“The Matsumoto party….” The Minbari checked his datapad. “It seems you are the first to arrive. Wait here, please. I’ll see to your table.”
The worker-caste Minbari left Darquin in the reception area. Much to Darquin’s relief, that was all. A hop away from the new spaceport outside Tuzanor proper, alien attire was a common sight. No confused glances, no stares at his jeans or leather jacket. It was easier to relax here. And after a few weeks of not wearing the Ranger uniform, reminding himself what life was like before he ever wore it, Tomás Darquin felt as if he could for once relax.
He turned back to the door and the flagstone path, expecting Kim or Morgan (he reminded himself to think of her as Margaret). Then he held his breath as his brain paused and warm-booted.
The soft tapping of wooden sandals announced Yoshino’s approach. She wore a crimson silk kimono, a broad obi sash of black and gold around her waist. Her white-gold hair streamed down her back, tied with a large bow of silk ribbon.
Her ice-blue eyes widened a little as she saw him, and after a moment’s hesitation, she took a few small, shuffling steps closer. “Konbanha, Darquin-san,” she said. “You are on your way to Kim’s dinner as well?”
“Uh, yeah. I didn’t know you were coming–not that I mind. Just a pleasant surprise.”
She smiled, determined to keep her lips from trembling. I am not some silly schoolgirl, she thought.
“I am glad to see you,” she said. “You’re looking well. Much better than when we made planetfall, if I may say.”
Darquin shrugged. “Had to get away from the daily grind, I guess.” Looking around, he settled on a bench. “I hope the katanas are okay. And Kuri-chan.” He smiled and gestured to one end of the bench as he took its opposite. “Care for a seat?”
“Thank you.” She settled on the bench and folded her hands in her lap, letting the silk of the kimono flow around her like a crimson waterfall. “Kuri is very well. She has made friends with agok that belongs to one of the new trainees. They are getting into all kinds of trouble.” She grinned fondly. “And the swords are still safe.”
She drew a deep breath as she looked toward the door. “You know, I think it’s just as well that the others haven’t come yet. I’ve really been wanting to talk to you … privately.”
On instinct he nodded, ready to say he was all ears. Then he recognized something in her voice. The honey-we-need-to-talk sound. He’d spent the last seven months pushing it out of his mind and his life, failing miserably.
Yoshino had other problems, bigger problems. Yakuza hatchetmen were looking for swords in her possession, swords as old as the Grey Council, as old as the Anla’shok itself. Goons jumping people, enemy ships trying to splash you–he could deal with those.
“Ah…problem?” he said finally.
“I …” She flicked her fingers under the long sleeves of the kimono, steeling herself. “Forgive me for being so forward,” she said. “The truth is, while we know each other from working together on the Phoenix, I would very much like to get to know you better. More personally.” She looked up, seeking his eyes. “I would like to have a closer relationship with you.”
A stillness crashed through the room.
Darquin confronted her ice-blue eyes and backed down almost immediately. One of his off-handed flirtations months ago–the one that struck a deep, deep well of pain–was coming back to haunt him. He usually didn’t put much thought into his words. But her life was hard enough.
He straightened his jacket and T-shirt, feeling like a barbarian barging into the court of a shogun as he looked at the two of them side by side.
He faced her, drinking in her silvery presence, afraid of tainting it. Composing some choice replies, he picked them apart. There was no brilliance there for him to call on. But she deserved a real answer.
She listened as best as she could to his fading voice.
“I don’t know what to do. I want to do the right thing. You…deserve the right thing.”
She had anticipated a number of reactions, hoped for several more, but this hadn’t been one. After a moment’s silence, she offered him a little smile. “I don’t know what the right thing is. I know what I think, but anything more than that would be presumptuous, wouldn’t you say?”
She pulled her hands out of the kimono sleeves. “I know I haven’t always … had my head together. I think I’ve frightened you, or embarrassed you. I’d like to make up for that, if I can.”
“Funny,” he said through a sheepish grin, “I thought that’s what I did. To you.”
Yoshino’s thoughts flashed back once more to the party, so many months ago. He blamed himself for her reaction to his compliment? “Do you mean…what happened when the Phoenixlast left Minbar?”
“Yeah.” He shrugged. “I’m really forward. I know that–”
“It wasn’t your fault,” she said. “I can explain what that was all about, if you want. But please, don’t blame yourself.”
“I know a little. I had some friends. They were…hurt the same way.” He shrugged, frowning as if disappointed. “I tried to look out for ’em where I could. Nobody else was. But…it’s just me here.”
She put her hand on his shoulder, intrigued as she noticed her fair skin against the inky sheen of his leather jacket. Strangely energized, perhaps by the fact he wasn’t refusing or recoiling from her touch, she offered him the open palm of her other hand. “Can you give me a chance?”
He looked up and faced her, letting them both explore each other’s desperate glances. The sensation of his breath brushing her jaw made her heart jump.
“Tell ya what,” he said softly. “Promise we both get one, and you got a deal.”
“Deal.” Grinning, she began to draw her hand back.
“Wait.” He chuckled through a nervous tremor in his voice. “I’m real bad at formalities, but if we’re officially starting a courtship….” His hand under hers, he drew her closer, gently kissing her fingers, addressing her in Japanese. “A pleasure to see you again, Yoshino-san. You look beautiful tonight.”
She took her hand away from his shoulder, but her fingertips lingered there, lazily tracing a seam in the leather. Looking up, her eyes met his. “Ah, please…call me Marina?”
“Marina-chan, then.” He kissed her hand again, his lips lingering, before he looked up and grinned. “Any other names I should know?”
“I…might have more. Much more.”
She caught the mischievous glint in his eyes, and much to her delight, her breath failed her.
The arrival of the rest of the party was all but simultaneous. Uncomfortable and rushed, Morgan strode in and looked around, oddly resplendent as warrior caste. Kim had also put aside her usual uniform for an evening gown that hadn’t left the bottom of her trunk in month: deep blue, high at the neck and long in the sleeve, suitably comfortable for the chill outside. She squeezed Billy’s arm and nodded toward the pair, a smile curling. Billy stopped toying with the fit of his newly bought suit to look and echoed her smile.
Darquin glanced at the movement in the doorway and froze as he saw them assembled at the doorway. He looked up at Yoshino, then back to them. “What?”
“Should we just get another table?” Kim’s eyes were alight with the opportunity to return a little teasing.
“On a first date?” Darquin muttered.
Smiling, Yoshino gave his hand a squeeze before turning to look at Kim. “I don’t think that would be necessary.”
“Mm.” Kim let the subject drop, for Yoshino’s sake. “I don’t think you and Yoshino have met before,” she said to Billy, and made introductions.
Yoshino stood, sweeping an elegant bow. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Nichols-san.”
Billy returned it. “And you, Yoshino-sama.”
“Hey Billy! Glad you could make it.” Darquin bounded to his feet and patted him on the back. “You sure took the long way around.”
“One of my talents,” he joked.
Morgan held her tongue for the moment, just nodding to everyone as the Minbari waiter returned to guide everyone to their table.
Kim slid into a seat and glanced at Morgan. “Meg, you’re becoming your outfit.”
Morgan bared her teeth at Kim. “You rush here from a wedding, then.”
“Maybe it’s the clothes.” She grinned and waved to a seat. “Sit down, Meg, if you can.”
“Don’t knock it,” Darquin said to Kim. “She’s probably the only person in warrior caste uniform on this planet who isn’t a complete jerk. Could start a trend!”
“I’ll be sure to tell Ayeshalan that, next time you’re going up…” Morgan primly took a seat.
“She’s even casting threats now,” Kim said.
Darquin smirked. “She did that before the threads.”
“You have a point. So, how was the wedding?”
“It was… interesting. Ayshalan’s son was getting married, and she wanted someone to stand with her. In place of her late husband.” Morgan answered quickly, so she didn’t get embarrassed again by the honor.
“I can imagine some of the guests didn’t know what to think.”
“That was part of the point.” Her grin turned wicked.
“Wait, Ayeshalan’s son? The one in the Mutai, right?” Darquin said with admiration.
“Yes. I think he found it enlightening.” Morgan grinned.
“Is that what they call it?” Darquin exhaled as if on the behalf of Mutai-Do everywhere. “It’s tough just to watch.”
“I’ve seen it once or twice,” Yoshino said. “Personally, I much prefer Sumo.”
“You lose less blood at any rate,” Kim said with a shake of the head. “I don’t think I could attend the Mutai.”
Billy looked at her. “It’s not especially easy, but I got interested when humans started competing. Patriotic, in an odd way.”
“Yeah, I’ll go along with that!” Darquin said, turning to Billy. “Walker Smith’s big comeback.”
He nodded. “That was something else – saw tape of it later.”
“Oh man, you got a copy? You lucky….”
“Did.” Billy shrugged.
“You had to leave things behind to come here?” Yoshino asked, her eyes seeming to darken in sympathy. “I know what that’s like.”
“When I left Mars, actually. Few years ago now.” He shook his head – it seemed like a lifetime.
“First lesson of a human Ranger seems to be how to pack light,” Kim said.
“One of the few good things I got out of Earthforce.”
Darquin nodded enthusiastically in agreement.
The waiter returned, datapad in hand. Kim glanced up at him, then around the table. “So, are we waiting on anyone else tonight?”
“I don’t know … I believe you were making the invitations, Kim,” Yoshino said, a slight blush coming to her cheeks.
Darquin glanced at Kim, frowning in thought. Then he shared a clandestine glimpse with Yoshino. “Oh yeah. She was, wasn’t she.”
Kim shrugged. “No others on my end.”
The conversation was suspended for a moment for the business of placing dinner orders. As the waiter departed, Kim resumed it, saying, “I think most everyone’s gone into overdrive on the work, close as we’re getting to leaving.”
“Does anyone know what our mission is?” Yoshino asked.
“I don’t know.” Kim looked to Meg. As First Officer, she was most likely to know, if anyone did.
Morgan shrugs. “Your guess is as good as mine – I have been ‘dancing’ pretty hard the past while.”
“Betcha we get put on those mystery raiders,” Darquin suggested.
“That would make sense. We’ve got the resources,” Kim agreed. “The news is usually full of speculation. It’s still strange being so visible now.”
“If not the raiders, then perhaps something out in less settled space,” Yoshino said. “That’s what I’d like, I admit … being as far from civilization as possible for a while.”
“As long as I can get some flight time, I can deal,” Darquin said. “I’ve been grounded too long.”
Billy sat back. “I’m envious, you know.”
Kim looked over. “You’ll be through training before you know it. ”
“Look on the bright side,” Darquin told Billy. “At least you don’t have to worry about the warrior caste raising a stink anymore.”
“Oh, probably can find some way to annoy them.” He grinned.
“I’m beginning to think it’s a good thing Tomás and Billy weren’t in the same training group…,” Kim said.
Darquin started fishing in his pockets. “Y’know, certain albums just get on their pecs! Goofer’s Grey Wanderers and Slim Whitman. I can lend you some data crystals–”
Morgan laughed, remembering Darquin in training. Yoshino laughed as well, an ivory hand coming up to quickly hide her mouth.
Billy glanced at Kim, then said diplomatically, “I think I should ignore you now…”
Kim laughed. “How about I pretend I hear nothing! What I don’t know can’t give me heartburn….”
“Oh, why not? There’s the EarthForce tradition to uphold…” Morgan joked.
“Wait, I’m gettin’ demoted again?” Darquin chimed in with mock indignation. “They can’t do that! I resigned!”
Kim said, “I don’t think you’ll ever get demoted here, Tomás. They’d have to have you back as a trainee then.”
He paused, grinning. “That explains a lot!”
Finding laughing uncomfortable, Morgan looked down at her formal clothes, looking for how to politely open her jacket a little.
Two Minbari were on their way to the table, carrying large trays of food, when Morgan’s and Darquin’s links went off at once. Yoshino’s and Kim’s sounded a few moments later. Like a Busby Berkeley routine, all four of them leaned to one side or another, listening to the incoming message.
The four officers looked at each other. “Aw hell,” Darquin muttered.
“We’re being called back,” Morgan said. “I’ll call for a shuttle.”
Darquin bolted out of his seat and gestured to the waiters standing by with an expression of polite concern on their faces. “Pack ’em up, please? We’re jumpin’ out.”
Back in the restaurant’s foyer, Yoshino paused, her attention drawn by the public vid terminal in one corner. “Look!” she called to the others.
They gathered around, expressions fading from sober to grim, as the ISN reporter rushed through her announcement:
“…are expecting open warfare within a matter of hours or days, but that’s speculation at this point. A quick recap for those just joining us–responding to charges from the Babylon 5 Council, the Centauri Republic has seceded from the Interstellar Alliance. I repeat, the Centauri have seceded from the Interstellar Alliance.”
— Babylon 5 TM and © 2002 Warner Bros.
Phoenix–“Brave New Sunrise” © 2002 Alida Saxon, Leslie McBride, Jamie Lawson, Joe Medina