Envoi by Fewthistle

Summary: Amid the turmoil of Babylon 5, two lonely souls search for that one, perfect thing.
Standard Disclaimer:
The characters of Babylon 5 belong to J. Michael Straczynski, not to me. I assure you I would have never let Talia leave. No copyright infringement was intended. As my bank account can attest, no profit was made.
Further disclaimer:
The characters of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale are taken from Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic American novel, "The Scarlet Letter". No copyright infringement or literary impugning is intended.
Spoilers:
Set in March of 2259, a day or two prior to "A Race Through Dark Places".
Rating:
Purely PG. After all, don't you want me to leave something to your imagination?? *g*

Pairing:
Susan and Talia. If the idea of two women finding love and comfort in one another amid the uncertainties of life troubles you, you are clearly in need of far more dire things about which to worry. May I suggest you adjourn to
CNN and read about all the things of much greater import than can be found in my poor, inadequate tale ?? In other words, some priorities are in order.

Author's note:
This is my first attempt at writing about the world of Babylon 5, so I apologize for any and all errors or inconsistencies in details, timeline, etc. This is not intended to be a technical sort of tale....the only intricacies that will be discussed are those of the mind and heart.
Note:
The title and premise of this story comes from the above poem by Anna Wickham, an early 20th century American poet. "Envoi", in this instance, is French for message.
Comments and Kind Words: fewthistle@aol.com

ENVOI

God, thou great symmetry,
Who put a biting lust in me,
From whence my sorrows spring,
For all the frittered days,
That I have spent in shapeless ways,
Give me one perfect thing.

Anna Wickham

Frittered Days

It was all one. The vast macrocosm, the all of everything, held safe in the hand of God, no different than the small blue marble clutched tightly in the none too gentle grasp of a small tow-headed child. Both inviolate, both easily shattered. The universe, conceived in chaos, reined in by the sheer will of soldiers and the blind guesswork of scientists, understood only through the unbending faith of believers. It provided less than it promised, took more than it needed, teaching a brittle aesthetic to those willing to be taught, and crushing the souls of those who dared to defy it. It told furtively, with a seductive whisper, of majesties and joys beyond imagining, and then in the same lilting murmur, revealed horrors and sacrileges to freeze the blood, its breath warmly caressing the listener's cheek. In its eternal gloom, only an occasional light gleamed forth, a glimmer faint and sputtering against the coming dark.

Babylon 5 was one of those few faint glows against the encroaching shadows. A symbol of hope in an increasingly disconsolate universe, the station hung gracefully in space, dangling above the spinning world of Epsilon 3 like a baby's mobile: enticing and fantastical. The station seemed fragile and ephemeral against a backdrop of boundless black cloth, punched through with holes. Far off in the distance of space, beyond this small section of the fabric, the cloth was patterned here and there with brilliant, swirling masses of purple and red and gold, bejeweled with spinning globes of green and blue and white.

Within the frangible walls of metal dwelt a quarter of a million souls. Each had come to this place for a different reason, and yet, in some inexplicable way, that reason was the same. Each individual soul was seeking something, something that could be found only amid the tumult and strife of Babylon 5. Some sought after riches, others for their place in the vast workings of the universe; some sought out old enemies, determined to settle ancient wrongs, while still others searched for sanctuary and expiation. Sometimes, just sometimes, a courageous, foolhardy few pursued the fleeting possibility of love and redemption.

Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova, Second-in-Command of Babylon 5, stood in Command and Control, watching absently as the last of the Narn freighters made its way towards the docking bays. Her shift was winding down, after the absolute pandemonium of the morning, when Murphy and his minions had had a grand old time with the command crew of the station. Upon more than one occasion, Ivanova had begun to make a list of all of the various and sundry ship captains, contentious aliens, station crew and annoying ambassadors she would like to personally toss out the nearest available airlock. Being Russian, Ivanova had a clear understanding and reluctant appreciation for the perverse workings of the cosmos.

"I can only conclude that I am paying off karma at a vastly accelerated rate,"

she had muttered more than once, as apt a conclusion as any for the continuing font of turmoil and tribulation that made up life on the universe's last, best hope. Hope for what, as ever, remained a trifle unclear.

"Corwin, C&C is yours," she said somewhat brusquely, turning away from her perusal of the stars to face the young Lieutenant.

"Yes, Ma'am," Corwin replied, his eyes only meeting Ivanova's briefly before sliding down, ostensibly to check his control panel, but mainly to avoid the glare of those intense blue orbs.

Nodding briefly, Ivanova strode purposefully towards the Zocalo, the main thoroughfare of this spinning city of metal. The sector itself seemed to be an entity, inhaling, exhaling, expanding, contracting, spreading its arms wide in a welcoming embrace. Taking a simple breath drew in a lungful of sounds and tastes and smells, some familiar as a baby's cry, and others whispering of mysteries yet to be discovered.

The marketplace showed the truth of Babylon 5; its incredible bounty and its astonishing lack. The finest of fabrics hung in splendor next to the simple cloths of the poor. Booths and stores filled with handmade goods, clothing, food, supplies of every variety, stood, row upon row. Restaurants, redolent with the spices of alien worlds, drew the visitor in, promising culinary wonders never before imagined. The noise was a constant, steady hum, a pulse thudding ceaselessly, weaving itself into a syncopated rhythm that sounded in time with the visitor's own heartbeat. People, huge masses of them, moved as part of the entity, traversing the narrow passageways as if life-blood flowing through its veins.

Carefully making her way to one of the small cafes that lined the main walkway, Ivanova wearily threw herself down at a corner table. Her indigo eyes gazed absently at the teeming throng as they made their way to and fro, a madding crowd comprised of every known species in the galaxy. Giving the waiter her order, Ivanova found her attention caught by the gleam of silvery gold hair amidst the steady stream of people making their way through the clogged artery. In the briefest of instants, just as her mind registered the identity of the owner of that cap of silver, Susan felt a familiar sensation of attraction slip across her consciousness, a gentle nudge under the table of her mind, before she pushed it forcibly away.

Talia Winters was Babylon's resident commercial telepath, a representative of Psi-Corps, an organization which was, in turn, the resident boogey-man of Susan Ivanova's dreams. The organization was responsible for the regulation, training and control of all telepaths in Earthforce Alliance. Mutual fear and distrust between the psionically gifted and normals had brought forth that particular bastard child, an offspring that had quickly become more and less than either of its parents could have wished or dreaded.

Anyone displaying telepathic talents had two choices. Join the Corps and embrace their unusual, some might say, warped, outlook on the world, or take "the sleepers", drugs that inhibited and controlled telepathic abilities, drugs that unfortunately left in their wake little remaining trace of what the individual had once been.

Susan Ivanova's mother had been one of the legions of latent telepaths who had been forced to take the drugs. In the end, even that most powerful of emotions, motherly love, had not prevented her from sloughing off the remnants of a now joyless existence and finally securing a modicum of peace. Her mother's death had left a gaping wound in Susan's young life, one that even her brother Ganya and her father could not fill. All because of the detested Corps.

Added to Ivanova's burning enmity was unbridled fear, fear that one day Psi-Corps would learn her own terrible secret, a secret about which her mother had admonished a young Susan over and over..."Tell no one."

In the face of such singular and basic hatred, Talia Winters had not stood a proverbial snowball's chance in hell. The fact that the telepath was a genuinely kind, warm, compassionate woman whose only goal seemed to be attaining Ivanova's friendship mattered not a whit. Nor did the intense feelings of attraction and grudging respect that Talia unearthed in her. The sins of the father were held, without logic or reason, against this particular fair-haired child.

Still, as Ivanova watched the blonde telepath attempt rather futilely to make her way through the quagmire of bodies, she couldn't help but feel a rush of sympathy. It was evident from the pained expression on Talia's face that the forced exposure to so many minds, so many emotions and thoughts and jumbled voices coming at her from all directions was proving too much for even her trained, professional blocks.

As she came within a few yards of Ivanova's position, Talia looked up suddenly, seemingly cognizant of Ivanova's perusal. Their gaze locked for a transitory moment, cobalt orbs staring into eyes that were shaded the stormy blue-grey of the sea after a gale. Susan felt her breath catch almost painfully in her throat at the expression of intense loneliness that shuttered across those clouded mirrors of the soul, as the truth of Talia's existence was made all too apparent in that fleeting instant.

To subsist here in this rotating fortress of metal, with two hundred and fifty thousand minds, and yet, be completely isolated, not only by the strictures of your own reality, but by the unfounded fears of others, must be the most desolate of lives. The knowledge that she had done her utmost to salt an already painful wound sent a sliver of pain through Ivanova's heart. Without conscious thought, Susan raised a hand, beckoning to the telepath to join her.

 

Shapeless Ways

The emotions that flitted across Talia's face were plain enough for a child to read, as her head titled to the side a bit in contemplation of the unexpected offer. Confusion and doubt warred with hope, though both those armor clad foes were quickly subdued by the slight, ever optimistic figure in white, weaponless and without shielding, its own need to believe held like a shining sword before it.

Making her way through the milling mass of bodies, Talia finally reached the cafe, hesitating for a second or two in the doorway, as her intrepid heart attempted a tactical retreat. She had been rebuffed by the lovely Commander so many times, that it was almost beyond comprehension that Ivanova had actually requested her company. Screwing her courage to the sticking mark, she moved forward, smiling shyly, sinking with relief into the seat across from Ivanova, her mind registering an exhausted release from the turmoil of minds and thoughts that had battered against her blocks.

"Commander." Talia smiled warmly in greeting.

"Ms. Winters," Ivanova replied with a slight incline of her head, "Would you like something to drink?"

"Thank you, Commander, that would be lovely," she responded, watching the graceful arch of Ivanova's arm as she motioned for the waiter.

In the awkward silence that ensued as the black and white clad server wove his way through the tangle of tables towards their place in the corner, Talia's mind slipped back to the first instant she had laid eyes on the stunning Russian. Moments of epiphany are rare, for some, coming only once in an entire lifetime, bringing with them understanding, knowledge, elation, and absolute, joyful clarity. Such was the moment when Talia had first seen Susan Ivanova.

To Talia it had always seemed that if life was merely an elaborate puzzle and our sole purpose was to complete the conundrum, that she had been given an incomplete set of pieces with which to work. No matter how hard she tried, no matter how extensive her search, there was always one essential piece missing, right in the center of the puzzle. Without that one piece, the puzzle was empty, incomplete, the picture meaningless and unclear. Standing in the C&C of Babylon 5 almost two years ago, a tall, chestnut-haired woman had turned to face her. Suddenly it was as if a voice had resounded inside her mind, a gentle query, asking," I believe this is the piece you were looking for, is it not?"

Ivanova's derisive words that day, "I'm in the middle of fifteen things, all of them annoying," had snatched the piece roughly from her grasp. Still, before it was so ruthlessly purloined, Talia had felt it slip effortlessly into place, had seen the glorious picture it completed, and she was determined that sooner or later she would convince the stubborn Commander to hand it back to her.

"What can I get for you, Ma'am?" the waiter's voice cut through her reverie, bringing her back to the present with a minor tremor.

"Just some water, please."

Turning her eyes to the taciturn Commander, Talia wearily lifted the corners of her generous lips again, the exhausting events of the day causing the smile to be just a tad less bright than normal.

"So, Commander, how are things in the C&C today?" she began conversationally, hoping to draw Ivanova out of her heavily armored shell.

"Irritating, annoying, maddening," Ivanova replied, pausing for a moment as if to consider her choice of words, "Yes, I think that sums it up quite nicely."

"Must be something that's going around," Talia murmured with a rueful smile, "I seem to have had that sort of day myself."

Ivanova's only response was a quirk of chestnut brows against the smooth skin of her forehead.

As the waiter set the tall glass of water down in front of Talia, Ivanova found herself wondering what the hell she had been thinking in inviting the lovely telepath to join her. The one person on the station who posed the greatest threat to Ivanova's peace of mind, and, if she would only admit it to herself, to her heart.

As the silence between them began to grow longer and more profound, Talia decided that perhaps a more direct approach was warranted. Steeling her courage, she met Ivanova's veiled expression.

"I hope you don't mind my asking, but why did you invite me to join you, Commander? I mean, you haven't seemed all that responsive to my overtures of friendship in the past, so it does seem a little strange that you would invite me to have a drink with you," she asked quietly, her eyes never leaving Susan's intense stare.

"To be perfectly honest, Ms. Winters, I'm not quite sure," Ivanova breathed finally, after a long moment of contemplation. "I guess, well, I saw you trying to make your way through that mass of bodies, and you looked so isolated," her voice trailed off for an instant, then regained a modicum of its former strength,

"Well, I guess, against my better judgment, I felt sorry for you."

Talia sat, weighing the Commander's words, her ears attuned to a sound that she knew only she could hear, the low, tremulous, somewhat mournful sound of the ice that had existed between them for so long, beginning to crack. The corners of Talia's full lips turned up in an ever so slightly self-mocking smile.

"I suppose I should be thankful for small mercies then, Commander. After all, pity is marginally better than outright hatred and dislike, so it would appear that I am making progress," Talia replied gently, her eyes warm as they met Susan's. Seeing the warm glow in Talia's eyes, Ivanova couldn't help but chuckle softly.

"Ms. Winters, don't tell me that you are one of those people who thinks that progress is always a good thing?" Ivanova asked, her serious tone belied by the quirk of her lips and the twinkle that lit her brilliant blue eyes.

"Not generally. But, in this particular instance, I am willing to accept it as such, Commander. I mean, we've managed to have a ten-minute conversation without you threatening to toss me out an airlock. How could I not see that as progress?" Talia smiled back.

"I hesitate to be the one to point it out to you, but at some juncture you may want to reevaluate your criteria for friendly behavior. Somehow, I don't think that not offering to toss you out an airlock should be put on the same list with 'remembered your birthday' or 'went on vacation together'," came Susan's rejoinder, the twinkle in her eyes even more pronounced.

"One step at a time, Commander, one step at a time. Don't forget that eventually even the solid stone of the Great Wall of China gave way to the inevitable force of the wind. One tiny grain of sand at a time," Talia responded, the barely noticeable tilt of her perfect jawline the only indication of the true measure of her resolve.

Susan felt a shiver of apprehension ghost along her spine, even as her mind registered an astonishing feeling of intrigue and intense attraction to the beautiful woman sitting opposite her. Ivanova had been aware of Winters' interest in her for quite some time. It wasn't as if Talia had ever made the slightest effort to hide it.

Had Talia Winters been anything but a member of Psi-Corps, Ivanova was certain that she would have succumbed to the blonde's stunning good looks and warm personality long ago. But, like Hester Prynne's scarlet A, the emblem of the Corps that Talia wore on her collar marked her as assuredly as dangerous to Susan's mortal being, as Hester had been to the Reverend Dimmesdale's immortal soul.

Watching the way the dim light of the caf´┐Ż threw into detailed relief the flawless, exquisite curves of Talia's face, Ivanova realized that she had increasingly less and less ability or desire to withstand the temptation of this woman. Tracing the sensual curve of Talia's lips with her eyes, Susan could have sworn she felt the touch of a slender, gloved hand in her own, leading her, unresisting, into those dark woods where the good man of the cloth had found both paradise and eternal damnation.

A crushing sensation of terror spread across Ivanova's chest as the full weight of her own thoughts and feelings came into startling clarity. The need to run, to protect herself overwhelmed her. Her body, however, betrayed her, refusing to move from the intoxicating proximity of Talia's presence. Only her mind and her tongue responded, using the only weapon she still had in her arsenal, unkind words.

"I didn't realize that you had a million years or so at your disposal, Ms. Winters. That is how long it took the wind to wear down those stones, isn't it? Don't tell me that along with its other devious plots that Psi-Corps is now experimenting in immortality?"

Talia's day had been one deluge of dissension after another. The heavens had opened up, pouring down a curtain of petty emotion and suspicion. The showers had filled the bucket of her mind, drop after drop. Drops of enmity and anger, of capricious promises and nefarious intents, of long-hidden hatred and barely concealed mistrust, each falling with a tiny splatter inside her mind, till the water had reached the very brim, precariously threatening to overflow at the fall of another single drop.

That drop fell, with a hollow resonance, from Susan's lips. Talia imagined she could see it descending, reflecting and refracting the light, one perfect tear-shaped bead of apprehension and misplaced fear, tumbling through space. Finally, with a deafening splash, it met the combined volume of the bucket. All of the pent up emotions, all of the dismissive gestures and unkind words, all of the looks of distrust and dislike, all of the real and imagined slights were sent barreling over the rim to rush through Talia's mind like a runaway river careening along steep canyon walls.

Ivanova watched her words register in Talia's storm colored eyes. She saw the warmth fade, as surely as the light of the sun disappearing behind foreboding clouds, followed quickly by something Ivanova had never seen, the sudden, blinding flash of dangerous lightning. In the past, Talia's reaction to Susan's rudeness had always been one of resigned sadness. Tonight however, Ivanova could feel the crackle of electricity in the air as Talia spoke.

"Tell me, Commander, I've often wondered, does it give you a sensation of pleasure, or perhaps some feeling of superiority when you say things like that to me? It must bring you some kind of perverse gratification," Talia's voice held none of its usual smoky inflection, tinged as it was now with slender tendrils of ice.

"I never asked you to be my friend, Ms. Winters. In fact, I have made it impossibly clear to you that I want nothing to do with you. You are the one who has continued to make overtures of friendship where none are desired," Ivanova answered hotly, taken aback as she was by the intensity of Talia's response.

"You're right, Commander. I kept trying to convince myself that you couldn't possibly be as narrow-minded, as self-righteous, as prejudiced as you appeared to be. Obviously, I couldn't have been more wrong. I honestly thought that, given enough time and enough understanding, you would be able to look past this badge and these gloves and see me for who I am, not what I am.

"I stupidly believed that if you would only allow yourself to get to know the real me, that the rest wouldn't matter any more, that we could be friends, that we could help each other not be so lonely. But, I see now that that is as likely to happen as the Centauri suddenly viewing the Narn as their equals," Talia words flew at Ivanova like knives whirling through the air, "You might want to remember that the next time that you sit in judgment of the Centauri, Commander."

"I am not...How dare you suggest that I am like that.... I'll have you know...," Susan sputtered, the force and vehemence of Talia's defensive attack robbing Ivanova of coherent speech.

"Let me ask you something, Commander," Talia interrupted, completely ignoring Ivanova's attempt at a response. "Are you so blessed, do you have so many people in your life that you can truly call friend that you can so carelessly, so callously toss aside the gift of friendship when it is offered to you? If that is true, then I must admit, I envy you. I don't have that luxury. I never have and I never will. Goodbye, Susan. I promise, I won't trouble you again."

Rising from her chair, Talia met Ivanova's eyes, beyond caring if the Commander saw the fierce shimmer of tears in her own tempest tossed orbs. All of Ivanova's answering anger, all of the sharp retorts that lay, ready to spring to action, on the tip of her tongue died suddenly and completely at the sight of the immense pain and unbearable loneliness on Talia's exquisite face. Pain that she, Susan Ivanova, had caused. Intentionally, willfully caused in order to save herself.

As Ivanova watched Talia walk away, the elegant line of her back disappearing into the now dwindled crowd of the Zocalo, Susan began to honestly examine what it was from which she was trying so desperately to save herself. Talia had offered her friendship and affection. She had implied, with every warm smile and every kind word, the promise of companionship, of desire, of happiness, and perhaps even of love.

Even balanced against long held fears and prejudices, the litany of possibilities did not appear as the spectral enemies she had been attempting to convince her own mind they were. Warring inside that mind were two voices. One was her mother's, repeating endlessly the same somber warning, "Tell no one." The other, this one younger and stronger, sounding oddly like her brother Ganya's, grew ever more fervent, intoning passionately, "Don't let her go."

"I'm sorry, Mama," Susan whispered as she made her way to the door of the cafe and out into the Zocalo, her face determined as her eyes scanned the crowd for a glimpse of that slender, blonde figure.

 

One Perfect Thing

Talia sank down weakly on the hard, cold stone bench. As she had walked away from Susan Ivanova the tears that had been welling in her blue-grey eyes had spilled over, running down the smooth planes of her face like rain along a windowpane. She had moved almost aimlessly through the crowd, unconcerned at her destination.

For once the voices, the emotions of all those other people were silent in her mind, eclipsed by her own suffering, as feelings of grief and anguish leveled every wall she had erected to protect herself. The agony was so intense she could feel it radiating out from her mind and her heart to the very tips of her fingers, her hands, still encased in soft leather, aching and cold.

Part of her welcomed the inundating waves of pain. Eventually, the numbness would set in and then, she would be able to simply crawl inside herself and curl up amid the waist high drifts of cold, relentless sorrow and allow her heart to shrivel and die in the frigid air. To have be given a glimpse of all she had ever desired, to know that the means to salvation lay just beyond her grasp and to be aware that whatever chance she might have been offered to attain that perfection had been foolishly squandered was more than Talia could bear.

"Alright. I give up. You win," she whispered to Fate or God or whatever force controlled the petty lives of men.

She sat in an isolated part of the station's garden sector. Looking around at the burgeoning life surrounding her, Talia gave a bitter laugh at the irony of her unconscious choice of refuge. While all about her was the warmth of new life, of buds opening shyly, of friends and lovers strolling together through the rows of flowers, along the edges of soft, green grass, inside her mind was only a desolate plain, swept by fierce winds and sheets of ice and snow.

Talia tried, without success, to determine why she had reacted as she had to Ivanova's words. They hadn't been the first unkind things that the commander had said to her. They hadn't even been the most unkind words that Ivanova had hurled her way. In the past, Talia had always taken the Russian's rudeness in stride, biding her time, certain in the knowledge that eventually the lovely commander would soften towards her.

"Well, you can be certain of something else now. You can be certain that you've lost this time, for good," Talia acknowledged harshly, as fresh tears followed the tracks of their fallen brethren down her elegant cheekbones.

Time had no meaning as Talia sat unmoving, becoming one with the unyielding stone beneath her, the remorseless cold stealing up to wrap around her heart. The recitation of regrets and recriminations from within her mind played on and on, a mournful dirge without beginning, without end.

She had removed her gloves and her badge, even though she was strictly forbidden by law to be out among 'normals' without them. The symbols of the Corps were too much for her to deal with right now. She knew that it was hatred of the Corps that had pushed Ivanova away from her from the outset. Now that any hope she might have had with the beautiful Commander was gone, Talia could hardly bear to look at the hated emblems.

Lost as she was in the overwhelming crush of emotion, her eyes didn't register the appearance of two uniform clad legs in front of her. It wasn't until the figure knelt, reaching out a gentle hand to cup her chin, raising her gaze to meet two darkened sapphire eyes, that Talia realized that she was no longer alone.

"Talia? Talia, can you hear me? I've been looking for you all over the station. We need to talk about what just happened," Susan Ivanova said gently. Talia's eyes were unfocused, her face void of expression.

Ivanova had been searching for the blonde telepath for hours now, having methodically scrutinized every private, out of the way area of the station that she thought Talia might have gone. That insistent voice inside her head had not allowed her to falter, urging her on in what had become a quest to find the other woman. Now, staring at the dull grey eyes, empty of their usual warmth and light, Susan muttered softly in Russian, cursing herself for having been the cause of such unnecessary pain.

Ivanova knew instinctively the instant that recognition dawned in Talia's eyes. Her hand was still resting tenderly along the telepath's gently molded jaw, her palm warm against the coolness of Talia's skin. Susan felt the rush of emotions from the blonde. The sheer intensity of the sadness, the depth of her loneliness, the fierce wave of shame and self-recrimination were so strong that Susan felt them as a physical blow, rocking her back on her heels.

The majority of Talia's blocks had been brought down, brick by brick, by the relentless onslaught of emotions over the past several hours. It would have been impossible for anyone in physical proximity not to experience the immense sorrow that held court within the empty chambers of Talia's mind. Still, Ivanova was shocked by the encounter, her first instinct to run, to get herself to a safe distance, as ever, her mother's warning ringing in her head.

Talia's eyes met her own for a brief moment, before looking down, that blonde head again bowed by the utter weight of those runaway feelings. Susan knew that she had to speak, had to offer some words of comfort and assurance but before she could articulate her jumbled thoughts, Talia spoke, that smoky voice quiet and tremulous.

"I realize that it probably doesn't matter to you, Commander, despite the fact that for some reason you're here right now, but I need to say this anyway. I am sorry, deeply sorry for what I said to you earlier. It was uncalled for and I had absolutely no right to say it. I don't know what came over me, or why I reacted the way I did. I guess it was just the proverbial straw, but that is no excuse for my behavior," she said slowly, the slight tremor growing more pronounced as her words continued. "You've made it abundantly clear how you feel about me, but I can only hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive me for my callous remarks."

If the intensity of experiencing Talia's emotions had felt like a palpable blow to Ivanova, the words that poured forth from the telepath proved to be a solid knockout punch. Talia was apologizing to her? The universe swung about, all akilter at the absurdity of the moment.

Susan had been the one who had been amazingly rude, from the first instant of their first meeting. Susan had been the one who had continually been abrasive and belligerent, the one who had actually left rooms in order to avoid being in close proximity to the telepath. Susan had been the one who had taken a rare moment of civility and uneasy companionship and turned it into yet another moment of callousness and disregard. Yet, Talia was the one apologizing, apologizing to Susan for telling the truth.

The utter preposterousness of the situation, the subtle irony of it was acknowledged with a self-deprecating nod in Ivanova's Russian brain. As the feeling of shock wore off, Susan could see that her lack of response had served to deepen Talia's despondency. Clearly she assumed that Ivanova did not and would not accept her apology.

"There is a distinct possibility that you may be correct in some of your assessments, Ms. Winters," Ivanova said softly, the proud Russian still unwilling to admit to actually being wrong, "well, not the parts about me being anything like the Centauri. That is completely ludicrous. But I may have been less than open-minded, and I will admit that my actions towards you haven't always been particularly kind or even civil. In other words, you have nothing to apologize for, Talia. So, no, I don't accept it."

Susan's words hung between them for a brief eternity, until finally Ivanova could see Talia's pale eyebrows knit together in a frown against the smooth skin of her forehead. Slowly that golden head lifted, until Talia's eyes met the Commander's in a look of disbelief and astonishment.

Susan felt a flicker of amusement as she watched the emotions flit across Talia's face, as the telepath registered surprise, then bemusement, then amused outrage and lastly, immeasurable relief as the full meaning and import of Ivanova's words became clear to her. It was like witnessing storm clouds fleeing before the brilliant light of the sun as Talia became fully cognizant of what had just occurred, her glance taking in the sight of the dignified Second-in-Command practically kneeling at her feet.

"So, you're not angry with me?" Talia asked after a pregnant pause.

"No. Well, we will have to discuss the whole Centauri remark at some point, but in general, no, I'm not angry with you," Susan told her with a quirk of her lips.

"And, may I safely assume that the fact that you actually came looking for me means that there is a distinct possibility that you don't actually dislike me as much as you have been trying to make me believe?"

"I would say that that would be an accurate assessment of the situation," Susan replied, pushing up off her heels to seat herself on the bench next to Talia.

"May I also assume that there is a chance that, given enough time, you might actually come to like me, that we could be friends?" Talia asked, the barest inkling of a smile just touching her lips.

Turning to look at the lovely blonde, Ivanova realized that if she was unable to trust this impossibly kind, loving creature, then the possibilities of her trusting anyone were quite bleak. The soft, tentative glow of returning warmth that emanated from Talia's eyes held the truth of who Talia Winters was. In those eyes, Susan saw promises of faithfulness and loyalty, of unswerving affection and an inability to harm. To put it more concisely, Susan saw love, undemanding, unwavering.

"I think there is every possibility that we may become very good friends," Ivanova smiled warmly.

At Talia's answering smile, Susan rose to her feet, dusting off the pant leg of her uniform, before straightening and with an even more brilliant smile, proffering a hand to the beautiful blonde. She had noticed that Talia had removed her gloves. She chuckled softly to herself as she realized that she really didn't care.

"I don't know about you, but all of this emotional upheaval has left me with quite an appetite. Would you care to join me for dinner, Talia?" Susan asked sweetly.

"It would be my pleasure, Susan," Talia answered, hesitating for just a second before slipping her bare hand into Ivanova's gentle grasp.

Feeling the cool, smooth skin slide softly against her palm, the slender fingers linking gently with her own, Ivanova knew with sudden clarity the secret that men and women had discovered down through time. She knew what had led the good Mr. Dimmesdale down that untrodden path towards those dark woods. She knew what had ordained that he stray from his faith and the strict admonishments of his church to find that secret place among the trees.

He had been seeking what we all seek, a reminder of why we are alive, a glimpse into the heart and mind of God. A brief, bittersweet, soul quenching taste of that rarest and most precious of elixirs, love. Within its sheltered walls lie the possibility of redemption, and the promise of untold joy.

Tugging lightly on Talia's hand, Susan Ivanova led her companion through the now darkening garden. The dusk was descending slowly as the artificial lights began to mimic approaching night. All around them, the bright hues of the plants and flowers faded to mere shadows of themselves. Stillness fell over the sector, as those few remaining visitors strolled quietly, or sat in poses of reflection or meditation, affected just as the vegetation by the gradual settling of twilight on the garden.

Within the walls of Babylon 5 dwelt a quarter of a million souls. Each had come to this place for a different reason, and yet, in some inexplicable way, that reason was the same. Each individual soul was seeking something, something that could be found only here, out among the stars. Some sought after riches, others for their place in the vast workings of the universe; some sought out old enemies, determined to settle ancient wrongs, while still others searched for sanctuary and expiation. Sometimes, just sometimes, a courageous, foolhardy few pursued the fleeting possibility of love and redemption.

For each of us there is one thing in the universe that is ours and ours alone, one thing that completes us, one thing for which we would forfeit our very soul. One thing beside which all others pale. One perfect thing.

The End

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