wide, he thought his face would split. He looked down at it again and saw the other little package. Carefully balancing the little elk, he opened it. There, nestled in the tissue was a tiny sprig of artificial mistletoe.
"For the little deer." She told him. Her eyes danced.
John laughed. "Just what they need. Now they can kiss all the time." He gave a formal bow. "I thank you on their behalf."
She bowed back. "I am glad that you approve."
John carefully wrapped up his gifts and put them in his jacket pocket. "Delenn?" He straitened his jacket a bit.
"Yes, Captain?" "I've been ordered away from my office today." He reminded her, ruefully. "Would you like to join me?"
"Thank you. Yes, I would." She smiled, and took his arm. He felt the warmth of her hand on his arm, and they moved together side by side. I should have remembered, John mused with a smile. Christmas is a time to expect wonders.
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The mouse village is real and belongs to Susan, my boss. It is so cute it really should be fined for it. It is however a royal pain to put together.
And, yes, the train is the hardest part.
The red and green deer also exist and are the property of the Authoress.
Yes, when ever anybody sees them together, "Ah, look, they're kissing!" does occur.
The music that The Couple dances is to is from Wrapped In White, Carols from Forgotten Instruments; by John Doan. It is a wonderful album, with pieces on Harp Guitar, American Mandolin Harp, Tremblelin, Ukelin, and the Piccolo trumpet.
The Comfort Pillow is also real and is made by Beso De Luna. It is as marvelous as it sounds. I had hoped to receive one as a Christmas gift myself. I didn't.
Merry Winter Holiday that Thumbs it's Nose at the Powers of Darkness, Everybody